Northern Limit Line has a “Pearl Harbor” problem. Like the 2001 Michael Bay film, Northern Limit Line recreates a surprise military attack that galvanized a nation. In this case, it’s a 2002 incident known as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, during which North Korean and South Korean patrol boats faced off near the disputed maritime border which gives the film its name. And all of this happened while Seoul was hosting the World Cup. This is no doubt attractive material for a movie — bloody, dramatic, tense, exciting — but it presents the problem of how to fill the rest of the film’s runtime. And unfortunately, for Northern Limit Line, like “Pearl Harbor,” the answer is to kill time with a bunch of military clichés. So we get a fresh-faced young medical officer, a hardass commander, some prankish horseplay, an isolated sailor’s wife — you get the idea. You can practically see the actors checking their watches during all of this because Northern Limit Line clearly exists for no other reason than to restage the skirmish in the Yellow Sea that left six dead and 18 injured.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Movies have succeeded with much less purpose. But while Northern Limit Line has proved to be wildly successful in South Korea — it is currently the eighth highest grossing film of 2015 in the country — there is not much here for an audience that isn’t already invested in the events depicted. A South Korean audience no doubt brings to the film its own feelings and memories — not to mention nationalist sentiment, which Northern Limit Line frequently stokes — which can carry it through the film’s rather bland drama, but an American audience is left waiting for some action.
Unfortunately, while the battle sequence is much better executed than the film’s dramatic scenes, it is not particularly novel or exciting. Director Kim Hak-Soon provides a nice sense of spatial coherence in several wide shots, but things get pretty muddled in the cross-cutting, and it is not always easy to tell who is attacking whom or where the characters are in relation to each other. With more precise execution of these scenes, which take up at least a quarter of the film’s runtime, Northern Limit Line might have been able to cross over to an international audience, but ultimately there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done more entertainingly elsewhere.
According to Wikipedia, after some of the film’s backers pulled their money out of the production, a crowdfunding campaign managed to raise a third of the film’s budget from over 7,000 people. This certainly speaks to a hunger for this type of material in South Korea. The film, despite its monotonous drama, is respectful of the events, and integration of actual footage from the soldiers’ funeral is quite moving. But I also wonder if the success of Northern Limit Line doesn’t speak to a potentially troubling nationalistic impulse in South Korea.
The film was predictably lambasted by North Korean state media, which called it an “anti-DPRK movie.” Despite the source, that’s not far from the truth. Like many American recreations of traumatizing events (“Pearl Harbor,” “World Trade Center”), Northern Limit Line takes pains to excise any overt politics from its story. But this means that the North Koreans are given little motivation at all; they’re just vaguely menacing bad guys. And the subtext of much of the movie seems to be that South Korea should take a harder line militarily against its neighbors to the North. This sense of resurgent nationalism is only reinforced by the World Cup context, for which the filmmakers include a “Republic of Korea” chant at every opportunity, implicitly drawing a line of national glory from the soccer pitch to the Navy.