I've mentioned it before, but I really love when one of the mainstream theaters (basically, the ones owned by Regal and AMC) plays something absolutely out of left field. When the FEI and Entertainment places in the northern suburbs do, it's not totally unexpected; they either know their neighborhood or think it might do better than a mid-range studio flick at getting people to come to their theater specifically. After all, it's quicker for me to get to Arlington Center/Davis Square/Fresh Pond than it is to Boston Common, but I almost never actually do so unless they're showing something I can't see in the more plush theaters.
But when the big boys do? That's either something they have a great deal of confidence in, a blatant act of holding a spot open until a big movie or two opens the next week, or perhaps something akin to a rental. 71 - Into the Fire looks to be a combination of the last two - looking to clean out underperforming movies but not wanting to fill all those screens with Charlie St. Cloud, Dinner for Schmucks, and Cats & Dogs, and I suspect Taewoon spread a little money around to get the movie on screens in areas with decent-sized Korean communities on roughly the anniversary of the depicted battle. It worked okay five months ago with Formosa Betrayed - which pulled in enough of the local Taiwanese community to last a second week - so why not?
Well, based upon the Sunday matinee crowd, because this particular event isn't quite so well-remembered as the backdrop of Formosa Betrayed, or because Korean-Americans have an easier time seeing Korean films (not necessarily in theaters, but Korean DVDs and Blu-rays are pretty easy to come by). Or maybe whoever was handling distribution in the US - Taewoon themselves, apparently; there was no vanity card for an American distributor at either the start or end of the film - did a half-hearted job of promoting the film. I had to add it to the eFilmCritic listings, and I never saw a trailer or poster, although, to be fair, I'd been out of town for the better part of a month and any street advertising would have been in Korean neighborhoods. Heck, it was playing in NYC as well, and I don't think it showed up on the Subway Cinema News blog/mailing list. If Grady Hendrix and company don't know your Asian movie is playing, you have flown way the hell under the radar.
Thus, an audience consisting of me and three Korean-Americans, all part of the same group, as they were sitting right next to each other.
I am kind of surprised to see that it's playing without CJ Entertainment being involved; they seem to be not only the biggest Korean movie studio, but the most aggressive internationally. It seems like their logo has been at the front of every Korean movie I've seen in the past few years, whether in theaters or at festivals. This year at Fantasia, it seemed pretty clear that they had branched out into co-producing movies for other local markets - I saw their logo on Chinese and Japanese films - and while the festival was running, they opened a theater in Los Angeles showing Korean films. There's been talk for years about them stepping up to distribute their own films in the US, either by creating a network like the one Bollywood has or establishing a "CJ USA" subsidiary.
I hope they do continue to make efforts at making inroads in America; they produce a lot of pretty decent movies, based on what I see at Fantasia, and I'd like to see more of them on the big screen in the Boston area. Castaway on the Moon, A Frozen Flower, and The Neighbor Zombie, to name three I saw in July, deserve a screen for a week more than the likes of Dragon Wars and 71... But, then, why should Korean imports be any different than the rest of the films playing theaters?
Pohwasogeuro (71 - Into the Fire)
* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2010 at AMC Boston Common #1 (First-run)
The opening moments of 71 - Into the Fire are a recitation of the origins of the Korean War so close to the one which opened a film I saw a week ago (A Little Pond) that I briefly thought that it was that film, being distributed in America under a different name. It covers a different incident, though, and winds up a rather conventional war movie, though it doesn't dishonor its subjects.
That opening text tells us that a desperately outnumbered South Korean army accepted many teen-aged volunteers, so-called "student soldiers". The first we meet, Oh Jang-beom (Choi Seung-hyeon) is serving as a runner in a battle at the start of August 1950, terrified enough that he is unable to even properly load his weapon properly as an officer is bayoneted in front of him. Still, when his unit's commander, Captain Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo) is dispatched to the Nakdong River, he chooses to leave Jang-beom in charge of the garrison at Pohang, along with two other veteran student soldiers and 68 just off the bus. It should just be guard duty, but there are two issues - gang members Koo Gap-jo (Kwon Sang-woo) and Poong-chun (Kim Yoon-seong) especially don't take well to Jang-beom's authority, and North Korean commander Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won) has opted not to procede straight to Nakdong, but capture Pohang along the way.
As the opening titles make sure to remind the audience, 71 is based upon a true story, one that arguably sounds even more impressive than what's presented here (the closing titles describe an 11-hour standoff, while the battle on film seems to be much less drawn-out). Its American release appears to be roughly timed to the sixtieth anniversary of the battle (11 August 1950), and testimonials from what I assume are real-life student soldiers appear during the credits (that section of the print was unsubtitled) It is, as one might expect, a very conventional war film, aside from the youth of its protagonists: Respectful of the military, placing those who fought and died on a pedestal, although modern enough to recognize that the ROK army had to do its share of things it wouldn't be proud of.
Full review at eFilmCritic