Northern Limit Line opens connecting the historical events portrayed in the film directly to the World Cup. Frustratingly, in 2015, I can’t determine whether or not Chol Soon-jo’s source book also has the connection to the World Cup. As literary flourish–and to make the book resonate (it’s also unclear if it’s a novel or book) with a general readership–the connection makes sense. Actually, thinking about it now, it makes more sense for it to have been in the book, because director Kim doesn’t do anything with it. The World Cup is a plot point; the characters in the film–the crew of a South Korean patrol boat–are invested in the Cup, but there’s no attempt to weave the actual games into the narrative. That aspect of them isn’t important.
What is important to Kim is getting across the characters. He works and works at it. He’s invested and he follows through with it. There are titles explaining the film’s historical content and there’s a brief flash forward opening the film as well, but Kim puts the battle off. He keeps a fair distance from the characters too, even though he shows their personal lives, their personal struggles with their service in the Navy and so on, but he never lets the viewer get too close.
That distance helps a little, as Kim knows where the story–and the characters–are going, but it also walls off the film too much at the end. Kim’s tied to history for how the film is going to on fold, but he doesn’t do anything with it. He doesn’t exactly go for the melodramatic, but he does go for the heartstrings. There’s no filmmaking in the last third, no decisions. Tragedy gets displayed in standard tragic tropes, right after Kim cuts to actual historical news footage, which–as always–breaks the film’s conceit.
That problem aside, Northern Limit Line is a good film. Kim’s a restrained director; he changes when for the battle scene, becoming far more expressive. The film’s extremely violent and should always be hard to watch, but Kim finds a way to keep it open. He doesn’t desensitize though (or attempt to do so). He’s playing on the audience’s strong connection with the characters, which he’s been building up for almost an hour (or maybe even seventy minutes). Kim goes for perseverance to get the viewer connected, not blunt force.
Good acting from all the principals–Kim Mu-yeol, Jin Goo, Lee Hyun-woo. Jin’s the connecting element in the relationships between the crew members, something the film rushes through establishing. Kim (the director) has a problem relying too much on dates on screen, not in the story; time doesn’t progress well enough from scene to scene.
Really good photography from Kim Hyung-koo and Bill Kim too. There’s a lot of digital composites (especially when at sea) but, even when the composite isn’t great, the effect comes through.
As a director, Kim’s sincerely invested with Northern Limit Line, but he lets that investment constrain him too much.
Produced and directed by Kim Hak-soon; screenplay by Kim Hak-soon, based on a book by Choi Soon-jo; directors of photography, Kim Hyung-koo and Bill Kim; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Mok Young-jin; production designer, Shim Jeom-hui; released by Next Entertainment World.
Starring Jin Goo (Staff Sergeant Han Sang-Kook), Lee Hyun-woo (Medic Park Dong-hyeok), Kim Mu-yeol (Captain Yoon Young-ha), Lee Wan (Major Lee Hee-wan), Lee Chung-ah (Captain Choi), Chun Min-hee (Ji-sun), Kim Ji-hoon (Jo Chun-hyoung), Jang Joon-hak (Hwang Do-hyun), Joo Hee-joong (Seo Hoo-woon) and Kim Hee-jung (Mrs. Park).