Ostensibly created as a tribute to the sailors of Chamsuri 357, a South Korean patrol boat with quite a bit of artillery that got pummeled by its enemies from up North in 2002, Northern Limit Line instead feels more like a recounting of what went wrong amid a self-sabotaging crew that ended up with 6 sailors dead and many more than that injured. In particular, the newbie medic Park Dong-hyeok (Lee Hyun-woo) comes across as especially incompetent as he overlooks the severely-impaired hand of the helmsman (Jin Ku), proves himself poorly trained in CPR, and at the start of an actual battle gets distracted by an ant on deck then ends up spilling all of his bandages (which he carelessly wipes against his filthy helmet upon retrieving them later). I realize that he's a rookie but someone needs to tell this guy to man up or send him back for basic training. He doesn't gain my respect because, when he's hospitalized after the battle, he salutes the casket of a comrade on his television set. Someone should've courtmartialed this no-class soldier weeks ago!
Unexpectedly, given the unflattering slant of the movie, there are "credits" interviews with actual survivors of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, the real-life conflict that inspired the film, and there's poignancy in hearing the actual recruits talk of survivor's guilt and the bravery of their shipmates. But alas and what a shame that this war pic about such a tragic event should portray the crew as a bunch of disorganized, whimpering guys who really just want to watch soccer on TV, eat crab soup, and take shore leave. Meeting one sailor's mother (Kim Hee-jung) who is both deaf and can hear an EKG monitor when it stops doesn't humanize them so much as make them seem like momma's boys. As tributes go, N.L.L. is sorely lacking in grit, despite special effects that show the dismemberment of arms, legs, and fingers. Tellingly, director Kim Hak-sun's screenplay is based not on a memoir but on a novel by Choi Soon-jo. Maybe that's why it feels so fake.