Going all the way back to the Goguryeo Dynasty, siege action epic The Great Battle chronicles the historic standoff of a small Korean garrison against the might of the Tang army in the 7th century. Light on jingoism and heavy on spectacle, this surprisingly deft war film is an engaging ride throughout, even as it gets a little top-heavy in its final third.
In the year 645 AD, Emperor Li and his Tang Dynasty army march from one brutal victory to the next in the lands of Goguryeo. He soon sets his sights on Ansi Fortress; but also headed there is the young army captain Sa-mool, who has been ordered to assassinate Ansi’s leader, Yang Man-chun, who failed to come to Goguryeo’s aid on the battlefield. Sa-mool discovers that Yang and his loyal followers are not what he expected, and together they hold out for almost three months as the Tang army bears down on their walls.
With its tale of a small squad of Korean warriors going up against and vanquishing foreign foes, the parallels between The Great Battle and all-time Korean box office champ Roaring Currents were evident from the get-go, but whereas the former work relied on heavy-handed nationalism, director Kim Kwang-sik reigns in the patriotic excess in his unabashedly fun war picture, as he crafts a driving David versus Goliath tale powered by solid design and effects work, which are matched with a colorful cast of misfits audiences will be happy to root for.
Zo In-sung, back on screens after last year’s Scorsese-esque prosecutor drama The King, proves a magnetic lead as Yang, the commander of Ansi Fortress, who quickly disarms Sa-mool with his charm and inspires loyalty at every turn with his magnanimous and keen leadership. Uhm Tae-gu, memorable as the ferocious Japanese officer in Kim Jee-woon’s The Age of Shadows, is a welcome presence once more as the husky-voiced leader of Ansi’s cavalry, while Seol-hyun (of Kpop band AOA) brings grit to her role as his love interest and Yang’s sister, the leader of the fortress’ crossbow squadron.
Bae Sung-woo (who starred alongside Zo in The King) tones down his trademark humor as Yang’s stolid right-hand man while Park Sung-woong (New World) is suitably stony-faced and cruel as Emperor Li, even if his Mandarin doesn’t always sound very natural. Comic support comes from Park Byung-eun (Assassination) and Oh Dae-hwan (V.I.P.), who play bickering warriors by Yang’s side.
Eight years ago, Kim Kwan-sik delivered the low-key but effective romcom My Dear Desperado with Park Joong-hoon and Jung Yu-mi. He was less successful with the humdrum media thriller Tabloid Truth in 2014 and now, despite every opportunity to the contrary, he has delivered his most accomplished work yet. Pacing throughout is tight and Kim’s direction makes the action clear and easy to follow, whereas other Korean period epics often rely on a barrage of frenetic energy and frenzied camerawork.
After a blistering couple of attacks, the siege of Ansi Fortress settles in for the long haul, and this is where the narrative runs into trouble. Perhaps unsure of how to proceed, the writers throw in a few unlikely scenarios and a rushed side plot yet the production eventually manages to get back on track for a rousing closing battle.
Buckets more fun than we might usually expect from a period Korea war title, The Great Battle takes a big page out of the middle chapter of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and is a welcome change from the dreary nationalism we’ve come to expect from Korea’s period war pictures.