In AD 645, the Goguryeo fortress at Ansi came under siege by the Tang forces of Emperor Taizong. For 88 days the Goguryeo forces defend their homes against the invading Tang, under the leadership of their commander Yang Manchun. Almost 1,400 years later the historical events – albeit in a highly revised state – are played out on screen in Kim Kwang-sik’s glossy and elaborate historical action film The Great Battle.
If it is large-scale scenes of medieval warfare that you are seeking, the South Korean film industry has you well covered. The historical action sub-genre has spent the last decade or so positively on fire, with numerous releases a year packed with heroic warriors, duels to the death, mass combat, and stirring scenes of Korean patriotism. The films vary. Some are more dramatic, some more focused – like The Great Battle – on action, but they all generally share the same aesthetic and emotional tone. Some days it feels you could give yourself an extensive (and admittedly inaccurate) history of the whole of Korean civilization just by watching its action cinema. There was definitely a siege at Ansi Fortress, for example, but historians generally concur that its commander Yang Manchun was made up.
The Great Battle lacks depth, but what it loses in nuance it gains in dynamic, CGI-enhanced, big screen action. It balances its style neatly between a geographical approach and an emotional one. When necessary, scenes play out in a fashion that emphasizes the size and shape of the battlefield. Otherwise it all falls into a furious mess of swords, arrows, and human bodies. Director Kim Kwang-sik juggles the two approaches very well. This is a film comprised almost entirely of war scenes, so it is a pleasant relief to find it presents those scenes so well. For fans of sword-fighting and Braveheart-style gory carnage, it is a striking and satisfying success.
For viewers seeking something more, the film lacks dramatic complexity but does bring along an earnest appeal. Thinly drawn characters are at least still appealing ones. Jo In-sung makes for a superb Commander Yang, who has a sort of Henry V manner in the way he keeps himself down among his troops and the civilians he has sworn to protect. One of the appeals of this kind of Korean epic is that you can never be quite sure whether or not a protagonist is going to survive to the closing credits, and The Great Battle certainly leaves one guessing. Yang’s captains are presented in the main for popular appeal: a nicely dour lieutenant, two bickering weapons specialists, and an idealist cavalry leader. Into this set-up rides the film’s audience viewpoint: a young idealist cadet named Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk). Nam brings a sort of bland appeal, but ultimately his somewhat underwhelming presence feels more a result of the screenplay that his performance skills. When his character is temporarily side-lined midway through the movie, it does admittedly speed up the momentum considerably. By contrast, Park Sung-woong is excellent as the Tang emperor Taizang. He presents a glorious sort of hammy confidence that makes each of his scenes a pleasure. This is not a subtle or complex film, and his performance feels perfectly pitched for what it needs to be.
The Great Battle is a straight-forward Korean summer blockbuster. It is visually appealing, packed from top to bottom with action and combat, dressed in appealing costumes, and backed by a stirring soundtrack by Yoon Il-sang. In all likelihood, history will be unlikely to remember the film – there are simply too many of these films about and not enough to make The Great Battle stand above the crowd – but it is a broad, populist thrill ride while it lasts.
The Great Battle is playing at the 2019 Korean Film Festival in Australia. Click here for more information.