In AD 1636, Korea’s Joseon kingdom has been invaded by an army the Manchu Qing dynasty. King Injo (Park Hae-il) and his court escaped to the northern fortress of Namham, but are now under siege from Manchu soldiers. Trapped for the winter, with dwindling resources and no sign of rescue from Korea’s southern armies, a decision is to be made: hold out against a seemingly undefeatable enemy, or surrender to the Khan?
Director Hwang Dong-hyuk scored a huge commercial hit with his 2013 comedy Miss Granny, which has subsequently been remade in four different countries. Viewers expecting another dose of breezy comedy will be rather surprised with The Fortress, and possibly a little disappointed. This bleak, dour historical drama does not make many concessions for its audience, either in terms of content or in its running time. For anyone interested in Korean history, it is a worthy and intriguing film.
The core of the story is political. Injo is surrounded by courtiers and advisors who not only have conflicting advice for him, but who also jostle among each another for his favour. Hwang wisely focuses on just two of them. Choi (an excellent Lee Byung-hun) advises surrender and capitulation: better to live and have hope than condemn one’s entire country to die. By contrast Kim (Kim Yeon-sook) demands defiance and resistance down to the last soldier. Beneath them the court acts out like a comedy of errors. First the soldiers defending the fortress are freezing in the cold. Then they take away the soldiers’ straw blankets to feed the starving horses. Then the horses die anyway, so they feed the horses to the now-frostbitten soldiers.
The Fortress is not only based on historical events but shot on location in as cold and inhospitable conditions as those that faced the real-life King Injo. The realism also extends to the outdoor sets and the period-accurate costumes and weaponry. It is impressively put together. It feels dreadfully bleak and hopeless. The setting outside matches the increasingly despondent debate in the King’s court.
A number of small side stories add depth and variety. At the beginning of the film Kim murders an old fisherman on the way to the fortress, because the fisherman admits he will freely show the Manchu invaders across the lake when they arrive. Later the fisherman’s orphaned granddaughter is found, with Kim guiltily taking her into his home as a secret penance. Elsewhere a widowed blacksmith named Seo (Go Soo) becomes a critical figure in an attempt to request help from the Korean army in the south. It is an engaging and heartfelt performance from Go, one that transforms him into the film’s moral conscience.
Action is sparsely distributed through the film, but impressively shot and timed when it does occur. Some other reviews for the film have been relatively unkind, calling it both a little boring and lacking in battle scenes. The simple fact is that The Fortress, for all of its military trappings, is not an action movie. Viewers seeking a political drama mixed with a history lesson will find this much more to their taste. It is an excellently crafted and atmospheric piece of work, boosted by a superb Ryuichi Sakamoto score and uniformly strong, understated performances.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.