THE GREAT BATTLE (2018)
Featuring visually expansive battle action, the ruthless Tang forces in 645 AD attempt to sack the Ansi Fortress but are foiled by its fearless inhabitants and military smarts
Following the money-spinning fortunes of the likes of War of the Arrows (2011), the box office record-breaking The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014), and The Battleship Island (2017), another effects-laden piece of historical battle action has arrived in The Great Battle.
Director Kim Kwang-sik departs from the rom-com inflections of his My Dear Desperado (2010) and crime thriller Tabloid Truth (2014) to produce a work in the cinema stub selling sweet spot of taking a famous event from Korean history and giving it a big screen retelling.
Just as Choi Min-sik's naval commander Yi Sun-sin took on the seemingly impossible task of battling 333 Japanese ships with 12 Korean ones in The Admiral, here in The Great Battle a single fortress must be protected from 500,000 invaders from the Tang dynasty in 645 AD.
That stronghold is the Ansi Fortress, constructed in replica form some 36 feet high and 590 feet in length for filming, we are served up some unrelenting and visually spectacular battle scenes as the fight for its protection spreads over 88 days.
Led by the ruthless Emperor Li Shimin (Park Sung-Woong – New World, The Deal), the immense Tang forces have invaded the Goguryeo kingdom. With the Goguryeo forces being defeated repeatedly, they retreat to the Pyongyang Castle, the capital of Goguryeo.
En route to the capital, the Tang forces plan to take the Ansi Fortress next. The leader of the Goguryeo army Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-Seong – The Spy, Attack the Gas Station, Friend) orders solider Sa-Mool (Nam Joo-Hyuk) to go there first and kill Yang Man-Chun (Jo In-Sung – The Classic, A Dirty Carnival, A Frozen Flower), the commander of Ansi Fortress.
Yang Man-Chun is considered a traitor for refusing to take part in the war, but when Sa-Mool arrives there he sees that Yang’s dedication is towards the people of Ansi Fortress, who he treats with great care. Here, despite the odds stacked against him, Yang decides to fight the vast Tang army and Sa-Mool is torn between his order to kill Yang and his respect for this brave leader.
A film not out-of-step with its title, what we witness next is a sprawling and relentless battle, as the immense Tang army attempt to take Ansi Fortress. Assuming it to be a routine sacking of a small castle, Emperor Li Shimin soon learns that Commander Yang has military smarts and dedicated soldiers at his disposal. Repeatedly we see the Tang forces battered and fooled by the Ansi Fortress inhabitants, but the Emperor refuses to be humiliated and continues the siege.
Aided by wonderful cinematography by Nam Dong-geun and smart effects, the film offers the visual spectacle it promises. However, while the inaccuracies and various exaggerations will likely vex the history pedants, some under-baked character development may irritate more.
It is hard to deny The Great Battle achieves its aims – an expansive war action film where the visual feast of the main battle consumes its focus. Those visuals build strong bones, but there are smaller morsels of developed flesh beyond that.