Due to the temporary suspension of the Korean Film Festival (caused by a security issue with their streaming), in place of the movie I expected to be reviewing I’ve gone for a change of pace with another of SBS’s featured selections, The Great Battle [Ansisung] (2018).
The Great Battle is an historical action movie depicting the first conflict of the Goguryeo-Tang War in 645AD, the invasion of northern Korea by Emperor Taizong of China. It opens with the Battle of Jupilsan, in which the forces of Goguryeo made the tactical error of fighting a numerically superior force on an open plain, leaving themselves open to a pincer attack from the rear which resulted in their rout. The majority of the movie is focused on the Siege of Ansi, a fortress-city which successfully held out for three months until a combination of reinforcements and weather forced Taizong to withdraw his troops, leaving Goguryeo unmolested for another nine years.
Writer/director Kim Kwang-sik makes effective use of his substantial budget with his orchestration of large battle scenes around the central set, a 180-metre-long replica of Ansi Fortress constructed specially for the film. The scale of combat, the application of siege engines, the lovingly constructed armour, all these elements combine to provide the appropriate level of visual spectacle for this aspect of the film to succeed.
Less successful for me were the characterisation decisions which inform the general tone of the film and undermine the realism of its historical recreation. The first signs of trouble appeared in the opening battle as the Goguryeo troops charge the Tang forces. Most of the Goguryeo are appropriately attired for battle in their full armour… apart from two pretty brothers who haven’t bothered wearing their helmets so that the audience will be able to get a good look at their faces and flowing hair. Since the first response of the Tang troops to their charge is to rain arrows on them from above, it’s a miracle that neither of the brothers received an arrow in the head before even reaching the enemy. And as pitched battles on a crowded battlefield go, there’s a remarkable ability for people to have conversations and experience character moments without being bothered by the surrounding enemy soldiers – until it becomes expedient for one of the brothers to be tragically killed in passing, at which point there’s another magical bubble around surviving brother Sa-mool (Nam Joo-hyuk) to allow him to clutch his brother to him and grieve.
Sa-mool, of course, becomes the focal character. After the retreat of their defeated forces, General Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-seong) orders him to infiltrate Ansi Fortress and assassinate their commander Yang Man-chun (Zo In-sung) as a traitor for failing to send reinforcements when requested. This is really just a pretext, as Yang refused to support General Yeon after he murdered the previous King and seized control of Goguryeo – he has already sent multiple assassins after Yang over the past three years, and any reinforcements Ansi might have sent would have had little effect on the battle’s result. Sa-mool first encounters Yang helping an old lady pull her cart out of the mud, and keeps delaying his decision about trying to kill Yang as he sees more evidence of how beloved a leader he is. Yang, meanwhile, is no fool and knows why Sa-mool is there, but prefers to give him the opportunity to change his mind. Yang’s warrior sister Baek-ha (Seol Hyun) is in love with Pa-so (Um Tae-goo), leader of the cavalry; Yang disapproves of their relationship, believing it should be put on hold until the war is over, so you just know that there will be a heartfelt parting scene later on as at least one of them prepares to meet their doom. There’s a rivalry between the refined Poong (Park Byung-eun) and more barbaric Hwal-bo (Oh Dae-hwan), the leaders of two rival warrior bands within Ansi who are constantly fighting and so will obviously end up as best friends who save each other’s lives. The last of the major characters in Ansi is Choo Soo-ji (Bae Sung-woo), who wants to kill Sa-mool as soon as he arrives but ultimately champions Sa-mool for saving Yang’s life (an act, incidentally, which it’s very difficult to believe Choo could have witnessed, as they were fighting in very different areas of the Fortress during that particular battle).
Kim likes his battle scenes to shift into slow motion for brief intervals to showcase the battle techniques of his featured characters – but while this approach can be used to great effect to enhance the depiction of a battle, here it’s clearly only present to make his characters look cool. As the movie goes on, there are an increasing number of instances like that in the opening scene where characters get the chance to have significant moments of contemplation or bonding which would normally result in their immediate deaths due to distraction from their surroundings. This undermines Yang’s character in the latter half of the movie as things become more desperate – while it makes sense that he would be experiencing doubts and moments of despair, it makes very little sense for a hardened battle commander to have these lapses on the field of battle rather than alone in his quarters.
Although the broad strokes of the siege’s action are historically accurate, there are some strange editing choices which reveal weaknesses in the script. A huge ramp of earth takes two months for the Tang to build, but although this is referred to in dialogue there’s no sense of what both sides have been doing in the interim – there’s no other evidence of time passing. A scene of a mole firing an arrow to alert the Tang of a sneak attack is inserted in a jarring fashion to try to make a story point clear to the audience, but its placement is such an odd choice that it confuses the action in the short term while undermining any surprise in the longer term. The final battle of the film takes place in only one day rather than the three days of historical record, which is at least an understandable dramatic choice. But there’s one significant historical change which I hated – if you’re planning to watch the film and would rather not know in advance, you should skip the next paragraph.
Introduced at the beginning of the film is a historical/semi-religious artefact, the longbow of the legendary King Jumong, founder of Goguryeo almost 700 years prior to the Siege. The bow is reputed to be impossible for any man to draw without divine assistance. Emperor Li Shimin (Park Sung-woong), who appears to be a conflation of the historical Emperor Taizong and Prince Li Daozong, has captured the bow and its obsidian-headed arrow but is shown to be unable to draw the bow. In the course of events, the bow and arrow make their way to Ansi Fortess and into the hands of Yang and, because a magic bow on the mantelpiece in the first act must be fired by the last, he uses it at the Moment of Last Resort. Just when it looks like his forces are on the verge of defeat and despairing of reinforcements, he calls upon the gods, his personal resolve on behalf of his people, and the power of swelling music on the soundtrack to draw the bow and fire its arrow over the smoke of battle to land in the Emperor’s left eye. It doesn’t kill him, but as reinforcements arrive immediately afterwards, the Emperor withdraws his forces. A caption reveals that he forbade his people to invade Goguryeo again in his lifetime and he died of his wound three years later. This, quite frankly, is utter horseshit. The Emperor was certainly not wounded here and may not even have been present. Prince Li Daozong was wounded, although I don’t know the details. The Emperor died four years later, not three, of an illness believed to stem from dodgy medicine. It’s true that the war didn’t resume until after his death, but stating that he forbade it seems to be a bit strong. This is where the lack of realism displayed in some battle scenes comes to the fore and becomes outright nationalistic mythologising – some of the dialogue scattered through the film had been a bit self-consciously heroic/villainous (depending on which leader is speaking), but it comes to a head here and, for me, sours the whole thing.
Inexplicably, after concluding the historical battle and providing us with captions describing what happened next, there’s one final scene showing Sa-mool leaving Ansi and making his way alone through the country to… who knows where? The film never bothers to tell us. After going through a gruelling process of reconnecting with his ancestral region of the country and forming both a loyalty and a close personal bond with its leader, he simply abandons Ansi with a happy wave for no reason other than seeing the “hero” riding off at the end of the film. It makes no character sense and has nothing to do with the people of Ansi who have been so much more important to the movie than him. It’s a weak and unmotivated ending which could have been removed entirely without anybody noticing. I’d hoped for more.