The Great Battle (안시성, Kim Kwang-sik, 2018)

Great Battle posterThe moral of every Korean war film, period and modern, is that Koreans are resilient and resourceful. They can accomplish great things when they work together in a spirit of collective good. Kim Kwang-sik’s The Great Battle (안시성, Ansi-seong), is no different in this regard for being set in 645AD when Goguryeo is threatened by the warlike Tang Dynasty which has its eyes firmly set on conquest.

Meanwhile, there is drama in the court. The king has been usurped and most of the lords have fallen behind General Yeon (Yu Oh-seong) who promises to vanquish the Tang, but to do so he intends to cede territory and abandon his fellow citizens (mostly peasants) to the mercy of Emperor Li (Park Sung-woong). However, the governor of Ansi understandably objects and has alone chosen to stand against Yeon in support of his people, vowing to fend off the Tang all alone by defending his garrison to the last man if necessary. To facilitate his plan, Yeon orders Ansi native and earnest cadet Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk), still grieving for the loss of his brother in a previous battle, to infiltrate the recalcitrant fortress and assassinate Yang (Jo In-sung) so that the territory can be razed.

Having been inducted into the city and despite his fierce loyalty to Yeon, Samul begins to question his mission the longer he is exposed to Yang’s unfettered nobility. A lord but also a man of the people, Yang thinks of himself as a leader among equals. He is not the type to observe from the safety of the rear lines, but proudly wades into battle alongside his men, unafraid to risk his life in their service. In fact, Yang is also perfectly aware of Samul’s true intentions, but is prepared to let him bide his time as a son of Ansi in the hope that he can be turned. Orders, as it turns out, are less important than doing the right thing, and Yang, out of sense of loyalty to the old king refuses to throw his lot in with Yeon, especially if it means he is supposed to throw away the lives of his subjects without a fight.

This necessarily means that the people of Ansi are left with the prospect of fending off the entire might of the Chinese Empire with only a garrison army and limited resources. Of course, they succeed – largely through ingenious stratagems and a sense of solidarity. The Tang, not to be outdone, decide to build an entire artificial mountain in order to fight on Yang’s level, bedding in for months of siege as they do so, but there is no crisis Yang cannot overcome and Emperor Li is about to discover he has seriously underestimated the capabilities of Goguryeo warriors when their backs are to the wall.

Not for nothing does Li eventually mutter that it’s bad idea to go about invading Korea and instruct his successors never to bother trying. Sacrifices, however, must be made – many of them romantic. Yang’s dynamic sister (Kim Seol-hyun), a talented bow woman, has long been in love with the head of his cavalry (Uhm Tae-goo) but Yang tells them to delay their happiness until after the war while he himself nurses a broken heart over a young woman who ended up becoming a shamaness (Jung Eun-chae) and later falls into the hands of the Tang. Not everyone is as convinced by Yang’s boldness as he is, and even some of his own people decide perhaps it would be better to simply acquiesce in the face of such overwhelming odds, but Yang remains firm. He will protect his fortress and the people inside it from anything which threatens their peaceful way of life.

In contrast to Yeon’s authoritarian austerity, Yang’s leadership is one built on nobility and fellow feeling. He hopes to create a freer, more equal society in which the king exists to serve the people rather than the other way around. The battle for Ansi is then an oddly revolutionary affair as they fend off imperialists on either side, bowing neither to Li nor to Yeon in steadfastly defending their principles against overwhelming odds. Kwang achieves truly epic scale through the modern wonder of CGI and ensures his battles are suitably gruelling while keeping the patriotism in check as Yang makes himself stand for something bigger than nationhood or ancient nobility in solidarity as he leads from the front but gives the power back to his people.


The Great Battle was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Dirty Carnival (비열한 거리, Yoo Ha, 2006)

dirty carnival poster“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean” said Raymond Chandler talking about a detective, a hero who would, eventually in some sense, triumph. The inverted version of the same story casts a noble man in the role of the villain, a man who must play at being mean but will ultimately fail, unable to cast off his innocence to embrace the darkness of the world around him. There hero of Yoo Ha’s gangster odyssey, A Dirty Carnival (비열한 거리, Biyeolhan geori), is just such a man. The world which he inhabits is cruel, but his intentions are pure and his various missteps born only of a sense of injustice mixed with mild ambition. His goodness is his fatal flaw.

Petty gangster Byung-doo (Jo In-sung) has a pretty good life. At 29 he’s a mid-range foot soldier about to become the manager of a small arcade and has managed to provide for his mother, brother, and sister. The problems start when the positioning of the arcade provokes a turf war with another local gang and Byung-doo’s useless boss, Sang-chul (Yoon Je-moon), turns up late to a rumble and then knifes a guy in the wrong place after getting hit on the head. Gangster fights are bloody and visceral, but no one’s supposed to die and so now the gang has a problem. Sang-chul should fall on his sword but he doesn’t, he gets an underling to promise he’ll go to jail for him in return for handing over the new arcade. Byung-doo’s boss has betrayed and humiliated him whilst also taking the money he needs to support his family right out of their mouths.

The big boss, Hwang (Chun Ho-jin), is having trouble with a lawyer whom he wants Sang-chul to take care of, but he won’t – lawyers are too much trouble. Byung-doo, desperate to impress, decides it’s worth the risk and undercuts Sang-chul to curry favour with the boss by offing the offending official. Meanwhile, an old school friend, Min-ho (Namkoong Min), has become a film director and wants to spend some time with real gangsters as research. Through Min-ho, Byung-doo is pulled back to a more innocent time and allows himself to dream of reuniting with childhood sweetheart, Hyun-joo (Lee Bo-young).

Byung-doo is not your typical gangster. He’s a softhearted innocent who only ended up in the underworld because his father died and his mother was ill, meaning he had to leave school to take care of his family and had no other options for earning enough to support them all. Despite this, he is still not earning his dues – Sang-chul is snaffling all the dough and not paying his guys. Though Byung-doo’s innocence extends to a belief in the gangster code of brotherhood, the long years of slumming it as a foot soldier have worn him down and destroyed his faith in his boss. Betraying him to cosy up to Hwang, Byung-doo makes the first of his three serious mistakes.

The second would be his friendship with aspiring film director Min-ho. Reconnecting with his childhood friends reactivates Byung-doo’s problematic goodness as he’s given another look at what gangster life looks like from the outside. Invited to a reunion, Byung-doo’s gangsterism is tolerated though also mildly fetishised but when confronted with its reality, everyone is suddenly afraid. Having forgotten how normal people live, Byung-doo allows his violent impulses to overwhelm him – viciously attacking a man who mistreated Hyun-joo, showing off his real life fighting skills on Min-ho’s film set, Byung-doo no longer knows where the gangster ends and he begins.

Following his transgressive action, Byung-doo reassess what it is to be a gangster but makes a crucial mistake in indulging in too much intimacy with Min-ho who turns out not to be quite so innocent as he seemed and is just as untrustworthy as any of his colleagues. Byung-doo’s final mistake is an inability to move past his innocent notions of friendship and loyalty to recognise that such things do not exist in the world in which he lives. His tragedy is that he dares to dream of something better – the unity of his gangster family, providing for his mother, and a normal romance with the love of his life. To gain these things he will compromise himself, and in compromising himself he seals his own fate.

Yoo’s gangster epic follows a familiar pattern but it does so with style and with real weight behind its tragic fatalism as Byung-doo sinks ever deeper in to the gangster mire. Byung-doo looks for family in the gangster brotherhood, but eventually betrays it, never realising it may also betray him. Filled with gritty, realistic action coupled with a meta commentary on the movies’ love of cinematic violence, A Dirty Carnival lives up to its name as Byung-doo waltzes on the precipice, surviving only on melancholy romanticism.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The King (더 킹, Han Jae-rim, 2017)

the king posterAbsolute power corrupts absolutely, but such power is often a matter more of faith than actuality. Coming at an interesting point in time, Han Jae-rim’s The King (더 킹) charts twenty years of Korean history, stopping just short of its present in which a president was deposed by peaceful, democratic means following accusations of corruption. The legal system, as depicted in Korean cinema, is rarely fair or just but The King seems to hint at a broader root cause which transcends personal greed or ambition in an essential brotherhood of dishonour between men, bound by shared treacheries but forever divided by looming betrayal.

Tae-soo (Jo In-sung) is the classic poor boy made good. His mother abandoned the family when he was only six because she couldn’t cope with his father’s rampant criminality. Do bad things and you’ll go to hell, she told her son but perhaps Tae-soo already feels himself to be there and so doesn’t worry so much about those “bad things” that are a normal part of his life. The top fighter at his school, Tae-soo finds his calling when he sees his tough as nails father kneeling on the ground, pleading furiously in front of a skinny bespectacled man wearing a fancy suit. The man is a prosecutor and walks with the swagger of someone whose every action is government backed, his authority is absolute.

Tae-soo knuckles down, starts studying and gets into Seoul University. An accidental brush with the pro-democracy protest movement lands him in the army but thanks to lying about his hometown on his registration form he gets an easy posting meaning he has even more time to study for the bar. Everything seems to fall into place – he qualifies, gets his dream job, even marries a beautiful, intelligent, feisty woman who also happens to come from a wealthy elite family. The poor boy from Mokpo has made it, but prosecuting isn’t all he thought it would be. Tae-soo is a civil servant which means, like it does the world over, that he’s overworked and underpaid. When he rubs up against a dodgy case he’s made an offer he can’t refuse – drop it, and get a promotion to the big leagues where celebrity prosecutors enjoy lavish lifestyles filled with parties, drinks, and pretty girls. He knows it’s not right, but this is what he’s always wanted and Tae-soo is soon seduced.

Tae-soo’s seduction causes him a few pangs of conscience, but he was, as he was assumed to be, easy pickings. The case in question is a sickening if ordinary one – a teacher has molested a pupil but as the teacher is the son of an influential man and the single mother of the girl in question has learning difficulties, the case has been made to go away. Tae-soo is outraged, hauls the man back in, re-opens the case and obtains additional evidence and witness testimonies which confirm the girl’s story and will have the teacher sent to jail. His seduction is easy – they simply offer to make him one of them, and Tae-soo agrees, sacrificing not only this little girl but potentially many others for his own greed and satisfaction.

Tae-soo is redeemed, in a sense, thanks to his association with a childhood friend who helps him out by taking care of the teacher through “unofficial” means. Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is Tae-soo’s flip side, another poor boy done good but this time on the other side of the law. An ambitious gangster, Du-il is also loyal, just, and honourable – at least within a gangster code. The “errand boy” for this group of thuggish lawyers who behave like gangsters while the gangsters act like politicians with literal rather than metaphorical attack dogs, Du-il senses he’s walking a dangerous path to nowhere at all and has only his friendship with Tae-soo to believe in.

The genuine bond between the two men is one of the few redeeming features of Tae-soo’s increasingly compromised existence in which he sells his soul for the false approval of the man he regards as a “King” in the figure of all powerful, amoral chief prosecutor Han (Jung Woo-Sung). Tae-soo’s story is a conventional one of a basically good yet weak man struggling with a choice he’s made against his better judgement yet it’s not until it’s cost him everything he holds dear that he starts to reconsider.

Han Jae-rim weaves in archive footage and musical cues to evoke the changing eras which will be more obvious to Korean audiences – a case in point being the dramatic positioning of the suicide of former president Roh Moo-hyun in 2009. Roh had been a progressive president, often unpopular during his time in office thanks to his inability to pass his policies, and was later tarnished with a corruption scandal but found his reputation posthumously reappraised following his death which was seen both as a declaration of innocence and as a symbol of his deep love for his country and its people. Tae-soo’s change of heart seems to accelerate after Roh’s suicide which drew vast crowds of mourning (and knowing smirks from sleazy prosecutors Han and his sidekick Yang) as his own run in with death prompts a re-evaluation of his place in the grand scheme of things.

The King ends on a rather trite message – that every man is his own king and in the end the choices are all yours (though it seems to hope the choices made will be more altruistic than those of Han, Yang, and the earlier Tae-soo). The power wielded by men like Han is fragile – they need lackies, and if they can’t get them the system crumbles, but they’re also hollow, frightened opportunists who are so desperate they’re even bringing in shady seeming shamans to avoid having to make difficult policy decisions. Tae-soo turns their own tricks back on them with masterstrokes of irony, vowing revenge and perhaps getting it, along with self respect and a re-orientated moral compass but then again, power abhors a vacuum.


Screened as part of a season of teaser screenings for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)