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)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Yoo Ha, 2015)

gangnam-bluesYoo ha takes us back to the 1970s for some Gangnam Blues (강남 1970, Gangnam 1970) in a sorry tale of fatherless men caught up in dangerous times of ambition and avarice, very much at the bottom of the heap and about to be eclipsed by the “new world” currently under construction. Back then, Gangnam really was all just fields, owned by farmers soon to be cheated out of their ancestral lands by enterprising gangsters engaged in a complicated series of land grab manoeuvres, anticipating the eventual expansion of the bursting at the seams capital. Far from the shining city of today, Gangnam was a wasteland frontier town, the sort of place where a man can make a name for himself trading on his wits and his fists alone.

In 1970, Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho) and Yong-ki (Kim Rae-won), sworn brothers from the same orphanage, are two street rats trying to survive in straightened times. When the shack they were squatting in is demolished and they come in to contact with a petty gangster, Kang (Jung Jin-young), the pair end up getting a one off job as thugs sent to smash up a political rally but get separated when the police arrive. Jong-dae finds himself taken in by Kang and his daughter Seon-hye (Kim Seol-hyun AKA Seolhyun) as a surrogate son and brother, repaying their affection by saving Kang’s life during an assassination attempt which later prompts his decision to retire from the criminal world altogether. Yong-ki joins the rival gang instead and seems to be making a success of himself but both find themselves at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt, dishonourable system hellbent on progress but only for the few.

Gangnam Blues has an overly complex, intricate narrative overlaying the generic brotherhood and betrayal theme that runs through the film. Dipping into a particularly dark period of history, Yoo is not afraid to step back into those difficult days marked by both rapid progress and increasing inequality furthered by complicated systems of interconnected corruption. The gangsters are at the service of the politicians but it’s always debatable who is running the show. Jong-dae’s participation in the land grab scheme is painted as amusing cleverness (at least at first) but little attention is paid to the farmers who are being “convinced” to sell their land off cheaply to gangsters who are each competing for the prime sections. Modern day Gangnam was built on blood and extortion, by men like Jong-dae and Yong-ki, even in the knowledge that they will be discarded as soon as their usefulness has been exhausted.

Jong-dae and Yong-ki are the bottom of the pile, orphaned and without family connections they have only each other to rely on yet their brotherly bond is repeatedly tested. The ‘70s Philippine folk song, Anak by Freddie Aguilar, which forms the film’s major musical motif has some very poignant lyrics about parents and their children but neither Jong-dae nor Yong-ki are able to find the kind of family they’re looking for. Both end up opting for the fraternal bond of a crime syndicate to replicate the kind of support usually offered by the family unit with Jong-dae finding a father figure in Kang who eventually takes him into his household as a son outside of the criminal world, and Yong-ki eventually marrying and soon to become a father himself. Forced into crime by their poverty, each becomes an outcast, permanently shut out from the thing they most want even whilst living a life of material comfort.

Yoo opts for a highly stylised approach filled with beautifully photographed, expertly choreographed scenes of violence including the traditional mass brawl in the rain, and a sequence of intercut killings each artfully sprayed with blood. Lee Min-ho acquits himself well enough in his first leading role as the noble hearted gangster Jong-dae with quality support from Kim Rae-won as the much less noble Yong-ki though the superfluity of secondary characters leads to an avoidable lack of depth. Relative newcomer Kim Seoul-hyun also does well with her underwritten role of the film’s most tragic character even if her domestic violence themed subplot seems like one too many. Another classic slice of gangster action from Korea, Gangnam Blues is an unflinching look back at a difficult era with uncanny echoes of the present day, and a suitably period tinged tale of melancholy ‘70s bleakness in which brotherhood and honour are merely words misused by men trying to justify their own ambitions.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Freddie Aguilar’s Anak as featured in the film: