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 Man and a Woman (남과 여, Lee Yoon-ki, 2016)

A man and a woman postetSome memories are better when forgotten, according to the heroine of A Man and a Woman (남과 여, Namgwa Yeo) – the latest romantic melodrama from Lee Yoon-ki. The title, deceptively simple as it is, makes plain Lee’s intention to reduce this melancholy love story to a universal level in which two people who share a deep and genuine connection choose to sever it rather than break with social convention and/or incur the additional risks of ongoing entanglement. An elongated Brief Encounter, the ballad of Sang-min and Ki-hong is a strangely old fashioned one in which unhappiness appears to be the ideal choice and a satisfied life an indulgent luxury.

Sang-min (Jeon Do-yeon) has brought her almost teenage son to Finland for treatment at a special needs school. Dropping him off for a school trip, Sang-min gets cold feet and tries to insist on accompanying the boy, only to be roundly refused by the carers. In the car park she runs into another Korean – Ki-hong (Gong Yoo) has been living in Finland for a couple of years and his young daughter attends the school to help with depression. Sang-min presses Ki-hong for information about where the camp is and eventually he offers to drive her. Predictably, they get caught in a snowstorm and have to stay overnight. A visit to a woodland sauna the next day leads to an intimate encounter but as soon as they arrive back in the city, the pair part ways without even exchanging names.

So begins the sad ballad of Sang-min and Ki-hong which eventually takes them back to Seoul where they resume their affair, putting each of their families at risk. Both parties are married already but each desperately lonely in very ordinary ways. Sang-min is a highflying CEO of a small fashion line but also shoulders most of the responsibility of looking after her son who needs a lot of extra help to cope with his autism. Her husband is rational and distant; the marriage is not unhappy but perhaps emotionally unfulfilling. Ki-hong’s marriage is also under strain as his wife has ongoing mental health issues leaving him to look after their equally distressed daughter whilst also pursing a career as an architect. 

The snowbound, silent forests of Finland are an appropriate point for the start of the affair, echoing the couple’s frozen, interior blankness. Sang-min has a pre-occupation with time in Helsinki which she abandons in Seoul, less because of a literal return to the alternation of light and darkness than a inner feeling of it passing at a more predictable rate. In Finland she wanted to know everything, in Seoul she decides perhaps it’s better not to know. Ki-hong, by contrast, is a vague sort of person in both places. Yet their instant connection is real and deep. They echo each other, repeating their shared phrases and sharing something to which they cannot give a name.

Though living in more permissive times, the love of Sang-min and Ki-hong remains impossible despite the ongoing unhappiness of their married lives. Sang-min looks on enviously at her younger sister who is dallying in marrying her American boyfriend. Her sister tells her she wants what Sang-min has – to be “happily” married, entirely unaware of Sang-min’s loneliness and dissatisfaction. Ki-hong’s moribund marriage is difficult enough but the spark has already gone – his wife tells him she feels like a patient, the subject of Ki-hong’s dutiful devotion rather than a woman who is loved by the man with whom she shares her life. Despite all of this the idea of leaving their unhappy situations to find happiness in each other is never a real possibility for either Sang-min or Ki-hong who each remain trapped both by adherence to social conventions and a lingering reluctance to fully commit.

The forces which keep them apart are less societal than personal, an unwillingness to embrace the possibility of happiness or perhaps a sense that it is not something which is permitted to them. Times have moved on since Alec and Laura said goodbye to each other in a station cafe, unspoken emotion filling the room as a busybody inserts herself into a private world about to end. There is no particular reason why Sang-min and Ki-hong cannot be happy, yet they each eventually choose not to be. Frosty indeed, this is a love which is apparently best relegated to memory, untainted by time and eternally pure. Beautifully photographed and heartbreakingly bleak, A Man and a Woman is a sad story of refused connection in which love is a risk too great for two lonely souls.


Original trailer (English subtitles)