The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Won Shin-yeon, 2019)

The Battle roar to voctory poster 1Besides seeing the birth of Korean cinema, 1919 was something of a flashpoint in the nation’s 20th century history. Japan had annexed Korea in 1910, thereafter instituting an increasingly brutal colonialist regime. On March 1, 1919 the people rose up in an act of mass protest inspired by the provision for “Self-Determination” included in US president Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points speech outlining a path towards enduring peace. Though the protest was peaceful, it was quickly suppressed by Japanese troops resulting in thousands of deaths and mass incarcerations.

The Battle: Roar to Victory (봉오동 전투, Bongodong Jeontoo) situates itself a year after the protest as the Independence Movement began to intensify, and is inspired by real life events apparently often absent from the textbooks in which several factions eventually came together to wipe out an “elite’ squad of Japanese troops which had been put together to take down guerrilla Resistance fighters. Our heroes have been charged with collecting money from a fundraiser and conveying it to the Independence Movement in exile in Shanghai but are drawn into a wider battle against Japanese brutality on their way.

The Japanese colonial forces are indeed brutal, if often cowardly. When we first meet crazed commander Yasukawa (Kazuki Kitamura), he’s butchering a tiger in some kind of symbolic act of intense barbarity. To smoke out the Resistance fundraiser, the Japanese military begin razing villages, killing the men and raping the women, even going so far as to shoot small children for sport. When veteran Resistance fighter Hae-cheol (Yoo Hae-jin) raids a command post, he makes a point of taking a hostage who himself seems to be a teenage recruit. Hae-cheol lets the boy live not only out of a sense of compassion, but also because he wants him to take what he’s seen back to Japan, including the aftermath of a Japanese assault on an ordinary Korean village.

Yukio (Kotaro Daigo), as the boy later gives his name, is, unlike his fellow officers, conflicted and confused. Apparently a member of the elite himself, the son of a prominent military figure, Yukio gave up a bright academic future to join the army and find out what it is that Japan does with its advanced weaponry. Asked what he thinks now that he’s seen for himself, he says that he’s ashamed, that his worst fears have been confirmed. According to Yukio, his nation is suffering from an intense inferiority complex which is leading it to commit acts of extreme barbarity in order convince itself it is equal to any other imperial power.

The Japanese officers veer from the crazed, bloodthirsty Yasukawa who views his mission as some kind of hunting expedition, to the merely weak and cowardly. The Independence fighters, however, come from all over Korea speaking many dialects (some less mutually intelligible than others) and with many different motivations but all with the desire to free their country from Japanese oppression. Ace captain Jang-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) is a born soldier, but those who support him are largely street fighters and “bandits” not always welcomed into the movement by the so-called intellectual “nobles” running the show from a position of social superiority. Then again, as Hae-cheol puts it, no one can be sure how many guerrilla soldiers there are because any farmer is a potential sleeper agent.

In any case, the Resistance fighters pursue their mission selflessly, manipulating the complacent Japanese troops to lure them into a mass ambush while trying to ensure the money still makes its way to Shanghai to preserve the movement. Despite the “Roar to Victory” subtitle, it’s important to note that the Independence Movement was still in a nascent state and would continue opposing Japanese oppression until Korea’s liberation at the end of the war. Covering the legendary battle of Battle of Fengwudong, the film ends with forward motion as the Resistance commander (a late and great cameo from a giant of Korean cinema) points ahead towards the next target, the well known Battle of Cheongsanri, in which the Japanese military reportedly suffered over 1200 casualties at the hands of Independence forces. Overly gory and lacking in subtlety, The Battle: Roar to Victory is unabashedly patriotic but does its best to suggest the costs and compromises of guerrilla warfare as its selfless heroes put aside their differences to fight for a better Korea.


The Battle: Roar to Victory was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Suspect (용의자, Won Shin-yeon, 2013)

suspect posterNorth Koreans have become the go to bad guys recently, and so North Korean spies have become the instigators of fear and paranoia in many a contemporary political thriller. The Suspect (용의자, Yonguija), however, is quick to point the finger at a larger evil – personal greed, dodgy morals, and the all powerful reach of global corporations. Opting for a high octane action fest rather than a convoluted plot structure, Won’s approach is (mostly) an uncomplicated one as a wronged man pursues his revenge or redemption with no thought for his own future, only to be presented with the unexpected offering of one anyway alongside the equally unexpected bonus of exposing an international conspiracy.

Ji Dong-cheol (Gong Yoo) is former top North Korean asset now defected to the South and working as a driver for an important CEO. His boss thinks he ought to just go home, but Ji has a mission – he’s looking for a former friend, also defected, who was responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter as part of a wide ranging purge following the accession of Kim Jong-un. Taking pity on him, the CEO eventually gives him the address of his target, adding that he hopes Ji can learn to forgive him (which seems unlikely), but is assassinated by other agents that same night. Arriving at the scene too late, Ji finds himself framed for the killing and charged with taking care of a secret message also in the CEO’s possession at the time of his death. Teaming up with a documentary filmmaker, Ji is now on the run and determined to find his former friend turned mortal enemy before the authorities catch up with him whilst also trying to work out what to do with his boss’ coded message.

Family, debts of honour, and bonds between men are at the centre of this fast paced thriller as Ji attempts to navigate this ever changing conspiracy torn between friends turned enemies and enemies who may become friends. His main adversary is a government agent, Min (Park Hee-Soon), whom he previously encountered during a mission in Hong Kong during which he made the decision to spare Min’s life after catching sight of a photo of his wife and son in his wallet. Min, however, is less than grateful as the failed mission greatly damaged his career prospects and so he has a personal grudge with Ji which he hopes to exorcise through arresting him. On the other side, Ji is also on the hunt for his former training buddy, Lee (Kim Sung-Kyun), whom he believes to have been responsible for the death of his own wife and child though later discovers that perhaps they have all merely been pawns in a much larger game.

The larger game appears to include worldwide arms sales by turns frustrated and conducted by North Korean agents. The conspiracy, however, is very much home grown in terms of its South Korean genesis but makes clear the complicated relationship between the two territories which is very much open to abuse by those who have access to both sides. The big bad turns out not to be the totalitarian regime with its constant purges and rigid enforcement of its political power, but the greedy and venal, power hungry petty officials of the democratic regime working in concert with big business.

Won has obviously drawn inspiration from the first Bourne film, offering several blatant homages including a long car chase referencing The Italian Job by proxy. His shaky cam aesthetic is perhaps overworked, but the fight scenes are undoubtedly impressive, anchored by the astounding performance of unlikely action star Gong Yoo – hitherto known as a sensitive leading man and frequent romantic lead. Having piled on the pounds, Gong is a credible vengeful presence apparently providing many of his own stunts including a strangely overblown sequence which sees him rock climbing bare chested only to emerge panting and glistening next to the flapping North Korean flag. Nevertheless, his near silent performance is a masterclass of physical acting, adding a much needed emotional dimension to the otherwise straightforward script which leaves little time for character development in between its admittedly impressive set pieces. Overlong yet moving at a rip roaring pace, The Suspect is a surprisingly well photographed action fest which manages to add a degree of pathos to its closing scenes even if failing to completely earn it whilst engaging in a series of subtle political allegories.


International trailer (English subtitles)