Film Review: The Fortress

The recreation of a historic moment in Korea’s constantly embattled past becomes a rather enervating epic in the too diaogue-driven hands of director Hwang Dong-hyuk.
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Based on the novel Namhansanseong by Kim Hoon, The Fortress tackles the second Manchu invasion of Korea, when King Injo (Pak Hae-il) and his court took refuge in the fortress located in Namhananseong. Injo’s Joseon dynasty had long been allied with China’s Ming rulers, until the rise of that country’s Manchu Quing dynasty, with its general doggedly leading his soldiers onward to victory over Korea while awaiting the arrival of his emperor.

The King comes to the awful realization that he’s basically trapped himself in this stony edifice with dwindling supplies on which to survive until spring. His most trusted adviser, Choi Myung-kil (ubiquitous Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun), believes he has an obligation to his war-weary people to surrender, while another aide, Kim Sang-hun (Kim Yoon-seok), wants to battle it out. Traveling between the two enemy camps, Choi carries messages back and forth. Many suspect him of being nothing but a traitorous spy and call for his execution, while everyone freezes and starves to death during a particularly brutal winter.

The Fortress had a very strong opening in Korea, with a million people seeing it by its second day of release. For those less familiar with Korean history and patriotic fever, the film may prove heavy weather—literally so, in the (dim) light of its wintry setting. Obviously benefiting from a sizeable budget, the movie’s massed soldiers and battle maneuvers are impressive, all the more coming from director Hwang, creator of the featherweight Miss Granny. But the action they provide is merely fitful, for too much of the film is taken up with seemingly endless, gruntingly snarled debates about the right military course of action to take. Hwang’s intention to make a thinking-man’s war movie is admirable, but there’s just way too much thinking and not even doing going on here, as handsome as the production is and despite a committed, gifted cast.

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