Today, the ruins of ancient Ansi happen to be in China, but the local spirits can’t be too happy about that. During the mid-7th Century, it was squarely a part of the Goguryeo Empire, a forerunner to Korea. Unfortunately, its commander was not in good standing with the generals at court, so when the Tang emperor laid siege to the fort, they were on the own. The tenacious defense of Ansi comes to the big screen in a big way in Kim Kwang-sik’s The Great Battle, which opens this Friday in New York.
The Great Battle is not kidding around. It starts with a disastrous route of the Goguryeo forces that Samul, a young cadet commander just barely survives. Naturally, at such a time of crisis, his next assignment is to assassinate Yang Manchun, the slightly off-the-reservation commander of Ansi, who seems to think he knows better than his commanding officers, because he does.
Not so shockingly, Yang is onto Samul right from the start, but he still lets the long-absent Ansi-native back into the fortress city. Despite his orders, Samul is quickly won over by Yang’s close, protective relationship with his people. Soon, Samul is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Yang’s lieutenants defending Ansi. They manage to foil most of Emperor Taizong’s siege devices, but things start to looking iffy when the Tang forces start getting creative. Things will get loud and bloody, but the film stays surprisingly close to the historical record.
There is some drama interspersed throughout Great Battle, but the warfighting scenes are what this film is all about. If you enjoyed movies like Braveheart, 300, and Red Cliff than Great Battle will be like catnip for you. It is often brutal, but the battle scenes are remarkably well-choreographed and crisply shot. This was a tough war to fight, but Kim certainly makes it quite a cinematic spectacle.
So, yes, the action is the thing, but there are still some nice performances, particularly Seol Hyun and Um Tae-goo as Beck-ha and Pa-so, two of Yang’s trusted warriors (and in her case, his sister too), who are also engaged in a tragic romance. Zo In-sung is truly commanding as Yang, in what could be his career best performance to date. Although Park Sung-woong has played plenty of bag guys before (including a different sort of emperor in For the Emperor), he is totally cold-blooded (and almost unrecognizable) chewing the scenery as the ruthless Taizong.