In the first epic war scene of "The Great Battle" high-ranking Goguryeo warrior Sa-mool (played by Nam Joo-hyuk) experiences a disastrously loss against Tang forces led by Emperor Taizong (played by Park Sung-woong), who boast superior numbers, tactics, and technology. In the aftermath Goguryeo command blames the loss on Ansi Fortress general Man-chun (played by Jo In-sung), who failed to reenforce them. So Sa-mool is sent to assassinate him. No on asks why Man-chun chose to disobey orders- although this question is at the heart of what "The Great Battle" has to say about the meaning of war and nationalism.
For Emperor Taizong the answer is easy enough- winning for the sake of winning. Emperor Taizong wants to prove the superiority of Chinese civilization, and war is the bluntest means by which to accomplish the task. To motivate the men, Emperor Taizong promises them the bounty of whatever they can forcibly steal from whatever forces dare to oppose them in pitched battle.
For Man-chun, Korean civilization is not what Korean people can do, but rather the Korean people themselves. In the intermissions between the film's four major battle scenes, we (through Sa-mool's eyes) watch Man-chun prepare for battle as much through encouraging the common citizens of Ansi Fortress as much as he does through meticulous planning. Man-chun's sense of common humanity shines through all these scenes. Man-chun's reprimands are always played for comic relief, even when the stakess are life and death.
But Man-chun is not to be underestimated. I loved the sheer tactical detail "The Great Battle" revels in. Observe how Ansi Fortress, with its back facing a giant large lush mountain, has unusually good defensive positioning. They only have to defend one side, and can easily replenish their own supplies. But this is true only to a point- the longer the fight goes on, the more stubborn Emperor Taizong gets in terms of throwing every possible resource and this one insignificant holdout of a castle.
And on a cinematic scale, that big battle is incredible. Director Kim Hwang-sik-I has a very keen tactical eye. Emperor Taizong makes a move, which is foiled by a counter-move by Man-chun, which forces an escalation by Emperor Taizong, and everything just keeps going from there. The whole battle is an endurance test. Which side is going to run out of crazy tricks first? I loved how brute force is never the answer- trying to shove soldiers into a bottleneck just gets them killed, which is why Emperor Taizong keeps having to regroup the army, to his increasing psychotic agitation.
I also loved how while consistently tense and exciting "The Great Battle" is never really fun. The brutality of war is unflinching. We're increasingly led to see how each brutal onscreen death, of however meaningless an extra, represents the shattering of a single precious human life. Even when one group of characters late in the film nobly sacrifice themselves for an important strategic advantage, the heroism is just the silver lining that gives their deaths meaning. Man-chun is fighting to save them all. And isn't that, really, what we should want and expect from our leaders?
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Great Battle""
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