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Fortress, The (2017)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/22/17 13:28:13

"Hunker down or escape this siege?"
3 stars (Just Average)

"The Fortress" is not what one would call a rousing war epic, but while it may inevitably serve as an anti-war story of sorts, it is perhaps too cerebral, too involved in the specific intrigues of this particular siege, to have a genuine message along those lines. That is not in and of itself particularly negative; what happens in this fortress is interesting enough. But it often means that the larger issues that might resonate in the present get left behind - this and that happened, and as a result, Korean history took a turn, and that's all there is to it.

The film picks up on 14 December 1636, when Joseon King Injo (Park Hae-il) and his cabinet has retreated to the Namhan Fortress ahead of the Chinese Qing army, which aims to put Korea under its control despite it being loyal to the Ming Dynasty. Though defensible, Namhan is easily isolated, which is why Choi Myeong-gil (Lee Byung-hun), Minister of the Interior, meets with Qing General Ingguldai to attempt to negotiate peace. That's a move strongly opposed by Kim Sang-hoon (Kim Yun-seok), Minister of Rites, who feels that the best option is to fight, and soon, as the greater Qing Army - including the Khan himself - is approaching. As they debate this, villagers like blacksmith Deo Nal-soi (Go Soo) and his brother Chil-bok ("David" Lee Da-wit) are conscripted, and the only hope seems to be getting a message out to the field marshal of the southern army, but the Qing are rapidly cutting off all routes to and from the fortress.

While Sang-hoon's opposition to Myeong-gil is staunch and principled, it is often nothing compared to Prime Minister Kim Ryu (Song Young-chang) and the bulk of the courtiers, who call for the would-be diplomat's head but are often far more focused on "dignity" and respect than the practicalities of this difficult fight. It's a promising core for the movie - the ideas introduced right from the start about the perils of a ruling class that holds itself separate from its people while still counting on a certain exceptionalism are good, meaty issues which have application will beyond 15th-century kings and courtiers. When writer/director Hwang Dong-hyuk is poking at them, there's interest to the movie, and as it goes on, the fact that the two characters most positioned in opposition to each other actually have more in common by way of their having actual ideals and connection to the people makes for genuine curiosity at how they may find common ground. Both are introduced with clear indications of their commitment to serving the kingdom despite risk to themselves and their souls, without an obvious way to reconcile their difference.

The situation they must wrestle with can be a bit of a slog to play out, though, as the siege is locked in right from the start, and there are not really that many thrills to be found in watching people fend off starvation and frostbite. It's fine that Hwang does not want sentry duty and the brief spurts of combat stirring (although it's an impressive achievement to shoot the sort of large-scale infantry battles he does and have the overall choreography be impressive even if many of the combatants are obviously clumsy, untrained conscripts), but his check-ins with the troops often seem more perfunctory than anything, like the common people exist to prove the nobles wrong rather than to tell their own stories. The moments when the armies do start coming at each other are suitably horrific - there is plenty of dismemberment, crows pecking out eyeballs, and other grisly reminders that the door of warfare practiced in these times was not for the squeamish, no matter what the elegant, well-choreographed action of other films may lead one to believe. As impressively stark as the visuals are and methodically clear as the storytelling can be, there aren't many moments when the film really gets its hooks in, and even the more exciting parts toward the end seem a little drawn-out.

Perhaps the tipping point is that Lee Byung-hun seems to play Myeong-gil as far too subdued compared to the rest of the cast, at least until the end, when he is able to give a speech about how survival must be given priority over honor; his character should be the most fascinating in how he recognizes the perilous situation his country is in and is trying to safeguard it despite knowing his path will be seen as dishonorable, but all too often he seems to just do tasks rather than feel, which allows the film to tilt too far toward Kim Yun-seok's Sang-hoon. Kim's performance is livelier and more heart-felt, given a bit of a boost by scenes opposite Jo Ah-in as a war orphan he bears particular responsibility for, but even he has a hard time making the story personal. Park Hae-il fares a bit better as a King who is good-intentioned but well out of his depth, and Song Young-chang makes the Prime Minister as hissable a villain as the Qing (who are referred to as "barbarians" and given that sort of characterization), but the heart of the story inevitably belongs to Go Soo. His blacksmith actually has a past that seems to inform the performance, he gets the best action bits, and there's some real feeling as he and Lee Da-wit's Chil-bok talk sense to the rest of the characters.

The ambition and effort Hwang placed into "The Fortress" is clear, and his measured, thoughtful take on this sort of story makes it a bit different from other Korean period pieces. It's not so different as to stand out, though, or so well-constructed as to drive its points home, no matter how striking the picture nor impressive the cast may be.

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