Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Great Battle (2018)

Director: Kim Kwang-sik
Notable Cast: Jo In-sung, Nam Joo-hyuk, Park Sung-woong, Bae Sung-woo, Uhm Tae-goo, Kim Seol-hyun, Jung Eun-chae, Park Byung-eun, Sung Dong-il, Oh Dae-hwan, Yu Oh-seong, Stephanie Lee, Jang Gwang

The Great Battle is a somewhat deceiving title. Not that the action in this South Korean war film isn’t great, but there are so many battles and action sequences in this film that using a singular noun like ‘battle’ betrays the sheer amount of popcorn entertainment that is available to an audience who sees this film. Naturally, this is a small issue to have with a film, but when the credits rolled on this epic period piece, it was one of the first thoughts that came to mind. Granted, The Great Battle is not nearly the dramatic punch that many will expect from South Korean cinema that makes its way to the US, but at the same time it’s a film that perfectly captures the blockbuster spectacle it aims to achieve. The Great Battle is spectacular entertainment, wrapped in the usually impressive execution of South Korean cinema, and it powers through on its charm and relentlessly stylish battle sequences.

Early criticisms of The Great Battle come from some of the ways that it portrays its historical events and the characters within those, but considering it’s a popcorn munching blockbuster at its source it can be hard to truly hold its deviation from true history as much of a knock on it. However, those criticisms should be addressed in some manner and instead of doubling down on any kind of realistic tone, the film seems to address them fairly straight forward with how it develops its narrative. The Great Battle focuses on the siege of Ansi, a small fortress that was essentially left on its own in the face of a large and very intense invading force, and the various ways that the characters have to band together to fight off their foe. The film is, as expected, one that addresses war from this time period, but it does so in a larger than life manner. While it does take its material seriously (sometimes it goes further than expected and the use of violence in the battle sequences does add a lot of weight to the actual cause and effect of the story, for example,) it feels far more like an adventure story than it does a historical period piece. There is plenty of political underlying material that gives some backstory to the characters and adds some tension to key sequences, but it is not the focus outside of developing heroes and villains for an audience to latch onto.

This is ANSI!
Although I have not seen either of director Kim Kwang-sik’s prior films, knowing that both received pretty generous praise was still helpful in setting up expectations for The Great Battle. Even if the previous films were from completely different genres (one was an offbeat romantic comedy and the other was a thriller,) initial trailers made it seem like he had the chops to take on a massive budget period actioner…and he ably does. The Great Battle is brimming with style and it does an admirable job at navigating the many nuanced genres that it slips into throughout its two-hour plus run time.  Partnered with a fantastic use of cinematography that brings to life many of the locales, Kwang-sik embeds the film with a sense of style that permeates every moment. Whether it’s the swelling and emotional character beats to establish secondary roles or the thoroughly enjoyable swirling camera moves through the massive sword battles on the ground that show shades of 300 with characters we actually care about, The Great Battle is packed with a visual sense of grandeur that is paralleled with effective moments of heart and emotion.

As expected, The Great Battle is also a film that is filled with other aspects of fantastic execution. The performances from the entire cast are remarkably diverse, intentionally so to give even smaller characters some sort of arc within the story, and it works to give the film some foundation. Even those secondary characters like a swordsman and axe-man for the Ansi army are given moments that bring their characters to light while never derailing the overall narrative and adding to the character development of the main players too. If there was anything that the film struggles with, it’s developing any of the antagonists of the film – the main general of the invading army is presented in broad strokes while another general for the good guys, but one that believes the leader of Ansi is a traitor, isn’t given nearly enough nuance for his role to work as it might have in the in. Since The Great Battle is over 2 hours in run time, it makes sense that those were cut to develop the heroes more, but all the same it does feel as though there is a bit of a void there.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the action and battle sequences in The Great Battle are stellar and plentiful. The film opens up on the battlefield and it quickly returns there again and again. Each one is slightly different than the last and the film makes use of some great key elements to define each. A night time battle with fog and torch light highlights some of the great cinematography in the film (it’s not too dark and we can see things!) and the use of various weapons whether its catapults, flaming wagon wheels, horses, or plenty of spear, sword, and axe swinging, make each one entertaining on its own. It’s this focus on making each one stand out that prevents the film from just being a slog of white noise action.

The Great Battle is a great blend of high-octane popcorn-munching action with a fantastic period piece setting and a plethora of characters to invest in for an audience. Strong production values, a great sense of modern style, and impressive performances all ground the film to uplift some of its sillier plot devices or leaping character beats. Fans of South Korean cinema will bask in the sheer entertainment of it all and those who love charming characters in larger than life action spectacle will also want to see this while they can in theaters. The Great Battle is great blockbuster cinema. It comes highly recommended.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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