Battlefield HeroesReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/22/11 01:26:07
SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Full disclosure demands that I mention that "Battlefield Heroes" is a sequel to an eight-year-old Korean movie, although it is still extremely funny and otherwise entertaining even if you've never seen "Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield" (which was made before director Lee Jun-ik got international attention for "King and the Clown"). So don't let that stop you if you get a chance to see this period slapstick war epic, because you don't get to see many of those, and it'd be a shame to miss this one for such a silly reason.The year is 668 AD, and Korea is not yet united under one king. The Silla and Goguryeo kingdoms really don't have any beef with each other, but the Chinese Emperor wants Goguryeo toppled, so they push Silla and another allied kingdom to invade and take Pyongyang castle. Goguryeo is in turmoil, with its fierce general mortally wounded and dissension among his sons - pragmatic Nam-seng (Yoon Je-moon), bellicose Nam-geon (Ryoo Seung-ryong), and conflicted Nam-san (Kang Ha-neul). Silla general Kim Yu-sin (Jeong Jin-yeong) knows that the purpose of this strike is to weaken his army as much as to defeat Goguryeo, so he schemes to minimize his losses and hopefully have Silla come out stronger. All this is of little concern to a foot soldier called "Thingamajig" (Lee Mun-shik), who saw enough of war the last time he was conscripted, and is mostly concerned with another grunt in his unit, Moon-di (Lee Kwang-soo), who keeps volunteering and exposing them to danger.
There's even more political and military maneuvering going on, and I'm sure that many of those who have read this far are wondering just how funny seventh-century Korean politics and military strategy can really be (although at least the stuff with "Thingy" has potential, right?). And that's a valid concern - this is a pretty dense movie, with four armies and a couple dozen characters to keep track of. Fortunately, this appears to be the Blackadder version of Korean history, with foppish an ineffectual kings and battles decided on absurd turns of events. It's not the easiest material to make funny - or necessarily even comprehensible, especially if the viewer hasn't seem the previous film - but writers Jo Chul-hyun and Oh Seung-hyun do a fine job of packing everything the audience needs to know in while leaving plenty of room for laughs.
And they fill that space with plenty of good gags. A lot of them are broad and crazy: There's an in-story musical number, for crying out loud, and some of what the armies use catapults for likely owes more to Monty Python and the Holy Grail than actual history. Still, even those who don't have a pre-existing soft spot for "get angry bees to sting your enemies" as a strategy will likely enjoy the big, comedic action scenes, especially as they intersect with Thingy wanting no part of what's going on and trying to teach his fellow recruits how to avoid actually being near genuine danger.
Plus, there's Jeong Jin-yeong as Kim Yu-sin. Yu-sin is more a factor in the second half of the movie than the first, but that's when the white-bearded general is at his best, with Jeong nailing a certain wild-eyed intelligence, like Yu-sin not only knows he's the smartest guy in the room, but is actually relishing the challenge of only being one step ahead of his opponents (and sometimes not even that). It's a fiercer and funnier take on the wily old general than we often see - and Lee Won-jong goes even further with it in his brief return as Goguryeo general Yeon Gae So Moon - but a wonderful performance, both earning a lot of laughs and drawing the audience into the man's brilliant but highly-improvised strategy.
Lee Mun-shik is playing a simpler character, but he and director Lee know the comic beats that Thingy needs to hit, and they do so almost without fail. As much as Mun-shik spends a lot of time doing cornball humor, he's surprisingly adept at playing moments straight when the movie calls for it before moving back to slob humor. The cast is filled with fun foils for both Yu-sin and Thingy, too - Lee Kwang-soo is funny as the polar opposite of Thingy, while Yoon Je-moon and Ryoo Seung-ryong are nicely contentious as brothers who each think that they should be in charge of Pyongyang's defense. Then there's a gruff but charming Sun Woo-sun as the city's most dedicated defender (who, naturally, is also its prettiest girl).For those of us whose only previous exposure to director Lee's work was "King and the Clown", the deft hand he shows for comedy is both surprising and welcome. "Battlefield Heroes" isn't all silly jokes - its satire can be sharp, and as much as war's absurdity is highlighted, Lee doesn't treat it like a game - but that's part of what makes it special: Broad comedy and believable characters are seldom mixed this well.
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