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Great Battle, The
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by Jay Seaver

"At the very least, a pretty good battle."
3 stars

Somewhere in the middle of "The Great Battle", I felt like I'd reached the point where these medieval Asian war movies just blur together. There was a heck of a battle going on, and I was duly impressed, but sort of felt like I was killing time. I'd seen the flights of arrows, the whirling swordsmen, the bickering lieutenants, the warrior princess, all in speed-ramped slow motion, and though this was pretty good it didn't really have anything new or astounding. It scratched an itch, no question, but could it do more?

It certainly starts with the sort of scale the title implies, as the Battle of Mt. Jupil pits a half-million-strong army from Tang Emperor Taizong and his "God of War" General Li Shimin (Park Sung-woong) against the 150,000 commanded by Goguryeo leader Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-seong). It's a trap, leading Yeon to retreat back to the capital, with only the fortress of Ansi in the way. Trouble is, the commander of that fortress, Yang Manchun (Zo In-sung), did not support Yeon when he took power, so Yeon dispatches cadet leader Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk), who has roots in Ansi, not to rally the troops, but to assassinate him, though Samul soon discovers Yang to be a natural leader with a potentially defensible position.

The folks at Ansi are an enjoyable-enough group, with Zo In-sung in particular making a fine center of the film as Yang. He's a fairly simple paragon, but Zo brings the right sort of humility and nobility to the man, giving writer/director Kim Kwang-shik and his cast the room to build a supporting cast keeps things going between action pieces without Yang feeling too disconnected. These are somewhat minor and rote subplots, tending to have just enough to them to keep the audience from getting impatient but not enough to reach from one end of the movie to another. Sometimes that means things get finished and discarded as soon as they start to move; other times you can't help but think that there must have been a little more intended. Samul's secret mission is cast aside quickly, for instance, leaving Nam Joo-hyuk little to do, while the filmmakers really never figure out what they wanted out of the character Jung Eun-chae plays (a captured medium who was once engaged to Yang seems like she should be a bigger deal than she winds up being).

It's capable but not gripping, which is often where the action winds up. Kim and his crew have distilled a lot of what works and catches the eye in a lot of other period war movies, and they've got enough budget to realize it so that you can have thousands of people clashing without it starting to look like a video game, impressively designed siege towers, and a fort looks big and strong enough to protect a hillside town. People move smoothly, the fights are choreographed well, and though Kim has a tendency both to slow down for big moments and find the moments of unexpected mayhem in the violence but not necessarily combine them in sadistic fashion. The Great Battle is full of good, solid action that, despite flashes of creativity, seldom rises from good craft to violent art.

At least for most of the movie. It does, it turns out, have a few things to show by the end, as the Tang army winds up taking siege engines to their logical conclusion and the people of Ansi must do something even crazier to undermine this plan. I don't know that I necessarily buy all of this, from the ornamentation that seems like something a production designer would come up with more than an invading army far away from their blacksmiths to the quick turnaround at the end, but I don't have to. The filmmakers take the finale of this story and make it the stuff of legend, and as the theater rumbles and the tide turns, that's enough - you've seen something grand and thrilling that feels like it would be audacious even centuries later.

Otherwise, it's kind of the standard ancient war film with a good cast, probably a metaphor or two that is clear to its Korean audience, and decent action. No masterpiece, maybe a bit long, but not bad if you like these things every once in a while.

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originally posted: 09/24/18 03:30:29
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Directed by
  Kwang-shik Kim

Written by
  Kwang-shik Kim

  In-sung Jo
  Joo-Hyuk Nam
  Seol-hyun Kim
  Sung-woong Park

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