Hey everyone, hope all is well with you! I apologize for the fact that it has been over a month since my last post. I’ve had a lot going on with graduate school, work, and physical therapy, so unfortunately, I missed the October train. I try to post at least once every month, but sometimes it can be difficult when I am overwhelmed with life happenings. I admit I have really come to a halt with drama watching. I put both The Guest and The Ghost Detective on hold, and at this point, I’m not even sure I’ll ever muster up the interest to finish them. I felt both shows beginning to drag at the halfway point, and I’d rather spend my time on something new that I know will keep my attention. So, I have been tuning into the second season of Cold Case Japan and will undoubtedly see that one through. I also realized it’s been ages since my last film review, so I figured now would be a good time to get back into doing those. With my hectic schedule, films take up less time to watch and review, so until winter break I think this will be the best way to try and stay active.
Now that I’ve explained myself, let’s talk about The Fortress. I’ve been dying to see this since the previews came out. The trailer looked very promising and the cast is simply top class. It took a while for me to find the film in high definition with English subtitles, as I do not own a Netflix account or any other sort of streaming site account at that. Once I found the film, I was too busy to watch it. In the meantime, I had come across many comments and articles claiming the film was not as popular with critics as people had originally predicted due to a surplus of politically driven dialogue, Korean history that is tailored to domestic fans, and a laborious runtime. Continue on for my personal thoughts on the film!
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
The Fortress is a South Korean historical drama film directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, based on the novel Namhansanseong by Kim Hoon. The film was first released in South Korean theaters on October 3, 2017. It also served as the opening film for the 2nd London East Asia Film Festival. The film spans 139 minutes. The story centers around true events during the Second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, where King Injo and his retainers sought refuge in the fortress located in Namhansanseong (Wikipedia).
In the film, the Qing dynasty attacks Joseon. King Injo (Park Hae Il) and his retainers, including Choi Myung Kil (Lee Byung Hun) and Kim Sang Hun (Kim Yun Seok), hide in the mountain fortress city of Namhansanseong. They are isolated from the outside and the harsh winter takes a toll on their soldiers and supplies. While Choi Myung Kil urges that the King enter into negotiations with the Qing dynasty, Kim Sang Hun insists that they continue fighting (AsianWiki).
There’s no question that The Fortress stuns with its exquisite cinematography and exceptional veteran cast. Masterfully shot, a meticulous thoughtfulness pervades every frame; each one had purpose. Excellent use of composition, negative space, depth, lighting, coloring, and contrast were exhibited throughout the film. The wintry, picturesque backdrop was striking and breathtaking. At the same time, the landscape exuded an imposingly ominous environment; one that was suffocating, biting, and relentless. The climate performed a crucial role in delivering the benumbing, life-threatening conditions the soldiers were up against.
While many critics lamented the film’s wearying runtime, I found it a clever device which allowed audiences to experience an element of exhaustion that mirrored that of the film’s haggard characters. As they trudged through fruitless battle, the audience too, trudged on to see the film through. Those who don’t have an appreciation for period films—or an understanding that history and politics go hand in hand—will fail to grasp the power of this film. While indeed packed with political jargon, this is to be expected of a piece that draws inspiration from historical events based on a power struggle. Through the use of weighty dialogue, The Fortress takes on philosophical themes of loyalty, pride, and death in conjunction with traditional Joseon values.
Does surrendering make the King weak and undermine his power as a divine figure chosen by the heavens? Does it make him a traitor to the people, who will now be slaves to a new King of a foreign land? Does fighting a battle that’s already lost bring honor and solidify the King as a hero who bravely persisted in the face of death? Or, is it a symbol of abandonment to his people, whose lives will be needlessly sacrificed in the process? Is it better to seek a glorified death, or live a humiliating life? Is surrendering in dire conditions an act of bravery, or an act of cowardice? Is it humble to know when to give in, or is it wise to persevere and die a martyr for what you believe in? Is giving in a betrayal to your previous beliefs, or a necessary act of preservation when thousands of lives are on the line? These are just a few of the thought provoking predicaments King Injo and his courtiers struggle to unravel.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s non-intrusive, but highly effective musical score elevates the film to higher ground. Big budget and alluring costumes aside, what ultimately solidifies the film’s watchability is the line up of dependable actors. With trusted veterans Lee Byung Hyun and Kim Yun Seok at the helm, the film is propelled into authentic excellence. Supporting actors Ko Soo, Park Hae Il, and Park Hee Soon also made their mark on the film, not getting lost amongst a pack of proficient performers. All five of these stars delivered, and I found myself wavering; struggling to pick a side. Each courtier’s plea was backed by a credible performance, making it easy to connect with every character, but all the more difficult to decipher who was right and who was wrong. While Kim Yun Seok’s loyal idealist, Kim Sang Hun, was desperate to press on in devotion to his belief of royal honor, Lee Byung Hyun’s careful rationalist, Choi Myung Kil, was eager to make peace so as to preserve what was left of Joseon’s people. Both feared death, with Myung Kil dreading a physical permanent death, and Sang Hun dreading a metaphorical death of the virtues he’s devoted the entirety of his life to.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this film would resonate far more with Korean audiences, seeing as it draws upon Korean history, sentiments of loyalty, and patriotism for the backbone of its plot. These elements distance foreign viewers, who are sure to miss some of the nuances threaded throughout. However, any international viewer with a deep interest in Korean history, philosophy, and film, would likely find The Fortress impressive and impactful. Intense, electrifying, and stifling from start to finish, viewers are left feeling just as disheartened, worn, and frigid as the people of Joseon come the film’s end.
Overall, The Fortress was a memorable work of art. Accomplished leads keep the film grounded and credible. Through the use of arresting cinematography and a competent soundtrack, a frigid story of desperation and strife is convincingly told. Not everyone will perceive the film’s purpose, but those who do are bound to admire it. If you are a fan of period films, Korean history, or a showcase of thoughtful directing, this is a must see. Fair warning to those who are squeamish when it comes to blood and gore: There are quite of a few scenes depicting starved and slaughtered animals, which are not suited for the faint of heart. There are also a few battle scenes, though not many, portraying injured or mutilated bodies. It wasn’t a problem for me, but most say I have an iron stomach, so I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to warning people.
Have you watched The Fortress? What did you think of the film? If you haven’t already, you can check out the trailer here.