Honour clashes with survival in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s historical war drama The Fortress.
“Why do you insist on the path of death instead of the path of life?”
War is often looked at, especially in fiction, through heavily glory-tinted glasses. The stories of brave soldiers going toe-to-toe with ruthless enemies, and coming out ahead have been told countless times and still are. And while keeping hold of your dignity during trying times is necessary, sometimes, as Minister Choi Myung-kil says in this film, you have to crawl through the legs of the Khan to keep your people alive.
Based on the novel by Kim Hoon, The Fortress focuses on a forty-seven day moment in history during the Second Manchu invasion of Korea (then the Joseon Empire). In 1636, King Injo (Park Hae-il) and his retainers travel to a remote fortress in Namhansanseong in the middle of winter, in order to find refuge against the invading forces. He is aided by his many ministers, including Choi (Lee Byung-hun), who values survival and the lives of the Korean people, and Kim (Kim Yoon-seok), who believes keeping the king’s dignity is more important.
The film switches stories between the ministers debating their next move and the soldiers and regular folk simply trying to survive in the harsh winter landscape. This includes a little girl recently orphaned and is looked after by Kim, and Nal-soi (Go Soo), a local blacksmith who is willing to do what he must to make the war end quickly. As resources and morale drops, the Qing enemy comes ever closer, bringing with them cannons, ladders and the threat of complete annihilation.
Director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s biggest achievement in The Fortress is how he portrays the rough conditions that everyone is living in. The work put in by the costume, set and make-up designers really shows, especially in the tiny details such as the lips and fingers of the soldiers slowly succumbing to frostbite as the days progress. The bleak colour scheme, emphasised all the more by the occasional splatter of bright red on a sword, sells the near-freezing temperature and the close-ups give a sense of confinement.
The audience feels that frosty isolation and when the soldiers are forced to hand back their straw bags (effectively the only thing protecting them from the elements while on duty) in order to feed the horses, only to kill the horses in order to feed the men, you really understand their plight and despair. The movie is as much about them as it is about the ministers in charge but whereas the latter seem unable to see the forest for the trees, the villagers and soldiers approach things more realistically. To them, they look forward to their life in the spring, to sowing and harvesting crops, without really caring about who’s in charge.
A better critic than me could make a good analogy for the trapped feeling the king and his people feel between the warring Ming and Qing, and compare it to South Korea’s situation between its northern brothers, Russia, and the United States. If there was a comparison to be made, I would have to commend the director for not making any single person, or group of people, the bad guy. Within the King’s cabinet, the Prime Minister almost seems like a villain due to his sheer stubbornness and jackassery, as does Kim in places, but you know they’re just doing what they think is right, what they believe to be in the country’s best interest.
And as for the invading Qing armies (or ‘barbarians’ as the Koreans call them), they are definitely destructive, but the film portrays them as a force of nature. It’s in these moments that the film really shines: the violence comes out of nowhere, usually mid-conversation, and feels brutally realistic; messy, and ends as quickly as it began. There’s very little glory in winning this war and the victories we do see – such as the Koreans beating one small troupe of barbarians – are shown in an almost comically sad light by the time the movie ends.
Overall, The Fortress is a strong piece of historical war cinema, though it is quite a slow-paced film. Those who aren’t looking for a drama-heavy long burn are probably better off avoiding it, despite how good it is, and even I’ll admit to getting a little bit antsy near the end; when you think the movie’s about to end, it goes on for a good few minutes. And after a half-hour of intros and chit-chat before, I was about ready to stand up and stretch.
Verdict: Claustrophobic and tense, The Fortress shows us not even the toughest stronghold can withstand being destroyed from within.
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Feelings of warmth: 1
Feelings of happiness: Like, none?
Drama queens: The whole cabinet
Ultimatums: Behead him!
The Fortress (2017)
Also known as:남한산성(Namhansanseong)
Director: Hwang Dong-kyuk
Writers: Hwang Dong-hyuk, Kim Hoon (novel)
Lee Byung-hun – Choi Myung-kil
Kim Yoon-seok – Kim Sang-hun
Park Hae-il – King Injo
Go Soo – Seo Nal-soi
Park Hee-soon – Lee Shi-baek
Song Young-chang – Kim Ryoo
Jo Woo-jin – Jung Myung-soo
Lee David – Chil-bok
Heo Sung-tae – Yong Gol-dae
Kim Beop-rae – Kan
Jo Ah-in – Na-roo
Jin Seon-kyu – Lee Doo-gap
Yoo Soon-woong – Chief Scholar
Park Ji-il – Deputy Chief Scholar
Choi Jong-ryul – Eunuch
Kim Joong-ki – Do Seung-ji
Shin Ki-joon – Crown Prince