One of the bloodiest confrontations in Korean history, the story of the siege of Ansi, where Goguryeo forces held their fortress against 200,000 invading Tang soldiers that raged for eighty-eight days, is a familiar piece of the country’s history. Coming to the screen in a somewhat bloated epic by director Kim Kwang-sik, this new effort arrives on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital by WellGo USA on January 8, 2019.
Stationed along the Korean border, soldier Sa-mul (Nam Joo-hyuk) is chosen to put his courage to the test with a special plot by his commander to assassinate the rogue commander Yang Man-chung (Zo In-sung, from “A Dirty Carnival”) stationed at the Ansi fortress. Upon arriving and infiltrating the society of those under his command, he puts his quest on hold in order to help deal with the threat to the fortress by Li Shimin (Park Sung-woong, from “Monstrum”), a ruthless Tang soldier determined to overtake the fortress and kill all those there. The longer he puts off his mission in order to defend the fortress with the rest of the soldiers, the more he finds himself forced to put his loyalty to his country aside, in order to make sure that all who are left within the fortress are able to survive the ordeal.
When looked at within a historical action film context, “The Great Battle” has a to to like. This is in large part due to the massive-scale ground battles liberally peppered throughout the film. These provide a jaw-dropping scale full of large-scale combat techniques that showcase the horse-drawn fighters, archers, walled buttresses and ground-based troops being utilized. With these forces utilizing all manner of swords and broad pole weaponry in battle, the carnage on display brings about the kind of brutality usually associated with this kind of combat. There are soldiers that get decapitated, their limbs ripped off, their stomachs or chest sliced open and most impressively, dragged along the ground until being speared by a comrade going the opposite direction. It’s a rather impressive tactic and contributes greatly to the action within here as the numerous battles provide even more to enjoy.
What makes this action so prevalent is Kim Kwang-sik’s story that provides plenty of opportunities to engage in combat. The opening assault sets the stage perfectly for the later conflicts to emerge, including the spectacular first attack on the fortress. This scene utilizes trebuchets, archers and others forms of long-range and close-quarter combat tactics for an epic showdown. Again bringing about plenty of carnage and brutality alongside some fine destructive moments, this offers up massively entertaining spectacle-filled scenes. A later night-time raid on the compound is unquestionably the highlight as Nam Dong-kuen’s cinematography catches some astoundingly beautiful images in the heat of battle, fueled by the idea of lighting oil aflame to light the enemies on fire amidst the bloodsoaked fighting. The finale, featuring the group going on the offensive to strike the invading horde when they least expect it gives this a striking and over-the-top battle scene that’s filled with the usual balletic combat and spectacular destruction scenes that really overwhelm and make this enjoyable.
There are a few problems with the film. The major obstacle to overcome is the excessive length that really does this no favors. There are several big reasons to stretch the movie out, namely the multitude of sideplots that aren’t in the slightest pertinent to the main story. The early stages showing the life of the soldiers at the compound ends up doing nothing but stretching the running time, accomplishing nothing. The details of the psychic that’s held hostage at the compound contributes nothing since their purpose doesn’t mean anything and there’s too much time spent with his allegiances to their cause, due to his background. It really doesn’t need to be brought up several times , all making the film run on for a good fifteen-to-twenty minutes longer than it really should. The film would’ve been fine at just around the two-hour mark, yet the two-twenty it actually runs is a little tiring.
The other real problem is the inability to really expand on some of the storylines and subplots it sets up, despite the time to do so. A large part of the film is built on Sa-mul’s mission to assassinate the rogue leader Man-chung, yet nearly as soon as it’s introduced, that subplot is completely forgotten until the end of the film to determine another cliche and readily guessed setup that can be seen coming as soon as it’s brought up. Likewise, the inability to give us anything about the various personnel within the fortress beyond two or three that are actually named, seems to hamper getting the chance to know a few potentially intriguing characters. The psychic is completely glossed over for large portions of time and just gets written out rather simply, the couple given a sentimental send-off after their deaths are never given a chance to know who they are to have that kind of treatment given to them and the multitude of characters here get lost in the conflagration of battle. This might not all be that important to those looking mainly for action but does become a part of the film overall.
In the end, “The Great Battle” is a slightly overlong but still wholly enjoyable historical action epic that manages enough spectacle to be rather entertaining. Give this one a chance if you’re a fan of these brands of films or looking for a different entry in the genre, while only those who are not interested in the genre should heed caution.