There is the accumulating sense of despair hovering over the main characters in South Korean film “The Fortress”. As their stronghold is besieged by their powerful opponent, it is pretty clear to them that there are only two options left for them, and neither of these two options is easy at all. Is it right to fight to the death for their supposedly noble cause? Or is it better to follow pragmatism despite utter humiliation?
The movie is mainly about those long, desperate winter days in the South Mountain Fortress, Korea during 1636-7. As the Ming dynasty of China was entering its last years during the early 17th century, the Qing Dynasty came to rise and then expand its territory from Manchu, and it subsequently demanded the Joseon dynasty of Korea to be its ally. Mainly because it was helped a lot by the Ming dynasty in its war with Japan during 1592-8, the Joseon dynasty did not fully collaborate with the Qing dynasty while not totally severing its relationship with the Ming dynasty, and that led to the invasion of the Qing dynasty in 1627. Even after that, the Joseon dynasty still did not change its position, so the Qing dynasty invaded again in 1636, and its massive army swiftly came down to Hanseong, the capital of the Joseon dynasty which is Seoul at present.
The early scenes of the movie establish the gloomy situation of King Injo (Park Hae-il) and his ministers, who hurriedly flee from Hanseong and then find shelter in the South Mountain Fortress. They are safe in the fortress for now, but the circumstance has become more despairing day by day. While a small group of soldiers in the fortress are mostly unprepared, there are not even enough rations for these soldiers, and, to make matters worse, the weather gets colder everyday. The king and his ministers hope that they will be rescued by the remaining battalions in the country, but they cannot send any message outside the fortress as surrounded by the Qing dynasty army, which keeps tightening its grip around the fortress as days go by.
While many other ministers advise to King Injo that they must fight till the end, Choi Myung-kil (Lee Byung-hun) has a different thought. When he goes to the huge military camp site of the Qing dynasty army as a delegate for negotiation, he realizes that there is not any chance of win at all, so he bravely suggests to his king later that he should accept the conditions of surrender proposed by the Qing dynasty for saving his kingdom and people.
Not so surprisingly, Choi’s suggestion is vehemently opposed by most of ministers, and the strongest objection comes from Kim Sang-heon (Kim Yun-seok), who is quite determined to preserve the honor of his king and country as much as he can. Firmly believing that it is still possible to win the war, Kim naturally clashes with Choi during every meeting, and King Injo accordingly continues to agonize over his increasingly impossible situation. Maybe survival matters most in the end, but that means he will live in shame for the rest of his life, and that looks worse than death in the view of Kim and other ministers.
As King Injo and his ministers keep discussing over this complex matter, the movie also looks at the exhausting struggles of other people in the fortress. We meet a dedicated general who simply tries to do his job but often becomes frustrated for many reasons, and we see his soldiers frequently suffering from not only decreasing ration but also the freezing weather outside. Director Hwang Dong-hyeok, who adapted the novel of the same name by Kim Hoon for the movie, and his crew did a good job of establishing the cold wintry atmosphere vividly on the screen, and you will probably want to get a hot cup of coffee after watching the film.
While there are several battle scenes as expected, the power of the movie ultimately lies in the dynamic interactions among its three main characters, and three leading actors in the film are all solid on the whole. While Lee Byung-hun, who has recently expanded his career outside South Korean as shown from “Red 2” (2013) and “Terminator Genysis” (2015), is engaging as a decent man who humbly sticks to his belief, Kim Yun-seok, who has been always interesting since his breakout turn in “Tazza: The High Rollers” (2006), exudes his character’s steely determination, and some of the most entertaining moments in the film come from when their characters show respect toward each other’s integrity despite their conflicting opinions. Between his two co-stars, Park Hae-il, who previously played the hero of “War of the Arrows” (2011), holds his own place well in his earnest performance, and his best moment comes from when King Injo must endure the price of his eventual choice later in the story.
In case of the supporting characters in the film, most of them are more or less than storytelling tools. While Ko Soo is a valiant blacksmith who happens to be enlisted in the army along with his younger brother played by Lee David, Park Hee-soon and Song Young-chang are adequate in their respective supporting roles, and the special mention goes to Kim Beom-rae, who is commanding in his brief but crucial supporting performance.
Overall, “The Fortress” is as good as you can expect from a well-made period drama, and I enjoyed its nice moments although it could have been shortened around 15-20 minutes for tighter storytelling. It does not bring anything new to its history subject which is quite familiar to me and many other South Korean audiences, but it did its job better than I expected, so I will not complain for now.