By this point, Korean filmmakers (and the scriptwriters for TV dramas) have left very few stones unturned in their search through modern and classical Korean history for movie ideas. Like the Hollywood studios with comic book characters, the Korean film industry has combed through every available historical source for people and events that might be turned into the next blockbuster hit.
In the case of The Great Battle, it was a mere three lines of text in the historical annals that formed the basis for this US$20 million film. In the year 645, the legendary Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty personally led an attack on the Goguryeo kingdom (37 BCE-668), which was centered in the northern regions of the Korean peninsula. After a series of victories, the Tang army attempted to seize the fortress in Ansi City (which is actually part of modern-day China, but was controlled by Goguryeo then). Despite having a much bigger army, the fortress defenses proved to be much more than the Emperor bargained for.
Essentially, The Great Battle is a classic underdog story, with the leader of the forces in Ansi Fortress, played by Zo In-sung, using clever planning, quick thinking and ingenuity to fight against a much stronger enemy. Not only that, Goguryeo’s main forces based in Pyongyang view the fighters in Ansi City with deep suspicion, so there’s not much help available from them, either. In one sense, the plot of this film is extremely simple: once it gets warmed up, it’s just an extended series of battle scenes. But director Kim Kwang-sik creates enough interesting characters and subplots to keep the audience engaged.
Although the cast list for this movie is seemingly endless, with famous character actors, former models, K-pop stars and grizzled veterans all vying for attention, it is Zo In-sung (The King, A Dirty Carnival) who dominates the proceedings. As the fortress commander Yang Man-chun, he projects leadership, resourcefulness and physicality in a convincing and entertaining performance. By contrast, the film’s second lead played by the hugely popular TV star Nam Joo-hyuk (Cheese in the Trap) ends up looking a bit overshadowed.
There is a certain kind of aesthetic to the ideal summer blockbuster. Even though The Great Battle was pushed out of the peak summer season by the likes of Illang: The Wolf Brigade, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, and The Spy Gone North, and forced to open in September, it fits the template of a spectacle-driven summer blockbuster better than any of its competitors. Sure enough, it enjoyed decent word of mouth and ended up as the second-highest grossing Korean film of the year.
It would be a stretch to say that The Great Battle is exceptionally well made, but it is big, exciting, and filled with genuinely impressive spectacle. Director Kim manages to ratchet up the action in an engaging way throughout its 135-minute running time. The climax is properly epic. One shouldn’t expect to gain any insights into classical Asian history, but one can safely expect to have fun.