'The Fortress' ('Namhan Sanseong'): Film Review

More history lesson than engaging drama.

Lee Byung-Hun and Kim Yun-Seok star in Hwang Dong-Hyuk’s period drama about China’s 17th-century invasion of Korea.

Korea’s mid-millennial territorial conflicts provide the backdrop for The Fortress, an historical epic focused on China’s 1636 invasion of the country and subsequent subjugation of the royal court. Grand in scope but narratively constrained, this is the type of Korean drama that plays best regionally, presenting limited interest elsewhere.

Dispensing with key plot preliminaries, writer-director Hwang Dong-Hyuk (Miss Granny) relies on a series of introductory cards to describe how the rise of the Qing dynasty emboldens the Chinese emperor to subjugate surrounding kingdoms and bring them under his direct rule. When King Injo (Park Hae-Il) of Korea’s Joseon dynasty refuses to accept the emperor’s hegemony, the Chinese leader dispatches his army, which decisively forces the king and his court to retreat to the isolated Namhan fortress in the middle of a bitter winter, cut off from his generals and supply lines. While Qing forces surround the castle, a political struggle rages within, as those aligned with influential ministers Choi Myung-Gil (Lee Byung-Hun) and Kim Sang-Heon (Kim Yun-Seok) attempt to sway their leader in his response to the barbarian invaders.

Choi favors compromise and makes several fruitless visits to the Qing war camp, but the king refuses to consider the enemy’s demand to turn over the crown prince as a hostage to obtain a cessation of hostilities. Kim meanwhile whispers incessantly in the monarch’s ear about maintaining the honor of the nation and the dignity of the throne, advising against any compromise with the interlopers. As supplies in the fort run low, however, and attempts to break through the Qing lines are turned back with heavy casualties, the king and his ministers must confront dwindling options in the face of the deepening winter.

Hwang’s script, adapted from Kim Hoon’s novel, consistently suggests a hidden agenda that may be unclear to international viewers, but appears directed at rehabilitating Choi’s historical reputation as a scheming traitor while tempering Kim’s patriotic agenda, solidified in a wrenching closing scene. The director crafts this potentially revisionist narrative with long, repetitive scenes of the minsters arguing with one another, the king deliberating the outcome of his strategically diminished endgame and Choi parlaying with the Qing generals throughout the film’s enervating 139-minute running time.

Students of Korean royal history might find these intricately courtly exchanges of particular interest, but for many others they may produce a mind-numbing effect. Nearly an hour passes before the fortress’ soldiers see any action at all, and the sole set-piece battle is too brief altogether as the Korean forces beat a hasty retreat from the overwhelming Qing army.

Although The Fortress represents a significant departure from his 2014 hit comedy Miss Granny (now widely remade across Asia and slated for an English-language adaptation from Tyler Perry’s 34th Street Films), Hwang competently orchestrates the film’s disparate political and strategic developments, but there’s little sense of stylistic inspiration or narrative innovation — it’s all pretty conventional.

After playing a ruthless corporate criminal earlier this year in Master, Lee returns to the types of characters that he’s portrayed in period costumers like Masquerade and Memories of the Sword, but gets brought up short by Hwang’s endlessly talky script and fondness for the esoterics of court intrigue. Although Kim may not be as well-known to international audiences, he brings a distinct gravitas to the role of the king’s trusted minister, but can’t singlehandedly generate enough heat to warm the film’s icy pulse.

Hwang’s handsomely mounted production benefits from authentic historic locations and top-notch production and costume design, along with a stirring score by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Revenant).

Production company: Siren Pictures
Distributor: CJ Entertainment
Cast: Lee Byung-Hun, Kim Yun-Seok, Park Hae-Il, Go Soo, Park Hee-Soon, Jo Woo-Jin
Director-writer: Hwang Dong-Hyuk
Producer: Kim Ji-Yeon
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-Sung
Director of photography: Kim Ji-Yong
Production designer: Chae Kyoung-Sun
Costume designer:  Cho Sang-Kyung
Editor: Nam Na-Young
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto

139 minutes