The Valiant and the Vainglorious: The Fortress (2017)

The Fortress (2017) (Source: Han Cinema)

The Fortress (2017) is a poignant look at the one place nobody wanted to be when the Qing decided to invade Joseon. Despite the fact that people make all the wrong choices, there are some people who maintain their dignity (hint: one of them is not the king).

The 2017 Korean movie depicts the final days of the Qing siege at Namhan Fortress, the mountain stronghold to which King Injo’s court retreats in an effort to maintain its (somewhat) autonomy in the face of the clash between the Ming and the Qing.  A particularly brutal winter only makes matters worse, as food and supplies are running out as the Qing continue to chill and barbecue at the foot of the mountain.

On one hand, the film shows just how far the court has deteriorated as a ruling body. Rather than giving the king advice, the court officials excel at shouting each other down and calling for their colleagues to be beheaded. There is also some not-so-subtle class dynamics going on, as the officials don’t want to inconvenience the nobles but are more than willing to throw the poor soldiers defending the fort under the bus by denying them necessities. King Injo is no help, giving royal orders even through he probably knows they are wrong and unfair.

Moreover, the military is in shambles. When you gotta rely on a blacksmith (Go Soo) to save the day, things are bad. Orders have become optional. It is clear that the poor have been thrown into the army with little training or supplies. They are expendable as the court tries to preserve the “dignity” of the king. The military leaders needlessly sacrifice them in one ill-fated military strategy after another, and they are simply not even seen as part of the effort to defend the nation.

At the same time, virtue exists in the fortress. There are several impassioned exchanges between Choi Myung Kil (Lee Byung Hun) and Kim Sang Hun (Kim Yoon Seok), who represent two totally different points of view, each of which have their own merits. Quiet and kind of soft-spoken, Choi desperately wants all of them to survive, even if that means capitulating to the Qing. Ride or die, Kim would choose death over dishonor. Outside the council chamber, the two are friends, and inside the chamber they try to stem the wave of cray from the other officials. But it doesn’t seem to be enough.

The Fortress is a great film about difficult decisions and less-than-stellar options.


“[USA & Canada] Lee Byung-hun in “The Fortress” October 20 in U.S. and Canada.” Han Cinema. 22 Sept 2017.–canada-lee-byung-hun-in-the-fortress-october-20-in-u-s-and-canada-110392.html (6 May 2018).

“He’s Different”: The Man From Nowhere (2010)

Won Bin

It’s not often that I say this, but you have to forgive me. I have been avoiding Won Bin like I owe him money. You know how everyone else goes on about a person, and just to be contrary, you stay far away? Yeah, that was me and Won Bin. Please forgive me. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, I have been seeing Won Bin before, and just didn’t know it. He was looking at me the whole time. Oh, he didn’t look like he does in The Man From Nowhere, no, that would have been too easy. Won Bin is in one of my favorite Korean movies, Guns and Talks.

He is also in Mother. Maybe I was focusing too much on the mother, which, if you’ve seen the film, isn’t hard to do.

If you’ve seen either one of those, you KNOW that he’s not performing in quite the same way as he does in The Man From Nowhere. So I was very surprised to see him in this film directed by Kim Jeong Beom. Yes, it’s a story of revenge, which the Koreans do so well. And it is well shot. The action scenes are very stylish as well, very well done. What I appreciated about this film is that it just put you in the middle of the story, not really connecting the dots until well into the film. This is refreshing, because there are few things worse than knowing what is going to happen.

What I found interesting about the film, though, was Won Bin’s character (and this has nothing to do with those shots of him with no shirt on–let’s focus on his acting ability! 😉  Increasingly, I’m finding male protagonists, in so-called action dramas, being allowed to be more emotional.  Cha Tae Sik isn’t a mindless killing machine. He doesn’t just snap one day. The film does a very delicate job of setting him up as an emotional man, albeit one with special ops training. And the set up isn’t as obvious as it could be.  The tender object of his emotion is a little street urchin who lies and steals. But she grows on you, and on Tae Sik. He also feels responsible for her, even before the horrific events that send them spiraling into the brutal world of illegal trafficking in organs and drugs. Her presence is even more tension-filled if you’ve watched Asian films before. Kids are not off-limits; they are not safe. So when crazed guy gets a hold of her, you can’t be sure that things are going to turn out ok.

I also found the interesting weaving of themes of immigration into this film.  It does matter that people are Chinese or Korean in this film, and provides another interesting layer for me. The dynamics place the Chinese as the marginalized people, on the fringes, where no one seems to notice that things are awry. They become the perfect victims in the illegal trade.

I liked this movie. I know it may not be fashionable to say so, but it was a good “first” introduction to Won Bin. 🙂

Photo Credits:

Video Credits:
Guns & Talks Trailer,

Mother Trailer,

Oldboy (2003)

I was eating my breakfast this morning, and it just popped into my head: Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Just like that. It’s been a few years since I saw that movie, but it’s kinda hard to forget it. I have it on good authority that the brains of some people have been irreversibly altered by watching it. Everyone remembers sitting on the edge of the couch, the bed, or wherever you consume your film, with one’s mouth open. JUST OPEN! And you are thinking, wha? NO! For REAL! WHAT?!

But it’s not just the ending, it’s the way Park leads you down the false primrose path.This is one of the greatest instances of storytelling I’ve seen in a minute. And making that storytelling even more effective is Park’s use of the camera. I mean, at some point you know something’s WRONG, but you don’t know how WRONG it is until the end. And even then, your brain doesn’t want to accept it. And you can’t figure out who is MORE wrong: the guy who has been inexplicably locked in a room for 15 years, or the guy who does it.

Also, this movie messes with your moral sense. Sure, you can readily identify the complete failure of ethics, the lack of people doing the right thing.But admit it,  you’re also thinking to yourself: I’m a little bit impressed. OK, you gotta be a LOT impressed. This is the epitome of PERSISTENCE! Just sayin’.

And finally, it’s the film that gives much deserved respect to the hammer!

One of These Things Just Doesn’t Belong: The Good, The Bad and the Weird (2008)

Let me preface this by declaring my love of the quirky, dark Korean movie.  I loved the dysfunction of The Quiet Family (1998), and the domestic hitman vibe of Guns and Talks (2001). So I’m thinking I’m going to like The Good, The Bad and The Weird.  It’s seems to have so much going for it. C’mon, gunslinging Koreans in Manchuria!  Byung-hun Lee AND Kang-ho Song from Joint Security Area!  A bounty hunter and a treasure map!

And yet, it’s missing something, some Korean goodness that makes a quirky Korean film…..well, quirky.  Quite frankly, I was bored. YES, bored watching a Korean movie!!!!  Is that even possible?  It had high production value; it’s a well-made movie technically -speaking. But I just couldn’t care less about the plot or the characters. I stopped this thing twice before getting through it.  Now, I know all Korean films are not quirky, dark comedies or tense dramas or crazy action.  This isn’t any of those, but it’s not much of anything else. I just can’t put my finger on it, but I can sum it up:  not good, just bad and weird!

Haeundae (2009): We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat!

I confess, I love disaster movies (actual disasters, not so much).  But disaster movies are not all about the big spectacle.  Sure, we expect to see buildings fall and cars get swept away, but the only way we care about the big spectacle is because of the small spectacle.  I’m talking about the dysfunctional personal relationships that accompany any good disaster movie.  And Haeundae has them aplenty!

Haeundae puts some tragedy up front, but Korean movie fans know to expect that the small spectacle that is the family dynamic, and Haeundae does not disappoint.  I know Koreans have very loving family relationships, but if films like Haeundae, The Host, and The Quiet Family are any indication, those relationships can also be pretty off the chain!  And yet Haeundae works its magic, because you care about the alcoholic brother wracked with guilt, the workaholic scientist whose warnings go unheeded (another must in the disaster film), the hapless lifeguard who gets swept up in the bizarre beach drama among college students.  Otherwise, when the big wave comes, they’d just be a bunch of folk who can’t swim.