One of the most impressive casts of the year lines up in the austere and languid period siege drama The Fortress.
Led by Lee Byung-hun, Kim Yun-seok and Park Hae-il, performances are strong all around in this magnificently shot and movingly scored but admittedly unhurried meditation on the nature of duty and hierarchy in Korean society. Heavy on political metaphors, this powerful film has found favor with local critics but may prove difficult for the uninitiated.
Set during the Qing Invasion of Korea in the year 1636, the film focuses on the beleaguered King of the Joseon Empire, who has retreated to the Namhan Fortress, where he receives counsel from his closest advisors while 150,000 Chinese troops wait them out beyond the fortress’ walls. When a proposal arrives from the general of the Qing army that would see the Crown Prince sent out as a hostage, the King’s interior minister urges him to protect his people despite the potential humiliation, while his minister of rites pushes him to fight and preserve their honor.
More in line with his probing abuse drama Silenced than his most recent fantasy family drama Miss Granny, director Hwang Dong-hyuk takes the biggest gamble of his career for his fourth film, based on an acclaimed novel by Kim Hoon. The Fortress is a contemporary rumination on the fate of the ordinary Korean citizen at the hands of greater powers, whose actions are predicated upon ideals of honor and shame but whose intentions are more often than not born out of self-interest.
Early on, Kim Yun-seok’s character, Minister Kim, who argues that they stand and fight, demonstrates his ruthlessness when he cuts down an old peasant. The subject helped the king cross a frozen river but says he would do the same for the enemy were they to pay their way across. The minister offers to take him and his ward to the fortress for protection but the old man refuses, and his practical reasoning obliges him to brandish his sword in order to obstruct the path of the invaders.
Lee Byung-hun’s Minister Choi is the pacifist who believes that the king should do everything to negotiate with the Chinese forces, as the prospect of war would spell certain doom for the people. He’s so committed to his ideals that he would readily offer his head, which many of his colleagues ask for when his suggestions shame the honor of the court.
King Injo, played by Park Hae-il as a monarch who is at turns phlegmatic and indecisive, grapples with the counsel he receives, balancing the lives of the people and the image of the kingdom. Injo, who ruled during both of the Manchu Invasions of the 17th century, has been recorded in history as a weak and indecisive leader who wrecked the Joseon economy and greatly tarnished its legacy.
Between these three central characters, as well as a coterie of retainers concerned with self-preservation and a smattering of stoic characters suffering from their decrees beyond the fortress walls, Hwang gives us what amounts to both a detailed history lesson and a sobering and devastating allegory for modern Korean politics.
The film’s slow pace includes a wealth of long discussions, which despite their dry nature, are terrific showcases for Lee Byung-hun and Kim Yun-seok, who deliver the most sober performances of their careers. Both have excelled time and again in the past but much greater restraint is required of them here as they pull back from emotional extremes and confine themselves to the strict formalities of the king’s court. The subtleties of their inner struggles gradually reveal themselves through the brief glimpses beneath their characters’ veneers they allow us.
With such a difficult and slow tale to relate, director Hwang puts enormous responsibility in the hands of the various departments of his crew and the technical merits of the film are uniformly excellent.
Known for his memorable collaborations with Kim Jee-woon, which include A Bittersweet Life and last year’s The Age of Shadows, cinematographer Kim Jee-yong takes on a new challenge in The Fortress, which was shot mostly outdoors in winter. Austere and immediately gripping, Kim’s lensing makes extraordinary use of Korea’s unique landscape as well as its Joseon Era architecture and clothing. The stark angles of the fortress buildings and its halls contrast with the twisted trees and rolling scenery of the hills they are built on, while silhouettes walking along the walls cower beneath the clawing canopies of the dark forest.
Much of The Fortress is marked by hushed dialogue or silence but when mournful string and piano medleys do seep in, from Ryuichi Sakamoto (scoring a Korean film for the first time), they offer us an insight into the characters’ turmoil. The music is especially affecting at the end as it helps us to untangle the narrative’s complex moral quagmires.
One of the most topical and pertinent Korean films of the year, Hwang’s work uses its period setting like few others have in Korean cinema. Sadly, in telling such a difficult tale, what he has created doesn’t fall into the conventional parameters of big-budget entertainment and for viewers not intimately familiar with the cultural context from which it sprang, it may well be too great a leap.