The Fortress Movie Review
Written by Ryan Holloway
Released by CJ Entertainment
Directed by Dong-hyuk Hwang
Written by Kim Hoon (novel) and Dong-hyuk Hwang
2017, 139 minutes, Not Rated
Released on May 1st, 2018
Byung-Hun Lee as Choi Myung-gil
Yoon-Seok Kim as Kim Sang-heon
Hae-il Park as King Injo
Soo Go as Seol Nal-soe
Hee-soon Park as Lee Shi-baek
Based on the novel Namhansanseong by Kim Hoon, The Fortress charts the 17th-century invasion of Korea by an army of China’s Qing Empire. The Joseon King Injo hides away in his mountain fortress city as his retainers attempt to talk a way out of the war. The Qing Dynasty attempts to force Injo to negotiate but he insists that his men, despite the freezing cold conditions, keep on fighting.
Director Dong-hyuk Hwang is no stranger to working with material based on real-life events after his hard-hitting 2011 film Silenced, a horrific story about the sexual abuse of students by their teachers in South Korea. With The Fortress, Hwang clearly once again has a huge respect for the subject matter and has set out to create something of a visual masterpiece.
The acting is very strong with a stand out performance coming from Byung-Hun Lee (Terminator Genisys, The Magnificent Seven) as Choi Myung-gil, a tortured soul who is charged with being a key negotiator between his King and the Qing Empire.
What really stings is that while the film’s sweeping, beautiful scenery is something to behold and the performances are as strong as any you will see on screens this year, The Fortress is sadly let down by a confusing set of overlapping narratives that stretch the film’s running time and the viewers patience a little too thinly. We move so quickly between the Qing Empire’s camp, the Joseon’s fortress, a group of soldiers fearing for their survival in the cold and a bittersweet story about an abandoned young girl being taken in by her grandfather’s murderer that it becomes a little dizzying.
Split into a 10-part series, this could have been a must-see binge watch but it just asks too much of its audience.
Much of the film is based in the mountain top fortress where King Injo and his loyal subjects talk about strategy. With military leaders making decisions based more on pride and honour than logic and care for the thousands of freezing men on the front line it is left to men like Choi Myung-gil and Minister of Rites Kim Sang-heon, played quite brilliantly by Yoon-Seok Kim, to subtly put forward their own strategies even if its puts their heads literally on the line.
In between the endless scenes of passionate debate there are, however, some very impressive battle scenes that don’t stray too far into gore but are brutally realistic.
There are also some beautifully played scenes of humanity amidst the strategising with the best coming from Yoon-Seok Kim, who we see slaughter an old man when he threatens to transport the enemy towards the fortress. When he realises that he has left a young girl with no guardian he is forced to take her in and raise her. This dark secret eats away at him during the film and guides his many difficult decisions as war rages on.
Soo Go also adds the human drama as Seol Nal-soe, a blacksmith who fights for the Joseon cause. His younger brother, who is also forced to fight, dreams of one day getting married. Their sub-plot adds great gravity to the film, as Nal-soe is trusted with getting information to allies of the Joseon King.
All in all The Fortress is frustrating in that it looks every bit the masterpiece but is just too long and doesn’t hit hard enough on pacing, thus leaving you feeling a little like the poor soldiers out in the cold.