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Ko - production in Busan
  • KIM Kwang-sik of THE GREAT BATTLE
  • by LEE Hwa-jung /  May 09, 2018
  • A Period Piece certainly, but a War Film above all

    The Great Battle reenacts the fierce 88-day battle led by YANG Manchun (ZO In-sung), the commander of the Ansi Fortress, against the Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty in the year 640. Despite having an army six times smaller than the Emperor's, YANG led his soldiers to victory by way of a clever maneuver, taking advantage of the strategic location of the fortress. This battle became an important episode in East Asia's History. Director KIM Kwang-sik, whose filmography includes My Dear Desperado (2010) and Tabloid Truth (2014), takes with this film his first shot at filming a period piece. With a total production cost of KRW 18 billion, The Great Battle definitely stands out as a unique blockbuster project.

    What interested you in talking about YANG Manchun’s victory?

    Historically, at that time, all battles and diplomatic relations were related to YEON Gaesomun, a powerful military dictator in the waning days of Goguryeo, one of the three Kingdoms of Ancient Korea. It was very unlikely that a General at the border like YANG Manchun could make a name for himself but he successfully repelled the attack of TANG Taizong, who was one of the most powerful emperors at the time. I find that story really intriguing. I’m fascinated by the character of YANG Manchun who, without any help from the state, had to protect the fortress from a Chinese invasion as well as prove he was not a traitor.

    There are very few Korean films that chronicle Goguryeo's battles. It must have been difficult for you to find relevant material.

    The only thing I could find about the Ansi Fortress battle was this: ‘Emperor Tang Taizong, conqueror of the world, fought at Ansi Fortress and was defeated.’ I had to fill in the blanks using my own imagination to make this film, like some kind of restoration work. The core of the battle was the fortress' siege and that's why I focused my research on battles where castles had to be defended, from the Goguryeo era to the Joseon dynasty. I also looked at similar cases in Western history. The pre-production alone took me about a year.

    Along with The Fortress (2017) that was released last year, big-scale, historical action films have been on the rise lately. What sets The Great Battle apart from other films?

    I approached the film as a ‘historical action movie’. Although the story is set in the past, it’s very much a war film. Previously made historical action films would focus, for the most part, on characters and would unveil the battle scenes towards the end, but in this film, the characters are dropped in the midst of the war. When I was writing the script, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to embody those characters caught up in the war, and tried to convey what could happen to people should they come to face a war situation.

    How is Ansi Fortress depicted in the film?

    During pre-production, I visited the remains of the Ansi Fortress in Manchuria. Historical records describe it as an impregnable fortress surrounded by mountains but in reality, what is assumed to have been Ansi Fortress stands on a flat land with low walls. It is unlikely that this place would have lasted a day against a foreign invasion. The purpose of the film does not lie in ascertaining historical evidence as realistically as possible but in portraying Goguryeo Era's spirit. That's why the fortress in the film is designed to show some of the most unique characteristics of Goguryeo. I referred to the Hwando Fortress, constructed during the reign of King Yuri, to design Ansi. Although originally built to protect, it retained a few offensive features that corresponded perfectly to the historical descriptions of the Ansi Fortress. The outside of the citadel was designed in the style of Goguryeo’s ongseong (curved guard bastions), which means it is protected on three sides by piled up rocks in the way of Scottish cliffs.

    Depicting the battle at Yodong Fortress must have been a great challenge. I believe it is key to the film’s success.

    There are four big battle scenes in total – a large-scale action sequence involving people on horseback, 2-3 sieges, and the final battle – and each one of them is based on a different concept. There were 30-40 horses and over 200 extras present every day on the set. Even though it’s a period film, I wanted to give it a modern feel so I had recourse to a lot of special artillery equipment.

    Along with ZO In-sung in the lead role, you worked with a relatively young cast that includes PARK Sung-woong (YI Se-min), NAM Joo-hyuk (Samul) and UM Tae-goo (Paso).

    According to actual historical records, YEON Gaesomun was 38 years old when he came to power. YI Se-min was 40 and YANG Manchun in his early 30s. The idea was to make a war film set in a past era but with a focus on young people. There was hardly any information on YANG Manchun, except for the fact that he was a commander at the frontier and that he was on bad terms with YEON Gaesomun. I created the character from there and adjusted his way of speech and other characteristics after consulting with ZO In-sung.
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