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Acclaimed “The King and the Clown” director Lee Joon Ik returns with “Battlefield Heroes”, the follow up to his hit 2003 debut “Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield”. The film serves up more of the same, continuing the 7th century historical saga which basically plays out like “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in Korean as an ensemble cast struggle against each other for the right to rule the peninsula. Most of the original stars return, including Jung Jin Young (who also worked with the director on “Sunny” and “The King and the Clown”), Lee Moon Shik (“A Bloody Aria”) and Hwang Jung Min (“The Unjust”) with Ryu Seung Ryong (“Blades of Blood”), Yoon Je Moon (“Mother”), Sun Woo Sun (“Woochi”), and Running Man’s Lee Kwang Soo also appearing.
The film takes place eight years after the events of the original, with the kingdom of Shilla continuing the alliance with Tang China which helped it to defeat Baekje, in order to attack the larger Goguryeo. Led by master strategist Kim Yoo Shin (Jung Jin Young), Shilla lays siege to Pyongyang Castle, while Goguryeo’s top warrior and general Nam Geon (Ryu Seung Ryong) attempts to rally his defences, undermined by his traitorous brother Nam Saeng (Yoon Je Moon), who is trying to cut a deal with the enemy. Meanwhile, dogged survivor Thingy (Lee Moon Shik) finds himself being bounced between the two armies as he desperately tries to stay alive and win the heart of Goguryeo sword maiden Gap Sun (Sun Woo Sun). Although the tide appears to be moving in Shilla’s favour, it soon becomes apparent that Tang China may have plans to seize the day, and indeed the nation, for itself.
As should be obvious from this surface-skimming synopsis, there’s really a great deal going on in “Battlefield Heroes”, with a huge cast of characters and a never-ending of stream of schemes and shifting allegiances. As with “The King and the Clown”, the film’s biggest asset is Lee Joon Ik’s skill as a storyteller, as he manages to successfully bring together its many strands, weaving them into a compelling and entertaining whole. Although the film does take a little while to find its feet, with the opening half hour or so being a touch confusing, leaping around between its various characters and factions, it really picks up speed, and once its battlefields, both psychical and psychological have been staked out it rattles along at a fast and focused pace. What makes the film so delightful and so different from other period set war outings, is that it revolves around the down to earth concerns of the rank and file and conscripted men rather than just the mighty heroes and generals. Survival is very much top of the agenda rather than glorious victory, and the film is pleasingly free of forced motivational speeches, with its characters often formulating their strategies to try and avoid bloodshed rather than simply charging headlong into battle.
Lee Joon Ik balances these complexities with a winning sense of humour and a neat line in satire. The film is certainly very funny, and never loses sight of the essential madness of the cycle of conflict which the kingdoms continually find themselves trapped within. This fits very well with the film’s fast moving narrative, and though at times it does threaten to spiral out of control, Lee keeps a firm hand on the helm throughout. The film’s comedic elements mainly revolve around Lee Moon Shik’s everyman Thingy, whose fate sees him being thrust into increasingly difficult situations, and who acts as an anchor for the viewer, with much of the drama unfolding from his perspective. This also adds to the film having a different feel, and in its grounded, earthy approach it resembles early Kurosawa works such as “The Hidden Fortress” in particular, at least in terms of tone.
None of this is to say that Lee neglects the action quotient, and whilst eschewing the kind of grandiose epic staged clashes usually seen in the genre he does deliver plenty of battlefield action. The film was a big budget affair, and as well as handsome production values and costumes, this certainly shows during its set pieces, with the scenes of Shilla and Tang China attacking Pyongyang Castle being spectacular and exciting, with engines of war hurling rocks at each other over the heads of the clashing soldiers, and various cunning plans being put into play, even involving the use of bees. At the same time, the film’s battles never lose sight of the characters and their fates, and are all the more powerful for their ever present human element.
This is true of “Battlefield Heroes” as a whole, and it’s Lee Joon Ik’s craftsman-like touch which really sets it above other period set war outings. Skilfully combining drama, intrigue, humour and action, it has far more to offer than the average blockbuster, both in terms of intelligence and fun.
Jun-ik Lee (director) / Cheol-Hyeon Jo, Oh Seung-Hyeon (screenplay)
CAST: Jin-yeong Jeong … Kim Yoo-Sin
Mun-shik Lee … Thingamajig
Seung-yong Ryoo … Nam-Geon
Je-mun Yun … Nam-Saeng
Woo-seon Seon … Gap-Soon
Kim Min-Sang … Thingy