‘Dynasty Warriors’ isn’t a hard video game to pick up and play.
It only uses a total of three buttons: strong attack, light attack, and special attack, which can be mashed in different orders for a wide range of moves. Moreover, the enemies are practically designed to be slaughtered in mass numbers, so there is little chance of experiencing a frustrating death - it makes players feel invincible as they wade through the legions of opponents.
The core appeal of ‘Dynasty Warriors’ lies in the fact that it is a very cathartic game, and supreme satisfaction can be found in overcoming massive odds, clearing out vast armies of enemies and watching your K.O. count roll to over two thousand or more.
Channelling this catharsis and borrowing liberally from Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, Zack Snyder’s ‘300’ and John Woo’s ‘Red Cliff’, Kim Kwang-sik’s epic ‘The Great Battle’ features a lot of stuff that brings a smile to my dial: stylishly gory battle scenes, sumptuous cinematography and a non-stop pace that makes its lengthy 135-minute running time a breeze.
The film is loosely based on history when, during the Tang Dynasty, Chinese emperor Taizong attempted to conquer Goguryeo, a kingdom on the Korean peninsula. Standing between Taizong (Park Sun-Woong, ‘The Dude In Me’, ‘New World’), accompanied by his 200,000 troops, and the Goguryeo capital is the fortress of Ansi, which is defended by Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung, ‘A Frozen Flower’) and his ragtag crew of a few thousand. Manchun stands little chance in the face of Taizon’s imperial ambitions. The movie reenacts the legendary 88-day battle that his troops fought desperately against the superior Chinese Tang invaders.
And that’s not Manchun’s only problem! His rival in the capital, General Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-seong), has labelled Manchun as a traitor for failing to aid in a disastrous early campaign against the Tang army and sent an assassin to take him out. The assassin is a young cadet named Sa-mul (Nam Joo-Hyuk), whose brother is killed in the ferocious eight-minute battle scene against the Tang that opens the film.
Sa-mul has to insinuate himself within Manchun’s circle of gnarly warrior friends to achieve his mission, and it doesn’t take long for him to question his orders. Manchun proves to be a kindly and charismatic leader who long ago earned the respect of his troops. As much as the walls fortify them against invaders, Manchun is the heart of the fortress and emboldens them to face insurmountable odds.
Director Kim Kwang-shik’s previous dramatic films like ‘Tabloid Truth’ and ‘My Dear Desperardo’ never hinted at his impressive talent for widescreen, CGI-embellished action choreography. It’s especially notable considering the budget of ‘The Great Battle’ is only around one seventh of Zhang Yimou’s nationalist fantasy ‘The Great Wall’, a film which revised history to propose that the Great Wall of China was actually built as a defence against a colony of spike-toothed, green-blooded lizard aliens that crashed into Inner Mongolia on a meteorite sometime around the eighth century BC.
Little is known about the actual siege of Ansi Fortress, as ‘The Great Battle’ is based on long-forgotten ancient history, so the director employs his imagination to fill in the blanks. Was Manchun a suave one-man killing machine with a sorceress ex-girlfriend? Did he have a team of suicidal sappers and an all-female squad of death-dealing crossbow warriors in his army? Was he able to hold back the Tang forces by rolling flaming wheels at them?
‘The Great Battle’ is so full of sweeping, cinematic blitzkriegs that I easily could have watched a three-hour version.
Sure, why not.
The trade-offs for historical accuracy are some magnificent battle sequences, astonishing hand-to-hand combat scenarios, macho psychology, virtuous heroes facing impossible odds, and lots of aerial shots of massive armies lined up to the horizon. It all swirls together in an operatic mix - the sheer size, scope and splendour of this war epic is breathtaking to behold, channelling the spirit of Akira Kurosawa in story and grandeur. Setting new standards in Korean action films, Kim and cinematographer Nam Dong-geun used Sky Walker, a robotic camera arm, high-speed Phantom cameras and other cutting-edge filming devices to assemble glorious, nail-biting battle scenes.
‘The Great Battle’ rings with the echoes of such sweeping, cinematic blitzkriegs as the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’, and the masked Immortals versus Spartans in ‘300’. There are weapons with such names as Malevolent Wood and Wolf Teeth. In fact, everything in the movie is so big, noisy and fun that I easily could have watched a three-hour version.
Kim makes time for a little character development, and a smidgen of a love story, but none of it gets in the way of the spear-skewering, beheading and other assorted medieval mayhem. Bae Sung-Woo, Park Byung-Eun and Oh Dae-Hwan have strong supporting roles as Manchun’s lieutenants, although they don’t get much of an introduction or any backstory, which is too bad from a basic storytelling standpoint. Jo In-sung stands out as the lord of Ansi - his character is improbably young, humble and benevolent but also shrewd, courageous, and heroic on the battlefield. Joo-Hyuk does a solid job of showing this conflict of duty and a growing admiration for Manchun.
The one thing that ‘The Great Battle’ is very good at is spectacle. With over half the movie consisting of action scenes, if you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino, a video-game-playing teenage boy or me, you will be endlessly fascinated.