Hwang Dong-hyuk's South Korean historical epic "The Fortress," a grim look back at the infamous 1636 siege of a mountain stronghold, is so evocative that by the end viewers may be as cold and hungry as the movie's cast of courtiers.
Based on Kim Hoon's novel "Namhansanseong," "The Fortress" covers the crisis faced by the Joseon dynasty when its historical alliance with China's Ming government was challenged by the emergence of the Manchu Qing. When the latter sent armies to force Korea's King Injo into line, the royal family and its aides retreated to the chilly hills.
The king (played by Park Hae-il) soon realizes he's effectively imprisoned his people in a fort that lacks the supplies to survive the winter. He turns to two trusted advisors: Choi Myung-kil (Lee Byung-hun), who believes they have an obligation to the citizenry to surrender, and Kim Sang-hun (Kin Yoon-seok), who wants to fight.
The battle scenes here are impressively large-scale, but too sparsely deployed. A good two-thirds of this movie consists of miserable-looking people quietly debating their terrible options, which can be exhausting.
Still, by fostering an intimate understanding of what these historical figures went through, Hwang has given purpose to a story about hopelessness. The situation in "The Fortress" comes to a sad end. But it's just one chapter in our ongoing human story.
In Korean with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Playing: CGV Koreatown, Los Angeles