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Once Upon a Time on a Battlefield
September 2004 SITE MAP   SEARCH

Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield

cast: Jung Jin-young, and Park Joong-hoon

director: Lee Jung-ik

101 minutes (unrated) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Cinema Service DVD Region 3 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
Amongst the variety of productions mostly with contemporary backgrounds shown at the NY Korean Film Festival 2004, one historical period piece stood-out: Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield (aka: Hwangsanbul) directed by Lee Jun-ik, his first effort in the genre. Lavishly produced by Korean standards and a box office hit in its country of origin, this picture uses real events to inspire clever political/social satire on an epic scale.

Set in the 7th century AD during the Korean peninsula's division into three perpetually warring kingdoms, Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield focuses on the ruler Kim Choon-chu of the Shilla region's efforts to conquer his rivals: Koguryo and Baekche. To achieve this goal, he allies with mainland China's T'ang empire, the superpower of the era, and together the two polities plan to attack first the weakest principality Baekche at its main fortress of Hwangsanbul, guarding the only easy access to the mountainous interior.

When T'ang's naval fleet arrives at Baekche's western coast, that area's fearful king and his ministers, anticipating imminent attack by the Chinese and Shilla joint forces under the command of wily General Kim Yu-sin (Jung Jin-young), call upon the realm's great lords to prepare their armies. The elites, angered by royal corruption and tax burdens, refuse to comply with the loyal exception of General Kye Baek (Park Joong-hoon). This worthy agrees to lead the defence for the king after a formal and symbolic ritual in which the monarch personally serves Kye Baek three cups of wine - a great honour. Before reporting for duty and knowing his troops face near hopeless odds against far more numerous foes that will despoil and pillage his homeland, anguished Kye Baek slays his wife and two small children to prevent them from suffering a far worse end. Then Kye Baek races to make a stand at Hwangsanbul, strategically defending the only way to the sovereign's palace beyond a plain between naturally, formidably steep terrain.

Baekche, fielding 5,000 men to Shilla's 50,000, seems to be facing a foregone conclusion. Shilla, meanwhile, in order to cement its alliance with T'ang, has to pay tribute - which must be transported through yet-to-be-conquered Baekche before a tight deadline, or else lose powerful support. The two sides thus feel highly justified in their hostilities yet the underdog proves surprisingly stubborn, resisting against several Shilla incursions with time running out for bringing tribute to T'ang coming ever closer. The intense pressure forces Shilla's General Kim Yu-sin to shrewdly and ruthlessly recruit the Hwarang youths of the elite royal cadets to serve in harm's way on the front lines to increase the challenge to Baekche soldiers. Further Shilla tactics include: archaic-looking versions of cheer-leading and pep rallies; lewd verbal taunts and physical gestures such as mooning; spies that fail to obtain any useful information; and, during a temporary lull, a living 'chess' game acting out the two competing generals' moves, the result being that forfeit 'pieces' get killed.

This film portrays a clash and its outcome that, historical records tell us, ironically proved to be only one incident in a raging conflict that would drag on for another six decades. Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield might not be the laugh-fest the promotional material comparing it to Monty Python And The Holy Grail would indicate, but the film does effectively use satirical dialogue, physical comedy and images to examine the insane folly of war. Much of the humour depends on misunderstandings due to regional, age-old (Kyongsangdo / Chollado accents) and dialect differences between the opposing factions, verbal nuances that definitely get lost in the subtitle translations. The wit in the sight gags and facial expressions does come across clearly and provides plenty of enjoyment on that level.

Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield deserves to be seen by culture vulture, historical epic fans, for this film really dazzles with its magnificent costumes and armour, extensive sets, scenic vistas, clever CGI scenes of fleets of ships, and exciting battle scenes not as bloody as some but with lots of realistic martial arts involving swords, spears, archery, catapults, cavalry charges - all accompanied by an excellent, eclectic score by Oh Seok-jun blending dramatic music with occasional rockin' beats adding contemporary appeal.

The production reveals the consequences of war, tragically affecting the upper echelons and even more so the regular guys - foot soldiers and infantry. The superb lead performers (big stars in Korea), portray believable, compelling characters in their roles as antagonistic leaders of each side with many vivid supporting players adding much interest and doing creditable jobs. This film not only illumines significant events in Korean history, it also illustrates the sameness of the flaws and the virtues of human nature everywhere, transcending time, place and culture in a rousing entertainment. Thanks to beautiful cinematography by Ji Gil-woong and spectacular production values and performances, Once Upon A Time In A Battlefield does produce that thrilling feeling of being the next best thing to having a time machine - cinematic fun and excitement with substance!

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