The Low-Down: Set in 1920 Manchuria during Korea’s fight for independence from Japan, The Battle: Roar To Victory 봉오동 전투 zooms in on a 100-odd-men independence army comprising teenage soldiers, civilian fighters, farmers, and even bandits. Helmed by experienced stunt director Won Shin-yeon (Memoir Of A Murderer 살인자의 기억법), it’s a movie that will make you cringe because of the gore and violence more than feeling for the characters and its core message, much to its detriment. That said, the action set pieces are a spectacle.
The Story: Japanese elite military closes in on Korea’s remaining army fighting for their independence, several dispersed squads from various Korean states have to join forces to lure their enemies into a valley where numbers don’t matter. Lieutenant Jang-ha (Ryoo) is the commander of just 100-odd men to complete this mission. Alongside Jang-ha is sword maestro and war veteran Hae-cheol (Yoo) and bandit chief Byeong-goo (Jo). The Korean patriots have to play smart and make worthy sacrifices to get Major Yasukawa (Kitamura) and shrewd Lieutenant Kusanaki (Ikeuchi) into their trap before they get wiped out completely.
The Good: Director Won and crew’s decision to cast (mostly) authentic Japanese as the cruel conquerors (instead of forcing a few Jap-looking Koreans) proves to be quite effective as Kitamura (The Scythian Lamb 羊の木) and Ikeuchi (Ip Man 叶问) get a fair bit of dialogue to flex their acting muscles. Most of all, every skirmish or all-out battle is masterfully executed with a balance between practical and visual effects, creating genuine tension.
The Not-So-Good: Unfortunately, apart from the technical spectacle and some flashy fight sequences, The Battle is a mess of disjointed plot points and excessive exaggerations of our heroes’ invulnerability. The first two-thirds of The Battle is forgivable; however, the third act is almost like an entirely different film with some poorly-executed expositions. This reviewer’s biggest gripe is how a bunch of injured and worn-out men on foot outrun a massive battalion of elite soldiers on horses towards the end.
Top Names Wasted: The star line-up is dazzling: even the best of actors like multiple-award-winning Ryoo (Reply 1988 응답하라 1988, The King 더 킹, Believer 독전) and veteran actors Yoo (A Taxi Driver 택시 운전사) and Jo (Rampant 창궐) can’t make it up for bad character writing.
Flashy Sequences: Every fight between the conquerors and defenders is a marvel at what Korean cinema can now achieve with the right budget. The story might not be the best but the action is definitely impressive.
Recommended? Not quite, unless you have a soft spot for war setpieces. The Battle is neither a good war movie nor a feature for the sake of patriotism — it’s at best a film that is timely for the current anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea, and at worst a stunt director’s failed attempt at creating a coherent movie with just flashy action sequences.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars