It would be unfair, but not altogether inaccurate, to say audiences will undergo an ordeal only slightly less punishing that the one suffered by the folks on screen as they watch Hwang Dong-Hyuk’s “The Fortress,” a vividly detailed but exceedingly ponderous historical epic about the 17th-century invasion of Korea by an army of China’s Qing Empire. As King Ingo of the Joseon Dynasty and his loyal subjects remain ensconced in a mountaintop fortress while besieged by Qing forces, a combination of freezing temperatures, starvation and rash miscalculations by prideful military leaders systematically increase the body count. By contrast, viewers only have to worry about being seriously brain-fogged, if not bored to death, as the often confusing narrative sluggishly progresses.
Top-billed South Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun (familiar to North American audiences for his appearances in the “Magnificent Seven” remake and the “G.I. Joe” film franchise) underplays to a fault as Choi Myung-gil, the taciturn minister of the interior who dearly wishes to avoid a war he fears King Ingo (Park Hae-il) is ill-prepared to wage. He advocates for a policy of appeasement, even though if necessitates turning over the king’s young son to the Qing invaders as a hostage.
But minister of rites Kim Sang-heon (Kim Yoon-seok) takes a far more bellicose stance. He insists that King Ingo pit his outnumbered forces against the invaders so as not to besmirch the national honor of Korea.
Right from the start, it’s clear Kim speaks for the majority of the king’s advisers, a rabid bunch of war-mongers who feel no sacrifice is too great when it comes to defending their country. That is, not too great just as long as they’re not the ones actually doing the sacrificing. At one point, the prime minister issues commands to redirect supplies intended for the freezing and underfed soldiers to feed horses that will be needed for cavalry charges. When the horses wind up being slaughtered so the troops can be fed, the incensed minister very nearly executes a jeering soldier to maintain “military discipline.”
Every so often, though not nearly often enough, writer-director Hwang Dong-Hyuk (working from a novel by Kim Hoon) livens up “The Fortress” with graphically violent and impressively well-choreographed battle scenes. And he manages to generate some mild suspense by suggesting there may eventually be some sort of karmic payback after an elderly boatman is murdered to keep him from transporting Qing forces. (The unfortunate victim is survived by a cute granddaughter who makes her way into the mountain fortress.)
For the most part, however, “The Fortress” is a soporific grind that drearily alternates between scenes depicting screaming arguments among the king’s advisers (anger-fueled episodes that usually end with toadying lackeys reciting rote compliments like “Your majesty’s grace is immeasurable!”) and other scenes showing how miserable soldiers and civilians alike can be as they withstand dead-of-winter conditions without adequate clothing and food. “The Fortress” clocks in at 139 minutes, but feels much, much longer.