[KING AND THE CLOWN SPECIAL] 황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield)

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They call them 각본 없는 드라마. Dramas without a script, as life can often be more dramatic than a work of fiction itself. Sports offer those moments all the time, events that make you feel like something bigger, a strange kind of force is influencing things in ways that would make a great film -- just think about Zidane and the World Cup Final. But if you don't care about sports, then there are other similar situations. Think of politics, elections in particular. The US might have had the biggest Drama of the decade in that sense, with the elections awarding the win to President Bush over Gore, but whenever Presidential Elections take place in Korea, a singular fervour builds in the country.

Whereas the World Cup or similar events might bring the country together, whenever things like presidential elections happen, there's another divide within the Korean Peninsula, this time not between North and South, but between Eastern (영남, Yeongnam) and Western (호남, Honam) South Korea: regionalism. Watching all the chaos that ensues whenever ballots for an election have to be counted, a director with good ideas can always find something useful. It was right around the time when 아나키스트 (Anarchists) was in pre-production, and longtime partners Lee Joon-Ik and Jo Cheol-Hyeon were sitting at home, watching left and right wing argue over ballots for the election which crowned Kim Dae-Joong as President, beating the other (conservative) candidate Lee Hoi-Chang.

It felt as if the country was splitting into factions for a couple of weeks, bringing out all the tension accumulated over the years, displaying behavior they would usually find deplorable. What was even more surreal was seeing contenders and their supporters dressed in different colours: blue for the right wingers, green for the left. It was like a war, fought with words and propaganda instead of swords and spears. And it sort of reminded of an era long gone by, when what they now call Korean Peninsula was really divided into three states, the Three Kingdoms. Sure, any mature democracy always ends up showing those rivalries (how many elections end up with left or right wing candidates winning by a 3-4% margin?), but regionalism in Korea goes beyond simple politics and ideology.

While a lot of the blame for the growth of this sentiment might be pointed at the various Republics (before Kim was elected, all led by Presidents coming from the more conservative Yeongnam area, and often discriminating against the Western part of the country), especially during Park Jung-Hee's regime, it's something which was born over a thousand years earlier. Playing with history and how events of the past influence ideology today, Lee and Jo created what would become one of the pioneers of a new genre, the Fusion Drama. Giving a post-modern twist to ancient history; mixing Sageuk and black comedy tropes, and using 사투리 (local dialect) as its calling card, 황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield) was born.

Imagine this scene: a roundtable discussion between some of the most influential powers in the area. There's the dictator up North, with his aggressive and unpredictable behavior; the big power with a mandate from Heaven, trying to promote (or shove down their throats, pick your favourite) its will and world view, mentioning the country up North as part of an 'axis of evil.' The other two joining the party are the Western and Eastern part of the Peninsula's South.

While the Westerners condemn the Easterners for their alliance with the big foreign power, the Easterners support them with passion and criticize the Westerners for their diplomatic policy regarding their neighbour up North. Sounds familiar? No, it's not the six party talks, but the beginning of Lee Joon-Ik's second film. Yes, historically speaking that meeting could never happen, but it's a pretty effective portrait of the situation the Korean Peninsula found itself in during the 7th Century AD.

The big power would be Emperor Tai Zong of the Tang, the dictator up North Yeon Gaesomun -- yes, the same of the Sageuk airing right now on SBS -- of Goguryeo, while the two 'brothers' down South constantly fighting each other are Baekje's King Uija, and Kim Choon-Chu of Shilla. Which is a very interesting way to say that not much has changed in the last 1300 years. Many people tried to look at regionalism with a critical eye, using the Honam-Yeongnam divide and connecting it to recent historical events. But no film like Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield was able to get its satire right, entertain without necessarily taking sides, and create something this meaningful at the end. How can you not take sides in something so big, especially when you're Korean? By adding a little anarchism to the mix, philosophy (and the key is philosophy, there's nothing really political in there) which was also at the center of Lee's previous productive endeavor, Anarchists.

Although you wouldn't tell looking at the amount of recent productions, Sageuk was a staple of Korean Cinema ever since the beginning. The first sound film in Chungmuro's history was 춘향전 (The Tale of Chunhyang) in 1935, set in the Joseon Dynasty and telling one of the country's most famous folk tales. And, once again, it was a film telling the tale of Chunhyang that brought the industry back on track after the war, as 1955 marked the release of Lee Gyu-Hwan's 춘향전 (The Story of Chunhyang). Between the immediate post-war and the 60s' Golden Age, Sageuk was one of the most popular genres at the box office, dealing with a variety of subjects, from the usual Joseon figures and events (Jang Heebin, Prince Sado, the Imjin War) even to Shilla rulers. Although the amount of Sageuk produced during the 70s dramatically decreased, the spectrum of subjects was wide enough that films went from Goryeo (about its legendary founder Wang Gun) to Queen Min towards the end of the Joseon Dynasty.

What Lee Joon-Ik and Lee Jae-Yong of 스캔들 (Untold Scandal) have done, filtering historical events through layers of post-modern allegory, might be revolutionary in a sense. But that allegory had always been somewhat present in the past, sometimes in the form of thinly veiled criticism against the government, or even used by the government itself to make an impact with the public. Sageuk were often used to placate tension felt by the public, especially during the 70s, when films dealing with national heroes (Lee Soon-Shin, King Sejong and the like) sacrificing themselves for the nation were pushed by the government (complete with funding). Although you couldn't really call them propaganda films (it was history after all), they conveniently reminded of the Yushin policy in many ways.

The decline of big screen Sageuk in the 70s might have been caused by degrading quality, propaganda and related issues, but the biggest blow came from TV, where in a matter of a few years the first Golden Age of this new, exciting medium took many viewers away from theaters, to get their fix of Historical Dramas and other genres on the small screen, for free. Just to make a comparison, while hardcore Sageuk fans might be happy about being able to watch 2-3 of those shows at the same time nowadays, back then there were even Daily (!) Dramas using the Sageuk format. The traditional idea of Sageuk on the big screen started to die down, substituted by the first steps in the development of what would later become Lee's Fusion Dramas. Older Sageuk might have had bits of comedy and melodrama, but it mostly was about the historical events and little else.

On the other hand, the 80s saw a huge array of erotic Dramas using the Sageuk structure as a mere background. Although talented directors like Lee Jang-Ho and Lee Du-Young were able to carve interesting and intriguing stories out of those limitations, they majority of those films were content focusing on T&A, with the government complaining very little in terms of censorship as films of that kind were used to calm down the public, increasingly enraged about the society developing around them. They threw them a bone, so to speak. And I will stop there before that becomes a double entendre...

But while Untold Scandal should be praised for many reasons, it's Battlefield instead which in many ways was the most revolutionary film of the two. It didn't only mix things that at first sight wouldn't look compatible (Sageuk and plenty of swear words, allegorical parody mixed with more or less accurate historical rendition), but it sort of found the perfect middle ground for all the problems plaguing the peninsula back then just like now. History has always been written with a few central figures in mind, rarely considering people as important and almost always driving black and white lines when it comes they choices they make. So a film like 청연 (Blue Swallow) causes controversy, because brought up by that kind of historical education, people tend to go for black or white, pro or against Japan. They don't even stop one moment to consider the majority of people out there just choose what will: 1) protect their family; 2) put food on the table; 3) fulfill their dreams.

And that's the key. Battlefield isn't only about Baekje, Shilla and how their relationship with the Tang influenced the conflict. It's not only about central figures like General Kim Yoo-Shin, Gyebaek, King Uija and Kim Choon-Chu. It's about all the people who found themselves part of a faction, regardless of their ideological allegiance of if they wanted any part of it to being with. The film might have seemed like a new chapter in Cineworld's career, but looking at the themes and messages of the company's previous films -- all directed by different people mind you, but carrying the same sentiment -- you instantly find similarities.

In 간첩 리철진 (The Spy), North and South Korea are seen from a different angle, emphasizing relationships between people before what the country tells you to do (look at Park Jin-Hee's 'romance' with Yoo Oh-Sung). In Anarchists, although the characters have a clear political agenda and ideology (anarchism), they're eventually abandoned by both sides because they act with their people's interest in mind, they don't cater to leaders on either side of the political divide. Finally, Hi, Dharma presents two completely different ways of approaching life: gangsters and Buddhist Monks. But once the Senior Monk cuts through the ranks and emphasizes their relationship as a simple group of people, then they start getting closer. Sure, we're not talking about anything that will change the world. But throughout the years, the company's projects have shown a tendency to focus on people first, and think about politics, nations and all those things later.

Battlefield started in the minds of Cineworld's trio (Lee Joon-Ik, Jo Cheol-Hyeon, Jung Seung-Hye) around 6-7 years ago, as we mentioned before. The company was recovering from the 키드 캅 (Kid Cop) disaster, and working on Anarchists. Although the flop of the 2000 film was a big disappointment, Jo and Lee decided to deal with history once again, this time moving the clock back to Baekje's last days, the battle of Hwangsan (660 AD), which decided the fate of the Three Kingdoms.

The beginning of the friction between Baekje and Shilla had roots over 200 years before, around the late 4th Century AD. Back then Baekje was allied with the Gaya Federation, maintained its friendly relationship with Yamato (now Japan) and other small neighbouring confederations. Scared of their potentially expansionist plans, Shilla joined forces with Goguryeo - led by Gwanggaeto, the focus of MBC's early 2007 Sageuk 태왕사신기 (The Great King).

Always opportunistic, Goguryeo saw this brief alliance as a good chance to expand, as their capital needed to grow. With the Kingdom up North strategically moving its government near Pyeongyang, Shilla started smelling the roses, and formed a very shaky alliance with neighbouring Baekje. Goguryeo, the strongest of the Three Kingdoms in terms of military, had no problem trashing Baekje's capital Wiryeseong (now Seoul), which forced Baekje to retreat even further down South, and move its capital to Ungjin (now Gongju). After controlling most of the Southwest part of the Peninsula, between late 5th-early 6th Century, all that was left for Baekje were the current Jeolla and Chungcheong Provinces.

Baekje's King Seong quickly regretted his decision to move the capital to Ungjin, as the region was ridden with mountains, so in 547 AD he decided to move the capital again, this time to Sabi (now Buyeo), renaming Baekje as 남부여 (Southern Buyeo), to celebrate the Kingdom Baekje traced its origins from -- the same Buyeo predominantly featured in MBC's marvelous 주몽 (Jumong). Since this was one of their strongest periods of growth, Baekje looked a little more ambitious than usual. After re-establishing calm in the ruling class, King Seong tried once again to establish a pact with Shilla, this time to conquer back the land they lost to Goguryeo. Joining forces once again, Shilla and Baekje fought Goguryeo all over central Korea, taking control of the Peninsula's most fertile agricultural lands. The problem was that Shilla wasn't just after their own portion of land lost during past battles: they wanted more.

After betraying Baekje and pushing their troops out of the Han River area, Shilla expanded its territory even further, proving the alliance was just an utopia. It didn't take long for King Seong to retaliate, which ended in an untimely departure for the Kingdom's 26th ruler -- this would be the King played by Ahn Seok-Hwan at the beginning of 서동요 (The Ballad of Seo Dong). Over 120 years of 'alliance' between Shilla and Baekje vanished in ashes, and this created the long standing hatred between the two Kingdoms, which over the years slowly mutated into today's regionalism. Just like Ahn Sung-Gi's character in 태백 산맥 (The Taebaek Mountains) explains the divide between pro and anti-Communists in the late 40s as a battle for land above it all, the roots of this regionalism which is still engulfing the peninsula were born out of Shilla's desire to expand its territory. Because land meant power, over a Millennium ago just like today. Ask those living in Gangnam.

Now the key for Cineworld was not just following the steps which led to the Battle of Hwangsan, but to make the journey feel fresh in the eyes of Korean viewers, stuffed with books, films and Dramas about historical figures like Kim Yoo-Shin. Jo Cheol-Hyun started looking at the 삼국유사 (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms), 삼국사기 (Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms), Shin Chae-Ho's 조선상고사 (Ancient History of Korea), and other Japanese and Chinese sources about the Three Kingdoms. The problem now was finding someone to direct the project. Although 달마야 놀자 (Hi, Dharma) essentially saved the company from collapse, they still were quite a few Billion Won in the red, and couldn't go out and spend Billions left and right. Even in 2003, only 3.5 Billion Won to shoot a film with an important historical setting was a little too burdensome for most people. Still, Jo and Lee went through a brainstorming session for three long days, interviewing many potential prospects.

Many would refuse, scared by the size of the project, some felt the hilarious script was too much of a challenge for them. Perhaps the biggest name on the list was Jung Cho-Shin, director of 몽정기 (Wet Dreams). This was the first time the company tried to break from tradition, and 'outsource' their work to a director outside the Cineworld family. Actually before meeting Jung, Lee Joon-Ik was already thinking of directing the film himself, but perhaps because the demons of Kid Cop were starting to surface once again, investors wouldn't help. Looking at how he took a tired formula -- that of sexy comedies -- and filled it with nostalgia for the 80s, Lee decided to go for Jung, who even accepted his offer. But a project he was working on for several months, the 분단 (Divide) romcom 남남복녀 (Love: Impossible), had to eventually start shooting (the contract stated both month and day of crank in). Jung was pretty much forced by both the contract and his friendship with the film's producers to get out of Battlefield.

Finding himself without a director for one of the most important projects of his career, Lee once again opted for a drastic decision: directing the film himself. Just a little under 10 years since he started this unusual journey as film director, producer Lee Joon-Ik found himself back into the game which almost caused his company to collapse. But that was the smallest of his problems. 3.5 Billion Won might be very little money for a Sageuk, but without a solid cast then even that figure would be impossible to manage. Right from the initial casting the plan was for Jung Jin-Young to play Kim Yoo-Shin, and Park Joong-Hoon as Gyebaek. But then Jung had to shoot 와일드 카드 (Wild Card), and Park left for Hollywood to star in The Truth About Charlie, so everything had to be postponed one year, and even then nothing was set in stone, with Park wanting to take a break. It took Jung Seung-Hye to finally convince him to star in the film, which finally set the real battle in motion.

The original plan was to focus on Baekje's fall, which would inevitably involve the other Two Kingdoms but it would have put the focus on Gyebaek more than anyone else. Lee's idea was to focus on the sentiments of the ruling class and the people of a falling nation, in some ways like the Kamikaze jet fighters in WWII or the suicide bombers in the Iraq war. And focusing on Gyebaek alone would have been interesting already, but as they started investigating his final days, the figures involved in the Hwangsan Battle had such a strong impact that they finally decided to move to a broader canvass, involving Shilla's Kim Choon-Chu and Kim Yoo-Shin, along with Tang's Tai Zong. But, and here's the first real element of 'fusion,' they never tried to put historical research on top of their list of priorities. They wanted to use past history as a mirror to today's society. That's when the singular history of the Peninsula and how it ties to today's regionalism came into play, and the -- risky, but eventually successful -- decision to use local dialect to highlight the division was their first brilliant idea.

While Baekje, Goguryeo and Shilla spoke languages all coming from the same 'Altaic' family, there were clear differences between the three, and of course their mother tongues were only the first few traces of the language which would evolve into Korean. If you think about it, that situation also mirrors today's Korean: while someone from Jeolla Province will easily understand someone speaking in Gyeongsang Province dialect and the grammar is essentially the same, when it comes to tone, delivery and pronunciation we're still miles apart. It might not be as extreme as the Chinese situation, where one speaking Cantonese might actually have problems understanding Mandarin, but the difference was there. This war of colloquialism is one of the keys of the film's beginning: two spies from Baekje (Shin Hyun-Joon and Kim Seung-Woo in hilarious cameos) infiltrate a Shilla camp, trying to steal information about their enemy's next move.

The two 'test' their Shilla dialect skills before entering their mission, but then they start enjoying the mood, and commit a fatal mistake, ending their sentence in Jeolla Province (or, better, 'Baekje') dialect, which reveals their identity to the rival soldiers. A lot of the film benefits from the interplay between soldiers of different regions, from Kim Yoo-Shin of Shilla using Gyeongsang Province dialect to Gyebaek using Jeolla Province dialect -- and particularly King Uija (a predictably brilliant Oh Ji-Myung) using Chungcheong Province dialect. One of the major plot points of the film is when Shilla soldiers try to 'decode' one of Baekje's most difficult words, 거시기 (Geoshigi), which depending on the context can mean anything from 'it' to any verb, noun or even adjective.

Of course casting for the other characters needed not only good actors, but people who could pull off the dialects well, which was one of Lee Moon-Shik's calling cards into the film which paved the way for his cult status -- later even turning into leading roles, although in forgettable films like 공필두 (A Big Match). Another theater-trained actor, Lee started with bit roles ever since the mid 90s, in comedies like 돈을 갖고 튀어라 (Millions in My Account). He played petty gangsters [Lee Chang-Dong's 초록 물고기 (Green Fish)] and even 7/11 owners [Jang Sun-Woo's 나쁜 영화 (Bad Movie)], but his first real memorable role was probably in Jang Jin's The Spy, as one of the hilarious 'taxi kidnappers,' which started Lee's working relationship with Cineworld.

After that, you could say Lee's popularity grew also thanks to Cineworld works (of course he's responsible for his own success, but the roles he played were unique enough to leave an impression). He started playing Dae-Bong in 달마야 놀자 (Hi, Dharma), the ex-marine turned Monk, and had a truly memorable supporting role in 달마야, 서울 가자 (Hi, Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul). In Battlefield, he plays Geoshigi (the famous word we talked about before), a simple warrior who ends up facing something way too big for him. In one of the earlier scenes before the battles, the soldiers of both factions stage soccer-like chants and hurl insults at each other. But it's when Baekje's Trio of professional... curse throwers (?) appears that the rival soldiers can't take it anymore, after having to hear some of the most creative cursing in Korean film history. I never thought I'd watch a Sageuk with dozens of soldiers screaming insults like a chorus, beating their feet and spears on the ground.

But while Geoshigi becomes an important part of the film later on, the focus is mostly on three figures: Kim Yoo-Shin, Gyebaek and King Uija -- and tangentially also Tai Zong. General Gyebaek is a peculiar case, for starters because there's always been confusion on whether that was his family name (Gye Baek) or given name (Gyebaek), enough to result in comedy years later -- students ask Jung Joon-Ho in 투사부일체 (My Boss, My Teacher) if there's any famous figure named Gye, and he answers Gyebaek. But it was something else that set him apart, his confidence and passion on the battlefield. Most people go to war to defend and protect their families, but he didn't exactly follow that mantra. Very little is know about him, but one thing particularly stands out: the battle of Hwangsan was lost before it even started, as Baekje only had 5,000 soldiers against the Tang-Shilla alliance which attacked with at least 50,000. Even knowing he would die, he killed his wife and children to spare them from becoming slaves of the enemy, but also not to influence his conduct on the battlefield, and went into battle against an unbeatable foe.

Park Joong-Hoon was an interesting choice for the role. After scoring it big with Lee Myung-Se's 인정사정 볼것 없다 (Nowhere To Hide), Park fell into a slump. The years between 2000 and 2003 saw him trying to find some variety in a career which too frequently typecast him. First he tried melodrama, starring alongside Song Yoon-Ah in the low-key 불후의 명작 (A Masterpiece in My Life), which was watchable but nothing more. But then he chose the thriller 세이 예스 (Say Yes), and things got even worse. Despite featuring very good actors like Chu Sang-Mi and Kim Ju-Hyeok, the film collapsed into a symphony of over the top gore and characters never leaving first gear. Park was particularly bad, essaying one of his first true 'villains,' but with the subtlety of an elephant. He might have won praise for his second Hollywood film after American Dragons, starring alongside Matt Damon in The Truth About Charlie. But, at home, he still had to win his fans back.

I always felt Park became a star a little too late. When he started acting in the mid 80s, the industry was slowly evolving, with many interesting directors coming into the scene. His first really striking role was opposite Ahn Sung-Gi in Park Gwang-Soo's fantastic 칠수와 만수 (Chilsoo and Mansoo), but his choices after that -- including a rare attempt in the SF genre, 바이오맨 (Bio-Man) didn't really produce much. Park might be known for his comedy roles, but between 1990 and 1994 he showed how good an actor he can be. First Jang Sun-Woo's classic 우목배미의 사랑 (The Lovers of WooMookBaeMi), then Lee Myung-Se's lovely 나의 사랑 나의 신부 (My Love, My Bride) and again with Park Gwang-Soo's 그들도 우리처럼 (The Black Republic), Park showed his range and talent. But it took until 1993's 투 캅스 (Two Cops), paired again with Ahn Sung-Gi, to see real success.

After starring in the cult HK noir-ish Drama 게임의 법칙 (The Rules of the Game), Park's career essentially became the embodiment of typecasting. He continued with silly, over the top comedies like 마누라 죽이기 (How To Top My Wife), 돈을 갖고 튀어라 (Millions in My Account), 꼬리치는 남자 (The Man Wagging His Tail) and a sequel to the Two Cops franchise, which essentially did nothing to further his career. Perhaps his only highlight of the mid 90s was Kim Sang-Jin's 깡패수업 (Hoodlum Lessons), a Kitano-esque gangster comedy with a bittersweet streak. Becoming a star in the early to mid 90s, when commercial Korean films were probably at one of the lowest levels in decades, always influenced his career. It might not be masterful acting, but Park portrays Gyebaek with the energy of someone who needs to prove something, mixing the dignity of a leader with the silly black comedy roots of the character written by Lee Joon-Ik and Choi Seok-Hwan.

Even better is Jung Jin-Young, one of the country's most eclectic actors. Chungmuro and Jung met almost by accident, and until the late 90s, he mostly focused on his career on stage. But whenever he starred in films in the 90s -- like his role in Lee Chang-Dong's 초록물고기 (Green Fish) -- he always made an impact. Many would say his career making role was that of Eom Gi-Tak in 약속 (A Promise), starring alongside Park Shin-Yang and Jo Do-Yeon. Jung won awards for his performance, and slowly started becoming a lot more active in the business, with his roles in 킬러들의 수다 (Guns & Talks) and 달마야 놀자 (Hi, Dharma) particularly standing out. What's interesting is how, throughout his career, Jung has often played characters that start from a villain set up, but then he always ends up giving them an human touch. His Kim Yoo-Shin in Battlefield is no different.

General Kim was quite an interesting figure. He was already a 화랑 (hwarang, the flower youth, Shilla's most talented youngsters) by his mid teens, and a 국선 (國仙, Commander of the Hwarang) by the age of 18. But Kim wasn't your usual leader, and his mini-revolt against the Tang we see in the film actually happened -- or so say the pro-Shilla records. Kim always felt the Three Kingdoms should have been united, and he was one of the driving forces which led to Unified Shilla, albeit they lost a good portion of the Northern territories controlled by Goguryeo in the process.

Lee throws little facts about the Hwangsan Battle in the mix as well, like Shilla sending young Hwarang Gwangchang alone in front of Baekje warriors, boosting the soldiers' morale when he gets killed. Of course in the film we see dozen of them, and this event is used to make fun of family relations vis-a-vis the 'role' of warriors in a battle. But when you stop a moment and look at the film detaching yourself from the inner politics, the mirror to ancient history reminding of today's regionalism and so on, you notice something else. What Lee and Cineworld have done is essentially Korea's equivalent to Monty Python's films, like Monty Python and The Holy Grail. This is one of the first Korean films using a war setting to make comedy, especially considering most films of this kind have the Divide in mind. Just like the brilliant comedy group took King Arthur's legend as a foundation for their film, Lee was able to make a Sageuk for only 3.5 Billion Won, finally giving it a spin and looking at the painful history of the Peninsula with a relaxed, tongue in cheek atmosphere.

But then again, the film is not just a comedy. You might say it's just an inevitable feature of Korean films, that of turning comedies into something much more serious toward the end. But when Lee is done 'playing' with the contradictions of war, politics and history, he does leave a message, he never plays with the lives lost by people on the battlefield. He just capably balances the two sides of the coin that make history (comedy and tragedy), and lets all that unfold on the screen. You could say Lee doesn't show any particular style in terms of directing, that his visuals are average, but there's something that always emerges watching the films he directs or produces. First is that vaguely anarchist feeling, that of being above the concept of party, nation and against the kind of authority that leaves people's voice at the door. The second has nothing to do with ideology, and it's storytelling.

If I had to compare Lee to anybody, that'd be legendary K-Drama PD Lee Byung-Hoon of 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) and 서동요 (The Ballad of Seo Dong), or if you prefer a younger Im Kwon-Taek. Lee Joon-Ik directing a film is like Jung Doo-Hong doing action choreography: his style is having 'no style,' but he somehow manages to let his characters come alive, to push forward the narrative without intruding. Coming from someone who adores people like Lee Myung-Se, all about visuals and cinematic flow, liking someone like Lee Joon-Ik might sound like a contradiction. But, like Jang Jin, Lee overcomes his shortcomings in terms of showmanship as a director (which have to do with lack of experience more than anything, mind you), and focuses on the story itself, and the philosophy the film puts forward. Jang Jin does that through creative dialogue and bizarre situations, and Lee does it by taking outlines and characters which might seem conventional, but then letting all that 사람냄새 (smell of people) come out, making them interesting in the process.

Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield is certainly not a film for everyone, as its tepid reception overseas shows. If you can't at least notice the difference in inflection between dialects and/or don't know a little Korean history, this will just seem like a silly, low budget Historical comedy. But once you understand what Lee is trying to do, and bask in the brilliant allegory, the hilarious dialogue, and the characters that slowly grow out of their 'hero' caricature as the film goes on, then you'll probably enjoy it. I think it's one of the most underrated films of the decade, and just gallons of fun. And long live 거시기 (Geoshigi)...

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황산벌 (Once Upon a Time in the Battlefield)
HwangsanBeol [lit. The Hwangsan Duel]

Eagle Pictures/Cineworld - 2003

감독 (Director): 이준익 (Lee Joon-Ik)

출연 (CAST): 박중훈 (Park Joong-Hoon) as Gyebaek, 정진영 (Jung Jin-Young) as Kim Yoo-Shin, 이문식 (Lee Moon-Shik) as 거시기, 이호성 (Lee Ho-Sung) as Kim Choon-Chu, 김병서 (Kim Byung-Seo) as Palmae, 김윤태 (Kim Yoon-Tae) as Cheonjon, 안내상 (Ahn Nae-Sang) as Kim Beop-Min, 류승수 (Ryu Seung-Soo) as Kim In-Moon, 신정근 (Shin Jung-Geun) as Kim Heum-Soon, 전기광 (Jeon Gi-Gwang) as Kim Poom-Il, 정성화 (Jung Sung-Hwa), 우현 (Woo Hyun), 양진우 (Yang Jin-Woo)
특별출연 (CAMEO): 오지명 (Oh Ji-Myung) as King Uija, 이원종 (Lee Won-Jong) as Yeongae Somun, 김선아 (Kim Seon-Ah) as Gyebaek's Wife, 김승우 (Kim Seung-Woo) as Baekje Spy 1, 신현준 (Shin Hyun-Joon) as Baekje Spy 2, 전원주 (Jeon Won-Joo) as 거시기's Mother

제작 (Executive Producer): 이준익 (Lee Joon-Ik), 조철현 (Jo Cheol-Hyeon)
프로듀서 (PD): 오승현 (Oh Seung-Hyeon)
조감독 (Assistant Director): 이성호 (Lee Sung-Ho)
각본 (Screenplay): 최석환 (Choi Seok-Hwan), 조철현 (Jo Cheol-Hyeon)
촬영 (Cinematography): 지길웅 (Ji Gil-Woong)
조명 (Lighting): 한기업 (Han Gi-Eop)
음악 (Music): 오석준 (Oh Seok-Joon)
미술 (Art Director): 강승용 (Kang Seung-Yong), 전혜진 (Jeon Hye-Jin)
특수시각효과 (Special Visual Effects): 김재민 (Kim Jae-Min), 김동원 (Kim Dong-Won)
무술 (Action): 주영민 (Ju Young-Min), 김현두 (Kim Hyeon-Doo)
분장 (Make-Up): 강경화 (Kang Kyung-Hwa)
편집 (Editing): 김재범 (Kim Jae-Beom), 김상범 (Kim Sang-Beom)
음향 (Sound Effects): 강봉성 (Kang Bong-Seong)

개봉 (Release): 10/17/2003
Box Office: 960,394 Tickets Sold in Seoul

DVD (English, Korean Subs)

CONTINUES ON PART 3 [1 of 3]

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