The time is winter 1636. King Injo (played by Park Hae-il) has to choose between recognizing the Qing Dynasty with its Mongolian overlords as the new China, or sticking to tradition and trying to maintain Joseon's dignity as a sovereign state. The Qing Dynasty would probably crush Joseon in a decisive battle, but they'd rather not waste the resources. So they just stand their army outside of the titular fortress and wait for King Injo and his people to starve to death in the miserable cold.
Only one central character, blacksmith Nal-soi (played by Go Soo) is a commoner. And yet, "The Fortress" constantly reminds us that it is the commoners, not King Injo or the ministers, who suffer the most from the war, and after the previous Mongol invasion only nine years ago, they have little interest in waging that war again. The first commoner we see openly talks of assisting the Mongols solely to avoid starving to death. The Joseon royalty he already assisted did not give him or his granddaughter any badly needed food.
These are the people who make up the backbone of Joseon's army, and their morale is in the absolute pits. We see nothing to justify any optimism on their part either. Nal-soi doesn't trust nobles, and for good reason. Most of them won't listen to a commoner like him, and it is only through the sheer luck of auspicious circumstances that Joseon's forces can even solve basic problems like fixing their firearms so that they can shoot straight.
At first glance, King Ingo's royal conferences seem like good leadership, as he frequently moderates between difficult situations to find compromises. But in the context of the actual circumstances of the siege, King Injo's compromises are laughably abstract and divorced from the reality of just how bad the situation really is. Whe Minister Choi (played by Lee Byung-hun) tries to argue for submission, he is inherently hamstrung by how the fact of Mongolian superiority flies in the face of official Joseon state ideology.
Minister Kim (played by Kim Yun-seok) is the main proponent of these ideas. Their foundation tends to be either "commoners are inspired by the awesomeness of the upper classes" or "we will in because we are the morally correct side" depending on the specific situation. For all the suffering Minister Kim causes it's surprisingly hard to hate him, because he really does sincerely believe all this nonsense, as is proven by his final humiliation.
But then everyone in "The Fortress" is ultimately humiliated. Even Minister Choi, while technically proven right by circumstances, can hardly relish the situation. Because he, too, is a hypocrite, who from the very first scene will protect the Joseon state at the expense of its people. What's the point of even having a state if it can't inspire loyalty from its own people? That gloomy sentiment, beyond the plot, is also perfectly represented via cinematography and sound design, granting "The Fortress" the uniquely dark aesthetic of showing us history from the side of the losers.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Fortress""
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