Lee Jun-ik has somewhat hastily proclaimed that he has retired from the director’s chair following the poor performance of his latest film Battlefield Heroes. He has made seven films, and by far the one he is most famous for is The King and the Clown (2005), a gay period comedy drama that came out of nowhere to become the highest grossing film in the peninsula’s history up until that point with over 12 million admissions. That kind of success would be hard to follow up, especially since a director like Lee is not known for making high-falutin’ blockbusters that you would typically expect to score big at the box office. He is known for making high concept comedies and in no film market at any time in history has that been a recipe for surefire success. In each of the three years that followed The King and the Clown, Lee kept busy and released a film: Radio Star (2006), The Happy Life (2007), and Sunny (2008). Each of the aforementioned were solid midlevel players but none cracked their year’s top 10. Then, in 2010 he released Blades of Blood, which has been somewhat popular overseas but a significant commercial failure at home.
This year he’s back with Battlefield Heroes which once again has not been met with the breakout success that had been hoped for and, following its decent performance (it was by no means a flop), he has publicly declared that he is hanging his hat. This is after having previously said he would do so were his next film not a big hit. This seems to me a little rash and I worry that a big budget war comedy was a reckless film to gamble on, but we shall see. I recently caught up with respected film critic Chris Bourne at the NYAFF and he believes that Lee will make a return after another brief hiatus. I am inclined to agree and I certainly hope he will.
As for the film itself, also known as Pyongyang Castle, it is a big budget war comedy set in the 600s and the plot consists of the Silla kingdom and Chinese Tang dynasty banding together to overthrow the Goguryeo kingdom by laying siege to their castle. Silla’s strategist is worried that Tang will conquer them also after winning the battle and so conspires with Goguryeo in various twists and turns. The story is somewhat straightforward and yet it is also convoluted and a bit contrived, although the fact of the matter is that it is all a stage for the bawdy comedy to play out later on.
The cast has many recognizable faces (if you’re well-versed in Korean cinema) and a number of great cameos including one from the great Hwang Jeong-min. The problem with reviewing a film like Battlefield Heroes for Western audiences is that I feel a lot may be lost in translation. While I enjoyed the film, I know there must be a lot that I missed which is a shame, but the film still has a lot to offer. The comedy is often low-brow and when it is verbal it can be very quickfire, which means it can be a little difficult to follow with subtitles. My favorite parts of the film featured the villagers who were ‘drafted’ into the Silla camp and their antics. There is a funny scene in which they all appear at the Goguryeo gate in a big rice pot, a play on the Trojan Horse, and pop out comically trying to persuade the Goguryeons that they will surrender for some stores of rice. The scene gets even more ridiculous when it breaks into a karaoke song. This didn’t bother me too much, but I imagine it may be too silly for some.
Battlefield Heroes features a number of well-choreographed fight scenes and the action is very convincing, much more so than you would expect for a comedy. This does lead to a slight identity crisis on the part of the film as it juggles comedy, action, and melodrama, but it never veers too far out of control and remains firmly a comedy. Ultimately, the film was a little slight for me and I wouldn’t recommend it to casual viewers of Korean cinema. It didn’t leave me with much to go away with and was at times forgettable, but it was worth watching and I really hope to see more from Lee in the future.
Battlefield Heroes will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Wednesday, July 13th at 6:15 PM and Thursday, July 14th at 12:30 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.