Saturday, July 02, 2011

NYAFF ’11: Battlefield Heroes

War, what is it good for? The conscripts from Baekje have absolutely no idea. They perfectly demonstrate the superiority of a volunteer army. The men (and at least one woman) of the still independent (just barely) Goguryeo Kingdom are hardly there by their own free choice, but they have a stronger motivation to fight. Yet, they will still do all the dying while the glory will be reserved solely for the officers in Lee Joon-ik’s caustic farce Battlefield Heroes (trailer here), which screens during the 2011 New York Asian Film Festival.

Prepare to get muddy, bloody, and absurd. If Brecht recast Braveheart in the Seventh Century Korea, it would look a lot Battlefield. Of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Baekje has fallen to the Chinese aligned Silla. The Tang Dynasty has enlisted the wary Silla in its campaign against the weakened Goguryeo. However, the crafty Silla general Kim Yu-sin is only biding his time. He might look like an addled old coot, but he is crazy as a fox.

None of these grand macro schemes matter to “Thingy,” a dirt poor disrespected serf from former Baekje. In fact, when he accidentally defects to Goguryeo, it would only mean switching from a besieger to the besieged, were it not for Gap-sun. Meeting the ardent Goguryeo lady warrior makes quite an impression on Thingy. Needless to say, it is not mutual.

Frankly, even as a Medieval keep under attack, Pyongyang was probably more livable then than now. However, Battlefield is seen as something of an allegory, with the plucky but riceless Goguryeos signifying the North, the devious Sillas serving as the South, and the Chinese Tangs functioning as stand-ins for the good old USA. Yet, as Lee must understand, North Korea is not starving because of a Southern blockade, but through the deliberate policies of its government. Not to sound churlish, but good luck making veiled political commentary in the tightly regimented DPRK. As for the imperialist Chinese, perhaps they better represent, you know, China.

Regardless of politics, Lee hurls a lot of warfighting spectacle on the screen, while modulating the slapstick humor relatively well. Still, a little of Lee Mun-shik’s schticky Thingy goes a long way. Sun Woo-sun is far more intriguing as the Xenia-esque Gap-sun, who steals the picture when rhetorically reducing the Tang ranks in one of Battlefield’s most inventive scenes. Likewise, Jung Jin-young hams in up wonderfully as the wily Kim Yu-sin, whilst effectively hinting the old sly dog might yet have some core scruples buried way deep down.

Battlefield is an impressive period war epic, but the proletarian humor is hit-or-miss. If you are looking for a body count in the thousands, it is a safe bet, despite the persistent anti-war subtext. Recommended on those terms, Battlefield screens July 13th and 14th at the Walter Reade Theater.