I posted my first WTF ASIA article here on the 20th of April, 2018. A day shy of the fifth anniversary, the final movie in my series asks whether it is okay to just give up completely. Well, apparently, my answer is yes.
Hey, so you know how Once Upon a Time in China took place during a time when the Qing Empire was crumbling? Well, this takes place when the Qing Empire was beginning. The Jurchens, or Manchus, were in conflict with China’s Ming Dynasty and demanded that Korea’s Joseon submit. Joseon, however, remained loyal to the Ming. So, on the 14th of December, 1636 the Qing invaded. Joseon King Injo and his subjects fled to the fortress of Namhansanseong, 25 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
A Joseon man sits on his horse. Alone. In front of however many Jurchen troops. The Jurchen leader has his archers shoot arrows towards him, though only to intimidate him. The seems unintimidated. He has his horse take few steps forward and shouts out that the King of Joseon has sent him to meet General Inggūldai. An interpreter among the Jurchen, Jeong Myung-soo asks the Joseon man who he is. He is Choi Myoung-gil, Minister of the Interior for Joseon.
Awwww…what an adorable little kid.
The child’s grandfather tells her to go inside, as it is cold. Oh, is it cold? Lord Kim Sang-hun, Minister of Rites, asks the elderly boatman if the royal carriage crossed here last night. Yes, and he led the way across the ice. Sang-hun asks him why he did not go with the carriage, with the Qing on their way. The man doubts that even the barbarians would kill an old boatman. And when they come, he will show them the way in exchange for food. Sang-hun dislikes that answer. Why would he help the enemy?
The boatman says that he did not even receive a handful of rice for helping the king. Sang-hun asks the boatman to come with him to Namhansanseong, and offers a reward for helping. His granddaughter can come too. The boatman refuses all of his offers. He turns around and starts walking home, but stops when he hears Sang-hun unsheathing his sword. Sang-hun gives the boatman enough time to register what is going on before killing him. Not even the barbarians.
A column of Joseon troops enters Namhansanseong, looking rather worse for wear. Blacksmith Seo Nal-soi is working on…something or other, as they walk in. His brother, Chil-bok notes their sorry state, but Nal-soi notes only that they brought nothing to eat. Chil-bok wonders if they should leave, like some of the other villagers had. Nal-soi says that there is nowhere to go; the barbarians have only gotten closer since they came here last year. Chil-bok just fears getting drafted again. Nal-soi says that he will stay here, whether he lives or die. Well, since Chil-bok is going nowhere without Nal-soi, that settles that matter.
Choi Myoung-gil has come to see King Injo. He says that General Inggūldai had repeatedly said that they wanted to know why Joseon had broken the promise of brotherhood and have simply come to renew that pledge, not to start a war. Injo asks if Myoung-gil saw his army. No, only his vanguard. Kim Ryu, the Prime Minister/Supreme Commander of the Military calls him naïve for trusting the words of a barbarian, but Myoung-gil insists that he is only reporting what he saw and heard. …asks what the Qing demands for this truce. Injo asks whether they demand that he break his pledge to the Ming.
At the Jurchen camp, General Inggūldai asks Myung-soo if he thinks Injo will accept their demands. Myung-soo says that the people of Jurchen value moral obligations the most, so they will not give in easily. They would probably try to stall to buy some time. Inggūldai says that no amount of stalling will let them wriggle out of their fate. He calls Myung-soo people foolish, but Myung-soo insists that he is a man of Qing now. Okay…
Inggūldai looks at Namhansanseong at the top of the mountain. He worries that the fortress is solid and the mountain is steep. Myung-soo claims that they need just to pressure Joseon and the fortress will eventually collapse from the inside. So, Inggūldai tells his second-in-command to surround the mountain and block every path with an ambush.
Myoung-gil tells the Joseon court that General Inggūldai demands that the Crown Prince come to him as a hostage. The Crown Prince offers to go, but Injo tells him to stay out of this. He asks the court for their thoughts. Ryu commends the Prince’s courage and says that his graceful heart and mind will bring him safely back. Wait…didn’t he just say a few minutes ago that the barbarians are not to be trusted?
Myoung-gil is about to agree when Sang-hun comes bursting in, demanding that all who agree to this should have their heads sent to the Jurchens. Much of the court agrees with that. Sang-hun continues, saying that the enemy is exhausted after marching all this way. Myoung-gil insists that words will solve this, not weapons. Sang-hun accuses Myoung-gil of cowardice. Myoung-gil says that he is not afraid for his own life, only the future of the kingdom. Each of them tells King Injo that following the other will provoke the Jurchen into demanding more. Injo starts coughing and says that everyone is dismissed.
Sang-hun meets with Lee Si-baek, leader of the garrison. He asks how many men they have in the fortress. About 13,000. Sang-hun has heard that the Jurchens have ten times more. Well, good thing that they have this fortress, says Si-baek. They can win if they fight to the death…but…the cold and hunger may kill the best of his men before the Qing arrive.
One way to stave off the cold is to start a fire, which Si-baek had explicitly prohibited on the walls except with special permission. He and Sang-hun come across a group of troops warming themselves. An officer had pulled a sword on a younger soldier…oh, that’s Chil-bok. Chil-bok and Nal-soi complain that they cannot fight in such cold. Si-baek is unsympathetic. Nal-soi asks for straw bags. Sang-hun is somewhat receptive to this.
Myoung-gil meets with King Injo privately. Injo refuses to send his son to General Inggūldai; what father could do that? So, what if he doesn’t? Myoung-gil says that General Inggūldai will demand that Injo go himself. And if Injo refuses that? Myoung-gil says that Myung-soo told him that the Jurchen would breach the walls. Myoung-gil offers to go to the camp to negotiate again. He insists that he would find a way, and that he is willing to die for this. And so…in the early morning. Myoung-gil leaves the fortress.
After what looks like a breakfast fit for a normal person, King Injo asks the Supplies Officer about rations for the troops. About a month left. They could hold for longer if they cut back, but how much longer and how much to cut back? Injo says to cut back rations…but not by too much. Well, what does that mean? Injo sounds like he is about to get upset when Sang-hun interrupts to mention that the men on the walls are suffering from extreme cold. Others in the court try to minimize this concern, which definitely irritates Injo. Someone suggests collecting spare clothes from the nobles, but the PM argues that that would make the nobles lose their dignity, which would cause the commoners to lose hope. Okay, that is some bullshit, but Injo seems to treat it as reasonable. Anyways, Sang-hun suggests that straw bags can protect the soldiers from the snow and the cold ground. Injo thinks that that is a good idea. Problem solved.
Myoung-gil goes to the Qing camp and see them eating pretty and with no issues regarding fires. I am not sure that this camp looks big enough to house 130,000 men, but whatever. Myung-soo leads him around, constantly making jabs at Joseon and Injo. As an envoy, Myoung-gil tries to diplomatically address the insults. When Myung-soo asks why Joseon broke the vow of brotherhood with Qing, Myoung-gil says that while Joseon and the Qing are brothers, Ming is the parent. Myung-soo says that it is only because of the Qing Emperor’s generosity that the walls of Namhansanseong have not fallen already.
Actually, a later shot of the camp shows it like this, so a little more believable.
Myoung-gil meets with General Inggūldai, and gives him a box of…silver thingamees. Inggūldai is falsely hospitable, until Myoung-gil tells him that they cannot bring the Crown Prince. That is when Inggūldai takes out his crossbow and tells Myoung-gil that the Great Khan wants to punish Joseon for forcing them to come here in the first place. Myoung-gil offers to take the punishment for Injo and Joseon. Inggūldai points the crossbow at him and asks if he is willing to die. If his death will bring about peace, then yes. Inggūldai shoots his dog that was behind Myoung-gil and tells him that there are no other options than the Crown Prince.
Well, that didn’t work.
And even if it did work, Sang-hun tells Injo that Myoung-gil going to the enemy to beg has brought disgrace to both the Crown Prince and the King himself. Others say that Myoung-gil’s reputation has been tarnished and he must be beheaded as a traitor. Behead him. Behead him. Behead him. Oh shit. They are shouting that to Injo while Myoung-gil is sitting right in front of him. Injo emerges from his chambers to tell them to shut up about killing each other while the enemy is so close. Myoung-gil offers to be beheaded and have his head brought to Inggūldai by the Crown Prince and Injo tells him to shut up as well.
After Sang-hun tries to argue that killing Myoung-gil would encourage the nobles and commoners to fight harder, Myoung-gil says that Inggūldai told him that the Khan will arrive soon. Ruh roh. That gets everyone’s attention. A few of them claim that this is a lie: why would the Qing Emperor come here while in the middle of a war with the Ming? But if this is true, then Sang-hun says that they should redouble their efforts to fight back the enemy, as it would be near impossible once the Khan arrives. Man, that is his answer to everything: fighting harder. But Injo agrees. He tells Sang-hun to draft a letter for him to read to the troops.
The message is sympathetic to the plight of the troops, but provides no real reassurances. The troops are the last hope for Joseon and they must fight. Injo has an officer bring a letter to the southern army to come fight. He also promises the troops present (there seems to be much fewer to 13,000, but whatever) that those who distinguish themselves in battle will be rewarded when they return to the capital.
Hey. Remember when General Inggūldai ordered all of the paths to the fortress blocked with an ambush? Well, the dude with the letter and troops accompanying him get ambushed, despite their best efforts. Egads, the Qing troops are coming both from above and from below. Nal-soi acquits himself pretty well. Chil-bok, not so much, and Nal-soi has to save him with the help of a faulty gun. The Joseon troops ultimately have to retreat back to the fortress.
Nal-soi and Chil-bok go to see Sang-hun to report on the faulty guns. Sang-hun asks why they came to him instead of their base commanders. Nal-soi tells him that he talked to them repeatedly, but they would not bother to listen to peasants, and Chil-bok says that the commanders took their complaints as excuses to avoid fighting and had them beat them up as punishment. Sang-hun asks why they think that he would listen. Because he wants them to win this war? No, because he agreed to their request for straw bags. Sang-hun tells them that that was more the mercy of the King. Nal-soi asks him to tell the king about the guns.
General Inggūldai and Myung-soo are looking at Namhansanseong from the area that is being prepared for Khan’s arrival. Inggūldai wonders what the Joseon people are up to. Myung-soo suggests that they are trying to send out messengers to the south for reinforcements. Inggūldai calls this foolish.
King Injo receives the report that the enemy has blocked all paths off the mountain. I don’t suppose that there are carrier birds that could be used. And why can’t the southern forces come regardless of royal orders? Ryu suggests that rumors of the Royal Court seeking to make peace with the barbarians are making the southern forces hesitant to come. Injo says that they had already sent the letter telling them to come. And…did the letter make it out? And what are they to do until then? Injo asks the Supplies officer if they can hold out. Perhaps, if they reduce the rations to the women and elderly refugees. Injo asks Myoung-gil for his take, but Myoung-gil is not present. Ryu says that he may have fled to Inggūldai to beg for his life. Sang-hun brings up the faulty weapons. Injo asks the Defense Minister and the Prime Minister if they knew about this. Their silence really ticks him off, but Sang-hun says that Nal-soi and his helpers might be able to fix them, asking they be exempted from wall duty to work on this instead. Injo orders it be done.
It turns out that Myoung-gil is still in the fortress, sweeping the grounds, and Sang-hun goes to meet him. And they bow to each other respectfully. That’s nice. Oh, and then he just walks past Myoung-gil. No talking or anything else. Okay.
Nal-soi and his crew spend hours and hours fixing the guns.
And the guns actually work now.
Si-baek orders his men to attack the Jurchen troops. He handles himself like a badass, personally killing the leader of the Jurchen group.
The Joseon troops return to the fortress victorious…and with a severed head to show for it. Si-baek, however, gets distracted by someone doing something near the gate. He probably doesn’t know who she is, but we do, don’t we?
Ryu tells Injo that the Qing troops were so intimidated that they dropped their weapons and fled. Okay, sure. In any case, Injo says that Lee Si-baek is to be commended, as are the troops who fought. Sang-hun says that news of their victory will spread to the eight provinces, and reinforcements will come. But…it seems that Si-baek had brought a child with him into the fortress. How did the child even manage to slip past the enemy camp to get to the fortress? Whatever the case, Sang-hun says that it is an auspicious sign. Well, sure, but only because he has not seen the child yet. Injo asks her to be brought to him. Ryu asks how a peasant child could be brought to the royal court. But Injo agrees that her arrival on the day of victory is a good sign and must be treated as such.
Welcome Naru. She has come to find her grandfather. Grandfather? Oh, right, the man who helped King Injo across the river. Sang-hun looks up and thinks oh shit. Injo says that this is a precious fate. He tells Ryu to spread word around the fortress to look for her grandfather. Then he asks Sang-hun to find a place for the child to stay. Oh dear. Sang-hun eventually agrees, not revealing what actually happened to the man.
Well, enjoy that victory, people of Joseon, for it is the last one that you will see.
After making Silenced, future creator of the original Squid Game Hwang Dong-hyuk made a perfectly okay piece of audience-pleasing nostalgia-bait called Miss Granny that managed to be the 4th most successful Korean film of 2014, making $51.7 million on a $3.2 million budget. I guess that that gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. And I guess that Hwang wanted to do the opposite of nostalgia-bait, a $13 million adaptation of Kim Hoon’s historical novel about the most humiliatingly shameful moment in Korea’s history prior to Japan’s occupation in the 20th century.
So, it is no spoiler to say that Joseon ultimately surrenders to the newly titled Qing Empire. Absolutely surrenders. It takes almost seven weeks, but it happens. Also, China’s Ming Dynasty would crumble about seven years later, allowing the Qing to take over China. Regardless, the people of Joseon did not know that at the time of Joseon’s surrender. And with the surrender, King Injo basically let himself be humiliated in order to survive. The Joseon, thus, turned its back on the Ming, the same Ming that had (sort of) rescued the peninsula from the Japanese invasions 40 years earlier, thus earning the kingdom’s loyalty. It had a deep psychological impact on Koreans. Those Japanese invasions got that Admiral Yi movie. This is…not that.
This movie is…plenty violent. You want to see severed heads? This movie has severed heads. A lot of reviewers of the movie, however, complain that the “action” is fleeting in such a long movie, focusing instead on the same conversation between four characters over and over again. But…well…those conversations were what Hwang loved most in the novels and were most likely the reason for him to adapt the novel. It is not simply a war movie, but a political drama set during a war. As Hwang said, the war of words in the court is as important as the war of swords in the field.
The central drama in this movie is the tension between two schools of thoughts. Minister of the Interior Choi Myoung-gil is portrayed as pursuing the ideology of Juhwapa, or pushing for peace and avoiding war. Historians may complain that the historical Choi was more open to war than the Choi in this movie, but there is a moment in the movie where he reluctantly acknowledges that a battle could be a good thing, as long as they win completely…which they don’t. In any case, the Choi Myoung-gil of this movie is utter pragmatist. He believes completely that Joseon cannot win a war against the Qing, at least not without a constant possibility of negotiation. And, from his introduction, it is clear that he is willing to die for this. Minister of Rites Kim Sang-hun believes in Chukhwapa, which rejects peace in favor of war. Kim believes that the country should fight to the last man for the dignity of the nation and the people. And if the country falls in the face of overwhelming force, then so be it. Neither character really changes through the movie, let alone budges from their positions; but their debates become less abstract and more frantic as the situation becomes more desperate.
The two ministers are almost constantly at odds. Yet, the movie suggests a bond between them, a bond of passionate principle. Kim Sang-hun may join in the calls for Choi Myoung-gil to be beheaded, it is not because he dislikes Myoung-gil, but because he truly believes that his stance is extremely dangerous for troop morale. But he does respect him and probably realizes that Myoung-gil’s stated willingness to be killed is serious, which cannot really be said regarding the other ministers. He sees honor in Myoung-gil’s willingness to die with dishonor. Choi Myoung-gil probably acknowledges that Kim Sang-hun genuinely wants what is best for the country, not for himself or his class. This becomes apparent when both set aside their differences to stick up for men from lesser positions against malevolent selfish decisions by someone from a higher position. They may not necessarily be friends, but they show each other respect even outside the court.
All of Sang-hun’s suggestions are related to letting the soldiers fight as best as they can. And in wanting them to fight as best as they can, he wants them in top physical and psychological form. That means listening to complaints and respecting them as men, not just tools to be misused until they can no longer function properly. It is Sang-hun who suggests the king provide rewards for valor, provide the grass bags to for those in the cold, and tells him about the faulty guns, which the military leaders ignored and denied. Just as he sees Myoung-gil’s negotiations as bad for troop morale, he sees overly harsh punishments upon the troops may erode troop loyalty. That said, he may not fully appreciate the full extent of the prejudice and disdain that the people in his ranks have for the lower classes. To expect the best and suspect the worst? Is he naïve or is he just unwilling to accept that truth about his own people?
Of course, anyone who has seen Squid Game would know that Hwang has opinions about social hierarchies. The Prime Minister’s concern seems to be that the invasion may inconvenience the nobles slightly, and that concern is balanced out by the threat of the nobles being inconvenienced slightly by efforts to keep Joseon foot soldiers from being killed by the beautifully brutal winter before they have the chance to get slaughtered by the Jurchens. He burdens them with superhuman responsibilities while seeing them as subhuman.
The Prime Minister may claim that the lower classes will withstand everything as long as the nobles are able to retain their dignity, but the introduction to Kim Sang-hun suggests that that the Prime Minister doesn’t know squat. Naru’s grandfather helped the King cross the river and was rewarded with…the privilege of having interacted with the King? That is not going to feed him. He decided that he might as well try his luck with the Jurchens instead of going on a trip with some random minister. Whether this was Sang-hun’s realization that the loyalty of the lower classes had their limits, I cannot say, but it at least shows that he has been exposed to that reality. We also see in interpreter Myung-soo that a nation cannot treat people like utter garbage since their birth and expect automatic loyalty when an alternative makes its presence known. I am not actually sure if the Jurchens treated Joseon defectors particularly well, and it does seem like they also have people whom they treat as utter trash, but they did try to create a multi-ethnic society of sorts. In any case, Myung-soo was more useful to the Qing than to the Joseon, and it seemed like the Qing were going to win, so he made the best choice for himself. And why wouldn’t he? This is not to say that all of the grunts are good-hearted men pushed past their breaking point. We see foolishness, cowardice, cravenness, and incompetence on the ground level as well. A couple major blunders happen because one guy at the bottom did something stupid at the worst possible moment. They are not angels of the earth to be contrasted to the wicked nobles; they are flawed humans for whom only one person up top treats as humans. Regardless of what they do, the nobles make them suffer for their own benefit and expect them to take it.
In at least one interview, Hwang overtly said that he was aware of the connections to the present day when making the movie: Korea as a small country stuck between two large powers far beyond its control, hopelessly tossed back and forth in the roaring currents of history. In 1637, it was the Ming and the Qing fighting over the Chinese Empire; 380 years later, it is the United States and China. He also said that the politics depicted in the movie had parallels to the Korea of the 20th and 21st century, including the leader at the top. I am not quite sure if I see that, I mean, the head of the country at the time was Park Geun-hye and little Naru was the only female character of note in this movie, and the only one to get more than two lines of dialogue. And she was not exactly Rosamund Kwan’s 13th Aunt here. Wives, daughters, female neighbors, sisters, female peasants? Barely anything from them. But that is the movie. No room for a Miss Granny, I guess.
And what of the king? History has not been kind to King Injo, depicting him as a weak and ineffectual ruler who debased himself and sold out his nation to the Qing in order to keep his life and his crown. Hwang himself has described Injo as incompetent, fragile, pale, and weak. The introduction to Injo shows him coughing, quite different from how it depicts both the Qing general and the Qing emperor. But he is not bad, let alone evil. He is human. He does seem to want what is best for the country, but he is unsure of how to do it. He is indecisive, vulnerable, and ultimately cowardly. He places so much stock on his advisors, but when they clash, he does not know what to do, sometimes leading to orders that contradict previous orders, with the effectiveness of both being undermined. Perhaps if he were stronger or more consistent with his decisions, then he would maybe things would have gone differently. But he wasn’t. Perhaps if he had simply gotten rid of every single other minister, then he could have found some sort of proper way to synthesize the seemingly conflicting arguments that Myoung-gil and Sang-hun presented him. But he didn’t. He tried his best and his best fell extremely short. A few historians have pointed out that there were additional factors for him capitulating that did not feature in the movie, but I think that what we got was enough.
The movie presents several moments where things could have gone another way. What if Myoung-gil died at the beginning? What if Injo had ignored the Prime Minister completely? What if the Prime Minister were not so defensive about his authority? What if the people at the top gave proper orders? What if the people at the below did not disobey proper orders? What if this? What if that? Towards the end, though, there is a shot that seems to suggest that Joseon perhaps had no chance to either win or have dignity in defeat. Or…perhaps it was the result of yet another bad decision. But bad decisions came from panic in the face of doom, and perhaps everyone except Myoung-gil was going through deep denial. History has not been kind to King Injo, but…maybe his capitulation was inevitable. He lived to see himself be disgraced, but perhaps the alternative was for everyone including him to be flattened. Would that have been preferable?
This movie made $28-$29 million, a little over twice its budget and a little under the take for Silenced. Not Miss Granny numbers, but enough. This movie is…absolutely not a happy one. But I cannot imagine how it was like for the Korean audiences. Those who had some understanding of the story, none, or a lot. South Korean cinema is full of sad weepies and political rage-inducers. Still, this is something else. For around 270 years, this had been the most traumatic and shameful national experience in the Korean psyche; being trampled and dominated by a people whom they considered to be barbarians. Perhaps the impact of that had softened a bit after the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, but I doubt that it truly went away. And, aside from that one moment of victory, the movie is gloomy and bleak. Many reviews called it needlessly punishing and exhausting and well, yeah. Hwang wanted to audience to appreciate just how terrible the circumstances were and how much the people suffered before giving up. Would the audience members really have been able to fight through all of that or die with honor given all of the callously merciless impossibilities? But he also does not hold back in showing the humiliation of loss. Like, it lasts a long time. The only mercy, if one could even call it that, is that he allows one character a modicum of dignity that the real-life person did receive.
At the very end…there is almost a sense that, with history going the way that it did, Korea did survive. Bent, broken, but alive enough to continue up to today. Perhaps the Korean audiences may feel differently, but that has to count for something. As the Japanese were colonizing Korea in the early 20th century, the decaying Qing Dynasty finally crumbled. The Koreans eventually took back their country…erm…both countries, from the Japanese, while the Manchus eventually turned into just one of the country’s many ethnic minorities in the nation that they had ruled for nearly three centuries, getting a mixed-bag treatment from China’s Han majority. So, who really won?
The movie is mournful. It is bleak. It is not a good time. And, while I had not intended to end this series until a week ago, this is perhaps the most fitting way to go. Just giving up. It’ll be okay.
What would have been next week’s movie: Rihaee (India: 1988, approx. 142 minutes)
Available erm…on Einthusan. And if this Youtube video works for you. Enjoy.