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[FICTION VS. HISTORY] Heroics ramped up in ‘Great Battle’ : Mother Nature wasn’t as cruel in real life, and general’s name isn’t quite certain

Nov 19,2018
Actor Zo In-sung plays General Yang Man-chun in the film “The Great Battle.” [YONHAP]
Foreign visitors look at “The Battle of Ansi Fortress” by artist Ok Moon-sung on display on the first floor of the War Memorial Hall of Korea in Yongsan District, central Seoul. [YONHAP]
These are scenes from the mega-budget period epic “The Great Battle,” directed by Kim Kwang-sik. It is set during the Goguryeo Dynasty (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) and dramatizes the battle at the Ansi Fortress during the war between Goguryeo and the Tang forces. [NEXT ENTERTAINMENT WORLD]
“I’ve never learned how to surrender,” shouts Yang Man-chun to his army of 5,000 as they watch some 200,000 soldiers ascending towards their territory. They, the people of Goguryeo (37 B.C.-A.D. 668), were in a battle against Tang Dynasty forces that began their invasion in April 645, led by Li Shimin, who is the Emperor Taizong of Tang. The Tang forces attacked several castles and reached Yang’s Ansi Fortress in August.

“If anyone attempts to take over something we value, we must fight to the death and save it,” Yang continued. “Look behind you. The people of Ansi are what we value. Fight. Let’s fight for them.”

The Ansi soldiers were inspired by the words of their leader and braced themselves to fight a battle that seemed impossible to win.

The bravery of Yang and his small Ansi Fortress, which led to improbable triumph, is what attracted more than five million people to march to theaters to watch the mega-budget period epic “The Great Battle,” directed by Kim Kwang-sik, which opened in September. Korean heartthrob Zo In-sung played the courageous Yang, contributing to the box office success. But “The Great Battle” is a film based on history, and some moments don’t ring true. There are fictionalized characters, as well as invented or exaggerated events.

In the film, General Yang walks around the fortress, desperately trying to figure out ways how to protect his people as the Tang Army builds an earthen ramp to get over the walls of the fortress. He sees young children playing with soil, trying to build caves by digging holes that crumble. This inspires Yang: He’ll dig an underground tunnel so the earthen ramp will crumble before reaching the top. The Ansi people narrowly manage to complete the tunnel underneath the ramp as work is almost complete. However, Mother Nature gets in the way. Heavy rainfall stymies the Ansi people’s initial plan to light fires on pillars in the tunnel. When the wooden pillars burned, the ramp would collapse. A group of courageous people decides to go into the tunnel and chop down the pillars themselves, which will eventually crumble and kill them. As the people insist on their suicide mission, Yang looks at them with a tearful gaze. The first group goes in and succeeds in protecting the Ansi Fortress.

However, this brilliant strategy of Yang digging a tunnel is fiction. In the film, the digging of the tunnel takes about 10 days, but to complete such a project, the people of Ansi would have had to started even before the Tang Army had arrived. Moreover, the heavy rainfall that almost stymies the plan - and provokes the resolute determination of the Ansi people - symbolizes the heedlessness of nature to the humans’ plight. But according to history, it was the rainfall itself that actually crumbled the earthen ramp.

There’s not much of a written record of the battle in Ansi or the character of General Yang, forcing the writer and director to use their imagination to recreate the characters. Zo himself said in an interview with local media that such a lack of information took off the pressure, and gave him a lot of leeway to reimagine the general.

In the movie, Yang is depicted as a friendly character who lives for his people, brings gifts to a family with a newborn, helps an old grandmother with dementia find her way back home and rolls up his sleeves valiantly to stand at the fore in preparation for battle. In the movie, even when he shoots an arrow that plunges into the left eye of Emperor Taizong, it was an image of the people of Ansi that gave him the strength to achieve that shot.

In reality, there’s no record of what kind of person Yang was. Even his name, Yang Man-chun, is still not absolutely certain. There is a historical record that states that Emperor Taizong injured his left eye, but when and how is unknown. Emperor Taizong is depicted in the movie like a tyrant, which is not how he is described in historic records like “The Chronicles of the Three States.”

YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]