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[Herald Review] Good intentions, poor execution make ‘The Battle: Roar to Victory’ painful to watch

Every once in a while we get what I like to call “face-palm movies”: Films with great intentions and worthy causes that are made so poorly that I end up feeling guilty for hating them.

“The Battle: Roar to Victory,” a film about one of the most glorious moments in Korea’s history of fighting for independence from Japan, is one that should have sparked nationalistic pride and a sense of victory, but instead is bogged down by a number of questionable directing choices.

The film takes place in Manchuria, where the Japanese military forces are hunting down a handful of Korean liberation fighters. As they interrogate and slaughter civilians, a militia led by young leader Jang-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol), sword-wielding Hae-cheol (Yoo Hae-jin) and sniper Byeong-gu (Jo Woo-jin) emerges to save the day.

“The Battle: Roar to Victory” (Showbox)
“The Battle: Roar to Victory” (Showbox)

Their troubles are far from over as they must lure the overwhelming number of Japanese soldiers into a valley near Fengwudong, where they make a final stand to deliver a long-sought victory for their lost nation.

It sounds fantastic on paper. Ryu, Yoo and Jo are all incredible actors, and the real-life story behind the Battle of Fengwudong is an inspiring one. The wartime cruelty of the Japanese military is well recorded, and it should have endowed the watcher with a great sense of pride and catharsis to see one of Korea’s earliest large-scale military victories on screen.

The only problem was that it doesn’t.

Director Won Sin-yeon, a former stunt director known best for directing 2017’s “Memoir of a Murderer,” looks like he learned filmmaking from a textbook, not first-hand experience. He makes choices that sound solid in theory, but fall woefully short in terms of results.

First of all: the characters. The trio looks good, each with distinct characteristics, but they are written horribly. Their character traits are presented bluntly. Viewers are supposed to root for the main man Jang-ha, but one cheesy backstory told through a flashback is not quite enough.

“The Battle: Roar to Victory” (Showbox)
“The Battle: Roar to Victory” (Showbox)

Yoo is an actor whose magnificent emotional range can have him jumping from incredible to incredibly corny. Here, the veteran actor seems lost trying way too hard to carry his character’s badly crafted story arc. What are supposed to be heartfelt moments come off as obvious and cliched.

Jo and Ryu are just ... there. They both have the acting chops, and they do a passable job. But their respective characters do not leave much of an impression. They are great actors, but not good enough to escape such a bad film unscathed.

Worse still are the villains. As mentioned before, these are soldiers who committed atrocities, and I would have loved to hate them, but they are written like comic book villains. One is supposed to be psychotic and eerie, and the other just a moron. None of them are impressive or threatening, which means that watching them get defeated arouses no emotions. Who would you rather see your team beat -- the defending world champions or a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the ’90s?

The director tried to squeeze in social commentary about comfort women, the disregard for human rights in wartime, the fact that trust and human emotions transcend borders and other issues that could be really hard-hitting. But all these messages feel unnatural in delivery, and end up unbearably preachy.

That’s the biggest problem with this movie. It has great intentions to pull off what could be meaningful or thought-provoking moments, but they are all executed poorly.

There is a scene where Korean independence fighters talk by the fire, speaking in their own dialects from all over the peninsula. If done right, it could’ve been a great, poignant scene, but it ends up being an obvious and preachy one instead.

“No one knows exactly how many of us are out there, because anyone could become an independence fighter,” is another great line, which could have been delivered better.

Even the ending wasn’t nearly as cathartic as it could have been, with another “What ... ?” moment in what is supposed to be comic relief. And it just drags on. You don’t get to show a thousand goodbyes like the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy unless you’ve earned it, which this movie has not.

Is it the worst movie of the year? Probably not. The odds are, it will probably ride current anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea and be a hit.

But this is too good a story and too important subject matter to be wasted on such a mediocre movie.

“The Battle: Roar to Victory” opens in theaters Aug. 7

By Yoon Min-sik