By Lee Hyo-won
Either with concerned curiosity or bemused indifference, many watchful eyes observed the release of "D-War
", the latest work by Shim Hyung-rae
" is hailed as a great Korean cinematic triumph -- for its groundbreaking computer graphics created by domestic talent, and for the largest ever release abroad. But the dragon war movie had also been subject to ridicule as being the reckless ambition of one funny man.
Known here for his signature character, the chubby and goofy Young-gu, comedian-turned director Shim returns once again as the head of Younggu-Art. His comic image made it difficult to be taken seriously by the public, like his first film venture, "2001 Yongary" (1999, called "Reptilian" in the U.S.).
"The name Shim Hyung-rae
immediately eats into about 40 percent of the publicity", said Shim with a rather bittersweet chuckle during a press conference last Monday at a Seoul theater. But despite all the doubts and numerously delayed releases, the film will debut across 1,700 American screens -- the largest ever opening for a Korean film -- and an additional 500 in Japan later on in the year, according to the director.
In the film, as investigative reporter Ethan Kendrick traces a series of bizarre disasters in Los Angeles, he becomes increasingly convinced that the happenings are related to an ancient Korean legend he heard as a child. The legend prophesized that "Imgoogi", mythical creatures, will awaken in order to search for the "yeoiju", a magical pearl that grants one of them the power to become a heavenly dragon. The good and evil Imoogi battle to seize this opportunity that comes around only once every 500 years.
Clues lead Kendrick to a young woman named Sarah, who possesses the yeoiju in her body. The yeoiju must be safeguarded in order to prevent the dark Imoogi from seizing it and destroying the world. Meanwhile, the two are fatally attracted to each other -- a continuation of their tragic love in a past life 500 years ago when they chose death over sacrificing the young woman to the good Imoogi. Kendrick and Sarah must decide their own fate -- whether or not to defy the will of heaven once again and let the city be destroyed.
" is a real treat for fantasy buffs as loads of dragon attacks fill screens from start to finish. But the awkward, anachronistic blend of East and West in character designs diminishes the spectacle of the big action -- Darth Vader-like leader hissing in an alien tongue leads armed dinosaur-like creatures and a group of soldiers that look like European medieval knights. Though the director explained that the concept of dragons is universal, and intentionally chose the European armor to symbolize how Korea had been prone to foreign invasions in the past, and two, appeal to Western audiences, you still can't help but ask, isn't this supposed to be based on an ancient Korea legend?
Although some of the plot elements are grossly simplified, Shim playfully complained during the press meeting. "Take `Independence Day' for example. The plot is simple: Aliens come, destroy and the end. But why do they only tackle me?" The entire room rumbled with laughter and claps.
The cliched dialogue, however, is almost intolerable. It's also slightly irritating for Korean speakers and confusing for others to hear the American actors consistently butcher the word "yeoiju", with each actor pronouncing several variations of it.
"All's well that end's well", however, with an impressive finale featuring a high-soaring reptilian battle, with one of the super-sized snakes metamorphosing into a full-fledged dragon. We've seen many fierce fire-breathing creatures on-screen -- even a mascara-adorned pink one in "Shrek" -- but "D-War
" provides something new, for both domestic and international audiences, a thoroughly Korean monster that can be seen in traditional paintings, complete with a magical pearl clenched between its jaws.
The film comes to a climactic close with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra's grand rendition of "Arirang", a soulful Korean song that appropriately expresses the fate of the star-crossed lovers. Shim deserves a big bravo for his persistence in inserting the score despite the opposition from even his own staff.
The audio is in fact one of the film's greatest strengths: Steve Jablonsky, music director of "Transformers" (2007) and "Armageddon" (1998), created original scores, and Mark A. Mangini, the audio expert of "The Lion King" (1994) and "Die Hard 3" (1995) whipped up amazing sound effects.
A critical eye will be able to spot the flaws of the film. But an open mind will appreciate the film's ambitious vision.