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11 Aug

Review: D-War – Yesterday afternoon I went with Hyunjin and the Big Hominid to see the film that is taking the Korean box office by storm: D-War. I wasn’t originally planning on seeing it, having heard how horrific it was, but eventually I decided that I just had to, and I talked Kevin into coming along for the ride. Hyunjin finished work early yesterday, so that made three of us. Safety in numbers, as they say.

“Despite the success D-War is enjoying in Korea at the moment, it is basically a straight-to-video (or straight-to-DVD) flick.”

So why did I have to see this film? Well, for one, I just had to see what all the hype was about. But there was also the fact that the film is based on Korean legend, and since I study Korean oral literature I felt that I had an obligation to go see how it turned out. And how did it turn out? The same way that elf needs food: badly.

As usual, I feel compelled to warn you that the following review contains plot spoilers, but for once I can honestly say that reading these spoilers will most likely not affect your enjoyment (or lack of enjoyment) of the film. With that out of the way, let me give you a rough outline of the story as I understood it.

At the core of the film are monsters from Korean legend called imugi, which are essentially giant serpents. Every five hundred years, an imugi is given the chance to become a dragon and ascend to heaven. All they have to do is claim a magical object called a yeouiju. This yeouiju gives them the power to become a dragon. To make things more complicated, this yeouiju is enshrined in the body of a maiden and is released when she reaches twenty years of age.

Now there are good imugi and there are bad imugi. One particularly nasty imugi is called Buraki. Five hundred years ago Buraki went on a rampage in Korea in an attempt to find this maiden and take the yeouiju for himself. He sent his army against the small walled town where the girl lived and eventually captured her.

This is where the hero of the story comes in. A wise old man (he is called a monk in Korean) is charged with protecting the girl, and he trains a young protégé to help him in this task. The two of them rescue the girl and the young man takes her to a safe place while the old man covers his retreat. But instead of leading the girl to her destiny (that is, to sacrifice herself to give a good imugi the yeouiju), the young man selfishly (because he loves her, of course) flees with her. But Buraki pursues them and they are forced to the edge of a coastal cliff. Not wanting to be captured again, they leap into the sea and drown.

Fast forward five hundred years to Los Angeles. Both the young man and the young woman are reborn, conveniently enough as Americans living in roughly the same geographic location. The wise man never died, apparently, and he has transformed himself into an American as well and set up an antiques shop in, naturally, Los Angeles. (Either that or he did die and was reborn as an American and, for some reason, has full knowledge of his former life—I’m not really sure.) Then he sits around for God knows how long waiting for the reincarnation of his protégé to show up. Eventually he does, as a young boy, and the old man (now named Jack) dumps on him the legend I recounted above, complete with flashbacks.

Fifteen years later, right before Sarah’s twentieth birthday, Buraki reappears, wreaking havoc on an L.A. neighborhood. Ethan, now a reporter for a CNN-type news network, goes to the scene and sees a scale from the imugi. This triggers the flashback that relates the background legend, as it was his discovery of a Korean chest with an imugi scale in Jack’s shop that tipped Jack off to the fact that Ethan was the chosen one.

Once we get this pesky back story out of the way (and all this occupies only a brief period at the front end of what ends up feeling, at ninety minutes, like a very rushed film), the fun starts. Sarah is accosted by three football players outside a bar but is inexplicably saved by a guy who turns out to be Buraki’s lieutenant (update: Kevin believes that this was actually Jack in disguise, which makes a lot more sense—but the scene as a whole still serves as a little more than a lame excuse to get her locked up in a hospital as a mental patient). She goes to the police station to report the incident (why, I’m not sure), and apparently a woman claiming that she was saved from three guys by another guy who then just disappeared into thin air is enough to get her locked away in a hospital as a mental patient (you know, rather than just ignored).

All the while, Ethan is trying to find Sarah before Buraki gets to her, and in a happy turn of chance a photograph taken by another reporter (who apparently just wanders into police stations to take photos of people there at random) shows the dragon-shaped birthmark that proves she is the yeouiju (or possesses the yeouiju—it’s not entirely clear at times which it is). Ethan shows up at the hospital but is told that Sarah is in “quarantine” (despite the fact that she doesn’t have a contagious disease). Fortunately, a doctor there (who also may or may not be Buraki’s lieutenant—i.e., the same guy who saved Sarah from the football players) is a fan of Ethan’s work and lets him waltz right in. Then Buraki attacks the hospital and the chase is on.

A lot of other stuff happens, but to be perfectly honest it doesn’t really matter, and I’m getting kind of tired of recapping the story. In a nutshell, Ethan and Sarah try to run away from Buraki while the U.S. military clashes with Buraki’s army, which consists of foot soldiers with bullet-proof shields, big lumbering beasts with rocket launchers, and mini-dragons. As L.A. burns, Ethan and Sarah try to flee to Mexico, but on the way they are attacked and captured.

Ethan awakes tied to a post (a la Raiders of the Lost Ark) and watches as Sarah is about to be sacrificed to Buraki. Fortunately, an amulet that was given to him by Jack (oops, forgot to mention that—but that’s OK, because it doesn’t play any part in the story until now) feeds off of his rage or something, splits his bonds, and wipes out most of the opposing forces. The lieutenant is still alive, though, and Ethan is pretty much useless against him because Jack didn’t bother to train him at all. Fortunately, the lieutenant strikes Ethan’s amulet, which turns him (the lieutenant, that is) into smoking ash (a la Blade).

They still have to contend with Buraki, though, and things would have gone bad for them if a good imugi hadn’t shown up (although Ethan says “the good imugi,” which would seem to indicate that there are only two total). But the good imugi does show up out of nowhere and they battle. Buraki gets the better of the good imugi, and Sarah realizes that only she can save him. She produces the yeouiju and guides it to the good imugi, who swallows it, becomes a dragon, and proceeds to kick Buraki’s butt in the best scene in the entire film. Sarah dies, but her spirit appears again and declares her undying love for Ethan (despite the fact that they’ve only known each other for about a day). The end.

Now, before I get into what was wrong with the film (besides what I harped on with my snarky comments in the synopsis), we need to get a couple of things out of the way—namely what exactly imugi and yeouiju are. The dictionary definition of “imugi” is basically “a dragon without horns.” This is interesting, because it implies that it has arms and legs like a dragon. The imugi in the film, though, are basically just big snakes with dragon-like heads.

I suspect that the old Korean legend that forms the basis of the film is an interpretation of existing Korean legends. I have heard stories of maidens (virgins) being sacrificed to imugi, but never stories of maidens actually being yeouiju. Which brings us to the second question: what is a yeouiju? In Sanskrit the yeouiju is known as a “cintamani,” and it is a mystical gem from Hindu and Buddhist tradition that has the power to grant the wishes of anyone who might possess it. I once did a literary translation that included mention of a yeouiju—I translated it into English as “wishstone.”

Another related question is the actual role of the yeouiju. According to the film, the yeouiju is basically the ticket to becoming a dragon and ascending to heaven. In reality, though, dragons are awarded yeouiju upon ascension—in other words, it is the result of ascension, not the cause. How imugi become dragons is thus an open question. As far as I know, they must first live to become a thousand years old, and then they get their chance. Actual dragonhood is awarded if the imugi performs a good deed or passes a test, or something of that nature (I’m a bit fuzzy on this point). I haven’t done any concentrated study on imugi, so I could very well be wrong, but suffice it to say that it is not quite as simple a matter as it is shown in the film.

At any rate, it is likely that the writers combined the idea of the yeouiju and virgin sacrifice to arrive at the legend you see in the film. It is actually a pretty good legend in terms of narrative possibility, and although it might not be true to the original spirit of the yeouiju, I think they did a good job.

Of course, everything went downhill from there. The main problem with the film was that it felt like it was edited by a crack-addled teenager with ADD. Early on in the film there is a very telling scene that a lot of people probably missed, at least consciously. When Ethan discovers the chest in the antique shop, it opens up and starts glowing. Jack sees this and realizes that Ethan is the reincarnation of his protégé, so he feigns chest pains to get Ethan’s father out of the shop. He tells him to go down the street to an herbal medicine shop to get some medicine for him. Ethan’s father leaves and Jack begins to tell Ethan the legend and what happened five hundred years ago. This exposition-heavy sequence is accomplished by cutting between present-day Jack telling Ethan the story and flashbacks that show the actual events (sometimes with voiceover). During one of the present-day bits, Jack picks up a bowl of dark brown liquid and sips it. What is it? It’s the Korean medicine, of course. But we never see Ethan’s father return to the shop with it. In fact, we never see Ethan’s father again.

I cocked my head when I saw Jack drink the medicine, thinking, “When did Ethan’s father get back? And where did he go off to now?” Then I put it out of my head as a tiny hiccup in the narrative. As it turned out, though, that was only the beginning—the narrative had more hiccups than an Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day. Even if I could remember them all, just listing them would be a journal entry in and of itself. But I won’t bore you with what I do remember. I will just say this: the narrative skips so much that it doesn’t feel like a single narrative thread. Perhaps the worst recurring offense is how characters gain knowledge in the film. People who knew nothing five minutes ago are suddenly experts on Korean legend, and we are given some lame excuse for why they now know so much (like “The FBI has a very good paranormal department”—that just happens to have an expert in Korean oral literature, right?). In other words, as far as the actual narrative goes, this film is all tell, no show. It felt as if the director just wanted to get through the pesky story as quickly as possible to get to his grand action set pieces.

The story wasn’t the only part of the film that suffered. There was also mediocre acting and horrible dialogue. The leads were not total unknowns, but they definitely weren’t A-list either. Still, I have to wonder how much of the fiasco was their fault as actors and how much of it was the fault of the material that was foisted on them. The dialogue, though, was inexcusable. Take this one line from a generic FBI guy about Sarah: “All of her family are no longer alive.” Uh, what? You mean she has no living relatives? There were also awkward word choices that made me cringe, like the “quarantine” bit I mentioned above and a cop saying that he was “interrogating” Sarah (you don’t interrogate someone reporting a crime, you question them). This leads me to believe that the script was written by a non-native speaker and then proofread by Bart Simpson while he was in a particularly vicious mood.

OK, so the story was handled poorly, the acting was uninspiring, and the dialogue was cringe-inducing. What’s left? Ah, yes, the special effects. Because—let’s be honest with ourselves here—that’s what this film is really all about. It’s just one big special effects vehicle. So how were they? In short, they were good, but they could have been better. Most damning for me was how derivate they were. Very rarely did I see a special effects shot and not think, “Oh, that looks exactly like Star Wars/Lord of the Rings/Blade, etc.” One moment that sticks in my mind is when the mini-dragons dove out of the sky to attack the armed forces—in an almost exact copy of the scene from Return of the King where the Nazgûl swoop down on Minas Tirith. Some of the creatures that participated in the attack on the walled town in 16th century Korea reminded me very much of tauntauns from The Empire Strikes Back, both in general appearance and in their jerky movement. Yet despite all this derivativeness, the special effects rarely rose to the level of the masters they copied. (Although I will admit that Buraki, who appeared quite a bit throughout the film, was well done.)

The one exception to this was the final battle between Buraki and the dragon. As Kevin says in his review, it is probably the first time a CG Asian dragon has ever been seen on the silver screen. It was the only moment in the entire film that I thought, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like this before.” My only problem with the dragon was that it dealt the killing blow to Buraki by breathing a ball of fire from its mouth. Now I realize that this is going to sound pedantic, but Korean dragons don’t breathe fire. Why don’t they breathe fire? There is actually a very good reason. Korean dragons traditionally live in the water (as do imugi—Jack says in the beginning that they live in the sky, but that’s just flat out wrong), where they function symbolically as the embodiment of eum or yin, the negative/cold force if the eum-yang (yin-yang) combination. To have a Korean dragon breathe fire would go against everything that a Korean dragon is. But apparently a cool fireball and a Blade vampire-like death is more important than fidelity to the legends.

While we’re on the subject of Kevin’s review (sort of), I want to address something that he mentioned at the end:

...a recurrent theme in Korean lit is that human beings are small things on the cosmic scale, often buffeted by the vicissitudes of circumstance. DW wants to explore this theme; in the end, the movie is less about the human characters who monopolize the film than it is about the striving of powers far surpassing human reckoning. Accepting one's fate, standing helplessly by while great entities clash—there is a distinctly Korean flavor to the proceedings.

Kevin mentioned that he was a bit frustrated with this, and I can understand that. But from the moment I heard the legend to the very end of the film, there was never a doubt in my mind that Sarah would surrender herself to her destiny. I’m not sure characterizing the struggle as “standing helplessly by while great entities clash” is entirely accurate. After all, if Sarah has chosen to deny her fate, Buraki would have killed the good imugi and then finished off Sarah and Ethan (and then, ostensibly, the rest of the world). It could be argued that Sarah realized this and realized she had no choice but to surrender to her fate, but to look at it another way, you could say that Sarah finally made her peace with who she was and where her place was in the universe.

Realizing that you have a strictly defined place in the order of things can be comforting—and this isn’t just a Korean idea. In Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf and Frodo are discussing the Ring in Moria, Gandalf says, “Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.” In fact, the entire trilogy is about Frodo coming to terms with his destiny—what he must do lest the world fall into darkness and everything that is good be destroyed.

The difference between Lord of the Rings and D-War, I think, is how much we feel for the characters. We grow emotionally attached to Frodo throughout the course of the story, so the decisions he makes affect us deeply. Sarah, on the other hand, is little more than a paper cut-out, a stand-in for a plot element and nothing more. Thus her realization of her destiny and her decision to follow that destiny stir no emotions. It is not a grand and epic moment in the film—it feels hollow and empty. But that is not because of the actual decision itself, it’s because of the failings of the film as a narrative and vehicle for character development. Frodo makes a number of decisions throughout the story and grows as a character, at times reaffirming his destiny and at other times denying it, but never abandoning his quest (until the very end). Sarah, on the other hand, spends the entire film doing a whole lot of nothing, making only a single decision in the end. So I can see where Kevin’s frustration comes from, I just think that it’s more the fault of the film than of the underlying idea of destiny or fate.

I’m sure more could be said on the subject, and I’m sure there are holes in my argument. This actually just came to me as I was writing this, and wasn’t something I thought about in advance. But I think my basic premise is sound.

And with that, I think, I will wrap up this review. In closing, despite the success D-War is enjoying in Korea at the moment, it is basically a straight-to-video (or straight-to-DVD) flick. But It has already done better than Director Shim’s early flop Yonggary, and it is definitely a step in the right direction. After the film was over, Kevin and I talked about filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, who started out making B-films and went on to make blockbusters. And, as Hyunjin pointed out, D-War’s legacy will most likely be that it secured more funding for future projects from Shim. With all of the money spent on special effects, there was precious little left for casting and other aspects of filmmaking—with more funding in the future, who knows what might happen. A good scriptwriter and a good cast thrown into the mix might produce some surprising results.

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