Friday, August 10, 2007

"D-War": the review

WARNING: SPOILERS! But I suspect most of my readership won't care if this movie is spoiled for them.

I'm at the office right now, having returned from a viewing of "D-War" with Charles and his lovely wife Hyunjin.

Straight to the point, then: how was it?

"D-War" (hereinafter DW) was bad, as expected, but it wasn't nearly as bad as "Highlander 2: The Quickening," a movie that is beyond vomitous and perilously close to mental rape. If DW reminded me of anything, it was of those patchwork scenes from the Power Rangers series, where dudes wear funky plastic armor that's supposed to remind you of metal. Cheesy.

I have to say this, though: DW could have been a good movie. The story, as Charles remarked, was in fact coherent (though the pacing was choppy). With better editing, a better script, better acting, and somewhat amped-up special effects, the DW concept might have packed a much larger punch.

It might, in fact, have been better to have made DW as an entirely animated film, à la "The Polar Express" or the upcoming "Beowulf" (both are Robert Zemeckis vehicles). That, at least, would have aided the viewer's suspension of disbelief. What we get instead is a wannabe live action/CGI film that strives for and fails to reach George Lucas and Peter Jackson territory.

If the phrase "dragon war" implies "war between dragons," then DW doesn't actually feature a dragon war. The final conflict between two great beasts occurs at the end of the film, but only one beast is a true dragon. The movie spins a tale of imugi, legendary protodragons that have the chance to become full dragons, and among these generally good imugi is one bad one, Buraki, who has been striving to become a full dragon for centuries.

The catalyst that allows an imugi to become a full dragon is a human woman who is born with a dragon-shaped mark high on her chest, near her shoulder. The imugi's mission is to seek this marked female out-- she is born once every 500 years, I think-- but only when she reaches the age of twenty.*

Most of the movie's plot is devoted to Buraki's hunt for the latest marked woman, Sarah. It's only during the final sequence that a nameless good imugi appears, in true deus ex machina style, to fight with Buraki while the humans watch helplessly. The two imugi face off, and it seems that Buraki will best the good imugi, but just in the nick of time, Sarah offers her glowing dragon-essence to the good imugi, who is transmogrified into a true dragon that then defeats Buraki.

If the movie had simply been an animated short that focused exclusively on this battle, I would have been happy. The dragon, when it finally appears, is probably the first full CGI rendition of the Asian dragon ever to grace the screen, and truth be told, it's not half bad. Watching that dragon in action, undulating through the sky exactly as I imagined such a magical wingless creature would, was both a surprise and a pleasure. Sure, the movie merely riffs off 1993-era "Jurassic Park" dino effects, but part of me has always wanted to see the Asian dragon living and breathing (though not breathing fire) on screen, and there it was: the fangs, the huge, wild eyes, the antlers, the beard, the whiplike mustache, the claws-- it was all there.

Hovering over some weird castle in Mexico.

Don't ask.

But the plot that brings us to that wonderful draconian sequence is in sore need of rehabilitation. We don't see true dragons throughout the course of the story, but we do get inundated with various winged dragonlings (was this a hat tip to Anne McCaffrey and her dragonriders?) as well as gigantic lizards with preposterous missile launchers strapped to their backs. We are also treated to a "Highlander"-style evil warrior (black trenchcoat? check; anachronistic sword? check) whose purpose in the film was obscure to me. He seemed to be some sort of servant of Buraki, but I couldn't be sure: he spoke in a basso, cthonian gibberish that was translated into Korean subtitles, but I couldn't follow the subtitles quickly enough to know the details of what he was saying (I did catch some typical ├╝bervillainish phrases like "At long last...!").

DW suffers from wanting to be too many things at once. It is, at times, both a monster movie in the King Kong or Godzilla mode (cf. the scene where Buraki slithers his way up a tall apartment building while military choppers blaze away at him with machine guns and rockets) and a sci-fi/fantasy movie with huge ground battles in the manner of "Phantom Menace" (not the model I'd imitate) or any of the Lord of the Rings films. Trust me: you won't think "Ah, Kurasawa!" when you see the flashback to the massive ground battle in old Korea.

As noted, DW also suffers from choppy editing, a limp script, and some strange casting decisions. Robert Forster, who had his comeback thanks to Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," wouldn't have been my first choice as the present-day incarnation of an ancient Korean mentor (Laurence Fishburne, on the other hand, can play a part like that in his sleep). Forster is always cool to watch, and he does the best he can with the script he's given, but I still felt strange watching him in that role.

The romantic subplot of the movie was perfectly ridiculous as well. The idea is that Ethan and Sarah, who kiss passionately within five minutes of meeting each other, are reincarnations of two Korean lovers: a young warrior and the marked woman (who are themselves reincarnations of...?). In the Korean flashback, we learn that the couple attempted to avoid fate by drowning themselves in the sea, thereby depriving the evil Buraki of the chance to transform into a full dragon and necessitating his half-millennium wait for the woman to be born again. In modern Los Angeles, the reincarnated couple finally realize (well, Sarah realizes) that they cannot escape their destiny, which is why Sarah allows her dragon-essence to be subsumed by the good imugi in the final battle.

And that, I think, is one reason why I left the film a bit frustrated: one of the most fascinating themes in literature and film is that of fate versus freedom, and DW mishandles it. As I think Charles has pointed out before (if not publicly on Liminality, then in private), 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 badly 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. But DW's mistake is to spend too much time on characters and events that are only tangentially relevant to the bigger issues.

The admixture of sci-fi and fantasy is an acquired taste for many. The Star Wars movies managed this (swords, sorcery, tech), and to a far greater extent, the cosmology of Frank Herbert's Dune, with its amazing notion of a messiah/mahdi (Paul Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach), is a triumph of the genre-syncretic imagination. I can't fault director Shim Hyung-rae for aiming for this same sort of fusion, but in the end, I'm disappointed that such interesting themes and concepts ended up as, well, "D-War."

Go see the movie for the cool dragon at the end. That's it.

*The movie doesn't specify whether this is twenty in Asian reckoning or Western reckoning, though it doesn't seem to matter: in a flashback sequence that takes us centuries back to Korea, a Korean girl turns twenty (in "Korean age"), and Buraki comes looking for her. Meanwhile, in our times, the newest incarnation of the chosen female, the American Sarah, tells our hero, Ethan, that "Today's my twentieth birthday." I assume she's calculating this in the Western way. Apparently, it's enough simply to believe you're twenty.


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