|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 08 August 2008|
If not, you can learn that, and lots more, in “Dragon Wars” (aka “D-War”), an ambitious, inventive and lively South Korean epic, the most expensive movie made so far in that country. It was a bid to create an international market for Korean movies, but it didn’t take. Part of the problem is the labyrinthine mythology underlying this fantasy; another part is that it IS fantasy and not science fiction. The American public seems to sit still for big-scale action pictures presented as science fiction, but shies away from them when they’re fantasy, unless they’re set in the past or based on a book by J.K. Rowling. The public embraces big city-destroying monsters, but balks at such monsters when their origins lie in magic rather than science, however goofy.
This movie starts in South Korea in the 16th century, then shifts to Los Angeles about 20 years ago. In an antique/junk shop, a boy is transfixed by light from a magical box. Jack (Robert Forster), who runs the shop, patiently explains at great length the intricacies of the story behind the box, and behind the boy, Ethan, himself. There’s something about a woman destined for some kind of greatness, indicated by the mark of the Red Dragon. This gives her power over a talisman that can change an Imoogi, a big, snake-like dragon-ish creature, into a true Dragon. But there are good Imoogis and bad Imoogis; the boy is destined to help the girl with the dragon mark get the talisman to a good Imoogi. Forster explains all this with a straight face and a strong sense of belief; it’s good acting used for strange ends.
All of a sudden, it’s twenty years later. Ethan (Jason Behr) is a journalist covering a big disaster just outside of Los Angeles. The type of disaster isn’t clear—the film was cut somewhat for its U.S. release—but it did involve something that left behind scales. There are a couple of FBI agents hanging around (one is reliable Chris Mulkey); they turn up again and again throughout the movie.
What caused the disaster was Buraki, a very bad Imoogi; it/he wants to find the girl with the Red Dragon mark and use her talisman to ascend to true dragon-hood. He’s aided in this by a Darth Vader-like evil general, who commands a large number of supernatural warriors and the beasts they ride, some of which are fitted out with cannons. The woman everyone is looking for is Sarah Daniels (Amanda Brooks), who eventually learns all this when she and Ethan team up.
They flee a hospital that’s promptly encircled by Buraki; they flee to the home of a professor, and there comes Buraki again, rising up behind the house like a colossus. They head downtown, and here comes Buraki, smashing into the building they’ve just fled. The movie—and the leads—are very cavalier about the hundreds of people (including Sarah’s roommate) who fall victim to Buraki in their wake. These hordes of people aren’t even collateral damage—they’re treated like the smashed buildings, scenic but of no real concern.
Eventually, everything ends up on the streets of the financial district, with U.S. armored forces battling the marching hordes led by that Darth Vader-like figure. Jack mysteriously turns up from time to time; seems he’s the magician from 16th century Korea who’s been waiting for the 500 years that must pass before another woman with the Red Dragon mark appears. Jack turns into various helpful figures, then completely vanishes from the story.
“D-War” was made on a pretty large scale, nothing like, say, “Transformers,” which in terms of spectacle it somewhat resembles. But it’s big for a Korean movie shot in the United States; there are lots of explosions of tanks, dinosaur-like creatures and other things really on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
The effects are variable; at their worst, they’re acceptable. At their best, they present the kind of eye-popping spectacle that so many of these films strive for but often miss. Buraki is sometimes all too obviously CGI effects, but other times the effects reveal themselves only because they HAVE to be effects—a giant snake can’t really be wrapping around the Library Tower in downtown Los Angeles, but by George it sure looks real enough. The effects were done by a huge team of mostly South Koreans, but led by a few American technicians. One of the accompanying featurettes talks about the design of the effects, but, fortunately, doesn’t force on us the boredom of watching people in front of computer screens making small but crucial adjustments to existing images.
Being a Blu-Ray disc, this is in high definition, though the images are usually fairly routine. There’s a lengthy sequence in 1527 Korea, in a rocky stream surrounded by vegetation of a particularly rich green. (High definition is very kind to greens; I have no idea why.) The spectacular battle in Los Angeles, and the later battle between Buraki and that slow-to-arrive good Imoogi, look fine in high definition, but they’d look about as good in standard definition. The strength of such sequences doesn’t lie in the small details, but in the largest details possible. The sound is particularly good, and was clearly given a great deal of care by the filmmakers.
But the big battles are just showy. They’re exciting and lively, and often very good in terms of effects, but you just don’t give a damn about what’s going on. No characters we care about are in danger at any time; the only reasons we care about Ethan and Sarah is because they’re the center of the action, not because they’re particularly likable or realistic. Jack, fantasy character though he is, was much more likeable because he was played by Robert Forster, who is himself a likeable character. All the explosions, giant constrictors, dinosaurish creatures with cannons on their backs, marching hordes of armored warriors, flying dragons, are nothing more than moving scenery when you don’t care about the people on screen.
Furthermore, writer-director Hyung-rae Shim is obviously ambitious, but he’s not talented in either category. He keeps things moving, but he’s so in love with the mythology of his home country that he assumes everyone else will love it, too. He’s occasionally tone-deaf in his writing; didn’t anyone warn him that “Mighty Dawdler” doesn’t sound impressive in English? Also, all the characters, including the FBI agents, immediately understand all this mythology and believe in its reality. Our hero and heroine don’t really DO anything except flee the pursuing Imoogi and magical warriors. And the plot keeps lurching ahead by one implausible coincidence after another.
In the lengthy “making-of” featurette, Hyung-rae comes across as warm-hearted and even touching in his devotion to this material. He’s famous in South Korea as a comic actor; he’s long played a character called Young-guwa (as in “Young-guwa heubhyeolgwi Dracula,” or “Young-guwa vs. Dracula”), but loves monster movies. About ten years ago, he did a big-scale remake of “Yongary,” the only Korean monster movie to be seen much overseas (that is, until the remarkable “The Host” of last year), something like Jim Carrey directing a dead-serious remake of “King Kong.” His ambition to make the great Korean monster epic is so real and so earnest that it actually improves the movie.
It’s not, however, a very good movie, but it is spectacular, colorful and fast-paced, and occasionally features surprisingly good special effects.