**/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Kang Dong-won, Kim Yoon-seok, Im Soo-jung, Yoo Hae-jin
written and directed by Choi Dong-hoon
by Bryant Frazer With directors like Park Chan-wook, Kim Ki-duk, and Bong Joon-ho doing their level best to reinvent genres like the revenge thriller, the lurid melodrama, and even the monster movie, recent Korean cinema has been a wellspring of intrigue for movie buffs. You won't get that kind of ambition from Woochi, a middle-of-the-road adventure yarn constructed out of bits of Korean mythology, formulaic action beats, and Hollywood-style VFX work. It's featherweight through and through, adventurous only inasmuch as it switches gears partway in, moving from the generic conventions of a period martial-arts film to those of an urban fantasy opus set in modern South Korea, where centuries-old wizards are vying to retrieve an ancient relic. If you listen carefully enough during the quiet bits, you can almost hear the popcorn being chewed.
That's the problem when you make a movie about gods squabbling amongst themselves: you're stuck telling a story about a bunch of superheroes. Stakes are hard to quantify beyond, you know, demons, and the big fighting set-pieces aren't especially suspenseful or thrilling, because you don't have a keen sense of what these wirework acrobats can and can't do. You just watch them do it. So when Woochi tosses a handful of spell-casting paper amulets into the air to clone himself several times over, you mainly shrug and think, "Yeah, I guess a Taoist wizard would be able to self-replicate into a small army." I mean, why not?
If you can get your head into that state of blissful malleability, you'll have your best shot at enjoying Woochi, which unspools over 135 leisurely minutes. The first 45 are set in the 16th century, where we meet Jun Woochi (Kang Dong-won), an insouciant and mischief-making young Taoist wizard whose idea of a good time is using magic tricks to embarrass the king in his own castle, compelling his court musicians to break spontaneously into song. It's this rebellious streak that lands him in hot water when he's the object of a convenient frame-up after the killing of his master. For his transgression, Woochi is imprisoned inside an illustrated scroll for 500 years, until he's eventually busted out by those idiot shinsuns, who need him to help them track down the Rat Demon and the Bunny Demon--both of whom are running amuck in contemporary Seoul.
The marketing appeal of this sort of thing is big VFX-laden fight scenes, of course. Director Choi Dong-hoon is best known for sleek and sexy heist pictures like The Thieves, and I'm not sure about his action chops. Martial arts films at their best include in their set-pieces tiny stories of human grace and athleticism, but Woochi is edited like a Baz Luhrmann film, with ostentatiously vertiginous camera moves that artificially pump up the kinetics. Fight choreographer Jung Doo-hong is reputedly the finest in Korean film, yet Kang could be the unholy love child of Gene Kelly and Jackie Chan and you'd never be the wiser based on the quick and chaotic cuts that fragment his action to smithereens here. Still, when Choi's camera settles down, the screen action comes across well enough. I grinned at one shot where several of the magically-spawned Woochis hold a bad guy in check with long sticks while another Woochi smacks the hell out of him from behind. Of course, the gag is broken up into no fewer than seven short shots and punctuated with a dopey reaction shot of Woochi's buddies grinning like maroons. (You know, in case you didn't realize the movie just made a funny.) The film boasts a reasonable proportion of wirework, fireball throwing, and scenery chewing, though Jung's work here isn't enough to recommend Woochi on its own.
I do like the movie's women, especially Seon Woo-seon, who remains just as cool as a cucumber as the impeccably-dressed human alter-ego of the bunny goblin. I'd rather see more of her one-upping the cocky Woochi at every turn and less of the more conventionally dour, middle-aged villain who eventually dominates the proceedings. Also good in a pivotal role is Lim Su-jeong, whom cinephiles may recognize from A Tale of Two Sisters and I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, as a young widow Woochi falls for in the origin story--and who turns up unexpectedly in the film's latter-day section. On the other hand, Yu Hae-jin certainly makes an impression in the role of Woochi's faithful, butt-sniffing man-dog companion Chorangyi, who provides gently vulgar comic relief but contributes to the narrative chaos in a film so rife with hubbub that Terry Gilliam shows up at one point to tell these guys to keep it down. (Not really.)
The performances are of a relatively high calibre throughout, meaning Woochi scores some points on charisma alone. Boyish charm is the key selling point for a protagonist who dresses like "Smooth Criminal"-era Michael Jackson, plucks the products being sold out of bus-stop posters, and chugs 30-year-old Scotch straight from the bottle. Kang Dong-won does a pretty solid Woochi, although the script never gives him a chance to really dig below the surface of the character. The most depth he exhibits comes with his bemusement at the core concepts behind Korea's market economy. "Without the king, who feeds the people?" he asks. When one of the three aged shinsuns starts to explain the concept of big business, Woochi is smugly dismissive: "Merchants are cunning people who can even deceive their own parents for profit. And you're saying they're feeding the people? The world like that should have lots of troubles and worries."
Though Woochi never quite turns into Occupy the Gangnam District, it does feint in that direction a couple of times. When Woochi stumbled across a poster depicting a recently-vanquished foe in human form, shilling for a popular Korean hangover-cure-in-a-bottle, I briefly imagined the film morphing into a politically-engaged, They Live-style attack on the advertising industry, with Woochi taking on a codex of evil pitchmen by throwing himself into egregiously cheery ad slicks and beating the crap out of the evil puppet-masters who live there. I don't think Woochi does any more than nod in the general direction of social criticism--but at least it nods, and I value that.
And it includes some fun reflexive notes that, in a kind of corollary to Woochi's relationship with commercial imagery, draw attention to the distance between fantasy and reality, such as a scene where Woochi conjures an ersatz shoreline in a bid to impress a pretty widow, a subplot featuring a high-maintenance movie actress, and a street fight shot far from Seoul, against the delightfully artificial backdrops of the Hapcheon Image Theme Park, the biggest backlot in all of South Korea. As a brisk, 95-minute lark, it could be a fun way to kill an evening. Did I mention Woochi runs 135?
The back cover of the Woochi Blu-ray box--which bills the film as Woochi the Demon Slayer (a title that never actually appears on screen)--claims that it "broke all box-office records in Korea in 2009." Sounds like quite a feat. I'm not sure how that figures, considering Wikipedia currently shows Woochi as the 25th highest-grossing film in Korean history and only the third-highest grosser released in 2009. But a hit's a hit, and Shout! Factory has released Woochi in a pristine 2.35:1, 1080p transfer that gives up only the slightest hint of the film's 35mm origins. Grain is minimal, present in just-sufficient quantities to lend the picture some pleasing texture, especially in the shadows, while the image is almost entirely clean of dirt, scratches, and other blemishes. Digital dust-busting may be at play, though it's not egregious, and any sharpening is similarly tasteful. More notable is an occasionally flat, low-contrast quality to some of the imagery that I assume correctly reflects the original colour-grade; same with the overall coolness of the presentation. Here's a film that tilts to the blue part of the spectrum whenever possible. The AVC HD compression has been applied judiciously, its video bitrate topping out at 35 Mbps.
The sound is presented in 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD MA versions for both Korean and English. The audio is fine--dialogue and effects are pretty clear in a mix that regularly taps the surrounds and the subwoofer without giving the discrete channels a real workout. The Korean option is most notable for Kang's much-superior voice performance; Woochi's non-verbal utterances and intonations, in particular, have a completely different timbre in the English-language alternative. Technically, the main difference is that the dialogue tracks are a little louder and more shrill in English, leading a viewer to turn down the sound a bit, which consequently buries the FX tracks too far down in the mix. As usual, original language is the way to go.
Unexpectedly, the disc's special features, standard-def across the board, are a delight for anyone interested in the craft that goes into a major Asian adventure movie with a ton of wirework. Some of the stuff on this disc is shovelware, and it's a bit of a slog--there's a 26-minute featurette that's nothing but a collection of previsualization footage (low-resolution "placeholder" animation that sets the tone for the finished VFX shots), and a 25-minute "making of" montage of B-roll footage that's good for superfans but kind of dull for the rest of us. We also find a couple of EPK-style fluff pieces where the director and the cast talk about how swell it all is and how much they look forward to us seeing their film.
The remaining supplements, however, shed some light on a complex production that wanted more time and money. Talking-head interviews, somewhat crudely shot, are interspersed with film clips and even more B-roll, but the participants are generally so candid about their work behind the scenes that the collected shorts end up being engaging and quite informative. In one of them, choreographer Jung Doo-hung explains the logistical difficulties of some of the more complex wire-working scenes, noting that 30 takes were required for a particularly demanding shot of Woochi standing sideways on a wall outside of a house, his walking stick planted firmly in the ground perpendicular to his body. In a feature focusing on the visual effects, VFX supervisor Cho Young-seek notes that the sequence in question required a total of between ten and fifteen wires attached to the actor, compared to the three or four used in a typical scene.
Some of the B-roll offers a glimpse of huge, animatronic demon puppets that were apparently used on set, then scanned digitally and replaced by CG versions in post. Those "dummy" demons are way scarier than anything that shows up in the finished film. In his interview, Cho seems a tad apologetic about this. Cho also addresses that animated opening sequence I crapped all over in my second paragraph, above. "We had to rush to make [the director's] sequence in a fight against time," he says, via subtitles. "That's why I still feel some shame, in that sense."
Another short, approximately six minutes in length, addresses another of my complaints, which is the hyperactive editorial technique that cuts the wirework into itty-bitty fragments of action, as Choi explains that it's well-nigh impossible to capture a wire stunt that's executed perfectly from start to finish. Instead, he shot as much material as he could, and kept everything for the cutting-room rather than printing only the good takes. "If there was a long shot with a good part in it, we decided to use the good part of the shot," he says. "If we hadn't compromised on the scene in that way, I have no idea how long it would have taken us." Similarly, Choi explains the dominant shooting strategy of using three cameras for action scenes, with an emphasis on moving all those cameras and setting them up quickly to shoot the same scene again from three different angles. Because the cameras were swiftly repositioned, the lights were turned up on set, reducing the apparent contrast of the cinematography. I suspect this technique may partly explain the flatness of image I mentioned above.
The extras additionally allow us a peek inside the "Action School," where the actors learn the craft of wirework over thick mats that cushion their inevitable falls. Likewise on board is a discussion of the film's production design, the director's thoughts on what he was trying to convey in certain scenes (as well as the actors' techniques), and some collages of finished and unfinished footage showing the VFX work in process. There's also a two-minute trailer for the Korean market.
Lastly, we get nearly 14 minutes' worth of letterboxed deleted scenes in so-so quality. Most of the VFX work is unfinished, as is the soundmix, and timecode and other burn-ins prove distracting. Things start off promisingly enough with a whimsical fable about a fellow who, acting on mischievous instructions from Woochi, gets into trouble with his own greed. If it's obviously extraneous to the main story, it nevertheless fills out Woochi's character. There's some extra exposition in dialogue explaining what exactly is going on with the demons and their ability to take human form, plus a mildly gory vignette involving the aftermath of a prisoner's escape. Some of these bits and pieces are merely connective tissue discarded from scenes in the film's midsection, but there's a dream sequence that's spooky as hell even in unfinished form and might be my favourite thing from the film. Does the inclusion of all this bonus material make Woochi a better movie? No, of course not. It helps me enjoy and appreciate it a little more, however, which is a fine result. Woochi is a pretty solid win from Shout.