Directed by:; Choi Dong-hoon Runtime: 136 minutes
Last year, director Choi Dong-hoon created a take on the bank heist formula, The Thieves, which spryly and unashamedly apes Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven to some rather positive ends. Instead of reinventing the premise, it focused on the personalities of those rogues being assembled and the charismatic, humorous rapport which forms between their differences, concocting a film whose replete personality trumps an overlong, dime-a-dozen plot. Tracing back through the director's work will lead one first to 2009's Woochi: The Demon Slayer (aka Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard), a Korean fantasy-epic that aims to do similar things by setting its sights on flamboyant characters -- namely a quirky, confident hero -- who jump ahead in time to halt the scheming of beasts and magic-wielding evildoers. Choi Dong-hoon's concentration on embellished personality isn't as successful in this crowd-pleasing romp, focused on a zany yarn of humanoid rats, ancient wizards, and parallels between the past and present that's weighed down by overzealous buffoonery and lukewarm action.
We begin by focusing on an impish Taoist wizard, Woochi (Kang Dong-won), in the Chosun Dynasty during the 1500s, whose proclivity for mischief and dreams of fame and fortune lands him in a situation out of his pay-grade. A student in the magic arts, he's caught in the conflict between his superiors -- including the questionable Hwadam (Kim Yoon-seok) -- and the rat-faced "goblins" who are kept under control by a magical flute. Woochi's shenanigans during the battle with the goblins frame him for a crime he didn't commit, and as punishment, he and his sidekick Chorangyi (Yoo Hae-Jin), a shape-shifter who goes from horse to man as needed, are indefinitely locked away in separate tapestries. Cut to modern-day South Korea, where the "retired" Taoist masters decide to pull Woochi from his imprisonment in order to battle the recently-returned goblins. The sites of the city, including a strangely-familiar woman from his past, prove too intriguing for the awoken wizard to ignore, though.
At first, Choi Dong-hoon flirts with the possibility that he might deliver on Woochi's fanciful concept, as the visual effects and production touches bring out action-fantasy jollity from the mythical 1500s setting. Battles across tile rooftops with digital rat-people, flying arrows, and magical slips of paper containing spells create a fine supernatural atmosphere, while the personality and aptitude of the hero -- cocky, devious, and uninterested in more respectful practice of the magical arts -- establishes a fun foundation for the story's time-sprawling intentions. Its purposes get obscured by cluttered, directionless writing and floppy comical interactions, but the fabled essence of those balance-protecting wizards coping with an aloof apprentice and ominous demons kept it interesting. Had the film stayed in the ancient era, atop mountains and trees while surrounded by weather-beaten structures and grand palaces, the mythology would've likely been enough for some vivacious wire-work fantasy in that setting.
Staying in the past isn't the point, though: Woochi yearns to get its hero and the antics that follow him to the modern era, and that's the point where the film's magic starts to fade. Similar to what he did in The Thieves, Choi Dong-hoon nonchalantly modifies the established formula of similar "fish-outta-water" fantasies from the '80s, like Beastmaster 2 and Masters of the Universe, reworking them into a not-so-different journey to defeat evil and locate a powerful relic -- a musical instrument, mind you! -- through foreign sights and sounds. Expected gags ensue; Woochi and his horse-in-disguise partner enjoy liquor and fried foods, groove through loud night clubs in modern clothes, and zoom around the city grid in a mechanical "horse". Their mischievous learning-curve exploration doesn't generate enough successful humor, though, making scenes where Woochi conditions to his modern surroundings into awkward, overcooked stabs at rewarming the same old jokes. To be fair, they didn't work all that well in those '80s fantasies, either.
Woochi suffers from simply having too much going on once the modern era's activities comingle with the story's promising mythology, from time-travel humor and trite "drama" involving an uppity actress to a stiff romantic undercurrent involving the demon slayer and a suspiciously familiar-looking assistant. It doesn't help that the momentum in modern-day Korea is driven by disorderly action, some of which is fairly dull. There are a few exceptions; one set-piece, which comes close to achieving what Choi Dong-hoon set out to do, features an army of magically-duplicated Woochis battling a pair of human-clothed goblins, where those involved bounce between neon-lit buildings and dancing fire in a faint ode to The Matrix Reloaded. Magical convenience pops up like this frequently, though, such as nonviolently distracting suit-and-tie thugs and disguising one person with the features of another. The whole thing is a jumble without rules, really -- and that unruliness applies to the action's editing itself, a disorienting array of snippets that very rarely lingers on anything. While occasionally entertaining, the "action" part of the action-comedy is a mess.
Perhaps everything would've clicked better had Woochi himself been a more intriguing cornerstone. Known to most as the stoic, intimidating Sad Eyes from The Duelist, actor Kang Dong-won embodies an overly eccentric hero here who can't be taken very seriously. His smirks, sideways glances, and hocked loogies from under a wide-brimmed black hat make for a peculiar, forced rascal of an antihero, who, despite showing aptitude with a staff and a deck of spellcasting "amulets", doesn't command much of a presence. Sure, that's part of the point: this "resurrected" wizard isn't a champion, instead more of the ancient leftovers reluctantly brought back to life when the situation grows desperate. This nagging hollowness does little to inform his hunt for rat-goblins in modern-day South Korea, though, where the rediscovery of his powers and blossoming love slip through Choi Dong-hoon's fingers as missed opportunities at fleshing out a superior demon slayer.
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