After a couple of weeks in the West it is time to head back east for a proper taste of the wacky; this time, South Korea. Ah, South Korea. You guys are awesome.
Fun, but just too long.
In sixteenth century Korea, a trio of Taoist gods accidentally release the evil goblins from captivity. To trap them again they need the powerful wizard Hwadam, but their mission is hampered by Woochi, another impetuous but powerful young wizard. After catching the goblins, the gods also trap Woochi and his friend Chorangyi – a dog who has been turned into a man – within a painting. Five hundred years later, the goblins are again on the loose, this time in modern day Seoul. In Hwadam’s absence, the gods are forced to free Woochi to help them but it seems that Hwadam is not as absent as they think.
Sometimes I wonder about people who rename movies for foreign audiences. For example, the direct English translation of this flick’s Korean title is Jeon Woo-Chi: The Taoist Wizard. That is a perfectly reasonable title since he is both a wizard and a Taoist. But what he is not is a slayer of demons. Well to be totally honest I really don’t know if he is or not, but what I do know is there are no demons in this movie, slain or otherwise. There is a massive rat doing kung fu though. You don’t see that every day.
That’s enough griping (actually it’s not, but the rest can wait). Woochi is a historical, martial arts, action comedy which after about half an hour becomes a present-day, martial arts, action comedy. Think of it as Kate And Leopold, only with more wire fu and a giant armoured rabbit. It’s frequently a lot of fun to watch thanks to the charisma of Dong-won Kang in the title role and the back-and-forth banter between the three immortal gods, one of whom is working as a Catholic priest in the modern day. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about the subtext in that!
The effects are impressive considering the rumoured $12 million budget, with director Dong-hun Choi wisely choosing to keep his goblins (the aforementioned 8ft tall rabbit and his friend the rat) mostly in nighttime scenes and to use very quick cuts to distract from the slight cartoonishness. Unfortunately this hyperactive editing extends to the quiet dialogue scenes as well, which adds nothing to these moments except distraction.
The Kate to Woochi’s Leopold is Seo In-kyeong, played by the distractingly beautiful Su-jeong Lim, star of Chan-wook Park’s romantic comedy I’m A Cyborg But That’s Ok. She shows up as a widow that the goblins are looking for back in the 16th century scenes, and in the present day part of the flick she is the assistant to an actress who out hero falls immediately in love with after she hits him with her car. Of course it comes as no surprise to find she is hardly a damsel in distress when the big smackdown between Woochi and Hwadam finally comes along. While we’re on the subject of smackdowns, it is in the fight scenes where this flick really comes to life. Combining the now traditional flying through the air from the wu-xia movies of China (which is actually somewhat justified for once since they are all wizards) with the films constant sense of humour and magic spells, the frequent fight sequences are never less than entertaining.
I leave it up to you however to decide the point where an embarrasment of riches becomes just an embarrasment. At two hours (and that’s the international cut. The Korean version runs 138 minutes!) Woochi is at least twenty minutes too long, but at the same time I felt a bit shortchanged when it came to character development and proper motivations for what was happening, not to mention the odd logic gap here and there*. It is possible that the international cut sacrificed these elements in favour of the asskickery – it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened – leaving this entertaining but jumbled result. I would call this cut a rental, but I’m tempted to give the full-length version a once-over.
*And yes, I do appreciate the irony of decrying a lack of logic and coherence in a WTF Sunday movie, but there are times in this flick where I really did not understand what was happening until I had thought about it for a couple of hours and replayed a few sequences in my head. Any other day of the week, and that would be a deal-breaker.