Written and directed by: Choi Dong-hoon
Starring: Kang Dong-won, Yu Hae-jin, and Ju Jin-mo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
World beware. The wizard is coming.
We’ve seen a lot of re-imaginings of folk and fairy tales on this side of the Pacific for the past couple of years, but South Korea was already doing this stuff years ago. And if Woochi is any indication, they’ve been doing it much better than Hollywood, primarily because writer/director Choi Dong-hoon doesn’t bother with the grim and gritty sensibilities that have plagued his Western counterparts. Instead, Woochi is good, spirited fun that mixes folk stories, comic books, and high fantasy into an ambitious, centuries-spanning tale that doesn’t sacrifice its underlying humanity for overblown, empty spectacle.
After an archgod fails to trap a bunch of goblins within a magical flute, the demons wind up wreaking havoc during the Joseon Dynasty. A group of ancient Taoist wizards seek the help of The Master (Baek Yoon-sik) and Hwadam (Kim Yoon-seok) by entrusting each with a half of the legendary flute. However, The Masters other student, the irascible, womanizing Woochi (Kang Dong-won) causes mischief and winds up framed for his master’s murder. The wizards banish him into a painting, where he remains for five hundred years until the goblins unexpectedly return. With no one else to turn too, the trio of wizards turns to Woochi, who may be too enamored with the splendor of the modern world to play super-hero.
Woochi is a paradoxical experience: it’s technically massive in scope, yet feels quite intimate; it’s a bit too long, yet manages a certain breeziness. Perhaps due to the cultural divide, it’s also a little impenetrable at first; I assume most Korean audiences are familiar enough with the original folk tale, but it took a while to get my bearings straight here. Within the first five minutes, the film jumps from Hades, modern Korea, and five hundred years in the past as it begins to lay down the bricks. The 16th century stuff isn’t just an obligatory prologue either, as it eats up about 45 minutes of the film’s 130+ minute runtime, an approach that does a sufficient job of introducing the film’s zany cast of characters but hints at its sprawling, ambling narrative. As is the case throughout the film, the goblins seem to be an afterthought while Woochi’s antics take center-stage. Along with his shape-shifting sidekick Chorangyi (Yoo Hae-Jin), he acts as a typical scoundrel: he seeks fame and fortune more than enlightenment, and he’s smitten with a girl (Lim Su-jeong) that he encounters during his travels.
When he’s summoned into the 21st century, he’s not much different at first, and that’s the story in Woochi: for all of the wacky goblins and villainous plotting, it’s more of a personal journey with some spiritual underpinnings. Because of this, the film feels at odds with its scope and feels a bit scatterbrained, with subplots sort of casually floating about. Most of its focus is devoted to Woochi’s pursuit of the girl from his past, as she’s been reincarnated as an actress’s personal assistant. Woochi translates the feel of an open-world video game since it doesn’t force its biggest, overarching plotline on its hero. Instead, the goblins show up intermittently while Woochi and Chorangyi bomb about town in search of amulets and other magical items to aid them. In perhaps the oddest move, the villains’ plot doesn’t even come into full focus until a late reveal explains just why the goblins keep managing to escape (this is one element that makes the film seem unnaturally long—the wizards actually manage to “defeat” the goblins a few times).
To its credit, Woochi does stick the landing by threading all of its subplots into a climax that marries the smaller, personal conflicts with the larger ones. It still never feels all that huge (it comes down to Woochi and the main villain fighting it out in the streets), but an emotional resonance underpins it well enough; while the film’s more epic stakes may not seem well-grounded, Woochi’s personal growth is a compelling through-line. Dong-won is terrific in a role that requires broad comedic chops and a certain level of seriousness as Woochi evolves from a reluctant hero into a more enlightened individual. The transition is underplayed but noticeable, which allows the film to mix in a subtle message without resorting to sermonizing and losing its sense of whimsy. Director Choi Dong-Hoon has a firm command on the film’s light-hearted tone: it’s funny but doesn’t give all the way into broad silliness, even during the expected fish-out-of-water bits with Woochi (his reaction to learning that there’s no longer a king is gold). There’s also a nice humanity at the center of it all, and I particularly enjoyed the camaraderie and shared history among all of the characters, including the three wizards.
Woochi does seem big in a blockbuster sense, as it’s brought to life with slick effects and action sequences that come in calculated bursts. If Woochi feels too long, it’s not because it feels overstuffed with big, empty spectacle showcases like a lot of blockbusters since Dong-Hoon reins them in rather nicely. There’s also a certain effortlessness to it all; the action is impressive in its crisp coherence and choreography more so than disorienting camera moves and effects gags.Genre adherents will probably take issue with the film’s American subtitle, Demon Slayer, since it promises more of a horror slant. In truth, there’s not a whole lot of demon slaying at all since Woochi and the wizards are out to simply capture them; plus, these goblins hardly seem all that demonic since they take the form of giant rats and rabbits.
At any rate, Woochi is much more of a fantasy film than a horror film, so if you’re convinced that South Korea only produces films revolving around guys hatefully beating the shit out of each other, here’s a good counterpoint. It was also a pretty big deal when it was released in its native land too, as it went on to break box office records. For whatever reason, it’s taken us over three years to catch on, and Shout Factory has imported it for our viewing pleasure on both DVD and Blu-ray. Since the film is so slick and colorful, the high definition presentation is the way to go, and it doesn’t disappoint: the transfer is sleek and without noticeable artifacts, while the lossless soundtrack is dynamic and robust. A decent amount of special features also round out the disc: there’s a making-of feature, thirteen minutes worth of deleted scenes, ten production featurettes, interviews with the cast and crew, and a trailer. It’s worth picking up, especially if you’re looking to expand your international palate—here’s how Korea is tackling its own myths and legends, and the result is offbeat but satisfying. Buy it!
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