Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Restless

By: Michael Cho

Starring: Jeong Woo-Sung, Kim Tae-Hee
Directed by: Cho Dong-Oh
102 minutes

The Restless, originally released in 2006 is swordplay/fantasy movie starring Kim Tae-Hee, Jeong Woo-Sung and directed by Jo Dong-Oh.  Kim Tae-Hee is best known for her works as the evil stepsister in Korean melodrama, Stairway to Heaven and as female lead in Love Story in Harvard.  Jeong Woo-Sung was introduced to many audiences in the move Beat, and Musa, as well as numerous other roles.  This is director Jo Dong-Oh’s first feature as a director, but served as assistant director on Beat, Musa, and Phantom: The Submarine, all starring Jeong Woo-Sung.

The Restless is set in ancient Korea, during the Silla Dynasty.  Jung Woo-Sung plays Yi Gwak, a roaming chuyongdae, or “demon-hunter.” Near the beginning of the movie, he finds himself in “Mid-Heaven,” loosely based on Buddhist beliefs, this is where spirits spend 49 days until they are reincarnated into their next form.  However, a demon rebellion is causing problems in Mid-Heaven and will prevent souls from reincarnating or proceeding to, what is assumed to be actual Heaven (They never really explain that part.) The key to the demon rebellion is the “Holy Stone,” which is held in the possession of So-Hwa, played by Kim Tae-Hee.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, she is a a dead ringer (bad pun) for Yon-Hwa, Yi Gwak’s true love, whom he let die in the real world.  In Korean melodrama fashion, So-Hwa, has no memories of ever being Yon-Hwa.  Yi Gwak, motivated by either good intentions, or to reclaim his former love, agrees to accompany and protect So-Hwa.  To complicate matters even further, as if dying and meeting the amnesiac love of your life was bad, the leaders of the demon rebellion are Yi Gwak’s former comrades in the Royal Chuyongdae. 

This is an interesting genre for Korean movies.  Korean movies have not traditionally gone into the fantasy area, most movies are sci-fi, romantic comedies, horror and action.  The acting in the movie is somewhat inconsistent, which took away from what could have been a better picture.  Jung Woo-sung is decent in the movie, it seemed like in many ways he was reprising his role in Musa has the silent warrior, only this time with a longing heart added.  Kim Tae-Hee has delivered much stronger performances in her television roles and spends the majority of the movie with one expression on her face, wide eyed and brimming with tears.  This is supposed to comprise the following emotions: Fear, shock, love, angry, surprise, boredom, etc.  This is a general critique of the Korean acting style though, everything is shown through the eyes, of most of the characters.  The one exception was Heo Joon-Ho, who plays the primary antagonist in the movie, who never gave into the trend of overacting which was consistent through out the movie.  Although he does become a very interesting, Korean Lucius Malfoy doppleganger at the end of the movie.

Visually the movie is very pretty.  The action is plentiful, and well choreographed with special effect enhancements that don’t overwhelm or dominate the story being told.  A couple times, I was actually surprised and appreciated some effects points that I did not expect.  Namely the weaponization of swirling flower petals and the Doc Ock, chain/dagger manipulation.  Don’t go into the movie expecting Yuen Wo Ping style martial arts choreography, this is a fantasy movie, so its all about swordplay.

Much of the movie plays out like a cut scene from Final Fantasy RPG’s.  In fact, much of the movie has a Final Fantasy kind of vibe to it.  This of course means that if you are a big Final Fantasy fan, you’ll love the movie.  If you aren’t a fan of Final Fantasy RPG’s, you’ll have a harder time connecting with the movie.  That was ultimately the problem with the movie, I think because it was first foray into the fantasy genre for Korean films, they tried to put too much into it.  They threw in betrayed comrades, amnesia, unrequited love, basically a hodge podge of Korean movie staples.  I think if they took a simpler approach, such as was seen in A Bride With White Hair, the movie would have been better served as a Korean fantasy/swordplay epic.

Overall, I would say this was an average movie that over reaches in some points.  The actors in the movie are capable of so much more, and can pull it off so much more subtly.  Perhaps it was the genre of the movie which, or the apprehension of presenting an unfamiliar style of movie to Korean audiences.  I think there was so much more that could have been accomplished with the cast they had.  Two points I will mention because I did enjoy them, and because they were very pleasant surprises for me: Park Jeong-hak as a flamboyantly fabulous Buddhist deity who is obsessed with talking about love, and dressing up the streets of the village he oversees.  I just never had expected to see such a… fabulous character in a Korean film before.  So I-Hyeon, who played one of the villains.  It was nice to see her in this kind of role.  Although she played kind of the typical “girl who was never seen as a woman” by the main character, she displayed moments where I think she could flourish in other types of roles than typical female ones.

Though it’s not an award-winning fantasy like Lord of the Rings, if you watch it with lighthearted expectation, you’ll enjoy the movie for its love story and beautiful scenery.

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