Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon opened up a new wave of Asian martial arts features a few years ago, most replete with proto-mystical storylines and some amazing wire-heavy flying fighting sequences. South Korea has entered this particular genre bigtime over the ensuing years, and The Restless follows in some fairly well-worn footsteps (can you have footsteps when you're flying?), though it adds a sumptious physical production that is heavy on CGI (over 80% of the film is CGI according to one of the extras). While it forges no new ground, and has some problems in coherence and momentum, The Restless is visually impressive enough that most martial arts and/or Asian fantasy fans will probably find a lot to at least look at in this film.
A plot summary of The Restless is difficult if not impossible in that there are plot elements that frankly are not very well explained or developed, which I personally feel may be due to simply cultural differences. When in one of the extras director Dung oh-Cho starts waxing about his utilization of various Buddhist ideas in the screenplay, it's obvious he's mining a wealth of material that is probably intuitively obvious to most Eastern viewers but may leave Westerners scratching their collective heads. That said, The Restless takes place in a feudal Korea which has been overrun by some pretty evil looking demons. Enter demon hunter Yi Gwak (Jeong woo-Seong) who quickly dispatches the baddies only to find out he's been drugged by the townspeople so that they can collect a bounty that's on his head. Escaping into the forest, he finally collapses, awakening in a strange place that turns out to be Midheaven, a sort of waiting place for souls who must stick around 49 days before being reincarnated. Unfortunately for Yi Gwak (or maybe fortunately), he's "not quite dead yet," creating quite a bit of consternation with the spirits who inhabit this realm. This confusion spreads to Yi Gwak himself when he encounters his former love Yon-hwa (Kim Tae-hee), now dead, who is a White Demon Hunter and who has forgotten about her earthly life with Yi Gwak. As if this is not enough to keep track of, Yi Gwak's formerly living demon hunter buddies (including a female who has eyes for him) are now part of a Midheavenly conspiracy to take over both the heavenly and earthly realms of existence. The film unfolds in a series of flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, that can at times be disconcerting and leave the viewer momentarily wondering where in the timeline the film is.
Well, as in most films of this ilk, it really doesn't matter if you do or don't, because most of the enjoyment of the film is the visceral excitement of the scenery and the ingenuity of the fight sequences. The Restless does exceedingly well in the former category, but comes up a bit short in the latter. The film's visual presentation is for the most part stunning and on a par with any Western CGI heavy production. From gorgeous blue-tinted bays filled with barges carrying lotus flowers to the spiritual city in which Yi Gwak finds himself, there's one gorgeous environment after another in this film. There are also some totally cool effects of the spirits "burning up" when they die (how an already dead spirit can die again is something that's never really explained in the course of the film). The only times I wished the CGI effects had been a little more believable were in the flying demons; their movements are just patently cartoon-like, totally unmatched to the real wire-wearing humans that start off most of these sequences.
The many martial arts sequences in The Restless rely on tried (one might argue tired) and true tropes that anyone who's seen any films in this genre will recognize. Lots of quick cuts, step printing, slow-mo and other effects are utilized to fine effect, but there's nothing here you haven't seen before. The one partially innovative element is the repeated use of thrown objects, especially long chain-like devices that emanate from the demons' backs.
The performances are a mixed bag as well. While Jeong woo-Seong is stalwart (not to mention impossibly tall) as the main good guy, and does fine in the action sequences, there's simply too much of the "tortured hero" to his often teary eyed, quivering lower lip performance at times. Unfortunately distaff star Kim Tae-hee stumbles pretty badly in her spiritual guise, where she indicates purity and lack of memory mostly by looking addle-pated with hugely wide eyes. Strangely, she seems to do much better in the many too-short flashback sequences where she is still "alive." The best performance by far is by So I-Hyeon as the scorned female demon fighter who wants Yi Gwak for herself. She brings some real ambivalence to her role so that her motives are unclear up to and including the denouement.
The Restless is presented in a very sharp 2.35:1 enhanced transfer which does unfortunately have a few isolated artifacts (notably moire patterns on some tweedy costumes). While the colors are fine, they seem slightly muted to me--fantasy films like this should have a palette that pops impressively and The Restless doesn't quite rise to that level.
A very impressive DD 5.1 Korean soundtrack (with English subtitles) will give your home theater system a real workout. Lots of rumbling lows in the sound effects department are countered by beautiful highs in the ethnic instrument-laden underscore. Fidelity and separation are both excellent.
There's a nice 51 minute or so featurette which shows a lot of the wire stunts being filmed, intercut with interviews with the director and stars. That same interview material pops up in two shorter featurettes, one on some of the ideas behind the screenplay and another focusing on the digital design elements.
The Restless is a pretty swift little entertainment that aims for a bit of profundity along the way. If you're in the mood for some nice eye candy with some good, if cliché-ridden, action sequences, you'll most likely not regret renting it.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet