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.
Video and Audio:
Shot Factory typically do a stellar job when handling not-so-recent films that they've acquired, so it's not a surprise that their 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment for Woochi -- a film just a few years old -- looks pretty exceptional. There are essentially two flavors of cinematography at-work here: the olive-and-tan dustiness of ancient Korea, and the colder silver-and-blue industrial tones of modern-day South Korea, both of which support their respective color palettes and contrast inclinations quite carefully. Fine detail doesn't appear too often, though; cluttered textures in the historical period offer a few well-etched details, while a few close-ups will reveal fine shades and details in faces during the current time period. Its strengths hinge on how seamless and natural the shots look against the visual effects -- and while the quality of those effects fluctuates, their presentation here looks great. Some flatness and overbearing black levels keep it from excelling, but Shout Factory have delivered a quality presentation for Woochi.
Somewhat similar comments can be made about the 5-channel Korean Master Audio track: clear, serviceable, but not with too many moments that really shine. There are a few mildly noteworthy sounds that give it attitude, such as the swirling fire, crashing glass, and soaring arrows, that sneakily create a surround presence. These more aggressive touches -- along with a few hand-to-hand brawls -- subtly touch on the lower-frequency channel, creating a few moments where the bass delivers on the film's scattered action-film successes. Again, though, this audio track mostly serves its purpose without providing much beyond diligent support of dialogue, music, and ambient effects that rarely sprawl. Everything's clear and convincing, though, and that's what's most important. An English dub in 5-channel and 2-channel flavors has also been made available, which isn't the worst I've heard -- faint praise, but hey -- and well-translated subtitles appear in clear text almost entirely on the bottom of the physical image. A Korean 2-channel track is also there for those inclined.
Shout Factory also dug through previous special features for Woochi and tidily presented many of them on this Blu-ray disc, paramount being the slate of featurettes on production and visual effects. The Production (SD) section consists of six segments that mostly last around five or six minutes apiece, aside from the lengthier Action (16:08) feature, and they feature in-depth, expository interviews from Choi Dong-hoon about his creative process, filming techniques, and how he navigates the material once he's done shooting. The Magic of Computer Graphics (SD) section consist of four lengthier pieces that range from 10 to 25 minutes, illustrating the overall digital conceptualization through interviews, pre-visualizations and near-complete visualization comparisons. Those two wings of material encompass about an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes EPK goodness, give or take, that does a pretty solid job of showing and telling how Woochi came to be.
Continuing with a similar tone as the featurettes, an Interview Gallery consists of two interviews, one with Director and Cast (5:18, SD) and another with the Director, Key Staff, and Cast on Pre-Production (10:55, SD), which takes a upper-level glimpse at Choi Dong-hoon's process and passion while mixed with comments from his choreographers, designers, and actors. Finishing off these featurettes is a Newest Korean Style Action Movie (5:51, SD) info burst, which glosses over the plot and characters in an "introductory" fashion ... since it is, after all, at the top of the menu. We've also got a lengthy stretch of raw Making-Of (25:09, SD) footage, largely unedited and without any accompanying interviews, as well as a slate of Deleted Scenes (13:43, SD) and a fairly misleading Theatrical Trailer (1:57, SD) that trumpets the action above the comedy. Unfortunately, it appears as if there's an audio commentary with Bey Logan floating around that's available on the UK release, but there's plenty to dig into without it.
Fantasy, humor, and an excuse to get Taoist wizards to fight shape-shifting rat demons in a modern environment are the ingredients comprising Woochi, Choi Dong-hoon's take on the "fish outta water" time-travel comedy, which worked quite a bit of magic on Korean box-offices. While overlong and scatterbrained, for the most part it's a well-produced and enjoyable romp through grand magical tropes, embellished comedy, and jerkily-edited action sequences; however, this is a premise that could benefit greatly from restraint in some areas and enhancement in others, namely dialing down the humor and relishing both the mythology and drama to a greater extent. That's largely not what Choi Dong-hoon intended for the simple motives of his production, but it's something I would've appreciated after observing the trailer. Shout Factory's Blu-ray is a solid technical offering that'll please fans of the film, sporting fine audiovisual properties and a slate of satisfying behind-the-scenes features, but most will want to give this quirky fantasy-comedy a Rental.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site