Woochi: The Demon Slayer (2009)
Director: Choi Dong-Hoon
Writers: Choi Dong-Hoon
Starring: Kang Dong-won, Kim Yun-seok, Lim Su-jeong, Ju Jin-mo, and Im Soo-jung

The Plot: Woochi: The Demon Slayer is a story that tends to jump between the present and the past, all focusing on a young rebellious taoist wizard by the name of Woochi (Kang Dong-won). During Woochi’s era, things fall into disarray after Woochi is mistakenly accused of his master’s death. For this he is imprisoned within a painting for five hundred years. Woochi is only awoken from this magical prison when two goblins start to reek havoc on modern Korea. When Woochi is brought back, he becomes infatuated with the 21st century. As he travels around Seoul, he finds a beautiful young woman who is identical to the young woman (played by Im Soo-jung) who Woochi left behind in the past. Will Woochi become the hero that the world needs, or will he instead focus on his unrequited love life?

The Review
Korean science fiction films have been hit or miss as of late. It isn’t a genre that South Korea is highly experienced with, but there have been some standout titles in recent years. The Host is probably the biggest and best example, but recently Doomsday Book is a title that has certainly grabbed some attention recently. The overuse of special FX in modern Asian blockbusters can be a bit disconcerting to those of us who fell in love with Asian cinema because of its stripped down and realistic depiction of life, but sometimes cinema is only supposed to be fun. The movie we’re looking at today combines all of these elements into one. It’s a science fiction title that does feature a ton of special FX work, but it mainly deals in fun. Honestly, if Woochi has two things working for it, it’s both the fun and originality that it brings to the screen. Granted, at its heart, there are many elements within the story that recalls your average “fish out of water” plot device. Yet, before any of that, Woochi delivers an intriguing and bizarre set of twists that keeps the movie feeling fresh amidst some of its more familiar genre beats. In essence, Woochi is a superhero movie told through the perspective of a modern South Korean audience. It blends together the rich history of Korea along with the fantastical style and polish that modern South Korean cinema is able to provide. Sure, some of the CGI within the movie is bound to be a bit on the silly side, but there are numerous sequences that come off very well. There is a bit where Woochi actually clones himself in order to fight the two lead villains of the film, and the sequence plays better than most of the duplicated Mr. Smith bits found in the Matrix sequels. This is due to the use of traditional filmmaking devices, such as standins and trick photography instead of relying solely on CGI. So, once again we’re looking at a broad mix of traditional stripped-down filmmaking along with a modern style that makes room for plenty of goofy fun.

Like many South Korean films, there is a very distinctive and very different style of plot progression found within the film. Often, South Korean cinema carries around the stigma of being overly bloated. Although I do love this region, I must regretfully agree with the assessment. Many films from SK are exceptionally long for the stories that they tell> However, looking at the bright side, they often go into some very intriguing areas because of their long runtimes. Woochi is a very solid example of the wild ideas that this country often produces due to their affection for 2 hour + films. Woochi is a supernatural action comedy through and through, but if you break it down by the subplots that take over during the course of the movie, the first half of the film is completely different than the second. The first hour takes place primarily in a period setting and introduces the Woochi character at home in ancient Korea. The second half, however, turns into a time travel comedy that puts this country-boy-taoist-monk into the bustling world of modern Seoul. While the connection between the two halves of the film are tenuous at best, as they almost seem like two entirely different movies, there can be a positive overall effect on the movie. While it’s hard to disagree with anyone who says that the majority of these introductory scenes could have been made into a ten minute montage, there is still a very quaint feeling to this section of the movie. It presents a very different tone than the second half, and ultimately it gives the Woochi character some momentum. Throughout this sequence we are introduced to his childish ways and it does give more punch to his character arch. While this sequence within the movie could have easily been trimmed down, it serves a purpose in developing the humor and attitude that the rest of the movie will execute.

Woochi, despite everything, remains ridiculously watchable from its very start. The movie always seems to exude an aura of confidence – similar to the character of Woochi. These filmmakers take the audience by the hand and make it very obvious that this will be a very big and very loud story, but during the opening moments of the film the uninitiated members of the audience are likely to have no idea of how grand the scale for this movie will be. It isn’t until the second half starts to really ramp up that the movie finally takes up its title as a true South Korean superhero movie. Packed with exciting action sequences and innovative special effects for this region, director Choi Dong-Hoon has quickly insured his name as one of the most reliable blockbuster filmmakers in all of Asia. While his movies are not entirely complex in their subtext, he has demonstrated within both Woochi and The Thieves that he is an incredibly strong director capable of taking very basic genre tales and building them into elaborate and entertaining spectacles. With this film, he shows this with even more panache than he did with The Thieves. This is his gigantic special FX laden epic, and in a nation that gets some flak for making fairly poor movies within this genre (with some notable exceptions, of course), Choi Dong-Hoon does an awesome job in establishing his name in this field. While the FX work and the vastness of the story are always ever-present during the movie, ultimately the greatest strength of Woochi is its ensemble cast.

Featuring many notable cast members from Choi Dong-Hoon’s other work, Woochi shows off numerous strong supporting actors. However, the main star Kang Dong-won probably deserves the majority of the attention. Being the star in a movie like this, where every secondary character is fairly memorable or outrageous, seems like it would be a daunting task for any actor, but Kang Dong-won manages to take that challenge and shine brightly in the lead. Playing the overtly cocky and snide Woochi, Dong-won shows the character as both arrogant and extremely naive, depending on what the film calls for. His confident swagger is often juxtaposed with his blatant ignorance, giving the character a boyish charm that is hard to deny. Granted, his growth as a character is determined from the outset of the movie, and no audience will have any difficulty judging that this character will inevitably become a honest and moral figure by the climax of the film, but the energy and enthusiasm of both Kang Dong-won and the overall film make this very easy to forgive. As I’ve hinted at already, the rest of the supporting cast all hit it out of the park as well. From the masterful Yoo Hae-jin (The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, and The Thieves) who plays the arch villain that is menacing but still somehow relatable, to Yoo Hae-jin, who plays Woochi’s partner that happens to be a dog-in-human-form (seriously), the actors are all perfect in their roles here. Without my forgetting it, Im Soo-jung, who plays the main love interest, is also very well cast. She has the girl-next-door appeal to her, but she is playfully flirtatious with Woochi and comes across as very sympathetic to the audience. Although she is extremely beautiful in the film, she garners the attention of the audience via the strong personality of her character. Ultimately, she comes across as a very strong link within a very strong cast.

The Conclusion
I would be out of my mind to recommend Woochi without a little trepidation. The first half of the movie might move a bit too slow for some audiences, I am aware of this. However, if you stick with it, you will be rewarded heavily. Woochi is clever and made with genuine craftsmanship, but most of all: it is fun. Lots and lots of fun. Pick it up on Bluray from Shout! Factory. The release date is April 9th, and I’d certainly recommend scooping it up. Both for the feature presentation as well as the awesome allotment of special features.

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