With the benefit of a $75m budget, Director Hyung Rae Shim really was given a golden opportunity to put Korean film on the map in a big, big way. Considering that the vast majority of the budget of Dragon Wars was ploughed into the special effects, it gave it the opportunity of becoming a CGI monster fest of a movie. A fantasy film based upon ancient Korean mythology about serpents and dragons in the endless battle between good and evil? Well all that certainly sounds like quite an interesting proposition and one to look forward to. Could this really be an epic movie from the Far East ?
Ethan Kendrick (Jason Behr) plays a LA reporter who whilst reporting a story on a minor explosion in the city discovers that the police at the site are unearthing a rather strange reptilian scale. The sight of the excavated reptilian object triggers Ethan into having a flashback back to his youth. He recalls of a peculiar incident that occurred some fifteen years earlier where he had visited an antique shop along with his father. Whilst rummaging around the shop as children tend to do, Ethan accidentally discovered a treasure chest that mysteriously opened for him. The chest also contained a rather similarly looking reptilian scale. After being engulfed in the sudden 'light from heaven' that eluded from it, Jack (Robert Forster), the antique dealer and owner of the shop had sat Ethan down to explain what he had just witnessed and the reasons why. Apparently Ethan was the chosen one and had a truer calling for much later on in his life.
Legend has it that every 500 years a girl is born and she is marked as the Yuh Hi Joo. The mark is a natural birthmark in the shape of a dragon borne on her left shoulder. At the age of 20 years old the Yuh Hi Joo is then said to have come of age and legend further decrees that the girl must then be sacrificed to the Imoogi. Now, the Imoogi are the great serpents that roam the earth and every 500 years one is chosen from amongst them as being rewarded and allowed to consume the Yuh Hi Joo. The power of the Yuh Hi Joo allows the Imoogi to turn into and become a great celestial dragon. Such a dragon can then rise to heaven and protect the universe against all evil and everyone lives happily ever after. Right ? Well as you know it's never as straightforward as that ; where there is good there is also evil. After all this is the great equilibrium of life. Anyhow, of the Immogi there is also one serpent by the name of Buraki also known as the evil one. If Buraki is allowed to consume the Yuh Hi Joo then Buraki will turn into a dragon that will rein terror on the world. Go figure, the story is all about whether Imoogi or Buraki get to the Yuh Hi Joo first.
So, with all that folklore preceding it why does this film come to pass in modern day LA you may ask ? Well you might say that 500 years ago the whole ritual thing went slightly wrong. Back then the Yuh Hi Joo was a girl named Narin who had a protector by the name of Haram. It was Haram's duty to protect Narin from all evil and ensure her safe delivery to the Imoogi when she came of age. Haram had been taught all his powers and skill by a wise old master by the name of Bochun. However, by the time Narin had turned 20 Haram had fallen deeply in love with her and couldn't bear to lead her to her fate. In an act of foolishness the star-crossed lovers became destined to die and in the event not fulfil their purpose of being. However, those powers from up above are known as the ever merciful and it was obviously decided by the time the next 500 year cycle came around that the re-incarnation of Haram and Narin was a worthwhile cause. It's with that that Ethan Kendrick realises that he is actually Haram re-incarnated and a young girl by the name of Sarah (Amanda Brooks) is the Yuh Hi Joo for him to find, protect and deliver to the Imoogi. It's all conveniently set in LA this time around.
The storytelling so far takes you about 20 minutes into the film and for the most part I have to say its fairly enjoyable stuff up to this point. The mythical storyline is well told and fits into place along with glimpses of spectacular special effects and moderate use of CGI. There is enough there to grab a hold of your attention. If not your attention then there's certainly plenty of grounding in place for a half decent storyline to develop further and for the film to unfold from hereon in. Unfortunately though, what follows can only be described as an abject disaster. The film becomes incredibly perforated and wholly detached from this point onwards. The whole thing turns on it's head into what can only be best described as a farcical shambles.
Jack, the antique dealer who Ethan had met fifteen years earlier turns out being still alive. However, not only that but Jack actually turns out to be the original master Bochun who has been alive for over 500 years. In all that time whilst awaiting the re-incarnation of Haram, master Bochun has somehow developed the ability to shape shift and metamorphosis himself into different beings. Strange indeed? This time around though rather than interfere too much with affairs, he chooses just to act as a watchful guardian over the young saviour and avoid acting as his mentor. The whole film suddenly develops a great incredulity to it and begins to lose touch with reality. The fantasy behind it rapidly descends into ridiculous nonsense.
When Buraki finally arrives on the scene in LA matters go absolutely haywire. The giant serpent proceeds to start destroying half of LA in search of Sarah. If that wasn't enough an ancient army in support of Buraki is also awoken with many strange beasts that cause further havoc and panic across the whole of LA. The sound effects in the movie soon rise to overload levels and it all becomes an overpowering onslaught on the senses. Pity that the aural senses are heightened to such great degree through volume alone and never stimulated beyond the very basic sense. As you can gather, what was gained in the first part of the movie is completely destroyed by an over indulgent and ridiculously over the top barrage of CGI during the second half. Serpents climbing skyscrapers, elephants being thrown about, helicopters being knocked out of the air by all sorts of flying beasts.....the list goes on and on and on.
You can imagine up against all this, being pursued by creatures of such magnitude that Ethan and Sarah have little chance of escape and are eventually caught by Buraki's army. On capture they are promptly taken to the great cave where Sarah is made ready for sacrifice to Buraki. Well, things obviously don't quite work out as straightforward as the evil serpent Buraki was hoping for. Ethan wears a pendant that has immense hidden powers and unbeknown to him it has the power to wipe out the whole army in front of him. After somehow unwittingly managing this feat, Buraki's army is completely wiped out by Ethan in one single swipe. It's all quite ridiculous stuff.
Anyhow, this clears the way for the Imoogi to arrive and have a one on one say so with Buraki. A few slithers here and there, a few twists and turns between the two serpents and it all culminates into a somewhat predictable ending.
Given its budget there was more than enough there to make Dragon Wars a very distinct and successful Korean film. In Korea it was, however elsewhere it wasn't received with as much a welcome. Unfortunately it's a film that's distinct for all the wrong reasons. What is most disappointing is that Dragon Wars could have in many ways become a bit of an epic if it's production and direction had been tempered with a degree of sensibility. Unfortunately the whole thing is as unrestrained as a giant snake on the loose and the end result is actually a complete mess of 'epic' proportions.
If there's a saving grace it has to be said the battle between the two giant serpents at the finale is a battle royale indeed. The backdrops are quite atmospheric and it's a long drawn out fight. The ending remains inevitable though and is never in doubt. At least though Hyung Rae Shim had the intelligence to make sure the finale raised itself above all the nonsense preceding it.