As you may have noticed, Cinefantastique Online is offering a heavy dose of Korean horror today. In honor of the nationwide release of DRAGON WARS (which had its Hollywood premier last night), we’re offering a handful of retrospective reviews on recent Korean imports: the recent excellent monster movie THE HOST; THREE…EXTREMES, an Asian anthology featuring an episode by South Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park; the art house ghost story A TALE OF TWO SISISTERS (currently being remade); THE RING VIRUS, a Korean remake of RING that preceded the American remake by two years; and NIGHTMARE, an odd-ball combo of supernatural and slasher motifs from writer-director Byeong-ki Ahn, who went on to make the excellent PHONE.
Here in the West, if we think of Korean genre films at all, we imagne the industry as a mere off-shoot of the bigger Asian film landscape. Japan gave us RING; Korea gaves THE RING VIRUS and PHONE. Japan gave us Godzilla; Korea gave us PULGASARI (1985) and YONGGARY (1967) – which, perhaps not coincidentally, was remade in 2001 by DRAGON WARs director Hyung-rae Shim.
Lately, however, Korean genre films have been elbowing to the front of the line, no longer content with waiting in the shadow of their more established counterparts. A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, although it reuses standard supernatural tropes established in Japanese ghost films, stands on its own, for better or worse, as a serious attempt at fashioning a complex drama withing the confines of a haunted house movie. Even better, THE HOST is simply one of the best films of its kind ever made, and it is near impossible to imagine the proposed American remake equalling – let alone surpassing – the original.
Despite its high quality, THE HOST never broke out from its art house distribution pattern to reach a wider audience in the states. DRAGON WARS was clearly created to succeed where THE HOST failed. In the great tradition of ’60s Italian horror films (which borrowed British stars and/or set their stories in England to cash in on the popularity of Hammer horror films), DRAGON WAR features a cast of American actors in a story set in Los Angeles, and the emphasis on action and special effects (at the expense of story and character) is designed to appeal to the type of viewer who turned TRANSFORMERS into a behemoth at the box office.
The late Frederick S. Clarke (founder of Cinefantastique) once observed, in reference to STAR WARS (1977) that the market forces that combine to create a blockbuster are poorly understood. Clarke lived to see – but did not comment on – the growing segmentation of the audience, creating a situation in which certain franchises could become hits or at least maintain some kind of longetivity – without appealing to a wide demographic – as long as their loyal supporters remained loyal. I don’t know whether DRAGON WARS has that kind of appeal in the United States, but judging from the positive response to our little article detailing the Hollywood premier last night, there is a sizable audience who have eagerly embraced the film, based on its powerful box office response in Korea.
Inevitably, this kind of fannish embrace engenders a push-back, in the form of trolls who declare the film the worst ever. As a matter of fact, DRAGON WARS is neither the best or worst of anything. Its virtues (great special effects sequences) are balanced by its flaws (poor scripting and performances), and one suspects that, if Clarke were alive to see it, he would pan it the way he panned LOGAN’S RUN, STAR WARS, and other sci-fi blockbusters, complaining that technique is not an end in itself, just a means to an end – that being the presentation of interesting and challenging concepts that engage the mind as much as the eye.
DRAGON WARS disappoints in this regard, but there is enough wild and crazy fun to make it worth seeing on the big screen. It comes nowhere close to equaling THE HOST, and even as a break-neck sci-fi spectacular it falls short of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. But it’s no worse than TRANSFORMERS.
Unfortunately, this kind of split-the-difference appraisal is not necessarily popular in the polarized cyber-universe of the Internet, where mindless cries of “Best Movie Ever!” compete with equally shrill retorts of “Worst Movie Ever!” Nevertheless, I continue to believe that there is a readership out there that wants to read sober assessments of reckon both the good and the bad in any movie (and how many films, when you think about it, have at least a little of each?).
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