[K-FILM TOP PROJECTS] Choi Dong-Hoon's 전우치 (Jeon Woo Chi)

[K-FILM TOP PROJECTS] Choi Dong-Hoon's 전우치 (Jeon Woo Chi)
Even for an industry which has seemingly put an inordinate amount of power in the hands of debut directors (and of course I'm talking 1996 onwards), Chungmuro can be rather cruel with its young prodigies. A full six years after his masterpiece 지구를 지켜라 (Save the Green Planet), Jang Joon-Hwan is only now ready to embark on his way-too-freaking-long awaited sophomore effort, a sequel to the 타짜 (Tazza) franchise - another year or two of interesting projects vanishing in the meanders of cinematic oblivion, and he would have become "Moon So-Ri's husband," more than one of the most promising Korean directors of this generation. Others seem to do pretty damn well even without the help of ye olde asses in the seats, such as Im Pil-Sung, but there's only a very tiny number of young directors who can boast a perfect score at-bat, at least when it comes to box office results. One of them is Kim Yong-Hwa, with not only three consecutive hits, but one beating the other's previous record - 오! 브라더스 (Oh! Brothers), 미녀는 괴로워 (200 Pounds Beauty) and the recent 8 million ticket-seller 국가대표 (Take Off), respectively. The other is Choi Dong-Hoon, debuting with the two million tickets of 범죄의 재구성 (The Big Swindle) in 2004, and then exploding up the popularity scale with Tazza. The difference? He actually makes good films. Great? Not yet. But we're probably getting there.

The Big Swindle wasn't just an excellent debut, it filled a void which Korean films rarely delved into - the stylish caper. Tazza, adapted from Heo Young-Man's classic series, changed the original's cards around a little, but it's one of the rare manhwa adaptations which not only gives justice to the source, but can actually stand on its own as a film - a lesson 식객 (Le Grand Chef) clearly didn't learn, as they're shooting a sequel already. Coming off of such an eclectic double-header, Choi's third film was going to attract curiosity no matter the subject, but his choice was rather surprising. Apparently, after the success of his second work, about a dozen scripts were sent his way, of which only a couple really interested him. One sounds rather interesting, focusing on the life of Lee Wan-Yong, modern Korean history's favorite traitor (remember the Eulsa Treaty of 1905 and the annexation with Japan in 1910? There you go), but Choi eventually turned it down, as he "became a film director not to study anymore" and, well, it's obvious a period piece would send you in the opposite direction. Subject would have been quite the hot potato, particularly in these times, but giving it up was likely a smart move - Yoo Ha showed in 쌍화점 (Frozen Flower) what damage having no historical consciousness can do to a talented director entering the daunting dungeons of the sageuk canon.

Even the other candidate would have been a departure for him, focusing on a middle-aged, lonely detective, for which he even asked Im Sang-Soo to write the script - Choi worked as assistant director for Im's 2001 film 눈물 (Tears), and even had a cameo in 그때 그사람들 (The President's Last Bang). Again, his reason for dropping it before it even started is rather honest, his sneaking sensation of being a little too young to effectively convey those sensibilities. Choi has been busy the last few years writing scripts, including a rough draft for 화산고2 (Volcano High 2), and taking part in the script committee for 소년, 천국에 가다 (Boy Goes to Heaven) along with Park Chan-Wook and Lee Mu-Young, amongst others. But when his official third project was announced, it could only be a surprise. The fact a young director with two jackpots in the can ends up helming a 10 billion won action blockbuster is not much of a surprise, but seeing someone like Choi Dong-Hoon sitting on the director's chair for a likely quite irreverent "Korean superhero" flick like 전우치 (Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard) is not something you see every day. Hence the curiosity

We already spent a few words about the original Jeon Woo-Chi, but what is important here is not so much this peculiar character's origins (only a couple of scenes and the name itself will end up in the finished product), but rather the aura the original novel 전우치전 (The Tale of Jeon Woo-Chi) created around him. If you take a look at most 의적 (chivalrous robber, a sort of more down-to-earth Korean version of the wuxia canon) literature of the time, from 홍길동전 (The Tale of Hong Gil-Dong) to more modern works about other similar figures like Im Kkeok-Jeong and Jang Gil-San, we are always given righteous characters fighting against government corruption, class divide and whatnot - their negative traits mostly painted as the inevitable result of an environment which forced those decisions upon them. But Jeon Woo-Chi is a little different, as he's not moved by a noble cause or any such noble aspiration, he just happens to come into contact with certain social issues, and deals with them his own way. This "tangential just cause" is only the icing on the cake of what Choi calls "a gangster-like fella whose only purpose was to have fun until demise took that away from him." So, yes, your good old anti-hero.

I guess that "refusal to study" Choi confessed might be the reason why he's only taking the basic concept of this legendary character and throwing him 500 years in the future, for what is likely to become some sort of bastard child of the manhwa 일지매 (Iljimae) and Jean-Marie Poiré's cult French comedy Les Visiteurs. So you get the unlikely hero coming to terms with a completely unfamiliar environment, some Crocodile Dundee moments ensuing, and then your assorted ass-kicking bonanza in the second act. The main plot, which sees Jeon look for the missing half of a prophetic pipe after escaping from the spell which kept him trapped inside a painting for centuries, doesn't sound like anything you've never seen before, but the idea that Jeon will find drinking, fooling around and womanizing a lot more fun than going after the baddies is a little more enticing. Of course until justice will call, and he'll have to answer.

The choice of Kang Dong-Won as lead is rather interesting, because we're dealing with someone who essentially dabbled in idol fare for most of his early career, but then suddenly made a U-turn, almost out of the blue. Sure, from 형사 Duelist all the way to M, you certainly can't say Kang has shown the range and raw talent such excellent choice of projects demands, but he's definitely got something, a certain aura which sets him apart. Lee Myung-Se clearly noticed that, casting him twice consecutively, but that feeling was particularly evident in Park Jin-Pyo's 그놈 목소리 (Voice of a Murderer). What will certainly help Kang, aside from his aura, is his potential as an action star (Jung Doo-Hong called his wire acting "worthy of a gold medal," and the action maestro doesn't seem to be the brown-nosing kind). Considering his next in line is Jang Hoon's 의형제 (Secret Reunion) starring alongside Song Kang-Ho, it definitely seems like he's catching the acting bug, and refuses to get rid of it. Raw talent or not, that's always a good thing.

I suppose that, with the exception of Im Soo-Jung and Kim Yoon-Seok, most of the rest of the cast will offer more quality than quantity, just like in Choi's previous works. But you're not likely to find a better ensemble in any recent production, considering many alumni of Choi's past works are there (including Baek Yoon-Shik and his promising son Baek Do-Bin, and Yeom Jung-Ah) and even interesting new faces like Seonwoo Seon complete the list. It's hard to imagine what style Choi will go for, particularly considering how much of a departure Jeon Woo Chi is compared to his first two works. But if there's anyone who can hit a homerun on his third outing, that's Choi Dong-Hoon.

[Cine 21]
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Dong-hoon ChoiYun-seok KimSu-jeong LimDong-won KangJung-ah YumActionAdventureComedy

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