AFM /AFI FEST REPORT #2: D-WAR
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
Production: Younggu-art Entertainment Co., Ltd.
International Sales: Showbox
English and Korean with English Subtitles, 110 minutes
Official Site: D-War.com
AFM Screening: Saturday, November 4, 5:00pm at Laemmle’s Monica 4
SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains plot details for a new film scheduled for release in 2007.
In Korean folklore, the guardians of the earth are giant snakelike creatures called Imoogi. Every 500 years, the Heavens reward one Imoogi for its good deeds with the gift of the Yeouijoo, a Dragon Ball which will transform the serpent into a powerful dragon who will bless the earth and ascend into heaven. An Imoogi named Buraki coveted the Yeouijoo, and its obsession drove the creature to madness and evil. In the 16th century, Buraki assembled an army of worshippers called the Atrox to take it by force.
To protect the Yeouijoo from the Evil Imoogi, the Heavens merged the Dragon Ball with the body of Narin, a girl born to the king of a small Korean village during the middle of the Chosen Dynasty. The baby’s father was shocked that his daughter was born with a strange, dragon-shaped marking on her shoulder. Not long after Narin’s birth, the king was visited by the kindly monk Bochun who explained that the girl was the guardian of the Yeouijoo. When Narin turned twenty she would become one with the chosen Imoogi, sacrificing her life but ensuring 500 years of peace on earth. Her father was angered at his daughter’s fate but realized he could not defy the Heavens. Bochun trained a young warrior named Haram to protect Narin until the day she would be delivered to the Good Imoogi.
On Narin’s 20th birthday, the Atrox army attacked her village and slaughtered everyone in their path. Bochun was wounded in the battle, so he instructed Haram to take the girl to the Good Imoogi and give it the power to save the world. But Haram and Narin had fallen in love, and the warrior refused to sacrifice her to the serpent. As Buraki drew near, the lovers took their own lives by leaping from a cliff into the sea.
500 years later, a boy named Ethan Kendrick visits an antique shop in Los Angeles. One of the artifacts— a dragon scale— begins to glow at Ethan’s approach, and the shop’s owner Jack (Robert Forster) explains that means the time of the Imoogi is coming again. Jack knows this because he is Bochun, and a girl named Sarah has been born with a dragon mark on her shoulder. Jack tells Ethan that he is the reincarnation of Haram, and soon he will have to find Sarah and help her fulfill her destiny.
Years pass, Ethan (Jason Behr) grows into adulthood and becomes a television reporter for CGNN news. While investigating a series of mysterious accidents occurring throughout Los Angeles, Ethan suspects that Jack’s prophecy is coming true. His concerns are proven true when a young woman named Sarah Daniels (Amanda Brooks) is linked to one of the events. With the assistance of his cameraman Bruce (Craig Robinson), and some surreptitious help from Jack, Ethan finds Sarah at a local hospital just moments before Buraki attacks. The trio barely manages to escape from the Evil Imoogi.
Ethan takes Sarah to a therapist (Holmes Osborn) he knows, who hypnotizes Sarah to help unlock memories of her previous life. Sarah realizes who she is and what must be done, but Ethan feels there must be a better way to stop Buraki than for Sarah to sacrifice herself. He convinces her to flee Los Angeles.
Ethan requisitions a CGNN helicopter, but Buraki tracks them down. The military arrives to kill the monster, and Buraki responds by calling in its own army. A full scale battle erupts in downtown Los Angeles between US forces and the Atrox, which are led by the Evil General (Michael Shamus Wiles) and supported by a legion of reptilian creatures. Air forces engage the flying dragons called Bulcos over the city rooftops, while tanks and soldiers battle the raptor-like Shaconnes and the large, slow moving Dawdlers. In the midst of the confusion, Ethan and Sarah are spirited away by FBI Agents Frank Pinsky (Chris Mulkey) and Judah Campbell (John Ales). The FBI has discovered Buraki’s plan, and Agent Pinsky decides the best way to save the city is to kill Sarah and let future generations deal with the consequences. Only a last minute save by Agent Campbell allows Ethan and Sarah to escape.
As Buraki’s forces close in, Ethan and Sarah must decide whether to defy the will of heaven once again, or fulfill Sarah’s destiny at the cost of her own life. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.
HYUNG-RAE SHIM AND YOUNGGU-ART
D-WAR is the creation of writer/producer/director Hyung-Rae Shim, a popular comedian who was named Korea’s most profitable entertainer of the 1990s. Shim has worked on 100 movies, many of which featured dinosaurs, monsters, or aliens. He was the star of two long-running film series; the children’s superhero Ureme (“Thunderhawk”), which ran from UREME FROM OUTER SPACE (Oigyeseo on Ulema, 1986) to UREME 8: ESPERMAN AND UREME (1993), and the bumbling slapstick character Young-gu, who was introduced in YOUNG-GU AND DAENGCHILI (Young-guwa Daengchili, 1989) and has appeared in close to a dozen films. The Young-gu films were often crossovers or parodies of recognizable characters such as YOUNG-GU RAMBO (Young-guwa Daengchili 3tan: Young-guwa Rambo, 1990), YOUNG-GU AND THE GOLDEN BAT (Young-guwa Hwanggeum Bakjwi, 1992), and YOUNG-GU AND COUNT DRACULA (Young-guwa Heubhyeolgwi Dracula, 1992).
Starting with YOUNG-GU AND COUNT DRACULA, Shim began directing and/or producing the films he appeared in. He formed his own company, Younggu-art Entertainment Co., Ltd. in 1993, and produced such films as YOUNG-GU AND THE DINOSAUR JU-JU (Young-guwa Gongryong Zzu-Zzu, 1993), the prehistoric adventure TYRANNO’S CLAW (Tirannoui Baltob, 1994) and the final Young-gu movie DRAGON TUKA (1996).
In 1993, thirty two years of military rule in South Korea ended with the election of president Kim Yong-Sam. The political change gave a tremendous boost to the country’s film industry, which was further improved with the lessening of restrictive censorship laws in 1996. The decline in the Hong Kong film industry and increased interest in Japan for Korean films convinced the Korean government and big industry to heavily invest in the movie business, and a new wave of filmmakers made the most of better resources and new creative freedom. Hyung-Rae Shim felt that a successful combination of Asian and western sensibilities could result in a commercially successful movie, and the time had come to make a film that could play to audiences anywhere in the world. JURASSIC PARK (1993) and THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK (1997) had been box office blockbusters, and Sony’s remake of GODZILLA was widely predicted as the big film for 1998, so a similar idea seemed a natural for international sales.
THE RISE AND FALL OF YONGGARY
On August 13, 1967 the Keukdong Entertainment Co., Ltd. had released THE GREAT MONSTER YONGGARY (Daekoesu Yonggary), a film about a giant, fire-breathing dinosaur that attacks Seoul. Korea’s answer to the popular kaiju eiga from Japan, the movie was acquired by American International Pictures and syndicated to television in the United States in 1969 as YONGARY, MONSTER FROM THE DEEP. Shim decided to remake YONGGARY as a big-budget film utilizing computer generated visual effects. He explained his reasoning in an interview with The Korea Times, “I was so fascinated by the potential of sci-fi films, which can appeal to everyone regardless of their nationality, age, ideology and gender.” To further add to YONGGARY’s international appeal, the new movie would be shot in English with western actors.
A consortium of five companies (including Hyundai Capital Corporation and Korean Technology Finance Corp) agreed to invest nearly $9 million into the production… a large sum, considering that the average Korean film at that time had a budget under $3 mil. Younggu-art Entertainment hired a staff of 120 artists and technicians to create the CG effects for YONGGARY. The Korean government named Shim as one of the country’s most influential thinkers for the advances he made to filmmaking technology, and added to that praise by providing financial and technical support and access to museums, military bases and hardware for use in the film. The director was also selected as one of Asia’s most influential leaders in computer technology by Asia Week magazine.
Expectations ran high as YONGGARY neared completion. The film was seen as a symbol of Korea’s new film industry, and Shim supported that view in pre-release interviews with repeated claims that he had multi-million dollar deals in place with major studios to release YONGGARY all over the world. He told Kodak that, “We expect the film will be a blockbuster in Korea as well as other countries.” YONGGARY was promoted at the 1999 American Film Market, and 10 minute promo reel was screened at the Cannes Film Festival leading up to the film’s premiere at the Korean Cultural Center in Seoul on July 17, 1999. The opening week’s ticket sales were tremendous, but audiences and critics trashed the film for its weak story, poor acting by the no-name cast, and shoddy computer fx. The praise for Shim quickly turned to derision, with some detractors in the media calling him a swindler responsible for the hoax of the century. He was threatened with lawsuits by his investors and accused of embezzling studio funds. “The problem with YONGGARY was that it was overly promoted,” film critic Gwak Young-Jin said to Inside JoongAng Daily. “There was a large gap between the quality of the actual film and how it was marketed.”
In response to the wave of criticism, Hyung-Rae Shim tried to improve the story and special effects. The CG artists went back to work, new sets were built, the original score by Sung-Woo Cho was replaced by new music by Chris Desmond, and re-shoots began in December of 1999. These additional expenses drove the film’s budget up to $15 million. The new version was released to theaters on January 20, 2001 as YONGGARY: 2001 UPGRADE EDITION, but audiences stayed away and the film tanked at the box office, earning less than $4 million. Hopes for a major worldwide release fizzled, though Sony Pictures did pick up US video and television rights. On August 21, 2001 the film went straight to video in America under the new title REPTILIAN.
“I was sad and disappointed by the result of YONGGARY”, Shim told The Korea Times. “But disappointment alone can never guarantee any improvement, so I decided to invest more to have better results in my next film.” YONGGARY faded into obscurity, and Shim turned his attention to a much bigger— and hopefully better— science fiction/fantasy project he called DRAGON WARS. “People in Hollywood know about dragons, sure. But they’re not familiar with creatures before they become dragons. I think that’s a really interesting subject to tackle, and I think ‘D-War’ is really original on those terms. It’s a very ‘Korean’ concept, while at the same time being ‘universal’.”
The story of DRAGON WARS would require more than an hour of computer generated images, including characters and sequences that would be completely CG. Shim realized that the visuals needed to be far superior to what he had done for YONGGARY. “When we started [YONGGARY] we didn’t even have a computer, “Shim told Inside JoongAng Daily. “We knew how to do special effects in theory, but not in practice. There was no one to ask about special effects in Korea.” Rather than hire foreign fx houses, he purchased an abandoned school building near Kimpo Airport and renovated it into a digital studio facility with high-tech computer equipment and living quarters for a staff of 150 graphic artists. Shim now has the means to create special effects for future projects, both for Younggu-art Entertainment Co. as well as other studios. “If we hadn’t taken on these challenges, we would have never been able to learn. We could have done it once, but not forever.”
DRAGON WARS was announced for a 2002 release, and Youngu-art Entertainment set up an official movie website featuring character concepts, production art, and poster designs. 2002 came and went with little additional news about the film except that the title had been changed to D-WAR. In February 2003, an impressive-looking teaser video of monsters attacking a village was shown online. Viewers were surprised by computer effects that were a quantum leap in quality from YONGGARY, and buzz for D-WAR began to grow.
And then things got very quiet.
Occasionally a new photo or poster design (usually touting the movie as “Coming Soon!!”) would be released, but no information of any substance was made available. The lack of updates led to wide-spread speculation that D-WAR would never get off the ground.
Things finally began to change in 2004. At a trade show Younggu-art Entertainment unveiled a massive line of D-WAR merchandise prototypes; toys, clothing, drinking glasses, standees, models, etc. More importantly, Hyung-Rae Shim announced that the cast and crew had been selected, and filming would begin by year’s end for a late 2005 release.
The American crew would include editors Steve Mirkovich (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, CON AIR, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST RECUT) and Timothy Alverson (THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, SKELETON KEY), special effects makeup artist Heather Mages (NCIS, URBAN LEGEND 3), assistant directors Alexa Motley (SAW) and Bill Greenfiled (SKY HIGH, SPIDER-MAN 3), and optical fx editor Patrick Clancey (ERAGON, SPIDER-MAN 3). To maintain the “big” feeling he was aiming for, Shim hired composer Steve Jablonsky to create the soundtrack for D-WAR. Jablonsky is the main composer for filmmaker Michael Bay, having scored the producer/director’s BAD BOYS II (2003), TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003), THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (2005), THE ISLAND (2005), TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE BEGINNING (2006), and TRANSFORMERS (2007). He has also created the music for the television series DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (2004) and Katsuhiro Otomo’s animated movie STEAMBOY (Suchimuboi, 2004).
Principle photography started in Los Angeles in December 2004. Hyung-Rae Shim basked in the moment, announcing that “LORD OF THE RINGS was made in a field, but we’ve shot in the heart of LA.”
One of the major set pieces of D-WAR is a battle between Buraki’s forces and the American military in downtown Los Angeles. For this extended sequence, assistant director Jonathan Southard (TITANIC, THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE) and cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski (DEATHWATCH, VAN WILDER 2) supervised the setting up of nearly a mile of cable over eight city blocks to support the camera for aerial filming. Shim also got the city to approve the use of five Abraham tanks and an Apache helicopter. “I was the first man to bring real tanks to LA downtown,” the director said. “When I first brought up the idea to bring real tanks into downtown one of the staff shouted that was such an unprecedented thing to do since, after the 9/11 terror, police are not very keen on gunfire. So I said to him, ‘You are fired.’ ”
Learning from the mistakes of YONGGARY, Shim chose a more established group of actors than had generally been the case with the earlier film. While most of the cast are not household names, there are several recognizable faces on display in D-WAR.
The most established and famous cast member is Robert Forster, who plays Jack, the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” character of D-WAR. Born in 1941, Forster debuted on Broadway in the 1965 production MRS DALLY HAS A LOVER. He followed that by co-starring with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in director John Huston’s REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967), and received great acclaim for his role as a cameraman covering the 1968 Democratic National Convention in MEDIUM COOL (1969). Beginning in the 1970s Forster starred in a number of B-movies and television films, including BANYON (1971), STUNTS (1977), ALLIGATOR (1980) and ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996).
His performance in Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997) put Forster back in the spotlight and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In the past decade he has appeared in Christopher Reeve’s REAR WINDOW, Gus Van Sandt’s remake of PSYCHO (1998), ME, MYSELF, & IRENE (2000), David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001), and LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006). He has also provided voice performances for the animated shows SPAWN (1997), GODZILLA:THE SERIES (1998), and JUSTICE LEAGUE (2005).
After seeing sample fx footage for D-WAR, 32 year-old Jason Behr signed on for the lead role of reporter Ethan Kendrick. Behr started off in commercials before landing roles in the sitcom STEP BY STEP (1994), Showtime’s SHERMAN OAKS (1995), BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (1997), and DAWSON’S CREEK (1998). He made his feature film debut in PLEASANTVILLE (1998). The lead in the WB series ROSWELL (1999) brought him a loyal female fan base. He appeared alongside Kevin Spacey in THE SHIPPING NEWS (2001), and in 2004 he reunited with BUFFY star Sarah Michelle Gellar for the US version of THE GRUDGE. Behr’s recent work includes the werewolf flick SKINWALKERS (2006) and the horror film THE TATTOOIST (2007).
Jason Behr had nothing but praise for the director of D-WAR. In an interview with the Korean press, he stated, “Shim has been the most generous, the most infectious person around to lead this whole team. He’s extremely intelligent. He knows what he wants. He has a great way of making you excited about the whole process, so he’s been nothing but amazing.”
Amanda Brooks (Sarah Daniels) is a relative newcomer to film, with a supporting part in the Jodie Foster thriller FLIGHTPLAN (2005). The British actress has the title role in the upcoming film SILVER (2007), a true story about a lesbian nanny who kidnaps the baby she was hired to care for.
Actor and musician Chris Mulkey plays Frank Pinsky, the FBI agent in charge of ending the threat of Buraki. Mulkey made his acting debut in the film LOOSE ENDS (1975) and worked for director Walter Hill in THE LONG RIDERS (1980) and the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte hit 48 HRS (1982). He appeared in the films FIRST BLOOD (1982), DREAMSCAPE (1984), THE HIDDEN (1987), John Woo’s BROKEN ARROW (1996), and BULWORTH (1998). He also regularly guest stars on television; a partial list of TV credits includes BARETTA, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, CHIPS, TJ HOOKER, THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, MAGNUM PI, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THIRTYSOMETHING, BATMAN BEYOND, CSI: MIAMI, and LOST. TWIN PEAKS (1990) fans may remember him as the ex-con Hank Jennings in the bizarre David Lynch series.
John Ales is FBI Agent Judah Campbell. Ales’ credits include SPY HARD (1996), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996), the new FANTASY ISLAND (1998), NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS (2000), CSI: MIAMI (2004), and WITHOUT A TRACE (2006).
FBI forensic scientist Linda Perez is played by the popular actress Elizabeth Pena. After appearing in a number of smaller and independent productions, Pena made a big impression as Carmen the maid in the Richard Dreyfuss/Bette Midler/Nick Nolte comedy DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS (1986). She followed that with the Ritchie Valens biography LA BAMBA (1987), BLUE STEEL (1990), JACOB’S LADDER (1990) with Tim Robbins, THE WATERDANCE (1992), the acclaimed LONE STAR (1996), RUSH HOUR (1998) with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker (1998), and TRANSAMERICA (2005). In recent years she has worked frequently in television, including a role in the Showtime series RESURRECTION BLVD (2000), and was a voice actress for JUSTICE LEAGUE (2004). In 2004 she was the voice of Syndrome’s assistant Mirage in the Disney/Pixar blockbuster THE INCREDIBLES.
Geoffrey Pierson plays the Secretary of Defense. Pierson is a television veteran with roles on the daytime soap RYAN’S HOPE (1984), UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER (1995), THAT 80s SHOW (2002), THE WEST WING (2003), 24 (2003), and DEXTER (2006). He has also appeared onstage in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES, and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.
Michael Shamus Wiles is the Evil General, leader of the Atrox army. He is a popular supporting actor with dozens of television appearances and roles in the movies THE PUPPET MASTERS (1994), LOST HIGHWAY (1997), CONSPIRACY THEORY (1997), THE X FILES (1998), THE NEGOTIATOR (1998), FIGHT CLUB (1999), MAGNOLIA (1999), DUDE, WHERE’S MY CAR? (2000), PEARL HARBOR (2001), ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: AI (2001), and the upcoming TRANSFORMERS (2007).
Bruce, Ethan Kendrick’s cameraman and friend, is played by actor and stand-up comedian Craig Robinson. Robinson has appeared on THE BERNIE MAC SHOW (2004) and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2005), and has a recurring role as Darryl on NBC’s popular series THE OFFICE (2005).
Sarah’s best friend Brandy is played by Aimee Garcia. Her credits include THE GOOD GIRL (2002), AMERICAN FAMILY (2002), DEBS (2004), SPANGLISH (2004), CRUEL WORLD (2005), and MARY WORTH (2006).
Holmes Osborn has a brief part as a hypnotherapist in D-WAR. Osborn played father Eddie Darko in the cult hit DONNIE DARKO (2001). His other credits include TRUMAN (1995), Tom Hanks’ THAT THING YOU DO (1996), SEVEN DAYS (1998), THE MOD SQUAD (1999), ELECTION (1999), BRING IT ON (2000), WINDTALKERS (2002), ENTERPRISE (2003), ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGANDY (2004), and ABC’s INVASION (2005).
Billy Gardell plays a zoo guard who has an encounter with Buraki and a dead elephant. Gardell may be best known for his recurring role as Billy on the CBS sitcom YES, DEAR (2001). He has also acted in THE KING OF QUEENS (2000), JUDGING AMY (2000), MONK (2003), BAD SANTA (2003), THE PRACTICE (2004), HEIST (2006), and LAS VEGAS (2006), and is a commercial spokesman for Round Table Pizza.
The detective is played by actor Rob Roy Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald previously played WINR team member Rick Sanders in ULTRAMAN: THE ULTIMATE HERO and Johnny, the Bud Light Guy in a series of Budweiser commercials in 1995. His other credits include THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) and episodes of MATLOCK (1993) and CSI (2002).
B-movie favorite Matthias Hues has a small part as a bounty hunter hired by the government to capture and kill Buraki. His numerous credits include NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 2 (1988), I COME IN PEACE (1990), STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991), and the television series CONAN (1997) and POWER RANGERS LOST GALAXY (1999).
Rounding out the cast are THE WEST WING’s NiCole Robinson as a psychiatrist, Eloy Casados (DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, SKEETER, HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE) as a Native American protester, Derek Mears (MEN IN BLACK II, TENACIOUS D IN THE PICK OF DESTINY) and Gerard Griesbaum (THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE) as bounty hunters, and stuntman Anthony Molinari (24, POSEIDON, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS).
The main monster in D-WAR is Buraki the Evil Imoogi, a 200 meter-long beast that resembles a cobra. The Imoogi are generally benevolent creatures, but Buraki’s desire to become a dragon has changed it into a malevolent beast. It is instinctively drawn to the Yeouijoo, and will stop at nothing to claim its prize and throw the world into centuries of darkness and despair.
The Atrox are the worshippers of Buraki. They are humanoid, but not human… diabolic beings who reproduce asexually. The soldiers of Atrox are absolutely loyal to the Evil Imoogi and exist only to recover the Yeouijoo.
The Shaconne are bipedal reptiles used as mounts by the Atrox. They are approximately 4 meters long and stand 2.3 meters high. The Shaconne run as fast as horses, live in packs, and have a short lifespan… possibly because they are vicious and cannibalistic. They are stupid animals but easily trained. The Shaconne are also a food source for the Atrox, who like the taste of the animal’s flesh.
The Bulco are small flying dragons; 14 meters long and 5.6 meters tall. The Atrox created them by mutating birds, and they are used as aerial transports. The Bulco are ferocious and do not get along with any other species so the Atrox must keep them separated from the other creatures in Buraki’s army. They can breathe fire, shooting flame up to 492 feet. The Bulco can fly at incredible speeds for hundreds of hours at a time.
Next to Buraki, the strongest of the evil creatures are the Dawdlers, living tanks that are 7.8 meters long and 5 meters tall. The Dawdlers are nearly brainless, but are obedient and faithful to the soldiers of Atrox. They have powerful muscles, but the majority of their body mass is fat so they move slowly. They drag their stomachs when they move, so the Dawdler’s abdominal area is protected by an extremely thick layer of hard skin.
The Dragon is 315 meters long. It symbolizes the absolute power and immortality of heaven.
MONSTERS ARE EXPENSIVE
The budgets for Korean movies have been increasing in recent years, and many films are now costing from $10-20 million. This was far short of what Hyung-Rae Shim would need for D-WAR. The expense of setting up and creating the visual effects, working with Hollywood actors and crew, and shooting much of the film on location in Los Angeles required a budget of $32 million (some early reports listed figures from $70 million to as high as $145 million). Shim explained, “Just think of traditional Hollywood blockbusters like TITANIC, works that cost around $200 million. It took 6 years to make this film and, if we only count my company, that’s more than 160 employees. We also employed several hundred people while shooting in LA. Just think about how many mouths to feed that can be, and multiply that for 6 years.”
“Look at Bong Joon-Ho’s THE HOST: their production for only one monster cost a good 10 billion won [approximately $10 million US], and that’s only one. We have thousands of monsters in D-WAR.”
Nearly the film’s entire cost was funded by venture capital firms and banks in Korea. The entertainment giant Showbox (THE HOST) also signed on as an investor and distributor after viewing 19 minutes of footage. Showbox’s chief operating officer, Jeong Tae-Sung was amazed by the quality of the CG effects: “If this had been made by a Hollywood studio, it would have cost twice as much.”
Recent releases like the spy-thriller SHIRI (1999), the Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner OLDBOY (2004), TAE GUK GI (Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo, aka THE BROTHERHOOD OF WAR, 2004), and current fave THE HOST (Gwoemul, 2006) have broken box office records and brought international attention to Korean cinema. As the biggest Korean film ever made, Showbox has high hopes that D-WAR will take that trend to the next level. “If this project is a success, it will definitely change people’s views of the potential of Korean filmmakers,” Jeong told Variety. “I don’t think you can find any example outside of the US where a film on this scale and technical achievement was made by an unknown director.”
The completed film was screened for first time anywhere last week at the American Film Market. Showbox is hoping to sell US rights to an American distributor who will give D-WAR a wide theatrical release supported by a strong advertising campaign. After a US deal is made, they will turn their attention to Europe and Asia. “Everybody is asking about D-WAR, but we’re focusing on getting a deal with a US distributor first,” Jeong said.
When questioned in early 2006 about how he expected D-WAR to perform internationally, Shim demurred, “I promised myself not to talk about that anymore. In YONGGARY’s case people talked too much about that, and I thought long and hard about what we said, too. This time I want to show them the film first.” He apparently changed his mind by February, telling Inside JoongAng Daily that he had met with the heads of major Hollywood studios about D-WAR and had been offered $200 million in contracts. “Hollywood is in a dilemma. It’s running out of new ideas, which is why they’re making a series of remakes and sequels. They need this film.”
After all the years of waiting and all the hype, does D-WAR deliver?
The visual effects are very good; not to the level of top fx houses like ILM or Weta but comparable with much of what is shown in recent American and European films. The computer work in D-WAR is a tremendous improvement over YONGGARY, and Hyung-Rae Shim and his crew should be commended for coming so far in such a short amount of time. The movie really springs to life with the fx-laden battle in downtown LA… it’s a fun and fast-paced sequence, and is easily the highlight of the film.
With the exception of Michael Shamus Wiles’ hammy performance as the Evil General, the acting in D-WAR is good, if unexceptional. Veteran actors like Robert Forster and Elizabeth Pena know their jobs and deliver solid work, but the story and direction don’t give them the opportunity to step up and capture the audience’s attention. This is an even bigger problem for lead actors Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks. Their characters Ethan and Sarah spend most of the movie being chased by their enemy and repeatedly escaping in the nick of time, much like the characters Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor (hmmm…) in the original TERMINATOR (1984). But unlike the older film, the main characters in D-WAR are never fleshed out or given time to establish any kind of chemistry. The filmmakers want the viewer to accept that the characters’ love has endured for centuries, but it takes more than having Ethan and Sarah refer to each other as “my love” once or twice late in the movie.
The idea of basing a story (however loosely) on Korean folklore is a good one as legends and mythology have been the inspiration for many great films. It’s likely that most Westerners aren’t overly familiar with the ancient tales from Korea, and that could have given D-WAR an appealing freshness in the US. The problem is that the story is the textbook definition of an “idiot plot” where things that should be explained aren’t, and characters do incredibly stupid things just to move the story along.
Early in the film, the king is told that his infant daughter Narin has been chosen by heaven to save the world on her twentieth birthday. He entrusts her safety to the monk Bochun who begins training one apprentice to be Narin’s protector. While these two practice fighting techniques, Buraki builds up a massive army of soldiers and monsters. On Narin’s 20th birthday, Buraki’s forces catch the king’s village totally by surprise and massacre everyone.
500 years later, the monk and his apprentice are reincarnated as Jack and Ethan, but neither appears to have learned from the mistakes of the past. Jack tells Ethan that Narin has been reborn as a girl named Sarah, and that they must protect her from Buraki when her twentieth birthday draws near. 10 or 15 years go by, and on the day before Sarah’s birthday Ethan finally decides he should find out who she is. Of course, by this time Buraki has returned and built up a massive army of soldiers and monsters. It’s odd that the heroes seem so cavalier about the fate of the world when the villains are putting so much effort into achieving their goals.
Since Ethan waited to the last minute to try and protect Sarah, once he finds her there’s little he can do but run away with her. He has no plan whatsoever to keep her safe or stop the villains. Luckily, Jack pops up from time to time to bail Ethan out… but for some reason he usually does so in disguise. Why Jack would want keep his identity a secret from Ethan is never explained.
Also unexplained are Buraki’s powers. The creature is the size of Godzilla, and yet it pops up without warning at different locations all over Los Angeles. Since it is a mystical being the viewer can speculate on how Buraki can travel unnoticed in Los Angeles, but some sort of explanation from the filmmakers would have been nice.
Another odd moment involves the FBI. At one point the agents seem totally baffled by what is happening in LA, but shortly thereafter one of them is completely familiar with the legend of Imoogi and the Yeouijoo, as well as Sarah’s role in the prophecy.
The many story flaws knock D-WAR to the level of a typical Sci-Fi Channel original movie, albeit with a big budget. It’s certainly not a terrible film, but it’s not particularly good either considering it was more than five years in the making. D-WAR absolutely pales in comparison to THE HOST, which is a crowd-pleaser and a far superior movie in every way. The audience in attendance at the American Film Market seemed mostly bored and confused by D-WAR, which does not bode well for a major worldwide release.
Showbox is hoping for a theatrical launch in the summer of 2007. Hopefully the additional time will allow them to tweak the movie a bit and make D-WAR’s story equal the quality of its computer effects.