Big budget Korean fantasy “Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard” is the latest outing for writer director Choi Dong Hun, best known for hip crime flicks “Tazza: The High Rollers” and “The Big Swindle”. Although in dealing with an era spanning tale of wizards, goblins and magic he tries his hand at something a little different, the suave, roguish character of the title is very much in-keeping with his usual protagonists, and the film is a fun, mischievous affair. Popular star Kang Dong Won (also in recent hit “Secret Reunion”) takes the lead, with support from Lim Soo Jung (“Happiness”, “A Tale of Two Sisters”), award-winning actor Kim Yoon Seok (“The Chaser”), and Yu Hae Jin (“Truck”). The film was a box office smash during its Christmas 2009 release, pulling in over six million admissions, with a spin off comic book series currently being planned.
The film is loosely based upon Korean folktales, and begins in the Joseon era, with Kang Dong Won as impish wizard Woo Chi, who along with his sidekick and former dog Chorangyi (Yu Hae Jin) seems more interested in pursuing his own fame than helping his master to protect a magical pipe from evil goblins. After the old sage is murdered by the evil magician Hwa Dam (Kim Yoon Seok), Woo Chi is framed for the crime, and he and Chorangyi are magically sealed in paintings by three bumbling Taoist gods. Fast forward to present day Seoul and with the goblins and Hwa Dam searching for the pipe again, Woo Chi is freed by the unaging gods to battle them and restore order. Unfortunately, the passing years have not improved his undisciplined and womanising ways, and he sets out to track down the modern day reincarnation of his lost love.
“Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard” is a well structured film of different parts, with the first forty five minutes or so taking place back in the Joseon era. This section is far more than a mere scene setter, as it not only provides an excuse to see Woo Chi capering around in modern times, but more importantly establishes a believable mythology and its world of magic, wizards, goblins and gods. As well as giving the film the feel of an epic mixed with a time travel comedy, this also gives Choi Dong Hun a chance to show off his considerable skills as a storyteller. Indeed, as with “Tazza” in particular, the film is well crafted and paced, making the most of its characters and situations and engaging throughout. Although the plot itself is fairly thin, Choi works in a number of tangential, though highly entertaining subplots and complications, all of which keep things interesting without loss of focus. This is in part due to Kang Dong Won’s very likeable turn in the lead role, making Woo Chi an appealing scoundrel, whose many failings and eccentricities are all part of his charm.
The film is certainly a great deal of fun, with plenty of special effects to dazzle the eyes. Most of these are of a high standard, and Choi keeps them in the background rather than allowing them to drown the proceedings. The film is highly imaginative and creative, both in its goblin creature design, and with Woo Chi having a surprising variety of tricks and techniques at his disposal. Although the film is essentially plot and character, it has plenty of action and excitement, with some impressive set pieces, especially once it shifts to the present day. At the same time, it features just the right amount of comic relief and sly humour, most of which revolves around Woo Chi and his relationship with the downtrodden Chorangyi. Their bickering and camaraderie gives the film an all important sense of playfulness and fun, and an offbeat sensibility that adds a touch of spice.
“Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard” is a great reminder that blockbusters need not be vacuous affairs devoid of craftsmanship, and that special effects are all the more special when combined with well written characters and an actual plot. Whilst the film is clearly setting up further sequels, and as such seems a bit like a ‘Woo Chi Begins’, since it is so enjoyable and does indeed whet the appetite for more adventures hopefully to come, this is forgivable. Choi Dong Hun again shows himself to be one of the most accomplished directors of commercial films in Korea, and the film is very much up to the high standard of his previous efforts.
Dong-hun Choi (director) / Dong-hun Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Su-jeong Lim … Seo In-kyeong
Yun-seok Kim … Hwa-dam
Dong-won Kang … Jeon Woo-chi
Jung-ah Yum … Actress
Yun-shik Baek … Woo-chi’s mentor
Hyo-jin Kim … Red Hair
Hae-jin Yu … Chorangyi