Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “The Legend of the Evil Lake” (aka “The Thousand Years Old Lake”) is a derivative product buoyed by a large budget and tons and tons of CGI, but along the way someone forgot to make sure the screenplay was worth filming. You can have all the violin music and feature all the “Gladiator”-esque themes you want, but if your story comes up incoherent the whole thing will simply not work. Such is the sad case of “Evil Lake”, a film that begs to have a script doctor take a butcher knife to it.
“Evil Lake” opens in ancient Korea, with the first Silla king defeating Auta, the chief of a local tribe, and trapping Auta in a lake. The king leaves behind a magical sword to guard Auta’s spirit. Flash forward 1,000 years later, and the kingdom, now in the 9th century, is not in good shape. Rebellion sweeps the land and widowed Queen Ji-seong (Hye-ri Kim) has only General Biharang (Jun-ho Jeong) to count on. After a successful campaign to suppress rebels, Biharang returns home to his beloved Jawoon-bi (Hyo-jin Kim). As it turns out, Biharang and the Queen used to be sweethearts, before she had to marry to secure her throne. While the Queen still carries a torch for Biharang, he’s already moved on.
You’ll notice that the above synopsis took a whole paragraph and not a single mention of what the “evil lake” has to do with our current story. Aside from the brief prologue telling us what happened to Auta, the movie spends its first 40 minutes on everything but the evil lake. By the time the titular lake does appear, the movie switches genre and becomes a supernatural movie, complete with a flying ghost armed with the power to kill people with lots and lots of CGI water. The ghost is none other than Jawoon-bi, who inexplicably stumbles across the aforementioned magic sword, accidentally releases Auta’s spirit, and then gets possessed by Auta.
To be honest I’m not sure if it’s possible to fit all of “Evil Lake’s” convoluted and entirely nonsensical plot points into this review and still offer up a proper review. In any case, “Evil Lake” has about 3 hours’ worth of plots and subplots crammed into a 90-minute running length. As a result the movie oftentimes feels disjointed, and it’s not just the sketchy editing to blame. The film’s first 40 minutes goes the “Musa” and “Braveheart” route, with co-writer/director Kwang-hoon Lee gleefully wallowing in a sea of decapitated heads, dismembered bodyparts, and geysers of blood. The carnage mostly takes place during the film’s two battle scenes — which, not surprisingly, has nothing to do with the rest of the film.
By the time Jawoon-bi gets possessed by the mad spirit of Auta (the guy has been holding a grudge against the Silla bloodline for 1,000 years!), the movie sheds its medieval “war is hell” angle for the type of silly and over-the-top action that would be more at home in the period martial arts/supernatural movies Hong Kong used to churn out by the 100s in the late ’80s and early ’90s. There are tons of wireworks in the second half, which is a strange sight especially in light of the first half’s attempts at realism, with its brutal medieval combat and “Braveheart”-esque moments.
If “Evil Lake” was an attempt to have it both ways — not only two movies in one, but two completely different genres! — then it comes up short. The audience will feel more than a bit discombobulated, as if they paid money to see one movie, but the ticket taker sent them into the wrong theater by accident. While neither half is particularly bad, put together they feel awkward. The “Braveheart” first half has its moments, but it’s generally ruined by bad action choreography. In particular the film’s battle sequences, which are ruined by background actors playing “touch swords” — i.e. they stand in the background unsure what the heck to do while the main actors perform carefully choreographed fights in the foreground.
All of the above is particularly disheartening because “Evil Lake” has a pretty strong cast. Star Jun-ho Jeong (“Marrying the Mafia”) is very credible as the blood-splattered General whose skills with a sword can change the course of a battle. His chemistry with Hyo-jin Kim, while not exactly scorching, is nevertheless believable and even charming. Kim’s presence as the innocent peasant girl works, especially opposite the harden soldier she’s given her heart to. Hye-ri Kim, as the strong-willed Queen with a lot on her mind, is effective without overplaying her hand. She’s the experienced woman to Jawoon-bi’s ing’nue; both love the same man, and one gets the feeling it wouldn’t completely be beyond Ji-seong to simply order her rival removed.
As for the rest of the cast, they come across as incidental. Biharang has a faithful second-in-command in Talwi, who we know absolutely nothing about except his name. There’s also a General Bang, who provides the film with its Odious Villain. The film’s royal court scenes look appropriately epic, buoyed by the fact that the filmmakers got permission to shoot in actual royal courts in Mainland China. As with all period movies that spends any amount of time with a King or Queen, there are political conspiracies afoot.
Also, for a film that spends so much time arranging for hands, heads, and other bodyparts to explode on cue, “Legend of the Evil Lake” is curiously shy when it comes to showing skin. Female skin, anyway. An aborted kiss (courtesy of lousy editing) between two female characters is a perfect example of the film’s erratic and random nature.
Kwang-hoon Lee (director) / Joo-ri Hong, Kwang-hoon Lee, Seung-moo Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jun-ho Jeong …. General Biharang
Hyo-jin Kim …. Jawoon-bi
Hye-ri Kim …. Queen Ji-seong