The biggest problem with Kwang-chun Park’s “Soul Guardians” is that there is a feeling that the filmmakers are not entirely sure about the kind of movie they wanted to make and what sort of themes or statements they wanted to express. The result is a film that looks familiar, but is hopelessly muddled when it comes to having a “core” center from which to hang its actions on.
The film opens with the police storming a building filled with practitioners of a cult that seeks to resurrect Satan; by the time the cops arrive, everyone has committed suicide except for 5 people and a young woman about to be sacrificed. The woman is pregnant and rushed to the hospital, where she gives birth to Seung-hie (Sang Mi Chu) before dying. Flash-forward 20 years, and Seung-hie is now a mechanic living a normal life — that is, until people start dying around her. The victims all have one thing in common: they were former members of the cult and survived the mass suicide 20 years earlier. With her life on the line and the Devil seeking to resurrect through her, Seung-hie must rely on a mysterious stranger, a fallen priest, and a young boy with powers for salvation…
“Soul Guardians” shows up in 1998, two years before the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “End of Days”, which has a similar premise. The two films have a lot of similarities, including the usage of Western religion (Catholicism is the primary foundation for the two films’ “resurrect the Devil” plot), a young woman who is supposed to be the vehicle for the Devil’s return to Earth, and the presence of a priest that knows the hows, whens, and whatnot.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about “Soul Guardians.” The storytelling is sometimes sketchy at best, ineptly executed at worst. Director Kwang-chun Park has a bad habit of jumping from one sequence to another without much prelude or build up, and much of the screenplay’s second half reeks of lazy writing. For instance, after a reporter shows up at his safe house, the priest blabs about the “true story” and reveals way too much, even though the reporter didn’t ask about those things. The result? The reporter leaves, only to return with the cops. Ever heard of “No comment”?
The film also focuses on the wrong characters. Upfront is the lovely Sang Mi Chu (“Say Yes”) as the damsel-in-distress (and really, that’s all she is throughout the film) and Hyun-joon Shin (“Bichunmoo”) as her knight in shining armor (complete with a knife that has a soul of its own, natch). South Korean film veteran Sung-kee Ahn (“Musa”) has a secondary role as the fallen priest, and it’s actually the relationship between Ahn’s priest and young Hyun-chul Oh’s Jun-ho that is most interesting. I wanted to know more about the superpowered Jun-ho, who seems to have all the answers despite being just a young boy and addicted to videogames. How did he come about? Why did he join the priest? Where does he get his powers? Or possess his knowledge of the occult? None of these questions were ever approached.
The screenplay also provides some mixed messages and proves to be just as confused as the director about what it wants to achieve. The film relies on a lot of Catholicism for its premise, but strangely throws in some Eastern mythology involving blessed papers (with charms written on them) that can defend against evil spirits, etc. The whole “holy paper” stuff is most prominent in Hong Kong ghost stories and I found the merging of the two religious icons to be slightly off-kilter.
“Soul Guardians” has a number of interesting scenes, but everything from the direction to the story is much too erratic. For instance, Shin’s Hyun-am seems able to summon superpowers at will on some occasions, but not on others. Despite an interesting performance by Hyung-joon Shin and the presence of the visually pleasing Sang Mi Chu, I’m afraid “Soul Guardians” is just too unfocused and unclear for its own good.
Kwang-chun Park (director) / Woo-hyouk Lee, K.C. Park, Kwang-chun Park (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn …. Park Shin-bu
Hyun-joon Shin …. Hyun-am
Sang Mi Chu …. Seung-hie