The Korean historical costume epic continues to thrive with “The Divine Weapon” from director Yoo Jin, previously responsible for “Wild Card” and acclaimed co-producer Kang Woo Suk of “Public Enemy” fame. Mining a fascinating historical premise for rousing effect, the film certainly struck a chord with audiences, ranking as one of the biggest hits of 2008 at the domestic box office.
The film is set back in the fifteenth century, at a time when Korea was under subjugation by the forces of Ming dynasty China. Matters come to a head when a Chinese ambassador visits with unreasonable demands from the emperor for more lavish tributes, threatening the nation with the promise of military action and angering the king (played by legendary actor Ahn Sung Ki in a brief though suitably stately appearance). The real reason behind his visit is to seize the blueprints for ‘The Divine Weapon’, a newly designed device called ’Singijeon’ (essentially a machine that fires multiple explosive arrows) that could turn the tide in Korea’s favour. Although Ming spies kill the inventor, his daughter Hong Li (Han Eun Jung, from “Full House”) flees and is put under the care of greedy merchant Seol Joo (Jung Jae Young, also in “Going by the Book”). Although at first he only seeks to profit from the arrangement, as the Ming army starts to move in, he grows himself a nationalistic conscience, and helps Hong Li as she races against time to build the weapon.
It’s easy to see why “The Divine Weapon” proved so popular, as it contains everything needed for a successful blockbuster, combining historical intrigue, action, romance and even a touch of comedy to great effect. Unlike so many would be crowd pleasers which actively play to the supposed common denominator, the film has a fairly involved plot, which makes good use of the political and cultural complexities of the time to weave a tale filled with deceptions and interesting twists. It is to director Kim’s credit that he manages to work in the obligatory love story without ever undermining this, and although hampered slightly by its inherent inevitability, the relationship between Seol Joo and Hong Li builds in winningly playful fashion, thanks in no small part to the likeable performances from the two leads.
The film spends a fair amount of time on character development in general, and Seol Joo does make for an interesting protagonist, with his journey from profiteer to nationalistic hero being a gradual and convincing one. The proceedings are quite patriotic in tone, dealing with themes of Korean independence, and the cast do spend a lot of the running time claiming they would lay down their lives for the good of the nation, or making stirring speeches about shaking off the oppressors. Given the historical context, this is all quite fitting, and Kim thankfully never lays it on too thick. This likely reflects the involvement of producer Kang Woo Suk, whose incendiary “Hanbando” was even more of a flag waving affair.
Although the film does work in a number of action scenes and set pieces, Kim saves the one battle scene for the final act. This is actually quite a smart move, with other similarly themed films having floundered by playing the epic card too early on. Here, the film certainly benefits from holding back, as the ever looming threat of conflict works well to generate tension and to build anticipation for the extras-heavy clash to come. When it finally does, Kim shows himself to be as adept at handling large scale sequences as he is at more intimate character based scenes, and the battle is exciting and suitably bombastic. Most importantly, it finally sees the titular weapon being unleashed in all its destructive power, which up until that point had remained somewhat of an unknown quantity.
The film really benefits from what was obviously a high budget, with some gorgeous production values that give the proceedings a truly handsome look. The historical sets and costumes are all impressive, and really help to draw the viewer into the characters and story. Wisely, Kim does not use much in the way of special effects, saving the few bursts of CGI until the final act, and even then employs them conservatively. His direction is solid and pleasingly economic, and he keeps the film moving along at a brisk pace, ensuring that the viewer is engaged and entertained throughout.
Again, it is this well balanced approach which makes “The Divine Weapon” so enjoyable, and what lifts it above other recent costume epics from Korea, or indeed any other Asian country. By concentrating on character and story rather than empty spectacle, Kim keeps the film grounded, and it is all the more enjoyable as a result.
Yu-jin Kim (director) / Man-hui Lee, Hyeon-jeong Shin (screenplay)
CAST: Jae-yeong Jeong … Seol-joo
Eun-jeong Han … Hong-ri
Jun-ho Heo … Chang-kang
Sung-kee Ahn … King Sejong
Li-seong Do … In-ha
Seong-mo Jeong … Sa Ma-soon
Myoeng-su Kim … Gya Oh-ryung
Do-gyung Lee … Hong-man
Hyeon-kyeong Ryu … Bang-wook