Dong-oh Jo’s “The Restless” is easily described as an earnest Korean version of Hong Kong director Tsui Hark’s nonsensical “Legend of Zu”. Both films employ top-notch visual artists to render their fantasy elements, and the abundant action are orchestrated with high-flying wire-fu and large doses of impressive CGI. And like Hark’s “Zu”, at the end of the day “The Restless” must admit that it is an empty exercise in style over substance, with a script that lacks depth and shallow characterization that requires every character to have a singular personality that distinguishes them from the masses, which in turn doesn’t really distinguish them at all as real characters. This is not heady stuff, despite what writer/director Dong-oh Jo would have you believe. But approached from the right angle, it can be amusing stuff.
“The Restless” is set in ancient Korea, where demon slayer Yi Gwak (Woo-sung Jung) finds life difficult. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Yi Gwak was once living an idyllic existence with the love of his life, Yon-hwa (Tae-hee Kim), before accusations of supernatural happenings dooms the poor girl. Despondent, a lovelorn Yi Gwak is left to fend for himself (looking very homeless doing it, I might add) when Ban-chu (Jun-ho Heo), the leader of the empire’s elite Demon Slayers runs across him. Sensing a bond with the younger man, Ban-chu recruits Yi Gwak, who soon rises to second-in-command of the Demon Slayers. Alas, Ban-chu is harboring a secret grudge against the ruling class, which ends with Ban-chu and the rest of the Demon Slayers slaughtered in an attempted uprising. Our man Yi Gwak was smart enough not to go along with it, and survived.
But wait, that isn’t how our story begins. Before the events mentioned above, we first meet up with Yi Gwak as a vagabond swordsman hiring out his demon-killing services to poor villagers. At one of his stops, Yi Gwak’s Good Samaritan deed is rewarded with poison in his tea. The chagrin warrior flees into the woods, where he falls and dies. Or does he? Yi Gwak wakes up in Midheaven, a sort of fantastical, happy-go-lucky land where dead souls come to prepare for reincarnation. And Yi Gwak has arrived just in time, too, because Midheaven is in chaos, with Ban-chu leading yet another rebellion, this time in search of a powerful amulet called the Holy Stone that would grant him the power to open a portal back to the world of the living. For you see, even dead, Ban-chu still has a grudge to settle with those damn royals…
If you think I’m done with the synopsis for “The Restless”, you are mistaken. Guess who is in possession of that Holy Stone? That’s right, the reincarnated Yon-hwa, who now goes by So-hwa, and has become a White Reaper, one of the protectors of Midheaven. After her army of protectors is slaughtered by Ban-chu’s henchmen (composed of — yes, you guessed it, all those guys (and one gal) who Yi Gwak once called friends (and lover?) back on Earth), it’s up to Yi Gwak to race to the rescue. Although she is in possession of a very powerful amulet that could tear asunder Heaven and Earth, So-hwa is curiously hapless, and seems to always be in need of saving. The rest of the film follows Yi Gwak and So-hwa as they flee Ban-chu’s henchmen. Meanwhile, Ban-chu sits in a pool of blood to gather his powers.
Before you ask, No, I am not making any of this stuff up. “The Restless” really is that unnecessarily convoluted. Unfortunately all the plots and subplots do not result in a very deep film, which is disappointing considering how much we’ve traveled just to get through all of them. The film can be easily broken down into a series of very mundane storylines: Ban-chu’s henchmen chasing after the Holy stone; one of the henchman (a henchwoman, actually) still in love with Yi Gwak; and Yi Gwak trying desperately to convince So-hwa that she is his reincarnated lover.
While the script does provide little in the way of deep storylines, our thespians don’t exactly rise to the occasion. Actress Tae-hee Kim alternates between looking bewildered and confused, her expressive manga eyes stretched to their fullest potential. As for our hero, Woo-sung Jun is in “Musa” form, which means his hair and everything clinging to it does all the acting for him. Jun-ho Heo (“Dragon Squad”), as the villain, is mostly hidden from view. It is never really explained how Ban-chu and his ex-Demon Slayers managed to attain such fantastical demon-like powers in Midheaven, or why all of Midheaven are so incapable of stopping them. If just anyone with four henchmen can usurp Midheaven, wouldn’t this thing happen a lot?
Like Tsui Hark’s “Legend of Zu”, the strongest elements of “The Restless” are its visuals. The Koreans have always excelled in stretching a film’s budget (“Yesterday”, “Natural City”), and the work behind the scenes on “The Restless” is no exception. The CGI work is seamless, and it’s easy to see how Dong-oh Jo might have relied too heavily on them and forgotten about bulking up the rest of his movie, such as interesting characters. When a movie with high-flying sword duels and extensive CGI takes me four sittings to get through, something is very wrong.
The problem is that while the martial arts sequences in “The Restless” are well done and clearly demonstrates competency from every celluloid pore, they are not overly original, and as a result they won’t stand out from equally vacuous, but impressively designed efforts such as “The Promise” or “The Banquet”. Likewise with the creative Midheaven landscape. In the cinematic world post-“Lord of the Rings”, it’s hard to wow the audience with grand CGI vistas and huge sets if that’s all the ammunition you have. “The Restless” does not have those highly original moments to make it stand out, and its lack of character and story depth makes it yet another forgettable foray into CGI fantasy.
Dong-oh Jo (director) / Dong-oh Jo, Hee-dae Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jun-ho Heo … Ban-chu
Woo-sung Jung … Yi Gwak
Tae-hee Kim … So-hwa/Yon-hwa