[Review] ‘D-War’ upgrades computer graphics

By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: July 25, 2007

In making a film heavily dependent on computer graphics, it is tricky to strike a balance between storytelling and special effects. Director Shim Hyung-rae has staked almost everything on the latter — for better or worse.

“D-War,” directed and written by Shim, a former comic actor, showcases the full potential of home-grown CG technology, offering a stream of Hollywood-style chase-and-destroy scenes.

All the visual effects have been crafted by Shim’s own studio, Younggu Art, and the outcome — computer-generated monsters, cars flying over, buildings destroyed — is impressive, though not spectacular enough to elicit real shock and awe from today’s audiences, many of whom are already familiar with similarly effects-heavy movies.

Director Shim seems to believe that the film’s primary merit lies in the quality of CG (computer graphics), justifying his tireless efforts in the past six years to produce the country’s most expensive film, which cost about 30 billion won ($33 million) and is targeting U.S. and international markets. The movie gets off to a slow start with a relatively long exposition. Ethan Kendrick (Jason Behr), a TV news reporter, notices something strange when he arrives at a disaster scene in Los Angeles. He suspects that his past memory has something to do with the mysterious incident.

When he was young, Ethan dropped in at an antiques shop where he met Jack (Robert Forster), who explained an old Korean legend. Every 500 hundred years, a bad imoogi called Buraki (a serpent yet to be morphed into a dragon) emerges to threaten the world, and Ethan was an ancient warrior who saved a Korean girl destined to deliver the crucial yeouiju, or dragon ball, that allows an imoogi to transform into a dragon.

Ethan sets out to find the girl who holds the key to the fate of the world, and he finally encounters Sarah (Amanda Brooks) with a red-dragon tattoo on her shoulder, who was the Korean girl in her past life.

From this point on, “D-War” turns into a full-fledged monster movie, with Buraki and its minions chasing down Ethan and Sarah in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. With few lines delivered by key characters, giant serpents and fully armored soldiers a la “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” march on the street, dominating the screen in the latter half of the film.

Noticeable are fast-paced airy battle scenes where army helicopters are engaged in a fierce showdown with the flying monsters. On the ground, Buraki lays waste to cars and buildings, intent on finding the predestined girl — an assortment of visuals that remind viewers of a typical Hollywood monsterfest like “Jurassic Park.”

Eerily missing, though, is the absence of a good imoogi, who supposedly fights the bad serpent Buraki. Although there is a final showdown between the good and bad imoogi, it remains a mystery why the good serpent has to wait so long.

With director Shim entirely devoted to visual effects, some of the scenes seem puzzling and incoherent. For instance, Ethan gets shot by an FBI agent in a nearly fatal development. But it takes less than a second for him to recover and run again, as if nothing — even a hard bullet — can harm him.

The most disappointing aspect is the total absence of humor throughout the film, and this is strange given that director Shim was formerly the country’s top comedian. During the 92-minute running time, there is not a single scene designed for laughter. All the characters are deadly serious, as if all the monsters are real, and the world’s fate is really handing by the thread. Worse, all of a sudden, the central stage moves to a fantasy land that is dark and gloomy — an extremely cartoonish setting that does not fit in with other mostly daylight scenes of downtown Los Angeles.

Director Shim seems to be deeply proud of the fact that his film has finally made it to the U.S. market with special effects on par with Hollywood monster flicks. But it remains to be seen whether his extreme focus on such superficial aspects of a film may bear fruit at the box office at home and abroad. After all, even superb computer-generated graphics does not make up for a poorly written script.