KOREAN MOVIE REVIEW: Jeon Woo Chi: Taoist Wizard

Jeon Woo Chi is a film (2009) that moves lightning fast, its plot and dialogue both speeding along at a whip-smart pace that means you need to be constantly on your toes in order to keep up.  
So if you are looking for a relaxing fluff comedy that doesn’t require you to concentrate then you may have come to the wrong place. In saying that though, this is still a comedy so there is definitely plenty of fun to be had, a lot of it being of the very silly variety with plenty of interesting and quite hilarious characters to amuse and entertain.

Jeon Woo Chi: Taoist Wizard

I really enjoyed this strange and wild ride, sometimes silly, sometimes poignant, set mostly in the Joseon dynasty, with some fun future bits too!

The always fantastical Kang Dong-won plays our titular hero, the enigmatic Jeon Woo Chi, a character possibly best described as a bit of a man-child, caring a lot more about his reputation and his quest for fame than he really should.  He is not exactly a terrible guy though,  even managing to do a good deed or two along the way as he accomplishes his own glory seeking tasks, but then he ruins the good effects by not being above reminding everyone and anyone who’ll listen exactly what a wonderful guy he is. His character is saved though by an inherent cheekiness and amusing disrespect for authority that immediately renders him likable, half badass powerful warrior, the other part embarrassingly arrogant fool.

And yeah, he is also a wizard.

Which is much cooler than it sounds.

Kang Dong-won’s facial expressions throughout the film really make this role, ranging mostly from the silly to the hilarious, so much so that when Woo Chi does occasionally get deadly serious in a ‘I mean business’ kind of way it is actually quite unexpected,  making those sudden changes all the more effective and engaging. I am such a huge Kang Dong-won fan these days and think he was perfect for this role, not being afraid to pull some truly ridiculous faces in order to get some laughs.

I actually found that most of the best comedy in this film comes from watching the characters reactions and expressions (sometimes subtle sometimes not) rather than from straight out jokes.  This style of comedy really works well in this movie, offering the viewer an insight into these often silly, yet still affable characters and actually making us care for them, another aspect of action/comedy movies that can be rather difficult to accomplish, especially those with an extended cast and a plot that moves as quickly as this one.

I also love love love how Woo Chi is first introduced in this film, disguising himself as the Jade Emperor (aka God!) to visit the Joseon King to berate him (and also totally humiliate him) for not looking after or feeding the people properly.

The character motivation that could have ended up a little too ‘do-goody’ on any other hero is saved by Woo Chi’s hilarious disrespect for anyone present and also his absolute self entitlement as he orders the king and courtiers about, making them grovel before him as he wreaks havoc and turmoil in one of my favourite scenes in the movie. 

For viewers like me who had no idea what to expect from this film, I was actually tricked along with the King that it was the Jade Emperor visiting (this was my first Kang Dong-won film so I didn’t recognise the lead actor to give it away) and I thought it was a very amusing way to introduce Woo Chi. This scene also works as a quick and very effective way to give the viewer every piece of relevant information about Woo Chi’s character,  his motivations and his goals.  In one single scene we get a full idea of our hero, meaning that the movie is then totally free to dive right into the plot without any more character development, at least on Woo Chi’s part.

The Joseon set segment of this movie, though I didn’t realise it at the time, is basically just an extended intro working effectively to set up the plot, reveal all the key characters and also to set in motion the reasoning behind Woo Chi’s motivation (basically betrayal and murder).   

Other than Woo Chi, our main characters are his dog-like (literally) sidekick, always handy to back Woo Chi up in a fight, the widow/ Seo In-kyung who is the sort-of love interest with her own mysteries (also I loved the actress who played In-kyung), the three very amusing Gods/Tao masters who have a rather bumbling dynamic (reminding me more than a little of the three Bangs from ‘Arang and the Magistrate’), and finally the big bad, the treacherous Hwadam. 

Also there are some CGI rabbit and rat demons which serve the purpose of being totally evil and also providing us with some really cool fight scenes.

When the action finally skips forward to the present day, I loved the whole fish out of water aspect of the comedy, Woo Chi’s reactions to the modern world keeping me incessantly giggling. 

This for me was comedy gold, from Woo Chi walking into a pane of glass midway through a very serious conversation (not that he mentions it mind, he just looks confused and then continues on talking) through to his reaction to the news that there is no King in modern Korea, a dead pan slap to the messengers chest to acknowledge what he suspects to be very silly joke indeed.

  Another aspect of this film that I feel was tackled in a really clever way was how Woo Chi’s magic is portrayed regarding the special effects, being not at all cheesy (no laser beams from the fingers or swirling magic clouds of fog etc.) a feat I think is incredibly hard to accomplish for a movie whose main character basically has superpowers.   

Instead the magic was filmed in a very slick and cleanly cut way, objects appearing or disappearing in the blink of an eye, the simple snap of Woo Chi’s fingers creating his wishes straight out of thin air resulting in action scenes that actually keep you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what tricks Woo Chi will pull out next.

Another thing I liked was that Woo Chi’s powers also had definite rules in the form of his talismans, without which he was (at least for a time) kind of useless, bringing some needed vulnerability to his character and also allowing for ensuing hilarity at his expense. When he does finally learn to use his powers without the talismans, the action and magic are stepped up a notch, making the following fight scenes not only the biggest and best in the movie, but also genuinely exciting to watch with an extended final showdown that is both engrossing and spectacular.

During this final showdown, I also really liked the way that Woo Chi steps up, becoming serious and badass after he is finally pushed past his limit, close to death at the hands of Hwadam. I guess it is an idea that is often recycled in action movies, the hero (almost) dies only to come back stronger and more powerful than ever before, his vulnerabilities now all but gone.  

Even so, it is still a completely awesome scene, Woo Chi’s fighting style suddenly completely  changed, his concern for In-kyung the only thing that slows him down or makes him falter.Scenes like this really stand out in the narrative as a whole as I got so used to watching Woo Chi bumble about nonchalantly that when he does finally let loose it is pretty exciting.

One moment I particularly enjoyed in this film was the scene in Joseon times where Woo Chi is attempting to woo In-kyung by showing her the ocean, a lovely surreal scene in which strange (modern) music plays and a kite flies by the couple, until the spell is suddenly broken when she walks into the water.   I love how Woo Chi uses the situation to impress In-kyung, showing her a place she has never been to that she longs to see, but when she starts asking him questions about what lies beyond the ocean, she realises he is just as clueless as her and has never seen the ocean before either.

This lovely (though quick) scene  comes back full circle, returning again at the end of the film as the closing scene, with both Woo Chi and In-kyung finding themselves back on the exact same beach at the exact same moment (music and kite both present) and Woo Chi realises that he actually caught an insight into his own future. 
I thought it was a lovely and kind of surreal way to end the movie, with the idea of fate twisting everyone back around.

 All in all this movie is a lot of fun and, if you can keep up, well worth a watch. It is consistently funny throughout but also has (much like Woo Chi himself) a certain gravity that shows through the comedy in places, making for a compelling watch amongst the spectacular action setpieces and silly hijinks.

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