Directors: Dong-oh Cho, Dong-oh Jo
Screenplay: Dong-oh Cho, Dong-oh Jo & Hee-dae Lee
Producers: Jeonghwa Choi, Min-Whan Jo, Sung-su Kim, Xia Zhang
Starring: Jun-ho Heo, Woo-sung Jung, Kwang-il Kim, Tae-hee Kim, Jeong-hak Park, Sang-wook Park
Country: South Korea
Duration: 102 min
This review is part of New Korean Cinema and cineAWESOME!'s 2011 Korean Cinema Blogathon. Make sure you check out their website for more reviews and articles on the subject of Korean cinema. Some wonderful films have come from the country over the last ten years (and further) so join in the celebration by reading some or all of what people have to say on the subject.
I really wanted to love this film. I'm a fan of many of the recent releases coming out of South Korea as well as a massive fan of action cinema, especially martial arts movies and Demon Empire (a.k.a. Restless) seemed set to tie the high production values and sheer quality of the country's more popular exports such as Oldboy with the frenetic yet graceful action usually reserved to Hong Kong productions. It does reach these expectations in certain aspects, but unfortunately fails in many others.
Demon Empire is set in the year AD 924 where riots are sweeping through the land and demons come down to Earth to drag people down to the underworld. Yl Kwak is a demon hunter who has the power (and sword) to take on these monstrosities. However, he ends up being sent into the afterlife before his time where he meets the fiance he thought he had lost now leading troops of warriors from heaven. Unfortunately her memory has been erased, she has taken on a new identity and she does not share his feelings. Nevertheless, Yl Kwak vows to protect her and gets drawn into a battle to save life on Earth as we know it.
Or at least I think that's what was happening. Demon Empire is a bit of a mess, which is the film's major downfall. It's basically like a live action manga/anime (although I can't see any mention of it being based on anything) in that it's incredibly stylish and fairly original in concept, but like much of manga and anime it's got way too much plot and not enough character or heart to make you care or keep your interest.
A lot is going on in the film and some of the ideas are interesting, but many are pretty bland and they're thrown at you in such volume and in such a clumsy manner that there is never time to process them and there is zero flow to the narrative. Rules and new plot points just jump out of nowhere and you're forced to accept them and they are rarely developed.
The initial tragic aspect of the central love story is a nice idea too, but again it is handled clunkily and plunges too far into sappy melodrama for my liking. The film is hugely over the top in general, which I'm not always against in a fantasy action movie and the feel works in it's favour in certain scenes, but the main narrative just got dull for me, despite the filmmakers' best efforts to make the film constantly big and dramatic from beginning to end. It feels like it should be a fast paced film as there is so much happening and everything is amped up to eleven, but it drags far too often because it's there's no strong focus to keep you interested.
There was one aspect that kept me watching though and that was the film's style. This is a gorgeous looking film with inventive and boldly colourful production design as well as some impressive kinetic camerawork. Some of the CGI effects are a bit shoddy but on the whole they are used effectively to create a visual feast which isn't photo-realistic, but looks good aesthetically. It really does look like a live action comic strip without getting too literal like, say Sin City or Scott Pilgrim, a feat that has been attempted before but often doesn't quite work. As much as I found the film frustrating from a screenwriting point of view I was always excited by what the next scene would look like.
The action scenes are OK, but nothing special. It's the usual case of things being fast-cut and looking flashy rather than actually being well choreographed or viscerally violent. This approach worked in a couple of scenes, a fight amongst countless lanterns stood out in particular, but it's far from the balletic beauty of say Hero or the bone-crunching violence of a Tony Jaa film.
So overall Demon Empire is an interesting watch from a visual aspect, but the content itself will leave you either bored or frustrated. A missed opportunity if I ever did see one.
The DVD is out on 28th March in the UK, released by Metrodome. The DVD transfer is decent enough, the bold colours come through nicely. There are no extras though.
Review by David Brook