Given the biggest budget in Korean film history, D-War (also known as Dragon Wars) was their attempt to make an international blockbuster, including American and Korean actors and state-of-the-art special effects. A beautifully animated credits sequence has traditional ink paintings come to life while a cheesy voiceover (“Now is the time for destiny to unfold!”) recounts the legend of the Imoogi, giant serpents who by performing good deeds transform into dragons and ascend into heaven.
Earnest TV reporter Ethan Kendrick (Jason Behr) stumbles across an archaeological site full of monster bones, which triggers a childhood flashback. On a visit to an antique store, young Ethan (Cody Arens) finds a box with a blue glowing, reptilian scale. Jack (Robert Forster), the store’s mysterious owner, tells him the story of Buraki, an evil Imoogi whose warrior legions plagued 16th century Korea. The serpent searches for a heavenly pill able to grant him dragon-hood and immortality, that manifests in human form as aristocrat’s daughter, Yuh Yi-Joo (Hyojin Ban). Heavenly warriors Bochun (Jihwan Min) and Haram (Hyun Jin Park) are assigned to keep Yi-Joo away from harm, until she is eventually returned to heaven. But Haram falls in love with the girl and when Buraki’s vast army lays waste to the city, they leap hand-in-hand into the sea.
At the end of his tale, Jack reveals he himself is Bochan and Ethan is Haram, reborn to protect Yuh Yi-Joo from Buraki, who will soon return. Nineteen years later, Ethan searches for Sarah Daniels (Amanda Brooks), the reincarnation of Yi-Joo, who unaware of her fate is pursued by Buraki’s minions. Soon Los Angeles is besieged by mystical warriors astride cavalry dinosaurs called “Shaconnes”; small, fireball spewing, winged dragons called “Bulcos”; huge, lumbering “Dawdlers” who carry rocket-launchers on their back; and one seriously scary, giant snake.
Believe it or not, it was Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay who ignited the renaissance of Korea’s film industry when The Rock (1996) inspired the groundbreaking, mega-hit Shiri (1998). Since then, Korean filmmakers have often looked to the Bruckheimer/Bay style and D-War marks perhaps the ultimate example of this trend. A mind-boggling fusion of Korean mythology, Fifties monster movie clichés and American blockbusters, this half-crazed fusion of Godzilla (1998), Transformers (2007), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and The Lord of the Rings (2001) is the unlikely brainchild of writer-producer-director Shim Hyung Rae, the man who was once Korea’s answer to Benny Hill!
Shim Hyung Rae found fame on a long-running soap opera, playing the mentally handicapped (and deeply politically incorrect) comic relief, Yung Gu. The character was spun off into the Ureme movies (1986-1993), an eight part, kiddie sci-fi serial whose special effects were clips raided from 1970s anime shows. Imagine if Harry Potter movies stole theirs from old Hanna-Barbera cartoons! An unexpected breakthrough arrived with Tyranno’s Claw (1994), his surprisingly accomplished cavemen vs. dinosaurs romp, after which Hyung Rae seemingly set out to become Korea’s Steven Spielberg, with Dragon Tuka (1996) - an adventure with famous Korean folk heroes - and the woeful Yongary 2000 (2000, duh) - a remake of a Sixties Godzilla rip-off.
Shim Hyung-Rae has clearly been studying his Bruckheimer/Bay movies since D-War has all their familiar trademarks: bombastic MTV visuals, near-constant explosions, colossal set-pieces, but also the same logic loopholes and vapid characters, including the token wisecracking black best friend. A fact which prompted social realist filmmaker Leesong Hee-Il to observe: “D-War is not a movie, but rather like a fake American toaster that was made in the Korean black market back in the 1970s”, although the film was a huge success in its native land and the highest grossing Korean film in America, despite critics likening it to a bloated TV movie made for the Sci-Fi Channel.
A bewildered looking Robert Forster struggles to narrate an incredibly complex back-story full of intriguing folk lore and mystical detail, although it is fun to see him levitate and fling bad guys fifty feet into the air. Later on there’s a nod to Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), of all things, when a dream therapy machine makes Sara float and spout spooky voices. The leads spend most of their time running away, leaving the action to anonymous military men with whom we have zero emotional investment, yet the scale and ambition of its CG set-pieces remain incredibly impressive.
There are scenes to delight your monster-loving inner child: soldiers shoot it out with bullet-proof mystical warriors, Apache helicopters duelling with dragons, the amazing sight of Buraki coiling itself around a skyscraper and a rather excellent Celestial Dragon versus giant snake climax that imparts some of the lyricism of Korean fantasy. Cheesy, but chockfull of B-movie fun, D-War might someday become a cult favourite.