In our country, show-biz success presents a rich variety of dangers and temptations. In South Korea, filmmaking success presents a very peculiar, specific danger: The possibility that a silly little man named Kim Jong Il will kidnap your family and force you to make movies for him.
Of course I've tried using the old "I missed dinner because Kim Jong Il kidnapped me and forced me to make films for him" excuse myself plenty of times. Apparently that doesn't sufficiently explain why I come home smelling like cheap perfume and rotgut every night. But for Sang-Ok Shin, a.k.a. Simon S. Sheen, "allegedly" being kidnapped by Kim Jong Il's evil henchmen was a living nightmare, as well as a convenient excuse for not calling and/or missing birthdays. I write "allegedly" because I certainly don't want to unnecessarily impugn Kim Jong Il's good name. It's an old story. One day you're wowing the world with your singular creative vision. The next, you're in a tiger cage in North Korea, writing a screenplay about a mystery-solving talking pony that falls in love with Zac Efron, for Kim Jong Il's tweenage daughter.
In his memoir, Kim Jong Il Kidnapped Me And Forced Me To Make Movies For Him, Swear To God, I Am So Not Making This Up, Sang-Ok Shin alleges that Kim Jong Il dug his authorial vision so much that he dispatched goons to South Korea to kidnap Shin and his actress wife so he could force Shin to make propaganda films and the 1985 monster movie Pulgasari. Kim Jong Il undoubtedly tried to smooth things out after the kidnapping by visiting Shin's dungeon and gently reassuring him, "Now, I know we didn't get off to the best start, but from here on out, I want you to think of me as the guy who believes in your talent and has constructive feedback, instead of the lunatic who will have your children thrown into an active volcano if he's unhappy with your revisions to the second act."
Besides, the kidnapping had to be at least a little bit flattering. And to think, imitation is still considered the highest form of flattery. I know Kim Jong Il's faith in Shin was probably cold comfort as hooded guards shocked Shin's genitals during script meetings, but talk about putting your money, your madness, and your henchmen where your mouth is. Director Edgar Wright recently wrote me a nice e-mail about My Year Of Flops, but is he going to kidnap my family and force to me to punch up the script of his next movie? I don't think so. Similarly, I enjoy Noah Baumbach's films tremendously, but am I going to kidnap his family and force him to script and direct my idea about werewolves who are robots and also vampires? Probably not. At least for the time being.
Shin eventually escaped to the United States, where he ended his career directing 3 Ninjas sequels, a fate many have described as "marginally better than being held hostage by Kim Jong Il." Shockingly, however, Kim Jong Il may not be the single worst thing ever to happen to the Korean film industry. The li'l guy with the great big delusions has to battle it out for that title with Dragon Wars, a film that answers the question "What would Transformers look like if it were written and directed by Ed Wood's reanimated brain?"
Dragon Wars quickly became the top-grossing Korean film of all time, thanks largely to the shamelessly manipulative tagline: Dragon Wars: See It Repeatedly So Our Entire Film Industry Doesn't Crumble Under The Weight Of Its Crushing Failure. But even so, it cost $75 million to make (a Korean record), so it hasn't yet turned a profit. (The mere $10 million it made in America didn't help much.)
And the reviews! Let's just say that any indignities Shin faced in the dungeons of Kim Jong Il paled in comparison to the flogging Dragon Wars got from critics. To cite but a single fuzzy example, that one critic from that paper was all like, "That big Asian movie with the dragons and the wars isn't so great."
The blame can be placed partially on the film's almost inconceivable awfulness, and partially on its unwisely subdued title. Surely anything involving dragons and wars merits at the very least a single exclamation point, if not a whole slew of them. Am I right, people???!!! Punctuation matters. Stick a comma between Dragon and Wars and suddenly you have the title of a pretentious poetry collection: Dragon, Wars. Sounds like some shit Jewel would write.
If you don't think Dragon Wars (or D-Dub!, as we die-hards call it) merits an exclamation point or three, check out the first two sentences of the plot summary on the DVD box: "Meet Buraki, the vicious 200-meter-long Imoogi serpent from Ancient Korea. His army includes giant lizards with missile launchers, flying dragons, soldiers bred for evil and mega-intelligent dinosaurs." Giant lizards with missile launchers! Soldiers bred for evil! Mega-intelligent dinosaurs! I'm salivating wildly just thinking about it. How can this not be the greatest film ever?
Dragon Wars opens with voiceover narration, the lazy screenwriter's best friend, explaining that "Everyone believes the age of dragons has passed. But the age of dragons has just begun". Then it maps out the film's elaborate dragon-based mythology. Pay close attention, viewer, because this information will only be repeated over and over by seemingly every major character in the film. Not since Uwe Boll defiled the English language in Alone In The Dark has so much exposition been handled in such a hilariously inept fashion.
The film opens in present-day Los Angeles with a crazy Injun hollering "The prophecy proved true. Hide all your pretty things! This is the end! The beast has risen!" Those words will prove strangely prophetic. We're then introduced to fearless protagonist Jason Behr, who appears to be hunting down scoops in his capacity as a junior staff writer for a middle-school newspaper. Behr looks unmistakably like a sketchy Cinemax version of deadpan cut-up Demetri Martin. In actuality, he's a rising young television-news reporter, but apparently his commitment to journalism doesn't extend to shaving his Don Johnson stubble, or getting a haircut that doesn't look like something from the cover of Now That's What I Call Emo!
A strangely familiar-looking relic prompts a Proustian reverie from our intrepid reporter pal, as he relates, in exquisitely mopey voiceover, a formative childhood experience involving a weird old man with a screenplay worth of clumsy exposition to unpack.
We then flash back 15 years, as Behr's younger, even dopier and blanker self (played by Cody Arens) accompanies his dad to an antiques store, where proprietor Robert Forster fakes a heart attack so he can get Arens alone. When Arens' dad offers to call an ambulance, Forster tells him instead to "Go to the herb shop on Wilshire and Mariposa. Tell them it's for me. They'll know what to do. Hurry." Ah, the old "pretending to have a heart attack and dispatching a terrified stranger into inexplicably purchasing weed for you, so you can be alone with his son and reveal an ancient prophecy to him" trick. I've seen it a thousand times before, and I'll see it a thousand times more.
Here's the really awesome part: Arens seems wholly nonplussed by Forster's shenanigans. His attitude can succinctly be summed up as "Dude, whatever." Forster tells his young charge that he has just stumbled upon something called the scale of the Imoogi. What's an Imoogi? I'll let Forster tell you himself, via the following monologue, which just trips off the tongue:
Imoogi, it is a creature from a Korean legend which turns into a dragon. Long ago, there lived great serpents called Imoogis, they lived in the heavens above their legions of followers. Every 500 years, one Imoogi was rewarded for its good deeds with a chance to become a celestial dragon. In order to become a celestial dragon, the Imoogi needed to receive from heaven the gift of Yuh Yi Joo. It is the strength, the power of the Yuh Yi Joo that allows an Imoogi to transform into a dragon. Only there was among the great serpents of heaven, an evil one. Buraki. He coveted the Yuh Yi Joo. His followers designed to possess it, and this, heaven could not allow. It was decided to hide away the Yuh Yi Joo on Earth. All heaven could do was send down its best warriors, Haram and his master Bochun, to protect Yuh Yi Joo at all costs from the evil Buraki. Unfortunately, the evil Buraki also knew where to find Yuh Yi Joo.
Now imagine you're Robert Forster. You arrive on set, maybe grab a nosh from catering. Then the director comes into your trailer and goes over the lines, adding "Now, just because you're a shape-shifting mystic guru revealing an ancient prophecy to the Chosen One doesn't mean you can't have a little fun with this. So keep it loose, keep it conversational, and above all, else keep it natural. You're just shooting the breeze and maybe revealing an ancient prophecy while you're at it."
In a bold/shameless bit of storytelling, the filmmakers then introduce a flashback within a flashback and exposition within exposition, as a guru in ancient Korea explains that a 19-year-old girl bearing the mark of the Red Dragon must be sacrificed to keep the evil Buraki from becoming an all-powerful celestial dragon. Dragon Wars is like an elaborate Russian nesting doll of flashbacks and exposition.
Long story short: The evil Buraki is back and on the lookout for a nubile 19-year-old blonde actress-and-model-type L.A. gal named Sara (played with soap-opera vapidity by Amanda Brooks) with a red dragon tattoo so he can snag the Yuh Yi Joo and destroy humanity. Apparently 200-meter-long serpents from ancient Korea have the same taste in women as the rich schmucks on Millionaire Matchmaker.
At the end of his marathon spiel, Forster confides, "[Buraki] will be back to redeem himself. [Handing Behr a pendant.] This belongs to you now. I've been waiting for you for a long time. Thought you'd be taller, though. I know this isn't easy to believe." (As opposed to everything else he just said?) "But do you want to know something that's even harder to believe?" (Maybe "that I read this script before signing onto this project"?) "I am Bochun from 500 years ago. And you, you are Haram, the very warrior I raised." This sequence disappointed me terribly by not ending with Forster putting his hand on Arens' prepubescent shoulder and warmly inquiring, "Ethan, do you like to watch movies about gladiators?"
At this point, you're probably wondering "What the hell is a class act like Forster doing in a movie like this?" The answer, unsurprisingly, involves a paycheck with an unconscionable number of zeroes at the end. The wonderfully paternal, effortlessly authentic Forster is a character actor, and character actors act. Otherwise, they're unemployed actors, and God knows we have as many of them as the service industry of the greater Los Angeles area can possibly take. I admire Daniel Day-Lewis, but if every actor waited for the perfect role, the film industry would be in serious trouble. Besides, as much I admire Forster, I doubt he found himself thinking "Huh, what should I do? Play King Lear on Broadway for Martin Scorsese, or spout a bunch of mystical gibberish for a huge-ass payday in a ridiculous Korean monster movie my grandkids might like? Decisions, decisions." I imagine that when Forster read the lines "I am Bochun from 500 years ago. And you, you are Haram, the very warrior I raised," he sighed sadly, looked at himself in the mirror a little wistfully, and muttered, for neither the first nor the last time, "Eh, it's work."
Forster's orgy of ham-fisted exposition ends about 20 minutes into a film that barely passes the 80-minute mark, which means that Dragon Wars devotes roughly a quarter of its running time to explaining just what the fuck is going on the other 75 percent of the time. Not exactly sleek or efficient filmmaking.
With all that exposition out of the way, we're on to the real meat of the movie: giant lizards with missile launchers! Soldiers bred for evil! Mega-intelligent dinosaurs! How can that not be awesome? Here's how: Since none of the cartoonish villains have recognizable personalities, they all blur together into one big ball of evil. In that respect, it's like Transformers, where none of the baddies stand out except for the black-guy robot who's all like "A rap, a rap, a rappety rap rap. I'm the rapping black-guy robot. Peace in the Middle East, word to your motha. I'm a robot, y'all."
The bad guys in Dragon Wars are so forgettable that the addition of a sassy rapping black-guy robot could only benefit the film. At the very least, it would enhance its verisimilitude, give it a little class. Giant lizards with missile launchers are awesome in theory but disappointing in practice, since the filmmakers clearly exhausted their imaginations dreaming up such preposterous concepts. When it came time to explain how exactly giant lizards came to own and operate missile launchers, the film's meager brain trust was all out of answers and ideas.
On a similar note, the film's dinosaurs don't even seem particularly intelligent, let alone mega-intelligent. Gremlins 2: The New Batch indelibly conveyed a beastie's intelligence by giving him the voice and endearingly smug patrician superiority of Tony Randall, but I doubt D-War's dinosaurs could complete even the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle. And the film's soldiers bred for evil are nothing but broke-ass orcs with a little stormtrooper and Black Knight thrown in for variety. Special effects should be the icing on the cake, that little extra spice that makes things extra-nice. In Dragon Wars, they're the cake, the icing, the serving plate, the whole kit 'n' kaboodle.
Ah, but I am neglecting the film's plot. Behr eventually discovers the identity and whereabouts of the mystery girl he must protect when a co-worker blithely photographs Brooks while she's being interrogated by the police. Lucky break. From there, it's a race against time to determine whether Behr can spirit Brooks away before the evil Buraki and his minions of the damned can claim her for their evil purposes.
The film builds up to an epic confrontation between the Good Imoogi and the Evil Buraki. (You know a film's storytelling is a little on the slack side when a major character's name contains an adjective revealing his defining/only characteristic.) Since the climactic Good Imoogi/Evil Buraki (full name: Buraki Hussein Obama Hitler) confrontation takes place against a pitch-black sky, it's literally hard to make heads or tails of what's going on.
I found the film's hilariously inept Z-grade storytelling far more charming than the just-barely-competent storytelling of Transformers. There's something appealingly, even perversely homemade about Dragon Wars: it seems to have sprung whole cloth from the imagination of an overly excitable 12-year-old boy. It's got the weird underdog charm and half-assed personality that separates an endearingly terrible filmmaker like Uwe Boll from the countless forgettable hacks that history quickly forgets. Lot of movies are bad, but Dragon Wars manages to be unforgettably, almost transcendently awful. Also, giant lizards with missile launchers!
Dragon Wars illustrates what I like to call the Monkey/Dragon movie paradox. Monkeys are awesome. Dragons are awesome. Yet movies about monkeys and dragons are almost never awesome. In fact, they're more like the antithesis of awesome, with a few notable exceptions. (Being John Malkovich and the 1933 and 2005 versions of King Kong spring to mind). If someone were to make a movie involving both dragons and monkeys, and a war of some kind, however, I suspect that it might very well be the most awesome movie ever made. Note to self: kidnap Noah Baumbach and his family and get him started on the screenplay for Dragon Wars Too: Monkey Vs. Dragon Ultra Imax 3D War Electric Boogaloo ASAP.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco