Thursday, March 4, 2010


Back in the fifteenth century the hottest arms race on Earth was being waged by two nations that didn't even know what century it was. The Ming Dynasty of China and the Korean kingdom of Joseon kept their own time, which is only fair, since they were way ahead of Christendom when it came to technology. Dwarfed by the Ming, Joseon sought any advantage available, despite the efforts of appeasers who counseled submission to China. The equalizer was the "divine weapon," which was a rocket-powered delivery system for masses of arrows. Joseon has been working on such a system for a while as Kim Yoo-jin's film opens, and one powerful family has been demoted for failing to perfect a weapon. Sul-ju, the scion of the disgraced family, now hustles for a living as head of a merchant clan. Fate, if not national strategy, makes him the host of Hong-li, the daughter of the current Divine-Weapon designer. He was killed by Ming agents, who took his design manual and are now after his daughter. She was her father's assistant and has much of his technical know-how. Hong-li and Sul-ju are reluctantly thrown together in an emergency effort to build Divine Weapons before the Ming figure out how to build them first. In the process, Sul-ju will get over his grudge against his government and his now-mercenary impulses, Hong-li will come down off her high horse and lose some of her self-righteous attitude, each will learn from and fall in love with the other, and a hella lot of Mings and barbarian Jurchen tribesmen will find themselves in a pointy metal deathstorm without their umbrellas.

Woman of learning, man of action: together they conceive the Divine Weapon.

This Korean production doesn't have the budget Zhang Yimou had for Curse of the Golden Flower, though Divine Weapon is an expensive film by national standards (costing something like $10,000,000). The limitations show when Kim resorts to subpar CGI, but for the most part the film benefits from its smaller scale and more personal, sometimes more visceral violence. It's a patriotic film, arguably an epic, but far less pretentious than the Chinese film. Divine Weapon has more of a Hollywood feel in its focus on two attractive, initially mismatched protagonists who fall in love, and the personable quality of the leads, Jeong Jae-yeong and Han Eun-jeong, keeps you interested during the buildup to the big battlefield unveiling of the title device.

Your Divine Weapon comes in three models. Your basic Divine Weapon will shoot scores of arrows through the air to punch holes in the enemy, but their penetrating power's not so great. A guy on horseback carrying a small shield in one hand can take a hit on the shield and keep on riding. That's when you want your Standard Divine Weapon. This is actually the original version before it was redesigned, and the objective originally wasn't to pin some enemy mook to the earth. The idea here was to blow him up. This baby comes with an explosive charge on each arrow that'll bring down the man and the horse. Stick a guy with four or five of these and it ain't pretty.

But sometimes it's just not enough to blow up a barbarian on a horse. Say you've got a bunch of the enemy all in one place. That's when you can really use the Grand Divine Weapon. Let's keep this simple: it's a ballistic missile. Joseon had'em three hundred years before Europe did, the film says, and when our heroes bring it on to mop up the retreating enemy, it's a genuine "you have got to be shittin' me" moment, but in a good way -- apart from the botched CGI of the explosions. By comparison, the clouds of arrows on the first volleys have a certain lethal elegance.

Choose your poison.

Some critics (particularly Chinese) have questioned the accuracy of the film and the claims made for Korean inventiveness, but Divine Weapon is guilty of no more than the usual cinematic license. Before watching, I wondered whether a film that shows Koreans sticking it to China would have contemporary political overtones, but having watched it I don't think so, unless some Chinese have real thin skins. The English subtitles, at least, scrupulously refer to Joseon's oppressors as "the Ming" rather than "China" (and it's a great name for a villainous entity, isn't it?) and the enemy could just as easily be seen as a generic tyrant rather than as specifically Chinese.

If anything, I had a stronger impression that the Jurchen barbarians were meant to stand in for North Korea, in which case the film's focus on wonder weapons has obvious relevance. The subtext might be that the South could match the North bomb for bomb, missile for missile, and even overmatch the dismal bolsheviks if not for geopolitical constraints. Strangely, Divine Weapon reminded me of 1950s sci-fi movies in which the Japanese save the world with super weapons in subconscious do-overs of the end of World War II. In this case, South Korea looks to its historic past for assurance that it can deal with the Northern enemy if it comes down to a fight. But you don't need to read any politics into it to enjoy this unartistic but effective adventure film. It isn't on the cutting edge of Korean or Asian cinema by any measure, but it's a piece of pop cinema that might be popular anywhere, depending on how you translate it.

This English-subtitled trailer was uploaded to YouTube by ArtsAllianceAmerica.

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