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Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: JEON WOOCHI: THE TAOIST WIZARD is a Purely Energetic Fantasy

By Chris Horn
Choi Dong-hoon’s 2009 hit Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard (or Woochi) is a boldly incomprehensible film that challenges viewers to hate it. It’s also an immensely fun—and funny—film that further cements Choi’s reputation as one of the most bankable Korean directors and answers the question, “Remember when movies were fun?”

True to Choi’s style, Woochi explodes onto the screen in a big way with an immediate expository dialog and CGI sequence explaining how long ago there were monsters with animal forms who were controlled in a prison of sorts by a master wizard. Unfortunately, the other wizards open the prison a day early by mistake and unwittingly allow the monsters to escape along with the powerful flute that controls them. It’s five hundred years ago in the Joseon dynasty and the world is spinning out of control as the monsters spread chaos throughout the realm.
Taoists wizards are tasked with vanquishing the monsters and chief among them are the wise epitome of philosopher Master (Baek Yoon-sik) and slightly cocksure Hwadam (Kim Yoon-seok). And then Woochi enters the picture. Woochi (Kang Dong-won) literally comes down on a cloud in front of the King and proceeds to mock the court with his capricious antics. But when something goes wrong and the Master is killed, the three wizards banish Woochi and his sidekick (who usually appears in the form of a human, sometimes as a horse and sometimes as a dog) Chorangyi (Yoo Hae-jin) to a painting.
In 2009, monsters begin appearing again and the three wizards decide their only hope of corralling the demons is to let Woochi out. Unfortunately, Woochi is much more interested in exploring this new world with Chorangyi and investigating a woman who catches his fancy and reminds him of a woman he fell in love with five hundred years earlier, Seo In-kyung (Im Soo-jeong). The plot defies any attempts at summary, but be sure there is a continual clash of forces: good and evil, chaos and order, selfish and selfless.
The story of Woochi seems like an amalgamation of Ghostbusters (1984), Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and a Korean period film. It shouldn’t work! And yet Choi absolutely pulls it off. Perhaps the main criticism that could be leveled against Choi is that he seems to lack restraint and he will put a slew of disparate themes or elements in his films, but Woochi is so peculiar it somehow works in the film’s favor. A fantasy film set in the Joseon dynasty period involving shapeshifting wizards and demons would be quite a film. Adding the modern setting along with a meta film-within-a-film only adds to the wonderful budaejjigae (a Korean stew with eclectic ingredients) that Choi has concocted. There is a slick, entertaining order to the chaos.

Make no mistake, Woochi could have become a complete disaster if it either: a) injected needless melodrama into an otherwise lighthearted narrative, b) had a complete hambone of a lead, or c) had a clumsy script. Somehow each potential crisis has been averted and Woochi goes without the usual thirty minutes of wide-eyed, over-emoted expressions. It’s worth mentioning at this point that I fully expected to hate this film as I had yet to be impressed with Kang Dong-won, but he was absolutely perfect in this role. Maybe he just needs the right script and director, but Kang absolutely kills it as the egotistical, playful and sometimes-dimwitted Woochi. Yoo Hae-jin plays off Kang so well as the absurd Chorangyi that I have to ask why we don’t see this pair together in more films. Additionally, the banter of the three wizards stitches together the rapid-fire, humorous dialog as well as ease us into some of the more heady exposition.
The camera is mobile throughout the film, but never in a way that drags you out of the playful combat between wizards and demons. Choi inserts bits of humor into extended fight sequences that help keep the audience off balance, which is appreciated for a film that rounds the two hour mark and almost makes it halfway to a third. As far as the special effects go, things are pretty hit or miss. The opening sequence and the monsters look fairly dated, but everything else looks quite good. Given this distinction, it’s an interesting bit of confidence on Choi’s part to open the film with the lower quality CGI. Or perhaps he is exhibiting trust in his audience—either is refreshing.
Overall, it’s difficult to pour too much criticism onto a film that starts with a Joseon dynasty wizard asking women how often they defecate and ends with the same wizard resembling Michael Jackson as he fights evil monsters in Gwanghwamun. Just try to comprehend the ludicrous plot and revel in the banter: it’s what Woochi would want.


This review also appeared on

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