By Lee Hyo-won
In time for the nation's biggest holiday comes "The Divine Weapon
", a highly anticipated epic dramatization of the world's first multi-launch rocket system invented during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Historical fiction is risky business, particularly in a country bound by deep cultural and historical homogeneity, and this film shows both the triumphs and perils of venturing into this genre.
The faction film employs anachronism to set a Tom and Jerry-type power struggle (since the Sino-Korean conflict occurred a century earlier), where China is becoming increasingly hostile in controlling the internal affairs of its small tributary state, Joseon. King Sejong (Ahn Sung-ki
) is determined to strengthen the country's autonomy and has been secretly funding the development of a sophisticated weapon. But as the Chinese authority closes in on the project, the weapons designer commits suicide. All is not lost, however, as the scientist's daughter Hong-ri (Han Eung-jeong) guards the national secret.
The reason for China's fear isn't surprising. Once airborne, the Singijeon fires arrows that automatically explode after hitting the target. The large-sized Daesingijeon was capable of flying 2 kilometers before leaving a crater up to 30 centimeters deep. Developed in the mid-1500s and used to ward off northern invaders and sea borne Japanese pirates, the weapon's blueprint is recognized by the International Astronautical Federation as the oldest of its kind.
But here, the protagonist is neither the king nor the whiz scientist. The fate of the kingdom lies in the hands of a sleazy merchant Seol-ju (Jung Jae-young
). He happens to be the son of a gunpowder maker of the overthrown Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), and his lowly status is perfect for the clandestine project. The film falls short of dabbling in the complexity of the transition period between dynasties, and the audience is expected to laugh along as womanizing Seol-ju helps Hong-ri build Singijeon because he has other things in mind.
Director Kim Yoo-jin
, who's best know for the melodrama starring Jeon Do-yeon
, 1998), utilizes romance to drive the narrative forward. But antihero Seol-ju shows more knight in shining armor moves as he struts out his martial arts to protect Hong-ri and the project. When China threatens Joseon with an army of 100,000 men, the king, afraid for the security of the kingdom, calls everything to a stop. Seol-ju, however, refuses to obey and fights for the completion of the project.
"Divine" marks a maturity in South Korean cinema by offering something purely entertainment-driven with a subject that can easily be reduced to sappy "nationalism marketing", like the controversial failure "Hanbando
" (2006) or the notorious "D-War
" (Dragon Wars, 2007),
But the film makes the mistake of covering too much yet not enough. The massive production (10 billion won or $9.8 million) took over five years in the making and is already a blockbuster in the sense that its filming set in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province is regularly drawing tourists. But the cluttered mass of action, adventure, romance, drama and history leading up to the climax is at times tedious, particularly due to weak character development.
Yet "Divine" shows the power of cinema in illuminating historical truths and taking viewers back in time with exquisite period detail. The movie is spiced up with a modern, stylistic flavor, featuring superwomen reigning in the male chauvinistic Joseon society. Purists may complain, however, of its brevity as the cast of top actors craft a ticklish story with more "dramatic relief" than comic relief. Nevertheless, it will be hard not to love Jeong's state of the art acting as well as royal guard Heo Joon-ho
's charisma, which counteract the disappointing performance by Han.
In theaters Sept. 4. 134 minutes. 15 and over. Distributed by CJ Entertainment.