In the abundance of historical dramas (Joseon or period dramas) coming out of South korea, occasionally some films manage to stand out, with "Masquerade", "The Throne" and "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" being the first that come to mind. "Warriors of the Dawn" is one of those films, as is manages to stand out by implementing a relatively minimalistic approach, with less of court politics and the impression created by the impressive costumes that seem to dominate similar productions.
The story occurs in 1592, during the Japanese invasion of Korea. King Seon-jo immediately decides to seek refuge in China, and in an even more cowardly act, leaves Crown Prince Hwang-hae behind in order to provide some semblance of resistance to the superior Japanese forces. Hwang-hae is an equally cowardly young man who knows nothing and is terrified of the ways of life outside the palace. As the Crown Prince is commanded to reach the rest of the Korean forces and to enlist peasants and scattered bands to form a regular army, he is accompanied by a band of proxies (people who are paid to enlist in the stead of the rich and social elite), who are headed by To-woo.
Their travel brings many hardships to everyone, particularly deriving from the interaction of the Prince's bodyguard, Yang-sa, who believes that respect towards royalty and etiquette must be honored at all times, and To-woo, who, being more practical, believes exceptions should be made in order to achieve survival. As the band soon realizes that the Japanese are not the only danger they have to face - they also have to deal with traitors and turmoil among the members of the different parties. However, somewhere among these hardships, the scared boy that was once the Crown Prince becomes a man.
Chung Yoon-chul directs a Joseon film that begins to stand apart from the first scene, which is an action one. In this case, we do not see the majestic battles of the aforementioned titles, but a rather realistic one, at least in terms of scale and the way of fighting, with an almost total lack of SFX. This style of action scenes, which carries on until the end of the film, functions quite well in the general setting, for a number of reasons. Byong Bong-sun's cinematography makes great use of the different settings, with the fields, the forests, the mountains, and the run-downfortresses being shot exquisitely, in one of the film's best assets. This visual prowess is heightened even more by the fact that Jeong does not seem to shy away from the blood and the violence.
The second aspect is the action choreography, which is rather impressive in the combination of minimalism and realism, despite the fact that some SFX and some heroics make their appearance from time to time.
The third aspect derives from the acting, with the two protagonists, Lee Jung-jae as To-woo and Yeo Jin-goo as Prince Gwanghae having a completely different approach in the various battles, with the first swarming in and the second tried to get as far away as possible.
Furthermore, these two characters provide the basic message of the film, that a man can change himself and his fate, with the first wishing to become significant in any way possible, and the second maturing despite his will due to his circumstances as he provides a second coming-of-age axis that runs in parallel to the historic drama one. This adds additional depth to the film. In that fashion, both actors give great performances in quite difficult parts.
Chung Yoon-chul did not manage to avoid the reef of the melodrama completely, with a number of overly sentimental scenes that become even more hyperbolic with the use of fitting music, appearing on screen at various points. At the same time, the Japanese are depicted, once more, as truly despicable human beings, killers of babies, children, and women, in another trait that ticks the prerequisites of Korean commercial cinema. These faults, however, are actually lost in the general artistry that dominates the movie in most aspects.
"Warriors of the Dawn" is a more than welcome addition to the Joseon film, and a must see for fans of the genre and Korean mainstream cinema in general.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[Guest Film Review] "Warriors of the Dawn""
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