There’s a moment in Dragon Wars: D-War, where the film almost had me – almost had me convinced that it was a cracked work of ineffable genius, almost had me thinking that somewhere beneath all the schlock lay a seed of brilliance.
The evil giant snake Buraki, slithering a swath of destruction across downtown Los Angeles, starts corkscrewing up the side of a skyscraper in pursuit of the Yuh Yi Joo, a mystical spirit reincarnated as a teenage girl. Cut to a police officer watching the mayhem unfold from a squad car at the base of the building – looking up in horror, he yells into his radio “All units to the Liberty Building! … We have a major problem developing here! All units, Code 3! I repeat, we have a Code 3!”
Now, I know a lot of crazy stuff goes down in LA every day, and that the police need to be ready for every contingency. But really, are they that common that “Giant Snake Attack” warrants Code 3? You would think that the police manual would go something like: Code 1: Rioting; Code 2: Fire; Code 3: Terrorist attack; Code 4: Shooting spree … Code 5,397: Giant snake leading evil army through downtown, destroying everything in its path.
And how does one exactly train for a giant snake attack? What are the logistics and tactics involved? Especially when you consider that these giant snakes (which are from Korea, actually, but don’t worry about that) only appear every 500 years or so? How did the police even know about it them the first place, since it’s all to do with some hoary Korean legend which no one but a crusty old antiques dealer knows the details of?
So yeah, I don’t know exactly why this particular line did it, but this was the moment that I thought, hmmm, maybe Dragon Wars: D-War isn’t playing it straight after all, maybe it’s actually playing us, maybe it’s a lot more intelligent and subversive than I thought. Ah, but then remembering the actual self-seriousness of what had come before, and would follow, I quickly disabused myself of this foolishness, and got back to clutching my head in disbelief/anguish.
I can’t say the inexplicably redundantly titled Dragon Wars: D-War (or, actually, in the title credits it reads D-War: Dragon Wars for no apparent reason) is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Probably not even close, though while watching it, it sure was a contender. On some level, it could be appreciated (while heavily intoxicated) as an enjoyable piece of junk film making, on par with something like Con Air or Independence Day or any made-for-TV SciFi Channel movie—something so unfathomably terrible you can’t help but be sucked in, mouth agape, stunned into submission by the lunacy of it all.
But really, it’s pretty brutal, and my patience for “so bad they’re good” films has flagged lately, especially for a film which is so exposition heavy, and which postpones all the mayhem and giant snake action and downtown destruction until well past the hour mark which, for a film which doesn’t even clock in at 90 minutes, is unacceptable in my book.
The soporific back story concerns some ancient Korean legend about the Imoogi, heavenly spirits who appear on Earth as giant snakes. The Imoogis’ sole purpose is to find the mystical Yuh Yi Joo, a ball of magic lodged in a virginal girl, and, by devouring this girl, transform into a dragon god.
Things don’t go so well if the Bad Imoogi, named Buraki, gets to the girl first – if Good Imoogi (who is named just that, Good Imoogi—no reason why he doesn’t get a cool proper name) gets the girl, well, joy and happiness for all. The girl is sent two protectors who guard her from Buraki, and are also charged with delivering her to Good Imoogi.
Too bad that, when this happened last, 500 years ago in Korea, the younger guardian fell in love with her and couldn’t bring himself to sacrifice her to Good Imoogi after saving her from Buraki. They were doomed to die and be reincarnated over and over until one of these giant snakes finally swallows the girl.
Even though this is a Korean legend, and the back story plays out in medieval Korea, and everything about the story is particular to Korea’s mythology, for some inexplicable reason everything is moved to present day Los Angeles for the latest chapter, and all the key players are reincarnated as Americans. OK, sure, why not. There’s no reason, logical or otherwise, given for this in the film itself, but from one of the DVD features I learned that the director figured that shooting in America, with an all American cast, and with an English language script, would maximize exposure, and box office receipts, for the film.
And speaking of the script (which, if there were any justice in the world, would’ve been nominated for a 2008 Razzie) it sounds for all the world like it was first written in English, then fed through one of those internet translation sites to put it into Korean, and was then retranslated in similar fashion back into English. That’s really the only explanation I can come up with for the stilted, utterly groan-inducing dialogue, or the clunky, completely inexplicable transitions from scene-to-scene in the early going, or the overall arbitrariness of all the characters actions. I know we shouldn’t be expecting dense, complex narrative plotting, strong character development, and superior dialogue with giant monster movies, but really, Dragon Wars: D-War is staggeringly awful on all fronts.
Of course, none of this would matter if the film goes on to deliver what it promises, which it does in its last 30 minutes – sort of. Once Buraki assembles his army – demon warriors with spiky armor, giant lumbering lizards with rocket launchers strapped to their backs, and flying pterodactyls – and starts ripping apart downtown LA, things pick up considerably. The assembled police and army forces dispatched to stop their rampage stand no chance, and cars, tanks, and Apache helicopters are sent flying end over end, blowing up all over the place and blowing up buildings with them.
Of course, no one in production seemed to think that this overwhelming barrage might be a bit overkill for the actual job of tracking down the girl, and that blowing up everything in sight might actually be detrimental to the cause of finding the girl alive. When your army is led by a giant screeching mystical snake, such things as reason generally fly right out the window.
I will say that the CGI is generally pretty top shelf, and the action is generally crisp and fluid and easy to follow, and much better than a similar scene in Transformers. It’s a tease of what Dragon Wars: D-War could’ve been if it had forgone all its mythological mumbo jumbo and just focused on the whole “dragons” at war aspect.
But that’s the even bigger tease, the whole dragon aspect, which, if I’m reading the title of the film correctly, promises (twice, in fact) dragons warring with one another. Somewhere, at some point, you kind of expect actual dragons, not just a giant pissed off shrieky snake to slither up and start duking it out. You would be wrong.
Aside from the last 10 minutes of the film, when out of nowhere Good Imoogi shows up and ruins the party for Buraki and ends up transforming into a dragon, never once do we actually see these promised dragons. And they certainly don’t war – in fact, for almost the entire film, it’s a one man -0 or one giant snake—show. I don’t know, I guess I kind of just expect the title of a film to be somewhat indicative of its contents. I can’t say the title Dragon Wars: D-War is technically erroneous (the overarching mythos is, of course, about snakes transforming into dragons), but it’s hard not to feel cheated.
Dragon Wars: D-War‘s worst offense, though, might be to the South Korean film industry. Years spent building up international cachet among cineastes and more general American audiences with such films as Oldboy or The Host (now that’s a monster movie!), and it can all come crashing down with one colossal stinker.
Somehow, though, a huge success in its native country, Dragon Wars: D-War flamed out without so much as a whimper in America, a film little seen, and probably easily forgotten. Well, except for those of us who have been unfortunate enough to endure its interminable 90-minute slog. But at least we’ll always have Code 3.
Though short on extensive extras (a few storyboard to film comparisons, and an art gallery), the one featurette contained on the DVD is a fascinating case study of deluded enthusiasm and misguided ambition. A sort of puff piece/pep talk by director/writer Shim Hyung-rae before a rapt South Korean audience, the feature is short but highly informative, going into great detail about the conception, motivation and logistics of bringing Dragon Wars: D-War to the screen. Like a modern day Ed Wood, Shim takes his film very seriously, thinking it one of the greatest cinematic epics in South Korean, if not world, history. He can’t see a flaw in it anywhere, and every scene, every shot, is the most perfect shot ever.
And good for him. I appreciate such his refreshing lack of irony, and his indefatigable enthusiasm, if not his complete inability at quality control. He is so much taken by the film, that he says that several times it brought him to tears (you and me both, brother – though for different reasons, I’m guessing), and the end of his speech before a rapt audience reduces him to tears again, on camera. To him,Dragon Wars: D-War is the Great South Korean film. Who are we to deny him?