The 2009 Korean-folklore-inspired box office hit Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard has been retitled Woochi: The Demon Slayer and landed stateside on Blu-ray on April 9, 2013. It follows an apprentice Taoist through being framed for the murder of his master, spending 500 years banished within a scroll painting, then being loosed in modern-day Seoul to continue the fight started with goblins and other wayward Taoists five centuries prior.
However, the movie is missing two main components of its subtitle: demons and slaying. This rebranding from “Taoist Wizard” to “Demon Slayer” set the wrong expectations for me going in, and would be analogous to renaming Ghostbusters to Wraith Murderers or Super Mario Brothers to Zero Dark Turtle or The Wizard of Oz to Witch Hunter. What the misleading “demon slayer” moniker conveys is a darkness and chaos and evil and violence and foreboding that simply isn’t here. Much of the story is told in a whimsical, jokey tone, which is fitting since Jun Woochi (Dong-won Kang) is a prankster and attention seeker above all else and a monster hunter somewhere much further down the list. Similarly, the brawny antics of his sidekick dog/horse/wannabe human Chorang (Hae-jin Yu) lead to comedic calamity as often as victory.
The three Taoists who banished Woochi into the scroll for allegedly killing his own master bring him back once the goblins he was trying to subdue in the past start showing up in Seoul and causing trouble. However, not everyone and everything is what it seems, allegiances get twisted, and fighting breaks out over who will ultimately wield a powerful flute that can restore peace to the world or engulf it in darkness. Fisticuffs is where the movie should have started really firing on all cylinders. It’s got fight choreography by Doo-hong Jung of G.I. Joe: Retaliation fame, so it has to be good, right?
Well, kind of. There are some clever implements and effects put into play by Woochi’s amulets, cards he brandishes to cast nearly any sorcery he can think of from throwing fire to turning his fist to stone to creating clones of himself. The problem is, when the battles ensue, the camera has a seizure, making it hard to follow the action at times. You know what’s awesome? Remember in The Matrix when Neo squared off with an opponent and the camera stayed still, relying on well rehearsed combat maneuvers, parries and blocks, acrobatics, and wire-fu? That was awesome. That was also 14 years ago. We can do better.
In the same vein, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon upped the ante 12 years ago by taking impressive fight choreography and pairing it with a sweeping, epic storyline with significant emotional impact. Then just nine years ago, Stephen Chow set a new standard with the martial arts/comedy mash-up Kung Fu Hustle. Woochi gives a wink and a nod to each of these movies with some solid effects, straightforward fight scenes, and standard issue wire work alongside some cheeky humor, but never fully commits to excelling at either track.
Two things could have given the film more significance and appeal. First, there’s the girl Seo In-kyeong (Su-jeong Lim) whom Woochi rescues back in the 1500s for reasons that weren’t entirely clear to me. It seems she was being sent away or to be killed because widows are bad luck. Anyway, Woochi sets eyes on her and is instantly enchanted. They spend a short time together, nothing particularly interesting develops, and then the framing/scroll banishing happens. He finds someone who looks just like her in modern times and is instantly smitten again, but she continues to keep him at a distance. It’s hardly a romance, and lent no weight or motivation to Woochi’s struggle against the goblins. They didn’t kidnap her or put her directly in harm’s way. She was never an objective or a concern. There was a reference toward the end of her possibly being an incarnation of the original flute-player, but that’s never developed any further or given purpose.
Second, the movie takes a significant detour away from the supposed “demon slaying” I was waiting for so Woochi could to explore with his new life in modern South Korea, having missed the last 500 years’ worth of progress. However, learning about the nature of glass, hanging out in some nightclubs, and trying on trendy fashions hardly seem like the kind of turmoil I’d expect from a man who woke up to find everyone and everything he knows long gone. It felt more like Kim Cattrall’s Mannequin‘s playful exploration of 1980s New York City and less like Aliens‘ Ripley coming to terms with the fact that her young daughter has grown up, had children, lived a full life, and died while her mother was adrift in space, frozen for 57 years in cryogenic sleep. I’m not saying it has to be all drama all the time, but when faced with the task of fighting to protect a world Woochi knows nothing about, having some sort of stake in it — actually caring about this place — would have helped better explain his motivations. I wanted the story to grab me and make me root for the good guy, but it never really did.
If you’re already a fan or just looking for a chop socky fantasy to glue your eyes to for a couple of hours, it’s not bad, it’s just missing some key ingredients to really elevate it. It’s nearing greatness, with its period-piece set designs for the 1500s sequences and well animated monstrosities. The fights could have been more exciting, but they do a reasonable job of making up for absent flash with some inventive spellcasting.
The HD picture is second-to-none, and watching the DVD-quality trailer on the disc will help make that difference more apparent. Colors pop and the detail is sharp. Audio is available in English or Korean, 5.1 DTS or 2.0 stereo, with English subtitles. The translation of the subs was a little rough and too literal in some places, tripping up my eyes several times while trying to keep up with the pace of the dialogue. The English dubbing track has a few decent actors, but a couple of real groaners that had me setting it to Korean audio with English subs about 15 minutes in. There are a whole slew of extras on the disc as well, from making-of bits to interviews to production featurettes to a look at how the CGI effects were put together. Fans could easily waste an hour or two exploring these.
I really think it should have stuck with The Taoist Monk as the title since it really is a story about Woochi, his betrayal, isolation, reawakening, and how he relates to all these people centered around him. It’s not about demons, and it’s not about slaying; what little could be considered as such is merely putting monsters back in the bottle from whence they came. It’s a so-so story combined with some decent effects and inventive if not entirely exciting fight sequences. You could always set it to Korean language, turn off the subtitles, and make up your own story to go with what’s popping on the screen, and enjoy it for the production values.