Writer-director Choi Dong Hun (The Big Swindle) takes a break from heist movies for the big budget, special effects-filled, fantasy action blockbuster Woochi. The star-studded film features Kang Dong Won, Lim Soo Jung (Happiness, A Tale of Two Sisters), award-winning actor Kim Yoon Seok (The Chaser) and Yu Hae Jin (Truck), and it proved so popular with Korean audiences that a comic book spin off is all ready in the works.
Based on a Korean folktale, Jeon Woo Chi stars Kang Dong Won as the titular character, a mischievous magician framed for his master's murder. Jeon and his dog - which can take the shape of various animals but wants to be human - are imprisoned inside a scroll by three wizards until 2009, when they are freed to do battle with evil goblins in the big city. Evil goblins that look like giant rabbits. I hope you’re still with me.
Woo Chi would much rather spend his time pursuing women and fame then help his master protect a magical pipe from evil goblin types. After the murder of his master by the evil magician Hwa Dam (Kim Yoon Seok), Woo Chi is framed for the crime and magically sealed in a painting - with former dog Chorangyi (Yu Hae Jin) - by three bumbling Taoist gods. Fast forward to present day Seoul, and the goblins are searching for the pipe again, with Woo Chi freed to do battle and restore order. He hasn’t changed much, and his old ways come back to haunt him when he runs into the modern day reincarnation of his lost love. So much for restoring order to the world, Woo Chi has some serious womanising to do.
The scene setting goes on for almost forty-five minutes. We get things rolling in the distant past and stay there for a long time, introducing various key players and laying the foundations. It’s not a complicated plot in the slightest, but the multiple characters, scattershot editing, and sudden shifts in tone make for perplexing viewing. The effects are largely stunning, but the action sequences lack punch because they’re all over the place. It’s a bit of a mess; fast and carefree but lacking in precision. Thankfully Kang Dong Won has a very likeable, not to mention mischievous, screen presence. He binds the competing factions and keeps Woo Chi on the right side of entertaining.
Choi doesn’t force the special effects upon his audience, using them effectively to bolster his fantasy picture rather than sink it. It’s a whole world of fun, highly imaginative and creative, a film that demands repeat viewing because there’s so much going on in every frame. The present day scenes are the most exciting in terms of action, even if some of the effects are notably weaker, but the imagination is of such a high standard you’ll find yourself running with it regardless. Chorangyi makes for a welcome comedy sidekick, keeping the film light-hearted and playful throughout. Some of the characters do get too much screen time, and the female leads don’t really have a lot to do, but I couldn’t imagine a film like this without female support.
It’s a shame that the film loses focus at points, spending too much time with lesser characters and not enough time driving the main plot forward. I don’t think enough was made of the modern day setting either. It's a great excuse for fish out of water comedy, but I never felt like it was explored to its full potential, especially when you consider the natural comic timing of leading men Kang Dong Won and Yu Hae Jin. It’s great fun watching the three wizards summon Woo Chi with the aid of a mobile phone, I only wish there had been more of this humour throughout.
Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard (or Woochi over here) is a mixed bag, and a disappointing night in with all things considered. There’s a lot of potential. The main thrust of the movie is overflowing with creativity, performances are strong, and the special effects are amazing at times. Choi Dong Hun’s movie delivers on many levels but there are too many minor grievances tugging away at my satisfaction. Characters with little significance outstay their welcome, the editing is untidy and hampers key sequences, and the female characters get lost in a wave of male bravado and showmanship.
There’s fun to be had, and the possibility of further instalments is a welcome one, but Woo Chi should have been a lot better. It does cast a spell of sorts. A charismatic lead performance helps, as does a magic box full of creativity and ingenious effects, so lets hope a sequel is still on the cards. Woo Chi is a welcome breath of fresh air for the most part, a Korean event movie with a sprinkling of magic dust, but time will tell if a second instalment proves to be the ultimate illusion. AW