Restless, The (2006) Review

"The Restless" Korean Theatrical Poster

“The Restless” Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: Jo Dong-Oh
Writer: Jo Dong-Oh
Cast: Jung Woo-Sung, Kim Tae-Hee, Heo Jun-Ho, So E-Hyun, Park Sang-Wook, Kim Kwang-Il, Yu Ha-Jun
Running Time: 105 min.

By JJ Hatfield

In 984 AD, the Kingdom of the United Shilla fell into chaos and ruin due to the corruption of the royal family who indulged themselves in luxury and excess as the people suffered and starved. Violence spread, revolts and war swept the land. The royal demonslayers, the Chuyongdae, raised a rebellion for the citizens but ultimately failed. The people became thieves and refugees. In order to appease the demons, the people offered the living as sacrifices.

The Chuyongdae were once held in high esteem, respected by the people and feared by the demons. Now, there is but one left, and Yi Gwak is a hunted man. After destroying demons for a small village he is poisoned instead of paid. Using his considerable martial art skills to escape the treacherous villagers, Yi Gwak staggers out into the pouring rain. With his body beginning to succumb to the toxins, he stumbles into a strange small shrine. Watching as the written prayers sway in the wind, he draws his last ragged breath.

Yi Gwak finds himself in an alien, ethereal other-world. Totally disoriented, he slowly discovers that he is in Jungcheon – Midheaven, literally, a place all spirits are transported after death. Midheaven is beautiful and tranquil, between earth and heaven where the immediately deceased go for precisely 49 days to give them the opportunity to do good works before the spirit moves on to heaven, hell or reincarnation.

When Yi Gwak does not have the accouterments standard for everyone in Midheaven the inhabitants begin to realize that he is not dead. But only the dead can be in Midheaven, so if Yi Gwak is alive, how can he be there? Before this conundrum can be solved, there is a great commotion as riders on horseback race through the streets, emerald capes flying. Demons suddenly break through into Midheaven appearing from out of nowhere to destroy everything and everyone. They are met by the defenders of Midheaven, led by a beautiful young woman who is an exact likeness of Yi Gwak’s dead fiance.

Jung Woo-sung (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) is Yi Gwak, the last Chuyongdae. After awaking in Midheaven he walks around hunched slightly forward, leaning in, looking for all the world like a deer in the headlights. This is to show the audience he is confused and bewildered by everything he sees and hears. Fortunately, demons and evil guys show up forcing Yi Gwak to fight, thus saving the viewer from having to continue to watch him looking dazed.

The director seems to have taken Yi Gwak’s look from Musa only cheaper, loose indistinct clothing with very long seriously disheveled hair that is desperately in need of a good conditioner. Woo-sung manages to inject some authenticity in his character, at least the warrior aspect, but no one in this film could survive the vacuous script. Jung is a better actor and fighter than is evident from this movie.

TV’s Kim Tae-hee is So-wha the Chuneen, in charge of Midheaven. Her character is established early on as being unsure of her abilities to lead the guardians of Midheaven. Kim is young and pretty, but the talent just isn’t there, certainly not for a lead in film. It isn’t much of a stretch to believe she is not only inept, but a bit of a klutz as well. When a spear is thrown at her she turns her head away and knocks herself out obligating Yi Gwak to come charging to her rescue. This would be okay if it happened once or twice, but the scenario is repeated in various locations and with different villains far too many times.

Heo Jun-ho, known for Silmido, is Banchu, general of the Chuyongdae and a good friend to Yi Gwak in life. Now that he is dead, Banchu has different aspirations and sends legions of demons and the rest of the Chuyongdae into Midheaven to destroy the Chuneen and Midheaven itself. The Gates of Midheaven were closed to keep the demons out, but Banchu was able to transport them at will, killing the guardians of Midheaven leaving So-Hwa alone. Well, not quite alone. Yi Gwak is her constant companion, totally devoted to her and would face any evil that threatened though she feels nothing for him. Whether she remembers him or not, Yi Gwak will defend her to the death.

Billed as South Korea’s first action fantasy, cgi director and writer, Cho Dong-oh, used a wisp of a Chinese tale for the story. This seems bizarre as it is a Korean movie with a Korean director and Korean cast. However the film was shot in China with Chinese crew. South Korea has a rich history of it’s own with folklore and fables, so why use one from another country? Perhaps because there have been Chinese movies that first brought out the story of ghostly love and the accompanying difficulties.

This is Cho’s first director position though he has been an assistant director on a handful of films including Musa. I think he might benefit from some additional assisting. Cho stated in several interviews this was supposed to be more of a cgi action movie, but it is essentially a love story caught up in the battle of good and evil. It is a very old premise requiring a new element to be of interest. Yi Gwak relentlessly pursues So-wha believing he can make her remember their love as Yon-wha. So-hwa is adamant that she is not Yon-hwa, that he is wrong and she cannot feel anything for him. This conversation runs for virtually the entire movie.

The opening is too rushed. Yi Gwak is in Midheaven before seven minutes have passed, literally. More demons fighting Yi Gwak on a reasonable scale, say Yi Gwak against six or seven demons, would have added an element of authenticity to his truly awesome abilities and how the whole demon situation came into being. Where did they come from? How did they get here? Do they eat anything besides humans? A little time spent on the back story of the demons would have been time well spent. All we are given is visual. The demons are bipeds, quite powerful, great at jumping, move like fast zombies with a sort of shuffling gait, and have long matted hair around the face with long sharp nasty teeth. Look quick because you won’t be seeing much of those demons again. Damn shame.

Cho relies far too heavily on flash backs to tell the story. Keeping the audience in suspense is one thing. Feeding the audience chips of a plot using the same memories instead of telling the story is another. Most of the blame can be laid directly on Cho’s immature nonsensical script. There were subjects mentioned that seemed very important only to never be mentioned again. Characters change radically without any explanation, sometimes breaking a stated given in this other world. It happens more than once but once is too much suddenly Midheaven is showing some gaping discrepancies. When will directors learn that no matter how many effects you throw into a film you can’t break your own rules for the world you created? There still must be a real story on some level if you want to make a full film.

Jung Doo-hong directs the action for the actors and the cgi characters. Unfortunately, Jung’s style is masked by several serious problems including shots that are too tight and blurred due to the slow motion spinning. Cinematographer Kim Young-ho did a fine job of lensing lovely scenery, but falls short on the action side. There are more than a couple of just plain unusual shots that don’t qualify as innovative, only irritating, that miss the fighting.

The Restless is a physically beautiful film. Lush forests, sun drenched meadows, gorgeous surroundings and terrific care with the set dressing and props; they all work together to create a truly magnificent visual experience.

Great attention to detail is obvious in virtually every scene. The stunning costumes are the work of costume designer Emi Wada. Wonderful creations such as the formal Chuyongdae uniforms, and the richly embroidered green capes of the Midheaven defenders, are just some of the notable costumes. Wada has worked on a number of movies including Hero (Jet Li), House of Flying Daggers, Ran and Reign of Assassins.

The art directors, Han Zhong and Wu Ming, display considerable talent that helps to make Midheaven resplendent. The soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu keeps pace with the movie but is not much above mediocre.

There were instances that were poor imitations of the originals from The Lord of the Rings. Yi Gwak and So-Hwa hide in the same manner, but not nearly as well as the Hobbits with the Ring Wraith. Black birds are used by the enemy as spies and there is a cgi background near the end of the movie that reminds me more than a bit of one of the sets for Mt. Doom. But there were also a couple of Mortal Kombat moments, particularly during a major cgi fight scene in the forest, as Yi Gwak defends So-Hwa from his former Chuyongdae comrades.

Something about the soundtrack and snakish chains that slam into trees as well as bodies. The cgi is technically quite good, actually flawless at times, especially when transitioning from live to computer action. But the cgi is dreadfully unimaginative at times, as well as using bits of the same footage repeatedly. Every time Yi Gwak kills a demon or a dead former comrade – or anything really – they all die in the very same cgi way. Pretty cool the first thirty times you see it. By the finale fight, the combatants are all represented by cgi, with the exception of a few face shots. People, even with massive wirework, don’t move the same way cgi characters do in The Restless.

I really wanted to like this movie. Korea’s first action cgi. I wasn’t even concerned with the level of quality, as much as the creativity. I cannot deny there are some gorgeous scenes, but there is no “real” fighting, and most of the cgi is, well cgi. I expected more than pictures, no matter how lovely, but this picture is flat and one dimensional. Ultimately, I was frustrated because the film never made sense as a whole.

The Restless is for those who enjoy pretty sappy love stories, with enough threats for the male to repeatedly have to fight and rescue the female. If that’s what you’re looking for, The Restless will do you fine.

JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 6 /10

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About JJ Hatfield

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