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Awesome: 12.5%
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1 review, 2 user ratings

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Restless, The (aka Demon Empire)
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by Jay Seaver

"Even after they die, martial arts masters keep fighting."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: There are two ways to describe "Restless" when someone hits you with the question of what it's about. You could respond with some gobbledygook about Chuyongdae Demon-Slayers and Chuneens. Or you could give what I figure is the correct answer - it's about a guy with a magic sword slicing through demons and former friends to prevent the end of the world.

That guy is Yi Gwak (Jung Woo-sung), and he's the last of an elite team of outlawed demon hunters. His reward for saving a would-be sacrifice from a pack of demons is to be drugged so the villagers can collect the bounty on his head. Rather than awaking in chains, though, he finds himself in "Midheaven", where souls spend 49 days purifying themselves before heading to heaven and reincarnation. Something - several things, really - is amiss, even for this bizarre situation. Yi Gwak doesn't show the usual signs of being dead, for starters. More immediate and alarming, an army of demons attacks, slaughtering souls and spirits alike. Yi manages to save one, the "Chuneen" So-hwa (Kim Tae-hee). She bears a remarkable resemblance to his first love Yon-hwa, and considering that Cuneens are souls who have achieved purity and peace by losing their memories... This reunion is spoiled in part by another one - Ban-chu (Heo Jun-ho), who first recruited Yi Gawk to the Chuyongdae and helped lead to its downfall, is the one orchestrating the attacks - and he's got all of Yi's old comrades with him.

Director and co-writer Jo Dong-oh sets up an ambitious bit of world-building, and in the film's more ponderous moments, it seems as though he's bitten off more than he can chew. All through the film, we're treated to definitions of what a Chuneen is, or given tidbits like how the Kajak Sword can only be wielded by a human being, and all sorts of other fantasy-universe minutia that honestly don't make a whole lot of difference, especially since they sort of sidestep what seem like certain obvious questions - like, if Yi's not dead, what's he doing in the afterlife? This may be something that the subtitles don't convey, but it seems like Jo and his co-writer Lee Hee-dae spent enough time building their world that they'd have reasons for the less explained things that could be fit into the explanations that go on too long.

Fortunately, fantasy-nerd details aren't the only thing they've put into the script. While science fiction fantasy films often have a heavy dose of philosophy injected to give them some heft, The Restless actually touches on interesting topics. There's the pragmatic question of whether a soldier's duty is to serve, protect, or change the world, for instance, which drives the conflict between Yi Gwak and Bun-chu. There's the question of what makes a person who he or she is; whether or not Yi and So-hwa have any duty to each other based upon a life that So-hwa can't remember, and what parts of So-hwa's personality and motivation are left over from Yon-hwa versus what are new. And there's the question of how much force memory should exert upon us - Yi Gwak and So-hwa encounter a village of souls opting to remember and stay connected to their old lives rather than pass on, which So-hwa feels is holding the world back by keeping the souls from reincarnating. The ideas involved scale down to the real world fairly well.

The personal storylines are also surprisingly easy to connect with. Jung Woo-sung's Yi Gwak, despite being a preternaturally gifted demon-slaying swordsman, is actually enough of a regular guy to give us a good perspective on the stranger world he's landed in. The big, supernatural, end-of-the-world story is tied up in his very human decisions back in the world of the living, and they resonate - how Yi failed Yon-hwa and Ban-chu in different ways is actually something audience members can relate to. There's a nice chemistry between Jung and Kim Tae-hee as they move forward in their awkward romance, So-hwa falling in love for what feels like the first time (very much put off by being thought of as Yon-hwa), Yi trying to see her as a different person. The fights between Yi and Ban-chu's allies are steeped in different flavors of tragedy: One former comrade was a would-be lover, another harbors doubts, a third sees Yi as a betrayer.

The fights are also steeped in coolness. No matter how tedious some of what has come before may have occasionally been, a lot can be forgiven when we see Jung Woo-sung's Yi tearing a path of flame through an army of black-clad demons. I like the image of the demons (and angels, and souls) bursting into flames - it makes them appear made out of paper, like burnt offerings. The idea that the spirit world is less substantial than the living one is contrary to the usual route of saying our world is just a shadow of something much greater, and I like it. The fight choreography, courtesy of Jung Doo-hong, is exciting, though the camera occasionally seems to zoom in too close to really see what's going on. The effects are nice enough, too - not Hollywood-quality, but nifty in concept (such as So-hwa's quite literal "flower power").

The more I look at it, the more I'm convinced "The Restless" might be something special - it's big, legendary action, but there's a pretty darn good story in there. A little more care maybe could have been used in telling it, but Jo Dong-oh does far more right than wrong.

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originally posted: 07/07/07 17:55:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/28/08 David Segarra Not a strong plot but the CGI and settings are worth the view. 4 stars
7/18/07 Michael Jay Super movie...Stumbled upon it by mistake and once I got into it I couldn't stop watching . 5 stars
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  DVD: 17-Jun-2008

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Directed by
  Jo Dong-oh

Written by
  Jo Dong-oh
  Lee Hee-Dae

  Heo Jun-ho
  Jung Woo-sung
  Kim Kwang-il
  Kim Tae-hee
  Park Jeong-hak

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