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Divine Weapon, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Epic-by-numbers is still fairly epic."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Divine Weapon" is an historical action/adventure that yearns to be an epic. To that end, it's got a lot of characters, runs north of two hours, and strives to tell the story of a pivotal moment in Korean history. The end result is bloated, of course, not quite so grand as the filmmakers would like it to be, but it's got some VERY impressive set-pieces and is amiable enough in between. By the end, it has certainly given the audience a big helping of what they want.

The year is 1430 and the situation on the Korean peninsula is tense. The Joseon dynasty is prosperous, but they are dominated by the Mings to the north, who are demanding increased tribute, including hundreds of eunuchs. Joseon's greatest weapons designer has created plans for a piece of artillery that could change the balance of power. The designer is killed but his daughter Hong-li (Han Eun-jeong) escapes. Chang-kang (Heo Jun-ho), a close adviser to King Sejong (Ahn Sung-kee) brings her to Sul-ju (Jeong Jae-yeong), a merchant who has plenty of issues with the court. The palace and the army are being watched closely, he explains, but perhaps Sul-ju's low profile and Hong-li's engineering genius will be enough to decipher her father's notes and construct the Singijeon while it can do some good.

The movie is crowded with other characters - villains, a monk who has ties to the court, a Japanese merchant lady, Hong-il's faithful servant, the various partners in Sul-ju's company, and then some. Most are sketched out well enough; even if they only seem to exist to fulfill a specific purpose in the movie, they're individual enough within this story. Even if they don't necessarily distinguish themselves from similar types in other movies, they make enough of an impression on the audience that it's a bit of a hit when one of them doesn't survive an action sequence.

That extends to the two main characters as well, but they are enjoyable types played well. Jeong Jae-yeong makes for an enjoyable rogue, the sort that's smart and casual enough that when Sul-ju gets out of a sticky situation, it's probably the result of improvisation, but he could probably sell that he was two steps ahead of the bad guys all along. It's the same playbook Harrison Ford was playing out of in the Star Wars/Indiana Jones days. Similarly, Han Eun-jeong is going for the proper young lady who nevertheless knows more about science and engineering than the men around her, and she's plenty charming as Hong-li. She hits a nice note early on, in that we believe Hong-il is used to privilege and obedience without her ever coming off as an entitled brat. That these two will fall for each other is inevitable, and the path they use to get there is well-trod, but it works because they are a fun pair: Both smart and a little brash, but in a complementary way.

Is that enough, considering that the weapons design, testing, and manufacture is not the sexiest thing to build an epic adventure on? After all, most capers like this pick up well after the R&D has been completed. For the most part, yes, it is - screenwriters Lee Man-hui and Shin Hyeon-jeong supply director Kim Yu-jin with plenty of obstacles that require Sul-ju and Hong-li to get out of the lab, and they are as a rule very well-staged. American audiences may be a bit surprised at just how willing the filmmakers are to include scenes that are a bit more brutal than they necessarily have to be - I can see Hollywood execs sending back notes about how this likable supporting character being killed or that scene that shows, yes, the Mings are getting some of the eunuchs they're asking for are not helping the movie land a PG-13.

Of course, that's as the movie goes on, we're hoping that this is just the warm-up for something bigger: Throwing the medieval equivalent of the ballistic missile and cluster bomb at an army which, despite massive numerical superiority, is still basically nothing but infantry. Without giving too much away, a confrontation of that sort is all but inevitable, although the situation is such that it's not likely to simply be a one-sided slaughter. Suffice it to say, we do get a suitably grand finale to go with the movie's grand ambitions.

And, of course, the expected reservations about creating a weapon so powerful - this movie is hitting all the other usual points, so you can't expect it to miss that one. But don't feel too bad - the Mings did demand hundreds of eunuchs, after all.

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originally posted: 08/29/09 13:42:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yu-jin Kim

Written by
  Man-hui Lee
  Hyeon-jeong Shin

  Jae-yeong Jeong
  Eun-jeong Han
  Jun-ho Heo
  Sung-kee Ahn

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