Woochi – The Demon Slayer (전우치, Choi Dong-hun, South Korea: 2009)

The world comes close to being thrown into complete chaos when the ‘Pipe of the Prophecy’ is lost by a group of Taoist monks who manage to accidentally free a group of demons who can only be restrained by the instrument. Trickster, schemer and all-round trouble-stirring trainee wizard Jeon Woo Chi stumbles upon the pipe and one of the demons, and he finds himself mixed up in a series of events that threaten the future of the world itself…

Opening with the type of scene that you might expect to see in the Lord of the Rings films, with a bunch of CGI characters and the establishment of a narrative set on a grand scale, Woochi – The Demon Slayer doesn’t take long to assert itself as a showy, spectacular piece of popcorn cinema with a cheeky grin as it proceeds to dismantle any of the grandstanding of recent CGI epics. From the outset Woochi has fun with its story of wizardry and demons – with a lead character who brings to mind the naughty but equally likeable Monkey King from the classic ‘Journey To The West’ – and Woochi (or Jeon Woo Chi to give him his full name) is based on a similarly classic novel named after its lead character, which dates back to the Josen era (the author of which is unknown). Woochi opens in the Josen era, and the period setting is used to introduces the many different characters and establish an internal hierachy. Wizards, demons and a mythology are introduced with great speed in the first ten minutes which is packed with information, but thankfully after blasting us with this at full pelt (which is actually nowhere near as complicated as it feels) Woochi proceeds to settle down and dive straight into the fun.

If you’ve seen any of the trailers for Woochi (or Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard as it’s also known) the alarm bells may have been ringing. A time-travel comedy with plenty of of CGI? Big rabbit monsters? Cheesy jokes? Sure, those alarm bells are the result of many of our expections after sitting through one too many heartless Hollywood blockbusters, but Woochi manages to run with what initially appears to be a well-used formula and comes out shining. Forget the fact that some of the plot notes Woochi hits are obvious ones, this is exactly how a big-blockbuster film* should work: some great characters, a great cast, some fine looking set pieces and that one all-important element – fun – and run with it.

The first thing to strike you about Woochi is that it looks great. The sets, costumes and use of CGI all create a stylised but believable fantasy / period piece in such a way that it feels like almost anything can happen – nothing feels precious. The second thing to hit you about Woochi is its amazing cast – Kang Dong-wan appears to be having a ball in the lead role as the trickster wizard and displays a light hearted and colourful side to his terrific acting abilities – in contrast to the darker colours displayed in in last years Secret Reunion (Jang Hoon / 2010). Woochi’s sidekick-with-a-secret Chorangyi is played by the always likeable Yu Hae-jin (Moss) and Lim Su-jeong (A Tale of Two Sisters) gets an interesting role as Seo In-kyeong, managing to be more than just the token female within the largely male cast. With a supporting gang that includes some of Korea’s most dependable actors including Baek Yun-shik (Save The Green Planet), Song Yeong-chang (The Man From Nowhere) and Kim Yun-seok (The Chaser), director Choi Dong-hoon (Tazza: The High Rollers) seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that Woochi is as full of talent as it can be.

Without giving away to much in the way of spoilers – you’ll probably be aware of this if you’ve seen any of the publicity anyway – Woochi doesn’t spend its whole time in a period setting and the story moves into modern-day Korea. Very often this switch in period can cause problems for films – and we can usually expect some poor comedy as characters from a couple of hundred years ago ‘struggle’ with modern gizmos, fashions and habits. Woochi doesn’t waste much time going down this route, having taken the time to establish its characters the modern-day switch works well narratively and having keeps the whole thing feeling fresh. Equally, Woochi isn’t the action-fest that some of the trailers might suggest, but the set-pieces on show (courtesy of City of Violence‘s Jung Doo-hung) are pretty large-scale and keep things colourful.

While there’s much to rave about in Woochi, it’s also not without its flaws. Those opening ten minutes might have you reaching for the rewind button on the remote control – the film has barely started before you’re hit with a lot of lengthy explanations and and on-screen action very quickly before it settles into its own pace. The running time is a little more of a problem, and Woochi manages to keep everything fresh and fun for a good hour and forty-five minutes. The only problem is that the film is actually around an hour and fifty-five minutes and could have benefited from a being trimmed by a few minutes. Still, these are just small complaints…

Woochi delivers pretty much exactly what we should expect from this type of film, but which we all too rarely see – a fun escapist ride with great characters that you’re likely to be more than happy to return to again. It’s pretty much all-round great stuff…

*Blockbuster by Korean budget standards – its US$12 million budget is tiny in comparison to its US counterparts.

전우치 (Woochi – The Demon Slayer)
Directed by Choi Dong-hun
Produced by Eugene Lee , Katherine Kim, Lee Tae-hun
Written by Choi Dong-hoon
Starring Kang Dong-wan, Yu Hae-jin, Lim Su-jeong, Baek Yun-shik, Song Yeong-chang, Kim Yun-seok

Woochi – The Demon Slayer Image © ZIP CINEMA