cast: Heo Jun-ho, Jung Woo-sung, and Kim Kwang-il
director: Cho Dong-oh
105 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2
review by Max Cairnduff
It’s 924 AD and Korea is in chaos. Demons stalk the land afflicting the people. Yi-Gwak (Jung Woo-sung) was once the foremost warrior of the Chuh-yong-dae – the royal demon hunters – but the Chuh-yong-dae are no more and Yi-Gwak has been reduced to near vagrancy.
As the film opens Yi-Gwak has helped protect a village from demons, but there is a price on his head and they betray him. Drugged, he barely escapes but soon collapses and when next he opens his eyes he finds himself in the Middle Heaven. Is he dead? All around him are temples stretching to the horizon with queues of people moving between them, praying and meditating. A helpful passer-by tells him he stinks of the living and is mystified to discover that Yi-Gwak is not wearing an amulet with his name on it – all the dead have them.
Things soon heat up when an army of demons led by Yi-Gwak’s old colleagues in the Chuh-yong-dae turn up and start slaughtering the dead. Yi-Gwak realises that their target is his great love Yon-hwa (Kim Kwang-il). She died because of him and his guilt has never left him. Now she is an angelic spirit with no memory of her life or their time together. If he is to have any hope of a second chance with the woman he lost he must protect her from those he once fought alongside.
Demon Empire is big on action, romance and epic vistas. There’s a beautifully realised heaven here, from the opening glimpses of it with its infinitely regressing temples to enchanted forests, villages ankle-deep in flower petals and a hidden street market where the dead enjoy the pleasures of life just a little longer before moving on to wherever they’re headed next. The metaphysics is kept light, but consistent. Yi-Gwak and Yon-Hwa never seem to actually be travelling between places. They leave one and for next scene they are in another. Each location in heaven seems totally itself, as in dreams where one finds oneself somewhere new without quite knowing how one got there.
Another nice touch is what happens when the dead die. This is a film with a lot of action. The demons massacre the dead praying at the temples. Yi-Gwak destroys hordes of them and has great set-piece duels with their commanders, his old comrades. Each time a spirit or demon dies it burns up as if made of paper with tiny embers floating in the air where once it stood. It’s a beautiful effect and one that I never really tired of. The visuals here are sumptuous. It’s a film made for widescreen. You can see where the budget went. That of course is also the main problem it has. It’s not that the plot doesn’t make sense, it seems to from the characters’ perspective, but it’s fair to say it has a few holes.
The demons besieging the afterlife are led by Yi-Gwak’s former commanding officer, Ban-Chu (Heo Jun-ho). He lost his wife, just as Yi-Gwak lost Yon-Hwa, but in Ban-Chu’s case it turned him to evil and a lust for power. On Earth he led his forces against the crown and they died for it, Yi-Gwak surviving because he refused to take part. What’s unclear is how, once in heaven, Ban-Chu became a powerful demon lord commanding armies.
Back in their days on Earth, Ban-Chu gave Yi-Gwak a magic sword that has power against spirits and which can only be wielded by humans. Whoever brought Yi-Gwak to the afterlife seems to have done so in part because of the sword – the dead no longer count as humans. The problem is it’s far from clear what powers the sword has that every other weapon in the film doesn’t have. Mostly it just seems pointy and sharp.
What happens to the dead when they’re killed in heaven? It’s not terribly clear. They seem to die permanently but there are hints they may simply be sent somewhere else. What happens if Ban-Cho wins? The implication seems to be that he’ll invade the Earth and overrun it with demons, but it was already overrun with demons.
In a way none of this matters. Ban-Cho is a spooky bad guy, his lieutenants provide some very nice wire-fights and Jung Woo-sung is great as Yi-Gwak fighting to save humanity and his dead love. I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Kim Kwang-il who I thought made a better virtuous spirit than ex-lover (I’d have bought her as his sister, but I didn’t feel any great passion there) but even she has her moments.
The battles are well choreographed, the scenery is very pretty, and the boss-fights (because that’s what they are) are nicely handled. There are films which invite you to turn off your brain, sit back and enjoy, and that’s what this one is. I’m not sure it entirely makes sense (actually, I suspect there is an underlying logic but it’s not really shared with the audience), and I never really thought Yi-Gwak was in any serious danger which made it a bit lacking in tension, but it was fun and lovely to watch.
In the end the story here consists of a whole bunch of stuff that just happens. Why isn’t very clear, and it doesn’t seem that important. If you can avoid thinking about it too much this is a solid action fantasy movie and, if you have good kit to watch it on, you could do a lot worse.