Warriors of the Dawn (2017) Korean Movie Review

Warriors of the Dawn (2017) Korean Movie Review

Lee Jung-Jae , Yeo Jin-Goo, Kim Moo-Yul - Gok-Soo, Park Won-Sang, Lee som

Audio Podcast Version 
2014 seems, in hind sight, to have been the high water point for Korean period epics in Korean cinema. In that year alone, we had big hits like “Roaring currents”, “The pirates”, and “Kundo: Age of the Rampant”. Since then, the Korean audience seems to have lost interest in this genre. This can be deducted by the fact that most period epics made have failed. It may be too early to read out my eulogy for the genre yet since it as only been two years. But the signs are not good. This is the market where Warriors of the Dawn or “대립국” (2017) enters the picture. By dealing with the same historical figure, it is trying to follow in the footsteps of 2012’s “Masquerade”. You know the movie which is currently the 8th top grossing Korean movie of all time. This may have been a good bet on paper. However, this is 2017 not 2012.  There is no guarantee that it will be received in the same manner. The genre may have passed its time.

The four stages of man are infancy, childhood, adolescence, and obsolescence.
---Art Linkletter

The Plot
The Korean movie called “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) starring Lee Jung-Jae and Yeo Jin-Goo attempts to give us an epic period military action movie set in 1592 A.D. as the Imjin War --- a war in which feudal Japan invaded feudal Korea --- was just breaking out.

In video gaming lingo, the plot of “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) is basically one long escort mission. It is a reverse “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Rather than going to a destination to try to find someone, you go to deliver a person also known as a pain in the ass living package upon that location. Good riddance! Escort missions are the worse. Joking aside, they are. Ha ha ha!  The package or “Private Ryan” equivalent in this Korean movie is “Prince Gwanghae” --- a young and sheltered teenager --- who is tasked to set up a resistance to the advancing Japanese invasion force while his father  ---- the king --- flees north like the coward he is. The poor expendable guys, who have to escort his highness’ caravan --- full of servants and court hangers-on  --- through rough terrain while avoiding palace intrigue and the Japanese, are a mercenary squad made up of poor peasants. As one can expect, this journey will be treacherous as if one was heading towards Mount Doom with the one ring.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
----from lord of the rings

A little “The Lord of the Rings” reference for you hobbit loving folks. But I didn’t use it just to show off my pop culture credentials. If you combine “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Return of the King“ together into one movie while stripping out all the fantasy stuff, the result would be reminiscent of “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017). It is a very “classic” story in many ways. There is a young person with a promised destiny. But that person is not matured enough nor even willing to fill the shoes destiny has bestowed. Once forced on an unwanted journey, that person learns from unexpected mentors assigned as guardians on how to live up to one’s destiny. It is “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope” (1977) but with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia being one character. It is “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003) with John Connor as a prince with a sword but still whiny.

I did mention “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) is a very classic tale. And this is not limited to the story. The character types that populate the movie are also very classical in the fact that they are very familiar and the fact that they are faithful to what one could expect from a hero’s journey narrative. As I mentioned, “Prince Gwanghae” played by actor Yeo Jin-Goo is the Luke Skywalker type. The leader of the mercenaries played by Lee Jung-Jae is a combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo. He is the “Ranger of the North” part of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. The movie has its Boromir type from “Lord of the Rings”. You know the antagonist among the fellowship who repents his sins by sacrificing himself. There is even a Samwise Gamgee type but gender swapped played by Korean actress Lee Som. She was the villain in the Korean thriller “Scarlet Innocence” (2014) also known as “Madam Bbaengduk”.

Traditional Film making
The first impression you get from the movie is that it not only has a traditional story but it is also traditionally made. And that is not a negative comment. You feel the solid craftsmanship behind and in front of the camera. Let’s talk about the cast first.

All the actors do their job with professionalism and talent. I personally don’t like actor Yeo Jin-Goo for some reason even though he consistently surprises me with his performance every time. It is just something about his persona that bugs me. However, he surprises me once again with his portrayal of the prince who changes from a sensitive and whinny prince filled with self-loathing to a “King” with a capital letter K. Actor Lee Jung-Jae does a good job as the leader of the mercenaries and mentor to the prince. However, he is no Alec Guinness. Lee Jung-Jae, as an actor, seems to be stuck in a rut where he gives good performances but not breakout scene stealing ones. He is more Tom Cruise than Al Pacino. Al at least chews scenery once and a while. Who am I kidding? He does it all the time.

In terms of the movie making, the movie is very solid. The scenes are well framed and well shot. You can see all the things we as the audience need to understand the story. In terms of editing, scenes are properly setup and delivered. It gives the audience time to absorb the moment. You don’t see many movies like this nowadays as modern movie makers seem to think this approach is old fashioned. But not “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017)! This approach is continued in the action scenes. While modest in size compared to the “Lord of the rings” movies, they are entertaining and you can actually see what is going on and how the action in the battle with multiple combatants flows rather than just depending on sensory overload, like modern movies, to convey the required emotions to the audience. This also makes the action fun rather than an ordeal to experience. I personally like that which may make me an old man. So “Get off my lawn!”

Double edged sword
However, this traditional nature of “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) could be a double edged sword if not handled deftly. The movie could give off the feeling of being old, stale or even god forgive cliché. And I’m sorry to say that this does become a problem for this movie. I would say that it can taste like an unsalted saltine cracker. It is still a good cracker but lacks something extra: the salt! A special ingredient that gives it a much needed kick. In many ways, “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) is a dry movie. Most of the movie is set travelling through the woods. While shot great, it can get dull to look at after a while. Most of the characters are men in arms wearing dirty brown outfits. The prince is the most feminine character in the cast. Just joking! Thus the cast is all masculine and even to a degree the story is too. There is one significant female character--- a female palace servant assigned to the prince --- in the movie. However, she is also covered in dust and is basically a nanny to the prince. In other words, an adult or older sister type in that relationship even though their age difference is not large. So, there is no hint of romance in this movie. As a result, the story is just a group travelling through the harsh landscape provided by nature while people are trying to kill them. And once and a while stop to rest and do character development. The mercenaries lament their fates as low born and poor. The prince lament his status and tries to grasp the nature of kingship.

If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been a proof that you were not.
--- C. S. Lewis

You may get the wrong picture of what this movie is. It is not that the movie is boring. The movie is exciting when it needs to be and moves at a steady pace. However, since the story is traditional, the cast is homogeneous by which I mean a sausage fest, and the scenery is unchanging, it can feel sometimes stale. Only a bit!

The movie needed something to add more flavor to the movie from time to time. Commonly, this is where a bit of melodramatic romance subplot would spice things up a bit. But the movie went for a more grimy almost realistic vibe. So, no romance. Then what to do? Well this shouldn’t be that difficult. The movie could have really dealt deep into the emotional bonds between characters especially between the prince and his mentor. In other words, if you don’t have Han Solo and spaceships, you should assign more time to scenes between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan. They could talk more about the force or Midi-chlorians. Or what it is to be a leader! That’s novel. If not, the movie would feel like there is something missing. Having the prince interact more with the other characters in a “band of brothers” type comradery would also help. Make the movie about masculine brotherhood and male responsibility.

Regard a king as someone unconcerned with kingship.

However, “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) treats this pseudo father and son relationship in a more standard manner. I mean there is not enough scenes between the prince and his mentor. I think this problem originates from the fact that the movie has two protagonists: the prince and the mentor. Usually, movies of this type choose to focus on one while the other is a supporting character. Movies such as “The Last Legion” (2007), in which Colin Firth is a Roman commander escorting the last emperor of Rome --- a 12 year old boy --- to Britain, decided to make Colin Firth’s character the protagonist. His charge is a supporting character. Starwars does the opposite. Obi-Wan is the supporting character. And it is the birth right of the protagonist to monopolize the hero’s journey. Thus, create focus. In contrast, “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) has two hero’s journeys on screen at the same time. The prince; from a sheltered and self-loathing boy to King who leads his people in war. The leader of the mercenaries; from basically being a slave ... to be free from his low-born class and have a choice to make what he can of his life. And choose the greater good.

By splitting its focus, “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) seems to not have enough screen time to fully develop the bond between the prince and his mentor. At the same time, I’m not sure that the movie ever really intended to go deep since it would have worked just fine if the movie had a romance subplot to focus on. It may have just intended to have a romance subplot that never came together and thus removed. So, I may just be noticing that resulting gap in the narrative.

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
--- from The St. Crispin's Day speech from William Shakespeare's Henry V

Loosing Money and Loosing the Box office
At the end of the day, “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) will not be a success in Korea. This will not be because the movie is a solid movie that failed to elevate itself to greatness. Many movies that succeeded in the Korean box office are in the same category. This is because the Korean box office is not determined by the quality of the movie or the stars in it in. It is the political mood within the Korean populous. One has to ride that wave to hit the jack pot. I’m talking about the block buster success needed to turn a profit for this type of movie although indie movies are not exempted. The Korean movie “Masquerade” (2012) which dealt with the same historical figure as “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) would be an example of a move that rode the political mood of the day all the way to the bank. In contrast, “Warriors of the Dawn” (2017) missed that wave, a sentiment of disappointment in current political leaders, by about a half a year or so. Presidential elections came early this year in Korea; much early!

On a personal level, I have a soft spot about this type of “boy becoming a man” story in any form. As a side note, I also liked Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (2017) for that reason. Okay, I have a thing for the weird too. I also enjoy historical action movies when solidly made in terms of craftsmanship. It can be serious or silly. The Guy Ritchie movie would fall closer to the latter. I’m good with it. Just give me what I need. And this movie doesn’t disappoint in terms of craftsmanship. The cast is also interesting to watch on the big screen. So, I can say I had a good time. While it is a shame that it doesn’t hit it out the park, you’ll get your money’s worth out of it at least. A Nice movie about a prince learning to be a King and a surf learning to be free! You could do much worse at a night at the moves. 

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