In Ryu Seung-wan's larger-than-life retro action film "Dachimawa Lee," Lim Won-hee, center, plays the role of the "handsome" spy while actresses Kong Hyo-jin, left, and Park Si-yeon are his sexy partners.
/ Courtesy of Showbox/Mediaplex
By Lee Hyo-won
Hip young director Ryu Seng-wan (``The City of Violence,'' 2006) brings the big screen edition of an Internet flick that he calls ``abnormal.'' But the retro spy story ``Dachimawa Lee'' is so faithful to its own internal logic that it makes sense in wonderfully wrong ways, and its fine cast makes the larger-than-life story all the more endearing.
Dachimawa Lee, a character who can be described in Western parlance as a cross between Austin Powers and Mr. Bean, seems tailor-made for eccentric screen persona Lim Won-hee (``Le Grand Chef,'' 2007). The homely actor plays the role of the ``handsome'' and suave master spy ― and everyone, from love struck damsels to Japanese foes, reminds you of his good looks by swooning ``oh how handsome he is'' every other minute. He dodges bullets for the independence of his motherland and banishes his evil enemies on ``a fast train ride to hell,'' but he's also sensitive, and swallows back tears over women who break his heart.
Set during the 1940s in the last years of Japanese colonial rule, the film traces the whereabouts of a stolen national treasure, a golden Buddha statue that also contains a list of Korean freedom fighters wanted by imperial authorities.
Lee, however, fails miserably, and to add more woe, his ``Bond girls'' or sexy partner spies Yeon-ja (Kong Hyo-jin) and Mary (Park Si-yeon) perish in the process. The road to recovering his pride, however, becomes complicated by a Chinese merchant, quirky Korean vagabond (played by director Ryu's younger brother, popular actor Seung-beom) and a Japanese spy with a knack for magic tricks and his retinue of colorfully dressed ninjas.
Ryu walks a fine line between reverence and mockery of retro Korean action films ― a product of what he calls ``an ambivalent, love-hate'' sentiment toward his predecessors. The dialogue, all dubbed the old-fashioned way, is over the top, while action sequences are packed with Bruce Lee-style martial arts. The so-called Japanese and Chinese, with no offense intended for either of the languages, are, in fact mock jargon ― Korean spoken with Chinese intonation, by adding a ``la'' to every word. The Korean subtitles also ridicule the amateur translations in local pirated movies, where people often claim credit to their work using their Internet user ID.
The movie is light and entertaining enough, but a closer look shows the basis for serious analysis as a cinematic venture. The mock Japanese for example, is not simple comedy. In the 1970s, when there was an official ban on things Japanese in Korea, veteran directors like Im Kwon-taek had to deal with the situation by having so-called Japanese characters speak in Korean with a Japanese intonation. The old becomes new, and in this case, cause for big hearty laughter.
Renowned film critic Chung Sung-ill always says that movies are about watching the process of filmmaking, and the means for reaching the end becomes all the more relevant. The film takes the audience on a breathtaking run with the spies from Shanghai and Manchurian deserts to Princeton, New Jersey and the Swiss Alps. But believe it or not, the movie was shot 100 percent in Korea.
``Dachimawa Lee'' is a product of simultaneous combustion among the creative cast and crew. Kill preconceptions of what is appropriate in a movie, and be ready to laugh your heart out. It will also be an interesting compliment to the other, more ``serious'' and truly cross-border, multilingual film ``The Good, the Bad, the Weird.'' The costume design is by the same artist, who whips up more modern looks for ``Dachimawa Lee.''
In theaters Aug. 14. 12 and over. 99 minutes. Distributed by Showbox/Mediaplex.