Wednesday, June 11, 2008

THE RESTLESS (2006) d. Dong-oh Cho

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Great film makers like Akira Kurosawa and Zhang Yimou brought grandiose and extravagant Asian fantasy epics to western theaters and acquainted Americans with the grace and splendor of Oriental history, culture, mysticism and storytelling. While there have been many talented directorial masters from the Far East that have given the world many memorable films, for the most part epic Asian cinema has been the province of the Chinese and the Japanese. However, just as they have been steadily spreading their wares and ideas throughout the consumer market, Korea has been making its mark in film, especially as of late. With the successful releases of the mystery/thriller OLDBOY and the monster movie THE HOST, Korean films have been making a splash and the newest entry into the dvd market is the film THE RESTLESS, which is very reminiscent of Young-jun Kim’s SHADOWLESS SWORD or Siu-Tung Ching’s THE EAST IS RED.

Set in 924 A.D., THE RESTLESS (aka Joong-cheon) is the story of a demon-slayer, Yi Gwak, whose comrades are slain during an uprising and who must quietly comb the countryside aiding villagers against the spreading influence of demon scourges. Betrayed by a village he assisted, Yi Gwak is murdered and his soul journeys to Middle Heaven where he meets a spirit named So-hwa, the very image of his beloved Yon-hwa, who was burned as a witch while he watched helplessly. So-hwa and the other White Reapers are fruitlessly trying to defend Middle Heaven against Dark Forces led by Ban-Chu, who was once Yi Gwak’s commander and who is now leading the attempt to capture So-hwa and the power she holds. Yi-Gwak must battle demons of the past and present to rescue So-hwa and Middle Heaven, while at the same time searching for peace for his own soul.

THE RESTLESS is a surprising film for many reasons, not the least of which is that it isn’t the experience that some might expect it to be. After coming out of the gate with action and battle scenes, the story of THE RESTLESS patiently and beautifully settles into an exploration of the hearts and souls of its characters. It becomes a complex tale of loss and redemption, love and betrayal, honor and corruption, power and profundity as well as strength, inside and outside. While it is told in a linear fashion like that of a great river, there are numerous flashbacks leading us back upstream and many tributaries leading into other waters. The end result is a rich tapestry of characters and their interrelationships, carefully stitched to an even richer cosmology. The intricate nature of the mythical and mystical elements make THE RESTLESS a powerful and compelling story of the roots of existence whether you are human, divine or demonic. Like many great Asian epics, westerners may not be familiar with some of the mytho-poetic nature of the people, places and things that are flashing across the screen, but patience and reflection will be of value, as well as an open mind. This story is more drama than martial arts film, but the fantasy elements lift the viewer above the typical historical tragedy. THE RESTLESS is a film that has many layers and can be appreciated in many ways.

Some of the visual elements of THE RESTLESS are stunning. Much like many of the Shaw Brothers’ epics of the 1960s and 1970s, the costumes are lavish and eye-catching. There is a mix of interior sets and computer generated background graphics to give this film grandeur akin to but not as lofty as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. However, the splendor of the backgrounds and the sets amplifies the fantasy elements in a manner that makes them gratifying and enticing, and not alien or unapproachable. Just as in SHADOWLESS SWORD, the emphasis is on the story and the drama of the characters, but every spectacular scene engages the viewer’s emotions on another level and helps to make the experience more profound. The casting of the main characters is also first rate. Woo-sung Jung plays the haunted and obsessed yet deadly Yi Gwak in an understated yet intensely imposing manner. Jun-ho Heo is the soulless yet commanding Ban-Chu and creates a character that is the perfect contrast to So-hwa. The ethereal and spellbinding yet winsome Tae-hee Kim is simply astonishing in the dual role of So-hwa/Yon-hwa. Her emotional range is beautifully juxtaposed with her other main characters. All of these actors and their supporting cast give precise performances and mixed with the fabulous costuming and just as impressive make up effects, there is little about this film that is lacking. Even the score is gentle and effortlessly interwoven with the imagery to produce a powerfully integrated impact.

One detracting characteristic of THE RESTLESS is the manner in which the fight scenes are shot. While they are exciting and emotionally intense and the actors and special effects crew clearly know how to put a fight sequence together, as is too often the case, the scenes are shot too close and edited to rapidly. Zhang Yimou’s HERO is still one of the great standards by which all Kung-Fu can be measured because you can see what is going on and appreciate the artistry closely related to dance, that is choreographed and then captured on film so that all may bask in its magnificence. Sadly, that is not always the case with THE RESTLESS. The dramatic sequences are well composed and the establishing shots are all quite moving, but the fight scenes suffer from an almost “western” shooting and editing techniques that limits this fine film’s great potential. It is doubtful that the photographers shot those scenes needing to “cover up” the lack of athletic talent of the actors. More likely, it was simply the miserable wave of the film-making present infiltrating what use to be the Asian Ivory Tower of Beautiful Fight Photography. If such is the case, what a shame.

The extras menu of THE RESTLESS is surprisingly deep, and has several rewarding gems. There is a “Making of THE RESTLESS” documentary that is worth viewing. There is a pair of featurettes called “Reincarnation for 49 Days” and “Production Design”. When one considers the profound nature of some of the story elements of THE RESTLESS, an extras menu with this kind of compelling information is a perfect complement to this contemplative film.

THE RESTLESS is the kind of film that makes you a slightly better person after having watched it. While it is not a transfiguring artistic or spiritual experience, it engages the mind, the eyes and the heart on more than simply a superficial level. There aren’t many films today that can boast such an achievement. It is to be hoped that the makers of this film will have enough success with THE RESTLESS that they are able to delve even more deeply into the creative well and produce other fine examples of exciting dramatic, mythical and fantastical cinema that will be even more skillfully shot, so that we in The West can be enjoyment-enhanced movie-lovers for their efforts.

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