Korean action swordplay epics haven't exactly reached the plateau as of yet. There have only been a few noteworthy films such as "Shadowless Sword" and "Bichunmoo". Director Kim Yu-jin's latest modestly budgeted swordplay epic "The DIVINE WEAPON" is set in the Joseon era; the film is a semi-historical tale about the creation of the first rocket during King Sejeong's reign in the 1400's. It seeks to tell a significant event in Korean history; the film is entertaining on its own right, but certain elements kept it from becoming a well-rounded spectacular epic.
Tension is all over the Korean region in 1430. Despite the fact they are a smaller region, the Joseon dynasty is flourishing but they are being controlled by the Ming dynasty who demands increased tribute and even more eunuchs (in the hundreds) to serve. Joseon's top weapons designer, Ga-Song has developed plans for powerful weaponry that may change the balance of power. One night, Ga-Song is killed but his daughter Hong-Li (Han Eun-Jeong) narrowly escapes. A close friend of her father, Chang-Kang (Ahn Sung-Kee) aids her to stay hidden and brings her to a merchant named Sul-ju (Jeong Jae-Yeong) who has issues with the court. The palace and the Joseon army are being watched very closely by representatives of the Ming court, but perhaps Sul-ju may be able to help Hong-Li decipher the secrets of the secret weapon; construct the Singijeon (a machine that can fire multiple explosive arrows) while there is still time to avert catastrophe.
"The Divine Weapon" chronicles the creation of the first rocket used in warfare in 1430. This weapon can launch special arrows as well as a huge explosive arrow for about 3 km. The film does keep its focus about the story of the rocket itself; the film carefully shows its secrets and the risks in creating such as weapon. It comes as no surprise that the film may be easy to enjoy to film fans; it portrays a historical event, the political intrigue that came during this time, there is a lot of action, there are dabs of romance and touches of humor. Kim Yu-jin knows the elements that can make a film successful in the box-office. The plotting is actually not too bad, the political conspiracies and cultural implications are brought into exposition and while there is a perfunctory love story underneath its layer, the direction doesn't focus on those elements and rather more on the Joseon struggle. The developing relationship between Sul-ju and Hong-Li does manage to pitch in some needed charm in its proceedings because of the good performances of the two protagonists.
The film does have a fair amount of characterization, but it does suffer a little from the abundance of different characters. At times, the film gets a little difficult to follow and some scenes may encourage a small disconnection to the proceedings. There is also a brutal scenes with young boys being castrated that felt a little forced to show the Ming's cruelty. I thought most of the film was saved by Sul-ju as the main protagonist. I liked the fact that he appeared very human; a profiteer who is only interested in one thing until we see his development as a patriot because of what he has seen and the sacrifices made. Hong-Li is the one factor that proves once again that women can bring out the best in a man, as she demonstrates her compassion and her willingness to lay down her life for the good of one nation. The film does have several stirring speeches that can bring out the patriotism in its viewers as the film is full of motivational flag-waving. This may have been inspired by the movie "Hanbando" since the film's producers are the same.
There is a lot of action to be had with "The Divine Weapon". The swordplay in the film looked very realistic and avoids the usual wire work in other Wuxia films. The fights are quick and serves to expose Sul-ju's skills as a swordsman as he engages skilled swordsmen in their own right. Director Kim Yu-jin saves the final grand battle sequence at the final act and I thought this was a very calculated and smart move on his part. It makes the fights part of the film's plot rather than having fights to get to the film's resolution; as it managed to generate some tension and suspense as to what would happen in the final encounter. We see the usual grand underdog battle as a mere 100+ Joseon warriors become pinned down by about 3,000 Ming mercenaries. Kim does display competence in shooting the battle scene and of course, the viewer is treated to a grand display of the power of the Singijeon artillery which up to this scene, the viewer can only guess at its capabilities. The battle scenes are quite verbose in its own right, but it felt that it was proper to the film's tone.
I rather enjoyed the fact that director Kim uses the minimal amount of CGI in the film and only uses it when absolutely necessary in the final scene. The film is also nicely shot but exercises a fair amount of restraint as to avoid the film from becoming too extravagant. The screenplay is kept moving at an even vigorous pace as to keep its viewers entertained that its 134 minute runtime went by quickly.
"The Divine Weapon" is one film that may not prove to be groundbreaking or stellar, the film doesn't exactly show us anything very memorable; but the energetic direction, the lush cinematography, good costumes and set designs are enough to keep the film aloft while its discipline and restraint kept it grounded. It isn't the grand spectacle I could've wished for but it is highly entertaining. The film is a good example of how playing one's aces well can pay off, despite any flaws a film may have.
Highly Recommended! [3 ½ + Stars]
The U.S. Dvd has good picture quality but sadly only has a 2.0 Dolby Digital Korean language track. (the Korean release has 5.1 Dolby Digital) The release is pretty bare-bones.