It’s been a long time in the making, but the sci-fi fantasy Dragon Wars — reportedly Korea’s most expensive production ever — is coming to American theaters. What’s more surprising than the fact that it’s getting a U.S. release is that overseas, the $70 million film has already turned a sizable box office. Color us impressed!
Dragon Wars, or D-War as it was originally titled, is a Korean film set in Los Angeles, financed with Korean money and helmed by a Korean director (former comedian Hyung-rae Shim), starring a largely American cast. Its plot revolves around TV reporter Ethan (Jason Behr) who discovers that L.A.’s recent earthquakes aren’t just natural plate tectonics but the awakenings of a giant ancient serpent — a Korean serpent — that he is fated to battle because, well, the 500-year-old spirit of a warrior lives within him. He’s charged with finding the reincarnated version of that warrior’s soulmate, now a hot girl named Sarah (Amanda Brooks), and defeating the serpent before it becomes a dragon, destroys L.A., wreaks havoc on the world, etc.
We first laid eyes on Dragon Wars at its modestly attended Sunday afternoon panel at Comic-Con. In all honesty, I hadn’t meant to sit in on the presentation at all, but a friend was watching and there were plenty of free seats. Producer James Kang sat onstage with three of his leads, Behr, Brooks, and Craig Robinson; they ran a CGI-heavy clip full of bombastic action (Explosions! Screaming humans!) and digitally drawn Imugis (giant snakes of Korean lore who long to become dragons) mostly slithering about. People applauded, but it looked on par with a really cool snake fighting video game, or your average Sci Fi channel monster pic.
So unmoved was I then that I stepped up to the audience microphone to spice up my Dragon Wars panel-watching experience. Mostly, that was to say “Hi” to Robinson, who plays second fiddle to Behr in the film (as his wisecracking cameraman). Fans of good comedy know Robinson from dropping a few performance gems, as the warehouse foreman Darryl on The Office and as the brutally honest bouncer in Knocked Up; I dare say he was my favorite part of the Dragon Wars presentation.
I also asked producer Kang to explain why they were changing the film’s perfectly ridiculous Korean title, D-War, to the more serious, spelled out Dragon Wars for American audiences. His response was something along the lines of “the digital age” we live in now — fine, whatever, but why even bother using such staid and grammatically accurate verbiage for something that would benefit from playing up a more playful angle? Especially when all of the film’s promotional materials highlight giant serpents eating cars, creatures flying above a metropolis, a showdown atop a skyscraper helipad — remarkably reminiscent of Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent, in which an ancient Aztec serpent-god terrorized Manhattan from high atop the Chrysler Building.
Don’t get me wrong — I have absolutely nothing against the idea of a sci-fi/fantasy dragon flick. I tore through Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series as a young, bookish nerd. I was excited about Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey’s Reign of Fire all the way despite its dubious science. And I will certainly give Dragon Wars a fair viewing before officially passing judgement.
Regardless, it was a tad surprising to hear that D-War (as I shall refer to it in the context of its non-U.S. dealings) has raked in massive earnings in its South Korean run — $20 million in its first five days, and over $40 million total in the two weeks since. Since August 1, a reported 6.14 million tickets have been sold in South Korea, which means roughly one out of every eight of the nation’s 49 million people have seen the film.
Pundits predict that at this pace, D-War will easily match the record-breaking run of another well-performing South Korean monster movie: last year’s The Host, which currently holds the all-time Korean box office title and got the patronage of nearly a fourth of the country’s populace while in theaters. That film’s commercial success, however, was bolstered by critical praise (the tale of a Loch Ness Monster-type creature is Certified Fresh with a 92 percent Tomatometer). It’s uncertain, but seems unlikely, that D-War will get similar honors. While most critics stateside have yet to review the film (excepting Variety‘s Derek Elley), a flurry of debate has erupted in South Korea over the film’s artistic value, with one critic deeming it “unworthy of criticism.”
You’ll be able to decide for yourself come September 14, when Freestyle Releasing is scheduled to let Dragon Wars loose on American soil. By then, every man, woman, and child in South Korea may have seen the flick. We’ll see how it goes over here.