In the waning years of the Shilla Dynasty, the land is ravaged by chaos and violence as demons roam freely amongst the people. Born with the ability to see ghosts, Yi Kwak joins the royal squad to help battle the demons and the corrupt court. A failed coup, however leaves all the members but Yi Kwak dead. While hiding in a shrine, he happens upon the entrance to mid-heaven where souls reside for 49 days before reincarnation. There he meets So Hwa who greatly resembles his deceased lover. So Hwa, who guards the gates between the mortal realm and mid-heaven is thrown into danger when an army of restless spirits attempts to return to to the land of the living. Yi Kwak comes to her rescue only to discover the army is led by his former squad comrades.
Why this US$10 mil. Korean fantasy-adventure has taken three years to travel to our shores is initially baffling. After all, back then in 2006, period action epics were quite the craze- if memory serves right, Zhang Yimou had just completed his triumvirate of big-budget costume dramas with "Curse of the Golden Flower". But watching Dong-oh Jo’s film, it suddenly becomes clear.
This is not "Hero" or "House of Flying Daggers" (even though the same costume designer, Emi Wada, worked on this film). No, it’s not even like the gaudy "Curse of the Golden Flower". "The Restless" is more akin to Chen Kaige’s stinker "The Promise" or Tsui Hark’s "The Legend of Zu", a movie built on its grandiose visuals and lavish CGI but is ultimately a disappointment thanks to its shallow script and poor characterization.
Taking a leaf from Buddhist beliefs, "The Restless" begins in a place called Mid-heaven where souls of people who have died spend 49 days purifying themselves before their reincarnation. Yi Gwak (Jung Woo-Sung) is the very-much alive hero who stumbles into such a place and meets So-Hwa (Kim Tae-Hee), a deity tasked to protect the Holy Stone. So-Hwa is being hunted by a group of Demon Slayers led by Ban-chu. Apparently, they want the Holy Stone to open a portal back into the world of the living.
There’s a whole lot of backstory in the first 30 mins about Yi Gwak’s connection with the Demon Slayers and Yi Gwak’s history with someone who looks very much like So-Hwa. But really much of the movie is focused on Yi Gwak’s devotion to So-Hwa, or the person she resembles, so be prepared for your typical dose of Korean melodrama. Unfortunately, what should be moving turns out uninvolving, as one is never led to fully understand why Yi Gwak would be willing to sacrifice so much for So-Hwa.
Instead, director Dong-oh Jo uses this to reflect on how there cannot be love without memories and why it’s better to remember the ones you loved than to forget them. Well intentioned as this may be, it is a message that has no doubt been delivered before and with much greater finesse in films such as "Away from Her" (incidentally, that Sarah Polley film was released back in 2006 as well).
But if romance isn’t the film’s forte, neither is action. Although renowned Korean fight choreographer Jung Doo-hong has been responsible for many of the film’s energetic action sequences, the result has sadly been marred by excessive close-ups and slo-mo shots. How these scenes are pieced together also leaves much to be desired, since the choppy editing often takes away the film’s momentum.
So really what’s left to enjoy in "The Restless" are the impressive visuals and visual effects- and in this regard, it does not disappoint. Shot in China, "The Restless" is a beautiful film to behold. Aided by their location’s breathtaking landscapes, cinematographer Kim Young-ho and art directors Han Zhong and Wu Ming have crafted numerous gorgeous looking shots of the world of Mid-heaven. Where there is a need for a fantastical element, the movie also blends the two seamlessly (though it’s quite clear which scenes are filmed on set and on location).
Indeed, this is the movie’s only saving grace- which explains why despite its hefty budget, it failed rather miserably at the Korean box office three years back. Of course, with the lowered expectations of a direct to DVD movie (as is its fate here in Singapore), "The Restless" isn’t half-bad. It’s throwaway entertainment made on an astronomical budget that won’t leave you restless, but won’t do much more to keep you entertained.
The Korean audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and is especially rich and well-separated during the film’s action sequences. Visuals however could do with a little more sharpening.
Review by Gabriel Chong
Posted on 15 December 2009