A movie like Whasango, you either dig it or you don't. Of course I dug it: this is a cross between a manga, a wuxia movie and a Final Fantasy-style video game come to life. It's not perfect, and anyone who's not already a fan of this sort of thing is likely to be irritated by the showiness of it all. Those of us who came for the showiness will be rolling around in glee. Those of us who were bullied in high school and want vicarious revenge will also love it.
Korea is fast becoming the new hot spot for Asian cinema. Shiri and JSA were competent political thrillers-cum-action movies (although JSA was more political than action), and now with Whasango, we get a comic-book-style FX-driven event film. It's not terribly deep — in fact it's downright silly at times — but the filmmakers know it and have a grand time with the material.
Whasango takes place, I think, in something of the same kind of alternate universe as Jeunet and Caro's fantasy The City of Lost Children. Everything is low-tech/high-tech; everything's rusted metal or stained concrete, and it's raining all the time. The kids fight in the mud of the school's athletic yard and apparently demolish half the school every time they fight, and yet somehow the walls are still standing.
Into this landscape comes Kim Kyeong-su (Hyuk Jang), a bleach-blond kid with the power to manipulate force. We get a great demonstration of this — along with a primer into the movie's style — in the very first scene, where Kim stops in mid-air a piece of chalk thrown at him by a teacher. He sends it back the way it came, blowing the teacher through the blackboard. If you think that's over the top, try the flashback scene where we learn how Kim got his powers in the first place. It involves a tank full of electric eels and a lightning storm.
Kim has been expelled from no less than nine other schools; there's a great line about how there's no more room on his transcript for another school listing. Instantly he comes into conflict with the school's lead bully, Jang Rang, or "Ox," who teaches the new fish a lesson or three. Kim could easily wipe the walls with him, but as we learn, he has a very strong parental injunction against using violence. Ox challenges him to a duel, and while Kim doesn't dish it out, he sure knows how to take it.
Most of the humor in the movie — and there is a lot of it — revolves around several key things. The student's powers is the first; I've already mentioned Kim's unwillingness to use his skills to their limit. The fights are also staged like a comedic parody of movies like The Matrix, where people leap into the air and slug each other in slow motion. Half the time the cast is on screen, their feet aren't even touching the ground. But most of the really big laughs revolve around the oafishness of Ox and also several of the faculty members, who are caught up in a search for some kind of sacred manuscript that will give the wielder unlimited power. I loved a gag (explained in subtitles) wherein Ox realizes his real name is in fact a homonym for the Korean words for a dish he absolutely loathes.
To Kim's defense, sort of, comes the girls of the local fencing team, a spirited bunch who like Kim's never-say-die attitude — even if he's a lousy fighter. Kim gets into a nice, shy, tentative relationship with the fencing team captain (played by an actress with an uncanny resemblance to Asian actress Shu Qi). She understands, all too well, that to ask him to beat up Ox would be a betrayal of his own principles. Ox also has eyes for her, and actually has the gall to propose to her in one of the movie's funniest scenes.
The teachers aren't much better. With the real president of the school in a bizarre coma, the acting president gets into cahoots with Ox and his gang to look for the missing manuscript. To keep Kim and the others from making trouble, he brings in a team of "substitutes" who look like CIA assassins — and who turn out not to be too far from being just that. They smash the fencing team in a schoolyard fight, and it isn't long before their leader is facing off against Ox and Kim as well. It probably goes without saying that Kim has to save the day, and the only way he can do that is by buckling down and mastering his powers. I won't spoil any endings, but I will say that the movie is set up perfectly for a sequel.
The plot, of course, is not the point. It never is in a movie like this. In a comedy, most of the time the plot is just an excuse onto which to clothespin whatever gags the filmmakers can think of. Whasango definitely falls into that category; it's much more of a comedy than an event movie. And as a comedy, it's more interested in doing goofy things with the burning motivations of its characters than it is in looking for comic possibilities in their powers. Well, there are a few, but they're rather subdued: I liked a scene where Kim uses his power to tame the water in the shower room, and has a large bubble of water conveniently floating in front of his butt.
Visual gags like that run through the movie. I loved how every now and then the film would grind to a stop and explain everything with a set of subtitles and narration. We get that right up front, with a freeze-frame on Kim's face and the word "EXPELLED" stamped in big red letters across it. Split-screens, sped-up footage, and all kinds of other sight gags are wrung dry in just about every scene.
Curiously, most of Whasango is shot in a strangely drab, grim-looking color scheme. Was this filmed on digital video? Barring that, I suspect it was at the very least heavily post-processed; the result probably works better on film than it does on a DVD. The camera never sits still for a second, either — it's constantly shoving itself into people's faces and then zooming up into a corner of the ceiling. This sort of thing was fresh when Sam Raimi did it, and it takes a lot of effort and energy today to not make it seem repetitive. Whasango just barely manages to do it, partly because it's being done for comedic effect and because the milieu is just so dang strange.
When it comes to the fight choreography, though, which you would think would be the centerpiece of a movie like this, I found myself a little caught off guard. Because the fighting is more or less for laughs, the elaborate Yuen Woo Ping-inspired fighting that has become the staple of many a recent movie isn't to be found here. Most of the fights seem under-choreographed — if only, I suspect, because the filmmakers didn't want the duelling to get in the way of the comedy. In a way, this makes sense: putting bruising, Jet Li-style combat into a movie that's not meant to be taken very seriously might have unbalanced things.
Come to think of it, it's amazing how much of a beating everyone takes in this movie — if there were a sliver of realism to any of the violence, half the cast would have died of internal injuries by the one-third mark. At most we see a little blood being coughed up, which firmly places the movie in the same territory as Marvel and DC comics, where Superman's hair doesn't even get mussed (much).
The downside, of course, is that the fighting is in some ways not very imaginative. The first time I saw someone being blown backwards through the wall, I guffawed. By the fifth or sixth time, it was becoming grating. Whasango somehow never completely runs out of ideas, but I had to wonder why we didn't constantly see the glaziers and contractors in the background of every shot, furiously rebuilding everything that had been demolished in the last one.
I mentioned the design of the movie. The more I think about it, the more original Whasango looks — it's like a steampunk take on an early 20th century Asian school, although the soda machines and track lights put it very much in the present day. The only thing remotely close to it is the crumbling high school in Akira; imagine a whole movie that takes place there and you've almost got the idea, although Whasango is far more bouncy (if not always more coherent).
Whasango is ultimately fluff, but it's such visually inventive and goofily cheerful fluff that I hardly minded. It's wearying over the course of two hours, but I had to give the movie credit for burning so much rubber to be interesting. I mentioned before that they've left themselves wide open for a sequel here — perhaps next time around we'll get more of a story to go with the souped-up CGI slapstick.