'Dachimawa Lee' breaks new ground in comedy
By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: August 14, 2008
"Dachimawa Lee," directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, is a quirky action comedy that mercilessly pokes fun at almost everything related to the genre to which it pretends to belong, resulting in an unpredictable mixture of cheesy parodies, unnerving humor and pseudo action sequences.
Director Ryoo made a 35-minute short film of the same title in 2000 and distributed it on the internet. It started a wave of rave reviews from Korean online users, many of whom were impressed by the film`s creative use of satirical humor.
The title, which sounds like a Japanese word, is a film term that Korean filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s used to refer to an action movie. But Ryoo`s latest film is much more than a simple action-packed comedy; it`s a grandiose attempt to show that people love a shamelessly fun-oriented movie.
In the big-screen version, the central character remains the same: a mysterious agent known as Dachimawa Lee. Played by Lim Won-hee, agent Lee is supposed to be devilishly handsome.
Throughout the movie, both major and minor characters are deeply struck by Lee`s extremely attractive appearance. Of course, Lee`s not a typical silver-screen hunk. He seems a bit stodgy, sullen, too serious for what he is doing, and, more importantly, far from handsome by the standard that is applied to most Korean actors.
No big deal. After all, the movie is all about the boisterous subversion of what is deemed normal. The supposed perception of characters regarding Lee`s appearance is fully intended to elicit laughter.
In the movie, Korea is under Japanese imperial rule and agent Lee is swept into a major treasure hunt a la "Austin Powers," though director Ryoo strongly denies a similarity with the "shaggedelic" International Man of Mystery.
Predictably, Lee is assigned to recover a fabled Korean national treasure Golden Buddha, only to confront a slew of obstacles - a suspicious murder of a female agent (Gong Hyo-jin), ruthless goons and dark schemes.
Also predictably, Lee embarks on a global journey with a sexy partner (Park Si-yeon) in a bid to resolve the mystery. What`s unpredictable, though, is that the locations where Lee encounters all the self-styled enemies are on a grand scale, encompassing Shanghai, Manchuria, Switzerland, Tokyo and Pennsylvania, the United States. What`s more remarkable is that all the international sites seem to be somewhere in Korea.
Another strength of the film is its liberal use of four different languages: Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English.
Most of the characters sport an amazing level of fluency in foreign languages, mixing Korean and foreign words in a way that is irresistibly funny and amusing for those who remember the old days when Korean television series and movies relied on similar forms of Konglish.
Unlike other mainstream films that record the dialogue in real time, "Dachimawa Lee" relies on post-production recording. This results in intentionally stilted and exaggerated dialogue - another clever device that director Ryoo uses to maximum comic effect.
Ryoo Seung-bum, the younger brother of director Ryoo, the plays one of the key baddies in the film, showing off his talent in infusing realism into the character. Although the character itself is relatively minor, considering Ryoo Seung-bum`s lofty status in Korean cinema, he seems to understand what he`s really up to, and makes for a likeable rogue.
But it is Lim Won-hee who sets the overall tone for the movie. His deadpan face and deadly serious voice fuel the film`s comic drive, demonstrating his firm grip on the tricky character.
"Dachimawa Lee," to be released nationwide today, is by no means a blockbuster. But it deserves all the credit it aims for because of its eccentric sense of humor, riotous performances by impassioned actors, and the director`s unusually defiant creativity.