DRAGON WARS: 10 Year Retrospective

D-WARS 10th Anniversary Retrospective

After Criterion and Ridley Scott changed the way that we saw the home video market, special editions of multiple monikers flood the shelves. It is only ironic that in America, the seemingly successful notion of D-WARS getting another home video release is an irony. It’s the 10th anniversary of the film, but there is no hint of awareness regarding this on the packaging. It seems Mill Creek Entertainment has bought out the American home video rights for D-WAR. The DVD case looks cool, though closer inspection seems to be a rushed digital job using sub-par looking elements like logos. The image quality of the disc itself resembles more a vcd, and there are none of the special features that the normal American release from nine years ago came with. The usual is a slew of new special features, whether the film deserves them or not. D-WARS is not shown that love anyway.

Does D-WARS deserve some love? From the get go, the film has been met with scorn. (At one time) Famously a young black American with a youtube channel posted a bad review video of D-WARS. The video made news in Korea, citing a nick name of “bad kid”. Korean critics and audiences were split up in their evaluations while the world saw this want-to-be-flavor of the month come and go like many a blockbuster spectable.

Maybe then Shin Hyung Rae accomplished what he had set out to do: make a film that was a product of South Korean creative talent on an art direction/visual effects point that blends in and acts like a film out of Hollywood on the market (even if the point of reference that comes to mind is something like 2013’s SEASON OF THE WITCH). Depending on how you feel about those goals being the reason for a film to exist probably goes hand in hand with whether or not you like the film.

Popping the Sony blu-ray in, it really puts things into a certain perspective. Though general audiences have been jaded with CGI effects, growth in photo realism in CGI is observable only in retrospect. D-WARS’ novelty, its special effects, do look like a product of their time, with more than a handful of shots truly looking good by (As of this writing) contemporary standards. Though it took more than a decade, D-WARS maybe achieved a little bit.

What of the fates of the creative talent though? Looking over the Younggu-Art production output, a narrative rises. You notice Shin’s intentions of getting South Korea’s film industry to be able to complete internationally, so his methods change. No longer practical effect, he decides to entrepreneur CGI in Korea, and to help sell the films hires on American cast and crew as to fulfill a certain standard that Koreans just cannot – and at the time did not. YONGGARY infamously bombed at the box office and did not receive the international distribution that Shin Hyung Rae was hoping for. D-WARS took a couple more years, and hired on more Americans to fulfill more spaces. D-WARS was definitely more successful than YONGGARY. THE LAST GODFATHER showed that Shin should stick to science fiction if he is to appeal to an international audience. D-WARS 2: MYSTERIES OF THE DRAGON has the VFX supervisor from 2014’s GODZILLA onboard in the same capacity. Practically, did Shim atleast do good in giving Korea Koreans who could create effects for movies? Though questionably a comprehensive resource in looking at the repitoirs of ex-Younggu Art employees, a look through IMDb’s pages for the staff of D-WARS says a lot. These people only have one credit to their names on IMDb. Some of these people could have worked on Bong Joo Ho’s SNOWPIERCER. Maybe in an alternate universe.

The American crew’s additions are worthy of praise in areas. The sound design for the monsters is great, and even like an American production, uses sound effects like the Willhem scream as a metacinema flourish. Steve Jablonsky’s soundtrack is depressingly good for D-WARS. Its initially cheesy listening, but it turns out great. The reason its cheesy listening at first is the same reason it is great – the musical bars that make up the soundtracks to films like THE SHINNING and FRIDAY THE THIRTIENTH PART SIX: JASON LIVES now have an entire score solely dedicated to it, and its heavy on action and paramount drama. Should have known something was up though in the end when you have the composer for Platinum Dunes composing your film.

Personally, as a viewer, does D-WARS offer me anything particular? Though the film hits you over the head with it repeatedly, which really speaks to the insecurities of the Korean talent, you have the only accessible (internationally speaking) piece of media which uses Korean folkloric creatures like Imoogi. You have particularly well directed battle scenes. Though his sensibilities are questionable as far as story and the kind of angle you want to tell a story through are questionable, Shin Hyung Rae learned a lot from his film previous, YONGGARY. YONGGARY’s camera is fixed, but not studied. YONGGARY’s camera was fixed because it helped the post production process out with the special effects shots. A lot less intergrating of multiple plate shots (real life, models, and cgi are three plates right there, and the cgi can be many different layers onto itself), a more fluid camera. The LA fight scene does go through stages, and the music, visuals, it all does a great job with getting the audience to feel the ups and downs of one dramatic beat coming and going into another in battle scenes.

Though overly short, the final battle between the Good Imoogi and Buraki is a great display of directing something that is hard to direct – two snakes fighting. You have a square, a rectangle to compose your image in as a filmmaker, and you practically have to fill the screen and make look good while serving the dramatic ups and downs on varying scales with two squiggly lines. Shin Hyung Rae’s directing of the dragon sequences are immersive, even if the actors are obviously in completely CG environments and maybe not the best of attention was paid to the angle of the l.a. plate to the C.G. plate, ect. Its an entertaining watch if you need to kill about thrity minutes and you have a bowl packed.

The talent was there. If more time was spent on that which Shim Hyung Rae famously responded, "I don't make art, I make movies for kids", and less gambling and threatening of government sources of film finance, Shim's dreams could have come true. 

How else has history remembered D-WARS? D-WARS hitting the big screen in America via 3,000 plus screens was a surprise to some people. D-WAR isn’t that good, any distributor would take a look and seriously question the practical entertainment value of the film, despite the surface level details that the film has dragons, a little magic, and other genre tropes. Before Syfy Channel became reknown for their lackluster self-produced titles, there was D-WARS leading the way, being spammed on Syfy wherever they could find a slot. Now, Mill Creek is packaging the film with its Syfy ilk in box sets before getting a standalone release from said distributor. When news came of D-WARS 2 going into production, as a Chinese production no less, ScreenAnarchy’s headline read, “For Our Sins, D-WAR 2 is Going Into Production”. Gizmodo’s sense of humor was, “They’re Finally Making a Sequel to the Greatest Movie of All Time: D-WAR”.

People remember the film though. I proudly hang my Dutch poster for D-WARS in my home. Sometimes a friend will stroll through and pay a little more attention than usual to the poster and ask about it. Their assumptions were right, its my rare Dutch poster for the film. Fond childhood nostalgia memories, the kind that make you cringe more than want to relive with happy remembrance and added significance. RiffTrax has riffed the film. The film will always be there, and some people with a taste for THE ROOM and TROLL 2 will take the film in and give it a home, but to most people, its going to be a familiar cover in the bargain bin at your local neighborhood Walmart. In the meantime, lets get swept away in Shim Hyung Rae’s ambitions, and the immersive marketing campaigns of old, thinking of the dream and not necessarily the movie that was ultimately delivered.



Reviewing Mothra's Rebirths

The Mothra trilogy seems like a series of productions just to keep money flowing from the occasional kaiju lifeblood Toho uniquely knows how to milk. Like THE RETURN OF GODZILLA, Mothra's return was a brainchild idea of Tomoyuki Tanaka, who probably had good intentions of a quality film respecting the original Motha iterations. In the end however, what we got was a trilogy of films spawned from the much fabled unproduced MOTHRA VS. BAGAN script

The first film in the trilogy is not a bad film. Its a decent enough children's film with enough development of the human characters to qualify in the most minimal of ways layered. Episodic gags with the childen and the Elias (the trilogy's version of the Shobijin) keep everything before the monster action lively and well structured. The monster action comes off the heels of the comedy, which really doesn't continue, but we have the monster action which also really reaps a great value of a Mothra film's ability to be a musical, the songs as dramatic scenes unto themselves. Of the trilogy, it combines these three qualities well - a total entertainment film.

Not that there isn't some drama in the film. Its a film with an envionmentally-fiendly message. We have parents who cannot reconcile the percieved needs and their order of priority. Director Yoneda was an assistant director with Kurosawa on his films RAN onward, pobably even learned a lesson or two from Ishiro Honda. He shows he is aware of stoy telling flourishes with the camera like slow-motion photography, but the more dramatic moments fall half flat. For example, particularly, is the scene of the father character riding the bull dozer which releases Death Ghidorah. He communicates enough visually to let audiences see what kind of scene he is intending, but the interplay of images isn't there. The more dramatic scenes only fall half-flat though, some credit is given. A Japanese HOME ALONE or BEETHOVEN would be more up his alley. Anything in the first film that would be considered cringe-worthy really are just uses of older cinematic conventions.

Similar, but not quite the same can be said about REBIRTH OF MOTHRA 2. A new director for the human drama was chosen, and it shows. MOTHRA 2 is more of the Indiana Jones-esque kind of action that drove GODZILLA VS. MOTHA (1992), which really calls to question if this wasn't the kind of atmosphere Tomoyuki Tanaka was trying to procure with the MOTHRA VS. BAGAN project. What the humans may be lacking in any development in the script, the cast makes up fo with their energetic caricatue-esque acting. Missing is the extensive musical numbers, breaking down part of the mythology that the first film in the trilogy set up - Mothra's evolutions and life stages are sung by the Elias as to be a catalyst for Mothra.

MOTHRA 2's detractors come from questionable influences from the concurrently running Gamera trilogy. You can switch out Nelai Kenai with Atlantis, Degarlah with the Gyaos, and Gamera with Mothra. Luckily, as far as the monster himself, Degarlah is a unique creation. His Barrems remind one of the Shokiurus from THE RETURN OF GODZILLA, a sign of his character arc (Descibed further below).

The third film saw the return of the first film's director, with a completely serious tone unlike the first two films, tearing at a certain cohesiveness of the trilogy. Then again, the third film is a boring rehash of the first film's ideas, just mixed in a way that the filmmakers thought were beneficial. Instead of having Ghidorah attain his energy from floura, he gets it from young human fauna. Ghidorah resembles himself and not a four legged cross with Bagan. It seems to be a failed attempt at tying to tie the kaiju stories and the human stories togeather (a possibly good move if done right, layered in with the Shobijin angle). Atleast the kaiju scenes, dramatically, work better as dramatic set pieces than the other two films.

That's the simple look at the human drama of the Mothra films. The human drama is simple enough in these films, with loose thematic connections to the original Mothra films. Crony capitalism is only really looked at in the fist two films, and both of them tie it back in with pro-envionmental themes. By this point in the franchise, a new variety of stock characters have been instituted for these themes: paper company executives and treasure hunters.

The important thing is these films made sure that Toho's SFX crew kept having work, and that Toho kept investing in newer technologies as to keep competitive. Until 2005, the first two MOTHRA films wee Koichi Kawakita's swang song. Afte winning the Japanese Academy Award for GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH and becoming the lagest share holder in Toho, Kawakita definitely had a legacy to protect, to end well. At first, it seems promising.

Kawakita was born to make these Mothra films. His visual style - manipulation of the camera and what's in front of the camea - is on full blast here. Lots of beams, transfoming monsters, use of glitter - it all fits with his fetishes. The sequences are a little more focused than usual, though it can seem at times that Kawakita's scenes consist of loosely visually or narratively connected shots. Again, the inclusion of musical numbers which have to be mixed in with the tokusatsu footage help this out alot. Meanwhile, he is having a blast at making a better Mothra prop with Mothra Leo, the best use of an actual flame thrower is part of the suit, and further use of CG.

The aged CG is forgivable, and the reusing of a four year old Mothra prop with limited mobility is forgivable. What isn't quite forgivable is a lack of some care with MOTHRA 2. The film's ambition of mostly underwater warfare between the kaiju is respectable, but there is a lack of quality. Five years previously, Kawakita filmed an underwater scene between Godzilla and Battra in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA. Missing from MOTHRA 2 which was in GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA were the composited-in air bubbles, the processing of the sound effects to make the kaiju sound like they are underwater, details like this. Maybe too many CG shots took up the budget. Digital matteing would be another sucker of budget, and though more experimental in execution, the matte shots showcase issues with scale and lighting differences between the main plate and the composite materials of the shots at times.

MOTHRA 3's tokusatsu was filmed by Kenji Suzuki, who relies too much on digital compositing in this film (almost as bad as GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS three years latter). This ruins good props and suits, particulaly King Ghidoah. Luckily, just like the first film in the trilogy, set pieces are ceated via the intecutting of musical numbers and the monster action.

The best quality of the films is the handling of the kaiju's own personal drama. From the best handling of the death of a Mothra until GODZILLA: TOKYO SOS, to the tagic slaying of a samurai gone mad with Degarla, and the ambitious time traveling aspect of MOTHRA 3, the monster drama may not be as well mixed in and tied with the humans, but they have their own stories that while simple, do offer a little bit of poetry in their own right.

The other great quality to the trilogy is the new songs written for the Shobijin characters. In the first film, the compositions help give the film a light, Studio Ghibli sense of atmosphere at times. In the third film, it helps add a sense of levity to the action between Mothra and Ghidorah. The regular orchestrational pieces of the score are unrememberable, but the songs are memorable and might even lend themselves well when paired with the operatic stylings of a composer like Shiro Sagisu.

In the end, the Mothra trilogy are some nice occasional watches of made-for-the-money movie making. Its very simple fare.
Mothra - 5/10
Mothra 2 - 4/10
Mothra 3 - 4/10