Friday, June 19, 2009

NYAFF ’09: Dachimawa Lee

Dachimawa Lee might be a 1940’s secret agent, but his look and attitude are vintage 1970’s. A true-blue Korean patriot, Lee has a score to settle with a cabal of Japanese spies in Ryoo Seung-wan’s Dachimawa Lee (trailer here), a send-up of low budget Korean hwalgeuk action fare, which screens during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Dachimawa Lee loves his country so much, he can spontaneously break into patriotic song. However, when Geum Yon-ja, his lover and partner in espionage, is killed by the Japanese, it gets personal for the humorless action hero. Fortunately, Lee is teamed-up with Mari, another bombshell agent, but being a moody 1970’s era male chauvinist, it takes him a while to warm up to her.

Dachimawa’s crazy cast of characters are chasing a golden Buddha, concealing a list of Korea’s global network of agents—sort of a 1940’s version of Mission Impossible’s NOC list. Along the way, it pokes fun at most of the spy film conventions, like the Q-like gadget inventor. There are also plenty of high energy fight sequences, using some of the tried-and-true moves perfected by the Stooges.

The helmet-haired Im Weon-heui plays Lee unyieldingly straight. Essentially, he is a constant sight gag, sticking out like a sore thumb, but unfortunately as a rooting interest, he is not particularly likable. However, Park Shi-yeon (seen in the weepy melodrama A Love during last year’s NYKFF) exudes a luminous sex appeal and fragile vulnerability as the mysterious Mari. No question about it, she has star quality.

While Dachimawa has some reasonably engaging intrigue and double-crossings, it gets bogged down with a long subplot involving amnesia midway through. Still, it builds to the film’s best fight scene, featuring a meat clever. Despite its period charm, Dachimawa does not quite live up to the early promise of its super-groovy retro-70’s titles sequence. Still, Choi Seung-hyun’s appropriately funky themes give the action sequences some real flair.

The comedy of Dachimawa is broad and slapsticky. Clearly, it is not Crouching Tiger or The Hero, but genre fans should enjoy its relentlessly goofy spirit and its old school action aesthetic. It screens as part of this year’s NewYork Asian Film Festival on June 21 and 26th at the IFC Film Center.