Patriotism rears its fiery head

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Times Staff Writer

Few movies take critical beatings as bad as the thumping handed out to South Korean director Shim Hyung-rae’s “D-War,” a dragons-do-battle fantasy that transports a Korean legend to 21st century Los Angeles.

A fiasco of a plot, the critics said. Preposterous dialogue. Risible acting.

South Korean audiences loved it. Two months after its release, 8 million South Koreans have seen “D-War,” making it not just a box-office hit but a national success story, a way of channeling Korean pride.

The movie has made $53 million in South Korea, the country’s fifth-largest-grossing film. But what makes “D-War” special is the $10 million it has copped since its mid-September release in North America where, with its mostly American cast, mostly English dialogue and the new name “Dragon Wars,” it enjoyed the widest release for a Korean film.


Many Koreans are proud of this Pacific crossing and admire director Shim’s “anything Hollywood can do, I can do too” credo. Spurred by a cheerleading Korean media, Shim has been cast as the plucky hometown underdog, daring enough to challenge Hollywood on its own turf with a special-effects blockbuster.

On the other side are only spoilers and traitors: the sour critics who have called “D-War” nothing more than a bad -- very bad -- movie deserving every raspberry it gets.

“Koreans like dreamers, and Shim is a dreamer,” says Chin Jung-kwon, a prominent South Korean cultural critic who trashed the movie on national TV and was quickly pegged the most villainous dissenter. “The Korean media turned Shim’s going to Hollywood into this great patriotic success story. So if you criticize him, it makes you a public enemy.”

The backlash was driven, like so much else in this thoroughly wired society, by the Internet, where the movie’s fans are known as “D-paa,” a Korean pun that suggests fans screaming hysterically in “D-War” mania.

The D-paa swamped and eventually shuttered Chin’s blog with their vitriol and threats. Messages warned him to be careful when he walked at night. His marriage to a Japanese woman was cast with dark overtones. Internet postings referred to his children as “Japs.”

Chin regrets nothing.

“It’s rare to see a movie this bad,” he says, sitting in a Seoul cafe and laughing, somewhat gingerly, about the tempest. “It’s an embarrassment for the country. It has no plot whatsoever. I’m relieved it was in English because it would have been a nightmare in Korean.”


Most American critics agreed with Chin. The reviews have been as savage as one might expect for a movie in which mythical Korean heroes are reincarnated 500 years later as befuddled young Californian adults, wrestling with legends about good and bad “Imoogis.”

The characters, from TV reporters to FBI agents, are ludicrous cliches, the acting as wooden as a 1950s surfboard. The dialogue includes lines like, “I’m telling you: Something really bad is going to happen,” and, “I’m getting real tired of all this destiny crap, Jack.”

Irony-free, “D-War” doesn’t even qualify for the “so bad it’s good” category.

There are various theories about why the movie snagged the imaginations of South Koreans.

The $30-million-plus movie has passable, made-in-Korea special effects of dragons laying waste to downtown L.A. (And who wouldn’t feel a slight frisson of pleasure at that?) Others note that many Korean adults harbor affection for Shim, whom they remember from their 1980s childhood as a popular, slapstick kids’ TV comedian.

But many say “D-War’s” success stems from its blatant appeal to Korean nationalism. The movie ends with a postscript message from the director that vows “ ‘D-War’ and I will succeed in the world market without fail” (the message was dropped from the American release).

The closing credits include a series of photographs of Shim in action as he directs the movie, concluding with a shot of him standing defiantly in front of the Hollywood sign while “Arirang,” a patriotic Korean folk song, plays in the background.

“Without this Korean-goes-to-Hollywood theme, no one would have watched it,” critic Chin says. “That was Shim’s strategy. He never talks about the aesthetics of his movie. Only patriotism.”


It is the outrage over the critical slagging that may be most revealing.

Chin says Koreans “only want to hear news of victory,” and likens the reaction to the stubborn refusal of many South Koreans to accept that the cloning discoveries by revered stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk were a fraud.

In both cases, critics have been viciously slandered, accused of trying to drag down a national hero.

“They are fanatics, and they are mobilized on the Internet,” Chin says. “It’s dangerous. This is a country where people put their whole lives into Internet culture and where success is measured by the number of hits you get online. That’s why you see all the media writing about the greatness of ‘D-War.’ ”

The pressure to generate online traffic leads to this broad consensus, Chin says.

“There is a wholly different logic in Korea,” he says. “This era of blind patriotism must die out.”