BIFF Review: Illang: The Wolf Brigade

South Korea is a special place in the film world. It’s a country capable of producing dark and gritty dramas of excellent quality and of pulling off the Hollywood blockbuster. On the mainstream level, the aforementioned gritty dramas span years, from 2003’s Old Boy to this year’s Burning. On the independent circuit, the powerful Taklamakan provided a special Korean flavor at last year’s BIFF. When the country isn’t producing these distinctive features, Korea shows it can nail Ocean’s Eleven heists with Do-Dook-deul (The Thieves).

Illang: The Wolf Brigade attempts to incorporate both cultures. Since the suits in Hollywood figure that the movie can appeal to North American audiences, Warner Bros. is distributing the picture. Director Kim Jee-woon, who provided Korea’s bizarre The Good, the Bad, and the Weird in 2006 as well as 2013’s Schwarzeneggar vehicle The Last Stand, takes charge.

Illang is based on a Japanese anime of about an hour and forty minutes, directed by Hioryuki Okiyura (Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, 1999). While the movie is largely faithful to its source material, the setting has been moved from Japan to Korea, and the run time is about two hours and fifteen minutes. The plot is as follows and is all explained to you in an opening narration: It’s five years from the present day, but also 2024 for some reason, and North and South Korea have reunified, to the chagrin of neighboring powers and the United States. The reunification causes economic instability and rising terror, largely by a group known as the Sect. To combat the Sect, the government creates a unit of heavily armed and armored soldiers. This goes awry when the armed soldiers kill some innocent high school girls, so then they’re given masks with (admittedly cool-looking) monstrous red lights for eyes to hide their identities and their humanity. Then five years pass and the group is disbanded, but… what happens after that?

Oh yeah. There’s a love story between the main guy and the main girl, but she’s hiding something, and there’s a psycho villain, and both groups seem like they’re fighting for Korea’s best interest, and… you know, it doesn’t really matter. Illang: The Wolf Brigade ceases to care one iota about what its “about” and turns into a dumb shoot-em-up around the 30-40-minute mark. If that’s your taste, then this is the picture for you, because the bullets and blood squibs never stop and there is no end to people getting thrown through various forms of glass (windows, claw machines, etc) or having their heads pummeled into walls.

But this movie is supposed to contain elements of both a Hollywood action blockbuster and a gritty Korean drama, right? In between the cacophonies of incoherent noise that are the action sequences are well-lit long shots of Seoul’s urban setting. Soft music plays as a woman stares out of a car window. A young girl wanders through a crowded market while people eat noodles. It’s like you’re watching Blade Runner! Unfortunately, Blade Runner is an intriguing mystery, whereas Illang descends into an explosion at a fireworks factory at every action beat.

And yet, with all of the bodies flying around, none of the punches, tosses, kicks, and what-have-yous hit quite as hard, as satisfactorily, or as fun as anything that goes on in the bathroom fight scene of this year’s Mission Impossible: Fallout.

And it’s here where Illang falters most. The movie is just no fun. It’s loud, it’s bloody, it’s violent, but it’s dull and silly throughout. Characters with no personality or any distinguishing features show up now and then. The movie makes a cute attempt to state their names and military or police job title, but by the climactic fight scene, the story has gotten so convoluted that it’s hard to say who’s who and whose side the audience is supposed to be on.

When the characters don’t matter and the story is nonsensical, then who’s shooting whom and who’s getting shot is of no importance. The movie asks a philosophical question of whether the armored soldiers are men in wolves clothing, whether they are wolves in men’s clothing, but this is merely the movie pretending to be about something it’s not. What this movie is about is things going boom; any cinematic qualities lightly scattered throughout do nothing to make you think otherwise.

A point could also be made about the differences between animation and live-action. Japanese animes are frequently of the fantasy/sci-fi genres, but however ridiculous their plots, they can get away with it. Characters in an anime exist in a world separate from ours – one that allows a nonsensical plot to feel less so. When an animated world becomes a living, human one, the absurd story falls apart. Of course, another part of enjoying animation is admiring the art.

Thin on plot and character but more than making up for that with innumerable bullets, Illang: The Wolf Brigade just isn’t worth it. Not to be seen by anyone except hardcore fans of the source material.

Mike Payne-Wheeler
Mike Payne-Wheeler is the host of Inside Out Busan and its weekend edition, Cine Concerto on BeFM. He graduated with a degree in acting and is heavily involved in the Busan English Theatre Assiciation as an actor and director.

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