masterly master lee

a home for forgotten and famous korean pulp, its heroes, its heroines, and its pulpeteers

Once Upon A Time 원스 어폰 어타임 2008 review

Movies about the colonial period in Korea are getting more and more popular. And they are looking real good as well. Master Lee was impressed with the production values of these movies: Radio Days, Epitaph and the movie he saw just now, Once Upon A Time.

The best way to describe Once Upon A Time 원스 어폰 어타임 (which describes itself as a ‘comic action movie set against the liberation period’) is by taking the obvious clues from its cover. It’s a cross between Indiana Jones and Lara Croft with a healthy dose of Alan Quartermain and gentleman burglar flicks such as To Catch A Thief. Starring Pak Yongu and Yi Poyŏng, it’s a decidedly old-fashioned yarn about a number of thieves who try to steal the recently excavated ‘Light of the East’, a +300 carat diamond which used to sit in the head of the Seokkuram grotto Buddhist statue and symbolizes Korea’s eternal independence. Needless to say that the Japanese army is in hot pursuit, especially as this is late 1945, just a short time before Korea’s liberation.

Once Upon A Time’s greatest strength is the unabashed fun it pokes at just about everything, including the highly politicized colonial period’s stereotypes. Everybody speaks Japanese and Korean and given the fact that one of the protagonists is half-Korean, half-Japanese and that all Koreans use Japanese names, the whole plot becomes a merry muddle of people trying to outsmart each other.

The plot is puerile, there can be little doubt about that, but the actors have so much fun and the on-screen chemistry between Pak Yongu and Yi Boyeong is so present, that the audience will not care. Production values are pretty good, even though the music in the nightclubs of the 40s sounds more like contemporary music and the sets have a distinct Im Kwont’aek-ish feel (and no, Master Lee does not think that is a good thing).

This is a highly enjoyable, instantly forgettable flick about two old-fashioned adventurers in the colonial period who don’t stop to think twice about the attitudes they are supposed to display with regard to Korea’s colonial past. The movie does not skirt the repressive rule of the Japanese, to be sure, but neither does it hide the affluent lives of more than a handful of Koreans. Japanese rule may have been evil, but like the Koreans, the Japanese are still portrayed as humans and the dividing line between Japanese and Korean is drawn with a very loose hand. Master Lee thoroughly enjoyed it, much more so than the Resurrection Of The Butterfly movie he saw recently which did take the all-together clichéd view of the Japanese as incapable of human emotions. The movie poster itself is clear in this regard: ‘The time of the Independence Army has gone by, the time for con artists is here!’ Even so, the movie ends with a surprisingly serious and rather subtle statement with regard to the roles of the Japanese and the Americans in Korea during this time. But don’t forget to enjoy the conversations between two of the most resilient, brave and strong independence fighters in colonial Korea, the nightclub owner and his sidekick. Master Lee was in stitches (no, not because someone managed to penetrate his fabulous defense). And kudos to the dog…

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