Warriors of the Dawn REVIEW: A familiar but rewarding historical epic

Warriors of the Dawn REVIEW: A familiar but rewarding historical epic

0 comments 📅11 November 2017, 16:38

Director: Jeong Yoon-chul
 27 October 2017 (London Korean Film Festival)
From: 20th Century Fox Korea
Format: Theatrical Release
Age Rating: 15

In 1592 Japan’s Imperial Regent Hideyoshi Toyotomi sent an army to attack Korea, determined to use the country as a passage to Ming China after previous communications with Korea’s Joseon government had failed. The invasion was intended to kickstart Japan’s conquest of Asia, and it sent shockwaves through the country as both soldiers and civilians were caught in the crossfire of a brutal seven-year war. Warriors of the Dawn, directed by Jeong Yoon-chul, examines the early stages of this conflict and focuses particularly on the plight of the country’s proxy soldiers and Crown Prince Gwanghae (Yeo Jin-goo).

Paid to complete the military service of others during times of war, proxy soldiers were thought so little of that officials saw them as nothing but pawns that could be forced to do whatever was demanded of them. In Jeong Yoon-chul’s retelling of the conflict the group of fighters are tasked with protecting the Crown Prince, and must take him across the country safely so that he can ask for reinforcements. Prince Gwanghae’s father, King Seonjo, has abandoned his country to escape to China, certain that he can kill two birds with one stone by using his son to get rid of the Japanese, but also remove him from the line of succession on the pretence that they killed him. The proxy soldiers, meanwhile, resent their mission, and the poor way that the prince’s military advisors treats them doesn’t help matters.

For all intents and purposes, the mission is guaranteed to be a failure, but as the group go on their journey both Prince Gwanghae and To Woo (Lee Jung-jae), the leader of the proxy soldiers, mature and rise to the occasion, and it is through their friendship that we get to see the characters’ grow. To Woo acts as a surrogate father to Prince Gwanghae in many ways as his desire to give him honest advice and determination to see the mission through is what forces the latter to overcome his fears and inhibitions to do what’s right for the people. Thanks to Lee Jung-jae and Yeo Jin-goo’s great chemistry and charismatic performances the characters’ bond feels fresh and genuine, even when the rest of the film is more than familiar.

While it plays out like an almost by-the-numbers historical epic, the film is saved by its central characters. To-woo and Prince Gwanghae are fascinating, but there’s a colourful array of side characters who are also performed brilliantly, and each plays their own important role in the overall story. Gok-soo (Kim Moo-yul), the proxy soldiers’ conflicted sharp shooter, is an especial highlight thanks to his raw emotions and torn conscience. Entirely location-based, the film has some stunning visuals and sets, which is something that makes the action that much stronger, and with several battle scenes to choose from it was great to see each character get their moment in the spotlight and show off some incredible moves.

What does make the film stand out, though, is the way it doesn’t shy away from the failures of the Korean government even with the Japanese antagonists. While the atrocities committed by the latter should by no means be overlooked, it is appreciated that Jeong Yoon-chul has chosen not to make a standard story of pure good versus ultimate evil – especially considering the country’s recent wave of historical fiction films. Warriors of the Dawn is an enjoyable historical drama, and while it features some familiar tropes and a slightly-too-long runtime it is the characters, and the actors playing them, that makes it such a joy to watch.

Written by Roxy Simons

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