First-time directors and co-writers Dong-oh Jo and Dong-oh Cho bring us the magical martial arts romance Demon Empire.
Under the rule of a corrupt royal family, the Royal Demon Slayers, called the ‘Chuyongdae’ carried out an unsuccessful rebellion to try to save the people. With most of their fighters wiped out, the desperate people began offering the living as a sacrifice to the demons. During this time of chaos, a mysterious young man rescues a woman bound to a post and kills the demons that came to claim her.
The townspeople rejoice and offer him food and wine for killing the evil creatures. It appears that all of the remaining Demon Slayers have been executed except for him; Yi Gwak, head soldier of the Chuyongdae (played by Woo-sung Jung; The Good, the Bad, the Weird, The Warrior, A Moment to Remember). Although he rescued their village, its people want the bounty on his head because they are poor and starving. They reveal that they drugged his food and he hurriedly escapes to the forest before he falls asleep.
On waking, he finds himself in a fantastic and strange place called Midheaven, which one man explains is where the spirits stay for 49 days before they are reincarnated. He doesn’t have a nameplate like the others, and can’t remember meeting the grim reaper. It soon transpires that he isn’t dead after all, but has somehow made his way to this place. In Midheaven he meets a young woman who announces herself as So-hwa (Tae-hee Kim). She is a ‘Chuneen’, a heavenly being with no memories of being human. Yi Gwak remembers her as Yon-hwa, his lost love who was accused of bringing demons to her village and burned.
Midheaven is under attack from the demons, and So-hwa has been given the mission to take her elder’s spirit to the Pool of Reflection to save the spirits. If Midheaven vanishes, the dead can’t get into Heaven and there will be no more births in the world. Ban-chu (Jun-ho Heo) is the one behind the attacks. He is building an unholy army ready for the time when the gates to the human realm are shattered and as that hour draws near, he sends his forces on the hunt for So-hwa, who is the only one with the power to stop him. Ban-chu and his allies have a connection to Yi Gwak that leads to some difficult experiences for both sides in the battle.
The film raises some interesting questions, such as whether a soldier’s duty is to protect the world or try to change it. It also asks what makes a person who they are and how big a part their memories play. So-hwa can’t remember her life with Yi Gwak but she finds herself falling in love with him all over again.
It won the Grand Bell Award in South Korea for Best Art Direction in 2007. The trio of Art Directors who worked on the film includes Ming Wu who previously worked on Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). Like those films, Demon Empire can be categorized in the Wuxia genre, popular in China and Korea. These martial arts fantasies are usually set in the past, star a chivalrous protagonist and include fight sequences where characters achieve superhuman feats, have lightning fast moves, fly, levitate, and show expert swordsmanship.
The film boasts some impressive special effects, such as So-hwa’s whirling flower petals she uses as a defence and the deaths of the demons. When they are defeated, they turn to ash, like an internal fire has spread from the fatal wound and they become only charred remnants. Bits of singed paper float down from where they stood.
The supernatural apocalyptic storyline that is highlighted in the poster and other promotional material is often sidelined, while the more personal love story between Yi Gwak and Yon-hwa is focused upon. There are enjoyable and well-choreographed fight sequences but it isn’t end-to-end excitement. The emotional storyline is frequently at the forefront, which isn’t really a criticism because it is interesting and complex. However, those expecting a martial arts extravaganza that never lets up on fights and action may be a little disappointed.