Too much gab during the first 75 minutes dampens the fuse of big-budget costumer “The Divine Weapon” for far too long, though those prepared to stay the course will be rewarded with some rousing widescreen action in the final hour. Blatantly nationalistic — the end titles remind auds how Korea was 300 years ahead of Europe in developing warfare missiles — and playing free with the facts, pic could still work as a crowdpleaser at Asiaphile events with 30 minutes hacked from the first half. Divine performance locally (3.7 million admissions since its Sept. 4 bow) looks unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.
The tendency of South Korean movies toward leisurely exposition — which can be an asset in character dramas — here becomes a liability in the hands of helmer Kim Yoo-jin, who can’t keep a strong enough dramatic rein on the various characters milling around in Lee Man-heui’s untidy screenplay. Kim’s previous movies (romancer “A Promise” and cop drama “Wild Card”) also suffered from the same laxness.
Setting is the Chosun dynasty under King Sejong, circa mid-15th century, when Korea was under the eye of China’s Ming dynasty. Increasingly annoyed by the bossy Chinese, Sejong (Ahn Sung-ki) tells his chief royal guard, Chang Gang (Heo Jun-ho), to take care of Hong-ri (TV actress Han Eun-jeong), daughter of the late inventor of a secret weapon.
Chang appeals to the patriotism of Seol-ju (Jeong Jae-yeong), the maverick young head of a gang of merchants, by asking him to shelter Hong-ri and help her complete her dad’s work on the weapon. Problem is, the manual is now in the possession of Ming lackeys.
The action belatedly cranks up as Seol-ju & Co. plan a night raid on the local Ming residence to nab the manual, followed by clandestine work to complete work on the weapon (basically, banks of big rockets with explosives attached) and a riverside battle between Korean patriots and invading Ming troops. Action choreography is surprisingly good in the night raid, and the inventive final battle, with a handful of Koreans facing enemy hordes, is neatly calibrated toward a rousing finale.
Thesps, from the virile Jeong (“No Blood No Tears”) to the elegant Han, have a physical presence and onscreen chemsitry that match the realistic production and costume design, while vet Ahn lends some irony to the king and Ryu Hyeon-gyeong some cojones to Seol-ju’s tomboy sister.