In 1592, the Korean Peninsula suffered a surprise attack by Japanese forces, led by Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who intended to conquer the Joseon-ruled Korean Peninsula as a gateway to the Ming-dynasty-ruled Chinese territory; the initial invasion started the so-called Imjin War which lasted until 1598, for seven years, and just like any other war, it was a bloody ordeal that wreaked havoc upon the land and its people. Jeong Yoon-cheol, who co-wrote and directed the historical film Warriors of the Dawn (2017), known also as “Proxy Soldiers” (Daeripgun), which was screened during this years’ London Korean Film Festival, dramatized the events that took place during the early stages of the conflict.
The Kingdom of Great Joseon, 1592. As the Japanese soldiers invade the lands, King Seonjo escapes to the Ming-Empire ruled China and names his second-born son, Prince Gwanghae (Yeo Jin-goo), as the Crown Prince – his proxy during his absence – and sends him on a mission to help recruit a volunteer army to fight the Japanese. But the mission turns out to be even more impossible as it seemed in the first place, since enemies are everywhere – even the King himself sees the mission as a clean way to dispose of the Prince as his successor without getting his hands dirty directly. But the Prince is not the only proxy of this story – a group of proxy soldiers (those paid to serve in the military on behalf of others), led by To Woo (Lee Jung-jae), is forced to join in the mission. From this point on, the road is full of conflicts that you would expect to see in a historical wartime drama.
Even if the story gives off the scent of all the historical films that we have seen in the past years, especially those rooted in Korean history, there is still a firm set of qualities that help veer attention away from all predictable twists and turns. The cast is at the forefront of this; Yeo Jin-goo already has a respectable filmography for someone at his young age, and he seems to be unstoppable; his performance as Prince Gwanghee, with the range of emotions from a spoiled, scared and sheltered Prince to the emotionally tried and ultimately matured ruler is basically flawless. There were still some moments where growth would add to the brilliance, but there is no doubt that with Yeo Jin-goo, we can only look for greater things to come. On the other side, the seasoned actor that is Lee Jung-jae delivered greatly, even though his performance seemed tired in certain moments – especially compared to his brilliant performance in another historical epic, The Face Reader (2013). It felt like his performance would be truly memorable if he just gave it 1% more. Still, the cooperation and chemistry between Yeo and Lee were not lacking and they made for a very solid and believable bromance between two, not entirely dissimilar characters. Similarly good chemistry took place between Lee’s character and Kim Mu-yeol’s Gok-soo – with a very nice spot for Kim Mu-yeol to brandish his singing talent in one of the more peaceful scenes of the film. Another noteworthy performance came from one of the sideline characters, court lady Duk-yi (Esom) – no matter how big or how small the role, Esom (best known for her role in Scarlet Innocence, 2014) continues to prove that her talent is not to be underrated.
Warriors of the Dawn was shot in quite an old-fashioned way, and by no means is that a bad thing. The plentiful action scenes are choreographed and shot well, with praiseworthy set designs; the entire film includes very little CGI, but was shot in locations that amounted to stunning visuals – and all of it is packed into nicely framed and properly paced scenes. In a way, the pacing makes the story a bit slow-moving from time to time, but at the same time, it gives the audience the time to take it all in; the slower rhythm of the film is probably why it did not do that well at the box office, but even if the masses got used to the fast-paced narratives with plot holes, plenty of film lovers will agree that films with solid narratives – and pacing that allows for the stories to evolve – are more than worth a watch, and the same holds also for this one.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © 20th Century Fox