For the American fan, a few key events really define Hong Kong cinema of the early 2000’s. The British left the colony to Chinese govern. Leslie Chung died. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even with its subtitles and flying people wearing funny clothes, was huge over here. And then South Korea. I suppose that the lack of fan-subbing for Chinese language television in those days might have something to do with it, but it seemed like everybody at the time predicted that South Korea would replace Hong Kong, citing Korean movies they felt were suitable replacements for the sort of film that Hong Kong wasn’t producing at the volume previously had. Bichunmoo, Sword in the Moon, and Legend of the Evil Lake were said by some to be new Korean wuxia movies.
Bichunmoo certainly could be called that (as could director Kim Young-Jun’s follow up, Shadowless Sword), but Legend of the Evil Lake is really not a wuxia movie. A remake of Shin Sang-Ok’s 1969 supernatural horror come romance, A Thousand Year Old Fox, director Lee Kwong-hoon’s update does make use of Chinese locations and martial arts choreography/wire work by Hong Kong veteran Yuen Tak, so the comparison is understandable, particularly when the opening scene seems intentionally reminiscent of Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair.
Lee’s film tells more or less the same story as Shin’s. General Biharang, a decorated officer busy with uprisings across the kingdom, catches the eye of the Queen of Shilla, causing suspicion in the court. Biharang’s affections, however, are the sole property of his beloved wife, Ja Woon-bei, a commoner whose father had ties to rebel groups before his death. Scheming court nobles, looking for a way to control Biharang, dispatch soldiers to kill Ja Woon-bei. While fleeing from them, she pulls a sacred sword from the ground that has imprisoned the ghost of Auta, a tribal leader with occult powers killed by the first king of Shilla, beneath a lake for a thousand years. Auta takes possession of Ja Woon-bei’s body, and seeks revenge against the descendent of his killer.
There are a number of striking differences between the original film and its remake, the most immediately notable being that the cast of the 2003 film is much younger and fresh faced. The remake also plays its cards early, starting off with a sequence in which the first king of Shilla defeats Auta (not a fox-demon this time). The scene has lots of wire work, CGI effects and gallons of blood -- a violent depiction of genocide that seems at odds with the rest of an essentially sentimental film -- which is all rather spectacular.
But while I thought that Shin’s film was spastic, The Legend of the Evil Lake is comparatively laborious. Much of the dialog about rebel uprisings seems incidental to the plot, outside of giving a reason for Biharang’s inability to protect his wife. And even with a comparably slower pace, the characters seem even more underwritten than in A Thousand Year Old Fox. Probably the worst change comes to the ending. Whereas the original left the viewer with an impossible image that still resounded with mythic intensity, the remake ends on a cheesy scene that is actually more sentimental but without anywhere near the visual punch.
Legend of the Evil Lake flopped at the box office, which was probably inevitable given how expensive the production looks (costuming, cinematography and the people are all quite pretty). It’s mostly forgotten now, and probably won’t be one of those movies waiting to be discovered and reappraised by a different audience in another decade. But it’s interesting to look back on how people perceived it when it was released. And I’m glad that South Korea never became the “new Hong Kong.” Recent films like The Restless not withstanding, the Koreans don’t make anything that feels like imitation Hong Kong genre flicks any more (and in reality, they made more of them before anybody was trying to use them as a surrogate). It’s better to appreciate the country in its own context.