Korean Dragon Ball: The Review -- The Reckoning

If you actually think about it -- believe me, I can understand if you have not -- Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball is one of Japan’s strangest cultural exports and should have been the least likely to achieve lasting popularity. Of course, it wasn’t immediately welcomed. The first attempts to dub and export it were considerable failures, and it wasn’t until Funimation, a Texas based entertainment company, dubbed and released episodes of the anime series in syndication under the title “Dragon Ball Z” that it found its audience. Even then, it didn’t become really popular until Cartoon Network included it in its Toonami block of afternoon programming.

I was an early fan. I woke up at six a.m. on Saturday mornings to catch “Dragon Ball Z” on what was then the WB network on channel 33, before the nationally broadcast Saturday morning cartoons aired. “Dragon Ball Z” was filled with huge, muscley guys with huge, spiky hair doing martial arts and shooting fireballs. The female characters had tons of cleavage and characters would die or have their arms ripped off and Goku went to hell for a few episodes. My parents would have been horrified if they knew what I was watching, but this was before the word “anime” meant anything to most people.
This movie looks horrible
But while the episodes that comprise “Dragon Ball Z” were unusual to me when I was kid, the earlier story arcs, referred to as “Dragon Ball” in the United States, still strike me as incredibly strange. Loosely based on Wu Cheng-En’s The Journey to the West, Dragon Ball began, supposedly, as a way for manga-ka Akira Toriyama to create a series less westernized than his previous works. But while The Journey to the West was a Buddhist fable filled with topical political and moral commentary, Dragon Ball seems driven more by Akira Toriyama’s desire to just draw whatever he felt like. References to King Kong, tributes to Jackie Chan movies, dinosaurs, giant robots, villainous armies in Soviet style regalia, aliens and busty females -- these are a few of his favorite things.
This movie is horrible
Que terrible!
So it is understandable that James Wong and 20th Century Fox would try to make sense of the giant mess that is Toriyama’s world building by opting for a generic, semi-sci-fi environment when they filmed DragonBall: Evolution. Granted, they also missed everything that made Dragon Ball popular, including themes that resonate just as strongly with American audiences as they did with the Japanese. But Dragon Ball was popular enough world wide that live action film adaptations were attempted in other countries. Chan Jun-Leung’s DragonBall: The Magic Begins is well known as terrible movie, but it isn’t one of a kind.

At one point, the South Korean Dragon Ball movie was my Holy Grail, that ever elusive bad movie that I thought I would never get to see. I have it. Really. And after watching it, I have a new respect for Chan Jun-Leung’s technical skills as a film maker.
Korean Dragon Ball (hangul: 드래곤볼), or Goku Fights, Goku Wins (Ssawora Son o gong, Igyeora Son o gong), is a lot like the Korean Street Fighter television series, in that both intend to visualize their source material as literally as possible on a prohibitive budget. Korean Dragon Ball visualizes the first story arc of the Dragon Ball manga in a manner that is frequently weird, inappropriate, ugly, and hilarious.

The movie opens with a theme song sung by a children’s choir, and then proceeds to follow the storyline probably all too familiar to fans who have read the manga, watched the anime series, the movies and played the video games. Bulma finds Goku living alone in the wilderness, finds out that he has a dragon ball, and convinces him to travel with her as a bodyguard so that she can collect all seven and summon the Dragon who will grant a single wish.
The film follows them up to the end of story arc with Pilaf. I’ve never figured out what Pilaf is supposed to be. Is he an Alien? A troll? Nobody seems to know. The film is slavishly loyal to the manga’s storyline, the only exceptions made being what the film makers apparently knew better than to try. There are no dinosaurs; the film makers replaced them with guys in robot suits. Sadly, Goku does not transform into Oozaru. Thankfully, very little of the nudity and crass sexual humor from the manga was included, though director Wang Yong appears as Master Roshi and does the “dirty old man” bit pretty well. As with "Korean Street Fighter," I was surprised by the sheer amount of wire work. There are some talented stunt performers (the guy who plays Yamcha does a Jackie Chan inspired stunt where he ducks underneath a car as it drives over him), who are more or less upstaged by bad special effects.
It's safe to say that director Wong Yong didn't know that much about making movies, or at least not good ones. The cinematography and mise-en-scene match their cheapness with garishness.
Watching anything that slavishly translates material from one medium to the other raises one of those irreducible questions that is always the hardest to explain. In this case, that question is, “why?” What is the purpose of retreading this particular story -- itself an imitation of centuries old literature, and a spastically referential one at that -- when one can experience it not only in its original form, but in video games and animation and even in other live action films? The obvious answer is that film and game studios wish to exploit it, but that doesn’t explain why the audience remains so willing to return to the same story.
Proverbs 26:11 comes to mind, and Dragon Ball, with its messy pan-Asian setting filled with bits and pieces of generic manga tropes and amalgamated references to other fragments of the greater pop-culture world, certainly fits the image. Maybe the reasons why so many keep asking for more is no more important than the reasons why film makers and game developers choose to exploit it. Dragon Ball’s enduring popularity seems inexplicable because it’s inexplicable. Korean Dragon Ball strikes me as a half-hearted attempt at cultural appropriation, to officially plant the Taekgukgi in the soil of Akira Toriyama’s never-never land. It isn’t terribly unlike certain American and European fans who, when arguing about the validity of the then upcoming DragonBall: Evolution, insisted that Goku not only could be played by a Caucasian actor, but that the character himself was an Aryan superman when in his "Super Saiyan" mode.
Dragon Ball, or Deulaegon Bol, I should say, is influenced by the same things that influenced Akira Toriyama’s original manga. In a sense they deserve each other. Korean Dragon Ball is a professional product that feels like a fan film based on a manga that itself seems too bizarre to have come from a professional author, much less one of the most internationally successful in his field. And after all that, I’m less sure than I’ve ever been of why I actually wanted to watch this movie, or why I care about Dragon Ball, or why anybody else does either.
Oolong's infamous wish: used panties.


  1. This is an epic blog. I've never known anyone to have watched this movie, so it's great to read a review of it.

    So... is this movie better than Evolution? Do you recommend it, even if just so people can watch it and get it over with?

  2. As a film? No. Evolution is better in every single technical respect. As an adaptation of Dragon Ball? That's a little harder to pinpoint.

    I'd recommend this to DB fans who either managed to enjoy Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins (even if only to laugh at it)or who are simply that interested in seeing what a terrible, Korean live-action Dragon Ball looks like. It really isn't wild or outrageous enough (or, for that matter, actually *good*) to justify loosing sleep over.

    There's a fan-made DVDr floating about the internet; if you look closely, you can find it.

    1. You're wrong. This movie is better than that crappy evolution movie.

    2. You're wrong. The 1991 movie is better than the crappy Evolution movie.

  3. Great review, many important details. But... do you know where I can find any (english, korean or other) subtitles for this movie?

  4. Nope. There's plans for a fan-made dvd-r, which I haven't heard much about lately. Send me an e-mail at go1denpigsy (at) gmail (dot) com if you're particularly interested.

  5. I'm the capper. Get it here (subs wanted!):