Director: Kim Seong-sik
Cast: Gang Dong-won, Huh Joon-ho, Esom, Lee Dong-hwi, Park Myung-hoon, Lee Jung-eun
Running Time: 95 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The latest family friendly blockbuster to arrive in Korean theaters, Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman offers up a big screen adaptation of the webtoon Possession, which revolves around the adventures of a fake exorcist. Sustaining both himself and his assistant through uploading their elaborately staged exorcisms to YouTube, and selling off the apparent ‘possessed’ items that they take off their client’s hands to an antique dealer, behind the scam lies a grander purpose – to find the demonic shaman responsible for his grandfather and brother’s deaths many years earlier.
For its cinematic outing actor Gang Dong-won steps into the titular role of Dr. Cheon, last seen in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker and the Train to Busan sequel Peninsula. No stranger to starring in fantasy action themed productions thanks to his turns in the likes of 2010’s Haunters and 2009’s Jeon Woo Chi: The Taoist Wizard, it’s a welcome return to see Dong-won back in the type of role he’s been absent from for over a decade. As the grandson of a village shaman Dong-won’s character shuns the superstitious beliefs that should be a prerequisite for his occupation, instead using psychiatry as a way to ensure his clients are left feeling any bad luck they were suffering from has been absolved.
However when their latest client arrives insisting her sister has been possessed, it puts Dong-won and the demonic shaman he’s been seeking in each other’s cross hairs, presenting the chance to finish what his grandfather started all those years ago, and lock the demon away in a sacred talisman for good. Played by Huh Joon-ho (Escape from Mogadishu, Volcano High), whose long hair makes him look like he just stepped out of the early 2000’s, his real reason for possessing the sister is to gain access to Dong-won’s latest client. Played by Esom (Kill Boksoon, Man on High Heels), her characters ability to see ghosts and demons make her eyes a prized possession that Joon-ho is after to consolidate his dark powers, which ultimately sees her and Dong-won come together to banish Joon-ho for good.
While all of this sounds like it could explore some dark The Wailing-esque territory on paper, onscreen the scenarios are handled with a light touch, and there’s no mistaking that D.CatLT (as I’ll refer to if from here on in) has been designed as a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. The directorial debut of Kim Seong-sik, after spending most of his career as a member of the directing department on various productions, in more recent years he’s stepped up to be an assistant director on the likes of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave.
The Parasite connection is significant, as in the opening scene we meet Dong-won and his assistant (played by Lee Dong-hwi – The Call, Confidential Assignment) visiting their latest clients, a mother and father who believe that their moody teenage daughter must be under the spell of an evil spirit. The parents in question are played by Park Myung-hoon (On the Line, Deliver Us from Evil) and Lee Jung-eun (Miss Baek, A Taxi Driver), who also play the couple responsible for Parasite’s biggest twist (which I won’t spoil here for anyone that’s still yet to see it!). The scene hilariously parodies their role in Bong Joon-ho’s award winning production, including the recreation of a famous line, setting an intentionally playful tone for what’s to come.
For the most part director Seong-sik delivers on the promise, maintaining an entertaining balance of comedic bantering, occasional action, and mild horror for its punchy 95-minute runtime. Fan service is apparent, with the casting of popular K-pop group Blackpink’s Jisoo cameoing as a divine goddess (minus any lines), who shares a scene with Park Jung-min (Time to Hunt, Keys to the Heart) as the shaman that entertainingly channels her presence.
On the action front a standout sequence has Dong-won and Esom attempting to escape a village on foot, while Joon-ho uses his powers to possess the villagers and stop them any way he can. Limited to only being able to possess one person at a time, and up against Dong-won’s spirit banishing sword, it’s an entertainingly kinetic sequence that sees Joon-ho hopping from one body to another in quick succession as the pair try to get out alive. Kudos also goes to the action design for the entertaining use of the way the possession device is utilised, with at one point Joon-ho dis-possessing a particularly burly villager so that his lifeless body collapses on top of Dong-won, pinning him to the ground (the same villager later recreates Jackie Chan’s ‘Rumble in the Bronx’ water-skiing finale, only swap out the hovercraft and sea for a pickup truck and the road).
The brisk pace is maintained throughout, although the cost is that there are likely some scenes sitting on the cutting room floor that would have helped flesh out some of the finer details, ones that that in D.CatLT’s current form are left largely unexplained. Joon-ho has a small group of followers who assist him in his dastardly deeds, and even though some of them get more screen time than others, ultimately we don’t get to know anything about them like why they’re following him or who they are as characters. Similarly for Dong-won himself, in an early scene when a character mentions how his grandfather used to be the shaman for the village, everyone tenses up to imply it’s a sensitive topic that should never be mentioned, however beyond the one scene it’s never touched upon again.
Considering the lightweight nature of such a production though these are hardly gripes that should be dwelled upon, and as a first-time director Seong-sik paces the narrative well, creating a sense of momentum that build-ups up to the final showdown between Dong-won and Joon-ho. It’s a shame then that the showdown itself is somewhat of a let-down, relaying on an underwhelming sword duel between the pair that feels distinctly uninspired, before segueing into an overly long CGI driven spectacle involving the talisman itself. While the sequence doesn’t do anything wrong as such, considering the lightness of touch that’s permeated the narrative so far, the finale feels like it’s taking itself a little too seriously (and there’s only so many shots of a CGI chain that an audience can take before it starts to get a little dull).
While I’m not familiar with the webtoon, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a post-credits sequence lays the groundwork for a sequel, which basically exists to bring Esom into the fold of the team. While it’s debatable if D.CatLT will be the franchise starter it intends to be, what can’t be denied is that for the most part it achieves it purpose of being an entertaining family friendly blockbuster. Personally I’d much prefer to see Dong-won return for a 2nd round of Taoism mayhem as Joon Woo Chi, but the Korean film industry is in a very different place in 2023 to what it was in the late 2000’s, when sequels to any production seemed to be a rarity.
For those familiar with Korean cinema Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman is an easy recommendation if you’re a fan of Gang Dong-won. His role is almost like a best of from many of the previous characters he’s played, with the swordplay elements from the likes of The Duelist and Kundo: Age of the Rampant, mixed in with the superstitious elements of The Priests, and the same conman charm that was on display in A Violent Prosecutor. For everyone else, if you’re in the mood for an undemanding 95 minutes that flies by, you can certainly do far worse. It’ll be interesting to see what direction director Kim Seong-sik heads in next now that his debut is in the bag.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10