A King Is Born In ‘Warriors Of The Dawn’

If any South Korean film genre came a dime a dozen, it would be the historical blood fest, stories of commoners rising to greatness and of powerful kings fallen by greed.  

“Warriors of the Dawn,” a Jung Yoon-cheol effort which hit select North American theaters last Friday, turns the familiar tale upside down, aided by Lee Jung-jae’s moral compass-wielding soldier and by Yeo Jin-goo, whose reluctant prince’s path to realized conviction for his place in the world lies at the heart of the pic.

The tale starts in the 1590s, during Japan’s invasion of the Korean peninsula. Gun-wielding Japanese soldiers are massacring villages left and right as they look to bring down the royal family, slicing off commoners’ noses as a counting measure as they do. The king abandons his country in favor of seeking refuge, and back-up, in neighboring China, leaving his teenage bastard son, Crown Prince Gwanghae (Yeo), to act in his place at the war’s front lines by reaching the general and gathering able bodies for battle.

Lee Jung-jae, center, and Kim Moo-yeol, left, are proxy soldiers in "Warriors of the Dawn." (Courtesy photo)
Lee Jung-jae, center, and Kim Moo-yeol, left, are proxy soldiers tasked with protecting the Crown Prince in “Warriors of the Dawn.” (Courtesy photo)

The crown prince is joined in a long and arduous trek through the steep mountainside by his political advisers (old beards seeking to maintain the status quo) and his guard Yang-sa (Bae Soo-bin), and protected by a band of proxy soldiers. Most are men looking to feed their families by fighting in others’ stead, seen as easy replacements in the eyes of the wealthy. They’re led by the charismatic To-woo (Lee) and Gok-soo (Kim Moo-yeol), who share the proxies’ contempt for what they believe is a kingship that has failed to adequately serve the good of his country. 

Gwanghae, who receives his sudden title with unwilling fear, seems at first as pointlessly decorative as the heavy man-powered carriage in which he sits as the rest of his entourage struggles against nature’s stairs. When that carriage is smashed into pieces against rocks, he is quite literally forced to stand on his own feet and, perhaps for the first time in his life, carry his own weight.


A direct translation of the film’s Korean title is “Proxy Soldier,” a fitting description not just of To-woo and his men but of Gwanghae. If To-woo & Co. are throwaway substitutes for use by those with money, then Gwanghae is the proxy king, a disposable card. It takes a bit of wisdom from To-woo, who begins to see in the young royal a more decent king than his father, as well as a show of goodwill from group of common-class refugees, for Gwanghae to realize that he is not his father’s expectations of certain defeat but his own leader, proxy be damned. What defines him now is how he serves and protects his people.

Gwanghae soon finds loyalty from To-woo, who chooses in a crucial moment to stay by his side. When the Japanese advance on to a fortress behind which our heroes stand in defense, the dead-weight we started with is gone. The crown prince lifts his bow and arrows and fights alongside his men — and a true king is born.

With action — and there’s plenty of it — taking a second seat to steady character development, what emerges from “Warriors” is a fresh take on what could be an old-and-done story.

(Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)

A strong cast and lush cinematography sees the film through its 130-minute runtime, though much of it lies on the shoulders of Lee and Yeo. The pair play off each other well, unlikely mentor and uneasy royal, bolstered in large part by an impressionable performance by Yeo, who at 19 years old is one of South Korea’s finest young talents.

Yeo played another royal, King Yeongjo, in the historical K-drama “Jackpot” last year, and currently stars in the modern-day sci-fi series on tvN, “Circle.”

Lee, a veteran movie star, was last seen in North American theaters for “Operation Chromite,” another historical pic (that one about the Battle of Incheon during the Korean War) last year, and has led box office monsters like “Assassination,” “The Face Reader” and “New World.”

“Warriors” was a local production by Hollywood’s Fox International Productions. At Cannes, it was pre-sold to a handful of territories, including Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan and New Zealand.

Find more information on the film at facebook.com/WarriorsoftheDawn.


This is a sponsored post.