Story: During Japanese colonial rule, in the year 1944, the legendary 3000 carat diamond "Light of the East"
is found in Korea. This precious gem is to be taken to Japan by their military. However, this turns out to be quite
a task as several thieves and random crooks are also after the diamond. One of these is the ever stylish and handsome
con man and adventurer Oh Bong-goo (Park Yong-woo), who is quite diligent in his planning to acquire the diamond.
Unfortunately, the famed thief Haedanghwa, none other than the jazz singer Choon-ja (Lee Bo-yeong), repeatedly gets
in his way. While these two are trying to lay exclusive claim on the coveted treasure, the military and military
police, led by the cold-blooded Yamada (Kim Su-hyeon), are quite set on retrieving the diamond, no matter the cost.
A few more participants in the form of two rebels belonging to the Korean independence movement decide to join the
dangerous game not only in order to steal the gem, but also to eliminate the leader of the Japanese military.
Review: It is quite a pity to see an Asian film that just as well could have been produced in Hollywood.
Doesn't the Asian movie audience want to see something new and refreshingly different? Of course we know that even
in Korea, good screenplays don't grow on trees, however, are we wrong to expect more than a corny, stereotyped
adventure built around a huge diamond, with the usual lovable thieves and evil government authorities? But maybe
I'm doing "Once upon a Time" an injustice in that, besides having a strong flair of popcorn and coke and a story
that oftentimes just sits in one spot, not unfolding at all, the director Jeong Yong-ki, whose past works include
"Marrying the Mafia III" and "Doll Master", does try to enhance the film by setting it during the time of Japanese
occupation. This may give the film that little extra something, especially since all patriotic displays are presented
with a little wink of the eye, but it doesn't change the inherent artificiality of the film.
"Once upon a Time" is a pure entertainment flick. This becomes clear in the very first minutes, as the story around the artifact is presented Indiana-Jones-style, which will be the focus of the rest of the movie. Shortly after, the optimistic and light-hearted characters are introduced, who will continue to seemingly dance across the screen for the remainder of the film. The characters' all-around high spirits might be contagious, but when we look again it becomes clear that this film doesn't really have all that much to offer, which is why it has to rely on conveying a positive mood. Finally, and especially due to a squandering use of the soundtrack, that underlines many of the slapstick scenes a bit too strongly, this film can get quite annoying. Even more when it becomes obvious that there isn't even one character with whom we could really identify ourselves, as all of them are quite bland in their own way.
There is plenty of humor in "Once upon a Time", but even while some of the jokes hit our funny bone just right, most of them are kept on a low, slapstick comedy level that can also get on your nerves. The owner of the jazz bar and the cook are premium examples, two freedom fighters who try to serve their country and always end up looking like complete idiots doing it. Especially, their staged comedic dialogs, thrown in randomly and quite time-consuming, are only able to coax an irritated sigh from the audience.
That brings us to dialog in general. These happen to be incredibly unimaginative, cliched and oftentimes form an insult to the audience's mental capabilities. Unfortunately, this movie also runs around in circles a few times, which forces us to notice that the story isn't progressing and there is no recognizable main plot. Everyone is just extremely preoccupied with running after a diamond.
Director Jeong can't even save his film from mediocrity by incorporating a limited amount of twists. Even the bad guy, Yamada, who is really Korean by birth but has sworn loyalty to Japan in his heart, seems like just another second rate crook. And this is where the secret strength of the film could have lied. But the difficult relationship between Korea and the Japanese occupants is left untouched thematically. This isn't really surprising, however, because even though "Once upon a Time" does have one or two serious moments (there are even a few deaths, even though they don't really fit the mood of the film very well), the emphasis seems to be on propagating a turn-off-brain-sit-back-and-relax mentality.
Later on the story even becomes slightly political, but only to upgrade the already vapid plot. Towards the end the main focus seems to have shifted towards the Korean wish for independence, but the insincere introduction of this idea makes it unconvincing from the beginning.
Praise goes to the set design and costume departments, for creating such a fabulous picture of Korea during the 40s, even if they are enhanced with fantasy elements, proven by the modern pop songs sung in the jazz bar. But even if "Once upon a Time" is an adventure film and thereby entitled to a bit of fantasy, that doesn't excuse some of the incredibly stupid scenes we are presented with. With that I don't even mean the entire army shooting at a single man and not hitting once, a must-have in any Hollywood movie after all, but tough Haedanghwa, who, just after having shown off her awe-inspiring martial arts skills, is degraded to the helpless little girl that gets kidnapped. This is only a small example of the inconsistency of the film.
"Once upon a Time" is disappointing on several levels. The film proves to be so inconsequential, the characters so one-dimensional and the story so artificial that the viewer never finds a way into the film. The huge pictures may scream "entertainment", but this is hard to come by, especially since even good action scenes are lacking. So dear Korea, next time please leave the popcorn-flicks to the guys in Hollywood. After all, they have decades of experience....