Review by Daniel Lima
The core appeal of urban fantasy is seeing the veil between the fantastic and mundane pierced, the shackles of modernity shattered by forces once considered part of the fabric of the world — as crucial as air and water. In its best moments, Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman leans into that appeal, forcing its characters to contend with a reality that encompasses far more than they imagined possible. In its worst, it loses the trees for the forest.
The film follows a “shaman” in modern South Korea — in actuality, a psychologist masquerading as an exorcist to bilk rich clients. Though the grandson of a great shaman himself, he quotes from the DSM-5, has a fancy office with his medical license proudly on display, and rationalizes his scams by saying he provides a mental health service to people convinced their problems must be supernatural. When he takes the case of a mysterious young woman, however, he finds that there might be more to his grandfather’s stories than he thought.
It’s hard not to be immediately charmed by Dr. Cheon. A Holmesian figure able to deduce much about a family’s life from the barest glance around their home, he maintains the cool demeanor of a seen-it-all occult detective, even when his assumptions about the world are disproved. Gang Dong-won makes for a capable lead, able to wordlessly get across a range of emotion even in the heat of combat. The supporting cast is decent as well — particularly Lee Dong-hwi as his technically proficient assistant — but the movie is called Dr. Cheon after all.
For the first half hour, the film affects a playful tone, building up the life of the doctor and his charade to set up the moment it crumbles. As fun as watching the duo set up their subterfuge is, the incursion of the magical is exhilarating. Borrowing heavily from traditional mythological imagery, Dr. Cheon crafts a cosmology of sorcerers, spells, ghosts, and gods. The pace at which it introduces this mysticism is breakneck, and the unfolding tale feels every bit as mythic and epic as those the film takes inspiration from.
The effects work is simple by Hollywood standards, but makes up for it in both art design and how they are captured. Ghastly spectral hands reach out of the earth; an evil wizard works his mojo in an uncomfortable close-up; a dizzying camera and a dramatic palette signal a shift into another realm. There are even some surprisingly dramatic set pieces that utilize superpowers like possession and super strength directly into the choreography. As hampered by its budget as it could be, the film is brimming with imagination.
That imagination, however, is a double-edged sword. The fantasy elements may be the main draw, but the lore ultimately ends up overwhelming the character work. Most of the runtime is simply exposition detailing how magic works, the various abilities of different figures, the backstory of Dr. Cheon and the villain. While the cast remains engaging throughout, their inner lives and how they personally come to terms with the wild events going on around them take a backseat to establishing the world. This is an adaptation of a webcomic, presumably with the intent of starting a franchise, and by the film’s climax, it does feel more like setup for another story than a satisfying story in its own right.
When there is such ingenuity and a unique identity on display, however, that is easy enough to overlook. While more focus on its ensemble would have been appreciated, Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman is still a breezy and fun otherworldly adventure. Hopefully, any future installments will spend more time exploring the characters, deepening their connection to the supernatural. Barring that, some more spell-slinging action wouldn’t hurt.
Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman is now in theaters.