Labour is cheap in Korea, at least when it comes to animation, and as such, the Korean animation industry has traditionally been best known for contract work, producing animation and layouts for Saturday morning animated shows and sitcoms like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Because of this, Korea has garnered something of an unsavoury reputation when it comes to animation, being seen as little more than a cheap source for poor quality overseas work.
Wonderful Days is a very unusual product, and not just because it is one of the few animated films to be entirely developed in Korea. It is a combination of traditional hand-drawn animation, computer graphics and miniatures. Touted by many as the "best Korean anime ever", in reality it is an extremely ambitious but flawed movie.
The basic premise behind the movie is that civilisation has been more or less obliterated by war and pollution, and only a shielded city named Ecoban survives. Ecoban is run by a tight military organisation which makes use of pollution in order to provide energy, and its people have never seen a blue sky. This concept makes so little sense that it is easy to draw parallels with The Matrix and its equally idiotic idea of human energy being harvested for power.
The story is told from the point of view of Jay, one of the leaders of the security unit. When she was a child, her first love, Shua, promised her that one day they would see a clear blue sky. Now, years after his supposed death, he returns to Ecoban as part of a terrorist organisation known as the Hot Dogs, determined to fulfil his promise.
In truth, the storyline is very confusing and is not developed well at all. The visuals convey a lot of atmosphere, but that's about it. We get that Ecoban is a despressing place and that it will be much nicer if the pollution is cleared up, but never once do we really care about it or any of the characters, who are all pretty soulless individuals. The plot is so irrelevant that I actually had to watch it twice before I even became aware of one. To make matters worse, director Moon-Saeng Kim even thought it would be fun to throw a tedious love triangle between Jay, Shua and security chief Simon into the mix.
The visuals are excellent, and in places breathtaking. Normally I am somewhat skeptical when people claim that the look of a film is jaw-dropping, but in this case it is most definitely true. The graphics are in places so astounding that for a moment you might forget that there is really very little substance behind them. The various panning shots of the exterior landscapes, complete with realistic weather elements, do an impressive job of making you feel as if you really are a part of this world. There is a massive amount of detail present in every shot, and the people who worked on it clearly invested a great deal of effort into making it look great. Prior to watching the film, I had my doubts as to whether the combination of 2D, 3D and miniatures would be successful, but for the most part it works very well, although the look of the 2D characters is not particularly attractive.
If this review seems a little short, then it's because I am not motivated to say very much about Wonderful Days. Much like the appalling Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it works much better as a technology demo than as a serious piece of filmmaking. The combination of different artistic elements is very good, and I would love to see it used again in the future, but I would have a hard time recommending Wonderful Days to anyone other than animation buffs or people who are particularly interested in Korean anime. Furthermore, the lack of an English dub, while not in my opinion a problem, is sure to put off casual viewers. The intent to make a groundbreaking film is definitely present, and visually at least it is successful, but in terms of plot, it is a serious let-down. In the end, therefore, although the visuals are excellent, I see no reason for anyone to seek this title out unless they are particularly curious about it.
Wonderful Days is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The original theatrical aspect ratio was 1.85:1, and that is what is listed on the packaging, but this small discrepancy doesn't seem worth splitting hairs about.
If not for a couple of small imperfections, this transfer would be getting full marks. The level of detail present is very good, particularly in the scenes using miniatures. Small details like raindrops are razor-sharp, and although this is a direct digital transfer, it avoids the flat, sterile look of DVDs such as A Bug's Life by having some artificial grain, and just generally being so full of detail and movement that its computerised origins are rarely apparent. Because the extras are housed on a second disc, there is ample room available for a high bit rate, and no compression artifacts are visible. This is definitely the most detail I have ever seen on a DVD, and beyond what I thought the format was capable of.
But there are problems. First of all, the edge enhancement is quite heavy. This is especially noticeable on the characters, who are animated in 2D. Their outlines are subject to some rather large halos, which are at times mildly distracting. Secondly, some of the colour gradients in the 2D animation are unnaturally banded, a bit like the effect you get when you save an image with lots of different shades at a low colour depth. I also noticed this effect on Disney's DVD of Treasure Planet, so this would appear to be a problem related to direct digital transfers.
Some of the 2D animation has also been encoded interlaced, which is a pain for viewers with progressive scan equipment, as the transfer alternates between progressive and interlaced. Thankfully, the level of detail is so high that it is possible for computer users to leave the deinterlacing mode set to Bob and not lose too much detail. On a normal television, the interlacing is not an issue and the whole thing looks genuinely superb.
Two Korean tracks are included: one in Dolby Digital 5.1 and the other in DTS 5.1. The DTS track is definitely the better of the two, with noticeably superior channel separation and bass effects. In fact, the DTS track could easily become my new benchmark track, as it is of reference quality level in every way. The use of multi-channel effects is absolutely amazing, going far beyond that of most live action films. The chase sequence in Chapter 18 is one of the best demonstrations of surround sound that I have ever heard.
It is worth pointing out that, unless you can understand Korean, you will be watching this film with subtitles. While they are, for the most part, error-free, they are extremely large and could be quite distracting. With that in mind, I recommend watching the film through at least twice: once with subtitles, to gain an understanding of the story, and again without, to appreciate the sumptuous artwork.
The menus are nicely designed and themed with background animation and music from the film. Unfortunately, the transitions are a little long, especially the introductory animation to each disc, and somewhat irritatingly they cannot be skipped.
The packaging is very nicely designed indeed: a dual amaray inside a cardboard slip. Unfortunately, the slip is far too tight, making it quite difficult to get the amaray out. This might seem like a trivial thing to mention, but it is quite irritating, especially given that the exquisitely designed packaging could become damaged if you are not careful when extracting the amaray.
This is definitely the most difficult aspect of this release for me to review, since I don't speak Korean and am therefore in no position to evaluate either the audio commentary or the spoken information conveyed in the behind-the-scenes documentary. Therefore, this aspect of the review is going to be patchy at best, and I am simply rating the extras based on their worth to a non-Korean speaker, rather than attempting to provide any definitive information as to their quality.
All the extras apart from the commentary are housed on the second disc.
Audio commentary - The commentary features director Moon-Saeng Kim, CGI supervisors Young-Min Park and Sung-Ho Hong, digital colourist Mee Jung, production designer Soug-Youn Lee and animation director Young-Ki Yoon. Unsurprisingly, this is all in Korean and thus I am in no position to evaluate it, but judging by what I listened to, there did not seem to be any moments of silence or hesitation. In the unlikely event that you can fluently understand Korean, I would assume that this is a decent commentary track.
Making of documentary - This 50-minute documentary is a look at just about every aspect of the behind-the-scenes work on the film, and despite it being in Korean with no English subtitles, it is still a fascinating piece of work. By far the most interesting material is that pertaining to the filming of the miniatures. There are a number of segments which are simply comprised of people talking to the camera, but this is counter-balanced by plenty of footage showing animation, ink and paint, the recording of sound effects and work on the musical score. My only complaint here is that the material pertaining to the hand-drawn animation is quite brief, and we are not given much of a look at the actual animating process beyond a few very short clips of people drawing.
The documentary is broken into various sections that can either be played all at once or separately.
Production notes - The production notes are, of course, all in Korean, so I am unable to evaluate them. From what I can gather, they are an extremely exhaustive account of the film's production from inception to release.
Gallery - Various galleries are included, showing material such as painted backgrounds, designs for weapons and vehicles, storyboard sketches and miniatures.
Promotional material - Three trailers are included, presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The quality is not quite as good as that of the film itself, but is still impressive for supplemental material.
Also included are a music video and a small number of poster design concepts.
Filmmakers - This is the usual collection of crew biographies.
I do not consider Wonderful Days to be the kind of film that will appeal to anyone other than serious animation enthusiasts, and even within that interest bracket I think it will have a hard time being accepted, particularly among people who prefer the look of Disney, Warner or Cartoon Network. The desire to make an outstanding film is visible in every single frame, but the end result is disappointing. The image quality is superb for the most part, and the audio is truly groundbreaking. It is a little hard to rate the extras since I don't speak Korean, but even without audio the behind-the-scenes material gives you an interesting look at the film's production. Overall, this would be a worthwhile purchase for animation fans and curiosity-seekers, but this is not an essential purchase for your average man on the street.