Hi, Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul is a very funny fish out of water tale that elaborates the monks vs gangsters concept in more entertaining and interesting directions than its novel but uneven precursor.
While the first film began to drag after a ripping beginning, the sequel carries a more adroitly paced plot that keeps upping the ante throughout. The comparative difference in story structure becomes apparent in each story’s use of a thought puzzle. The original introduces a problem (how to fill a leaking pot with water) that one of the gangster’s solves very quickly, all in one scene and with limited meaningful impact. In the sequel, one of the monk’s is given a dilemma (return a bunch of spilled marbles to a container … without touching them) that isn’t solved until the conclusion — when it suddenly throws the film’s major theme into relief: work together, not as one.
This time around, the filmmakers have also succeeded in aiming for consistently good-natured comedy between the monks and gangsters. The martial arts action is wisely limited in favour of deeper character development and zanier situations. The funniest moments are the simplest: ever wondered how a monk serving a vow of silence might express his jubilation at winning the lottery?
While seeing the original first is a good idea, something to learn from the Hi, Dharma films is that the ‘stupid gangsters trapped in a reclusive monastery’ premise, hilarious thought it is, doesn’t quite encourage the empathy that ‘naive monks lost in a sprawling metropolis’ does. Since this is ultimately not just a confrontation between men with divergent attitudes, but a more personal and social struggle between bad (corruption, greed) virtues and positive (cooperation, trust) capabilities that we all possess, there’s something universal at work here that many of us can relate to. While one of the better Korean films of 2004, it might be worth noting that Hi, Dharma 2 doesn’t feel very specifically Korean at all.