December 29, 2007

Attack the Gas Station: It's a Gas Alright

I haven't had much luck with Korean comedies. So imagine how thoroughly tickled I was by Attack the Gas Station. It's not just that I laughed out loud a few times; it's that for the last half hour I couldn't stop smiling—maybe in part because that culturally freaky, ultraviolent slapstick was over. Attribute my unstoppable grin to Park Jeong-woo's screenplay, a script which understands exactly what makes a teen comedy great (even if the characters are a little older): The story has to begin by representing the rebellious spirit then end by presenting the less exuberant rewards of growing up. These four buddies—an artist, a rocker, an athlete, and a moron—are never meant to be realistic portrayals of disaffected youth on a criminal lark. They're comically instructive ones whose haircuts shorthand for character development and whose ability to change lives simply by being themselves borders on the magical. Director Kim Sang-jin (who also did Ghost House, another guilty pleasure) brings a nice sense of visual flair to the proceedings by opening a few scenes upside down or occasionally shooting from a corny POV. I don't fault him. Deep-seeded irreverence is Attack the Gas Station's greatest charm.

December 23, 2007

Samaritan Girl: Daddy's Sweetheart Is Doing It

When Samaritan Girl starts off, the plot is perfectly sordid. Two pretty young things are earning money to go to Europe by pimping the dumber one out as a prostitute. The sex is all in good fun though. For the never-met-a-guy-I-didn't-like-doing girl, whoring is a harmless way to meet new people and learn about their jobs. (He's nice. He's a musician!) But for the other, it's an increasing source of jealousy that must be assuaged with a lesbian spongebath. They're about ten customers shy of Paris (I assume) when the happy hooker leaps out the window to land on her numbskull head. Anything but prison! Subsequently, you'd think that her best friend forever was the one who'd had her brains rattled as she proceeds to contact all the former johns and get nasty (in a sweet way) then refunds their money. Cause and effect is not this movie's strong point. When the live girl's father—who happens to work in the Vice Squad—discovers his baby is peddling her booty, he can't find a way to talk to her about it probably because teens are so...difficult. So he stalks the customers. Director Kim Ki-duk won a Silver Bear for Samaritan Girl. I'm guessing this says reams about parent-child relationships in Germany.

December 16, 2007

301/302: What Really Counts for Women

It's hard not to imagine that scenarist Lee Suh-goon's 301/302 was inspired by a found box of papers by a now-dead radical feminist from the 1970s. The central thesis plays out between two single women who reside across the hall from each other and who conveniently represent diametrically opposed aspects of stifled personhood. In apartment 301 lives a divorcee (Bang Eun-jin) who loves to cook, eat, screw, scream, and be complimented. You'd say she was a carefree spirit if she hadn't cooked the family dog then fed it to her husband in a flashback. In apartment 302 lives an anorexic intellectual (Hwang Sin-hye) who hates sausage, was molested by her stepdad the butcher, and could probably resolve all that inner turmoil if her editor let her write in the first person for goodness sake. I kid you not. Eventually, the two become one as the food-fetishist makes a stew out of the grim-faced bulimic. I kept waiting for someone to say, "Eat me." No such luck. A little lesbianism would have gone a long way amid the psycho-symbolism. The closest we get is having the surviving tenant steal the starving tenant's smart bob of a hairstyle posthumously. Women can be so vindictive! Down with the patriarchy.

December 8, 2007

Phone: Dial "M" for Misbehavior

Adultery. Incest. Murder. There's a decent number of heinous crimes committed in Phone but the worst is not returning calls or text messages from loved ones. In Ahn Byeong-ki's technophobic ghost story, a spurned succubus exacts revenge on anyone unlucky enough to be assigned her cellphone number by delivering "calls for their death." What final utterance she relates into the ear piece is never made clear but it must be pretty terrible since a car crash, a ruined manicure, and an eye-gouging result. Eventually, she has the decency to concentrate her anger on those who actually led to her untimely demise but not before she's driven a sex-crimes reporter (Ha Ji-won) to the brink. Ha, a scream queen in Asia, is certainly believable as the next slated victim who doesn't change her number because she wants to get to the root of the story and demystify her hallucinogenic visions, yet Phone's real star is Eun Seo-woo as the little girl possessed by the avenging spirit. Eun is one of those creepy little kids who can look downright evil one second then sweet and charming the next. You're never sure whether you should feel bad for her or whether someone should hit her over the head with a brick. It's your call.

December 1, 2007

The Brotherhood of War: Boy's Life

I never considered that the love that dares not speak its name could be that between two brothers but such is the supposition of The Brotherhood of War, Kang Je-gyu's wacky war pic about two siblings drafted into service (and a weird battle of wills) during the Korean War. The opening sequence has the two young men feeding each other, sharing a popsicle, and fetishizing shoes. What with the string section in the background, you almost expect to see a class-usurping gay romance unfold before your disbelieving eyes. Instead, amid the prettily photographed explosions and hand-to-hand combat, what transpires is the making of a warrior—and a ruthless, bloodthirsty, wild-eyed one at that. Naturally, the younger, prettier sibling (Won Bin) is the conscience of the movie and the hunkier older one (Jang Dong-kun) is the fearless fighter. But the baby brother cries so much and seems so unappreciative of the butch one's self-sacrifices, perverse and self-aggrandizing as they might end up being, that you feel disappointed that the moralizer's head isn't blown off in some artful fashion with snow coming down from above and grenade-propelled dirt rising up from below. Can't blame communism for that.