March 29, 2008

Public Enemy: Why Cops Are Tops in Korea

Public Enemy epitomizes the best of Korean film. A certifiable noir masterpiece, Kang Woo-suk's adrenaline-pumping, fast-paced thriller is a cat-and-mouse game minus the cheese. Standing in for the mouse is sympathetic, slovenly Sol Kyung-gu as the dishonest cop about to rediscover his moral code. In the cat corner, we've got perverse pretty boy Lee Sung-jae as a soulless sociopath cut from the same cloth as American Psycho. But even before these two engage in their battle of wits and fists, the first few minutes before the title pack in more suspense and humor (favoring the former) than most crime movies do in two hours. I actually saw the sequel to this movie (Another Public Enemy) a number of years ago and remember liking it quite a bit. But the original's better: The dialogue crackles. The soundtrack rocks. And the chemistry between the performers suggest backstories you never really need to learn. While the jokes can get scatalogical (a man actually slips in his own shit), Public Enemy knows when to take matters seriously and when to turn the tension into titters. Supposedly, another Public Enemy is slated for 2008. Bring it on.

March 23, 2008

Spygirl: The Pleasure That Causes Shame

Don't listen to those liars!!! I would never recommend Spygirl to a friend under any condition. It's just a silly romantic comedy filled with pretty young things doing pretty dumb things at the Burger King. (This young cast is so cute that the notion that the "new girl" is the real beauty doesn't actually make any sense. This is what happens when you don't cast ugly people, folks!) Furthermore, you'd have to hold a gun to my head to get me to admit that I laughed at all the stupid antics of the central doofus or cried an actual tear when this selfsame guy massaged the feet of his love interest instead of jumping her in bed. Far from endorsing Spygirl, I'd say this was a slight, reckless piece of entertainment that perpetuates dangerous romantic comedy myths like stalking is cute, klutziness is adorable, and boring people will win you over if they simply persist long enough. That you might see the names of director Park Han-jun, screenwriter Ha Won-jun or teeniebopper Kong Yu in upcoming posts is simply a coincidence. My taste is much more sophisticated. Watching an attractive woman practice her martial arts on bourgeois boors might be fun but it's not enough to make a movie great.

March 16, 2008

Ban Gyeumryeon: Hello, My Concubines

Since Japanese invaders destroyed Korea's films from the early 20th century, a director like Kim Ki-young (who worked regularly through the eighties), can be deigned an Old Master simply because his early work dates to the second beginning. If his torrid Ban Gyeumryeon is any indicator, that's like elevating Roger Corman to the status of D.W. Griffith or Orson Welles. (Not such a terrible idea, really, is it?) Created in 1975 then banned until 1981, the aforementioned, convoluted costume drama about a salt merchant and his Darwinian harem plays like Asia's answer to Hammer Films. Pretty women scheme and scream; men cackle crazily or feel up the ladies through fancy silks; cameras scan latticework or zoom in meaningfully to compensate for bad acting; footage of a slow-moving river is inserted (and occassionally tinted) as if a repeated symbol could gain meaning by not having any real meaning at all. But this isn't some museum piece of melodrama or an unintentional symbolist drama. It's much more fun than that. In Kim's universe, cats kill babies and faithful wives love their husbands even after death and decapitation. In a world where recycling has become a necessity, let's take the time to give trash the respect it deserves.

March 15, 2008

The Isle: Shut Up and Mystify Us Already

Why do mute characters often register as innocent? Samantha Morton in The Sweet Low Down, Joe Morton in Brother From Another Planet, etc. all feel incapable of base emotions simply because they're unable to cuss out loud. Which is what makes the female lead (Suh Jung) of Kim Ki-duk's The Isle so disquieting. She may feel childlike in her silences but she's also as amoral as they come, a verifiable serial killer who'll murder caged birds, fellow prostitutes, or punky pimps just to make a simple point: Listen to me, goddamnit! (Metaphorically speaking, that is.) That humpy policeman on the run doesn't have a chance at escaping her motel of boxy houseboats once she's stuck a handful of fishhooks in that place where his worm has been. But to Kim's credit, The Isle isn't a romance of societal rejects any more than it's a character study about a kooky mass murderer. For me, The Isle was a surrealist's battle of the sexes, an anti-sentimentalist's icky look at love, a swamp-dweller's facts of life. When the tiny yellow houseboat drifts out to sea near the end of the movie, its not just a renegade vehicle, it's a lost soul. Chalk this one up as a film whose weirdness is inextricably bound to its greatness.

March 8, 2008

The President's Last Bang: Contemporary History as a Lark

If you're looking for story, The President's Last Bang isn't for you. (No matter that it's a retelling of the 1979 assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee.) If you're looking for over-the-top violence, Im Sang-soo's movie probably isn't for you either. (Only the climax with killers shooting dead and live bodies alike will please you.) But if you're looking for great cinematography, Kim Woo-hyung's glossy de Palma images will delight you. Wait a sec. Does anyone love cinematography that much? It took me a week to sit through this with its snippets of absurdist dialogue, beautiful camerawork of hallways and conference rooms, quirky slapstick moments that improbably make it seem more real, and of course the impeccable menswear. If this had been a web-based series doled out in five minute increments, I would have loved it. Could you force me to sit through 102 minutes straight in a theater? Sure. The Last Bang would work better bigger. I'm guessing that if you knew the history here a priori it would benefit your experience too. There's a certain nothing's-happening-here early on that indicates that we should already know what's transpired. Think of this as a stylishly projected form of Cliff's Notes.

March 1, 2008

Wishing Stairs: This One's (Not) for the Fat Girls

Now that makeup artists are obsessed with making ingenues look like walking whales, the roles for obese actresses are fewer than ever before. But contrary to the art department's claims, these pretty young things never look like real fat people. They look like women in fat suits topped by faces plumped up and disfigured by putty. It was true for Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal. It was true for Eddie Murphy in Norbit. And it's true for Jo An in Wishing Stairs. This makeover movement has no color boundaries! In Yun Jae-yeon's freaky fable about a staircase that grants wishes, the faux fat girl (who wishes--can you guess it?--to lose weight) simply finds her true self post-transformation. Lee Soyoung's script may insist that she's now totally bonkers but she looked crazy beforehand, too. Who walks around in a padded dress and adds prosthetic blubber to her neck? To actress Jo An's credit, she keeps her fat mannerisms when she's skinny but nowadays with all the makeover shows, why not just hire a XL tween and then really have her lose the weight? Anyway, that's the subplot. The central (slim) story is about two (slim) ballet students who are in love and in competition. Kind of fun actually.