April 30, 2008

Arang: The High-falutin' Physics of Fear

Will science rescue horror or destroy it? Ahn Sang-hoon's Arang (2006) supports both sides of the argument. Anti-modern mystics will insist that the explaining of how the murders "actually" happened just makes the bloodshot-eyed ghost feel superfluous. Fact freaks will argue that the problem with Arang is that the ghost never should have been there to begin with. Who's right? Would this atmospheric (i.e., intermittently boring) movie have fared better if it had left the spirit of the raped teenage girl at the grave and built up some crazy theory involving the incriminating properties of NaCl? (That's salt for you ignoramuses.) Or is Arang's one chance at being effectively creepy to strip it of logic and to have a vengeful poltergeist wreaking havoc with a causality limited to "I'm angry; hence, I kill." Neither bias would've saved the film in the end. Too much of Arang is too familiar: the tinkly piano music that means childhood innocence-turned-evil, the long, tangled black hair of the bogeywoman who if she was played by the same actress in all these Asian fright flicks would be richer than Croesus (and by this point would demand a new 'do). Does blonde hair have no scares? Where are the bald succubi?

April 20, 2008

Untold Scandal: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Some stories bear repeating. Such is the case with Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the oft-adapted epistolary novel of romantic deceit. I've seen the jazzy French movie adaptation with Jeanne Moreau; the stately American one with Glenn Close; and now this polished Korean version set at the close of the Chosun Dynasty of the 18th century. I like it every time. I've always believed that it never hurts to know the ending of a story beforehand because if the tale is well-told you'll still keep wondering what comes next. Spoilers are for secondary works of art. There's also a perverse pleasure that accompanies knowing what's ahead and riding the tension caused by not knowing how you're going to get there. In short, if you think you already know this story, you kind of do and you kind of don't. Performed as a costume drama with all the crazy wigs and silken garments any girl could ask for, Untold Scandal has the predestination of a Greek tragedy, the philosophical learning of The Art of Seduction, and enough deadpan faces for a poker tournament. Love might be the ultimate game but it's also a dangerous one in which the most consumate players are fated to end up losers.

April 12, 2008

Guns & Talks: Hitting All the Wrong Notes

There was a point midway through this awful buddy comedy (co-starring Lee Seo-jin) about hired killers when I wondered whether Guns & Talks would work better as a musical. As the young narrator (a bee-stung lipped Won Bin) waxed philosophical about the transformative power of love, I thought maybe this wouldn't be so unbearable if it were sung to a catchy tune. A later scene in which Shakespeare was shouted by actors in an avant garde production of Hamlet had me thinking: Yes! Yes! And here director Jang Jin could use Verdi's operatic version of the tragedy instead! But even that idea grew tired as the clock ticked away and my drifted to whether the toilet needed cleaning or the dog brushing and so on. Subplots involving a pretty newscaster, a smitten high school student, and one of the unlikeliest abortion strategies that I can recall never got overly complicated but they didn't add much to the experience either. The one surprise about Guns & Talks was Cantonese was the default language on the DVD even though the film is Korean. A background soundtrack lifted from a bad seventies porno movie meant no matter whether the actors were dubbed or speaking in their native tongue, the dialogue always sounded out of tune.

April 3, 2008

3-Iron: Return of the Silent Movie

Kim Ki-duk is no lover of dialogue. His favorite characters are the ones who keep their mouths shut. In 3-Iron, he's got two like that. The first (Lee Hyun-kyoon) is a drifter who crashes at temporarily empty apartments where he does the laundry and rigs booby traps. The second (Lee Syeung-yeon) is an abused housewife looking for an alternative to the black eye and the fat lip. Once they've met, they're a match made in heaven. But before earthly bliss is theirs longterm, they'll have to surmount police brutality, an incriminating digital camera, golfing accidents, and all those pesky talkers. For Kim Ki-duk film, there's not dialogue so much as monologues told to those who listen. That the two main characters are both listeners means huge stretches pass by with nary a word. Admittedly, it often feels implausible -- does no one in Korea have friends water their plants when they're on vacation? -- but if realism is your cup of green tea, you're drinking from the wrong pot here. Kim is out to create a shadow universe to ours. That the transient has attained an odd living ghosthood while in prison is a way of saying that maybe reality isn't just the hard facts and the words that describe them. Maybe what's left unsaid is what's important.