August 31, 2008

Le Grand Chef: Cooking Up Something Special

Is there a dependable recipe for making a comedy? Le Grand Chef will have you thinking so. Director Jeon Yun-su's feel-good hit sticks to a tried-and-true formula that's served everyone from Frank Capra to Ron Howard. And it's so simple! Gather together some beloved types: the loyal grandson (Kim Kang-woo), a saucy ingenue (Lee Ha-na), the amoral rival (Lim Won-hie) dating back to childhood. Toss them into an equally classic story about a working class Joe who must compete with a citified poseur for the title of greatest chef. Spice it up with wacky subplots involving a charcoal-maker on death row, a cow that cries, the death of a one-armed royal chef, and the search for the perfect Ramen. Stir. Serve warm...and fuzzy. Since this is a Korean romantic comedy, there's no shortage of sugary moments. By the same token, there are episodes of outright violence as well as slapstick. (The uninterrupted gutting and skinning of a live blowfish is shown not once but twice up close.) Throughout, cooking is presented via split screens as if it were the national sport of Korea. Maybe it is. Who wouldn't vote for BBQ over Tae Kwon Do? Only fools who don't find Le Grand Chef deletectable.

Epitaph: A Few Final Words on the Death of Narrative

They may do it with a bloody knife (and a bloody scalpel and a bloody skewer) but the Jung Brothers spread the Art on so thick for Epitaph, their feature debut, that they also wipe the scares clean off the screen. As you await the next tastefully staged composition (and you will have to wait), you'll be doubtlessly questioning whether this really is a horror pic or simply a ghost story in which all dead people are cursed to become cryptic symbols instead of creepy spooks at the picturesque hospital. That distraught tween patient who bursts into screams periodically isn't frightened; she's confounded by the snail's pace of the experience (and the recurring snail imagery) as well as the outright theft of Bernard Hermann's signature Psycho screeching sounds. Esthetes may swoon over the tableaux vivants staged in front of sliding screens or the artsy ways in which blood flows over tile or onto snow. Yet for those too, a caveat: It's hard to stay awake. A snoozer if ever there was one, Epitaph's final revelation that the man possessed by the spirit of his dead wife is actually the woman possessed by the spirit of her dead husband inspires yawns of horror. D.O.A. R.I.P.

August 27, 2008

Musa - The Warriors: Once Upon a Time in 1375 A.D.

You can call it an historical epic, a period war movie, a Medieval costume drama, or an Oriental homage to Peckinpah. You could also call it a horror flick in disguise. How's that? Well, Kim Sung-su's suspenseful Musa - The Warriors can go bucket for bucket with many a slasher film plus its combat scenes are filmed in today's reigning jittery style. Heads fly off when you least expect it; red sprays from throats, bellies, backs, eye sockets, severed limbs and mouths wrenched in pain. More thrilling than chilling, Musa - The Warriors furthermore follows a typical genre thread by connecting all carnage by way of psychotic pursuers. The runaway princess (Zhang Ziyi) rescued by Korean envoys disrespected by the Ming dynasty to which she belongs are stalked, hunted, and taunted by various bloodthirsty Mongols ready to resort to any means necessary to get the girl. Too bad for the bad guys, the general (Ju Jin-mo) has eyes for the noblewoman. Too bad for the general, so does a slave (Jung Woo-sung). By the time these two reconcile their differences, any hope for survival has been obliterated. Like any good fright flick, the one warrior to get out alive (Ahn Sung-kee) sails out alone in the shadow of hopelessness. Genius!

August 24, 2008

Spare: Bad Luck, Bad Script, Bad Hair

By the time he hit the editing room, director Lee Seong-han presumably knew that Spare would fall short as a work of art. But rather than leave his reels in dusty tins on a high shelf in some forgotten closet, he dressed up his movie with fancy opening credits, pointless jump cuts and periodic dialogue in which an unseen audience reacts a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. (To Lee's credit, the fake viewers are as indifferent as you're gonna be.) Strippped of these embellishments, Spare is basically an action film oddly short on action. Most of its 98 minutes build to fight scenes that keep being delayed. What's weird is how often violence is promised: A cigar clipper stands ready to snip off fingers but doesn't; a ninja sword is unsheathed yet no one is stabbed. The two irresponsible gamblers at center are constantly under a gun that never fires. A punch in the face is as gruesome as the big battles get. More offensive are a turquoise-and-purple striped carpet in the airport and a shellacked ducktail hairdo that prevents you from taking the Japanese lead seriously. A strange two-piece suit with a metalic pin-stripe will leave you screaming, "Spare me!" Is that what Spare means?

August 23, 2008

Open City: Operatic Excesses and Petty Crimes

"The Rigoletto of Korean film," is how a friend described Sang Ki-lee's Open City and he's got a point for although not a single word is sung, this tragedy about a gang of violent pickpockets and the orphan-like policeman hot on their heels has enough big-moment melodrama, showy knife fights, and weepy orchestrations to justify the full Verdi treatment. (It even runs a little long!) In the colortura role, actress Song Ye-jin is the ultimate dragon lady—a ruthless beauty who hams it up for the camera as she slaps around her boys while wearing sparkly jewelry, slitted dresses, and stiletto heels. Is there anything more noir than a calculating woman with expensive sunglasses, a split lip and a cigarette? Yeah, just give her a fancy lighter. (She's got one.) True to the genre, she's faced with a male foil (Kim Myeong-min) who's a bit of a castrati; he doesn't have a shot in hell when faced with her wiles and he's way too chicken to take her up on an offer for a free tattoo. Complicating matters is a diabetic, splayfooted, reformed master criminal (Kim Hae-sook) who's also, coincidentally, the mother of the cop and the surrogate aunt to the femme fatale. Loyalties are tested. Blood is spilled...repeatedly. High notes are felt if never heard.

August 17, 2008

2009 Lost Memories: The Japanese Steal the Future

Of all the crimes against humanity, there are few worse than going back in time and changing history simply because you're ashamed you lost a war (unless that war is against robots). In the scifi action flick 2009 Lost Memories Japan, Korea's eternal nemesis, does nothing short of win WWII, nuke Berlin, and least forgivable of all, turn Korea into a Japanese colony—which at least isn't split into North and South halves because of internal conflicts. Masayuki Sakamoto (Jang Dong-kun) is going to change all that. A Korean member of the Japanese police, he stumbles upon a Korean patriotic faction that knows the secret of time travel and wants to return history on its proper track. That Japan will still emerge as a world power with Korea hardly its main commpetitor is a secondary concern. Sakamoto never thinks there might be away to exact revenge on Japan and really put them in the hot seat. He's happy enough to execute justice (and maybe his traitorous best friend, too while he's at it). Gun fire galore, a few exploding rockets, and some celebrational fireworks all add up to a body count that argues that you're better prepared in a nicely cut suit and a leather jacket than you are encased in armor because that just slows you down.

August 9, 2008

Three Extremes 2: A Short Film Takes Forever Times Three

The film shorts trilogy Three Extremes had work from China's Fruit Chan ("Dumplings"), Japan's Takashi Miike ("Box"), and most memorably Korea's Park Chan-wook ("Cut"). Three Extremes II has three mini-movies from Thailand's Nonzee Nimibutr ("The Wheel"), Hong Kong's Peter Ho-Sun Chan ("Going Home"), and Korea's Kim Ji-woon ("Memories"). Sadly, each of the new featurettes tries way too hard—albeit in a different way. Nimibutr's contribution has a gnarly narrative as if six different screenwriters had pitched an idea about a demonic puppet and the director had opted to do all of them instead of picking the best one. Chan's "Going Home" strains credulity as it constantly out-weirds itself with an out-there account of a naturopathic doctor who puts his wife in a coma to cure her cancer and administers acupuncture to a kidnapped cop while his aborted daughter's ghost roams the halls with the cop's missing son. Kim's featurette is the most disappointing—a pretentious, shapeless dreamscape in which a guy flashes back-and-forth between an amnesic state and a lived-out fantasy of murdering his wife. The highest praise any of these deserve is "laughable." Let the tittering begin.

August 2, 2008

Jail Breakers: Lame Prisoners on the Lam

There are bad comedies. And then there are god-awful ones. Kim Sang-jin's Jail Breakers falls squarely in the latter category. (This from the same director who brought us the delightful Attack the Gas Station!) A plodding chase movie in which two escaped convicts must find their way back into prison in order to get released properly for Amnesty Day, Jail Breakers is about as funny as solitary confinement. Part of the problem here is it's never clear why Convict 1 (matinee idol Cha Seung-won) wants to escape and whether Convict 2 (a braying Sol Kyung-gu) truly wants to return behind bars. Since the two actors don't exhibit any chemistry either, you're not only wondering why they're doing what they're doing but also why they're doing it with each other. Infinitely funnier (and more focused) is Convict 3 (Kang Seong-jin) who leads the insurrection back at the prison itself. Kang's performance is based on a theory of acting that advocates making a choice and sticking with it. Kang doesn't worry about dimensions, motivations or variation. He just bugs out his eyes and gets angry...over and over again. He can't quite stifle all the yawns but he at least keeps the movie from being a criminal waste of time.