September 27, 2008

Hera Purple - Devil Goddess: Mounting Olympus Again and Again

Didn't sexploitation go out in the '70s? Hasn't easy access to porn online made soft core obsolete? Apparently not. In Jeong Kil-chae's delightfully trashy Hera Purple (2001), one amnesiac rape victim (Kim Chang) goes under hypnosis then shifts shapes to seduce then castrate naked lithe young men doomed to perform a Kama Sutra of death for her revenge. She makes one man stand upside down, another do backbends, and a third do some serious gymastics in a door jamb, all in the name of the orgasm. A fourth (or is he the fifth?) copulates with her underwater with nary a breath. Her husband isn't killed coitus interruptus but afterwards, he does end up incoherent in the bathroom where he... Oh, it's absurd. This part you've got to see to believe. That said, a priest who tries to escape her magic touch (which causes instant arousal) can't run away once she's buried her face in his rear. Her final victim? Her psychiatrist. No. That's not true. It's the gay cop she takes from behind. The police detective who finally tracks her down turns out to be her long lost brother so his fatal gunshot is a bittersweet moment during which she sings a childhood ditty about a potato and a flower. Zeus protect us!

September 26, 2008

Bitter and Sweet: The Aftertaste of Fluorescent Lights

Film students sweating over an overdue term paper on appropriation should consider Bitter and Sweet the answer to their prayers. A prismatic comedy about office drones (Ahn Sung-kee, Choi Jong-won, Park Sang-min, Song Young-chang) who escape bleak reality via rebellious fantasies, Lee Myung-se's workplace satire overflows with easily identifiable references to Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Dr. Seuss, Singin' in the Rain, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty... The list goes on and on. It's not hard to imagine some happy undergraduate madly scribbling or typing all the ideas flooding his or her mind. Those not working on a thesis, however, will be less excited. Although intermittently amusing (a giggle, a chuckle, no laughs), Bitter and Sweet is more often overemphatic and under-rehearsed. There's nothing sublime about Lee's social critique and the acting is so unpolished you get the feeling that every scene was done in one shot with actors being handed scripts seconds before the clapper snapped and the director screamed "Action!" Visually, you'll see flashes of Hitchock, Minnelli, Tati, etc. What you won't see is something as lively as its source materials.

September 20, 2008

Libera Me: Pyro Mon Amour

Pyromaniacs provide firefighters with jobs. They also share a common interest. Still the two groups are improbable friends, at odds with each other for as long as one side wants to fan the flames and the other side wants to douse them. Libera Me isn't about to change all that. Sticking to the obvious, Yang Yun-ho's paean to the men with long hoses is basically a classic match-up between a fireman (Choi Min-su) who can psychically sense arson and a troublemaker (Cha Seung-won) who wants to see buildings burn. The hero's got guilt over a lost partner; the villain was inevitably abused as a child. Neither guy is particularly interesting. Luckily, fire loves a vacuum so in Libera Me, the fascination of both men emerges as the star. Exploding out windows, through walls, and up elevator shafts, this incendiary diva engulfs barely sketched out secondardy characters whom we never knew and we'll never miss. As unlucky extras flap their arms in panic or lie on the ashy floor, beautiful blasts of red, orange, and yellow fill the screen. Crackling dialogue is replaced by plain crackle. Explosive drama by repeated explosions. This isn't a movie. It's a promo for Zippo lighters.

September 14, 2008

Hi Dharma: The Bald Truth About Monks and Mayhem

Maybe dressing like a monk is as ha-ha funny as dressing in drag to Buddhist temple-goers. True or not, for a cutesy comedy about gangsters hiding out in a monastery, you kind of wish the impostors had gone all the way and shaved their heads. Instead, Park Chul-kwan's Hi! Dharma! has the mafiosos swapping two-piece suits for drab brown robes and leaves it at that. (The actors probably didn't want to jeopardize their chances at better roles when the shoot for this one was done.) What we've got here isn't a group of thugs trying to pass as ascetics. It's a competition between the bad boys and the goody goodies: Who can bow more? Who can hold his breath longer? Who's better at cards? Not the most cinematic of challenges for sure. The winner gets to decide whether the gang-members get to stay and for how long. Also not too dramatic. When it comes down to who's the fiercest fighter, predictably, the most kick-ass martial artist (Jeong Jin-yeong) comes from the nonviolent side. Unabashedly cornball and cheesy, Hi! Dharma! is definitely fast food cinema. You won't laugh until your stomach hurts but you'll be tided over until something more fulfilling comes along.

September 9, 2008

Bad Guy: Pimp Makes College Girl a Pretty Woman

Screw Julia Roberts. Director Kim Ki-duk knows prostitution is a nasty job capable of leaving a stink worse than the garbage man's. How's it start? Well, you've been framed. You owe some man $10,000 because you found his wallet then tried to steal the cash but you got caught red-handed so you took out an illegal loan to avoid going to jail but it basically turned you into a whore. That's the deal. Now, at $50 a bang, you're going to need to service 200 customers to pay him back. And that's not accounting for overhead—the rent, the cut for your madam and three pimps, the cost of cotton-candy colored wigs and a couple of batik summer dresses. Now you're up to 400 or 500 customers. How to keep count? How did this start again? Does the college girl (Seo Won) hate the ruffian (Jo Jae-hyeon) who trapped her into tricking or does the constant degradation eventually wear her down? A love story in the mold of The Story of O, Bad Guy is a harrowing descent into self-annihilation, a terrifying spin on class warfare, a despairing look at masochism's relationship to the world's oldest profession and maybe plain old human existence as well. It's a date movie for people who don't want to touch afterwards.

September 4, 2008

Conduct Zero: When It Doesn't Add Up, That's a Plus

There's something righteously reckless about Conduct Zero, a broad teen comedy that gives every indication of being hastily constructed and cheaply made. Lapses in logic notwithstanding, the movie wins you over because writer-director Jo Geun-shik isn't worried about whether you're going to believe the far-fetched shenanigans of his central character. Instead he's simply staying true to a quirky personal vision that's crudely funny if fairly unfocused. That latter part may be because his vision came unbidden one drunken weekend after which he awakened to discover an absurdly foul-mouthed screenplay, vomit-stained but typed on his bedside table. That it works is partly due to Jo's lead actor (Ryu Seung-beom), whose charming cad implausibly re-evaluates his juvie ways for the love of a virgin classical guitarist. Their romance pans out but then nothing ends the way you expect it to in Conduct Zero. The script has a serious case of Attention Deficit Disorder as it strays from its central story then reverts back to cliche only to misbehave again. Whether Ryu's giving a girl her first kiss or his ex- is picking a fight with a local gang, Conduct Zero never rings false because its reality is so bizarre.