October 25, 2008

Born to Kill: She's Pretty, He's Dumb, Killer Romance

Sometime way back when, there was a poor little orphan (Jung Woo-sung). He didn't have a family so a gangster took him under wing and taught him how to use a knife. He got pretty good with said blade and perfected the art of stabbing. But having led a sheltered existence, his social skills were not on par with his job skills as an assassin. He'd never been with a girl, had a drink of soju or held a meaningful conversation. So when a brazen barmaid (Shim Eun-ha) intrudes and befriends then beds him, naturally his life gets a bit topsy-turvy. Suddenly, there's someone more important than his pet monkey Chi-chi. It's hard to say whether this self-serving woman understands the mixed up manchild but she admires his motorcycle, his looks, and the stacks of cash in the refrigerator. And when she demands that he hug her if he finds her pretty, he does so then yanks off his pants to show her just how pretty. So what that she's robbed him? So what that she calls him stupid? So what that she's not too bright herself? In Jang Hyeon-su's Born to Kill (1996), this is love, tragic love, and if the happily ever after doesn't happen, that's no big disappointment. This is a gangster film.

October 22, 2008

Piano Man: The Keyboard to Insanity

Poor Yu Sang-wook! The director mistakenly thinks we want to hear a nightclub diva singing ludicrous covers of Mariah Carey and Roberta Flack. (We don't.) He also believes that a sub-plot involving an alcoholic detective (Park Cheol) and his Sherlock Holmes of a son (Hong Kyoung-in) is going to add emotional heft to the story. (It doesn't.) Why all the superfluities, Yu? All we really want is a streamlined thriller, a boilerplate potboiler in which one swaggering lady dick (Lee Seung-yeon) tracks down a Goth serial killer (Choi Min-su) who does ventriloquism, lights himself on fire, and sulks behind a grunge-rocker hairdo. Piano Man (1996) had the potential to be so much more; it just needed to stick to doing a little less: As is, the procedural-crime drama has kick-ass cinematography from Seo Jeong-min who shoots from retro angles and in just the right palette of lurid reds. It's also got a bad-ass female detective who can give a serious smackdown to a gang of lawbreakers hustling black market license plates. Piano Man isn't quite a poor man's Memories of Murder. It's more like a fun but sloppy copy of something exceptionally good.

October 16, 2008

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring: Practice What You Preach

Like its title, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring doesn't conclude; it recommences. A bit of didacticism (Child learns cruelty to animals is bad!) serves as both prelude and coda. But what writer-director Kim Ki-duk extracts from this cliche the second time around feels oddly profound. That's because once you've traveled through childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age with the film's novice Buddhist monk (played by Kim himself at one point), you no longer interpret the same acts in the same way. Something inside you has changed, has shifted, and, dare we say it, has grown. Kim has always been about the internal world but this time, he forgoes having a mute lead character to underscore that point. This time, he lets the quietude emerge organically. The dialogue is as minimal as ever but Kim's unflinching acceptance of the unspeakable and his urge to convey the unsayable is less symbolic here even with this movie's parable structure and fabulist magic. To sum up what it all means about life, love and learning is bound to sound hokey. That's generally the case with a Kim movie which may explain why he likes to keep his characters so effectively quiet if they talk at all.

October 15, 2008

Cello: That Woman Has Come Unstrung

While not always true, some K-horror flicks have serious messages to impart: Don't screw with the devil (The Soul Guardians); don't enter haunted castles (R-Point); and don't ride the train that caused your father's death (Redeye). The wisdom of Cello is even more applicable to our lives: Don't kill your best friend. Too obvious for you? Well, what if that best friend just happened to be your main competition as an aspiring cellist? Not so easy anymore, eh? Now you begin to understand the moral dilemma faced by Hong Mi-ju (Seong Hyeon-a). Whether killing the competition can make her a better musician is another matter and you sense that maybe this pretty young mother is having trouble getting the professorship for reasons other than all those pills she's constantly popping. Maybe she's just not that good anymore. Whatever the reasons, her disregard for this oft-forgotten Golden Rule leads to the untimely deaths of every member of her family, her loyal dog, and a random bird. None of it's scary but some of it's artfully done. The occasional symbolism can get cryptic. What does it mean when the bad mama discovers her autistic child is having her first period while the two are sharing a bath?

October 11, 2008

Stray Bullet: The Story of an Aimless Life

It's not enough to be burdened with a prostitute sister and a shiftless war vet of a brother (Choi Mu-ryong). No. Stray Bullet's protagonist (Kim Jin-kyu) has to have a crazy mother, two hungry kids, a pregnant wife (Moon Jeong-suk), and a nagging toothache too. Akin to Italy's postwar neorealist films, Yoo Hyun-mok's black-and-white, working class drama illustrates with quiet poignancy that you may follow the precepts of Confucius and be the good son, the good husband, the good father, and the good worker and still end up with a fairly shitty life. When you're poor, taking the high ground of self-sacrifice means being one small step from the gutter. Given its strong social realist message, you'd almost think that Stray Bullet was a product of North Korea. But it's hard to imagine that country's movie industry telling this downer without an uplifting Communist coda. There's no propaganda here. Instead, witness the chilling scene in which the son, a paperboy, is seen running with a stack of today's news, the cover of which is a crime committed by his uncle. The downtrodden must capitalize even the darkest of moments. When life's anything for a buck, your conscience is a cage.

October 4, 2008

Ditto: Suppose Peggy Sue Didn't Get Married

Here's to the supernatural weepies and to Ditto which merits at least two hankies. Director Kim Jeong-kwon's first feature film is what might be called a tragic romance shaped by soft science fiction. A timid young woman (Kim Ha-neul) with endearing stalker tendencies fixates on a bland fellow college student (Park Yong-woo) who aspires to office worker. Before their fantasized romance has progressed to so much as a kiss, however, chance has forced a magical ham radio upon our clueless heroine. That very night (a lunar eclipse?) she adopts the new hobby which will nudge her temporarily out of her shell while leading her to inescapable doom. Breaker 1-9. Breaker 1-9. I'm a petulant college-sophomore (Yu Ji-tae) who lives twenty years in the future. We go to the same school. I can read tomorrow's news online but I won't give you any stock tips. Isn't this fun? I'm about to shatter your world by informing you that your best friend and that dull dreamboat are about to fall in love and make a baby. Me! (Reach for the tissue here.) Jang Jin's script has its share of quasi-philosophical quotes but it also has an understanding of the evanescence of time and how love only comes to those who leap.