November 28, 2008

The Uninvited: Shellshocked Duo Leave Few Shocks

For much of Lee Soo-youn's The Uninvited, the two main characters walk around in a daze. For him (Park Shin-yang), the causes include a blow to the head, being overworked, repressed childhood memories, premarital jitters, and possibly a drinking problem. For her (Jun Ji-hyun), the stupor is caused by narcolepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, a contentious divorce, and perhaps too much medication. (Later you learn, she's also a closet shaman!) The pair first meet -- where else? -- in a psychiatric office: She's there as a client; he's come on business as an interior designer. A good ninety minutes into the movie, their sympathetic diagnoses finally get to meld into one type of craziness. Until then, The Uninvited is just a lot of blank stares of incomprehension, made dramatic by a couple of girl ghosts materializing periodically. The film's last half hour is vastly more spirited than the rest but when the charming Yu Seon, as the lead's no-nonsense girlfriend, leaves the protagonist in exasperation, you share her sentiments if not her reasons. As thrillers that use amnesia go, this one is completely forgettable.

November 24, 2008

A Bittersweet Life: Payback Is Murder

Jopok means Korean mafia. But it also refers to a genre of movies dealing with same. Example: A Bittersweet Life, Kim Ji-woon's superfine and shiny genre flick about a slick bad-ass (Lee Byung-hun) whose career as a criminal hits the skids when he falls for the young lady (Shin Min-a) he's supposed to be shadowing. He discovers she's cheating on his boss (Kim Yeong-cheol) but he's so enamored of her shoulder and her ear that he can't bring himself to kill her even if she doesn't love him back. Anyway, who has time for love when you're just trying to survive. Gang members armed with knives, sticks, and wrenches, not to mention a sick imagination when it comes to torture, are everwhere you turn. That's when it's time to get creative. Dig your way out of your own muddy grave. Figure out a way to use a telephone battery as a weapon. Track down the underground of the underground and get yourself a black market Stechkin, a Russian automatic pistol. Whatever you do, don't let them break your spirit. Not when they tie you up. Not when they stab you in the gut. Not when they shoot you with an Uzi so blood is pouring out your front. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord. But is this what he was talking about? Maybe. Because he also said an eye for an eye. And there's plenty of that here in technicolor.

A Dirty Carnival: How Do You Say Brando in Korean?

If the only Korean movie you ever saw was A Dirty Carnival (and frankly you could do a lot worse), you'd probably think to yourself, "Oh, I get it. Korea is the Italy of the Orient." This would be of course because you'd never set foot in Korea (or Italy) and had founded your interpretation on the films of Francis Ford Coppola and a passing knowledge of both countries' cuisines. And it's not just that A Dirty Carnival is so clearly an homage to the Godfather trilogy with its electrifying depictions of violence, its detailed deconstruction of family dynamics, and its paranoid portrayal of working for the syndicate. Once you engage in Korean-Italian associations, you realize how much the two nations have in common: noodles, a shoe fetish, a sense of pageantry for funerals, a love of public singing and drinking, even the art of film-making. If Yu Ha's mafia epic feels Italian (or at least Italian-American), it's because on some level that's what it wants to be. You can easily imagine Talia Shire cast as the sickly girlfriend played by Lee Bo-young, Al Pacino in the role of Zo In-sung's overly ambitious gangster and Brando in the role of the mafia don (ably embodied by Chun Ho-jin). Re-cast to your heart's content, people. A Dirty Carnival remains great on its own terms because the substitutions or cross-cultural counterparts never feel like inferior replacements. They feel like they demand respect. You respect what inspired it? You'll respect this, too.

November 21, 2008

M: Not Letter Perfect Symbolism

In Lee Myung-se's mindnumbing melodrama M, maudlin muse and memory-figment Mimi (Lee Yeon-hee) mentions meditatively that she's mad for things starting with M. She loves Mozart, Modigliani, and more to the point Min-woo (Kang Dong-won), a momentarily manic memoirist made miserable by a millstone that's either money-related or a premarital misgiving. Maybe mostly it's the man's miserable case of writer's block. Whatever the mundane matter, Min-woo is majorly mixed up: See how he moons over the mercurial mystery woman; watch as he demeans his milksop/helpmeet/roomie (Kong Hyo-jin), imminent marriage be damned. (As to his book, it's a mawkish mess.) What to make of this murky material... M may mean a mystifying, metaphorical memory of Mimi or a morbid mental case in a midlife crisis! Most likely, M means high-minded masturbation. As moviemaking goes, M is Lee's meandering manifesto for maximalism with all the methods misapplied; the montages are technically masterful yet mildly meaningful. If Lee meant to make an imagist marvel with M, he missed by a mile.

November 19, 2008

Wide Awake: You Are Not Getting Very, Very Sleepy

In the 1990s, French performance artist Orlan caused a sensation by having plastic surgery done while she was awake reading the philosophy of Lacan. Unquestionably, writer-director Lee Kyoo-man and his cowriter Lee Hyeon-jin see the interface of consciousness and surgery as something less erudite and more traumatizing. The young child who anesthesia paralyzes without numbing during open-heart surgery grows up to be a homicidal psychopath who enjoys getting intentionally stung by bees and murdering the hospital staff as well as their offspring. But which man is the addled adult version of the crazed child? Is it the dashing doctor (Kim Myeong-min) or the pert anesthesiologist (Jeong Yu-seok)? Is it the nebbishy hypnotist (Kim Tae-woo) or the mysterious drifter with a steamy shower scene (built-for-pleasure Yu Jun-sang)? Despite what you might first think, it's certainly not that pesky crank-caller. Wide Awake is one of those movies that doesn't keep you guessing so much as it keeps slyly misleading you. Shout "He did it!" once and you'll shout it a dozen times -- albeit less victoriously. What you'll be screaming during what looks like footage from actual surgeries is more like, "Whoa! That looks too real!"

November 15, 2008

Terror Taxi: A Ride Into the Unknown

For every Eraserhead, there's a Liquid Sky; for every Evil Dead, there's The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Universe. Sometimes, an early oddball movie announces a directorial visionary (David Lynch, Sam Raimi); sometimes, it doesn't (Slava Tsukerman, W.D. Richter). I wish Terror Taxi had fallen in the former camp. But from the looks of it, that's probably not going to be the case since, as far as I can tell, this funny freakshow circa 2000 is Heo Seung-jun's first and only flick. Too bad. A kooky comedy about a dead cab driver (Lee Seo-jin) trying to make sense of Limbo, Heo's feature debut has the crazy logic of a Repo Man or a Donnie Darko with enough surreal imagery (blood-fueled car engines, amusement park rest stops, and flying taxis), visual gags (projectile vomiting, butt cracks), and hammy performances (Jeong Hae-gyu in particular) to justify a cult following. The movie demands -- and deserves -- repeat viewings since there's no other way to untangle its knotty narrative. That said, for anyone who thinks a little confusion isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's delivered with smarts, style and a sense of humor, Terror Taxi is kind of terrific.

November 8, 2008

A Bloody Aria: Darwinism for Tenors

Wishful opera wannabe In-jeong (Cha Ye-ryeon) has a hard day ahead of her. Not only will she botch an audition, have her lips licked by a lecherous professor (Lee Beyong-jun), run in impractical shoes on a sandy shore, and witness the senseless beating of a high school student (Kim Shi-hoo) by country bumpkins who will go on to stuff her in the trunk of a Mercedes Benz but she'll have to do most of it without a proper pair of panties. No one ever said a career in opera would be easy in the provinces. Metaphorical to the extreme, Won Shin-yeon's A Bloody Aria is a movie in love with the violence it critiques. Characters rebel against their oppressors then express their undying devotion to the same. Any attempt to call the craziness to a halt will only result in you being punished again severely. The king-of-the-hill plot has a subtext about the dangers of obedience yet it undercuts this commentary by celebrating its most sadomasochistic character (Lee Mun-shik) who likes to get a beating as much as he likes to give one. If there's takeaway wisdom here, it's that you can fight it, you should fight, you will lose, you might as well become a good fighter anyway.

November 3, 2008

Princess Aurora: Mom Fulfills Dead Daughter's Curse From the Grave

I hereby declare the serial kller movie Korea's answer to the American musical. It's a genre that Korean directors constantly reinvent in spectacular ways and one which receives their most lavish attentions. It's also a subset that contains some of my favorite Korean films: Save the Green Planet, Memories of Murder, even the ludicrous Hera Purple. Princess Aurora puts yet another arresting spin on the category. This time, director Bang Eun-jin throws the whodunit aspect out the window and shifts the suspense over to another question: Why doesn't the bible-reading detective (Moon Sung-keun) turn in his dissociative ex-wife (Eom Jeong-hwa) once he's figured out she's behind the gruesome crimes? That it involves their dead daughter is part of the answer; so is plain rudeness. But given that the murderess is caught, convicted and condemned three quarters of the way through the film, you'll have to find your mystery elsewhere at the end. As you're rediscovering it, Bang will tell you the reason behind each death and something less tangible about the pursuit of justice. Sometimes, it's petty; sometimes, it's profound. But Princess Aurora is always exquisitely photographed. As a feature debut, Bang's is an impressive accomplishment.

November 1, 2008

The Humanist: Thick as Thieves, the Thickheaded Ones

The line between tragedy and comedy is a thin one but for some reason it's much easier to cross in a single direction. There are plenty of "serious" movies awful enough to be funny. The horror genre abounds with them. But there aren't many comedies so unfunny, they're downright serious. Which brings us to The Humanist, a comedy-thriller hybrid that broadly indicates "kooky" without ever being so. The problem is probably directorial since the script was co-written by auteur Park Chan-wook. Park never goes for the laugh even when it's indicated. In his hands, lives and stories spin crazily out of control but they feel surreal, not silly; with Park, every crazy step between the accidental killing of a cop and the internal death threats among three friends would've been guided by a lushly filmed fatal determinism. And the extreme violence, especially the flashbacks with kids brutally smashing each others' heads with rocks, would have been gorgeously horrific. Here, in Lee Mu-yeong's hands, the grownup brat (Ahn Jae-mo), the oaf (Park Sang-myeon), and the nutjob (Kang Seong-jin) seem forced to amputate a beggar (Kim Myoeng-su) and rape a nun (Myeong Sun-mi) without real cause. Withhold applause.