December 31, 2008

The Best Korean Movies of 2008 (Sort of)

Although Korean Grindhouse began in 2007, the blog didn't kick into full gear until 2008 during which I saw 69 Korean movies! While only a few on this list are current releases, all but one were new to me which is all the qualification they needed. Without further ado, my Top 10.

1. Musa - The Warriors: Generally I like my violence in a suit with shiny shoes. Musa expanded my wardrobe. An epic set in the 14th century, this costume drama put its battles in robes and rags. I loved every minute of it.

2. Le Grand Chef: Did I once say Korea and comedy were oxmorons? Oops! I guess I needed to see Spygirl, and even moreso Le Grand Chef, a Capraesque masterpiece about a country cook who takes on some cheating city slickers to right the family name.

3. Bad Guy: Seven Kim Ki-duk movies in one year is a good thing and frankly, The Isle and Spring, Summer... could just as easily be on this list. Neither would rank as high as Bad Guy though, a brutal fable about prostitution, sex, class and power.

4. Public Enemy: My favorite Korean flicks are the noirs. My favorite noir this year was the original Public Enemy, a snazzy cop thriller that rightfully started a franchise and established Sol Kyung-gu and Lee Sung-jae as the ultimate cop-crook duo.

5. A Bittersweet Life: Hot on Public Enemy's heels is Kim Ji-woon's jopok fantasy in which an obedient thug's first rebellious (if charitable) gesture sets off a string of terrifying acts of vengeance.

6. Oasis: As far as I'm concerned, the greatest romances are tragedies. (What a queen!) Could you get one more problematic than this one between an emotionally backward guy and a severely disabled girl?

7. The Soul Guardians: K-horror is represented by this fright flick rich with Catholic imagery. Nothing's scarier than messing with the devil and Park Kwang-chun's visually lush film suggests there's little as beautiful either.

8. Terror Taxi: Weird for weirdness' sake is underrated. And there's plenty of utter strangeness here in this surreal depiction of a purgatory populated by amoral cabbies killed during their last shifts as living souls.

9. Stray Bullet: It's hard to find old Korean movies on DVD. This neorealist parable about a doomed Everyman makes you wish there were more out there. It's Seoul's answer to Umberto D. -- just as heartwrenching with perhaps a bit more grit.

10. Hera Purple: Soft porn on a top ten list? Well, why the hell not. This sexploitation flick about a libidinous woman possessed by a vengeful goddess is a total crack-up. The cast is pretty hot, too.

December 28, 2008

Cinderella: The Pretty Stepsister Becomes the Ugly One

At this point in life, I guess I'll never know the intense love that accompanies being a parent. At least, not the type of love that involves carving the face off another child to make sure my own kid looks good. My feelings just don't run that deep. The devoted mother (To Ji-won) in Bong Man-dae's Cinderella is another case entirely though. She adores her only daughter (Shin Se-kyung); and since mom's a plastic surgeon, a car explosion that burns her child's face isn't about to get in the way of her precious baby having a Sweet 16 party one day. But face-swapping is complicated, karmically as well as surgically; can you blame the defaced orphan from wanting her own face back? Those rubber masks that she's been wearing are pretty but they get clammy and they look kind of creepy. Since a retributive transplant keeps getting postponed, the "secret sister locked in the basement" exacts revenge by getting into the minds of any of the mother's patients who happen to be the daughter's friends. Soon everyone hates the face that she was born with even if it has been improved. Maybe that's because they're all art students. Spending all that time at school carving faces from clay might set your beauty standards too high.

December 26, 2008

No Blood, No Tears: Raising a Fist for the Sisterhood

The world needs more movies about women who learn to fight back. Ones featuring ladies who bond while kicking butt are even better. So here's to Ryu Seung-wan's No Blood, No Tears, a jopok chick flick with female fists as capable of drawing blood as they are of being raised in sisterly solidarity. Admittedly, both lead women aren't natural born killers. That honor goes to a down-on-her-luck cabbie (the unstoppable Lee Hye-yeong) who's stuck between a rock and a hard place because her AWOL husband's left her in debt up to her ears. Attempting to stay straight, she's reluctant to pair up with a gangster's moll (Jeon Do-yeon) as a way to get out of her situation but desperate times call for desperate measures. And so, the two misfits pair up to outwit the syndicate, the police, and one decidedly misogynist boyfriend (Jeong Jae-yeong). Little do they know that they'll also have to contend with a trio of goofballs led by none other than the director's adorable brother Ryu Seung-beom. With as many fistfights as there are doublecrosses, No Blood, No Tears would've been noir of the highest order if Ryu had simply spent a little more on the soundtrack. (The score is awful.) It's a B-movie, that's a B+.

December 24, 2008

Christmas in August: Sentimentality That Leaves You Cold

Christmas in August is sick. If I were a doctor, I'd go so far as to diagnose its lead character (played by Han Syu-kyu) with a brain tumor. We know he's dying of something; professionally, I'd say his tendency to giggle over nothing indicates a foreign mass causing unwanted stress in the cranial cavity. Either that or he's borderline brain dead. Same for his simpleton girlfriend (Shim Euh-ha), a traffic cop inexplicably drawn to his childlike, masochistic ways. She never learns (while he's alive) that his days are numbered; he's too busy being stoic in his gratingly lighthearted way. But before he's found his resting place in the local crematorium and she's learned to flirt with other guys at a rockabilly bar, director Hur Jin-ho will force us to sit through their stumbling, maudlin courtship. It's a big screen romance skipping from one cliche to the next: the late night stroll in which one lover tells the other a ghost story about farting, the rollercoaster ride at the amusement park followed by shared ice cream... vanilla, of course. They never have sex but then, it's hard to have a menage a trois when the third party is death. Next up for Hur? Hanukkah in July. Prognosis? Fatal.

December 18, 2008

Romance Papa: A Hit in 1960, A Relic Today

The title character of Romance Papa is what's commonly referred to as a sentimental old fool. He's also a bit of a windbag with artistic delusions and a braggart dumb enough to challenge his 19-year-old son to a wrestling match. But because he's played by the charismatic Kim Seung-ho, you understand why his family loves him and why one young co-worker aspires to be his drinking buddy. He's what you'd call a lovable shmuck. You still want to see him taken down a peg now and again but your heart goes out to him when later in the movie, he loses his middle management job at an insurance company. Even bores need someplace to work, especially ones who, at 52, can't compete in a youth-driven marketplace. That woeful turn of events is when producer-director Shin Sang-ok's two-hour-plus drama finally starts to get interesting. It's a little late, granted, but there's still time enough for a well-earned weepy ending that has papa's children showing respect by retrieving papa's pawned watch before singing "Happy Birthday" in English. Shin's wife, movie siren Choi Eun-hie who plays the eldest daughter, does more with a simple bow to her parents than Shin does the entire drippy drama.

December 17, 2008

Geochilmaru - The Showdown: Gaming in the Old Style

Geochilmaru: The Showdown is really such a retro concept for a video game, you'd think a Pong ball had hit you in the head. Zoinks! Eight strangers -- each with a contrasting fashion sense and martial arts discipline -- are summoned by a mysterious training fansite to compete in an ultimate fighting match on a snow-covered mountain. (The scenery, like the lighting, is frankly blah.) The goal is to subdue each opponent and thereby collect all eight coded necklaces which, when pieced together, will reveal the secret identity of the webmaster who may or may not be one of the competitors. Though the setup is unoriginal, who wins which fight isn't so obvious and the battles themselves feel more real than you'd expect given the low production values. To his credit, director Kim Jin-seong uses real pros like mixed martial artist Kim Dae-won in his cast which racks up high marks by pooh-poohing the flashy F/X of Crouching Tiger Hidden Tiger and its costly ilk for something more authentic. This isn't art. This is chop 'em sock 'em action with sage sayings and corny gags to get you from one good fight to the next. Coming soon to an Xbox near you.

December 13, 2008

Attack on the Pin-up Boys: Super Junior Gets Super Silly

Bubblegum boy bands and teenybop comedies are one of those matches made in heaven that tend to drag audiences into hell. Despite that, Attack on the Pin-up Boys is truthfully not a bad movie. Starring all 13 members of the Korean pop sensation Super Junior, this ultra-silly mystery is a tween's live-action scrapbook with characters goofing, mugging, or turning into cartoons while clip art stickers fly around their pretty heads. The plot itself is wryly preposterous: A high school student (Kim Kibum) with geek-chic glasses starts blogging on a string of crimes in which the most popular boy at each neighboring school gets poop thrown in his face. With his own school next in line, our narrator's blog gets totally popular as he speculates who will have the dubious honor of getting shit-faced next. Will it be the student body prez (Choi Siwon) whose supernatural powers go unremarked? Or the prissy squad leader (Kim Heechul) of a three-man breakdance group who sees this attack as his ticket to fame? It seems less likely that it will be the judo champ (Kim Youngwoon) currently sparring with a guy dressed like a panda. You'll need to own a training bra to love this one. But you can wear anything in the closet to simply like it.

December 10, 2008

Save the Green Planet: The Movie That Converted Me

I don't know if Jang Joon-Hwan's Save the Green Planet is the greatest Korean movie ever made but it's certainly the one I've watched the most often (five times and counting) and, alongside Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, can be credited with turning me into a Korean film fan for life. Every time I watch it, I'm struck anew by its complex storytelling, its rich cast of characters, its pictorial sophistication, its utter profundity. That its outrageous ending shocks me every single viewing is a testament to how irrestibly its trippy narrative pulls you in. Save the Green Planet isn't just a movie, it's an alternate reality, its own self-contained world. I can think of few other movies that qualify as love story, scifi thriller, satirical comedy, and surreal critique on the nature of reality. Being John Malkovich comes the closest but Save the Green Planet packages it all in an outsider art esthetic that makes it truly one-of-a-kind. Is the kidnapped CEO (Baek Yun-shik) an ambassador from Andromeda? Can a rumpled detective (Lee Jae-yong) outwit a serial killer (Shin Ha-kyun) who keeps bees? Will an acrobatic naif (Hwang Jeong-min) find the love she deserves? Watch it and see. Then watch it again. And again. And again.

December 7, 2008

Whispering Corridors: The First of Four Parts

Room 3-3 is spooked. Just ask skittish homeroom teacher Mrs. Park or her replacement, the lascivious Mr. Oh. Except you can't ask them. They're dead! So take your question to another staff member and recent grad, the personable Hur Eun-young (Lee Mi-yeon). She, like you, is trying to figure out the cause behind these recent "suicides" and has much time on her hands to do so because she's without any classes to teach. (I guess this highly competitive all-girls school has a strict policy that first-year teachers should observe, not instruct.) What she'll tell you is that the letters JJ were carved into that desk at the back of the room by none other than herself. But as to the red water-stain on the ceiling, she, like you, must wait until the end of Whispering Corridors for an answer as to how it got there and why it keeps getting bigger! Not that she'll care. She'll be too preoccupied with convincing the spirit of her late best friend that childhood betrayals should be forgiven, not avenged. Park Ki-hyeong's ghost story inspired three sequels: Whispering Corridors II, Wishing Stairs, and Voice. Such is the allure of the paranormal when dressed in short skirts and knee socks.