May 31, 2008

Natural City: Cyborgs With Alzheimers


Let's say a car lasts ten years and a computer lasts three. Based on the idea that the more advanced the machinery, the shorter its lifespan, how long do you think a dancing hooker-robot would last? If your answer is not long enough, you're probably already a resident of the cyberpunk Natural City. When Ria (Seo Rin), a replicant starts to go on the blink, her patron-lover goes to every extreme to keep her alive. A member of the military police, R (Yu Ji-tae) sacrifices fellow members of the force, jeopardizes the life of his best friend, and kidnaps a prostitute as he works towards one insidious goal: to implant his machine-whore's consciousness into the brain of that unlucky streetwalker (Lee Jae-un). Writer-director Min Byung-chun takes the man-automaton romance pretty seriously which doesn't seem so far-fetched considering that until very recently, women were considered property in marriage. Since a robot could be programmed to "love and obey" without a lot of back talk, it's hard not to admit that plenty of guys would jump at the chance to set up house with a remote control bitch. Natural City is a call to read the small print on the warranty label. Don't grow too attached to your purchases!

May 24, 2008

No. 3: The Mob Movie Goes Up in Smoke

Drink from the ashtray. Kill with the ashtray. Die by the ashtray. Such is the wisdom of No. 3 (1997), a choppy mess of a gangster movie that runs a punishing 1 hour and 40 minutes. Why so painful? Well, the comedy's so broad it's flat, the satire's so light, it's invisible, and the violence's so symbolic, its impotent. Plus, the soundtrack will make your skin crawl. Given the awfulness of writer-director Song Nung-han's material, it's strange to witness his ability to attract real acting talent: Han Suk-kyu (A Scarlet Letter) plays the titular character—a hoodlum with Godfather aspirations; Song Kang-ho (The Host) is a stuttering gangleader with aspirational dreams of his own. Neither performer transcends the source but seeing a familar face (when it was younger) will wake you up for a moment or two. Otherwise, expect to fade in and out as cigarettes are crushed into bowls of food, poets give sex tutorials to married women, and one branch of the Korean mafia executes enough doublecrosses for an embroidery kit. (The results are about as interesting as watching someone sew.) I know of no prescribed sedative as effective at helping you get to sleep. It knocked me out twice in a row.

May 19, 2008

Phantom: The Submarine - That Sinking Feeling


How much do some Koreans hate the Japanese? Enough to nuke Okinawa and then some. I'm talking some serious hate. And is this rage justified? Some say yes; one says no. As least, that's the set-up for Phantom: The Submarine (1999), a political thriller that argues both for and against violence as retribution. Since the angry thesis is made not just by an insurrectionist naval captain (Choi Min-Su) but also by his entire, mutinous crew, you do wonder a little about whether the lone good guy (Jung Woo-sung) is seeing the same big picture as his shipmates. Granted, the rebel against the rebellion understands the cost of violence firsthand. (He saw his father shoot his mother then escaped the same fate once dad was popped off by the military.) Yet surely, there must be a more persuasive case to be made against starting a war than I saw my mommy and daddy slayed. After a tedious convoluted opener involving a firing squad and an Orwellian relocation program, director Min Byung-chun generates underwater tensions in claustrophic confines lit in Christmassy reds and greens. Two Japanese subs are torpedoed. Another is dragged to its death. The friendly whale swims nearby and tries to enlighten the crew by singing its ageless song but these guys would rather hear screaming than really cool music.

May 14, 2008

My Look in the Distant Future: The Motherland Is a Barren Woman


I like message films. Not because I want a filmmaker's intent to be blatantly obvious but because I get off seeing where and how a polemical artwork betrays its creator. In the North Korean agit-prop flick My Look in the Distant Future (1997), Yui Ung-yong's screenplay is supposed to be about an over-aged slacker whose lust for a revolutionary girl transforms him into a model citizen in the Communist party. In reality, the pseudo-romance is more about how becoming a zealot will rob you of your sexuality. In each stage of this derailed courtship (an offer to dance, a lakeside proposal, then another proposal in a city park), the chaste yet coy ingĂ©nue (Kim Hye-gyong) belittles her petulant suitor (Kim Myong-mun) by letting him know that he’s never done anything worth taking seriously. By the final sunlit moment, when these two go running hand-in-hand through the wheat field, it's hard to imagine this pair taking a roll in the hay. They seem infinitely more likely to pick up a guitar then burst into an oppressive teaching song about solidarity. Love doesn’t stand a chance after martyrdom takes hold. This unintended perversion of patriotism into a neutering device makes what might have felt like a dogmatic romance into an oddly touching portrait of what happens when you lead with your convictions and not with your heart. That’s not a totally bad thing mind you. But wow… being an ideological idealist doesn’t look like much fun.

May 12, 2008

Hong Kil Dong: Spaghetti Eastern


South Korea's Golden Age of Cinema doesn't date back to the 1980s so you can't fault their North Korean brothers for cranking out equally subpar fare during that same decade. Hong Kil Dong (1986), a martial arts fantasy—that plays like Robin Hood without the tights or the joy—registers as some sort of Eastern variation on the Spaghetti Western. Times are grim. Corruption is rampant. It'll take a special kind of man to reinstate a semblance of justice...or at least to settle the score. Doors may slide instead of swing, men may kick instead of horses, but the bandits still cackle, the punches still land with a smack of pleather, and the sound of the flute eternally signals that the hero is somewhere nearby. Is director Kim Kil-in as close to Sergio Leone as Pyongang is ever gonna get? Probably. Because even if outright communist propaganda is kept to a merciful minimum, the didacticism, the xenophobia, and the anti-individualism still bleed through. The title character isn't so much a loner as an outcast; his victory isn't his own so much as one shared with "the people." The closest you'll get to sexy is an orgiastic birth scene at the beginning. Clearly making new soldiers is the best a person could hope for in this life.

May 10, 2008

Oasis: When Inside the Heart Is Outside the Box


Before he was a filmmaker, Lee Chang-dong was a novelist. It shows. He's a master storyteller unafraid of the implausible or the extreme. Oasis, his third film as writer-director, starts off like some bit of French New-Wave-meets-Cassavettes filmmaking. It's got the shaky handheld cinematography, the oddball camera angles, and the screwball antihero (Sol Kyung-gu) who you can't help but like. You might call what follows a quirky romance but to classify Oasis as a love story would be to pigeonhole a movie that's really oustide the norm. Does the protagonist fall in love with the severely handicapped girl (a fearless Moon So-ri) who he's befriended out of guilt for past crimes? Yes and no. He certainly doesn't say so. And since he can't think straight and she can't speak clearly, you're in danger of assigning meaning where there's really just a mystery. Except for a few daydreamed sequences, these two characters rarely mirror the classic mating dance because they always read as two separate beings even when he's got her on his back. In fact, Oasis is more than anything a reminder to us of how outsider status is embedded in our deepest relationships even if we're not handicapped physically or mentally in an easily diagnosable way. We're always individuals. We're always struggling to make ourselves heard. And at our best, we're always listening.

May 3, 2008

Doggy Poo: Fecal Matters


There's nothing misleading bout the title. Doggy Poo is an animated, absurdist short about the life of a piece of dog crap. We witness his birth on a country road, his belittlement by a lump of dirt, his philosophical education by a windblown leaf, and his eventual self-sacrifice to a seductive dandelion. (I could have done without the further debasement by the chatty mother hen in the middle. The life of a piece of shit is hard. I get it.) As to the turd himself, he's a tearful creation with his little black eyes always ready to let loose the waterworks. (Question to the creators: Shouldn't a piece of poop weep urine?) Some of the animation is quite nice, although I would have preferred to see doggie doo that could move. As to the voices, since this movie was only a half hour long, I thought that I'd check out the dubbed version as well as the Korean. Sad to report that even with cartoons, the English-language soundtrack is inferior. Listening to these American actors doing "funny" voices makes you wish that they had to eat the characters they were bringing to life post-recording. Weirdly, a song at the end of the movie is translated neither in the subtitles nor in the Americanized dub. I'd say that's some seriously unfinished shit.