December 26, 2009

The Best Korean Movies of 2009 (Sort of)

Another year, another 69 Korean movies and like last year, all the flicks on this list meet two criteria: One: I really liked them. Two: I first saw them in 2009. Why aren't they all current releases? Well, I don't live in Korea, folks!

1. The King and the Clown (2005): This epic, historical romance about two circus performers and the sadistic emperor who triangulates their unspoken love is riveting from start to finish. No competition for the top slot.

2. Thirst (2009): Does the world really need another vampire movie? Apparently yes! Park Chan-wook's tale of a bloodthirsty priest (Song Kang-ho) is tragic, philosophical, and hilariously gorey.

3. Mother (2009): Bong Joon-ho is giving Park a run for the money when it comes to who rates as my favorite Korean director. One more movie like this headspinner about a grisly murder investigation and he may usurp.

4. Like a Virgin (2006): A transgendered teen joins the high school wrestling team to earn money for a sex change operation. Ridiculous? Yes. Funny? Very. Poignant? Surprisingly so.

5. The Chaser (2008): I love a good adrenaline rush as much as the next couch potato and Na Hong-in's action pic kept me on the edge of my well-cushioned seat. It's hard to believe it's Na's feature debut.

6. White Badge (1992): Set during the Vietnam war, Jeon Ji-yeong's memory piece is a grim reminder that the battlefield will mess with your head...permanently. Ahn Sung-kee's performance is stellar.

7. The Way Home (2002): There were two coming-of-age tales that really won me over this year. (The other was When I Turned Nine). This one makes the list though because I felt like I learned something about life from it.

8. Sweet Dream (1936): Filmed over 70 years ago, this black-and-white melodrama has aged exceptionally well. The protagonist is an amoral bitch who could teach Ayn Rand a lesson or two about the virtues of selfishness.

9. A.F.R.I.K.A. (2002): I'm not sure why gay men love watching sexy women run around in cute outfits while touting guns, even if the plot is stupid. But we do. Unreservedly. Case in point.

10. My Mother and Her Guest (1961): I've seen five Shin Sang-ok films to date. This one is the best, an understated drama about an uptight widow (Shin's wife Choi Eun-hie) who loses her last chance at love. Creaky but unforgettable.

Suggestions for movies for 2010? Please leave them in the comments section below!

December 25, 2009

Romantic Warriors: Please Stop! This Movie Is Killing Me!


Who are the Romantic Warriors? Well, let me tell you and save you the trouble of watching this execrable comedy. They're an unhappy band of bumbling hired killers who get roped into helping the ghosts of five discontented courtesans who need their murders avenged in order to ascend to heaven. The dull-witted men are led by the dimmest of them all, Yae-rang (Choi Seong-guk), a buffoon who thinks that playing with his nipples is outwitting the enemy. He's none-too-ably assisted by Yo-yi (Kim Min-jong), a goodhearted nincompoop who appears to be in love with his little sister, who, for her part, is killed halfway through the movie so the romantic warriors can now seek justice for her untimely end. Set in the year 636, Romantic Warriors is basically an extended Stooges routine in period garb and without the Foley sound effects. Sword fights are interrupted by farts, head slaps, and other random bits of silliness. It's the base kind of humor that served writer-director Yun Je-gyun much better in his sophomoric hormonal romp Sex Is Zero. But here, the jokes and the gags don't just feel like anachronisms, they're also unfunny. I guess flossing your butt with a coarse piece of rope is funnier if it takes place in the present.

December 19, 2009

Tube: Tanks


"You can tell everything about a man by his shoulders," pickpocket Kay (Bae Du-na) tells us about her not-so-secret crush, transit cop Jay (Kim Seok-hun). But if that's really the case, is there really any need to hear him (or anyone else with shoulders) speak? So much of the dialogue is dreadful in Tube that you wish director Baek Woon-hak had simply let the body parts do the talking themselves. If he had, this chase-and-shoot about a crazed killer (Park Sang-min) who holds a speeding subway's passengers hostage in the hopes of getting the oh-so-evil President to kill himself might have emerged as a flashy-if-frustrating art film instead of a clunky, high-budget upgrade of Speed as imagined by Michael Bay. (You've got to love the explosions!) Pure action pic lovers are unlikely to forgive the movie either, though because the gun fights are too one-sided and the fistfights are shot from too close. (You never get a good view of what's happening in either scenario.) Tube is really most effective as a promo for the Seoul Subway System. You'll spot none of the rats that are so ubiquitous in NYC and the high-ceilinged control center looks like something straight out of NASA.

December 10, 2009

In Between Days: Be Quiet and You'll Hear the Sound of Young Hearts Dying


Aimie (Kim Jiseon) wants to get laid. Since she's just a teenager that's a radical thing to say but it's true and she's set her sites on Tran (Taegu Andy Kang), a fellow Korean-American who like her doesn't seem too engaged with life in general in Nowheresville, USA. They're two drifters-in-the-making: He's drifting towards drugs; she's drifting toward oblivion. Before either of them gets there in Kim So Yong's In Between Days, we'll watch them do a lot of mundane things like riding buses, doing laundry, drinking coffee, and doodling in a notebook. They should be studying! They have their whole lives ahead of them!! But it's hard to get excited about tomorrow when today is so bland, so barren, so quiet. Pause. Pause. The dialogue in this movie is insisently flat. It's as if Kim is afraid that having anyone say anything profound, even accidentally, will make her film seem false. To keep it true, she adheres to a stylized hypernaturalism that's all about boots trudging in snow, and Aimie's one-way conversations with her father who probably returned to Korea just to have more people to talk to. When you see Aimie's mom (Kim Bokja) crying on the couch, you don't ask why. Life's a sad enterprise. There were days when you cried about it too.

December 2, 2009

Sorum: If a Strange Man Offers You a Free Ride, Does It Matter If He's a Cabbie?


I watched Sorum because I wanted some K-horror. But Sorum isn't a fright flick despite the ghosts, the creaky stairs, the constant rain, and that ever-flickering light in the dirty hallway. Sorum is a creepy thriller that gets its chills from the real, not the supernatural. At its center is Yong-hyun, a soulless cab driver (please-take-your-shirt-off-again Kim Myeong-min) who seduces convenience store cashier Sun-yeong (please-throw-out-that-winter-coat Jang Jin-young) shortly after she murders her abusive husband. True to noir, such a romance is predestined and doomed. He may help her bury that wife-beater but that's not enough to keep them together forever. You see, she's got issues with intimacy and he's got hangups around commitment. It takes awhile for each to discover that the other isn't exactly his/her ideal and director Yun Jong-chan takes his time as he reveals not just two disturbing psychologies but a whole shabby apartment building full of them. Aside from these twisted lovers, there's also a failed publisher-turned-plagiarist (Gi Ju-bong) who drinks alot and a widow (Jo An) who lost her baby as well as her husband. The movie's ending is a bit baffling but there's so much good that precedes that who cares.

November 28, 2009

You Are My Sunshine: He's Not So Happy When Skies Are Gray


Don't get me wrong. I'd love it if every prostitute met the man of her dreams and left the biz for a better life. But the "lovable whore" -- not to mention the "gentleman john" -- is a fantasy that rattles me. Can there really be a happily ever after for a hooker and her customer? I can't help but predict disaster. From the looks of You Are My Sunshine, director-writer Park Jin-pyo basically agress. Here, the woman-in-question is sweet, young cynic Eun-ha (Jeon Do-yeon) who wears H&M dresses and delivers coffee (with blow jobs) when she isn't being courted by country bumpkin Seok-joong (Hwang Jeong-min). Eventually, the two pair up for wedded bliss only to find their love knot untangled by the return of her other husband and a frightful diagnosis of AIDS. Before you know it, Eun-ha is back to turning tricks and Seok-joong is in a tailspin that even his well-meaning mother (Na Mun-hee) can't set right. When Eun-ha ends up the Typhoid Mary of HIV, one farming family's tragedy becomes the stuff of tabloid fodder. (There's a great scene in which a photojournalist instructs the grieving Seok-joong to walk away with his shoulders slumped to look sad.) A weepie if there ever was one, You Are My Sunshine nevertheless ends optimistically. These two renew your faith in eternal vows.

November 21, 2009

My Mighty Princess: She's Even Cuter When She's Kicking Your Butt


A martial arts teen romantic comedy with a dash of evil sorcery? Yes, that's right. Kwak Jae-young's My Mighty Princess is just the mash-up that you've been waiting for. But boy, is it complicated. So-hwi (Shin Min-a) wants to hook up with cutie Jun-mo (Yu Geon) from the school hockey team but she's constantly distracted by a family legacy which involves recapturing The Green Destiny Sword and mastering The Lightning Stroke technique perfected by her mother, now dead. She's also got stiff competition for her man by way of a no-nonsense lady cop who her prospective boyfriend is obsessed with. And then there's that pretty-boy childhood friend (On Ju-wan) who says he loves So-hwi but is really more enamored of getting a Kawasaki motorcycle. Will she ever be able to get a kiss from the dude with a mother complex? Will she stop being a brat long enough to learn the sword fighting skills dictated by her dying mother to her telepathic dad? One of the pleasures of My Mighty Princess is how the story keeps incorporating more and complications without ever letting them slow the momentum. Another is Shin's performance which is effortless adorableness even after she's drawn on a mustache to fight incognito to save her man.

November 15, 2009

White Badge: Survival Is Not Always a Reward


Americans know all about the Vietnam War. They also know something about the Korean one. Yet they probably know nothing about South Korea's role in the former, a participation that was both alongside U.S. troops and at their behest. And if Vietnam remains a haunting conflict in American consciousness, it also appears to have wreaked havoc on the Korean psyche as well. In his allegorical fright flick R-Point, director Kong Su-chang equates that war's terrors to supernatural horrors; in White Badge, Jeong Ji-yeong takes a much more naturalistic approach by exorcising those same demons in a grimly nostalgic memory piece. Grounded by a terrific performance by Ahn Sung-kee as a heavy drinking journalist reluctantly writing a novel about his experiences in Vietnam, White Badge neither shies away from the absurdities of the battlefield (the troops mistake a herd of water buffalo for the enemy) nor minimizes the psychic damage to the soldiers who survive. (Pfc. Pyon (Lee Kyeong-yeong) is a basket case unable to salvage his relationship with a prostitute who was his wartime pen pal.) Children as scavengers, bulletproof panties, the paparazzi of the frontlines... White Badge's imagery is so rich, it really does insist on repeated viewings.

November 7, 2009

The City of Violence: A Mediocre Movie That Packs Extra Punch


More than one not-so-hot movie has been rescued by a flashy martial arts finale. Ryu Seung-wan's The City of Violence takes this approach to the extreme: Every fifteen minutes or so comes another playfully shot, precisely choreographed battle that's as visceral as it is gymnastic. There's one great free-for-all in a police station, an unrelenting rumble with an ever-growing street crowd of baseball players, break dancers, and the girls' field hockey team, and an extended fight-to-the-finish that incorporates sliding doors, hilarious hair-pulling and one suddenly fingerless hand. The connection between all this killing and the founding of a casino feels negligible at best and the villain (Lee Beom-su) is neither clever nor charismatic. But ultimately, the WHY behind each punch and kick proves irrevelant. Every time Seok-hwan (Ryu) and his buddy, the detective Tae-su (Jung Doo-hong who's also the fight choreographer), decide to exact physical revenge on behalf of their old pal Wang-jae (Ahn Kil-Kang), you're too busy admiring the roundhouse kicks and wincing at the mouthfuls of blood to worry about something as simple as character motivation. If you need more than fisticuffs, focus on the costumes and the sets which are also thoughtfully executed.

October 31, 2009

No Mercy for the Rude: Turn Your Gaydar on the Tight-Lipped Killer

No Mercy for the Rude secretly wants to be a gay movie. Take a look at its protagonist (Shin Ha-kyun). He's a fashion-conscious assassin who wears leather underwear and whose best friend (Kim Min-jun) used to dance ballet. And if he's not gay then why's this mute, murdering poet always fighting off the advances of that horny nightclub singer (Yun Ji-hye)? Why's the only way he can have a son to find a stray boy on the street? He's also suspiciously over-concerned about the length of his... tongue. (This last part is supposedly the cause of his lisp!) And isn't it more than a little weird that he's consulted the local urologist about his speech impediment? Do straight guys associate the mouth with the penis? I don't think so. Then what's going on here?! The way he kills men isn't gay. That's for sure. But he does hold his victims in a tight embrace while stabbing them. Probably writer-director Park Cheol-hie was just too scared to make an outright queer movie. He's subconsciously piling on homoerotic tidbits left and right but in the end, No Mercy for the Rude keeps its hero straight. Someone should get Park a date with a man. That way his next screenplay's hero won't have an inability to say "I love you."

October 24, 2009

Night and Day: A Cad Abroad (And the Broads Who Love Him)


Somewhere out there is a pamphlet entitled A Beginner's Guide to Existential Filmmaking, Vol. 7: The Paris Edition and somehow director Hong Sang-soo got his hands on a tattered copy. You can tell because his flick Night and Day follows many of the rules therein. To wit: #3 Your protagonist should be a middle-aged man (Kim Yeong-ho) who smokes incessantly. #8 He should fall for a nymphette (Park Eun-hye) whose feet he glimpses poking out from under the sheets. #56 He should also have a wife, a mistress, an ex-girlfriend and a random woman to reject. #114 Scenes should end abruptly, right before something big is going to be said ("What is painting?") or done ("Make love to me!"). Hong's a competent filmmaker so Night and Day is never boring but like a skillful kiss given by a man with bad breath, it's not particularly satisfying either. That disappointing kiss is actually a good analogy too because there's no passion behind Night and Day either. More than anything else, the movie feels like an intellectual exercise in which the director explores ideas like deception, desire, and displacement, minus the deeper anxieties. There's ennui but no poignancy, disillusionment but no real grief.

October 20, 2009

Treeless Mountain: No Small Wonder Just Two Small Actors Wondering


Director Kim So Yong's sophomore effort Treeless Mountain isn't looking to do anything really big. It's focused on small moments. In fact, I'd go so far as to say its main preoccupation is "waiting" as if the film were some juvey Waiting for Godot recast with orphans Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) and Bin (Kim Song-hee) waiting for their mom (Lee Soo-ah) instead of Godot. Like Didi and Gogo, these two young'uns have their visual gags (one wears a powderblue fairy dress) and their acts of desperation (they collect crickets to sell as snacks to the neighborhood kids). Yet despite these Beckettesque touches and some arresting cinema verite camera shots, Treeless Mountain ends up an overly arty slice-of-life that never makes a persuasive case for the drama of existential inaction. Try as Kim might, the lot of nothing showcased here adds up to very, very little. Intercut all Kim's affectedly spare exchanges with grand landscapes of setting suns and drifting clouds, and suddenly something mildly boring becomes something ridiculously pretentious. And while I hate to single out a child actor, Hee-yeon's performance as the older sibling quickly deteriorates from arrestingly lost to ineffectively sullen. You can almost see her little mind saying "Stay depressed" in scene after scene. A little less silence might have helped her immensely.

October 17, 2009

200 Pounds of Beauty: Blubbering Over Love, Your Looks, and Your Life in General


Have you ever noticed how skinny people made to look fat in the movies bear a disturbing resemblance to old people who have extreme plastic surgery in real life? There's something similarly fake-looking about both types of reconstructions. So Kim Yong-hwa's 200 Pounds of Beauty is really turning reality on its head by having the fake chubby chick turn into a real non-fake beauty through a full-body makeover with additional facial refinements. The porker turned pretty is poor overweight Han-na (Kim Ah-jung). She's kind of lost in life, dubbing the voice of pop star Am-my while pining for their cute producer (Ju Jin-mo); her crazy dad (Lim Hyeon-shik) is in the nuthouse; and she's making extra money on the side as a phone sex operator. (Now that's a versatile voice!) Lucky for her, one of her clients is a plastic surgeon (Lee Han-wi) who she can blackmail into giving her a complete overhaul. Reborn as a real looker, Han-na goes by "Jenny" and is out to get herself a man, a career and a new identity by singing covers of Belinda Carlisle, Blondie and Michael Jackson. As one girl, fat and thin, Kim has you hoping she'll find love in either incarnation. But then that's the name of her dog too. Which may be the true love she finds in the end. Woof! Woof!

October 10, 2009

Mother: Family Ties Can Have a Strangling Effect When They're Too Strong


Moms of the world, it's time to face an ugly truth: You inspire some seriously freaky movies from all over the world: Mamma Roma (Italy), Mommie Dearest (U.S.A.), All About My Mother (Spain) and now Mother (South Korea) to name just a few. This last one -- from writer-director Bong Joon-ho -- stars actress Kim Hye-ja in what must certainly be the role of her life: an off-center, unlicensed acupuncturist/herbalist who'll go to any extreme to clear her son (Won Bin) of murder charges. That her 20-something child happens to be a simpleton with a spotty memory and a bad temper isn't helping her cause but like many a good mother before her, she forges on despite the odds against her. The cops exact a confession from her boy? So what! Her lawyer writes off the case as too difficult? So be it! Her son's shady best friend (Jin Gu) extorts her? That's fine as long as he furthers her efforts to unravel the case. What starts off as a heartbreaking homage to maternal devotion ends up a disturbing examination of obsession and an indictment of the sacrosanctity of familial bonds. If you sacrifice everything for someone, then you could end up with nothing but that in the end. Is it enough? You'll have to ask your mother.

October 3, 2009

Crossroads of Youth: The Oldest Surviving Korean Movie (So Far)


To really enjoy an American silent movie, you need live music. To really enjoy a Korean one, you need a live narrator (a.k.a. a byeonsa), too. But even four competent musicians and a talented actor making running commentary and funny voices couldn't make Crossroads of Youth a completely enjoyable experience at Lincoln Center this morning. The problem is Ahn Jong-hwa's melodrama just isn't that melodramatic. The story of a brother and sister (Shin Il-seon) who search for a new life in the big city and find a hard life instead, Crossroads is so polite in its references to prostitution, sex, violence, poverty, and illness, that you never get a real sense of conflict, downfall or danger. There are some strange moments (like when one shady character spends an inordinate amount of time stroking the face of miniature Venus de Milo) and some fun period details (check out the size of the matchbox they strike to light cigarettes) but with few standoffs and fewer plot twists, Crossroads is a fairly bland journey down a fairly familiar road. The climax which finds the brother armed with a sickle while tracking down the men who did his sister wrong culminates in a fairly sham fistfight during which clearly no real physical contact is made. This one is strictly for the vaults.

September 29, 2009

Il Mare: Postal Disservice for Two Pitiable Pen Pals


My heart doesn't go out to women who sleep with teddy bears or run around with a sparkler on an abandoned beach. Nor does it go out to men who think throwing pasta strands is a cure for depression and keep their pet fish in the bathtub. (That's a guy who doesn't bathe often enough in my book.) So I guess I'm not the intended audience for Lee Hyun-seung's Il Mare, a romantic fantasy about a magic mailbox that sends love letters, used headbands and a pair of new red mittens across the time-space continuum, albeit one limited to a two-year stretch. I find it strange that Hollywood greenlit an American adaptation of this piece of melancholic schlock. (Title: The Lake House) In the U.S. version, Sandra Bullock steps in for Jun Ji-hyun (and smartly changes the part from a secondrate voice actor to a heartsick doctor). As the love interest lagging two years behind Keanu Reeves subs in for Lee Jung-jae. Having not seen the latter, I can nevertheless assure you it's probably better because I can't fathom how it could be worse. No one sends a photo back or forward in time; it takes them years to figure out how to meet; both are emotionally stunted and the woman seems untalented as well. Maybe something was lost in translation. Maybe the movie's real name is Il Merde.

September 19, 2009

Holy Daddy: Reincarnation Puts Juvenile Delinquent Back on Track

holy-daddy
The time has come to designate a new sub-genre in Korean cinema: the comedic weepie. Kwon Seong-gook's Holy Daddy will serve as our shining example. How does it qualify and quantify? That's easy. A lifeless stretch of exposition establishes the comic situation. A convict (Lim Ha-ryong) who dies the day before his release from prison is reborn as an ingratiatng groupie (Ha Dong-hoon) out to bond with his lawbreaking son (pop star Lee Min-woo) and thereby curb his crime-ridden ways. Exactly how this particular soul has come back mid-life instead of as a newborn isn't quite clear. Perhaps getting a soul is simply another part of puberty for Korean men, like body hair and a deeper voice. Regardless Ha's performance as the middle-aged man in the adolescent body is so sweetly silly that you forgive the improbability that's preceded. As for the weepie part, that's even easier. Who wouldn't cry if he found out his new best friend was doling out posthumous parental advice before returning to the other side? A subplot involving an angel (Kim Sang Jung) and his daughter the nurse is really the same story in miniature, intended to make you cry twice as much. Oh Daddy! Don't leave me! Stay and be my lover!

September 13, 2009

The Restless: The Official Language of Purgatory Is Mumbo Jumbo


Ah, the weird logic of fantasy worlds. In the Midheaven of The Restless, for instance, the recently departed pray to be reincarnated in human form instead of heading directly for those Pearly Gates. Guess Heaven isn't all it's cracked up to be. Or maybe that magical bath they take to cleanse them of memories has this Medieval crew forgetting that Nirvana was supposed to be the posthumous goal! Whatever their reasons for wanting a one-way ticket back to Planet Earth, Purgatory's in trouble. The once-serene resting place of in-transit souls now finds it's got some rebel spirits among their ranks who want to open up the doors between Earth and Inbetweenland. Sounds like desegregation to me so I'm not sure why "white reaper" So-Hwa (Kim Tae-hee) is so dead set against it. Population control? Elitism? Real estate regulations? Regardless of why or who's right and who's wrong, Yi Gwak the demon killer (Jung Woo-sung) is going to fight alongside her because he loves her as much as he loves turning bad guys into burnt marshmallows with a magic sword that only human hands can handle. Can love triumph over evil? Is it really evil to want to change the world and not just protect it? And what is it with the Korean fascination with computer-generated fireflies? Now that's weird!

September 6, 2009

She's on Duty: High School's Undercover Lovers


No one wants to relive their high school years, least of all Jae-in (Kim Seon-a), an undercover cop whose single accomplishment then may have been to head up an all-girl gang on the playground. But duty calls, so she'll have to put her personal feelings aside in order to infiltrate the student body and cozy up to the shy daughter (Nam Sang-mi) of a mobster (Kim Kap-su) who the police hope to get under their protection so he can rat on the head of a crime ring that promotes dog fights and enslaves Korean girls as prostitutes for the Japanese. That she'll fall in love with a fellow student (Kong Yu) -- who is equally good at Taekwondo and also happens to live next door -- complicates her assignment and confounds her ethical code. All that confusion probably fuels the rage that comes into play whenever she gets in a fight with school bullies, sparring partners in gym or run-of-the-mill thugs in the abandoned backlots where so much crime takes place worldwide. A woman warrior to be sure, Jae-in can singlehandedly overpower gangs of all ages, sizes and gender to jig music no less. Park Kwang-chun's She's on Duty is no masterpiece but it's an enjoyable after school special that teaches girls rock, smoking is bad, and listen to your elders.

August 29, 2009

Spring Bears Love: Why Do All the Mean Girls Get the Cute Guys?


Chalk up Yong Yi's romantic comedy Spring Bears Love as one of those exasperating no-good-ers in which an incredibly likable character courts a thoroughly detestable one. In the first column is Dong-ha (Kam Nam-jin). He's cute, goofy, devoted, upbeat, caring, and has a job! (He works as a train engineer.) In the second column is Hyun-jae (Bae Du-na) who's less cute, klutzy, morose, self-absorbed, and has a job a step down from his. (She's a checkout clerk at a supermarket.) So what's stopping Dong-ha from getting together with Hyun-jae? Well, she's improbably mooning over some unseen guy who's anonymously scribbling love notes in the library's coffee table books on Goya, Renoir and Caillebotte. It seems unlikely that this phantom scribbler is writing to her to be blunt but she's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and neither is Dong-ha. Because of that, there's a certain logic in the two dumbies reconciling themselves to each other at the end but what's illogical is why you'd want to follow this drawn out tale to its happy conclusion and you're bored response. A side story about Hyun-jae's kooky, hospitalized dad (Oh Kwang-rok) and the deaf-mute woman (Lee Hyeon-Kyeong) on whom he's developed a crush is the closest you'll come to escape.

August 22, 2009

Bloody Reunion: Slashing Through the Hierarchy of Pity


By most accounts Mrs. Park (Oh Mi-hee) was a terrible teacher who belittled her students for being too poor, too fat, too slow and too dumb. So why have seven of them gathered together for a little party honoring her royal rottenness before she coughs her way out of this world and into the next? Before you have time to answer that question, the limping jock (Park Hyo-jun), the molested rocker (Lee Dong-kyu), the surgically-enhanced pretty girl (Lee Ji-hyeon) and the rest will be desperately seeking to evade the X-acto blade of some mysterious serial killer who may or may not be the deformed kid that Mrs. Park kept in her basement and who drove her husband to suicide. Why this hideously misshapen youth would want to slaughter the entire class is less clear. Is his mind as disfigured as his face? What would make more sense is that the seven students would wield the baseball bat and the kitchen knife on Mrs. Park herself. Well, it's not that they don't try. But the crazy killer in the bunny mask keeps getting in the way. The only one who survives (no spoiler here; this is made clear from the start) is Mi-ja (Seo Yeong-hie), an unremarkable student whom Mrs. Park has taken in as a nursemaid while she waits for the great beyond. Or a logical conclusion. Neither is forthcoming.

JSA: Joint Security Area: Blood on the Border


When I first saw JSA: Joint Security Area a few years ago, it left me restless and unimpressed. Having seen Park Chan-wook's flashy vengeance trilogy, JSA struck me as too slow, a novice work at best. On second viewing, I feel a bit contrite about that assessment. Today, I'd say JSA is a pretty great movie. Who care that it doesn't have the adrenaline thrills of Lady Vengeance or Oldboy? It delivers just as suspenseful a story, albeit one grounded in political realities instead of quirky fantasy. As a result, JSA proves an engrossing meditation on the same extreme violence that Park is always obsessing about in his more outlandish flicks. His oddly credible story (he co-wrote the screenplay) concerns the unlikely friendship that develops between four Korean border guards -- two from the South (Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-Woo) and two from the North (Song Kang-ho and Shin Ha-kyun) -- as they defy nationalized enmity. Since the movie is constructed as a flashback, you know their rebellious brotherhood is ultimately doomed. Like us, a Swiss military investigator (Lee Geum-ja in a truly fab Louise Brooks haircut) is determined to figure out what led to the final bloodshed that will leave all but one dead. Like her, we're moved by an outcome that feels tragically inevitable.

August 15, 2009

Motel Cactus: Room 407 Is for Losers


Even with its jaded attitudes about sex/love, Park Ki-Young's Motel Cactus conveys nothing so much as inexperience. The director's handheld camera strays across reflecting silver balloons, rain splattered windows, and glass walls etched with nude silhouettes as he searches for that one artful shot to relate the inner anguish of the four couples who'll come to couple in Room 407. But all he gets is a succession of tediously pretentious compositions of half-dressed actors performing badly with toilet paper and airborne condoms, all to a second-rate soundtrack of pseudo-Ry-Cooter. Whether the topic is a relationship's deterioration (as it is in the first vignette) or its reconciliation (as it is in the last scene), Park can't seem to get a handle on what he's trying to say so he focuses instead on how it's going to look. Extreme angles. Neon lights. Fish eyed views. Jump cuts. Long static shots of pretty people doing nothing much. They're all there. Really he's a wannabe Lee Myung-se except unlike his idol, he never attains a stunning visual to accompany his insipid dialogue. Complain all you want about Lee, he does have a strong pictorial sense. Park does not. In Motel Cactus, he has four chances to prove otherwise. And fails every time.

August 8, 2009

The Red Shoes: One Sizes Fits All, Big and Small


Let's get a few things straight: The shoes aren't red. They're pink. And far from making you dance, they just make you feel good and act bad. They may get you laid but they'll also cost you an eyeball, a friendship or your life. In other words, these shoes are costlier than a pair of Jimmy Choos. For Sun-jae (Kim Hye-su), they seem like a godsend at first. Found on the subway (freebies!), they're hardly the cutest stilettos in sight but they're still capable of facilitating sexual conquests and proving the envy of her fat, sassy friend (Go Su-hee). Up till then, Sun-jae's been having a hard time, too. There's a crazy lady in the basement, a husband (Lee Eol) who bullies and cheats, and a bratty daughter (Park Yeon-ah) who's daddy's little girl even after daddy's absent from the scene. Add in a missing high heel from the shoe shrine in the living room and you've got the makings of tragedy. To make matters worse, Sun-jae is having flashbacks of some ballerina's horrific past and falling in love with the interior designer (Kim Seong-su) building her new optometry office (homage to Magritte). Now if he would just stop calling her "a total hypocrite" and "a horny bitch." Sigh! In Kim Yong-gyun's Red Shoes, no one gets what they want. Except us.

August 2, 2009

Thirst: The Blood of Jesus Isn't Supposed to Get You Drunk


Thirst is a long movie. Yet what's wrong with long as long as long's not painful? And director Park Chan-wook is never painful. At least, not painfully boring. Park at his worst is a shocking curio, and an intelligent one at that. What is painful about Park (for the queasy) is his synthesis of gore and lore. But if the sight of a blister-covered, self-martyring priest-vampire (Song Kang-ho) vomiting blood through his recorder strikes you as horrifying and oddly hilarious, Thirst is your kind of picture. Actually, Thirst may be Park's funniest movie so far. One extended sequence focuses on how a deliriously cheerful drowning victim (Shin Ha-kyun) haunts the priest-vampire and his psychopathic soul mate (Kim Ok-bin); another has a paralyzed stroke-victim mother (Kim Hae-sook) revealing -- with eye blinks and finger taps -- that this same bloodthirsty duo has killed her son. Has anyone else shown a compassionate vampire feast on his drink of choice by using the feeding tube of a fat comatose patient as if it were a straw? Not that all the shocks are Grand Guignol grotesqueness. Thirst also contains some seriously hot sex scenes that equate Dracula's charms with masochism. Like the song says, you know it hurts so good.

August 1, 2009

Marrying the Mafia III: Hey Ma. This Kimchi Tastes Awfully Funny


Whether it actually was or not originally, Marrying the Mafia III is straight-to-video in spirit. By that I mean, this jopok comedy is a hammy, shameless structural mess: Two extended flashbacks last so long that you'll forget about the movie they've left behind: one concerns the anti-romance of the playboy brother (Tak Jae-hun) and his no-class wife (Shin Yi); the other concerns the ascent of the mafia mom (Kim Su-mi) in the White Tiger clan. Neither tale enriches the story really. The first just lets the actors wear ridiculous wigs while the second permits a few shoddily edited fight scenes. Mostly, writer-director Jeong Yong-ki is playing fast and loose with the material as he goes for the quick laugh. And there are quite a few of those: a woman jerks off a guy with her foot, a man makes a cartoon cutout in a wall after getting killed by a bus... You'll get restless when the jokes get thin and you're simply watching a crooked prosecutor (Kong Hyeong-Jin) revenge the lovebirds (Shin Hyeon-jun and Kim Won-hie) who put him in jail before founding their kimchi empire. This is the kind of movie where bad guys laugh like "Muahahahaha." Does that make you go "Hahahaha" yourself? Then laugh away. I did.

July 29, 2009

Marrying the Mafia II: Above the Law and Below the Belt


I watched Marrying the Mafia II, not because I liked the first one but because I wanted to see actress Kim Jung-eum do her weirdo act again. That curiosity had to be shelved though since Kim's role this time is minimal if memorable. In truth, Jeong Yong-ki's MTM II isn't an extension of the first movie; it just reuses the same formula with a stronger cast, tighter storyline, and funnier gags. What happens this time is more or less the same: Two pretty people on different sides of the law fall in love forcing one to change his ways if church bells are going to chime. Here it's a gangster (Shin Hyeon-jun) gaga for a female prosecutor (Kim Won-hie). Far from getting her to marry into the mob, he's doing all he can to clean up his act and marry out of it. Before he gets to the wedding aisle, however, you'll get plenty of giggles from jokes based on Big Big breast cream, a padded penis protector, and his outlandish mother (Kim Su-mi) who runs the syndicate. Many of the devices from the first film are repeated (the observatory courtship, the botched serenade, the numbskull brothers) but what felt stale the first time, feels room temperature for take two. Maybe by Marrying the Mafia III, it will feel inventive!

July 27, 2009

Marrying the Mafia: Lessons in How to Be the Bride of Frankenstein


You'd think a jopok comedy that spawned a few sequels would be pretty good. And if it ended up being that year's most highly attended flick in South Korea then it would have to be really funny, too, even if the jokes were all kind of dumb, no? I mean how bad can it be? Which brings us to Jeong Heung-sun's Marrying the Mafia, a head-scratcher that is neither awful nor awesome. It's a stale confection at best, something you might call sweet but never delectable. It wouldn't merit your time at all if it weren't for actress Kim Jung-eum who plays the female lead, a mobster's daughter suddenly headed for an arranged marriage. Like a show-and-tell of extreme performance, Kim's acting is all wrongs that add up to right: As she struggles with both her white collar fiance (Jeong Jun-ho) and her three thug brothers, she overly indicates instead of acts so that perky, sad and annoyed all come across as neurotic, psychotic, and deranged. That she's surrounded by boilerplate interpretations that can be alternately harmless and charmless works to her advantage. With each glare, grin, and goofball glance, she's like the kid in class who's constantly making funny faces. You may find her irritating at first but eventually she will make you laugh.

July 25, 2009

Hansel & Gretel: The Babies of Beelzebub


Childhood, smilehood. Put it that way, and it all sounds so cloyingly sweet, doesn't it? Well, it's just that kind of sickly preciosity that Yim Pil-sung is scrutinizing in his K-horror remake of the Grimm fairy tale. His Hansel & Gretel is no faithful adaptation, however, dear reader, for despite the title, there are three kids, not two, and the carnivorous witch is long gone leaving the children to lure unsuspecting adults to that cozy-looking house in the woods. Babysitters, beware! The oldest child (Eun Won-jae) has diabolical tantrums; the middle one (Sim eun-kyung) struggles with weird sexual boundaries; and the baby (Jin Ji-hee) vacillates between creepy and cute -- as all tykes tend to do. Since mom and dad can't set proper boundaries in absentia, their latest adopted uncle (Cheon Jeong-myeong) must take on the duties of childcare which here means balancing genuine affection with a growing realization that these three are akin to Satan's spawn. When an ungodly deacon (Park Hee-soon) enters the scene, things go from bad to worse. Suddenly, siding with sociopathic delinquents seems like the lesser of two evils. Wicked comes in all sizes and age groups evidently. Sometimes, you should stab indiscriminately. And run!

July 18, 2009

The King and The Clown: A Daisy Chain of Tops and Bottoms


Indigent circus performers strike it rich. Now that's a cause for celebration, right? Sure, it is. But for some lucky clowns, it's also a cause for consternation. You see, when this particular tightrope walker (Kam Woo-seong) and his cross-dressing sidekick (Lee Jun-gi) find favor with a somewhat crazy, petulantly sadistic emperor (Jeong Jin-yeong), they also find themselves drawn into more than one troubled love triangle and some life-threatening political intrigue. But can the rope-walking acrobat help caring so deeply about his cross-dressing cohort? And can the cross-dresser help inspiring lusty thoughts in that kooky king? And, for that matter, can the royal courtesan (Kang Seong-yeon) help being jealous of that role-playing pretty boy who's also good with puppets and has a unique calligraphic style? No. No. No. A magnificently told tale based on a true story from the 16th century Chosun dynasty, The King and the Clown is a topnotch, romantic costume drama that knows when to be comic even if it's headed for tragedy. The performances are uniformly excellent, right down to the minor characters. Needless to say, I'll be checking out other collaborations of director Lee Jun-ik and writer Choi Seok-hwan.

Yesterday: Tomorrow Is Looking Doubly Depressing Today

The year is 2020 and two kindred spirits (Kim Seung-woo and Kim Yunjin) raised during the 1980s are having a rough time of it. Consider the headaches, the memory lapses, and their inability to have a sparkling conversation. A desperate, combined search for their father and a serial killer (Choi Min-Su) isn't about to make their lives easier. And despite all the years that have passed for them (and for us), tomorrow looks suspiciously like yesterday. Cops still fire machine guns, fat girls still sing in discos, and everyone still loves their cellphones -- which now come with constant advertising! In this all-too-familiar future, the most screenworthy character is secondary, a tough lady cop named May (Kim Seon-a) who likes to shoot firearms in a short sporty haircut and a tight-fitting leather tanktop. Maybe in some alternate universe, audiences will get to learn her storyline too and movies -- like video games -- will come with multiple plots we can follow and not just the one chosen by director-writer Jeon Yun-su. For today, we were stuck with Yesterday, his middling scifi flick about three siblings drowning in a messed up gene pool. For something more buoyant, check out Jeon's delightful comedy Le Grand Chef.

July 7, 2009

Voice: Ghost Girls Gone Wild


Complain all you want about the misery of the paper cut. In Choe Ik-hwan's horror movie Voice, pretty young thing Young-eon (Kim Ok-vin) has her throat slit by a flying piece of sheet music. Now that stings! And before you have time to question whether that's even remotely possible, this fourth installment in the Whispering Corridors series will have you completely wrapped up in its strange tale of lesbian girl ghosts and Darwinian power struggles. And it's not just dead dolls doing battle either. You see, Young-eon's gal pal Seon-min (Seo Ji-hye) is being lured away from a posthumous romance by the high school's resident kooky girl Cho-ah (Cha Ye-ryeon) who, as luck would have it, shares Seon-min's recently acquired ability to hear voices from the grave. Cho-ah at least has the sense not to chat with spirits in front of her classmates -- a year in the madhouse provides useful life tools -- and now she has to impart that wisdom to her new BFF before some angry phantom shoves the two girls down an elevator shaft. So who do you trust? Your old best friend who never invited you over her house but has a promising future in opera or you new best friend who's clearly crazy? Which one would benefit your own career in radio?

July 1, 2009

S Diary: Love Is Tragic, Love Is Funny, Love Is Something Else


Sheesh. S Diary is one strange hybrid. Half romance, half comedy, the movie doesn't congeal as a romantic comedy because it tends to keep its genres separate. The first half is lightly serious stuff: a doleful tale of a young woman (Kim Seon-a) out to make boyfriends of three men she's perhaps not suited for. And as she gets closer to something deeply romantic, the movie gets slightly heavier with each subsequent rejection carrying with it a deadlier, more debilitating sting. By the third heave-ho, this unlucky lady is a real casualty of the heart. That's also when the writer-director Kwon Jong-kwan defies expectations and jumps tracks by turning what was a melancholic romance into a humorous revenge fantasy. Gone is the sat-upon sad sack unable to get a guy; in her place is a willful nut job determined to get financially recompensed for the emotional expenditures visited upon her by the choir master (Lee Hyeon-woo), the cop (Kim Su-ro) and the graffiti artist (Kong Yu). Kwon doesn't leave the weightier first half behind entirely though. There's a nice coda too in which our protagonist, a budding authoress, learns that you can't rewrite your past and that love is something best experienced in the moment. Try as we might to define our lives, we're better off just experiencing them.

June 28, 2009

Chunhyang: Famous Courtesan Returns Better Dressed, Less Tragic


Oh no, not her again. Yes, it's another movie about Chunhyang (Lee Hyo-jeong), Korea's favorite daughter of a hooker, bride of the governor's son. And once again, she's too proud, too loyal, and too good for her own good. Because of that, she's still getting jilted when her young husband moves to Seoul. And she's still getting beaten by cudgels when the new governor (Lee Jung-hun) comes to town. So what does director Im Kwon-taek bring that's new to this torturous romance? A much younger leading man (Cho Seung-woo), lots of fabulous hats and robes, and a singer who narrates the action in front of a contemporary audience that acts like an Evangelical congregation. There's less tension here for both real and filmed audiences, as the director rushes the initial courtship as well as the subsequent punishment. In place of the venial and the penal, Kim shares excessive footage of the characters getting from Point A to Point B, which since they're always splendidly costumed, comes across as a dynastic fashion show in the great outdoors. There's also a strange brief moment when rainbow sperm shoot across the night sky but that aside, Kim's version is adamantly folksy, not flashy. Of the three renditions of this popular tale I've seen, this one's the least popular.

June 21, 2009

Cadaver: Have a Heart; On Second Hand, Have Five


K-horror rarely frightens yet it does regularly disturb. In director Son Derek's Cadaver, the disquieting moments all occur at a teaching hospital where six cocky medical students find their boozy disregard of the Hippocratic oath -- on the eve of getting a corpse for dissection -- will lead to a series of gruesome deaths, all seemingly self-inflicted by a scalpel. As each once-giggly undergrad succumbs to the merciless knife, creepy skeletons emerge from their collegial closets like the inhumane heart transplant done by one student's dad, the necrophiliac longings of another student (who happens to be the mystical son of a funeral director) and the patricide by yet another who has trouble sleeping. (Can you blame her?) As to the inappropriate posthumous grope of the corpse's breast, this may be more medical than criminal. How, after all, does formaldehyde affect the fatty tissue of the tit? Some budding doctors need to know! From what I could tell (and Cadaver can be confusing), one guy (whose worst crime may be two-timing) escapes the curse of the cadaver. As to the rest, they're guilty as charged if less so than the possessed serial murderer among them.

June 13, 2009

Over the Rainbow: Weathering Out Seriously Delayed Gratification


Jin-su (Lee Jung-jae) has one major problem in the Romance Dept.: a lack of nerve. This meteorology student is so damned shy he can't express his feelings for a co-ed (Jang Jin-young) in his college photography club which leaves her to pair off with his best bud (Jung Chan) when this classic deep-and-silent type runs off to join the army. The military doesn't make a man out of Jin-su either. It takes a car wreck causing amnesia to do that. Afterward, super-duper slowly, the now-erratic weatherman rebuilds his memories of some mystery woman named "Rainbow" (actually non-memories of him not saying anything and not doing anything) thereby getting the gumption to finally ask this love of his life on a date. Cue credits! What should be a happy ending is so exasperatingly delayed that you're left raging at the screen about how they're a couple of dolts who don't deserve love, that he's eventually going to get fired from the news station because he's incompetent, and she's going to grow bored with him as well as her job in the lost-and-found section of airport security. Over the Rainbow is written, directed and prolonged by Ahn Jin-woo.

June 6, 2009

Please Teach Me English: No White Actors Speak Korean


I got this Kim Sung-su movie not because of how much I loved his Musa: The Warriors but because I honestly have begun to feel guilty about not knowing any Korean. I thought maybe the classroom scenes in Please Teach Me English would include simple translations like how to say "My name is Drew" or "It looks like rain." (It's "Che eerum-un Drew imneeda" and "Piga ol goht katahyo" if you're curious although I had to look up those two phrases online.) But there was nothing to learn like that here. Not only was I not building my Korean vocabulary but I was repeatedly cringing as actress Angela Kelly (who plays the English teacher) was having her Korean lines dubbed by another performer. Oh, the horror! The shame! With no useful lessons to be found, this hokey film must be judged as rom-com alone. Well, it fails as a romance since there's no chemistry between the pining dork of a clerical cog (Lee Na-yeong) and the cute shoe salesman (Jang Hyuk) who's eager to learn English because his long-list sister is returning from America. And it fails as a comedy since it's laughs are based on the idea that it's funny to see a pretty actress act goofy while wearing eyeglasses. I bet an actual instructional video would be funnier. If I learned the word for love, it would be more romantic too.

May 31, 2009

A.F.R.I.K.A.: It Takes Two Guns to Make Four Best Friends


One pretty young thing (Kim Min-sun) has a stalled acting career. Another (Lee Yu-won) has no career to speak of. Bored, cute, and without direction, the two find a couple of guns while on a weekend getaway at the beach then end up car-hijackers/robbers on the run after stealing a vehicle from two guys who've tried to rape them. Soon thereafter, they're joined by a low-rent hooker (Jo Eun-ji) and a high-class ex-con (Lee Young-jin) equally dissatisfied with life and just as eager to run around looking sexy with firearms. More power to them! How these four become a tight-knit girl gang is a direct result of some feminine-bonding activities: pedicures, dancing, cooking, crying, baths with lesbian overtones, group hugs, screaming matches, and even breast enlargement exercises...all made more intense because they're being chased by a bumbling cop (Sung Ji-ru) and his two delinquent sidekicks who lost the guns in a poker game. Shin Seung-soo's A.F.R.I.K.A. is a ballsy chick flick, a reckless romp with gratuitous male nudity. It's completely implausible: No one gets shot despite the endless bang-bang; no one gets caught despite endless video footage of the crimes. Don't hate me for liking it.

May 24, 2009

Daddy Long Legs: Romance Isn't Always Memorable


An unbelievably lucky orphan (Ha Ji-won) finds a place in the world of radio broadcasting thanks to the help of an anonymous donor who has been paying her way, pulling strings, and sending sentimental gifts like a big talking teddy bear to spur her on. Since Daddy Long Legs is a romance, she instinctively knows this benefactor is a real sweetie, not some old lech. And you know what? Against all the odds, she's right! The gentleman-in-question happens to be the cute guy (Yeon Jeong-hun) who works in the library downstairs. (Guess he's a trust fund baby who works just for fun.) What she hasn't foreseen is that this knight in shining armor is suffering from a debilitating disease that will rob him of his memories then his life. That's what makes Daddy Long Legs a tragic romance. And since this poor girl also happens to be cloyingly cute and pretty untalented, it's a treacly, tragic romance that makes you want to puke. The love that develops between her kooky roommate (Shin Yi) and a producer at the station isn't any more heartwarming. It's funny how a really bad romance can leave you feeling cold. Daddy Long Legs left me feeling downright frigid. Brrrrrr.

May 14, 2009

The Tale of Chun Hyang: Ever Hear the One About the Hooker and the Rich Man's Son?


Filmmakers Im Kwon-taek, Han Sang-hun, and Shin Sang-ok each made movies inspired by the tale of Chun-hyang. (In fact, Shin did it not once but twice.) In this North Korean version, director-actor Yu Won–jun puts yet another unique spin on the rags-to-riches fable. The basics remain the same: A prostitute's daughter marries a nobleman only to get dumped before the honeymoon glow has faded from her alabaster cheeks. But Yu has introduced some changes, too. First off, Chun-hyang is now a master weaver from the working class, not just some courtesan's daughter trained in the art of embroidery. Secondly, her rich suitor goes to a heck of a lot more trouble during their courtship which makes his subsequent (temporary) abandonment of her all the more painful. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, The Tale of Chun Hyang certainly isn't in a rush to make these points. It's also mercifully free of the propaganda that you might expect from a North Korean film. Why the movie chooses to downplay the sadistic behavior of Chun-hyang's second suitor may be because Yu has taken so long to get to this point in the story or because Yu cast himself in the role. Perhaps, he simply didn't feel like being a big screen meanie for any length of time.

May 10, 2009

100 Days With Mr. Arrogant: Teen Romance for the Marquis De Sade


"Your slave becomes your lover, your lover becomes your wife."

That's a pretty dark sentiment to embed in a goofy rom-com mining laughs from nose-picking, one-liners about tampons, and the slapstick of shoving. Be that as it may, this is the core idea of Shin Dong-yeob's 100 Days With Mr. Arrogant. A twee update of The Taming of the Shrew, Shin's sadistic comedy subs in a poor, underachieving high school senior (Ha Ji-won) for Kate and a spoiled rich college kid (Kim Jae-won) for Petruchio but it's a similarly disquieting fantasy about subjugation as a form of courtship. Even creepier, in this case, when the man enslaves the woman (after she accidentally causes a scratch on his Lexus 430), he isn't doing it because he hopes to make her a wife. He's doing it because he's bored with life in general. That she's cute strikes him as an afterthought; initially he's just looking for someone to clean his apartment, massage his back, and belittle on a daily basis. That he's cute undermines her resistance and causes her to fall head over heels. There's a certain you-can't-help-who-you-fall-for principle at work here...combined with lighthearted cruelty.

May 2, 2009

When I Turned Nine: The Crush That Couldn't Crush Him


If I remember correctly, when I was nine, the world was a polarized place. Good and bad were pretty easily differentiated, playground alliances dissolved as quickly as they were formed, and crushes came and went with growing intensity despite being hormone-free. Violence could come out of anywhere. Furthermore, the meaning of life wasn't obfuscated by fancy theories. It just was. Everything had a mystery to it. Yun In-ho's grade school drama When I Turned Nine does a lovely job of capturing that time as it charts the evolving relationship between a noble spirited boy (Kim Seok) and the new girl (Lee Se-yeong) whom he falls for. She's both pretty and pretty awful: She lies pathologically, screams if she doesn't get her way, fake cries if she's losing an argument, and acts like she's better than everyone else. Yet you never question his devotion to her because when you're a kid no one expects your actions to be ruled by logic. (That they do expect that from adults can be a bit baffling.) Maybe she's acting out because of a deep, dark secret. Maybe she's a sociopath. We'll never know. Like our hero's mom (Jeong Seon-kyeong), we're blind in one eye. We know we only see half the picture at any given moment and that the big answers are, most likely, not forthcoming.

April 25, 2009

The Chaser: The Kid Stays in the Crime Picture


The reveal and the capture of the serial killer come so soon in The Chaser that you might think, there's no likelihood of unrelenting tension in the hours ahead. Well, you're wrong! Director Na Hong-in and fellow screenwriters Hong Won-chan and Lee Shinho have made something more suspenseful than a standard whodunit; the mystery here isn't who did it, it's whether he'll get away with it despite his confession. What "it" is in this case is the attempted murder of a call girl (Seo Yeong-hie) whose morally compromised pimp (Kim Yun-seok) is undergoing a seismic shift inside as he searches for the lair of her last customer, a psychopath (Ha Jung-woo) held in detention by the cops. It's a wonderfully messy story with subplots involving police brutality, embezzlement, sex trafficking, auto insurance, church finances, and even a mayor who's been hit in the face with human feces. But aside from one glitch near the end in which a delightfully tough lady dick (Park Hyo-ju) inexplicably lets the murderer get away, the twists and turns of The Chaser keep you on your toes. Factor in that this is Na's first feature and an amazing performance by Kim Yoo-jeong as the prostitue's kid, and this movie is a super-impressive addition to Korean noir.

April 22, 2009

Seong Chun-hyang: Hey Sweetheart! It's Easier to Die for Love


I think you could safely call Seong Chun-hyang a tragedy. For while the title character (played by Choi Eun-hie) does end up with the governor's son (Kim Jin-kyu), she nevertheless suffers through a number of brutal beatings and more than a few days in the stocks before she gets him. Her final reunion with the careerist husband who deserted her doesn't feel romantic. It feels like a marginal improvement over the decapitation she would have undergone if he hadn't come back to town. As happily ever afters go, Shin Sang-ok's paean to purity conforms strictly on superficial grounds. She sacrifices selflessly for him; he comes across as a self-absorbed jerk. This imbalance allows the director to take a sadistic pleasure in documenting the price that comes with living a virtuous life—made especially difficult since her mom's a locally famous whore. It's a theme Shin and screenwriter Lim Hee-jae would visit again (and more effectively) in My Mother and Her Guest. That's not to say Seong Chun-hyang isn't good. It is. Very much so. And with its gorgeous costumes in eye-popping yellows, pinks and greens and lighting effects in even more-lurid shades, Seong Chun-yang is never dull to watch. Someone should turn it into a musical.

April 19, 2009

A Thousand Year-Old Fox: She's Got Spirit But It's Mostly Evil


I admit that earlier in this blog, I've made wisecracks about other Shin Sang-ok movies: the hammy Deaf Sam-ryong, the sentimental Romance Papa, the melodramatic My Mother and Her Guest. But I have a soft spot for each of these creaky old movies, too. That's not the case with A Thousand Year-Old Fox, his corny historical fantasy of B-movie excess. To describe the plot is to make the film sound more titillating than it is but here goes: A lascivious queen seduces a general and exiles his wife, who -- attacked by woodland troublemakers -- has her baby stomped to death before she jumps into a cursed lake only to be possessed by the spirit of a wicked fox. And that's just the first ten minutes. After that come plenty of scenes of the now-demented woman floating around in her nightgown and terrorizing the palace guards before awaking in her bed in a feverish sweat. Can her husband bring himself to kill her once he learns the truth of her nightly escapades? Can the lustful queen find love with the general if she passes on her crown and steps down from the throne? Will Shin succumb to every temptation to add cheesy special effects and silly music cues? The answers are yes, no, and yes.

April 16, 2009

Son of a General II: Ex-Con Gets His Kicks From Raising Hell and Reading Literature


Im Kwon-taek's General's Son was such a big hit that the next year, the director slapped together a sloppy sequel that neither furthers the story nor fleshes out its hero. Gangster-activist Kim Doo-han (Park Sang-min) is back after a short stint in the penitentiary and he's fighting mad! Motivated by either patriotism or petty thievery, he's fallen right back into the same behavior that landed him behind bars: He's executing roundhouse kicks on the Japanese and flirting with the geishas at the local bar. Shame on you, Kim! It's one thing to beat up foreign thugs for your country but a little maturity is called for too. You should pick a single prostitute to be your gal and settle down. Didn't all that time in the clink teach you anything? Well, maybe Kim's judgment and his memory (he seems to have forgotten his lineage again) is clouded by all those congratulatory shots of liquor he's always receiving. He's older now. He's more circumspect. But he can't handle liquor like he once could. And since he's also developing a love of literature after two hired students read the novel Pure Love out loud to him, everyone in town knows his days as a kingpin in a double-breasted suit are numbered. That purple prose is deadly.

April 12, 2009

Oldboy: Revenge Is Sweet, Repeatedly


I'd always been afraid to watch Oldboy a second time because I loved it so much the first. This movie, along with Save the Green Planet, is why I'm the longstanding fan of Korean film that I am. I didn't want to mess with that memory. I didn't want to rob Oldboy of its stature. In a nutshell, I was secretly worried that knowing the "shocking ending" beforehand would diminish the pleasures ahead. Would it end up feeling like a gimmick flick? Not to fear. Park Chan-wook's revenge masterpiece works equally well when you're clued in to the horrific plot twists. It's still creepy, lyrical, and deranged but now it's also deterministic. That main guy is doomed! Choi Min-sik gives what's likely the performance of his career as a man who, imprisoned 15 years for crimes unknown, is driven crazy by his need to discover why he was captured and confined. He's more than ably supported by Kang Hye-jeong as a blameless femme fatale and Yu Ji-tae as his pretty boy nemesis. The whole spiral downward is stunningly shot, paced, and performed. And does anyone not like perfection simply because they know where it's going? Not me. If an ending's any good, it's good whether you know it's coming or not. The spoiler is a term reserved for second-rate films.

April 5, 2009

Witchboard: Burning Down the Schoolhouse


For the young school girls of Ahn Byeong-ki's Witchboard, fear of possession is a trifle when compared to the terror of having one demonic teen (Lee Se-eun) hypnotize you into committing suicide by placing a plastic bag over your head and lighting it on fire. Nor is the local psychic (Choi Jeong-yun) safe when confronted by the deceptively passive new art teacher (Kim Gyu-ri) who herself is possessed by the spirit of the dead mother (Kim again) whose child was murdered by the townsfolk 30 years ago because they hated how the kid looked with glaucoma. Sound discombobulating? Well, there's another teacher (Choi Seong-min) -- studies unknown -- with cheekbones as high as his moral standards who shares the audience's sentiments. He's trying to figure it all out but he's always one step behind the carnage. Plus his dad won't tell him the town's ugly secret. Heads burn. Buildings explode. A body is bludgeoned by a pair of scissors over and over again. (That part's really bloody!) Yet teacher never saves a soul except those of the murderers themselves. This is the price that comes with being uninformed. It makes sense that the subtext of a movie set in a high school would advocate educating yourself promptly.

March 28, 2009

Nowhere to Hide: Look at the Crime; Don't Attend to the Crime


Nowhere to Hide certainly looks good. It's got a grainy black-and-white prelude in which one high-energy police bust periodically freeze frames into Crayola-colored stills. It's got slow, arhythmic pans that slide across glass surfaces reflecting autumn leaves, street lights and garish neon. It's got one extended fight sequence shot in silhouette so that it looks like cool shadow puppetry. All of this is good. It's also got a villain (Ahn Sung-kee) who despite being a murderer doesn't seem to justify the extensive manhunt. It's got a main cop (Park Joong-hoon, a kind of poor man's Song Kang-ho) who's technique is limited to swagger, smile and run. The detective has an ineffective sidekick (Jang Dong-kun); the bad guy, a teary-eyed girlfriend (Choi Ji-woo). All of this is bad. Does it balance out in the end? I'd say Nowhere to Hide is the perfect party video; director Lee Myung-se's movie is the type you want playing on a wall at a nightclub or a rave, its periodically flashy visuals acting as conversation-starters and boredom-preventers. Minus the dialogue (and there isn't much, frankly), Nowhere to Hide is fit to be seen and danced to.

March 25, 2009

Deaf Sam-ryong: He Can't Hear You Say Stop Loving Me


People say you can make your own family but I don't know. I think you're pretty much born with whatever it's going to be and that the best of everyone else is just really good friends if you're lucky. You can't make someone a blood relative aside from marriage. From the looks of Deaf Sam-ryong, director Shin Sang-ok agrees with me. His effective weepie about a servant (Kim Jin-kyu) with no hearing and only half a brain shows that you can be the best-behaved son to the man you wish were your father but he'll always choose his own offspring first, and that you can be the most chaste, self-sacrificing idolizer of a well-bred lady (Choi Eun-hie) but she'll always side with her husband even if he beats her and sleeps with the maid. Maybe if this surrogate son/lover wasn't such a simpleton that wouldn't be the case but poor Sam-ryong has only the cards he's been dealt by life and those add up to a losing hand. Although his performance is painfully over-the-top, Kim creates a sympathetic character eventually. I guess you can't be this downtrodden and not merit a handful of hankies. Choi, for her part, must be credited for keeping a straight face during Kim's shameless mugging.

March 19, 2009

YMCA Baseball Team: This Diamond's for Sports Fans


One of these days, I'm going to get around to reading Pindar. Maybe if I'd read the Olympian odes of literature's first sports fanatic, a don't-think, feel-good movie like YMCA Baseball Team wouldn't seem so mystifying. It's not that I don't get it: Korea's first baseball team (circa 1906) unifies the nation by defeating their Japanese opponent-oppressors; it's not that I don't enjoy it: Is it ever bad to see a film with Song Kang-ho in the lead? It's just that I don't buy it. I never experience an epiphany when an athletic underdog overcomes the odds, in a fabricated context. Sports have neither the drama of theater nor the grace of dance. In short, they're not art...especially baseball which has to be the slowest organized sport out there after golf. The best you can say about a baseball movie is at least it doesn't draw out every inning. Only the final one. And if you're second-guessing who's going to win in the rematch between Korea and Japan here, you've probably never seen a sports movie before. Should that be the case, Kim Hyeon-seon's popcorn confection is a giggle-inducing introduction to the genre. Call it a hit and I'll agree. Call it a home run, and I'll accuse you of fudging stats.