January 31, 2009

Volunteer: Short on Gold and Silver? Go for Army Brass

Among the world's universal truths is this: If you're poor and your dad's dead and your mom and sister are financially dependent on you, and your girlfriend just weighs you down with all her self-deprecation, and the family's status has been demoted by the landowner whose property you work, and you're young and energetic and looking for a new life, a new opportunity, you can always join the army. It's true today; it was true in the early 1940s when Ahn Seok-young's Volunteer was made. But even as a large group of joyous kids play at being soldiers midway through the movie, no one thinks a military life is going to translate to the same level of fun. Furthermore, since the army in this case is actually a branch of the occupying Japanese forces, an enlistee won't even get those warm, fuzzy feelings of patriotism that could help him through a cold night sleeping on a cot or an early morning simulating battles. The best he can look forward to may be a comfort kit and a sincere letter from his sister. As a propaganda film, Volunteer should be praised for its ability to sell the message of its oppressor in a way that doesn't encourage you to buy.

January 29, 2009

Fisherman's Fire: Hot Pants Under a Kimono

Reportedly, only four Korean movies survive from the 1930s and Fisherman's Fire is one of them. But is it the entire movie? Viewed today, Ahn Chul-yeong's film gives the impression of once running longer than 52 minutes. A melodramatic "who'll pay the debt" conflict isn't totally fleshed out in the first half; the protagonist's downward spiral into whoredom is abruptly righted just before the end. As a piece of storytelling, this one feels alternately redundant and disjointed. Screen it in a Chelsea art gallery today and the critics would laud its leaden pacing as avant garde. But unlike Kim Ki-duk's Bad Guy which tackles the same topic over sixty years later, the rake who proves the girl's undoing isn't a pimp. He's an amoral creep out to get laid. The cad picks her up at a train station then basically holds her hostage in his apartment while trying to get her to drink booze and eat candy. Never a good combination, especially as foreplay. By the time she escapes, she's no longer a virgin and the guilt of her fallen status drives her to live as a geisha where one of her first clients is... guess who. This fate she too escapes but by her own admission, she'll never be the same.

January 28, 2009

Straits of Chosun: The Language of the Oppressor

The prodigal son (Nam Seung-min) returns only to be rejected at home for reasons unspoken. Let the symbolism begin. Director Park Ki-chae's Straits of Chosum was shot during the Japanese occupation and it's hard not to interpret the evasive dialogue, the missed connections, and the extended silences as the freaky byproducts of a culture of paranoia. Made in Korea but recorded in Japanese, this all-but-forgotten film is truly about a psychopolitical schism. Women dress in ancestral garb; men wear pin-stripe suits. An obstinate father forsakes his child for breaking from tradition then celebrates his joining the conqueror's militia. The young, abandoned wife runs through the crowd hoping to show her husband their baby but he's being such the good soldier his eyes never drift towards the crowd. No wonder this same mother faints from exhaustion while manning an old black sewing machine labeled Brother. You can't stitch a life together under such conditions, sweat as you might to do so. And while there's plenty of flag-waving for the Land of the Rising Sun, you'd hardly call this a patriotic movie for either country. Although the images are black and white, the movie's message is awfully gray.

January 22, 2009

General's Son: Gaining Popularity by Kicking Japanese Butt

I'd like to pimp-slap the Foley artist who first introduced the smack of a bare hand on leather as the simulated sound for karate kicks and roundhouse punches. In General's Son, the perpetuation of this tradition pulls you out of a movie that should be more patriotic biopic than martial arts fantasy despite its numerous hand-to-hand combats. The subject-at-hand is Kim Doo-han (Park Sang-min), a real-life gangster-turned-activist who became a national hero after standing up to the Japs during occupation and acting as a Robin Hood to prostitutes. Furthering Kim's myth, director Im Kwon-taek attributes his hero with an aristocratic bloodline and a rear end that supposedly drives the other guys in prison crazy. (Here's a guy with broad appeal!) Adding to the movie's fabulist aspect is its sloppy disregard for period detail: Guys wearing half-cocked fedoras topping greaser ducktails face off in front of strip mall architecture. When it came out in 1990, General's Son was a blockbuster. You could say its immense success helped usher in the slick cinematic masterpieces which would follow in the nineties while acting as a clunky capstone for what preceded. But you don't need to since I just did.

January 21, 2009

Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East?: Does Anybody in the West Really Care?

Writer-director-editor-cinematographer-riddler-esthete-bore Bae Yong-kyuh took seven years to make Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East and you'll feel as though he's robbed you of just that many years once you've watched this flick in its entirety. An interminable meditation on The Way, this movie subscribes to one of its many grating profundities: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." With such a maxim in mind, little is said and what little is said has little meaning. Some may argue, the nature of nature itself is the meaning but personally, I think there's a reason the old monk (Yi Pan-yong) hasn't amassed many followers. He's not that deep. The only followable instruction he gives to his one acolyte (Sin Won-sup) is to burn him in an old wooden chest when he's dead. Otherwise, it's basically, let moon, sky and mountain be your teachers. Helped by such a faculty, his follower decides to "be like a tree and leave" after the funeral. That there's a child (Huang Hae-jin) adopted into the faith who will now be left entirely alone at the monastery doesn't overly concern him. But then that boy's not a likable child. Listen carefully to Jin Gyu-yeong's demonic soundtrack or take note of that stalking bird if you have any doubts.

January 16, 2009

Puzzle: So What If It All Fits Together

You've seen this before. Mismatched strangers unite to commit the ultimate heist then something goes awry sending everyone into a panic as each wonders whom to trust. It worked for Ryu Seung-wan in No Blood, No Tears; even minus an actual theft, it worked for Kim Jin-seong in Geochilmaru. But it doesn't work for Kim Tae-kyung in Puzzle. The problem is Kim's screenplay traffics so much in the familiar that you suspect that the greatest crime being committed on screen here is plagiarism. Equally guilty of artistic misdemeanors are the actors who commit identity thefts of performances they admire instead of actually creating a role all their own. That's if you can call Hong Seok-cheon's ranting or Park Jun-seok's afro-fluffing a form of acting. I think it's called "acting out." And they have every right to be angry or pissy with Kim's script which gets so wrapped up in the tangled web it's weaving that it forgets to create a spider. Puzzle is in many ways a series of dialogues relating an outline. Through one-too-many flashbacks which incorporate too-too-many coincidences, we learn every possible thing of note for all five characters. What's missing is the mystery. In a thriller, that's a deadly omission.

January 11, 2009

Spider Forest: A Deadly Case of Amnesia

Memory can be tricky but at least most people have the luxury of knowing their lives will unfold in a linear fashion. Not so, Kang Min (Kam Woo-seong). This unlucky victim of a hit-and-run accident is caught in an infernal time loop that has him regaining consciousness in the most traumatic parts of his past. Struggling to get a grip on reality, he's forced to relive the death of his wife (Suh Jung), the loss of his job as a TV producer, a deeply felt betrayal by his newscaster-girlfriend (Kang Kyeong-heon), and his all-but-forgotten childhood which he's slowly piecing together with some help from a strangely familiar photoshop owner (Suh Jung again). That Kang's doing all this while suffering from a spider-bite and a serious head injury only compounds his hallucinogenic disorientation. Beautifully shot and intoxicatingly cryptic, Song Il-gon's Spider Forest is a humdinger of a puzzler to be sure. You may be able to predict certain plot twists but Song executes them so exquisitely and with such nuance that even the expected feels fresh. A noir fable with a couple of steamy sexy scenes, Spider Forest is a movie I've got lost in more than once. No doubt, I'll go there again.

January 10, 2009

Typhoon: There's a Storm Brewing for the South

There are whole dialogues in Typhoon that are in English (and Russian too) but that doesn't make it any easier to understand. Something's going on involving modern-day piracy, nuclear terrorism, and a North Korean family's amnesty request being denied but how these elements all fit together is a mystery...at least, at first. Later, a childhood flashback makes everything crystal clear. That's too bad. This melodramatic thriller is much better when it's being frustratingly confusing than when it's being overly simplistic. Not that it's ever very good. While its visual shorthand can be charming -- the villain (Jang Dong-kun) has messy, rock-n-roll hair and a leather jacket; the bland hero (Lee Jung-jae) sports a crewcut and white Oxford shirts -- the cinematic bombast promised by its 15 million dollar budget, a record high in South Korea when it was produced, never arrives. From the looks of it, auteur Kwak Kyung-taek would've done well to hire an outside screenwriter and put a toy boat in a bathtub for the climactic battle scene which simulates a major storm to minor effect. Maybe some of the funds went to getting top-shelf heroin and morphine for scenes involving the terrorist's druggie-prostitute sister (Lee Mi-youn). Lucky her, eh?

January 5, 2009

The Way Home: Grandma's a Lovable Nincompoop... Seriously!

When an economically challenged mother (Dong Hyo-hee) dumps her city brat of a child (Yu Seung-ho) in the boonies with his hunchbacked grandmother (Kim Eul-boon), what the movies usually teach us (and the boy) is how that easily-dismissed, feeble-minded crone really isn't so stupid after all. In fact, she's a genius! That's not the case with Lee Jeong-hyang's The Way Home however. Grandma really is that dumb: She can't speak, she can't read, she can't write, she can't count change. She can barely get her point across -- when she has one to make -- with folksy hand gestures. She's got no street smarts or psychic insights about the weather either. As far as intelligence goes, all she's really got is enough to get by. She's a passable seamstress, a subsistence farmer, and a tireless hiker without even a pet to call company. Combine this uncomplaining stoicism with a quiet, unearned devotion to her grandson (and any nearby villager in need), and this little old lady doesn't qualify as a saint so much as a lovably pitiable old creature. Wait. Maybe that does constitute a saint! In that case, you could call The Way Home a hagiography, and a heavenly one at that.

January 3, 2009

Acacia: When the Bough Breaks the Family Will Fall

High art horror? It can happen. Acacia is proof of nothing less. Park Ki-hyeong's slow-burn psychodrama about a middle-aged couple who adopt an autistic boy (Mun Oh-bin) is simultaneously an avant garde portrait of middle-class ennui with its prolonged silences of estrangement and its sinisterly surrealist touches and a typical Saturday afternoon chiller with spooky music, sudden camera lurches, and a building body count. Neither approach feels at cross purposes with the other since Park is committed to both in full. Sure, he'll have the psychotic mother (Shim Hye-jin) wield scissors against her husband (Kim Jin-geun) but he'll also have her do it in a living room that she's converted into an art installation of red yarn. Why shouldn't life be acted out amid a gallery's worth of symbols? By the final climax, during which two murders -- one present; one past -- are revealed, Acacia has so effectively grafted its two opposing genres together that you accept the tree in the backyard as a harmless plant that the crazies have laden with meaning and as an evil force incapable of mercy. No interpretation is wrong. Freezeframe the Munch-like drawings by the precocious orphan if you're looking for further explanation.