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.