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.