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.