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.