February 28, 2009

My Mother and Her Guest: The High Road Leads to Heartbreak

On paper, mother (Choi Eun-hee) isn't such a great catch. She's sexually repressed, she beats her daughter, and she's so old-fashioned that she's afraid to get her hair styled in a modern cut. Even with all these shortcomings, however, you secretly hope the 28-year-old widow will somehow climb out of her suffocating shell and forge a romantic relationship with the dashing boarder (Kim Jin-kyu) who's shacking up with her, her daughter (Jeon Yeong-seon), and her mother-in-law (Han Eun-jin). Plenty of opportunities present themselves thanks to the conniving of her child, an adorable tyke who takes great pleasure out of telling little lies that add to the drama of the household. Love letters lead to a single encounter at the family well where you think the roomer and the widow might finally kiss but he's been out on a bender so she can't bring herself to taste his liquored breath. It's a night of hugs! She's a woman of principle! This is not a romantic comedy! In melodrama, the only chance an upstanding woman has at getting married depends on shame. That certainly worked for her maid (Do Geum-bong) and an egg vendor (Kim Hee-gab) who end up getting hitched after he got overly intimate with her eggs one afternoon. Chastity is a source of pride not happiness in this memorable film from director Shin Sang-ok.

February 22, 2009

The Host: Honey, I Lost the Kid... to a Mutant Monster

Government. Military. Big business. The medical establishment. The media. Which is the most inhumane, the most corrupt, the most evil? While The Host's central family unites to track down the aquatic Godzilla who's kidnapped their daughter (Ko Ah-sung), director Bong Joon-ho hilariously castigates the movie's true villains -- those power-crazed officials who keep getting in their way. Yet The Host is hardly some diatribe of antiestablishmentarianism; Bong is critical of his core characters, too: the slacker dad (Song Kang-ho), his self-defeating sister (Bae Du-na), his bossy brother (Park Hae-il) and the lovable grandfather (Byeon Hie-bong). Everyone does stupid things, no matter what your walk in life. To err is human. But what's also human are the brave, crazy acts that love can inspire us to. What elevates The Host from Kaiju camp to exceptional monster movie is how Bong uses familial love -- as opposed to romantic -- to propel his four squabbling yet noble family members to the very bowels of the Earth. You could say their rescue efforts fail but the final image of a re-configured family of survivors is nothing if not uplifting. Song's performance as the endearing doofus dad is frankly unforgettable.

February 14, 2009

I'm a Cyborg But That's Okay: A Doorway to the Psych Ward's Padded Cell

For years, critics censured Park Chan-wook for glamorizing violence in his landmark trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance). And while you'll encounter the same high-gloss gunfire in I'm a Cyborg But That's Okay too, Park slyly sidesteps the issue this time by placing every gloriously shot, bloody massacre inside one crazy character's trippy head. She's a mental patient (Lim Su-jeong in a fright wig) who think she's bionic so her little fingers turn into mini-machine-guns whenever she gets too lightheaded from malnourishment and feels compelled to act out a fantasy. Now the question arises: Is an artful staging of a mass murder more or less offensive when it makes you wish it had happened? By the closing credits, I was convinced that this movie would have been better if the delusional damsel was really an android assassin capable of mowing down doctors and orderlies, and that likewise, her fellow inmate (played by the pop star Rain) would be more interesting if he did indeed have the ability to steal people's personality traits or shrink to the size of a dot. Because their whimsical romance never makes that glorious leap to scifi, the electroshocking moments leave us with a clean conscience: We haven't seen anything that will corrupt us.

February 7, 2009

Sex Is Zero: The Fifth Power of Adolescent Foolishness

Sex Is Zero is a conditional comedy which means you'll have to accept these five implausible provisos up front. 1. That there's nothing weird about a college in which no one ever goes to class. 2. That you're comfortable with that same college being attended by a student body of undergraduates older than 25 and obsessed with aerobics. 3. That you're okay with the main character Eun-shik (Lim Chang-jung) having his testes and penis removed as a result of two pranks. 4. That a person, many people, could fall four stories without any serious damage. 5. That a man could swallow a mouse whole. If you can accept these five things, then Yun Je-gyun's hyper-silly hormonal romp will amuse you. I myself laughed out loud after one young woman vomited profusely then French kissed her boyfriend as well as when another young woman screamed in horror as her gay boyfriend dipped into what he thought was the logical hole. Gross. Gratuitous. Grody. Yes. Sex Is Zero is puerile. Yet the pitiable subplot about a tragic abortion, while serious in intent, will simply leave you screaming: "More breasts! More masturbation! More slapstick martial arts hijinks, please!"

February 2, 2009

Military Train: Getting on the Right Track for the Great Hereafter

History can have a fascinating effect on interpretation. Take a look at Military Train for instance. When it came out in 1938, a moviegoer might have considered Seo Kwang-je's bit of agitprop to be the story of an engineer whose obsession with a comfort woman drives him to commit a traitorous act that leaves him so wracked with guilt that he throws himself under a locomotive and thereby becomes the patron saint of the rails. Viewed today, you might see this same scenario very differently. Maybe he's a noble proletariat whose love for a helpless prostitute inspires him to a revolutionary act against the oppressive regime until a boomeranging self-doubt sends him over the brink into madness. Personally, I don't know if Military Train fits neatly into either analysis since it's lovelorn lead registers primarily as a superficial naif with a good haircut and a charming smile. He doesn't seem good when he's rescuing the maiden, when he's breaking the law, or when he's taking his own life. His pudgy buddy has a much clearer sense of right and wrong and a less drastic approach towards love. His attitude with his girlfriend is basically, it's nice to have someone like you. He's right about that.

February 1, 2009

Sweet Dream: She Wants What She Wants

"How can a housewife not care about housekeeping?" Exasperating questions such as this one make the heartless, self-absorbed behavior of Sweet Dream's anti-heroine something to root for. But expecting your sympathies to stick with her as she purchases the most expensive dress in the store out of spite, turns her lover in to the cops out of boredom, and mows down her daughter in a taxi because she simply has to catch that train may be asking too much of audiences -- feminist or not. Regardless of whether you relish her evil nature or hunger for her downfall, this is nevertheless one melodrama that promises to satisfy. Three other things to like about Yang Ju-nam's wicked potboiler. 1. A dance performance by a guy (with amazing thighs) who quips upon receiving a bouquet from the bad girl: "Pretty flowers have thorns." 2. A classroom scene in which young girls are taught that if they're killed or crippled, it's their parents who will suffer. 3. A final, scenery-chewing suicide made more delicious by the entrance of the husband who realizes there's no point in shooting this bitch of a wife because she's already dead. Sweet Dream is among the earliest talkies we have from Korea but its pleasures extend beyond the historic.

Spring in the Korean Peninsula: Moviemaking Made Unmoving

I thought the tonsilectomy that I had in my early thirties had completely cured me of snoring but apparently not because twice the sound of just that woke me up at MoMA's matinee screening of Spring in the Korean Peninsula. During my conscious moments, I concluded that there is a good reason that Lee Byeong-il's backstage romance was "lost" for over half a century: No one really cared to look for it. On paper, the movie has all the makings of a respectable soap opera. An aspiring actress comes to town and lands a prime role when the filmmaker's ex-girlfriend drops out and takes a job at a bar. (Odd career move, admittedly.) Afterwards, he embezzles money from his day job to fund the production then gets caught and jailed (after catching a nasty cold) then is bailed out by his ex who nurses him to health in secret as his new leading lady grows sick herself with worry while fending off the overtures of the boss who put her Svengali in the slammer. Despite all the longing and wronging, Spring in the Korean Peninsula isn't particularly dramatic. The main source of tension for the viewer comes from the pro-Japanese propaganda tagged on at the end.