October 31, 2009

No Mercy for the Rude: Turn Your Gaydar on the Tight-Lipped Killer

No Mercy for the Rude secretly wants to be a gay movie. Take a look at its protagonist (Shin Ha-kyun). He's a fashion-conscious assassin who wears leather underwear and whose best friend (Kim Min-jun) used to dance ballet. And if he's not gay then why's this mute, murdering poet always fighting off the advances of that horny nightclub singer (Yun Ji-hye)? Why's the only way he can have a son to find a stray boy on the street? He's also suspiciously over-concerned about the length of his... tongue. (This last part is supposedly the cause of his lisp!) And isn't it more than a little weird that he's consulted the local urologist about his speech impediment? Do straight guys associate the mouth with the penis? I don't think so. Then what's going on here?! The way he kills men isn't gay. That's for sure. But he does hold his victims in a tight embrace while stabbing them. Probably writer-director Park Cheol-hie was just too scared to make an outright queer movie. He's subconsciously piling on homoerotic tidbits left and right but in the end, No Mercy for the Rude keeps its hero straight. Someone should get Park a date with a man. That way his next screenplay's hero won't have an inability to say "I love you."

October 24, 2009

Night and Day: A Cad Abroad (And the Broads Who Love Him)

Somewhere out there is a pamphlet entitled A Beginner's Guide to Existential Filmmaking, Vol. 7: The Paris Edition and somehow director Hong Sang-soo got his hands on a tattered copy. You can tell because his flick Night and Day follows many of the rules therein. To wit: #3 Your protagonist should be a middle-aged man (Kim Yeong-ho) who smokes incessantly. #8 He should fall for a nymphette (Park Eun-hye) whose feet he glimpses poking out from under the sheets. #56 He should also have a wife, a mistress, an ex-girlfriend and a random woman to reject. #114 Scenes should end abruptly, right before something big is going to be said ("What is painting?") or done ("Make love to me!"). Hong's a competent filmmaker so Night and Day is never boring but like a skillful kiss given by a man with bad breath, it's not particularly satisfying either. That disappointing kiss is actually a good analogy too because there's no passion behind Night and Day either. More than anything else, the movie feels like an intellectual exercise in which the director explores ideas like deception, desire, and displacement, minus the deeper anxieties. There's ennui but no poignancy, disillusionment but no real grief.

October 20, 2009

Treeless Mountain: No Small Wonder Just Two Small Actors Wondering

Director Kim So Yong's sophomore effort Treeless Mountain isn't looking to do anything really big. It's focused on small moments. In fact, I'd go so far as to say its main preoccupation is "waiting" as if the film were some juvey Waiting for Godot recast with orphans Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) and Bin (Kim Song-hee) waiting for their mom (Lee Soo-ah) instead of Godot. Like Didi and Gogo, these two young'uns have their visual gags (one wears a powderblue fairy dress) and their acts of desperation (they collect crickets to sell as snacks to the neighborhood kids). Yet despite these Beckettesque touches and some arresting cinema verite camera shots, Treeless Mountain ends up an overly arty slice-of-life that never makes a persuasive case for the drama of existential inaction. Try as Kim might, the lot of nothing showcased here adds up to very, very little. Intercut all Kim's affectedly spare exchanges with grand landscapes of setting suns and drifting clouds, and suddenly something mildly boring becomes something ridiculously pretentious. And while I hate to single out a child actor, Hee-yeon's performance as the older sibling quickly deteriorates from arrestingly lost to ineffectively sullen. You can almost see her little mind saying "Stay depressed" in scene after scene. A little less silence might have helped her immensely.

October 17, 2009

200 Pounds of Beauty: Blubbering Over Love, Your Looks, and Your Life in General

Have you ever noticed how skinny people made to look fat in the movies bear a disturbing resemblance to old people who have extreme plastic surgery in real life? There's something similarly fake-looking about both types of reconstructions. So Kim Yong-hwa's 200 Pounds of Beauty is really turning reality on its head by having the fake chubby chick turn into a real non-fake beauty through a full-body makeover with additional facial refinements. The porker turned pretty is poor overweight Han-na (Kim Ah-jung). She's kind of lost in life, dubbing the voice of pop star Am-my while pining for their cute producer (Ju Jin-mo); her crazy dad (Lim Hyeon-shik) is in the nuthouse; and she's making extra money on the side as a phone sex operator. (Now that's a versatile voice!) Lucky for her, one of her clients is a plastic surgeon (Lee Han-wi) who she can blackmail into giving her a complete overhaul. Reborn as a real looker, Han-na goes by "Jenny" and is out to get herself a man, a career and a new identity by singing covers of Belinda Carlisle, Blondie and Michael Jackson. As one girl, fat and thin, Kim has you hoping she'll find love in either incarnation. But then that's the name of her dog too. Which may be the true love she finds in the end. Woof! Woof!

October 10, 2009

Mother: Family Ties Can Have a Strangling Effect When They're Too Strong

Moms of the world, it's time to face an ugly truth: You inspire some seriously freaky movies from all over the world: Mamma Roma (Italy), Mommie Dearest (U.S.A.), All About My Mother (Spain) and now Mother (South Korea) to name just a few. This last one -- from writer-director Bong Joon-ho -- stars actress Kim Hye-ja in what must certainly be the role of her life: an off-center, unlicensed acupuncturist/herbalist who'll go to any extreme to clear her son (Won Bin) of murder charges. That her 20-something child happens to be a simpleton with a spotty memory and a bad temper isn't helping her cause but like many a good mother before her, she forges on despite the odds against her. The cops exact a confession from her boy? So what! Her lawyer writes off the case as too difficult? So be it! Her son's shady best friend (Jin Gu) extorts her? That's fine as long as he furthers her efforts to unravel the case. What starts off as a heartbreaking homage to maternal devotion ends up a disturbing examination of obsession and an indictment of the sacrosanctity of familial bonds. If you sacrifice everything for someone, then you could end up with nothing but that in the end. Is it enough? You'll have to ask your mother.

October 3, 2009

Crossroads of Youth: The Oldest Surviving Korean Movie (So Far)

To really enjoy an American silent movie, you need live music. To really enjoy a Korean one, you need a live narrator (a.k.a. a byeonsa), too. But even four competent musicians and a talented actor making running commentary and funny voices couldn't make Crossroads of Youth a completely enjoyable experience at Lincoln Center this morning. The problem is Ahn Jong-hwa's melodrama just isn't that melodramatic. The story of a brother and sister (Shin Il-seon) who search for a new life in the big city and find a hard life instead, Crossroads is so polite in its references to prostitution, sex, violence, poverty, and illness, that you never get a real sense of conflict, downfall or danger. There are some strange moments (like when one shady character spends an inordinate amount of time stroking the face of miniature Venus de Milo) and some fun period details (check out the size of the matchbox they strike to light cigarettes) but with few standoffs and fewer plot twists, Crossroads is a fairly bland journey down a fairly familiar road. The climax which finds the brother armed with a sickle while tracking down the men who did his sister wrong culminates in a fairly sham fistfight during which clearly no real physical contact is made. This one is strictly for the vaults.