December 31, 2010

The Best Korean Movies of 2010 (Sort of)

Most year-end "best of" lists reflect the vibe of the year. Not this one. My top ten is composed of Korean movies seen this year regardless of release date, and because of that, reflects my own current preoccupations more than the world at large. The common thread this time? Revenge. In short: If you crossed me in 2010, watch out in 2011.

1. Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard (2009): Fantasy isn't generally my cup of tea but Choi Dong-hun's sorcerer's tale about righting wrongs is a bubbly glass of champagne. The director's crime pic Tazza: The High Rollers almost made my list but ended up in the eleventh slot.

2. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000): Bong Joon-ho's portrait of a bitter, vengeful, petty academic (Lee Sung-jae) is evidence that genius is apparent at the start of some careers. (Bong's first film also memorably features Bae Du-na whom he cast later in The Host.)

3. A Frozen Flower (2008): Not for those who blush easily, Yu Ha's sexed-up melodrama finds King (Ju Jin-mo) and Queen (Song Ji-hyo) feuding over Hot Bodyguard (Jo In-seong). Many scenes with humping. Many scenes with suspense.

4. Secret Sunshine (2007): This character portrait by Lee Chang-dong isn't as good as his Oasis but what is, really? The movie concerns a woman who loses her son then spirals into an evangelical Christian support system that's a bit troubling. This time, don't praise Jesus. Praise Lee.

5. Old Partner (2008): The one documentary on this year's list tells the story of a very old farmer and his very old ox. Very moving. If you think animals are people in a way, you'll love it.

6. Antique Bakery (2008): This one looks like it's going to be a lighthearted gay romantic comedy but ends up a murder mystery in which the gay man isn't the victim or the killer. He's simply a patissier with demonic powers of attraction. Now that's novel!

7. Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action (2004): Usually my guilty pleasures go in the number nine or ten slot but this action pic -- basically The Tao according to Marvel Comics -- is so adorkable I couldn't demote it further than seven.

8. Black House (2007): This horror flick creeped me out big time. As a female Hannibal Lecter, Yu Seon gives a performance to send shivers up your spine. As the male Jodie Foster seeking justice, actor Hwang Jeong-min is somewhat unlikable which makes the conflict even more interesting.

9. The Secret Reunion (2010): The one film actually from 2010 is also a major blockbuster and stars Song Kang-ho (who also gives a memorable performance in Secret Sunshine) and Kang Dong-won (who's even better in Jeon Woochi).

10. Green Fish (1997): Another really polished work from Lee Chang-dong (see slot 4), this directorial debut is most notable for the exceptional performances by Han Suk-kyu (as a late-blooming thug) and Shim Hye-jin (as a down-on-her-luck-forever nightclub singer).

December 17, 2010

The Green Fish: You Need to Go Down to Get Deep

The loss of innocence is so upsetting sometimes. Even if you factor in that innocence and adulthood are pretty much incompatible, watching a late-bloomer fall from grace can make for a painful viewing experience. And coming-of-age only gets crueler the older you get. In Lee Chang-dong's masterful first film The Green Fish, the naif about to lose it all is earnest 26-year-old Makdong (Han Suk-kyu). He's a poor, eager-to-please guy who, recently discharged from the army, ends up working for ruthless mobster Bae Tae-kon (Mun Seong-kun) after one unlucky circumstance. Bae's girlfriend Mi-ae (Shim Hye-jin), for her part, is about as far from innocence as you can get. Pimped out by her boyfriend when she's not being harassed by customers who ridicule her nightclub act, she knows she's sinking more and more deeply into the mire but she can't find a way out. She's drawn to Makdong not because he's cute but because he's the least corrupt thing she's seen in God knows how long. He'll never be the life preserver he and she wishes he could be; the few times he tries, he proves a terrible protector since he's adhering to a school boy code in a roomful of truants. But their love is inevitable. Just as their future is doomed.

December 13, 2010

The Secret Reunion: How Our Tastes Are So Predictable and Distressing

Going into Jang Hun's blockbuster spy-caper The Secret Reunion, we pretty much already know that we're going to side with South Korea over North Korea, actor Song Kang-ho over co-star Kang Dong-won, and being true to your friend over being true to your country. But what's nice about this movie is that, for each decision you make between two obvious choices, you end up liking what you didn't pick as well. After all, if this movie is to be believed, Pyongyang's military academies are training single assassins capable of outwitting entire police forces (pretty cool); Kang is, against the odds, delivering a winning performance that's equal parts withdrawn hipster and anxious weirdo (also cool); and the fanatical political hit man operating under the name of "The Shadow" (Jeon Gook-hwan) is plain cool no doubt about it. A few hours after the movie, you may momentarily lose your cool should you question your knee-jerk reactions. I mean, do your sympathies really lie with a hot-headed, profiteering divorcé who tracks down foreign mail-order brides then returns them to unattractive, working class husbands who may beat them? Uh. Yes. You do. The Secret Reunion isn't out to radicalize your way of thinking. It's out to entertain you despite your disturbing predilections. So uncool!

December 2, 2010

Blue: Bromance, Romance, Adventure, Dud

Shin Hyeon-jun must have one of the most unconventionally fetching faces in Korean cinema. With his humped nose and goofy grin, he's not anyone's idea of "typical leading man." Yet despite his oddly attractive oddball looks, once you've considered his resume -- The Legend of the Shadowless Sword, Marrying the Mafia II and III, and Face -- he suddenly seems like the face that launched a thousand (uneven) films. He can't save a movie, no, but he can steer it, and if it sinks, survive it. Until Blue. Director Lee Jeong-kuk's soggy submarine drama is that exceptional instance in which Shin goes down with the ship. His slapstick-y shtick holds charm neither in the rocky bromance with his less attractive co-star (Kim Yeong-ho) nor in the doomed romance with their shared love interest (Shin Eun-Kyung). Did Shin mistakenly think that looking handsome in a naval uniform on land and without a shirt while underwater would have us forgiving a movie that lacks a well-dressed plot? If so, he was wrong. And our wandering eyes instead have drifted over to Park Sun-il (the immature loud-mouthed cadet) and Ryu Su-yeong (the psychotic soldier). At this boot camp for deep sea rescue missions, any actor who thinks he can float by looking cute is about to get a cold splash in the face.

November 23, 2010

The Housemaid: Cheating on Your Wife Means Gambling With Your Life

Checking references for a potential domestic hire? If the candidate's name is Myong-ja (Lee Eun-shim), be sure to talk with her former boyfriend as well as her recent employers. This girl's got serious jealousy issues! In Kim Ki-young's kooky melodrama The Housemaid, all hell breaks loose when this saucy servant starts cooking and cleaning... then screwing the master-of-the-house -- a music teacher named Dong Sik (Kim Jin-kyu) who leads a women's choir at the local factory. What's the best way to deal with her irrational behavior? Try to kill her off with the same rat poison she used to kill your bratty son (Ahn Sung-kee) and you'll end up like Dong's wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo ): a slave to her sewing machine and Myong-ja! Try to defuse her when she explodes and you'll end up like Miss Cho (Eom Aeng-ran): at the wrong end of a very long knife! Whatever you do, don't continue to sleep with her!!! In this movie's crazed reality, Dong Sik's last-ditch attempt to get away leads to his loony lover being latched on to his ankle and bumping her head against every stair along his failed escape. As black-and-white middle-class tragedies go, this one is campy, corny and not too credible.

November 21, 2010

Take Care of My Cat: Celluar Disintegration Comes After High School

Oh my God! Ji-young (Ok Ji-young) has the most depressing life ever! She can't find a job. She lives in a ramshackle hut in the slums of Inchon with her grandparents because her parents are both dead. And she's given herself a home-job hair-do that's just one strand shy of heroin addict. When the tin hut in which she's been living collapses and kills what little is left of her family, you're almost glad she ends up in a juvenile detention center. At least, someone is taking care of her and preventing more fashion faux pas. Actually, she's not completely alone even after she ends up on the inside. Her classmate Tae-hee (Bae Du-na) is a bit of a drifter too who, as she's looking for a way out of conventional middle class existence, sees Ji-young as a kindred spirit with whom she can bond. While Take Care of My Cat never ends up as a lesbian coming-of-age story (That one would have a racier variation of the title!), Jeong Jae-un's cell-phone driven movie is poignant nonetheless. As to the titular cat, it's actually a kitten who gets passed among these two ladies and three fellow recent high school graduates: a corporate cog named Hye-ju (Lee Yu-won) and twins Bi-ryu (Lee Eung-sil) and Ohn-jo (Lee Eung-ju) who have a street vending business for cheap jewelry. Caveat emptor.

November 20, 2010

Hidden Floor: Welcome to Your New Home... Time to Meet the Dead Neighbors!

Hmm. Let's see. Daughter Joo-hee (Kim Yoo-jeong) has developed a rash and been caught stabbing her doll with a discarded syringe. Not good. Mother Min-young (Kim Seo-hyeong) is an overworked architect hallucinating her new apartment building as a shabby domicile ready for the wrecking ball. Not good either. What's going on here? It's Kwon Il-soon's Hidden Floor, a pretty good fright flick that's part of 4 Horror Tales, a quartet of low-budget scary movies circa 2006 -- all but one written by Yoo Il-han. Yoo definitely has a classic formula at work here: A horrible crime (in this case the murder of a stubborn tenant and her son) must be uncovered by the living if the latter wishes to escape becoming one of the bitter dead's casaulties. Not that anyone will be believe her! I mean, ghosts... Really? Who believes in such things! You must be joking!!! Equally laughable are many of the performances: Like most B-movies, the exaggerated performances in Hidden Floor underscore how flat the other ones are. The exception? Kim Yoo-jeong. As the troubled pre-schooler who creeps out her babysitter, Kim feels vulnerable and menacing at the same time. You know she knows something about that hidden floor but you don't know whether that's a help or a hindrance to her mom.

November 11, 2010

Saulabi: I Only Regret That I Have But One Head to Get Decapitated for My Country

According to legend though refuted by Wikipedia, the "saulabi" is the Korean antecedent of the Japanese samurai. Fact or fiction, this continental counterpart to Japan's noble warrior comes with an identical code of honor demanding duty, loyalty, and -- if the movie that bears its name is any indication -- a great deal of patience, too. A clunky recounting of yet another war of independence in which a ragtag group of Korean underdogs must overpower a larger group of tyrannical Japanese, this martial arts costume drama celebrates, in particular, the revolutionary diligence of expatriate Woo-do (Sang Hyun-lee) who must work for decades at forging a sword so powerful that it will cut through steel. Once he's done that, he knows (as does everyone around him) that victory will be assured. But until then, heads will roll because even blades that can't cut through steel nevertheless can cut through the vertebrae that connects the head to the torso. While pursuing his career-making goal as a sword smith, Woo-do makes a little time for play and ends up bedding local girl Osame (Uenemya Masako) who, lucky for him, will do anything to learn how to play the Gayageum -- basically a zither. For some girls, mastering the Koto just isn't enough.

November 7, 2010

This Is Law: Some Days, Blood Red Can Be a Pretty Color

The beginning of This Is Law moves at such a clip, that you fear the movie's murderer is going to go through an entire Tarot deck since he's leaving bloodied cards at each and every one of his kills. But is he even one killer? And when he stops leaving cards, what does that signify? Whoever is doing it and for whatever reason, Homicide Detective Bong (Lim Won-hie) is out to find out before his rival Pyo (Kim Min-jong) from the Special Task Force does. While he's at it, Bong's going to win the affections of his competing officer's partner Kang (Shin Eun-kyung), too. Where's there's time for crime, there's time for romance, I say. Predictable? On paper, yes. But running a sprawling two-and-a-half hours with random quick edits, evaporating subplots, and periodic misdirects that sometimes inexplicably entertain, you'll probably forget which way Min Byeong-jin's crime pic is inevitably headed. Then once you finally get there, you'll be doing double-takes at your television. Really? Is this how it all wraps up? Flashy without being the least bit artful, This Is Law is a souvenir of Korean cinema. It's shiny and made from the basest materials and like most trinkets, it's perfectly harmless. Watch it. Discard it. Pass on to a friend.

November 6, 2010

Asian Queer Shorts: Neither Asian Enough, Nor Queer Enough, Nor Short Enough

Looking to get a glimpse of gay culture in various Asian countries? Then look elsewhere. This compilation, called Asian Queer Shorts, is neither very good nor strictly from Asia. One featurette (Yellow Fever) concerns a Brit of Chinese descent who must overcome his internalized racism to forge a relationship with his adorable neighbor downstairs; another (Dissolution of Bodies) concerns two hot Asian guys rolling around in an American bed while discussing Foucault and Bataille as foreplay. Talk about a softening effect! A third entry (Still) is a rootless silent that speaks to the notion that sexy guys in wifebeaters look yummy no matter what their nationality. As to the two other flicks, which actually reflect gay culture in Asia, the first is a fairly chaste piece about a man-boy romance (Last Full Show) that develops at a cruisey movie theater in the Philippines while the other (A Crimson Mark) is a Korean pageant drama in which robed men testily argue about what the proper length of time is for the queen mother to stay in mourning, while a splinter group of two generate a royal hickey. The only cockfighting in this collection takes place between two roosters in a short scene in the Filipino flick. The rest is for the birds.

November 2, 2010

With the Girl of Black Soil: Here We Go Again... Being Poor Is Terrible

In neo-realist films, Murphy's Law applies with a vengeance: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong and then some. Yet as a slice of bleak life, With the Girl of Black Soil's bad news buildup never really rings true. Why is that? The circumstances are plausible enough: Single dad (Jo Yeong-jin) loses job in a down-on-its-luck mining town. Mentally-challenged son (Park Hyeon-woo) wrecks a rich man's car then disappears. Rats eat the family's eggs. Pile on the problems: This little family's dire straits never elicit more than a shrug from me. Life sucks. Yeah, and? Frankly, I wonder if I'd like Jeong Soo-il's oh-so-sad movie better if someone turned it into a musical. The material already comes with a few ditties built in: a kiddie song sung by father and daughter (Yoo Yeon-mi) during a car ride, a lip synched pop hit performed by both children over a meal, a worker's sing-a-long belted out at the bar. You can get away with maudlin moments that don't feel that real when you're more entertaining. Writer-director Jeong needn't sacrifice the more depressing aspects of the story either. I'm willing to sob over a self-sacrificing girl who poisons her dad's ramen if you set her not-so-thought-out actions to a really catchy tune. "Eat it! Just eat it!"

October 30, 2010

My Bloody Rommates: The Biggest Test These Girls Face Is One to Their Sanity

Four gal pals with dreams of a better life. No. It's not Sex and the City, it's My Bloody Roommates (a.k.a. D-Day), Kim Eun-kyung's K-horror flick about four young ladies sent by demanding parents to a fascist prep school to improve their academic standing and thereby gain access to choice universities. In this sadistic pre-college program, the pressure to perform is great... as is the severity of the hairstyle and disciplinarian methods of the school's hall monitor (Yoon Da-kyeong). Of her charges, the bitchy girl (Yoo Joo-hee) cracks first and hangs herself; the brainy one (Kim Ri-na) gets knocked off her rocker next and starts hallucinating blood; the third girl -- a self-effacing dork (Heo Jin-yong) with a pet hamster named "Happy" -- seems imbalanced from the start so her going off the deep end is inevitable. The one survivor (Eun-seong), who is neither bitchy nor bright, neither bold nor bonkers, ends up with a leopard print scar on her face, a pair of sensible shoes, and a fairly interesting story to tell at cocktail parties should she get invited to any. I'd toast her resilience. (This movie is part of 4 Horror Tales, a series of fright flicks that also includes The Curse of February 29th, Forbidden Floor and Dark Forest of Death.)

Paradise Villa: Piling Up Bodies on the Cheap

"Cheap" can mean quite a few things -- inexpensive, shoddy, ashamed, even mean -- and Paradise Villa, the low-budget slasher flick from director Park Chong-won, certainly takes on every definition. Shot in washed-out video and set in a run-of-the-mill apartment building where lights flicker on and off, the movie certainly looks cheap. It feels cheap too with its meaningless dialogue leading to gratuitous nudity or soft core sex nearly as often as explosions of violence. There's something mean (i.e., cheap) about the violence itself, too. The sick-o psycho (Jo Han-jun), who's bloodying room after room, is a dubiously distressed video gamer who sees every tenant as an uncooperative gaming competitor. Since no one knows what he's talking about, he slays them. Not that these neighbors would be safe if he'd never arrived. There's murder and mayhem throughout the complex with the coitus-interruptus killing of the landlord by a man who's having an affair with his mistress, and the bottle-smashing head-bashing of a soccer fan who won't stop singing when the power goes out. It's worth adding that "cheap" can be fun when it's this unashamedly tawdry. For me, watching Paradise Villa was time well-spent.

October 25, 2010

Soo: People Who Look Alike Have the Same Kind of Trouble

Twins in a thriller is a lazy conceit. Well, a half-hearted thanks then to Soo, a movie which has the decency to introduce the lookalikes early on then kill one off fairly quickly. No, the uncanny resemblance in this Sai Yoichi crime pic doesn't play out as a case of mistaken identity but instead as a case of an assumed one. You see Brother A (Ji Jin-hee) has decided that the best way to track down the killer of Brother B is to impersonate the murdered sibling (same actor, of course). For A to pass as B completely, he gets a new haircut (a salon-caliber home-job) and a fresh, cool scar sliced into his chin. The corpse's not-so-helpful girlfriend (Kang Seong-yeon) knows this new guy's an impostor but she's willing to move in with him, hoping to have sex with him, and seeking to pick up where the last relationship left off. Why complain that you've lost your boyfriend if a facsimile shows up at the police prefecture where you both work? Plus, he's three seconds faster at running the 100-yard dash and can defend himself with a can of hairspray and a lighter. This guy rips off ears and tears out eyeballs. That's how tough he is! As for his victims, they all go down with the same scream whether they're being stabbed or strangled or shot or all of the above.

October 9, 2010

Black House: A Contract With the Devil

Tonight, I'll probably have nightmares. That's what happens when you watch a stomach-turning thriller like Shin Terra's Black House over a bowl of Raisin Bran in the morning. You may think you have a whole day ahead of you to forget about the stabbings and the dismemberments, but this freaky little film about a female psychopath (Yu Seon) and the busybody insurance agent (Hwang Jeong-min) who foolishly gets between her and her money is, in a nutshell, unforgettable. In many ways, Black House is a Korean variation on Silence of the Lambs, a suspense-horror hybrid in which a serial killer is being pursued by someone who's got a few issues of his/her own. The fact that here "the good guy" is a bespectacled, chapped-lipped claims processor instead of an inexperienced-but-attractive FBI Agent is actually all to the good of the movie because it makes the hero a little less sympathetic and the conflict a lot more problematic. He may be working for justice, but he's also a tool of the machine. She may be incapable of feeling remorse, but she's also hardly living the high life and she's stuck with a limp. As the killer kook, Yu turns in one of those bone-chilling performances in which the eyes become the gateway to no soul. She's so riveting, you almost want her to win or at least luck out with parole.

October 3, 2010

Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard: When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint a Cool Still Life

When life gets you down, go to the movies. If you're lucky, you'll see smart escapist fare like Choi Dong-hun's Woochi and be reminded that existence is an adventure and many worlds reside in this world -- not just the oppressive one that's put you in a funk. Woochi is cinema as anti-depressant, a preposterous, uplifting fantasy about a baby-faced wizard (Kang Dong-won) who fights a rodent-faced gremlin (Kim Yun-seok) in order to protect a wooden recorder that accords its possessor universal control. As the battle between good and evil rages on, this action-adventure shuttles between opposing realities -- medieval days and modern ones, dreamscapes and nightmares -- all of them magical. Are we living in a classical watercolor, a poster for an energy drink, an elliptical eternity, a video game? Blink your eyes and whatever it was that you were living in will be gone as something disorientingly new takes its place. And since your surroundings are so unstable, follow Woochi's lead and surround yourself with cool people like a trusty sidekick who's really a dog in human form (Yu Hae-jin) and a pretty damsel-in-distress (Lim Su-jeong) who's actually a reincarnated former flame. Yes, you'll still have to deal with pesky evil spirits and unreliable gods, but at least you'll be with your friends!

September 26, 2010

Land of Scarecrows: There's No Wizard Behind That Curtain

As a gay man, I hate to come out against experimentation but with Land of Scarecrows, I'll make an exception. A grueling 80 minutes of disjointed, often wordless storytelling, Roh Gyeong-tae's second film hops around topics like poisonous landfills, identity disjunction, and society's outcasts without ever landing squarely on any. His characters are outsiders kept at a distance: We don't enter their world, we stand off to the side -- neither judging nor, ultimately, caring. That lottery-ticket-selling transexual (Kim Sun-young) with the Filipino bride, aside from being completely unbelievable, isn't very sympathetic. She's kooky without being cute, funny, adorable, tragic or weird. She's actually kind of a bore despite her bound breasts. While I'd hardly commend MoMA for screening Land of Scarecrows, I can say I'm glad I saw it in a theater. There's something reassuring about witnessing so many people get up and leave when a movie doesn't deserve their attention. That they were there at all suggests that they're open to experimental film. That they left means they're able to spot when the emperor's new clothes aren't there.

September 24, 2010

A Frozen Flower: This Love Triangle Is a Fading Pink

My heart goes out to this King (Ju Jin-mo). He needs to sire an heir to protect his kingdom but he can't get it up for the Queen (Song Ji-hyo) or his concubines. My heart also goes out to Hong Lim (Jo In-seong), the King's male lover and bodyguard. After being enlisted to impregnate the Queen, he fatally discovers that he's got a taste for the ladies -- as one 69 scene graphically illustrates. And because I've got a big heart, my heart also goes out to the Queen. Horny and unhappy, she's trying to make the best of a bad situation. Which, for a time, she does. (After being pimped out by her Lord and Master, she falls head over heels for the royal sperm donor and demands that they do it again and again in as many different positions as possible.) As love triangles go, Yu Ha's costume-drama/softcore-melodrama is ingenious in how it inverts a familiar forbidden love setup by having the straight couple sneak around while the gay man gets bitchy and suspicious. If A Frozen Flower might seem to side with the straights, it also illustrates that whether you're hot for men or women, everyone loves to kiss with a lot of tongue.

September 18, 2010

Addicted: Self-Denial Can Be a Form of Love

Something undeniably creepy is afoot in Park Young-hoon's Addicted, a transcendental love story about a woman (Lee Mi-yeon) whose comatose husband (Lee Eol) appears to have returned to the conscious world by taking possession of the younger, hotter body of his little brother (Lee Byung-hun). While you could look at this sibling soul-swapping as a form of superficial upgrading for the widow, you do also have to wonder about the morals of a guy who'd evict the soul of his brother just to continue making kitschy furniture and cuddling with his wife. Naturally, the widow is confused and full of questions. Possession's not as commonplace as it once was, though -- in this movie -- the hospital's resident psychiatrist seems to treat it as a rare yet legitimate diagnosis. What the psychiatrist does not provide is a treatment plan. The younger brother's wannabe girlfriend (Park Seon-yeong) takes a stab at an exorcism of sorts by inviting her old love interest to the family farm for some backbreaking labor. All this does, however, is break her heart a little more. He didn't love her before. He doesn't love her now. Like any smart reject of romance, she packs her bags to study abroad. But not before sending those soul-mates to Hell!

September 12, 2010

Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action: The Karate Kid Grows Up to Be a Cop

I'm coining a new term: Adorkable. Definition? Stupid-cute. Prime example? Ryu Seung-beom, an actor who embodies the idea here via his role as a goofy, rookie cop with unprecedented superpower-potential. The film itself, the martial arts pic Arahan (directed by Seung-beom's brother Seung-wan), is pretty adorkable too. This fabulist tale about Seven Masters guarding a magical, transferrable tattoo has found a way to philosophize about justice and balance without ostentation by keeping the action -- and there are some killer action sequences here -- in a world of black market acupuncture, backfiring self-promotion, and deadly lotus positions. This is The Tao according to Marvel Comics, or a Universal Religion that inserts its message between splashy fights and silly slapstick done with a wink. Sweetening the deal are a supervillain (Jung Doo-hong) who knows great evil requires great abs, and a foxy love interest (Yoon So-yi) who's fierce with her fists but faulty with her palm blasts. (Some superpowers are harder to perfect.) If Arahan has a fault, it may be that to describe it is to demean it. This is stupid-cuteness of the highest order, as adorkable as Old Partner is poignant and The World of Silence is creepy.

September 5, 2010

Popee: All Dogs Go to Hollywood to Die

You'll have to be an ardent dog-lover to get into the spirit of Kim Ji-hyun's pseudo-documentary Popee. A weird mix of "true crime" re-enactments of very un-criminal moments surrounding the death of the family dog ("Popee") and naturalistic interviews with various dog owners who flounder and falter as they discuss animal consciousness ("Do dogs dream? Do they know their names? What are they thinking?"), this hour-long video -- hardly a movie -- holds a small fascination for people who like to see the raw, awkward output of weekend artists committed to decidedly non-commercial, personal endeavors. This is what happens when someone has the power to round up a bunch of friends to man the cameras and stand in front of them, talent be damned. Many of the anecdotes -- especially one concerning a woman who buys a sick German Shepherd from an unsympathetic pet shop owner -- feel overly scripted; others -- like the one about the titular dog mating with all the female dogs in the neighborhood -- reflect poorly on the owners. Evidently, Kim made a sequel called Cats six years later. In another six years, I suppose we can expect the final entry in the trilogy: Birds.

September 4, 2010

Into the White Night: Fashioning an Imperfect Murder

I don't know what to say about this one so how about director Park Shin-woo's mystery is filled with symbols galore: a police detective (Han Suk-kyu) who's slowly going blind, a killer (Go Soo) who wields scissors for art and murder, and a rape victim (Son Ye-jin) who desires nothing more than to launch a line of ugly clothing for men. Fighting interpretation, each lexicon of Into the White Night's cinematic semiotics loses significance as quickly as it gains meaning. The more you study it, the less the movie reveals. So put aside that imagery! You're better off sticking with who kills whom how, when and why as the action rewinds and fast forwards with all the stylishness of a ten-year-old operating a VCR. That same clunkiness trips up most of the characters who feel only half-developed. One of the more complex roles -- a tough private eye (Lee Min-jung) with a good sense of intuition -- gets knocked off too soon; a largely forgettable police chief (Jeong Jin) gets reincorporated too late. Stick around long enough and you'll witness a perverse scene in which the rape victim psychologically victimizes the sexually assaulted daughter of her husband-to-be but I'd rather spoil that plot twist for you here and save you the trouble.

August 21, 2010

My Tutor Friend: Teacher's Pet Is Also Her Pretty Boy Peer

My Little Bride. My Mighty Princess. My Sassy Girl. You'll find no scant supply of possessively titled rom-coms in the K-pop movie canon. So consider Kim Kyeong-hyeong's My Tutor Friend part of a tried-and-true tradition. Here's how the films work: On one side, you've got a bossy, egocentric rebel. In this case, it's Ji-hoon (Kwone Sang-woo), a dreamy flunky who's too busy primping and punching to pass 11th grade despite his 21 years. On the other side, you've got a self-effacing brat who'll act as his unknowing mentor and unlikely love interest. For this installment, her name is Su-wan (Kim Ho-neul) and she's got a thing or two to teach that young man about respect, verb conjugation, and idiomatic expressions in the English language. Rich boy, poor girl. Cool kid, square chick. Once these two learn to deal with his catty girlfriend (Kim Ji-woo), the school bully (Kong Yu) and the local gang, they'll drive off into the sunset on his motorcycle. But there's mayhem and misfires until then plus an improbably erotic scene in which she bandages the knife wound on his six pack abs as if they were making love and another queerly sexy moment in which he licks the blood off her paper-cut finger. Why kiss when you can nurse each other's wounds?

August 19, 2010

Shadows in the Palace: A Slow Death

There's a half-decent murder-mystery/costume-drama to be salvaged from the grandly shot footage of Shadows in the Palace but as a too-slow burn deadened by a supernatural black fog that kills off suspects one by one, Kim Mee-jeung's pretty-looking period piece is instead a lame anti-suspense with weird horror F/X that reminded me of the inky squirt of a panicked squid. After awhile, I stopped caring if Chosun dynasty nurse-to-the-courtesans Chun-ryung (Park Jin-hie) was ever going to find out who the murderer was and started thinking that the movie was just plain odd. All the quippy bitchery I expected from a thriller set in a gynocentric society of maids and female medics never came to fruition. All the plot twists and sudden revelations that should've led to my involuntary gasp in the living room caused nothing of the sort. As art, this one didn't work. As pulp, it didn't work either. Neither sassy nor nasty, the film needs to flash B-movie tit or unfurl melodramatic claws to get my sisterly praise. (On the plus side, it does show one woman getting her hands chopped off.) Beautiful and bland, Shadows in the Palace only triggers one helluva classy yawn. Hee-bin (Yun Se-ah) can scheme to make her son a crowned prince all she wants. I'm still looking for the queen!

August 16, 2010

Dream of a Warrior: Your Past Life Is on a Distant Planet

Usually, movie characters who time-space-jump end up in costume-rich eras: the 1920s or some century with powdered wigs perhaps. In Park Hee-joon's Dream of a Warrior, the time-travelers ditch earth completely and head for Dilmoon, a sword-and-sorcery planet where people wear neutral-colored Arthurian capes and black leather halters while warriors prove their mettle via mixed martial arts and a variation on football owing something to mud wrestling. Adept at both sports is Dean (Hong Kong pop star Leon Lai Ming), a lower class type who's contemporary counterpart is a soft-spoken cop with rare brainwaves that facilitats intergalactic adventures. He's been enlisted today to rescue Princess Rose (Park Eun-hye) of yore but first he needs to relive their entire romantic story as research. (Cue the sappy score for a flashback that lasts nearly the entire movie.) In this earlier courtship, Dean gets help fending off bad guys from tough chick ShoSho (Lee Na-yeong). By the time he returns to unfreeze Rose, ShoSho is dead so he's stuck fighting solo against Rose's betrothed who's got a better bloodline, bigger biceps and the supernatural powers that come from selling your soul to the devil. Lucky for Dean he can make a clone of himself!

August 14, 2010

Tazza: The High Rollers: Don't Test Your Luck Against This Double-Crossing Dame

All hail the dragon lady! As played by Kim Hye-su, this ruthless cardshark and resplendent clotheshorse may not be the movie's lead character but she sure steals every scene she's in. Give her a second of screen time, and she'll flash her panties at a neighborning player or shoot her onetime lover (Cho Seung-woo) after he's screwed her out of a wad of cash. Then again, maybe she's spreading her legs and wielding that pistol because her co-star got better billing. Kim is evidence, if any more was ever needed, that there are no small parts, only lesser actors in the same movie. Choi Dong-hun's slick crime pic may be about vengeful gamblers so crazed with greed and thirsty for blood that they're willing to bet a limb once the funds run out is for Kim, an alternately sadistic and sentimental backdrop for a fabulous wardrobe, a stylish haircut and a series of poses with attitude. Let the talkative sidekick (Yu Hae-jin) ham it up. Let the pretty young thing (Lee Su-kyeong) win the hero's worthless heart. Let one oldtimer-bigtimer (Baek Yun-shik) retreat into the scenery. By the time the last hand's been dealt (and severed), Kim will emerge victorious, even as her winnings go up in flames. Did you ever doubt her, fool?

August 8, 2010

The Power of Kangwon Province: Rejection Involves a Loss of Color

Hong Sang-soo's The Power of Kangwon Province is two pretty good movies in one. The first concerns a recent high school graduate (Oh Yun-hong) who joins two friends for a short, frankly miserable vacation at a beachfront tourist trap, where she has a botched romance with a married local cop (Kim Yoosuk). The second half-a-movie focuses on a struggling professor (Baek Jong-hak) with whom the young woman recently had an affair and who happens to be simultaneously taking a much more decadent trip to the same subpar resort. Although the two narratives tie together quite nicely come the final scenes, all of The Power of Kangwon Province feels so infected with melacholia that even tangential asides never feel that disconnected. Mood is everything here. A background story about a man who may have pushed his wife off a cliff only heightens the pervading sense that love is disappointing at best, fatal at worst. As someone who has found Hong's later efforts (Woman on the Beach, Night and Day) to be affected dreck, The Power of Kangwon Province proved unexpectedly moving. This flick has an earnest directness that makes its washed out palette feel like an honest manifestation of the colorlessness of the heart's despair.

August 1, 2010

The Divine Weapon: God, It's a Long Time Before The Rebels Rise to Glory

Personally, I have a hard time getting revved up for a movie about the development of the first multiple rocket launcher and the first missile (even if it's interesting to learn that both were developed in Chosun in 1430). Hearing female warrior Hong-ri (Han Eun-jeong) bark orders then pull her hair out as she tries to figure out how many millimeters an injector hole is supposed to be just isn't gripping drama to me. I prefer seeing her suitor, crafty merchant Seol-joo (Jeong Jae-yeong), in an endless series of "one man vs. a hundred soldiers" street fights. Now that's cool! And while there's plenty of kicking and sword clanging, The Divine Weapon's only really glorious match up comes at the end when the scrappy Chosun renegades -- who've been slaving over their weapon of mass destruction for two hours -- stab, slice, kick, pierce then mass slaughter their way to freedom while battling an army ten times their size. In that climactic scene, director Kim Yu-jin taps into the magnificent awe and terror that the first exploding mega-weapon must have produced among soldiers who thought, until then, that arrows were as far-reaching as you could get. For that scene alone (and you can fast forward to it if you like), The Divine Weapon is worth seeing.

July 24, 2010

Marraige Is a Crazy Thing: She Pushes Love to Extremes John Donne Never Considered

Yeon-hee (Eom Jeong-hwa) shows the depth of her love for Jun-young (Kam Woo-seong) in a weird way: She stages a whole faux relationship with him from courtship to marriage, then from honeymoon to separation -- even as she marries someone else in reality. All these pretend dates and pseudo-life-stages are intended to get her dimpled, English poetry professor to realize that he's the one that she truly adores. But when you think about it, her elaborate playacting is a major turnoff. While it's easy to peg Jun-young as a selfish commitment-phobe who uses Yeon-hee for sex and money, it's just as easy to call Yeon-hee a callous two-timer who never makes herself truly vulnerable and whose stab at martyrdom is a glib one. The tortured relationship that develops between these two is exactly what each deserves. He's a jerk who doesn't deserve a pretty, self-sacrificing wife. She's a greedy manipulator who shouldn't be getting unconditional affection from her well-educated gigolo. The final moment of Yu Ha's Marriage Is a Crazy Thing suggests a reconciliation but the white picket fence ahead for these two is likely to rot and fall apart.

July 17, 2010

Old Partner: The Past Is Around Us All the Time

To some extent, every documentary is about a passing way of life. In Old Partner, the near-dead culture is farming before tractors and pesticides. Director Lee Chung-ryoul's primary subjects are a decrepit farmer, his toothless wife and their ox. As the three seed, cultivate and harvest crops repeatedly over a period of two to three years, the arthritic trio register as the faint final echo of an era that ended a century ago. There's nothing particularly nostalgic about seeing the physical toll that comes with doing everything by hand but there is something spellbindingly moving about watching an ox pull two passengers in downtown traffic as suited protesters declaim imported beef from America. And though he hasn't a line in the movie, that ox -- more than either owner -- comes to represent the bygone age most poignantly. Having worked alongside the stoic farmer and his pestering spouse for 40 years, this shaggy beast is the picture of perservering self-sacrifice. Is he a four-legged slave or a symmpathetic sidekick from another species? Whatever he is, you grow to see him as an equal partner in a brutally rigorous life that counts work as a kind of penance and a kind of reward. Understated poetry to be sure.

July 9, 2010

Tidal Wave: Cheap Laughs Then a Bucket of Cold Water

For much of writer-director-but-hardly-auteur Yun Je-gyun's Tidal Wave, I wondered... Have I been misinformed? Is this a disaster pic or a spoof? It certainly feels like a spoof. No complaints for my part. To the contrary, I'll gladly laugh and snort in derision on cue. The comic antics of the losers who live, love, and loaf at the beach resort of Haeundae serve two purposes too. 1. They make you chuckle. 2. They make you oh-so-eager for that big wave that's going to wipe all that goofy ineptitude away. And yet when the tsunami strikes -- albeit a little late in the game for my taste -- I inexplicably found myself swept up in the various survivor stories. How the hell did that happen? Maybe, just maybe, that guilt-ridden drunk Man-sik (Sol Kyung-gu), that shrewish bitch Yu-jin (Eom Jeong-hwa), and even that psychotic girlfriend Yeon-heui (Ha Ji-won) deserve to live. Oh, hell no. I take that back. Rise, ocean, rise! Non sequitir: I don't usually watch the DVD extras but this time, I decided to check out the gag reel and boy was it NOT funny. There are a few very disturbing excerpts of a child actor getting smacked and later, that same kid not wanting to simulate drowning no matter what his pay scale. Easily the scariest part of the movie.

June 26, 2010

Temptation of Eve: A Good Wife: And Now a Word on Hot-bodied Backstabbers

I hereby postulate that actors who are stunningly beautiful (Sophia Loren, Nastassja Kinski, Marlon Brando, etc.) don't need to act. Instead, they can stare disinterestedly into the distance for all I care. I'll do the hard work and invest their faces with deeper meaning. Actors who are simply really good looking however better have some acting chops to go with those chiseled features. Otherwise, like in Kwak Jeong-deok's Temptation of Eve: A Good Wife, you grow to resent them a little as the film goes on. Neither Kim Tae-hyeon nor Jin Seo-yeon is talentless but looking this good in an erotic thriller this boilerplate, they need to be a bit more nuanced in their performances to win our affections. Otherwise, the mind begins to wander and all those tawdry sex scenes that should be heightening the suspense feel as though they're shortchanging us because they never cross over into porn. We don't care if he's cycling out of control with lust. We don't care if she's out to poison her husband (Ahn Nae-sang) to get the insurance money. And if we don't care who might be doublecrossing who, then we haven't got much of a movie. With really just three characters of note (and even fewer locations), Temptation of Eve feels like a play that's been filmed for television. But not PBS. More like Ovation.

June 19, 2010

Dark Forest of Death: Here's to the Bucolic Zombie

Horror fans jabber away about fast zombies versus slow zombies but how about city zombies versus country ones? Is there any difference between the pale-faced corpses who reanimate in urban environs and those who resurrect in the woods? Kim Jeong-min's low-budget Blair-Witch-meets-Dawn-of-the-Dead flick doesn't answer that question directly but the casualties in his Death Forest of Death are definitely victims of an evil woodland spirit, not a man-made disease run amok. It's man versus vengeful nature here, not man versus sinister science. And these zombies are sometimes fast, sometimes slow and always out to get you. Whether you join their ranks or not isn't dependent on whether you decapitate them before they make you bleed either. The only thing that can save your life is stopping your own blood from hitting that forest floor. Since no one here ever learns this basic rule of survival, their successive deaths are all unavoidable. Ignorance is death, as they used to say. Until someone sees the forest floor drink a whole bucket of blood and not just slurp up a few drops, visitors to this national park are going to continue to die one by one. Cleanliness is next to godliness after all.

June 12, 2010

Killing Machine: She Only Seems Crazy, Indie Fans

Killing Machine is one of those movies that never quite lives up to the insanity of its plot synopsis. The story is invitingly nuts: A high school nymph (Lee So-yun) earns extracurricular money by hooking with the faculty then falls into a brief relationship with one maniacal teacher (Kim Dae-tong) who rapes her, impregnates her, shoots her, mutilates her, hires a super-seamstress to stitch her back together, then turns her into a robot assassin. Trimmed of the excess footage showing the victim/vigilante standing/staring or running through poorly lit interiors, director Nam Gee-wong's Killing Machine would've probably run a zanily enjoyable half-hour. As is, this artsy exercise in cyberpunk surrealism runs closer to an hour. That means you often have to wait through stretches of filler to get to the weird imagery like a post-op fembot's gunblasted breast leaking green goo and gnarly wires or a Metropolis-inspired rebirth during which thick electric cords pump new life into the recently dismembered girl. It's no B-movie beauty a la Hera Purple or Terror Taxi but Killing Machine is at least an attempt to think outside the box. Good things come in small packages but good things in oversized packages tend to feel disappointingly small.

June 5, 2010

Voices: A Chorus of Loved Ones Are Out to Kill You

If everyone close to you wanted you to die -- and by everyone, I mean your mom, your dad, your little sister, your boyfriend, your best friend, your homeroom teacher, and your fencing coach -- would life be worth living? If the answer is "yes" then factor in this: Would life still be worth living if it meant killing each and every one of your loved ones to survive. Because these are the questions haunting unfortunate schoolgirl Ga-in (Yun Jin-seo) in director Oh Ki-hwan's frightful fright flick Voices. For me, those two existential questions begged a third, more professional one. Namely, if you were offered the lead part in a not-so-hot movie in which you were going to be stalked at knife point by every member of your family without a logical motive and furthermore had to respond "Yes" to the question "Feel better," every time you murdered someone in self-defense, would you take the part for the exposure? One saying has it, there are no small parts, just small actors. I would add that there are no small movies, just movies in which you'd be better off taking a smaller role. As the mysterious stranger, Park Ki-woong gets to look stylishly dangerous without having to act. That's an ideal scenario in a pic like this.

May 23, 2010

Murder, Take One: There's No Reason to Take a Second Shot

My friend Graham suggested early on that I stop watching Murder, Take One and ask the readers to tell me the ending. It was that boring. But I stuck with it, and writer-director Jang Jin's police procedural did finally pick up with the late entrance of a motherly exorcist (Lee Yong-lee) and her child sidekick. Prior to that, I was basically wondering how tall is that dashing detective (Cha Seung-won) -- He's 6'2" according to Wiki -- and why has he agreed to have his interrogation of the main suspect (Shin Ha-kyun) videotaped for prime time? Can the resultant program possibly be getting good ratings? Who are the sponsors? They weren't questions I felt deeply. Just things to think about while I clipped my toenails or nibbled on a frosted strawberry pop tart. But ghosts can make a movie more interesting. What had been a not particularly suspenseful murder mystery wrapped in a bland TV news special now became a ticklishly spooky character portrait about a cute cop who may have some connection to the other side. When the cocky television producer got possessed by the victim's spirit, I had to confess: This wasn't the worst Korean movie I'd ever seen. Up until then, it had been in the running.

May 16, 2010

The Good, the Bad, the Weird: Let's Assume You Can Drawl in Korean

The Ramen Western, like its forebear the Spaghetti Western, fetishizes the genre. All the period details -- the opium pipes, the sweeping leather coats, the aviator goggles, even the rotten teeth -- don't ground the action in reality. They tickle us with their particularity. That's especially true in Kim Ji-woon's vintage piece of filmmaking The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Here actors Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, and Jung Woo-sung seem to be playing cowboys in a tribute to a Sergio Leone homage more than performing in a movie indebted to John Ford or Sam Peckinpah. Consider this flick a hall of tarnished, sometimes cracked mirrors reflecting dusty cowboy hats, galloping horses and a big Montana sky. You'll be as pleased when you get the expected (like the climactic battle involving cannons, the Japanese militia, and scores of rebels on a desert landscape) as the unexpected (Song absurdly running around with a diving helmet straight out of Jules Verne). There's plenty of blood -- some of it splattering on the camera lens -- and more than a little sadism (one stabbing scene leading to the slicing off of a finger is particularly gruesome). Neither ever feels gratuitous. Much of it's pretty fun.

April 25, 2010

Blood Rain: A Murder Mystery with a Paper Trail of Proof

In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared after her husband confessed to having an extramarital affair. What she did during those eleven days remains a mystery to this day. Director Kim Dae-sung's Blood Rain suggests, against the odds, that she may have flown to Korea and written an old-fashioned potboiler as a restorative. The plot is standard Christie. It's 1808 and the royal investigator (Seung Won-cha) -- working on an arson case on the island of Donghwa -- suddenly lands in the middle of a gruesome murder case. As any Christie fan knows, everyone's a suspect so while one piece of evidence points at the paper mill owner's son (Park Young-woo) and another at the local artist (Ji Seong), who did it, even who had it done to him, stays unknown 'til the bitter end. There's a rational vs. superstitious conflict at work here but only a genre novice would side with the villagers blaming the vengeful ghost of Commissioner Kang (Jeon Ho-jin). And while she's without a motive, the island shaman (Choi Ji-na) is the creepiest character on screen. No one else could inspire followers to chop the heads off five real-life chickens, a jarringly bloody sequence that makes a human dismemberment earlier in the flick that less memorable. I see a PETA protest coming.

April 4, 2010

Secret Sunshine: Give Me That Old Time Religion

Talk about a beautiful downer. This movie from writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis) charts the precipitous descent from melancholia to grief in one unfortunate's lonely life. The subject is Shin-ae (the captivating Jeon Do-yeon), a mourning widow who has transplanted her piano teaching business and her not-quite-normal son (Seon Jung-yeop) from Seoul to Milyang in an effort to regain autonomy and to forge a new identity. There, instead of finding comfort or stability, she loses her savings, her son, and her sanity in short order. The respite of an evangelical Christian church seems to reground her temporarily then sends her into an even more dangerous freefall. Throughout the emotional upheaval, one person stays -- sometimes annoyingly -- near. He's the local mechanic (Song Kang-ho), a momma's boy who at 39 still hasn't found a wife and sees in Shin-ae something worthy of pulling out all the stops. Theirs is a troubled romance. He's not her type; she's not all there. But just as Secret Sunshine is an X-ray of sorrow, it's also a study of the curative powers of devotion, on what it means to love, be loved, and accept love both in times of need and from places we'd normally prefer to disregard.

March 28, 2010

My Father: A Man Without a Country

Warning! Warning! My Father should be watched with a box full of tissues. An issue-driven picture about a Korean-American soldier (Daniel Henney) who leaves the American suburbs -- perhaps because his adoptive father (Richard Riehle) resembles Colonel Sanders -- and joins the U.S. Army as a way to track down his Korean birth father (Choi Jong-ryeol), Hwang Dong-hyeuk's pleasantly mushy biopic is overly packed with weepy moments that find you saying "Awww" out loud even if you're alone in your living room. Is it a work of art? More like a movie of the week. And that makes sense given lead actor Henney's CV is more TV than anything else. Yet while the culture clash between whites and Asians (in both countries) is key to My Father, Henney's character's approach to his problems is stereotypically American. He's a big-hearted, pig-headed savior as he deals with bigotry, fights the death penalty, and expands his idea of what family or dad means. And, since My Father is based on a true life story, you get to see some of the same moments play out again, only this time featuring the film's inspiration in documentary footage that plays right before the credits. That addition helps make a film that could've felt sappy feel kind of cool.

March 21, 2010

Antique Bakery: Cooking up a Sweet Little Mystery

I haven't received many Korean movies recommendations for my blog. In fact, I've received just one: Antique Bakery from a reader named The Purple Girl. Well, I wish more people would share their favorites because Min Kyu-dong's film is a highly enjoyable bonbon, a sweetly fruity comedy about the friendship that evolves between a gay patissier (Kim Jae-wook) with "demonic powers of attraction" and a bakery owner (Ju Ji-hun) struggling with repressed memories of being kidnapped by a serial killer. If that set-up sounds more twisted than twee, take into account that the movie is based on Fumi Yoshinaga's popular manga. Because of its source, snappy irreverence holds sway over psychological derangement; the comic book colorfulness informs everything from the song-and-dance fantasies to the secondary characters like a retired boxer who finds a second life as a baker (Yu Ah-in) and a bodyguard (Choi Ji-ho) whose devotion to his boss extends to serving him hot cocoa in bed. While romance flirts between all four leading men, the only serious man-on-man action comes when the pastry chef re-encounters his mentor (Andy Gillet), a lovely Frenchman with the biggest non-Asian role that I've ever seen in a Korean movie. It's all pretty delicious!

March 14, 2010

The Legend of the Shadowless Sword: Babes Who Take Stabs at Revenge

Way back in the late 900s A.D., only one prince (Lee Seo-jin) survived from the royal family. Lucky for him, a young girl (Yoon So-yi) who he'd rescued during an earlier political upheaval made it her mission in life to reinstate him to the throne. So while he's been making a living as a shady thrift shop owner, she's been mastering the basics of the Medieval bodyguard. You know... Martial arts, sword-fighting and the lost craft of self-propelled human flight. But she's not the only one who's been training like there's no tomorrow. There's also a bloodthirsty guy (Shin Hyeon-jun) with cornrows and his sexy girlfriend (Lee Ki-yong) who favors red. They too aspire to the currently unoccupied throne. Since both pairs are black belts in every form of combat, The Legend of the Shadowless Sword has plenty of riveting clashes in which swords clang, fists thud, and feet skid in the dirt when they're not pedaling their fighters effortlessly into the sky. As historic legends go, director Kim Young Jun's epic is a really good one. He keeps the mysticism to a minimum, preferring instead to fold the magic into the real. If Ancient Peruvians could perform brain surgery way back when, why couldn't the Koreans be able to make each other explode?

March 7, 2010

Woman on the Beach: Writing What You Know When You Know Nothing

Writer's block is a drag. But when the condition becomes the inspiration for a movie, like it does in Hong Sang-soo's arty Woman on the Beach, audiences tend to suffer right alongside the struggling screenwriter. Admittedly, the case depicted here isn't a particularly crippling or painful one: Hong's stand-in (Kim Seung-woo) is able to work through his creative paralysis in less than a week thanks to some trusty tools familiar to many artists (and moviegoers who frequent biopics of same). How's he do it? Well, he betrays his close-friend/producer (an underutilized Kim Tae-woo) by sleeping with his girlfriend (Go Hyun-jung) then betrays his new girlfriend by seducing a lonely divorcee (Song Seon-mi). Blame it on the soju! As portraits of womanizing artists go, Woman on the Beach is fairly tame stuff because the creative cad at its center neither ruins anyone's life nor exhibits self-destructive behavior on a grand scale. He just makes the lives of those around him a little messy and his own life, a little lonely. We can only hope that the art which he produces by stirring up all that trouble is better than this document of his creative process.

February 28, 2010

Barking Dogs Never Bite: In the Beginning, There Was a Genius

Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) leads a cheerless life. His domineering, pregnant wife (Kim Ho-jeong) has him cracking walnuts on a whim and his teaching career looks bound for nowhere if he doesn't raise $10,000 fast as a bribe for his professorship. Save the pity party for someone else though because Yun-ju's way of dealing with the chip on his shoulder is to kill the yapping lapdogs in his apartment building. Once you've seen him off a beribboned terrier and a toy doberman, you're kind of glad that he's got it so bad. And anyway, someone else is in greater need of your sympathy. That's Hyeon-nam (Bae Dun-na), the management company's spacey bookkeeper who's on a mission to find the dog-killer and a purpose in life (with a gal pal played by Go Su-hee). Because this is a Bong Joon-ho film, the narrative ends up being much more than those two intertwining tales. There are also subplots involving an indiscriminate janitor who tells good ghost stories, a crazy old lady who dries radishes on the roof, and a homeless man whose bad luck ends up seeming to work in his favor. When you consider that Barking Dogs Never Bite is Bong's feature film debut, you realize that he hasn't got better with each successive movie. He's always been great. He's just been great in different ways.

February 27, 2010

My Sassy Girl: She's Tough to Love in a Good Way

"I want to meet a girl like the ones in romantic comic books."

There's plenty of guys out there who fantasize about that sentiment, about the hot chick who's gonna kick their ass with the promise of sweet love afterward. In Kwak Jae-young's My Sassy Girl, that adolescent dream is exactly what draws the self-effacing Kyun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) to bossy Jun Ji-hyun (Jun Gianna), a hard-drinking, emotionally unstable young woman who likes to slap him around and bark out preposterous orders. Otherwise, he'd never put up with her irrational demands which include wearing her high heels and carrying her piggy-back to yet another hotel after yet another night of binge-drinking. That these two cuties are destined for each other seems inevitable at first but is it? My Sassy Girl teeters between romantic comedy and tearjerker because you're never quite sure if he's going to be her permanent boy pal or if she's harboring a secret that could drive them apart. Naturally, they'll survive the deranged army guy who's gone AWOL but whether they'll find true love with each other is another matter. Until you find out, you'll be treated to quite a few highly effective sight gags based on vomiting. I'll drink to that!

February 21, 2010

Righteous Ties: Ganging up on the Gang With a Giggle

It's great to be popular whether you're in high school or in the slammer. You'll always have friends to sit with during lunch and someone to confide in should times get tough. The major difference between the two is that when someone back-stabs you in the latter environ, he'll be doing it with a rusty spike. That's what Chi-sung (Jeong Jae-yeong) finds out in Jang Jin's lighthearted prison-break movie Righteous Ties. Serving seven years for attempted murder, this loyal mob goon develops a close-knit clique of prison pals who help him escape and exact revenge on the mafia Don who's done him wrong. Chi-sung is especially lucky because he happens to have two best friends, too: One on the outside -- Joo-joong (Jeong Joon-ho) -- who defies code and informs him of the big betrayal; the other on the inside -- Soon-tal (Ryoo Seung-yong) -- who has some payback issues of his own. (Chi-sung's girlfriend provides him with cash and a cellphone. Really, some guys have all the luck!) True to form for a jopok comedy, the violence of Righteous Ties can be jarringly brutal as fight sequences forgo slapstick for deft choreography. Overall, this pic is funny without being a true comedy. That's it's hard to classify may be its greatest appeal.

February 13, 2010

No Regret: Rent-Boy Comes With Serious Asking Price

Cute, spoiled rich kid (Kim Nam-gil) stalks cuter male prostitute (Lee Young-hoon). In Leesong Hee-il's homo-drama No Regret, the hustler learns halfway through the movie that this is love. Initially his reaction is the justifiable "Back off or I'll kill you!" But after being lured to yet another hotel room, the rent-boy asks somewhat frustratedly, "Of all the cocks I suck every night, why should yours be special?" The reply catches him off-guard: "Because it's one-of-a-kind...and so is yours." Personally, I'm skeptical as to how good one cock can be but for this hooker that ridiculous line turns out to be a persuasive argument. Shortly thereafter the two become a couple! Well, the rich boy's mom doesn't like them apples. Nor does the call-boy's pimp (Jeong Seung-kil) who shouts to his departing breadwinner: "Give me a screw before you go, bitch!" Since this love-that-dares-not-speak-its-name also dares not make any sense, the rich boy's temporary abandonment of the hired help drives the latter to binge drink, drunk dial, then attempt murder. There's nothing a guy won't do for a man who's declared, "I'll think of you every morning I wake up with a hard-on." Evidently, that's like saying "I love you to death" to a whore.

February 6, 2010

The Curse of February 29th: The Horrific Toll of Bad Acting

Working in a tollbooth sounds like a nightmare to me. The car exhaust, the cramped quarters, the endless monotony would drive anyone over the edge. And it appears to have done just that to poor Ji-yeon (Park Eun-hye), a lowly, low-paid worker stuck with the late shift and suffering from insomnia. She blames her aural hallucinations and bad driving on a bloody ticket that a driver handed her right before (when else?) February 29th; Detective Park (Im Ho) and his partner think she's criminally insane with problems rooted in her childhood. My vote goes with the cops. Anyone who pops pills and babbles about a woman who dresses up like her (in cheap outfits ordered off the internet) sounds suspect. You can sympathize with Ji-yeon for acting out. She's got a dead-end job, a blandly furnished apartment, and a serious case of chapped lips. But while you feel for Ji-yeong, you'll more likely relate to the reporter who visits her in the mental ward then ends up doodling a shark on his notepad. She's crazy, not fascinating. If I was going to get meta, I'd say director Jung Jong-hun has asked his lead actress to play it like a toll booth worker acting like an actor instead of vice versa. That is the true Curse of February 29th.

February 4, 2010

The World of Silence: Thank Hell for Stalkers of Little Girls

There's something so perfect about making a photographer a pedophile. After all, a man who takes pictures is a man who likes to watch and voyeurism is inherently sexual. And while The World of Silence ends up retreating from that particularly icky association by the time of its literally fiery climax, the movie nevertheless plays that shuddersome perversion for all its worth. You may know that the fatalistic shutterbug (for National Geographic, no less) would never kill the understandably depressed orphan (Han Bo-Bae) who's become his charge and caretaker but you'll also recognize that there's something twisted about their relationship, even at its best. That disturbing tension goes a long way to making Jo Ui-seok's serial killer thriller more than just your everyday police procedural. So squirm as you learn who's going to catch the predatory criminal responsible for the string of murders of little girls. Is it the guy (Kim Sang-kyung) who has a suspicious hobby of taking snapshots of Lolitas or the disheveled cop (Park Yong-woo) with no hobbies at all? Neither, you fool. Only one thing is certain: Everyone involved with this case is going to lose their taste for mushroom soup.

January 23, 2010

Living Death: My God Is Stronger Than Your God, Bitch!

Kids are always getting caught in the middle of the battle of Christians vs. Pagans. In director Lee Yong-joo's first-time feature Living Death, the unfortunate child is a girl (Shim Eun-kyung) who recovers from a serious illness with unearthly powers that allow her to heal facial burns and uterine cancer then turn around and issue death decrees when someone falls from favor. When she disappears from her fairly dreary apartment, big sis (Nam Sang-mi) comes home to find her then gets caught up in a series of not-so-neighborly suicides, not to mention the religious fanaticism of her born-again mom (Kim Bo-yeon). The local police detective (Ryoo Seung-yong) can't make heads or tails of it all. And you can see why. It is difficult. What's the connection between a kooky security guard who vomits himself to death and a woman who sacrifices live chickens as part of her shamanistic practices? Okay, maybe that one has an obvious connection... But how do you account for the string of murders at the housing complex? Because they're not suicides, they're murders, moron! Perhaps the heron who shows up periodically knows. From the look in that creepy bird's eye, I bet he knows everything.

January 16, 2010

Sad Movie: Your Life Is Going Down, Down, Down, Down, Down

What strikes you as the most pathetic? A young boy (Yeo Jin-gu) who wishes his mother (Yum Jung-ah) would stay sick since she's so much nicer since she's been hospitalized? An unemployed guy (Cha Tae-hyun) who makes money getting punched at the local gym? A young woman (Shin Min-a) who won't take off the head of her Raggedy Ann costume because her face is badly burned? Or a woman (Lim Su-jeong) who can't get a marriage proposal from her firefighter-boyfriend (Jung Woo-sung)? Before you decide, please consider the potential for things to get much worse. Indeed, director Kwon Jong-kwan's bittersweet Sad Movie sets up these four woeful tales then intertwines them as he has them race towards the bottom of a pretty deep well of sorrow. So while the boy's mother will get better (temporarily), and the jobless dude will become an entrepreneur (of sorts), no one will escape the cruel hand of fate. See life as tough today? Just wait for tomorrow! I suppose a few of the characters learn something about loving others and accepting themselves while experiencing their personal tragedies but they don't seem better people for it, only bruised. Picture the ways your life can go wrong. Now live it. Or don't think about it and live for today.