December 27, 2011

The Best Korean Movies of 2011 (Sort of)

For me, 2011 was a year of thrillers, providing me with at least one heart-pounding high per month. But since this is a top ten list, not a top twelve, thrillers that could've made the cut (Tell Me SomethingMy Friend and His Wife) got axed, especially since Im Kwon-taek's small-moments, big feelings Hanji and Kim Ki-duk's oddball musical Breath refused to be elbowed off. Herewith the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2011...

1. The Man From Nowhere (2010): It's not a better movie than Lady Vengeance -- nothing is  -- but I was so deliriously happy watching The Man From Nowhere (hot loner protects young kid) that I can't stop myself from granting it the top slot. Me = Irrational. Movie = Sensational.

2. Lady Vengeance (2005): Watch a Park Chan-wook revenge fantasy, experience Korean filmmaking at its best. As a brilliant vigilante racked by guilt, Lee Yeoung-ae gives the most memorable performance of the year in the role of a lifetime.

3. Going by the Book (2007): A heist movie that isn't a heist movie -- it's a comedy about a bank robbery simulation gone awry -- ends up the smartest heist movie you'll ever see. For me, a star was born in Jeong Jae-yeong who plays the muddle-headed mastermind.

4. Another Public Enemy (2005): Deep inside I have a secret need for martial arts movies. Another Public Enemy takes care of that need while also delivering a top-notch police procedural drama. In short, director Kang Woo-suk, lets you get your combat fix with good plot.

5. I Saw the Devil (2011): To catch a serial killer you have to think like a serial killer which means you end up just as crazy as a serial killer. In this case, you might even have to get a little crazier, since those serial killers can sometimes work in tandem. I saw it. I loved it.

6. Hanji (2011): Could anything be more boring than the process of traditional paper-making? Hey, don't judge so quickly. Im Kwon-taek's drama about the seismic shifts that happen in people's lives when they brush with the historic is nothing short of sublime.

7. Secret Love (2010): Pure, unadulterated noir, from its kinky sexed-up storyline -- a woman in love with identical twins -- to its final denouement -- one sibling survives against all odds. What starts like a woman's movie ends up as everyone's guilty pleasure, especially mine.

8. Blades of Blood (2010): No one does this kind of sweeping, Shakespearean medieval tragicomedy like director Lee Jun-ik. Blades of Blood might not be as good as The King and the Clown but it's a perfectly entertaining fable nevertheless.

9. Breath (2007): Oh, Kim Ki-duk, you never cease to surprise me. Here, you're experimenting with the musical by having a jilted spouse sing karaoke to a man on death row that she doesn't even know. Somehow, it works!

10. A Better Tomorrow (2010): John Woo's original pic about two brothers and a best friend who fight each other and bad guys is a classic of Hong Kong cinema. Time will tell whether Song Hae-sung's remake emerges as a classic for Korea, too.

Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2010.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2009.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2008.

December 26, 2011

Rainbow Eyes: A Gay Thriller That's Not Gay Soon Enough or Thrilling Long Enough

I've seen a number of great thrillers this year, which puts Rainbow Eyes at a disadvantage. For while it's gorgeously photographed, energetically edited and possessed of a sensationalistic storyline that starts off with the murder of a gym owner (who may or may not have been gay), Rainbow Eyes falls short of the high-wire tension that ultimately makes a great thriller so thrilling to watch. It's just good! Part of the problem is the way the gay subject matter is handled. While much is made of the secret sex lives of some characters early on, Rainbow Eyes initially feels a little shy of peeking behind closed doors, even as it flashes every dirty detail it can of the actual crime scene. So while the quick slicing of fingers off a hand will make you gasp, the constant repetition of "Is he or isn't he?" will leave you exasperated. Rainbow Eyes would be a hell of a lot better off stating outright, "He is!" then going for broke with gratuitous displays of homoerotic antics in the locker rooms, steam rooms, and weight rooms. Talk about a series of lost opportunities!

Although prudishness ultimately gives way to salaciousness (thank God!), the shift is shockingly quick. It's like we go from a murder mystery about closet cases in a secret society to a transgender revenge fantasy acted out against a military backdrop with gay prison rules. Far be it from me to underestimate homophobia in the armed forces or the persecution of the LGBT across many subcultures -- Hey, I've been bashed myself -- but the way Rainbow Eyes relates oppression to sexuality causes me to raise a well-plucked eyebrow. No one really thinks homophobia in the army is caused by closeted gay men who leave their fatigues behind to run queer nightclubs. No one thinks transgendered people pursue sex changes to work out vigilante fantasies either. Racy? Yes, Rainbow Eyes is that! It's campy too with a priceless performance from Oh Ji-yeong as Mi-sook, the nightclub singer who always looks like the cat who swallowed the canary. In its own weird way, as out of touch with reality as Rainbow Eyes may be, it does feel as though it were written by a certain type of gay man who thinks every hot man is a repressed homosexual, every out gay man is a flaming queen, and every sympathetic woman is a fag hag. Naturally, the most beautiful lady in the room is a man in drag with a manicure destined to blow her cover.

But if Chelsea boys are writer-director Yang Yun-ho's intended audience, this movie needs more sweaty exposed flesh at the gym and some humping of the non-heterosexual variety, ideally involving eye candy Kim Kang-woo, who'd look best brooding out of uniform...completely.

December 25, 2011

Missing Person: The Unreal World of a Real Estate Agent

For the heck of it, let's look at Lee Seo's sharp-as-a-dagger indie pic Missing Person in canine terms. For what is Won-yeong (Choi Moo-Seong), the bullying, gum-snapping real estate agent, around whom much of the action swirls, if not the quintessential alpha male dog. He's got a pack of obedient mutts awaiting his commands at the office and three bitches -- his wife (Kim Seon-yeong), his mistress (Kim Ki-yeon) and an underage groupie (Baek Jin-hee) -- available for mating purposes. And to continue the metaphor, there's also a mongrel lurking at the periphery of his pack: Gyoo-nam (Kim Gyoo-nam), a clearly undomesticated dog, kind of looking for a master and kind of not.

Gyoo-nam -- who with his eerie, dead stare, emaciated face, and diminished IQ really does feel more animal than human -- is this movie's wild card. At first, he comes across as a heartbreaking, low-level masochist, willing to let Won-yeong leash him and beat him, eating dog food from a dog bowl with his own dog at home... But that isn't the whole picture. Sure, Gyoo-nam identifies with his four-legged friend, but in one troubling, almost-but-not-quite-comic scene, he extends the role-playing a creepy bit further by hand-feeding some dried pellets to a young boy who's part of a gang of kids who've been harassing him. That unsettling interaction is the first indication that Gyoo-nam isn't just the town idiot with a subservient complex. He's a cagey creature, studying his master, and looking to create his own pack, which he's actually doing pooch by pooch by assembling together dogs he's kidnapped and found in the woods and on the street. Won-yeong may not take Gyoo-nam too seriously when he coaches him in perfecting the killer stare and the art of baring his teeth, which for the record are rotten, but Gyoo-nam does. He takes it very seriously.

In the quirky subculture of dog owners, people know each other by their dogs' names. I mention this because some of the characters in Missing Person are as easy to remember by their pets' names as their own. Bok-soona's owner, who loses her spaniel while doing a hula hoop in the park, never really gets an identity outside of grieving pet-owner, while In-ae is as much Suji's mistress as she is that of Won-yeong. When these two women lose their dogs, they're understandably devastated. It goes without saying that dogs can quickly become part of a family. In a way, Missing Person warns us that in a dog-eat-dog world, you treat your fellow man as a dog at your own risk when you forget that dogs are human, too.

December 24, 2011

The Recipe: None of the Ingredients Needed for a True Romance

Is it really that unusual for a man, about to be executed for heinous crimes, to long for a simple dish like a bean paste stew in his final moments? Choi Yoo-jin (Ryu Seung-Ryong), a none-too-bright TV reporter at DBS, evidently thinks so he pulls out all the stops -- favors from his friends at the police force, extensions of deadlines from his rightfully skeptical boss, even conferences with the dead -- in order to find out the recipe behind this mystical dish. For the record, the ingredients are pretty specific: soy beans that have been grown with pig manure and spring water found under a lacquer tree to name but two. And Choi is committed to getting every single one of them, even when they get esoteric (like the vibrations of crickets) and sickeningly sappy (like tears).

Those tears are caused by the foiled romance of two cute-as-a-button artisans: stew-maker Hye-jin Jang (Lee Yu-won) who reeks of soy beans and wine-maker Kim Hyeon-soo (Lee Dong-Wook) who stinks of booze. Together, rumor has it, they make a delightful smell. Or at least they did when they were alive. Sadly that memorable combination of odors is no more as these two lovebirds never got to get married and make a sweetly scented baby to carry their patented mix of soy and wine forward into the next generation. You see, he got whisked away for an arranged marriage in Japan just as she was going to cook him up something sweet and tasty to eat. If you didn't get a whiff of what's coming next, let me tell you straight: He ends up drowning trying to get back to her by ship; she gets killed in a car wreck that's one of the stranger instances of euthanasia on record. Just try to sniff back the tears.

I'm not sure what the big pay-off is here for Choi. He neither makes a bowl of orgiastic soup that tastes of nirvana on earth nor has a ratings-smashing special turning him into a food network superstar now that he's uncovered the story behind the dish. It's hard to picture him finding true love for himself with the batty shop-owner (Lee Yong-nyeo) who's always wearing curlers. It's equally hard to imagine him getting promoted at DBS. Maybe he sells the story to director Lee Ann so she can spoonfeed the sentimental dreck to us here while he runs off with one of that movie's extras, a pretty young actress more concerned with trinkets and baubles than a bowl of fermented soy that smells like flowers and childhood and ultimately, poop.

December 18, 2011

Going by the Book: A Heist Movie in Theory

I've seen actor Jeong Jae-young in a handful of movies -- as a crafty merchant in the epic The Divine Weapon, as a determined vigilante in the jailbreak romp Righteous Ties, and as a fiercely woman-hating boyfriend in the underrated grrl-powered neo-noir No Blood, No Tears. He's always good but Ra Han-chee's Going by the Book is the pic that can be credited for making me a Jeong Jae-yeong fan.

I'm still puzzling over why I like him so much now. But I do. He's not sublime or emotionally raw or spellbindingly histrionic or drop-dead gorgeous. What he is is consistently watchable because Jeong is an actor who never relaxes internally. Even when his face is a blank (a look he's certainly perfected), his eyes aren't frozen with emptiness, they're stuck in a holding pattern that awaits more instructions from inside. Jeong's characters are thinkers, not philosophers or scientists so much as people with limited capacities pushing themselves to their limits. In my book, that he can convey overload without overacting can't be praised enough. And his talent is on full display here. As Do-man, a diabolically exacting cop who follows the letter of the law when called upon to play the part of a bank robber, Jeong is at the top of his game.

The staged crime that's cast his character as its lead player is meant to illustrate the police department's effectiveness in light of a rash of crimes plaguing the city. But since Do-man is as conscientious a criminal as he is a cop, this publicity stunt ends up highlighting how incompetent the police force actually is. Much to the dismay of the new police chief Lee Seung-woo (Son Byung-ho), Do-man (who's good behavior in the past has done nothing but get him demoted) outwits the boys in blue -- as well as a SWAT Team that wants to get in on the action -- at every step. Hostages are roughed up. Cops are killed. Pleas from the robber's mom go ignored.

Not that Do-man goes so far as to actually hurt someone. This is a simulation (and a comedy), remember, so when Do-man "rapes" one hostage, he executes a series of pushups; when he "shoots" a cameraman, he points his gun and shouts "Bang!" Part of the joy in watching Going by the Book, is getting to see a heist movie in which playacting adds another layer to the crime. Two stories unfold simultaneously: one is an elaborately conceived heist; the other is a terribly mismanaged bit of self-promotion. Both are enthralling tales because Jeong knows how to keep it real even when he's pretending.

December 14, 2011

Secret Love: Help! My Twin Brother Is a Sexaholic

There's something about the first half of director Ryu Hoon-i's increasingly, cumulatively fantastic Secret Love that reminds me of a Douglas Sirk film. Ryu's movie feels like a woman's picture, albeit a kind of nutty one, in which the wilting flower Yeon-yi (Yun Jin-seo) struggles to reconcile the conflicting responsibilities that come with having a recently comatose husband, named Jin-woo (Yu Ji-tae), who needs daily caretaking and hosting his twin brother Jin-ho from abroad as a houseguest, a brother who unfortunately for her is both hunky, and hyper-horny. Yu is impossibly dreamy as the sexed-up sibling so you know resistance on Yeon-yi's part is going to be futile. What you might not know is how hot it's going to get once he manhandles her in a hatchback car and literally screws her out of her depression. He's like Prozac with a tongue.

It's not the only steamy sex scene in Secret Love either. There's another quick grab-and-grope on a hospital gurney, an emotionally charged coupling in a therapeutically oversized bathtub, and a wildly raunchy romp -- knife included but discarded -- on the living room floor. (Throughout, there's the deliriously preposterous suggestion that these two guys sense each other's orgasms, even when miles apart; in fact, one brother's deeply-felt happy ending wakes the other brother from his coma!) As to whom Yeon-yi is getting it on with in each make-out scene, that may be a mystery to her by the end of the movie but despite both brothers getting identical trendy haircuts and sharing the same casual wardrobe in what turns out to be a delectably gripping noir, Secret Love is never that confusing thanks to the masterful script co-written by Ryu and Kwon Ji-yeon. Diverting but never distracting or detracting subplots include a funnily poignant, budding affair between Yeon-yi's pining mom (Lim Ye-jin) and a broad-shouldered, flirtatious priest (Jeong In-gi) and the tale of a unnamed rival soulmate (Oh Woo-jeong) who's impossibly smitten with one of the brothers. Which one she loves is also a bit of a mystery!

Impeccable casting extends from the lead roles right on down to the bit parts with enjoyably campy turns by Jin Seo as the gossipy Nurse Kang, and Sung Ji-ru as a B&B owner who loves to take pictures. No secret about this one: It's one terrific thriller! If I gave out stars, I'd give Secret Love five out of five. If I gave a thumbs up, I'd put a condom on my finger.

December 11, 2011

White: The Melody of the Curse: Girl Group Gone Dead

When Pure, the sassy, pre-fab all-girl group, kicked off White: The Melody of the Curse, I became a ridiculously excitable mess, an overeager believer who knew he'd stumbled upon one of the great films of 2011, a contemporary masterpiece of the horror genre, a fright flick combining infectious pop tunes with cleverly executed deaths, and one that -- just maybe -- traipsed out some dance moves that truly killed it, as they say. Then The Pink Dolls took the stage and I underwent a severe reality check. Dressed in frilly Bo-Peep outfits and looking as lost as that famed maiden's sheep, this followup act crashed where the other burned, and fizzled where the other dazzled. As the paid audience on-screen obediently checked their Androids and iPhones and acted bored, I did the same in real time while wondering what the hell was going on. Were the writer-director-brothers Kim (Gok and Sun) really going to put this less-compelling foursome in the spotlight? Yes, my friend, they really were! My immediate assessment would have to be retracted.

Now I get how The Pink Doll's being so awful is part of a dramatic structure that needs to show these ladies at rock bottom in order to make their rise to the top of the charts that much more thrilling but what I don't get is why they'd put the camera on a cruddy quartet when they've got another band that's bubblegum pleasure. Why can't the girls of Pure discover a cursed DVD that will catapult them to pop stardom then slam them each in their graves? And, for that matter, why can't the curse originate with the ghost of an angry composer-lyricist instead of an embittered dead singer so we won't have to hear the same hit tune time after time, backwards and forwards, and with different women taking the lead? Regardless, that's not the movie the brothers Kim have written.

As to the movie they have made, here's what works: a stylishly dyke-y manager (Byeon Jeong-su) who feels like she might be part of the initial tragedy that generated the curse; the cranky little breakdancer Sin-ji (Maydoni) whose glares suggest she might be behind all the near-fatal accidents; the brief cameo of Lee Kyu-han as an unscrupulous backer who makes the casting couch look pretty inviting; the bloody end of lead singer Eun-joo (Ham Eun-jeong) who's trampled to death by her panicked fans. The list of what doesn't work is longer so let's just say that having two bandmembers -- the pretty Je-ni (Jin Se-Yeon) and the talented Ah-rang (Choi Ah-ra) -- be friends-turned-rivals was a good idea, as was the side story involving Soon-yi (Hwang Woo-seul-hye), Eun-joo's sister who once had pop stardom dreams of her own. I'd welcome a better sequel.

November 24, 2011

Hello, Schoolgirl: Older Man Likes Barely Legal Girl (But at Least He's Cute)

The problem with Hello, Schoolgirl is succinctly illustrated in a cafe scene during which the two main characters announce their ages: Yeon-woo (Yu Ji-tae) is 30; Soo-yeong (Lee Yeon-hee) is 18. A moment later, the meal continues only now he's replaced by an 18-year-old version of himself and she now looks like she's six. That brief, momentary fantastical transformation clues you into the disparity if you missed it when they said it out loud. He's way too old for her. Now you could argue that she's mature for her age (if she were but she isn't) or that they're consenting adults (if they were but according to Korean law she's not). I get where I'm supposed to make concessions. But despite its twee attractions, Ryu Jang-ha's romantic comedy kept me thinking that there's something wrong with a 30-year-old guy dating a young girl just shy of womanhood. Well, at least the Koreans have the decency to make him really cute instead of an out-of-shape, balding slob. I say, if you're going to go for older, go for hot. (I wish she'd gone for smarter and richer, too. Sadly, he's neither.) What else has he got working in his favor? He's a pleaser! The old couple who own the dry cleaners love him; the realtor who helped him to get an apartment finds him charming, too. Now if he can stop courting underage girls via sexting, maybe he can stay out of prison.

There's a secondary plot involving 29-year-old jaded photographer Ha-kyeong (Chae Jeong-an) being pursued by a 22-year-old masochist named Sook (Kang In). He likes her because she's pretty. She tolerates him because he wears the same shirt every day. That's it. It's all about superficial attractions here. In a way, Hello Schoolgirl is about two kinds of predators: one lurks; the other stalks. And if you think I'm imposing a creepy interpretation, take a look at the skulker's depersonalized, nearly empty apartment that reeks of smoke, or the discomfort he displays when the girl's mom sees him holding hands with his student-love, or the lack of outrage he show when his friend asks him if it's statutory rape. There's something wrong with this guy. But then, I often feel that way with romantic comedies. I'm not so easily convinced two people are soul mates who need to defy society's constraining conventions.

Maybe Hello, Schoolgirl is secretly funded by an Asian branch of NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association. (SAMBLA?) Although the main couple is a man and a girl, this rom-com is definitely asking us to question the age of consent, and while the spook factor on this one is really hard to overcome, you have to admit this cast exudes so much charm you hate to not let them all end up as couples. She'll be a child bride. And by the end of the movie, she's of age. Start throwing the instant rice.

November 20, 2011

Visitors: When a Filmmaker Works in Charcoal, This Is What Happens

The three films in Visitors are best described as discarded sketches. By which I mean, they come across as both unfinished and unwanted. The first, Japanese director Naomi Kawase's "Koma" definitely feels as though she's testing out ideas for a bigger film, more than making an actual short movie. Characters are underdeveloped, and the story -- about a young man who comes to pay his respects to his grandfather's former employer only to find himself seduced by a crazy woman who may be misinterpreting him as her spirit bridegroom -- is skeletal and would require more fleshing out to be compelling. Watching "Koma," you definitely pick up on Kawase's background as a documentarian, what with its stories within stories, and its personalization of history, even its use of nature photography as segue. But what is she documenting exactly? An aborted creative process? Dunno.

Next up: Hong Sang-soo's "Lost in the Mountains." It's the most successful of the bunch but it's also the most disappointing because it seems to end halfway. Hong, on familiar ground to be sure, relates the woes of a young writer (Jeong Yu-mi) who keeps plotting her own disappointments: first by popping in on her best friend unexpectedly, then by calling up the married professor (Moon Seong-geun) with whom she had an affair, and then by sleeping with her humpy ex-boyfriend (Lee Seon-gyun) whose career has outstripped her own. A chance encounter involving all four has her tossing aside a coffee cup belligerently and driving away but you feel that the story is really only beginning. This is Act I. Where is Act II? Come to think of it, don't most movies have three acts? I think so!

The final entry is "Butterflies Have No Memories" by Lav Diaz. It's hard to believe that Diaz, like his counterparts here, couldn't find better actors ("stilted" would be kind) or a better cinematographer ("murky" would be generous) or a composer to add some drama where little is found but even if he had, no supporting talent could've rescued this script which is really a second draft. "Butterflies..." might be too short to qualify as a feature film but even so it takes a good third of the movie to even introduce the plot. Quasi-political, the central action concerns some poor guys who decide to don conquistador masks and kidnap their better-off Canadian cousin as a way to make money. This is an instance where you wish Diaz had been invited to a writer's lab at Sundance to refine his tale of the downtrodden losers out to make a quick dime. Was his international application rejected? Who knows?

I think what frustrates me most about Visitors, though, is that both Diaz and Kawase -- Kawase especially -- have chalked up some serious awards yet as an introduction to their work Visitors left me feeling that maybe the awards were misprized. If a short anthology is designed to give a quick taste of a few artists, then Visitors has left me looking for a meal elsewhere. May I see another menu?

November 15, 2011

A Better Tomorrow: The Beauty of Not Being Original

Art movements have their renaissances, theaters have their revivals, neighborhoods have their rebirths. But movies, movies have their remakes. As re-creations go, this is certainly the least glamorous of terms. And after watching Song Hae-sung's A Better Tomorrow, the Korean remake of John Woo's landmark film of the same name, it got me to wondering: Why do movie remakes -- also called rehashes -- get immediately stigmatized? It certainly isn't as if we generally leave most movies, commenting "How original!" Isn't it enough to come away from a movie saying, "How excellent!" That's how I felt after watching Song's A Better Tomorrow. But then I'd never seen the original.

But should I have? Would I have enjoyed the film more? And are remakes made simply as byproducts to compare to their progenitors? Is it wrong to re-make a movie because a director thinks the material might speak to a different generation or to a different culture or have something in it that now has something new to say? Should you chastise that director for not optioning a wholly new script, and instead choosing a really good story dying to be retold? When you look at the parts of the first A Better Tomorrow, it's not as if they're pioneering ideas either. We're all familiar with the story of two conflicted brothers -- one a cop (Kim Kang-woo), the other a criminal (Ju Jin-mo). We've all heard the one about the sleazy backstabber (Jo Han-sun) who rises to the top of the mob through nefarious means. We've also cheered on the anti-hero (Song Seung-heon) whose luck runs dry as he goes out in a blaze of well-amunitioned glory. Woo's script -- from which I'm assuming this draws heavily since Woo is credited as both producer and co-screenwriter -- isn't good because it's got new ideas. It's good because it's well-constructed. It makes sense to use it again.

Song's pic updates the recipe somewhat. (How much, I neither know nor care so I'll just make educated guesses.) Now the two brothers are North Korean defectors; their tough-love aunty figure (Kim Ji-yeong) runs one of those eatery tents that I've never seen outside Korean movies and scifi pics with an apocalyptic bent. Let traditionalists deride Song's remake as a retread and those who prefer this A Better Tomorrow celebrate it as a snazzy re-invention. For me, it's just a really good mafia movie tackling all the expected themes of family, betrayal, devotion, greed, redemption and respect amid a deliciously bloody fantasy of gunfire. You watch the one-man vigilantism of the righteous partner or the high-adrenaline final shootout between the self-chastising brother and the thug who's trying to kill his younger brother then tell me whether you care whether it's ever been done before. I sure don't. More likely, you'll be repeating what I wrote earlier: "Excellent! Excellent! Excellent!"

October 29, 2011

Blades of Blood: The Look of Medieval History

What I like best about Korean epics set in the middle ages are the men's hats: wide-brimmed stovepipes made of black mesh that diffuses the shadow cast on the face; overturned, blue or earthen-colored bowls embellished with topknots and attached to the head with a strip of fabric secured in the back like a bandana; towering royal cones that look collapsible and slyly suggest the instability of any and every empire... Having been raised on the knit caps and baseball visors, the earmuffs and do rags of the late 20th century, these antiquated, grandly executed headpieces speak mysteriously, intriguingly of hidden meanings that have nothing to do with designer labels and sports franchises. Back then a hat had meaning! It defined your class, your rank, your identity in a way that today's tiaras and aviator hats do not. Talk about ridiculously aspirational. Well, Blades of Blood has hats aplenty. And aspirations too. And for that I thank director Lee Jun-ik (since I don't know the name of the costume designer). With this historic drama documenting eternal futility more than temporal reign, he's parading out a veritable fashion show of medieval formal- and sports- wear between and during the sword fights.

But clothes alone do not make a movie any more than they do a man. And at the center of Blades of Blood are actually two shabbily attired men: One, a blind samurai wearing a patched-up version of the stovepipe mentioned above; the other, his bare-headed apprentice with a robe as bland as a navy sportscoat. They're both hell-bent on revenging the man who killed Pil-joo (Lee Hae-yeong) -- friend of the former, father of the latter. And they have to trek by hundreds of people infinitely better attired to do so. It's a classic tale with the two men acting out a Star Wars-like mentorship as the elder -- a blind fool named Hwang (Hwang Jeong-min) -- teaches the younger -- a hot-tempered bastard named Gyeon-ja (Baek Seong-hyeon) -- the finer points of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat with plenty of head clobberings as reprimand. If the Foley soundtrack is to be believed, those hits to the head sure hurt! And it's not the only form of pain suffered throughout Blades of Blood. (it may be the only pains that continuously cause a laugh though.) For serious injury early on, Gyeon-ja gets stabbed right through the abdomen by his nemesis Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won) and is given up as dead (as if that's the way movies ever worked). That hurt! And many of Lee's cohorts end up seeing the end of Lee's sword come out their other side, without coming back to life. As to other aches, there's Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), lover to both Mong-hak and Gyeon-ja. That's gotta hurt for both men. How the love triangle happens is one of life's great coincidences. How it resolves itself is one of the film's greatest achievements. The whole thing's not quite as magical as Lee's masterpiece The King and the Clown but it's still an entertaining romp in the past. I say, hats off to them all!

October 25, 2011

My Girlfriend Is an Agent: My, My, My! That's a Stereotypically Good Korean Comedy

Evidently, Americans aren't the only ones out there who make cheesy comedies in which evil Russians conspire to get hold of a deadly virus that could destroy the world, their diabolical strategy pursued not for political reasons but for personal ones. You know, there's one thing about those heartless Communists. They hold grudges like nobody's business. But do Koreans typecast just like we do? Not really. In fact, I'm trying to think of a single sympathetic portrait of a white person in a Korean film (comedy or not) and nothing comes to mind. Even great films like The Host, Antique Bakery, and Lady Vengeance all make use of Americans, Europeans, and Australians for comic relief at best. Know of a Korean film with a major Caucasian character who's a fully formed person? Please, let me know! Which isn't to say I didn't get a big kick out of the Russian baddies in My Girlfriend Is an Agent. The poorly acted, over-exaggerated nemesis is really a staple of comedy.

And My Girlfriend Is an Agent is a pretty good comedy. I'm an unexpected fan of the Korean "My" comedies -- movies like My Mighty Princess and My Sassy Girl. Generally speaking, rom-coms are not my cup of tea. But because this particular variation of the romantic comedy inverts traditional gender roles, I'm all for it. I like to see the man be the pretty sidekick and the woman be the muscle. In My Girlfriend Is an Agent, the nerdy part is Lee Jae-joon (Kang Ji-hwan), a bumbling undercover rookie with kissable lips and just enough smarts to justify his slapstick mistakes. The kick-ass part is Ahn Soo-ji (Kim Ha-neul), an infinitely more skilled martial artist who also works undercover (and who favors wearing her hair parted on the side... "Tomboy!")

He's trying to be taken seriously despite his lack of field experience; she's out to whoop ass, even if that means pursuing criminals while dressed in a bridal gown and driving a jet ski. Naturally they love each other. Just as naturally, they can't stop butting heads. You see, neither knows that the other one is actually working in the same field as a secret agent -- albeit for a different agency. Which means they're constantly lying to each other to hide their professional identities. He's out to track down a Russian cooperative but posing as an accountant; she's committed to saving the planet from a killer virus while pretending to be a custodial worker at a hotel. Their Confucian insistence of being good citizens first, good lovers second speaks volumes of a work ethic I personally admire. And the fact that love wins out in the end truly does make a good movie.

Considering what a light touch is evidenced throughout, it's strange to think that Shin Terra is the same director who did Black House, a serial killer thriller that isn't the least bit funny at all. But he did.

October 16, 2011

Daisy: She Loves Him Even Though He's Not Really Him

Are director Lau Wa-keung and his trio of screenwriters aspiring for super-heightened-naturalism with his romance-turned-spy-caper Daisy? Their movie sure takes the old maxim "Truth is stranger than fiction" at face value. For with nary an ironic wink or a melodramatic scream, this one keeps getting stranger and stranger as its story gets more and more complex. How did this happen? On their own, the characters are plausible if incompatible.

First up is Hye-young (Jun Gianna), a street artist who paints daisies as her humble homage to Van Gogh's Sunflowers. She lives with her grandfather at an antique shop in Amsterdam, favors the knit hat and layered clothing that proclaims "Bohemian," and sketches charcoal portraits in the town square despite having access to an enormous warehouse for painting oils and a date set for her (first?) solo gallery exhibit. If she lived in Paris, she'd smoke Gauloises; if she lived in NYC, she'd have needle-marks. You know the type.

Next up is Jeong-woo (Lee Seung-jae), an Interpol cop who's committed to busting crime rings at any cost. He's what you might call a noble opportunist. And so he uses Hye-young as a cover for monitoring drug trafficking. Then he seizes his chance to seduce her when she mistakes him for someone else. He's not a cad per se. But it feels as though he's in an espionage pic, not a romance, even after he confesses all after she's lost her voice from a gun shot wound that he blames on himself. (Since she can't speak, it's hard to say whether she accepts his apology.)

Finally, there's the assassin (Jung Woo-sung): Jeong-woo would love to catch him; Hye-young would love to marry him. Except for one thing... He's neither the target of Jeong-woo's investigation nor the lover of Hye-young's dreams. He's one of those stalker-boyfriend-criminal types, the guy who watches his prey clandestinely, courts her secretively, coerces her into a relationship by making her get into his car when she's mute, then ends up causing her death inadvertently. An ideal he is not. And then there's his profession: killing people. Need we say more?

For a good long while, Hye-young believes Jeong-woo is the secret admirer who's actually the assassin then she thinks that her lover-assassin has killed her lover-impostor. She's wrong on both counts. If she hadn't forfeited learning sign language and opted to spend the rest of her life communicating through index cards with common phrases on them, maybe she would've figured out her reality faster. Maybe she wouldn't be dead. And Jeong-woo wouldn't be dead. Maybe the assassin wouldn't be single either and left with a painting now splattered with his loved one's blood.

October 1, 2011

Animal Town: A Double Dose of Doom and Despair

Some movies radiate destitution as if life's inner light shone that much more brightly when comfort's lampshade was unceremoniously snatched off. Other films relate utter misery by flattening existence. Here, characters are like so many cardboard cut-outs, experiencing the day-to-day without even the hope that there might be a way to re-experience three dimensions again. In the first category, pain is electric; in the second, the battery is dead. I'll be the first to admit that I prefer the former type of movie, films like Stray Bullet or Bad Guy, where the tragedy before us makes us somehow miraculously feel more desperately alive. But surely there's a place for the uglier approach, too; those movies that only depress you, movies like Jeon Kyu-hwan's Animal Town, for instance, which may reflect the world around us, but steamrolls reality to make its point.

In the desaturated palette that comes from a secondhand video camera, Animal Town shows a bleak slice of life in which two protagonists -- a downtrodden pedophile (Lee Joon-hyuk) who's lost his job and an inert businessman (Oh Seong-tae) having a spiritual crisis -- seek a way out of the doldrums, which happen to be plastered with cheap, yellowed wallpaper and covered with low-grade upholstery. Oddly enough, you may find your sympathies lie with the paroled pervert, a man so ostracized his relatives shun him, his friends are non-existent, and his only way to prevent becoming a repeat offender is by heavily medicating himself into a stupor. Every time a child appears on screen -- especially one particular little girl who comes across as somewhat brain damaged -- you cringe with apprehension. But when there's no kids in sight, this big dumb lug is a heartbreaking mess as he tries to create a life for himself with a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and an apartment in the shadow of the wrecking ball.

It takes a lot longer to learn what's got his co-star so upset. Sure, his wife is a nag and his always-offscreen daughter sounds like a brat, but he's at least got religion and if not religion, at least the community of the church, and if not the community at least his own business, and if a failing business, at least a business that's still got a chance of turning around. His counterpart has no chance. He's doomed. And while the final "shocking" moments of this movie are really a cascade of contrivances, and Animal Town can feel like it hates life, Jeon's descent into despair at least has enough heart to pity the rejects and the victims.

September 27, 2011

Hanji: Paper! Paper! Read All About It!

It's a good thing, I didn't read the synopsis of Hanji in the MoMA Korean Film Festival brochure beforehand. I never would've gone to the theater. A film about the challenges, setbacks and rewards encountered by a local government official helping to revive the traditional method of papermaking hardly promises the stuff of high drama. And funnily enough, within this movie itself, are snippets of what appears to be the dreaded documentary we'd expect from that description: a clunky primer on the fine art of Hanji that pans reverentially over intricate antiques while a droning voice-over puts us summarily to sleep. Crafting a new copy of the Annals of the Chosun Dynasty may be a momentous occasion to scholars but most of us are not going to perch on the edge of our seats, desperately waiting to see if the undertaking succeeds. Will they master the old craft? Who cares! Director Im Kwon-taek does a little, perhaps, but at the same time that's not the story that he's set out to tell with Hanji either. Im's sublimely understated film is based on a real story but doesn't relate history so much as it distills  reality. (That's much more interesting!) His Hanji quietly conveys how the lives of people of no historic note are deeply impacted by something as unexpected as a well-meaning civic restoration project.

The movie's central character is  Pil-yong (Park Joong-hoon), a womanizing bureaucrat incapable of advancement and burdened with a wife (Ye Ji-won), whose severe disability was caused in part by his last extramarital affair. As he works to incite the masters of the local paper-making community to participate in the project, he strikes up a friendship of sorts with a divorced female film director (Kang Soo-yeon) who makes the aforementioned documentary, in part because she can't get funding for a feature film. No major love triangle emerges. Throughout Hanji, conflicts are small; treacheries, minor. What distinguishes Hanji is not its ability to extract tragic consequences from a historic footnote but rather its acknowledgment that a story with little razzle dazzle can nevertheless be the biggest thing to happen in some people's lives. Im's blunt depiction of cubicle culture, stroke rehabilitation, and petty crime as nothing but a part of daily life, any life, every life, underscores that the familiar and the pedestrian can still be quite deep. There's a beautiful passage in Hanji during which one character talks about the moon being a source of light that you can stare at continually without danger. Like the moon, most of us will not be as radiant as the sun but our insignificant lives are no less worthy of uninterrupted, loving attention.

September 17, 2011

Garden of Heaven: She's Dying to Fall in Love for the First Time

Let someone else with a nobler sense of right and wrong deride Garden of Heaven for its oversimplified protrayal of hospice patients. I, for one, found its shameless depiction of the terminally ill to be jaw-droppingly hilarious. There isn't a cliched representation overlooked or underplayed from the cute kid who crayons self-portraits on the wall so his mom won't forget him to a carefree young woman who insists the doctor himself is her most effective painkiller. That blithe spirit is played by none other than Lee Eun-ju, the incredibly talented actress who went on to give a brilliantly harrowing performance in The Scarlet Letter before committing suicide shortly thereafter. You'd never know Lee was suffering from depression from watching Garden of Heaven because there's nothing self-pitying in the way her character baldly states that she's an orphan who's never been in love and who wants to be held by "someone who cares" in her final moments. That Lee is able to relate such treacly sentiments in a such a matter-of-fact manner turns what might've been soapy stuff — of which there's still quite a bit — into something that's a little less corny. She often disarms you and never depresses you. You may even assume that she's a little more complex than she is when, in one particularly fatuous plot twist, she parlays her cancer into a modeling gig for an unintentionally hysterical television advertisement for life insurance. But she's no scam artist. She really is dying.

Her co-star Ahn Jae-wook isn't quite as nuanced as paramour-savior Dr. Choi but at least he shares Lee's complete lack of concern with tugging heartstrings, despite their being endlessly ready for plucking. Ahn appears to have turned his charisma down for Garden of Heaven. The quartet of nurses who worship the ground he walks on are inexplicably blind to the cruel rebuke he levels at a mother who's just lost her child ("Let's get the death certificate now!") and his complete disregard for professional ethics as he falls for the prettiest patient on the ward. A rather tearless tearjerker, Garden of Heaven pushes the expected buttons in the disease-romance genre without triggering the de facto response. Think of the fundraiser near the end of the movie: A filmmaker who's dying at the hospice makes a short documentary about Dr. Choi that lauds him as an Angel of Death then a lineup of patients play a melancholic tune with handbells that create sounds that don't sync up with the soundtrack. That constant sense of something off make Garden of Heaven something you should turn on.

September 9, 2011

The Anarchists: The Nicest Terrorists You'll Ever Meet

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it's more than a little weird to watch Yu Yong-sik's The Anarchists (a.k.a. Anakiseuteu Anarchists) because this historical bromance about Korean terrorists who assassinate Japanese oppressors in 1920s Shanghai is so little about politics and violence and so much about brotherhood and youthful aimlessness. With a screenplay by none less than Park Chan-wook, The Anarchists isn't shy about slaughter. Men are stabbed, shot repeatedly, slit in the throat... Even women get tortured. But most of the time, this movie's all about male bonding, how young revolutionary Sang-gul (Kim In-kwon), once rescued from the gallows, comes to love and respect his mentors in the revolution. They're a likable bunch: a nihilistic opium addict named Seregay (Jang Dong-gun), a hotheaded prankster named Dol-suk (Lee Beom-su), a bespectacled didact named Myung-Gon (Kim Sang-jung) and a wannabe radical named Geun (Jeong Jun-ho) who never really seems to have his heart in the cause even as he's willing to sacrifice his life to it. Though the characters never break into a chorus of "Friendship / Friendship / Just a perfect blendship," you do get the feeling that they're humming it when the camera pans away.

Platonic loyalty is hardly unique to Park's canon. Think of the absurdly devoted women in Lady Vengeance or the extreme devotion among the soldiers in J.S.A.: Joint Security Area. But the camaraderie shared by characters written by Park but directed by others always feels more palsy-walsy than sealed in blood. In both Yu's The Anarchists and Lee Mu-yeong's The Humanist, the extremism that defines unconditional love is tempered, leaving something more like chumminess in its place. Admittedly, few directors can match Park's ability to glamorize violence without losing its grotesqueness. De Palma and Scorsese immediately come to mind. And Yu, admittedly has one scene that comes close: A slow-mo bit in which Seregay gets a bullet hole in the head then falls backwards, his descent captured at various camera angles heightening the surreality of the cigarette still smoking between his now-dead lips. But that's an isolated moment. Most bloody encounters in The Anarchists are a little too tamely respectful of the audience to actually achieve something that would earn the audience's wildly undying respect.

September 3, 2011

White Valentine: When a Love Story Isn't About Love at All

I find Yang Yun-ho's White Valentine incredibly frustrating. And not just because Lee Eun-kyeong's meandering screenplay has its characters needlessly talking in code or telling each other "Don't tell me!" when the hidden truths don't even seem that earth-shattering. I won't even blame the twee hypersensitivity so execrably conveyed by Jun Gianna as a female high school dropout with a passion for drawing and Park Shin-yang as a widowed pet store owner obsessed with damaged pigeons. I've seen poorly written screenplays poorly acted before. They tend to bore more than irritate me as a rule. What truly sucks about White Valentine, however, is the way it keeps pretending to be this sentimental love story about two drifting rejects who can't find a way to set sail together, because they're too timid to reveal their true selves.

They meet in a park. They write each other anonymous notes sent via carrier pigeon. He keeps pining for her even as she stalks him. He can't see the obvious and she won't announce her identity — maybe because she can't comprehend why he can't pull together all the freaking clues she puts in his way. After awhile, you get the feeling in White Valentine, that this morose duo isn't unlucky so much as they're unsure. Sure, they're stunted beings unlikely to take big risks. But maybe, just maybe, they're also circumspect cynics who are looking at each other and thinking, "Hmm, maybe this one isn't what I"m looking for." On that count, they may both be right. She's able to turn her inner frustration into a piece of kiddie lit. He turns his angst into a coffee table book of bird photographs. Can you really fault love lost when it gives you each a book deal? And when, years later, he discovers the children's book that she's illustrated and recognizes the cover artwork (and the truth that comes with it: It was HER after all!), does he race to find his secret sweetheart? No. He moseys over to the store that her just-as-evasive grandfather (Jeon Mu-song) once ran then shuffles outside the train station where she's about to embark to other climes. When suddenly he makes a mad dash for the tracks, I, for one, was left fantasizing that he'd thrown himself on the tracks. I can't imagine eternal bliss for these two. I see a house filled with melancholia. Boo-hoo and then boo.

August 30, 2011

Marine Boy: One Man Goes Underwater Just So Someone Can Get High

I'm trying to remember if it's ever actually specified, what kind of drug is being trafficked in Yoon Jong-seok's enjoyable crime pic Marine Boy. Is it heroin? Is it cocaine? I know it's a contentious white powder that has rival gangs and cops all vying for its possession but, for all I know, it could be talcum powder, a product which also strikes me as worth fighting for given the recent advent of cornstarch within the Johnson & Johnson empire. There is some mention early in the film of benzodiazepine, I believe, in relationship to the film's femme fatale Yuri (Park Si-yeon), a nightclub singer who likes to croon in Paul McCartney's "No More Lonely Nights" in English and clock men with her surprisingly lethal purse. But since we never see anyone pop pills, shoot up or snort lines, Marine Boy almost feels like a stylish agit-prop piece against drugs filmed in a country where depicting drug use on the big screen is illegal.

And it's not the only vice under attack here either: Former swimming-champ-turned-drug-mule Chun-soo (Kim Kang-woo) never would've gotten involved with the backstabbing world of black market narcotics if he hadn't incurred a gambling debt by misreading an ace for a four in the mirrored surface of an opponent's lighter. Has he been framed? Can he escape? Is there anyone to trust among this den of thieves that surrounds him? Or is the only way out to shove a sausage full of the aforementioned but unspecified drug up his butt and then to swim underwater from one ship to another in the un-patrolled waters between Japan and Korea? Well, at least he looks good in a rubber wetsuit. Really good. And if he's fallen for Yuri, despite having seen her last boyfriend beaten to death by her surrogate father, frenemy and drug kingpin Kang (Jo Jae-hyeon) who also just happens to be the man pimping out Chun-soo's large intestine as a storage locker, maybe that's because he knows that if Yuri sees him often enough in that wetsuit, she'll double-cross anyone who stands between the two of them and their fantasy getaway on the island of Palau. Don't be jealous of two beautiful young people who end up shacking up on a picturesque beach front property with quick access to world-class surfing. Neither has enrolled in a 12-step program for gambling or drug addition yet.

August 21, 2011

Breath: Kim Ki-duk Makes a Musical (in His Own Strange Way)

I used to hate musicals. But that's because I used to think musical meant Oklahoma, Cats, My Fair Lady and Xanadu. But once I broadened my definition a bit, and started to think of any movie with a number of songs sung by the cast as being a musical, I realized that I actually liked some musicals very, very much. In that spirit, I'd call Kim Ki-duk's Breath a musical. Sure, there are only four songs -- and they're all sung by Yeon (Gang In-hyeong), the depressed sculptor who courts imprisoned murderer Jang Jin (Chang Chen) after she finds out her husband (Ha Jung-woo) is cheating on her -- but each of these numbers is integral to the story and three of them involve special costume changes and strangely elaborate sets. Since this is a Duk film, you can bet your bottom dollar that these conventions are executed in an unusual way. (Think less Busby Berkley and more performance art.) And since every Duk film has at least one mute character, you can also guess who is listening attentively while Yeon is belting out her pop tunes.

The first three numbers are set in the prison's visiting room where Yeon has painstakingly papered the walls with colorful scenery enhanced by well-chosen props like a vase of flowers, a fan, and a boombox which she uses as her karaoke machine. Her final song -- for which she's joined in a sing-a-along by her reformed, now-harmonious husband -- is performed in a car (the site of many an impromptu duet) and doubles as the soundtrack for Jang Jin's strangled death at the hands of three cellmates, including one who appears to have deeply passionate feelings that rival those of Yeon, who earlier tried to kill Jang in coitus but failed. In the immortal words of singer Pat Benatar (who really should write a musical), "Love is a battlefield."

Click here to see a list of Kim Ki-duk's Top Ten Movies.

August 15, 2011

Chawz: Like Jaws But Less Scary and More Hairy

The following statement was issued on behalf of some wild boars subsequent to the release of the B-horror movie Chawz:
"For Immediate Release: Alert! Writer-director Shin Jeong-won is demonizing us in his porcine version of Jaws. We are hereby compelled to proclaim that we are omnivorous beasts who feast on berries, grass, bugs and small lizards (but never to the point that we weigh 400 lbs.). Furthermore, human beings are not a part of our daily diet. In fact, should we attack people, we aim only to dismember or maim. We are peace-loving animals. If we should tusk your ass (as in Chawz), it's because you're irritating (as in Chawz). Like the title character, we are indeed seeing red!"
A second anonymous statement quickly followed purportedly from a member of the local police precinct, though this one too was unsigned:
"Dear Mr. Shin, Having just seen Chawz, we would like to remind you that we devote our lives to protecting the public and therefore deserve respect, not ridicule. Why do you make us out to be a bunch of Keystone Kops? It's one thing to satirize the law; it's another to show cops spilling down hills, shirking duties, and running away from adversity at every turn. Couldn't you make us fearless? If not, couldn't you make us funnier? What gives?"
While we are unable to trace either letter to its source for further comment, we did watch the creature feature in question to evaluate the expressed concerns. This is our assessment and reply:
"Boars: Fret not. The steroid monster in the pic causes more giggles than screams. You're safe from instantaneous extinction by frightened Koreans. Boys in blue: Relax. In Chawz, you're no dumber than the local farmers and only slightly less resourceful than the Jane Goodall wannabe (Jeong Yu-mi). As to fellow Netflix subscribers, Chawz is a novelty, a quirky little fright flick that teeters on being truly funny and never really tries to be really scary. You almost wish that the boar was twenty times bigger and the local cops ten times dumber. As it is, Chawz feels like it sort of wants to be real, despite the kooky characters. It's weird that way."

August 6, 2011

Windstruck: He Died Then Went to Heaven on a Breeze

When you watch movies via websites like Mysoju, Todou or YouTube, they're often broken up into chapters, which alters your viewing experience for better or worse. With Windstruck, writer-director Kwak Jae-young's 2004 romance, serialization works in its favor. Here are eight mini-reviews encouraging you to view this feature as a web series.

Episode 1: First Encounter
Kooky cop Kyung-jin (Jun Gianna) mistakes Myung-woo (Jang Hyuk) for purse-snatcher then hauls him to station to charm coworkers by sketching portraits. Kyung-jin's clobbers Myung-woo then schoolkids. Love blooms

Episode 2: Hand in Hand
Handcuffed, Kyung-jin and Myung-woo land in middle of huge shootout. Back at the police station, Myung-woo goes ballistic, pretending to be crazed criminal to save Kyung-jin's rep. Love to the rescue!

Episode 3: Sudden Changes
Kyung-jin and Myung-woo become boyfriend and girlfriend while carrying groceries upstairs. While playing house, she reveals that she's an identical twin and her sister is dead. Meals are shared. Love deepens.

Episode 4: Drive
Myung-woo gets a jeep so they can bond to oldies music. Kyung-jin relates origination story of the pinky swear. An avalanche sends jeep into deep waters where Myung-woo drowns and Kyung-jin cries. Love's tragic.

Episode 5: Baby, Come Back
By pounding (in frustration) on his chest, Kyung-jin revives Myung-woo. When he's shot again as she's chasing bad guy Chang-soo (Jeong Ho-bin), Myung-woo dies again. Kyung-jin considers suicide. Love defies death.

Episode 6: Punk to the Rescue
Two runaways convince Kyung-jin to treat them to pizza instead of killing herself. She tries suicide afterward by jumping off a building yet survives. A paper airplane announces Myung-woo's soul. Love knows no boundaries.

Episode 7: A Second Chance
Kyung-jin tracks down Chang-soo then gets shot. Myung-woo's ghost re-appears minus one lung. He instructs her to go on without him. She agrees because she believes in reincarnation. Will love be reborn?

Episode 8: Wind
In a house filled with pinwheels, Kyung-jin and Myung-woo's ghost say good-bye so she can meet a new cutie (Cha Tae-hyun) on a subway platform. Love, baby, love!

July 31, 2011

Shotgun Love: Arranged Marriages and Deranged Pregnancies

Here's what I have to say in favor of Shotgun Love. It hits most of the right notes for a well-made melodrama. Here's why that doesn't matter. This isn't a melodrama. It's a romantic comedy. Here's what I like about actor Lim Chang-jung. He isn't afraid of portraying the unlikable aspects of his character, an emotionally underdeveloped infomercial actor who falls head-over-heels for his cold-blooded co-star. Here's what I don't like about him. Just about everything else. Here's what I appreciate about Kim Gyu-ri, the actress who plays the pregnant lingerie model that serves as Lim's love interest. Hmm. Let me get back to you on that one. While I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call Shotgun Love unwatchable, I would say that it's constructed like a comedy without ever managing to become one.

With a subplot involving a gay Elvis impersonator (Park Min-hwan) and a stocky transvestite (Kim Jin-soo) dressed up like Marilyn Monroe, this movie certainly isn't asking anyone to take it overly seriously. Yet while there's outlandish behavior and preposterous role reversals ad infinitum, writer-director Jung Rain approaches his material as if it were a soap opera with a couple of kooks thrown in. Kim Su-mi as a braying mother makes picking hair off the floor with packing tape funny while Lee Ah-rin, as Kim's roommate, constantly looks as though she's about to say something amusing but never does. Ahn Seok-hwan hams it up as the one-eyed food tent-owner but he too never gets a truly good one-liner or a scene that builds up to hilarious slapstick. Which leaves me with a big question mark as to why Jung decided to shape his material as a comedy in the first place. Here's my guess. Sometimes you come up with a funny idea. Then you come up with a number of supporting ideas that are kind of funny. Then when you try to string them together, you get all serious because you're trying to make it work. You lose your sense of humor and that seriousness never leaves you when you're casting the roles and directing the movie. So what started off as a funny bit is now a workmanlike product. In Shotgun Love, the serious idea is this: Shallow people can only discover deeper feelings through personal tragedies. Here's what I think about that. Could someone please make it funny?

Miss Staff Sergeant: Attention! Demotion! Diversion!

Don't go into Miss Staff Sergeant thinking you're going to see a laudatory biopic of Lee Yu-mi, the first female soldier to make it through combat training in Korea's marine corp. The movie is actually an improbably entertaining almost-insult, that's sort of unable to believe that a woman could succeed as an elite soldier without resorting to feminine wiles. Lee doesn't screw her way up the ranks but as a platoon leader who gets her promotion by colluding behind closed doors, she does get her troops to bond by giving them fancy cookies followed by a pep talk on the importance of team spirit. Played by junior-model-of-an-actress Lee Ah-lee, this bootcamp Gidget hits all her military postures as if they were dance moves and shouts out orders like a squad captain for cheerleaders. Because of this unflagging perkiness, Lee feels inappropriately ambitious. Is she aiming for a stripe on her uniform or a varsity letter? After her efforts towards greatness are sabotaged by a platoon leader (Lim Won-hie) comically obsessed with her ass, she fights her way back into the corp by demanding solitary confinement then running around with a backpack until someone takes her seriously.

And what does Lee get for all her camouflaged efforts? The privilege of singing a misogynist marching song while being surrounded by shirtless men; the honor of defending the reputation of a slimy back-stabber who's getting the promotion she deserves; and a sense of self-respect rooted in the fact that she didn't get discharged like her daddy once did. That might sound like awfully depressing stuff but in actuality, writer-director Jo Myeong-nam has an incredibly light touch and this chipper movie is so tongue-in-cheek about sexism that you'll likely find yourself succumbing to the feel-good aspects of his underdog story. It's a tough cookie who won't route for Ms. Lee — both the actress and the real life woman she plays — as she overcomes each obstacle in her way. When the lady-in-uniform picks up a surrogate father in Sergeant First Class Kang Cheol-in (Son Byung-ho), you realize anyway, this isn't about the real struggles that accompany breaking through the military industrial complex's glass ceiling. It's a silly, sentimental, sweet-natured story inspired by a real trooper who deserves more than a little respect.

July 29, 2011

My Tutor Friend 2: LMAO Not, Because You Can't Learn the Same Thing Twice

I kind of liked the original My Tutor Friend. It didn't matter to me that it was totally formulaic. Or silly-stupid. That lightweight, by-the-book rom-com had modest goals then achieved them effortlessly. Yet when I decided to watch the follow-up My Tutor Friend 2, I didn't expect to see something equally good. I was prepared for the law of dwindling returns. This time, I figured, perhaps a few less laughs, perhaps some recycled gags, perhaps some reused footage. How bad could it be? Answer: Pretty bad. Because My Tutor Friend 2 doesn't even deliver the small, shameful glories of a shameless retread.

Yes, the movie has a tutor but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Gone are the romantic leads. Gone is the central class struggle. Gone are the protagonist's aspirations for a better, more meaningful life. What you get in My Tutor Friend 2 instead is a lovestruck Japanese student (Lee Cheong-a) who goes abroad to stalk a cute guy but ends up finding a sourpuss soulmate (Park Gi-woong), a boxer who all-but-killed his last opponent and now fights with everyone, verbally at least. She doesn't resist being tutored; he doesn't want to teach. How they end up together is that she's renting a room from his dad and he's been coerced by his father into helping her study. Not that he ever teaches her anything useful, just a lot of ghetto speak that alienates her from her teachers and her peers.

Why she ends up falling for him I'm not sure. Maybe the movie's one fantastical sequence which illustrates slang by having characters at a cafe literally "hit" phones, "catch" customers, and "shoot" the bill is supposed to be some sort of shared hallucination that only these two can see... much like the shooting stars they end up catching in their shot glasses one crazy, drunken night. But even that magical night of revelry leads to hangovers not lovemaking. What should've been the great turnaround — a contest for foreign exchange students that comes with a 300,000 won prize — doesn't reveal how his unconventional teaching methods have led to unexpected payoffs so much as it points out his complete nincompoopery and her newfound potty mouth. To use the parlance of the My Tutor Friend 2's foul-mouthed tutee, this movie is "crappy."

July 8, 2011

Death Bell 2: Bloody Camp: Stop! You're Killing Me!

I'm still trying to figure out why, after the gratuitously grisly murders commence in director Yu Seon-dong's Death Bell 2: Bloody Camp, none of the movie's summer school students tries to exit through a window once it's discovered that the doors are locked and a killer's on the loose. I'm not discounting that extreme panic can stop a person from thinking rationally, but in a classroom of gifted and talented, a classroom where one wall is basically made of glass, does it not occur to anyone — from the valedictorian on down to the class clown — to hurl a desk or a chair through the window? Does no one consider smashing a way out to freedom? Is there no one here good at multiple choice quizzes?

All that studying until midnight has clearly dulled the wits of the braniacs. And unlike the maniac in the first Death Bell movie, the sequel's mass murderer is not self-congratulatorily clever: He doesn't set up a cruel riddle for the students to unravel to save their lives. His "clues," if anything, only make them feel stupid and hopeless: "memory" stitched into a young girl's face; a series of jumbled letters spelling out "memento mori." You can almost hear these youngsters worriedly saying to themselves: Okay, I'm supposed to remember something in order to survive... but what? As hints go, these pointed shocks are hardly helpful. As much as terror has muddled the minds of its victims, resentment has stifled the killer's creativity. His evil-genius machines-of-revenge are uninspired: a motorcycle rigged with blades on its tire; an automatic nail gun aimed at a single target; a vial of lethal hallucinogenics... And while they'd never figure it out if this killer's clues were all they had to work with, what eventually comes to light is that a former classmate, now dead, was the victim of an attempted rape by a gaggle of giggling peers. How they were supposed to remember this, considering that they were neither present nor aware of its existence, is just another prime example of the unrealistic demands often made by the criminally insane. Speaking of crazy, Death Bell 2 has one of kookier outtakes on record for its final credits: multiple shots revealing the film's hero histrionically rehearsing CPR on a dummy. Get ready for Death Bell 3: Bloody Bloopers.

June 25, 2011

Lady Vengeance: And the Lord Sent Down an Angel of Justice

I've often said that Oldboy, that perverted whodunit, is my favorite Park Chan-wook film, and sometimes my favorite Korean film period, but after re-watching Lady Vengeance, I'm not so sure. Park's final entry in his vengeance trilogy — the first being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; the second, Oldboy — is definitely a masterpiece in its own right, too. A mystery within a mystery within a mystery, Lady Vengeance begins as a revenge fantasy of which we know neither the crime nor the perpetrator, segues into a well-orchestrated murder plotted out at a women's prison where grrl-power informs a secret society, then returns to its original crime only to reflect it in a fractured mirror. One child's death unveils many; one woman's pursuit of retribution from a serial killer is set aside for a form of mob justice.

At the center of it all is Geum-ja (Lee Yeoung-ae), a conniving ex-convict wrongfully imprisoned for kidnapping and killing a little boy; a guilt-ridden woman willing to chop off her finger as penance for the crime she abetted; a sorrowful mom out to reunite with daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young) who she gave up for adoption to Australians long ago; and a guilt-free Cougar having an affair with the inexperienced teenager (Kim Shi-hoo) who works with her at the local bakery. If that sounds like a lot for one character, one actor, don't worry, Lee is totally up to the task of playing one of the more complex characters in Park's ouevre with a surprisingly light touch.

By turns haunted, crafty, bewildered, tender, and enraged, Lee underplays what another actress would overact in the hopes of taking home an acting trophy. There's no prolonged scream of rage or cry of horror from Lee. Instead, she conveys everything with a cool detachment. There's a great scene late in the movie, right after the central revenge has finally come to fruition, where the camera catches Lee smiling in a way that literally bridges grief and happiness. Unlike most performers who'd segue from laughter to tears as two kindred extremes, Lee rides the middle ground, with a quivering smile that hovers between sadness and joy for so long that you'll start thinking Mona Lisa's smile isn't so complicated. Park's touch is similarly light and ambivalent. Keeping the violence largely off camera, Lady Vengeance ends up extreme in one sense only: extremely delightful.

June 18, 2011

Kim Ki-Duk's Best Movies

Is it a top ten list when you've only seen eleven movies? A valid question. But I guess I'm cheating a little because I'm thinking of this list as a dynamic one which will eventually contain all good movies once I've seen some more of Kim Ki-duk's films. For now, I admit movies nine and ten kind of suck — watchable but preposterous. I'm actually really curious to learn which of Kim's films you like best too so please let me know in the comments section below. Thanks!

1. Bad Guy (2001): This creepily welcome antidote to Pretty Woman is one of the most disturbed love stories about a pimp and a hooker that you'll ever see. A really compelling mind-bender.
2. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003): A Buddhist monk's coming-of-age is complicated by sex. Who can't relate to that? A beautifully told tale of how knowledge changes as we age.
3. The Isle (2000): Love really is an extreme state when you think about it but the quiet, pragmatic prostitute at this lakeside vacation resort takes her expression of devotion to a "oh, no she didn't" extreme that you'll likely never forget.
4. Time (2006): How much of who we are is what we look like and would we have the same relationships with people if we suddenly looked completely different? Kim explores the topic thoroughly with the help of plastic surgery.
5. The Bow (2005): Sure, it ends violently but this summer-winter romance between an old fisherman and the orphan girl he adopts (and trains) is probably Kim at his most gently philosophical.
6. Breath (2007): Probably as close as Kim will come to making a musical, this one's about an affair that blossoms between a killer in jail and a sculptor who becomes a performance artist.
7. 3-Iron (2004): The silent character is a signature of Kim's film and here he gives us two. The doubled symbol heightens Kim's idea that the most important things in life aren't expressed in dialogue and lessens the dramatic tension. A fair trade.
8. Samaritan Girl (2004): "Love thy enemy" gets a new spin when a young woman decides to screw then refund all the johns her best friend tricked with before she jumped out a window and died. Strangely enjoyable.
9. Address Unknown: (2001): Kim at his zaniest presents three lost souls skirting with tragedy in the hinterlands as they attempt to bond with each other only to self-destruct. Funny, though unintentionally so.
10. The Coast Guard (2002): In this implausible drama, a horny young woman and a gung-ho soldier slide into madness side by slippery side. When Kim doesn't deliver a great revelation, the violence in his films feels mean. Case in point.

Also by Kim
Real Friction (2001): This early effort from Kim — about a performance artist whose medium is murder — feels like a first film because it's overflowing with ideas immaturely explored.

June 16, 2011

Address Unknown: Blinded by One Zany Sight After Another

Does Address Unknown mean something to anyone besides its edgy director Kim Ki-duk? I mean, besides a hilariously good time for movie buffs who equate "super weird" with "super wonderful"? Is there a message here amid the escalating madness? Do these symbols symbolize something or are they simply strange images without intended meaning? (Interpret at will!) Is there something deep to be gathered from watching kidnapped dogs get brutalized then sold as stew meat or of from seeing an acid-tripping, half-blind girl (Ban Min-jung) get courted by an unstable American soldier (Mitch Mahlum) who wants to fix her bad eye then carve his name on her chest? Can sociopolitical interpretations be drawn from the mean-spirited story of a half-breed son (Yang Dong-kun) who systematically slices the breast of his unhinged mother (Bang Eun-jin) every time she goes off on her neighbors by shouting insults in English? What can we lean from the behavior of the morose young man (Kim Young-min) who shoots down his enemy after being taught the art of archery by his self-aggrandizing father (Myeong Gye-nam)? For that matter, what are we supposed to make of Address Unknown when the three main characters all end up getting blinded in their right eye or when one of them gets propelled head first off his motorcycle to a muddy slapstick death, buried up to his hips with his legs sticking out in the air? Are we supposed to take that seriously? Seriously? Is it okay to giggle? Because I sure did.

Address Unknown has a portentous tone yet as the movie gets crazier and crazier, you suspect that Kim took some of the LSD pills that the American G.I. is carrying around. Under the influence, he's forgotten to take more care in casting his characters (the American actors are particularly horrible) and crafting the dialogue. It's no relief that Kim chooses to have three largely silent characters instead of one. What we have in place of the silent enigma is a trio of mopey dopes suffering from depression. Which isn't to say that Address Unknown is too depressing! Far from it, it's actually often unintentionally funny. I wouldn't go so far as to call Kim's 2001 film his first comedy. But then again, maybe I should. Watch it, and you tell me!

June 11, 2011

Run 2 U: Pop, Pop, Pop Music; Flop, Flop, Flop Movie

There's a point midway in Kang Jeong-su's Korean-Japanese hybrid Run 2 U, where bisexual singer-songwriter Hitoshi (Kazuya Takahashi) and his hooker-turned-pop-star female lover Kyeong-a (Chae Jeong-an) scream frustratedly at the ocean to explain why their lives are so frickin' hard. It's ridiculous, as is much of the movie yet it's also oddly poignant, as the rest of the movie is not. A spot-on depiction of youthful exasperation at a world that won't let your dreams come true post haste, this anguished cry at the universe also unintentionally echoes the internal wail of viewers foolishly sitting through the entire film. Though filled with unexpected plot twists, like a tragic gay love story involving a trigger-happy thug (Tetsuo Yamashita) who likes to check out his buddy's buns in the gym shower, Run 2 U really has a lousy storyline and should've been made as a 90-minute music video, not a needlessly bilingual film.

Dramatic closeups — a finger pushing an elevator button, a hand holding a white telephone receiver — could've played out as hyper-meaningful symbolism apropos of VH1 and MTV. It's easy to picture Kyeong-a strutting around in her turquoise fan-plastic raincoat and rapping about drugs, pimps and poverty. Considering that two of the main characters are singers, the R&B treatment would've allowed Hitoshi's inner monologues, here whispered like Barry White intros, to build to soulful meditations on love — found, lost, and reborn. Why Run 2 U never actually crosses over to kinetic pop is a mystery. Seductions at the disco. High speed races on the freeway. Even a music video shoot! Does anybody else see major opportunities for a groovy soundtrack and some lip synching? I'm not sure how to deal with Massako (Maju Ozawa), the mafia daughter in love with the gay boxer, except on the editing room floor. Considering how bad she is, revamping this movie as a hip-hopera means having a legit reason to cut her part. That's what they did in the music video recap that's an extra on the DVD. And yes there really is one. And no, it's not very good either.

June 4, 2011

A Blood Pledge: Sisters Are Screwing It Up for Themselves

There are many misfortunes that can drive a young girl to suicide. For Soy (Son Eun-seo), it's an unwanted pregnancy caused by a rich pretty-boy (Choi Min-seong) who insists she get an abortion. For Eun-yeong (Song Min-jeong), it's an abusive dad who repeatedly punches her in the face whenever she's less than perfect. For Yoo-jin (Oh Yeon-seo), it's falling grades, an unsympathetic nun, and a boyfriend who cheats. And for Eun-joo (Jang Kyeong-ah), it's a way to reconnect with a former friend who once gave her an MP-3 player. The last reason is hardly the strongest but it may go to explain why the ghost of Eun-joo is so pissed off at the other three girls when they fail to live up to the suicide pact that inspired her to jump off the parochial school roof in the first place.

Because her eternal bond with Soy hasn't been sealed in the hereafter, this bitter young lady is furiously seeking retribution from the two other means girls who stole her gal pal then her life in short order. That she's not equally angry at Soy is symptomatic of classic jealousy — like the wife who hates the woman who has stolen her husband, while disregarding the fact that it's the man who has betrayed her. When you're screwed by someone you love and you want to reunite with him, you need a target for all that rage. Lucky for Eun-joo, she has two. And so she terrorizes Eun-yeong and Yoo-jin by stalking them across the school grounds, up on the roof, in the bathrooms, inside the gymnasium, over their computers, and in their dreams. She's not a pretty sight either as her steady hand reaches out from the other side to choke, grab, and drip blood. Plus, her violence is hardly restricted to personal revenge. At one point, she causes the doting mother of the guy who impregnated her bosom buddy to spontaneously combust in a stalled car that then proceeds to drift backwards before crashing off-screen to cover up the crime. Now that's angry! A Blood Pledge is the fifth installment of the Whispering Corridors series, a horror franchise united by its all-girl high school settings and its Catholic school uniforms. More interestingly though is that the movie is helmed by writer-director Lee Jong-yong who co-wrote Park Chan-wook's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

May 28, 2011

Running 7 Dogs: Everyone's Chasing Everyone But Nobody's Getting Anywhere

In an intro to an anthology of his avant garde plays, Richard Foreman writes how he most enjoys the beginnings of movies before you can figure out what's going on. Once the plot becomes apparent, the film becomes less engaging. At least, to him. In that case, he'd probably love Running 7 Dogs because the first half of the movie bounces so quickly from scene to scene and introduces so many characters before any one of them is truly established that you really aren't sure who's who and what's what for a long, long time. Even after you've deduced the basics, Running 7 Dog's logic still challenges passive viewing because it so often strains credibility.

What do you do when someone has sex with your girlfriend? You hire someone to chainsaw his leg off then buy her a ranch. How do you respond if someone asks to see your police ID? You hit him in the head with a cue ball. Where do you go to meet the love of your life? The restroom of a gas station, not just once but twice. Admittedly, this movie doesn't improve after you've learned the personal histories and current motivations of its various characters but at least it does make clear that writer-director Kim Joo-man does have a story to tell. This isn't experimental filmmaking; it's just convoluted.

Indebted to Pulp Fiction with its extreme violence and central flashback, Kim's movie has to do with a cabbie (Jeong So-yeong) who accidentally has a hit-and-run accident that has little effect on his blase attitude toward life but suddenly puts him in possession of hundreds and hundreds of American hundred dollar bills. As he struggles to figure out a way to exchange the money for Korean currency, he leaves the cash with his girlfriend (Lee Jee-hyeon), a pretty tough convenience store clerk who doesn't take flack from her customers, her co-workers or any of the criminals she meets at the checkout counter. Working day after day under fluorescent lights hasn't dimmed her sense of self-righteousness. She might not be a master of tae kwon do but she's a fighter, a woman who's not afraid to bite your ear off if you try to rough her up. No wonder her boyfriend likes her so much. She's resourceful, loyal, forward-thinking, and looks good in a polyester uniform. That's not easy. At the end of Running 7 Dogs, you hope she takes all that money and buys herself a smashing new wardrobe. She deserves it!

May 21, 2011

H: When Anti-Abortionists End Up in Jail, They Impregnate Their Ideas in Others

H, Lee Jong-hyuk's moody procedural drama about an imprisoned serial killer who remains unstoppable even behind bars, isn't particularly hard to figure out. You quickly discern that Detective Kang (Ji Jin-hee) is involved in the slew of murders at the movie's center and that the clues pointing to other suspects are just there to throw you — and his fashionably crossdressing female partner Detective Lee (Yum Jung-ah) — off the trail. Lee, like you, is not so easily fooled though. Unlike the lead police duo's main sidekick — fat, jolly and admittedly none-too-bright Detective Park (Sung ji-ru), she's smarter than your average man-in-blue; she's a circumspect investigator who gains more by thinking hard while coolly smoking a cigarette (that never shortens over time) than she would get by grilling her perp Shin-hyun (Cho Seung-woo) in an effort to find out what's driving him to slit the throats and cut off the ring-fingers of young, sometimes lesbian, pregnant women. She'll leave that task to Dr. Chu (Kim Sun-kyung), the enigmatic and questionably ethical psychiatrist who respects her client's privacy more than the safety of random, future victims.

From the looks of the turnout at the lecture she gives on the modus operandi of serial killers, she probably has a book in the works too so she doesn't want to taint her research just to solve a crime. What I still can't figure out is whether her book is on sociopaths or anti-abortionists. As message movies go, H is one of the oddest anti-choice movies on record. The killer is motivated by a deep-seated memory of being an abortion that didn't work. (He can still recall the feel of the cold forceps.) The victims are primarily unwed pregnant women who, in theory at least, don't want their babies. A single virgin dies, too, though that's explained away as "confused thinking" on the part of the killer but given said killer's psychic powers, a more logical answer is that he was able to pick up on a deep-seated desire to get laid and not have a baby no matter what. And who hasn't felt that? If this all strains credulity for you, then H definitely isn't your kind of movie. If you're fine with experiencing suspense primarily through a well-crafted soundtrack (with some excellent '70s-style noir tracks from composer Jo Sung-woo), than H will be alright for you.

May 14, 2011

I Saw the Devil: It's a Bittersweet Life That's More Bitter Than Before

I Saw the Devil is a high-octane thriller that's got something to teach if you can hear it over the accelerated beating of your heart. The lesson is this: A successful revenge is a Pyrrhic victory. When undercover agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun) decides to play cat-and-mouse with serial killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) who raped, murdered then dismembered Kim's wife (Oh San-ha) and many others, he has to deal with some casualties along the way. For each time he releases his prey only to stalk him again, some innocent bystander is likely to get hit, stabbed, or choked. (If you're really unlucky, you'll suffer all three.) Soo-hyeon also submerges himself in a heretofore unconsidered freaky-scary world where mass murderers crop up time and again as if a whole underground network of interconnected sociopaths existed just below society's surface. (David Lynch would have a field day with an American remake!) So while, Soo-hyeon's got high connections within the police force — his father-in-law is Squad Chief Jang (Jeon Gook-hwan), he's going to need to draw on more than those resources to beat Kyung-chul at his own game. You see, Kyung-chul's got powerful allies too, especially one old buddy — a good-natured cannibal (Choi Moo-seong), with a violent girlfriend (Kim In-seo) — who enlightens Kyung-chul over dinner re: Soo-hyeon's "hunter" mindset. This mealtime revelation allows Kyung-chul to turn the tables at least for awhile.

Both Kim and Choi turn in hypnotic performances: Kim as per usual takes a minimalist approach, executing tasks as a form of acting then showing flashes of deep emotion at crucial points like when he's leaving the mausoleum where his wife's just been entombed; Choi chooses a flashier approach, giggling tauntingly and staring furiously at anything that gets in his way. It's a nice balance. Kim grounds the film; Choi embellishes it. I've seen a number of Kim Jee-woon's movies before (The Good, the Bad, the Weird, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Quiet Family). I Saw the Devil definitely showcases what this director does best: an extended chase scene that's punctuated by artful depictions of violence filled with horror; an adrenaline-releasing thriller fueled by one believably psychotic personality. I'm thinking particularly of A Bittersweet Life which also features Kim as a nearly-invincible-and-unquestionably-wronged man trying to survive amid an army of fists, knives, and guns. I was a big fan of that earlier effort and I'm a big fan of this one too.