February 27, 2011

Once Upon a Time in Seoul: Watching the Rope That You'll Hang Yourself With

There are two movies going on in Bae Hyeong-jun's oddball Once Upon a Time in Seoul (a.k.a. Boys Don't Cry). One concerns two orphaned teens (Lee Wan and Song Chang-ui) peddling stolen goods alongside a crew of young misfits in the black market of post-war Korea; the other concerns two 20-somethings living out the same plot with kids and middle-aged adults. This freaky double-take is what happens when you cast actors way too old for their parts. A story of youth becomes a story of late bloomers; innocent children morph into incompetent grownups. And that's just the beginning. Since the one female gang-member (Park Grina) dresses like a boy and appears twenty years older from certain angles, the two lead characters now appear to have either latent homosexual tendencies or a mother complex. Actually, the man-child played by Song might be looking for a father figure too since he's clearly enamored of one kick-ass street thug (Ahn Kil-kang) who's mastered the bullwhip and the swagger. In a movie like this, action sequences can make you forgive and forget but the big final fight scene here -- in which the upstart and an evil crime boss duel with whips instead of knives -- is mostly memorable for being so anti-climatic.

February 20, 2011

Poetry: Not Enough Rhyme or Reason in the Old Lady's Lousy Life

Oh, Mija (Yun Jeong-hie), you pitiable, misdirected old lady. Did you really think that enrolling in a creative writing class at the community center would reconnect you to the beautiful things in life? Your troubles are far too deep for that. Your grandson (Lee Da-wit), after all, is one of six admitted rapists who've driven a fellow high school student to jump off a bridge to her untimely death. You claim to be close to your own daughter (his mother) but from the looks of it, you'd prefer whoring yourself out to a disabled old man as a way to raise funds to bribe the suicide's mother than to ask your dear child for a measly dime. Oh Mija, did you actually think that learning to write a sonnet would cheer you up? Did you really believe that getting to know the wisecracking cop while hanging out at poetry night at the local cafe would lead to something better? What were you thinking? Oh, wait. That's right. You can't remember what you were thinking because you've got Alzheimer's. So I'll ask the film's director Lee Chang-dong: What were you thinking? Sure, Poetry has quietly profound moments but did they require two and a half hours to serve? And is the film's bleached out palette a commentary on the washed out lives of your characters or an unneeded snub to the art of cinematography? I love Oasis and I like Secret Sunshine and The Green Fish quite a bit but this Poetry just wore me out.

February 13, 2011

May Story: National Uprising Is Backdrop for Downer of a Film

In the annals of bad movie history -- a very thick book of small print -- Park Kwang-man's May Story may deserve a page all its own. The nonsensical plot climaxes on a rooftop where one moody terrorist (who mistakes a memorial parade for the actual conflict it's commemorating) goes suicidal while his female accomplice screams regretfully after supplying him with weaponry stolen from the blank-faced cop who loves her. The performances though less extreme are nevertheless extremely bad. As a gun-crazed femme fatale bored with running a roadside chicken cafe, Jang Se-yoon is so affected in front of the camera that she can't even pick up a stick without "acting" it out. Her two male leads have the courtesy to fail each in his own way: As the lovestruck officer, Yang Im-ho is Buddha incarnate, projecting a complacent stillness, often inappropriately. As the politicized kook, Kim Yoon-seong starts out cool then ends up a heap of histrionics. Add murky cinematography, pointless parade footage, and tediously long sequences that depict Soon-ji (the title character and an alternate title of the film) silently washing her hair or running down a road and you suddenly realize May Story subscribes to the "waste-not want-not" school of film making. No dialogue is too inane; no shot is too dark; no sequence is too inconsequential. The one thing left on the cutting room floor is the future careers of those involved.

February 5, 2011

The Housemaid: A Camp Classic Gets Reinvented for the Better

I'm not a big fan of the original version of The Housemaid, Kim Ki-young's 1960 camp melodrama about a psycho servant usurping control in a middle-class household. Im Sang-soo's update, which shows a richer family's new nanny getting abused instead of abusing, seems infinitely more plausible, and for the first half of the film, Jeon Do-yeon gives such a transfixing performance as a good-natured naif willing to roll with the punches, that you'll be feeling as though you're watching a purported classic being transformed into an actual one. But then the story kind of plateaus. Jeon, who's done such a heartbreaking job at conveying a variety of vulnerabilities, doesn't relate the same level of intensity when she's realizing how she's getting the short end of the stick or devising her revenge. The movie doesn't tank, exactly, but it does go from being great to good. At one point, I wondered if the story was going to shift to the other, older housemaid (Yun Yeo-jong) who has more than enough bitter memories to incite a glorious revenge on the narcissistic woman-of-the-house (Seo Woo) or her bj-loving husband (Lee Jung-jae). No such luck.