April 23, 2011

Flower Island: So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard Instead of a Shrink?

Somewhere along the line in Song Il-gon's teary Flower Island, I thought, "Oh, this is just like The Wizard of Oz without the comedy, the catchy tunes or Judy Garland." But you definitely have three broken characters, with self-esteem issues, heading to a magical place akin to Oz as they search for life-changing wizardry — in this case, the wish-granting comes courtesy of a fairly low-key woman with magical powers and a knack for hypnosis. Sad more than hopeful, this trio isn't looking for a heart, a brain and the nerve. Instead, one (Lim Yu-jin) is seeking peace of mind so she can die of throat/tongue cancer; another (Kim Hye-na), for the mother who abandoned her as a child; and the third (Seo Ju-hie), for her "angel" friend who she hopes will make her feel a little less guilty about having sex with an old man as a way to raise money to buy her daughter a piano.

As in the Emerald City, no one gets what they've asked for exactly but they do return to the real world a little less troubled (although in one case, a little less troubled happens to mean dead). Shot on a digital camera, Flower Island feels somewhat insolent because its hand-held P.O.V. is often obstructed and its actors look directly at the lens, sometimes because one of the characters happens to be an amateur videographer and sometimes just because. That former conceit doesn't really have a pay-off. The fictional filmmaker's shots aren't that different from those by the actual one and there's no point-of-view epiphany, notwithstanding the blurred image of a maternal doppelganger who appears on the beach at the same moment that the cancer lady is about to disappear mid-air via a pair of cardboard angel-wings. I like the spirit behind making a low-budget film with little more than an idea and a handful of game actors. I'm less into a slack editorial process that permits scenes to wander willy-nily and a storyline that for all its grief never triggers a well-earned tear. Every character cries; one of them screams. As to the audience, we're left waiting for a glimpse at the dark, doomed reality within. At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns home and sees Kansas anew; at the end of Flower Island, the main character may be over her depression but she doesn't get a memorable catchphrase like "There's no place like home."

April 16, 2011

Dance, Dance: Out of Step With the Pleasures of Its Convention

Dance, Dance adheres to a number of formulaic dance-movie conventions... up to a point. So while you'll find the seeds of the classic story of one innocent and eager newcomer (Ju Jin-mo) who starts off as the rehearsal studio's laughing stock only to discover that he's got real talent -- and an unexpected passion -- for dance, what doesn't follow is the triumphant emergence of a breakout star who has climbed from the very bottom of the ranks. Far from it, this newbie instead causes his ragtag troupe to lose a major gig on broadcast television before dropping out so he can continue his medical studies. Who saw that coming? Not me! Equally deflating is the mishandling of that beloved cliche about the quotidian struggles of dancers/best-friends who love, fight, perform, disband and reunite as they strive for success and fame. This time, the scrappy troupe neither wins the big competition nor overthrows the undermining TV producer who won't let them rehearse for their music video. Instead, these guys spend an inordinate amount of time and energy putting up posters for a b-boy revue in which they will play a fairly lame part. Again, true-to-life but why? Couldn't we lie for the sake of pleasure?

As to the romance that could've salvaged Dance, Dance, let's just say that the spark-less relationship between the dance diva (Hwang In-yeong) and her shy protege (Yang, as mentioned above) is a platonic one that probably won't outlast the credits. What draws them together? She's respectful of his having a career outside dance and tickled by his enthusiasm for the form. As to her attractions for him, outside of a killer waistline, she's really representing the artist's way more than she's inspiring love or lust or longing for the unattainable. He's not so much infatuated with her as he is fantasizing about being her, about being a dancer, an artist, someone not so square as he so helplessly, hopelessly is. I wouldn't go so far as to say his character is gay but if he is, he's the kind of quietly repressed gay who's so out-of-touch with his inner life that he probably won't realize his sexual orientation until he's 40 and then only after he's taken a dance class for nostalgia's sake at the community center. In summation, Dance, Dance has no inspiring journey of self-discovery, no good guys vs. bad guys drama, no sappy love story, no knock-your-socks off dance routines -- unless you count a brief clip of a trio of guys spinning on their heads. Which I won't.

April 9, 2011

The Coast Guard: Making an Anti-War Statement That Makes No Sense

You can always count on a little bit of crazy in a Kim Ki-duk film. Here in The Coast Guard, you get a double dose via PFC Kang (a somewhat embarrassing Jang Dong-gun) and civilian local girl Mi-Yeong (an ultimately disappointing Park Ji-a), who are practically in a competition to see who can out-kook the other: He's irrationally obsessed with killing a North Korean spy; she's drunkenly reckless about getting banged by her boyfriend Young-gil across the forbidden border. And that's when they're at their most sensible! Once they both get what they want -- in a twisted way, naturally -- as Kang shoots her lover in a fatal instance of coitus interruptus, the two officially go off the deep end. He keeps thinking that he's still in the army although he's been discharged for being mentally unfit. She starts having sex with any man in a uniform, none of whom mind a bit that she's freakily damaged goods. Aside from his former comrade (Kim Jeong-hak) and her loyal brother (Yu Hae-jin), no one appears overly sympathetic towards their descents into madness. Insanity is tedious. Best to steer clear in case derangement is contagious!

And if you think that it can't get any worse, you don't know director Kim. Kang's inevitably bound for the nuthouse then escapes to go on a killing spree; Mi-Yeong's destined for an involuntary abortion without anesthesia. You may classify The Coast Guard as an anti-war movie if you wish but it's really so out there that it's not really anti-war at all. The more you consider the horrors, the more you realize that none of them would've happened if she hadn't lured her lover into a war zone and he hadn't been so dead set on being a hero. War isn't crazy. Unstable people near or on military bases are. No one -- whether they're pro-war or pro-peace or anti-war or anti-military-establishment -- is likely to change their stance after seeing The Coast Guard. They might not agree that shin-kicking, face-slapping and rolling around in the mud are the best ways to restore order among the ranks but they'll probably not have a strong opinion as to what to do instead. Marching and soccer are great ways of team building. Putting on war paint and looking at the ocean through night goggles are two soldierly activities that have lost none of their cool.