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.

May 7, 2011

Lovers of 6 Years: Masochists for Eternity

Someone please pass me a razor blade. Lovers of 6 Years is one depressing romance. We're supposed to believe that the two lovebirds — Da-jin (Kim Ha-neul) and Jae-young (Kim Ha-neul) — are meant for each other because they share a few common interests: namely bickering, crying and cheating. Yet while misery loves company, I don't know that I'd recommend shacking up with a longterm partner because he or she makes you feel like crap and you do the same for him or her. There must be a better way to bond than commiseration. Not that Jae-young's alternative amour, Ji-eun (Cha Hyeon-jeong), comes across any better. She's a flirtatious sociopath who jokes about poisoning him and slicing him up into little pieces so she can take him in her new suitcase when she flies to Santiago. It's no wonder he wants to get back with Da-jin. But Da-jin definitely could do better.

Jin-seong (Sin Seong-rok), the guy with whom she has her reciprocal fling, is both taller and more talented than Jae-young. Even considering that he may be egocentric and eccentric, Jin-seong strikes me as one of those once-in-a-lifetime guys who are too-good-to-be-true if you don't believe you deserve the very best. And after six years with Jae-young, Da-jin's ego has been whittled down enough so that she doesn't think she's worthy of someone that great. That's my take. This is a woman who has reconciled herself to the idea that if she's invested six years of her life with a remorseless, cheating jerk who's more concerned with getting laid than he is about that lump in her breast, well then, she might as well spend the next sixty with him too. Familiarity is her comforter. Note to Da-jin: Familiarity also breeds contempt. (It's good to use cliches when describing a movie so full of them.) Co-writer/director Park Hyeon-jin also suggests that Da-jin might be pregnant by way of a scene early on in which Jae-young insists that they have sex without a condom and then a few more scenes which reveal Da-jin's subsequently unappeasable appetite. Coincidence? Probably not. It's possible that Da-jin subconsciously knows that she's knocked up and recognizes that Jin-seong, the handsome artist who's also illustrating her first novel, might not stick around if he finds out that her baby isn't his. Best to stick with the guy who caused it. If nothing else, you'll get child support.

May 5, 2011

Monopoly: Neither a Crime of the Century, Nor a Movie for Tonight

Sigh. Why isn't Lee Hang-bae's Monopoly better than it is? Why? It has sections that are pretty interesting. It also periodically suggests complicated back stories for its characters — an attractive trio that's masterminding the biggest swindle in Korean banking history. I'm certainly predisposed to like lead character Kyung Ho (Yang Dong-kun): a gay computer nerd who's all-too-willing to throw his morals out the window for John (Kim Seong-su), the emotionally manipulative, American heartthrob who eventually shows his commitment by running over said tech geek's homophobic co-worker, then backing over the jerk a second time to make sure the job is done. (Since this is a Korean movie, there's no shortage of vomit to prove our hero is sickened by the action even as he's won over by John's devotion.)

I also admit a weakness for the complications that arise once you learn that the aforementioned amoral dreamboat is actually bisexual and married to Elly (Yun Ji-min), a cigarette-puffing vixen who sashays about in form-fitting satin that accents every delectable curve. But these three promising characters never end up being that deep and the performances are a little too one-note. I ended up thinking Kyung Ho should cry less, John should emote more, and Elly should consider learning how to blow smoke rings. Hey, someone's got to lighten up. Because one thing Monopoly lacks is a sense of humor. Lee takes his central crime pretty seriously and truth be told, the outlandish embezzlement he's concocted is little more than Office Space meets The Usual Suspects. Yes, I know that's a spoiler but since Monopoly isn't so great, wouldn't you rather know this movie's pedigree now than sit through 90 minutes and feel like you'd seen it before? Which actually gets me back to my original wish. I feel like Kyung Ho especially could've been a truly original character. It's not often you get to see an effeminate, figurine-collecting office drone break out of his downtrodden status and enact revenge fantasies, even if they fill him with regret. But as played by Yang, Kyung Ho never really sheds the mincing stereotype, except at the very end when he discards his identity completely. If you're angry because I've just dropped another spoiler, I have to ask you: Why did you continue reading after the first one?