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.