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.