September 27, 2011

Hanji: Paper! Paper! Read All About It!

It's a good thing, I didn't read the synopsis of Hanji in the MoMA Korean Film Festival brochure beforehand. I never would've gone to the theater. A film about the challenges, setbacks and rewards encountered by a local government official helping to revive the traditional method of papermaking hardly promises the stuff of high drama. And funnily enough, within this movie itself, are snippets of what appears to be the dreaded documentary we'd expect from that description: a clunky primer on the fine art of Hanji that pans reverentially over intricate antiques while a droning voice-over puts us summarily to sleep. Crafting a new copy of the Annals of the Chosun Dynasty may be a momentous occasion to scholars but most of us are not going to perch on the edge of our seats, desperately waiting to see if the undertaking succeeds. Will they master the old craft? Who cares! Director Im Kwon-taek does a little, perhaps, but at the same time that's not the story that he's set out to tell with Hanji either. Im's sublimely understated film is based on a real story but doesn't relate history so much as it distills  reality. (That's much more interesting!) His Hanji quietly conveys how the lives of people of no historic note are deeply impacted by something as unexpected as a well-meaning civic restoration project.

The movie's central character is  Pil-yong (Park Joong-hoon), a womanizing bureaucrat incapable of advancement and burdened with a wife (Ye Ji-won), whose severe disability was caused in part by his last extramarital affair. As he works to incite the masters of the local paper-making community to participate in the project, he strikes up a friendship of sorts with a divorced female film director (Kang Soo-yeon) who makes the aforementioned documentary, in part because she can't get funding for a feature film. No major love triangle emerges. Throughout Hanji, conflicts are small; treacheries, minor. What distinguishes Hanji is not its ability to extract tragic consequences from a historic footnote but rather its acknowledgment that a story with little razzle dazzle can nevertheless be the biggest thing to happen in some people's lives. Im's blunt depiction of cubicle culture, stroke rehabilitation, and petty crime as nothing but a part of daily life, any life, every life, underscores that the familiar and the pedestrian can still be quite deep. There's a beautiful passage in Hanji during which one character talks about the moon being a source of light that you can stare at continually without danger. Like the moon, most of us will not be as radiant as the sun but our insignificant lives are no less worthy of uninterrupted, loving attention.

September 17, 2011

Garden of Heaven: She's Dying to Fall in Love for the First Time

Let someone else with a nobler sense of right and wrong deride Garden of Heaven for its oversimplified protrayal of hospice patients. I, for one, found its shameless depiction of the terminally ill to be jaw-droppingly hilarious. There isn't a cliched representation overlooked or underplayed from the cute kid who crayons self-portraits on the wall so his mom won't forget him to a carefree young woman who insists the doctor himself is her most effective painkiller. That blithe spirit is played by none other than Lee Eun-ju, the incredibly talented actress who went on to give a brilliantly harrowing performance in The Scarlet Letter before committing suicide shortly thereafter. You'd never know Lee was suffering from depression from watching Garden of Heaven because there's nothing self-pitying in the way her character baldly states that she's an orphan who's never been in love and who wants to be held by "someone who cares" in her final moments. That Lee is able to relate such treacly sentiments in a such a matter-of-fact manner turns what might've been soapy stuff — of which there's still quite a bit — into something that's a little less corny. She often disarms you and never depresses you. You may even assume that she's a little more complex than she is when, in one particularly fatuous plot twist, she parlays her cancer into a modeling gig for an unintentionally hysterical television advertisement for life insurance. But she's no scam artist. She really is dying.

Her co-star Ahn Jae-wook isn't quite as nuanced as paramour-savior Dr. Choi but at least he shares Lee's complete lack of concern with tugging heartstrings, despite their being endlessly ready for plucking. Ahn appears to have turned his charisma down for Garden of Heaven. The quartet of nurses who worship the ground he walks on are inexplicably blind to the cruel rebuke he levels at a mother who's just lost her child ("Let's get the death certificate now!") and his complete disregard for professional ethics as he falls for the prettiest patient on the ward. A rather tearless tearjerker, Garden of Heaven pushes the expected buttons in the disease-romance genre without triggering the de facto response. Think of the fundraiser near the end of the movie: A filmmaker who's dying at the hospice makes a short documentary about Dr. Choi that lauds him as an Angel of Death then a lineup of patients play a melancholic tune with handbells that create sounds that don't sync up with the soundtrack. That constant sense of something off make Garden of Heaven something you should turn on.

September 9, 2011

The Anarchists: The Nicest Terrorists You'll Ever Meet

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it's more than a little weird to watch Yu Yong-sik's The Anarchists (a.k.a. Anakiseuteu Anarchists) because this historical bromance about Korean terrorists who assassinate Japanese oppressors in 1920s Shanghai is so little about politics and violence and so much about brotherhood and youthful aimlessness. With a screenplay by none less than Park Chan-wook, The Anarchists isn't shy about slaughter. Men are stabbed, shot repeatedly, slit in the throat... Even women get tortured. But most of the time, this movie's all about male bonding, how young revolutionary Sang-gul (Kim In-kwon), once rescued from the gallows, comes to love and respect his mentors in the revolution. They're a likable bunch: a nihilistic opium addict named Seregay (Jang Dong-gun), a hotheaded prankster named Dol-suk (Lee Beom-su), a bespectacled didact named Myung-Gon (Kim Sang-jung) and a wannabe radical named Geun (Jeong Jun-ho) who never really seems to have his heart in the cause even as he's willing to sacrifice his life to it. Though the characters never break into a chorus of "Friendship / Friendship / Just a perfect blendship," you do get the feeling that they're humming it when the camera pans away.

Platonic loyalty is hardly unique to Park's canon. Think of the absurdly devoted women in Lady Vengeance or the extreme devotion among the soldiers in J.S.A.: Joint Security Area. But the camaraderie shared by characters written by Park but directed by others always feels more palsy-walsy than sealed in blood. In both Yu's The Anarchists and Lee Mu-yeong's The Humanist, the extremism that defines unconditional love is tempered, leaving something more like chumminess in its place. Admittedly, few directors can match Park's ability to glamorize violence without losing its grotesqueness. De Palma and Scorsese immediately come to mind. And Yu, admittedly has one scene that comes close: A slow-mo bit in which Seregay gets a bullet hole in the head then falls backwards, his descent captured at various camera angles heightening the surreality of the cigarette still smoking between his now-dead lips. But that's an isolated moment. Most bloody encounters in The Anarchists are a little too tamely respectful of the audience to actually achieve something that would earn the audience's wildly undying respect.

September 3, 2011

White Valentine: When a Love Story Isn't About Love at All

I find Yang Yun-ho's White Valentine incredibly frustrating. And not just because Lee Eun-kyeong's meandering screenplay has its characters needlessly talking in code or telling each other "Don't tell me!" when the hidden truths don't even seem that earth-shattering. I won't even blame the twee hypersensitivity so execrably conveyed by Jun Gianna as a female high school dropout with a passion for drawing and Park Shin-yang as a widowed pet store owner obsessed with damaged pigeons. I've seen poorly written screenplays poorly acted before. They tend to bore more than irritate me as a rule. What truly sucks about White Valentine, however, is the way it keeps pretending to be this sentimental love story about two drifting rejects who can't find a way to set sail together, because they're too timid to reveal their true selves.

They meet in a park. They write each other anonymous notes sent via carrier pigeon. He keeps pining for her even as she stalks him. He can't see the obvious and she won't announce her identity — maybe because she can't comprehend why he can't pull together all the freaking clues she puts in his way. After awhile, you get the feeling in White Valentine, that this morose duo isn't unlucky so much as they're unsure. Sure, they're stunted beings unlikely to take big risks. But maybe, just maybe, they're also circumspect cynics who are looking at each other and thinking, "Hmm, maybe this one isn't what I"m looking for." On that count, they may both be right. She's able to turn her inner frustration into a piece of kiddie lit. He turns his angst into a coffee table book of bird photographs. Can you really fault love lost when it gives you each a book deal? And when, years later, he discovers the children's book that she's illustrated and recognizes the cover artwork (and the truth that comes with it: It was HER after all!), does he race to find his secret sweetheart? No. He moseys over to the store that her just-as-evasive grandfather (Jeon Mu-song) once ran then shuffles outside the train station where she's about to embark to other climes. When suddenly he makes a mad dash for the tracks, I, for one, was left fantasizing that he'd thrown himself on the tracks. I can't imagine eternal bliss for these two. I see a house filled with melancholia. Boo-hoo and then boo.