October 29, 2011

Blades of Blood: The Look of Medieval History

What I like best about Korean epics set in the middle ages are the men's hats: wide-brimmed stovepipes made of black mesh that diffuses the shadow cast on the face; overturned, blue or earthen-colored bowls embellished with topknots and attached to the head with a strip of fabric secured in the back like a bandana; towering royal cones that look collapsible and slyly suggest the instability of any and every empire... Having been raised on the knit caps and baseball visors, the earmuffs and do rags of the late 20th century, these antiquated, grandly executed headpieces speak mysteriously, intriguingly of hidden meanings that have nothing to do with designer labels and sports franchises. Back then a hat had meaning! It defined your class, your rank, your identity in a way that today's tiaras and aviator hats do not. Talk about ridiculously aspirational. Well, Blades of Blood has hats aplenty. And aspirations too. And for that I thank director Lee Jun-ik (since I don't know the name of the costume designer). With this historic drama documenting eternal futility more than temporal reign, he's parading out a veritable fashion show of medieval formal- and sports- wear between and during the sword fights.

But clothes alone do not make a movie any more than they do a man. And at the center of Blades of Blood are actually two shabbily attired men: One, a blind samurai wearing a patched-up version of the stovepipe mentioned above; the other, his bare-headed apprentice with a robe as bland as a navy sportscoat. They're both hell-bent on revenging the man who killed Pil-joo (Lee Hae-yeong) -- friend of the former, father of the latter. And they have to trek by hundreds of people infinitely better attired to do so. It's a classic tale with the two men acting out a Star Wars-like mentorship as the elder -- a blind fool named Hwang (Hwang Jeong-min) -- teaches the younger -- a hot-tempered bastard named Gyeon-ja (Baek Seong-hyeon) -- the finer points of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat with plenty of head clobberings as reprimand. If the Foley soundtrack is to be believed, those hits to the head sure hurt! And it's not the only form of pain suffered throughout Blades of Blood. (it may be the only pains that continuously cause a laugh though.) For serious injury early on, Gyeon-ja gets stabbed right through the abdomen by his nemesis Lee Mong-hak (Cha Seung-won) and is given up as dead (as if that's the way movies ever worked). That hurt! And many of Lee's cohorts end up seeing the end of Lee's sword come out their other side, without coming back to life. As to other aches, there's Baek-ji (Han Ji-hye), lover to both Mong-hak and Gyeon-ja. That's gotta hurt for both men. How the love triangle happens is one of life's great coincidences. How it resolves itself is one of the film's greatest achievements. The whole thing's not quite as magical as Lee's masterpiece The King and the Clown but it's still an entertaining romp in the past. I say, hats off to them all!

October 25, 2011

My Girlfriend Is an Agent: My, My, My! That's a Stereotypically Good Korean Comedy

Evidently, Americans aren't the only ones out there who make cheesy comedies in which evil Russians conspire to get hold of a deadly virus that could destroy the world, their diabolical strategy pursued not for political reasons but for personal ones. You know, there's one thing about those heartless Communists. They hold grudges like nobody's business. But do Koreans typecast just like we do? Not really. In fact, I'm trying to think of a single sympathetic portrait of a white person in a Korean film (comedy or not) and nothing comes to mind. Even great films like The Host, Antique Bakery, and Lady Vengeance all make use of Americans, Europeans, and Australians for comic relief at best. Know of a Korean film with a major Caucasian character who's a fully formed person? Please, let me know! Which isn't to say I didn't get a big kick out of the Russian baddies in My Girlfriend Is an Agent. The poorly acted, over-exaggerated nemesis is really a staple of comedy.

And My Girlfriend Is an Agent is a pretty good comedy. I'm an unexpected fan of the Korean "My" comedies -- movies like My Mighty Princess and My Sassy Girl. Generally speaking, rom-coms are not my cup of tea. But because this particular variation of the romantic comedy inverts traditional gender roles, I'm all for it. I like to see the man be the pretty sidekick and the woman be the muscle. In My Girlfriend Is an Agent, the nerdy part is Lee Jae-joon (Kang Ji-hwan), a bumbling undercover rookie with kissable lips and just enough smarts to justify his slapstick mistakes. The kick-ass part is Ahn Soo-ji (Kim Ha-neul), an infinitely more skilled martial artist who also works undercover (and who favors wearing her hair parted on the side... "Tomboy!")

He's trying to be taken seriously despite his lack of field experience; she's out to whoop ass, even if that means pursuing criminals while dressed in a bridal gown and driving a jet ski. Naturally they love each other. Just as naturally, they can't stop butting heads. You see, neither knows that the other one is actually working in the same field as a secret agent -- albeit for a different agency. Which means they're constantly lying to each other to hide their professional identities. He's out to track down a Russian cooperative but posing as an accountant; she's committed to saving the planet from a killer virus while pretending to be a custodial worker at a hotel. Their Confucian insistence of being good citizens first, good lovers second speaks volumes of a work ethic I personally admire. And the fact that love wins out in the end truly does make a good movie.

Considering what a light touch is evidenced throughout, it's strange to think that Shin Terra is the same director who did Black House, a serial killer thriller that isn't the least bit funny at all. But he did.

October 16, 2011

Daisy: She Loves Him Even Though He's Not Really Him

Are director Lau Wa-keung and his trio of screenwriters aspiring for super-heightened-naturalism with his romance-turned-spy-caper Daisy? Their movie sure takes the old maxim "Truth is stranger than fiction" at face value. For with nary an ironic wink or a melodramatic scream, this one keeps getting stranger and stranger as its story gets more and more complex. How did this happen? On their own, the characters are plausible if incompatible.

First up is Hye-young (Jun Gianna), a street artist who paints daisies as her humble homage to Van Gogh's Sunflowers. She lives with her grandfather at an antique shop in Amsterdam, favors the knit hat and layered clothing that proclaims "Bohemian," and sketches charcoal portraits in the town square despite having access to an enormous warehouse for painting oils and a date set for her (first?) solo gallery exhibit. If she lived in Paris, she'd smoke Gauloises; if she lived in NYC, she'd have needle-marks. You know the type.

Next up is Jeong-woo (Lee Seung-jae), an Interpol cop who's committed to busting crime rings at any cost. He's what you might call a noble opportunist. And so he uses Hye-young as a cover for monitoring drug trafficking. Then he seizes his chance to seduce her when she mistakes him for someone else. He's not a cad per se. But it feels as though he's in an espionage pic, not a romance, even after he confesses all after she's lost her voice from a gun shot wound that he blames on himself. (Since she can't speak, it's hard to say whether she accepts his apology.)

Finally, there's the assassin (Jung Woo-sung): Jeong-woo would love to catch him; Hye-young would love to marry him. Except for one thing... He's neither the target of Jeong-woo's investigation nor the lover of Hye-young's dreams. He's one of those stalker-boyfriend-criminal types, the guy who watches his prey clandestinely, courts her secretively, coerces her into a relationship by making her get into his car when she's mute, then ends up causing her death inadvertently. An ideal he is not. And then there's his profession: killing people. Need we say more?

For a good long while, Hye-young believes Jeong-woo is the secret admirer who's actually the assassin then she thinks that her lover-assassin has killed her lover-impostor. She's wrong on both counts. If she hadn't forfeited learning sign language and opted to spend the rest of her life communicating through index cards with common phrases on them, maybe she would've figured out her reality faster. Maybe she wouldn't be dead. And Jeong-woo wouldn't be dead. Maybe the assassin wouldn't be single either and left with a painting now splattered with his loved one's blood.

October 1, 2011

Animal Town: A Double Dose of Doom and Despair

Some movies radiate destitution as if life's inner light shone that much more brightly when comfort's lampshade was unceremoniously snatched off. Other films relate utter misery by flattening existence. Here, characters are like so many cardboard cut-outs, experiencing the day-to-day without even the hope that there might be a way to re-experience three dimensions again. In the first category, pain is electric; in the second, the battery is dead. I'll be the first to admit that I prefer the former type of movie, films like Stray Bullet or Bad Guy, where the tragedy before us makes us somehow miraculously feel more desperately alive. But surely there's a place for the uglier approach, too; those movies that only depress you, movies like Jeon Kyu-hwan's Animal Town, for instance, which may reflect the world around us, but steamrolls reality to make its point.

In the desaturated palette that comes from a secondhand video camera, Animal Town shows a bleak slice of life in which two protagonists -- a downtrodden pedophile (Lee Joon-hyuk) who's lost his job and an inert businessman (Oh Seong-tae) having a spiritual crisis -- seek a way out of the doldrums, which happen to be plastered with cheap, yellowed wallpaper and covered with low-grade upholstery. Oddly enough, you may find your sympathies lie with the paroled pervert, a man so ostracized his relatives shun him, his friends are non-existent, and his only way to prevent becoming a repeat offender is by heavily medicating himself into a stupor. Every time a child appears on screen -- especially one particular little girl who comes across as somewhat brain damaged -- you cringe with apprehension. But when there's no kids in sight, this big dumb lug is a heartbreaking mess as he tries to create a life for himself with a monitoring bracelet on his ankle and an apartment in the shadow of the wrecking ball.

It takes a lot longer to learn what's got his co-star so upset. Sure, his wife is a nag and his always-offscreen daughter sounds like a brat, but he's at least got religion and if not religion, at least the community of the church, and if not the community at least his own business, and if a failing business, at least a business that's still got a chance of turning around. His counterpart has no chance. He's doomed. And while the final "shocking" moments of this movie are really a cascade of contrivances, and Animal Town can feel like it hates life, Jeon's descent into despair at least has enough heart to pity the rejects and the victims.