December 27, 2011

The Best Korean Movies of 2011 (Sort of)

For me, 2011 was a year of thrillers, providing me with at least one heart-pounding high per month. But since this is a top ten list, not a top twelve, thrillers that could've made the cut (Tell Me SomethingMy Friend and His Wife) got axed, especially since Im Kwon-taek's small-moments, big feelings Hanji and Kim Ki-duk's oddball musical Breath refused to be elbowed off. Herewith the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2011...

1. The Man From Nowhere (2010): It's not a better movie than Lady Vengeance -- nothing is  -- but I was so deliriously happy watching The Man From Nowhere (hot loner protects young kid) that I can't stop myself from granting it the top slot. Me = Irrational. Movie = Sensational.

2. Lady Vengeance (2005): Watch a Park Chan-wook revenge fantasy, experience Korean filmmaking at its best. As a brilliant vigilante racked by guilt, Lee Yeoung-ae gives the most memorable performance of the year in the role of a lifetime.

3. Going by the Book (2007): A heist movie that isn't a heist movie -- it's a comedy about a bank robbery simulation gone awry -- ends up the smartest heist movie you'll ever see. For me, a star was born in Jeong Jae-yeong who plays the muddle-headed mastermind.

4. Another Public Enemy (2005): Deep inside I have a secret need for martial arts movies. Another Public Enemy takes care of that need while also delivering a top-notch police procedural drama. In short, director Kang Woo-suk, lets you get your combat fix with good plot.

5. I Saw the Devil (2011): To catch a serial killer you have to think like a serial killer which means you end up just as crazy as a serial killer. In this case, you might even have to get a little crazier, since those serial killers can sometimes work in tandem. I saw it. I loved it.

6. Hanji (2011): Could anything be more boring than the process of traditional paper-making? Hey, don't judge so quickly. Im Kwon-taek's drama about the seismic shifts that happen in people's lives when they brush with the historic is nothing short of sublime.

7. Secret Love (2010): Pure, unadulterated noir, from its kinky sexed-up storyline -- a woman in love with identical twins -- to its final denouement -- one sibling survives against all odds. What starts like a woman's movie ends up as everyone's guilty pleasure, especially mine.

8. Blades of Blood (2010): No one does this kind of sweeping, Shakespearean medieval tragicomedy like director Lee Jun-ik. Blades of Blood might not be as good as The King and the Clown but it's a perfectly entertaining fable nevertheless.

9. Breath (2007): Oh, Kim Ki-duk, you never cease to surprise me. Here, you're experimenting with the musical by having a jilted spouse sing karaoke to a man on death row that she doesn't even know. Somehow, it works!

10. A Better Tomorrow (2010): John Woo's original pic about two brothers and a best friend who fight each other and bad guys is a classic of Hong Kong cinema. Time will tell whether Song Hae-sung's remake emerges as a classic for Korea, too.

Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2010.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2009.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2008.

December 26, 2011

Rainbow Eyes: A Gay Thriller That's Not Gay Soon Enough or Thrilling Long Enough

I've seen a number of great thrillers this year, which puts Rainbow Eyes at a disadvantage. For while it's gorgeously photographed, energetically edited and possessed of a sensationalistic storyline that starts off with the murder of a gym owner (who may or may not have been gay), Rainbow Eyes falls short of the high-wire tension that ultimately makes a great thriller so thrilling to watch. It's just good! Part of the problem is the way the gay subject matter is handled. While much is made of the secret sex lives of some characters early on, Rainbow Eyes initially feels a little shy of peeking behind closed doors, even as it flashes every dirty detail it can of the actual crime scene. So while the quick slicing of fingers off a hand will make you gasp, the constant repetition of "Is he or isn't he?" will leave you exasperated. Rainbow Eyes would be a hell of a lot better off stating outright, "He is!" then going for broke with gratuitous displays of homoerotic antics in the locker rooms, steam rooms, and weight rooms. Talk about a series of lost opportunities!

Although prudishness ultimately gives way to salaciousness (thank God!), the shift is shockingly quick. It's like we go from a murder mystery about closet cases in a secret society to a transgender revenge fantasy acted out against a military backdrop with gay prison rules. Far be it from me to underestimate homophobia in the armed forces or the persecution of the LGBT across many subcultures -- Hey, I've been bashed myself -- but the way Rainbow Eyes relates oppression to sexuality causes me to raise a well-plucked eyebrow. No one really thinks homophobia in the army is caused by closeted gay men who leave their fatigues behind to run queer nightclubs. No one thinks transgendered people pursue sex changes to work out vigilante fantasies either. Racy? Yes, Rainbow Eyes is that! It's campy too with a priceless performance from Oh Ji-yeong as Mi-sook, the nightclub singer who always looks like the cat who swallowed the canary. In its own weird way, as out of touch with reality as Rainbow Eyes may be, it does feel as though it were written by a certain type of gay man who thinks every hot man is a repressed homosexual, every out gay man is a flaming queen, and every sympathetic woman is a fag hag. Naturally, the most beautiful lady in the room is a man in drag with a manicure destined to blow her cover.

But if Chelsea boys are writer-director Yang Yun-ho's intended audience, this movie needs more sweaty exposed flesh at the gym and some humping of the non-heterosexual variety, ideally involving eye candy Kim Kang-woo, who'd look best brooding out of uniform...completely.

December 25, 2011

Missing Person: The Unreal World of a Real Estate Agent

For the heck of it, let's look at Lee Seo's sharp-as-a-dagger indie pic Missing Person in canine terms. For what is Won-yeong (Choi Moo-Seong), the bullying, gum-snapping real estate agent, around whom much of the action swirls, if not the quintessential alpha male dog. He's got a pack of obedient mutts awaiting his commands at the office and three bitches -- his wife (Kim Seon-yeong), his mistress (Kim Ki-yeon) and an underage groupie (Baek Jin-hee) -- available for mating purposes. And to continue the metaphor, there's also a mongrel lurking at the periphery of his pack: Gyoo-nam (Kim Gyoo-nam), a clearly undomesticated dog, kind of looking for a master and kind of not.

Gyoo-nam -- who with his eerie, dead stare, emaciated face, and diminished IQ really does feel more animal than human -- is this movie's wild card. At first, he comes across as a heartbreaking, low-level masochist, willing to let Won-yeong leash him and beat him, eating dog food from a dog bowl with his own dog at home... But that isn't the whole picture. Sure, Gyoo-nam identifies with his four-legged friend, but in one troubling, almost-but-not-quite-comic scene, he extends the role-playing a creepy bit further by hand-feeding some dried pellets to a young boy who's part of a gang of kids who've been harassing him. That unsettling interaction is the first indication that Gyoo-nam isn't just the town idiot with a subservient complex. He's a cagey creature, studying his master, and looking to create his own pack, which he's actually doing pooch by pooch by assembling together dogs he's kidnapped and found in the woods and on the street. Won-yeong may not take Gyoo-nam too seriously when he coaches him in perfecting the killer stare and the art of baring his teeth, which for the record are rotten, but Gyoo-nam does. He takes it very seriously.

In the quirky subculture of dog owners, people know each other by their dogs' names. I mention this because some of the characters in Missing Person are as easy to remember by their pets' names as their own. Bok-soona's owner, who loses her spaniel while doing a hula hoop in the park, never really gets an identity outside of grieving pet-owner, while In-ae is as much Suji's mistress as she is that of Won-yeong. When these two women lose their dogs, they're understandably devastated. It goes without saying that dogs can quickly become part of a family. In a way, Missing Person warns us that in a dog-eat-dog world, you treat your fellow man as a dog at your own risk when you forget that dogs are human, too.

December 24, 2011

The Recipe: None of the Ingredients Needed for a True Romance

Is it really that unusual for a man, about to be executed for heinous crimes, to long for a simple dish like a bean paste stew in his final moments? Choi Yoo-jin (Ryu Seung-Ryong), a none-too-bright TV reporter at DBS, evidently thinks so he pulls out all the stops -- favors from his friends at the police force, extensions of deadlines from his rightfully skeptical boss, even conferences with the dead -- in order to find out the recipe behind this mystical dish. For the record, the ingredients are pretty specific: soy beans that have been grown with pig manure and spring water found under a lacquer tree to name but two. And Choi is committed to getting every single one of them, even when they get esoteric (like the vibrations of crickets) and sickeningly sappy (like tears).

Those tears are caused by the foiled romance of two cute-as-a-button artisans: stew-maker Hye-jin Jang (Lee Yu-won) who reeks of soy beans and wine-maker Kim Hyeon-soo (Lee Dong-Wook) who stinks of booze. Together, rumor has it, they make a delightful smell. Or at least they did when they were alive. Sadly that memorable combination of odors is no more as these two lovebirds never got to get married and make a sweetly scented baby to carry their patented mix of soy and wine forward into the next generation. You see, he got whisked away for an arranged marriage in Japan just as she was going to cook him up something sweet and tasty to eat. If you didn't get a whiff of what's coming next, let me tell you straight: He ends up drowning trying to get back to her by ship; she gets killed in a car wreck that's one of the stranger instances of euthanasia on record. Just try to sniff back the tears.

I'm not sure what the big pay-off is here for Choi. He neither makes a bowl of orgiastic soup that tastes of nirvana on earth nor has a ratings-smashing special turning him into a food network superstar now that he's uncovered the story behind the dish. It's hard to picture him finding true love for himself with the batty shop-owner (Lee Yong-nyeo) who's always wearing curlers. It's equally hard to imagine him getting promoted at DBS. Maybe he sells the story to director Lee Ann so she can spoonfeed the sentimental dreck to us here while he runs off with one of that movie's extras, a pretty young actress more concerned with trinkets and baubles than a bowl of fermented soy that smells like flowers and childhood and ultimately, poop.

December 18, 2011

Going by the Book: A Heist Movie in Theory

I've seen actor Jeong Jae-young in a handful of movies -- as a crafty merchant in the epic The Divine Weapon, as a determined vigilante in the jailbreak romp Righteous Ties, and as a fiercely woman-hating boyfriend in the underrated grrl-powered neo-noir No Blood, No Tears. He's always good but Ra Han-chee's Going by the Book is the pic that can be credited for making me a Jeong Jae-yeong fan.

I'm still puzzling over why I like him so much now. But I do. He's not sublime or emotionally raw or spellbindingly histrionic or drop-dead gorgeous. What he is is consistently watchable because Jeong is an actor who never relaxes internally. Even when his face is a blank (a look he's certainly perfected), his eyes aren't frozen with emptiness, they're stuck in a holding pattern that awaits more instructions from inside. Jeong's characters are thinkers, not philosophers or scientists so much as people with limited capacities pushing themselves to their limits. In my book, that he can convey overload without overacting can't be praised enough. And his talent is on full display here. As Do-man, a diabolically exacting cop who follows the letter of the law when called upon to play the part of a bank robber, Jeong is at the top of his game.

The staged crime that's cast his character as its lead player is meant to illustrate the police department's effectiveness in light of a rash of crimes plaguing the city. But since Do-man is as conscientious a criminal as he is a cop, this publicity stunt ends up highlighting how incompetent the police force actually is. Much to the dismay of the new police chief Lee Seung-woo (Son Byung-ho), Do-man (who's good behavior in the past has done nothing but get him demoted) outwits the boys in blue -- as well as a SWAT Team that wants to get in on the action -- at every step. Hostages are roughed up. Cops are killed. Pleas from the robber's mom go ignored.

Not that Do-man goes so far as to actually hurt someone. This is a simulation (and a comedy), remember, so when Do-man "rapes" one hostage, he executes a series of pushups; when he "shoots" a cameraman, he points his gun and shouts "Bang!" Part of the joy in watching Going by the Book, is getting to see a heist movie in which playacting adds another layer to the crime. Two stories unfold simultaneously: one is an elaborately conceived heist; the other is a terribly mismanaged bit of self-promotion. Both are enthralling tales because Jeong knows how to keep it real even when he's pretending.

December 14, 2011

Secret Love: Help! My Twin Brother Is a Sexaholic

There's something about the first half of director Ryu Hoon-i's increasingly, cumulatively fantastic Secret Love that reminds me of a Douglas Sirk film. Ryu's movie feels like a woman's picture, albeit a kind of nutty one, in which the wilting flower Yeon-yi (Yun Jin-seo) struggles to reconcile the conflicting responsibilities that come with having a recently comatose husband, named Jin-woo (Yu Ji-tae), who needs daily caretaking and hosting his twin brother Jin-ho from abroad as a houseguest, a brother who unfortunately for her is both hunky, and hyper-horny. Yu is impossibly dreamy as the sexed-up sibling so you know resistance on Yeon-yi's part is going to be futile. What you might not know is how hot it's going to get once he manhandles her in a hatchback car and literally screws her out of her depression. He's like Prozac with a tongue.

It's not the only steamy sex scene in Secret Love either. There's another quick grab-and-grope on a hospital gurney, an emotionally charged coupling in a therapeutically oversized bathtub, and a wildly raunchy romp -- knife included but discarded -- on the living room floor. (Throughout, there's the deliriously preposterous suggestion that these two guys sense each other's orgasms, even when miles apart; in fact, one brother's deeply-felt happy ending wakes the other brother from his coma!) As to whom Yeon-yi is getting it on with in each make-out scene, that may be a mystery to her by the end of the movie but despite both brothers getting identical trendy haircuts and sharing the same casual wardrobe in what turns out to be a delectably gripping noir, Secret Love is never that confusing thanks to the masterful script co-written by Ryu and Kwon Ji-yeon. Diverting but never distracting or detracting subplots include a funnily poignant, budding affair between Yeon-yi's pining mom (Lim Ye-jin) and a broad-shouldered, flirtatious priest (Jeong In-gi) and the tale of a unnamed rival soulmate (Oh Woo-jeong) who's impossibly smitten with one of the brothers. Which one she loves is also a bit of a mystery!

Impeccable casting extends from the lead roles right on down to the bit parts with enjoyably campy turns by Jin Seo as the gossipy Nurse Kang, and Sung Ji-ru as a B&B owner who loves to take pictures. No secret about this one: It's one terrific thriller! If I gave out stars, I'd give Secret Love five out of five. If I gave a thumbs up, I'd put a condom on my finger.

December 11, 2011

White: The Melody of the Curse: Girl Group Gone Dead

When Pure, the sassy, pre-fab all-girl group, kicked off White: The Melody of the Curse, I became a ridiculously excitable mess, an overeager believer who knew he'd stumbled upon one of the great films of 2011, a contemporary masterpiece of the horror genre, a fright flick combining infectious pop tunes with cleverly executed deaths, and one that -- just maybe -- traipsed out some dance moves that truly killed it, as they say. Then The Pink Dolls took the stage and I underwent a severe reality check. Dressed in frilly Bo-Peep outfits and looking as lost as that famed maiden's sheep, this followup act crashed where the other burned, and fizzled where the other dazzled. As the paid audience on-screen obediently checked their Androids and iPhones and acted bored, I did the same in real time while wondering what the hell was going on. Were the writer-director-brothers Kim (Gok and Sun) really going to put this less-compelling foursome in the spotlight? Yes, my friend, they really were! My immediate assessment would have to be retracted.

Now I get how The Pink Doll's being so awful is part of a dramatic structure that needs to show these ladies at rock bottom in order to make their rise to the top of the charts that much more thrilling but what I don't get is why they'd put the camera on a cruddy quartet when they've got another band that's bubblegum pleasure. Why can't the girls of Pure discover a cursed DVD that will catapult them to pop stardom then slam them each in their graves? And, for that matter, why can't the curse originate with the ghost of an angry composer-lyricist instead of an embittered dead singer so we won't have to hear the same hit tune time after time, backwards and forwards, and with different women taking the lead? Regardless, that's not the movie the brothers Kim have written.

As to the movie they have made, here's what works: a stylishly dyke-y manager (Byeon Jeong-su) who feels like she might be part of the initial tragedy that generated the curse; the cranky little breakdancer Sin-ji (Maydoni) whose glares suggest she might be behind all the near-fatal accidents; the brief cameo of Lee Kyu-han as an unscrupulous backer who makes the casting couch look pretty inviting; the bloody end of lead singer Eun-joo (Ham Eun-jeong) who's trampled to death by her panicked fans. The list of what doesn't work is longer so let's just say that having two bandmembers -- the pretty Je-ni (Jin Se-Yeon) and the talented Ah-rang (Choi Ah-ra) -- be friends-turned-rivals was a good idea, as was the side story involving Soon-yi (Hwang Woo-seul-hye), Eun-joo's sister who once had pop stardom dreams of her own. I'd welcome a better sequel.