December 31, 2012

The Best Korean Movies of 2012 (Sort of)

Was 2012 a great year for Korean movies? I've no idea since I haven't seen a single movie made that year yet. Was 2012 a great year for watching Korean movies? Hell, yes. Evidence below.

1. Peppermint Candy (1999): Critics raved about Lee Chang-dong's Poetry but this flashback film about a corrupt, suicidal businessman blows that later movie out of the water.

2. Woman Is the Future of Man (2006): Who doesn't love a good love triangle? Fools perhaps! Who doesn't love director Hong Sang-soo? Me until this movie actually. Now I totally do, too.

3. Night Fishing (2011): A short film without subtitles? That's right! Park Chan-wook's iPhone pic would have made this list if all it had been was the floating hat sequence with music by The UhUhBoo Project.

4. Bedevilled (2010): No top ten list of Korean movies is complete without a great fright flick. No great flight flick comes without a political message. Bedevilled is all about sisterly bonding. Not.

5. War of the Arrows (2011): Archery, certainly the trendiest of warfare weapons, is showcased to great effect in this Medieval action movie. Plenty of studded leather, too.

6. Crying Fist (2005): Now here's an anomaly: a boxing movie in which you're smitten with both contenders (Choi Min-sik, Ryu Seung-beom) -- both of them losers looking for redemption.

7. A Great Chinese Restaurant (1999): You'll have to suffer through the soundtrack but believe me, this indie dramedy is well worth the effort. Quite touching.

8. The Yellow Sea (2010): Na Hong-jin, who also directed the heart-racing thriller The Chaser, has paranoia in his DNA. Once again, the thrills here come from "Somebody's after me!" scenarios,

9. Quick (2011): Total motorcycle madness drives this movie that literally turns the premise of Speed on its head. Or on her head to be more precise.

10. My Dear Desperado (2010): Once again the Koreans defy expectations in this romantic comedy which ends up not that funny and not that romantic but pretty damned good.

Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2011.
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 30, 2012

Peppermint Candy: Off to a Sweet Start

There are certain works of art -- Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop; Thornton Wilder's Our Town; much of Shakespeare -- that somehow capture the totality of life so completely that they feel practically omniscient. Art-house darling (and mine too) Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy is one such work. Told in reverse chronology with unerring compassion and merciless honesty, this brilliantly searing movie surveys the life of Yang-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) -- a suicidal businessman who initially comes across as the universe's whipping boy -- with a scientist's methodicalness. But as Lee peels back all the layers of corruption and cynicism, self-loathing and loss that have accumulated for Yang-ho, you end up simultaneously confronted by the man's complicity and his misfortune. A person can make grave mistakes and still be worthy of our sympathy. Isn't there an unsure, hopeful, longing being existing in each and every one of us? Isn't the loss of innocence the most universal tale?

If that sounds like sentimental hogwash, take note: Lee's film is a rattling scream of anguish. I didn't cry once although I was pretty upset for most of it. Unrelenting in its intensity, Peppermint Candy keeps throwing cold water in your face the moment you start to get the warm fuzzies. Check out the seriocomic scene in the car where Yang-ho is literally performing on his cell phone for each caller or the surreally discordant marital scene that features his nude wife Hongja (Kim Yeo-jin) running around on all fours like a golem or the seemingly straightforward hospital scene in which he sweet talks his first love (Moon So-ri) while her husband stands in the background. Every time you think you've figured out what's going on, Lee gives a wrenching twist to the action that reminds you that you can NEVER really know what's going on in anyone's life, head, heart, or world.

Peppermint Candy is Lee's sophomore effort as a writer-director and like Oasis, the heartbreaking film which followed it, this movie has a magical quality that's hard to explain. Between each sequence, for instance, dreamlike footage reveals a train's journey but backwards: Nearby cars drive in reverse, people retrace their steps, a dog seems to dance to on unheard command. It's nothing you haven't seen before and yet it feels as though it is. The ability to make the familiar new may be what makes a piece of art, art anyway. Don't you think?

December 29, 2012

Invasion of Alien Bikini: Female Aliens Ought to Be Treated Better

A hot female extraterrestrial comes to Earth in search of sperm. Sound like a porno flick? Well, don't you have a dirty mind! Remember the horror flick Species? That hardly qualifies as smut but that was basically the idea. And it's the same one here with Invasion of Alien Bikini, a weird hybrid flick that's got comedy, scifi, martial arts, horror, and domestic drama as part of its movie makeup without a naked breast in site. Which doesn't mean that sex doesn't figure into the picture. It does. The alien has taken human form (Ha Eun-jung) and spends the majority of her time parading around in a black bra and panties. But her targeted sperm donor -- a volunteer community activist (Hong Young-geun) who has unwittingly rescued her from earthlings wiser to her ways -- has taken a vow of celibacy so while he too spends much time in his underwear, her attempts to stimulate him via a feather duster, some rope and an off-screen (and somewhat bloody) blowjob are all for naught. Her biological clock clicks way too loudly for his taste.

Because of that, her attempts at pre-martial sex annoy him. He's got his moral code and a fairly damaged childhood to keep him on the straight and narrow. And when she resorts to violence as a way to get him to comply, he comes right back at her... which is the problem with Invasion of Alien Bikini. Although we know she's an alien -- we have been told as much and even seen her spine pop out and try to strangle him -- she still registers as a woman so when her designated donor turns against her and starts punching her repeatedly in the face, you can't help but see it as violence against women. Try as a I might to rationalize that scene, I couldn't shake the inherent misogyny of it, which could've been solved quite easily if we'd seen the whites of her eyes turn fluorescent green or her teeth turn metallic or her hair fall off to reveal a bald head tattooed with advanced math problems.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Invasion of Alien Bikini is a bad movie. To the contrary, it's a remarkable low-budget indie that does an immense amount with very little and has super-fun performances from its two leads. But this particular misstep knocks what could've been a Grade A B-movie into the bargain bin of basement curiosities. Maybe writer-director Oh Young-doo will right the film's wrongs with his next flick. I'd watch it!

December 25, 2012

Woman Is the Future of Man: So Real It Hurts

If asked, I'd say I had a bedgrudging respect for autuer Hong Sang-soo but after re-watching Woman Is the Future of Man, I'm going to let the begrudging part go. Although I may never be able to rally around Night and Day or Woman on the Beach (too many cliches; not enough plot), I actually liked the violently jarring The Day the Pig Fell into the Well and his melancholic The Power of Kangwon Province unreservedly. Woman Is the Future of Man, I downright love. A character portrait of a trio of people, Hong's film makes you cringe and ache so often you may think you've got Tourette's, surfacing as it does the little cruelties we inflict and little pains we experience on a moment-to-moment basis when we're in the thick of it. No one is the hero. No one is the villain. No one is the antihero. Art professor Lee Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae), budding filmmaker Kim Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) and the woman they both once loved many years ago, bar manager Park Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a) are three flawed humans trying to get through life, unable to free themselves from the daily treacheries that make survival a small scale war. As such, they're constantly betraying each other and themselves so that eventually the small fortresses that they've built to protect themselves are completely smashed away. Sad? Yes. But electric, too.

You can't really pick out a specific actor as the best one here. Hong has cast astutely right down to the lady across the street from the cafe and the guy in the back of the restaurant where Lee gathers with his students for an ill-fated meal. That said, Yu's professor is a fascinating mixture of bumbling and smooth, Kim's filmmaker can't quite shed the hipster edginess that you pray one day he'll outgrow, and Park conveys a quiet bewilderment as she relives the misguided choices of youth all over again one snowy, sloppy weekend. I'd also like to give a shout out to both composer Jeong Yong-jin for his hauntingly wistful score and to Mary, the black Labrador Retriever, who has so many perfect moments as a background player that you'd award her an Equity card (deluxe edition) if animals got those types of things. In terms of film-watching, 2012 hasn't been a great year for me but Woman Is the Future of Man restores my faith in Korean movies. So thank you, Hong Sang-soo, and sorry about any slights I made to your work in the past. Next time, I'm coming in an unreserved fan.

December 24, 2012

Pulgasari: The People's Godzilla of North Korea

Looking somewhat like the love child of a minotaur and a dinosaur, Pulgasari is not you're typical, everyday movie monster. Molded from rice by a wrongly imprisoned blacksmith (Ri Gwon) then brought to life by a droplet of blood shed by his industrious daughter (Chang Son Hui), the North Korean cousin of Godzilla is literally "of the people, for the people, by the people." After quickly growing from cute-and-squeaky squeeze toy to a growling, towering creature thanks to a diet of stick pins and swords, he becomes the mascot and war machine for a village of farmers fighting the royal army which wants to take all their tools, pots and pans and turn them into weapons. Naturally, the king (Pak Yong-hok) and his cohorts try everything they can to bring Pulgasari down -- a cage of fire, rockets to the eyeballs, a hailstorm of stones, a cannon shaped like a lion, even sorcery -- but the big man in the rubber suit will not be stopped from fighting the good fight alongside Inde (Ham Gi-sop), the bare-chested leader of the rebellion against the greedy government. And yes, you do get to see Pulgasari smash a few buildings along the way.

There's an interesting back story behind Pulgasari, too, as it's one of the movies-in-exile directed by Shin Sang-ok, the South Korean director, who along with his ex-wife/actress Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il -- the same Kim Jong-il who went on to become President of North Korea -- in an effort to strengthen his country's film industry. As producer of Pulgasari, Kim's efforts didn't stop with getting a famous expatriate director either. He also hired Japan's Toho Studio to help with special effects and had none other than Kenpachiro Satsuma, a Japanese performer who'd previously costumed up for Godzilla and other Kaiju monsters in his homeland, to play the title role.

Intended as a polemic against capitalism, Pulgasari occasionally feels as though it's criticizing any totalitarian regime, which is ironic given Kim's role as executive producer. Even so this 1985 propaganda flick never screened outside the two Koreas until 1998 when it was finally shown in Japan. If you're looking for more of the late Kim's work as a film producer, check out The Schoolgirl's Diary, which -- like Pulgasari -- is currently available on YouTube of all places. You might not like his record as a "supreme leader" but as movie execs go, he's not half bad.

December 23, 2012

The Cat: Creatues With Nine Lives Battle Humans With One

Here pussy, pussy. Here pussy, pussy. We may never agree on which house pet is smarter, the dog or the cat, but one thing we probably can all agree on is that cat owners more consistently cater to the needs and wants of their four-legged friends. Think how rare it is to hear a dog owner say, "I give him wet food because he just won't eat dry." Or how much stranger it would be to hear of a tabby that's been regularly beaten, trained to kill, and can only be controlled with an electronic collar. There may be lapdogs treated like princesses but even so, they're part of a broader spectrum in terms of care. Which is what makes a movie in which cats figure as enactors of revenge for man's mistreatment of animals so damned creepy. Dogs have every right to bear a grudge but cats... When did we ever do anything but treat them like royalty!

In writer-director Byeon Seung-wook's fright flick The Cat, pet groomer So-yeon (Park Min-young) is what you might call a quiet animal rights activist. She doesn't carry a poster or bullhorn but she will softly correct a woman for coloring a cat's fur pink or chastise her best friend Bo-hee (Sin Da-eun) for adopting Dimwit, a stray chinchilla, simply to improve pet grooming skills. That So-yeon doesn't own a cat herself seems strange but when her high school crush Jun-seok (Kim Dong-wook) who's now a cop asks her to take care of one white Persian named Silky, she doesn't hesitate to bring the feline to the pet store where she works and then eventually home. Neither place turns out to be a good idea because this cat likes the taste of blood, and not just the type that comes trickling out of an accidentally cut finger. This cat is out for the blood of anyone who's mistreated cats, and she's not alone. Soon other cats are making appearances, gathering in cat gangs, and at one point, attacking one particular jerk as a group. (Yes, it does look a bit silly.)

No cats were harmed in the making of The Cat and that's as it should be. If they were, spooky little ghost girl Hee-jin (Kim Ye-ron) would certainly exact vengeance on their behalf. Given her cat eyes and cat claws, she's practically a member of their species even as she's got her own grievances to settle. Finding out what they are is the only way that So-yeon can stop these crazy cats from making mincemeat of humanity. And while she's at it, So-yeon's going to tackle her crippling claustrophobia, too!

December 21, 2012

Little Black Dress: Four Soulless Bitches Want to Be Famous

Writer-director Heo In-mu's chick flick Little Black Dress has two characters worthy of screen time: Yeong-mi (Choi Yoon-young) a needy, aspiring screenwriter who wonders if her failure to get her ideas heard or to secure a promotion despite years of devotion is all because she just isn't that pretty. Her attempts to befriend the prize-winning new staff-member Yoo-min (Yun Eun-hye) don't get very far and even on her most suicidal day, she can't get much of a kind word from the colleague she so badly idolizes. The other fascinating character doesn't even have a name. She's simply a writer, who I assume is working on a soap opera. Broadly played by Jeon Soo-kyeong, this woman parades across the old screen like old Hollywood, milking not-so-hot one-liners for all they're worth, and generally making everyone else on screen look very community theater. That she also shows a sensitive side later on isn't a relief. It's a verification that you can paint with broad strokes without having to forego smaller touches when they're called for. Either of these women could have led to interesting stories but neither is primary role. Sadder still, they never have a scene with each other. For reasons that will dumbfound most viewers, Heo instead keeps her camera on four other, very less richly drawn ingenues, a quarter of narcissistic, hard-hearted gorgons who can imagine no fate worse than seeing a friend succeed and ending up in the shadow.

A certain poetic justice exists in having the one who appears the least talented -- the beauty of the bunch, Hye-ji -- land her fortune as a Levi's jeans model discovered at a nightclub. But even so, that little concession to the ironies of life, is unlikly to make you warm up to the soulless scribe Yoo-min, the wooden artiste living in poverty Soo-jin (Cha ye-ryeon) or the rich girl with a thing for underage boys Min-hee (Yoo In-na). Each character is hatable in her own way and whether Heo wrote Little Black Dress as a way to wreak revenge on former colleagues in her drama department or because she doesn't see just how monstrous these egomaniacs are is anyone's guess. There's a misplaced affection for the four girlfriends that definitely points to the second conjecture. For the love of God, I hope I'm wrong. No one that shallow is lovable. (Which means you'd never blame self-centered Lee Yong-woo for cheating on Yoo-min. You'd praise him. Only pain could help these four women mature if they ever do at all.)

December 13, 2012

Parallel Life: Tracking Down Your Own Killer

Recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Kim Seok-hyeon (Ji Jin-hee) has a real dilemma on his hands. He's living a life that's the mirror image of one that took place 30 years ago and which ended in a series of murders. If he has any doubts, soon enough, Kim's slutty wife (Yoon Sae-ah) will be dead (just like his alter ego's). Now it's just a matter of time before he and his child (Park Sa-rang) are six feet under as well. What can he do? He can visit the institutionalized professor (Oh Hyeon-kyeong) who wrote the definitive text on parallel lives but what will he gain? Further proof that he's going to die! He can finally listen to the nice lady reporter (Oh Ji-eun) who feeds his growing obsession that his personal history is repeating itself much in the same way that John F. Kennedy's life did Abraham Lincoln's. Same birthday, same month and date of something else important... All these matches can't be coincidental. So what does the lady reporter get? An early grave. Then again she must have seen that one coming.

Ultimately, that's the problem with director Kweon Ho-young's Parallel Life. You don't really have a sense of suspense because you never really doubt that Kim's going to die or that the parallel theory is anything but real. Even with the potential conspiracies and salacious rumors floating around about unethical judges, dirty cops and adulterous affairs, Parallel Life isn't a thriller because you're never on the edge of your seat. Maybe it's more like a muted scifi, a film that posits an alternate reality that may or may not be this one, and which sees the little details -- like exactly how someone dies, even a second time -- as the only stuff that matters. But for that to be true, you'd really have to like the characters, and while I did have a soft spot for Uncle Jung (Park Byeong-eun), I wasn't that into Prosecutor Lee (Lee Jong-hyeok) or any of the side stories (which according to the professor's mad scribblings of math formulas on the cement wall of the interrogation room have already happened 30 years ago, too).

December 11, 2012

My Way: A Man With a Story; A Man Without a Film

Yang Kyoungyjong led an interesting life to be sure. A Korean conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army at 18 years of age, he then became a Soviet prisoner of war forced to fight for the USSR's Red Army until his troop was defeated by the Germans who in turn enlisted him as a Wehrmacht soldier until the Americans overthrew the Nazis and he was imprisoned in a British POW camp under the mistaken belief that he was a Japanese soldier in German uniform. Eventually his actual identity was revealed and supposedly, he ended up living the rest of his days in the USA. A fascinating tale certainly worthy of a stunning biopic. Which brings us to Kang Je-kyu's My Way.

Unsatisfied with a tragic Everyman, Kang needlessly complicates this strange bit of history by transforming Yang, a John Doe of practically Brechtian proportions, into Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun), a destitute rickshaw-driver/closet-marathoner who is at once the rightful heir of real-life Olympian Sohn Kee-chung and a rival to Japanese long-distance runner Tatsuo Hasegawa (Jo Odagiri) who ends up being Kim's commanding officer in the Japanese Army, his fellow POW in Russia, and his best buddy in the German barracks (which apparently come equipped with a staff beautician: Everyone looks smashing!). Why Kang scraps Kim's one-of-a-kind biography for a bromantic parable about an oppressor who learns to love the man he once subjugated suggests a very different kind of racism: How else to interpret the angelic choir that accompanies representatives of Japan and Korea finally united in Nazi uniform while fleeing the American troops? Better An earlier chapter in the film finds Kim falling for Shirai (Fan Bingbing), a sexy Chinese sharpshooter so skilled she can take out a warplane with a single shot but once she's dead, his heart belongs only to Hasegawa. Eventually, his identity does, too. Somehow I bet Yang Kyoungjong would hate to see a movie that credited his life's final triumphs to a Japanese man pretending to be him. There's gotta be a better way, Kang Je-kyu.

December 6, 2012

Blossom Again: He Broke Her Heart in Three Separate Pieces

I can buy the idea of Joh In-yeong (Kim Jeong-eun), a dissatisfied, confused 30-year-old woman falling in love with Lee-suk (Lee Tae-sung), her 17-year-old, possibly learning-disabled student who looks exactly like her first boyfriend who bizarrely happens to have had the same name. What I don't and won't buy is that there's also a teenaged girl named Joh In-yeong (Jeong Yu-mi) who is also in love with this Lee-suk lookalike who is also the identical twin of a guy named Lee-soo who just happens to be the first love of the younger In-yeong who now also is head over heels for the replacement. Lee-suk is king of the sloppy seconds! It isn't as confusing as it sounds. But it is as preposterous as it sounds. With all the repetitions of an Escher drawing but with none of the complexities, writer-director Jung Ji-woo's exasperating Blossom Again (a.k.a. Close to You a.k.a. Teacher's Pet a.k.a. Wisdom Tooth) is way too forcefully fanciful to be enjoyed as a tragic romance or a time-travel tragedy or a puzzle of perversion or a plain old piece of cinematic art.

When an original, now older Lee-suk (Kim Joon-seong) enters the picture, you're left with no option but to follow the lead of the old In-yeong's still-around boyfriend Jang-woo (Kim Yeong-jae) who can just grin and bear anything. Just how much Jang-woo is willing to smile through is kind of amazing. In-yeong says she still loves her very first boyfriend? Grin and bear it. In-yeong says she's got a crush on her underaged student? Grin and bear it. In-yeong comes home after screwing said student? Grin and bear it. In-yeong says she wants the apartment to herself so she can entertain said student alone Saturday night? Grin and bear it. Although in that last case, the grin is now kind of a grimace and Jang-woo sabotages In-yeong's twisted fantasy by bringing the old Lee-suk over for food and wine. Why Jang-woo loves In-yeong (and why either Lee-suk does too for that matter) is a contrivance that's even less believable than all the endless coincidences. Take another page from Jang-woo's book of behavior and permanently delete this movie from your brain. He used the index finger and thumb. I use the middle finger.

December 2, 2012

Lovers' Concerto: This Love Triangle Works Every Angle

Before it spins off into a cuckoo weepie of the three hanky variety, Lee Han's Lovers' Concerto is actually a damned good romance, and I'm speaking as one who isn't a fan of that particular genre. But this periodically sweet, youthfully true, emotionally complex love story about three directionless friends just out of high school -- one boy named Ji-hwan (Cha Tae-hyu) and two girls, Su-in (Son Ye-jin) and Kyeong-hee (Lee Eun-ju) -- conveys a certain freshness (in both senses of the word) by constantly shifting who is pining after whom, even as they're all constantly falling in love with each other all over again. So while Ji-hwan claims love at first sight for Su-in, you can immediately see that Kyeong-hee is just as quickly smitten with him. Soon thereafter, Su-in warms up to Ji-hwan even as Ji-hwan is fast realizing that Kyeong-hee has her unique charms. Even Su-in and Kyeong-hee have special feelings for each other. In a way, you kind of wish they'd all have an orgy sanctified by the state. Without question, Lovers' Concerto has an overabundance of passion that reminds you what it was like to give of yourself without getting too caught up in the caution that comes after your first real breakup, your first real betrayal and your first disillusionment. Each characters in Lovers' Concerto is untried when it comes to amor so while they may be nervous about taking a leap, they're not bitter. That two of them are suffering from unnamed but fatal diseases is just tragic icing on the cake.

Did the cake need the icing though? I'm not so sure. I saw a few possible endings that weren't so treacly but Lee is clearly committed into making the audience feel a varieties of bittersweet pain, and since he pulls off most of them, I, for one, will forgive him the film's minor failures. A secondary plot involving Ji-hwan's younger sister (Moon Geun-young) and her crush -- the handsome guy (Kim Nam-jin) who works at the bookstore -- somehow feels organic to the whole. It's nice to have some moments to breathe between all that heaving by the exquisitely fraught threesome that is Lovers' Concerto.

November 23, 2012

A Smile: Eyesight's Sore Loser

As disease-of-the-week movies go, A Smile is oddly uninformative about its spotlit illness: retinitis pigmentosa. This currently incurable degenerative eye disease can cause a short list of intermediary symptoms -- ranging from night blindness to color separation issues to blurring to tiredness -- before the dreaded darkness sets in. Yet aside from some early mentions of tunnel vision and the occasional bumping into objects like a tripod or a low table, photographer So-jung's (Choo Sang-mi) primary side-effect appears to be depression. Her soul is suffering more than her sight and her symptoms feel more psychological than physical. When she informs us her situation is getting worse, you can't help but think: Girlfriend, your biggest problem isn't retinitis, it's you!

Unable to reconcile herself to the possibility of going blind, she ends a relationship with her really sweet boyfriend Ji-seok (Song Il-gon), mopes around her grandmother's funeral without telling anyone else in her family of her recent diagnosis, and sells nearly all her cameras and equipment to run away and take flying lessons from a drunk aviator in the middle of nowhere. At no time do we see her exploring treatment options (admittedly limited) or tracking down her father's side of the family (the disease is genetic). It appears a part of So-jung saw doom forecast and then just ran with it.

I wasn't sure whether writer-director Park Kyung-hee wanted us to feel she was bold or batty when she decided to throw her life away so she could learn to fly but I definitely fell into the latter camp. So-jung's longing to get free of the earth and see the world from a new perspective may have some poetic cache but as an element in a hyper-realistic drama, she comes across as incredibly irresponsible and egocentric. Will she ever take to the skies? If she does, will she crash? If she crashes, will she die? If she dies, will she see again? If she does, will she meet the smiling Buddha which was one of the last things she photographed? And if he does, will the Buddha smile? I wouldn't.

November 22, 2012

Bedevilled: Friendship Is a Bloody Mess

I suppose, you could call Bedevilled a horror movie since in its bloodiest, climactic section, you do find a crazed yet determined woman killing just about everyone in sight. But the real horrors in Jang Chul-soo's gritty little gem aren't the murders -- which in truth are disturbingly satisfying -- but the abuse suffered by the film's ingratiating protagonist, a good-natured naif named Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hie) who's become a kind of pathetic joke to neighbors and family. Her husband (Park Jeong-hak) beats her. Her mother-in-law (Baek Soo-ryeon) ridicules her. The town aunties belittle her without mercy. As you see her abused by nearly every person on the remote island on which she lives, you can't wait 'til they in turn get their comeuppance. Which they do in chilling fashion.

But what makes Bedeviled such a great pic isn't its story of righteous vengeance but a sub-plot of devotion and betrayal involving Hae-won (Ji Seong-won), a childhood friend who escaped from the island and who has returned as a completely self-absorbed, big city sophisticate. It's Hae-won we meet first, not Bok-nam, and in a weird way Bedevilled is her story of transformation, too as a truly discomforting tension exists between these two women, a tension extending beyond their suppressed lesbian attraction to the much more commonplace push-and-pull that happens when a needful friend is desperately searching for help while the self-sufficient one is committed to not getting involved. Hae-won's self-justified detachment becomes both Bok-nam's undoing and her liberation. With no one to turn to and overcome by relentless misery, she lashes out and thereby turns Bedevilled into a kind of feel-bad chick flick in which the dangers of not subscribing to the sisterhood are revealed in gory detail. Whether you're an old lady championing the patriarchy or an old friend who can't be bothered, Bok-nam has no sympathy for you. Like any respectable fright flick, Bedevilled is ultimately a political allegory, in this case a cautionary feminist tale that encourages the manicured hand to reach out to the rough-skinned one with dirt under the nails. Hear the message as you scream.

November 14, 2012

The Ring Virus: Here's the Version You Haven't Heard About

If a movie's cultural relevance could be calculated by the number of sequels and copycats it spawned, then surely Japanese fanboy fright flick Ringu would count as globally significant since it's inspired not just two sequels and a prequel in its native country but also a popular American remake (which in turn has its own Part 2) and a Korean spin-off. Given that worldwide impact, you'd be asking a lot of the transnational versions if you expected any of them to achieve the same level of notoriety. Never heard of The Ring Virus, the Korean variation? Well, that's not because it's bad. It's because it came out a mere year after the original and shifted the stylistic frame from horror to supernatural detective story. Think serviceable more than sensational.

So while you've still got the videotape that kills you a week after you watch it and a pissed off female spirit (Bae Doona) who hides behind long black hair even when she's crawling out of a television to shock you to death, the central quest of one potential victim hoping to break the video's fatal curse before it snuffs her entails less screaming and more forehead wrinkling this time. This is a mystery after all. So when her niece dies from a premature heart attack and Sun-ju (Shin Eun-kyung) senses something's amiss, she's sniffing out a story, not a dead body per se. A closet newshound, she applies her admittedly undeveloped investigative skills -- to date, she's been working on art exhibits, not breaking news -- to unearth the cause of her relative's death. Out of her league, she enlists the help of offbeat forensic doctor Choi Yeol (Jeong Jin-yeong) and together they search, worry, ponder, get goosebumps, take a boat, and obsess over details neither can decode nor piece together. (The only puzzle that actually comes together in The Ring Virus is the jigsaw on Choi's floor.) Although he's ostensibly the sidekick, Choi is the more interesting character -- a cold-blooded man of science who sees this chase after death as a temporary respite from existential ennui. Writer-director Kim Dong-bin believes, dying is better than boredom. That's a sentiment with which I agree.

November 11, 2012

Repechage: No One Else Is Into Either of You So Get Together Already

A sweet-natured nerd (Jang Dong-gun) in a blue oxford shirt and dress pants is mindlessly walking down the sidewalk when a fiery knockout (Kim Hee-seon) in dark sunglasses, fishnet stockings and a leather jacket pulls over in her convertible and offers him a ride. How lucky is he? Before you answer that, take into account she's wearing a red pleather jacket and driving a canary yellow convertible. If that doesn't bother you too much, then check out the photographs she's just handed him of his fiancee (Kim Shi-won) making out with her boyfriend (Lee Jin-wu). Suddenly, the cliched male fantasy that opens Lee Kwang-hoon's Repechage is officially null and void. And what kind of fantasy was it really? I mean, he had a sexy fiancee already! Why did he get into this strange woman's car?

We'll never know because for the next 80 minutes, we're instead subjected to one of the slowest realization processes committed to celluloid. As we watch the two rejecting exes in the photos make out then dine out then take a mini-vacation together, we also see the two people they've dumped trying to figure out what could it all possibly mean? Neither the nerd (a veterinarian who likes to inject animals with anesthetic) nor the babe (a photographer who shoots everything from bathing suits to weddings) can comprehend that their former soul mates have moved on and that reconciliation will not be an option. Because they're slow learners, we sit impatiently waiting for them to figure out that the love of their lives is the fellow rejectee. Given how stupid these two are, you just hope they stay married forever (to save the rest of us from getting stuck with one of them) and never have babies (to save the world from their less-than-brilliant genetic pool).

The best thing to say about Repechage is it taught me a new word, which means "a last chance round for eliminated contestants to make the finals." I doubt I'll remember that. I doubt I'll remember this either.

October 28, 2012

A Great Chinese Restaurant: Don't Expect a Sequel to Le Gran Chef

I don't know how I got it into my head that Kim Ui-seok's A Great Chinese Restaurant (which I'd initially seen referred to as The Great Chef: Peking Restaurant) was a sequel to Chong Yun-su's Le Gran Chef, one of the funniest Korean comedies I've ever seen. The title is similar but not truly derivative. The movie itself was actually made eight years earlier than the one I thought it followed. Be that as it may, I was pretty excited to see the imagined followup. What I saw instead was a truly endearing little indie picture about a failing Chinese restaurant that finds a second life shortly after its owner (the wonderful Shin Goo) has a stroke thereby forcing the staff to draw upon its own resources to drum up business again.

The flailing restaurant's recovery is largely due to the arrival of Yang Han-kook (Kim Seok-hun), the son of the owner's childhood friend, a friend who disappeared many years ago after borrowing a lot of money and a butcher knife. Yang wants to repay his father's debt -- not with money but with the discovery of an irresistibly tasting recipe for a spicy noodle dish. If he can do this, he'll fulfill his father's childhood pact with the owner to establish a little eatery that qualifies as the best Chinese restaurant in town. With gently naturalistic performances from quite a few actors early in their careers -- Jeong Jun as the klutzy prep cook, Myeong Se-bin as the owner's independent daughter, A Great Chinese Restaurant is, in reality, the perfect companion piece to Le Gran Chef, because it revisits the same themes -- the comedy of competition, the poignancy of familial devotion, even the cooperative nature of the kitchen -- on a smaller scale. This is a chamber movie for foodies, a sentimental dramedy about pursuing the impossible, a feel-good flick about male bonding and the importance of not taking shortcuts.

The only things that keep this film from being a mini-masterpiece are the grating soundtrack and the unappetizing closeups of the various dishes. This film won't make you crave Chinese food. Why should it? It's Korean!

October 21, 2012

4 Toes: Comedy on the Fly

You get the feeling that writer-director Gye Yun-shik neither wrote for nor directed the actors in his jopok comedy 4 Toes but rather that he set up a couple of cameras then threw out spur-of-the-moment ideas for improvisation until he'd amassed enough material -- at least in terms of footage -- to cobble together a feature film. To that end, you've got skits about blood type, about a car's CD player, about a car accident with your buddy, about a mythical golden axe... You've also got skits based on locations, like a nightclub, a parking lot, a photo portrait studio, and a sauna which means for this big fight half the guys are naked, although never full-frontally so. Most scenes are super-short. Nothing really adds up. Nothing really goes anywhere either. There's no larger vision at work here outside of the desire to make a movie fast and cheap with some friends. And actually, it's a technique that could work but you'd have to have luck on your side and some actors who were a bit more naturally funny.

Fortune isn't smiling on Gye, however, or his four male leads, all of whom feel too old to be playing high school students in some scenes and too goofy to be gangsters in others. And yet, as ineffective as 4 Toes is, and as lazy as the script is (there's so much voiceover you'd think Gye was filming a novelization), I still appreciated the ballsiness of the undertaking. The willingness to risk, though it didn't pay off here, certainly explains why some members of the cast have gone on to much more successful comedies: Jeong Eun-pyo (Le Grand Chef), Kim Kap-su (She's on Duty), Lee Won-jong (200 Pounds of Beauty). Which suggests to me that sometimes there's something to be said for just practicing your craft in public or on celluloid or in this case what looks like digital video; and that there's no shame in having a little egg on your face if you're aiming to eventually get a part in an enjoyably frivolous movie that's light as a souffle. Even Gye went on to greater success: My Wife Is a Gangster 3 may not be a work of genius but it's a threequel in a fairly big film franchise.

October 19, 2012

The Front Line: Breaking All the Rules for a Pyrrhic Victory

Everything's fair in love and war. That's certainly an extremist point of view. It's also an idea which the war pic Jang Hun's The Front Line has made its underlying principal minus the love part. Within the context of war, no action is considered unacceptable -- not shooting a squadron of your own men, not using an injured, baby-faced soldier (Lee Da-wit) as bait to catch a sniper, not transporting messages from the enemies to their friends just for some chocolate or a bottle of wine, not letting an assassin (Kim Ok-bin) go because she's a woman. Whenever this status quo is challenged, a shouting match may ensue between the crafty officer (Go Soo) with the unappetizing tactic and the upstanding, undercover agent (Shin Ha-kyun) who everyone knows is undercover. No matter how heinous the suggestion put forth by the diabolical soldier, he is the one who is going to get the support of the troops. Morality, evidently, is antithetical to the battleground.

It doesn't end there either. When the fat captain (Jo Jin-woong) who's been giving lousy orders for the entire film finally goes too far endangering the men you can shoot him and take over. When the command from above is to defend at all costs, you can flee. When your best friend is revealed to be a complete traitor, you can forgive pretty quickly. You can even shout hurtful things to little girls with missing limbs without losing the respect of most of your fellow comrades. It's stress-related behavior, I guess.

I'm not sure why Korea chose to put this movie in contention for an Academy Award -- it didn't make the short list. The story isn't just anti-war, it's anti-person. And as war movies go, the battles recall video games in that you can see the objective (climb the hill) or go into a monochromatic environment (explore the tunnel) as the casualties roll by and the landmines explode like so many special effects graphics intended to enliven your faux world as the story/adventure pushes forward. The snag is that there isn't a character here who I'd want to play. I want my token back.

October 14, 2012

The Yellow Sea: If You Can Cut With It, You Can Kill With It

In The Yellow Sea, Yanji* cab-driver Ga-num (Ha Jung-woo) isn't your typical anti-hero. A gambler whose debts have driven him to agree to kill a professor (Kwak Byeong-gyoo) in Seoul, he's short on charm and lacks a moral code, however warped. Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok), the crime boss who enlists his services, comes across as more likeable and laudable. At least initially. But after the targeted prof has been offed, everything's become so horrific — the planned assassination has domino-ed into mass murder — that Ga-num emerges as the sympathetic guy. (It's hard not to feel for a guy who got played.) Framed and uninformed, he's left to fend off Myun-ga's gang, the cops, and the thugs of Kim Tae-won (Cho Seong-ha), Myun-ga's slimy white collar counterpoint.

Na Hong-jin, who also directed the heart-racing thriller The Chaser, must have paranoia in his DNA. Once again, the thrills in The Yellow Sea come from "Somebody's after me!" scenarios; yet again the action is all pursuit/escape. As Ga-num flees Myun-ga, Kim and the cops, Kim flees and pursues Myun-ga, and Myun-ga chases and chases and chases. Many of the face-offs when someone finally catches up to someone else involve men with big kitchen knives or just-as-lethal axes hacking, stabbing, and sometimes even sawing into unlucky bodies. Many die quickly, dramatically. But the three main guys — Ga-num, Myun-ga, and Kim — bleed and survive, stopping only for the time it takes to fashion a tourniquet.

Their collective rapid recoveries push The Yellow Sea into comic book territory, where men bludgeon others with pots and pans and even the occasional animal thigh bone. Where else can a man with a twisted ankle outrun police cars and a whole squad of officers on foot? Since the superhuman powers aren't restricted to the movie's hero, fights are fair among the main three: Anyone could win. Whether anyone actually does or not is a question to answer over the many excited drinks sure to follow.

*Footnote: Yanji is a Chinese city with a predominantly Korean population.

October 11, 2012

Just Do It!: Accidentally Not Funny

You never learn precisely why the Jeong family has gone broke in Park Dae-yeong's very unfunny comedy Just Do It!, but after watching about fifteen minutes you can assume it isn't a case of bad luck. It's probably just that the Jeongs are morons. A chance accident, that occurs when the drunken dad (An Seok-hwan) leaves a food tent and gets knocked over by a car -- He was standing behind it pissing on its license plate -- also lands the poor patriarch in the hospital where he reaps unexpected cash from a forgotten insurance policy. This sudden influx of money inspires the rest of the family to pursue near-fatal accidents as a way to collect some more dough and quite quickly move their way up in society. No slums for these bums!

Son Dae-cheol (Jeong Jun) taunts some soldiers into beating him senseless at a bar; daughter Jang-mi (Park Jin-hie) breaks her finger in a bowling ball; and mom (Song Wok-suk) strategically topples a tower of boxes holding wine so that she ends up beneath them. Bones are broken, eyes are lost, hips are dislocated. Each misfortune is greeted with glee as the family gains financially. Is it funny? No. Is it clever? No. Is it worth watching? No. Did I watch it to the end anyway? Yes. Why? Well, I just did it. For you, I would say, "Just don't do it."

As stupid comedies go, Just Do It! gets the stupid part right but not the comedy. After the initial setup is exhausted, an insurance agent (Park Sang-myeon) suspects the family of fraud. Rather than mine the yuks from his attempts to catch them hurting themselves, the movie stages a simple piece of poor sexually misleading slapstick that entraps the equally dumb agent into marrying the feather-brained daughter. A completely contrived final act finds the family tracking down a distant relative (Lee Beom-su perhaps at his weirdest) who they plan on murdering so they can collect a million dollars on his policy. For awhile he proves unkillable. But only for awhile. Eventually, the movie mercifully ends. If you want to spend some time staring at your television and not really feeling anything, this is your movie.

October 6, 2012

Kilimanjaro: A Plot as Thin as Mountain Air

There's a point midway in writer-director-nincompoop Oh Seung-ook's Kilimanjaro when one character says to another, "See you in a better world." Probably, right after that shot, the actor uttering this bit of dialogue said to his co-star, "See you in a better film," too. A convoluted mess about the disaster set off when one shamed cop named Hae-shik (Park Shin-yang) decides to impersonate his twin brother Hae-chol, an unsuccessful gangster whom he disowned right up to until witnessing his forsaken sibling's unexplained suicide, Kilimanjaro requires a second viewing to make sense of because the flashbacks always leave you unsure just which brother you're seeing on screen at any given time. Since I have neither the patience nor the inclination to sit through this film again, this review may contain some inaccuracies. I'm okay with that.

Even with these misgivings, I feel confident stating ex post facto that lead character Hae-chol/Hae-shik shouldn't be so cocky when it comes to challenging the local crime boss Jong (Kim Seung-cheol) and he should be a heck of a lot more appreciative towards his repeated savior and fellow crook Beong (Ahn Sung-kee) who, oddly enough, treats him like a brother. I also know Hae-chol and Beong have two other partners-in-crime — "Sergeant" (Jeong Eun-pyo) and "Evangelist" (Choi Seon-jung) — with whom they've bonded by being photographed shirtless on the beach many years ago. As to the rivalry between Jong's gang and Beong's, the terrible thing that Hae-chol once did that now so pisses off Jong, the reason why Hae-shik got dismissed from the police force, even the reason why Beong got married, all of these things are conveyed as significant facts that the movie keeps inexplicably veiled in mystery. Lucid Kiliminjaro is not.

Despite the confusion, Kiliminjaro culminates in a satisfyingly bloody gunfight that puts all the good guys and bad guys in one shabby room with a bunch of guns that no one seems to know how to operate. You might not know why everyone's out to kill each other but you don't question the motives either. Sometimes people just piss you off and you wish they were dead.

September 24, 2012

The Schoolgirl's Diary: Being This Good Feels Just Awful

There's something discomforting about The Schoolgirl's Diary because it seems to be talking not just about one teenaged girl's struggle with poverty but about that struggle within a whole nation. The impoverished reality of living in a house where the doors fall down if you lean on them and faulty electrical outlets burst into flame doesn't feel like a portrait of the lower classes in North Korea. It just feels like plain old North Korea. Your heart goes out to Su-ryeon (Pak Mi-hyang) because she's struggling for a better life. Yes, and that's just as director Jang In-hak intended. But you also feel for Su-ryeon because you're not so sure that a better life is out there waiting for her. After all, you see her father (Kim Cheol) thanklessly toiling away at a factory for the greater good with only his wife (Kim Yeong-suk) according him any respect. As to mom herself, she's a martyr who's been diagnosed with a cancer that you doubt her socialized medicine will be able to cure. Su-ryeon's sister Su-ok (Kim Jin-mi) is the only happy member of the family. And where will her soccer skills take her? The North Korean women's team has been banned from the World Cup in 2015 for doping; the best the team has ever done is the World Cup quarterfinals in 2007. (Other years, it's been banned, didn't qualify or didn't enter.)

Amid this dreariness, Su-ryeon's pursuit of a better life is achingly optimistic if you can even say she's looking for a better life at all. Any personal goal eventually becomes so subordinate to the needs of the community that dreaming of better days can only mean dreaming of a better world...for everyone. In some ways, The Schoolgirl's Diary's selflessness stands in direct contrast to the egotism that reigns supreme in American pop culture today. Try to name a movie that depicts the nobility of good for goodness' sake without being framed as a satire and you're left drawing a blank. Far be it from me to wish for a stoic life in which luxury translates as potato taffy and warm soy milk is the reward for a hard day's work. Distasteful as it feels, the humility underlying The Schoolgirl's Diary is admirable. Now if only it weren't so depressing. Two red thumbs up for this one, my comrades.

September 16, 2012

Searching for the Elephant: One's Crazy, One's Horny and One's Non-Descript

Actor Lee Sang-woo needs to get a new agent. In Jhung S.K.'s Searching for the Elephant (a lopsided portrait of the tawdry affluence experienced by three childhood friends who never really grow up), Lee's saddled with a role so uninteresting that you wonder why he's in the movie at all. Compared to his co-star Jang Hyuk's schizophrenic who hallucinates hacked off fingers and photographs that reassemble in the shape of an elephant's head, and Jo Dong-hyeok's narcissistic plastic surgeon who can't stop screwing his patients because of his addiction to sex, Lee's part appears to be not so much a normal guy as a bland one. A financier with a mysterious history -- he disappeared for twelve years for reasons unknown -- Lee's businessman has invested in many money-making schemes but forgot to spend a little energy on a meaningful personality.

Maybe Lee's agent is prudish. Because the only other thing that distinguishes his character is the absence of screen time for his ass. Jang gives us two nice shots of his rear (one in the shower; the other, getting out of a pool); Jo can't help but share his bare bottom via a number of passionate sex scenes. The raunchiest Lee gets is sucking a paramour's toe while hidden, from the shoulders down, beneath a tubful of soap suds. Murder ensues because this paramour (Lee Min-jung) happens to be the wife of Jo's character and the sister of Jang's.

Who gets killed how eventually proves a bit farfetched, although what's bothersome about Searching for Elephants aren't the unanswered questions, it's the unrequested answers. Why do we need to learn the back story of Lee's renegade psychiatrist Dr. Jang (Hwang Woo-seul-hye)? Why do we have to watch antiqued footage of the three kids at the fair? Why can't Jin-hyeok exist in the Korean police's computer database? Each of these plot points suggest that the three screenwriters were getting paid by the minute (which would also explain the 2 1/2 hours running time).

Side Note: Time Warner Cable has Searching for the Elephant listed as Penthouse Playboys. Don't be tricked by the title. Neither movie is worth $5 via Movies on Demand.

September 8, 2012

Beasties Boys: Boy Hookers, Girl Hookers and Not a Lot of Romance

Prostitution is a messy affair and prostitutes in love are even messier. So while you might think Yun Jong-bin's Beastie Boys (a.k.a. The Moonlight of Seoul) is going to be a salacious bit of peekaboo concerning as it does Seung-woo (Yun Gye-sang), the rookie gigolo who falls in love with experienced call girl Ji-won (Yun Jin-seo), while he's working at a host bar pouring drinks out to cougars, this depressing drama serves up a lot more domestic anguish than it does backroom titillation. That's because director Yun is super-aware that professional seduction is the art of the con and that if you make a living out of a certain type of behavior then that same behavior is going to spill over into all other parts of your life.

So since Ji-won makes a living lying to men (and laying men), her being a scam artist too is inevitable because she can't help thinking of a better deal, a better setup, a richer life, a quicker fix. It's all part of her daily thinking. Jae-hyeon (Ha Jung-woo), Seung-woo's mentor, has been in the business even longer and he takes the compulsiveness even further — gambling, double-dealing, cheating, and extorting self-righteously without even a trace of guilt. Get tangled up with one of these warper sex-workers, as Seung-woo's sister Han-byeol (Lee Seung-min) does, and you're going to end up fleeced and heartbroken.

But Beastie Boys' descent into degradation and despair isn't as straightforward as this might suggest. On screen the story plays out as first as a rocky bromance alongside a sweetly unlikely romance. When things fall apart, as they tend to do in social realist dramas, all alliances are off. And it's not just every man and woman for his or her self, it's also "vengeance is mine." Since no one has been dealt a fair hand in life, these characters are out to win at all costs, and if not win then get into a different game, and if not that then make sure the competition is wiped out and that justice is served, no matter how much it hurts. This is a world in which the conscience has been devalued, which also means that guilt is scarily absent. Not a great film, Beastie Boys falls into that category of not-half-bad movies that periodically seize your attention with unexpected force.

September 1, 2012

Unbowed: Math Professor's Case Doesn't Add Up in Court

Jeong Ji-yeong's courtroom drama Unbowed starts off about the defense attorney, shifts to being about the defendant then ends up not being about anyone. What we learn about the lawyer (Park Won-sang) is that he's an alcoholic with a bumpy marriage, a flirty nature, and a strained relationship with his co-workers. He's not particularly likable. (Blame must be placed in part on Park who's drunk scenes are truly execrable.) But he at least knows he's fallible.

Not so his client, a mathematics professor (Ahn Song-kee) who, from what I can tell, was appropriately fired from his university job for not knowing the difference between perpendicular and parallel. After fleeing to the U.S. with his wife and son in tow, he decides to come back to fight for his position and ends up bringing a crossbow to the apartment building of a judge who dismissed his case. Does he shoot? Does it matter?

Far from being contrite, the teacher is sure he's getting the short end of the stick from the university system, the legal system, the police department, the media, and so on. He could be right but he's so damned arrogant that it's hard to rally behind him as he spits out every code that's being violated from his well-underlined law book to one smug judge (Lee Kyeong-yeong) after another (Moon Sung-keun). Like him or not, he's the most interesting part of the movie so when he temporarily drops out of the story after getting raped in prison, the film loses its preferred protagonist. By the time he returns, you forget his underdog status (which makes him somewhat sympathetic) and just remember his jerkiness.

Believe it or not, Unbowed is based on a real story. I don't doubt that someone could have the misfortune of facing a series of amoral judges or that an editor would shut down a story because he just didn't want to deal with the repercussions or that a woman would stay with her husband after he slept over another woman's place. What is hard to believe is that someone thought this particular trial merited a cinematic treatment. It doesn't. Or if it does, Unbowed needed a screenwriter with a stronger sense of character, actors who knew who to play drunk, and a cinematographer with a richer palette.

August 30, 2012

The Hand of Destiny: Under the Covers with an Undercover Agent

Jeong-ae (Yun In-ja) is such a bad girl that she pretends that she's a hooker as a way to cover up her much-worse role in society: She's a North Korean spy! As bad luck would have it, she falls hard for Shin Yeong-cheol (Lee Hyang-ja), a dock-worker/penniless-student who's working his way up the ladder of the South Korean military. Neither knows the other one's secret life outside the tawdry apartment that she's decorated with weird dolls, cheap curtains, and an owl clock that shifts its eyes left and right with every second. As the wise old owl knows, eventually their time of bliss will be over. Tick, tick, tick.

All those booze-fueled flirtations, the shopping sprees that snagged him a nice suit and her a well-dressed piece of arm candy, those sleepovers in which they've inexplicably spent the night fully clothed in a twin-sized bed are about to become troublesome memories. Is it love that kept the other so close or something else? Has she been double-crossing him since day one? Was she actually under constant observation by him night after passionate night? Is the pure love that each continually professes a complete ruse?

This is melodrama built on the idea that when romance unravels, drama heightens. After numerous scenes punctuated by silences that feel either unintentionally modernist or patiently waiting for the actor to say the next line, The Hand of Destiny culminates in two pretty engrossing shootouts on a mountaintop -- one with her hiding just a few feet behind him, the other filmed inside a cave that suggests they, and her bullying secret agent boss (Ju Seon-tae), have been transported to the moon. Indeed, the best cinematography in director Han Hyeong-mo's The Hand of Destiny makes the most of otherworldly shadows and angles so that household objects like a wicker purse or a circular mirror look somehow familiar and strange.

Although historically important for having the first big screen kiss in Korean movie history, The Hand of Destiny's most riveting love scene is actually a death scene, too, in which the femme fatale looks to be experiencing a near-orgasm of death as she begs her former lover to kill her once and for all. As endings go, it's a pretty entertaining one. As an oldie-but-goodie, it's really so-so.

August 26, 2012

Punch Lady: Domestic Violence Becomes a Martial Arts Match

Personally, I was hardly expecting Punch Lady, a movie about an abused wife who challenges her homicidal/pro martial-artist husband to fight in the ring, to be a laugh-out-loud comedy. And yet that's really what Kyang Hyo-jin's movie is. Which isn't to say the violent scenes in which mousy Ha-eun (To Ji-won) gets pummeled by her psychotic spouse Joo-chang (Park Sang-uk) aren't horrific. They are. As is the climactic face-off during which the two throw punches/kicks in a packed arena broadcasting nationwide. But what transpires between is loaded with silly bits that never feel inappropriate, a miracle of sorts to be honest. How'd that happen?

Part of Punch Lady's ability to stay funny so much of the time can be attributed to the central theme being neither revenge nor justice. Kyang's screenplay is really about self-discovery instead. Which isn't the same as self-transformation by the way. Again, unexpectedly, Ha-eun doesn't change from timid housewife to unstoppable fighting machine. When she enters the ring, she still flinches whenever her husband approaches. All she has are a few key moves fueled by rage. There's actually an amazing moment mid-fight when she stops just to let out a few blood-curdling screams. These are the screams of a woman furious at being treated as less than human, as being part of a legacy of abuse that dates back to her mother (who was beat by her father) and now could continue through her daughter (already a target for Joo-chang's abuse).

Ha-eun's screams jar you back to the larger reality in which women can often be treated as second-class citizens and in which spousal abuse remains a topic people still don't like to talk about first- or second-hand. You could call Punch Lady a feminist comedy if you wanted to but I'm not so sure whether it holds up on that count. Her coach Soo-hyeon (Son Hyeon-ju) is positioned as a romantic figure because he wants to be her protector, even as his mock mastery of moves is simply his mimickry of what he learned the night before at a nearby gym. Enlightened as I might be and try as I might, I couldn't resist cackling at that first training montage which isn't a feel-good, get-tough sweatfest so much as it's a comical sendup of the masochism of pushing yourself to the limit and the sadism that accompanies helping someone else do the same. And only a misogynist wouldn't love her triumphant punches in the final round.

August 13, 2012

A Little Pond: The Big Picture for the Little Fish

In a generation, most of us will be forgotten. In another generation, most of the rest of us will be forgotten, too. There's a hierarchy to history and the little people (i.e., you and me) aren't destined for the annals of time. At most, we'll get a headstone that'll act as a backrest for a picnicker in 100 years. If we're really lucky, maybe this movie by writer-director Lee Sang-woo will stick around to tell our story too.

His war movie, A Little Pond, focuses almost exclusively on barely individuated civilians, who find themselves in the middle of a battlefield through no fault of their own. When we meet the villagers they're living a life of no consequence. Suddenly, they're commanded to desert their hometown Nogunri. Then they're commanded to evacuate their hiding place up the mountain. Nothing they do will save them though. Neither their needs nor their lives are important to their so-called protectors who order them around in English, a language they don't understand.

That language barrier actually explains too why the American soldiers are initially so paranoid of them. Unable to get instructions followed quickly, the soldiers perceive any reluctance or misunderstanding as possible subterfuge and resistance. The tension between the two cultures is inevitable and when the battle inevitably begins, the villagers find themselves dodging bullets and bombs which take some of them out indiscriminately. Stay behind to help someone and you're doomed. Run ahead and your chances to survive are slim.

Accidental deaths, sadly, are succeeded by intentional ones. This is war and mass slaughter is the order of the day. The American saviors become the American butchers as the helpless and unarmed hiding beneath a bridge leading nowhere are shot down one by one as what must be some sick form of damage control. There's a great moment near the end where a juvenile soldier for the Korean Communists asks if there are any survivors, and a young boy his age stands to face him. The safety of neutrality has always been a myth!

Tearjerker reunions cap this war pic for the people, a film that has plenty of schmaltzy moments throughout. But "life as a sentimental mess" is a valid point of view and what's a Korean movie without magic butterflies.

July 15, 2012

My Dear Enemy: The Dwindling Returns of Love Lost, Found and Lost Again

How far would you go to get $3,500 back from an old boyfriend who was a total slacker? Would you track him down at the horse track and drive him around all day as he tried to weasel smaller sums of money from a series of questionable sources? That's what Hee-su (Jeon Do-yeon) does and in Lee Yeon-ki's depressing drama My Dear Enemy she's about to pay a very different price.

She's going to have to listen to her ex (Ha Jung-woo) sweet talk and cajole money out of every female acquaintance they meet then suffer through hearing him recount all the sweeter parts of their past, memory by memory. It's painful watching a bitter young woman get sucked in by a scammer all over again but that's really what My Dear Enemy is all about.

For most of the movie, Hee-su looks like a woman deeply in need of barbiturates. She's bitter, morose, and prone to complain. Given that Yeon-ki dumped her over a year ago, her actions come across as confused at best. Who'd go back to a shared favorite restaurant in this scenario? You get the feeling that there's a part of her that's ashamed and so she's out to humiliate herself every step of the way.

If you did start, there are a number of moments in which you likely would have bailed. Like when he brought you to get hundreds of dollars from a prostitute. Or when you ended up drinking beers with his former college roommate who's husband constantly insults her. Hee-su almost backs out. Why doesn't she? I suppose her love is deeper than mine.

And so the day continues, and she's following him now to a biker gangs' rooftop layout where she'll get yet another portion of the owed sum, this time over pork chops and beer served by people in leather jackets. Then it's off to pick up the wayward teen of some of his friends. Then trudging through the rain to get your car back since it's been towed. It really just gets worse and worse!

In it own weird way, I guess My Dear Enemy is a romantic drama to help single people feel better about not being paired off with a cute loser who'd probably land you in debt, pregnant and homeless. Then again, maybe not since by the end Hee-su seems like a heartless bitch who just extorted thousands of dollars from a homeless man. Oh well.

July 8, 2012

Couples: The Domino Effect in Comedy

It's hard to imagine recommending director Jeong Yong-ki's clunky comedy Couples to anyone, unreservedly. It's also hard to remember a time spent laughing this loudly in a movie theater. The reason behind these two conflicting bits of information is the amount of setting up that goes into each of the big sight gags and jokes within Jeong's deliberately constructed romcom. You're going to laugh, yes, and laugh hard too, but you're also going to have to wait to do so, sometimes for a fairly long time.

Presented as a series of minisodes (of varying length) that chart the progress of a half dozen relationships from first meeting to impending marriage, Couples is the cinematic equivalent of an uneven collection of interconnected short stories -- some are super-short, some are not-so-interesting, one is hilarious and they all tie up in the end. If you stick around until the final story, the pay-off is well worth it but it's also good to know going in that you're going to have to be patient until you get there.

The best story revolves around Na-ri (Lee Si-young), a ruthless gold digger who snags not one, not two, but three very different men -- a nerdy tea shop owner (Kim Ju-hyuk), an even nerdier private investigator (Oh Jeong-se) and a lovestruck gangster (Kong Hyeong-jin) who ends up severing his ties to the mob in hopes of tying the big knot with this femme fatale. Lee's definitely the breakout star in this ensemble comedy. She's somehow incredibly likable while simultaneously projecting a persona that suggests she doesn't give a damn if you like her or not. False in everything except her pursuit of money, she's delectably diabolical. She also seems to bring the best out of her co-stars, especially Kong who transforms from toughie to teddy bear in one particularly humorous scene at a restaurant.

The other primary story involves the tea shop owner and a female cop (Lee Yun-ji) who keep bumping into each other at the weirdest places (cafe, bus stop, bank robbery, etc.). Their story has as much screen time as Na-ri's but isn't nearly as funny. That's what happens when your job is to set up the jokes instead of deliver them.

Note: Couples is a remake of a Japanese film entitled A Stranger of Mine which, from one online description, sounds dramatically different.

June 11, 2012

My Dear Desperado: The IT Girl Is the It Girl, Too

One great thing about seeing Korean films in the United States is that 99 percent of the time you're going in blind. You might have a two-sentence description of the movie's plot, but generally speaking there's no reviews in the local paper and no buzz at the water cooler to build expectations or undermine your experience with spoilers. Because of that, you sometimes stumble on a truly unexpected experience. You think you're cozying up in front of the TV for a random romantic comedy? Well, think again, my friend. Because My Dear Desperado is hardly cliched cuteness. A zeitgeist-y romcom about IT girl Sae-jin (Jeong Yu-mi) -- who can't get a job despite her smarts and skills -- and her neighbor Dong-chul (Park Joong-hoon) -- who's just got out of prison and is kind of trying to get out of the mob and kind of resigned to staying in it -- My Dear Desperado is a subversion of the traditional romance. Do the two main characters fall in love? Of course they do. But only to a certain degree.

Defying Hollywood conventions, My Dear Desperado's writer-director Kim Kwang-shik always keeps one foot firmly grounded in reality so while there are sparks between these lovebirds, there's never really fire. Kim is fully aware that even if these two are fond of each other that that doesn't mean they're meant for each other until the end of time. A one-night stand stays a one-night stand. A pretended engagement doesn't last the duration of their weekend visit to her father's place. And Dong-chul's devotion to Sae-jin may help help change her life but it doesn't work in reverse like a fairytale. Sae-jin neither attempts nor considers helping Dong-chul extricate himself from a gangster's life. Because of that the two are destined to drift apart. Just how far they do will likely come as a surprise to most viewers. It shocked the hell out of me!

I'm still undecided if My Dear Desperado is a great movie or simply a good movie with an ending that I simply didn't see coming. Until I figure this out, I'm going to recommend it to everyone willing to hear me sing its praises. There's one unexpectedly delicious scene in which Sae-jin's crying jag transforms into an erotic breathing lesson and another spot-on vignette in which Dong-chul's attempt to be a gentleman gives way to his ingrained thug. I believe, Kim knows exactly what he's doing here. But it's really just a guess on my part.

June 2, 2012

The Doll Master: Toying With Death

Mi-na (Lim Eun-kyeong) has a bone to pick. It's been 20 years since Hae-mi (Kim Yu-mi) unceremoniously dumped her and she's never been the same since. She's tearful. She's confused. She's seeking reconciliation. For years, they had seemed inseparable. Not lesbian lovers. Not best friends exactly. Something much more special than that. Something one of a kind. Theirs was the unrivaled relationship of a doll and her devoted owner.

A sentimental spin on Chucky from the Child's Play horror franchise, The Doll Master's Mina is a homicidal plaything, a toy who comes to life only to cause death, a bit of cuteness turned to creepy. Yet while Chucky is a sociopath, Mina is a spurned victim motivated by love, albeit a love that's gone fatally sour. After multiple attempts to rekindle the sweet devotions of childhood, she eventually opts for revenge on her former caretaker, a tomboy who's come to their hometown for implausible reasons: a random invitation to model for a miniature reproduction of herself. (She's one of five guests who've been lured there, the others being a morose novelist (Ok Ji-Young), a clownish photographer (Lim Hyeong-jun), a perky co-ed (Lee Ka-yeong) and an undercover cop (Shin Hyeong-tak). Only the novelist comes with her own doll though, a relatively subdued little guy named Damien.)

Mi-na isn't the only doll hellbent on vengeance either. In fact, compared to one of her kin -- a somewhat large figurine out to slaughter any descendants of the locals who literally got away with a murder 60 years ago -- Mi-na's obsession to revive a dead relationship seems quaint, her anger at failing to do so, petty. Think of all the teddy bears, action figures and hand puppets that could've become animated and joined her. She's alone in being unable to forgive and forget.

The action in Jeong Yong-ki's The Doll Master all takes place at a doll museum where Mrs. Im (Kim Bo-yeong) is possessed by an evil spirit that drives her to skip meals so she can paint red lips on porcelain heads. Her boyfriend and accomplice Mr. Choi (Chun Ho-jin) makes cryptic utterances while keeping her brother chained up in the basement. And if you think that porcelain saint outside is going to save anyone here, you couldn't be more mistaken.

May 15, 2012

My Boss, My Hero: Mafia School

Clearly writer-director Yun Je-gyun's My Boss, My Hero is a comedy, but what sub-genre does it fit into best? Jopok comedy? Sure, that'll work since its lead character Do-shik (Jeong Jun-ho) is an up-and-coming gangster who appears to have taken a leadership class from that slap-happiest of stooges Moe. Teen comedy? That'll work too since the action takes place primarily at a private high school where Do-shik has returned -- somewhat preposterously given that he's now in his late 20s -- to get his diploma. Romantic comedy? Why not, since there's not just one but two kooky love stories: one involving fellow mobster Sang-do (Jeong Woong-in) who starts courting the school's hot English teacher (Song Seon-mi) at T.G.I. Friday's; the other a strangely platonic romance between Do-shik and class-smartie-cum-karaoke-hooker Yun-ju (Oh Seung-eun). Fish out of water comedy? It's got some of that. Sex comedy? That too. Slapstick comedy? Generational divide comedy? Gross-out comedy? Comedy of manners? Yes times four. There are few sub-genres that My Boss, My Hero doesn't incorporate into its plot. I guess, road movie and mockumentary are covered in one of the two sequels.

Funny thing about My Boss, My Hero, however, is that the best part isn't the comedy. It's the martial arts. The movie has two really enjoyable fight scenes, one involving Do-shik taking on a rival teen gang all by himself; the other, which starts similarly with Do-shik against many, eventually ends up a more balanced battle as Do-shik is joined by his fellow gang members and the entire student body to take on the thugs hired by the corrupt corporation that is making a mockery of their education. Both fights are well choreographed, and the second one features added tension created by a handheld camera guided, at times, by a cheerful flasher who periodically shows up in the story to expose himself. I can't say I laughed continuously throughout My Boss, My Hero. Indeed some of the incidental violence in which teachers hit students is truly shocking in its realness. But the climactic fight, which builds to a tag team brawl in the rain, is so exhilarating that you really do crave two sequels. I'm hoping at least one of them gives increased screen time to Jeong Un-take who plays an idiotic second banana name Head who's like a big, dumb puppy. I'd also like to see more of the skinny actor playing the queeny student who straightens his hair with his flip-phone in the girls room. He's a hoot.

May 6, 2012

Eye for an Eye: Revenge Without Vision

Han Suk-kyu! Yeah, you! Come over here for a second. I want to talk to you. Now please don't take offense, but I was really frustrated with your acting in the abominable heist pic Eye for an Eye. To be blunt, your turn as Captain Baek Sung-chan really irritated the heck out of me. I know the movie's failure is not all your fault. The screenplay by co-directors Kwak Kyung-taek and Ahn Kwon-tae is full of holes. No one would believe that the cop you play would go so that easy on Ahn Hyon-min (Cha Seung-won), the goateed guy who frames him for grand larceny when he just wants to retire and become a pest exterminator. Nor would anyone believe that your character Baek could so consistently predict his foil's next step then just as consistently be tricked for the step thereafter. They certainly aren't going to believe that he's going to put that much stock in any leads provided by Antonio (Lee Byung-joon), the weird-toothed transvestite with whom he's been acquainted for years. Yes, Cha, even if your performance had been brilliant, Eye for an Eye would have been a dud, a second-rate thriller unlikely to make a top ten list covering your career.

But couldn't you have at least made it better? You've been in so many movies that I've really liked -- The President's Last Bang, The Scarlet Letter, Tell Me Something... And you've been good in movies I've had mixed feelings about too -- Green Fish, A Bloody Aria... You certainly didn't make any of those movies worse! But here... Oh, Cha, what are you doing? That high-pitched laugh you keep doing to relate the mad, crazy ridiculousness of it all in Eye for an Eye is both forced and grating. The smug self-satisfied way you have of lighting a cigarette or popping a piece of chewing gum in your mouth isn't as cool as you seem to think it is. Far from it. I hate to say it, my friend, but in this flick, you come across as a poseur, not an actor. There's so much that feels fraudulent in your performance that I've even begun to doubt whether your now-gray hair is prematurely so or whether you've had it dyed that way. Oh Cha, when you're good, you're quite good but here you're quite bad. It almost makes me re-evaluate everything you've ever done. But why do that? I thank you for your other movies. And I forgive you for this one.

On second thought, I might be totally wrong. Because you're still the most memorable part of the movie. It seems unlikely I'll forget that laugh or that affected bravado or that silver hair. I give up. You win, Han Suk-kyu.

April 21, 2012

The Old Garden: Incompatible Politics

I'm trying to remember if I've ever seen a Korean movie that left me feeling as shut out as this one simply because I hadn't read Korean history, outside of Pearl S. Buck's novel The Living Reed, and Cullen Thomas's Brother One Cell, an expat prison memoir. That said, I do remember seeing The President's Last Bang, Im Sang-soo's cinematic retelling of the assassination of President Park Chung-hee (brilliant) and at least three movies about the courtesan Chunhyang (all good) without feeling gravely uninformed. But The Old Garden -- also by Im -- left me out in the cold.

I eventually figured out that this movie has to do with a bloody student uprising and a fascist president but Im's film spends a lot of time referring to political upheavals, not depicting them. That means, you hear about the psychic damage but generally don't see what caused it. By the time the brutal conflict between students and cops hits the screen, it just feels like another generation's daily news report. Even when one character self-immolates herself, The Old Garden feels pretty tame somehow. Listen as the students softly sing a few verses of "We Shall Overcome" and try not to get bored.

Furthermore, The Old Garden suffers from a narrative that mines its conflict from the inability of one woman (Yum Jung-ah) to understand the sacrifices her radical lover (Ji Jin-hee) is making for the cause. "I hide you, put you up and feed you, and even let you fuck me. Why would you leave?" Clearly, either he hasn't been educating her on the necessity of the movement or she hasn't been listening.

It might also be that he's a secret masochist. Maybe he doesn't really have to turn himself in and get tortured by wearing a leather mask that won't let him spit properly. Maybe he could've gone with her and shacked up in the mountains, hiding from authorities, and making babies. Maybe governments naturally go through dictatorial and democratic phases and it's silly of any of us to think we can change, prevent or overthrow any regime. I'd call that a hopeless viewpoint. But don't be sad. These characters are sad enough without you joining them. They cry when they eat black noodles. They cry when they hug goodbye. They cry when they get thrown in the hole. (The extended sobbing during an on-screen blackout for that last part proved a bit much for my taste.)

April 14, 2012

Seducing Mr. Perfect: A Love That's Perfectly Happy Being Hapa

If I were to tell you that Seducing Mr. Perfect is half in Korean, half in English, you'd naturally assume that half the scenes were spoken in one language, and the other half in the other. Perhaps the storyline takes place across two continents! But Seducing Mr. Perfect is a weirder movie than that. Throughout Kim Sang-woo's multicultural, bipolar rom-com, the dialogue bounces back and forth between the two main languages from one line to the next. How's that you ask (in English I assume)? Well, get a load of this cockamamie plot device:

Robin Heiden (Daniel Henney) is an American corporate exec who has come to Korea to orchestrate a takeover of a Japanese company. He speaks English but understands Korean. For Min-joon (Eom Jeong-hwa), his homegrown assistant who has issues with her career and love life, it's basically the reverse. As a way for both to improve their language comprehension, the two continue to speak their native tongues thereby improving their respective language comprehension. Clever? Not really. To be blunt, this is all just a way to allow American model-turned-actor Henney (who's somewhat ironically half Irish-American, half-Korean) to headline this pic without dubbing or playing a mute.

That's not the only strange thing about Seducing Mr. Perfect. This opposites attract love story also turns the Cyrano de Bergerac plot on its head. Instead of a homely guy advising a pretty boy on how to get the girl of her dreams, Seducing Mr. Perfect has the movie's great beauty giving Art of Seduction pointers to a romantically inept ingenue looking to reunite with her less-than-ideal ex-boyfriend (Bang . Along the way, Robin falls in love with her himself of course and what's not to love? She's cute as a button, determined, and emotionally vulnerable. Plus, she's played by Eom who's a pretty skilled comedic actress! The same can't be said for Henney who's range seems to be deadpan with shirt on and deadpan with shirt off.

He succumbs to her charms, she succumbs to his bare chest. Personally I found the arc of their courtship pretty satisfying in that I got to fall for a hopeless neurotic and a calculating cad at the same time. Together, they're my ideal! I'm now ready for a menage a trois con las hapas, per favore.

April 10, 2012

Postman to Heaven: Mail-Order Bride, Heaven-Sent Groom

Lee Hyeong-min's Postman to Heaven apparently has two demographics in mind: 14-year-old girls and 47-year-old gay men. (You can guess which niche I fit into.) It's an irresistible saccharine romance that knows its audience will forgive anything, no matter how improbable, as long as quirky young ingenue Ha Na (Han Hyo-ju) and pop-star-turned-angel Jae-jun (Kim Jae-joong) end up together in matrimonial harmony.

How It Starts: Ha Na is in a funk. Her boyfriend just died and she's pissed because her grieving process has been interrupted by the revelation that her sweetheart was married and had a kid. It's funny the things you learn at a funeral. Bitter and bewildered, she dashes off an angry letter to the deceased which she then drops at the Mailbox to Heaven. (You know, that mailbox that's located in the middle of the field just outside the city.) There, she meets Jae-jun, God's postal carrier who confirms his celestial status with two white feathers attached to a necklace and another two fluttering on his keychain.

Where It Goes: He hires her to help on his postal route, which also entails concocting cockamamie schemes to trick people into thinking their lost loves forgive them. A rock singer gets a scrapbook from his dead dad thereby proving his father accepted his son's career choices. An old man (Shin Goo) gets DNA results that confirm that his late wife never cheated so his one son really is his offspring. An amateur photographer gets an audiotaped that proves his son doesn't mind that he's partly to blame for his mother's death. And so on and so on. Along the way, the two adorable ones fall in love but then discover that he's basically invisible. This is what's known as a deal breaker in my book but here it's more of a temporary setback. (This is fantasy, not neo-realism, in case you haven't figured that out.)

How It Ends: Everything works out! While not giving away all the details, I will say that I was surprised when he ended up wearing nerdy glasses and she ended up with a much simpler haircut. But you can see why they deserve each other. She overacts; he underacts. She needs to get a life; he needs to get back his life. She wants to design postcards. He wants to deliver them. If you don't believe that last part, just stick around for the credits.

March 31, 2012

The Case of Itaewon Homicide: One Murder. Two Suspects. No Verdict.

Ripped from the headlines, Hong Ki-seon's sensational docudrama The Case of Itaewon Homicide retells the real-life grisly murder of Jong-pil (Song Joong-ki), a hard-working, clean cut student who gets randomly knifed one night in the restroom of a Burger King by one of two vacationing American teens -- either AJ (Sin Seung-Hwan), a spoiled brat from NYC, or Pearson (Jang Geun-Seok), a half-Mexican gang member with whom he's been hanging out for the last three months. Each of the young men accuses the other of the pointless slaying; both have secrets to hide; and ultimately, both are to blame. Throughout this courtroom drama, you get the feeling that neither is out for justice so much as he's looking for a way to save his own hide. As such, they're both unlikable, and even if you're pretty sure you know who did it, the villain of The Case of Itaewon Homicide actually ends up being not one of the suspects but AJ's attorney (Oh Kwang-rok) who, because his motives are clearly mercenary, undermines the very legal system that he should be honoring.

A defense lawyer's job isn't to decide whether the client is guilty or not; it's to provide the client with the best defense possible.

I've heard that sentiment before and while I "get it," it's also always left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. It's not quite "innocent until proven guilty." It's more like "not guilty if any mistakes are made." The burden as always lies with the prosecution, here represented by Public Prosecutor Park (Jeong Jin-yeong), one of those noble souls who fights the good fight even if victory isn't necessarily attainable. Park's also, interestingly, a perpetual skeptic. He's not a champion. He's a doubter. He doubts the system, his opponent, his client, even himself. Which isn't to say that everything's relative to him or to us. It's just that in a world where no one can be counted on to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, what you end up parsing is a collection of half-truths, coverups, and bogus assertions. It's why nothing ever works as the ultimate truth -- the church, science, the legal system... Every institution is made of people, and people lie, cheat, and hide information for reasons that sometimes we'll never know. In life, I guess you've got to do the best with what you've got. The Case of Itaewon Homicide definitely does that because despite some second-rate performances, it's still a first-rate film.

March 25, 2012

Crying Fist: Eyes Swollen With Blood and Tears

In your typical boxing movie, the glory of the big fight depends on the depth of your feelings for one of the contenders: You need to like one guy more than the other. It's the story of an underdog, or of a man seeking justice or demanding payback or earning respect. But Ryu Seung-wan's Crying Fist undermines all that. By building to a championship between rivals with equally tearjerking back stories, this unconventional sports flick leaves you uneasy about rooting for either opponent. Suddenly, both sides deserve your sympathy. Weird!

In one corner is Gang Tae-shik (Choi Min-sik), a former silver medalist who now, over 40, scrapes out a living by letting frustrated passersby beat him up in the street for a fee. Part performance artist, part washed-up local hero, he's a bit of a joke who, more seriously, is going blind from head traumas, even as his wife (Seo Hye-rin) is divorcing him, and his brother (Lim Won-hie) is fleecing him of every won.

In the other corner is Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryu Seung-beom), an emotionally retarded criminal with a devoted, doomed father and a dying, maybe demented, grandma. As sad stories go, he's Tae-shik's equal, especially when you consider that Tae-shik at least has an ongoing bromance with a cafe owner (Jeon Ho-jin) while all Sang-hwan's got is the mentorship of a prison boxing coach (Byeong Hie-bong), who admits all his boys-in-training are like sons to him. Sang-won is just his latest protege.

This all adds up to the climactic fight being discomforting instead of rousing since getting in either guy's corner means abandoning his foe. You almost wish, Ryoo hadn't let the parallel stories converge, that he'd ended with two fights in two weight classes, making each loss and/or victory more personal. Pitting them against each other seems illogical. And yet, it's also what makes this movie so uniquely strange and good.

While hardly a philosophical film, Crying Fist does raise questions beyond who should win... Like why is redemption by violence attractive? How can a natural inclination towards violence be transformed into something constructive? When does a focused application of violence become perverted? When, how and why does violence pay off? Does it ever? Which isn't to say Crying Fist is a cinematic essay on pugilism. It's an effective melodrama. You bring the crying, this movie will bring the fists.

March 17, 2012

The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well: The Brutal Beginnings of Auteur Hong Sang-soo

It's easy to think you've got an artist figured out after watching a few films. And after seeing Woman on the Beach, Night and Day, and the short Lost in the Mountains among others, I thought I knew what to expect from a Hong Sang-soo movie and quite frankly, I wasn't that impressed. There'd be some heavy drinking, some philosophical talking and some unsatisfactory sex, as men used clingy women and disappointed women griped. Even in The Power of Kangwon Province, the movie of his I probably like the best, the same elements remained.

But summing up a career based on your acquaintanceship with a handful of works is a big mistake. Imagine judging Woody Allen on Celebrity, Cassandra's Dream, and September or assessing Bernardo Bertolucci strictly on Little Buddha, Stealing Beauty and The Dreamers. Big mistake! Which is another way of saying that I may have written off Hong Sang-soo a little too soon.

His feature debut, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, isn't a great movie but it's a pretty interesting one. And yes, you still have the drinking, the abusing, and the longing but with this particular flick all of that's heightened quite a bit. The arrogant artist -- no stranger to Hong's ouevre -- is a super jerk here. If this is Hong's stand-in, he started his career a lot less sympathetic to his type. A failed writer with a real sense of entitlement and a persecution complex, Hyo-sub (Kim Eui-sung) is a cantankerous diva who picks fights with a girlfriend he doesn't like (Cho Eun-sook), a married woman he claims to love (Lee Eun-kyeong), and all his drinking buddies, including one played by Song Kang-ho in his big screen debut!

This time around, the bickering doesn't culminate in a shouting match. Indeed, what distinguishes The Day a Pig Fell in the Well from other Hong movies is that it's meaner and nastier to start and bloodier and more bewildering at the end. It's also infinitely more enigmatic. The final sequence of the movie flashes back and forward in time, both real and imagined. Whether the brutal realities depicted in those jarring sequences are reflecting internal or external states doesn't matter. Hong's first drama comes at you with both fists flying and you're likely to feel stunned and bruised and even a bit disoriented by the time the credits roll. It's not a knockout but it does pack a wallop.