January 28, 2012

Yoga Hakwon: Horror Stretches in an Expected Direction

I've always found it infuriating when people carp, "I love yoga except for the spiritual part. I wish they'd get rid of that chanting." But maybe I just didn't understand. Maybe it wasn't the God stuff that was bothering people. Maybe it was yoga's Satanic undercurrents. Yoga Hakwon has now set me straight. A horror movie about a secret yoga practice that promises one lucky student per class the gift of "ultimate beauty," the movie cannily targets the superficial people who take yoga for vanity's sake, not for their soul's salvation. You want a soulless version of yoga? You got it, bitch!

To be the prettiest graduate in this particular week-long intensive, however, is going to take serious work. The five women enrolled at Mi-hee's seclusive, exclusive studio -- as well as their enimgatic, dictatorial instructor Na-ni (Cha Su-yeon) -- are all really pretty and really limber. Plus they're going to be asked to make some major sacrifices right off, like relinquishing their cell phones, refraining from snack foods, and not looking in the mirror every other second for seven days. They must also resist the impulse to take a hot shower within an hour after their last class. Sound easy? Well, it's not. We're talking impulse control, habit breaking, and downward facing dog.

Inevitably, everyone will succumb to temptation in one form or another. Binging will earn the twitchy one (Jo Eun-ji) boils all over her body; a poorly timed shower will drive the arrogant one (Kim Hye-na) to deepthroat a snake. The youngest two (Hwang Seung-eon and Park Han-byeol) are dragged offscreen, presumably to Hell, because they can't stay away from their own reflections. Ah, youth! As for Hyo-jeong (Kim Yoo-jin), the cell-phone user who's just lost her job as a home shopping spokeswoman for lingerie, she's let off easy. She actually graduates and meets the institute's ageless beauty Mi-hee (Lee Hye-sang) -- a former actress who's career ended with the talkies but who still looks absolutely fantastic. Yoga is the key to eternal youth, you know...if you combine it with Devil worship.

Director Yun Jae-yeon's Yoga Hakwon has a pretty cool ending. After struggling to escape the institute and reunite with her adorable if underpaid boyfriend (Choi Daniel) who happens to be making a documentary about Mi-hee's longtime director Kang Hee-jong (Jeong In-gi), Hyo-jeong finds herself released from the institute and walking through a subway station where she encounters rival students that she's were dead. Is she crazy? Is she possessed? Is she stuck in an alternate world that's basically hell? Only a sequel could tell us for sure.

January 21, 2012

Turn It Up to 11: The Rise of Galaxy Express and the Ruin That's Tobacco Juice

This movie belongs to the losers. Which isn't to say that that anyone who watches the rockumentary Turn It Up to 11 will think that Tobacco Juice, the talented punk outfit constantly sabotaging its opportunities, is a better band than the infinitely more successful Galaxy Express. They're not. There's a reason why Galaxy Express went from being a house band in a small club in Incheon to winning the Best Rock Album of the Year for Noise on Fire at the Korean Music Awards in 2009. They look better, sound better, and rock a hell of a lot harder than Tobacco Juice. It makes sense that they'd be the ones to make it big. If someone told you that national sales of guitars shot up by 16% after Tobacoo Juice first appeared on television, you'd roll your eyes. When the same is said about Galaxy Express, you don't doubt it for a second.

Even so, your heart goes out to Tobacco Juice because there's something about the "almost made it" story that feels a lot more familiar, a lot more human, than the "breakthrough into fame and fortune" story that's being told right alongside it. The broken dream is the common dream. Reality isn't glamorous. Throughout Turn It Up to 11, Tobacco Juice's smaller successes feel a lot more poignant if a lot less exciting. Consider the closing moments of their CD release party (which takes place at the Ruby Salon nightclub that also launched Galaxy Express) which attracts just 100 people. At the concert's end, the group's lead singer and inveterate drunk Kwon Ki-wook bows down and rests his head on the floor of the stage where he bursts into tears. That's really an astonishing reminder of how much it takes from your soul to even be a failure in the world's eyes. Shortly after that, the film flashes back to Tobacco Juice recording a secret track for their CD, a private performance that may be the most heartfelt bit of singing in the pic. You wish Kwon and his bandmates the best. Galaxy Express doesn't need your sympathy!

The irony is that the film, which presents the guys of Tobacco Juice as sloppy, lazy and immature (by their own admission), is directed and shot by the group's own drummer, the nearly invisible Baek Seung-hwa. Given how uncomfortable these guys often look on camera, you get the feeling that they know full well that Baek isn't the type to flatter them or make them look any better than they actually are. If anything, he's cultivating their image as rejects. "The evil king of losers," producer and Ruby Salon owner Lee Gyu-young says of the band. Hey, if you can't rule the world, aim for something smaller. Your cult following today could turn into millions tomorrow.

January 14, 2012

Yongary, Monster From the Deep: Godzilla Looks Korean, Speaks English

If you saw the end of the world was at hand, what would you do?

A. Drink yourself into a stupor.
B. Thrash wildly in a lasciviously lit nightclub.
C. Gorge yourself on barbecue.
D. Run down the street with a panicked crowd while balancing a steel bucket upon your head.

Yongary, Monster of the Deep presents all these options but personally, I think when Armageddon arrives, I might just stay home and watch a trashy monster flick. If there's anything that uplifts my spirits and makes me feel slightly superior, it's a good, old-fashioned B-movie with a giant lizard rampaging through a built-to-scale model city devoid of people and populated only by toy tanks, toy cars and toy helicopters. That it's dubbed in English, speaks to the universal need we feel to find simple answers to world-class problems. And what a number of solutions present themselves! Which leads us to our next question...

How would you combat an unstoppable, ginormous reptile that spits fire, shoots laser beams and growls like a dinosaur?

A. With missiles that look like big tubes of lipstick.
B. With an ammonium precipitate concocted in my private lab.
C. With a laser beam that's both a toy and quite deadly.
D. I wouldn't. I'd leave that to my boyfriend and watch him kill the silly old thing!

While each of the above approaches is used, a ten-year-old brat named Isho is actually the one who figures out Yongary's Achilles' heel through careful observation, made peeping around corners or from under manhole covers after running through the city's sewers. He's also the one who feels some sympathy for the creature when Yongary comes to a spastic, bloody end. You see the two have bonded through the magic of dance. Young people understand what's really universal. As to Yongary, here's the final question...

What's the difference between Yongary and Godzilla?

A. He's Korean.
B. He's got a horn on the tip of his nose.
C. He drinks oil and gasoline for his energy drinks.
D. All of the above.

January 7, 2012

Muoi: The Legend of the Portrait: Seeing the Bad Side of Things

Way back when, some time before the widespread use of electricity but after the invention of acid, Muoi (Anh Thu) -- the tenth-born child of a very poor family -- had the great misfortune of falling in love with a man named Nguyen (Binh Minh), a handsome, young swain with a gift for portraiture and a talent for womanizing. Both skills came into play when Nguyen decided to seduce Muoi while painting her picture. One mission accomplished (the seduction), he abandoned the other (the picture) and hurried off to resume his romance with a richer, former love. Back home, this original girlfriend (Hong Anh) caught wind of Muoi and decided to break her rival's ankle and throw acid in her face, as a way to let her know "You don't mess with my man!" Muoi took revenge by killing herself then returning as a ghost with a bone to pick. Nguyen then tricked her ghost into becoming an artist's model again so he could finish her portrait. Then some priests entered banging on gourds and Nguyen stabbed the picture to trap the evil spirit inside. End of legend.

Unlike me, the character Yun-hui (Jo An) thinks this story has the makings of a really good novel. Her last book, a thinly-veiled pseudo-memoir called Lies and Secrets, did pretty well but not so great that she's worried that Seo-yeon (Cha Ye-ryeon), the friend who she mercilessly defamed in it, would have read it since moving to Vietnam. So Yun-hui stays with Seo-yeon and asks her to help research the book. Hallucinations follow as part of the creative process. Eventually, Yun-hui realizes that even if you've betrayed your friend, who far from being a slut was videotaped -- being raped -- by the guy you have a secret crush on, you still have to kill your friend if she's possessed by a demon.

How does she knows there's a ghost at work? Well, a doorbell rings in the middle of the night right after a shower goes on mysteriously. That's one sign. Wallpaper uncurls off the wall in her bedroom, and lights flicker when there's a storm outside. Those are two others. Admittedly, they're not conclusive evidence, but fueled by the gossip of Seo-yeon's co-worker (Hong So-hee), who's half-Korean, half-smirk, Yun-hui doesn't let loose logic or a lack of lucidity get in the way of her mission. Her ex-best-friend may not be the kleptomaniac slut that she made her out to be in her mud-slinging roman a clef, but Seo-yeon did have the nerve to dance with that passably attractive white guy at the bar who Yun-hui had her eye on. Some betrayals can't be forgotten, no matter how many shots of Black Label you consume. Bring out the daggers!

January 1, 2012

Sweet Sex and Love: To Penetrate Is To Bore in Softcore

I admit it. I just watched a porno movie. Mind you, Sweet Sex and Love doesn't know it's pornography. It thinks it's an art film because it never shows genitalia and has its two main characters come to a melancholic end. (Grief would be too dramatic!) But any flick that shows this much pheromone-sweating skin in this many Kama Sutra positions is a skin flick. Let there be no bones about it. So while there's execrable dialogue between the various bonks in bed rooms, living rooms, kitchens, public and private restrooms, and cars with sunroofs in the middle of a rainstormy night, plot still takes a back seat to penetration and product placement for underwear.

As to the steamy story, apparently the big hump that the two horn-dogs have to get over in their relationship is her resistance to anal sex. Well, some problems even a good handful of lube will never solve. I suppose when your bond is built on fornication, that inability to take it like a man is as good as any reason to throw in the towelette. Being forced to swallow someone's ejaculate on a long bus ride could be another. Cheating with an ex-boyfriend who's about to get married would be a third.

It's easy to see why these two aren't destined for the quaintly creaky S&M dungeon of a brothel-turned-retirement-home. Their attraction may be intense -- and physically rewarding -- but it's also completely superficial. When the tough times rear (and "tough" means sex getting more coercive and post-coital dialogue growing more passive-aggressive), the only memories they have to fall back on inevitably grind on each other's nerves. Visions of your partner's butt are unlikely to keep you invested when your lover turns out to be a pain is the ass. "I'm a sex machine and hung like a horse," says Dong-ki (Kim Seong-su). "I'd grown bored with his penis," says Shin-a (Kim Seo-hyeong). "People this hot and this shallow simply shouldn't be happy," say I. With me, director Bong Man-dae seems to agree.

Despite its racy, just-shy-of-XXX nature, Sweet Sex and Love tarnished neither of its lead actors' careers nor typecast them as sluts. Kim Seo-hyeong went on to major roles in reputable scary pics like Black House and Voice, while Kim Seong-su resurfaced in even better fare: The Red Shoes and Monopoly. Not art exactly. But much closer. Does anyone know if Korean film has a casting couch?