February 26, 2012

Quick: An Action-Comedy That Will Make Your Head Explode

Let's pretend for a moment that you're a movie director and a highly amusing action-comedy script comes across your desk. From the looks of it, if you can get the required budget and the right actors, the action sequences promise to be breathtaking and the best comedic bits will be gut-bustingly funny. The problem is that the parts in between them are, frankly, kind of boring and border on the incomprehensible. What do you do? Do you bring in another writer, a crackerjack script doctor perhaps, to tighten up the exposition and iron out the wrinkles or do you go back to the original screenwriters and say, "Give me more action, more slapstick, and less talk." I'm guessing Cho Beom-gu took the latter approach -- many times in fact -- because while Quick still has a few, fairly short, dull explanatory sections that tell us why this rash of bombings is happening throughout Seoul, it's a hell of a lot less concerned with explaining why the leather-clad pop diva Ah-rom (Kang Ye-won) has a time-bomb motorcycle-helmet strapped to her head and more committed to having her scream nonsensically and gesticulate wildly as former-boyfriend/expert-motorcyclist/indie-courier Gi-soo (Lee Min-ki) races from one location to the next. Who cares why these two ex-lovers are being forced to execute a series of death-defying assignments when you get to see so many spectacular car pile-ups and so many glamorously fiery explosions? Not me.

You'll see Gi-soo's motorcycle leap from buildings, smash through glass, crash through steel, outrace trains, cop cars and overweight detectives running nonsensically after him on foot. The implausible part is a major contributing factor to why Quick is so deliriously good. The ridiculousness elevates the movie, even as it extends outside the action. How crazy does it get? How about when a weary, naked Ah-rom showers with her helmet on or when Gi-soo's self-deluded romantic rival Myeong-sik (Kim In-kwon) backbends under a sixteen-wheeler careening and aflame right above him? While that particular moment is clearly the result of some fancy green screen CGI special effects, Quick is by no means without its own dose of reality. Stick around for the closing credits which reveal behind-the-scenes footage of the bruises, the bang-ups, and the broken bones suffered by both the cast and their body doubles who skid motorcycles under trucks or propel their bodies recklessly through space for the perfect shot. The risks taken may seem crazy when you consider that they're all just for a silly action pic but personally, I think their efforts were worth it.

February 20, 2012

Night Fishing: There's a Great Horror Film Playing on Your iPhone

The universal language of the movies ended with the advent of the talkies. Or so people say. But watching Park Chan-wook's Night Fishing, the short film he made (on an iPhone no less) with his brother Chan-kyon, leads me to disagree. Even without subtitles, this mini-movie speaks volumes, especially in its opening sequence, basically an addictively watchable music video featuring the South Korean indie ensemble The UhUhBoo Project. Watch those fantastical first few minutes in which the four band members jam on an abandoned country road while a kat -- a traditional wide-brimmed hat -- floats magically through the air as the world turns upside down then tell me you think that English is necessary.

Actually the Park brothers subvert the need for dialogue quite a bit throughout Night Fishing. In other sections of the film, you'll find the fisherman (Oh Kang-rok) singing to himself (language unimportant) or listening to the radio (language unimportant) for short stretches. Even the night itself speaks its own comprehensible tongue as the wind blows through the reeds and some bells atop a fishing pole are set to ringing. Later a shaman (Lee Jung-hyun) conducting an elaborate ritual at the fisherman's funeral reminds us that symbolic visuals too speak a language all their own. Talking is so overrated, isn't it?

And really, how much needs to be said explicitly when the topic is life and death. The first half of Night Fishing is surreal but pretty easy to follow: A middle-aged loner has a freakish encounter with a resurrected drowned woman who gets entangled in his fishing lines. (Because this is a Park flick, of course a hook gets caught in her lip and she vomits water repeatedly in his face upon returning from the dead.) The second half is a bit more cryptic: The drowned woman is leading a spiritual ceremony involving self-baptism, the cutting of a long translucent fabric, and a young girl (Kim Hwan-hee) in a wheelchair. I can't say this latter part makes total sense in the end but given the entire film is only about a half-hour long, Night Fishing never tries the patience. To the contrary, it invites repeated viewings.

With technology making filmmaking as readily accessible as the phone in your pocket, now anyone can create a mini-masterpiece without a lot of money. All they need is a cool script, great actors, a willingness to test the limits of technology, and the singular vision of a true artist. Don't believe me? Pick up your phone and play Night Fishing now.

February 11, 2012

Sunny: Girls Just Wanna Continue Having Fun When They're Older

I knew within about three minutes that I was going to love Kang Hyeong-Cheol's Sunny, an adroitly crafted chick flick about a girl gang in high school that slowly reunites 25 years later after Na-mi (Yu Ho-jeong/Sim Eun-kyeong), the artsy one, discovers the group's tough leader Chun-hwa (Jin Hee-kyung/Kang So-ra) is dying of cancer in the same hospital at which Na-mi's soap-opera-devoted mother (Kim Hye-ok) is a patient. This chance encounter has a domino effect, as Na-mi begins tracking down the other five girlfriends, all of whom now lead frustrated lives though each for quite different reasons.

Jin-hee (Hong Jin-hee/Park Jin-hoo) has gone from potty-mouthed punk to rich-but-dissatisfied wife, Bok-hee (Kim Seon-kyeong/Kim Bo-mi) has fallen from aspiring beauty queen to prostitute, Jang-mi (Go Su-hee/Kim Min-yeong) has devolved from class clown to second-rate insurance agent... As each new friend re-enters the picture, new memories surface -- the turf rivalry with a girl gang called Generations, the teenage crush on dreamy Joon-ho (Kim Si-hoo), the life-changing day when the prettiest one (Yoon Jeong/Min-Hyo-rin) gets cut in the face by a glue-sniffer.

The performances are of the hammier variety: The cast wails when asked to cry and makes their eyes pop when a raised eyebrow would suffice. But the broad style never gets in the way of the story or prevents the flow of tears. You'd have to be one tough cookie not to soften up as Sunny flashes back and forth between the innocence of youth and what might be best referred to as the resignation of middle age. Corny and sentimental as it is, Sunny nonetheless acts as a rallying cry to re-engage with your life, to never relinquish your dreams and to reclaim your rightful place as the protagonist in your own story.

I think one of the reasons Sunny is so effective is that it understands how strongly we identify with our younger selves. "We are always the same age inside," Gertrude Stein once quipped. And she's right. Painfully so. Exquisitely so. For though the body may tire, and disappointments may mount, the inner adolescent -- ever ready for discovery -- remains intact and little changed. Step outside your own petty grievances. Look around you with fresh eyes. It's never to late for your old self to rejuvenate or your young self to be reborn.

February 4, 2012

Dragon Wars: D-War: Bring on the Bilingual Lizards

A Korean movie in English? Should such a thing exist, Dragon Wars: D-War is it. Written-directed by Shim Hyung-rae, and produced by Korean mainstay Showbox, this action pic relates the fabulist adventures of a young American reporter (Jason Behr), his shape-shifting mentor (Robert Forster), and his whiny blonde love interest (Amanda Brooks), all of whom are the reincarnations of Koreans (Park Hyun-jin, Ban Hyo-jin, and Lee Jong-man) from 500 years ago. Because of that, Dragon Wars can feel a bit like a parallel universe. Where else can a white hero quote Korean proverbs, a white sage rattle off implausible Korean history, and a white FBI agent (Chris Mulkey) feel compelled to kill a damsel-in-distress because of his familiarity with some mumbo jumbo Korean mythology? It's as if the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed from Busan instead of Castille's Palos de la Frontera.

Yet despite being bizarrely bi-cultural if welcomely bilingual thanks to an extended flashback, Dragon Wars first and foremost speaks the language of the action movie. Your ability to like this movie depends really on a willingness to sacrifice plot and character development for the joys of special effects and car explosions. Literalists will say Dragon Wars is about a young woman's destiny to birth a phosphorescent orb that will let an enormous snake sprout legs and antlers and thereby slay his evil adversary (also a supersized serpent). Truth-tellers will recognize Dragon Wars for what it is: An unapologetic excuse to see a lot of otherworldly creatures encounter various forms of weaponry in unending battle.

From the looks of it, mankind has cultivated the art of war over the last five centuries while the reptiles have let their mastery of torpedoes grow a tad slack. A giant snake may coil itself around a skyscraper but it can eventually be slain by armed helicopters. Fireball-hacking pterodactyls can terrorize the screaming masses but a militia of black-clad SWAT team members positioned on the city's rooftops are their equals at least. In the final fight of man versus monster, humans can defend themselves quite ably. Those overweight, elephantine Dune lizards that resemble supersized bathtub-squeeze toys with rocket-blasters on their shoulders aren't unbeatable foes. Not at all. Every roar must meet a rat-a-tat-tat, every ka-boom must meet its ka-boom. In this doomsday of resurrected dinosaurs, each side will have its share of casualties. What a pity the ingenue has chosen to wear a white sweater during Armageddon. If it's the end of the world, be sensible about it.