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.

March 11, 2012

War of the Arrows: History and Archery Shoot a Pointed Arrow to Your Heart

I'm not sure why the idea of watching a historical drama tends to dishearten me because when I think about it, I bet I like them more often than I don't. Looking back over the years, I can immediately name a few epics set way back when which made my annual top ten lists: The King and the Clown, A Frozen Flower, Musa - The Warriors... Even so, I was ready to be bored to tears when I sat down to watch War of the Arrows. Boy, was I wrong.

Kim Han-min's anything-but-dull drama set in the 17th century is, for all its fancy robes and bedazzled leather, a heart-stopping action pic with an extended chase scene in which bows and arrows prove every bit as thrilling as martial arts or souped-up weaponry ever did.

On the run is Nam-yi (Park Hae-il), a disgraced archer whose father was beheaded for being a traitor, and whose sister Ja-in (Moon Chae-won) is, at one point, abducted by a Manchurian kidnapper-prince (Park Gi-woong) who wants to tame her like a leopard's pelt. Well, the royal rapist is about to learn not to mess with an independent woman with a strong set of teeth. As to his invading militia, they're about to pay the price for underestimating members of the Joseon Dynasty.

Pursuing Nam-yi is a bald Machurian commander (Ryoo Seung-yong), his second-in-command Wanhan (Lee Seung-joon), and their small posse of fellow warriors who despite tricked up arrows and studded leather armbands, find themselves dropping off one by one. A random tiger that comes out of nowhere doesn't help matters for them either.

Although half of War of the Arrows is consumed by this great chase, my favorite part comes right beforehand -- an uplifting scene in which a feudal lord's son (Kim Mu-yeol), assisted by lovable sidekicks Gang-du (Kim Gu-taek) and Gab-young (Lee Han-wi), leads a prisoners' revolt against the invading army. Tired, dirty, and unarmed, the townsfolk charges their captors and through sheer numbers and unstoppable fury drive the enemy into the sea before burning the Manchurian flag. It's one of those common man against the oppressor feel-good scenes that always makes you feel more optimistic about being one of the hoi polloi.

Note: Some reviews accuse War of the Arrows of plagiarizing Apocalypto which does make me want to see the latter movie.

March 5, 2012

My Heart Beats: Feminist Professor Finally Gets Laid

My Heart Beats is a freaky little piece of hypersexual filmmaking. Creepily voyeuristic with a zombie like performance at its center, this oddly heady skin flick is all about a depressed, middle-aged professor (Ryu Dong-sook) who, in the midst of preparing for a feminist class on erotica, decides that she must get into a porno film since she's so desperate to get laid. (That's definitely one way of doing it.) Lucky for her, she's got a sassy old frenemy (Byun Yi-yeon), who runs a video production company specializing in skin flicks. After dieting, exercising, studying the Kama Sutra and punching herself in the stomach to beat out her damned spare tire, this academic is deemed ready to take it off and get it on! Her hobby in humping has begun.

To protect her tenure though, she wears a series of Mardi Gras masks as does her first sex partner (in life and on camera). He's an impossibly hot -- and presumably mute -- young man (One Tae-hee) with many strange scars on his chest, that resemble pink putty leeches. Coincidentally, this masked stud is so many years his on-screen lover's junior that he's actually looking to get into a college to become a professor himself. Call it serendipity. Eventually, I suppose they'll be able to say they've taught each other something deep.

Learning is a painful process, sadly, and since this is basically soft porn with a story, the only happy endings for these characters are the ones captured by the film within the film. Actually, those aren't very cheery outcomes either. But outside the celluloid fantasy, the instructress loses her job, the gigolo loses his heart, and the self-styled auteur (Kang Seok-ho) deciding the camera angles loses his artistic control.

It's worth noting that My Heart Beats is directed by a woman: Huh Eun-hee. Because of that perhaps, there's lots of staring at crotches instead of cleavage, and a couple of minor male characters (Lee Dong-hyun and Ahn Sung-gun) who never disrobe but have killer pecs. Also, the Cinderella-type transformation of the movie's heroine is about an odd duck becoming a more attractive odd duck instead of a bona fide swan. I liked that. I also got a kick out of the fruity symbolism in which the protagonist goes from learning to bite an apple, to learning to share a peach, to learning to give a pomegranate without expectation. Kooky but sweet.

March 3, 2012

The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Bruce Lee Can't Get You a GED

In the law of the jungle known as high school, you can gain a decisive advantage over the school bully if you're willing to stab him in the leg right before the big fight. That said, you'll have an even bigger advantage if your father is a Taekwondo instructor and you're willing to hit your opponent in the back of the head with a pair of nunchucks before the battle begins. Such are the lessons of The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do, Yu Ha's wistfully violent coming-of-age film about a painfully shy student named Hyeon-su (Kwone Sang-woo) who evolves from a simpering sidekick to rough-and-tumble classmate Woo-shik (Lee Jeong-jin) to a formidable Bruce Lee disciple tough enough to take on an entire gang of meanies entirely by himself.

Hyeon-su's a lover, not a fighter though, for while his training regimen does get him great delts and a sweet set of abs, his luck with the ladies leaves something to be desired. His big crush Eun-ju (Han Ga-in) thinks of him as a friend, a kind of eunuch she can hang out with while talking about music and getting drunk. The super-hot cougar (Kim Bu-seon), who runs the local cafe and wants to get down his pants, doesn't strike his fancy. (Something she learns the hard way after unzipping his pants.) This is one young man who's going to have to make do with gaining the respect of his father by kicking ass. Since Dad's made a business out of his own fists of fury, he knows all about the power of the punch. Violence is the answer!

The notion that muscles reign over the mind recurs throughout The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do: Teachers brutalize wayward students for being stupid or disobedient; hall monitors shove anyone who dares to make eye contact or talk back; Hamburger (Park Hyo-jun), the fat kid who sells bestial porn to earn tuition money, slaps a girl repeatedly who won't dance with him at the local disco. In Seoul in the '70s, smarts didn't get you much as a teenager. Better to hit the weights, kick the heavy bag, and learn to do pushups on your finger tips. Pining for the pretty girl on the bus is a waste of time. Re-enacting a scene from a Bruce Lee movie is a lot more fun. So is running through the hallway breaking windows and screaming "All the schools in Korea are fucked!" Now that's a total blast.