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.