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.