August 30, 2012

The Hand of Destiny: Under the Covers with an Undercover Agent

Jeong-ae (Yun In-ja) is such a bad girl that she pretends that she's a hooker as a way to cover up her much-worse role in society: She's a North Korean spy! As bad luck would have it, she falls hard for Shin Yeong-cheol (Lee Hyang-ja), a dock-worker/penniless-student who's working his way up the ladder of the South Korean military. Neither knows the other one's secret life outside the tawdry apartment that she's decorated with weird dolls, cheap curtains, and an owl clock that shifts its eyes left and right with every second. As the wise old owl knows, eventually their time of bliss will be over. Tick, tick, tick.

All those booze-fueled flirtations, the shopping sprees that snagged him a nice suit and her a well-dressed piece of arm candy, those sleepovers in which they've inexplicably spent the night fully clothed in a twin-sized bed are about to become troublesome memories. Is it love that kept the other so close or something else? Has she been double-crossing him since day one? Was she actually under constant observation by him night after passionate night? Is the pure love that each continually professes a complete ruse?

This is melodrama built on the idea that when romance unravels, drama heightens. After numerous scenes punctuated by silences that feel either unintentionally modernist or patiently waiting for the actor to say the next line, The Hand of Destiny culminates in two pretty engrossing shootouts on a mountaintop -- one with her hiding just a few feet behind him, the other filmed inside a cave that suggests they, and her bullying secret agent boss (Ju Seon-tae), have been transported to the moon. Indeed, the best cinematography in director Han Hyeong-mo's The Hand of Destiny makes the most of otherworldly shadows and angles so that household objects like a wicker purse or a circular mirror look somehow familiar and strange.

Although historically important for having the first big screen kiss in Korean movie history, The Hand of Destiny's most riveting love scene is actually a death scene, too, in which the femme fatale looks to be experiencing a near-orgasm of death as she begs her former lover to kill her once and for all. As endings go, it's a pretty entertaining one. As an oldie-but-goodie, it's really so-so.

August 26, 2012

Punch Lady: Domestic Violence Becomes a Martial Arts Match

Personally, I was hardly expecting Punch Lady, a movie about an abused wife who challenges her homicidal/pro martial-artist husband to fight in the ring, to be a laugh-out-loud comedy. And yet that's really what Kyang Hyo-jin's movie is. Which isn't to say the violent scenes in which mousy Ha-eun (To Ji-won) gets pummeled by her psychotic spouse Joo-chang (Park Sang-uk) aren't horrific. They are. As is the climactic face-off during which the two throw punches/kicks in a packed arena broadcasting nationwide. But what transpires between is loaded with silly bits that never feel inappropriate, a miracle of sorts to be honest. How'd that happen?

Part of Punch Lady's ability to stay funny so much of the time can be attributed to the central theme being neither revenge nor justice. Kyang's screenplay is really about self-discovery instead. Which isn't the same as self-transformation by the way. Again, unexpectedly, Ha-eun doesn't change from timid housewife to unstoppable fighting machine. When she enters the ring, she still flinches whenever her husband approaches. All she has are a few key moves fueled by rage. There's actually an amazing moment mid-fight when she stops just to let out a few blood-curdling screams. These are the screams of a woman furious at being treated as less than human, as being part of a legacy of abuse that dates back to her mother (who was beat by her father) and now could continue through her daughter (already a target for Joo-chang's abuse).

Ha-eun's screams jar you back to the larger reality in which women can often be treated as second-class citizens and in which spousal abuse remains a topic people still don't like to talk about first- or second-hand. You could call Punch Lady a feminist comedy if you wanted to but I'm not so sure whether it holds up on that count. Her coach Soo-hyeon (Son Hyeon-ju) is positioned as a romantic figure because he wants to be her protector, even as his mock mastery of moves is simply his mimickry of what he learned the night before at a nearby gym. Enlightened as I might be and try as I might, I couldn't resist cackling at that first training montage which isn't a feel-good, get-tough sweatfest so much as it's a comical sendup of the masochism of pushing yourself to the limit and the sadism that accompanies helping someone else do the same. And only a misogynist wouldn't love her triumphant punches in the final round.

August 13, 2012

A Little Pond: The Big Picture for the Little Fish

In a generation, most of us will be forgotten. In another generation, most of the rest of us will be forgotten, too. There's a hierarchy to history and the little people (i.e., you and me) aren't destined for the annals of time. At most, we'll get a headstone that'll act as a backrest for a picnicker in 100 years. If we're really lucky, maybe this movie by writer-director Lee Sang-woo will stick around to tell our story too.

His war movie, A Little Pond, focuses almost exclusively on barely individuated civilians, who find themselves in the middle of a battlefield through no fault of their own. When we meet the villagers they're living a life of no consequence. Suddenly, they're commanded to desert their hometown Nogunri. Then they're commanded to evacuate their hiding place up the mountain. Nothing they do will save them though. Neither their needs nor their lives are important to their so-called protectors who order them around in English, a language they don't understand.

That language barrier actually explains too why the American soldiers are initially so paranoid of them. Unable to get instructions followed quickly, the soldiers perceive any reluctance or misunderstanding as possible subterfuge and resistance. The tension between the two cultures is inevitable and when the battle inevitably begins, the villagers find themselves dodging bullets and bombs which take some of them out indiscriminately. Stay behind to help someone and you're doomed. Run ahead and your chances to survive are slim.

Accidental deaths, sadly, are succeeded by intentional ones. This is war and mass slaughter is the order of the day. The American saviors become the American butchers as the helpless and unarmed hiding beneath a bridge leading nowhere are shot down one by one as what must be some sick form of damage control. There's a great moment near the end where a juvenile soldier for the Korean Communists asks if there are any survivors, and a young boy his age stands to face him. The safety of neutrality has always been a myth!

Tearjerker reunions cap this war pic for the people, a film that has plenty of schmaltzy moments throughout. But "life as a sentimental mess" is a valid point of view and what's a Korean movie without magic butterflies.