September 24, 2012

The Schoolgirl's Diary: Being This Good Feels Just Awful

There's something discomforting about The Schoolgirl's Diary because it seems to be talking not just about one teenaged girl's struggle with poverty but about that struggle within a whole nation. The impoverished reality of living in a house where the doors fall down if you lean on them and faulty electrical outlets burst into flame doesn't feel like a portrait of the lower classes in North Korea. It just feels like plain old North Korea. Your heart goes out to Su-ryeon (Pak Mi-hyang) because she's struggling for a better life. Yes, and that's just as director Jang In-hak intended. But you also feel for Su-ryeon because you're not so sure that a better life is out there waiting for her. After all, you see her father (Kim Cheol) thanklessly toiling away at a factory for the greater good with only his wife (Kim Yeong-suk) according him any respect. As to mom herself, she's a martyr who's been diagnosed with a cancer that you doubt her socialized medicine will be able to cure. Su-ryeon's sister Su-ok (Kim Jin-mi) is the only happy member of the family. And where will her soccer skills take her? The North Korean women's team has been banned from the World Cup in 2015 for doping; the best the team has ever done is the World Cup quarterfinals in 2007. (Other years, it's been banned, didn't qualify or didn't enter.)

Amid this dreariness, Su-ryeon's pursuit of a better life is achingly optimistic if you can even say she's looking for a better life at all. Any personal goal eventually becomes so subordinate to the needs of the community that dreaming of better days can only mean dreaming of a better world...for everyone. In some ways, The Schoolgirl's Diary's selflessness stands in direct contrast to the egotism that reigns supreme in American pop culture today. Try to name a movie that depicts the nobility of good for goodness' sake without being framed as a satire and you're left drawing a blank. Far be it from me to wish for a stoic life in which luxury translates as potato taffy and warm soy milk is the reward for a hard day's work. Distasteful as it feels, the humility underlying The Schoolgirl's Diary is admirable. Now if only it weren't so depressing. Two red thumbs up for this one, my comrades.

September 16, 2012

Searching for the Elephant: One's Crazy, One's Horny and One's Non-Descript

Actor Lee Sang-woo needs to get a new agent. In Jhung S.K.'s Searching for the Elephant (a lopsided portrait of the tawdry affluence experienced by three childhood friends who never really grow up), Lee's saddled with a role so uninteresting that you wonder why he's in the movie at all. Compared to his co-star Jang Hyuk's schizophrenic who hallucinates hacked off fingers and photographs that reassemble in the shape of an elephant's head, and Jo Dong-hyeok's narcissistic plastic surgeon who can't stop screwing his patients because of his addiction to sex, Lee's part appears to be not so much a normal guy as a bland one. A financier with a mysterious history -- he disappeared for twelve years for reasons unknown -- Lee's businessman has invested in many money-making schemes but forgot to spend a little energy on a meaningful personality.

Maybe Lee's agent is prudish. Because the only other thing that distinguishes his character is the absence of screen time for his ass. Jang gives us two nice shots of his rear (one in the shower; the other, getting out of a pool); Jo can't help but share his bare bottom via a number of passionate sex scenes. The raunchiest Lee gets is sucking a paramour's toe while hidden, from the shoulders down, beneath a tubful of soap suds. Murder ensues because this paramour (Lee Min-jung) happens to be the wife of Jo's character and the sister of Jang's.

Who gets killed how eventually proves a bit farfetched, although what's bothersome about Searching for Elephants aren't the unanswered questions, it's the unrequested answers. Why do we need to learn the back story of Lee's renegade psychiatrist Dr. Jang (Hwang Woo-seul-hye)? Why do we have to watch antiqued footage of the three kids at the fair? Why can't Jin-hyeok exist in the Korean police's computer database? Each of these plot points suggest that the three screenwriters were getting paid by the minute (which would also explain the 2 1/2 hours running time).

Side Note: Time Warner Cable has Searching for the Elephant listed as Penthouse Playboys. Don't be tricked by the title. Neither movie is worth $5 via Movies on Demand.

September 8, 2012

Beasties Boys: Boy Hookers, Girl Hookers and Not a Lot of Romance

Prostitution is a messy affair and prostitutes in love are even messier. So while you might think Yun Jong-bin's Beastie Boys (a.k.a. The Moonlight of Seoul) is going to be a salacious bit of peekaboo concerning as it does Seung-woo (Yun Gye-sang), the rookie gigolo who falls in love with experienced call girl Ji-won (Yun Jin-seo), while he's working at a host bar pouring drinks out to cougars, this depressing drama serves up a lot more domestic anguish than it does backroom titillation. That's because director Yun is super-aware that professional seduction is the art of the con and that if you make a living out of a certain type of behavior then that same behavior is going to spill over into all other parts of your life.

So since Ji-won makes a living lying to men (and laying men), her being a scam artist too is inevitable because she can't help thinking of a better deal, a better setup, a richer life, a quicker fix. It's all part of her daily thinking. Jae-hyeon (Ha Jung-woo), Seung-woo's mentor, has been in the business even longer and he takes the compulsiveness even further — gambling, double-dealing, cheating, and extorting self-righteously without even a trace of guilt. Get tangled up with one of these warper sex-workers, as Seung-woo's sister Han-byeol (Lee Seung-min) does, and you're going to end up fleeced and heartbroken.

But Beastie Boys' descent into degradation and despair isn't as straightforward as this might suggest. On screen the story plays out as first as a rocky bromance alongside a sweetly unlikely romance. When things fall apart, as they tend to do in social realist dramas, all alliances are off. And it's not just every man and woman for his or her self, it's also "vengeance is mine." Since no one has been dealt a fair hand in life, these characters are out to win at all costs, and if not win then get into a different game, and if not that then make sure the competition is wiped out and that justice is served, no matter how much it hurts. This is a world in which the conscience has been devalued, which also means that guilt is scarily absent. Not a great film, Beastie Boys falls into that category of not-half-bad movies that periodically seize your attention with unexpected force.

September 1, 2012

Unbowed: Math Professor's Case Doesn't Add Up in Court

Jeong Ji-yeong's courtroom drama Unbowed starts off about the defense attorney, shifts to being about the defendant then ends up not being about anyone. What we learn about the lawyer (Park Won-sang) is that he's an alcoholic with a bumpy marriage, a flirty nature, and a strained relationship with his co-workers. He's not particularly likable. (Blame must be placed in part on Park who's drunk scenes are truly execrable.) But he at least knows he's fallible.

Not so his client, a mathematics professor (Ahn Song-kee) who, from what I can tell, was appropriately fired from his university job for not knowing the difference between perpendicular and parallel. After fleeing to the U.S. with his wife and son in tow, he decides to come back to fight for his position and ends up bringing a crossbow to the apartment building of a judge who dismissed his case. Does he shoot? Does it matter?

Far from being contrite, the teacher is sure he's getting the short end of the stick from the university system, the legal system, the police department, the media, and so on. He could be right but he's so damned arrogant that it's hard to rally behind him as he spits out every code that's being violated from his well-underlined law book to one smug judge (Lee Kyeong-yeong) after another (Moon Sung-keun). Like him or not, he's the most interesting part of the movie so when he temporarily drops out of the story after getting raped in prison, the film loses its preferred protagonist. By the time he returns, you forget his underdog status (which makes him somewhat sympathetic) and just remember his jerkiness.

Believe it or not, Unbowed is based on a real story. I don't doubt that someone could have the misfortune of facing a series of amoral judges or that an editor would shut down a story because he just didn't want to deal with the repercussions or that a woman would stay with her husband after he slept over another woman's place. What is hard to believe is that someone thought this particular trial merited a cinematic treatment. It doesn't. Or if it does, Unbowed needed a screenwriter with a stronger sense of character, actors who knew who to play drunk, and a cinematographer with a richer palette.