October 28, 2012

A Great Chinese Restaurant: Don't Expect a Sequel to Le Gran Chef

I don't know how I got it into my head that Kim Ui-seok's A Great Chinese Restaurant (which I'd initially seen referred to as The Great Chef: Peking Restaurant) was a sequel to Chong Yun-su's Le Gran Chef, one of the funniest Korean comedies I've ever seen. The title is similar but not truly derivative. The movie itself was actually made eight years earlier than the one I thought it followed. Be that as it may, I was pretty excited to see the imagined followup. What I saw instead was a truly endearing little indie picture about a failing Chinese restaurant that finds a second life shortly after its owner (the wonderful Shin Goo) has a stroke thereby forcing the staff to draw upon its own resources to drum up business again.

The flailing restaurant's recovery is largely due to the arrival of Yang Han-kook (Kim Seok-hun), the son of the owner's childhood friend, a friend who disappeared many years ago after borrowing a lot of money and a butcher knife. Yang wants to repay his father's debt -- not with money but with the discovery of an irresistibly tasting recipe for a spicy noodle dish. If he can do this, he'll fulfill his father's childhood pact with the owner to establish a little eatery that qualifies as the best Chinese restaurant in town. With gently naturalistic performances from quite a few actors early in their careers -- Jeong Jun as the klutzy prep cook, Myeong Se-bin as the owner's independent daughter, A Great Chinese Restaurant is, in reality, the perfect companion piece to Le Gran Chef, because it revisits the same themes -- the comedy of competition, the poignancy of familial devotion, even the cooperative nature of the kitchen -- on a smaller scale. This is a chamber movie for foodies, a sentimental dramedy about pursuing the impossible, a feel-good flick about male bonding and the importance of not taking shortcuts.

The only things that keep this film from being a mini-masterpiece are the grating soundtrack and the unappetizing closeups of the various dishes. This film won't make you crave Chinese food. Why should it? It's Korean!

October 21, 2012

4 Toes: Comedy on the Fly

You get the feeling that writer-director Gye Yun-shik neither wrote for nor directed the actors in his jopok comedy 4 Toes but rather that he set up a couple of cameras then threw out spur-of-the-moment ideas for improvisation until he'd amassed enough material -- at least in terms of footage -- to cobble together a feature film. To that end, you've got skits about blood type, about a car's CD player, about a car accident with your buddy, about a mythical golden axe... You've also got skits based on locations, like a nightclub, a parking lot, a photo portrait studio, and a sauna which means for this big fight half the guys are naked, although never full-frontally so. Most scenes are super-short. Nothing really adds up. Nothing really goes anywhere either. There's no larger vision at work here outside of the desire to make a movie fast and cheap with some friends. And actually, it's a technique that could work but you'd have to have luck on your side and some actors who were a bit more naturally funny.

Fortune isn't smiling on Gye, however, or his four male leads, all of whom feel too old to be playing high school students in some scenes and too goofy to be gangsters in others. And yet, as ineffective as 4 Toes is, and as lazy as the script is (there's so much voiceover you'd think Gye was filming a novelization), I still appreciated the ballsiness of the undertaking. The willingness to risk, though it didn't pay off here, certainly explains why some members of the cast have gone on to much more successful comedies: Jeong Eun-pyo (Le Grand Chef), Kim Kap-su (She's on Duty), Lee Won-jong (200 Pounds of Beauty). Which suggests to me that sometimes there's something to be said for just practicing your craft in public or on celluloid or in this case what looks like digital video; and that there's no shame in having a little egg on your face if you're aiming to eventually get a part in an enjoyably frivolous movie that's light as a souffle. Even Gye went on to greater success: My Wife Is a Gangster 3 may not be a work of genius but it's a threequel in a fairly big film franchise.

October 19, 2012

The Front Line: Breaking All the Rules for a Pyrrhic Victory

Everything's fair in love and war. That's certainly an extremist point of view. It's also an idea which the war pic Jang Hun's The Front Line has made its underlying principal minus the love part. Within the context of war, no action is considered unacceptable -- not shooting a squadron of your own men, not using an injured, baby-faced soldier (Lee Da-wit) as bait to catch a sniper, not transporting messages from the enemies to their friends just for some chocolate or a bottle of wine, not letting an assassin (Kim Ok-bin) go because she's a woman. Whenever this status quo is challenged, a shouting match may ensue between the crafty officer (Go Soo) with the unappetizing tactic and the upstanding, undercover agent (Shin Ha-kyun) who everyone knows is undercover. No matter how heinous the suggestion put forth by the diabolical soldier, he is the one who is going to get the support of the troops. Morality, evidently, is antithetical to the battleground.

It doesn't end there either. When the fat captain (Jo Jin-woong) who's been giving lousy orders for the entire film finally goes too far endangering the men you can shoot him and take over. When the command from above is to defend at all costs, you can flee. When your best friend is revealed to be a complete traitor, you can forgive pretty quickly. You can even shout hurtful things to little girls with missing limbs without losing the respect of most of your fellow comrades. It's stress-related behavior, I guess.

I'm not sure why Korea chose to put this movie in contention for an Academy Award -- it didn't make the short list. The story isn't just anti-war, it's anti-person. And as war movies go, the battles recall video games in that you can see the objective (climb the hill) or go into a monochromatic environment (explore the tunnel) as the casualties roll by and the landmines explode like so many special effects graphics intended to enliven your faux world as the story/adventure pushes forward. The snag is that there isn't a character here who I'd want to play. I want my token back.

October 14, 2012

The Yellow Sea: If You Can Cut With It, You Can Kill With It

In The Yellow Sea, Yanji* cab-driver Ga-num (Ha Jung-woo) isn't your typical anti-hero. A gambler whose debts have driven him to agree to kill a professor (Kwak Byeong-gyoo) in Seoul, he's short on charm and lacks a moral code, however warped. Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok), the crime boss who enlists his services, comes across as more likeable and laudable. At least initially. But after the targeted prof has been offed, everything's become so horrific — the planned assassination has domino-ed into mass murder — that Ga-num emerges as the sympathetic guy. (It's hard not to feel for a guy who got played.) Framed and uninformed, he's left to fend off Myun-ga's gang, the cops, and the thugs of Kim Tae-won (Cho Seong-ha), Myun-ga's slimy white collar counterpoint.

Na Hong-jin, who also directed the heart-racing thriller The Chaser, must have paranoia in his DNA. Once again, the thrills in The Yellow Sea come from "Somebody's after me!" scenarios; yet again the action is all pursuit/escape. As Ga-num flees Myun-ga, Kim and the cops, Kim flees and pursues Myun-ga, and Myun-ga chases and chases and chases. Many of the face-offs when someone finally catches up to someone else involve men with big kitchen knives or just-as-lethal axes hacking, stabbing, and sometimes even sawing into unlucky bodies. Many die quickly, dramatically. But the three main guys — Ga-num, Myun-ga, and Kim — bleed and survive, stopping only for the time it takes to fashion a tourniquet.

Their collective rapid recoveries push The Yellow Sea into comic book territory, where men bludgeon others with pots and pans and even the occasional animal thigh bone. Where else can a man with a twisted ankle outrun police cars and a whole squad of officers on foot? Since the superhuman powers aren't restricted to the movie's hero, fights are fair among the main three: Anyone could win. Whether anyone actually does or not is a question to answer over the many excited drinks sure to follow.

*Footnote: Yanji is a Chinese city with a predominantly Korean population.

October 11, 2012

Just Do It!: Accidentally Not Funny

You never learn precisely why the Jeong family has gone broke in Park Dae-yeong's very unfunny comedy Just Do It!, but after watching about fifteen minutes you can assume it isn't a case of bad luck. It's probably just that the Jeongs are morons. A chance accident, that occurs when the drunken dad (An Seok-hwan) leaves a food tent and gets knocked over by a car -- He was standing behind it pissing on its license plate -- also lands the poor patriarch in the hospital where he reaps unexpected cash from a forgotten insurance policy. This sudden influx of money inspires the rest of the family to pursue near-fatal accidents as a way to collect some more dough and quite quickly move their way up in society. No slums for these bums!

Son Dae-cheol (Jeong Jun) taunts some soldiers into beating him senseless at a bar; daughter Jang-mi (Park Jin-hie) breaks her finger in a bowling ball; and mom (Song Wok-suk) strategically topples a tower of boxes holding wine so that she ends up beneath them. Bones are broken, eyes are lost, hips are dislocated. Each misfortune is greeted with glee as the family gains financially. Is it funny? No. Is it clever? No. Is it worth watching? No. Did I watch it to the end anyway? Yes. Why? Well, I just did it. For you, I would say, "Just don't do it."

As stupid comedies go, Just Do It! gets the stupid part right but not the comedy. After the initial setup is exhausted, an insurance agent (Park Sang-myeon) suspects the family of fraud. Rather than mine the yuks from his attempts to catch them hurting themselves, the movie stages a simple piece of poor sexually misleading slapstick that entraps the equally dumb agent into marrying the feather-brained daughter. A completely contrived final act finds the family tracking down a distant relative (Lee Beom-su perhaps at his weirdest) who they plan on murdering so they can collect a million dollars on his policy. For awhile he proves unkillable. But only for awhile. Eventually, the movie mercifully ends. If you want to spend some time staring at your television and not really feeling anything, this is your movie.

October 6, 2012

Kilimanjaro: A Plot as Thin as Mountain Air

There's a point midway in writer-director-nincompoop Oh Seung-ook's Kilimanjaro when one character says to another, "See you in a better world." Probably, right after that shot, the actor uttering this bit of dialogue said to his co-star, "See you in a better film," too. A convoluted mess about the disaster set off when one shamed cop named Hae-shik (Park Shin-yang) decides to impersonate his twin brother Hae-chol, an unsuccessful gangster whom he disowned right up to until witnessing his forsaken sibling's unexplained suicide, Kilimanjaro requires a second viewing to make sense of because the flashbacks always leave you unsure just which brother you're seeing on screen at any given time. Since I have neither the patience nor the inclination to sit through this film again, this review may contain some inaccuracies. I'm okay with that.

Even with these misgivings, I feel confident stating ex post facto that lead character Hae-chol/Hae-shik shouldn't be so cocky when it comes to challenging the local crime boss Jong (Kim Seung-cheol) and he should be a heck of a lot more appreciative towards his repeated savior and fellow crook Beong (Ahn Sung-kee) who, oddly enough, treats him like a brother. I also know Hae-chol and Beong have two other partners-in-crime — "Sergeant" (Jeong Eun-pyo) and "Evangelist" (Choi Seon-jung) — with whom they've bonded by being photographed shirtless on the beach many years ago. As to the rivalry between Jong's gang and Beong's, the terrible thing that Hae-chol once did that now so pisses off Jong, the reason why Hae-shik got dismissed from the police force, even the reason why Beong got married, all of these things are conveyed as significant facts that the movie keeps inexplicably veiled in mystery. Lucid Kiliminjaro is not.

Despite the confusion, Kiliminjaro culminates in a satisfyingly bloody gunfight that puts all the good guys and bad guys in one shabby room with a bunch of guns that no one seems to know how to operate. You might not know why everyone's out to kill each other but you don't question the motives either. Sometimes people just piss you off and you wish they were dead.