November 23, 2012

A Smile: Eyesight's Sore Loser

As disease-of-the-week movies go, A Smile is oddly uninformative about its spotlit illness: retinitis pigmentosa. This currently incurable degenerative eye disease can cause a short list of intermediary symptoms -- ranging from night blindness to color separation issues to blurring to tiredness -- before the dreaded darkness sets in. Yet aside from some early mentions of tunnel vision and the occasional bumping into objects like a tripod or a low table, photographer So-jung's (Choo Sang-mi) primary side-effect appears to be depression. Her soul is suffering more than her sight and her symptoms feel more psychological than physical. When she informs us her situation is getting worse, you can't help but think: Girlfriend, your biggest problem isn't retinitis, it's you!

Unable to reconcile herself to the possibility of going blind, she ends a relationship with her really sweet boyfriend Ji-seok (Song Il-gon), mopes around her grandmother's funeral without telling anyone else in her family of her recent diagnosis, and sells nearly all her cameras and equipment to run away and take flying lessons from a drunk aviator in the middle of nowhere. At no time do we see her exploring treatment options (admittedly limited) or tracking down her father's side of the family (the disease is genetic). It appears a part of So-jung saw doom forecast and then just ran with it.

I wasn't sure whether writer-director Park Kyung-hee wanted us to feel she was bold or batty when she decided to throw her life away so she could learn to fly but I definitely fell into the latter camp. So-jung's longing to get free of the earth and see the world from a new perspective may have some poetic cache but as an element in a hyper-realistic drama, she comes across as incredibly irresponsible and egocentric. Will she ever take to the skies? If she does, will she crash? If she crashes, will she die? If she dies, will she see again? If she does, will she meet the smiling Buddha which was one of the last things she photographed? And if he does, will the Buddha smile? I wouldn't.

November 22, 2012

Bedevilled: Friendship Is a Bloody Mess

I suppose, you could call Bedevilled a horror movie since in its bloodiest, climactic section, you do find a crazed yet determined woman killing just about everyone in sight. But the real horrors in Jang Chul-soo's gritty little gem aren't the murders -- which in truth are disturbingly satisfying -- but the abuse suffered by the film's ingratiating protagonist, a good-natured naif named Bok-nam (Seo Yeong-hie) who's become a kind of pathetic joke to neighbors and family. Her husband (Park Jeong-hak) beats her. Her mother-in-law (Baek Soo-ryeon) ridicules her. The town aunties belittle her without mercy. As you see her abused by nearly every person on the remote island on which she lives, you can't wait 'til they in turn get their comeuppance. Which they do in chilling fashion.

But what makes Bedeviled such a great pic isn't its story of righteous vengeance but a sub-plot of devotion and betrayal involving Hae-won (Ji Seong-won), a childhood friend who escaped from the island and who has returned as a completely self-absorbed, big city sophisticate. It's Hae-won we meet first, not Bok-nam, and in a weird way Bedevilled is her story of transformation, too as a truly discomforting tension exists between these two women, a tension extending beyond their suppressed lesbian attraction to the much more commonplace push-and-pull that happens when a needful friend is desperately searching for help while the self-sufficient one is committed to not getting involved. Hae-won's self-justified detachment becomes both Bok-nam's undoing and her liberation. With no one to turn to and overcome by relentless misery, she lashes out and thereby turns Bedevilled into a kind of feel-bad chick flick in which the dangers of not subscribing to the sisterhood are revealed in gory detail. Whether you're an old lady championing the patriarchy or an old friend who can't be bothered, Bok-nam has no sympathy for you. Like any respectable fright flick, Bedevilled is ultimately a political allegory, in this case a cautionary feminist tale that encourages the manicured hand to reach out to the rough-skinned one with dirt under the nails. Hear the message as you scream.

November 14, 2012

The Ring Virus: Here's the Version You Haven't Heard About

If a movie's cultural relevance could be calculated by the number of sequels and copycats it spawned, then surely Japanese fanboy fright flick Ringu would count as globally significant since it's inspired not just two sequels and a prequel in its native country but also a popular American remake (which in turn has its own Part 2) and a Korean spin-off. Given that worldwide impact, you'd be asking a lot of the transnational versions if you expected any of them to achieve the same level of notoriety. Never heard of The Ring Virus, the Korean variation? Well, that's not because it's bad. It's because it came out a mere year after the original and shifted the stylistic frame from horror to supernatural detective story. Think serviceable more than sensational.

So while you've still got the videotape that kills you a week after you watch it and a pissed off female spirit (Bae Doona) who hides behind long black hair even when she's crawling out of a television to shock you to death, the central quest of one potential victim hoping to break the video's fatal curse before it snuffs her entails less screaming and more forehead wrinkling this time. This is a mystery after all. So when her niece dies from a premature heart attack and Sun-ju (Shin Eun-kyung) senses something's amiss, she's sniffing out a story, not a dead body per se. A closet newshound, she applies her admittedly undeveloped investigative skills -- to date, she's been working on art exhibits, not breaking news -- to unearth the cause of her relative's death. Out of her league, she enlists the help of offbeat forensic doctor Choi Yeol (Jeong Jin-yeong) and together they search, worry, ponder, get goosebumps, take a boat, and obsess over details neither can decode nor piece together. (The only puzzle that actually comes together in The Ring Virus is the jigsaw on Choi's floor.) Although he's ostensibly the sidekick, Choi is the more interesting character -- a cold-blooded man of science who sees this chase after death as a temporary respite from existential ennui. Writer-director Kim Dong-bin believes, dying is better than boredom. That's a sentiment with which I agree.

November 11, 2012

Repechage: No One Else Is Into Either of You So Get Together Already

A sweet-natured nerd (Jang Dong-gun) in a blue oxford shirt and dress pants is mindlessly walking down the sidewalk when a fiery knockout (Kim Hee-seon) in dark sunglasses, fishnet stockings and a leather jacket pulls over in her convertible and offers him a ride. How lucky is he? Before you answer that, take into account she's wearing a red pleather jacket and driving a canary yellow convertible. If that doesn't bother you too much, then check out the photographs she's just handed him of his fiancee (Kim Shi-won) making out with her boyfriend (Lee Jin-wu). Suddenly, the cliched male fantasy that opens Lee Kwang-hoon's Repechage is officially null and void. And what kind of fantasy was it really? I mean, he had a sexy fiancee already! Why did he get into this strange woman's car?

We'll never know because for the next 80 minutes, we're instead subjected to one of the slowest realization processes committed to celluloid. As we watch the two rejecting exes in the photos make out then dine out then take a mini-vacation together, we also see the two people they've dumped trying to figure out what could it all possibly mean? Neither the nerd (a veterinarian who likes to inject animals with anesthetic) nor the babe (a photographer who shoots everything from bathing suits to weddings) can comprehend that their former soul mates have moved on and that reconciliation will not be an option. Because they're slow learners, we sit impatiently waiting for them to figure out that the love of their lives is the fellow rejectee. Given how stupid these two are, you just hope they stay married forever (to save the rest of us from getting stuck with one of them) and never have babies (to save the world from their less-than-brilliant genetic pool).

The best thing to say about Repechage is it taught me a new word, which means "a last chance round for eliminated contestants to make the finals." I doubt I'll remember that. I doubt I'll remember this either.