December 31, 2012

The Best Korean Movies of 2012 (Sort of)

Was 2012 a great year for Korean movies? I've no idea since I haven't seen a single movie made that year yet. Was 2012 a great year for watching Korean movies? Hell, yes. Evidence below.

1. Peppermint Candy (1999): Critics raved about Lee Chang-dong's Poetry but this flashback film about a corrupt, suicidal businessman blows that later movie out of the water.

2. Woman Is the Future of Man (2006): Who doesn't love a good love triangle? Fools perhaps! Who doesn't love director Hong Sang-soo? Me until this movie actually. Now I totally do, too.

3. Night Fishing (2011): A short film without subtitles? That's right! Park Chan-wook's iPhone pic would have made this list if all it had been was the floating hat sequence with music by The UhUhBoo Project.

4. Bedevilled (2010): No top ten list of Korean movies is complete without a great fright flick. No great flight flick comes without a political message. Bedevilled is all about sisterly bonding. Not.

5. War of the Arrows (2011): Archery, certainly the trendiest of warfare weapons, is showcased to great effect in this Medieval action movie. Plenty of studded leather, too.

6. Crying Fist (2005): Now here's an anomaly: a boxing movie in which you're smitten with both contenders (Choi Min-sik, Ryu Seung-beom) -- both of them losers looking for redemption.

7. A Great Chinese Restaurant (1999): You'll have to suffer through the soundtrack but believe me, this indie dramedy is well worth the effort. Quite touching.

8. The Yellow Sea (2010): Na Hong-jin, who also directed the heart-racing thriller The Chaser, has paranoia in his DNA. Once again, the thrills here come from "Somebody's after me!" scenarios,

9. Quick (2011): Total motorcycle madness drives this movie that literally turns the premise of Speed on its head. Or on her head to be more precise.

10. My Dear Desperado (2010): Once again the Koreans defy expectations in this romantic comedy which ends up not that funny and not that romantic but pretty damned good.

Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2011.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2010.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2009.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2008.

December 30, 2012

Peppermint Candy: Off to a Sweet Start

There are certain works of art -- Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop; Thornton Wilder's Our Town; much of Shakespeare -- that somehow capture the totality of life so completely that they feel practically omniscient. Art-house darling (and mine too) Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy is one such work. Told in reverse chronology with unerring compassion and merciless honesty, this brilliantly searing movie surveys the life of Yang-ho (Sol Kyung-gu) -- a suicidal businessman who initially comes across as the universe's whipping boy -- with a scientist's methodicalness. But as Lee peels back all the layers of corruption and cynicism, self-loathing and loss that have accumulated for Yang-ho, you end up simultaneously confronted by the man's complicity and his misfortune. A person can make grave mistakes and still be worthy of our sympathy. Isn't there an unsure, hopeful, longing being existing in each and every one of us? Isn't the loss of innocence the most universal tale?

If that sounds like sentimental hogwash, take note: Lee's film is a rattling scream of anguish. I didn't cry once although I was pretty upset for most of it. Unrelenting in its intensity, Peppermint Candy keeps throwing cold water in your face the moment you start to get the warm fuzzies. Check out the seriocomic scene in the car where Yang-ho is literally performing on his cell phone for each caller or the surreally discordant marital scene that features his nude wife Hongja (Kim Yeo-jin) running around on all fours like a golem or the seemingly straightforward hospital scene in which he sweet talks his first love (Moon So-ri) while her husband stands in the background. Every time you think you've figured out what's going on, Lee gives a wrenching twist to the action that reminds you that you can NEVER really know what's going on in anyone's life, head, heart, or world.

Peppermint Candy is Lee's sophomore effort as a writer-director and like Oasis, the heartbreaking film which followed it, this movie has a magical quality that's hard to explain. Between each sequence, for instance, dreamlike footage reveals a train's journey but backwards: Nearby cars drive in reverse, people retrace their steps, a dog seems to dance to on unheard command. It's nothing you haven't seen before and yet it feels as though it is. The ability to make the familiar new may be what makes a piece of art, art anyway. Don't you think?

December 29, 2012

Invasion of Alien Bikini: Female Aliens Ought to Be Treated Better

A hot female extraterrestrial comes to Earth in search of sperm. Sound like a porno flick? Well, don't you have a dirty mind! Remember the horror flick Species? That hardly qualifies as smut but that was basically the idea. And it's the same one here with Invasion of Alien Bikini, a weird hybrid flick that's got comedy, scifi, martial arts, horror, and domestic drama as part of its movie makeup without a naked breast in site. Which doesn't mean that sex doesn't figure into the picture. It does. The alien has taken human form (Ha Eun-jung) and spends the majority of her time parading around in a black bra and panties. But her targeted sperm donor -- a volunteer community activist (Hong Young-geun) who has unwittingly rescued her from earthlings wiser to her ways -- has taken a vow of celibacy so while he too spends much time in his underwear, her attempts to stimulate him via a feather duster, some rope and an off-screen (and somewhat bloody) blowjob are all for naught. Her biological clock clicks way too loudly for his taste.

Because of that, her attempts at pre-martial sex annoy him. He's got his moral code and a fairly damaged childhood to keep him on the straight and narrow. And when she resorts to violence as a way to get him to comply, he comes right back at her... which is the problem with Invasion of Alien Bikini. Although we know she's an alien -- we have been told as much and even seen her spine pop out and try to strangle him -- she still registers as a woman so when her designated donor turns against her and starts punching her repeatedly in the face, you can't help but see it as violence against women. Try as a I might to rationalize that scene, I couldn't shake the inherent misogyny of it, which could've been solved quite easily if we'd seen the whites of her eyes turn fluorescent green or her teeth turn metallic or her hair fall off to reveal a bald head tattooed with advanced math problems.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Invasion of Alien Bikini is a bad movie. To the contrary, it's a remarkable low-budget indie that does an immense amount with very little and has super-fun performances from its two leads. But this particular misstep knocks what could've been a Grade A B-movie into the bargain bin of basement curiosities. Maybe writer-director Oh Young-doo will right the film's wrongs with his next flick. I'd watch it!

December 25, 2012

Woman Is the Future of Man: So Real It Hurts

If asked, I'd say I had a bedgrudging respect for autuer Hong Sang-soo but after re-watching Woman Is the Future of Man, I'm going to let the begrudging part go. Although I may never be able to rally around Night and Day or Woman on the Beach (too many cliches; not enough plot), I actually liked the violently jarring The Day the Pig Fell into the Well and his melancholic The Power of Kangwon Province unreservedly. Woman Is the Future of Man, I downright love. A character portrait of a trio of people, Hong's film makes you cringe and ache so often you may think you've got Tourette's, surfacing as it does the little cruelties we inflict and little pains we experience on a moment-to-moment basis when we're in the thick of it. No one is the hero. No one is the villain. No one is the antihero. Art professor Lee Mun-ho (Yu Ji-tae), budding filmmaker Kim Hyeon-gon (Kim Tae-woo) and the woman they both once loved many years ago, bar manager Park Seon-hwa (Seong Hyeon-a) are three flawed humans trying to get through life, unable to free themselves from the daily treacheries that make survival a small scale war. As such, they're constantly betraying each other and themselves so that eventually the small fortresses that they've built to protect themselves are completely smashed away. Sad? Yes. But electric, too.

You can't really pick out a specific actor as the best one here. Hong has cast astutely right down to the lady across the street from the cafe and the guy in the back of the restaurant where Lee gathers with his students for an ill-fated meal. That said, Yu's professor is a fascinating mixture of bumbling and smooth, Kim's filmmaker can't quite shed the hipster edginess that you pray one day he'll outgrow, and Park conveys a quiet bewilderment as she relives the misguided choices of youth all over again one snowy, sloppy weekend. I'd also like to give a shout out to both composer Jeong Yong-jin for his hauntingly wistful score and to Mary, the black Labrador Retriever, who has so many perfect moments as a background player that you'd award her an Equity card (deluxe edition) if animals got those types of things. In terms of film-watching, 2012 hasn't been a great year for me but Woman Is the Future of Man restores my faith in Korean movies. So thank you, Hong Sang-soo, and sorry about any slights I made to your work in the past. Next time, I'm coming in an unreserved fan.

December 24, 2012

Pulgasari: The People's Godzilla of North Korea

Looking somewhat like the love child of a minotaur and a dinosaur, Pulgasari is not you're typical, everyday movie monster. Molded from rice by a wrongly imprisoned blacksmith (Ri Gwon) then brought to life by a droplet of blood shed by his industrious daughter (Chang Son Hui), the North Korean cousin of Godzilla is literally "of the people, for the people, by the people." After quickly growing from cute-and-squeaky squeeze toy to a growling, towering creature thanks to a diet of stick pins and swords, he becomes the mascot and war machine for a village of farmers fighting the royal army which wants to take all their tools, pots and pans and turn them into weapons. Naturally, the king (Pak Yong-hok) and his cohorts try everything they can to bring Pulgasari down -- a cage of fire, rockets to the eyeballs, a hailstorm of stones, a cannon shaped like a lion, even sorcery -- but the big man in the rubber suit will not be stopped from fighting the good fight alongside Inde (Ham Gi-sop), the bare-chested leader of the rebellion against the greedy government. And yes, you do get to see Pulgasari smash a few buildings along the way.

There's an interesting back story behind Pulgasari, too, as it's one of the movies-in-exile directed by Shin Sang-ok, the South Korean director, who along with his ex-wife/actress Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped by Kim Jong-il -- the same Kim Jong-il who went on to become President of North Korea -- in an effort to strengthen his country's film industry. As producer of Pulgasari, Kim's efforts didn't stop with getting a famous expatriate director either. He also hired Japan's Toho Studio to help with special effects and had none other than Kenpachiro Satsuma, a Japanese performer who'd previously costumed up for Godzilla and other Kaiju monsters in his homeland, to play the title role.

Intended as a polemic against capitalism, Pulgasari occasionally feels as though it's criticizing any totalitarian regime, which is ironic given Kim's role as executive producer. Even so this 1985 propaganda flick never screened outside the two Koreas until 1998 when it was finally shown in Japan. If you're looking for more of the late Kim's work as a film producer, check out The Schoolgirl's Diary, which -- like Pulgasari -- is currently available on YouTube of all places. You might not like his record as a "supreme leader" but as movie execs go, he's not half bad.

December 23, 2012

The Cat: Creatues With Nine Lives Battle Humans With One

Here pussy, pussy. Here pussy, pussy. We may never agree on which house pet is smarter, the dog or the cat, but one thing we probably can all agree on is that cat owners more consistently cater to the needs and wants of their four-legged friends. Think how rare it is to hear a dog owner say, "I give him wet food because he just won't eat dry." Or how much stranger it would be to hear of a tabby that's been regularly beaten, trained to kill, and can only be controlled with an electronic collar. There may be lapdogs treated like princesses but even so, they're part of a broader spectrum in terms of care. Which is what makes a movie in which cats figure as enactors of revenge for man's mistreatment of animals so damned creepy. Dogs have every right to bear a grudge but cats... When did we ever do anything but treat them like royalty!

In writer-director Byeon Seung-wook's fright flick The Cat, pet groomer So-yeon (Park Min-young) is what you might call a quiet animal rights activist. She doesn't carry a poster or bullhorn but she will softly correct a woman for coloring a cat's fur pink or chastise her best friend Bo-hee (Sin Da-eun) for adopting Dimwit, a stray chinchilla, simply to improve pet grooming skills. That So-yeon doesn't own a cat herself seems strange but when her high school crush Jun-seok (Kim Dong-wook) who's now a cop asks her to take care of one white Persian named Silky, she doesn't hesitate to bring the feline to the pet store where she works and then eventually home. Neither place turns out to be a good idea because this cat likes the taste of blood, and not just the type that comes trickling out of an accidentally cut finger. This cat is out for the blood of anyone who's mistreated cats, and she's not alone. Soon other cats are making appearances, gathering in cat gangs, and at one point, attacking one particular jerk as a group. (Yes, it does look a bit silly.)

No cats were harmed in the making of The Cat and that's as it should be. If they were, spooky little ghost girl Hee-jin (Kim Ye-ron) would certainly exact vengeance on their behalf. Given her cat eyes and cat claws, she's practically a member of their species even as she's got her own grievances to settle. Finding out what they are is the only way that So-yeon can stop these crazy cats from making mincemeat of humanity. And while she's at it, So-yeon's going to tackle her crippling claustrophobia, too!

December 21, 2012

Little Black Dress: Four Soulless Bitches Want to Be Famous

Writer-director Heo In-mu's chick flick Little Black Dress has two characters worthy of screen time: Yeong-mi (Choi Yoon-young) a needy, aspiring screenwriter who wonders if her failure to get her ideas heard or to secure a promotion despite years of devotion is all because she just isn't that pretty. Her attempts to befriend the prize-winning new staff-member Yoo-min (Yun Eun-hye) don't get very far and even on her most suicidal day, she can't get much of a kind word from the colleague she so badly idolizes. The other fascinating character doesn't even have a name. She's simply a writer, who I assume is working on a soap opera. Broadly played by Jeon Soo-kyeong, this woman parades across the old screen like old Hollywood, milking not-so-hot one-liners for all they're worth, and generally making everyone else on screen look very community theater. That she also shows a sensitive side later on isn't a relief. It's a verification that you can paint with broad strokes without having to forego smaller touches when they're called for. Either of these women could have led to interesting stories but neither is primary role. Sadder still, they never have a scene with each other. For reasons that will dumbfound most viewers, Heo instead keeps her camera on four other, very less richly drawn ingenues, a quarter of narcissistic, hard-hearted gorgons who can imagine no fate worse than seeing a friend succeed and ending up in the shadow.

A certain poetic justice exists in having the one who appears the least talented -- the beauty of the bunch, Hye-ji -- land her fortune as a Levi's jeans model discovered at a nightclub. But even so, that little concession to the ironies of life, is unlikly to make you warm up to the soulless scribe Yoo-min, the wooden artiste living in poverty Soo-jin (Cha ye-ryeon) or the rich girl with a thing for underage boys Min-hee (Yoo In-na). Each character is hatable in her own way and whether Heo wrote Little Black Dress as a way to wreak revenge on former colleagues in her drama department or because she doesn't see just how monstrous these egomaniacs are is anyone's guess. There's a misplaced affection for the four girlfriends that definitely points to the second conjecture. For the love of God, I hope I'm wrong. No one that shallow is lovable. (Which means you'd never blame self-centered Lee Yong-woo for cheating on Yoo-min. You'd praise him. Only pain could help these four women mature if they ever do at all.)

December 13, 2012

Parallel Life: Tracking Down Your Own Killer

Recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Kim Seok-hyeon (Ji Jin-hee) has a real dilemma on his hands. He's living a life that's the mirror image of one that took place 30 years ago and which ended in a series of murders. If he has any doubts, soon enough, Kim's slutty wife (Yoon Sae-ah) will be dead (just like his alter ego's). Now it's just a matter of time before he and his child (Park Sa-rang) are six feet under as well. What can he do? He can visit the institutionalized professor (Oh Hyeon-kyeong) who wrote the definitive text on parallel lives but what will he gain? Further proof that he's going to die! He can finally listen to the nice lady reporter (Oh Ji-eun) who feeds his growing obsession that his personal history is repeating itself much in the same way that John F. Kennedy's life did Abraham Lincoln's. Same birthday, same month and date of something else important... All these matches can't be coincidental. So what does the lady reporter get? An early grave. Then again she must have seen that one coming.

Ultimately, that's the problem with director Kweon Ho-young's Parallel Life. You don't really have a sense of suspense because you never really doubt that Kim's going to die or that the parallel theory is anything but real. Even with the potential conspiracies and salacious rumors floating around about unethical judges, dirty cops and adulterous affairs, Parallel Life isn't a thriller because you're never on the edge of your seat. Maybe it's more like a muted scifi, a film that posits an alternate reality that may or may not be this one, and which sees the little details -- like exactly how someone dies, even a second time -- as the only stuff that matters. But for that to be true, you'd really have to like the characters, and while I did have a soft spot for Uncle Jung (Park Byeong-eun), I wasn't that into Prosecutor Lee (Lee Jong-hyeok) or any of the side stories (which according to the professor's mad scribblings of math formulas on the cement wall of the interrogation room have already happened 30 years ago, too).

December 11, 2012

My Way: A Man With a Story; A Man Without a Film

Yang Kyoungyjong led an interesting life to be sure. A Korean conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army at 18 years of age, he then became a Soviet prisoner of war forced to fight for the USSR's Red Army until his troop was defeated by the Germans who in turn enlisted him as a Wehrmacht soldier until the Americans overthrew the Nazis and he was imprisoned in a British POW camp under the mistaken belief that he was a Japanese soldier in German uniform. Eventually his actual identity was revealed and supposedly, he ended up living the rest of his days in the USA. A fascinating tale certainly worthy of a stunning biopic. Which brings us to Kang Je-kyu's My Way.

Unsatisfied with a tragic Everyman, Kang needlessly complicates this strange bit of history by transforming Yang, a John Doe of practically Brechtian proportions, into Kim Jun-shik (Jang Dong-gun), a destitute rickshaw-driver/closet-marathoner who is at once the rightful heir of real-life Olympian Sohn Kee-chung and a rival to Japanese long-distance runner Tatsuo Hasegawa (Jo Odagiri) who ends up being Kim's commanding officer in the Japanese Army, his fellow POW in Russia, and his best buddy in the German barracks (which apparently come equipped with a staff beautician: Everyone looks smashing!). Why Kang scraps Kim's one-of-a-kind biography for a bromantic parable about an oppressor who learns to love the man he once subjugated suggests a very different kind of racism: How else to interpret the angelic choir that accompanies representatives of Japan and Korea finally united in Nazi uniform while fleeing the American troops? Better An earlier chapter in the film finds Kim falling for Shirai (Fan Bingbing), a sexy Chinese sharpshooter so skilled she can take out a warplane with a single shot but once she's dead, his heart belongs only to Hasegawa. Eventually, his identity does, too. Somehow I bet Yang Kyoungjong would hate to see a movie that credited his life's final triumphs to a Japanese man pretending to be him. There's gotta be a better way, Kang Je-kyu.

December 6, 2012

Blossom Again: He Broke Her Heart in Three Separate Pieces

I can buy the idea of Joh In-yeong (Kim Jeong-eun), a dissatisfied, confused 30-year-old woman falling in love with Lee-suk (Lee Tae-sung), her 17-year-old, possibly learning-disabled student who looks exactly like her first boyfriend who bizarrely happens to have had the same name. What I don't and won't buy is that there's also a teenaged girl named Joh In-yeong (Jeong Yu-mi) who is also in love with this Lee-suk lookalike who is also the identical twin of a guy named Lee-soo who just happens to be the first love of the younger In-yeong who now also is head over heels for the replacement. Lee-suk is king of the sloppy seconds! It isn't as confusing as it sounds. But it is as preposterous as it sounds. With all the repetitions of an Escher drawing but with none of the complexities, writer-director Jung Ji-woo's exasperating Blossom Again (a.k.a. Close to You a.k.a. Teacher's Pet a.k.a. Wisdom Tooth) is way too forcefully fanciful to be enjoyed as a tragic romance or a time-travel tragedy or a puzzle of perversion or a plain old piece of cinematic art.

When an original, now older Lee-suk (Kim Joon-seong) enters the picture, you're left with no option but to follow the lead of the old In-yeong's still-around boyfriend Jang-woo (Kim Yeong-jae) who can just grin and bear anything. Just how much Jang-woo is willing to smile through is kind of amazing. In-yeong says she still loves her very first boyfriend? Grin and bear it. In-yeong says she's got a crush on her underaged student? Grin and bear it. In-yeong comes home after screwing said student? Grin and bear it. In-yeong says she wants the apartment to herself so she can entertain said student alone Saturday night? Grin and bear it. Although in that last case, the grin is now kind of a grimace and Jang-woo sabotages In-yeong's twisted fantasy by bringing the old Lee-suk over for food and wine. Why Jang-woo loves In-yeong (and why either Lee-suk does too for that matter) is a contrivance that's even less believable than all the endless coincidences. Take another page from Jang-woo's book of behavior and permanently delete this movie from your brain. He used the index finger and thumb. I use the middle finger.

December 2, 2012

Lovers' Concerto: This Love Triangle Works Every Angle

Before it spins off into a cuckoo weepie of the three hanky variety, Lee Han's Lovers' Concerto is actually a damned good romance, and I'm speaking as one who isn't a fan of that particular genre. But this periodically sweet, youthfully true, emotionally complex love story about three directionless friends just out of high school -- one boy named Ji-hwan (Cha Tae-hyu) and two girls, Su-in (Son Ye-jin) and Kyeong-hee (Lee Eun-ju) -- conveys a certain freshness (in both senses of the word) by constantly shifting who is pining after whom, even as they're all constantly falling in love with each other all over again. So while Ji-hwan claims love at first sight for Su-in, you can immediately see that Kyeong-hee is just as quickly smitten with him. Soon thereafter, Su-in warms up to Ji-hwan even as Ji-hwan is fast realizing that Kyeong-hee has her unique charms. Even Su-in and Kyeong-hee have special feelings for each other. In a way, you kind of wish they'd all have an orgy sanctified by the state. Without question, Lovers' Concerto has an overabundance of passion that reminds you what it was like to give of yourself without getting too caught up in the caution that comes after your first real breakup, your first real betrayal and your first disillusionment. Each characters in Lovers' Concerto is untried when it comes to amor so while they may be nervous about taking a leap, they're not bitter. That two of them are suffering from unnamed but fatal diseases is just tragic icing on the cake.

Did the cake need the icing though? I'm not so sure. I saw a few possible endings that weren't so treacly but Lee is clearly committed into making the audience feel a varieties of bittersweet pain, and since he pulls off most of them, I, for one, will forgive him the film's minor failures. A secondary plot involving Ji-hwan's younger sister (Moon Geun-young) and her crush -- the handsome guy (Kim Nam-jin) who works at the bookstore -- somehow feels organic to the whole. It's nice to have some moments to breathe between all that heaving by the exquisitely fraught threesome that is Lovers' Concerto.