December 26, 2013

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2013 (Sort of)

I started getting into Korean movies because of the crime pics and the fright flicks but lately, I'm beginning to think the country is just as skillful at cranking out historical epics. I feel bad about not including the lovely foodie family drama Cafe Seoul, the horror classic Memento Mori, and the twisted thriller Helpless, but such is life. Herewith the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2013...

1. The Show Must Go On (2007): Song Kang-ho turns in yet another stellar performance as a mobster who simply wants to lead a suburban life without ever forsaking his violent career. Sound like The Sopranos, a bit? You got a problem with that? I don't!

2. Penny Pinchers (2011): If there's any justice in the world, this millennial romcom about two 20-something have-nots will make superstars of writer-director Kim Jung-hwan, and actors Song Joong-ki and Han Ye-seul.

3. Pieta (2012): No one makes you feel as electrically awful about humanity as Kim Ki-duk can (and does here in this maternal vengeance pic that's "sickening" in the best way possible).

4. The Day He Arrives (2011): While I immensely enjoyed Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country this year, director Hong Sang-soo's boozy, broken bromance is better as a whole.

5. Forbidden Quest (2006): Pornographic literature gets an impressive historic treatment (and more than a few laughs) in this costume drama from writer-director Kim Dae-woo.

6. Masquerade (2012): The other period piece that knocked my socks off stars Lee Byung-hun as an actor who must sub in for an ailing king. (Someone gift me one of those black sheer hats next Christmas, please!)

7. Intangible Asset Number 82 (2008): You may say it isn't truly a Korean movie but this documentary about an Australian drummer who journeys to Korea in search of his shaman-muse is too good to omit.

8. Attack the Gas Station! 2 (2010): A comedy sequel that comes ten years after the original movie has gotta suck, right? Wrong! You can argue with me over my laughter for about two hours.

9. My Beautiful Days (2002): I watched this one in the beginning of the year but I still get gushy about Im Jong-jae's spellbinding look at youth going nowhere, anywhere, somewhere...

10. A Company Man (2012): My loyalty to jopok films necessitates the inclusion of this crime pic which definitely features the most exciting fight scenes I saw in 2013. When's the last time violence was this well-dressed?

Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2012.
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 22, 2013

Finding Mr. Destiny: She Left Her Heart in Rajasthan

Must I eschew all stereotypes and accept that travel-agent-turned-matchmaker Han Gi-joon (Gong Yoo) is straight even though he plays with a fairy wand in his office, has a fabulous collection of cardigan sweaters, and hasn't dated any women his entire adult life? Must I dig a bit deeper to comprehend his attraction to Seo Ji-woo (Lim Su-jeong), a thankless stage manager who doesn't own a hair brush or an iron and who daydreams all the time about one chance romance ten years ago with a Korean guy in India? Worst of all, must I once again watch as the talented Jeon Soo-kyeong is relegated to a bit part, despite her kick-ass comic chops and Broadway belt of a voice? Well, if I'm streaming Finding Mr. Destiny, then yes, I really do.

Director Chang You-jeong's romantic comedy asks you to make an endless list of concessions outside of this too, probably the most difficult being that the flashbacks to India, involving Ji-woo and Gi-joon's doppelganger, actually have the makings of a pretty sweet little movie. Set in Blue City (better known as Jodhpur), these segments have a real freshness, in part because it's so rare to see a Korean flick with mainly non-Koreans as well as one set outside the mother country. You can easily imagine warming up to the slow-burn between Gi-joon's double and Ji-woo's younger self as they fall in love amid a swirl of colorful saris or under an ornate archway or across a plateful of steaming Pyaaz Ki Kachoris. If Finding Mr. Destiny were about these two summer lovers who Fate split apart then paired up again, I'd probably end up with a case of the warm fuzzies. You'll have to take a few tokes on a hookah to see that movie play out. This one is more about a child singer whose career took a nosedive when she grew up so she tabled her dreams and took a job backstage and is now about to settle for the cute guy who's been pursuing her. In the sequel, I imagine she'll eventually find her husband in bed with her single dad (Chun Ho-jin). I'm more than happy to help write that screenplay.

December 20, 2013

House With a Nice View: Bad Girl Teaches Something to Good Girl and Vice Versa

Graphic sex tends to disqualify movies from serious discussion. Show too much breast or butt early on and a flick is likely to be labeled as porn, regardless of whether it continues to show skin or not. And while I'd hardly say A House With a Nice View is filmmaking of the finest caliber, Lee Soo-seong's indie movie is definitely not just faking a story when all it wants to do is show naked people going at it. Sure, his two lead actresses -- Ha Na-kyeong and Kwak Hyeon-hwa -- are more bodies than brains, but his dialogue, with its periodic references to Neitzsche, is definitely flirting with deeper topics than anal penetration. Despite a couple of raw encounters (one which blurs out the male genitalia), House With a Nice view doesn't become more salacious over time but instead retreats from nudity and naughtiness to more sobering realities: Ha's real estate agent gets raped by a prospective buyer while Kwak's timid apartment dweller realizes that stripping for a nearby Peeping Tom has made her a source of ridicule for her neighbors.

Lee's not that hot about exploring these darker areas though. He's for happy endings of every variety. The square architect (Oh Seung-tae) will prove a faithful lover to his slutty paramour; the hunky neighbor (Lee Geon) will return just in time to meet the budding needs of a nerdy pen pal. As such, House With a Nice View is definitely overly simplistic and a bit of a letdown. Quoting from Thus Spoke Zarathustra may sound thoughts but it doesn't give a movie weight. Yet to say Lee's flick is nothing but talky trash is to ignore that, corny-porny parts aside, this film is a heck of a lot better than a trite horse racing pic like Lump of Sugar or a mean-spirited gore-fest like The Butcher. Why look down at a movie that strips its leads physically, and then tries to psychically, even if the attempt fails? Why not enjoy the ways of the flesh? To paraphrase Neitzsche: "To dismiss soft-core movies is to suffer, to interpret soft-core movies is to find some meaning in the suffering."

December 15, 2013

Cafe Seoul: A Multicultural Confection About Familial Love

Cafe Seoul appeals to the sentimentalist in me, the one who doesn't mind seeing a movie that makes me feel like I'm having an allergic reaction, what with this mucous-y lump in my throat, these teary eyes, and those involuntary exclamations of "Oh!" and "Aw!" Whether you'll have equally aggravating symptoms depends on how you react to to the small wins and losses in small-scale family dramas. My susceptibility in this case can partially be attributed to coming, likewise, from a family of three sons, each of whom has gone his separate way as an adult only to reconnect later, through unforeseen circumstances. More on that as it relates to the movie later.

Aside from that, this movie also appeals to me as a novice student of the Korean language. Since one of Cafe Seoul's main characters is a Japanese tourist/journalist, much of the dialogue gets restated and slowed down so he can understand what's being said. For me that translates as an opportunity to re-hear words/phrases and pick out the few I know. I appreciated that! That the Japanese guy and the Koreans he befriends use English as a Lingua Franca didn't hurt either.

For the viewer who doesn't give a damn about my family or my new tutor, Cafe Seoul has plenty else in its favor. As the roving reporter (Takumi Saito), the bespectacled baker (Choi Seong-min), a bad boy brother (Kim Jeong-hoon), and the old lady (Jeong Suk-yeong) who's the bakery's most faithful customer, the cast evinces a natural affection for each other. That warmth allows you to forgive some implausible plot devices, like why the youngest brother (Kim Dong-wook) is dead set on putting the family business out of business or how the mob boss (Kim Eung-soo) comes to leave the bakery alone. There's also nice supporting work by Jang Seo-won as a spikey-haired thug who wants to shut the bakery's doors even as he can't keep coming back to eat more rice cakes.

December 14, 2013

The Tower: The Architecture of Laughter and Disaster

In reality, The Tower isn't about a single skyscraper going up in flames. It's about two skyscapers: one damaged when a too-close helicopter -- crassly sprinkling artificial snow -- collides into it; the other threatened by the domino effect should the first towering inferno fall. For obvious reasons, the title can't play up the conflagration of two twin towers. Not on this side of the Pacific anyway, where the World Trade Center attack of 2001 remains a national tragedy. Plus, the parallels are pretty problematic when you consider how hilarious The Tower often is. Sometimes the humor is intentional: two lovebirds spitting out fire extinguisher foam, a lowly maid complaining of a rich lady's dog poop. Most times, the jokes are unintentional: the pregnant lady (Min Jeong) prying open an elevator; a self-centered hotel exec spiraling down to his death. Those last two items might not sound funny but when you see them, believe me, you'll realize they are.

And what else is there to do but laugh at the collective struggle in writer-director Kim Ji-hoon's deliriously nutty disaster pic? You know from the beginning that the Head of Facilities (Kim Sang-kyung), his waterworks-of-tears daughter (Jo Min-ah), and the lady in the white pantsuit (Son Ye-jin) are going to end up a happy family at the end. You also know that the martyr of a squad captain (Sol Kyung-gu) is going to sacrifice his life to save others, although when and how that happens is constantly delayed. Maybe you're not sure whether the lowly maid and her college-going son will be reunited. All said, tension is not The Tower's strong point. What the movie has in its favor is some beautiful cinematography of computer generated flames, explosions, smoke clouds, and even the towers themselves which sparkle like giant pieces of jewelry. I also would like to say I got a kick out of Kim In-kwon who plays the cocky little firefighter who I personally hope gets promoted and forces his compatriots to get matching mohawks once the self-sacrificing captain bites the CGI dust.

December 8, 2013

The Perfect Couple: Looking Good But Laughing Little

After you watch a wretched rom-com like The Perfect Couple (a.k.a. The Best Romance), you have two choices: You can either rag on it or let it go -- all of it except Jeon Soo-kyeong, that is. Jeon is the very funny actress who plays the bit part of a longtime tabloid journalist (who basically admits her years in the profession can be attributed to an inability to find anything else to do). Screen time is minimal. Actual lines, but few. You'd be hard-pressed to even call Jeon's cougar-hack a sidekick but as the female lead's mis-mentoring boss, Jeon shows up often enough to keep you from leaving your home theater entirely. If you manage to last until the bitter end, she'll even reward you with some very hearty laughs. Those laughs involve Jeon firebombing criminals in a junkyard while running around in heels and a fright wig. That Jeon can elicit chuckles from so little isn't a total surprise. In Little Black Dress, she also made the most of the miniscule by delivering second-rate lines as if they'd been penned by Noel Coward or maybe Kaufman & Hart.

I have no idea how Jeon manages to consistently elevate her material. As her protege, Hyeon Yeong is certainly working just as hard if not harder. Yet though she squawks and wiggles, pouts and poses< Hyeon never registers as more than a pretty face. And despite his ridiculous Bon Jovi hairdo, co-star Lee Dong-wook always looks as if he's a model police officer who just stepped off the set of a shampoo commercial, even when there's blood on his lip. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Lee didn't realize he was in a rom-com and was under the impression instead that he was in a crime drama. After all, his character is a cop. And he might be right when you come to think of it. The Perfect Couple isn't very romantic and, except for Jeon, it isn't comedic either. Where as Lee (or his stunt double) does a smashing job when he's executing flipkicks or brutal head-butts. Is The Perfect Couple referring to him and his partner (Lee Jeong-heon)? Nah, I don't think so.

Natural Burials: A Strange Branch of Horror

Never heard of a tree therapist? Well, she's the woman who hooks up IV drips to pines with fungal issues then places her hands on the infected bark to source any memories of dead people buried nearby. (Unhappy corpses can cause irrigation woes for the roots, you know.) It's not easy work, my friend, so you can easily see why in Park Kwang-chun's Natural Burials, the city's leading tree therapist (Lee Young-ah) is constantly being force-fed horse-pills by her worried mother to help with the stress. This is the kind of job that leads to night sweats, hallucinations, and car accidents.

"Car accidents?" you ask. Yes. Because part of being a tree therapist is driving from tree to tree to tree. (They're everywhere!) And the chances of an accident are only going to increase when that soiled, crazy man (Yeon Je-wook) who's obsessed with you -- and who happens to have both escaped from the madhouse and inherited a plant nursery -- has a nasty twitch in his neck. Meanwhile, your fiance (On Ju-wan) really only meets you in parking lots and your best friend -- who, as luck would have it, is in love with said fiance -- tends to speed when she (Park Soo-jin) feels any stress. Oh, yes. For a tree therapist, a four-car-pileup is much more than likely.

Did I mention that Natural Burials is a horror movie? Because it is. Did you know that it originally broadcast as a two-part miniseries on cable? Because it did. And you can kind of tell what kind of cable channel that might be. When the crazy gal pal strips off her dress for the boyfriend, the movie feels soap-y. When an assistant tree therapist comments, "It smells like a rotting corpse about an ailing plant," the movie feels silly. Low-end cable can feel very B-movie when you think about it. But why would you want to change that? Can't enjoy a little lowbrow, made-for-TV fun? Go see a therapist!

December 1, 2013

The Show Must Go On: A Thug's Life

The Show Must Go On is definitive proof that Song Kang-ho is one of the greatest actors of his generation. It's a fantastic mob movie that, because of Song, plumbs unusual depths, too. What makes Song such a genius performer? Well, this may sound like a funny place to start but I don't believe there's another actor who can play sleepy (or mine it for its comic possibilities) as well as Song can. And there's something about all the correlatives that go with sleepiness -- overworked, overanxious, overburdened, overwhelmed -- that strike me as emblematic of our times. In The Show Must Go On, Song's putting that somnolent skillset to good use as an overextended mobster who is so sleep-deprived that he conks out repeatedly -- including at the driver's wheel of his car in the midst of a noisy rush hour.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Song's also a master of drunkenness, too, which when you think about it, is simply a gateway to sleep. But look at the variety of intoxications that Song can do: He's funny drunk, nasty drunk, sloppy drunk, violent drunk and, in one awfully humiliating interaction between his character and his character's daughter (Kim So-eun) -- who has him arrested for disorderly conduct -- contritely drunk. Song can make reprehensibly sloppy behavior consistently sympathetic. Naturally, Song can do much more than drowsiness and drunkenness. But whatever he does, this actor always feels like he's doing it right on the spot. Maybe that's why his drunken and drowsy scenes are so impressive. Both states give way to irrational behavior that's abnormal but still firmly rooted in who we intrinsically are. If you think that Song can only do showy stuff then re-watch his married mobster here when he turns on the charm for his wife (Park Ji-yeong), a woman who's got wise to his ways and wants out. Who else can mix lightness and desperation so effectively? How in the world did he do that? What'll he dream up next? I'm always ready to see.

November 29, 2013

Girl Scout: Girls Just Wanna Have Funds

There was a stretch where I was enjoying Girl Scout, Kim Sang-man's chick-flick, action-pic comedy. Now I'm trying to remember when I completely lost interest. The movie definitely has elements in its favor. It's a heist film. It's grrrl-powered. It's periodically funny. It's class-conscious. It's even efficient in how it sets up its plot: Four friends must retrieve money from swindlers so one (Kim Seon-a) can open her dream diner, one (Lee Kyeong-shil) can get her child an operation, one (Na Mun-hee) can quit a degrading job, and one (Ko Jun-hee) can go on a shopping spree. So where did it go wrong exactly? One problem is the movie doesn't establish definitively who the villain is. The vixen (Lim Ji-eun) who's stolen their money is actually in cahoots with a crook (Park Won-song) who may or may not be her boss. Is the lady thief a victim? She sure gets slapped around a bit by her partner. Are they working as a team? It doesn't seem so. What's their history? And why do they also have two million dollars in government bonds alongside the stolen cash?

None of these questions arose while I watched Girl Scout, mind you. My curiosity dwindled down to nil about halfway through the pic. I didn't care what the crime was. I didn't care who the criminal was. I certainly didn't care if justice was served. What's weird is that you get the feeling that the main four women don't care that much about each other either. At least two of the four friends are easily persuaded to betray the others, and no one seems overly concerned with the one woman's son getting the surgery he so desperately needs. (The doctor included!) As to the loan shark (Ryu Tae-joon), he's more distraction than attraction despite his photogenic looks. Whether he's a good guy or a bad guy, he barely registers at all.

Note to Korean Filmmakers: Jeon Ji-ae, who has a bit part as a waitress who works at the bar where much of the action occurs, is really good in a very small part. Someone please cast her in a bigger role!

November 28, 2013

Antarctic Journal: Get to the Point (of Inaccessibility, That Is)

I'd never heard of a "point of inaccessibility" before Antarctic Journal. Evidently, the term refers to a geographical location that's extremely difficult to access, often because of its distance from the coast. Reaching such a landmark is a source of pride for explorers because it's so challenging. For the general public, however, there's little to recommend a POI (as it's sometimes called). The same could be said for Antarctic Journal, the pseudo-horror flick by director Yim Pil-sung (and co-written by auteur Bong Joon-ho). It's for extremists only. In other words, if you're committed to being a completist and seeing every movie starring Song Kang-ho then then you're eventually going to have to watch this dud about a South Korean crew searching for the South Pole's POI.

Which isn't to say that Song isn't good. As the merciless captain who hallucinates memories of his son's suicide when he isn't letting his crew members die one by one, the actor keeps the action grounded, which isn't easy given how much appears to be shot in front of a green screen. Keeping it real can only take you so far though, and what is real, really? Not the sudden nose bleed that he gets at one point. Not the novice (Yu Ji-tae) who he cavalierly bequeaths the ominous British expedition diary that they find in the snow. Not the cynical cohort (Yun Je-mun) who can't persuade anyone how crazy the captain obviously is. Not even the cheerful radio operator (Kang Hye-jeong) who flies off in a search helicopter when captain and company "vanish into thin air." I'm not saying, Antarctic Journal needed to be a naturalistic take on a devastating expedition, but shots of a frozen eyeball and a ghostly woman's hand come across as pretty random and just leave me wondering whether the film is about to take a serious left turn. Maybe it did. Over and over. Which is another way of saying Antarctic Journal just goes in circles. And made me rethink my initial plan to curate a Song movie marathon, despite how wonderful I still think he is.

November 24, 2013

New World: May the Best Buffoon Win

I know I've seen actor Hwang Jeong-min before. He plays a deadpan detective in The Unjust, a snooping insurance agent in Black House, and a doomed lover in You Are My Sunshine. He's always been good but I was totally unprepared for just how great he is in writer-director Park Hoon-jung's New World. Here, playing Jeong Cheong, one of four gangsters vying to be the next Godfather of Korea's largest crime syndicate, he gives a performance that's epic in scale. What's even more impressive is how sneakily he builds that performance, starting off as a stereotype -- an uneducated thug who favors knock-off designer wear and sports a Jheri curl -- and ending up the movie's most complex character. So don't dismiss him as comic relief. Soon enough, his character will develop an edge. Then alongside his peacock posturing, you'll discover a sadistic streak that suggests, though dimwitted, he's dangerous, too. But wait! Even that evaluation must get tossed aside as you come to realize that his buffoonery is a pose, that he's quite savvy to the political web in which he's ensnared. If he's not the spider, then the spider better beware.

But New World, sad to say, isn't Jeong Cheong's story. It's the story of one of the underworld's other rising stars, Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) -- an undercover cop who's being asked to stay incognito for the rest of his life as a way to the police force informed until the end of time. It seems a bit much to ask but at least Section Chief Kang, the one asking him to act as "mole" forever, is played by Choi Min-sik who can make any plot device, no matter how preposterous, seem perfectly believable. When Kang outwits the other aspiring crime lord Jung-gu (Park Seong-woon), you believe it. When he quits smoking as a way to honor an unlucky direct report (Song Ji-hyo), you kind of believe that too. You can almost believe his final encounter with one of the movie's murderous hobos. Almost but not quite.

November 9, 2013

Howling: A Wolf Is a Woman's Worst Friend

I'm not sure writer-director Yoo Ha totally understands dog psychology. In his mongrel murder mystery Howling, the vigilante K-9 trainer (Jo Young-jin) and his emotionally stunted daughter (Nam Bo-ra) seem to hold dogs in too high esteem! They think their beloved pet Jil-poong is a mind-reader capable of assassinating bad guys from intuited commands. Contrast that perplexing perspective with the low regard held by the homicide department. These cops consider dogs completely unpredictable -- is this one a killer without provocation? an informant that might lead them to the killer? or a humanoid creature doomed to run on all fours as he stares at mankind with all-knowing and piercing blue eyes? I suppose you could argue that any inaccuracies in this animal portrait have to do with Jil-poong's unusual pedigree: He's half wolf! But Yoo's shortcomings as a cinematic behaviorist don't end with his canine characterization. Take a look at how he portrays his human heroine.

Detective Eun-young (Lee Na-yeong) is an independent type who does her best work when she's left to her own devices. In group settings, however, she tends to grovel and seek unneeded backup from people who don't want to help her, regardless of their shared goals. Although her instincts are good, her gunmanship is erratic at best: One minute, she's shooting her partner by accident; the next, she's taking out the tire of a fast-moving car. On a motorcycle, she's radiates confidence racing down the highway. On foot (walking, running, limping), Eun-young always looks kinda lost. You can see why she's so fascinated by Jil-poong's unwavering gaze. She wishes she too could sustain that kind of eye contact, whether it was with a hyper-testy cohort like Detective Young-Cheol (Lee Sung-min), her misogynist partner Sang-gil (Song Kang-ho) or her generally unsupportive chief (Sin Joeng-geun). Since this movie isn't scifi horror, she can't become the dog. She's female, not feral, not fierce, not fortunate.

November 3, 2013

A Company Man: Corporate Culture Will Be the Death of Everyone

Lim Sang-yoon's A Company Man is an allegorical action pic when you consider that dismal working conditions -- long hours, the inability to get any free time, the struggle to have a life outside the office -- can be an issue for gangsters as well white collar drones. Put the thug in a tailored suit and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. So while poor Ji Hyeong-do (So Ji-seob) may have put enough money aside to start his own business (a lakeside cafe, perhaps), extricating himself from the biz isn't going to be as easy as handing in a resignation letter. You see, everyone wants him to be a lifer. According to upper management, a hitman's job is never done. Anything that humanizes Ji, like a pop-singing mom (Lee Mi-yeon), a good-natured temp worker (Kim Dong-jun) or a former staffer who wants to be free, only make him weaker and, by extension, the company weaker, too. Anyone who needs a change of scenery is out of luck. All roads lead back to corporate headquarters.

That's what Ji discovers when he tries to break loose from the Armani ties that bind. No one wants him to make a career change! No one sees a compelling-enough reason to pass up the regular paycheck! Not even the custodial lady who cleans the guns. That leads to Ji getting into some truly genius fights in a cramped SRO pad, a moving car, and a basement where his primary weapon is a rolled up calendar. A John Woo shootout in his office is uproariously glorious as he takes down his co-workers one by one by one by one by one. The nearby Neiman Marcus only had one bullet proof vest on the racks. Credit Ji with knowing how to dress for the occasion. Even after he leaves the staff massacre, he takes the time to tighten the designer noose around his neck, stylishly splashed with blood. He may have blown his references here but his ability to set and meet goals sure earns my respect.

Intangible Asset Number 82: Nothing Rhythm Is Something Else

Obsessions are not contained worlds. They simply travel down instead of out, deep instead of wide. There are just as many discoveries to be made below as afar. How else would I have come across director Emma Franz's Intangible Asset Number 82 if I weren't obsessed with Korean movies, if my access to Korean movies weren't limited, if I hadn't just signed up for Netflix specifically to see if they had anything new? I feel pretty sure I would've missed -- even skipped -- it. This fantastic travelogue about Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker's quest to meet aging, ailing Korean shaman Kim Seok-Chul is a study of obsession itself, a paean to pursuing your innermost desire, which in this instance is Barker's drive to release himself from Western approaches to rhythm, melody and even life with a little help from square music instructor Kim Dong-won who's English is good but whose translations oversimplify.

Whether Barker knows Korean or not is unclear. The entire documentary is shot as if Barker understood what was said and chose not to speak Korean. Oft times, he stares -- his green eyes wide, silent, nodding, smiling, perhaps a bit lost but open, eager and joyful, reverential and grounded all at once. His eventual meeting with Kim Seok-chul is neither climax nor anticlimax. It's simply one stop along a way of many self-discoveries. It's also probably not as life-changing as his encounter with Bae Il-dong, a younger shaman whose cheery disposition and heavy metal screams lead to a cross-cultural conversation that exists beyond words. It's funny to see how their first public concert is greeted: mild disinterested and happy indifference. A later performance, in a major venue, assumes arena rock proportions. Here in front of thousands, the two artists unleash an improvisational style that feels truly transnational. Barker's obsession has borne fruit. I don't know that my own obsessions have struck gold but I'm definitely dazzled by Barker's pay dirt.

October 27, 2013

Masquerade: The King Has Nightmares / The Fool Has Dreams

I never get tired of Korean costume dramas with their richly colored, many-layered robes, and wide-brimmed, transparent black hats. I never get tired of actor Lee Byung-hun either and here in Masquerade -- a film that's already got me enraptured with its costumes -- he's cast in dual roles, once as King Gwang-hae, the justifiably paranoid monarch whose court wants him dead, and once as Ha-seon, a lookalike actor who fills in for Gwang-hae when the latter's been incapacitated by an opium overdose.

Playing two characters in the same movie is always hard but playing two characters, one of whom is impersonating the other, is really hard if you're still trying to make each distinct. Lee, an actor who has come a long way from his pretty boy days of Lament and The Harmonium in My Memory, is up for the challenge. He shows evolution as well as contrast by refining Ha-seon's impersonation as time goes by while still displaying the stature of the real king when the potentate returns at the end.

I would also like to thank director Choo Chang-min for not having a scene in which the king and the impostor must face off or even share the screen. While Masquerade isn't afraid of getting comical [royal bowel movements, slapstick switcheroo with the royal advisor (Ryu Seung-ryong)...], the movie refrains from asking the Queen (Han Hyo-ju) to choose between two identical men shouting, "I'm the real king!"

What makes a king, not who is the king, is the real question at the center of Masquerade. And the surrogate sire has a few things to teach the court about government for the people. The eternal difficulty in getting the rich to pay their fair share of taxes is as relevant as ever. The consulting of the head eunuch (Jang Gwang) and a 15-year-old girl (Shim Eun-kyung) who makes a mean bean paste are perhaps a bit more of their time.

Fading Away: Survivors From the Korean War Talk and Talk and Talk

Does every man, woman and child have a story worth hearing? I used to think so but when I watch the testimonials in Christopher H.K. Lee's Korean War documentary Fading Away, I think so less. I also start to feel that the creation of art may, in truth, be reserved for a select group and that when the inexperienced or uninspired take a stab at it, you're left with something that makes you feel dishearteningly small. Thankfully, in Fading Away, such depressing feelings are momentarily dispelled during an uplifting if all-too-short section devoted to a trio of women veterans who reminisce about their lives in the national military, which up until the Korean War didn't accept female cadets at all.

Recruited in their late teens and early 20s, these women are pioneers in the truest sense as they bravely forge ahead into the unknown without any self-importance. Unlike most of the men interviewed, the women consistently look back with a greater sense of wonder and a lot less nostalgia. They talk of peeing in their helmets; assisting in surgery without formal training; administering shots willy-nilly on the front lines; washing uniforms blood-stained and full of maggots; seeing naked corpses piled high...

Sadly, Lee doesn't seem to recognize what a remarkable threesome he's assembled. Soon enough, he's moved on to an elderly white couple who met at a square dance in Seoul a few years after the war. Why that particular couple gets screen time is a mystery but it's hardly the only misguided choice this director makes. Some of the scenes with his father in particular feel more appropriate as home movies. When you're documenting the last members of a generation, your responsibility should be to a larger story -- wherever you find it. Put the personal needs to the side.

October 13, 2013

IRIS: The Movie: Binging on a TV Series Without Watching the Whole Thing

To join the staff of the secret service of North or South Korea, you're going to need a dollop of hair gel. The same goes for members of IRIS, a terrorist organization plotting to nuke Seoul as a way to make a statement about re-unification. (I'm not totally sure if they're for or against it.) Among those with the most stylish hairdos is Kim Hyeon-jun (Lee Byung-hun), an undercover assassin who gets double-crossed by the South Koreans then defects to the enemy before realizing matters are more complicated than simple betrayal.

Throughout the twists and turns and hair-rsising stunts of Iris: The Movie, Hyeon-jun emerges as a super-spy akin to Jason Bourne with whom he shares an unnatural ability to dodge bullets shot at close range and survive the one lucky bullet that hits him as if it were no more than a stomach cramp. He also does crazy stunts like repel down the side of a dam while holding a young girl in one arm, and hijack a truck then a plane then a car then a city bus.

Yet despite his bulletproof aura and his multi-vehicle driver's license, Hyeon-jun isn't necessarily ahead of the game. You see, he isn't a big picture thinker. He doesn't investigate his situation. Instead, he comes across info that makes him reconsider his predicament as he bounces from Hungary to Korea to Japan to Korea to China to Korea again. Sometimes, he's accompanied by a sexy rebel (Kim So-yeon) with an edgy variation of Dorothy Hamill's bowl cut; sometimes by his weepy girlfriend (Kim Tae-hee) who's got a tamed down version of Jennifer Aniston's 'do. Neither woman can make sense of Hyeon-jun's story. Maybe this movie is only for fans of the TV series from which it borrows most of its footage. For the uninitiated, IRIS: The Movie is a well-coifed mess. Now will someone please tell me the name of Hyeon-jun's stylist?

October 12, 2013

Born to Sing: Live to Cry

Do I cry too easily? Possibly. Because even a very predictable, conventional movie about a talent show and its hard-luck singing contestants can turn me into a bucket of tears. I don't know why I'm so easily manipulated even when, like with Born to Sing, I can see where it's going right from the very beginning. The forgetful old man (Oh Hyeong-kyeong) with the prickly granddaughter (Kim Hwan-hee) is going to get the love he deserves; the bashful 20-something (Lee Cho-hee) swoony for her adorable co-worker (Yoo Yeon-seok) is going to get kissed, married and laid in that order; and the henpecked has-been (Kim In-kwon) is going to get back to his rock roots and win over a nation and his hairdressing wife (Ryu Hyeon-kyeong). I cried for every story, every success, every cliche. Pretty much every time!

Before the tears, I confess my interest in Born to Sing was fleeting. As directed by Lee Jong-pil, this sitcom of uplift isn't as competent in building back stories or belly laughs. The comic relief -- an off-key mayor (Kim Su-mi), an overaged delivery boy (Kim Jung-gi) and a self-advancing politico (Oh Kwang-rok) -- are each a little too real. What could've been a series of comically quirky characters come across as sad, small-town lives. Not that sad, mind you. I didn't cry for them. They're more depressing in a lightweight, inoffensive kind of way. Like people you meet in life, people who have their own small dreams and self-delusions, people that aren't going to win and who you'll never see again so really what does it matter.

Is there a subversive message here? Are we expected to chase our dreams and not settle for less after watching Born to Sing? Should we crash the karaoke bars and open mics and company off-site talent shows? To be honest, I hardly think so. I think we'd be better off heading to the cineplex to see good movies like this one and, if we're lucky, something better.

September 28, 2013

Let Me Out: Trips and Treats Alike in Student Zombie Film

Watching Kim Chang-lae's and Soh Jae's zombie pic Let Me Out is a very meta experience. A film about making a (student) film, the movie often satirizes production issues with which it's unquestionably, sometimes painfully, burdened. And so, while Let Me Out might be poking fun at an untalented, attractive lead actress, that role is played by an untalented, attractive lead actress. And while some on-screen performers may complain about a script that doesn't coalesce, audience members sitting near you are also likely to whisper the same thing. Can't decide whether slow zombies or fast zombies are truer to the genre? Neither can Let Me Out. Not that Let Me Out is trying to be scary. It's trying to be funny. And more than occasionally, it succeeds.

Most of the laughs come from the zombies: three hammy, upbeat actors who radiate optimism as they indulge in the good fortune that comes with sponsored whiskey, free lunches and a chance to be immortalized in celluloid. None of them is particularly convincing as a member of the ravenous undead but whenever this trio is in makeup but out of character, the movie proves charmingly fun. And it's not just the absurdity of watching zombies eat, drink and eventually take over the duties of the crew that cracked me up. It's that each of the actors is so consistently able to project a disarmingly sweet nature while looking like a vivified corpse. That's a stark contrast to the lifeless performance given by Kwon Hyun-sang as the exasperatingly unlikable student director who feels fake right down to his lens-less eyeglasses. I would've liked to have seen what co-star Han Geun-sup would've done with that role.

Star sightings: Pay attention, Korean movie buffs: Directors Lee Myung-se (M, Nowhere to Hide) and Yang Ik-joon (Breathless) have cameos.

September 22, 2013

Penny Pinchers: Reality Bites for Today's 98 Percent

Never judge a book by its cover. And never judge a movie by its poster. Look at the crappy Photoshop artwork for Penny Pinchers and you'd easily assume it was just some dumb road trip comedy with a cut-and-paste script and two cute young people parlaying their dimples into big screen careers. But writer-director Kim Jung-hwan's lovely rom-com about a pair of young have-nots wondering how to make it in this world is a far cry from your everyday, copycat crud. At the risk of going out on a limb, I'd even go so far as to say that his sharply observed pic could qualify as a generation-defining movie for millennials. And I don't mean strictly those living in Seoul. Reset this captivating story in NYC and you could have a modern day Reality Bites. Attention Judd Apatow: Here's your chance to resuscitate your directorial career!

To pull that off, of course, he'd have to find an undiscovered Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder. Which Kim, frankly, has done. Leads Song Joong-ki and Han Ye-seul, despite a mere handful of credits between them, each mine their shared, sizable charisma and emerge from Penny Pinchers as bona fide stars. It's their collective (and unexpected) mega-wattage that makes the small stories in this movie burn so brightly. As a loafer who treats life as a joke, Song's Ji-woong is the kind of guy whose charm won't last past 30 if he doesn't make it big beforehand. Han's Hong-sil is the ugly duckling scavenger who sees everything and everyone as a way to make a buck -- Ji-woong included. But like many a good morality tale before, Penny Pinchers serves up a good life lesson. In a world that worships money but not materialism, respects independence but knows life's nothing without meaningful connections, Penny Pinchers economically shows us the value of the dollar, especially when compared to a deeply felt expression of affection. I now dream of future cityscapes where tents glow on rooftops and makeshift street theaters for two spontaneously appear before closed shop windows on abandoned streets.

September 11, 2013

Lump of Sugar: A Girl, a Horse, and a Box of Tissues

Lump of Sugar? More like a big old lump of mucous, I say because writer-director Lee Hwan-kyung's gag-inducing, saccharine movie about a bratty jockey (Lim Su-jeong), her masochistic horse and an alcoholic mentor (Yu Oh-seong) has much more to with sentimentality than it does with sweetness. Get a load of this horseshit: After her mother dies in a horseback riding accident, a young girl is rescued from a wintry death by a conscientious mare named The General. When said horse dies birthing a foal, the now-adolescent girl and the newborn pony bond as one orphan to another. Human dad will have none of that: He sells the young horse to the Chinese. (Horse dad is nowhere to be seen.)

While both horse and young woman search for each other high and low, each must face his/her own trials before they're reunited to discover a shared destiny on the racetrack. For her, that means suffering the indigities that come with being a second-rate female jockey-in-training. For him, that means getting branded in the ass by a clownish street barker who also makes him wear silly outfits. To be honest, the horse's life looks markedly worse than that of the girl. Sadly, the colt's future will end up a lot less glamorous too. For starters, the human half of this inseparable duo hardly treats the equine half with love and respect when they're reunited. Instead she spends many a race beating the hell out of him before she realizes that positive reinforcement may get her further than the whip. For enders, there's the matter of his recurring nose bleeds and a collapsed lung that can cause some issues when you're trying to win the race of your life. Or her life. And his death.

It's weird to think Lim had the lead role in Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay the same year as Lump of Sugar and Jeon Woochi a few years later. From Lump of Sugar, you'd assume she'd be impossible to like but the truth is you'd be dead wrong.

September 1, 2013

Helpless: Save a Little Pity for the Killer, Too

Say what you want about nature versus nurture, there's something invigorating about a movie that sees its primary murder suspect as a victim. In Helpless, that could-be killer is Seon-yeong (Kim Min-hie), a sweet and pretty bride-to-be whose initial bad credit history uncovers an even darker past including prostitution, identity theft and a handful of dead former female friends. In some ways, Seon-yeong was born into this crappy life. Her father's mounting debts led to loan sharks breaking up her first marriage then turning her into a sex slave. While Seon-yeong manages to escape that fate in one way, it permanently damages her and follows her wherever she goes. A survivor without a moral compass, she basically does whatever it takes to get by. She's been conditioned by extremes.

Veterinarian -- and dupe -- Min-ho (Lee Seon-gyu) might've been her ticket out. He promises a life in which he will bring home the bacon then cook it if she just stays home to make babies as sweet and pretty as she is. Could she have changed to become his perfect wife? We'll never know. And it's not as if writer-director Byun Young-joo has you wishing that Min-ho had never enlisted the help of his cousin (Jo Seong-ha), a disgraced detective dismissed from the force for taking bribes, to dig up her sordid past. But you can understand why her potential guilt doesn't destroy Min-ho's love for her so much as it wreaks havoc on his brain. Love isn't rational. And in a way murder isn't either.

Kim is perfect as the film's central cipher as is Lee as her distraught fiance. Jo turns in solid work as the jaded ex-cop as do Choi Duek-mun as a sympathetic police officer with his own corrupt back story and Kim Byul as a chipper veterinarian's assistant who keeps stumbling across further clues. Byun's tight screenplay is based on a Japanese thriller All She Was Worth by Miyabe Miyuki whose work has inspired even more films in her own country. And you can see why.

August 24, 2013

Attack the Gas Station! 2: A Gang Fight With Plenty of Punchlines

A sequel that comes ten years after the original movie has gotta suck, right? Wrong! Attack the Gas Station! 2 is every bit as funny as its predecessor. Actually, I take that back. It's funnier. Once again, director Kim Sang-jin focuses his comedy on four disaffected youths who love to brawl. This time, there's a soccer player (Jo Han-seon) who kicks heads, motorcycle helmets and lighters now that he's been booted off the national team; an obsessive video gamer (Jeong Jae-hoon) who lives out his fantasy life by fighting through the pain then inflicting it by biting ears; a fat stutterer (Moon Won-ju) who defends womanhood by lifting men onto his shoulders then spinning in circles before tossing them aside; and their leader (Ji Hyun-woo) who just likes to deliver a mean right hook. They're not the only brawlers in the movie either, which also features a biker gang, four wannabe punks, a busload of escaped convicts, a squadron of police, and a shady reporter who runs around in his underwear for most of the film.

The movie is filled with running gags like the humiliated journalist. There's also an aspiring robber (Baek Jong-min) who jump-ropes through much of the action, a room of ever-changing hostages who keep building a castle out of soda cans, a criminal (Park Sang-myeon) obsessed with the notion of justice, and a series of back stories that explain why each of the four main characters have grudges to bear. The final extended fight scene in which the rebel youths and the prisoners on the lam join forces is impressive in its ability to keep upping the ante. The tension surrounding whether diesel fuel is as inflammable as gasoline (or sesame oil, for that matter) gets more laughs than you've any reason to expect.

After watching such disappointing comedy sequels as Sex Is Zero 2 and Mapado 2 earlier this year, Attack the Gas Station! 2 proved a welcome reminder that some lunatic ideas are worth revisiting and remaking and reinventing.

August 17, 2013

Sex Is Zero 2: Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Insane Asylums

Men are losers. Women are nut jobs. At least, that's the POV of Sex Is Zero 2, the intermittently amusing sequel to the very funny teen romp-com Sex Is Zero. Aside from Denis Kang, a UFC athlete who has a cameo as the mixed martial artist who pummels Choi Seong-gook, the film's leading dork, these guys are universal dimwits. Some may be sexy (Bae Geon-woo); some may never get sex (Lim Chang Jung); and some may forgo sex for sticking lollipops up their friends butts (Park Yeong-su) but all these guys seem pretty clueless whether the topic is books or babes. That any of them could get into college seems dubious; that the dumbest one could graduate from law school is even further from the realm of possibility.

And it's not like the women are any smarter. It's just that you'd have a hard time evaluating any of these ladies in the brains department because they're generally too deranged. In truth, that's where most of the comedy comes into play. As coaches of the girls' swim team at this college for the intellectually challenged, Yoo Chae-young and her sidekick Shin-ee are psycho-bitches of slapstick. Masters of eye-popping and teeth-gnashing, these two are the closest to The Three Stooges that I've ever seen in Korean movies. As to the third stooge, you'd have to choose between Song Ji-hyo, who plays a somewhat milquetoast girlfriend who spent some time at the funny farm, or Lee Hwa-seon who plays the short-haired vamp who likes to toss her hair in slow motion. Yoo is probably Moe given her propensity for violence and Shin-ee's probably Larry since she's so quintessentially a second banana. Which leaves you with Curly or even a Shemp but frankly neither Song nor Lee is that funny or extreme. Maybe one could qualify as a Curly Joe. He's not the most glamorous Stooge but he's a Stooge nevertheless.

Let the merciless hair-pulling, the Foley-scored face-slapping and hilariously exaggerated shrieks of pain begin!

August 11, 2013

White Night: Selfish Pretty Boy Meets Equally Cute Courier for One Crazy Night

Two gay men meet. One's moneyed. The other's working class. (Or perhaps, he's just "working...") Sound familiar? Maybe because writer-director Leesong Hee-il did it before with his less-effective No Regret! But before you start shaking your head dismissively at yet another gay "trade" romantic fantasy, shut up and listen. White Night doesn't climax with a passionate night of sex during which secrets are shared, and class-defying bonds are forged. The climactic moment here takes place not in a queen-sized bed but in a Jong-no pool hall where the two guys get revenge on a homophobic asshole who gay-bashed the pretty rich one a few years ago.

A certain satisfaction comes with seeing two queer guys exact revenge on a bully who's literally scarred one of them. But what's true-to-life in White Night isn't the righteousness, it's the dissonance. In the aftermath of this second beating, the courier (Lee I-kyeong) hasn't necessarily become closer to the airline steward (Won Tae-hee) than they were before the retributive attack. (Unless you think a sordid encounter in a men's restroom is a profound bit of intimacy.) And Leesong's refusal to get sentimental or pat or cornily romantic is what makes White Night so curiously engrossing. The movie isn't relating an unlikely love affair so much as capturing a youthful, sexually-driven obsession that's laced with a longing for intimacy that's universal. The complexities of this one night stand aren't those of soul mates drawn together by a chance (online) encounter. They're the crazy, irrational complications that come from searching for something more, even when you're not sure what that something is.

It may interest you to know that the movie's title refers to a night in which the midnight sun extends daylight to the midnight hour. I only learned that after looking it up. (For some reason, I never bothered to research that for the similarly titled Into the White Night.)

August 10, 2013

Azooma: Momma's Got a Bite That's Worse Than Her Bark

Theoretically, I could've missed a very short-but-telling scene while glancing over at the snoring old woman sitting next to me in the theater. That unglimpsed moment in Azooma would explain how the title character (played by Jang Young-nam) knows for sure who her daughter's rapist is. Which isn't to say there aren't some very leading indicators. Like a man (Hwang Taekwang) who repeatedly drives down the street outside her daughter's school and says, "Hey, little girl. Want a ride?" Like a man, the same man no less, with highly sexualized artwork of characters from children's fables on his apartment walls. But isn't that all too circumstantial? Would any of it hold it up in a court of law? Probably not. From what I can tell though, Azooma simply trusts the very vivid dreams she has of her daughter's abduction and assumes that the rapist is supporting her theory by wearing the same baseball cap, the same khaki pants and the same gray pullover that he's wearing in her dreams. Works for me!

Naturally, the police are no help. The detective (Ma Dong-seok) assigned to the case is always procrastinating even after Azooma has tracked down the pedophile herself. Her ex-husband (Bae Seong-woo) doesn't want to be seen with his former wife, regardless of what's happened to their kid. Her daughter (Lee Jae-hee) at most does a few drawings that clue her in to where the pervert lives. Since no one's going to help her get justice, Azooma takes matters into her own hands and exacts an extreme revenge. To give you a clue as to how extreme, let's just say that before Azooma was an inefficient insurance saleswoman, she was a clumsy dental hygienist and she still has keys to the dentist's office and access to all his tools. It's also worth noting that the violence becomes incredibly graphic at this point. In his directorial debut, Lee Ji-seung doesn't shy away from showing a drill carving a way at a molar to the point of blood or the equally bloody remains of a forced extraction. By that point, the old lady sitting next to me had left the theater. Theoretically, she had to go to the bathroom.

August 9, 2013

National Security: The Horror of Torture

As any horror movie fan knows, a little torture can go a long way. Much of what contributes to the chills that accompany any on-screen violence are the near brushes and the possible repeat offenses whether they eventually happen or not. All this is of little concern to Jeong Ji-yeong, the director behind National Security. In his admittedly horrific protest film about the systematic torture of civil rights activists under South Korea's military dictatorship, Jeong shows a horror chamber's worth of physical sufferings as unlawfully detained prisoner Kim Jong-tae (Park Won-sang) is punched, kicked, slapped, water-boarded, electrocuted, starved, force-fed chile powder, and all-but-drowned. We also see his shoulder dislocated and witness as he's led by a belt around his throat as if he were a dog on a too-tight choke-chain. It's also so unremitting that you may forget that he's being sleep deprived, too.

Driven past the brink of madness, Kim eventually confesses first to whatever his torturers dictate then second to what appears to be pretty close to the truth -- a problematic plot point suggesting these methods, though cruel, actually work. Kim doesn't really understand the inflictors of pain except as examples of jobless youths, detached societal rejects, and sociopaths. They may, like the movie, be "based on a true story" but nevertheless, no one in power feels really real. Not that I want to see a realer depiction of torture. Better that Kim make his points following Brecht's dictum that “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Kim pounds away at his messages: Torture is inhuman; the normalization of physical cruelty misshapes the perpetrator as well as the victim; no one escapes violence unscathed. As the victim, Park may not be the greatest actor but you still wince when you see his head pushed underwater or watch his mouth fill with foam as the electricity courses through his body. You might argue the same point could be made in a short but part of Kim's point seems to be that cruelty knows no bounds. Why begrudge the time he takes to emphasize that.

July 28, 2013

Steal It If You Can: Don't Watch It If You Don't Have to

By all accounts, I should like Kang-jo (So Ji-seob), the sexy game-designer who moonlights as a cat burglar while wearing a snug-fitting short-sleeved black top that's half-leather, half-velvet from the looks of it. He's athletic: Doesn't even break a sweat when scaling walls and executing back flips. He's romantic: Force-feeds himself pig-ear sushi for the love of a beautiful woman. He's a tech wizard: Breaks down even hardened teenagers (like Lim Yo-hwan) with the complexity of his games. But he seems like a jerk. So that even though Sang-tae (Park Sang-myeon) is someone I shouldn't like -- He's incompetent, insufferably rich by marriage, and cowardly -- I still don't want to see Kang-jo get the best of him. This is one of those movies where your allegiance is unlikely to be strong for the good guy or the bad guy. In a perfect world, they both would die.

Since Steal This If You Can is ostensibly a comedy, however, we watch as the two men battle it out. Kang-jo repeatedly breaks into Sang-tae's house (a wonder of modern architecture) to steal midnight snacks, TV remotes, and other random items like a photo and a diary. Eventually, he decides to steal the impressively large widescreen but by that point, Sang-tae has armed not only himself (with an arsenal of toy weaponry, backed up by a martial arts technique focused on damaging the groin) but also his home (which is now a hideous booby trap further protected by barbed wire, boarded windows and an unreliable Mastiff named Nessie).

I'm all for a good stupid comedy and screenwriter Yun Je-gyun is capable of writing much funnier dumb stuff than this. His Sex Is Zero was the third funniest Korean movie I saw in 2009 and just missed making my top ten list for that year. But Steal It If You Can only qualifies for worst of lists. And not just for the year but of all time. I'd rather see Sex Is Zero 2. Maybe I will next week!

Note: This movie is also known by the title Can't Live Without Robbery.

July 23, 2013

Innocent Steps: Cry, Cry, Cha-cha-cha

Though the movie's ostensibly about a couple of ballroom dancers, Innocent Steps has very few actual dance numbers. There's one in the beginning in which our hero Young-sae (Park Keon-hyeong), the country's greatest dance instructor, tries to be a competitor but ends up just getting hurt by jealous rivals. Then there's another flashy sequence near the end in which Young-sae's latest pupil and immigrant Chinese wife Chae-rin (Moon Geun-young) shakes her hips in the Nationals while partnering with his soulless enemy Hyun-soo (Yun Chang). Much of the time in between, however, this pic misses out on opportunities for tacky costumes and athletic moves and focuses instead on the two leads' budding love story. You see, Young-sae and Chae-rin are destined to be a real married couple (and not just an arranged one) since he's got so much to teach her about fusing the samba with ballet, and she's got so much to teach him about the magic of fireflies.

Writer-director (and sometime actor) Park Young-hoon's crafted a sappy story to be sure but I still welled up when the two estranged lovers went to the marriage bureau section of the immigration office and told stories of how much they loved each other, even if she'd basically caved under outside pressures to dance with the very evil blond rival who'd hired thugs to cripple her unlawfully wedded husband. The two sweeties eventually work things out in time for the credits which have probably the best dance sequence of all. (Does the fedora ever lose its charm? Apparently not!) I only wish Young-sae and Chae-rin had spent more time hanging out with goofy Chul-Yong (Kim Gi-su) and his giddy partner (Jeong Yu-mi) who got matching cornrows for the championship, even if no one ever took them serious as contenders.

As to the government inspectors investigating whether Young-sae and Chae-rin are really a couple or not, the less said the better.

July 16, 2013

Make Yourself at Home (a.k.a. Fetish): Welcome to the USA, You Evil Bitch

I think it's safe to assume that Julie (Song Hye-kyo) never really fit in when she lived in South Korea. Blame it on the fact that her mother was a shaman. Or because her previous fiancee, a famous conductor, died under mysterious circumstances. Regardless, when she gets set up with a nice Asian-American boy (Rob Yang) thanks to a dating service orchestrated no doubt by his mom (June Kyoto Lu), she weds him then emigrates to the United States. There, she quickly learns the American ways (drink wine excessively, smoke a little pot, seduce your neighbor's husband) without losing touch with her country's traditions (peel apples by hand, cook BBQ, defer to your mother-in-law). But Julie isn't just a hybrid of two very different cultures. She brings a few personal touches to her new life that strike me as fairly original, especially the idea of convincing her often-shirtless neighbor (Arno Frisch) that he, she and his wife (Athena Currey) should become a sexy, suburban threesome. Can you blame him for entertaining such a notion?

What's hilariously delightful about this craziness is that instead of assuming the American wife's identity a la Single White Female, she forces her blonde counterpart to emulate her by getting her to dye her hair black then dress in a Catholic school girl uniform so they can play sexy twins for John, the all-too-willing spouse. Then through the magic of some shaman bells sent by her mother, she manages to at once kill her competition and inhabit her body. Will the husband ever learn that the brunette with whom he now shares his bed is possessed by the soul of his wife's killer? Will he figure out why this woman poked out her own eyes? Or whatever happened to the kook who took over his life? The future promises more of the unexpected. Including a baby!

Please note: Make Yourself at Home also appears under the title Fetish.

July 14, 2013

Too Young to Die: Geriatrics in Bed

I know a number of single and divorced women who complain of the difficulties of finding a suitable mate. I wonder whether Too Young to Die, a very short Korean feature that lasts barely an hour, would give hope or remove all desire. I assume director Park Jin-pyo (who went on to direct Voice of a Murderer and You Are My Sunshine) wants to assure us, even celebrate, that love and sex are possible at any age: Look at his leading man Park Chi-gyu. This toothless old geezer falls for the equally wrinkled Lee Sun-ye as if struck by Cupid's arrow then dyes his hair and has her move in before you can flip the page of his calendar. And why would you touch that calendar? There's a lot to learn from the month on display: Park notes every time the two fornicate or she sucks him off -- acts which we see fairly graphically. I'm no prude about geriatric lovemaking. I'd even go so far as to say that Park has an amazingly muscled ass and a decent technique despite his years. But the soft core porn here is poorly lit, Park's kissing skills are atrocious, and the dialogue is so corny that I can only assume, Lee Soo-mee is the screenwriter's pseudonym.

Granted the movie isn't just groping and humping. It also has an absurdly long scene of Park exercising/dancing on the rooftop after banging Lee, some arguments that sound improvised and unedited, and a couple of music lessons during which a Janggo-drumming Lee teaches Park the "Song of Youth." None of it's horrible. Which isn't to say any of it's good. There are strange moments like one in which a laughing Lee accidentally glances at the camera, and jarringly naturalistic ones like when Park scrubs his dentures clean before popping them back in his mouth. Will it rekindle dormant beliefs that love can arrive anyplace at anytime? Sure. But there's a catch. You'll have to be willing to fall for whomever is there.

July 6, 2013

In Another Country: Falling in Love With the Lifeguard All Over Again

Isabelle Huppert in a Korean movie? That's right. It's Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country, a melancholic diversion of three interconnected shorts featuring the transplanted French actress as a bewitching director, a philandering businesswoman and a jilted wife -- each with the same foreign accent. Before you get hung up on Huppert's undifferentiated vocal work, consider this: Hong hasn't cast Huppert to display a Meryl Streep-like range. He's cast her because he recognizes her as a kindred spirit. He knows she's capable of excelling at the in-the-moment acting that exemplifies his films at their best. Indeed, Huppert's proficiency at playing the moments between the moments is most apparent in the opening vignette during which she's largely listening to conversations in Korean she cannot understand in full but nevertheless intuits in good part. If the latter scenes don't allow her to silently upstage her cast mates two more times, they at least show she's in good company with co-stars like Yoon Yeo-jeong, Moon So-ri, and Jeong Yu-mi who match her meaningful glance for meaningful glance as a best friend, a jealous wife and a hotel worker respectively.

The men don't fare as well though. Kwon Hye-hyo may be fine as a hard-drinking man on the make but neither Kim Yong-ok nor Moon Sung-keun are even passably believable as a none-too-clever monk and a mildly amorous director. The nuances of Hong's deceptively simple dialogue escapes them both completely. The only male actor who actually holds his own with the actresses is, ironically enough, beefcake Yoo Joon-sang. Emerging from the waves like a God of Love for each of Huppert's ladies abroad, Yoo's performance as a dimwitted lifeguard isn't mining subtext so much as it's conveying good-natured incomprehension. Flirting in a language he hasn't mastered, he's a consistently humorous counterpart to Huppert's ennui in triplicate. Who wouldn't fall in love with him? And who wouldn't ditch him without remorse soon thereafter?

June 15, 2013

Blind: The Seeing Eye Dog That Sees Too Much in Its Owner

It's a good thing that dogs are so indiscriminately devoted. Otherwise, the Golden Retriever Seul-ki might not be so self-sacrificing for Soo-ah (Kim Ha-neul), the former police academy student to whom he's been assigned. He's adorable. She's unlikable (by human standards at least). Shortly after causing the death of her brother and losing her vision in a bizarrely comedic car accident, Soo-ah crosses paths with a serial killer (Yang Yeong-jo) who inexplicably crank-calls her for awhile as he continues his murder spree. Given her propensity for falling, bumping into random objects and pridefully disdaining help from others, Soo-ah may have delayed an attack by the killer because she seems too easy a target. But it's one of the missions of this film to challenge the audience's preconceptions of the blind as disadvantaged. You see, just because Soo-ah's a klutz doesn't mean she's forgotten her martial arts training as a cadet.

Now if only the academy did a better job at screening out candidates based on intelligence. You can kind of believe that goofy Detective Jo (Jo Hie-bong) might scrape by but it's harder to believe Soo-ah would have received even close to a passing grade in logic since her choices are so consistently poor. Even taking into account her heightened sense of smell (and the clues revealed by it), she doesn't merit serious consideration for anything but a sous chef or perhaps a job working with children -- and then only if she's supervised. I bet Gi-seob (Yo Seung Ho), the teenybopper motorcyclist who eventually adopts her as his older sister, would volunteer for those duties. After all the blood loss he experiences late in this movie, his own life choices are bound to be similarly ill-considered. Then again, improbabilities abound in Blind, so much so, that the movie's biggest surprise may be that Soo-ah doesn't get her sight back through the healing properties of dog drool.

June 8, 2013

The Thieves: Evidently, There Is an Oceans 14 in Asia

Although I've never seen Oceans 11, 12 or 13, Choi Dong-hoon's The Thieves strikes me as very similar to those glitzy, impeccably dressed star-studded caper pics. How much you like the movie has as much to do with how much you like the actors as you do the heist that's brought them all together. Here, you've got Kim Yun-seok (The Chaser) as a mastermind thief who assembles a crackerjack crew including Kim Hye-su (Tazza: The High Rollers) as his safe-cracker and Jun Gianna (My Sassy Girl) as a wire-walker who can break into any building. I'm less sure why he's hired Lee Jung-jae (Il Mare) as comic relief and wish he'd entrusted Kim Hae-suk (Thirst) with more to do but at least the movie has plenty of female power instead of one Julia Roberts or Catherina Zeta-Jones.

Joined by a half-dozen other shady types, these movie stars -- I mean crooks -- pool their talents in hopes of stealing the Tear of the Sun, a yellow diamond of enormous size and even greater value. (Black market estimates put its worth at around twenty million dollars.) As you can imagine, the jewel is very well-protected and given the checkered histories and double-crossing tendencies of all the criminals involved, pulling off this crime of the century isn't going to be so easy, especially when one of your partners is an undercover cop.

They also have to deal with an evil, bloodthirsty buyer (Ki Guk-seo) who seems an odd person to peddle your wares to given that he's been known to shoot the seller in order to get a better deal. But when you're trafficking in stolen goods, beggars can't be choosers. Nor can thieves. No matter how famous they are.

Postscript: I especially enjoyed seeing Shin Ha-kyun (Save the Green Planet) in the small role of the rich art collector who's always on the make with the ladies.

May 28, 2013

Pieta: An Avenging Mother Goes to Extremes

Most people I know have strained relationships with their mothers. But nothing compares to the parent-child dynamic in Kim Ki-duk's masochistic drama Pieta. In short, you might wish your mother guilt-tripped less and complimented more but whatever your issues may be, they're likely to dwarf when set aside those of loan shark Gang-do (Lee Joeng-jin) and the martyr-like woman (Jo Min-soo) who shows up on his doorstep, in search of forgiveness for abandoning him as a child many years ago. It's hardly love at first sight. Rather than hug his long-lost mom, he slams the door on her hand, slaps her face, even rapes her before he finally decides that maybe she really is the one. This total acceptance causes him to re-evaluate his way of living -- crippling indebted machinists so he can collect money from their insurance policies isn't the kind of work that would make a mother proud. Suddenly, he's got someone to live up to, this tireless, self-sacrificing woman who cooks him eel and knits him a sweater.

Personally, I've always thought that unconditional love was a bit of a false ideal. That's the type of affection we get from dogs. Do we really not want a person to judge us when we're doing the wrong thing or accept us no matter how far we transgress? Isn't there something to be said for conditional love, the idea that certain boundaries need to be maintained? Duk certainly thinks to seem so for when you see just how far this mom is willing to go to avenge her son, you realize that that kind of absolutism lacks compassion, surely an integral part of love. Forgiveness seems so much more powerful than a blind commitment; empathy feels more noble than devotion. Don't believe me? Check out Pieta. By the end, you'll see that an extreme version of a mother's undying love is just as twisted as the problematic relationship you're having with your own mother. In fact, consider yourself lucky!

May 21, 2013

Planet of Snail: He's Deaf, Blind and Happily Married

You don't have to surf too long on YouTube to track down some archival footage of deaf-blind disability-celebrity Helen Keller speaking in her strange, otherworldly tongue. Barely intelligible, she sounds as if she were speaking a foreign, even alien, language akin to English but not quite. That said, her incomprehensible speech registers as something of a miracle. How in the world do you learn to talk if you can't hear or see the words? Is it all vibration and touch? However she did it, you won't find a similarly eerie vocalizing from Korean deaf-blind Young-chan who actually sounds pretty normal in Yi Seung-jun's Planet of Snail. But the truth of the matter is that although blind like Keller, he's not completely deaf -- he hears sounds as if through a fog. Even so, you do get the sense that he too exists on that other planet, as you watch him "hear" other people as they type words out on the backs of his fingers or read braille by way of a device slung over his shoulder like an electric guitar.

Like Keller before him, Young-chan's a writer but whereas Keller was a memoirist, Young-chan is a poet and aspiring playwright. It's the latter that gets the most screen time in Planet of Snail, as he goes to visit a theater company staging a play about a deaf-blind woman (his critique of the lead actress's performance is almost perfunctory) before mounting a kind of bible play himself with some of his friends from a school for the deaf and blind. He's hardly Beckett made real but there's nevertheless a very definite real-ness in the bleak Job-like reality he's put in script form. Throughout his endeavors, whether he's exercising just outside the kitchen or changing a fluorescent light bulb in the bedroom, he's ably assisted by his wife Soon-ho, a lovely hunchbacked midget who recognizes her soul mate even with his limitations of communication and who loves him enough to support his growing independence, even if it means sacrificing her own sense of purpose in life.

May 1, 2013

Forbidden Quest: Making Some Noise for Love, Sex, and Literature (a.k.a. Porn)

I believe that while watching Forbidden Quest this past weekend, I said the sentence "This movie is good" aloud three times, the word "wow" twice and the expletive "shit" (appreciatively) once. These were not the only times I was moved to speak, and as I'm sure my dog Silas would attest (if he could), I am not in the habit of talking to the TV. When a movie gets me to sound off in private, something unusual is going on. And Kim Dae-woo's directorial debut Forbidden Quest is unusual: an 18-century historic drama about a populist pornographer with artistic aspirations.

Funnily enough, the first involuntary sound the movie caused wasn't an appreciative word or a sigh of pleasure. It was the barked laugh that erupted when one government thug (Lee Beom-su) pulled out a red, hardened bull's cock as his weapon of choice to protect a court intellectual (Han Suk-kyu) tracking down a forgery. That inflamed billy club came as a hilarious shock to me as did the calligrapher (Kim Ki-hyeon) copying porn in the back room of the shop which the scholar was investigating. Does it naturally follow that said scholar would try his hand at writing erotica or become the lover of the queen (Kim Min-jung) who'd become his muse? Probably not. But Kim's script isn't about the probable. It's a warped fantasy about what happens when porn becomes an obsession, even centuries before you could get it online by the touch of a finger.

There are plenty of interesting questions raised by Forbidden Quest about honor, betrayal, love, intimacy and sex and how they interconnect. Compare the very obvious sacrifice made by the eunuch (Kim Roe-ha) to be near the royal lady to the torture the scholar undergoes to hide the identity of his illustrator. Love isn't a trifling affair for anyone here. I didn't clap, alone in my apartment, for Forbidden Quest when it was over. But I did shed a silent tear which spoke volumes, some of them quite dirty.

April 24, 2013

The Day He Arrives: Drink, Eat and Be Melancholic

Dear Hong Sang-soo,

I'd like to offer you a public apology. After years of bad-mouthing your films and trashing them through reviews on my website and elsewhere, I've come to see the error of my ways. You are indeed a great filmmaker and if I don't like all your movies, the ones I do like, I do so with unrestrained enthusiasm. Count The Day He Arrives in this latter category. Much like the heart-wrenching Woman Is the Future of Man and the despairing The Power of Kangwon Province, your 2011 pic The Day He Arrives is an exquisite picaresque in which a seemingly directionless narrative somehow leads us to a greater appreciation of the inherent tragedy of life.

That you're able to convey such depths of emotions from chance encounters, that you consistently pull such naked performances from your actors, that you can revisit your ironic stand-in, the cad-director (an ingratiating Yu Jun-sang), and make him feel fresh... All these things delight me even as they catch me off-guard since the first few movies of yours I saw repeatedly drove me to fits of rage.

Was Song Seon-mi as good in Woman on the Beach as she is here playing a fawning cineaste? Was Kim Ee-seong as natural in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well as he is here playing an embittered actor? In short, the pleasure I'm getting from your films now makes me doubt my assessments before. Should I retract the savage comments I made on your other flicks? Maybe Night and Day isn't a piece of crap. Maybe your short "Lost in the Mountains" isn't half-baked.

I'll have to go back to those and re-watch them some time. For now, I'll just recommend The Day He Arrives, your flawless, black-and-white meditation on coincidence, love, bromance, loneliness, and the art of creation itself. Well done Director Hong and please, forgive me.


Drew P.

April 22, 2013

The Unjust: Apparently, Every Side of the Law Is the Backside

A rapist-murderer is on the loose in Seoul, South Korea. But that's of little concern to anyone in The Unjust, a wobbly crime pic in which cops frame mentally deficient suspects, real estate moguls back stab each other to death, and public prosecutors wear their bribes as badges of honor while the psychopath molests and kills another young girl in the city. Apparently, law officials are too obsessed with getting promotions or a new set of golf clubs to be bothered worrying about the sex criminal headlining the nightly news.

It's as if writer Park Hoon-jung (I Saw the Devil) and director Ryu Seung-wan (Crying Fist) are suggesting that a sociopath is nothing compared to the unsavory types employed by the legal system. Prosecutor Joo-yang (Ryu Seung-beom) is more amoral as he extorts public figures and bullies co-workers with his shit-eating grin; big businessman Jang (Yu Hae-jin) is more corrupt as he wheels and deals for supremacy in real estate, with an even shittier grimace; and detective Choi (Hwang Jeong-min) is more desperate as he vies for a supervisor position, his face neither grinning nor grimacing but staring deadpan at the world as if life were a poker game.

The only really pitiable character is convicted child-molester/prime-suspect Lee Dong-seok (Woo Dong-gi), with his missing half-finger. And since he's a child molester, the pity only goes so far. Actually, the one character to elicit true sympathy is Lee's wife. Played by actress Lee Mi-do with startling realism, this mentally incapacitated woman appears to have walked out of a documentary into a so-so thriller. Lost and bewildered with a child by her side, she gapes at terrors and complications she can neither overcome nor understand. I wish The Unjust had justified her look of woe.

April 15, 2013

Vanishing Twin: Sisterly Rivalry Continues Even After Death

Before this movie, I'd never heard the term "vanishing twin." A poetical pairing of words, this medical anomaly (also known as "fetal resorption") is what happens when a fetus dies in the womb and then is absorbed by the surviving twin. It's also the only fact I was able to glean from writer-director Yun Tae-yeong puzzling movie of the same name. Because Vanishing Twin, the movie, has strictly less-than-absorbing realities. Is what we're seeing the life of dissatisfied novelist Yu-jin (Ji Su-won), her dream, her awakened imagination, or a re-enacted scene from her novel? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. As to the protagonist, she's unhappy with her husband, her suicidal sister who inspires jealous feelings even from the grave, her brother-in-law (Kim Myeong-su) who may have killed said sister, her perhaps imagined lover (Koo Pil-woo) and her novel, which likely is drawing on her various discontents as she nears her book's completion. For the record, she seems to have an okay relationship with her daughter (Choi Ji-eun).

One excerpt from her book, which we can safely assume is not reality, is presented as a bit of animation. In this retelling of a supposedly Native American folk tale, a lazy dog's penis detaches itself from its owner and goes for a walk only to get stuck on a thorn bush. When the dog awakens ready to pee but with his penis gone, he searches for it, finds it and reattaches it. All is not well, however, since his crotch itches terribly. So he prays to the goddess of the desert and... Oh, who cares. The story's a metaphor for sex. And the sex in this movie is really bad. It's weird to see a woman comically faking an orgasm over and over and a man making love to her over and over with complete indifference. Acting schools don't teach lovemaking, which means you have to learn it on your own. Considering the inordinate amount of time spent describing the lower lip as a sexual reveal, screenwriters don't learn much about lovemaking either. Everyone involved with this project needs to get laid.

March 31, 2013

The Taste of Money: Horny Rich People Doing Terrible Things

It's easy to imagine a Marketing Director branding Im Sang-soo's The Taste of Money "an erotic thriller." The plot involves a family of avaricious backstabbers who commit multiple murders and enjoy fairly graphic sex lives in front of your very eyes. Yet none of it feels particularly erotic or thrilling. Sure, the family is loaded -- they've got a warehouse full of dollars bills. They're in cahoots with an American corporate sleazeball (played by's Darcy Paquet!). And just to add a touch of street cred, the family heir (On Ju-wan) goes in and out of jail with some regularity. The greatest mystery may be why the Filipino housemaid (Maui Taylor) dies in the pool without her bikini top. Or maybe it's how an old suicide can sit in a bathtub of his own blood without losing any of his vitality.

So what's a Marketing Director to do? Bill this as sexploitative social commentary? Here too the movie doesn't meet the demands of the genre since the carnal scenes are super short. A Bacchanal with a half-dozen bare-breasted women doesn't even culminate in a proper orgy. The family patriarch (Baek Yun-shik) goes down on a household servant then the door is shut! The longest sex scene comes when the amoral matriarch (a deliciously evil Yoon Yeo-jung) coerces the suited houseboy (Kim Kang-woo and his corrugated midsection) into her bed where she yells "Harder! Deeper!" repeatedly. But afterwards, when the boy toy soaks in the tub -- and does shots and eats limes presumably to get her taste out of his mouth, you're more likely to laugh than get titillated. The final Mile High Club rendezvous between Kim's character and the family's pretty daughter (Kim Hyo-jin) is so contrived you'll scream "Faster! Faster" until the credits appear.

In terms of finding an appropriate film genre to apply to The Taste of Money, this Marketing Director is screwed. Which isn't to say he's doomed: The dialogue does provide a memorable tag line: "The money's easy, the fucking's great. Korea's a fantastic country."

March 27, 2013

Memento Mori: Creepy Girls Rule the Schoolyard

Whatever the Korean equivalent of the sibilant "s" is, the characters in Memento Mori are lisping it repeatedly throughout the second fright flick of the Whispering Corridors series. This homoerotic creep-show is like a lesbian hall of mirrors. Watch as the central tragic romance between femme psycho diarist Hyo-shin (Park Yeh-jin) and cold-hearted jock Shi-eun (Lee Young-jin) is reflected in the obsessive eyes of Min-ah (Kim Gyu-ri), a fellow student who falls for Shi-eun then is possessed by the spirit of Hyo-shin. Try to ignore the Sapphic undercurrents in the friendship among Min-ah's sexually repressed gal pals. Pretend that the heterosexual fling between teacher Mr. Goh (Baek Jong-hak) and Hyo-shin is anything but perverted. Frankly, this movie is gay in the best way possible.

It's also stylishly executed. Spirit-world POVs show a world robbed of subtlety and detail; well-choreographed crowd scenes are shot from above a la Busby Berkley; even the artwork in the collage-filled diary — which Hyo-shin keeps and Min-ah devours — is lovely to look at. (The film snagged a cinematography award at Slamdance for a reason.)

Art house accomplishments aside, Memento Mori freaks because Kim Gyu-ri's such a fidgety, tormented, slack-jawed mess. You'll be torn between finding her acting horrendous and completely appropriate. How would you act if you'd found a magic journal with a secret transformation pill, an envelope of powdered poison, and a hidden mirror that led to your soul being snatched away by the memoirist. Of course, you'd be a total wreck. I suspect the movie's two writer-directors — Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong — were constantly giving their little leading lady conflicting instructions/feedback to keep her perpetually disoriented. Nicely done!

The other movies in the Whispering Corridor series are Blood Pledge, Voice, Wishing Stairs, and the titular film that gives the series its name.

March 25, 2013

Crossing the Line: American Defects

The American Dream doesn't always happen in America. Sometimes, it happens in North Korea. In one of the more bizarre examples of truth being stranger than fiction, Crossing the Line tells the real story of PFC James Dresnok, a soldier who defected from the United States military to North Korea in the 1960s. He wasn't the only one to do so either. One of four soldiers who ditched Uncle Sam for Kim Il Sung, Dresnok truly lived out a weird rags-to-riches fantasy, a man who grewing up an orphan then ended up a movie star, albeit one typecast as "white-faced devil" for the duration of his big screen career.

As for his co-stars and fellow defectors -- Pvt. Larry Allen Abshier, Specialist Jerry Wayne Parrish, and Sgt. Charles Robert Jenkins -- they too became tools/trumpets of the country's propaganda machine (which included a magazine entitled Fortune's Favorites that featured the foursome having a good old time across the border). Whether they all came to revere their adopted homeland as much as Dresnok is anyone's guess. Parrish and Abshier died before Crossing the Line was released and Jenkins' condemnation of the fascist government may have been a pre-condition to being granted citizenship by Japan where he fled to join his Japanese wife, who claims herself to have been abducted to become his bride.

What is clear is that Dresnok has brought an immigrant's traditional values with him, wishing nothing better than to see his children get a better education than he did and taking pride in having carved out a decent living for himself. There's something sweet about that, even if the way it's done seem utterly preposterous. But would you expect anything less than pure craziness from a documentary narrated by Hollywood kook Christian Slater. Crossing the Line is actually the third in a series of North Korean documentaries which include The Game of Their Lives (about the World Cup team that went to the quarterfinals in 1966) and A State of Mind (about two girl gymnasts). Based on Crossing the Line, I'd see either.

March 9, 2013

The Korean Connection: High Marks for Lowbrow Martial Arts

I suspect, there is a Jersey City trade school devoted to training voice-over actors for foreign flicks. Course work is light and lasts a few weeks yet all the students are placed in jobs at graduation! The catch is that they're never employed again since each production wants a fresh crew to read lines that could not be rescued by seasoned actors. With lines like "You guys are all pussies" and "Quiet, you fool!," cinematic literature, this is not. Entertaining, however, it is. And when you watch an old '70s martial arts flick like The Korean Connection, the amateurishly performed dialogue contributes, not detracts, from the overall experience.

I also suspect that the above trade school also offers workshops in screenwriting. Classes last an hour but at the end of that 60 minutes, each student has a finished screenplay in his or her hands. (Revisions are highly discouraged.) And from the looks of The Korean Connection, one workshop's star pupil Yu Dong-hun has kept his tale simple with plenty of stage directions that begin "Start fighting here." What happens between those fights is that young gangster Tiger (Han Yong-cheol) must find a way to redeem himself after being part of a crime that led to the death of his girlfriend's brother. Drowning in drink, he's approached by two patriots who need his assistance to retrieve some government papers. Such a daring act will rehabilitate his reputation and save the nation. A lot of karate chops are required to get there though.

To its credit, The Korean Connection focuses on fighting, not talking. Tiger and his best buddy, who sports an argyle sweater vest and long bushy sideburns, fight bad guys in bars, in basements, and on bridges. You never doubt that they'll overthrow deranged mobster Yamamoto but it's fun to see them kick and punch their way to a shared goal. Considering the ingenious scene on the bridge in which Tiger walks then fights a crowd then walks then fights more of the crowd, it's hard to give this movie less than a B. Grading standards aren't that strict at this Jersey City university. Nor should they be.

March 2, 2013

The Berlin File: The Bourne Identity by Way of Korea - North, South and Abroad

Ryu Seung-wan's The Berlin File feels aspirational. The goal? To break into the American movie multiplex. With more than enough English to excerpt for a mass-market trailer intended to dupe unsuspecting Yanks into buying tickets, this Bourne Identity with a North Korean slant hopes to appease its misinformed foreign audience with plenty of gunfire, big explosions, hand-to-hand combat and international politics (with a minimum number of subtitles). Yet while a savvy marketing strategy may fill The Berlin File's stateside seats on opening weekend, the word of mouth in any language is unlikely to do so thereafter.

Where does The Berlin File go wrong? Part of the problem may be that the star lineup is so lopsided. Despite its bilingual dreams, the only familiar faces (to someone who knows both Korean and American cinema) are the Korean ones. So while you've got Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser), Jun Gianna (My Sassy Girl) and Han Suk-kyu (Green Fish) on one side, the Europeans and Americans populating this Berlin are all no-namers. Personally, I think the addition of a Skeet Ulrich or a Joe Morton would've gone a long way to generate international appeal.

Especially when you consider the stilted delivery of the English dialogue by most of the Koreans here. Lines are uttered like memorized sounds, not words — never mind sentences. And let's face it: A convoluted plot about terrorism needs to be said with conviction. With the exception of Ryu Seung-beom (who appears to be relishing his role as a villain after years of playing comic cutie), the other Korean actors only appear at ease when speaking their native tongue. (That might be a problem for that aforementioned trailer!)

That said, I respect The Berlin File's aim. How crazy is it that despite Korea being a powerhouse in world cinema for a decade, it still has yet to garner a single Oscar nomination for best foreign film. What needs to happen to generate that level of respect? Kim Ki-duk's Pieta snagged the top prize at Venice in 2012. Let's hope American laurels lie ahead.