January 28, 2013

My Beautiful Days: Remembering the Forgettable People

Not much happens for 20-something Jun-i (Kim Hyun-sung) in Im Jong-jae's My Beautiful Days and much of the little that does happen eventually comes undone. There's the affair that he's having with an older woman (Bang Eun-jin) which dissolves. There's the chance meeting with an old flame (Pyeon Eun-jeong) which doesn't reignite so much as lead him to her sister (Kim Gyu-ri) which doesn't go anywhere either. A friendship with the owner (Myeong Gye-nam) of the dry cleaners where he works sweetens then fades. His part-time military service is about to end. And yet, My Beautiful Days is hardly nothing. This delicately presented slice-of-life pic accurately reflects a time in life when possibility abounds despite a lack of direction and motivation.

There's definitely drama -- faces are slapped, even bones are broken -- but none of it feels hyperbolic. (Much more charged is the seemingly innocent foot race on a high school track and the grabbing of a hand in an elevator.) My Beautiful Days is wistful, not wild, searching, not searing. All of the characters seem somewhat lost but none in a desperate way. You get a brief indication of where these drifters may be headed by the time of the final frames but even there, the film shows restraint by not looking that far into the future of people who are largely at the beginning of their adult lives.

That said, My Beautiful Days doesn't feel as though it's just talking to and about young people. Chance encounters and small gestures also have life-changing impacts on two of the older characters: The dry cleaners owner is a former painter whose one-time peer and probable lover is having a retrospective. Thanks to a nudge from Jun-i, the retired artist rediscovers his passion, which it turns out is art, not the woman. As such, My Beautiful Days opens possibility within all stages of life and increases a sense of hopefulness and wonder even as it makes no promises for joy or success. Small connections will have to suffice for most of us most of the time.

January 19, 2013

Dear Pyongyang: A Daughter's Quest for Love From a Father She Fails to Respect

In the Japanese documentary Dear Pyongyang, you do learn some important basic facts about the history of Korea, like how it was occupied by Japan in 1910 then liberated after World War II then split in two shortly thereafter, a split which became more definitive following the Korean War in the 1950s. The film also talks about the Zainichi, the ethnic Koreans who continued to reside in Japan after their homeland's liberation. In the land of the oppressor, these proud nationalists set up Korean schools or emigrated to repatriate as citizens in North Korea. And while director Yang Yong-hi professes to want to know the story that led to her father's and mother's fervid revolutionary efforts on behalf of the Zainichi and North Korea for 50 years, she's actually a lot more interested in getting her dad to accept her complete disavowal of everything he stands for.

Because of that, Dear Pyongyang can feel painfully personal. The seemingly good-natured teasing that exists between parent and child -- as they discuss whether she can marry outside her nationality or devote her life to something outside the cause -- eventually deteriorates into something akin to psychological torture. As the years pass, Yang Yong-hi's quest for acceptance recognizes no limits; her persistent needling of her father eventually veers into the horrific. Late in the movie, her father bedridden with some unnamed disease and his face half-paralyzed, Yang persists in pressuring him to confess his regrets, to let her be who she is without question, to recount old memories he's already shared, until he's finally driven to tears. As he pulls her hand to his mouth, it's as if he's trying to get her stop by biting her. There's something downright ghastly about it. And pretty riveting.

So while Yang spends much time dismissing North Korea, the lives of her relatives who live there, the selfless support they receive from her parents, she ultimately ends up this movie's villain more than commie leaders Kim Il Song or Kim Jong Il do because her mercilessness is depicted so intimately. This is an expose of the filmmaker as much as one about North Korea or a man who fought hard on that country's behalf.

January 14, 2013

My Beautiful Girl, Mari: A Coming-of-Age Cartoon

I'll be honest from the get-go. I'm not a big fan of animated movies. And while I did get a kick out of Doggie Poo, a Korean claymation short that's literally about a piece of shit, that fecal fantasy appealed to my absurdist side, not my esthetic one. So if you're wondering how well Lee Sung-gang's My Beautiful Girl, Mari works as a cartoon feature, I'm not going to be able to help you that much. The artwork is very realist children's book: Unblemished people tend to face the viewer directly or in exact profile; the scenery is often static with moving elements. (Just because there's rain doesn't mean you'll see water running off the rooftops, too.) It can be lovely to look at but it doesn't exactly grab your attention. And the dream sequences are never as detailed as the events that take place in reality.

Is there a hidden message in that discrepancy? Perhaps. My Beautiful Girl, Mari is all about two adolescent boys who journey to a imaginary world accessed through a magical marble at the top of an abandoned lighthouse. That world, unlike their own, doesn't have faulty electric lights, ailing grandmothers or a bratty girl throwing a soccer ball at your head. In this alternate universe, a kind of junior Barbarella -- with a white shag cut, a white jumpsuit and a giant white dog -- silently communicates sympathy and bewilderment amid tethered clouds and zeppelin-shaped creatures that are like blowfish that fly in the air. Both boys are lucky to travel to this mini-cosmos since neither merits it based on good behavior. Nam-woo (Lee Byung-hun), the artsy one, is continually inconsiderate to his mom (Bae Chong-ok) and grandmother (Na Mun-hee); Jun-ho (Kong Hyeong-jin), his spoiled best friend, is constantly picking fights with a girl who he has a crush on. While the two boys eventually turn their shared adventures to good, you don't sense that either has grown by their experiences or even takes the life lessons into adulthood. To the contrary, the final monologue has to do with forgetting what happened. I'm likely to do the same.

Critic's advice: If you are a fan of animated films and you do watch My Beautiful Girl, Mari, choose the Korean soundtrack with English subtitles. The acting is infinitely better.

January 13, 2013

A Bizarre Love Triangle: The Virtues of Being Weird

Lee Mu-yeong's A Bizarre Love Triangle may be an ineffectual dud in some ways but it's also such an oddity, with more-than-a-few WTF moments sprinkled throughout its cockamamie story, that you can't just dismiss it outright as something terrible. Repeatedly, in this screwball comedy about a deadpan standup comic (Choi Kwang-il), a female Tae Kwon Do instructor (Kong Hyo-jin) and the bimbo (Jo Eun-ji) they both inexplicably love, you're likely to do a double-take at your television and hit rewind to confirm that what you saw really did happen. Nonsensical narrative twists and out-of-left-field visual details occur regularly as if to justify the word "bizarre" in the title. Here are nine details of note. I'll let you provide the tenth yourself.

1. The movie is a flashback to the present from a space colony on the moon. (No scifi comes into play outside that.)
2. A blind masseuse pressures her young lover to donate her eyes, over drinks.
3. The femme fatale performs a monologue from Othello while wearing a hooker's pink fright wig. (She doesn't get the part!)
4. A strange Cirque-du-soleil quartet does a Solid Gold number following one comedy act. (Or maybe it's a Vegas version of Cats.)
5. A guy in the background at a talk show attaches a toilet plunger to his head.
6. An electronic, hot pink dildo suddenly appears.
7. A fairly graphic blowjob is enacted after the character you didn't expect to get pregnant has her baby.
8. One sex scene is shown entirely as shadow puppetry.
9. The film concludes with a gay wedding involving two characters you know nothing about.

This doesn't even count the weird leaps of logic, like when the martial arts instructor noisily robs her sleeping blind lover or when the stand-up comic confesses he's a fraud as if that kind of honesty could win over a studio audience. And then there's the dead baby...

January 9, 2013

North Korea: A Day in the Life - Not Real By a Long Shot

"A day in life" implies a certain level of realism that this documentary certainly doesn't attain. That's in part because, in order to shoot this documentary about North Korea, Dutch director Pieter Fleury had to get the sign-off of the North Korean government. As you can imagine, much of the footage has a staged quality as drill teams perform inspirational flag routines outside factories and the central family's grandfather passionately recounts the American bombings of a local school that resulted in the death of his father and brother. What the communist censors failed to foresee was that composer Maarten van Norden would create an anxiety-producing score that would lend fairly nondescript footage a sinister aspect and that editor Michiel Reichwein would work similar wonders by re-appropriating video from national broadcasts.

Both sides would've benefited from a little more honesty. No one is about to believe that a staff member is going to mortify his or her self at a staff meeting then have those self-incriminations be met with blank stares as if this were just a normal everyday occurrence. Similarly, a women's military choir doesn't really become Satanic simply because you slow down the frames per second until you freeze one singer's face in an expressionistic scream. The truth peeking out from behind both these pretend presentations is so much more interesting.

Count how many times you see representations of Kim Jong Il and/or Kim Il Sung, the "great leaders" of the nation. You'll see their portraits being dusted by the son in the family's living room, various murals of one or the other throughout the city, a towering gold statue that towers over a city square, and illustrated images being referenced as a teaching tool in an elementary school class. This doesn't include the patriotic songs or the rote invocations by family and workers. The two Kims' omnipresence says a lot more to me about life in North Korea than any stylistic imprint that Fleury has imposed. One scene in which each of the little children bow to portraits as they enter school is infinitely more bizarre than any sped-up footage of factory executives gathering for a meeting at which truth reigns supreme. Why impose Orwellian imprints where they already exist?

January 5, 2013

Mapado 2: Back to the Island - Shut Your Fat Trap, Granny

Mapado 2: Back to the Island will make you hate old people. In a very deeply felt way. The ageist dystopia depicted in the scifi thriller Logan's Run? Suddenly, not so horrific! Why anyone would want to spend five minutes -- never mind two hours! -- with any of the quibbling, bull-headed grannies who dominate this sequel... Well, you know what? No one would. They're unbearable. Which is too bad because I actually remember the first Mapado as being a stupid-cute stoner comedy with much of the same cast. Clearly, neither Medicare nor AARP has anything in place to ensure people retain comic timing when hairs turn gray.

And I'm not just wagging an arthritic finger at the ancient actresses. The dearth of talent extends behind the camera, too: Kim Won-jin's script doesn't have one decent punchline; Lee Sang-soon's direction fails with both slapstick and martial arts moves. Why didn't they didn't bring back the original writing/directing team? Why didn't they revisit the pot-harvesting plot-twist in the predecessor? Was the film created specifically for senior citizen centers at which the audience would be expected to forget that they'd already seen this crap the night before? Or did actor Lee Mun-shik, who I find quite likeable despite the larger embarrassment, simply want to star in a movie in which he gets to wear ladies pajama pants and occasionally show off his legs? The PJs do look comfortable, the legs are sexy. But next time, Lee, indulge these desires at home. You're better than this! In truth, all the actors are. They'd have to be. Although with Lee Kyu-han, I have my doubts.

As the movie's one representative of youth, the exceedingly handsome model (?) -- surely, he's spent some time silently serving face -- shares so many variations of "the blank look" that you'd be justified in fearing that the body snatchers really had landed on Earth. The few times that Lee is called upon to emote, it's not a pretty sight. (That anguished scream in the ocean is really terrible to witness.) In his defense, you could say that no one here was mentoring him. Perhaps those old broads just wanted to get down his pajama pants: Mapado 3: Cougars on the Prowl. That was a joke. Please don't make another Mapado movie!