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.