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?