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.