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.