October 27, 2013

Masquerade: The King Has Nightmares / The Fool Has Dreams

I never get tired of Korean costume dramas with their richly colored, many-layered robes, and wide-brimmed, transparent black hats. I never get tired of actor Lee Byung-hun either and here in Masquerade -- a film that's already got me enraptured with its costumes -- he's cast in dual roles, once as King Gwang-hae, the justifiably paranoid monarch whose court wants him dead, and once as Ha-seon, a lookalike actor who fills in for Gwang-hae when the latter's been incapacitated by an opium overdose.

Playing two characters in the same movie is always hard but playing two characters, one of whom is impersonating the other, is really hard if you're still trying to make each distinct. Lee, an actor who has come a long way from his pretty boy days of Lament and The Harmonium in My Memory, is up for the challenge. He shows evolution as well as contrast by refining Ha-seon's impersonation as time goes by while still displaying the stature of the real king when the potentate returns at the end.

I would also like to thank director Choo Chang-min for not having a scene in which the king and the impostor must face off or even share the screen. While Masquerade isn't afraid of getting comical [royal bowel movements, slapstick switcheroo with the royal advisor (Ryu Seung-ryong)...], the movie refrains from asking the Queen (Han Hyo-ju) to choose between two identical men shouting, "I'm the real king!"

What makes a king, not who is the king, is the real question at the center of Masquerade. And the surrogate sire has a few things to teach the court about government for the people. The eternal difficulty in getting the rich to pay their fair share of taxes is as relevant as ever. The consulting of the head eunuch (Jang Gwang) and a 15-year-old girl (Shim Eun-kyung) who makes a mean bean paste are perhaps a bit more of their time.

Fading Away: Survivors From the Korean War Talk and Talk and Talk

Does every man, woman and child have a story worth hearing? I used to think so but when I watch the testimonials in Christopher H.K. Lee's Korean War documentary Fading Away, I think so less. I also start to feel that the creation of art may, in truth, be reserved for a select group and that when the inexperienced or uninspired take a stab at it, you're left with something that makes you feel dishearteningly small. Thankfully, in Fading Away, such depressing feelings are momentarily dispelled during an uplifting if all-too-short section devoted to a trio of women veterans who reminisce about their lives in the national military, which up until the Korean War didn't accept female cadets at all.

Recruited in their late teens and early 20s, these women are pioneers in the truest sense as they bravely forge ahead into the unknown without any self-importance. Unlike most of the men interviewed, the women consistently look back with a greater sense of wonder and a lot less nostalgia. They talk of peeing in their helmets; assisting in surgery without formal training; administering shots willy-nilly on the front lines; washing uniforms blood-stained and full of maggots; seeing naked corpses piled high...

Sadly, Lee doesn't seem to recognize what a remarkable threesome he's assembled. Soon enough, he's moved on to an elderly white couple who met at a square dance in Seoul a few years after the war. Why that particular couple gets screen time is a mystery but it's hardly the only misguided choice this director makes. Some of the scenes with his father in particular feel more appropriate as home movies. When you're documenting the last members of a generation, your responsibility should be to a larger story -- wherever you find it. Put the personal needs to the side.

October 13, 2013

IRIS: The Movie: Binging on a TV Series Without Watching the Whole Thing

To join the staff of the secret service of North or South Korea, you're going to need a dollop of hair gel. The same goes for members of IRIS, a terrorist organization plotting to nuke Seoul as a way to make a statement about re-unification. (I'm not totally sure if they're for or against it.) Among those with the most stylish hairdos is Kim Hyeon-jun (Lee Byung-hun), an undercover assassin who gets double-crossed by the South Koreans then defects to the enemy before realizing matters are more complicated than simple betrayal.

Throughout the twists and turns and hair-rsising stunts of Iris: The Movie, Hyeon-jun emerges as a super-spy akin to Jason Bourne with whom he shares an unnatural ability to dodge bullets shot at close range and survive the one lucky bullet that hits him as if it were no more than a stomach cramp. He also does crazy stunts like repel down the side of a dam while holding a young girl in one arm, and hijack a truck then a plane then a car then a city bus.

Yet despite his bulletproof aura and his multi-vehicle driver's license, Hyeon-jun isn't necessarily ahead of the game. You see, he isn't a big picture thinker. He doesn't investigate his situation. Instead, he comes across info that makes him reconsider his predicament as he bounces from Hungary to Korea to Japan to Korea to China to Korea again. Sometimes, he's accompanied by a sexy rebel (Kim So-yeon) with an edgy variation of Dorothy Hamill's bowl cut; sometimes by his weepy girlfriend (Kim Tae-hee) who's got a tamed down version of Jennifer Aniston's 'do. Neither woman can make sense of Hyeon-jun's story. Maybe this movie is only for fans of the TV series from which it borrows most of its footage. For the uninitiated, IRIS: The Movie is a well-coifed mess. Now will someone please tell me the name of Hyeon-jun's stylist?

October 12, 2013

Born to Sing: Live to Cry

Do I cry too easily? Possibly. Because even a very predictable, conventional movie about a talent show and its hard-luck singing contestants can turn me into a bucket of tears. I don't know why I'm so easily manipulated even when, like with Born to Sing, I can see where it's going right from the very beginning. The forgetful old man (Oh Hyeong-kyeong) with the prickly granddaughter (Kim Hwan-hee) is going to get the love he deserves; the bashful 20-something (Lee Cho-hee) swoony for her adorable co-worker (Yoo Yeon-seok) is going to get kissed, married and laid in that order; and the henpecked has-been (Kim In-kwon) is going to get back to his rock roots and win over a nation and his hairdressing wife (Ryu Hyeon-kyeong). I cried for every story, every success, every cliche. Pretty much every time!

Before the tears, I confess my interest in Born to Sing was fleeting. As directed by Lee Jong-pil, this sitcom of uplift isn't as competent in building back stories or belly laughs. The comic relief -- an off-key mayor (Kim Su-mi), an overaged delivery boy (Kim Jung-gi) and a self-advancing politico (Oh Kwang-rok) -- are each a little too real. What could've been a series of comically quirky characters come across as sad, small-town lives. Not that sad, mind you. I didn't cry for them. They're more depressing in a lightweight, inoffensive kind of way. Like people you meet in life, people who have their own small dreams and self-delusions, people that aren't going to win and who you'll never see again so really what does it matter.

Is there a subversive message here? Are we expected to chase our dreams and not settle for less after watching Born to Sing? Should we crash the karaoke bars and open mics and company off-site talent shows? To be honest, I hardly think so. I think we'd be better off heading to the cineplex to see good movies like this one and, if we're lucky, something better.