November 29, 2013

Girl Scout: Girls Just Wanna Have Funds

There was a stretch where I was enjoying Girl Scout, Kim Sang-man's chick-flick, action-pic comedy. Now I'm trying to remember when I completely lost interest. The movie definitely has elements in its favor. It's a heist film. It's grrrl-powered. It's periodically funny. It's class-conscious. It's even efficient in how it sets up its plot: Four friends must retrieve money from swindlers so one (Kim Seon-a) can open her dream diner, one (Lee Kyeong-shil) can get her child an operation, one (Na Mun-hee) can quit a degrading job, and one (Ko Jun-hee) can go on a shopping spree. So where did it go wrong exactly? One problem is the movie doesn't establish definitively who the villain is. The vixen (Lim Ji-eun) who's stolen their money is actually in cahoots with a crook (Park Won-song) who may or may not be her boss. Is the lady thief a victim? She sure gets slapped around a bit by her partner. Are they working as a team? It doesn't seem so. What's their history? And why do they also have two million dollars in government bonds alongside the stolen cash?

None of these questions arose while I watched Girl Scout, mind you. My curiosity dwindled down to nil about halfway through the pic. I didn't care what the crime was. I didn't care who the criminal was. I certainly didn't care if justice was served. What's weird is that you get the feeling that the main four women don't care that much about each other either. At least two of the four friends are easily persuaded to betray the others, and no one seems overly concerned with the one woman's son getting the surgery he so desperately needs. (The doctor included!) As to the loan shark (Ryu Tae-joon), he's more distraction than attraction despite his photogenic looks. Whether he's a good guy or a bad guy, he barely registers at all.

Note to Korean Filmmakers: Jeon Ji-ae, who has a bit part as a waitress who works at the bar where much of the action occurs, is really good in a very small part. Someone please cast her in a bigger role!

November 28, 2013

Antarctic Journal: Get to the Point (of Inaccessibility, That Is)

I'd never heard of a "point of inaccessibility" before Antarctic Journal. Evidently, the term refers to a geographical location that's extremely difficult to access, often because of its distance from the coast. Reaching such a landmark is a source of pride for explorers because it's so challenging. For the general public, however, there's little to recommend a POI (as it's sometimes called). The same could be said for Antarctic Journal, the pseudo-horror flick by director Yim Pil-sung (and co-written by auteur Bong Joon-ho). It's for extremists only. In other words, if you're committed to being a completist and seeing every movie starring Song Kang-ho then then you're eventually going to have to watch this dud about a South Korean crew searching for the South Pole's POI.

Which isn't to say that Song isn't good. As the merciless captain who hallucinates memories of his son's suicide when he isn't letting his crew members die one by one, the actor keeps the action grounded, which isn't easy given how much appears to be shot in front of a green screen. Keeping it real can only take you so far though, and what is real, really? Not the sudden nose bleed that he gets at one point. Not the novice (Yu Ji-tae) who he cavalierly bequeaths the ominous British expedition diary that they find in the snow. Not the cynical cohort (Yun Je-mun) who can't persuade anyone how crazy the captain obviously is. Not even the cheerful radio operator (Kang Hye-jeong) who flies off in a search helicopter when captain and company "vanish into thin air." I'm not saying, Antarctic Journal needed to be a naturalistic take on a devastating expedition, but shots of a frozen eyeball and a ghostly woman's hand come across as pretty random and just leave me wondering whether the film is about to take a serious left turn. Maybe it did. Over and over. Which is another way of saying Antarctic Journal just goes in circles. And made me rethink my initial plan to curate a Song movie marathon, despite how wonderful I still think he is.

November 24, 2013

New World: May the Best Buffoon Win

I know I've seen actor Hwang Jeong-min before. He plays a deadpan detective in The Unjust, a snooping insurance agent in Black House, and a doomed lover in You Are My Sunshine. He's always been good but I was totally unprepared for just how great he is in writer-director Park Hoon-jung's New World. Here, playing Jeong Cheong, one of four gangsters vying to be the next Godfather of Korea's largest crime syndicate, he gives a performance that's epic in scale. What's even more impressive is how sneakily he builds that performance, starting off as a stereotype -- an uneducated thug who favors knock-off designer wear and sports a Jheri curl -- and ending up the movie's most complex character. So don't dismiss him as comic relief. Soon enough, his character will develop an edge. Then alongside his peacock posturing, you'll discover a sadistic streak that suggests, though dimwitted, he's dangerous, too. But wait! Even that evaluation must get tossed aside as you come to realize that his buffoonery is a pose, that he's quite savvy to the political web in which he's ensnared. If he's not the spider, then the spider better beware.

But New World, sad to say, isn't Jeong Cheong's story. It's the story of one of the underworld's other rising stars, Lee Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) -- an undercover cop who's being asked to stay incognito for the rest of his life as a way to the police force informed until the end of time. It seems a bit much to ask but at least Section Chief Kang, the one asking him to act as "mole" forever, is played by Choi Min-sik who can make any plot device, no matter how preposterous, seem perfectly believable. When Kang outwits the other aspiring crime lord Jung-gu (Park Seong-woon), you believe it. When he quits smoking as a way to honor an unlucky direct report (Song Ji-hyo), you kind of believe that too. You can almost believe his final encounter with one of the movie's murderous hobos. Almost but not quite.

November 9, 2013

Howling: A Wolf Is a Woman's Worst Friend

I'm not sure writer-director Yoo Ha totally understands dog psychology. In his mongrel murder mystery Howling, the vigilante K-9 trainer (Jo Young-jin) and his emotionally stunted daughter (Nam Bo-ra) seem to hold dogs in too high esteem! They think their beloved pet Jil-poong is a mind-reader capable of assassinating bad guys from intuited commands. Contrast that perplexing perspective with the low regard held by the homicide department. These cops consider dogs completely unpredictable -- is this one a killer without provocation? an informant that might lead them to the killer? or a humanoid creature doomed to run on all fours as he stares at mankind with all-knowing and piercing blue eyes? I suppose you could argue that any inaccuracies in this animal portrait have to do with Jil-poong's unusual pedigree: He's half wolf! But Yoo's shortcomings as a cinematic behaviorist don't end with his canine characterization. Take a look at how he portrays his human heroine.

Detective Eun-young (Lee Na-yeong) is an independent type who does her best work when she's left to her own devices. In group settings, however, she tends to grovel and seek unneeded backup from people who don't want to help her, regardless of their shared goals. Although her instincts are good, her gunmanship is erratic at best: One minute, she's shooting her partner by accident; the next, she's taking out the tire of a fast-moving car. On a motorcycle, she's radiates confidence racing down the highway. On foot (walking, running, limping), Eun-young always looks kinda lost. You can see why she's so fascinated by Jil-poong's unwavering gaze. She wishes she too could sustain that kind of eye contact, whether it was with a hyper-testy cohort like Detective Young-Cheol (Lee Sung-min), her misogynist partner Sang-gil (Song Kang-ho) or her generally unsupportive chief (Sin Joeng-geun). Since this movie isn't scifi horror, she can't become the dog. She's female, not feral, not fierce, not fortunate.

November 3, 2013

A Company Man: Corporate Culture Will Be the Death of Everyone

Lim Sang-yoon's A Company Man is an allegorical action pic when you consider that dismal working conditions -- long hours, the inability to get any free time, the struggle to have a life outside the office -- can be an issue for gangsters as well white collar drones. Put the thug in a tailored suit and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. So while poor Ji Hyeong-do (So Ji-seob) may have put enough money aside to start his own business (a lakeside cafe, perhaps), extricating himself from the biz isn't going to be as easy as handing in a resignation letter. You see, everyone wants him to be a lifer. According to upper management, a hitman's job is never done. Anything that humanizes Ji, like a pop-singing mom (Lee Mi-yeon), a good-natured temp worker (Kim Dong-jun) or a former staffer who wants to be free, only make him weaker and, by extension, the company weaker, too. Anyone who needs a change of scenery is out of luck. All roads lead back to corporate headquarters.

That's what Ji discovers when he tries to break loose from the Armani ties that bind. No one wants him to make a career change! No one sees a compelling-enough reason to pass up the regular paycheck! Not even the custodial lady who cleans the guns. That leads to Ji getting into some truly genius fights in a cramped SRO pad, a moving car, and a basement where his primary weapon is a rolled up calendar. A John Woo shootout in his office is uproariously glorious as he takes down his co-workers one by one by one by one by one. The nearby Neiman Marcus only had one bullet proof vest on the racks. Credit Ji with knowing how to dress for the occasion. Even after he leaves the staff massacre, he takes the time to tighten the designer noose around his neck, stylishly splashed with blood. He may have blown his references here but his ability to set and meet goals sure earns my respect.

Intangible Asset Number 82: Nothing Rhythm Is Something Else

Obsessions are not contained worlds. They simply travel down instead of out, deep instead of wide. There are just as many discoveries to be made below as afar. How else would I have come across director Emma Franz's Intangible Asset Number 82 if I weren't obsessed with Korean movies, if my access to Korean movies weren't limited, if I hadn't just signed up for Netflix specifically to see if they had anything new? I feel pretty sure I would've missed -- even skipped -- it. This fantastic travelogue about Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker's quest to meet aging, ailing Korean shaman Kim Seok-Chul is a study of obsession itself, a paean to pursuing your innermost desire, which in this instance is Barker's drive to release himself from Western approaches to rhythm, melody and even life with a little help from square music instructor Kim Dong-won who's English is good but whose translations oversimplify.

Whether Barker knows Korean or not is unclear. The entire documentary is shot as if Barker understood what was said and chose not to speak Korean. Oft times, he stares -- his green eyes wide, silent, nodding, smiling, perhaps a bit lost but open, eager and joyful, reverential and grounded all at once. His eventual meeting with Kim Seok-chul is neither climax nor anticlimax. It's simply one stop along a way of many self-discoveries. It's also probably not as life-changing as his encounter with Bae Il-dong, a younger shaman whose cheery disposition and heavy metal screams lead to a cross-cultural conversation that exists beyond words. It's funny to see how their first public concert is greeted: mild disinterested and happy indifference. A later performance, in a major venue, assumes arena rock proportions. Here in front of thousands, the two artists unleash an improvisational style that feels truly transnational. Barker's obsession has borne fruit. I don't know that my own obsessions have struck gold but I'm definitely dazzled by Barker's pay dirt.