December 26, 2013

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2013 (Sort of)

I started getting into Korean movies because of the crime pics and the fright flicks but lately, I'm beginning to think the country is just as skillful at cranking out historical epics. I feel bad about not including the lovely foodie family drama Cafe Seoul, the horror classic Memento Mori, and the twisted thriller Helpless, but such is life. Herewith the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2013...

1. The Show Must Go On (2007): Song Kang-ho turns in yet another stellar performance as a mobster who simply wants to lead a suburban life without ever forsaking his violent career. Sound like The Sopranos, a bit? You got a problem with that? I don't!

2. Penny Pinchers (2011): If there's any justice in the world, this millennial romcom about two 20-something have-nots will make superstars of writer-director Kim Jung-hwan, and actors Song Joong-ki and Han Ye-seul.

3. Pieta (2012): No one makes you feel as electrically awful about humanity as Kim Ki-duk can (and does here in this maternal vengeance pic that's "sickening" in the best way possible).

4. The Day He Arrives (2011): While I immensely enjoyed Isabelle Huppert in In Another Country this year, director Hong Sang-soo's boozy, broken bromance is better as a whole.

5. Forbidden Quest (2006): Pornographic literature gets an impressive historic treatment (and more than a few laughs) in this costume drama from writer-director Kim Dae-woo.

6. Masquerade (2012): The other period piece that knocked my socks off stars Lee Byung-hun as an actor who must sub in for an ailing king. (Someone gift me one of those black sheer hats next Christmas, please!)

7. Intangible Asset Number 82 (2008): You may say it isn't truly a Korean movie but this documentary about an Australian drummer who journeys to Korea in search of his shaman-muse is too good to omit.

8. Attack the Gas Station! 2 (2010): A comedy sequel that comes ten years after the original movie has gotta suck, right? Wrong! You can argue with me over my laughter for about two hours.

9. My Beautiful Days (2002): I watched this one in the beginning of the year but I still get gushy about Im Jong-jae's spellbinding look at youth going nowhere, anywhere, somewhere...

10. A Company Man (2012): My loyalty to jopok films necessitates the inclusion of this crime pic which definitely features the most exciting fight scenes I saw in 2013. When's the last time violence was this well-dressed?

Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2012.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2011.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2010.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2009.
Click here to see the top ten Korean movies I saw in 2008.

December 22, 2013

Finding Mr. Destiny: She Left Her Heart in Rajasthan

Must I eschew all stereotypes and accept that travel-agent-turned-matchmaker Han Gi-joon (Gong Yoo) is straight even though he plays with a fairy wand in his office, has a fabulous collection of cardigan sweaters, and hasn't dated any women his entire adult life? Must I dig a bit deeper to comprehend his attraction to Seo Ji-woo (Lim Su-jeong), a thankless stage manager who doesn't own a hair brush or an iron and who daydreams all the time about one chance romance ten years ago with a Korean guy in India? Worst of all, must I once again watch as the talented Jeon Soo-kyeong is relegated to a bit part, despite her kick-ass comic chops and Broadway belt of a voice? Well, if I'm streaming Finding Mr. Destiny, then yes, I really do.

Director Chang You-jeong's romantic comedy asks you to make an endless list of concessions outside of this too, probably the most difficult being that the flashbacks to India, involving Ji-woo and Gi-joon's doppelganger, actually have the makings of a pretty sweet little movie. Set in Blue City (better known as Jodhpur), these segments have a real freshness, in part because it's so rare to see a Korean flick with mainly non-Koreans as well as one set outside the mother country. You can easily imagine warming up to the slow-burn between Gi-joon's double and Ji-woo's younger self as they fall in love amid a swirl of colorful saris or under an ornate archway or across a plateful of steaming Pyaaz Ki Kachoris. If Finding Mr. Destiny were about these two summer lovers who Fate split apart then paired up again, I'd probably end up with a case of the warm fuzzies. You'll have to take a few tokes on a hookah to see that movie play out. This one is more about a child singer whose career took a nosedive when she grew up so she tabled her dreams and took a job backstage and is now about to settle for the cute guy who's been pursuing her. In the sequel, I imagine she'll eventually find her husband in bed with her single dad (Chun Ho-jin). I'm more than happy to help write that screenplay.

December 20, 2013

House With a Nice View: Bad Girl Teaches Something to Good Girl and Vice Versa

Graphic sex tends to disqualify movies from serious discussion. Show too much breast or butt early on and a flick is likely to be labeled as porn, regardless of whether it continues to show skin or not. And while I'd hardly say A House With a Nice View is filmmaking of the finest caliber, Lee Soo-seong's indie movie is definitely not just faking a story when all it wants to do is show naked people going at it. Sure, his two lead actresses -- Ha Na-kyeong and Kwak Hyeon-hwa -- are more bodies than brains, but his dialogue, with its periodic references to Neitzsche, is definitely flirting with deeper topics than anal penetration. Despite a couple of raw encounters (one which blurs out the male genitalia), House With a Nice view doesn't become more salacious over time but instead retreats from nudity and naughtiness to more sobering realities: Ha's real estate agent gets raped by a prospective buyer while Kwak's timid apartment dweller realizes that stripping for a nearby Peeping Tom has made her a source of ridicule for her neighbors.

Lee's not that hot about exploring these darker areas though. He's for happy endings of every variety. The square architect (Oh Seung-tae) will prove a faithful lover to his slutty paramour; the hunky neighbor (Lee Geon) will return just in time to meet the budding needs of a nerdy pen pal. As such, House With a Nice View is definitely overly simplistic and a bit of a letdown. Quoting from Thus Spoke Zarathustra may sound thoughts but it doesn't give a movie weight. Yet to say Lee's flick is nothing but talky trash is to ignore that, corny-porny parts aside, this film is a heck of a lot better than a trite horse racing pic like Lump of Sugar or a mean-spirited gore-fest like The Butcher. Why look down at a movie that strips its leads physically, and then tries to psychically, even if the attempt fails? Why not enjoy the ways of the flesh? To paraphrase Neitzsche: "To dismiss soft-core movies is to suffer, to interpret soft-core movies is to find some meaning in the suffering."

December 15, 2013

Cafe Seoul: A Multicultural Confection About Familial Love

Cafe Seoul appeals to the sentimentalist in me, the one who doesn't mind seeing a movie that makes me feel like I'm having an allergic reaction, what with this mucous-y lump in my throat, these teary eyes, and those involuntary exclamations of "Oh!" and "Aw!" Whether you'll have equally aggravating symptoms depends on how you react to to the small wins and losses in small-scale family dramas. My susceptibility in this case can partially be attributed to coming, likewise, from a family of three sons, each of whom has gone his separate way as an adult only to reconnect later, through unforeseen circumstances. More on that as it relates to the movie later.

Aside from that, this movie also appeals to me as a novice student of the Korean language. Since one of Cafe Seoul's main characters is a Japanese tourist/journalist, much of the dialogue gets restated and slowed down so he can understand what's being said. For me that translates as an opportunity to re-hear words/phrases and pick out the few I know. I appreciated that! That the Japanese guy and the Koreans he befriends use English as a Lingua Franca didn't hurt either.

For the viewer who doesn't give a damn about my family or my new tutor, Cafe Seoul has plenty else in its favor. As the roving reporter (Takumi Saito), the bespectacled baker (Choi Seong-min), a bad boy brother (Kim Jeong-hoon), and the old lady (Jeong Suk-yeong) who's the bakery's most faithful customer, the cast evinces a natural affection for each other. That warmth allows you to forgive some implausible plot devices, like why the youngest brother (Kim Dong-wook) is dead set on putting the family business out of business or how the mob boss (Kim Eung-soo) comes to leave the bakery alone. There's also nice supporting work by Jang Seo-won as a spikey-haired thug who wants to shut the bakery's doors even as he can't keep coming back to eat more rice cakes.

December 14, 2013

The Tower: The Architecture of Laughter and Disaster

In reality, The Tower isn't about a single skyscraper going up in flames. It's about two skyscapers: one damaged when a too-close helicopter -- crassly sprinkling artificial snow -- collides into it; the other threatened by the domino effect should the first towering inferno fall. For obvious reasons, the title can't play up the conflagration of two twin towers. Not on this side of the Pacific anyway, where the World Trade Center attack of 2001 remains a national tragedy. Plus, the parallels are pretty problematic when you consider how hilarious The Tower often is. Sometimes the humor is intentional: two lovebirds spitting out fire extinguisher foam, a lowly maid complaining of a rich lady's dog poop. Most times, the jokes are unintentional: the pregnant lady (Min Jeong) prying open an elevator; a self-centered hotel exec spiraling down to his death. Those last two items might not sound funny but when you see them, believe me, you'll realize they are.

And what else is there to do but laugh at the collective struggle in writer-director Kim Ji-hoon's deliriously nutty disaster pic? You know from the beginning that the Head of Facilities (Kim Sang-kyung), his waterworks-of-tears daughter (Jo Min-ah), and the lady in the white pantsuit (Son Ye-jin) are going to end up a happy family at the end. You also know that the martyr of a squad captain (Sol Kyung-gu) is going to sacrifice his life to save others, although when and how that happens is constantly delayed. Maybe you're not sure whether the lowly maid and her college-going son will be reunited. All said, tension is not The Tower's strong point. What the movie has in its favor is some beautiful cinematography of computer generated flames, explosions, smoke clouds, and even the towers themselves which sparkle like giant pieces of jewelry. I also would like to say I got a kick out of Kim In-kwon who plays the cocky little firefighter who I personally hope gets promoted and forces his compatriots to get matching mohawks once the self-sacrificing captain bites the CGI dust.

December 8, 2013

The Perfect Couple: Looking Good But Laughing Little

After you watch a wretched rom-com like The Perfect Couple (a.k.a. The Best Romance), you have two choices: You can either rag on it or let it go -- all of it except Jeon Soo-kyeong, that is. Jeon is the very funny actress who plays the bit part of a longtime tabloid journalist (who basically admits her years in the profession can be attributed to an inability to find anything else to do). Screen time is minimal. Actual lines, but few. You'd be hard-pressed to even call Jeon's cougar-hack a sidekick but as the female lead's mis-mentoring boss, Jeon shows up often enough to keep you from leaving your home theater entirely. If you manage to last until the bitter end, she'll even reward you with some very hearty laughs. Those laughs involve Jeon firebombing criminals in a junkyard while running around in heels and a fright wig. That Jeon can elicit chuckles from so little isn't a total surprise. In Little Black Dress, she also made the most of the miniscule by delivering second-rate lines as if they'd been penned by Noel Coward or maybe Kaufman & Hart.

I have no idea how Jeon manages to consistently elevate her material. As her protege, Hyeon Yeong is certainly working just as hard if not harder. Yet though she squawks and wiggles, pouts and poses< Hyeon never registers as more than a pretty face. And despite his ridiculous Bon Jovi hairdo, co-star Lee Dong-wook always looks as if he's a model police officer who just stepped off the set of a shampoo commercial, even when there's blood on his lip. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Lee didn't realize he was in a rom-com and was under the impression instead that he was in a crime drama. After all, his character is a cop. And he might be right when you come to think of it. The Perfect Couple isn't very romantic and, except for Jeon, it isn't comedic either. Where as Lee (or his stunt double) does a smashing job when he's executing flipkicks or brutal head-butts. Is The Perfect Couple referring to him and his partner (Lee Jeong-heon)? Nah, I don't think so.

Natural Burials: A Strange Branch of Horror

Never heard of a tree therapist? Well, she's the woman who hooks up IV drips to pines with fungal issues then places her hands on the infected bark to source any memories of dead people buried nearby. (Unhappy corpses can cause irrigation woes for the roots, you know.) It's not easy work, my friend, so you can easily see why in Park Kwang-chun's Natural Burials, the city's leading tree therapist (Lee Young-ah) is constantly being force-fed horse-pills by her worried mother to help with the stress. This is the kind of job that leads to night sweats, hallucinations, and car accidents.

"Car accidents?" you ask. Yes. Because part of being a tree therapist is driving from tree to tree to tree. (They're everywhere!) And the chances of an accident are only going to increase when that soiled, crazy man (Yeon Je-wook) who's obsessed with you -- and who happens to have both escaped from the madhouse and inherited a plant nursery -- has a nasty twitch in his neck. Meanwhile, your fiance (On Ju-wan) really only meets you in parking lots and your best friend -- who, as luck would have it, is in love with said fiance -- tends to speed when she (Park Soo-jin) feels any stress. Oh, yes. For a tree therapist, a four-car-pileup is much more than likely.

Did I mention that Natural Burials is a horror movie? Because it is. Did you know that it originally broadcast as a two-part miniseries on cable? Because it did. And you can kind of tell what kind of cable channel that might be. When the crazy gal pal strips off her dress for the boyfriend, the movie feels soap-y. When an assistant tree therapist comments, "It smells like a rotting corpse about an ailing plant," the movie feels silly. Low-end cable can feel very B-movie when you think about it. But why would you want to change that? Can't enjoy a little lowbrow, made-for-TV fun? Go see a therapist!

December 1, 2013

The Show Must Go On: A Thug's Life

The Show Must Go On is definitive proof that Song Kang-ho is one of the greatest actors of his generation. It's a fantastic mob movie that, because of Song, plumbs unusual depths, too. What makes Song such a genius performer? Well, this may sound like a funny place to start but I don't believe there's another actor who can play sleepy (or mine it for its comic possibilities) as well as Song can. And there's something about all the correlatives that go with sleepiness -- overworked, overanxious, overburdened, overwhelmed -- that strike me as emblematic of our times. In The Show Must Go On, Song's putting that somnolent skillset to good use as an overextended mobster who is so sleep-deprived that he conks out repeatedly -- including at the driver's wheel of his car in the midst of a noisy rush hour.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Song's also a master of drunkenness, too, which when you think about it, is simply a gateway to sleep. But look at the variety of intoxications that Song can do: He's funny drunk, nasty drunk, sloppy drunk, violent drunk and, in one awfully humiliating interaction between his character and his character's daughter (Kim So-eun) -- who has him arrested for disorderly conduct -- contritely drunk. Song can make reprehensibly sloppy behavior consistently sympathetic. Naturally, Song can do much more than drowsiness and drunkenness. But whatever he does, this actor always feels like he's doing it right on the spot. Maybe that's why his drunken and drowsy scenes are so impressive. Both states give way to irrational behavior that's abnormal but still firmly rooted in who we intrinsically are. If you think that Song can only do showy stuff then re-watch his married mobster here when he turns on the charm for his wife (Park Ji-yeong), a woman who's got wise to his ways and wants out. Who else can mix lightness and desperation so effectively? How in the world did he do that? What'll he dream up next? I'm always ready to see.