December 30, 2014

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2014 (Sort of)

Many of the usual suspects are back: Auteurs Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, even the "less well-known stateside" Kang Woo-suk who's been on these lists a few times before with his Public Enemy movies. What's missing this year is a mob movie! Hopefully, 2015 will deliver on that front. As to 2014, I'm alphabetizing instead of ranking because it's tough enough to pare down to ten.

1. Arirang because Kim Ki-duk is the only guy who would think of having his own shadow interview himself as a way to heal.

2. Camp 14: Total Control Zone because you can be artsy and still deliver the most disturbing documentary about North Korea out there.

3. Fatal because a movie about rape shouldn't look good or feel good.

4. Glove because baseball movies like this one by Kang Woo-suk can reunite a family on Saturday afternoons.

5. Hahaha because of the three Hong Sang-soo feature films I saw this year, this was the most inventive (and the most satisfying).

6. Head because it's a wacky thriller with a strong female lead, typifying what I love about Korean movies.

7. Judgement because Park Chan-wook's early short set in a morgue contains all the brilliance he sustained in the Vengeance trilogy and beyond.

8. Pirates because now I won't ever have to watch those Pirates of the Caribbean movies with Johnny Depp.

9. The Story of Mr. Sorry because the animated life of an ear-cleaner deserves some respect.

10. Two Weddings and a Funeral because it only looks like gay fluff but actually delivers a powerful message.

Click here for top ten lists from previous years.

December 29, 2014

Baby and Me: Teen Pop

Life is complicated. Isn't that just the kind of overarching statement you'd expect from the mouth of a maturing teen. And hey, I won't argue against that sentiment either. But Kim Jin-yeong's Baby and Me is one of those comedies that first endorses the notion, then embellishes it to the point that you'll be protesting, Well, surely it's not as complicated as all that. A philandering teen (Jang Keun-suk) discovers he's a father. I can go there. His parents (Kim Byung-ok and Park Hyeon-suk) have deserted him because they're tired of him constantly getting into trouble. I can go there, too. The baby (Mun Mason) arrives in a basket (with a note) on the teen's doorstep so no one knows who the mother is. Less common but still plausible. A brainy neighbor girl (Song Ha-yoon) with over a half-dozen siblings herself becomes his surrogate co-parent. That's a bit less likely but okay. The real father (Ko Kyu-pil) turns out to be his chubby friend whose mother is dying of cancer. Hmm. Rather than allow a perfectly nice white couple raise the baby in America, the teen (who's no longer a daddy) races his motorcycle to the airport, maneuvers past all the security and guilt trips the new parents so that his sneaky friend -- to whom he's giving a bagful of money -- can raise the child in Korea. Now you're stretching it but you're also making a point. It's just so out of nowhere. All of this happens in three days. Now you're annoying me.

You're going, wait, wait. This is a comedy. Sure. I agree. Baby and Me doesn't have to be believable if it's funny. So how about the scene where he's tracking down breast milk from recent mothers? Or the low, gravelly old man voice that the baby uses to articulate desires. Or the preposterous chicken outfit the teen girl wears from time to time? That's funny for funny's sake, right? Lighten up. Well, I'd lighten up if it were funny. But it's generally not. Especially the examples you've just cited. And admittedly, it's me citing them and not you. And yes, I laughed a few times. I just didn't think it had to be so complicated. That's all. You get my drift? I guess so.

December 28, 2014

Ashamed: Lesbos on the Beach

Full disclosure: I'm a certifiable homosexual. Which means, I'm slightly more willing to forgive convoluted storytelling or cruddy production values when a movie's material slants even slightly queer. LGBT depictions in Korean movies aren't unheard of (The King and the Clown, Like a Virgin, Antique Bakery) but they're rare enough that I tend to be curious (at the least!) to see which facet of gay culture might catch the light. Will it be closet queens (Two Weddings and a Funeral) or street hustlers (White Night) or a perverted serial killer (Rainbow Eyes)? Okay, okay. That's not gay culture but even homophobic depictions excite a certain interest in me. But with writer-director Kim Soo-hyun's lesbian love story Ashamed, I'd say this one's more straight male fantasy than girl-on-girl truth.

For while Ashamed doesn't shy away from same-sex love, the intimacy never feels charged and the actual naked action looks staged and sometimes causes the giggles. Layered with some gibberish about altruistic (a.k.a. gay) love versus selfish (a.k.a. straight) love, the plot of Ashamed wants to talk about the forbidden but never truly taps into the repression or the expression of intense feelings that often accompany loving someone your society has forbidden you to do. Throughout, Kim substitutes quirk for character: A timid shop assistant (Kim Hy-jin) has a mannequin for her confidante (so kooky), a reckless pickpocket (Kim Kkobbi) seduces everyone including a monk (so kinky), a melancholic art teacher (Kim Sang-hyun) photographs an equally morose student underwater to recreate the death of a fetus in a mother who's been murdered (so kray-kray).

To be brief, Ashamed is not one for the history books. Not the LGBT history books. Not the Korean movie history books. Not the Sapphic softcore history books. You could, however, put it in the encyclopedia documenting all the well-meaning movies that just don't work.

December 26, 2014

Arirang: Kim Ki-duk on Kim Ki-duk

Who's that crazy, wild-haired, middle-aged, crooked-toothed guy living in a tent in a cabin on the top of a snowy hill and filming himself with a digital camera as a way to jumpstart his creative process? Why, it's Kim Ki-duk, who else? What other South Korean movie director would create this idiosyncratic memoir. A kind of low-budget with no cast, no production values, and no script (but with a homemade espresso machine), Arirang is part cinema verite, part documentary, part art therapy, part ego masturbation, part pity party, part artsy fartsy mumbo jumbo, and part magic. In other words, Arirang may be kooky as hell but it's also pretty brilliant. As resurrections go, Kim's return -- after a three-year hiatus following the near-death of an actor during his last movie Dream -- is worth celebrating.

You wouldn't think so at first. Kim films himself walking, cooking, eating, "being". (The shots of the back of his chapped heels are particularly repulsive.) Then he interviews himself. Then he watches himself interviewing himself. Then he films his shadow interviewing himself. Then he watches himself in his earlier movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring and cries. But are the tears real? He's already told us his drunken crying earlier in Arirang might have been just for the drama of it all. When he builds a homemade gun at the end and shoots himself, we don't believe for a moment he's going to die. In a way, he's already been dead and only just coming back to life. Maybe he's telling us we have to kill our former selves to evolve. Maybe he's being theatrical because that's his way. Kim really isn't much for giving answers. His films, and this one is no exception, seem created to reflect a tension, a horror, an anguish currently existing in the world. You may not agree with Kim's assessment that it's caused by forcing vegetables to grow in greenhouses instead of free in the world, but you'd need prescription level rose-colored glasses to look around you and think everything's fine in terms of where we're at and where we're going as human beings on this ravaged planet.

December 21, 2014

Commitment: Boy Band Boy Is the Man

What's the most effective way for a K-pop singer to be taken seriously as a movie star? Follow the example set by Choi Seung-hyun, a.k.a. rapper T.O.P. from the Korean boy band Big Bang. Here, in director Park Hong-soo's espionage thriller Commitment, Choi has winningly taken on the role of Ri Myung-hoon, a North Korean assassin who's been so indoctrinated into the cause that he can barely register emotion on his face. From the outside at least, he's a killing machine. Bullied at high school? No reaction. Stabbed in the side? Not even a wince. Killing someone? Closed lips. At most, a glare. Admittedly, there's one scene in which Ri breaks down and cries -- his two sisters, one blood (Kim Yoo-jeong), one not (Han Ye-ri) -- have both been kidnapped, after all. But soon enough, this teen assassin is back to serving up stoic face. And you know what? It works.

Haven't we seen enough tongue-in-cheek James Bonds and Jason Bournes, enough smirking Bruce Willis anti-heroes and improbably cheerful Jackie Chan clowns. Choi's cold, merciless, unfeeling take on the spy abroad gives more by giving us so much less. It also makes the fights scenes -- of which there are many -- more intense. When the good guy doesn't have time to weak or make a wisecrack, you know that the martial arts action is taking his utmost attention. It's all about your level of commitment.

But then the South Koreans have always taken the North Koreans seriously, whether it's as estranged friends (J.S.A.: Joint Security Area) or respectable foes (The Berlin Files). Only the Americans have insisted that the North Koreans were bumbling idiots, most notably in the Seth Rogen/James Franco misfire of a frat boy comedy, The Interview. And we saw where that arrogance landed them. North Korea may be off the grid (and even off its rocker) but that doesn't mean they're incapable or incompetent or impotent. And now Hollywood knows that too. Might I recommend a few documentaries?

December 16, 2014

Two Weddings and a Funeral: To Have and to Hold and to Hurt and to Heal

Anyone who says that being gay or straight is a private affair and is actually nobody's business doesn't realize what a public thing love inevitably is. Imagine never being able to state who you were with last night or why you have to leave work early or having to jump through extra hoops to adopt a kid or having to pretend that you are what you're not because saying who you are is making something private public and that's not where this private thing belongs. In short the privacy of sexuality is a cockamamie idea that really has to do with keeping people in the closet.

This hypocrisy is exactly what's being exposed by Kim Jho-kwang-su's alternately fluffy and fired-up Two Weddings and a Funeral, a gay romcom that isn't overly concerned with political correctness so much as it is with the political realities that are the core of homophobic oppression. Gay doctor Min-soo (Kim Dong-yoon) and lesbian doctor Hyo-jin (Ryu Hyeon-kyeong) marry so he can please his parents and she can adopt a baby. But the minute he gets a boyfriend (Jin Song-yong), life gets complicated because said lover doesn't want to live a life of duplicity but wants to be out in the open, join a rock band, sing in the gay chorus, etc. There's a weird mix of eroticism and shame underlying their clandestine public flirtations. For Hyo-jin and her fashionably butch wife (Jeong Ae-yeon), post-marital bliss is constantly interrupted as Hyo-jin must play house to please Min-soo's parents. But the couples' problems are nothing when compared to that of their queeny friend Tina (Park Jung-pyo), who seems to know only longing and self-loathing. What's available to a queer femme not cute enough to snag a lover nor masculine enough to pass for straight. Hard times ahead!

Endearing and enlightening, Two Weddings and a Funeral is also surprising. An animated coda especially will blow your mind as it shows the lives of the main characters not in the future so much as in an alternate universe. The world is too hard to change. Sometimes, you just have to leave what you know completely to start something new.

December 7, 2014

Pirates: High Seas Hilarity

Some movies are elaborate meals, some movies are pure puke, and some are complete confections. Squarely in the candy category is director Lee Seok-hoon's deliciously silly Pirates, a salt water taffy of a movie if there ever was one. To extend this sugary metaphor, Lee's tasty adventure pic manages to be chewy and colorful as it stretches plausibility beyond belief. The individual ingredients may be neither good for you nor even particularly good but the sweetness here is undeniable. And yes, you will want more. Okay, enough toothsome metaphorical talk. On to the motion picture.

Though there's a lady swashbuckler (Son Ye-jin) front and center, Pirates doesn't break new ground in comedy or gender-blind casting. To the contrary, it serves up stereotypes and cliches unapologetically. There's an evil, petty guy (Kim Tae-woo) with the requisite eyepatch, a despotic, vengeful patriarchal figure (Lee Kyeong-yeong) who drowns only to reappear having not drowned after all, a king who must learn life lessons from his patriotic servants, and a pair of mismatched lovers (Son and Kim Nam-gil) who find out they were meant for each other. Which isn't to say the film has no novelties. It abounds with them! A momma whale who bonds with a young girl? A tethered shark that can turn a sailboat into a motorboat? A drunken bandit-monk (Park Cheol-min) who drinks gasoline without consequence? Pirates is nothing if not full of quirks.

Quirks and gags, that is. A running joke about peeing in the ocean while standing next to your beloved gets increasing laughs as does a bumbling thief (a marvelous Yoo Hae-jin) whose promotions and demotions occur with every changing tide. The utter, unending preposterous is Pirates greatest asset. As stupid comedies go, this one does dumb jokes smartly. Something Lee did before with the high school comedy See You After School and the equally corny, campy Dancing Queen. But if See You After School and Dancing Queen are good examples of ridiculousness, Pirates is ridiculousness at its best. Practice makes perfekt.

November 29, 2014

Judgement: The Mortician of Oz

People who think they don't like Park Chan-wook, and write off the world class director as an auteur of arty torture porn, would be wise to take a look at some of his less bloody shorts, which often scale back on the violence without downplaying the gallows' humor that has become Park's thumbprint. With the early-career short "Judgement" (sp) for example -- which precedes not only his revered/reviled vengeance trilogy but also J.S.A.: Joint Security Area -- Park already exhibits a fully realized, comically macabre sensibility, a one-of-a-kind grotesque sense of humor that has gone on to earn him devoted fans -- me among them.

The action in "Judgement" takes place in a morgue. But if you assume Park is about to settle for "morbid absurdities" in this 26-minute pic, think again. The impromptu inquest that takes place in "Judgement" (which has its fair share of grim slapstick and hairpin plot twists) is occurring amid an end-of-days scenario of horrific proportions. While a mourning couple (Ko In-bae and Kwon Nam-hee) and an alcoholic diener (Gi Ju-bong) argue over the true identity of a corpse -- and the rightful claims to some substantial insurance money -- within the morgue, the world outside is being ravaged by earthquakes, tornadoes and tidal waves. The arrival of a young woman may leave you further doubting the story of some of the players here but in "Judgement," the question isn't who is lying but why anybody would be telling the truth in the first place... even a seemingly disinterested person like the TV correspondent (Choi Hak-rak).

Like all Park films, even other shorts such as his unforgettably inventive mini-documentary "If You Were Me" and his improbably slick iPhone creation "Night Fishing," "Judgement" is exquisitely shot. Park makes pictures AND tells stories, mostly this time around in cinematographer Pak Hyun-chul's somewhat newsreel-like, somewhat surveillance-camera-footage black-and-white before changing momentously to an unflattering color stock that arrives with all the shock and awe of the yellow brick road. The homage to The Wizard of Oz arrives with a catch: No one is going home this time around.

November 28, 2014

Moebius: The Family That Castrates Together...

The willfully shocking Kim Ki-duk, the Lars von Triers of Korea, is back with another ultra-violent, psychologically perverse art film, this one adding castration to his catalogue of deconstructed crimes: rape, murder, suicide, incest, etc. And it's not just one castration. There are actually a few -- the first being committed by a jealous woman (Lee Eun-woo) on her son (Seo Young-ju) after she is unable to execute the dirty deed on her husband (Jo Jae-hyeon) who is having an affair with a shopkeeper who resembles her (and is also played by Lee). If such an act of brutality feels outside the realm of reality, take note. Moebius doesn't occur in our world but takes place instead in some weird parallel universe where people never speak but merely grunt, moan and laugh. Language is confined to search results that come up when googling for something like "penile replacement" or "autoerotica." Sound ridiculous?

Well, some critics have label Moebius a black comedy. I for one didn't laugh once, though I winced repeatedly. For me, this film falls squarely in that half of Kim's work which strains credulity and hammers at its dubious points insistently and insanely. What distinguishes Moebius isn't its sliced-off penises but its wordlessness -- teens gang-raping the aforementioned shopkeeper, the married couple wrestling over a cell phone, some high school students ripping off the pants' of a schoolmate to get a giggle from viewing his stump -- all acts which would seem to necessitate the screaming of "No." But no. In a way, I left Moebius wondering why Kim allowed his actors any sounds at all.

And what is Moebius actually saying? That we're all animals -- more dogs, than apes, frankly? That masochism is our most reliable survival tool? That our culture has us trapped in an internecine cycle in which each generation attacks what follows and what comes before? There's plenty of meaning to extract from Moebius if you wish. You could also make a case for it being meaningless. I can see where some would love it and some would hate but I fall squarely in the middle on this one. Call it a love-hate relationship.

November 22, 2014

Scars: A Miserable Marriage Not Worth Talking About

Spoiler alert! I'm going to jump right to this movie's big reveal, the scene in which the jerky husband (who's a newscaster at work, a joy-killer at home) is undressed by his maudlin wife (Park So-yeon) after he (Jong Hee-tae) has banged his forehead in bathroom sink to the point of unconsciousness. Once his white Oxford shirt is removed (both post-trauma and in an intercut flashback), we see that his torso has been ravaged by a fire; from neck to hip, he's covered with what looks to be a vat of dried Elmer's glue. As special effects go, it's actually not bad. As symbolism, I'm less sure. Are we supposed to interpret the scars as the imperfections that have made this man a perfectionist? The physical manifestation of the man's insensitivity to his ultra-passive, sulky wife? It feels like it's supposed to mean SOMETHING but all I felt was, "Hah! So the title actually has a pay-off."

The movie's other big symbol is a Buddha face that keeps reappearing for -- can I go so far to say, stalking -- the shat-upon wife, a children's book illustrator who manages to get work despite being completely uncommunicative in an interview. First encountered as a mud bas relief in a cave, she mauls the Buddha face. But the zen deity's face comes back again and again, in the side of a tree, in some soil underfoot, etc. What is the Buddha telling her when he resurfaces, perfectly formed and contented? Get your chill on, girl? Don't mess with God? Try sculpture instead of drawing? Honestly, only writer-director Lim Woo-Seong knows. And it's not as though there's much to help us decipher or decode this movie's motifs. Scars has very little dialogue and aside from a recurring sequence in which the Mrs. makes some sort of tea with apricot jelly (that's what it looks like from a very uninformed viewer), not much happens except the husband is cheating or brushing his teeth, the wife is moping or going for silent walks in the woods.

Running just over an hour, Scars can be classified as either a very short feature or an overextended short. I'd probably go with the latter. It feels long!

November 9, 2014

Sorry, Thanks: Four Flicks For You and Your Four-Legged Friends

For Sorry, Thanks, an omnibus of four shorts about twice as many house pets, I've chosen to focus on the performances of the animals, not their human co-stars. First up: Ha Neul-i, the yellow lab in Song Il-gon's "I'm Sorry, Thank You." Suddenly orphaned by an elderly owner who dies of a stroke, this dog doesn't grieve. He pulls some blankets over the corpse. His inability to bark effectively means a passing real estate agent never learns there's a dead man inside. A 10-year-old with possibly weight issues, this dog has been around so long, he seems to convey a "been there, done that" attitude in all his scenes. His eventual adoption feels strictly sentimental. Not earned!

The title character in "Jju-jju" (some kind of Corgi, perhaps?) might not be Hollywood pedigree but he's the strongest performer in the pack. His near-death strangulation by some homeless thugs looks convincing without being histrionic. Plus he's incredibly charismatic whether he's fetching a ball or begging for pre-packaged pastry. Unlike the senior lab, this one's got range: He plays sleepy, sick, loyal and perky effectively. If he improves his focus, he could become Korean cinema's go-to super-canine. You can imagine director Oh Jeom-gyoon wanting to work with him again. Or at least wanting to take him home!

What follows in Park Heung-sik's "My Younger Sister" is one of the most thankless movie roles a dog has ever had: This mini-pic concerns a young girl who pretends her puppy is her sibling so most of the time, a very young actress is playing the role of an adorable puppy! White, fluffy, and radiating happiness, the actual dog might've captured our hearts if he'd been given more screen time. But can he complain when he sees Lim Soon-rye's "A Cat's Kiss," where all the canines are background (one barks off-screen; another's seen behind a fence). As to the cats, there's no breakout performances. There's the one wearing a protective cone (nice blinking), the one who gets pelted (good cowering) and three abandoned kittens (is there anything cuter?!). None of them come across as trained. This is strictly amateur hour for pet performing.

November 6, 2014

Saving My Hubby: See Jane Run, See Dick Drink, See Me Yawn

In my self-deceiving imagination, I honestly believe that before the digital age the only foreign movies that made it to the USA were the really good ones. A bad or even a mediocre movie from Europe, Asia or South America would never be exported because it wasn't cost efficient. Maybe a so-so movie by a famous director would occasionally sneak through but generally speaking if you stuck with foreign pics, your chances of seeing something worthwhile were greater. Not so anymore. Those days are unquestionably over.

Now when movies can travel (and even get translated) online, the ratio of good to bad is the same whether a film is homegrown or imported. Every country produces its proportionate fair share of junk and even South Korea, my favored nation for cinema, cranks out a fair bit of total crap. That's how I end up watching a poop of a movie like Hyeon Nam-seob's Saving My Hubby. Without the natural attrition caused by economics and with only a handful of directors' names to inform me, I'm taking pot shots at what to watch. Why I feel compelled to suffer through whole thing with movies like Saving My Hubby, I'm not sure. Call it optimistic masochism?

Bae Doo-na, who plays the hapless wife -- and former volleyball star -- running around the red light district in search of her husband, has been so much better so many times before: The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Barking Dogs Never Bite... So has Kim Tae-woo,the actor who's portraying her drunken, on-screen spouse and who's helmed a number of Hong Sang-soo pics. Under Hyeon Nam-seob's direction, together their now completely charmless, and despite all the slapstick involving massive alcohol consumption and an overextended chase scene, exhaustingly unfunny.

It took me days to get through this one, days I'll never get back, and yes, I'm pretty annoyed about it. But it took irretrievable months of time from the lives of Bae and Kim and I can only assume that they're pretty annoyed about it too.

October 28, 2014

Friend 2: The Legacy: Before and Before That but After That

Ready to get ever-so-slightly confused, my fellow Korean movie fan? Well, Friend 2: The Legacy picks up exactly 17 years after the action in the original Friend movie, even though only 13 years have actually passed since the first movie was shot. Why the discrepancy, I don't know. Furthermore, the movie isn't just a sequel (with some flashbacks to old footage we've already seen). It also flashes further back to an extended prequel that predates part one, as well to a kind of latter-day prequel with action that's post-Friend but pre-Friend 2. With all this jumping back and forth (if you're anything like me), you're going to question which is the primary storyline and whether you truly need to know so much ancestry about so many characters. I mean, The Godfather this is not. Plus there is no Old Country.

So what's supposed to be the focus here? Is it the current-day partnership between newly released con and mob heavy Lee Joon-seok (Yu Oh-seong) and fatherless, aspirational teen hood Choi Seong-hoon (Kim Woo-bin) OR is it the familial dramas of Choi and his posse of warrior wannabes OR is it the well-appointed mob history of someone's grandfather? I am frankly still unsure. The present-day ending doesn't resolve any of the stories so much as it positions the characters for a threequel during which it seems likely that the layering could expand to include a scifi future scenario examining the offspring of Lee, Choi and maybe the illegitimate offspring of a character killed off at some point in time. Please don't let these comments dissuade you from checking out Friends 2 if you've already seen its predecessor. Even with all the complications, auteur Kwak Kyung-taek's delivers some undeniable and simple pleasures -- one being the joy that comes with witnessing how much better an actor like Yu has gotten (which isn't to say he wasn't good before) and how much sexier he's gotten too; the other is getting to see a new, young talent like Kim glower in scene after scene with one of the best '50s style Elvis coifs to hit the screen in many a day. This movie has left me with a serious care of hair envy.

October 19, 2014

The Pit and the Pendulum: Mainly, the Pits

Title aside, Sohn Young-sung's The Pit and the Pendulum isn't obviously indebted to Edgar Allan Poe, although it does share the 19th century's author's obsession with morbid matters and monomania. It also periodically refers to a pit (albeit an archaeological dig, largely abandoned). And as to pendulums, the only connection I could find was a metaphorical one. While the movie clocks in at a 95 minutes, I was constantly checking my watch and fighting to stay awake amid action that held all the excitement of a hypnotist's watch swinging to and fro.

These are the two main reasons I struggled (with supporting detail).

1. The central character (Kim Tae-hyeon), now dead, is, from the extensive evidence presented by the mourners, a cheater, a liar, a plagiarist, a coward, a whiner, a pedophile, a bully, a wimp, a jabberer, a nut-job, a drunk. You have a difficult time understanding why anyone was friends with him (since he's not charismatic) or why they've shown up at his funeral (unless it's for free booze and food and to see mutual acquaintances).

2. The narrative set-up is a funeral (and what follows) during which each of the deceased's former friends relates unflattering stories but unlike The Bad and The Beautiful, the stories don't create a complex portrait. They dismantle each other. The first tale -- about the discovery of a woman who barely escapes being buried alive -- is the best. Which is another way of saying each story is worse than the one that preceded it. And unlike Rashomon, the successive stories aren't about perspective. They're simply unrelated and contradictory. And unlike The Sixth Sense, the presence of a ghost (Park Byung-eun) who's there but not there doesn't come as a surprise. Except maybe to the ghost.

"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?" -Edgar Allan Poe

October 11, 2014

The Executioner: Die, Die, Die

12 years have passed since the last execution but the South Korean government has now decided to get some guys off death row in the most permanent way possible as a public relations tactic to show that the administration is indeed being tough on crime. Among those slated for the gallows? Three guys from a single prison: Seong-hwan (Kim Geon), a born-again old geezer who stabbed his wife and son to death decades ago; Yong-doo (Jo Seong-ha), a cheery serial killer who mutilated his female victims and still thinks killing is a giggle; and, from out of nowhere, an unnamed guy with no back story who naturally is the first to feel the noose around his neck when the hangings begin.

The Executioner isn't about the doomed criminals however. It's about the damaging psychological effects these sanctioned killings have on the prison guards, again three in particular: Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeon), a hardened 40-year-old who's job has become his unhappy life; Jae-kyeong (Yoon Kae-sang), the newbie who's about to get a lesson in institutionalized sadism; and Officer Kim (Park Im-hwan), a lifer who's best friend is the aforementioned senior slayer slated for his last meal. You can practically hear the executioners saying to themselves, like some self-deluded parent, "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you." Seems a stretch.

Director Choi Jin-ho and screenwriter Kim Young-ok are unabashedly against the death penalty. It dehumanizes! It's imperfect! It's no better than the people who did the original crimes! But The Executioner isn't a particularly persuasive argument for life or longevity. You get the feeling that if the HR department here hired a tough but sensitive psychologist [maybe someone like Jae-kyeong's pregnant girlfriend Eun-joo (Cha Su-yeon)], these troubled guys would be able to deal with the mental repercussions that come with a having to knock people off for a living.

And I'm writing this as someone AGAINST the death penalty! Go figure.

October 5, 2014

Fatal: Cheap Isn't a Bad Thing

Rape. Crime. Poverty. Murder. All these things tend to get glamorized in the movies, whether that's the director's intent or not. With flawless faced actors shot in supersaturated colors and from provocative angles, the abhorrent becomes art and subversively appetizing so even when a brutal scene manifests some of the terribleness of it all, with that high gloss, with that visual splendor, it also all looks pretty damned pretty. Which is one of the reasons, Lee Don-ku's harrowing rape-revenge pic Fatal is so affecting. It looks horrible. The ramshackle apartment settings, the discount clothing, even the cast itself never truly look good because Kang Moon-bong's cinematography won't let any of it do so. Appearing to be entirely shot on low-quality film stock about to expire and therefore robbed of any color or contour, Fatal feels sordid in part because the reality unfolding before you never appears lovely, painterly or eye-catching. You're never seduced by the images. Ever. Nothing looks good because nothing is good.

But intentionally crappy cinematography isn't going to make a movie even if the anemic images suit the material. Lucky for us, Lee's storytelling delivers the goods. For with Fatal, Lee has concocted a new kind of Asperger's Syndrome antihero: the boyish, eternally awkward outsider Sung-gong (Nam Yeon-woo) who may be coming to the rescue of rape survivor Jang-mi (Yang Jo-a) and sacrificing his job (admittedly dead-end) and his friends (admittedly dead beat) but who is no knight in shining armor. He's damaged goods, a victim of systematic bullying who's obsession with Jang-mi is "creepy stalker" as much if not more than it's love. Despite all his well-meaning gestures and efforts, the most caring and thoughtful action available to him might have been to just get the hell out of the young woman's life and make attrition and restitution unbeknownst to her somewhere far away. Like the Vatican City. Did he really have to attend the same Evangelical church as Jang-mi to find salvation? What's the opposite of Amen?

September 30, 2014

Acoustic: Three Shorts, Three Songs, Three Yawns

Director You Sang-hun's gimmicky omnibus Acoustic is composed of three shorts about musicians, that also happen to star musicians (as well as Shin Se-kyung, an actress whose earliest claims to fame are being featured on an album cover and weeping memorably in the music video for Seo Taiji's "Take Five" when she was just eight-years-old). You could call Shin a musician mascot. This is what is called riding a concept hard.

There are other motifs that ostensibly tie the shorts together. Like the fact that in all three shorts, the characters eat Ramen with significance. In the first mini-movie ("Broccoli"), instant noodles are consumed ostensibly to stave off a fatal diagnosis. (Credit the sodium.) In the second entry ("Bakery Attack"), the two leads eat Ramen because they're "starving artists" (played by real-life CNBLue megastars Kang Min-hyuk and Lee Jong-hyun) who are waiting to score their first big hit. (Which they do! No more Ramen ahead!) In the third ("Unlock"), I have to assume the inclusion of instant noodles is to show that in the not-too-distant future, it's one of the few things you can count on still, especially if you're a girl (Baek Jin-hee) with a broken iPhone and a robot arm on the fritz. (Ramen, now and forever.) As connective tissue goes, the presence of microwavable Ramen is not the greatest idea but this is what we have to work with here, people.

A third motif almost emerges. In "Broccoli" and "Unlock," the plot features a song constantly sampled and featuring an extended lyric around -- um -- broccoli. (Why not Ramen?) "Bakery Attack" and "Unlock" both are headlined by K-Pop sensations (the latter being Lim Seu-long of 2AM). Why they didn't get a song about broccoli for "Bakery Attack" or a cute teen idol for "Broccoli" is unknown. I'm going to hazard a guess that they did have a singer (who dropped out) and they did have song chosen (that CNBlue refused to sing). I'd like to think some artistic integrity was at work here even if it had to do with what's not seen.

September 23, 2014

Dino King: In Olden Days, a Glimpse of Stalking...

Whether you'll make it through the kids' flick Dino King has a lot to do with your tolerance for a single, uninterrupted monologue with lines like "Wow! These are Pukyongosauruses. These 65-foot tall massive zorbots live alongside many blah, blah, blah..." and "Even my family steered clear of Torosauruses which had horns over three feet long." Yet despite all the information packed into this full-length feature, I wouldn't classify the movie as educational because the official classifications go by so fast and the only names that really stick are Speckles, (our hero, a Tarbosaurus), One-Eye (referring to a bad-tempered Tyrannosaurus), and Blue Eyes (an orphaned girl Tarbosaurus who serves as the Speckles' love interest) but if you've got a kid who already knows all about dinosaurs, s/he'll probably be into seeing all the various extinct reptiles zoom by in animated 3-D. I particularly enjoyed the velociraptors with the punkrock hairdos. (At least I think they were the velociraptors!)

As to the animation, it's at once real and unreal. The creatures are detailed, scaly, with naturalistically scary teeth in particular. But the creatures look more like expensive rubber/plastic dolls that have been animated than honest-to-God dinosaurs. The realest part of the animals are probably the teeth which do make me wonder how much kids who don't already obsess over dinosaur will enjoy the flick. The scenes of hunting feel cold-blooded, the life-death cycle of Speckles' friends and family can be merciless too. Even the fact that the only voice we hear is Speckles himself -- albeit both as a child (annoying) and an adult (cloying) -- can feel a tad sad. Imagine a world without any conversation! But Dino King isn't grim in the least. It's neither warm, nor cold; exciting, nor dull. There's no ice age to follow the drought these prehistoric beasts must suffer but there's not much joy to be found at the hot spring they come up either.

Please note: The movie was intended to be enjoyed in 3-D but I was not privy to that multidimensional experience.

September 20, 2014

Camp 14: Total Control Zone: Levels of Persecution

Do not, I repeat, do not watch the emotionally-draining, aliens-please-come-and-obliterate-Earth-or-at-least-mankind-already Camp 14 before bedtime, for while this despairing documentary about the labor camps in North Korea keeps its torture scenes off screen and shows the bleak life therein largely via effectively colorless motion comics, survivor/escapee Shin Dong-Huyk's reluctantly related recollections of his childhood and young adulthood as an apolitical prisoner will still give you nightmares. And it's not just the descriptions of punishments inflicted that will ruin your sleep. You can also credit the many horrors that accompany living in a culture where there is no sense of family or friendship or fun. Truthfully, though, it's not the hope for freedom that drives him to flee for China (after climbing over the dead body of a compatriot stuck on an electric wire fence); it's the desire for chicken or beef or something new besides his ration of corn and occasional rat that might leave him with a full stomach for one day.

If you think that means that life in the labor camp wasn't so bad then you haven't been listening to the two prison guards director Marc Weise has also enlisted to tell their stories for his film. Well-dressed and self-composed, each relates a chillingly glib history of shooting, killing, torturing and raping as if they were discussing the regrettable but inevitable excesses of the teenage bullies they once were. You get a sense that both are embarrassed more than ashamed of their pasts. Why either would agree to be filmed for Camp 14 is baffling to me. Perhaps an inner sense of guilt informed their decisions but if so, neither shares much to that effect in this movie (or Weise has edited it out!).

Are they living the good life now without repercussions? Strangely enough, Camp 14 undermines that very idea too by having Shin repeatedly state his desire to go back North, back home, back to a simpler world (if not an identical one), free from the despairing realities he must grapple with now in South Korea where the dollar rules and his heart feels, while definitely broken and hopefully mending, infinitely less pure.

September 15, 2014

Now and Forever: Love You to Death

Somebody help me. I've seen nearly all the good Korean movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime and I'm now stuck watching crap like director Kim Seong-jung's sappy romance about two terminally ill "beautiful people" who hide their fatal diagnoses from each other as the ultimate expression of their death-defying, tragic, self-sacrificing love. She's got a heart ailment. He's got a brain tumor. I've got a headache and gas. And the discomforts don't end there either.

Aside from her cardiopulmonary issues, Han Hye-won (Choi Ji-woo) has some mental deficiencies too -- so much so that for a good stretch of the movie, I assumed that she was in the Psych Ward, not the ICU. Choi clowns around -- giving sudden looks of total incomprehension then giggling inappropriately -- so often that you assume the doctors must periodically instruct her to stand on her head just to ensure she gets some blood to her brain. The drama, surrounding her constant "escapes" from the hospital, suggests a staff that thinks she's a desperate case. But since her best friend Soo-jin (Seo Yeong-hie) periodically takes Hye-won's medicine in the butt cheek, you wonder if the patient is just getting placebos in the end.

That Lee Min-su (Jo Han-seon) pursues her so arduously, intellectual lightweight that she is, isn't romantic so much as creepy. A self-styled ladykiller, he's apparently bedded so many independent women (all with abandonment issues) that his devotion to a half-wit feels a bit predatory. Here's a woman with only one real friend, a rarely visited father, half a brain and half a heart. Are those wedding bells he's hearing or the bells of bedlam? Is he in love or has he simply lost his mind?

Min-su's sidekick Kyung-min (Choi Seong-guk) is infinitely sweeter, if a bit of a dingdong. Falling in love with Soo-jin may be equally irrational but it's also pretty harmless and pretty amusing. You won't cry when the two best friends get together in Now and Forever but you won't vomit in your mouth either. Small victories!

August 31, 2014

Paradise Murdered: Neither Horror Nor Comedy Or Anything In Between

I have often thought that Korean movies are distinguished by their propensity for defying genre. As such, romcoms can suddenly take dark turns into very unfunny violence, and thrillers may take side trips into the broadest slapstick without warning then return to nail-biting action just as quick. Paradise Murdered is a whole other kettle of fish however: a movie that appears to be a horror script directed as is if it were a comedy. The result is neither funny nor scary, although it's definitely bizarre in exactly how it displeases.

You can see why Kim Han-min took a comical approach with the material. If you played Paradise Murdered straight, the holes in the plot would be too gaping to overlook. Why does the doctor (Park Hae-il) insist on not allowing anyone else to investigate the initial murders? Why does nobody suspect the town drunkard (Sung Ji-ru) who clearly is having hallucinations and is responsible for at least two accidental deaths, not get tied up, locked up and gagged? How do we know for sure that the little girl is dead? Or the little boy's mother (Yu Hae-jung)? What's up with the chaste ghost (Kim Ju-ryoung)? Why is everyone leaving their sandals behind? Is there really a community out there that's going to rejoice about receiving endless sacks of pure sugar for being best remote island of the year?

As to why Kim even chose to shoot this script, that answer is infinitely more apparent. He wrote Paradise Murdered all by himself. Whether he honestly thinks it's hilarious or simply realized that mining the humor was his best shot at salvaging shoddy material is anybody's guess. All I ask is that you don't write off Kim as a director too soon because he's actually done some fine work since this freshman effort. Both War of the Arrows, his medieval epic, and Handphone, his contemporary thriller, score much higher with the public via IMDb and Asianwiki.com. In the case of the first movie, I heartily agree. In the case of the second, I still need to see it.

Guess what I'll be watching next?!

Lifting King Kong: Feel-Good Girl Power in Spandex

I was ready to yawn, to gag, to roll my eyes, to multitask on my iPhone, to vacuum, to fall asleep and upon waking again to basically loathe Lifting King Kong. You see, this feel-good sports pic has such emotive acting and such an obvious narrative arc that I was sure I was going to be bored (i.e., feel bad) despite the movie's best intentions. Well girlfriend! I was wrong. Here's how the movie defeated the skeptical me. (Why do I keep thinking I won't like movies about athletes when I so often do?!)

The first surprise is that Lifting King Kong focuses on a sport that's rarely the center of a movie: Weightlifting. The sport is one in which individual athletes compete against their own best efforts instead of other teams. So while there's a ragtag group at the center of Lifting King Kong, there's not a team in the conventional sense. The second surprise is that Lifting King Kong not only spotlights an atypical sport but it also features the women who practice it. No. Not women. Teen girls. Outcasts who take up the sport because they've got no families, no futures, no friends. You could subtitle this movie "From Pity Party to Pumping Iron." The third surprise is that the fat girl (Lee Hyeon-kyeong) who poops on herself actually gets the cute boy (Ahn Yong-joo).

So 40 minutes in, I went from sneering to cheering as the various budding athletes -- orphan/Olympian-to-be Young-ja (Jo An) among them, progressed from junior high chumps to high school champs. That their devoted coach (Lee Beom-su) is a seriously injured former bronze medalist who appears to be wearing a fat suit for part of the movie as a way to bond with his mentees only allows you to tear up more as the girls develop muscles as well as self-respect and inner strength. The acting doesn't get any better mind you but this one will trigger the waterworks nonetheless. Kleenex required, for sure.

And before you write the movie off as preposterous, you should know that Lifting King Kong is based on a true story that's also pretty dramatic. In reality, Jeong In-yeong -- SPOILER ALERT! who also died of a heart attack -- coached a girls weightlifting team to a record number of medals and went on to also discover the flyweight Olympic Medalist Jeon Byeong-gwan who won a Silver in Seoul and a Gold in Barcelona. I can see why writer-director Park Geon-yong and his writing collaborators Jeong Ik-hwan and Bae Se-yeong decided to combine all the stories into one. The truth is always a bit messy.

August 24, 2014

Midnight FM: This Number Has Been Disconnected

Remember the good old days before cell phones were used as masking tape in movies, as quick fixes to get us from Point A to Point B with the least effort possible? Watch Midnight FM and then think how much better this thriller would be if popular radio talk show host Sun-Young (Ae Soo) wasn't constantly leaving one of her two cell phones in different rooms and then scrambling to answer the misplaced cell so she can discuss how her psychopathic stalker fan (Yu Ji-tae) is going to murder her sister, her niece and her daughter. All she needs to do is honor that faxed playlist that unfortunately someone threw out. It's her final night on-air and this guy wants to make her work!

Take all that taunting conversation happening during the commercial breaks and put it on-air, have her try to figure out what's going on strictly through audio, see her listeners struggle along with her, have coworkers interrupt because of initial shared ignorance of what exactly is going on, have her weave it all into a polished show... Now that would be a fascinating movie. That's not Midnight FM though, which spells out way too much and and then throw out late night into an extended car chase that only occasionally has her patched into the network to deliver intro to songs and share half-baked insights about Taxi Driver, Pump Up the Volume and Casablanca.

You can see why some fans would find her infuriating. As scripted by Kim Sang-man, she's a bit arrogant, a bit too American in her tastes. Throughout her show (which despite all the blackmailing and fainting has likely a fairly typical song list), she never once mentions South Korean movies or music, despite the absurd popularity of K-pop and the ubiquity of karaoke in Korean flicks. Her heart belongs to Leonard Cohen! You're hardly surprised she's leaving the radio station to study in America. That her mute daughter -- suffering from a neck injury of unknown origin -- might benefit from U.S. medical expertise seems mostly an afterthought. Given how much she likes to dominate conversation, you may harbor a sneaking suspicion that Sun-young is glad her cute young daughter can only tap out yes and no as a way to communicate. This family only has room for one speaker and she's killing it on the airwaves!

August 18, 2014

Bloody Innocent: Best Friends, Lovers No More; Best Friends, But Not Like Before

A sweet little girl named Myung-hee (Kang Cho-hee) is raped and murdered then left in a ditch alongside a country road one awful, rainy night. Whodunit? The two leading suspects are Dong-sik (Jeong Se-in), the young ruffian who had a crush on Myung-hee, and Seung-Ho (Lee Da-wit), his best friend, who also had a thing for the girl. We know it's one of the two because the only people who'd do this would have to be adolescent boys who harbored warm feelings for her. So goes the logic of Kim Dae-hyun's nonsensical thriller Bloody Innocent. Which makes the prosecution and life-imprisonment of Dong-sik's mentally ill brother Kyung-sik even more exasperating. Clearly the local police have a faulty logic of their own, one which equates underdeveloped intelligence with amorality.

Flash forward a few times and the finger-pointing continues: Dong-sik (now played by Sin Seong-rok) must've done it because he's a member of the lower classes and it's just the kind of heinous act a poor kid would do! He's trash from start to finish! No. Actually Seung-ho (now played by Kim Da-hyeon) is the rapist-killer. Rich people are plain evil. Their good deeds and success inevitably cover up a past spotted by inhumane jealousies! Money is the ultimate corruptor! More deaths pile up: the young prostitute who happens to be Dong-ski's sister; the boyfriend-john who beats the hell out of her for no reason at all; a cyanide-ingesting Kyung-sik who mysteriously poisons himself with tainted milk despite being lactose-intolerant. There's also a group of feminist kidnappers and an ominous woman who sells umbrella, who make quick appearances and just as fast, disappear.

When the one who actually did it confesses his guilt to the one who did not, the latter man, like us, is somewhat baffled as to WHY. What was the point? Is it really so bad not to win the girl when you're a kid? And do you spend the rest of your life holding a grudge for the one that got away? On the flip side, are you sad when someone who's been murdering people you care about gets murdered himself? I, for one, was relieved when the anonymous cop's gun was shot and took out the knife-wielding nut. I'd like to think the "bloody innocent" protagonist breathed a sigh of relief, too.

August 12, 2014

Stoker: Park Chan-wook Comes to America

So the actors aren't speaking Korean. So what? Stoker is nevertheless a Korean movie because it's still very much a Park Chan-wook movie. A vexatious coming-of-age tale shaped by sociopathic genetics, Stoker -- like so many Park flicks before it -- is a deviously crafted thriller with Park misleading you then revealing clues that make you retrace your steps only to you realize that you were never misinformed, just uninformed. Here are the players this time around: Evelyn, a recent widow (Nicole Kidman) who always felt like the odd man out with her now-dead husband and ice-cold daughter; India, said offspring (Mia Wasikowska) who has her own outsider status at high school where she gets straight A's but has no friends; Uncle Charlie (a really good Matthew Goode), a mystery man who shows up from out of nowhere then stirs up some heat with mother and daughter. Let the intergenerational rivalry begin.

Like Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer earlier this year, Park makes some fascinating casting choices for his Hollywood debut. Aside from the aforementioned trio, he's brought on board Jacki Weaver (a two-time Oscar nominee who remains someone that no one's heard of), Dermot Mulroney (the former heartthrob who's now pudgy and gray), and perhaps most delightfully, Harmony Korinne (the indie screenwriter behind Kids, Gummo and Ken Park). Though Korinne's time on screen is fleeting, Park's nod to this fellow auteur is kind of perfect. Park and Korinne are both fearless directors who've got aesthetics unlike anyone else. I also was pleased that Park stuck with his longtime cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon which ensures that Stoker always looks like a Park film as much as it feels like one or sounds like one, even in English.

Given how enthralling Stoker is, I suspect the reason it didn't do better at the box office stateside is that the movie touches on so many taboos -- incest, child-killing, teenage sexuality -- with a disturbingly sweaty hand. Park never condemn atrocities. He bears witness, glosses them up a bit, then stands back leaving you to feel the horror. Alone. Stoker's unsettling for sure.

August 4, 2014

Don't Cry, Mommy: Young Rapists Underestimate Victim's Vengeful Mother

I think I might be a bad person because my favorite violent crime pics are those with extended revenge sequences. I like when a terrible crime is followed by an equally terrible execution of justice. I like when whomever did the harming gets a lot more hurt inflicted on him. Because of that, Don't Cry, Mommy is my kind of movie. A fast-paced thriller in which a young, single mom (Yu Seon) goes after the three punks (Shin Dong-ho, Kwon Hyun-sang, Lee Sang-min) who gang-raped her daughter (Nam Bo-ra), writer-director Kim Yong-han's purposeful movie makes you feel the pain of the victim and those who love her and understand the rage that ensues when sociopathic criminals are set free, simply because they're under a certain age.

The courts and the cops are too lenient. The detective (Yoo Oh-seong) on the case is only partly sympathetic, which may explain why his daughter withholds some key evidence. Why put your life on the line when the system is so forgiving of evil children? Apparently even key evidence on a phone that shows the two rapes -- yes, the boys come back for more -- doesn't secure the mother's belief that she can get a Death Penalty or even a Life in Prison so she takes matters, and a large kitchen knife, in her own hands.

I actually didn't find the idea of the boys texting the video to their victim the least bit unbelievable. I also bought the notion that she would be so traumatized by the first attack that she might not choose to effectively fight back the second time either. The part I couldn't understand is why the rape survivor would decorate a cake with "Don't Cry, Mommy" before the whole world went to total Hell or why the mom would give a crap about whether the kids would admit to doing the heinous crimes once she'd seen it on the videos. Or why she wanted to get their phones, too, when she already had evidence. PTSD logic?

July 26, 2014

Loner: Unrealistic Family Complications Amid Real Estate Porn

Which of the following fright flicks would you like to see most?

1. The one about the nerdy lesbian (Lee Da-in) who gets bullied into shoplifting lingerie then exacts revenge on her tormenter (Lee Eun-hee) by slitting her throat and showering her in blood?
2. The one about the shrink (Chae Min-seo) whose course in young hermits becomes useful when the daughter (Ko Eun-ah) of her fiancee (Jeong Yeong-suk) goes into major "recluse" mode.
3. The one about the matriarch (Jeong Yu-seok) who has her son pretend his daughter's his niece to spite the girl's mother (Lee Yeon-su).

Can't decide? You don't have to! Loner is all those things knotted together across many bad hair days, involving a drunk janitor (Lim Dae-ho), a doomed domestic and a half-sister with a bone to pick. Well, when you tire of scenery-chewing, focus on scenery, I say.

Set in an absolutely gorgeous modern home, Loner has got to have one of the most opulent settings in horror. Check out the remote-controlled, luminescent walls that pivot open between the study and the bedroom, and the self-enclosed courtyard overseen, in part, by two second-story hallways of glass. The furnishings and accoutrements are equally lush: a minimalist wood-and-metal chair with a small opening under the seat to store magazines, a quirkily contemporary rocker just outside the garden, a cut-glass bottle of Camus Whiskey, a small flock of crystal hummingbirds... Bored by the cast's tormented cries and deranged laughter, I allowed myself to freeze frame gilded wallpaper in one room and the parabola lamp near the L-shaped leather couch in another. I was particularly taken with the large landscapes in the aforementioned hall upstairs. There's a reason why it all looks so lush. Loner's mansion set cost $300,000 to construct. I hope, someone moved in when Park Je-shik wrapped this movie because he wrapped it in mink.

July 20, 2014

Snowpiercer: Bong Joon-ho Does Scifi a la Park Chan-wook

St. Teresa's The Interior Castle. Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are many examples of spiritual journeys that take their protagonists through a series of bizarre rooms before delivering them to an inner chamber housing a great if hidden truth. For Bong Joon-ho, the rooms in Snowpiercer may be train cars but the quest remains the same: The hero -- or in this case, the cannibalistic antihero (Chris Evans) -- must navigate a succession of rooms, each with its unique challenges, each with its own queer millieu, before arriving at the font of wisdom. The engine room, as it were. Along the way, he'll pass through a well-guarded water room with a lady tyrant clownishly played by a buck-toothed Tilda Swinton, a Willy Wonka-esque school room overseen by a blindingly sunny, pregnant fascist (Alison Pill), a kitchen where cockroaches are turned into gelatinous bricks of protein, a greenhouse, a steam room, a nightclub, and so on. The final chamber -- the engine room -- is ironically the domain of a child-kidnapping God-like tyrant (Ed Harris). Shades of The Truman Show?

What's unusual is that once Ed Harris' character unveils the TRUTH, the epiphany occurs not for Curtis but for Yona (Ko Ah-sung), a seer who hasn't heard it and who, as apprentice to the train's master locksmith Min-Soo (Song Kang-ho), has spent much of the time in a drug-addled haze. Are we hallucinating this scifi pic's parade of celebs along with her, for there's also John Hurt as a steampunk Yoda, Jamie Bell as a second banana in the people's army and a sleepy-eyed Octavia Spencer as a mom out to get her kid back. You might also cite Park Chan-wook as a co-star. While he doesn't appear on screen, his imprint is apparent as producer: Snowpiercer is packed with the video-game violence that has caused some critics to label Park as a purveyor of gore porn. I've never felt that way but I do feel the recurring blood-splattering here proved a bit much. Bong usually finds his shocks in psychology.

July 16, 2014

Like You Know It All: Just One Second... That May Change

There's something unconcernedly unplanned about Like You Know It All, as if director Hong Sang-soo had daily provided his actors with a single page of rushed dialogue then let them go at it for a few hours. Hong lets his actors loose on the story, lets their impulsive reactions build into something bigger, lets a random idea in the performance or an ad libbed line used to cover a flub as the guiding force for what follows. Or so it seems. Is art-house darling Gyung-nam (Kim Tae-woo) destined to clash with festival programmer Hyeon-hee (Uhm Ji-won) then doomed to reunite with a former lover (Go Hyun-jung)? These encounters hardly seem inevitable. (Who else would throw in a series of arm wrestling matches?) Instead, the realities almost come out of nowhere, as if the unexpected always lied just around the corner. So while the film starts off as a satire about a film festival, full of ass-kissing, back-stabbing, and self-congratulatory artistes -- Like You Know It All ditches that party just at the point when you likely would've grown weary of it yourself. Hong recognizes how boring life is, how repetitious, how squalid, how petty, how hilarious, how misdirected, how laughable. Oh, how wonderful he is!

I laughed a lot during Like You Know It All, perhaps more so than in Hahaha. But Like You Know It All doesn't have that latter film's clever framing device -- a boozy flashback shared by two friends recounting congruent memories. Hong's great at framing devices. Think of the films within films of Oki's Movie or Isabelle Huppert in triplicate for In Another Country. But when you come down to it, I like Hong equally -- if not better -- without the structural cleverness. Meandering, his movies feel fresh and human and vulnerable and ridiculous. Like You Know It All is hardly his most brilliant piece of filmmaking to his credit but it's brilliant all the same.

Footnote: Like You Know It All was shot on HD but is that even newsworthy anymore?

July 14, 2014

Silenced: Making Noise About Crimes Against Deaf Children

You won't find me defending any criminal justice system when someone says it's unfairly prejudiced or arguing with the agitator who claims that the rich will always get away with the most heinous crimes or debating about whether there's a crime worse than child molesting. Yet while director Hwang Dong-hyuk and novelist Cong Jee-young and I might agree on such matters, Silenced -- the movie Hwang's made on Cong's book -- still left me feeling icky, not validated in my worldview. I can't speak to Cong's novel (The Crucible) but Hwang's depicted cruelties and perversions last a little too long for my taste. When a young boy is beaten by a teacher, the slapping and kicking goes on for an inordinate time; later a scene of a faculty member caressing a young boy's bare bottom is shot in a graphic manner that literally makes you sick. Perhaps that's Hwang's intent, to show the heinousness of the crimes, to not let us shy away from just how ghastly the tortures inflicted on the young deaf students of a special ed school in Mujin truly are.

This isn't simply a work of the imagination either. Cong's serialized internet sensation The Crucible was based on true events: From 2000 to 2003, five teachers and the principal of Gwangju Inhwa School raped or otherwise sexually assaulted at least nine of their students, with nary one of the perpetrators receiving a heavy sentence. To the contrary, some of the teachers eventually returned to their jobs. To its credit, the film remedied that somewhat as the public outcry following its release resulted in a resurrection of the case and stiffer punishments for some of those involved. Helmed by Gong Yoo as the new teacher who discovers the crimes and Jeong Yu-mi as the human rights activist who joins his fight in court, Silenced is important for what it accomplished. I imagined it may have also ruined the life of Jang Gwang who is so creepy as a pair of twin pedophiles that I can imagine people spitting at him on the street, his portrayal of unrepentant perverts is so complete.

June 22, 2014

A Tale of Legendary Libido: Dick Jokes and Slowpokes

Jeon Soo-kyeong stars in a number of empty-headed movies but whenever there's a vacuum, she expands to fill it up. In the middling comedy Little Black Dress, she's a hack writer dropping zingers like the best of screwball Hollywood's peroxide blondes. In the even worse The Perfect Couple, she plays an amoral journalist whose mastery of slapstick is equally vintage. This time around in the raunch romp A Tale of Legendary Libido, Jeon plays a lecherous bar owner who's one of many townswomen who go from ridiculing rice-cake street-peddlar Byeon (Bong Tae-gyu) for having a small penis to pining for his shlong once it's miraculously enlarged. Amid sight gags of cascading pee-streams and Three Stooges-style violence [like when Byeon has a fire on his crotch stomped out by his brother (Oh Dal-su)], Jeon milks the comedy for all its worth. As per usual, she doesn't have many lines but she gives great reaction-face and when she gets a moment to sing, she sends chills up and down your spine.

Bong isn't quite as effective at making the most out of a little. As the bumpkin cursed with a tiny dick, he's a bit clueless and so emotionally scarred by his tryst with a cackling, nymphomanical harridan (Yoon Yeo-jeong) that instead of giving us permission to laugh at him, we're stuck feeling pity at first, and indifference soon after. Later, he doesn't make the most out of a lot either. Magically transformed into the neighborhood stud, he's just as sullen and just as dull. You never witness his delight in finally being hung. You never find satisfaction in watching him over-pleasure women who spurned him in the past. His heart (and his hard-on) ultimately belongs to another (Kim Sin-ah) -- a nearly brainless former sex slave whose sad history is unexplored and whose skill at synchronized swimming is unexplained. As sex comedies go, writer-director Shin Han-sol's A Tale of Legendary Libido barely gets to first base. It has the feel of a comedy at most.

June 15, 2014

Hahaha: Taking a Page Out of Woody Allen's Book

I don't know why the similarities between Woody Allen and Hong Sang-soo never occurred to me before. They're both directors who crank out a movie a year, and primarily focus on troubled romances -- sometimes seriously, other times comically, oft times of the summer/winter variety, occasionally triangles. They're both critical darlings who have won more than a handful of awards -- both nationally and internationally -- yet neither could be called a box-office goldmine. They also have a small group of actors they reuse in multiple movies then were drawn to casting bigger names later in their careers. For Hong, that last bit has led to Isabelle Hupert in In Another Country and pop star Rain in Soar Into the Sun. Since Hong is a master of naturalistic acting, neither celeb upstages his or her co-stars.

One way that Hong differs from Allen, however, is in his constant use of drunk scenes. In Hahaha, not only is the framework a drunk scene -- two friends recount their overlapping weekend in a small coastal town called Tongyeong -- but so are about a quarter of the events they recount: failed filmmaker Moon-kyeong (Kim Sang-kyung) taking Seong-ok (Moon So-ri) back to a hotel room, depressed critic Joong-sik (Yu Jun-sang) taking his mistress (Ye Ji-won) to meet his uncle, Moon-kyeong's mother (Yoon Yeo-jeong) drinking with all of the above at some point or another. Because it's a Hong Sang-soo film, the drunk scenes are universally good. No one facilitates as many riveting naturalistic performances as Hong.

Both Allen and Hong are experimenters with form, too. Here in Hahaha that manifests itself with the framing conversation that takes place in the present being merely a voiceover to a black-and-white slideshow of Moon-kyeong and Joong-sik toasting, talking and saying "Cheers!" But unlike Allen, Hong isn't one of the leads nor does he cast himself in a cameo. He's got a history of having stand-ins for the alcoholic, womanizing, deluded artist we assume him to be and here he does it in triplicate, the third version being a fickle poet (Kim Kang-woo) who's not only the best friend of pill-popping critic Joong-sik but also a surrogate son to man-child Moon-kyeong's mom who gives the poet a free apartment once Moon-kyeong turns it down.

This is the 10th Hong Sang-soo movie I've seen! (I'm ready for more!)

June 8, 2014

To Catch a Virgin Ghost: Diamonds Are a Ghost's Best Friend

I've seen great horror movies that aren't necessarily scary (Thirst, The Soul Guardians, Terror Taxi). I've seen plenty of comedies I enjoyed that didn't necessarily have me laughing out loud and were probably more strange than funny (The Story of Mr. Sorry, The Good, the Bad, the Weird, Couples). I've even seen crime pics with overcomplicated plots that I forgave in the end. (Girl Scout, Tazza: High Rollers). And then there's To Catch a Virgin Ghost, Shin Jeong-won's triple-genre-hybrid that failed to provide the minimal atmospherics of middling horror, the occasional chuckle of mediocre comedy or the temporary tension of an uneven thriller. Talk about a dud in triplicate. No screams, no laughs, no gasps. You almost wish the creators had thrown in sports, biopic, musical, mockumentary, scifi and western, just to see them fail at those genres too.

I'm not sure what the primary genre was supposed to be either. Is the important part of the story have to do with the stolen diamonds that are swallowed by two of the hoodlums or the romance that unexpectedly blooms between one gang-leader (Lim Chang-jung) and a lovely, insecure young spirit (Shin Yi) whose beauty is only marred by her creepy white eyes. The latter tale in particular has a lot of novel possibilities in terms of where it could go but To Catch a Virgin Ghost is written by screenwriters with Attention Deficit Disorder. They never stick to any storyline for long, meaning that chase scene are interrupted, conflicts never build and the final resolution has more loose ends that a fringe tablecloth.

The inability to settle on a plot, a conflict or a genre has ironically extended to the title as well. In America, the movie has been released under the titles Sisily 2km and To Kill a Virgin Ghost as well. Might I suggest an alternative? To Romance a Virgin Ghost When You're Smuggling Diamonds Near an Orphanage Where Everyone's Been Murdered. Or simply Dead Girl, Kooky Crimes. It took me a full week to watch this movie in its entirety because I would grow so impatient at each viewing. Maybe someone can make a better version of it by turning it into a seven-second montage for Vine. I am currently available to pen a Twitter script of 140 characters or less, hashtags included. All I require for payment is the return of the 109 minutes spent watching this movie.

May 24, 2014

Head: Lady Reporter Puts Brother Before Story and Scores Story

When people ask me what it is I like so much about Korean movies, I sometimes get tongue-tied. I may cough up a pat answer about '70s noir and nice clothes and strong women or I may talk about when my obsession started nearly ten years ago while covering the New York Korean Film Festival for The Brooklyn Paper. But it might be easier in the future to tell them, "Just watch Head" and leave it at that. Jo Woon's dark comedy about a reporter (Park Yeh-jin) desperate to trade a famous scientist's severed head for the return of her kidnapped younger brother (Ryu Deok-hwan) has pretty much all the elements that keep me coming back to Korean movies week to week. This is the sensibility that intoxicates. This is what I connect to. This is the key. Here's a simple breakdown.

I like how Head challenges authority (the church, the police force, the workplace, your elders). I like the movie's morbid sense of humor (the funeral home setting, the running gag of the head in a styrofoam cooler, the way the kidnap victim's body is marked up like a cow for slaughter then redressed in a pregnant woman's housecoat that's too small). I like Head's physical extremes, its quick shifts from comedy to thriller, its refusal to fall into a sappy romance, the way it builds stories within stories within stories.

And yes, I like that there's a resourceful woman at Head's center, a feisty bitch dressed to the nines who fights back when attacked, who screams from frustration more often than fear, who's a competitor as well as a kook, an underdog that never feels like a victim. That she has a cute younger brother and an even cuter rival reporter with whom she shares a intimate past -- albeit probably not much more than a one night stand -- also helps.

Head isn't a perfect movie. But it's a really, really fun one and it embodies what I've come to see as the Korean POV. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to know what's so great about Korean film. In fact, if you haven't figured it out, I'm recommending it to you right now!

May 21, 2014

Enemy at the Dead End: Murderous Thoughts Not for the Multiplex

I do think there's a good play somewhere in Enemy at the Dead End. Most of the action takes place in one setting -- a hospital room -- and it would be easy to trim the cast down to three main characters: Min-ho (Chun Ho-jin), the physically debilitated patient suffering from PTSD; Sang-up (Yoo Hae-jin), the amnesiac thug who may have killed Min-ho's wife and who occupies the neighboring bed; and Nurse Ha (Seo Hyo-rim), the ditzy orphan-nurse who is unaware that a blood feud is slowly emerging between the two men whom she is treating. If you needed to, you could always throw in a fourth actor to play a series of bit parts: Doctor, Ex-wife, Second Nurse, Hallucination... But you could probably make do with a voice offstage. Afterward, stripped down to its basic elements, Enemy at the Dead End would emerge as an effective, economical psychological thriller. Fueled by an experimental drug, the narrative would erupt with over-the-top performances that keep getting crazier and crazier without intermission.

But Enemy at the Dead End isn't a play. It's a movie. And because it's a movie, the action sometimes leaves the hospital room thereby diminishing the claustrophobia of a single setting and the bravura potential of the performances. I don't know that confining the action within four walls would have solved all this movie's problems but I'm guessing it would've helped some. Then again, it might've introduced others. Only one of the two male actors could probably sustain an unedited performance. The flashbacks would have to be replaced by exposition that could prove cumbersome. You'd probably have to rewrite the crazy doctor back story that got these two in the same hospital room to begin with. But given that Cho Owen and Kim Sang-hwa share both writing and directing credits, you'd have two people to work on rewrites and two people to work on figuring out how to make it work for a live audience when it didn't work on film.

And if Cho and Kim insist that Enemy at the Dead End should transfer to video once they've perfected the theatrical version, let it be for the small screen instead.

May 17, 2014

Mutt Boy: A Howl of Despair

Let's start with a scene near the end of Kwak Kyung-taek's despairingly watchable Mutt Boy. Specifically, the prison fight scene. The one involving Cheol-min (Jung Woo-sung) and his mortal enemy Jin-mook (Kim Jeong-tae) -- the same Jin-mook who had Cheol-min's pet German shepherd killed then fed to the school's soccer team when the two boys were in high school. That Jin-mook. That despicable, quite unlikable, sick and twisted jerk.

Paired together at last for the ultimate cage match, the eponymous "Mutt Boy" and the meanie strip down to their skivvies -- tighty whities for the hero; black panties for the baddie, of course -- and take to fisticuffs (while wearing, for some unfathomable reason, gags). Free to fight without interruption, they punch mercilessly and without strategy. They don't block. They don't dodge. They just punch and punch and punch. And then when they're done with punching, they wrestle. And then they roll around and grapple and neck lock, all while wearing their symbolic undies.

The fellow prisoners are excited at first, then they grow weary because the fight goes on so long, and then some get excited again when it's over, even if it doesn't feel like an outright victory. The same can be said about Cheol-min's relationship with his adopted sister and love interest Jeong-ae (Uhm Ji-won). They fight. They wear each other out. He kind of wins but it doesn't feel like a victory. Same for his relationship with his chief of police dad (Kim Kap-su). Fight. Win. Non-victory. Same with the movie. It wears you down, wins you over, but you don't leave feeling good that about it. But you have to admit that it won. Ding. Ding. Ding.

If they handed out awards for weirdest performance, then for the year of 2003, Jung would definitely get it here for playing the slack-jawed, shat-upon dimwit who against all odds gets to helm his own gang and win over the ladies. His isn't a Cinderella story though. He was made to be miserable. He's got love, family, friends, a job, a roof over his head, looks, a wicked right hook, and potentially a new dog at the end but I wouldn't trade places with him for the world.

May 4, 2014

Be With Me: Death Was in the Cards

Horror movies are so good at introducing moments that elicit an "I'd never do that" reaction when in truth, we actually might. The framing short in the Omnibus Be With Me is a perfect example. In Kim Jho Kwang-su's "Tell Me Your Name," a slightly menacing, slightly cruise-y tarot card reader entices a series of young girls to invoke a life-changing spell with no specific promise as to what the end results will be. We see doom. They see deliverance. But if we went into the experience with strong desires, might not we too stare into the mirror and say our own names out loud? Might it not seem like a silly thing to not do if it contained the possibility of a better future?

Since the wish is never stated outright, I'm not sure what Lan (Han Ye-ri) is hoping for in Jo Eun-kyung's "The Unseen." Better friends to navigate through an abandoned building with? Less slippery cell phones? A good, three-legged stool so she can escape through the window, rejoin her friends, and adopt a box of kittens? A friendship that never dies? She certainly is SOL on all counts.

So-young (Shin Ji-soo) in Hong Dong-myong's "The Attached" has a bit better luck. Her careful-what-you-hope-for desire is probably straight out of the O. Henry canon. I'd do anything to get into Seoul University! Well, now the complicated pregnancy of her best friend (Kim KKobbi) and her primary rival's injured foot on a slippery roof could make her wildest dreams come true. What you gonna do?

The final film -- Yeo Myung-jun's "Ghost Boy" -- doesn't really fit as neatly into a death wish construct because the wish is that of a dead girl's spirit. You're going to have to let go of how she knew what her wish should be before she had her throat slit. You're also going to have to let go of why the teacher doesn't take a student's cell phone immediately after said student claims he's videotaped him beating a female peer. And you're also going to have to let go of why the dead serial killer is so fixated on the dead girl since he's already killed her once. Maybe the implied sequel will explain.

April 27, 2014

The Evil Twin: A Washed Up Horror Movie

After nearly drowning as a child, So-yeon (Park Shin-hye) is rescued by her mom then has a really good nap -- which some might call a coma since it lasted ten years. But everyone treats it like she's just had a long rest. No one's particularly shocked that she's awakened after a decade. She herself, aside from some amnesia -- which some suspect is feigned -- doesn't appear to be lagging behind her peers. She can walk and talk with the best of them and if anything, her embroidery skills have improved. She's just a pretty young thing whose expressionless face can be attributed to years of rest. And consider what a nice surprise she's awakened to. The young boy to whom she'd been betrothed has grown up to be a handsome man (Lee Hyun-kyoon). You could call him the man of her dreams except she's not sleeping anymore. And when she does, she has the worst nightmares.

You see, while So-yeon survived drowning all those years ago, her twin sister Hyo-jin wasn't half so lucky. As per usual in horror films, sibling rivalry continues beyond the grave as dead Hyo-jin sabotages her revived sister's engagement, her relationship with their mom, and her reputation at large with the community. Everyone hates/fears the revivified So-yeon because locals have been dying unexpectedly ever since her resurrection. Naturally, no one is going to finger the corpse as the culprit, especially one hiding behind three feet of filthy black hair. (While scientists claim hair can grow a couple inches after death, K-horror and J-horror flicks alike suggest it grows as much as two feet.)

Be it posthumous hair growth or post-traumatic stress disorder, nobody seriously considers cause and effect in The Evil Twin. In a way, writer-director Kim Ji-hwan is aligning himself with the dimwitted family servant who preens in the handheld mirror gifted to her by her mistress and who likes to hang outside to heat her ass over a bonfire. Looking at your own reflection. Warming your bum. Could anyone ask for a better life? Yes, they could. And they should start by requesting much better horror movies.

April 16, 2014

Oki's Movie: Hong Sang-soo's Echo Chamber

Oh, Hong Sang-soo. Here you go again, you myopic auteur, with your tried-and-true tropes: The philandering filmmaker who drinks too much, the winter-summer romance that doesn't add up, the backstabbing frenemy who for awhile takes the lead, the love triangle that breaks apart then forms anew with somewhat interchangeable people. And also once again, from me, a lot of eye-rolling that culminates with a double-take caused by a narrative twist or a genius piece of dialogue or a stretch of naturalistic acting that really is without peer in Korean cinema, all of which makes me second guess myself and you and what the whole point of movie-watching/making is.

In short Oki's Movie feels both like standard Hong fare and a fresh experiment. A collection of faux student shorts examining the ever-changing relationships of a college film professor (Mun Seong-kun), his protege (Lee Seon-gyun) and the young woman (Jeong Yu-mi) having affairs with them both, Oki's Movie initially feels like typically Hong Sang-soo in the worst way and ends up feeling like typical Hong Sang-soo in the best. The change of heart in the viewer comes late in the game, thanks to two scenes: One, in which the two students -- arriving late to class on a snow day -- are encouraged by the teacher to ask whatever they want which they do with hilarious results; the second, a longer sequence in which a walk in the woods, taken by the young woman first with the professor, then with the student, is compared via short back-to-back footage that, in a very telling way, illustrates what Hong is a master of -- showing the significance of the most seemingly insignificant moments and actions.

As much as I eventually came to appreciate, even like, Oki's Movie, I admit there's still a part of me that wishes that Hong came up with a different plot more often instead of treading familiar ground. But given how prolific he's been of late -- three movies in 2009, two in 2010, two in 2011, one in 2012, and three in 2013 -- I suppose it's inevitable that he repeat himself. To his credit, he does so inventively.

April 10, 2014

Friend: The Odds are Four to One Against You, Kiddo

At first you might puzzle over the singularity within this movie's title. Why Friend instead of Friends? After all, this pic is about a quartet of boys whom we watch mature from adolescence to adulthood. But as the cinematic years (and the real-time minutes) roll by, you realize there's only one relationship that counts to writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek: The one between Sang-taek (Seo Tae-hwa), a cowardly nerd who goes on to earn his PhD, and Jeong-suk (Yu Oh-seong), the son-of-a-thug who becomes a thug himself. The other two pals -- Dong-su (Jang Dong-gun) and Jeong-ho (Jeong Un-taek) -- are there for local color. At least in theory. The catch is that the camera adores Yu, who practically makes the screen burn, and doesn't care about Seo, who fades into the background, like a set piece. For all I know that could've been writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek's intent. Since the film is semi-autobiographical, maybe he finds the more conventional middle-class life less thrilling than the dangerous and violent world of Jeong-suk and his sidekick Dong-su, the undertaker's son who ends up a formidable gangster himself.

The life of crime has more action, whether it's fighting with a crowd of high school kids while using anything within reach as your weapon, or giving a knifing master class that addresses both tools and methodology. Blood spills in movie theaters, back rooms, restaurants, karaoke clubs, and rainy streets. But the cruel impact of the mob's dog-eat-dog ethic is ancillary here as the fragile kinship between Jeong-suk and Dong-su ultimately says more about Jeong-suk's friendship with Sang-taek than anything else. Which isn't a bad thing. There's a certain satisfaction that comes with Dong-su getting repeatedly dismissed, belittled and humbled then watching him rise in power in Busan's ruthless underworld where he ends up Jeong-suk's rival. I was particularly taken with how Jeong-suk holds on to the past and wants to minimize their rivalry while Dong-su seems to embrace it, to heighten the tension. Old grudges die hard for those who get the short end of the stick -- which can be used to knife you.

March 30, 2014

Fists of Legend: Their Friendship Has a Fighting Chance

Fists of Legend has a great central premise -- a reality show in which middle-aged men fight each other and professional mixed martial artists in an attempt to reclaim the "legendary" status they once had as teens. Some win; most get their asses whupped. It's a concept so good that you'd think the movie was based on an already-existing, internationally franchised TV series. Au contraire, the screenplay is based on a popular Korean webtoon. Such humble beginnings! Perhaps a reality TV series lies ahead? Let the network bidding wars begin... In the meantime, actors Hwang Jeong-min, Yu Jun-sang and Yun Jae-moon bring a certain reality to the pseudo-sports event -- and the back stories that lead to the squared circle -- with naturalistic performances weighted by the disappointment that comes from being halfway through a life that you're only experiencing halfway.

Hwang's character is the owner of an unsuccessful noodle shop; Yu plays an overlooked publicist for a construction company; Yun, a tattooed ex-con. Way back in the day, they were The Three Musketeers -- one an Olympian contender; another the toughest kid at school; the final, the toughest kid at that school's rival. The only one in their crowd to have succeeded -- the fourth musketeer played by Jung Woong-in -- has evolved from spoiled rich kid to unscrupulous business magnate whose abuse of wealth and power has only gotten worse over time.

Bullied by a television producer (Lee Yu-won) who should be someone's love interest but isn't, the three non-rich, now-estranged friends are recruited for a mega-match of middle-aged mixed martial artistry that promises $200,000 for the winner (and ratings galore for the struggling producer). Through a series of flashbacks -- ironically, better acted than the present-day scenes -- you learn why the friendships fell apart and see what dreams were crushed along the way. The takeaway? Big-eared Hwang and his pouty young counterpart Park Jung-min were the coolest then and now. But does the most likable character win? This is a Korean movie after all. You'll have to watch it to see.

March 29, 2014

Flu: Disastrous Symptoms

Say you could only keep one of the five senses. Which would it be? Inevitably, the choice boils down to hearing or seeing. I once heard a persuasive argument made for touch, but not even the most extreme foodie has ever stepped forward to argue for taste. And who would pick smell?! But here's a question you may not have considered: If you had to exhibit one flu symptom which would that be? Sneezing or coughing? I bet most people would pick sneezing. Sneezes may make the eyes water, the nose run, and mucous spray everywhere but coughing feels closer to death. Coughing rattles the bones. Coughing hurts.

There's so many reasons coughs are worse. They're more troubling to hear (whereas a sneeze can sound cute). They can go on interminably (whereas a sneeze tends to come singularly or in pairs). And whoever heard of someone's sneezing keeping someone else up all night? Coughs are interruptive, ravaging, breath-stealing... Coughing sucks!

A cough is also a heck of a lot easier to act than a sneeze, which no question contributes to the unnerving effectiveness of the coughing scenes in the disaster pic Flu. Watch the various actors/extras hacking until they spit up cough syrup -- I mean, blood -- and you'll flinch. The H5N1 virus affecting the bronchials of Bundang feels real, and, since the coughers are often shot in lurid colors, horrific.

The epidemiologist (Ae Soo) who identifies the virus isn't scared by coughs though. Defying all health codes, she's disregard potential global repercussions caused by sneaking her infected daughter (Park Min-ah) across various borders. She knows the fatality rate. She knows the contagiousness. She doesn't care. Rescue worker (Jung Hyuk) is similarly reckless. In love with the irrational doctor, he's constantly freeing likely carriers and abandoning the sick little girl to perform random acts of dubious kindness. Perhaps director Kim Sung-su and his cast/crew are suffering from a third flu symptom: Fever! That's been known to cloud judgment, affect vision and trigger groans of discomfort. Just like Flu.

March 8, 2014

The Showdown: Frenemies With Swords

Do-yeong (Jin Ku) and Heon-myeong (Park Hee-soon) are the kind of best friends who would've been a lot better off if they'd never met each other. They come from warring families and they both want the same woman (Jang Hie-jun) who may be the only interest they have in common. Because Hyeon-myeong is more academic, more intuitive, and more athletic than his BFF, resentments pile up over the years. (This is what happens when there's no other kids in the neighborhood to play with in 17th-century Koreea, I guess.) That Hyeon-myeong eventually tattles on Do-yeong's father and gets him killed doesn't foster much fraternal love either but at least it gives Do-yeong the high ground. Do-yeong is now more loyal and more moral. When these two frenemies end up stranded in an abandoned inn after struggling through a blinding snow storm in enemy territory, the survivors of a Pyrrhic battle that has left most of their fellow soldiers dead, they decide the time has come to talk out their differences, share some secrets and settle the score.

The catch is they're not alone. Do-soo (Ko Chang-seok), a bumbling farmer-turned-fool conscripted into the war and deserter during the battle, is stuck in this ramshackle inn as well. He's not conflicted by past loyalties and betrayals. In a flashback, you learn he's been unfairly drafted, unkindly treated, and repeatedly scammed. As potrayed by Ko, Do-soo is incredibly unlikable but it's hard not to root for the common man when the rich and the royals won't even give him his due when he tends to the fire and cooks up a potato soup for his "betters." Whether he actually adds to the story is debatable. The same can be said for the rival Chinese soldiers who show up in growing numbers at the inn but never really pose a threat or change the dynamic between Do-yeong and Heon-myeong, who, to their credit in writer-director Park Hoon-jung's The Showdown (a.k.a. Swordbrothers a.k.a. Hyultu), never look anything less than fabulous despite the frozen hair, the bloody eyes, the grimy hands, the tattered clothes.