January 26, 2014

The Outlaw: Quitting the Force to Be More Forceful

Officer Oh (Kam Woo-seong) doesn't play by the rules. Oh, no. He's a renegade cop who believes you gotta step outside the law to serve the law. Needless to say, that approach -- while lowering crime rates -- has landed him in trouble with Internal Affairs infinite times. But lately he's gone from outside the law to off the rails. When his long missing wife (Kim Min-joo) and the daughter (Hyeon Na-gyeong) he never knew are pointlessly stabbed to death in a restaurant bathroom, he turns in his badge and picks up a torture porn mask then goes for the kill on two murdering party animals (Peter Ronald Holman, Tak Tu-in) and the negligent members of a justice departments that let those jerks off Scot free.

Catering to an audience that craves shock and gore, writer-director Kim Cheol-han packs a lot of on-screen violence in The Outlaw. You see multiple throats slit, a finger shot off, and men mercilessly beaten with chains. Whether it's good guys or bad guys inflicting the violence varies. Gannibalism? Bad guy. Rape? Bad guy. Impromptu laryngectomy? Good guy, actually. Is Kim attempting to show that too many years in Homicide will lead a cop to adopt the very methodology of those he's out to imprison? Perhaps. But he's also a director who simply likes to show brutality. Why else show Oh having a group hug with his family's bloody corpses?

Fun fact: While researching The Outlaw on asianwiki.com (which is devoted to Asian movies and TV), I discovered that the website sometimes includes the actor's blood type alongside his height, weight and age. Why this is relevant or important, I don't know but if you were curious, Kam Woo-seong is Type O. I also googled up Korean blood type personalities and learned that Type O carriers tend to be "outgoing" and "optimistic" so maybe he was miscast in this role as an anti-social misanthrope. Some actors sure love to play against type!

January 19, 2014

Jenny, Juno: Teen Pregnancy Is So Twee, Right?

I found Jenny, Juno detestable. That's right. Detestable. A lighthearted puffball about an adolescent girl who gets pregnant (but looks as lithe at six months as she did before getting knocked up) and her pouting boyfriend (who looks as though he's never had a lewd thought, never mind a pubic hair), Kim Ho-joon's YA rom-com suggests the sole repercussions of an underage pregnancy are the girl's growing appetite and the boy's desire to emulate John Hughes movies. What's weird is that Kim is actually building an oeuvre about marrying minors. His previous romantic comedy -- My Little Bride -- concerns a high school girl who discovers that her arranged marriage with an older guy might not be such a bad deal in the end. So is having both the lovers be young this time around an improvement? Quite possibly. But I'm not totally sure.

I think part of the problem of Jenny, Juno is that the two lead actors (Park Min-ji, Kim Hye-sung) don't just look super-young, they also play super-young. There's something mildly depressing about seeing a ditzy, expectant teenage girl lying on a bed piled high with stuffed animals and personalized throw pillows. The young couple's single concession to impending parenthood consist of standing outside a Lamaze class to glean instructions from the other side of a glass window. Evidently, it's enough to simply watch what's happening once to master the technique. Who knew it was this easy?

Everyone knows it's not. Which is what made the American-made Juno (similar title, similar plot, completely different attitude) so engaging. The title character of this latter movie had to struggle with physical discomforts, savage ostracism, and some painful choices that have to do with being a teen mom. That Juno managed to extract a happy ending from a complicated reality; this one includes a chaste fantasy wedding that made me want to cry like a baby. And then puke. Apparently, Jenny, Juno causes morning sickness!

January 12, 2014

Punch: Family Drama Just for Kicks

I'm predisposed to like a coming-of-age movie like Lee Han's Punch. Wan-deuk's father (Park Su-young) is a hunchbacked dwarf who likes to dance; his uncle (Kim Young-jae), a man-child who acts like a 10-year-old; his mother (Jasmine), a Filipino waitress with self-esteem issues; his homeroom teacher (Kim Yun-seok), a tough-love, community activist with a drinking problem. Growing up poor, or at best financially challenged, I too was surrounded by my own quirky extended family who, though not as colorful on the surface, were actually weird enough in their own ways for the circus-realist Punch to resonate with me on a very personal level. So much so that I'm now sitting here wondering if I'd be happier -- or at least more grounded -- today as an adult if someone had encouraged me to take martial arts to get out all my teenage frustrations when I too was 17. You could say that's why my father got me to join the Northwood High wrestling team when I was a sophomore but I didn't want to grapple so much as strike. I think, like Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in), I would've found greater satisfaction in kickboxing as a way to channel the rage that comes with feeling like an oddball -- Correction: Of being an oddball -- at a time when conformity is at its most crushing.

Playing the central soul-searcher, Yoo does a great job conveying his character's bewilderment at the inconsistencies of the grown-up world while discovering his own insistence to take a path not entirely delineated by those around him. (Which isn't to say he's above accepting a little guidance on occasion.) Alternately tremulous and slack-jawed, his every-teen isn't smarter than his elders; he's just electrically aware of each individualized reality. It's as if Lee and his screenwriter Kim Dong-woo aren't waxing nostalgic about adolescence as "the time before hypocrisy" so much as they're acknowledging it as an earlier time as violently chaotic as adulthood. It's an awareness available to re-experience at any time. I left Punch reconnected to mine.

January 4, 2014

The Righteous Thief: Robin Hood Has a Family

Steal from the rich. Give to the poor. That's the modus operandi of one exceedingly popular folk hero who has manifested in various forms across various cultures. In England, they called him Robin Hood; in Germany, Schinderhannes; in Korea, Hong Gil-dong. In The Righteous Thief, Jeong Yong-ki's reboot of the People's Criminal, the man (Lee Beom-su) redistributing the wealth is a latter day descendant -- 18 generations removed -- who teaches piano and courts fellow faculty (Lee Si-young) at the local high school during the day then wears black tights, scales buildings and inhales helium to rob shady millionaires at night. Lately, he's developed an obsession with one evil mogul (Kim Su-ro), an absurdly rich businessman who's developed a somewhat fetishistic obsession himself with superhero paraphernalia.

Folk hero vs. superhero? Not really. Since we never really see the needy getting a piece of the pilfered pie, a more accurate description of the central conflict here would be indie criminal vs. corporate criminal. As crookery goes this isn't the most antiestablishment. Asked to testify which crimes are the worst in The Righteous Thief, I'd say probably say, they're the ones committed by the performers, not by the characters. Someone should be slapping the wrists of two stars immediately. Would Kim Su-ro and Song Dong-il please take the stand!

It's not often you see a movie in which two actors define their characters with identical mannerisms. So lazy. So felonious. Is Song, as the prosecutor, trying to steal Kim's characterization of the criminal mastermind? Or is Kim pickpocketing the performance of Song? Who's ripping off whom? Regardless, the mirroring of a shit-eating grin and the echoing of a self-deprecating laugh halves every potential laugh in The Righteous Thief. If I were the offended party, I would have left the opening night party in a fury and headed straight to the nearest bar. There I would've ordered a double.

January 1, 2014

Glove: Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Even If I'm Bored by Organized Sports)

Saturday afternoons growing up, my brother and I would often argue about what to watch on TV. He wanted to watch the Redskins or the Bullets; I wanted to watch Julie Andrews or Bette Davis. My father would pretend to mediate while actually explaining to me why the game was more important: It was in real time whereas the movie was not. (Please note: This was before DVRs and DVDs so it's not like I could watch Star! later that day!) Today, I'm wondering... If there'd been sports movies on Saturday afternoons, could we have found a happy medium? Would matinees of Remember the Titans have made us a happier family?

Glove, Kang Woo-suk's winning baseball pic about a hotheaded professional pitcher (Jeong Jae-yeong) who gets stuck coaching a scrappy team at a high school for the hearing impaired, has drama both on the diamond and off. That means for the one who wants richly told stories (me), you've got a romance between the pitcher and the assistant coach (Yoo Sun), a bromance between the pitcher and his chubby agent (Jo Jin-woong), and some big brotherly love between the pitcher and the team's star player (Jang Ki-beom). For the one who just wants to see an athletic competition (my brother), you've got a handful of games with unpredictable outcomes and an amusing training montage. And despite his preference for sporting events over movies, I doubt my brother would be able to stop the waterworks when Glove gets soft and mushy.

Hey bros out there, you don't have to be a sports fanatic to appreciate the laudable teamwork in Glove. Aside from the aforementioned actors, fine work is done by Kang Shin-il as an indefatigable vice-principal, Kim Mi-kyeong as a pragmatic head mistress nun, and Kim Hye-song as the catcher whose mitted hand is punished by fast balls. While the rest of the young cast is more green than gold, they get the job done while looking uniformly adorable. Shout out to Kim Ki-beom for a homerun script.