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.

March 5, 2014

Doomsday Book: Three Short Films Herald End of the World as We Know It

The apocalypse elicits mixed feelings in me. The primacy of survival appeals to my minimalist bent. The mass destruction of life makes my heart break. Secretly, between you and me, I think that technological advancements don't always advance society but that doesn't mean that I want to see planet Earth turned into a cinder of its former self to make a technophobic point. The three doomsday scenarios played out in Doomsday Book tap into some of my fears and some of my frustrations about the end of the world scenarios, although only one does it in a way that's truly artful. That's not the first entry, Yim Pil-sung's In a Brave New World, a vegan parable that posits that one bad apple is going to transmogrify mankind into rageaholic zombies, after the rotten fruit is eaten by a cow that's eaten by another cow. The winner isn't the third short either, Yim's Happy Birthday. This woeful tale of world's end finds a little girl (Jin Ji-hee) mistakenly making an e-purchase for a meteor that resembles a giant 8-ball. You can scratch that one off your must-see list too.

The standout, for me, is -- Kim Jee-woon's The Heavenly Creature. This mesmerizing short concerns a service robot (voiced by Park Hae-il) at a Buddhist temple who may or not be the latest re-incarnation of Buddha himself. Both suspenseful and philosophical, The Heavenly Creature is chockful of clever social commentary about consciousness, loneliness, self-actualization, pets, corporate hierarchies, religion, perception, apartment dwelling, etc. It's strong enough to stand alone, even if it's running time is under an hour. The end is near. Who has time for a long movie?

Footnote for completists: Ryu Seung-beom headlines In a Brave New World as the Adam of the new zombie race while director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder) also makes a brief appearance (in front of the camera for a change).