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.