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.