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!