October 28, 2014

Friend 2: The Legacy: Before and Before That but After That

Ready to get ever-so-slightly confused, my fellow Korean movie fan? Well, Friend 2: The Legacy picks up exactly 17 years after the action in the original Friend movie, even though only 13 years have actually passed since the first movie was shot. Why the discrepancy, I don't know. Furthermore, the movie isn't just a sequel (with some flashbacks to old footage we've already seen). It also flashes further back to an extended prequel that predates part one, as well to a kind of latter-day prequel with action that's post-Friend but pre-Friend 2. With all this jumping back and forth (if you're anything like me), you're going to question which is the primary storyline and whether you truly need to know so much ancestry about so many characters. I mean, The Godfather this is not. Plus there is no Old Country.

So what's supposed to be the focus here? Is it the current-day partnership between newly released con and mob heavy Lee Joon-seok (Yu Oh-seong) and fatherless, aspirational teen hood Choi Seong-hoon (Kim Woo-bin) OR is it the familial dramas of Choi and his posse of warrior wannabes OR is it the well-appointed mob history of someone's grandfather? I am frankly still unsure. The present-day ending doesn't resolve any of the stories so much as it positions the characters for a threequel during which it seems likely that the layering could expand to include a scifi future scenario examining the offspring of Lee, Choi and maybe the illegitimate offspring of a character killed off at some point in time. Please don't let these comments dissuade you from checking out Friends 2 if you've already seen its predecessor. Even with all the complications, auteur Kwak Kyung-taek's delivers some undeniable and simple pleasures -- one being the joy that comes with witnessing how much better an actor like Yu has gotten (which isn't to say he wasn't good before) and how much sexier he's gotten too; the other is getting to see a new, young talent like Kim glower in scene after scene with one of the best '50s style Elvis coifs to hit the screen in many a day. This movie has left me with a serious care of hair envy.

October 19, 2014

The Pit and the Pendulum: Mainly, the Pits

Title aside, Sohn Young-sung's The Pit and the Pendulum isn't obviously indebted to Edgar Allan Poe, although it does share the 19th century's author's obsession with morbid matters and monomania. It also periodically refers to a pit (albeit an archaeological dig, largely abandoned). And as to pendulums, the only connection I could find was a metaphorical one. While the movie clocks in at a 95 minutes, I was constantly checking my watch and fighting to stay awake amid action that held all the excitement of a hypnotist's watch swinging to and fro.

These are the two main reasons I struggled (with supporting detail).

1. The central character (Kim Tae-hyeon), now dead, is, from the extensive evidence presented by the mourners, a cheater, a liar, a plagiarist, a coward, a whiner, a pedophile, a bully, a wimp, a jabberer, a nut-job, a drunk. You have a difficult time understanding why anyone was friends with him (since he's not charismatic) or why they've shown up at his funeral (unless it's for free booze and food and to see mutual acquaintances).

2. The narrative set-up is a funeral (and what follows) during which each of the deceased's former friends relates unflattering stories but unlike The Bad and The Beautiful, the stories don't create a complex portrait. They dismantle each other. The first tale -- about the discovery of a woman who barely escapes being buried alive -- is the best. Which is another way of saying each story is worse than the one that preceded it. And unlike Rashomon, the successive stories aren't about perspective. They're simply unrelated and contradictory. And unlike The Sixth Sense, the presence of a ghost (Park Byung-eun) who's there but not there doesn't come as a surprise. Except maybe to the ghost.

"The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?" -Edgar Allan Poe

October 11, 2014

The Executioner: Die, Die, Die

12 years have passed since the last execution but the South Korean government has now decided to get some guys off death row in the most permanent way possible as a public relations tactic to show that the administration is indeed being tough on crime. Among those slated for the gallows? Three guys from a single prison: Seong-hwan (Kim Geon), a born-again old geezer who stabbed his wife and son to death decades ago; Yong-doo (Jo Seong-ha), a cheery serial killer who mutilated his female victims and still thinks killing is a giggle; and, from out of nowhere, an unnamed guy with no back story who naturally is the first to feel the noose around his neck when the hangings begin.

The Executioner isn't about the doomed criminals however. It's about the damaging psychological effects these sanctioned killings have on the prison guards, again three in particular: Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeon), a hardened 40-year-old who's job has become his unhappy life; Jae-kyeong (Yoon Kae-sang), the newbie who's about to get a lesson in institutionalized sadism; and Officer Kim (Park Im-hwan), a lifer who's best friend is the aforementioned senior slayer slated for his last meal. You can practically hear the executioners saying to themselves, like some self-deluded parent, "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you." Seems a stretch.

Director Choi Jin-ho and screenwriter Kim Young-ok are unabashedly against the death penalty. It dehumanizes! It's imperfect! It's no better than the people who did the original crimes! But The Executioner isn't a particularly persuasive argument for life or longevity. You get the feeling that if the HR department here hired a tough but sensitive psychologist [maybe someone like Jae-kyeong's pregnant girlfriend Eun-joo (Cha Su-yeon)], these troubled guys would be able to deal with the mental repercussions that come with a having to knock people off for a living.

And I'm writing this as someone AGAINST the death penalty! Go figure.

October 5, 2014

Fatal: Cheap Isn't a Bad Thing

Rape. Crime. Poverty. Murder. All these things tend to get glamorized in the movies, whether that's the director's intent or not. With flawless faced actors shot in supersaturated colors and from provocative angles, the abhorrent becomes art and subversively appetizing so even when a brutal scene manifests some of the terribleness of it all, with that high gloss, with that visual splendor, it also all looks pretty damned pretty. Which is one of the reasons, Lee Don-ku's harrowing rape-revenge pic Fatal is so affecting. It looks horrible. The ramshackle apartment settings, the discount clothing, even the cast itself never truly look good because Kang Moon-bong's cinematography won't let any of it do so. Appearing to be entirely shot on low-quality film stock about to expire and therefore robbed of any color or contour, Fatal feels sordid in part because the reality unfolding before you never appears lovely, painterly or eye-catching. You're never seduced by the images. Ever. Nothing looks good because nothing is good.

But intentionally crappy cinematography isn't going to make a movie even if the anemic images suit the material. Lucky for us, Lee's storytelling delivers the goods. For with Fatal, Lee has concocted a new kind of Asperger's Syndrome antihero: the boyish, eternally awkward outsider Sung-gong (Nam Yeon-woo) who may be coming to the rescue of rape survivor Jang-mi (Yang Jo-a) and sacrificing his job (admittedly dead-end) and his friends (admittedly dead beat) but who is no knight in shining armor. He's damaged goods, a victim of systematic bullying who's obsession with Jang-mi is "creepy stalker" as much if not more than it's love. Despite all his well-meaning gestures and efforts, the most caring and thoughtful action available to him might have been to just get the hell out of the young woman's life and make attrition and restitution unbeknownst to her somewhere far away. Like the Vatican City. Did he really have to attend the same Evangelical church as Jang-mi to find salvation? What's the opposite of Amen?