November 29, 2014

Judgement: The Mortician of Oz

People who think they don't like Park Chan-wook, and write off the world class director as an auteur of arty torture porn, would be wise to take a look at some of his less bloody shorts, which often scale back on the violence without downplaying the gallows' humor that has become Park's thumbprint. With the early-career short "Judgement" (sp) for example -- which precedes not only his revered/reviled vengeance trilogy but also J.S.A.: Joint Security Area -- Park already exhibits a fully realized, comically macabre sensibility, a one-of-a-kind grotesque sense of humor that has gone on to earn him devoted fans -- me among them.

The action in "Judgement" takes place in a morgue. But if you assume Park is about to settle for "morbid absurdities" in this 26-minute pic, think again. The impromptu inquest that takes place in "Judgement" (which has its fair share of grim slapstick and hairpin plot twists) is occurring amid an end-of-days scenario of horrific proportions. While a mourning couple (Ko In-bae and Kwon Nam-hee) and an alcoholic diener (Gi Ju-bong) argue over the true identity of a corpse -- and the rightful claims to some substantial insurance money -- within the morgue, the world outside is being ravaged by earthquakes, tornadoes and tidal waves. The arrival of a young woman may leave you further doubting the story of some of the players here but in "Judgement," the question isn't who is lying but why anybody would be telling the truth in the first place... even a seemingly disinterested person like the TV correspondent (Choi Hak-rak).

Like all Park films, even other shorts such as his unforgettably inventive mini-documentary "If You Were Me" and his improbably slick iPhone creation "Night Fishing," "Judgement" is exquisitely shot. Park makes pictures AND tells stories, mostly this time around in cinematographer Pak Hyun-chul's somewhat newsreel-like, somewhat surveillance-camera-footage black-and-white before changing momentously to an unflattering color stock that arrives with all the shock and awe of the yellow brick road. The homage to The Wizard of Oz arrives with a catch: No one is going home this time around.

November 28, 2014

Moebius: The Family That Castrates Together...

The willfully shocking Kim Ki-duk, the Lars von Triers of Korea, is back with another ultra-violent, psychologically perverse art film, this one adding castration to his catalogue of deconstructed crimes: rape, murder, suicide, incest, etc. And it's not just one castration. There are actually a few -- the first being committed by a jealous woman (Lee Eun-woo) on her son (Seo Young-ju) after she is unable to execute the dirty deed on her husband (Jo Jae-hyeon) who is having an affair with a shopkeeper who resembles her (and is also played by Lee). If such an act of brutality feels outside the realm of reality, take note. Moebius doesn't occur in our world but takes place instead in some weird parallel universe where people never speak but merely grunt, moan and laugh. Language is confined to search results that come up when googling for something like "penile replacement" or "autoerotica." Sound ridiculous?

Well, some critics have label Moebius a black comedy. I for one didn't laugh once, though I winced repeatedly. For me, this film falls squarely in that half of Kim's work which strains credulity and hammers at its dubious points insistently and insanely. What distinguishes Moebius isn't its sliced-off penises but its wordlessness -- teens gang-raping the aforementioned shopkeeper, the married couple wrestling over a cell phone, some high school students ripping off the pants' of a schoolmate to get a giggle from viewing his stump -- all acts which would seem to necessitate the screaming of "No." But no. In a way, I left Moebius wondering why Kim allowed his actors any sounds at all.

And what is Moebius actually saying? That we're all animals -- more dogs, than apes, frankly? That masochism is our most reliable survival tool? That our culture has us trapped in an internecine cycle in which each generation attacks what follows and what comes before? There's plenty of meaning to extract from Moebius if you wish. You could also make a case for it being meaningless. I can see where some would love it and some would hate but I fall squarely in the middle on this one. Call it a love-hate relationship.

November 22, 2014

Scars: A Miserable Marriage Not Worth Talking About

Spoiler alert! I'm going to jump right to this movie's big reveal, the scene in which the jerky husband (who's a newscaster at work, a joy-killer at home) is undressed by his maudlin wife (Park So-yeon) after he (Jong Hee-tae) has banged his forehead in bathroom sink to the point of unconsciousness. Once his white Oxford shirt is removed (both post-trauma and in an intercut flashback), we see that his torso has been ravaged by a fire; from neck to hip, he's covered with what looks to be a vat of dried Elmer's glue. As special effects go, it's actually not bad. As symbolism, I'm less sure. Are we supposed to interpret the scars as the imperfections that have made this man a perfectionist? The physical manifestation of the man's insensitivity to his ultra-passive, sulky wife? It feels like it's supposed to mean SOMETHING but all I felt was, "Hah! So the title actually has a pay-off."

The movie's other big symbol is a Buddha face that keeps reappearing for -- can I go so far to say, stalking -- the shat-upon wife, a children's book illustrator who manages to get work despite being completely uncommunicative in an interview. First encountered as a mud bas relief in a cave, she mauls the Buddha face. But the zen deity's face comes back again and again, in the side of a tree, in some soil underfoot, etc. What is the Buddha telling her when he resurfaces, perfectly formed and contented? Get your chill on, girl? Don't mess with God? Try sculpture instead of drawing? Honestly, only writer-director Lim Woo-Seong knows. And it's not as though there's much to help us decipher or decode this movie's motifs. Scars has very little dialogue and aside from a recurring sequence in which the Mrs. makes some sort of tea with apricot jelly (that's what it looks like from a very uninformed viewer), not much happens except the husband is cheating or brushing his teeth, the wife is moping or going for silent walks in the woods.

Running just over an hour, Scars can be classified as either a very short feature or an overextended short. I'd probably go with the latter. It feels long!

November 9, 2014

Sorry, Thanks: Four Flicks For You and Your Four-Legged Friends

For Sorry, Thanks, an omnibus of four shorts about twice as many house pets, I've chosen to focus on the performances of the animals, not their human co-stars. First up: Ha Neul-i, the yellow lab in Song Il-gon's "I'm Sorry, Thank You." Suddenly orphaned by an elderly owner who dies of a stroke, this dog doesn't grieve. He pulls some blankets over the corpse. His inability to bark effectively means a passing real estate agent never learns there's a dead man inside. A 10-year-old with possibly weight issues, this dog has been around so long, he seems to convey a "been there, done that" attitude in all his scenes. His eventual adoption feels strictly sentimental. Not earned!

The title character in "Jju-jju" (some kind of Corgi, perhaps?) might not be Hollywood pedigree but he's the strongest performer in the pack. His near-death strangulation by some homeless thugs looks convincing without being histrionic. Plus he's incredibly charismatic whether he's fetching a ball or begging for pre-packaged pastry. Unlike the senior lab, this one's got range: He plays sleepy, sick, loyal and perky effectively. If he improves his focus, he could become Korean cinema's go-to super-canine. You can imagine director Oh Jeom-gyoon wanting to work with him again. Or at least wanting to take him home!

What follows in Park Heung-sik's "My Younger Sister" is one of the most thankless movie roles a dog has ever had: This mini-pic concerns a young girl who pretends her puppy is her sibling so most of the time, a very young actress is playing the role of an adorable puppy! White, fluffy, and radiating happiness, the actual dog might've captured our hearts if he'd been given more screen time. But can he complain when he sees Lim Soon-rye's "A Cat's Kiss," where all the canines are background (one barks off-screen; another's seen behind a fence). As to the cats, there's no breakout performances. There's the one wearing a protective cone (nice blinking), the one who gets pelted (good cowering) and three abandoned kittens (is there anything cuter?!). None of them come across as trained. This is strictly amateur hour for pet performing.

November 6, 2014

Saving My Hubby: See Jane Run, See Dick Drink, See Me Yawn

In my self-deceiving imagination, I honestly believe that before the digital age the only foreign movies that made it to the USA were the really good ones. A bad or even a mediocre movie from Europe, Asia or South America would never be exported because it wasn't cost efficient. Maybe a so-so movie by a famous director would occasionally sneak through but generally speaking if you stuck with foreign pics, your chances of seeing something worthwhile were greater. Not so anymore. Those days are unquestionably over.

Now when movies can travel (and even get translated) online, the ratio of good to bad is the same whether a film is homegrown or imported. Every country produces its proportionate fair share of junk and even South Korea, my favored nation for cinema, cranks out a fair bit of total crap. That's how I end up watching a poop of a movie like Hyeon Nam-seob's Saving My Hubby. Without the natural attrition caused by economics and with only a handful of directors' names to inform me, I'm taking pot shots at what to watch. Why I feel compelled to suffer through whole thing with movies like Saving My Hubby, I'm not sure. Call it optimistic masochism?

Bae Doo-na, who plays the hapless wife -- and former volleyball star -- running around the red light district in search of her husband, has been so much better so many times before: The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Barking Dogs Never Bite... So has Kim Tae-woo,the actor who's portraying her drunken, on-screen spouse and who's helmed a number of Hong Sang-soo pics. Under Hyeon Nam-seob's direction, together their now completely charmless, and despite all the slapstick involving massive alcohol consumption and an overextended chase scene, exhaustingly unfunny.

It took me days to get through this one, days I'll never get back, and yes, I'm pretty annoyed about it. But it took irretrievable months of time from the lives of Bae and Kim and I can only assume that they're pretty annoyed about it too.