December 30, 2014

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2014 (Sort of)

Many of the usual suspects are back: Auteurs Hong Sang-soo, Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, even the "less well-known stateside" Kang Woo-suk who's been on these lists a few times before with his Public Enemy movies. What's missing this year is a mob movie! Hopefully, 2015 will deliver on that front. As to 2014, I'm alphabetizing instead of ranking because it's tough enough to pare down to ten.

1. Arirang because Kim Ki-duk is the only guy who would think of having his own shadow interview himself as a way to heal.

2. Camp 14: Total Control Zone because you can be artsy and still deliver the most disturbing documentary about North Korea out there.

3. Fatal because a movie about rape shouldn't look good or feel good.

4. Glove because baseball movies like this one by Kang Woo-suk can reunite a family on Saturday afternoons.

5. Hahaha because of the three Hong Sang-soo feature films I saw this year, this was the most inventive (and the most satisfying).

6. Head because it's a wacky thriller with a strong female lead, typifying what I love about Korean movies.

7. Judgement because Park Chan-wook's early short set in a morgue contains all the brilliance he sustained in the Vengeance trilogy and beyond.

8. Pirates because now I won't ever have to watch those Pirates of the Caribbean movies with Johnny Depp.

9. The Story of Mr. Sorry because the animated life of an ear-cleaner deserves some respect.

10. Two Weddings and a Funeral because it only looks like gay fluff but actually delivers a powerful message.

Click here for top ten lists from previous years.

December 29, 2014

Baby and Me: Teen Pop

Life is complicated. Isn't that just the kind of overarching statement you'd expect from the mouth of a maturing teen. And hey, I won't argue against that sentiment either. But Kim Jin-yeong's Baby and Me is one of those comedies that first endorses the notion, then embellishes it to the point that you'll be protesting, Well, surely it's not as complicated as all that. A philandering teen (Jang Keun-suk) discovers he's a father. I can go there. His parents (Kim Byung-ok and Park Hyeon-suk) have deserted him because they're tired of him constantly getting into trouble. I can go there, too. The baby (Mun Mason) arrives in a basket (with a note) on the teen's doorstep so no one knows who the mother is. Less common but still plausible. A brainy neighbor girl (Song Ha-yoon) with over a half-dozen siblings herself becomes his surrogate co-parent. That's a bit less likely but okay. The real father (Ko Kyu-pil) turns out to be his chubby friend whose mother is dying of cancer. Hmm. Rather than allow a perfectly nice white couple raise the baby in America, the teen (who's no longer a daddy) races his motorcycle to the airport, maneuvers past all the security and guilt trips the new parents so that his sneaky friend -- to whom he's giving a bagful of money -- can raise the child in Korea. Now you're stretching it but you're also making a point. It's just so out of nowhere. All of this happens in three days. Now you're annoying me.

You're going, wait, wait. This is a comedy. Sure. I agree. Baby and Me doesn't have to be believable if it's funny. So how about the scene where he's tracking down breast milk from recent mothers? Or the low, gravelly old man voice that the baby uses to articulate desires. Or the preposterous chicken outfit the teen girl wears from time to time? That's funny for funny's sake, right? Lighten up. Well, I'd lighten up if it were funny. But it's generally not. Especially the examples you've just cited. And admittedly, it's me citing them and not you. And yes, I laughed a few times. I just didn't think it had to be so complicated. That's all. You get my drift? I guess so.

December 28, 2014

Ashamed: Lesbos on the Beach

Full disclosure: I'm a certifiable homosexual. Which means, I'm slightly more willing to forgive convoluted storytelling or cruddy production values when a movie's material slants even slightly queer. LGBT depictions in Korean movies aren't unheard of (The King and the Clown, Like a Virgin, Antique Bakery) but they're rare enough that I tend to be curious (at the least!) to see which facet of gay culture might catch the light. Will it be closet queens (Two Weddings and a Funeral) or street hustlers (White Night) or a perverted serial killer (Rainbow Eyes)? Okay, okay. That's not gay culture but even homophobic depictions excite a certain interest in me. But with writer-director Kim Soo-hyun's lesbian love story Ashamed, I'd say this one's more straight male fantasy than girl-on-girl truth.

For while Ashamed doesn't shy away from same-sex love, the intimacy never feels charged and the actual naked action looks staged and sometimes causes the giggles. Layered with some gibberish about altruistic (a.k.a. gay) love versus selfish (a.k.a. straight) love, the plot of Ashamed wants to talk about the forbidden but never truly taps into the repression or the expression of intense feelings that often accompany loving someone your society has forbidden you to do. Throughout, Kim substitutes quirk for character: A timid shop assistant (Kim Hy-jin) has a mannequin for her confidante (so kooky), a reckless pickpocket (Kim Kkobbi) seduces everyone including a monk (so kinky), a melancholic art teacher (Kim Sang-hyun) photographs an equally morose student underwater to recreate the death of a fetus in a mother who's been murdered (so kray-kray).

To be brief, Ashamed is not one for the history books. Not the LGBT history books. Not the Korean movie history books. Not the Sapphic softcore history books. You could, however, put it in the encyclopedia documenting all the well-meaning movies that just don't work.

December 26, 2014

Arirang: Kim Ki-duk on Kim Ki-duk

Who's that crazy, wild-haired, middle-aged, crooked-toothed guy living in a tent in a cabin on the top of a snowy hill and filming himself with a digital camera as a way to jumpstart his creative process? Why, it's Kim Ki-duk, who else? What other South Korean movie director would create this idiosyncratic memoir. A kind of low-budget with no cast, no production values, and no script (but with a homemade espresso machine), Arirang is part cinema verite, part documentary, part art therapy, part ego masturbation, part pity party, part artsy fartsy mumbo jumbo, and part magic. In other words, Arirang may be kooky as hell but it's also pretty brilliant. As resurrections go, Kim's return -- after a three-year hiatus following the near-death of an actor during his last movie Dream -- is worth celebrating.

You wouldn't think so at first. Kim films himself walking, cooking, eating, "being". (The shots of the back of his chapped heels are particularly repulsive.) Then he interviews himself. Then he watches himself interviewing himself. Then he films his shadow interviewing himself. Then he watches himself in his earlier movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring and cries. But are the tears real? He's already told us his drunken crying earlier in Arirang might have been just for the drama of it all. When he builds a homemade gun at the end and shoots himself, we don't believe for a moment he's going to die. In a way, he's already been dead and only just coming back to life. Maybe he's telling us we have to kill our former selves to evolve. Maybe he's being theatrical because that's his way. Kim really isn't much for giving answers. His films, and this one is no exception, seem created to reflect a tension, a horror, an anguish currently existing in the world. You may not agree with Kim's assessment that it's caused by forcing vegetables to grow in greenhouses instead of free in the world, but you'd need prescription level rose-colored glasses to look around you and think everything's fine in terms of where we're at and where we're going as human beings on this ravaged planet.

December 21, 2014

Commitment: Boy Band Boy Is the Man

What's the most effective way for a K-pop singer to be taken seriously as a movie star? Follow the example set by Choi Seung-hyun, a.k.a. rapper T.O.P. from the Korean boy band Big Bang. Here, in director Park Hong-soo's espionage thriller Commitment, Choi has winningly taken on the role of Ri Myung-hoon, a North Korean assassin who's been so indoctrinated into the cause that he can barely register emotion on his face. From the outside at least, he's a killing machine. Bullied at high school? No reaction. Stabbed in the side? Not even a wince. Killing someone? Closed lips. At most, a glare. Admittedly, there's one scene in which Ri breaks down and cries -- his two sisters, one blood (Kim Yoo-jeong), one not (Han Ye-ri) -- have both been kidnapped, after all. But soon enough, this teen assassin is back to serving up stoic face. And you know what? It works.

Haven't we seen enough tongue-in-cheek James Bonds and Jason Bournes, enough smirking Bruce Willis anti-heroes and improbably cheerful Jackie Chan clowns. Choi's cold, merciless, unfeeling take on the spy abroad gives more by giving us so much less. It also makes the fights scenes -- of which there are many -- more intense. When the good guy doesn't have time to weak or make a wisecrack, you know that the martial arts action is taking his utmost attention. It's all about your level of commitment.

But then the South Koreans have always taken the North Koreans seriously, whether it's as estranged friends (J.S.A.: Joint Security Area) or respectable foes (The Berlin Files). Only the Americans have insisted that the North Koreans were bumbling idiots, most notably in the Seth Rogen/James Franco misfire of a frat boy comedy, The Interview. And we saw where that arrogance landed them. North Korea may be off the grid (and even off its rocker) but that doesn't mean they're incapable or incompetent or impotent. And now Hollywood knows that too. Might I recommend a few documentaries?

December 16, 2014

Two Weddings and a Funeral: To Have and to Hold and to Hurt and to Heal

Anyone who says that being gay or straight is a private affair and is actually nobody's business doesn't realize what a public thing love inevitably is. Imagine never being able to state who you were with last night or why you have to leave work early or having to jump through extra hoops to adopt a kid or having to pretend that you are what you're not because saying who you are is making something private public and that's not where this private thing belongs. In short the privacy of sexuality is a cockamamie idea that really has to do with keeping people in the closet.

This hypocrisy is exactly what's being exposed by Kim Jho-kwang-su's alternately fluffy and fired-up Two Weddings and a Funeral, a gay romcom that isn't overly concerned with political correctness so much as it is with the political realities that are the core of homophobic oppression. Gay doctor Min-soo (Kim Dong-yoon) and lesbian doctor Hyo-jin (Ryu Hyeon-kyeong) marry so he can please his parents and she can adopt a baby. But the minute he gets a boyfriend (Jin Song-yong), life gets complicated because said lover doesn't want to live a life of duplicity but wants to be out in the open, join a rock band, sing in the gay chorus, etc. There's a weird mix of eroticism and shame underlying their clandestine public flirtations. For Hyo-jin and her fashionably butch wife (Jeong Ae-yeon), post-marital bliss is constantly interrupted as Hyo-jin must play house to please Min-soo's parents. But the couples' problems are nothing when compared to that of their queeny friend Tina (Park Jung-pyo), who seems to know only longing and self-loathing. What's available to a queer femme not cute enough to snag a lover nor masculine enough to pass for straight. Hard times ahead!

Endearing and enlightening, Two Weddings and a Funeral is also surprising. An animated coda especially will blow your mind as it shows the lives of the main characters not in the future so much as in an alternate universe. The world is too hard to change. Sometimes, you just have to leave what you know completely to start something new.

December 7, 2014

Pirates: High Seas Hilarity

Some movies are elaborate meals, some movies are pure puke, and some are complete confections. Squarely in the candy category is director Lee Seok-hoon's deliciously silly Pirates, a salt water taffy of a movie if there ever was one. To extend this sugary metaphor, Lee's tasty adventure pic manages to be chewy and colorful as it stretches plausibility beyond belief. The individual ingredients may be neither good for you nor even particularly good but the sweetness here is undeniable. And yes, you will want more. Okay, enough toothsome metaphorical talk. On to the motion picture.

Though there's a lady swashbuckler (Son Ye-jin) front and center, Pirates doesn't break new ground in comedy or gender-blind casting. To the contrary, it serves up stereotypes and cliches unapologetically. There's an evil, petty guy (Kim Tae-woo) with the requisite eyepatch, a despotic, vengeful patriarchal figure (Lee Kyeong-yeong) who drowns only to reappear having not drowned after all, a king who must learn life lessons from his patriotic servants, and a pair of mismatched lovers (Son and Kim Nam-gil) who find out they were meant for each other. Which isn't to say the film has no novelties. It abounds with them! A momma whale who bonds with a young girl? A tethered shark that can turn a sailboat into a motorboat? A drunken bandit-monk (Park Cheol-min) who drinks gasoline without consequence? Pirates is nothing if not full of quirks.

Quirks and gags, that is. A running joke about peeing in the ocean while standing next to your beloved gets increasing laughs as does a bumbling thief (a marvelous Yoo Hae-jin) whose promotions and demotions occur with every changing tide. The utter, unending preposterous is Pirates greatest asset. As stupid comedies go, this one does dumb jokes smartly. Something Lee did before with the high school comedy See You After School and the equally corny, campy Dancing Queen. But if See You After School and Dancing Queen are good examples of ridiculousness, Pirates is ridiculousness at its best. Practice makes perfekt.