December 20, 2015

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2015 (Sort of)

This year I deliberately went back to what drew me to Korean movies in the first place: Crime pics! This strategy resulted in one of the strongest top ten lists I've had since I started the blog. It also meant that there were a number of thrillers I would've probably included in years past but simply didn't make the cut this time around — Hwayi, The Divine Move, Traffickers, The Target. But hey, end-of-year lists have no mercy.

1. Rough Cut: Jang Jun's pulpy film about a movie thug (Kang Ji-hwan) who enlists a real-life thug (So Ji-seob) to be his co-star made me deliriously happy.

2. Monster: Every year, I see at least one amazing serial killer movie out of South Korea. This year, Monster was IT.

3. A Good Lawyer's Wife: This disenchanted couple (the oh-so-good Moon So-ri and Hwang Jeong-min) is about to find their malaise replaced by tragedy.

4. The Admiral: Though it doesn't have the imperialism of Henry V, this nautical war pic still reminds me of Shakespeare's rousing history.

5. The Hypnotized: An electric Kim Nan-hee helms this kooky noir that's likely one of the most visually mesmerizing Korean movies I've ever seen.

6. Running Turtle: Kim Yun-seok is like a poor man's Song Kang-ho and this heart-accelerating flick proves that that's a wonderful thing to be.

7. Crocodile: Kim Ki-duk's directorial debut shows a world-class artist launching his career with a gritty, upsetting mini-masterpiece about the disenfranchised.

8. Bloody Tie: The best of the B-movies: Hammy acting, sordid script and a blaxploitation-worthy soundtrack.

9. Madonna: How many ways can society oppress an economically challenged woman? Director Shin Su-won counts the ways in this existential mystery.

10. End of Animal: Low-budget sci-fi + apocalyptic storyline + Christian imagery just makes sense and writer-director Jo Sung-hee knows it, God bless him.

December 8, 2015

A Traffic Controller on Crossroads: Sappho Hits the Streets

You've seen movies about army generals, navy seals, air force pilots, marines, cops, firemen. But have you ever seen one about a crossing guard? If the North Korean propaganda film A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is to be believed, this uniformed human stoplight wields quite a bit of power and, when inspired by socialist fervor, enforces the letter of the law to everyone's benefit. So while you might first characterize the new, 23-year-old captain at Post 15 as a humorless, unyielding tool of the system, you eventually come to realize that every punishment she exacts serves a greater good.

No one should be slapped on the wrist for speeding or driving in the wrong lane or parking in a no parking zone. When one knows the law and one breaks the law one should be penalized to the max. Otherwise, what's the point in having the law? Once people discover that rules that are unbending, they will find everything else in their lives falls into place, too. Long-delayed marriages will take place; sons will be reconciled with their worried mothers; explosives will be delivered to the mines despite the rain. Hours may be long and conditions may be grim but you can always attend a gymnastics exhibition or catch a children's chorus singing a song about a zebra killed while crossing the road in the wrong spot. (No tears for the dead zebra, please. He didn't cross the street where he should have!)

Also distinguishing A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is the lesbian longing that seems to run under much of the action. The captain's underlings look at their leader, like schoolgirls with crushes; a glance to a former schoolmate across a gymnasium floor suggests the love that dares not speak its name. The men here are boys to be taken care of by wiser women. The women literally direct the action.

December 6, 2015

Relation of Face, Mind and Love: Snaggle-Tooth Dilemma

Did you ever see Shallow Hal, the Farrelly brothers flick about a fat guy who's hypnotized into seeing women's inner beauty (and thereby falls in love with a fat gal)? Well, Lee Jang-soo's Relation of Face, Mind and Love is a dental version of that, substituting a concussion for hypnosis as the transformative inciting incident. But are bad teeth, the only shortcoming of animal photographer Wang So-jung (Lee Ji-ah)? She's also shallow, cloying, immature, klutzy, a heavy drinker, and one kitten away from being a cat lady. Why exactly should dreamboy/architect Kang Tae-pung (Kang Ji-wan) get over her snaggly tooth and propose marriage? Is she really the only woman out there who is willing to date an unreformed smoker? Or did his car accident cause further brain damage to be addressed in a funnier sequel?

Love is a mystery. And so his decision to end his superficial ways and take his beloved to a penthouse apartment with a view and its mortgage paid are never going to be adequately explained. What makes more sense is that when So-jun suffers a similar head trauma and her ideal is temporarily disfigured, she finds him completely unacceptable until her vision impairment is corrected. She's even unwilling to entertain the overtures of an elementary school teacher who is at once kinder, cuter, and more accepting than she is. She's become as shallow as her paramour. Perhaps they do belong together!

I'd like to single out the animal trainers for praise for Relation of Face, Mind and Love. The cats and dogs are universally adorable and the funniest scene in the movie involves So-jung being comforted in a park by a sympathetic orangutan. That primate could act! Let's hope he went home to a living situation at least as nice as the fancy digs occupied by Kang Tae-pung.

December 5, 2015

Aachi & Ssipak: The Butt of the Cartoon Joke

A little bundle of energy with a big shock of red hair... That's Aachi. He's the brains of the operation. Tall, bald, and muscular with an impossible V-shaped back that narrows to a waistline slimmer than his neck... That's Ssipak and he's the brawn. Together, they're hoping to find a way to strike it rich and live a Life of Bling (or at least score a shipload of the deliciously addictive Juicybar popsicles).

Yet "making it" in Jo Beom-jin's hyperviolent cartoon of a fecal-focused dystopia is as hard as it is in the future as it is in our equally shitty times. There are still so many obstacles: a porn auteur who keeps double-crossing them, a dictatorial police chief who's never heard of the Geneva Convention, a robocop that kind of looks like Ssipak but is stronger, faster, and more heavily munitioned, some random disgruntled citizens who always seem to exit the port-a-potty angry, and a gang of gun-wielding diaper babies who wear their nappies on their heads and sometimes talk like a chorus.

Fortunately, Aachi and Ssipak strike a goldmine with Beautiful, a curvy blue-haired vixen who finds herself the sudden hostess of a magical anal ring that can transform poop into tens of thousands of Juicybars. A Vegas-like display of pimp-fantasticness follows but can these three stay on top when the entire world is so set on getting their hands on Beautiful's beautiful, lucrative ass?

It would take a miracle just to survive. But since this is a cartoon, the impossible is not unlikely. If Aachi and Ssipak can survive machine guns, grenades, knives, hand-strangulation, bombs, motorcycle crashes, concussions, multi-story falls, and other near-death encounters, then certainly they can overcome something as insignificant as everyone else in the world.

December 2, 2015

The Happy Life: Big Dreams Resume at 40

When you hear "midlife crisis," you tend to think "disaster, catastrophe, mess..." But this term could also mean "turning point, crossroads, watershed..." Taking stock — and coming up short — in your 40s and 50s doesn't necessarily lead to making bad choices thereafter. Drastic changes aren't inherently bad. To Hell with the status quo is a timeless dictum! After all, you could really fall in love with someone half your age and not get bilked. Or you could really reform that rock band from college and attract a new, bigger fan base that digs your new tattoos and retro sound. On such fantasies are movies, like The Happy Life, made. Not that everything is honky dory once Active Volcano reassembles. The guitarist (Jeong Jin-yeong) is woefully unemployed; the bass player (Kim Yun-seok), undervalued and overworked; the drummer (Kim Sang-ho), balding and abandoned by his wife; the lead singer (Jang Keun-suk), the son of the original frontman, grieving the recent death of his dad—who stuck with his rock 'n' roll dreams only to end up a nightclub singer!

Perhaps that's the primary charm of Choi Seok-hwan's sweet-natured screenplay. Choi isn't saying that life's problems will be solved once you tap back into the enthusiasms of youth. Choi's simply suggesting that it may be better than not doing so. You'll still be underpaid, harried, overweight, and an orphan, but your life will have meaning again. And what more can you ask of a midlife crisis than a new direction that leads that way. Sure, you may look silly covering your bald pate with a bandana or mimicking the dress code of someone young enough to be your son, but if you haven't evolved far enough to not care if some people laugh at you (or if you can't laugh at yourself yet) then this midlife crisis is simply going to send you into a tailspin, an ever-downward spiral that only stops picking up speed when it finally hits the grave. Watch director Lee Joon-ik's The Happy Life instead. Before it's too late!

November 22, 2015

Seven Days: Legally, Not Without My Daughter

When I lived in Baltimore, I had a good friend who said, he cried when he passed the bar exam because he felt he had officially entered a dishonorable profession. That may strike some as histrionic behavior but you could make a case for the corrupt litigator — both in life and on the big screen — as a modern-day archetype. Nowadays, attorneys seem more focused on "winning the case" than on getting the guilty party punished and the innocent set free. Money, power, prestige, revenge, self-respect... these are their motivators. As to truth, honor, and the public good, those sound like anachronisms today. Does anyone invest that much in going to law school and not come out looking to make big bucks? The Law is a rich man's game.

To her credit, Defense Attorney Yu Ji-yeon (Lost's Kim Yunjin) has a noble motive with her current case. She's trying to establish a murderer-rapist's innocence as ransom for her kidnapped daughter (Lee Ra-hye). But even here, the slimy side of the law comes into play, for Yu is defending someone who she doesn't believe. She tries to fool herself for awhile, to trick herself in thinking that maybe he didn't do it but eventually, she's pretty sure he did. And so, with the help of her shady sidekick (Park Hie-sun), she lies, cheats, double-crosses, picks locks, breaks-and-enters, and bends legal statutes in order to exonerate a remorseless monster (Choi Moo-seong) who definitely belongs behind bars. Well, a mother's love knows no bounds, as they say.

A final plot twist puts Yu in her place however: She's confronted by a request to represent someone who acts out as outrageously self-righteously as she has (and for a similar reason). Can she defend such behavior? The question isn't answered in Seven Days. But writer-director Won Shin-yeon knows it's easier to forgive our own transgressions than those of others. Sometimes, we need a little cash to turn it into a job.

November 19, 2015

Assassination: Causing a Takedown

Although it's painful to admit, terrorism is the war tactic of the underdog. Unable to compete in terms of the number of bodies or the power of military hardware, the little guy is left to underhanded methods, stealth operations, symbolic massacres, assassination. So how you respond to Choi Dong-hoon's flick Assassination is probably connected to how you feel about the Koreans overthrowing their Japanese conquerors back in the day. Should you fall in the "by any means necessary" camp, the movie is as flag-waving as can be. It's uplifting! Should you subscribe to a "fair play" mentality in war, you may feel more conflicted. But does anyone not want to see the Koreans win here? Does anyone think these nationalists need to wait until they've organized a proper army? Or gone through the proper channels?

But when you apply that mindset to the current political climate, what happens? Suddenly, a movie like Assassination is playing on two distinct levels: the patriotic one and the insurgent one. Oh, it's easy to see that in this case The Cause is just, and that we're right to side with the sharpshooter (Jun Ji-hyun) and to revile the a-hole (Lee Jung-jae) who's infiltrating the revolution on behalf of the enemy. But in a weird way, as members of a capitalist country, we're probably most like Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo), the mercenary who has to re-evaluate his personal ethics in order to make the noble choice: the right of the people and not the reward of the dollar. There's an underlying appeal to Assassination that has to do with the pleasures of seeing the dark horse win. (That it's set in the past also makes it more clear cut.) But what happens when you're a part of the all-engulfing power? part of empowering the big guy? Surely, size isn't inherently corrupt. And if it is, what can we do about it?

For now, regardless, I'm in complete support of this movie. Viva la revolution!

November 16, 2015

Wonderful Nightmare: Tragicomedy Is a Rollercoaster

One thing I've noticed about Korean comedies: They can get decidedly unfunny at the drop of a hat. So watching Kang Hyo-jin's soul-swapping farce Wonderful Nightmare, you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself getting jerked around emotionally quite a bit in between the slapstick and the absurdisties. You may start off chuckling as a heartless, greedy, sexless if stylish attorney (Eom Jeong-hwa) is reincarnated as a fashion-challenged, middle-class mother of two with a frisky husband (Song Seung-heon) but eventually you're going to be freaking out as her newfound daughter (Seo Shin-ae) is about to get gang-banged by her fellow classmates (who also plan on filming the attack) and then be freaking out again when her sweet-natured son (Jeong Ji-hoon) is diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that can only be cured by his mother's untimely death. Who knew suicide was a form of medication? Intellectually, we may understand that the potential rape and the impending blindness are throwbacks to earlier ideas/transgressions in the story but man, can this penance all seem unnecessarily harsh. Purgatory is a bitch!

What's perhaps even more disorienting — disconcerting? — is how even after these flippant forays into tragedy, the movie is able to bounce back into farce so unconcernedly, so glibly, so assuredly that you'll find yourself guiltily cracking up at the purgatorial antics bunglingly overseen by a middle-management angel (Kim Sang-ho) who's got sins of his own to expiate. The manufactured rom-com ending has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese but much of the narrative is so cheesy to start with that it seems silly to question the "happily ever after" the movie is pretending the characters can achieve. When you watch Wonderful Nightmare, cheese will be served continually and you will eat it. Even when it stinks.

November 15, 2015

Madonna: Tragedy, Thy Name Is Woman

It's not as if male directors haven't depicted an emotionally damaged sex worker (Kim Ki-duk with Samaritan Girl), a helpless woman being organ-harvested (Kim Hong-seon with Traffickers) or a mercilessly brutal rape survivor (Jang Cheol-soo with Bedevilled) in their movies but it took a female director like Shin Su-won to combine all three into a single pic then layer on even more gynocentric topics like the cruelty of sexual politics in the office place, the pathos of high heels, the despair that leads to maternal infanticide, the shame accompanying overeating as a coping mechanism, the futility of retail therapy, the ubiquity of internalized misogyny, even the veneration/stigma of virginity, all in a single film. And if you're ready to dismiss Madonna as an "issue" movie then I'd counter with "what's the issue here?" Frankly, there's too many for Madonna to qualify as topical. Shin movie is more like a compendium of concerns as it outlines a very nightmarish — and very upsetting — reality.

Shin ingeniously strings all her ideas together as a whodunit, although this time the "it" isn't a murder. It's pregnancy. Anti-heroine Hae-rim (Seo Yeong-hie) has recently scored a lucrative job as an orderly at a ridiculously high-end hospital where her primary patient is a nearly vegetative geriatric who's being kept alive because of the strictures of his will. When a comatose young, pregnant woman (Kwon So-hyeon) is brought in as a potential heart donor for her charge, Hae-rim is tasked with finding out the father of the fetus. This medical staff may be amoral but consent forms still must be signed! The nuisance of tracking down the absent father leads Hae-rim to uncover a tragic story that puts her own sorry life in perspective. The vacant eyed Hae-rim is definitely one of the walking wounded and somehow seeing someone who's been completely beaten down in life has inspired her to fight back against the powers that be one last time. Self-redemption never gets old, does it?

October 25, 2015

The Target: You Better Run

Someone needs to make a movie that's basically one, long extended chase. Not predominantly a chase. But only a chase. They can have characters rest to catch their breath and get wounds attended to but that would be it. No other scenes would be permitted. That's essentially the first hour of the one-named director Chang's crowd-pleasing The Target, in which we watch a man (Ryu Seung-ryong) chased through an office building then chased down an alley until he ends up almost dead in a hospital where he reawakens only to be chased down the halls, chased down the stairs, chased in a mall, chased in a parking lot... Sometimes he's alone when he's being chased. Sometimes, he's accompanied by a frantic ER doctor (Lee Jin-wook) whose pregnant, psychoanalyzing wife (Jo Yeo-jeong) has been kidnapped by the main guy's brother (Jin Guo) who happens to be suffering from Tourette's Syndrome. But it doesn't matter whom is being chased or where the chase is happening. It's always exhilarating.

The second hour of the movie has somewhat less chasing, and switches the pursuit from "on foot" to "in car." But by this time, we're also into punching and shooting and crowbarring and even using the top of a toilet tank to slam into somebody's apparently cast iron head. It's still action — happily, much of it is hand-to-hand combat — but nothing thrills in a thriller quite like the chase. (Integrated marketing idea here: Brought to you by Puma.) Which isn't to say that The Target gets boring. Far from it! Bad-ass lady cops, creepy detectives-on-the-make, shady prison lawyers, and a grand shootout in a nearly abandoned police station that's epic in the best way possible will keep you thoroughly entertained. Whether it's as good as (or better than) Point Blank, the 2010 French film on which it's based, I don't know having never seen the original but it's definitely good enough for me.

October 17, 2015

The Attorney: Let Justice Reign

South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun's life was certainly worthy of a movie. The youngest of five kids in a poor, small-town family, he often had to leave school to help out at home. Despite never going to college, Roh passed the bar and became not just a self-taught lawyer but a judge, although it was in the former capacity that he did the civil rights work that became the core of his career. Eventually he was elected to the highest office in the land, at which point he was indicted then reinstated. After leaving that office, he was embroiled in a few controversies around bribery and political corruption. Eventually, he committed suicide by jumping off a mountain. That's a pretty compelling life story!

Yang Woo-seok's The Attorney doesn't follow that biography to the letter of the law but even though the lead character is named Park Byung-ho (Song Kang-ho), and his backstory is somewhat recast as that of an apolitical opportunist who has an ennobling epiphany about his profession when the faultless son (Yim Si-wan) of a big-hearted cafe-owner (Kim Yeong-ae) is illegally held prisoner and tortured for being part of a harmless book-reading group, we know this is about Roh. But stripped of his official identity, the movie also allows us to embrace Roh's accomplishments without being burdened with the sad details that followed his ascent to the presidency. All of this helps make The Attorney a feel-good story.

We like seeing the self-taught litigator outwit his snobby colleagues to become a successful self-made businessman. We like seeing him move into an apartment that he helped to build back in the days when he was doing construction to make ends meet. We like seeing him rise to the occasion when injustice suddenly pops up in his inner circle. And we love his refusal to compromise when the insider deals are offered as if justice could be meted out that way by a stuffy judge (Song Young-chang) with no conscience! That may be the way, people like Park's greedy sidekick (Oh Dal-su) and his stone-faced nemesis (Kwak Do-won) want things to go, but in this Capra-esque tale, no can do!

October 8, 2015

End of Animal: The End of the End of World Movies as We Know Them

Doomsday scenarios tend to be big-budget affairs in the movies which makes writer-director-editor Jo Sung-hee's bare-bones End of Animal something truly unique, a catastrophe flick unconcerned with grandiose visuals, a low-budget Last Judgment pic that looks so familiar that you really do feel that the Final Days are just around the corner. This is an Armageddon without fire and brimstone. Instead of the four horseman, you've got a child-molesting taxi driver (Kim Yeong-ho). Consider this the reckoning that happens when the lights go out, there's no more electricity and you're left fending for yourself amid a greatly decimated population peopled by antagonistic survivors with no fashion sense.

Apropos of a 21st Century End of Days, you've got plenty of latter day Christian imagery throughout: a long-suffering Mary (Lee Min-ji), single, pregnant and looking for a place to rest; a mean-spirited angel/archangel (Park Hae-il) who communicates via walkie talkie; and a few small, strange miracles like a candy bar that appears from out of nowhere and a cute yet ominous, fluffy white dog that shows up just in time to be barbecued.

Everyone seems somewhat shell-shocked in End of Animal because instead of grappling with the larger reality (life as we know it is damn well over), they're fighting over the smallest of necessities: a middle-aged bicyclist (Yoo Seung-mok) just wants to get laid or sucked or jerked off; a stranded woman (Lee Min-ah) covets then steals a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

Having suffered endless indignities — many of them from a bullying traveling partner (Park Sae-jong)— the young woman is invited by her guardian angel to say what she wants to which she belatedly replies "a nice apartment, a new car, etc." She's clearly learned nothing from surviving one disaster after another, which leads you to wonder if we're living in a Heaven we don't recognize or suffering in a kind of Purgatory from which we'll never escape. Never. At least, not like we'd imagined or hoped. Or prayed.

September 27, 2015

Venus Talk: Three Times as Depressing

When you're feeling down, you can listen to Bessie Smith, peruse Van Gogh's letters, read the poetry of Anne Sexton, that sort of thing. Somehow there's solace to be found in an artful blues song, a heartfelt complaint or a sublime turn of phrase even when it's rife with depression. Spending time with such work is a respectful use of the "misery loves company" philosophy that takes out the "saddling somebody else with your problems" component. Sometimes, you just need to sulk... alone. Is there any easier way to take your mind off your troubles then a really good "woman's picture"? So you'd think Venus Talk would be the perfect palliative for a case of the doldrums. But Kwon Chil-in girly gabfest, while comedic in tone, is a total bring down because the three main stories feel so doomed, even with their tacked on happy endings. My only question: Which one of these characters' lives is the most depressing?

Is it the one about the single mother (Jo Min-soo), whose insufferable daughter (Jeon Hye-jin) is eating her out of house and home, and whose construction-worker boyfriend (Lee Kyeong-hyeong) balks at marriage, right at the moment the mom's diagnosed with colon cancer? Is it the tale of the nymphomaniacal housewife (Moon So-ri) whose husband (Lee Sung-min) does not require Viagra with other women and whose one-night stand prospect ends up mugging her in an underground parking lot? Or is it story of the successful TV producer (Eom Jeong-hwa) who keeps helping men get ahead in their careers and can't get comfortable with a muscle man (Lee Jae-yoon) young enough to be her son? Before you decide, be forewarned: Things get worse for each — a burst bag of poop, a vaginoplasty, stitches in the head, a car crash and a case of scabies. What's working in their favor is really just a shared bottle of red wine. Apparently, life is worth living if you can drink a little booze then tell your besties lies like "age doesn't matter" and "you're getting prettier every year," despite the crow's feet, the sagging skin, the failing memory, the lost dreams, and the ever-growing pile of failures building at your front door.

September 23, 2015

Monster: Hey Serial Killer, You're About to Get Squashed

South Korea may make only about one percent of the movies that the United States does but I bet the Asian powerhouse annually churns out more serial killers flicks percentage-wise and in total numbers both. That means that when I say that Monster is one of the better serial killer thrillers out there, I'm according it high praise, ranking it right alongside such genre classics as The Chaser, Memories of Murder, and I Saw the Devil (and well above rival fare like Missing, Confession of Murder, and Helpless).

What makes Monster especially unique though is that its hero (Kim Go-eun) isn't the type of protagonist usually associated with the genre. Far from it, she's neither a detective nor, for that matter, a man who outwits her deranged nemesis, after learning his ways and getting into his mad mindset. This vengeful arm of justice is a none-too-bright teenager motivated by the love of both her sister (Kim Bo-ra) and, then later, by the love of her charge (Ahn Seo-hyeon), an adorable kid who she basically adpots.

Hwang In-ho's movie also has an unusual amount of comedy — a sun that turns into a grandma's face to give wacky advice, the repeated use of squash as a weapon. Hwang even injects comedy into some of the more poignant moments. When's the last time you laughed when two people survived bludgeoning? You'll do that here!

For all that, Monster does adhere to some South Korean serial killer movie tropes including a mind-bogglingly pretty villain (Lee Min-ki who's probably never been better or more beautiful) who has suffered through a despairing childhood caused in part by a deranged mom (Kim Bu-seon) and a selfish sibling (Kim Roi-ha). Plus, there' that slaughterhouse worth of blood.

It has just occurred to me: If you don't like serial killer movies, you probably can't really call yourself a Korean movie fan.

September 15, 2015

The Admiral: Roaring Currents: Hope Floats Eternal

Not to sound too pompous or show-offy but I've taken to re-reading the works of William Shakespeare of late and I remember feeling very conflicted about Henry V in particular. How could I reconcile my own enjoyment of the play with the historic drama's outright pro-war sentiment? But then I saw Kim Han-min's blockbuster The Admiral: Roaring Currents and it all became clear: They're both underdog stories. Think of the St. Crispin's Day speech, how the English militia had the numbers stacked against them, how the odds-on favorite ended up losing... Now transport the action from the fields of Agincourt circa 1415 to the waters of Myeongnyang Strait circa 1597.* Heighten the drama by having the little guy defend instead of attack. Then picture this: Korea has 12 battleships versus Japan's fleet of over 300.

But Korea also has Admiral Yi (played by Choi Min-sik who I like a lot better than Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Brannagh). Yi's an ailing, wizened, crafty, old leader who values patriotism much higher than survival. (He's not the type who retires early for veteran's benefits.) He may not have the numbers of the Japanese or the creepy face-mask of his rival leader, the Pirate King (Ryu Seung-ryong) but he's got a tactical way of thinking that leads him to torch the sailors' houses so they have to commit to their ships and later plays a game of peek-a-book with a sniper thereby putting his own life in danger so an archer can arrow the gunman in the eye. Yi also gets advice from the dead, who inspire him to lure the Japanese ships into a heaven-sent whirlpool. Spirit contacts can be very useful during wartime, you know? Especially when your exasperating son (Yul Kwon) is still asking "Why is the sky blue" type of questions, despite his age. Famous person's child syndrome?

*Strange coincidences: While researching this movie review, I discovered that Shakespeare wrote Henry V shortly the after The Admiral's climactic battle took place in Korea. Furthermore, Great Britain is about 80K square miles while South Korea is just over 84K square miles.

September 6, 2015

Blood and Ties: Daddy's Expiration Date

As a gauge to measure the depth of my love for someone, I used to ask myself: Would I harbor this person if they came to me on the run? What if they had blood or their hands? What if they'd actually committed a murder? The answer to these questions clued me in to how I really felt about a person, family members least when I was bored in the middle of the night with nothing better to do. After all, isn't the midnight hour the time when they'd be most likely to come seeking my help? Writer-director Kuk Dong-suk is posing a similar question in Blood and Dies, which finds its central character (Son Ye-jin) struggling with the possibility that her martyr of a father (Kim Kap-su) may have kidnapped and murdered a child years ago (and involved her in the crime). Should she turn him in? Protect him? Serve him up to her boyfriend (Lee Kyu-han), an aspiring police officer, as a way to finagle a marriage proposal? While she's at it, should she write a story about her dastardly daddy and thereby land a job at the local paper? (Apparently, the job market is brutal for bright students from working class backgrounds.)

As she struggles to answer these and many other questions, time is ticking loudly because the statue of limitations is about to expire for this heinous crime, and at least one detective (Kim Kwang-gyu) is breathing down her neck. The process is further slowed down by this young woman's brain, which appears to be working at a less-than-average speed from the get-go. You know this is a woman who earned her top grades through diligence, not innate intelligence. I, for one, became less concerned with who was guilty and who was not, and more curious about whether the Yogi Berra catchphrase "It's ain't over til it's over" was going to be fulfilled in some weirdly creepy way. Alas, it was not. When Blood and Ties ends, despite the carnage and loose ends, it pretty much just feels "over." Too bad, Kuk didn't get all meta during the credits and circled back to the film within the film, a documentary — heard but never seen — exploring the very case which Blood and Ties is about. That would've been a deft touch.

August 30, 2015

Traffickers: Ship of Fools

A friend of mine wanted me to give him an introduction to Korean movies and rather than showing him one of the great ones — like Oldboy, The Host or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring — I decided to screen a movie that I'd watched earlier this week: Kim Hong-seon's Traffickers, a pulpy noir about low-level smugglers who switch from dealing in black market organ donations to illegal drugs then back again. To me, Traffickers, more than the three earlier films cited, reflects what's kept me so engrossed in Korean cinema for a decade. What's good is very good.

Yet, on second viewing, I realized that much of what I liked about Traffickers may be kind of insider-y: the casting of Lim Chang-jung, an actor best known for comedies, as a gang leader, the cultural commentary about China, the scarcity of gunfire... Even the way Choi Daniel plays his role as a nerdy insurance agent like a pretty boy K-pop star looking to break into film. Which isn't to say Traffickers was totally lost on my friend here. He dug the Keyzer Sose plot twist, the DePalma-esque filming of violence, the ludicrous conceit of a cruise line that harvests its poor clientele for kidneys and livers, the doomed chorus of losers unlucky in love and money, the seediness, the perversion. I don't know that I made a final convert at my home theater but he did say afterwards that he'd like me to show him a Korean rom-com next time so I probably will need to pull out the big guns: Attack the Gas Station 2, Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard, Le Grand Chef.

Come to think of it, I doubt that I'd be a Korean movie addict if all I'd seen were enjoyable but less-than-mind-blowing thrillers like Traffickers, Confession of Murder and No Fears for the Dead. These movies have sustained me in between masterpieces like Peppermint Candy and The King and the Clown. As sustenance, they're delicious. As I said to my friend beforehand, this is a B-movie that makes you realize just how good B really is in Korean cinema. B means "better than most" not "below A." So what if it doesn't mean "brilliant."

August 23, 2015

Confession of Murder: Tell-All to End All

Writer-director Jeong Byeong-gil's Confession of Murder kicks off with a deliciously absurd premise. A serial killer releases an autobiography just as the statute of limitations connected to his ten, maybe eleven, killings has come to an end — a mere 15 years! Evidently, in South Korea, such heinous crimes are forgiven quite quickly. So what's the conflict between the memoirist (Park Shi-hoo) who's making a mint off his bestseller and the police detective (Jeong Jae-yeong) whose girlfriend (Min Ji-ah) was perhaps the last victim going to be about? Will it focus on whether the cop can forgive the criminal? Or will it culminate in a shootout on a TV talk show? (Imagine the ratings boost! The fictional network certainly does!) Or will said victim's stiff-backed mother (Kim Yeong-ae), snake-handling father (Kim Jong-goo), histrionic brother (Choi Won-young) and archer sister (Kang Sook) beat the now-alcoholic officer to the punch? Is the cop's story merely a side story?

Before you take a frivolous and uneducated guess, you might as well also know... Confession of Murder's cast of characters also includes a creepily masked man (Jeong Hae-gyoon) who arrives out of nowhere late in the picture... What's he all about? And will he help ratings or hurt them? If you think the utter ridiculousness of the plot put me off, you're wrong. If you think it would put you off as well, I'd first ask you: How do you feel about really well executed chase scenes? Because Confession of Murder has a few of those. How do you feel about acrobatic stunts? Confession of Murder has a few of those too. Did you really fault the Die Hard movies for being implausible? I'm guessing, not. Speaking of which, I've never seen any of those. So how about this: You see Confession of Murder and I'll try one of those Bruce Willis blockbusters. Sound like a deal? Let me know in the comments below and you can consider my reply a virtual pinky swear. The more yeses I get the more movies I'll see from that five-part franchise. That said, I will not play the video games.

August 19, 2015

No Tears for the Dead: God Bless the Assassinated Child

No Tears for the Dead is a movie plagued by bad guys. The anti-hero is an assassin (Jang Dong-gun) who mistakenly kills a young girl (Kang Ji-woo). The young girl's mom (Kim Min-hee) is a greedy capitalist more concerned with mergers and acquisitions than maternity. The assassin's best friend (Brian Tee) has been assigned to kill him. The best friend's father figure is a kind of merciless godfather who seems to want everyone to die. And so on and so on. Even the little girl who gets offed in the opening scene is a bad girl when you come to think of it. I'm sure, her criminal father told her not to leave the table at the nightclub, and clearly, she disobeyed.

I'm a bad guy, too. Which isn't to say that I've murdered anyone or purposely executed any business deals with utter disregard to the large numbers of people who'd lose their jobs in the process. But I've definitely got my own list of sins to weigh me down so a cast full of reprehensible people trying to do right by their wrongs sits perfectly fine with me. I get the idea of going to extremes — explosions in buildings, machine gunfire, computer hacking gazillions of dollars, identity theft — as forms of doing penance. We can't whip ourselves with branches anymore. We refuse to wear hair-shirts. So it makes sense that we'd randomly stab, detonate, self-annihilate, and relive awful memories of mom (Kim Ji-seong) committing suicide by shooting herself in the head in the desert as a way to clear our brains. At least in the movies.

In real life, I guess we just stew. And hope that filmmakers like Lee Jeong-beom will write and direct slick, thrillingly violent movies that make us feel like we're exorcising our demons, even if we're really just distracting ourselves from dealing with our grim, not-so-glamorous realities. Recently, I spent a few weeks watching Shirley Temple movies. She was the box office queen during the Depression. But nowadays, cute won't cut it. We need blood. So we sacrifice the on-screen child.

August 15, 2015

Marathon: Track and Feel Good

I don't know much about autism. and after watching Marathon, like one of those disease-of-the-week movies I used to watch as a kid, I can safely say, I still don't. Chung Yoon-chul's well-intentioned drama — based on a real story, of course — has fashioned its central character (played with unquestionable commitment by Cho Seung-woo) as if he were the offspring of a nerdy 6-year-old and a rundown computer. The portrait feels overly simplistic: He acts petulant, he spits out random data, he craves structure, he pretty much only thinks of himself, he follows commands -- like when he run 100 laps until he collapses, without thinking, or when he learns to keep his farts outside the apartment. But it all feels more like a performance than a condition. That's frankly not enough.

If you're anything like me, you'll never buy into the struggle of the self-sacrificing mother (Kim Mi-suk) who teaches him to count change, to keep a colorful diary, to repeat catchphrases. You'll never believe the conversion of his coach (Lee Gi-yeong) who goes from resentful has-been runner to championing drinking buddy either. But you still get that the mom's got a rough life and that the coach would be happier if he just connected with someone. Yes, the movie glosses over why the father (Ahn Nae-sang) moved out and how the younger brother (Baek Seong-hyeon) could benefit from a little more parental love. But we actually don't need those details. This is by-the-book storytelling. We can fill in those particulars easily ourselves.

And so while you might argue that Marathon is skimping on certain clinical details, it's also not burdening us with subplots we already understand the complexities of. It also doesn't throw in an unnecessary romance, or an unreasonable gold medal or a devastating sucker punch. Marathon is ultimately a feel-good movie. When the central character finally learns how to smile, we smile along with him. Yes, his smile is forced. Well, so is ours. But "fake it until you make it" is an approach than can get you through many a tough day.

July 28, 2015

For the Emperor: Nothing to Learn from Beautiful Bashings

How does violence affect the brain? Well, the first time I saw the prolonged, audio-enhanced knifing sequence in For the Emperor, during which our antihero Lee Hwan (Li Min-ki) and his fellow thugs stab away in a shadowy hallway packed to the gills with rival gangsters, I flinched repeatedly. When the scene was repeated (I'm assuming, unchanged) after we'd learned the sad story of Lee's downfall from pro baseball player to pro kneecap basher, I barely winced at all. This does not bode well when you consider all the murder and mayhem we choose to watch and re-watch in movies, TV series and video games. Within two hours I'd already become pretty much inured to all those knives puncturing bodies to a Foley soundtrack.

Not that the butchery ever feels totally real in For the Emperor. The merciless, long, lean killing machine that is the mop-headed, dead-eyed Lee Hwan is a sinewy cartoon of cruelty. He doesn't respect elder mafiosos Jung Sang-ha (Park Soong-woong) and Han-Deuk (Kim Jong-goo) so much as he's intent on learning their ways so he can take their place. His prostitute lover Madame Cha (Lee Tae-im) is more reward than relationship. It's as if Lee has viewed this movie more times than we have. He's absorbed director Park Sang-jun's message entirely: Violence pays! But whose message is it? Maybe comic book artist Kim Seong-dong on whose work the movie is based...

I've never thought graphic novels had very deep truths to tell. Even those I've enjoyed — Nick Abadzis Laika, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood — felt like children books for adults, and were nothing to rival a novel like Lee Chang-rae's A Gesture life or an autobiography like Cullen Thomas' Brother One Cell. Is it that drawn pictures can't speak as powerfully as words? And is there anything to be learned from the orgy of blood that sometimes erupts in For the Emperor? Or should we be chastened for finding it entertaining? Probably the latter. So how to explain I like this movie nonetheless? Shame on me!

July 22, 2015

Two Guys: May I Please Be the Third

When white people show up in Korean movies, they're rarely good people. There's the creepy puppeteer in A Brand New Life, the military bullies in My Father, the abducting adoptive parents in Baby and Me... The company of origin makes no difference either. There are clueless Australians in Lady Vengeance, irresponsible Americans in The Host, and thuggish Russians in My Girlfriend Is an Agent. This isn't a complaint. I actually don't mind all that white slander. To the contrary, I'm wondering how I could get a part like the predatory homo in the delicious comedy Two Guys. A shady, souless, self-serving simp who's got a nice spread of gay porn on his coffee table and gets to make sexual overtures to one of the movie's two handsome leads, this negative stereotype doesn't seem damning so much as damn hilarious. Hey actor Scott Phillips! I'm jealous of you! Hey director Park Hun-su, consider me for the sequel!

I'm more than ready to lasciviously lick my lips or bat my big, beautiful eyes at Park Joong-hoon, who plays a short-tempered loan shark, or Cha Tae-hyun, who plays the vainest of valets — with a serious debt. I'm even willing to vamp around in women's clothes if Han Eun-jeong isn't interested in coming back for Three Guys or Two Guys Part Two or 2Guyz2 or whatever you want to call it as the brains of their operation. I think I'd be pretty good at the level of slapstick required if the follow-up caper follows suit with chase scenes on rooftops and subway platforms, and physical altercations involving serving trays and stripping down to my skivvies. All I ask is please, please, please, let me have a scene with Park and Cha during which we get to — once again — beat the hell out of Kim Gu-taek, World Wide Wrestling-style. I could learn how to execute the Tadpole Splash, the Ankle Lock, the Cross Rhodes or any of a long list of white man moves developed for laughs and a taste for blood that feels completely in keeping with this movie.

Headshot, resume and references are all available upon request. Will travel.

July 21, 2015

Hwayi: A Monster Boy: Save the Green Mobster-in-the-Making

A crazily brilliant, intentionally twisted logic informs the mob pic Hwayi: A Monster Boy, an off-kilter sensibility that I was pretty sure I recognized about 15 minutes in. At least I hope I recognized it. I mean, could it really be that the creator of my beloved Save the Green Planet! had finally made another movie after all this time? Had that elusive director I'd long credited for my love of Korean movies finally reappeared? And is it truly possible to recognize an auteur's style that fast, based on one movie alone? Happily, the answer to every question here is YES.

Ten long years after Save the Green Planet! rocked the midnight screening of my soul, Jang Joon-hwan has returned with an exhilarating coming-of-age mafia movie in which the heir apparent (Yeo Jin-gu) must off his various adopted dads to rid himself of his inner demons. Each dad has something that makes him special: Seok-tae (Kim Yun-seok) is all tough love, Ki-tae (Jo Jin-woong) gives him driving lessons that include outrunning the police. Each dad loves Hwayi in his own special way but they’re also carrying a terrible secret, one that will make the son quite a bit less thankful for the sacrifices made.

Hellbent on uncovering that secret is a wily detective, who – much like his counterpart in Save the Green Planet! – may be the smartest guy in the room but he also as no idea that the room he's about to enter is a chamber of Hell. It’s as if Jang is saying that even when a representative of The Law is working at the top of his game with the best of intentions, the cards are stacked against him. The survival of the fittest is not the survival of the smartest. Darwinism has nothing to do with being ruthless or crafty – as one mobster (Yoo Yeon-seok), one masseuse (Woo Dong-gi), one minister (Lee Kyeong-yeong) and one mayoral candidate (Moon Seung-geun) are about to learn in short order. Life's a total crapshoot. Or better yet, a game of roulette. And in Jang's case, that's Russian roulette, my friend.

July 13, 2015

Paju: Movies Can Have Their Own Language

Paju is a city located just south of the 38th parallel. In fact, it's so close to North Korea, that on clear days, you can see the North Korean bordertown of Kaesong from certain vantage points in the city. Given this proximity, it's no surprise that Paju is home to more than its fair share of military bases -- both American and homegrown. Yet none of this comes into play in Park Chan-ok's film of the same name. At least, not in the most obvious way.

I mean, there's militancy. But it's on the part of some housing rights activists/squatters who engage in actual warfare against unsympathetic developers. There's a very personal territorial battle -- specifically, over an inherited homestead that increasingly becomes a source of volatile contention. There's even border-crossing, if you're willing to stretch the meaning to include (as I am) an affair between a disoriented drifter (Seo Woo) and the man (Lee Sun-kyun) who may or may not have killed her none-too-bright sister (Shim Yi-young).

Holy smoke, that's a whole lot of metaphor. And to be honest, I don't know that this is Park's intent at all. Plus, I'm still stumped by the significance of the boiling water that gets spilled on the unattended baby, the silver fox of a nightclub owner (Lee Kyeong-yeong) who rides around in a fancy car and silently makes his backseat window go up and down or the final scooter ride to somewhere or other. All of these items feel laden with meaning.

I'm pretty sure that if you asked Park, she'd be able to tell you exactly what her intent is. Paju feels like a movie eager for interpretation and explication. Which isn't surprising when you learn that Park is one of Korea's few female directors. You just know that she had to work hard to get this — her second feature — made and she hardly seems likely to have gone to all that trouble if she didn't have something interesting to say. That it's not that easy to decode doesn't diminish the probability of wanting to watch it again. And maybe even, again. Isn't that what you do for a poem?

July 4, 2015

The Abductress: Crossing the Border of What's Funny

Me: Sexually deprived college kids get kidnapped then sexually attacked by a tall woman who makes aphrodisiacs! Can't you just see the people rolling in the aisles?

Myself: Um. Not really. What's funny about young men being raped?

Me: Oh, come on now. Is it really rape? It's a farcical costume drama, goddammit.

Myself: It's still rape. Hell, it even still comes with shame! Plus: Do you think it's a coincidence that the screenwriter made the rapist Japanese? I think he subconsciously knew, there was something despicable about this so he pinned it on the Japanese!

Me: Good point.

Myself: Now I know what you're going to say next: But the horny guy wants it! But remember: He's the only one who doesn't get it.

Me: True again. Wow! You really can read my mind. But what about the diarrhea sequence. You know. That scene where the male students and the teacher (Choi Jong-hoon) all eat food that gives them the runs? Didn't you find that funny?

Myself: Actually, I did. I'm not saying this movie wasn't funny at all or that I'm above a good fart joke. I'm simply saying this wasn't satirical or wacky or slapstick-y or anything else enough to be funny. At all.

Me: Fair enough.

Myself: Did you find it weird that this is the second movie in a row that had a running gag about a semen-encrusted object making contact with someone's face?

Me: Oh my God! I totally did? What the hell's that about?

Myself: No frigging idea.

June 27, 2015

The Indecent Family: Baby, Baby, Baby

When it comes to ancestry, we can only pretend to know who we are. Since the days of Abraham at the very least, people have been cheating, lying, deceiving, two-timing, and unknowingly — and even sometimes willingly — assuming the parentage of children not their own and sometimes not their partner's either. That family tree painstakingly updated in the front pages of the heirloom Bible was never intended to document the extramarital liaisons and illegitimate offspring of each generation. Instead it simply presents a purified blood line, the official record of marriages and baptized babies, the idealized past free from complications.

Just how farfetched that family flowchart can be is illustrated by Park Bo-sang The Indecent Family, a comedy in which father (Chun Ho-jin), mother (Lee Mi-sook), son (Yi Hak-young) and daughter (Ji Seo-yun) all are engaged in sexual pursuits outside their primary relationships. Naturally, since this is a movie, there are further complications: The sexy student (Kim Hyo-jin) being stalked by junior is being banged by daddy; the daughter's fiance (Yoo Tae-woong) is also the ob/gyn doctor for the mother who's been impregnated by the man (Kim Seung-woo) who ends up becoming the family photographer. If everyone here were a sentimental fool, the six adults in the final studio portrait would be celebrating twice as many anniversaries as that final picture would suggest.

As you might imagine in a movie that's also known as The Horny Family, there's a lot of humping going on. What you might not predict is the toe-licking, the semen-swallowing, and the desperation that accompanies mere hand-holding. Yes, The Indecent Family is as corny as it is crude! For me, the funniest bit of comic business involved a discarded ball of tissues soaked with ejaculate that accidentally gets wiped on quite a few mouths. The rest of The Indecent Family isn't that nasty. Despite all the hanky panky, these are traditionalists: married, middle class and monogamous — at least as far as their Bible knows.

June 20, 2015

Crocodile: True Love Kim Ki-Duk Style

I'm going to go out on a severed limb, and assert that Crocodile is Kim Ki-duk's most romantic movie. Duk's feature debut isn't a date movie by any stretch of the imagination, but there's definitely an emotional thaw experienced by its title character (Jo Jae-hyeon), a heartless thug who rescues, rapes, then revenges a suicidal artist (Woo Yun-gyeong) who he's pulled out of a particularly filthy section of the Han River. What causes the change is a couple of things.

1. He discovers a well-executed (and flattering) portrait of himself that she's drawn.
2. He's warned by his surrogate grandfather (Jeon Mu-song): "You won't always be young."
3. He's nearly raped himself by a police sketch artist (who ends up with a cucumber shoved up his arse).

Further tenderizing of our hero takes place when his young charge (Ahn Jae-hong) nearly castrates him with a pocketknife and when he's beaten to a pulp by some unscrupulous poker players who hit him with what appears to be a boar's hoof. (Understatement has never been Kim's bent.) So what makes Crocodile romantic?

I guess it's the way that the title character handcuffs himself to the artist's dead body and then slits — no, saws — his wrist as they sit next to each other on a loveseat underwater. This one-ups the saying "To death do us part" with "Look how death brings us together." Very Romeo and Juliet in a street life way.

As first films go, Crocodile is impressive, and feels like an earlier attempt at the same story which Kim would perfect five years later with the brilliant Bad Guy. Both movies star Jo Jae-hyeon, who can certainly be considered one of Kim's primary muses having also appeared in his Wild Animals, The Isle, Address Unknown, and the insane silent sex pic Moebius. Jo, like Kim, is best when he's making you uncomfortable which he does here for 102 minutes.

June 13, 2015

The Scent: A Formulated Noir

Grisly murders. Mistaken identities. Double-crossing lovers. Extortion. Adultery. Jailbreak. Evidence tampering. A patsy private eye. A flirty femme fatale. Even an increasingly complicated alibi that changes with each new clue. Sum up Kim Hyeong-joon's The Scent and people will no doubt think you're describing a B-movie noir. That is, until you add that final factor: This movie has no suspense. A mystery that goes for giggles more than gasps, this did-I-do-it whodunit frames its hero as the killer (in his own memory-lapsed mind, though never ours) then forces us to watch him discover that the most obvious suspect most probably killed the man who beat her then screwed other women in front of her. Is she's wearing a doped perfume that clouds everyone's judgment? Or, more likely, is writer-director Kim Hyeong-joon sniffing from the same poisoned bottle as he revises each screenplay draft?

Kim's thinking throughout is unclear. Who murdered Soo-jin's rich, cruel, lascivious husband as well as his adulterous lover in the hotel room next door? Why is said lover — who shares the wife's name and bedmate — hiring a P.I. to catch the husband in flagrante delicto? How much does the personal trainer from the gym have to do with the crimes? Are the shelves and shelves of disposable lighters ever going to come into play? Kim's plot is full of more holes than the stab wounds suffered by its two main victims. Even so, this kooky caper could've escaped merciless scrutiny if the following elements had come into play:

The framed detective (Park Hee-soon) sweated more, the jealous wife (Cha Su-yeon) carped more, the man-eating seductress (Park Si-yeon) oozed more, the philandering husband leered more, and the mistress blackmailer wept more. The only ones giving more are Lee Kwang-soo and Jeon Soo-kyeong. Lee, as the former cop's gangly sidekick, is straight out of a Max Sennet movie, in which every misguided gesture sets off a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster. Jeon, one of Korea's comic genii, has a bit part as a terrified witness who retracts everything once she learns her culprit is a cop.

May 30, 2015

Actresses: The Factor of Six

Six real-life actresses are invited to a photo shoot for the cover of Vogue Korea. So... Paint on that jungle red nail polish and let the DIVA WARS begin! Well, kinda. More like, Lee Je-yong invites six real-life actresses to improvise a movie about six actresses (modeled after themselves) doing a photo shoot for Vogue. And most of the time, everyone plays pretty nicely. Which isn't to say that the resultant Actresses is without some display of leading lady ego conflict. Choi Ji-woo intentionally arrives late and wants her own dressing room with a masseuse; Go Hyun-jung gets drunk and lashes out at rival Choi; Yoon Yeo-jeong, the grande dame of them all, gossips endlessly, especially about her own insecurities about being invited to the shoot so late in the game. But overall this group of women is surprisingly civil. Repeatedly offered opportunities to create drama, they repeatedly choose to make nice and make friends.

Director Lee doesn't fight their collective impulse to bond but wisely shifts his objective, allowing the six women an extended, impromptu celebratory feast that has them meditating on the nature of celebrity, jealousy, and age over Craft Service snacks and Don Perignon champagne. Yoon (because of her years in the biz) gives the most nuanced and consistently ironic performance with her mixture of hauteur and insecurity while the quirky Kim Ok-bin, the youngest on set, steals focus with slyly complementary moments that convey the mind of an innocent trickster. Although Go seems most at ease with the setup —attributable to her work with Song Sang-soo, a filmmaker whose work feels largely improvisational — she takes a back seat during "table talk" while 50-something Lee Mi-sook comes to the fore.

The final actress in the group, Kim Min-hee, might be easily forgotten if it weren't for the individual photos sessions encapsulated within the film. With haute couture bunny ears and a cupcake topped by vanilla icing, Kim comes alive before the camera, once she's free from the competitive aspect organic to improvising among such a cast. Which isn't to say that she's not good in the group scenes. She simply chooses to play a chorus role: Watch her sitting quietly as the others ham it up and you'll see that she's actually grounding the action. Now that's one selfless actress!

May 25, 2015

Running Wild: Cop a Feeling

I'm not a fan of screenwriter Han Ji-hoon. His scripts are way too sappy. Once Upon a Time in Seoul looks to milk tears from two orphans trying to survive together in the underworld. The Brotherhood of War is even weepier: Here they're blood brothers fighting to survive on the front lines during the Korean War. You can practically hear the metaphorical violins over the Foley-ed bomb explosions and rapid gunfire. Running Wild is pretty much more of the same: Male bonding in a corrupt world that doesn't have time for love or respect or bear-like hugs, only this time it's set in a police station. Given that this is a Han pic, you know someone's going to die; someone's going to be left behind to grieve. And it won't be a woman.

Baby blue tissues aside, this might be the worst of Han's three testosterone tearjerkers. And it isn't just the flat characterizations of it two heroes: a nerdy prosecutor (Yu Ji-tae) driven to despair when his reputation is publicly called into question, and his unlikely partner, a tempermental detective (Kwon Sang-woo) crazed by procedural inefficiencies, reluctant witnesses, faulty lighters, his junkie half-brother (Lee Jung-mun), his ailing mother (Lee Ju-sil) and a syndicate don (Son Byung-ho) who reacts to every treachery and every threat with a devil-may-care smirk. No it isn't the odd couple dynamic that bothers me most. It's the running time, more than two hours when 80 minutes would've easily sufficed.

Why so much grief about the length of the movie? Well, there's just so many scenes I simply didn't need to see. Like the woman singing jazz (poorly) in the nightclub. Like the gun-toting race through traffic in the movie's opener. Like the volatile cop filling out a lotto ticket in such a considered way. Like the mom's funeral, hell, anything with the mom. Like anything with the young woman who's always visiting the mom at the hospital even though she's not related and the crazed cop has said point blank to said woman that he doesn't love her so why is she still making food and coffee for him. Director Kim Seung-soo should've been infinitely more merciless cutting Running Wild's script. After all, he co-wrote it — meaning it's not all Han's fault after all.

May 16, 2015

The Hypnotized: Close Your Eyes and Answer Your Cellphone

The first time I saw The Hypnotized a decade ago at the Korean Film Festival, I wrote "This year’s most lavishly realized and intellectually engaging entry has all the external markings of a classic noir: unspeakable crimes, rich atmospherics, and a riveting femme fatale. But to label it a whodunit would be to undersell what it actually is: a what-the-hell-is-going-on." Ten years later, Kim In-shik's bizarre thriller feels a little less confounding yet just as deliciously perverse and disorienting. For visuals alone, it's hard to beat.

At its center is Kim Hye-su giving one of those over-the-top types of femme fatale performances that is hard to define as either "genius" or "moronic" because it's so extreme and so disturbingly unrelenting that it exists outside the criteria you'd usually apply.* As an aspiring novelist who sexually fantasizes about a professional skier (Han Jeong-su) who may or may not be real (and who may or may not be mute), Kim struts around in heels that look like weapons, especially whenever she ascends the staircase that plays like a xylophone, just outside her current psychiatrist/lover/rapist's office/boudoir/drug-den. If she realized what was going on during her sessions, she'd probably be prone to use one of those stilettos as a dagger, too, since her obsessed therapist (Kim Tae-woo) is hypnotizing her so he can screw her while she dreams of a previous fantasy fling. Whether she knows this or not is unclear.

Whether he's doing that or not is also unclear. I mean, is he really having sex with her or is he strung out on drugs just like his wife (Kim Nan-hee), a guilt-ridden anestheologist, who killed herself, leaving her rock star sex toy (Jo Dong-hyuk) to booty-call her over and over on a cellphone he's unaware is being answered by the deceased's former spouse? [I loved how the shrink ended up engaging in the same behavior via the cellphone now owned by his patient's one-time husband (Yun Chang).] The recurring plot twists, images, and dynamics ensure this loopy film just keeps getting loopier and loopier. It can be dizzying — as can some of its memorable overhead shots — but I promise it won't make you sick.

Awards: Kim won the Baek Sang Art Award and the Grand Bell Award for Best Actress for The Hypnotized.

May 15, 2015

A Good Lawyer's Wife: A Slice of Life With an Aftertaste

I suppose you could say that A Good Lawyer's Wife is about a disenchanted married couple ineffectually dealing with a couple of tragedies. And you'd be right except that you'd be ignoring how writer-director Im Sang-soo seems just as interested in this fascinating movie's tangential side stories. Im has no problem leaving his central narrative to zero in on a child (Jang Joon-yeong) coming to terms with being adopted or a drunken mailman (Sung Ji-ru) struggling with mental illness or a widow (the always excellent Yoon Yeo-jeong) finding relief in the death of her husband (Kim In-mun) from liver failure. After all, even in our own lives, we may be the lead characters but that doesn't mean there aren't supporting players with subplots that sometimes absorb us as completely as if they were our own. Life is messy, busy, filled with distractions. Why shouldn't a movie be the same?

Which is not to say that A Good Lawyer's Wife is a mess or pure chaos or unfocused! Im's film may wander on occasion but it always return to its two primary characters — a bored, detached housewife (Moon So-ri) who jump-starts her life via an affair with a teenage neighbor (Bong Tae-gyu) and an equally jaded attorney (Hwang Jeong-min) who's seeking solace in sex and booze — folding the side stories into theirs in the process. The acting in A Good Lawyer's Wife is superb throughout but Moon and Hwang are exceptionally so. Moon, certainly one of the great actresses of her generation as witnessed in Oasis and Hahaha, is once again a revelation, capable of bringing depth to eating a popsicle or conveying an excited reluctance while flirting with a minor on the make. As to Hwang, A Good Lawyer's Wife has elevated him to one of my favorite Korean actors. I've seen him portray a lovesick country bumpkin (You Are My Sunshine), a jaded cop (Bloody Ties), even a boxer on reality TV (Fists of Legend). Regardless of the situations, Hwang infuses his roles with an intense naturalism. Here, where the movie's all shitty, gritty realism, he's in his element. Everything his character does seems wrong but he feels so human your heart goes out to him anyway.

May 10, 2015

Wet Dreams 2 (a.k.a. High School Dreams): What a Gas!

Full disclosure: When I was in college, I wrote a play (my first!) about a young woman who has gastrointestinal problems every time her boyfriend cheats on her. Entitled "The Farce of Faith," this still-unproduced masterpiece was one, long extended fart joke with most of the laughs built around the title character's flatulence. (Her boyfriend cheated a lot!) Who needs to write a clever one-liner or Cowardesque dialogue when they can just have the main character cut the cheese and pinch the loaf? Not me! Or so I thought at the time.

And so think director Jeong Cho-shin and his screenwriter Park Chae-wun. Their Wet Dreams 2 (a.k.a. High School Dreams) has as its love interest, a student teacher (Lee Ji-hoon) who farts every time he gets an erection — amusingly translated here as "a chub." While this malodorous disorder of the dick does not work to his benefit in the bedroom, it also doesn't stop a couple of high school girls from competing for his attentions. To the contrary, his gassy emissions are interpreted as validations of sexual appeal. What does it take to get a fart triggered by this dreamy faculty member's member? Will sucking on a popsicle tickle his sphincter? How about hiking up your skirt? Can a padded bra cause him to let one rip? You'll have to watch the movie to see what works when but as played by the sweet-faced, sweet-natured Lee, you'll find this fartfest a regular gas.

Too lowbrow? I certainly don't think so. Truth be told, I wish the movie had more farts than it currently does. I, for one, am a bit disappointed that this dingbat dysfunction isn't the focus of the film. Instead, Wet Dreams 2 has cast one of his heart-fluttering teen fans as the protagonist. Flat-chested and on the cusp of womanhood, she (Song Eun-chae) isn't nearly as amusing as "her destiny" or even her two best friends, a nerdy girl (an irritatingly self-amused Park Seul-gi) with a terrible bowl-cut and a sassy sidekick (Jeon Hye-bin) who favors side ponytails and perhaps the ladies. Check out her reaction to the movie's one lesbian kiss. Now if only that moment had been coupled with a well-timed queaf!

April 26, 2015

Desire: Don't Say That, Don't Say Anything

To be fair, Desire's failure is in part due to the one tremendous challenge writer-director Kim Eung-soo has presented to his actors. Most scenes have absolutely no dialogue! Because of that, everyone feels stuck in a portentous moment — generally in couples or alone — where they somehow must convey whole worlds of feeling and reams of complicated history through sitting, standing, walking, staring blankly, disrobing, and getting slapped. Do the grunts of sex constitute a conversation? If so, you'll hear a whole monologue during the heterosexual anal sex scene.

So what's the mime show about? Well, Kyu-min (Ahn Nae-sang) is cheating on his wife (Choi Ban-ya) with a male hustler (Lee Dong-kyu) while the wife is cheating with the same hired help. And since everyone's sulking and making long faces— without a therapist in sight — you just know that things will end badly for all, even the neighbor (Jang So-yeon) who — pining on the sidelines — spends most of the movie modeling terrible wigs intended for nightclubs and Halloween. Truly, a wig is worth a thousand words...

As the one with the most screen time if not the most lines, Lee is constantly undressing, getting dressed or showering. Shakespearean verse, this is not. But Lee nevertheless mistakenly opts to let his body do the talking while his face remains a blank. Is he a cipher? Is he mysterious? Nope. One particularly unmemorable sequence has him stripping, covering his genitals with his hands, then putting his clothes back on for no apparent reason except it was in the script.

So what's the climax of this doubly dumb show? I guess it's the dinner party hosted by the philandering couple and attended by the rent boy and his neighbor/date. Furious to see the object of her affections with another FWB who isn't her husband, the wife snatches an ugly wig off her nemesis' head. Tears ensue. Orgasms, however, do not.

Note: A more interesting movie with no dialogue, and sex as its theme: Kim Ki-duk's Moebius.

April 12, 2015

The Defector: Escape From North Korea: Life Is a Blur

Each documentary about North Korea tells a unique story. Canadian filmmaker Ann Shin's The Defector: Escape From North Korea focuses on women who've crossed the Tumen River to escape into China, then gone into hiding before finally enlisting the services of a "broker" (in this case, a man named "Dragon") to arrange their transport across country, through Laos then into Thailand where, if they're lucky, they'll be granted some sort of refugee status before being extradited to South Korea. Because these activities are illegal and the safety of North Korean relatives, endangered, the players herein are never fully revealed — not even Dragon's. To obscure their identities, Shin shoots them in silhouette, in half-shadow, blurred out, viewed from behind, or even decapitated by the camera.

That tactic gets in the way of the film frankly. Since you never see the defectors, you never really feel their pain or know their travails. The only people who come across clearly are Shin herself and a border guard between Laos and Thailand, who, in a brief snippet, talks about buying sanitary pads for fleeing women who emerge from the mountains. Otherwise, if you're anything like me, you'll be struggling to figure out who these people are exactly. "I want to throw away my past," says one, and to a certain degree, the anonymity granted her in this film ensures that she can! (Although growing prejudice against North Koreans by South Koreans won't make that easy.)

A secondary story about one Mr. Heo, a North Korean refugee applying for residency in Canada, feels like a distraction — despite his willingness to face the camera without any filters. There's little tension in this part of Shin's movie since you can hardly fathom the Canadian government will reject his application. (He's got a wife and child, no less!) And Heo's efforts to help a fellow North Korean exile track down the whereabouts of her daughter lead nowhere. Perhaps as a North American countryman, Shin simply felt obliged to include his own journey as well.

April 11, 2015

The Beat Goes On: Actually, the Beat Barely Gets Started

I'm a little perplexed by The Beat Goes On. The movie bills itself as Korea's first full-length feature focused on hip-hop but even though most of the characters are wannabe rappers, we only get to hear one actual (not-too-catchy) song and there's a criminal lack of bling. You could say director Byun Sung-hyun's movie is a light satire — considering its ragtag bunch of poseurs are constantly forging new alliances based on the idea that stupidity means trustworthy — but even after factoring in actor Bong Tae-gyu's rubbery face and actress Kwak Ji-min's ditzy deadpan, you never sense Byun's lampooning the industry and its players because an innocent earnestness underscores the comedy and drama alike. You feel Byun appreciates the absurdities in life yet lacks the critical acumen to cut the biz to shreds.

A true look at hip-hop music should include concert footage, perhaps political messaging, montages of personal excesses (drugs, alcohol, shopping sprees, awards, crazed fans), maybe the evolution of a sound, a look, a clothing line, a counter culture. Yet The Beat Goes On shrinks its competitive woes about who gets the job and shirks its careerist story for junior high backstabbing. Its boy sees girl, boy's best friend (Lee Young-hoon) gets girl, boy bangs girl arc has an immaturity that never registers as emblematic of a larger world. These are small, sub-par lives existing in a very small subculture. Maybe The Beat Goes On is a micro-comedy?

This is clearly not a recommendation. Looking for something "like" this? Here's what I'd say. Want a movie about a music scene in Korea? Check out Intangible Asset Number 82 (jazz) or Turn It Up to 11 (heavy metal). Craving a comedy starring Bong Tae-gyu? Go see See You After School or even Jungle Juice. Written off this cast? Take note: Kwak helmed Kim Ki-duk's Samaritan Girl; Lee stars in the indie gay pic No Regret. In short, I never write off an artist completely based on one bad movie but if I were going to make a bet, I'd put my money the actors, not the director, in this case.

March 29, 2015

Bewitching Attraction: Femme Fatale in Eco-Academia

Maneater Cho Eun-suk (Moon So-ri) has sex on the brain, so much so that you may wonder how she has time to keep up with her professorial duties and her environmental activism. Maybe she's wearily let those go. She's certainly acting as though her expertise can take a back seat to her insatiable carnal desires: With career advancement in her mind only in part, she bonks a married TV producer (Park Won-sang) and a graphic novelist (Ji Jin-hee) even as a department full of lascivious male colleagues are looking for a way to get their sweaty hands on her pencil-skirted ass. Though the movie itself may have a misogynist streak, you feel like its lead character couldn't give a damn. She's past judgment!

Be that as it may, one of her cohorts (played by Yoo Seung-mok) confounded by her amorality is driven by jealous desperation to dig into Cho's past until he discovers that her warped psychosexual development is rooted in a middle school incident involving three boys and one untimely death. This is as much as I've pieced together. Her cohort may know more. I'm not so sure. I do have a sense that Lee Ha's convoluted plot intends layers I can't fathom but I maintain that the two greatest pleasures of Bewitching Attraction lie well outside his nutty narrative.

The first is compositional. Lee knows how to create a picture, something established early on with his magnificent group portrait of a priest and a gaggle of nuns on the coast. Those photo-worthy moments — the conversation under umbrellas, the drunk encounter in the hallway, the nude face-off in bed — keep coming throughout Bewitching Attraction so that you almost feel as though Lee's written a story simply to connect the pictures in his head. The movie's second pull is performative. Moon, the same actress who blew me away in Oasis, lives up to this movie's title by managing to slink with a limp and play nude scenes in such a way that the men's shirtlessness feels as revealing as her own. She's never less than fascinating. You can understand why the men want her character, why the director wanted Moon and why Moon wanted the part, given how much she's made of it.

March 21, 2015

Lies: An S&M Pic With All the S&M Cut Out

Review No. 1:

Ours is a jaded age. We've read and re-appropriated de Sade and von Sacher-Masoch. We've been revolted by then revered Bad Lieutenant, Salo, and the entire Saw franchise. We've censored Mapplethorpe and Serrano photos only to institutionalize them later. In that context, there's something almost quaint about Lies, a Korean doomed BDSM romance about a sculptor (Lee Sang-hyun) and a high school student (Kim Tae-yeon) half his age. Is Jang Sun-woo's Lolita scenario intended to shock us? Are we supposed to get upset or outraged by dialogue that has to do with spankings, eating shit, and underage phone sex? Does the casting of non-actors and the use of a handheld camera speak to authenticity or budgetary constraints? Visually tame (with a glimpse of a man's butt and little else), Lies is a potty-mouthed representation of a cinematic cliche: a sexual fantasy involving a middle-aged man and a young woman barely out of puberty. Snooze.

Review No. 2:

I should've suspected something was up given the 52-minute running time. Too long for a short and too short for a feature, Amazon Prime's version of Lies struck me as an oddity. In truth, it was a false representation! This streaming aberration of what is actually a graphic depiction of a BDSM relationship has excised 20 minutes of welts, bruises, skat and God knows what else. Do the explicit sections add up to a totally different experience? Likely so. Am I sorry I didn't get to see the uncut version? Well, yes and no. I'm definitely a bit annoyed that Amazon Prime is serving up an abridged version — of a movie that's garnered a few international honors — without labeling it as such. Then again, having seen Bad Lieutenant, Salo, a few Saw flicks, and more than my share of torture porn (Egads, how I hate that I ever saw The Butcher), I'm kind of relieved that my memories don't now include snippets from a dirty art film showcasing asses being tendered by sticks, leather straps, and wires. Relieved. But not thankful. False advertising may be our culture's dirtiest crime, after all.

March 15, 2015

Meet Mr. Daddy: The Worst Dad Ever And Then...

Boo-hoo. Your life is so sad. Cry me a river.

Or compare your life to that of Jong-dae (Park Shin-yang), Meet Mr. Daddy's small time hood with a cataract, who lives in a rusty old trailer and has suddenly found out that he's the father of a little girl who's set to be adopted abroad. Think he's spending endless nights — tossing and turning in bed — because he can't be a bullfighter and has to settle for a good brown contact lens? He's way too busy trying to ensure his boss's highly prized fighting dog doesn't bite his face off!

For that matter compare your life to his daughter Joon (Seo Shin-ae) who actually isn't about to be adopted by any rich American parents and who is, in fact, dying of some disease that flashed across the screen really quickly via subtitles and which I've never heard of but I'm pretty sure it's terminal since we see her vomit multiple times. She's also got a lethal dose of cuteness and I mean that in the best way possible. She's adorable! Is she crying because her only toys are a soccer ball, two chickens and a rooster? Nope!

The only one in this movie whose life might bare comparison — unless you actually do have an evil eye and a kid who's about to meet the maker — is Sun-young (Ye Ji-won), the social worker. She's got a job, a sense of purpose, a boyfriend who wants to take it to the next level... And yet tellingly she's the one who's screaming and crying all the time. Not Jong-dae. Not Joon. Typical, right? What's got her so upset? Oh, just life in general, I guess.

And you're like her, right? Sometimes you're just sad and angry and frustrated and lonely just because. Well, I'm like her (and you) too. And I cried buckets during Park Kwang-su's Meet Mr. Daddy (a.k.a. Shiny Day) maybe because of that. Which isn't to say it's a great movie. It's more to say that sometimes you just need a good cry, not because your life is so sad, but because it isn't but you're only human. If that's where you're at, have I got a movie for you!

Best when watched alone.

March 13, 2015

Tazza: The Hidden Card: War Is a Card Game

No one's saying that you need when to know when to play the crane and when to play the butterflies in the card game Go-Stop in order to be able to follow the action in Kang Hyeong-cheol's Tazza: The Hidden Card. For someone like me (i.e., a complete ignoramus), each time a card was thrown down -- be it the cuckoo or the sake cup -- I had to wait for the collective onscreen reactions before I knew who'd won and who'd lost. Here's what I could follow.

Teen hustler De-gil (Choi Seung-hyun) only has eyes for the sassy sister (Shin Se-kyung) of a neighborhood boy (Kim In-kwon) until he sees a dancing cartoon character on the clean white panties of a femme fatale (Lee Ha-nui) who basically sells one of his kidneys for a big score which leads him to a life on the run where he encounters a small-time crook (Yoo Hae-jin) who's got big life lessons to share that come in handy when he's forced to face off with two master criminals (Kim Yun-seok and Kwak Do-won).

For clarity's sake I've edited out all the backstabbing betrayals and shaky partnerships that precede the final Go-Stop game conducted in underwear (which came as a let-down after a promise of nudity in the subtitled dialogue). By that point, you won't give a damn about how the actual card game works because you'll be too invested in the various players and how they're playing each other.

You might not know it and you'd certainly never guess it from watching the movie but Tazza: The Hidden Card is actually the follow-up to Choi Dong-hoon's immensely box office smash Tazza: The High Rollers. Though the two movies feature return performances by a couple of actors — but sadly not Kim Hye-su who was such a wonderful dragon lady in the original — the majority of the cast as well as the director (Kang Hyeong-choi) and his writing collaborators (Cho Sang-bum and Lee Ji-gang) are entirely new. If there were any major narrative callbacks to the original, I certainly didn't catch them. Nor did I miss them. Nor did I want them.

March 12, 2015

The Divine Move: Go Ahead and Hit Me Again

In the iEra, the nerds may have risen to power but they still don't know how to take a punch or land a roundhouse kick. So when a poorly-groomed gamer (Jung Woo-sung) whose specialty is Go ends up unjustly sentenced to the slammer, all he wants in exchange for giving master boardgame tips to his jailer is to receive ongoing martial arts training from his fellow convicts so he can kick some serious ass when he gets out. The prison fighting lessons in The Divine Move are built around the philosophy that good fighters must be beat up to learn how to beat up others. Sound crazy? Well, my grandfather took a similar approach with my father and it worked for my dad so I had no reason to doubt that it would work here too.

When you see Jung remove his shirt during one of his final prison brawls, you'll likely gasp at how effective such training can be. The actor is shredded to a point that makes you think this prison comes with a nutritionist/dietician. His character hasn't let his Go skills deteriorate while in the big house either. As luck would have it, he's sequestered next to a blind genius of Go whenever he ends up in solitary confinement; the two square off by tapping out moves through the wall. Further luck: Someone's left behind some chalk. And so he's a Go graffiti artist. He's a street-style fighter. He's an uncharted player. Plus he's a master networker.

That last talent allows him to entice a fine crew to exact his grand revenge, my favorite of the lot being a one-handed techie (Ahn Kil-kang) who has a nice variety of attachable parts including a hammer for self-defense. These are nerds who are no longer satisfied with outwitting former tormentors. They want blood on their knuckles, not just on their hands. Those jerks who killed our hero's brother (Kim Myeong-soo) are going to get iced, one (Lee Beom-su) quite literally in a freezer showdown. Getting the girl (Lee Si-young) — a master Go player herself — is just Cho Beom-gu's fantasy fulfillment for all the nerdy gamers watching the movie. Cool with me!

March 6, 2015

Venus in Furs: Masochism Never Goes Out of Style

If the movies are any clue, Leopold von Sacher-masoch's 19th-century novella of power and perversion Venus in Furs is eternally, internationally relevant. As the years go by, filmmakers continue to be drawn to this twisted, tawdry tale for inspiration, again and again: There's Roman Polanski's French/German film based on David Ives' Broadway play, an Italian version (Devil in the Flesh), two Dutch versions, Monika Treut's bisexual Seduction: The Cruel Woman, and an American B-movie made in the '60s for under $9k. There's also this odd Korean entry, which looks to be indebted to much that came before. It's got the director/muse setup of Ives' hit drama, the sadistic revenge of the Italian pic, even the low-rent esthetics of the American flick. Based on the less-than-glowing critical reception of most of its predecessors, I'm going to hazard a guess that this Venus in Furs is also furthering a shared tradition of bad acting. It seems unlikely the "camp" quotient originated here.

To be fair, it's not easy to deliver a line like "I want to be your slave" (while on your knees) or "I want to be famous" (while writhing during foreplay) without causing a fit of the giggles. What made Ives' theatrical script such a revelation was his understanding of how constantly the tables turn in BDSM relationships and how much of the associated torture is actually psychological. Unfortunately, writer-director Song Ye-Sub never gets beyond a surface examination of the dynamic. As the mistress with the whip, Ju-won (Seo Jung) has all the power. As the puppy in the dog collar, Moon-soo (Baek Hyun-jin) keeps getting degraded and losing control. His eventual graduation to sadist doesn't really make sense within the current framework but since his self-annihilation tendencies don't really gel either, you're not so much confused as unsatisfied come his final transformation. Call me shallow but I was much more interested in the costume changes and the various wigs worn by the movie's world-weary dominatrix than in one man's rebirth as a bully.

February 28, 2015

Ghost: The Hip Bone's Not Connected to the Funny Bone

A child molester/murderer (Kang Tae-yeong) is on the loose in "Ghost." Is he dead? Is he alive? Is he even human? Or is he some magical creature who sucks chicken bones then turns them into a self-propelling puppet? I'd say, he's definitely the last bit — a demented sorcerer of sorts — unless that dancing bag of bones is only in his head which means we're back to square one: Who is he? Is he an acrobatic escape artist? A schizophrenic who hears voices? A personification of the slum in which lives, a neighborhood of ramshackliness that's being knocked down to make way for new apartments or maybe a mall?

"Ghost" isn't particularly interested in being clear or straightforward. Director Dahci Ma (a.k.a. Lee Jung-jin) is a born experimenter so even in a short as short as this one (a mere ten minutes), she's packed in the aforementioned animation section, a creepy, people-less montage with voiceovers narrating mass eviction, some neo-realist crowd scenes, an otherworldly hopscotch match, a cop chase-scene clearly involving stunt work... And although "Ghost" ends abruptly, it doesn't feel truncated. It's feels done. Why draw it out, right?

I did a little research on Dahci and it looks like she's done exclusively shorts — including this one which was selected for Cannes and "The Mysteries of Nature" which snagged her the Jury Prize at 37th Dance on Camera Festival, a movie festival that I've been meaning to see for many a year. (Is it still around?!) Yet despite the successes, Dahci has still yet to make a feature (or if she's made one I see no record of that online). I'd be eager to see her bring her sensibilities to a longer format. And when she does, you can read about it here.

February 21, 2015

Fighter in the Wind: Korean Karate to Bust a Gut

Much is made of the difference between laughing with and and laughing at. I, for one, have gotten much pleasure from both. And really, is it so terrible to laugh at when the cause of the laughter is melodramatic acting, ludicrous dialogue, lachrymose gestures, symbolic shadow-play, ridiculously ritualized foreplay, heavy metal hairdos, battling facial expressions and a main character who comes across like a science experiment for which a Neanderthal brain was genetically cloned then lodged into the body of a Korean martial artist stuck in Japan? Aren't I allowed to laugh at Fighter in the Wind and not feel bad about it? Can't I go so far as to recommend it as an unintentional comedy without coming across as mean?

What's not so funny is that Fighter in the Wind is based on a true story. (Or at least a novel inspired by a true story.) There really was a guy named Choi (Yang Dong-kun) who came to Japan from Korea in order to join the airforce then went on to found one of the leading karate styles in the world. (His book What Is Karate was a bestseller in the U.S. in the '60s!) But Fighter in the Wind isn't that interested in sticking to the facts. This version of Choi falls in love with a geisha (Aya Hirayama), not the daughter of his landlady, and trains in the woods Rocky IV-style (with no mention of the Japanese sponsor who made the retreat possible and encouraged him to shave off his eyebrow).

I'm particularly bummed that the bit about the eyebrow didn't make it into the movie. But credit writer-director Yang Yun-ho for setting part of the action in a circus, having a black-clad antagonist (Park Seong-min) with one eye, and a workout buddy (Jung Doo-hong) with a hook for a hand. Historical accuracy isn't the point here. And with easily over a dozen fight sequences, you're unlikely to get bored either. You could call it a Grindhouse Classic.