January 31, 2015

Mr. Idol: K-Pop K-Good

How you react to Ra Hee-chan's Mr. Idol will be determined entirely by how you feel about K-pop. For those ready to hear the same sweet sounds of a cotton candy ballad ("Summer Dream") sung over and over to the same synchronized dance moves, great pleasure awaits. For those enervated by prefab harmonizing and mushy lyrics, there's torture ahead. Personally, I couldn't have been happier.

The up-and-coming boy band busting moves and breaking hearts is Mr. Children, a strangely-named quartet that's been reunited (and recast) in the aftermath of their lead singer's lovelorn suicide. The new front man (played by Ji Hyun-woo of the band The Nuts) is more indie grunge than girl-inducing screams but Mr. Children's cougar-manager (Park Yeh-jin) sees potential in him, although you'd never guess that from her poker face.

To get her dormant heartthrob and his dancing, rapping band mates where they need to be, the stone-faced overlord puts a demanding training process in place: These boys will need to run, box and master the handstand if they're going to emerge as competitive song stylists in their own right. She's very serious about this last part. Handstands are not an extra, they're a staple! She's also serious about her drinking, which might explain why she's maxed out her credit cards and forgotten to play the electric bill. Whatever the cause, when the lights go out mid-practice one night, she tells her underlings: "Don't just look at the stars. Be one!" Anyone else sense that this woman has a lyric-writing career ahead of her?

And she needn't confine herself to writing songs for Mr. Children either. She could easily craft a solo career for backup dancer Ji-oh (Jay Park) whose Korean-American heritage could make him a trans-Pacific sensation.

January 28, 2015

Gabi: Russian Coffee: A Half-Empty Cup

One man sees coffee as love.
Another man sees coffee as the dream of an Empire.

I like a cuppa joe as much as the next guy but Chang Youn-hyun's historical thriller Gabi: Russian Coffee imbues the beverage with a potency that staggers the mind. Evidently, coffee can make you fall madly in love, it can save you from being murdered, it can get you insider access to a paranoid king, and it can inspire that same king to build a cafe in your dead father's honor as a way to restore status to the family name. I always thought it was enough that coffee could help you stay awake. Boy, was I wrong.

Tanya (Kim So-yeon), the court barista, knows better than me, too. She knows that the coffee-making method taught to her by her lover Illych (Ju Jin-mo) produces a brew capable of seducing — by way of its floral scent and bitter taste — the currently in-hiding Emperor (Park Hee-soon) of Korea. Furthermore, she knows which type of cup to use, how to fold a filter, and the right way to pour. She also enjoys the philosophical small talk that can make sipping the hot beverage so enjoyable for master and servant alike.

What she doesn't know, or at least hasn't yet to come to learn, is that you don't assassinate someone just to save your own skin. And you can't trust your torturers, especially when one of them — a fellow spy (Yoo Sun) — is also in love with your self-sacrificing boyfriend. Perhaps too much caffeine has clouded her judgment.

As such, Gabi: Russian Coffee is a silly movie. You can understand why actress Lee Da-hae dropped out of the production less than two weeks before the shoot began. She must have read the script and thought, "Hell, I'd rather be a barista."

January 17, 2015

A Brand New Life: Who's Your Daddy

I, for one, felt uncomfortable watching Ounie Lecomte's semi-autobiographical A Brand New Life because far from feeling sympathetic for Jin-hee, the young orphan girl (Kim Sae-ron) who's been abandoned by her father (Sol Kyung-gu), I felt sorry for the parents that would eventually adopt her. I got that this kid is depressed because she's been ditched and that she's acting out when she throws her food on the floor or rips apart another girl's doll but since she a bit off-kilter even before daddy dumps her at the church-run "child placement agency," I couldn't help but think she was in need of intensive therapy more than a new family.

Why doesn't the doctor (Mun Seong-kun) at the institution do more one-on-one sessions with Jin-hee before he puts her on a plane to Paris? And why wouldn't he give a ticket abroad to one of Jin-hee's infinitely less morose playmates when an opening for adoption came up? Is Lecomte exposing the export of damaged Korean children abroad? Or is she of the camp that believes that Korean orphanages have become baby catalogues for Westerners? Is the zany, Anglo puppeteer who performs half in drag part of an insidious plot to convince young Korean children that white folk are the funniest people around?

I'm guessing Lecomte sees her protagonist'a fate as Tragic with a capital "T." Disagreeing with her feels mean-spirited and uncharitable. But it's also hard to rally around a self-pity party, even if the writer-director's complaints are valid. And maybe my heart would've gone out to Jin-hee had a different young actress been cast in the role. Kim feels incredibly self-conscious and affected. Her fish-eyed stares feel false and the final freeze frame, a cheap reference to The 400 Blows, lands with a thud. I'm not writing off Kim, mind you. Her subsequent film The Man From Nowhere was marvelous. Better luck next time as they say.

January 11, 2015

Rough Cut: Fighting Realism

Today. Here in my apartment. In Brooklyn. The year 2015. I wonder... Is the general consensus that the only life worth living is the one that's broadcast to the world? Are we all secretly aspiring to Kardashian levels of fame? Is it only through the media -- be it the web or TV -- that we prove ourselves as successful individuals — whatever "success" means — and should we write off the rest of the populace as "extras" or raw material to be converted into soylent green?

Directed by Jang Hun from a stinging screenplay by that great gadfly Kim Ki-duk, Rough Cut prompts these questions and more as it looks at the madness that follows when an action star (Kang Ji-hwan) with entitlement issues enlists a fan who's also a mobster (So Ji-seob) to be his costar because no one else will. As quickly as you can sign a contract in blood, the line between reality and fantasy is destroyed: The gangster has agreed with one stipulation; all fight scenes must be for real. Isn't acting "being," after all? Radiating jock cockiness and pretty boy conceit, So is good at both "real fake" (see how he treats his girlfriend) and "fake real" (watch the scene where he gets repeatedly slapped...if you can). Clearly, his mastery of dissembling has made him a superstar and a total louse. Now that attitude is going to earn him some bruises.

Kang, for his part, just feels real. And because of that, more sympathetic. Underplaying the hell out of everything, Kang's conflicted crook seduces quietly. So what if he's amoral, violent, desperate, lost. At least he's facing life head on without self-deception. Or is he? After all, Kang's gangster can't heed the advice he's doled out to Jo's prima donna. He too is playing to the camera and looking for validation from the big screen.

Is any actor really real when being real is just an act? And, in the world of Rough Cut, are you looking for honesty or just another sensational fight scene? (The slugfest in the mud near the end is FANTASTIC!) For that matter, why do the fight scenes, despite being staged, feel somehow more intensely true? Do acts of brutality register more viscerally because they're actions, not words? Is crime more honest than art? Is everything ultimately a sham?

There's a great line by the movie-within-a-movie's ingenue (Song Soo-hyun) who tells her new leading man something to the effect of "I thought I was good at understanding all types of people when I was young. But I've lost confidence as I've gotten older." In a society in which everyone is playing a public version of themselves, the ability to actually know anyone becomes seriously impaired. Egads, has our society degenerated into a pack of self-deluding liars? Could be.

January 9, 2015

Be My Guest: This Proletariat Has a Bone to Pick

Be My Guest is atypical K-horror. For starters, it's a rude, crude slasher pic that glories in the bloodletting caused by axes, hedge-clippers, and scythes over the shivers induced by creepy succubi with veils of snarled, black hair. Clearly writer-director Park Soo-young is more enamored of American mega-franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween than homegrown creepshows like The Evil Twin and The Ring Virus. I, for one, respect his choice. K-horror may be stylishly cool but it's not very scary.

And if you like gory shocks then there's a lot to learn from micro-budget pics like The Blair Witch Project and Night of the Living Dead, too — which I'm guessing Park has also seen — because you don't need an iconic location or name actors to scare the shit out of people out for a thrill. A good concept can take you very far and Park's concept goes the distance: A respectable businessman (Kim Byung-Chun) and his vacationing family are terrorized by a former employee (Lee Kyeong-yeong) fired some time ago despite being a hard worker. Nice start, eh? The disgruntled unemployed cuts the boss and his family up because he got cut. Hey, that works, too. The satire (and the laughs) escalate in the second half during which a sweet-natured delivery guy (Park Yeong-seo) is equally terrorized by the partially dismembered family who are now trying to frame him for a murder.

None of the actors are giving award-winning performances. None of the scenes are shot artistically. None of the lines in the script are memorable. (Parts of everything are god-awful!) None of that matters. Be My Guest is a lowbrow lark, a shameless bit of gratuitous gristle that turns your stomach even as it's giving you something to chew on. In South Korea, this kind of fright flick is rare, and by rare I mean you can see the blood. If Park ever makes a sequel, I'd definitely help myself to a second helping. I might even invite a guest over!

Random addendum: I really do regret having ever seen The Butcher.

January 3, 2015

Running Turtle: How Far Would You Go for Daddy's Little Girl?

I could make a list of all the things that made Lee Yeon-woo's 2009 blockbuster Running Turtle so enjoyable for me...and so I will.

1. It's got an incredibly likeable if beleaguered Everyman as its hero: One police officer Jo Pil-song (Kim Yun-seok) who can't win, even when he wins. Kim's perfected this type of role in movies like Punch and The Chaser. He's like an understated Song Kang-ho.

2. It's got an almost equally likeable but dangerous martial artist/escaped convict as its villain: The sadistic yet romantic Song Gi-tae (Jung Kyung Ho) whose hard to hate because he's so true to his girl (Seon Woo-seon). But don't worry. You'll hate him eventually.

3. It's got a handful of quirky secondary characters: the frizzy-haired wannabe bad boy Pyo Jae-seok (Choi Kwon) who's got a tattoo on his back just like Gi-tae but less in his brains, and a goofy martial arts instructor who's equally slow intellectually but more adept physically.

4. It's got a father-daughter relationship that shows depths of devotion without ever resorting to a rescue scene featuring a kidnapped child (Kim Ji-na). There are big stakes here but they don't necessitate seeing a kid screaming for help! (Only characters 18+ should have fingers sliced off!)

5. It's got a great ending.

I have repeatedly noted that one of the reasons that Korean crime pics tend to play more engagingly then their American counterparts is that because they rarely degenerate into preposterous shootouts in which one side has good aim and one side does not. The two guns that come into play most decisively in Running Turtle are a pepper spray guy and one that shoots rubber bullets. With no snipers in site, the action always feels like it's a battle of wills instead of ammunition. Consider this another reason for stricter gun control laws: Better movies!