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.

February 15, 2015

Insadong Scandal: Beyond the Bechdel Test

The art-forgery caper Insadong Scandal definitely doesn't pass the Bechdel test. Not only are there no conversations between two women that don't have to do with men. There aren't any conversations between two women at all. But the movie does have three fun female characters — a ruthless gallerist (Eom Jeong-hwa), an unrelenting police detective (Hong Soo-hyun) and a leather-clad gangster (Choi Song-hyeon) — that in another movie, would easily have been cast as men. For that I thank writer-director Park Hee-kon. He's at least creating strong roles for women. I'm less appreciative of his writing for men and his casting of the actors who play them.

As the duplicitous master restorer who turns everyone's life upside down, Kim Rae-won looks like he's modeling clothes when he's supposedly copying famous paintings. He's the type of performer who feels most natural when he's singing karaoke and who's most likable when he's getting slugged. Jeong Jin plays an auctioneer with a perm that looks like a joke that can't get a single laugh. As to journeyman actors Kim Byung-ok and Kim Jeong-tae — as sidekicks of good and evil — they're both on automatic pilot. You can bet they spent their time in their trailers reading scripts for other projects with more lines and less cliches. The best of the guys is probably Lim Ha-ryong, a bad-guy-turned-good who has a long monologue on the art of forgery that is definitely the most educational part of the movie.

Not that you'll leave Insadong Scandal truly informed about anything. The one thing I learned after viewing the movie is that Insadong is actually the gallery district of Seoul — the Soho of yore, the Chelsea of now. It in no way felt like a modern day Williamsburg. Eom's high-end wardrobe is a Fashion Week runway of clingy pleasures and there's not a single hipster in sight.

February 9, 2015

Bloody Tie: When the B in B-Movie Means Best

Dirty cops. Dirty crooks. Dirty government officials. Dirty whores. Dirty family members. Dirty, dirty, dirty. Everyone is dirty in Choi Ho's splendidly sordid, little thriller Bloody Tie. Shee-yit, even the settings are dirty — the tawdry karaoke bars, the barren underground parking lots, the ramshackle, low-rent housing, the waterfront's rotting docks... And amid this miasma, a nastily sycophantic relationship emerges between a not-as-bright-as-he-thinks-he-is police lieutenant (Hwang Jeong-min) and a sometimes-clueless, sometimes-crafty drug dealer (Ryu Seung-beom) on the make. They're both trying to screw each other while promising to help each other so you know they're bound to hurt each other but who knew their pain could be so intoxicating?

With its blaxploitation soundtrack, random hyper-violence, and chopped-up, socked-up camerawork, Bloody Tie feels like a B-movie defiantly harkening back to its low-budget roots; it's a movie that raises its fist for the disillusioned fuck-ups, the lost causes and the stay-true ethic. You'll root for the corrupt cop and the messed up meth dealer as well as the frenemy uncle (Kim Hee-ra) and the broken-hearted addict (Chu Ja-hyeon). Each of them is fighting unbeatable odds. Each of them is a loser you'd like to see win. Just once. But they can't all win. So the question is will any of them?

The material is pulpy. The acting, hammy. Both Hwan and Ryu give stares that could burn through steel and erupt in laughs that could get them committed to the psych ward. If you're craving subtler work by either actor, you can find it elsewhere. I recommend that you take a moment and appreciate that they put the realism aside and just acted the HELL out of this script. I named this blog Korean Grindhouse for a reason. I adore movies and performances like this! And you can sense that the performers are enjoying it, too.

February 2, 2015

Happy End: Daddy Needs a Life More Than a Job

When actor Choi Min-sik is good, he's very, very good (Oldboy, Crying Fist, I Saw the Devil). But when he's bad, he's actually pretty bad. Happy End may show Choi at his worst. Playing a blubbering househusband unwilling to assume the domestic duties after he loses his job — and his wife (Jeon Do-yeon) becomes the checkbook — Choi's Seo Min-ki is the embodiment of male prerogative. He believes, he has every right to spend his days reading romances at the local bookstore then jabbering about a soap opera with a lady neighbor all night long on the phone, even when the baby's crying, the kettle's boiling and his wife's catching up on paperwork. He doesn't care if the Mrs. is overextended. He's too busy feeling sorry for himself.

You can imagine Mr. Sulky-pants is going to get a lot sulkier when he learns that his wife isn't just clocking extra hours at the job. She's also working off some stress in the bed of a former beau (Ju Jin-mo) who as she says herself, her nails digging into his back and butt, has "a fantastic body." (Or something like that.) She may be living a life of deception but truer words were never spoken. Plus, since this hottie is the director of the website where she works, we know the dude's got computer skills, too. Is divorce an irrational next step?

That's not the story that writer-director Jung Ji-woo has scripted, though. You see, Mrs. Seo is committed both to her marriage and getting banged. Even if that means doping her baby to go on a bender. Maybe that's what happens for the respectable bourgeoisie who hold family above all. But if respect is the be-all, end-all, then Mr. Seo is going to end-all to be-all in the end. The murderous plot he concocts registers with this viewer as completely implausible and unlikely to fool a trained detective. But said viewer wanted to see Mr. Seo put away for life for the crime of whining. Surely, there must be some country that outlaws self-pity.