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.