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.