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!