July 28, 2015

For the Emperor: Nothing to Learn from Beautiful Bashings

How does violence affect the brain? Well, the first time I saw the prolonged, audio-enhanced knifing sequence in For the Emperor, during which our antihero Lee Hwan (Li Min-ki) and his fellow thugs stab away in a shadowy hallway packed to the gills with rival gangsters, I flinched repeatedly. When the scene was repeated (I'm assuming, unchanged) after we'd learned the sad story of Lee's downfall from pro baseball player to pro kneecap basher, I barely winced at all. This does not bode well when you consider all the murder and mayhem we choose to watch and re-watch in movies, TV series and video games. Within two hours I'd already become pretty much inured to all those knives puncturing bodies to a Foley soundtrack.

Not that the butchery ever feels totally real in For the Emperor. The merciless, long, lean killing machine that is the mop-headed, dead-eyed Lee Hwan is a sinewy cartoon of cruelty. He doesn't respect elder mafiosos Jung Sang-ha (Park Soong-woong) and Han-Deuk (Kim Jong-goo) so much as he's intent on learning their ways so he can take their place. His prostitute lover Madame Cha (Lee Tae-im) is more reward than relationship. It's as if Lee has viewed this movie more times than we have. He's absorbed director Park Sang-jun's message entirely: Violence pays! But whose message is it? Maybe comic book artist Kim Seong-dong on whose work the movie is based...

I've never thought graphic novels had very deep truths to tell. Even those I've enjoyed — Nick Abadzis Laika, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood — felt like children books for adults, and were nothing to rival a novel like Lee Chang-rae's A Gesture life or an autobiography like Cullen Thomas' Brother One Cell. Is it that drawn pictures can't speak as powerfully as words? And is there anything to be learned from the orgy of blood that sometimes erupts in For the Emperor? Or should we be chastened for finding it entertaining? Probably the latter. So how to explain I like this movie nonetheless? Shame on me!

July 22, 2015

Two Guys: May I Please Be the Third

When white people show up in Korean movies, they're rarely good people. There's the creepy puppeteer in A Brand New Life, the military bullies in My Father, the abducting adoptive parents in Baby and Me... The company of origin makes no difference either. There are clueless Australians in Lady Vengeance, irresponsible Americans in The Host, and thuggish Russians in My Girlfriend Is an Agent. This isn't a complaint. I actually don't mind all that white slander. To the contrary, I'm wondering how I could get a part like the predatory homo in the delicious comedy Two Guys. A shady, souless, self-serving simp who's got a nice spread of gay porn on his coffee table and gets to make sexual overtures to one of the movie's two handsome leads, this negative stereotype doesn't seem damning so much as damn hilarious. Hey actor Scott Phillips! I'm jealous of you! Hey director Park Hun-su, consider me for the sequel!

I'm more than ready to lasciviously lick my lips or bat my big, beautiful eyes at Park Joong-hoon, who plays a short-tempered loan shark, or Cha Tae-hyun, who plays the vainest of valets — with a serious debt. I'm even willing to vamp around in women's clothes if Han Eun-jeong isn't interested in coming back for Three Guys or Two Guys Part Two or 2Guyz2 or whatever you want to call it as the brains of their operation. I think I'd be pretty good at the level of slapstick required if the follow-up caper follows suit with chase scenes on rooftops and subway platforms, and physical altercations involving serving trays and stripping down to my skivvies. All I ask is please, please, please, let me have a scene with Park and Cha during which we get to — once again — beat the hell out of Kim Gu-taek, World Wide Wrestling-style. I could learn how to execute the Tadpole Splash, the Ankle Lock, the Cross Rhodes or any of a long list of white man moves developed for laughs and a taste for blood that feels completely in keeping with this movie.

Headshot, resume and references are all available upon request. Will travel.

July 21, 2015

Hwayi: A Monster Boy: Save the Green Mobster-in-the-Making

A crazily brilliant, intentionally twisted logic informs the mob pic Hwayi: A Monster Boy, an off-kilter sensibility that I was pretty sure I recognized about 15 minutes in. At least I hope I recognized it. I mean, could it really be that the creator of my beloved Save the Green Planet! had finally made another movie after all this time? Had that elusive director I'd long credited for my love of Korean movies finally reappeared? And is it truly possible to recognize an auteur's style that fast, based on one movie alone? Happily, the answer to every question here is YES.

Ten long years after Save the Green Planet! rocked the midnight screening of my soul, Jang Joon-hwan has returned with an exhilarating coming-of-age mafia movie in which the heir apparent (Yeo Jin-gu) must off his various adopted dads to rid himself of his inner demons. Each dad has something that makes him special: Seok-tae (Kim Yun-seok) is all tough love, Ki-tae (Jo Jin-woong) gives him driving lessons that include outrunning the police. Each dad loves Hwayi in his own special way but they’re also carrying a terrible secret, one that will make the son quite a bit less thankful for the sacrifices made.

Hellbent on uncovering that secret is a wily detective, who – much like his counterpart in Save the Green Planet! – may be the smartest guy in the room but he also as no idea that the room he's about to enter is a chamber of Hell. It’s as if Jang is saying that even when a representative of The Law is working at the top of his game with the best of intentions, the cards are stacked against him. The survival of the fittest is not the survival of the smartest. Darwinism has nothing to do with being ruthless or crafty – as one mobster (Yoo Yeon-seok), one masseuse (Woo Dong-gi), one minister (Lee Kyeong-yeong) and one mayoral candidate (Moon Seung-geun) are about to learn in short order. Life's a total crapshoot. Or better yet, a game of roulette. And in Jang's case, that's Russian roulette, my friend.

July 13, 2015

Paju: Movies Can Have Their Own Language

Paju is a city located just south of the 38th parallel. In fact, it's so close to North Korea, that on clear days, you can see the North Korean bordertown of Kaesong from certain vantage points in the city. Given this proximity, it's no surprise that Paju is home to more than its fair share of military bases -- both American and homegrown. Yet none of this comes into play in Park Chan-ok's film of the same name. At least, not in the most obvious way.

I mean, there's militancy. But it's on the part of some housing rights activists/squatters who engage in actual warfare against unsympathetic developers. There's a very personal territorial battle -- specifically, over an inherited homestead that increasingly becomes a source of volatile contention. There's even border-crossing, if you're willing to stretch the meaning to include (as I am) an affair between a disoriented drifter (Seo Woo) and the man (Lee Sun-kyun) who may or may not have killed her none-too-bright sister (Shim Yi-young).

Holy smoke, that's a whole lot of metaphor. And to be honest, I don't know that this is Park's intent at all. Plus, I'm still stumped by the significance of the boiling water that gets spilled on the unattended baby, the silver fox of a nightclub owner (Lee Kyeong-yeong) who rides around in a fancy car and silently makes his backseat window go up and down or the final scooter ride to somewhere or other. All of these items feel laden with meaning.

I'm pretty sure that if you asked Park, she'd be able to tell you exactly what her intent is. Paju feels like a movie eager for interpretation and explication. Which isn't surprising when you learn that Park is one of Korea's few female directors. You just know that she had to work hard to get this — her second feature — made and she hardly seems likely to have gone to all that trouble if she didn't have something interesting to say. That it's not that easy to decode doesn't diminish the probability of wanting to watch it again. And maybe even, again. Isn't that what you do for a poem?

July 4, 2015

The Abductress: Crossing the Border of What's Funny

Me: Sexually deprived college kids get kidnapped then sexually attacked by a tall woman who makes aphrodisiacs! Can't you just see the people rolling in the aisles?

Myself: Um. Not really. What's funny about young men being raped?

Me: Oh, come on now. Is it really rape? It's a farcical costume drama, goddammit.

Myself: It's still rape. Hell, it even still comes with shame! Plus: Do you think it's a coincidence that the screenwriter made the rapist Japanese? I think he subconsciously knew, there was something despicable about this so he pinned it on the Japanese!

Me: Good point.

Myself: Now I know what you're going to say next: But the horny guy wants it! But remember: He's the only one who doesn't get it.

Me: True again. Wow! You really can read my mind. But what about the diarrhea sequence. You know. That scene where the male students and the teacher (Choi Jong-hoon) all eat food that gives them the runs? Didn't you find that funny?

Myself: Actually, I did. I'm not saying this movie wasn't funny at all or that I'm above a good fart joke. I'm simply saying this wasn't satirical or wacky or slapstick-y or anything else enough to be funny. At all.

Me: Fair enough.

Myself: Did you find it weird that this is the second movie in a row that had a running gag about a semen-encrusted object making contact with someone's face?

Me: Oh my God! I totally did? What the hell's that about?

Myself: No frigging idea.