August 30, 2015

Traffickers: Ship of Fools

A friend of mine wanted me to give him an introduction to Korean movies and rather than showing him one of the great ones — like Oldboy, The Host or Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring — I decided to screen a movie that I'd watched earlier this week: Kim Hong-seon's Traffickers, a pulpy noir about low-level smugglers who switch from dealing in black market organ donations to illegal drugs then back again. To me, Traffickers, more than the three earlier films cited, reflects what's kept me so engrossed in Korean cinema for a decade. What's good is very good.

Yet, on second viewing, I realized that much of what I liked about Traffickers may be kind of insider-y: the casting of Lim Chang-jung, an actor best known for comedies, as a gang leader, the cultural commentary about China, the scarcity of gunfire... Even the way Choi Daniel plays his role as a nerdy insurance agent like a pretty boy K-pop star looking to break into film. Which isn't to say Traffickers was totally lost on my friend here. He dug the Keyzer Sose plot twist, the DePalma-esque filming of violence, the ludicrous conceit of a cruise line that harvests its poor clientele for kidneys and livers, the doomed chorus of losers unlucky in love and money, the seediness, the perversion. I don't know that I made a final convert at my home theater but he did say afterwards that he'd like me to show him a Korean rom-com next time so I probably will need to pull out the big guns: Attack the Gas Station 2, Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard, Le Grand Chef.

Come to think of it, I doubt that I'd be a Korean movie addict if all I'd seen were enjoyable but less-than-mind-blowing thrillers like Traffickers, Confession of Murder and No Fears for the Dead. These movies have sustained me in between masterpieces like Peppermint Candy and The King and the Clown. As sustenance, they're delicious. As I said to my friend beforehand, this is a B-movie that makes you realize just how good B really is in Korean cinema. B means "better than most" not "below A." So what if it doesn't mean "brilliant."

August 23, 2015

Confession of Murder: Tell-All to End All

Writer-director Jeong Byeong-gil's Confession of Murder kicks off with a deliciously absurd premise. A serial killer releases an autobiography just as the statute of limitations connected to his ten, maybe eleven, killings has come to an end — a mere 15 years! Evidently, in South Korea, such heinous crimes are forgiven quite quickly. So what's the conflict between the memoirist (Park Shi-hoo) who's making a mint off his bestseller and the police detective (Jeong Jae-yeong) whose girlfriend (Min Ji-ah) was perhaps the last victim going to be about? Will it focus on whether the cop can forgive the criminal? Or will it culminate in a shootout on a TV talk show? (Imagine the ratings boost! The fictional network certainly does!) Or will said victim's stiff-backed mother (Kim Yeong-ae), snake-handling father (Kim Jong-goo), histrionic brother (Choi Won-young) and archer sister (Kang Sook) beat the now-alcoholic officer to the punch? Is the cop's story merely a side story?

Before you take a frivolous and uneducated guess, you might as well also know... Confession of Murder's cast of characters also includes a creepily masked man (Jeong Hae-gyoon) who arrives out of nowhere late in the picture... What's he all about? And will he help ratings or hurt them? If you think the utter ridiculousness of the plot put me off, you're wrong. If you think it would put you off as well, I'd first ask you: How do you feel about really well executed chase scenes? Because Confession of Murder has a few of those. How do you feel about acrobatic stunts? Confession of Murder has a few of those too. Did you really fault the Die Hard movies for being implausible? I'm guessing, not. Speaking of which, I've never seen any of those. So how about this: You see Confession of Murder and I'll try one of those Bruce Willis blockbusters. Sound like a deal? Let me know in the comments below and you can consider my reply a virtual pinky swear. The more yeses I get the more movies I'll see from that five-part franchise. That said, I will not play the video games.

August 19, 2015

No Tears for the Dead: God Bless the Assassinated Child

No Tears for the Dead is a movie plagued by bad guys. The anti-hero is an assassin (Jang Dong-gun) who mistakenly kills a young girl (Kang Ji-woo). The young girl's mom (Kim Min-hee) is a greedy capitalist more concerned with mergers and acquisitions than maternity. The assassin's best friend (Brian Tee) has been assigned to kill him. The best friend's father figure is a kind of merciless godfather who seems to want everyone to die. And so on and so on. Even the little girl who gets offed in the opening scene is a bad girl when you come to think of it. I'm sure, her criminal father told her not to leave the table at the nightclub, and clearly, she disobeyed.

I'm a bad guy, too. Which isn't to say that I've murdered anyone or purposely executed any business deals with utter disregard to the large numbers of people who'd lose their jobs in the process. But I've definitely got my own list of sins to weigh me down so a cast full of reprehensible people trying to do right by their wrongs sits perfectly fine with me. I get the idea of going to extremes — explosions in buildings, machine gunfire, computer hacking gazillions of dollars, identity theft — as forms of doing penance. We can't whip ourselves with branches anymore. We refuse to wear hair-shirts. So it makes sense that we'd randomly stab, detonate, self-annihilate, and relive awful memories of mom (Kim Ji-seong) committing suicide by shooting herself in the head in the desert as a way to clear our brains. At least in the movies.

In real life, I guess we just stew. And hope that filmmakers like Lee Jeong-beom will write and direct slick, thrillingly violent movies that make us feel like we're exorcising our demons, even if we're really just distracting ourselves from dealing with our grim, not-so-glamorous realities. Recently, I spent a few weeks watching Shirley Temple movies. She was the box office queen during the Depression. But nowadays, cute won't cut it. We need blood. So we sacrifice the on-screen child.

August 15, 2015

Marathon: Track and Feel Good

I don't know much about autism. and after watching Marathon, like one of those disease-of-the-week movies I used to watch as a kid, I can safely say, I still don't. Chung Yoon-chul's well-intentioned drama — based on a real story, of course — has fashioned its central character (played with unquestionable commitment by Cho Seung-woo) as if he were the offspring of a nerdy 6-year-old and a rundown computer. The portrait feels overly simplistic: He acts petulant, he spits out random data, he craves structure, he pretty much only thinks of himself, he follows commands -- like when he run 100 laps until he collapses, without thinking, or when he learns to keep his farts outside the apartment. But it all feels more like a performance than a condition. That's frankly not enough.

If you're anything like me, you'll never buy into the struggle of the self-sacrificing mother (Kim Mi-suk) who teaches him to count change, to keep a colorful diary, to repeat catchphrases. You'll never believe the conversion of his coach (Lee Gi-yeong) who goes from resentful has-been runner to championing drinking buddy either. But you still get that the mom's got a rough life and that the coach would be happier if he just connected with someone. Yes, the movie glosses over why the father (Ahn Nae-sang) moved out and how the younger brother (Baek Seong-hyeon) could benefit from a little more parental love. But we actually don't need those details. This is by-the-book storytelling. We can fill in those particulars easily ourselves.

And so while you might argue that Marathon is skimping on certain clinical details, it's also not burdening us with subplots we already understand the complexities of. It also doesn't throw in an unnecessary romance, or an unreasonable gold medal or a devastating sucker punch. Marathon is ultimately a feel-good movie. When the central character finally learns how to smile, we smile along with him. Yes, his smile is forced. Well, so is ours. But "fake it until you make it" is an approach than can get you through many a tough day.