September 27, 2015

Venus Talk: Three Times as Depressing

When you're feeling down, you can listen to Bessie Smith, peruse Van Gogh's letters, read the poetry of Anne Sexton, that sort of thing. Somehow there's solace to be found in an artful blues song, a heartfelt complaint or a sublime turn of phrase even when it's rife with depression. Spending time with such work is a respectful use of the "misery loves company" philosophy that takes out the "saddling somebody else with your problems" component. Sometimes, you just need to sulk... alone. Is there any easier way to take your mind off your troubles then a really good "woman's picture"? So you'd think Venus Talk would be the perfect palliative for a case of the doldrums. But Kwon Chil-in girly gabfest, while comedic in tone, is a total bring down because the three main stories feel so doomed, even with their tacked on happy endings. My only question: Which one of these characters' lives is the most depressing?

Is it the one about the single mother (Jo Min-soo), whose insufferable daughter (Jeon Hye-jin) is eating her out of house and home, and whose construction-worker boyfriend (Lee Kyeong-hyeong) balks at marriage, right at the moment the mom's diagnosed with colon cancer? Is it the tale of the nymphomaniacal housewife (Moon So-ri) whose husband (Lee Sung-min) does not require Viagra with other women and whose one-night stand prospect ends up mugging her in an underground parking lot? Or is it story of the successful TV producer (Eom Jeong-hwa) who keeps helping men get ahead in their careers and can't get comfortable with a muscle man (Lee Jae-yoon) young enough to be her son? Before you decide, be forewarned: Things get worse for each — a burst bag of poop, a vaginoplasty, stitches in the head, a car crash and a case of scabies. What's working in their favor is really just a shared bottle of red wine. Apparently, life is worth living if you can drink a little booze then tell your besties lies like "age doesn't matter" and "you're getting prettier every year," despite the crow's feet, the sagging skin, the failing memory, the lost dreams, and the ever-growing pile of failures building at your front door.

September 23, 2015

Monster: Hey Serial Killer, You're About to Get Squashed

South Korea may make only about one percent of the movies that the United States does but I bet the Asian powerhouse annually churns out more serial killers flicks percentage-wise and in total numbers both. That means that when I say that Monster is one of the better serial killer thrillers out there, I'm according it high praise, ranking it right alongside such genre classics as The Chaser, Memories of Murder, and I Saw the Devil (and well above rival fare like Missing, Confession of Murder, and Helpless).

What makes Monster especially unique though is that its hero (Kim Go-eun) isn't the type of protagonist usually associated with the genre. Far from it, she's neither a detective nor, for that matter, a man who outwits her deranged nemesis, after learning his ways and getting into his mad mindset. This vengeful arm of justice is a none-too-bright teenager motivated by the love of both her sister (Kim Bo-ra) and, then later, by the love of her charge (Ahn Seo-hyeon), an adorable kid who she basically adpots.

Hwang In-ho's movie also has an unusual amount of comedy — a sun that turns into a grandma's face to give wacky advice, the repeated use of squash as a weapon. Hwang even injects comedy into some of the more poignant moments. When's the last time you laughed when two people survived bludgeoning? You'll do that here!

For all that, Monster does adhere to some South Korean serial killer movie tropes including a mind-bogglingly pretty villain (Lee Min-ki who's probably never been better or more beautiful) who has suffered through a despairing childhood caused in part by a deranged mom (Kim Bu-seon) and a selfish sibling (Kim Roi-ha). Plus, there' that slaughterhouse worth of blood.

It has just occurred to me: If you don't like serial killer movies, you probably can't really call yourself a Korean movie fan.

September 15, 2015

The Admiral: Roaring Currents: Hope Floats Eternal

Not to sound too pompous or show-offy but I've taken to re-reading the works of William Shakespeare of late and I remember feeling very conflicted about Henry V in particular. How could I reconcile my own enjoyment of the play with the historic drama's outright pro-war sentiment? But then I saw Kim Han-min's blockbuster The Admiral: Roaring Currents and it all became clear: They're both underdog stories. Think of the St. Crispin's Day speech, how the English militia had the numbers stacked against them, how the odds-on favorite ended up losing... Now transport the action from the fields of Agincourt circa 1415 to the waters of Myeongnyang Strait circa 1597.* Heighten the drama by having the little guy defend instead of attack. Then picture this: Korea has 12 battleships versus Japan's fleet of over 300.

But Korea also has Admiral Yi (played by Choi Min-sik who I like a lot better than Laurence Olivier or Kenneth Brannagh). Yi's an ailing, wizened, crafty, old leader who values patriotism much higher than survival. (He's not the type who retires early for veteran's benefits.) He may not have the numbers of the Japanese or the creepy face-mask of his rival leader, the Pirate King (Ryu Seung-ryong) but he's got a tactical way of thinking that leads him to torch the sailors' houses so they have to commit to their ships and later plays a game of peek-a-book with a sniper thereby putting his own life in danger so an archer can arrow the gunman in the eye. Yi also gets advice from the dead, who inspire him to lure the Japanese ships into a heaven-sent whirlpool. Spirit contacts can be very useful during wartime, you know? Especially when your exasperating son (Yul Kwon) is still asking "Why is the sky blue" type of questions, despite his age. Famous person's child syndrome?

*Strange coincidences: While researching this movie review, I discovered that Shakespeare wrote Henry V shortly the after The Admiral's climactic battle took place in Korea. Furthermore, Great Britain is about 80K square miles while South Korea is just over 84K square miles.

September 6, 2015

Blood and Ties: Daddy's Expiration Date

As a gauge to measure the depth of my love for someone, I used to ask myself: Would I harbor this person if they came to me on the run? What if they had blood or their hands? What if they'd actually committed a murder? The answer to these questions clued me in to how I really felt about a person, family members least when I was bored in the middle of the night with nothing better to do. After all, isn't the midnight hour the time when they'd be most likely to come seeking my help? Writer-director Kuk Dong-suk is posing a similar question in Blood and Dies, which finds its central character (Son Ye-jin) struggling with the possibility that her martyr of a father (Kim Kap-su) may have kidnapped and murdered a child years ago (and involved her in the crime). Should she turn him in? Protect him? Serve him up to her boyfriend (Lee Kyu-han), an aspiring police officer, as a way to finagle a marriage proposal? While she's at it, should she write a story about her dastardly daddy and thereby land a job at the local paper? (Apparently, the job market is brutal for bright students from working class backgrounds.)

As she struggles to answer these and many other questions, time is ticking loudly because the statue of limitations is about to expire for this heinous crime, and at least one detective (Kim Kwang-gyu) is breathing down her neck. The process is further slowed down by this young woman's brain, which appears to be working at a less-than-average speed from the get-go. You know this is a woman who earned her top grades through diligence, not innate intelligence. I, for one, became less concerned with who was guilty and who was not, and more curious about whether the Yogi Berra catchphrase "It's ain't over til it's over" was going to be fulfilled in some weirdly creepy way. Alas, it was not. When Blood and Ties ends, despite the carnage and loose ends, it pretty much just feels "over." Too bad, Kuk didn't get all meta during the credits and circled back to the film within the film, a documentary — heard but never seen — exploring the very case which Blood and Ties is about. That would've been a deft touch.