November 22, 2015

Seven Days: Legally, Not Without My Daughter

When I lived in Baltimore, I had a good friend who said, he cried when he passed the bar exam because he felt he had officially entered a dishonorable profession. That may strike some as histrionic behavior but you could make a case for the corrupt litigator — both in life and on the big screen — as a modern-day archetype. Nowadays, attorneys seem more focused on "winning the case" than on getting the guilty party punished and the innocent set free. Money, power, prestige, revenge, self-respect... these are their motivators. As to truth, honor, and the public good, those sound like anachronisms today. Does anyone invest that much in going to law school and not come out looking to make big bucks? The Law is a rich man's game.

To her credit, Defense Attorney Yu Ji-yeon (Lost's Kim Yunjin) has a noble motive with her current case. She's trying to establish a murderer-rapist's innocence as ransom for her kidnapped daughter (Lee Ra-hye). But even here, the slimy side of the law comes into play, for Yu is defending someone who she doesn't believe. She tries to fool herself for awhile, to trick herself in thinking that maybe he didn't do it but eventually, she's pretty sure he did. And so, with the help of her shady sidekick (Park Hie-sun), she lies, cheats, double-crosses, picks locks, breaks-and-enters, and bends legal statutes in order to exonerate a remorseless monster (Choi Moo-seong) who definitely belongs behind bars. Well, a mother's love knows no bounds, as they say.

A final plot twist puts Yu in her place however: She's confronted by a request to represent someone who acts out as outrageously self-righteously as she has (and for a similar reason). Can she defend such behavior? The question isn't answered in Seven Days. But writer-director Won Shin-yeon knows it's easier to forgive our own transgressions than those of others. Sometimes, we need a little cash to turn it into a job.

November 19, 2015

Assassination: Causing a Takedown

Although it's painful to admit, terrorism is the war tactic of the underdog. Unable to compete in terms of the number of bodies or the power of military hardware, the little guy is left to underhanded methods, stealth operations, symbolic massacres, assassination. So how you respond to Choi Dong-hoon's flick Assassination is probably connected to how you feel about the Koreans overthrowing their Japanese conquerors back in the day. Should you fall in the "by any means necessary" camp, the movie is as flag-waving as can be. It's uplifting! Should you subscribe to a "fair play" mentality in war, you may feel more conflicted. But does anyone not want to see the Koreans win here? Does anyone think these nationalists need to wait until they've organized a proper army? Or gone through the proper channels?

But when you apply that mindset to the current political climate, what happens? Suddenly, a movie like Assassination is playing on two distinct levels: the patriotic one and the insurgent one. Oh, it's easy to see that in this case The Cause is just, and that we're right to side with the sharpshooter (Jun Ji-hyun) and to revile the a-hole (Lee Jung-jae) who's infiltrating the revolution on behalf of the enemy. But in a weird way, as members of a capitalist country, we're probably most like Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo), the mercenary who has to re-evaluate his personal ethics in order to make the noble choice: the right of the people and not the reward of the dollar. There's an underlying appeal to Assassination that has to do with the pleasures of seeing the dark horse win. (That it's set in the past also makes it more clear cut.) But what happens when you're a part of the all-engulfing power? part of empowering the big guy? Surely, size isn't inherently corrupt. And if it is, what can we do about it?

For now, regardless, I'm in complete support of this movie. Viva la revolution!

November 16, 2015

Wonderful Nightmare: Tragicomedy Is a Rollercoaster

One thing I've noticed about Korean comedies: They can get decidedly unfunny at the drop of a hat. So watching Kang Hyo-jin's soul-swapping farce Wonderful Nightmare, you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself getting jerked around emotionally quite a bit in between the slapstick and the absurdisties. You may start off chuckling as a heartless, greedy, sexless if stylish attorney (Eom Jeong-hwa) is reincarnated as a fashion-challenged, middle-class mother of two with a frisky husband (Song Seung-heon) but eventually you're going to be freaking out as her newfound daughter (Seo Shin-ae) is about to get gang-banged by her fellow classmates (who also plan on filming the attack) and then be freaking out again when her sweet-natured son (Jeong Ji-hoon) is diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that can only be cured by his mother's untimely death. Who knew suicide was a form of medication? Intellectually, we may understand that the potential rape and the impending blindness are throwbacks to earlier ideas/transgressions in the story but man, can this penance all seem unnecessarily harsh. Purgatory is a bitch!

What's perhaps even more disorienting — disconcerting? — is how even after these flippant forays into tragedy, the movie is able to bounce back into farce so unconcernedly, so glibly, so assuredly that you'll find yourself guiltily cracking up at the purgatorial antics bunglingly overseen by a middle-management angel (Kim Sang-ho) who's got sins of his own to expiate. The manufactured rom-com ending has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese but much of the narrative is so cheesy to start with that it seems silly to question the "happily ever after" the movie is pretending the characters can achieve. When you watch Wonderful Nightmare, cheese will be served continually and you will eat it. Even when it stinks.

November 15, 2015

Madonna: Tragedy, Thy Name Is Woman

It's not as if male directors haven't depicted an emotionally damaged sex worker (Kim Ki-duk with Samaritan Girl), a helpless woman being organ-harvested (Kim Hong-seon with Traffickers) or a mercilessly brutal rape survivor (Jang Cheol-soo with Bedevilled) in their movies but it took a female director like Shin Su-won to combine all three into a single pic then layer on even more gynocentric topics like the cruelty of sexual politics in the office place, the pathos of high heels, the despair that leads to maternal infanticide, the shame accompanying overeating as a coping mechanism, the futility of retail therapy, the ubiquity of internalized misogyny, even the veneration/stigma of virginity, all in a single film. And if you're ready to dismiss Madonna as an "issue" movie then I'd counter with "what's the issue here?" Frankly, there's too many for Madonna to qualify as topical. Shin movie is more like a compendium of concerns as it outlines a very nightmarish — and very upsetting — reality.

Shin ingeniously strings all her ideas together as a whodunit, although this time the "it" isn't a murder. It's pregnancy. Anti-heroine Hae-rim (Seo Yeong-hie) has recently scored a lucrative job as an orderly at a ridiculously high-end hospital where her primary patient is a nearly vegetative geriatric who's being kept alive because of the strictures of his will. When a comatose young, pregnant woman (Kwon So-hyeon) is brought in as a potential heart donor for her charge, Hae-rim is tasked with finding out the father of the fetus. This medical staff may be amoral but consent forms still must be signed! The nuisance of tracking down the absent father leads Hae-rim to uncover a tragic story that puts her own sorry life in perspective. The vacant eyed Hae-rim is definitely one of the walking wounded and somehow seeing someone who's been completely beaten down in life has inspired her to fight back against the powers that be one last time. Self-redemption never gets old, does it?