December 20, 2015

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2015 (Sort of)

This year I deliberately went back to what drew me to Korean movies in the first place: Crime pics! This strategy resulted in one of the strongest top ten lists I've had since I started the blog. It also meant that there were a number of thrillers I would've probably included in years past but simply didn't make the cut this time around — Hwayi, The Divine Move, Traffickers, The Target. But hey, end-of-year lists have no mercy.

1. Rough Cut: Jang Jun's pulpy film about a movie thug (Kang Ji-hwan) who enlists a real-life thug (So Ji-seob) to be his co-star made me deliriously happy.

2. Monster: Every year, I see at least one amazing serial killer movie out of South Korea. This year, Monster was IT.

3. A Good Lawyer's Wife: This disenchanted couple (the oh-so-good Moon So-ri and Hwang Jeong-min) is about to find their malaise replaced by tragedy.

4. The Admiral: Though it doesn't have the imperialism of Henry V, this nautical war pic still reminds me of Shakespeare's rousing history.

5. The Hypnotized: An electric Kim Nan-hee helms this kooky noir that's likely one of the most visually mesmerizing Korean movies I've ever seen.

6. Running Turtle: Kim Yun-seok is like a poor man's Song Kang-ho and this heart-accelerating flick proves that that's a wonderful thing to be.

7. Crocodile: Kim Ki-duk's directorial debut shows a world-class artist launching his career with a gritty, upsetting mini-masterpiece about the disenfranchised.

8. Bloody Tie: The best of the B-movies: Hammy acting, sordid script and a blaxploitation-worthy soundtrack.

9. Madonna: How many ways can society oppress an economically challenged woman? Director Shin Su-won counts the ways in this existential mystery.

10. End of Animal: Low-budget sci-fi + apocalyptic storyline + Christian imagery just makes sense and writer-director Jo Sung-hee knows it, God bless him.

December 8, 2015

A Traffic Controller on Crossroads: Sappho Hits the Streets

You've seen movies about army generals, navy seals, air force pilots, marines, cops, firemen. But have you ever seen one about a crossing guard? If the North Korean propaganda film A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is to be believed, this uniformed human stoplight wields quite a bit of power and, when inspired by socialist fervor, enforces the letter of the law to everyone's benefit. So while you might first characterize the new, 23-year-old captain at Post 15 as a humorless, unyielding tool of the system, you eventually come to realize that every punishment she exacts serves a greater good.

No one should be slapped on the wrist for speeding or driving in the wrong lane or parking in a no parking zone. When one knows the law and one breaks the law one should be penalized to the max. Otherwise, what's the point in having the law? Once people discover that rules that are unbending, they will find everything else in their lives falls into place, too. Long-delayed marriages will take place; sons will be reconciled with their worried mothers; explosives will be delivered to the mines despite the rain. Hours may be long and conditions may be grim but you can always attend a gymnastics exhibition or catch a children's chorus singing a song about a zebra killed while crossing the road in the wrong spot. (No tears for the dead zebra, please. He didn't cross the street where he should have!)

Also distinguishing A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is the lesbian longing that seems to run under much of the action. The captain's underlings look at their leader, like schoolgirls with crushes; a glance to a former schoolmate across a gymnasium floor suggests the love that dares not speak its name. The men here are boys to be taken care of by wiser women. The women literally direct the action.

December 6, 2015

Relation of Face, Mind and Love: Snaggle-Tooth Dilemma

Did you ever see Shallow Hal, the Farrelly brothers flick about a fat guy who's hypnotized into seeing women's inner beauty (and thereby falls in love with a fat gal)? Well, Lee Jang-soo's Relation of Face, Mind and Love is a dental version of that, substituting a concussion for hypnosis as the transformative inciting incident. But are bad teeth, the only shortcoming of animal photographer Wang So-jung (Lee Ji-ah)? She's also shallow, cloying, immature, klutzy, a heavy drinker, and one kitten away from being a cat lady. Why exactly should dreamboy/architect Kang Tae-pung (Kang Ji-wan) get over her snaggly tooth and propose marriage? Is she really the only woman out there who is willing to date an unreformed smoker? Or did his car accident cause further brain damage to be addressed in a funnier sequel?

Love is a mystery. And so his decision to end his superficial ways and take his beloved to a penthouse apartment with a view and its mortgage paid are never going to be adequately explained. What makes more sense is that when So-jun suffers a similar head trauma and her ideal is temporarily disfigured, she finds him completely unacceptable until her vision impairment is corrected. She's even unwilling to entertain the overtures of an elementary school teacher who is at once kinder, cuter, and more accepting than she is. She's become as shallow as her paramour. Perhaps they do belong together!

I'd like to single out the animal trainers for praise for Relation of Face, Mind and Love. The cats and dogs are universally adorable and the funniest scene in the movie involves So-jung being comforted in a park by a sympathetic orangutan. That primate could act! Let's hope he went home to a living situation at least as nice as the fancy digs occupied by Kang Tae-pung.

December 5, 2015

Aachi & Ssipak: The Butt of the Cartoon Joke

A little bundle of energy with a big shock of red hair... That's Aachi. He's the brains of the operation. Tall, bald, and muscular with an impossible V-shaped back that narrows to a waistline slimmer than his neck... That's Ssipak and he's the brawn. Together, they're hoping to find a way to strike it rich and live a Life of Bling (or at least score a shipload of the deliciously addictive Juicybar popsicles).

Yet "making it" in Jo Beom-jin's hyperviolent cartoon of a fecal-focused dystopia is as hard as it is in the future as it is in our equally shitty times. There are still so many obstacles: a porn auteur who keeps double-crossing them, a dictatorial police chief who's never heard of the Geneva Convention, a robocop that kind of looks like Ssipak but is stronger, faster, and more heavily munitioned, some random disgruntled citizens who always seem to exit the port-a-potty angry, and a gang of gun-wielding diaper babies who wear their nappies on their heads and sometimes talk like a chorus.

Fortunately, Aachi and Ssipak strike a goldmine with Beautiful, a curvy blue-haired vixen who finds herself the sudden hostess of a magical anal ring that can transform poop into tens of thousands of Juicybars. A Vegas-like display of pimp-fantasticness follows but can these three stay on top when the entire world is so set on getting their hands on Beautiful's beautiful, lucrative ass?

It would take a miracle just to survive. But since this is a cartoon, the impossible is not unlikely. If Aachi and Ssipak can survive machine guns, grenades, knives, hand-strangulation, bombs, motorcycle crashes, concussions, multi-story falls, and other near-death encounters, then certainly they can overcome something as insignificant as everyone else in the world.

December 2, 2015

The Happy Life: Big Dreams Resume at 40

When you hear "midlife crisis," you tend to think "disaster, catastrophe, mess..." But this term could also mean "turning point, crossroads, watershed..." Taking stock — and coming up short — in your 40s and 50s doesn't necessarily lead to making bad choices thereafter. Drastic changes aren't inherently bad. To Hell with the status quo is a timeless dictum! After all, you could really fall in love with someone half your age and not get bilked. Or you could really reform that rock band from college and attract a new, bigger fan base that digs your new tattoos and retro sound. On such fantasies are movies, like The Happy Life, made. Not that everything is honky dory once Active Volcano reassembles. The guitarist (Jeong Jin-yeong) is woefully unemployed; the bass player (Kim Yun-seok), undervalued and overworked; the drummer (Kim Sang-ho), balding and abandoned by his wife; the lead singer (Jang Keun-suk), the son of the original frontman, grieving the recent death of his dad—who stuck with his rock 'n' roll dreams only to end up a nightclub singer!

Perhaps that's the primary charm of Choi Seok-hwan's sweet-natured screenplay. Choi isn't saying that life's problems will be solved once you tap back into the enthusiasms of youth. Choi's simply suggesting that it may be better than not doing so. You'll still be underpaid, harried, overweight, and an orphan, but your life will have meaning again. And what more can you ask of a midlife crisis than a new direction that leads that way. Sure, you may look silly covering your bald pate with a bandana or mimicking the dress code of someone young enough to be your son, but if you haven't evolved far enough to not care if some people laugh at you (or if you can't laugh at yourself yet) then this midlife crisis is simply going to send you into a tailspin, an ever-downward spiral that only stops picking up speed when it finally hits the grave. Watch director Lee Joon-ik's The Happy Life instead. Before it's too late!