January 31, 2016

Korean Kickboxing: Someone's Got a Cousin Who Owns a Camera

Is this a documentary on a lesser-known martial art from Korea? An introductory tutorial intended for self-styled mixed martial artist wannabes eager to expand their fight vocabulary? An infomercial for the heretofore unknown Chung Moo Academy? I couldn't honestly tell you. For this hour-long video has few answers for inquiring minds and feels more like what happens when an inexperienced editor is tasked with crafting a narrative from hours of not-particularly-well-planned footage. And so, you don't learn much about the history of the sport (a mix of western boxing and Tae Kwon Do) or about the gym's resident champ (except that his toughest challenge is cutting weight) or the proper form for various moves or the intensity of the training regimen (which includes the cartwheel) or whether the few women athletes in class ever get to compete. And while some very basic details are revealed about the Academy whereabouts, you don't leave feeling that you know its owner's personal philosophy, the dojo's significance, or even the sport's national popularity.

What you do get is one very prolonged shot of two glistening, fairly silent young men demonstrating Korean kickboxing while wearing the official uniform — basically baggy, flared short shorts that resemble cos-play outfits for men who want to look like babies. Additionally there is a repeated shot of a drop of sweat falling off the tip of a woman's nose; endless, vaguely instructional title cards that tell the viewer to "keep moving" and "develop reflexes"; a host of low-grade special effects intended to add drama via slo-mo vocals and creepy negatives; and the increasing use of prolonged blackouts between sequences which suggests that the creatives hired for this production had a time limit they had to hit in their deliverables. Clocking in at a little over an hour, the running time appears to be the one place that Korean Kickboxing has gone beyond what was initially expected.

January 22, 2016

A Touch of Unseen: Stalker as Antihero

You know damn well that the life of a devoted big sis (Lee Eon-jeong) is going to get burdensome when she and her younger sibling (Park Soo-in) get orphaned. Plus there's that whole matter of the incubus (Choi Ri-ho) who used to rape her at night but has now moved on to the younger sister. Big sis may wisely consult a local shaman (Kim Yeon-jeong) to deal with the oversexed spirit but before any sexorcism is about to happen, someone is also going to have to deal with that troublesome ex-boyfriend (Kim Jae-seung) who just got back into town and is in crazy-eyed, super-stalker mode. You can almost hear the voices in big sis's head asking, "Which should I get rid of first? The ghost or the psycho? The ghost or the psycho?" What would you advise? Lee Hyeon-cheol's A Touch of Unseen is not a movie with easy answers.

Complicating the situation further is that the reality that psycho is jealous of the ghost for impregnating the love of his life with a basketball-sized air bubble and the ghost isn't about to let the psycho come between him and his unwilling dream lover. If big sis had waited it out on the sidelines, maybe one of these two villains would've taken the other one out? And if psycho took out the demon — or vice versa — then big sis could simply deal with whichever male monster remained. But danger and patience rarely go hand in had. So why be surprised that the loving guardian here is way too antsy to wait?

Should you feel it necessary to condemn the choices made, please remember: This well-meaning woman is working late shifts at a phone bank so she's sleep-deprived and therefor, judgment-impaired. A best friend (Yoon Chae-yeong-I) is there to step in when she fails. You do what you can. And should you need to do it again, I'd call the sequel, A Second Touch of Unseen.

January 13, 2016

Kiss Me, Kill Me: Hired Killer, Suicidal Dame

I'm on the fence about Shin Hyeon-jun. Sure, he's handsome as hell and charming to boot but can he act? I'm beginning to doubt it. So what if he's likable in the Married to the Mafia movies? Big deal if he can hold his own in the Son of a General series. Kudos to him for picking scripts that lead to franchises — and no doubt his bank is well stocked — but damn him for never going deep, especially now when deep is just what Kiss Me, Kill Me needs. Don't brush me off with the retort that this is an absurdist comedy about a hired assassin who falls for a klutzy young client (Kang Hye-jeong) who initially wants him to kill her because she doesn't have the wherewithal to off herself. Since writer-director Yang Jong-Hyun's movie occasionally lurches into places where a little gravity would go a long way.

The despair that comes when you find out that the love of your life still pines for another, the fear that accompanies aging out of your career while lacking other marketable skills, the longing which struggles to come to the surface when you're hemorrhaging from a gunshot wound and your girlfriend is holding you in her arms... These are all situations that another actor might've run with but Shin tends to flatten out at such moments, at best transitioning from a blank stare to a sly smile that admittedly wins you over but at what cost? Must Shin always revert to summoning up the appeal of a puppy?

I don't mean to undersell Shin. He's a deft light comedian, a master of the side-eye, the double-take and deadpan in general. Without him, Kiss Me, Kill Me wouldn't be worth watching at all. But there are some actors you really, really like that you wish that you could love. For that to happen with Shin, we'd need to get serious. He's made over two dozen movies. Perhaps our cinematic romance lies ahead. Until then, we're not really on speaking terms, as friends.

January 2, 2016

The Scarlet Letter: Extramarital Insanity

I first started watching Korean movies in 2004 when I covered the Fifth Annual New York Korean Film Festival, during which I saw more than a couple of movies that totally blew my mind. That was, for me, a year of embarrassing riches: Save the Green Planet, Memories of Murder, Oldboy, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring were all in the festival lineup. But there's another movie from '03 that I saw back then and that I've often omitted when reflecting on the start of my obsession with Korean cinema: Byun Hyuk's The Scarlet Letter, which strikes me now as every bit as psychologically devastating and calculatingly violent as any of the previously mentioned movies.

Perhaps my omission stems from the fact that the movie was in the subsequent year's festival (which I also covered). Perhaps it's because so much of The Scarlet Letter, while, exquisitely executed, feels at first to be simply, a really great thriller. Will detective Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) discover whether or not photoshop owner Kyeong-hie (Seong Hyeon-a) bashed in her husband's head? Will Ki-hoon's wife (Uhm Ji-won) uncover the affair he's having with her best friend from college, Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju)? It's all beautifully shot, written, paced, and acted but it's not until a late-in-the-game narrative free-fall that we're suddenly in the midst of something truly remarkable. The husband's death is revealed to be rife with complications; the affair, rooted in deception, turns extremely horrific when the two cheaters get trapped in the trunk of a car during a prank. Both Han and Lee turn in unforgettable performances, that will linger in your mind longer than you'd like them to. Illuminated by a lighter and confined to a space barely bigger than a coffin, their characters seem to exist in some weird existential no-man's-land that resurrects all past sins and promises no sure forgiveness. Han has never been better while Lee, sadly, committed suicide shortly thereafter. As final performances go, it's a stunner.