February 29, 2016

Stateless Things: When a Moving Picture Is a Moving Picture

Stateless Things left me thinking about how the word "movies" is shorthand for "moving pictures" and how "moving pictures" can mean a few things:

1. a two-dimensional portrait seemingly brought to life
2. an extension of Muybridge's artful experiments in capturing action
3. a portrait that makes you feel something deeply
4. any combination of the items above

Unafraid of prolonged silences or the slightest of conversations, director Kim Kyung-mook allows many scenes in Stateless Things to act upon you like snapshots or drawings, sculptures or mobiles. Like art. You're invited to look, not to listen, as your primary way of intuiting relationships, identities, stories. Observe the way bodies inhabit their environments. Let go of plot. Let go of conventional character development. An early sequence, in which Joon (Paul Lee) and Soonhee (Kim Sae-byeok) rush around pumping fuel at the gas station during rush hour, is enough to hold you captivated. A dance routine, performed by a "kept boy" (Yeom Hyun-joon) while his "daddy" (Im Hyeong-gook) is at work, conjures hidden dreams and desires even if there's no one else in the room to interpret/appreciate the act.

This distrust of telling too much with words is a hallmark of a certain type of indie film, and Stateless Things fearlessly trots out other tropes of the genre, with poetic lines demarcating the film's three parts, non-sequential narratives, and a strange ending that refutes its two separate story lines as being truly separate at all. You may have questions in terms of what actually happened at the end but asking questions is what Kim's moving picture is all about.

February 21, 2016

A Hard Day: Not-So-Good Cop, Not-So-Bad Cop

At what point does a sleazy cop (Lee Sun-kyun) who's committed a hit-and-run murder become sympathetic to you? Is it after you've realized that the person he's accidentally killed is a serial killer? Or is it once you've learned that the phone caller (Jo Jin-woong) harassing him for committing said reprehensible crime has a more sordid history in — and outside — the police department that employs them both? Or is it, sentimentalist that you are, when the car-crashing cop's innocent family is threatened by the unknown witness to his crime? For me, that turning point never happened. And that's not a bad thing.

In a world that appears to embrace antiheroes because of their charm, their snappy one-liners, and their adherence to a dubious moral code, A Hard Day feels refreshing for having a protagonist who is, when you stop to think about it, pretty irredeemable. He's a self-absorbed, petty, disrespectful bully who you're happy to see get his just desserts even as you wish the same unfortunate comeuppance for his nemesis. When the two butt heads, you wish they'll both get concussions in the process. The closest writer-direct Kim Seong-hoon's highly entertaining thriller comes to sympathetic characters are the understatedly hunky detective (Jeong Man-sik) who's left a trail of receipts documenting his illegal use of government funds to hire prostitutes, and the squad chief (Sin Jeong-geun) who apparently will look the other way, regardless of the crime. The rest of the department is pretty forgettable.

In a nice Aristotelian touch, the entire action of A Hard Day is supposed to take place within one single day. (Hence, the title.) Although that feels highly unlikely, it does give the action a sense of speed that heightens the excitement. One assumes, the lead character will deal with the divorce papers he's served early on tomorrow.

February 14, 2016

Handphone: Someone's Number Is Up

While it's neither the most thrilling thriller nor the most action-packed action movie, Kim Han-min's Handphone is solid enough on both counts and takes it all up a notch with side stories intermittently addressing serious societal issues. That means while the shameless talent agent is trying to retrieve his cellphone (which contains a porn video of an actress he's representing), you also witness scenes of workplace sexual harassment, corporate disregard, middle-class debt, road rage, inadequate health care and the sheer inanity of a "customer's always right" mentality. A kind of karmic retribution informs all the proceedings.

The initial villain, a masochistic store manager (Park Yong-woo) who seizes his chance to make the demands of someone else, turns out to be a pitiable son with a mother in the hospital leading to bills he cannot not pay. The initial hero, a smartly dressed pimp (Eom Tae-woong) for actors, has big skeletons in his closet than the X-rated clip of his hottest property decreasing her value hump by hump. Because they're both kind of despicable, your only question is whether either anti-hero will survive. Without spoiling the ending, I will say that the one who triumphs has a bitter pill to swallow with the champagne.

Anyway, the real bad guy here is unquestionably the cellphone. In its tensest moments, Handphone reminds you how much of our lives is controlled by these "convenience" devices. They harrass us, make promises they never keep, interrupt us, and betray us. For the accessibility they provide, they exact a ridiculous price. As such, Handphone might sound like a message movie decrying the damage these phone have wreaked on our lives. But given how much we've integrated them in our day-to-day, if that's the message, I doubt anyone is coming away from Handphone ready to discard his or her own.

February 13, 2016

24 Hours to Die: No Luck, No Pity

I had a strange experience while watching Kwon Hyeong-jin's 24 Hours to Die in that, at first, my heart really went out to the main character (Yoo Hae-jin), a humble, average-looking, working-class dad who's cute-as-a-button daughter (Lee Joon-ha) has the same heart ailment that killed his wife. But at some point my own heart went cold and I just didn't care anymore. As our pathetic hero's lot grew worse and worse, I continued to watch but now from a very detached point of view. God, how I disliked him. He got ripped off by a friend at poker. Too bad. He got framed by a mob boss (Kim Tae-Han) for multiple murders. Who cares? He picked up a serial killer (Jin Ku) who ended up incriminating him for a subsequent series of brutal murders. Well, he deserved it.

I wasn't mean about it. I didn't want his daughter to die. Or his truck to get a flat. Or him to get accidentally shot by a cop (Bang Yeong) with a strange nose injury hidden by bandages. I didn't care what happened to him. When, during the final, sometimes-underwater wrestling match with his nemesis whose one eye he's slashed with a shard of glass and the other, popped with his finger or thumb, and our protagonist discovered that miraculously, the bad guy's eyes have somehow come back, I assumed the freak return of the eyeballs was an editing oversight. Producers watching the dailies refused to give any more funds. The actors wouldn't return for a reshoot. Screenwriter Jang Hyung-mo considered renaming himself Alan Smithee. Unless the movie was suddenly getting poetic or trippy. Maybe the gaffe is art? Whatever the cause, I certainly welcomed the shock.

In the movie's favor is this marvelous tagline: "A cargo of corpses, a serial killer on the loose and one very unlucky driver."

February 12, 2016

A Barefoot Dream: Rallying for Sports Movies

You don't have to enjoy watching sports (I don't) to enjoy sports movies (I do) because, at the root, the sports movie is generally about overcoming adversity be it, class, disabilities, self-esteem, loneliness, oppression... It's a rare sports movie that isn't tackling a few of these issues on its way to the winners' circle. Think about it! In Marathon, a young man with autism finds meaning (and a friend) via running; in Punch Lady, a survivor of domestic abuse learns to fight back; even in the great horror pic The Host there's a sports movie subplot about an Olympic archer who learns not to crumble under pressure. These are satisfying movies, one and all. Keep thinking about it and you'll see that team sports tend to lead to even more uplifting experiences on the big screen: In YMCA Baseball, some scrappy Korean athletes defeat their Japanese counterparts on the diamond; in Glove, teenagers with hearing impairments bond to form a baseball team worth cheering for; and Lifting King Kong, young teen girls living in poverty discover their self worth via weightlifting. (I know, I know but tell me you don't think weightlifting is a team sport after you've watched Lifting King Kong.)

That the latter three are all based on real-life stories, makes them all the more heartwarming. The latest flick to join this list of ripped-from-the-sports-pages tearjerkers is A Barefoot Dream. Kim Tae-gyun's feel-good flick concerns a soccer team in war-torn East Timor, that's coached by a former middling if professional soccer player (Park Hee-soon) from South Korea. The boys (all poor, often parent-less) and their unlikely mentor bond and go on to compete in an international youth league's championship in Hiroshima. How far they go seems like a movie fantasy until you learn that their victories were real. The acting is not particularly good but considering the actual story of human triumph against the odds, it's hard to grumble about such things as that.