March 31, 2016

The Propaganda Game: Who's Lying Now?

I'm going to assume going in to this movie that you already know that North Korea's population has a cult-like devotion to its leaders as a direct result of the country's constant and inescapable brainwashing machine. But what you may not know is that propaganda related to North Korea goes both ways. Since the country has nearly impenetrable borders, the information we get about what's going on North of the DMZ is necessarily fragmented, piecemeal, and easily misinterpreted. I'm not disavowing the existence of the prison camps or the famine that ravaged the country in the 1990s (despite Spanish defector Alejandro Cao de Benós strangely sunny disavowal of any negativities), but you do come away from Álvaro Longoria's documentary The Propaganda Game with a sense that the Western press has its own agenda and its not simply to tell the honest truth.

What we see is certainly strange enough: city streets with relatively few pedestrians, computer labs with no students, a museum that feels like a stage set. When we're told that the sample church that Longoria visits is a fake, you've no way of knowing if it's really an elaborately staged hoax, a cultural aberration, or a prime example of a reality the West refuses to admit exists. Is there anyway to truly know? I'm not that sure. But, as one journalist points out, it does seem a bit crazy to think that the nation is employing a bunch of actors to populate an elaborate theme-park experience for journalists and tourists. What seems more likely is that there's a hierarchy here and some people have it good, more have it less good, and many have it very, very bad. The country boasts free education and housing with a catch: You don't decide what you'll learn or where you'll live.

My fascination and wariness continue.

March 18, 2016

The Grand Heist: Frozen Assets

The 47 Ronin. The Dirty Dozen. The Hateful Eight. The Magnificent Seven. Apparently, those on a quest like to gather in relatively large numbers. I don't know what to call the rebellious collective found in Kim Joo-ho's feature debut The Grand Heist but there are eleven of them on board: a tunnel digger (Ko Chang-seok), an explosives expert (Sin Jeong-geun), an underwater swimmer (Min Hyo-rin), and a financial backer (Sung Dong-il), among others. Why have they banded together? Why, to steal roomfuls of ice, that's why. Ice, you ask, like diamonds? No. Ice like frozen water, stupid. Hundreds and hundreds of big blocks of it stored in secret rooms underground.

Set in the late 1700s, The Grand Heist is, oddly enough, a period piece first, a comedy second, and a heist flick last and least. There's plenty of planning and scads of scheming, but the importance of the crime (or even the value of ice, for that matter) never really registered for me. I got that the heist itself is an act of revenge, since the two leaders (Cha Tae-hyun, Oh Ji-ho) are motivated by the unjust imprisonment of the father of one, and the cruel mass killing of the co-workers of the other. I also got that the price of ice was jacked up by a shady businessman, disloyal to the king. But I didn't get how the theft of frozen goods (and with it the discovery of an obscene amount of gold) was going to make a big difference in how the government was run, despite a forged letter intended to influence the political future of the dynasty. Too much silliness abounds.

Translation note: The original Korean title for this movie is "Baramgwa Hamkke Sarajida" which means "Gone with the wind" so it's not hard to figure out why the American distributors decided to change it. That said, it might've been smarter to have assigned a title that was a little less genre-focused. My suggestion: "Frozen Assets."

March 6, 2016

Rise of the Miniskirt: Nora Noh: Dressed for Success

Many major questions remain unanswered at the end of the "fashion icon" documentary Rise of the Miniskirt: Nora Noh. How could the young dressmaker afford to go to the U.S. to study, following her divorce at age 19? Whatever happened to her Japanese ex-husband? Were there other loves in her life? How did she get to be the first Korean designer to take over the ground-floor windows at Macy's flagship in NYC and what was the reaction from the American press at that time? (Same for her covers on Vogue and Harper's Bazaar!) Who are her fashion progeny? What stores carry her clothes today? Whose wearing her today? But even with these omissions, Rise of the Miniskirt is a pretty informative portrait of the groundbreaking ready-to-wear clothing designer, who lived through the Japanese occupation and the military coup in Korea; a symbol of female liberation who was bringing Western ideas about stylish and pragmatic women's wear to a culture and workplace that was redefining itself after WWII and the Korean War.

Rich with archival footage of and contemporary interviews with longtime clients such as pop singer Yoon Bok-hee and movie stars Eom Aeng-ran and Choi Ji-hee — all wearing Noh's designs both then and now, the film makes you ache to see more from Korea's mid-century culture, like the movies Horse-Year Bride and A Sister's Garden (which used Noh's shop as one of its locations). Some of the clothes are still quite stylish — a long sliced coat in white; pretty much anything Noh wears now in her 80s! Other outfits look dated, even clumpy. (Well, who doesn't have misfires in their past?) But Noh, ever-confident, curious, and questioning, always feels worthy of investigation and celebration. It's easy to see why the stylist Suh Eun-young was inspired to organize a retrospective of Noh's work and why that would, in turn, inspire this documentary. She lives up to her Ibsen namesake well.