April 26, 2016

The Kick: 75% Korean, 25% Thai

How do you like your martial arts served up on the big screen? Slapsticky a la Jackie Chan or unshticky per Jet Li? Should you favor the flavor of comedic kicks, then this Korean fight flick has your name punched right into it. You'll witness kitchen fights using pots, pans and a live squid; high wire battles in which a ceiling fan functions as a mechanical spanker; and debilitating destroyer dance-moves triggered by a monkey who activates inspirational music on a stray cellphone. Of course, there's a plot stringing together all these elaborate chopsocky routines. To wit:

Mom (Ye Ji-won) and Dad (Jo Jae-hyeon) run a taekwondo studio in Bangkok where their teenaged son (Na Tae-joo), who favors harem pants, gets into trouble when he foils the theft of an ancient sword (strangely devoid of supernatural powers). When the thieves — ruled by an easily scarred pretty boy — seek revenge and the high-priced weapon (value: $3 million), complications multiply. Bombs are strapped to bodies; people get trapped in overpopulated crocodile terrariums; a child named Typhoon is suspended mid-air.

Solutions are easy to come by though: A black eye is washed away in a waterfall and range-top gas can be inhaled then spewed out as a flame by putting a lighter in front of your mouth. Everyone knows martial arts here, even the elephants, and those who don't, like the family's beloved manager Uncle Mum (Petchtai Wongkamlao), learn so quickly they're soon teaching classes themselves. If that last actor's name looks decidedly un-Korean to you, that's because it's not. The Kick is a joint venture of the Korean and Thai film industries. That cross-cultural exchange extends behind the camera too as the director (Prachya Pinkaew) is Thai while the screenwriter (Lee Jong-suk) is Korean. The world needs more cultural hybrids like this. And more silly martial arts movies.

April 25, 2016

After the Banquet: I'm Reminded of a Day-Old Danish

It's not often that a movie's creators namecheck their inspiration directly in the opening credits but that's just what director Kim Yun-cheul and his screenwriter Rie Yokota have done in After the Banquet. The movie that inspired them is After the Wedding, an amazing, emotionally naked Danish movie about an expat teacher/drifter working at an orphanage in the slums of India who's suddenly called back to Denmark to witness the marriage of the daughter he didn't know he'd had. Susanne Bier's film is a remarkable piece of work, a gut-wrenching family drama all about the dictates of money and the debts of blood. You can see how Kim and Yokota would want to make it their own. You can also understand how they'd want to avoid duplicating it too closely since it's so exquisite as it is.

Too bad all the changes they make to distinguish their variation, lower the stakes. For whereas the original had a wedding guest suddenly coming face to face with an old flame, a new relation, and his ongoing shortcomings, the update has a recently orphaned daughter (a cloying Ko Ah-sung) searching for her long lost daddy among the male wedding guests, most of whom slept with her carefree mom. Because of that, After the Banquet owes a lot more to Mamma Mia! — my vote for Meryl Streep's worst movie — than it does to After the Wedding. The kindest thing you can say when comparing After the Wedding and After the Banquet is that they both find equally handsome grooms in their leading men: Mads Mikkelsen and Shin Sung-woo. Yet even here any comparisons put the Koreans in a distant second place: Mikkelsen's stardom was instantaneous with the mid-'90s international hit Pusher; his luminosity only increasing once he exploded stateside with NBC's Hannibal. As for Shin, while he too hit it big time in the mid-'90s (as a rock star), his subsequent acting career has been primarily Korean soaps. Definitely, a less glamorous story. Still, you gotta love Shin's man-bun.

April 23, 2016

The Carnivores: Unlikable Rapist Saves Rape Victim

God, how I wish Yoo-joon (Kim Jeong-hoon), the main guy in The Carnivores, had not raped his married girlfriend in the beginning of this movie. And I wish that he had not, shortly thereafter, become a Peeping Tom, who watched — albeit silently horrified — as a 20something villager (Cha Ji-hun) was sexually assaulted by multiple men night after night. But wishing can't make it so. Especially when misanthropic writer-director Ha Won-joon's wishes are so contrary to my own. Ha wants to create an antihero that's despicable, deplorable, dumb. Ha wants to present a rape victim (not a rape survivor) — giving her a knife and night blindness so that she can't use the knife when the men come to attack. The best you can say about this script is that no one has the cards stacked in his favor: All the characters are equally stupid. This uniform idiocy means that the "hero" has to retrieve a professional-grade camera in order to visually document any crimes instead of using his cellphone; that a pair of townsmen tracking the escaping couple needlessly trade weapons before splitting up in the woods, only to reconnect again not much later after one of the two townies is dead. (He got his foot stuck in a bear trap then his head bashed by a stone.)

This is a universe in which traumatized children euthanize their ailing mothers as a way to achieve closure, old waitresses are still subject to sexual harassment while pouring drinks at work, and drunk war vets sit in a circle and laughingly recount their most unforgivable crimes... People are heinous, aren't they? But for that matter so are some actors. How else to label a person who would accept a role in a movie that's so outrightly misogynist? No one went into this production hoping to make art so who do you hold accountable for the inadvertent message, gross as it is? The Carnivores is a low-grade fright flick that doesn't scare or care. It sickens. As B-movies go, Hera Purple this is not.

April 11, 2016

Love 911: Sirens Will Lure You to Your Own Destruction

Beautiful people can't resist beautiful people. That's a cruel certainty to swallow. Yet what else to ingest after watching Love 911? Jeong Gi-hoon's rom-com of destiny pairs off a big-hearted, widowed fireman (Go Soo) with an understandably single amoral woman (Han Hyo-ju) whose one effective hook is her looks. And why? Because character defects are so "whatever"!

It doesn't matter that our ingenue's impressive paychecks as an ER doctor are about to end because of her callous negligence. It doesn't matter that her negligence almost cost her best friend (Jin Seo-yeon) her job as well. It doesn't matter that her disregard for others has landed a possible victim of domestic abuse in a coma. It doesn't matter that she lies about her own mother's death to score points with her intended. She's cute. She's flirty. Her susceptibility to fainting spells shows that she's vulnerable too. What else could you want?

Okay. Okay. Our petty lady doctor evolves through Love 911. She does learn to cry for her sins; to share a true personal tragedy about her dad; to invest in saving lives, instead of making cold hard-won won. By the end, when the fireman's finally hot for her, we know why. She's a fully rounded person! But it's hard to believe she'd go from ice-cold to caring or that he'd have kept doing shots with her until she'd grown a heart.

Wait a second. Is this movie about drunk goggles? Is that it? Is it about how alcohol impairs our judgment of character as well as of beauty? Or does attractiveness simply wear us down? An equally handsome fellow firefighter (Kim Seong-oh) is quite immune to the charms of his female coworker (Hyun Jyu-ni) until she shows up wearing a skintight dress. One imagines that ultimately Love knows no logic but the attraction of heels — the high kind, and the despicable.

April 9, 2016

Cyrano Agency: The Act of Love

Since movies and TV shows often inundate us with preposterously poignant courtships culminating in impossibly eloquent professions of love, is it that far-fetched to imagine a future where matchmaking agencies are consulted to "script" your first encounter, your subsequent dates, and your wedding proposal? Bolstered by a sublimely humorous script and warmly amusing performances, writer-director Kim Hyun-seok's Cyrano Agency is at once an endearing send-up of the crappy faux reality romances we're spoon-fed across all the various mediums, and a big-hearted rom-com that knows that intentions, not well-crafted monologues or fairy dust, are the greater indicator that someone is guided by his or her fast-beating heart.

So don't let the cynical machinations of the matchmaking agency get in your way of seeing that this is a movie all about true romantics, and that these true romantics are both inside and outside the agency: There's Byeong-hoon (Eom Tae-woong), the agency director who employs stage magic into the art of seduction; Sang-yong (Choi Daniel), the lovelorn hedge fund guy, who wants to be a knight in shining armor; Min-Yeong (Park Shin-hye), the agency's second-in-command who's crushing on her boss big time; and Hee-joong (Lee Min-jung), the boss's ex- who happens to be their current client's dream-girl. Even Hee-joong's cynical sidekick appears to be a softie at the core, once you've plied her with a few glasses of red wine.

To say that I cried a few times during Cyrano Agency doesn't say much since I sometimes cry at the sappiest of movies. To say that I laughed more than a few times says more, but not a ton, is also faint praise, since my laugh of condescension gets just as much use as my laugh of joy. But to say that I feel this movie is really, really smart is higher praise. My brain is less often stimulated than my tear ducts or funny bone by movies. And when I'm stimulated in all areas, well that's kinda hot.

April 2, 2016

State of Play: Are You a Terran, a Zerg or a Protoss?

Where do you go to make hundreds of thousands of Euros just for playing StarCraft? To Seoul, my friend, to Seoul. Here, teenage boys and young men in their early 20s bang away at desktop keyboards with frantic fingers, hoping to achieve galactic domination (while a theater full of screaming, excited young girls watches them zap each other's avatars to death). But if you think these players conform to your stereotype of American gamers, you're in for a bit of surprise, as players resemble — moreso — K-pop members with their skinny black jeans, Bieber-esque haircuts and sporty "game time" uniforms. You wonder if the coaches and the management are looking for "cuteness," alongside quick reaction time, as a prerequisite for new recruits.

It's a bizarre world, indeed, although I wish writer-director (and producer-cinematographer) Steven Dhoedt had given us more footage of the matches themselves as the accompanying play-by-play commentary is highly entertaining when overheard in the brief clips we see. I was also curious as to what kind of training the gamers undergo. (A montage of superstar Lee Jae Dong doing pull-ups and walking the treadmill suggests that prep work involves more than sitting at a console 10 hours per day.) I would've also liked more info on this particular video game itself: Why do some players choose to be a Zerg? What are the special abilities of a Protoss? Are Terrans the closest things to human beings? Do players have signature moves? How did StarCraft II differ from the original? State of Play skips a lot of details. Perhaps it would've benefited from focusing on less people, especially the gushy fan-girl, to make more time for these kinds of facts for someone like me, an admitted video game ignoramus. It's like a documentary on a rock band that short changes you on their signature music. I needed a little more concert footage and a little less product placement for Dunkin Donuts.