May 28, 2016

The Quiz Show Scandal: Only One Man Can Win So Let's Meet Everybody Else

For all the time it spends setting up the various back stories of its primary characters, Jang Jin's The Quiz Show Scandal truly only cares about one and then disconcertingly abandons him at the very end. Rather than give away who that one sympathetic guy is (no spoilers here except that he's a man), let's take a look at some of the various contenders we meet who don't end up mattering in the least. There's the sullen, boy-crazy teenager (Shim Euy-Kyung) who's part of an ineffective support group; a gambler (Ryu Seung-Ryong) saddled with a shrewish wife (Jang Young-Nam) and a debt; a nutty history professor who knows his French lit inside and out; and a well-coifed motorcyclist (Ryu Deok-Hwan) who delivers an empassioned speech about the sacrifices made by food delivery workers. Also competing are a cop, random women, and a martial arts instructor (Jeong Jae-Yeong) who shows up for the quiz show in his uniform. But these latter folks are clearly not in the running for the multi-million dollar prize. They're just extra color for a movie that's already got too much color to start with.

What's weird is that despite the many contestants we meet in The Quiz Show Scandal, the funniest characters don't feature in the actual competition, two being an unstable, attention-seeking woman who dominates the aforementioned support group and a preposterously drunk guy at the police station who shouts out all the right answers for the game show when it's on TV. Her rage and his incoherence would have been welcome additions to the quiz itself and would have amplified any paranoia experienced by game show host (Lee Hae-Yeong) who may or may not be responsible for the death of the woman (Han Soo-Jin) who crafted the difficult questions for the show that has made him a star. There's a third memorable comic turn from writer-director Jang himself. As a self-styled master police chief, Jang's timing is spot-on, his persona hilariously off. I'm not saying Jang should act but not direct or write for future movies. But he could definitely give himself a bigger role with his next one.

May 22, 2016

Red Family: Suburban Assassins

When is a Kim Ki-Duk movie not really a Kim Ki-Duk movie? Basically, whenever he writes it and produces it but doesn't direct it. That doesn't happen often but it has happened a few times recently and, as in most things in life, sometimes it works (Rough Cut) and sometimes it doesn't (Red Family). What's intriguing is that in both cases cited here, comedy — hardly Kim's forte — comes to the fore. Yet whereas the exhilarating Rough Cut, about a gangster who gets cast in a mob movie, relishes every punch and kick at its disposal, Red Family never reconciles the physical brutality (or the "brutal realities" as Kim would probably put it) with its kooky plot about North Korean spies posing as a happy family just outside Seoul. Whenever violence rears its ugly head in these suburbs (and it does so with some regularity), you get the feeling that director Lee Ju-Hyoung doesn't know what to do with it. It's like he can't bear it. Like he doesn't know what it's even doing there. Like he'd faint at the sight of blood. Even though he's the director. Even though it's fake blood.

Compounding the problem, Red Family's bloodiest scenes look incredibly underrehearsed. That may also be why Lee doesn't zoom in for the kills. If anything, he rushes through them. Like the constructed family this movie's about, Lee shies away from violence. He tries to avoid it. Why he decided to get graphic with the barbed wire piercings at the end of Red Family may have more to do with pleasing a mentor than staying true to a directorial vision. Or maybe it took shooting an entire Kim K-Duk movie to make Lee realize that Kim's primary message has always been about how violence is ingrained in us by our culture and that it's impossible to escape. At best, we can try. Anyone who knows Kim Ki-Duk is aware that everything is not going to work itself out in the end for these well-meaning commies. Every Kim movie has bloodshed coupled with emotional scarring. As to anyone unfamiliar with Kim, they'll likely recoil at the nasty turn Red Family takes at the end. Ironically, that's a shock Kim would probably endorse.

May 18, 2016

Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley: Ex-Con Goes on Killing Spree

It would be a bit of a stretch to say that the low-budget, high death-count pic Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley has a plot. What it has instead is a scenario that acts as n excuse to link one murder to the next with retaliatory violence in between plus some flashbacks to the brutal rape and murder that started this bloodbath of revenge to begin with. Writer-director Ji Ha-Jean has no favored method of offing his characters, mind you, but you can be damned sure that a single gunshot or knife wound is unlikely to do it: Ghostface (Yoon Sang-Hwa) has his throat slit then is shot in the chest; Axe (Kwak Ja-Hyeong ) is hacked with his namesake weapon before having his head bashed in by a stolen Buddha statue; the young girl in the flashback who is raped and murdered eventually has her face is peeled off. Those who survivor do not escape Scot free. The hero Chul-Gi (Lee Moo-Seang) — a young man of few words, who is out to exact revenge on his sister's killers — is stabbed, bludgeoned, punched, choked, hacked, clobbered, and even has his mouth cranked open with dental jacks we assume will lead to torture. He's one of the lucky ones, simply because he never receives that final death blow. Is the creepy little ballerina music box he's constructed while in prison — or is it juvie? — some kind of magic talisman that capable of warding off the Grim Reaper? Could be.

Equally charmed is Tae-yeon (Choi Ji-Eun), Iron-Rock Valley's only prostitute — hell, its only woman — who lures men to the local gambling den but defies the odds by staying alive, even as her boyfriend, dad (who happens to be a monk), and child (at least I think it's her child) are gunned down. You'd think she and Chul-Gi were a perfect match. Yet when Chul-Gi heads off on his motorcycle into the sunset, she's not behind him with her his arms wrapped around his waist and her head leaning on his shoulder. There's no place for love in Iron-Rock so he leaves her behind to deal with her inheritance: a now abandoned temple with no tenants but a lot of ghosts.

May 14, 2016

Loveholic: Drunk in Love

According to Kwon Chil-In's chamber drama Loveholic, detox, rehab and AA meetings aren't the only ways for heavy-drinking Ji Eun (Chu Ja-Hyeon) to get her life back in order after assaulting a guy with a beer bottle during a black out the very night after she's been fired for incompetence. She can also move into the apartment of her best friend Kyung Rin (Han Soo Yeon) then have an affair with her friend's husband (Jung Chan) while basically plagiarizing a novel she admires as she tests her wings as a fledgling writer. That might work, too. Any pent up rage she's got left over can be processed at a local batting cage that thankfully keeps late hours.

As luck would have it, the well-orchestrated chaos that's set off by this unadvisable extramarital affair will help the married doctor discover his wife is already having a dalliance of her own, with his colleague Dong Joo (Kim Heung-Su), a bad-boy radiologist who teaches rock-climbing on the side. But in time, Doctor Number 2 also quickly grows bored with the repressed housewife who can't seem to understand that you can't transform someone's living quarters into a bourgeois home if the walls are all painted black. Also, a padded floral bra can only hold a man's interest for so long.

No one's particularly devastated by the ensuing divorce. Although tears are shed, no one's holding any grudges afterwards either. The doctor and the delinquent look destined for love. The housewife is probably getting a decent alimony. The radiologist has brought his bike back into the bedroom, Better Homes & Gardens be damned. Even the slacker guitarist (Geojung), who sorta had a thing with Ji Eun before he ran off to Japan, returns to Korea where they can resume that type of unsatisfying friendship that occurs between the self-destructive woman with ambitions and the slacker guy with pretensions. You can practically hear the "Remember that time when we..." reveries layered over the end credits.

May 11, 2016

Melo: She Will Have Him by Hook or by Crook

Yoon-Seo (Kim Hye-Na) expects a lot from her new boyfriend Tae-In (Lee Sun-Ho). Even after he's given her a new job at a trendier cafe, a new apartment with less ugly wallpaper, and a new sex life with more than one position, she still wants more, more being the abortion of the baby his old girlfriend (Kim Na-Mi) is carrying and the elimination of Tae-In's legs so that he'll be housebound and less likely to stray. To describe her as clingy would be an understatement. And yet...

There are things to argue in her favor. As a girlfriend she goes to extremes for Tae-In as well. She acts as a housemaid, a cook and a caretaker once he's dismissed from the hospital. She's not afraid to step in when he poops on himself. She'll act as a sex surrogate and teach him to like oral sex (which he wasn't that into before the accident). Does it make him a better man? Not really.

Lee Roy's Melo is people with despicable characters that extend into the supporting roles: an ex-boyfriend who thinks rape can be brushed off with a casual apology, a suicidal neighbor (Yoon Yeong-Min) who wants to discuss her satisfying sex life with her abusive boyfriend, a boss (Lee Young-Jin) who suspects the weird girl for stealing just because... Not a single person in Melo is someone with whom you'd want to have a cup of coffee despite the number of baristas seen on screen.

"Why live when a good up of coffee isn't enough?" becomes the main questions the characters ask themselves. Saddled with debt, guilt, an unwanted baby, a suitcase stuffed with body parts, and a needy girlfriend from Hell, every day proves to be a unbearable burden. And if, on top of it all, you were stuck with wearing the absolutely hideous burnt-orange, knit scarf that Yoon-Seo is apparently compelled to wrap around her throat year round, you too might consider hanging yourself or slitting your own throat.

May 5, 2016

The Black Hand: Hearts on the Chopping Block

Okay, torture porn fans, let's talk about amputation and love. We've got a long history of creepy movies to build on starting with the 1927 silent classic The Unknown in which Lon Chaney's knife-thrower has his arms removed in an effort to get closer to Joan Crawford's squeamish ingenue, the most engrossing version of The Hands of Orlac (1935), where Peter Lorre's mad doctor jealously grafts a killer's hands on his main rival, and Jennifer Lynch's 1993 debut Boxing Helena about a crackpot surgeon uses amputation as a way to keep his woman faithful. Love and losing limbs go hand in hand apparently.

Such is the case, once again, with The Black Hand, Park Jae-sik's gorey fright flick in which a quack transplant specialist (Kim Seong-Su) expands his entrepreneurial organ-harvesting business to include his wife (Shin Jeong-Seon), his mistress (Han Go-Eun) and his mistress's sister (Bae Geu-rin), all of whom incite a push-pull/cut-reattach impulse in him. What he has failed to take into account is that a transplant recipient takes on some of the characteristics of the donor. So while Dr. Dismemberment is banging every woman he can, including the local bartender (Han Soo Yeong), his latest science experiments are taking on the rage (as well as the body parts) of the doctor's scorned spouse (a.k.a. his human farm).

Given his luck with the ladies, I bet this demented doctor's main victim/colleague/creation/protege eventually has her attacker/boss/torturer/mentor's penis grafted onto somebody else as a way to honor the best part of their relationship. And why stop there? Why not re-purpose his hair, his ass, his eyes, his lips, his tongue, his teeth and that one hand he's always using to choke whichever partner he's currently pounding? Just because your abusive, heartless, narcissistic lover is dead is no reason to stop screwing with him. Stick with what works. And then find a host for it.