November 23, 2016

Alive: Barely

Bad people do bad things. That's pretty obvious. But good people do bad things, too. And sometimes with the best intentions. Other times, it's simply because need becomes too great to remain unfailingly good. In Park Jung-bum's epic Alive (which runs about three hours), we see this over and over again — Jeong-cheol (played with hyperrealism by Park himself) — fights and connives to scrape together a living for himself, his mentally ill sister Soo-yeon (Lee Seung-yeon) and her young daughter Ha-na (Shin Haet-bit) with no resources to draw on outside of his wits. He'll do construction, factory work, anything he can to keep his little family unit together. That means he's not above selling out the elders who have taught him how to process soybean paste or unhinging the front door of an orphaned boy's home to make a point. You may question his logic now and then but you're also excruciatingly aware that his thinking is colored by having to sleep in a tent in an unheated house and to steal a large radish from a local store in order to survive. Bulgogi and scallion pancakes are not on his menu.

To call Alive gritty would be an understatement. More like artfully soiled or ingeniously smudged or willfully covered in crap. Poverty is one hell of a great oppressor and any act of tenderness — the desperate plea for charity that Myeong-hoon (Park Myoung-hoon makes to his brother; the human shield assumed by ex-girlfriend Jin-yeong (Lee Eun-woo) when some drunkenly indignant customers go on the attack — registers as an unexpected gift of the highest rank, when it's all you can do to get by. For it is love and kindness that make humanity defensible as a species. Without it, you almost wish humankind would simply stop propagating and leave the now-damaged planet to the other species and plants which have some how made it this far despite our rapaciousness, despite our meanness, despite our disregard. And Alive documents that too. It's not a pretty picture. But it's a necessary one. Writer-actor-director-cinematographer-producer Park is definitely a multitalented one to watch.

November 14, 2016

Entangled: Whose Death Is It Anyway?

What makes for an unhappy family? My relationship to my parents is complicated. One brother I talk to weekly; the other, yearly at best. Both my brothers are divorced with kids. I wouldn't say my childhood was rosy but I wouldn't say it was terrible either. Do most of us see our upbringing as typical despite all the little variations and kinks therein? Be that as it may, the Kims of Entangled are a truly cursed and miserable lot. Even when things are going relatively well at the start of Lee Don-ku's bleak kitchen-sink drama, no one seems even slightly contented although the son-in-law (Song Il-kook) is giving it his damnedest to put on his best face. But as for the anxious mother (Kim Young-ae) who's memory is slipping away, the cranky older daughter (Do Ji-won) who's having a difficult pregnancy, and the youngest (Kim So-eun) who's getting bullied by a tough classmate (Lee Min-ji) at her high school, all three are suffering, suffering, suffering. Or so they think. Because everything's about to go down right the toilet big time. They didn't know how good they had it!

Director Lee is no stranger to grim realities. His previous film Fatal was a despairing look at a guilt-ridden man seeking for redemption from a rape victim. But this time around, he's less interested in seeing how people try to repair the damage they've done (or survive the pain they've undergone) and more committed to showing how much worse things can get. Bit by bitter bit. A series of deaths — one accidental, one suicidal, two intentional — all lie ahead as does insanity, prostitution, corporal punishment, and a bloody nose. Let's just say only one major character survives and the rest are probably glad they didn't. The only "kind" character — a teacher (Kim Geun-young) who brings diapers to the new mom and worries about the younger sister going "bad" — has two scenes I think. They're like little reprieves from all the misery. Not sunshine exactly. Just a lightening of the storm. In life, I guess sometimes that will have to do when gray skies are here to stay.

November 8, 2016

Viva! Love: Harold and Maudlin

I did not need to see Oh Joum-Kyun's Viva! Love. Not this week. Not this year. This "feel-heavy" dramedy about a middle-aged woman (Kim Hae-suk) who finds new meaning — or is it old meaning? — in life after she gets accidentally impregnated by the drunk drycleaning boyfriend (Kim Young-min) of her career-chasing daughter (Kim Hye-na) is infused with a desperation that no amount of chocolate candy or honey-flavored beverages can remedy. No, this expectant mother is not joyous about life and love. Most of the film, she comes across as decidedly depressed, an unfulfilled hausfrau who busies herself by preparing snap-top containers of lunch or hanging up wet laundry to dry. Her rule-breaking romance kicks off in a distastefully gross manner: She carries her soon-to-be lover's passed out body home to the room he rents from her then plays with his vomit-covered lips with her finger. Their inevitable courtship is childlike at best: She's either coyly eating ice cream from a cone or taking care of him like a parent. As to those bicycle rides he offers, they should be an invitation back to lost youth but the way she accepts them is more indicative of a self-conscious grandparent worried about breaking her hip.

The problem here isn't that love and sex can't cross generations so much as this particular woman never stops playing mom while her young man just seems starved for attention. What she's looking to rediscover isn't romance so much as motherhood. Now she's got two additional children: her tenant and the baby on the way. That gag Oh introduces suggesting the sound of her orgasming sends her economically-challenged neighbors into sexual overdrive is either an AARP fairy tale or an Ensure-induced food coma that wasn't clearly framed in the edit. What does feel real is the acceptance of this third wheel by the once-cheating husband (Gi Ju-bong). When you get older, convention seems like a crock. The man of the house hasn't slept with the lady of the house in some time. As long as she's still helping out at the karaoke bar, why not let her recreate and procreate in her free time?

November 3, 2016

The Handmaiden: Woman Is the Future of Man

Lady Vengeance marked a turning point in Park Chan-wook's career, being as it was, his first feature film to have a female protagonist. He'd had important female characters before: the radical girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the unfortunate daughter in Oldboy, even the special investigator in Joint Security Area. Yet, as you can see, these women were largely defined by their relationships to men. Once Park put a woman front and center, however, his female characters got a hell of a lot more interesting. The insane young woman in I'm a Cyborg, But that's Okay and his variation of Therese Raquin for his vampire flick Thirst are much more complicated than the various women who came before. I guess, Park simply realized that he couldn't get Song Kang-ho for every movie he was making.

Which isn't to say that Park has moved beyond the male gaze with his latest. To the contrary, The Handmaiden seems to revel in it. The more powerful his on-screen women become, the more sexual they become as well. This particular movie takes that idea to its utmost extreme. The love triangle that forms between an orphan-heiress (Kim Min-hee), the titular handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri), and a fraudulent Count (Ha Jung-woo) would in theory show three different pairings but when it comes to the kissing, stroking, fingering, nipple licking, felatio, scissoring, and the insertion of ringing balls, most of that's done by the two women to each other. Intercourse between a man and a woman is more likely to be threatened (or read via old smutty books) than actualized. But this it too titilating to be a feminist manifesto. Sometimes the sex is shown from a humorous vantage point (the crotch POV); other times, the nudity is highly theatrical (in profile atop a table). Park's often been criticized for the violence in his movies (and there's definitely some shockers here) but you've got to give him credit: He also knows how to compose a picture — admittedly with some serious help from Chung Chung-hoon, the brilliant cinematographer who'd worked with him on six other films before this one.