December 11, 2016

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2016 (Sort of)

Zombies on the loose. Backstabbing lesbian lovers. Amoral cops. A young man with a disease that causes him to wake up each morning in a different body. 2016 was a lousy years in some respects (job, politics, family) but at least it gave me what I needed in terms of Korean movies. Below are my ten favorite movies — all viewed within the last twelve months — in alphabetical order. It was easy to pick 'em; impossible to rank 'em.

1. Alive: In Park Jung-bum's grimly naturalistic epic, poverty is one helluva oppressor and tenderness the sweetest, most unexpected thing life has to offer.

2. A Barefoot Dream: Kim Tae-gyun's ripped-from-the-sports-pages tearjerker is about an East Timor soccer team coached by a middling, former pro soccer player (Park Hee-soon) from South Korea.

3. The Beauty Inside: This wondrous sci-fi pic from Baek Jong-yeol asks how would our relationship to our soulmate change (or even survivor) if the exterior appearance kept changing every day?

4. Cyrano Agency: Imagine a future in which a matchmaking agency "scripts" your first encounter, subsequent dates, and wedding proposal. Now make it a rom-com.

5. The Handmaiden: Park Chan-wook's always made fascinating female characters but never more so than here in this lesbian erotic thriller based on Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith.

6. A Hard Day: How often do narrative and character shortcomings make you reflect? This sleazy cop procedural, starring Lee Sun-kyun, pleases by disappointing in interesting ways.

7. Kundo: The Age of the Rampant: The better of two martial arts flicks I really enjoyed this year, the other being The Kick, has the advantage of Ma Dong-seok in a major role.

8. Miss Granny: The central performance from Shim Eun-kyung, as an old woman miraculously gifted her young body again, is deliriously good. Plus, she can sign.

9. The Scarlet Letter: Is this the most harrowing love triangle in Korean film? It's certainly in the running. I first saw it over ten years ago and it's lost none of its power.

10. Train to Busan: Although it falls tenth on this alphabetical list, this zombie flick — with a great ensemble cast — was the most thrilling movie of the year. In short, number 10 is number 1.

December 9, 2016

E.D. 571 (a.k.a. Modern Family): The Egg Plays Chicken

Out in the real world, Screen Actors Guild award-winner and multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Sofia Vergara (star of the ABC sitcom Modern Family) is being sued by her filthy rich ex-fiancee Nick Loeb (star of nothing) on "behalf" of her two frozen embryos. Which makes the not-too-distant-future plot of "E.D. 571" (part of the 2012 omnibus Modern Family) feel more-than-quaintly antiquated. What's so "out there" about a 12-year-old girl (Woo Ji) — whose divorced parents have just disowned her — blackmailing the egg donor (Seon Woo-seon), that she's holding responsible for her very existence, compared to a petty, jilted man, with a lot of money to burn, fighting for the right to impregnate a woman's eggs, a woman he's not even seeing anymore. No, some sci-fi movies need to catch up to reality. Although, today it feels almost impossible to do so. The worst case scenario is repeatedly being hatched way before you've even conceived it.

Maybe Lee Soo-youn's "E.D. 571" is slightly science fiction. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it's plain old realism. Maybe there already are hacker tweens out there bribing selfish corporate execs who have serious ethical deficiencies. I can easily picture a thriving subculture of underage renegades who squat in abandoned tenements and siphon off electricity to run their laptops and tablets, from which they break into poorly protected cyber accounts so as to earn money to pay for their food, their clothes, their entertainment, and, if they're really good at cracking codes, their jewelry, their drugs, their better housing, their cars, and their trips abroad. How can this not be happening? But as "E.D. 571" — a very clever cat-and-mouse game — points out, the elders have a slight advantage for the moment in that they're well-versed in the arts of drugging, outwitting, entrapping, double-talking, cajoling, and other nefarious tactics. If the young are going to win (and God knows I hope they do), they must accept no food, no drink, no hugs, no gifts... nothing except a virtual deposit to their online account that can't be traced to anywhere except its front in Switzerland.

December 4, 2016

Grand Prix: Horsing Around

Little did I know but there's a special place called Jeju Island where all the Korean horseback riders whose lives have been hurt or harmed, ruined or ravaged by those big, beautiful beasts go to ride, romance, and recover. On this bucolic isle, during one recent cinematic escapade, we get to meet a small, representative sample of those on the mend: a female jockey (Kim Tae-hee) who fell off her saddle during a race and a male jockey (Yang Dong-kun) who blames himself for his best friend's death on the racetrack. We also get to meet a little girl (Park Sa-rang) who was orphaned when a stallion ran away in a storm (long story), a cranky old neighbor (Ko Du-shim) who lost her leg in a stable fire, and a blacksmith (Park Geun-hyeong) who specializes in horseshoes and pointlessly stabs his own leg. What's that, you ask. Well, you know how horses are about their legs? Exactly. And he's in this argument where he's making a point so...

Does this all make you want to visit Jeju Island? Before you answer, let me add that the island is graced with rolling green hills and two impossibly sexy, young men. (The one — played by Song Jae-rim — who lives at your accommodations has gorgeous long hair.) Both men will flirt with you but only one will be able to reconnect your dislocated shoulder, give you two four-leaf clovers, and steal your heart. Does this wondrous world of Yang Yun-ho's Grand Prix sound too good to be true? I'd have to agree with you there. It's a happiness that feels far from real. Trophy ahead.

Anyway, there are just as many reasons to leave the enchanted isle as well. You've got a feel-good sisterhood of fellow jockeys who want you to win the big race. You've got a lovingly crabby mom who runs a little cafe where the food is getting worse every year. You've got a gambling addiction that finds the perfect outlet at the track. (Put a dollar down on Tamra.) Just remember when you leave the island, the bad people will cheat you and undermine you and act like martyrs even though they're the ones causing all the pain. Stay strong. Stay in the race. And never give up on love.

December 1, 2016

Love So Divine: Catholic Taste in Women

When I was growing up, there really was an old shriveled-up married couple, across the street, who were a former nun and a former priest. If memory serves me right, good Catholics that they were, they had six children — four boys and two girls — and found temporary solace in the fact that their oldest son went on to become a priest. As fate would have it though, he too left the church eventually, perhaps because he was gay. He certainly seemed gay. I mention this because the infinitely less transgressive plot of the infinitely less prolific romance Love So Divine concerns a young novitiate (Kwon Sang-woo) who finds himself attracted to the ne'er-do-well niece (Ha Ji-won) of a church father (Kim In-mun) who's overseeing his final days before he's ordained.

What does he see in this young woman that leads him astray from the Lord? Nice legs. Nice ass. Looks good when she wears a veil like Mary. A taste in shoes that needs some guidance. Honestly, you'd think this young man had never seen a woman out of her habit before. Then again, what appeals to him about God? When urged by his short comic sidekick and fellow novice (Kim In-kwon) to describe God as the big man on campus to his charge as a way to increase the Lord's appeal and thereby lead her to a belated baptism, our hero presents a less-than-seductive picture. God ends up sounding like a boring fraternity brother who touts the Bible as cool.

Well, in writer-director Heo In-mu's alternate universe, a girl really can fall head over heels for a guy because he gives her a beaded necklace (a.k.a. a rosary) first and then a silver necklace with a mirrored pendant (for self-reflection and/or adoration) next. After an hour of prayer, she's going to melt when he whips out that matching set of hair-shirts the night of their honeymoon. Heaven knows, there'll be no devilish fun. These are the type of lovers who when they first profess their deepest feelings for each other hug instead of kiss. Soul mates are strictly platonic and would never kiss with the tongue.