June 15, 2017

Tunnel: Buried But Not Forgotten

I might be a little claustrophobic. Such was the realization I had while watching Tunnel, a relatively effective disaster pic about a kind-hearted salesman (Ha Jung-woo) whose car is buried deep in the earth after a poorly constructed tunnel suddenly collapses while he's driving home for his daughter's birthday. With boulders and dirt all around him and little more than a tin can with windows as his shelter, our Everyman is really caught between a rock and a hard place. Do you conserve energy? Do you strategize an escape? How do you stay sane alone? Such is his dilemma. At least at first. Eventually, he discovers another person and her adorable lapdog are also buried, and can be accessed via a large pipe conveniently connecting the two vehicles. Then later, I guess as further rumblings cause the rocks to realign, he's suddenly got a cave-like living-room right beside his car so he can get out an stretch, let the dog out to pee, and collect water dripping of a random bit of wire.

Why writer-director Kim Seong-hun undermines the initial, heart-stopping entrapment probably has a lot to do with how difficult it would be to sustain drama with little more than a birthday cake, two bottles of water, and a cellphone with a battery doomed to run out. Those above ground have an even harder time maintaining the drama as the rescue team leader (Oh Dal-su) drills a hole in the wrong location (couldn't they have pinpointed the location of the cellphone?) and the well-meaning wife (Bae Doona) sniffles, sulks, and fries eggs. But here's the thing with B-movies about life-threatening disasters. They don't have to be perfect to be perfectly fun.

What a disaster movie needs to do is pick a catastrophe and run with it. Pandora did it with a nuclear power plant malfunction, The Tower with a skyscraper going up in flames, and Tidal Wave with... well you can guess this one on your own can't you? Generally speaking the title gives it away. Next up: Flu!

June 11, 2017

The Drop Box: Fostering Good Will

Is it part of being middle aged and middle class that you throw yourself a pity party now and then? It sometimes looks that way yet my go-to response for such complaints is the question "Have you done any volunteer work lately?" Gainfully employed, healthy, able-bodied homeowners with a second place upstate and a robust 401K need to do a reality check next time they bring out their sad little noisemakers. One way to do that would be to watch Brian Ivie's humbling documentary The Drop Box which details the selfless, good samaritan work of Pastor and Mrs. Lee, two noble spirits helping to find homes for unwanted babies previously abandoned in the street. How they get these babies is a touch heartbreaking.

Although I'd never heard of such a thing before, evidently, there's this thing called a "baby box" or a "drop box" or a "baby hatch" (or in olden days, a "foundling wheel"). These repositories serve as a place for unhappy, unfortunate parents to discard infants that they simply cannot or will not raise. Drop boxes can be found everywhere from Pakistan to Germany to South Africa. Often they're run by churches but not always. In the USA, "safe haven laws" allow parents to turn over babies often at fire stations, no questions asked. But the Lees aren't just an exchange point. They're adopting a number of children, too — some of them with serious challenges.

The stories of some of those children should also act as a curative for any woe-is-me ailments. I was especially moved by their bespectacled son Ru-ri, a young boy with partially amputated fingers whose bright spirit, passion for Taekwondo, and respect for his father's life mission make you realize that nobler goals might be a good thing to start incorporating pronto. Considering all the meanness, corruption, and amorality in the world right now — right up to the US President — The Drop Box's message of kindness and caring is a welcome reprieve.

June 6, 2017

Twinsters: When You Spot a Facebook Lookalike That Is Your Long-Lost Twin

Twins who get separated at birth only to meet in life later on... Shakespeare used it twice in his Comedy of Errors. The TV scifi series Orphan Black took it even further with countless cloned-tuplets. But what about if this happened (on a more modest scale) in real life? Can you imagine the shock and delight that would come with finding out you had an identical sibling? Because that's the story at the center of Twinsters, a documentary that traces the reunion and quickly fostered relationship between Samantha Futerman, an actress in Hollywood, and Anaïs Bordier, an aspiring fashion-designer living in London. A chance discovery by Anais' friend of a comic viral video by Samantha's friend leads the two to Skype, meet abroad, bond, then eventually head back to South Korea in search of their foster mothers. (Their birth mother sadly denies her role in their very existence.)

Like most identical twins, sometimes these two look incredibly alike; sometimes, markedly less so. One's taller (Anais); one's livelier (Sam). One speaks French (Anais); one skateboards (Sam). But despite any cultural disconnects, they genuinely seem to click with each other almost immediately, developing a signature "pop" sound as a playful way of greeting and displaying a physical intimacy that feels like it has roots that go back for years. This is a doc with a lot of heart and the affection isn't just between the two young women but also through their very different families, their individual circles of friends, even co-workers. Suddenly, each of the women has extended their families that cross an ocean. Actually, make that two oceans, for the sisters seem to find yet another homeland when they take a joint trip to South Korea for a conference for adult adoptees originally from that country. How lucky for us that Sam wisely thought to put this all on videotape from their very first Facebook conversation. There's also a book version co-authored by the sisters entitled Separated @ Birth but the movie is more than enough.

May 28, 2017

Aim High in Creation: Australia's Take on North Korean Agit-Prop

Say what you want about Anna Broinowski as a director or a writer or an actress. As a conceptual artist, she's hit a home run with the defiantly quirky Aim High in Creation, a documentary about her creation of a short, political film modeled after the propaganda movies of North Korea. And Broinowski isn't simply sending up the didactic features of the Hermit Kingdom either. She's actually enlisted members of that country's film industry to advise and guide her in her creative process. (How the Hell did she make that happen?!) The final product — viewed at the end of her doc — is better than you might expect, too. Is it as polished as her source material? No, but to their credit, the North Koreans don't disrespect the work either but categorize it as "so Anna" which, in fact, it really is. The reasons it's not slicker ultimately have to do with Broinowski's reluctance to fully invest in their process as is. You could argue that she would've been unwise to do so, too, as it seems beyond unlikely that a North Korean-style epic would play to an Australian audience in the exact same way.

Broinowski, recognizing this, focuses more on the disconnects that happen when trying to bring their method to her homeland: apolitical actors wary of looking foolish; a script that finds its own simplicity ridiculous; a budget that's even more severely constrained. But really Broinowski's just cause — fighting multinationals poisoning the land with only profit as a concern — takes a back seat to another message: That our prejudices about North Korea can only be partially substantiated by reality and that artists around the world share a commonality that defies imposed boundaries. A land with no reality TV, no internet, no product advertisement, no money-grubbing companies influencing all the government's decisions... That doesn't sound so bad, does it? Maybe we have something to learn from North Korea, despite all its well-chronicled shortcomings and problems. Power to the people!

May 21, 2017

The Lovers & the Despot: Live Large

Ross Adam's and Robert Canaan's crazy documentary The Lovers & the Despot tells the type of true story that makes you realize just how incredibly boring your life truly is. First there's glamour: Actress Choi Eun-hee becomes the muse of auteur Shin Sang-ok; together they make such Shin Sang-ok with whom she makes such classics as My Mother and Her Guest, Red Scarf, To the Last Day... There's drama: They marry, adopt two babies, he has an affair (with a younger actress) that produces two children so Choi and Shin get divorced. There's more drama: Choi gets kidnapped by North Korean agents while visiting Hong Kong; Shin gets kidnapped while looking for Choi who has officially "disappeared." Then Kim gets imprisoned for five years in North Korea while Choi's forced to pose for pictures as a model defector. There's more art: Kim's released from prison, the lovers reunite and they make 17 movies in three years while still held captive by dictator Kim Jong-il. (One of those films — Sogum — earns Choi the best actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival.) Then there's even more drama: They defect to the West and set up shop in Hollywood. There's a weird coda: He ends up creating the kid-friendly franchise, his last film being 3 Ninjas Knuckle up.

All of this is fascinating even as we're told in periodic asides that skeptics out there question the veracity of Shin's and Choi's story. What if they made it all up? What if they purposefully defected to the North as a way to resume their romance and revitalize their careers? What if Shin never really was in prison? What if all those shots of Choi smiling are because she really was happy all the time? What if it's all a big lie? But even if that were the truth, theirs would remain a none-the-less fascinating tale. I'd like to say I totally believe Choi whose interviewed extensively for the film. But I have to acknowledge first that she happens to be a great actress. It's either the performance of a lifetime or a lifetime greater than any performance could ever hope to be.

May 10, 2017

Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang: Who'll Drink to That?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dennis Rodman burst onto the scene and turned basketball into something unexpectedly exciting to people like me, not through his unrivaled defensive playing but with his highly theatrical unwillingness to toe the line. Simultaneous with the corporate neutering of professional sports and the accompanying blandness of athletes fearful of losing lucrative endorsement deals, Rodman's outrageousness — his fluorescent hair, his body piercings, his flashy wardrobe, his no-fs-to-give commentary — delivered what so many of us want from our celebrities: a greater sense of freedom. Here was a man living on his own terms, as much as he could. As you might expect, it came at great cost.

Watching Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang, you realize that while a piranha-like press may not be the cause of the former NBA legend's alcoholism, the systematic scrutiny and savagery have no doubt contributed to it. And yet despite a tabloid presentation that revels in Rodman's self-destructiveness, this documentary also reveals that Rodman's not just some crazed drunk hoping to squeeze that last bit of publicity out of Access Hollywood. Take a look at the former athletes and young players who rally to Rodman's defense when the exhibition match between the US and North Korea that Rodman's orchestrated looks destined to fail. No one throws Rodman under the bus; no one quits. Any complaints are kept behind closed doors. Admittedly, part of that graciousness is due to Charles Smith, his eloquent colleague and a master strategist who understands the larger implications and respects the nobler intentions that underlie this game on a dictator's birthday. But Rodman's colleague feel universally autonomous and his support staff seems to genuinely like him. Because of that, Big Bang doesn't seem to be so much about wrongheadedness, naivete or demonization. It's just another snapshot of the cost of being famous while trying to be true to yourself.

May 5, 2017

Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild: Cartoon Truths

When we first meet Daisy, the awkward but cute, eager-to-please chicken who's caged with hundreds of her kin, all collectively forced to eat the same slop day after day while churning out eggs, she's understandably miserable and in the midst of a hunger strike. She hates the farm. She wants freedom and the great outdoors. She's not about to buy into the tripe tweeted out by one especially annoying little bird out to sell her on the advantages of captivity. She's not that dumb! As metaphors go of being a slave to the system, Leafie is anything but subtle. But thanks to a near-death that gets her dumped in a ditch with other bird carcasses, Daisy's dream becomes a reality. Yet Oh Seong-yun's animated feature is not an upbeat tale about freedom. Daisy's life on the outside is hard. She's ostracized for being different (a barnyard animal!), ends up adopting a duckling (another species!), and is considered — frankly — too loud by her fellow creatures.

Does all this rejection and readjustment ever have her feeling nostalgic for her chicken coop days? Hell no! Freedom is rough but nothing is as bad as living an existence completely dictated by somebody else's demands. So she struts around with a perpetual cold. So she can't stay in one of the nicer neighborhoods. So she's living under the threat of a one-eyed weasel salivating for her and her kid. Anything's better than life in the pen. And that includes death!

Korean Film Caveat: The Netflix version (renamed Daisy) does not provide the option of hearing the original voice actors (who include Moon So-ri and Choi Min-sik, for God's sake). I suppose the demand for children's cartoons in Korean with English subtitles boils down to one person. That's right. Me. Yet there may be a much wider market for Leafie which would include parents eager to turn their kids into vegans. This film might should do the trick.

April 30, 2017

A Good Rain Knows: Love Is in the Air

Director and co-writer Hur Jin-ho's wondrous little romance A Good Rain Knows wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter: Former lovers Dong-ha (Jung Woo-sung) and May (Gao Yuanyuan) are meant for each other but first they'll have to put aside any old resentments or reservations and rediscover those purer versions of themselves they were so many years ago. He's got to shed that unfeeling corporate skin and reconnect to his inner poet; she needs to forget getting dumped then ignored and deal with some PTSD caused by a fairly recent earthquake in Szechuan.

The acting in this film is exquisite. You can sense that both characters are fully aware of their attractions to the other so the flirting is at once calculated and earnest. Each wants to entice their ex- yet they're both scared too. What starts as a chance encounter at a scenic historic site devoted to the great Chinese poet Du Fu (where May works as a tour guide while finishing her dissertation) builds into a whirlwind courtship of sorts (accelerated by the severe time limitations of Dong-ha's business trip from South Korea). But how much passion can be rekindled in a couple of days, especially when you're dealing with a tactless business associate (a comic Kim Sang-ho) who appears to want to have an affair with May and to be best buddies with Dong-ha? Doesn't this guy understand three's a crowd?

Happily, A Good Rain Knows keeps the comedic interference to a minimum and chooses instead to focus on the increasing intimacy of its two leads. Since most of the movie is performed in English — the two lovebirds met previously while undergraduates in the United States — this little film feels primed for a bigger American audience. If this modest review can help in that regard, I can consider my good deed as done for the day. You can call me your online movie matchmaker.

April 23, 2017

The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo: So Silly, So Serious

A tragicomedy veers from the heavy to the hilarious and sometimes manages to be both at once. A dramedy — a much lighter form — periodically upends the overriding seriousness with well-timed punchlines. A black comedy takes a completely irreverent approach to something not typically seen that way. But what of director Noh Deok's The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo? How should this one be ultimately classified? Well, despite the nuanced vocabulary at my disposal, I admit I find myself at a loss for words. It is a light-hearted satire that periodically feels accidentally grim. What do you call that? Neologists, please step forward and speak!

The plot certainly lends itself to tragic and farcical interpretations: Recently single and unemployed, reporter Heo Moo-hyok (Jo Jung-suk) stumbles on a lead for a murder story that ends up putting him back on the map, professionally and to some degree romantically. The catch? The breaking news is actually misinformation. As is his follow-up. As is his forged cover-up. This is a slippery slope story set in the world of fast-paced journalism. (Side note: An alternate title of the film is Journalist.) Can Moo-hyok escape his mistaken if well-meaning deceptions? Not if his media empire's General Manager (Lee Mi-sook) has anything to say about it? Indeed, the killer himself buys into Moo-hyok's perjured fiction, literally drawn from the novel Liang Chen Murder Record. How that comes about is amusingly troubling. Um. Troublingly amusing?

To say that The Exclusive has a cynical view of the media, law enforcement, and the working class would be an understatement. Indeed, a subplot involving a scam artist who undermines the reputation of the gallery where the reporter's wife (Lee Ha-na) works makes clear Noh's got a cynical view of the art world as well. Is it all despairingly laughable? Wryly painful? I simply cannot report with accuracy what it all means. Not at all.

April 8, 2017

Red Carpet: From XXX to XOXO

I put off watching Park Bum-Soo's impossibly delightful Red Carpet for weeks if not months because I figured it was a low-budget, mildly titillating, soft porn skin flick pretending to be legit. Sometimes, these type of movies can be fun diversions but you have to be in the right mood to watch them and keep the sound low so as not to disturb the neighbors. One day in March 2017, I was finally bored enough and let 'er roll. Well, Red Carpet was not what I expected. Not by a long shot. Far from being some pervy misogynist director's poorly acted, barely scripted excuse for some gratuitous nudity, Red Carpet is an incredibly wise romantic comedy that knows how hard it is to shrug off imposed shame and stay true to your heart, especially when that involves defying convention and the establishment.

Admittedly, there are plenty of gags about erections, sex, porn actors, and secret identities. But Red Carpet is actually a very sex-positive movie. There's nothing wrong with acting, writing or directing porn for the participants here. Any judgment suggesting as much comes from the buffoons outside the biz. Indeed there's a sweet camaraderie among the cinematic sex workers that manifests in unexpected ways, like when the performers and crew members put on corporate drag so that the lead stud can video chat with his wife from a makeshift conference room. As acts of deceptions go, this one is awfully cute.

Playing the role of the young porno director with non-porno dreams, Yoon Kye-sang is utterly lovable while Koh Joon-hee does a deft job at showing a former child actress's development from an insufferable attention-seeker to a young woman who knows success is irrelevant in a world where we deny ourselves the room to feel deeply. The entire supporting cast is spot-on, although Hwang Chan-sung was probably my favorite as the bumbling new crew member whose passion for Godard doesn't stop him from working on a very different kind of art film.

March 31, 2017

The Silenced: Big Girls Don't Cry

"Why do you like me?" the young Shizuko (Go Won-hee) flirtatiously asks her dorm mate Yeon-duk (Park So-dam) at the all-girls boarding school where both are enrolled. "Because you're weak" is the first reply. When that doesn't suffice, "because you're weird" is the next rejoinder. I like this train of thinking. It makes sense to me! Because there is something appealing in someone who needs you (as suggested by the first answer) as well as in someone who entertains you (as suggested by the second one). The phrasing may leave something to be desired but when you ask a question like that, you deserve an answer with a little sting.

Shizuko doesn't mind the sass. At this "last chance" school where everyone's reputedly sick with something, the healthier girls are sometimes bullies. A friend who's tough is a valued commodity. As far as she herself knows, Shizuko's only crimes are having the same name as a previous student (who mysteriously) disappeared and coughing up blood (when stressed). Are those reasons to hate someone? They are to Yuka (Kong Ye-ji) who desperately wants to escape this place with its Japanese military training and creepy head mistress (Uhm Ji-won), and win a scholarship to Tokyo. You can't blame her either. After all, wouldn't you be leery of staying someplace where they fed you pills all the time and hooked you up to an IV needle for a special vitamin? What if you found out those treatments were giving you superpowers? What if those superpowers came with side effects? What if those superpowers weren't guaranteed? Tough questions, right? No one said that school would be easy.

And that goes for the staff, too. One of the counselors (Park Sung-yeon) is subjected to quite a few admonishing slaps while the one male employee (Sim Hee-seop) clearly has issues with taking orders from a woman. Well, pain is a great teacher. For pleasure, a long-stemmed cigarette holder will be provided. In The Silenced at least.

March 19, 2017

Pandora: How Bad Can It Get?

Disaster movies are especially satisfying when the world becomes an epic nightmare itself. As Trump and his congress of Republican a-holes work to strip the people of education, health insurance, equal rights, a livable planet, etc., seeing a nuclear power plant blow its top off feels like a form of justice. (That moment in Pandora when all the rats flee town is quite a cinematic representation of the animal kingdom finally saying, "Hey, mankind. We're outta here!") And since radiation doesn't favor the rich, the resultant catastrophe is egalitarian in a way that somehow feels right. Which isn't to imply that hierarchies don't still exist.

Cops and military personnel still get off on bossing people around and locking them up. Emergency personnel and higher-level technicians still wait for someone above to call the shots, regardless of what constitutes doing the right thing. Middlemen are afraid of getting in trouble. But it's the rule-breakers who save the day: the female motorcyclist (Kim Joo-Hyun) who hijacks a bus; the secretary who slips an alarming report about the plant to the President (Kim Myung-min); the plant worker (Jeong Jin-yeong) who's behind that report and just got demoted and continues to make noise anyway. For he knows that the ultimate sacrifices to be made will not be made by the avaricious, arrogant Prime Minister (Lee Kyeong-yeong) or the people who spend their lives worrying about rules. No. That will fall to the locals, the young workers for whom the power plant has always been the paycheck for a dead-end existence, whose bodies are already contaminated, whose livelihoods have never really been a concern of the leaders they've elected. Sound familiar?

And while the rebel Jae-hyeok (Kim Nam-gil) may be Pandora's hero because he's the only one who knows how to set up the explosives that will blast the plant to safety and himself to his death, really all the guys are heroes. The only difference being, they've got a few more days to live before their organs give out.

March 14, 2017

Hope: Incomplete Recovery

In Korean, the word "sowon" can be translated as either "hope" or "wish." So-won also happens to be a girl's name. That IMDb has decided to translate this bleak pic's title as Wish (not a girl's name) instead of Hope as Netflix wisely does suggests the Artificial Intelligence at the International Movie Database has yet to see the movie. Because there's nothing wishful about Hope, Lee Joon-ik's harrowing film about the rape of an eight-year-old girl and its devastating aftermath. To be fair, there's not much hopeful either but there are at least glimmers of the latter, enough to restore a little faith in humanity, although God knows we're an awful species. Our failures are great. Bring on the flood.

It's also worth mentioning that Hope is not the result of some twisted writer thinking, "What's the most horrific scenario I can concoct?" Sad to report: Kim Ji-hye based his screenplay on real events, a turn-your-stomach nightmare in which a 57-year-old man — who had a history of violence — not only sexually violated and nearly killed a young girl but then got off with a 12-year sentence because he was drunk at the time. Clearly, the American court systems aren't the only ones that make unjust rulings that fill you with rage.

So what's the point of a film like Hope? Its central story is vile, justice is not attained, the acting is — to be frank — hardly the stuff of legend. Well, for me, it was a timely reminder of the importance of making the effort, even when the options are limited. There's something incredibly moving about watching a mom (Uhm Ji-won) and dad (Sul Kyoung-gu) dress up as cartoon characters to cheer up their damaged child (Lee Re), of a co-worker (Kim Sang-ho) who lends money with no expectation of a return, of a friend (Ra Mi-ran) who brings food and tears of commiseration, of a schoolmate (Kim Do-yeob) who leaves a thoughtful note taped to your front door. There is never nothing to be done.

March 6, 2017

Northern Limit Line: No One to the Rescue

Ostensibly created as a tribute to the sailors of Chamsuri 357, a South Korean patrol boat — with quite a bit of artillery — that got pummeled by its enemies from up North in 2002, Northern Limit Line instead feels more like a recounting of what went wrong amid a self-sabotaging crew that ended up with 6 sailors dead and many more than that injured. In particular, the newbie medic Park Dong-hyeok (Lee Hyun-woo) comes across as especially incompetent as he overlooks the severely-impaired hand of the helmsman (Jin Ku), proves himself poorly trained in CPR, and at the start of an actual battle gets distracted by an ant on deck then ends up spilling all of his bandages (which he carelessly wipes against his filthy helmet upon retrieving them later). I realize that he's a rookie but someone needs to tell this guy to man up or send him back for basic training. He doesn't gain my respect because, when he's hospitalized after the battle, he salutes the casket of a comrade on his television set. Someone should've courtmartialed this no-class soldier weeks ago!

Unexpectedly, given the unflattering slant of the movie, there are "credits" interviews with actual survivors of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, the real-life conflict that inspired the film, and there's poignancy in hearing the actual recruits talk of survivor's guilt and the bravery of their shipmates. But alas and what a shame that this war pic about such a tragic event should portray the crew as a bunch of disorganized, whimpering guys who really just want to watch soccer on TV, eat crab soup, and take shore leave. Meeting one sailor's mother (Kim Hee-jung) — who is both deaf and can hear an EKG monitor when it stops — doesn't humanize them so much as make them seem like momma's boys. As tributes go, N.L.L. is sorely lacking in grit, despite special effects that show the dismemberment of arms, legs, and fingers. Tellingly, director Kim Hak-sun's screenplay is based not on a memoir but on a novel by Choi Soon-jo. Maybe that's why it feels so fake.

March 3, 2017

Queen of the Night: She's the Better Half

By the time you're 35, you know that any potential romantic partners are going to come with a luggage-rack's worth of emotional baggage so the question is simply: Are you willing to deal? When you're young, perhaps expectations of someone only bringing a psychic murse or a traumatic clutch to the romance are rational. But even then, should someone as sweet, cute, caring, resourceful, and loving as Hee-jo (Kim Min-jung) step into your life, do yourself a favor. Cut them major slack and make room for a whole travel cart of Samsonite. Catches like this won't come around again. So she's had her wild days clubbing. So she grew up in Southern California. So she knows how to throw a punch. Do you honestly think that none of those things might come in handy at some point in the future? Trust me when I say that no one, and I mean no one, is going to be able to win you that kimchi refrigerator at the reunion by executing a dance routine on the runway like she can.

Ah well. Boys will be boys. And the boy in this case, Young-soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong) insists on learning the hard way how valuable his soul mate is. Until then, he's going to get self-righteous when he learns she wasn't a virgin when they met, that she hung out with the tough crowd and that she even has a police record. He also forgets that he could barely make it through an online date before his soon-to-be-wife came along. Short memories cause long stretches of pain. As does a nerdy best friend like Jong-bae (Kim Gi-bang) who evinces a streak of misogyny likely caused by his undesirability to most women. Sometimes the satirical aspects of the Queen of the Night click (the scenes with the fertility doctor played by Kim Jung-tae, especially so). Sometimes, the comedy founders (the bits with the key repairman played by Park Jin-young). But the biggest flaw is actually a surprising one: Kim Min-jung is a lousy dancer. Note to writer-director Kim Je-yeong: Next time, you should hire a double.

February 20, 2017

Songs from the North: A Scrapbook Documentary

Most documentaries about North Korea aim to be exposés as each director craftily digs behind the country's official façade. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. But indie director Yoon Soo-mi makes no such concerted effort. She accepts the communist nation more or less as it presents itself to her while playing tourist over a few trips. (Admittedly, she keeps the camera running sometimes when told not to.) What she gets by doing so is a film that feels free from a political agenda yet equally strange. For what would a tourist see here in the "Democratic People's Republic" where even what's normal is decidedly odd?

Well, there's the Sichon Museum of American Atrocities, a musical revue with a chorus of uniformed children singing about the launch of a satellite, various gargantuan sculptures of the supreme leaders past and present, a snippet from movies like Traces of Life which concerns the reunification of the two Koreas, and views of a snowy landscape which the director realizes she's seen before via some archival reel of American troops bombing it during the war. Occasionally, there are also just shorts of the faces of the (universally skinny) people whom she's met for what is a country but its people?

The informality with which Yoon presents her video footage allows you to appreciate the periodic strangeness, unfiltered. Does anyone really need to be reminded how manipulative it is to have a child crying onstage while confessing his father's betrayal to the state and proclaiming his love for his country's leaders? Or the utter absurdity of a smiling woman pulling a giant log in the snow as a symbol of Making Korea Great Again? Given the very personal nature of Yoon's travelogue, the inclusion of interviews with her dad and some short personal reflections of her own fit right in. "Is North Korea the loneliest place on earth?" "Do you even hear the loudspeakers anymore?" Valid questions which we should feel free to answer ourselves.

February 17, 2017

Veteran: A Movie for the Resistance Movement

You tend to think of action movies as exaggerating dramatic conflicts as a way to heighten entertainment value but when you consider the level of corruption currently on display by today's American President and the sycophantic, morally bankrupt Republican party in both houses of Congress, it seems almost impossible to one-up the institutionalized rapacity, mendacity, racism, and sexism broadcast nightly on the network news. In other words, the grifter's world portrayed in Ryoo Seung-wan's Veteran comes across at this moment in history as unbelievably quaint. Viewed the year it came out — two years ago in 2015 — I'm guessing, I would've observed the bloodthirsty, sadistic son (Yoo Ah-in) of an unscrupulous businessman (Song Young-chang) who more or less gets away with murder thanks to ties to high ranking officials in the police department and judicial system as not so much realistic as illustrative. Now I know better.

I've no doubt that our elected officials, military personnel, government appointees, and business boardrooms are riddled with mercenary, amoral, self-serving racists from the top on down. I'm not saying everyone is a bad apple; I'm saying the rot is ubiquitous. Which is why good cops like Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min), his social-worker wife (Jin Kyung), and his immediate supervisor (Oh Dal-su) are so important to see in the movies. I also think the movie is pretty accurate in showing that the only way people change is when their personal circle is affected. The police chief (Chun Ho-jin) is probably taking pay-outs or at the very least caving under pressure from above but once a rookie detective (Kim Shi-hoo) gets stabbed, his loyalty to his men comes to the fore. I guess some people need to feel threatened to take action. Well, feel threatened then. And then resist, resist, resist.

Footnote: Don't miss Ma Dong-seok's all-too-brief cameo when he steps out of a crowd during the final fight between the movie's hero and villain.

February 11, 2017

Sea Fog: The Ship Hits the Fan

Are newly poor people who were once flush with cash more likely to compromise their integrity in order to become rich again? That would certainly explain the strictly mercenary decision of flat-broke Captain Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yun-seok) who has chosen to smuggle Chinese emigrants of Korean heritage across the border. Once he's committed himself and his crew to this bit of political lawlessness, however, the real dastardly crimes begin. One of your passengers gets all "equal rights"? Throw him overboard. Anyone accidentally die in the fish-hold? Chop up the body and throw it into the sea for the fishies to eat. Got a mutinous engineer? You know what to do.

Because the Captain's been in the seafaring biz for so long, his crew tends to do as instructed, too, no matter how repugnant the request. Really, the only one who stands up against the Cap is Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun), a young sailor (arguably on the spectrum) who lives with his grandmother and has basically kidnapped a female passenger (Han Ye-ri) in hopes of turning her into his wife. That budding romance is one of the movie's creepiest components and the scene in which the two young not-truly-lovers end up fornicating after witnessing a murder ranks up there as one of the grossest sex scenes in Korean movie history.

That may be intentional. After all, Sea Fog's script is by auteur Bong Joon-ho and Shim Sung-bo who'd previously worked with Bong on the incredibly complex Memories of Murder. If Sea Fog isn't quite as nuanced as their previous collaboration, well what is? Plus, the shortcomings are probably due in part to this being Shim's directorial debut. And while the finale is a mess and the female characters are woefully underdeveloped, Shim fares well overall. He's recruited a strong supporting cast (Mun Seong-kun, Kim Sang-ho, Jo Kyung-sook) and cinematographer Hong Kyung-po to ensure a high level of quality on both sides of the camera. Waterlogged, this movie is not.

February 6, 2017

The Chronicles of Evil: Double Vision

Can a movie have an identical twin? Not a clone like Gus Van Sant's Psycho, but an actual double of sorts, birthed from the same egg of an idea then evolving into something separate but remarkably similar. The kinship between The Chronicles of Evil and A Hard Day is striking. At first glance, they look like the same movie: A not-clearly-necessary cover-up that follows an accidental killing of a coincidentally bad guy leads a corrupt cop to execute a series of self-protective crimes, which in turn lead to threats to his own family's safety as well as the death of his buddy on the force. I can't speak for the histories of the screenplays, but Chronicles, which came out a year later, definitely feels like the copycat work, the lesser twin, if such a thing can be said. It's one of those cases in which you keep staring until you realize one of the two is much cuter in the end.

Which isn't to imply that Chronicles isn't doing anything to improve on the original (which was hardly a perfect thriller). Once it's done with duplicating its predecessor's central narrative, it actually does deliver some very WTF plot twists involving a gay actor (Choi Daniel) with lip gloss and addiction issues, and his murderous muse (Park Seo-joon who in his mid 20s comes across 16). Also, any opportunity to see Korean cinema's reigning teddy bear Jeong Man-sik must be embraced. He's Korea's answer to Bruce Willis, although no one's bothered to cast him in the lead yet. At least not that I know. Tell me I'm wrong! In the main role instead is Son Hyeon-ju who gives a truly strange performance that appears to be augmented by a prescription bottle of ready tears as he looks on the verge of crying for much of this film.

I hope writer-director Baek Woon-hak goes out on a limb for his next movie and does something more wholly original. But given there were twelve years between this flick and his stinky Tube, I guess we'll be waiting awhile to find out. That's okay by me. I'm no rush.

January 28, 2017

Manhole: What's Up with This Misogynist Serial Killer?

This lazily scripted horror movie about a serial killer who primarily targets young women may make you sick to your stomach. Personally, it nauseates me to think what might've drawn writer-director Shin Jae-young to make yet another grisly fright flick involving a seriously deranged man (Jung Kyung-ho), with an endless supply of crowbars, chasing attractive women through — in this instance — the dimly lit sewers of downtown Seoul. And I'm someone who enjoys horror movies! But this one is just so shoddily crafted. Are the flashbacks revealing the subterranean psychopath somehow survived a fire that burnt up his siblings and mother supposed to explain his murderous actions? Why doesn't he torch his victims then? And why isn't he fixated on killing older men if his dad is ultimately the culprit? And how in the world does he manage to be in so many places at one time?

In order for this sloppy narrative to work, a few components must be put into place. You need an incompetent police force — which you get here through an easily unnerved cop (Jo Dal-hwan) and his buddy, a former officer (Choi Duek-mun) who left the force to spend more time with his daughter (Lee Young-yoo). You will also benefit from captives who are not particularly resourceful. By making one victim deaf (Kim Sae-ron) and another, a mere child (Sung Yoo-bin), Shin theoretically makes some of their plights exponentially more challenging. In truth, it really doesn't hurt or help their chances of survival.

Who lives? Who dies? Who cares? By the end of this movie, I had neither curiosity about characters I hadn't seen for awhile nor relief for the ones that were currently on screen. At the end, when a shot of a figure wearing night goggles clues us into the bleak promise of more kidnappings and killings to come, I burst out with my one blood-curdling scream of the evening. I was truly scared... that a sequel to Manhole might possibly be made in the future. Any chance they might call it Womanhole and reverse all the genders?

January 22, 2017

Mug Travel: Curing Agoraphobia in Children

Sam, the blue-eyed, big-headed, breakfast-craving little boy in the animated kiddie pic Mug Travel — a.k.a. My Friend Bernard — is terrified of everything. I mean everything! Heights, yapping dogs, monstrous shadows, polar bears, flying cups, water dragons, falling candy jars, escaping songbirds, et cetera. Writing out this list, I realize that he has every reason to be scared of some of those things. (Who wouldn't run like mad if a crazy penguin started coming at you making weird noises and flapping his wings?) But in this cartoon, we're led to believe that being freaked out way too easily is something that Sam is going to need to get over. The therapeutic process outlined by writer-director Lim Ah-ron includes soaring through the air in a spinning teacup, being abandoned in the middle of an arctic wilderness with no thermal underwear, and being transported to a desert without a thermos or a camel or a cellular phone. He may have a magical talisman to help him but he's still going to need to fall from plenty of high places to get the cure.

By the end, once his re-education is complete, that dog that used to terrorize him across the neighborhood will be licking his face with appreciative affection. And while I'm easily moved by the bonding between boy and canine, I'm still not game to recommend this animated flick to anyone as a good family film. The stereotype of the female penguin as a vain creature and little more than a love interest, in particular, is inexcusable at this point in history; the squeaky, preverbal noises made by characters, both human and not, is likely to drive adults up the wall. There's something bizarrely right about having the helpful Santa encountered in the beginning be replaced by a beardless man who looks like a recovering junkie ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at the end since this movie is, if nothing else, a total trip. But as trips go, it's not neither the most hallucinatory nor the most surreal. In short, there are much better Korean cartoon films for kids out there like Doggy Poo or Wolf Daddy, both of which have better animation as well as storytelling than this. Watch one of those instead.

January 14, 2017

Under the Sun: Sticking to the Surface

Intended as a culturally-shaming documentary about a North Korean family whose daughter is joining a national children's union (in the arts, perhaps?), to me Under the Sun feels more like a behind-the-scenes DVD extra for a canceled informercial about Pyongyang — basically a long featurette that's been carelessly stripped of its directorial commentary. And so we're subjected to silently observed mass ceremonies of unknown meaning and various takes of rehearsed testimonials about increased productivity of milk-making, some technological improvements for garment workers, and the medicinal properties of kimchi, with the hopes that we'll string it all together ourselves. It all sounds canned (because it is canned) and it all reads flat (because director Vitaly Mansky wasn't allowed to delve). But can we really glean that much from the surface alone? And isn't there something akin to relief in seeing a people who aren't constantly smiling for the camera even when they're having their portrait taken? Mansky may intend to show "cruel" but what I saw sometimes was a respite from the fake happiness endemic here.

One aside: There's an extended moment at the midway point during which a highly decorated general, with so many medals he's practically wearing chain-mail, shares some war stories with a group of elementary school students. The camera lingers on this little girl who is clearly tired and you get the feeling the filmmaker is showing us how boring these speeches are, how life-sucking the ongoing indoctrination process is, but all I could think was, I hope that little girl and her family don't get into trouble because of this film. There's actually nothing significant to be learned by showing a sleepy-eyed youngster at any assembly. As such, this felt like irresponsibility on the documentarian's part as he was making a very dubious point. The closing scene of the young girl crying as she recites her country's version of the pledge of allegiance didn't feel as though it were damning her oppressors — who I know are real! — it felt like propagandists making a kid do something when she just wants to go to bed.

January 8, 2017

The Wailing: Taking Its Time to Meet the Devil

The Wailing is that type of horror movie that takes its own sweet time building its world and then doesn't back down from its supernatural elements by trying to write them off as psychological aberrations. No. Ghosts, shamans, satan, and zombies are all very much real in Na Hong-jin's small-town world. And what starts off as a series of disturbing deaths — are they murders, suicides, fatal-disease-caused-by-a-mushroom victims, who can say? — are soon revealed to be part of a larger battle between good and evil. Or, to be honest, us and evil, after acknowledging that we're actually not so good. When the teams are defined that way, evil feels like it has an unfair advantage. But isn't that what we've suspected all along? God help us indeed!

And poor, unlucky Jong-goo (an excellent Kwak Do-won) definitely needs some help! Because he's just a local cop, a cheating husband, a doting father, and a scaredy cat. He's not ready to take on the devil when the dark underlord decides to take possession of the body of his daughter (Kim Hwan-hee)? If that's even what's going on! Definitely, the Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura) is creepy. As is that young woman (Chun Woo-hee) in white who keeps showing up and acting all strange. Yet does it go to follow that they're actually agents of Hell? Should he go along with his mother-in-law (Her Jin) and have an exorcism performed? Even if it drives the little girl crazy? Why isn't that skinny priest who is the cousin (Kim Do-yoon-I) of his partner more help? Can the shaman (a superb Hwang Jung-min) be trusted? I completely understand why he'd round up his friends to attack the enemy but next time, bring something more lethal than gardening tools!

This is only the third feature film by the director Na but man, what a great track record he's got. The other two are The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, both of which made my best of lists at the end of the years I saw them. This one is definitely going to be a contender for 2017, even if we are only one week in.

January 4, 2017

Milkshake: A Korean Korean-American American Film

Being one of four co-founders of the Filmette Film Festival at Soho's Harvestworks in 2016, I got to be part of a fairly intense curatorial process which involved soliciting, screening, judging, rejecting, and most especially arguing for movies submitted from all over the world. As I was telling someone about the wonderful long shorts and short features we'd finally selected, I was asked whether my fondness for one called "Milkshake" was related at all to my passion for Korean film. I was caught off-guard because I didn't know if I could safely label "Milkshake" Korean or not. The filmmaker, Ko Sangjin, was born and raised in South Korea, sure, but the film was shot in English in the US; the lead role is a young Korean man, yes, but he's played by an Asian-American actor (Vin Kridakorn) who isn't Korean at all. So does "Milkshake" qualify as Korean? At first, I thought, no. Then I thought, yes. To be honest, I'm still not sure. So should I cover it on my Korean film blog? The answer to that question is easy... Of course!

A sweet 30-minute flick about two orphans struggling to make ends meet (and to stay a family) in NYC, "Milkshake" does share some important qualities with the best of Korean films. Ko's got a great sense of framing and has wisely enlisted the help of a talented cinematographer (Kitanan Chewvej) so "Milkshake" always looks terrific. Ko also elicits incredibly naturalistic performances out of his two leads (the other is a very young Madeline Lupi). But what strikes me as most Korean about this little charmer is how "Milkshake" isn't afraid to suddenly veer from the sentimental to the dramatic or from the optimistic to the depressing without warning. Unlike American movies, Korean films have always struck me as much less concerned with sticking to a tone or a viewpoint and because of that there's a certain excitement that comes with not knowing what to expect next. As for Ko, currently working on his first feature, I'm definitely excited to see what's next for him, regardless of whether he chooses to shoot here or at home, in Korean or in English, or some combination of any of the above.