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.