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.