July 29, 2017

The Concubine: She Rules

Revenge is a dish best served Korean, apparently. And Park Chan-wook isn't the only one out there constantly illustrating this maxim. Thanks should also be given to Kim Jee-woon for I Saw the Devil, Jang Cheol-soo for Bedevilled, Kim Ki-duk for Pieta and Kim Yong-han for Don't Cry Mommy — fine and worthy movies all. Interesting side note: Three out of four of those examples feature vengeful woman as the leads. So Kim Dae-seung The Concubine is really part of a thriving tradition, a sub-genre of thrillers that's got no shortage of willful women here to remind you that Justice is indeed a lady. This time, however, she's cloaked in period garb. Set during the Chosun Dynasty, this particular woman out to right her wrongs is Hwa-yeon (Jo Yeo-jeong), a hardly helpless damsel who catches the eye of a potential successor to the crown — Prince Sung-won (Kim Dong-wook) despite her clear preference for the grungy her eyes set on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun), a man of much humbler origins but possessing better archery skill. I mean, he shot that arrow of love right into her heart, my friends.

When her elopement with her favored choice is sabotaged and her man is castrated (troubling visuals ahead, people) she starts thinking "long plan," god bless her soul. No one is going to outwit this strategist — not the eventual king's duplicitous mom and the regent Queen (Park Ji-young), not the highly ranked court advisor (Lee Kyeong-yeo), and certainly not the prince himself. It's going to take a few years to get all her ducks in a row, but once she has, she's going to take them out one by one like the sharpshooter she is. This is one cool-headed mama. Furthermore, she's going to look fabulous doing so. The stylish hanboks worn by Yeon-hwa, as well as those worn by the nefarious queen, are beautiful to look at, although your heart goes out to these well-dressed women considering the corset-like heoreitti worn over the breasts. (And yes, I just learned those words.) But pity them not. At least, not the concubine.

July 21, 2017

2015 Dream Concert: K-Pop for Hours

Aside from some promotional copy recited by various cute-as-a-button co-hosts, 2015 Dream Concert is a tightly edited document of the 21st annual K-Pop revue held in Seoul World Cup Stadium before what appears to be a largely female crowd. Serving up song after song after song with strict choreography, this film is a great introduction to the best bubblegum pop from Asia. In fact, it's so good, it deserves some awards.

Most Innocently Crude Lyric: Red Velvet ("Ice Cream Cake") for "The ice cream that’s on my mouth makes your heart pound..."

Laziest Lip Sync: 9 Muses ("Drama")

Funnest Choreography to Teach Friends: CLC ("Pepe")

Tiredest Look Made Fresh Again: Oh My Girl ("Cupid") as cheerleaders

Readiest for a Tim Burton Video: Topp Dogg ("Top Dog")

Least Convincing Chemistry: Elsie and Ki-o ("I'm Good")

Worst Choreography: Elsie and Ki-o ("I'm Good")

Most Assured Incorporation of White Shorts: BTS ("I Need U")

Most Awkward Incorporation of White Shorts: Secret ("Magic")

Boldest Use of Stripes: VIXX ("Love Equation")

Best Use of Pajama Wear 4Minute ("Crazy") for the sleeveless AFFECT shirt

Most Ready for an 'N Sync Tribute: EXO ("Call Me Baby")

Favorite Overall: SHINee ("View")

The only thing missing for me was Girls Generation.

July 16, 2017

The Tiger: Your Alliance in Man Versus Nature Scenarios

It used to be that in a person-versus-nature movie, the audience always allied with the human being. The hero had to beat nature or at least overcome "the enemy," although victory and/or survival often came with a newfound respect for Mother Nature's powers. Nowadays, the allegiance is not so easily presumed. In Park Hoo-jung's The Tiger, for instance, less-than-favorable examples abound of mankind's disrespect for the planet and its inhabitants: taxidermy trophies of unnecessary slaughters, summarily dismissed pelts, the decimation of forests, the sheer numbers of militia brought on to capture a tiger who only has one good eye! How can you not root for the big cat with the slayed kittens? Bring on the snow, the rain, the cold! Both the Japanese regime — and the unprincipled Koreans who align with them — should be struck down by lightning, swept away by a river, then swallowed up by a tar pit post haste. Forgive us, Mother Earth. Unleash your fury. It's more than justified!

Then again... That's not quite how you feel during The Tiger because none of the animals are truly animals. They're anthropomorphic CGI creations. Which suddenly shifts the battle to new terrain. For are we really rallying behind the beasts of the wild here? To be honest, sometimes it feels like we're cheering for robots or Chuck E. Cheese rejects. That doesn't feel pro-nature. At best, this tiger comes across as a person in a giant fluffy costume. At worst, he looks and acts like a soul-less mechanical being sent from the future to ravage the humans of the past. He's not alone either. All the animals feel unlike animals. Just watch how those wolves scatter like a bunch of video game rodents when threatened by Playstation levels of arsenal.

Naturally enough, that ever-dependable actor Choi Min-sik turns in a commanding performance as a hunter with outdated morals, a man who respects Mother Nature, the mountain, and the kill. Yet despite energetic support from Kim Sang-ho as an obsequious sidekick and the impressive scar added to Jeong Man-sik's camera-ready cheek, even the great Choi can't make The Tiger feel human.

July 7, 2017

Man on High Heels: True Identity

Occasionally, people tell me that Koreans are more conservative than Americans when it comes to LGBTQ issues but I sometimes wonder if that's the truth. Admittedly, my doubts are based on what I glean from my weekly screening of films but even so, I honestly believe that movies reflect our views as a culture, at least to some point. Which brings me to writer-director Jang Jin's Man on High Heels, a 2014 action pic in which the lead detective (Cha Seung-won) is a trans cop who would like to retire and fully transition to being a woman. To its credit, this neo-noir takes its hero seriously: Ji-wook is somewhat of an institutionally-sanctioned vigilante, a kind of Dirty Harry type who also happens to be struggling with gender identity. Unable to imagine continuing a career in the police department post-op, the department's fiercest officer has visions of escaping to a new life.

The catch, as everyone knows, is you can't leave your past behind fully. The sister (E. Som) of your childhood sweetheart could reappear; the brother of a crime boss you landed in the hospital could develop a bit of a crush on you; you might even suspect your young partner (Go Kyung-pyo) of loving you whatever physical form you take — male or female. As to that one potential mentor (Lee Yong-yeo) who's gone through all the surgeries and then some, she's hardly an enlightened. You might consult her about picking out a sparkly dress for the disco. Beyond that? Pretty doubtful.

Alongside this psychological portrait within in Man on High Heels, the hand-to-hand combat is fantastic; the repeated knives to the gut are repeatedly harrowing. I especially appreciated how the ex-marine Ji-wook's macho physical prowess is explained as overcompensation. Sure there are some weird gender-identity signifiers — like the raised pinkie glimpsed holding a tea cup — but this movie proved much better than I'd expected despite somewhat of a cop-out ending.

July 5, 2017

Lucid Dream: It's All in Your Head

How much you like or loathe a scifi movie can be dependent on its central premise. You can live without good acting, good directing, and good dialogue, and not mind some sub-par special effects if the flick has got a really cool concept in play. The idea doesn't have to be completely sound but it does need to be interesting. In Kim Joon-Sung's Lucid Dream, the radical notion is that, through induced dreaming, you can step into your memories and look around and gather details you've previously overlooked. You have the option of walking around too but once you start to change location, you also impact the integrity of the memory. It's like we all have photographic memory and if we could just study said photos, we'd be able to parse every detail. That's probably not quite enough for a scifi movie. Well, Lucid Dream does indeed go further.

You can also enter other people's dreams, once you've identified the dreamer's frequency on your fancy computer. Once inside someone's head, you can ask questions that maybe you can't in real life because they're in a coma or something like that. But if the person in the coma dies then you'll be trapped in that dream forever. (Not sure why you don't just die or end up in a coma with no dream afterwards but I have to trust the experts in the movie here.)

And so, we have a reporter (Go Soo) who is also a single father with a young son (Kim Kang-hoon) who was kidnapped at the amusement park for reasons unknown. Distraught and desperate, dad enlists the help of a loner-doctor (Kang Hye-jeong) specializing in lucid-dreaming. Dad also hires a guerilla dream-infiltrator (Park Yoo-chun) because he needs to get some answers fast before his little boy is... harvested for organs? shipped out to an orphanage as revenge? dead? The only difference between reality and dreams is that the second hand on your watch doesn't move in the latter realm. Is that true? Check your watch next time you're asleep. If you're strictly digital, you're probably screwed.