October 29, 2017

Centre Forward: Team Spirit, Party Unity

Do they make TV movies in North Korea? It sure feels like it from the hour-long Centre Forward, a black-and-white sports flick from co-directors Kim Kil-in and Pak Chong-song. I mean it can't be just slogans and speeches and statistics and anthems all day long, can it? And what else would the patriotic mothers watch on their televisions if not a locally broadcast soccer match as the athletes — their sons, of course — prepare to take on the world? Sure, they might catch a sweatily rehearsed, smilingly executed dance performance featuring one of their daughters (which they delightedly do) but nothing beats gathering with the other soccer moms for an afternoon game in front of the telly. And yes, granny knows all the lingo. Sports are a national past time in the Hermit Nation, too!

And what of the team itself? Will rookie player In-son (Kim Choi) get in good enough shape to start again after a disastrous first showing? Will his dorm mate and longtime veteran Chol-gyu (Choi Chang-su) commit himself to the rigorous training regimen or rest on his laurels? Will the coach (Pak Tae-su) inspire the players to push themselves past previous limits and commit to party loyalty? There's a wonderfully sadistic training scene in which In-son kicks balls even as his body collapses under the glaring arena lights at night but much of Centre Forward is mundane and less intense. Despite its shortcomings, the movie nevertheless has a rousing game at the end in which the old guard steps back at half time so that the new guard can take the field and win the game. You know victory is a given but it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit of it anyway. Score! Score! Score!

Where to Watch: You'd be surprised how many North Korean movies are on YouTube!

October 26, 2017

Order No. 027: Bones Break But She Won't

Maybe I've been setting the bar too thoughtlessly low with these North Korean movies. I mean, did I really enjoy that martial arts flick Pyongyang Nalpharam last week? Or was I seduced by the novelty? the strangeness of it all? And even if I did really like it, would I be able to enjoy it as much again now after seeing the infinitely better Order No. 027? The latter film, made about 30 years prior, has a stronger storyline, less corny acting, and most importantly finer and longer fights. It's still odd with its outdated shooting techniques, indicative performances, and lapses into propaganda but how easily I seem to have forgotten that, with action movies, Foley sound effects should not just be used to indicate the damaging contact of kicks and punches but also the more severe crunch and crackle of breaking bones. The directorial choice — made by co-directors Jung Ki Mo and Kim Eung Suk — to loop footage so that a knee to the face happens mercilessly more than once makes for some painfully effective combat sequences. This is a war pic after all.

Order No. 027 also got me thinking about the word "demure" which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means "reserved, modest." In an American film, a demure ingenue would be virginal, naive, easily shocked, uninformed, and weak... oh basically helpless. But in a North Korean flick, a woman can be demure and still be a well-trained spy eager to go into enemy territory alone to complete a suicide mission, a fearless warrior capable of out-fighting three soldiers in tip top shape, and a true patriot who will walk miles after being shot to deliver an important message. Sure, she's modest and unassuming but she's neither simple-minded nor a scaredy-cat. Korean cinema, be it North or South, favors women with nerves of steel and physical prowess over the dim-witted damsel in distress. Hollywood would do well to take a page from these screenplays.

October 21, 2017

Pyongyang Nalpharam: A Book With Punch and Kick

You have to take everything you learn about North Korea with a grain of salt but supposedly the country has had years when it produced as many as 80 films and other years when it's made as few as two. Whether that's true or not, I don't know but I can say with some assurance that they've definitely got a film to represent just about every genre: there's a monster movie (Pulgasari), a period drama (The Story of Chun Hyang), a coming-of-age story (The Schoolgirl's Diary), a romantic comedy (O Youth), and a martial arts flick (Hong Kil Dong) amid all those other movies you'd expect that are strictly propaganda. Diversity of entertainment isn't an issue here if you're willing to suffer through a speech with an extremely nationalist bent.

That said, the proselytizing is kept to a minimum in Pyongyang Nalpharam, a historic martial arts flick set during the Japanese occupation of Chosun and understandably trumpeting patriotism in the shadow of Japanese rule. Co-directed by Phyo Kwang and Maeng Chil-min, the movie's heroes are the supreme masters of a traditional form of fighting as well as the keepers of the last remaining book which explains it. They seem to be siblings sometimes and lovers other times, and jointly responsible for the book which causes all sorts of trouble. Do they ever kiss? No. I'm not even sure if they ever hug. But their intimacy is expressed through meaningful glances cast from watery eyes and via a scar he gave her as a child while biting her hand and a jade ring he passes to her as an adult after all the battles are done and (largely) won. And while the brother/fiance (Ri Ryeong-hun) is clearly the leader and elder; the sister/fiancee (Kim Hye-gyeong) takes over when he's not around and clearly knows how to engage in hand-to-hand, foot-to-face contact. This is a couple of equals, a marriage of mutual respect. The couple that slays together, stays together, am I right?

October 12, 2017

A Forest Is Swaying: Enough About Me, Me, Me

The abject selflessness is so pronounced in director Jang Yong-bok's stoic North Korean drama A Forest Is Swaying that you can almost hear the cries of disapproval from the grave of Ayn Rand. Never has a character stood so adamantly in repudiation of Rand's "me first" ideology. Who is he? Oh, he's asimple fellow really... a military veteran who's come home from the wars with news of a fellow soldier's death. Then, when he realizes that said infantryman — the uncomplaining regiment cook in fact — has left behind an orphaned daughter, he decides to pretend that he's her long-gone dad and plant the late comrade's pocketful of pine seeds on the latter's hometown mountainside which has been thoroughly destroyed by Yankee bombers. Who needs a life of one's own when you've got someone else's to live?

Frustratingly, the seedlings don't initially take. According to a botanical expert sent by the state (who is also longing to be his bride), the soil's just no damned good. Poplar would do better here, she insists. But he won't have it. He won't be stopped. He nurses the pine seeds, slaves away in sun and snow, barely survives a mudslide, then once recovered refuses to stop even when he needs a cane to continue... and eventually, the miracle happens. In the time it takes to make two babies and see one grow to adulthood, he's now living in woodsy paradise with plenty of deer and strawberries for the people. Now old and as stubborn as ever, he doesn't bask in the praise of the Great Leader — although he sheds a few humble, beatified tears. Instead, he heads on over to another barren mountain determined to make it fruitful for future generations. He's received all the credit he'll ever need. Even the book documenting his amazing success story bears the name of another author. Which is just as he wanted it. I imagine his gravestone will say something like "Get back to work. Nothing happening here."

October 8, 2017

Speedy Scandal: Grandpa Needs to Grow Up

I realized a few days after watching Speedy Scandal that radio host and DJ Nam Hyeon-soo (Cha Tae-hyun) isn't the hero. Not really. In fact, you could argue that he's the villain of the movie. That's what I'm about to do right now. Why? Well, because he's the one who treats his newfound daughter like dirt; the one who never asks about how her mother — his supposed "one true love" — is doing; the one who repeatedly gets in the way of his daughter's singing career and her love life and her hopes to form a new family that doesn't need to sleep on a restaurant floor. He's the one who sees his grandson (Hwang Seok-hyeon) primarily as a lure to bed the grammar school teacher and whose first concern when he discovers his grandson's been kidnapped from a concert that he's hosting is basically "Let's get on with the show." If you knew a child had been kidnapped would you really forge on even if it weren't your kid? Your answer better by "NO!" So yes, Hyeon-soo is pretty despicable.

Which brings up the following question: Why isn't his daughter Jeong-nam (Park Bo-yeong) the main character of this film? Why don't we see her try on lots of different outfits when her stingy father finally takes her to the mall to buy some nice clothes? Why are we forced to watch his "comic" attempts to keep her a secret instead of her "comic" attempts to fit into his world? I personally would've enjoyed seeing more scenes between her and her love interest the awkward photographer (Lim Ji-gyu) than daddy and his lust interest the school marm (Hwang Woo-seul-hye). Maybe some audiences have a soft spot for the still-cute actor Cha based on his memorable roles in My Sassy Girl and Sad Movie. But me? Not so much. Credit must be given to writer-director Kang Hyeong-cheol, however. With his next film, the infinitely more entertaining Sunny, he put the women front and center. People who learn from their mistakes should be praised. Sound cue: Applause.

October 2, 2017

A Broad Bellflower: The Political Before the Personal

There's an icy cold heart at the center of the sad love triangle in the sad, political romance A Broad Bellflower, one of the movies credited to Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hie, the director-and-actress couple who were kidnapped by the North Korean government and forced to make movies during their bizarre imprisonment. (Check out the stranger-than-fiction doc The Lovers & The Despot.) And it's not just that our heroine Song-rim (Oh Mi-ran) puts her hometown before her husband-not-to-be; it's also that her selfish sister Song-hwa — played by Song Yeon Ock and Kim Hye-son — makes the doomed lover sign a note that will damn him to permanent exile. What's his crime? He has big city dreams. And no one should put personal desires before those of the community. Absolutely no one.

But what's particularly harsh about what transpires in A Broad Bellflower is that when the now old man sends his devoted grownup son to his hometown in hopes of forgiveness, nearly everyone is dead-set against him. Let bygones be bygones? Hell, no! The sister hates to even hear the name of that man; the sister's daughter reacts as if the son had committed this crime against humanity himself. Any sweet feelings that may have come from biking around the neighborhood and sharing a roasted chestnut are squashed the moment the truth is revealed.

As to the spinster who never got married but found her joy in dragging telephone poles through the snow, carrying slate across steep cliffs, and flirting over architectural drawings, her life was cut short by a mudslide that buried her while she was in the midst of rescuing some sheep. Once she'd spit the dirt out of her mouth, she was able to convey one dying wish: "Forgive him!" But you can tell by the way that everyone's acting that while they may let father and son return, they're still going to treat the two like crap.