December 17, 2017

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2017 (Sort of)

Followers of my blog — and I know you're out there... somewhere — may have noticed this year that not only did I review more documentaries than usual but I also watched a goodly number of North Korean movies (thanks to the discovery of the DPRK Video Archive on YouTube). And while only one North Korean film made my final list, two missed it by a hairsbreadth: Wolmi Island and O Youth! . Who knows what next year has in store?!

1. The Drop Box: Although their existence is apparently nothing new, I was unfamiliar with drop boxes f.k.a. foundling wheels which allow mothers to anonymously give up unwanted babies without questioning or judgment. This documentary on one in South Korea kind of blew my mind.

2. A Good Rain Knows: Director Hur Jin-ho's wondrous little romance 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.

3. The Lovers & the Despot: A world-class director (Shin Sang-ok) and his muse/ex-wife (Choi Eun-hee) are kidnapped by the North Korean government and forced to make movies. Sounds implausible. And yet it's reality. (This is a documentary, after all.)

4. Man on High Heels: Unable to imagine continuing a career in the police department post-op, the department's fiercest officer (who happens to be trans) has visions of escaping to a new life. Naturally, complications arise.

5. Nameless Gangster: You have to admire acting legend Choi Min-sik's willingness to not only play, but revel in playing, such a thoroughly unlikable, amoral, sleazy character this late in his career without even the hint of a wink to the audience.

6. Okja: The ever-dependable, oh-so-imaginative auteur Bong Joon-ho is back in fine form with this heart-pounding parable about the inhumanity of the meat industry that will turn anyone with a heart into a vegan... at least for a week.

7. Order No. 027: O Youth! was a zany sitcom; Centre Forward, a rousing sports flick; Wolmi Island, an unexpectedly feminist war pic. But the best of the North Korean movies this year was this espionage thriller which had good fight scenes and a strong female lead.

8. Red Carpet: This incredibly wise romantic comedy — set in the world of low-budget porn — knows how hard it is to shrug off imposed shame and stay true to your heart.

9. The Silenced: This movie about an all-girls school run by Japanese scientists with military backing has all the makings of a classic B-movie. And it delivers on that front and then some.

10. The Wailing: When it comes to horror movies, some like witches, some like devils, and some like zombies. For those who reply "all of the above" when asked to pick a preference, this movie is for you.

December 15, 2017

Seoul Station: These Undead Are Dead to Me

Without a doubt, Train to Busan was a great horror movie, a great Korean movie, and just a great movie. Nevertheless I was trepidatious about watching its animated prequel Seoul Station which chronicles the day before the action in the live-action film. Sure, the writer-director is the same (Yeon Sang-ho) but "cartoon" movies, like superhero movies, often get on my nerves because the characters tend to be two-dimensional and the portrayal of women is as a rule offensive. Sadly, my grievances were unchallenged by Seoul Station which features a series of cardboard cut-outs who walk around looking like they've got diaper rash, and sweat what appear to be beads of rice or sleeping maggots. Visually, aside from the hordes of undead running around with bloodsplattered shirts, missing eyes, and varicose veins, Seoul Station isn't much to look at. And the storyline in which the primary female character (Shim Eun-kyung) is a prostitute with daddy issues didn't draw me in either.

With neither eye-candy nor a gripping narrative, I started to pick out holes in the plot. Like is there really only one hospital in Seoul? Would the cops really focus their attention on shooting non-infected people before they got to the zombies themselves? Do shattered car windows eventually just turn into empty windows? Are most Korean bathrooms built with windows that can be easily removed by hand without tools? If you break a window and then climb through, can you really walk right in with bare feet without worrying about broken glass? Is the best way to locate a single person in a giant city to go to the top of a high bridge and look around? If you were in a car and there was a struggle for the steering wheel between three people and you were the driver, would you continue to keep your foot on the gas pedal? And finally if separately, are all animators horny, lonely men who have issues with women and so they put the one female character of note in a dress that's so short that her spotless white underwear keeps appearing? Someone get those guys a date and hire someone else for the job next time.

December 9, 2017

The Great Courses: The World's Greatest Churches: Two Churches in Seoul, Korea

SUNY Professor William R. Cook, who has his doctorate in medieval studies, likes to talk about churches. A lot. As in 24 lectures worth of pontificating about churches — from the Hagia Sophia to Chartres Cathedral to St. Peter's Basilica. So what two churches does he wrap up his series with on behalf of The Great Courses? A pair by 20th century architect Kim Swoo-geun, who's also responsible for designing the Seoul Olympic Stadium from 1977. What are they like? Pretty modern. The first, Kyungdong Presbyterian Church (1980), was designed for the largest Christian denomination in South Korea (which has more Presbyterians than the USA) and features a red brick exterior cloaked in ivy and an asymmetrical cement interior where the only source of natural light comes from the skylight above the altar. The second, Bulgwang-dong Catholic Church (1985), furthers many ideas of the former. The required walk around the church to its entrance (intended to encourage a more meditative frame of mind) is now accompanied by bas relief sculptures representing the stations of the cross; the interior, while also cement, is lighter and includes a burial site (behind the altar) for select former members of the congregation.

Cook clearly has an enthusiasm for his subject but he also wastes the last third of his talk on the diversity of the Christian population and how devoted he is to his own humble church in the states. I personally would've preferred he'd spent that time on how these churches related to Kim's secular designs as well as the earlier Yangdeok Catholic Church in Masan, which was constructed the year before the aforementioned Presbyterian one. I also would've welcomed knowing more about St. Andrew Kim's story. A sculpture of this Korean martyr — the nation's first Catholic saint — stands on the street-side of Bulgwang-dong Catholic Church near a sculpture of Jesus with a prominent bleeding heart. As a gesture of respect to those two at least, couldn't someone have ironed Professor Cook's pants?

December 6, 2017

Samaritan: Nowhere to Be Found

For some reason, the French composer Erik Satie's earworm-y "Gymnopedie No. 1" periodically pops up in Korean movies. You'll hear it in Kim Ki-duk's grim drama Samaritan Girl and Kwak Jae-young's romance Windstruck, two very different films tonally and subject-wise. You'll also hear the melody in Ko SangJin's super-short "Samaritan" (a reference to Kim?) for which the Satie tune constitutes the entire soundtrack. As you might guess if you're familiar with the composition, the content is melancholic at best.

Like the musical accompaniment, the imagery here is simple and repetitive but not annoyingly so. The camera is fixed on a young homeless man (Teja Swaroop) sitting on newspapers, garbage strewn around him. A brick wall is directly behind him; a fairly large teddy bear directly in front; and in front of the teddy, a sign which "Hungry Help Please." Slightly to the side is an styrofoam cup with $ drawn on it but not $ in it. In short, the help is not forthcoming. If you live in a city, you've seen this scenario before in real life. You may see it every day. People — viewed only from the waist down — walk by. No one offers to help. No one tosses any change. A shadow seems to creep in from the side. Suddenly, the man is lying down. People begin to gather. Is he asleep? Is he passed out from hunger? Is he dead? Are the bystanders there to help or to harm or just to watch? A brown leaf the size of his head floats down from above then settles silently beside him. As omens go, it's not a particularly hopeful one. Homelessness truly sucks.

"Samaritan", which came out in 2013, is one of three short films Ko has made in the last five years to win awards stateside, the others being "Milkshake" (2014) and "Last Day on Earth" (2016). This particular one took home the Cinematographer of the Month award from the 12 Months Film Festival.

December 5, 2017

Last Day on Earth: 15 Minutes of Fame

If you found it today was your last day on Earth, whatever you chose to do, you can bet it would probably feel like it was over too quickly. And in Ko SangJin's short scifi pic Last Day on Earth, the action lasts a mere seventeen minutes. What happens in that short stretch of time? Quite a bit. A young man (Adam Maurer) returns from the dead to persuade an old scientist (Kim Kiedrowski) to bury science likely to be destructive to mankind and instead go on a journey — alone — to another planet. Meanwhile, the messenger must pay a visit to his mother's grave and decide whether or not he wants to fall in love with a blonde women (Erica Pastore) who happens to be an extraterrestrial in disguise. That's a lot of plot to pack into a half-hour or less. Major futuristic blockbusters have been made with skimpier story-lines. Yet Ko hit alls his points quickly and clearly. He's not as interested in the drama of getting from point A to point B as he is in surfacing moral quandaries which he safely assumes his audience shares.

When does science for science's sake not make sense? If there's life after death, what's the point of our time on Earth? On this overcrowded planet of ours, should the old find a time to willingly exit to make space for the young? Is love something that happens just because or does it occur because we ask it to and let it? Is the pursuit of "gold" our primary undoing as human beings? And given that I'm reading Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," why wouldn't you commit suicide since we seem destined to cause each other pain?

I'll be the first to admit that I was more into the visual style than the scientific substance here as the references to Higgs boson went over my head while Reza Fakharieh's special effects and Kitanan Chewvej's cinematography were both unexpected treats. Am I too shallow to appreciate Last Day on Earth? I don't think so. Do you?