April 17, 2018

The Favourite Young Man: Plumbers Are People, Too

Yet another public service announcement from the propaganda ministers of North Korea, The Favourite Young Man has but one intent: To remind us that a person should not be judged by their job but by how well they do it. There's nothing inherently better about white collar than blue collar or for that matter pink collar work. If anything, blue collar and pink collar jobs may be more important in that they are truly about serving the people. Any attempts to get a research position, in hopes of being more respectable, should be called out for what they are: Pretentious! And yes, the young accordion-playing plumber (who has come to his profession somewhat reluctantly) and the young, bashful seamstress (who recognizes his worth right from the start) are the two most attractive people in the movie. The construction worker who repeatedly refuses to take the wise advice of an experienced plumber — who also just happens to be the young plumber's incredibly good-natured mother — is nothing more than an arrogant buffoon!

The hour-long movie's one major subplot involves another female plumber (an industry apparently dominated by housewives and widows). This embarrassed tradeswoman, fearful of being unlucky in love, hides beneath her headscarf and behind a pair of oversized sunglasses as a way to escape recognition by her fiance who's a highly respected boxing coach. But does she really have anything to be afraid of? Of course not. He's an enlightened athlete working in the most masculine of professions yet even he knows: There's nothing wrong with being a plumber! It's a respectable way to earn a living and one which ensures that we all have access to running water in our homes; without it, there would be no toilets, no showers, no kitchen sinks in which to wash our dirty utilitarian dishes... Guess who has the bathtub that keeps getting clogged? Hint: It's not one of the plumbers.

March 30, 2018

The Story of a Blooming Flower: Juche in Japan

Sang Gyu's The Story of a Blooming Flower may be the first North Korean movie I've seen that isn't primarily set in the country in which it was made. Based in Japan, the story concerns a "flower breeder" who, under the pressures of capitalism, sells the patent to an iris, that his mother — a botanist as well — was developing shortly before she died, to the highest bidder only to see that flower become the trademark plant of street prostitutes. Shame ensues. As a form of restitution, this guilt-ridden son devotes his life to cultivating a new begonia (sourced from the Andes!) then finds himself once again in financial straits when his daughter gets outclassed by an arranged marriage for her boyfriend. Will he sell the new flower to provide her with an enticing dowry? Or will he travel to North Korea and find his life changed after meeting the adult version of a young teenager whom he ragefully and wrongfully pushed into the street because he mistook her for a commonplace hooker?

Here's a hint: His best buddy, a philosophy professor whom he's known since childhood, has recently succumbed to a mysterious illness and has left behind him some writings extolling the virtues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung. The Juche Idea is the future! Principles take precedence over profits. And while his recently acquired dignity coupled with a red hybrid in full bloom may garner the attention of the press, you often sense that his wife, who stands sulkily to the side, is less enthusiastic about this new religion. Weird bits of realism creep into The Story of a Blooming Flower again and again. Oddly, despite his passion for all things Pyongyang, there is no subsequent talk of his moving his entire family there so they can taking over a national arboretum or a municipal greenhouse. It could be that those snatches of dialogue ended up on the cutting room floor. Or perhaps a sequel is in order: The Story of a Blooming Magnolia.

March 25, 2018

The Red Chapel: Kim Jong-il's Comedy Club

The Red Chapel a.k.a. Kim Jong-il's Comedy Club has got to be the weirdest, funniest, most disturbing documentary about North Korea because it so clearly displays the grievous shortcomings of the hermit nation as well as its critics. On the Korean side, you've got a totalitarian regime, a populace terrified into crying and laughing on cue, a capitol city that's a questionably functional theme park, an institutionalized xenophobia that turns potential cultural exchange into pure propaganda, and an abhorrence for the differently abled that manifests in their complete invisibility (at best). On the Western side, you've got a kind of flippancy towards injustice, a know-it-all attitude that attempts to bully others into submission, a self-aware mocking of the rules that doesn't realize that "playing fascist" is "being fascist" regardless of intent, an exploitation of the handicapped, and a biased misinterpretation of history that sidesteps the pain experienced by the oppressed.

You may say that the crimes of North Korea are worse than those of the West but they're both pretty damning. What saves your sense of humanity are the two Danish comics — of Korean descent — who undermine both the rigidity of the country they're visiting and the misguided manhandling of their misguided but well-meaning manager Mads Brugger. Simon Jul Jorgensen, a big bear of a performer, takes a wily approach to the proceedings. He's along for the ride but he also isn't afraid to establish parameters as to what he will and won't do. Jacob Nossell has a harder time of it. A self-described spastic, he senses a hate beneath the niceties of his guides/hosts and struggles to find a way to be compassionate even as he's smothered by his assigned attache who embodies a mad confusion of affection and rigidity. As the spokesperson of pain internalized and witnessed, Nossell stands amid the chaos like a lone Cassandra, able to see what's wrong with this picture but uttering his insights to deaf ears. Like to laugh with discomfort? You've found the right movie.

March 21, 2018

South Korea: Success at All Costs: No Critical Thinking

There's something irresponsible and upsetting about the hour-long documentary South Korea: Success at All Costs for while directors Barbara Necek and Aline Hoorpah definitely presents damning evidence about pet cloning, plastic surgery, long work hours, charlatan shamans, abandonment of the elderly, and staggering suicide rates (the highest in the world), all these facts are dropped amid an endless list of success stories that sabotaged in asides. What's the point of hearing that one young man has eyelid surgery in order to improve his chances of getting a good job then learning a few months later that he still doesn't have that job if you're going to end it with "It's just a matter of time before he gets it"? Why claim to get unique access to a factory town, a town in which every aspect is owned by the company — schools, apartments, stores — if your guide is a stooge employee speaking as if from a company script? How can you show clips of people jumping off a bridge (quite possibly to their deaths) as little more than interstitial content?

Is it that Nacek and Hoorpah had to get institutional sign-off so that they could use much of this footage? Are they intentionally subverting a propaganda film by striking one jarringly cheery tone then constantly sounding the note of discord? Is this cinematic sarcasm? Whatever these two are trying to do, it didn't work for me. South Korea: Success at All Costs is a missed opportunity to celebrate what South Korea is doing right, where they've gone wrong, and how the two overlap. Missing as well: any thoughtful examination of international cultural influencers like K-pop, K-drama, and Korean cinema. They would've been wise to dig deeper instead of simply presenting a mixed message, as if culling facts from warring pamphleteers. The additional choice to layer on a British-accented voice-over instead of simply adding subtitles to the Korean speakers was also a grave mistake, although likely not one made by the co-directors themselves.

March 20, 2018

Gook: In the Shadow of the Rodney King Trial

Han-guk means Korea. Mi-guk, America. Because of the second syllable here, some believe the racist term "gook" comes from ignorant U.S. soldiers mishearing Koreans say the names of these countries. It's not the only possible root but it's touched upon with lovely poignancy in writer-director-actor Justin Chon's Gook when the movie's protagonist, a first generation Korean-American store-owner named Eli (played by Chon), must explain the graffiti-ed insult — that's been spray-painted onto his car by vandals — to a wide-eyed 11-year-old girl (Simone Baker) who hangs out at his shop when she's skipping school. Korean-American heritage comes into play in a variety of interesting ways throughout Chon's sophomore feature film: the relationship between Eli and Mr. Kim (Sang Chon, Justin's real-life father), the cranky liquor store owner who used to be a business partner with Eli's dad; the somewhat-doomed R&B aspirations of Daniel (David So), Eli's browbeaten brother; the cultural clash between the two siblings and the black neighborhood surrounding their store, tensions which have been exacerbated by the travesty of the Rodney King trial and the ensuing riots, both of which serve as a backdrop to the action.

Basically a slice-of-life film, shot in exquisite black-and-white by Ante Chang, Gook is the type of shoestring art-film that you hope earns Chon some studio respect so that his next heartfelt movie can be made without pulling in favors. The winner of an Independent Spirit Award literally as "Someone to Watch," Chon's clearly got talent to spare as a director, screenwriter, and actor... possibly a hair model, too. You might recognize him as Eric Yorkie from the Twilight movies but this guy appears to have his eyes on something deeper than a fat wallet. So would someone pull out their fat wallet and starting funding his next film? Or at least pony up enough money for him to produce a new video with BgA (Boys generally Asian), his mock K-Pop band?

March 14, 2018

Factory Complex: She Works Hard for Little Money

The exploitation of women in the workplace is hardly something new. We've all seen Norma Rae at this point and we all know about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy. Or at least, we should! Yet this harsh reality of second-classing the second sex is hardly restricted to the American workplace. In the deservedly prize-winning Factory Complex, director Im Heung-soon zooms in on the systemic mistreatment and abuse of the female labor force, an ongoing oppression that's playing out not just in South Korea but also in countries where South Korean companies have taken root. And while the documentary definitely has firm roots in the garment industry, with testimonials of textile workers from both the homeland and further afield, it also broadens the scope of its inquiry — or better yet, its condemnation — of the sexism, misogyny, and utter human disregard to include air line workers, call center operators, and even check-out clerks.

Please understand, this isn't Harlan County USA or Roger and Me. For while Factory Complex definitely has its grit and its devastating details, the film also has an unapologetic artiness. (It screened at the Venice Biennale in 2015 and you can't get much artier than that.) As much a creative as a chronicler, Im can't resist adding surreal interstitials — two cloaked female heads sharing unheard secrets; an expanse of black wig invading a section the grocery store. Are they weird? Yes. Do they get in the way of the larger story? Not really. Plus, once you've seen laborers being gunned down in Cambodia simply for staging a protest as they fight for better wages, you know your sympathies lie with Im as an artist-activist, quirks and all. Equality now! Equal rights, equal pay! The future is female!

As Shirley Chisolm once said, "In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing — anti-humanism."

March 8, 2018

Right Now, Wrong Then: Oops, He Did It Again

The paradigm of the lovable rogue has not aged particularly well. For whereas ten years ago, many still considered the hard-drinking, womanizing, lone-wolf ne'er-do-well an inexplicably appealing type, nowadays the general consensus is not so flattering. At least for the moment, an asshole's an asshole. And while the leading men in Hong Sang-soo's movies could certainly be cited as examples of that no-longer-so-likable Lothario, there's one major difference: Hong recognizes who they are as much as we do. We don't come away from his 2015 movie Right Now, Wrong Then with the impression that filmmaker Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong) is a attractive bad boy who can't help being bad. To the contrary, he comes across as a preposterously immature middle-aged dude with an age-inappropriate haircut, a drinking problem, and a sad need to seek validation by seducing a pretty woman 10 years younger than he is. He's a specimen, an outdated archetype, more than he's someone out to trigger our sympathy.

As if to underscore that this guy is caught in a cycle of unawareness, Hong divides the film into two parts that more or less repeat the same story with minor variations. Think of it as a scaled back, hyper-naturalistic version of Sliding Doors or Melinda and Melinda only this time, the choices made by the protagonist aren't going to be that radically different when we switch from part one to part two. In both sections, Cheon-soo will court the model-turned-painter Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee), imbibe too much at a very small party, then bullshit at a poorly attended screening of one of his films. If one sequence ends more happily than the other, that's merely luck at work because Cheon-soo is destined to make the same basic mistakes, although the severity of them may change depending on the day. It's as if, Hong is letting us experience a "what if" scenario that acknowledges that our choices are more likely to be similar if we had a chance to do it all again. There are second chances for sure but sometimes, they're just second times to lose again.


February 18, 2018

On the Green Carpet: Don't Leave Us, Coach!

What's the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a North Korean athlete? Winning the World Cup as a team? Taking home a medal at the Olympics as an individual? Playing in a good-will-ambassador basketball game with the United States initiated (then derailed) by Dennis Rodman? Nope! The top honor would be to perform in front of the "great leader" and to receive his praise. As such, this laurel is actually available to a wider array of athletes than those other options. But just like the Olympics or the World Cup or any other international sporting event, the expectations are going to be high. This isn't amateur hour or your local talent show, even if the audience is not the world (or even televised). Everyone is expected to push themselves to the limit and if that means doing a dozen more round-offs in a gymnastic routine, even if you're just a talented elementary school student who is one of hundreds performing in a giant stadium amid fireworks and flags.

The self-sacrificing, eternally single assistant coach who more or less runs the children's athletic club very much understands this as he bullhorns his way through the practices for an upcoming May Day celebration intended to honor Kim Jong-il. He makes the kids do prolonged headstands and drills them, lovingly, in an elaborate, physically demanding sequence meant to symbolize the stars of the universe revolving around the sun. If the science behind that idea sounds a bit off, well, so are the politics. And anyway, this is actually a love story between the assistant coach (who's mother died when he was a mere boy) and his new boss, the vice-chair of athletics (who was his gymnastics partner when they were children and somehow never knew about the untimely death of her partner's mom!). Their eventual pairing off seems predestined more than romantic. Like many North Korean love stories, co-directors Jon Kwang-il and Rim Chang-bom's On the Green Carpet keeps the heat low and the shared dogma high. If there's a gay subtext here about the bachelor coach, it's pretty buried.

February 6, 2018

Do You See Seoul?: Field Trip to Nostalgia

Does framing an event in the past immediately heighten the nostalgia factor? It would seem so from watching Do You See Seoul?, Song Dong-yoon's soft-focus memory drama about a well-intentioned, somewhat ineffectual school teacher (Lee Chang-hoon) who goes back to his hometown to heighten his recollections of a romanticized class trip to a cookie factory during his youth. It's hardly a warm-and-fuzzy excursion into his earlier carefree days, however, as a few of the children (himself and his young sister included) get lost, are repeatedly caught in the rain, and then eventually forced into some sort of weird child labor situation washing dishes for a cranky restaurant owner. Their own teacher and guardian (Oh Soo-ah) seems less alarmed at their sudden disappearance than she is dogged in her efforts to find them again. When she gets weepy, you sense she's more tired of walking than panicked the kids may be gone for good (and all that implies). I suppose, she could be considering that their home lives aren't so great — the parents are universally gossipy, cranky or drunk. Maybe getting lost would end up a good thing!

That's not the weirdest aspect of Do You See Seoul? either. What's stranger still is that its narrator — while clearly inspired by his elementary school instructor — is also unable to make a similar event happen at the school where he teaches, even as he's confronted by the harsh reality of one pupil whose mom appears to be dying of some disease. The kid desperately needs some joy! And whether that parent survives the summer break during which our protagonist journeys back to the island on which he grew up is also disturbingly unclear. It seems more than likely that this woman has died by the grim way in which the young student relates her supposed recovery for his "What I Did This Summer" story delivered to the class. Perhaps the underlying message of this movie is don't let the tough stuff in life get you down. The world is a beautiful place which you can tell just by looking at the cinematography.

January 30, 2018

The Villainess: Getting Even Means Bloody Hell

I'm going to go out on a severed limb and say that action auteur Jung Byung-gil's The Villainess may have more fatal throat stabbings than any other crime pic I've ever seen. The incredibly gory opening sequence alone shows our anti-heroine Sook-hee (Min Ye-ji) walking purposefully through a grimy building where, once her guns run out of ammo, she pulls out her knives then slits, slices, severs, cuts, slashes, eviscerates, and punctures the neck of every man who gets in her way — all of which we experience from a shooter-game POV meant to replicate the first-hand view of our angry young woman. Since she's not capable of killing everyone, she's eventually captured and given plastic surgery because that'll make her lose her memory. Because her face looks so different. Because you can't remember who you are if you look totally different, right? Especially if you're prettier!

Okay, okay. The logic is wobbly. But The Villianess is really a movie created for people who will eagerly put aside concerns around plausibility if it means watching a tough woman who likes to fight and knows how to win. I mean, who doesn't want to see a bride holding a sniper? My problem with The Villainess is that none of the other women who've been trained at the assassin school where the older Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) has her killer instincts refined, possess a skill level that's anywhere close to hers. Her future husband Hyun-soo (Jung Suk), a graduate of the boys program, never really gets to strut his stuff while her former husband Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), an instructor (?), needs a better storyline. Maybe Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong), our respected Dean of Death, needs to hire a more vicious staff so that her graduates are deadlier after they've donned their caps and gowns. For now, the program can only bring those with natural talents at taking someone out to the highest level. The rest of the students are doomed to be practice targets for bullets, fists, and yes, knives. This villainess doesn't have a true rival. I guess she's her own worst enemy.

January 22, 2018

A Basketball Family Team: My Worst Nightmare as a Comedy

Until yesterday, I would've insisted that movies involving Satanic possession were the scariest ones out there. How little did I know! For neither The Exorcist nor The Evil Dead came even close to preparing me for the hellish nightmare portrayed in Chon Chong-pal's A Basketball Family Team. This truly twisted sitcom concerns a young, female musician who marries into a family of athletes who somehow brainwash her into loving b-ball and leaving her piano playing behind. She's not the only one indoctrinated into this cult of unending fitness. The family intellectual, a nerdy engineer, goes from outsider to coach as he comes to realize that nothing could be more worthy of his time than reading old basketball magazines and then coming up with new plays and well-conceived strategies.

As someone who sees sports and art, more often than not, as enemies — the first cultivating a pack mentality; the latter, internal reflection — I was infuriated by this North Korean propaganda film extolling the virtues of basketball as the ultimate form of team-building and selflessness. Never mind all the bullying that takes place (especially by the family patriarch). Never mind the inability of any of the athletes to accept any viewpoint but their own (or the cowardice of the outsiders to hold their own). Never mind that none of the actors look like athletes. Placing the action in a world of ugly wallpaper and forced gaiety, the sinister truth is apparent: A world without art is a world without beauty or wit, even if a woman gets to be the captain of the team.

The sad part is I actually like sports movies as a rule. But if you're looking for a recommendation in this regard, try A Barefoot Dream (about soccer), Lifting King Kong (about weightlifting), or Crying Fist (about boxing). If it's basketball or nothing, then there's always the documentary Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang. My nutshell review: It's only January but A Basketball Family Team may still end up being my least favorite movie of the year.

January 14, 2018

Across Land, Across Sea: A Family of Defectors

Songgook escaped from North Korea as a teenager. His eventual wife Sueryun and her mother also escaped across the Tumen River into China, although his mother-in-law was eventually captured and sold off to a Chinese rural farmer. Having married the former, he seeks to liberate the latter... and then shortly thereafter, with the help of his church, seeks to free additional members of her family including her brother, her aunt, and a couple of cousins. If that doesn't constitute a very good husband, I don't know what does. Come to think of it Across Land, Across Sea, the short documentary that chronicles his rescue efforts feels a bit like a home movie. It has its slow stretches and its gripping moments, its repetitive chunks and its touching scenes — and all of it is connected by the spirit of devotion.

Directed in part by journalist Lee Hark-joon, this short documentary is like one of those long personal biographical features in the Sunday paper in which you learn lots of details about a kind of Everyman doing remarkable things in a fairly humble manner. You also hear strange bits that aren't delved into too deeply — like how North Korean defectors are sequestered for six months to make sure they aren't spies and, probably, undergo deprogramming. You also wonder where the church is getting the funds to rent out multiple boats capable of sailing into international waters far from the coast. Are Songgook's escapades an isolated case? It hardly seems likely.

Yet he's a pretty remarkable man, working long hours doing construction and other odd jobs. And speaking of devotion, respect should be paid to filmmaker Lee as well who spent five years covering North Korean defectors by living among them in China. Because it's focused on one simple working-class family, Across Land, Across Sea doesn't have the scope of The Defector: Escape From North Korea or the art world glamor of I Am Sun Mu, but the perils are real; the struggle, laudable; and the tale, no less worthy of telling.

January 7, 2018

The Juchee Idea: Film as Conceptual Art, Perhaps

What was director Jim Finn's intent when he was making The Juchee Idea? Was it to make a sly documentary about filmmaker Lee Jung Yoon's time as a visiting artist at a commie communal farm well outside Pyongyang? Was it to illustrate the theoretical ideas outlined in dictator Kim Jong-il's On the Art of the Cinema? Was it to satirize the North Korean view of Western culture by way of a series of stiffly executed dialogues representing capitalist and socialist "uses" of the English language? Maybe the answer is yes to all of the above. I'm not sure. What I do know is that the various pieces neither stick together nor comment on each other so much as they all seem to coexist independently. In a way, The Juchee Idea feels like a cut-up. Finn definitely has some cool archival footage, an odd performance art sensibility, and access to what look to be entertaining North Korean films. What he's missing is a narrative through line. Maybe he never intended to have one.

By far the most fascinating parts of Finn's amalgamated movie are those sections which split-screen footage from a handful of North Korean propaganda films (such as hard-to-find titles like An Urban Girls Gets Married and Girls From My Hometown) with quotes from Kim's very intriguing film theory book. But the documentary footage of Lee being interviewed by interdisciplinary artist Daniela Kostova is shot in a way that has left me unsure of how seriously or satirically to take it. Same for the brief scenes of the "indicative conversations" — featuring an especially affected performance from Oleg Mavromatti. It's not quite funny so much as bizarre. The film kindly clocks in at sixty minutes so you're unlikely to get bored as Finn switches genres, tones, and storylines. But you're unlikely to get enlightened into the actual Juchee idea — which is North Korea's philosophy of self-reliance spiked with Marxism.

Korean Grindhouse has a page devoted exclusively to North Korean movies — both documentaries about the country and films that were created there. Check it out!

January 2, 2018

The Flower Girl: Total Class

"What is the matter with the poor is poverty; what is the matter with the rich is uselessness."

You can depend on George Bernard Shaw when you're looking for a good quote about class. And the zinger above applies as nicely to the North Korean drama The Flower Girl as it does to all spirited "power to the people" movies that address the struggles to survive when you're flat broke and the boss couldn't give a rat's ass. Per usual, the unscrupulous landlord (Ko So Am) and his irritable wife never notice how hungry and destitute their tenant-servants are. They mistake their own mean-spirited gestures towards sustaining subsistence with acts of generosity. As the "haves," they're all about "me, me, me" while the "have-nots" are sometimes sick, widowed, and stuck with three kids (and no help in sight). As we all know, the silk-gloved hand is usually the last to reach out to help and the first to grab back what it feels it owns. Indeed this particular batch of rich rubes is making matters worse for one particular downtrodden mother (Ru Hu Nam) by scalding her younger blind daughter (Son Pak Hwa) then demanding rent money or eviction when the poor ailing matriarch desperately needs some medicine. What's a flower girl (Hong Yong Hui) to do?

I like that this movie passes no judgment when the infuriated son causes a fire at the landowners' property then escapes from the chain gang then storms the not-so-fine folks' fine house with his enraged fellow villagers upon his return. The people united shall never be defeated. Though not as witty as Shaw, that's also true. Released in 1972, The Flower Girl doesn't feel North Korean in its politics so much as Marxist. Equal distribution of wealth, working as a community, striking down the upper class (and the imperialist Japanese) by taking to arms... Hey, it can happen. The only problem here in the USA is that most people don't want equality, they want to be rich. Even Shaw's flower girl Eliza Doolittle is tempted to marry into money. And who can blame her?