July 5, 2018

The Kites Flying in the Sky: Run, Baby, Run

The unexpected death of bus operator 337 leads a medal-winning marathon runner — who was for a time singularly obsessed with competing and winning — to abandon her sport and succumb to a rarely seen addiction: compulsive adopting. I don't know what else to call her insatiable desire to take in any child left behind who happens to cross her path. And so what begins as a gesture of respect for a nationalistic acquaintance who works in public transit transforms into a veritable obsession as the current long-distance runner becomes mother to the biggest brood in the neighborhood. You definitely know she is not your typical do-gooder since her charitable acts include marrying the widower of her secret hero and then indoctrinating every child who comes into their care to the point that all of them — and there are many, well over a dozen — become members of the North Korean military. I kept thinking about how some churches discourage birth control because they recognize newborns as the easiest way to build the flock. But our protagonist here one-ups those bible-thumpers. She's providing a home for the homeless thereby creating an immediate debt among her adoptees. Serving their country — in uniform, no less — is what's she exacting from each and every one of them. And frankly, it feels a bit creepy.

Is she happy? Well, who is happy. Is she respected? It sure seems so by the way everyone at the local department store is so eager to donate some article of clothing to one of her sons when she comes there looking for an out-of-stock belt. Is she exhausted? Yes. Viewed from one angle, North Korean films of self-sacrifice such as co-directors Kim Hyon-chol's and Phyo Kwang's The Kites Flying in the Sky feel like clunky admonishments towards our narcissistic society. But viewed from another angle, they can feel like the ultimate form of narcissism too since everything is done to please the Great Leader. If an entire industry devoted to hossanahing a single human being is the epitome of self-centeredness then I don't know what is. So what's worse: A culture of narcissists or the ultimate narcissist? Right now our culture appears to be heading towards a combo pack.

June 26, 2018

Miracle in Cell No. 7: Girl Behind Bars

Given the heartbreakingly inhumane, government-sanctioned acts currently occurring on the international border between Mexico and the US where asylum-seeking parents are being separated from their children and then interned in concentration camps with no clear plan on how to reunite them, this comedy about a mentally challenged man (Ryu Seung-ryong) — imprisoned for a murder and rape that he did not commit — whose daughter (Kal So Won) comes to stay with him in prison makes for incredibly weird viewing. I mean, even in Miracle in Cell No. 7 the authorities eventually come around to figuring out a way to bring the daughter and the father together, rules be damned, for heaven's sake. Evidently, "truth is stranger than fiction" is one of those cliches that keeps on giving.

Is there any comfort in knowing that police corruption and brutality are things in South Korea as well as the United States? That people are framed, forced to sign confessions they didn't write, sentenced to death without due process only to have their reputations righted posthumously in a mock trial at which everyone sobs? To be honest: The joys are few. And writer-director Lee Hwan-kyung's Miracle in Cell No. 7 is one of those movies with so many holes in it that you're hardly watching it thinking "How could this bleak reality happen?" Gritty this is not. But through your tears, and yes there are many to be shed, you will be thinking "Oh, I hope that hot air balloon they've constructed behind bars liberates the doomed duo from this prison" and "Wouldn't it be great if the head thug (Oh Dal-su) not only learned how to read but eventually became the lead attorney for our poor, unfortunate hero."

Alas, such victories are not meant to be. A well-meaning teacher (Park Shin-hye) and an enlightened prison staff (Jung Jin-yeong) are unable to defeat the cruel wheels of injustice or to prevent those wheels from crushing a man who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You can blame this all on a stupid Sailor Moon backpack really. Never promise a child a trendy gift you cannot afford. Nothing good will come of it. Nothing!

June 20, 2018

The Royal Tailor: Sew, Sew Good

The Royal Tailor has made one thing incredibly clear. The difference between North Korean movies and South Korean ones is vast, something akin to the qualitative distances between the comedies of Jerry Lewis and those of Billy Wilder. Or better yet, between the dramas of Ed Wood and Martin Scorsese. So different are the standards by which they can be judged, never mind the standards they establish and uphold that they're impossible to compare seriously side by side. Who in their right mind would say that Cinderfella and Plan Nine From Outer Space are on par with The Apartment and Taxi Driver? And while both Lewis and Wood may have their advocates (and I am among them!), the pleasures they afford are trifling when compared to the true geniuses of cinema. This became quite clear to me after watching Lee Wonsuk's The Royal Tailor, an exquisite historic drama made in South Korea that not only looks 100 times better than any film I've ever seen from their Northern neighbors but is also peopled by characters with complex motives and speaks to the human condition outside of some didactic party line. Agit-prop art this definitely is not.

Not that politics don't come into play. A nasty if nattily attired movie of court intrigue, The Royal Tailor is all about politics — from the petulant king (Yoo Yeon-seok) who's inherited both the throne and his wife (Park Shin-hye) from his late older brother to the conflicted official court tailor (Han Suk-kyu) who finds his position suddenly threatened by an inspired, upstart iconoclast and trendsetter (Go Soo) who has an artist's sensibilities when it comes to design and a pragmatic understanding when it comes to function. He might not be as committed to tradition and craftsmanship as his elder but everyone wants to wear his work. Given the central plot literally swirls around fashion, you can better your bottom dollar that The Royal Tailor is a feast for the eyes: richly colored fabrics, exquisite embroidery, snazzy haberdashery, even underwear stitchery are fully on display so that come the climax, you'll have developed a discerning enough eye to recognize that the violet-colored garb and headpiece worn by the royal concubine (Lee Yoo-bi) are more garish than gorgeous. You can't fake fashion, especially once the Queen has arrived.

June 5, 2018

Let's Go to Mt. Kumgang: Border Disorder

To call a North Korean movie odd is odd itself in that it's always oddness all the time. So many zooms! So many gleeful tunes! So how do you describe one of the odder films, an oddity among oddities, when it isn't really outrageously weird? Specifically, how do you detail the singular oddball that is Let Us Go to Mt. Kumgang. We could start with the leading lady who, per usual, is prone to strong opinions and blushing, determined and deferential, smart and simpering. But this heroine takes all those qualities to an extreme; not only is she working on a groundbreaking scientific paper about some kind of tonic that will increase the longevity of the lives of all North Koreans but she's also incapable of reconciling patriotism and botany. It appears that if she can't find the plant to complete her formula in her homeland then her efforts will have been for naught. The handsome young male scientist, who simply advocates a healthy diet for a long life, recognizes her genius and is determined to find her the root ingredient. Literally, a root. But is he to be trusted?

Constructed like a farce in which people keep misinterpreting the actions of each other, Let Us Go to Mt. Kumgang is especially preposterous because the screenwriters clearly haven't done any substantial research into scientific matters, local geography, or the politics of academia. Because of that, the dialogue around the tonic and the diet sounds like blather and the song about the wonders of the landscape like something written by an elementary school class. A subplot involving a potential romance between the two scientists is so cloaked in political claptrap that not only do the two should-be lovers never get anywhere near kissing but they seem to be fated, at best, to the intimacy that results when two hands touch while holding the same flagpole. No, not that kind of flagpole. A real flagpole.

There's an unrelenting, unforgiving idealism that runs through many North Korean movies that always feels anti-human because it requires that feelings must be subjugated to the party line as dictated by The General, a god-like force who's always watching, always judging, always expecting but never seen.

June 2, 2018

Two Families in Haeun-dong: Worst Neighbors Ever

The disheartening domestic drama Two Families in Haeun-dong may be the most depressing North Korean movie that I've ever seen. No one is killed, no blood is spilt, no one's health is compromised, no fortunes are lost and yet this stridently pseudo-socialist film has disturbed me to the core. I should've known something was amiss simply by the atypically sexist way that the women are portrayed. Korean movies — North and South — can be generally lauded for depicting female characters who not only can hold their own with men but are rarely helpless victims of them. But here, the two main ladies (a touring pop singer and a gushy tour guide) are defined primarily as wives (though oddly much less so as mothers despite having a child each). Both are married to men who are scientists: One man is kind to his wife and daughter; the other treats his spouse as maid and his son as a distraction. Guess which one turns out to be the admirable one? Apparently, valuing family is antithetical to valuing the party. The true patriot devotes himself fully to the cause or, if that patriot is a woman, to supporting the man in his efforts to further the party agenda.

And so, when the cold-hearted husband (who one suspects at times might be having a gay affair with a co-worker so unmoved is he by his wife's needs and charms) is revealed to be a workaholic quick to spew jingoistic propaganda, the entire community in the apartment building rallies around him to support his efforts while his kinder, sweeter male counterpart falls in stature and is labeled a hedonist. After all, what could be more decadent than ordering a second beer? And why isn't anyone commenting on what appears to be persistent, stress-related herpes sores on the lower lips of the brainwashed drone and the neighbor's wife (who has come to idealize him). Is no one worried about parents — respected and reviled — who shove their pre-teen children to the ground whenever the grown-ups become overly frustrated? Does the world really revolve around a welding gun that don't use nickel? Two Families in Haeun-dong is like the Stepford Wives reprogrammed by communist indoctrination.

May 26, 2018

From 5 p.m. to 5 a.m.: Night Battles

Are you living your best life? Apparently, the soldiers in the DPKR army are. They're constantly laughing, singing, and living each days with a sense of purpose and devotion. Skeptical? Well, that's understandable. For what are they laughing at? A theatrical spotlight that's been sent to their camp and to which they react with complete joyous bewilderment. What are they singing about? An eagle that will bring them news from home. What are they devoted to? War. And their leader. Who they love. And can you blame them on this last count? The American president Eisenhower has been bombing their country and working to rally the world's forces against them so great is his distaste for communism. They've got an allegiance to the communists though because that's who freed them from Japanese occupation. So what's the answer? At this point, I couldn't say. But in From 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., a North Korean officer with a heart ailment is willing to give up his (happy) life if that's what it takes to resist the capitalist forces. So is his sharpshooter daughter who's arrived just in time for a birthday celebration. So is the doctor who served as a commanding officer earlier in her illustrious career.

North Korea makes a disproportionate number of war pics when you compare their cinematic output to other countries and within this genre, director Kim Yu-san's From 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. distinguishes itself because of some unexpectedly artful touches in the editing. A tragic battle that takes place on a train is chopped up by shots of the locomotive wheels to dramatic effect; a deathbed moment gets an otherworldly look via its use of deeply saturated red and blue lighting. There's also some sly social commentary here too as the American military heads are shown giving press conferences full of bravado even as their enemies up North are about to "shower a fire of revenge." You may recognize one of the men on the American side in particular: James Joseph Dresnok, the United States Private First Class who defected to North Korea and found a new life as a movie star of sorts — albeit one who always played villains. You can learn more about him in the documentary Crossing the Line.

May 20, 2018

Song of Retrospection: Composition Class

The North Korean film industry has definitely developed a number of tropes since its politicized inception: The underestimated female leader, the stern and demanding coach, the soulless Yankee pig, the accordion-playing Everyman... And you will find quite a number of them in Song of Retrospection, director Ryu Ho-sun's formulaic and patriotic movie about one European composer (of Asian descent) who, through at least two pairs of corny eyeglasses, sees the wisdom, strength, and compassion of the North Korean people while a prisoner of war held captive by a female soldier who also happens to write music and speak English. Her song, in fact, becomes somewhat of an obsession for him after he hears her sing it (while accompanying herself on the accordion, of course) to an all-male squadron of her fellow soldiers on the front lines during the Korean War. These enlisted men are never too busy for a singalong! You might start to think that North Korean soldiers have but two states of being: hurt and happy.

Eventually, the composer (nationality unknown, probably not American, though his name is Komak) tracks down his humble muse at an international youth music festival being held in Berlin. (These scenes are a weird mix of archival footage from the era and sepia-tinted sequences in which North Koreans sometimes wear blond wigs when representing Caucasians.) There, at the German festival, she gives him her one page of sheet music with which he apparently becomes so engrossed that he eventually builds a whole symphony around it. It's not a bad song, mind you, but it works better when sung by a single voice simply accompanied then when it's provided a full orchestration. Gone is his dream of creating a victory march on commission from the United Nations. His muse is now the Great Leader. He feels strongly about it so why resent that? What I do resent are the fake mustache the protagonist has glued to his face for a good portion of the movie as well as the powdered hair atop any character who we're supposed to believe has aged. The 2010s are clearly not the Golden Age for North Korean cinema. Nor is it, despite the odd wigs which argue to the contrary, the Silver Age either.

May 19, 2018

Runaway From Home: Looking for My Wife

Sort by "view count" for "Korean movies with English subtitles" and the two most popular YouTube videos are Healing Mate ("starring the two beautiful ladies...") and a sketchy untitled movie with a thumbnail of an Asian woman discontentedly nursing a grown man who may or may not be Korean. The first has 16 million views; the second, 14 million. I couldn't bring myself to watch either. The third most popular video with 10 million views however is definitely legit. It's the Daniel Henney vehicle Seducing Mr. Perfect , a rom-com which I've already seen, albeit years ago. What doesn't show up on that first page of search results is Runaway From Home, an absolutely delightful buddy comedy that's racked up a respectable 1.4 million views on YouTube and a less respectable 5.5 score on IMDb. Credit its visibility issues to poor tags and sloppy mislabeling — Run Away — and its low rating to poor taste in general. (Those 32 IMDb voters are hereby scolded!)

Perhaps the IMDb users simply didn't watch the entire film. Written and directed by Lee Ha, Runaway From Home may seem slight at first: Two slackers — a radio personality and a wannabe movie director — end up on a road trip when the former discovers the wife he's about to dump has already dumped him and disappeared. But where did she go? (Hence the alt title: Looking for My Wife.) The flummoxed husband (Ji Jin-hee) enlists the help of his friend (Yang Ik-joon) as the two decide to find her by tracking down her most meaningful old acquaintances sourced through an old flip-phone previously owned by the now-missing wife (Kim Gyu-ri). This device facilitates their meeting a series of zany characters including a weepy psychic (Kim Yeo-jin), a severe Ponzi-schemer (Ok Go-woon), and a pickpocket brother-in-law (Lee Mun-shik). Each new encounter leads the two pals to learn a little more about themselves and deepen their shared commitment to each other. In true Korean movie fashion, the Hollywood ending never occurs. What does instead is incredibly moving and makes Runaway From Home a runaway favorite for me.

May 16, 2018

Boys of Tomorrow: Brothers With Issues Galore

It's the first day of shooting. Your cinematographer is there. So is your production hair stylist. So is your cast, including hotshot Ahn In-yoo who's been building a rep on TV and his co-star Kim Byeong-seok who you worked with on your last film. The catch is you're missing the latest draft of the script. You'd planned on having the actors learn their lines quickly to get an improvisational feel but now you've realized that the pages you've brought along with you a very much earlier draft. You decide to forge ahead. Then at the end of the day, you watch the dailies and think, hmm, this is interesting. Not good or bad so much as odd. You're intrigued. You decide to continue with this draft. Sure, the female characters are woefully undeveloped. Sure, the dialogue is absurd at times like when a prostitute is asked to describe a ring, and answers, "It's round." But there's something about the misshapen aspect that intrigues you. At least for awhile.

About halfway through the film (which you've titled Boys of Tomorrow, in part because the two leads look like they're ready to join a K-pop band), you realize that this isn't really working. That part about a guy losing his testicle because he got kneed by his brother as a kid... Preposterous. That scene in the church during which the hyper-religious mother begs the mobster who stole her home to stop employing her mentally unwell son... Implausible. But what can you do? Will you resurface the subplot involving the older brother's dream of being a drummer who plays on the beaches of The Maldives? Can you possibly get any additional traction out of the younger brother's obsession with buying a real gun with bullets? Tough questions.

Plus, the sad fact is that this particular early draft was never finished. There's no third act, so to speak. So what are you going to do? Well, there's always that urinating motif that's surfaced a few times. You could bring that back in the climax in a really denigrating way and then make one more reference to it in a kind of "road movie" coda. You recognize, it's not a great idea but you just want to finish this movie and move on. At least that's how it felt to me. Then again, I'm not writer-director No Dong-seok.

May 14, 2018

Tiger Spirit: The Korean Peninsular at the Crossroads

The sad truth is that every documentary that touches on Japan's occupation of Korea makes me aware of yet another atrocity committed by the Japanese. This time, in Lee Min Sook's Tiger Spirit, I learned that the Japanese government made it their mission to kill all the tigers in Korea because it was the animal that Koreans identified with their fighting spirit. Anyone read that post I wrote last year about The Tiger? Well, apparently, the movie's not just some man-versus-nature metaphor. It's based on the reality of deranged oppressors murdering an entire animal species as a way to subjugate a people. Not that we're guiltless in America, where white cops shoot black civilians without repercussions and the Native Americans are screwed without the least remorse. You know, when I was a kid I used to have a dream in which the animals were waiting for us to get with the program for some planetary peace program and an owl told me how upset he was that humans were not partaking of the larger inter-species conversation and instead were just killing. Still true, even if I'm not eight years old.

As to the rest of the Lee's movie, though, the whimsical yet intrepid director becomes engrossed with her birthplace's Berlin Wall — the Korean Demilitarized Zone — especially in regards to to how this great divide relates to identity and family. A South-Korean born filmmaker raised in Canada, Lee finds in the fractured country a shared sense of dislocation. Her documentation of the staged reunions orchestrated by the North and South quietly sheds light on an irreparable rifts that hour-long meetings in a tourist trap can't possibly bridge. Her recounting of North Korean escapees' newfound woes is equally elucidating. These relocated relatives from up North are subjected to insidious demands by their new homeland, like a lifelong parole officer, lavish weddings that demand you perform your rites for the public online, and jobs at museums that badmouth your birthplace. As homecomings goes, it's not ideal. Watch Lee trudge through forests while three months pregnant or lugging her three-month-old newborn around during a return trip for additional footage, you realize home is everywhere you go and nowhere really. We're all orphans in a way. Heaven help us!

May 6, 2018

Flower in Snow: She Works Hard for the North Korean Won

Although it's not a sci-fi movie in any intentional sense, Kim Hyon-chol's Flower in Snow really does give you the impression of portraying an alternate, parallel universe. And it's not simply a matter of the "crazy" politics of North Korea. It's more than that. For Flower in Snow depicts a gynocentric society, a town run by women, predominantly populated by women, a place where men are few and serve mainly as damp blankets or in rarer exceptions as self-sacrificing helpmeets. The self-deprecating protagonist is a young woman who's just been promoted to run the wool factory. What does she propose? Tear the old building down, scrap the old machinery and build a new one to house new equipment? (Subtext: Down with the partriarchy!) Who knocks down the old factory? Who harvests the wood for the new one? Who works the machines? Women, of course. Who builds the lime kiln that makes so much possible? Mainly our heroine, In Sun (Sin Yong-ni), of course.

In a way, Flower in Snow feels like a rebuttal to the notion that women couldn't run the world better than men, a celebration of a culture in which women are allowed to destroy and rebuild for a better future. The hero's mother (Kim Yong Suk), although she argues for marriage, is likewise committed to her cause. The hero's fiance, after being rejected, does not become a bitter suitor. Instead he returns as an apostle who recognizes the grander vision of his superior. (The only good man is a martyr!) Throughout Flower in Snow reverses many a sexist cliche while retaining one: In Sun blushes easily! And while the gushy praise for the saintly qualities of The Leader and The General — men as they are — may be interpreted as subversive to my premise, I like to think of the two leaders as substitutes for the Virgin Mary. Their deeds are outside the realm of human scope. Their saints, and as such, sexless.

May 1, 2018

Making Noise in Silence: School Pictures

The subject of Mina T. Son's mini-documentary is a pair of South Korean-born students at an American high school for the deaf. We learn only snippets about them: He's a valedictorian senior who wrestles and works on the yearbook; she's a junior working on a large colorful mural in one hallway, an artist-in-the-making who can hear somewhat with the help of a cochlear implant. It's a strange little film in that, since it only lasts 20 minutes, you never get a sense of the school culture outside of brief scenes in the cafeteria, the gymnasium, and the classroom. Their home lives, split between weekdays in the dorms and weekends at home if you live nearby, is similarly only glimpsed. Yet how much is learned in these brief moments.

One senses great divides between the young man and his parents who he communicates to on the phone via a human translator who either simplifies what his parents are saying or is sharing some fairly detached reactions to his acceptance into Gallaudet. Similarly, the young woman feels reluctant to hear her relatives at home where neither her aunt or her mother are ever shown signing as a way to communicate. You get the feeling that there's a tremendous amount of effort being put into getting these kids a proper education on one hand and also a reluctance to bridge the world into which they're being propelled. (It's worth noting that the young woman's dad has returned to Korea because he didn't like the United States.)

Given the relative brevity of the film, it's preposterous to truly conclude anything about the school, the parents, the two teenagers... And Making Noise in Silence isn't actually out to make any definitive statements either. But as a prompt for a discussion on deaf culture, I'd say it was pretty effective.

April 24, 2018

My Love, Don't Cross That River: Old Feelings

She's 88. He's 98. They've been married for 74 years and he's now got a cough that sounds like death which it is. But before he goes to the other side, Jin Mo-young's unabashedly sentimental documentary My Love, Don't Cross That River reveals the secret behind this beyond-golden marriage as the two geezers throw leaves at each other, throw snow at each other, and throw water at each other or walk around in matching outfits. There are moments of true tenderness, like when Jo Byeong-man strokes his sleeping wife's head at night after he wakes up in the wee hours or when Kang Gye-yeol teases a newborn puppy to go over to "grandpa" to give him a lick. Some of it feels staged; some of the dialogue prompted by having a camera nearby. Yet even so, you can tell these two people are soulmates so any skepticism about geriatric love is quickly left at the door of one of the two doghouses outside the country home (where a pair of small dogs named Freebie and Kiddo are chained up cruelly, if ignorantly so).

Though you don't see much of the offspring, you do get a glimpse of them at a New Year's celebration and then at a birthday party. Like any family, some of the kids are cool; some seem insufferable; some make their parents cry. From what I could tell, that generation almost universally dyes its hair. To be honest, they all seem irrelevant. My Love, Don't Cross That River really is about a love between two people to the exclusion of everyone else — the doctors, the nurses, the other bus-riders from the senior center, the children, the grandchildren, the neighbor with the ugly dog, the unseen filmmaker... It's as if this love could only survive on the mountain if everyone just left the perfect pair alone. Naturally she wants to join her beloved in the great beyond as soon as possible. There's no one else worth sticking around for. And — spoiler alert — one of the dogs is dead.

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?