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 co-star Kim Byeong-seok (who you worked with on your last movie). The catch is you're missing the latest draft of your 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 are a very much earlier version. 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 undeveloped material. Admittedly, the female characters are woefully underwritten. 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 church scene 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 abandoned for a reason. 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 rift that some 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 go, it's not ideal. Watching 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 and nowhere. 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 the 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 love. (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. They're 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.