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 bet 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 doesn't use nickel? Two Families in Haeun-dong is like The Stepford Wives reprogrammed for communist indoctrination.