September 25, 2018

The Great Battle: Fight, Fight, Fight

Many war movies throw in secondary story lines that pull us out of the action and make us impatient to get back to the fighting. Perhaps the intent is to make us bloodthirsty. There's no such issue with The Great Battle, Kim Kwang-shik's big, fat historic epic of an actual 88-day battle that took place between a small ingenious group of Goguryeo (Korea) and the unrelenting, much larger Tang empire (China) as the two camps fought over the Ansi fortress, way back in 645 A.D. With alarming or exhilarating regularity (depending on your point of view), blood spurts from throats, chests, shoulders, mouths, dismembered arms, dismembered legs, decapitated heads, even an eye socket as each side attacks the other with catapults, arrows, axes, swords, boulders, fire wheels, battering rams, and some innovative oil bombs. Carnage is in no short supply.

Near the ever-growing pile of dead bodies and funeral pyres are some really likable characters too: the clever Commander Yang (Jo In-sung), the naive cadet Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk), the defiant women's auxilary leader Baek-ha (Kim Seol-hyun), her dashing male counterpart and love interest Paso (Eom Tae-goo), the tireless, axe-wiedling Hwal-bo (Oh Dae-wan), his frenemy swordsman (Park Byeong-yeon), and at least a half-dozen others, warriors all. The rousing film is also filled with memorable lines you can imagine people thumbtacking on their cubicle walls like "I never learned to retreat," "You must risk your life for what you cherish," and "Do you only fight winnable battles?" If you haven't figured it out yet, let me tell you: Self-sacrifice is definitely a theme here.

The occasionally washed-out cinematography never attains the beauty of the costumes, which extend to fancy armor for some of the horses and a host of hair clips that look runway ready. Whether we'll be seeing them at Fashion Week this year is anyone's guess. I certainly wouldn't trust the predictions of Shi-mi (Jung Eun-chae), the movie's down-on-her-luck psychic. Her visions became suspect the minute she renounced her own gods.

September 24, 2018

The Day After: Seeing Theater

How did Hong Sang-soo manage to make three films in a single year? It certainly wasn't by sloppily running from one to the next. For there's nothing messy or rushed about The Day After, the third of his 2017 trilogy of sorts that also includes Claire's Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone. But it probably helps that he brought in some of the same actors for each film which, because of their intimate nature, concentrates all the action among a very small cast. For The Day After, he also shoots in black and white (which simplifies the design elements) and shoots many of the two-person, largely interior scenes in extended, medium long shots with no cuts and only the occasional zoom, all of which heightens our sense of eavesdropping on a very personal conversation (or perhaps a master class in acting). Indeed Hong's choice to have so much of the action filmed in profile turns the face-to-camera shot into something remarkable since it's only when a character looks away from whomever she's talking to that we see her face directly. And what faces these are to look at.

As Song Areum, a young woman who is starting a fraught new job at a book publishing company, Kim Min-hee constantly delights us with her asides of impatience, distress, confusion. For when she turns away from the other character, she's in some ways shielding her face, meaning that these shots of Kim turning aside are shots of her face unshielded. It's the hidden exposed! As a despairing wife, actress Cho Yun-hee similarly is constantly flashing her hidden self to the camera as she struggles to get her husband to admit that he's been seeing another woman while he noisily slurps his soup. If Kim Sae-byeok shares less, it's because her role as the other woman demands that she generally be on her guard. The only time we truly see her psychologically naked is when she's drunk. Life's tough that way. At the center of it all is Kim "The Boss" Bongwan, the book publisher played by Kwon Hae-yo with an honesty that makes him both impossible to like or dislike. As for the movie as a whole, I liked it very much. I'm so appreciative of the Museum of the Moving Image for programming this trilogy.

September 13, 2018

On the Beach at Night Alone: The Coast of Dystopia

Hong Sang-soo, the auteur of the consequential inconsequential, whose films sometimes feel like well-stitched patchwork anthologies of irresponsible slights, irresistible self-deceptions, and eloquent awkwardnesses returns with On the Beach at Night Alone, a fragmentary and ultimately somber tale literally split into two distinct chapters — the first set in Hamburg of all places. This prelude of sorts concerns a directionless young actress (Kim Min-hee) who has fled from a disastrous relationship with an unseen, off-screen married South Korea director who has a child but has promised to visit her abroad. Her friend (Seo Young-hwa) in Hamburg, while supportive, doesn't want her to move in -- which is wise given how blunt they are with each other. After the two meet up with a German (Mark Peranson) and his eternally tired wife/girlfriend (Bettina Steinbr├╝gge) for dinner, they take off for an evening stroll on the beach.

The next, longer part of the movie takes place back in South Korea where our lost leading lady now reunites with a trio of former friends in a small town in which she likely shot a film earlier in her career. Because this small group includes Jeong Jae-yeong who like Seo and Kim co-star in Right Now, Wrong Then, On the Beach at Night Alone can feel like a strange sequel. Sure, the names and jobs and identities have changed but doesn't that sometimes happen with the passage of time. I doubt that this is Hong's intent but the recasting of this trio of talented actors does make for especially fascinating viewing.

The second chunk's extended dream sequence (which also ends up on a fairly empty beach) throws all of the action in question into a weird way. But with scenes like the one in which a window washer keeps wiping the smudgy window without water as if he's a renegade performance artist staging an impromptu routine outside an expensive hotel, Hong's pushing beyond hyper-realism into another realm. I don't know what to call it ultimately but I certainly do enjoy spending a couple of hours there given the chance.

September 7, 2018

The Piper: Drats for the Rats

A picturesque village turns into a less picturesque leper colony which then turns into a troubled town with no lepers but infinite rats. How did this happen exactly? I'm not totally sure but when a traveling musician (Ryu Seung-ryong) and his tubercular son arrive they may be able to help with the infestation problem at least. That is — of course — if you think a pied piper is capable of mesmerizing thousands of rodents so that they'll pile into an old building so he can seal the doorway shut with a rock. Once "trapped," these squeaky little guys aren't the type to dig their way out or climb up over the top of the rock either, which might stretch the limits of your imagination but then again, these particular rats know human behavior well enough to realize it's just a waiting game. People are so terribly predictable!

Rats, however, are not. "But rats don't eat humans!" or something to that effect is screamed by the mean-spirited town leader (Lee Sung-min) at one point yet we all know, deep in our hearts that, given the chance, of course a rat would eat a human. Where did the bossy old crank get such a stupid idea? This only proves that rats do know humans better than humans know rats. Because despite this proclamation, these rats are indeed going to feast on human flesh. Furthermore, their tastes will be discriminating. They have their preferences — avoiding human veal and sticking to human beef. Rats have ethics, you know. Yet as the faux local shaman (Chun Woo-hee) points out when she repeats the previous shaman's curse on the village, the uneaten kids will have a terrible fate of their own.

It's here where The Piper takes its darkest turn, which is pretty dark considering the dismemberment, physical brutality, and mass cowardice we've seen throughout Kim Kwang-tae's directorial debut. So what's Kim's intended message? Be kind to the sick? A deal's a deal? Kill all rats? Kill all people? Maybe it's quite basic. Something like... People take pleasure from watching the animal kingdom revenge its tormentors. Remember Hitchcock's The Birds?