December 29, 2018

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2018 (Sort of)

In 2018, I definitely saw fewer Korean movies than in previous years but I also saw more current releases, and made it a habit to check out the foreign film lineups at the multiplexes. And while I had less to choose from for this list come December, I still had more than enough for my ten top picks. In truth, I feel bad about not including the Korean-American Gook, the artsy doc Factory Complex, and Hong Sang-soo's On the Beach at Night Alone. Well, you can check out these three runners-up if you're using this post as a what-to-watch guide and have already seen the others.

1. Burning: Lee Chang-dong's best film since Oasis finds Steven Yeun playing a soulless rich boy who treats his friends as playthings.

2. The Great Battle: Few things please me more than a well-told "David and Goliath" tale. Here it's about a small village against a massive army.

3. The Royal Tailor: A tragedy for the fashion set, this period drama brims with unexpected compassion for the bad guy.

4. Unstoppable: I've been waiting for years for someone to cast Ma Dong-seok as a vigilante hero and so now all I can say is "Thank you!"

5. Right Now, Wrong Then: If there's a director eliciting as nuanced performances from actors as Hong Sang-soo does, let me know asap.

6. The Day After: Oh, the lies that cheaters tell themselves. Just ask the bookseller in this exquisite chamber pic, also from Hong Sang-soo.

7. Runaway From Home: This brom-com about two men tracking down a wife on the lam injects the right amount of seriousness into its silliness.

8. Swing Kids: Two teens at the theater reveled at how many times they cried during this war pic with tap dance. Bring tissues.

9. Default: Q: Can hand-drawn flowcharts and stacks of financial docs simulate the tension of South Korea's 1997 financial crisis? A: Yes.

10. The Red Chapel: Documentaries about North Korea constitute a sub-category of their own; this strange comedy tour stands out from the pack.

December 26, 2018

They Met on the Taedong River: An Educated Public

I have a friend who visibly recoils whenever I mention seeing a North Korean film for this blog. I suspect she sees my covering such movies as tacit endorsement of fascist politics — clearly she hasn't read the reviews as I'm hardly a bully pulpit for Kim Jong-il. But while I won't deny the merciless fanaticism of the hermit nation's dictatorial government, I'm also aware that, during my lifetime, no country has done more harm to the planet itself than the U.S.A. so there's something perverse about pointing a finger at Pyongyang while sipping soda through a plastic straw in a plastic bottle then shrugging indifferently as profit-driven corporations bottle up natural resources for pennies. One can be critical in both directions.

How is this relevant to Kim Kil-in's They Met on the Taedong River, a preachy North Korean romance in which two couples — one old, one young — must overcome various obstacles before they can marry their chosen ones? Well, it's a film that understands that class bias must be combatted for change to happen, and that youth are the future so their needs should be prioritized. A cooperative spirit informs the action throughout They Met on the Taedong River — which plot-wise is admittedly contrived and unconvincing. Say what you want about its simplicity, the movie at least has a higher goal than mere entertainment. I'll be the first to argue in favor of art that searches for something deep over propaganda but They Met on the Taedong River is a schmaltzy reminder that overall the American cinema is dishearteningly escapist at a time when so many important issues need to be addressed.

I too laugh at the decor, the fake performances, the outdated camerawork, the too-tidy endings. But I am equally skeptical that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Star Wars: The Phantom Menace are inherently better simply because they have big budgets and impressive receipts.

December 23, 2018

Swing Kids: Race to the Finish

One archetype that has been gaining an alarming amount of traction on the world stage lately (and for understandable reasons) is the smug, middle-aged, racist, white American man who mistakes his largely inherited power for intelligence. It's not a pretty look, to put it mildly, but there's nothing about it that doesn't ring true in Kang Hyeong-cheol's Swing Kids, a weepy dance movie set in a Yankee P.O.W. camp on Geoje Island during the Korean War and which has as its villain an insufferable brigadier general played by Santa Barbara soap star Ross Kettle. The good guys are a black American lieutenant (Jared Grimes), a quadrilingual civilian woman (Park Hye-soo), and a captured commie soldier (Do Kyung-soo) who bond over tap dancing lessons which the American officer is giving somewhat begrudingly so he can reunite with his girlfriend in Okinawa.

Because Swing Kids is a musical of sorts, the fights between sides (and even within the troupe) sometimes take place as a battle of dance moves — and hilariously so. Because this is a war movie too, those feel-good fights escalate into gunfights with heartbreaking results. And because this is a Korean movie, the female lead is self-empowered, a woman who strikes back when struck, who's continually surprising us with her resourcefulness, and who never seems defined by her relationship to men. I never tire of this aspect in Korean movies, North and South.

The movie also has quite a cast of secondary characters: a chubby Chinese P.O.W. (Kim Min-ho) who has choreographic aspirations; a subservient lackey (Jong Jae-ryone) who turns one stereotype on its head; a bullying sergeant (A.J. Simmons) who may or may not be gay, a colossal assassin (Kim Dong-geon) who has the brain of a child... Plus, the translator (Park Hyeoung-soo) who gives commentary instead of translations and a band leader who's constantly saving the day. Oh, just see it already!

December 9, 2018

Default: The Cruelty of Capitalism

It's weird to call Default a thriller because there aren't any murders or thefts in the conventional sense. Indeed, for awhile, you wonder if hand-drawn flowcharts and freshly printed financial documents are going to be enough to generate the necessary drama in this movie about South Korea's financial crisis of 1997. Yet eventually director Choi Kook-hee and screenwriter Eom Seong-min do create a palpable tension, primarily in the behind-the-scenes battles between a well-meaning Bank of Korea exec (Kim Hye-su) and a self-serving government official (Jo Woo-jin), each hellbent on furthering their own agenda. It's a painful struggle to witness because we all now know that over the last twenty years the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer worldwide. And so you really hope that the noble effort wins out over the bottomless greed, even as you're aware that the chances are anorexically slim.

The policy wonks aren't the only ones having their stories told here either. Subplots concern a sweet-natured, small-business owner (Heo Jun-ho) whose livelihood is threatened by the collapsing economy, and a heartlessly ambitious trader (Yoo Ah-in) who is briefly struck with a conscience before moving on to piles of cash. As you may sense and without giving too much away, Default is a bleak movie with fleeting moments of compassion. There's something decidedly upsetting about watching a new generation of moneyed heirs gleefully reaping in profits while the common man jumps off a bridge, hangs himself, ends up in jail or somehow survives only to become a racist slave-driver. Is this survival of the meanest? That the U.S. government played a role in the shady shenanigans with the International Monetary Fund is, at once, not surprising and a cause for despair. That the IMF is represented by the dashing French actor Vincent Cassel however brings pleasure.

December 5, 2018

Unstoppable: This Husband Is One Hard-Hitting Hero

Let's start with Unstoppable's hero. That's Dong-chul (Ma Dong-seok). He's got the eyes of a puppy dog and the body of a mack truck. That means when his practical, pretty wife Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo) gets kidnapped to be sold into the sex slave trade, he comes out swinging. "That bro is notorious for his fist," says his sidekick Chun-sik (Park Ji-hwan) and he ain't kidding. This guy punches like a humanoid sledgehammer as he knocks out one thug after another. What's a stab wound or getting hit by an SUV to him? Nothing when it means saving his love from a greedy pimp!

So now let's talk about this movie's wacky but watchable villain. He's the diabolical Ki-tae (Kim Seong-ho), a man with an insane laugh and insaner eyes, a greedy-ass crime lord who can't imagine anything but cold hard cash as a motivator in life. "He's a crazy lunatic who thinks money can buy anything," says someone at one point. Which leads us to believe he's highly motivated since he's incredibly rich. He may have bought himself some kind of superpowers along the way too as he alone seems to be able to survive an endless array of Dong-chul's punches to the head even after emerging from a car crash. Perhaps he invested in titanium steel plates for his skull in a scene that mistakenly got cut.

Together these two are engaged in a fight to the finish. Each has his memorable BFFs — a mulleted private eye (Kim Min-jae) for one; a weasel-y chauffeur (Lee Sung-woo) for the other — but the joys of Kim Min-ho's fast-paced thriller are really those that come with watching a hunky, working class hero beat up the big (Park Gwang-jae), the bad, and the beautiful. To paraphrase a well-known boxing phrase: May the best man win...repeatedly.

Fun Fact: The movie poster's truth-in-advertising tag line is "The beast has been released."