July 9, 2019

The Wedding Day: Black and White Union

Sometimes, a form of cruelty emerges in morality tales featuring rich men who wed poor women. Consider the sadistic acts inflected by the Marquis of Saluzzo on Griselda in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or the sliced-off heel and snipped-off toes in The Brothers Grimm's "Cinderella." Ouch, right? That twisted aspect also pops up in Lee Byung-il's The Wedding Day, a cinematic fable in which a female servant — infatuated with the bride-to-be — marries the wealthy suitor when the family patriarch coerces her to take his daughter's place after being tricked into believing his future son-in-law has a limp. Yet rather than being overjoyed by a life of luxury, our handmaiden looks depressed when taken away in a palanquin. The only one truly happy by the switcheroo is her new husband and his brother-in-law, the traveling scholar who cooked up the scheme.

And so... The father-of-the-bride is now humiliated. The bride herself will never find a good match. The mother-of-the-bride realizes her hubby's a moron. Even the local worker who'd hopelessly pined for the servant-woman remains despairingly single at the end. Perhaps grandfather is happy. He's senile and clueless and unflappably giddy. But the main players, outside the groom's family, are universally screwed and sad.

That said, The Wedding Day is visually appealing, with plenty of elegantly composed long shots and countless sartorial touches to delight the eye. Too bad that this film is ultimately a deflating romance nastily mocking disabilities. The circle of dancing young ladies who ridicule the purported handicap in a sing-song fashion is especially deplorable. May they be spinsters for the rest of their lives.

June 29, 2019

Night Before Independence Day: Have I Got a Story to Tell

Most times when people say "inspiring," what they really mean is "impressive" because they so rarely take any sort of action afterwards. To actually be "inspired" is a truly rare thing. So while I'd like to say that Night Before Independence Day is inspiring, whether it ends up being so remains to be seen. Although made in 1948, Choi In-kyu's captivating movie is actually a silent film in a way, one which had a single narrator's audio track added in post-production. Such a device is actually part of the Korean cinematic tradition as byeonsas — more or less, onstage voice actors — often took on the vocal parts before talkies in lieu of the tinkly pianos we tend to think of accompanying pre-sound movies on our side of the Pacific. Choi, however, doesn't do voices; if anything watching Night Before Independence Day is more akin to hearing a bedtime story told with accompanying visuals; a sordid tale involving thieves, rapists, murderers, addicts, gamblers, and double-crossers left and right.

It's all kind of loose and wild, with an antihero who wears blind man sunglasses all the time, and characters sneaking in and out of an abandoned warehouse space with the interrogator light overhead flickering on and off with cryptic meaning. Shirtless boxing matches, makeshift card games, narrowly escaped sexual assaults, greedy intravenous drug use... the action is continual and culminates in a death that launches a patriotic speech that somehow propels two surviving couples into a new idyllic world full of unexpected promise, a sunny land where men pair off with men, and women with women. Yes, Night Before Independence Day goes to some truly unexpected places. I was absolutely fascinated by it. I'd like to make film like this. But will I? Unlikely.

June 27, 2019

Tuition: A Poor Education

Poverty may inspire some to get an education but it also gets in the way of learning. It's not just going to school hungry that does it in Choi In-kyu's and Bang Han-jun's drama Tuition either. It's also the shame that comes with not having the cash to pay your tuition. And it's not the teacher that's creating that sense of guilt. The kids without money feel bad all on their own. Yet the drive to learn is strong! So when given the opportunity to go to his aunt's house over 20 kilometers away, Yeong-dal (Jeong Chang-jo) makes the journey alone &#!51; first on foot and then a stretch on an oxcart before resuming his trek unassisted (often with indifferent vehicles passing him by). You have to admire his tenacity even as you wish he had an adult to accompany him, given his grandmother (Bok Hye-suk) — and primary care taking — is continually ailing. Where are his parents, you ask? Well, they're trying to make a living elsewhere and while they do show up at the end, they don't appear overly delighted to see him. The formality in that part may be cultural but it's still pretty weird to witness.

In truth, there's not a lot of emotion to be found in Tuition. Most of the action is presented matter-of-factly with incredibly sparse dialogue, although the scene in which the young boy cries that he's "bad luck" as a way to comprehend the lack of food and money in his struggling household is certainly an anguishing one. I also appreciated the subplot involving a young girl in similar straits: She's the school's other top pupil and their initial rivalry to get top honors shifts once they realize their struggles are the same.

June 25, 2019

Hurrah! for Freedom: A Fragment of Liberation

Gertrude Stein once said that she enjoyed the beginnings of movies but lost interest once she could figure out the plots. I understand her viewpoint. Somewhat related, I'm a big fan of movies with missing footage. I enjoy being left in mid-air by a truncated flick, films like The Widow and Yangsan Province, historic works which end not where the director planned but where the footage comes to an end. Sometimes, there's something less pat and more real about stories that are inconclusive, accidentally or not. It's as if we'd suddenly turned our heads away from the action then discovered that all of the players had left, thereby leaving us to come up with our own conclusions and narratives. Such is the case with Choi In-kyu's Hurrah! for Freedom which not only ends in the middle of the action but periodically jumps around as if some internal footage had also disappeared.

What we know in Hurrah! for Freedom is that the Korean resistance is committed to rioting as a way to combat Japanese occupation and people from all walks of life are getting involved: mothers, nurses, lovers... At times, Hurrah! for Freedom can recall the Italian Neo-realists with its intense-faced men and low-gloss interiors; other times, the style feels almost French New Wave like the highly stylized cuts that happen between a guard and a hospital patient. Vignettes of a woman breaking up a fight between two boys only to get a mud-ball thrown at her back and a man caressing another man's face in a homoerotic manner pull you in as well. This film may also be known as Viva Freedom, but I couldn't resist Hurrah!

June 21, 2019

Columbus: Korean-American Comes Home

Admittedly, the presence of the Korean language in Columbus is primarily a handful of international phone calls held by Jin (John Cho), a book translator who has returned to the States to care for his ailing father (Joseph Anthony Foronda), a noted scholar, but Columbus also touches upon the cultural differences between American and South Korean cultures on many fronts and is really such an exquisite film in its own unique way that it seems appropriate to bend the rules of this blog and include it. After all, Park Chan-wook's Hollywood entry Stoker and the dry tutorial The Great Courses: The World's Greatest Churches: Two Churches in Seoul, Korea are both part of Korean Grindhouse, too, and neither is nearly as good as Kogonada's exquisite indie flick.

What makes Columbus so special? Oh, many things like how it avoids turning its central relationship between Jin and Cassandra (Haley Lu Richardson), an architecture nerd, into a romance; how it similarly avoids sex scenes between these characters and a friend of the family (Parker Posey) and a librarian (Rory Culkin) respectively; how it spends so much time talking about ideas especially as they relate to architecture — most memorably to the work of Eero Saarinen, his father Eliel Saarinen, and the lesser-known Deborah Berke. The movie makes you realize how often traditional films ignore the myriad relationships available to men and women, parent and child, peer and peer, person and place. The cinematography by Elisha Christian is also worth noting as it so successfully uses the striking buildings and interiors of the film's hometown for truly remarkable framework again and again and again. I can't recommend this one enough.

June 17, 2019

The Widow: Females First, Female Firsts

Quick. What's the first Korean movie directed by a woman? Yeah, I didn't know the answer either and that's too bad because Park Nam-ok's The Widow is actually really, really good. This despite missing the final footage and having the ten minutes preceding that missing footage devoid of sound. How many movies can you say are unquestionably worth watching even though you never get to see the end? Well, The Widow is one of that select few. Part of the movie's appeal can be attributed to Lee Min-ja who brings a lot of complexities to the lead character, the single mother Shin: She seems crafty by necessity, devoted but only to a point. She's neither the hero nor the villain; she's more a self-respecting woman trying to get by in very less-than-ideal circumstances. You can't blame her for manipulating her husband's old friend, the rich Mr. Lee (Shin Dong-hun), and you've got to appreciate Park's unexpectedly bold presentation of her as a far-from-perfect mother to her petulant and needy child Ju (Lee Seong-ju).

Also hard not to relish is how the sex symbol of The Widow is neither Shin nor the philandering Mrs. Lee (and certainly not the prostitute who lives down the street). It's Taek (Lee Tak-kyun), the unofficial lifeguard we first meet wearing only a bathing suit even as our protagonist is hanging out on the same beach in traditional raiment with a parasol over her head. You could say, he's The Widow's homme fatale who will lead Shin to compromise herself in her family, to indebt herself to a married man, and to drink hard liquor. He's not trying to ruin this lady's life. He simply can't help cause all-around grief and destruction. Just ask his former love, Mrs. Lee.

May 29, 2019

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum: Terror Tourism

The six young fools in Jeong Beom-sik's Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum have decided to explore a cursed and abandoned psychiatric hospital that landed on CNN's Seven Freakiest Places in the World. On their way to the bloodcurdling Room 402, they check out the Director's Office, the Lab, the Shower Room, and the Bathing Room, and the Storage Room where they find such ominous relics as a photo of former inmates, some loose syringe needles, a creepy clown doll, a dead chicken, and a discarded wig. The graffiti too sends a clear message... Get out! Yet none of them pay attention to the signs until too late. Instead, harnessed up with two-way cameras that allow YouTube viewers (a.k.a. us, the audience) to see what they're seeing as well as their reaction shots. The goal? To get to one million viewers. The cost? Oh, maybe their lives.

But just how scary does it get? Is someone playing a trick on someone? Are there vengeful ghosts that have to do with war crimes or mental illness? Is all the footage coming from the participants and the cameras with motion sensors that one of the crew stalled earlier that day? How much does the guy at the control panel in the tent on the hill really know about what's going on? After all, HQ is having issues all its own and that pair of dirty underwear someone tied to a branch doesn't turn out to be then helpful landmark everyone though it would be.

We never get to the truth behind all the mysterious happenings and while we see the YouTube viewership climb well beyond 900 thousand, we never see it hit the goal. Not that it matters — it being this movie and the reality show that it contains.

May 26, 2019

Kim Ki-Young's Top 10 Movies

The films of Kim Ki-young reflect a different South Korea than the one I learned about in the movies of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Hong Sang-soo. I suppose you'll hear echoes most clearly in Kim Ki-duk's filmography which is similarly focused on disturbed psychodynamics but even so, I was not prepared for the zaniness that is Kim Ki-young. Best known for The Housemaid which more or less set a template for many of the movies that would follow, he also made some fine films atypical of that landmark flick, and ones which I happen to prefer. It's hard to believe Yangsan Province has been so summarily dismissed because I find it magical.

10. Woman of Fire: Proof that a director's quintessential film may not be the best of the bunch. (Which isn't to say it's not good.)

9. Iodo: This strange murder-mystery is set on an island run by women who go to extremes when competing for men.

8. Insect Woman: Arguably, the best of Kim's reworking of The Housemaid.

7. Killer Butterfly: This may be the weirdest in Kim's filmography with talking skeletons and 2,000-year-old urine both memorably featured.

6. Promise of the Flesh: A woman on her way to prison has the train ride of her life.

5. The Housemaid: This classic Korean psychosexual melodrama features many plot elements that Kim would revisit again and again.

4. Woman of Water: The ill-treated, silent female lead is a trope of cinema. Kim's take gives her voice though and the final message is a powerful one.

3. The Sea Knows: Set in Japan, this military flick finds a Korean soldier struggling to survive with some help from his Japanese girlfriend.

2. Yangsan Province: A love triangle ends in disaster for government official's son, a poor widow's son, and the woman they both love.

1. Transgression: This one takes Kim's extremist tendencies into a monastery where three monks are battling it out for the top spot.

Also by Kim Ki-young: Beasts of Prey

May 2, 2019

Private Eye: Snoop Gets Major Scoop

Jang Kwang-su (Ryu Deok-hwan) is a gifted medical student who chances upon a dead body that he uses to further his skill set as a surgeon. Hong Jin-ho (Hwang Jung-min) makes his living by taking scandalous photos of women having affairs then getting those pics published in the local paper, no doubt with salacious copy. So when Jang realizes that his practice corpse is the son of a political dignitary, he naturally enlists Hong to track down the murderer. Why shouldn't a photojournalist who stalks down unfaithful spouses be able to track down a serial killer? Okay, I'll admit that's a bit of a jump but if you're willing to take it, Park Dae-min's Private Eye is highly entertaining.

In supporting roles, neither Oh Dal-su nor Yun Je-mun may be giving the performance of a lifetime as a shady military officer and an even shadier circus performer but even at 70 percent capacity, they keep the action moving. Vastly more effective is Uhm Ji-won who plays an inventor who aspires to be the greatest scientist in Korean history and in most movies would also be doubling as a love interest but here is improbably but delightfully not. She may have longings for Hong but she's infinitely more committed to astronomy and James Bond-worthy gadgetry than she is to snagging her man. Anyway, she's smart to set her sights elsewhere since so many of this movie's men aren't interested in women at all. I won't add any spoilers now but I will say that what they desire instead may not be what you first suspect.

P.S. If you're wondering why the younger trapezist looks familiar, that's because actress Kim Hyang-gi grew up to star in the Along with the Gods franchise.

April 27, 2019

Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days: What the Hell!

A movie can take its inspiration from anywhere: a great book, a bad book, a play, a graphic novel, or in this case, a webtoon. As you might guess given this particular source material, Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days isn't exactly realistic. Director Kim Yong-hwa's episodic tale of the underworld is instead a combination of video game action, Medieval redemption, and modern-day dramedy.

It's a complicated plot full of flashbacks and and flashbacks of flashbacks, a story in which you may struggle to reconcile financially struggling humans on earth with costumed judges in the Hells of Filial Impiety, Indolence, Deceit, Betrayal, Injustice, Violence, and Murder. So many hells! So many green screens!

None of these hells are scary mind you. The ravenous raptors and the firey Go-Bots, much like the CGI wolves and the animated tiger, are creatures more likely to surface via your Xbox than by way of your worst nightmares. The closest thing this flick has to a real threat is the dwindling value of the mutual funds which caretaker-grandfather hopes (Nam Il-woo) and his guardian angel (Ma Dong-seok) pray will provide for the future of their young charge's future. As for the corny jokes and gags we've come to expect in action pics, one grim reaper (Ju Ji-hoon) does drink a chamber pot of urine. But overall, the comedy is more tonal than actual. So what's the point? "No one is innately bad. There are only bad circumstances," quips someone near the end. You could say the same about some movies.

April 11, 2019

Choi Eun-hie's Top 10 Movies

The best way to ensure a rich career as an actor may be to fall in love with a great director. That strategy sure worked for Gena Rowlands, Giulietta Masina, Anna Karina, and even Mia Farrow — though that last one didn't end so well. Add to this list Choi Eun-hie, the Korean actress whose partnership with Shin Sang-ok produced a number of unforgettable films (and even more not-so-memorable ones). Not all the movies below are their collaborations — Yoon Yong-gyu directed A Hometown in Heart; The Lovers and the Despot is a doc about their crazy abducted lives — but if you're no fan of Shin, you're likely no fan of Choi. For the record, I enjoy them both.

10. A Broad Bellflower (1987): While in North Korea, Choi actually directed as well as acted. This anti-romance is icy cold!

9. Seong Chun-hyang (1961): There's been a number of biopics about Chunhyang but Shin's sadistic version is so far my favorite.

8. The Money (1958): This early Choi pic reminds me of the Italian neo-realist films like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D.

7. Madame White Snake (1960): I'd re-watch this fantasy about a reptile disguised as a woman for Choi's entrancing dance of seduction alone.

6. A Reluctant Prince (1963): Scenery-chewing Choi and co-star Shin Yeong-gyun are having so much fun as a king and his concubine that you forgive every excess.

5. My Mother and Her Guest (1961): I've got a soft-spot for this flick which finds Choi once again playing a woman choosing status over pleasure.

4. Evergreen Tree (1961): Perhaps Choi's most noble role is this one — a self-sacrificing instructor who devotes her life to teaching the children in a small country village.

3. The Lovers and the Despot (2016): Considering how many melodramas she made, you may be stunned to learn that her real life was even more dramatic.

2. A Hometown in Heart (1949): An orphaned child monk in search of his mother bonds with a widow in search of a purpose. Choi at her most understated.

1. A Flower in Hell (1958): This wartime pic finds Choi playing a completely amoral prostitute whose transgressions only get worse once she falls in love.

April 10, 2019

Romance Gray: Two Old Men, Two Young Ladies

The movies of Shin Sang-ok are the cinematic equivalent of summer stock: You see the same actors over and over: sometimes with bad age makeup and powdered wigs; more often in typecast roles they've played before. Here Shin regulars Han Eun-jin, Shin Yeong-gyun, Kim Seung-ho, and Choi Eun-hie are all back on board for Romance Gray (a.k.a. Love Affair), a lighthearted melodrama about a pair of philandering husbands, who get caught by their dowdy wives, in affairs with two women who hustle at the local bar. The initial advice proffered at the sewing bee is that cuckqueans need to spend more time on their appearance. But these two ladies escape a fate worse than divorce by unexpected means outside the powder room.

For the wife of the college professor, the plot will involve extortion, a fake mustache, an instant photo, and some martial arts moves. For the wife of the company president, the resolution will follow a forgotten pajama top, a righteously smashed-up apartment, two boozing broads, and some runaway kids who may or may not return. Yet despite all the drinking and shouting, most folks do get back together. Just not all... And that one loose thread is what makes this a pretty darned good genre picture.

Footnote: Romance Gray's screenwriter Lim Hee-jae also wrote the scripts for Madam White Snake, My Mother and Her Guest, and Seong Chun-hyang. Kudos to him!

March 17, 2019

Beasts of Prey: The Return of Insect Woman

Kim Ki-young's late-career melodrama Beasts of Prey is also known as Carnivore and Carnivorous Animals in English-speaking countries but it might just as easily have been called Insect Woman 2 or The Return of Insect Woman or Child of the Insect Woman so indebted is it to the 1972 film that would set the tone for most of Kim's kooky output for the next decade. Repeating plot points include a young woman forced into prostitution by economics who then ends up wreaking havoc on the family of the patriarch who stole her virginity; an insatiably hungry baby that miraculously appears shortly after that middle-aged man is doped into a vasectomy; a bratty, self-important son who swears off vegetables and meat for a diet consisting entirely of honey; an out-of-control rat infestation problem in the basement of the family's country estate; a contractual agreement that divides daddy's time between two households — twelve hours in each.

Some changes work better in Beasts of Prey than previously — the sex scene on the glass table covered with spilled candies; the concubine's insistence that her lover wear a diaper and bib to turn back the clock. Most improvements, however, do not. The look of Beasts of Prey is very akin to that of a 1980s prime time TV soap opera; the acting recalls the comic stridency of early John Waters flicks. Sadly missing is the "infant versus rat" battle, the shadowy figure in the refrigerator, and the demented snarls of the female protagonist. A narrative thread involving gigolos who target middle-aged women also gets dropped too quickly while the barmaid with the mullet should've had more screen time for her hairdo alone.

March 15, 2019

Woman of Water: Basket Case

When a handsome soldier returns from the Vietnam War with a bum leg, the only woman he can secure as a wife has a terrible stutter. And he needs a wife pronto in order to secure the GI benefits that will allow him to purchase a farm. Complicating matters, he's got PTSD worsened by his mother's death while she's got major social anxieties hardly helped by her unimpressive singing voice. "A match made in heaven," says one of the townsfolk ironically. In his dreams, perhaps.

In reality, the two have a nightmarish lot to work through. He still suffers through flashbacks of the frontlines (which can be triggered by the mention of an M-16). She's being exploited as free labor once he discovers her supreme skill at basket-weaving. Will their first born child unite the two against all odds? Not once the tyke develops his own speech impediment. Will their new truck driver seduce the veteran/entrepreneur's wife? No, but she'll write a note saying he did. That last bit might sound a bit counterintuitive but the arrival of a conniving barmaid pretty much throws logic out to the winds. She's one of those temptresses who seem born to do evil, an opportunist who'd probably get much further if she dumped her less crafty boyfriend.

I'm afraid this is one of those movies in which the femme fatale is missing the requisite je ne sai quoi that would make her irresistible. Is it the role or the actress? I'm not sure. But this troublemaking bad girl feels a little too obvious. Yet just when you think this is building to a predictable conclusion adhering to the rules of film noir, Kim Ki-young puts in a few final plot twists that more than redeem Woman of Water as a tale of redemption. Once again, despite the misogyny, Kim's sympathies lie with his leading ladies. As do ours.

March 14, 2019

Woman of Fire: Kim Ki-Young Recycles Himself

With Woman of Fire (1971), you get a justifiably strong déjà vu feeling as psychosexual auteur Kim Ki-young revisits the exact same territory that he charted so memorably in his landmark movie The Housemaid (1961). But there's something new going on here too as Kim is also laying the groundwork for much of his wildly phantasmagorical work of the 1970s, freaky films like Insect Woman (1972), Promise of the Flesh (1975), and Killer Butterfly (1978). Sure, we're back to a housemaid (Youn Yuh-jung) who gets wrapped up in a perverse love triangle with a composer (Won Namkoong) and his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) but we're also getting a glimpse of things to come as Kim would go on to explore the eternally demented battle of the sexes with quite a few variations.

None of it's subtle in Woman of Fire. This country girl who becomes a domestic definitely has a screw loose — perhaps caused by being sexually attacked before heading to the city. The tendency of a few characters to laugh maniacally creates a feeling that the world, and not just a few outcasts, have gone certifiably insane. You might be frustrated or delighted by how much Woman of Fire has in common with The Housemaid. As for me, I experienced both reactions. Ultimately, this over-the-top melodrama might be the quintessence of Kim: the look, the vibe, the excesses, the creepy score, the tawdry tale. Which doesn't make it his best. It simply means that it's not the worst.

Awards: For her turn as the deranged servant who ends up ruling the roost, Youn Yuh-jung won top honors as Best Actress at Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival.

March 13, 2019

Killer Butterfly: The Ossified Will to Live

The lepidopterist who kills butterflies for his collection comes across as a creep nowadays. As animals and insects left and right land on the endangered species list, the idea of killing for sport feels especially unforgivable, and likely twisted. So when we see Killer Butterfly's hero, a harmonica-playing student in need of an antidepressant, inject a particularly big insect — that he's just netted — with poison, it's easy to relate to the woman who perceives his passion as perverse. Whether we too would offer him a cup of poison in response is another matter. (Don't worry he survives. At least physically.) Mentally, he may never be the same as his attempts to off himself are repeatedly interrupted by a cackling, Nietzschean bookseller who will not die even after being burned down to his skeletal remains.

When a cold win blows that skeleton to dust, another bag of bones is retrieved then transforms into a beautiful woman who hankers for human liver because she hasn't eaten in 2,000 years. She actually urinates 2,000-year-old pee should you doubt her age. I'm guessing it stinks! But if the first skeleton aggravated our sourpuss student, and the second one aroused him, neither proves a match made in heaven, and he's left to have one final encounter with a bodiless ancient skull.

What lies in store for the confused co-ed in the next half of Kim Ki-young's phantasmagoria? More skulls, more bones, some x-rays, more existentialism poetry, more deaths... and according to the imperturbable investigating detective, more empty soju bottles, too. Let's raise a glass of orange juice to zany cinema! (You'll understand the fruit drink reference once you watch this movie.)

March 12, 2019

Yangsan Province: Folk Film / Heart Hurt

I not-so-secretly suspect that Greed is the worst of all vices in that it is the vice that most often teams up with other vices to get the job done. Here the sin of avarice manifests in the mother of a village maiden (Kim Sam-hwa) when the parent becomes covetous of gifted silk. With such rich fabric on her mind, she sacrifices her daughter to the town bully (Park Am), a spoiled brat whose lust for the young girl becomes a destructive obsession. Naturally, obstacles exist — like the betrothed (Jo Yong-su), a poor lad whose father died some time ago and left his family poor as dirt — but Greed and Lust have made a pact. Nothing and no one will stop them. Things do not turn out so good for anyone.

The oldest surviving film of Kim Ki-young, Yangsan Province is an exquisite piece of filmmaking. The performances are highly stylized with the actors often striking poses as if they were recreating a 19th-century melodrama or pressing their faces together while facing out towards the camera like a pair of lovers in a silent film romance. The moment when the young woman slowly sinks out of the camera frame as she joins her seducer on the ground is particularly memorable. The soundtrack is also a stunner orchestrated with traditional Korean instruments that crescendo into an opera of sorts when the doomed young man's mother (Ko Seon-ae) believes her son has died. My favorite part of all may be when the score is integrated into the action as a masked troupe of traveling performers appears to mimic the movie's storyline just in time for the wedding/funeral/suicides. Highly recommended.

March 11, 2019

The Sea Knows: Not-So-Basic Training

Basic training probably involves some form of violence in many military indoctrinations but the punishments inflicted on Aro-un (Kim Woon-ha) as a Korean cadet in a Japanese troupe during World War II are especially brutal — not just physically but psychologically. Imagine licking the shit off the bottom of the just-shined shoe of a fellow soldier as your comrades laugh. (To be honest, I'm wondering how you could polish a shoe and not notice there was poop on the bottom but no matter...) Not everyone finds the shit-eating amusing, mind you. The tallest recruit, a fellow Korean named Inoue (Lee Sang-sa), has Aro-un's back through all the horrible hazing but initially, he's about it. Then love arrives!

Military brat Hideko (Gong Midori) is prejudiced against Koreans when she first meets Aro-un but soon enough she's warmed up to him and is breaking all the rules on his behalf. Did you know that scrubbing the back of a respected guest in the bath is a Japanese tradition? Well, neither did Hideko's outraged mom (Ju Jeung-ryu). Guess you learn something new everyday. Additionally, Hideko feeds Aro-un endless bowls of white rice, pours him a very shallow cup of ritual tea, and dances around in her kimono — all for Aro-un, Aro-un, Aro-un. Hell, Hideko would rather die in Aro-un's arms than run to a bomb shelter. That's how strongly she feels.

Will these two lovebirds brought together by pity survive the war? It's hard to tell. The American victory over the Japanese may be something to celebrate but even then a Korean soldier had a hard time making it out of the Land of the Rising Sun alive. The last scene in Kim Ki-young's war pic dramatically illustrates how tough that final escape from the jaws of death could be. Thrilling!

March 10, 2019

Iodo: Men Investigate Female Society

When a failed entrepreneur (kim Jeong-chul) mysteriously disappears off a ship headed to an island slated for ecotourist development, his drinking buddy (Choi Yun-seok) — who just happens to be a reporter! — is unfairly blamed for the death. No official inquiry takes place but the surviving journalist does feel compelled to quit his job and set his reputation aright by conducting his own unofficial investigation with his boss (Park Am) in tow. Which brings them both to a strange isle peopled almost entirely by women who have created a puzzling culture incorporating shamanism, deep-sea fishing, and necrophilia.

At first I admit I found Iodo somewhat difficult to track what with talk of frozen sperm and spirit possession casually tossed about. But by the end, I was fine with matter-of-factly accepting narrative elements such as a poorly timed sneeze and the potential powers of an incandescent infertility treatment. Can a Ponzi scheme dependent on abalone reproduction make an entire community filthy rich? Is chemical dumping or sisterly sorcery responsible for a handsome schemer's undoing? Can one woman (Kwon Mi-hye) actually strangle herself with a satin scarf? Best of all, how does her tattooed rival (Lee Hwa-shi) stiffen the limp genitals of their dead lover? (Warning: It ain't pretty!)

So many questions I'd never considered came into play in Iodo. And you know what? I was game for all of them. "It'll be doomsday. The end of human civilization," someone screams near the end of this Kim Ki-young freak show. That cry has become louder in recent years. And so this unusual concoction of sexploitation and eco-terrorism might initially register as outlandish nonsense but ends up feeling like an ahead-of-its-time warning about global apocalypse through climate change.

March 9, 2019

Promise of the Flesh: The Kink of Violence

Rape. That's a disturbing through line to have in your work but it appears to be one in the films of Kim Ki-young who repeatedly features sexual violence against women in his story lines. What makes that weird instead of just disturbing is that you sense that he's periodically attempting to combat sexism and misogyny between the scenes that show his unpredictable heroines being attacked. Bodices are ripped, breasts are exposed, but strangely these victims/survivors are less likely to scream than they are to be facially outraged. It's like Kim is aware of sexism but can't stop thinking of women primarily as sexual objects. Admittedly my exposure to Kim Ki-young is still fairly limited but in the especially twisted and perverse Promise of the Flesh, the leading lady — a murderess (Kim Ji-mee) — while definitely suffering from PTSD has a not-particularly-convincing journey to "love."

What kind of world is it when women are seduced by men barking lines like "I would marry any woman who would take care of my child" or "If you don't marry me, then I'll kill you then I'll kill myself"? It is a world of histrionics. Indeed, you get the feeling that Kim directed his actors to "play to the second balcony" for particularly heightened moments. People roll around on the floor, slap each other in the face, leer at each other as if only the crudest look could convey desire. The camerawork can be equally overstated with prolonged shots of the light at the top of the lighthouse or a particularly strange closeup that zooms in on a single eye during sex. The sweetest thing about Promise of the Flesh is the pink candy the prison guard (Park Jung-ja) is constantly slipping into her charge's mouth.

Awards: Grand Bell honors for Kim Ji-mee as Best Actress and Park Jung-ja as Best Supporting Actress.

March 8, 2019

Transgression: Head Monk in Training

The old monk is dying. Don't believe me? Then explain that blood he's just spat on the temple floor. But before he transitions to the next phase — nirvana seems a bit doubtful — he needs to pass on his mantle to his successor. There are a few men in the running: a power-hungry insider, an inspired academic, and a wise fool. Before we get to their final challenges (answering cryptic questions, fasting, and potentially jumping off a cliff), we get a glimpse into the lives of the latter two especially since they're best friends.

The bookish one mans the drum that calls monks to their daily beatings of bamboo, cures schizophrenia with a well-placed acupuncture needle, and has a tortured, largely platonic affair with a flirtatious female monk from a neighboring temple; his troublemaking buddy steals sacks of flour for money, farts in formal settings, and eats whenever he gets the chance. One is respected; one is loved. There's a lesson to be learned here now what might that be... Maybe lead with the heart, not the brain?

After watching Insect Woman and The Housemaid, I was expecting Transgression to veer into camp but Kim Ki-young chooses not to take the melodramatic route with this one. To the contrary, despite the theatrics — which are often quite striking and deliberate in a way that feels more arthouse than grindhouse — this film is grounded in a reality that mirrors our world with minimum grotesquerie. The extended opening shot of a giant rock may strike you as an example of bad moviemaking but when Kim returns to that seemingly bland visual at the end, it's suddenly laden with meaning that is nothing short of humbling. You might say, "Buddhism rocks."

March 7, 2019

Insect Woman: Off With Whose Head?

Hungry for something truly bizarre? Then here's a movie that definitely out-weirds such cult classics as Hera Purple and Terror Taxi, two fellow films that had at least one bloody foot in the horror genre. This particular bit of craziness is called Insect Woman and comes from the warped mind of Kim Ki-young, a director whom I only knew from The Housemaid. On this particularly occasion, he definitely starts off with a bang. What we learn in short order: A married man (Won Namkoong) is checking into an insane asylum where patients, with impotence issues, will double as doctors. And teary-eyed kleptomaniac student (Youn Yuh-jung) is going to be pushed into prostitution after her father dies without leaving her family a financial legacy. They're brought together for a relatively long-term extramarital affair by two nasty lady pimps — all while a lounge version of "My Cherie Amour" plays in the background. From here, it only gets stranger.

The ensuing oddities are both large and small. At the more extreme end, we've got a vampire baby who feeds on the blood of living rats. At the subtler end, we have an irritable son committed to a diet of honey to avoid eating anything that's ever been alive. Snarling lips. Broken plates. Slapped faces. Mexican chicken. Spilled milk. Then there's the calculating wife who dopes her husband so she can subject him to a vasectomy. This movie has serious balls! Whether the shadowy figure in the refrigerator or the aphrodisiac gumdrops on the coffee table get your rocks off depends on how turned on you get by freaky for freaky's sake. I found it very stimulating.

Awards: Insect Woman won best director and best actor honors at the Baeksang Arts Awards for 1973.

February 16, 2019

A Reluctant Prince: The Man Who Shall Not Be King

Watching A Reluctant Prince can be somewhat like channel surfing except each time you change the channel, you've got most of the same actors involved with a different plot. The opening section feels like a comedy about two tight-knit brothers (Shin Yeong-gyun and Kim Seung-ho) pointlessly persecuted by the government. Then when, fairly early on, the younger sibling (Shin) gets suddenly promoted to king because of his bloodline, you think it's going to be a Pygmalion story. But the king never masters the ways of the court and the focus shifts to a forbidden romance — that between him and his hometown girlfriend (Choi Eun-hie). Then even that story line gets abandoned after she's come to realize that it's best for the nation if she weren't around. Which leaves the king to go on a Leaving Las Vegas bender that lasts for years and toys with him falling in love with his assigned queen but then ditches that idea, too.

So how do you classify Shin Sang-ok's 1963 movie? A bromance? A romance? A period piece? A tragedy? Well, it's definitely not the last option because A Reluctant Prince is played in a broad style that forbids you to inhabit its more serious moments — and there definitely are some — for very long. In fact, scenery-chewing of the highest caliber may be what holds A Reluctant Prince together. The cartoon-like glee exhibited by Choi and Shin when stitching up a pair of torn pants that has left his privates exposed or the exaggerated childishness they parody while running around the palace courtyard at night may ring as false but it's also incredibly fun so why begrudge them the pleasure they're apparently having. A Reluctant Prince is a movie that wins you over for all the wrong reasons. Or makes you realize there are times to abandon "what should be" or "what could be" and simply embrace "what is."

February 14, 2019

Evergreen Tree: My Favorite Teacher

I'll admit this right up front. I'm a total pushover for movies about idealistic teachers who move into poor and/or working class neighborhoods and go on to become valued members of the community — films like the classic To Sir With Love and the all-but-forgotten Sing. So I'm definitely the target audience for Shin Sang-ok's Evergreen Tree which focuses on young educator Yeong-shin (Choi Eun-hie) who has taken her skills to the countryside where she's about to inspire an entire small town to help her build an elementary school from the ground up.

And she's got a love interest too: teetotalling, charismatic community organizer Dong-hyeok (Shin Yeong-gyun), a fellow high-minded young college student who's working to better another coastal village through his own brand of rural activism. The stars may have destined these two for each other but first there's some serious work to do. For Yeong-shin that means farm work, fundraising, hands-on construction, and dealing with the local Casanova (just back from Tokyo); for Dong-hyeok that means fieldwork, aerobics, choral singing, and managing the farmer's guild. If all goes as planned then it'll be at least three years until these two love birds get married. A bran-new wedding bell that doubles as a school bell? Why not!

But when did any two-and-a-half hour movie spotlight a romance in which all went according to plan? Problems are abound to arise like a bad case of appendicitis, an alcoholic relapse, and a well-timed bribe. (Man, you can always count on the self-serving rich people to foil the collective betterment efforts of the poor!) But romance isn't the only reason for living. Good works have their place too. And if there's a drought in your neck of the woods then this movie can overcome that with its final waterworks.

February 13, 2019

Madame White Snake: Succubi Are Hot

At last! A supernatural story! Shin Sang-ok's fun fantasy Madame White Snake is all about a white snake disguised as a woman (Choi Eun-hie) who seduces the sweet-natured brother of a pharmacist's wife following their meet-cute encounter on a boat during a rainstorm. It's easy to see why he'd fall for her. Her elaborate fan dance alone — executed when he swings by her palatial house to retrieve an umbrella he'd lent her the day before — is about as irresistible as one can get. Plus, she's always throwing silver coins his way and has a ready excuse for every strange occurrence. Sticklers may point out that none of her excuses are particularly believable but that's the power of love: Even the preposterous seems reasonable.

Released in 1960, Madame White Snake keeps the special effects simple and strange: thick globules of smoke signal magic ahead and a light fog allows the snake-woman to fly to another dimension occupied by a judgmental monk and the Goddess of Deadpan. But the real magic here is Choi Eun-hie who's always been a creature of hidden powers. At times vampiric, at other times witchy, she's constantly casting spells as she slowly entraps her prey in a romantic fantasy that may have some serious repercussions. (The villagers have been dying at the rate of a dozen a day!) That's when the "quack shaman" enters.

He's the black snake to battle her white snake. Evidently the world is full of snakes — probably the worst reptile being the governor snake who forces our leading lady to drink alcohol so she'll pass out so he can rape her in bed. The rufey has been around forever! Well so have women who get revenge.

February 12, 2019

Red Scarf: War Hurts Women

After watching her early sloppy-drunk scene in Shin Sang-ok's war pic The Red Scarf, you're reminded how much actress Choi Eun-hie was restricted by the material provided to her throughout her career. To her credit, in many performances, she periodically pushes against the "lady" stereotype in which she's been straitjacketed but she's never quite as exciting as she was when she played that amoral hooker in the brilliant A Flower in Hell. The Red Scarf isn't a bad showcase for her talent, mind you, it's just that she'd be that much more compelling if she could rail against the military-industrial complex instead of serve it.

How does she serve? Basically, she's condemned to being a soldier's wife, not once but twice — first to a one-screw-loose pilot (Nam Kung-won) who proposes shortly after meeting her; then to his much calmer replacement (Choi Mu-ryong) who unlike his comrades has not been burdened with a nickname like "Sissy" or "Nerd."

How she gets from one man to the next is all due to the machinations of a brusque, alcoholic major (Shin Yeong-gyun) who doubles as the local matchmaker with a kind assist from the bar's good-time madam and bartender (Han Eun-jin). Yet as the adrift young woman becomes domesticated a second time, she also becomes less fascinating; and as insanely preposterous the rescue of her second husband from behind enemy lines might be, you secretly wish he'd been killed so she could move on to husband number three or at least descended into a mad world of boozing and whoring and drugging and thieving. Or jumping in an airplane and becoming the first female fighter pilot in South Korean history.

February 11, 2019

Women of Yi Dynasty: Some Shorts by Shin Sang-ok

"A Woman Must Obey Her Husband"
The opening short of Shin Sang-ok's Women of Yi Dynasty omnibus is the South Korean equivalent of a Roger Corman fright flick. The acting is amateurish; the camerawork, erratic; the lighting, flickery; the script, clunky. Character development takes second place to a morbid plot worthy of Edgar Allan Poe: A chaste young woman is married off to a rich family's crybaby son then must suffer in silence when her young groom dies on the wedding day. Her one attempt to escape to see an ailing mother does not end well.

"The Seven Sins of a Wife"
Film number two continues the "woeful woman" theme as well as the drab cinematography. Married to a sterile man, a fruitless first wife (Choi Eun-hie) coerces a simple-minded, gnome-like servant into having sex with her so she can pass off their offspring as a legitimate heir. The catch is that she's not fooling anyone but her husband and he's the only one who gives a damn.

"Forbidden Desires in the Palace"
The final entry in this trilogy has a much brighter palette with its vibrant blues, lurid yellows, and overripe reds as well as a much more upbeat ending: The main woman, a court lady who is raped outdoors then suffers through various attempts to induce an abortion (like throwing herself down a snowy hill, bathing in a freezing river, and ingesting poison scraped off a stone), ends up leaving the palace alive — if in a casket — with her baby safe beside her. As for the baby's father, well, let's just say this mother's friends are overprotective.

February 10, 2019

It's Not Her Sin: She's Got Her Finger on the Trigger

Shin Sang-ok's not-quite-noir-but-close It's Not Her Sin is a movie that parcels out its info in very small packages since neither husband Sang-ho (No Neung-kyeol) nor wife Seong-hui (Ju Jeung-nyeo) nor adopted sister Yeong-suk (Choi Eun-hie, the Queen of Sighs) nor her boyfriend Myeong-chil is initially willing to talk about why a married mother might pull a gun on her recently engaged best friend on a staircase inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This reluctance to speak also leaves the prosecutor the difficult tasks of figuring out why someone was trying to pawn off a wedding gift to raise one million won in quick cash and how a couple with no issues could possibly only have one child after eight years of marriage. To him that's strange! So if he doesn't get some answers fast, something terrible could happen. Not jail time exactly but a fate much, much worse... namely, divorce!

Which leads to the extended flashback that in turn leads to its own series of gnarly questions like... What's the sin referenced in the film's title? Is it pre-marital sex with a sleazy ladies' man (Jeon Taek-yi) or a coerced abortion with an unlicensed physician? Is it smuggling goods out of Japan or having a baby boy out of wedlock? Is it chain-smoking or bribery? Adultery? Lying? I personally think it's the sin of omission that haunts these characters. Speak up, people, and you may taste the delicious freedom that comes with living honestly.

Some particularly memorable moments outside the flashy open: adopted toddler Sik shoots at his birth mother with a toy machine gun then refuses her loving embrace; a slick-haired buyer of goods says, "Money is like a woman. It gives birth to more"; two women embrace after one shoots the other because girls gotta stick by each other!

February 9, 2019

The Money: The Filthy Rich

The disparity between rich and poor is worse than ever but Kim So-dong's 1958 movie The Money pretty much nails the basics that have been true forever. Wealthy people treat the day-to-day concerns of the impoverished cavalierly; money-lenders will exploit opportunities to make a buck of the destitute; those with little still cling to materialistic standards when it comes to cultural rites of passage like marriage. In other words, The Money is hitting all the right marks, including the guilt that comes with doing well financially at a friend's expense.

The film also taps into alcoholism as an insidious undoing for the downtrodden, a weakness that can be exploited by those in power with impunity and mercilessness. Not that booze is the only thing that's going to be the undoing of one unlucky farmer (Kim Seung-ho). He's also got an unscrupulous neighbor and some big-city scam artists who couldn't give a damn about his family's fortunes and simply see has as a way to easy money. Given that the local police officer appears to do little except bicycle around town while making nice with everyone, it's hard to imagine that justice or the law would ever come to this everyman's rescue. Doom hangs over everything for the downtrodden.

And that includes potential daughter-in-law Ok-jyeong (Choi Eun-hie), a barmaid whose got her own battles with poverty to battle, which in her case includes a money-grubbing, dirty old man (Choi Nam-hyeon) who caresses her while she's asleep. "I hate this world," Ok-jyeong says after one particularly harrowing night. By the looks of the looks of the dreadful lives of most everyone else in Money, the odds are good she'd have no trouble finding others to echo that sentiment. Well, at least one of the bad guys dies.

The Love Marriage: Hurtful Hearts

There are three types of marriages: the love marriage, the arranged marriage, and the hybrid. According to Lee Byung-il's domestic drama The Love Marriage, everyone wants the first one but that might not be for the best. After oldest daughter Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hie) and Seung-il (Seong So-min) get married for true love, the honeymooners play a disastrous truth-telling game during which he's forgiven for having a prior sweetheart while she's abandoned for four years — during which she wanders around like a zombie — for the same thing. Things go even worse for the second daughter Moon-hee (Lee Min-ja) whose refusal to meet her mother's choice of the perfect spouse, nylon salesman Wan-seop (Lee Ryong), culminates with the lovesick young woman overdosing on pills to prove her passion for a wimpy tutor (Choe Hyeon) who the family has recently fired. As for youngest daughter Myeong-hee (Jo Mi-lyeong), she's tricked into an arranged marriage of sorts with Yeong-su (Park Am), the sadistic, misogynist assistant of her father Dr. Ko (Choe Nam-hyeon) who chuckles at everything.

He's not the only one laughing either. His son Gwang-sik (Park Gwang-su) shares his father optimistic, carefree attitude and seems to find everything funny as he gives the sad fates of all his older sisters little more than a giggling shrug. As long as good-natured grandpa (Kim Seung-ho) buys him a camera, this boy is good to go. In complete contrast, the family matriarch finds little of this amusing and can't understand why her husband's approach is so consistently laissez-faire. Given his hands-off methods have led to one daughter becoming a temporary hermit, one daughter landing herself in the hospital, and one daughter pairing off with a man who's going to be awfully cruel and dominating, she has every right to be exasperated. But hey, The Love Marriage is just a movie! Let those wedding bells ring!

February 8, 2019

Confessions of a College Student: Family Scam

One of the pleasures that comes with binging a bunch of Shin Sang-ok movies from the late 1950s, early '60s (a time when the director was cranking out anywhere between two and five movies per year) is seeing certain actors reappear alongside his wife and muse Choi Eun-hie. Here, in Confessions of a College Student — a women's picture of Sirkian proportions, Shin regulars Kim Seung-ho (Dongshimcho, Sister's Garden, Lee Seung-man and the Independence Movement) and Choi Nam-hyeon (The Youth, Prince Yeonsan, Tyrant Yeonsan) show up as a big-hearted politician and a lecherous landlord respectively. Kim especially shines as his character, a teddy bear if there ever was one, journeys from overworked statesman to doting father.

As for Choi, her turn here as a destitute student who stumbles into a rich family thanks in part to the machinations of her mystery-loving gal pal (a budding novelist) is quintessential chick flick fare. She's vulnerable but determined, scared but resourceful, desperate but smart — and ultimately a young woman of integrity whose final confessions of her wrongdoings finds her unexpectedly in a better place than she could've ever possibly imagined. She's got quite a few plot-turns to execute before she gets to that final happy place such as fending off sexual harassment in the workplace, getting hit by a car then landing in the hospital, and finishing up her law studies before taking on her first case (a feminist murder trial!) — all while living a lie. And to think this all started with her last surviving grandmother's funeral. Well some say, every time the door of a casket closes, the window of opportunity opens. That and the truth will set you free to make oodles and oodles of money.

February 7, 2019

Rice: Communism for Non-Communists

Rarely do you see a movie so unapologetically histrionic as Shin Sang-ok's stridently socialist drama Rice. How exaggerated does this one get? How about a man sobbing while banging his head against a bamboo stalk then saying "I'm not crying"? Or a woman who confesses her deep feelings while flames from a fire lick the space between her and the camera? Or a politician who says to a war veteran, "Do you think I'll even consider a cripple for my son-in-law" to a daughter (Choi Eun-hie) who wears pigtails until she finds her true independence as a woman?

The camera shots can be equally grotesque: a point of view from within a casket; a face framed by a hole in a rock underground. And yet despite how Rice traffics in exaggeration with agit-prop dialogue that may have set the groundwork for the eventual kidnapping of Shin and Choi to North Korea, there's still some powerful moments that occur in this oddball flick. Your heart goes out to the movie's hero (Shin Yeong-gyun), a disabled war vet who goes from one government department to the next in search of funds for an agricultural project that all agree has worthy but none will fund. You also get a certain rush when one townsmen calls his fiancee out for asking him to compromise his integrity during a manufactured red scare.

Indeed this movie abounds with relevancies to our current cultural crises by showing examples of women who side with a patriarchy that oppresses them; illustrating how the wealthy will undermine the working class's attempts to become autonomous; revealing the complicity of a religious institution with corrupt power as well as how that eventually backfires; and detailing the sacrifices real changes entails — which sometimes necessitates forsaking your own father! You may snort derisively of the sub-plot involving the rolly-polly figure but in Rice, as in life, you simply have to take the good with the bad and make the best of it.

February 6, 2019

Dongshimcho: Young Mother in Love

Shin Sang-ok's preposterously pulpy Dongshimcho had me reflecting on the difference between melodrama and soap opera, kindred spirits to be sure. Well, in my mind at least, the second genre distinguishes itself with its bounty of complications and coincidences, mostly if not entirely of a romantic nature. Here you can see that impossibly insane intricacy in a minor character like Mr. Kim from Busan (Kim Seung-ho) — who is at once the business associate for Seoul publisher Kim Sang-kyu (Kim Jin-kyu), a rival for the latter Kim's secret love Mrs. Lee (Choi Eun-hie), and a potential buyer of Mrs. Lee's house — as well as in another relatively minor role like the main Kim's fiancee Ok-joo (Do Kum-bong) who is also a high school acquaintance of Mrs. Lee's daughter Kyung-hee (Eom Aeng-ran) and the daughter herself of Company Chairman Lee (Kim Dong-won) who has funded her beloved's business enterprise which is in jeopardy now because of a loan made to Mrs. Lee so the lonely widow won't lose her house which for various reasons she doesn't want to sell to the earlier mentioned Mr. Kim from out of town (who just happens to be a merry widower).

It's hard to explain but it's not hard to follow though it is hard to believe. Such is life? Well, maybe. I was more interested in period details like phone calls that are received in the local pharmacy, open train windows that frame brokenhearted passengers tearfully looking out in search of the cause of their distress, and various stacks of 8½" x 17" paper which signal accounting and serious work. There's also a surprising amount of screen time spent on watching people get in and out of shoes as they enter various houses. I, for one, wasn't bored. And if the ever-so-friendly realtor looks familiar that may be because you recognize him as the bullying boss in The Hand of Destiny which is more melodrama than soap but similarly so-so.

February 5, 2019

A Hometown in Heart: A Tale of Two Mothers

Requiring a child performer for your lead character is always dangerous in a movie. What if the kid is too precious, too self-conscious, can't act? Well, there goes the movie! But no such blight mars A Hometown in Heart, Yoon Yong-kyo's exquisite coming-of-age film helmed by Min Yu, a fine young actor who gives the kind of nuanced performance that any seasoned pro would envy. As a young boy learning the ways of Buddhist monkhood while awaiting the doubtful return of his wayward mother, Min radiates a youthful optimism when he isn't suffering the injustices of childhood. Bored and browbeaten, he's looking for a way out of the stifling atmosphere in which he's being raised. And who are the adults around him who might provide assistance? A overly stern monk (Byeon Ki-jong) who mistakes his seniority for wisdom; a good-natured laborer (Oh Heon-yong) who confuses serial lying for kindness; and a distraught young mother (an equally understated Choi Eun-hie) who caves when confronted by institutional righteousness.

Perhaps that's a message that we still need to learn here: That becoming adults doesn't mean we're wiser or stronger. It more often means that we've compromised our integrity as a way to get by. The sins of this youth — of Youth in general — are generally those of the uninformed, or at the worst of the well-intentioned but not fully considered. Whether this young boy will eventually reunite with his birth-mother (Min Seon-yeong) or the kind-hearted widow whose motives are complicated at best is at once the source of the drama and irrelevant. Like any great coming-of-age tale, A Hometown in Heart knows that the grown-ups are unlikely to save the day. Unless those grown-ups are director Yoon Yong-kyo and screenwriter Kwak Il-byeong.

February 4, 2019

Bound by Chastity Rules: Two Movies for the Price of One

There are two stories being told in Shin Sang-ok's Bound by Chastity Rule a.k.a. The Memorial Gate for Virtuous Women: One is a tale of forbidden love between a virgin widow (Choi Eun-hie) and a field hand (Shin Yeong-gyun); the other concerns a ultra-conservative sister-in-law with a troublingly masochistic relationship to honor. The same characters drive both stories but the two tales' contrary viewpoints only sometimes align. Regardless of whatever screenwriter Hwang Sun-won's intents actually were, you're neither feeling the love nor understanding the honor. The problem with the pseudo-romance is that our heroine has been raped by her supposed love interest and clearly wants to abort the shameful (to her) baby that comes of the attack. She may admire the worker beforehand; afterwards, she seems legitimately scared. The problem with the tale of honor is that the family that she's married into comes across as undesirable from the get-go: her child-groom leaves her with a stumpy finger; her mother-in-law — who wears poorly done age makeup — advises her to stick needles in her thighs as a way to fight off sexual longing.

Holding the movie together is none other than Choi Eun-hie who rather than try to make sense of it all allows simple moments — from the exuberant joy of a rainstorm following a drought to the domestic satisfaction of stitching a shirt for her well-meaning father-in-law (Kim Dong-won) — to segue into aftermaths of inner conflict. She is a woman on shaky ground pretty much all the time. Like other Shin Sang-ok melodramas from the period, the "happily ever after" coda is rife with unhappy possibilities. A life led in self-abnegation seems unlikely to end with heartwarming familial bonds with a stranger, lush soundtrack or not.

February 3, 2019

Sister's Garden: A New Lease on Life

Like any good melodrama worth a toilet paper roll's worth of coarse tissue, Shin Sang-ok's Sister's Garden finds its emotionally distraught characters collapsing on the floor in tears multiple times. Who can blame them? They've got a lot to cry about, the rent first and foremost. Turns out the widowed father (Yu Chun), a beloved doctor dying of a disease he once cured in others, is going to leave some serious debts behind. Once the martyring eldest daughter (Choi Eun-hie) figures out a way to make some money, she's suddenly saddled with a second IOU after her impetuous sister (Choi Ji-hie) opens a not-so-popular dress shop with her not-so-successful painter-husband (Nam Gung-won). What's a girl to do?

Become a madame at a disreputable inn, starting drinking alcohol to please the crass customers, forsake her true love — a tight-lipped medical student (Kim Seok-hun), and consider the marriage proposal made by one Mr. Bang (Kim Seung-ho), a shady character whom her father restored to health but who nevertheless can't resist an opportunity to pimp this unfortunate young woman out to make a buck. Maybe this good-daughter-about-to-turn-bad wouldn't go to such extremes if she didn't have a much younger brother (Ahn Sung-ki) to take care of. But then again, maybe she's grown bored with the bourgeois life and isn't that crazy about becoming a doctor's wife. Whatever her reasons, you get the feeling that the nasty turn of events has awakened something inside her. When the swell of "Ol' Man River" is heard behind this movie's "happy ending," you can't help but recall the lyric "You and me / We sweat and strain / Body all aching / And wracked with pain." In other words, the potential for "good times ahead" looks doubtful. Perhaps "Get a little drunk / And you land in jail" isn't such a terrible fate after all.

January 31, 2019

A Flower in Hell: Servicing Servicemen

It's 1958 in South Korea. That means pretty much everything — or at least the cinematography — is in black and white, and nowhere more so than among A Flower in Hell's nattily-attired group of young thieves and prostitutes who are struggling to survive in an economy that seems to revolve around servicing — and ripping off — American servicemen. Some, like the married sex worker Sonya (a delightfully gum-smacking Choi Eun-hie), seem to thrive in this environment; others, like the war-orphan Julie (Gsng Seon-hui), don't seem to see any other choices. When a country boy named Dong-shik (Jo Hae-won) comes looking for his citified brother Young-shik (Kim Hak) on behalf of their aging mother, major trouble erupts among them all.

That trouble includes fisticuffs that nearly end in a knife fight, a train heist that culminates in a deadly shoot-out, and probably one of the best mud fights ever committed to celluloid. Directed by Shin Sang-ok, the film abounds in wonderful details like the shocking pelvic thrusts of the performer at the barracks dance hall and a discarded, filmy scarf trailing out of a car pulling out of the frame. The use of music is also striking as much of the film takes place in silence accented by the rare car horn or the sound of an insect while Sonya's theme song pops up repeatedly. No wonder Shin and Choi were abducted by the North Korean government. (See the documentary The Lovers & the Despot for further details.) Together these two were capable of making cinematic magic.

January 30, 2019

Dark Figure of Crime: Serial Pleasures

One of these days, I should create a top ten list of South Korean movies about serial killers. With titles like Save the Green Planet, Memories of Murder, and I Saw the Devil, it's got to be one of the most successful sub-genres in this country's cinema and contains some of my favorite thrillers of all time. A potential contender for that list is Dark Figure of Crime, Kim Tae-gyoon's engaging suspense flick about a melancholic cop (Kim Yun-seok) who matches wits with a slippery-even-while-imprisoned criminal (Ju Ji-hun) whose unreliable confessions to multiple murders disguise a master plan to get out of jail. There are a handful of other characters like a jaded prosecutor (Moon Jung-hee), a diabetic police chief (Jung Jong-joon), and a loyal partner (Jin Seon-kyu) but ultimately this film is a two-hander which, to its credit, creates a hero every bit as interesting as its dastardly villain.

Part of the reason this movie's lead investigator is so compelling is simply the casting of Kim. The camera loves this actor whether he's playing a crime boss (The Yellow Sea), a community activist with a drinking problem (Punch) or even a rodent-faced gremlin (Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard). But nothing seems to suit Kim so well as a world-weary cop, a role he'd previously nailed in The Chaser — another great serial killer pic by the way. There's so much intelligence and poignancy in Kim's timeworn face that you get an added pleasure from seeing this man, who you sense has received the short end of the stick throughout his life, ultimately aligned with good. The world needs more heroes and Kim's earnest detective here — who literally invests in the investigation with his own money — imparts a sense of good will that extends beyond the courtroom. If this widow can put his life on the line for justice, why can't we?

January 28, 2019

Star Nextdoor: Mommie Coldest

The core premise of the comedy Star Nextdoor isn't particularly funny: A shallow, vain product-spokeswoman (Han Chae-young) refuses to acknowledge her adolescent daughter (Jin Ji-hee) as anything more than a pesky neighbor, in essence leaving her mother (Kim Bo-mi) to take on childrearing duties so she can pursue career-making movie roles and sexy pop stars 13 years her junior. Laughing yet? Me neither. So will the three women ever live "their truth"? Will the incredibly popular Sense frontman (Im Seul-ong) stick by the side of a cougar who had a baby out of wedlock? Will the tabloid reporter (Im Hyung-joon) be the one to crack a case that involves uterine cancer and pre-marital sex? Is ham sushi a thing? These are stupid questions but the bigger questions Kim Seung-wook's comedy poses are worse yet, questions like: Can a woman be a good mother and still have a career? Is not having an abortion grant you a pass for neglecting your child for 16 years?

To describe Star Nextdoor as an anachronism would be an understatement. While the story may factor in cell phones, chat rooms, and viral content as part of its plot, the narrative here is rooted in eternally offensive portrayals of women as nagging, dimwitted, and self-obsessed. Maybe that's why this movie showed up in my YouTube search results for "Korean full movie with English subtitles horror." Those search engines know content better than you might expect nowadays. This movie is scary in a way. Then again, Star Nextdoor probably also appears if you search for "korean comedy teen tennis spicy food swag bag actor's double life" or "korean movie generation conflict girl squad k-pop child abuse secrets money fame," too. But why would anyone google all those terms? Well, why would anyone make this movie? And why did I watch it?

January 26, 2019

Heart Blackened: One Rich Thriller

My problem with prenuptial agreements is that the person marrying into money is as a rule a less corrupt person than the person who's already loaded. Sure, that fiance or fiancee may be a gold-digger but those who occupy the top 1% of the economic food-chain are infinitely likely to have morphed into or raised to be delusional narcissists who believe their wealth accords them a certain prerogative when it comes to... oh, pretty much anything. Absolute power may corrupt absolutely but plenty of money corrupts plenty too. You can see just how much in Jung Ji-woo's Heart Blackened, a well-executed thriller/courtroom-drama in which a CEO (the ever-dependable Choi Min-sik) goes to extreme lengths to defend his amoral daughter (Lee Soo-kyung) in a murder case that's left him a widow again. Did his wife (Lee Ha-ni) cheat on him? Yes! Is he glad she's dead? No. The only thing that bothers him is when he can't get his way.

He's got plenty of foils: a fiery prosecutor (Park Hae-joon) who can't be bought, his wife's videographer lover (Ryu Jun-Yeol) who seemingly can't be bought, and a dogged defense attorney (Park Shin-hye) who can be bought but maybe not trusted. Well, the world is a buyer's market so this tough tycoon is going to use all of his resources to get what he wants — not once, but twice. He'll lose some things along the way — whatever happened to that diamond-encrusted watch? — but you're left with little doubt that if he himself lands in prison garb for any stretch of time, he'll be back in a bespoke three-piece suite off Savile Row before you can say "The justice system should treat all people equally" three times in a row. Naturally, the same can be said about his daughter, although her fashion choices would be more adventurous.

P.S. The original Korean-language title of Heart Blackened is Silence, so this particular bit of translation is strange to say the least.