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 widower 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? Does 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 more likely 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 widower again. Did his wife (Lee Ha-ni) cheat on him? Yes! Is he glad she's dead? No. Truly, 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 suit 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.