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.