July 30, 2019

The Happy Day of Maeng Jin-sa: A Sucky Second Marriage

Lee Yong-min's update of Lee Byung-il's The Wedding Day is definitely a dispiriting downgrade so while you may recognize some framed compositions, many plot points, and even a few verbatim lines from the original, you'll also quickly be able to tell that The Happy Day of Maeng Jin-sa is a pale imitation of the original. The central story remains unchanged: A family lucks into the big time when their only daughter receives a marriage proposal from a rich man's son sight unseen. But the good fortune is suddenly marred when they discover this same future son-in-law has a pronounced limp. Extraordinary measures are taken to save the bride-to-be but they end up backfiring on nearly everyone but the groom.

So what's missing? The maidservant (Choi Eun-hie) no longer secretly lusts after her standoffish lady (Lee Bin-hwa). The maidservant's suitor is now a bumbling fool. The giggling grandpa has lost his sense of humor and while equally absent-minded is not as endearing as he once was. The one thing that's truly consistent is that the patriarch (Kim Seung-ho) is an unlikable social climber. Funnily enough, that last role is played by the same actor in The Wedding Day and even he did a better job the first time around.

Because it's a Lee Yong-min film of course it has its one major strangeness too and that may be the movie's redeeming value: the cryptic river mystic who says puzzling things like "Why not try fishing with a straight hook?" and "You have too much, you lose too much!" No one pondering his maxims or taking his advice but please take mine: Skip The Happy Day... if you can.

July 28, 2019

A Devilish Murder: Cat Drinks Blood, Seeks Revenge

I haven't seen many Lee Yong-min movies but after only two, it already feels safe to say he is one strange director. A Devilish Murder, his mid-'60s, black-and-white ghost story, is a loony mix of spirit possession, sibling rivalry, and Dorian Gray mystery all wrapped up in one delicious package. As you might guess from that last detail, the film does involve a supernatural painting — the Red Portrait [of devoted wife Ae-ja (Do Geum-bong)] done by an artist who assisted in the murder of its subject but then went on to immortalize her in blood. The victim's surviving husband Shi-mak (Lee Ye-chun), who remarried her conniving sister, may be innocent of the crime but he's also criminally passive when it comes to recognizing she'd never commit adultery while his wicked mom would do anything to cover the fact that she herself is sleeping with the family's horny doctor (Nam Kung-won).

Admittedly, A Devilish Murder can get convoluted at times. Does the dead grandma return as a cat or a vampire? Is the maid a force of good or evil? Does midnight happen twice in one night? Furthermore, the one exacting revenge isn't really the spirit of the dead woman so much as it's the shapeshifting cat that drank her blood when she was buried behind a wall. Charmingly dated special effects will remind you of the human-animal bond repeatedly; there's a seduction scene in which the phantom woman has feline paws below the sheets, a fight that finds her injured hand transformed into a claw, and some reveals in a well-placed mirror that shatters defensively. Who the helpful maid remains a mystery but the fun of A Devilish Murder isn't figuring out whodunit so much as keeping up with what the hell is going on.

July 27, 2019

Holiday in Seoul: An Off Day Off

Ob-gyn doctor Yang Mi-hie (Nam Hui-won) has quite the day planned for herself and her husband, reporter Song Jae-guan (No Neung-kyeol): shopping for a man's tie and a woman's beach umbrella at the Shin Shin Department Store, some time at the beach, a picket boat ride, Chinese food at Asawon, water skiing on the Han River, a visit to Deoksu Royal Palace, a yet-to-be-determined movie, some dinner at the Grill, and then an outdoor concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He thinks this all sounds like too much. And he's right. Because they're both going to be incredibly busy today — he'll be getting the scoop on a killer after being kidnapped by an old lady with a mentally ill daughter who acts out love scenes and death scenes histrionically; she'll be consulting with women who clearly want abortions before she delivers a baby to an ailing woman who just happens to be the killer's wife.

They're not the only two having jam-packed days. His reporter friends are pulling pranks and scamming drinks; her fellow wives are out to carouse while the men are away; and their next-door neighbors are in an emotional tumult because that devious wife is having an affair and that cuckolded husband is smashing up stuff in the living room, including a framed portrait of James Dean. That doesn't even include the Lothario who runs a shady sidewalk gambling scam or the drunk man across the street who returns from an all-night bender to discover his unmarried daughter is now pregnant. Oh yes, there's a lot of plot in Lee Yong-min's Holiday in Seoul, not to mention a white snake that appears out of nowhere and a strange instrumental use of the song "God Bless America" while the doctor stares patiently at an intravenous drip.

July 22, 2019

Between the Knees: It's Just What You Think It Is

What kind of movie would you guess has accumulated the most views on the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel? Is it the revered cult film Housemaid? A thrilling classic like Yoo Hyun-Mock's The Aimless Bullet? Something from the new millennium such as the 2000 version of Chunhyang? Of course not. It's Between the Knees, Lee Jang-ho's trashy flick about a classical flautist (Lee Bo-hee) who keeps having flashbacks of the day she was molested by her classical music teacher when she was a little girl. Currently, that traumatic encounter has captured the eyeballs of over 1.4 million viewers who have learned, if they stick it out for this erotic oddity, that whatever is causing this protagonist to have PTSD has also made her knees her primary erogenous zone. Not only does a man's touch to her patella send her into shivers of anticipation but even seeing another woman's leg being stroked and groped on the bus can prove to be sensory overload.

Want to see a flute get a hand job? Or the flute used as a sex toy? Well, you're going to have to bear witness to a series of increasingly upsetting rapes that culminates in a gang bang in the back of a van. As soft porn goes, this one is too dark to arouse any but the most twisted of minds. As you might deduce, Between the Knees is not a tale of sexual awakening so much as it's a metaphorical movie about the corruption of the pure Korean soul by Western culture. For not only is the tutor a truly creepy white man but a younger brother is obsessed with Michael Jackson whose dance moves have so mesmerized the younger sibling that he seems to be lost to the greater tragedies in his family so preoccupied is he with perfecting his moonwalk.

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.