April 25, 2010

Blood Rain: A Murder Mystery with a Paper Trail of Proof

In 1926, Agatha Christie disappeared after her husband confessed to having an extramarital affair. What she did during those eleven days remains a mystery to this day. Director Kim Dae-sung's Blood Rain suggests, against the odds, that she may have flown to Korea and written an old-fashioned potboiler as a restorative. The plot is standard Christie. It's 1808 and the royal investigator (Seung Won-cha) -- working on an arson case on the island of Donghwa -- suddenly lands in the middle of a gruesome murder case. As any Christie fan knows, everyone's a suspect so while one piece of evidence points at the paper mill owner's son (Park Young-woo) and another at the local artist (Ji Seong), who did it, even who had it done to him, stays unknown 'til the bitter end. There's a rational vs. superstitious conflict at work here but only a genre novice would side with the villagers blaming the vengeful ghost of Commissioner Kang (Jeon Ho-jin). And while she's without a motive, the island shaman (Choi Ji-na) is the creepiest character on screen. No one else could inspire followers to chop the heads off five real-life chickens, a jarringly bloody sequence that makes a human dismemberment earlier in the flick that less memorable. I see a PETA protest coming.

April 4, 2010

Secret Sunshine: Give Me That Old Time Religion

Talk about a beautiful downer. This movie from writer-director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis) charts the precipitous descent from melancholia to grief in one unfortunate's lonely life. The subject is Shin-ae (the captivating Jeon Do-yeon), a mourning widow who has transplanted her piano teaching business and her not-quite-normal son (Seon Jung-yeop) from Seoul to Milyang in an effort to regain autonomy and to forge a new identity. There, instead of finding comfort or stability, she loses her savings, her son, and her sanity in short order. The respite of an evangelical Christian church seems to reground her temporarily then sends her into an even more dangerous freefall. Throughout the emotional upheaval, one person stays -- sometimes annoyingly -- near. He's the local mechanic (Song Kang-ho), a momma's boy who at 39 still hasn't found a wife and sees in Shin-ae something worthy of pulling out all the stops. Theirs is a troubled romance. He's not her type; she's not all there. But just as Secret Sunshine is an X-ray of sorrow, it's also a study of the curative powers of devotion, on what it means to love, be loved, and accept love both in times of need and from places we'd normally prefer to disregard.