December 31, 2010

The Best Korean Movies of 2010 (Sort of)

Most year-end "best of" lists reflect the vibe of the year. Not this one. My top ten is composed of Korean movies seen this year regardless of release date, and because of that, reflects my own current preoccupations more than the world at large. The common thread this time? Revenge. In short: If you crossed me in 2010, watch out in 2011.

1. Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard (2009): Fantasy isn't generally my cup of tea but Choi Dong-hun's sorcerer's tale about righting wrongs is a bubbly glass of champagne. The director's crime pic Tazza: The High Rollers almost made my list but ended up in the eleventh slot.

2. Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000): Bong Joon-ho's portrait of a bitter, vengeful, petty academic (Lee Sung-jae) is evidence that genius is apparent at the start of some careers. (Bong's first film also memorably features Bae Du-na whom he cast later in The Host.)

3. A Frozen Flower (2008): Not for those who blush easily, Yu Ha's sexed-up melodrama finds King (Ju Jin-mo) and Queen (Song Ji-hyo) feuding over Hot Bodyguard (Jo In-seong). Many scenes with humping. Many scenes with suspense.

4. Secret Sunshine (2007): This character portrait by Lee Chang-dong isn't as good as his Oasis but what is, really? The movie concerns a woman who loses her son then spirals into an evangelical Christian support system that's a bit troubling. This time, don't praise Jesus. Praise Lee.

5. Old Partner (2008): The one documentary on this year's list tells the story of a very old farmer and his very old ox. Very moving. If you think animals are people in a way, you'll love it.

6. Antique Bakery (2008): This one looks like it's going to be a lighthearted gay romantic comedy but ends up a murder mystery in which the gay man isn't the victim or the killer. He's simply a patissier with demonic powers of attraction. Now that's novel!

7. Arahan: Urban Martial Arts Action (2004): Usually my guilty pleasures go in the number nine or ten slot but this action pic -- basically The Tao according to Marvel Comics -- is so adorkable I couldn't demote it further than seven.

8. Black House (2007): This horror flick creeped me out big time. As a female Hannibal Lecter, Yu Seon gives a performance to send shivers up your spine. As the male Jodie Foster seeking justice, actor Hwang Jeong-min is somewhat unlikable which makes the conflict even more interesting.

9. The Secret Reunion (2010): The one film actually from 2010 is also a major blockbuster and stars Song Kang-ho (who also gives a memorable performance in Secret Sunshine) and Kang Dong-won (who's even better in Jeon Woochi).

10. Green Fish (1997): Another really polished work from Lee Chang-dong (see slot 4), this directorial debut is most notable for the exceptional performances by Han Suk-kyu (as a late-blooming thug) and Shim Hye-jin (as a down-on-her-luck-forever nightclub singer).

December 17, 2010

The Green Fish: You Need to Go Down to Get Deep

The loss of innocence is so upsetting sometimes. Even if you factor in that innocence and adulthood are pretty much incompatible, watching a late-bloomer fall from grace can make for a painful viewing experience. And coming-of-age only gets crueler the older you get. In Lee Chang-dong's masterful first film The Green Fish, the naif about to lose it all is earnest 26-year-old Makdong (Han Suk-kyu). He's a poor, eager-to-please guy who, recently discharged from the army, ends up working for ruthless mobster Bae Tae-kon (Mun Seong-kun) after one unlucky circumstance. Bae's girlfriend Mi-ae (Shim Hye-jin), for her part, is about as far from innocence as you can get. Pimped out by her boyfriend when she's not being harassed by customers who ridicule her nightclub act, she knows she's sinking more and more deeply into the mire but she can't find a way out. She's drawn to Makdong not because he's cute but because he's the least corrupt thing she's seen in God knows how long. He'll never be the life preserver he and she wishes he could be; the few times he tries, he proves a terrible protector since he's adhering to a school boy code in a roomful of truants. But their love is inevitable. Just as their future is doomed.

December 13, 2010

The Secret Reunion: How Our Tastes Are So Predictable and Distressing

Going into Jang Hun's blockbuster spy-caper The Secret Reunion, we pretty much already know that we're going to side with South Korea over North Korea, actor Song Kang-ho over co-star Kang Dong-won, and being true to your friend over being true to your country. But what's nice about this movie is that, for each decision you make between two obvious choices, you end up liking what you didn't pick as well. After all, if this movie is to be believed, Pyongyang's military academies are training single assassins capable of outwitting entire police forces (pretty cool); Kang is, against the odds, delivering a winning performance that's equal parts withdrawn hipster and anxious weirdo (also cool); and the fanatical political hit man operating under the name of "The Shadow" (Jeon Gook-hwan) is plain cool no doubt about it. A few hours after the movie, you may momentarily lose your cool should you question your knee-jerk reactions. I mean, do your sympathies really lie with a hot-headed, profiteering divorcé who tracks down foreign mail-order brides then returns them to unattractive, working class husbands who may beat them? Uh. Yes. You do. The Secret Reunion isn't out to radicalize your way of thinking. It's out to entertain you despite your disturbing predilections. So uncool!

December 2, 2010

Blue: Bromance, Romance, Adventure, Dud

Shin Hyeon-jun must have one of the most unconventionally fetching faces in Korean cinema. With his humped nose and goofy grin, he's not anyone's idea of "typical leading man." Yet despite his oddly attractive oddball looks, once you've considered his resume -- The Legend of the Shadowless Sword, Marrying the Mafia II and III, and Face -- he suddenly seems like the face that launched a thousand (uneven) films. He can't save a movie, no, but he can steer it, and if it sinks, survive it. Until Blue. Director Lee Jeong-kuk's soggy submarine drama is that exceptional instance in which Shin goes down with the ship. His slapstick-y shtick holds charm neither in the rocky bromance with his less attractive co-star (Kim Yeong-ho) nor in the doomed romance with their shared love interest (Shin Eun-Kyung). Did Shin mistakenly think that looking handsome in a naval uniform on land and without a shirt while underwater would have us forgiving a movie that lacks a well-dressed plot? If so, he was wrong. And our wandering eyes instead have drifted over to Park Sun-il (the immature loud-mouthed cadet) and Ryu Su-yeong (the psychotic soldier). At this boot camp for deep sea rescue missions, any actor who thinks he can float by looking cute is about to get a cold splash in the face.