August 31, 2014

Paradise Murdered: Neither Horror Nor Comedy Or Anything In Between

I have often thought that Korean movies are distinguished by their propensity for defying genre. As such, romcoms can suddenly take dark turns into very unfunny violence, and thrillers may take side trips into the broadest slapstick without warning then return to nail-biting action just as quick. Paradise Murdered is a whole other kettle of fish however: a movie that appears to be a horror script directed as is if it were a comedy. The result is neither funny nor scary, although it's definitely bizarre in exactly how it displeases.

You can see why Kim Han-min took a comical approach with the material. If you played Paradise Murdered straight, the holes in the plot would be too gaping to overlook. Why does the doctor (Park Hae-il) insist on not allowing anyone else to investigate the initial murders? Why does nobody suspect the town drunkard (Sung Ji-ru) who clearly is having hallucinations and is responsible for at least two accidental deaths, not get tied up, locked up and gagged? How do we know for sure that the little girl is dead? Or the little boy's mother (Yu Hae-jung)? What's up with the chaste ghost (Kim Ju-ryoung)? Why is everyone leaving their sandals behind? Is there really a community out there that's going to rejoice about receiving endless sacks of pure sugar for being best remote island of the year?

As to why Kim even chose to shoot this script, that answer is infinitely more apparent. He wrote Paradise Murdered all by himself. Whether he honestly thinks it's hilarious or simply realized that mining the humor was his best shot at salvaging shoddy material is anybody's guess. All I ask is that you don't write off Kim as a director too soon because he's actually done some fine work since this freshman effort. Both War of the Arrows, his medieval epic, and Handphone, his contemporary thriller, score much higher with the public via IMDb and In the case of the first movie, I heartily agree. In the case of the second, I still need to see it.

Guess what I'll be watching next?!

Lifting King Kong: Feel-Good Girl Power in Spandex

I was ready to yawn, to gag, to roll my eyes, to multitask on my iPhone, to vacuum, to fall asleep and upon waking again to basically loathe Lifting King Kong. You see, this feel-good sports pic has such emotive acting and such an obvious narrative arc that I was sure I was going to be bored (i.e., feel bad) despite the movie's best intentions. Well girlfriend! I was wrong. Here's how the movie defeated the skeptical me. (Why do I keep thinking I won't like movies about athletes when I so often do?!)

The first surprise is that Lifting King Kong focuses on a sport that's rarely the center of a movie: Weightlifting. The sport is one in which individual athletes compete against their own best efforts instead of other teams. So while there's a ragtag group at the center of Lifting King Kong, there's not a team in the conventional sense. The second surprise is that Lifting King Kong not only spotlights an atypical sport but it also features the women who practice it. No. Not women. Teen girls. Outcasts who take up the sport because they've got no families, no futures, no friends. You could subtitle this movie "From Pity Party to Pumping Iron." The third surprise is that the fat girl (Lee Hyeon-kyeong) who poops on herself actually gets the cute boy (Ahn Yong-joo).

So 40 minutes in, I went from sneering to cheering as the various budding athletes -- orphan/Olympian-to-be Young-ja (Jo An) among them, progressed from junior high chumps to high school champs. That their devoted coach (Lee Beom-su) is a seriously injured former bronze medalist who appears to be wearing a fat suit for part of the movie as a way to bond with his mentees only allows you to tear up more as the girls develop muscles as well as self-respect and inner strength. The acting doesn't get any better mind you but this one will trigger the waterworks nonetheless. Kleenex required, for sure.

And before you write the movie off as preposterous, you should know that Lifting King Kong is based on a true story that's also pretty dramatic. In reality, Jeong In-yeong -- SPOILER ALERT! who also died of a heart attack -- coached a girls weightlifting team to a record number of medals and went on to also discover the flyweight Olympic Medalist Jeon Byeong-gwan who won a Silver in Seoul and a Gold in Barcelona. I can see why writer-director Park Geon-yong and his writing collaborators Jeong Ik-hwan and Bae Se-yeong decided to combine all the stories into one. The truth is always a bit messy.

August 24, 2014

Midnight FM: This Number Has Been Disconnected

Remember the good old days before cell phones were used as masking tape in movies, as quick fixes to get us from Point A to Point B with the least effort possible? Watch Midnight FM and then think how much better this thriller would be if popular radio talk show host Sun-Young (Ae Soo) wasn't constantly leaving one of her two cell phones in different rooms and then scrambling to answer the misplaced cell so she can discuss how her psychopathic stalker fan (Yu Ji-tae) is going to murder her sister, her niece and her daughter. All she needs to do is honor that faxed playlist that unfortunately someone threw out. It's her final night on-air and this guy wants to make her work!

Take all that taunting conversation happening during the commercial breaks and put it on-air, have her try to figure out what's going on strictly through audio, see her listeners struggle along with her, have coworkers interrupt because of initial shared ignorance of what exactly is going on, have her weave it all into a polished show... Now that would be a fascinating movie. That's not Midnight FM though, which spells out way too much and and then throw out late night into an extended car chase that only occasionally has her patched into the network to deliver intro to songs and share half-baked insights about Taxi Driver, Pump Up the Volume and Casablanca.

You can see why some fans would find her infuriating. As scripted by Kim Sang-man, she's a bit arrogant, a bit too American in her tastes. Throughout her show (which despite all the blackmailing and fainting has likely a fairly typical song list), she never once mentions South Korean movies or music, despite the absurd popularity of K-pop and the ubiquity of karaoke in Korean flicks. Her heart belongs to Leonard Cohen! You're hardly surprised she's leaving the radio station to study in America. That her mute daughter -- suffering from a neck injury of unknown origin -- might benefit from U.S. medical expertise seems mostly an afterthought. Given how much she likes to dominate conversation, you may harbor a sneaking suspicion that Sun-young is glad her cute young daughter can only tap out yes and no as a way to communicate. This family only has room for one speaker and she's killing it on the airwaves!

August 18, 2014

Bloody Innocent: Best Friends, Lovers No More; Best Friends, But Not Like Before

A sweet little girl named Myung-hee (Kang Cho-hee) is raped and murdered then left in a ditch alongside a country road one awful, rainy night. Whodunit? The two leading suspects are Dong-sik (Jeong Se-in), the young ruffian who had a crush on Myung-hee, and Seung-Ho (Lee Da-wit), his best friend, who also had a thing for the girl. We know it's one of the two because the only people who'd do this would have to be adolescent boys who harbored warm feelings for her. So goes the logic of Kim Dae-hyun's nonsensical thriller Bloody Innocent. Which makes the prosecution and life-imprisonment of Dong-sik's mentally ill brother Kyung-sik even more exasperating. Clearly the local police have a faulty logic of their own, one which equates underdeveloped intelligence with amorality.

Flash forward a few times and the finger-pointing continues: Dong-sik (now played by Sin Seong-rok) must've done it because he's a member of the lower classes and it's just the kind of heinous act a poor kid would do! He's trash from start to finish! No. Actually Seung-ho (now played by Kim Da-hyeon) is the rapist-killer. Rich people are plain evil. Their good deeds and success inevitably cover up a past spotted by inhumane jealousies! Money is the ultimate corruptor! More deaths pile up: the young prostitute who happens to be Dong-ski's sister; the boyfriend-john who beats the hell out of her for no reason at all; a cyanide-ingesting Kyung-sik who mysteriously poisons himself with tainted milk despite being lactose-intolerant. There's also a group of feminist kidnappers and an ominous woman who sells umbrella, who make quick appearances and just as fast, disappear.

When the one who actually did it confesses his guilt to the one who did not, the latter man, like us, is somewhat baffled as to WHY. What was the point? Is it really so bad not to win the girl when you're a kid? And do you spend the rest of your life holding a grudge for the one that got away? On the flip side, are you sad when someone who's been murdering people you care about gets murdered himself? I, for one, was relieved when the anonymous cop's gun was shot and took out the knife-wielding nut. I'd like to think the "bloody innocent" protagonist breathed a sigh of relief, too.

August 12, 2014

Stoker: Park Chan-wook Comes to America

So the actors aren't speaking Korean. So what? Stoker is nevertheless a Korean movie because it's still very much a Park Chan-wook movie. A vexatious coming-of-age tale shaped by sociopathic genetics, Stoker -- like so many Park flicks before it -- is a deviously crafted thriller with Park misleading you then revealing clues that make you retrace your steps only to you realize that you were never misinformed, just uninformed. Here are the players this time around: Evelyn, a recent widow (Nicole Kidman) who always felt like the odd man out with her now-dead husband and ice-cold daughter; India, said offspring (Mia Wasikowska) who has her own outsider status at high school where she gets straight A's but has no friends; Uncle Charlie (a really good Matthew Goode), a mystery man who shows up from out of nowhere then stirs up some heat with mother and daughter. Let the intergenerational rivalry begin.

Like Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer earlier this year, Park makes some fascinating casting choices for his Hollywood debut. Aside from the aforementioned trio, he's brought on board Jacki Weaver (a two-time Oscar nominee who remains someone that no one's heard of), Dermot Mulroney (the former heartthrob who's now pudgy and gray), and perhaps most delightfully, Harmony Korinne (the indie screenwriter behind Kids, Gummo and Ken Park). Though Korinne's time on screen is fleeting, Park's nod to this fellow auteur is kind of perfect. Park and Korinne are both fearless directors who've got aesthetics unlike anyone else. I also was pleased that Park stuck with his longtime cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon which ensures that Stoker always looks like a Park film as much as it feels like one or sounds like one, even in English.

Given how enthralling Stoker is, I suspect the reason it didn't do better at the box office stateside is that the movie touches on so many taboos -- incest, child-killing, teenage sexuality -- with a disturbingly sweaty hand. Park never condemn atrocities. He bears witness, glosses them up a bit, then stands back leaving you to feel the horror. Alone. Stoker's unsettling for sure.

August 4, 2014

Don't Cry, Mommy: Young Rapists Underestimate Victim's Vengeful Mother

I think I might be a bad person because my favorite violent crime pics are those with extended revenge sequences. I like when a terrible crime is followed by an equally terrible execution of justice. I like when whomever did the harming gets a lot more hurt inflicted on him. Because of that, Don't Cry, Mommy is my kind of movie. A fast-paced thriller in which a young, single mom (Yu Seon) goes after the three punks (Shin Dong-ho, Kwon Hyun-sang, Lee Sang-min) who gang-raped her daughter (Nam Bo-ra), writer-director Kim Yong-han's purposeful movie makes you feel the pain of the victim and those who love her and understand the rage that ensues when sociopathic criminals are set free, simply because they're under a certain age.

The courts and the cops are too lenient. The detective (Yoo Oh-seong) on the case is only partly sympathetic, which may explain why his daughter withholds some key evidence. Why put your life on the line when the system is so forgiving of evil children? Apparently even key evidence on a phone that shows the two rapes -- yes, the boys come back for more -- doesn't secure the mother's belief that she can get a Death Penalty or even a Life in Prison so she takes matters, and a large kitchen knife, in her own hands.

I actually didn't find the idea of the boys texting the video to their victim the least bit unbelievable. I also bought the notion that she would be so traumatized by the first attack that she might not choose to effectively fight back the second time either. The part I couldn't understand is why the rape survivor would decorate a cake with "Don't Cry, Mommy" before the whole world went to total Hell or why the mom would give a crap about whether the kids would admit to doing the heinous crimes once she'd seen it on the videos. Or why she wanted to get their phones, too, when she already had evidence. PTSD logic?