December 11, 2016

Top Ten Korean Movies of 2016 (Sort of)

Zombies on the loose. Backstabbing lesbian lovers. Amoral cops. A young man with a disease that causes him to wake up each morning in a different body. 2016 was a lousy years in some respects (job, politics, family) but at least it gave me what I needed in terms of Korean movies. Below are my ten favorite movies — all viewed within the last twelve months — in alphabetical order. It was easy to pick 'em; impossible to rank 'em.

1. Alive: In Park Jung-bum's grimly naturalistic epic, poverty is one helluva oppressor and tenderness the sweetest, most unexpected thing life has to offer.

2. A Barefoot Dream: Kim Tae-gyun's ripped-from-the-sports-pages tearjerker is about an East Timor soccer team coached by a middling, former pro soccer player (Park Hee-soon) from South Korea.

3. The Beauty Inside: This wondrous sci-fi pic from Baek Jong-yeol asks how would our relationship to our soulmate change (or even survivor) if the exterior appearance kept changing every day?

4. Cyrano Agency: Imagine a future in which a matchmaking agency "scripts" your first encounter, subsequent dates, and wedding proposal. Now make it a rom-com.

5. The Handmaiden: Park Chan-wook's always made fascinating female characters but never more so than here in this lesbian erotic thriller based on Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith.

6. A Hard Day: How often do narrative and character shortcomings make you reflect? This sleazy cop procedural, starring Lee Sun-kyun, pleases by disappointing in interesting ways.

7. Kundo: The Age of the Rampant: The better of two martial arts flicks I really enjoyed this year, the other being The Kick, has the advantage of Ma Dong-seok in a major role.

8. Miss Granny: The central performance from Shim Eun-kyung, as an old woman miraculously gifted her young body again, is deliriously good. Plus, she can sign.

9. The Scarlet Letter: Is this the most harrowing love triangle in Korean film? It's certainly in the running. I first saw it over ten years ago and it's lost none of its power.

10. Train to Busan: Although it falls tenth on this alphabetical list, this zombie flick — with a great ensemble cast — was the most thrilling movie of the year. In short, number 10 is number 1.

December 9, 2016

E.D. 571 (a.k.a. Modern Family): The Egg Plays Chicken

Out in the real world, Screen Actors Guild award-winner and multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Sofia Vergara (star of the ABC sitcom Modern Family) is being sued by her filthy rich ex-fiancee Nick Loeb (star of nothing) on "behalf" of her two frozen embryos. Which makes the not-too-distant-future plot of "E.D. 571" (part of the 2012 omnibus Modern Family) feel more-than-quaintly antiquated. What's so "out there" about a 12-year-old girl (Woo Ji) — whose divorced parents have just disowned her — blackmailing the egg donor (Seon Woo-seon), that she's holding responsible for her very existence, compared to a petty, jilted man, with a lot of money to burn, fighting for the right to impregnate a woman's eggs, a woman he's not even seeing anymore. No, some sci-fi movies need to catch up to reality. Although, today it feels almost impossible to do so. The worst case scenario is repeatedly being hatched way before you've even conceived it.

Maybe Lee Soo-youn's "E.D. 571" is slightly science fiction. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it's plain old realism. Maybe there already are hacker tweens out there bribing selfish corporate execs who have serious ethical deficiencies. I can easily picture a thriving subculture of underage renegades who squat in abandoned tenements and siphon off electricity to run their laptops and tablets, from which they break into poorly protected cyber accounts so as to earn money to pay for their food, their clothes, their entertainment, and, if they're really good at cracking codes, their jewelry, their drugs, their better housing, their cars, and their trips abroad. How can this not be happening? But as "E.D. 571" — a very clever cat-and-mouse game — points out, the elders have a slight advantage for the moment in that they're well-versed in the arts of drugging, outwitting, entrapping, double-talking, cajoling, and other nefarious tactics. If the young are going to win (and God knows I hope they do), they must accept no food, no drink, no hugs, no gifts... nothing except a virtual deposit to their online account that can't be traced to anywhere except its front in Switzerland.

December 4, 2016

Grand Prix: Horsing Around

Little did I know but there's a special place called Jeju Island where all the Korean horseback riders whose lives have been hurt or harmed, ruined or ravaged by those big, beautiful beasts go to ride, romance, and recover. On this bucolic isle, during one recent cinematic escapade, we get to meet a small, representative sample of those on the mend: a female jockey (Kim Tae-hee) who fell off her saddle during a race and a male jockey (Yang Dong-kun) who blames himself for his best friend's death on the racetrack. We also get to meet a little girl (Park Sa-rang) who was orphaned when a stallion ran away in a storm (long story), a cranky old neighbor (Ko Du-shim) who lost her leg in a stable fire, and a blacksmith (Park Geun-hyeong) who specializes in horseshoes and pointlessly stabs his own leg. What's that, you ask. Well, you know how horses are about their legs? Exactly. And he's in this argument where he's making a point so...

Does this all make you want to visit Jeju Island? Before you answer, let me add that the island is graced with rolling green hills and two impossibly sexy, young men. (The one — played by Song Jae-rim — who lives at your accommodations has gorgeous long hair.) Both men will flirt with you but only one will be able to reconnect your dislocated shoulder, give you two four-leaf clovers, and steal your heart. Does this wondrous world of Yang Yun-ho's Grand Prix sound too good to be true? I'd have to agree with you there. It's a happiness that feels far from real. Trophy ahead.

Anyway, there are just as many reasons to leave the enchanted isle as well. You've got a feel-good sisterhood of fellow jockeys who want you to win the big race. You've got a lovingly crabby mom who runs a little cafe where the food is getting worse every year. You've got a gambling addiction that finds the perfect outlet at the track. (Put a dollar down on Tamra.) Just remember when you leave the island, the bad people will cheat you and undermine you and act like martyrs even though they're the ones causing all the pain. Stay strong. Stay in the race. And never give up on love.

December 1, 2016

Love So Divine: Catholic Taste in Women

When I was growing up, there really was an old shriveled-up married couple, across the street, who were a former nun and a former priest. If memory serves me right, good Catholics that they were, they had six children — four boys and two girls — and found temporary solace in the fact that their oldest son went on to become a priest. As fate would have it though, he too left the church eventually, perhaps because he was gay. He certainly seemed gay. I mention this because the infinitely less transgressive plot of the infinitely less prolific romance Love So Divine concerns a young novitiate (Kwon Sang-woo) who finds himself attracted to the ne'er-do-well niece (Ha Ji-won) of a church father (Kim In-mun) who's overseeing his final days before he's ordained.

What does he see in this young woman that leads him astray from the Lord? Nice legs. Nice ass. Looks good when she wears a veil like Mary. A taste in shoes that needs some guidance. Honestly, you'd think this young man had never seen a woman out of her habit before. Then again, what appeals to him about God? When urged by his short comic sidekick and fellow novice (Kim In-kwon) to describe God as the big man on campus to his charge as a way to increase the Lord's appeal and thereby lead her to a belated baptism, our hero presents a less-than-seductive picture. God ends up sounding like a boring fraternity brother who touts the Bible as cool.

Well, in writer-director Heo In-mu's alternate universe, a girl really can fall head over heels for a guy because he gives her a beaded necklace (a.k.a. a rosary) first and then a silver necklace with a mirrored pendant (for self-reflection and/or adoration) next. After an hour of prayer, she's going to melt when he whips out that matching set of hair-shirts the night of their honeymoon. Heaven knows, there'll be no devilish fun. These are the type of lovers who when they first profess their deepest feelings for each other hug instead of kiss. Soul mates are strictly platonic and would never kiss with the tongue.

November 23, 2016

Alive: Barely

Bad people do bad things. That's pretty obvious. But good people do bad things, too. And sometimes with the best intentions. Other times, it's simply because need becomes too great to remain unfailingly good. In Park Jung-bum's epic Alive (which runs about three hours), we see this over and over again — Jeong-cheol (played with hyperrealism by Park himself) — fights and connives to scrape together a living for himself, his mentally ill sister Soo-yeon (Lee Seung-yeon) and her young daughter Ha-na (Shin Haet-bit) with no resources to draw on outside of his wits. He'll do construction, factory work, anything he can to keep his little family unit together. That means he's not above selling out the elders who have taught him how to process soybean paste or unhinging the front door of an orphaned boy's home to make a point. You may question his logic now and then but you're also excruciatingly aware that his thinking is colored by having to sleep in a tent in an unheated house and to steal a large radish from a local store in order to survive. Bulgogi and scallion pancakes are not on his menu.

To call Alive gritty would be an understatement. More like artfully soiled or ingeniously smudged or willfully covered in crap. Poverty is one hell of a great oppressor and any act of tenderness — the desperate plea for charity that Myeong-hoon (Park Myoung-hoon makes to his brother; the human shield assumed by ex-girlfriend Jin-yeong (Lee Eun-woo) when some drunkenly indignant customers go on the attack — registers as an unexpected gift of the highest rank, when it's all you can do to get by. For it is love and kindness that make humanity defensible as a species. Without it, you almost wish humankind would simply stop propagating and leave the now-damaged planet to the other species and plants which have some how made it this far despite our rapaciousness, despite our meanness, despite our disregard. And Alive documents that too. It's not a pretty picture. But it's a necessary one. Writer-actor-director-cinematographer-producer Park is definitely a multitalented one to watch.

November 14, 2016

Entangled: Whose Death Is It Anyway?

What makes for an unhappy family? My relationship to my parents is complicated. One brother I talk to weekly; the other, yearly at best. Both my brothers are divorced with kids. I wouldn't say my childhood was rosy but I wouldn't say it was terrible either. Do most of us see our upbringing as typical despite all the little variations and kinks therein? Be that as it may, the Kims of Entangled are a truly cursed and miserable lot. Even when things are going relatively well at the start of Lee Don-ku's bleak kitchen-sink drama, no one seems even slightly contented although the son-in-law (Song Il-kook) is giving it his damnedest to put on his best face. But as for the anxious mother (Kim Young-ae) who's memory is slipping away, the cranky older daughter (Do Ji-won) who's having a difficult pregnancy, and the youngest (Kim So-eun) who's getting bullied by a tough classmate (Lee Min-ji) at her high school, all three are suffering, suffering, suffering. Or so they think. Because everything's about to go down right the toilet big time. They didn't know how good they had it!

Director Lee is no stranger to grim realities. His previous film Fatal was a despairing look at a guilt-ridden man seeking for redemption from a rape victim. But this time around, he's less interested in seeing how people try to repair the damage they've done (or survive the pain they've undergone) and more committed to showing how much worse things can get. Bit by bitter bit. A series of deaths — one accidental, one suicidal, two intentional — all lie ahead as does insanity, prostitution, corporal punishment, and a bloody nose. Let's just say only one major character survives and the rest are probably glad they didn't. The only "kind" character — a teacher (Kim Geun-young) who brings diapers to the new mom and worries about the younger sister going "bad" — has two scenes I think. They're like little reprieves from all the misery. Not sunshine exactly. Just a lightening of the storm. In life, I guess sometimes that will have to do when gray skies are here to stay.

November 8, 2016

Viva! Love: Harold and Maudlin

I did not need to see Oh Joum-Kyun's Viva! Love. Not this week. Not this year. This "feel-heavy" dramedy about a middle-aged woman (Kim Hae-suk) who finds new meaning — or is it old meaning? — in life after she gets accidentally impregnated by the drunk drycleaning boyfriend (Kim Young-min) of her career-chasing daughter (Kim Hye-na) is infused with a desperation that no amount of chocolate candy or honey-flavored beverages can remedy. No, this expectant mother is not joyous about life and love. Most of the film, she comes across as decidedly depressed, an unfulfilled hausfrau who busies herself by preparing snap-top containers of lunch or hanging up wet laundry to dry. Her rule-breaking romance kicks off in a distastefully gross manner: She carries her soon-to-be lover's passed out body home to the room he rents from her then plays with his vomit-covered lips with her finger. Their inevitable courtship is childlike at best: She's either coyly eating ice cream from a cone or taking care of him like a parent. As to those bicycle rides he offers, they should be an invitation back to lost youth but the way she accepts them is more indicative of a self-conscious grandparent worried about breaking her hip.

The problem here isn't that love and sex can't cross generations so much as this particular woman never stops playing mom while her young man just seems starved for attention. What she's looking to rediscover isn't romance so much as motherhood. Now she's got two additional children: her tenant and the baby on the way. That gag Oh introduces suggesting the sound of her orgasming sends her economically-challenged neighbors into sexual overdrive is either an AARP fairy tale or an Ensure-induced food coma that wasn't clearly framed in the edit. What does feel real is the acceptance of this third wheel by the once-cheating husband (Gi Ju-bong). When you get older, convention seems like a crock. The man of the house hasn't slept with the lady of the house in some time. As long as she's still helping out at the karaoke bar, why not let her recreate and procreate in her free time?

November 3, 2016

The Handmaiden: Woman Is the Future of Man

Lady Vengeance marked a turning point in Park Chan-wook's career, being as it was, his first feature film to have a female protagonist. He'd had important female characters before: the radical girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the unfortunate daughter in Oldboy, even the special investigator in Joint Security Area. Yet, as you can see, these women were largely defined by their relationships to men. Once Park put a woman front and center, however, his female characters got a hell of a lot more interesting. The insane young woman in I'm a Cyborg, But that's Okay and his variation of Therese Raquin for his vampire flick Thirst are much more complicated than the various women who came before. I guess, Park simply realized that he couldn't get Song Kang-ho for every movie he was making.

Which isn't to say that Park has moved beyond the male gaze with his latest. To the contrary, The Handmaiden seems to revel in it. The more powerful his on-screen women become, the more sexual they become as well. This particular movie takes that idea to its utmost extreme. The love triangle that forms between an orphan-heiress (Kim Min-hee), the titular handmaiden (Kim Tae-ri), and a fraudulent Count (Ha Jung-woo) would in theory show three different pairings but when it comes to the kissing, stroking, fingering, nipple licking, felatio, scissoring, and the insertion of ringing balls, most of that's done by the two women to each other. Intercourse between a man and a woman is more likely to be threatened (or read via old smutty books) than actualized. But this it too titilating to be a feminist manifesto. Sometimes the sex is shown from a humorous vantage point (the crotch POV); other times, the nudity is highly theatrical (in profile atop a table). Park's often been criticized for the violence in his movies (and there's definitely some shockers here) but you've got to give him credit: He also knows how to compose a picture — admittedly with some serious help from Chung Chung-hoon, the brilliant cinematographer who'd worked with him on six other films before this one.

October 27, 2016

Twilight Gangsters: Old Girls Just Want to Have Funds

Getting old can suck. Partly because, to much of society, once you reach a certain age, you become quaintly irrelevant. Additionally, if you ever fall into any kind of financial conflict with a major corporation — like a bank, for instance — they can take you to court and just wait it out. What's a girl to do? Well, the three grandmothers in Kang Hyo-jin's Twilight Gangsters go rogue. After years of shoplifting then hawking the goods on the street to raise a little extra cash for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Hawaii, they turn to robbing banks to get the airfare. Time is short. Waikiki, here they come!

Or so they hope. There's a lot to learn for these three lifelong friends, not the least of which is how do you hold up a bank, anyway? Sage old ladies that they are, they pressure the bank robber (Lim Chang-jung) who's partly responsible for their financial woes to act as their mentor/coach/advisor. Roles are assigned. Jeong-ja (Na Mun-hee) will be the diversion. Shin-ja (Kim Hyeo-ok) will carry the gun. Yeong-heui (Kim Su-mi) will be the "boss" shouting out demands. Their first hold-up lands them something like $80. The second hold-up covers the airfare costs to Honolulu but will they be able to get to the airport in time. (Ten to one they're flying coach.)

Nothing turns out as planned exactly but on their side is a homeless woman (Byeon Shin-ho) they once gifted shampoo and a geriatric flirt who likes to wear white suits. On the other side, unfortunately, is the entire police force of Seoul. Even with the addition of some sympathetic hostages and a senior center that won't be disrespected, the odds are not in these ladies' favor. How do you flee from an entire police force? Three on a motorcycle, of course. But how do you get in the air? Who'll fly the plane? Can you pare down to carry-on? And what about that corrupt cop whose gun you've inadvertantly borrowed? Those are much tougher questions. Sometimes the best you can hope for is someone to offer you tofu when you get out of jail.

October 22, 2016

Kundo: Age of the Rampant: Our Friends and Family on Screen

I'm not above having imaginary relationships with movie stars. I may not put posters on my bedroom walls or gossip about my celluloid boyfriend but there are definitely performers I've enjoyed meeting and looked forward to seeing again; actor whom I wanted to be a bigger part of my life; actors who I miss after I haven't seen them for awhile and greet with pleasure when they reappear. Ma Dong-seok fells into this category: He's in my inner circle, I mean I frankly adore him, although that wasn't always the case.

Over the years, our paths had crossed numerous times: He played the gang boss in Rough Play, a section chief in New World, and an ineffectual detective in Azooma. So sure I kind of knew him but honestly, we didn't really get that close until just very recently. His role as a lovable lug with a pregnant girlfriend in Train to Busan and now his turn as a rebel-thief in Kundo: Age of the Rampant has really brought us much closer than I'd ever expected. People are funny that way. Mind you, he's not the lead in Kundo, Yun Jong-bin's crowd-pleasing, action-packed historical drama about revolutionaries fighting a corrupt government in 19th-century Joseon.

That honor (or responsibility) falls to Ha Jung-woo who plays a politically enlightened butcher with a debt to settle and two cleavers to do it with. And Ha's great. He really is. So are co-stars Yun Ji-hye (as an archer with a low tolerance for bullshit) and Kang Dong-won (as the bastard son who takes his grudges a little too far). But I only had eyes for Ma. I guess that's just the kind of friend I am.

It's so nice to make new friends but you know what? Now I need to find out if Ma is in a film with my other buddy Song Kang-ho. It would be so great if there was a way for the three of us to hang out together for a night. Life is short. Way too short. So spend it with the people you love, right?

October 11, 2016

Gifted: Unemployment As a Choke

Hunky actor Kim Beom-joon has a challenging task in front of him with Gifted. For writer-director Juhn Jai-hong's tawdry thriller, he must make us believe that his Everyman character Min-soo, a fired corporate drone unable to find a new job, is going to go from an introverted boyfriend with a Crossfit body to a murderous car thief who self-induces eye-rolling orgasms whenever he strangles someone to death. The switch-over from nebbish to sociopath happens after a very long day during which he's worked two menial jobs — manual labor at a chicken processing plant and temporary chauffeur for responsible drunks seeking a lift home in their very own cars. When an inebriated former coworker gets a little nasty and belittles his intelligence from the back seat, an enraged Min-soo pulls over then chokes his old colleague to death. After a before-bed spritz with bathroom disinfectant followed by a good night's sleep, Min-soo realizes that stealing cars may be good for his wallet but killing their owners can do wonders for his self-esteem.

I'm not going to point out the obvious flaw in the logic here, absurd as it is, because I'm more concerned right now with why none of his victims scratch him or knee him or bite him or poke him in the eye. Sure they're all three sheets to the wind but is no one capable of leaving a scratch on their attacker? Could he really survive all these murders and strut around in his designer underwear without a single mark on his Chippendales bod? And what is his ultimate goal? Once he's paid off the loan for the coffee shop recently bought by his girlfriend (Jeong Soo-jin), couldn't he give it a rest for awhile? Especially considering the box filled with money he finds in the trunk of one car! Or does strangling release endorphins like any strenuous exercise? Does he continue to choke simply to keep his arms in shape? It's not a good idea! Because you can see his violent ways creeping into his sex life — his mercenary girlfriend's acceptance of his asphyxiation kink is particularly disturbing. Juhn doesn't seem to have a bigger message here. We're basically disturbed then the credits roll.

October 6, 2016

The Age of Reason: A Good Song With Not Enough Lee

How big a fan am I of actor Song Kang-ho? Well, I went to a midnight screening at AMC's dilapidated Empire 25 Multiplex in Times Square just to see The Age of Shadows this past weekend. That's pretty devoted. But you know what I realized in the process? I'm also a big fan of Lee Byung-hun his costar in Shadows and The Good, the Bad, the Weird and JSA: Joint Security Area. In fact, I'm such a fan of Lee that I felt incredibly glum after his character dropped out of the movie in the first few minutes. I know he's crossed over to Hollywood now —the G.I. Joe franchise, the Terminator reboot, The Magnificent Seven remake — but please people, don't tease me with a Lee cameo. Not at 12 a.m.!

So I'm just going to talk about the movie post-Lee, okay? (Not that this makes a difference.) My beloved Song plays a Korean cop who's sold his soul to the occupying Japanese but may find redemption with the resistance. He favors black leather jackets with a long cut and epaulets that are embroidered with gold thread. He's got a mustache that R.W. Fassbinder would've loved and speaks in a low gravelly voice that suggests an artist trying out something new. He's delightful. So are his costars: Gong Yoo plays a revolutionary leader who's still finding his legs; Park Hee-soon, a wiser elder; Han Ji-min, a tough-as-nails lady spy; and Foster Burden, a European sympathizer.

The Japanese, as you might expect given the subject matter are heinous. (Both Tsurumi Shingo and Um Tae-goo seem to relish playing sadistic baddies, with one egging on the torture of a female captive and the other slapping the hell out of an underling's face.) And while we know that the fight for freedom will prove victorious, there's still plenty of tension and suspense in The Age of Shadows. It's not Kim Jee-woon's best flick -- that's probably I Saw the Devil -- but it's a nice addition to his ever-growing oeuvre, which now includes at least one pic with exquisite 1920s costumes.

September 26, 2016

Reach for the Sky: In Defense of the Humanities

To Our Robot Masters and Alien Overlords,

Please accept Reach for the SKY as Exhibit A, for this trial determining our continuance as a species. We feel that it accurately depicts who we are and who we've been as sentient beings for a long time, in terms of our strengths and our weaknesses. And yes, we recognize that it's set in the year 2016. Some things never change, I guess. Or rather, they're slow to change. We're working on it! And as to why we've opted to submit this documentary about the South Korean education system, particularly its national university entrance exams (instead of The Journey of Man or even Boyhood), the reasons are many. But primarily because we feel this film showcases the importance we can accord our young. See how the South Koreans open businesses late, stop all air flights, and usher students to their testing sites in police cars if need be. We're not totally selfish beings!

And yes, we know that we can have a tendency to value facts over feelings, and that we sometimes compile data and spin it instead of seeing things as they are. The truth can be so hard to grasp! In the words of the great Confucius, "Learning without thought is labor lost. Thought without learning is perilous." But we hope that you also recognize here our fierce determination. We can accomplish great things when we put our heart and soul into it. We believe in the future!

Finally, we would also draw your attention to the artistry behind this documentary. Everything from the chalk drawings introducing the primary subjects to the music — both old (Luigi Boccherini) and new (Regina Lok Yan To) — shows the thoughtfulness and care of its directors Steven Dhoedt and Choi Wooyoung. They could've made this a satire of Mega Study guru Kim Kihoon. Instead they've created a heartfelt study of our formative years when anything feels possible. And pressure is great.

Sincerely yours,

Drew P.

September 24, 2016

I AM.: SMTOWN: B-Bring The Boys Out

Random notes after watching I AM.: SMTOWN, the promo/doc/concert from S.M. Entertainment — the South Korean company behind the teeny bop sensations f(x), Girls' Generation, H.O.T., SHINee, Super Junior, TVXQ, and the queen of K-pop herself, BoA.

My preference for dark hair knows neither gender nor ethnic boundaries. My affection for really nice haircuts is unaffected by hair color.

Bubblegum pop may be reaching its apex in South Korea. I am currently listening to "Sorry, Sorry," "The Boys" and "Genie" on repeat.

All young famous people go through a crisis during which they ask "Is that all there is?" and "Who am I really?" then realize "It feels good to matter to so many people" and "Geez, isn't it nice to be popular."

Do not belittle the time and labor that goes into being an international superstar. These performers work hard (and have since they were pre-teens).

Am I hanging out with the wrong people? And if not, where are all my friends who want to recreate Toni Basil's "Mickey" video or SHINee's "Lucifer"? No more food pics. We're wasting time!

You can't beat a really nice sweater.

I'm not interested in what you think the main differences are between your stage persona and your real self.

I'm going to listen to K-pop to learn the language. That'll work, right?

I look forward to the day when ALL men and women dab their eyes when they're emotional because we're all wearing mascara.

God, I need a new outfit.

September 9, 2016

Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self: 1000 Years in the Making

The camera doesn't skillfully linger over the three golden Buddhas, the founders' painted portraits, or the architectural details of the Baek Hung Buddhist Temple which dates back to the 10th century. That isn't the point. The editing doesn't create a flashy montage of eating, bowing, praying, meditating, chanting, cooking, walking, and rolling the dice. Because that isn't the point either. For the first six minutes, there's no dialogue at all! So what do we see? Basically, two dozen nuns, mostly with heads shaven, generally silent, going through an age-old ritual that takes place ninety days in the winter and for one week lasts literally round the clock. (A nun with bamboo sticks taps the backs of those whose lotus position has lost form or who have fallen asleep.) What are they contemplating out here on Palagong Mountain for three months? Eternal questions that almost read like poems (and which are superimposed for us here on the screen):

"One thought rising, it is hell.
One thought reversing, it is heaven."
"Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
Came with the cloud.
Going with the wind.
Then what is this
that is coming and going?"
As the head nun at this zen temple suggests to the now-departing nuns at the end of the retreat, today is the same as yesterday which is the same as ninety days ago but how time flies. And so at the end of this documentary, you are still where you were when you started it and yet you are not. Do any of the nuns emerge enlightened? Let's hope a few! Do we share that enlightenment by witnessing their rigorous practice? Perhaps a little. And for that, I give thanks.

September 7, 2016

Vista Point - SEOUL - South Korea: The Road Less Traveled

The travelogue is a form of armchair tourism, in which someone who's been there relates what's it's like to be there to someone who hasn't gone there and isn't likely to go. With pictures. This style of multimedia storytelling gained favor in the 19th century, back when people (with a new device called a camera) could actually go to places that no one had heard of or seen before and take pictures. But today, few places aren't near an airport. And if we're too lazy or too poor to go abroad, we can still see the world much more simply in a click. Sometimes we can even go online and explore locations in 3-D, choosing what doors to enter, what doors to pass. It seems a strange anachronism, this visiting of tourist traps via someone else's poorly produced video. And yet here we are — in Seoul, no less — with a mildly informed British narrator guiding us through a number of temples, a couple of museums, a shopping district, and the North Seoul Tower (the Asian counterpart to Seattle's Space Needle, perhaps). While our bought-in-bulk videographers try to spice things up by touting a pseudo-cooking performance art piece entitled NANTA, none of this journey feels exciting. Or even relevant. I don't know how to explain it except to say, watching Vista Point - SEOUL - Korea felt like someone had watered down NYC to St. Patrick's Cathedral, the 9/11 Memorial and Blue Man Group. Are any of those quintessential New York experiences? Well, if you think they are, stay at home.

Depresingly, there are Vista Point travel videos for over 100 cities — both stateside and international. From where comes this need? Are the people who watch them heavily medicated nursing home residents, dreaming of going places far beyond the institutional walls? Are they college students, stoned out of their minds and doing their best imitations of an English accent? Or are they travelers who don't want to experience a culture so much as take their pencils to a checklist? In all my years of reviewing Korean movies, I can definitely say, this was the least Korean thing I've ever seen.

August 29, 2016

Modern Warfare: The Korean War: 38th Parallel Universe

History isn't just in the telling. It's also in the listening. Each time, I hear the details associated with a famous person, a momentous event or an era, I hear them anew. Parts of the story sound like echoes of what I've heard before, parts of it have the less insistent ring of familiarity, and parts of it clang, stunning me with new information that I wonder if I somehow missed earlier or if it were disturbingly omitted from some earlier version. How much of what I'm hearing now is true, for that matter!

With this Modern Warfare documentary on the Korean war, the footage looks largely familiar: men crowded around cannons twice their size that caused the cameras to shake with each kaboom, a stoic-looking MacArthur at the front of a battleship as if posing for a postcard, the dropping of napalm with brief mention of its devastating side effects — yet none of its harms specified! I recognize the names of Pork Chop Hill, Heartbreak Ridge, the battle of Inchon. I even have a vague recollection that the treaty was signed by an American and a North Korean but no South Korean at all.

What feels new is how the Chinese had better aircraft than the U.S., how the Russians were the ones who liberated Korea from the Japanese months before the Americans arrived, how Communist conspirators were forced to wear hoods on their heads then marched through the streets of Seoul. Somewhere along the way, the justice in the action got lost in the need to win.

Running well under an hour, this doc also left me with a few unanswered questions. When did the Chinese start integrating women into the military? What was Rhee Syng-man doing in the United States for all those years in exile before he became President of South Korea? Who was the military official who said the preposterous line: "We're not retreating, we're advancing in another direction"? Maybe, if I'm lucky, the next documentary fill in those blanks.

August 22, 2016

Love Lessons: The Kinky Cure for Writer's Block

Erotica definitely comes with a laugh track. And if you don't believe me, then you really should shut up and check out Ko Kyoung-a's absurd Love Lessons asap. This silly, half-clad skin-flick concerns a dissatisfied, petulant, lascivious, chart-topping songwriter (Kim Sun-young) who overcomes her writer's block by seducing a horny teenage art student (Byeon Joon-seok) who happens to live nearby. That might not sound that ridiculous but when you see her being felt up by her protege on the piano bench while she plucks at the keys on her white baby grand, you'll see exactly what I mean. Find the post-coital cigarette a total hoot? This is definitely your type of movie.

An older woman guiding a younger man into the world of experience via sex... Well, that's nothing new, is it? What may be less tried-and-true are the methods which this cougar employs. First, she entices him with sustained eye contact while being necked by her current flame in an elevator. Later, she teaches her boy toy to kiss tenderly by demonstrating what looks to be a blow job on some soft-serve vanilla ice cream. (And yes, she does end up with milky remnants all over her lips.) Truly this movie would be offensive if you could stop laughing long enough to stomp your foot.

What's the funniest part? I would hazard it's the scene where she's having intercourse with a lover from years ago and the young pup walks in and locks eyes with her even though she's on her back and her head is upside down. (She's too into fornicating to get upset by his interruption; he's too heartbroken to embrace a potential opportunity to jump in.) The saddest part of the movie may be tougher to point. I'm going to say it's that moment you first hear one of her two songs inspired by this love affair. Even knowing that the hired singer (Oh Cho-Hee) is tone-deaf and that the songwriter composed the piece in part on her Casio, doesn't excuse its awfulness. May no one in this movie ever get laid again.

August 12, 2016

Train to Busan: Zombies on Track

People are brain-dead. People might as well be dead for all the meaning their lives have. We can never escape the dead. So many meanings behind zombies in pop culture, right? Yet in a weird way, they're all related in that they all have to do with personal responsibility. If we're brain dead, who's fault is it? If our lives have no meaning, who could best change that? If we're haunted by our pasts, how do we reconcile ourselves to them? Thrillingly, Yeon Sang-ho's Train to Busann addresses those big questions repeatedly instead of just serving us up the ravenous zombie, an image that frankly had started to decay.

What's changed isn't the zombies. Nope. They're still bloodthirsty, dangerous, infectious, crazed, and in this case, fast. It's the humans. In this very well-constructed, multi-layered script, Yeon has assembled a nice cadre of survivors: a ruthless investor (Gong Yoo), his sweet-natured daughter (Kim Soo-an), a big-hearted lug (Ma Dong-seok), his pregnant wife (Jeong Yu-mi), a shy baseball player (Choi Woo-sik), his girlfriend (Sohee) and a homeless guy (Choi Gwi-ha). You'll notice that all the women are defined by the men. A problem, agreed, but they're at least not completely helpless. Just watch that pregnant woman run!

And as the chemically-induced disease (caused by man's greed, what else?) spreads across South Korea (I'm guessing the North is safe), this small group (on a speeding commuter train out of Seoul) must fight with their paranoid peers (especially one deplorable businessman) as well as against the hungry hordes in order to survive. The rabidity of these zombies is something to behold, whether they're literally exploding through windows or racing up escalators, jumping on train cars or grasping on to the caboose (and then grasping on to the guy grasping on to the caboose, and then grasping on to the guy who's grasping on to the guy, etc.). The last time I saw a Korean horror movie this exquisite was Bong Joon-ho's The Host. Yes, Train to Busan is that good!

August 9, 2016

The Beauty Inside: I Love All of You

We like to think there's an essential "me" inside of each of us, a self that exists free of the superficialities and realities and randoms that are our actual bodies, our haircuts, our bank accounts, our bloodline. Some call this "our true selves." Others, a soul. So it goes to follow that a soulmate is someone whom we connect to from this deepest place inside ourselves without regard to how we look and what we do. Kind of.

Baek Jong-yeol's marvelous The Beauty Inside both challenges and supports these ideas by having the male romantic lead, a furniture designer named Woo-jin, suffer from a condition that causes him to wake up in a new body every day. I guess you could call it, multiple body disorder. His mother (Mun Suk) -- wisely -- doesn't take him to a doctor. His best friend (Lee Dong-hwi) thinks it's a hoot. Longterm dating is off the table. That is, until he meets Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju), a furniture salesperson who connects with him from that very special place within. Home decor does tell us a lot about a person, scoff if you must.

That means she's willing to stick around and cuddle even when he wakes up as a middle-aged bald guy (Kim Sang-ho), an attractive young woman (Ko Ah-sung), an old lady (Lee Myeong-ja), a child... Fortunately, she gets a number of handsome men (Lee Dong-wook, Lee Beom-su, Lee Jin-wook) to tide her over but a love that keeps changing its face, its voice and sometimes its language is definitely be hard to sustain. That Yi-soo is game to try speaks volumes about her integrity and her sense of adventure. There's a few asides that suggest Woo-jin tried initiating a relationship with other women prior to her but once you've found your soulmate, let's face it: All the others just disappear.

Awards: Han Hyo-ju was rightfully nominated as best actress for the Baek Sang Art, Blue Dragon and Grand Bell awards. But that Yang Jin-mo didn't win the Grand Bell for editing, despite also being nominated, is the real crime here! At least Baek Jong-yeol won best director.

August 6, 2016

Nineteen: Shh! No Imagining!: Six Tales of Copulation

The recurring motif in five out of six of the rom-com shorts in Nineteen is a pair of fancy panties being hungrily pulled down a pair of shapely legs. Nuff said.

Ep. 1: While Pile Diving
Graphic design class is cancelled this afternoon so eight students play a version of Rock Paper Scissors with increased physical contact. Erections. Beer. Love equals animated hearts layered over your eyes.

Ep. 2: At Girlfriend's Place
Do you prefer a woman who offers her straw to sip or one who force-feeds you popcorn? Or whichever one invites you to her parents' pad for sex then bangs you in a stairwell on your 100th day anniversary.

Ep. 3: While Playing Jenga
Don't have a deck of cards handy? Play a game of strip Jenga. Every time someone removes a block from the precariously stacked tower successfully, an item of clothing comes off. Socks included. Then poke her.

Ep. 4: On Emergency Stairs
Nerdy high school virgins, especially those with bowl cuts and thick glasses, can get distracted during foreplay by seeing the opposite sex's genitalia for the first time. Not to worry. Eventually, college gets them laid.

Ep. 5: With Best Friend
You can have a best friend who's the opposite sex but if you're both good looking, dress up like sushi together, and then get drunk, then you're likely going to end up renting a hotel room for the night.

Ep. 6: At Movie Theater
You have a few choices when fellow moviegoers start having sex in the theater: giggle uncontrollably, masturbate or have sex with whomever is sitting next to you.

August 1, 2016

Miss Granny: Oh to Be Young (and Hilarious) Again!

There's something irresistibly sweet about movies such as Big and 13 Going on 30, movies where the main character is a child transported into the body of an adult, from where they look at the world through the most innocent eyes. Even so, for me, I prefer the somewhat jaded age-swapping comedies which go in the other direction, movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Miss Granny, movies with lead characters who wake up to find that they're young again (at least physically) while burdened with the wisdom of age. Because the wisdom that comes with age really is laughable, isn't it? What do we learn? How little we actually know? The lessons of time may ensure that we don't make certain mistakes again but it won't save us from all of our erroneous ways. We're never free of our shortcomings, even when we're given a chance to do it all again. Contrary to popular belief, hindsight isn't always 20/20 after all.

Hwang Dong-hyuk's Miss Granny is funnier than Francis Ford Coppola's heartbreakingly nostalgic Peggy Sue however. For in Peggy Sue, the leading lady (Kathleen Turner) is caught in an emotionally raw flashback whereas in Miss Granny our heroine is a much older woman (Na Mun-hee) who while likewise gifted with the body of her teenage self (Shim Eun-kyung) is experiencing her transformation in current times. Literally born again, she pursues her long-abandoned dream of being a singer even as she works to help realize the dreams of her grandson (Jung Jin-yeong), a guitarist in a failed heavy metal band. Should she start a new life or mend the problems embedded in the one she escaped? It's not an easy choice. As for Shim, she's a revelation — her comic impersonation of a grandmother is physically and vocally astute whether she's reveling in neo "Audrey Hepburn" fashions or scolding a fellow bus passenger for having water-y milk in her breasts. But Shim isn't just a comic wonder, she can also sing like an angel. Her rendition of songs like "Raindrop" and "White Butterfly" especially make you think that Shim has an alternate career as a chanteuse if she ever tires of being an actress.

July 25, 2016

Hearty Paws 2: Doggone It, That Pooch Can Run

A few things I can watch for hours at a stretch: championship tennis on television, the ocean in winter, dogs playing and running anywhere, anyplace, anytime. Director Lee Jung-Chul's Hearty Paws 2 delivers a lot of that last simple pleasure (if not much else). When a Labrador Retriever's runt puppy is stolen by bumbling brother jewel thieves who want to gut it and put diamonds in its eye-holes, that mama dog is seen chasing a truck down Seoul's highways and byways, scampering through the halls of an abandoned building, racing through the woods and an adjacent snake-infested field, and galloping down the freeway in a rainstorm until she collapses from exhaustion (only to be ignored by a passing car). Then after our heroic dog has been rehabilitated by a vet, she's back to running again. She's a beautiful creature, and seeing her in motion is never boring. You sense that she's an incredibly well-trained animal following commands and enjoying every minute of it, even when she's fake-limping after getting shot in the hind quarters. Some dogs really love to act!

But not all dogs. For example, her on-screen offspring, a real fur-ball of unbearable cuteness, isn't relishing his role's requirements as the kidnapped puppy who must suffer all types of indignities. Disturbingly, I sensed that the shivering fetal position the runt takes on numerous occasions wasn't trained so much as induced. And did we really need to see one of the bad guys hold the little doggie by the scruff of its neck. Yuck, that made me wince. The scene between a wild boar mom and the Labrador mom made me wish that either the movie had no human beings in the cast or that all the animals had joined forces to take on mankind. What I feel: In the outside world (outside the movie), people frankly aren't doing such a good job taking care of all God's creatures or the planet which we all inhabit together. It's time for the animals to challenge the hierarchy. Let's let the dogs run the world for a change. Wild boar for vice president.

July 18, 2016

Compassion: I Saw What You Did Last Summer and Videotaped It on My iPhone

Here's a theory: The reason we look back at our teen years with such longing is that this was the exact time when the polarity became clear. By which I mean, this is the age at which we realized that there is an "us" versus "them" at play in the world and while now, as adults, we pretend that there isn't, maybe in truth, there really is. Maybe nostalgia is just missing our own ability to accept a debilitating truth. We like to look back fondly on simplicity over recognizing its continuity; we'd prefer to retreat from acknowledging a wrong-and-right morality because owning it would require us to take a stand. There really are good guys and bad guys, bullies and victims, alpha dogs and runts in the litter, enemies and advocates. That's one thought that came from watching Compassion, writer-director Shin Sung-sub's straightforward drama about a bright, high-school student named Ha-na (Lee Cheong-mi) who suddenly discovers the world around her is populated by a shrewish mother (Jang Seo-i), a wife-beating father (Jang Woo-jin), a superficial best friend (Lee Soo-yeon), and a mean girl (Jeong Seong-hee) who's threatening to release a graphic cell-phone video of a statutory rape that Ha-na survived but can't remember. Human beings are despicable. Well, most of them, anyway.

The two exceptions are a classmate (Jo Jeong-yoon) and a teacher (Jeong Mi-seong). The former is a singer-songwriter who's been abandoned by his parents and now cashiers at a donut shop and delivers newspapers to make ends meet. The latter is a member of a Christian support group, and has some guilt to be worked through regarding another student who killed herself earlier in the year. Far be it from me to belittle an ethical Christianity but watching Compassion, I could easily picture a gloomier outcome if Fate hadn't intervened as well as this couple of do-gooders from a The Church of Good Works. I guess we can only do our part and it's our job to do it. Change starts here. You can either fight the good fight or exit among the beaten.

July 17, 2016

Revivre: Who Has Time For a Life?

On the surface, Oh Sang-moo (Ahn Seung-kee) is a devoted husband. When his dying wife (Kim Ho-jung) gets yet another brain tumor, he's the one who shaves her head at home then spoon-feeds her gruel in the hospital. But to a certain degree he's just going through the motions. At the funeral home, he doesn't cry — simply asks his daughter to donate mom's clothes to a charity — and seems more focused on the cleavage of his new coworker Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri) than on his dead wife's portrait at the wake. Well, everyone grieves in their own way. Oh does it by cold-bloodedly having his wife's perfectly healthy dog put to sleep shortly after her death. (It was her wish!)

Which isn't to say that Oh is not there for his wife throughout her time of need. He changes her diapers then deodorizes the room, catches her vomit in a pail then wipes off her comforter, takes a Viagra pill so he can get it up when they're having sex. (Although he'll be fantasizing about Choo for that last bit, truth be told.) No one is going to accuse Oh of being a poor caretaker. And how many times can you indulge in emotion when your daily lifting someone up onto the toilet then rinsing off their privates afterwards? Don't you eventually have to detach? Otherwise, there's crazy time ahead.

The casket scene in which the recently departed's daughter (Jeon Hye-jin) and sister (Sin Yeong-jin) make a hell of a lot of noise merely points out that the ones who grieve most effusively may be the people who have been less a part of the dying process, which can prove messy and exhausting? (Did the son-in-law feel anything at all?) Should we really think less of Oh simply because he's answering his cellphone while the casket is being wheeled to cremation? In Im Kwon-taek's Revivre, there's business to attend to as a marketing executive. Who has time for a life?

Baek Sang Art Awards: Best Film and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Ho-jung

July 16, 2016

Kim Jong-Un: The Unauthorized Biography: Far From Scary, Further From Enlightening

Tom Cruise's unauthorized biography claims Katie Holmes had to audition to be his wife; George Bush's unauthorized biography digs up his family's history with Adolph Hitler; Frank Sinatra's unauthorized biography His Way enraged him so greatly, he supposedly wanted to put a hit on its tabloid author Kitty Kelley. Whenever you see the word "unauthorized" next to the word "biography," you can be damned sure that the life story revealed isn't going to be overly flattering. Which is what makes this documentary from director Anthony Dufour such a curiosity. We already know that Kim Jong-Un, North Korea's current dictator, had his uncle assassinated, is developing a nuclear arsenal, and palled around with former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman. Why exactly doesn't this unauthorized biopic heighten our fears about the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea? What gives?

Much of the new news here is actually not so heinous as what we already know: He got his education in Switzerland; he appears to have a good relationship with his wife (and women in general); he didn't try to hide his health issues and has, to the contrary, worked for greater transparency in certain aspects of his rule. The lack of info regarding the prison camps, economic disparity across the country, and Kim's own personal excesses is frankly dumbfounding. Yet even without that, Dufour still intercuts gloomy music between his interviews with public figures such as Joseph R. DeTrani (the former president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance), Victor Cha (the former Director for Asian Affairs for the National Security Council), and Jang Jin-Sung (a former officer of the Korean Workers' Party). They definitely sound as if they're trying to scare us about Kim but none of them does so. Is Dufour only pretending to demonize Kim? Is he, in fact, a tool of Kim and subversively singing his praises? Does anyone truly believe that North Korea is responsible for hacking Sony's computer network in protest of the stupid satire The Interview, because of its tasteless plot point about assassinating Kim? I don't.

June 25, 2016

Where Are to Go: Drive, She Said

The search for meaning in life is a staple of the art house film but only frowny, rich wife Hee-young (Kim Gyu-ri) would think to seek this meaning by way of a taxi. In Jin Hyun-seung's Where Are to Go, the soul-searcher's quest will lead her to being chauffeured around Busan where she'll reconnect with an old flame, stare out at the ocean, sulk amid neon, and bum a few cigarettes — plus a lighter — from her cloyingly upbeat driver (Yu Geon). Unfortunately for Hee-Young, the search for meaning is ultimately an internal one so clobbering a bully in the streets and popping sleeping pills at night are unproductive paths to reconnecting her to her lost dream of being a real actress. Well, there are worse ways to play tourist in Korea than in the back of a cute guy's cab.

As to the cabbie, his goals are a little less noble, a little more practical: He just wants a sugar mama! Broke and burdened with abandonment issues, he's been bedding female travelers from all over the world, in the hopes of finally scoring the big one. Hee-Young could be his ticket out. She's got prescription meds, a seemingly deep checking account, and a fur coat that self-dries. (That coat must be expensive!) She's also willing to dress up like a school girl when he asks. What more could a guy hope for? And so they go drinking and shopping and sightseeing and drinking again then again. One binge leads to screwing but frankly, for most of the movie, love feels out of the question.

Because she knows his game. She knows he's got to cater to her whims, cook for her, paint her toe nails, give her back massages, and be her designated driver every time she wants to get blitzed. He knows that she knows what he's doing and yet he still hopes. This is the province of youth: To hope against the odds. The province of old age is wanting to hear someone tell you you're still young. So he does that. Not she's that old. Still it's nice to hear. And maybe she can go back to being an extra in the movies. That's something, isn't it?

June 12, 2016

Play Girl: Not-So-Powerful Puff Girls

You hear of movies being made by committee but a short film? Does that happen, too? It seems so damned unlikely. And yet... Jung Won-sik's "Play Girl" (which was packaged with four other shorts in the omnibus The Youth) feels very much like a product created with a checklist in mind. A checklist dictated by a group of fetishists. With an intended demographic. And some underage girlfriends to cast. The target audience? Middle-aged perverts. The main characters? Sexy, private school bitches (their word, not mine) who wear short plaid skirts while puffing cigarettes (traditional and electronic) and planning their next fistfight (which a friend will Instagram from the sidelines). I'm not saying there aren't young women out there who fit this description — including the neck tattoos and an occasional black surgical mask — but a whole high school populated by them? Well, that Jung's movie fantasy, I guess.

It's a fantasy that has some attributes in its favor: gang politics among bad girls, defied sexist stereotypes and Lord of the Flies power plays... What it also has are many poorly thrown punches pretentiously shown as shadow play, and too many tough chicks smoking with attitude played by actresses too afraid to inhale and hoping the scripted tough talk will suffice for "being mean."

Recently, I read a marvelous collection of short stories (Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet). I mention this because I'm now asking myself: Why are there so many more great short stories than short films, not just in numbers but in percentages as well. But the answer isn't hard to arrive at. Very few filmmakers have any interest in creating short films. I'm not claiming there have been no great shorts or none by Korean filmmakers. Who else but Park Chan-wook made "Judgement", "Night Fishing" and "The Cut" — all of them excellent? But the reality is that shorts are a tough sell for an audience and "Play Girl" just ensures that this remains the case.

June 2, 2016

You're My Pet: Dog Is Not Only Man's Best Friend But One Woman's Lover


I am perfectly aware that director Kim Byeong-gon's You're My Pet is packaged as a quirky rom-com in which a lovelorn career woman (Kim Ha-Neul) takes in a failed ballet dancer and somehow ends up finding her soulmate. That is not what I got from the movie, however. Instead, You're My Pet comes across as a lighthearted nightmare, a freaky bit of froth about how role playing — when taken too far — can lead to a psychotic break. Follow me here: An emotionally shut-down editrix tells he brother's pal (Jang Keun-Suk) that he can stay in her apartment rent-free if he pretends he's her dead childhood dog Momo. She gets off by being in control. He relishes her unconditional affection. She also enjoys making him do silly tricks (shake, roll over) and he isn't above feeling her breasts while she's asleep.

Where things get weird is when she begins to hallucinate him as her long-dead Labrador Retreiver in bed or stares into a glass of wine to find his face floating amid vintage red. Another man (Ryu Tae-Joon) — better looking, more succesful, more considerate, more romantic, more mature but not into role play at this level — engages her in prolonged courtship but she's only got puppy dog eyes for her domesticated dream-lover. Not that those two are having sex or kissing or cuddling. Intimacy between beauty and the beast here is restricted to shampooing then blow-drying each other's hair. Always clothed!

The self-delusion may be worse in the submissive than the aggressive one in You're My Pet. Once a rising Danseur Nobel, the collared stray now has taken up playing guitar and lands the lead in a K-Pop recital of Barry Manilow's "Mandy" that takes place simultaneously in an Opera House and in the garden of a fancy estate. Given the skill level of the dancers, neither scenario can possibly be real. Has a case of mass hysteria infected everyone in the audience? My final analysis that is love is a sickness worse than rabies for some.

May 28, 2016

The Quiz Show Scandal: Only One Man Can Win So Let's Meet Everybody Else

For all the time it spends setting up the various back stories of its primary characters, Jang Jin's The Quiz Show Scandal truly only cares about one and then disconcertingly abandons him at the very end. Rather than give away who that one sympathetic guy is (no spoilers here except that he's a man), let's take a look at some of the various contenders we meet who don't end up mattering in the least. There's the sullen, boy-crazy teenager (Shim Euy-Kyung) who's part of an ineffective support group; a gambler (Ryu Seung-Ryong) saddled with a shrewish wife (Jang Young-Nam) and a debt; a nutty history professor who knows his French lit inside and out; and a well-coifed motorcyclist (Ryu Deok-Hwan) who delivers an empassioned speech about the sacrifices made by food delivery workers. Also competing are a cop, random women, and a martial arts instructor (Jeong Jae-Yeong) who shows up for the quiz show in his uniform. But these latter folks are clearly not in the running for the multi-million dollar prize. They're just extra color for a movie that's already got too much color to start with.

What's weird is that despite the many contestants we meet in The Quiz Show Scandal, the funniest characters don't feature in the actual competition, two being an unstable, attention-seeking woman who dominates the aforementioned support group and a preposterously drunk guy at the police station who shouts out all the right answers for the game show when it's on TV. Her rage and his incoherence would have been welcome additions to the quiz itself and would have amplified any paranoia experienced by game show host (Lee Hae-Yeong) who may or may not be responsible for the death of the woman (Han Soo-Jin) who crafted the difficult questions for the show that has made him a star. There's a third memorable comic turn from writer-director Jang himself. As a self-styled master police chief, Jang's timing is spot-on, his persona hilariously off. I'm not saying Jang should act but not direct or write for future movies. But he could definitely give himself a bigger role with his next one.

May 22, 2016

Red Family: Suburban Assassins

When is a Kim Ki-Duk movie not really a Kim Ki-Duk movie? Basically, whenever he writes it and produces it but doesn't direct it. That doesn't happen often but it has happened a few times recently and, as in most things in life, sometimes it works (Rough Cut) and sometimes it doesn't (Red Family). What's intriguing is that in both cases cited here, comedy — hardly Kim's forte — comes to the fore. Yet whereas the exhilarating Rough Cut, about a gangster who gets cast in a mob movie, relishes every punch and kick at its disposal, Red Family never reconciles the physical brutality (or the "brutal realities" as Kim would probably put it) with its kooky plot about North Korean spies posing as a happy family just outside Seoul. Whenever violence rears its ugly head in these suburbs (and it does so with some regularity), you get the feeling that director Lee Ju-Hyoung doesn't know what to do with it. It's like he can't bear it. Like he doesn't know what it's even doing there. Like he'd faint at the sight of blood. Even though he's the director. Even though it's fake blood.

Compounding the problem, Red Family's bloodiest scenes look incredibly underrehearsed. That may also be why Lee doesn't zoom in for the kills. If anything, he rushes through them. Like the constructed family this movie's about, Lee shies away from violence. He tries to avoid it. Why he decided to get graphic with the barbed wire piercings at the end of Red Family may have more to do with pleasing a mentor than staying true to a directorial vision. Or maybe it took shooting an entire Kim K-Duk movie to make Lee realize that Kim's primary message has always been about how violence is ingrained in us by our culture and that it's impossible to escape. At best, we can try. Anyone who knows Kim Ki-Duk is aware that everything is not going to work itself out in the end for these well-meaning commies. Every Kim movie has bloodshed coupled with emotional scarring. As to anyone unfamiliar with Kim, they'll likely recoil at the nasty turn Red Family takes at the end. Ironically, that's a shock Kim would probably endorse.

May 18, 2016

Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley: Ex-Con Goes on Killing Spree

It would be a bit of a stretch to say that the low-budget, high death-count pic Bloody Fight in Iron-Rock Valley has a plot. What it has instead is a scenario that acts as n excuse to link one murder to the next with retaliatory violence in between plus some flashbacks to the brutal rape and murder that started this bloodbath of revenge to begin with. Writer-director Ji Ha-Jean has no favored method of offing his characters, mind you, but you can be damned sure that a single gunshot or knife wound is unlikely to do it: Ghostface (Yoon Sang-Hwa) has his throat slit then is shot in the chest; Axe (Kwak Ja-Hyeong ) is hacked with his namesake weapon before having his head bashed in by a stolen Buddha statue; the young girl in the flashback who is raped and murdered eventually has her face is peeled off. Those who survivor do not escape Scot free. The hero Chul-Gi (Lee Moo-Seang) — a young man of few words, who is out to exact revenge on his sister's killers — is stabbed, bludgeoned, punched, choked, hacked, clobbered, and even has his mouth cranked open with dental jacks we assume will lead to torture. He's one of the lucky ones, simply because he never receives that final death blow. Is the creepy little ballerina music box he's constructed while in prison — or is it juvie? — some kind of magic talisman that capable of warding off the Grim Reaper? Could be.

Equally charmed is Tae-yeon (Choi Ji-Eun), Iron-Rock Valley's only prostitute — hell, its only woman — who lures men to the local gambling den but defies the odds by staying alive, even as her boyfriend, dad (who happens to be a monk), and child (at least I think it's her child) are gunned down. You'd think she and Chul-Gi were a perfect match. Yet when Chul-Gi heads off on his motorcycle into the sunset, she's not behind him with her his arms wrapped around his waist and her head leaning on his shoulder. There's no place for love in Iron-Rock so he leaves her behind to deal with her inheritance: a now abandoned temple with no tenants but a lot of ghosts.

May 14, 2016

Loveholic: Drunk in Love

According to Kwon Chil-In's chamber drama Loveholic, detox, rehab and AA meetings aren't the only ways for heavy-drinking Ji Eun (Chu Ja-Hyeon) to get her life back in order after assaulting a guy with a beer bottle during a black out the very night after she's been fired for incompetence. She can also move into the apartment of her best friend Kyung Rin (Han Soo Yeon) then have an affair with her friend's husband (Jung Chan) while basically plagiarizing a novel she admires as she tests her wings as a fledgling writer. That might work, too. Any pent up rage she's got left over can be processed at a local batting cage that thankfully keeps late hours.

As luck would have it, the well-orchestrated chaos that's set off by this unadvisable extramarital affair will help the married doctor discover his wife is already having a dalliance of her own, with his colleague Dong Joo (Kim Heung-Su), a bad-boy radiologist who teaches rock-climbing on the side. But in time, Doctor Number 2 also quickly grows bored with the repressed housewife who can't seem to understand that you can't transform someone's living quarters into a bourgeois home if the walls are all painted black. Also, a padded floral bra can only hold a man's interest for so long.

No one's particularly devastated by the ensuing divorce. Although tears are shed, no one's holding any grudges afterwards either. The doctor and the delinquent look destined for love. The housewife is probably getting a decent alimony. The radiologist has brought his bike back into the bedroom, Better Homes & Gardens be damned. Even the slacker guitarist (Geojung), who sorta had a thing with Ji Eun before he ran off to Japan, returns to Korea where they can resume that type of unsatisfying friendship that occurs between the self-destructive woman with ambitions and the slacker guy with pretensions. You can practically hear the "Remember that time when we..." reveries layered over the end credits.

May 11, 2016

Melo: She Will Have Him by Hook or by Crook

Yoon-Seo (Kim Hye-Na) expects a lot from her new boyfriend Tae-In (Lee Sun-Ho). Even after he's given her a new job at a trendier cafe, a new apartment with less ugly wallpaper, and a new sex life with more than one position, she still wants more, more being the abortion of the baby his old girlfriend (Kim Na-Mi) is carrying and the elimination of Tae-In's legs so that he'll be housebound and less likely to stray. To describe her as clingy would be an understatement. And yet...

There are things to argue in her favor. As a girlfriend she goes to extremes for Tae-In as well. She acts as a housemaid, a cook and a caretaker once he's dismissed from the hospital. She's not afraid to step in when he poops on himself. She'll act as a sex surrogate and teach him to like oral sex (which he wasn't that into before the accident). Does it make him a better man? Not really.

Lee Roy's Melo is people with despicable characters that extend into the supporting roles: an ex-boyfriend who thinks rape can be brushed off with a casual apology, a suicidal neighbor (Yoon Yeong-Min) who wants to discuss her satisfying sex life with her abusive boyfriend, a boss (Lee Young-Jin) who suspects the weird girl for stealing just because... Not a single person in Melo is someone with whom you'd want to have a cup of coffee despite the number of baristas seen on screen.

"Why live when a good up of coffee isn't enough?" becomes the main questions the characters ask themselves. Saddled with debt, guilt, an unwanted baby, a suitcase stuffed with body parts, and a needy girlfriend from Hell, every day proves to be a unbearable burden. And if, on top of it all, you were stuck with wearing the absolutely hideous burnt-orange, knit scarf that Yoon-Seo is apparently compelled to wrap around her throat year round, you too might consider hanging yourself or slitting your own throat.

May 5, 2016

The Black Hand: Hearts on the Chopping Block

Okay, torture porn fans, let's talk about amputation and love. We've got a long history of creepy movies to build on starting with the 1927 silent classic The Unknown in which Lon Chaney's knife-thrower has his arms removed in an effort to get closer to Joan Crawford's squeamish ingenue, the most engrossing version of The Hands of Orlac (1935), where Peter Lorre's mad doctor jealously grafts a killer's hands on his main rival, and Jennifer Lynch's 1993 debut Boxing Helena about a crackpot surgeon uses amputation as a way to keep his woman faithful. Love and losing limbs go hand in hand apparently.

Such is the case, once again, with The Black Hand, Park Jae-sik's gorey fright flick in which a quack transplant specialist (Kim Seong-Su) expands his entrepreneurial organ-harvesting business to include his wife (Shin Jeong-Seon), his mistress (Han Go-Eun) and his mistress's sister (Bae Geu-rin), all of whom incite a push-pull/cut-reattach impulse in him. What he has failed to take into account is that a transplant recipient takes on some of the characteristics of the donor. So while Dr. Dismemberment is banging every woman he can, including the local bartender (Han Soo Yeong), his latest science experiments are taking on the rage (as well as the body parts) of the doctor's scorned spouse (a.k.a. his human farm).

Given his luck with the ladies, I bet this demented doctor's main victim/colleague/creation/protege eventually has her attacker/boss/torturer/mentor's penis grafted onto somebody else as a way to honor the best part of their relationship. And why stop there? Why not re-purpose his hair, his ass, his eyes, his lips, his tongue, his teeth and that one hand he's always using to choke whichever partner he's currently pounding? Just because your abusive, heartless, narcissistic lover is dead is no reason to stop screwing with him. Stick with what works. And then find a host for it.

April 26, 2016

The Kick: 75% Korean, 25% Thai

How do you like your martial arts served up on the big screen? Slapsticky a la Jackie Chan or unshticky per Jet Li? Should you favor the flavor of comedic kicks, then this Korean fight flick has your name punched right into it. You'll witness kitchen fights using pots, pans and a live squid; high wire battles in which a ceiling fan functions as a mechanical spanker; and debilitating destroyer dance-moves triggered by a monkey who activates inspirational music on a stray cellphone. Of course, there's a plot stringing together all these elaborate chopsocky routines. To wit:

Mom (Ye Ji-won) and Dad (Jo Jae-hyeon) run a taekwondo studio in Bangkok where their teenaged son (Na Tae-joo), who favors harem pants, gets into trouble when he foils the theft of an ancient sword (strangely devoid of supernatural powers). When the thieves — ruled by an easily scarred pretty boy — seek revenge and the high-priced weapon (value: $3 million), complications multiply. Bombs are strapped to bodies; people get trapped in overpopulated crocodile terrariums; a child named Typhoon is suspended mid-air.

Solutions are easy to come by though: A black eye is washed away in a waterfall and range-top gas can be inhaled then spewed out as a flame by putting a lighter in front of your mouth. Everyone knows martial arts here, even the elephants, and those who don't, like the family's beloved manager Uncle Mum (Petchtai Wongkamlao), learn so quickly they're soon teaching classes themselves. If that last actor's name looks decidedly un-Korean to you, that's because it's not. The Kick is a joint venture of the Korean and Thai film industries. That cross-cultural exchange extends behind the camera too as the director (Prachya Pinkaew) is Thai while the screenwriter (Lee Jong-suk) is Korean. The world needs more cultural hybrids like this. And more silly martial arts movies.

April 25, 2016

After the Banquet: I'm Reminded of a Day-Old Danish

It's not often that a movie's creators namecheck their inspiration directly in the opening credits but that's just what director Kim Yun-cheul and his screenwriter Rie Yokota have done in After the Banquet. The movie that inspired them is After the Wedding, an amazing, emotionally naked Danish movie about an expat teacher/drifter working at an orphanage in the slums of India who's suddenly called back to Denmark to witness the marriage of the daughter he didn't know he'd had. Susanne Bier's film is a remarkable piece of work, a gut-wrenching family drama all about the dictates of money and the debts of blood. You can see how Kim and Yokota would want to make it their own. You can also understand how they'd want to avoid duplicating it too closely since it's so exquisite as it is.

Too bad all the changes they make to distinguish their variation, lower the stakes. For whereas the original had a wedding guest suddenly coming face to face with an old flame, a new relation, and his ongoing shortcomings, the update has a recently orphaned daughter (a cloying Ko Ah-sung) searching for her long lost daddy among the male wedding guests, most of whom slept with her carefree mom. Because of that, After the Banquet owes a lot more to Mamma Mia! — my vote for Meryl Streep's worst movie — than it does to After the Wedding. The kindest thing you can say when comparing After the Wedding and After the Banquet is that they both find equally handsome grooms in their leading men: Mads Mikkelsen and Shin Sung-woo. Yet even here any comparisons put the Koreans in a distant second place: Mikkelsen's stardom was instantaneous with the mid-'90s international hit Pusher; his luminosity only increasing once he exploded stateside with NBC's Hannibal. As for Shin, while he too hit it big time in the mid-'90s (as a rock star), his subsequent acting career has been primarily Korean soaps. Definitely, a less glamorous story. Still, you gotta love Shin's man-bun.

April 23, 2016

The Carnivores: Unlikable Rapist Saves Rape Victim

God, how I wish Yoo-joon (Kim Jeong-hoon), the main guy in The Carnivores, had not raped his married girlfriend in the beginning of this movie. And I wish that he had not, shortly thereafter, become a Peeping Tom, who watched — albeit silently horrified — as a 20something villager (Cha Ji-hun) was sexually assaulted by multiple men night after night. But wishing can't make it so. Especially when misanthropic writer-director Ha Won-joon's wishes are so contrary to my own. Ha wants to create an antihero that's despicable, deplorable, dumb. Ha wants to present a rape victim (not a rape survivor) — giving her a knife and night blindness so that she can't use the knife when the men come to attack. The best you can say about this script is that no one has the cards stacked in his favor: All the characters are equally stupid. This uniform idiocy means that the "hero" has to retrieve a professional-grade camera in order to visually document any crimes instead of using his cellphone; that a pair of townsmen tracking the escaping couple needlessly trade weapons before splitting up in the woods, only to reconnect again not much later after one of the two townies is dead. (He got his foot stuck in a bear trap then his head bashed by a stone.)

This is a universe in which traumatized children euthanize their ailing mothers as a way to achieve closure, old waitresses are still subject to sexual harassment while pouring drinks at work, and drunk war vets sit in a circle and laughingly recount their most unforgivable crimes... People are heinous, aren't they? But for that matter so are some actors. How else to label a person who would accept a role in a movie that's so outrightly misogynist? No one went into this production hoping to make art so who do you hold accountable for the inadvertent message, gross as it is? The Carnivores is a low-grade fright flick that doesn't scare or care. It sickens. As B-movies go, Hera Purple this is not.

April 11, 2016

Love 911: Sirens Will Lure You to Your Own Destruction

Beautiful people can't resist beautiful people. That's a cruel certainty to swallow. Yet what else to ingest after watching Love 911? Jeong Gi-hoon's rom-com of destiny pairs off a big-hearted, widowed fireman (Go Soo) with an understandably single amoral woman (Han Hyo-ju) whose one effective hook is her looks. And why? Because character defects are so "whatever"!

It doesn't matter that our ingenue's impressive paychecks as an ER doctor are about to end because of her callous negligence. It doesn't matter that her negligence almost cost her best friend (Jin Seo-yeon) her job as well. It doesn't matter that her disregard for others has landed a possible victim of domestic abuse in a coma. It doesn't matter that she lies about her own mother's death to score points with her intended. She's cute. She's flirty. Her susceptibility to fainting spells shows that she's vulnerable too. What else could you want?

Okay. Okay. Our petty lady doctor evolves through Love 911. She does learn to cry for her sins; to share a true personal tragedy about her dad; to invest in saving lives, instead of making cold hard-won won. By the end, when the fireman's finally hot for her, we know why. She's a fully rounded person! But it's hard to believe she'd go from ice-cold to caring or that he'd have kept doing shots with her until she'd grown a heart.

Wait a second. Is this movie about drunk goggles? Is that it? Is it about how alcohol impairs our judgment of character as well as of beauty? Or does attractiveness simply wear us down? An equally handsome fellow firefighter (Kim Seong-oh) is quite immune to the charms of his female coworker (Hyun Jyu-ni) until she shows up wearing a skintight dress. One imagines that ultimately Love knows no logic but the attraction of heels — the high kind, and the despicable.

April 9, 2016

Cyrano Agency: The Act of Love

Since movies and TV shows often inundate us with preposterously poignant courtships culminating in impossibly eloquent professions of love, is it that far-fetched to imagine a future where matchmaking agencies are consulted to "script" your first encounter, your subsequent dates, and your wedding proposal? Bolstered by a sublimely humorous script and warmly amusing performances, writer-director Kim Hyun-seok's Cyrano Agency is at once an endearing send-up of the crappy faux reality romances we're spoon-fed across all the various mediums, and a big-hearted rom-com that knows that intentions, not well-crafted monologues or fairy dust, are the greater indicator that someone is guided by his or her fast-beating heart.

So don't let the cynical machinations of the matchmaking agency get in your way of seeing that this is a movie all about true romantics, and that these true romantics are both inside and outside the agency: There's Byeong-hoon (Eom Tae-woong), the agency director who employs stage magic into the art of seduction; Sang-yong (Choi Daniel), the lovelorn hedge fund guy, who wants to be a knight in shining armor; Min-Yeong (Park Shin-hye), the agency's second-in-command who's crushing on her boss big time; and Hee-joong (Lee Min-jung), the boss's ex- who happens to be their current client's dream-girl. Even Hee-joong's cynical sidekick appears to be a softie at the core, once you've plied her with a few glasses of red wine.

To say that I cried a few times during Cyrano Agency doesn't say much since I sometimes cry at the sappiest of movies. To say that I laughed more than a few times says more, but not a ton, is also faint praise, since my laugh of condescension gets just as much use as my laugh of joy. But to say that I feel this movie is really, really smart is higher praise. My brain is less often stimulated than my tear ducts or funny bone by movies. And when I'm stimulated in all areas, well that's kinda hot.

April 2, 2016

State of Play: Are You a Terran, a Zerg or a Protoss?

Where do you go to make hundreds of thousands of Euros just for playing StarCraft? To Seoul, my friend, to Seoul. Here, teenage boys and young men in their early 20s bang away at desktop keyboards with frantic fingers, hoping to achieve galactic domination (while a theater full of screaming, excited young girls watches them zap each other's avatars to death). But if you think these players conform to your stereotype of American gamers, you're in for a bit of surprise, as players resemble — moreso — K-pop members with their skinny black jeans, Bieber-esque haircuts and sporty "game time" uniforms. You wonder if the coaches and the management are looking for "cuteness," alongside quick reaction time, as a prerequisite for new recruits.

It's a bizarre world, indeed, although I wish writer-director (and producer-cinematographer) Steven Dhoedt had given us more footage of the matches themselves as the accompanying play-by-play commentary is highly entertaining when overheard in the brief clips we see. I was also curious as to what kind of training the gamers undergo. (A montage of superstar Lee Jae Dong doing pull-ups and walking the treadmill suggests that prep work involves more than sitting at a console 10 hours per day.) I would've also liked more info on this particular video game itself: Why do some players choose to be a Zerg? What are the special abilities of a Protoss? Are Terrans the closest things to human beings? Do players have signature moves? How did StarCraft II differ from the original? State of Play skips a lot of details. Perhaps it would've benefited from focusing on less people, especially the gushy fan-girl, to make more time for these kinds of facts for someone like me, an admitted video game ignoramus. It's like a documentary on a rock band that short changes you on their signature music. I needed a little more concert footage and a little less product placement for Dunkin Donuts.

March 31, 2016

The Propaganda Game: Who's Lying Now?

I'm going to assume going in to this movie that you already know that North Korea's population has a cult-like devotion to its leaders as a direct result of the country's constant and inescapable brainwashing machine. But what you may not know is that propaganda related to North Korea goes both ways. Since the country has nearly impenetrable borders, the information we get about what's going on North of the DMZ is necessarily fragmented, piecemeal, and easily misinterpreted. I'm not disavowing the existence of the prison camps or the famine that ravaged the country in the 1990s (despite Spanish defector Alejandro Cao de Benós strangely sunny disavowal of any negativities), but you do come away from Álvaro Longoria's documentary The Propaganda Game with a sense that the Western press has its own agenda and its not simply to tell the honest truth.

What we see is certainly strange enough: city streets with relatively few pedestrians, computer labs with no students, a museum that feels like a stage set. When we're told that the sample church that Longoria visits is a fake, you've no way of knowing if it's really an elaborately staged hoax, a cultural aberration, or a prime example of a reality the West refuses to admit exists. Is there anyway to truly know? I'm not that sure. But, as one journalist points out, it does seem a bit crazy to think that the nation is employing a bunch of actors to populate an elaborate theme-park experience for journalists and tourists. What seems more likely is that there's a hierarchy here and some people have it good, more have it less good, and many have it very, very bad. The country boasts free education and housing with a catch: You don't decide what you'll learn or where you'll live.

My fascination and wariness continue.

March 18, 2016

The Grand Heist: Frozen Assets

The 47 Ronin. The Dirty Dozen. The Hateful Eight. The Magnificent Seven. Apparently, those on a quest like to gather in relatively large numbers. I don't know what to call the rebellious collective found in Kim Joo-ho's feature debut The Grand Heist but there are eleven of them on board: a tunnel digger (Ko Chang-seok), an explosives expert (Sin Jeong-geun), an underwater swimmer (Min Hyo-rin), and a financial backer (Sung Dong-il), among others. Why have they banded together? Why, to steal roomfuls of ice, that's why. Ice, you ask, like diamonds? No. Ice like frozen water, stupid. Hundreds and hundreds of big blocks of it stored in secret rooms underground.

Set in the late 1700s, The Grand Heist is, oddly enough, a period piece first, a comedy second, and a heist flick last and least. There's plenty of planning and scads of scheming, but the importance of the crime (or even the value of ice, for that matter) never really registered for me. I got that the heist itself is an act of revenge, since the two leaders (Cha Tae-hyun, Oh Ji-ho) are motivated by the unjust imprisonment of the father of one, and the cruel mass killing of the co-workers of the other. I also got that the price of ice was jacked up by a shady businessman, disloyal to the king. But I didn't get how the theft of frozen goods (and with it the discovery of an obscene amount of gold) was going to make a big difference in how the government was run, despite a forged letter intended to influence the political future of the dynasty. Too much silliness abounds.

Translation note: The original Korean title for this movie is "Baramgwa Hamkke Sarajida" which means "Gone with the wind" so it's not hard to figure out why the American distributors decided to change it. That said, it might've been smarter to have assigned a title that was a little less genre-focused. My suggestion: "Frozen Assets."

March 6, 2016

Rise of the Miniskirt: Nora Noh: Dressed for Success

Many major questions remain unanswered at the end of the "fashion icon" documentary Rise of the Miniskirt: Nora Noh. How could the young dressmaker afford to go to the U.S. to study, following her divorce at age 19? Whatever happened to her Japanese ex-husband? Were there other loves in her life? How did she get to be the first Korean designer to take over the ground-floor windows at Macy's flagship in NYC and what was the reaction from the American press at that time? (Same for her covers on Vogue and Harper's Bazaar!) Who are her fashion progeny? What stores carry her clothes today? Whose wearing her today? But even with these omissions, Rise of the Miniskirt is a pretty informative portrait of the groundbreaking ready-to-wear clothing designer, who lived through the Japanese occupation and the military coup in Korea; a symbol of female liberation who was bringing Western ideas about stylish and pragmatic women's wear to a culture and workplace that was redefining itself after WWII and the Korean War.

Rich with archival footage of and contemporary interviews with longtime clients such as pop singer Yoon Bok-hee and movie stars Eom Aeng-ran and Choi Ji-hee — all wearing Noh's designs both then and now, the film makes you ache to see more from Korea's mid-century culture, like the movies Horse-Year Bride and A Sister's Garden (which used Noh's shop as one of its locations). Some of the clothes are still quite stylish — a long sliced coat in white; pretty much anything Noh wears now in her 80s! Other outfits look dated, even clumpy. (Well, who doesn't have misfires in their past?) But Noh, ever-confident, curious, and questioning, always feels worthy of investigation and celebration. It's easy to see why the stylist Suh Eun-young was inspired to organize a retrospective of Noh's work and why that would, in turn, inspire this documentary. She lives up to her Ibsen namesake well.

February 29, 2016

Stateless Things: When a Moving Picture Is a Moving Picture

Stateless Things left me thinking about how the word "movies" is shorthand for "moving pictures" and how "moving pictures" can mean a few things:

1. a two-dimensional portrait seemingly brought to life
2. an extension of Muybridge's artful experiments in capturing action
3. a portrait that makes you feel something deeply
4. any combination of the items above

Unafraid of prolonged silences or the slightest of conversations, director Kim Kyung-mook allows many scenes in Stateless Things to act upon you like snapshots or drawings, sculptures or mobiles. Like art. You're invited to look, not to listen, as your primary way of intuiting relationships, identities, stories. Observe the way bodies inhabit their environments. Let go of plot. Let go of conventional character development. An early sequence, in which Joon (Paul Lee) and Soonhee (Kim Sae-byeok) rush around pumping fuel at the gas station during rush hour, is enough to hold you captivated. A dance routine, performed by a "kept boy" (Yeom Hyun-joon) while his "daddy" (Im Hyeong-gook) is at work, conjures hidden dreams and desires even if there's no one else in the room to interpret/appreciate the act.

This distrust of telling too much with words is a hallmark of a certain type of indie film, and Stateless Things fearlessly trots out other tropes of the genre, with poetic lines demarcating the film's three parts, non-sequential narratives, and a strange ending that refutes its two separate story lines as being truly separate at all. You may have questions in terms of what actually happened at the end but asking questions is what Kim's moving picture is all about.