December 9, 2017

The Great Courses: The World's Greatest Churches: Two Churches in Seoul, Korea

SUNY Professor William R. Cook, who has his doctorate in medieval studies, likes to talk about churches. A lot. As in 24 lectures worth of pontificating about churches — from the Hagia Sophia to Chartres Cathedral to St. Peter's Basilica. So what two churches does he wrap up his series with on behalf of The Great Courses? A pair by 20th century architect Kim Swoo-geun, who's also responsible for designing the Seoul Olympic Stadium from 1977. What are they like? Pretty modern. The first, Kyungdong Presbyterian Church (1980), was designed for the largest Christian denomination in South Korea (which has more Presbyterians than the USA) and features a red brick exterior cloaked in ivy and an asymmetrical cement interior where the only source of natural light comes from the skylight above the altar. The second, Bulgwang-dong Catholic Church (1985), furthers many ideas of the former. The required walk around the church to its entrance (intended to encourage a more meditative frame of mind) is now accompanied by bas relief sculptures representing the stations of the cross; the interior, while also cement, is lighter and includes a burial site (behind the altar) for select former members of the congregation.

Cook clearly has an enthusiasm for his subject but he also wastes the last third of his talk on the diversity of the Christian population and how devoted he is to his own humble church in the states. I personally would've preferred he'd spent that time on how these churches related to Kim's secular designs as well as the earlier Yangdeok Catholic Church in Masan, which was constructed the year before the aforementioned Presbyterian one. I also would've welcomed knowing more about St. Andrew Kim's story. A sculpture of this Korean martyr — the nation's first Catholic saint — stands on the street-side of Bulgwang-dong Catholic Church near a sculpture of Jesus with a prominent bleeding heart. As a gesture of respect to those two at least, couldn't someone have ironed Professor Cook's pants?

December 6, 2017

Samaritan: Nowhere to Be Found

For some reason, the French composer Erik Satie's earworm-y "Gymnopedie No. 1" periodically pops up in Korean movies. You'll hear it in Kim Ki-duk's grim drama Samaritan Girl and Kwak Jae-young's romance Windstruck, two very different films tonally and subject-wise. You'll also hear the melody in Ko SangJin's super-short "Samaritan" (a reference to Kim?) for which the Satie tune constitutes the entire soundtrack. As you might guess if you're familiar with the composition, the content is melancholic at best.

Like the musical accompaniment, the imagery here is simple and repetitive but not annoyingly so. The camera is fixed on a young homeless man (Teja Swaroop) sitting on newspapers, garbage strewn around him. A brick wall is directly behind him; a fairly large teddy bear directly in front; and in front of the teddy, a sign which "Hungry Help Please." Slightly to the side is an styrofoam cup with $ drawn on it but not $ in it. In short, the help is not forthcoming. If you live in a city, you've seen this scenario before in real life. You may see it every day. People — viewed only from the waist down — walk by. No one offers to help. No one tosses any change. A shadow seems to creep in from the side. Suddenly, the man is lying down. People begin to gather. Is he asleep? Is he passed out from hunger? Is he dead? Are the bystanders there to help or to harm or just to watch? A brown leaf the size of his head floats down from above then settles silently beside him. As omens go, it's not a particularly hopeful one. Homelessness truly sucks.

"Samaritan", which came out in 2013, is one of three short films Ko has made in the last five years to win awards stateside, the others being "Milkshake" (2014) and "Last Day on Earth" (2016). This particular one took home the Cinematographer of the Month award from the 12 Months Film Festival.

December 5, 2017

Last Day on Earth: 15 Minutes of Fame

If you found it today was your last day on Earth, whatever you chose to do, you can bet it would probably feel like it was over too quickly. And in Ko SangJin's short scifi pic Last Day on Earth, the action lasts a mere seventeen minutes. What happens in that short stretch of time? Quite a bit. A young man (Adam Maurer) returns from the dead to persuade an old scientist (Kim Kiedrowski) to bury science likely to be destructive to mankind and instead go on a journey — alone — to another planet. Meanwhile, the messenger must pay a visit to his mother's grave and decide whether or not he wants to fall in love with a blonde women (Erica Pastore) who happens to be an extraterrestrial in disguise. That's a lot of plot to pack into a half-hour or less. Major futuristic blockbusters have been made with skimpier story-lines. Yet Ko hit alls his points quickly and clearly. He's not as interested in the drama of getting from point A to point B as he is in surfacing moral quandaries which he safely assumes his audience shares.

When does science for science's sake not make sense? If there's life after death, what's the point of our time on Earth? On this overcrowded planet of ours, should the old find a time to willingly exit to make space for the young? Is love something that happens just because or does it occur because we ask it to and let it? Is the pursuit of "gold" our primary undoing as human beings? And given that I'm reading Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," why wouldn't you commit suicide since we seem destined to cause each other pain?

I'll be the first to admit that I was more into the visual style than the scientific substance here as the references to Higgs boson went over my head while Reza Fakharieh's special effects and Kitanan Chewvej's cinematography were both unexpected treats. Am I too shallow to appreciate Last Day on Earth? I don't think so. Do you?

November 17, 2017

Wolmi Island: Unexpected Feminism

Hollywood's misogyny is the stuff of legend. All you need to do is look at your Twitter feed for fresh reports of horrors that continue unabated. Producer Harvey Weinstein, director James Toback, studio head Roy Price, actor Tom Sizemore all now have atrocities associated with their names. Yet while the particulars of each man's offenses may make you recoil, such crimes seem hardly surprising in an industry that has so consistently portrayed women primarily as eye candy. Smart women in leading roles is still a news story in the USA circa 2017. Which is what makes my recent viewings of North Korean movies so mind-boggling. Time and time again from the 1970s (Centre Forward) to just a few years ago (The Other Side of the Mountain), female characters in North Korean flicks are shown as strong, independent, no-nonsense, and driven. Even the 1982 war pic Wolmi Island, which reflects the sexist attitudes of some recruits and officers towards the young, female communication officer who has just been sent to assist the troops, eventually reveals that any condescension is unmerited. This woman is — if anything — one of the movie's primary heroes.

When it comes to patriotism in North Korean movies, the women are never outdone by the men; director Cho Gyong-sun's Wolmi Island is no exception. Yes, she's girlish, maybe even immature, but she's committed, steely, persistent, and reveals a rebellious spirit devoted to the cause that puts all the men here to shame. You eventually learn that the commander (Choe Chang-su) is not heartless; the cook (Choe Tae-hyon), not foolish; and the master-gunner (played by the director himself!), not afraid to die. But only our heroine (Yun Su-gyong) earns our respect and never loses it by being soldierly and sisterly as the situation requires and without any need of a medal. When the gorgeous red smoke billows across the screen at the end, she was the one I missed the most.

November 10, 2017

The Loyalist: Daddy's Girl Goes Rogue

Up-and-coming director-writer-editor Minji Kang packs a lot of plot into the tense 19 minutes of her superb short "The Loyalist," an exciting film about a North Korean voice student (Jung Woorim) studying in Europe whose not-quite-doting father (Kwon Hyuk Poong) has come to fetch her back home to a life of anonymity. Understandably, she'd prefer to go to New York City to further improve her technique and maybe become a star. But daddy doesn't approve. Nor does the government. Nor the chauffeur (Kim Jongman). As to her mom, the less said the better. Not to give too much of the plot away but let's just say this isn't your everyday generational conflict and the stakes grow very high.

The whole enterprise is incredibly polished, with solid acting assisted by Dan Brohawn's rich cinematography. Special note should also be made of the soundtrack here -- both Luke Allen's sound design which makes the most of incidental noise like footsteps, a shower, and the wind, and Jay Kim's effective music. The use of silence, which often enters abruptly after a crescendo, is particularly effective.

By the looks of her IMDb profile, Kang has no shortage of awards for her many shorts and "The Loyalist" has racked up a goodly portion of them (although admittedly at festivals I'd never heard of before). Regardless, with over a dozen short films to her credit, I'd say she's more than ready for the big leagues based on viewing "The Loyalist" alone. Given the major shakeups currently disrupting the status quo in Hollywood coupled with the ongoing dismay at how few opportunities are provided to women directors year after year, can some rich Hollywood bigwig step up already and give this women the funds to make her first feature film? I'm guessing she would not disappoint. I'd definitely buy a ticket (or stream it on Hulu or Amazon as the case may be).

October 29, 2017

Centre Forward: Team Spirit, Party Unity

Do they make TV movies in North Korea? It sure feels like it from the hour-long Centre Forward, a black-and-white sports flick from co-directors Kim Kil-in and Pak Chong-song. I mean it can't be just slogans and speeches and statistics and anthems all day long, can it? And what else would the patriotic mothers watch on their televisions if not a locally broadcast soccer match as the athletes — their sons, of course — prepare to take on the world? Sure, they might catch a sweatily rehearsed, smilingly executed dance performance featuring one of their daughters (which they delightedly do) but nothing beats gathering with the other soccer moms for an afternoon game in front of the telly. And yes, granny knows all the lingo. Sports are a national past time in the Hermit Nation, too!

And what of the team itself? Will rookie player In-son (Kim Choi) get in good enough shape to start again after a disastrous first showing? Will his dorm mate and longtime veteran Chol-gyu (Choi Chang-su) commit himself to the rigorous training regimen or rest on his laurels? Will the coach (Pak Tae-su) inspire the players to push themselves past previous limits and commit to party loyalty? There's a wonderfully sadistic training scene in which In-son kicks balls even as his body collapses under the glaring arena lights at night but much of Centre Forward is mundane and less intense. Despite its shortcomings, the movie nevertheless has a rousing game at the end in which the old guard steps back at half time so that the new guard can take the field and win the game. You know victory is a given but it's hard not to get caught up in the spirit of it anyway. Score! Score! Score!

Where to Watch: You'd be surprised how many North Korean movies are on YouTube!

October 26, 2017

Order No. 027: Bones Break But She Won't

Maybe I've been setting the bar too thoughtlessly low with these North Korean movies. I mean, did I really enjoy that martial arts flick Pyongyang Nalpharam last week? Or was I seduced by the novelty? the strangeness of it all? And even if I did really like it, would I be able to enjoy it as much again now after seeing the infinitely better Order No. 027? The latter film, made about 30 years prior, has a stronger storyline, less corny acting, and most importantly finer and longer fights. It's still odd with its outdated shooting techniques, indicative performances, and lapses into propaganda but how easily I seem to have forgotten that, with action movies, Foley sound effects should not just be used to indicate the damaging contact of kicks and punches but also the more severe crunch and crackle of breaking bones. The directorial choice — made by co-directors Jung Ki Mo and Kim Eung Suk — to loop footage so that a knee to the face happens mercilessly more than once makes for some painfully effective combat sequences. This is a war pic after all.

Order No. 027 also got me thinking about the word "demure" which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary means "reserved, modest." In an American film, a demure ingenue would be virginal, naive, easily shocked, uninformed, and weak... oh basically helpless. But in a North Korean flick, a woman can be demure and still be a well-trained spy eager to go into enemy territory alone to complete a suicide mission, a fearless warrior capable of out-fighting three soldiers in tip top shape, and a true patriot who will walk miles after being shot to deliver an important message. Sure, she's modest and unassuming but she's neither simple-minded nor a scaredy-cat. Korean cinema, be it North or South, favors women with nerves of steel and physical prowess over the dim-witted damsel in distress. Hollywood would do well to take a page from these screenplays.

October 21, 2017

Pyongyang Nalpharam: A Book With Punch and Kick

You have to take everything you learn about North Korea with a grain of salt but supposedly the country has had years when it produced as many as 80 films and other years when it's made as few as two. Whether that's true or not, I don't know but I can say with some assurance that they've definitely got a film to represent just about every genre: there's a monster movie (Pulgasari), a period drama (The Story of Chun Hyang), a coming-of-age story (The Schoolgirl's Diary), a romantic comedy (O Youth), and a martial arts flick (Hong Kil Dong) amid all those other movies you'd expect that are strictly propaganda. Diversity of entertainment isn't an issue here if you're willing to suffer through a speech with an extremely nationalist bent.

That said, the proselytizing is kept to a minimum in Pyongyang Nalpharam, a historic martial arts flick set during the Japanese occupation of Chosun and understandably trumpeting patriotism in the shadow of Japanese rule. Co-directed by Phyo Kwang and Maeng Chil-min, the movie's heroes are the supreme masters of a traditional form of fighting as well as the keepers of the last remaining book which explains it. They seem to be siblings sometimes and lovers other times, and jointly responsible for the book which causes all sorts of trouble. Do they ever kiss? No. I'm not even sure if they ever hug. But their intimacy is expressed through meaningful glances cast from watery eyes and via a scar he gave her as a child while biting her hand and a jade ring he passes to her as an adult after all the battles are done and (largely) won. And while the brother/fiance (Ri Ryeong-hun) is clearly the leader and elder; the sister/fiancee (Kim Hye-gyeong) takes over when he's not around and clearly knows how to engage in hand-to-hand, foot-to-face contact. This is a couple of equals, a marriage of mutual respect. The couple that slays together, stays together, am I right?

October 12, 2017

A Forest Is Swaying: Enough About Me, Me, Me

The abject selflessness is so pronounced in director Jang Yong-bok's stoic North Korean drama A Forest Is Swaying that you can almost hear the cries of disapproval from the grave of Ayn Rand. Never has a character stood so adamantly in repudiation of Rand's "me first" ideology. Who is he? Oh, he's asimple fellow really... a military veteran who's come home from the wars with news of a fellow soldier's death. Then, when he realizes that said infantryman — the uncomplaining regiment cook in fact — has left behind an orphaned daughter, he decides to pretend that he's her long-gone dad and plant the late comrade's pocketful of pine seeds on the latter's hometown mountainside which has been thoroughly destroyed by Yankee bombers. Who needs a life of one's own when you've got someone else's to live?

Frustratingly, the seedlings don't initially take. According to a botanical expert sent by the state (who is also longing to be his bride), the soil's just no damned good. Poplar would do better here, she insists. But he won't have it. He won't be stopped. He nurses the pine seeds, slaves away in sun and snow, barely survives a mudslide, then once recovered refuses to stop even when he needs a cane to continue... and eventually, the miracle happens. In the time it takes to make two babies and see one grow to adulthood, he's now living in woodsy paradise with plenty of deer and strawberries for the people. Now old and as stubborn as ever, he doesn't bask in the praise of the Great Leader — although he sheds a few humble, beatified tears. Instead, he heads on over to another barren mountain determined to make it fruitful for future generations. He's received all the credit he'll ever need. Even the book documenting his amazing success story bears the name of another author. Which is just as he wanted it. I imagine his gravestone will say something like "Get back to work. Nothing happening here."

October 8, 2017

Speedy Scandal: Grandpa Needs to Grow Up

I realized a few days after watching Speedy Scandal that radio host and DJ Nam Hyeon-soo (Cha Tae-hyun) isn't the hero. Not really. In fact, you could argue that he's the villain of the movie. That's what I'm about to do right now. Why? Well, because he's the one who treats his newfound daughter like dirt; the one who never asks about how her mother — his supposed "one true love" — is doing; the one who repeatedly gets in the way of his daughter's singing career and her love life and her hopes to form a new family that doesn't need to sleep on a restaurant floor. He's the one who sees his grandson (Hwang Seok-hyeon) primarily as a lure to bed the grammar school teacher and whose first concern when he discovers his grandson's been kidnapped from a concert that he's hosting is basically "Let's get on with the show." If you knew a child had been kidnapped would you really forge on even if it weren't your kid? Your answer better by "NO!" So yes, Hyeon-soo is pretty despicable.

Which brings up the following question: Why isn't his daughter Jeong-nam (Park Bo-yeong) the main character of this film? Why don't we see her try on lots of different outfits when her stingy father finally takes her to the mall to buy some nice clothes? Why are we forced to watch his "comic" attempts to keep her a secret instead of her "comic" attempts to fit into his world? I personally would've enjoyed seeing more scenes between her and her love interest the awkward photographer (Lim Ji-gyu) than daddy and his lust interest the school marm (Hwang Woo-seul-hye). Maybe some audiences have a soft spot for the still-cute actor Cha based on his memorable roles in My Sassy Girl and Sad Movie. But me? Not so much. Credit must be given to writer-director Kang Hyeong-cheol, however. With his next film, the infinitely more entertaining Sunny, he put the women front and center. People who learn from their mistakes should be praised. Sound cue: Applause.

October 2, 2017

A Broad Bellflower: The Political Before the Personal

There's an icy cold heart at the center of the lukewarm love triangle in the sad, political romance A Broad Bellflower, one of the movies credited to Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hie, the director-and-actress couple who were kidnapped by the North Korean government and forced to make movies during their bizarre imprisonment. (Check out the stranger-than-fiction doc The Lovers & The Despot.) And it's not just that our heroine Song-rim (Oh Mi-ran) puts her hometown before her husband-not-to-be; it's also that her selfish sister Song-hwa — played by Song Yeon Ock and Kim Hye-son — makes the doomed lover sign a note that will damn him to permanent exile. What's his crime? He has big city dreams. And no one should put personal desires before those of the community. Absolutely no one.

But what's particularly harsh about what transpires in A Broad Bellflower is that when the now old man sends his devoted grownup son to his hometown in hopes of forgiveness, nearly everyone is dead-set against them. Let bygones be bygones? Hell, no! The sister hates to even hear the name of that man; the sister's daughter reacts as if the son had committed this crime against humanity himself. Any sweet feelings that may have come from biking around the neighborhood and sharing a roasted chestnut are squashed the moment the truth is revealed.

As to the spinster who never got married but found her joy in dragging telephone poles through the snow, carrying slate across steep cliffs, and flirting over architectural drawings, her life was cut short by a mudslide that buried her while she was in the midst of rescuing some sheep. Once she'd spit the dirt out of her mouth, she was able to convey one dying wish: "Forgive him!" But you can tell by the way that everyone's acting that while they may let father and son return, they're still going to treat the two like crap.

September 29, 2017

Ask Yourself: Patriotism Up North

"When your hair turns gray, you look back at your past and ask yourself the question: What have you done for the future generation? What have you done for the mother country?"

So starts Pak Jong-ju's North Korean film Ask Yourself and while you might immediately write off this brief introductory voiceover as pure propaganda, I'd like to request that you, my fellow gray-haired readers, ask yourselves this very question. Put aside concerns about which brand of yogurt is going to help you live the longest and which frying pan surface is least likely to lead to early-onset Alzheimer's. Stop looking at your life as a contest about who can rack up the most number of years and instead embrace your remaining time as an opportunity to do good for those we are leaving behind? As to your relationship to your country, can you please drop the "lower taxes" concern for just a moment and ask yourself how you might make the nation better and more worthy of your pride? It's been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country." You can almost hear the knee-jerk response of most people today being simply: "Why?"

Viewed from this perspective, Ask Yourself is a timely, bucolic bit of agit-prop as it confronts personal hypocrisies and the destructive force of egoism while also honoring the beauty of self-sacrifice and the warmth of community. To its credit, its two heroes — a team leader on a government farm and a restless young woman who fears she's throwing her life away there — aren't fully formed ideals we're expected to emulate. They're self-deluding human beings who learn the hard way where their own flaws lie. The happy endings that arrive for both of them may try the nerves of the cynics but when didn't an upbeat movie require some suspension of disbelief.

September 26, 2017

O Youth!: A Romcom for Athletic Women

I don't know if they have elevator pitches in the North Korean film industry but if they did, I imagine if there was some sleazy male producing making one for O Youth, it would go something like this:

"See, there's this dad with five daughters. He always wishes he'd been a professional athlete but didn't have the talent so his kids are living out his fantasy: One's a swimmer, one's a basketball player, one's a soccer player, and one's a weight lifter. That's only four? Oh, make the fifth one — I don't know — a rhythm gymnast. That's cool, right. But there's a problem in the family. No, the mom's not dead. She simply doesn't like girls to be athletic. So when their one son who's not an athlete — interesting, right? — falls in love with a woman, mom wants to make sure his prospective bride is super-femme. Like an embroiderer. You know, a fancy seamstress. Yeah, exactly. But what she doesn't know is that the needlepoint lady is actually a world-class tae kwon do champion. Exactly, we can talk about why it's such a cool sport and how she's doing it all for the generals. Or the great leaders. Whoever you want.

"How do they find out she's not a seamstress? Hmm. That's a very good question. Well, we could have some thugs attack the guy and have her defend him. That's kind of hot. True. Mom wouldn't be around. But she could attend a big tae kwon do match and see the girl in action. What do you mean, what is she doing there? Who doesn't want to see a tae kwon do match? It's like our football or our baseball. We're saving the best sport for her. And we can even have her look like she's going to lose at first and then kick some serious butt. So what do you think? Sure we can find a role for your girlfriend. There's five sisters after all. She's too old? Then we'll add a nosy neighbor. What comedy doesn't have nosy neighbor? So is it a deal? What do you mean you've got to think about it. It's flawless."

And in a way, he's kind of right.

September 20, 2017

Lighthouse: How Far Would You Go

Self-sacrifice doesn't appear to hold much value in the United States these days. It used to be touted as an ideal. Now we value money. Money and power. That's it. Any self-serving, criminal, amoral behavior can be absolved if an eventual paycheck is big enough. So when you see a North Korean movie like Lighthouse in which some regular Joe gives up all creature comforts and a "normal" life just so he can man do his small part for the Communist Party, well, you're likely to label him as certifiably insane. No one would do this. No one. He must be hiding something. He's probably got an underground brothel that traffics white slaves or is a drug runner with a big yacht in international waters. The greater good? Never heard of it.

When did "do the right thing" start triggering an eye roll? Why did we collectively begin to doubt that someone might want to do something positive without personal benefit? How do we get back to morality? I don't know what else to call it. I understand why people write off North Korean films like Lighthouse as kooky propaganda created under the watchful eye of a crazy leader who oversees one of the few nuclear arsenals in the world. But could we also, for a moment, acknowledge, that we could do with a few message films that speak to ideals. When did the high road disappear?

The best of our good guys are superheroes — mutants from outer space or trillionaires whose hobby is crime fighting. In a way, they make goodness the domain of the strange. Which is why I liked the simplicity of Lighthouse. I wouldn't want to live in North Korea — with its fascist government and culture of paranoia, its famine and mind control — but America is further than ever from paradise. I'd be willing to live with the antiquated barber tools of Lighthouse if it promised some old-fashioned values as well as a more consistent follow through of walking the walk that goes with the talk.

September 11, 2017

The Other Side of the Mountain: Why Does He Love Her

To refer to Son-ah (Kim Hyang Suk) "noble" would be a bit of an understatement. As her North Korean town's first homegrown nurse, we see her suck the blood and pus out of the throat of an ailing child, draw blood from her own arm to aid in the recuperation of a weakened young man, and pluck out pieces of shrapnel from an unconscious soldier's face with a pair of tweezers. Factor in her subsisting on the dregs of the porridge so others can eat a full bowl, and you'd be hard-pressed to come out with many other movie characters as self-sacrificing as her. Complicated she is not.

Yet you get the feeling that Il-gyu (Kim Ryung Min), the AWOL soldier who falls in love with Son-ah, is mainly drawn to her rosy cheeks and her maidenly manner, and that her strength of character is somewhat of an afterthought, although, to his credit that changes over time. But it's a lot of time to effect the change — decades in fact — as Il-gyu goes in search of his mom at the end of the war, reunites with his childhood pal (who's now missing half a leg), gets involved in some black market trading, and then heads over to Amsterdam to study to be a surgeon. Only after he's done his residency and established in his profession does he actually make it back to North Korea for a conference... wiser and richer but with a heavy heart.

Once he's landed in Pyongyang, he asks a cheery conference worker to track down his beloved — which she does. You can imagine his stupefaction when he discovers that not only has she stayed single while waiting for his promised return but she's also founded and runs a hospital architecturally modeled after a wood carving he'd made right before he left. Now that's devotion!

Footnote: Directed by Korean-American Joon Bai, The Other Side of the Mountain was co-produced by companies form North Korea and the USA!

September 10, 2017

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time: Buoyant Slime

Choi Min-sik's career encompasses a rogues' gallery worth of tough guys: the serial killer in I Saw the Devil, the title character in The Admiral, the washed-up pugilist in Crying Fist, and — perhaps most hauntingly — the vigilante/victim in Park Chan-wook's messed-up masterpiece Oldboy. Yet as tough as all these guys were, Choi's character in Nameless Gangster could probably beat them all. It's not that he's physically stronger, more intellectually limber, or naturally bloodthirstier. It's simply that he's a shameless slime-ball who backstabs like nobody's business, an evil Everyman with a chip on his shoulder. Never has an ingratiating laugh felt more like a secret weapon.

Indeed there's something so believably sleazy about Choi Ik-hyun, the wheeling and dealing gangster played by the actor, that your disgust rises and rises each time he gets out of another jam by screwing somebody else over. His one-upmanship of a younger, more seasoned gangster (Ha Jung-woo) is ingenious; his self-serving coercion of his brother-in-law (Ma Dong-seok) into a life of crime is heartless; his outmaneuvering of an ambitious prosecutor (Kwak Do-won) is infuriating. When you're loyal to none, evidently, there's no place to go but up! As the old adage goes: "Poop floats."

Writer-director Yun Jong-bin has presented us with an uncomfortably cynical point of view of every level of society: the judicial system, the police department, organized crime, the workplace, your family, your hometown, you name it. And yet, despite Choi's continual deceits, at no point do you feel, "Oh this could never happen" or "someone would have caught on by now." We've all lived with and/or worked with reprehensible success stories like Choi's double-dealer. He's our relative, our boss, our elected official, our next door neighbor, our social studies teacher. Humanity is horrible.

August 30, 2017

Spirits and Syncretism in Korean Myth: And Now for a Lecture

Educational television. You don't hear those two words bandied about too much anymore except when Congress is talking about defunding PBS. Sure there are documentaries on Netflix, Amazon and their ilk but they tend towards big personalities, monumental events, or very personal narratives. But what about if you simply want to learn something (as opposed to being entertained by reality)? The internet, endlessly championed as a rich library, has proven itself to be a bit of a junk shop in which you might stumble upon something of quality if you're lucky and can avoid falling into a pop cultural sinkhole. Maybe there's something on Kanopy, the streaming service of the New York Public Library. I decided to find out. Today's little nugget: "Spirits and Syncretism in Korean Myth," Episode 4 of Great Mythologies of the World Course 4 - Asia and the Pacific. Pretty interesting material.

This is basically a half-hour lecture in which Beloit College's Chair of Asian Studies and History, one Professor Robert Andre LaFleur, paces back and forth across a Persian carpet in an impossibly big, strategically decorated study and speaks to various cameras if for no other reason than to pull him from one end of the room to the other. And yet "Spirits and Syncretism" isn't boring or laughable. LaFleur is the department chair for a reason and his talk on Korean mythology — from the Samguk Yusa to the tale of the Herdboy and the Weaving Maiden and onward — is filled with fascinating bits and asides like Korea's scholarly relationship to the Chinese written language (an Eastern equivalent of the West's Latin and Greek) and how living in a land where only twenty percent is agriculturally cultivable impacted one country's worldview. Korean Shamanism may get short shrift in LaFleur's virtual lecture hall but as an introduction to Korean anthropology, "Spirits and Syncretism" certainly leaves you ready and eager for Professor LaFleur's next class. Or his next video as it were. If there were one.

August 28, 2017

Okja: The Host as a Fairy Tale

If Bong Joon-ho's The Host was a cautionary monster movie then his Okja is a vegan's fairy tale. Where the first film showed a modern-day Godzilla accidentally created by indifferent, amoral scientists, the latter positions its genetically engineered super-pig as a kind of potential advancement (psychologically, not just meatily) undermined by the leaders of the profiteering industry who brought him — and his ill-fated siblings — into being. In both instances, humans are the ultimate villains and heroes. And in neither case is there any sort of responsibility being taken by those in charge.

Of the two, though, Okja is an immensely more hopeful movie, because despite the capitalist cruelty of Tilda Swinton's equally unlikable twin CEOs and a lying grandpa (Byun Hee-bong) who just wants to make a buck, there's also a PETA-style ANTIFA staffed by well-meaning animal rights activists who are technologically savvy and doggedly diligent even as they're used for comic relief in the larger story. As the leader of the Animal Liberation Front (a.k.a. ALF), Paul Dano is about a likable as he's ever been while Steven Yeun, as the ALF member who taints then rescues the pig-saving mission, makes a nice comeback after his many years on The Walking Dead.

But this movie really belongs to the young girl whose raised the pig: Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun). Much like Go Ah-sung in The Host before, Ahn is playing a complex young woman whose resourceful, determined, compassionate, and periodically overwhelmed. There's something beautiful in Bong's choice to have young heroines like this in such major movies. It's another reminder that the future may look bleak but maybe the next generation will save the day after all. Start praying.

P.S. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the self-pitying, whiney-voiced host for an internationally popular animal show has received quite a bit of criticism but my initial reaction was he took a big risk and good on him for that.

August 23, 2017

Wedding Through Camera Eyes: Unreal Celebrations

Most newlyweds like to take photos (and shoot video) while gaily frolicking on their exotic honeymoon. Look at us! We're having the time of our lives! And we've got the pictures to prove it! But what if the picture-taking component became the whole point of these trips? What if the photographs and DVDs became the purpose of the entire experience? Such is the case in Wedding Through Camera Eyes, a bizarre documentary about a trio of Korean weddings for which staged documentation becomes a ceremony in and of itself.

In the first segment, a fiance and fiancee are put into a variety of costumes and settings intended to evoke an idealized romance for their photo album and commemorative video. The photographer — who's actually pretty good — and the videographer — who's frankly not — direct the engaged couple to kiss, to smile, to tilt their head, to redirect their gazes, to laugh on cue. The groom-to-be describes the experience as if he were an actor in a movie. And he's right. This is a performance above all else. Congratulations are due!

The second segment revolves around an elaborate wedding incorporating period costumes and all-but-forgotten rituals, followed by a grand Western-style ceremony (with a lot of empty chairs). The bride claims that she's learning about different traditions — like the feeding of taffy to female in-laws — but her understanding feels superficial at best. I don't know that the groom learned anything at all. Frankly, this is probably the least interesting of the minisodes.

Where the movie kicks into weird overdrive is with the final section: Here are young couple are part of a newlywed party that tours a resort island where they travel by bus from photo op to photo op, happily posing (and drinking) along the way. Interviewed afterwards, they talk about this constructed reality as if it were truly a happier time when we already know it's really a facsimile of happiness. Chilling? In a way. It would be much creepier though if the cinematography were better throughout.

August 18, 2017

Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women: Japanese Denials

Going into writer-director Dai Sil Kim-Gibson's saddening doc Silence Broken: Korean Comfort Women, I already knew a little bit about the systematic mass sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese Imperial Army (although I didn't know it included minors and forced sterilizations) and it's remarkably painful to see Japanese historians and academics and soldiers denying the fact with the ultimately flippant explanation, "We'd never do something like this." When they're pushed as to why these female survivors would make up stories about being raped and drugged, the self-righteous men fall back on the old "blaming the victim" excuse as they label these women — all of them old, unashamed, and refusing to fade into the background — as amoral mercenaries who made good money on the front lines. Someone literally says there was no bigotry by the clientele as if that were a progressive way to spin it. Well, while there's a great pain that comes with admitting a great crime, there's also a great character stain that comes with denying it. One leaves this documentary aware that some of these nay-sayers are leaving a record of their own complicity for future viewers to watch. "Look, there's grandpa defending rapists as soldiers satisfying a biological need!"

And while it is rare for members of a given group — in this case soldiers active in World War II — to bear witness to the atrocities inflicted on innocent civilians (truly prisoners of war) by their fellow soldiers, a few do bravely come forward to speak truth. One is a Japanese translator who witnessed crimes firsthand; another is a Western soldier who admits that while apologies were issued to European women used as sex slaves by soldiers, evidence documenting the crimes inflicted on the Korean women was largely destroyed after the war. What could be the possible motive for these men? Huh? I, for one, admired the tenacity of all these old women who are using their last days on earth to cry out for justice or at least an official apology. I'm only sorry their battle is an uphill one.

August 13, 2017

I Am Sun Mu: He's Not the Only One

I Am Sun Mu isn't just about Sun Mu, a North Korean artist who defected to the South and now makes Warhol-esque pop art with a sly political bent. Adam Sjoberg's multilayered documentary is also about Liang Kegang, the risk-taking director of the Yuan Art Museum in Beijing who decides to mount a fairly large show devoted to Sun Mu's work. And it's also about Cui Xianji, a Chinese-Korean artist who helps make this exhibit happen. Of course, it's also about Sun Mu's wife and his two kids because you can't be creating work causing such strong sociopolitical reverberations without impacting those nearest and dearest. As such, Sjoberg's doc is a portrait of a time and place as well as it is of a particular person.

The present power of North Korean loyalists in China is felt; the censorship of the Chinese government is seen in action; the courage of a few talented artists taking chances despite the monolithic nature of the institutions set against them is witnessed and then archived and thereby publicly acknowledged. Watching I Am Sun Mu you become aware of how much fascist regimes are intent on restricting their populace's very thoughts by preventing certain countercultural images from ever reaching the masses. It also reminds you that commercial art is really just a form of propaganda serving a less-obvious regime that's backed by the almighty dollar. (I know that it's not Korean but can everyone please check out the mind-expanding PBS doc Trudell?)

I worried about Sun Mu's saftey though. Throughout this doc, he never shows his face. He's seen from behind or blurred out or in silhouette. But his wife and kids are seen clearly. Surely his anonymity has been compromised. You can hardly call this an attention-seeking stunt since he's literally putting his life and livelihood on the line. And you can't say that his art isn't agitating his former homeland, otherwise why would the Chinese government have been so quick to shut the exhibition down?

August 10, 2017

Eungyo: A Summer-Winter Romance Gets Weatherproofed

I was ready to detest Eungyo. Truly. I mean, do we really need another movie about a horny old codger (Park Hae-il) who falls for a naif of a woman (Kim Go-eun) half his age? And are there really that many young ladies out there who have a thing for geriatric men outside of Woody Allen's universe? But Eungyo isn't actually telling that mass-produced story despite some early indications to the contrary. Because in Eungyo, director Jung Ji-woo's central love triangle doesn't culminate with Mr. Wrinkly and Ms. Baby Soft in bed. Any "action" scenes between these two are actually fantasized on the elderly poet's part and feature a much younger version of himself sticking his head under her T-shirt. She's never caressed by varicosed hands. He's not imagining getting it on with his young housekeeper. He's imagining being young again. That's an important distinction, and one that his plagiarizing protege (Kim Mu-yeol) is unable to fathom when he stumbles upon his mentor's manuscript detailing this dreamed of romance.

The inability — or unwillingness — to understand deeper feelings that might cross generations and exist outside of sex (not to mention flirtations that have no true intent in leading to physical intimacy) is really at the root of Eungyo. What is one character's undoing ultimately isn't his prudishness, his recklessness, his ego or his disloyalty. It's really his lack of imagination. What emotional ties might exist between a woman who's 17 and a man who's 70? Where is the wellspring of inspiration? Why might it be unwise to get involved sexually with a minor outside of the legal reasons? What is the nature of the very act of creation? For the younger man, such questions never arise. His desires are not to be an artist but to be a success. He doesn't want to write a masterpiece. He wants to win an award. So what is success when you haven't really done anything. At the risk of sounding too poetic — and why not go there given the nature of Eungyo, can a person die if he's never really lived? Or is that just another reason to mourn?

July 29, 2017

The Concubine: She Rules

Revenge is a dish best served Korean, apparently. And Park Chan-wook isn't the only one out there constantly illustrating this maxim. Thanks should also be given to Kim Jee-woon for I Saw the Devil, Jang Cheol-soo for Bedevilled, Kim Ki-duk for Pieta and Kim Yong-han for Don't Cry Mommy — fine and worthy movies all. Interesting side note: Three out of four of those examples feature vengeful woman as the leads. So Kim Dae-seung The Concubine is really part of a thriving tradition, a sub-genre of thrillers that's got no shortage of willful women here to remind you that Justice is indeed a lady. This time, however, she's cloaked in period garb. Set during the Chosun Dynasty, this particular woman out to right her wrongs is Hwa-yeon (Jo Yeo-jeong), a hardly helpless damsel who catches the eye of a potential successor to the crown — Prince Sung-won (Kim Dong-wook) despite her clear preference for the grungy her eyes set on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun), a man of much humbler origins but possessing better archery skill. I mean, he shot that arrow of love right into her heart, my friends.

When her elopement with her favored choice is sabotaged and her man is castrated (troubling visuals ahead, people) she starts thinking "long plan," god bless her soul. No one is going to outwit this strategist — not the eventual king's duplicitous mom and the regent Queen (Park Ji-young), not the highly ranked court advisor (Lee Kyeong-yeo), and certainly not the prince himself. It's going to take a few years to get all her ducks in a row, but once she has, she's going to take them out one by one like the sharpshooter she is. This is one cool-headed mama. Furthermore, she's going to look fabulous doing so. The stylish hanboks worn by Yeon-hwa, as well as those worn by the nefarious queen, are beautiful to look at, although your heart goes out to these well-dressed women considering the corset-like heoreitti worn over the breasts. (And yes, I just learned those words.) But pity them not. At least, not the concubine.

July 21, 2017

2015 Dream Concert: K-Pop for Hours

Aside from some promotional copy recited by various cute-as-a-button co-hosts, 2015 Dream Concert is a tightly edited document of the 21st annual K-Pop revue held in Seoul World Cup Stadium before what appears to be a largely female crowd. Serving up song after song after song with strict choreography, this film is a great introduction to the best bubblegum pop from Asia. In fact, it's so good, it deserves some awards.

Most Innocently Crude Lyric: Red Velvet ("Ice Cream Cake") for "The ice cream that’s on my mouth makes your heart pound..."

Laziest Lip Sync: 9 Muses ("Drama")

Funnest Choreography to Teach Friends: CLC ("Pepe")

Tiredest Look Made Fresh Again: Oh My Girl ("Cupid") as cheerleaders

Readiest for a Tim Burton Video: Topp Dogg ("Top Dog")

Least Convincing Chemistry: Elsie and Ki-o ("I'm Good")

Worst Choreography: Elsie and Ki-o ("I'm Good")

Most Assured Incorporation of White Shorts: BTS ("I Need U")

Most Awkward Incorporation of White Shorts: Secret ("Magic")

Boldest Use of Stripes: VIXX ("Love Equation")

Best Use of Pajama Wear 4Minute ("Crazy") for the sleeveless AFFECT shirt

Most Ready for an 'N Sync Tribute: EXO ("Call Me Baby")

Favorite Overall: SHINee ("View")

The only thing missing for me was Girls Generation.

July 16, 2017

The Tiger: Your Alliance in Man Versus Nature Scenarios

It used to be that in a person-versus-nature movie, the audience always allied with the human being. The hero had to beat nature or at least overcome "the enemy," although victory and/or survival often came with a newfound respect for Mother Nature's powers. Nowadays, the allegiance is not so easily presumed. In Park Hoo-jung's The Tiger, for instance, less-than-favorable examples abound of mankind's disrespect for the planet and its inhabitants: taxidermy trophies of unnecessary slaughters, summarily dismissed pelts, the decimation of forests, the sheer numbers of militia brought on to capture a tiger who only has one good eye! How can you not root for the big cat with the slayed kittens? Bring on the snow, the rain, the cold! Both the Japanese regime — and the unprincipled Koreans who align with them — should be struck down by lightning, swept away by a river, then swallowed up by a tar pit post haste. Forgive us, Mother Earth. Unleash your fury. It's more than justified!

Then again... That's not quite how you feel during The Tiger because none of the animals are truly animals. They're anthropomorphic CGI creations. Which suddenly shifts the battle to new terrain. For are we really rallying behind the beasts of the wild here? To be honest, sometimes it feels like we're cheering for robots or Chuck E. Cheese rejects. That doesn't feel pro-nature. At best, this tiger comes across as a person in a giant fluffy costume. At worst, he looks and acts like a soul-less mechanical being sent from the future to ravage the humans of the past. He's not alone either. All the animals feel unlike animals. Just watch how those wolves scatter like a bunch of video game rodents when threatened by Playstation levels of arsenal.

Naturally enough, that ever-dependable actor Choi Min-sik turns in a commanding performance as a hunter with outdated morals, a man who respects Mother Nature, the mountain, and the kill. Yet despite energetic support from Kim Sang-ho as an obsequious sidekick and the impressive scar added to Jeong Man-sik's camera-ready cheek, even the great Choi can't make The Tiger feel human.

July 7, 2017

Man on High Heels: True Identity

Occasionally, people tell me that Koreans are more conservative than Americans when it comes to LGBTQ issues but I sometimes wonder if that's the truth. Admittedly, my doubts are based on what I glean from my weekly screening of films but even so, I honestly believe that movies reflect our views as a culture, at least to some point. Which brings me to writer-director Jang Jin's Man on High Heels, a 2014 action pic in which the lead detective (Cha Seung-won) is a trans cop who would like to retire and fully transition to being a woman. To its credit, this neo-noir takes its hero seriously: Ji-wook is somewhat of an institutionally-sanctioned vigilante, a kind of Dirty Harry type who also happens to be struggling with gender identity. Unable to imagine continuing a career in the police department post-op, the department's fiercest officer has visions of escaping to a new life.

The catch, as everyone knows, is you can't leave your past behind fully. The sister (E. Som) of your childhood sweetheart could reappear; the brother of a crime boss you landed in the hospital could develop a bit of a crush on you; you might even suspect your young partner (Go Kyung-pyo) of loving you whatever physical form you take — male or female. As to that one potential mentor (Lee Yong-yeo) who's gone through all the surgeries and then some, she's hardly an enlightened. You might consult her about picking out a sparkly dress for the disco. Beyond that? Pretty doubtful.

Alongside this psychological portrait within in Man on High Heels, the hand-to-hand combat is fantastic; the repeated knives to the gut are repeatedly harrowing. I especially appreciated how the ex-marine Ji-wook's macho physical prowess is explained as overcompensation. Sure there are some weird gender-identity signifiers — like the raised pinkie glimpsed holding a tea cup — but this movie proved much better than I'd expected despite somewhat of a cop-out ending.

July 5, 2017

Lucid Dream: It's All in Your Head

How much you like or loathe a scifi movie can be dependent on its central premise. You can live without good acting, good directing, and good dialogue, and not mind some sub-par special effects if the flick has got a really cool concept in play. The idea doesn't have to be completely sound but it does need to be interesting. In Kim Joon-Sung's Lucid Dream, the radical notion is that, through induced dreaming, you can step into your memories and look around and gather details you've previously overlooked. You have the option of walking around too but once you start to change location, you also impact the integrity of the memory. It's like we all have photographic memory and if we could just study said photos, we'd be able to parse every detail. That's probably not quite enough for a scifi movie. Well, Lucid Dream does indeed go further.

You can also enter other people's dreams, once you've identified the dreamer's frequency on your fancy computer. Once inside someone's head, you can ask questions that maybe you can't in real life because they're in a coma or something like that. But if the person in the coma dies then you'll be trapped in that dream forever. (Not sure why you don't just die or end up in a coma with no dream afterwards but I have to trust the experts in the movie here.)

And so, we have a reporter (Go Soo) who is also a single father with a young son (Kim Kang-hoon) who was kidnapped at the amusement park for reasons unknown. Distraught and desperate, dad enlists the help of a loner-doctor (Kang Hye-jeong) specializing in lucid-dreaming. Dad also hires a guerilla dream-infiltrator (Park Yoo-chun) because he needs to get some answers fast before his little boy is... harvested for organs? shipped out to an orphanage as revenge? dead? The only difference between reality and dreams is that the second hand on your watch doesn't move in the latter realm. Is that true? Check your watch next time you're asleep. If you're strictly digital, you're probably screwed.

June 15, 2017

Tunnel: Buried But Not Forgotten

I might be a little claustrophobic. Such was the realization I had while watching Tunnel, a relatively effective disaster pic about a kind-hearted salesman (Ha Jung-woo) whose car is buried deep in the earth after a poorly constructed tunnel suddenly collapses while he's driving home for his daughter's birthday. With boulders and dirt all around him and little more than a tin can with windows as his shelter, our Everyman is really caught between a rock and a hard place. Do you conserve energy? Do you strategize an escape? How do you stay sane alone? Such is his dilemma. At least at first. Eventually, he discovers another person and her adorable lapdog are also buried, and can be accessed via a large pipe conveniently connecting the two vehicles. Then later, I guess as further rumblings cause the rocks to realign, he's suddenly got a cave-like living-room right beside his car so he can get out an stretch, let the dog out to pee, and collect water dripping of a random bit of wire.

Why writer-director Kim Seong-hun undermines the initial, heart-stopping entrapment probably has a lot to do with how difficult it would be to sustain drama with little more than a birthday cake, two bottles of water, and a cellphone with a battery doomed to run out. Those above ground have an even harder time maintaining the drama as the rescue team leader (Oh Dal-su) drills a hole in the wrong location (couldn't they have pinpointed the location of the cellphone?) and the well-meaning wife (Bae Doona) sniffles, sulks, and fries eggs. But here's the thing with B-movies about life-threatening disasters. They don't have to be perfect to be perfectly fun.

What a disaster movie needs to do is pick a catastrophe and run with it. Pandora did it with a nuclear power plant malfunction, The Tower with a skyscraper going up in flames, and Tidal Wave with... well you can guess this one on your own can't you? Generally speaking the title gives it away. Next up: Flu!

June 11, 2017

The Drop Box: Fostering Good Will

Is it part of being middle aged and middle class that you throw yourself a pity party now and then? It sometimes looks that way yet my go-to response for such complaints is the question "Have you done any volunteer work lately?" Gainfully employed, healthy, able-bodied homeowners with a second place upstate and a robust 401K need to do a reality check next time they bring out their sad little noisemakers. One way to do that would be to watch Brian Ivie's humbling documentary The Drop Box which details the selfless, good samaritan work of Pastor and Mrs. Lee, two noble spirits helping to find homes for unwanted babies previously abandoned in the street. How they get these babies is a touch heartbreaking.

Although I'd never heard of such a thing before, evidently, there's this thing called a "baby box" or a "drop box" or a "baby hatch" (or in olden days, a "foundling wheel"). These repositories serve as a place for unhappy, unfortunate parents to discard infants that they simply cannot or will not raise. Drop boxes can be found everywhere from Pakistan to Germany to South Africa. Often they're run by churches but not always. In the USA, "safe haven laws" allow parents to turn over babies often at fire stations, no questions asked. But the Lees aren't just an exchange point. They're adopting a number of children, too — some of them with serious challenges.

The stories of some of those children should also act as a curative for any woe-is-me ailments. I was especially moved by their bespectacled son Ru-ri, a young boy with partially amputated fingers whose bright spirit, passion for Taekwondo, and respect for his father's life mission make you realize that nobler goals might be a good thing to start incorporating pronto. Considering all the meanness, corruption, and amorality in the world right now — right up to the US President — The Drop Box's message of kindness and caring is a welcome reprieve.

June 6, 2017

Twinsters: When You Spot a Facebook Lookalike That Is Your Long-Lost Twin

Twins who get separated at birth only to meet in life later on... Shakespeare used it twice in his Comedy of Errors. The TV scifi series Orphan Black took it even further with countless cloned-tuplets. But what about if this happened (on a more modest scale) in real life? Can you imagine the shock and delight that would come with finding out you had an identical sibling? Because that's the story at the center of Twinsters, a documentary that traces the reunion and quickly fostered relationship between Samantha Futerman, an actress in Hollywood, and Anaïs Bordier, an aspiring fashion-designer living in London. A chance discovery by Anais' friend of a comic viral video by Samantha's friend leads the two to Skype, meet abroad, bond, then eventually head back to South Korea in search of their foster mothers. (Their birth mother sadly denies her role in their very existence.)

Like most identical twins, sometimes these two look incredibly alike; sometimes, markedly less so. One's taller (Anais); one's livelier (Sam). One speaks French (Anais); one skateboards (Sam). But despite any cultural disconnects, they genuinely seem to click with each other almost immediately, developing a signature "pop" sound as a playful way of greeting and displaying a physical intimacy that feels like it has roots that go back for years. This is a doc with a lot of heart and the affection isn't just between the two young women but also through their very different families, their individual circles of friends, even co-workers. Suddenly, each of the women has extended their families that cross an ocean. Actually, make that two oceans, for the sisters seem to find yet another homeland when they take a joint trip to South Korea for a conference for adult adoptees originally from that country. How lucky for us that Sam wisely thought to put this all on videotape from their very first Facebook conversation. There's also a book version co-authored by the sisters entitled Separated @ Birth but the movie is more than enough.

May 28, 2017

Aim High in Creation: Australia's Take on North Korean Agit-Prop

Say what you want about Anna Broinowski as a director or a writer or an actress. As a conceptual artist, she's hit a home run with the defiantly quirky Aim High in Creation, a documentary about her creation of a short, political film modeled after the propaganda movies of North Korea. And Broinowski isn't simply sending up the didactic features of the Hermit Kingdom either. She's actually enlisted members of that country's film industry to advise and guide her in her creative process. (How the Hell did she make that happen?!) The final product — viewed at the end of her doc — is better than you might expect, too. Is it as polished as her source material? No, but to their credit, the North Koreans don't disrespect the work either but categorize it as "so Anna" which, in fact, it really is. The reasons it's not slicker ultimately have to do with Broinowski's reluctance to fully invest in their process as is. You could argue that she would've been unwise to do so, too, as it seems beyond unlikely that a North Korean-style epic would play to an Australian audience in the exact same way.

Broinowski, recognizing this, focuses more on the disconnects that happen when trying to bring their method to her homeland: apolitical actors wary of looking foolish; a script that finds its own simplicity ridiculous; a budget that's even more severely constrained. But really Broinowski's just cause — fighting multinationals poisoning the land with only profit as a concern — takes a back seat to another message: That our prejudices about North Korea can only be partially substantiated by reality and that artists around the world share a commonality that defies imposed boundaries. A land with no reality TV, no internet, no product advertisement, no money-grubbing companies influencing all the government's decisions... That doesn't sound so bad, does it? Maybe we have something to learn from North Korea, despite all its well-chronicled shortcomings and problems. Power to the people!

May 21, 2017

The Lovers & the Despot: Live Large

Ross Adam's and Robert Canaan's crazy documentary The Lovers & the Despot tells the type of true story that makes you realize just how incredibly boring your life truly is. First there's glamour: Actress Choi Eun-hee becomes the muse of auteur Shin Sang-ok; together they make such Shin Sang-ok with whom she makes such classics as My Mother and Her Guest, Red Scarf, To the Last Day... There's drama: They marry, adopt two babies, he has an affair (with a younger actress) that produces two children so Choi and Shin get divorced. There's more drama: Choi gets kidnapped by North Korean agents while visiting Hong Kong; Shin gets kidnapped while looking for Choi who has officially "disappeared." Then Kim gets imprisoned for five years in North Korea while Choi's forced to pose for pictures as a model defector. There's more art: Kim's released from prison, the lovers reunite and they make 17 movies in three years while still held captive by dictator Kim Jong-il. (One of those films — Sogum — earns Choi the best actress award at the Moscow International Film Festival.) Then there's even more drama: They defect to the West and set up shop in Hollywood. There's a weird coda: He ends up creating the kid-friendly franchise, his last film being 3 Ninjas Knuckle up.

All of this is fascinating even as we're told in periodic asides that skeptics out there question the veracity of Shin's and Choi's story. What if they made it all up? What if they purposefully defected to the North as a way to resume their romance and revitalize their careers? What if Shin never really was in prison? What if all those shots of Choi smiling are because she really was happy all the time? What if it's all a big lie? But even if that were the truth, theirs would remain a none-the-less fascinating tale. I'd like to say I totally believe Choi whose interviewed extensively for the film. But I have to acknowledge first that she happens to be a great actress. It's either the performance of a lifetime or a lifetime greater than any performance could ever hope to be.

May 10, 2017

Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang: Who'll Drink to That?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Dennis Rodman burst onto the scene and turned basketball into something unexpectedly exciting to people like me, not through his unrivaled defensive playing but with his highly theatrical unwillingness to toe the line. Simultaneous with the corporate neutering of professional sports and the accompanying blandness of athletes fearful of losing lucrative endorsement deals, Rodman's outrageousness — his fluorescent hair, his body piercings, his flashy wardrobe, his no-fs-to-give commentary — delivered what so many of us want from our celebrities: a greater sense of freedom. Here was a man living on his own terms, as much as he could. As you might expect, it came at great cost.

Watching Dennis Rodman's Big Bang in PyongYang, you realize that while a piranha-like press may not be the cause of the former NBA legend's alcoholism, the systematic scrutiny and savagery have no doubt contributed to it. And yet despite a tabloid presentation that revels in Rodman's self-destructiveness, this documentary also reveals that Rodman's not just some crazed drunk hoping to squeeze that last bit of publicity out of Access Hollywood. Take a look at the former athletes and young players who rally to Rodman's defense when the exhibition match between the US and North Korea that Rodman's orchestrated looks destined to fail. No one throws Rodman under the bus; no one quits. Any complaints are kept behind closed doors. Admittedly, part of that graciousness is due to Charles Smith, his eloquent colleague and a master strategist who understands the larger implications and respects the nobler intentions that underlie this game on a dictator's birthday. But Rodman's colleague feel universally autonomous and his support staff seems to genuinely like him. Because of that, Big Bang doesn't seem to be so much about wrongheadedness, naivete or demonization. It's just another snapshot of the cost of being famous while trying to be true to yourself.

May 5, 2017

Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild: Cartoon Truths

When we first meet Daisy, the awkward but cute, eager-to-please chicken who's caged with hundreds of her kin, all collectively forced to eat the same slop day after day while churning out eggs, she's understandably miserable and in the midst of a hunger strike. She hates the farm. She wants freedom and the great outdoors. She's not about to buy into the tripe tweeted out by one especially annoying little bird out to sell her on the advantages of captivity. She's not that dumb! As metaphors go of being a slave to the system, Leafie is anything but subtle. But thanks to a near-death that gets her dumped in a ditch with other bird carcasses, Daisy's dream becomes a reality. Yet Oh Seong-yun's animated feature is not an upbeat tale about freedom. Daisy's life on the outside is hard. She's ostracized for being different (a barnyard animal!), ends up adopting a duckling (another species!), and is considered — frankly — too loud by her fellow creatures.

Does all this rejection and readjustment ever have her feeling nostalgic for her chicken coop days? Hell no! Freedom is rough but nothing is as bad as living an existence completely dictated by somebody else's demands. So she struts around with a perpetual cold. So she can't stay in one of the nicer neighborhoods. So she's living under the threat of a one-eyed weasel salivating for her and her kid. Anything's better than life in the pen. And that includes death!

Korean Film Caveat: The Netflix version (renamed Daisy) does not provide the option of hearing the original voice actors (who include Moon So-ri and Choi Min-sik, for God's sake). I suppose the demand for children's cartoons in Korean with English subtitles boils down to one person. That's right. Me. Yet there may be a much wider market for Leafie which would include parents eager to turn their kids into vegans. This film might should do the trick.

April 30, 2017

A Good Rain Knows: Love Is in the Air

Director and co-writer Hur Jin-ho's wondrous little romance A Good Rain Knows wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter: Former lovers Dong-ha (Jung Woo-sung) and May (Gao Yuanyuan) are meant for each other but first they'll have to put aside any old resentments or reservations and rediscover those purer versions of themselves they were so many years ago. He's got to shed that unfeeling corporate skin and reconnect to his inner poet; she needs to forget getting dumped then ignored and deal with some PTSD caused by a fairly recent earthquake in Szechuan.

The acting in this film is exquisite. You can sense that both characters are fully aware of their attractions to the other so the flirting is at once calculated and earnest. Each wants to entice their ex- yet they're both scared too. What starts as a chance encounter at a scenic historic site devoted to the great Chinese poet Du Fu (where May works as a tour guide while finishing her dissertation) builds into a whirlwind courtship of sorts (accelerated by the severe time limitations of Dong-ha's business trip from South Korea). But how much passion can be rekindled in a couple of days, especially when you're dealing with a tactless business associate (a comic Kim Sang-ho) who appears to want to have an affair with May and to be best buddies with Dong-ha? Doesn't this guy understand three's a crowd?

Happily, A Good Rain Knows keeps the comedic interference to a minimum and chooses instead to focus on the increasing intimacy of its two leads. Since most of the movie is performed in English — the two lovebirds met previously while undergraduates in the United States — this little film feels primed for a bigger American audience. If this modest review can help in that regard, I can consider my good deed as done for the day. You can call me your online movie matchmaker.

April 23, 2017

The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo: So Silly, So Serious

A tragicomedy veers from the heavy to the hilarious and sometimes manages to be both at once. A dramedy — a much lighter form — periodically upends the overriding seriousness with well-timed punchlines. A black comedy takes a completely irreverent approach to something not typically seen that way. But what of director Noh Deok's The Exclusive: Beat the Devil's Tattoo? How should this one be ultimately classified? Well, despite the nuanced vocabulary at my disposal, I admit I find myself at a loss for words. It is a light-hearted satire that periodically feels accidentally grim. What do you call that? Neologists, please step forward and speak!

The plot certainly lends itself to tragic and farcical interpretations: Recently single and unemployed, reporter Heo Moo-hyok (Jo Jung-suk) stumbles on a lead for a murder story that ends up putting him back on the map, professionally and to some degree romantically. The catch? The breaking news is actually misinformation. As is his follow-up. As is his forged cover-up. This is a slippery slope story set in the world of fast-paced journalism. (Side note: An alternate title of the film is Journalist.) Can Moo-hyok escape his mistaken if well-meaning deceptions? Not if his media empire's General Manager (Lee Mi-sook) has anything to say about it? Indeed, the killer himself buys into Moo-hyok's perjured fiction, literally drawn from the novel Liang Chen Murder Record. How that comes about is amusingly troubling. Um. Troublingly amusing?

To say that The Exclusive has a cynical view of the media, law enforcement, and the working class would be an understatement. Indeed, a subplot involving a scam artist who undermines the reputation of the gallery where the reporter's wife (Lee Ha-na) works makes clear Noh's got a cynical view of the art world as well. Is it all despairingly laughable? Wryly painful? I simply cannot report with accuracy what it all means. Not at all.

April 8, 2017

Red Carpet: From XXX to XOXO

I put off watching Park Bum-Soo's impossibly delightful Red Carpet for weeks if not months because I figured it was a low-budget, mildly titillating, soft porn skin flick pretending to be legit. Sometimes, these type of movies can be fun diversions but you have to be in the right mood to watch them and keep the sound low so as not to disturb the neighbors. One day in March 2017, I was finally bored enough and let 'er roll. Well, Red Carpet was not what I expected. Not by a long shot. Far from being some pervy misogynist director's poorly acted, barely scripted excuse for some gratuitous nudity, Red Carpet is an incredibly wise romantic comedy that knows how hard it is to shrug off imposed shame and stay true to your heart, especially when that involves defying convention and the establishment.

Admittedly, there are plenty of gags about erections, sex, porn actors, and secret identities. But Red Carpet is actually a very sex-positive movie. There's nothing wrong with acting, writing or directing porn for the participants here. Any judgment suggesting as much comes from the buffoons outside the biz. Indeed there's a sweet camaraderie among the cinematic sex workers that manifests in unexpected ways, like when the performers and crew members put on corporate drag so that the lead stud can video chat with his wife from a makeshift conference room. As acts of deceptions go, this one is awfully cute.

Playing the role of the young porno director with non-porno dreams, Yoon Kye-sang is utterly lovable while Koh Joon-hee does a deft job at showing a former child actress's development from an insufferable attention-seeker to a young woman who knows success is irrelevant in a world where we deny ourselves the room to feel deeply. The entire supporting cast is spot-on, although Hwang Chan-sung was probably my favorite as the bumbling new crew member whose passion for Godard doesn't stop him from working on a very different kind of art film.

March 31, 2017

The Silenced: Big Girls Don't Cry

"Why do you like me?" the young Shizuko (Go Won-hee) flirtatiously asks her dorm mate Yeon-duk (Park So-dam) at the all-girls boarding school where both are enrolled. "Because you're weak" is the first reply. When that doesn't suffice, "because you're weird" is the next rejoinder. I like this train of thinking. It makes sense to me! Because there is something appealing in someone who needs you (as suggested by the first answer) as well as in someone who entertains you (as suggested by the second one). The phrasing may leave something to be desired but when you ask a question like that, you deserve an answer with a little sting.

Shizuko doesn't mind the sass. At this "last chance" school where everyone's reputedly sick with something, the healthier girls are sometimes bullies. A friend who's tough is a valued commodity. As far as she herself knows, Shizuko's only crimes are having the same name as a previous student (who mysteriously) disappeared and coughing up blood (when stressed). Are those reasons to hate someone? They are to Yuka (Kong Ye-ji) who desperately wants to escape this place with its Japanese military training and creepy head mistress (Uhm Ji-won), and win a scholarship to Tokyo. You can't blame her either. After all, wouldn't you be leery of staying someplace where they fed you pills all the time and hooked you up to an IV needle for a special vitamin? What if you found out those treatments were giving you superpowers? What if those superpowers came with side effects? What if those superpowers weren't guaranteed? Tough questions, right? No one said that school would be easy.

And that goes for the staff, too. One of the counselors (Park Sung-yeon) is subjected to quite a few admonishing slaps while the one male employee (Sim Hee-seop) clearly has issues with taking orders from a woman. Well, pain is a great teacher. For pleasure, a long-stemmed cigarette holder will be provided. In The Silenced at least.

March 19, 2017

Pandora: How Bad Can It Get?

Disaster movies are especially satisfying when the world becomes an epic nightmare itself. As Trump and his congress of Republican a-holes work to strip the people of education, health insurance, equal rights, a livable planet, etc., seeing a nuclear power plant blow its top off feels like a form of justice. (That moment in Pandora when all the rats flee town is quite a cinematic representation of the animal kingdom finally saying, "Hey, mankind. We're outta here!") And since radiation doesn't favor the rich, the resultant catastrophe is egalitarian in a way that somehow feels right. Which isn't to imply that hierarchies don't still exist.

Cops and military personnel still get off on bossing people around and locking them up. Emergency personnel and higher-level technicians still wait for someone above to call the shots, regardless of what constitutes doing the right thing. Middlemen are afraid of getting in trouble. But it's the rule-breakers who save the day: the female motorcyclist (Kim Joo-Hyun) who hijacks a bus; the secretary who slips an alarming report about the plant to the President (Kim Myung-min); the plant worker (Jeong Jin-yeong) who's behind that report and just got demoted and continues to make noise anyway. For he knows that the ultimate sacrifices to be made will not be made by the avaricious, arrogant Prime Minister (Lee Kyeong-yeong) or the people who spend their lives worrying about rules. No. That will fall to the locals, the young workers for whom the power plant has always been the paycheck for a dead-end existence, whose bodies are already contaminated, whose livelihoods have never really been a concern of the leaders they've elected. Sound familiar?

And while the rebel Jae-hyeok (Kim Nam-gil) may be Pandora's hero because he's the only one who knows how to set up the explosives that will blast the plant to safety and himself to his death, really all the guys are heroes. The only difference being, they've got a few more days to live before their organs give out.

March 14, 2017

Hope: Incomplete Recovery

In Korean, the word "sowon" can be translated as either "hope" or "wish." So-won also happens to be a girl's name. That IMDb has decided to translate this bleak pic's title as Wish (not a girl's name) instead of Hope as Netflix wisely does suggests the Artificial Intelligence at the International Movie Database has yet to see the movie. Because there's nothing wishful about Hope, Lee Joon-ik's harrowing film about the rape of an eight-year-old girl and its devastating aftermath. To be fair, there's not much hopeful either but there are at least glimmers of the latter, enough to restore a little faith in humanity, although God knows we're an awful species. Our failures are great. Bring on the flood.

It's also worth mentioning that Hope is not the result of some twisted writer thinking, "What's the most horrific scenario I can concoct?" Sad to report: Kim Ji-hye based his screenplay on real events, a turn-your-stomach nightmare in which a 57-year-old man — who had a history of violence — not only sexually violated and nearly killed a young girl but then got off with a 12-year sentence because he was drunk at the time. Clearly, the American court systems aren't the only ones that make unjust rulings that fill you with rage.

So what's the point of a film like Hope? Its central story is vile, justice is not attained, the acting is — to be frank — hardly the stuff of legend. Well, for me, it was a timely reminder of the importance of making the effort, even when the options are limited. There's something incredibly moving about watching a mom (Uhm Ji-won) and dad (Sul Kyoung-gu) dress up as cartoon characters to cheer up their damaged child (Lee Re), of a co-worker (Kim Sang-ho) who lends money with no expectation of a return, of a friend (Ra Mi-ran) who brings food and tears of commiseration, of a schoolmate (Kim Do-yeob) who leaves a thoughtful note taped to your front door. There is never nothing to be done.

March 6, 2017

Northern Limit Line: No One to the Rescue

Ostensibly created as a tribute to the sailors of Chamsuri 357, a South Korean patrol boat — with quite a bit of artillery — that got pummeled by its enemies from up North in 2002, Northern Limit Line instead feels more like a recounting of what went wrong amid a self-sabotaging crew that ended up with 6 sailors dead and many more than that injured. In particular, the newbie medic Park Dong-hyeok (Lee Hyun-woo) comes across as especially incompetent as he overlooks the severely-impaired hand of the helmsman (Jin Ku), proves himself poorly trained in CPR, and at the start of an actual battle gets distracted by an ant on deck then ends up spilling all of his bandages (which he carelessly wipes against his filthy helmet upon retrieving them later). I realize that he's a rookie but someone needs to tell this guy to man up or send him back for basic training. He doesn't gain my respect because, when he's hospitalized after the battle, he salutes the casket of a comrade on his television set. Someone should've courtmartialed this no-class soldier weeks ago!

Unexpectedly, given the unflattering slant of the movie, there are "credits" interviews with actual survivors of the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, the real-life conflict that inspired the film, and there's poignancy in hearing the actual recruits talk of survivor's guilt and the bravery of their shipmates. But alas and what a shame that this war pic about such a tragic event should portray the crew as a bunch of disorganized, whimpering guys who really just want to watch soccer on TV, eat crab soup, and take shore leave. Meeting one sailor's mother (Kim Hee-jung) — who is both deaf and can hear an EKG monitor when it stops — doesn't humanize them so much as make them seem like momma's boys. As tributes go, N.L.L. is sorely lacking in grit, despite special effects that show the dismemberment of arms, legs, and fingers. Tellingly, director Kim Hak-sun's screenplay is based not on a memoir but on a novel by Choi Soon-jo. Maybe that's why it feels so fake.

March 3, 2017

Queen of the Night: She's the Better Half

By the time you're 35, you know that any potential romantic partners are going to come with a luggage-rack's worth of emotional baggage so the question is simply: Are you willing to deal? When you're young, perhaps expectations of someone only bringing a psychic murse or a traumatic clutch to the romance are rational. But even then, should someone as sweet, cute, caring, resourceful, and loving as Hee-jo (Kim Min-jung) step into your life, do yourself a favor. Cut them major slack and make room for a whole travel cart of Samsonite. Catches like this won't come around again. So she's had her wild days clubbing. So she grew up in Southern California. So she knows how to throw a punch. Do you honestly think that none of those things might come in handy at some point in the future? Trust me when I say that no one, and I mean no one, is going to be able to win you that kimchi refrigerator at the reunion by executing a dance routine on the runway like she can.

Ah well. Boys will be boys. And the boy in this case, Young-soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong) insists on learning the hard way how valuable his soul mate is. Until then, he's going to get self-righteous when he learns she wasn't a virgin when they met, that she hung out with the tough crowd and that she even has a police record. He also forgets that he could barely make it through an online date before his soon-to-be-wife came along. Short memories cause long stretches of pain. As does a nerdy best friend like Jong-bae (Kim Gi-bang) who evinces a streak of misogyny likely caused by his undesirability to most women. Sometimes the satirical aspects of the Queen of the Night click (the scenes with the fertility doctor played by Kim Jung-tae, especially so). Sometimes, the comedy founders (the bits with the key repairman played by Park Jin-young). But the biggest flaw is actually a surprising one: Kim Min-jung is a lousy dancer. Note to writer-director Kim Je-yeong: Next time, you should hire a double.

February 20, 2017

Songs from the North: A Scrapbook Documentary

Most documentaries about North Korea aim to be exposés as each director craftily digs behind the country's official façade. Sometimes they work; sometimes they don't. But indie director Yoon Soo-mi makes no such concerted effort. She accepts the communist nation more or less as it presents itself to her while playing tourist over a few trips. (Admittedly, she keeps the camera running sometimes when told not to.) What she gets by doing so is a film that feels free from a political agenda yet equally strange. For what would a tourist see here in the "Democratic People's Republic" where even what's normal is decidedly odd?

Well, there's the Sichon Museum of American Atrocities, a musical revue with a chorus of uniformed children singing about the launch of a satellite, various gargantuan sculptures of the supreme leaders past and present, a snippet from movies like Traces of Life which concerns the reunification of the two Koreas, and views of a snowy landscape which the director realizes she's seen before via some archival reel of American troops bombing it during the war. Occasionally, there are also just shorts of the faces of the (universally skinny) people whom she's met for what is a country but its people?

The informality with which Yoon presents her video footage allows you to appreciate the periodic strangeness, unfiltered. Does anyone really need to be reminded how manipulative it is to have a child crying onstage while confessing his father's betrayal to the state and proclaiming his love for his country's leaders? Or the utter absurdity of a smiling woman pulling a giant log in the snow as a symbol of Making Korea Great Again? Given the very personal nature of Yoon's travelogue, the inclusion of interviews with her dad and some short personal reflections of her own fit right in. "Is North Korea the loneliest place on earth?" "Do you even hear the loudspeakers anymore?" Valid questions which we should feel free to answer ourselves.

February 17, 2017

Veteran: A Movie for the Resistance Movement

You tend to think of action movies as exaggerating dramatic conflicts as a way to heighten entertainment value but when you consider the level of corruption currently on display by today's American President and the sycophantic, morally bankrupt Republican party in both houses of Congress, it seems almost impossible to one-up the institutionalized rapacity, mendacity, racism, and sexism broadcast nightly on the network news. In other words, the grifter's world portrayed in Ryoo Seung-wan's Veteran comes across at this moment in history as unbelievably quaint. Viewed the year it came out — two years ago in 2015 — I'm guessing, I would've observed the bloodthirsty, sadistic son (Yoo Ah-in) of an unscrupulous businessman (Song Young-chang) who more or less gets away with murder thanks to ties to high ranking officials in the police department and judicial system as not so much realistic as illustrative. Now I know better.

I've no doubt that our elected officials, military personnel, government appointees, and business boardrooms are riddled with mercenary, amoral, self-serving racists from the top on down. I'm not saying everyone is a bad apple; I'm saying the rot is ubiquitous. Which is why good cops like Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min), his social-worker wife (Jin Kyung), and his immediate supervisor (Oh Dal-su) are so important to see in the movies. I also think the movie is pretty accurate in showing that the only way people change is when their personal circle is affected. The police chief (Chun Ho-jin) is probably taking pay-outs or at the very least caving under pressure from above but once a rookie detective (Kim Shi-hoo) gets stabbed, his loyalty to his men comes to the fore. I guess some people need to feel threatened to take action. Well, feel threatened then. And then resist, resist, resist.

Footnote: Don't miss Ma Dong-seok's all-too-brief cameo when he steps out of a crowd during the final fight between the movie's hero and villain.

February 11, 2017

Sea Fog: The Ship Hits the Fan

Are newly poor people who were once flush with cash more likely to compromise their integrity in order to become rich again? That would certainly explain the strictly mercenary decision of flat-broke Captain Kang Chul-joo (Kim Yun-seok) who has chosen to smuggle Chinese emigrants of Korean heritage across the border. Once he's committed himself and his crew to this bit of political lawlessness, however, the real dastardly crimes begin. One of your passengers gets all "equal rights"? Throw him overboard. Anyone accidentally die in the fish-hold? Chop up the body and throw it into the sea for the fishies to eat. Got a mutinous engineer? You know what to do.

Because the Captain's been in the seafaring biz for so long, his crew tends to do as instructed, too, no matter how repugnant the request. Really, the only one who stands up against the Cap is Dong-sik (Park Yoo-chun), a young sailor (arguably on the spectrum) who lives with his grandmother and has basically kidnapped a female passenger (Han Ye-ri) in hopes of turning her into his wife. That budding romance is one of the movie's creepiest components and the scene in which the two young not-truly-lovers end up fornicating after witnessing a murder ranks up there as one of the grossest sex scenes in Korean movie history.

That may be intentional. After all, Sea Fog's script is by auteur Bong Joon-ho and Shim Sung-bo who'd previously worked with Bong on the incredibly complex Memories of Murder. If Sea Fog isn't quite as nuanced as their previous collaboration, well what is? Plus, the shortcomings are probably due in part to this being Shim's directorial debut. And while the finale is a mess and the female characters are woefully underdeveloped, Shim fares well overall. He's recruited a strong supporting cast (Mun Seong-kun, Kim Sang-ho, Jo Kyung-sook) and cinematographer Hong Kyung-po to ensure a high level of quality on both sides of the camera. Waterlogged, this movie is not.