Posts filed under ‘korean movies’

Get Ur Freak On: Favorite Movies of 2017

My favorite films from 2017 made the list for a variety of reasons but these are the movies I most enjoyed from last year. Three of the films were theatrically released in 2016 but I viewed them first at the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) in 2017 so I’m including them here. I saw Get Out and The King on plane flights, but the rest I watched in a cinema somewhere. Listed in no particular order.

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Pulchritude, Jung Yonghwa and Nicholas Tse, Cook Up A Storm, 20171

1. Cook Up A Storm: This film is on the list for the purely aesthetic pleasure of seeing Jung Yonghwa’s perfect features on the big screen. There’s also a lot of nice food porn cinematography but the movie itself is quite lightweight and if it didn’t star my boy Yonghwa (as well as the equally photogenic Nicholas Tse) I’m not sure I would have even given it the time of day. But I’m a big fan of pulchritude so I’m putting it on my list.

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Emo, Lee Byung Hun, The Fortress, 20172.

2. The Fortress: Lee Byung Hun rehabilitates his public image completely in Hwang Dong Hyuk’s absorbing and emo historical about a famously tragic moment in Korean history. While Lee is brilliant as the courtier who must make an unbearable moral choice the rest of the cast is also excellent, including Kim Yoon Seok as Lee’s counterpart, the equally conflicted royal advisor who also pays a heavy price for his decisions.

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Wary, Song Kang Ho, A Taxi Driver, 2017

3. A Taxi Driver: Song Kang Ho is solid as usual in director Jang Hoon’s retelling of the 1980 Gwang Ju uprising, in which the repressive government brutally put down student protestors in the southern Korean city. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the political ramifications of the story it’s still very character-driven, as Song’s wary taxi driver gradually comes around to the side of justice and truth. Bonus points for a dope car chase that turns spunky taxicabs into vehicles for the resistance.

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Indistinguishable, Jung Woo Sung, The King, 2017

4. The King: The third South Korean film on this list attests to the strength and diversity of that country’s commercial film industry. Han Jae Rim’s brutal and cynical political thriller, in which the gangsters are indistinguishable from the lawyers and politicians supposedly opposing them, includes a great performance from rising star Ryu Jun-yeol, who also had a strong supporting role in A Taxi Driver.

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Complicit, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, 2017

5. Mon Mon Mon Monsters: Giddens Ko’s horror film/teen movie presents a nightmare high school scenario where no one is innocent and everyone is complicit. As he stated in his introduction to the film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, who is the real monster in the movie?

 

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Fierce, James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, 2016

6. I Am Not Your Negro: Raoul Peck’s doc about the legendary James Baldwin shines when it connects the dots between past and present racism in the U.S. Although Samuel Jackson’s does a fine job narrating the film, he is easily upstaged by archival footage of Baldwin himself fiercely speaking out about race, politics, and the historical and contemporary struggles of African Americans. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Tensions, Justin Chon, Gook, 2017

7. Gook: Justin Chon’s indie gem presents the Korean American perspective on sa-i- gu, the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the Wind, Powell, Koons, and Briseno, the four police officers caught on video beating motorist Rodney King. Chon miniaturizes the conflicts of the time and his film effectively captures the racial tensions of that moment in time.

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Lovely, Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me, 2017

8. Cinema, Manoel de Oliveira and Me: An outstanding essay film directed by João Botelho, one of the influential Portuguese film director’s protégés. The film looks at the relationship between the late director and Botelho and concludes with a lovely restaging of one of Oliviera’s unfinished silent films.

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Ellipses, Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahad Hosseini, The Salesman, 2017

9. The Salesman: Director Asghar Farhadi creates another humanistic look at moral ambiguity and human frailty. As in A Separation (2011), his use of narrative ellipses and architectural metaphors is masterful, as is his ability to draw out strong and sympathetic, vividly shaded performances from his cast. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at HKIFF.

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Unexpected, Window Horses, 2017

10. Window Horses: Another excellent animated feature from Ann Marie Fleming (The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, 2003), this time following a young Iranian-Chinese Canadian poet named Rose as she travels to her father’s home country for a poetry festival. Yes! Totally fun, unexpected and imaginative, with a gorgeous blend of hand-drawn and digitally generated animation.

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Bleak,Tadanobu Asano, Harmonium, 2017

11. Harmonium: an utterly bleak family drama in the tradition of Tokyo Sonata, Koji Fukada’s movie shows the catastrophic consequences of a few bad life decisions. Released 2016, viewed in 2017 at CAAMfest.

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Bravura, Youth, 2017

12. Youth: Feng Xiaogang’s look at a theater troupe in Cultural Revolution China uses a familiar trope of the youth romance film—the awkward country bumpkin outsider rebuffed in her attempts to join an elite, more sophisticated group–to cleverly investigate the deeper political and social elements dividing the country at the time. Utilizing his familiar bravura filmmaking style, including swooping camerawork and intense and masterfully conducted battle scenes, Feng never loses his focus on the impact of great historical events and social movements on ordinary human beings.

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Unease, Terry Notary, The Square, 2017

13. The Square: Ruben Ostlund kicks up the social commentary a notch from Force Majeure (2014), and The Square is an even better film about male anxiety and weakness than its predecessor. Ostland is a master at inverting cinematic conventions and manipulating sound, image and editing to create maximum awkwardness, discomfort and unease.

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Horrors, LaKeith Stanfield, Get Out, 2017

14. Get Out: A brilliant brilliant movie that proves that commercial genre films can be as significant as any other art form in capturing the zeitgeist of a moment in time and place. Director Jordan Peele utilizes the horror genre to reveal the true horrors in the U.S., where racism and oppression lie just below the surface of seemingly benign everyday gentility.

January 23, 2018 at 7:33 am Leave a comment

Hot, Cool & Vicious: Favorite movies, 2016

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Learning to breathe, Moonlight, 2016

Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.

1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.

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Posse, The Mermaid, 2016

2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.

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Fleeing, Train To Busan, 2016

3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control

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Meta, Three, 2016

4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.

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Despairing, Old Stone, 2016

5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Real, The Lockpicker, 2016

6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Yellow, Anti-Porno, 2016

7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Doppelganger, Fan ,2016

8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.

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Masculinities, The Magnificent Seven, 2016

9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.

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Histories, United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1), 2016

10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.

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Writing, Mele Murals, 2016

11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco

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Charming, At Cafe 6, 2016

12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.

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Off-balance, The Wailing, 2016

13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.

Honorable mentions: Line Walker; Spa Night; Equinox Flower; In A Lonely Place; We Are X

NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com

January 27, 2017 at 4:43 am 3 comments

Have A Good Night: South Korean movie roundup: Train To Busan; Tunnel; The Age of Shadows; Asura; The Handmaiden

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Gong Yoo, bloody but unbowed, Train To Busan, 2016

Park Chan-wook’s new joint, The Handmaiden, dropped this week in US theaters (although it was released in Asia this spring) and it’s the latest in a long string of South Korean genre films released in the US this fall. One thing I wasn’t able to do this summer was to see any South Korean films in theaters. For the most part foreign films screened in Taiwan are only subbed in Chinese, not English (unlike foreign films in Hong Kong, which thanks to British colonialism are subbed in both English and Chinese). So with the exception of some films screened at film festivals,  Korean-language films in Taiwan were linguistically inaccessible to me. Because of that, I saw no South Korean films for almost three months.

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Help! Gong Yoo, Train To Busan, 2016

Luckily, since my return to the States there’ve been plenty of South Korean movies released in US movie theaters. I was happy to find that Train To Busan was still playing theatrically when I got back to the US in August. Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, it’s also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince; The Suspect) is excellent as Seok-Woo, a divorced hedge fund manager who finds himself and his young daughter on a high-speed train full of the undead on a harrowing ride from Seoul to the southern city of Busan. He conveys an appealing sense of vulnerability and self-doubt through his rangy frame and expressive face. The narrative builds swiftly and efficiently, setting up the basic premise (South Korea is being overrun by zombies created by corporate malfeasance), defining the main characters (including Seok-Woo and his daughter, a tough Busan man and his pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, a young couple in love, and a greedy CEO), and establishing the film’s framework (a group of survivors trapped on a speeding train full of voracious undead). Though the film doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions, the depth of emotions between the characters, the intense and effective bursts of violent action, and the film’s overwhelming sense of dread as the train hurtles toward its unknown fate all add up to a deeply satisfying cinematic experience.

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Ha Jung-woo,  trapped, Tunnel, 2016

Following Train To Busan was the disaster movie Tunnel, starring the redoubtable Ha Jung-Woo, one of the best actors working in South Korea right now. Ha plays Jung-Soo, a regular guy whose life is changed forever when he’s trapped in a collapsed tunnel on the road home to his wife and young daughter. Based on a true story, the movie follows Jung-Soo’s ordeal as he struggles to survive while buried beneath tons of wreckage and along the way incriminates the corruption and incompetence responsible for the tunnel’s collapse. Good thing I watched this one at home on a press screener rather than in a theater since I probably would’ve died from fright and claustrophobia if I’d seen it on the big screen.

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I spy Han Ji-Min, The Age of Shadows, 2016

Kim Jee-Woon’s outstanding 1930s spy thriller The Age of Shadows also released in the US this fall. Shadows is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea and follows two men, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a member of the underground resistance to the occupation, and Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-Ho), a Korean policeman who supports the Japanese. Lee Byung-Hun makes an extended cameo as the leader of the resistance but it’s Gong and Song who carry the film through their excellent performances. The film, a high-budget co-production with Warner Brothers as well as South Korea’s Academy Award entry, is a slick and well-made production that breaks little ground conceptually or aesthetically but which demonstrates Kim’s continued mastery of a variety of genres including the Western (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), the gangster film (A Bittersweet Life), the revenge film (I Saw The Devil) and the horror film (A Tale of Two Sisters). The action scenes are fast, effective, and economical, and the narrative, though dense and somewhat confusing at first, resolves clearly at its conclusion. One extended sequence on a train full of spies and police, with the betrayals, lies, and mendacity layered on thick and fast, builds expertly to its explosive resolution.

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Song Kang-Ho, framed, The Age of Shadows, 2016

Kim brings out the best in his actors and in Shadows Kim draws out an impeccable and nuanced performance from Song as the Korea policeman collaborating with the Japanese occupiers (represented by Om Tae-Goo as the archetypal evil Japanese villain). Song effectively conveys the state of mind of a man slowly experiencing a moral epiphany and his character arc is compelling and convincing. Following his turn in Train To Busan Gong Yoo is also outstanding here in a similar role as man tested far beyond his normal bounds, expressing a notable vulnerability and empathy.

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Face-off, Hwang Jung-Min and Jung Woo-Sun, Asura: The City of Madness, 2016

Following The Age of Shadows was the release of Asura: The City of Madness, a bleak little movie that exposes the very worst of human nature. The film is an intense and brutal examination of top to bottom corruption in the fictional city of Anman, with all concerned trapped in an existential prison of despair, greed, and violence. Relentless and unflinchingly brutal, the film is a blood-soaked extravaganza of violence and betrayal.

Jung Woo-Sun stars as Kan, a cop who serves as the hatchet man for Anman’s corrupt mayor, Park Sung-Bae. Park is played by South Korean superstar Hwang Jung-Min, who in recent years has successfully played a range of roles including family men, hoodlums, cops, and criminals. Here he takes the Francis Ng role as Park, the flashy psychopathic mayor. Ju Jihoon plays Kan’s best friend and partner who goes to the dark side. Kan himself is a conflicted character caught between the corrupt mayor and a ruthless prosecutor who is trying to bring down the venal politician. Jung Woo-Sun scuffs up his handsome face with cuts, scars, bruises and stitches in an effort to conceal his leading-man good looks. He’s compellingly intense in this film, unlike in his past films as a romantic lead. I’ve found him somewhat stiff in many of his past performances and didn’t think he had it in him to be so fierce but in Asura he nails it. Here he makes good use of his 6-foot-plus frame and uses his imposing physicality to loom over and threaten his adversaries. At the same time he conveys the frustration and impotence of a man unable to escape an endless web of deceit, treachery, and backstabbing.

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Pissing contest, Asura: The City of Madness, 2016

South Korean movies are known for pulling no punches when it comes to gore and violence and Asura is no exception. The film includes scenes of people pushed out of and run over by cars, death by multiple stab wounds, blood pulsing out of gunshot wounds, severed fingers, slashings, beatings, knifings, choppings, and the shooting of injured or helpless people—the list is endless. While A Bittersweet Life had many of the same types of violence the story and characterization was much richer and the film’s main character gradual revealed a moral center. In Asura everything has gone to hell and the characters exist in a universe devoid of morals, ethics, or empathy. Only the main character has any redeeming qualities, as demonstrated by his devotion to his dying wife, but even that is relationship is full of despair and hopelessness. Cynical and bleak, Asura ups the ante as an extreme entry into the already intense pantheon of South Korean gangster movies.

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All in the family, The Handmaiden, 2016

Which brings us to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England. Park transfers the story to 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation (incidentally, the same period as The Age Of Shadows). The story follows the exploits of Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a young grifter who is planted in the household of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) in order to facilitate Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), another con artist who is intent on swindling Lady Hideko out of her inheritance. But as with all best-laid plans, things go awry.

Ha Jung-Woo is excellent as usual, exuding an unctuous intelligence that makes his slick and sneaky character almost sympathetic. Kim Min-Hee as the Lady Hideko is also particularly good in her role as the duplicitous noblewomen with the wads of cash that everyone wants. Kim Tae-Ri as the titular handmaiden is also fine, although her screechy laughter will win no awards. But there’s a severe dissonance in the film’s execution that keeps it from being completely successful.

So much of this movie is outstanding—the clever narrative structure, the acting, the high-gloss production—but director Park can’t help using a bludgeon when a scalpel will do. Perhaps as expected from the director of Oldboy, when given the choice between delicacy and bombast Park’s direction veers towards sensationalism and heavyhandedness. There’s an odd and jarring dissonance between the subtlety, wit, and precision of much of the film and its overwrought and clumsy scenes of sex and violence.

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Girls on film, Kim Tae-Ri and Kim Min-Hee, The Handmaiden, 2016

This is particularly evident in several gratuitous lesbian sex scenes that overdo it to the point of parody. In other parts of the film Park makes several scenes very sexy, including a teasing interlude revolving around a bathtub and a thimble, and another involving corsets and long rows of satin buttons. But just in case we don’t get it, the actual sex scenes, which are supposed to be hot and seductive, are reduced to extended sessions of naked chicks panting and moaning, including gratuitous softcore tittie shots and faked squeals and giggles. Although it gestures toward feminism, in some ways the film doesn’t feel very feminist at all. There’s a liberatory joy in several of the scenes where Hideko and Sook-Hee defy the patriarchal conventions of their situation, but other parts of the film just feel like a dirty old man leering at the girls’ boobs and crotch. You know it’s a male filmmaker when there’s a vag-cam shot. Park Chan Wook, why you gotta go there? Feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden (Born In Flames; Working Girls) once famously stated that she tried to never film a woman’s body in a sex scene that the woman herself couldn’t see, in order to counteract the objectification inherent in the male gaze. Park goes to the other extreme here, framing the women for maximum ogling and visibility to the viewer.

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Going there, The Handmaiden, 2016

I’m wondering how this reads to queer viewers—is it empowering to see explicit queer sex portrayed this way on the screen or are these scenes made for the benefit of the scopophiliac Asiaphile male viewer? In other words, do queer women find these scenes hot or do these scenes just pander to orientalism and Western male fantasies of Asian girl-on-girl sex? Given the clumsiness and unoriginality of their execution, I’m leaning toward the latter.

True to form, Park also turns up the torture porn, including shots of severed fingers and pickled body parts in jars, but then subtlety has never been Park’s strong suit. Why show one instance of dismemberment when you can make it three, including loud, crunching sound effects? Then please show us the body parts being swept into a trash can for good measure. These scenes leave very little to the imagination, which is very jarring compared to the clever exposition present in the rest of the film. As with the sex scenes, the sudden lurch from subtlety and precision to bad slasher film aesthetics took me out of the viewing experience, and not in a good way.

So that’s a bumper crop of South Korean films released here in the US in 2016,  and that’s even not counting The Wailing, the creepy, off the chain black comedy/supernatural thriller from Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea; The Chaser) that came out last spring. I’m happy to have been able to see them all, despite my SK movie hiatus this summer. It’s been a good year–here’s to more to come in 2017.

Special shoutout to Anthony Yooshin Kim for helping me formulate my thoughts on this post.

October 27, 2016 at 2:09 am 1 comment

Death or Glory: Memories of the Sword movie review

Lee in snow, Memories of the Sword, 2015

Lee in snow, Memories of the Sword, 2015

A new South Korean action movie is usually a cause for celebration in my house and after the trifecta of ass-kicking historicals last year (The Pirates; Kundo: Age of the Rampant, and The Admiral: Roaring Currents) I was looking forward to seeing Memories of the Sword, which opens this weekend in North America. As a big Lee Byung-hun fangirl, I mean, scholar, I’m also happy to see one of my favorite actors in a genuine starring role after suffering through his supporting roles in a string of mediocre Hollywood movies (GI Joe 1 & 2; Red 2, and Terminator: Genysis). And since LBH’s last historical film, Masquerade, was outstanding, I had high hopes for this new one. Alas, Memories of the Sword is no Masquerade, and doesn’t stand up to the big three historicals from last year either.

I should’ve known that things were amiss when Memories took forever to be released. Although it began production in 2013 and was completed in 2014, the film has languished for many months due to a salacious blackmailing scandal involving LBH (who’s married) and a couple of younger women. That tawdry episode concluded earlier this year with prison sentences for the two women.

So despite a big-name cast that also includes Jeon Do-yeon (The Housemaid) and Lee Junho from boy band 2PM, the bloom is off the rose as audience buzz for this one has died down to a murmur. But the film has other flaws that make this one more of a miss than a hit.

Fighting, Memories of the Sword, 2015

Fighting, Memories of the Sword, 2015

Right off the bat the film throws down the wire-fu gauntlet as young swordswoman Hong-Yi (Kim Go-eun) leaps many feet over a tall sunflower, then bounds high in the air across a grassy field. Following a swordfighting competition that she enters in drag, Hong-Yi encounters Yu-Baek (LBH) who is intrigued by her martial arts skills. The film then follows a convoluted narrative of betrayal, ambition, revenge, and concealed identity involving Hong-Yi, Yu-Baek, and Hong-Yi’s foster mother Sul Rang (Jeon Do-Yeon).

Although the movie possesses the usual sheen and polish of South Korean commercial movies, the film is burdened by a vastly overcomplicated plot and a dour overall demeanor. Everyone has something to hide and the angst is laid on pretty thick as characters weep regretfully while slashing and stabbing one another. The interlocking interpersonal relationships recall the intricacies of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon minus Lee’s poeticism and his strong sense of narrative rhythm, and in fact the film resembles CTHD in its costuming, its scenes of fights in bamboo forests, and its complicated court intrigue.

Yet Memories is missing Ang Lee’s masterful touch, as the film’s characters repeatedly explain their motivations and relationships to one another through long, anguished speeches or angry outbursts. Not much is left to subtlety or suggestion, yet the film still manages to bog down in confusing plot details. It’s not helpful either that most of the characters have two names and identities, which is not a spoiler in any way.

Chopped, Memories of the Sword, 2015

Chopped, Memories of the Sword, 2015

Lee Byung-Hun as usual cuts a commanding figure as the ambitious Yoo-Baek, and Jeon Do-Yeon is her expressive and emotive self. The younger actors, Kim Go-eun and Lee Junho, are also fine, though Lee doesn’t have a lot to do. Kim is convincing as the young swordswoman driven to vengeance by forces outside of her control and it’s nice to have a female protagonist in a martial arts movie. But the film feels murky and overly serious, with a leaden sense of import that drags down the story. Some of the images are quite lovely, including a beautiful swordfighting scene in a field of pale, feathery grasses, but too often the movie falls back on clichés like the metallic ringing of a sword drawn from its sheath that’s repeated a few too many times. In addition, when their demise would be inconvenient to the plot, several of the main characters have the death-defying ability to survive seemingly fatal sword wounds.

It’s always fun to see the lavishness of a South Korean movie on the big screen but with Memories as well as last month’s Assassination, both films feel a bit overstuffed. In both cases the over-the-top aesthetic of South Korean commercial cinema works to each film’s detriment, smothering any sense of artistry or nuance under a blanket of glossy emptiness.

Memories of the Sword, dir. Park Heung-sik

opens Fri. Aug. 28, 2015

AMC Metreon 16

135 4th St Suite 3000, San Francisco, CA 94103

August 28, 2015 at 6:05 am Leave a comment

Legal Man: The Attorney movie review

Song Kang-Ho, crusader, The Attorney, 2013

Song Kang-Ho, crusader, The Attorney, 2013

Opening this weekend in San Francisco and other select U.S. cities, The Attorney is the latest South Korean hit film to reach U.S. cinemas. Unlike some of the beloved ultraviolent S. Korean movies to reach our shores, The Attorney is a character-based drama that requires a bit of knowledge of the intricacies of recent S. Korean political history. Its appeal lies in its intimate look at S. Korean social strata, its commentary on political and governmental corruption, and yet another charismatic lead performance by the people’s actor, Song Kang-Ho.

Set mostly in 1981, The Attorney follows mild-mannered autodidact tax attorney Song Woo-Seok (Song Kang-Ho), who is moderately reviled among the snooty, better educated Busan lawyer crowd for his lack of a college diploma until he takes on the South Korean government in a case of “national security.” A group of teenage boys are framed for sedition and accused of being communists, their confessions taken under torture. Song is outraged and defends one of the boys, who also happens to be the son of the lady who runs the pork stew shop that Song frequents. Despite government corruption and obfuscation Song persists in the case and wins the respect of the law community.

The film takes a while to pick up steam, focusing at first on Song’s character and career. But once the main body of the narrative kicks in the story becomes an engaging courtroom drama, leavened with some unpleasant torture sequences that affirm S. Korean cinema’s leading role in oppressively violent imagery. No one films a beating quite like the South Koreans and, though mild by the standards of, say, A Bittersweet Life or The Yellow Sea, the scenes of a helpless, near-naked teenager lying brutalized on a concrete floor or choking underwater effectively make their point.

Playing it straight, The Attorney, 2013

Playing it straight, The Attorney, 2013

Dressed in a suit and with his often-wild and frizzy hair combed flat, Song Kang-Ho as Song Woo-Seuk is as straight as his hair, unlike the wacky characters he’s played in the past, including the “weird” in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, the conflicted vampire priest in Thirst, and the slacker dad in The Host. Song is on a roll this year, with three blockbuster hits in S. Korea including Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the period drama The Face Reader, and The Attorney, which was the top-grossing film in S. Korea in the past month. In The Attorney he’s very effective as the modest tax attorney turned crusader, using his mobile and expressive face and body language to good effect. He’s always been good at playing the schlumpy everyman and here he exploits that persona, transforming from the wrong-side-of-the-tracks lawyer to a civil rights hero.

Although I was caught up in the story, I thought the film’s ending was somewhat treacly and let the government off the hook a bit. Even if Song is validated, does that mean he’s affected real social change, or is the movie all about him feeling good about himself? Sure, one person is redeemed, but was the oppressive social system dismantled? Or is that too much to expect from a commercial movie product? The anti-fascist commentator in me was a bit disappointed by the conclusion until I found out more about the film’s backstory.

Governmental brutality, The Attorney, 2013

Governmental brutality, The Attorney, 2013

The finer points of the film’s social commentary may be elusive to non-Korean viewers without some knowledge of late 20th century S. Korean politics but upon closer inspection I realized that the movie plays an interesting role in the real-life South Korean political milieu. By exposing the ruling party’s dirty legalistic tricks the film clearly condemns the paranoid, nationalistic mindset that gave rise to National Security Act instituted in the early 1980s that severely limited civil rights in S. Korea. More significantly, the movie is loosely based on the early career of former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun, a civil rights lawyer turned politician whose reforms were often vigorously challenged by more conservative elements in the South Korean government and who, after retiring from politics, committed suicide (not an uncommon choice for contemporary S. Korean politicians) amidst a blurred presidential legacy that included charges of corruption amongst his cabinet and family members. Ironically, after his suicide in 2009 public opinion of Roh improved considerably and The Attorney is a part of the reclamation and redemption of Roh’s legacy.

The Attorney has become a mega-hit in South Korea and is one of the top-ten grossing films of all time there, so its message has clearly resonated for audiences there. It’s an interesting example of the way that commercial cinema can work towards resolving troubling national histories like the NSA and reshape perceptions of controversial public figures like Roh.

The Attorney

opens Feb. 7

AMC Metreon

San Francisco

AMC Cupertino Square

Cupertino CA

February 7, 2014 at 6:16 pm Leave a comment

Spread Your Wings: More airplane movie film festival

Kamal Hasan and ominous pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan and bad pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!

Andy Lau Tak-Wah beaching it, Switch, 2013

Watch advert or dream sequence? Switch, 2013

Switch

This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.

lbh red

LBH does CYF, Red 2, 2013

Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)

Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?

english-vinglish-4

Sridevi and flowers, English Vinglish, 2013

English Vinglish

I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.

M_Id_374456_Fukrey

Fun and frolic, Fukrey, 2013

Fukrey

Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Vishwaroopam

An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Ip Man: The Final Fight

I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.

February 2, 2014 at 6:16 am Leave a comment

Kickin’ It With The Boys: Fists of Legend movie review

Kickin' it with the boys, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Footwork, Yoon Je-moon, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Although it’s got its share of body slams and bloody fisticuffs, Fists of Legend, (now playing in select multiplexes in the U.S.) is a nice change of pace from the typical extreme South Korean fare that shows up in U.S. movie houses. In contrast to gangland thriller New World or spy flick Berlin Files, the two most recent Korean movies to roll through town, Fists of Legend is a surprisingly gentle and warmhearted piece of filmmaking. Despite its pugilistic trappings, it’s much more than just a fight movie.

The 2.5 hour-plus movie centers around Legendary Fist, a mixed martial arts reality show that pits former teenage streetfighters, now paunchy and in their forties, against trained MMA fighters. Among the middle-aged gladiators is Lim Deok-kyu (Hwang Jung-Min), a former teenage boxer who now owns a noodle shop. His wife died long ago, his angsty teenage daughter is in trouble at school, and his noodle shop is failing, so Deok-kyu signs up for Legendary Fist for the $20,000 prize money and a chance to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes.

Dad & daughter, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Dad & daughter, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Despite its sometimes gory fistfighting scenes, Fists of Legend is not so much Thunderdome as it is a critique of contemporary South Korean social and cultural mores. The movie alternates between swaggering 1980s high school kids and their modern-day middle-aged incarnations, bouncing through bullying, father-daughter dynamics, media culture, teenage cliques, corporate corruption, and cronyism, among many other topics, in its long, sometimes meandering cinematic journey.

Bam! Hwang Jung-Min, Fists Of Legend, 2013

Bam! Hwang Jung-Min, Fists Of Legend, 2013

The sincere and slightly homely Hwang Jung-Min, who was outstanding as the hotheaded loose cannon in New World, is awesome as the noodle shop owner trying let go of the past. Also good is Yoon Je-moon as the corporate toady who learns to stand up for himself. The bad guys are somewhat one-dimensional but the many good guys have a lot of heart and depth. The film is also refreshingly unglamourous in its portrayal of midlife existence, although the fit and trim Hwang does have some pretty cut abs.

All in all the narrative’s bobs and weaves make for a fun and diverting way to spend 154 minutes. It’s not a classic, but it’s good, solid commercial entertainment.

NOTE: The increased number of Korean films gaining theatrical release in the U.S. is part of the resurgent Korean Wave now devouring the U.S. pop culture landscape. Following up his billion-views youtube megahit Gangnam Style, PSY’s latest MV Gentleman has as of this date reached 110 million hits and counting in the three days since its official release. The astoundingly hot Lee Byung-hun is tearing it up shirtless-style in the hit Hollywood actioner GI Joe: Redemption. Kia is apparently the trendy new auto line amongst young groovesters. And Korean Fried Chicken is the ono grind of choice among late-night post-club snackers.

April 17, 2013 at 3:34 am Leave a comment


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