Posts tagged ‘ha jung-woo’

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Get It While It’s Hot: The 2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee, Treeless Mountain, 2009

Hee Yeon Kim and Song Hee, Treeless Mountain, 2009

The 2009 version of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival starts next week (March 12) and runs until March 22 in San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose. Herein follows some of the movies I previewed from the festival, which is in its 27th year and will include 108 films in its ten-day run. The SFIAAFF is the biggest and one of the oldest of its type and kicks off the season for Asian American festivals around the country. Even if you don’t see something you like described below there are plenty of other treats to be had—go to the SFIAAFF website for more details. And buy your tickets early—shows sell out fast and some of these movies will never have another theatrical screening in the Bay Area again.

Ha Jung-Woo and Jeon Do-Yeon duke it out, My Dear Enemy, 2008

Ha Jung-Woo and Jeon Do-Yeon duke it out, My Dear Enemy, 200

My Dear Enemy, Lee Yoon-Ki

Powered by a charming, engaging performance by the talented Ha Jung-Woo, who may be becoming one of my favorite actors, this romantic drama follows two former lovers as they travel the streets of Seoul trying to settle a debt. Ha plays a ne’er-do-well ladies man and unemployed gambler whose fed-up ex-girlfriend (Jeon Do-Yeon, recent Best Actress winner at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival) finds him at the racetrack and demands repayment of a loan she’d made him before their breakup. The film skips lightly from one situation to the next, along the way commenting on life, relationships, intimacy, and dreams. One memorable scene features a newlywed couple whose husband is obsessed with his wife’s past lovers; another takes place at a barbeque party with a Korean motorcycle club. Throughout the film Ha and Jeon maintain a wary relationship with each other, trying to resist falling into old patterns while keeping from strangling each other.

Kim Yoon-Suk has a rough night, The Chaser, 2008

Kim Yoon-Suk has a rough night, The Chaser, 2008The Chaser, Na Hong-Jin

A Korean movie of a completely different sort than My Dear Enemy, The Chaser also starts the versatile and charismatic Ha Jung-Woo, this time as a psychotic serial killer on the loose in Seoul. Brutally violent, with a touch of horror film layered on its crime-drama scenario, the film is a cat-and-mouse game between Ha’s nasty murderer and Kim Yoon-Suk’s world-weary pimp. The film features some gorgeous night-photography and good performances from its two lead actors but with a bit too much fetishized violence even for me, as well as too much psychosexual posturing, The Chaser doesn’t manage to transcend its genre into greatness.

Balmy Alley, Fruit Fly, 2009

Balmy Alley, Fruit Fly, 2009

Fruit Fly, HP Mendoza

Mendoza’s follow-up to the divine Colma: The Musical, and his directorial debut, Fruit Fly follows the story of Bethesda, a nice Filipina performance artist from Maryland (duh) who’s looking for her biological parents. Set amongst San Francisco’s queer boho crowd, the film lacks Colma’s poignancy and sympathetic characters, as well as Colma director Richard Wong’s cinematic flair. Fruit Fly makes good use of its San Francisco setting, including scenes in Balmy Alley, Dolores Park and various other real-life, non-touristy locations, and it has a great title sequence and nice graphics throughout, but it doesn’t quite have the urgency of Colma’s coming-of-age story, with Bethesda’s search for her birth mother shunted to the side in favor of backstage antics involving a vain magician and a few too many musical numbers with the quirky patrons of a gay bar.

David Choe, insane, Dirty Hands, 2009

David Choe, insane, Dirty Hands, 2009

Dirty Hands: The Art and Crimes of David Choe, Harry Kim

A lively and comprehensive portrait of batshit-crazy bad-boy Korean American artist David Choe, Dirty Hands follows Choe from his beginnings as a grafitti artist and tagger in Los Angeles to his current status as a blue-chip gallery artist. Choe is an insane mo-fo, but in a productive, creative way, channeling his self-described kleptomaniac, sex-addict, bipolar, OCD personality into a highly successful career as an illustrator and painter. Choe energetically narrates his own story, describing his experiences as an illustrator for porn magazines, his stint in a Japanese jail (for punching a plain-clothes cop), his discovery of and subsequent disillusionment with God, and his various trips to the Congo and other non-industrialized parts of the world. The doc goes easy on its wacky subject, skimming over the misogyny and messed-up violence in Choe’s art in favor of portraying him as a happy lunatic, but it’s a compelling portrait nonetheless. We also meet his long-suffering girlfriend, his family, and his friends, all of whom think Choe is the best thing since sliced bread. The focus is a bit too Giant Robot-hipster-Asiaphile-friendly to be a truly great film but it does a good job of capturing Choe’s insane outlook on life. As he succinctly notes, “If I’m normal in real life it fucks up my art.”

Que paso? Nuevo Dragon City, 2008

Que paso? Nuevo Dragon City, 2008

The Secret Lives Of Urban Space

This program of short films includes a couple intriguing selections. Sergio de la Torre’s Nuevo Dragon City focuses on a group of Mexican Chinese teens who gradually barricade themselves in an appliance store. Shot without dialog with beautiful cinematography, their mysterious actions lead to serenity. No answers are given for their inexplicable acts but the imagery is lovely and the mood is profound.

Chris Chong’s Block B is a single static long shot of a high-rise housing project in Malaysia, moving from darkness to daylight and back through to night. The film’s bare-bones structure forces the viewer to focus on small mundanities during its twenty-minute running time—a woman drops a piece of laundry from a balcony and it flutters down the side of the building. Children run from one side of the frame to the other. Conversations in Malay emerge and retreat. At some point fireworks go off. Though some might find it incomprehesible, the film is beautiful and intriguing and truly challenges the way that we are accustomed to watching the moving image.

Two good kid actors, Children of Invention, 2008

Two good kid actors, Children of Invention, 2008

Children of Invention, Tse Chun; Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim

One of two “recession dramas” that I previewed, this engaging film looks at the tribulations of a Chinese American family in Boston falling through the cracks of the economic crisis. A single mom with two young kids gets caught up in “multi-level marketing,” a fancy name for a pyramid scheme that preys on immigrants and poor people. After mom gets thrown in jail as a material witness, the two kids are forced to fend for themselves. As the Top Ramen runs out and no adults are in sight, what will happen to our young protagonists? The movie has good, non-cloying performances by its two kid actors, following their fate in a realistic, unsentimental way.

A similar fate faces the two kids in the second recession drama, Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim’s follow-up to her subtle and intriguing debut film In Between Days. Set in South Korea, the film follows two young sisters whose mother leaves them with an alcoholic auntie when she can no longer support them. Said auntie turns out to be an indifferent caretaker and the girls eventually end up catching, roasting and selling grasshoppers to local schoolkids to assuage their hunger and to make ends meet. Then things really start to go downhill. The movie is grim and beautiful, with an observational style that never veers into melodrama or histrionics, and its conclusion demonstrates the redemption of small kindnesses in the face of hardship.

The late, great Chris Iijima, A Song For Ourselves, 2009

The late, great Chris Iijima, A Song For Ourselves, 2009

A Song For Ourselves, Tad Nakamura

This short documentary centers on Chris Iijima, the seminal sansei musician who, along with Charlie Chin and Nobu Miyamoto, recorded A Grain of Sand, one of the most significant albums from the 1970s Asian American movement. Layered and emotional, the film looks at Iijima’s community activism, his music, and his later career as a lawyer and professor in Hawaii until his untimely death in 2005. Nakamura follows up on the promise of his earlier docs, Yellow Brotherhood and Pilgrimage, investigating the ties of family, friends, community, and creativity in a moving, resounding portrait of a singular personality.

Lam Siu-Ying, future idol? High Noon, 2008

Lam Yiu-Sing, future idol? High Noon, 2008

High Noon, Heiward Mak

24-year-old Heiward Mak brings it in her debut feature that follows a group of teenage Hong Kong schoolboys as they do drugs, chase girls, fight, eat and get into trouble. Shot on video, with frenetic computer graphics, the movie nicely captures the disposable lifestyle of post-millennial youth. The movie gets bonus points for featuring a sex scandal spread virally via cellphones (the internet is so five years ago). As the characters’ mischief escalates into more serious business, Mak’s strong visual sense and her sure direction of her peers makes the film a quintessential look at teenagers slamming up against their own mortality. Interestingly, Mak almost won the Hong Kong Film Critics Society’s 2008 Best Director award for this flick, nearly upsetting 30-year-veteran Ann Hui for the distinction. Side note: As I watched the movie I couldn’t help wondering which of the cute boys would be picked for this year’s idol status by the relentless Hong Kong media machine. Probably the dreamy one with the orange hair, though lead actor Lam Yiu-Sing has a quiet charm as well.

March 5, 2009 at 7:46 am 2 comments

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