Posts tagged ‘song kang-ho’

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.

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

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

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


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