Posts tagged ‘south korean films’
Have A Good Night: South Korean movie roundup: Train To Busan; Tunnel; The Age of Shadows; Asura; The Handmaiden
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
opens Feb. 7
AMC Cupertino Square
The week of June 24, 2013 was absolutely monumental in the LGBT community, following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. After watching Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ schooling of the Texas GOP on Tuesday night*, I went to bed conscious of the fact that the Supreme Court would announce its ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 on Wednesday morning at 7am PST. I woke up shortly after 7am and immediately checked my facebook and twitter feeds to find the brilliant news that DOMA had been struck down and Prop 8 invalidated. There was nothing but joy all over my newsfeeds as everyone seemed to be celebrating the glad tidings.
That night we had tickets to the Frameline Film Festival at the Castro Theater, the heart of the LGBT community in San Francisco. We arrived an hour before showtime and lucked out on parking not far from the theater, although the streets were closed off and full of ecstatic, celebratory throngs. At one point it took twenty minutes to navigate a half block down Market Street to pick up my tickets, so jam-packed was the crowd, but I didn’t mind the inconvenience. It was fun to be out and about on such a historic night and even the weather in San Francisco cooperated, as it was uncharacteristically balmy and warm until well after sundown.
After basking in the glow of the celebrating crowds in the Castro, it was great to settle in at the 37th annual Frameline Festival of LGBT Cinema. I only caught three out of the dozens of films at the fest this year, but they were interesting in the various ways they reflected current events.
On that historic Wednesday evening I saw Arvin Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Chen grew up in the Bay Area but now lives and works in Taiwan. WYSLMT is his second feature, following his well-received debut Au Revoir, Taipei (2010)
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is a charming and bittersweet tale of a man reconsidering his sexuality after nine years of marriage. Weichung (Richie Jen) has a young son on whom he dotes and a good job at an eyeglass store, and he and his wife Feng (Mavis Fan) seem content. But after Weichung’s boss abruptly leaves the steady-but-dull optician’s business to him (after happily declaring the end of his “relationship with glasses”), Weichung begins to question his satisfaction with life. Running into an old friend, the openly and happily gay wedding photographer Stephen, further catalyzes Weichung’s dissatisfaction. After a chance meeting with dreamy flight attendant Thomas, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Wong Ka Lok, Weichung has to make some hard choices about his life as a “former” gay man.
The movie is sexy in a subdued way, with unrequited lust rather than full-on passion supplying most of the erotic heat between Weichung and Thomas. In a role that’s a change of pace from the Johnnie To action films (Exiled; Breaking News; Punished) he’s known for in the West, Richie Jen is very good as the husband on the down-low. Wong Ka-Lok is beautiful and charming as Thomas, Weichung’s lovely temptation, and the rest of the cast is excellent, including glamourous Taiwanese pop star Mavis Fan playing it straight as Feng, Weichung’s earnest wife, with her real-life full-sleeve tats airbrushed in postproduction. Also outstanding is a subplot involving Weichung’s high-maintenance sister who gets cold feet a few weeks before her planned wedding to the nerdy and devoted San San (played with forlorn mopiness by Taiwanese rock star Stone). Chen directs the movie with a deft touch, with likeable characters, believable situations, and a light touch of magical realism, including a spot-on spoof of a weepy Taiwanese drama. The movie is poignant, funny, and enjoyable, with sympathetic characterizations of its many characters.
South Korea’s White Night (2012) is slow, beautiful, and deliberate, a very different kind of movie than Chen’s brisk and buoyant film. Won-gyu (another sexy flight attendant, what?) returns to Seoul after a two-year self-imposed exile following a traumatic event. He hooks up via the interwebs with Tae Jun, a motorcycle courier, and despite their initial antagonism, the two court and spark throughout a long and eventful night on the streets of Seoul. Director Lee Song Hee-Il depicts Seoul at night as a brilliant, glittering, yet somewhat malevolent site, locating his actors on rain-slicked streets and in shadowy, cramped interiors. His actors do a good job maintaining their complex and often conflicted relationship, with Lee I-kyeong as the streetwise Tae Jun in particular showing a lot of swagga and charisma. White Night touches on relevant issues including internalized homophobia and gay bashing and possesses some great sexual heat from the two hunky leads. However, despite the effectiveness of its moody mise-en-scene, the film’s elliptical and somewhat opaque narrative leaves a few too many questions unanswered.
Like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Two Weddings and A Funeral (2012, South Korea) also looks at the plight of a married man living on the down-low. But in comparison to Arvin Chen’s delightful and subtle film, Two Weddings and A Funeral, though heartfelt, is a much less accomplished piece of filmmaking. The film follows a gay man who marries a lesbian co-worker in order to convince his nagging parents of his heterosexuality, with a predictable lack of success. The film includes queeny friends, gay-bashers, tearz, and contrived situations, and is fairly clumsy and overwrought, filled with overacting and unbelievable plot twists, but there are some funny and charming moments sprinkled throughout. The Frameline screening was also marred by digital artifacts in the projection, which were distracting and took the viewer out of the story. The best part of the screening, however, was Jo Gwang-soo Kim, the film’s very sweet director, announcing to cheers from the audience that he and his partner, the film’s producer, were soon to be married. The two left the stage happily holding hands, yet another reminder of the great historical moment that we were inhabiting.
*NOTE: As a prelude to the repeal of DOMA, Tuesday night brought another significant civil rights drama, played out mostly on the internet. I stayed up well past midnight to watch the awesome smackdown of the Texas GOP by State Senator Wendy Davis, as she filibustered in her neon pink running shoes for 11 hours in order to block draconian anti-abortion legislation. After watching the whole thing play out on ustream and twitter (with the cable and broadcast news channels completely ignoring this fine political theater) I went to bed satisfied, as the bill was not passed in the Texas legislature. Asshat Texas governer Rick Perry has since called a special session to try to ram through the rejected bill, but Texans are not letting him slide by so easy this time. Later that week, thousands demonstrated outside of the state capital building in 100 degree weather, keeping a watchful eye on the sneaky Republicans as they try to roll back women’s rights in Texas. More to come as it develops.