Monday, June 29, 2015

피도 눈물도 없이 (2002)

I'm pretty sure there were some high expectations for director Ryu Seungwan's first ground-up feature after the critical success of his first film, Die Bad. Given the freedom of a budget, Ryu opted to trace a well worn genre, the crime caper film, and then put his spin on it in No Blood No Tears. That spin turns out to follow characters a little bit more in the build up to the main event, and while the twists are great and so are the moments of dark comedy, the balance of the story is at times uneven and Ryu's directing gets a little too heavy handed at times, resulting in an enjoyable film with a few flaws.

The title of the film is perhaps an ironic one as there is plenty of blood and tears in the film. Compared to Guy Ritchie's Snatch with good reason, No Blood No Tears follows a huge cast of underworld miscreants all eventually trying to figure out how to steal a bag full of cash belonging to mob boss KGB (Sin Gu) whose underling, ex-boxer Bulldog (Jeong Jaeyeong) runs a dog fighting arena for him. Having had enough of regular abuse by Bulldog, his girlfriend Sujin (Jeon Doyeon) concocts a plan to take the money and run with the help of the down-on-her-luck ex-con taxi driver Gyeongseon (I Hyeyeong). Of course, between some plotting street hoodlums, the wily KGB, the police, and Gyeongseon's own gangster debt collectors, this is probably not going to be as easy as Sujin plans it to be.

There is quite a bit of buildup to the actual caper which focuses on the huge cast of characters. Some of them, like the street punks led by Chae Minsu (Ryu Seungbeom) are understandably limited in development as they are bit plot and comedy players. However, I felt like despite the amount of time spent with them, the three main leads of Gyeongseon, Sujin, and Bulldog are a touch underdeveloped and I really wanted to spend a little more time with the two women. Perhaps it would have been more satisfying starting with the pair instead of getting to them after meeting other characters as they do end up being the principal protagonists.

Sometimes the transitions between the different characters stories is a little choppy, but each plays a particular part and I really love how they all collide at the film's end into some massive, black comedy chaos. The twists towards the end are especially strong and play into the greedy conniving characterization of the world of the thieves that the characters inhabit. That said, the film still feels just a touch too long, but some of that might be because of the lengthy fight sequences that pepper it.

Director Ryu perhaps overindulges in No Blood No Tears a little, adding flashy photographic and editing techniques to some of his fight sequences and even some non-fight sequences resulting in a sometimes confusing viewing. He also indulges in a lot of extended onscreen violence, some of which feels a touch excessive considering that the point gets across pretty quickly. I liked how No Blood No Tears was shot, given a grimy gritty cast and making the most of the still somewhat limited production budget. The performances are pretty strong all around with Jeon Doyeon doing fine playing against type and all the bit players are especially excellent in their limited roles, from the elderly gangsters to the young punks.

The weaknesses of No Blood No Tears, particularly in the length, unbalanced story, and some of the directorial excesses don't counter how well the film works as a crime caper film with a focus on character. It's brash, darkly funny, brutal, but vindicating at the same time and will likely be enjoyed well by those who appreciate Ritchie's oeuvre as well as Ryu Seungwan's filmography. 8/10

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

I'm pretty sure that everyone who remembers the 1990's sitcom "Herman's Head" is going to mention its similarity to the general concept of Inside Out because it's just that similar, examining the aspects of our personalities that drive our decisions. However, where Herman's Head goes primarily for sitocm laughs, Inside Out takes the idea to another level, examining themes of loss, memory, the transition from early to late childhood, and the value of the spectrum of emotions, resulting in an unexpectedly poignant and moving film.

In the film we are treated to two worlds: the material world of Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), a child who is leaving her world of Minnesota behind for San Francisco and the world inside her head as she is guided by the primal emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), with Joy being primarily in charge and Sadness playing a diminished role.

However, when Riley's life gets turned upside down by the move and Sadness begins to affect Riley's memories, in an attempt to limit Sadness's influence, Joy, Sadness, and Riley's core memories get sucked up out of headquarters, leaving only Anger, Disgust, and Fear to guide Riley. With no central memories and limited emotions, Riley begins to self-destruct and Joy and Sadness must find their way back to headquarters to help restore Riley.

Inside Out manages to capture a huge spectrum of life thanks to the richness of its dual story. Not only does it deal with the change we encounter in our lives and how we cling to who we were when we experience it, but also looks at the change we experience in ourselves as we grow, leaving behind parts of our past including our memories and the things we used to love. Inside Out makes those memories and pieces of our past into tangible form, memories in the shape of lightweight bowling balls and real structures and those memories and structures and even wholesale characters fading and vanishing over time. Thematically, the film is deep.

What's more, Inside Out explores the value of emotions, both good and bad as every emotion is shown to have its place, including and inevitably, sadness. It's a rather poignant moment and revelation the film makes about the place of sadness in ourselves and the visualization of how both sadness impacts our memories and that our memories are not immutable is quite affecting. And even outside of the exploration of our rich inner lives, we also get a solid outer story following Riley and her family as they move and the stress that the transition places on Riley. The use of inner worlds to explore the struggles and conflicts we face is clever and I especially appreciate that the film does opt to explore the inner worlds of other characters briefly as well.

If there's anything that isn't strong about the story, some of it is story logic: there are a few points in the film where things happen that suggest very easy solutions to the problem at hand that are never pursued. There are also some elements of the world inside Riley's head that aren't especially funny or interesting, like the cloud building/people and the card house. But, aside from one gaping plot hole that gets a light shined on it near the end, that's about all I can really say is wrong with Inside Out. Sure, it might be a little earnest, but the film embraces and explores great complexity in pursuing its message and balances both drama and comedy effectively while doing so.

Artistically, the designs tend to go for primal shapes, which is actually quite fitting when it comes to the idea that the main characters are primal emotions. The overall visual world is nice, but with the exception of a cute moment of abstracting thought, it's mostly simple and in service of the story, which I find to be a good thing because the story and its many resonant themes is where Inside Out shines the brightest.

Pixar stabilizes and finds itself one of its best films in years with Inside Out. It's a surprisingly mature, yet entirely accessible film, that combines a simple realizing approach to complex ideas and themes, and renders them in all their theoretical and emotional complexity in a way that's easy to comprehend and even empathetic. Director Peter Docter and company have built a wonderful inner world with this film and its minor stumbles don't prevent me from recommending it highly.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

Lava (2014)

Pixar's Inside Out gets its own preroll short and that short is Lava. That said it's much more a music video for the eponymous song, a direct visualization that relies on the rather hypersentimental and painfully punny lyrics to deliver the goods of the whole short. Granted, I think the sentimentalism would work, especially since it's undercut by puns, but because it's delivered so very earnestly and, far too often abuses the visual-verbal pun of the title, it ends up devolving into a totally saccharine pile-up of manipulation and cheese.

The visualization is similarly overdone. While the art on display, both in the design and the rendering is quite pleasant, but some of the choices, including the end embrace also borders on being overly earnest and cute--when combined with the saccharine melodrama of the song, it ends up just being too much. That said, I think that if the goal of the whole short was to pull some tears out of people's eyes and hammer them with mildly clever and obvious lyrics, well, I think it should work. Extra points for getting Hawaiians to perform the music.

Is Lava successful? Yes. I think it does exactly what it wants to do and quite well. But I think that it's also overly sweet and void of material strength beyond the surface of its sentiments, which rendered the whole experience a bit hollow. 6/10

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Friday, June 19, 2015

Seoul Searching (2015)

I watched Planet B-Boy at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and liked it quite a bit. From there, I lost track of director Benson Lee's work until a couple years ago when I encountered a curious casting call: A movie called Seoul Searching was looking for its cast via Facebook. Benson's latest movie was looking internationally across the internet for a cast to fill the roles of its Korean diaspora characters, teenagers that had arrived in South Korea in the 1980's to attend a cultural education summer school hosted by the Korean government in the 1980's. Taking cues from John Hughes movies of that same era, Seoul Searching turns out to be a sometimes touching and entertaining film that might be somewhat as mixed up about itself as its characters are about their own identities.

Based on Lee's personal experience attending the now defunct summer program, Seoul Searching primarily follows the exploits of three young men of Korean descent, Californian punk Sid Park (Justin Chon), Mexican ladies man Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn), and dutiful Hamburger Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo), as well as the journey of Ohioan adoptee Kris Schultz (Rosaline Leigh). As soon as the kids get together, they begin partying and boozing it up while some of them deal with personal baggage, the latter threatening to expel some of them and leading to conflict between others.

The movie seems to draw the most from Hughes's The Breakfast Club as each character in the film begins as a kind of stereotype and the film explores the depth of the characters and their issues as the movie goes on. And the characters manage to be both familiar and interesting at the same time, in part because while they embody certain recognizable archetypes, but when placed onto the palette of a member of the Korean diaspora, it adds additional complexity due to the exchange of being a child of immigrants and consequently not fitting in their respective societies and yet wearing the manner of a particular segment of that society to which they belong or are attempting to belong.

But the film does end up stumbling a little when trying to explore the depth of those characters for two main reasons. One, most of the characters don't really have much depth actually explored. Klaus's story as being the son of non-acculturating hardworking immigrants is merely hinted at and then dropped altogether as he becomes a supporting character for Kris. Meanwhile, Sid character's internal conflict is dealt with via conflict with teacher Kim (Cha Inpyo), but rather than properly developing the struggles of both characters, it merely has the two lash out at each other and then resolve everything by simply monologuing each other into understanding. The only story that actually manages to carry weight is that of Kris, whose tale represents a very true and specific story of adoption that happened to many Korean families in the 1970's and 1980's.

Meanwhile, the female characters of Grace Park (Jessika Van) and Sue-Jin (Gang Byeol) manage to have much more potentially interesting backstories that go unexplored altogether. This kind of ends up making the storytelling feel just a bit scant, but it's all fortunately saved by strong characterizations and many amusing hijinks. There are times when Seoul Searching does end up being a bit too obvious with its story points, but this is actually in keeping with its inspiration and genre, so it's expected.

The particularly enjoyable thing about Seoul Searching is how well it incorporates its period setting, deeply entrenching itself in the aesthetics of the 1980's, from obvious production details like wardrobe, hair, and the constant 1980's pop hit soundtrack to more subtle details like the cinematography and post-production coloring. Even when you think about the profanity used and the casual racism of one particular character, it recalls the atmosphere of those same 1980's films Seoul Searching is emulating--and appropriately so because the film is actually set in the 1980s.

There are some indulgent moments in the film that are a bit hard to swallow, especially the high-character airport entrances, and sometimes the way the film is shot, particularly in terms of camera direction, and edited feels a touch disjointed or like its not quite serving the scene, like slow pans across the characters bodies during moments of conflict between characters. And this does also highlight the same feeling that you can get from the writing.

The acting also varies in the film. Some of the non-actors are a bit too wooden in their performance, with Rosaline Leigh's Kris suffering the most from this, but she also shares two high-impact scenes with Bak Jia playing Kris's mother, Han Jong-ok, and she knocks it out of the park. The more comedic secondary characters of Sergio and Sue-Jin are particularly performed well and really capture that 1980's comedy feel especially well, but many of the leads otherwise suffer a little from underwriting, resulting in a less convincing performance.

Still, despite the ways that Seoul Searching does stumble in its storytelling and direction, there's still quite a bit to appreciate about the film, especially in how it captures the energy of youth and the sense of identity conflict without seemingly trying. Sometimes it seems like Seoul Searching is reaching too much into the nostalgia box, but it still manages to reach beyond nostalgia pastiche thanks to its setting beyond some generic American 1980's world and into a more specific story of not only Korean youths of the 1980's, but Korean diasporic youths of the 1980's encountering each other and a little of their ancestral homeland as well. And for these ways that the film works, Seoul Searching actually ends up being a worthwhile viewing. 7/10

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Monday, June 15, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 5회

So this episode finally deals with consequences for our three leads. Hyerin gets caught by the police for her pro-democracy activities and Woosuk, calling her home to help her get out, discovers her true identity, not as a poor girl, but an exile from a wealthy family. Hyerin herself is on the receiving end of some really vile allegations from the police before getting bailed out by her brother and Jaehui. We do see a little bit of the complexities of Hyerin's relationship with her father as well, as we watch him be proud of her through getting status reports on her, while brusquely dismissing her to her face.

Hyerin and Woosuk's tenuous relationship also comes to a kind of close as he admits he failed the bar exam (this happened last episode when he missed it to help Taesu get away from some gangsters) and chooses to return home, then ship off to the military. Taesu himself is on the receiving end of another attempt on his life, this time getting one of his minions lacerated in the process. His boss backs out of Seoul, leaving the businesses to Taesu and his group, including the especially unscrupulous backstabber third-in-commend Lee Jongdo, who the the boss warns Taesu of again.

I really get the feeling that Taesu's going to ignore these warnings and give Jongdo a long leash to his destruction, just as his boss warns him and its frustrating that he's stupid enough to ignore those warnings. Or at least that I'm projecting that he ignores those warnings. It's probably the only really annoying part of what's otherwise a relatively slow episode. Although I feel for Hyerin in her distress at the police station, the scene where the police chief insinuates that she's only a part of the political movement because she's a starry-eyed lover of one of its members represents well both the common corruption of the arms of the government as well as the sexism and classism of Korean society at the time (and still present during the '90's when Sandglass aired).

The episode is a bit slow and Taesu's story is particularly uninteresting so far with Useok and Hyerin getting the more interesting backstories and conflicts. As the episode ends, we see Useok being deployed to Seoul, which should be interesting as he's now serving as the face of the very injustice he's had to face as an instrument of the government, especially as the army had been used to quell protesters at times and his service could put him in conflict with Hyerin. Although Hyerin herself faces a bit of a tough situation as her compatriots in the student democracy movement have all been imprisoned, leaving her without the group that's been driving her until now.

It's a decent enough episode I guess and I am curious about seeing Useok's fate in the military in particular, but it's not a particularly inspired one either. 6/10

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

淸風明月 (2003)

I have to admit that I've long had a bias against Korean sageuks because a great many of the ones that I'd seen were mediocre at best and, at their worst, frustratingly dismal experiences. However, I'm also greatly drawn towards them all the same and occasionally will encounter an enjoyable one, even though I've yet to see a great one. One sageuk that hadn't yet seen was Sword in the Moon. Having enjoyed some aspects of director Gim Uiseok's 1999 film, The Peking Restaurant, I went into watching Sword in the Moon with a little hope, only to have it snuffed out by the sometimes senseless and illogical story undercut all the dramatics and action therein.

The film is set during the Joseon Dynasty during a point in time immediately following a coup d'etat, putting a new king in power after the spilling of much blood. Yun Gyuyeop (조재현) is the sour-faced leader of the new king's bodyguard, but is put to the task of investigating the high profile assassinations of some of the court ministers responsible for putting the new king in power. As he investigates with his team, he discovers that the mysterious assassins include his once-best friend he thought he had murdered: Choe Jihwan (Choe Minsu), a former palace guard and the only equal to Guyuyeop in swordsmanship, who is now seeking vengeance against the ministers and king that ousted the previous benevolent ruler.

The film bounces back and forth between the assassination attempts, the machinations of the court's intrigue, and flashbacks from the making of Gyuyeop and Jihwan's friendships to everything leading up to the current situation. Unfortunately, the non-linear unspooling of these events doesn't serve much purpose, especially as it undercuts everything happening before while also undercutting the significance of the flashbacks as well. Most of the characters are highly undeveloped up until the mid-movie flashbacks that watch our leads become friends. But even after that, when Gyuyeop's hesitation makes sense, that same hesitation to act kind of makes him very uninteresting as all of his conflict is internal. The times that he does pit himself against Jihwan, it never really goes anywhere and by the third act, everything is pretty predictable. And that's not even mentioning the incomprehensible decisions the various characters make, including a nonsense choice made by Jihwan and then his vengeance partner, Siyeong (Gim Bogyeong) in the last act.

Where the story doesn't make sense, Gim Uiseok doesn't help things by pushing how you're supposed to feel with slow motion camera and heavy score work, but since none of those feelings are earned by the story, everything just seems overblown. Some of the action is decent, but even the fight choreography tends towards the unbelievable as we have moments where characters are being utterly ignored on the battlefield so we can take in their shock or a group of warriors is undone by a single combatant because the group refuses to work as a team. I mean, these are common action tropes but because nothing else in the film is that believable, these elements also become harder to swallow too.

The film also looks a touch rough in terms of overall production. Even the film stock feels a little cheap, especially compared to the technical capacity of contemporary Korean film, but 2003 was a point where Korean film was able to really polish their productions, so the film is further weakened by its production quality limits. And given both the weakness in the script and directing, the actors weren't left much to work with, especially with their rather simple characters, so in the end, the only thing the film has going for it is that it's still intelligible and the costumes are decent. But there are better sageuks and this film can be safely ignored for those. 4/10

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Ex Machina (2015)

Say what you will about the shaky third acts in the movies Alex Garland has written, he at least shows a great deal of imagination and willingness to try things from 28 Days Later to Sunshine. So now with his first directorial role he again brings out an original script for Ex Machina and again manages to go unexpected places, this time only stumbling in the last minutes of the otherwise well wrought film.

Ex Machina starts with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) winning a rare opportunity to hang out for a week with Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive genius founder of his search engine employer, Bluebook. When he gets there, Nathan surprises him by inviting him to help him test his latest creation: artificial intelligence in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander), an android that might be fully self aware. However, as Caleb falls into Nathan's rabbit hole, he starts to realize that the test, Nathan, and Ava aren't exactly what they appear to be on the surface.

This film actually applies and explores the Turing test even more than the film about Turing, The Imitation Game, in investigating to some extent what it means to be self-aware: human, placed into a bit of a thriller shell as Caleb gets drawn into Nathan and Ava's world and becomes infatuated with the latter. But even with an impressive moment of Blade Runner-like doubt on the part of Caleb near the top of the third act, the questions raised by artificial intelligence--the science fiction of the film--are actually secondary to the film's primary mode: a thriller.

The world that Garland has constructed for Caleb, Nathan, and Ava makes plenty of sense and Garland is quite good at explaining why the story's plot points are the way they are without seeming contrived, at least until the end of the film. There's a great amount of danger present in the script from the subterranean building's occasional blackouts to the uncertainty of the motives of both Nathan and Ava. Unfortunately the film stumbles pretty hard in its last few minutes, going much further than it needed to in a couple scenes and effectively taking down the esteem that the film could have been capable of by a couple pegs, but contradicting a plot point of the film and then resolving the film in such a way that it was rather unbelievable.

But even with the literally last minute stumble, Garland manages to make quite a feature out of a limited number of sets and actors, handling the vision of the film with a good deal of confidence. Special appreciation should also go to cinematographer Rob Hardy. Also important to note is the excellent performance that Oscar Isaacs rendered for Nathan Bateman, who captures the hipster-nerd drunk with power so well that it never comes across as a farce. The other three actors also acquit themselves well, but Isaacs deserved special mention.

It's just really too bad the film ended the way it did instead of leaving well enough alone, but I think that it is one of Garland's seeming weaknesses. And because of the logical inconsistencies it creates and the great number of logical questions we then have to ask about what happened in the intervening scenes, the decisions at the end of the film do weaken Ex Machina a bit. However, with most of the film being a well rendered and tense thriller, even when you don't think any threat of death or dismemberment is coming, I still have to respect Garland and company's work here on Ex Machina. And it's certainly more stimulating than the less intelligent science fiction-action films Hollywood tends to churn out as blockbusters. For that, fans of genuine science fiction and thrillers will likely want to see Ex Machina, even if they are also a little disappointed by the film's end. 7/10

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