Thursday, October 30, 2014

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 is a reflection of the purchase of Marvel by Disney. It's a Disney film that is loosely based on the Marvel comic book of the same name and it's released as the yearly Disney film while still retaining some ties to its Marvel Comics roots. And while the adaptation largely does away with much of the original comic series, retaining versions of some of the original Big Hero 6's characters, it actually manages to make a surprisingly decent superhero movie in the process, even if it's still a predictable by-the-numbers affair.

The Marvel team was a team of six Japanese superheroes and Big Hero 6 the movie retains the basic idea and names of four of those characters and transplants the team to the strange city of San Fransokyo, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo. In this world, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), is a boy genius robotics expert who runs around town grifting illegal bot matches for money, having graduated from high school at thirteen. His older brother, Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney), a student at San Fransokyo's Institute of Technology, manages to convince Hiro to apply for school after introducing Hiro to his awesome lab and friends.

Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and a mysterious criminal wearing a Kabuki mask is later found wielding Hiro's seemingly destroyed invention for possibly nefarious purposes. Accompanied by Beymax (Scott Adsit), Tadashi's invention--a health care robot--and the help of Tadashi's friends, they try to uncover who the criminal and stop him from using Hiro's invention.

In the movie, Fred (T.J. Miller) literally says that they are describing an origin story, a tried and true type of comic book superhero story and he is right. Big Hero 6 is basically the story of one boy and his friends becoming heroes. And Big Hero 6 does this is classic fashion, complete with tragic loss, the tension between seeking justice and vengeance, and overcoming personal desires for the good of others. You've seen this kind of story with all manner of more human superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman and Hiro Hamada, boy genius, is another entry into that tradition. What the film does well in this particular regard is setting up Hiro and Tadashi's relationship, which further fuels both Hiro's decisions in the future as well as the internal conflict that he faces: that relationship and its proxy via Beymax, is one of the most compelling aspects of the film.

It's unfortunate that just about every other character and relationship is underdeveloped. All of the Hamada brothers friends, aside from Beymax, are single dimensional characters. And they are almost entirely dispensable in terms of story, plot, and thematic purpose. The film is not about team-making, even though it has a team, it's about the making of a single hero and it honestly might have been better as a boy-and-his-robot kind of story. The rest of the team does provide a measure of whimsy and comedy, but that is all easily taken care of by Beymax as well. I know that means that it couldn't really be called Big Hero 6, it could have been called Big Hero and a sequel will introduce the rest of the team. This would have given a little more space to explore the film's villain a little more and done better to strike the villain's parallels with Hiro.

This might also help a bit with the film's pacing issue and the draggy moment that happens in the middle of the film during the "training montage", which actually spends a considerable piece of time with just Hiro and Beymax flying through the sky. And perhaps I've just been overexposed to superhero films, but the whole "joy of superpowers" moment that Hiro has with Beymax flying just felt overlong and distracting from the film's point, which feels a little torn between being a story of personal growth and that of being a superhero.

It almost feels like Big Hero 6 is trying to force a superhero element onto a more personal regular hero story as Hiro and the Big Hero 6 are formed for the seemingly simple purpose of self-preservation and recovery of Hiro's technology. There is never really much of an external pull for Big Hero 6 to do anything other than confront their nemesis and, you know, help people outside of themselves. Which is what being a hero is about in the superhero world. This feeling of being forced is further impressed by Fred's seemingly sudden love of comic books and the meta-commentary he engages in--as such there's a lot of talk about the team being heroes, but there's really not a lot of actual hero-ing going on.

Another thing that feels a bit forced on this adaptation is the setting of San Fransokyo. Not unlike Firefly, the Asian elements in the fused town of San Fransokyo seem utterly superficial and there's not much explanation or exploration of what it means to live in this hybrid future-town. It's not clear if this is an alternate reality or what, but there is no impact to the setting and it seems rather arbitrary except as a compromise to the original comic book's roots as a Japanese team. And that really feels watered down to the point that it doesn't make sense to do it at all--why not just set it in San Francisco or Tokyo and let it be?

The thing that is impeccable about Big Hero 6, and can be said about the vast majority of Disney animated features, is that the film looks good. The art style is in keeping with Disney's overall style, rather than a more Marvel Comics-influenced style, but that works well given the tone and the direction of the story. The animation in particular is excellent, with wonderfully believable movement and the artists making great playful use of Beymax's inflated form as well as some of the technology-fueled superpowers on display. Again, the whole East-meets-West world of San Fransokyo is utterly forgettable, but it's modeled and designed well enough.

As for the music, it feels a little too fanfare-like at time and this goes back to the fact that the film doesn't quite live up to the idea of superheroes even though it does capture an origin story well. The voice actors are neither exceptional nor deficient.

But for all of its many stumbles, the core trio of the Hamada brothers and Beymax still help drive the film well and while the story doesn't quite hold together as well as fellow animated superhero film, The Incredibles, it is admittedly still an enjoyable time in the theater. It's a film that could have easily been better if it didn't seem like it was developed trying to cram the superhero, team, and Japanese elements into the story and while the ending teases more adventures, I'm really not sure that any follow-up could be any more interesting, considering that Big Hero 6 isn't terribly concerned about superhero-ing or even being a superhero team in particular. However, none of that stopped Big Hero 6's Beymax from both making me laugh and giving me a few really heartwarming moments too. And I think that makes Big Hero 6 worth checking out for fans of tales of brotherhood and action-oriented animation. 7/10.

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내 생애 봄날 (2014): 14회 나 건강하게 저 사람이랑 오래오래 행복하게 살고 싶어

"I Want to Live Healthily with That Person for a Very Long Time" starts with Dongha somehow making it all the way to his own car without noticing the commotion from when Bomi passed out. Hyeoksu calls Dongha and asks about Bomi's well being and whereabouts while Hyeoksu gets a call from the hospital about her condition. Dongha visits Bomi's home and pieces together what might have happened from Bomi's cryptic statements, calling Dong-uk. Dong-uk lets Dongha know that Bomi's in the emergency room and Dong-uk takes him to her.

Myeonghui arrives at the hospital and Dongha steps away from Bomi's side. Bomi dreams of Sujeong saving her life, wakes up, and is moved to a different hospital room. Hyeoksu fills in Dongha and asks him to wait for Bomi. Bomi explains to Myeonghui that she broke up with Dongha because she was afraid that she might die.

Dong-uk takes a turn to try to convince Bomi to see Dongha using what he's learned from Jiwon but she's in a deep pity party and won't be moved, texting Dongha an apology, which Dongha responds with patience. But when Bomi finally makes the decision to see Dongha, he's left to see his mother. Hyeonsun tries to convince Dongha to walk away, seeing the parallels between Sujeong and Bomi.

As Dongha packs for a long haul at the hospital, he confesses to Sujeong that he is going to Bomi to get a chance to complete with her what he was never able to complete with Sujeong. Bomi escapes the hospital and walks all the way to Dongha's house and is brought back by Dongha. There she declares the episode's title. And in Hyeoksu's office, Hyeoksu accepts Dongha's wish to be beside Bomi at the hospital.

Sena and Hyeong-u bring some things from Bomi's place and some gifts for the hospitalized couple, including a set of things that Bomi had asked Dongha for and add a little levity to the room.

The next day Bomi goes for a walk and then, when trying to brush her teeth, she passes out. Dongha asks for Dong-uk's support and Dong-uk promises it. Bluesea (and Hyeonsun) comes visit the next day with some food. Later, Dongha asks Bomi to marry him and pledges to be her guardian, to which she agrees.

I'm not going to lie, I was predisposed to dislike this episode after the redundant contrivance-fest of the last one, especially since it begins with the ridiculous scene that ended the last. And it doesn't start well. There isn't much plot or story for the first quarter of the episode, opting to spend minutes of musical montage in video or audio flashback. And then, despite all of Bomi's ailing health, it's apparently Sujeong that saves her again, even if it's her heart that's also causing the problems.

If there was a conflict between Sujeong and Bomi and that was the reason why Bomi's heart started failing, maybe I'd be all right with this. Or maybe if the story were much more about sickess, I'd be able to accept this, but as it is, Bomi's failing health is absolutely nothing more than a very convenient plot device, rather than a meaningful one. Even all of Bomi's lies from the last episode don't amount to anything this episode. If they had paid off in character development or thematically, that would have been nice, but the parallel drawn between Bomi-Dongha and Jiwon-Dong-uk doesn't pay off enough to make it worth it as Dong-uk's being won over by the couple also feels a bit too easy.

Accordingly, I can't really get behind Bomi's choice to back away from the relationship now that her health is again suspect because it was absolutely in her character to approach challenges bravely. I can accept some kinds of character regression, but Bomi regressing to a version of herself we haven't even been witness to in the span of the show is pretty poor overall storytelling. Furthermore, this doesn't really push any development from Myeonghui even though it obviously reconciles mother and daughter--so all of Myeonghui's opposition seems rather wasted in terms of story and character development too as it never really spoke that much about Myeonghui after Dong-uk and Bomi broke up.

Also, sick Bomi walking all the way to Dongha's house in her patient garb with no money or anything? Really? Her change of heart, after resisting so hard, happened on a text. If she was going to be all blue and avoiding Dongha due to some sense of sacrifice, I think she would need a bigger push than a single text to turn that around. And then, she walks all the way to Dongha's? What, is calling or texting back not enough? She could do that to find out where Dongha was? Or did she suddenly and instantaneously forget how to use her phone?

The episode predictably has Bomi's sickness turn around her parents, which is something you could see coming since episode one. But just because it was telegraphed and obviously what would happen doesn't mean that it really is earned or benefits the greater story. In fact, it actually draws the attention to the fact that the story kind of lacks substance. I mean, it moved forward pretty quickly, but aside from some conflict about propriety in relationships and then a tiny moment on self-sacrifice, the story is overall lacking in any solid themes or greater observations or meanings.

Finally, I have to say, this episode really highlights just how many time everybody on the entire show apologizes to everyone else. I mean, I get apologizing, but I feel like the apology to episode ratio probably exceeds ten. It got old many episodes ago, but when the show isn't able to materialize a solid story in its final act, it goes from old to annoying.

I got bored in this episode. Much like last episode, not much of particular interest happened that wasn't predictable. The mundane activities that we see Dongha and Bomi engage in don't have much effectiveness without a greater story to attach to. Even moments like Bomi getting ill and passing out are simply overplayed at this point, having lost their effectiveness well before her health complications came into the picture because it was all so telegraphed and wasn't done to any meaningful story point.

I think I realize now that what I was so taken by in the many episodes of this show was the surprise at how fast this show moves. I mean, I liked that the character relationships were so warm too and those two things were enough for me. However, as much as I appreciated the swift movement, I don't think that warm relationships alone can carry a story. And it's true. At this point, the show is surprising no one and if you can see everything coming a mile away, there's almost no reason to watch. I could just skip to the end to see if she lives or dies, which is the only thing left in question now and call it a night. But the next two reviews won't write themselves.

As it stands, this episode was just barely more tolerable than the last and the final bits of goodwill the show earned by not getting hung up in the usual dramatic angst has worn away as the show failed to establish anything more interesting at its core. I've lost hope that it will as it seems that it's much too late to do so. And all the cheap melodrama only makes it worse. 5/10

P.S. This show is actually making me dislike hearing the words "thank you" and "I'm sorry". That's quite a feat.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

내 생애 봄날 (2014): 13회 너 지금 쓰러져도 하나도 이상할거 없을만큼 위험해

So we start "It's Dangerous Enough That It Wouldn't Be Strange If You Passed Out Right Now" with Dongha unintentionally stood up. Bomi stays true to her change of heart (no pun intended) last episode and comes up with an excuse to send Dongha home via text message. Dong-uk explains that Bomi's heart has weakened and that it might be because of stress and asks Bomi to get a biopsy the next day to see what's going on. Bomi asks to go home for the night and return in the morning. Dongha himself ends up back home and gets a call from Bomi, who comes by the house from the hospital. Bomi lies to Dongha about her condition.

Dong-uk fills in Hyeoksu on what happened just before Myeonghui gets home. Hyeoksu opts not to tell Myeonghui at the moment about Bomi's condition. The lying gets converted into a half-truth at the coffeeshop as Dongha offers to buy Bomi a beverage and she explains she has a medical checkup and has to fast. As Dongha downs a hastily ordered beverage, Bomi's vision gets blurry. Dongha relays Pureun's request to inform Bomi of her adoption. Dong-uk calls Dongha to confirm if Bomi was going to stand by her lie. Bomi promises to Sujeong to guard her heart as well as Sujeong and then writes Pureun a really lovely text message. Then Bomi calls Dongha and they make plans for future dates. This gets Dongha recording these things on his checklist.

Bomi wakes up to find Hyeoksu sleeping in her room and Bomi asks Hyeoksu to keep her deteriorating health from Myeonghui too. Sena tells Hyeong-u about what happened and to keep it a secret, leaving Hyeong-su struggling to keep it. At the hospital, as Bomi awaits her results, Dong-uk threatens her hospital and father and asks her to marry him and fly to the Middle East as a joke, revealing the trouble at the hospital and Dong-uk's potential leaving.

Hyeoksu relieves Dong-uk as he has to work and Dong-uk and Jiwon pass each other silently in the hall with hesitation. After the checkup, Hyeoksu also makes a joke about Bomi marrying Dong-uk. Then Bomi has a snack and meets with Myeonghui and Myeonghui scolds her again, but Bomi compliments Myeonghui and asks her for her help in being a mother and Myeonghui expresses that helping Bomi is what she will do. On her way home, Bomi struggles again before stopping by a photo studio.

Bomi then visits Dongha at work. Sena informs Bomi that she's going to meet Hyeong-u's family before she excuses herself as Dongha arrives. Bomi and Dongha meet with Hyeonsun for dinner whereupon Bomi presents Hyeonsun with a gift. Hyeonsun tries to dissuade Bomi with the children, but Bomi turns that around on Hyeonsun by expressing a love for Bluesea and a desire to learn. Back at the bar of brooding, Dong-uk runs into Jiwon and presents her with a gift to apologize to her and he apologizes. Dong-uk pries to see if she might still have feelings for him, but she lies claims to work at the hospital out of duty to Chairman Song.

The gift that Bomi offers Hyeonsun is a photo album of her grandchildren. Then Hyeonsun asks Myeonhui to meet again. As Bomi gets ready for sleep, Dongha calls and the two of them make plans to spend the next afternoon together.

The next day, Myeonghui and Hyeoksu get dinner with Dong-uk and Jiwon and Dong-uk announces that he will be staying at the hospital as director on paper. Dong-uk asks Jiwon to set up a meeting with Chairman Song to talk further about the international wing as well as the organ transplant center, the latter of which Jiwon removed from Dong-uk's contract. Then Myeonghui meets with Hyeonsun and Hyeonsun apologizes for Dongha and Myeonghui takes her leave.

At home, Bomi prepares some confections but suffers another health complication while Dongha prepares for their date. At the hospital, Hyeoksu gets the news that Bomi's heart is in bad shape. Hyeoksu heads straight home to take Bomi to the hospital as her body is rejecting her heart. Despite Hyeoksu's protestations, Bomi runs out for her date with Dongha, but collapses outside Hyeoksu's car, eventually gathering herself to get as far as the bridge outside the dabang that Dongha is waiting at, before collapsing yet another time. She finally makes it to Dongha looking quite pale. Dongha presents her the bracelet, but Bomi rejects it.

Bomi apologizes for making so many plans with Dongha and then breaks up with him without explaining. And then, as she leaves the dabang, she passes out. Dongha leaves in a daze and misses Bomi passed out on the street.

There really doesn't appear to be a good reason for Bomi to lie to Dongha and it looks like the show is doing this in order to up the drama by keeping Dongha in the dark. I don't like this because it's not justified by the characters. Likewise not justified is Dong-uk's "joke" about marrying, which doesn't entirely make sense after his revelation with Jiwon and his subsequent improving relationship with his brother. Hyeoksu's joke also comes a little forced--possibly as foreshadowing a choice that Bomi will have in helping the hospital and her father by marrying Dong-uk, but that seems so utterly regressive and out of character that I can't imagine this show doing it.

Furthermore, while I like how Bomi manages to answer the concerns of the two mothers in the picture, her intention to meet with Dongha even after she's told that she's unwell and her continuing desire to lie to Dongha about it doesn't seem to make any sense. I get that she feels bad about standing Dongha up previously, but a tiny bit of honesty would easily solve a lot of problems right now. It doesn't come across as true to her character and it's just quite stupid, the only effect of which is to press the melodrama.

And none of the melodrama is convincing because it really isn't earned. It even raises questions as to why Sujeong would push Bomi to Dongha only to break her heart (pun intended this time). What's more, this episode breaks with the series' tradition and literally just repeats itself in various scenarios over and over again. Bomi does something, she feels ill, she soldiers on, making things worse. Everyone apologizes and no one's minds are changed. Bomi lies over and over to Dongha without any good cause. Even Jiwon gets in on the act by lying to Dong-uk. But when the episode ends, we're left exactly where we started at the beginning of the episode except now Bomi has "broken up" with Dongha and now she's completely out of character.

And the ending. The ending was so terrible. Dongha walks out into a medical emergency ruckus and he doesn't even turn to investigate what's going on despite a whole crowd of strangers having been driven to Bomi's side? I mean, I get that he's shocked and disappointed, but is he not human? Where did all of his compassion go? The problem with all this is that the writing seems so obvious. Bomi has to lie to Dongha about her condition, even though it's inevitable that he will find out because it's the only way for this ending to this episode to happen. The whole episode is contrived to drive to this particular ending and none of it actually serves the overall story. This is effectively a filler episode as we're going to go right back to the end of the last episode.

And that's tremendously disappointing, reminding me of the junkpile that was episode six. What's more, this episode did exactly what I thought it would do. It was entirely telegraphed, which made it exceptionally boring as I was led to wait for the redundant ending. I've already seen Dongha go behind Bomi's back and have the two reconcile, do I really need to see the reverse? The one thing about this show that was most attractive to me was how it always kept pushing forward and surprising me at every turn by not dragging out things that logically didn't make sense to be dragged out.

And yet here we are, doing the exact opposite of that with little justification except to create this utterly pointless and flat melodramatic cliche. I mean if the show were better thematically set up for this or if it had managed this turn with great finesse, perhaps I might have accepted it, but melodrama is something this show has proven to be exceptionally weak at. And it's really pressing it here. So we are essentially back at the idiocy of episode six again. And I tolerate this only because I'm stubborn enough to have to finish everything I start. But if this is the way My Spring Day is going to go, it looks like I'm going to have to suffer a great deal as I watch a promising show go down in flames. 4/10

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

내 생애 봄날 (2014): 12회 내 마음이 그 사람 옆에 가 있었어

"My Heart Was Already Beside That Person" starts off with the last's cliffhanger. Myeonghui immediately orders Bomi to pack up and follow Myeonghui after seeing her with Dongha. In the following interrogation, Bomi tells Myeonghui who Dongha is. Myeonghui is deeply hurt by that. Meanwhile, Dongha makes another attempt to see Dong-uk. Dong-uk brushes him off and Dongha tells Dong-uk that he will wait for him. Hyeongsun gets a rare dinner with Dong-uk to offer him some consolation.

Bomi sneaks away from the tense household to debrief with Dongha and Dongha learns of Hyeoksu and Dong-uk's friendship. Bomi learns that the Gang brothers lost their father when he was a kid and that Dongha feels some amount of guilt for choosing to work the family farm over spending time with Dong-uk. After a brief date in a park and a street food vendor, the two promise to share everything with each other and Bomi sneaks in a peck on Dongha's cheek before running home.

Her mood is broken by her mother waiting for her in her room and Bomi confesses to Myeonghui that she pursued Dongha and she makes clear that she understands everything that's troubling about the situation, but that her relationship with Dongha makes her happy and that it's what she wants. Back at Dongha's place, we get hit with the revelation that Pureun is adopted and Pureun worries that her adoption is blocking the relationship.

Later that night, Bomi suffers shallow breath and a dizzy spell, but cooks a huge breakfast for her family in the morning. Myeonghui comes in and orders Bomi to break it off and grounds her too. Hyeonsun then asks Bongha out to lunch too to oppose Dongha and Bomi's relationship because of its impracticality. Bomi calls Dongha and the two share that they've both been reprimanded by their mothers. Dongha informs Bomi and he plans to meet Hyeoksu again and Bomi asks to just talk on the phone until Bomi can win over Myeonghui.

On one of their secret dates, Hyeong-u reveals to Sena that she's actually a chaebol himself, but because of the fact that he chooses to work for Dongha, Sena won't believe it and likes Hyeon-u despite the fact that she thinks he's like her. Dongha visits Hyeoksu at the hospital and explains that he won't be backing off from Bomi after having already tried to push Bomi away and failed.

Back in hospital politics-land, Dong-uk has a meal with Chairman Song and Song says that without Dong-uk, he will be taking his investment out of the hospital and invest with the Arabs instead, offering Dong-uk a place there, along with Jiwon. Song also reveals to Dong-uk that he misunderstood his relationship with Jiwon. Jiwon, afraid that Dong-uk will learn of her oncoming infertility, asked Chairman Song to take her to another hospital. Song generously offered to send Jiwon abroad for studies and that was it. Dong-uk confronts Jiwon about the truth and hears Jiwon explain her fears and that Dong-uk's snap judgement is why she let him continue to believe the rumors.

Dong-uk visits Dongha to hear him out and Dongha apologizes for not trying to reconcile with Dong-uk after he got together with Sujeong. Dong-uk, facing his recent revelation with Jiwon, expresses that he understands why Bomi left him and that he's actually relatively okay with Dongha and Bomi. Later that night, Bomi struggles again with unexpected health issues before receiving a friendly call from Dongha. The next day, Hyeong-u and Sena conspire to give Bomi and Dongha a date using some subterfuge. Hyeong-u leads Dongha on a jewelry shopping trip where Dongha picks up a bracelet for Bomi.

On the way to their date, Bomi's health takes a nosedive and she ends up in the hospital with Dong-uk attending her. Bomi asks Dong-uk not to tell Dongha about what happened, breaking their mutual oath of honesty. As for Dongha, he gets stood up.

I like that Dong-uk isn't playing full jerk anymore and is just working on his hurt now. What I'm much less convinced by is Jiwon and Chairman Song's story. He seemed to be exceptionally compassionate to a stranger, when he is seem to be rather calculating in terms of his dealings. As such, it seems to be a conflict of character for him to have taken Jiwon under his wing and the whole mess seems overly contrived to lead Dong-uk to his confusion. Furthermore, the fact that they stayed broken up boils down to a single misunderstanding that could have, and should have, been fixed with a simple explanation makes it really hard to accept, especially considering the rather positive paradigm of this show. Whereas the original love triangle of Dongha, Sujeong, and Dong-uk makes sense, Jiwon and Dong-uk's own story neither falls in the logic or the worldview of the show and I think that's why it rubs me the wrong way so much, even though I want to cheer for the two of them to reconcile.

I also like that the show still hasn't lost its optimism and has most of the characters working to understand and be compassionate to each other. This makes Myeonghui's hurt a little harder to understand because the worldview of the show is so positive, but she still seems to lack compassion for her daughter. At least Hyeoksu, though disapproving, still tries to see her daughter's side.

Although the show seems to be swinging deep into melodrama mode, it still retains a few cute moments, like Dongha and Bomi's moment at the street food vendor where they playfully poke fun at each other as well as the kiss Bomi sneaks on Dongha's cheek. Likewise, Dongha and Pureun's ddeokbokki chat balances Pureun's concerns with a little levity too.

But it's pretty clear that everything that I predicted, with Bomi's health failing being the next story arc that will force the characters to resolve their differences, is going to happen. And it's a terrible choice as the resolution will be forced by a contrived circumstance, rather than the characters working it out for themselves. What's more, given the seasonal title of the show, I actually fear that Bomi will end up just an episode in Dongha's life as spring passes onto summer, meaning that she too will be claimed by the tides of fate that previously claimed Sujeong, as her body starts to reject Sujeong's heart.

The other disappointment with this episode is that it also marks the first episode that really failed to move the story forward. Basically, this is the second episode that is about parents forbidding Dongha and Bomi's relationship. And while I still enjoy the tone of the show, it's a bit annoying that even after shedding tears with Bomi's confession, Myeonghui still chooses to oppose Bomi's desire to be with Dongha. This is again setting up Myeonghui to be convinced in the end by Bomi's greatly shortened life, to let Bomi have Dongha, if even for just for the little life that she has left. And the thought of that makes my eyes roll. I get that terminal illness can drive you to accept things that maybe you couldn't accept before, but it's a real disservice to those with terminal illness to use it as a hammer-like plot device. What's more, I worry that the show is setting up Bomi to repeat Jiwon's mistake of not telling Dongha of her health problem--now I see that Dong-uk is placed there to intervene and prevent that, but it's just so uncharacteristic of Bomi to want to lie that the whole eventual subplot seems undeniably telegraphed.

As such, despite how much I like the optimistic and balanced tone of the show, I still feel like it's going to tread a predictably contrived path, just as the plot of this episode was utterly predictable. With so many characters and relationships that I like here, the twelfth episode turns out to be a little disappointing because of what it foreshadows. That said, the show might be setting up a red herring too, so I can't judge the show on what might happen, only what did. And what did happen was a mix of pleasant relationship scenes and warm optimism and contrived melodrama, leaving the show to land somewhere in the acceptable range. I'm hoping that the show goes back to surprising me and overturning my doubts in the last quartet of episodes. But seeing Bomi uncharacteristically lie for her at the end of the episode, the prognosis is not good. While this episode was all right, I expect the show to tank and me to be left gnashing my teeth in rage. 7/10

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Friday, October 24, 2014

かぐや姫の物語 (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya marks the return of Studio Ghibli's Takahata Isao to the director's chair, last having directed on 1999's My Neighbors the Yamadas. Like the Yamadas, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya also marks a bit of a departure from Studio Ghibli's usual visualization, opting instead for a more classically-inspired picture-book watercolor art style in keeping with the story's adaptation from the classical Japanese folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. And it also happens to be the finest effort by the venerated Studio in the last decade.

The film actually follows the storyline of the folk tale fairly closely, expanding much more on the early part of the story. As the folk tale goes, a bamboo cutter (Chii Takeo) one days discovers a baby girl in a bamboo sprout and takes her home. He and his wife (Miyamoto Nobuko) raise her as their own and she rapidly grows into a young woman nicknamed by the local children as "Bamboo Shoot" (Asakura Aki) for the speed of her growth. Meanwhile, the bamboo cutter begins discovering fine clothing and gold in the bamboo he cuts and, believing that heaven has sent him both his princess and the means to take care of her, he uproots young Bamboo Shoot and takes her to the capital to live in a mansion as a proper princess.

Bamboo Shoot takes instruction on being a proper princess, but longs for the wild fields where she grew up. After her official naming as Princess Kaguya, word of her beauty spreads far and wide, eventually resulting in the five most powerful men coming to her door for her hand in marriage, but she spurns them, tasking them to bring her fabled objects to which she is compared. Eventually, they fail, and the Emperor Mikado himself (Nakamura Shichinosuke II) comes to take the unwilling Kaguya for himself as his mistress.

While the story stays pretty true to the folktale in its plot, the film itself embellishes a great section of Princess Kaguya's youth in the woodlands, spending much time with her growing from baby to young woman, both with her parents as well as her neighborhood friends, including Sutemaru (Kora Kengo), a lad to whom she especially endears herself. As such the conflict in the film is markedly different for the majority of the film, Kaguya herself given reason to avoid the noblemen because of her continuing love for her childhood in the countryside and her lingering feelings for Sutemaru. This helps ground her character in a genuine love for the earth so when the eventual realization that she is of the Moon and must eventually forget her life on earth and return, it is all the more tragic.

And yet for the tragedy, the film is surprisingly affirming of the people of Earth and the great range of experiences, both positive and tragic, that humans experience versus the static peace and joy of the people of the Moon. This is an interesting and subtle humanistic revision of the original tale, which is more of a "god-temporarily-on-earth" story, in keeping with the kind of stories that Studio Ghibli tends towards. Yet, by choosing to retain the course of the plot, the film also retains the powerfully bittersweet ending of the folktale, even if reframed in a more humanistic light, and so is quite a moving experience by its end.

That said, there is some weakness in both choosing to stick with the original tale's plot as well as in choosing to embellish Kaguya's childhood more. First of all, the fact that the Moon's demand of Kaguya comes as a final act twist without any foreshadowing still results in it being a bit abrupt and furthermore, the tension that it raises between the human and celestial experiences doesn't quite get the attention it deserves for being such a potent element of the film's end. Choosing to draw out Kaguya's childhood on the other hand, adds to the film's lengthy running time and doesn't really help drive the film as Kaguya's childhood is somewhat lacking in conflict and story, but is effectively just an extended montage. A playful one with humor and fun, but nonetheless inert when it comes to being compelling. It could be argued that it's necessary in order to have Kaguya be so wistful about it, but I feel like it could have been more abbreviated and adjusted to give Kaguya more specific moments that would be precious to her rather than just the general element of having spent time there. I think that's what Sutemaru is supposed to be, but Kaguya's experience with Sutemaru is too limited to be convincing.

On the other hand, the film's art style is impeccably gorgeous and gains a tremendous deal from Takahata's overall decision to drift from the standard Ghiblian style. In particular, as the story itself is a piece of traditional narrative, I really appreciate how the art style itself chooses to accept a more traditional, often rough or mimimalist style. The bold lines and whitespace are reminiscent of traditional Japanese painting styles and the watercolor-like painting gives the image a bit of a feel of a children's picture book, perhaps the kind which might include a retelling of this classic folk tale.

And, like other Ghibli films, Princess Kaguya is beautifully animated, with much hand drawn life being imparted into the picture. Little details like the slight shifting of the lines helps give the film a sense of artisanal work while the animation still remains clean and delightful to the eyes. Princess Kaguya also features one highly impressionistic and powerful scene where Kaguya runs from the castle and it is rendered in a blurry, almost instinctual form of animation, with ragged lines and seemingly less frames per second in keeping with the powerful emotions she is feeling driving her to flee. Moments like this and the overall thought put into the direction of the art really elevates Princess Kaguya beyond the already exemplary norm established by Studio Ghibli.

Oh and Hisaishi Joe's score is predictably gorgeous, especially for his incorporation of traditional composition styles and orchestration in keeping with the tale's roots and its classically-inspired art style. It's a score that's moving enough on its own, so being tied to this picture is simply enchanting.

The art style and music, combined with the classical folk tale, make Princess Kaguya perhaps the most deeply Japanese film ever produced by Studio Ghibli, while never losing the humanistic leaning of the studio. I do think that the choice to add to Kaguya's life in the countryside as well as retaining the final act surprise of the original folk tale will lose some viewers either for being too slow and disappointing in terms of thematic delivery, but I also don't think those faults effectively diminish what Takahata and Studio Ghibli has accomplished with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. It is truly a gorgeous work of visual art tied to an emotional tale of the beauty of the human experience. Perhaps the best Studio Ghibli film in many years. Easily arguably one of the best animated films of the year, if not one of the best films of the year overall. And I can give The Tale of the Princess Kaguya no higher recommendation. 10/10

Note: I watched this film in Japanese with English subtitles and cannot speak to the quality of the English dub that will eventually reach theaters. As the film is a Japanese folk tale set in Japan, I will highly suggest also watching it in Japanese with subtitles instead of a native language dub.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

말하는 건축가 (2012)

After Jeong Jaeeun's captivating debut film, Take Care of My Cat, I admit that I was a little disappointed by her vague and unfocused follow-up, The Aggressives. However, I was still looking forward to another film from director Jeong, but the years rolled on and I heard nothing. It was seven years after the release of The Aggressives that saw Jeong Jaeeun's return to feature filmmaking and I was surprised by her new project: a documentary called Talking Architect. But as I watched this biography about locally renowned Korean architect Jeong Giyong I found myself drawn in, by the fascinating subject, as well as Jeong Jaeeun's patient, observational approach.

Talking Architect catches architect Jeong towards the end of his life. He is suffering from cancer and had recently had surgery. He lost his voice and speaks in a raspy whisper, often augmenting his voice with a microphone and speaker. But he is still running around giving lectures on architecture and is coordinating with a museum that is hoping to present an exhibit based on his life and works. The film also spends a little time revisiting buildings that Jeong designed both with and without him, presenting older video footage taken by and of him in the past, and interviewing both Jeong and his colleagues on Jeong, his philosophies, and architecture overall, including a round of takes on Zaha Hadid's futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

These asides help ground audiences in an understanding of the perspectives on architecture, showing that Jeong Giyong stands in a rare place in Korean architecture, focused specifically on working with the environment to find solutions to architecture problems. This results in his building a children's library around a tree rather than tearing out the tree and also in building stands around a field where the shade for the stands is actually provided by trees that have been guided to grow around a skeleton. And throughout all this, we listen to architect Jeong wax on philosophically about what he's been trying to do with architecture and how he's especially interested in how it organizes and solves spatial problems for people.

And Jeong Giyong is rather magnetic because of his solutions oriented approach and zeal for his work. Granted, this isn't a hagiography as it does show Jeong getting a little cranky about adjustments to his work, like the placement of solar panels near the aforementioned stands or on top of an elderly community center he designed, as well as in the later part of the film, getting a bit picky and ambitious about the museum exhibit, leading to some conflict with the museum and exhibit directors. And there is also the potshots taken by Jeong and his colleagues at Hadid's work, which does belie a bit of petty envy as it was certainly a huge contract.

But I think what helps make Talking Architect so compelling, aside from the earnest personality of architect Jeong himself, is how director Jeong investigates and observes him. While she does observe his interactions with the museum staff as the exhibit becomes a major part of architect Jeong's late story, in many ways we follow him in smaller moments as well, giving us a look at his character outside of architecture. This includes watching him take a bath at the community center he built, decide that he wants to go to lunch at a particular restaurant he likes, or playing back old home movies he took of a beach trip or riding in the car with his son. This the same natural observation that director Jeong used in Take Care of My Cat so effectively and it serves the documentary purpose well, filling in architect Jeong as more than just an architect, but as a human being.

And it's because of this dedication to fleshing in architect Jeong's character that I found myself moved when at the mid-point of the film, he reappears, dressed in a thick coat, sunglasses, and hat, disguising his hair loss likely from chemotherapy or radiotherapy and looking even more gaunt. And by the time we reach his final moments, which director Jeong was present for, I also felt a sense of loss like his family and staff nearby, as through this film, I felt like I had actually come to know the man.

Talking Architect's ability to make its audience know its subject as well as present his place in his profession so well is what makes it such a compelling biography. It feels natural and while director Jeong is usually simply a fly on the wall, she also has a few behind-the-camera conversations with architect Jeong during the film, helping us to realize the relationship without making herself a subject. This adds an element of personal viewpoint here, helping us to be reminded that documentaries are not objective, but subjective and that we are seeing what director Jeong finds so interesting and fascinating about architect Jeong. And after watching Talking Architect, I have to thank Jeong Jaeeun for sharing with me her perspective on this admirable Korean architect. 9/10.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

내 생애 봄날 (2014): 11회 빨리 와주셔서 감사합니다

"Thank You for Coming So Quickly" is what Bomi says at the top of the episode, while Dongha is more reserved, knowing the coming storms. The first of these is Dong-uk, who won't see him. Hyeoksu meets with Bomi turns out to be a little more accepting of Bomi, although it's clear that the hospital is in potential trouble if Dong-uk leaves and Bomi gets the hint that it got in trouble when Hyeoksu and Myeonghui "cut in line" for a heart transplant. Hyeoksu also declares his opposition to Dongha.

Back at the office Bomi tells Hyeonsun about her heart transplant and Hyeonsun is afraid she might have hurt Bomi and Myeonghui's feelings with her opposition to Bomi and Dong-uk's marriage and would like to apologize to Myeonghui, clearly having changed her mind about Bomi. Bomi decides to quit Hanu Haon due to being uncomfortable about working with Hyeonsun while not being able to disclose her relationship with Dongha. Hyeoksu leaves an apology gift for Dong-uk.

Dong-uk meets with Jiwon and learns about his importance to the hospital. There Jiwon also learns that Dong-uk is open to adopting. Back at Hanu Haon, Dongha confesses to Hyeonsun that Bomi broke up with Dong-uk to get together with Dongha, despite promising earlier to Bomi that they would inform Hyeonsun together. Hyeonsun seems disappointed, especially that the brothers' reconciliation is broken, but also stays out of it.

Bomi invites Dongha to dinner with Bluesea and Bomi receives pills that Sujeong made for Pureun to comfort her from Bluesea. Dongha tells Bomi that he told Hyeonsun about them and then asks Bomi not to work too hard to play mother to Bluesea and to live for herself. Bomi gives Dongha a revised version of Daudet's short stories and then Dongha goes home and confirms his relationship with Pureun, but even Pureun worries about Dong-uk. Dong-uk visits Hyeoksu to get advice on what to do and Hyeoksu just tells him to genuinely do what he believes is best for his future.

Bomi and Hyeonsun meet while Dongha meets with Hyeoksu. Hyeoksu asks Dongha to push Bomi away, considering if it was Pureun. Bomi confirms to Hyeonsun her desire to make the relationship work. Bomi and Dongha meet after this and Dongha holds back on his meeting with Hyeoksu and Bomi calls him out on it. They embrace, just in time for Myeonhui to come up and catch them together in front of Sena's place.

Good place for a cliffhanger. I was afraid that Dongha was going to be able to hold out on meeting with Hyeoksu, so I'm glad that Bomi just called him out on it. This show continually surprises me by not drawing out internal conflict and tackling it head on. Sometimes, like in episode six, the show seems to manufacture conflict just for the purpose of immediately resolving it, but most of the time, I appreciate that the show keeps pushing forward rather than getting stuck on a single issue for multiple episodes.

I really like that Hyeoksu isn't an evil opposed parent in this episode--he really will fight for Bomi on almost every front with the sole exception of Dongha. And even Myeonghui is clearly still very much in love with Hyeoksu, which is driving all that she's doing to push Bomi to Dong-uk. It's a really believable situation and though Myeonghui has an edge about her that makes her unlikable at times, her humanity really helps balance it.

Now that Dong-uk and Bomi have detached, we're also starting to finally see a bit more Jiwon, especially as she remains Dong-uk's other friend at the hospital, outside of Hyeoksu, and now that she knows that her infertility isn't a matter to Dong-uk and Dong-uk is finally open to hearing her side of the story, she's got a lot to think about, and perhaps do, if her self-pity wasn't so oppressive. I think she's still the weak spot for the show because her self-pity and manipulation simply doesn't seem as well driven as any of the other characters' behaviors.

Finally, there are some subtle details that help add bits of levity as well as highlighting the age difference in this episode, like Dongha's inability to send emoticons and his examining his own wrinkles in the mirror. Also amusing are moments like Dongha awkwardly trying to make Bomi comfortable in his car and messing up with the buttons.

All of this goes to serve a kind of tone that My Spring Day is really successfully accomplishing. The show is dramatic and the conflict is present and serious, but the show simultaneously doesn't usually let it get dragged down too far into wallowing in angst by having the characters be aware of their problems and directly handle it. This lets the show keep moving forward instead of getting caught on a wheel of angst while some more delicate problems, like the disrepair in the Gang brothers' relationship continue to help drive the greater conflict.

But the direction also helpfully doesn't really wallow in these moments either, usually opting to keep musical flashback montages to a minimum. It's not masterful direction, but it's clean and straightforward, bathed in the kind of optimistic cinematography that's in keeping with the series' tone, which is ultimately optimistic, but realistic. The realism shows in the restrained level of brightness in the show, that no one is overflowing with boundless joy and ridiculous cuteness as the situation the characters are in is a serious one, but the show still provides enough subtle levity to balance the seriousness of the concerns at hand. And for that, I'm grateful. I do kind of wish we'd spend a little less time with the leads being cutesy with each other and spend a little more time tracking side characters, but the show doesn't really overindulge in that and the realities of the genre and audience expectations of course almost necessitate those extended moments. As such it's not much to complain about.

A solid episode from this series. Appreciated. 8/10

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