Wednesday, October 7, 2015

내 생애 가장 아름다운 일주일 (2005)

While there have been many multi-story threaded films before 2003's Love Actually, including one of my favorites, 1999's Magnolia, I sort of feel that Love Actually in particular had quite the impact on Korean filmmakers and producers as following the success of that movie internationally, Korea started producing a number of films that comprised of multiple interconnected stories, similar in style to Love Actually. And 2005 in particular was a year when many of those movies hit, including Sad Movie and the quite successful All for Love, with each of those films' marketing campaigns even mirroring that of Love Actually.

The latter film originally interested me because it was the first solo feature directorial of Min Kyu-dong, who had previous co-directed the interesting Memento Mori and I was curious what he would do with such a different kind of movie in genre and style and, in the end, I was relatively pleased with All for Love, but almost more because of the expansive cast's performances than director Min's own touch or the somewhat simplistic stories therein.

And there are a lot of stories woven into this film. We start with theater owner Chairman Gwak (Joo Hyun), an irascible older man who has a bit of a crush on his tenant, middle aged coffee shop proprietor O Yeoin (Oh Mi-hee), who hopes to be an actress. Chairman Gwak is in a bind as he's been given a lucrative offer to invest rebuilding his theater, but would have to kick out his tenants, including Yeoin in order to do so. Then there's Gim Changhu (Im Chang-jung), newly married to Ha Seonae (Seo Young-hee), who hides his massive debt from his loving wife and runs around illegally selling trinkets on the subway to collect the debt, while Seonae worries that they might not be able to afford having the child she discovered she's pregnant with.

Trying to collect on Changhu's debt is former college basketball star Bak Seongwon (Kim Su-ro), who is cajoled with money by writer I (Jeon Hye-jin) into being in a television segment where he spends time with a young terminally ill girl Jina (Kim Yoo-jung), who claims that she's his daughter. Jina's best friend is Jo Jiseok (Lee Byung-joon), who lives with his harsh, lonely music executive father Jo Jaegyeong (Chun Ho-jin), who hires the cheerful caretaker Min Taehyeon (Jin Tae-hyun).

Meanwhile, Jiseok's hot-tempered psychiatrist mother Heo Yujeong (Uhm Jung-hwa) develops an interest in a relatively innocent, but dense, bachelor cop Na Docheol (Hwang Jung-min). Finally, pop singer Yu Jeonghun (Jung Kyung-ho), stressed by a contract dispute with Jaegyeong, ends up with a mental illness and under Yujeong's care, sharing a room with mentally unstable nun-in-training Im Sugyeong (Yoon Jin-seo), who harbors a secret fixation on Jeonghun.

Independently, most of the stories are a bit shallow, the romance between Yujeong and Docheol being inexplicable on the part of Yujeong while Suyeong and Jeonghun as well as Chairman Gwak and Yeoin's stories just barely connect to the others. However, a few of the stories do carry some interesting weight, like the hard luck story of Changhu and Seonae as an examination of the challenge of financial hardship on relationships and there is an interesting, though reserved look at homosexual issues with Jaegyeong. Meanwhile, the manipulative story of Seongwon and Jina still manages to be fairly convincing at least until the end basketball moment--but I like how we get to dig a little deeper into his relationship with Jina's mother, Yeonju (Ha Ji-won).

There's also a really strong moment of intersection between several of the stories when Jina's condition gets worse, leading Jiseok to run away and drawing in both parents, their respective issues as well as Changhu and Seonae. Yes, the resolution at the end is a little tidy and some of the stories are still not terribly compelling at the end, but when you look at the breadth of what's going on and how many of the stories are still at least amusing if not compelling, it's still an appreciable tapestry that's woven.

And much of this is thanks to the efforts of the many first rate performing together. The clash of Uhm Jung-hwa's wordly Yujeong and Hwang Jung-min's strangely innocent Docheol might be obnoxious with lesser actors but both manage to give the two enough personality and chemistry that they still work, even if the writing doesn't quite merit what happens. Similarly the exuberance of Seo Young-hee brings out a lot of charm in Im Chang-jung and Seonae's transformation from joyful to fearful is captivating which Im's face naturally captures Changhu's sadsack nature well. And even as much as I dislike the inherent manipulation of child terminal illness characters in fiction, even little Kim Yoo-jung is cute enough that you can't be too disappointed and can understand how she changes Seongwon.

Director Min mostly keeps it simple and doesn't really add too much of a personal touch, except during the ending basketball sequence which kind of reminds me of the climax of Memento Mori, but does seem to work well with his actors and helps focus on the camera on the actors to let them tell the story. It's a clean, bright production as romantic comedies usually are, but Min smartly brings out cooler and darker looks during the dramatic final act while never losing the polish.

This does help give the film enough zip and Min and company behind the camera keeps the pace well enough that even when the story gets a little weak, we're moved along quickly enough to another story that there's rarely too long of a segment that straight bores. Of course that doesn't excuse All for Love's manipulation plays or just the fact that several of the romances are simply poorly grounded, but we are also watching a film that crams a half dozen stories into a feature film time frame, so in many ways we ought to only expect impressions and windows to stories rather than completely developed ones.

But even being aware of that, some of the romances are so baseless and the situations contrived enough that I was sometimes taken out by the questions that were raised but unanswered. And some moments, like the When Harry Met Sally homage, were simply overdone and on the nose. That all results in All for Love being a fairly fun film, with a couple stories having some interesting observations packed in, but also a somewhat shallow film that comes just short of being all it could be. 7/10


Friday, October 2, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 14회

So much to my surprise, stuff actually happens in episode fourteen without skipping around too much so we actually get to watch the story progress. There are still lots of issues with the story that stem back to earlier decisions made, but after fourteen episodes, the show is finally starting to live out its story premise.

Taesu goes deep into revenge mode and seeks out the government broker that initially got him involved in busting opposition party events. The government worker confirms that Taesu's goal is to take down Jongdo and President Yun and then puts him and his boys to work, busting up opposition party events. Meanwhile Hyerin has picked up on her dealer duties quickly and has become a lead dealer at her father's casino. Furthermore, she's been picking up on business chatter around the floor during her duties and has been using that insider information to game the stock market, eventually making enough money and more to pay off the debt she incurred from her father. And the instead of quitting her job, she decides to continue on, earning the gruff respect of her father who sternly teaches her how to be more powerful seeming.

Taesu, with the government broker's help, learns of Jongdo and President Yun's weakness in the pachinko parlors that Yun has been covertly running and goes to threaten Jongo to get his hands on them after making a deal with the man whose name President Yun was previously using to run casinos. None of this business stuff seems to make any sense so that kind of undermines this plot point, but basically, the government thinks Yun is getting out of line and too demanding so they want to take him down a peg. Taesu is aligned with the opposing wealthy businessman that's set to take on Yun, and at the end of the episode reveals himself.

This is all kind of interesting because it sets Taesu against Hyerin who is so far appearing to go ahead and take on the mantle of being her father's heir. Now, Taesu as a character is a little unrecognizable because of his turn to the dark side and honestly his character is still not any more interesting as when he was a complete dumbass, but at least by not being as stupid as a bag of bricks anymore, he's at least more respectable. And that's something even if not much. Hyerin, on the other hand, has become much more interesting as it's still clear that she has some internal conflict about what she's doing--but she too has seemingly abandoned who she was in the past and her character's abandonment of her previous convictions as well as her continued desire for Taesu still don't seem well grounded, which weakens her arc.

Then we have Useok, who we get for a hot minute in this episode. We learn that he's now a hardworking straight-arrow and compassionate prosecutor. His landlord has the hots for him, but she's super awkward and he's kind of dense. Still, their romance is pushed forward when a matchmaker comes by looking for a prosecutor as a husband for her wealthy clientele, making real the possibility for Seonyeong that Useok might actually go and marry some rich girl. But Useok clearly likes her too and disabuses the thought that he would marry rich because he isn't interested in being used by a wealthy family for their gain. There's also a little foreshadowing involved as Useok receives some advice that might result in him being able to work on the cases he wants to work on.

Right now, Useok really is an island and almost seems to be in a separate drama altogether from Taesu and Hyerin, although I imagine that he might end up being either tasked or choosing himself to be involved in one or both of their cases. I kind of wish he wasn't so partitioned off for so much of the series since he went to the army because the triangle dynamics were lost so early on and honestly, Sandglass suffers from having to manufacture drama to fill the lack of actual relational drama.

But all the same, this might have been one of the more watchable, even if not especially better, episodes of Sandglass since the show went to Gwangju and I'm hoping that the rest of the series keeps this kind of pacing but finally starts weaving the stories of these characters back together. Hopefully with less facepalm-inducing leaps of logic or repetition. 6/10


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

철수♡영희 (2005)

I think I picked up a copy of Cheolsu and Yeonghui in part because it was a rather rare DVD to find on the open market, but I probably should have been a little more wary of the mysterious title, considering that I hadn't liked the other film I'd seen from its director, Hwang Gyu-deok's For Eternal Hearts, and this was a film featuring child actors, which can frequently drag down a production. And in this case it did, in addition to the frequently odd directorial choices that Hwang made, leaving Cheolsu and Younghui an often tedious and difficult watch.

As per the heart in the Korean title, this is a story of pre-teen romance. It all starts when the precocious Gim Yeonghui (Jeon Ha-eun) transfers to the classroom of the resident troublemaker Bak Cheolsu (Park Tae-young). Yeonghui arrives and changes class dynamics as she quickly outdoes her peers on math exams, earning her the admiration of the class's boys, including Cheolsu and the enmity of its girls, but the tip is enough to get her elected as class representative. After school, Yeonghui helps out her grandmother (Ju Bujin) at her flower shop and develops a hot-and-cold relationship with her seated partner, Cheolsu, who alternates between insensitivity and considerateness.

Cheolsu and Younghui lacks a cohesive narrative arc for the whole film. Yes, as the title suggests, it's about Cheolsu and Yeonghui's friendship, but so much of the film follows both Cheolsu and Yeonghui separately in episodes, that what little development or destruction of any relationship they have seems incidental to the film and not really the focus of it. The greater story is also hindered by the changing of the protagonist baton from Yeonghui to Cheolsu and back again, leaving the film without any particular perspective. It gives us some insight into Yeonghui's longing for her parents, but never really makes much more than a couple vignettes out of that, none of which actually affect the story in any way, although a possibly fantastic moment involving them towards the end of the film does make me think of director Hwang's For Eternal Hearts.

The many episodes are rather disjointed and while I can see how the story is seeding some of the events that happen in the later part of the film, none of the character's choices seem to be explored except on surface, and few of those choices ever seem like a point of drama. There is actually a dramatic arc involving Yeonghui's fondness for music, and the point where Cheolsu inserts himself into that drama and suffers for it is probably the only really good narrative element of the story, but his part of it is not set up very well and both the kids seem a bit inconsistent.

This might have still just been a mediocre slice of life story of children if Hwang's direction were less amateur. Hwang makes many rather strange shot decisions, often opting to choose a still unmoving frame that tries to capture the whole of the scene and from a vantage point that often has characters cross in front of it closely. And then his two-shots push almost 180 degrees and because they are done in close ups without proper setup of the environment, they often result in some disorienting floating head effects. These two issues crop up throughout the film, but Hwang's shooting decisions don't always have these issues making me doubt that it's an intentional choice like what we'd see in a Ozu Yasujiro film, instead seeming like a lack of thoughtfulness.

And then there's the acting. Actually, the only truly weak performer is little Park Tae-yeong, who does manage Cheolsu's obnoxious anti-social side pretty well, but the kid frequently breaks in his scenes and isn't particularly good at holding down the dramatic side of his character as he encounters hardships. Jeon Ha-eun fares much better, handling the precocious nature of Yeonghui pretty well. But sometimes even when the kids are performing all right, there are problems either with the recording of the mix as sometimes the voices are too quiet, being beaten down by the forgettable children's music infused score.

I think all of these issues together makes Cheolsu and Yeonghui a rather poor experience. From production and performance issues to narrative haziness and overindulgence in empty tangents, there are several elements that make Cheolsu and Yeonghui both hard to comprehend and sometimes frustrating. Cheolsu's single moment when he suffers an injustice is good, but with so little story supporting around it and the peculiar directional choices by Hwang that can subtly make Cheolsu and Yeonghui harder to digest, I cannot really recommend this film to anyone except for the most devoted fans of the people that worked on it. Most everyone else is better off skipping this for other, better films with children. 4/10


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Meet the Patels (2015)

I don't remember when or where I first heard about Meet the Patels, but once I found out that it was about a son of immigrants who is being pressured to marry and he eventually caves and goes on a first-time dating spree, I found that it mirrored my own life in so many ways that there was no question that I'd go out and see it the first chance I got. And I got pretty much what I was expecting, a story of intergenerational and intercultural differences, some amusing anecdotes from the dating game, and moments of revelations when it comes to love and acceptance, both between family members and within the subjects themselves.

The son in this case is Indian American actor Ravi Patel. He breaks up with his white girlfriend Audrey because of an ambiguous desire to marry an Indian girl and perhaps unspoken social pressure from his first generation immigrant parents, Vasant and Champa, and the larger Indian community to also marry an Indian girl. Anyway, he eventually gives in to his parents pressure to set him up on dates, the modern Indian way, and goes on a country-wide series of blind dates, online dating, and conventions to find the potential bride that they all can mutually agree on, his journey partially taped by his similarly single sister, Geeta.

Overall, the documentary is pretty lighthearted and takes a while before Ravi and Geeta get around to digging deeper into what he's doing. However, the amusing world of dating that Ravi enters as well as his own reaction to it and what we learn of his family, the Indian immigrant community and hints of the second generation Indian American's relationship to it, and Indian/Indian American dating and marriage culture was interesting enough to hold my attention to the point where Ravi and Geeta find Ravi's moments of self contemplation and the underlying conflict manifests itself.

Of course there were lots of bonus points for me as a son of immigrants from a culture that wants its children to marry by a certain time and in a certain way. While my own Korean culture doesn't operate exactly the same, my parents have often expressed similar things as Vasant and Champa, I've seen my share of women's resumes and have been set up by my parents and relatives more then a couple times, as well as constantly having to listen to my elders lecture me about how I need to get married. Because of this as well as my own sudden and high intensity bout of dating (self-initiated for essentially the first time) last year, I found myself relating a lot to both Ravi's situations and many of his experiences, as well as some of the questions he asks himself, which made Meet the Patels much more personally relatable to me and perhaps other children of such cultures.

Ravi notes that Geeta might be a director, but he's not well trained as a camera-person, shining a lamp on the frequent presence of the mic in the frame, so the movie is up front that it is essentially an amateur production. And aesthetically, there are a few times where it's not terribly easy to watch due to the shaky camera that wanders around and is sometimes poorly framed. However, the amateur look does impart a degree of genuineness to the image and I like Geeta's touch towards the end of the film where she lets herself and her own similar situation to Ravi's be included on camera. While the film is a little visually disconcerting to watch at first, I think most viewers will eventually get comfortable with its amateur visual rhythms and be able to look beyond it to the content captured.

Since there are a lot of gaps in the actual footage, Meet the Patels also spends a bit of time with animated storytelling as Ravi (and Geeta) relate the story at hand as well as explaining the story of his family and some elements of Indian culture, cut in with archival footage where they have it. It's a nice effect, letting us get a visual representation of the stories and some of the bursts of pop culture touchstones for Indian Americans are pretty amusing and will probably be even more so to those who grew up in Indian American households.

But even if you aren't Indian American, or the child of an Asian immigrant family, I think Meet the Patels' observations on intergenerational conflict as well as the crazy world of modern dating are going to be accessible to most and Ravi is a charming enough subject that he's easy to root for. It's true that the revelations at the end of the movie, for both Ravi and his parents aren't exactly earthshattering, but at the same time, I found it resonant all the same. And for being an entertaining as well as relatable eighty-eight minutes, I have to say I really enjoyed Meet the Patels. Highly recommended for children of immigrants and maybe their parents too, but I think most people will still find plenty to enjoy here. 8/10


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

아는 여자 (2004)

So I've always had mixed feeling about almost all of director Jang Jin's films. I often love his style of deadpan humor, but he often can't seem to get the many parts of his stories working in unison and tries to be clever but can't seem to payoff his ideas. One of the few exceptions to this criticism that I have and also the film that keeps me interested in seeing what he comes up with next is Someone Special.

Much less a curious fusion than his other films, Someone Special is actually a genuine romantic comedy, but because it was written and directed by Jang Jin, it's anything but straightforward. Even his lead, Jung Jae-young, isn't your typical handsome romantic comedy lead. Instead he plays the somewhat thickheaded baseball player Dong Chiseong. And Chiseong has an especially hard day at the start of the film, being dumped by his girlfriend (Oh Seung-hyun) and then quickly told that he's got a malignant cancer and only three months to live. He's kind of awkwardly stalked at a distance by Han Iyeon (Lee Na-young), a neighbor who's been long doing everything in her power to stay within his range and is given her first chance to interact with him. However, Iyeon is unaware of Chiseong's diagnosis and it leads him to some erratic behavior and makes her attempts to get into his life more complicated.

Now Iyeon's almost decade-long crush is probably the hardest thing to swallow about Someone Special, but if you can accept her crush as well as her shyness around Chiseong, then the rest of the story's seeming contrivances make sense as part of Iyeon's attempts to stay in Chiseong's life. But while the film is a romance, mostly around the resolution of Iyeon's longstanding crush and Chiseong's eventually recognition of it and his desire for love, the comedy is what really entertains in the film.

Jang Jin's deadpan humor is firing at full force in Someone Special and it makes great use of both main characters' awkward tendencies as well as a series of absurdities that stay just within the realm of believable. One particularly memorable moment is when a gang of novice robbers holds up a bank that Chiseong is in and Chiseong, majorly depressed from his coming death and inability to find love before his end, simply ends up befuddling the robbers by getting upset, disobeying them, and then interrogating them on the nature of love. Normally, this behavior might not be believable, but because we know that Chiseong has only three months to live, it works and is hilarious.

This all works so well because both Lee Na-young and Jung Jae-young are so committed to their respectively awkward characters, but those greater cast all seem to understand Jang Jin's particular sense of humor. On the other hand, Someone Special does get a little indulgent at times; for example, in the middle of the film, there is an extended film-within-the-film, a parody of Korean tragic romances with Chiseong directly criticizing the insane plots in voiceover as he describes the film we are seeing. It's actually pretty funny and even gets an interesting callback towards the end of the film, but it's also very long and doesn't ultimately help the story. Jang Jin also has this weird fixation with shooting the film on a somewhat unsteady camera, resulting in some rather distracting and unpredictable camera jerks that also don't really seem to directly add to the scenes that they are added in.

But I can forgive all those flaws because Someone Special is one of the rare films that gets me to laugh consistently through its runtime, thanks to Jang Jin's comedy writing skills peaking here. Someone Special might not be a romantic comedy masterpiece, but by opting to circumnavigate the standard archetypes of romantic comedies and playing with a number of Korean cinema cliches, it creates Jang's own image of a romantic comedy; one that puts the emphasis on comedy. Like many Jang films, it's not a terribly deep one, playing mostly on surface level interactions and contextual comedy, but Jang's clever script actually comes together this time to make Iyeon and Chiseong's romance, despite the hanging cloud of cancer, a rather amusing and enjoyable film and possibly one of my favorite romantic comedies I've yet seen from Korea. I can't recommend it to every lover of romantic comedies because of how off-kilter it is, but Jang Jin fans and those that like someone different comedies will definitely want to see Someone Special. 8/10


Thursday, September 17, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 13회

So the last few episodes spending most of the time with Taesu being a moron while locked away in a purification camp were quite a bust. There were long, tedious and uninteresting affairs making Jongdo a more interesting character than Taesu and that was hard to do because of how much I hated Jongdo. But there we were. Some of the few moments of respite from Taesu's unwavering stupidity were time spent with Useok and, to a lesser degree, Hyerin as short as they were and it turns out that those moments, and even time spent with Jongdo, are again the most interesting moments of the thirteenth episode of Sandglass.

Like the last episode, we start again with Useok, finally getting his honorable discharge from his military service. He moves into a new student's lodging and the show wastes no time establishing a new love interest for him in Jeong Seonyeong (Jo Min-su), the hardworking proprietor of his lodging who also happens to be both brusque and shy around Useok. Useok himself decided to study for the Korean bar after his father's passing, so most of our time with him, when not interacting with Seonyeong or his brother, is spent watching him dedicate himself to his studies.

Taesu finally gets out of the purification camp and definitely looks worse for wear, so we spend a bit of time seeing him look homeless, broken, and nearly mute. He goes and sees Jongdo and Jongdo, now a big man thanks to President Yun's backing, gives Taesu some cash and asks him to be quiet as Jongdo's largely moved on to semi-legitimate business. Realizing that Jongdo was the reason that Taesu was even put into the camp in the first place, Taesu refuses the money and finally walks out on Jongdo, going straight for Hyerin.

Hyerin sees off her brother, who leaves for Paris with his secret girlfriend that he plans to marry overseas, entrusting Hyerin's safety to Jaehui, who pledges his loyalty to her. Then on the way back home, Hyerin spots Taesu on the street outside her house. Hyerin tries to ignore Taesu and reject Taesu at first, explaining to him that she can't see him anymore, but instantly runs away with Taesu anyway. Taesu attempts to convince her to stay with him, declaring her his woman while wondering how it is that she came to want to marry him, which is quite a lamp to put on the question that the show never really answered. Anyway, despite spending the night together, Taesu wakes up alone and finds that Hyerin had returned the engagement ring Taesu had given her.

Hyerin then gets a dramatic haircut and begins work as a dealer at her father's casino with her father's help, but opts to work in secret. She gets schooled by the operations manager and remains cool to the other dealers, but that's all we get to see of her work at the casino. Meanwhile, Taesu, now determined to be the kind of strong man that can win over Hyerin ends up recruiting some of his former gangmates as well as the remnants of Injae's gang, who all pledge themselves to him and becomes a boss yet again, this time also getting a drastic hair and style change and placing himself in opposition of Jongdo and President Yun.

Useok passes his test and Seonyeong betrays her interest in him and then Useok and Taesu finally get together again, this time with both of them knowing that with Useok becoming a prosecutor and Taesu being a gang boss, that they will be on opposite sides soon, much to Useok's chagrin. The episode ends with a near miss as Hyerin and the boys manage to glance each other at the hotel that they were meeting at before the elevator doors close.

Was this episode better? Yes. And this was mostly due to the amount of forward movement in the story, especially on the parts of Useok and Hyerin, with Hyerin's journey being the most interesting of the three as the boys are mostly following rather obvious trajectories. Of course that Hyerin's own decisions are still rooted in her inexplicable love for Taesu still makes this part of the story quite challenging to swallow, I like that she's chosen to start at the bottom of her father's business, in secret and her suggested journey is probably the most interesting story that the show has yet promised for any of its characters.

Useok's own story isn't quite as interesting, but I like the place of conflict he's left in regarding Taesu, since he had previously opted to fail his test and help Taesu escape from some thugs, but now he's determined to be the man that his father wanted him to be. All the same, Useok's own unjust interaction with the law before and the willingness the show has to portray the massive corruption and flaws of the Korean government at the time still promises that Useok's own journey will be fraught with some personal and internal conflict, especially given his own reluctance to take the job due to the guilt he sustained from his participation in the Gwangju Massacre.

As for Taesu, well, he still remains relatively stupid and uninteresting. Even Jongdo is more interesting now thanks to Jongdo's spot of having betrayed Taesu and having felt guilty about it, but then letting power get to his head. Taesu, on the other hand, despite declaring to Hyerin that he would become the kind of man he needs to be to be with her, chooses to openly build a gang that's in direct opposition to Jongdo and President Yun, that move also directly putting him in opposition to Hyerin herself. Furthermore, his resignation to the life of a gangster is similarly stupid and hard to fathom given his willingness to escape it in his youth, so he's not only stupid, but a stupid defeatist that opts to conform to his fate--and fights for it against all odds, despite not being happy with it. Which is itself all sorts of internally contradictory and stupid. As well as making Taesu's future journey very predictable and cliche.

Unfortunately, we spent a good amount of time with Taesu, so that really drags down the episode. However, because we're also spending more time with Useok and Hyerin, and at least we're watching all the characters move forward, this episode of Sandglass is better. I was bracing for watching Taesu wander the streets in his dull shocked state for three whole episodes before he did anything, but we dispensed with that after half the episode and moved forward, so that's appreciable. As such, I'd have to say this was a fairly average episode of Sandglass, which is tolerable and helped by the fact that at least the non-Taesu characters in the show seem to have promising stories to come. 6/10


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

I always had reservations about the Mission: Impossible films until I saw Ghost Protocol. With Ghost Protocol, I finally saw a M:I film that felt complete and well balanced, largely due to its willingness to fill in the secondary characters a bit more and that it felt a lot more like an IMF team trying to accomplish a mission together, rather than a personal matter for the protagonist. Well, before I could anticipate it, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation came out and when I sat down in the theater, I wasn't sure whether the balance achieved in Ghost Protocol could be sustained. But Rogue Nation indeed manages to make a likable and entertaining M:I film, twenty years after the franchise's feature film birth.

As teased at the end of Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation has Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) trying to prove the existence of a shadow organization called The Syndicate. Hunt is then captured by a mysterious man (Sean Harris), but freed by the equally mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who might be a British MI6 agent inside The Syndicate. Greater problems arise when the US Government, heeding the word of CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) shuts down the IMF completely, folding it into the CIA. As Hunley and the CIA don't believe that The Syndicate exists, Hunt goes rogue to prove it, but pursued by both the CIA and The Syndicate, he won't be able to do it alone.

What Rogue Nation does really well is its creation of the deuteragonist Ilsa Faust, who we know is good due to her saving Ethan Hunt, but we don't know her entire objective and motivation. She's also a very competent character and a great match for Hunt and it's nice to see that there are other spies that are up to his level. I also like how the film brings back three past members of Hunt's team, Luther Stickwell (Ving Rhames), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), giving the franchise a lot more continuity than before, when agents would come and go. This also lets the franchise develop these characters more and at a measured pace, which helps the whole film feel much more organic.

I like that the twists in this film bounce back and forth between the villain and Hunt, even if the logic of the twists is largely predicated on characters doing exactly what we expect them to do, folded into each other multiple times and Hunt, the villain, and Isla all employ this tactic to much amusement, fragile as the logic is. But Rogue Nation does a pretty good job of putting all the respective characters in positions where it would make sense for them to do the thing that they know is exactly what their rival or nemesis wants them to do and some of the fun is witnessing the countermeasures they put in place.

I don't really like that this is the second film to "dissolve the IMF", although at least this time the dissolution of the IMF actually has an impact, putting the CIA after Hunt. But just as major IMF players turning out to be moles got old after three films of it, I hope that future M:I films give up the "all of IMF is shut down" business. Like Ghost Protocol, I appreciate that Rogue Nation is much more playful and humorous than the first three M:I films and I also appreciate that this film, like the last, chooses to limit the use of face duping technology and relies a lot more on the various characters trying to outwit each other with their schemes. The variety of action and suspense generated by those schemes also helps keep the pace of the film up.

And director-writer Christopher McQuarrie does a great job of setting the pace and keeping it interesting even as the running time of the film goes 131 minutes. The various mission sequences, chases, and fights are all handled in an enjoyable manner and I like how the villain makes all the situations, like the one at the opera, especially interesting by having layers of plots, but McQuarrie helps cut tension here and there with bits of humor and Cruise plays very well into it, with Hunt becoming flabbergasted or bewildered, a continuation of character development from Ghost Protocol, which helps him feel a lot more human. And again, having players return to the franchise and their characters really helps their performances as they already understand their characters and their relationships and the built chemistry shows, especially between Pegg and Cruise.

So when you take into consideration perhaps the tightest story yet written for a M:I film, combined with plenty of twists, lots of thrills, much more well developed characters, and a continuing sense of humor, Rogue Nation turns out to be an excellent entry into the Mission: Impossible franchise. Rogue Nation continues the upgrade that Ghost Protocol provided and while it still doesn't fully get past the fact that the movies don't have much thematic or overall storytelling depth, as far as mainstream entertainment-oriented action thrillers go, Rogue Nation should entertain most moviegoers quite well. 8/10