Wednesday, September 2, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 12회

The eleventh episode of Sandglass was what I thought was the nadir of the show. It barely moved forward at all and we were left with watching Taesu basically be put through a kind of torture for the whole of an episode. And then at the end, his idiocy keeps him in the prison camp. So I thought we'd finally be able to move forward on that painfully dull bit of story, but episode twelve does no such thing. It's fortunate that Sandglass at least decides to move forward in the stories of Useok and Hyerin, both of whom are vastly more interesting characters than the imbecile known as Taesu and even Jongdo is somehow starting to be more interesting than Taesu. Unfortunately, the amount of time we spend with the more interesting characters and their situations is a fraction of how much time we spend with Taesu in what's essentially a repeat of the previous episode.

So at the end of the last episode, Taesu ruins his chance of getting out of the purification camp that Useok helped set up for him because of his stupid gangster pride. In this episode Taesu works with his fellow gangster inmate Jeong Injae (Song Geumsik) and his boss No Jumyeong (Hyeon Gilsu) to plan an escape and that actually takes up most of the episode. That's unfortunate because it's essentially a repetition of the latter part of Gwangju and the eleventh episode as Taesu tries to escape a bad situation with some people he's close to and loses everyone in process. But unlike the Gwangju arc, Taesu doesn't even get away this time because he's a gigantic moron when it comes to avoiding military personnel.

All this amounts to exactly nothing of consequence happening with Taesu's story, including zero character development and we're not even introduced to something new like the past episode's exposing the existence of the purification camps. He's right back where he started with nothing learned and no progress. And that made for some extremely frustrating viewing, especially because the normally thickheaded Taesu never seems to learn anything, which pretty much makes him an unlikable and annoying protagonist. If the whole episode were all Taesu then I would have thought this one of the worst episodes of the series, ranking near the bottom of Korean drama episodes I'd ever seen.

However, the episode is kept from fully sinking thanks to Useok and Hyerin, however short their time on screen. We finally rejoin Useok and he returns home on temporary military leave as his father falls ill. Useok's time in Gwangju remains heavy on him and because of the wrongs he committed under the employ of the military he's decided to quit pursuing a career as a prosecutor or judge, which deeply disappoints his family, especially his father, who has long dreamed of Useok becoming a judge or a prosecutor. At the end of Useok's segment, we encounter another Korean drama cliche as Useok's father succumbs to liver cancer. And as much as I find the whole dying of the parent or grandparent to push characters to do as they wish, at least we see a good amount of internal struggle with Useok and see the reason for which he will eventually go back to pass the bar. Yes, I'm pretty sure that's where this show is going to go as it's certainly not a subtle show.

As for Hyerin, we get to spend even less time with her, but she probably gets the most substantial plot movement as she deals with her father to get Taesu out on the condition that she won't see him anymore and start working for him. Granted, she also spends a boring few minutes pining after Taesu and trying to get access to the labor camp that Taesu was assigned to, but I suppose when an episode is this bad, I have to hold onto the few things I can appreciate.

Finally, even Jongdo has a brief moment where he gets an upgrade working for President Yun while getting fed advice to aim higher rather than stay loyal, which at least means that he'll be the ambitious villain I originally thought he was going to be. I'm curious to see how much of his original, if poorly displayed, loyalty to Taesu that he'll keep once Taesu eventually returns from prison (hopefully next episode).

Both Hyerin and Useok show promise in the directions that their characters might take. And while Jongdo is still poorly developed, at least even his story this episode moves forward and sets up future episodes. The big problem is that we don't spend enough time with the more interesting characters and situations and instead spend most of it with the dolt of a protagonist watching what's essentially a fusion rehash of previous episodes that has literally no impact in the plot or Taesu as a character. And that pretty much sinks the episode, kept only from being intolerable by maintaining development in the other leads. This series really needs to redeem itself in a big Gwangju Uprising level way again, because I can only take so much of this drudgery without becoming utterly prejudiced. 5/10

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mission: Impossible Collection

I remember watching the original Mission: Impossible film in the 1990's and I particularly remember the hype leading up to its release with the remake of the song done by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Junior of U2. After watching the film while I was in high school, I remember enjoying it but I didn't feel that it was especially good, just decent. Then while I was in college, I heard that John Woo was directing the sequel Mission: Impossible II, I got excited again as I had just gotten into watching his Hong Kong action films like The Killer and Hard Boiled. Then I saw M:I-2 and I think that was one of the most disappointing films that I'd seen all year.

Because of that experience, I decided to avoid the franchise when Mission: Impossible III came out. At the time I didn't realize that J.J. Abrams was responsible for Alias, nor was I especially aware of Alias the series so I didn't really have much faith in the franchise, especially if a director I liked, John Woo, had crafted a true dud. To my surprise, I actually ended up hearing that M:I-3 was actually decent, but it was only with 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol that I got particularly interested in returning to the franchise as one of my favorite animation directors, Brad Bird, was at the helm.

For whatever reason, I missed my chance at catching M:I-4 in theaters, but hearing good things about the fifth film, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, I decided that it was time to catch up with the franchise. Fortunately, a conveniently packaged four film Blu-Ray collection was released at an attractive price point, beating the previously released three film Blu-Ray collection in both price and features, so I picked it up with the intent of making my way through the series and then seeing the fifth on the big screen.

There's not much more to the set than the four movies, all housed in a single, multi-disc Blu-Ray case, but that works fine for me as it saves space. Digital copies are also included, which wasn't necessary, but was nice. And at the new lower price, I think it's worth it for those looking to catch up before watching the fifth. I'm sure that eventually there will be a five film collection to precede the sixth, but this is perfectly fine for those that want to watch the movies now. 7/10

Blu-Ray Note: One hugely disappointing element of the Blu-Ray set is that the first three films are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 with no lossless sound option, rendering the sound underwhelming compared to the visual upgrade to the picture. I don't know if they will re-release those films with updated audio, but keep this in mind if high definition audio on your Blu-Rays matter to you. Ghost Protocol does not suffer from this glaring flaw.

Contents:

  • Mission: Impossible (1996)
  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)
  • Mission: Impossible III (2006)
  • Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

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Friday, August 28, 2015

늑대의 유혹 (2004)

I have yet to appreciate any of the films of Gim Taegyun, which largely fall under the umbrella of romance, but a good many of them have been quite popular, which is why I keep watching his various films. In 2004, he had a decent sized hit with Romance of Their Own (more directly translated at Temptation of Wolves), another romance melodrama that already had a built in fanbase due to its adaptation from a popular internet novel, gathering over two million tickets sold and being one of the most successful films of the year within its genre. But like the director's other romances that I've seen, First Kill and A Millionaire's First Love, Romance of Their Own flails under its cliche ridden and frequently difficult to believe story.

The focal point of the love triangle is Jeong Han-gyeong (I Cheong-a), who moves to Seoul from the countryside to live with her mother, stepfather, and siblings following her father's death. Immediately upon arriving, she lands in a brawl between two popular, handsome, and skilled fighters from rival schools, Ban Haewon (Jo Haewon) and Jeong Taeseong (Jeong Taeseong). Soon after, she finds that both Taeseong and Haewon have both fallen for her, the former noting that they know each other and the latter initially drawn to her perhaps out of jealousy that his rival is interested. Anyway, as Han-gyeong pingpongs back and forth between the two, she also has to deal with her hometown rival Yu Jehui (Song Chaemin) as well as the surprising truth about her connection to Taeseong.

First of all, aside from jealousy, I can see absolutely no reason for Haewon to fall for Han-gyeong. And Taeseong's own interest in Han-gyeong is a bit far-fetched due to their connection, which is itself a huge melodrama cliche in Korean narrative. Of course, the cliche train doesn't stop there, but continues on as the film goes on with another overdone melodrama twist near the end. That ending of course never resolves the film's story, but part of that is because there's hardly much of a story to begin with as Han-gyeong is so devoid of personality that she's basically a cipher, standing in for the audience of young women who get their fantasies fulfilled by being an ordinary girl pursued by the two hottest guys in two schools. Even the two male leads are paper thin. The only thing that's interesting that happens is a little plot twist by a minor villain character in final act the precipitates one of the weakest sources of angst that teenagers might brood over.

I suppose I can't entirely fault director Gim for any of this as the story already existed as an internet novel, but he and his five fellow writers really weren't able to salvage much of a story for the film, the only notable dynamism coming from the thawing of relationship between the boys, driven by Han-gyeong bringing them together. But even then, none of this is really all that believable and if you even apply the most passing breezes of thought to the story, it all falls apart. Perhaps director Gim does actually manage to visually tell whatever semblance of a story contained in Romance of Their Own so that we always know what's going on, so he's certainly an adequate director and the cast does manage to pump life into their single-dimensional characters, largely relying on their charisma to pull it off because the story really wasn't helping at all.

And that's the main reason why I found my eyeballs rolled all the way back into my brain as the film went on. I don't know how it was selected to be released on Blu Ray over countless other better romances, but because it was, I watched yet another now predictably weak film from director Gim Taegyun. Story is clearly the director's main problem and the general lack of one hurts Romance of Their Own deeply as it simply relies on a wish-fulfillment scenario, its decent actors, and a bucket of cliched romance melodrama tropes to win over its audience. And perhaps what's most depressing is that like several of Gim's films, it worked. But none of that has anything to do with the quality of the story presented and so I have to suggest that, outside of the biggest fans of the involved talent, that Romance of Their Own need not be seen. 4/10

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 11회

Much of Sandglass's eleventh episode is spent with Taesu in what's called a purification camp, which was essentially a re-education camp for criminals and dissidents. For much of the episode, we watch Taesu get beat down for his impulse to help others as well as due to his gangster loyalty. Outside of the camp, we briefly run across both Hyerin and Useok as the former comes to the latter to seek his help in getting Taesu out. And there's more gangster-government machinations too, but those are as boring as they ever were.

Granted, it is interesting to put all the government collusion with the underworld at the time out into the open in a widely televised series, but the actual business of the government twisting gangsters' arms to fund their own coffers isn't at all interesting. Jongdo does show up briefly here to get tasked with running part of this slot machine parlor for President Yun (for the government), but it's all pretty dry.

What's much more pungent are the continuous scenes of what is pretty close to the torture inflicted upon Taesu at the purification camp. It's basically like a hellish relative of military basic training that never ceases and we watch Taesu buckle, during this while occasionally having some sympathy for a particular weaker old man lumped in with them, but his compassion getting him additional beatings. What's more, a couple fellow gangsters are in his group and Taesu also takes umbrage at his senior gang member's treatment as an equal or a lesser, leading to even more brutal beatings.

During this, Hyerin seeks out Useok to get his help in freeing Taesu. Useok, incredibly, goes off and finds what I believe is his former commanding officer during the Gwangju Uprising and they appear to be on friendly terms now. His commanding officer assists Useok in helping Taesu get out, except at the last minute, Taesu gets caught up in another attempt to help save the face of a senior gang member, which ultimately gets him stuck in the purification camp during his window of opportunity.

So, the impact of the ultra-rapid romance of Hyerin and Taesu continues here, no matter how that moment in Hyerin's life is unbelievable. However, I guess the torture at the hands of the state have made her much less personally confident as she meekly seeks out Useok's help to get Taesu free. Useok remains a rather minor player in the storyline right now, but Hyerin gets a second plot point in asking her father for a monetary loan in exchange for working for him, which he accepts. We don't get a reason for this, but it's perhaps the most interesting thing to happen in an episode that relatively nothing happens in.

So, ultimately, Useok's action is nullified by Taesu's inability to let go of his gangster hierarchal code, despite being ordered by his senior to back off. This further makes Taesu seem like the bag of dumb bricks he's come across as, even with Useok's influence as a kid. Useok on the other hand, shows some development as he opts to use his connections with his former commanding officer to get Taesu off the hook, despite his normal by-the-book self. That Taesu totally disregards how much of a personal sacrifice Useok made in order to get him off the hook for the sake of two loosely affiliated gangsters also shows how thoughtless he is and kind of reinforces how both frustrating and boring a protagonist he is.

Don't get me wrong, like Hyerin's torture and the Gwangju Uprising, I think the show is doing something worthwhile in putting the rumored purification camps and the injustices of their existence, deployment, and conditions on public display. However, much of this seems like exposition for the sake of putting it out there that this thing happened without really contributing anything in particular to Taesu's story or his development.

And this makes the eleventh episode of Sandglass yet another disappointing one in a string of disappointing episodes preceding and following the brief moment where the series had some power. One element of this episode that was interesting was the stylized direction, particularly in the use of light, but that's certainly nowhere near enough to make it more than just barely tolerable. 5/10

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

누구나 비밀은 있다 (2004)

I think as long as people could make movies, they've been making adaptations and remakes and Korea is no stranger to this trend. However, I didn't realize that Everybody Has Secrets was a remake until I was researching the film after watching it. It was initially a curiosity that a film like About Adam would get remade in Korea, but given the modernization and changing perceptions on relationship fidelity and sex in Korea at the time, especially given cinema's tendency to push boundaries, perhaps it's not that surprising. That said, I presume like its source material, Everybody Has Secrets is rather insubstantial and surprisingly didactic in favor of having affairs, resulting in a weightless and perhaps even morally repugnant story (for some).

From what I can tell, the story largely follows its predecessor. Everybody Has Secrets opens up with freespirted Han Miyeong (Gim Hyojin) dumping her current boyfriend Sang-il (Tak Jaehun) in search of the hot new guy she wants to bed. That guy is Choe Suhyeon (I Byeongheon), a mysterious man who sweeps Miyeong off her feet while slowly seducing her bookish virgin sister Seonyeong (Choe Jiu) as well as her sexually frustrated married oldest sister Jinyeong (Chu Sangmi) and even their younger brother Daeyeong (Jeon Jaehyeong), who struggles with his desire to bed his still unwilling girlfriend Eunmi (Jang Mina).

For a film about massive infidelity, Everybody Has Secrets is incredibly lightweight, with little to no consequence for anyone involved and the cipher of Suhyeon simply serving as some kind of sex pixie that somehow though the magic of his penis helps everyone in the Han family overcome whatever their personal hangups are at the moment. Because of the actual lack of stakes, the whole film feels rather effortless and so the ending is rather unrewarding, especially since we never actually get to know Suhyeon as anything more than the mysterious trickster that he plays a role as. This is especially vapid because there's a lot of implied depth to Suhyeon, but at the end of the film we find him back to his tricks again and it's possibly implied that he's a liar.

What's more, the message of the film is hammered into the audience by the multiple title call outs, suggesting that infidelity kept secret is some kind of panacea for current relationship problems, which is about as nonsense as the whole utterly fantastic story. There is some interesting storytelling going on, particularly in the way that the film is partitioned by point of view of each Han sibling, revealing how their respective relationships with Suhyeon were simultaneously progressing, but this is really due to the writing of the original.

Veteran filmmaker Jang Hyeonsu adapts himself pretty well to the overall look and style of Korean romantic comedies of the early 2000's, complete with cheap computer graphics, bright photography, and some snappy visual and aural effects. The overall presentation ends up being quite breezy, which is perhaps perfect for the almost immaterial story. Perhaps the strongest element of the film are the performances by elder sisters Choe Jiu and Chu Sangmi, the former doing pretty much everything she's well known for and the latter, managing to carry some measure of gravity in a film that threatens to float away. I Byeongheon also acquits himself well in his rather limited role, throwing out lady killer smirks and smiles left and right, but it's a role that relies almost solely on his unpracticed charisma more than any stretch of character portrayal for him.

Ultimately, it's hard to even be mad at the film's bizarre preaching in favor of clandestine infidelity because Everybody Has Secrets is just so utterly insubstantial and the film's ending isn't even earned by that clandestine infidelity. Suhyeon just waltzes through the lives of the Han sisters, puts his penis in each of them and when he's gone, each one is happy as can be, and not even necessarily because of him, as it's pretty clear that each sibling would have eventually got there on their own. As such, Everybody Has Secrets can't even muster outrage for its outrageous claim because it's so ineffective and can safely be skipped by anyone who isn't a huge fan of the talent involved. 5/10

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 10회

After most of the Seoul episodes of Sandglass moving too slow, in the show's tenth, it ends up moving too fast while also being the first episode to completely disregard Useok altogether aside from a single mention from Hyerin. While I appreciate that the show is finally going somewhere, all of it feels a bit too pushed and contrived to fully appreciate.

The episode finally focuses on Hyerin after her relative absence from the last few episodes either in screen time or character's presence. In particular she deals with the personal fallout from caving to torture while imprisoned and naming the leaders of the student pro-democracy movement, which resulted in the life imprisonment of their leader. Her fellow students shun her and she withdraws from school, going on a drinking bender at Taesu's bar. When her belligerence results in a brawl between Taesu's crew and Hyerin at the bar, Taesu takes the drunk Hyerin to a hotel to sleep it off. However, Jaehui and Hyerin's father's men end up in conflict with Taesu's crew, including Jongdo.

Hyerin admits to coming to Taesu's bar to find a friend so Taesu spends the day hanging out with her, leading to a kiss. When they return to the bar, President Yun's men have contained Taesu's crew and Jaehui gives Taesu a thrashing until Hyerin stops him by claiming that Taesu's her fiancé. They end up back at Hyerin's home and President Yun grills the two's intentions and Taesu goes along with Hyerin's desire to marry. After Taesu's excused, Hyerin's brother informs Hyerin of his desire to study in Europe and that President Yun sees Hyerin as his successor. Downstairs, President Yun asks his man to have Taesu be taken care of.

So Hyerin gets a job and she and Taesu move in together, Taesu even giving Hyerin his mother's ring, but this doesn't last long because President Yun's men grab Hyerin with the intent to take her home. Meanwhile, Jongdo and Taesu's crew gets usurped by President Yun's gang and Jongdo is ordered to betray Taesu, which Jongdo does, by keeping his men away when Taesu arrives at the bar, resulting in Taesu being alone when the police come looking for him. At the end of the episode, Hyerin is returned home and Taesu goes to jail, although not for as bad a sentence as Jongdo might have feared.

The biggest improvement to this show by far is that Jongdo isn't nearly as insufferable as he previously was because he seems genuinely concerned that Taesu might be executed or be imprisoned for ten years, finally explaining his loyalty to Taesu, although I kind of wished that this were better shown earlier as Jongdo's willingness to let Taesu take the hits for his malfeasance wasn't terribly convincing. But seeing him with an actual guilty conscience makes him less wholly detestable. And this made the whole episode much more tolerable.

That said, I kind of wish the show spent a little more time with just about everything that happened in this episode. In what was barely more than a montage, Hyerin and Taesu went from enemies (given Taesu's breaking up of Hyerin's demonstration leaving her on flight from and eventually captured by the government) to Hyerin deciding that she's going to marry Taesu. There's not a whole lot grounding her actions besides an existential crisis derived from betraying and losing her world. But that she'd go to Taesu of all people given his last major interaction with her as well as her feelings for the criminal activities of her father is a bit hard to swallow. At least Taesu's been consistent in his interest in Hyerin.

But in just this episode, they get engaged and then it all falls apart and now Taesu's gone to jail for what I suspect will be four years. This means that barring some kind of unlikely intervention, we're going to jump forward in time four years at least for Taesu. Meanwhile there was no sign of Useok, which is kind of annoying since so much of his experience in Gwangju went unaddressed even in the last episode. It's possible that the show might balance out the stories by focusing more of the next episode on Useok, but despite having the more thematically complex situations as a government soldier perpetrating injustice, he's been fairly ignored for ho-hum melodrama.

But I at least appreciate that Hyerin's position this episode is driven by the societal matters of the setting of 1980, given the massive government crackdown on democracy advocates and Gwangju at least gets a mention. Again it's pretty disappointing that aside from the mention, Gwangju is pretty much no longer at all a presence in the show with Taesu leaving his mission of telling the world about what he encountered there behind in Gwangju when he left. Not that you expect him to be a good guy, but the character development he gained from those episodes seems altogether lost now that he's back in Seoul.

All this makes Sandglass's tenth episode merely okay. It's better in that the story actually moves forward, Jongdo isn't insufferable, and that there is some connection to the actual history in terms of motivating the story. However, the lack of believable decision making on the part of Hyerin as well as the rather rushed and contrived story undercuts a bit of the episode's gains. Hopefully the next episode doesn't leave us in a lurch after how weakly this one ended. 6/10

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

거미숲 (2004)

I was utterly enthralled by director Song Ilgon's Flower Island and vowed to find more of his movies to watch. The one that I picked up was the similarly titled Spider Forest, which also happens to be his feature follow-up to the aforementioned film. Trading drama for a mystery thriller, Spider Forest retains Song's touch of magical realism but applies it to a surreal murder mystery that almost reminds me of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. But while the exploration, direction, and performances are quite strong, the story has a few too many holes in it to be fully satisfying.

Gang Min (Gam Useong) wakes up in the titular forest and finds a cabin where he discovers the gory murder of a man and then in the next room, his girlfriend Hwang Suyeong (Gang Gyeongheon) mortally wounded. When he spots a figure watching, he gives chase with the murder weapon in hand before being knocked out by the mysterious stranger. When he comes to, in search of help, he is hit by a car and then rescued. Two weeks later, he wakes up in a hospital, severely wounded and his acquaintance, police detective Choe Seonghyeon (Jang Hyeonseong) helps him investigate what happened to Suyeong as Min relates the story leading up to that moment in the woods. Of course, things are not what they appear to be.

What I appreciate most about Spider Forest is how it actually manages to weave its backstories together. Granted, it takes some time to get used to the rhythms of the film, but once you get used to it, it's interesting what gets revealed and in which order and how details that you might have failed to notice before take on new life when viewing the film again. There is also an interestingly surreal aesthetic to the direction, down to the photography and the sound design, but director Song intentionally chooses not to cue the moments of fantasy, leaving us to wonder how much of what we are witnessing is actually real. The fantasy element has to do with the nature of the titular forest in that it traps the souls of the unloved, leading us to wonder if there really are spirits around.

However, the film stumbles hard in that much of the backstory is left unresolved and ambiguous, to the point that how Gang Min, and Suyeong for the matter, ended up at that particular cabin, of all places, is questionable. And if the film is choosing to take the "it was all a dream" route, then it becomes exceptionally unsatisfactory as well as then none of the events of the movie might have any anchor in reality. That said, despite the fact that the logic of the film appears to be circular and incomplete, the story does manage to say a bit about grief and also how we choose to remember--or not remember--traumatic events in our lives and the fictions we might make up to continue on, even as those fictions can fall apart.

So while Spider Forest's closest peers in cinema are both Memento and Mulholland Dr., which isn't a bad place to be, although it lacks the formal logical cohesion of the former and the dramatic punch of the latter, as Spider Forest does ultimately seem to really only hit on one note and never really properly motivates the incident that sets all this off. I think some might still find the film to be highly intriguing in the way that it demands interpretation, providing clues, but never revealing its hand, but others might find this commitment to ambiguity to be frustrating. I bounce between the two poles and found Spider Forest to be flawed, but still interesting and it certainly leaves me still wanting to see more of director Song's filmography. 7/10

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