Thursday, July 30, 2015

장화, 홍련 (2003)

I was excited to see A Tale of Two Sisters back when it was released in 2003 because by then I had become a fan of director Gim Jiun thanks to his hilarious comedy The Foul King. Granted, I wasn't able to see it right away because I wasn't in Korea, but once the Korean DVD was released, I spent a chunk of one of my earliest paychecks and imported it from Korea. Watching the movie for the first time, even with high expectations, A Tale of Two Sisters actually managed to go above and beyond what I was expecting, taking the film well beyond just the horror genre film I was expecting and transforming it into something completely different, complete with one of the best twists I've ever seen in a film. To this day, it remains one of my favorite films by Gim Jiun and that's because of the attention paid to all aspects of the film.

The film opens with Bae Sumi (Im Sujeong), a girl who is being treated in a psychiatric institution. Some time after, she returns home, accompanied by her father Muhyeon (Gim Gapsu) and her younger sister Suyeon (Mun Geunyeong). There, the girls encounter their new stepmother, Heo Eunju (Yeom Jeong-a), who tries to be nice to them in front of their father, but quickly loses patience with the girls, who don't like her either. However, all the women of the household begin encountering some spooky occurrences as the tension between the increasingly unhinged Sumi and Eunju begins to boil.

There is a lot at play in A Tale of Two Sisters, but the wonderful thing about the film is that it's almost two movies at once. Yes, there is a supernatural horror element as we see some pretty creepy images alongside the household's women, but the psychological horror, especially the things that are hinted at but never fully revealed, like the matter of Suyeon's closet and the reason for the grudge between Sumi and Eunju, are the elements that truly drive the tension. What's more, the first time you watch this film will be vastly different than future times because of its twist, which completely reframes the movie. What's more, there is a lot of depth to the twist, deeply embedded in Sumi's character and hinted at by the veiled references to the traumatic past event which the psychiatrist (I Daeyeon) mentions at the start of the film. And then, the ripple of the film's ultimate themes echo throughout the whole film and make quite an impact by the time the credits role, the double revelation at the end excellently providing an understanding of why the women of the household are acting the way that they are.

On top of all that, the densely colored production design heightens all of the tension, with its darkly colored house, its deep reds, greens and blues in the main areas of the house and contrasted with lighter colors in the girls' respective rooms. The ornate wallpapering and thoughtful attention to wardrobe also all adds to the overall access to the character's mindsets and the sense of history in the richly designed house. Director Gim and his cinematographer I Mogae work the production design well, lighting the house with incandescent and shooting it exquisitely, giving every frame the kind of richness built into the production and Gim doesn't use much flashy direction or editing, so when it appears, it means something.

The sound design is perfect, yes there are some jump scares and Psycho inspired slashing strings, but the soundtrack is often sparse and uses the rear fields well, giving the film greater dimensionality. What's more, I Byeong-u simple but haunting score, with its piano and guitar, is not only memorable in itself, but captures a sense of wistful memory and regret that perfectly resonates with some of the themes in A Tale of Two Sisters.

Finally, all the performers are excellent here, with Yeom Jeong-a especially creating a sense of unease with her increasingly unhinged Eunju--the back-and-forth between moments of mania and darkness, especially how she hides menace behind her smiles, makes this a highly frightening performance and quite possibly one of the best evil stepmothers committed to screen. The girls really capture a sense of sisterhood between them, especially in their quiet moments together and Im Sujeong definitely captures adolescent rebellion well, which Mun's often huge eyed looks relays great fear without words. Even the Gim Gapsu manages an impressive amount of exasperation in his character and while he seems aloof in the first viewing, later viewings actually reveal more depth to even his character.

And all this put together makes A Tale of Two Sisters one of the finest horror films that I have ever seen. Everything works together in this film, from the story to the direction, to the cinematography, the production design, the wardrobe, the performances, and even the soundtrack and score, to create a double-film that is not just captures a genuine sense of horror on both the surface spooky ghost level, but on the psychological level as well and furthermore manages to be about guilt, mental illness, and a desire to fix the past in the present that makes the story compelling. And for that, I think A Tale of Two Sisters is also still my favorite film by director Gim Jiun. It is not to be missed for those that like horror films as well as psychological dramas. A film that only seems to gain more of my respect each time I watch it. Highly recommended. Except for people that can't take the horror of course. 10/10


Monday, July 27, 2015

Spy (2015)

I thought Bridesmaids was a pretty entertaining film, so when I saw that Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy had teamed up for this film and had an opportunity for a work screening of it, of course I went to catch it. I had missed The Heat while it was out, but Spy turns out to be as good of a ride as Bridesmaids--a genuine spy comedy film, complete with the requisite action and thrills, rather than being a genre spoof. There might be a few places where the logic falters, but Spy is certainly an entertaining time at the movies.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA agent whose primary role is as support to gentleman spy extraordinaire, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), for whom she harbors quite the crush. However, when investigating the location of a nuclear weapon, Fine stumbles into a trap sprung by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and is summarily executed. Suddenly, as Rose is aware of the identities of the CIA's top agents and so the agency can't send them to locate the bomb, Cooper volunteers herself to go into the field and her boss, Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) gives her the job to spy upon Serio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), who is connected to the Boyanov crime syndicate. Of course, Cooper's job is complicated by Rick Ford (Jason Statham), a top CIA agent gone rogue in an attempt to avenge his frenemy's death.

Due to the sheer number of plot twists and apparent parties interested in both the nuclear weapon and, for some inexplicable reason, Boyanov's death, the actual logic of certain characters trying to kill Boyanov largely doesn't make sense. Especially the way that it's done, considering that she's the only one that is aware of the location of the nuke, so actually killing her would result in the would-be assassins not getting what they want. And due to the amount of attempts on her life, I was left constantly exasperated. The other matter is that Cooper's own personal journey from unsure newbie to hardened field agent isn't quite clear--aside from just the confidence she gains from kicking ass and taking names, there isn't much of a personal struggle she goes through to get there, so at times Cooper just seems like a force of nature. Then there's the confusing element of British nationals (Rick Ford and Nancy Artingstall (Miranda Hart)) as United States CIA agents, although this might be in the vein of Chris O'Dowd's presence as a police officer in Bridesmaids.

All that said, the rest of the film works great. It's funny, thanks to riffing by all the actors involved. McCarthy is predictably hilarious, especially as Susan Cooper becomes more emboldened and takes on a harder character, but Jason Statham also turns in the kind of excellent comedic performance that marked his earliest feature work with Guy Ritchie, before he became an action hero and is kind of playing a parody of his many action hero characters. The two are surrounded by a variety of castmates that handle their comedy well, from Peter Serafinowicz as the lecherous Aldo to the aforementioned Hart as a goofy best friend.

And Feig manages to inject the film with all the requisite action that you'd expect from a spy comedy, putting McCarthy into quite the workout with the number of stunts that Susan Cooper pulls in combat. In fact, all of the action and the plot twists are so legitimate that Spy is actually a genuine action-spy-thriller, just one that is also quite funny most of the time and doesn't have the adolescent mean-spiritedness that somewhat spoiled Kingsman. Instead, it's a rather positive film, one that provides all the thrills and fun of an action spy thriller, the amusement of a Feig-McCarthy comedy, and actual female characters as real genuine, complete characters, from Cooper to Boyanov to the various supporting ones.

And all that together makes Spy quite the enjoyable film on multiple levels. A solid film that will probably satisfy people looking for a laugh, people looking for thrills, and people looking for action all at the same time. Just try and roll with it when all the incredulous attempts on Boyanov's life inevitably hit the screen. 8/10


Friday, July 24, 2015

이공 1 (2003)

In 2003, twenty alumni of the Korean Film Academy, several of whom had made quite the buzz in the Korean film industry, got together to produce a pair of omnibus films to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Academy. Each film contains ten short films, each less than ten minutes long. I'm not entirely sure the format or organization of the omnibuses as they were originally presented, but on the DVDs for Twentidentity, they are presented in a specific order, bookended by an animated credits sequence based on Galaga. As can be expected from an omnibus, Twentidentity's first volume is predictably uneven. But even the collection's strongest shorts aren't terribly impressive, resulting in a somewhat lackluster viewing.

Under a Big Tree

Twentidentity opens with Under a Big Tree, which bears the Korean name of the omnibus and also has the highest profile actors in the omnibus, Chu Sangmi and Hwang Jeongmin. This short basically follows a couple on a first date as they prepare for it and sort through some awkward small talk on a bench. Directed by Bak Gyeonghui, who just worked with Chu Sangmi on A Smile, there really isn't much to the short and it would be utterly forgettable, if it weren't for the high profile cast. 5/10


This is followed by Gim Uiseok's Seotda, a film set around the titular poker-like card game. The narrator (Gim Suhyeon) describes his addiction to the game and how he hopes to win his money back, but just when he gets what he thinks is a winning hand, the game doesn't go as expected. This short has a bit more of a story arc to it, ending in some amusing irony, but the voiceover monologue over the action of the game wasn't especially interesting. Seotda's payoff didn't quite match up to the time needed to set it up. 6/10

Twenty Millimeter Thick

The third segment, I Hyeonseung's Twenty Millimeter Thick also has a decent setup. In this case, a couple (Yeom Jeong-a and Chae Eunseok) observe what appears to be another couple fighting in the street. The man begins supposing that they're fighting because the guy discovered the girl cheating on him and then ostensibly coolly asks if his girlfriend ever saw anyone else while they were dating. When she mentions that she has hung out with her college friend, he gets jealous, mirroring what he supposed he saw the couple outside doing. The piece has a decent amount of irony, which makes it a little better than just the man's descent into paranoid jealousy. 6/10


O Byeongcheol provides the fourth segment, Innocence, which basically dramatizes the confession of a woman (Jo Eunsuk) thrice-widowed and the circumstances under which she lost her husbands. The twist is telegraphed, the character shallow, and there really isn't much drama to it all. Kind of a miss. 5/10

Fucked Up Shoes!

The fifth piece, Fucked Up Shoes! by Yu Yeongsik, is perhaps the most experimental of the bunch. The camera largely stayed locked on the space where shoes get taken off as customers enter the traditional seating part of a restaurant. We hear bits and pieces of the characters' conversations as the shoes become increasingly disheveled and eventually leads to chaos as the guests leave. While I like the very distinct and atypical direction, the short ultimately doesn't really do much with its setup, neither making a notable observation, showing a story, or really even succeeding at comedy. And so all the experimentation feels rather unwarranted, despite that it helps the short to stand out among its peers. 5/10

Twenty Questions

Twenty Questions by I Suyeon features the titular game, played when a mentally unstable homeless man (Choe Deokmun) follows a depressed young man (Cheon Jeongmyeong) and decides to threaten to toss him onto the subway tracks if the young man fails to win twenty questions. The two characters are thinking on very different wavelengths and so the young man's more figurative guesses don't work well with the homeless man's decidedly material thinking. The miscommunication is interesting, but at the short's end, the short doesn't really feel like it accomplishes anything. 6/10

The Twenty's Law

This is followed with The Twenty's Law by Jo Minho, another unique entry into the omnibus. Set in a dystopian future, a law is passed that all men must die on their twentieth birthday. This leads to a strange future where women pursue men to mate with them and kill them. In this future, a young man (Bong Taegyu) is resisting the sexual advances of his girlfriend (Jang Juyeong), despite his passion for her. But when a couple of mankillers arrive to claim his sperm, Juyeong takes up her blade to defend her man for later bedding and killing. The setting is interesting, being so vastly different from anything else and while the production is cheap, I kind of appreciate the almost Mad Max like production design. It's just too bad that despite the setting, the story ends up not really doing much more than going for shock value. 6/10

To the 21st

Speaking of shock value, Jang Hyeonsu's To the 21st pretty much aims for that too. In this segment, a couple of thieves (Choe Hangnak and Yun Seonbin) perform burglary on visitors to a rest stop. One of finds a mobile phone where a mysterious woman (Nam Jiyeon) is sending sexy pictures "to the 18th". Of course, at the beginning of the whole segment, we find one of the thieves dead at the hands of the girl and it soon becomes clear that the two are trifling with an enraged ghost. Aside from giving away everything that's going to happen at the top of the film, To the 21st simply isn't good at being a horror short and even fails to keep its rules by which the ghost kills. Finally, atop the shocking deaths we see in the short, the exploitative pictures combined with showing us how the girl died just feels like an overdose of attempts to shock and feels manipulative in the end. 4/10

Pass Me

The penultimate segment, Pass Me by Gim Taeyong also has an element of fantasy, distinguishing it from the pieces that came before as a photographer (Jeon Hyejin) chances upon a woman beating up what seems to be her beau. When she opts to take a photo, she stops time with the picture just as a basketball falls from the rooftop court towards the couple. I'm honestly not certain what to make of the fantasy, which doesn't really seem to change much of anything, nor the short's coda, which again, while creating symmetry, doesn't seem to be doing it for any meaningful purpose. Yet the short is interesting for being different, but is confusing and doesn't seem to have any point to its novelty. 5/10

Alone Together

The final piece, Alone Together by Heo Jinho, finds a woman (Yun Jinseo) entering her apartment and packing her things to leave her boyfriend (Gim Yeongjae), taking her time to do so and enacting some petty vengeance. Until she comes across a VHS tape of home movies the two made, capturing some sweet, loving moments in their relationship. While there isn't much of a story to Alone Together, I actually appreciate that the segment takes its characters on a kind of emotional journey, observing the characters doing mundane things to help us get the characters and make them real. The closure given at the piece's end is nice. Probably the best of the bunch here. 7/10


Overall, however, I think I found the collection to be a little underwhelming. Again, it's hard to expect consistency when you're looking at a film made of the work of ten different directors. But what did turn out to be consistent was just how underwhelming most of the presented stories were. Only a few didn't make much sense at all, but most of them didn't even feature rudimentary stories. And many didn't really capture dynamism or made any meaningful statements and observations. Still, a handful of clever shorts as well as a few shorts that did at least play with direction or setting did help keep me interested at least half of the time.

I would have been fine with an uneven collection if there were stronger and weaker entries, but Twentidentity's first volume, at least, averages out to a mediocre viewing. 6/10


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

It seems like most of Marvel's superhero films have all been super serious, even if they are broken by bits of irreverent humor, like Avengers: Age of Ultron, with stopping potentially world ending threats being the main focus of films like Thor: The Dark World. Even last summer's genuinely fun Guardians of the Galaxy couldn't really avoid the end of a world as what was driving the action, but at least it was fun. Ant-Man simply has to follow the footprint set by previous Marvel films, but fortunately it avoids the boring thoughtless grimdark of the aforementioned Thor film for the levity of Guardians and the original Iron Man, resulting in a film that's actually a welcome amount of fun, even if it doesn't entirely escape some of the downsides of Marvel's superhero films.

In the original comics, Ant-Man was one of the original Avengers. Here, Ant-Man is not (yet?) an Avenger. Instead he is two characters: As in the comics, he's initially scientist-soldier Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Hank leaves the services of S.H.I.E.L.D. when he's fed up with their attempts to create the Pym particle to make more Ant-Men and founds his own company, eventually being handed over to his protege, scientist-businessman Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a cat burglar who just got out of prison, has no job, can't pay child support, and is therefore banned from seeing his daughter.

When a return to a life of crime doesn't work out for him, Scott is offered a second chance by Pym, who discovers that Cross is on his way to discover the Pym particle and has been aiming to weaponize it. Hank, alongside his once estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), now train and prepare Scott to pull the biggest heist ever, stealing the prototype suit from Cross and preventing the technology from falling into the wrong hands.

I think that Ant-Man is probably most like Iron Man in that it's a small-scale origin story featuring science fiction, corporate takeovers, and quite a bit of humor, but given the character's powers, it was kind of inevitable that Ant-Man would bend even more towards comedy, which is good because it's quite refreshing after all the heavy doldrums of worlds needing saving. And most of the time, when Ant-Man goes for comedy, it works, thanks both to decent writing and strong delivery by the cast, with special mention going to Michael Peña, who steals his scenes as Luis.

All that said, like Iron Man, there is a kind of almost generic feel to the overall movie, especially with the villain, who never is anything more than a jealous former protege with greed issues--but it's never really clear whether Cross is super ambitious or wants to prove himself to Hank. Similarly, while there is a bit of interesting symmetry going on with Scott and Hank's relationships with their daughters, I feel like the drama between Hank and Hope wasn't terribly challenging and a little too easily won over. What's more, the simple reason for Hope not taking the suit and completing the mission herself was quite flimsy as she definitely appears far more capable than Scott.

The film also struggles a lot with both logic and science. For example, Hank notes that he's been watching Scott for a long time and knows all sorts of things about him, but it seems like he's only recently been working with Hope to undermine Cross's research. In terms of science, the Pym particles appear to effectively change the density of atoms in the movie, but there's so much that simply could not happen happening in the movie based on that explanation that I kind of just wished that the movie didn't try to explain the actual science of the particles. All of this served to be a bit distracting during the film.

Finally, Ant-Man is probably just too long. It takes a long time to build up to Scott Lang even getting the Ant-Man suit and I found him to be simply too noble at the start of the film, trapped by circumstance to attempt burglary again and consequently, Scott never really has to overcome any kind of personal conflict. What's more, his antagonist isn't even at all related to his own story, but is a counterpart to his brief relationship to Hank.

Fortunately, Ant-Man is saved by simply being both fun and funny. Moments like Scott's initial experience dealing with being shrunken, his banter with a high-powered guard when he's performing his first mission as Ant-Man, Scott's fellow ex-cons, and even some of his back and forth with Hank are all quite amusing. And director Peyton Reed does a decent job of keeping everything light, although he's clearly executing the film on Marvel's short leash. One weakness in the cast is Evangeline Lilly, who carries a lot of heaviness with Hope and tends to weigh down her scenes. I'd also say that Corey Stoll takes Darren Cross into maniacal Bond villain territory too much, resulting in his character seeming overly exaggerated, which clashes a bit with the more deadpan nature of much of the comedy.

But while the movie is long, struggles at times with logic and science, and even the characters and story seem a little generic at times, it still won me over on the strength of its sense of fun with the character and his powers, as well as the film's sense of self-aware humor, which was charmingly delivered by most of the principal cast. And I think that makes it an enjoyable coda to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's second phase--especially in that it gives the second phase a film that isn't quite as epic and focuses again on characters, rather than giant global (or universal) threats, which wraps up the second phase with the echo to how the first phase began. And that makes Ant-Man, the most enjoyable Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy last year. 8/10


Thursday, July 16, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 8회

Following directly behind the intensity of the start of the Gwangju Uprising, Sandglass continues into the Uprising in this episode and does not shy away from the complexity and heartbreak of the moment in history. The episode does miss on a couple logic points, but the overall complete shift in story that we witnessed in the last episode continues here and the episode, and series, benefits greatly from it.

In this episode, we spent most of our time with Taesu and his former underling Jinsu as Jinsu, outraged by the events of the last episode, goes deep into Gwanju partisans and Taesu, held by his concern for Jinsu, goes with him. While Useok is ordered to prepare an ambush for anyone that might approach, Jinsu, Taesu, and the Gwangju partisans plan to try to get a squad of people out of the city in order to get the word out about the massacre and break the misinformation that the government controlled media is sowing about the events in the city. Unfortunately this puts them right up against Useok's squad and a firefight ensues.

Taesu loses Jinsu and Useok loses his army buddy, Private Gang in the firefight and in one unbelievable moment, Useok somehow manages to see Taesu clearly in the distance and under moonlight and prevents his commanding offer from shooting him. From there, Taesu leave the conflict as Jinsu's mother begs him to not defend the provincial office from the military and instead survive so that he can return to Seoul and tell the world what really happened in Gwangju.

Finally, we return to the long absent Hyerin, who continues spending time in hiding with the kelp gatherer. She encounters the kelp gatherer's daughter, who was once an activist and eventually was captured by the police and seemingly tortured to the point of mental disorder. Being around a once spiritual comrade so thoroughly broken unnerves Hyerin, who decides to leave, but she ends up getting captured by the police and it appears like she might be experiencing the same kind of torture the kelp gatherer's daughter experienced before.

Having the character stay right within the Gwangju uprising conflict as well as the many human rights abuses and oppressions of the dictatorship of the times lends the series a powerful setting and tells a powerful story, because even if Taesu, Useok, and Hyerin themselves are fictional, they are representing tens of thousands of Koreans' experience under the military dictatorship of Korea. The history, further enhanced by the incorporation of actual archival footage of the event, gives the story on screen a lot more weight and is altogether much more enthralling and convincing than the love triangles and the gangland intrigue of the first six episodes.

You knew it was coming, but pitting Useok against Taesu and having Useok as well as Private Gang be so uncertain of what they are doing helps add to the awareness that the military was composed of frightened people too and while those in charge didn't seem to mind some casualties in order to suppress the democracy movement, the drafted and enlisted rank and file wasn't always certain or comfortable with what they were doing. I do wish that they never had Useok actually see Taesu though because the distance and lighting really would have made that impossible and I also wish they addressed Useok's fate in the episode after he physically restrained his commanding officer. And while showing Useok's perspective as a soldier in the conflict was good, I often felt the writer could never pick a perspective for him as he was frequently dutiful with moments of rebellion.

Taesu on the other hand becomes much more likable for once, thanks to his willingness to stick to and support Jinsu and the story of Jinsu's and Taesu's own losses in the conflict are pretty potent and realistic. I also appreciated Private Gang's short presence in the series as a Gwangju native forced to serve in the military occupation and suppression of his own hometown.

While Hyerin's own story of hiding out in a rural town wasn't that interesting, it got better once she encountered the kelp gatherer's daughter as it creates a great deal of internal conflict for her and then the show really gets daring by putting her at the mercy of police investigators. Now, I do have some reservations about seeing a woman being tortured, but I'm guessing that they will limit the actual torture in the upcoming episode or perhaps her father will finally intervene.

That said, despite the promise of the cliffhanger, I have to say that it doesn't quite make sense how the kelp gatherer's daughter was able to lead the police to Hyerin at the train station, considering the daughter was wandering around and had no reason to know that Hyerin had left for the train station at all. That clear contrivance took a bite out of that scene for me.

Nonetheless, logical quibbles aside, Sandglass turns in another strong episode in the eighth and I have hope that we will see more of this in the ninth. As anticipated, the series is at its best when taking the characters deep into the actual history of the times. 8/10


  • Episode website | DramaFever
  • At Daum, IMDb, Naver, Wikipedia (en|ko)
  • Previous episode: 7회 | Next episode: 9회
  • Series review

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

미소 (2003)

I picked up a copy of A Smile to watch in part because I was curious to see director Song Ilgon in an acting role and in part because the film was invited to a few film festivals and won a couple awards in the process. It's also a first feature film by a female director, Bak Gyeonghui and I'm always interested in seeing more work by female directors. A Smile has some strengths, particularly in its direction, performance, and deep examination of its protagonist, however, the film's story never really comes together being too episodic and inconclusive, resulting in a flawed work that shows promise for the talent behind it.

The protagonist of this story is Sojeong (Chu Sangmi), a photographer who discovers that she's suffering from a condition that will erode her field of vision leaving her without sight. A Smile follows her in three separate segments, the first as she discovers her disease and how it impacts her relationship with her boyfriend Jiseok (Song Ilgon). The second has Sojeong visiting her family. In the final segment, Sojeong decides to learn to fly an airplane and wants to do so in a hurry, moving into the bunk of her flight instructor (Jo Seongha).

What each of these segments do well is draw out Sojeong's character: her love of photography, her complex relationships with Jiseok and her family, and how she deals with her potentially impending loss of her sight. It's an incredibly slow moving drama, spending a good deal of time with mundane things around her, but when we are with Sojeong, it works fairly well. Unfortunately, we aren't always with her, especially in the second segment as we move onto her family and we encounter some of the struggles her family deals with, especially due to her abusive brother Mansu (Bak Wonsang). In pulling away from her perspective and into scenes without her, we're also pulled away from her subjectivity which drives her personal inner conflict and angst with her coming loss of vision.

This makes the middle section with her family--especially as it does not connect at all with the beginning and ending segments--seem like an enormous detail and one without a great deal of reward. I do see how it explores her character, but it never connects with her loss of vision story in the way her relationship with Jiseok, her photography, and less obviously, her desire to learn to fly does. The latter of those three also isn't well seeded in the film so it seems to come out of the blue and really could have used more development. Similarly, the ending was a bit of a blank--more than ambiguous, it seemed to lack statement all resulting in a rather flat story.

This is not entirely mitigated by Bak Gyeonghui's observational directorial style. Not unlike fellow Korean director Gim Gideok, Bak's style is rather quiet and distanced, letting the scene and characters lead the scene. However, Bak does occasionally dip into the editing in noticeable ways with a couple cut-to-blacks leading to jump cuts that are memorable, even if not terribly motivated. Fortunately, Bak is helped by a strong performance from Chu Sangmi who helps bring Sojeong to life and carries her character through the episodes.

It's not enough to fully salvage A Smile though. The episodic nature, especially in that it doesn't all fully hook up to a greater story--a same story that is rather inconclusive--causes the overall film to lack. Bak's quiet directorial style is interesting and Chu Sangmi does put in a strong performance, but none of that overcomes the slow pacing, the extraneous story elements, or the lack of focus in the story. The direction and performance make the film watchable, but A Smile ends up being more of a showing of director Bak Gyeonghui's promise rather than developed skill. 6/10


Thursday, July 9, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 7회

Sandglass completely transforms this episode as it takes a trip to Gwangju right in the midst of the Gwangju uprising. Gone altogether are the love triangles and the gangland politics as they take a backseat to a fictionalized visiting of the violence and chaos of that particular moment in Korean history. It's actually a rather big deal because during the dictatorship governments, information about the citizens uprising against military oppression was limited and the government used media to spread misinformation about the events. In the aftermath of civilian government in the 1990's, pressure mounted on the government to recognize and redress the massacre of citizens and it eventually did.

Sandglass holds the position of being the first widely distributed dramatized and fictional enactment of the event and not only does it have that distinction, but it is also a rather powerful retelling of the event.

In the last episode we saw Hyerin on the run after another crackdown by the police on her pro-democracy student group, Taesu going to visit his once underling Jinsu in Gwangju, and Useok in the military finally getting deployment. In this episode, Hyerin only appears at the top of the episode on the run in some coastal city. Meanwhile, things get tense in Gwangju as the military cracks down on the city starting with students and then expanding onto an increasingly hostile populace. With phones and mass transit into and out of Gwangju cut off by the military government, Taesu is stuck in the city, trying his best to keep himself and Jinsu from getting entangled in the event.

Meanwhile, Useok finds himself traveling to Gwangju on the other side of the gun and reluctantly joins the troops in capturing "suspicious" people as the protestors and military become increasingly violent.

The episode effectively leaves the individual stories of Taesu and Useok to spend time in the midst of the Uprising, using our connection with the two characters as means of vicarious anchored experience. Jinsu and his family in particular get elevated roles as Gwangju natives that push Taesu as they are initially skeptical of involvement like him, but even the wary gangster Taesu is eventually pushed into getting involved in helping the injured citizens of Gwangju.

What's surprising is that the show makes sure to show the military soldier's own position as well, not as faceless perpetrators of government oppression, but as real people who get injured and hurt and shot at by members of the uprising. And with Useok, we get to see that the soldiers, while complicit in the massacre, are themselves not entirely on board with the government plans as some hesitate, others shoot at signs to try not to hit civilians, and find themselves at odds with their commanders, both subject to horrors as they commit them.

It's quite a harrowing episode as lives are lost and so is innocence. It's enormously compelling simply because of the event, but even the direction and performances seem elevated, with some impressive shots given the video-based setups. While not all of the background performers are equal, the massive scenes of demonstrations purposefully intercut with actual archival footage from the event is quite compelling, reinforcing that what we are seeing was a real event, even if we are also wanting fictionalized parts of it.

The only downside is that the series' greater narrative is put on hold for the entirety of the episode with only Taesu getting a small piece of narrative development. However, that is a cost I'm happy to pay for such a powerful depiction of the Gwangju Uprising. Sandglass elevated itself from a merely tolerable series about three people to quite the affecting moment in Korean television history with its seventh episode and I hope that it continues to do so with its eighth. 9/10


  • Episode website | DramaFever
  • At Daum, IMDb, Naver, Wikipedia (en|ko)
  • Previous episode: 6회 | Next episode: 8회
  • Series review