Monday, September 22, 2014

내 생애 봄날 (2014): 1회 봄이가 자기 심장이 어디서 왔는지 알까요?

The last Korean drama that I fully watched and covered on Init_Scenes was a full on recap and review of City Hunter and that turned out to be a little too much for me to handle in more than one way. However, now that I'm knee deep in the middle of Korean drama and romantic comedy research for my own work, I started toying with the idea of covering Korean dramas here on Init_Scenes again, but this time using the less intensive format of individual episode reviews, followed by a series review.

For the first of these reviews, I have elected to cover a melodrama called My Spring Day. I was particularly drawn to My Spring Day because of the lead actor, Gam Useong, who I've appreciated since seeing him in The King and the Clown and, more significantly, Alone in Love, which happens to rank as one of my most beloved television series of all time. I wouldn't say that Gam Useong is alone reason enough for me to watch a show, but I found the first episode pretty good when I checked it out and I heard that the series actually contains a plot device that is relevant to my own current work, so I decided to give the series a shot.

Please note that because I am reviewing full episodes of a serialized drama, there will be spoilers present throughout the reviews, including full synopses, although nothing is all too surprising so far.

The first episode is entitled "Does Bomi Know Where Her Heart Came From?" and the setup is a little complicated. I Bomi (Choe Suyeong) is a young woman who got a second chance at life five years ago, when she received a heart transplant that saved her life. While she's not the smartest, she is highly determined and passionate about both her work as a hospital dietitian and trying to live life fully out of gratitude to her heart donor. When a patient makes a special request for gomtang, Bomi tries to buy her meat at a discount from a particular beef retailer and ends up in an altercation with Gang Dongha (Gam Useong), who works there and refuses to let her buy more than their sale limit of two packages per person.

The altercation results in a scuffle and Gang Dongha throwing some rough words Bomi's way and in this age, it gets all over the internet. This is a headache for her mother, hospital's chair Jo Myeonghui (Sim Hyejin), and the hospital's director, I Hyeoksu (Gwon Haehyo). The hospital is trying to retain the services of its star surgeon Gang Dong-uk (I Junhyeok) while hoping to open up an international medical wing to increase revenue.

That star doctor, Dong-uk, also happens to be Bomi's fiancé. He is also alluded to being the brother-in-law of her heart donor, Yun Sujeong (Min Jia). And, exactly five years since she received her new heart, Bomi decides to take a trip to where she received it, Udo, to thank her donor in person.

You see, Sujeong was Dongha's wife, so Dongha too is on Udo with his daughter Pureun (Hyeon Seungmin) and Bada (Gil Jeong-u) for Sujeong's memorial. It's this memorial on this tiny island of Jeju that Bomi happens to spot and, not being terribly bright, she takes Dongha to task for littering and then gets friendly with Pureun and Bada (here on called "Bluesea" when together).

Then Bomi goes and holds her own memorial service for her donor only to be interrupted by Dongha as the tide is rising and she happens to be standing in a rather dangerous part of the beach. It proves dangerous enough as when Bomi tries to get down, she slips and falls into the sea, rescued by Dongha's heroic swimming and a gentle push from below by the ghost of Sujeong. After reviving her, Dongha and his hometown buddy Jo Gildong (Jang Wonyeong) rush her to a hospital where she is declared fine and after more bickering, they leave Bomi to her own devices.

Of course, Bomi finds herself trapped on Udo due to unpredictable troublesome waves and Dongha, learning this from Pureun, ends up coming back to eventually take her back to his place after Bomi, ignorant of small island life, tries to find lodging. There, Puruen offers Bomi her mother's dress while Bomi's clothes get hung out to dry. And then as Bomi decides to pick flowers, Dongha returns to see the visage of his late wife Sujeong, picking flowers as she used to. Except that it's Bomi.

The first episode takes its time setting up all the characters and their deeply interwoven relationships, but it never feels long because the episode never repeats itself but keeps moving along. By the end of the first episode, we'd already had our leads collide with each other multiple times and, since they started off on the wrong foot and have complementary personalities, they have an amusingly antagonistic relationship. Furthermore, the show doesn't seem interested in drawing out any mysteries at all, quickly drawing up all the relationships between all of the characters where a lesser show might intentionally obfuscate the relationship between Dong-uk and Dongha for "extra impact".

What I especially appreciate in the plotting is how well the story avoids many true coincidences. The careful choice to have Dongha and Dong-uk be Udo natives and for Bomi to get her heart from fellow Udo native Sujeong means that the odds of Dongha and Bomi running into each other on Udo on the anniversary of Sujeong's death make perfect sense, given that it's a small island community. Similarly, with Dong-uk following Sujeong's heart to Bomi means that their meeting was never a coincidence either. These are all quite deliberate choices made on the part of the writer to bring the characters together in this world and I like that it's baked into the story rather than forced.

Another nice thing is in how the many relationships between the characters are drawn. For example, the relationship between Director Lee and Dong-uk is surprisingly warm for future in-laws and instantly comfortable. Likewise the Gang family unit all have their place with Pureun taking the mantle of house matron in the absence of Sujeong and nagging the prickly Dongha while caring for Bada. But the show doesn't leave the characters one-note either as Dongha is both tough on Bada at one point, but also consents to sing Bada his favorite song as well, showing the common family love-hate dynamic.

The setup is clearly ripe for melodrama due one man's late wife's heart giving life to the other man's current love, but given the characterizations of the relationships in the show and the overall lighter tone, I'm actually not worried that it will travel down an overly melodramatic path of backstabbing and villainy. The supernatural element of Sujeong's ghost might as well play a part in a show, but the presence so far seems subtle enough that I'm wondering how necessary it is. It does trigger a reaction in Bomi with her tears at seeing Bluesea and I imagine that it will be used as a device to draw Bomi to Dongha. I can see some interesting questions being asked about the sincerity of emotion on Bomi's part if part of why she feels drawn to Dongha is because of the physical presence of Sujeong's heart in her.

In terms of direction, the show seems pretty straightforward, although there was a weird solarization going on at the top of the episode and I couldn't tell whether it was an encoding issue or artistic choice. And if the latter, I didn't like it. But from there the episode was handled fairly subtly, letting the characters do most of the storytelling.

In terms of performances, Gam Useong is dependably good in playing his common crabby ajeossi type while giving space for Dongha's more loving side to show too. Suyeong is nowhere near as subtle, really hitting her Bomi straight on. Fortunately she doesn't really go over the top and her youthful character is also fortuitously accomodating of her performance as well. Special cheers to Hyeon Seungmin for her capable performance as Pureun, doing well for a young actress. Gil Jeong-u doesn't fare as well as little brother Bada at least at first impression as his performance seems quite forced.

In concert, I think My Spring Day actually fares quite well. I enjoyed the light and natural tone. The pacing of the episode was perfect, flowing from scene to scene without backtracking or grinding time. Every moment in the episode worked to illustrate characters and their relationships and the comedic moments all hit their marks. I can't say that's at all indicative of whether the show will keep it up, but having a solid first episode is a challenging hurdle and I think My Spring Day cleared it well. While only time will tell whether the show can continue at this level, as far as opening episodes go for a show of this genre, it's really hard to ask for more. 9/10.

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내 생애 봄날 (2014)

Review will be written upon completion of series.

Episode Reviews: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16

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그놈 목소리 (2007)

I remember liking director Bak Jinpyo's You Are My Sunshine as well as his contribution to If You Were Me and, unable to get a hold of his debut film, Too Young to Die, I thought I'd check out his follow up, Voice of a Murderer. Like with Bong Junho's Memories of Murder, Voice of a Murderer is based on a real unsolved crime in Korea where a child was kidnapped and murdered and the parents of the child were harassed and extorted for large sums of money. Unfortunately, it's never at all clear what Voice of a Murderer is about except being a reconstruction of the crime and the following events and the result is both repetitive and boring.

In this dramatization of an event from the 1990's, a famous news anchor, Han Gyeongbae (Seol Gyeonggu), and his wife, O Jiseon (Gim Namju), one day find that their son, Sang-u (I Hyeongcheol) hasn't returned home. And then they get a call. The voice (Gang Dongwon) on the line claims to have Sang-u and demands 100,000,000 won (approximately $100,000) for his safe return. Gyeongbae tries to follow his instructions but circumstances, including a failure to cooperate to the letter by Gyeonbae and Jiseon as well as the bungling of the police leads to the kidnapper pulling the deal. Over the next forty-four days, the kidnapper would continue to call for money and the deals would go awry or the parents simply wouldn't get Sang-u back, despite the kidnapper getting his money.

The true story is public knowledge of course, so we all know that the boy's corpse would be found forty-four days later, having been murdered the day after his abduction and that the kidnapper extorted money from the parents with no intention to return the kid. With the high publicity of the crime in its wake, the Korean audience in particular would be aware of many of the details so a pure reconstruction wouldn't offer much. With Memories of Murder, Bong opted to focus on the incompetence and failure of the police force and the drama within the investigation. In Voice of a Murderer, Bak doesn't seem quite as focused--much of the film spends its time with both of the parents as they attempt (and often fail) to cater to the kidnapper's demands as well as some amount of time with the police in their incompetent investigation.

Part of the problem is that when you know what the end story is, it sort of derails suspense. Even if you don't know all the details of the original story, the English title gives away the ending, helping put you in a spot to know that the child is already dead. So with suspense eliminated as a means of building tension in the film, Bak needed to find an alternate element of the story to investigate. Instead he just sticks to the public record, recreating the multiple attempts and failures of the parents and police to secure Sang-u. Unfortunately, without the suspense of near misses to drive those moments and an overabundence of those moments, it just gets tired. The phone calls go from ominous to tiring. The failure of the police or even the kidnapper to get things right gets tiring. And since you know that they never get it right, spending time watching it over and over isn't compelling.

The best moments in Voice of a Murderer are actually when we are watching the parents deal and fail to deal with the situation of possibly losing their child. This is something that Secret Sunshine does excellently. Unfortunately watching the effect of the event on their marriage and especially how Jiseon's faith is impacted by the event are minimized in the film and so the few character we have aren't enough to pull the film out from its repetitive loop. And I think I understand why Bak wouldn't want to tread down the same path as many of these other distinct and critically acclaimed Korean films, but I simply don't think he establishes an identity for Voice of a Murderer aside from being a dramatized retelling of event--and it's only as compelling as reading newspaper articles about the event today, just as distanced from the reality of the moment.

Not to say that Bak is a bad director--the film is shot effectively and the performances are fine. Bak does throw in the real voice recordings and photos of the real boy at the end, along with a reminder that the case remains unsolved after the statute of limitations has expired, which doesn't really have the shock factor of his early films and seems a bit manipulative. But other than that, it's really more of a lack of focus in finding an actual story that keeps Voice of a Murderer from being interesting.

That said, the film did quite well in the box office and with Korean audiences perhaps due to the high profile nature of the crime and the fact that it remains unsolved to this day. But divorced from the real-life context of its making, this step-by-step recreation of the events in the kidnapping case is repetitive and inert. There are better films about real life unsolved crimes (Memories of Murder) and better films about kidnapping and loss (Secret Sunshine, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) to watch, each succeeding where Voice of a Murderer doesn't thanks to a focus on one particular element of the story. This film is probably left best to those who have intense personal memories of this event's media storm in the past and those who are especially interested in kidnapping stories. 5/10.

DVD Note: The US Virgil Films release of Voice of a Murderer features burned in subtitles and no options besides scene selection. The video transfer ranges from watchable to abysmal, but is never good. Towards the end of the film the images get quite distorted and the disc opens up with a series of very lengthy poor quality trailers for other films they are releasing. As Voice of a Murderer is out of print worldwide, this might be one of the few options you have to view it, but if you have an alternative release, I'd recommend seeking that instead of the US Virgil Films version.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

여고괴담 4: 목소리 (2005)

Originally published at Dramabeans on August 31, 2014

It seems to me that as the Whispering Corridors series goes on, the degree of commentary the films make about high school lessens in each installment. The original Whispering Corridors was a scathing indictment of the abuses that youth endure at school and the second pointed a finger at the rigidity of social structures and expected behaviors including the difficulties faced by young LGBT students.

The third peeled back from commentary specifically on the school system and instead focused on how competitiveness, which the school system encourages, can damage even the closest of friendships. The fourth film to bear the Whispering Corridors name, Voice, hints at some of the themes in the previous films but is basically a straightforward supernatural mystery set in a high school for girls.

>Yeong-eon (Gim Okbin), is the top vocalist in her school, but on one lonely night she is attacked by a ghost. When she wakes up the next day, none of the other students can see or hear her and she discovers that she's not corporeal. Yes, breaking from series tradition, the protagonist of the film is herself a ghost. The only person she is able to speak to is her best friend Seonmin (Seo Jihye).

Together, the two begin investigating who might have murdered Yeong-eon and why, leading to the recent odd behavior of their music teacher (Gim Seohyeong). But not everything is at it seems as Yeong-eon's memory seems incomplete and their class's odd-girl, Choa (Cha Yeryeon), who can see and hear ghosts herself, takes an interest in Seonmin with some foreboding warnings.

Part Ghost and part The Sixth Sense, Voice even has a bit in common with 2004's Dead Friend, thanks to the shared Korean girls' high school setting, Yeong-eon's questionable memory, and the attempt to solve a ghost's crime. As such, it's not at all an original premise, but the film does actually benefit greatly from being more of a whodunnit to me, shifting away from the horror genre to the mystery genre, and thus saving itself from repeating all the overplayed tropes endemic to the yearly Korean horror cycle--a problem that considerably weakened the final act of Wishing Stairs.

Unfortunately, no matter how refreshing it was to have a horror film without your standard awkwardly moving ghost crawling out of something, Voice does happen to still fall into another overdone horror movie cliche: the twist ending. The first twist you can see coming from the first act, dulling the surprise considerably. From Yeong-eon's shaky memory to Choa's quoting of The Sixth Sense's, "They only see what they want to see.", you know that Yeong-eon isn't who even she thinks herself to be.

I do think that Voice does successfully manage to keep the specifics of the secret pretty well until its big reveal, which is nice, but the impact of that reveal on the story, especially on the dynamic between Yeong-eon and our second protagonist, Seonmin, is actually quite weak. This is in part because we never understand why Yeong-eon only chooses to remember the parts of her life she remembers and by the choices she makes at the film's end, it truly stops making sense. And there are also consistency issues when it comes to the rules of the ghost world and what they're able to do; some of these moments, especially at the film's end, just seem utterly contrived for the sake of a twist.

Furthermore, the film's choice to split the narrative between Yeong-eon and Seonmin doesn't quite work because we are never given enough access to either Yeong-eon or Seonmin, especially since the latter is completely in the dark to the former's self-revelations. I like how well Voice paints their relationship initially, but it's never given proper development.

First time writer-director Choe Ikhwan does manage to really infuse his film with an aesthetic that isn't like other horror movies, shot in golds and oranges and the production dressed in browns. This warm temperature helps give life to Yeong-eon and Seonmin's close friendship and I like how Choe chooses to shift the color of the film according to the darker tones he's going for in the more horror-oriented scenes. However, some of his decisions, like the over-use of flashbacks and the lack of reason for Yeong-eon encountering them--aside from being exposition for the audience--as well as perhaps an overapplication of visual effects around these moments, seem indulgent without serving the story.

Our actresses, most of them newbies, aren't quite as memorable as previous installments of the franchise, although they certainly don't turn in deficient performances either. It's possible that they were limited by the script, which also doesn't really bear any particularly striking moments, aside from the ridiculous way that we first see Yeong-eon get murdered at the film's start. (Which also turns into a plot point that later gets abandoned.)

In the seven years since the first Whispering Corridors made a genre revitalizing splash, many horror movies have opened every summer. And in its attempt to differentiate itself from the overstuffed genre, Voice does manage to find a unique--ahem--voice, by turning instead to the mystery genre and letting itself take inspiration from other similarly supernatural non-horror films like Ghost and The Sixth Sense.

In that sense, this film is notable, but the story never really manages to match its premise and potential due to the need to force a cliched twist ending as well as a lack of emphasis on character and relationship development. Nor does it really make the most of its girls' high school setting like previous films in the series. So watch Voice if you want to see a ghostly story that breaks a little from the typical Korean supernatural horror fare, but keep your expectations in check. It trades in one set of problems for another. 6/10.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

폭력써클 (2006)

After a spending most of his career making horror films after helping to define the genre with Whispering Corridors, Bak Gihyeong switched gears and went into the youth violence genre with Gangster High in 2006. While his directorial leanings are toned down in this effort, that actually works pretty well given the genre. On the other hand, even though Gangster High is by no means a terrible film, it's also a rather stereotypical film in the Korean gangster and youth violence genres.

Gangster High focuses on a group of high school freshman called the Tigers. While they were formed as a soccer club, their hotheadedness and tendency to physically confront bullies leads to a series of fistfights where they unwittingly establish themselves as the toughest group in the school. But when Jeong Suhui (Jang Huijin) from a rival high school and the Tigers' nice guy leader I Sangho (Jeong Gyeongho) develop an interest in each other, her sociopathic ex-boyfriend Han Jongseok (Yeon Jeuk), who leads a rival gang called TNT, begins an assault on the Tigers, leading to a deadly revenge-fueled confrontation that leaves Sangho with blood on his hands.

This is the kind of story that's been in Korean cinema since its earliest gangster films. Gangster High's friendship-oriented story resembles popular films of the Korean New Wave like 1997's Beat and 2001's Friend, watching trouble intra-gang struggles and seeing the fall of a relatively-nice guy protagonist as he feels forced to violence to defend or avenge his friends. Gangster High adds nothing new at all to any of the movies in this genre so in 2006, when it came out, it was already a tired story.

However, despite the film's rather tired story, the writing is actually rather well executed, with a heavy emphasis on the friendships between the characters and although the plot moves rather slowly, the building and the testing of the Tigers' friendships is enough to help drive Gangster High until the main plot does take over. And by then you have a decent foundation to care about what happens to these boys, their friendship, and understand the temptations that drive them to where they end up going. And I guess those details help make Gangster High palatable beyond the limitations of the uninspired story.

Director Bak also transitions pretty well into the genre, with only flashes of his more stylistic approach from previous films, increasing towards the end with his use of color filters. The film's finale is again not terribly original, bearing a great resemblance to Ryu Seungwan's Die Bad not only in its setting, eventss, and outcome, but also in the way that Bak directs it down to his choice of going to black and white. It's unfortunate that such a comparison could be made since the film generally works and Bak's surprising turn of directorial subtlety served Gangster High well.

The cast serves the film pretty well too with particularly strong rival-friend chemistry between Jeong Gyeongho and I Taeseong, the rest of the Tigers largely filling some archetypal niche well. As is typical for the genre, Jang Huijin's token female character really doesn't have much to do so.

In the end, I think fans of this particular kind of youth violence film will probably enjoy the relatively solid execution on the well worn genre, but others might find its overplayed tale a bit too stale, having seen this kind of film over and over again and those times with some element that helps it feel less generic. So if you've exhausted those other films in the genre, Gangster High will give you more of it, but I would recommend seeking out those other films first before coming here as Gangster High is a competent, but ultimately redundant genre film. 6/10.

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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

While I've read my fair share of comics when I was a teenager, Guardians of the Galaxy was one book that I never really opened. I never really developed much of an interest in Marvel Comics' space-oriented adventures until the events of the Infinity Gauntlet dragged in the books I actually was reading. Over three years, I watched an enormous cosmic war engulf the Marvel universe and, in the interim, I found myself interested in the exploits of the Infinity Watch, which formed after the events of the Infinity Gauntlet, drawn in by the character of Adam Warlock, who had removed from himself both his evil and good in order to be a wise wielder of the depowered Infinity Gauntlet.

A part of that team, including Adam Warlock, Gamora, and Drax the Destroyer would end up forming a new team calling itself Guardians of the Galaxy in the comics. This team is largely unrelated to the original team with the name. And so when Marvel Studios announced that it would be making a movie based on this incarnation of Guardians of the Galaxy, I was brought back to my comic book reading days when the Infinity Watch was the space comic that I was reading. And of course I had to watch it.

While some of the seeds of the film rendition of Guardians of the Galaxy were sown in other films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film basically stands on its own and acts as origin story for the team. It's a rather (comparatively) light story about a group of misfits that chance and greed end up putting together, but camaraderie and compassion end up binding. But jam-packed with action, humor, and a brand new universe of possibilities (at least for those unaccustomed to Marvel's space comics), as well as an awesome soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy manages to entertain in a way that no Marvel movie before it does.

The titular guardians don't really start as that. In fact it all begins when the roguish Earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who insists on being called Star-Lord, recovers a mysterious orb that's worth some money. He's not the only one interested in the orb. Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a fanatic Kree bent on destroying the planet Xandar, also seeks the orb and dispatches Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a notorious assassin, to retrieve it. As Quill and Gamora find themselves at odds, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) further intervene to collect a bounty on Quill, which gets the whole mess of them imprisoned. In prison, they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a man bent on avenging his family's death at the hands of Ronan and hatch a plot to escape, sell the orb to Gamora's buyer and split the considerable loot. All this while Ronan and his aide, Gamora's adoptive sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), are on the hunt for the orb as well.

One thing that Guardians of the Galaxy does well that few films in the current era do is to capture the adventure film dynamic of the 1980's. While some might compare Guardians to Star Wars, I think the more apt comparison is instead to fellow LucasFilm franchise starter Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first scene with adult Peter Quill is almost an homage to the classic as Quill wanders through some ancient ruins in search of the orb. And Peter Quill is an extraterrestrial counterpart to the similarly roguish Indiana Jones, down to his tendency to improvise solutions to the dilemmas he finds himself in.

However, Guardians really isn't about Peter Quill, even if the film is emotionally anchored on him and his haunted past losing his mother to cancer. Rather it's about the larger group--Peter simply being a way for us to see their respective struggles as loner-troublemakers, with the exception of Rocket and Groot, who are a close knit duo. We watch as these conflicting individuals end up finding themselves appreciating each other's company, first as a team, and then as friends in a bid to get rich and maybe even save the universe (or at least Xandar).

That said, in the film's limited time, it doesn't really manage to put together complete character arcs for most of the Guardians, including our everyman, Quill. This leaves the individual characters and their struggles to work together a bit shallow, although everyone, except Gamora and Groot, gets a moment to help flesh out their characters. The story still works because the larger group does have a full arc throughout the movie and film handles bits of character development subtly and there really isn't much space in this two hour film for much more.

That said, there are a few clunky moments in Guardians, including a lot of exposition from otherwise meaningless characters like The Collector (Benicio del Toro), that end up causing the film to grind to a halt as we learn about some cosmic factoid or another without any real progress in plot or story. The universe is imperiled and the super evil gloomy villains have to monologue.

But in contrast, the film is also heavily boosted by a great sense of humor that almost everyone except Gamora contributes to. As most of the Marvel movies have had a doom-filled heavy tone in the last couple years, the more upbeat tone of Guardians is a welcome relief and also helps us accept that we can have heroes that include a genetically modified intelligent and belligerent raccoon and a seemingly omnipotent empathic tree only capable of saying, "I am Groot." Guardians does stumble a few times in the logic and science departments, but it's often covered by the awesomeness or the humor of the moment.

I really enjoyed director James Gunn's Slither and I think he was an apt choice for this film as he brings to it both an ability to focus on character in the midst of a crazy plot and a great capacity to mix humor in with action. And I think the cast generally does pretty well too with Bradley Cooper and the digital animators stealing a lot of moments with the maniacal Rocket. The villains are admittedly a bit forgettable, but the story is really about the anti-heroes learning to become a heroic team so, I guess it's forgivable.

And then there's the soundtrack. It stems from Quill's Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a cassette tape given to him by his mother and plays deeply into the core of his character. And it's an aptly named and appropriately chosen soundtrack given the original Guardians' roots in the 1970's--so the collection of largely 70's tunes, most of which are highly enjoyable--helps give the film an aural cohesion, while also helping us to access Quill better while connecting him to Earth and his mother.

The film's final moments are a little disappointing. It's apparent that just as the newly minted Guardians don't really know what to do, perhaps Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman don't really know who the Guardians of the Galaxy are without some cosmic threat or huge score driving them. And that might be the team and the film's biggest weakness as they seem to be more defined by what forces them together more than what keeps them together. Of course this might be what is explored in the inevitable sequel. Oh, and there's a throwaway stinger after the credits if you're interested.

Look, Guardians of the Galaxy is not going to change your conception of a superhero movie, because it's really more of a team-adventure film. But as far as adventure films go, it's a really good one that compares well to the better ones that young Peter Quill might have watched before being abducted by aliens in the 1980's. It's fun. Really fun. And with most of its faults really seeming like minor quibbles, it's also arguably one of Marvel's best films to date. And they didn't even need a brand name character to sell it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to play that soundtrack again. 8/10.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

여섯 개의 시선 (2003)

Originally published at Dramabeans on August 9, 2014

In 2001, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea was formed. A government body tasked with promoting human rights in Korea in accordance with the principles set forth by the UN General Assembly, they can probably list many things that they have accomplished. But for me, one of the most visible accomplishments is the funding of eight film projects, including the omnibus films entitled If You Were Me. With the most recent installment, If You Were Me 6, having been released just last autumn, I wanted to take a trip back to 2003 when the Commission funded their very first feature omnibus film, the first If You Were Me.

2003 was a year of great highs for Korean cinema. Korean film utterly dominated the local box office. Several Korean films gained an international following, including the cult favorite Oldboy, the horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, and Gim Gideok's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring. And then there was the record-breaking box office local smash of Silmido, which did almost double the business of its closest rival, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by the time it finished its run.

Perhaps it was because of the building momentum of Korean cinema that the Commission decided to use the cinema as a means of creating awareness for human rights issues in Korea. They picked six directors, each of notable repute in Korean cinema, to make six short films dealing with issues of their choosing. Other than giving each director a budget and the mandate to tackle a human rights issue, the directors were given free reign to make whatever they want. And the final result is fascinating.

The six films are arranged end on end and are meant to be seen as a single feature, but given the freedom that the directors were given, they are wildly different. And yet, together, they form a tapestry that is quite effective at highlighting societal issues faced in Korea.

The Weight of Her

The first short, "The Weight of Her" was directed by Im Sunnye and follows the life of a large bodied high school girl (Jo Seon-gyeong).

She is obsessed with getting eyelid surgery while she and her classmates are constantly lectured by their teachers on how they have to conform to a specific ideal of Korean femininity in order to be able to secure a future job and husband. When her mother won't pay for her plastic surgery, she goes hunting for a part-time job to earn it herself and discovers that it's not easy for a large bodied girl to get a legitimate part-time job.

This is by far the most straightforward of the shorts in this omnibus, directly showing the unfortunate position that most Korean women find themselves in: they are judged first by their appearance. And every force in their lives from their teachers in school to their employers and romantic partners in adulthood reinforce this, even if many of them are simply trying to help them get ahead in a harsh social environment. And the short works splendidly in displaying those cruel ironies in a sympathetic way.

The Man with an Affair

This is followed by the impenetrable "The Man with an Affair" by Jeong Jaeeun. Set in an almost Orwellian near-future Seoul, the short sets up two protagonists: Mr. A (Baek Jonghak), a registered sex offender and pariah in his huge apartment complex, and a young boy (Jeon Haeun) who lives in the same complex and struggles with bed-wetting.

After another episode of bed-wetting, his mother (Byeon Jeongsu) loses patience with the boy and gives him a traditional punishment for his crime: he will not be let back in the house until he can fill a bucket of salt gathered from his neighbors. But when his neighbors prove to be unsympathetic, will he have to turn to Mr. A?

This film is easily one of the more aesthetically interesting sequences in the omnibus, with a simple, but striking stark white design that utilizes Jeong Jaeeun's captivating use of text that she demonstrated in Take Care of My Cat. It also dares to raise the issue of the human rights of people who have done really bad things.

Unfortunately, "The Man with an Affair" ends up being much too vague, never really doing more than presenting a situation and completely dancing around the actual human rights issue without ever really touching it. So despite its high visual and atmospheric appeal, it's a bit of a miss.

Crossing

The third short is "Crossing", helmed by actor-director Yeo Gyundong. Utilizing the disabled acting troupe, Hwol, Yeo uses a series of vignettes to follow the mundane struggles of Munju (Gim Munju), a man with cerebral palsy. These moments begin with Gim struggling to take a photo in a photo booth and progress with just a little narrative as we hear about a protest of disabled people that is being suppressed by the government. This somehow gives Munju the idea to try crossing a busy intersection during high traffic.

Some of these vignettes are highly illustrative of many disabled people's issues, but are presented in a friendly, sometimes comic tone. Two of my favorites include a vignette where Munju struggles to get himself out the door, but when he drops his keys, his overly helpful neighbor ajumma comes by, presumes he was trying to get in, and proceeds to "help" him back inside. In addition to comic moments, the film also presents scenes where Munju drinks with a buddy and tries to confess his feelings to a woman, showing that disabled people are just like the able-bodied in most ways.

"Crossing" works best in illustrative scenes like those and even subtler moments where Munju's family goes out to an engagement party without him--the omission speaking loudly about how disabled people are considered (or not!) in society. On the other hand, the actual idea of crossing the street is never really explained or explored beyond the practice and attempt sequences and it's hard to make sense of it and since it takes up a significant part of the narrative energy, it weighs down what might have been a series of amusing insights into the lives of the disabled.

Tongue-Tied

"Tongue-Tied" is the fourth short and is one that is not for sensitive viewers due to graphic surgical documentary footage. Director Bak Jinpyo had previously pushed boundaries with his septuagenarian romance film Too Young to Die, which features a geriatric sex scene. So, while the short is shocking because of its content, it's not surprising if you're aware of his work.

The sequence begins with some home video footage of a boy (Gim Sumin) singing in English in what appears to be a church show. We are then treated to aforementioned surgical sequence as the boy undergoes surgery to help him speak better English and concludes with several statements from children who are frustrated with their need to learn English.

Although the narrative is admittedly sparse, in many ways "Tongue-Tied" actually works more as a documentary as it reflects the impact of the society's drive to learn English on its children, particularly due to the use of real life footage and statements from children. Having us sit with the boy as he gets surgery, while horrific to witness, impresses on us the pains parents press on their children to give them an edge in their hypercompetitive world.

Face Value

And then we have something completely different in "Face Value" as we watch a man (Ji Jinhui) wake up after heavy daytime drinking in a parking garage. Then he gets upset when the attractive garage attendant (Jeong Aeyeon) is short with him. He proceeds to lecture her and she fires right back at him, sending him into a rage. But things turn out to be not as they seem.

Before the final twist, "Face Value" is actually an interesting double commentary, both on the treatment of service workers in general as well as the treatment of female service workers by their customers. And in just that part alone, "Face Value" actually does lend itself to quite a bit of reflection, especially at the entitlement of customers and the dehumanization of service workers as well as how gender and sex play into weighting those interactions.

Seeing how successful that much of the short is, it's a bit puzzling that director Bak Gwangsu even added the twist in, since it doesn't really add anything to the commentary or the narrative, while introducing an unnecessary genre element. That said, the rest of the short works well enough that I still think "Face Value" is a successful piece.

N.E.P.A.L.: Never Ending Peace and Love

The final segment of If You Were Me, "N.E.P.A.L.: Never Ending Peace and Love", comes from its highest profile director: Bak Chanuk of Joint Security Area and Oldboy fame. It also happens to remain one of director Bak's most radical and affecting films.

"N.E.P.A.L." is kind of a documentary, built upon dramatized recreation of the true story of Chandra Kumari Gurung (Rama Kanchan Maya), a Nepalese immigrant worker in the Republic of Korea. One night, after being separated from her coworkers, she loses her money and finds herself unable to pay for food she purchased.

Due to her inability to speak much Korean and that Nepalese from her region look very much like Koreans, the police mistake her for a Korean women with mental illness and send her to a psychiatric institution. There she stays locked up for six years as they try to figure out why this obviously Korean woman is unable to communicate with the staff.

Aside from the bookending of the short with documentary footage of Chandra (as herself) in her Nepalese village, most of the film is short from Chandra's first person perspective intercut with stylized interviews with the various people Chandra encountered during her time in Korea. All of these scenes are dramatizations of Chandra's actual story, so most of them are performed by actors.

The various vignettes are also highly stylized with Bak making heavy use of filters and post-processing to create looks ranging from color temperature shifting to high contrast and solarization. This acts, in part, as a way to signal that we are indeed seeing a dramatization of her story.

Interestingly enough, this signaling of the short's artifice doesn't actually hinder the short's credibility because the documentary format is still delivered straight. What's more, I think Bak's choice to use first person perspective in Chandra's scene really works to put us literally in Chandra's shoes and the interviews with other Nepalese as well as the Koreans she worked for gives us the context to understand what is happening from her perspective.

With "N.E.P.A.L.", I think Bak effectively highlights issues of human rights around the many migrant workers that end up serving a segment of the Korean labor force. The film also demonstrates Korea's lack of readiness to interact with the labor force that it brings in, whether lawfully or not, and to protect them from both abuses by their employers and the government, as well as neglect by both.

It also acts as a tour de force of stylistic experimentation from Bak in a format that he doesn't often work in. So, for effectively addressing both a significant human rights issue in Korea and doing so with a heavily, but appropriately, stylized form of filmmaking, "N.E.P.A.L." is an excellent way to conclude the greater omnibus.

Conclusion

While each short is capable of standing on its own individually, together they form a mosaic that represents lesser heard voices in Korean society. Most of these people groups and issues do not play a prominent part of Korean mainstream media. In that sense alone, If You Were Me is a worthy project in both its making and viewing.

Even though each director ended up choosing unrelated subjects and shooting them in wildly differing styles, they are united by the purpose of highlighting human rights issues and that gives the omnibus a kind of thematic and narrative focus that many other omnibuses might lack. It's that focus that binds the different shorts together and makes them a unified picture.

Even the weakest shorts in this bunch stimulate thought and giving the directors creative freedom results in some pretty amusing, shocking, and captivating moments. Add that to the film's greater thematic unity and focus on segments of Korean society that are not often in the spotlight and you have yourself an omnibus feature that's almost a must-see for those who are interested in Korea as well as fans of excellent omnibus filmmaking. Highly recommended. 9/10.

Links:

TitleDirector / WriterPrincipal Cast
그녀의 무게임순례이설희, 조선경
그 남자의 事情정재은백종학, 변정수, 전하은
대륙횡단여균동김문주, 이영희, 전은혜, 황오연
신비한 영어나라박진표김세동, 김수민, 동효희
얼굴값박광수정애연, 지진희
믿거나 말거나, 찬드라의 경우박찬욱चन्द्र कुमारी गुरुङ, राम कञ्चन माया, K.P Sitoura, 오달수, 정석규