Saturday, December 6, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Ariel"

"Ariel" is probably the most series mythology-focused episode since "Bushwhacked", this time turning the camera on Simon, River, and Jane, that story being built into a heist episode. There is a significant amount of character development in this episode and it's quite satisfying in that regard. The actual heist story itself, on the other hand, was rather mundane and the characters not featured largely relegated to simply pushing the plot, leaving the episode not quite as strong as the better episodes.

The story begins with the crew visiting Alliance stronghold named Ariel for Inara's annual mandatory medical check up when River suddenly lacerates Jayne with a knife. Jayne's upset and Mal tells Simon to get a lock on River, so Simon then comes up with a plan to help River and make the crew some money at the same time: steal medical supplies from an Alliance hospital. Simon clues the team in on what to take and where to take it from, and while the team is stealing supplies, Simon will be taking River to get her brain scanned. With Simon's knowledge of hospitals prepping the team, what could go wrong?

I like that the episode actually really moves the story between the characters forward for the first time in a while, aside from the flashes of romantic entanglements between Inara and Mal in "Shindig" and "Our Mrs. Reynolds". The tension between Jayne and the Tams planted in the pilot comes to a boil here revealing a bit more about Jayne as well as the Tams as well, although what we learn of Jayne is more interesting. Still, we see a return of the blue-gloved men this episode as well, upping the mystery of what happened to River and who she is to the Alliance.

That said, the rest of the clue, while still getting plenty of screen time due to the need to execute the heist, don't really have much of a story beside the mechanical completion of the heist, except for a slight moment of revelation from Mal in how he regards his crew, including Simon and River. But because there's little real investment in the heist or use of the heist to drive and develop the other characters, their scenes just fall kind of flat. However, the episode comes together towards the end during the chase and rescue scenes and the final moments between Mal and Jayne plus the Tam Siblings.

The setup and prep for the heist was good, as was the aftermath, but I think the episode falls apart a little in the middle. If there were bigger stakes or investments in the heist for Mal and Zoe specifically, but the rest of the crew as a whole, I think it might have been more thrilling, but even when things were going wrong, I never really felt any sense of tension that they were really going to go wrong nor what would happen if they went wrong. Part of that I think is a problem with the writing and the other part with the direction.

But despite the flagging middle, because it wrapped up well enough, I still found "Ariel" to be a decent episode and it certainly makes me wish that more episodes could really work to advance the story more. 7/10

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Friday, December 5, 2014

모텔 선인장 (1997)

Christopher Doyle is a name that many fans of acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai will be familiar with as Doyle was responsible for shooting a great number of Wong's films. In 1997, Doyle made his only foray into Korean cinema, working with director Bak Giyong on his feature film, Motel Cactus. Doyle isn't the only name of distinction attached to the project as Motel Cactus is also the critically acclaimed Bong Junho's first writing credit. But while the collaboration with Doyle does result in some visual fruit and director Bak does manage some interesting atmosphere, that might also be all that it's good for.

The film is composed of four sequences set in room 407 of the titular love motel. The first has a pair of lovers, Choe Hyeonju (Jin Huigyeong) and I Min-gu (Jeong Useong) celebrating Hyeonju's birthday together at the motel. They make love many times but Min-gu struggles with intimacy with Hyeonju in other ways. The second sequence has film students Seong Jun-gi (Han Yongsu) and Yun Seogyeong (Gim Seunghyeon) arrive at the room to shoot the last of their scenes for their project, but their cinematographer doesn't show up and the two are left to idle.

Hyeonju returns to room 407 in the third sequence, very drunk with her equally drunk one-night stand Gim Seoktae (Bak Sinyang) as the two have sex, make a ruckus, and have more sex, taking a moment to get somewhat acquainted with each other. The final segment has Seoktae return to room 407, this time with his ex from school, Min Huisu (I Miyeon), under the pretense that she wants to rest, but things predictably get more intimate.

Of these four stories, only the first two really have much of a developed conflict, the first one being the simplest, but also the most effective story. The second and fourth stories both struggle with missing details that are referenced by the characters but don't actually seem to hold any weight in the story. For the college students, it's their existing relationship with each other as well as with their absent cinematographer. While the tension is verbalized towards the end of the piece, Jun-gi and Seogyeong never really manage to carry the kind of conflicted attraction that supposed to be brewing between them and so the episode falls a little flat. In the final piece, there is an event that brings the exes back together and a letter of some sort as well, but while both seem like they are supposed to have an effect on these characters, the event nor the content of the letter is revealed and the kind of effect that it has on the characters seems like empty emotion, perhaps because the letter and the event were never decided by the writers as well. Finally, the third piece just feels like empty chaos, with only a slight echo to perhaps what became of Min-gu.

The connection between the segments are tenuous, despite that two of the characters appear in a pair of segments each. Each segment does deal with matters of intimacy, lust, and relationship, but there really isn't much of a story behind these conflicts. Rather, it seems like they were set up and the actors were just exploring them, but without much direction. So while the initial segment is captivating, each additional segment just drags on more and more. The college student segment feels the most out of place because it's the only one that doesn't feature an actor in another segment and it also doesn't feature onscreen sex, so it seems the most detached from the others, which one could at least contrast the very different kinds of intimacy the characters share with each other.

Where the stories fail to flesh out the film, despite the prevalence of flesh in the film, the direction and the cinematography do manage to captivate, especially in the first segment, which is filled with the kind of imaginative choices of framing and lightning that make rain and the motel's lit sign surprisingly interesting to watch. Similarly, the choice of lighting, the use of shadows, and even the temperature and color of that lighting fills the segment with the kind of energy that both energizes its passion and fills it with a sticky incandescent intimacy. Those visual choices continue to be interesting throughout the film, but sometimes miss too, particularly in the third segment as a sex scene is photographed from below a glass plate and it's never clear where the characters are engaging in sex.

But it's those shot choices and accompanying cinematography that is most interesting about the film as, beyond the first segment, the ambiguity of the scenarios and the general lack of story to fuel them as well as the lack of an overall coherent observation or theme make the film a bit of a chore, especially as off-screen or undisclosed elements make the on-screen actions even more confusing and the brevity of each story limits the overall development. I almost wish we could have just stuck with the first pair of actors and watched their relationship unfold in the motel, but it was not to be.

The leads perform well, especially getting fuel from the almost theatrical emphasis on conflict, and I think Motel Cactus has just enough going on for it in terms of direction and cinematography that it might be interesting to fans of Christopher Doyle in particular, but a film that can make lovemaking a bit of a chore to watch for three-quarters of its running time is probably going to be a drag for most viewers. 5/10

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Monday, December 1, 2014

여고괴담5: 동반자살 (2009)

Originally published at Dramabeans on November 15, 2014

In 2009, eleven years since the release of the genre-defining Whispering Corridors, and four since since the fourth entry into the series, Voice, the fifth Whispering Corridors film was released. Entitled A Blood Pledge, it might also be the last Whispering Corridors film, as it's now been over five years since its release and there's been no word of a sixth. And part of that might be because A Blood Pledge represents a nadir for the series, even as a relatively tolerable horror film.

Like Voice, A Blood Pledge opts to shift genre from straight horror to mystery and returns to the theme of suicide, previously a critical component of Memento Mori. In this case, we open with a trio of students, Soi (Son Eunseo), Yujin (O Yeonseo), and Eunyeong (Song Minjeong) pledging to commit suicide together in the school chapel. But later we only see a different student, Eonju (Jang Gyeong-a), plummet to her death before the eyes of her younger sister, Jeong-eon (Yu Sinae).

The three survivors are tight-lipped as to what happened that night, but cracks form between the survivors as guilt mounts, other students gossip, and the ghost of Eonju begins to haunt the school.

Structurally, A Blood Pledge is well set up as a mystery. As the film progresses, the mounting tensions result in revelations of why the three girls would want to commit suicide and just who Eonju was to them, revealing at the end what happened. However, the story never really gives any of the four main characters development beyond a single note, stymieing interest in their stories, and then opts to send one character to crazy town in both motivation and actions in the final act. What she does directly contradicts what she was doing throughout most of the film and is unbelievable as a result.

What's more, first time director, I Jongyong, opts to weave in a number of flashbacks, but has problems signifying them, so it's often confusing whether we're watching something happening in the past or the present. This might not be a problem except that many of the included scenes don't really serve a strong narrative purpose, leaving the viewer unsure of why they watched that scene and how it leads into the next.

In addition to the flashback problems, the ghostly haunting moments in the film feel quite generic with Eonju showing up to scare or punish characters in ways that I think anyone who has watched a few ghost films would have already seen many times. All the previous Whispering Corridors films at least managed to have some distinctiveness to their hauntings. When the most memorable moment of ghostly vengeance in A Blood Pledge results in a cartoonish explosion of blood, it's clear that the film is suffering from a lack of imagination.

In terms of production values, this is probably on par with Voice in terms of being the most slick of the series, though neither have the wow factor of the titular staircase in Wishing Stairs. The choice of a Catholic school was interesting, but A Blood Pledge failed to really take advantage of the potentially Gothic setting. Finally, the performers are mostly just adequate, either because of the thinness of their roles or their limited talent, which further limits the impact of the film.

So while the Whispering Corridors series might have played a big role in defining the modern Korean horror genre, the fifth in the series ends up feeling quite generic. Its story lacks definition and character, its direction is often confusing and unimaginative, and while the film looks decent, it fails to really distinguish itself in terms of art direction or performances. One could certainly get from the start to the end of A Blood Pledge without too much frustration as it mechanically provides the elements needed for a horror film, but it's also hard not to ask why you watched the film when the credits finally roll. And perhaps that's why the film could retain the legacy as the film that sank a genre defining series. 5/10.

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Out of Gas"

"Out of Gas" marks a real turning point for Firefly as the episode manages to be the best in the series so far, despite its limited scope. It's excellently paced, actually makes good use out of parallel storytelling, and adds to the stories of all the characters in significant ways.

The episode begins with Mal waking up on the Serenity alone, wounded, and with a gadget. Then we go to the immediate past and see that it started with an emergency on Serenity as Simon's birthday is interrupted by an explosion in the engine room. It knock out Zoe cold and leaving the ship dead in the water with no engine, no active life support, and limited air. As the crew deals with the emergency at hand, the episode progresses towards explaining how Mal ended up in the situation where he is as well as flashing back to related moments where Mal first buys the Serenity and hires his earliest crew members.

The simplicity of the stories makes "Out of Gas" well suited to the parallel storytelling technique used in the episode, tying the episode well together at various locations throughout Serenity and revealing a bit more about the ship's regulars as well as the ship's origin. This is the kind of episode that needs to happen well into a season as the backstory helps add a bit more depth to most of the characters and the relationships now that we've gotten to know them and being able to do so through parallel storytelling is well prompted by the life-or-death situation that Mal is facing in the episodes "present". The episode is also excellently paced throughout the stories, the state of emergency adding plenty of tension to the characters while even managing a small bit of levity in a heated exchange between Wash and Mal.

This is the most tonally serious episode since "Bushwhacked" and the tension from the emergency situations is handled deftly by the direction and the actors, who are all at their best in this episode. The potential for confusion in the episode runs high because of the temporally multiple stories being told, but the director and producers use cinematography, color temperature, and simple direction to effectively keep the three timelines clear for the viewer.

And that's a strong credit to the director and the producers for making a truly complex storytelling technique very easily understood. And because of the thoughtful use of the technique to both tell the disaster story at hand while giving us even more cause to care for the characters via backstory and even adding a bit of mystery as we learn how Mal ended up alone, we have Firefly's first true moment of television excellence. The first true high point for the beloved and short lived series. 9/10

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Jaynestown"

The hits keep coming with "Jaynestown", episode that focuses on the Serenity's favorite mercenary, Jayne Cobb. An episode focused more on comedy than anything else, it's still driven well by a few character development moments for Jayne in particular. While the episode does push a couple more relationship threads, its focus on Jayne helps keep it entertaining even if the secondary stories are a touch weaker.

A smuggling pick up job has the Firefly crew landing on Canton, a backwater moon that's particularly known for its mud farm. Jayne is particularly reluctant for this job as didn't last leave the moon under the best of circumstances and fears that someone might want to take revenge on him. The crew of the Serenity is shocked to discover that Jayne has unintentionally become a local folk hero. Meanwhile, Inara tends to a client, Simon and Kaylee flirt, and Book is left to watch over River.

While much of it is rightly played for laughs, I really appreciate how Jaynestown actually put the usually comic relief and occasional source of tension Jayne into a position of personal reflection the episode's end as the inevitable truth about his selfishness came out while also touching upon the purpose of heroes in our society as well as their humanity. It was simple and it was silly, but I appreciated that it was more than just a one-joke plot. Likewise, the Simon and Kaylee flirtation is affected by matters of class and culture as each come from very different places resulting in some degree of conflict. The only storyline that was disappointing was the truly simple one-note joke between Book and River which has something resembling a genuine build-up but deflates it on a joke that isn't even that funny and possibly mildly racist.

As with the rest of the series, Jaynestown amplifies the camp level a little due to the hoard of "mudders" and the celebration of Jayne. Some of the choices, like the director's cuts to the mudder I will call Jayne's biggest fan (Daniel Bess) are so obvious and deliberate and the performance so over-the-top that it threatens to break the episode's credibility. The show is also still pretty rough--perhaps intentionally so given the amount of handheld camera work done--but it holds itself together just enough to sell the comedy and the underlying character drama.

As such, "Jaynestown" proves to be a pretty solid comedy-centered episode for this series. It really doesn't advance the overall story of the series much, but the concept of Jayne-the-Hero and its execution makes it an appreciable standalone entry into the series back-to-back with "Our Mrs. Reynolds". 8/10.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

1724 기방난동사건 (2008)

The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan is a Korean comedic period action film with a dosage of anachronism. It's not quite as utterly goofy as genre compatriots Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield or its follow up, Battlefield Heroes, trading that for a dose of action adrenaline, but unlike those two films, The Accidental Gangster never quite figures out just how serious or how silly it wants to be nor is it able to settle on an overall directorial perspective.

The film is allegedly inspired by a real brawl that happened in a brothel in 1724. The brawler to be, Thunder (I Jeongjae), is a lowly gangster that extorts protection money from his locals and runs errands for his family's lowly tavern, when he's not busy gambling on his fighting skills. Then one day, a long awaited courtesan (Gim Okbin) finally arrives at his tavern and he is immediately smitten, giving her the nickname Dishy based on the fact that she does more washing of dishes than anything else. Of course, it turns out that his family's tavern shares its name with another more luxurious brothel in another district and she was misdelivered, so she is claimed by their thugs.

Then, his inability to say no to a fight lands Thunder in one with the local gang boss, Paired Ear (Yeo Gyundong), and to his surprise, he wins while knocking Paired Ear out cold. With a major underworld meeting coming up and Thunder promised control of the gang, second-in-command Chilgap (I Wonjong) and his crew plead with Thunder to sit in for Paired Ear at the meeting, but Thunder, with more modest goals in life, resists... until he discovers that the meeting is taking place at the very brothel that Dishy was spirited off to.

There is some kind of story about Thunder learning to care about his community, but its conflict with his pursuit of Dishy is pretty poorly drawn, especially considering that the film's perspective makes both seem like a very good thing. Rather than have his lust for the courtesan he knows nothing about be part of his downfall, the film basically praises it and while it deepens the trouble between his adopted gang and the other ganglords, Thunder's behavior, even without Dishy's involvement would have led to that anyway. So the film basically pushes a false conflict. And then there's Thunder's growth to benevolent gang boss status, which isn't really warranted. From the start of the film, he's positioned as a relatively nice guy and without ambition, which is why we like him. He seems to suddenly gain an ambition for the gang and he claims its because of Dishy, but none of this is spurred on by anything in particular. Instead it just seems to happen.

As such, Thunder's journey, while positioned as something we should care about, is ultimately fluff for the comedy and action to be built on. The comedy is hit and miss. The film, directed by Yeo Gyundong, is broken into three segments. The earliest part is the goofiest by far, jumping between a variety of styles including some use of animation and hyper-CGI-infused fight sequences that result in extreme amounts of saliva being unleashed as hits are delivered to faces. It's a bit crazy, but it would have worked except that the comedic tone keeps bouncing around to comic book level kookiness one moment and straight-faced wry humor the next and this is often done in rapid fire bursts, but most of the jokes fall flat.

In the middle segment, the film settles down just a little bit to deliver the main portion of the story. There's a lot of chaos that follows Thunder's manic attempts to see Dishy as well as the film's strongest moment, which is the rumble between the various gangs, where the irreverent comedy finally hits well. This is followed by the film's end where things suddenly get serious and kind of dark, except for the fact that the final fight between Thunder and the obvious over-the-top villain Mandeuk (Gim Seokhun) again goes for CGI-enhanced fighting, but this time more bloody and serious, seeming almost like a comic-book-meets-video-game. It's not terribly convincing here and is actually tonally jarring because the film was so goofy up until this point.

In addition to the anachronistic dialog, spoken in slang filled modern Korean, the soundtrack is also pumped full of modern Korean pop and hip hop further adding to the tonal jumble. At least the performances were decent. And the costumes were gorgeous.

But this lack of consistency in overall style and tone makes The Accidental Gangster seem unfocused and incoherent, both of which is certainly as true of the story as it is with the direction. If the film's sense of humor, storytelling focus, and aesthetic were in keeping with the multi-gang throwdown, then I think it would have been overall a much stronger film. As it stands, while it has some decent moments and a couple decent jokes, The Accidental Gangster just doesn't come together to be compelling in neither its action, its comedy, nor its tiny bit of romance and hero's journey. It's probably just barely engaging enough to stand a watch for those desperate for more Korean period action comedies, but most will be better off skipping this one. 5/10.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

말하는 건축 시티:홀 (2013)

Because I thought Jeong Jaeeun's Talking Architect was both fascinating and impressionable, when I discovered that she had released another documentary in its wake, City:Hall, I went out, bought it and put it on top of my watch and review pile. From the title alone, it's clear that this film is about a city hall and not a particular person and so it actually has a bit of a broader reach than its predecessor, as it follows the building of the new Seoul City Hall. And while director Jeong does manage to shine a light on the conflicts and the personalities involved in the building's design and construction, I feel like her neutrality, both behind the camera and editorially, results in a comparatively weaker perspective and thus a somewhat less engaging, but still interesting documentary.

After a little bit of history about the City Hall's status as a turnkey project handed over to Samsung C&T, the film has us join the project in its final year moving towards the hard completion date of the first of September, 2012. From there we learn of how architectural firm, iArc, headed by Yu Geol, was brought onto the project after a design contest. The film follows the building's progress, bouncing back to history here and there, as Samsung C&T and iArc conflict with each other of matters of practicality, efficiency, aesthetics, and design as the project looms closer and closer to its end date as well as revealing some of the behind-the-scenes government and corporate machinations behind its building.

I think the most compelling aspect to the documentary is precisely the conflicts between iArc and Samsung C&T that arise as each company has a different value that it wants to pursue in the building of the City Hall. The documentary wisely spends a bit of time with several of the same personalities throughout its runtime, helping us get an understanding of their perspectives and observe their interactions with each other. However, like with Talking Architect, sometimes the film does end up spreading its focus a little too broadly, like perhaps spending too much time looking at other design concepts that were competing with iArc's without necessarily contextualizing how they relate to the current city hall. When City:Hall looks at the public's reaction to the project as it's being built, it either feels too short or unnecessary, either not taking the time to explore how the turning public sentiment impacts both iArc and Samsung in context and without that, I wonder if it would have helped to clip it to keep the focus on the tensions leading to getting the project completed by the deadline.

I do appreciate the breaks the film gives us, observing the many events that take place around the construction as well as how Seoul's citizens more casually use the field in front of it, which is a welcome relief from the info-dumps that it trades in. Interestingly enough, director Jeong only goes in to speak with ordinary citizens about the city hall once or twice despite capturing a lot of footage of them, which is why I felt like we were mainly supposed to look at the film from the dueling perspectives of Samsung and iArc.

As with Talking Architect, Jeong Jaeeun also brings her clean and stylish aesthetic to City:Hall, including her usage of lines and text that stand out from the film's opening as it cuts around the various landmarks in Seoul. In addition to her own captured footage, Jeong uses a bit of archival footage, particularly newsreels, as well as some amount of presentation footage from other city hall design contestants to help provide history without resorting exclusively to talking heads. I also appreciate that she uses takes where people hesitate and make mistakes on camera to help reveal some character and let those moments also speak as well. The score is also pretty well composed.

City:Hall does at times cover too much ground and loses focus on its main story in trying to fill in all sorts of additional details about the hall, but its core story of the conflict between the two teams working together to finish the project is pretty captivating material. It does feel long and there were a few times that I found my attention drifting as a result of the documentary's reaching to provide perspectives that didn't obviously relate to its main story. At the same time, the film does seem like a fairly comprehensive look at the building of the spaceship like new city hall and those with an interest in Korean in the building and possibly modern Korean architecture will probably find this film quite worthwhile. 7/10

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