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

Friday, August 22, 2014

22 Jump Street (2014)

I really liked the 21 Jump Street movie. It was a solid buddy comedy that excelled in self-awareness of the action-buddy-cop genre while telling a time tested tale of friendship. And by self-aware, I mean that the movie shined a lamp on just about everything that the genre has to offer, but affectionately so, going so far as to produce the same kind of high-octane action. At the end of the film, of course it teased a sequel. That sequel, 22 Jump Street, accordingly takes everything that worked with the first, amps it up per sequel tradition and tries to ride it back to the same success, but as laugh-out-loud funny as 22 Jump Street is, knowing going through the same paces again kind of also feels a bit hollow, like the story and characters are simply there to wrap all the many funny jokes around.

At the end of 21 Jump Street, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) told the bromantic undercover cop duo, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) that they were going to college. And after an attempt to bust The Ghost (Peter Stormare) goes wrong, they get told that instead, they will be repeating the same assignment all over again, undercover vice--but in college. So off they go to college where the two again find separate niches, find their relationship tested when one of them finds himself popular, get surprised by an unexpected twist and save the day. Look, it's a sequel that jokes about how they're just going to do the same thing again. Of course they do. There are no spoilers here.

And 22 Jump Street leaves no opportunity for shining a light on the fact that they are doing the same exact thing over again unexplored. While it's pretty hilarious at first, by the time that it's being repeated during the film's conflict arc, we've already heard it several times and so it really does little more than point to the fact that, yes, 22 Jump Street is literally doing the exact same story over again, with a change of setting and roles of Schmidt and Jenko. And because of that, the film starts feeling tired. It's still often quite funny, but by the time of the final climactic throwdown during spring break it was hard to feel like the movie was doing anything other than going through the motions. If the point of the film was to do everything that previous film did, but bigger and better and with more money, the one part that fell short is the story. And it shows.

But like I said, many of those motions are very funny and highly memorable, both in the setup of the comedy, like a point that gets Dickson especially angry with Schmidt, and sometimes in the execution, including several hilarious exchanges between Jonah Hill's Schmidt and Jillian Bell's Mercedes. A lot of this is thanks to a sharp comedic script, but it's also due to excellent performances by the returning and new cast. As before, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring their willingness to push the limits of reality behind the camera, but always in a self-aware way. Sometimes it does end up being a little too much, like the end credits sequence that was overstuffed with jokes, but there are also times that a few gems appear in the endless barrage of comedic attempts as well.

And its the gems that make what would have otherwise been a rote cash grab enjoyable. If 22 Jump Street had gone as far with the story as it did with everything else in the movie, then you wouldn't be able to say that it went too far in amping up the action and the degree of self-awareness the film possesses. But even if the story parts of the film end up being the most boring parts, it still manages to mostly make up for it by being so funny that you can't help but break the boredom with laughter. I don't know if the credits gag means that the franchise is done for, but I hope it isn't, because it's enjoyable enough I would like to see it off with a bit more of everything--including story and characters the next time. 7/10.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Author-vlogger John Green is all over the place. Not only does he run a popular vlog channel on YouTube, he also writes young adult fiction and has started a few events including VidCon, a convention for those that work in or appreciate the online video format. In addition to a handful of literary awards for his writing, Green's latest book, The Fault in Our Stars, was recently adapted into a feature film. While I have a passing familiarity with Green via his vlog, which I've seen a few videos from, I've had no experience with his writing. But his tone and way of thinking clearly makes its way into the film.

The Fault in Our Stars is a terminal illness melodrama that is quasi-aware of itself, but despite boldly saying that it's not like "those other ones", it really is. It's a story about Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenager with Stage IV thyroid cancer. It's gotten into her lungs, so she needs to take around an oxygen tank and wear breathing tubes. Her parents think she's depressed so they urge her to go to a support group in a local church and it's there that she literally runs into Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort).

A cancer survivor himself, Augustus is instantly smitten by Hazel and the cocky boy strikes up a friendship with the somewhat reluctant girl. She shares with him her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, and the two strike up a relationship bordering on romance, although Hazel is reluctant due to her fear of hurting Augustus when she succumbs to her cancer. But despite her fragile state, she can't resist it when Augustus offers Hazel the dream of her lifetime, using his wish from the Genies to visit the author of her favorite book, Peter van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Of course, seeing that this is a terminal illness story, things will not go as planned.

And boy does TFIOS go for all the hard melodrama tropes with the blunt force of a sledgehammer. Broken pedestals, surprise recurrence of disease, withdrawing from people for fear of hurting them, emotional outbursts, the requisite sunny moments before someone dies: it's all there. Which is why I find it so disingenuous when the film begins with a montage that it's not that kind of story. It absolutely is. Granted, it's a bit more optimistic, with almost as many sunny and funny moments as emotional and tragic ones, being part of the romantic comedy genre as well. It's also a very deeply message driven film, which at times increases the bluntness by which the message is delivered, often by Hazel's unnecessary and altogether obvious voiceover monologue.

But it's also the message-oriented focus and the stronger infusion of romantic comedy that helps distinguish TFIOS from some of its peers. And perhaps its obviousness and high-emotion adoption of the standard tropes of both romantic comedy and terminal illness melodramas is quite appropriate given that the novel and the film are directed at young adults in particular, many who especially thrive on that kind of high contrast storytelling. So it's not something that I can totally fault, except for the degree of pretense by which it's delivered, claiming not to be your typical melodrama-romance by a degree of genre awareness while being precisely that. Furthermore, the romantic comedy bits are pretty close to a gender-inverted manic pixie dream girl story like Garden State as the quirky and inexplicably brash Augustus coaxes the withdrawn Hazel out of her her to experience life, even in the midst of terminal illness. Oh and the writing can be quite cloying at times--especially with the voiceover monologue and the eulogies at the end.

The film's direction is accordingly fine. There are the requisite slow-motion dramatic moments, the changing of overall tone, weather, and lighting to suit Hazel's changing outlook. Everything is just at predictable and expected per the genre in the direction as it is in the writing and Josh Boone follows the playbook accordingly.

For all the ways that TFIOS is really not all that different for other movies of its ilk, it's still surprisingly tolerable and I think a lot of that is because of Shailene Woodley's solid performance as Hazel, even in the voiceover. Elgort's Augustus is a little uneven at times, but manages fine most of the time and Nat Wolff brings an appreciable dose of humor in his comic relief role as Isaac, Augustus's friend, also a cancer survivor who has loses his eyes. I think the film would be much less tolerable if the cast was not as adept as this one.

But all the complaints I have with the film are simply the same complaints I usually have with both of the genres of which TFIOS is composed. No matter how much it disavows its genre roots in word, it embraces them wholeheartedly in storytelling, adding in a haymaker of a message for its audience to take home. The fusion of the two genres does help TFIOS from getting to the worst of melodrama's series of weepy incidents as well as cuts down some of the saccharine of romantic comedy with a nice dosage of gallows humor, but those that don't appreciate the standard archetype by which either genre is formed won't find anything here to change your mind. Conversely, those that do like your typical weepy melodramas and cheerful MPDR romances are probably going to love this.

And it's hard to fault the stars for TFIOS giving its audience everything it wants. Even doing so (mostly) tolerably for those that don't quite appreciate the genre archetypes that it follows to the letter. So if you like those genres, you will love TFIOS. Everyone else, don't let the sell in the trailer and first couple minutes of the movie trick you--it's exactly what you would expect from the premise. But even then, it's a watchable version of it, tempered by the fusion of the genres. 6/10.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

설국열차 (2013)

Snowpiercer is not the first Korean science fiction/fantasy film to have been set outside of Korea and use principally non-Korean cast. The critically reviled yet commercially successful D-War did it in 2007. But if you don't pay careful attention to the credits and if you aren't familiar with Korean cinema, you might actually think that Snowpiercer is an American or European production, thanks to the predominantly Western cast, the international setting, and the fact that it is an adaptation of a French graphic novel. And perhaps because of that, it could rightfully be considered an international film that happens to have been produced by a Korean production company. But regardless of its origin, Bong Junho's latest film is visually captivating and punctuated by moments of intense action and black humor. The result is quite enjoyable, even if the story struggles with logic, character development, and pacing.

Loosely based on Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer takes place in a post apocalyptic future where an attempt to reverse global warming has resulted in a new global Ice Age, annihilating most known life on earth. The remnants of life on earth are aboard the train Snowpiercer, built by the enigmatic engineer-industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris). Those that sought shelter on the train were divided by class with a heavy disenfranchisement of those in the tail of the car, who are left to live in squalor. They are provided regular rations of tasteless protein bars and their ranks are raided for both talents as well as their children on occasion.

In seventeen years since ice enveloped the earth the Snowpiercer's tail enders have attempted a few rebellions to overthrow the class system, but all were eventually suppressed. However, Curtis (Chris Evans) is not deterred. Mentored by Gilliam (John Hurt) and given secret information from a sympathizer in the front cars in the form of bullets with strips of paper, he learns that the security expert that designed all the locks in the train, Namgung Minsu (Song Gangho) has been placed in the prison car nearby. So he has a plan to release Namgung Minsu and, leading the tail-enders, fight their way to the front of the car and depose Wilford. Of course, this doesn't turn out to be easy.

In many ways, Snowpiercer is quite impressive. This is especially true of the production design and costuming as well as the overall direction by Bong. It's quite appropriate that John Hurt's mentor character is named Gilliam, because much of the film's aesthetic has been clearly influenced by the works of Terry Gilliam, from the anachronistic melting of styles for the train set to the peculiar costume design, most notably on Tilda Swinton's Mason and the uniform of Egg-head (Tómas Lemarquis).

Not only do the production and art elements look great, but Bong handles the action and visual direction appropriately. There is rather large battle about halfway into the film that never lets up in its intensity except for a deliberate moment of black levity in the middle and then towards the end. And it's moments like that, where Bong characteristically infuses an element of dark comedy into a dramatic moment without actually breaking that moment, that makes this film distinctively his and an auteur piece. The actors, on the other hand, seem to be given a bit of a free reign and several of them end up going very big and chewing the scenery. Normally, this would be highly distracting, but it actually works well with the overall elevated tone of the film and both Swinton and Alison Pill manage some particularly memorable performances, while actors like Chris Evans, Song Gangho, and John Hurt are a much more grounded counterpoint. This works because it also creates a distinction between the tail-enders and the front-car people.

That said, with so much around class conflict and actual plot stuffed into its running time, characters and plot are underdeveloped and some of the themes and sledgehammered in order to make the film's point. The lack of nuance isn't so much an issue since the film's tone is generally elevated anyway, but the underdevelopment of story really hurts by the film's end. At the finale, Song Gangho's character and story is so underdeveloped that he is simply unable to carry the humongous thematic weight of his final actions. This wouldn't be a problem except that Namgung Minsoo's actions have such a tremendous impact on the film's ending that it almost negates the value of Curtis' own story and choices as well as the wonderful final twist, which actually are pretty well developed. As it stands, Namgung's story either needed to have been given more weight in the film or his final actions should have been nixed from the story altogether.

The story also struggles with a number of minor logical issues, which alone might not have been too distracting, but in aggregate served to regularly explode my brain while watching the film. Some of these issues simply deal with impossibility of what I was seeing, like a completely impossible long-distance battle that occurs between two distant train cars in the mile-long train. Others deal with inconsistent characterizations that get blown up after final act reveals and twist, like Curtis's reaction to the truth of the protein bars. And then there is that one nameless henchman (Vlad Ivanov)'s implausible, unnecessary, and distracting indestructibility.

I do like most of what Snowpiercer puts together and it works especially well as a director's showcase, especially combined with the excellent art and production design, creating a very specific world and atmosphere. Furthermore, the story is mostly a fairly solid, if not especially novel, examination of class and the conflict between liberty and social order. That's why it's so unfortunate that the ending was as weak as it was, along with Namgung Minsu's deficient story arc, derailing (yes, it's some fancy wordplay) the story at its end. Adding in a few glaring logical issues and Snowpiercer might actually be director Bong's weakest movie. Still a good enough one to stand out amid the many summer blockbusters, but its flaws ultimately leave it below possibly the rest of Bong's filmography. 7/10.

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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

비단구두 (2006)

While I can't say that I enjoyed The Adventures of Mrs. Park, in which actor-director Yeo Gyundong starred, I did appreciate the short, "Crossing", which he directed for the omnibus project, If You Were Me. So I figured I'd check out another movie he directed and picked up a copy of Silk Shoes. Of course, the vignette format of "Crossing" doesn't translate well to feature length, so I wasn't expecting that. Instead, we get a feature film that has some good ideas, but rather fragmented tonal execution and a lack of narrative follow through.

Silk Shoes turns out to be built on a premise similar to Good Bye, Lenin! But let's start at the beginning. Mansu (Choe Deokmun) is a film director with a predicament. After his last film flopped, the gangsters that the production borrowed from come to collect, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the financing of the film. The boss (Jeon Gigwang) gives him a choice, be "sent off" or help take his Alzheimer's ridden father (Min Jeonggi) back to his hometown--in North Korea. Not that he's asking for the director to smuggle him across the border, but to trick the befuddled old man into believing that he's being taken across the border using his film production know-how and take a picture at a replica of his home.

To this end, the gang boss provides a bit of cash and a little oversight in the form of his henchman, Seongcheol (I Seongmin). The old man, nicknamed "Grandpa Pear", semi-conveniently mistakes Mansu for his son, and the director, along with his staff and whatever cast he was able to round up, get to the business of hoodwinking Pear into thinking he's taking a trip to his hometown in present-day North Korea. Of course, interactions with police officers, tourists, and locals who have no idea what they're trying to do complicate this.

The concept and its complications are enjoyable, if not terribly original. Seeing the efforts to which Mansu and his beleaguered cast and crew go to in order to convince Grandpa Pear that he's in North Korea is fun. And some complications, like when a bunch of local villagers interrupt a supposedly North Korean dinner to bark about how the production isn't welcome and how all the North Korean trappings are a disgrace, resulting in the diasporic Korean lead actress Hongmae (Gim Dahye) taking the initiative to drink them under the table is about as madcap gleeful a moment I've seen.

However, the logic of the narrative doesn't really hold together and the film is marked with a very distinct lack of follow through. There are several moments in the film where Mansu and Seongcheol, go off to take care of something, leaving Grandpa Pear with nothing to do but just sit around with the cast and crew for hours, but when they get back, they just pick up like no time has passed. It's also baffling that an interaction with a police officer (Bak Nosik) gone awry never once comes back to haunt the crew.

Finally, the film's ending betrays the utter lack of narrative direction to the film. While Mansu and Seongcheol's eventual fate sort of points to this film being more of a buddy film built out of "let's trick Grandpa", but there simply isn't enough in the stakes or the narrative direction to fully support that. So when they meet their final fate, it's confusing as to why that's the last image we see of them. And then there's Grandpa Pear's finale, which is completely ambiguous and divorced from the whole narrative of tricking him. And that's the last image the film leaves us with, suggesting that maybe his journey was the central one--except that Pear's perspective was only ever given a few moments over the course of the film. So none of the planted seeds of the story ever really throw into trees, let alone bear any fruit, and no amount of amusing scenes really help to make that worthwhile.

The movie is shot on what appears to be digital video, resulting in an aesthetic that takes a little time to get used to. The direction is admittedly cinematic rather than like a television series, so the juxtaposition of television production values and cinematic direction is surprising, but I have to credit director Yeo for being able to accomplish what he did in terms of visual language with the apparent budget that he was working with. Aside from some of the sharpness and light aesthetics that come with video, he actually makes a feature here and you do soon forget that you're watching video about a quarter into Silk Shoes.

The overall tone of the movie is a bit exaggerated, leading to much hamming and mugging by the actors. This is apparent from the first car ride that Mansu takes with the sneering Seongcheol. This might not have been a problem if the film were gunning more for comedy, but the exaggeration clashes a bit with the underlying attempt at drama, especially considering what the reality of Alzheimer's is, and I don't think either element gets properly sold as a result.

Silk Shoes works its best within the scope of individual scenes, particularly the more comically oriented ones. Unfortunately, these scenes are strung together by the weak threads of a disjointed narrative that are unable to find a tone to balance its comedic and dramatic aspects. Although director Yeo does show a capacity for actual visual direction especially considering the production values, the story here never really chooses what its about and has several moments where the logic is rather weak and the stakes are ignored. And when you consider that its premise is very close to the much lauded Good Bye, Lenin! of three years prior, you can't really say that the film is terribly original either. Rather, we have a movie that has some amusing moments, but is overall unsatisfying. 5/10.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

여고괴담 세번째이야기: 여우계단 (2003)

Originally published at Dramabeans on July 14, 2014

The third film in the Whispering Corridors series, Wishing Stairs was released four years after the second, Memento Mori. While the original Whispering Corridors and its immediate follow-up were in many ways genre defining, the wave of popular horror films that followed them, in Korea and elsewhere in Asia, meant that Wishing Stairs> was now entering a crowded field of genre films. Following its predecessors in setting and stocking the cast and crew with relatively young new talent, the film starts off with a solid, if unoriginal setup, but it gets bogged down by a lack of thematic cohesion and, unfortunately, genre cliches.

Wishing Stairs focuses on two best friends, Yun Jinseong (Song Jihyo) and Gim Sohui (Bak Hanbyeol), who both are ballet students at what appears to be an all girl's art school. When a opportunity presents itself for the school to send a single student to a showcase for a prestigious Russian dance academy, the star pupil Sohui has it locked. So, despite the wealthy Sohui's overwhelming love for her bestest friend Jinseong, the dance-devoted Jinseong can't help be covetous, cooling her from Sohui.

Meanwhile, large-bodied and super awkward sculpture student Eom Haeju (Jo An) suffers in part for her appearance and seemingly uncontrollable need to overeat, especially at the hands of bad-girl sculpture student Han Yunji (Bak Jiyeon). Haeju maintains an enormous girl-crush on Sohui, who happens to be the only girl in school that's nice to her, to the point having a dedicated shrine to her.

Finally, there's a legend at the school regarding the twenty-eight steps leading up to the girl's dormitory: If you truly desire something, you can count the steps as you climb and you will find a secret twenty-ninth step. Upon that step, you can petition a fox spirit with a wish and it will grant you your heart's desire. When the jealous Jinseong discovers that Haeju made such a wish and lost a startling amount of weight, she climbs the steps too and, finding that twenty-ninth step, makes a wish that begins a dark chain of events.

While Wishing Stairs does retain some of the observations about life in high school that the previous films made, I really liked how it was, at heart, an exploration of one of the challenges that friendships face, competition between the friends, and that this storyline carries through from the beginning through the end. I also really appreciated that the film at first chose to keep the supernatural element limited. Even after they wished upon that twenty-ninth step, both Haeju and Jinseong seem to find their wish granted by natural--if coincidental--means, giving a lot of power to the agency of the girls in getting what they want, albeit without knowing the costs.

What doesn't work quite well is Haeju's story as she is an over-the-top caricature of an awkward, super-crazy outcast. It would have sufficed for her to have been an outcast for being a little crazy, or for her big body, however, when contrasted to the rest of the characters, who are largely on a more grounded plane of believability, Haeju simply jars. Furthermore, an opportunity to tie her story more closely to Sohui in terms of friendship and encouragement was lost, which would have amplified that theme in the film.

Another problem is that Wishing Stairs simply doesn't hold together that well towards its finale. Like Memento Mori, it takes a sharp turn for the supernatural and without a truly meaningful grounding. Furthermore, the eventual ghost's motives and methods are hard to buy, given who she was in life, and they don't really do much to comment on the film's major themes. And the character of Han Yunji almost seems like an afterthought and is simply unnecessary.

The production team especially did a great job with the girl's dormitory, giving it the similar, spook-friendly vibe that Whispering Corridors' school had. Writer-director Yun Jaeyeon keeps the film's aesthetic fairly interesting through much, but definitely not all, of it. She has clearly studied her horror films and keeps well to their conventions, with some personal artistic flair. Some of her most creative work appears towards the end with the staircase coming alive and half of her choices in how to make the ghost move. Unfortunately, half of the time, it also felt like Wishing Stairs was straight copying from other popular horror films like Ringu and Ju-on: The Grudge and that was disappointing to recognize.

The young cast performed pretty well with Song Jihyo carrying Jinseong's jealousy well. I'm guessing she was directed so, but Bak Hanbyeol's Sohui comes across both physically and vocally like Jeon Jihyeon and if that was the intent, she accomplished it, although it's another strike again Wishing Stairs' creativity. And I'm not sure how much crazy Jo An was asked to put into Haeju, but she was loaded to the gills with it--however, her acting skill was pretty well demonstrated in the finale as she had to switch from her crazy Haeju to becoming possessed by the ghost, doing well to differentiate them.

The even more improved production values compared to its series predecessors, from lighting and film stock to special effects, also is an interesting marker of just how much the Korean film industry had modernized in five short years.

Even though Wishing Stairs apparently didn't really know how to end its story, the film at least kept to one of its major themes (friendship) through the end and that actually helped make it bearable, even as the writing and directing started falling apart. It's unfortunately split on blatantly copying other horror films before it and trying to establish its own identity, but part of that shows just how big the horror genre had become in Asia by 2003.

Despite its pedigree, Wishing Stairs ends up being merely an adequate horror film. It never fully gets on board with its "be careful what you wish for" premise, nor does it really conclude well, but it does set up fairly well and sustains itself on the jealousy-in-friendship story for at least half of its running time. And though it might not be terribly original half the time, it has plenty of requisite scares. And all this together still makes Wishing Stairs' "adequate" better than more than half the horror films out there. So if you want to watch a Korean horror film, you could certainly do worse than this one. 6/10

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Friday, July 25, 2014

와이키키 브라더스 (2001)

Originally published at Dramabeans on June 29, 2014

Im Sunnye is quite possibly the most prominent female director in Korean cinema. Since her critically acclaimed first film, Three Friends in 1996, she's directed six full length feature films, including one commercially successful mainstream film with Forever the Moment in 2008, as well as contributing to several omnibus project films. Im has also had a hand in producing a few critically well received films as well and has achieved the rare status of being relatively prolific in what's often the boy's club of Korean cinema directors.

Five years after Im impressed critics with Three Friends, she finally released her sophomore film, Waikiki Brothers, with the honor of opening the 2001 edition of the Jeonju International Film Festival. Like her debut film, Waikiki Brothers deals with the often difficult struggles of contemporary Korean society, this time looking at the falling apart of the titular night club band.

The Waikiki Brothers have had better days. When we meet them, they have gone from seven to four members and have been let go from their night club gig. After gigging funerals and live events, their saxophonist, Hyeon-gu (O Gwangnok) calls it quits, leaving the trio having to return to the one paying gig that they were offered but declined: returning to Suanbo, the hometown of bandleader Seong-u (I Eol).

There, they start their nightly gig at the Waikiki Hotel and Seong-u begins reminiscing on his youth as an idealistic would-be professional musician as he meets former bandmates as well as his childhood crush, Inhui (O Jihye). It's a bittersweet reunion, as he discovers that no one he left in Suanbo is where they want to be in life. What's more, personal and internal struggles with the womanizing band keyboardist Jeongseok (Bak Wonsang) and addictive personality drummer Gangsu (Hwang Jeongmin) threaten to implode the band as well as get them fired once again.

But despite the pile-on of potentially depressing events for Seong-u, the film never becomes utterly bleak and part of that is Seong-u's deadpan, but dedicated, characterization and the amount of warmth he carries. If anything, perhaps you could say that Waikiki Brothers is a film about resilience in the face of decline as Seong-u strives to keep the band together, and when that starts to fail, strives to at least continue his love of the musician's life by taking gigs that could be considered humiliating. This quiet degree of hope that Waikiki Brothers carries is further accented by the presence of the young Gitae (Ryu Seungbeom), a yellow-haired hotel bellhop with a huge interest in music, who bothers the bandmates for lessons on music, despite their continued insistence that the musician's life lead's nowhere.

If there is a weakness to the film, it's that it mostly seems like Seong-u is simply gliding along the current of life as he doesn't show a great deal of agency and often we are just watching as misfortune keeps hitting the band as a result of the decisions of the other bandmembers. While this does effectively demonstrate the often unfair, unpredictable, and unpreventable troubles that come with adult life, it doesn't make Seong-u a particularly dynamic protagonist, which could result in many feeling the film is too slow.

However, once you reach the end of the film, I think writer-director Im succeeds in showing Seong-u's flexible constancy and dedication as the keys to continuing on in the face of adversity. I Eol, then, is appropriately calm in demeanor for Seong-u; it's a performance that wouldn't win him awards, but actually manages to carry the spirit of the film well. The other roles are also pretty well filled, but I think the key to the film is in Im's balanced direction. She never lets the film get too bleak. Even if she takes Seong-u to new lows like having him forced to play in the nude for a corporate party gone wild, she recovers the overall temperament with a mild bit of comedy or warmth from characters in the following scene.

And it's that point of view that makes Waikiki Brothers a surprisingly idealistic film for being about the hardships of a struggling night club band in its waning days. And perhaps it's also a reflection of Korean society in its times of adversity, as it shows the lives of average people--musicians that never made it big and the people of the small town of Suanbo--as they struggle with economic downturn and broken dreams of youth. Korea itself faced the Asian Financial Crisis between the making of Im's Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers. But just as Sung-woo continues to find a way to continue his musical trade when all is said and done, Korea also came through that crisis--changed and not without loss--and continued on.

Though its slow pacing might not be for everyone, I think that more realistically hopeful perspective makes Im's Waikiki Brothers worth checking out for more patient viewers. 8/10.

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