Wednesday, November 25, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 21회

Well, this was actually quite the episode, even if it tread on some not-quite-appreciable old ground.

So, it turns out that Hyerin did not tell Taesu what her plans were in terms of blackmailing Secretary Gang last episode and the episode begins with her and Taesu having some wine as she apologizes for not informing him ahead of time with Taesu himself clearly surprised by Hyerin's about-face on her tactics. She tells him that she'll buy Taesu plane tickets and that he should get out of the country for a while, obviously from backlash on the part of the government, for his unwitting but seemingly accomplice part in Hyerin's plot.

Then we see Taesu at the airport about to leave, but he hesitates, Hyerin-sense going off. He doesn't see her so he continues on and then we spot Hyerin who'd been spying on Taesu all long with a forelorn look in her eyes. (Seriously--why does the show try to remind us of how absurd their romance was?) Then when she starts to leave, her Taesu-sense starts going off (REALLY?) and she looks around, eventually spotting Taesu, who'd returned from the departure terminal to look for Hyerin. They lock eyes and then Taesu gets going, and then so does Hyerin. Meanwhile, Jaehui spots Dosik in a car speaking into a walkie talkie in a car.

Next thing you know, Taesu's cop-sense goes off and he realizes that he's being watched and he makes a break for it in the airport, but he's surrounded by tons of airport police and captured. It turns out that Taesu's been captured for his part in breaking up the opposition party's gathering back in the first episode. Nice play, Sandglass. However, that's a pretty weak reason for picking up Taesu considering that his gangster work was plenty enough to send him to jail before and poking around with this could reveal that the whole assault was in fact government sponsored, so that's kind of stupid. Trumped up charges would make much more sense and be more appropriate to the dictatorship of the time.

Anyway, Taesu pretty much states this bald fact and it's back to jail with him. Seeing how awful his last prison sentence was for the show, I had a bad feeling about this. However as soon as he's in jail, Useok comes up to Seoul to visit him and asks him what Taesu did to get himself locked up and Taesu gets upset at Useok's jumping to conclusions. While Taesu doesn't say much, after he cuts Useok, they have a moment of silence whereupon Taesu asks Useok to look in on Hyerin, which gets Useok's wheels turning that Hyerin is involved.

Useok stops by his former prosecutor boss's office and begs to be put on Taesu's prosecuting team and the boss notes that Useok really wants to unmask the corruption in the government, but that Useok can't do it on his own, not without public support, clearly trying to teach Useok a lesson about the subtleties of effective prosecuting, so he declines Useok's request.

So then Useok visits Hyerin, who is feeling a little ill and tries to get some information out of her, but she declines to divulge much of what's going on aside from the fact that she's trying to run her casinos cleanly, while Useok mentions that he's going after Jongdo and that he might be able to clear her father's name by proving Jongdo's involvement in the murder of President Bak.

After Useok leaves, Hyerin and Jaehui have a moment where Hyerin asks if Jaehui is disappointed in her and will leave her. Jaehui mentions that he has before thought of leaving, but only when she gets married and she no longer needs him to support her to which Hyerin notes that she's grateful that he's still beside her because she's got no one else.

Then the episode gets interesting again as we follow Useok back in Gwangju. First, Jongdo's mooks arrive at Useok's house and try to leave a package with Seonyeong, but she's suspicious of it and calls it a possible bribe and shuts the door on the men threatening to call the police. So the mooks leave. Then Jongdo is at Useok's office clearly brought in and he spills the beans on all the bribing he has to do to run his business, but he's smug about it all because he believes most of the government is under his pay while Useok counters that he knows enough honest government folk that he believes they outnumber the corrupt ones to which Useok laughs and calls him naive.

Then Useok is summoned to the head prosecutor's office and chastised for continuing to go on against Jongdo and notes he got a call from the court that the court wouldn't accept Useok's evidence, to which Useok replies then he'll investigate the judge and the prosecutor looks at Useok like he's crazy. But Useok explains that it's the duty of the prosecutor and speechifies well enough on that he doesn't do the job for the security, money or prestige as he's happy to work on his family farm and that his wife will go with him wherever he might go, that his boss is flabbergasted.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor that's clearly under Jongdo's pay delivers a message along with dinner, the food being a ruse to deliver the message, and Jongdo hears that his boys have found the weak link in the construction companies that started all this. The prosecutor then leaves and Chief Clerk O spots him going and then goes on with his teammates about how nice people are in Gwangju, but the cops freak out realizing that messages have been passed by Jongdo's paid men and worry that Seonyeong might be in danger, so they try to reach her, but the line is busy.

It's busy because President Gim (?), who had previously cooperated with Useok to nail Jongdo's immediate subordinates explains that he has something he needs to tell Useok in person, but can't risk being caught at the prosecutor's office so he wants to wait at Useok's house. Seonyeong decides to go pick up President Gim in person and when she arrives at his phone booth, he's being kidnapped by Jongdo's men, so she tries to stop them, but as soon as she mention's Jongdo's name, they kidnap her too.

Officer Jo arrives just as she's being kidnapped and the show actually gets exciting for once as Jo chases the mooks by car. I think this is actually exciting because, unlike Jaehui's chase of Hyerin's kidnappers as we know that neither of those characters would perish, we really have no assurance that Seonyeong will live through the kidnapping, so the chase is actually quite thrilling. Eventually they lose Jo when he's pulled over by cops, but he uses his badge and gets the cops in pursuit, losing the mooks at a factory building somewhere.

The mooks note that Seonyeong recognizes their faces, but just cover her mouth with masking tape and take President Gim away. Eventually Officer Jo finds and rescues the terrified Seonyeong as well as the unconscious President Gim and is shortly joined by Useok and the rest of his team. President Gim wakes and exclaims to Detective Jang that they thugs just left him with a picture of his family, clearly a threat. Meanwhile, Seonyeong, so relieved to see Useok mentions that the mooks got away with President Gim but she remembers how they look and Useok ignores all that and just takes her into a hug. Good man.

Again, I think the suspense here was good, the chase was good, and I really was enjoying how Useok's investigation of Jongdo was going with the push on Useok's part, the reply, even by proxy, from Jongdo and the clear attempts from Jongdo to set up Useok by sending the bribe (obviously in order to catch Useok accepting a bribe). This segment alone makes this one of the best episode of Sandglass since the powerful Gwangju segment.

The next day at the prosecutor's office, the head prosecutor visits Jongdo and tells him that Jongdo is toast for kidnapping a prosecutor's wife. Jongdo protests that he ordered no such thing (and I believe him on the part of not ordering that since his mooks seemed to decide to do it last minute). Jongdo clearly can't believe what's going on, which makes me wonder if there aren't some other strings being pulled behind the scenes that we're not aware of yet.

Back at Hyerin's casino, she's visited by Taesu's mooks who ask what she's going to do to spring him from prison and she plays like she just used Taesu, which upsets them greatly since Taesu sold everything he owned to help her--implying that the money she got from the stockholder might have actually been Taesu's, leaving her shocked.

So that explains why Taesu did what he did in episode twenty and I'd buy that he'd do as much for Hyerin since his attraction to her was genuine from the start and it's a kind of quiet way of realizing what he's done to Hyerin and trying to actually do something for her instead of just trying to claim her. Granted, I'm still not fully sold on Taesu's change of heart, but we've simply had much less of Taesu in general so there wasn't much room to develop him as a character (even if I thought he was a bit of lost cause). But at least this is much better than his previous logic and not-quite-clear route of how becoming Hyerin's father's worst enemy would somehow endear him to Hyerin.

As for Hyerin, I think this puts her in an interesting place and Taesu actually really does something for her for the first time and gets crushed for it. I still don't buy her initial desperation marriage plea and subsequent feelings for him, but I do think that this particular action should be enough to twist her up.

All said, there are only three episodes left, so I'm curious how they will wrap things up. I personally suspect that Hyerin and Useok will team up to take down Secretary Gang, Hyerin moved by Taesu's sacrifice, and, effectively take on the corrupt government of Korea by currying public support (as foreshadowed by Useok's former boss). And all that sounds pretty good to me if the show can fix its pacing problem and not skip story but really dig into that war.

But I'm mostly really glad that the show managed to put in some real genuine tension and thrills into an episode instead of just dropping a surprise death like it tended to do, but one that really didn't hold much dramatic weight because it wasn't properly developed. The kidnapping and the fight between Useok and Jongdo is probably the most engaging part of Sandglass and I'm looking forward to see how it resolves. Sandglass finally recovers with an actually good episode. 8/10


Monday, November 23, 2015

다섯개의 시선 (2006)

The first If You Were Me had a solid amount of critical success as a project so perhaps it was no surprise that the Human Rights Commission, which funded the first, decided to fund a second, again gathering several directors of notable repute to have their take on what they saw as human rights issues. For If You Were Me 2, five directors were selected for five shorts and each given free reign on their projects and while the range of resulting stories isn't quite as far flung as the first If You Were Me, centered primarily in drama with a bit of comedy, the second collection of shorts is perhaps more consistent and, yes, sometimes quite potent as well, resulting in an eye-opening and engaging omnibus.

Seaside Flower

The omnibus opens with this piece by Park Kyung-hee, inspired by actual events experienced by actor-playing-herself Jeong Eun-hye. Park's short recounts some of the experiences of Jung, a child with Down syndrome, who is teased by her classmates and has only a local woman (Shin In-sook) to count as her only friend. We are treated to a series of vignettes as Eun-hye interacts with her classmates, her friend, and her mother (Seo Joo-hee) sort of recalling Yeo Kyun-dong's Crossing from the first If You Were Me.

This is more a slice of life story though, one that does shine a light on both some of the abuses suffered by those with Down syndrome as well as highlighting just how much those with the syndrome are like everyone else. It never really gets to a point though, so it feels a touch long and meandering, as poignant as some of the vignettes moments are. 6/10

Hey Man

The next short is by Ryoo Seung-wan coming off of his boxing drama Crying Fist, which actually gets a call out in this short. Unlike all the other shorts in the If You Were Me series up to this point, Hey Man doesn't focus on those that suffer from human rights issues but instead puts the camera on a man of privilege, Usik (Kim Su-hyeon). Usik and his friends stumble into a street vendor drunk and ready for their second round, but Usik when drunk, tends to lord his societal privilege as a college graduated, well paid, straight man and verbally insults everyone who sees as beneath him. This, alongside his deep and obvious hypocrisy ends up alienating his many friends.

Usik's lording of his privilege and seeming unawareness of both his hypocrisy is actually a genuine source of comedy for Hey Man, which isn't particularly subtle about how it exposes the prejudices and privilege of many Korean men, but for the setting and the character, one that might be quite familiar in aspects to many Korean viewers, it seems rather authentic. And Hey Man, by its presence demonstrates how these prejudices and privilege, in social aggregate, can lead to those very same human rights issues covered by the many other entries into the series. Somehow entertaining and sobering at the same time. 8/10

A Boy with the Knapsack

Another solid entry into the omnibus is Jung Ji-woo's A Boy with the Knapsack. Show in black and white on digital video, this short follows Jinseon (Lee Jin-sun), a North Korean refugee in the South. Not appreciating the intense questions of her South Korean peers, she plays mute and eventually gets a job as an employee at a song parlor. Meanwhile, she suffers from loneliness and isolation until she meets motorcycle delivery boy Hyeoni (Oh Tae-kyung). When her boss (Kim Choon-gi) shorts her on her pay, she asks Hyeoni for help in getting justice, but will soon have to face her fear and shame around her North Korean background as a result.

The drama is quite strong and Jinseon's situation as a resettled refugee, alone in South Korea without anyone that she knows is quite compelling, especially as it's not something that's commonly thought of, as well as the exposure of the fear of North Koreans in the South that renders the refugees even more isolated. 8/10

Someone Grateful

Someone Grateful is the work of Jang Jin, who again manages to bring his unique voice to an unlikely pairing of social issues. In this short, set during a period of military dictatorship in Korea, has interrogator Gim (Ryu Seung-ryong) doing his violent interrogation thing to closed-mouthed college student and democracy activist Yun Gwonsin (Lee Ji-yong). However, the session runs long as Gwonsin won't break and Gim, a contract worker, learns that he won't be getting a bonus. Both exhausted, interrogator and interrogated find themselves bonding when Gwonsin notes his support of the contract workers' plight.

It's quite impressive how director Jang takes a rather sensitive subject (the oppression of democracy activists during the period of dictatorships) and deftly weaves not only his brand of deadpan comedy around it, but also a commentary on contemporary labor relations as well. Ryu Seung-ryong makes a punch clock villain into a sympathetic protagonist. Jang gets in quite the amusing gag involving a pencil-and-paper "m, n, k" style game and is probably the best laugh in the omnibus. 8/10

Jongno, Winter

I also viewed Jongno, Winter separately as part of the Kim Dong-won collection and this documentary appears to be identical to the version I saw stand-alone. As a documentary, it stands out among its peers and the reality of the story manages to hit just a bit harder than the other narratives, even if two of them (Seaside Flower and A Boy with the Knapsack) are based on real stories. It's interesting that If You Were Me 2 also ends on a documentary like how the first omnibus ended on Park Chan-wook's N.E.P.A.L.: Never Ending Peace and Love, but it's a pattern that seems to work and Jongno, Winter is welcome, even if tragic, look into the lives of Chinese Korean immigrant workers here. 8/10


If You Were Me 2 is a particularly strong set of shorts and like the first If You Were Me, even if the stories are all quite different and told in different ways, they are well united by the greater vision of looking at matters of human rights. In many ways the second entry into the series is actually more consistent than the first with only the opening short being a little less potent. However, even that entry still has its moments and manages to accomplish its human rights directed objective.

As such, the second If You Were Me is as resounding a success as the first and highly recommended viewing for fans of Korean film and those with an interest in Korea. 9/10


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 20회

Episode nineteen has a promising restart for Useok and some decent, if a little too quickly paced drama for Hyerin and fortunately, the twentieth episode mostly follows suit, although it also continues the tradition of stymieing or wrapping things up too quickly without foreshadowing narrative continuance.

We start with Useok who plans with his team on how to take down Jongdo and we learn that most gangsters try to end up in construction companies and that Jongdo controls them all as the head of their association. Useok and his team meet with the least corrupt of the construction company presidents, who informs him that if they don't capture all the gangs' representatives in each company at the same time, they'll be no stopping them. Then, while they try to solve the problem, Seonyeong suggests that they try to lure them all in together.

So, while Jongdo is conveniently away in Hong Kong and unreachable by phone, Useok and his team shake down one gang representative and notes to the rep that they've gotten too many complaints about the gang involvement in stopping bidders for projects and that they just need to give the reps a slap on the wrist in order to keep things under control. Word spreads and soon all the gang reps for all the Jeolla construction companies arrive at the prosecutor's office to comply with the demand to interview, resign, and write an apology letter in order to not get arrested. But as they leave the meeting room, one by one, they are captured and detained.

Jongdo arrives and is furious about having all of his primary subordinates imprisoned, so Jongdo goes and wines and dines a bunch of reporters and informs them of how hotshot prosecutor Useok allegedly was insulted by Jongdo's unwillingness to meet him during a drinks in the last episode. Then, when Useok meets with those same reporters to explain his intent to prove Jongdo is a crime figure instead of a legitimate businessman, it looks like an act of petty revenge. All this gets Useok's current boss to tell Useok to close the case.

And that was all pretty fast. I was hoping for more parrying and thrusting from both parties instead of a single back and forth this episode, but perhaps they haven't fully closed the door yet. Still, this feels kind of like how in the seventeenth episode they just took Useok off the case and he resigned. Granted, he didn't resign this time so perhaps Useok's going to disobey orders, but it was a disappointing close to Useok's part of the story.

Back in Seoul we spend just a quick moment with Taesu as he decides to leave the business. Taesu sells all the casinos and businesses he owns and tries to leave his primary subordinates with a few as well, but they plead with him not to leave them and we don't quite know how it ends.

All of this comes very suddenly. We aren't really given any access at all to what drives Taesu to do this because his last encounter with Hyerin certainly doesn't really do much to shake his confidence, nor has he really been expressing any doubt or misgivings about what he's been doing and so it all just to seems to come out of nowhere and the only thing I can fathom is that it's some kind of setup for a future plot transition, which, if it's the case, is truly contrived writing.

Back to Hyerin, she heads over to her wealthy stockholder's place to express apology for losing so very swiftly and, as surprisingly as he agreed to support her the first time, he miraculously offers her the necessary cash to stave off all of her creditors, leaving her to deal with fixing the issue of her casino being suspended. For this purpose, she visits Taesu and asks him to pretend to be engaged to her as to use his connections with Dosik and, via him, Secretary Gang to get a meeting with them.

Admirably, Jaehui seems disappointed that Hyerin is resorting to the tactics of the wealthy to save her casino, but Hyerin, though a little shaken, seems desperate to do so and Jaehui consents to help her. In this case, Jaehui is operating a remote recording device connected to a bug that Hyerin takes to a meeting with Dosik and Secretary Gang. There she meets with Taesu and they announce to them that they're going to get married. Hyerin expresses that she's going to cede control of her casino to Taesu, offers a suitcase presumably filled with money, and offers the password to the bank account that President Yun had cut the government off from in exchange for the Secretary helping life the suspension of the casino.

All this just makes Secretary Gang's blood boil and he talks about how bribes and extorting business owners is the only way that the country even functions; that if it weren't for the money that they extort, the economy would be in ruins and that he needs to make an example out of upstarts like Hyerin who dare to oppose the system. He tells Dosik to wipe out Hyerin's business at which point Hyerin reveals that she's recorded their meeting. The admission of guilt recorded is strong enough to get the Secretary to leave in a hurry and earn Hyerin a veiled threat from Dosik and well as a look of possible astonishment or concern from Taesu.

Honestly, I can't tell at all what's going on with Taesu and Choi Min-soo really isn't helping with his withdrawn performance. But then again, his character is (fortunately) really more of an accessory at this point and it looks like the writers are simply working hard to keep his character relevant enough for Choi's top billing in the show.

For this episode, Hyerin's gambit was interesting enough and her personally feeling torn between her filial piety and her disdain of the corrupt ways of the wealthy elite was pretty good drama and Go Hyun-jung carries the conflict in Hyerin pretty well, even if she's entirely surface about it. But in terms of pacing, Sandglass is still kind of uneven, pushing some things too quickly and it makes the episode feel a bit uneven, almost the mirror of the last episode, flipping the unevenness of story between Useok and Hyerin.

But none of this is the stupidity of the post-Gwangju stories and so it's enough to keep me feeling all right with watching more. 7/10


Monday, November 16, 2015

주먹이 운다 (2005)

Most boxing dramas--heck most sports dramas--all follow the same course. Some underdog with some personal issues gets a shot at some big sporting event. They meet some mentor that trains them in the sports skills they need, but also teaches them life lessons along the way. They encounter some hardships which might include their upcoming opponent at the big event and then, they overcome their opponent at the big event or at least put up an unbelievable fight. It's a script. It's predictable. We root for the underdog and we cheer in their victory or at least their attempt beyond expectation. But with Crying Fist, director Ryoo Seung-wan puts a spin on his take on a boxing drama that makes it appreciably different, even if the film is a bit bloated and melodramatically pushed.

Crying Fist's particularly unique take is that instead of one underdog protagonist, the film features two underdog protagonists. We have ex-Asian Games silver medalist Gang Taesik (Choi Min-sik), who is broke and goes out to become a human punching bag every day, charging a meal's money for passerbys to take a minute or two to beat on him. And his relationship with his wife Seonju (Seo Hye-rin) and son Seojin (Lee Joon-gu) is also tenuous.

The other protagonist is Yu Sanghwan (Ryoo Seung-bum), a rage-filled street hood that primarily uses his fists to steal and extort for money. While he has the caring support of his father (Gi Ju-bong) and grandmother (Na Moon-hee), he eventually gets caught for a robbery attempt and gets sent to prison, where his temper gets him in trouble but is given a chance at directing himself via the prison's boxing club.

As these two find themselves in the dumps of life, they are given a chance to pull themselves up and prove themselves in a super lightweight boxing championship, which, given the nature of boxing films, will likely pit them against each other.

What makes all this work so well is that both protagonists are given plenty of time to develop. They both have tempers and make bad life decisions, but boxing gives each an opportunity to improve themselves and we get to watch them grow. In the end, Crying Fist builds both of its protagonists well enough that you end up wanting both of them to win the champion title, even if there can only be one winner. It's a slow moving drama, but like most sports dramas, the character building is essential to the payoff at the end. And the ending, where you are left torn about who you want to support and realizing that every (under)dog deserves its day pays off well.

Crying First does have a few flaws. It's a little too long, a predictable by-product of following two full protagonists' stories, and could use some trimming or adjustment, particularly with Taesik's story as his boxing tale doesn't fully connect with the story of his family and there probably are a couple too many side characters in his story. Sanghwan's story struggles with being simply too melodramatic: his family is possibly too supportive to be believable that he could turn out the way he did and then the multiple instances of incidental tragedy that befalls him is a little contrived, even if it does drive his character development.

But even with these weaknesses, Crying Fist still works quite well. A huge part of this is due to the actors. Both Choi and Ryoo bring a great deal to their characters. Choi embodies the sad sack pathos that he's well developed over his career and even despite Taesik's temper and boorishness, still brings to him a great deal of empathy and even charm. Ryoo's performance is probably the biggest highlight of the film though--he fills his Sanghwan with so much potent rage and emotion that it's palpable from his subtle looks and body language. It's an immense performance that never feels as artificial as the plot devices used to grow his character.

As for Ryoo's brother, director Ryoo, with several features under his belt, he handles Crying Fist with assurance. Although he hadn't directed a drama since his debut film, Die Bad, his makes sure to keep his vision focused on the characters, dispensing with most of the flashy tricks he employed in No Blood No Tears and Arahan and his focus rewards the viewers with a good deal of intimacy with his characters. Even his choices when we actually get to the boxing action are less fancy and more pointed towards showing the primal brutality of the sport rather than technical rapture.

And that all, combined with impeccable production values and a decent soundtrack, puts all the focus on the two protagonists and helps us to come to like them, troubled as they are, and to root for them both, even if we know only one can win. And the character study is impressive enough and performed with such gusto by the film's leads that it manages to largely overcome the somewhat unfocused storylines and the melodramatic splash (and well as a noticeable final act logic flaw) to make Crying Fist a potent and somewhat unique sports drama. Recommended, for sports film fans and fans of complex character studies both. 8/10


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 19회

Sandglass continues on with its most promising stories from last episode in its nineteenth. That means more Useok and Hyerin and fortunately less Taesu. With Useok we move away from all the romance business because it wasn't ever that compelling, and instead move towards towards his new mission in Gwangju, which it to be a damn good prosecutor and also take down Jongdo, who has made himself quite the boss, using his muscle to baldly give favors to businesses under his thumb, for generous compensation of course.

Useok's right hand from Seoul, Chief Clerk O follows Useok down and Useok is greeted to the rest of his team, including the gruff, but dedicated Detective Jang (Jang Hang-sun), who takes a liking to Useok's desire to go after Jongdo, apparently the biggest fish in the pond, and recruits judo master Detective Baek (Lee Doo-il) and rough-and-tumble Officer Jo (Kim Bo-sung). Before he assembles the team, Useok uncomfortably attends a post-work drinking session with his fellow prosecutors where they are tended to by room salon gisengs and is invited by Jongdo himself for a meeting, which Useok turns out and tells Jongdo's minion that prosecutors can't meet privately with the person their investigating. It's a pretty cheeky reply to Jongdo, but also calls back to his private meeting with Taesu and how that eventually canned him from the Yun case.

The other major story is Hyerin's fight for her family's casino. So it turns out that her speechifying the one shareholder last episode somehow works (although predictably so since he was the only shareholder we saw her approach) and he sides with her making her the general manager of her casino. From there, she decides she's not going to roll over for the government, which is hungry for money to fill its coffers, and play everything by the book. This does not please Jang Dosik's government boss, Secretary Gang Donghwan (Nam Sung-hoon) and so Dosik is ordered to pull the rug out from under Hyerin and make an example out of her.

Dosik meets with Hyerin personally to try to dissuade her from going against the government, but Hyerin is set on seeing it through and so Dosik reluctantly enacts his plan to break Hyerin, by making all of her debts due and cutting off her supply of cash and lenders. This staggers Hyerin and the casino, but it's not fast enough an example for Secretary Gang, so the government sneaks in some Korean nationals, who the casino is forbidden to serve by the government, and then sends regulators to bust them, suspending the casino's license, which pretty much crushes Hyerin.

Meanwhile, Yeongjin shows up at Taesu's place ostensibly to ask him some questions for a society page article, but as Taesu is tightlipped, she concedes that she's actually there to learn more about the criminal underground and asks how Taesu is involved in taking down Hyerin's casino. She's very obviously only there to serve the narrative role of letting Taesu know about Hyerin's dilemma and Taesu heads off to get the story from Dosik.

At her lowest point, with Lawyer Min telling Hyerin that they only have a week of funds left before the casino goes bankrupt, Taesu visits Hyerin. Hyerin concedes that she's lost and asks Taesu to apologize for pushing her father towards death. Taesu, giant moron that he is, doesn't apologize and insists that everything he's done, he's done in order to become strong enough that no one could take his girl (Hyerin) away from him. Of course, moron that he is doesn't realize that he's literally pushing Hyerin away with everything that he's doing. What a idiot. How are we supposed to have any sympathy for this possessive, idiotic lout?

Anyway, Taesu leaves Hyerin depressed and that's the end of the episode.

I kind of like team Useok in Gwangju and although it's a bit cheesy in its almost 80's-ish approach to assembling a team and taking down the bad guys, it's earnestness, along with how straightforwardly good everyone is, is quite nice. I'm looking forward to seeing his eventual clash with Jongdo and company as well as his inevitable clashing with the corrupt system he's probably going to encounter.

I feel like Hyerin's story all crashed through a little too quickly. I like that she was confronted with quite the odds, but like the seventeenth episode, everything all happens within the span of an episode--so instead of seeing just how she's going to change the way the casino does business and watch her become a thorn in the side of the government, the writers just instantly pull the rug out from under her and don't even give her a semblance of a fighting chance--again. Still, this Hyerin is vastly more interesting and believable than "I-love-Taesu-and-want-to-marry-him-all-of-a-sudden" Hyerin and I appreciate the complexity of her character, including her unresolved relationship with her deceased father. I also like how Hyerin's relationship with Jaehui is evolving and I'm coming to like his rather dedicated character, as he's unceasingly loyal and supportive, although I wonder how he's internally dealing with his obviously unresolved feelings for Hyerin. I hope we get more there one of these episodes.

Taesu, well, I'm glad he's only a bit player in these episodes, but the one time he gets to interact with Hyerin was probably also one time too many. Honestly, he's a narrative dead weight and the polar opposite of interesting.

Anyway, the drama is pretty decent for Hyerin and I like where the show is taking Useok, and because we don't have to have that much Taesu in episode nineteen, I have to say it's a relatively agreeable one, even if the pacing on Hyerin's story seemed quite hurried. I hope all the rush pays off somewhere. 7/10


Monday, November 9, 2015

외출 (2005)

I think expectations were high when April Snow was first released in 2005. Not only was it a return for director Hur Jin-ho, whose previous two features, Christmas in August and One Fine Spring Day were critically acclaimed, but the film also featured two major actors of the emergent hallyu phenomenon, Bae Yong-joon of Winter Sonota fame and Son Ye-jin of The Classic. However, when April Snow opened, it was received weakly by critics and the Korean public, tanking at the box office considering the star power on display, although it would still do well in the rest of East Asia. And perhaps it was some level of cynicism on my part that led me to similarly feel disappointed with the film upon my initial viewing. However, coming back to watch April Snow a decade later, I have to say that I've come to like it for what it is, a quiet melancholy romance built of hurt, betrayal, comfort, and solace.

It all starts with a car accident. Lighting director Gim Insu (Bae Yong-joon) and housewife Han Seoyeong (Son Ye-jin) are brought out of Seoul when a car driven by their respective spouses crashes into another car, killing the other driver and leaving both spouses comatose. It quickly becomes clear that they were not business associates, but having an affair, leaving Insu and Seoyeong reeling from the betrayal, in addition to having to care for their comatose spouses, who might wake up or pass away any moment. As Insu and Seoyeong end up having to work together to deal with the aftermath of the crash, they slowly develop empathy for each other, which drives them closer to friendship and then something closer to what their spouses had with each other.

This is a slow burn overall as the protagonists experience a great deal of hurt and find solace in each other, the one person in their life that immediately and truly understands a good deal of the emotions that the other is dealing with. In some ways, it's a bit like In the Mood for Love in that the comfort that the cheated on find in each other, eventually births an adultery of their own. I like that the film has a moment dealing with their respective hypocrisy and also doesn't judge the originally cheating spouses from a high-and-mighty perspective, but instead focuses on the impact of the revelation on both Insu and Seoyeong.

That the two have to continuously take care of their respective comatose spouses for whom they both still clearly have some kind of affection despite their blossoming romance, is an interesting anchor and the final act turn when the comatose spouses each have a change in status, threatening the status quo of Insu and Seoyeong being able to naturally spend time together is quite impactful. And regardless of how you feel about the relationship that Insu and Seoyeong fall into, it's a relationship that is certainly both believable and understandable given the circumstances.

Hur is continuing his observational and quiet directorial style, giving lots of space for the actors to drive the film, but also giving April Snow the kind of natural rhythms you need to show the development of affection from tragedy and betrayal. It's admittedly slow to progress, but the pacing works quite well and I like that Hur doesn't push the melodrama hard with production tricks at the end, but just lets his camera linger along the perspectives of Insu and Seoyeong.

Of course all this wouldn't work if the two leads didn't perform and they mostly do. There are times early on where Bae's performance is a little too cool considering what he's going through, but as the movie progresses and Insu delves deeper in relationship with Seoyeong, he improves. Son is quite good throughout, giving her Seoyeong a strong melancholy at the start and then eventually blossoming her character slowly as the season changes from winter to spring.

Production values are quite good and, because Insu is a lighting director for music shows, we get some decent music in the soundtrack including both mid-2000's Leessang as well as Clazziquai Project and Loveholic in addition to the understated, but appropriate score.

Ultimately, I found this second viewing of April Snow to be much more compelling, in part because of the great deal of sympathy and empathy found within its characters and perspective. As much hurt that Insu and Seoyeong's spouses give our protagonists, Hur and his many writers still give them a moment late into the film that extends that same sympathy to them, while giving us a mirror in our protagonists in their own affair. Some might find April Snow to be perhaps too forgiving and others might find the slow build and the naturally restrained approach not spicy enough for their tastes. But April Snow really is classic Hur Jin-ho, down to the theme of seasonal change and those that like quiet empathetic dramas about relationships might find April Snow appreciable. 8/10


Friday, November 6, 2015

사랑니 (2005)

Director Jung Ji-woo first made a stir back in 1999 with his affair melodrama Happy End, but I was never able to get a hold of this film or find a screening of it. So, I did the next best thing that I could: I picked up a copy of his follow up film, Blossom Again (also known as Teacher's Pet), which came out six years after his debut feature. I don't know if it's the time that passed or just a wobbly concept and execution, but Blossom Again never really gets anywhere, despite interesting ideas about the cycle of love and infatuation and one particularly surprising twist.

The film is actually similar to its 2005 counterpart, Green Chair, in that both films are about a thirty-something woman that gets in a sexual relationship with a high school boy, but Blossom again is the more chaste of the two as it's much less about the lovemaking and much more about the obsession with past loves.

The woman in question is Jo Inyeong (Kim Jung-eun), a cram school math teacher who becomes infatuated with a new student of hers, I Seok (Lee Tae-sung), who shares his name with her first love. Inyeong lives with O Jeong-u (Kim Young-jae), her friend-with-benefits, but her draw to the young Seok, who she believes looks just like her past love, becomes irresistible.

We also spend some time with a teenaged Jo Inyeong (Jung Yu-mi) who has a thing for I Su (also Lee Tae-sung) and, after a tragedy, his twin brother, I Seok (also Lee Tae-sung).

The one thing that really works in the script is the twist. Some clever direction means that most, especially those familiar with the melodrama genre, won't see it coming. I also think the investigation of the cycles of attraction that Blossom Again investigates is interesting, although how it is set up in the film is awfully contrived--past the point of believability actually, especially post-twist.

And both of these things would be great if it weren't for the fact that Blossom Again simply doesn't do anything with these ideas or use the twist in any effective way. Instead, once we pass the twist, the film simply just rolls long as it was doing before the twist, the story point simply being used to drive Inyeong to further action. Now, the mechanic of the twist is intrinsically reflexive, so if Blossom Again has taken that point and pushed us to examine ourselves as moviegoers with expectations about first loves, it might have worked. But Blossom Again does none of these things, even given another twist of the actual first love, I Seok (Kim Jun-seong) showing up.

The obsession with first loves is also the kind of thing that doesn't necessarily traverse cultures that well, but is a trope that is strong in Korean contexts. As such, even if Blossom Again were to make a powerful point or examination of first loves, which it doesn't, it's not something that would necessarily resound internationally. By the film's end, nothing of any significance has actually happened, leaving us with no direction in the story and not even really anything resembling a conclusion.

Fortunately, Jung Ji-woo at least proves a more capable visual storyteller than a writer of stories. The film looks good and Jung is actually quite good at drawing performances out of his cast, such that, despite the high degree on contrivance pushed upon the story, on camera, everything still seemed pretty natural. He particularly draws believable performances out of Kim Jung-eun and Jung Yu-mi even when they seem emotionally pushed for little actual reason. And Blossom Again is also aided by solid production values and technical details.

This does actually work to make Blossom Again watchable, at least because there's never really any problem with the visual direction--we know what's going on. It's just that the story, while filled with clever contrivances and twists, never does anything of note with those clever points and never really ends up doing anything with its theme either. And as such, you should lose no sleep over skipping this film, but if you did choose to you watch it, you'd likely be able to get through it only feeling particularly disappointed in the final act when nothing comes together at all. 5/10

Note: Amusingly enough, the actor that plays the teenage Jeong-u is none other than Lee Suk. Yes, he has the same name as the first love and current infatuation of Jo Inyeong.