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.


Monday, July 21, 2014

봄날은 간다 (2001)

Originally published at Dramabeans on June 23, 2014

Christmas in August catapulted director Heo Jinho to the forefront of the Korean New Wave in the minds of many local film critics for his understated, yet captivating, style and his unexpectedly low-key approach to the typically emotionally-charged topic of terminal illness. In fact, director Heo's work in Christmas in August was often compared to the work of Japanese master director Yasujirō Ozu, no doubt a flattering comparison for Heo, who has himself admitted to being a fan of Ozu's.

The film even gained traction with critics and audiences in Japan, leading to a Japanese remake in 2005. And for Hur's second film, Shochiku, a movie studio that has produced Ozu's films in the past, even opted to co-produce. While this follow-up, One Fine Spring Day, wasn't blessed with comparative box office success to Christmas in August, it did win over the hearts of critics with its tale of the making and breaking of a relationship.

The film opens with I Sang-u (Yu Jitae) chasing down his grandmother (Bak Seonghui), who suffers from dementia and has a compulsion to go to the train station to wait for her late husband, a conductor, to get off of work. Sang-u lives with her and his father (Bak Inhwan), with frequent visits from his aunt (Sin Sinae), and the whole family makes it known that they believe it's time for him to get married. This is a topic he avoids.

Sang-u works as a recording engineer and he is sent by his studio to help a radio show producer in Gangwon Province, Han Eunsu (I Yeong-ae), record nature sounds for her show. Despite some immediate miscommunication, Eunsu finds Sang-u attractive enough to start a relationship with him. However, the divorced Eunsu becomes uncomfortable with the naive Sang-u's increasing seriousness with their relationship and we watch as fear and reluctance break them apart.

The story is actually fairly simple and many of the scenes in One Fine Spring Day are more demonstrative than built upon conflict, so that it remains compelling is quite surprising. However, upon examination, the reason why the film works so well despite its simple plot is that the characters are actually realized at considerable depth and the conflicts they have with each other, as well as internally, are built upon this characterization.

For example, the fact that Sang-u has a supportive family and their pressuring him to marry plays into the way he relates to Eunsu, especially in his willingness to become more serious. Meanwhile, Eunsu's lack of close family or friends, as well as her status as a (probably older) divorcee informs her reluctance and hesitation with Sang-u once Sang-u gets serious. But this also affects her ephemeral playing with idea of commitment, like in a scene when she spots a couple burial mounds in the countryside and notes to Sang-woo that it would be nice to be buried together with him like that.

This is of course further helped by the performances. Yu Jitae's warm, boyish looks are perfectly fit for Sang-u's naive nice-guy and it is perhaps one of the most appropriate roles I've seen him cast in. In contrast, I Yeong-ae manages to carry layers of hurt even behind her smiles and plays the more experienced Eunsu well, the two of them together having surprisingly excellent chemistry, both in romance and in conflict.

The real star of the show, however, is Heo. With his cinematographer, Gim Hyeonggu, Heo puts together a series of immersive mise-en-scènes for Sang-u and Eunsu to inhabit. Early scenes of the pair in a bamboo forest and a temple never exude overt romanticism, but in their sheer observation of nature and thoughtful composition, convey the kind of sensory beauty under which two people might find themselves feeling romantic.

Furthermore, with Sang-u and Eunsu in the business of recording sound, it only makes sense that One Fine Spring Day feature some impressive sound design and it does. With so many moments of the two would-be, then actual lovers listening to the sounds of nature and civilization, the film makes it easy to get caught up with them as well as the little moments when they listen to each other in recording. The only detraction that I can point to in the final mix is the score. With so much beauty in the sound design, when the acoustic guitar-based score intrudes into those moments of aural observation, it simply is distracting and almost appears heavy-handed in a film that could otherwise boast no such bluntness. It's a jarring contrast.

The subtlety of the film might be demanding for audiences that need more immediate gratification, but with Heo's nuanced and naturalistic observation of romance and its dissolution, it's easy to transcend the need for typical plot points to move you along. As One Fine Spring Day demonstrates, the series of moments that linger in our memories--whether memories of love or hurt--and what drives those moments in the characters are story enough. In that sense, One Fine Spring Day, through its thoughtful play of backstory and observation, manages an atypically compelling tale.

And perhaps that's what Korean film critics were noticing when they gave One Fine Spring Day a handful of awards the following year. That's not to say that the film is for everyone: like Christmas in August, One Fine Spring Day does move slowly and is content to work within the boundaries of subtle storytelling. Attentive and patient viewers will be able to get the most from this film, but because of the subject matter, I think anyone with a history of heartache might find something in One Fine Spring Day to appreciate. Or just watch for the enchanting direction and sound design. 9/10.


Friday, June 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of the Future Past (2014)

X-Men: The Last Stand was so awful that it nearly ruined the whole movie franchise for me. And it might have killed it too if it wasn't for the surprising quasi-reboot of X-Men: First Class, which was actually pretty decent, if a bit thin. I was really hoping that First Class was a complete reboot, but it ends up tying into the previous films and Wolverine to my chagrin. Days of the Future Past deepens that connection, tying together the two different timelines with a time traveling Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and while it gets a couple things done well, some shallow storytelling, the very messy continuity of the franchise, as well as a few logical missteps of its own limit its potential.

Inspired by the comic book story of the same name, this sequel to end all sequels sets up in the future, when an anti-mutant technology called Sentinels have effectively taken control of the earth, destroying most of mutantkind and humanity. A small group of mutants survive by using mental time travel to warn their past selves of incoming sentinels. And it's this ability that draws out the rest of the surviving X-Men. The Sentinel program was put into effect when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated scientist Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), who was at the time responsible for kidnapping and experimenting on mutants. She then got caught and her unique mutations were used to dramatically enhance the sentinels.

It is the plan of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), and others to send someone back to stop Mystique and, because of age and the required brain resilience to go back that far in time, it's up to the ageless Wolverine, Logan, to do it, while the others stay in the future to protect this gambit. Logan's mission is to go back to the past, recruit younger Xavier(James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in order to convince Mystique to stop her mission of assassinating Trask. Of course, when Logan returns to 1973, he finds this a bit of a challenge as Xavier was in hopeless reclusion since the tragic betrayal at the end of First Class and Magneto locked away deep in the Pentagon.

With so many characters and so much going on, I was honestly surprised that there was actually something resembling a core story going on, especially one that managed to encircle some of the themes across the different films in the franchise. In particular, I appreciated the close of Xavier helping Logan in the first X-Men and then in turn, using what he learned to help young Xavier regain the hope he had for the future of humanity and mutantkind. Also, the dark future shows a kind of closure to the relationship between Magneto and Xavier as well, having gone from friends, to enemies, and back to friends again at the end. And the film also attaches itself to First Class well with Charles seeking Mystique's redemption after her betrayal in that film.

Of course, that last point also brings up the enormous continuity baggage that plagues the franchise, with characters changing (the very different Moira MacTaggarts of similar age in The Last Stand and First Class), their relationships changing (Xavier and Mystique's history was created by First Class and not at all extant in prior films), some actors changing (Trask was played by Bill Duke in The Last Stand), and even some actors not changing when they should have (Patrick Stewart per the events of The Last Stand).

The very fact that Days of the Future Past begins with Stewart-Xavier was pretty confounding and while the film does a wonderful thing by its end in completely negating the events of The Last Stand (and probably X-Men Origins: Wolverine), it still breaks story continuity to do so. Honestly, a little more time spent on some kind of explanation for the prior continuity breaches referenced or the new ones created would have helped make the film more bearable as they just kept piling on as the movie went along. This is, of course, entirely separate from all the logical issues with time travel stories to begin with, where I just accepted the film's simplistic explanation--because it provided one!

Another problem with the story revolved around Magneto and how he behaves despite having an idea about the future, thanks to Logan's explanation. If he was as brilliant a strategist as the film suggests, then several of his more outstanding and predictable turns simply don't make any sense at all, considering that his behavior would actively encourage the very past that he was determined to stop. In essence, the film portrays him at smart, but his actions are all incredibly stupid when it comes to his goals, and as much as I liked how the film bookends his relationship with Xavier, I couldn't take how he just ended up becoming nothing more than a stupid villainous plot accessory to drag out the film. What's more, the story really didn't need him since the Mystique-Xavier conflict was enough on its own to propel the course of action here.

And then there's how Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters) was also a plot accessory designed simply for the purpose of a single thread and then discarded without just cause when his super-speed power would have made things far too easy later in the film. I just wanted a reason. Some reason. But the film gave me none.

While First Class' Matthew Vaughn joined the writer's circle for the film, the franchise's original director, Bryan Singer, comes back to the series' helm. And, overall, his work here is as good as it was with X-Men and X2. The humor and camp from First Class is toned down a bit and some of the grandness of the first two films returns. Singer lets the film get very dark in the future, with some rather gruesome deaths that the mutants face, and manages to handle the drama decently while also including some period stylings that have been popular as of late for films set in the '70's.

The enormous cast obviously was largely relegated to cameos because the story didn't have much for them, but the central players here all did their jobs well. The film looked as slick as you'd expect for a tentpole Hollywood film and I appreciated that Singer didn't overdirect for 3D in this native 3D film, letting the depth given by 3D feel much more natural. It looked and felt like previous X-Men films and in that regard, Days of the Future Past did well.

Of course all the major continuity baggage that the franchise carried into Days of the Future Past is simply going to be hard to live down. Addressing all of it would've been impossible since a lot of it is simply unanswerable. However, the film's lack of addressing continuity issues when it brings them up, because it actively chooses to bring up past films by flashback or reference, makes those moments distracting and those continued distractions pile on throughout the film. When combined with Magneto's unreasonably idiotic behavior, Days of the Future Past becomes harder to swallow as you watch it. However, when it does things right, like focusing on the relationships between Xavier and both Logan and Mystique and managing to harmonize several themes across the entire franchise while providing some of those blockbuster highs, it's also easy to stay at least somewhat engaged. Plus, it does the service of erasing two of the franchises worst films from continuity in the end, which simply cannot be lauded enough. I just wish that Days of the Future Past did all this more gracefully. But I'll take what I was given. 7/10.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

아카시아 (2003)

Bak Gihyeong made quite the splash with Whispering Corridors back in 1998. His second film, Secret Tears, while certainly showing growth in terms of visual and aural direction, was a meandering, aimless affair and was accordingly shut out of the same success. So it's no surprise that the advertising for his third film, Acacia, sells the film on the fact that he was the director of Whispering Corridors. But while Bak's directorial vision has further improved since Secret Tears and the story isn't quite the mess that Secret Tears was, Acacia drags on too long and has too many problems in both its story and its telling that renders it a relatively inert horror film.

This particular film begins with a couple who haven't been able to have a baby. Although textile artist Misuk (Sim Hyejin) is at first reluctant to adopt, she becomes instantly fascinated by Jinseong (Mun Ubin), a boy that has a deep fondness for trees and drawing them with impressive skill. Soon, she, Jinseong, and her husband Doil (Gim Jin-geun) make up a happy family. However, Misuk's mother-in-law (I Yeonghui) continues to press on Misuk to try for biological offspring, which upsets Jinseong. And then when Misuk and Doil are surprised with a baby girl, their relationship with the jealous Jinseong deteriorates to the point that he seemingly runs away. Then after the dying acacia tree that Jinseong was fond of suddenly springs back to life, things at the once happy household take a turn for the worse.

It's not a terribly original idea here, but the execution of the story is quite flawed. The problem is that, despite the film's attempt at mystery, it's pretty obvious what happened to Jinseong so the twist at the film's end is likely foiled for most of the audience. But that doesn't undo the film as much as the overwrought behavior of Misuk and Doil. Heck, I get why the tree goes evil on them, but it's never wholly clear why vengeance falls on Doil's father (Bak Ung). Also, the film never really answers the question why Jinseong doesn't attend school. Or really gives any rules to the acacia tree's actions, making its actions seem a little odd, especially in its later interaction with Doil's father.

Which is too bad considering that director Bak is still in good form when it comes to visual direction, having a few moments of real horror and strong production and sound design. In fact, his cinematic language has largely matured since Secret Tears where he was still prone to a couple moments of amateur overuse of effects and angles, including a highly visually striking end to the film. It's unfortunate that the story doesn't make any of this compelling as well as throwing in far too many scenes that are simply unnecessary, further stretching out an already slow and lugubrious middle of the film. The performances are more or less in line with the limitations of the forced writing, which is a sad waste of the veteran Sim's talent.

This all makes Acacia test a viewer's patience. Aside from moments of inspired direction the film fails to impress and even some of those scenes, like a moment that somehow makes yarn terrifying, actually end up dragging out the film rather than helping the narrative. But the core fault comes down to a major weakness in writing, with dismal structuring leading to a predictable and ultimately uninteresting end. Those strongest moments might be enough for some horror fans to be drawn to Acacia, but I can't otherwise recommend this film. 5/10.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Our Mrs. Reynolds"

Now with a few episodes under it's belt, the characters established and some of the greater plot threads and relationships set, Firefly, continues with another standalone episode in "Our Mrs. Reynolds", which bears a resemblance to "Shindig" in terms of overall storyline impact and also in that it seems to have a bit of a Mal-Inarra romance angle. It's also one of the most entertaining episodes since the pilot.

In this episode, after a celebration on a backwater planet, the crew of the Serenity takes off only to find a woman named Saffron (Christina Hendricks) hiding on board. She claims to be Mal's newlywed wife who Mal apparently wed while drunk during the party, due to the local customs. As they fly towards their next stop, the crew gives Mal a hard time about Saffron as she attempts to faithfully serve Mal as per the custom of wives on her planet. However, not everything about Saffron is as it seems.

Once Saffron is on board, her presence creates some interesting reactions between Mal and most of the rest of the crew, with Simon and River basically taking a break this episode. And it's these interactions as well as Saffron's subterfuge at work that makes "Our Mrs. Reynolds" a particularly enjoyable and lighthearted episode, with comedy from the start through the end.

There are just a couple of issues with the episode. It's not at all clear what the crew was doing at the top of the film or why the town was celebrating. And Saffron's story doesn't fully add up, although she's still an interesting character. That also makes the follow-up ending a little disappointing as it features a coda with Mal and Saffron that seemed utterly unnecessary and complicates a future appearance. Finally, while there always was some sexual tension implied between Mal and Inara, Inara's initial reaction to Saffron seems a bit overblown.

Still, not having to balance between the greater narrative and the requirements of the episodic story gives "Our Mrs. Reynolds" a great amount of focus and the choice to make it more of a comedic and situational episode largely pays off well, despite some of the plot holes in the episode. And that makes it a pretty enjoyable time. 8/10.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

공동경비구역 JSA (2000)

Originally published at Dramabeans on June 3, 2014

When Joint Security Area ("JSA") came out in theaters, it quickly became the most successful Korean film until that point, surpassing Swiri's immense success the past year. And like Swiri, JSA is also a story about North-South relations and features an already successful cast (even sharing a major actor) that would go onto even greater--even international--success.

Joint Security Area features the talents of I Byeongheon, who has been in a number of hugely successful Korean films as well as Hollywood hits like G.I. Joe and RED 2. Playing across from him is Song Gangho, an equally successful actor who was recently in the international co-production, Snowpiercer. And between them is I Yeong-ae, who became a household name in China with the success of Jewel in the Palace, in which she played the title character.

And while his cast might have already garnered popularity through their previous film and television work, Joint Security Area would prove to be writer-director Bak Chanuk's career-making film. Now he is also no stranger to international fame, having since made a cult hit with Oldboy (remade by Spike Lee just last year) and recently getting his first Hollywood directorship with Stoker.

But inasmuch as the rising stars of the cast helped, Joint Security Area likely became a hit for similar reasons as Swiri: the North-South story. Let me explain.

The Republic of Korea was in the throes of a socio-political shift during the turn of the millennium. After decades of military rule, the government was transitioning to democratically elected civilian rule. What's more, in 1998, for the first time in South Korean history, a liberal candidate, Gim Daejung, was elected to the office of the president in a stable government.

One of former president Gim Daejung's best known policies was a policy of engagement with the North, called the Sunshine Policy. And although not without many critics, this policy and the election of its creator reflected a shift in popular attitudes regarding reunification with the North. And that optimism towards establishing positive relations with the North could certainly have had a role in the success of Swiri in 1999, which contained a story of tragic love between a North Korean assassin and a South Korean intelligence agent.

While in Swiri, the North Korean agents are generally depicted as adversarial, even the conflicted female lead played by Gim Yunjin, Joint Security Area reflects the increasing optimism of the South Korean populace by introducing fully sympathetic North Korean characters. And, while still tragic, then it goes a step further and explores the case of the development of an actual friendship between North and South Korean soldiers stationed at the Demilitarized Zone ("DMZ") between the two Koreas. So JSA's success could be considered representative of the optimism of the Korean public for improved North-South relations at the time.

Unlike Park Chan-wook's later films, Joint Security Area was actually an adaptation of a novel: DMZ by Bak Sangyeon. We start the film version at a Demilitarized Zone guard house in North Korea. Two North Korean soldiers are killed and an injured South Korean sergeant, I Suhyeok (I Byeongheon), is rescued while fleeing back to the South. The North claims an unprovoked assault while the South believes that Sergeant I was kidnapped by the North. This obviously causes a great deal of tension between the Koreas and when an impasse is reached, they decide to call upon the services of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission ("NNSC") to investigate what happened and resolve the dispute.

As Swiss-Korean NNSC officer Sophie E. Jean (I Yeong-ae) investigates the conflicting stories of Sergeant Lee and the only surviving North Korean officer, Sergeant O Gyeongpil (Song Gangho), she discovers her witnesses are reluctant to talk. And then she pieces together a story of unexpected friendship between the guards stationed across each other, in countries still technically at war.

The framing of the story in Jean's investigation and the eventual result, while not terribly clever as a mystery, does a bit to set up the overarching theme of brotherhood stifled by ideology, allegiance, and fear. The elder hyung, Sergeant O, is humane and kind-hearted, contrasted against his more ideologically rigid commanding officer, and sets into motion the possibility for Sergeant I to establish clandestine correspondence. This is striking contrast to many renderings of North Koreans up to this point as most North Koreans in cinema would never really subvert their country for the sake of brotherhood or love (Swiri and The Spy from 1999 being the only other films to do this).

Similarly, the younger soldiers, Sergeant I, his junior, Private Nam Seongsik (Gim Taeu), and Sergeant O's junior, Jeong Ujin (Sin Hagyun), all radiate a kind of optimism mixed with fear, representing a popular sentiment of the time.

Jean stands for the investigation of this potential for rapprochement between the two Koreas, trying to discover what is keeping these nations apart, and discovers that the government institutions do not want truth or even the revelation that friendly relations could exist between them, although the film doesn't go so far as to explain why. But despite Joint Security Area's tragic end, it still seems to call for its audience to investigate what is truly hindering reunification, including the two Koreas' sins against each other.

And in that goal, I think Joint Security Area succeeds. While some of the scenes primarily involving Jean and her NNSC peers fall a little flat, in part due to clumsy English language dialog and middling performances, it sets a tone of objectivity. Though the actual investigation itself neither succeeds as a mystery or as a thriller, by creating the theme of sober investigation, it encourages the audience to investigate what is truly dividing the Korean people, perhaps before a hypothetical tragedy can create more problems for reunification.

This story of reconciliation is, of course, further enhanced by a fantastic production. Director Bak displays strong flashes of his capacity for visual composition here. From his use of 360 degree spinning point-of-view camera, to his spatial match cuts and dissolves, Bak presents the story with a decidedly cinematic language. And the production values of the film match, with beautiful 35mm film stock (an advancement for the industry at the time) as well as a lot of care and detail placed into building a full replica of Panmunjeom.

The cast is replete with solid actors, with perhaps the exception of Jean's fellow NNSC members. The four soldiers central to the story in particular capture their distinct roles well and share excellent chemistry with each other. Song Gangho is especially notable in that he effectively steps away from his commonly comic roles (at the time) for an excellent dramatic turn. I Yeong-ae gets stuck with English dialog and her Korean accent results in a bit of an unconvincing performance when she has to speak English as, being Swiss, you would expect her to have a Swiss French or Swiss German accent instead. Also, you wouldn't expect Jean to speak Korean so fluently, given her being raised by her Swiss mother, having acquired it as a second language in school, and never having been to Korea before.

But I Yeong-ae's language issues and the NNSC actors might be the only really weak spots in a film that otherwise manages to capture both an internal drama about a taboo brotherhood and a greater representation of the popular desire for reunification, or at least rapprochement, of the two Koreas. Even if the mystery and thriller aspects of Jean's investigation are diminished, it still effectively acts as a narrative vehicle for the audience and a call to action without being propaganda.

In 2000, Joint Security Area tapped into the desire and optimism of the people of South Korea in regards to the North, combined it with excellent cinematic filmmaking, and became the most successful Korean release at the time. By itself, the film won over five million admissions and did double the business of its closest competitor, Mission Impossible 2. JSA might not have been the first to draw North Koreans in a sympathetic light nor make a huge blockbuster out of it, but in many ways it hit a cultural zeitgeist in a degree that its predecessor wasn't able to.

Since Swiri and Joint Security Area, sympathetic depictions of North Koreans have become common, as we can note from recent films like The Berlin File, The Commitment and Secretly, Greatly. But because of its reflection of South Korean sentiment at the time, Joint Security Area still remains one of the best examples of Koreans dealing with North-South relations through cinema to date. That, as well as the abundance of talent both in front of and behind the camera, makes JSA essential viewing for Korean film lovers. 9/10.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Safe"

The sixth episode of Firefly, "Safe", reveals a hint of backstory for a couple of our characters while dealing with some rather mundane seeming situations.

While trying to sell the cattle that was acquired from "Shindig", Mal sends Simon and River into town to get them out of the way. As River and Simon wander around the backwoods town, we see a little bit of their past before Simon's rescue of River. Meanwhile, a batch of hillbillies plot to steal something from the crew of the Serenity and the cattle deal becomes complicated due to stray gunfire.

Unfortunately, this leads to a bit of a fragmented story--one that could have really benefited from focus like the aforementioned "Shindig". Shepard Book's situation hinting at his backstory seems a bit random and convenient and the situation that Simon and River end up in doesn't really synchronize particularly well with the revelation of their backstories. What's more, the episode isn't really able to clearly draw a theme or give us any more considerable insight into characters that past episodes didn't already provide, aside from the tease of Book's backstory.

Instead, the episode just trudges along from plot point to plot point, with a giant hole in that the characters that force Simon into the position he ends up in have absolutely no reason to know why they would put Simon in that position in the first place. I do appreciate the visual confirmation of Simon's story about rescuing River as well as the introduction of their parents, but I really wished that the whole episode were better wrapped around that rather than this terribly uninteresting backwater planet matter.

At least the guest cast manage believably, given the limitations of the actual story and writing. There is something strange going on with the sound effects on this episode as the various characters all seem to be wield the gunpowder-based firearms, but the sound-effects suggest some kind of energy weapons; the result was pretty distracting. Some characters didn't have much to do and that would have been fine if the main story were better focused. As it is, "Safe" works, I suppose, as continuity tissue, but overall seems to be unfocused, uninspired and possibly unnecessary, marking the first real low in the series so far. 5/10.