Birdshot


What better time to hunt with your dog than dawn?

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Mary Joy Apostol, Manuel Aquino, John Arcilla, Arnold Reyes. Directed by Mikhail Red

The world is a hard and often cruel place. Sometimes it feels like the powers that be are far more interested in symbols than in people. For those who live on the fringes of society, eking out an existence as best they can, getting caught in the machinations of the powerful is a daily struggle to survive.

Maya (Apostol) is a young teenage girl whose father Diego (Aquino) is the caretaker for a nature preserve in the rural Philippines. He is trying to teach her how to hunt so that she can one day fend for herself if something happens to him. She has difficulties with pulling the trigger and killing a helpless animal, much to the frustration of her dad.

Mendoza (Arcilla) is a cop and relatively new to the force. He has been partnered with Domingo (Reyes), a cynical veteran who doesn’t mind bending the rules every so often. The big news around that part of the Philippines is a bus full of farmers that disappeared on their way to Manila. Domingo interrogates a low-level criminal who might know something about the missing bus. The interrogation is a bit too brutal for Mendoza but he backs his partner, especially when the information he gets leads to the discovery of the bus in the wildlife preserve that Diego takes care of. Of the passengers there is no sign except for a piece of cloth from a shirt near the edge of the jungle.

Maya goes into the preserve to prove herself to her dad and she finally finds success, shooting a large bird. The bird turns out to be a Philippine eagle which is on the endangered species list; the preserve’s rangers keep careful count of the number of them left in the preserve. Diego is understandably upset. He makes Maya bury the bird and the gun that it was shot with and awaits the arrival of the police.

The investigation into the disappearance of the bus has met with official resistance, much to Mendoza’s surprise. The two cops are ordered to discontinue their efforts to find the missing passengers and instead look into a missing Philippine eagle from the wildlife preserve. Domingo urges Mendoza to give up on the case having seen what happens to cops who disobey their superior officers but Mendoza can’t give up the case, having spoken with the wife of one of the missing who beseeches him to find out what happened to her husband. The two cops go out to interview Diego about the missing eagle; Mendoza notices that Maya is wearing an eagle claw on a makeshift necklace. Domingo resolves to bring in Diego for questioning.

Diego knows he is about to be taken in and assumes that he’ll be back by the end of the evening; he urges his daughter to stay out of sight until he comes home. Mendoza receives a threat to his family that changes his outlook. The interrogation of Diego becomes more brutal and suddenly Diego is locked up overnight with hardened criminals who are plotting an escape. When the escape is successful but the criminals commit a horrific act in getting away, Diego is forced to flee. He makes his way home with the cops hot on his trail; a reckoning is bound to occur.

Red is an emerging talent in Filipino filmmaking. He has only made two films in his nascent career but both have been highly acclaimed and won film festival awards. His latest is a genre mash-up that starts out with two seemingly disparate stories – one a police procedural, the other a rural coming-of-age tale – that are slowly weaved into a single tale. Red who also co-wrote the film skillfully merges the two stories into one, a feat that is attempted pretty regularly in indie cinema these days but rarely as successfully as seen here.

There is a good deal of social commentary to be had here. Red makes clear that he feels that society values the lives of the rural residents less than the life of a bird. There is also a look at the corruption that is rampant in the law enforcement of the Philippines; considering that the war on drugs undertaken by the dictatorial president of the Philippines has led to the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Filipinos, the film is timely indeed.

The vistas of the rural Philippines are beautifully shot and make an excellent background to the ugliness of the souls of those who are in power. Red makes good use of the landscapes in the Philippine backwaters and crafts an extraordinarily beautiful movie. Unfortunately, the movie does move at a somewhat elephantine pace and is probably a good 15 minutes too long; some of the action here is redundant and unnecessary. The shocking ending is quite depressing as well.

Still, there is a lot going for the film for more patient viewers. Red is definitely a voice who has something valid to say and a talent we’re very likely to hear a lot more from in the future. If he keeps on making films like this, you might just be seeing his name on big Hollywood features in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is gorgeous. It’s a very interesting view on corruption in the Philippines in an era in which they are being run by a dictator.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is slow and the movie is a bit on the long side. The ending is a bit of a downer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity and a scene of dog peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at last year’s Tokyo Film festival where it won Best Asian Futures Film, an award given to directors who have the most potential to shape filmmaking in Asia in the coming decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hell or High Water
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Jane

The Priests


There's never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

There’s never any telling what lurks at the end of an alleyway.

(2015) Horror (CJ Entertainment) Dong-won Kang, Byeong-ok Kim, Eui-sung Kim, Ho-jae Lee, So-dam Park, Soo-Hyang Jo. Directed by Jae-hyun Jang

NYAFF

There are those who will tell you that the things that go bump in the night are real. There are also those who will tell you that there are things that will possess a human body, things that can only be driven out with the help of an exorcist.

Exorcism does exist, although it is no longer the exclusive province of the Catholic Church, movies on the subject notwithstanding. However, we most associate the rituals of exorcism with Catholicism, and it has to be said much of that goes back to a certain 1973 movie that turned out to have some roots in fact. This one, apparently, only has roots in that movie.

Fr. Kim (B.O. Kim) is the go-to guy for exorcisms in South Korea, mainly by virtue that he was the deacon for the go-to guy for exorcisms, who is now too old and too feeble to perform them himself. He is in the midst of performing one now, a grueling affair that has gone on for six months. The victim is Young-shin (Park), a 14-year-old parishioner of his. He is a curmudgeonly man who has gone through Deacons at a terrifying rate – twelve of them thus far. Of course, some of the things they’ve seen during the rituals would be enough to send any sane man flying for the exit.

His latest Deacon is Choi (Wang), who has been coasting his way through the seminary. Not taking his theology terribly seriously, he has made it through life on the back of his delightful grin and his not inconsiderable charm. Now, however, he has been given a new assignment and he reluctantly takes it on, but in fact he’s kind of intrigued. After all, he’s seen the movie too. He just doesn’t really believe in it. It’s just a movie, right?

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, things are going badly for the girl. She’s been compelled to commit suicide by the demon inside her but survives somehow in a coma. The demon is looking for a good man (what woman isn’t?) to take over; apparently men are much better possessions. Kim knows that the spirit of the demon must be moved into the body of a pig which should then be drowned in a river in order to make sure the evil entity doesn’t return to the girl. And the family has sued to turn off the life support so that their daughter can finally be at rest – they believe Fr. Kim has been molesting her, which prompted the suicide attempt. And everything is pointing to this night to be the best possible time to get rid of the possession – and the good father with his reluctant assistant – who has demons of his own to conquer – will move heaven and earth to save this innocent little girl.

Certainly the film takes most of its cues from the classic William Friedkin film The Exorcist (but also from other demonically-inclined films like The Omen) but there are some differences here. It introduces modern horror stories, like intimations of abuse by a priest, and political infighting within the church hierarchy, but curiously stays away from modern horror idioms. This is definitely a man’s movie – the only female character with any substance in the film is the victim herself.

This isn’t as effects-laden or as gory as other exorcism movies, particularly those of recent vintage. Jang relies on atmosphere and an overall feeling of dread that something spectacularly bad is about to happen. He’s so good at building up the tension that the climax, when it comes, is a bit of a disappointment – but only a bit. I don’t think it is possible for any climactic scene to live up to the build-up that this one got.

Park as the possessed girl outdoes even Linda Blair here; she has her moments where the innocent little girl is present but for the most part she is chilling, manipulative, much smarter than either of the priests and in short, a worthy opponent. She scares the living daylights out of you every time she’s on the screen.

Kang is one of Korea’s rising stars and also one of its best looking. He sometimes has to play a bit of the fool and his foolishness is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the film but again, cultural differences. Movies from other places don’t necessarily have to live up to American expectations, no? In any case, he has some moments, particularly near the end of the movie. He does have a good amount of potential in any case.

The special effects are pretty minimal so American teen horror audiences will probably think this lame, but true horror fans are going to recognize the craft here and perhaps flock to it should it get any sort of distribution. Keep an eye out for it on various web horror outlets (like Shudder) and your local film festivals, particularly those that celebrate the realm of the fantastic. This is a solid, entertaining and downright spooky film that ranks among some of the best of the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Some real nice touches of authenticity. Park delivers a show-stopping performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the effects are a little weak by American standards.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of terror and disturbing images, as well as some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kang is considered to be one of Korea’s biggest heartthrobs.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcist
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

The Shameless (Mu-roe-han)


He's a Seoul man.

He’s a Seoul man.

(2015) Crime Drama (CJ Entertainment) Do-yeon Jeon, Nam-gil Kim, Sung-Woong Park, Do-won Gwok. Directed by Seung-uk Oh

We are victims of our own circumstances, whatever they might be. Whether we are trapped in our jobs, or trapped by our bad (or even good) decisions, wherever we are in life, that’s where we are. We can break out of our circumstances if we choose to, and if we’re willing to step out into the unknown but it requires a kind of courage that as we get older, we find that we no longer possess.

Detective Jae-gon Jung (Kim) is a lonely man. He is divorced and is hopelessly corrupt; in fact, his entire squad is essentially on the take from organized crime. He gets an assignment and not from his superiors in the police but from members of a criminal organization; Joon-gil Park (Park), a mid-level mobster with a gambling problem, has committed the ultimate sin; he’s murdered one of his own.

By their own rules, the mob can’t kill him, but they can let the cops have him…and if he gets crippled or killed during the arrest, so much the better. Park is on the run, but his weak point is his girlfriend, Hye-kyung Kim (Jeon). She is a madam in what is called a hospitality room but is essentially a brothel. Jung goes undercover, taking over as her head of security under the guise of Park’s cellmate in prison.

Although she’s initially suspicious and antagonistic with him, the two begin to warm up towards each other, finding out that they are kindred spirits. Kim is desperately lonely, her boyfriend on the run and the sexual encounters with her clients meaningless and almost perfunctory. She has accumulated a huge debt, mostly because Park has been gambling away her money and loan sharks have begun to make threatening noises against her.

Although Jung is using her to get to Park, he begins to fall for her and soon the two end up as lovers. Meanwhile, the forces that turned Jung loose to find Park are growing impatient and Park is broke, needing money to get out of the country and Kim is ready to give it to him. With everything stacked up against them, can Jung and Kim actually break away from the life they find each other in and make something better…together?

There is a heavy noir element running through the movie. Initially we see it as a bit of a wink, particularly in the jaunty jazzy score and the references that crop up early. Jung is the kind of role the late Robert Mitchum would have filled admirably and the movie would have benefitted very much by the presence of someone like him – although there really isn’t anyone like him and likely never will be.

While the crime story is really the reason for the film, it is the love story that drives it. The feeling is dark, that it is inevitable that nothing good can happen for the lovers. Regardless of whether Park is arrested or escapes, you realize quickly that it is going to be bad for Jung and Kim. Kim often disappears into the embrace of alcohol, while Jung…well, Jung is a complicated character who leaves maddening glimpses of the guy inside but the script rarely allows Nam-gil Kim to really give us much in terms of who Jung really is. He remains maddeningly enigmatic, a tortured soul who seems at every turn to choose remaining that way.

This is definitely the seedy side of Seoul, where business is crooked and crooked business is business as usual. The corruption is so integrated into every aspect of life that it is almost expected. Everybody is using everybody else to get ahead; the cynicism is palpable and pervasive. In other words, just like any really good noir.

When Jung and Kim have sex is the only time they seem to be truly alive. They both have a kind of dead-eyed demeanor throughout but when passion takes them over, the juxtaposition is really compelling. In that sense, these are masterful performances as the actors seem to be holding their passions in check throughout, waiting for just the right moment to reveal them.

The movie is a bit overly long though and adds a coda which is not only unnecessary but actually hurts the movie. There are some things about the fate of Kim and Jung that really should have been left to the imagination of the audience rather than spelling it out as precisely as it was. That last ten minutes could have been lopped off and the movie would have been better for it.

As noir thrillers go, this isn’t half-bad but the movie could have been made a bit more concise. There are enough elements to recommend it, particularly for fans of the genre and of Korean cinema in general, but it is not an enthusiastic recommendation I’m afraid. Still, that is appropriate for characters like Jung and Kim who have learned to take what they can get – and not to expect much more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Stylish but fatalistic. Sexy in all the right places.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Somewhat convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: Sex, violence, nudity, drug/alcohol use and a ton of smoking, along with a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Oh’s second feature; his first was 2000’s Kilimanjaro but he has been active as one of Korea’s most sought-after screenwriters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Goosebumps

Veteran (Beterang)


Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

Being a Korean cop film, some serious asskicking is guaranteed to ensue.

(2015) Cop Action Comedy (CJ EntertainmentJeong-min Hwang, Ah In Yoo, Hae-jin Yoo, Dai-su Oh, Man-sik Jeong, Woong-in Jeong, Yoon-ju Jang, Shi-hoo Kim, Kyung Jin, In-yeong Yu, Kil-kang Ahn, Ho-jin Chun, Zoltán Durkó, Eung-soo Kim, Dong-seok Ma, Su-dam Park, Jake Patchett, Young-chang Song. Directed by Seung-wan Ryoo

Being a cop means understanding the difference between justice and closure. One doesn’t necessarily ensure the other. Sometimes you don’t get either. It’s very rare that you get both.

Detective Do-cheol Seo (Hwang) is a bit cocky and something of a hot shot. Bad guys rarely make it to the station without a few bumps, bruises or broken bones when he arrests them. Because he is so good at taking down Seoul’s more violent element, his superiors tend to look the other way, even after breaking up a violent car thief ring, infiltrating them with the help of trucker Bae (W.I. Jeong) who brings his little boy along, mainly because he can’t afford to have anyone watch him while his wife and he work. Bae and Seo develop a friendship during the long truck ride.

Celebrating his success that night, Detective Seo runs into Tae-oh Jo (A.I. Yoo), the son of a billionaire industrialist and a high-ranking executive in his company.  Seo immediately knows that the spoiled Jo is bad news, sadistic and arrogant. Seo senses that Jo is going to be trouble but he can’t really arrest him for his suspicions.

Shortly after that Seo’s friend attempts suicide by jumping off the office building owned by Jo’s company. Seo smells a rat and despite the smooth denials by Jo’s assistant and fellow executive Sang-Moo Choi (H.J. Yoo) who is the serpent to Jo’s shark. Seo decides to investigate the suspicious “suicide” attempt. However the company has influential friends in high places and Seo finds himself frustrated at every turn, sometimes by cops directly on the take.

In the meantime Jo is getting more and more reckless and doing more and more cocaine. Through smooth Choi he attempts to bribe Seo’s wife who turns it down flat and berates her husband for putting her into that position. In the meantime, Jo begins to get sloppy and make mistakes and is obliged to leave the country but not before throwing himself one last big blowout party but that quickly disintegrates and leads to a bloody confrontation between Jo and Seo.

There’s enough humor here to warrant calling it a comedy although the synopsis is more that of a hard bitten police procedural. The humor may be a little over-the-top for American audiences who tend to prefer their over-the-top humor to be more profane. One of the running jokes is the petite police woman (Jang) who kicks everybody’s ass.

This was a major hit in Asia this past summer and is just now making the rounds at a select few film festivals and will likely be hitting more film festivals in the spring. I hope so; this is one of those movies that is absolutely entertaining. There’s plenty of well-choreographed action – and Hwang turns out to be an extremely skilled martial artist.

But as good as Hwang is, Hae-jin Yoo is even better. A matinee idol in Korea, he plays the psychotic villain here and the baby-faced actor is absolutely perfect, delivering one of the best villainous performances of the year. He can be charming and charismatic but out of left field he’ll do something despicable and sadistic, forcing Bae to get into a Fight Club-style brawl in his office – in front of his own son, who sobs while his father is pummeled into a bloody pulp by his manager.

The story isn’t anything to write home about; the commentaries on corporate culture in Korea probably are going to fly right over the head of the average American audience, and we have seen plenty of lone cop fighting insurmountable corruption movies from both sides of the Pacific. Still, this one is so much better than most, with terrific performances, really good action sequences and some genuinely funny moments. This ain’t art but it’s pure entertainment, which is an art in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Kinetic action sequences. One of the nastiest villains ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the humor might be a bit broad for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some profanity and drug use as well as a hint of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Despite only having been released this past August in South Korea, the movie has already become one of the top ten all-time box office champs in that country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story