Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

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Okja


A girl and her genetically modified giant pig; such a sweet picture!

(2017) Fantasy (Netflix) Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Seohyun An, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jungeun Lee, Byun Heebong, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Yeun, Daniel Henshaw, Lily Collins, Devon Bostick, José Carias, Colm Hill, Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Nancy Bell, Jaein Kim, Bongryun Lee, Woo Shik Choi, Moon Choi. Directed by Joon-ho Bong

 

Asian culture can be incomprehensible at times for the Western mind. There is an almost cultish worship of things that are ridiculously cute and a sense of humor that is wacky and broad, yet their comic books and animated features can be crazy violent and chock full of deviant sexual behavior. Some things are best left un-analyzed.

In the near future, food shortages have led the multinational Morando Corporation to develop a genetically enhanced pig. The CEO (Swinton), seeking to undo the damage to the corporate image her amoral sister (also Swinton) did, proclaims the pig to be a miracle; it eats and poops less, provides more meat on the hoof (it resembles a hippopotamus with dog eyes) and tastes delicious. She initiates a contest in which piglets are sent to a variety of farms around the world to see which one is most successful at raising one.

The South Korean entry is sent to the farm of Hee Bong (Heebong) whose granddaughter Mija (An) has developed a bond with her pig whom she has named Okja. When television personality Johnny Wilcox (Gyllenhaal) – a sort of Steve Irwin-like character if Steve Irwin had been a corporate shill – visits the remote mountain farm and proclaims Okja the winner. What nobody has told Mija however is that Okja is to be taken away from the farm, sent to New York for a promotional appearance and then butchered for snacks. When she finds this out, she is not at all pleased.

But she gets a break; the quirky Animal Liberation Front, led by the quirky Jay (Dano) – has kidnapped Okja (maybe pig-napped would be a better term) and hopes to use the creature for his own agenda. However operatives for Morando find Okja and bring her back to New York. Can Okja be saved? And even if she is, will she ever be able to live on the farm again once she’s seen New York?

Director Joon-ho Bong, who gave us the wonderful The Host and the not as wonderful but still interesting Snowpiercer, delivers a great-looking film which is infused with a good deal of unexpected satire on the nature of corporate politics, mass media, obsession, animal cruelty and a little bit of American imperialism (at least one line spoke in Korean is deliberately mistranslated in the subtitles, which is about as subversive as you’d think Netflix would ever get). The satire can be a bit broad but it at least has its heart in the right place.

Just as broad is the humor which can take some getting used to by Western and particularly American audiences. There’s an awful lot of jokes about pig shit and if you find that dopey or distasteful, well, you’re not alone. Fortunately nothing is overtly mean or tremendously gross, so most youngsters will be delighted by the mainly CGI Okja who looks startlingly realistic.

This isn’t bad at all, although again there is a bit of a curve of how much you’ll enjoy it depending on how open to different cultures you might be. While much of this is fairly universal, I found some of it to be bewildering. Still, the cinematography is incredible (particularly in the Korean scenes) and even if the usually reliable Gyllenhaal and Swinton overact shamelessly (Esposito as a debonair corporate flunky is an exception) the movie is a solid choice for a night at home with Netflix.

REASONS TO GO: It’s bizarre and weird but in a good way. There is a surprising amount of social satire in the mix.
REASONS TO STAY: The humor is a little broad for my Western tastes and the movie a bit too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some violence and plenty of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Animal Liberation Front is an actual organization that is dedicated to freeing animals in captivity and causing economic chaos for corporations profiting from their captivity.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Babe: A Giant Pig in the City
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
40 Years in the Making: The Magic Music Movie

Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb

The Truth Beneath (Bi-mil-eun eobs-da)


Being a power couple isn’t always enough.

(2016) Thriller (CJ Entertainment) Ye-jin Son, Ju-hyuk Kim, Yu-hwa Choi, Cheol-woo Han, Eui-sung Kim, Gin-goo Kim, Min-jae Kim, So-hee Kim, Sang-hee Lee, Gene Woo Park, Ji-Hoon Shin. Directed by Kyoug-mi Lee

There aren’t many things worse than a missing child. Your mind is filled with the worst possible case scenario but at the same time you are holding out hope that said child will return home safe and sound. It’s the not knowing that drives us crazy.

Jong-chan (J-h Kim) is a former news anchor running for the Korean national assembly against entrenched politician No Jae-soon (E-s Kim). His wife Yeon-hong (Son) is the perfect political wife; beautiful, loyal, elegant and erudite. On the first day of their campaign however their mercurial teenage daughter Min-jin (Shin) disappears. At first nobody seems to be all that worried; even though Min-jin is an honors student and by all accounts a good girl, she wasn’t always that way.

Yeon-hong is frantic, particularly when her husband’s campaign managers and the police seem unfazed by the girl’s absence. No is making hay on the incident as Jong-chan is running on a family values platform with the ironic catchphrase “Protecting your children.” No shows no shame in pointing out that Jong-chan is having problems protecting his own.

The more that Yeon-hong looks into her daughter’s disappearance, the more troubled she gets. It turns out that Min-jin was a much different girl than her mother believed. She was being bullied at school and had taken up with a kind of pop punk girls band (the music for whom isn’t half bad). She was best friends with Choi Mi-ok (S-h Kim) who seems unnaturally possessive towards her friend. The more Yeon-hong finds out, the more convinced she becomes that the trail to her daughter’s disappearance leads to a shadowy link between her school and her father’s campaign.

This starts out as a political thriller but as the investigation of Yeon-hong continues it becomes more of a standard potboiler. That’s not to say that this isn’t head and shoulders over most of the ilk – there is a lot here to like, chief among them the performance of Son which would be getting her all kinds of notice were this film made in Hollywood.

For those who like acclaimed director Park Chan-woo, Lee is a disciple of the Korean filmmaker and in fact got Chan-woo to co-write the script. There is much of his influence on the film overall, from some of the more taboo elements of the plot (which I won’t reveal here) to the labyrinthine plot that twists and turns through a maze of characters, red herrings and half-glimpsed clues.

Lee has an excellent visual sense which he exercises a little too freely perhaps. There is a surfeit of flashbacks and special effects shots (raindrops frozen in mid-air for example, an Asian staple) to the point where it can be difficult to keep up with the plot. Eventually the audience is left feeling that they don’t have a clue what’s going on which is to say that few of the characters in the film have either.

Still despite the occasional forays into “look ma, I’m directing” territory, the movie is a solid thriller that will keep the viewer guessing while making some occasionally dazzling sequences that will either throw you for a loop or leave you breathless. Korean cinema is an equal to its counterparts in Japan and China although most true cinema buffs already know that. It’s time the world in general discovered that too.

REASONS TO GO: The film starts off a little choppy but ends up pulling together nicely. There is an eerie feeling here that isn’t supernatural. Son gives an exemplary performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie starts off as a political thriller but eventually morphs into a generic thriller. The flashback-heavy plot is occasionally hard to follow.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some grisly images, brief graphic nudity, sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead actors Son and J-h Kim both previously starred together in the 2008 comedy My Wife Got Married.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ides of March
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Jane (2016)


Mousy So-hyeon and confident Jane walk the streets of Seoul.

(2016) Drama (Atnine) Lee Min-ji, Koo Gyo-hwan, Lee Joo-young, Park Kang-seop, Lee Seok-hyeong, Park Hyun-young, Kim Young-woo. Directed by Cho Hyun-hoon

Loneliness can change your reality. People who don’t relate well to other people sometimes find themselves almost desperate for human contact but don’t quite know how to maintain it. When it becomes part of a cycle of poverty and desperation, strange things can happen.

So-hyeon (Min-ji) is a runaway teen girl who has been living in a hotel room in Seoul with her boyfriend Jung-ho who has abandoned her. Alone and with nowhere to go, she slits her wrists and prepares to die. Enter Jane (Gyo-hwan), a transgender nightclub performer who also has a crush on Jung-ho. She rescues So-hyeon and patches her up, bringing her into an impromptu family of fellow runaways including Dae-po (Kang-seop), Jjong-gu (Young-woo) and Ji-soo (Joo-young).

Life is idyllic for So-hyeon for awhile, surrounded by the family she never had and the almost magical Jane who is everything that she is not – elegant, beautiful, self-confident and kind. However, nothing lasts forever and So-hyeon is eventually obliged to find herself another family, this one much darker and much less idyllic.

The story of the movie isn’t even about Jane but about So-hyeon. We are never quite sure if Jane is real or a construct of the imagination of the lonely and shy So-hyeon who early on in the film makes plain her unreliability as a narrator. We’re never sure how valid the two families are; are they both real? Is one real and the other one not? Are neither real? Hyun-hoon is not disposed to give the  viewer easy answers and in some ways that’s a blessing and in others it’s a curse.

Much of the movie has a dreamlike quality to it and that is reinforced by the ethereal IDM soundtrack which is alternately beautiful and occasionally discordant. Min-ji is a terrific actress who occasionally has to convey a lot with her silence. The standout here however is Gyo-hwan, himself an independent filmmaker, who instills in Jane a kind of presence that is both vulnerable and strong. Jane imparts a good deal of wisdom to So-hyeon (not all of it listened to) as well as a good deal of compassion. Her transgender status is taken matter-of-factly; it is not commented on much and it is taken as a matter of course that she is accepted for who she is which rarely happens in films these days even now.

The movie is framed by So-hyeon’s narration in the form of reading a letter. She reads it I believe three different times during the course of the film; you are left to determine what of the letter is true and what is the invention of So-hyeon and even who it is addressed to. I found the story hard to follow at times and some might get frustrated with the circular narrative. The ending takes a loooong time to arrive and when it does the payoff is not worth the patience. Some are also going to find So-hyeon to be a frustrating lead as she often seems to just go along to get along and despite her occasionally manipulative nature seems content to shuffle along through life, head down and eyes averted.

This is one of those films that is both engaging and frustrating at the same time. The repetitive nature of the story makes it a hard sell to begin with and the fact that it overstays its welcome doesn’t make it easy to recommend. However, the powerful performances and the occasional moments of intense beauty make this hard to ignore too. Juxtaposed are moments of ugliness and violence, particularly in the second half of the film. Definitely those who have adventurous tastes in movies will want to see this; those who are a little bit more traditional in their  storytelling needs will likely find this too much to take and should move on to the latest blockbuster.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere is dreamlike. An ethereal score enhances that feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is way too drawn out. So-hyeon is a little bit too mousy of a character to get behind.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence and some adult themes here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is from Flash Flood Darlings, a Korean electronic band.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kids
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Midnight Matinee

Pandora (2016)


Disasters bring chaos.

(2016) Disaster (Netflix) Nam-gil Kim, Jung Jin-Young, Yeong-ae Kim, Junghi Moon, Kyeong-yeong Lee, Myung-min Kim, Shin-il Kang, Se-dong Kim, Seong-mok Yoo, Dae-myeong Kim, Joo-hyeon Kim, Gang-yoo Bae, Han-jong Kim. Directed by Jong-woo Park

 

Nuclear power has been controversial for nearly half a century; the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan have only furthered that controversy. While some countries have moved to phase out nuclear power as part of their energy production, South Korea continues to support their nuclear power program and in fact is moving to expand it.

Jae-hyuk (Nam-gil) is a technician at the Hanbyul nuclear plant near Busan. He is unenthusiastic about his employment there; his father and brother both died because of their work at the plant and he wonders if he is meant for the same fate. He lives with his mother Mrs. Seok (Yeong-ae), his sister-in-law Jung-hye (Junghi) and his nephew. He has a girlfriend, Yeon-ju (Joo-hyeon) who is pretty and encouraging but he finds it tough to get out of bed in the mornings.

Meanwhile, back in Seoul, the country’s young President Kang (Myung-min) reads a report from the Hanbyul chief engineer (Jin-young) detailing safety concerns and the company’s corner-cutting when it comes to maintenance. The idealistic President means to investigate but is thwarted by the Prime Minister (Kyeong-yeong) who is in the pocket of the corporation that runs Hanbyul.

Things are about to come to a head however; a 6.1 earthquake rocks the village and the gaskets on the coolant pipes spring some terrifying leaks. The maintenance deficiencies come to roost as the plant comes closer and closer to a major meltdown. With the cowardly management backed by the sniveling Prime Minister try to cover things up and refuse to allow the Chief Engineer to implement the measures he needs because they don’t want anyone to know what they’ve been up to. Finally, when all seems lost the technicians of Hanbyul will face an impossible choice.

Disaster films are all the rage these days in Korea and Jong-woo Park has a good one under his belt (Deranged) and this one did some major box office damage in December of last year. While most of the actors will be unfamiliar to Americans in general (unless they happen to be fans of Korean cinema) this is definitely an all-star line-up in Korea. Given the impeachment proceedings going on against the South Korean president and the extraordinary mishandling of the Sewon Ferry disaster by his government, it’s no wonder Koreans are flocking to these sorts of movies.

The movie is a mixture of disaster action and political/corporate intrigue and Park melds them seamlessly, with a slight edge going to the intrigue portions. Not that the action sequences are any slouch; some of the best effects houses in South Korea were utilized to make the nuclear plant set realistic (as no Korean power plants would allow filming in or near their facilities) and the damage is realistically done.

Also realistic is the reaction of the town populace which is mostly panic and chaos with a few notable exceptions. Nam-gil makes a decent hero and while his last scene is stretched out to near ludicrous length, his performance is nonetheless heartfelt. American audiences may have issues with the dialogue which is nearly all shouted as is traditional in Asian films. There is also an extraordinary amount of puking going on which I suppose you’d expect in a movie which depicts radiation poisoning to the levels you would imagine to be a given with a radiation leak of this magnitude.

The comic relief may be a bit too broad for American tastes and might feel inappropriate given the gravity of the subject. Still, I think American audiences who are willing to forgive that sort of thing will find this extremely entertaining and while the specific political references may go shooting over our heads, we can certainly relate to the collusion between politicians and corporate weasels to screw over the environment and the people living in it for the sake of profit. That sort of thing is sadly quite universal.

REASONS TO GO: The movie succeeds on a technical level. The general panic is accurately depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit over-wrought in places. The comic relief might be a bit too broad for American tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of disaster violence, some gruesome images, a bit of mild profanity, more puke than you can shake a stick at and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to be pre-sold to Netflix.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The China Syndrome
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: David Lynch: The Art Life