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

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)


In every life a little rain must fall.

In every life a little rain must fall.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim. Directed by Park Chan-wook

 

What a tangled web we weave, so the saying goes, when we set out to deceive. Deception can take many forms from little white lies to complete fabrications. We can invent ourselves as someone who we are not; we may have the best of intentions or the worst when we assume a different persona. At the end of the day, however, we end up unable to escape the person we actually are.

Sookee (T-r. Kim) is a pickpocket and petty thief in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. She is part of a criminal gang led by the self-stylized Count Fujiwara (Ha), a con man from humble birth. He has managed to set up Sookee in the position of a handmaiden to a noble Japanese lady living on an extensive estate far from anywhere in the mountain woods of Korea. The Count has designs on the lady to marry her and then have her declared insane so he can inherit her considerable wealth.

Lady Hideko (M-h. Kim) is a virtual prisoner on her estate. Her cruel Uncle Kouzuki (Jo) is a pervert who gets his rocks by having her dress up as a noble Japanese woman of ancient times and reading pornography to he and a group of like-minded friends. Kouzuki intends to wed Hideko soon in order to inherit her considerable wealth as he has none of his own.

Sookee has one job; to convince her new employer that the affections of the Count are genuine and that she would do well to marry him. However, Sookee has a revelation that changes everything and suddenly the players in this very dangerous game reveal that none of them are exactly who they are perhaps perceived to be.

Park, director of the notorious Oldboy, has a thing about pushing boundaries and he shoves quite a few here, although only relatively. He based this loosely on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, transplanting the action from Victorian England to occupation-era Korea. This adds the element of cultural clash to the story, one which is not only welcome but incredibly intriguing.

Park has a terrific visual sense and the cinematography here is downright gorgeous, from the lacquered interiors of Hideko’s strange mansion – constructed by an Anglophile, it has an English main house with a very Japanese wing added on – to the rain and moon shrouded forests of the estate. It is a visually lyrical film, dancing to a beautiful soundtrack by Yeong-wook Jo. I thought the soundtrack elevated the film, although parts were cribbed from The Thin Red Line which is a war movie of a different sort.

Here the war is of sexual tensions and there is plenty of it between the three main characters. The movie is told in three parts; the first and longest is Sookee’s point of view, the second that of Hideko and the third a kind of epilogue. In fact, the movie feels a little bit long but that might be that the first chapter is almost a film in and of itself and the second two chapters are almost added on in feel when you’re watching it but once the film is over you realize the story couldn’t be told any other way and the whole thing makes sense, but you may end up checking your watch a little.

If you do, it won’t be because of the performances of the three main leads. Both of the Kims and Ha generate an enormous amount of heat between them in a strange sort of love triangle; Jo gets to play a Snidely Whiplash-sort of character with an ink-stained tongue and a pervert’s glee in all things sexual. The story takes a number of turns and what really makes it work is that the performances of all of the actors is consistent throughout the varied plot changes and all of the performances make sense.

This is a movie with a good deal of texture; not just in the lush gardens of the estate or the richly decorated interiors but also in the sense that the movie is deeply sensual not just in a prurient way but also in a beautifully sensual way – quite artistic in the use of the naked female body. Some who are easily offended by sexuality will find this abhorrent but I must say that if sex can be art, this is an example of that. The book, which I have not read, utilizes narration from the three main characters; Park delivers that in a masterful way that simply reinforces that he is one of the world’s most exciting and pre-eminent directors. At this point, he is a director I’d go out of my way to view his film. There aren’t a lot of directors I’d say that for.

In many ways this is a beautiful movie and in many ways this is an ugly movie. The two often co-exist side by side in real life as well. One can’t have one without the other, after all. You may well find this a beautiful film to look at, and it is. You may well find this an ugly movie to consider, and it is. It is at the nexus of the two that we often find great art, and it is.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and shot construction throughout the film. The musical score is just amazing. The performances among the three leads are strong throughout. The film is quite textured.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s just a little bit too long, or at least I perceived it to be.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of graphic sex and nudity as well as some profanity (much of it sexually oriented), rape and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Because two different languages (Korean and Japanese) are spoken in the film, the subtitles are in White (Korean) and Yellow (Japanese) so that English-speaking
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

A Violent Prosecutor (Geomsawejeon)


They're talking about him again.

They’re talking about him again.

(2016) Crime (Showbox) Jeong-min Hwang, Dong-won Kang, Jin-mo Joo, Byeong-ok Kim, Eung-soo Kim, Hong-pa Kim, Won-hae Kim, Sung-min Lee, Ji-hwan Park, Sung-woong Park, So-yul Shin. Directed by Il-Hyeong Lee

NYAFF

We live in an era of corruption and graft. Of course, every era to date has had such qualities to it. When justice is twisted upon itself, all that is left is vengeance.

Byun Jae-wook (Hwang) is a prosecutor, and not just an adequate one. He has an extensive knowledge of the law that stems from his intense love of the law. He will do whatever it takes to put criminals behind bars where they belong, which sometimes leads him to some questionable interrogation tactics in which he literally beats confessions out of suspects.

At an environmentalist protest of a planned development at an important bird sanctuary in Korea, a group of outsider thugs come in and initiate a confrontation with the police. One of their number is arrested after assaulting a police officer and is taken to Byun for questioning. The suspect dies mysteriously while in custody and Byun is charged with murder. Byun claims that the suspect was an asthmatic and that his inhaler had malfunctioned; however, there are no records of the suspect having asthma. Byun’s boss, Kang Yeong-sik (E-s. Kim) who has political aspirations, advises Byun to plead self-defense. However, that strategy fails miserably despite Kang’s reassurances and Byun realizes, belatedly, that he’s been framed.

In prison, he is at first a target for regular beatings – he had personally put away many of the prison’s residents. However, his knowledge of law helps a couple of guards and they make sure that Byun is untouchable and he becomes a gang unto himself. When con-man Han Chi-won (Kang) is imprisoned, Byun sees an opportunity. He befriends the narcisstic young man and prevails upon him to do Byun a favor if Byun can get him released early. Thus begins a deadly game in which Byun and Kang are the players and Han is caught in between. Byun will stop at nothing to prove his innocence, but can he truly trust the amoral Han?

One of the things that is most delightful about this movie is the various influences on it. It’s a prison movie that has a lot of similarities to The Shawshank Redemption as well as a number of 90s-era action B-movies starring the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren. There are also elements of such classics as The Sting as well as the retro-hip score and look of the Oceans trilogy.

Lee deftly weaves together all these disparate elements and we end up with a taut crime thriller with heavy comedic overtones. The movie is fast and fun for the most part, and Han – a leading teen idol in Korea who gets the teen girl crowd over there sighing expressively – provides some occasionally over-the-top but surprisingly solid comic relief.

More to the point is Hwang, a craggy actor who is one of Korea’s very best. In many ways the equivalent to Robert De Niro, he has done a lot of gangster films in the past including New World (2013) which is justly considered by some to be the Godfather of Korea. Byun is a complex character, one who has had issues with violence in his past but has come to regret some of his actions, now that he has effectively seen how the other half lives. Hwang commands the screen like a boss whenever he’s on and quite frankly from this point over I’ll go out of my way to see anything he’s in.

The movie runs a bit over two hours and for the most part, you don’t notice that it’s a bit long for this kind of film. Those who have trouble staying in one place for two hours might have some issues with it, but film buffs are going to feel like scarcely any time has passed. This might well be the find of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It doesn’t have American distribution yet, but hopefully it’s huge success in Korea will lead to at least some sort of distribution deal here. I hope so; it deserves to be seen by a lot of people.

REASONS TO GO: Hwang and Kang make an effective team. The film combines a number of different genres to make a satisfying stew.
REASONS TO STAY: May be a little too long for the attention-challenged.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made $22 million on its opening weekend and is currently 16th on the all-time Korean box office chart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shawshank Redemption
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Six

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

My Love, Don’t Cross That River


Love transcends everything.

Love transcends everything.

(2014) Documentary (Film Movement) Byeong-man Jo, Gye-Yeol Kang, Doh-yeong Jo, Kaum-yeo Hyun, Daeh-yeong Jo, Bong-nam Kim, Keum-ja Jo, Sang-hyeong Jo, Ho-soon Cheon, Myeong-ja Jo, Myung-kyu Eom, Soo-yeong Jo, Yeong-whan Song, Seong-baek Jo, Seong-do Jo, Myeong-wha Jo, Seong-eun Jo, Soo-ah Kim. Directed by Mo-Young Jin

 

Seneca once wrote that “life, if well lived, is long enough.”  The truth is that a life well lived need not be an extraordinary one. It need not be world-changing. Sometimes, a simple life is the most well lived life of all.

Byeong-man Jo and Gye-Yeol Kang have been married for 75 years, give or take when this documentary was filmed. He was pushing the century mark, she was turning 90. The two “100-year-old lovebirds” as they are described, live in a rural village in the Gangwon Province of South Korea in a small but cozy home. They gather firewood for heat during the fall to prepare for the winter; they rake leaves from their doorstep. They care for their dogs and they cook rice in an electric rice cooker. They go on picnics with their local senior center. He sings songs for her and the two do traditional Korean dances.

They wear clothes in matching colors and they are almost always touching. He can’t sleep if he isn’t touching her. They cuddle and their love for each other is palpable, so true and quiet that it you can’t help but smile. As you watch them assist each other with their chores, it’s not just like seeing your own grandparents but much-beloved ones. You can’t help but love them both.

Filmmaker Mo-young Jin followed the couple for 15 months starting in 2012 through 2013, watching the changing of the seasons through their eyes. Both of them are aware that their time on this Earth is winding down but it becomes much more real when one of them develops health problems. This leads to anguish in the other, knowing that they will have to carry on without someone who has been right by their side for three quarters of a century.

This is a beautiful movie in every sense of the spectrum. The emotional core of the movie is the love between Kang and Jo, and that emotion is so obvious that you get caught up in it. Those who have someone special in their lives will be reminded of them; those that don’t will long for someone like that. I jotted down in my notes as I watched my screener that “this is what growing old together is supposed to be” and that’s exactly the case. It’s what all of us dream of when we find someone we want to spend the rest of our lives with. This is what it looks like.

All the senses are excited, from the achingly beautiful score by Min-woo Jeong to the often breathtaking cinematography of Jin. There are some sad moments, like an argument that breaks out between two of their six surviving children (six others were lost to the measles in childhood) on Kang’s birthday, causing her to break into tears until a grandchild comforts her. There are some cute moments, as when one of their dogs has a litter of some of the cutest puppies you’ll ever see. They have two dogs – Kiddo, who has the puppies, and Freebie who they paid nothing for. Jo further endeared himself to me by being a dog person, and clearly he has a deep connection with our canine friends.

This is a movie that reminds us that the things in life that are most important are those we love. It is a movie that stands as a testament to the endurance of that love. There is nothing loud or cantankerous about this movie; it washes over you like a gentle wave, guiding you to a shore where loved ones await. You will cry a lot during this film – often tears of joy, but certainly tears of catharsis. This movie will make you feel.

Some people don’t like that. I read in a couple of reviews accusations that the movie was staged, that the couple were too perfect to be real. I don’t know – there’s no concrete evidence other than a reviewer’s suspicions. Me, if I were going to accuse a documentarian of staging scenes for the camera, I’d want to have a little more evidence before throwing opinions around as if they are facts. I personally think that some reviewers don’t like to feel deep emotions during a movie, so they find ways to dis a film that makes them feel. Of course, I have no evidence that it’s true in these specific cases, but I have my suspicions.

That bad juju aside, I have to confess that I didn’t just cry watching this movie; I bawled. I was a blubbering, puddle of goo in front of my laptop, leaving a puddle of salty tears on my keyboard. I’m quite frankly surprised I didn’t short out my laptop. But thinking about this film makes me misty again. It reminds me of the good things that I have in my life and the good things to look forward to. It reminds me that it is the little things, the simple things that are important. It also reminds me that if you have somebody who loves you, even if you have no money at all you’re still wealthier than Donald Trump will ever be. This is the movie to beat for the best film of 2016 as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO GO: Renews your hope for humanity. The beautiful score enhances the entire film. Revels in the simplicity of life. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it too emotional and low-key for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is the most successful independently released feature in South Korea to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message From Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Lobster

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

Office (O piseu)


You never know what lies beneath the surface of an office drone.

You never know what lies beneath the surface of an office drone.

(2015) Suspense (Little Big Pictures) Ah-Sung Ko, Sung-Woong Park, Sung-Woo Bae, Eui-Sung Kim, Hyoun-Kyoung Ryoo, Soo-Hyun Son, Chae-Eun Lee, Dae-Hwan Oh, Chang-Yong Lee, Jung-Min Park, Sung-Chan Son. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

If there is a more cut-throat environment than the modern corporate office, I can’t think of one. Office politics are as savage a human undertaking as any lion hunt. The backstabbing and venal office gossip can not only destroy careers but also lives.

&Byung-Guk Kim (Bae), a sad-eyed sales manager for Cheil, a huge food and beverage distributor, returns home after a long, rough day at the office. Taking the train home from work, his almost zombie-like expression is troubling, but when he comes home to wife and son all seems well…until he picks up a hammer.

The next day, Kim’s sales team intern Mi-Rae Lee (Ko) hurries into work, late again. She arrives there to find the police questioning the team about Mr. Kim, whose family has been brutally murdered. Her manager warns her to not divulge anything that would place the company under a negative light, but still under the questioning of Detective Jong-Hoon (S-W Park) she admits that Kim had been under intense pressure and was desperately unhappy.

It turns out he had plenty of reason to be. Sales director Sang-Gyu Kim (Kim) runs sales meetings like the Spanish Inquisition, berating his team with profanity and belittlement. Setting unreasonable sales goals, he mocks even those on his team who meet those goals for not having done it soon enough, or in the manner that was expected of them. The drones, terrified for their jobs, work brutal hours, haunting the office well after dark, ghosts shuffling in the hallways as hard drives whir and printers vomit out ream after ream of sales figures.

As the police investigate, it is determined by reviewing surveillance footage from the company’s security system that the murderer returned to the office after committing his crimes and that none of the security cameras recorded him leaving. Jong-Hoon is convinced that the killer is hiding in the building itself. When bodies start turning up on Sales Team 2,  his worst suspicions are confirmed – but not in the way he thinks.

We mostly see this movie through the eyes of the intern Mi-Rae. Ko turns in a magnificent performance as the put-upon intern. Through her perpetually hunched body language, we see physically her subservient demeanor and through her often panicked eyes we see how desperate she is to be promoted to full-time. When a pretty, foreign-educated new intern (S-H. Son) is hired for the team, her anxieties increase. She is well past the time when most interns are hired on the company. She has a lot going against her – she’s a country girl rather than a Seoul sophisticate, and she can’t understand why her hard work seems to get derision rather than praise.

First-time director Hong has crafted a wonderful thriller here. While some have characterized this as a horror film, there really isn’t enough gore or other horrific elements to really fit the bill. The first murders of Kim’s family are done in a Hitchcockian style, in which the viewer appears to see more than they do; the hammer he uses to massacre his family falls, we see blood spattering the walls but never the hammer connecting with flesh. That contrasts with a later murder of a bitchy assistant manager who is stabbed repeatedly until she falls into a heap to the floor and even that is relatively bloodless, although not blood-free.

Hong utilizes the bland environment of a modern office nicely, creating a creepy atmosphere that heightens the tension as the late night silence of a bustling office becomes threatening and frightening. The electronic score heightens the tension nicely, and most viewers should find themselves perched resolutely on the edge of their seats.

As much a satire of the corporate culture of Korea as it is a thriller, this Office is a solid although not spectacular suspense film. There are a few twists and turns but the main twist should be easily picked up by most veteran movie buffs. The pacing is a bit slow and the film at nearly two hours probably a good 20 minutes longer than it should be. Still, for those looking for something a bit different, this Korean film which has yet to acquire U.S. distribution should be one to look out for on the festival circuit and hopefully on streaming sources sometime next year. It was the opening night film at the New York Korean Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Hitchcockian suspense. Terrific performance by Ko. Utilizes environment to perfection.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long. Pacing could have picked up a little.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, some of it bloody, a bit of profanity as well as a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at Cannes as part of their Midnight Madness series, and made it’s American debut at Fantastic Fest in Austin October 1st.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Bridge of Spies

The Housemaid (Hanyo) (2010)


Beauty can be deadly.

Beauty can be deadly.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Woo Seo, Ji-Young Park, Seo-Hyeon Ahn, Jeong-min Hwang, So-ri Moon, Jin-ah Kim, Tae-back Chae, Shin-hwan Jeon, Sang-min Noh, Soon-kyu Jang, Yong-jae Cho, Hyun-Kyung Lim, Keum-yun Lee, Ji-sun Kim, Song-yi Han, Ju-sun Park, Sun-hye Yoon, Ha-young Seo. Directed by Sang-soo Im

This is described as a remake of a classic 1960 Korean thriller but there are enough differences to classify it as only a loose remake. Still, this stands on its own two feet quite nicely.

Eun-yi (Jeon) is hired as a housemaid for wealthy Hae-ra (W. Seo) who is very pregnant with twins. Eun-yi’s primary responsibility is to be a nanny for her daughter Nami (Ahn) but Byung-sik (Y. Yoon), the maid who has been with the family the longest, isn’t particularly happy to see her. Hoon (Lee), the man of the house, is ice-cold and like his wife a bit arrogant.

At first things run smoothly but eventually Hoon takes a liking to Eun-yi and begins flirting with her. The flirting turns into something else and before too long, Byung-sik witnesses Hoon and Eun-yi doing the horizontal lambada. And yes, no self-respecting wealthy Korean businessman would even think of using a rubber so Eun-yi soon finds herself in a family way.

By now Hae-ra’s mother (J-y. Park) gets wind of what’s happening – well, Byung-sik tells her. This just won’t do. It is her daughter who is supposed to be in the lap of luxury, not this upstart. Mommy the monster decides to take matters into her own hands and soon things spiral way out of control.

The original 1960 version was about the emergence of the Korean middle class and how those in the poverty class reacted to them. In that film, the maid was a little nuts and was the one who seduced the husband, not vice versa. Here, we’re seeing the results of Korean prosperity and how it has affected the upper classes and their relationship with those lower on the economic ladder. It’s not a pretty picture.

Jeon is a beautiful woman and is given a role which would be challenging for any actress, but gives us a fine performance. The issue here is not with her acting but how her character is written; at first she is the very model of a Korean servant, obedient and submissive but she changes. Not that people don’t change in a subservient position, but it is…let’s just say it’s quite the change and leave it at that. Park also does a convincing job as the conniving mother-in-law.

The movie is mostly set in the expansive mansion – estate would be more like it – of Hoon and his family but throughout it is shot beautifully, the setting bringing suspense when it needs to but at all times reminding us of the luxury of the privileged class.

Nearly everyone in this movie is devious and back-stabbing at one time or another – even the kid. It’s really hard to connect to a movie when you have nobody to connect with. Notwithstanding, this is a fascinating look at Asian class warfare in a situation Hitchcock would have understood and approved of.

WHY RENT THIS: Stylishly shot. An interesting look at Korean class values.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hard to identify with anyone in this movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, nudity and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chandelier in the main hall is a copy of the Young-whan Bae sculpture Song of Dionysus and is made up of broken shards of wine and soju bottles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

FINAL RATING; 7/10

NEXT: Jersey Boys