H


H for...howyadoon?

H for…howyadoon?

(2002) Crime Thriller (Tartan) Jin-hee Ji, Jung-ah Yum, Ji-ru Sung, Seung-woo Cho, Woong-ki Min, Yong-soo Park, Hyuk Poong Kwon, Eol Lee, In-kwon Kim, Kil-soo Park, Sun-kyung Kim, Bu-seon Kim, Roe-ha Kim, Seon-mi Yeon. Directed by Jong-Hyuk Lee

We assume we have control over the things we do. The truth is that our actions are programmed just as surely as any computer – programmed by our environment, by our upbringing, by our own nature. Changing the programming can be an arduous task – or a terribly simple thing.

When a serial killer named Shin Hyun (Cho) turned himself in after brutalizing and murdering six women, all of South Korea breathes a sigh of relief, particularly after the monster is put behind bars where he belongs. But ten months later, when copycat killings begin to appear in Seoul, Police detective Kang (Ji) is assigned the case with his partner Kim (Yum).

Working from clues left at the scenes of the first two crimes, the two detectives determine a suspect and stake out his home. Unfortunately, the killer realizes he’s being watched and attempts to flee into a nearby nightclub. After killing a third woman – exactly the way Shin Hyun had murdered his third victim – Kang shoots the killer and puts him into a coma.

That doesn’t stop the copycat killings. Two more murders are committed and this time they are captured but claim to have no memory of the crimes. Detective Kang determines that they had availed themselves of the services of Dr. Chu (S.K. Kim), a hypnotherapist. An interview with her will send Kang on the road to a confrontation that has been building his entire life and turn this case on its ear.

Director Lee – who also helmed the Bizarro Western The Good The Bad The Weird was clearly influenced by David Fincher’s Se7en. This is part police procedural, part thriller and part slasher flick. Some of the killings are fairly disturbing and while there isn’t a ton of gore, there are some nightmare-inducing images the squeamish may want to turn away from.

Ji makes for a classic anti-hero, a rumpled detective burdened by the sins of others having seen humanity’s worst side, and the weight of his past heavy on his soul. He is a tough customer but his eyes reflect a weary vulnerability. It’s a terrific performance that transcends language.

Lee keeps the tension at a comfortably high level, allowing brief breaks but never for long. While the movie’s ending was a bit of a cop-out, while getting there you’re never quite sure who can be trusted and what the motivations of anybody are. While the movie’s main conceit is not necessarily uncommon, it’s not been utilized in quite this fashion.

This is yet further proof that some of the best filmmaking in the whole world is going on right now in South Korea. Although this film is over a decade old, it carries with it many of the traits that make Korean cinema great – a willingness to tackle subjects that we would consider taboo, an unflinching eye on violence and suffering and acting performances that are generally more modulated than those in other Asian nations. For those looking for a terrific edge-of-your-seat thriller that you haven’t seen before, this is one that should go on your short list.

WHY RENT THIS: Tense and intense. Reminds me of the movie Se7en.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Reminds me too much of the movie Se7en. Twist ending a bit of a no-brainer.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly severe violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was remade in 2009 as the Indian film Amaravathi.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Saw the Devil

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Waking Ned Devine

Pieta


Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.

That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.

Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.

Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?

Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?

The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.

The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.

One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.

Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.

The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.

The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of  you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.

REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Rundown

I Saw the Devil (Akmareul Boatda)


I Saw the Devil

Going on a date with Min-sik Choi is a drag.

(2010) Suspense (Magnet) Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Ho-jin Jeon, San-ha Oh, Yoon-seo Kim, San-ha Oh. Directed by Jee-woon Kim

There is justice; then there is vengeance. Often when in deep grief, the difference between the two gets blurred and indistinct. Sometimes that line disappears completely.

Ju-yeon (Oh) is driving on a rural snowy road one night when she gets a flat tire. She gets on the phone with her fiancée, an elite secret police agent Soo-hyeon Kim (Lee). Suddenly there’s a knock on her window – a Samaritan offers to take a look at her tire but she politely refuses – a tow truck is on the way and she’s a little concerned with letting a stranger get access to her car while she’s alone on a dark lonely road. She has good reason to be concerned; the stranger picks up a tire iron and smashes in her window and rapes her in the car, pummeling her with the iron.

After that, he drags her to an industrial building. He chains the bloody and battered semi-conscious woman to a pole while she begs for her life. Then he somewhat calmly dismembers her while she’s still alive.

Ju-yeon is also the daughter of the section chief (Ho-jin Jeon); the discovery of her dismembered body (including her head, floating serenely with a stark and disturbing beauty in a nearby pond) simply destroys the chief and his future son-in-law Soo-hyeon.

Soo-hyeon determines to find the killer himself and give him not so much a hint of justice but the ultimate vengeance. He vows to make the killer suffer as much as his fiancée did in the final moments of her life. His prospective father-in-law is all for it and gives him complicit consent and assistance, providing the police files of the investigation.

After plowing through several suspects (hurting them so badly in the interrogation that they turn themselves into the police) he finds one, Kyung-Chul (Choi, from Oldboy) who turns out to be the one he’s looking for. He has the opportunity to capture the man – and in fact does – but chooses to release him in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse, allowing the officer of the law to inflict as much torture as humanly possible on the man who destroyed his future.

Revenge is a theme that seems to resonate with the Koreans; some of their best movies have had it as a subject matter. Here Kim (The Good The Bad The Weird) ratchets it up to a new level of violence and extreme. While the film is unrated here, I would guess it would certainly get an R at the very least and an NC-17 at worst. The gore is extreme, the violence is extreme and the images can be pretty brutal. There are also several rapes that take place, although none of them are really that graphic.

Min-sik Choi, who was the victim in Oldboy, plays a much different role here. He is the demented killer and one gets a sense of diabolical cleverness from him, not to mention the horrible sense that he may explode into violence at any given moment. While he doesn’t have matinee idol looks, he is a consummate actor who would be getting Oscar potential roles were he here in the States.

Byung-hun Lee has a good deal of screen presence and matinee idol looks. His dogged determination is evident; he even gets emotional at times but for the most part he’s icy cool. He could potentially be a major action star over here; I would love to see a few studios take a chance on him.

There are some standard action movie elements but all of them are turned on their ear. The movie has been labeled by some as misogynistic and torture porn. As to the former, I didn’t see it. Yes, there was violence done to women, but that was the nature of the killer – a rapist-murderer. Sometimes, serial killers are not equal opportunity maniacs. As to torture porn while there were elements of that, the plot was much more defined and intricate to relegate to that particular genre – this isn’t a Saw movie gang – but it’s got that kind of brutality and in some cases, even more extreme.

I have said it before, I’m saying it now and I’m going to say it again – this isn’t a movie for the squeamish or the sensitive. It is, however, a movie for those who like extreme movies that are well acted, decently plotted and unafraid to go there, wherever there is.

REASONS TO GO: Insanely over-the-top violence occasionally lightened by a sense of sly humor. Choi makes a wonderful serial killer and Lee is a fine hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Too violent for some. Sometimes things get so insane you’re not exactly sure what’s happening.

FAMILY VALUES: If you bring your kids to this one, someone is going to call child protective services. This is ultra-violent, sadistic, and chock full of scenes of violence, torture, rape and peppered with bad words just to make things interesting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically the movie is so violent the Korean Media Rating Board made Kim recut the movie or face a Restricted rating which would have prevented the film being released in its native land. The version available in the United States has never been seen in Korea and unlikely that she ever will.

HOME OR THEATER: I saw this on a big screen and while I can honestly say that seeing it at home is perfectly acceptable, nonetheless I’m recommending the theater just for the visceral effects.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Red Riding Hood

Treeless Mountain


Treeless Mountain

It may be bucolic but there's an underlying tragedy being enacted here.

(2008) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park, Lee Hyun Seo, Ha Min Woo, Lee Byung Yong. Directed by So Yong Kim

The world can be a harsh place. It is particularly rough on children, especially when their parents are not around. Think of how much harder it is when the parents give them up voluntarily.

Seven-year-old Jin (Hee) and her little sister Bin (Song) are sweet, well-adjusted little girls in South Korea. Unfortunately, their mom (Soo), not so much. Ever since her husband left them, she has had a very hard time adjusting. Raising the two girls by herself proves to be too much so she decides to go and reconcile with her husband. She then must leave her daughters with Big Aunt (Mi), her older sister who makes it very clear that this is a temporary arrangement and that she’s not interested in taking care of the kids herself.

It also becomes equally clear soon enough that she’s an alcoholic, which complicates matters. While their mom promises to return by the time that an empty piggy bank is filled with coins that Big Aunt will give them when they do their chores and are good (giving them incentive to be good – the better they are, the sooner Mommy will be home in their minds), they find themselves often bored with few children their age to play with.

They often wait by the bus stop they saw their mom leave from but she never appears. The piggy bank eventully winds up getting full (thnks to some cleverness from Jin who changes some of the bigger coins into several smaller ones to fill up the bank faster). Eventually they get a letter from their mom saying that things haven’t worked out with their dad and that she will be gone much longer than she first thought.

That’s the breaking point for Big Aunt who decides that the children must now be left with their grandparents on their farm in rural Korea. While the farm is not particularly successful and old granddad not wanting to raise a whole new set of kids after having already raised his own, the grandmother (Boon) takes the girls under her wing and teaches them the importance of family while they patiently await a mother who may never return.

This is a movie whose ambitions I admired very much. So Yong Kim has crafted a very quiet movie with not a whole lot of dialogue and a pace that requires a great deal of patience. Those who have it will be rewarded with a story that has its own beauty as well as its own tragic elements. One leaves the movie wondering what on earth will become of these kids and what sort of chance they have in life.

Much of the film centers on the two sisters and fortunately, both are adorable enough to be interesting. I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as the kids being themselves and allowing Ms. So to film them. There are moments that are truly charming…but to be fair, there are also some that are rather boring as well.

I liked the concept of following the children around and trying to get into their heads as they try to make sense of a missing mom. Unfortunately, the movie takes so much time in getting to its very chrming and bittersweet ending that I found my attention wandering. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon but this felt more like babysitting than film viewing. I guess I’m turning into the grandfather here which is a scary thought in and of itself.

There is plenty to recommend the movie but one must be a little bit on the Zen side to truly enjoy it. It is rewarding, yes but I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit through it again. It’s very much like a still life painting. There’s a lot going on if you have the patience and perception to look; it’s just that not all of us do.

WHY RENT THIS: A very realistic look at a family fractured by alcohol and neglect. The two young girls are adorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Long periods of time go on with little story advancement. The director relies overly much on the cuteness value of the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: No violence or sexuality and almost no profanity. The themes are a bit on the mature side though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the cast were amateur actors who had never been in a film before.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the two little girls two years after the completion of filming; there is also a Q&A with the filmmaker after a screening at the New York Film Forum.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $124,023 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: White Noise 2: The Light

Tokyo!


Tokyo!

Something emerges from the sewers of Tokyo.

(2008) Drama-Comedy (Liberation) Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Ayumi Ito, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Renji Ishibashi, Julie Dreyfus, Yu Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Naoto Takenaka. Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong

From time to time, a producer will corral highly-regarded directors to make short films about a specific subject. Like any anthology, there will be both high points and low, but the question becomes will there be enough high points to make it worth enduring the low.

The subject of this anthology is…well, Tokyo. The sole link between the three tales here is that they are set in this, the most cosmopolitan of cities. Do we get some kind of insight into the glittering enigma that is Tokyo? Yes indeed, we do which is where the segments seem to hit their stride. There are also portions of each movie that could easily be set anywhere and that’s where the movie is at its weakest.

The first segment is “Interior Design” and is directed by French auteur Gondry (who lately resides in New York), and it is in a kind of a Kafka-esque vein. A would-be director Hiroko (Fujitani) and his mousy girlfriend Akira (Kase) move into the cramped apartment of Akira’s friend Akemi (Ito). The claustrophobic conditions only serve to exacerbate certain truths about their relationship; Hiroko is an overbearing untalented self-centered douchebag.

They look for affordable housing in the city, but like most mega-cities around the world, property values are sky high and affordable housing is at a premium. In overcrowded Tokyo, space is a luxury and some of the “properties” they visit are little more than closets with portholes. The stress and alienation begin to take their toll on Akira who undergoes a remarkable transformation to escape her reality, one that surprisingly brings her the serenity she craves.

The second segment is from avant garde French director Carax, who hasn’t made a film in ten years. In it, a strange, twisted creature (Lavant) emerges from the sewers of Tokyo to wreak havoc. Looking like a deranged leprechaun on a bender, he steals money, flowers and sandwiches from the hands of shocked onlookers and stuffs them all into his mouth with equal enthusiasm (Carax playfully sets much of this scene to the iconic musical score of Godzilla). He is loathsome, disgusting and vile and Tokyo recoils but the news media have a field day.

However, the story goes from curiosity to catastrophe as the creature finds a box of old grenades in his subterranean world and decides to lob them indiscriminately. Dozens are killed, maimed or wounded and the authorities tend to take a dim view of that. The creature is arrested and a dignified Japanese magistrate (Ishibashi) intends to prosecute, but the creature speaks a language that none can understand. How can a proper trial be held if someone speaks a completely unknown language. Fortunately, an ambitious French lawyer (Balmer) claims he can speak the language of the creature and a trial goes on in which everything is translated from gibberish to French to Japanese, which brings the segment to a crashing halt. However, there is a bit of a twist ending that will either leave you giggling or scratching your head.

The final segment is from Korean director Bong (who previously helmed The Host) and is in my opinion the best of the three. In “Shaking Tokyo” a man (Kagawa) lives as a hikikomori, which is the rough equivalent of a shut-in or a hermit, someone who chooses to remain in their apartment/home. With an inheritance from his parents enough to keep his bills paid, he orders pizza and stacks the boxes neatly against a wall. Agoraphobic to a nearly paralyzing degree, his house is meticulously well-ordered to the point it is debatable whether an actual human being lives there.

When a comely pizza delivery girl (Aoi) is there during an earthquake and faints, the man is unsure what to do. He eventually revives her by tapping a tattooed “button” on her arm. Her experience with him causes her to quit her job and live the same way. When another earthquake hits, a more serious one, the man, concerned about her welfare, takes to the streets of Tokyo for the first time in ten years. What he finds there is not what he left behind precisely.

All three segments have something going for them from the twisted metamorphosis in “Interior Design” to the senseless rampage in “Merde” (yes the segment title is a naughty French word) to the sweet underlying emotion in “Shaking Tokyo.” They all have an outsider’s insight into the megalopolis that is Tokyo, from the alienation that big city dwellers often feel in Gondry’s tale, to the sins of a people erupting from beneath the surface when they’ve been repressed to long in “Merde” to the isolationism that drives people to self-exile in “Shaking Tokyo.”

All three of the directors are world class, and they exhibit why they are so highly regarded here. I was particularly impressed with Bong’s piece, which seems to have much more of the soul of Tokyo than either of the first two segments. Gondry is an impressive visual director with a wild imagination; his realistic magic is on display here but as he sometimes is prone to doing, he gets a little too out-there for my own personal taste.

Carax’s segment is a little harder to peg. While the initial scene of the man-creature emerging from the sewers is fun and compelling, when he turns the piece into a courtroom drama it all falls apart. Having two sets of interpreters for the same dialogue may be all right for short periods, but it’s nearly 20 minutes of it; sorry gang, a bit too much.

I’m not sure that this will reveal enough about the soul of Tokyo to really make it worth your while, but there are some insights as I said. I’m just not sure that they aren’t general to any city rather than specific to Tokyo, and if not, why not set this anywhere?

WHY RENT THIS: There are some really compelling moments in each of the three episodes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As with any anthology, you take the not so good with the good.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief male nudity as well as some subtitled foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Gondry sequence is based on a graphic novel, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” by Gabrielle Bell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Each of the segments gets their own making-of featurette, in some cases longer than the actual segment itself.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the film in all likelihood was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Faster