Seen in Jeonju

Archive for the '1980s' Category

Daughter of Fire <1983>

28th October 2012

Daughter of Fire <1983>– Director: Im Kwon-taek. Starring Park Geun-hyeong <as Hae-joon>, Bang Hee <Yong-nyeo>, and Kim Hee-ra <as Hwa-ryong>.  Running Time: 108 minutes. Release Date: November 5, 1983>

daughter of fireHae-joon’s life seems to be crumbling around him. The pressures he feels from day-to-day life are compounded because his daughter is seriously ill and in some sort of unresponsive trance. His wife and mother-in-law are extremely religious and are attempting to heal the girl via prayer and they resent that Hae-joon is not joining in on their efforts. And then there are the nightmares. Hae-joon is unable to sleep as he is haunted by images of his mother and the sounds he associates most with her– the sound of the drums and chanting that goes along with traditional exorcisms. It seems Hae-joon’s mother was a shaman and was happiest when performing the rites used to appease spirits. Talking about this situation with a psychologist, Hae-joon is barely able to discuss his mother without his stomach churning and nearly vomiting. This leads to the him to understand that he has to return to his roots in South Jeolla Province to find the source of these feelings. He begins his search with Hwa-ryong, the one-eyed woodcutter who, despite his abuses to the young Hae-joon and Yong-nyeo, was the closest thing the young man had to a father. The old man begins his story from the point he knew it and tells of how he became infuriated when Yong-nyeo was performing a ceremony to put at rest those souls lost at sea. Despite being raped by him, Yong-nyeo appears to forgive Hwa-ryong and stays with him however, she had apparently lost part of her sanity and kept a violent rage bottled up inside. Eventually she had killed herself by walking into a fire. Hwa-ryong, and several other men that Hae-joon interviews, including one that is most likely his father, justify there horrendous treatment of Yong-nyeo as the only method they could think of to save her from herself. She needed saving because in the ’60s, shamanism had been made illegal by the government. To practice it was to risk arrest.

Watching a shamanistic ceremony heralding the annual parting of the sea at Jindo, Hae-joon has an insight regarding his nightmares when he views a group of Christians competing for attention and praising God for the miracle of the tides. Hae-joon realizes that he has always been happiest when watching the ancient Muist practices and feeling the freedom of their dance. He realizes he has been lost since abandoning his own belief system in favor of what was foisted upon him. Returning home, he snatches his daughter away from a particularly intense ‘healing’ prayer service that involved the laying of hands -much to his wife’s embarrassment and dismay. When he confesses to his prim wife that his mother had been a practicing shaman, his candor is met with a slap across the face. Leaving his home, Hae-joon finds his way to a local shrine where a woman calling him ‘my son’ welcomes him with open arms back into the fold.

Shamanism, or Muism, is the earliest form of religion in Korea. It continued when Buddhism and Confusionsim were introduced into the country.  Christian missionaries succeeded in surpressing it, but were never able to do away with it completely and many  Christian families continue to perform rites to their ancestors upon the anniversary of their deaths or by their tombs at major holidays. In the late 1890’s, the mayor of Seoul, a confirmed Progressive, made shamanism illegal and began having the police round up the practioners, arrest them and destroy their shrines and the images of the gods and spirits. The shamans fought back by hanging pictures of old kings with their gods and, as it was illegal to desecrate the image of a king, policemen also found themselves facing arrest for following orders. The Muists were not so successful in fighting back when Christianity gained a much stronger foothold in the ’60s and certain ceremonies were made illegal. The government wanted to hide many traditional ’superstitions’ from the eyes of foreigners and there were many movies made at this time where the village shaman is depicted as an vestige of the past preventing development and growth such as Kim Ki-young’s excellent film Goryeojang in 1963.  By the ’70s however, shamanistic practices made a comeback and today there are several hundred recognized shrines in Seoul.  Here in the country there are even more..I live within a stone’s throw of two or three mudang’s homes–recognizable by red flags held high on bamboo posts.  There is a television show on cable TV called The Exorcist where a mudang visits people to rid them of evil spirits in their home.. <I do not watch that show after a couple of viewings.. just like shows I’ve seen in the USA like Ghost Labs or Ghost Hunters, they are clearly faked>

However, Hae-joon is not the son of a mudang — a shaman who is possessed by a god to perform healings, exorcisms or make predictions. Instead, his mother was a Seseummu, and given the region and the music with the ceremonies, probably a dangol.  s5When characteristic of a seseummu is that it is an inherited position. Seseummu were not generally possessed by gods and ghosts in the ceremonies. Instead they summoned the gods through song and dance and their assistant would become possessed so the spirit could communicate with the masses.  We see this difference in the first ceremony we witness in the movie– the first woman is a mudang trying to make the spirit possess her. Yong-nyeo then steps in to assist by performing her dance for the spirit. However, this is not just trivia. It explains Hae-joon’s disturbing visions which is a symptom of the illness that often precedes becoming a full-fledged shaman. Normally, shamans are women but men can also become shamans.  It also explains clearly Hae-joon’s daughter illness.  She is undergoing ‘Shinbyeong’ in which her body is prepared by the gods or spirits.  It is a condition that can last a decade or more. From the premise and stance of the movie, we can guess that all the laying of hands and faith healers Hae-joon’s wife can summon will have absolutely no effect on the afflicted child until she can embrace her destiny.

The movie is quite clear in its position of calling for a return, or at least acceptance, of the traditional practices. This is obvious by the detail and care in filming the beauty of the traditional ceremonies and costumes. And the bright colors and joy of those costumes and songs are contrasted sharply the somber clothes, faces and hymns of the Christians. Hae-joon’s wife and inlaws are joyless, narrow-minded and unforgiving. The Christian protestors are drab and dull in comparison to the events around them. And the laying of hands during the faith healing is strongly equated with fakery and showmanship and Hae-joon’s comes to believe it is a false religion, unsuitable for the mental health of Korea. It is no accident that he at first consults a psychologist when he is undergoing his visions.  It was predicted by Christians and intellectual writers in the early ’80s that psychology would come to explain much of the phenomenon formerly attributed to ghosts and spirits.

The movie itself takes work to get through. There is a lot of talking and very little action. Even the discussed self-immolation of Yong-nyeo is not depicted. But it does present an interesting arguement that would have been new at the time this film was made and flew in the face of decades of teaching and conditioning.  Unfortunately, this movie is not available on DVD. I was able to see it on Hana TV. With the interest in Im Kwon-taek, however, it does have a better possibility than many older films of being released on DVD.

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College Festival <1980>

23rd September 2012

80-027~4College Festival aka Run, Balloon– directed by Kim Eung-cheon. starring Jeon Yeong-rok <as Park Doo-cheol>, Kim Bo-yeon <as Ahn Dal-sook>, Yeo Woon-gye <’Queen Mother’>. Runnning Time:  103 minutes.  Release Date November 8, 1980

There is much fanfare at the train station the day that Doo-cheol is seen off by his rural community.  The hard-working young man succeeded in entering the Department of Law at one of Korea’s top universities and most of his village appears to have turned up to see him off.  As the train approaches, his proud mother gives him one last piece of advice, “Be careful of the women in Seoul and concentrate on your studies.”  This is a piece of advice that the nervous Doo-cheol remembers as he finds the person is the seat next to him is a young lady, also on her way to college. Fortunately, she turns out not to be from Seoul, but from the same southern province as Doo-cheol. Her name is Dal-sook  and the pair hit if off instantly but have to separate when they get to Seoul. Doo-cheol turns down numerous rooms because he wants a place where he can concentrate on his studies.  He finds one such place run by the landlady the students know affectionately as the Queen Mother and the other students living there are in the same major as Doo-cheol.  After passing the drinking test his classmates put him through, Doo-cheol is able to dive into his studies. He makes a positive impression on his professors and proves popular at school. When his university’s spring festival starts, Doo-cheol gets in touch with Dal-sook again and invites her as his date to the festival. The pair seem well matched and even perform a comedic scene from Cyrano de Bergerac together with Dal-sook taking the role of Roxanne.  Seeing that she is living in the dorm at a nearby women’s university, Dal-soon has to leave early. The night atmosphere is different from the day and the exciting music leads Doo-cheol to ask someone to dance with him. However, that fact gets back to Dal-sook and this causes the first of bump in their relationship.  It is far from the last.  Between her parents introducing her to eligible young men, money problems, lack of time that they can meet and just plain, old bad luck, it seems unlikely that the young lovers will wind up together. Will this pure love survive all the temptations and problems of life in Seoul?

Jeon Yeong-rok, the man who would eventually become famous as Dolai, plays the role of earnest Doo-cheol.  Still years away from his action-hero, Jeon was already a popular singer and had released three albums by the time this film was released.  Although he is not seen to sing in this film, one of the frequent songs on the OST may be him.  I am not familar enough with Korean songs of this era to say. Judging by the way they are framed onscreen, I am certain that two of the performances we see at university festival were being performed by singers who were well-known at the time. I have liked Jeon in most movies I have seen him in as he brings a strong, instantly likeable, presence to his films..even if not all the movies he was in are particularly good.

College Festival is not one of the better ones.  That is not to say it was bad, but the problem was it was rambling. The film moves along adding lots and lots of padding to fill out its running time but, all-in-all, nothing much really happens.  The story loses its focus about half-way through and the story shifts from away from the budding romance, which is fairly interesting, to a subplot about a classmate who cannot pay his tuition and treating the landlady to a trip to Jeju Island. The subplotsand their characters–particularly anything involving the classmates– are not at all interesting.  My mind wandered away for this part of the film but was brought back when Doo-cheol and Dal-sook’s story continued. The story would have been better served providing less time on subplots and instead could have given an ending.

We do not see how the film ends. Instead we are given a voice-over as the action freezes. The voice of an uncredited narrator, possibly Director Kim, breaks the fourth wall and asks rhetorically whether it is possible for these two lovers to ever meet eye-to-eye.  We are not given a chance to ponder this question as we are provided with a brief answer. And then the movie ends without ever showing us any more of the story unfold onscreen. 

The voice-over spoils  more than jut denying the viewer the ending. It interrupts the song Run, Balloon from which the film takes its Korean title. The words ‘Run Balloon’ have no meaning in side the story, so the meaning must be found within the lyric of the song. Presumably, viewers at the time would have known the song and the title of the film would be obvious to them. I am not so fortunate.  The KMDb lists the English title of this film as Run, Balloon– the direct translation of the Korean title. Daum Movies lists it as College Festival.  I preferred the latter title although I can find no historical evidence for it. The original posters and ads for this film show an English title and while it seems to have been released on VHS in ‘84, I can find no image of the cover to see if an English title was assigned at that time.

Whatever it is called, the movie is interesting not because of the story, but because of how it is able to show multiple live performances of a variety of music styles from various artists of that decade and starred one of the most popular singers of the time.

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Declaration of Fools (1983)

8th June 2012

declaration of foolsWow..  That was completely unexpected. Declaration of Fools, also known as Children of Darkness 2, took my by surprise with its creativity.  I remember Children of Darkness (1981) being very good, but it was nothing like its ’sequel.’  The DVD box lists a long line of film festivals and awards this movie won, and it deserves every one of them. Of course there are faults, it was the 80s after all and not the easiest time to be making films, but Lee Jang-ho crafts a deeply nuanced and entertaining film nonetheless.

Before I begin the review, I would like to point out that the DVD does not contain English subtitles. However, for about 80 percent of the film, that does not matter as the movie is silent sans music and sound effects. There is some narration in the form of a child. The boy reads his lines in a stilted monotone and uses the grammar style that elementary school students write their picture-diaries in (if you have seen many Korean movies or dramas you have probably seen these).  When the characters finally speak for the first time… more than thirty minutes in… it is jolting and actually ruins part of the mood that had been set up. I was happy when, later in the film, the director returns to the concept he began.  The child’s voice introducing the film is utilized along with children’s drawings as the opening credits role. After that, our ears are assaulted with the sounds of the 80s which include video game music, beeps and blips, Western music (most notably the song Gloria by Laura Branigan).. drowning out the sound of a traditional pansori song. Through sound, the theme of the film is introduced although we do not get directly reminded of this until the movie’s final sequences.

The movie starts with a suicide of a stranger and with that we get a better idea of our main character as he lifts the dying man’s watch in front of  a crownd of bystanders and makes off the unfortunate man’s shoes and carefully folded clothes. This is done in a mildly comical way that somehow makes his callous and criminal act seem amiable. However, his progress acts strain the good will and comedic efforts to make us like him as he next begins stalking an attractive young woman and eventually coming up with a plan to kidnap her.  Fortunately, nothing goes exactly as planned and eventually he, the young woman and a taxi driver who lost his cab are headed out into the world to enjoy their new-found freedom and make a life for themselves.

It was early on in the film, I think with the first dream sequence in the cab, that I started realizing how much like a Charlie Chaplin film this was. It was not just because Declaration of Fools is nearly a silent film. It was more to do with the similarity of the main character (Dong-cheol played by Kim Myeong-gon) to Chaplin’s Little Tramp in his expressions and exaggerated walking style. What differentiated Dong-cheol from his predecessor was a complete lack of innocence. I could not imagine Chaplin’s beloved character plotting a kidnap/rape scenario…

This is a movie that is definitely worth seeing. I was impressed with the story, the creative cinematography and music, the acting and the message. I was also deeply impressed with the risks that the director took with this film..not the least of which was adding the Blue House in the background as two of the characters completely reject society. I only wish that the people who released the DVD had added subtitles so it could more easily be understood by a wider audience. With the lack of dialogue, it would have taken about 20 minutes to translate and write the captions.  But don’t be too discouraged by the lack of subtitles. The movie relies heavily on sound and visuals over dialogue don’t need the subs to enjoy this one. THe DVD was just recently released, so if you find it, but it! You won’t regret owning this masterpiece in you collection.

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Countdown to Halloween d-7: Pterachilraus

25th October 2011

Although today’s entry in the Obscure Monster Countdown to Halloween is from 1984, I have to go back to 1966 to begin.  You see, if you were living in Japan in July 1966, you would have been treated to the very first appearance of Urutora or, as he is known to Western audiences, Ultraman.  Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the original Ultraman television series ran for 39 episodes. Throughout the following years, Ultraman has returned in various incarnations.  Apparently, these giant warriors fuse their life force with a human who can then turn into the titantic defender when Earth is threatened. Growing up in the USA, we did get the original Ultraman series that was aired on Saturday morning when I was a very young child (when it was known as ‘Cartoon Day’, not Saturday)  However, it came on too early in the morning for me to see.. I would always catch the tail end of the show when he would shoot it with a laser from his arm and the monster he was battling that week would blow up.  I always wanted to see more.  When I was a little older, there was an American cartoon featuring Ultraman–several ultramen I believe– but when I moved to Korea, I saw my first complete series of Ultraman featuring Tiga. I think the most comparable show to Ultraman is the British series Dr. Who.  By this I mean that the main character and cast changes over the years, yet the fans instantly recognize and accept these changes as part of the mythos.

pterachilraus 1Why am I talking about Ultraman? Well, the producers of Ultraman had to come up with monsters each week for the hero to battle. Some were quite good. Others were ..umm.. not so good. And while costumes could be recycled over the years you are still going to have a lot of unused monster suits after a 50-year history. What to do with them?  If you were director Kim Jeong-yong, you would have had the idea to get your hands on some of them and make a monster movie. Then again, it might not have been his idea. The production company Woojin Films might have bought the leftover suits and designated Kim to make the film. And what a film he made! Not just a single giant monster, his movie had six different creatures tearing up cities and villages in Korea.  He used the suits that appeared in the Ultraman series as Fester, Sea Gorass, Sea Monster, Bemster, Pterotils and Baragon. Baragon deserves special mention. He was from Toho Studios, the company that produced Godzilla. He was frequently loaned to Tsuburaya Productions to battle Ultraman. He originally appeared in Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and is blamed for attacking Paris in Destroy All Monsters (1968) although he does not appear in that movie as his suit was on loan.  I have to assume that Tsuburaya Productions eventually bought Baragon, but he ultimately wound up in Korea and appeared in the 1984 film Flying Dragon Attacks.. (the title I am using is what appears on the VHS box shortly after its theatrical release. The KMDB lists this film as Flying Monster)

Baragon can hardly be considered obscure enough for me. Instead, I want to give the spot in the Halloween Countdown to the title creature, the Flying Monster herself, Pterachilraus! Her fearsome visage with her angry red plumage is pictured above.  Her height seems to vary throughout the movie depending what background she is in. I would estimate her to usually be around Godzilla-sized, 2-300 feet tall. However, when shooting interacting with her co-stars (the lower of the two images pictured above) she is more like 60 feet tall. One professor Kim gets  it into his head that Pterachilraus is a threat to humanity and that the only way to eliminate the threat is by attacking her nest and destroying her eggs. However, I am not sure what he hoped to accomplish by that… drive Pterachilraus to commit suicide as Rodan (a Toho monster whom Pterachilraus somewhat resembled) had done?  It didn’t work. Instead the gigantic flying beast goes on a revenge fueled rampage and destroys the cities closest to her home. She is apparently joined by many of her monster friends.. There is a three-minute video collage of the film here ( See if you can make any sense out of what is happening…  No?  Well, don’t feel bad. You are not alone.

The lovely woman staining the soles of Pterachilraus’ foot in the picture above is reporter Kang Ok-hee who went undercover as a maid in Prof. Kim’s house to get the scoop on the ‘rejuvenation formula’ he has been working on. While I do not know for sure, I am willing to bet that it is more than just a anti-aging skin cream he is working on and that it will somehow regrow her legs. I hope so anyway, for her sake.

I have to admit that as a child I loved ‘giant monster movies’ but as an adult I find them extremely difficult to go back and watch. I would not be able to do it at all except for the invention of the ‘mute’ button.. those monster roars are noisy…and much too frequent!  However, I would happily buy this movie if it were ever released on DVD just for the shear insanity of the film. Pterachilraus is the definition of ‘obscure monster’ and earns a place on the Obscure Monster Halloween Countdown.

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Countdown to Halloween d-8: Possessed Doll

24th October 2011

Many people know of the ghosts, monsters and creatures that have skittered through Korean horror films over the past decade. The ghosts of Phone or A Tale of Two Sisters have left indelible images on the minds of viewers around the world.  Others maybe won’t prove as memorable, like the haunted tree in Acacia, the giant pig from Chaw or the the werewolves of Ssunday Seoul but they are still fairly recent and won’t be dealt with here.

In these posts counting down to Halloween, I will be dealing with the obscure–my favorite topic. Monsters, ghosts, goblins and the like from before the year 2000; creatures from movies never released on DVD that are in danger of being forgotten in Korea and not known at all outside of the country.

possessed dollFirst on the list one of my favorites, the Possessed Doll from the movie Suddenly at Midnight (1981) directed by Ko Yeong-nam– an excellent film that deserves a DVD release.  The doll itself is odd, but at first not particularly scary. In fact, I would not have minded keeping it on my mantle if I were to find one– it certainly would be a conversation piece. It stands about a foot tall, is made of wood and depicts a shaman priestess in the midst of a ceremony with her cleaver held aloft. The lucky owner of the doll is Mi-ok, a simple girl raised by her mother deep in the mountains of Korea. Mi-ok might have remained there all her life and followed in her mother’s footsteps as a shaman, talking to spirits, divining futures and performing exorcisms had it not been for a chance meeting with the dignified professor of butterflies, Dr. Kang Yoo-jin and a fire that claims her mother’s life. Benevolent Dr. Kang takes the suddenly orphaned young woman home to his wife to work as a servant in the house. His wife, Seon-hee, feels a little jealous about Mi-ok’s beauty and is naturally very curious about the doll as well, but Mi-ok is very protective of it and won’t let anyone touch it.

When alone with the doll, Mi-ok talks to it and when the doll is alone it wanders around outside..or at least that is what Seon-hee believes as she catches it glaring in at her from outside the window. Later on, it just seems to keep turning up in the most unexpected places–especially after Mi-ok has a little… accident..really.. Seon-hee is completely innocent.  When we next see the doll, it is life-sized– which not even I would want in my living room.  Seon-hee hates it so much now that she winds up in a life or death struggle with the oversized doll… but it would be telling if I said who won. 

Suddenly at Midnight is a great movie that leaves a lot open to interpretation. Is the doll really possessed by the spirit of Mi-ok’s mother as Mi-ok and Seon-hee believe? Does it really move around?  Or is it the imagination of a jealous, insecure woman who is descending into madness?  Whether it is real or not, Possessed Doll earns a place on the Obscure Monster Halloween Countdown.

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One Million B.C., Ttoli (1981)

12th September 2011

ttoli 1 millionTtoli was a character that most Korean children growing up in the late 70s and early 80s would have been familiar with. In  the three 1970s’ films Ddoli was a child who grew up in the wild with his animal friends in the forests of North Korea where he battled against communist plots in no less than three films. However, by the 80s, he was turning up in different time eras such as the Joseon Period in Korean history, the future and one million years in the past in this movie.  Young Ttoli did not begin the film in the past.  He was clearly living in the modern age as his parents are piloting an airplane on the way to visit his grandparents.  They experience a Bermuda Triangle-like situation and are sucked through a vortex to the far past where humans, dinosaurs and pre-human, loincloth-wearing ape-men..oh and advanced aliens, all exist simultaneously. Ttoli’s father survives the crash but is so far from the wreckage of the plane, that he has no idea where his wife and son are. Ttoli’s mother is indeed never seen again, but the infant Ttoli is taken in by a tribe of cavemen. 

The child’s presence causes the already existing friction between the tribe’s chief whose wife want to raise Ttoli and the second strongest hunter who wants to lead the tribe to become worse. When Ttoli kills a baby tyrannosaurus that wandered into his cave, the cavemen all rightly fear reprisal from the adult.  It comes swiftly during the night as the gigantic white dinosaur nicknamed Tyranno attacks the village and kills nearly all the cavepeople including Ttoli’s adopted mother. His father was not present at the time having taken a hunting party out, but when he returns, he takes the surviving cavemen on a mission of revenge from which he does not return.

Orphaned for a second time, Ttoli is taken in by the dimmest of the cavemen who moves away from the village. For several years he raises the child who becomes an adept hunter and inexplicably has bonded with a pterodactyl. He also has made friends with a young cave girl from the village, but when her father recognizes Ttoli, she is ordered to stay away. On that same day, Ttoli is re-introduced to both of his father’s although he does not recognize them at first. His foster father has been wandering around like Captain Ahab hunting the white dinosaur who maimed him. Meanwhile, his real father had been found by a dying race of aliens who bequeathed to him their time-travelling flying saucer which he has been working on while holed up in a cave.

There is a lot more with the ape-men capturing Ttoli’s father and wanting to sacrifice him Fay Wray style to the white dinosaur and an active volcano. However, it has to be kept in mind that this is decidedly a children’s movie. I found it very noisy and the there were plot holes you could drive a flying saucer through.  Just who were those aliens?  They had less than 10 seconds of screen time! Literally, if you blink, you will miss them.  Where did Ptera, Ttoli’s pterodactyl friend, come from and why are they friends at all considering that every other pterodactyl wants to kill the humans? I will not, however, question why the cavemen and the modern humans all spoke the same language… I was grateful not having to sit through another Quest For Fire

I own four or five Ttoli movies on DVD and this is the first one I have watched.  For a Kim Cheong-gi film, the creater of Robot Taekwon V and Ulimae, it was rather poorly animated, but at only 85 minutes, it was tolarable and since Ttoli is a classic character and a major character in Korean animation history, I do not regret watching it and learning more about him. .

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Fight at Hong Kong Ranch (1980)

27th November 2010

golden dragon silver snakeA few weeks ago, I ordered a few films by director Kim Shi-hyeon that I had found on a DVD site based in Hong Kong. These films are not available on DVD in Korea and I thought it would be a good chance to learn about a stage of Korean film history that I know woefully little about– The Hong Kong co-productions and especially the action ‘kung-fu’ films. In the mid-late seventies, Hong Kong cinema was king and enjoying popularity around the world. Korea was also taken with the action films coming out of its southern neighbor. Movies like Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master were very influential and are still remembered fondly–In fact, Drunken Master 2 was on television earlier today (no, I didn’t watch it).  Running into trouble with the government, master director Shin Sang-ok relocated his company, Shin Productions, to Hong Kong and many other directors and actors saw the chance to work in Hong Kong.  Dozens of films were made of varying quality and stars were born like the Bruce Lee look-alike Geo Ryong aka Dragon Bruce Lee aka Moon Geo-ryong. Geo Ryong gained quite a bit of fame and his career is easy to track.  But the fact that these films and the actors in them are listed under so many different names, researching them is quite a chore.

The DVDs I bought are dubbed in English, no sign of the orginial language and, worse, no sign of the original credits. One of the movies I bought called itself Angry Dragon–also starring Geo Ryong and directed by Kim Shi-hyeon. However, a search through the Korean Film Database revealed no such title. Fortunately, there are ways of tracking it down — reviewing stills and posters is invaluable. I learned along the way that Angry Dragon was also called in Hong Kong The Angry Man vs the Five Brothers, Five Brothers and, is listed under the English title Five Disciples in the Korean Film Database.  Oddly, the original poster for this movie does list an English title among the Korean and Chinese characters. It was to be called The Five Brothers. I do not know why the title was not used consistently.

A bigger problem comes when trying to understand the credits to these movies. And, for the most part, it is a hopeless task. Random English names are assigned in the credits.  I did learn a few things.  Popular 80s actor Lee Dae-geun went at some point under the name Master Lee!  Veteran actors Nam Goong-hoon and Shin Il-ryong in some Honk Kong films were listed as James Nam and Shin I-lung respectively.  These were easy to figure out because I have seen enough of the actors to recognize them.  But most I have no clue.  In Fight at Hong Kong Ranch  (KMDB name… the DVD I ordered from Hong Kong calls it Golden Dragon, Silver Snake) the credits include Dragon Lee, Johnnie Chan (!) and Edward Lee.  Who?  I have no idea.  Maybe given time I could eventually sort everything out, but I doubt it.  Johnnie Chan obviously was playing the Jackie Chan clone, but what was his real name. I don’t even know if he was Korean or from Hong Kong. Edward Lee? I have no idea. The actor names are not paired with a character so I do not know who played whom. The KMDB is no help in this matter. It lists five names associated with this movie and three of them have the family name Lee. Tracking down images of the actors would tell me who they played, but it would not help with the English names that comprise the credits.

So how was Fight at Hong Kong Ranch? Well, I have to admit I enjoyed it. Oh–the translation of the original dialogue and the dubbing are absolutely horrible- the English voices in no way match the characters and I had the impression that there was probably a limite number of voice actors available…some people sound remarkably similar. Also, the two main actors are not even attempting to disguise the fact that they are imitations of two much better known martial artists. The Jackie Chan mimic is dressed to look like the main character in Drunken Master and even given his own crazy old man to teach him Kung Fu. Dragon Lee/Geo Ryong bears more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee and demonstrates some excellent martial arts skills but the yellow track suit might have been a little too much. The whole film could come across as just a cheesy, unintentional parody of the genre. However, for some reason it works and there are times that both of the main actors look exactly like the people they are imitating and you forget you are not watching the real thing.

The plot was simple…very, very simple. Thugs, running a protection racket, attempt to force a nearby ranch owner to sell and murder a charasmatic young man who attempts to organize the local merchants to resist the gangsters. The dead man’s brother comes to town out for revenge and winds up getting a job at the ranch. Meanwhile, the milkman who also works on the ranch, meets a rickshaw driver who promises to teach him how to fight in order to protect himself and the ranch owners from the criminals. The movie has lots of action–some of it quite bizarre. Eggs, baseballs, cordless drills and cats are used as weapons. There are evil motor cycle gangs, pool-side parties and a damsal in distress. Was there deep meaning? No. But was there fun? Yes.

After watching this film, I understand a little more why the genre was popular and I look forward to seeing the other two I bought… but not just yet. I have the feeling that my opinion might change if I watch too many kung-fu films at one time. They are fun, though…

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Woman of Fire ‘82 (1982)

17th February 2010

woman of fire 82Originally posted November 21, 2007–I have enjoyed having Hana Tv installed in my house. Not only can I see some of the newest movies that I was unable to watch in theaters just a month (sometimes less for low-budget films) after their theatrical releases, but I can also see short films and sometimes older movies.  One that I saw last nigh was Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire.

This 1982 movie is a remake of a film with the same title that Kim Ki-young made in 1972. The ‘72 version is available on video somewhere–it is just a matter of finding it.  And both movies are based on Kim’s 1960 classic film, The Housemaid.

I loved the film The Housemaid. It has earned it reputation as one of the best Korean films of all times. I even like the ending which is sometimes criticized as dismantling the story.  In the 1982 movie The Woman of Fire, there is no such ending that offers an alternative explanation to the story we are watching unfold.  However, this change and others that were made to the original plot do NOT make the story better.

Unlike The Housemaid, Woman of Fire is not a thriller at heart. It is a melodrama. The elements of being a thriller are so diluted that we never feel any threat or sense of entrapment that is prevalent in the original. In fact, it seems like at any time, any one of the characters could have ended the chain of events before they got out of hand.

The movie begins with Myeong-ja (Na Yeong-hee) being hired as a maid by Jeong-soon (Kim Ji-mi), the wife of composer Dong-shik (Jeon Moo-song). Jeong-soon runs a poultry farm and, besides her duties of cooking and cleaning, Myeong-ja must help collect eggs, make feed and take care of the chickens. Myeong-ja, portrayed as slightly simple with an odd, wild streak, is only too happy to comply and, in fact, secured the job partly just because she needs a place to stay and to be treated kindly. She claims not to be interested in the salary.

Please remember that ‘you get what you pay for’ applies when hiring household help.  But even at her rates, I don’t think Myeong-ja would have lasted more than an hour if she were in my employment. I would have fired her the moment she grabbed a live rat out of the cupboard and started swinging it around in front of my face by its tail before slamming it down on the ground and stomping on it.  Myeong-ja uses rat poison to get the rest of the rats and chases the children around the house with a shovelful of dead rodents the next morning. I’m sure that looked good on her resume..

Dong-shik has many students practicing songs and music at his home and one of them, Hye-ok, is clearly trying to seduce him. She does this right under Jeong-soon nose leading to both she and Myeong-ja disliking the singer. In fact, their dislike for her is one of the things that binds them together even later in the film when the two women are at each other’s throats. When Jeong-soon is away for a few days, Hye-ok makes her move on the drunk Dong-shik. Myeong-ja, however, interferes and tosses Hye-ok out of the master bedroom locking the door from the inside.  In his drunken state, Dong-shik mistakes his maid for Hye-ok and rapes her. Simple Myeong-ja now decides that this means they are married and she sets herself up as the mistress of the house.

The character of Dong-shik is one of the most frustrating things about this movie. He seems to be totally powerless to think straight whenever any woman bares the skin of her shoulders or tussles his hair. His character in this film just exists to be seduced by one of any number of women in the film and he makes no move to stop the fighting occurring in his house even when it results in the death of one of his children. I, for one, was at a loss over why Jeong-soon was fighting for him at all–his character is so emasculated and ineffective that I think his wife would have been better off without him.

The children are another problem in this movie. In The Housemaid, the kids were central to the plot and the boy’s death offered some of the most shocking moments in the film. In Woman of Fire ‘the boy’ dies the same way as in the original movie except that it may have been  accidental due to Myeong-ja’s bizarre sense of humor. ‘The girl’ (were these kids even given names?) turns to prayer and thus survives the film. The infant (which I have read was thown from a balcony in the 1972 movie) has a similar scene in the ‘82 story but it turns out simply to be Jeong-soon’s imagination preying on her.

Let me back up for a moment. Myeong-ja’s killing of the boy was an accident? Yes. This Myeong-ja is not at all like the original housemaid just as her mistress in not the placid wife in the 1960 film. Myeong-ja even states that she has no intention of hurting anyone. In fact, it is Jeong-soon who first attempts something lethal by adding rat poison to lunch. It is Jeong-soon again who convinces Myeong-ja to get rid of the maid’s ex-husband permenantly and it is Jeong-soon who seems to be taking care of bodies with the grinder she keeps in the basement to make chicken feed.  Myeong-ja actions are based on instict, Jeong-soon is the calculating planner.

As a melodrama of the early 80s––the film is filled with long scenes of people crying and this also helps to derail any tension that manages to mount. If the crying time was halved–this film might have been twenty minutes shorter…

It was not all bad though–It is watchable if you are not comparing it to the source material. And the strange love scene shot with the camera on the inside of the fireplace framing the couple painted on gold body paint was quite interesting–although clearly out of place in this film. 

<Update> Woman of Fire ‘82 is now on DVD  but without English subtitles

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Dolai (1985)

10th January 2010

dolaiOriginally posted April 23, 2009–There are certain things I refuse to do. One of these things is to call the movie Dolai by its original English title of Crazy Boy. It cheapens the movie a little in my opinion. Even worse however is the strange English title the Korean Film Archives is choosing to use for this movie, Imbecile.  There is no basis for calling this film by a new English name, when it already has one! The IMDb says this film was also known as ‘The Fool’ which it wasn’t…ever. The Fool is the other random name that the Archives was calling this film until a few months ago.  I think the original Korean name, Dolai, works just fine and that is what I will call the movie throughout this  review.  Dolai is the representative action film of the 1980s, spawning three sequels, one each year following the release of the first and ending with Dolai 4: Dune Buggy in 1988.  The success of the movies can almost entirely be credited to lead actor Jeon Yeong-rok and his portrayal of the title character.  Jeon, still famous and active today as a singer, has the acting chops to carry the scimpy plot of the film and make it worth watching.  The action in the movie draws heavily from the fighting style of Jackie Chan–although the fights are not choreographed quite as well as a Chan film.

Although he is the star and the focal point of the film, Jeon receives sixth billing in the original cast lists. Ahead of him are the members of all-women singing group he manages, Thriller. Most of the members of the group treat him with very little respect, using him to carry and fetch for them as the hurry off to different venues to perform. However, although they are busy, they recognize the fact that they are just a third rate band and often wonder how they can break out of the rut they are in. Some blame the fact that they have no money–that it takes money to make money. Others blame their manager, Hwang Seok-ah whom they have nicknamed Dolai–which means someone who is foolish in Korean. One member, Hyeon-ju, just thinks they should work harder. She may be right. All the women, except for Hyeon-ju, are more interested in catching rich men for themselves than they are in a career in the music industry. This causes no end of trouble for Dolai who acts as their human chastity belt.

Whether they know it or not, Dolai is the groups protector.  And he not only protects Thriller. Dolai is willing to risk his life for anyone who has suffered an injustice. One of the women chides him and accuses him of thinking he is Superman whenever he comes back from a fight. But even though Dolai comes back bloodied and bruised, he always seems to win. Dolai inherited that characteristic from his father, a policeman on the force who was killed in the line of duty. At time he does carry this to the extreme, but he takes great pride in acting as the group’s ‘mother hen’ and Lord help any who would harm them.

It seems that the members of Thriller are constantly stalked by danger and actually do need Dolai’s protection. Thugs at a bus stop, pickpockets, perverts, burgalars and corrupt bar owners are among the minor dangers they face daily. More dangerous are the drug runners, rapists and the men who want to enslave the girls as prostitutes.  When the unthinkable happens and Dolai fails to protect one of his charges, she is drugged and brutally gang-raped. Afterwards, still in shock, the young woman attempts suicide. This seems to spell the end of the band. The members go their separate ways and Dolai takes a job as a mechanic. But there is still a chance that the team may be brought back together and unite to face the forces that have gathered against them.

Dolai is not a bad film. It does suffer from a few technical problems–such as absolutely no consideration for whether it was day or night when the film was edited together (this is especially evident in the events leading to the final confrontation–How long were they riding the motorcycle?)  It also suffers in its ‘action’ sequences, particularly when vehicles are being used. Car chases are way overused in many American films and tv shows–they were not as common in Korean movies particularly in this period, but director Lee Doo-yong tried. However, there is nothing thrilling about car chases and accidents when they seem to happen at 10 miles and hour.  The same can be said for dirt bike battles.  But these are minor points and I could enjoy the film despite these problems.  But there is a bigger one. Leering Camera syndrome.  The camera is angled in such a way as to be looking directly into the actresses crotches or straight at their asses–and it is done in a very uncomfortable style. It forces the audience to do the very action that Dolai punishes characters in the film for doing.  There are several scenes like this–the worst is when a burgalar breaks into the house where the woman are sleeping. Presumably the thief is rummaging throught draws and closets, however the camera ignores him and instead slides up the inner thighs of each sleeping woman and lingers on their panty clad bodies. What comes next with the long kitchen knife makes this scene even worse (even though the slumbering woman is rescued in time)  There is no nudity but I would be surprised if the actresses didn’t feel violated.  I felt violated just watching it…

With the suicide of young television actress Jang Ja-yeon back in March of this year, Dolai once again seems topical. In the movie, the owner of the club where the girls are singing approaches their manager with a proposition. If one the members of Thriller sleeps with him, then the club will help promote the band and make them stars. In her suicide note, Jang explained pretty much the same thing happened to her except her manager pimped her out rather than beating up the man who made such an offensive offer.

Dolai is available on DVD with English subtitles but it is a movie that is definitely not for everyone. If you are used to watching older Korean movies and are aware that the pacing and techinical factors of filmmaking were not at the standards of today, then you may enjoy the story and acting despite significant problems of the film. It is not a film I would recommend as a ‘must see’  movie but it was important at the time it was released and remains a good example of Korean action films of the 1980s.

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The One Love (1981)

9th January 2010

one loveOriginally posted June 3, 2009–Last weekend Bong Jun-ho’s Mother made waves at the box office. That film depicted just how strong a mother’s love can be and showed us that some mothers are capable of doing anything to save their children.  If we could step back just a couple of decades however, we could see that theme repeated in many different ways. Almost all of those films were melodramas and the relationships between mother and child were often highlighted. There were films where mother would donate their eyes for their children and condemn themselves to live in darkness. There were movies where mothers would admit to crimes they didn’t commit and others where the mother would secretly sacrifice themselves to a life a servitude for the happiness for their children.  In The One Love, the mother decides that she will give up her own happiness to see her child well-provided for.

When I first sat down to watch this film, I thought I hadn’t seen it before. How wrong I was.  This is basically a remake of a more famous Korean film, “I Hate You But Again.”  Alright, that is not the official translation..that is a literal translation. The problem is that the Korean Movie Database cannot seem to settle on one title for that film. The original from 1969 is called Love Me Once Again.  It was the first of a four part series.  While the Korean titles are all the same with sequential numbers added on to the end. But, oddly, the English title keeps changing (I really think that the KMDb should settle on a single title–Bitter But Once Again, Farewell My Love, Once More For Love and the 80s remakes–Love Me Once Again Despite Hatred, Forgive Me Once Again Despite Hatred).

Anyway, The One Love is the story of a woman who is dumped by her wealthy boyfriend because of objections to her background raised by his family. In this film, the young woman, Yeong-ju,  is a nurse–which is completely acceptable–but her mother was an… entertainer…jn a club catering to foreign soldiers. Yeong-ju and her lover Se-joon break up before either of them realize that Yeong-ju is pregnant. When the fact is finally revealed, Yeong-ju goes against the wishes of Se-joon’s mother and decides to go ahead with the pregnancy, steals away Jeju Island, and raises her son Joon-yeong as a single mother.

She and her son are poor but very happy together. The film does an excellent job of portraying their special bond and their love for each other. However Se-joon learns that his wife is unable to bear children. Knowing that he has a son, he is persuaded by his mother to track down Yeong-ju and covince her to come back to Seoul–enrolling Joon-yeong in school and giving him warm clothes and a better place to stay.  Gradually, the family tries to woo Yeong-ju into giving up custody.

The major difference between this and the more famous “I Hate You But Once Again” is that Yeong-ju is not interested at first in giving up her child. She is unsure that it is best for him. Although she is eventually convinced,  Joon-yeong fights vigourously against her decision to leave him in his father’s and grandparent’s care.

The movie has the strangest ending I have ever seen.  It just suddenly stops—literally. When a ‘final’ decision has been made one character screams in anguish…and the frame freezes while ‘The End’ pops up over the paused characters. It has the strangest feeling of being unfinished.  Doing a quick search, I learned that this movie was followed by two sequels that continued the story pretty much from where it left off–in which case the oh-so-sudden ending makes sense.

The One Love is a very watchable film. I especially liked the acting of the boy who played Joon-yeong and I set out to find if he was still active in film.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ‘boy’ is actress Kim Min-hee who can often be seen in television dramas. She debuted in 1978–at just six years old on a tv series and has been acting ever since. She was 9 when this movie was made and 12 by the time the third film of The One Love trilogy was released.   Unfortunately, only part one is available DVD.

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