Seen in Jeonju

Archive for the '2000s' Category

Don’t Look Back (2006)

8th November 2011

74920This past weekend, my friend suggested that we watch one of my DVDs. He mentioned that he hates horror films but anything else was ok except that he was not in the mood for anything depressing. After browsing through the movies I have, he pulled out this film. I was a little surprised and asked why he wanted to see this.. It contains no action, has no famous performers and is basically an unknown, arthouse film which I thought he would have no interest in as, in the past, he has raved about such movies as Avatar and the Transformer series. “Why” I asked, “did you pick this?” “Because everyone looks so happy on the cover,” came the answer.  Ah, Gi-wook…haven’t you learned to read the back of the DVD box?  Tweaking the old adage a little, ‘never judge a DVD by its cover.’  True, the people on the cover look happy and every poster made to advertise the film at the time of its release shows the three main characters smiling brightly. However, that is only the cover. The movie, an omnibus made up of three short stories, contains a suicide, a character considering suicide, a stagnant life, a failed romance, a crushed dream, a dead marriage and the lead up to a probable double murder.  

The first story is about twenty-one year old Jeong-hee who lives with her older sister.   They were abandoned by their father fifteen years earlier and the sacrifices that the pair have had to make in order to survive left them with very different characters. The sister is a little on the mousy side and has turned to religion to find her strength. In contrast, Jeong-hee has developed a very tough exterior and could be considered rather selfish. When her sister wants to move to a better apartment, Jeong-hee whines, drags her feet and ultimately forces her sister to take the one and only place they look at with disasterous results. She also lashes out at her father when he reappears at her sister’s request with tragic results.

In the second story, we spend time with poor, likable Geun-woo who is having trouble at work. His place of employment is caught up in a labor dispute, but that is a little beyond his ability to comprehend. In fact, that barely holds his interest. He is far more interested in the girl in the pink dress whom he has been eavesdropping on with telephone testing equipment. He has been listening and watching her romance with another man as if it were a televised soap opera and he can barely stand it when when she is told by her lover that he wants to break up. After beating up the other man in a singing room, he summons up the nerve to introduce himself to the girl in pink. It is the most awkward intro ever and becomes even more uncomfortable as we realize the woman of his dreams is nothing like he imagines her to be.

The final story is about In-ho, a man who has joined the army later than most. After two years doing his mandatory military service, In-ho is now on the verge of re-entering society. However, it seems society did not wait for him. People have grown and changed while he was gone. His wife is now a professor as is another acquaintance he new in grad school. One friend jokingly states that it seems everyone is a professor now except In-ho which leaves a bitter taste in In-ho’s mouth.  Worse, his suspicions about his wife meeting another man are confirmed when she confesses to him. She strongly implies that she will not be there when he is finally discharged. In-ho’s sullen expression and underdog demeanor hid a growing frustration and resentment that seems about to explode.

When watching this movie it is extremely important to listen to the radio announcer. She often is filling in events that we did not see in other stories such as the fire Jeong-hee sets, a certain person’s suicide and a strange incident that police are uncertain was an accident or a double suicide. We know better..but it is helpful to realize that Naejeong Mountain is in Jeongeub. 

In the last story, I pointed out to Gi-wook about the radio news and how it was linking the story and he made me pause the DVD as he excitedly processed the information and was able to guess how the characters’ stories conclude, particularly In-ho’s story,  even though we never see it on film. It turns out that he loved a film that made him think to find the answers rather than just being able to turn off his brain and watching the action unfold on the screen. “Now I know why you like indie films,” he said and wanted a list of other movies I could recommend.

Don’t Look Back is that kind of eye-opening film and is a great way to spend two hours. Just don’t be fooled by the happy posters or DVD slip-cover. I don’t think there was a happy character in the entire film…

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Foolish Game (2004)

3rd May 2011

foolish gameThis past Sunday, I made a discovery. After almost twelve years of watching Gag Concert every Sunday night, I suddenly realized that I was tired of it. The show started back in 1999 and I loved it at the time, although over the years it has had high and low points. Maybe it is this current batch of comedians and it will improve in a few months again when they move on but, right now, I don’t want to see it. Instead, I wandered into my DVD room to pick a movie to watch.  There are many that I have not seen yet and, after browsing around, I pulled Plastic Tree off the shelf. I had been meaning to watch that for a while…since 2003 actually. But as I started to go, the bright green spine of another DVD case filed nearby Plastic Tree caught my eye.  It belonged to Foolish Game which I also had not seen. The color looked so bright and enticing, especially compared with the dull, light tan of the cover of Plastic Tree. Poor Plastic Tree wound up back on the shelf and I walked out of the room with Foolish Game

Dropping the disc into the DVD player, I settled down to watch the film. I was quickly introduced to Hyeon-tae and his friends, Jae-cheol and Gu-bon, and their respective girlfriends, Mi-yeong and Hye-ryeon. Although the only unattached member of the group, Hyeon-tae does not seem or feel like a fifth wheel and he gets along with everyone. The role of odd-man out, or in this case–the odd-woman out, goes to Hye-ryeon who is far less gregarious and seems a little uncomfortable in group situations. But she must go along with the others as her boyfriend, Gu-bon, is the heart of the group and the glue that holds them together.

Even though he is not part of a couple, Hyeon-tae does not lack female companionship. He is something of a ladies man, able to pick up a date at the drop of a hat. So he is a little surprised that there is one woman he meets who shows absolutely no interest in him. Her name is Hee-jae and they first meet face-to-face when she double parks behind him in a parking lot. Unable to move his car, Hyeon-tae calls the number on the windshield for her to come and move it. That brief encounter with the distant woman is not enough for him and Hyeon-tae soon finds himself calling her again for a date. Oddly, we see Hee-jae dragging her key across the surface of her own car leaving a long white scratch in the black paint…

The mystery of Hee-jae deepens. She quickly cuts short her first date with Hyeon-tae. Promising to meet him at a movie theater, she keeps her word but goes there two hours earlier and watches the movie alone–meeting him outside the theater after the show, leaving Hyeon-tae out the price of two movie tickets. I was really wondering why Hyeon-tae kept trying to meet her– even I was losing interest in her. But then she does something interesting.  Heading to her apartment complex after one of her abbreviated dates with Hyeon-tae, Hee-jae goes to collect her mail. She pulls it out of her mailbox when the voice of the apartment security guard behind her asks, “Excuse me, Miss. Which apartment do you live in?”  The sound of his voice terrifies Hee-jae who takes off running before he can finish his sentence. He gives chase, but she hides outside, panting for breath and clutching the mail to her chest. We now suspect that perhaps her strange behavior with Hyeon-tae is not so much out of disinterest, but because she is hiding something.

During the floundering start to Hyeon-tae’s romance, his friends lives continue. They go to work, study at language academies, drink and talk about their common passion– mountain climbing. Hye-ryeon does not join in on these conversations but sits patiently through them. Jae-cheol also joins in less and his body language is making it clear that his affections are changing from his girlfriend to Hye-ryeon. The five friends finally pick a time where they can all meet and go to Chiri Mountain for a few days. Hyeon-tae invites Hee-jae who, although she has no plans, lies and says that she is busy and will not attend. But that trip to Chiri Mountain changes everything. Tragedy strikes and one of the group is killed.  Not only is the entire group dynamic turned upside down, but there seems like there could be a connection between what happened and Hee-jae.

Sometimes when I watch romances, I think to myself that it was too long. However, that was not the case here. In fact, I think with a little better writing and by filling in the many time gaps—especially near the end of the film– this plot could well be turned into a 14-week tv drama. The three gratuitous sex scenes would have to be cut out, but that would not be a loss. These were among the least passionate sex scenes I have ever watched. There is just no chemistry between the participants–and I think I have to blame actor Lee Dong-gyu for this because he was the common thread in all of those scenes. The director is also to blame as his use of a static camera gave these scenes the feeling of being shot by a security camera.

Outside of their poorly done sex scenes, the acting was rather good–much better than a standard tv romance. The dialog also was realistic and the interaction between the friends was believable. However, when it was released in theaters, this movie failed and it has fallen into the category of forgotten films like the movie I reviewed last week. I think the reason for this, besides the lack of well-known actors, is because the movie does not go far enough in any one direction to attract a certain kind of moviegoer.  The budding romance between the two leads is not cute enough to pull in anyone interested in romantic-comedies. The rating of ‘ages 18+’ assigned to this film because of brief nudity (non-frontal) and sex eliminated quite a few potential viewers unnecessarily. The attempt at art that the director tossed into the film–namely the approximately one minute where the contrast on the film is turned up making everything either bright white or black– was interesting but poorly thought out and nowhere near enough to make this movie interesting to those who like experimental movies like are scene at film festivals.  In short, the movie falls through the cracks, which is a shame– a little tweaking one way or the other in the editing process would have made this film more memorable.

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Jesus Is My Boss (2001)

26th April 2011

lposter016456Back in June 2002, the Japanese-Korean co-production, Jesus Is My Boss opened in a limited number of theaters and quickly disappeared.  The subject matter did not particularly interest me and I, like most of the nation, did not go to see it. I did not think about it for many years until –October 2009 to be exact (I keep records of things like that)– I saw it listed on the site I buy DVDs. I ordered it along with R.U Ready, Turn It Up and Oolala Sisters… not one of my stellar moments. I then proceeded not to watch it until this past weekend.  I was informed that it was Easter… a holiday I haven’t really thought of in decades. As kids I liked egg hunts, chocolate rabbits and marshmallow peeps. We would have a duck dinner, watch Here Comes Peter Cotton Tail and the Ten Commandments. Come to think of it, I don’t why that latter film was shown annually on is religious but not very Eastery.  Anyway, after learning it was Easter, I thought I would watch an Easter-themed movie.  Going through my DVD collection, I quickly learned I have no movies about bunnies delivering colored eggs. While many of the movies I have contain religious plot elements–like Possessed or Untold Scandal– they did not seem to fit the bill. It appears I only have two movies that deal more directly with biblical themes; David and Goliath (directed in 1983 by Kim Cheong-gi, creator of Robot Taekwon V) and Jesus Is My Boss (directed by Koichi Saito, who never directed again). I tried watching Kim’s David when I bought the movie and not enough time has passed to make me want to attempt that again (It’s only been five years–were there bears in the Bible?–I have vague memories of David fighting a bear in that movie and even that, like the rest of the cartoon, was tedious)  So I went with Jesus Is My Boss.

Actually, this choice is probably more appropriate for the holiday. For one, just look at the above poster. A man carrying a cross from one end of Japan to the other and on to Korea in order to atone for his sins. Not only can’t you get more Eastery than that but the Korean titles is Mission Barabba, Barabba being the Aramaic name of Barabbas, the criminal who Pontius Pilate allegedly freed instead of Jesus in the cruxifiction story. 

The movie focuses on Yuji and Shima, member of rival branches of the Yakuza in Japan. These two share much in common. They both begin the film as ruthless killers loyal to their bosses, they both have Korean wives waiting patiently and praying fervently for their redemption and they both are eventually betrayed by the gangs they placed their faith in. Their reactions to betrayal are quite different, however. Yuji promises his wife that he will start over. After listening to another former Yakuza member give a sermon in church, Yuji gets the idea that he can attone for his sins by building a cross and carrying it from one end of Japan to the other. Along the way, he meets other gangsters and thugs who join him in his march. Shimi, however, wants to prove his worth to the Yakuza and decides that the only way he can do that is by killing his former rival, Yuji. 

This is really a terrible movie. The first half of the 139 minute film action. Gang fights, shootouts and general mayhem. That might be ok if done well, but it wasn’t. It was done more like a Korean action film from the mid 90’s.  Don’t know what I mean? Search out Charisma (1996), Unfixed (1996) or the unfathomable Underground (also 1996) and you will understand.  The scenes poorly edited, choppy and with laughable action. In this movie, their was a high gore factor with graphic dismemberments but, it was so over-the-top as to be unrealistic and did not change the films rating of ‘for ages 15 or higher.’  The second half of the film was not shy in its intention of promoting Christianity and was annoying me with it whole convert and be saved theme (I know, I know… I should have been expecting that and I was..I just have a low tolerance for it)  Both of those problems are simply a matter of tastes–someone else may have enjoyed them. However, the film had bigger problem I found even more grating. It seemed very anti-Japanese.

Every Japanese male in the movie was Yakuza or former Yakuza. Every Korean in the film was a kneel-down-and-pray-with-me Christian. There is a strange sugar-coating of hostilities expressed in the film. More than one character says something like, “There are many good Japanese people BUT…”  and the ‘compassionate’ Korean priest working in Japan scolds Yuji wife (a Korean) for marrying him. “Did your parents approve of you marrying a Japanese?’ he asks and upon receiving negative reply launches into a story of how he was forced as a young priest to do missionary work in Japan and how much he hated it. This made me question why he was still there– he clearly was has been out of the seminary for a good 30 years. It seems to me he could have asked for a transfer of parishes…

Then again, maybe he did. The film was primarily in Japanese and so I had to rely on the English subtitles. But these were horrible! They required translation in their own right for me to understand. And at several points in the film, the subtitles disappear for a short time as if the translator did not know how to change what was being said and just decided to skip it, hoping that it would not be important.

I really cannot recommend this film. It is an unknown movie for a reason..better it remains that way…

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Bike Boy (2003)

8th March 2011

bike boyWhen most people think of Yoo Ji-tae, the think of the actor who debuted in Bye, June back in 1998, made a name for himself in Attack the Gas Station in ‘99 and followed that up with major roles in a trio of films (Ditto, One Fine Spring Day and Oldboy) that landed him a permanent place among the top stars of Korea.  What most people don’t realize is that Yoo also has a passion for directing and has helmed a number of award-winning short films. The first of these was the 40-minute short Bike Boy in 2003 which won an Audience Pick award for short films at the Pusan International Film Festival where it originally screened and it went on to open in festivals Hong Kong and Japan.  It is the story of a boy named Min-soo who is in his final year of elementary school. He stands on the brink of adolescence but he is not quite ready to cross over. He is a child confused by forces within and people without that are trying to force him to change and to grow up. One of these forces in Ki-ran, a girl in his class. She also is experiencing changes in her feelings as well as she grows into young womanhood. She is also unsure how to express her feelings, but she seems to handle them in a more mature way than Min-soo whom she likes. Min-soo may like her as well, but he is unwilling to address how he feels and it makes him moody and sullen except when he is playing with his friends or riding his beloved bike.

The bike becomes a refuge, a way to hold on to the familar while setting new challenges for himself– such as attempting to outrace the bus. He takes time to train himself for this task, fixes his bike up, gets a haircut and even does something that makes him feel guilty and proud at the same time. When the time is right, he sets off to accomplish his goal without telling a soul and the finish of his personal race is timed to coincide with the arrival of Ki-ran at her home. However, her response to him and his new look completely robs him of any sense of victory and he walks home with a vague sense of having lost something.  However, that is not the end. The final scene of the movie and the dialogue spoken therein brought a smile to my face and sweetened the story, letting the viewer that everything is going to be alright and that he can remain a child for just a little longer.

yoojitae collectionThat final scene is simple, but beautiful and shows Yoo’s potential as a director that would be better realized in some of his later shorts. What happened in that scene?  You’ll have to watch it yourself– I only give spoilers to endings of movies not available on DVD. You can see Bike Boy along with How Do the Blind Dream? (2005), Out of My Intention (2007) and Invitation (2009) as part of the Yoo Ji-Tae Collection.  Search for it. You will find that it shows another, unexpected side of a man we have come to know as a great actor.

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Nineteen (2009)

14th February 2011

19Most people living in Korea are aware of the band, Big Bang. Debuting in 2007 with an album nobody really remembers, the soared to the top of the charts with their second album, Remember. Despite not yet releasing another full album since then (one will be released this year) the members have remained at the height of popularity. Even I know all of their names and I haven’t been able to say that about a singing group since Shinhwa and Finkl broke up. They have accomplished this high degree of recognition by putting out solo albums, appearing on television variety shows, making commercials and advertisments and, in some cases, acting in dramas and movies. Iris was one of the most-watched dramas in Korea when it aired in 2009 starring celebrity powerhouses Lee Byeong-heon and Kim Tae-hee. Big Bang member TOP (real name Choi Seung-hyeon) was featured alongside them. The following year, in 2010, TOP would have the lead role in the film 71: Into the Fire outshining vetran actors Kwon Sang-woo and Cha Seung-won. However, between those two very visible productions was a smaller, quieter film starring the Big Bang singer that came and went without much fanfare. Nineteen opened in a limitd number of theaters in November, 2009. Not only did it star TOP in the leading role, but co-starred his fellow Big Bang member Seung-ri (real name Lee Seung-hyeon).  Seung-ri frequently appears as a celebrity guest on game or talk shows, had a supporting role in the film On the Way Home and, like TOP, has released some solo singing projects. He has also found time to appear in two stage musicals– The Shower (based on a classic Korean love story) and Shouting.

I, along with most of the nation, did not see this movie in the theater. Frankly, I did not think it would have much cinematic value and was simply another way to showcase stars who were in danger of being overexposed despite their likability. However, this just goes prove the old saying ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ correct. Nineteen was actually quite enjoyable, remeniscent of the Korean road movie/coming of age stories often seen in the late ’80s or early ’90s but not often seen today. Although the theme of self-discovery is common–almost a cliche in this genre–the movie is updated for today’s generation and does not seem as cliche or preachy as it could have. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that I enjoyed the film for what it was.

The movie features three people in their late teens. One, Jeong-hoon (TOP), has started college but is unhappy there and really does not seem to have direction in his life. He frequently skips classes to work at his part-time job where at least he feels useful. His family seemingly does not take much interest in him and his sister who attends a prestigious university goes so far as to look down on him. Min-seo (Seung-ri) has the reverse problem. His wealthy family has extremely high expectations of him and his mother dotes on him to the point of smothering. He is not attending a university yet because low marks on the entrance exam kept him out of the schools his parents wanted him to enter, so he is restudying for the tests. Eun-hyeong (Heo Yi-jae) has no chance to attend college. She dropped out of school at 16 in order to work to pay for her mother’s hospital bills. As the sole source of income for herself and her mother, Eun-hyeong has developed a tough exterior that has crossed the line into abbrassiveness. When we first meet her, she has just been fired from her position as a hairdresser’s assistant because she talked back to her boss after leaving work without permission. These three would seem to have nothing in common except that are linked by a mutual acquaintance, Yeong-ae (Shin Min-hee).

Yeong-ae works at the same PC Cafe as Jeong-hoon and the two are friendly but not really friends. At least that is what Jeong-hoon always thought until Yeong-ae asks him out on a date after work. Confused, he accepts her proposal which eventually leads to trouble. Eun-hyeong knows Yeong-ae from school and the two possibly were friendly at one time. However, that was the past. Eun-hyeong has been trying to avoid Yeong-ae’s frequent telephone calls and, when they do meet, get into an arguement about money. Yeong-ae needs money so she can get a part in an upcoming drama. She is required to take acting classes before she can have the role. She knows that Eun-hyeong is alwasys working and assumes that she has money to give her. Min-seo isn’t on speaking terms with Yeong-ae, but he is a customer at the PC Cafe. In fact, Yeong-ae is the only reason he goes there. He takes pictures of her when she is not looking…in the cafe, on the street, getting into a car. Although he claims it is harmless and it is probably because he lacks the courage to actually talk to her, Min-seo comes off as more than a little creepy. All three characters become suspects when Yeong-ae turns up murdered the day after her arguement with Eun-hyeong and her date with Jeong-hoon.

The three escape police custody and wind up travelling together in their efforts to avoid arrest. We learn a lot about the characters as they reflect on their lives and are forced to be independent and responsible for just themselves for the first time in their lives. The time provides them with insights of what they lack in character and how to be better people. This theme is the focus of the movie. The movie is NOT a mystery. Although we the viewer have a good idea of who killed Yeong-ae within the first 10 minutes of the movie, the characters are not trying to figure that out. They are just trying to perserve their own freedom.

The rating of the film is for ages 12 and up, but I had to wonder about that a little. I suppose that rating was given so the younger fans of Big Bang could see the film, but some of the plot threads seemed a little heavy for a 12 year-old like the fact that it is revealed Yeong-ae is sleeping with men to get money for her class. I guess twelve year olds are a little different than when I was a kid…

In any case, I enjoyed the movie as a film about self-discovery and in its portrayal of today’s youth. It is available on DVD and I would recommend seeing it.

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Dream (2008)

2nd February 2011

dreamA man who has never been able to get over his girlfriend leaving him, is suffering from strange, realistic dreams. In one of these dreams, he accidently causes an accident while driving down an otherwise empty street. Upon awakening, he rushes to the site only to discover that the car he had forced into a pole is really there and police are on the scene. Examing nearby cameras for clues, the police are able to get a good look at the driver of the car. It is not the man at all, but a young woman. Confused, the man overhears the woman’s address on the police radio and goes to her house as she is being picked up for taking part in a hit-and-run. She vehemently denies any such thing, saying that she was asleep while the man springs out of the car and tries to take blame for the accident despite all evidence to the contrary. Both are hauled off to the police station for questioning. It is learned that the woman is under psychiatric care to treat her sleepwalking which has grown progressively worse in the last two weeks. The psychiatrist, more of a dream therapist, theorizes that the man, Jin, and the woman, Ran, are connect by being ‘polar oppostites.’  In his dreams, Jin is trying desperately to meet his former lover. In her life, Ran is trying her best to avoid her ex-lover, a man she despises. However, when Jin sleeps, Ran unconsciously acts out his dreams and as he dreams of his ex-lover, Ran is forced to visit her former boyfriend and do with him what Jin wants to do with his girlfriend.   The psychiatrist suggests that the two become lovers themselves and the dreams may stop, but both refuse and the next 90 minutes of the movie are filled with the pair trying to stay awake and what happens when they fail.

The plot may sound a little strange, but the strangest thing for me in the first ten minutes of the story was not the plot. Rather it was the language. Jin is played by Japanese actor Joe Odagiri and he is not given any lines in Korean at all. He speaks Japanese the entire time. The other characters are all speaking Korean, but everyone understands each other perfectly. This underscored the fantasy and dream-like nature of the ‘real-life’ portions of the film. Both he, and actress Lee Na-yeong, do a good job with what they are given. Unfortunately, not everything they are given is very good and there are enormous gaps in logic. I am not talking about how illogical the explanation of these characters connection is. I am talking about how the characters deal with the situation.  For example, when you want to stay awake, which one of these things might you do?  A) Drink coffee    B) Watch tv   C) Exercise    D) Stab yourself repeatedly with a chisel.    If you have seen any Kim Ki-duk movies, you can guess the answer.

I have nothing against violence in movies. I actually liked most of Kim’s earlier works (like Crocodile, The Isle and, my favorite, Address Unknown) because they were so raw and hard to watch. But here, like many of Kim’s latter films, the violence seemed forced and completely illogical. It was almost like the director added it just because it was what he feels people expect from his films.

There was something that I did like in this movie. Somewhere in the middle is a scene that I think the entire film was based around. In it, a couple is arguing. They start out as Jin and Ran’s former lovers in a fight that it growing in intensity. Then suddenly, the actors in the scene change so that it is Jin and his former girlfriend fighting. It changes again so we see Ran and her ex-lover in the arguement. One more change, and it is Jin and Ran themselves before the actors return to the original pair with Jin and Ran looking on. It is a very well done scene and it leaves a lot of questions about what we just saw. Who was really in this scene?  Was it Jin’s memory of the fight that caused his girlfriend to leave him? Was it Ran’s memory explaining why she hates her ex-lover so much. Or was it actually the two exes fighting with each other as they now seem to be in a relationship. This scene is the best part of the film and provides a lot of food for thought.

The rest of the movie does not live up to this scene, particularly the end which does not seem to have a lot of thought put into it. In fact, the lackluster ending makes this movie difficult for me to recommend. It is a mediocre attempt by a director who has proven himself to be capable of so much more.

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Brainwave (2006)

28th January 2011

brainwaveIf I had to predict what films would never make it to DVD, Brainwave would have been near the top of my list. But now five years after it was originally released in theaters, the DVD has been released It’s not that this debut film of Shin Tae-ra is bad, it’s just that it is such a low budget production. I remember seeing it years ago at the Jeonju International Film Festival and I rated it favorably on’s main page when we were using the goldfish ’star’ ratings. I also remember another critic giving it just one fish..citing the low budget as a problem.  I think the fact that Shin was able to craft an entertaining story without funds is one of the things that I actually like about the movie. Watching it now, I couldn’t help but calling to mind the this past summer’s, big-budget science fiction fare, Haunters (formerly known as Choin — KOFIC recently posted a new English name for it), which is somewhat similar in plot to Brainwave, and Brainwave compares quite favorably.

Telepathy is one of the least visually interesting super-powers to choose to make a film about. Flying or super-strength, claws or weather-control can all be rendered dynamically. But with telepathy, you get to watch someone thinking really hard. Do you remember watching horror movies as a kid that had invisible ghosts or aliens. I don’t know about you, but I always felt cheated. Telepathic powers can be a lot like that, but Brainwave, even with its limited budget, was able to make the ESP powers of Jeon Joon-oh and Min-woo interesting, if not consistant. And they do merely have ‘thought’ powers, they are also telekinetic which adds some interest to their fight scenes.

Joon-oh and Min-woo are both products of a lab accident. Scientists for an evil corporation were attempting to boost the brain levels of people who seemed to possess mild ESP abilities and empathic natures. Although the experiment was successful, the accident in the lab erased all the memories of the test subjects. Min-woo wants revenge for this and is now tracking down the people responsible one-by-one and using his powers to painfully murder them. Joon-oh is unaware of anything about this, or himself, and spends his time drawing. A blow to the head gradually awakens his powers though apparently at the price of his hearing. Oddly, he finds that he is able to hear when Min-woo is around and a connection between the two becomes apparent. Kim Do-yoon does a good job portraying Joon-oh but Brainwave was his last film to date.

The number of mysterious deaths do not long go unnoticed by the police. Two detectives are assigned to the case. I have to admit I did not like how they were written at the beginning of the film, particularly Detecitve Park Gi-soo. While violent policemen are not uncommon in Korean films, Detective Park Gi-soo is more like a thug when we first meet him than a law-enforcer. And really…how many policeman, after finding a cache of low-grade drugs on a possible thief, stuff half of the pills into the thief’s mouth? Very unrealistic, but his character is toned down as the story goes on. His partner, Detective Park Seong-min is much better, as is the actor who plays him. Song Byeong-wook has gradually been getting larger parts since this movie and definitely shows potential as an actor.

Shin Tae-ra also showed his potential as a director in this film. While there are some amaturish moments–especially with the gimmicky camera tricks– he does a good job on his first feature-length film. Shin would later go on to helm Black House (in which he gives most of the actors in this movie bit parts) and the box office hit, My Girlfriend is a Secret Agent.

If you have the chance to watch this movie, do not go into it with the expectations of flashy special effects or a seamless plot. You will be disappointed. However, if you can appreciate low-budget film-making with heart, then this is a movie for you.

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Bystanders (2005)

23rd January 2011

207231Detectives Choo Ja-yeong and Kim Dong-wook are assigned to a case that seems like an open-and-shut murder/suicide. However, further investigation leads them to the conclusion that both deaths were murders and that the killer will strike again. The victims were both middle school students in the same class and the detectives link their deaths with that of Jin-mo who was the victim of a hit-and-run (likely a suicide) months earlier. Jin-mo had been bullied to the point of no return and even the people whom he ought to be able to turn to, namely his parents and teachers, had failed to protect him from his merciless classmates. The detectives quickly work out who is killing the youngsters in Jin-mo’s name, but knowing who is plotting the murders and catching the perpetrator are two different things.

The identity of the murderer is revealed quickly but, unlike my DVD cover, I will not be revealing it to you. Even though the killer is known within the first thirty minutes of the movie, I would have appreciated not knowing that information before going into the film. The movie is really less of a mystery than it is a character study, and there seems to be four characters that the movie wants to explore. Shin Eun-yeong gets first billing, so I’ll start with her character, Detective Choo.

While I generally liked the movie, I have to admit that the way Shin portrayed Choo was the thing I disliked most in the film. I will also admit that 1999 was the last year I feel she was in a film I liked.  Shin grimaces and snears are almost buffoonish, suited more to a still comic book or a detective spoof than a mystery. Her character is interesting though, especially as we learn more about her background. In her childhood, she was indirectly responsible for the death of a classmate by not helping when she had the chance. She has spent the rest of her life making up for this. Her past also contributes to her tough, abrassive demeanor. That in turn makes it difficult to connect with her nephew to whom she is acting as a surrogate mother after the death of her sister.

Her nephew is another character worth exploring although he gets far less screen time than the others. Jang Joon-ha is played by Maeng Se-chang, a young actor who had been in five films before this one but has not appeared in anything since. Joon-ha is somewhat withdrawn and quiet at school preferring art to study. At home, however, he is openly hostile to his aunt. For her part, Choo does not know how to relate to him and her beligerent attitude does not help in forging any bonds. Almost all their interaction is confrontation without resolution. It is not Jang spells it out for her that Choo realizes her nephew is still a frightened child traumatized by the death of his parents.

Detective Kim Dong-wook tries his best to bridge the gap between Choo and Jang but, for the most part, fails. Kim is played by Moon Jeong-hyeok formerly known as ‘Eric’ of the defunct singing group Shinhwa. Whereas his partner, Choo, approaches suspects every case rather coldly, Kim seems to bring a more sensitive side to his dealings with people. This does not mean that he is a pushover. On the contrary, he is an exceptional fighter and tolerates no backtalk during interrogations. Nevertheless, he is heart of the partnership even as Choo is the logic and the movie treats both detectives as equally important.

Finally there is the best thing about this movie–Kim Yoon-jin as Seo Yoon-hee. Her performance alone is worth seeing the film for. She plays the mother of Jin-mo and lifelong friend of Ja-jeong. She gives an amazing performance, particularly in the last scenes–after the conclusion of the movie. In this portion of the film, we are shown a woman who is at her wits end. She does not know how to deal with her son whom she mistakenly believes is acting up after her husband abandoned them and left them with crushing debt. She witnesses the death of her child immediately after a terrible argument wherein she tells her young son to go–anywhere–just for her to be away from him for awhile. But it is when she watches video clips of what has been happening to her son at school that we are treated to some great acting simply through facial expressions as shock, abhorance and then a terrible understanding play out in turn across her face. It is a great moment that elevated my estimation of the film.

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Rainbow Eyes (2007)

22nd September 2010

lposter039231-k2Rainbow Eyes, directed by Yang Yoon-ho and starring Kim Kang-woo, Kim Gyu-ri and Lee Soo-kyeong, is a very frustrating movie. I expected better of Yang. After mulling it over for half a day before writing this, I think I finally found what the problem is. Rainbow Eyes feels old, out of step with the times. You might think I would like that as I seem to spend a lot of time watching older movies and it would be true–if he had managed to capture the feeling of films from the sixties or seventies. But Rainbow Eyes feels like a Korean movie from the early nineties…not the best time for films. The music seems old–like the tinny piano music that would often spring up during emotional scenes in 90s melodramas and soft-porn (which many films from this period were). The camera tricks seemed old and tired, suddenly turning to double vision before or after changing scenes or during points in the movie where graphic gore is being obscured. Worst of all, the attitudes seemed old.  If you are making a movie in which the main chracater is struggling with his sexual identity, you would think it would be more sensitive to his plight and confusion instead of having characters spouting slurs.

Road Movie, King and the Clown and No Regrets had been made in the years just prior to this. Frozen Flower and Antique were just on the horizon. Each of these films dealt wih homosexual romances, often with reluctant or secretive participants, in their own way wih varying results. Western critics and audiences sometimes criticize these films because of the secrecy of the relationships or the fact that these films often end badly for the characters, but those critics are not taking the culture into account. Homosexuality is still considered a mental disease by many and coming out can still destroy careers–just ask actor Hong Seok-cheon. In 2000 his acting career came to a halt when he was outed by a comedian Kim Han-seok on the Seo Se-won talk show. At that time, Hong admited to being in a 3-year relationship with his male lover. Although this part of the talk show was never aired, word spread quickly. Hong’s contracts were cancelled the next day and it became almost impossible for him to get roles. There was a five year stretch where he did not appear in anything.

Times have changed a little. Hong is working again and movies like the ones listed above are being a little more fair when dealing with their gay characters. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, Rainbow Eyes seems out of date with the trend. True, the bumbling cop who is wrong about everything is the one making the most anti-gay comments and slurs, but he is given an uncomfortable amount of time onscreen to do so. Other characters just turn a deaf ear when he speaks, but someone really needed to put him in his place.

All of the main characters–police, suspects and villains– are masking there secrets and dealing with gender issues and this was a nice touch. Kim Gyu-ri’s character, tough-as-nails Eun-joo, is not gay but she is struggling with the fact that her co-workers treat her like a man and she is masking her love for her partner, Kyeong-yoon.  Her partner, played by Kim Kang-woo, is trying hard to put his past behind him. He was in love with his classmate at an all-boy’s school but is now trying to live a ‘normal’ life and preparing to marry his lover Su-jin. His former lover, Yeong-seo, attempted suicide after enduring multiple rapes while performing his mandatory military service. Failing that, he has opted for a transgender operation that he hopes will let him fit in better with society and its expectations.

It would be a lie to say that I enjoyed this movie, but from an academic standpoint and how it fits into Korean queer cinema (or fails to do so) was interesting.  That is, until the end. Not the end of events for the characters, but the twist ending that appears as the credits start to role. It is very bleak and destroys the sacrifice the characters make for each other and rendering their actions useless and unneccessary. It left me feeling depressed and a little angry. Yang Yoon-ho recently directed Grand Prix which is now in theaters… I will not being seeing it

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Don’t Step Out of the House (2008)

11th September 2010

dont step out of the houseI received Nice Shorts yesterday. Nice Shorts is a collection of short films from 2008 and 2009. It consists of 4 movies, Shall We Take a Walk?, Girl, Mates and the longest short on the disc,pictured on the right, Don’t Step Out of the House. I originally bought the movie for Mates.  I had seen it previously at the Jeonju International Film Festival a year or two ago and remember it being very good. My opinion of it has not changed.  When I first saw Shall We Take a Walk? I thought it was a nice, sweet movie.  But after mulling it over for the past twenty-four before writing this, I have a somewhat different opinion of it. Frankly, it was too sweet. If I want to see something like that, all I have to do is turn on KBS tv at 5 or 6 when elementary school kids are watching television. It feels the directors are slightly childish–and that is from a man who watched Vectorman (1999) this week. Again, it is a nice movie–but I won’t remember it in a month. Hong Seong-hoon’s film, Girl, I could have done without all together. I am over movies trying to make abortion an issue. I was annoyed with both characters- the girl is completely unlikable and the father of her boyfriend is written poorly. He could have been a sympathetic figure–a failed father trying to seeing  a second chance in his unborn grandchild which is what his motive probably was–but it does not come across that way at all. Don’t Step Out of the House, however, is excellent. It alone is worth the price of the DVD.

In the movie, a five year old girl and her slightly older brother are alone in their house. The girl is playing dress up and the boy is trying to finish his homework before his tutor comes. Their house is very dirty and the children also seem as if they have been properly taken care of for a while. We soon start getting hints that something is not quite right. Some of these hints don’t raise red flags at first–like the boy quickly turning off the tv when his sister comes into the room or his earasing and re-writing of his homework so many times that the paper has almost worn through. Gradually the hints we are given of something is wrong become more ominous. It is not merely that their father is not coming back and they are running out of food, which is bad enough. Instead we are led to believe that there is something very wrong and there is a very concrete reason why the children should not open the door.

Eventually though, the kind-hearted nature of the children means that they do open the door to someone who claims he wants a drink of water. He is then joined by his friends. The atmosphere of the film takes on the feeling of a true horror movie as the tension builds around the unpredictable strangers. One, his face blackened as though overly exposed to a tanning lamp, is clearly the leader of the three and says that they may go hunting later. In Seoul?  One of his companions face is red and scarred as if he were recently burned and all his hair is missing. He is subject to sudden boughts of violence and then nearly overwhelmed by his guilt. The third is nearly blind and his corrective lenses are shattered. He displays the tendencies of a pedaphile and makes some hair-raising comments to the young five-year old girl that she does not understand, though her brother is quick to get between them. The horror builds as we learn  what has happened beyond the walls of their basement apartment and what exactly it is that the men have come for. Believe me, whatever you are thinking is probably wrong. This is one of the most innovative, creative and satisfying films I have seen in a while.

Director Jo Seong-hee has crafted an exceptional, albiet dark, tale and I really look forward to seeing what else he can do. I see that he is currently working on a feature length fantasy/horror film entitled End of Animal starring Park Hae-il. No release date on the project, but it is one that I will be anticipating. I think this new director will be capable of some great work in the future.

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