Seen in Jeonju

Archive for the '2000s' Category

Fly, Penguin (2009)

28th July 2010

fly penguinFly, Penguin was my favorite film from 2009 and it was recently released on dvd. My copy arrived yesterday along with The Man Next Door, Runaways From Home, Actresses and Boat, all from 2009 (bringing my total number of dvds of Korean movies to 526). I had been waiting for Fly Penguin for a long time and I had recommended it to many people. I was a little concerned when the promotional material I received advertising the dvd release did not list subtitles of any kind on it. Usually though, when a disk has no subs, that fact is mentioned. In this case, there was just an empty space where the subtitles information should be. As it turns out, this was just a typo or an oversight.  I am happy to say that this dvd has subtitles in Korean and English so, hopefully, it will be enjoyed by a wide audience.

Fly, Penguin is directed by Im Soon-rye and is more similar in feeling to her earlier works The Weight of Her and Three Friends than her popular movie Forever the Moment in that it highlights social problems in a lightly humerous, non-preachy manner. This film is an omnibus where  the characters of each storyline are related to each other through either family ties or their jobs.

The first story looks at a mother, dubbed a ‘helicopter mother’ because she is constantly hovering over her son. She wants her son to excel at school, as all mothers do, but she goes too far and gives the boy no time to enjoy his childhood. She is especially determined that he will master English even though he has no interest or special ability in the subject. She takes him to those ‘English Villages’ where students are forced to pretend they are entering a foreign country and speak only English, enrolls him in a ‘Taeglish’ academy–on top of his art instititute, but pulling him from ballet classes, arranges an English tutor for him and English telephone practice. She fails to notice that her son is withdrawing into himself and that her constant nagging and cajoling is leading him down a dangerous path unless someone is able to intervine on the boy’s behalf…

The second story takes place at the mother’s place of work which has just hired two new employees. Although everyone is excited to meet them at first, their individual mannerisms make it difficult for them to fit in and they soon, in their own ways become the subject of office gossip. 

One of the new employees has limitations on what he can eat and drink. This makes life very difficult for him as the boss of the company is constantly pushing his workers to accompany him to lunch, dinner and after dinner drinks. The boss is the subject of the third story. His wife and two children have been living overseas. This is not an uncommon practice in Korea among people who can afford it. The children attend high school in the foreign country, often living with the mother there, while the father stays in Korea and makes money–These fathers are often called ‘Geese Fathers’ as they must migrate back and forth to see their children. The father in this segment is where the title of the film comes from.  One of the office workers makes a pun about Geese Fathers saying that dads who can make the trip often should be called Eagle Fathers while those who can’t afford to travel should be called Penguin Fathers. In the case of the father in this part of the movie, his wife and children plan to spend summer vacation in Korea, but when they arrive after four years of living overseas, he realizes they are not the same people he used to know.

In the final story, we meet the boss’ parents. They seem to live comfortably in a good sized house but, after retiring, the old man shows no interest in going out. He constantly complains that his wife shows no signs of slowing down. She takes dancing lessons at the community center, attends concerts and has even learned to drive in her old age. This infuriates him as he expects her to wait on him hand and foot, but it is not until she brings up the word ‘divorce’ that he begins to realize how much he has to lose.

Im cares about all her characters and makes each one of them real. Even those whom we are clearly not meant to like, such as the boss’ wife, are handled with a gentle sensitivity and, whether we agree with them or not, have good motives to their actions. Again, if you like quiet, character-driven dramas, I am sure you will love this movie. I can confidently recommend this movie.

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Nightmare (2000)

13th July 2010

nightmareLast week I reviewed A Light Sleep starting a project I hope to continue of watching all the movies in my collection in the order they are shelved. I have had this idea for a while since there are many movies I own that I haven’t had time to see, but I delayed because I was waiting for my copy of The Wig to arrive as that would be first on the shelf  (they are ordered in Hangul).  But The Wig has been on backorder for the past two months so I started last week without it. I actually do not know how long I will be able to watch films and review them in order–as of today I have 522 Korean films & short film collections–Reviewing one per week would take me ten years to finish.  Two or three per week is possible during the summer and winter breaks, but with classes, commisioned writing for magazines and exchange program work such a schedule would be impossible. So I will watch and review as I can without giving myself stress or committing myself to an impossible task.  With all that said, the next movie in my collection is Nightmare aka The Horror Game Movie from 2000.

Before I begin a review though, I have to discuss the titles of this film. When I am doing research on old  Korean films, I often come across ads from the time that contain an English title only to discover that KOFA or KOFIC is calling it something else. For example, an ad for the 1972 Lee Hyeong-pyo film calls the movie A School Mistress while KOFA calls it A Woman Teacher on its website. Normally, this bothers me. However, in rare cases I approve of the change and Nightmare is one of those cases. If you look at the poster above and at the other two versions of the poster printed in 2000, you see the name The Horror Game Movie. That title is horrible and has nothing to do with the film. It is also far removed from the meaning of the Korean title Gawi.   Gawi is not exactly a nightmare either, but it is closer in meaning than ‘horror game.’ Gawi is a phenomenon where a person feels pressure on his’her chest and wakes to see a ghost trying to suffocate the sleeper. Now, before you scoff and dismiss it as legend, let me add a few things.  I have lived here now for more than 15 years. During that time, I have often let one or two students at a time live  in my home–I own a three-bedroom apartment, too big for one person and I enjoy the company.  I have heard about a dozen different gawi stories— 99% of the time, the ghost is a long haired woman as seen in movies though in one case the student told me of a thin old man. Each time, they said,  the ghost would crawl onto them and try to choke them or just rest on their chest so they couldn’t draw a breath. One of my more recent tenents was angry at me for not waking him when he was attacked by a ghost. While I do have my own ‘ghost’ story from my college days (that still terrifies me whenever I think about it–and I’m not even sure I 100% believe in ghosts), I have never experienced a gawi. Each person who told me about the gawi attack was under some other stress at the time such as exams, preparing to study abroad or preparing to graduate and begin a job hunt. However, the manifestation of this stress took a very specific and consistent form. It would make an interesting research paper for a cultural anthropology journal…

Before beginning to write, a read a couple of other reviews online and saw that the authors were complaining how they were tired of long-haired ghosts and how they were all a copy of Ring or how it had been done already in Whispering Corridors or Memento Mori. The appearance of ghosts  is not a post-Ring phenomenon. Look back at Korean horror films of the 60s and 70s.  The long, unkempt hair covering the face and sometimes used to ensnare people has always been present. Ghosts often wear long white dresses because that is what people are buried in. Even the idea of a long-haired woman ghost living in a well, made famous by Ring, was a concept that can be found in A Ghost Story of the Joseon Dynasty (1970) by Shin Sang-ok. I am not saying he originated the idea, but neither did Ring. To make a gawi anything but a long-haired woman ghost would in fact be making it a non-gawi.

Actually, while reading other people’s reviews complaining about the ghost, I was actually thinking “Was there really a ghost?’  In regards to the more famous Tale of Two Sisters, I am firmly in the camp that says there is no ghost anywhere in the movie. It is all in the head of a young woman with a guilty conscience and an Elektra Complex. In the case of real gawi experiences, I chalk it up to stress. In Nightmare, the grisly killings can also be credited to one of two characters rather than fully depending on a supernatural explanation.

The story revolves around a group of six friends who have yet to fully recover from the apparent suicide of a seventh member of their clique. This is partly because on the night she died, they had all turned against her due to the efforts of one of their members Sun-ae.  Sun-ae, Hye-jin and the dead Eun-ju-formerly-known-as-Kyeong-ah grew up together in a small village. Their were always rumors about the odd Kyeong-ah–stories of possession and death seemed to follow anywhere she went.–A shaman performing an exorcism on her dies, a bus she is riding on overturns and she is the only survivor.  Hye-jin’s father drowns trying to reach Kyeong-ah on a frozen river– Kyeong-ah moved away and changed her name to escape these rumors. Now in the same university, Sun-ae recognizes Eun-ju for who she was and tells the group of friends who had welcomed her in about her past. The group, already nervous around Eun-ju because strange things always happen in her presence (was that cat resurrected?), turn on her and reject her as a friend leading to her death.

What happens next is familar to anyone who has seen a horror or slasher film in the last 3 decades. The members of the group are killed off one by one in grusome ways. The question is, who is doing it?  We see the ghost doing the killing but, like a ‘real’ gawi, perhaps only the person being harmed sees it. A witness to one of the crimes gives a description to the police of a woman leaving the scene and the artist rendititin looks like one of the surviving members. Later in the film, a crazed character trying to save his reputation screams out that “I did it! I killed them all!” Such a confession leads credence to the idea that their is not ghost. Even the ‘twist’ ending of the movie cannot be put down to supernatural actions as the character who is experiencing it is known to have escaped from a mental institution where she was receiving treatment to help her overcome her guilt.   The film leaves it open for either interpretation–ghost or killer/s and I for one like it that way. I don’t want to see a horror movie that explains everything to me.

The acting in this movie is much better than it derseves to be. While the plot may appear somewhat standard with one character being killed off at a time, the actors are all outstanding. You have quite a few now big-named actors at the start of their careers. Notably, Ha Ji-won and Yoo Ji-tae.  I read one review which complained about Kim Gyu-ri’s character Hye-jin and her continued calmness and skepticism even after experiencing supernatural events. I can’t complain about it because I was feeling the same way. Her initial contact with a ‘ghost’ happens while she was sleeping and she could have just as easily fallen asleep in the library when she was wounded by the child form of Kyeong-ah–a wound that she notes is no longer there when she is fully awake and safely in the elevator. Incidently, this is the Kim Gyu-ri from Whispering Corridors 1 and Bunshinaba NOT the Kim Gyu-ri from Whispering Corridors 2: Memento Mori and Bloody Beach.

In general, I enjoyed the film although I did not love it. It was interesting looking at it from two angles after the movie was finished–one from a supernatural perspective and one from a logical stance.

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A Light Sleep (2008)

8th July 2010

a light sleepYul-rin cannot sleep and it is littl wonder. Two years earlier, her parents were involved in a hit-and-run accident and the now-16 year old was left to be the sole caretaker of her pre-school aged sister. Judging by a friends comment, who does not know Yul-rin’s situation, her family was well-off however, hospital bills prior to her parents apparently lingering deaths have eaten the family’s money. She and her sister do not go hungry–Yul-rin even has enough money to buy a camera, but they clearly are not rolling in cash either as indicated by the fact that she cannot afford to bury her father or claim her mother’s body from the hospital. This might seem overwhelming for any teen, but Yul-rin seems, on the outside, to be handling things just fine. Whenever asked “Are you ok?” or “How are you doing?” by anyone, be it doctor, uncle or school counsellor, Yul-rin always answers with a pleasant smile and says, “I’m fine.”  Whenever someone offers any help, even when a boy who has a crush on her offers to carry her bookbag, Yul-rin is relecutant to relinquish her control and accept the offer. There are only a few times the viewer glimpses her internal struggles, for example, after visiting the school counsellor, she leans up against a window and whispers to herself, “I lied” but otherwise there are few hints the other characters in the movie had to help them realize how much Yul-rin is struggling with her grief and burdens. At one point, her younger sister asks to be carried because her legs are tired, and Yul-rin repies, with no hint of annoyance or resentment in her tone or expression, “Why don’t you carry me too?”  But her sister, Da-rin, is too young. She doesn’t understand fully what has happened or the sacrifices Yul-rin is making to keep Da-rin with her.

Yul-rin is unwilling to give up her sister to someone else’s care. That means she must be the one to pick her up from the daycare, to prepare meals for her and to take care of her on weekends and at night. Because of her duties, she is spending less and less time with her friends, who chalk it up to snobbery. Yul-rin’s life becomes a little more complex when she meets a boy who likes her and in whom she is also interested. However, she keeps her hardships and her life a secret from all her peers and makes numerous rules to ensure that secret remains safe. These rules, directed mostly at her boyfriend, include ‘I will call you. You must never call me,’ and ‘Don’t try to contact me or meet me.’   Later, as the burdens she has shouldered begin to wear her down, she tells her boyfriend, Joo-go, ‘Don’t be so nice to me. Don’t smile. And never try to see me again.’ These are warning signs, but because her charcter is so controlled emotionally and difficult for her friends to understand, Joo-go does not worry. After all, her behavior and words have often been a little odd when compared to her classmates.

Perhaps Joo-go would be worrying if he knew about her sleeping problem. At the beginning of the movie, we see Yul-rin visiting a doctor to get sleeping pills to help her with her insomnia. The doctor tells her that this is the last time he will write a prescription for her–that she must learn to sleep again without the pills. But that seems unlikely. Despite telling the doctor that she only takes them occasionally, we know that she is taking more than the prescribed dosage because just taking one or two does not work anymore.  This is frustrating for Yul-rin who says at one point in the movie, “I am happiest when I sleep” setting up a feeling of dread about a possible future path for her.

The above description may make this movie seem like a tear-jerker, but in reality it is a very matter-of-fact, straightforward story. The emotions of the film are as contained and controlled as Yul-rin’s own. You can feel them below the surface and there is a tension I felt while watching the film of wanting something to break..or of having some release. Director Im Seong-chan has created a film which can be noted for its lack of palatable, definable emotions but beneath the images and between the lines, the emotions are boiling, begging to be given voice. Two decades of directing short films has given Im the experience he needed in directing this movie, his first feature length film and that experience has really paid off.  I hope to see more of his work, and of acters Choi Ah-jin (Yul-rin) and Yoo Chan (Joo-go) in the near future.

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Neighbor Zombie (2009)

6th June 2010

lposter041717-k1Back in February, I was disappointed when the movie Neighbor Zombie failed to open in Jeonju. I had been looking forward to it. It is not often that Korean directors tackle the sub-genre of zombie films. The trailers of this movie made it look like a mixture of comedy and horror as Seoul dealt with a zombie plague. It sounded interesting to me even though this topic has been filmed frequently since the classic Night of the Living Dead. Trailers also showed the zombies as the modern, fast moving, shouting type ala 28 Days Later or the remakes of the Living Dead films. I was not really looking forward to that. I prefer my zombies slow moving and groaning. Maybe they are not as dangerous, but as a child watching those movies on tv, I was terrified by the inexorable doom inching closer and closer–and  I think a good horror movie is able to build slowly on the feeling in terror instead of relying on things suddenly jumping out at the viewer.  BUT as it turns out, I would be disappointed again.  Neighbor Zombie is not actually a horror movie at all.  Instead, it deals with social problems using zombies as metaphors.  Issues dealt with in the film include Alzheimers vs Filial Duty, Ex-Convicts re-entering society, agrophobia and so on for a total of 6 short stories contributed by 4 directors.

The best of these, in my opinion is the story of a young woman who is taking care of her mother aged mother suffering from zombism although it is clearly meant to represent Alzheimers. The zombie-mother does not usually recognize her daughter and would probably devour her if she could. The daughter keeps the mother securely chained and supplies fresh meat paste to her through a bottle made from her own fingers–until a policeman assigned to killing zombies comes to her door and throws a wrench in the whole process.

The other one I liked took place after a cure was found. The former zombies live with nightmare like memories of what they had done when they were attacking and eating people. Their skin is still scarred and pale, so they are easy to recognize as former zombies and as such find themselves unable to get jobs.  The also have to deal with people hating them for what they had done against their will.  It is an interesting idea that I had not seen dealt with in any zombie film that had attempted to cure its zombies and return their humanity.

But on the whole, I did not like the collection.  For one thing, the zombies were not consistant.  In one episode, the zombies are raving animals willing to eat their own feet while in another they are shown as talking, be able to use the phone and having the will to resist their flesh cravings. The other big problem was budget.  I do not mind low-budget films–I do not need flashy special effects. But the effort by the make-up people was lackluster and …well…pitiful.  White powder does not make a zombie—or if you are going to make someone’s face pale, make sure you take into account the neck as well.  

Neighbor Zombie is not yet on DVD.  If you are looking for a horror film, avoid it. If you are looking for a social commentary film, there are better ones available though you might enjoy the unique narrative style zombies bring to social issues.

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Metamorphosis (2009)

30th April 2010

metamorphasisAh–My first day at the 11th Jeonju International Film Festival and I couldn’t be happier with the movies I saw. I absolutely loved Metamorphosis although judging by the audience’s reaction, I may be in the minority. I admit that this movie will not be liked by everyone, particularly if you go to the theater to watch a movie, not to read it. The main ..and for 98% of the movie, the ONLY…character loses his ability to speak. The only sounds he can make are barely audible grunts and heavy breathing. However, he does think a lot and we are treated to his thoughts through some very excellent captioning. Both the Korean and English subtitles. They appear slowly and with pauses so we never know exactly what the main character is going to say until he gets to the end of his thought.  Sometimes his thoughts are quite funny as when he mistakes Mozart music for a Girl’s Generation song or when he exclaims to himself, “…my body is jumping around! I’m being transformed into…a hiphop artist!”–which of course, he isn’t.

Metamorphosis is loosely based on Kafka’s work of the same name. However, just as the main character is not transformed into a hiphop artist, neither is changed into a giant cockroach. So what does happen?

In the movie, set inexplicably in 2016, the main character’s parents have been killed in a car accident and he has lost an inheritance dispute with his sister. Although he got none of the cash, he was allowed to keep the house in which he has been living with his parents since the IMF crisis twenty years earlier made it difficult for him to get a job. He admits that he was comfortable with that arrangement and claims to have felt neither embarrassment nor guilt. He recognized though that that in a capitalist society his contentment with being unemployed is akin to a crime.

At one point he considers God is punishing him for his contentment for, one morning, the character wakes up and finds that he is losing all feeling in his limbs while his hearing and voice disappear. Naturally, he initially panics and tries to convince himself that it is only a dream or that it is just temporary. But that first morning stretches into a day, and the day becomes a week. The longer he remains in this state, the more complacent he becomes. Even trips to the restroom become a burden until he finally just gives up. “Don’t pity me,” he thinks to the viewer as he lays in his own filth, “I am satisfied.”

Unlike Kafka story, there is a reason why this has happened, but I will not be revealing that here. Why I think this movie has little chance of a DVD release, you never know. Frankly, I don’t know how well this movie would work on a television screen. Sitting in a dark, hushed theater it was very effective–but on a small screen with distractions, it might not be as good.

The camera for most of this film seems to be worn around the character’s neck, but as the character cannot move much, it means we are treated to a single view of a curtained window for most of the movie–unless the character rolls over. Then we can see the door of his small room, his blankets or, rarely, a part of his body–a glimpse of his face at an akward angle, his hand or his foot. But that’s all we see. Now, personally I did not find this to be dull because his thoughts justifying his life and trying to make sense of his current situation are quite interesting. But I could see that some members of the audience were not happy with this.

This film is the first feature-length work by Lee Sam-chil. Lee had previously worked under Lee Myeong-se as assistant director of The Duelist and his short films have screened at other film festivals. He wrote, directed, performed the cinematography and starred in Metamorphosis. I applaud him for creating something I had never seen before, but I have to say he is going to have to comprise his artistic style a little if he wants to ever become a commercially successful director. Metamorphosis screened as part of the Korean Competition section at JIFF. After the screening, the audience was asked to rate it from 1-5.  I gave it a four.

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Executioner (2009)

25th April 2010

executionerWith all my mid-term exams graded and the scores recorded, I had the chance to sit down and watch a dvd–something I had not done for about two weeks due to preparing the aforementioned exams and then scoring them. That took longer than I would have liked because my classes are all large this semester–the smallest having 40 students and the largest,80. Anyway, I could finally see a dvd and I struggled to choose between the Executioner and White Nights, finally choosing the former. I was curious about this film when it was first released back in November 2009. It hung around in the box office for just three weeks and was seen by under half a million people. However, it did fairly well considering that it was up against some tough competition including Good Morning President and 2012. With no action and no CG, this film instead relied on a thoughtful story and solid acting. While it wasn’t really enough to succeed in the box office, is it enough entice someone to sit down and watch it now? Let’s see…

The story opens in a prison where a tough-as-nail warden, Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeong), works. It is the first day on the job for rookie guard Jae-kyeong (Yoo Gye-sang–former g.o.d. member) and he finds that prison life is as bad as he feared it would be. His nervousness and uncertain nature make him a target of the inmates who seek to intimidate him. Well, not all the inmates. One prisoner in particular, nicknamed ’Shrimp Eyes’, has developed a friendship with at least one guard and seeks redemption for his past crimes through treating others with compassion. He often can be seen outside his cell playing a game with Cheol-gu, the oldest guard in the prison.

Jae-kyeong learns that if he is too succeed, or even survive at his job, he has to adapt. He is taught by Jong-ho to use violence if necessary and if he is on duty then ‘anything goes.’  His first time beating a prisoner who nearly killed him is both traumatic and carthatic for him. Although peaceful by nature, he realizes that he must be stronger than those he is trying to keep in line. As Jong-ho tells him, “Animals do not attack something that is stronger than themselves.’ Jong-ho sees his charges as little more than animals and often compares them to trash that must be ‘crushed down.’ Jae-kyeong has no plans to become as unfeeling as his supervisor, but he does begin to change, a fact noticed by his worried girlfriend.

A balance is soon struck at the prison, but it is short lived. There is soon the addition of violent Chang-doo who has been put away for killing dozens of women. Jong-ho quickly asserts his place as leader of the prison before Chang-doo can get out of line, but it turns out to be all for naught. The public outcry over Chang-doo’s crimes is so great that the government decides that he must be executed along with two others to send out a message against violent crimes. One of the people to be executed is a faceless member of the prison, one is the clearly reformed Shrimp Eyes, and, of course, the prime target of the government’s crackdown, Chang-doo.

Cheol-gu is the most experienced at performing executions and he is drafted into assisting even though he asks to be exempt from this dreadful duty. During the 70s and 80s he took part in the execution of many suspected communists, student demonstrators and others whom the government had labelled as criminals. He is wracked by guilt as he now knows them to be innocent. Jong-ho, out of frustration with his staff, volunteers to be one of the executioners even though it is unusual due to his high rank. The other officers hold a lottery to determine who will be the final member of the execution team and Jae-kyeong loses. The main focus of the movie deals with how each of these three characters deal with the growing stress of the impending executions and the effects it has on their lives afterwards.

Director Choi Jin-ho is clearly against the death penalty as am I, however even I found the manner he got his point across to be too heavy handed and lacking in any sort of subtlety. He spends of great deal of time focussing on the guilt felt by the guards–even Jong-ho whose guilty conscience is destroying him from within. Choi also fails to attempt to see both sides of the arguement. Arguments could be made that the unrepentant Chang-doo is completely unreformable and perhaps does deserve to be killed. However, he avoids that issue completely and instead opts to botch the murderer’s execution horribly leaving no room for debate. The director clearly views the executions as murder. He gave us hints of his feelings earlier in the film by having the sister of one of Chang-doo’s victims says she would ‘kill him a thousand times except it would make her no better than him.’

The unbalanced viewpoint was one of the problems I had with the film. All sides of an issue should be explored if anything meaningful is to be discussed. I had another problem with the story. There is a sub-plot about Jae-kyeong’s girlfriend who is pregnant. She doesn’t really want the child but is willing to leave the decision up to Jae-kyeong. He delays making any decision at all as he mulls over the issues and then gets caught up in the drama of the executions. I did not like at all how the movie was paralleling the possibility of an abortion with the upcoming executions. No matter how one feels about abortion or the death penalty, I think most people would agree that they are completely separate issues with absolutely nothing in common. I felt linking them was at best a clumsy way of getting his ideas on the subjects across and at worst an over-simplification of the issues that is insulting to the intelligence of the viewers.

However, despite these problems I did end up liking the film. The acting was quite good, especially Jo Jae-hyeong.  If I had to rate the movie, I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. It could have been much better if a more balanced and thoughtful approach was taken to the plot and more emotional if more time had been spent developing some of the characters.

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Written (2007)

10th April 2010

lposter041156-k2When I had first read a discription of this film while it was in production, I thought that it sounded interesting but I knew I probably would not have the chance to see it as it was definitely what people would call ‘arthouse’. Arthouse films rarely get wide releases. When it was released on DVD earlier this year, I bought it without hesitation.  Last week, I finally got around to watching it. Now, when an arthouse film is made poorly, it can come off as either pretentious–screaming ‘Look at me! I am ART’ or boring and unwatchable.  When done correctly, this type of film is thought provoking, intelligent and enjoyable.  I am very happy to report that Written falls under the latter classification. But be warned, this is not a film that you just pop into the DVD player and turn off your mind. The story requires your full attention to follow as the reality inside the film rapidly changes. If you take a moment to answer the phone, you’re going to miss something important and be confused for the rest of the movie.

The film opens with an unnamed man waking up in a bathtub of ice water, hooked up to an IV with a surgical scar across his belly. He quickly realizes through his pain that his kidney has been stolen while he was unconcious. Ignoring the writing on the wall that states in English ‘Go to the Hospital’, he begins a bizarre quest to find his kidney. Even he recognizes this as irrational–it is not like he can put it back in–but he is driven forward.

Another reality, this one filmed in sepia tones. A movie director is explaining to a producer about the plot of a film he is making and it mimics the actions of what we have just seen. The director’s only complaint with his story is the way the writer is working. She is too slow–giving the actors the script on a day-by-day basis. The actors do not care for this style as they have no time to practice their lines. The director is annoyed because the writer wants to change the ending from her original idea.

The writer, it turns out, is concerned about the character she created to the point of obsession. She feels guilt because, as she wrote him, his suffering never ends–it is what drives the story. Also, as she sees it, his pain will be eternal as the film is made. Even though he is slated to die at the end, it will always restart with him waking confused in the bathtub—unless she can somehow change the ending. To this end, she writes herself into the story and gives him a copy of the script to convince him that his reality is not the only one and he must somehow escape his destiny and gain free will.  However, things will become even more complex as a third reality begins to encroach.

As the movie is being made, the actor literally puts himself into the story–studying the character every chance he gets. His ultimate goal is to pick the main character apart so he can understand him completely and ultimately become him. At one point the actor boasts that he has already ‘killed’ dozens of characters as he conquers them body and soul. Of course, in reality this is not really killing, but it will prove fatal to the main character who might cease to exist if the actor gets his way. It seems as if the actor has all the advantages as he can leave the world of story/film anytime he wants while the main character finds that he cannot cross over into reality. He is stuck in the story and slowly becomes endangered by the approaching film.

The overall atmosphere of the film reminded me a little of  Naked Lunch (1991). It can be confusing at times, but if you pay attention and put some thought into it, you will be rewarded.  The movie was only 87 minutes long–I wish it were longer. I loved this movie and highly recommend it.

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Yoga Academy (2009)

1st April 2010

yoga academyI finally sat down and watched Yoga Academy today.  Not on DVD… I certainly won’t buy it until the price comes down.  I am all for owning as many dvds of Korean films as I can..but even I have standards.  The dvd right now is somewhere around 20,000+ KRW  and I thought that would be too much to spend on this movie. I had felt that 7,000 was too much to see it when this horror film hit theaters in August too.  I have HanaTV and movies usually are available there just a couple of months after their theatrical releases–so why not wait? When it came to HanaTV, the on-demand price was 5,000. I decided to skip it. Then it went down to half of that price. I still didn’t bite. Then last weekend, I saw that it was down to 500KRW on demand–that is less than  $0.50 USD. I felt the price was right and I would give it a chance.

I also thought that maybe I was being a little unfair to the movie. True, reviews were horrible but I had already made my decision about that just from reading the plot synopsis while the movie was still in production. A group of women practicing yoga in a creepy, haunted building? It really sounded like the writer was completely out of ideas and I really wonder how the film was pitched to producers and investors.  And in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the film I found myself thinking, “Hey! This is no where near as bad as I thought.”  But then…well, things start going down hill pretty fast.

Being a generally positive person, I’ll start with the two things I liked about this movie. First, I liked the set up of why Hyo-jeong, the main character in the story, decides to join a creepy haunted yoga class in the first place. Hyo-jeong works as a hostess on a home-shopping program. However, while nowhere near middle-aged, she is still not as young as she used to be. And it turns out that she has reason to worry as her new co-hostess is much younger, gaining in popularity and getting some work that would normally have gone to Hyo-jeong. This short sequence–the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film–have a Bette Davis All About Eve feel to it and, if this had been the focus of the film, it might have been more enjoyable.

The second part I liked comes early on in Hyo-jeong yoga training. It is the first time the students at the academy practice together and the never-smiling instructor puts them through their paces in an odd chamber lit by candles and encircled by a moat of  shallow dark water. As the students practice their moves in unison, eyes closed and concentrating on relaxing, the instructor mimics their motions in a more grandious way but her actions cause things to happen such as the candles to blow out in unison or the water to ripple menacingly. I thought to myself, “It’s a form of witchcraft! I don’t remember having seen anything quite like it before in a Korean horror movie!” and I started for some reason thinking about Suspiria, an Italian horror movie I had seen where a coven of witches run a ballet school (It’s much better than I just made it sound).

But when the movie you’re watching has you thinking about other, better movies, it should be a sign to you that there is a problem. While I liked those two things listed above, I disliked everything else. The first major problem comes when we are introduced to our class of victims. These women have no character whatsoever except for some broadly painted, cliche. There is the vain one, the bitchy one, the comic quirky one, and the other one–she had even less personality than the others, I kept forgetting who she was–and while I’m writing this I can’t remember what finally happened to her…  The comic quirky woman, played by Jo Eun-ji, was especially annoying. She is comic, you see, because she used to be fat. As a fat person, even a former fat person, she naturally thinks only of food. Actress Jo seems to follow the acting style of Jo An in Whispering Corridors 3: Wishing Stairs as she scurries around with an odd birdlike shuffle and wide-eyed insanity as events start getting out of hand. Add to insatiable craving for food a pathological attachment to a pet guinea pig that she carries everywhere with her and you can predict what will eventually happen.  In fact, you can predict almost everything in this film except for the end.

Why couldn’t I predict the end? I don’t even know what happened, that’s why! If anyone can come up with an explanation from Hyo-jeong’s discovery in the basement to the final subway scene, I would love to hear it.  The film  is a complete mess.

If you feel you must watch this film, do something else like homework or ironing at the same time. That way, you won’t waste 98 minutes like I did.  I want my 50 cents back….

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Thirst (2009)

21st March 2010

lposter039198It’s been a little while since I have written a new review here…I have a few in notebooks in my office (Yes–I still write on paper) but these days, I have been busy with my new responsibilities at the university which I really enjoy. That does not mean I haven’t been watching movies and buying dvds though.  Last week, an order of six movies came in which included films like Come, Come, Come Upwards, I’m a Cyborg But That’s Ok and Park Chan-wook’s vampire film, Thirst.

The fact that it was Park Chan-wook making the film excited many people who remember the innovation he bought to films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy. However, the movie did not do as well as expected in the box office and audiences opinions were divided as to whether they loved the film or hated it.  After watching it, I weighed in as simply liking it. After watching the movie again today on DVD, my opinion has not changed much. It is an acceptable vampire movie but fails to deliver anything new. 

The writing of the movie seems heavily influenced by the Ann Rice books (Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat...) where a very philosophical vampire, plagued with human emotions and foibles, winds up creating a partner far more ruthless and inhumane than himself.  And while one of the bloodsuckers views his powers as a curse he never chose, the other elected to have these abilities and the blood lust that comes with them. The conflict between the two styles and what it means to be a vampire drives the second half of the film. The first half focuses on Father Sang-hyeon trying to come to terms with his disease and the sinful yearnings it gives him.

‘Disease’ is the correct term when talking about Sang-hyeon’s condition. In fact he received vampirism from a blood transfusion after he volunteered as a guinea pig in attempting to find a cure for the Ebola Virus and being injected with the germs. (It does lead one to wonder what kind of vampire donates blood)  While the style of his infection is somewhat different than in traditional vampire films what follows is quite similar to modern cinematic vampires who could best be described by the term ‘emo’.

Oh, these new vampires think they are so dramatic while the wallow in self pity and regret of their actions. However, they are all six or seven decades too late. Countess Marya Zaleska in the classic 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter is perhaps the first and arguably the best of these guilt ridden undead as she tries everything from suspicians to psychology to cure herself. The fact that Sang-hyeon in Thirst is a priest adds to his agnst but otherwise but the potential that his religious belief could have brought to the film are wasted as the second half of the movie follows many modern conventions.

Perhaps my expectations were too high for this film to live up to. Overall, it the movie is not bad and I do not regret owning it. And it also should be credited for taking vampires out of the realm of comedy where they have been lingering in Korean cinema  for the last two decades. I guess I had just wished for a little bit more…

For my review of an older Korean vampire film, see Dracula in a Coffin (1982)

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Fantastic Parasuicides (2007)

27th February 2010

fantastic parasuicidesI am sure you have all experienced a case where you have been looking forward to a movie but when you see it you are disappointed. Well, I am happy to report that this is definitely NOT the case here. The movie had a lot of expectations to live up to–I had heard good things about it but I wasn’t able to watch it when it was released as part of the Pusan International Film Festival and then I could not locate the DVD for many years. But I found that the new DVD company I am using has a lot of hard-to-find films (things like the 1986 version of Hwang Jin-yi or the Crying Nut movie Looking for Bruce Lee) and I was finally able to get my hands on it.  After watching it I can say that this movie was well worth the wait and one viewing will not be enough to satisfy me.

Fantastic Parasuicides is not actually one movie. It is an omnibus of three short films all involving people attempting to commit suicide but who are not quite able to pull it off. The first of these is goes under the English title Hang Tough. It was directed by Park Soo-yeong whom I see has numerous short films starting around 2003 but whom has yet to helm a feature lenght move. That is disappointing. If the quirky style of Hang Tough is anything to go by, I definetly want to see more of Park’s work in the future. In Hang Tough, a young school girl misses an important exam because she fell asleep in the library. Deciding that she does not want to live any longer she throws herself from the top of the school…only to wake up on the ground. She picks herself up and walks away confused, only to find that things are not quite the same as before and she is about to embark on a surreal adventure. This short features some excellent and surprising performances including roles played by Tablo (lead singer of Epik High) as a high school boy with a plan to blow up the school with a homemade bomb. (I am afraid to see the spam that sentence is going to bring me!) Park Hwi-soon (of KBS2’s Gag Concert)plays the girl’s teacher–a man so afraid that one of his students is going to kill him that he is willing to kill himself first and Kim Ga-yeon plays the school’s nurse intent on declaring her love for the young school girl who is now trying to stop everyone else from killing themselves. This is a funny mix and the whole film feels like a blend of Alice in Wonderland and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The second story, Fly Chicken, features Kim Nam-jin who also starred in Shadows In the Palace the same year this film was released. Kim plays a soldier who, disgusted with the horrors he witnessed in battle, decides to go to the coast and shoot himself in his hotel room. He prepares three bullets, one for his heart, one for his soul and one for his life. But fate has arranged several interruptions that when combined may prevent him from carrying out his plan. This segement was also good, but much more somber than the first. The generous amounts of comedy are carried out in a deadpan fashion and the results generate more of an air of the bizarre than laugh-out-loud humor. Once the film got started, I enjoyed it but I wound up turning the volume on low for a couple of minutes during the ‘talking to the chicken’ part. No, Kim was not shouting at the chicken. He was talking to the chicken in chicken language. Clucks and crows that were subtitled at the bottom of the screen. While it is bizarre and amusing that Kim’s character knows chicken-speak without any explanation…it did grate on my nerves after about a minute. Fortunately, that does not last too long.

The final story, Happy Birthday,  was also good. It is about an old man who has been living alone for six months after the death of his life partner. He wakes up one day, realizes it is his birthday and suddenly feels more alone than ever. He decides he is going to jump off something but along the way meets a young man, carrying a satchel full of gold teeth, standing on the train tracks.  He learns the man is being chased by a couple of gangsters and decides to help him out even if it means his own life will end.

This is a great collection. I was surprised how quickly the 92-minute running time seemed to fly by. If you can track it down, don’t hesitate to buy it. I know I will be watching it again soon.

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