Seen in Jeonju

Archive for the '2010s' Category

Mama (2011)

14th August 2011

MamaTwo weeks ago, when I posted my article for Officer of the Year published in Asiana Entertainment, I said that in September, my article for the film Mama could be read in that magazine and I would repost the article here. However, while that review will still be published, I decided to write a separate one for here. That is because the editor of the airline magazine asked me to focus on “Korean motherhood from the point of view of a foreigner.”  There are so many things that irk me about that sentence… First of all, I critique and review films. It is not my intention or desire to do the same with a culture. Secondly, I am not qualified to to make such observations and loath making that kind of generalization. And finally, I have lived here nearly 20 years now– I have been here nearly as long as my students at the university have been alive. I hate that people think of me or my ideas as ‘foreign’.  Well, I wrote their article, minimizing the focus to more of a universal definition of motherhood, but I will write a fresh opinion for here.

Mama is a film featuring Uhm Jeong-hwa, Kim Hae-sook and Jeon Soo-kyeong in roles of mothers. These charaters never interact and their stories could have been told separately in an omnibus. Instead however, director Choi In-hwan (Whispering Corridors 4: The Voice) chose to weave back and forth between the characters’ stories showing similar problems in different lights. One of the main differences between the charaters is finacial.  Jeon Soo-kyeong’s character Hee-kyeong is wealthy and famous and has just about everything money can buy. However, she does not have the respect of her own adult daughter who lives with her along with the latter’s husband and daughter. Kim Hae-sook plays Ok-joo, a sweet if not necessarily bright woman who is absolutely devoted to her son Seung-cheol who pretends to be an English teacher when he is actually a gangester.  There relationship is treated in a warm and loving manner by the film and it provides the most laughs due to its comedy and smiles due to its warmth.

Uhm Jeong-hwa plays Dong-sook, a single mother living on the edge of poverty but working hard at many jobs to support her sickly son. Her character is active and seems to be full of life as she has a smile for everyone. However, she faces the worst challenge of her life when she is diagnosed with a disease that will almost certainly prove fatal. While she is not worried about herself, she wonders who will take care of her son. The other two mothers face their challenges too. Ok-joo must have surgery that she feels will make her less of a woman and she decides that she would like to meet her highschool sweetheart before that happens. Hee-kyeong is coming to the end of her career and begins to feel frustration at her daughter who has never shown any sign of personal ambition.

At first, I was annoyed with the movie which seemed to try to be overly sentimental too early into the story. Without developing the characters, the script was trying to force tears by perhaps depending on the audience’s nostalgia for their own childhood. In my case at least, that did not work. However, once I have gotten to know the characters a little more, I did feel for them— although not as much as the film obviously meant me too. I was not weeping at the end of every little conflict.  I saved that for the conclusion of the film where I challenge anyone to have a dry eye. The penultimate scene is genuinely moving and I absolutely loved the way the director left the end which could go one way or the other–depending on the viewer. I don’t want to expand on that though until more people have had a chance to see the film.

Uhm Jeong-hwa does a good job but her early scenes suffer because of the script which clearly intends for her life to be a tragic soap opera. Ok-joo and her son (played by the excellent Yoo Hae-jin) were my favorite pair to watch together but I think the best acting actually goes to Jeon Soo-kyeong. I was unfamilar with the actress but later learned that she has a lot of experience on the musical stage. Her voice is amazing when we finally here what she can do in the auditorium.

All in all, I would recommend this film. It is a nice movie that tries a little too hard to a tearjerker. For the most part it is not, but you still might want to have a box of tissues ready for that final scene.

Posted in 2010s, Review | Comments Off

Sector 7 (2011)

5th August 2011

sector 7

Sector 7 opened yesterday. A 3D-optional, action/adventure film featuring Ahn Seong-gi, Ha Ji-won and Oh Ji-ho battling a monster-from-the-deep aboard an offshore oil rig, this movie seems to have the recipe for success. What could go wrong?  Apparently, quite a bit…

water bearPerhaps I should start with the good.  The special effects were very well done.  Now, I did not see the movie in 3D, so I cannot comment on that aspect of the film, but the CGI monster was very appearance anyway. In fact, it reminded me a lot of a water bear (pictured right).  Water bears are extremely hardy, primitive animals found in the deepest oceans and in the highest mountains. Nasa sent some into the airless vacuum of space and not only did they survive, but they reproduced. The hardiness of a water bear is pretty much the only way to describe the durability of the monster in this film. You can shoot it, chop it, burn it and crush it, but it just keeps coming. The only difference is that water bears are less than a millimeter long while the monster in the movie seems to be about 4 meters. (and it is a little sad that I would rather write about water bears than this film…)

While the look of the monster was good, we had to look at it far too much during the movie. Once it makes its official screen debut in all its slimy glory, we can’t get rid of it. It would have been nice to have some time with it offscreen to give a chance for the script to develop some of the characters. Nor did we need to see each killing as it occured. It would have been just as effective to view the aftermath of the monster’s attacks once in awhile.  In fact, the only place we do not see the creature is on any of the posters advertising the movie.  I can fix that with the aid of the photo of my friend the water bear above. 

sector 7 b

There we go.. that’s a more accurate depiction of the film…

The actors do what they can with this movie, but the script does nothing to help them. Hae-joon (Ha Ji-won) is inconsistantly written. At times she is a tough, no nonsense laborer who is ready to fight at the drop of a hat and chase down a suspected murderer. But other times she seems screams like she’s in a slasher flick.  I also found her reason for staying on the oil rig unrealistic and detracted from my opinion of her. But at least her character had a personality. Did Oh Ji-ho’s character Dong-soo have any lines that strung more than 10 words together? I can’t remember. I do remember Ahn Seong-gi’s mid-movie revelation. It comes out of left field and marks the point I would identify as the downward turn of the film.  Oh–now that I’m thinking about it, that point might have been where we are given a montage of things that I am sure you are not supposed to do on an oil rig. I won’t say too much about it except, if you don’t want to shell out cash for the motorcycle-action film Quick now doing fairly well in theaters, this sequence is probably the next ‘best’ thing. The worst part of all comes when the film tries to force sentimentality on us at the very end. At no point did I have an emotional response to the characters or identify with their feelings.

Actually, I have no doubt that Sector 7 will be number one at the end of this weekend… and I would have seen it myself even if  after reading a review like this–but it is hard for me to recommend this movie unless you are just looking to watch a film where you can turn off your brain and just watch events unfold. Heavy on action, light on plot..att the very least, you won’t be bored.

Pick one!   One link is a short Youtube video about Water Bears!  The other is the website of Sector 7.  Choose wisely.

Posted in 2010s, Review | 1 Comment »

Officer of the Year (2011)

31st July 2011

officer of the year

The following review was originally written for the August edition Asiana Entertainment, the in-flight magazine of Asiana Airlines. Now published, I am able to post it here as well. As it is an airplane magazine and not a film journal, the reviews must be kept positive. Sometimes, like when I wrote about Dragon Wars and Hearty Paws 2, it was quite difficult and definitely felt like selling out. But in this case, it was not difficult to give the film a good review.  Officer of the Year is a comedy..not my favorite genre.. however it is not a bad film and it turned out that I did not mind watching it. You can view the original article if you are flying on Asiana in August… In September, you can read my review of Mama.

Officer Hwang Jae-seong uses his experience and keen instincts to bring criminals to justice in style. He prides himself on his ability and his arrest record is second to none. However, he may have some unlikely competition in a young rookie from a nearby, rival precinct.  What Officer Jeong Ui-chan lacks in experience, he makes up for in luck and determination.  Trying to fulfill his own ambitions as well as trying to impress his future father-in-law, Jeong attempts to overcome his limitations and innate klutziness to earn the coveted title of ‘Officer of the Year.’

The laughs come thick and fast as the two cops compete to collar the most criminals. However, Jeong and his compatriots at their under-funded, overworked station are outmaneuvered at every turn by the elite forces of Hwang. But then the comedy comes to a halt as a crime, so heinous in nature, changes the atmosphere of the film and forces the two stations to cooperate. Hwang and Jeong reluctantly come to an understanding and form an uneasy alliance as they track a serial rapist who has been slowly amassing quite a list of victims. Although their very different styles of detecting seems like it could cover all angles, it may not be enough to bring a supremely confident criminal mastermind whose modus operandi may leave him immune to detection.

Veteran comedic actor Park Joong-hoon has proven over the decades that he is not merely a master gagman, but also able to handle scenes and scripts that require intense drama. This movie demanded that he call on both of his demonstrated skill sets as Officer of the Year alters its tone from light police comedy to a serious crime/thriller. Park’s co-star in this film is Lee Seon-gyun, who plays the earnest yet inexperienced Officer Jeong, is charged with performing more of the comedy of this film than Park, which is rare for him as he usually appears in dramas and romance flicks. Yet Lee handily shows that he is up to the task and naïve and fumbling portrayal of Jeong is one of the highlights of this film and is warmly endearing.

There is one supporting character that may actually outshine the main actors in his few scenes. It is the character of the harmless but undeniably insane Ko played to perfection by Lee Won-hee.  In any movie Lee Won-hee appears in, no matter how large or small the role, he brings with him an enthusiasm and passion that is a joy to watch as he chews up the scenery and steals the scene. In Officer of the Year, his role is a just a bit part but he shows up sporadically at the police station throughout the film confessing to crimes he did not commit.

Korea cinema has had the reputation over the last decade or so of producing quality, genre-blended films and Officer of the Year is another fine example of this phenomenon. It is a comedy that will bring a smile to your face while it simultaneously proves itself to be a satisfying thriller.  You will definitely find it worth your time!

Posted in 2010s, Review | 1 Comment »

Sunny (2011)

19th June 2011

img850Easily the best film I have seen so far this year, Sunny is the right blend of comedy and drama & nostalgia and realism.  Admittedly, the ending threatens to derail the aforementioned realism, but it was so satisfying that I am not going to complain about it. Watching the film last week, I was happily surprised to see that the average age of the audience that attended the screening I was at seemed to be in the mid-forties. This makes it the second film this year that has appealed to, and likely made for, more mature audiences (the first being Late Blossom –formerly listed as simply I Love You). I don’t mean ‘for mature viewers’ as in a porn flick, by mature I mean viewers who have been out of high school for more than 10 years and where looking back at that time is like looking back in history. Although historical events are glanced, such as the clashes between riot police and pro-democracy demonstrators, they have no real meaning or importance in this film as they are the memories of a woman who was a high school student at the time–and she was dealing with issues of more personal importance to her.

The main character of the movie is Na-mi played as an adult by actress Yoo Ho-jeong and as a child by Shim Eun-kyeong.  Shim, who you may remember from 2009’s Possessed, gives an impresive performance–and even gives a nod to Possessed when she pulls trick of pretending to be possessed by a spirit and saying afterwards that she was hungry–similar to her most chilling lines in the 2009 film. Na-mi has just moved to Seoul from Jeonbuk and entered a new school. However, she is finding it hard to fit in between the dialect she spouts and the fashions and would-be sophistication of her classmates. But between the friends she makes and her natural charm, she soon find herself at the heart of her group of friends.

Like when I was in high school, the classes are divided into cliques. Her group of friends call themselves ‘Sunny’ after a popsong that they plan to perform at a school festival. Their rivals are cleverly named Girl’s Generation and Finkl predating the actual singing groups of those names by two decades.  However, no matter how close people are in their school days, time has a way of separating friends.  Now and adult, Na-mi has been reunited with the former leader of their group, Choon-hwa, who charges her friend with finding the rest of their classmates.  Na-mi sets about doing just that and in doing so is able to reconcile some past issues as well as re-examine how she is performing her duties as a wife and mother. 

As I write this, Sunny is still in theaters and may see five million tickets sold this weekend. It is an excellent film and I highly recommend seeing it at the first opportunity!

Posted in 2010s, Review | 1 Comment »

Chasing the Ghost Sound (2010)

19th April 2011

chasing the ghost soundA television crew filming a weekly program that tracks down supernatural activity and ghosts is called to the house of Geum-ja. There they meet the tense woman and learn why she has come to believe her house is haunted by the spirit of her younger sister. During an interview, the crew learns that some time not too long ago, Geum-ja’s sister and husband were killed in a car accident.  The interview quickly sours however when the producer questions the relationship between the two dead people. Rather than continue and upset their host further, the television crew sets up cameras and mikes in the hopes of catching a ghostly visitor or hearing any unexplained sounds.  However, after hours of filming and sound recording, the team packs up without hearing a thing. As they pack up their equipment, Geum-ja is left alone with her dark thoughts and in a foul mood because of the insinuations and suspicians of the camera crew. Then she hears a sound.. a voice… and she knows that she is not alone. She recognizes the voice of her sister whom she feels has a message of forgiveness for her. However, she cannot make out the words. She screams for the television crew who answer her call and they immediately begin making EVPs– however when they analyze the sounds, they can only make out five syllables which apparently have no meaning. The crew gives up but leaves Geum-ja with a copy of the recording which she listens to..until she realizes that the syllables are actually the scrambled words. She quickly goes to work unscrambling the sentence not realizing the horror she about to unleash….

The English title of this film fails to take into account the full Korean title which, if translated, would be Invisible 2: Chasing the Ghost Sound.  What then was Invisible 1?  It was a short film made back in 2004 by director Yoo Joon-seok, who also created this film. It’s full title was Invisible 1: Chasing the Hidden Sound… it really was called Invisible 1. Apparently Yoo has been planning this sequel for quite a while.  The first movie screened at the 5th Jeonju International Film Festival and it was about a tape recorder found at the scene of a murder. The detectives attempt to unravel the crime based only on the sounds caught on tape. However, they learn that sound alone is an incomplete and inaccurate method of painting a picture and can easily be manipulated… as done by the spirit in Chasing the Ghost Sound. When Invisible 1 screened in Jeonju, critic Yoo Eun-seong called it ’stale’ as it relied on twists and reversals as seen in movies like Usual Suspects, but “the director’s witty way of dealing with images and sound is definitely something viewers will want to keep seeing.”  The same might be said for Invisible 2. It definitely lacked originality with its faux-documentary style filming that we have seen a lot of recently in horror movies since The Blair Witch Project.  However, the use of sound was very interesting and as Geum-ja was unscrambling the sentence, I found myself becoming increasingly engrossed as I was trying to unravel the mystery with her. 

I had reviewed one of Yoo’s films earlier on this site, it was Coma: The Necklace, the third chapter of that story. At the time, I was disappointed with his effort on the film saying that it derailed the suspense and mystery set up by the two earlier chapters. I also said that the step away from the supernatural in that portion of the story may have been because the main character in that segment was not prone to flights of fancy and this theory was subsequently backed up by the fourth chapter which featured an unstable artist who saw ghosts everywhere she looked.

As far as the ghost in Chasing the Ghost Sound, I have to admit that she made me jump. However, there was nothing original or unique about her– I jumped more out of surprise than fear. I watched this film on Hana Tv–my internet tv provider –and it does not seem to be available anywhere else at this time. There were no subtitles and frankly I don’t know if it would be possible to provide subs on this film as the key to the mystery hinges on unscrambling syllables to form a sentence in Korean.  As a final evaluation, I guess I would say that this film is nothing new, but not a bad way to spend a spare 40 minutes.

Posted in 2010s, short films | Comments Off

Children… (2011)

22nd February 2011

lposter041916-k7The other day, I had the chance to watch director Lee Gyu-man’s latest film, Children..., which is currently ranked at number one in the box office. It is based on the heart-wrenching true story of the “Frog Boys” of Daegu. The five children lived in a village outside the city and, one warm day in March of 1991, set off to the nearby mountainside to catch frogs. They never returned. The frantic parents tried to get the police to investigate right away, but the authorities were convinced that this was simply a case of runaway children and that they would be back in a day or two. They never returned. Months later, thousands of police were set on the mountain to search for clues as to what may have happened but nothing turned up. The parents took their pleas for the boys’ return to the airways where their story captured the heart, mind and sometimes imagination of the nation. Various theories both plausible and ridiculous abounded– The boys ran away, they were kidnapped by North Korea, they were murdered, they fell in the lake and drown, they were abducted by aliens were– These were just some of the theories that people came up with.  For eleven years the parents waited for any news of their missing sons. Then in September 2004, the remains of the children were found in the woods on the same mountainside the children said they were visiting. At first police said it seemed likely that the boys got lost and froze to death during the night, but a few days later, after sending the exhumed evidence to forensics, they had to admit they were wrong. Two of the skulls bore large holes and one had strange indentations made from an as yet unidentified instrument. Their clothes were tied into knots and bullet casings were found in the shallow, makeshift grave. More theories arose about the children meeting a psychopath in the woods or the theory of the accidental shooting and subsequent murder by a panicked hunter at the nearby sports-hunting preserve who may have mistaken one of the children for a deer. However, the investigation had reached a dead end. Korea has a statute of limitation on major crimes and in 2006 it ran out on the case. Even if the killer were found at this point, he or she could not be prosecuted.

Those are the facts of the case but how about the movie?  In my opinion, where the film sticks closely with the facts of the disappearance, it is very effective and gripping. However, in the latter portion of the film, director Lee chooses to go with the sensational and moves away from facts to give us a suspect who is possibly a seriel killer. Here the film flounders  before once again finding its footing at the very end once again with the funeral of the children.

A6103-00The focus of the movie is not the children who have disappeared before the opening credits finish rolling. Nor is it on the parents and their desperate search to find their kids. Those themes were dealt with in the 1992 film Come Back Frog Boys (pictured right) which was made at a time when the children were still thought to have run away from home and it was hoped that it would help entice them to return. Instead, the focus of Children… is on career-driven documentary maker Kang Ji-seung who is in the hopes of making a comeback after being disgraced for rigging an award-winning documentary. He goes to Daegu where he meets an equally ambitious professor who hopes to make a name for himself by solving the crime where police failed. The professor’s theory, which seems to have quite a bit of compelling evidence behind it, takes the pair in a direction that the police were reluctant to investigate. 

The director chose to have several jumps in time in this film as it moves from 1991 to 1996 to 2002 to several years after that. Most of the time jumps are clearly labeled onscreen, but the last one relies on us guessing the age of Kang’s daughter who appears to have aged about 6 years.  While some people may feel that he does not cover enough details because of these jumps, I found them perfectly acceptable due to the amount of time that was necessary to cover the story he wanted told. His choice of actors was also good especially the parents of the missing boy, Jong-ho. They were played by Seong Ji-roo and Kim Yeo-jin and both of them manage to bring a mix of tragedy to their roles without making the characters overwraught and a sense of additional mystery behind them.  As I mentioned early though, Director Lee does stray away from facts by first ignoring some of the evidence found with the bodies (the bullet casings) and later by giving us a suspect that never existed in real life.

These omissions and additions make Children… a work of fiction rather than a semi-documentary film.  You should definitely take the time to see this atmospheric work although I do warn you that you will probably wind up leaving the theater a little depressed. Below I have provided portions of news articles published at the time of the events related to the case to give more background on the story.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++ From the Korea Times, Sept. 28, 2002

Remains of 5 Missing Boys Found After 11 Years in Taegu–Human remains, presumed to be those of the so-called “frog boys” who disappeared eleven years ago in Taegu, were found yesterday at a mountain near the scene of where they went missing, police said yesterday.  The remains were found on the side of Mt. Waryong in Taegu by a local resident named Choi, 55, who was gathering acorns in the area at 11:30 a.m.  Police investigations revealed five sets of remains buried about 30 cm below the ground, along with a dozen pieces of clothing and five pairs of children’s shoes.“The shoes found near the bodies appear to be identical to the ones reported to have been worn by the children at the time of their disappearence…”

+++++++++++from the Korea Times, Sept. 29/30, 2002

Hole in skull raises suspected murder of boys—(Sept. 29) Police yesterday were continuing to investigate the deaths of five boys whose remains were found last week in Taegu, eleven years after the boys went missing. They are focusing their investigations on whether foul play was involved in the deaths of the five boys, who disappeared after leaving their homes to catch frogs on nearby Mt. Waryong on March 26, 1991. Their remains were found by a resident Thursday on the very mountain the boys had ventured out to that day. Police investigations have found two holes were punched in one of the boys’ skulls, while the back of the cranium has a large hole in it. (Sept. 30)–Police and forensic experts said yesterday they found a hole and a sunken mark in one of the five skulls discovered at a site in western Daegu last week. The skulls are believed to be those of five elementary schoolboys reported missing at the scene 11 years ago. The new discovery raised the possibility that the boys might have been killed.  Rebutting an initial police report that the boys died from cold weather at the site, the boys’ families claimed the hole and the mark attest to their murders. They alleged the murder scenario is backed by the fact that the boy’s recovered sleeves and pants were tied and bullets casings were found nearby…

+++++++++++++++ From the Chosun Ilbo, March 26, 2004

 2004032661016_1 “Frog Boys” Laid to Rest as Anguished Parents Demand Justice–A funeral ceremony for five schoolboys who went missing in 1991 after going out to catch frogs, was held at Kyungbuk National University Hospital on Friday. Anguished cries from family and friends of the ??Frog Boys?? were heard as Lim Hee-su, president of Seongseo Elementary School, addressed the gathering. The remains of Woo Chul-won, Cho Ho-yeon, Kim Yeong-kyun, Park Chan-in and Kim Jong-shik were not discovered until 2002, 11 years after they vanished.”How depressing it must be for these parents to treasure their dead children in their hearts,?? said Na Ju-bong, president of the Citizens”  Gathering in Search for Missing Children Nationwide. “The rest of us must prevent this from ever happening again.” The remains of the boys were brought to their old school in three funeral carriages decorated with yellow flowers. All 1,800 Seongseo Elementary School students prayed silently while five representatives holding the portraits of the boys walked around the school grounds. The families of the victims then pledged to find the perpetrator and make him apologize and pay for the crime.

+++++++++++++++++from the Korea Herald, March 2, 2006

Unsolved murders may escape prosecution—Time is running out for authorities to bring to justice the killer of five children murdered in Daegu 15 years ago because the statute of limitations for the mysterious case expires on March 26. In 1991, five elementary school boys, dubbed the “frog boys,” were reported missing after venturing into the mountains to catch frogs.  The parents of the boys spent a fortune searching for their children throughout the country. Rumors saying that the children were abducted by North Korea or even taken by extra terrestrials were also spread.  The long-unresolved case almost disappeared from the public`s memory, but in 2002, the remains of the five boys were found in a hillside by a hiker.  A forensic team from Kyungpook National University in Daegu concluded that the children were murdered, but so far, has not found any evidence explaining how they were killed.  The high-profile criminal case has been shrouded in mystery for 15 years despite the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of police and other investigation personnel. In August 2005, Rep. Moon Byung-ho of the ruling Uri Party submitted a bill which, if approved by the National Assembly, will lengthen the limitation from the current 15 years to 20 years. “The purpose of the statute of limitation is to prevent unfair trials caused by lack of evidence of crime after some time. But now that the development of technology such as DNA tests makes it possible to accumulate proof even after a long period, it is natural to extend the statute of limitations,” Moon said.

Posted in 2010s, Review | Comments Off

Hearty Paws 2 (2010)

9th November 2010

_PRODU~4Ugh– for the second night in a row, I have left the box office information in my office. I will have to post it tomorrow morning when I go in to school. In the meantime, I will post the article that I wrote for the November issue of Asiana Entertainment.  When I write for AE, I do not get to choose the film. Contents of the magazine are naturally limited to what is being shown on the flights. The only stipulation I have is that they only assign me Korean films. This condition came about after I had been assigned, and I refused to view/write about, Beverly Hills Chihuahua back in 2008. The prime purpose of the airplane magazine is entertainment, not critique and no one wants to read that the movies featured on a given flight are not very good. So, when I when I am assigned a movie I do not particularly care for–like when I was given The Sword With No Name or, years ago, Dragon Wars– I find a good point about the film and expand on that. I would love to give a more truthful opinion, but I also want to be published. I knew I was going to be in trouble when the editor assigned me to write a review for Hearty Paws 2. I knew that it was definitely NOT my style of movie. Now, I have written about several animated films on this site which I have loved. And I fully admit to willingly purchasing and, this past Monday night, watching Sparkman–a Shim Hyeong-rae live-action childrens movie from 1988 which I will probably get around to writing about here at some point. However, those seem different to me. Those are viewed for research purposes, part of a film history that I want to know more about.  Maybe, after thirty years, I will be happy to see Hearty Paws 2, but I have might doubts.  It is a shame too, because the original Hearty Paws is surprisingly good- with a heart-breaking end. But (as a mention in the below review), given the end, a true sequel is impossible and Hearty Paws 2 deviates far from its predecessor.   What I wrote for Asiana Entertainment appears below.The key phrase to keep in mind is that this movie “captures the imagination of preschoolers.” 

From Asiana Entertainment vol. 16, no. 11:  It is unusual to enjoy a non-animated Korean film that can be enjoyed by the youngest members of a family. Although Korean cinema offers entertaining viewing and beautiful and often tragic stories, rarely are screenplays written with small children in mind. However, Hearty Paws 2, with its loveable dogs and simple action, fills this niche. It is sure to capture the attention and imagination of preschoolers while keeping parents happy knowing that their children are watching a wholesome film wherein a happy end is guaranteed.

The name of the dog in the film is Maeumi, which is also the Korean name of the movie. That, and the fact that the pooch is played by the same animal actor, are the only connections the movie Hearty Paws 2 has with the original 2006 film. The sad ending of the first film left it impossible to make a true sequel. Hearty Paws 2 departs from the heavy drama of the original to a light comic tone which has much more in common with Home Alone than Old Yeller. The story revolves around a clever mother dog, her attentive owner Dong-wook and her litter of fluffy white puppies. When a pair of bumbling jewel thieves steals one of Maeumi’s pups, the courageous canine goes on a frantic chase through the countryside in an effort to reclaim him. Naturally, the robbers are not willing to part with their prize, so Maeumi ensures that she will get their attention focused on her by devouring their stash of diamonds. This leads the dim-witted burglars chasing the precocious dog into the woods where a lively game of hide-and-seek ensues and where encounters with a wild pig and a poisonous snake help alter the course of the game.

As mentioned earlier, this film is certainly suitable for children. Even though the dognappers speak threateningly about what they will do if they catch Maeumi, there is never any sense of real danger and most children will not be frightened. Even the CGI snake is rendered in such a way that it does not seem realistic enough to be dangerous and only the youngest children may be scared. Any violence in the film, such as when the asp bites one of the four-legged characters, is implied. We never see the actions that might be too scary for kids, only the aftermath–much of which is handled comically.

Most of the human characters play second fiddle to the cleverness of Maeumi and the cute antics of her adorable puppies. Not enough can be said about just how cute the young puppies in this film are. Their inquisitive looks, pudgy little bodies and charming smiles will make everyone want to own one of these dogs. As in Lassie, the animals do not talk, however they act in such a way that they appear human and what they are trying to say is easily understood. Hearty Paws 2 is a fun, action-filled romp–a family film that will leave you with a smile on your face.

End magazine review: Huh.. reading that, the movie doesn’t sound half-bad. BUT it is definitely NOT for adults.  If I had little kids, I might buy the DVD to put on for them to watch, but adults will be left slightly dazed by all the cuteness and child-oriented slapstick in this film.

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Haunted House (2010)

30th October 2010

haunted houseI looked up from work the other day and noticed that October was ending. That means that it must be Halloween.  Now, I had not celebrated in more than two decades.  It is not an holiday here, even a minor one though I am led to believe that some academies in Seoul have their kids dress up in costumes or carve pumpkins with them, it is not done here.  That’s fine with me. The only thing I really used to like about Halloween was the fact that there would be a wide selection of horror movies on television at night. Checking with in with Hana-TV, my internet tv provider, I saw that that among the new movies listed for this week was the summer horror film Haunted House. I had wanted to see this when it had opened, but it wasn’t in theaters long enough for me to catch then. I knew of course that the film was made in the shaky handicam style that became somewhat popular after The Blair Witch Project, a movie which scared the beejeezus out of me. I loved it. I also liked Cloverfield and the Spanish zombie/demon film REC. I was far less thrilled Paranormal Activity, the sequel of which is doing quite well in theaters even as I write this… I wonder if I should give it a chance.  I like the feeling that the hand camera effect gives, like events are really happening and you are filming them yourself. I was anxious to see how this Korean contribution would pan out.

The story setup is simple enough. A camera crew, making a television show about paranormal investigators, decide to spend the night in a building rumored to be haunted due to a number of disappearances, unexplained deaths and murders. Of course, this setup is familiar to anyone who has seen shows like The Ghost Hunters. I have watched that program a handful of times when I have been in the USA and I maintain a healthy skepticism about it. What they do is enter supposedly haunted buildings in search of the paranormal, but what they show and say is so easy to fabricate. Somebody exclaiming “I feel an icy hand!” or “I sense pure evil in this room!”should hold as much validity as my writing “There’s a werewolf outside my house!” on the internet. In other words, none. This is something that director Lee Cheol-ha gets right in Haunted House.

The film crew in Lee’s movie know perfectly well that they are going to have fake and stage certain things in order to make their show more interesting. The coach their trio of ‘professional’ paranormal investigators on walking in and out of rooms. Kudos to actors Shin Kyeong-seon and Yoon Yi-na who play the ghost hunters Wan-soo and Mi-jin respectively. Shin does an excellent job in bringing an earnest sincerity to Wan-soo, the leader of the trio–none of whom have actually encountered a ghost. Mi-jin is played with a natural awkwardness and a hint of, for lack of a better word, foolishness. Not slapstick style; she just does not seem very bright and it is painful to watch the producer and director of the film crew trying to coax an expression from her as she searches through the building.

As the night gets later, creepy things begin to happen..a mirror breaks, a toy moves across the floor… but no concrete sign of a ghost for the most part. Actually, the flashes of the ghost face that appear rarely on the camera should have been left on the cutting room floor. The deep shadows and the unknown are far more frightening and effective. Though had they been cut, I suspect there would have been a portion of the audience who would have been bored. The story steadily builds a heavy atmosphere and expectation that something is going to happen without, for the most part, showing the phantom.

Even when all hell starts to break loose somewhere around the 80 minute mark, we do not see much of the ghost. That is because the ghost is handled as a ‘real’ spirit. If you are familiar with Korean shamans or have seen the Korean cable tv show The Exorcist, then you know what this means— Possessions. Shamans have an associated spirit whom they allow to enter their bodies when they need to commune with the dead, perform rites or predict fortunes. In The Exorcist, a team of ‘professional’  paranormal investigators travel to homes where the families claim a member has been possessed by a ghost. As with the Ghost Hunters, I thouroughly dislike this show. It is either faked, the family members are lying or the victim is mentally disturbed and in need of real help. Even though we see no long-haired horror crawling through the ruins of the building, what happens in the last few minutes of the movie is terrifying.

The director made some good choices. I will long remember the sound recording specialist and what she does. And a tip of the hat to a scene in Paranormal Activities is actually done better in Haunted House. But Lee also makes a mistake. We spend a lot of time learning about the characters through their actions and interactions, but all of that goes out the window in the ensuing panic when the haunting truely begins. I expected more than simply running from Wan-soo and the producer.

Haunted House is a fun movie. No deep thoughts required or hidden meanings to find. In this sense, it is the perfect Halloween film.

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Midnight FM (2010)

24th October 2010

lposter041715-k2It may have taken Kim Sang-man a long time to become a movie director, but he has crafted an excellent thriller in Midnight FM, his second feature film.  Kim started out in films designing posters starting with The Contract back in 1997. He designed posters for about 30 films when he was given the opportunity to be the art director on If the Sun Rose in the West in 1998.  The highlight of his career as an art director came two years after that when he worked on the now classic JSA.  Sometime afterwards, Kim joined a band as a bassist and recorded under an independent label. Because of this, the next film he worked on, Bloody Ties in 2006, he held two positions; art director and composer. In 2008, he directed his first film, the crime/comedy Girl Scouts which was fairly well received. His latest project, Midnight FM was also written by Kim. It was at the top of the box office charts last week and seems likely to retain that position this weekend as well. The showing I went to early Sunday afternoon was packed with viewers.

Kim’s screenplay and direction manage to build tension throughout. After watching the film, I realized that my whole body ached slightly because my muscles were tensed. I barely moved in my seat during the 100+ minute running time. The story is simple yet gripping. An insane man is obsessed with a late-night radio disc jockey and attacks her family on the night of the dj’s last broadcast.  From then on, it’s a race against time as she tries to outwit the killer and save her daughter.

Soo Ae does an excellent job as the disc jockey, Ko Seon-yeong and Yoo Ji-tae extremely creepy as the psychotic fan. If I could change one thing however, it would be the way Yoo had his character speak.  I get a little tired of movie psychos all speaking in the same low, monotone voices. But that’s a minor point. 

There were a couple of other points, not problems, but things I was curious about. These things mainly concern Ko Seon-yeong’s daughter Ko Eun-soo (wonderfully played by Lee Joon-ha and her neice, Ko Hyeon-ji (Choi Hee-won).  Children in Korea always take the father’s name, but there was no evidence whatsoever of any fathers in either case and no mention of any backstory. Also, Eun-soo cannot speak. We know that there was surgery involved and she has a scar on her neck, but..why? These questions are not essential to the plot, but I wanted to know more.

Perhaps though, the director wanted it that way. The film featured two stalkers and at one point in the film, broadcast is stopped and it directly effects the movie-viewer by having the screen go blank. I think that director Kim was making a comment on the nature of the relationship of fans and celebrities, which the radio DJ is in this film.  Fans can never know everything about a celebrity’s personal life–no matter how much the tabloid press tries to prove otherwise. What we see as fans is often a superficial image. Trying to learn facts of a more personal nature in depth takes us out of the realm of fan and into the world of the stalker. We, the viewers, know nothing about the daughter though both stalkers in the movie (yes, there are two, but very different in nature from each other) know all about her. And when Ko says “shut it off” while in the ambulance, the viewers are left completely in the dark. It clearly shows the limits of fan/celebrity relationship and the point at which this particular celebrity is no longer willing to publicly share her life.

I strongly recommend watching this film, but not if you are just looking to sit back and relax. This movie is anything but relaxing…

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I Saw the Devil (2010)

31st August 2010

lposter041769-k1A few weeks ago, I had received a call from a friend of mine-a former student who boarded in my house for about two years. He had watched both A Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil in theaters and asked me if I had seen them.  While we were talking, he said that he preferred A Man From Nowhere because of Won Bin’s acting. “But,” he added, “I Saw the Devil is your style. You have to see it.”  My style? I had of course been following the news and rumors surrounding the near non-realease of the film. Censors had deemed it too offensive and violent and nearly gave it a rating that would have prevented the film’s screening within Korea. I wondered if I would like it. I remember writing in the spring of 2009 that I had walked out of the film Missing. I found it too cruel and annoying at the same time. The director of Missing had stated that he wanted to make a movie like Saw and I say he succeeded. I have never watched more than 10 minutes of any Saw film. How could I Saw the Devil be ‘my style’? I like films that make you think, not blood baths!  Well, I watched it last night and I have to say that my friend seems to know me pretty well. I Saw the Devil is definitely my style.

I Saw the Devil is very different from Missing and Saw that I mentioned above. In those films, the torture of innocent people seems to comprise the entire reason for making the film. That is not the case here. The villain Kyeong-cheol is undeniably brutal.. however, torture is not his main motif. Judging from the amount of blood in some scenes, torture undoubtedly occurs, especially later in the film when he is seeking revenge on Soo-hyeon, but much of it happens off screen. Soo-hyeon engages in quite a bit of brutality himself and his methods are extremely questionable. But his dealings with Kyeong-cheol–who ranks up there as one of the most despicable cinematic characters that I have ever encountered–are oddly carthartic. Too often in movies and tv (Dexter anyone?), the killer is glorified. It was a welcomed change to see a killer get his comeuppance.  Of course, if Soo-hyeon had just called the police when he found the killer instead of engaging in his own path of revenge, it would have been better for everyone and saved a half dozen lives or so-and the killer still would have been punished.

Soo-hyeon is given a very clear opportunity to break from the path of vengeance, but he willfully and conciously decides against it well aware that his actions may turn him into a monster. His promise to his murdered wife is binding and to break from that would be like betraying her and failing his duty to punish her killer. For his part, Kyeong-cheol sees Soo-hyeon’s dedication to punishing him as a kind of game, an extra challenge that he becomes determined to overcome even though the cards seemed stacked against him.  Once he figures out the rules and realizes the identity of his pursuer, Kyeong-cheol is able to take control of the game and is free to seek his own path of revenge for all the pain Soo-hyeon has bought him and his assoiciates.

I really did not see anything in this movie that would warrent such an outcry by the censor board. I had heard that there were concerns about a scene where a dog is fed a hand, however that did not appear in the theatrical version I saw.  The amount of gore is no more than what we saw in Chaser or Black House a few years ago and the body count is less than in Bittersweet Life. If it was a problem with the protaganist acts in a morally questionable manner, then I would direct critics to Sympathy For Lady Vengeance.  Actually, I found myself thinking that I Saw the Devil was the movie that Sympathy For Lady Vengeance should have been and Kim Ji-woon’s directing felt more like a style Park Chan-wook would use.  

In brief, I was very pleased with this movie–even with the scenes I watched with one eye closed. There can be no complaint about the acting of the two leads. Lee Byeong-heon and Choi Min-shik are arguably the best actors in the Korean film industry at the moment. And it is a film that makes you think as Soo-heon’s choice become harder to justify even as we understand his reasons.  It really was my style.

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