Seen in Jeonju

Archive for the 'Review' Category

Themselves (2011)

2nd March 2012

themselvesAlthough Themselves was released just last year, chances are that you have not heard of it.  It is a low-budget film that received a very limited release. I was interested in seeing it because of actress Ko Soo-hee.  You may remember her as the woman who cooked and ate her husband in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and more recently in a supporting role in the film Sunny.  Her performances have always been memorable and her characters are interesting, even when just playing bit parts. I looked forward to seeing her in a leading role.  I was far less familar with her co-stars..The first is Jeon Ji-hwan aka Jay who plays the blind Tae-seong in this film.  “Jay” is a singer in a struggling boy band, The Boys of Super Space (DaeGuk Nama) that has been around for a while and has released two albums, but has not yet made it big. This is his first film. The other main character is played by Kim Jin-yi whose last film was Rush back in 1999– a film I owned on VHS at one point but for the life of me I can remember nothing about it…   I was not familiar with director Yoon Tae-shik either as he had only two short films to his name prior to Themselves.  So the presence of Ms Ko was really the only reason I was interested in this film.  Unfortunately, while her acting is as excellent as always, it was her character that was the only problematic area of an otherwise satisfying film.

Oh– before I continue, I should warn you that this review will contain spoilers. However, as the DVD does not contain English subtitles, I do not think the majority of the readers of this site will have the opportunity to be exposed to this film and will need to worry about them.

The movie begins when Jin-yi reaches a breaking point and steals a car belonging to the lover of her two-timing boyfriend who has left her pregnant and alone.  It was not a premeditated crime and she really has no idea where she is headed when she accidently runs into a blind young man who was crossing the street in the middle of the night. Shocked at what she has done, Jin-yi offers to take Tae-seong to the nearest hospital to treat his injuries, but his reaction is one of fear, followed by a strange trance-like state that she gives in to his pleas not to go and treats him herself with bandages. Out of guilt, she agrees to take him where he wants to go… but he keeps extending the length of their journey until they are well out of the city.

Due to Jin-yi’s chronic problem of not watching the road while driving, we are introduced to Soo-hee who, like Tae-seong, is struck by the stolen vehicle. Soo-hee is a boxer who has fallen in love with her handsome coach.  However, because of her appearance and the fact that her trainer does not really think of her as a woman, she is afraid to confess her feelings. Her emotional state has become so depressed over the belief that she may never find love, that she has decided suicide is her only option.  She travels with Jin-yi and Tae-seong for a day and after a night of drinking, attempts to kill herself, but she is found by her new friends and revived.

From this point, the three begin to trust and open up to each other and realize that none of them are what they appear to be on the surface. All except Tae-seong. They learn that his older brother is after him with some unsavory character and are attempting to take him to the hospital against his will. Jin-yi and Soo-hee never question why, they just do their best to protect their new friend… and in one of their cases, her new lover… from the threat Tae-seong’s brother seems to present. 

That fact that Tae-seong never trusts them or is completely honest is one minor fault I had with the screenplay as the other characters reveal themselves as the English title of the films implies they should, but as I mentioned in the first paragraph, I had a larger concern. It concerns how Soo-hee was depicted by the script and camera work. The theme of this movie asks us to look beyond what we see on the surface to see the true characters of the people onscreen. Jin-yi is not simply a bar girl who has been knocked up. Tae-seong, in one surprising moment (I literally caught my breath when it happend) indicates he might not be completely visually impaired. And Soo-hee is more than a massive athlete and is at heart a scared, lonely woman.  However, her size is where the film reaches for the rare laugh and it is misplaced.  Her fight scenes against gangsters and Jin-yi’s cheating boyfriend are slowed down with her ’comically’ slow, deep roars of anger sounding like a bellowing bull than an angry human.  The point of this film was to humanize the characters and I felt she was not treated with the same respect at points in the film as the other two leads were.

However, that is not to say it is a bad film.  It is in fact, quite good and I enjoyed watching it. I especially liked how the script gave such depth to each of the characters and the director was able to pull layered performances out of the actors.  I look forward to what Yoon Tae-shik has in store for us in the future.  He has shown the potential to be a great, dramatic director who possesses the skill to create character-driven films.  It is just too bad that the lack of subtitles will limit the number of people who can see and understand this film.

Posted in 2010s, Review | Comments Off

Mist (1967)

25th February 2012

mistBefore I begin this review, I want to say that I am using the title, Mist, with the greatest reluctance.  While making the index plates I have been posting, I have found that a fair number of Korean films of the 60s and 70s had English names at the time of their release. Often these names appear on the advertisements and posters but when KOFA built its website, it did not have access to most of these (many posters were donated sometime around 2005 by a collector) so the Film Archives simply provided literal translations of the titles.  In this case, 안개 became Mist.  However, there was no need to do this.  I do not know if they had the poster on hand when they added the this movie to the website, but they certainly had the film.  As we can see on the image above, the movie was to be called Foggy Town in English and this title is also written on the title card during the opening credits of the film.  But as this DVD of this film is sold as Mist in English, that is what I must call it. But Wwy the change?  I can understand if the title is awkward or grammatically incorrect..and I have even seen some that were spelled wrong in English… but there is nothing wrong with Foggy Town and it is certainly descriptive of the film’s location, Mujin.  

Mujin appears to be a fictional city. Judging from how long it takes to get there from Seoul, the fact that it is on the coast, and the fact that it has salt marshes and no crashing waves, it must be meant to be located on the south or southwest shore. One person on the bus mentions that it has a fairly large population but we learn that most people in the town looks down on his or her neighbor as, at best, mediocre examples of humanity. It seems to be many of the citizens’ dream to escape the boredom and loneliness of Mujin and go to Seoul or risk losing their minds.

Yoon Gi-joon was one of the lucky few that managed to escape and better his life. Not through his own work though, because he met a rich widow and married her, putting himself in a position to become heir apparent of his father-in-law’s successful pharmaceutical company. In order to ensure this occurs, his wife has arranged a board meeting and is pulling her father’s strings but Gi-joon’s actual ability stand in the way so, to be certain of success, she sent him to visit Mujin, his hometown until she sends for him.

Gi-joon’s relationship with his wife is interesting. It certainly does not seem to be based on love. In his case, he was attracted to her money, the lifestyle it brought, and probably the fact that marriage to her came with a guaranteed job.  Why would she marry Gi-joon? He was sickly in his younger days and became a draft-dodger– an important issue in Korea even in these days, but even more so in past decades. Men who evaded their mandatory military duties had a very difficult time securing jobs and interacting successfully with other men in society. Certainly his looks helped in landing Gi-joon his wife, he is after all being played by Shin Seong-il, but I think it was more than that. His wife wanted someone that she could control. She wants to run the company and, although she is already very involved in management, there was a glass ceiling that would have prevented her from easily achieving her goals. She knows that Gi-joon is at heart weak. She states bluntly to her father that Gi-joon is nothing without them and reminds her husband he would not even be in Seoul if it were not for her. Perhaps that is why it was so easy for him to get involved with the pretty new school teacher in Mujin, In-sook.

In-sook was the top of the music department at the university she attended in Seoul, and when she was offered a job immediately after graduating, she jumped at the chance to take it… at least that is what we were told.  Supposedly, In-sook studied Korean classical music but the only songs she ever sings are Korean popsongs.  She could be lying, or Mr. Park exaggerating her credentials as he is silently in love with her. It is known by some that her family background was not good at all and the only reason she stays in Mujin is because her hometown is worse. She wants more than anything to return to Seoul and she is willing to do anything to get there even when warned that “No city will give you back your college days.”

Gi-joon does not particuarly want to go back to his past, he tried too hard to escape it to want that. He sees a lot of himself in In-sook (sometimes quite literally– when talking to her we sometimes see Gi-joon of the past in her place) and promises to take her to Seoul. She for her part makes a promise. “When I am in Seoul, I will have an affair with you.”  It turns out he didn’t have to wait that long for the affair to start.  Oddly, soon after it begins, In-sook changes her position and decides that she doesn’t want to go to Seoul anymore, prompting Gi-joon to reply that they have to promise to stop lying to each other.  Because she is so much like his former self, Gi-joon realizes that the promise extends to himself and that he has been lying to himself the entire time. We see things in a new light with that realization, and he is then back on the train to Seoul alone.

This movie is interesting for many reasons.  The setting of Mujin is one of them. I think it is important that Mujin is not a real city. Most Korean films of this period use existing cities when setting their films. The fog the nighly covers the city is also important.  The narration states that it isolates Mujin from the rest of the world and Gi-joon’s journey there seems more like a journey into his subconscious than an actual place.. with a little more strangeness thrown in, it could seem like an old Twilight Zone episode.  It is stated the Mujin has no special food, grows no special crop and even though it is a coastal city, there is no port or trade.  In fact, it seems like there is little reason for people to be there, yet we are told it is well populated.  Why?  Could it be that everyone there is a lost Seoul searching for some evasive piece of him or her self? 

My only complaint with this film is that some of the flashbacks are not clearly delineated as such. With most, it becomes easy enough for the viewer to realize that we are now in the past, there was one that left me confused as it showed Gi-joon standing by a bus watching an insane prostitute being harrassed by street urchins.  Gi-joon’s clothes in that scene are quite good and I thought it was happening in the present but in fact what we saw must have occured as he left Mujin the first time as the scene switches to him still on the bus. It is a confusing moment.

However, don’t let that one point deter you from watching the film when you get the chance. It is part of the Kim Soo-yong Box Set and, while pricey, is well-worth seeking out. 

Below, you can hear the title song of this movie, Mist, sung by Jeong Hoon-hee is 1967. Even if you can’t understand it, it has a beautiful, haunting melody and is very relaxing.

Posted in 1960s, Review, video & trailers | 2 Comments »

Love Marriage (1958)

12th February 2012

58-047~3romantic comedy dvd setLove Marriage, directed by Lee Byeong-il and released in theaters back in 1958, is a part of the Romantic Comedy DVD Set (right), a collection featuring 3 romantic-comedies from the 1950s.  The other two movies in the set are Holiday in Seoul (1958) and A Female Boss (1959). The former film is quite good and I had watched it almost as soon as I received the DVD. I admit that I put off watching the latter and Love Marriage. Reading the descriptions of them, I felt that they probably had not aged very well and would seem too dated.  Well, there is no denying that the film is dated, but I should have given them a chance earier because they are in no way bad. In fact, in today’s film there are quite a few good points, interesting characters and some fascinating views of the rapidly changing society of post-war Korea.  It is true though that the entire premise may seem a little… archaic, but it was fun nonetheless.

The story focuses on the three daughters of Dr. Ko, eldest Sook-hee, Moon-hee and youngest Myeong-hee their various romances. When the movie opens,it is four years earlier and we are at the wedding of Sook-hee to Seung-il. We follow the pair to their honeymoon destination. There, Seung-il is struck with a sudden bout of guilt and confesses to his bride that she is not his first love but that he never regreted breaking up with his ex. He begs forgiveness which Sook-hee readily gives. She has been bought up in a very progressive home, but apparently had never read Tess of d’Urbervilles for she freely admits that Seung-il is not her first either, and that in her case, her first love died suddenly.  Oops… It is a good thing that they hadn’t unpacked yet because Seung-il is out of there faster than a bat out of hell.  Sook-hee returns home alone and retires to the second floor of the family home and stays there… for four years!

Sook-hee’s mother blames herself and her husband for allowing the pair to marry for love instead of following traditions and arranging the marriage. She vows that she will not make the same mistake twice and takes control of Moon-hee’s love life. Step one, get rid of the tutor who has been teaching Gwang-shik, the Ko’s only son who is struggling with English in middle school.  The growing affection between the two must be nipped in the bud if she is to go through with her plans of marrying Moon-hee off to her friend’s son Wan-seob who has recently returned from studying in the USA and is now a manager of a nylon company.  As attractive as that sounds, Moon-hee is having none of it and she also shuts herself upstairs in the house, hardly ever coming out and eating very little.

That leaves Myeong-hee, the bright, stubborn and thoroughly modern youngest daughter of Dr. Ko.  She is so modern that shortly after we are introduced to her, she comes into the room wearing capri pants .. three years before Mary Tyler Moore made them famous on the Dick Van Dyke show.  She has more than a liberal sense of fashion. She also has very liberal ideas about woman. She will never marry, she announces, because all men are stupid and she dreams of entering politics where she will outwit every representative in parliment.  But for now, she is in her last year of high school. Her parents are not worried about her proclimations for, although they admit she is more than a match for almost any man, she will have to marry after she graduates.  And her father has the perfect candidate, his woman-hating assistant Yeong-su. If anyone can win his frozen heart, he figures it would be Myeong-hee.

While those introductions make it sound as if the movie will be nothing short of antique, it is the characters, situations and scenes that make it good. Take, for instance, the upstairs space. We are told a strange story about the upper floor of the house. Gwang-shik tells his tutor that the room is haunted by the ghost of a woman, so abused by her mother-in-law and unhappy in her marriage, that she took her own life there. Gwang-shik even admits to being afraid of his oldest sister as she moves around like a woman more dead than alive. Moon-hee eventually joins her sister and we can see that despite its overly busy decor, it is a place of somber isolation with an atmosphere akin to a convent. More than anything, this is due to actress Choi Eun-hee who masterfully plays the role of Sook-hee.

Sook-hee’s change is dramatic from when we had first seen her. At her wedding and honeymoon, she wears decidely western clothes, however in the upstairs room she wears nothing but hanboks.. and white ones at that. White is a symbol of mourning and you can tell she has not smiled in the entire four years she has been there. The clothes in the movie are symbols of the characters thoughts and philosophies.  Sook-hee, when believing in love and the free will to choose, followed western fashions, as do her sisters who believe they can date as they wish. But once she returns home, she adopts the traditional dress of Korean women and with it their more conservative thoughts. Her mother, for her part, only wears the hanbok.  Myeong-hee has insights into this and, in a clever bit, mixes the two fashions of traditional and modern with eye-searing resutls, as her father keeps urging her to wear modern clothes while her mother has ordered her to wear a hanbok to meet a potential husband.

The characters discuss clothes more than once and Wan-seob at one point talks about how American women pick styles to reflect their characters. This sends the older woman into peals of laughter which only increases when the young man continues that in American their is a belief of ‘ladies first.’  Characters throughout the movie sprinkle English into their conversation as well to show how modern they are. Maybe you remember Kim Soo-mi in the movie Unstoppable Marriage in 2007?  Her character liberally used, and butchered English, to raise herself up in the eyes of others. That happens here as well and while it seems odd, it never tips into being ridiculous until the golf scene. There the audience can feel just how pretentious the characters are being dressed in glaring golf styles and speaking English constantly to show off. The movie then uses the grounded Yeong-su to pull everyone back in and remind the wayward Myeong-hee that she is a Korean woman and she needs to stop acting like a foreigner.

Even the all but forgotten Gwang-shik is a greater meaning. Near the end of the film, he walks off leading his father and traditional grandfather by the hand. His mother calls out to “Take care of your grandfather!” to which he readily agrees and the way the shot is framed we know right away that the mother’s plea was not directed so much at Gwang-shik as to the youth of Korea so they do not forget the generations past as they move forward with the changing times.

Love Marriage is a film that deserves a second and deeper look. It is much more than a rusty old love story, but a drama full of contrast and symbolic imagery where progressive ideas clash with tradition and somehow both come out in a good light. It might not be as deep as something like The Aimless Bullet which would eventually follow and paint a very bleak picture of that era but, as the box says, it is a comedy.  Many of the better known Korean films of this era dealt with poverty or the differences between the haves and have-nots. In Love Marriage, there is no such struggle and everyone in it is clearly in the upper tier of society. It may be hard to track down, but finding the DVD will provide a very different look at life in Korea in the late 50s than some of the more serious films of the time were doing.

Posted in 1950s, Review | Comments Off

Head (2011)

3rd February 2012

headWhen I first heard about the movie Head and saw the cast, I was really excited to see it. Ryu Deok-hwan! Park Ye-jin! Baek Yoon-shik! Oh Dal-soo! I have been a fan of Ryu’s for a while and really like his recent work–even his television forensic/mystery program, God’s Quiz on OCN. Park Ye-jin’s movie roles may be a little weak, but I fell in love with the image she created during the years she was on ‘real’ television comedy, Family. While BaekYoon-shik’s more recent film choices may be questionable, he has credits in Tazza and The President’s Last Bang under his belt and is still considered an excellent actor. And Oh Dal-soo is a mainstay in Korean films and a great character actor.  Throw in former G.O.D. singer Danny Ahn in a supporting role and what’s not to love?  You would think that this would be a great way to spend a chilly afternoon, just sitting at home and watching the story of Head unfold.  You would be very, very wrong.  It ranks as one of the worst films I have seen in a long time.  It is hard to pinpoint just one place where the movie went wrong, but if I am going to start finger-pointing, it would have to be at director and scriptwriter Jo Woon.  This was his first feature length film after a handful of shorts made around 2005.  I don’t think he knew what he was doing.

With a simple phone call early in the movie, I knew I was not going to be in for an enjoyable experience. It was one of the most awkward moments on camera I have witnessed in a long time. I truly believe that Ryu’s voice was added to the scene in postproduction and that Park Ye-jin had no idea what she was supposed to be responding to nor how she should be reacting. Her deadpan reactions to his panicked screams are at first frustrating and then humerous for all the wrong reasons. In general, her acting is very stiff but in these scenes, it is just terrible and not in line with the seriousness of the situation– even if she thought he was just pulling a prank, she would have reacted more strongly. 

Ryu’s talents are entirely wasted in the movie as he spends much of it tied up either in his underwear or in a dress. I could not tell you if his wardrobe was supposed to be for comedic effect or to add a sense of darker threats in addition to be abducted and threatened with death. In either case, it didn’t work.  Yoon tries his best at playing a villain but he never become fully convincing and I would say he was just phoning in his performance and counting the minutes for the shooting to be finished.  And it was easy to forget that Oh Dal-soo and Danny Ahn were even in this movie (and they probably want you to forget). Their roles could have been played by anyone and it would not have had any effect on this movie.

The script is a big part of this film’s failure.  It was so full of holes and illogical actions. Why didn’t anyone at any point just take the head-in-the-box to the nearest police station. Hong-je (Ryu) claims it was because he had a criminal record, but why would the police blame him?  The story starts with working for a delivery company and being unable to complete the delivery of a package.  The package leaks all over his hand and upon opening it, he discovers a human head.  The head belongs to a famous scientist who was believed to have committed suicide but whose cranium disappeared somewhere between the morgue and the funeral home.

Hong-je calls his sister, Hong-joo (Park), a struggling entertainment reporter, in a fit of terror. First about finding a head, then about his boss being killed at the company’s office and then about being nearly killed himself by a man (Yoon) desperate to get the grisly package back. He hides the head and waits for his sister at home when he is abducted. Hong-joo is informed that she has one hour to find where the head is hidden and get it to the kidnapper before he butchers her brother.  Basically, that is the story. Oh, there is also an illegal organ harvesting ring, a nursing home full of zombified elderly residents following the minister housing them with cult-like devotion and a corrupt cop subplot but it is all just padding and for the most part either makes no sense or is of very little interest. 

There is a too brief moment where the film could have redeemed itself a little when Hong-joo calls a flock of reporters to her assistance rather than the police and, had this been done with a little more satire, it would have been an excellent commentary on the mob-like behavior we often see with Korean reporters. However, it was not done with a tongue-in-cheek intention and proved to be a missed opportunity.  Although I like each actor individually, I cannot recommend this movie at all. And I hope that director Jo does not get his hands on a camera for a while. Even though his second attempt may be better, I need a little time to forget this film before I try to watch anything else he might make.

Posted in 2010s, Review | Comments Off

Volunteer (1941)

25th January 2012

volunteerThe story:  Choon-ho (in the photo) is depressed about his limited future. In his own words, “The son of a peasant becomes a peasant.” His short-term ‘career’ goal is to be able to cultivate the land on the hill next to the land he farms. He does not own the land, it belongs to Mr. Park who lives very comfortably with his younger sister, Soo-ae in Seoul.  As his father before him, Choon-ho is the land supervisor for Mr. Park, but Park and most of the tenant farmers (rightly) do not believe Choon-ho should inherit that position, but believe it should go to the person with the most experience, Deok-sam.  At the same time that he is informed of Park’s decision, Choon-ho has his sole dream crushed as the landlord does not want the land on the hill cultivated. 

Well, maybe calling cultivating the hill his sole dream is a little bit of an exaggeration. Choon-ho is engaged to the beautiful country girl Boon-ok..but that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. They have been engaged for two years but no closer to getting married. Boon-ok justifies this by blaming herself. “I am useless,” she states right after we are introduced to us referencing her elementary school-level education. And to say she lacks confidence would be an understatement. When Choon-ho announces he must go to Seoul after receiving a telegram, Boon-ok droops and moans, “You just want to get away from me.” 

The trip to Seoul leaves Choon-ho depressed not just because of losing the supervisor position. While walking through Seoul, he sees many signs and banners recruiting soldiers for the Japanese army.  Choon-ho believes joining the army and serving the emperor would give his life purpose. It gets worse for him as his long-standing relationship with Boon-ok hits a bump.  She sees him with Soo-ae, a girl who grew up with them but now lives in Seoul and has modernized. She wears western style clothes and has permed her hair (”Like a sheep” says one of the farmers)

Fortunately for Choon-ho, he learns from his friendly Japanese neighbor that, since the annexation of Korea is now complete, Koreans are eligable to volunteer to join the armed forces. Choon-ho drops everything and signes up, leaving the farm, his elderly mother and (ex?) girlfriend behind.

Say what you will about propaganda films, they do know how to get their message across using symbols.  The use of the train tracks in this movie clearly are meant to show progress and moving away from the past.  The scenes of marching Choon-ho and the cadets at the training camp also indicate positive motion and contrast with most images of Choon-ho on the farm where he is sitting or standing in one place. He represents the youth of Korea, then subjects of Japan, and we are meant to believe that he is better off because of that fact. His life will have meaning in the battlefields and he will serve his country as a protector.

What then of Boon-ok?  Well, she is the face of the past. She is weak and unconfident in her own abilities. We learn in the course of the movie that she was promised to be married to Deok-sam’s son when the two were children..and ancient tradition that mires her deeper in the past. She must be left behind if Choon-ho is to succeed. The fact that she does have a marriage option that will also prove her obedience to her father’s will, helps alievate what worry the audience might feel for her. But if she does go through with the marriage (which I believe she would) she would be marrying a farmer, implied to lack education, and neither will progress any further.

There are many other images and subplots in the film that are worth exploring, but I don’t want to spoil the entire movie.  Volunteer is part of The Past Unearthed DVD collection.  All four of the films comprising the collection were made during the colonial period and provide a unique look at life in Korea at that time in history.

Posted in Review, pre-1950 | 1 Comment »

With a Girl from Black Soil (2007)

19th January 2012

147892Jeon Soo-il is a director who deserves a lot more attention. I have really enjoyed the four out of five of the films he made that I have seen. My Right to Ravage Myself, Himalaya Where the Wind Dwells, The Time Between Wolf and Dog and With a Girl from Black Soil are all excellent movies. The one I did not care for was A Bird That Stops in the Air. I found it painfully self-aware and trying too hard to be ART! And I have not seen his debut film which screened at Cannes in 1997, The Wind Echoing in My Being nor his two latest films, Pink and I Came From Busan, but I will definitely be tracking them down.  I love his use of vast, bleak landscapes and his now-matured and subtle use of artistic symbols (overdone in that one movie I disliked). In With a Girl from Black Soil, the film is set in a coal mining town in the northern mountains of Korea dominated by uncaring machinery, run-down buildings and a mountain of discarded shale. Hardly the ideal playground for 8-year old Yeong-lim and her brother Dong-gu. But ‘ideal’ is not a concept anyone in this depressed little community would be familar with. Most are trapped in this difficult and dangerous job with no hope of advancement and probably no future.

Yeong-lim’s father, Hae-gon, does his best for his two children. But his hours are long and the conditions in the mine are taking a toll on his health. In fact, he is diagnosed with the early stages of black lung disease. Angry at the lack of safety precautions at the mine where the workers are not given face masks, Hae-gon voices his disapproval and brings a lawsuit against the company resulting in his being fired for his efforts. While his initial attempts to find alternate employment seem to meet with some limited success at first, everything eventually falls apart for him. To make matters worse, the area of the town he lives in has been slated for ‘urban renewal’ (most likely because of the new casino opened nearby for tourists) and it will be torn down at the end of the month. So his future looks as bleak as the dark rubble surrounding him.

As the sole caregiver to his two children, Hae-gon is very concerned…not so much for Yeong-lim who is bright, obediant and very responsible, but for her slightly older brother, Dong-gu. His son is developmentally stunted. At the beginning of the film we see Hae-gon talking to a social worker and learning that his eleven-year old son has the mind and vocabulary of a three-year old. Yeong-lim spends much of her time looking out for him but both she and her father know they have to teach him to take care of himself. It seems like a hopeless task however, and Dong-gu is often wandering off and unwittingly placing himself in dangerous situations.

Yeong-lim seems to be the only one among her small family with any hope at a future, but she is still quite young and cannot do much more than offer silent encouragement to her struggling father and uncomprehending brother. And as her father’s frustration turns to depression and he, as a consequence, turns to drink, Yeong-lim is forced to more and more extreme ways to ensure their survival. Eventually, she has to make some decisions that no person should ever have to make…

Yeong-lim is the main character in this movie and she is played by Yoo Yeon-mi, who you might know as the little girl in the 2010 hit film, The Man From Nowhere. There is also a couple of cameo appearances from celebrated actress Kang Su-yeon playing a character whom may very well be the adult Yeong-lim. 

It is an interesting film whose ending will definitely make you think.

Posted in 2000s, Review | Comments Off

Pained (2011)

30th November 2011

pained(I originally wrote this article for the December issue of Asiana Entertainment which is now available on all Asiana flights this month. Now that it is published, I can share it here) Over the past ten years, Kwak Kyung-taek has made a name for himself directing exciting, male-oriented action films where the roles of women were minor at best. Like a Hemingway novel, Kwak’s films focus on the masculine but the beautifully scripted action sequences and powerful emotions therein manage to speak to all viewers regardless of gender. What then, can you expect when Korea’s premiere director of action movies decides to direct a melodramatic love story? Well, from an experienced director such as Kwak, you should expect nothing less than a powerful story.

Director Kwak manages to instill a healthy dose of fighting and other action into this romance. This is necessary due to the lead character’s job. Nam-soon is a debt collector, a man who visits the homes of people behind on their repayment schedules at the behest of the loan shark who employs him. Such employment is far from glamorous and the debt collectors are feared by most as they often resort to violence to collect the money. However, Nam-soon is different from other debt collectors. In fact, he is different from most other humans. He is suffering from a rare disorder that prevents him from feeling pain. If he is cut, he will bleed, however he will never feel the blade that injured him. It is not a genetic disorder however, it is psychological– as a child he underwent a horrible trauma and now he feels nothing.

On a routine job to terrorize a debtor into paying back funds, Nam-soon runs into a surprising bit of resistance from his target, Dong-hyeon. She is a frail young woman working a small stall on the street selling trinkets and jewelry to people passing by. Although she looks healthy enough, she is referred to as frail because she is a hemophiliac. Because her blood is slow to clot, one shallow scratch might be enough to cause her to bleed to death. Despite the fact that Nam-soon had threatened her for money, she sees through his act and chooses to help him when he receives a severe beating at a labor dispute. This simple act of kindness touches the unfeeling Nam-soon’s heart.

When Dong-hyeon is kicked out of her home by her landlady, Nam-soon is there for her and offers to let the now homeless young woman stay at his home. The pair’s turbulent relationship softens and Dong-hyeon is able to see just how deeply scarred Nam-soon truly is as he starts to open up to her. Initial animosity becomes respect and love and Nam-soon makes significant improvements in his life for the sake of his newfound love. However, as Dong-hyeon’s health is deteriorating, Nam-soon agrees to take one last job that will earn enough money to get her the medical attention she needs.

Nam-soon is played by Kwon Sang-woo known for his romantic, tough guy roles and his winning smile. Kwon rarely smiles over the course of Pained and instead relies on his acting skills. The part of Dong-hyeon is played by Jang Ryeo-won. She is a talented actress who has already appeared in several films and is on her way to becoming a top star in Korean cinema.

Posted in 2010s, Review | Comments Off

The Story of My Life (2011)

17th November 2011

lifemovie_poster_webI just finished watching The Story of My Life which had opened in theaters this past June.  Missed it in theaters? Don’t worry, you were not alone. The movie opened on just 42 screens around the nation, twenty of which were in Seoul. In Seoul, it sold 189 tickets and its total ticket sales for the entire nation, including Seoul was.. 189 according to KOFIC box office records.  I guess that makes me a part of a very small group of people who have taken the time to take 100 minutes out of my life to watch this film. According to its listing on Daum, this movie is a drama/musical and this influenced my decision to watch it. Korean musical films are few and far between.. in the last decade, I can name only three offhand. But the word ‘musical’ is a little misleading in this case. While there is a partial song here and there, music is a very small part of this movie. Instead, it is a film about the ‘real’ making of a stage musical. I did not mind the idea of watching a semi-documentary about the making of a live musical– it sounds pretty good in fact. Musical theater in Korea is fairly active and I know very little about it. (I looked into going to one here in Jeonju just last month, but the cheap seats were 90,000 KRW each so I decided against it…) But this movie is not really a documentary either. In an early sentence, I opted to put the word real in quotes; the poster pictured here used parentheses justifiably bringing into the question the idea that “real” means “actual.”  I will explain…

The Story of My Life is the name of an actual stage musical and it really does star Lee Seok-joon and Lee Chang-yong who appear in the movie as well playing themselves. The musical is also directed by Shin Choon-soo who both directed the movie and appears in the film as well. I suspect this is where the true situation ends and fiction takes over. Actors Shin Sang-rok and Jeong Seong-hwa are cast in the movie as the alternates of the main characters. Although the two are more famous for television dramas, both are quite capable of singing and in the past few years have been doing a lot of live musicals. Jeong started in comedy and moved on to dramas and these days primarily does musical stage. Shin, probably the most recognizable face for viewers who exclusively watch tv and movies, also frequently does stage and proved that he has a singing voice when he released a single back in 2003. The pair starred in a production called Musical Hero back in 2009. I don’t really see either as understudies in real life– they would more than likely be cast as the stars.

The four actors and the director come together to start rehearals for the musical and it is quickly apparent to all that things are not working out. They are awkward around each other and, even though they are supposed to be playing best friends, there is no friendship between them. In fact, several of them don’t respect their colleagues and either complain about them or ignore them completely when off set. The two main characters have personal issues interfering with their work as well– a crumbling romance and the death of a teacher for starters– and it appears that this musical project will never get off the ground.

In some ways, the movie can be compared to a male version of the recent film Actresses in which a group of Korean actresses who can barely tolerate each other eventually find common ground and not only manage a photoshoot, but forge the bonds of friendship as well. However, while Actresses received substantial praise, The Story of My Life was ignored. I am sure that one of the reasons for this is that Actresses contained all well-known film talents playing themselves. The male cast of the The Story of My Life are relatively unknown. Another reason crossed my mind, but it seems so cynical that I almost want to dismiss it– but the making of this movie showing the making of a musical that is currently on stages made it seem like a marketing ploy. Was this movie made to simply raise interest in the musical.

Of course the cast does eventually come to understand one another and become friends. And the end of the movie is very touching that it did bring a ‘feel-good’ tear to my eye. However, I failed to react to most of the other times the films tries to get emotional as those scenes felt forced. They might have worked if I knew more about the characters/actors involved in them. The best scenes are the all-too infrequent moments when they are singing.

I will not say ‘do not watch this film’ as I did like it for some of the performances, however I would have a hard time recommending it as well. Interest in this kind of movie is limited for a reason. Your reaction to it will depend how much interest you have in a fiction-passing-as-factual account of the making of an musical.

Posted in 2010s, Review | Comments Off

Don’t Look Back (2006)

8th November 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in 2000s, Review | Comments Off

Countdown to Halloween D-4: Flower of Evil

28th October 2011

Take a look at the following trailers from The Ruins (2008), From Hell It Came (1957) and The Maneater of Hydra (1967)– Three Western films that feature man (and woman) eating plants. If you were to watch these films, you would notice that they have something in common, namely that you have to be pretty slow, pretty stupid or a combination of both to get yourself devoured by a plant. Even the lumbering tree monster which is not rooted to the spot once it matured moves at a glacial pace. Let’s face it, plants are not scary and the fact that they can barely move is the primary reason. Alien plants are a little different and make a better impression on the horror enthuiast. The original version of The Thing, Little Shop of Horrors, The Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids all feature alien plants that are far more memorable than any of the posies listed earlier in the paragraph.

flower of evilAt first glance the title flora in The Flower of Evil, directed by Lee Yong-min back in 1961, might be suffering from the same problem. It is confined to a flower pot. Even though descriptions state that it can move at night, I don’t think it would get very far with its roots firmly trapped in soil on a pot on an end table. This is especially problamtic as this sinister flower requires a healthy dose of blood to survive. Its stature may be deceptively small, but the amount of blood required to keep this plant alive is surprising. How can it possibly get what it needs?  The answer is simple and follows in the vein of the original Little Shop of Horrors (1960)– the plant simply tells its owner what it wants.  But there is no thin little whisper of “Feed Me” nor the more musical demands as made in the remake of Little Shop of Horrors. No, this plant has an entirely different method. At night, it transforms into a ghost and makes its needs known.

flower of evil's soul“Now wait just a minute,” you might be thinking, “How can a plant transform into a ghost?” Well, if it were just a plant, I would share your disbelief. After all, a couple of days ago, the One-Eyed Ghost explained that the dying with han in one’s soul was what caused a person to come back as a phantom.  I think most people would agree that a plant does not have a soul and, even if you could convince me that it did, I would never believe that its spirit could carry a grudge that would drive it to revenge. But the ability to transform into a ghost– as well as its lust for human blood — was bestowed on the cursed orchid when the spirit of Baek Ryeong (pictured right) fused with the plant. Baek was a woman deeply in love with Prof. Lee Gwang-soo but he did not return her feelings. She died in an unspecified manner (I suspect suicide) and her spirit joined with a flower creating a new species of plant that Prof. Lee, as a botonist, found irresistable. He now had something unique in the plant world. The fact that it required blood was problematic, but nothing that Lee found too intimidating. He started draining blood from various victims to feed his favorite flower, but he drains too much from one woman and she dies, making him a murderer.

flower of evil posterYou might think that would be as bad as things could get, but it becomes worse. His frequent nightly expeditions to procur more blood have a startling effect on Dr. Lee.  He is slowly transformed into a vampire himself!  He then proceeds to attack his devoted and loving wife. Will his wife survive or will Baek Ryeong have her revenge and spend eternity as a monster with the vampire she loves? I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you that this movie had everything– a blood guzzling vine, a virgin ghost and now a homicidal vampire!  Ah– but ‘had’ is the operative word. This movie is lost. There are no extant copies known. Given the number of stills that exist, I suspect the final copy deteriorated to the point that it was unsalvagable and the remains were photographed as a way to preserve what remained. That is why the image of the actual star of the film, the Flower of Evil, is not clear.  I did not have a lot of options to choose from. But there are not only stills; the scenario and a poster are still around and serve as evidence of this movie’s existence.

Tomorrow— Snakes!


Posted in 1960s, Uncategorized | Comments Off