New World - Here’s a little treat to everyone who liked/enjoyed/worshiped those classic Asian gangster movies, such as A Bittersweet Life and A Dirty Carnival and especially Internal Affairs, in form of a slick, neatly packed crime drama, with just the right amount of emotion and, in turn, the utter lack of it.
Following an undercover policeman who infiltrated himself in what seems to be a “corporate” mafia syndicate (code name for criminals with a penchant for three-piece suits), the movie really begins when the previous chairman is killed in a mysterious accident, leaving his successors to fight for his position through
a) pre-determined, civilized and democratic means b) intrigues and backstabbing, resulting in complete bloodbath. Our unfortunate undercover Jung Sa is to be found in the middle of this epic mess, surrounded on one side with Jung Chung, who at first gives an impression of a complete caricature, but will later prove himself to be ruthless and seemingly indestructible and Lee, a bit poncey, but equally cruel candidate for the throne, on the other. The protagonist sets his mind on opting out of the whole shebang, but his senior in the police has bigger plans for him. As the movie progresses, it begins to blur the lines of betrayal and loyalty, good guys and bad guys, through a plot that to some might seem too cliche-ic and predictable, but I found it to have a steady flow, deprived of overburdening twists and overly-emotional scenes.
New World may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it most likely has the potential to surprise, entertain and excite you about the prospect of Korean gangster movies to come.
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Doomsday Book - Both the format and the subject matter/genre of this Korean anthology film may come as a bit of a surprise, however, bar some minor shortfalls, it delivers an intriguing and thought-provoking insight into the relationship of Human vs. Technology. The first story, A Brave New World, directed by Yim Pil Sung, is what you would probably name a environmentalist zombie apocalypse, presented with a hefty dose of political satire, as seen during the short TV montage, one of the most capturing moments of this part of the movie. In a true Yim PIl Sung fashion, the directing is a bit frantic, paying much attention to the detail and evoking the senses with vivid colors and distinctive sounds. As crafty as he is with his visual means, the overall story lacks a proper closure, as the movie just stops, rather than ends. A more well-rounded and effectively poignant in regards to its overriding theme is the part that follows - The Heavenly Creature, directed by Kim Ji Woon - juxtaposing spirituality against modernity in a clear, concise way, shoehorning as much philosophic musings as one can in a 35-minute piece. Finally, the apocalyptic Happy Birthday provides another futuristic commentary on a more immediate level, exploring family relationships in times of hardship and uncertainty. Even though it might not be terribly profound or susceptible to analysis like some other great works of sci-fi, the sheer refreshing originality of Doomsday Book (or Report on the Destruction of Mankind, its literal translation) is perfectly good enough reason to see it, with hope that Korean cinema will continue to experiment more with unexplored (or locally unconventional) themes and genres.
Masquerade - Having a quick glance at my choice of reviewed Korean films, you will do well to find any set in the dynasty eras (alright, I watched A Frozen Flower, but we all know the underlying reasons for that), which is a fair indicator that I am probably not too fond of historical movies. I should also note that there is no particular reason for that, they’re just not my cup of (royal ginseng) tea.
Last year, it was this very banal dislike that led me to skip seeing Masquerade at the Korean Film Festival, completely glossing over the fact that Lee Byung-hun stars in it, despite him being one of my old-time favorites (congrats on marriage bro, ignore the swathes of internationally-heartbroken ladies). Next day, I showed up to the same venue to watch some lameass medical disaster horror only to find out that, by missing Masquerade, I also missed what would have probably been the most glorious moment of my life if I had only been able to witness this double-combo:
SIGH. Anyway, some nine months later, sitting in my little room, temporarily prevented from doing anything meaningful in life due to a massive hail and a short-term blackout that resulted from it, possibly still lamenting the turn of events described above, I finally decided to simultaneously get over my misfortune and my dislike of historical movies and put on Masquerade.
Being aware of the praise it received upon screening, I was a bit stumped by the movies initial comical tone, although it quickly became apparent that it was there to make Lee Byung-hun’s character so easily likable. As the film progressed, all the lightheartedness gradually vanished, as the movie’s themes elevated to much more serious themes like HONOR! MORAL! SACRIFICE! and all those things medieval tales have a hard-on for. That being said, the lack of tearjerky scenes (don’t be putting away Kleenex just yet, mind) was a breath of fresh air and the story didn’t have those superfluous twists and dragged out scenes. All in all, a decent choice for an (almost) period drama rookie; and to be completely honest with you, it was this little pinko-commie display of Lee Byung-hun’s character that finally sold it:
I wish it was, Lee. I wish.
The Act of Killing - If you like your documentary filmmaking with a side of international politics and crimes against humanity, chances are you will have heard of this movie - hardly any film critics, other documentary directors, film festivals and even human rights activists managed to avoid mentioning it this year. And not just because it has a bigass “EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: WERNER HERZOG” plastered all over it. But because it is truly one of the most bizarre, inexplicable, disturbing, nonsensical projects you could possibly imagine.
It focuses on several men, self-described gangsters (or as they more than frequently like to point out, free man - with preman being the Indonesian word) who were responsible for mass killing of Communists and ethnic Chinese in the 1960s. But instead of being one of those semi-preachy political documentaries that just tends to depict things in a way that enables it to sort of manipulate their audience to feel shock/distress/(insert emotion), director Joshua Oppenheimer simply lets the protagonists do what they do best/worst, by asking from them to re-enact the killings for the sake of documentation on film. The first moment of utter disbelief is when we realize how they approach this task with suck readiness, and even worse, enthusiasm. Once the premen take the stage, the audience commences its uncomfortable journey of many emotional shifts - from outrage, disgust, complete bewilderment and even a dose of humor - I mean how could these wannabe Marlon Brando clowns commit all these atrocities and get off (seemingly) unscathed from the whole ordeal? How fucked up that society has to be in order for that to happen? The “actors” get so caught up in their own graphic and “sadistic” as they like to call it (with a sense of self-satisfaction) performances, the whole thing starts to look like a grotesque bloody circus, senseless and perplexing. What’s so masterful about this movie is that it’s so sincere in its display - there is no narrator whose dramatic voice off could dictate how offended we should feel, nor is the editing a tool for perpetual creation of a dramatic effect - on the contrary, everything is out in the open for us to see, yet the very filmmaking is so subtly brilliant and every silence or prolonged shot speaks for itself. This is to be experienced the best during the final moments of the film, which are thoroughly striking but nonetheless equally confusing as the rest of the film. Did we finally witness a moment of redemption? Or was it all just a final show for the camera by the vicious gangster? What exactly did we just spend two hours watching?
The Housemaid - Last week, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the Housemaid at the KCCUK and upon informing myself on the movie and sensing a dash of eroticism/mystery/thriller while doing so, you could already tell that along with my physical presence, my massive excitement RSVP’d as well. The expectations were indeed met in the first bit of the movie, during which the featured scenes were definitely not something you would normally witness in Korean movies (Patrick Bateman-esque flexing mid-blowjob, anyone?) and as it progressed, the atmosphere was certainly getting a Secretary sort of vibe to it. Then, some unexplained bizarre directorial twist happened, which resulted in the relationship that was the main focus of movie rapidly transforming from Spader/Gylenhaal to Colby/Carrington, and the whole things starting to resemble the stuff you’d see on Pink TV during post-lunch naptime (warning: reference of limited geographical capacity). However, this odd turn of movie’s direction does not stop there and goes on to reach its climax in the final moments of the film, when a seriously odd/laughable/over-the-top scene appears out of nowhere. The closure is equally weird and pointless, leaving us with the only viable moral of the story: rich people are dicks.
The Hunt - Most Uncomfortable Film of 2013, anyone? Because now that I finished watching it, I feel like violently jumping up and down or watching a million of cute cat videos on YouTube to shake off the feeling of uneasiness that still seems to be crawling underneath my skin.
For those of you not familiar with the story, it depicts the frightening psychological and physical consequences a nursery teacher has to face after being wrongly accused of pedophilia. With the movie being set in Nowheresville, Denmark, you can only imagine how quickly the whole situation escalates into a full-on pitchfork-fest (and I don’t mean one with lesser known trendy bands and people who button their shirts all the way up). The tightly-knitted small-town community finds ways to ostracize the easy target in no time, driven solely by sheer paranoia and unclear evidence. I also liked that it ended on a very ambiguous note - the simple situation of “oh let’s all chalk it up to our ignorance and move on” just wouldn’t have done justice to such multi-layered film.
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The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear - GREETINGS FROM GEORGIA (Where? Armenia? Chechnya? CZECHOSLOVAKIA?). In all seriousness, this little documentary wonderfully depicts lives of several characters, all telling their unique stories while they’re being recorded for what they believed was an audition to star in a feature film. Through them, we are introduced to many strata of Georgian society, varying from simple countryside life to Tbilisi’s vibrant club scene. As apparent as their differences might seem at first, it becomes clear that all the characters share universal stories, not necessarily tied to Georgia, but relatable to virtually everyone. There stories are about love and loss, war and sacrifice, search for purpose for some and the utter lack of it for others.
It was certainly one of the best movies I’ve seen so far from this region, and if you don’t believe me, believe Sundance - where this movie received an award for directing. All in all, this postcard from Georgia might seem a little bleak (and very muddy) initially, but ends up being quite compelling.
The Gatekeepers - From the very beginning of this movie, we are pointed out its very exclusive nature - here we are, just the audience and six former heads of the IDF, recounting past events. We hear stories starting from Six Day War, spreading over the two Intifadas, as well as the difficulties the state of Israel faces today when it comes to terrorism. This word is used a lot throughout the movie, leading the viewers to believe that somehow “Palestinians = terrorists”, and little of what the IDF chiefs are presenting before us is being questioned, since the they are the ones in charge of the movie narrative.
However, after a while, those lines become a bit blurry and the narrative is interrupted by journalist’s inquiries, sometimes as seemingly blunt as whether they thought dropping a 4-ton bomb on the densely populated Gaza Strip with the aim of targeting just several men was the most strategically reasoned act. Moreover, now these powerful men are beginning to question themselves, recalling past errors, misjudgments and things that could have been handled better. They even criticize the Israeli political elite, with whom they’ve been so intertwined in the past. During the last sequence of the film, named “The Old Man at the End of the Hallway” (old man representing Ben Gurion, as sort of a last responsible of the leaders in a land of utter confusion), the participants in the movie show a curious display of redemption, confessions of their own doubts and fears, as well as their personal concerns about the future of Israel - something which they took part in deciding all these years. The most striking admission to me was uttered by Yaakov Peri, who was, at one point, remembering his own beginnings in the army/IDF as a young soldier whose task was to barge into Palestinians’ houses at night, detaining the suspects. As he recalled the faces of frightened families saying their possible last good byes, he remarked how old age, combined with those memories, was making him turn leftist. This bit is just one reason why I’d like people to see this movie.
The recollection of these highly influential men might seem completely strict and biased at the beginning, but after a while, we come to realize even they have many layers and sides to their own experiences - a state of mind that frighteningly reflects the situation in that part of the world.
Hansel and Gretel - As recommended by a (presumably) fellow k-cinema aficionado se0ngim, this evening I decided to ignore my adult life for a couple of hours (like I’m not doing that already) and descend into this dark, supernatural world of childhood innocence mixed with gruesome revenge, as only Korean directors know how to juxtapose the two.
This very disturbing rendition of what is a well-known children story is, in some areas, executed perfectly - the world of the children trapped in their own dimension is designed to be both magical and harrowing. Posh-looking dresses and neckties and bright-colored cupcakes for breakfast stand in opposition with creepy bunny-wallpapers, derelict statues and dusty, dark attics. The visual aspect is detailed to perfection, and all these tidbits of cinematic and designer craftsmanship is what makes this movie more inviting and believable once you do get sucked in.
However, all these creative fragments are not enough to compensate for the story, which is, as it usually happens, with all its horror and surreal aspects, still painfully melodramatic and trite.
Having said that, I should probably mention that the kids’ acting was perfect (I’m looking at the little one) and Yim Pil Sung had some really fascinating directing moments. I need to see more of this dude.
NB: Not to be watched by people who are also supposed to make their teaching debut in primary school the same week.
The Day He Arrives - This movie follows a filmmaker-turned-teacher who comes back to Seoul for a brief period of time to take a break from the countryside. As the time passes, we come to realize that his days suspiciously all resemble each other and the repetitiveness of the plot begins to indicate that this movie might be something deeper than just a story of a man’s return to the big city and his encounters with people he knew.
Seeing as this was my first Hong Sang Soo film, I have to admit that I was initially taken aback by the fact that this movie greatly differs from many other Korean ones I have previously seen. The sheer simplicity of it and the focus on dialogues over action is just not something I was used to in Korean cinema, but it was an intriguing change to see. The fact that it was deprived of color, combined with the camerawork that created the illusion of almost spying on the characters, rather than observing them, was perhaps reminiscent of Cassavetes’ early works; never-ending dialogues over drinks in a cloud of cigarette smoke, shot in black and white resembled Jarmusch’s scenes, and it wouldn’t be reaching to note that evoking of existentialist themes in the conversations of the characters can be even comparable to French New Wave.
Despite all of this hugely impressive inspiration behind the movie, it still doesn’t quite achieve the same level, remaining only a short excursion to a world of experimental Korean cinema. Still, an incredibly refreshing one to experience - with hope that more movies like this will appear in the promising future of Korean cinema.