Friday, August 22, 2008

2008 New York Korean Film Festival Review Round-up #2

My Father (Hwang Dong-hyuk)

A recent true story is the inspiration for My Father, whose premise at first glance threatens to be yet another occasion to wallow in syrupy melodrama. Daniel Henney (cue the screaming teenage schoolgirls), a Korean-American star who first made his name in the Korean television series My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, is James, an adoptee in America who travels to Korea (as an army soldier, for reasons that are a little fuzzy) to search for his birth parents. He appears on a television program with other orphans searching for their parents. He soon finds out his mother is dead and that his father (Kim Yong-chul) is on death row for murder. The rest of the film depicts his discovery of his father’s and his own past, the deceased mother an elusive ghost only seen in flashbacks and eventually a photo. James goes through the usual identity struggles and connects with his Korean heritage by discovering his Korean name (Gong Eun-chul), learning Korean to communicate with his father, and befriending a fellow Korean soldier (Kim In-kwon). The premise is unpromising, and the film has a few flaws, the most serious being, unfortunately, the limited acting ability of its star. Henney has an easygoing, affable persona that has considerable appeal, but when he is called upon to perform very emotional scenes, this still remains a bit beyond his ability. Also, the depictions of the ugly American GIs are crudely over the top, and a cheap attempt to give James an easy foil. However, the acting deficit on Henney’s part is more than made up for by Kim Young-chul’s turn as the condemned father. Kim provides a compelling gravitas and sense of tragedy and quite effectively conveys the shifting nature of his character, as we find out that he is not all he seems to be. Hwang’s script deftly avoids the myriad pitfalls inherent in this material with a smart script that takes unexpected turns, as the full situation is gradually and surprisingly revealed, overall making this a strong film. The film’s end credits feature documentary footage of the actual adoptee whose story inspired the film (a device, incidentally, also employed in Forever the Moment). (Aug. 23, 29)

Spare (Lee Seung-han)

This is a down-and-dirty, and, as per its title, spare action flick inspired by Hong Kong gangster films, as is the similarly minded City of Violence, Ryu Seung-wan’s last film. The opening is quite promising, featuring an elegant gliding shot through a set of corridors and Japanese-style sliding doors, set to an ominous soundtrack of booming drums. The film mostly follows Gwang-tae (Lim Joon-il) who owes a lot of money to loan shark Myung-soo (Kim Su-hyeon). Gwang-tae is sought after by Sato (Mitsuki Koga), a yakuza who offers to pay him an astronomical sum to be a kidney donor for his ailing boss, since Gwang-tae has the rare blood type necessary for a successful transplant. Gwang-tae eagerly agrees, since this will cancel his debt. However, his friend Gil-do (Jeong-woo), promising to be a middleman to deliver the money to Myung-soo, instead steals the money and uses it to fuel his raging gambling addiction. This provides the occasion, or should I say excuse, for the exciting “100 percent real action” the film’s promotional material promises, making pains to point out the film’s lack of CGI effects. Those expecting something similar to Ryu’s City of Violence will be sorely disappointed, although both films share two actors (Lim Joon-il and Jung Woo) and a cinematographer (Kim Yeong-chol). Unlike Ryu’s film, which enlivened its standard scenario with impressively staged and brilliantly choreographed fight sequences, Lee’s film has surprisingly few fight scenes, and the ones it does have are ineptly edited and staged, most notably a seemingly endless scene in which Gwang-tae and Sato fight a rival gang in a parking garage, which is awkwardly cross-cut with action elsewhere. The film strenuously attempts to distract us from the woefully underdeveloped story with gimmicky visual tricks and an odd device of snarky off-screen audience members which completely falls flat. The cruddy digital video with which the film is shot adds to the cheap, throwaway feel. (Aug. 24, 25)

Going by the Book (Ra Hee-chan)

Going by the Book, scripted by director, screenwriter and playwright Jang Jin (Guns and Talks, Someone Special, Murder, Take One), is a sly, sharply observed comedy that exhibits the patented humor of Jang’s other films. Jung Jae-young, a frequent star of Jang Jin’s own films, plays Do-man, a traffic cop in the small town of Sampo who is a strict stickler for procedure, a character trait that fuels the film’s humor. Do-man used to be a detective, but ran afoul of certain higher-ups, and was consequently demoted to traffic cop, a duty which he performs with the same enthusiastic gusto and heightened sense of justice as he did in his previous position. A new police chief (Son Byung-ho) comes to town, and Do-man greets him by giving him a traffic ticket for making an illegal left turn. Sampo has recently been plagued by a spate of bank robberies, and the chief decides to respond to this by staging a simulation of a bank robbery for training purposes, and he drafts Do-man to play the robber. Hilariously, this turns out to be a grave error on the chief’s part, as Do-man plays his role to the hilt, giving the exercise much more realism than anyone involved bargained for. This farcical premise is injected with rather barbed satire directed toward authority figures, police procedure, and rapacious media. Jung delivers a funny, remarkably nuanced performance, conveying intriguing shadings to his character, all throughout maintaining a deadpan Buster Keaton-like persona. The excellent supporting cast, especially Lee Young-eun as the young female bank-teller, also impresses here. The style of Going By the Book is practically indistinguishable from that of screenwriter Jang Jin’s own films, and very little of the director’s own personality comes through here, making Ra little more than an interpreter of Jang’s vision. Ra has said as much in interviews, confirming the obvious fact that notwithstanding the actual director who has signed his name, Jang Jin is in fact the true auteur of this film. (Aug. 23, 25, 30)

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