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)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

2008 New York Korean Film Festival Review Round-up

The 2008 New York Korean Film Festival, screening from August 22 to August 31 at Cinema Village and BAM Cinematek, is a mixed bag, much like Korean cinema in general these days. These are tough times, both creatively and financially. According to a recent piece in The Hollywood Reporter, the lowest point this year came this past May, when Korean films accounted for just 7.8% of the box office, the lowest since records began being kept in 2000. This is far from the heights of the so-called “Korean wave” just a few short years ago. Things are turning around, thanks to two recent hits: Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy Returns, the third installment featuring Sol Kyung-gu in the lead role; and The Good, The Bad, and the Weird, Kim Jee-woon’s mega-budgeted “kimchi Western” which is on track to perhaps be this year’s biggest hit. Whether the industry can build on these successes to become truly profitable once again is anyone’s guess. To be continued, as they say. However, there are still some interesting films being made, and a few gems here and there, as is borne out by this year’s films, the most impressive so far being the Jung Brothers' historical Gothic tale Epitaph, which I reviewed here when it screened earlier this year at New Directors/New Films. Below are reviews of some of this year's selections.

Once Upon a Time (Jeong Yong-gi)

Once Upon a Time, like Epitaph, is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, in this case, the very late stages of this period, just before Japan’s surrender and Korea’s concomitant liberation. However, Jeong utilizes a strikingly different strategy in representing this historical time, trading the somber, moody scariness of Epitaph for lively, lighthearted adventure and derring-do that takes more than a few cues from the Indiana Jones films. Much like that 1940’s adventure serial-inspired series, Once Upon a Time revolves around a treasure coveted by the film’s characters, in this case “The Light of the East,” a large diamond that was a legendary relic of the Silla Dynasty, doggedly sought after by a Japanese general (Kim Eung-soo) who wishes to bring it back to Japan as a colonial prize. The general’s quest is complicated by Bong-gu (Park Yong-woo), also known as Kanemura, a conman and master thief who trades in stolen jewels and other treasures on the black market. Bong-gu schemes to steal this diamond, as it will be his biggest game as a treasure hunter. However, a mysterious masked serial thief, known as “Haedanghwa,” gets there before him and swipes the diamond. A major player in this caper is Choon-ja (Lee Bo-young), also known as Haruko, a sexy nightclub singer who is not all she seems. Throw in a pair of hapless resistance fighters and you have the ingredients for breezy, fairly uncomplicated entertainment. However, some elements unique to the historical period of the film carry deeper resonances. For example, there is the suppression of Korean culture by the Japanese, represented here by the Korean taegukgi flag furtively hidden from the authorities and the taking of Japanese names by major characters, which was historically forced on the populace (even though it is treated much more lightly here). The sign outside the nightclub where much of the film is set reads “Koreans and Dogs Not Allowed.” Also, a scene late in the film shows Japanese soldiers gunning down civilians indiscriminately in the street. The film doesn’t dwell on these details too much, concentrating more on action, humor, and the flirtation between Bong-gu and Choon-ja. Once Upon a Time is diverting, unpretentious entertainment with the curiously strong flavor of Hollywood films of the same period, down to the ending which has distinct echoes of The Maltese Falcon. “The stuff that dreams are made of,” indeed. (Aug. 28, 29)

May 18 (Kim Ji-hoon)

Another evocation of Korean history, this time of a more recent period, is provided by May 18, a major hit in Korea last summer. The titular date occurred in 1980, in a tragic incident in which thousands of students and other civilians in Kwangju were massacred by General Chun Doo-hwan’s forces, as the military carried out a virtual civil war against its own populace. The film drops us directly into this situation, with no explanation or background given about the student movement that grew as a result of the brief window of democracy provided by the assassination of President Park Chung-hee the previous year, as well as Chun’s quest to graduate from the head of the military to the country’s new ruler. For Korean audiences familiar with this history, such explanation is unnecessary. For foreign audiences, this will be confusing – a brief trip to a bookstore or library’s Korean history section, or, at the very least, a quick Wikipedia search is recommended before viewing. The historical macrocosm serves as a backdrop to the rather crudely sentimental story of cab driver Min-woo (Kim Sang-kyung, from Turning Gate and Memories of Murder), working to put his younger brother Jin-woo (Lee Yoon-ki, The King and the Clown) through law school. Min-woo tries to set his brother up with Shin-ae (Lee Yo-won, Take Care of My Cat, When Romance Meets Destiny), a pretty nurse at the local hospital, although Min-woo is obviously the one in love with her, always arranging to meet with her under the cover of concern for his studious brother’s lack of a social life. Shin-ae’s father Heung-su (Ahn Sung-ki), a former Special Forces commander, gets wind of the military’s plans to brutally crush the antigovernment protests, and tries to use his influence to stop them, but to no avail. The military occupation soon arrives, a nuclear bomb dropped upon the lives of the film’s characters, as the soldiers beat and shoot people indiscriminately, and the media parrots the government propaganda depicting the entire populace of Kwangju as communist rebels. The first half of the film alternates between crude humor and the budding romance between Min-woo and Shin-ae. After the bloody, brutal suppression by the military, and the civilians’ resistance, led by Heung-su, the film unnecessarily attempts to wring even more tears and emotion from the situation by relentlessly underlining the violent impact of these events on the film’s characters. As significant as the film is, being the first major feature to directly take on the subject of the Kwangju massacre, restraint, subtlety, and nuance are apparently words that don’t exist in the vocabularies of director Kim or screenwriter Na Hyeon, at least as far as this film is concerned. The only thing that prevents May 18 from completely drowning in its soap opera theatrics, which are extreme even by Korean standards, are the appealing performances by its cast, which partially temper the sentimentality. There is a great film yet to be made about this event, but sadly, this isn’t it. For a truly great film that touches on this tragedy, I refer you to Lee Chang-dong’s 1999 masterwork Peppermint Candy. (Aug. 24, 27, 31)

Forever the Moment (Yim Soon-rye)

May 18 screenwriter Na Hyeon also penned the script for this film, also based on a true story. Director Yim Soon-rye's previous films Three Friends and Waikiki Brothers were excellent, sensitively directed character studies that established Yim as one of Korea’s best directors. She is also one of the very few working woman directors in Korea. In sharp contrast to the overwrought schmaltz of May 18, Forever the Moment is infinitely more successful in rendering recent events with sentiment that is truly earned. The film tells the story of the Korean women’s handball team who competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. It goes far beyond the typical sports-film clichés with beautifully written characters given life by the wonderful quartet of actresses featured here – Moon So-ri (Oasis, A Good Lawyer’s Wife, Family Ties), Kim Jeong-eun (Marrying the Mafia, Blossom Again), Cho Eun-ji (The President’s Last Bang, Driving with My Wife’s Lover), and Kim Ji-young (Innocent Steps, Old Miss Diary). As in her previous films, Yim focuses closely on the vicissitudes of her characters, in this case privileging this over the mechanics and process of the sport that is the presumed subject. At the outset, Mi-sook (Moon So-ri), despite having been part of a team that won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, has come upon financially rough times. Her husband is basically absent from the family, cheated by a former business partner and on the run from loan sharks, leaving Mi-sook to raise her son alone, and forcing her to take a rather humiliating job at a supermarket, barking out the produce specials of the day. Her former teammate Hye-kyung (Kim Jeung-eun) has had a far more successful career coaching in Japan. She is brought back to Korea by the team owner, who drafts her to coach a team that can win gold again at the Olympics. She persuades the reluctant Mi-sook, unwilling to return to a sport which has done very little for her financially, to return to the team. However, Hye-kyung has a rough time getting the team into shape, mostly due to internal conflict between the older star players and the jealous younger upstarts. Her perceived lack of satisfactory progress prompts the owners to replace her with Seung-pil (Eom Tae-woong), a hard-assed male coach who seeks to whip the team into shape using methods learned from European coaches, with strict training regimens and diet supervision. Seung-pil also happens to be Hye-kyung’s ex-boyfriend; she initially quits, but decides to swallow her pride and rejoin as a player. Still, she frequently clashes with Seung-pil over what in her opinion is a needlessly harsh coaching style.

Despite these challenges, the team eventually reaches the Olympics, leading to the final showdown with the Danish team. Even though the outcome of the match is already well-known to Korean audiences (I won’t give it away to those unfamiliar with this story), the latter scenes still retain a sense of tension and suspense. But the sports are mostly a backdrop to the vivid portraits of these women’s difficulties and conflicts with themselves and others, for example fellow player Jeong-ran (Kim Ji-young), a tough woman who runs a restaurant with her husband Jin-gook (Jeong Seok-young), yet who has a more vulnerable side, unable to conceive due to her misuse of pills to manipulate her menstrual cycle so it would not interfere with her training. Much comic relief is provided by team goalie Soo-hee (Cho Eun-ji), who is perennially on the search for a boyfriend, occasioning a nice little scene where she exacts revenge on a blind date (popular star Ha Jeong-woo, in a cameo) who ditches her and whom she overhears insulting her over the phone. With a bracing realism and a refreshing lack of emotional manipulation, Forever the Moment puts these women front and center, allowing the small, moving moments to resonate throughout the piece. Moon So-ri is great as usual, but the real revelation here is Kim Jeong-eun’s performance. This popular TV and film comedienne has recently moved into more dramatic roles, and here she builds on her previous work in Blossom Again to deliver an impressively nuanced and complex role. The film’s Korean title translates as “The Best Moment of Our Lives,” but despite the rather sappy title (slightly better that the nonsensical English one), it is a truly rousing and inspiring film. Millions of Koreans obviously agreed, making this a major hit when it was released this January. (Aug. 24, 27)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

"Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita": Review Round-up

"Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita," a series of 24 classic works of Japanese cinema, screens at the Walter Reade Theater through August 14. The "Madame Kawakita" in question is the late Kashiko Kawakita, the film programmer, distributor, and all-around champion and promoter of Japanese cinema. The series is organized around the eight directors who have won the Kawakita Award, honoring lifetime achievement in Japanese film, including such towering figures as Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, and Shohei Imamura, as well as relatively lesser-known directors as Kaneto Shindo and the documentarian Sumiko Haneda. Yoji Yamada and Kon Ichikawa are also featured in the series; each director is represented by three films apiece. Below are brief reviews of notable films in the series.

Her Brother (Kon Ichikawa, 1960)

Shot expressively in widescreen and muted but incredibly textured color, Ichikawa’s film about the complex and tortured relationship between two siblings, Gen (Keiko Kishi) and Hekiro (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), is one of his greatest films. Anchored by the beautifully nuanced and volcanic performances by Keiko Kishi as the older sister Gen and Kinuyo Tanaka as the ailing, hyper-religious stepmother, Ichikawa makes full use of his wide frame to depict the warring family members in monumental close-ups, alternating with scenes of kinetic and chaotic movement (e.g. Gen being doggedly stalked by a police officer), and wonderfully comic sight gags (e.g. the gaggle of geese that interrupt the policeman’s attempts to seduce Gen). In the film’s latter scenes, as the brother slowly dies of tuberculosis, the camera framings are less claustrophobic, and convey the unbridgeable separation of the family members from each other. Hekiro’s death elicits a numbed response from Gen, finally separated from her true soulmate. The great cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, that great color artist of postwar Japanese cinema (e.g. Ozu’s Floating Weeds), contributes a burnished look that is perfectly commensurate to the film’s period setting. The nuances of the sibling’s relationship are quite fascinating. Gen’s self-sacrificial actions toward her brother, bailing him out and covering for him, are very much self-serving, since by caring for her brother, she can avoid fully growing up. Hekiro’s pathetic attempts at petty thuggery only very thinly disguise the scared and vulnerable person underneath, which comes fully to the fore as he goes through the stages of dying from TB. In the film’s cruelest irony, the family only exhibits a sense of humanity toward one another when they are gathered around Hekiro’s deathbed. (Aug. 4)

A Last Note (Kaneto Shindo, 1995)

Shindo’s last feature starring his wife, the great Nobuko Otawa, this is a genial, charming film – surprisingly so for a film dealing with aging, suicide, and dementia. The title refers to the suicide of a carpenter who left a terse note – “It’s over” – before hanging himself. He places a large stone next to the note, to be used to pound nails into the coffin that he had made himself before committing suicide. The film features a trio of wonderful veteran actresses, including Haruko Sugimura, who plays Yoko Morimoto, an actress staying at her usual summer retreat. There are several surreally comic set pieces, including a foiled robbery attempt, and the subsequent commendation by the police. The film moves smoothly, maybe a little too smoothly, but is a pleasant enough experience. The story focuses on elderly characters that are very rarely seen on screen. Eighty-three years old at the time he made the film, A Last Note has a freewheeling, digressive air, mixing odd characters and incident, including an erotically charged wedding ritual right out of an Imamura film, frequent allusions to Chekhov, and a celebration of the resilience of older people. Touchingly, the film also serves as a tribute to Otowa, Shindo’s frequent star, who was suffering from terminal cancer during the shoot, and died just days after its completion.

Tora-san’s Sunrise and Sunset (Yoji Yamada, 1976)

Opening with a hilarious parody of Jaws, this installment, the seventeenth, of the beloved series of films about Tora-san, the genial everyman, continually underestimated by his family members and his friends, who turns out to be the wisest and most perceptive of all the other characters, is an enjoyable and touching film, that made me want to go out and see the rest of the series. At the outset, Tora-san takes serious umbrage upon hearing that his nephew was teased at school because Tora-san is his uncle, whereupon he goes out to get drunk. He comes upon a seemingly destitute old man (Jukichi Uno), who attempts to leave the bar without paying for his drinks, angering the proprietress. Tora-san gallantly pays for drinks, and they go out on the town barhopping. They both come home stinking drunk, in the old man’s case quite literally. The man angers Tora-san’s family, ordering everyone around. Eventually Tora-san sits him down, explaining “This isn’t an inn,” which surprises the old man, who thought that was exactly what it was. To make amends, he draws a doodle on a piece of paper, telling Tora-san to sell it at a bookstore. Tora-san is dubious, but does so, and learns that this alleged vagrant is actually the world-famous artist Ikenouchi. Tora-san returns home, displaying the large sum he received from selling the drawing, and his family is ashamed over how quickly they leapt to conclusions about the man based on appearances. Tora-san crosses paths with Ikenouchi again, and they spend time together, where Tora-san gets a taste of a life of riches and luxury. He meets and falls in love with Botan (Kiwako Taichi), a giggling geisha who has a semi-tragic back story, having been swindled out of 2 million yen by an arrogant businessman who refuses to return it. Kiyoshi Atsumi played Tora-san for nearly three decades, until his death in the mid-1990s. The films definitely followed a formula, and these films weren’t especially innovative stylistically, but Yoji Yamada, who directed most of the episodes, found remarkable variations on this scenario, as the series reflected changes in Japanese society over the years, as well as preserving a somewhat idealized and nostalgic sense of the past. Tora-san, the genial and kindhearted, if uneducated and impulsive, itinerant salesman always had a home among his family – his sister Sakura (Cheiko Baisho) and his family’s humble sweets shop. The filmmaking is solid and functional, with little flash, but this works very well in the service of the scenario, and is a very entertaining entry in this popular and long-lasting film series. Keep an eye out for a cameo by Chishu Ryu, the great actor most famous from his numerous roles in Ozu’s films, as a rather eccentric priest. (Aug. 2)