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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Restless (Joong-chun) 2006

I remember when The Restless came out in 2006, as corny as it sounded I was intrigued by the visuals and it did well enough at the box office to make me want to watch it, but I would need to wait until it became available. Then 2007 came and as my interests moved on to other things I hardly watched any Korean films. The Restless was but a memory, a curio haphazardly stored in my thoughts. I only kept up with the films made by the marquee names or those that made an extra big splash on the international film marketplace. I saw Secret Sunshine (2007), The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), The Chaser (2008), Thirst (2009), Mother (2009), and little else if anything at all. I was keeping myself busy with other projects: I wrote, I made films, I taught languages, I watched TV, I read a lot of old books and likewise saw many classic foreign films, and my interest in cooking grew to the point where I started a catering company. This was all very good but I was a little disappointed in myself that I was unable to pursue my previously very keen obsession with Korean cinema, although I still talked everybody’s ear off about it.

Star vehicle
2010 started and suddenly I found myself immersed once again in Korean cinema and this time it was worse than before. I watched everything I could get my hands on, reread all the Korean cinema books I had bought before my lull and even got some new ones. I needed something more and in the summer of last year I started this blog which began modestly enough and is now a somewhat reputable resource on Korean cinema. Through it I have been able to meet people with the same interest and now there is never a shortage of people to discuss this passion with. I have long lists of Korean films that I want to see and The Restless wasn’t on any of them. The name popped up here and there, and although I recognized it, it didn’t really register with me until I saw it the other day and promptly got a hold of it.

Googly-eyed Jeong Woo-seong
The few films I did see on my Korean filmwatching hiatus were of the highest caliber, films by auteurs which have elevated the industry to what it is today, in my opinion, the best in the business. Yet so many other films are made in Korea that few outside the peninsula ever witness. Many are extraordinary, a good number are bad, and the rest fall in the middle. It is the category of films that really put me over the edge and turned me into the fan that I am today. Films that are somewhat conventional and display a number of flaws and should by all accounts be forgettable. Yet that is often far from the case, these mediocre Korean films are frequently fascinating pieces of entertainment.

The Restless is most certainly one of these. It is simple and corny, and it is riddled with misjudged set pieces, poor effects, and the most googly-eyed acting you could possibly imagine. By all accounts it should be a bad film, there’s plenty of evidence to support this. Yet it isn’t, it’s not even in the so-bad-it’s-good category, although it would fit well there too. It is simply a decent film and what makes me most curious is why I think that. I know I shouldn’t like it but I can kind of tolerate it, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a guilty pleasure.

Googly-eyed Kim Tae-hee
Perhaps I’m so entrenched in Korean cinema that I have become positively biased. There must be some grain of truth in that statement but I don’t think that’s really the problem either, how would I have gotten to where I am without a genuine passion for these films? In any case I have shown a number of these mediocre films to people I know who have no predisposition towards Korean films and they have pretty much always been greatly appreciated, films like Bestseller (2010) and Le Grand Chef (2007), to name a few.

So then why is this the case? I suppose it comes down to a number of things. First off they are so well-made that they are easy to sit through; they are often creative and innovative, whether they blend genres or try new tricks; and they are so adept at melodrama that, save for the absolute worst cases, it is easy for us to lose ourselves in the catharsis afforded by the filmmaker's collective mastery of the technique.

Lord of the Rings reference
As for The Restless, it is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road affair which follows a fantastical concept, in which a demon-hunter accidentally ends up in Midheaven, a world halfway between life and the afterlife where he finds his long lost love who has forgotten about him and his former mentor who is orchestrating a demonic rebellion. The simplicity of the story even stretches beyond the plot. As far as costumes go, the good are robbed in white and the bad in black. The backgrounds, which are digitally rendered, look pretty but are wholly lacking in detail and lazily rendered, one view of the water comes to mind which is full of identical boats all facing the same direction even as they are ‘randomly’ floating around. The camerawork and production design however, are top notch. The action sequences, of which there are a good number, seem to start out okay but get more ridiculous and as a result poorly realized as the narrative wears on, although the climactic battle scene is pretty fun. Particularly onerous is the exaggerated wuxia-like wirework and the digital tentacle weapons of a few of the antagonists. For some strange reason the film strongly references The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2003) in a scene where the leads hide from black creatures with hidden faces in a crevice by a path in the woods.

The film is a vehicle for the immensely popular Jeong Woo-seong and Kim Tae-hee, they are both gorgeous but also terribly vacuous. As both have had better work, this may be the fault of director Jo Dong-ho and the interminable, empty, and grandiose dialogue. They are often on screen together and seem to just repeat the same things over and over, this get repetitive, especially in the midsection as they go on about ‘The Reflecting Pool’ and ‘The Consoling Tree’ and whatnot.

Great production design
Ultimately, The Restless is a slight film which offers some visual delights but lacks a substantial story and strong supporting characters. It features a decent amount of action which varies in quality, and yet, despite its many, many drawbacks, it is a thoroughly watchable film. Pleasant throughout, and with a satisfactory ending, The Restless is truly a testament to the craft of Korean filmmakers, even though they seemingly make all of the wrong decisions, their foundation as cineastes is sturdy enough to lift us through this tawdry mess.

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