Friday, January 31, 2014

Feature: Girls and Dolls - The Many Faces of Bae Doo-na

By Hieu Chau

Emerging from South Korea as one of the country’s brightest and talented stars, actress Bae Doo-na has built a reputable career for herself with diverse roles in both her home country and abroad. Often praised for her naturalistic and sometimes demure approach towards acting, Bae Doo-na has worked with a plethora of talented individuals in her acting career, scoring the chance to work with several esteemed directors including the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Koreeda Hirokazu.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: THE HUNTRESSES Misfire in Poorly-Plotted Blunder

By Pierce Conran

Following the recent hits Masquerade (2012) and last year’s The Face Reader, period films are set to make a big push into the Korean market in 2014 with at least six big Joseon era films poised to flood the market. Getting the ball rolling in the new year is the action comedy The Huntresses, a film initially set to debut last spring but rescheduled by distributor Showbox when the project needed more time to complete digital work in post-production. Entering a crowded Lunar New Year field alongside Miss Granny, Man in Love and Hot Young Bloods, the film is hoping to draw in family crowds with its fun premise and trio of female stars.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Underappreciated THE DEVIL'S STAIRWAY Is a Sinister Psychological Horror

By Patryk Czekaj

Lee Man-hee’s 1964 film The Devil's Stairway is a strikingly sinister psychological horror that, even after all these years, possesses the ability to frighten even the most devoted fans of the genre. What’s unreasonable to me is that the picture never got enough attention and its darkly sensuous powers somehow failed to garner it the critical attention this hallucinatory work truly deserves. Why The Devil's Stairway to this day remains an underwatched gem of Korean cinema is a mystery. Thus, by writing a bit about its many strong points I’d really like to encourage everyone to see (it’s available for free on Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel) and experience this eerily inviting film.

News: AVENGERS 2 to Shoot in Korea, Local Actress Cast as Villain

By Pierce Conran

Joss Whedon's blockbuster sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron is planning to shoot some sequences in and around Seoul later this year. When news surfaced and caught fire in Korea last week it seemed like it might have been a rumor as actor Mark Ruffalo denied the news on his twitter account and Disney reps in Korea followed suit. However, now a local actress has been cast in a villain role and Incheon City (a satellite of Seoul) has confirmed that it will be used as a location in the upcoming film.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: Electric Song Kang-ho Leads Courtroom Drama THE ATTORNEY

By Pierce Conran

The combination of politics and cinema has led to some of the most incendiary films the medium has ever produced. Though a tricky balancing act that requires a deft handling of ideologies and a sensitive navigation of contemporary political climates, political works have the potential to transcend both the artistic and diversionary aims of cinema. Be they wake-up calls or calls to arms, or even painful reminders of moments of history that should not be allowed to slip into anonymity, this is one of the few ‘genres,’ for lack of a better term, that can have a real impact on society.

Falling into this new category, or rather bursting into it after swiftly cracking the ten million viewers barrier in Korea, is The Attorney, the promising debut film of Yang Woo-suk, which follows in the footsteps of recent courtroom thrillers Silenced (2011) and Unbowed (2011). The films stars Song Kang-ho, who, following an enormous 2013 that also saw him star in Snowpiercer and The Face Reader, has reclaimed his title as Korea’s biggest star. Fictionalizing the early years of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, when he was a lawyer in the 1980s, this new film, part character drama and courtroom thriller, delicate handles its sensitive subject.

News: Ha Jung-woo, Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Jung-jae Circling 30s Thriller ASSASSINATION

By Pierce Conran

Korean hitmaker Choi Dong-hoon is back at it again with a new 1930s set action thriller purported to be in the $12 million budget range. Titled Assassination, the project is eyeing some big talent for leading roles. Ha Jung-woo, Jun Ji-hyun and Lee Jung-jae are also considering major parts in Choi's follow-up to The Thieves, the 2012 hit caper film that became the second most viewed Korean film of all time by accruing almost 13 million admissions domestically.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: Endearing Cast Boosts Cross-Generational Comedy MISS GRANNY

By Pierce Conran

Three years after making a big splash in Sunny (2011), young actress Shim Eun-kyung returns in the Lunar New Year's (Seollal) holiday crowd-pleaser Miss Granny, a film that will be looking to sate the same demand that Miracle in Cell No. 7 filled this time last year.

Oh Ma-soon is a grandmother working in an old-timers café who lives with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. As she nags her family to the end of their wits, they gradually grow tired of her. Then, one night, Mal-soon happens upon a photo shop with a mysterious owner. Shortly after her shot is taken, she catches a reflection of herself and sees that she's suddenly become 50 years younger. Choosing to hide her sudden transformation from her family she takes the new name Doo-ri and ends up staying as a boarder with her café co-worker, whom she harbors a crush for, though he is unaware of her identity. Before long she finds herself in her grandson's band and is scouted by a music show producer who is attracted by more than just her dulcet tones.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Busan 2013 Review: Personal and Subdued PASCHA Resonates

Part of MKC's coverage of the 18th Busan International Film Festival.

By Pierce Conran

Life has a habit of moving on, whether we'd like it to or not. Moments of joy are fleeting and even our most crushing lows are washed away by the waves of time. Our present always leaves us, replaced to perpetuity with new realities: it's gone but never quite forgotten. The new Korean indie Pascha shows us that small moments can be hard to bare and smaller ones still may often be worth cherishing, but it also reminds us that nothing every truly disappears, particularly when it concerns (what else?) love.

Anyone who has kept an eye on Korean cinema over the last few years will likely have encountered more than his or her fair share or bleak narratives, particularly in the independent realm. Though they're not always fun, there is a need for this kind of cinema at the moment. In the midst of Korea's technological advances, it's easy to forget that other areas of the country are in desperate need of attention. That said, a few of the more dour offerings that have come our way could do worse than take a leaf out of Pascha's book, as it explores some of the less salient sides of Korean society in a sublimely low-key fashion.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: One-Stop Korean Revenge Shop THE FIVES Is a Bloody Good Time

By Pierce Conran

Aside from the greats of Korean cinema - the Bong Joon-hos, Lee Chang-dongs, Im Kwon-taeks and Kim Ki-youngs - years ago, after I first immersed myself in the country's cinema, there were few things that I preferred doing than putting on a mid-level Korean genre film after a long day. Their thrillers, in particular, weren't always great (in fact a number were bad) but their production values and hard-boiled style were always a wonderful escape for me, even, strangely, a source of comfort. These days the industry still churns out a great number of thrillers, and though many are very strong, they're a different breed from those I would wile away my time with back in those days.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: Delightful Retro Comedy HOT YOUNG BLOODS Runs Out of Steam

By Pierce Conran

Just as the taste of a madeleine triggers a rush of childhood memories for the protagonist in Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, smells, sounds and images can transport all of us to different times in our lives. This is a trick that can be especially effective in cinema, as it can turn a film into a communal experience for theatergoers. With Lunar New Year just around the corner, the 80s rural-set high school film Hot Young Bloods, the return of Running Turtle (2009) director Lee Yeon-woo, is hoping to do just that.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Busan 2013 Review: Thoughtful STEEL COLD WINTER Doesn't Stray from Its Comfort Zone

Part of MKC's coverage of the 18th Busan International Film Festival.

By Pierce Conran

Sometimes, even the most skillfully assembled volley of words can do little to express our feelings or explain our past experiences. There are moments, so great, that they are beyond words or others, so terrible, that could never truly be conveyed with a the help of a dictionary. Throughout modern Korean cinema we've been introduced to characters so badly scarred that they've lost the ability to speak. In Choi Jin-seong's Steel Cold Winter, the young protagonists do speak, but they do so so reluctantly that it's as though they've been robbed of their ability to do so.

A teenage boy moves with his mother to the countryside, while the father remains in Seoul, after he witnesses one of his friends fall to his death. In a quiet snow-covered village where he will ideally get his mind off the incident, he meets a mysterious girl who he becomes attracted to. She lives with her mentally handicapped father until one day he disappears.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: MAN IN LOVE Loses Focus in Tearful Finale

By Pierce Conran

The Lunar New Year (Seollal) holiday is just around the corner and that means that studios are looking to draw in large crowds, particular families, during one of the peak theatergoing periods of the year. Making a film that can appeal to everyone isn’t child’s play and oftentimes it means that studios will resort to mixing disparate elements to suit varying tastes. It’s a gamble but one that Korean filmmakers have never shied away from. Such is the case with Man in Love (formerly When a Man Loves a Woman), the new film from studio Next Entertainment World (also behind last year’s breakout Seollal hit Miracle in Cell No. 7).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: The Slick But Baffling Thriller GENOME HAZARD

Part of MKC's coverage of the 18th Busan International Film Festival.

By John A. Riley

Illustrator Taketo (Nishijima Hidetoshi) returns home one evening to find his wife’s dead body. The telephone rings, breaking a tense silence, and Taketo is baffled to hear his wife’s voice on the other end of the line. Before he can even properly process this tragedy, men arrive intent on killing him, and he is drawn rapidly into a conspiratorial web where the only person who he can trust is Korean reporter Ji-won (a wide-eyed, incredulous Kim Hyo-jin) who, sensing a story, is dragged into the labyrinthine plot herself.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review - FRIEND: THE GREAT LEGACY Shares Little with Original

By Pierce Conran

12 years is a long time in the film world but for Korean cinema it seems like almost an eternity. In 2001 I had yet to seen an Asian film, let alone was I aware of Korean films. Yet when I did dip my toes in two years later, Friend (2001) was among the first Korean films that I saw. With its nostalgic air and easily relatable theme of friendship, delivered through a conflation of coming of age, high school and gangster tropes, it wasn’t hard to see why it became the most successful Korean film of all time. Though its record has since been broken many times over, the film’s reputation lives on.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: K-Horror TWO MOONS Scrapes the Bottom of the Barrel

By Pierce Conran

I’m glad that I’m not a particularly big horror buff, because if I was, Korean cinema would seem like a real letdown these days. The last few years have done little to convince anyone of the quality, and frankly necessity, of K-horror. Once a strong niche revenue driver for the industry, with a number of interesting if not always stellar entries finding their way to theaters and DVD, of late about three increasingly lackluster productions get dropped on the marketplace per annum. It’s a story of diminishing returns, as the genre seems to be on the way out. At least until something or someone can come along to save it…

2012’s third K-horror Two Moons, following the soporific Don’t Click and the frustrating Horror Stories, is definitely not the messiah that will save the struggling genre. Director Kim Dong-bin previously made the horrors Ring Virus (1999) and Red Eye (2005), both of which were warmly received by audiences or critics. With pretty much nothing going for it, his latest is one of the worst K-horrors to be released in years.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Review: The Philosophical Mystery A FISH

By Pierce Conran

Independent cinema in Korea has been gaining a lot of steam over the last few years, and now, as filmmakers become bolder or seek to distinguish themselves from the pack, stories are becoming more ambitious and the technical tools used to tell them more sophisticated. Case in point is A Fish, an elliptical shaman mystery shot in 3D. Unlike what we’ve come to expect from the format, this is a far cry from big-budget spectacle. It’s a slow art film with a metaphorical and sometimes impenetrable narrative.

A bold and ambitious debut, Park Hong-min’s A Fish is a challenging work that is certain to infuriate just as many viewers as it may enchant. I won’t pretend to have understood it particularly well, but I can say that I was swept up in the strange world it conjured up on a remote Korean island, full of intrigue, spirituality and unanswered questions. Many times I found myself drawing comparisons to David Lynch, whose dream-like narratives have long fascinated and delighted me. But Park’s film is no mere copy: it is a singular work from an exciting new talent in the field.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Top 10 Korean Films of 2013

The time has come once again for me to sit down and think about all the new Korean films I had the opportunity to see in 2013 and come up with my favorites. This year, I had a lot to choose from for this ritual as I've seen about 120 local films, so the task proved more difficult than usual.

With 127 million tickets sold and a remarkable nine Korean films featuring in the yearly top ten at the box office, 2013 was a huge year for Korean cinema. Prosperity does not always mean quality and the last few years have been disappointing as far as commercial Korean films have been concerned. Thankfully, in 2013 the industry succeeded in both attracting viewers to multiplexes and putting out high quality fare. That said, I still find myself more partial to the more fertile grounds of independent cinema, as seven low budget films made the list this year. While two films truly blew me away over the last 12 months today's industry still isn't putting out quite the same amount of gems as it was around ten years ago.