Monday, July 9, 2018

Review: ISLAND, An Elegiac Arthouse Mystery


By Pierce Conran

A man travels to Jeju Island, planning to kill himself in his grandparents' abandoned home, in the most intriguing Korean film to grace the Jeonju International Film Festival in 2015. A lushly filmed and thoroughly engrossing mystery channeling local family melodrama norms along with surprising genre tropes and themes of the loss in a hermetic urban society, Island is a deliberately paced and ambitious arthouse production from sophomore auteur Park Jin-seong.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: THE DEAL, A Serviceable But Generic Korean Revenge Thriller


By Pierce Conran

Korea delivers yet another serviceable revenge thriller with The Deal, a well-oiled but overly familiar addition to the longstanding local genre staple. With young women violently murdered during downpours and Kim Sang-kyung once again playing a hapless detective at his wit's end, the film immediately calls to mind modern classic Memories of Murder, an inevitable comparison but a tough act to live up to.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Review: THE HANDMAIDEN, Park Chan-wook's Deeply Engrossing and Highly Sexual Tale of Female Sexuality


By Pierce Conran

Following his Hollywood foray Stoker, Park Chan-wook returns to (mostly) home soil for his sumptuous and sensual adaptation of Sarah Waters' Fingersmith. Transposing the novel's setting from Victorian England to 1930s Korea and Japan, when the former was a colony of the latter, The Handmaiden is a deeply engrossing, highly sexual and at times darkly humorous tale of female sexuality brought to life in spectacular fashion.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Review: YOURSELF AND YOURS Finds Hong Sang-soo in Wry and Perplexing Mood


By Pierce Conran

Celebrated indie auteur Hong Sang-soo returns to Toronto with his 18th film Yourself and Yours. Once again featuring artists boozing their way through a series of eateries as they lament over their personal woes, his latest work echoes the themes he's repeated throughout his career. Yet there's a darker than usual tone and less humanity on display here in a duplicitous narrative that appears to deliberately toy with its audience.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Review: THE WAILING, A Bone-Chilling, Thunderous Descent Into Hell


By Pierce Conran

After turning the Korean thriller on its head with The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, director Na Hong-jin has reinvented himself again, aggressively pushing against the boundaries of genre cinema with The Wailing. A deafening descent into hell, it may also be the best Korean film since Lee Chang-dong's Poetry.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: KARAOKE CRAZIES Kills It


By Pierce Conran

In Korea, few things are more important than karaoke. With thousands of karaoke bars, open all hours, littering every corner of the country, it's an activity that reaches every part of society, servicing hoards of stressed salary workers, bored teenagers or oftentimes a more licentious clientele. Karaoke is a frequent feature of Korean films, but in Karaoke Crazies, Korea's national pastime comes out front and center, serving as the focal point of an infectious blend of drama, comedy, thriller and absurdity.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Review: THE HIMALAYAS Swaps Snowflakes For Tears


By Pierce Conran

For those looking for an expedition drama, be warned that despite its title, The Himalayas is first and foremost a melodrama. One concerning brotherhood, family and, above all, coping with grief. Himalayan expedition films seem to be in vogue at the moment, with 2015 already yielding Baltasar Kormákur's Everest and Japanese drama Everest: The Summit of the Gods due out in a few months, but Lee Suk-hoon's picture is more concerned with relationships than it is with the technicalities of mountaineering.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review: THE TIGER, A Gory, Gorgeous Battle To The Death


By Pierce Conran

Following the record-breaking success of Roaring Currents, Choi Min-sik returns to screens in another big-budget period epic, this time hunting down the last Korean tiger (as opposed to the last tiger in Korea, because this feline clearly has a national identity) in Park Hong-joon's end-of-year release The Tiger.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: THE BACCHUS LADY Gracefully Explores Bounty of Taboo Subjects


By Pierce Conran

Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung, star of such classics as Kim Ki-young's Woman of Fire and The Insect Woman, takes on perhaps her boldest role yet in The Bacchus Lady. Directed by E J-yong, appearing in the Berlinale program for the fifth time, this surprising 3D drama was made within the sanctuary of the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA).

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Review: INSIDE MEN, A Political Thriller That Goes For The Jugular


By Pierce Conran

The year is almost up, the box office has been tallied and the people have spoken. Stories of greedy corporate heirs, crooked clergy, conniving journalists and dirty politicians have risen to the top of the pile, each more acerbic than the last. But 2015 ends with a bang and one of the darkest, most fiercely critical mainstream Korean films of recent memory. Woo Min-ho ably surpasses his previous efforts with third feature Inside Men, which also marks a comeback of sorts for the embattled star Lee Byung-hun, who has spent much of the year in tabloid columns for the wrong reasons.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Busan 2017 Review: HOME Settles in for Pleasant if Predictable Family Drama


By Pierce Conran


Busan-set family melodrama Home doesn't stray from stock themes of Korean dramas yet its endearing young cast and genuine feelings make it a pleasant debut from newcomer Kim Jong-woo.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Busan 2017 Review: BLUEBEARD, Ambitious Chiller Lacks Tension


By Pierce Conran


Much like her debut The Uninvited, Lee Soo-yeon's latest film Bluebeard teases a dark genre storyline before turning off into more psychological territory through several layered images and a protagonist who isn't quite what he seems, played by Cho Jin-woong of A Hard Day. Unlike her impressive 2003 horror film, her second work feels less fresh and a lot more contrived.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Busan 2017 Review: TAKLAMAKAN, Introspective Drama Dashes Dreams


By Pierce Conran


Ko Eun-ki's sixth film Taklamakan, takes its name from a red desert in China which, as legend maintains, won't let you out once you step inside. In this dark and introspective drama, featuring characters that use the word as a metaphor for their everlasting love, we discover on a dusty hill that sets the stage for an irrevocable life choice that Taklamakan is in actuality a point of no return for the three main characters, played by Cho Seong-ha, Ha Yoon-kyung and Song Eun-ji in committed if dour performances.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review: FORGOTTEN Mislays Its Mystery after Strong Start


By Pierce Conran

Modern thrillers live or die by their twists, and while an unexpected and well-executed surprise can elevate a film from mundane to memorable, many filmmakers forget that it's the journey there that counts. In his latest film Forgotten, director Chang Hang-jun gets it half right, crafting an effortlessly intriguing mystery --- until he starts to lift the curtain. Once that happens around the halfway point, the film offers one expository scene after the next. These scenes manage to both build an extraordinarily convoluted ruse before boiling it down to wearily familiar points, all the while lifting wholesale from the most devilishly twisted Korean thriller of them all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Review: THE CHASE Leads Us Down Familiar Path


By Pierce Conran

An intriguing, if admittedly low-key twist on the Korean serial killer chiller never really comes together in the mediocre The Chase, the third film from The Con Artists helmer Kim Hong-sun. Leading man Baek Yoon-sik (of Save the Green Planet fame) lays on a heavy accent as he shuffles through an incongruous medley of gore and levity that rarely strays from its middle-of-the-road trajectory.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: THE SWINDLERS Cons Viewers Out of Their Time


By Pierce Conran

Stars Hyun Bin and Yoo Ji-tae go toe-to-toe in this month's The Swindlers, a loose and jazzy caper thriller that mines Korea's abundant fascination with grifters. Or at least that's what it attempts to do, as this blatant ripoff of the work of director Choi Dong-hoon (Tazza: The High Rollers, The Thieves) is a grating star vehicle that smacks of smug ineptitude and a whole lot of cut corners.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Review: GONJIAM: HAUNTED ASYLUM May Scare You Away from Hospitals for Good


By Pierce Conran

The history of Korean horror was rewritten this year by the most unlikely of contenders, as a low-budget found footage chiller became one of the top-selling K-horrors of all time. Without the benefit of any stars, Epitaph co-director Jung Bum-sik struck box office gold with Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, which fell shy of only Kim Jee-won's A Tale of Two Sisters on the all-time local horror chart.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: THE RUNNING ACTRESS Dashes to Victory


By Pierce Conran

Ever since picking up a Best New Actor Prize from the Venice International Film Festival for Oasis in 2002, Moon So-ri has been known as one of the top performers in the Korean film industry. Now, after impressing viewers and critics alike over the years, in a range of indie and commercial fare, Moon proves herself to be equally adept behind the camera, following the release of her charming, hilarious and at times poignant feature debut The Running Actress.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review: BE WITH YOU, Pleasant Fantasy Drama Stays the Course


By Pierce Conran

The Korean fantasy romance, a genre that has spawned modern classics such as Il Mare and Ditto, has fallen on hard times in recent years but makes a strong case for a return to form with Be With You, an engaging new vehicle for stars Son Ye-jin and So Ji-sub.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: LITTLE FOREST Will Have You Yearning for the Simple Life


By Pierce Conran

In Korean cinema, when characters retreat to the countryside things generally don't work out too well for them, but in Yim Soon-rye's new drama Little Forest, a young woman regains her spirit, and as she does so, many viewers will leave the theater with a desire for the simple life. This adaptation of a popular Japanese manga (already adapted into a two-part Japanese film) gives Kim Tae-ri her first lead role since her breakout part in Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden and offers a distinct Korean flavor in what is a cinematic love letter to 'slow living'.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Jeonju 2018 Review: A GOOD BUSINESS, NK Defector Doc Poses Fascinating Ethical Quandaries


By Pierce Conran

Some of the best documentaries are those that don't tell you what to think but choose instead to explore a subject from different viewpoints and angles, let the images speak for themselves and give the viewer a chance to make up their own mind.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Jeonju 2018 Review: WINTER'S NIGHT Takes a Colorful and Introspective Trip Down Memory Lane


By Pierce Conran

Returning with his third film to the festival where he picked up the top Korean Competition prize for his debut A Fresh Start, director Jang Woo-jin delivers his most carefully designed work to date with Winter's Night, one of this year's Jeonju Cinema Projects at the Jeonju International Film Festival. Yet for all its artistry and clear merit, a film with a strong opening act slowly loses its way as intriguing threads become muddled through thickly layered symbolic overtures that recall a great many similar Korean independent works, not to mention Jang's previous film Autumn, Autumn.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jeonju 2018 Review: GRADUATION Scores Top Marks for Its Young Director and Star


By Pierce Conran

Making films is hard anywhere, but in Korea, where so many youths dream of entering what is a successful yet relatively small industry, it's a particularly tricky proposition. Thus it comes as little surprise that so many debut features focus on the hardships of making films. Korean film festivals have provided a platform to many of these works over the years, including Lee Byoung-heon's Cheer Up, Mr. Lee, Park Joon-bum's Director's Cut and Baek Jae-ho's We Will Be OK. Jeonju featured another one this year, but Graduation, from the 23-year-old Hui Ji-ye, offers a unique and refreshing view on the subject, despising hewing to many similar themes.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Jeonju 2018 Review: HELLO DAYOUNG, Korean Comedy Goes Full Chaplin


By Pierce Conran

For the third year on the trot, and after already receiving two prizes, director Ko Bong-soo returns to the Jeonju International Film Festival with his third work, Hello Dayoung. Largely working with the same troupe of actors, who are taking turns in the lead roles of his films, Ko's latest maintains the comic bent and sweetness of his prior works but this loving homage to silent comedy ditches his unique colloquial dialogue. Shot in black and white and sped up to achieve the accelerated frame rate of the silent era, this 62-minute romantic comedy is all heart but doesn't always work as a feature.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review: BELIEVER, Explosive DRUG WAR Remake Puts Faith in Livewire Cast


By Pierce Conran

Korean noir gets an action makeover in Believer, the explosive and hugely entertaining local remake of Johnny To's mainland Chinese crime saga Drug War. A parade of Korean character actors sink their teeth into deliciously over-the-top characters, including the beloved Kim Joo-hyuk, in his final screen role (completed just before his death in a car crash last October), in a retelling that both improves on and falls short of the original.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Cannes 2018 Review: BURNING, a Slow Burn for the Ages


By Pierce Conran

Eight years after his phenomenal drama Poetry, Lee Chang-dong makes a long-awaited return to the Cannes competition with his sixth film Burning, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's short story 'Barn Burning'. Dense with symbolism, this tour de force burrows towards the ineffable as it gradually builds palpable tension through a mystery that begins to consume its lead character. Yoo Ah-in and Steven Yeun both deliver career-best work while newcomer Jeon Jong-seo is a marvel as the girl who finds herself caught between them.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Review: HUMAN, SPACE, TIME AND HUMAN aka Rape: The Movie


By Pierce Conran

The work of Kim Ki-duk has been contentious for many reasons over the years, with the rampant misogyny that permeates his films being a particular bone of contention amongst critics. His most recent outing doesn't so much add fuel to that fire as drop a bomb on it. Featuring rape at almost every turn, Human, Space, Time and Human is what happens when you feed an ego and allow its pathological violence to go unchecked for two decades. Savage chauvinism aside, Kim's latest is also a puerile and repetitive film from a voice that has long since given up trying to say anything worthwhile.