Showing posts with label kim sang-ho. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kim sang-ho. Show all posts

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 Hoon-jung's end-of-year release The Tiger.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Punch (완득이, Wandeuki) 2011

On the surface Lee Han’s new feature may not seem like much as it treads well-worn territory such of the coming-of-age drama and the sports film.  Even as it unspools it doesn’t seem to break any new ground as we are introduced to a very familiar plot and a fairly typical coterie of characters.  What sets it apart is the skill in its staging.  Though a standard narrative, it is so well executed that it beckons you into its story with a gesture that, like from an old friend, is both welcoming and comforting.  Once you’re nestled into Punch’s world, which hardly takes a moment, subtle and sometimes surprising elements flutter into the film and the outwardly simplistic characters slowly become more fleshed out.  Though it takes some time to realize that you are watching a film that is much more complex than its easygoing exterior lets on.  Lee, who has previously made a name for himself with a series of well-crafted romance films such as Lover’s Concerto (2002), Almost Love (2006) and Love, First (2007), deftly and almost imperceptibly handles the narrative’s many cogs.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Moby Dick (모비딕, Mo-bi-dik) 2011

Conspiracy theory thriller

I am quite a fan of conspiracy thrillers, indeed I believe that the genre has produced some of the most fascinating, engaging and thoroughly cinematic films of our times. Whilst its roots go back much further, I am reminded of the New Hollywood cinema of the 1970s, the point at which it was probably at its most popular. Anyone who has seen the little film that Francis Ford Coppola managed to wedge in between making the behemoths that were parts I and II of The Godfather, has probably never forgotten The Conversation (1973), and its profound atmosphere of paranoia. Another of the most enduring successes of that decade was All the President’s Men (1976). Granted, it had quite a story to start off with but it was also one of the most well-crafted and exciting films to come out in that period. Lately, conspiracy has featured frequently in films but it is no longer the sole focus of the vast majority of narratives. Although there are still some fantastic examples, such as the sadly cancelled AMC series Rubicon (2010) and one of this year’s best films (if not the best at this point), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), the conspiracy theory genre has steadily lost its allure.

In Korean cinema, conspiracy plays a similar role as it does in other international cinemas, namely as a narrative device to create conflict, inject tension and allow for twists and reveals. Almost always, there is one recurring element at the heart of these conspiracies, Korean cinema’s trump card, the ever-present and threatening North Korea. Moby Dick isn’t particularly different from other Korean films featuring these tropes, the main difference is that here it is the narrative’s principal focus. As one would expect this is both to its advantage and to its detriment.

It seems that it is the mission of Chungmoro (Korea’s Hollywood) to create at least one Korean version of every style of film ever made. Moby Dick is the country’s first press-centric conspiracy theory thriller and to give one other example, one of this week’s Korean platform releases is The Client (2011), Korea’s first courtroom drama. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite happy to see the industry stretch its wings into every conceivable narrative dimension, lest it get stale for perpetually depicting melodramas or violent thrillers of the ‘Asia extreme’ variety. The negative side is that things often miss the mark, but the tradeoff is that we expect a lot from Korean films, especially how they reinvent genre.

Balam Bridge

Following a mysterious explosion on Balam bridge in 1994, journalist Lee Bang-woo (Hwang Jong-min) is approached by Yoon Hyuk, someone he used to know from his hometown, who claims that things aren’t as they seem. Lee enlists the help of fellow reporters Son Jin-ki (Kim Sang-ho) and Sung Hyo-kwan (Kim Min-hee) to unwrap a deep conspiracy.

Moby Dick alas is fairly straightforward and this poses two problems: as a conspiracy thriller it may be effective and hit more or less the right notes but it is also simplistic, when conspiracy, along with film noir, are the only genres where things shouldn’t be too easy to follow; the other problem, although this may be more aptly classified as a disappointment given my expectations, was that it did not reinvent the genre in any way and pretty much played out like you would expect a well-made Hollywood thriller to.

Problems like these could easily derail a film but I am pleased to report that the film’s other qualities are indeed its redeeming ones. Technically the film is quite impressive, or perhaps par for the course by excellent Korean standards. I especially liked the muted colors and the emphasis on lines and angles in the framing of the shots across the city. Since the film is set in 1994, shortly after South Korea became properly democratized but also not long before 1997’s devastating IMF crisis, this style works in its favour. Despite new civil liberties afforded civilians and a relaxation in censorship towards media in general, there is an air of reticence that pervades the diegetic world of the film. Though set only 17 years ago, it nearly feels like a period film, this is a testament both to the nation’s progress in that timeframe and to the skill of the mise-en-scene.

Lee Bang-woo in the Press room

The cast, headed by Hwang Jong-min, is very strong and perhaps the main cause for recommendation. Hwang is typically excellent as a brash and cocky reporter who has been down on his luck for a few years. Kim Sang-ho, who seems to be in at least every second Korean film these days, plays the affable buddy reporter with an effortless charm. The rest of the cast, rounded out by Ku Jin and Kim Min-hie, is all uniformly impressive.

I can’t say too much about the director, Park In-je, as the film, like so many in Korea these days, came from a first-time cineaste. I’m not quite sure why so many Korean directors seem to only get one credit. On the one hand it could be construed as democratic as many get a chance to helm a feature although I daresay that it is a shame so few talented individuals get the opportunity to develop their craft. I digress, this is a discussion for another day. Sadly I don’t know who wrote this film, after a quick search the information did not readily pop up online, but I do think that while the conspiracy theory element of the plot wasn’t as convoluted and far-reaching as I would have liked it to be, the script was nevertheless a solid genre effort that thankfully did not veer into sentimental melodrama.

Moby Dick is another strong genre offering from Korea that kept me engaged from start to finish. Though I was disappointed by the functional but straightforward conspiracy element, this didn’t prevent me from enjoying myself thoroughly.


Kim Sang-ho, Kim Min-hee and Hwang Jong-min

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Champ (Chaem-peu) 2011

Dancing, snow, and horses, what's not to like?

The last Korean horse-racing themed picture to come our way was last year’s woeful Kim Tae-hee vehicle Grand Prix, which I savaged when I reviewed it a few months ago.  2011 has seen fit to grace us with a new equine melodrama in Champ, which was a little more successful (though not a hit) and features decent pedigree with a cast comprising Cha Tae-hyun, Yu Oh-seung, Kim Sang-ho, and Baek Yoon-shik (in a brief role).  Though I wasn’t expecting much, as the film seemed quite melodramatic and cloying, I was cautiously optimistic that I was sitting down to a decent film.  That fanciful notion was torn asunder nearly as quickly as the light of the first frame reached my iris.  Dare I say it, Champ might even be worse than Grand Prix, though it is a close photo-finish race for last place.

The conceit of Champ is straightforward but nonetheless predictable and contrived.  Seung-ho (Cha Tae-hyun) is a successful jockey but after a car accident leaves him injured and a widow, he is unable to work.  Things take a turn for the worse when he borrows money from the wrong people and he goes on the run with his daughter, ending up on Jeju island at a stable for training mounted police.  Horse trainer Yoon is the man who drove the other vehicle in the crash all those years ago.  He was driving a horse, who was injured, and its foal, who died.  Since then the damaged horse has been unrideable and now both she and Seung-ho will attempt to make it back to the race track.

To the rescue!

Given how filmmakers present them to us, we tend to anthropomorphize animals in films, that is to say we apply human characteristics to them.  It’s quite a natural thing to do and, while a little cynical to say so, it functions as a projection of our narcissism.  Animals are an effective tool in narratives because aside from the human elements that are imbued into their characteristics, they can almost always be viewed as innocent.  Combined, these features are a potent formula for empathy but, sadly, extremely prone to manipulation and sentimentality.  They work best in the realm of animation, as you can get away with just about anything when you have ample suspension of disbelief.  In live action films however, you take a gamble every time you incorporate an animal who acts like a human, the only exception is talking animals as they, like in animation, suggest a world that we could not possibly live in.

We are lead to believe that the horse is mourning the death of its foal, years after the fact, this of course mirrors the death of Seung-ho’s wife.  As unlikely a proposition as that sounds, I could just about swallow it but shortly thereafter, the horse saved Seung-ho from drowning in a stupefying underwater sequence.  Later still, the horse nods in the affirmative at one of its trainer’s questions.  Perhaps these elements could have found a place in a broad comedy but make no mistake, despite a few attempts at lame humour, Champ is a melodrama on steroids.

Waste of talent: Baek Yoon-shik, Cha Tae-hyun, and Kim Sang-ho

Despite what seems like a strong cast, the performances in the film leave much to be desired.  Aside from on early sequence where Seung-ho and his daughter pretend to be sports announcers as they watch a horse race on TV, Cha Tae-hyun is never given a chance to show off his skills as an energetic, fast-talking comedian, instead he wanders around depressed and puts on a stupid grin every so often.  Kim Sang-ho, who really impressed me in this year’s Moby Dick and the K-Drama City Hunter, becomes a nuisance very quickly as he hams it up and throws himself around with his repetitive pratfalls.  Oh Yu-seong may not be a top flight actor, but he was a strong presence in films like Beat (1997) and Friend (2001), here he is simply miscast, he’s too dry and has no comic timing.  Most insufferable of all, just like in Grand Prix, is the little girl who wails throughout most of this lengthy punishment of a film.  It’s not cute crying either, her protracted ear-piercing shrieks are so devastating, that they seem to carry through to other scenes.

Add in a few too many sideshows with low-level gangsters, gamblers, rival jockeys, mounted police, and corrupt businessman as well as the cringe-inducing impromptu dancing and all of the above and you’re left with a 133-minute exercise in endurance that I strongly suggest you stay well away from.  Aside from the underwater rescue sequence and a handful of other brief ludicrously bad moments, Champ doesn’t even fit into the so-bad-it’s-good category.  It’s just dull and annoying.

Incessant wailing

Frankly, what was I expecting?  Unlike other sports such as boxing and baseball, horse-racing has not really had an illustrious history of representation on screen.  In recent memory there was 2003’s Oscar-bait against-the-odds based-on-a-true-story Seabiscuit, which almost made me want to throw myself under a galloping horse.  Last year, Disney tries a similar gambit with Secretariat, which, though I had an opportunity to see it before its release, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through.  The best films featuring the racetrack typically focus away from the action happening on it like the anarchic brilliance of the Marx Brothers classic A Day at the Races (1937) or Kubrick’s dark early caper The Killing (1956).  While of late Korea may have blighted the relatively small crop of horse-racing films on offer, US premium cable channel HBO may have found an answer in Luck, a racetrack drama with a myriad of characters from Deadwood creator David Milch which will begin to air in January.  I was lucky enough to see the pilot, directed by Michael Mann, this past summer and though it was an early cut, it was phenomenal and may give this sub-genre a reason to exist in future.

Horse race or moonwalk?

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In Love and the War (Jeokkwaui Dongchim) 2011

The villagers look on as North Korea invades

Since Korean cinema reemerged at the end of the 1990s one of the most popular topics it has mined has been the division of the peninsula.  Many credit Kang Je-gyu’s Shiri (1999) as the blockbuster that brought about a renaissance in Korean film.  Personally I believe that the industry was already reviving before this but Shiri certainly was the perfect storm that toppled box office records and made the world stand up and take notice.  As well as being the highest-budgeted Korean film up until that point ($8.5 million), Shiri was also a technical spectacle modeled on Hollywood action films which incorporated melodrama, perhaps more importantly, it was focused on North Korea.  A year later, Joint Security Area (2000), Park Chan-wook’s debut and an even more complex view on the relationship between North and South Korea, once again set the box office alight, beating Shiri’s record for Seoul admissions but falling just short on the national level.  The gangster film Friend reached new heights in 2001 and the next two films to break the record came in quick succession in late 2003/early 2004.  The first of these was Kang Woo-suk’s Silmido, telling the story of a group of South Korean convicts being trained to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in the late 1960s.  It was the first film to cross the 10 million admissions mark but was overtaken in a matter of weeks by Kang Je-gyu’s follow-up to Shiri, the enormous Korean war blockbuster Taegukgi.  Kang’s film followed brothers of the South Korean army who are eventually separated as one joins the North.

There is no question that the representations of North Korea often translate into box office success but these have changed over time.  2011 has given us a lot of films dealing with the North, more so than usual.  While some have been typical large-scale productions like Jang Hoon's The Front Line there have also been a number of smaller scale films tackling representations of the North from new angles, including Juhn Jai-hong's Poongsan and Park Jung-bum’s independent hit The Journals of Musan.  One film that falls between these two ends of the spectrum is In Love and the War (aka Sleeping With the Enemy), a melodramatic war comedy in the vein of Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), another enormously successful North Korea-themed blockbuster.

Kim Jung-woong's platoon marches in

A quaint village in the southern part of the Korean peninsula goes about its business during the Korean war.  The locals are preparing for Sul-hee’s (Jung Ryeo-won) wedding when a North Korean military platoon, led by Kim Jung-woong (Kim Ju-hyeok), invades.  Sul-hee’s suitor, a member of the anti-communist youth league, flees with his family during the night.  Jung-woong sees himself as a liberator and the villagers, in order to ensure their safety, kowtow to their oppressors.  Sul-hee is strong-willed and is less gracious in her welcome.

You can guess how the rest of the film plays out which makes the 135 minute running time daunting but normally this kind of narrative succeeds on the basis of its details and characters rather than much originality from the direction that the story and intended moral focus will take.  Welcome to Dongmakgol was very successful with this tactic:  it began with an original and improbable conceit and after having introduced its great characters, it relied on them, good set pieces, and witty humor rather than the story which can only play out in one way.  Sadly, In Love and the War does not feature the same caliber of protagonists and suffers greatly because of its uneven tone.  It’s a war film, a drama, a comedy, and also a romance but rather than blend these elements throughout the narrative, separate scenes distinctly occupy one territory and clash with each other.

Jung Ryeo-won as Sul-hee

Much of the fault lies with the script, from Bae Se-young (Bronze Medalist, 2009; The Recipe, 2010), which, in its attempt to portray conflicting ideologies in a novel way, ends up humanizing, in cloying melodramatic fashion, everyone staying in the village during the occupation, while demonizing all that stand outside its borders.  I understand the need for us to empathize with the principal characters by streamlining the motivations of the antagonizing agents of action but here the paradox of the mutable ideologies of these protagonists versus the draconian dogmas of the outsiders strains credulity to breaking point.  Granted Welcome to Dongmakgol is guilty of this as well but it is less transparent and benefits from much better character progressions as a result of Jang Jin’s fine writing.

Also to blame is Park Keon-hong’s heavy-handed direction.  In his film, Park does not demonstrate a strong knowledge or understanding of film style, the mise-en-scene is only fleshed-out for the overwrought melodramatic peaks of the narrative and this, if anything, serves to undermine them as they seem to belong to a different film.  One of the reasons that Korea has been so successful in blending genres is its frequent ability to forge an exemplary and unified style and atmosphere through film production techniques, that way the oscillating themes, tones, and emotions can exist within the same framework.  Good examples of this include Jang Joon-hwan’s Save the Green Planet (2003) and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006).  This is a trait that In Love and the War is sorely lacking.

Yu Hae-jin, Byun Hee-bong, and Shin Jeong-keun

The strongest point of the film has to be its ensemble cast, filled with veteran bit players and emerging stars.  Kim Ju-hyeok (The Servant, 2010) does well in his role even if he is a little dry but Jung Ryeo-won (Castaway on the Moon, 2009) is excellent as usual, she has gone from strength to strength in her career and I look forward to her being offered meatier parts.  The supporting cast, comprising of Yu Hae-jin (The Unjust; Moss, both 2010), Kim Sang-ho (Moby Dick, 2011), Byun Hee-bong (Memories of Murder, 2003; The Host), and Shin Jeong-keun (Running Turtle, 2009; Blades of Blood, 2010), are all wonderful, even if the script calls on them to overact from time to time.  I only wish this great cast had been given more defined characters and stronger dialogue.

Perhaps In Love and the War is a worthy experiment but as a narrative feature it ultimately fails due in part to its disparate ideas but mainly because it lacks restraint and balance.  However I will say that I was enjoying the film until the third act but at that point the film completely floundered, the climax is beyond absurd and frankly a bit of an embarrassment.  Given the film's anemic performance at the Korean box office, I imagine others felt the same way.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.