Showing posts with label korean film review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label korean film review. Show all posts

Thursday, January 5, 2012

G-Love (글러브, Geu-leo-beu) 2011

The team

Kang Woo-suk is a big name in Korean cinema.  He is the director behind the Two Cops (1993-98) and Public Enemy (2002-08) trilogies and helmed the blockbusters Silmido (2003) and Hanbando (2005), as well last year’s big mystery film Moss.  He’s been around for a long time and has had a big hand in shaping the industry as it stands today.  In the 1990s he formed Cinema Service, which is now one of the country’s top film producers.  Like a more prolific Kang Je-gyu, Kang specializes in blockbusters and doesn’t seem to know how not to make an event picture.  Earlier this year however, his new film GLove was released.  A baseball pic with a big star (Jeong Jae-yeong) and a rather modest concept by Kang’s standards.

GLove does feature a number of typical Kang features:  a male-centric narrative populated by his regulars, such as Jeong and Kang Shin-il; an ambiguous protagonist who has fallen from grace; a lack of subtlety; and a very long running time (144 minutes).  If it sounds like I’m criticizing him I will admit that I find Kang to be a very limited director though what he does, with his big, bombastic style, he does quite well and Public Enemy (one of the first Korean films I ever saw) still stands as one of my favorites.  That said, in this new territory, Kang seems a little out of his depth.  He recognizes the codes of the sports film and uses them to his advantage, the mise-en-scene is typically strong though not par with his other films, especially the sumptuously filmed Moss (2010).  What Kang does struggle with is the saccharine melodrama, he doesn’t do a bad job but he is not subtle in his approach, not that many Korean filmmakers are, but it’s clear that it’s not his area of expertise.

The star and his agent: Sang-nam (Jeong Jae-yeong) and Charles (Jo Jin-woong)

To begin with the concept is terribly cloying.  Baseball superstar Kim Sang-nam (Jeong Jae-yeong) falls from grace and is suspended, in order to rebuild his image his agent Charles (Jo Jin-woong) suggests that he start teaching baseball at a school for the hearing-impaired.  Stubborn, moody, and resistant at first he soon starts to take a shine to the kids and begins to shapes these diamonds in the rough with the help of teachers Gyo-gam (Kang Shin-il) and Joo-won (Yoo Seon).

From the outset there is little doubt as to what you will be subjected to:  the bullying of deaf children; group crying; the melting of cold hearts; redemption; etc.  On these counts the film does not disappoint.  Korean cinema is rife with mute or deaf characters harboring or enduring traumas without the ability to express them.  I briefly wrote about these protagonists in my review for last year’s Poongsan and it occurs to me now that they are also an ideal cinematic representations of ‘han’, which I discussed vis-à-vis mothers in my piece on Mama (2011) earlier this week.  Of course normally we only have to deal with one of these characters in Korean films but with GLove we get a whole school of them, which of course comes with a whole lot of baggage.  It’s nearly as though the depiction of the hearing-impaired built to a crescendo in 2011, ending of course with the worldwide media frenzy surrounding Silenced, which resulted in new laws being passed in Korea.

The teachers:  Gyo-gam (Kang Shin-il) and Joo-won (Yoo Seon)

Sadly GLove is not as interesting as it could be, which is no surprise.  It’s most like A Barefoot Dream, Korea’s 2010 selection for the Oscars, which was a strong feature but also bogged down by saccharine melodrama.  The strongest aspect of the film is Jeong Jae-yeong’s performance whom I think is one of the best actors in Korea.  Primarily identified as a bad guy or a comedian, Jeong has shown great range in the last few years and turned in some of the best performances in Korean cinema.  His deadpan comedy was the anchor of Someone Special (2004) and Going By the Book (2007), while his vulnerability was aching in Castaway on the Moon (2009), and he rightly won a Grand Bell award for his menacing performance in last year’s Moss.  His turn in GLove is not on the level of the previous films but he plays the arrogant, stubborn, and stoic baseball star to a tee and as always he’s very funny.  Special mention should go to Jo Jin-woon who plays his hard-working agent.  Jo, who has been in Gangster High (2006), A Frozen Flower (2008), and The Front Line (2011), had never impressed me before but now I can see why he appears in so many films.  He balances the good-natured and frustrated elements of the character very well, and his chemistry with Jeong is excellent.

Besides a few strong performances, GLove was a disappointment but it was a strong, confident production.  It’s just too long, not particularly engaging, and very predictable.  I like to see directors trying something new but maybe Kang should stick to what he’s good at, I’m not sure how versatile he is.  I do enjoy baseball films though and still have two Korean ones to watch from 2011, FightingSpirit and Perfect Game, I hope at least one can bring it home.


Enthusiastic coaching

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.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mama (마마) 2011

Um Jung-hwa puts on a smile for her dying son

It’s hard to overstate the importance of mothers in Korean cinema.  They are the ideal embodiment of han, that perennial trait considered universal to the Korean experience.  Han is a difficult concept to grasp but it could be said to denote a feeling of the oppressed that embodies unaddressed resentment, injustice, and isolation.  It can be described as a deep-down, lifelong ache in the soul caused by sorrow and grief. The poet Ko Eun said “We Koreans were born from the womb of han and brought up in the womb of han”. Ko’s use of the word ‘womb’ is quite striking but with a little experience of Korean culture it’s quite easy to see where this view may come from.  Just as han is key to the Korean experience, melodrama is key to Korean entertainment as it is heavily informed by this concept.

Melodrama has roots that go back to the 18th century, when staged performances in France began to be accompanied by live music to heighten the emotional state of the viewer, early examples include Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762).  The theatrical innovation quickly spread and was used by such luminaries of the time as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Richard Strauss, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  The format was even more suitable for film.  When it came along, Gainsborough’s British melodrama’s of the 1940s and the ornate Douglas Sirk works of the 1950s reinvented the genre.  These days melodramas appear all over the world and are very prevalent in Asia, where there is a strong emphasis on family, particularly in Far Eastern countries that practice Confucianism.

Jeon Soo-kyeong as the stuck up opera singer

Perhaps more than in any other Confucian countries, South Koreans may be the biggest consumers of melodramas.  Korean melodramas are full of characters imbued with han which stems from their traumatic backstories.  The country, with its long history of oppression and occupations, is no stranger to sad stories of Koreans unable to avenge the injustices they face or have faced and are thus forced to live with it, therefore being saddled with han.

It should come as no surprise that a film like Mama, a sort of interwoven omnibus featuring three mother-child pairings, would come along in Korean cinema.  The first of the pairs features Dong-sook (Uhm Jung-hwa), a single mother who puts on a brave face everyday as she takes care of her dying son Won-jae (Lee Hyeong-seok) until she is also diagnosed with a terminal illness.  In the second strand, Hee-kyeong (Jeon Soo-kyeong) is an arrogant opera singer who acts like a diva, her married daughter (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong) works as her assistant and has lived in her shadow all of her life.  In the third story, Seung-chol (Yu Hae-jin) hides the fact that he is a gangster from his mother Ok-joo (Kim Hae-sook) and tries to grant her wish of seeing her first love again before undergoing a mastectomy. 

Yu Hae-jin as the gangster mama's boy

If all this seems a little cynical and opportunistic in its design, that’s because it is but it’s all fair game as you would hardly expect anything else from this kind of a film.  I don’t like to be manipulated by filmmakers, or at least I say that sometimes as a form of attack against directors I don’t like, but the truth is that I love to be manipulated.  Just like a great many film viewers, I’m a catharsis junkie, desperately seeking out those potent highs of my very best film viewing experiences.  So really it’s not manipulation that I’m against, it’s crass manipulation that is poorly integrated or evident in its construction.  If I notice it and it doesn’t affect me, that’s a problem.

The funny thing about Korean melodramas is that it’s hard not to notice the cogs at work behind the scenes, trying to get our tear ducts flowing.  They’re the cinematic equivalent of having a sliced onion shoved in your face.  Seldom are they subtle, yet they often work and I often ask myself why?  I suppose Korean filmmakers know what they’re doing, given the industry’s ample experience in the field, and a quick look at the country’s recent history shows that indeed, they have much to be melodramatic about.

Uncertain futures

So the question is:  does Mama work?  I have to wiggle my fingers and say ‘sort of.’  Of the three narratives, the terminally-ill mother-son tag team is clearly meant to be the most emotionally affecting.  It’s very sad and there’s nothing wrong with it, certainly not in its execution, but it’s just one incurable disease too many in Korean cinema.  Part of the problem is that they are both such saints that it’s hard to believe them or get invested in their fate.  It might have worked better if Uhm Jung-hwa was more like the characters she is known for like Princess Aurora (2005) or the writer in Bestseller (2010) but that would have made for a very different film and with only a third of the feature-length running time available to it, it would have been difficult to pull off.  Perhaps that is the problem, was there not enough time to squeeze in two illnesses and flesh out realistic characters in the space of roughly 40 minutes?  In this case, cardboard characters are an easier fit.

The diva mother-daughter pairing featured many intriguing elements that may have struck a chord with certain audiences members:  living in the shadow of your parents; living at home; not being able build a career; or become autonomous.  Here the mother is strict but again a little too caricatured to be very effective. Jeon Soo-kyeong performs her with gusto but she strains credulity past breaking point.

Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong ignored by her mother

The third strand was my favorite for three reasons:  the formidable Yu Hae-jin is in it; it’s very funny; and it’s genuinely quite sweet.  Once again it’s a vignette built on an implausible conceit:  a gang boss hiding his identity to his mother, whom he dotes on.  Since it’s played for laughs it’s easy to get past that, even better is the warm pairing of Kim Hae-sook and Yu, despite all their initial brittleness.  There’s a great little scene where Seung-chol is at the supermarket with his mother and she asks what the English word for tofu is.  He makes up some nonsense but he’s overheard by a tall Australian English teacher who comes over and corrects him, repeatedly, even after being threatened.  Yu sells it but I especially enjoyed it because I knew that teacher could have been me, because I’m tall and I’ve worked as an English teacher in the past but mainly because I can be really pedantic.

One out of three is not a great batting average but I certainly wouldn’t ward you off Mama, especially if you like melodramas.  It’s a worthwhile film that is an interesting encapsulation of the various melodramatic formats employed in Korean film, with oodles of han to boot.  Each story has something to say but unfortunately the inadequate time consecrated to each sacrifices the depth of the characters.



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.

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).

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.