Showing posts with label sol kyung-gu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sol kyung-gu. Show all posts

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review: THE MERCILESS Punches Up Familiar Gangster Tale

By Pierce Conran

After helming a low-key music drama (The Beat Goes On) and a romantic comedy (Whatcha Wearin'?), director Byun Sung-hyun finally shows off what may be his true colors in the brash and confident half gangster thriller, half prison drama The Merciless, the second Korean film to be featured as a midnight screening in Cannes this year.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Tower (타워, Taweo) 2012

Following the biggest ever year for Korean cinema, it is perhaps fitting that the very last work to be released in 2012 was a spectacle-driven disaster film highlighting the industry’s technical proficiency. Likened to previous blockbuster failures such as Sector 7 (2011), My Way (2011) and this year’s R2B: Return to Base, there was a danger that The Tower could have made for a sour note to conclude Korean cinema’s fortuitous year. Any such qualms were quickly dispelled however as the film registered the industry’s all time second-biggest opening day and is well on its way to an enormous finish.

It’s Christmas Eve and the brand new Tower Sky complex, a brilliant pair of skyscrapers soaring over Seoul’s skyline, is busily preparing for its glitzy holiday party. During the festivities, a helicopter dropping artificial snow crashes into the building and ignites a fierce blaze, threatening the lives of hundreds. Now, a building technician, his daughter, a restaurant manager and a legendary firefighter must brave the flames.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Troubleshooter (Hae-gyeol-sa) 2010

Sol Kyung-gu has been one of Korea’s most bankable stars since Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy trilogy hijacked the box office in 2002 and I have already taken some time to discuss his career up until this point with my review of his other 2010 thriller No Mercy. His bankability which now seems to be borne out of his suffocating typecasting rather than his immense acting ability succeeded in bringing this film great success at the local box office. The only differences (from a narrative standpoint) between Troubleshooter and the aforementioned No Mercy is that is that Sol sports a slightly longer, shaggier hairstyle and is a much better fighter (invincible nearly). Besides that we are still left with a character who operates on the fringe of the police, is a single father, has his daughter kidnapped, and must do his aggressor’s bidding. No Mercy begins with the kidnapping whereas Troubleshooter starts with Sol being framed for murder but with those opening shots, which reveal the somewhat troubled nature of his relationship with his young daughter, it is inevitable that she will get taken at some point.

Kang (Sol Kyung-gu) gets framed
It sounds as though I am attacking the film for a lack of originality and a stubborn reliance on tried and tested formula. While this may be true I am more forgiving towards this film than I was towards No Mercy. The reason being that this is a deliberately simple narrative that is rendered very effectively. It also seems like a test of some sorts for rookie director Kwon Hyeok-jae who has come out from under the wings of the formidable Ryoo Seung-wan, director of Crying Fist (2005), The City of Violence (2006), and The Unjust (2010), who serves as producer here.

Sol Kyung-gu plays Kang Tae-sik, a private detective, or self-described Troubleshooter. Kang goes on a simple job and finds a dead body, it quickly becomes clear that he is being framed for the murder and he receives a call from the orchestrator of the scene who now blackmails him to do his bidding if he is to receive the evidence that will prove his innocence.

Really simple stuff but it gets going very quickly and requires limited exposition. Unlike other Korean films Troubleshooter hardly falls back on melodrama, instead remaining firmly rooted in the present as it thunders on at a breathless pace. That is not to say that there aren’t certain moment that drag and a few scenes that could have been trimmed or cut out but as a rookie effort it displays a keen understanding of pace and structure and a mature appreciation of brevity. In addition, the dissemination of information in this mystery/action film is thoughtfully calculated, sustaining our interest over the entire running time.

Great fight scenes
As you would expect from a film that features Ryoo’s name somewhere in the credits, the action scenes, particularly the tightly-choreographed fight sequences are typically impressive and hard-hitting. Jeong Doo-hong, Ryoo’s longtime martial arts choreographer brings his particular brand of quick and inventive fighting techniques and applies them to Sol’s character. The scenes that result are very impressive and will satisfy any action cravings, as long as you accept it. As great as the scenes were, I felt it was a little contrived that this private eye would be such an expert and quasi-unbeatable martial arts expert. Had the film taken place in an alternate, more stylized universe, such as a comic book adaptation for example, I might well have accepted it but as it stands, his skills seem a little incongruous. A small complaint though, given how thrilling the fight sequences are.

The main problem with the film for me was when it deviated from the immediate action involving Kang and his antagonist. The police scenes had something quite off about them and this surprised and disappointed me, not least because the lead detective on the case was played by my favorite character actor in Korea. The inimitable Oh Dal-su has incarnated some of the most memorable characters in Korean cinema (Oldboy, 2003; The Show Must Go On, 2007; Thirst, 2009; The Servant, 2010) and has served as the principal foil to some of it’s greatest protagonists, but here what is supposed to have an air of sardonic wit seems tired and decidedly flat. I am reticent to blame Oh’s portrayal of his character as I think this is likely an error in judgment on the part of the director. I can see what he was trying to do as he both pays homage to the slick investigatory style of Hollywood while also sending it up with a playful cynicism. But the scenes end up being far too dry and the comedy sometimes gets lost in the deliberate downplaying of the mise-en-scene. Thankfully in as the narrative progresses and Oh and Sol get to share screen time, these problems evaporate and Oh manages to impress yet again in a small role.

Oh Dal-su in the dry police segments
On the back of this strong and technically proficient genre entry, I must say that I am very exited for the next project that Kwon Hyeok-jae will undertake, I just hope that it will be a slightly more complex work. Given it’s strong central performance, excellent production values, and effective pacing, Troubleshooter is a film that is well worth your time, just don’t expect to see anything you haven’t before.

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No Mercy (Yong-seo-neun Eobs-da) 2010

Sol Kyung-gu was the first Korean actor whose name I remembered and after his extraordinary turn in Peppermint Candy (1999) I was convinced that he was someone to look out for. Sure enough, as I poured myself deeper into Korean film I came across Public Enemy (2002) and Oasis (2002), which further cemented him in my eyes as a great actor. After his earlier works, a lot of which were arthouse films, Sol’s career trajectory took a turn. How can I say this, he became a bankable star. Kang Woo-suk’s Public Enemy trilogy made millions and turned into one of the country’s most well-known names. He then starred in an even bigger project, the short-lived highest-grossing Korean film that was Silmido (2003), also by Kang. Beyond that he became a consistent presence at the Blue Dragon and Grand Bell awards (Korea’s most prestigious industry awards ceremonies), the highlight being when he was double-nominated in 2005 for Public Enemy 2 (2005) and Rikidozan (2004). After this it starts to get a little spotty: Another Public Enemy film called… Another Public Enemy (2008); some very successful but somewhat underwhelming blockbusters, Voice of a Murderer (2007) and Tidal Wave (2009); and then in 2010 he made a film about a man connected to the police whose daughter is kidnapped by another man whose bidding he must do to ensure her safety. Wait! He actually made two of those, they are called No Mercy and Troubleshooter.

Sol Kyung-gu in familiar territory
While most of the films that Sol lends his name to these days range from decent to quite good, the problem is that he is horrendously typecast. This is a common phenomenon in most industrialized national cinemas but Sol takes the cake. He invariably plays emasculated men who are single fathers who must protect and/or save their daughters. It is a very specific kind of typecasting and one would wonder why producers think that audiences could still accept him within such confined parameters. The truth is that these films are making a lot of cash, Troubleshooter, his most recent, scored nearly 2 million admissions on the back of his name and a thin premise. It’s little unfortunate that the formula is working as that indicates that we will have to put up with the same Sol characters for a while yet. His best recent role was probably his ethereal cameo in 2009’s wonderful A Brand New Life, which harkens back to the roles that began his career in earnest.

It seems to me that with No Mercy the producers thought they would make a film that ticks a few boxes and lends itself to being marketed overseas under the popular Asia extreme moniker. First off, it stars Sol Kyung-go, who despite my already noted reservations, is one of Korea’s most exportable stars. The premise is dark and twisted and the revenge formula that is predominant in the narrative is nothing new in Korean film. All this is well and good and the film trundles along at a good pace and is never less than engaging. The performances from Sol and the ever versatile Ryoo Seung-beom are strong and production values, if not the best Korea can offer, are top notch. The end of the film is what really gets me, it it was uninspired and worse made me look over that which had already played out very poorly.

Ryoo Seung-beom as the suspect
Sol plays Kang Min-hom a pathology professor who is frequently employed as an expert by the police. After a grisly murder takes place he and Detective Min Seo-yeong (Han Hye-jin) work together to apprehend the killer (Ryoo Seung-beom). They do so but as Kang is at the airport waiting for his daughter he receives word from the jailed suspect through an accomplice that he has his daughter and to see her alive again he must get him out. Thus he must try to mislead the police, perjure himself, taint evidence, and all sorts of degrading and dishonorable things for the sake of his daughter’s life. The past and memory feature prominently as more is revealed of the characters in the film through flashback, which is typical in melodramatic Korean cinema.

*Spoilers ahead

Unlike most Hollywood films but not unsurprising for the local industry, things do not turn out well. This is an interesting phenomenon in of itself but I don’t think this is the best film to discuss it with. But I think that Kang’s malfeasances and the hardships that befall him and other characters have a certain sense of inevitability to them. For example, his daughter was born with a genetic disorder, if I understood correctly she was a hemophiliac. This is both very a propos but also very trite as she will of course be sacrificed and will thus bleed for her family, it would seem this is her destiny.

The end is lifted in big spoonfuls from Oldboy (2003) and given that the production has nowhere near that prestige pic feel, this is a giant mistake which serves to derail what should have been a solid, albeit standard, thriller.

*End of Spoilers*

"Graphic" autopsy
The film tries very hard to be hard boiled and dark. There are a number of autopsy scenes that are meant go the distance to make you squirm (although they look kind of ridiculous) and even some surprisingly graphic sex scenes but they feel tacked on and do nothing to help the narrative. It’s unfortunate that the proceedings become so obvious as the film progresses because I feel that the film had quite a lot of potential. The early red herring that is supposed to explain the murder is far more interesting and original than what ends up happening. Oh well, maybe next time. In the meantime: Mr. Sol, please get a new agent before you become completely irrelevant!

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.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tidal Wave (Haeundae) 2009

A fair amount has been written about this film and very little of it is positive. At its core, Haeundae is a mawkish melodrama that serves as a convenient structure for Korea's first disaster film and once again a Korean filmmaker shows how adept and prone the industry is to making genre films. While it may not have worked for everyone, it was certainly effective as a genre picture. Haeundae is a beach town near the bustling Busan and our protagonists are mostly lower-class denizens (seamen, coast guards, merchants, etc.) who facilitate the wealthier vacationers that visit their town. Later, as a a tsunami hits the area, we are drawn into the tragic stories that befall them.

Chief among them is Man-Sik (Sol Kyung-gu) a hapless local who, during the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 inadvertently caused the death of a deep-sea fisher, who was the father of Yeon-Hee, his love interest. Man-Sik is a character that keeps popping up in Korean cinema, a well-meaning, middle-aged man who can really only be described as a bumbling idiot. Since the early 90s these characters have surfaced again and again, they represent the emasculation of a whole nation's males and seem incapable of reconstituting their masculine identity. Sol Kyung-gu has built his career on playing these characters. From his blistering performance in arthouse favorite Peppermint Candy (Bakha satang, 1999) to his portrayal of the inimitable Detective Kang Cheol-jung in the hugely popular Public Enemy series, he has become a star in Korea because many people can relate to his characters in some way. His contemporary, Song Kang-ho, has enjoyed a similar success for the very same reasons. Neither are particularly attractive men, they inhabit roles where they predominantly play bruisers who most often start and end their trajectories on the fringe of society.

The other screen veteran in Haeundae, Park Joong-hoon, was one of the first actors to portray these roles, all the way back to Two Cops (Tukabseu, 1993), incidentally one of the first films by Kang Woo-Suk, the director of the Public Enemy trilogy. His role as the scientist who tries to warn people about the coming tsunami falls more or less into the same category as Man-Sik. At first we see that he holds an impressive position but we quickly learn that he lost the woman in his life and his child doesn't even know who he is. Despite repeated protests to the proper authorities, his warnings are never taken seriously and the beach sirens are only activated when an emergency alarm is set off by a neighbouring country. Even though he has a good job and is good at what he does, no one will listen to him. Granted this is a typical generic trope in a disaster film but the fact that no professionals at any point listen to what he says, even when it's too late, is a little more pessimistic than usual.

Genre films have been something of a specialty in Chungmoro for quite some time now. After exhaustively exploring gangster comedies, romantic melodramas and high school dramas, some of the more prominent and daring Korean filmmakers, such as Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon, took their chances on new genres not typically associated with Asian cinema. The results were Park's vampire effort Thirst (Bakjwi, 2009) and Kim's western The Good, The Bad and the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, 2008). Both were successful and well-received films that embraced and defied their respective genre's conventions. Haeundae follows along this Korean proclivity to embrace and reappropriate film genres and while it is by no means as interesting or as good as the previous efforts mentioned, it still manages to fully embrace a foreign genre and feels one hundred percent Korean. The fact that it is now the fourth highest grossing Korean film of all time only reinforces this.

Another point worth mentioning is the attention that was bestowed on the special effects in this film. Since Shiri (Swiri, 1998), Korean films have consistently improved their production values. For a while now, the nation's cinema has been among the worlds best for cinematography, lighting, production design, sound design and even film scoring. Despite a few spotty efforts, it seems that chungmoro has now conquered special effects too!

The last shot of the film, where the camera pans from Man-sik and Yeon-hee poring through her restaurant's wreckage to Haeundae's obliterated cityscape is difficult to analyze. On the one hand, the content of the scene, the music and the rapidly approaching sunset seem to indicate an optimistic ending, "life goes on" and such. However, I can't help but think that the camera is looking through the skyline to the roads behind it, which would suggest that Man-sik and others like him will still need to wander along a directionless road in search of a home and their identity.