Showing posts with label swords. Show all posts
Showing posts with label swords. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Restless (Joong-chun) 2006

I remember when The Restless came out in 2006, as corny as it sounded I was intrigued by the visuals and it did well enough at the box office to make me want to watch it, but I would need to wait until it became available. Then 2007 came and as my interests moved on to other things I hardly watched any Korean films. The Restless was but a memory, a curio haphazardly stored in my thoughts. I only kept up with the films made by the marquee names or those that made an extra big splash on the international film marketplace. I saw Secret Sunshine (2007), The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008), The Chaser (2008), Thirst (2009), Mother (2009), and little else if anything at all. I was keeping myself busy with other projects: I wrote, I made films, I taught languages, I watched TV, I read a lot of old books and likewise saw many classic foreign films, and my interest in cooking grew to the point where I started a catering company. This was all very good but I was a little disappointed in myself that I was unable to pursue my previously very keen obsession with Korean cinema, although I still talked everybody’s ear off about it.

Star vehicle
2010 started and suddenly I found myself immersed once again in Korean cinema and this time it was worse than before. I watched everything I could get my hands on, reread all the Korean cinema books I had bought before my lull and even got some new ones. I needed something more and in the summer of last year I started this blog which began modestly enough and is now a somewhat reputable resource on Korean cinema. Through it I have been able to meet people with the same interest and now there is never a shortage of people to discuss this passion with. I have long lists of Korean films that I want to see and The Restless wasn’t on any of them. The name popped up here and there, and although I recognized it, it didn’t really register with me until I saw it the other day and promptly got a hold of it.

Googly-eyed Jeong Woo-seong
The few films I did see on my Korean filmwatching hiatus were of the highest caliber, films by auteurs which have elevated the industry to what it is today, in my opinion, the best in the business. Yet so many other films are made in Korea that few outside the peninsula ever witness. Many are extraordinary, a good number are bad, and the rest fall in the middle. It is the category of films that really put me over the edge and turned me into the fan that I am today. Films that are somewhat conventional and display a number of flaws and should by all accounts be forgettable. Yet that is often far from the case, these mediocre Korean films are frequently fascinating pieces of entertainment.

The Restless is most certainly one of these. It is simple and corny, and it is riddled with misjudged set pieces, poor effects, and the most googly-eyed acting you could possibly imagine. By all accounts it should be a bad film, there’s plenty of evidence to support this. Yet it isn’t, it’s not even in the so-bad-it’s-good category, although it would fit well there too. It is simply a decent film and what makes me most curious is why I think that. I know I shouldn’t like it but I can kind of tolerate it, although I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a guilty pleasure.

Googly-eyed Kim Tae-hee
Perhaps I’m so entrenched in Korean cinema that I have become positively biased. There must be some grain of truth in that statement but I don’t think that’s really the problem either, how would I have gotten to where I am without a genuine passion for these films? In any case I have shown a number of these mediocre films to people I know who have no predisposition towards Korean films and they have pretty much always been greatly appreciated, films like Bestseller (2010) and Le Grand Chef (2007), to name a few.

So then why is this the case? I suppose it comes down to a number of things. First off they are so well-made that they are easy to sit through; they are often creative and innovative, whether they blend genres or try new tricks; and they are so adept at melodrama that, save for the absolute worst cases, it is easy for us to lose ourselves in the catharsis afforded by the filmmaker's collective mastery of the technique.

Lord of the Rings reference
As for The Restless, it is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road affair which follows a fantastical concept, in which a demon-hunter accidentally ends up in Midheaven, a world halfway between life and the afterlife where he finds his long lost love who has forgotten about him and his former mentor who is orchestrating a demonic rebellion. The simplicity of the story even stretches beyond the plot. As far as costumes go, the good are robbed in white and the bad in black. The backgrounds, which are digitally rendered, look pretty but are wholly lacking in detail and lazily rendered, one view of the water comes to mind which is full of identical boats all facing the same direction even as they are ‘randomly’ floating around. The camerawork and production design however, are top notch. The action sequences, of which there are a good number, seem to start out okay but get more ridiculous and as a result poorly realized as the narrative wears on, although the climactic battle scene is pretty fun. Particularly onerous is the exaggerated wuxia-like wirework and the digital tentacle weapons of a few of the antagonists. For some strange reason the film strongly references The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2003) in a scene where the leads hide from black creatures with hidden faces in a crevice by a path in the woods.

The film is a vehicle for the immensely popular Jeong Woo-seong and Kim Tae-hee, they are both gorgeous but also terribly vacuous. As both have had better work, this may be the fault of director Jo Dong-ho and the interminable, empty, and grandiose dialogue. They are often on screen together and seem to just repeat the same things over and over, this get repetitive, especially in the midsection as they go on about ‘The Reflecting Pool’ and ‘The Consoling Tree’ and whatnot.

Great production design
Ultimately, The Restless is a slight film which offers some visual delights but lacks a substantial story and strong supporting characters. It features a decent amount of action which varies in quality, and yet, despite its many, many drawbacks, it is a thoroughly watchable film. Pleasant throughout, and with a satisfactory ending, The Restless is truly a testament to the craft of Korean filmmakers, even though they seemingly make all of the wrong decisions, their foundation as cineastes is sturdy enough to lift us through this tawdry mess.

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, June 23, 2011

Blades of Blood (구르믈 버서난 달처럼, Gooreumeul beoeonan dalcheoreom) 2010

Most national film industries have their own variant of the period film and depending on the length and volatility of their history, they may have a few different epochs rendered in these offerings. Korea revels in genre cinema so it is no surprise that period films are numerous in the marketplace. Like other genres it is frequently cross-blended with other styles of filmmaking, and frequently it is twisted into something you may not expect: The King and the Clown, a gay period romp, became the nation’s top grossing film when it was released in 2005; Woochi mingled period, action, and science fiction into a high concept comedy and went on to be the second best performing film at the local box office last year; and Detective K, the first installment of an episodic procedural comedy was the most successful film in the first quarter of this year. These clever and original examples are joined by many more straightforward but exceptionally well-made period dramas such as Chunhyang (2000), Untold Scandal (2003), and The Servant (2010) all of which scored big with Korean audiences.

Every year over 100 films are made in Korea but only a dozen or so are marketed overseas. Blades of Blood is one of these and my guess is the film’s producers were hoping that foreign audiences would find something to connect with in this expensive and frequently gloomy enterprise because it certainly didn’t at home. The film only managed 200,000 admissions, a far cry from break-even point. The film features major, bankable stars, is technically competent, and can be quite good at times, so why did it flounder so badly?

The film is more than passable, if somewhat unremarkable, and I’m sure the filmmakers were a little surprised by its poor showing. Out of the two marquee names, Hwang Jeong-min is very good as the blind swordsman Hwang (more than a little reminiscent of Zatoichi) but Cha Seoung-won is problematic as the ambivalent villain Mong-hak. This perception could be entirely my own since I associate him with Kim Sang-jin’s blithely irreverent comedies. Cha portrays characters who are always over-the-top, goofy, and unsure of themselves: a disrespectful youth in Attack the Gas Station (1999); the fighting teacher in Kick the Moon (2001); the wannabe homeowner in Ghost Story (2004); or even as the jailed father in A Day With My Son (2007). To see him in such a startlingly different role is jarring and I couldn’t really get over it. Hwang on the other hand is familiar with oddball characters, A Man Who Was Superman (2007) being a great example, and he excels and seems to revel in this role.

Technically the film is very proficient, the cinematography is solid, the production design and costumes detailed, and the sound is very effective, if a little overbearing at times (like when the soundtrack is inundated with dozens of swooshing swords). One thing I couldn’t possibly understand was the prosthetic vampire teeth they attached to Cha, I suppose they were symbolic of his descent into mayhem, his craving for bloodletting and power, but frankly they looked ridiculous. The final shot of the film is also immensely perplexing, I’m sure that it means something but I really couldn’t be bothered to figure out what that is.

I think the film’s major flaw, at least what pervaded most of its running time, was the uneven plotting and the plodding exposition that went along with it. From the very beginning I had a little trouble following what was going on. I knew there was a rebellion that were forced to compromise and Mong-hwa wasn’t going along with it, he set out hellbent on revenge (possibly, I’m not sure) and killed Gyeon-ja's family. Then Gyeon-ja and Hwang (a former member of the rebellious alliance) went after Mong-hak. There’s also something about the Japanese invading, the rival faction in the King’s court, and a girl but she is so poorly written I can’t quite figure the role she played in it all.

I’ve racked up quite a few negative points, but I must say that I enjoyed a lot of this film. When I could follow it, it was at times engaging and the fight scenes were very good. The comical scenes involving Hwang mentoring Gyeon-ja were played for cheap chuckles but they work well, because they are well choreographed and because of Hwang. A lot of the narrative is an excuse for swordplay, characters get killed with hardly any provocation, but I suppose that’s par for the course and I think it benefits the film. The ending is quite melodramatic and somewhat apart from the rest of the film, but it’s done very well and I wonder had rest of the film had been done this way, could it have struck a deeper chord with Korean audiences? I definitely enjoyed myself with Blades of Blood despite its numerous flaws but I daresay that for many viewers it may be a step too far in the wrong direction.


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, April 14, 2011

A Frozen Flower (쌍화점, Ssang-hwa-jeom) 2008

Steamy sex scenes

Eclectic director Yu Ha’s fifth feature explores yet a new generic territory, after drama in Marriage Is a Crazy Thing (2002), high school angst in Once Upon a Time in High School (2004), and the gangster saga of A Dirty Carnival (2006), A Frozen Flower is period gay romantic thriller, set during the Koryo dynasty. Only a Korean films could embody all of these elements and still be called a success, which it is, but it does create a narrative which can be difficult to know what to make of. Yu Ha was initially reluctant to embrace the period genre, which he felt uncomfortable with, but he decided to embrace it as he sought a change from his previous work. Given how versatile he has been, it comes as no surprise, but I hardly would have thought he felt he was doing the same thing with his previous films, which are each very different works. Yu strikes me as a potential modern Korean equivalent of Howard Hawks as he deftly navigates his way through multiple genres. Like Hawks he leaves his own mark but his films do not feature a uniform style or mise-en-scene, a feature commonly associated with auteurs which Hawks was and Yu is fast becoming.

Hong Lim (Jo In-seong) is the head of a troop of 40 strapping well-trained bodyguards to the king (Ju Jin-mo) who loves him. They have an ongoing relationship that is not particularly well hidden from the other members of the king’s court, including the queen (Song Jie-hyo). Due to pressure from the Yuan kingdom and the possibility of being forced out of his throne because he has no heir, the king hatches a plane, which is to have Hong Lim impregnate his wife as he can’t do it himself. Naturally the queen and Hong fall in love and the king finds out, bringing tensions to a head in the court.

It is an engaging story filled with taboos and erotica supported by a big budget ($10 million) and high-quality production values, although Darcy Paquet in his review notes that local audiences felt some of the production design seemed a little cheap and I would tend to agree. It isn’t the first period Korean film with overt homosexual themes, that would be the wildly successful The King and the Clown (2005), but it is the first one to be so explicit about it. Nudity has not featured prominently in Korean cinema, save for a few short scenes from more risqué directors such Park Chan-wook, but this seems to be changing as sex scenes are now more frequent and far more explicit than they were even five years ago. Most films still refrain from explicit eroticism and for the moment this phenomenon seems nearly confined to period films, like A Frozen Flower and The Servant (2010), a twist on the famed pansori tale Chunhyang, then there’s Natalie (2010), supposedly the world's first 3D porn film, which tanked at the box office.

The film suffers sometimes because of its uneven tone, its self-seriousness can often come off as amusing which undermines the passion of the intimate scenes between the protagonists in the love triangle. The swordplay scenes are very effective, although the numerous fights between Hong Lim and the king are again a little difficult to take seriously as they parade around with massive swords. These phallic symbols bring a new meaning to the terms crossing swords. The climactic battle, which features dynamic sound effects and props and walls being sliced and smashed, is wonderful, it’s just too bad the end seems so silly. All in all, an intriguing story with lots of momentum will pull you in and despite a few missteps, this is one journey worth taking.


Impressive swordplay

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.