Showing posts with label yu hae-jin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label yu hae-jin. Show all posts

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Review: EXHUMA Digs Up Ghoulish Thrills in Spades

By Pierce Conran

In the smash hit Exhuma, four people dig a hole. Things don't turn out well - digging up corpses can do that - so they keep digging themselves in deeper. Unsurprisingly, things go from bad to worse.

A rich Korean family in LA fly in a pair of young shamans (Kim Go-eun and Lee Do-hyun) to solve their supernatural woes but when the pair connect the bizarre events to the family’s buried ancestor back in Korea, they return and team up with a grizzled geomancer (Choi Min-sik) and a wily undertaker (Yu Hae-jin) to dig up and burn the corpse and bring the supernatural happenings to an end.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Revenge Week: Exploring Themes of Vengeance in Small Town Rivals (2007)

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

(By Connor McMorran)

Two childhood friends have grown up to be very different people. Choon-sam, despite being popular at high school, has amounted to very little in life and has reluctantly accepted the position of village chief. On the other hand, Dae-gyu, who was something of an outsider at school, has just been elected as the local magistrate. As these two reunite to fix aspects of Choon-sam’s village, their memories of various wrong-doings, coupled with manipulation from outside sources, causes them to become rivals. They begin a game of one-upmanship, both of them too proud to admit defeat. This all comes to a head in the third act of the film, and the two come to blows. Their battle carries a sense of tragedy, as they have both been corrupted to the point of betraying their closest childhood friend.

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.

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.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Unjust (Bu-dang-geo-rae) 2010

(Opening film for KOFFIA 2011)

Ryoo Seung-wan is already a popular and respected filmmaker who has pleased fanboys (The City of Violence, 2006) and critics alike (Crying Fist, 2005), but with his new film The Unjust, he has elevated himself to a new level, from which he can now comfortably tower over the majority of his peers. Principally known for his exceptional action sequences and choreography, Ryoo is a technical wizard who has the ability to inject vitality into just about any subject. What he has done here is namely to use his strengths in action filmmaking and apply those techniques laterally into different elements of the film. While The Unjust may be a film about cops and murder, there is much less action than you would imagine from Ryoo, although it is to his credit that it never feels that way.

Hwang Jeong-min and Yu Hae-jin
With a blistering pace, a cool head, and intense focus Ryoo has fashioned a film that has successfully built on its most accomplished predecessors. It feels like a Korean and slightly more stylized version of a New Hollywood film from the 1970s. In particular I’m reminded of Serpico (1973) and The French Connection (1971) but also many others. The paranoia from that era’s conspiracy thrillers and the composed, organized, and yet organic framing and juxtaposition of those tempered filmmakers like Sydney Lumet and Billy Friedkin’s mise-en-scene, are all on evident display in this simultaneously old school and progressive masterclass of filmmaking.

The Unjust is probably the most richly conceived film to come out of Korea in 2010, although The Yellow Sea comes in as a close second. The busy, cluttered, and yet highly precise production design is more than amply matched by the constantly angled cinematography which is so richly composed and sequenced to highlight the  proliferate characters in all their physical and psychological states. In essence mirroring the deliberately convoluted and tense narrative, the mise-en-scene is dense and mesmerizing. The sound is exceptionally well-crafted and carefully orchestrated with the tight editing, and some key sequences employ parallel editing while also taking advantage of the intense and powerful music, especially the recurring, sinister horns.

Ryoo Seung-beom
The story involves a great number of characters but at the heart of the plot there is a stoic and gruff police captain Cheol-gi (Hwang Jeong-min) who has been passed over for promotion one too many times, Joo-yang a young prosecutor (Ryoo Seung-beom), ruthlessly ambitious in his profession but conflicted by his frequently compromised ethics, and Jang, a cagey gangster (Yu Hae-jin) who wears a suit and pretends to inhabit the business world despite being more comfortable stabbing someone in the back with his knife. The narrative begins with the manhunt for the killer of a young girl which has a lot at stake for the police department. Its conflict arises from the higher-ups enlisting of Cheol-gi to cover up a death and make a conviction stick to a patsy while Jang harbors ambitions to take down his rival who has Joo-yang in his pocket. As the story gets more complicated they get more entangled together.

My primary misgiving with The Unjust is that like a great number of the New Hollywood filmmakers, Ryoo Seung-wan doesn’t seem to have strong or relatable female characters in most of his work. The film is a prime example of a male-driven thriller that makes no effort to portray the opposite gender. In one sense this is sort of a blessing in disguise as all the males and therefore all the protagonists in this narrative are shown to be corrupt, ruthless, and/or motivated purely by personal gain. Moral fiber figures in some of the characters ideals but this veneer is swiftly peeled away to show the moral turpitude of everyone associated with the system and then some.

Film noir
The main theme of the day is police corruption which is something that is so frequent and dare-I-say blasé in modern Korean film that the proposition could potentially seem a little risky. I don’t know if it has ever been so pronounced and vociferous though, everyone is a very dark shade of grey in this film and the corruption is so all-consuming, depraved, and simply conducted that it kind of takes your breath away.

The performances are among the cast’s best, the script (from I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-jung) is tight and menacing, the sparse choreography by Jeong Doo-hong will blow your socks off, and Ryoo’s expert and thrilling direction will keep you on the edge of your seats all throughout. This film noir is one of the best Korean movies of the last few years and I suggest that you don’t miss it!

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.