Showing posts with label yu oh-seung. Show all posts
Showing posts with label yu oh-seung. Show all posts

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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Friday, December 9, 2011

Jopok Week: Kim Sung-su's Beat (비트, Biteu) 1997

1997 was a pretty big year for Korean gangster films, no less than three of them wound up in the year-end top 10.  Song Kang-ho had his breakout performance with No. 3, Lee Chang-dong released his excellent debut Green Fish, and Jung Woo-sung, Ko So-young, Lim Chang-jung, and Yu Oh-seung made a name for themselves in Kim Sung-su’s Beat.  1997 was also an important year because of the disastrous IMF crisis in Korea.  After numerous big corporations failed the country had to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund to the tune of over $50 billion.  After nearly a decade of enormous year-on-year gains, Korea’s economy drew flat and nearly dipped into a recession. 

Many critics and academics, assert that “the revival and popularity of the jop'ok cycle in the post-IMF period can be seen as a consequence of  and a response to, the national economic crisis” (Shin, 2005: 123).  Friend (2001) in particular is mentioned in this argument.  While I agree to some extent that the prevalence of social identity crises and anxieties in young men depicted in contemporary Korean cinema can be attributed to this cataclysmic financial event, I believe there is much evidence that would argue that this trend was already in evidence before the crisis.

None of the aforementioned films could have been designed with the crisis in mind since it happened in July, months after all of the productions had wrapped.  The gangster film made its comeback earlier in the decade with Im Kwon-taek’s The General’s Son trilogy, of which the first two installments topped the Korean box office charts for 1990 and 1991 (as far as locals films are concerned).  Earlier this week, as I examined gangster films at the Korean boxoffice, I also noted that three gangster films from 1996 wound up in the top 10 as well.  However, the works from 1997 are more notable as they bear much more similarities with the supposed post-IMF crisis gangster cycle of films.  Each has its own stake to that claim but I want to talk about Beat which was not only produced before the crisis but I believe to be the precursor to Friend.  Aside from a similar narrative, they share the same themes and explore similar social mores and anxieties of the young male in modern Korea.

Min (Jung Sung-woo) is a high school student who likes get into fights with his friend Tae-su (Yu Oh-seung).  He is sent to a new school and makes a new friend, Hwan-gyu (Lim Chang-jung), and meets Ro-mi (Ko So-young) while Tae-su gradually falls in with the local mob.  As the narrative progresses Min is torn between joining Tae-su down his criminal path and a more virtuous life with the upwardly mobile Ro-mi.

As many films would do subsequently, such as Die Bad (2000), Friend, Conduct Zero (2002), and Gangster High (2006), Beat examines apathetic youth violence and how it can lead to gang integration.  Though in addition to quantifying the role of male peer pressure, machismo, and home situations in this violence, it also throws in something remarkably modern:  brand fetishization.  Min’s love interest, Ro-mi, asserts early on that anyone interested in “sex, screen, or sports is a loser” and she is relentlessly studious though she presents a vain and feckless exterior to her equally studious classmates.  Min wears a Nike shirt modeled after the Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman and covets Tae-su’s motorbike.  Inaddition, early on in the film Min is auctioned off at a bar by Hwang-gyu and Ro-mi buys him for $100.  This in effect commodifies him, which can provide an interesting reading of Jung Woo-sung’s star status.  He’s never been viewed as a consummate actor and relies more on his looks and physique.  Aside from fetishizing him, Ro-mi’s purchase of Min switches the genders roles as he becomes her servant.  She is very frank with him and puts him down at every opportunity though eventually she can’t help herself, she loses her composure and falls for him.

It’s interesting to consider the purpose of the brand worshipping in Beat as it coincides with frequent references to America.  Examples include Min’s shirt, Hwang-gyu’s rapping and ostentatious clothing, and especially Ro-mi’s use of English aphorisms and her made up enrollment in a New York university.  While the ideal of America may no longer be quite so vaunted in these times, back in 1997 it very much embodied a dream of escape, personal gratification, and the pursuit of happiness.  Min dreams of achieving something, though it is not clear what, and moving past his childhood marred by his promiscuous and absentee mother.  For Ro-mi, her lie, machinated by her parents who wish to live vicariously through her, hides the truth of a psychiatry stint.

Much of the first half of Beat focusses on the extraordinary pressure put on children to succeed academically.  Ro-mi’s stay at a mental institute seems to result from this, though it is never explained.  Of course it was probably triggered by her friend’s suicide on a subway platform before her very eyes, after failing a test.  She probably blamed herself as immediately before she had boasted of a top score, keep in mind her friends believe that she does little work at all and socializes most nights.

Min’s stay in high school may be brief but he suffers similar problems as his mother berates him for not doing better but clearly she is not a good motivator and her behavior, which incongruously coexists with her aspirations for him, may be what leads him to his violent behavior, though at heart he seems rather sweet-natured.  Eventually he disrupts the school order by smashing up the teacher’s office which, after a brief rush of power and adrenaline, gets him thrown out of the system and will eventually lead to gang integration, despite an honest and initially rewarding attempt at a business venture with Hwang-gyu which gets violently shut down by the government as their establishment is demolished.  The sequence brings to mind the brutal repression of the student demonstrations of the 1980s.

I’m rambling a bit but the more I think about Beat, the more impressed I am by it, it seems to combine some of the social relevance of the Korean New Wave, which unofficially ended a year earlier with Jang Sun-woo’s A Petal, and the aesthetics and themes of modern Korean film.  In light of this analysis the leap between Beat and Friend seems far less pronounced, indeed production values sem to be the greatest disparity.  Though the film is no stylistic slouch as it employs Wong Kar-wai’s cool step motion film style that he employed throughout the 1990s, though later Korean films would be far more important to developing Korean film style.  There also something to be said about the homoerotic vibe between Min and Tae-soo, I suppose it might be a facet of their shared machismo and hyper-masculinities.  Beat stands as one of the first great jopok films of new Korean cinema, see it if you get a chance.


See Also:

Born to Kill (1996)

Further Reading:

Shin, Chi-yun, "Two of a Kind: Gender and Friendship in Friend and Take Care of My Cat," in New Korean Cinema, ed. Shin Chi-yun and Julian Stringer (New York, NYU Press, 2005), 123.

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.