★★★ / ★★★★
One of the boys joyfully playing next to a river notices something curious being carried by the current from several feet away. He leans in and upon closer inspection, it turns out to be a lifeless middle school girl floating on her stomach.
Mija (Jeong-hie Yun) is in the waiting room of a hospital because the muscles on her back, adjacent to her right shoulder, are bothering her. But the doctor is more concerned that Mija, in her sixties, has begun to forget nouns. He suggests for her to see a specialist. Later that day, Mija is informed that her grandson, Wook (Da-wit Lee), who has been under her care because his mother works in another city, had been a part of a gang rape with five of his friends. Their victim was the same girl whose body is found floating down the river.
“Shi,” written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, juggles many strands of varying complexities but not all of them are solved within the given running time. Most of them do not need to because, in a way, the movie is not so much about the plot than it is about the rhythm of the every day and the grim discovery that shocks the town gets them buzzing. The emotions behind the manner in which Mija responds to the accusations directed toward her grandson take precedence. And for those that are solved for the sake of cohesion and closure, some of the final answers are quite unexpected.
Mija is eventually diagnosed with a very early stage of Alzheimer’s Disease. There are times when certain things makes sense to her but are nonsensical to those without the condition. The challenge in watching the film is determining when Mija’s affliction gets the best of her versus times when she is fully in control of her mind and body. It is compelling because she feels she has family to defend but she is not in the best health to fight.
The manner in which the grandmother and the grandson’s interactions are shot are ordinary yet powerful. For example, after Mija discovers what Wook does on his spare time, there is no big confrontation to address the issue. Threats of disownment and a possibility of trying to make amends with the girl’s family are not brought up. Instead, the grandson is shown focusing his eyes on the television as he eats dinner, laughing as if he is not at all remorseful about what he had done, and the grandmother stands in a corner of the kitchen, the farthest distance from him without her leaving the room. We wait, riveted, for how one or the other will begin to talk about the big elephant in the room.
Mija attends a poetry class twice a week. She takes the lessons seriously because she really wants to write a poem by the end of the one-month course. During important moments, like when the fathers of Wook’s friends hold a meeting to plan a way to settle with the girl’s parents so that their kids will not have to answer to the police, Mija gets up and jots down observations of nature in her tiny notebook. Poetry is both an escape and a way for her to make sense of the world–to stay connected when her mind is in rebellion.
In “Shi,” also known as “Poetry,” Mija does not have to scream or yell for us to get a sense of the injustice on screen. The sadness and shame in her eyes say it all.
Woman on the Beach (2006)
★★★ / ★★★★
Director Jung-rae Kim (Seung-woo Kim) needed to work on the story for his next film but he needed inspiration to get started. So he accepted an invitation to come along with his co-worker, Chang-wook (Tae-woo Kim), and his girlfriend, Mun-suk (Hyun-jung Go), for a weekend at the beach. But from the moment Jung-rae met Mun-suk, Chang-wook became the third wheel because the other two were intensely attracted to one another. When Mun-suk had to return to the city, Jung-rae tried to replace Mun-suk with Sun-hee (Seon-mi Song) because he desperately needed a muse in order to continue writing his screenplay. Written and directed by Sang-soo Hong, “Haebyeonui yeoin,” also known as “Woman on the Beach,” was told mainly from the perspective of a man as he used women to fuel his artistry. I was blindsided by the film because the first forty minutes was romantic. But it was really more about how an intense attraction could be misconstrued as genuine romantic love and how some men manipulated women in relationships. What captured my interest was the unlikable Jung-rae attempting to lure Mun-suk away from his co-worker. Sure, Jung-rae and Mun-suk disregarded how Chang-wook must have felt when they openly flirted after a couple bottles of soju but the scenes, often driven by offbeat but nonetheless interesting conversations, maintained a light-hearted, never mean-spirited, feel to it. We learned that Jung-rae took a certain pride in being recognized in the streets as a renowned director, liked to take advantage of his celebrity, and he was deathly afraid of dogs. As for Mun-suk, we learned that she studied abroad and dated a number of German men (and sleeping with them), she didn’t have much respect for Korean men for undisclosed reasons, and she delivered her opinions with a certain bluntness that reminded me of myself. The two characters had strong, often polarizing, personalities but they shared magical chemistry because of the way the actors controlled their body languages in the scenes where they shared a first awkward kiss and the way they would give each other certain looks when the third wheel wasn’t paying particular attention. However, I did have a problem with the second half’s pacing. When Jung-rae met Sun-hee, although interesting at first, it became painfully obvious that Sun-hee was very different from Mun-suk in personality and view of the world. Jung-rae and Sun-hee’s relationship was explored in the same places where Jung-rae and Mun-suk shared their most intimate moments: the seaside, the bedroom, and in front of various shops. In a way, some of realism was lost. It no longer felt like I was watching two people who happened to meet and fall hard for each other. It felt like I was watching a movie with contrived comparisons and ongoing themes. In other words, the self-awareness was a distraction. While I understood that Sun-hee was a replacement of Jung-rae’s fantasy of Mun-suk (“fantasy” because Jung-rae was convinced the two women looked alike but no one else saw the resemblance), but it felt too Movie 101. I kept waiting for the writer-director to inject a twist, something unique only to Jung-rae and Sun-hee’s relationship, but there wasn’t any.
Bloody Reunion (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
A detective (Eung-soo Kim) and his partner found a basement full of bloody and mangled bodies. They were informed that there were two survivors: a young woman and an older woman confined to a wheelchair. The detective asked the young woman what had happened. It turned out that the other survivor, Miss Park (Mi-hee Oh), was a former teacher suffering from a terminal illness. Seven of her former students came to visit so they could say their goodbyes. But the reunion wasn’t sweet. The seven became bitter because their lives didn’t turn out to be as they hoped. Miss Park was to blame. Written by Se-yeol Park and directed by Dae-wung Lim, “Seuseung-ui eunhye” was an interesting hybrid of slasher film and who-dun-it mystery. The identity of the murder was in question. It could be Miss Park’s son with a deformed face, bullied by six of the seven students when he was a kid, or it could be one of the seven. I enjoyed that it wasn’t very clear until the last act. But the cinematography sometimes distracted me from the bloody happenings in the film. There were certain scenes when it asked as to focus our eyes on Miss Park so we could feel the sadness she felt toward her damaged children. Even though she was far from a perfect teacher, we were asked to understand that she was at least aware of her mistakes, that she was regretful of her actions, before her body succumbed to her illness. But the camera kept zooming in and out of her face. It should have been reshot so that the emotions her face conveyed, though complicated, had some sort of clarity. As for the way the story unfolded, I enjoyed that it asked us to put the pieces together ourselves. There was no narrator to explain to us that a piece, for instance, didn’t really exist or it only happened in the confines of one’s psyche. However, in some ways, it worked against itself. In its attempt to conceal some of its secrets, the picture relied too much on the mood between the students contrasted with the atmosphere between a student and Miss Park when it was just the two of them. The formula involving a student being alone with his or her teacher was used too often so we knew when he was about to reveal the reason why he was there. Some of the information didn’t always make sense because we were only given pieces. The movie took a considerable amount of time to lay out all of its pieces and by the time we were asked to put it all together, half the viewers would have given up trying to put the information into one coherent whole. “To Sir with Love” or “Bloody Reunion,” though inconsistent, held a certain fascination. When it didn’t work, it was frustratingly bad but when it did, I watched in wide-eyed horror.
I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A woman was driving in the middle of nowhere and her luck turned grim when one of the tires gave out. She called her husband, Secret Agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), to inform him of her predicament. In the middle of their phone conversation, a man named Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) knocked on her window and offered to help. She refused, told him that she already called a car service, and thanked him for his kindness. He insisted but she refused again. So he decided to break into her car and beat her until she lost consciousness. When, covered in a plastic bag, she became aware of her surroundings, he transected her limbs and threw her head into the river. Written by Hoon-jung Park and directed by Jee-woon Kim, “Akmareul boatda,” also known as “I Saw the Devil,” was an intense psychological study of a man so hell-bent on vengeance, he didn’t care if he hurt the wrong man. The lush cinematography made an interesting contrast with the characters’ dark ideations. When the searchers found the woman’s head in the river, there was something so sad and sinister about the scene. It was sad because her father and husband expected that the head wouldn’t be her’s but at the same time they somewhat knew that it was over. It was sinister because I felt like Kyung-chul was watching among the crowd of journalists and photographers. What I found unique about the story was in the way Agent Kim had the upper-hand for most of the film. It was unpredictable because it didn’t follow a typical narrative. For instance, the sadistic killer and the husband confronted each other prior to the half-way point. With each time the killer lost a physical confrontation, a part of his body was broken and he was allowed to run (or limp) away. Unbeknownst to the killer, the secret agent forced him to swallow a tracking device. The comedy kicked in when Kyung-chul was aghast that every time he was about to molest a young girl, Agent Kim foiled his plans and gave him another broken body part. Behaviorism failed to work. We wanted to see the killer suffer but there came a point where we had no choice but to ask ourselves how much was enough. Agent Kim claimed that the violence he inflicted was driven by the promise he made to his late wife. But maybe there was something inside him that relished being in control of another human being and acting like he was above the law. It worked as a meticulous case study of what torture does to the person inflicting the pain. As wild as the picture became, I admired that it had ways of pulling us back to the murdered wife. I especially liked the way the director handled the difficult phone call between Agent Kim and his wife’s family. His father-in-law actually asked him to stop. I imagine it must have been so difficult for him to come to that decision. “What you’re doing will not bring her back,” the sister said. Agent Kim’s eyes searched for an answer that could prove her statement wrong. There wasn’t any.