Tag: south korea

Secret Sunshine

Secret Sunshine (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lee Chang-dong’s story of loss ends with our protagonist looking in the mirror and cutting her own hair. A haircut may end up good or, well, a disaster but one thing is certain: Hair grows back. This is a curious but not entirely unexpected note to close the story for the material appears to track the progression of life: the relative highs and lows, the uneventful episodes, surprising zeniths, and darkest nadirs that crush the soul into a million pieces. “Secret Sunshine” takes its viewers through a long journey and takes many risks in the process. It is not for everyone.

It begins with what is supposed to be a new chapter. With her young boy in tow, Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) decides to move to Miryang, the birthplace of her late husband. He perished in a car accident, and although it is not stated how long it had been, we can glean from the widow and the son’s sorrowful eyes that they have not had enough time to mourn. And so a part of us feel that the move from Seoul to Miryang is an act of escape. Shin-ae is optimistic that by sheer will and energy, the blank slate will pave the way for her and her son to thrive. Little does she know that her son will be kidnapped, compounding another loss.

The material breaks from the typical and expected three-act structure; this one offers four. The third is most interesting precisely because of its polarizing nature: Shin-ae turning to religion to put a band-aid over her anguish and depression. The easy route would have been to show faith and religion as preposterous, a sham, a form of socially accepted collective insanity that is insidious enough to affect nearly every aspect of our lives, from education and morality to ethics and politics. Instead, the film takes the time to demonstrate the positive and negative qualities of faith, the former angle more overt while the latter requires a bit of critical thinking.

Thus, it challenges the viewer on two fronts: a. the dramatic plot surrounding our protagonist relative to her place in a community that can be kind and cruel in equal measure and b. the messages it wishes to convey about organized religion and how, although it can be helpful, it is not the panacea that its followers purport for it to be. Like the annual cold virus, sometimes it is better to ride it out, to allow the body to do what it has evolved to do. Just as hair grows back with time. However, contrary to the popular saying, time may not heal all. Sometimes we simply must decide to move forward with scarring. Such is life.

As previously mentioned, the story is not all doom and gloom. Shin-ae earns an admirer in a local mechanic named Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho), a thirty-nine-year-old man who is a walking ray of sunshine. It seems as though he has made it his mission for Shin-ae and her son to grow comfortable in their new home and acclimate with their community. Whatever Shin-ae is into, he is there to follow. His dedication is noticeable and admirable… But it can also be a bit annoying and creepy, depending how you wish to see it.

And I think that is one of the most beautiful aspects of “Secret Sunshine,” an occasionally cynical story of awakening: it is up to the viewers to decide from which angle, or angles, they wish to absorb the tale from. It presents the complex reality of colorful personalities while at the same time the more minute details relating to the questions beginning with “why” are open to interpretation. Prepare to engage; you will not be spoon-fed.

Save the Green Planet!

Save the Green Planet! (2003)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Save the Green Planet!” can be described as “crazy,” “insane,” or “totally bonkers,” but none of these adjectives, individually or as a group, can fully describe the level of manic energy and visual creativity that writer-director Jang Joon-hwan manages to inject into his work. It is brazen in its liquid presentation: darkly comic by way of torture porn one minute, a nail-biting detective story the next, then it pivots to a melodrama of mental illness. It offers satirical elements, too, regarding conspiracy theorists, their habit of taking random or harmless information and shaping them into puzzle pieces that fit into their fantastic narratives. The film shouldn’t work, but it does. It is willing to make us laugh, terrify us, and offend even (or especially) the weak-hearted.

On the surface, it tells the story of a man on a mission to save the Earth from an alien invasion. Doing so requires him to kidnap the CEO of a chemical company whom he believes to be an alien leader from planet Andromeda. Byeong-gu (Shin Ha-kyun) is convinced that putting enough physical stress on Man-shik (Baek Yoon-sik) would inspire his prey to divulge information that could prevent an apocalypse. Upon closer inspection, however, the kidnapping plot sheds light on a tragic character, a person who has had such a hard life—bullied by peers and authority figures throughout his life—that saving the world becomes a metaphor. He hopes to save what he has left. And it is up to us to figure out what that is. To do so requires looking a terrorist in the eye and being open to what he has to impart. On this level, I found the screenplay to be brave.

Shin is required to deliver two performances. First is the seemingly harmless, friendly young man that the world sees and chews up from time to time. When he is beaten, he takes it. He is even apologetic for getting in the way. But on the inside, his anger brews. Second is the madman who has transformed an old bathhouse into his base of “operations,” thoroughly convinced of a looming extraterrestrial invasion. It is amazing how Shin is able to change not only his countenance from one precarious situation to the next but also the aura he evokes.

One part of us wishes to get to know Byeong-gu, that he is or can be a good person. Another part of us wishes for him to get caught because he is a menace to society. Here is a specimen worthy of putting under a microscope but one that proves to be a challenge to study because he is constantly on the move—unsurprising because he is addicted to methamphetamines. Detective Choo (Lee Jae-yong), with his keen sense of smell, manages to find methamphetamine pills lodged in between the cracks of a parking lot where Man-shik is last seen. A hotshot tyro inspector (Lee Ju-hyeon) offers his aid to the reclusive detective. Surely it is only a matter of time until Byeong-gu and Choo cross paths. But it will not unfold in the way it leads you to believe. The screenplay smirks at its sinister streak.

It is without question that the writer-director loves film as a medium. He doesn’t allow the camera to sit; he uses it as a device to communicate ideas beyond what our eyes see. And despite allusions to numerous classics, from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” to Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Save the Green Planet!” possesses—and exercises—its own identity. It enmeshes itself in its eye-popping pandemonium, licking its blood during moments of deafening silence. Should you decide to see it, prepare for an experience.

I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Kim Jae-woon’s “I Saw the Devil” is no ordinary revenge story. I think the point of making a film as violent and as ugly as this is not only to touch upon what vengeance does to a person and of those around him but also to ask viewers how much blood, disfigurements, dismemberments, and other horrific images they can handle—all for the sake of entertainment. I admire and find value in it because the director takes an idea and goes for it without compromise. Needless to say, the picture is not for everyone. But it is for those willing to embrace the fact that within the depths of our humanity, our goodness, resides a monster. Some have no control of it.

The movie is dark, foreboding, and the morality it offers is quite bleak. It opens with a stranded woman named Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) who calls her boyfriend, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-Hun), while waiting for professionals to arrive and fix her tires. She is approached by Jang (Choi Min-sik), a bus driver for a learning center with a penchant for kidnapping, raping, and murdering women, and offers to help. Joo-yun thanks him but insists that she prefers to wait for the servicemen. Soon Joo-yun’s severed head is found washed up under a bridge. Soo-hyun vows that he will find her killer and make him feel the suffering she felt before her death.

The opening act is beautifully operatic which culminates in a night time search for Joo-yun. The camera glides in and out of crowds as we strive to make sense of how much they know, if they have any leads or have found any clues, and get an overall feeling as to whether those aiding the search are optimistic or much less so. Of course, we already know Joo-yun’s fate so the outcome of the search is negligible. Still, there remains great tension because Soo-hyun is on the scene and he does not know what we know. How will he react? It is most appropriate that this tragic sequence ends while fixated on his expression. We are made to recognize the moment in which a part of him dies upon learning that his fiancée is dead.

Small but effective surprises pepper the story. One of them is that it does not require ample time for Soo-hyun to get to Jang. This is an astute decision made by screenwriter Park Hoon-jung. After all, this is a revenge story, not a detective story. But devil is in the details: What happens when a man who feels he is wronged gets his hands on the wrongdoer? Another surprise: the killer is not kept in a room to be tormented in every way possible. This would have been too ordinary, too easy, too generic. And it does not make a strong statement regarding Soo-hyun the secret agent, whom we assume to have a strong sense of justice and fairness, a professional who likely has planned out his life with a woman he intends to marry.

This is a classic character study in a sense that everything about our protagonist—qualities that make him Soo-hyun—is stripped away throughout the film. Like a fish flopping about as it struggles for air, we watch him try to survive when he has nothing else to hold onto other than his unadulterated and inconsolable rage. We then must ask: Which is the bigger monster—Soo-hyun the hunter or Jang the hunted? Then later: How do we define “monster”? Should the word be defined on a case-by-case basis? Is that even the right word? I enjoyed that the picture’s ideas are on constant state of evolution. We search for answers not for the film but for ourselves: our own understanding, our own fears and anxieties. This is a psychological thriller that inspires the viewer to look within.

Those who dismiss “I Saw the Devil” as nothing but extreme and violent are downright wrong. I mentioned its level of insight. But it is also disarmingly humorous on occasion, particularly the wacko visit to a pair of cannibals (Choi Moo-sung, Kim In-seo). Of course Jang would be acquainted with such folks. Naturally, there is an extended hallway sequence. Yet despite sudden fluctuations in tone, tension and curiosity persist. How will this specific story be resolved? Can it be resolved? Kim is in control of his material every step of the way.


Metamorphosis (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Kim Hong-seon’s “Metamorphosis” tries to inject new blood in the exorcism subgenre, but its aspiration is far more admirable than its execution. It has learned nothing from failed American demonic possession movies. It chooses ostentatious shocks, gore, and visual effects at just about every opportunity instead of focusing on telling a specific story—a personal story—of a family who moves into a new home following the patriarch’s brother, a priest, who lived with them at the time, having inadvertently killed a girl during an exorcism. It’s as fresh as a decomposing corpse.

If one just so happened to miss the opening sequence, one might assume that the material is a haunted house story; details are amorphous. Gang-goo (Sung Dong-il) is optimistic about the new home they had just purchased from an auction… that nobody was interested in bidding on. The wife, Myung-joo (Jang Young-nam), does not share his sentiment; she considers it a hassle, along with the middle child, Hyun-joo (Cho Yi-hyun), to have to uproot their lives due to Joong-soo’s (Bae Sung-woo) incompetence which led to a tragic death. The eldest daughter, Sun-woo (Kim Hye-jun), and the only son, Woo-jong (Kim Kang-hoon), on the other hand, are quite close to their uncle. They don’t mind the move so much, and they miss him.

The first act shows a bit of promise. We are given a few hints that this is a family who has lost, or in the process of losing, their faith. Myung-joo insists that all religious paraphernalia go in the basement. There is also a clever bit regarding a neighbor who makes loud sloshing noises in the middle of the night—clearly winking at the phrase “Hell is other people.” Maybe the recently purchased home is bad news, cursed, or simply unlucky on top of the uncle’s past clearly coming to haunt his loved ones. It is all a matter of time.

But connective tissues among the elements I’ve described are not fully ironed out. The bad neighbor is dropped less than halfway through; we get one flashback in the latter hour which provides no explanation that makes sense. Bizarre events occur in the newly purchased home like the devil taking the form of every family member… yet not one is convincing because the actors either choose or are instructed to overact.

We do not even get to feel or appreciate the love between two brothers, Gang-goo and Joong-woo, which proves to be critical later on due to handful of scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings. When not generic, elements are put together quite haphazardly; tension fails to accumulate because we are too distracted from trying to decipher the connections among the puzzle pieces. There is a difference between engagement and busy work. This is the latter.

Outside of the issues with the screenplay, notice that the filmmakers often feel the need to remind us that the budget is being used: characters fly across the room, the wind machine must be at max setting when the devil speaks (cue the deep voice, yellow contact lenses required), skin boils and lashes must look as disgusting as possible, dead animals must be hung on trees, there must be at least ten upside down crosses, floors must be covered in blood. It’s just too much—overcompensation for its lack of substance. It feels much longer than two hours.

The Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

“The Yellow Sea,” written and directed by Hong-jin Na, is a highly entertaining, sometimes confusing but always interesting, action-thriller from South Korea. It engages the audience by presenting a seemingly straightforward situation and slowly the tentacles of deceit creep out of their hiding places as the protagonist gets deeper into his mission. In addition, the picture offers a sharp eye when it comes to its action scenes, proficiently balancing white-knuckle suspense and well-placed humor.

Gu-nam (Jung-woo Ha), working as a cab driver in China, grows increasingly worried and jealous that his wife, who traveled to South Korea for work, has been cheating on him with no intention of ever coming back—even to provide financial assistance to their child. The pressure to get in contact with her increases with each day because debt collectors need the money that Gu-nam and his wife owe for the visa. It appears most opportune when a leader of the Chinese mafia, Myun (Yun-seok Kim), approaches Gu-nam with an alternative: to go to South Korea and kill a man. Doing so would pay his debt in full. Gu-nam feels he is left with no other choice.

Despite a running time of one hundred thirty minutes, there is never a dull moment because the writer-director has complete control of the material’s tone and tonal changes. Notice that the first third is quite slow, more concerned with showing a man’s difficult situation rather than complicated stunts, and we get a chance to understand how the protagonist’s thinks and recognize his strengths and weaknesses. The rest of the picture offers an opposite approach: fast-paced, adrenaline-driven, noisy. It tests the man to his limits as he follows the strands that might lead to his wife’s whereabouts.

Its chase sequences are especially strong. One takes place in a high-rise apartment building and the other in and on a cargo ship. I found these refreshing because there is something about a mob, whether it be composed of cops or criminals, chasing a man that makes the scene scarier. In many American movies, chases usually involves only two or three people, certainly almost never more than five.

The constant movement in the background, accompanied by screaming and yelling, locks the viewer into paying attention as the distance between the main character and his potential captors grows shorter. In addition, the writer-director is not afraid to make the choice of minimizing the use of guns. Knives are used most often. I smiled at a character using a really thick animal bone, likely to be a femur, as a club. There is creativity here and Na makes smart choices in order to elevate the feel of action sequences.

Another impressive aspect is the film’s use of real cars smashing against one another coupled with really tight editing and most convincing sound effects so that the audience can almost feel the impact of every bump and glass shatter. There is a wonderful balance between close-ups and wide shots so we feel as though every decision by the person behind the wheel counts. There is plenty to appreciate in seemingly simple moments.

Right Now, Wrong Then

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Viewers unaccustomed to careful observation and extracting meaning between the lines will certainly walk away from “Right Now, Wrong Then,” written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, feeling confused, perhaps frustrated, because, on the outside, nothing profound happens in the chance meeting of an art-house film director (Jae-yeong Jeong) and a painter (Min-hee Kim). Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong meet, drink coffee, eat sushi, attend a gathering at a cafe, and part ways. One might wonder, “What’s the point in telling this story?” The answer is in the structure.

With a running time of two hours, the picture is divided into two. At sixty minutes, we have seen all there is to see in the meeting of strangers. At minute sixty-one, we are thrusted back into the story, title card included, where Cheon-soo is looking around an unfamiliar place—but now familiar to us—just as he did when we first laid eyes on his unconfident demeanor. And therein lies the magic of the film: It is a second chance to look at something… but this time more closely, more intensely. We note of similarities and differences, obvious and subtle: the placement of the camera, when it decides to go in for a closeup, how characters react to one another and what they choose to reveal or keep hidden depending on the flow of conversation. We have all been in a situation where we wondered what might have happened if we have done or said something differently, had been more honest, more daring or straightforward.

Seemingly a romance picture, certainly the plot is designed to evoke such a feeling, I believe the material is smarter than its initial premise. So many movies, even romantic comedies, particularly those that stick to tried-and-true formulas, direct their attention on action, what happens next, whether the main players will live happily ever after before the end credits roll. Here is a picture that asks us to live in the moment, to engage, to be aware of the thoughts and feelings behind and between what people decide to share with one another. Sometimes they even surprise themselves with how much they’ve admitted to, an occurrence that happens in real life when we are with someone we genuinely connect with at the time.

Jeong and Kim are so natural in their roles that it does not feel as though they are putting on a performance. Their body language—such as how they look down a lot, how they smile when they feel uncomfortable, their go-to physical pleasantries just to be polite—look like something that we can observe at a nearest coffee shop. The picture conjures up a warm feeling of familiarity but we are compelled to continue watching because the details are specific enough to these characters who are so different from one another. The two of them being at least ten years apart in age is only the tip of the iceberg. We wonder how it is going to work.

“Right Now, Wrong Then” are for those with patience and deep imagination. It makes one wonder how, had a third chance meeting been presented, might have the director and the painter related to one another on a deeper level. It also makes us look into our relationships with others and perhaps some of us may be inspired to make them better somehow. And if the power of film is measured by how much it can push its audience into taking action, then by such measurement the picture is a glorious success.