Tag Archives: korean

Thirst – Review

12 Jan

Anyone who reads these reviews knows that I’m a huge fan of South Korean movies. South Korea is actually may favorite market for foreign film because of the amount of beautifully shot films that come out of there. Today we’re going to be looking at a movie made by Park Chan-wook who is prominently known for his cult classic Oldboy, but also for dabbling in the American market with Stoker. I’ve always found the majority of his movies to be beautiful but awfully pretentious. The same can be said for his 2009 film Thirst, although it is far more enjoyable than others like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance.

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Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) is a Catholic priest who feels that his life should be dedicated more to than just prayer. To make himself feel more fulfilled both with his life and faith, Sang-hyun decides to volunteer to become a test subject to find a cure for the deadly Emmanuel Virus, which has been wiping people out all over the globe. While he does in fact die during the test, he is resurrected when a blood transfusion is performed, but with some unexplainable side effects. Sang-hyun is now cursed with vampirism and survives day to day by stealing blood from hospitals. Life after death becomes even more complicated when he is reunited with Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), a childhood acquaintance who insists on becoming a vampire.

This is just such a cool idea for a movie. When done properly, vampire movies can contain some of the coolest and most memorable scenes and characters. Interview With a Vampire is my go to vampire movie, but then there’s the comedic What We Do in the Shadows that also works great as a vampire movie. In Thirst, the biggest draw that separates it from the rest is the fact that a Catholic priest is turned into a vampire. This is an interesting plot point since Catholics believe so strongly in going to either heaven or hell after they die, and this priest is now stuck in this undead state and is forced to drink blood to survive. Another interesting thing is that Park wrote vampirism to be some weird biological side effect to the disease that Sang-hyun volunteered to help find a cure for. It puts an interesting and worldly twist on something that is normally considered supernatural.

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With his other films, Park Chan-wook has shown himself to be highly skilled at creating a visually beautiful movie. While his movies do look beautiful, I’ve always felt that they’ve lacked in terms of telling a story. In both these regards, Thirst is no different. There’s a lot of great looking scenes in this movie that deserve a lot of attention, but Park doesn’t really explore the narrative possibilities to their full potential. There’s a vampire priest that’s engaged in a sexually charged relationship with a woman who feels the need to become a vampire. That should open a lot of doors to utilize different vampire lore or character development, but that doesn’t really happen to the degree it should. With that in mind, there are also a lot of scenes where nothing really happens and just serve to drag the movie out a little bit intead of a scene that could include something that would boost the movie up.

Thirst is an example of a really good movie that gets weighed down by the pretentiousness of the film maker. Park Chan-wook obviously has a lot to say about a lot of things, but he’s conveying these ideas in broken sentences. It’s pretty clear that Park’s main goal was to make a beautiful piece of art, but the art of a movie isn’t just how it looks or sounds. To me, one of the most important pieces to a film is the story. Narrative should never be discounted as not important to making a cinematic work of art, even if it’s something more abstract or experimental. That’s just my personal taste anyway.

I don’t want this review to sound negative because I actually did enjoy Thirst and appreciate the work that Park Chan-wook put into it. It’s actually one of his best movies after Oldboy. I just wish more attention would have been put into the lore of the vampire and more detail added to create a flowing story. I actually highly recommend this film to people who love a good vampire movie, but just don’t expect a completely fulfilling movie.

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Mother – Review

6 Dec

While there are many great film makers to come out of South Korea, Bong Joon-ho is, by far, my favorite. All of the other films I’ve seen of his have really struck a chord in me in some way. The Host was a perfect blend of environmental warning, monsters, and comedy. The same can be said about Snowpiercer, but Bong also showed his strengths with more realistic film making with his 2003 film Memories of Murder. All of these movies seamlessly blend different genres with dark comedy, and Bong’s 2009 film Mother is no different. Not only can Mother be appreciated by different artistic stand points, it also raises a lot of interesting questions about mental health, love, and the legal system while also providing us with an entertaining mystery that will often make you laugh.

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This film tells the story of a nameless single mother (Kim Hye-ja) who struggles with taking care of her mentally disabled son, Do-joon (Won Bin). Do-joon may be mentally inadequate, but he’s harmless, so when Do-joon is charged with the murder of a young school girl his mother knows it can’t be true. Unfortunately for the mother, she is stuck with a lawyer that isn’t interested in the case, a police force who is only interested in the circumstantial evidence, and her own son who is really no help to anyone. When all looks bleak, the mother enlists the help of Do-joon’s troublemaking friend, Jin-tae (Jin Goo), to help her on a mission of vigilante detective work to prove her son’s innocence.

Mother had the potential to be a really somber movie. From scene to scene, things just go from bad to worse to the worst it can possibly get. If another film maker wrote and directed this film, this would’ve been a pretty upsetting movie. Now, I’m not saying that this film isn’t dramatic. I’m saying that Bong Joon-ho’s unique style gives this movie a little something extra. Like I said before, Bong is known for putting a lot of dark comedy into his movies, even one as serious as Mother. Putting too much comedy into it, however, would have ruined the mood of the movie completely and make it feel uneven. Luckily, Bong’s talent pulls through again and Mother has a perfect balance between stone seriousness and hearty laughs.

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What makes Bong Joon-ho such an affective film maker is that he captures life in a very real kind of way, which goes back to what I was saying about him mixing comedy and drama together seamlessly. Other than that, his characters all feel like real people, even in a science fiction monster movie like The Host. Of course none of this would be possible if the actors playing the characters didn’t play their roles just as naturally. Kim Hye-ja doesn’t just give a great performance, more so an excellent performance. She is both intense and naïve during her investigation to prove her son’s innocence, and this can almost become tragic when she begins ignoring facts and acting irrationally. I can’t forget to point out the good work also done by Won Bin and Jin Goo, but Kim is really the one that’s going to grab your attention in every scene.

The storyline of Mother doesn’t just happen in one place, which means there is plenty to look at in terms of environment. Much like in Memories of Murder, Bong Joon-ho captures everything both good and bad about where his characters inhabit. The urban and rural landscapes often clash with each other as the beautiful and the ugly pop with startling colors and subtle grays. This is a beautiful looking film, indeed.

This review may have seemed like my love letter to the career of Bong Joon-ho, and in a way it sort of is, but I was reminded of it because of how great Mother is. This movie works as a mystery, a drama, and even a dark comedy in some scenes. While I still think The Host is my favorite movie in Bong’s filmography, Mother is still a movie that I won’t forget and ranks up there with the best of Korean film making.

Masquerade – Review

2 Jul

I feel like I’ve been watching a lot of South Korean movies lately. What can I say, though? They’re a country that seems to have no problem churning out great movies that unfortunately don’t seem to get the attention they deserve over here in the States. One of these movies is the 2012 film that took South Korea by storm, Masquerade. It was so well received there that it took home 15 wins at the Grand Bell Awards, a ceremony that can be described as the Academy Awards for South Korea. Unfortunately. it didn’t get much play here in America, just at the certain film festivals, but I’m going to tell you now that it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

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In the early 1600s, the Korean king Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun) attempted to make peace with the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties. Under a constant threat of assassination, the king’s advisor, Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong), finds a double that can be placed in the throne as a means of protecting the king, but only under extreme circumstances. He finds his double soon enough in the street performing jester Ha-sung (also played by Lee Byung-hun). One night, the king is poisoned and has to be rushed out of the palace with the his double being brought in under the cover of night. Ha-sung, as the king, soon is forced into learning his way around the court and meeting its many characters, but he is also exposed to the corrupt nature of many of its members. Against the wishes of Heo Gyun, Ha-sung makes it his mission to become an actual king for the people, even when he begins risking his own life.

There’s so much to love in Masquerade. On the surface, it is a beautifully shot movie with one of the most impressive and artistic production designs I’ve seen in quite a while. These Eastern costume dramas have such an elegance in the way they are shot and designed, which means even if you aren’t a huge fan of the movie as a whole, you’ll definitely have a lot to look at. There’s also a lot of great history and speculation in this movie about a time that went completely unrecorded in Korea’s history. It’s a clever idea for a movie and is executed very well. The bottom line, though, is that amidst all of the politics and intrigue, this is a movie about humanity and kindness.

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All of these components come together to form a movie that is almost impossible not to love. There is literally something for everyone in this movie. There’s even plenty of moments that will make you chuckle. It’s a great fish out of water kind of movie, putting a jester from the streets on the throne, but that’s kind of an old idea. What really works about this movie is that we’ve all thought about something like this. Ha-sung wants to change the court and the laws to favor the people, which is what every government should think like, ideally. Who hasn’t thought that if they were given the chance, they could do a better job than whoever was in charge? We’ve all thought that. Masquerade praises that idea, and also shows that it isn’t as easy as you may think.

My only complaint with Masquerade is that it takes forever to actually get started. The film begins with some set up, which is to be expected. It then moves on to some more set up and then FINALLY we get a little bit more set up before the actual plot begins. When they story gets started, though, it becomes impossible not to watch. Like I said before, there’s a lot of political intrigue that really immersed me in the time period, but what was more important to me was the effect that the double had on the people of the palace. He brought a huge dose of humanity to a place where it didn’t seem to exist, and seeing his actions affect the characters around him made for some really interesting scenes and arcs, some of which unfortunately end in tragedy. This is a very happy movie, but for every scene of joy there is a scene of sorrow that is equally as powerful.

Simply put, Masquerade is another gem that has come from South Korea and has remained far too under appreciated. This film is just as good, if not better, than a lot of the films that come out at the end of the year that are your typical “Oscar Baits.” Like I mentioned before, this film took away 12 Korean equivalents to the Academy Awards. That has to be some kind of a record. This may not be that easy of a film to track down, but if you can it’s pretty outstanding.

 

New World – Review

9 Jun

The gangster genre of film is arguably one of the most interesting to choose from when you want to watch a movie. Not only are there always tough decisions and crime on a massive scale, but you can also learn a lot about a culture depending on what you watch. New World is a gangster movie from South Korea that combines the styles of The DepartedThe Godfather, and even some of Oldboy to craft a story that is full of twists, turns, betrayals, and violence. If you can’t already tell, I loved this movie.

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Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae) is a top level gangster in South Korea’s largest syndicate, Goldmoon. Ja-sung is also a police officer who has been posing as this gangster for eight years, slowly making his way up the totem pole. After the head of Goldmoon is killed in a car accident, Ja-sung believes that his job is done, but his boss, Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik) goes back on his word and forces him to continue with the syndicate in order to bring it down for good. The mission, titled Operation New World, is to pit Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min) and Lee Joong-gu (Park Seong-woong) against each other, both of whom are possible candidates to take over as boss. As true motives start to become clearer and clearer, Ja-sung has to decide where his loyalty lies, whether it’s with the corrupt police or the criminalized syndicate.

When it comes to telling a story, conflict is one of the most important ingredients. To me, if there’s no good conflict, there’s no good story. New World, fortunately, has a lot of great conflict. In fact, you sort of get double the conflict. The whole story is told through the eyes of Ja-sung, an undercover cop who has slowly found himself becoming one of the gangsters that he is trying to stop. Right away, the criminals won’t be on his side. The police aren’t on his side either because they just want him to finish the mission no matter what so they can take all of the credit for taking down the syndicate. This clash between two powers makes for some pretty incredible character dynamics.

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Along with the excellent character dynamics between the police and the gangsters, Ja-sung, himself, is a complex and interesting protagonist. I love seeing characters who are normally in control of every situation begin to be pushed way too far to the point where they have to do something drastic. Think Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. His character works very well with the other antagonists, like Chief Kang with the police and Lee Joong-gu in the syndicate. Every scene provided new opportunities for a plot twist or some kind of betrayal, and the tension that builds becomes really intense as Ja-sung’s character gets pushed farther and his identity risks exposure.

I believe that South Korean movies are some of the most beautifully shot films you or I will ever see. New World isn’t exactly anything to lose your mind over, but there were plenty of scenes where the camera work went above and beyond what would normally be asked for in a gangster movie. There’s one scene in particular where a fight is shot from overhead inside an elevator. There’s about 7 people fighting in this one elevator, and the camera seems to move in the same way that they do shooting down on them. It made the scene so much more effective, and did so throughout the entire movie.

New World is a very well crafted gangster thriller that is superior to many others that are put out. It’s character dynamics and strong sense of conflict keep the movie moving, but also the sense that anything can happen, including the breakdown of the protagonist makes it that much more interesting and watchable. Anyone who is a fan of The Godfather or The Departed will find a lot to love in New World.

The City of Violence – Review

21 Apr

Sometimes it’s great to sit down and watch a movie that really challenges me. A movie that has complex art design and intricate storytelling that weaves in many thematic and moral questions while telling a story that’s wholly original and moving. Then there’s times where I want to sit down, switch my brain off, and just take a ride. That’s exactly what I wanted with The City of Violence and that’s exactly what I got. This movie isn’t difficult or all that original, but it is a whole lot of fun, but it could definitely have used a little bit more work in the story and character department.

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When ex-gangster Wang-jae (Ahn Gil-kang) is murdered, three of his closest friends are reunited in their hometown for the funeral. Tae-su (Jung Doo-hong) is a cop from Seoul known for his controversial no nonsense attitude, Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo) is the gangster that took over Wang-jae’s place, and Seok-hwan (played by director Ryoo Seung-wan) is the youngest of the three working as a debt collector. Tae-su and Seok-hwan are both hell bent on getting revenge for the murder of their friend and soon find themselves working together, turning the city upside down and blood red to find who are responsible. When it becomes evident that Pil-ho had something to do with the murder, the two investigators engage in a head on collision with one of their closest childhood friends.

So, really there isn’t too much to The City of Violence. It’s a pretty standard revenge movie, but definitely has some elements that make it memorable along with some problems as well. For one thing, it is extremely generic, and while that isn’t a huge detraction, it is worth mentioning. Another problem is that the movie didn’t have any sense of time or character development. Time seemed to move without cluing me in to how much time has passed or where I was. The characters are also incredibly bland. Like, blaaaaand. Not only that, but they also don’t develop at all. They are exactly how they were at the beginning of the movie, save for a few minor changes. For a story about revenge, I didn’t feel a strong sense of motivation coming from the characters. Things seemed to just be happening.

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What I can say about this movie is that the action is fantastic. There are points where it felt like I was watching a video game, as many of the best martial arts movies make me feel. Seeing two guys throw down with an entire crowd of bad guys is just entertaining to watch. One scene that takes place in an alley with a whole bunch of different gangs is particularly memorable, especially since one of the gangs is based off of the Baseball Furies from The Warriors. There is so much destruction, both physically and environmentally, in every fight that it made each extended sequence feel exciting.

Another problem I have with this movie actually happened after I was done the movie. Yes, the movie has a good bad guy and exciting fight sequences, but there’s a lot of the movie that I don’t really remember too vividly because it isn’t anything special. As I’ve been thinking more and more about this movie, the less and less I really enjoy it. Part of the fun of watching a movie is the way that it makes you feel and think afterwards. Points go to a movie that makes me excited to talk about it and share it, but I don’t feel that way with The City of Violence. It’s more of a movie that you watch but then don’t really have anything to say about it in the days to come, which hurts a movie just as much as poor writing or acting.

The City of Violence isn’t a bad movie, in fact it’s a pretty good one. While I was watching it, I was really involved with what I was watching because it moved so fast and had great action sequences and characters that I recognized. What made it less enjoyable is the lack of development the story and the characters go through. Like I said before, things seem to just be happening. There’s plenty of style to enjoy, but sometimes that even becomes a bit too much. For martial arts fans, it’s definitely one to check out at least once, but I don’t think it’s going to be one that sticks with you forever.

A Tale of Two Sisters – Review

31 May

Fairy tales make good horror stories. In fact, they make great horror stories. Just think of most fairy tales that you know and then think of just how disturbing they really are, even though we have no problem telling them to children to teach them all sorts of lessons. In 2003, South Korean film maker Kim Ji-woon decided to make a psychological horror film based off the South Korean fairy tale Janghwa Hongryeon jeon, and since then it has been often labeled as one of the most unsettling films of our time and I can completely agree with that statement.

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Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and her sister Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young) arrive at their lake house where their concerned father (Kim Kap-soo) and domineering step mother (Yeom Jeong-ah) are staying. The time spent there begins with their step mother berating them and only gets worse as time passes, despite Su-mi trying to tell her father how terrible she is to her and her sister. Su-mi and Su-yeon also become much more curious about their mother, who has since died, and this angers their step mother to the point of physical punishment. As the maternal torture continues between the two girls and the step mother, it is clear that there is something else much more sinister in the house that is making its presence known and making it clear that the two sisters have much more to think about and fear than their step mother.

What I love about A Tale of Two Sisters is the fact that this isn’t horror at it’s most traditional. There are a few times where things get spooky in a familiar way, but these aren’t the scenes that make this movie scary. What makes it so frightening is the constant feeling of confusion and dread that is felt throughout the entire movie. The situation that these girls are in is bad enough, but the fact that no one is there to help them makes it even worse. Finally, and I have to say this without spoiling anything, everything you think you know is happening is put to question as the movie reaches its mind bending climax and makes you rethink just how disturbed everyone in this family is.

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As with most of the South Korean movies that I’ve seen, this one keeps with the tradition of being beautiful to look at. Kim Ji-woon has earned fame with films like I Saw the DevilThe Good, the Bad, the Weird, and the American film The Last Stand. Obviously to earn international success like that, you have to have a good amount of talent and it shines completely in A Tale of Two Sisters. This is a beautiful movie to look at to the point where it would be just as entertaining to turn the sound off and just watch the images and the colors and how everything moves. Color really pop in this film and the often moving camera seems to just flow from scene to scene. Beautiful stuff, but also haunting.

Let me just use this time to rant at about how this is how horror movies should be made. It’s annoying to go into these kinds of movies now and expect jump scares that may freak you out for a second, but won’t last with you. When I see a horror movie, I want to think about why it was so terrible. I don’t want the film makers to tell me why. Audiences are smart enough to be able to watch a horror movie and have scares in it that aren’t obvious or loud, but legitimately frightening. That’s where A Tale of Two Sisters succeeds the most.

A Tale of Two Sisters is slow moving and quiet, but also one of the prettiest and most disturbing horror films that I have ever seen. What’s great about this movie isn’t quite the fear that you feel during the scariest parts, but rather it’s the uncomfortable feeling you have throughout the whole movie. Being able to create a feeling like that and hold it for an entire movie is something to commend and respect. I would easily put this film on a list of my favorite horror films, and it’s one that any horror buff shouldn’t miss out on.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – Review

18 Jan

Finally, we have come to the third and final film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy. Taking a cue from the name of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance comes Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In order for me to start talking about this movie, I want to look back at the other two. I said that Oldboy is a modern masterpiece that will go down as one of the greatest films ever made, and after seeing Lady VengeanceSympathy for Mr. Vengeance is so much better. I appreciate how I wasn’t confused for most of the movie and that the story was cool. It’s a really good movie. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a muddled, pretentious soap opera that went on for too long and made me wish I was watching one of the predecessors.

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Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) is faced with a prison sentence of thirteen years after she confesses to the abduction and murder of a five year old boy. After she serves her time and uses her polite demeanor to her advantage, making a lot of friends in prison, she starts her quest to get revenge on Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), the man who kidnapped and threatened her infant daughter if she didn’t take the blame for the abduction and murder of the boy. First, Geum-ja has to reunite with her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), but soon turns back to her original mission, and she makes sure she isn’t the only one who is getting revenge.

This movie really is a soap opera, and can also be seen as further proof that a great director can get a little bit too full of himself. The biggest problem here is the motivation of the story. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, the motivation of vengeance and redemption were strong and pushed the characters towards a climax. In Lady Vengeance, I never really felt like the plot was going anywhere fast. All of the flashbacks, subplots, and characters were more of a distraction than they were interesting. In fact, the subplot involving Geum-ja’s daughter isn’t interesting at all, and Kwon Yea-young was just annoying.

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I may sound like a broken record here, but Sympathy for Lady Vengeance looks fantastic. Park Chan-wook pulls out all of the stops here in terms of style, and creates some of the nicest shots and transitions in the entire trilogy. It can be haunting and it can be beautiful. The costume design for Geum-ja is also really nice and adds a lot to her character and speaks for the transformation she made from innocent young girl, to a violent woman bent on revenge. Style is what this movie really has going for it. The soundtrack is also an excellent companion to the visuals, but style isn’t everything in a movie.

I want to like the story. I really do, but I just can’t. This would have been a good start to the trilogy because compared to the other two, the story in this one is underwhelming as hell. It isn’t even the fault of the way the story is composed. It just doesn’t have the gusto and the energy that the other two movies have. I found myself constantly checking to see how much time was left in the movie, and there were some parts where my mind would drift to some other thing because the story and the energy of this movie just wasn’t enough to keep my mind occupied.

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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the weakest entry in the Vengeance trilogy, and is just an all around weak movie. There is a lot of potential with the style and the characters, which are played just fine, but there isn’t enough in this movie that really makes it all that suspenseful or exciting. One may argue that this is more of a drama than a thriller, but the drama is a little too hokey at parts and felt kind of like a soap opera. Just because there are a few cool or intense scenes in this movie doesn’t help pull Sympathy for Lady Vengeance from the muck.