Tag Archives: South Korea

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.

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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 Thieves – Review

26 Oct

One of the best feelings ever is going into a movie and expecting it to be garbage, and then ending up having some of the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. Before watching The Thieves, I didn’t know anything about it and I wasn’t even sure that it’s production values were any good, but after some research I found that, for awhile, it was the highest grossing South Korean film of all time. So, I soon became interested, and after watching the movie and thinking back on it, I like it more and more.

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As leader of a group of thieves, Popie (Lee Jung-jae) has assembled only the best in the business. These include the aged Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook), the young burglar Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyun), and expert technician Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun). While this team works great together, a monkey wrench is thrown in the mix when two of Popie’s old associates show up once again. The first is his love interest and associate Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo) and the other is Macao Park (Kim Yun-seok), who has a new job for them: stealing the Tear of the Sun diamond from vicious gangster Wei Hong (Ki Gook-seo). Enlisting the help of another team from China led by Chen (Simon Yam), the thieves make a plan and eventually get their hands on the diamond and the money, but it seems that everyone wants it all for themselves and proves that there is no loyalty among thieves.

As I was saying before, I really had pretty low expectations for this movie. I was worried it was just going to be a rip off of Ocean’s Eleven, but I was wonderfully surprised to see that The Thieves most certainly is not a rip off, but it is the best heist film since Ocean’s Eleven. This movie is a great blend of action, comedy, and betrayal. This is a pretty long movie, and I’m not saying that it couldn’t have been edited down, but there is so much happening in this movie that the long run time is justified. Another concern of mine was, since I knew that there was going to be a lot of double crossing from a lot of different characters, I thought I was going to be mad confused. Again, this just wasn’t the case.

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Maybe I’m just a moron, but when there’s a lot of things going on in a movie where a lot of different people have ulterior motives, I sometimes just get lost in a all of the commotion. Let’s just say movies like Spy Game and the third Pirates of the Caribbean movies left me baffled for a while. This one didn’t leave me confused at all, and I think that’s because the characters are so fleshed out and written so well that none of them blended together. They all had very different personalities and clear motivations that were explained very well, so when the double crossing did begin, I was able to keep up with it and just enjoy seeing everything fall apart in that comedic way that only heist films can deliver on.

That being said, The Thieves definitely has style, but it is in no way style over substance. I actually connected with some of the characters and understood their reasonings, and then there were some that I enjoyed hating. It’s a very twisty king of movie, so you may think you know what’s going on, but then it turns out that you couldn’t have been more wrong. The only real flaw that is to be found in this movie is that a very big conflict, which can be argued is the main conflict of the entire movie, doesn’t show up until the last half hour or forty five minutes of the movie. They pack so much action into this part that it’s easy to forget that this should’ve been part of the movie from the get go.

As it stands, The Thieves is still the third highest grossing movie in South Korea, and it really does deserve that honor. I saw a lot of other critics saying that they wished Hollywood was still able to make movies like this, and I have to agree. Sure, Hollywood makes some really great movies from time to time, but it’s also lacking a lot of what The Thieves has, and that’s both style and substance. This is a movie that is sure to please anybody who watches it. I absolutely loved The Thieves.

Memories of Murder – Review

19 Mar

In the years between 1986 and 1991, 10 murders were committed in the Gyeonggi Province of South Korea, marking the first serial killings in the country’s history. Memories of Murder tells the story of the detectives who were charged with finding the killer and potentially saving more lives. This movie had potential to be a derivative detective film, but the history and consequences is what really brings Memories of Murder from being average, surpassing good, and becoming great.

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When a young woman is found raped and murdered in October 1986, it seems a little out of the ordinary in such a small and peaceful village as Hwaseong. Detective Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is put on the case, but is soon joined by Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) from Seoul after it is determined that they might have a serial killer on their hands. With such a danger lurking about the streets, it is imperative that Doo-man and Tae-yoon find the culprit as quickly as possible, but this is made almost impossible with such crude forensic technology. The two detectives are then forced to you their own intuition and, often times, brutality to find the killer and save any potential victims.

Memories of Murder is a near perfect detective/crime film. It’s pretty standard now to have a detective or police procedural movie that implements all the different kinds of technology and resources available to find their suspect. This is exactly what this movie is not about. It was so refreshing and startling to see an environment where there are so many hoops to jump through and people to hurt in order to secure what’s best for the common good, especially in a modern era. At times, the policing is brutal and often wrong, but the stress of the detectives comes through very well and makes Memories of Murder all the more effective.

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In my honest opinion, South Koreans have the best eye for cinematography than any other country. Memories of Murder is visually stunning. It really covers all the bases, with beautiful slow motion shots to excellent uses of color. Sometimes it’s not important if a movie looks great, but other times the better it looks, the more impactful the material is. That’s the case with this film. Some of the most beautiful scenes involve highly desaturated rural landscapes with either a red ribbon or a red coat that draws your eye. This may sound like a cliche, but when done right it look fantastic.

Much like with the lack of forensic technology making Memories of Murder unique it its brilliant use of comedy. With a story that tells of South Korea’s first serial killer, you would think that it would be somber and serious at all times. I was expecting that. I was pleased to see that there was some scenes of comedy throughout, both lighthearted and dark. That right there is a sign of an exceptional screenwriter, and I have to give this credit to the writer/director Bong Joon-ho. Joon-ho uses the same kind of comedy mixed with seriousness in his next feature, the phenomenal monster movie The Host.

Memories of Murder is an exceptional film that will horrify you, move you, and make you laugh. It tells an interesting tale of detectives doing everything they possibly can to catch a serial killer, even though it seems apparent that their attempts are futile. It’s easy to make an average detective film, but it’s not so easy to make one as memorable as Memories of Murder.

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.

Oldboy – Review

17 Jan

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, left me wanting more. It was definitely a good movie, but I can’t say that it was a great movie. In 2003, however, audiences were treated to and shocked by Oldboy. Every film student in the world has heard of this movie and I can almost guarantee that any film fanatic has seen this at least once. The first time I saw this movie, I really enjoyed it, but felt like I was missing a lot of the hype. After this second viewing, I understand completely. Oldboy is more than just a thriller. It’s also a mystery, dark comedy, and action film with strong roots in Shakespearean and Grecian tragedies.

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Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is an average Seoul businessman with a wife and daughter, who has believed to have lived a normal life. One night, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and placed in a room for fifteen years. While in the room, Oh Dae-su changes and becomes psychologically twisted and thirsty for revenge. When he is let out after fifteen years, Oh Dae-su starts his quest for revenge and meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a chef who is willing to help him out, despite her not even knowing anything about him. As the kidnapper is revealed as millionaire Woo-jin Lee (Yoo Ji-tae), the mystery becomes even more intriguing. Instead of who locked Oh Dae-su in a room, he has to figure out why, and the answers may push him to the edge of his sanity.

If you were to take all of the good things from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, like the excellent blocking, cinematography, and story, and then take away how awful the plotting of that movie is, you still wouldn’t have Oldboy. In order to describe how great Oldboy is you would have to add in a mixture of excellent suspense combined with spot on pacing, and only then would you see how excellent Oldboy is. This is one of those essential pieces of film that everyone should see if they are interested in film. It’s more than just a bloody thriller. It’s a look into the darkest parts of human psychology where revenge and murder are just part of a person’s life.

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This has a very similar artistic style to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In terms of set design, this is a dirty looking movie, but once again Park Chan-wook has shown how he has a talent for creating beauty amongst the grime. His lensing in this movie is fantastic, but his interesting use of the camera doesn’t stop there. One scene in particular that stands out is a huge fight scene shot from the side of a corridor that was filmed in one continuous take. It isn’t rare for editors to hide cuts into takes as long as these, but this shot was 100% done in one take. Every shot is composed wonderfully, which once again shows that Park has one of the best eyes in the international film industry.

As great as Oldboy looks, it wouldn’t have worked without Choi Min-sik’s excellent performance. Oh Dae-su is a very complicated character with a lot of ups and downs, and Choi plays it with spot on perfection. There are scenes where he is smiling, but we sense all of the inner pain that is boiling beneath the surface, and other times where his acting shows all of the anger and hate. The climax of the movie, which really shows comparisons between Shakespearean and Grecian tragedies, really highlights Choi’s abilities and is one of the best onscreen performances I have ever seen.

Oldboy is one of the best films ever made, and deserves to be on the same lists as classic films. In its own right, it is a contemporary classic that will go down in film history. It’s a poetic story of violence, love, and revenge that shows a side of humanity that people don’t normally like to see. Choi Min-sik gives an excellent performance, and Park Chan-wook shows his talent as a film maker and story teller. If you haven’t seen this Oldboy, it is your responsibility to see it as quickly as possible.