Monday, July 27, 2020

Korea Month Quick Picks and Pans

Planet of Snail (2011) At its heart, this uplifting, contemplative documentary is a portrait of two very different people who have found a common bond. Director Seung-jun Yi follows Cho Young-Chan, who is deaf and blind, and his wife Kim Soon-ho (a little person) during the span of a few days. The film provides a glimpse of their everyday lives, making the mundane seem sublime. In one scene, the simple act of changing a light bulb is made captivating, as it exemplifies the couple’s symbiotic relationship – they work together to change a fluorescent light fixture (she cannot reach the light, and he can’t see it, so she must serve as his eyes, and he becomes her hands). We gain insight about Young-Chan’s perception of the world through his vivid, poetic descriptions. He lives in rich universe of discovery, not of excluded senses. Planet of Snail works best in its quiet moments. Like observing the ripples from a pebble tossed in a pond we see how a small act can make a quiet but significant impact. In less capable hands, this film could have been exploitive. Instead, it’s a gentle reminder that we can still experience the infinite with limited sensory input, and love comes in many forms.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Housemaid (1960) Writer/director Ki-young Kim’s classic tale of envy, lust and murder is a truly unsettling experience. A music teacher (Kim Jin-kyu) and his family move into a new house. When the housework becomes too much for his ailing wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo), they hire a young woman (Lee Eun-shim) to be their live-in maid. Almost immediately, friction develops between the family and their housekeeper as she arouses suspicion from the children, and seduces the teacher. Before long, the power dynamic has changed, and she’s controlling the house. The Housemaid provides a tantalizing glimpse of Korean cinema before the restrictions imposed over the next few decades. It’s a bold, disturbing film, with its critical examination of domestic complacency and commentary on upward mobility. The fourth wall-breaking conclusion is a welcome respite from the grim proceedings, while providing a final challenge to the viewer.

Note: Sang-soo Im’s 2010 remake is well done, but lacks the visceral impact of the original.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD (included in the Criterion Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project boxed set)

The Piper (2015) Writer/director Kim Kwang-tae’s updated spin on the classic fairy tale uses the basic story as a departure point, with some significant updates woven into the mix. Set after the close of the Korean War, a poor wandering flutist (Seung-ryong Ryu) and his sick son (on the way to Seoul for a potentially life-saving operation) wander into a remote village infested with rats. He promises the village elder (Sung-min Lee) that he can rid the residents of the pests. After he fulfills his obligation, however, things don’t go as planned. Although I likely missed some of the allegorical/historical references, the film works on different levels with its universal themes of provincialism, paranoia and deceit. It’s an exceptional work, with a deeply disturbing ending that reminds us we’re not in Hollywood anymore.  

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Sea Fog (2014) Director/co-writer Sung-bo Shim’s film (co-written by Bong Joon-ho, who also served as the film’s producer) is set in 1998 but based on the real-life 2001 “Taechangho Incident.” In an act of desperation, a down-on-his-luck fishing boat captain (Yoon-seok Kim) accepts a risky proposition to smuggle a group of illegal Chinese/Korean immigrants in his decrepit vessel. In exchange for a large sum of money, his crew members agree to keep their mouths shut. After an impromptu Coast Guard inspection, the story takes a disastrous turn, testing the limits of loyalty between the captain and his crewmembers. The plot thickens when a young sailor (Yoo-chun Park) falls for one of the immigrants (Yeri Han), risking life and limb to protect her from impending harm. It’s a tense, emotionally harrowing experience, made believable through excellent ensemble performances and immersive, dynamic cinematography.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

 Moebius (2013) Writer/director Ki-duk Kim’s strange, disturbing movie (told without dialogue) reminded me a bit of a Lars von Trier film with its juxtaposition of disturbing imagery, Freudian/Oedipal themes, and dark comedy. A woman (Na-ra Lee), fed up with her cheating husband (Jae-Hyun Cho) attempts to get even with him. After a failed knife attack on her husband, she sets her sights on her teenage son (Yeong-ju Seo), severing his penis. While the son copes with his new reality, his father endeavors to find a medical solution to his son’s disfigurement. I suspect it’s a safe bet this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone curious enough to give Moebius a go will probably think about it for days (even if it’s just to conclude, “What the hell did I just watch?”).

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Kanopy

Wishing Stairs (2003) This variation of The Monkey’s Paw takes place at an exclusive prep school. According to local legend, if someone ascends a nearby stone staircase and reaches the mythical 29th step, they can make a wish to a fox god. Unfortunately, as we soon discover, their wish will be granted at a terrible price. Jin-seong (Ji-Hyo Song) is envious of her friend Kim Sohee’s (Han-byeol Park) talent in ballet class. When their teacher announces only one student can gain admission to a prestigious dance school in Russia, Jin-seong takes measures to ensure that she wins the prestigious scholarship. Things get muddled midway, with the introduction of a perpetually bullied third student, but there are some genuinely creepy moments that make this worth a look.

Note: This is the third film in the five-title Whispering Corridors series.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Kanopy

The Tower (2012) In this action-disaster flick reminiscent of The Towering Inferno (1974), fire breaks out at a new luxury high-rise twin-towered apartment building on Christmas eve. A team of firemen scramble to rescue the survivors, but are hindered by the building’s shoddy construction. It’s a race against time as the structure verges on imminent collapse. The tone wavers, with some misplaced slapstick early on, before lapsing into pure melodrama. The plot shambles along in a predictable manner, with little room for meaningful characters or dialogue, but the action scenes are well done. CGI is employed effectively (a scene on a collapsing skybridge is particularly tense), depicting the destruction of a typically garish modern building. There was potential to say something more, but the story pulls its punches with regard to a clash between classes, never rising above lip service. Sadly, the wealthy developer and the pampered building occupants never quite get their comeuppance. In the end, The Tower doesn’t provide a lot of surprises, but if you’re just looking for a good, old-fashioned Hollywood-style popcorn flick with thrills galore, you won’t be disappointed. Simply turn your brain off and enjoy. Irwin Allen would have been proud.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD

Yongary, Monster from the Deep (1967) By the time Yongary emerged, many filmmakers around the world had thrown their hat in the ring to make a Godzilla knock-off. In this version, a powerful earthquake rocks Korea, unleashing a giant, oil-swilling dinosaur. The military is brought in to dispatch the fearsome beast, which has caused untold levels of death and damage to buildings. If this description sounds a little too familiar, it’s because this giant monster movie is strictly by the numbers. You can check off your kaiju bingo card with an ineffective military, a smart-ass little kid who helps as much as he creates trouble (although the “dancing” Yongary scene made me smile), and a brilliant young scientist who may have the key to stopping Yongary. The solution to the monster problem is silly and surprisingly anticlimactic. Warning to subtitle purists: The Fox Lorber disc is dubbed, with no option for the original Korean dialogue.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Terror Taxi (2000) Gil-nam (Seo-jin Lee), a young cab driver, dies in a car accident before he can propose to his girlfriend, Yu-jeong (Yu-jeong Choi). In the afterlife, he’s still driving a cab, along with several other ghosts, including a malevolent spirit who only wants to cause death and mayhem. This horror/comedy has some interesting ideas, but it never gels into a coherent story. Most of the comedy doesn’t work, and the film fails to establish any clear rules about the afterlife or how spirits interact with the living world. It also fails as a love story, due to poor chemistry between the two leads. Thanks to a meandering plot and leaden pacing, the relatively brief running time of 94 minutes seemed to go on and on. Skip it.

Rating: **. Available on DVD 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Short Take: Pulgasari

(1985) Directed by Sang-ok Shin; Written by: Se Ryun Kim; Starring: Son Hui Chang, Ham Gi Sop, Jong-uk Ri, Gwon Ri, and Yong-hok Pak; Available on DVD and YouTube

Rating: **½ 

“They’re just an army of farmers. They have no strength. Give them no leeway and attack at once.” – General Fuan (Riyonun Ri)

There are few films as notorious as the North Korean giant monster movie Pulgasari, produced by none other than Kim Jong-il. The behind-the-scenes story reads like a work of fiction, with events more fantastic than anything depicted on screen. In the hopes of improving his country’s floundering film industry, Jong-il ordered the kidnapping of South Korean director Sang-ok Shin along with his ex-wife. After several years of imprisonment, Sang-ok was appointed the head of his own film company, and given pseudo-V.I.P. status (under the watchful eye of North Korean officials). Before eventually fleeing the country, he made a handful of films, including Pulgasari. In addition to utilizing substantial domestic resources for Pulgasari, Jong-il flew in a Japanese effects crew under false pretenses, including monster suit actor Kenpachirô Satsuma (the second individual to wear the Godzilla suit). The baffling events conjure memories of the old TV commercial tagline, “But wait, there’s more!” For anyone looking for a more detailed account, a good starting point is the 2003 Guardian article, “Kidnappedby Kim Jong-il: The Man Who Directed the Socialist Godzilla,” by John Gorenfeld.

The basic story reportedly stems from a Korean folktale* but appears to share some similarities with the Japanese Daimajin movies and, of course, Godzilla. Set in 14th-century Korea, a community of poor farmers are harassed, bullied and demeaned by the king’s soldiers, forced to toil for their benefit. In a final effort of desperation, an imprisoned blacksmith creates a figure out of rice (which embodies his soul). His daughter’s blood accidentally touches the creation, bringing it to life. Soon, the beleaguered villagers discover the wee beast has a taste for iron. Before you can say “dear leader,” little Pulgasari quickly grows to gargantuan proportions, providing the might behind the farmers’ revolt against the tyrannical king.

* Fun Fact: The first cinematic interpretation was reportedly the South Korean film, Bulgasari (1962), which is now presumed lost.

 Famous Last Words

The title creature, which resembles a cross between Godzilla and a bull, starts out as a pudgy little guy, who resembles Minya if you squint (or if you heard a second-hand description of the creature from someone with glaucoma). We’re treated to some Son of Godzilla-esque (un-intentionally comic?) moments as he stumbles around like a drunken sailor. As Pulgasari grows, his appetite for iron increases. Even after he’s defeated the king’s army (Sorry/not sorry about the spoiler), his hunger for metal doesn’t ebb. Eventually, his addiction deprives the farmers of their means of support (hoes, rakes, etc…), turning the film into a sort of kaiju version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (which was published the same year this movie was released. Coincidence or not?).

Despite Pulgasari’s uneven, frequently slipshod nature, it’s easy to see it was a large-scale production. The royal palace miniatures are decent enough, and it’s impressive to see crowd scenes that seemingly included thousands (supplied, courtesy of the North Korean army). Overall, Pulgasari is a mixed bag. One of the most beguiling aspects of the film is its theme of villagers overcoming adversity, after being ground under the heel of oppression by a ruthless, narcissistic dictator. Perhaps it was the period setting or fantasy elements (depicting a mythical time), but somehow the irony was lost on Kim Jong-il, who viewed the film as a masterpiece and a source of pride. It also inadvertently casts the heroes of the story in a bad light, with the farmers’ fighting prowess and bravery hinges entirely on Pulgasari’s considerable fortitude. Enjoyment of this movie requires some cognitive dissonance on the part of the viewer, overlooking the behind-the-scenes drama, its dubious messages, and melodramatic (bordering on histrionic) performances. On the other hand, it works fine as (dare I say) silly escapist fare. It’s a curiosity piece, sure to be pondered and debated for generations to come.

* Fun Fact: If you don’t have enough Pulgasari in your life, look for the 1996 remake, The Legend Of Galgameth.

Friday, July 10, 2020

I Saw the Devil

(2010) Directed by Jee-woon Kim; Written by Hoon-jung Park; Adapted by Jee-woon Kim; Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Joon-hyuk Lee, In-seo Kim and Bo-ra Nam; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“Because these characters need to express their self-perceived power, if there were moments when it was difficult or uncomfortable to watch it’s because I wanted to show how horrible it was for those being victimized and the sense of power the monster has over his victims.” – Jee-woon Kim (excerpted from “Interview: Kim Jee-woon,” by Isaac Hudson, Cinephile UK

“It feels like a huge rock is pressing down on my chest. Big and heavy. I promised Ju-yeon that I’d make him feel the same pain. It’s not over.” – Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was originally posted in August 2012.

Most revenge films rest on the assumption that a perpetrator of horrendous acts will be visited by some sort of (typically audience-pleasing) karmic retribution by the protagonist. I Saw the Devil subverts our expectations at every turn, denying us the catharsis of a villain receiving his just desserts at the hands of the righteous hero. The film starts off with these familiar elements: a merciless killer who crosses paths with the wrong guy. What follows seems to be a simple tale of a hunter becoming the hunted. As it progresses, however, we discover things are not as black and white as they initially seemed, with concepts such as good and evil becoming blurred along the way.

The story begins on a wintry road at night. Alone and stuck with a flat tire, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh) calls her husband, National Intelligence Service (NIS)* agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee), in a conversation that proves to be her last. While waiting for a tow truck, a helpful motorist appears out of the gloom, but something doesn’t look right. Her instincts prove accurate, but it’s not enough to save her from an awful fate. After what’s left of her is discovered in a field, the grieving Soo-hyeon takes a leave of absence, vowing to catch her killer and make him suffer along the way. Once he’s found the man responsible for the heinous crime, an elaborate game of cat and mouse follows.

* Fun Fact: The National Intelligence Service is essentially South Korea’s version of the CIA/FBI, rolled into one.

Soo-hyeon illustrates how you can’t go through a pursuit such as this without compromising yourself in the process. He doggedly hunts down the killer, Jang Kyung-chul (played with icy effectiveness by Min-sik Choi), with the intention of making him experience the same level of misery and fear as his victims. As the film progresses, he seems to take pleasure in inflicting pain, but never reaches a catharsis through his actions. His quest to absolve his guilt and grief becomes a hollow, selfish act that leaves a trail of collateral damage in his wake. When he first catches up with Kyung-chul, he could have notified the authorities, which at worst, would have resulted in a slap on the wrist for his vigilante actions. Instead, it’s just the beginning for Soo-hyeon’s vengeance, which has dire consequences for anyone Kyung-chul encounters. Despite his sister-in law’s pleas to give up his self-destructive pursuit (“I know how you feel, but I hope you’ll stop. It won’t bring her back. Whatever you do to punish him, things won’t change. Revenge is for movies.”) he continues his personal vendetta, leaving further innocent people to be murdered and assaulted by Kyung-chul.

Min-sik Choi delivers a fascinating, multifaceted portrayal of serial killer Jang Kyung-chul. The film doesn’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing him. Instead, we’re left to our own devices to speculate on the origins of his dysfunction. He possesses some aspects of a sociopath, but to label him strictly as such seems limiting. His distorted perceptions of others (labeling those who cross him as “crazy”) suggests more than a blanket diagnosis. We witness his distaste for paternal figures when he confronts an elderly doctor who speaks to him in a fatherly tone. Women appear to be the object of his intense scorn because he considers them controlling. As a result, he chooses young, vulnerable women as his prey of choice, as a means of achieving manipulation and power.

Despite the intense themes and grim imagery, director Jee-woon Kim infuses his film with moments of unexpected humor. In an early scene, when Kyung-chul abandons his stolen car, he flags down a motorist (i.e., another potential victim), only to discover that it’s a caravan of soldiers. In another darkly comic scene, an unfortunate cab driver is caught between Kyung-chul and another violent criminal, in a bloody battle between two predators. When Kyung-chul takes momentary refuge with another serial killer the other man regards him with reverence and awe, like a demented fanboy. These moments of pitch-black comedy make the almost unbearable content bearable, allowing us a moment to catch our collective breath.

I Saw the Devil scrutinizes revenge, exposing it as a one-way street with no easy solutions and no victors. As the film’s title implies, the devil isn’t simply Kyung-chul, but also inside Soo-hyeon, in his blind quest for vengeance. His solitary decision to catch Kyung-chul and serve as judge, jury and executioner is a Faustian bargain that can only lead to ruin, fraught with peril for anyone who stands in the way. Instead of taking the high ground with Kyung-chul, he sinks to the killer’s level, plunging further into the abyss. I Saw the Devil is a relentlessly brutal film, which doesn’t pull its punches with its depictions of murder, maiming and victimization. There is a method to the film’s madness, which doesn’t let us off the hook in the final reel. The ending isn’t the release it would be in lesser films. I Saw the Devil reminds us becoming a monster to fight a monster is an ultimately empty pursuit. When searching for evil (with apologies to The Wizard of Oz), there’s no place like home. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Short Take: Attack of the Crab Monsters

(1957) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by: Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Richard Garland, Pamela Duncan, Russell Johnson, Leslie Bradley, Mel Welles and Beach Dickerson; Available on DVD (Out of print) and Amazon Prime

Rating: ***

“We are unquestionably on the brink of a great discovery. It is not likely that the discovery will be of a pleasant nature.” – Dr. Karl Weigand (Leslie Bradley)

“I got the part of a scientist who comes ashore and the crab eats me. I also played the crab along with Ed Nelson. You never played just one role in a Roger Corman movie.” – Beach Dickerson (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)

The glut of 50s giant movie monsters featured super-sized everything, from ants to dinosaurs to octopi. It was only a matter of time before we’d see gargantuan crustaceans, courtesy of Roger Corman, grace the silver screen. A group of researchers travel to a remote South Pacific island to investigate the site where a previous expedition vanished. They barely set foot on the beach* before they experience a series of strange occurrences, including powerful tremors that change the landscape. They’re stranded when their transport plane explodes, leaving them alone to contend with a terrible intelligence that has nothing but their destruction in mind. Can they find a weakness in the seemingly indestructible creatures that terrorize the island and surrounding waters? **/***

* Fun Fact #1: The remote tropical “island” was Leo Carrillo State Beach in Southern California, a popular spot for Corman films.

** Fun Fact #2: The underwater scenes were shot at the main aquarium of the now-defunct sea-life theme park, Marineland of the Pacific in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calfornia.

*** Fun Fact #3: Despite having no prior experience working in scuba gear or directing, writer Charles B. Griffith convinced Corman to let him film the underwater sequences (A shoot he described as “horrendous and chaotic”).

The giant mutant crabs * have a particularly gruesome modus operandi, decapitating their victims and absorbing their knowledge. Each subsequent human is lured into their devious trap, with the sentient crabs using the voices of the victims as bait. It might be a stretch to say that the monster crabs are frightening, but they’re one of the more unique creations from the era, with uncannily human faces (truth be told, they look like they’re hung over or stoned). Accepting the flimsy creatures (which seem like they’d collapse if you scowled at them) as virtually indestructible requires a healthy suspension of disbelief from the viewer.

* Fun Fact #4: Depending on the source, the title creatures were constructed for several hundred dollars from either fiberglass, paper mâché, Styrofoam, or a combination of these materials. According to Beach Dickerson, he coordinated movement of the giant crab with fellow cast member, Ed Nelson.

Among the co-stars is future TV castaway Russell Johnson, as technician Hank Chapman. The film hints at tension between Hank and scientists/lovers Martha Hunter and Dale Brewer (Pamela Duncan and Richard Garland), but nothing much happens (something that was clarified in the original script) between them. I’m not generally a big fan of obligatory love triangles in genre movies, but it might have added some spice to the otherwise dull relationship between Martha and Dale.  

Corman and crew deserve credit for attempting to make an enormous fugitive from a seafood restaurant seem creepy. There are a few too many scenes of characters waiting and speculating about what will happen next, and true to its low-budget origins, more is implied than shown. According to the DVD commentary, the original screenplay was longer, with more dialogue (which was wisely trimmed). As it stands, it’s a lean 63 minutes.* Attack of the Crab Monsters won’t win any awards for creature effects or acting; nor is the story quite the same caliber as its partner on the double bill, Not of thisEarth (1957). However, it deserves merit for its kooky premise and even kookier creatures, making this a must-see Corman film.

* Fun Fact #5: The TV version included additional footage to stretch out the running time, incorporating some scenes from the 1943 movie Isle of Forgotten Sins.

Sources: DVD commentary by Tom Weaver, John Brunas and Mike Brunas; How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome