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 


  1. The original Korean edit for Yongary is presumed lost - the English-language edit is the only available version. Apparently, the Korean producers shipped all the original elements when they sent it abroad. I guess they threw out the audio after they'd recorded the dub.

    1. That's a pity. I understand that the preservation of Korean films in general wasn't a priority for many years. It's sad to think about how much has been lost.

  2. A nice eclectic collection of films, Barry!

    with a title like planet of snail, I was expecting a very different film than what you described. LOL
    I'm very intrigued.

    1. Thanks, John! I think there's something for everyone (and some things for no one) here! Planet of Snail took me by surprise, and Sea Fog and The Piper are really special. I think you might enjoy Moebius if you're in the mood for something really messed up (and no subtitles required!).

    2. Good to know, Barry...especially about the subtitles!