Friday, July 11, 2008

Fantasia 2008, Day Eight: Beautiful Sunday, Epitaph, Accuracy of Death and Black Belt

There are just way too many Korean thrillers that I don't follow even though I'm taking notes, or at least that's how it seemed halfway through the day. Beautiful Sunday and Epitaph were both more than a bit overstuffed, relying on multiple twists that some folks in the lobby afterward were trying to puzzle out. Wide Awake was the same way, and I wonder if this is just the way it is in Korea right now, or whether I just happen to be seeing the wrong movies. I seem a lot more likely to get lost during Korean movies than any others, it seems, and I wonder why that is.

Ah, well. The Japanese half of the day was solid enough to make up for that. As I say in the full review on EFC/HBS, I had kind of been wary of Accuracy of Death (and why does it have that title in the subtitles and listings when it says "Sweet Rain" in plain English on the title screen). I don't have much interest in the "death is beautiful" meme, so both the description in the New York Asian Film Festival guide and Fantasia's turned me off; it just turned out to be so ubiquitous that I couldn't avoid it without deliberately avoiding it. Turns out that was a good thing, and Black Belt wound up being a solid, no-messing-around karate movie.

Today's plan: The Objective, Adrift In Tokyo, Shadows in the Palace and X-Cross. I suppose I could do a midnight, but Bad Biology looks like too much for me and Shamo would leave a gap in my schedule tomorrow where I really don't need one. If you're here, I can recommend Accuracy of Death, Assembly, Black Belt, and A Colt Is My Passport.

Beautiful Sunday (Byootipul Seondei)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Beautiful Sunday doesn't quite accomplish magic, but it's got one of the basic principles down pat. In fact, it might be a little too good with its misdirection, as a good chunk of what's going on is, in the final analysis, not really that important, just a smokescreen of complication to obscure the really clever bit.

We start with Detective Kang (Park Yong-woo); one of the Seoul PD's most aggressive cops, he tears through a major drug deal to take down the kingpin, Song-tae. Then, immediately afterward, he sells 90% of the product to another drug dealer. 200g goes on the report rather than 2kg, and as much as Song-tae is livid at someone stealing from him, he keeps quiet to avoid more jail time. As soon as he gets out of jail, though, he and his second-in-command Yoo Chun-yon are gunning for Kang, who has other problems: His ill-gotten gains are being spent on his comatose wife's medical bills, and there's a serial rapist on the loose that Kang's captain really wants put away.

Meanwhile, we're also introduced to Min-woo (Nam Goog-min); his attraction to pretty Su-yeon (Min Jee-hye) quickly becomes an obsession. One night he goes up to introduce himself, she freaks out, and he grabs her, initially to calm her down, but once he's already got his hands on her, he takes the next step. That's bad enough, but when he later sees her working in a bookstore, he approaches her; she doesn't recognize him and they start dating.

It's almost inevitable that the two stories will cross (sure, sometimes they don't in movies like this, but that's rare and unsatisfying). Truth be told, waiting to see how this happens is the thing that drives most of the movie, and filmmaker Jin Kwang-kyo plays his cards pretty close to the vest on that one. Kang's story has a lot of characters and things going on, but ultimately doesn't amount to that much. Min-woo's, by contrast, is very minimalist, as we get uncomfortable waiting for Su-yeon to grasp just who she's falling in love with. Despite all the action in Kang's part of the movie, it's Min-woo's that's actually more engrossing most of the time; a ticking time bomb hidden behind happiness is more interesting than one in the middle of people who regard each other as enemies anyway.

Full review at EFC.

Gidam (Epitaph)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Epitaph is one of the busiest horror films I've seen lately, starting in 1979 before flashing back to 1942, offering up ghosts and serial killers and obsessions that may or may not be connected in ways other than happening in close proximity to each other. It's good and proper for each character in a film to have his or her own story, but it doesn't quite work here; the three stories could each have been their own film. The end result is that none of the threads are really satisfying.

Still, brothers Jung Beom-sik and Jung Sik will likely be something once they start giving their stories a little more room to breathe. They're already pretty good at creepy atmosphere, setting up interesting situations, and knowing just when and how to hit the audience with the jump moment.

As with Beautiful Sunday, the audience was coming out of Epitaph trying to figure out what it was all about. Too bad; they could have been coming out gushing.

Suwito Rein: Sinigami No Seido (Accuracy of Death, aka Sweet Rain)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Those who have lost a loved one suddenly may take issue with this film's premise - that a Grim Reaper has allowed it because that person has fulfilled their life's purpose. Still, it might be some small comfort to believe that the Reaper who made that judgment is someone akin to Takeshi Kaneshiro' Chiba.

Grim Reapers, we're told at the start, do not actually kill people, and they're not involved with cases where death is a result of age or disease. They spend a few days examining someone's life and then decide "proceed" or "suspend" depending on what they've seen. We follow Chiba in three cases over the years. In 1985, he meets Kazue Fujiki (Manami Konishi), a call center employee who has lost everybody she has loved and now has a stalker calling customer service and asking for her specifically. In the present day, he judges a yakuza (Ken Mitsuishi) who is at odds with his fellow gangsters over using children to push drugs and also keeps a watchful eye on would-be younger brother Akutso (Takuya Ishida). Finally, in 2028, an old hairdresser (Sumiko "Junko" Fuji) pegs him for a Grim Reaper and has an odd favor to ask of him before she goes.

Supposedly, the movie would not have been made without Takeshi Kaneshiro's participation (original novelist Kotaro Isaka was reticent about a film version), and it is a wonderful piece of casting. Kaneshiro is handsome, yes, and brings a wonderful guilelessness to Chiba. What very easily could be groan-worthy moments as Chiba fails to understand figures of speech are instead full of innocent charm. He is anything but cold as he goes about his job, playing his immortal being not as jaded but instead as interested in everything around him. Just watching Chiba listen to music is a little delight.

Full review at EFC.

Kuro-Obi (Black Belt)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Most martial-arts films make some noise, at least, about there being more to their practices than just violence, although most wind up seeming a bit hypocritical on some level. Black Belt (or Kuro-Obi) is no different, really, although it seems to take its pacifist teacher's beliefs more to heart than most. Yes, it will ultimately come down to fighting, but at least those that want to avoid combat seem sincere about it.

Three black belt karate masters are learning from their sensei (Shinya Owada) in 1932 when the military police come to the Shibihara dojo, looking to take possession of it for more useful purposes. Choei (Yuji Suzuki) is injured immediately, cut by a ceremonial sword. Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) attacks, disobeying sensei Eiken Shibihara's edict to only use karate to block attacks, not to thrust and kick, which leads to a series of challenges with the captain. Giryu (Akihito Yagi) is brought into the challenges, obeying the sensei's wishes, and the captain feels dishonor is brought upon him when Giryu will not finish him off. This doesn't run them off for very long, though, and soon Army commander Hidesha Goda is conscripting the masters. Giryu faces the consequences of his mercy, while Taikan becomes fond of the status afforded him and becomes corrupted. The dying master has given Choei the responsibility of choosing who will next wear the ancient belt (the "kuro-obi" of the title) and be considered the true master.

This is not a movie of great subtlety or moral gray areas. The opening duel with Captain Tanahara lets us know with crystal clarity who will be the good student and who will be the bad one, and the film quickly bears that out: Taikan is soon working for Goda, deciding he likes women and fights to the death, while Giryu joins with a poor but kind farming family. Commander Goda himself lacks only a moustache to twirl; he plans to not only have Taikan train his troops in hand-to-hand combat, but to use the dojos Taikan takes over as brothels, stocked with girls who have been all but kidnapped. He tends to laugh maniacally, too. In contrast, the farmers that take in Giryu are as good as he is bad: There's a spunky young boy, a beautiful daughter, and an elderly father who does, admittedly, have a weakness for gambling (at rigged tables! it's a front for swindling old men to force them to sell their daughters!).

Full review at EFC.

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