Friday, December 10, 2010

Korean Film Weekend: Brand New Life, The Housemaid, The Warrior's Way, Homeless Angels, Spring on Korean Peninsula

This took a little more time to write up than I'd hoped; it was five movies that didn't have any reviews on EFC and which were seen in a short time (with other stuff, like doing some Christmas shopping at Bizarre Bazaar, taking up writing time). Plus work.

It was an interesting weekend of Korean movies, though; even without the coincidence of The Warrior's Way, three different venues were playing Korean films last weekend - the Museum of Fine Arts, ArtsEmerson's Paramount Center, and at the Harvard Film Archive. I half-wonder if it was a co-ordinated effort, especially considering that they wound up running on different schedules - you could see the Korean films at the MFA and then travel downtown or to Harvard Square for the other programs during the weekend. I don't think they do this very often; this is the first time I've really noticed in a year or so of doing weekly previews.

The progression and connection between the films are interesting to note. Both Homeless Angels and A Brand New Life take place in orphanages, although the perception has changed greatly between 1941 and 1975/2009 (depending on whether you want to go by when a film is set or released) - in the early movie, these are maybe not wonderful places, but good for kids; now, it's psychologically crushing. Of course, it's also worth noting that the farm in Homeless Angels was more group home than orphanage; there didn't seem to be any attempts to place the kids with other families.

Korea's prosperity relationship with the rest of the world is also reflected: The two 1941 films are clearly the product of a colonial/occupation period; the prints are subtitled in Japanese and there's some pretty blatant propaganda content. Native Koreans aren't doing so hot, and there seems to be a lot of pressure to either identify as Japanese (upper-class people speak that language when doing business, something which lingered for a while; it was referenced in the 1970s-set The President's Last Bang) or look to the West, specifically Germany. The Housemaid shows the country getting on its feet after the wars but still having growing pains. And while I unfortunately couldn't make time for another film or two from the MFA's program, which would likely have shown slick work from an economically strong South Korea, both A Brand New Life and The Warrior's Way are international productions - the credits for the former are split between Korean and French, while IMDB lists the latter's country of origin as New Zealand, despite its Korean director and star.

One last thing: Is creating a subtitle stream that will run in sync with projected film more difficult than one would otherwise think? Every time I've seen repertory houses get a print with no English subtitles (generally because there just aren't that many prints in existence), it looks like they just use a PowerPoint presentation which must be paged through manually which is not ideal. The two films at the HFA used this system, and there were some glitches, especially during Spring on the Korean Peninsula, where the subs would occasionally go backwards, or show up before or after the characters were speaking, making it pretty difficult to assign lines to characters at times. It strikes me that it's got to be pretty close to trivial, functionally, to automate the process, but nobody seems to do so.

Jibeopneun cheonsa (Angels of the Streets/Homeless Angels)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2010 at the Harvard FIlm Archive (Discovering Korean Cinema)

One of the few surviving films from Korea's colonial period, Homeless Angels is very much a work of its time. Released in 1941, it feels like a Hollywood issue movie, and if that's not earnest enough, an extra layer of Japanese propaganda is piled onto the end. By the standards of that time and place, it's fairly well-done, but it's more interesting as anthropology than entertainment today.

In early-1940s Soeul, homelessness is endemic, especially in the Jon-ro area. Teenage girl Myung-ja (Kim Shin-jae) walks the street selling flowers with little brother Yong-gil (Lee Wook-ha) in tow. The Fagin of the area is a guy named Kwon, who wants to start using Myung-ja in less appealing jobs. Yong-gil runs, meeting up with a teacher by the name of Bang Seong-bin (Kim Il-hae), who tends to take in runaways in off the street. He's taken in so many in - to the chagrin of his wife Maria (Moon Ye-bong) - that he eventually has to start his own orphanage on Hyang Rin Won, a farm owned by his brother in law Dr. Ahn (Jin Hoon) - who, despondent over the death of his wife, frequently drinks at the bar where Myung-ja sells flowers.

Homeless Angels is as earnest a movie as you'll ever see; it's filled with a great deal of can-do attitude, teary reformations, and heartfelt pledges to be good citizens of the Empire of Japan. For most of the running time, it doesn't feel like obvious propaganda; it instead feels like a simplistic but upbeat story of a good man helping his neighbors. Director Choi In-kyu actually does well by the outline of a story that Japanese writer Motosada Nishiki has provided for him; the atmosphere of Jon-ro is suitably seedy and he doesn't over-sanitize life at Hyang Rin Won - at least to modern eyes, the empty barn where the boys get put up looks kind of unappealing; there's still a bit of classism to Bang's charitable impulses. It's a marked contrast to when the time later comes for contrition and praise. That doesn't feel insincere, just given a hard push.

Full review at EFC.

Bando-ui bom (Spring of Korean Peninsula)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2010 at the Harvard FIlm Archive (Discovering Korean Cinema)

One of the potentially head-spinning things about watching modern Indian films is the way people casually slip between languages - English-speakers like myself will be reading the subtitles but not really listening while the characters are speaking Hindi, only to realize we've missed a sentence because a character has switched to un-subtitled English without stopping. Something similar happens in Spring of Korean Peninsula - characters will move from Korean to Japanese and back again within the same scene, with the subtitles switching between vertical kanji on the side for Japanese audiences to horizontal Korean text at the bottom for that language's speakers. It's a bit confusing, but also instructive for a movie about making movies: There were two masters that had to be served.

We start with a film-within-a-film, a version of the classic tale "Chunhyang". However, Soeul is not Hollywood, and the production is in trouble - star Anna (Baek Lan) is looking for another job, the director is about to be evicted from his home, the money that writer/producer Young-il (Kim Il-hae) is counting on from winning a writing contest is slow in coming, and Young-il's boss at the record company, Mr. Han, is not extending any more credit. Things may be looking up for Young-il personally, though - Jung-hee (Kim So-young), the sister of a friend, has just arrived from Pyongyang, and is hoping to learn about the movie and music business.

Though chunks of Spring of Korean Peninsula take place on a movie set, it's not the sort of backstage drama that comes across as oblique or confusing to those outside the business. Technical details are sparse; the focus is much more on how making a movie ties a great many people's fates together, and in a situation like early-40s Korea, there's no studio support net (the newly formed Bando studio is Japanese-controlled, which has its own issues). Of course, in some ways, it's not so different from the entertainment industry in any place and time; part of the reason Anna is looking for new work is that Mr. Han has pushed her aside now that Jung-hee has come along.

Full review at EFC.

Hanyo (1960, The Housemaid)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2010 in the Bright Screening Room, Paramount Center (Special Engagement)

The bookends to the Kim Ki-young's original 1960 version of The Housemaid may just elevate a sharp but frantic melodrama to the classic status it enjoys. What happens between is a bit of a messy movie, but what surrounds it does clever things with those events in a way that, honestly, should have been stolen more in the fifty years since.

Poor Kim Dong-sik (Kim Jin-kyu); he's just too handsome for his own good. Girls who work at a Seoul factory (and live in its dormitory) flock to his after-hours music classes for that reason, although he's far too straight-laced and in committed to his wife (Ju Jeung-ryu) and children to stray. When he receives a love-note from Kwak Sun-yeong, he reports it to the supervisor, resulting in the girl being suspended and quitting in shame. Ah, but Sun-yeong was put up to it by her roommate Cho Kyung-hee (Um Aing-ran), clearing the competition away. Kyung-hee starts to take piano lessons from Dong-sik, quietly reveling in how their hands touch, and when Dong-sik mentions that their new two-story house could use a housemaid, Kyung-hee recommends a girl from the factory (Lee Eun-shim) - who, naturally, also falls in love with Dong-sik, and who is not just the factory's bad girl, but may also be completely nuts.

Recent Korean cinema has gained an international reputation, in part because even when the genre trappings are familiar, filmmakers often jump in unexpected directions. That's certainly the case with The Housemaid, especially with its heated last act, which takes a sudden detour from the path it seemed to be following, playing out the final confrontations between the Kims and the dueling femmes fatale in a way that might have worked better if it had followed the standard film noir/erotic thriller conventions. It's not a bad ending - Kim Ki-young manages to keep the energy and suspense level high because the audience really doesn't know what's going to happen next - it's just that shock sometimes isn't quite so exhilarating a sensation as seeing the plot threads that Kim seems to have spent the past ninety minutes or so laying down come to a head.

Full review at EFC.

Yeo-haeng-ja (Un Vie Tout Neuve, A Brand New Life)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 December 2010 at the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (New Korean Cinema)

Though many cultures approach cinema differently, there are certain things that are constants. One of them is that if you open a film with a montage of a a happy child, something is going to happen to make the unsuspecting kid very sad, very soon. A Brand New Life does not disappoint; Ounie Lecomte's semi-autobiographical story will certainly make some folks cry with its quiet, honest depiction of a good kid who suffers all the more for seeing what's going on.

Lee Jinhee (Kim Sae-ron) is having a nice day as the movie opens. Her father (Sol Kyung-gu) is buying her new clothes, taking her out to eat, and you've never seen a face so happy as when Jin-hee rides on the back of his bike. The next day, they go to a bakery to pick out a cake - choosing the most delicious-looking cake is serious business for an eight-year-old girl - but they don't go home with it. Instead, they bring it an orphanage, and only Mr. Lee will be leaving that day. The new girl is not a model resident; she frustrates Bomo (Park Myeong-shin), the woman who handles day-to-day operations, and demands to director Koo (Oh Man-seok) that she be allowed to call her father. Initially refusing to speak, she quietly observes what's going on around her - that the oldest girl there, limping Yeshin (Ko Ah-sung), has a crush on a local boy (Mun Hack-jin), and that Sookhee (Park Do-yeon) has just had her first period. Despite or because both are rather hostile to their caretakers, Jinhee and Sookhee become best friends.

Although there are hints that Jin-hee's life isn't completely rosy as the film opens, even beyond the obvious - the song she sings for her father is a sad, prescient one, and the floor they sleep on doesn't look particularly clean or comfortable - there's no doubt from the start that this is not a happy place, despite the efforts of staff. It's dusty, with brambles rather than flowers; there are two fences, one inside the other; and our first glimpse of the children there has loitering on top of and around the main building like a pack of coyotes. It's a very precisely created environment, the sort that tells us that every action Lecomte took in making this film is with purpose. It may not always be immediately clear what purpose - that the audience does not see Mr. Lee's face in the opening segment may hint that the film is going to be shot from Jinhee's perspective down near the floor, but when we do get a shot, there's another possibility, that her biological father has faded from memory except for that one moment. Those few seconds are all the information about how Jinhee's father truly thought about her that she or the audience is going to get.

Full review at EFC.

The Warrior's Way

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 December 2010 at AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run)

You know, a movie about a Chinese Swordsman fleeing to a tiny town in the Old West that is inhabited primarily by circus people should be one whole heck of a lot more entertaining than this. These sorts of mashups can be a lot of fun, but this one too often feels like it's being done by a 12-year-old who jumps from one totally badass thing to the next, not realizing that he's bitten off more than he can chew.

Yang (Jang Dong-gun) is "the greatest assassin in the world... ever!". His clan, the Sad Flutes, has been at war with another for decades. He has just eradicated the last of them, except for a baby, and despite all the blood he's spilled, that is apparently a line he cannot cross. Knowing that the clan's leader (Ti Lung) will hunt him and the baby down, he flees across the ocean to America, where an old friend has set up. When he gets to the town of Lode, though, he finds that "Smiley" has passed on. Pretty tomboy Lynn (Kate Bosworth) help set him and baby April up in Smiley's old laundry business, while trying to get him to teach her to fight. As much as he wants to lay down his sword, Lynn and the rest of the town may need his help when the bandit who killed Lynne's family (Danny Huston) comes back to town.

Often, with movies like The Warrior's Way, attempts to critique it get a "stop taking things so seriously" response, and in some ways that's fair. That "Ever!" actually pops up in a caption, the film features a highly-expressive comic-relief baby, there are plenty of oddball supporting characters - Tony Cox and Geoffrey Rush both show up as part of the group building a ferris wheel in Lode so that they can take the "traveling" out of their traveling circus, and that means that there are going to be clowns and mimes running around - in full costume, for some reason. The action is over-the-top, and there's a wink to the narration and unreality to the digitally-added scenery that should effectively nip any complaints about it being unrealistic in the bud.

Full review at EFC.

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