Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Asian Action Weekend: Railroad Tigers & Master

It’s pretty rare for a Korean movie to release internationally the exact same day that it does in its native land, unlike Chinese and Indian movies, and Master is no exception, although I suspect that in its case the delay of a couple weeks also involved not getting completely buried in North America by the big holiday movies. The same almost certainly holds true for Railroad Tigers, which came out 23 December in China but which Well Go held back for a couple weeks.

Still, it initially looked like this didn’t exactly do CJ Entertainment a lot of good in terms of getting screens; when Master popped up in the Fandango listings, it was initially only showing at 10am, even right up until I was checking the listings on Thursday night for Friday and Saturday. It immediately put me in mind of the way Fantasia schedules anime at 11am on Saturday and Sunday and BUFF does something similar with films made by local directors: You know that there’s a dedicated audience for this stuff, dedicated enough to not party and drink the night before if that’s what it takes (or show up anyway), so you take advantage of that loyalty. I don’t know that those of us who go for Korean films in Boston are the same way - we used to haul our butts out to Revere when we had to, which isn’t nothing - but I suppose it would make sense if these movies didn’t get a big audience. Give them a show at somewhat odd hours when they’re not really displacing any Rogue One tickets, and it’s good. I kind of suspected as much was coming when I got an email survey about viewing habits/preferences for Asian movies a few weeks ago.

It turned out not to be the case, though - when I arrived for the 8pm show of Railroad Tigers on Friday, I saw that there was a 9pm Master, and a full slate the next day. Which was good - I wound up seeing a 3pm show after some other errands rather than getting out of the house on a working day’s schedule on Saturday - although it initially looked like I’d be seeing it alone. Not the case, as some student-aged folks showed up right around the start time, but I’d be just as willing to chalk that up to winter as lack of demand anyway.

(Not that Saturday’s snow “storm” was that big a deal; girl scouts were selling cookies in the T Stations, and if they can get out to do that, you can go see a movie or two.)

They did bolt before the end credits were done, missing a weird post-credits scene in Master, one of the weirdest of those I’ve seen. Can’t imagine they were that anxious to get back out into the snow.

Railroad Tigers

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

To fully grasp how disappointing Railroad Tigers is, start with one basic truth: Action sequences are generally something like 20% better when set on a train, whether you choose “on” to mean “riding” or “on top of”, but despite this film being a string of those, it never quite gets exciting. And that’s before it dawns on one how few of them feature Jackie Chan doing something that stands out as impressive. Indeed, the whole thing seems muted, often unable to even go big on the broad comedy or aggressive nationalism that can at least make mainstream Chinese pictures at least an unusual experience.

The film has Chan playing Ma Yuan, the head porter at a rural train station during the Sino-Japanese war whose crew also liberates the cargo belonging to the occupying Japanese government. They aren’t exactly at the top of the Emperor’s most wanted list - they’re pretty small-time - although that may change after a Chinese soldier stumbles into the neighborhood he calls home: He’s the only survivor of a unit set to blow up a bridge before a major shipment comes over it in four days time, which means that if it’s going to be done, Ma and his friends will have to outsmart not just Captain Yamaguchi (Ikeuchi Hiroyuki), but recently-arrived troubleshooter Yuko (Xu Fan).

From the start, the gang is talking about “missions”, and writer/director/editor Ding Sheng divides the movie up that way, whether they be heists, rescues, or supply runs, with titles popping up on screen the same way character name/job/catchphrases do when introduced. A lot of movies are built that way, but Railroad Tigers feels odd in that this structure seems to highlight how much it’s running in place, with the results of each action scene neither feeling like it has brought the characters closer to a goal or even set them back, instead just running the clock until the big finale. There’s not even a sense of the team gelling or individual stories reaching turning points through this action.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 January 2017 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Korean thriller Master feels like it should have an Indian-style intermission in the middle as it shuffles characters up, changes locations, and basically feels like filmmaker Jo Ui-seok has made both a tight, entertaining thriller and its decent sequel, then stitched them together to make something that works as one movie but feels a little stretched out. Ten minutes to stretch your legs and get ready for something new would have helped, although it still makes fine use of a great cast regardless.

It kicks off with financial fraud detectives Kim Jae-myung (Gang Dong-won) and Shin Gemma (Uhm Ji-won) attending a presentation of the “One Network”, an investment firm that promises daily dividends and full transparency, already boasting over a hundred thousand members and poised to grow even larger with its plans to acquire a savings back; they think President Jin Hyun-pil (Lee Byung-hun) is running South Korea’s largest pyramid scheme. Close to bringing it down, they consider the real prizes to be One’s data center and a ledger full of blackmail material that would help Jin, PR handler “Mama” Kim Eom-ma (Jin Kyung), and systems chief Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin) escape persecution. Their plan is to turn Park, although the cocky young man already seems to have contingency plans in place.

Those that don’t follow Korean cinema particularly closely will probably, at most, recognize the name of Lee Byung-hun, who has appeared in a number of Hollywood productions over the past few years, and even they will likely be surprised to see him playing the villain with a bit of a weathered face and a touch of silver in his hair. It turns out to be fun casting against type as he’s able to sell Jin as the charismatic entrepreneur in the opening before he starts shedding his fake bonhomie backstage, a pivot that’s funny in real time but doesn’t stop him from still coming off as half-convincing when Jin’s trying to scam people later on. If you are a fan of Korean film, though… That’s a heck of a cast. Gang Dong-won is coming off a string of hits and brings a very enjoyable swagger to the righteous chief investigator, Kim Woo-bin is one of South Korea’s most popular up-and-coming young actors, Jin Kyung and Uhm Ji-won are reliable familiar faces, and the film even breaks out reliable actor Oh Dal-su to play a breezily corrupt lawyer in the second half.

Full review on EFC.

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