Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Imports: Illang: The Wolf Brigade and The Curse of the Demon Cat

You know what's kind of nuts? Illang: The Wolf Brigade was produced by Warner Brothers South Korea - it even has a custom studio logo clip - but they basically offloaded it to Netflix for the rest of the world. I talk a lot about how big companies like Warner under AT&T would much rather make a lot of money a few things than a little money each on a lot of things, and this is a kind of fascinating example of it; Illang is a big thing to that part of the company, but not to the larger entity, which doesn't see this thing it owns as worth any effort, even though people do know who Kim Jee-Woon is around the world.

Instead, it gets sold to Netflix, and is probably just two of twenty hours or so of content that got released without fanfare at 3am some morning, and I consider myself very lucky that Warner finally released a nifty English-friendly disc in South Korea three years later. The timeframe for movies showing up on KimchiDVD can seem kind of random, so this could very well be how long a release takes or Netflix could have just insisted on a window. I've got a closer-to-complete collection, at least.

I'm a fan of Kim Jee-Woon, but not so much Chen Kaige; I don't believe I've ever seen his big art-house hits, but the fact that they exist sort of looms over The Curse of the Demon Cat and Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He's done great things, but he's either told the stories that were close to his heart or the industry doesn't really have a place for the sort of productions he made his name on (China chose Wolf Warrior II as their Oscar submission a few years back, for crying out loud!), and now he's doing these lush productions that have some ambition but which can't quite be elevated to greatness. He's had something of a parallel career to Zhang Yimou, but that half-step he was behind has his new movies less globally anticipated than Zhang's.

The funny thing about it is that Chen's art-house history has seemed to put his movies on a different track - instead of getting day-and-date releases in North America, the producing studio angles for a deal where the American distributor will have to have a bigger hit than you can just get in Chinatowns, and when they realize that they don't quite have Hero on their hands, they languish until the price drops. This was a Christmas 2017 release in China that finally hit US screens in 2019, but didn't play Boston because the main audience for it in Chinatown had probably already seen it via bootlegs and imports.

Gorgeous disc, though. I loaded up on the 3D and 4K discs on my last Hong Kong order because I figured that they might have relatively limited runs and sell out, and physical media is precarious. I saved a few bucks getting the 4K-only version, which I don't think I've seen studios doing in the USA. It will make the movie tough to lend, I suppose, but it's not like I've been doing a whole lot of that lately. I'd enjoy lending this one out, though - there's a lot of fine detail and bright color in this movie (and the occasional deep black), and the Ultra-HD really brings them out. I noticed a couple months ago how you see a lot of fiddly detail in a lot of newer mainstream movies akin to the texturing on the uniforms in the J.J. Abrahms Star Trek movies that you didn't see in the original, and the higher-resolution disc makes it work.

It's a bit frustrating that I had to order Illang from South Korea - international shipping is no joke these days, and I probably would have waited a bit longer to get more items in the order and a better per-disc shipping rate if if I hadn't seen one of the movies I'd intended to be part of the order sell out. I'm glad I've got both of them, even if they're not quite their makers' best, as you never know where or if a movie will be available next month.

Inrang (Illang: The Wolf Brigade)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Korean Blu-ray)

I remember being disappointed with Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade when it got a bigger release than was typical for Japanese animation at the time - the boring sort, where nothing actually sticks in one's mind - so was curious when the Korean remake was announced, especially with Kim Jee-Woon in the director's chair. The end result can't quite shake the original's issues, in that the world-building and the drama work at cross-purposes, but Kim is still one of the best genre filmmakers in the world and delivers some great thrills before the movie runs out of steam.

In the near future, aggressive moves by Japan and China push North and South Korea toward reunification, an unpopular move in the South, with a anti-unification group called "The Sect" frequently crossing the line into terrorism. Five years ago, after a disastrous raid that left a dozen middle-schoolers dead, the Special Unit took to wearing faceless helmets; now, another failed operation that was supposed to end The Sect has failed in a public way, leading to suspended Special Unit operations while Public Security investigates. The SU operative involved, Lim Joong-Kyung (Gang Dong-won), was part of the previous mission and would make an ideal scapegoat, but it's politically dicey. PS investigator Han Sang-Woo (Kim Mu-Yeol) is ex-SU and a friend of Lim's, and has Lim return the effects of a dead Sect member to sister Lee Yun-Hee (Han Hyo-Joo). The pair seem to connect, but everyone soon finds themselves involved in an interagency turf war, with Han's PS bosses particularly interested in targeting SU's secretive "Wolf Brigade".

Part of why the original anime version fell short was that its alternate-history hook tended to frame its cautionary tale as a threat averted rather than one that could happen, muting its urgency, while Kim's near-contemporary take is able to reflect both a current international wave of authoritarianism and events in South Korea's own recent history. The early information dump and updated Special Unit designs (a lot of the original WWII inspiration remains despite being tweaked to be sleeker and use more modern materials) get the audience more plugged into the story. The story itself also highlights just how many different sorts of genre movie Kim does well; the moment when the film pivots from into a more complex spy movie is delicious, and there are a couple of moments when he's able to introduce some randomness into his well-oiled machine and have it benefit the movie, like the real test for a conspiracy is not just seeing five moves ahead but being able to react to something unexpected.

As much fun as those twists are, and how a lot of them represent just how paranoid and Machiavellian the various organizations can be, they wind up being piled on in so many layers that they wind up blending into a sort of homogeneous cynicism. There's a line between no person or organization being perfect and nobody being concerned for anything beyond their own hide or power, and Kim's film is often on the wrong side of it, to the point where the finale is numbing even beyond making a point about that sort of pragmatic ruthlessness. The amount of reversals and revelations means that even though there's a very nice cast giving what are generally entertaining performances, only Gang Dong-Won and Han Hyo-joo are able to bring out interesting cores for Lee Yoon-Hee and Lim Joong-Kyung, and that's often figuratively and literally obscured for the sense of darkness and distrust.

On the other hand, Kim can run one hell of an action scene, and unlike a lot of action technicians, he's never just putting together something big and elaborate which will look good enough in a trailer to sell tickets, but serving a storytelling purpose: The opening piece is built to show the humanity of both the SU and the Sect, with the bright red raincoat worn by a teenage courier focusing attention in a way that makes one nervous and morally uncertain about the whole mess, as well as setting up later Red Riding Hood metaphors. Even that wearing end is built to make action fans a little uncomfortable in terms of enjoying over-the-top violence. And then there's the centerpiece which makes this thing only playing theaters in South Korea a crying shame, as Lim walks into a trap and all the precise spy material that the filmmakers have been playing with for the previous half hour erupts into violence and the fact that Gang Dong-Won is able to shift Lim into another super-capable gear doesn't quite make a viewer stop wondering just how he gets out of this really well-constructed box. And then it rolls right into another bit which is a nifty blend of clear and chaotic mayhem.

Kim is so good at so many facets of genre filmmaking - he's made action, horror, thriller, black comedy, and western movies that many would aspire to equal - that the film doesn't grind to a halt as its story gets mired in the specific infighting of imaginary fascists rather than the larger forces that shape them. Illang doesn't end up nearly as thrilling and intriguing as it started, but that level is high enough that the movie can fall short and still come out mostly ahead.

Also at eFilmCritic

Yao Mao Zhuan (Legend of the Demon Cat aka Kukai)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 June 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 4K Blu-ray)

In terms of figuring out how to recommend the would-be Chinese blockbuster Legend of the Demon Cat, it's probably somewhere closer to fantasy than horror, but if so, it's more the sort of movie that falls into empty space between genres than straddling the border. Maybe that's a matter of the Mainland market being a tricky needle to thread - Chinese filmmakers can do fantasy adventure/romance or thrillers but mixing the two is dicey - but they knew that going in, and sometimes have a little trouble figuring what else to do with this story if they can't do that.

The film opens with the cat in question appearing to Chunqin (Kitty Zhang Yu-Qi), wife of the head of the palace guards, telepathically saying that there's a fortune buried on the grounds, and he'll say where for some melon. Creeped out but greedy, she assents, and soon she and husband Chen Yunqiao (Eric Qin Hao) are living the high life. In the palace, Japanese monk Kukai (Shota Sometani) has been called to perform an exorcism on the palace, with the Emperor passing just as Kukai gets started and discovers a trail of paw-prints leading away from the chamber. Scribe Bai Leitian (Huang Xuan) is told to record that the emperor died from "illness" but still wants to record the truth for his own records. Bai and Kukai eventually discover a link to events of 30 years earlier, when the much-beloved concubine Yang Gufei (Sandrine Pinna) of Emperor Li (Edward Zhang Lu-Yi) - a romance chronicled by Bai's poetic idol Li Bo (Xin Bai-Qing) - was buried with her beloved cat. But there's got to be more than that.

It's more than a bit of an outdated cliché these days to say that China is still playing catch-up in some areas but is unmatched when they can throw sheer manpower at a problem, and that's often the feel here: There are bits of effects work that sometimes look not-quite-right - there's not much more frustrating than something described by characters as "an illusion" that is obvious CGI - but the production design is gloriously elaborate, a city full of colorful multi-level sets that the camera moves through easily. It's a bright, gorgeous film that is as lush as any historical epic, and when co-writer/director Chen Kaige gets a mind to, he'll present something unnerving about the elaborate symmetry on display or show how what looks vibrant in one context is tacky in another. There aren't a lot of shadows here, which makes the spot where Bai and Kukai find actual darkness a bit chillier.

That said, it's worth noting that for all some of the digital effects aren't quite there, the Demon Cat himself is actually very impressive and smartly used. The black fur makes the shadows and lighting a little easier, and the choice to not bother with the lips moving as he speaks is a step back from the uncanny valley, even as the big eyes and slightly exaggerated body language makes him a bit more expressive. Hayao Miyazaki did something similar in Kiki's Delivery Service and it still works. This is a demon that could just be ridiculous, and scores some points on the absurdity of this extremely pettable kitty being so dangerous, but he hits a nice sweet spot between human, animal, and demon.

And yet, oddly, Kaige takes a long time to find something to drive the movie. It's one thing to play up Bai and Kukai as mismatched partners who quickly fall in with each other, and why not - Huang Xuan and Japanese star Shota Sometani are fun together - but they seem to spend more time playing off each other rather than having a sense of urgency, curious but not motivated. By the time they get to the point where they've learned enough to know what's going on, the direct connection is gone. Sandrinne Pinna does good work in making Yang the sort of woman who could make men motivated if not crazy, even if there's nobody around her quite so compelling. Hiroshi Abe shows up in flashbacks to try and sell that, although it sometimes comes across more like the Japanese co-producers wanting a little more that they could sell to their audience.

There's no rule that says a horror movie can't be pretty or kind of silly - and this has a lot of the same DNA as a certain sort of Hong Kong horror even if it doesn't spend a lot of time actively trying to scare - but Demon Cat winds up a little too detached. It's a joy to look at (the 4K disc from Hong Kong is gorgeous), but could use a little more melodrama to match its production values.

Also at eFilmCritic

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