Thursday, January 18, 2024

Film Rolls, Round 22: Exit and Lucky Chan-Sil

The boys' time in South Korea last year was quick, but eventful!
First up, we get Mookie rolling a 14 and finally getting out of John Woo territory to hop right over Johnnie To and almost, but not quite, blow right past South Korea. Of course, the South Korean film he lands on, Exit, is a disc I imported from Hong Kong when it was probably at a crazy sale price. Interestingly, the disc defaults to neither Chinese nor English subtitles, though I don't know how many people in Hong Kong speak Korean.
Bruce, meanwhile, rolls a seven and lands on a really gorgeous box for Lucky Chan-Sil, which puts him in a dead heat, position-wise, with Mookie. I really wish more South Korean films got Blu-ray releases, and kind of wonder if the format just never took off over there (even though my first player was a Samsung). As mentioned last time around, there don't seem to be many releases, even for the seemingly mainstream stuff that plays Fantasia or North American theaters, to the point where I wonder how many folks in South Korea are importing discs of their own cinema from Japan, Hong Kong, and the USA. This one appears to have gotten a nice disc because the director is Hong Sang-soo adjacent, and Hong is something they can export. Weird situation.

Anyway, we kind of hit the extremes of Korean cinema between the breezy, lightweight genre materia and the films that appeal to art-house die-hards. How'd that work out?

Eksiteu (EXIT)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)
Seen 16 January 2024 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)
Available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon

EXIT gives Premium Rush vibes right from the start, and there really should be more movies like this: Fast-paced, exciting, full of characters that are fun to spend time with and tricky spots for them to escape, and plenty of action and adventure but relatively little violence. It is close to pure fun; it's a shame (at least from my perspective) that it missed Boston during its brief North American release because I bet it would be a gas on the big screen with a crowd.

It starts broad, introducing Lee Yong-nam (Cho Jung-seok) as a loser who has not only been unable to find a job since graduating from college, but can't even bring himself to go back to his favorite bouldering spot since crush Eui-ju (Lim Yoona) dropped "let's just be friends" on him. And yet, he books his mother's 70th birthday party at the event space where Eui-ju is assistant manager, even though it's way on the other side of Seoul. That goes about as well for him as one might imagine, but just as they're about to leave, a madman sets off a poison gas attack near Central Station that quickly fills the city at ground level. The door for roof access is locked. What to do?

There was an interview with comic-book writer Christopher Priest a while ago, as he was kicking off a Hawkman project, where he said that the character was that he's a flying guy with a mace, so the trick is to figure out problems that could be solved with a mace. It seems that writer/director Lee Sang-geun took a similar tack here, coming up with a couple climbing centerpieces and then working backwards to create a problem that could be solved with climbing, and then another, then ways to make the initial problem worse, and so on. It is, as Roger Ebert used to say, a classic "one damn thing on top of another" action/adventure, and it works because director Lee and his crew are really good at making sure that the audience can see how all this stuff is working on the one hand while giving Yong-nam and Eui-ju just enough time to show this situation wearing them down as they run to the next challenge.

It requires a lot of acting on the run from Cho Jung-seok and Lim Yoona (or just "Yoona" from K-pop group Girls Generation), and they make a nice pair: Yong-nam can be a bit of a self-pitying sad sack, especially in the broadly comedic first half-hour of the film, but both Cho and Yoona are good at making their characters feel less unimpressive than not having a chance to meet their full potential, and when they show signs of being able to improvise in a crisis from building a makeshift stretcher to dangling from a construction crane, it's easy to buy into it, especially since they're believably frazzled and able to show sparks without stopping what they're doing to do so. They play well off a bunch of well-utilized supporting characters, from Yong-nam's extended family to Eui-ju's smarmy boss.

The big thing, of course, is the action, which is well-staged and shot, especially in the first big piece where Yong-nam tries to climb a building that could really use a few more handholds. It's almost certainly all done on green screens, but the compositing is good enough to work in HD even if the end result isn't quite vertigo-inducing in the living room the way it may have been in theaters.

It's a genuine blast; I'm looking forward to director Lee's forthcoming romantic comedy, hoping it'll be the same sort of crowd-pleaser this seems to be.

Chansilineun bokdo manhji (Llucky Chan-sil)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Korean Blu-ray)
Available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon

I confess, I came into Lucky Chan-sil expecting and, yes, hoping for, a more directly satiric piece that aimed a few more barbs in the direction of filmmaker Kim Cho-hee's former employer Hong Sang-soo, but that was probably a silly thing to expect, not really knowing anything about her or even enough about Hong except that he seems to have a good racket going. Instead, it goes for something smaller and a bit eccentric, which works out well enough for it.

Kim, as you may have gathered, was a producer for film festival favorite Hong Sang-soo during the early 2010s; in the film, Lee Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) has been doing the same job for director Ji (Seo Sang-won), only to have the man stroke out over his post-meeting soju. Seen as tied to Ji but not particularly essential (would they say that to a man?), she winds up moving out of the city and renting a room from an old lady (Youn Yuh-jung) on the top of a hill, with a scatterbrained actress friend (Yoon Seung-ah) hiring her to clean her apartment. That's how she meets Kim-yeong (Bae Yoo-ram), Sophie's French tutor who is an aspiring filmmaker himself. Oh, and there's a locked room in the old lady's home haunted by a ghost (Kim Young-min) who claims to be late Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung.

It strikes me, writing that synopsis, that I should give this another look, as the work that I've done for nearly twenty years was shut down in the time since I watched this, and I certainly felt some "well, crap, now what?" anxiety as a result; it's a good time for coming-of-middle-age stories that involve that leave folks stranded in that way. I suspect that this one plays better in some ways if you are closer to its target audience and are familiar enough with how insular the communities of Korean auteur cinema are and what's being referenced in the details, though it's amusingly a decent pairing with Exit in terms of having protagonists who have seemingly worked hard to find that there's just no job for them.

There's more than a whiff of despair to Chan-sil's situation, and Kim kind of breaks it down into other pieces to make it more digestible: Kim-yeong wanting to make movies but teaching French to pay the rent (and maybe not being quite the kindred spirit and potential partner Chan-sil imagines); the ghost of an actor who committed suicide; the old lady who carries a fair amount of disappointment and baggage but is still trying to make up for some lost time. What she doesn't do is establish a big, central goal that will mark Chan-sil's rebounds as complete, like a film project that will pull her out from under Ji's shadow or show that she was more of factor in his success than she'd been given credit for, instead opting for small steps and revelations that, maybe, add up to something more.

And while the film occasionally gets maudlin, Kim and star Kang Mal-geum don't let it get mired in that sort of feeling: After all, as a producer of low-budget independent films, she's naturally practical and quick-thinking when it comes to immediate problems, even if she's sort of let her skills at interacting with people in non-professional ways atrophy, and Kang keeps the part of Chan-sil that moves forward and gets things done visible even at low points, although whether that buoying her or despairing because there's no clear direction to move changes. It's her show, but there's a nice cast around her, from the always-dependable Youn Yuh-jung to Yoon Seung-ah, who is tremendously valuable popping in to deliver comic relief while the script has her flakiness pushing the film in a new direction.

I didn't particularly love this one when I saw it, but I suspect it would benefit from a rewatch. It's the sort of indie that those of who prefer Christopher Nolan to Yasujiro Ozu, like Kim-yeong, will perhaps fidget over as we look for a goal, but hits the exact feeling somebody has experienced fairly well.

So where does out "2019 South Korea" double feature land the guys?

Mookie: 76 ¼ stars
Bruce: 75 ½ stars

As you can see, that leaves them tied on the gameboard, if not quite the scoreboard, and ready to wrap around to western movies again.

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