Showing posts with label Korean. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Korean. Show all posts

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


Oldboy is one of those films which I’d heard was excellent but luckily knew nothing more. About three years ago I finally sat down and watched it. I then had to watch it the next day as well. Since those first two watches and subsequent two or three, Oldboy has become one of my favourite films of all time and opened up a now longstanding love affair with Korean cinema. Beginning with Director Park Chan-wook’s other films I began to discover incredible actors such as Song Kang-ho (The Host, Thirst, J.S.A.) which in turn lead me to discover more fantastic Director’s like Lee Jeong-beom (TheMan from Nowhere), Chul-soo Jang (Bedevilled) and Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil, The Good, the Bad, The Weird). In essence, Oldboy for me was a small crack of light which opened the door to a bright world of film discovery and in the four years since I first saw it, it remains not only one of the best Korean movies I’ve seen but one of the best full stop.

A drunken man called Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is awaiting collection from a Police Station. His friend arrives to take him home to his young daughter whose birthday it is. While the friend makes a quick call from a payphone, Dae-su disappears and isn’t heard of again for nearly fifteen years. During those fifteen years he is locked up in a small room without an explanation or any idea of when or if he will get out. While locked up he is framed for his wife’s murder and his daughter is adopted in Sweden. A decade and a half later Dae-su is released, again without explanation but is told he has until July 5th to work out why he was locked up or his new friend Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) will be killed.

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Front Line

Set mostly amid the 1953 Korean War ceasefire negotiations, The Front Line (고지전) stars Shin Ha-kyun as First Lieutenant Kang from Military Intelligence. Kang is sent to the Front Line to investigate the suspicious death of a Captain and to intercept any North Korean mail that is being sent through the Southern Postal Service. When Kang arrives at the front he discovers a comrade he though was long dead is in fact alive and well. Lieutenant Kim (Go Soo) is found serving in the same regiment as Kang is forced to investigate and finds life on the Front Line even harsher than he imagined. In the midst of his investigation the war is still raging on as both sides attempt to capture an important hilltop.

South Korea has produced many excellent War Movies over the last decade or so but despite some great scenes and cinematography I wasn’t able to fully get on board with this one. That being said there is a lot to like about the film and it won four Grand Bell Awards in 2011 including Best Film. I found that throughout the film I was interested in the story but not the characters.

Monday, 9 April 2012

A Tale of Two Sisters

Kim Ji-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird & I Saw the Devil) directs this tale of two sisters who are put in a mental institution after the death of their mother. When the sisters are bought back home by their father, they not only have to deal with their difficult new stepmother but also strange goings on inside the house.

The film confused the hell out of me and despite just watching it and then reading the plot synopsis online; I’m not entirely convinced I’ve fully understood it! I think it is a film that would benefit from a second viewing. You are never really sure what is real, what is imagined and what is misdirection and it takes a lot of effort to stay with what’s going on. The confusion isn’t aided by a fairly drawn out and slow first act in which very little happens. The third act more than makes up for the slow and dull beginning however. It is frantic and edgy and had my head spinning.

The horror element is more psychological than jumpy and there are very few visual scares. The film uses sound to good effect though to help raise and maintain tension. Kim Ji-woon’s directorial style is plastered all over the place. The film is incredibly stylish and uses some wonderfully beautiful and technically brilliant camera angles and sweeps. It is worth watching just for Kim’s technical ability behind the camera.

Another reason I’d recommend the film is because of the fantastic performances. In particular those of Im Su-Jeong (I’m a Cyborg…) as one of the sisters and Yeom Jeong-ah as the mother in law. Both performances are excellent and helped to keep me gripped while I was struggling with the plot.

Unsurprisingly, as with so many other Asian horror movies of its time, the film was remade in America with the title The Uninvited. That film lacks the gore and horror of the original and currently holds a 4.5/10 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. When will Hollywood learn?

This film is by no means a masterpiece but features a confusing story which should keep you gripped. The acting is great and the direction, superb.     


Friday, 6 April 2012

The Man from Nowhere

The Man from Nowhere was the highest grossing Korean film of 2010 and is the second film from writer/director Lee Jeong-beom. It stars Won Bin (Mother) as Cha Tae-sik, an ex Black-Ops agent who is now leading a quiet life as a pawn shop owner. His only connection with the outside world is a little girl So-mi (Kim Sae-ron) who pretty much looks after herself as she is neglected by her drug addict mother. While Cha doesn’t really want anything to do with the girl, he occasionally takes her in and feeds her. After So-mi’s mother steals from some drug dealers, she and So-mi are kidnapped. Cha then sets out to bring back the girl and uncovers a dangerous underworld of child slavery and organ harvesting.

There are parallels here with Leon in that the story revolves around a cool, calm killer and a little girl who tries to befriend him. Their relationship at the beginning of the film is also similar with both male characters trying to help a stray little girl but without getting too involved. From then on, apart from trying to protect and save the girls, the two films are very different. This is much, much darker than Leon and is not about hit men but another, seedier side of the underworld.

The story was very good and kept me interested but I wasn’t as gripped as I had been while watching some other Korean thrillers such as The Chaser or I Saw the Devil. The film is very good, but for me it isn’t quite in their league. As with those films, and many other Korean thrillers, it is chilling and features some quite horrific scenes. They are cut in such a way that they aren’t quite as gruesome as the likes of I Saw the Devil or Bedevilled but nonetheless, what is implied is often much worse.

The two lead actors are brilliant. Won Bin shows a completely different side to the one I witnessed in Mother. It is like watching a different actor. Kim Sae-ron, only ten years old when the film was released, is outstanding, showing maturity beyond her years in a difficult and edgy role. Thanayong Wongtrakul also deserves special mention for his acting and fighting skills. Lee Jeong-beom’s direction is fairly conventional but still noticeably Korean. Everything is very crisp, clean and beautifully framed. The director also uses an interesting colour palate in the underworld scenes which give the impression of a washed out world.

There is a fight scene towards the end which is reminiscent of the corridor scene in Oldboy. Cha takes on a horde of henchmen in a well choreographed battle set inside a beautiful Roman looking ballroom. It ends with an even better fight scene, a showdown between Cha and the Vietnamese street thug played by Wongtrakul.

As usual with an interesting and successful Asian film, a Hollywood remake is in pre production. I’m not sure that it will translate well to a mass Western audience due to the dark themes and excessive blood letting. A watered down version would also be a mistake.

The film pulls on the heart strings throughout and is more emotional than your average thriller. It is edgy and beautiful, interesting and well made but a slight step down from the best that Korea has produced in the last ten years. 


Thursday, 5 April 2012


Korean drama Mother is a story of maternal love. Bong Joon-ho director of The Host tells the story of a widowed woman (Kim Hye-ja) who sells herbs in a small Korean town. She looks after her only son Do-joon (Won Bin) who has an unspecified mental disability which makes him shy and come across as forgetful and dim-witted. He is referred to as a retard by those who know him and want to get a reaction from him. One night on his way home from a bar, Do-joon spots a teenage girl walking alone. He calls after her but then goes home. The next morning the girl is found dead and Do-joon is arrested for her murder. Convinced of his innocence, his mother stops at nothing to uncover the real killer.

The story is thoroughly enthralling and it twists and turns, constantly throwing up new clues or misdirections. I thought I had figured out who the killer was, and what their motives were on a number of occasions only to have another twist thwart my attempts to figure it out. The film is very good at giving obvious misdirected clues as well as subtle hints, some of which go nowhere while others are important. The story had me well and truly gripped.

Both lead actors are excellent. Kim Hye-ja, who won awards for her portrayal of the mother, is full of despair and determination and you can emphasise with her cause. You get the feeling from the outset that she will do literally anything to prove her son’s innocence and not stop until she has exhausted every line of enquiry. Won Bin is also very good as the mentally challenged Won Bin. It looks as though a lot of work went into researching his character and getting every facet spot on. Bong Joon-ho’s direction is quite superb. Each shot is exquisitely framed and the film looks very beautiful. He has also got superb performances from his cast.

The film has a satisfying climax which as well as tying up all the loose ends, gives complete closure to every part of the film. It was well worth waiting the 128 minutes to get to.

I haven’t got a bad word to say about the film but it lacks something I can’t quite put my finger on to make it a five star film. Nonetheless, it is remarkably well made and features some very poignant moments, particularly towards the end as well as great mystery and even a humorous first act.     


Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Host

Creature feature The Host is set in Seoul where an American pathologist orders his reluctant Korean assistant to pour hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde down the sink which in turn ends up in the Han River. Fast forward a couple of years and a giant monster is spotted hanging from a bridge over the Han and the film focuses its attention on one unremarkable family who are thrust into the middle of the extraordinary events which follow the monster’s first sighting and attack on the citizens of Seoul. Song kang-ho (Thirst, Joint Security Area) is the lead, playing a lazy and slow witted man who works at his fathers food stand. His daughter, played by Ko Ah-seong is a smart little girl who is abducted by the monster. Her father along with his brother Park Hae-il, sister Bae Doona and father Byeon Hee-bong try to evade the authorities and hunt down the monster to help save the girl.

The film contains elements of drama, comedy, horror and political commentary and is very successful at slipping from one genre to another in an instant. One moment Song Kang-ho is doing something silly or odd and the next he is screaming as he is tied down to undergo a lobotomy. The political themes and anti-American stance run throughout the film. The film’s opening idea is loosely based on a 2000 incident in which an American mortician dumped formaldehyde down the drains and into the Han and throughout, the US military are portrayed as uncaring towards the Korean population and willing to usurp the Korean Government to do what it wants, when it wants. The Anti-American theme is further exemplified by the fact that the film was lauded in North Korea which is unheard of for a South Korean film. The Anti-American stance makes me wonder why a Hollywood remake is being produced and as usual I wish it wasn’t. I’d like people to see the original and stop being so lazy and closed minded when it comes to reading subtitles.

The story itself is very good and the family, well defined. As well as the obvious political statement it is a study of a family and each person’s roles within that family. Song Kang-ho (one of my favourite actors) is excellent, playing a completely different type of character to what I’ve seen him do before. Ko Ah-Seong is also very good and seems mature beyond her years. I’m not surprised to read that she won awards for the role. The direction is great with Bong Joon-ho utilizing camera angles that lead you to wonder where the monster is and which are designed to keep you on edge.

When I first saw the monster I thought that it was well designed but that the CGI looked a bit shiny. The more I watched however I realised that that was obviously done on purpose as the monster is predominantly water dwelling and in fact the CGI is very good. There is one sequence in particular when the monster is first spotted in which the GCI and direction come together wonderfully to create a magnificent chase scene. It is unusual in a monster film to be able to see the monster fully early on. In films such as Cloverfield you never get much more than a hint of the monster but here it is visible from the get go and I think that makes for an interesting and brave change.     

Overall the film is interesting and exhilarating and manages to fuse different genres and themes. There are laugh out loud moments and times where the film feels very poignant. In addition, Song Kang-ho is a joy to watch. 


Saturday, 24 March 2012


"You killed them all, bitch! Why didn't you just kill yourself?"

Bedevilled is a 2010 South Korean horror/thriller from debut director Chul-soo Jang. A young single woman from Seoul called Hae-won (Seong-won Ji) is ordered to take time off from her job in a bank after slapping a colleague and visits the small, backward island that her grandparents lived on when she was a child. When she arrives she becomes reacquainted with Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo) a woman she briefly knew as a child and is shocked to find out that she is treated as a virtual slave by the other islanders. She is used as a sexual play thing by the men and for slave labour by the women. Although Hae-won is shocked at the behaviour of the islanders she is reluctant to become involved in their affairs and remains distant from the activities on the island.

After Bok-nam fails in an attempt to escape from the island with her ten year old daughter Yeon-hee (Ji-Eun Lee) she is merciously beaten by her husband. In the insuring violence, Yeon-hee hits her head on a rock and is killed. This marks the beginning of a violent and bloody final act in which Bok-nam finally snaps and takes out her revenge on the small island population.

It should be said at the outset that this is not an easy watch. I started eating a packet of M&Ms as the titles rolled but soon had to put them down. The audience watches as Bok-nam is brutally abused by most of the eight or so island population. She is stripped of all her dignity but still manages to remain hopeful of rescue. Shortly after this rescue fails, the viewing gets even more difficult with more horrific beatings and humiliation for Bok-nam which is then followed by over the top Korean violence which if you are familiar with the likes of I Saw the Devil might not be too shocking but even I who have become accustomed to Korean horror, felt my entire body clench on a number of occasions as the blood started to splatter. On one occasion the entire camera lens is covered with blood as Bok-nam goes about getting her revenge. The violence is met with psychological horror as Bok-nam stops briefly during her rampage to sharpen a scythe and scissors only to then give an elderly islander a haircut. This act is very creepy but provides some calm in an otherwise frantic final half hour. The sound of the steel on the sharpening stone sent shivers down my spine.

Yeong-hie Seo who was excellent in 2008’s The Chaser is even greater here. She has to undergo some quite humiliating acts and is treated like dirt during the first half of the film but manages to maintain an optimistic attitude. Her transformation towards the end is spectacular and bold as she appears to completely lose control. She appears possessed but underneath you can still see some semblance of love and compassion and that is a credit to her as an actress. She is truly terrific. Seong-won Ji is more uneven as the outsider. She sort of floats through the film and is unconvincing in the final scene. The supporting cast are all excellent and manage to come across as backwards, dumb and cruel. They reminded me of the sort of inbred character’s I saw in 2003’s American horror Wrong Turn but with less of a blood lust and more of a cruel superior nature. They really believe that Bok-nam is there to serve them and has no other use.   

The film isn’t as compelling as some of the great Korean thrillers such as Oldboy or Joint Security Area but stands up well on its own as a scary and unsettling genre film. It’s gruesome, troubling and violent but has love at its centre. I look forward to seeing what debut director Chul-soo Jang comes back with next.


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Three Extremes

WARNING - Adult Content. Do not read this post if you are easily offended.

Three Extremes is a trilogy of short horror films from three of East Asia’s most celebrated directors and whose films are at the more extreme end of Asian cinema.

The first segment Dumplings from Hong Kong director Fruit Chan is a disturbing and gruesome tale about a middle aged actress whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman. She visits seedy back street ‘doctors’ who prescribes her something that she is told will rejuvenate her and make her more attractive to her wayward husband. The prescription is, wait for it and get ready to double take, to eat chopped up human foetuses that have been prepared as dumplings. This is probably the most sick and disgusting idea I’ve ever seen in a film and didn’t blink for about a minute after it was revealed. And if you think that is bad, the ending is worse! What adds to the already horrific nature of the film is that the music used is more reminiscent of a French romantic comedy that a sick Asian horror. The film is well acted and directed and has a grimy and seedy look to it which works well. It is a shocking and deeply disturbing film that I shall not forget in a hurry. The slurping, crunching noise alone is enough to put me off dumplings for life.

With Dumplings setting the tone, the second segment is Cut from visionary Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst). The story revolves around a film director and his wife who are kidnapped by a psychopathic extra from his films and forced to play his sadistic games. While not as upsetting as Dumplings, Cut is a deeply unsettling psychological horror with darkly comic undertones. Park is the master of suspense and uses is to great effect here. His use of light in early scenes is also superb. The film additionally features immaculate cinematography and a wonderful tracking shot in its opening scene. The story is twisted and features great acting from Lee Byung-hun (I Saw the Devil) and Lim Won-hie who brings an air of farce to his psychopathic, ogre character. The film looks beautiful and despite an ending which confused me is my favourite of the three.

The final segment is Box from acclaimed Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, 13 Assassins). His film is more subdued and sombre than the first two and much less frantic. Its pace is slower and feels more like a feature than a short, despite being only around 40 minutes long. The story is of an ex circus performer who is haunted by the ghost of her sister who she was accidentally responsible for killing as a child. As a child she was jealous of her father’s incestuous relationship with her twin and that caused her to lock her sister in box before a fire. That’s as far as I can go with the plot because I’m not totally sure what is real, a dream or imagined but it gets pretty weird! I was a bit too confused to enjoy it as much as the other two but it is beautifully shot and has an interesting idea behind it.

All three films are worth watching if you can stomach the more extreme end of modern cinema. All three are made by film makers who are masters of their craft and in the case of Park and Miike whose films I am familiar with give you a sneak peek at the sort of films they are making every year.     


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Joint Security Area

This Park Chan-wook thriller is set in the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone that spans the North and South Korean border. Two North Korean soldiers have supposedly been shot and killed by a South Korean soldier but there is a mystery as the autopsies reveal that eleven bullets were fired at the North Korean soldiers and five bullets remain in the gun. The gun only holds fifteen bullets so the question is where did the extra bullet come from? To solve the puzzle a neutral Korean-Swiss Major (Lee Young Ae) is charged with discovering what really happened.
There is quite a major twist about a third of the way into the film that bought a smile to my face and set up the rest of the proceedings. It doesn’t give away what really happened but is the start of a wonderful story of friendship and trust between the North and South Korean soldiers manning the two frontiers. At its heart this is an anti war film and you have to commend the film makers for their stance in one of the most militarized and dangerous areas on earth. The screenplay is superb. It manages to keep the tension high throughout and it is not released until the final frame of the film. Although this is one of Park’s first directorial features, you can see his style has already developed. Each scene is shot with care, attention and style. It is a great looking piece. Considering it is a South Korean film I also thought that it managed to stay quite neutral. It would be easy to use a film like this as propaganda but it is told without bias.

The acting is brilliant across the board. Lee Young Ae is strong as the female lead. Multi award winning Song Kang-ho is superb as the North Korean soldier at the centre of the mystery, again proving in my mind he can do no wrong. Opposite him as is Southern counterpart, Lee Byung-hun is compelling in more of a leading role. His transformation from fun loving, intrigued filled solider to stoic and expressionless accused is forceful. Lee and Song have a good history together having also starred together in Kim Ji-woon's excellent The Good, The Bad, The Weird. Shin Ha-kyun, a frequent collaborator with Park Chan-wook is well cast and believable in the role of the second North Korean soldier. His role is not so different to the one he played in the later Park film Thirst. Both characters are a bit weedy, odd and excitable. Kim Tae-woo, the last of the lead cast members is also great as the slightly on edge and unsure South Korean solider who follows Lee Byung-hun’s character.

Joint Security Area is a film that challenges us to forget our differences, whether they be racial, political or geographical and to celebrate our similarities. It magically fuses geo-politics with the suspense of a whodunit. It made me want to learn more about the politics of the situation and a DVD of the film was even given to Kim Jong-Il by the Korean President during a peace summit. As a film, it works perfectly. It creates enough tension to fill at least two bath tubs and creates some brilliant characters to go along with a compelling and poignant story.


Saturday, 10 March 2012

I Saw the Devil

Some countries seem to excel in particular genres. For Korea it is thrillers, and particularly thrillers with a strong psychological edge and with revenge as the predominant theme. Of the top twenty rated Korean films on IMDb since 2000, half are explicitly themed around revenge.  I Saw the Devil is another example of Korea’s excellence in this genre. It is also one of the most brutally violent films I’ve ever watched. The fact that it was even censored in Korea should give you some indication as to the level of violence.

The police are on the hunt for a serial killer played by Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) but when Choi’s character Kyung-chul brutally murders the pregnant fiancé of Intelligence Agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun – The Good, the Bad, the Weird) he ends up with another man on his tail, a man who will stop at nothing for vengeance. Soo-hyun tracks down Kyung-chul and beats him senseless, but instead of killing him or handing him over to the authorities, Soo-hyun plants a tracking device inside the murderer so he can keep track of his every move and continue to enact his violent revenge over and over again.

The most obvious talking point regarding this film is its traumatic violence. Although it generally comes in short, sharp bursts, it is frequent and excruciating to witness. I’m not a fan of the Saw films and haven’t seen Hostel but along with Kill List this is probably the most violent film I’ve ever seen and I had to turn away from the screen on a couple of occasions. This is not a film for those who are easily put off by gore, brutality and violence. Although I think that the level of violence in warranted in the story, I thought that at times it did slightly detract from the telling of it. It did however show the lengths that Soo-hyun would go to in order to get revenge.

The film is directed skilfully by Kim Ji-woon, a man known for expert camera work and beautifully stylized films. Beautiful cinematography along with vengeance is another trademark of Korean cinema and is apparent here. Kim gets wonderful performances from his actors and both leads do a marvellous job. I cannot think of a more unsettling or memorable screen villain from recent times as Choi Min-sik’s Kyung-chul. He is a total monster without any redeeming features. Lee Byung-hun’s Soo-hyun is more complicated. He shows great emotional depth at times but as the film progresses he becomes more of a monster himself and the line between good and evil is not only crossed but trounced upon. In amongst the repugnant violence that both central characters exhibit, there is an undercurrent of real emotion and despite the overbearing brutality, this does come through on the screen. Both performances are incredibly powerful. The minor cast feature little but there are good performances from a cannibal and his partner who are met along the way.

Though violent, this scene is also darkly comic

I Saw the Devil is a film that is going to stay with me for a long time. This is in part down to the violence but I think more so because it is a well made and acted film with a strong central theme and a terrific and jaw dropping ending. It is dark and frenzied and although I wouldn’t say it is enjoyable, it is a fine film that sits rightly amongst the likes of Oldboy and Confessions.


Friday, 9 March 2012


Park Chan-wook is at it again. Thirst is a breathtaking film from the Director that bought us Oldboy and I’m a Cyborg, but that’s ok. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho The Host & The Good, The Bad, The Weird) is an unhappy and depressed priest who volunteers for a medical experiment knowing that it will likely kill him. It is his way of killing himself without facing hell as suicide is a great sin for a Catholic. After being injected with a deadly virus and a prototype vaccine, Sang is cured but has a terrible side effect – he is now a vampire. Sang struggles to deal with the two sides of his personality and vows not to kill but to steal blood from comatose patients at the hospital in which he volunteers. Meanwhile he meets a family he once knew when he was young and becomes friendly with them. Their adopted daughter Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) is unhappily married to their son and is treated like a slave by the rest of the family. She is drawn to Sang and he to her and the two begin a strange and erotic love affair. Sang must then decide whether to ‘turn’ Tae-ju and risk turning her and her increasingly erratic and unpredictable behaviour into a monstrous killing machine.

Park Chan-wook is fast becoming my favourite director and is the master of making a beautiful looking film. All of his films have a wonderful look to them, posses exquisite framing and cinematography and Thirst is no exception. Every shot is creative. There is never a time when the director simply has a camera in a conventional or boring position. There is always something to each shot. Park is a unique film maker and his trademark style and technique is visible to see. The internal sets look tremendous too. The family home at the centre of the story is transformed late on and looks wonderfully clinical and menacing. The all white set looks strangely beautiful when spattered with blood.

The story is attention-grabbing, crazy and well told. Both central characters undergo a transformation during the film and it is a joy to watch. The film deals with themes of religious duty, suicide, love, deceit and moral ambiguity. Each idea is dealt with in a satisfying and knowledgeable way. I did feel the film was slightly too long and that sometimes the story was a bit clunky but these are my only criticisms of an otherwise superb film.

The acting is without exception flawless. Song Kang-ho is an actor I could watch all day. He has a terrific range and I haven’t seen him give a bad performance yet. Here he transforms from a mild Priest into a conscientious but dangerous vampire and carries off both roles with aplomb. Beautiful newcomer Kim Ok-bin is equally as impressive as the innocent and impish young woman who turns into a vicious and vile seductress. Her transformation is incredible and she acts both parts perfectly. At times it was like watching two actresses. The supporting cast is also excellent, in particular Kim Hae-sook who plays Tae-ju’s mother and Shin Ha-kyun who is brilliant as Tae-ju’s idiot husband.

This film is obviously a must watch for Park Chan-wook fans and should be for fans of darkly funny and stylish horror. The violence is tasteful yet gory and the story gets stranger with each new scene. It features some fantastic acting and is wonderfully directed by Park.  


The Good, The Bad, The Weird

Set in 1930s Manchuria, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a Korean Western about three men and a map. The film focuses on the three men’s rivalry as they try to keep the map for themselves and reach the treasure that the map points to while being pursued by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits. The three main characters are a bounty hunter known as The Good (Jung Woo-sung), The Bad (Lee Byung-hun), a no nonsense killer and The Weird (Song Kang-ho The Host, Thirst) who is a train robber.

The film features everything you’d want from a Western with great scenery, stand-offs, a train robbery and great action throughout. The fact that it is set in Asia makes little difference as it is a true Western. The directorial style of Kim Ji-woon is visually appealing and reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino. There is plenty of detailed stylization but it is not overdone and it helps to immerse the audience in the film. You feel very much as though you are part of the action thanks to the skill of Kim. The film features the odd twist and a mixture of serious Western dialogue and more funny dialogue from The Weird. The cinematography is wonderful with plenty of panoramic vistas, fast cut editing and unique camera movements. The costume design is also excellent. The Bad wears a modern, dark suit which together with his straight, dark hair and piercing eyes help him to seem nastier. The Good wears a traditional Western gunslingers outfit but The Weird, given his name, wears flying hat and goggles, paper gloves and traditional Korean dress. Each costume matches the character well.

The film is at its best during the more action packed sequences. They are without exception very well choreographed and acted and the film’s main set piece in a thieves market is superb and reminded me of a more light hearted 13 Assassins. It is not so successful in the more quiet moments but I think that is more of a testament to the action rather than a criticism of the less action packed scenes. While the film doesn’t have anywhere near the level of tension as Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on which it’s loosely based, the final Mexican Standoff was excellent and bought the film to a satisfying close. On the downside, the story is noticeably lacking and back story mostly non existent but had the plot been thicker I doubt the film would have been improved much as it is the action that draws the audience in.

The acting is outstanding, especially from the main cast. Jung’s Good and Lee’s Bad are similar in many ways and both actors bring a quiet, determined and cold-hearted feeling to their characters but the Bad is much more unsympathetic. Lee performs the role of the villain superbly. Song is excellent as The Weird, a man who seems unfit for the life he leads but somehow gets through every scrape unhurt. He brings a lot of humour to the role but is no slouch when the action starts. Though the acting is great, this is definitely director Kim Ji-woon’s film. He stamps his mark all over the proceedings and delivers an action packed and funny Western to rival anything from Hollywood.  


Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Chaser

The Chaser is yet another fantastic thriller from Korea, the country that bought us Oldboy and Thirst. Joong-ho is an ex-cop turned pimp who is getting pissed off that his girls keep running away. What he doesn’t know is that they are in all being murdered by the same man, Young-min, played by Jung-woo Ha. After another of his girls gets into trouble, Joong-ho sets about chasing down Young-min. He is thwarted in his attempts by bad policing and also has the added worry of caring for the missing prostitute’s young child.

The film is very stylish which should not come as a surprise given that Korea is known for making some of the most visually arresting cinema anywhere in the world. What else should come as no surprise is the violence. A couple of scenes are quite disturbing and although they don’t show as much as you think they do, they are difficult to watch. The Mangwon district of Seoul in which the film is set feels like a maze and adds to the tension of the search. You feel for the characters as they have a near impossible task.

The acting is great. Jeoung-woo Ha is every inch the crazed killer. He seems innocent and almost childlike for much of the film but is capable of turning on his dark and destructive side. Yoon-seok Kim is also excellent as Joong-ho. He starts out as quite unlikeable but his character transformation is impressive. His anguish and desperation regarding the circumstances are apparent. The little girl who plays the missing woman’s daughter is also very good, especially for someone so young in this type of film.

The film has a couple of plot holes as most thrillers do. For some reason the police release the killer despite a confession of twelve murders. Maybe this is down to some sort of Korean law I don’t know about but it was a bit odd. Other than that, The Chaser is an excellent crime/thriller which will have you on the edge of your seat for two hours.


Wednesday, 1 February 2012

71: Into the Fire

Boy Soldiers
71: Into the Fire is based on the battle of P'ohang-dong in August 1950 where 71 barely trained students of the South Korean army, armed with nothing more than a few rifles, held off a vastly superior North Korean force for over eleven hours. The film tells the story of those young students and how they managed to hold back the North Korean army for so long.

I am a big fan of Korean cinema but none of the actors were known to me before watching. The standard of acting from the mostly young cast is excellent however. Actor/rapper Choi Seung-hyun leads the students as their inexperienced and frightened Captain. We see Choi transform during the film from a frightened ammo carrier in the films opening scene, into a confident and calculating leader at the films climax. He is supported by a cast of great individual characters who due to the numbers involved see little screen time. One standout is Kwon Sang-woo, playing Choi’s rival. He reminded me of Battle Royale’s Taro Yamamoto with his bravery and nonsense attitude.

The battle scenes in 71: Into the Fire rival any in Saving Private Ryan or Letters from Iwo Jima. One feels right at the centre of the action as the bullets goes whizzing by and explosions tear through soldiers and buildings alike. The film was made for a fraction of the cost of recent Hollywood War Films but feels just as well made and in my opinion you have more value for money here than in the likes of Ryan and Iwo Jima. 71: also has a strong emotional edge to it. You feel for the soldiers and desperately want them to pull through despite the odds being stacked against them. Choi’s narration of the letters he is unable to send to his mother adds to the emotion and sadness of the film.

While I still believe the best recent film about the Korean War is 2004’s Brotherhood, 71: Into the Fire is a fantastic film that is well worth the time to watch.