Showing posts with label Lee Byung-hun. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lee Byung-hun. Show all posts

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 fiancĂ© 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

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.