The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (2016) movie poster

director Park Chan-wook
viewed: 03/13/2017

Elegant and beautifully staged, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an erotic drama featuring many switchbacks and twist and turns. Adapted from a novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Park moves the setting of the film to Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th Century.

The story itself involves an aristocratic collector of erotic books, a couple of clever thieves playing a long con, and a lonely, isolated young woman, betrothed to the book collector, the widower of her aunt.

The style Park employs here seems intently focused on Western versus Asian, Japanese versus Korean, and the house at which most of the story takes place is a vivid depiction of these characteristics. Part of the house is in the Victorian style, while another part of the house is uniquely Japanese. This plays out in interiors as well, and I think also the way that Park shoots the scenes.

Beyond the story, the plot, this seems to be a key focal point of the film. I don’t know if I’m knowledgeable enough about Japanese and Korean culture to fully extrapolate the details, but the characters are Koreans pretending to be Japanese, or trying to become Japanese. Aspirations are also toward very Western traditions and styles and even modern (for the time) psychiatric treatment.

For one viewing, that is about all I can pull from it, but it was quite interesting. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as others, though I thought it was quite good.  I’ve been a fan since Oldboy (2003) and this was a vast improvement over Stoker (2013). Quite an interesting film.

Moebius (2013)

Moebius (2013) movie poster

director Kim Ki-duk
viewed: 12/07/2014

Every once in a while a movie will come along that I wish I could have watched with John Waters.  Believe me, this thought comes about from time to time.  South Korean director Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius falls into that category.

Kim shoots the film with no real dialogue at all.  Characters moan or scream but nobody “says” anything.  We do get text onscreen from time to time as they read over the internet, researching penile transplants or non-genital orgasms.

Oh yeah, this film’s main topics are incest and castration.

A woman catches her husband having an affair with a local shop owner and heads in to cut off his penis.  Only he stops her.  So she goes in and cuts off her son’s penis instead and then runs away.  The father tries to help his son through research into alternative sexual pleasures or potential transplant surgery.  In the meantime, the son starts a relationship of sorts with the woman at the shop while becoming humiliated by his castration.

Who knows, maybe Sigmund Freud would enjoy this movie too?

The film is a satire whose tone is somewhere between subtle and blatant.  I’ve never seen any other of Kim’s films but have had The Isle (2000), Bad Guy (2001), and 3-Iron (2004) in my film queue over the years.  He’s got a long history of provocation in his oeuvre.

What would John Waters think?  I’d be interested to know.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (2013) movie poster

director Bong Joon-ho
viewed: 07/06/2014 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

The second movie of our sci-fi double feature day for Felix and I was Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.  Adapted from a French graphic novel/comic book, it’s one of the weirder concepts for a big budget action movie that I’ve heard in a while.

Humans trigger an Ice Age in their attempt to stem global warming, and the only people left alive are on a supertrain, “the Snowpiercer”, that runs all over the world in a massive interconnected loop over all continents, somehow perpetually charged, the only closed ecosystem to contain survivors.  Only this train is also a  very specifically ordered social structure, with the poor living in dirt at the back and the rich living in luxury at the front.  So when the rebels revolt, they have to fight their way from back to front to get to the engine and the man who built the train.

While it’s an interesting idea and makes for a coherent internal world for the film, the whole concept is so remarkably full of holes and nonsensical that if you even begin to think about the concept, water starts pouring from billions of holes.  I won’t even begin to break them down.  There are so many threads you can choose to unravel the thing that it really doesn’t even bear unraveling.

Clearly, it’s a more metaphorical situation.  This is a microcosm of society, its strata, the haves and the havenots.  But more than that, it’s a violent and brutal action film, dark and strange.

The film’s best elements are its more comical ones, like the character that Tilda Swinton plays, a straight-up English Tory from the 1980’s, telling the poor to know their place, not in the least bothered about the reality of the poverty and want of the poor.  She’s very funny.  Also, the schoolroom car into which the rebels break offers a hilarious, delusional take on indoctrination and clean, miseducated ignorance perpetuated by some closed system like this.

The film looks good and keeps a steady clip moving along, like the proverbial speeding train.  It’s got a bunch of good or decent actors, including Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as father and daughter drug addicts.  It’s Chris Evans (Captain America) under that big beard, as head of the revolt.

It’s a film whose reach extends further than its grasp.  That grasp is hamstrung (to mix my body metaphors) by its purely nonsensical scenario.  So it’s an entertaining, definitely “different” sci-fi action movie with some clever, humorous flourishes.  Just don’t scratch the surface of its set-up.

I Saw the Devil

I Saw the Devil (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Kim Ji-woon
viewed: 07/30/2010

I saw I Saw the Devil because I’ve liked a lot of Korean films that have come out over the past several years.  And sometimes the darker ones are the ones that resonate the best.

Unfortunately, I Saw the Devil is not one of the better films, dark as it is.  It’s a cop hunting a serial killer movie.  Serial killer kills cop’s girlfriend in the first act.  Cops hunts serial killer.  Finds him.  Beats him up.  Tags him with a GPS device that also allows him to hear everything that is going on around him.  Tracks him.  Beats him up again.  Keeps letting him go.

I suppose that the darkness is that the very dour pretty boy cop played by Lee Byung-hun goes from a good normal guy cop to an avenger who also likes to torture his prey.  Choi Min-sik, who plays the serial killer, was the star of the far better Oldboy (2003), and his character, while despicable, also has more humor, charm and pathos than his pursuer.  Like any film where the duality of good vs. evil tries to transpose the hero with the villain, there is an attempt to demonstrate how each is of the other and so forth.

My real problem with I Saw the Devil was just that it didn’t play quite right, the tonality of it felt weird, sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, and then of course Lee Byung-hun, whose whole performance was one long scowl.  It’s not a terrible film, just not a very good film.  In my opinion, anyway.

Mother

(2009) director Joon-ho Bong
viewed: 07/25/10

The latest film from Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)) is very much in tune with the tones of both of his prior films, a downbeat mixture of drama peppered with odd-feeling comedic elements.  Actually, it reminded me quite a bit of Memories of Murder in general, featuring the murder of a teenage girl while much of the story is about the attempt to solve the murder, as well as it is set in a more rural town, a very non-urban world for the film.

Going into the film, I didn’t know a terrible lot about it other than it was a bit creepy and revolved around a mother’s doting attention on her somewhat mentally deficient young adult son.  And actually, as the movie gets going, it sort of takes a while to sort itself out from a story perspective.  Part of the exposition that sets the characters in place before the major events transpire leave you not entirely sure what the characters are, good or bad, capable of.

Kim Hye-ja plays the mother, a broad-ranging and interesting role, a character not to be pigeon-holed, per se.  She raised her mentally-challenged son in rather hard-scrabble times and seems to be both over-doting, over-protective, and potentially semi-sexual with this man-child of hers, played by Won Bin.  She has lived her entire life for him and tells him flat out that their lives are one in her maternal dedication and self-effacement.

When her son stands accused of the murder of a young girl, a town floozy, and he signs a confession, she is driven to try anything and everything to free her son from prison and clear his name.  The lengths she goes include hiring an expensive, very-uninvolved attorney, but additionally requires her to play detective when the local police are apathetic about the case.  Her investigations lead her to break into her son’s best friend’s apartment, to try to find the dead girl’s missing cell phone (which is said to contain incriminating photos of the numerous boys that she’d slept with and potentially her murderer as well), and ultimately go as far as she has to in order to extricate her son from jail.

While never uninteresting, the film plays out as kind of weird.  The mixture of humor and dramatic tonality (though I’ve noted it before in Bong’s films) is a little hard to get a handle on.  At times the sequences seem to suggest light-hearted silliness, which are then contrasted with rather melodramatic weightiness.  And while this works to strange effects no necessarily bad, it did also leave me a little unsure of exactly what I felt about the film.

I did like how Bong pulled it together in the end, and there are certainly moments or sequences that are stirring and moving.  On the whole though, it wasn’t my favorite of his films, and I think I found a myself somewhat ambivalent about the whole.

Thirst

Thirst (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Chan-wook Park
viewed: 12/10/09

Vampires, vampires, vampires.  They’re everywhere these days.

But Chan-wook Park’s vampire film, Thirst, is a far cry from the tween-friendly vampires of the Twilight (2008) series.  Chan-wook Park is the mastermind/director behind the “Vengeance Trilogy” (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)), so his take on anything is probably worth noting.

Thirst develops a very different kind of vampire, a priest who sacrifices himself to a leprosy-like illness medical test, and becomes infected both with the illness and with vampirism.  He’s a noble type, who only drinks blood from people who won’t notice, trying to maintain his goodness.  He’s also perceived by zealots to be quite Christ-like and capable of curing people by prayer.

His strange journey brings him to a family that he’d known as a child, a doting, cruel mother, with her beloved but runny-nosed dope of a son, who is married to the repressed adopted daughter, Tae-joo (played with great verve and slyness by Ok-vin Kim), that he’d grown up with.  This weird family unit is made worse by the meeting of the “Father” vampire.

What really happens is a The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) sort of plan to kill the Tae-joo’s husband and for Father Sang-hyeon and her to marry.  So, in a common parallel, bloodlust equated with sexual awakening, the priest, a man of goodness, not just God, becomes the adulterer and ultimately murderer.  His hunger for blood he mostly keeps in check, still draining blood from hospital patients without their knowledge, but he doesn’t realize what the murder would do.

The murder unhinges both Sang-hyeon and Tae-joo, with Shakespearean yet quite comical visions of the waterlogged husband.  These visions literally impede their relationship, coming between them in bed and in intercourse.  Tae-joo, who has less moral bearing, having lived a life of mild familial abuse, ultimately taunts Sang-hyeon into killing her.  He then infuses her with his vampire blood, bringing her back to life, but she is a bitter, ruthless, angry and tortured soul who recognizes that they are no longer human.  And deciding that that is both a curse and an empowerment.

Chan-wook Park always keeps it interesting.  There is a lot going on, about morality, love, vengeance, and life.  Sang-hyeon retains his belief in hell and the afterlife, while Tae-joo believes in nothingness.  And their love is no cure for their crime or guilt or madness.  Their love is a tragi-comedy, with a little more destruction than happiness.

I don’t think that Park has bested himself here, as Oldboy is still his most interesting film, but this furthers proof that he is a writer/director whose work is constantly challenging and unusual.  And though in a litany of current vampire films, one might refer to this as the “Korean vampire film”, it’s much more than that, another solid and engaging film (not by any means flawless) by one of the more consistently interesting directors working today.

301/302

(1995) dir. Cheol-su Park
visited: 02/02/08

I remembered reading about this film when it came out and had long been interested in seeing it.  As I got more interested in Korean movies over the past couple years, it bubbled up mentally, yet again.

It’s a bit of a psychological horror film, something you might expect from Roman Polanski or something.  Two single women live across the hall from one another, both with obsessive issues with food and sex.  The woman in 302 cannot stomach anything, stemming from childhood issues of rape and death and butchery.  The woman in 301, while note exactly insatiable, yearns strongly for both, though tries to learn to control herself.

But their relationship with one another is what activates the bizarre, cruel friendship.  301 decides to force 302 to eat, which makes her throw up over and over.  It’s through flashbacks that we learn their backstories.  The film speaks to some feminist issues, to an extent: body issues, sex, desire, playing the contrasts of the women’s stories, their own issues with their bodies, their ability to want, to enjoy, to live.

It’s an interesting film, shot simply, but with interesting portraiture of dualities, splitting the screen with visual juxtapositions, the contrasts of spaces and faces.  The film focuses as well on meat, the viscerality, as well as the beauty of beautifully prepared food.

It’s a good film, not spectacular.  But interesting.

Dragon Wars: D-Wars

Dragon Wars (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Hyung-rae Shim
viewed: 09/21/07 at AMC Van Ness 14, SF, CA

When I started seeing trailers for this movie on TV, and I had not begun to have heard of it, I recognized the potential for pure movie badness.  I exclaimed to friends about how seeing Dragon Wars was a top priority for me, despite and because of its potential for awfulness.  It wasn’t until conversing on IM with a friend in Seoul, Korea, that I started to suspect what I might well have realized from the commercials featuring none of the actors, only the dragons, that this was a Korean film.  Well, it’s a Korean film with some Korean and American actors in it and it’s mostly in English.  Apparently, it’s hugely popular back in South Korea, it’s home.

The badness is there.  Big time.  The acting and the script offer many points of hilarity.  The most hilarious of which, oddly enough, is the film’s one intentional joke: when a supernatural guy walks right through a fence, an old lady, upon seeing this tries immediately to do the same and bumps her head.  I don’t know why this is so funny, but it is.

Otherwise, the film is laughable for its lead actor, whose eyes are hidden half the time behind a mop of hair and how he discounts so much of the obviously nonsensical plot as logical and acceptable.  The film does not suffer from an overindulgence of realism.

It’s probably the worst of this kind of thing that I have seen in the theater since The Toxic Avenger (1985), and then The Toxic Avenger was meant to be bad.  The film’s earnestness despite it ridiculousness is perhaps its saving grace.  It is therefore so bad that its laughable, and you are laughing at them, not with them.  That said, it’s not a very fulfilling experience.

The Host

The Host (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Joon-ho Bong
viewed: 04/06/07 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

This Korean Godzilla-esque horror film had been getting a fair amount of buzz, and though I didn’t know a whole lot about it, I had it up there on my list of films to see.  Directed by Joon-ho Bong, whose Memories of Murder (2003) was an interesting serial killer film and also one of Korea’s top-grossing films of all time, The Host is similarly interesting, though within a completely different genre, an environmental-inspired monster movie, weighted with social criticism.

Something that I have found interesting about the Korean films that I have seen, and by no means has this been a broad cross-section of the country’s filmic output, but social commentary seems highly ingrained in many of the narratives, ones in which in American films of the same genres would not necessarily have those elements.  I don’t know enough about Korean history or culture to fully understand the resonances, but it strikes me that there is a more politically motivated and protest-oriented culture there.

The corniest bit of this film is the opening sequence in which an American scientist, against the protest and better judgment of his Korean lab assistant, orders the assistant to pour gallons of formaldehyde and other outdates chemicals down the drain, implying the toxic dump as the source of mutation that creates “The Host” as the monster from the Han River comes to be known.  It turns out based on some basic web research that this incident is essentially based in fact,…that is the chemical dump, not the terrorizing beast.

Additionally, there is this whole fear of contagin, this disease and infection, that mysteriously effects and kills one American in the film, resulting in an infiltration by the American military and a pack of lies that are spilled out.  Some of the scarier aspects of the narrative have to do with the control of people and misinformation that is distributed.  There is an American who is portrayed as a hero, the one who dies, and maybe that is to show that this is not an attack on Americans, per se, but a criticism and perception of the American government and military and their approach to controling and mediating Korea in times of crisis.  It’s a significant portion of the story.

That said, it’s also an entertaining action film, with a pretty cool-looking monster, and Memories of Murder, it also plays this weird line with comedic acting and more serious intent.  This being a much more fantastical story and everything, the film shows more comedy than the other film, occasionally grating, occasionally soppy emotional, occasionally fun.

Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Chan-wook Park
viewed: 09/27/06

The third and final film of director Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” which included Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003) takes a more moralistic look into the meaning and effects of revenge.  This time the narrative, as the title lets us know, is placed on a female figure, who like her predecessors in the other films is also unjustly imprisoned and seeks revenge on her captors and torturers.

I saw Oldboy first and it really impressed me both visually and in terms of certain aspects of the narrative and dialogue.  Chan-wook Park is often referred to as the “Quentin Tarantino of Korea”, which doesn’t really strike me as accurate, but I am not sure what aspects of Tarantino that they are referring to.  His films have a poppy entertainment value, but don’t seem to be filled with references to other films so explicitly or to rely so heavily on pop-culture references.

Lady Vengeance, to me, was disappointing.  Actually, everything else that I have seen by Park has disappointed, most especially his work in Three… Extremes (2004) and least so in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  I guess that I was hoping that all his films would live up to the surprise and impact of Oldboy, but they haven’t.  But to say that Lady Vengeance was disappointing only shows that I had high hopes for it.  It was still often visually impressive and there are certain narrative aspects that I thought were very clever and interesting.  Despite playing with a similar overall concept, Park tells the story via numerous flashbacks and asides that slowly evoke the whole of the tale.

The film has a significant focus on religion, particularly Christian religion and the concept of redemption.  Lady Vengeance herself, the character of Geum-ja Lee, plays up her adoptive religiosity that she picks up in prison, though in the end it proves to be a sham, though it has effects on many.  Her relationship with a pastor that met her in prison is a strange aspect of the film.  She shuns him openly and then eventually he sells her out to her nemesis by spying on her and informing him of her plans of revenge.

In the end, Geum-ja is redeemed in a overly stagy and melodramatic way.  But her vengeance is tempered by her pulling in of several families who have had their children abducted and murdered.  She forces them to watch horrific videos of their childrens’ murders and entices them with the help of a police detective to individually take out their own vengeance on the killer.  It’s an interesting twist, and certainly has its moments, with the multiple class tiers of grieving parents lined up in a dark corridor covered in plastic frocks to keep the blood off their clothes.

It’s clearly a turning point and it’s an interesting aspect of the film’s approach to revenge and redemption.  The problem is that the tone is trying very hard to strike emotional chords, certainly striving for more significant impact and drama.  This part of the film feels very overdone and cripples the ending from having real impact.  I guess the more twisted moral ambiguity in Oldboy worked better for me.

It will be interesting to see what Park does next.