Archive for the ‘K-Drama & Film’ category

Film Review: Mother (2009)

November 11, 2010

Mommie Dearest
(or, Omma Goodness, WHAT a Movie.)

by Ender’s Girl

The Cast:
Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon, Jeon Mi-seon, Song Sae-byeok

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Park Eun-kyo / Barunson & CJ Entertainment, 2009

In a Nutshell:
When a mentally disabled man is implicated in the brutal killing of a high school girl, his widowed mother moves heaven and earth to find the proof that can exonerate her only son.

(SpoilLert: Nothing spelled out, if ya know what I mean…)

How far will you go to prove a loved one’s innocence? How much can you sacrifice in exchange for their freedom?

Dangling the irresistible, two-for-one lure of a family drama encased in a taut whodunit, the film Mother hijacks your interest like a hefty block of granite inexplicably hurled your way from inside a dark alley one moonless night, resembling a monstrous projectile spewed forth by a malice-filled cave. If such a thing happened to you, as it does to one of the characters in the film’s most pivotal scene, would you step closer to the crevice, or scuttle away in dread? You know that whoever threw the rock still waits in the shadows — but it isn’t clear if their purpose is to bait you, or frighten you away, or maim you irreparably — or even kill you. Even then, would you dare risk the unknown? Would you cross over and enter?

To bite the bait is to follow a trail that snakes past grimy backstreets and up narrow, crumbling stairways that open into a deserted rooftop overlooking Seamy Town, Korea. Daybreak is just hours away, and by then this same rooftop will be swarming with police and forensic personnel examining a dead teenage girl’s body, bent awkwardly over the balcony wall and with her skull bashed in. A telling piece of evidence points to the village idiot, a 28-year-old mentally retarded man named Do-joon (Won Bin) who lives with his herbalist/acupuncturist mother Hye-ja (Kim Hye-ja) in their ramshackle home downtown. After eyewitnesses finger Do-joon as having been in the vicinity shortly before the girl’s death, the material evidence — a golf ball on which Do-joon had written his name just the day before — appears to be the incontrovertible proof of his guilt.

Click to read MOAR!!! MOAR!!!

Movie Smackdown (Part 2): Crows Zero (2007 & 2009) vs. Volcano High (2001)

October 1, 2010

Battlefield High School

Part Two: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

by Ender’s Girl

[Read Part One of Smackdown: Counting Crows, Feuding Foes]

Volcano High / Hwasango

The Cast:
Jang Hyuk, Shin Min-a, Kim Soo-ro, Kwon Sang-woo, Gong Hyo-jin, Byeon Hee-bong, Heo Jun-ho, Kim Hyung-jong, Jeong Sang-hun, Chae Shi-ah

Directed by Kim Tae-gyun / Sidus & Cinema Service, 2001

In a Nutshell:
Not-quite-your-average teener Kim Kyung-soo’s expulsion from school for the eighth time (for disrupting class with his powers, tsk) lands him in Volcano High, an elite institution for other preternaturally gifted kids. But a nefarious plot soon sows chaos within the school administration and the already fractious student body, while an even graver and darker threat looms right outside the walls. Though determined at first to keep out of trouble (this time), Kyung-soo finds himself – and his vast, if still-unripe powers – left standing between his school and its oppressive new regime.

(SpoilLert: Very spoilery.)

After watching the Crows Zeros I was still feeling… dissatisfied despite being left near insensate by the visual and aural overload the films had dumped on me. So I rummaged through my Asian drama stash for two old VCDs that must’ve been buried under the newer arrivals. I found the discs still in their dusty case, exactly the way I left them ages ago.

My first encounter with Volcano High was in the early/mid-Noughties (just as my Hallyu obsession was reaching its peak), and I found it to be a breezy, entertaining popcorn flick that had the perfect blend of action and comedy with just a dash of romance and lightly — very lightly — sprinkled with interesting psycho-social insights. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my viewing satisfaction had not diminished over time – in fact it had increased, because now I could better appreciate the little details in the story, acting and production design.

I also realized, after having seen the Crows Zeros, why Volcano High stands up in the litmus test of multiple viewings and doesn’t feel stale or tedious to watch – even several years down the road. And the difference is predicated on two key elements absent from Miike Takashi’s Crows Zero films: a high school that feels like high school (despite the fantasy elements), and a likable protagonist with a well-developed story trajectory.

Click to read MOAR!!! MOAR!!!

Vid Clips: Ashita no Joe; Crying Fist; One-Pound Gospel

August 20, 2010

Boxer… Shorts

by Ender’s Girl

Where I’m from, boxing is the unofficial state religion — and we’re a nation that’s 93% Christian, haha. Boxing is bigger than the Pope, karaoke, and malling combined. In fact it’s almost as big as… basketball, lol. On any given Manny Pacquiao fight morning (or fight night in Vegas, where his bouts are usually held), the entire country grinds to a complete standstill just to witness Pacman pummel the living daylights out of whoever is with him in the ring that day — de la Hoya, Clottey, Hatton, Marquez, Morales.

Televised boxing matches were an inevitable fixture in my home life growing up — although I must admit to always feeling repulsed by the raw physicality and Parkinson’s-inducing brutality that characterized the sport, and that always caused the combatants — whether loser or victor — to emerge from a fight looking like something on display at your friendly neighborhood meat house. But boxing movies — the Rockies, Cinderella Man, etc. —  hold a strange appeal for me because they’re usually premised on underdog stories, boxing after all being a true working-class sport birthed in the slums and back alleys of the given hero’s city of origin. And because boxing is such a personal, face-to-face, mano-a-mano engagement where the world is reduced to two people trying to pound each other into a pulp within a tiny enclosure, while the crowds roar their names and scream for their blood.

So here are three short clips of boxing-themed productions (two films and a drama) starring… let’s see… two of Korea’s most admired actors, and… two Johnnies from Japan, hahaha.

Click to view the vids!

Film Review: White Night / Baekyahaeng (2009)

July 25, 2010

White Queen, Black Pawn: A Korean Chiaroscuro

by Ender’s Girl

[Note: this film review also serves as a comparison post for White Night and the 2006 J-drama Byakuyakou. For a primer, click to read my Byakuyakou review]

The Cast:
Han Suk-kyu, Son Ye-jin, Go Soo, Lee Min-jeong, Park Seong-woong, Cha Hwa-yeon, Jeong Jin, Bang Joong-hyeon

Directed by Park Shin-woo; Adapted screenplay by Park Shin-woo and Park Yeon-seon / Cinema Service & Pollux Pictures, 2009

In a Nutshell:
The mysterious death of a convicted blackmailer — officially ruled as a suicide — inadvertently disentangles a snarl of perfect, untraceable crimes that have lain buried for fourteen years, and that may or may not have been perpetrated by… a 14-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl.

(SpoilLert: Very spoilery for those who haven’t read the original novel or seen the 2006 J-drama adaptation.)

[Recommended companion track: “Light and Shade” by Fra Lippo Lippi… no just kidding, lol]

Chiaroscuro: An effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Who knew that the main theme from “Swan Lake” could serve as the PERFECT backdrop for both… murder and sex? The opening sequence of Park Shin-woo’s 2009 film White Night is a stark juxtaposition of these two disparate events: a beautiful woman makes love to her man on the immaculate white sheets of her bed, while a man in black garrotes a seedy-looking ex-con in his seedier-looking digs.

As Tchaikovsky’s iconic score sweeps into its emotional crescendo, you realize with disconcerting clarity that murder and sex actually have much more in common than you’d like to think. Both are extremely physical acts involving the use brute force with each jerk, twist and thrust; both are also highly intimate acts wherein one invades the personal space of the other, and bits of soul are exchanged in the process. Little or no dialogue gets said, but the grunts and pants of exertion are heard as the participants engage in the single-minded consummation of The Act. Everything else is obliterated until climax is achieved; and whether it comes as death or orgasm, the physical manifestations are indistinguishable: the paroxysmal stiffening of the body, the voiding of body fluids, even the sacrificial shedding of blood. So is the aftermath the same: the slackening of the body muscles and the emptying of the mind as inactivity and quiet settle over the persons involved.

If anything can be inferred from this opening sequence, it is that something so life-extinguishing as a killing, and something so life-affirming as the act of lovemaking, are but two sides of the same coin, two opposites aligned in perpetual syzygy. This duality is more than a stylistic one; more importantly it is a thematic one, for within all of us is that inbuilt mechanism that enables us to swing from one antipode to the other through the choices that we make: Life or death… Love or hate… Vice or virtue, purity or depravity… Black or white, light or darkness, sun or shadow. And it is this “fearful symmetry” of the human condition that the film White Night unsparingly takes us through, zeroing in on two individuals who turn into the victims and the transgressors in their own tragic tale. This is their story.

Click to read MOAR!!! MOAR!!!

Drama Smackdown (Part 3): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

April 9, 2010

Pretty Boy Wonders: The Iljimae Smackdown!

Part Three

by Ender’s Girl

[Read Part One of Smackdown]
[Read Part Two of Smackdown]

The Plot & Narrative Devices

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Iljimae:

Take away the sageuk setting, cheesy outfits and uber-fanciful swordplay, and you have a typical K-drama outline, supersized and with everything on top: the OTP-since-freakin’-childhood premise, the amnesia, the son swap, the pseudo-incest, the revenge angle. The revenge motive vastly limits the whole story, and so you slog through all 20 episodes of Iljimae running around at night, breaking into mansions to find The!Sword!With!Funny!Markings!

Even worse is the drama’s confused tone and style. It isn’t just the portrayal of Iljimae that’s bipolar, but this whole drama is too. No, make that — multipolar? Hahaha. My best friend appraised it perfectly: “So the makers of Iljimae threw everything at the wall, hoping it would stick.” What stuck was this unsightly pastiche of weepy K-drama conventions, vaudeville histrionics, juvenile adventure hijinks, and stinky splotches of toilet humor (laxatives, bare butts and primitive contraceptives, oh my!).

Click to read MOAR!!! MOAR!!!

Drama Smackdown (Part 2): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

April 8, 2010

Pretty Boy Wonders: The Iljimae Smackdown!

Part Two

by Ender’s Girl

[Read Part One of Smackdown]

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The Leading Lady & the Romance Factor

The thing about these masked adventurer stories is that there’s room for only ONE superhero, just ONE dude who fights crime and does all that manly, maaaanly stuff. Ergo, behind every costumed crusader is — a damsel who needs rescuing! And even if all this ever does is perpetuate evil sexist stereotypes, sometimes all you want the heroine to do is look pretty and scream prettier until the hero saves her. These types of stories, I don’t look for female empowerment and gender sensitivity and all that wet-blankety stuff (lol). Sometimes you just want a Good Escape. And don’t these swashbuckling tales make for great fantasy fodder, after all? I mean, screw real life: Hero need woman! Woman give hero sexy time! Bad guy capture woman! Hero save woman! Woman give hero sexy time! Bad guy capture woman!… And so they go, and so they go, these bold and sensational archetypes for the ages.

Click to read MOAR!!! MOAR!!!

Drama Smackdown (Part 1): Iljimae (SBS, 2008) vs. The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

April 5, 2010

Pretty Boy Wonders: The Iljimae Smackdown!

Part One

by Ender’s Girl

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It was my best friend who suggested I do a sageuk superhero smackdown — a challenge I’d love to take on, but one that will require a re-watch of Hong Gil Dong and Strongest Chil-woo to jog my memory and thus enable me to be more objective in comparing all four sageuks. But for now it’ll just have to be about these bonny bandits, aka the two Iljimaes.

Iljimae (SBS, 2008)

The Cast:
Lee Jun-ki, Han Hyo-joo, Lee Young-ah, Park Shi-hoo, Lee Moon-shik, Kim Sung-ryung, Lee Won-jong, Ahn Kil-kang, Kim Roe-ha

In a Nutshell:
An insecure king signs the death warrant of one of his closest friends when a prophecy links the nobleman to the monarch’s downfall. The noble’s son, Geom, survives after witnessing his father’s murder and his mother and sister’s enslavement. Though the trauma erases his memory, the boy is rescued and raised by a peasant couple whose own son has been sent to live with the court official Byun Sik, also a party to the conspiracy. As an adult, Geom (now called Yong) vows to avenge the death of his father when his memory suddenly returns, his only clue a specially engraved sword used by the unknown killer. Outwardly he remains the happy-go-lucky village slacker he has been since the childhood trauma, but nights find him transforming into the deadly thief whom the people have dubbed “Iljimae,” for the plum tree paintings he leaves in each house he has robbed.

The Return of Iljimae (MBC, 2009)

The Cast:
Jung Il-woo, Yoon Jin-seo, Kim Min-jong, Jung Hye-young, Lee Kye, Park Geun-hyung, Park Chul-min, Kang Nam-gil, Lee Hyung-woo

In a Nutshell:
Born of a nobleman and a slave girl, Iljimae is taken from his mother and left to die in the icy waters of a creek. In several twists of Fate and Providence, the infant is found by a beggar, rescued by an old monk, and later raised by a wealthy Manchu family. Upon reaching manhood, a revelation about his past spurs Iljimae to leave his adopted homeland for Hanyang in search of his true identity — and the unknown mother who birthed him.

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A Tale of Two Cuties: Iljimae vs. Iljimae

Two impossibly pretty K-heartthrobs. Two sets of smooth, blemish-free cheekbones made for… rappelling. Two rival television networks. One Korean folk hero… with a strange penchant for plum blossoms.

As they say, comparisons are inevitable — hence this Smackdown. So when push comes to shove, which Iljimae version prevails — in terms of narrative flow, character development, production values, and other benchmarks? Which Iljimae portrayal is more convincing? Is it the Man in the Iron Mask, or Ninja Assassin? (Or, in Star Wars terminology, is it Darth Vader Iljimae, or the Return of the Joseon Jedi? heh heh)

Based on the criteria provided below, let the Clashdance — er, Smackdown begin! *gonnnggg!!!* First of three installments.

Click to read MOAR!!! MOAR!!!