January 15, 2013

Screen Shot 2020-02-07 at 4.34.19 PM

For the past decade Korea has produced the most innovative genre films in the world, with directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon reinvigorating revenge thrillers, police procedurals and westerns. This year Hollywood is playing catch-up, commissioning remakes of recent Korean hits and importing that influential trio to make their English language debuts. Spike Lee is shooting his version of Park’s seminal Oldboy, and Allen Hughes has signed on to redo Kim’s A Bittersweet Life (2005, and whose Tale of Two Sisters was Americanized in 2009 as The Uninvited). Bong is finishing up production on his dystopic sci-fi film Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, while Park’s psychological horror film Stoker, featuring Nicole Kidman, will be released on March 1st. The first out of the gate will be Kim’s action movie The Last Stand, opening this Friday, which marks the post-gubernatorial screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kim is a restless genre tweaker, using traditional templates and then pushing them to extremes. His style varies from the antic energy of his “kimchi Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird to the elegant control of his criminal revenge saga A Bittersweet Life, but his films insistently return to the theme of self-destructive violence that pulses just below the surface of the human psyche.

Kim Jee-woon was born in Seoul in 1964. He studied at the Seoul Institute Of the Arts, but dropped out to pursue a career in the theater. He worked as an actor before moving into directing, credited with helming the productions of Hot Sea (1994) and Movie Movie (1995). Details are slim about this period of his career, but eventually he began submitting screenplays to local competitions. His first script, Wonderful Seasons, won the best screenplay award at the Premiere Scenario contest in 1997, while later that year The Quiet Familywon the 1st Cine21 Scenario Public Subscription Contest. The Quiet Family would be Kim’s first film, and he would write all of his scripts up until I Saw the Devil (2010). As Jinhee Choi writes in The South Korean Film Renaissance, he benefited from a shift in the industry. The Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998 made large corporations like Samsung skittish about investing in film production, while Daewoo sold off its theatre chains. Venture capitalists filled the void, with Ilshin Investment Co. funding 5-6 productions a year. Simply needing to fill their slate, untested directors like Kim got their shot.

The Quiet Family (1998) is a black farce about an isolated lodge and the loosely knit family who operates it. When their first customer commits suicide, they decide to hide it for fear of bad publicity. The cover up is worse than the crime, as bodies pile up with no end in sight (it was loosely re-made by Takashi Miike in his musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)). Kim trawls through the halls in steadicam shots, providing blueprints of the lodge’s geography, orienting shots of normality soon to be spattered with blood. The film glides by on the charm of Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik, two icons early in their careers. Song was trained in improvisation for the theater, and he is already a magnetic, unpredictable presence, a menacing doofus who can whip his gangly appendages into a fighting stance at the slightest insult. Choi plays Song’s schlubby uncle, softening his bulldog face into one of resigned pliability. The whole family finds easy rationalizations for murder, and with each death they come easier and easier. Played for laughs, this quick and destructive slide into violence will pop up in the rest of his features, modulated according to his chosen genre’s mood.

He plays it for pathos in his follow-up, The Foul King (2000), in which sad sack bank employee Dae-Ho (Song Kang-ho) turns to pro wrestling to restore his dignity. An enormous hit in Korea with over 2 million ticket sales, it tapped into the angst of white collar salary slaves, where even karaoke becomes a matter of routine business.  Song Kang-ho again plays a deadbeat energized by violence, although this time the blows are choreographed, and he is a rumpled white collar rather than a live wire blue. While The Quiet Family is cartoonishly decimated by their violent actions, The Foul King is awakened by his pro wrestling performance, as if it were a male ritual needed to survive office life. Kim takes the inspirational sports movie and pushes it into Fight Club territory, with Dae-Ho feeling most alive only when going off script and bludgeoning his opponent. The cure, as in The Quiet Family, seems worse than the disease.

Kim took three years before making his next feature, workshopping his approach to the horror genre in short films. His entry in Three Extremes 2 (2002), “Memories”,  is his attempt to imitate the Japanese ghost stories that were still raking in money around the world thanks to Ringu (1998). A simple story of a husband haunted by his dead wife, Kim used it to experiment with POV, using jump cuts and flash backs to represent his main character’s troubled mind. He used these lessons in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), melding the creepy Japanese ghost girl cliche and incorporating it into a classical Korean fairy tale, Janghwa Hongryeon. Two girls return to their country home after being discharged from a mental hospital, and are tormented by their stepmother and an unseen presence. Kim uses a gliding steadicam again to outline the geography of the house, and uses bird’s eye views to pin the girls to the ground as their self-deluding secrets come to light. Set design becomes more important – this house is far more detailed and alive than the one in The Quiet Family, with its blooming wallpaper and blood-red rugs, the house itself seems to be veined with blood.

Kim returns to a hyper-masculine world in A Bittersweet Life (2005), his first with high cheek-boned heartthrob Lee Byung-hun. Still interested in a kind of genre purity, this crime thriller, like A Tale of Two Sisters, is a classic genre narrative told without filigree. Lee plays Sun-woo, an enforcer at a luxury hotel for a local gang boss. Like the Quiet Family or Dae-ho, he has an unfulfilling job. An ascetic physical specimen who should be a Le Samourai style hitman, instead he’s tasked with rousting rival gang members from the bar and tailing his boss’ mistress. He is instructed to kill her if she is caught sleeping around, and his refusal sets in motion a series of bloody reprisals. Kim’s langorously tracking camera follows Sun-woo through his glimmering glass and steel universe, one exhausted of possibility, revealing only reflections. Lee is as drained of selfhood as the institutionalized Sisters, his motivation for revenge one of inertia. Neither Sun-woo or his boss can articulate why they are killing each other or why they can’t stop, only that it has started so it must end.

Later in 2005 Kim was a resident in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, marking a tonal shift in his work, his films regainng the self-reflexivity and jokiness of his first two features. The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) is a cartoonish spaghetti western spectacle that would make a good double feature with Django Unchained. Song Kang-ho returns to the fold as “The Weird”, a thief who steals a treasure map also valued by the Japanese army, a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung) and an outlaw (Lee Byung-hun). The film opens with a fist pounding on a map of Manchuria, and the film is a bloody satire on the absurd lengths men will go to defend and seek words on those maps. In the bravura opening train robbery sequence, Kim’s camera follows behind Song walks in a merchant’s disguise towards the safe car, passengers and guards ignoring him along the way. But when a man yells out, “Indpendence for Korea!” he is immediately flogged and tossed off. As the bounty hunter says, “if you have no country, you still gotta have money”, so the cynical trio circle each other, fighting over a map that leads to an unknown treasure. Any time one of the three places trust in another, there are double and triple crosses, each man out for himself and his own plot of land. Kim amps up the pacing and his cutting rate – it moves much faster than his previous films, and is filled with slashing diagonals of the three competitors crashing into the frame.

Kim’s first Hollywood deal was delayed by a year, and in the interim Choi Min-sik brought him a script by Park Hoon-jung: I Saw the Devil. It is the first film that Kim directed but did not write, although it fits snugly into his preoccupations. It takes the usual serial killer movie cliche, that the detective has to think like him in order to find him, to its logical endpoint. That is, the law in this film becomes just as sadistically violent as the serial killer, and the two engage in a grand guignol game of brinksmanship in which both try to inflict as much pain on the other without inducing death. Because dying would end their fun. Tying together various strands of his work, with its deluded protagonists, fairy tale haunted house (of cannibals) and self-destructive violence, it stands as a mid-career summing up, a transition to whatever this post-Hollywood phase brings.

The Last Stand, which I have not yet seen, is about a gang speeding on an escape route to Mexico. The only people capable to stop them are a small border-town sheriff and his deputies. It sounds like a natural extension of The Good, The Bad, The Weird, with its proto-Western scenario and focus on permeable borders. I’ve heard mixed reactions, to the film so far, but it doesn’t sound like Kim will ever be eager to return to the states. He told Korea JoongAng Daily that:

I found I was just another foreign worker here. [Laughs] I don’t have a lot of friends here and all I did was work, so in a way, I felt empathy toward foreign workers. I felt myself getting stronger when I set the goal for myself not to give up and to endure this loneliness.

He has already started development on his next Korean project, a live-action remake of Oshii Mamoru’s anime, Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade. A version of the red riding hood tale set in an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II and Japan is a totalitarian state, it would appear Kim is returning to his comfort zone, pushing folk tales and traditional genres to the brink of self-annihilation.


December 20, 2011

genre 2011

As the carcasses of prestige pics get picked over by awards committees and prognosticators, I like to distract myself from this pointless posturing by watching movies featuring actual corpses. After last year’s rundown of genre flicks received a good response, I return to the bloody well again, this time with twelve of my favorite action/horror/exploitation items released in the past year. Sure to be ignored by your local film critics circle, they are works of grim resourcefulness and ingenuity, deserving of more attention. I look forward to your criticisms, insults and recommendations in the comments. My picks are presented in alphabetical order.

Attack the Block, directed by Joe Cornish

With his origins in sketch comedy (the British “Adam and Joe Show”), one would expect Joe Cornish’s debut alien invasion feature to be episodic and tongue-in-cheek. While laced with humor, Attack the Block is instead a sleekly designed chase film, as a wanna-be gang of teens defend their South London project from the alien hordes. It was shot at the dilapidated Heygate Estate (which is now undergoing demolition), whose brutalist, prison-like facade emphasizes the kids’ status as second-tier citizens, convicts even in their freedom. They roam the streets and halls, led by Moses (played with sensitive stoicism, and shades of Gary Cooper, by John Boyenga), harrassed by cops while they harass (and rob) outsiders, as if outlaws in their own Wild West, Moses facing his own kind of High Noon.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, directed by Tsui Hark

I devoted an entire post to this pulpy marvel back in April (read here), so I’ll be brief here. Suffice it to say that Hark combines martial arts, Sherlock Holmes and steampunk into one of the most deliriously entertaining films of the year. Reveling in the sheer joy of storytelling, it hearkens back to Poverty Row serials of the 30s and 40s, telescoping an entire season’s worth of incidents and cliffhangers into its 2 hour running time. And yes, the CGI looks fuzzy and second-rate, but for me, it only added to its ramshackle charm.


Fast Five, directed by Justin Lin

I had not seen any of the previous iterations of this revived testosterone oil slick of a franchise, attracted only by the presence of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who enlivens whatever material he swaggers into. He is, of course, a magnetic presence in this one, his Diplomatic Security Service agent growling out orders with a starved pit-bull intensity. But the bombastic world that Justin Lin inflates around him is equally compelling – especially the turbocharged action sequences which are both outrageous and rigorously designed, from the moving train car heist to the torn-out bank vaults which are chained to cars and used as wrecking balls. Justin Lin is one of the few Hollywood directors to have firm control of the modern action film aesthetic, his quick cuts and mobile camera managing to convey a coherent geography (if this is “chaos cinema”, I’ll take it!). Examine the extended, wall breaking fistfight between The Rock and Vin Diesel for a meaty example.


Insidious, directed by James Wan

Finding creative solutions to monetary restrictions led James Wan to make one of the most profitable movies of the year. Insidious was made for $1.5 million and has since earned $97 million worldwide (figures from BoxOfficeMojo). Building tension off of long takes, smoke machines and a record playing Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoeing Through the Tulips”, this is an elegant shocker that also has the gall to build defined characters. Patrick Wilson is a distant, condescending husband and father, Rose Byrne an artistically frustrated songwriter turned housewife. Wan and screenwriter Leigh Wannell use the couple’s bad faith and turn it into the stuff of nightmares — their mutual resentments manifesting in the form of a vengeful wraith who absconds with their child. The second-half dimension-folding freak-out fails to exert the same slow-burn creep of the haunted first, but it still houses more indelible scares than any other film this year.


I Saw the Devil, directed by Kim Jee-woon

A cat-and-mouse revenge thriller where the roles of hunter and prey are continually reversible. The sociopathic killer Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) and secret agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) engage in a pas-de-deux of sadism, each torturing the other in a game of gruesome one-upsmanship. Containing elements of fairy tales (a cannibal’s house reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel) and self-reflexive black humor, it attempts to encompass all forms of revenge narratives, seeming, as Dave Kehr wrote, to be “the natural endpoint in the revenge film cycle kicked back off by Tarantino.”


The Mechanic, directed by Simon West

The pick of the Statham platter this year (other options: Killer Elite and Blitz), this remake of the 1972 Michael Winner/Charles Bronson original is an effectively no-nonsense bruiser. Statham is upscale hitman Arthur Bishop, who takes on hard-headed Steve McKenna (Ben Foster) as an apprentice. Bishop is an ascetic aesthete, living in a gorgeous arts & crafts style cabin on the water, with a preference for high-necked cable-knit sweaters out of the J Crew for assassins catalog. McKenna is necessarily a bit of a drunk and a hothead, needing the guidance of Bishop’s meditative nowhere-man. Director Simon West, if not exactly a stylist, is at least efficient, and frames fight scenes of lucid brutality. Statham brings a coiled physicality and a reliably self-effacing charm, while Ben Foster continues his run of mannered, fastidiously manic performances, his McKenna exhibiting non-stop DTs. He pops off the screen with garrulous intensity, and he’s building a gallery of eccentrics worthy of the great character actors. He’s no M. Emmet Walsh yet, but he’s on his way.


Point Blank, directed by Fred Cavaye

A refreshingly brisk 84 minutes long, this breathless French thriller wastes no time on exposition and races headlong into a chase. Samuel (Gilles Lellouche) is a nurse in training who inadvertently interrupts the murder of a hood (Roschdy Zem) in the ER. Soon his wife gets kidnapped and he is forced to ally himself with Zem to save his wife and his reputation. They race through Paris city streets, with Cavaye’s camera following them in hurtling tracking shots. Structured as one epic sprint, there is no time to sketch in character detail or complicated plot maneuvers, so while there is no emotional investment here, it still packs quite a kick of adrenaline.


The Robber, directed by Benjamin Heisenberg

A resolutely anti-psychological heist film, it examines the daily routine of marathon runner and bank robber Johann Rettenberger with clinical detachment. The true story it is based on, of “Pump-Gun Ronnie”, a runner who also wore a Reagan mask during jobs, is more spectacular than what it is on screen. Heisenberg pares away any hint of backstory, forcing lead actor Andreas Lust to express everything through his sinewy body. Curling into himself, Lust rejects any outside help, even recoiling at the accidental touch of a stranger in a park. It is when he falls for his childhood friend Erika (Franziska Weisz) that he lets the outside world inside – which collapses his carefully manicured facades. Outside of this, it’s a terrifically staged action film, including an open air stunner in which Lust sprints from one bank robbery to another, weaving through hotel lobbies, parking garages and open fields – leaving the police huffing and puffing behind him. Using controlled handheld camera (no shaky cam here) in sinuous long takes, Heisenberg and DP Reinhold Vorschneider create one of the most propulsively exciting chase scenes of the year.


Stake Land, directed by Jim Mickle

My favorite vampire experience since Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It. So it’s been a while. Set in a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by the pointy-toothed beasts, it’s part survivalist horror, part road movie, and anchored by a quietly charismatic performance by Nick Damici (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mickle). Damici plays “Mister”, a crusty self-sustaining loner who has built his life around a violent routine: rifle abandoned shops for food and dust a few blood suckers. He picks up Martin (Connor Paolo) along his desultory journeys, the lone survivor of a slaughtered family. Mentoring Martin in the ways of survival and vamp-killing, Mister gains a purpose outside of himself, and is determined to ferry Martin to “New Eden”, a supposed safe zone in Canada. Mickle shoots the film in a dusky low-light, as if in a perennial twilight, where danger lurks in every unexplored nook and cranny, from vamps to the fundamentalist cult which worships them. With haunting makeup and creature design, these are not the dapper vampires du jour, but demons in decaying bodies, oozing goopy fluids which can only be replaced by fresh blood. It’s a genuinely unique vision – and one that aids the film’s subtle allegory of American intellectual decline (it’s no coincidence the promised land is in Canada).


Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Following up the cold precision of his ace horror flick Orphan, Serra again churns out a film of with strong compositional lines and an entertainingly ridiculous scenario. What stands out this time is his tactile sense of place, a multi-cultural Berlin of five-star hotels and seedy flop-houses. It’s a huge improvement on its model, Taken, the previous Liam Neeson Euro-sploitation outing, which was directed by Pierre Morel. While that film took place in a world of Eastern-European stereotypes and chopped its action sequences to bits, here the city still seethes with racial tension (a taxi dispatcher blames the city’s perceived decline on immigrants), but Neeson is assisted in his quest by a Bosnian cab driver (played convincingly by Diane Kruger) and her African immigrant pal named Biko (a nod to South African activist Steve Biko, played by Clint Dyer). As with Orphan, its actions sequences are concise bits of legible brutality . Bruno Ganz steals the movie as a proud former Stasi member who aids Neeson in his quest for identity. In what is surely to be one of the finest scenes of the year, Frank Langella swings by to cradle Ganz in his arms, as they discuss how to die with dignity.


The Ward, directed by John Carpenter

The unjustly derided return to the big screen for John Carpenter, who shows his talent for slow-burn scares is as sharp as ever. Working with a hacky script, Carpenter turns this story of a haunted insane asylum into an experiment in visual repetition, evoking the ritualized circular movements of these girls’ daily lives. An example of form triumphing over content. You can read my full thoughts in my post from June.


The Yellow Sea, directed by Na Hong-jin

Na Hong-jin’s follow up to The Chaser, is an operatic bloodbath about a poor Chinese immigrant in Korea, trying to find the wife who abandoned him years ago. There are no guns in this movie – everyone gets stabbed or bludgeoned by an axe-handle– and there are some epic battles here. With South Korea’s highly restrictive gun ownership laws, even the underworld has trouble obtaining firearms. Without shoot-outs, each death becomes more personal, because you have to get close and smell the sweat of your opponent before taking their life. It is a ritual bloodletting to rid the world of the infection of humanity.

Honorable Mentions: Drive AngryWreckedBurke & Hare (which I wrote about here).