The Age Of Shadows (2016)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When the Japanese learn that a resistance group is smuggling explosives into Seoul, they send Officer Lee Jung-Chool to stop them. An ethnic Korean with a history of selling out his countrymen, Lee is initially eager to bring the rebels down. But when one of the insurgents he has a hand in killing turns out to be his old classmate, he starts to have second thoughts about the whole affair.

The Age Of Shadows is a brilliantly-shot, beautifully-acted, solidly entertaining spy film. It’s got period-accurate sets, gorgeous costumes, and a nice-sounding score. And unlike Lust, Caution, which is set during the same era, and deals with similar themes of espionage, Age Of Shadows doesn’t put you to sleep. It’s got some great chases, and some spectacular scenes of suspense. Two sequences in particular, one in the beginning where a group of police officers are chasing a man across some rooftops, and one on a train where the Japanese are trying to find rebels, really stick out. They help elevate this film beyond a predictable, patriotic thriller, to something more exciting, and more universally appealing.

That said, I have no desire to watch this movie again. The biggest reason is the runtime. This movie is about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, and there are points where the pacing really does drag. Granted, those moments are quickly replaced with exciting sequences, like the ones I just mentioned, but, still, those slow bits definitely left a sour taste in my mouth. On top of that, as good as the acting in this movie is, there is little to no characterization. You get to know Officer Lee and the chief rebel a bit, since they’re given the most screen time, and have the most to say. But everything we know about everyone else is told to us in voice over, and we’re never really shown who these people are. We’re never given a scene where they all sit down, talk, and act like regular people. And that was a little disappointing.

Still, at the end of the day, I don’t regret having watched this movie, and would even recommend it to you all. If you’re a fan of spy films, Korean movies, or the director, Kim Jee-Woon, give this flick a look. You’ll probably wind up enjoying yourself.

A Hard Day (2014)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

While driving to his mother’s funeral, corrupt Detective Geon-Soo Ko accidentally kills a man when the latter stumbles out into the road. Fearing murder charges on top of an Internal Affairs investigation, Ko disposes of the body by stuffing the corpse in his mother’s coffin. But when he starts getting threatening phone calls from a man who claims he knows what he did, Ko finds himself pulled into a much bigger, much weirder conspiracy.

A Hard Day is what I like to refer to as a situation movie. What I mean by that is, it’s a film where it’s the situation that keeps you engaged, even though the characters and dialogue aren’t that interesting. You don’t really know much about Ko. You know that he’s a corrupt cop, you know that he’s got a daughter, a sister and a brother, and you know that he likes to smoke. But what his personality is, what his taste in food, movies and music are; these are things that you’re never shown or told. As such, you don’t really care about him. He’s not what’s keeping you engaged. What is keeping you engaged are the absurd lengths that he goes to in order to not get caught, and how big and weird the situation he’s in turns out to be. Throw in some quirky humor, and some surprisingly intense action, and you’ve got a perfectly fun thriller.

As I said in my reviews for films like Man From Nowhere, Train To Busan, and The Chaser, South Korea is my go-to country when I want good thrillers. There’s something about the way they make crime and mystery films that just elevates them above the fray. The stories are always engaging, the production is top notch, and they have a very specific tone–at once gruesome and comedic–that is almost impossible to duplicate in the West. And unless you think I’m exaggerating, look at the American remakes of OldBoy and A Tale Of Two Sisters, and tell me that something didn’t get lost in translation. A Hard Day is another well-made Korean thriller. It’s not as unique as films like OldBoy or The Wailing, and it’s not as intense as films like The Chaser or I Saw The Devil. It’s a lot more straight forward, and considerably more comedic. And, overall, I would say it’s a step below those other movies. Still, it’s got a lot of the things I like in Korean thrillers–an interesting story, some off-kilter humor, a unique tone–and I don’t regret watching it. And, in a way, I would actually recommend it to you all. No, it’s not as good as the films I just mentioned. But if you want to get into Korean thrillers, and aren’t quite ready for some of the more disturbing aspects of films like OldBoy or I Saw The Devil, give this movie a look. It’s a perfectly fine entry point, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My game.

The world is a frozen wasteland. The last remnants of humanity are confined to a giant train, and forced into castes based on what car they live in. Those in the front lie in the lap of luxury, whilst those in the tail dwell in total squalor. Twice before, the inhabitants of the tail staged uprisings, only to be beaten back into submission. Now, though, the tail Enders are smarter. They’re better organized. They’ve got a charismatic leader in the form of Curtis Everett, and, this time, they’re going all the way to the front. They’re going to take control of the engine, and, by extension, the world. Will they succeed? Watch it, and find out.

Snowpiercer is a special film, for multiple reasons. Not only was it the most expensive Korean movie ever made, with a budget of about $40 million, it was also director Bong Joon-Ho’s English language debut, and cemented his status as a cinematic superstar. Because even though films like Memories of Murder earned him critical praise, and The Host, which I reviewed here recently, put him on Hollywood’s radar, Snowpiercer’s massive critical and commercial success guaranteed he would continue to be given high profile projects.

But why was the movie such a huge hit? Well, like The Host, it all comes down to superior craftsmanship. And I don’t just mean the acting or the script, both of which are excellent. I mean the way the movie looks, how its edited, the sound design. It’s all top notch. This really feels like a fully-fleshed out world, with each of the train’s cars having a distinct look and design. My favorite one, easily, is the sea food and aquatic life car. It is, to put it simply, gorgeous! The movie is also extremely exciting. There are two really great action scenes; one in the dark where the tail Enders are being attacked by guys with night vision goggles, and one involving a sniper, who’s trying to shoot the heroes from across the cars. If nothing else, you never feel bored while watching this movie. And that alone is enough to warrant a recommendation.

That being said, Snowpiercer does have flaws. The biggest, by far, is the fact that it doesn’t have much replay value. See, a lot of the movie rests on certain twists that get revealed towards the end, and when you uncover them, you can’t really look at the movie in the same way anymore. And unlike other films with twist endings, like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, which demand that you watch them again, so you can see the clues, there really isn’t any such demand with Snowpiercer. Those earlier films are puzzles. You need to watch them multiple times to solve them. You really don’t have to with Snowpiercer. I watched it once, I got everything I needed to know, and have never seen it again. Even so, the film’s strong performances, unique premise, tight plot and impressive effects do make it worth watching. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

The Host (2006)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

When a huge amount of formaldehyde is dumped down the drain, strange things start happening in Seoul’s Han River. First, all the fish in the area mysteriously die off. Next, pedestrians start noticing something big, and creepy, skulking below the surface. Then, after four years of waiting, a giant monster bursts from the water, eager to eat, and kidnap, humans. One of those taken is Park Hyun-Seo, the daughter of a neglectful Snack Shop Owner, who, with the help of his aging father, alcoholic brother, and athlete sister, sets out to bring her home. But things get complicated when the American military, the group responsible for creating the monster, block off the river, and release a poison, Agent Yellow, into the air. WIll the Parks save their daughter in time? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

When it came out back in 2006, The Host was a smash hit. Not only did it become the highest grossing Korean film of all time, it also garnered glowing reviews, and launched its director, Bong Joon-Ho, from a popular local filmmaker to a global talent that Hollywood was eager to work with. Because of this, and the upcoming release of Okja, Bong’s newest film, I decided to give The Host, and a few of his other movies, a look. See, It’s very rare for Asian directors to become big in Hollywood. There are exceptions, like Ang Lee and John Woo, but, for the most part, Asian filmmakers are relegated to the periphery of the popular conscience. So what about The Host is so special? Why does Hollywood know this film, and its director, and not others? Simple; its entertaining and well-made.

The Host takes a very basic premise–family tries to save daughter from monster–and tells it with just enough skill, and heart, to keep you engaged. And unlike many foreign films, which feature jokes that really only make sense in the original language, The Host is completely universal in its characterization and humor. I don’t speak a word of Korean, and the first time I watched this movie, it was without subtitles. And yet, I still knew what was going on, and who everyone was. That’s because Bong did a brilliant job of using costumes, hair styles, and other bits of visual shorthand to establish who the characters were. The film also looks amazing. Seriously! Anyone hoping to direct great monster movies should give this flick a look. It is a masterclass in how to shoot a blockbuster. Now, with regards to complaints, I do have a few. I think that the film, which is over two hours long, could have been shortened. I also couldn’t get over the fact that the Monster kidnapped Hyun-Seo, and didn’t just kill her. I understand that she needs to stay alive, because otherwise the story won’t happen, but, still. That seemed like a logical error. Granted, most people probably won’t care, and, even for me, its a nitpick. Beyond that, though, I have no comments. The Host is an entertaining, well-crafted monster movie, which transcends linguistic barriers to deliver high thrills and huge laughs. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

The Man From Nowhere

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

After I finished watching The Man From Nowhere, I found myself asking three simple questions. One, is this a perfect movie? Two, is it entertaining? And three, which matters more in the end? The answers I eventually came up with were “no,” “yes,” and “It depends on the viewer, but, for me, entertainment matters more here.” Because, let’s be clear, this film has flaws, but my god is it gripping. It’s got to be the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen in , well, a while. And after sitting through “artistic,” “critically-acclaimed” motion pictures, like Arrival and La La Land, neither of which I liked enough to watch again, I found this movie highly refreshing.

The Man From Nowhere tells the story of Cha Tae-Sik, a reclusive loner who runs a pawn shop in Seoul. A widower, Tae-Sik’s only friend is Son-Mi, a juvenile delinquent with a drug addict mother. The film actually begins with the latter stealing some heroin from a group of local gangsters, (always a good idea), and, as you might expect, the criminals wind up coming after her, and everyone she knows. This includes Tae-Sik, who, much to everyone’s surprise, displays incredible agility and combat skills, suggesting that there is more to him than meets the eye.

As unoriginal as its premise is, The Man From Nowhere benefits from a quick pace, good performances, and a well-written script. I’ve always said, its not the story itself that matters, its how its told. And even though The Man From Nowhere shares a similar narrative to The Professional, The Equalizer, and any number of other B-grade action films about bad-asses defending young children, it unfolds in an engaging and unique way. For instance, you don’t actually see Tae-Sik, or Son-Mi, until about seven minutes in, and information about the former is fed to you in a sparse, piece-meal fashion. There are also some really touching moments between the two of them, like when she goes to stay with him while her mother is shooting up, and she does his nails. These little scenes give the movie dramatic heft, and really make you care about these individuals. And, like I said, this film moves fast. So as great as the little moments I just mentioned are, they’re also that; little. They don’t bog down the narrative. You’re never left wondering, “Man, when is this movie gonna start?” And as I said at the top of this paragraph, the acting in this film is very good. Won Bin, whom plays Tae-Sik, does an incredible job here. He manages to convey the bitterness, sorrow, and icy precision of this lonely killer, while also displaying a great deal of tenderness. He’s very convincing in the fight scenes and chases, and is just an all around engaging presence in this movie. In many ways, he reminds me of Leonardo Dicaprio in either Blood Diamond or The Departed, films where the former teen heart throb got to show off his dramatic chops, as well as a more dangerous side. Won Bin has impressed me in all the films I’ve seen him in thus far–Mother, Taegukgi: The Brotherhood Of War–and The Man From Nowhere has guaranteed his status as one of my favorite Korean actors. It’s shocking when you realize that Man From Nowhere, which came out in 2010, is his last film to date. Maybe its because he’s married now, and is expecting a child, but still. I just hope he returns to the big screen soon. I’d also like to mention Kim Sae-Ron, whom plays Son-Mi, and who  does an absolutely terrific job. She’s cute, sassy, but also very vulnerable, and, unlike Natalie Portman in The Professional, whom everyone likes to claim gave the greatest child actor performance ever, she doesn’t say everything in a flat monotone. She’s got some great crying scenes, and some great comedic scenes. It’s no wonder that she is now one of Korea’s most sought after teen actors. So, yeah, The Man From Nowhere might not be original, but it’s got a good pace, a good script, and some really good acting. And all that adds up to a really enjoyable film.

The Chaser

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

If you like stories about kind, good-hearted people, you’ll probably want to avoid The Chaser. Because this film has exactly none of those in it. The story of a pimp trying to find his missing prostitutes, and thereby uncovering the crimes of a serial killer, the film is absolutely disgusting. And completely amazing.

This movie is INCREDIBLE! It’s riveting, well-acted, and actually has a very compelling story and characters. You see the pimp grow. You see him change and become more compassionate. You care about him. You care about Mi-Jin, the prostitute he’s so desperate to find. You care about Mi-Jin’s daughter, Eun-Ji, whom the pimp befriends and becomes a surrogate father to. This film takes a disgusting premise, and despicable characters, and gives them both weight and pathos. You’ve got to commend the director, Na Hong-Jin, and especially the screenwriter, Shino Lee, for being able to do that. And, wouldn’t you know it, this film got great reviews and made a crap ton of money when it came out, precisely because of its ability to do those things. It was so successful that Hollywood has already bought the remake rights, and is thinking of doing an American version with Leonardo DiCaprio starring, and Martin Scorses directing. If that’s not an indicator of this film’s quality, I don’t know what is.

I actually have a very personal connection to this film, since the man who wrote it, Shinho Lee, was my screenwriting professor at NYU. He’s a very kind, very insightful man, who told me some fascinating stories about this film’s production. Like how he had to write the script in less than three weeks, like how this story was based off the actions of a real serial killer, Yoo Young-Chul, like how the real pimp who caught the serial killer sued the producers of the movie, and how the director, Na Hong-Jin, is kind of crazy. I’m not even kidding with that last one. Shinho told me that the heads of the studio that funded Na’s most recent film, The Wailing, forced him to go to counseling after shooting wrapped, because of his violent and erratic behavior on set. If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is. Still, it was super cool to hear these things, these little backstage secrets, from a working professional who’d written a film as successful as The Chaser. It gave me a good idea of what to expect in the film industry, as well as the kinds of characters I’ll be encountering there.

Now before anyone accuses me of grading this film on a curve because I know the guy who wrote it, I do have some problems with it. For starters, I’m not a fan of the camera work. It’s almost all hand-held, and very shaky. I understand that this is a gritty, realistic movie, and that the handheld technique was used to enhance the realism of the story, but it gets really distracting after a while. Every time we get a close up on a character’s face, the image is super wobbly. There’s also a lot of cutting in this picture. In one scene, for instance, the pimp is talking on the phone, and we get four different shots of his face from various angles in a row. I understand that frequent cutting is used to keep audience’s engaged, but there just wasn’t any reason for them to include so many there. He’s only on the phone for about 5 seconds. I’m assuming we can look at a single image for that long. Also, there’s a lot of misogynistic violence and language in this film, which, while it may be realistic, is something I never like to see or hear. Shinho actually said that he was nervous people would brand the film as hateful towards women, given its content, and the fact that it was written, directed and produced by men. But, trust me, if you’ve ever met Shinho, you know that he is anything but a misogynist. Most of his other films, like My Mighty Princess, have female protagonists, and he was always adamant in writing class that we should include deeper, more varied roles for women in our scripts. “Don’t just have them be girlfriends, wives, or mothers,” he’d say, “Let them be characters with interests and jobs.” So, yeah. The film has misogynistic content, which I don’t like, but its necessary to the story, and the guy who wrote it doesn’t hate women. But I’m getting off track. The final problem I have with The Chaster is that there’s a point in the middle of the film, after the serial killer has been caught, and the pimp is trying to find Mi-Jin, where I got kind of bored. Nothing super exciting happens during this period, we just see him going around and trying to find clues, and it kind of slows the rest of the movie down. But its not very long, and as soon as its over, the film kicks right back into high gear with a super intense, super suspenseful sequence in a convenience store.

So, in the end, if you want to watch a gritty, well-acted, super suspenseful thriller with a great arc and an engaging narrative, give The Chaser a look. It is definitely worth your time.

The Wailing

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

2016 was, if nothing else, a magnificent year for Korean cinema. Train To Busan, The Handmaiden, Age Of Shadows, these were FANTASTIC thrillers that made HUGE splashes on the festival circuit, and drew attention to an area of the world often overlooked. The subject of today’s review, The Wailing, was another popular Korean export, with many critics placing it on their top 10 lists, and it currently holding a 99% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Now, if you know me, you know that I don’t place much stock in critical reviews, or Rotten Tomatoes, since I think giving a film a numerical score creates a majority opinion, and prevents people from making their own decisions, and what critics like and audience’s enjoy don’t often overlap. In this case, however, I decided to give the critics the benefit of the doubt, and The Wailing a look, and holy crap!

The story of a small town detective trying to solve the mystery surrounding a series of bizarre deaths, all of which seem connected to this weird Japanese hermit, the film mixes a lot of different genres and tones. At once a mystery, police procedural, supernatural horror film, and comedy, the picture shifts from silly to gruesome on an almost scene to scene basis. In one moment, the protagonist’s daughter will catch him and his wife banging in their car, and in another, a deranged man in a hospital will be shown disemboweling himself. It’s an odd dichotomy, to be sure. There’s also a lot of inconsistency with the characterization here. What I mean by that is, in one scene, the protagonist will be shown as doubting there’s any supernatural cause for the deaths, then, in the next scene, he’ll be more than happy to let a clearly crazy woman walk through an active crime scene and tell him stories about satanic rituals, and then, immediately afterwards, he’ll be acting all skeptical again. It’s weird, to say the least. And yet, for all the inconsistency with characterization and tone, for all the idiotic choices the protagonist makes, for all the blending of genres and motifs, I was consistently riveted by The Wailing, and would honestly recommend it to you all.

This is one of those rare films that breaks so many rules, and shifts its genre and tone so many times, that it actually kind of works. And when I say that, I’m not trying to paint this as a “so bad it’s good” type picture. The gorgeous cinematography, stellar acting, and eerie, atmospheric lighting make it clear that this film was made by people with talent. No, what I mean when I say that is, this film plays with various genre conventions–it knows that the audience is expecting certain things when they see this type of movie–and it inverts them. It gives you something new, something unexpected. The writer/director, Na Hong-Jin, stated in an interview with The Playlist that he believes there are three types of audience members, those who make random guesses, those who absorb the plot, and those who just can’t catch up. This film, he explained, was meant to appeal to all three groups, and by god, it does.

So if you’re looking for something unique, something out of the ordinary and interesting, give The Wailing a look. It won’t disappoint.