Cinema Service

Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000, Bong Joon-ho)

Bong’s first film is unique, not just of Korean cinema, but of most. It’s a mostly lyrical piece–lyrical in the storytelling sense, not the filmmaking (there are only a couple of stylized moments in the film)–juxtaposing Lee Sung-jae and Bae Du-na. Lee’s a grad student trying to become a professor, Bae’s an office assistant in his apartment complex. Bong ties them together–and relates to the film’s title–through the incidence of a missing dog. (Lee took it–for barking–and Bae’s trying to help find it). But Bong also ties them together through the film’s tone. It’s an examination of listlessness and unnamable wishes. The film’s incredibly delicate for how outrageous it occasionally gets and some of Bong’s conclusion nears Danny Rose caliber, which is rather high for a first time filmmaker.

Although Lee’s ostensibly more the main character, the film rests with Bae. She carries it, especially through the sections where Lee is after one dog or another (the barking is irritating him). Bae maintains a tranquility as the story occasionally goes crazy around her. Bong’s tone helps a lot, of course, but Bae’s silence–much like Lee’s wife (finding the actors names–on an English page anyway–for the film is proving impossible)–often does a lot more than talking would accomplish.

Googling around, looking for those names, I’m seeing Barking Dogs Never Bite described as a black comedy. The label works to some extent, but about halfway through, it stops applying… Bong takes the film to a further level (that one evoking Broadway Danny Rose). For example, as funny as one long sequence about a ghost in the boiler room gets, it’s nowhere near as effective–in terms of triggering the viewer’s imagination–as a sequence involving a bet and a roll of toilet paper. Similarly, while Lee spends lots of his time alone and his wife doesn’t–from my bilingual fellow Korean film enthusiasts–merit a name transliteration, the relationship between the couple (she’s pregnant and working) is the spine running through the film. At the beginning, Bong doesn’t establish Lee as married and the marriage’s importance becomes gradually lucid even after it’s introduced… it’s another one of the film’s delicacies.

Bong ends the film well after a possibly rocky third act. It’s a deft save, when he brings in a little stylization and hits that Danny Rose moment. I keep trying to come up with a sentence to capture both its impressiveness as a first film, but also to disregard that impressiveness since the compliment seems like it’s qualifying the film’s quality, which I do not want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Song Ji-ho and Derek Son Tae-woong; directors of photography, Cho Yong-kyou and Jo Yeong-gyu; edited by Lee Eun Soo; music by Jo Sung-woo; production designer, Lee Hang; produced by Cho Min-hwan; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Sung-jae (Yun-ju), Bae Du-na (Hyeon-nam), Byeon Hie-bong, Kim Ho-jung and Kim Roe-ha.


An Affair (1998, Lee Je-yong)

After Asako in Ruby Shoes, I had high hopes for An Affair, Lee’s first film. Seeing one film, then going back and watching earlier films from the same director can be odd. You’re watching the blossoming in reverse. I’m trying to think of someone whose first films aren’t good. An Affair is good, it’s just not as good as Asako. It came really close to being… close to Asako, but Lee’s powerful visualization isn’t fully realized in An Affair. He has wonderful framing–there’s one particular scene, when the two people having the affair are walking along a lake and their motion pulls the camera… until the end the shot, they’re in control of the camera, not the director. The sound design is the most striking. Every one in the film works to create the mood. The music’s also important, but the sound design is more masterful. Everything hasn’t come together yet. He doesn’t understand just how important he make his shots.

More, however, the film’s problems come from the screenplay. For the first half of the film, the cuckold is poorly defined. He’s a successful architect… he works too much… blah blah blah. In the second half, of course, we learn he’s harboring deep feelings for a coworker (and has been for years) and suppresses them to keep his marriage together. He reacts to his suspicions in wonderful ways… ways the character in the first half wasn’t capable of realizing. The boyfriend, played by Lee Jung-Jae, who’s usually great, is an enigma for the first half of the film. It could have been a stalker movie during the seduction. Lee (the actor), in all of his other films, realizes these conflicted characters, and here he’s got his armed tied behind his back… (by Lee, the director). The film hides the character and his intentions from the audience, which is not a good thing to do.

Lee Mi-suk, the wife, gives the film’s best performance because it’s her film. She’s quiet and her performance is a perfect performance for (the director) Lee’s style–it synthesizes with the rest of An Affair. Lee Jung-Jae’s doesn’t (again, not all his fault), but it needed to do so. Together, however, the two leads are wonderful. They play very well off each other and, in the early scenes, the ominous air about the boyfriend begins to make one wary of the film. You can’t trust the film and a film like this one–(it’s long… it’s boring… it’s that good boring I love so much… it’s a lengthy 108 minutes)–you need to be able to trust it.

An Affair is a good film, made by a great director who wasn’t quite ready on the writing. But, he had a co-writer, so… who knows….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lee Je-yong; written by Lee and Kim Dae-woo; director of photography, Kim Yeong-cheol; edited by Ham Sung-won; music by Jo Sung-woo; produced by Lee Se-Ho and Oh Jung-Wan; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Mi-suk (Seo-hyun), Lee Jung-jae (U-in), Kim Min (Ji-hyun), Song Young-chang (Jun-il) and Lee Woo-hyun (Jin-soo).


Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000, Lee Je-yong)

I’m a fan of Korean films. My introduction to the industry and my love for it is well documented here at The Stop Button, or at least it will be as soon as I get the archives up and going (next month, hopefully). And I’ve seen some great Korean films. I’ve seen some good ones too, but I have seen a couple great ones. But they were great comedies. These films manage to combine romantic comedy with the human heart in conflict with itself better than any American film has done since… well, I can’t even think of one off the top of my head, but I’ll bet it was in black and white. In other words, as of yesterday, I had never seen a great Korean romantic drama. The ones I had seen, some were good, some were just all right (I’ve yet to turn off a Korean film)….

I made a note to myself at the beginning of Asako in Ruby Shoes: “Films that start with the musical score over the production company logos… it’s a bold move.” Such a movie either signals something awful–bold because it’s obnoxious–or something else. If it weren’t for Asako, I wouldn’t have an example of something else. It means you’re establishing the film with its music before it begins… you’re not giving the viewer a moment outside the context of your film. Its literary equivalent is telling some of your story in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data information.

There were moments–about an hour in–when I thought Asako was going to fail. Well, not fail, but slope down and level off at two and a half or three. The film had just moved back to one story-line from another and the intensity lessened. Except–I realized at the end of Asako–Lee knows what he’s doing. I found I was waiting for the end, for example, to see how good he was going to do, not hoping for it not to fail too much. That sensation is exciting, since I don’t have it very often. Maybe with Bringing Out the Dead, since I’d forgotten its ending, I got excited. It doesn’t happen often enough.

It’s hard to describe the film though and it’s a shitty one to write-up in a lot of ways, because there’s no easy way for one to see it. Actually, I suppose you could join Nicheflix or buy it for eight bucks off eBay. There’s a transfer issue with the DVDs though, so you can’t deinterlace it, which is a pain when you’re watching it on a computer, which wants to deinterlace. (Deinterlacing, generally speaking, is a good idea). So I had to go through a whole process to watch this film–and I was only fifteen minutes in when I discovered how to correct the problem–but those first fifteen minutes were amazing. There’s some other film that kept having these wonderful false endings, where each time you expected it and were happy with it, then they kept getting better and better. I can’t remember what it was or when I saw it.

I’m already at the longest post of the year to date and I haven’t said much about the acting. Both the leads are great. Lee Jung-Jae is famous and I’ve seen a bunch of his stuff (though none of it hinted that he could be as good as he is in Asako). Tachibana Misato is apparently not famous and has two films available through Netflix–both are action movies starring Americans who couldn’t get work here anymore–which is too bad, because her performance is probably the better of the two. And he’s real good. They must be good, I hardly ever mention actors who don’t have some marquee value.

If I didn’t have to get up in four or five hours, I’d watch Asako again. It’s that good. (It’s so good I just used ‘that’ in a lousy way, all for emphasis).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by Lee Je-yong; director of photography, Hong Gyeong-pyo; music by Cho Sung-woo; produced by Koo Boo-han; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (U-In), Tachibana Misato (Aya), Awata Urara (Rie) and Kim Min-hie (Mia).


Some (2004, Chang Yoon-hyun)

I love genre-breaking. It doesn’t happen much in film. Something like Blade Runner mixes genre, but little ever really breaks the genre mold anymore. I mean, the American romantic comedy has been around since in 1938 with The Cowboy and the Lady. I’ve seen strict genre films from Korea and I’ve seen loose ones (comedies with severe dramatic turns, for example), but Some sticks out. It’s kind of cute and light-hearted, but never comedic, but still violent and dark. I suppose it’s like an early color Hitchcock, which were still fun, but somebody could, conceivably, die.

More surprising is that Some has a huge gimmick. A huge precognition gimmick. I don’t know how well the film would have worked without the gimmick, because by the time it was fully defined, I was already wrapped up in it. The two leads are great and elicit concern early on–through extreme peril, another Hitchcock method–and I was already committed to the film, so I just let the gimmick pass. I’m not advocating such gimmicks, but the gimmick doesn’t run Some, even though it… kind of does. The film’s focus is on its characters and their immediate danger, not the gimmick, which makes the film an example of a gimmick working (to some degree, the film still only gets a one, I mean, it’s a cute, light-hearted cop movie set in twenty hours).

Not surprisingly, however, Some is from the writer of Il Mare, which failed because it got too wrapped up in gimmick. I guess she’s gotten better. I mean, I support this film even in light of its stupid teenager gangster subplot… but that’s probably just because the acting is so good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Chang Yoon-hyun; written by Kim Eun-jeong and Kim Eun-shil; director of photography, Kim Seong-bok; edited by Nam Na-yeong; music by Jo Yeong-wook; produced by Kim Hye-suk; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Go Soo (Kang Seong-ju), Song Ji-hyo (Seo Yu-jin), Lee Dong-kyu (Min Jae-il), Kang Shin-il (Chief Oh), Kang Seong-jin (Officer Lee), Jo Kyeong-hun (Officer Chu), Jeong Myeong-jun (Chief Kim), Park Cheol-Ho (Kwon Cheol-woo), Kwon Min (Jong Chan) and Jo Mun-hong (Black King).


The Classic (2003, Kwak Jae-young)

So, starting The Classic, I was expecting a lot. Kwak did My Sassy Girl and Windstruck and he’s probably my favorite modern romantic comedy filmmaker. Now, Kwak can do anything… My Sassy Girl had a “surprise” ending that shouldn’t have been a surprise, except I was so wrapped up in the film I wasn’t thinking and Windstruck had an ending that only worked if… Well, I won’t give that away.

And, The Classic seems like it’s a romantic comedy at the start. There’s a lot of quick summary, establishing the main character. But then, slowly, almost so slowly I couldn’t tell, it became a melodrama. And Kwak can’t do melodrama.

There’s a lot good about the film. The acting is all good–Son Ye-jin plays two roles, mother and daughter, and I couldn’t tell it was the same girl until I started wondering and paying attention to that sort of thing. The direction, in nice 2.35:1 widescreen, is great. It just doesn’t have the writing to back it up. With Kwak’s romantic comedies, he can get away with a lot of “oh, come on,” because the genre allows for it. The melodrama doesn’t like “oh, come on” scenes. The “oh, come on” scenes are what have turned ‘melodrama’ into a pejorative.

It’s a long film, 130 or so, and I knew what was going on from about ninety-five, but it never pissed me off, which says a lot about what does work. I’d been avoiding The Classic for months and I wasn’t sure why, given that I thought Kwak could do no wrong. I hate it when my movie-quality clairvoyance is right, because it never turns out to have positive results. Except maybe The Thin Red Line. That one was fine.

Oh, and Mystic River. I knew about Mystic River too.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kwak Jae-young; director of photography, Lee Jun-gyu; edited by Kim Sang-Beom; music by Jo Yeong-wook; produced by Shin Chul; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Son Ye-jin (Ji-hae/Ju-hae), Jo In-seong (Sang-min), Cho Seung-woo (Jun-ho), Lee Ki-woo (Tae-su) and Lee Sang-in (Su-kyeong).


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