Foreign

Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


Man and two teenage girls looking into the distance

The Witch: Subversion (2018, Park Hoon-jung)

About halfway through The Witch: Subversion, I wondered why they’d opened with a flashback showing presumably chid witch Kim Ha-na escaping from her government “doctors.” The prologue introduces evil scientist lady Jo Min-soo and her chief fixer Park Hee-soon, it introduces the secret castle-like laboratory fortress, it has a lot of blood. The opening titles are a series of photographs hinting at the ground situation with the lab. Medieval witches bred in captivity, some Nazis, twentieth century science, little kids. Then the lab covered in blood and Jo berating her staff for failing their mission. Director Park, both in his direction and his script, doesn’t provide a lot of details but does provide a lot of information the audience isn’t going to misinterpret.

Even if it doesn’t end up being directly related to the photographs in the opening titles… it’s clear Kim is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous individual.

So then when the movie jumps ahead ten years and Kim Ha-na has grown into Kim Da-mi, who seems to have no memory of her time as a child science experiment, but then finds herself propelled into the spotlight after going a Korean variation of “American Idol,” it seems like Witch might have gotten more mileage out of the audience being just as unsure of Kim’s potential as Kim. Park takes his time introducing some aspects of the character too, spending the first act playing with the audience’s expectations. It works out—exceedingly well thanks to the third act—but it’s a twisty road with some sharp curves.

Because Kim is in a Clark Kent situation. Kindly farmer Choi Jung-woo and wife Oh Mi-hee have taken her in after finding her unconscious and bloody in the yard. The worst behavior Kim ever exhibits is taking Choi’s truck into town to get cattle feed so he doesn’t have to worry about it and can take care of Oh, who’s sick. Kim’s best friend is Go Min-si, daughter of the police chief; Go’s the typical (somewhat) rebellious cop’s daughter while Kim’s the good girl. It’s a great situation for surprises, only there can’t exactly be surprises since the audience is primed for them (thanks to the prologue). So after Kim wins the regions on national television–getting there because she’s able to do an amazing magic trick, which freaks out Choi and Oh—and creepy hot boy Choi Woo-sik starts stalking her, then fixer Park shows back up… it’s clear the situation’s volatility is leading to an inevitable explosion.

Only director Park drags it out. So long. Park drags it through most of the second act, willingly losing all the energy and drama he got out of introducing Choi (not to mention Kim winning “Idol” with an absurdly successful pop rendition of “Danny Boy”), and sort of battering the supporting cast of good guys with some malice… but then he brings it all together for the finale. The third act of Witch pays off in ways you didn’t even think the movie would ever need to pay off in. The film’s a smorgasbord thrown into a kitchen sink, mixing horror, teen drama, sci-fi, action, superhero—but then what Park brings out of all those mixed ingredients in the third act is something else entirely. It’s awesome plotting, awesome execution. When Park finally does get around to the action sequences, he spices them with so much horror gore….

It’s simultaneously gruesome and spellbinding. All of a sudden Kim Chang-ju’s perfectly solid editing becomes breathtaking cutting.

So good.

Great lead performance from Kim. It’s all on her. She can’t miss a beat as she’s under everyone’s close observation—the secret government telekinetic assassin child who escaped too well and is going to get her family and friends kill for the trouble without ever knowing why exactly. Park directs Kim’s scenes like a character study, one with tragically too much action.

Choi’s an awesome villain, sufficiently wise and cruel beyond his teenage years, though not entirely unsympathetic because he’s Jo’s science project and it’s clear his keepers tormented him. Fixer Park was version 1.0 and never lets the newer generation forget he’s got the Power even if they have more power.

There’s an unnecessarily tacked-on epilogue to set up a sequel, which makes some intriguing promises, but it’s not like the movie hasn’t already got the audience juiced for the idea of the next chapter.

Park does a fantastic job with The Witch, which hinges entirely upon Kim and she makes the impossible pedestrian. It’s a really couple hours.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Park Hoon-jung; directors of photography, Young-ho Kim and Teo Lee; edited by Kim Chang-ju; music by Mowg; produced by Park and Yeon Young-sik; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kim Da-mi (Ja-yoon), Choi Woo-shik (male witch), Go Min-si (Myung-hee) Choi Jung-woo (Ja-yoon’s father), Oh Mi-hee (Ja-yoon’s mother), Jo Min-soo (Dr. Baek), Park Hee-soon (Mr. Choi), Da-eun (female witch), and Kim Ha-na (Young Ja-yoon).


The Battle of Jangsari (2019, Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon)

I’m curious enough about The Battle of Jangsari I think I’m going to read War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent by Marguerite Higgins, which might have some information about the actual battle of Jangsa-ri because there’s nothing on the Google not about the movie. The big details, which you assume the movie isn’t going to change: 772 seventeen year-olds with ten days of boot camp being used a diversionary tactic at the battle of Incheon. Lambs to the slaughter, the unpleasant reality of war. Though the only ones talking about that reality are the guest stars.

See, Battle of Jangsari is not some awesome white savior but pseudo-woke adaptation of Higgins’s life story—the film’s not officially based on the book and makes sure to point out Megan Fox is playing a composite, not Higgins, which is why Fox doesn’t have a last name—it’s a jingoistic war movie. Just one with a couple down on their luck American actors doing inserts, possibly with digital backdrops. Jangsari uses a lot of digital backdrops, lot of all digital shots. Lot of really bad digital. Jangsari looks like the CG was done on a low quality render versus a high. Like a demo reel for the finished effects. Same goes for Komeil S. Hosseini’s music. It’s like… Hosseini didn’t see the movie, did he? He just sold them some music. Like temp music.

And Fox… Fox feels like a temp performance. Though not as much as George Eads feels like understudies run wild. Eads is real bad. Fox is just bad bad. The script’s terrible for Fox. It’s too brief to be terrible for Eads. He doesn’t even pretend to pretend to care about sounding like he knows what he’s talking about. His performance is a combination of impatience and indifference. It’s a great commentary on the U.S. involvement in the Korean War… they can’t even try to pretend to come up with a reasonable rational in 2020. Not even in a jingoistic, poorly lighted (Kim Sung-hwan’s photography is uncomfortably bad), weird war movie about slaughtered teenagers; the film never gives the number of survivors, which is just curious. Since the actual event is apparently untranslated or in some very obscure collection of female news articles… the film’s got no obligation to be honest. Why does it matter so much?

Because as a true story, Battle of Jangsari is an incompetent rendering of a compelling tragedy. It doesn’t matter if the kids’ sob stories are true, they’re all baldly manipulative. Choi Min-ho is the North Korean kid who moved South before the war and is now fighting to avenge his dead family, bombed by the North (while in the South). Choi’s got a North Korean accent he can do, which seems… odd. Would they really have had such a different accent back then? It seems like you’d want to be able to check it wasn’t creepy anti-North propaganda but then they run into some North Koreans who are butchering a cute puppy so you know they’re really bad people.

I’m super unclear on why these “let’s Raymond Burr these cash-hungry American stars into a Korean movie” movies exist. Are the American stars supposed to appeal to the Korean audience or to the international one. Because Fox is, like, never in a shot with any of the Korean stars. Eads maybe is in a room with one once. Fox is a small digital figure when she’s in a scene with the Korean cast. There’s clearly no crossover.

So pointless.

Anyway, the other main kid is Kim Sung-cheol. He’s a son-of-a-bitch thug bully sociopath and he’s the real hero. He gets a redemption arc after killing someone’s cousin. Like… South Korea’s got mandatory conscription so there’s some message it’s sending its audience and I want to know what. More than I want to see Kim and Choi become pals, because even though Jangsari’s only real chance is to go all in on the teen war melodrama… it does not. Lee Man-hee’s script avoids the kids whenever it can and when it can’t, they get not funny but kind of funny in a very sad, tragic, empathetic way set pieces.

Though those set pieces are far better than when directors Kwak and Kim get to do their lengthy first-person-shooter inspired war in the trenches sequence. They spend much of the first act with the shakiest shaky-cam they can get away with, all while it’s becoming obvious they doesn’t know how to compose any kind of shot, much less his fake Panavision one. Throw in Kim’s photography and it’s not a nice looking film. Not at all. It is visually unpleasant.

And not when there’s war gore. The film overdoes it on war gore. Because even though you feel inspired with love of country, you’re going to die in potentially gross ways.

Kim Myung-Min plays the commander. He’s… fine. I mean, he’s not bad. There’s something with his true story too but it’s not clear what because the postscript doesn’t give any real information. Kim In-kwon is the cool older guy. He’s… I mean, I don’t know. Could Battle of Jangsari have been better with a totally different crew but the same cast? Probably. None of the performances really stand out, good or bad, which is something of a blessing.

And, hey, got me interested in reading again right? I mean, maybe I’m curious enough… see, it’s a really compelling story. The movie just doesn’t do a good job telling it.

Except maybe all the puking in the ship as the kids go to the landing point. The puking is legit.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon; written by Lee Man-hee, Brian Chung, and Cory Gustke; director of photography, Kim Sung-hwan; edited by Kim Chang-ju and Kim Woo-hyun; music by Komeil S. Hosseini; production designer, Lee Tae-hoon; costume designer, Sim Hyeon-seob; produced by Ko Sung-mi and Yang Jang-Hoon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Choi Min-ho (Choi Sung-pil), Kim Sung-cheol (Ki Ha-ryun), Jang Ji-geon (Guk Man-deuk), Kim Myung-min (Lee Myung-Joon), Kwak Si-yang (Park Chan-nyeon), Kim In-kwon (Ryu Tae-seok), Lee Ho-jung (Moon Jong-nyeo), Lee Jae-wook (Lee Gae-tae), George Eads (Colonel Stephen), and Megan Fox (Maggie).


The Super Inframan (1975, Hua Shan)

Until the third act, Super Inframan at least keeps a brisk pace. The movie’s got almost nothing going for it—other than Chen Yung—yu frankly courageous very seventies score and even it’s a small blip of goodness, not a positive feature—but at least it moves. It doesn’t drag through the entire third act, there are a couple good (out of nowhere the fight choreography gets interesting) fight scenes, then some terrible fighting and some silliness, but once the good fight scenes are over, it starts to crawl. Though I assume the general annoyance at the pace slowing instead of the movie ending contributes.

Super Inframan is a low budget Chinese giant monster movie, only with the superhero, Inframan, able to grow big to fight the monsters. There’s a name for the genre; I’m not Googling. The miniatures—outside the opening scene city fire—are bad. But even bad, when it’s giant Inframan fighting a giant monster, Inframan is at its best. That fight is actually successful, whereas the good ones at the end both go bad for various plot-related reasons. They’re a bummer; the Inframan versus kanji is cool.

Danny Lee plays Inframan, which requires he wear a crafting-enhanced motorcycle helmet with antenna so he looks a little like a bug. He’s kind of a cyborg. It’s unclear what scientist Wang Hsieh’s doing to Lee during the transformation scene. Apparently he’s turning him very straightforwardly into a cyborg because there are these illustrated cards flashing over Lee’s body showing mechanical stuff… but they never talk about it. There are monsters to fight. Super Inframan doesn’t have childlike wonder it has childlike stupidity. Screenwriter Ni Kuang is targeting two year-olds and managing to talk down to them.

The effects are mostly silly illustrated lasers. There’s no ingenuity to how director Hua does any of it; he doesn’t even care what blonde-haired, thigh-high booted, supervillain dragon lady Terry Liu whips when she whips. She just likes to whip. She’s got a scantily clad sidekick (Dana) to keep dad awake and Lee’s a very square-jawed handsome leading man type for mom. Though Lee never does anything in the movie after the opening scene. He saves a baby in a fire. Later on, when he’s Inframan, he does all sorts of stuff but it’s probably not Lee and even if it were, Inframan doesn’t talk much (if ever) and so there’s no character development. It’s a fail on some really basic levels.

Still, besides Yuan Man-tzu, none of the acting is too terrible, all things considered, so maybe if it just knew when to stop being bad and roll the credits, Inframan would be all right. But not with the third act slowdown. Not after the fight gets too cartoony. It goes from being a fairly solid albeit boringly directed fight scene between Inframan and his fellow motorcycle-helmeted stunt men, only they’re supposed to be skeleton men to some bad exposition to Inframan doing this almost silent fight against these two robots with slinky missiles and stuff. It’s dumb, but it’s just about to be accidentally really nice and then it stops and the next fight scene is terrible. And the end of the movie’s too dumb too.

Inframan’s a big fail.

Oh, and Bruce Le—not Bruce Lee—is pretty good as Lee’s teammate who fights a monster. See, they’re not all giant, they’re usually just man-sized rubber-suit monsters. And they all talk smack. And Le fights one all by himself and you’re sympathetic to him because he’s being heroic, while Lee’s got the Inframan gig and is bad at it. Scientist Wang, charged with protecting the whole planet from these monsters, he doesn’t make a good choice with Lee. Le’s better. Just not square-jawed.

There’s nowhere near that much angst in the film; no one except monsters get hurt. Okay, one guy but he doesn’t count.

Inframan would be better if it were worse. Though maybe if they just got rid of the backflips it might be a little better too. The backflips are obnoxious.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Hua Shan; written by Ni Kuang; director of photography, Nishimoto Tadashi; edited by Chiang Hsing-Lung; music by Chen Yung-Yu; produced by Runme Shaw; released by Shaw Brothers Studio.

Starring Danny Lee (Rayma / Inframan), Wang Hsieh (Professor Liu Ying-Te), Terry Liu (Demon Princess Elizebub), Yuan Man-Tzu (Liu Mei-Mei), Dana (Demon Witch-Eye), Bruce Le (Sergeant Lu Hsiao-Lung), Chiang Yang (Liutenant Chu Chi-Kuang), and Lin Wen-Wei (Chu Ming).


Savage (2018, Cui Siwei)

Savage is not savage. It’s got some violence, some of it rough, and it’s got some mean bad guys, but it’s never savage. I mean, unless it’s supposed to be referring to hero—more than protagonist or lead—Chang Chen. He beats up some suspects pretty bad at the beginning because he’s mad about partner Li Guangjie getting killed in the third or fourth scene, after its established Li and Chang both want the same girl, doctor Ni Ni. Li dies in what should be a routine traffic stop and Chang can’t forgive himself, leading to a bad year between him and Ni (see, she actually wanted him anyway), which catches us up to the present action. Some of the year before stuff is important, most of it not. In fact, they could easily get away with none of it because the dead partner bit plays more to the melodrama, less to the tight, tough action noir. Savage takes too long getting started and ends badly but between the two is a well-executed, continuous (though not real time), very simple, and very physical action movie.

One year after robbing a gold shipment—which opens the movie, it seems somewhat savage but still not enough—robbers Liao Fan, Huang Jue, and Zhang Yicong return to the scene of the crime, where they also killed Li. Savage gives Chang every opportunity to avenge himself upon his foes but he never gives in, much to the film’s detriment as well as the lives of people around Chang. He hasn’t learned much since Li got killed apparently, other than beat up people and get away with it because you’re a cop. Though the guys in the restaurant harassing Ni had it comes and it’s nice to see her not getting smacked around when threatened, which happens a lot in the second half of the movie.

So Chang’s never Savage with the main villains. It’s weird.

The big boss is Liao Fan. He doesn’t talk much, just watches, thinks, acts. Liao’s great. Probably the film’s best performance. He’s fairly savage, but also not. For instance, he’s not as ruthless as Huang Jue, who’s gold-crazed. And excellent. Huang’s also great. Last guy is Zhang Yicong, playing Liao’s dipshit punk little brother. Liao makes Huang babysit Zhang. Zhang’s fine. He doesn’t any heavy lifting but also doesn’t seem to be capable of handling it if he did. Liao and Huang, who both mainly stay reflective versus proactive, seem like they’re in a different and better film in their scenes with Zhang. He doesn’t get it, which is meta, since his character doesn’t get it either.

The problem might just be director Cui and his interest in the actors. Cui and cinematographer Du Jie do a phenomenal job with the snow-pocalypse mountain where Chang chases the bad guys, but Cui couldn’t give a toss about the performances. The melodrama’s better at interior dialogue sequences (i.e. when the characters aren’t worried about getting buried in an avalanche but instead wondering why they can’t find any Swiss Miss in the lodge. The action’s either outside or in the lodge. Once it becomes clear everyone’s going to end up at the lodge, the strong action’s timer starts ticking down. It’s just obvious from early on Cui isn’t going to do as well inside a snowed-in lodge as he does in a snow-drowned wilderness. Cui likes taking time with the action; he needs lots of space.

Ni’s good even if she’s got a crap part and then is a punching bag to emphasis how the bad men are bad. Liu Hua’s good as the partial comic relief, the lodge manager who’s also infamous for poaching.

Even without dialogue, just being present, Liao kind of becomes the lead. Not the protagonist; Ni’s kind of the protagonist. So cop Chang’s the hero, damsel Ni’s the protagonist, and villain Liao’s the lead. It’s a very confused narrative. Cui’s script isn’t quite there.

Awesome music. I’ll be damned if I can find the name of the composer anywhere.

Savage is pretty good for most of its too long runtime. The melodrama doesn’t work, doesn’t inform the plot or the characters… the film’s lean, just not in the right way. And the parts could be a lot better. Cui really fails his actors, in script and direction. Worse, it’s just through indifference. Cui’s not even passionate about not being passionate about them.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cui Siwei; director of photography, Du Jie; edited by Du Yuan; produced by Terence Chang; released by Huaxia Film Distribution.

Starring Chang Chen (Wang Kangho), Ni Ni (Sun Yan), Liao Fan (Lao Da), Huang Jue (Lao Er), Zhang Yicong (Lao San), Liu Hua (Guo San), and Li Guangjie (Han Xiaosong).


The Divine Fury (2019, Kim Joo-hwan)

The Divine Fury is a very bad film. It’s not poorly made; director Kim is mediocre, Cho Sang-yun’s photography is good, Koo Ja-wan’s score is fine. Yes, the editing is wanting, but often more because Kim’s mediocre than anything else. Like the big fight scene at the end? The big, very bad, not at all worth sitting through the movie about an MMA fighter (Park Seo-joon) taking on a Dark Bishop (Woo Do-Hwan) who’s running a shitty nightclub with low patronage (the film’s limited budget is only obvious because of the lack of background extras and scenery) and bringing demons to Earth. He brings the demons, who then possess Catholics–you know they’re Catholic because of the Catholic art on all their walls–and then priests come in and exorcize, rinsing the soul super clean, so Woo then sends those fresh souls to Hell.

Or the movie’s about a lonely old priest Ahn Sung-Ki who can no longer recruit young priests to accompany him on his exorcisms slash physical and mental abusing of people with mental problems… oh, wait, no, because in Divine Fury all the magic is real. Lead Park is an avowed atheist—not a real thing, as Ahn explains, because hating God means you believe in God—and none of the magic ever sways his opinion on God. He hates God because God killed his dad (Lee Seung-Joon) even though a priest told him if he prayed hard enough God would save him. So Park also hates the Catholic Church, which is the only form of religion shown to exist in Divine Fury’s South Korea.

Where Catholics make up something like seven percent of the population.

You know, it’d make more sense if Divine Fury were secretly funded by the Catholic Church in hopes they get priest recruitment up in South Korea. There’s a scene where Ahn brags about being able to drink and smoke—it’s okay as long as you don’t pray after, which is just weird too. When Park finally becomes a demon-hunting superhero with a motorcycle, his costume is a priest outfit like Park’s got some rabid female fans who want him dressed up as a bad boy priest. It’s really goofy and bad.

If Park gave an enthusiastic performance, Divine Fury might be saved. He’s got stigmata, he’s got a flaming fist, he can kill demons, he’s got that motorcycle, he’s edgy cool but not… he also doesn’t enjoy it at all. Some of it’s the direction. Kim’s not good at directing Ahn and Park with the special effects. Sometimes it looks like the actors decide at separate times when they’re supposed to be seeing the CGI demonic imagery. Even if Park were just an energetic bad, it might be fun. But no, he’s broody and terrible. Ahn’s ostensibly lovable and terrible. Woo’s not convincing as the chief bad guy, which is fine because Park’s not convincing as an MMA fighter and Ahn’s not convincing as an exorcising priest.

The only good performance in the film, which doesn’t give its cast good parts ever—the only good performance is Jung Ji-hoon. He’s this little kid who gets possessed by multiple demons. Jung’s great. Sadly we don’t get to see him kill the good guys and win and then the movie can end. Because then Park wouldn’t get his biker priest martial artist finale. The absurd finale he doesn’t even appear to enjoy doing.

Divine Fury is ostensibly a martial arts horror action Catholic Christian movie. The horror’s never scary, the martial arts are bad, the action’s bad. All it does with enthusiasm is preach, which could conceivably not be terrible if only Kim’s script weren’t terrible and Ahn and Park weren’t bad, particularly during those scenes. If the movie has some actual propaganda behind the scenes thing going on, at least it’d make sense. Otherwise… it just wants to be bad.

And excels at it.

Except Jung; Jung’s amazing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Joo-hwan; director of photography, Cho Sang-yun; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Koo Ja-wan; production designer, Han Yoo-jung; produced by Park Sung-hye and Shin Pil-soon; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Park Seo-joon (Yong-hoo), Ahn Sung-ki (Father Ahn), Woo Do-hwan (Ji-sin), Choi Woo-sik (Father Choi), Jung Ji-hoon (Ho-seok), and Lee Seung-joon (Police Sergeant Park).


Black Orpheus (1959, Marcel Camus)

There’s a lot to love about Black Orpheus. Director and co-writer Camus does a bunch of great stuff, just not when it comes to how he and Jacques Vito adapt the legend part. Orpheus is about, you know, Orpheus (Breno Mello), who is now a Brazilian trolley car driver slash musician slash dancer, and Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), who is now a… young woman who comes to Rio trying to avoid a stalker (Adhemar da Silva). They meet and Mello is immediately infatuated, which is complicated by his impending nuptials to Lourdes de Oliveira. For her part, Dawn doesn’t fall for Mello until she hears him singing.

Now, Camus and Vito go rather on the nose with the adaptation—de Oliveira and Mello hear about the legend from the marriage license clerk. Apparently Mello has never heard of it before, which seems… if not impossible, at least improbable. If Dawn knows about the legend or hears about it during the film’s present action, it happens off screen.

But it’s not clear how much this matter-of-fact handling of the source plot is going to affect the film until the finale, when it turns out Camus and Vito don’t have anything up their narrative sleeve. Mello’s trip to the underworld—updated to late 1950s Brazil—is perfunctory. Narratively, Camus and Vito have spent most of the film building the subplots; even though Dawn knows she’s on the run from this stalker and in danger, she doesn’t get to be the protagonist when it’s important. She does for the chase scenes (one of them), but Camus and Vito’s narrative distance doesn’t really allow for traditional protagonists. Mello, for example, is a constant mystery. First, you wonder how he’s got it worked out in his head de Oliveira is going to be okay with him throwing her over for literal stranger Dawn on the day they get their marriage license. It’s also a little weird Dawn’s cousin, Léa Garcia, is so supportive of Mello’s conquest—though, some of it might just be every woman in Black Orpheus secretly hates every other woman in Black Orpheus, at least if they’re not related. The parts are fifty percent good, fifty percent iffy.

Visually, most of the film is about movement. It’s Carnaval. It’s time to sing and dance and there’s a lot of it going on. Camus and editor Andrée Felix do a fine job editing together these sequences, which are often focused on the dancers’ expressions (and how they convey the experience) rather than their footwork. But there’s some very impressive footwork. Mello’s great.

And the third act loses that movement. Sure, Camus still focuses on some movement, but they’re smaller scale movements. For example, when Mello’s at a de facto seance, Camus showcases someone who’s got the spirit and is speaking tongues. Is their movement important to the scene overall? Not really, but it gets even worse when it turns out it’s all a foreshadowing MacGuffin.

Of course, the third act loses a lot more. Camus and Vito drop supporting cast, but they also turn the cast they’ve got into avatars at best and caricatures at worst. They all become functional, losing their personality. It’s worst with kids Jorge Dos Santos and Aurino Cassiano. They’re omnipresent in most of the film; they think Mello’s awesome and follow him around, trying to get him to play guitar for them; they think Dawn’s amazing and follow her around, trying to help with her burgeoning romance with Mello. But then they lose most of their agency in the final third, inexplicably separated on the way to Carnaval just to provide for a reuniting moment at Carnaval. It ought to be foreshadowing things might not go well for the wrap-up, something further confirmed when it turns out the value the characters place on human life is… shockingly low. That and manslaughter. And guilt.

The best acting is from Garcia, de Oliveira, and the kids. Mello and Dawn are both likable but their performances aren’t particularly deep. They’re never able to convincingly convey their characters apparent desires, though everyone around them is fine doing so. Maybe it’s how they’re written.

Great photography from Jean Bourgoin, great music from Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Feix’s editing is uneven but only because there are constantly shots where the cast is clearly looking at someone for direction. Not clear if Feix just didn’t cut right or if he didn’t have an alternative.

As far as the surface goes—setting Orpheus in modern-day Brazil during Carnaval—Black Orpheus does fine. But it definitely doesn’t fully utilize its available resources.

And the big dramatic finish seems way too rushed in how Camus shoots it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Marcel Camus; screenplay by Camus and Jacques Viot, based on a play by Vinicius de Moraes; director of photography, Jean Bourgoin; edited by Andrée Feix; music by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim; production designer, Pierre Guffroy; produced by Sacha Gordine; released by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France.

Starring Breno Mello (Orfeo), Marpessa Dawn (Eurydice), Lourdes de Oliveira (Mira), Léa Garcia (Serafina), Waldemar De Souza (Chico), Alexandro Constantino (Hermes), Jorge Dos Santos (Benedito), Aurino Cassiano (Zeca), and Ademar Da Silva (Death).


Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)

Metaphor is a luxury item in Parasite. First act lead Choi Woo-sik excitedly talks about the metaphorical when things are still going well. Choi, a floundering, unemployed early twenty-something from an unemployed floundering family, lucks into the perfect gig—tutoring a rich teenager with her English. Choi’s great at his English, he just doesn’t apply himself. Or he’s really bad at math (he didn’t go to college, despite acing his English language tests over and over). Even better, the mom (Jo Yeo-jeong) is a bit of a bimbo. A very well-spoken, well-informed one, but not someone who, you know, reads. She knows how to talk about reading though. It’s a very interesting part; Jo’s great. Probably giving the film’s best performance, which isn’t an easy task, but the script never turns her into a caricature. It’s weird watching her at first, because you’re waiting for director Bong and co-writer Han Jin-woo to go for some easy bit and they never do. The film’s got a very particular narrative distance with wealthy Jo and her husband, Lee Sun-kyun. See, Choi and his family come to see Jo and Lee as the caricatures, while….

And I’m ahead of myself.

On his first tutoring lesson, Jo tells Choi about how her other kid—Choi’s tutoring the teenage girl, played by Jung Ji-so—but Jo’s other kid, the younger boy (Jung Hyun-jun) he’s actually an artistic genius. Well, Jo’s convinced herself he’s an artistic genius, anyway. And Choi sees the chance to get his artistically talented sister—so good she faked his college transcript for the job interview—a gig tutoring the clearly not a next level genius son. Park So-dam is Choi’s sister. Once she gets into the house and is able to manipulate Jo better than Choi can (or thought to), it’s time to get dad Song Kang-ho and mom Jang Hye-jin gigs too. They just need to get rid of the other servants to make vacancies. Because Park and Choi have a whole plan worked out, complete with role-playing lessons to get Song and Jang ready for their parts. Choi’s lucked the whole family’s way into full employment.

Something Bong and Han carefully foreshadow.

They’re similarly careful about how they juxtapose the two families. Because, obviously, they don’t let on they’re related. Becausee they’re being very safe about how they’re conning and exploiting Jo and Lee and with some empathy—to protect them from getting exploited by someone else. Song’s gone positively soft for the family and what he thinks is their naiveté, Choi’s got a crush on his inappropriately young tutee; they’re all in on the con, with Choi and Park starting to work out plans for the future. Only Choi and Park are inexperienced kids and even though Song and Jang are ready and willing with the con, they’re not any more experienced in this world either. Jo and Lee live in this distinct, gigantic literal architect’s dream home. Bong has these great shots of how much area Choi and his family have to walk to get around. They live in a basement apartment where drunks piss on their windows. There’s not room in that apartment for a long shot, there’s not enough room for Bong to pan the shot to follow them. Everyone’s got their own kind of naiveté in Parasite; the audience can’t necessarily see into the characters’ blindspots either. Bong and Han don’t exactly have any mysteries, but they’ve got some Brobdingnagian surprises.

Sometimes those surprises impact the epical narrative, sometimes they impact the subtext. Parasite says a lot, looks at a lot. Bong never forces it, some of he and Han’s moves so subtle you don’t catch on to when they started laying the groundwork until they’re ahead a couple more reveals. Kind of like the aforementioned metaphor as a luxury item. They’re already two or three metaphors in between they reveal they’re metaphors. It’s so good. Sometimes watching Bong pull it off, thanks also to Hong Kyung-pyo’s photography and Yang Jin-mo’s editing—sometimes it gets distracting, how well this scene or that scene works. How ably Bong is accomplishing with the film. And it doesn’t take until the the third act for that feeling, it hits in the early second. Parasite’s great from really, really early on.

The acting helps with that early success. Everyone’s excellent. They’re different kinds of excellent, because no one’s got the exact same kind of function in the script—mom Jang’s got a great long sequence where she’s never the focus of a scene but how she’s moving through the background is the actually important thing going on. Meanwhile, Song’s got a very different kind of part; his part changes the most throughout, and not just because he and Jang start the film more in supporting roles. It takes a while. Bong and Han never hurry it either. There’s not a wasted moment in the film.

The best performances are Jo, Sang, and probably Lee Jeong-eun (the kindly housekeeper who could foil Sang and family’s plans). Jo and Sang have a handful of scenes together and they’re always so great because Jo and Sang are giving such nuanced, guarded performances. The script demands it, more than for anyone else, and seeing them acting together is something special. Because they’re doing separate things, which are then informing the scene in how they spark off one another.

It’s fantastic to watch.

Park and Jang are both really good. Park’s got the hardest part in the first act—she’s got to be the most different between home and work—and she’s great. She gets less later on, but when it’s all on her, Park nails it. Lee—the rich husband—he’s good. Choi’s really good. Parasite’s just really good in general; also specific to its many parts. Bong sets up the film as an experience, something for the audience to go through. It’s not an inaccessible experience. In fact, what makes it so impressive is how often Bong and Han just go for their big symbolism and such. Bong’s fearless.

Parasite’s outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong and Han Jin-won; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jung Jae-il; production designer, Ha-jun Lee; produced by Bong, Jang Young-Hwan, Moon Yang-kwon, and Kwak Sin-ae; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Kim Ki-taek), Choi Woo-sik (Kim Ki-woo), Park So-dam (Kim Ki-jung), Jang Hye-jin (Kim Chung-sook), Jo Yeo-jeong (Park Yeon-kyo), Lee Sun-kyun (Park Dong-ik), Jung Ji-so (Park Da-hye), Jung Hyun-jun (Park Da-song), and Jeong-eun Lee (Moon-gwang).


Mondays in the Sun (2002, Fernando León de Aranoa)

At some point, around the halfway point but maybe a little earlier, Mondays in the Sun becomes an endurance spectacle—can director de Aranoa (who co-wrote with Ignacio del Moral) actually keep the film lyrical. There are softly epical arcs in the film, but they get resolved gradually (or not at all) in the final third. There’s no potential for the epical arc because it’s about people in stasis; the film is about these three ship-builders who got protested their fellows getting laid off and ended up getting laid off themselves. Four years later, there’s no progress. They’re past desperation at this point, halfheartedly clinging to various hopes, while (proverbially) clinging to their beers with double fists. Proverbial because no one actually double-fists their drinks. Actually, they’re patient, pensive drinkers.

The film opens with footage of the cops attacking the protesting workers, set to this really calm, really gentle music (by Lucio Godoy). Like everything with Mondays, it’s patient, deliberate. It’s just the militarized cops doing worse and worse things to the protesters. Then it’s over; fade out. de Aranoa and editor Nacho Ruiz Capillas have excellent fade outs in the film. Sometimes they’re for humor, sometimes they’re for tragedy, most times they’re for a combination of both.

There’s an immediate tone change in the subsequent scene, which introduces the primary cast and one of the most frequented locations—José Ángel Egido is taking the ferry to a job interview, Javier Bardem and Luis Tosar are going along too. Tosar’s going along because he too is ostensibly still looking for work. Bardem’s along because he’s got nothing else to do. They raze Egido for being too old for this job he’s trying to get. There’s no exposition setting up the context of the opening protest, we don’t find out it’s four years later until the last half of the movie, there are just single lines of dialogue—friends needling each other—to set up the characters’ ground situations. It helps Bardem’s a talker. He’s able to fill out a lot. And he’s a master needler, so the exposition comes through in some of the responses to his pokes. Mondays has a phenomenal script. de Aranoa’s direction is excellent, sure, but it’s the script. The script and the actors.

Bardem’s a ladies man—he spends his days screwing and daydreaming, avoiding paying a fine for a broken streetlight in the protest. It’s not an expensive fine, it’s the principle. All Bardem has at this point, the film explores, is that adherence to his principles, which aren’t so much tested as tempted; Bardem’s got his lines and he doesn’t cross them, but it takes a while make them all out.

Tosar’s the married one. Well, both he and Egido and supporting pal Celso Bugallo are all married but Tosar’s the one whose wife (Nieve de Medina) gets the film’s attention. She works at the tuna factory, standing twelve-hour shifts, no longer able to feel her legs. Tosar’s at home, “job hunting” with the boys, or at the bar. Of everyone, he’s got the most epical arc in the film, at least the implication of it. Because as the runtime progresses, Tosar’s drinking comes home with him. He adores de Medina, but given their situation—they only ever see each other in passing—it becomes a nuisance to her. Because it’s been four years.

Then there’s Egido, who’s trying to competent with men twenty years younger for office jobs he’s not really qualified for. He’s got a somewhat epical arc—he’s adapting to the job interviews, he’s trying to learn new things—but told in the most lyrical way of anything in the film. Like I said, the script is amazing. Egido’s got a wife and family at home, so he’s in a much different situation. There’s also the implication he didn’t blow through his severance like Bardem definitely did and Tosar seems to have done. He’s the responsible one. And it’s breaking him. Mondays is an exploration of dignity, resolve, and stubbornness. When they’re confused, when they’re called for, when they’re not.

It doesn’t just explore through Egido, Tosar, and Bardem; their pals are just as important. There’s Bugallo, who becomes a day drinker with his wife away taking care of family. There’s Joaquín Climent, who owns the bar where they all drink. He took his severance and set up a place where everyone else could give him theirs (but no, he actually comps his alcoholic pals). He’s also got teenage daughter Aida Folch, who probably shouldn’t be growing up in this environment. Especially not given Bardem’s such an oaf of a man-slut. Then there’s Enrique Villén, who’s a security guard (so a cop), and Serge Riaboukine, who came to Spain when the Soviet Union collapsed. Cosmonaut to ship-builder to handbill passer. And because the acting and the script are so damn good, Mondays is able to get away with such an obvious statement about the world grinding up its workers.

Performance-wise, Bardem’s best. Then Egido. Then de Medina, then Tosar. She’s better because of the material. Suffering wife beats out passive inflicter of said suffering. The supporting cast is all excellent too.

Very nice cinematography from Archie Mayo. That Godoy score is great—gentle, yet aware of the grit. Capillas’s editing is fantastic. Julio Esteban’s production design. The technical side is all strong.

Mondays in the Sun is an outstanding film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fernando León de Aranoa; written by de Aranoa and Ignacio del Moral; director of photography, Alfredo Mayo; edited by Nacho Ruiz Capillas; music by Lucio Godoy; production designer, Julio Esteban; produced by Elías Querejeta and Jaume Roures; released by Sogepaq.

Starring Javier Bardem (Santa), José Ángel Egido (Lino), Luis Tosar (Jose), Nieve de Medina (Ana), Joaquín Climent (Rico), Aida Folch (Nata), Enrique Villén (Reina), Serge Riaboukine (Serguei), and Celso Bugallo (Amador).



The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019, Lee Won-tae)

According to the opening titles, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is based on a true story, which is—I assume—why it takes place in 2005. The story, about a cop (Kim Mu-yeol) and his least favorite gangster (Ma Dong-seok) teaming up to take down a serial killer, comes off like a seventies update of M. But not for any good reasons. I mean, Park Se-seung’s cinematography is fine but the piss yellow lighting on the night scenes (and the film’s got a lot of them) would look better if it were set in the seventies. Along with Jo Yeong-wook’s score, which is so generic it sounds like they bought a bunch of royalty-free music tracks. Though maybe if the direction was better it wouldn’t matter. A lot of the time during the film, you wonder what it would be like if the direction were just a little bit better.

As a director, Lee is a low mediocre. There are a few times, especially with car shots for some reason, he dips below mediocre and you can’t tell if the shot’s his fault or if it’s Park’s fault. Doesn’t really matter, because as a writer Lee is a low mediocre too. Devil runs a somewhat lengthy 109 minutes. There are long unpleasant stretches; not when Lee’s establishing a high level of violence in the first act (which he then never matches or even approaches again), but when there’s a lot of exposition with the cops. See, Kim is a super cop but only because he’s not on the take like his boss (Yoo Seung-mok, who does better work than the role deserves). It’s not like he’s smart. He only figure out there’s a serial killer because everyone else is stupid and lazy and besides maybe he wants to impress CSI Kim Gyu-ri, who’s in the movie to give it a single female character. There’s so little chemistry between the two they could be siblings (I came up with that joke before I realized they had the same surname). Actually, outside their credited character names, there’s nothing in the film to disallow that relationship—Lee’s a really, really low mediocre writer. 109 minutes and there’s not an ounce of character development in the script. Bit players with funny lines have more depth than the main cast.

But it doesn’t matter because it’s got a good hook—the killer, played by a really effective Kim Sung-kyu, is scary and dangerous. See, he rear ends cars and then kills the drivers. Cop Kim figures it out because CSI Kim isn’t good enough at her job to notice the scuff marks on the back of the car. It’s okay because neither are any of the male cops. Only Kim is good enough. Because he’s better looking than everyone else and he’s not on the take. And he’s likable. He’s not charming, not with Lee’s writing and direction, but he’s likable. Kim can handle the trifling super cop bravado stuff. He just doesn’t have a character.

Pretty soon after the serial killer gets started and Kim’s ideas get shot down, gangster Ma gets attacked. By the serial killer. Only Ma is a kickass fighter, built like a tank, and able to throw people around. Now, during the attack sequence, it should have been clearer but Devil’s secret power is editors Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu. It isn’t clear because Ma’s such a badass you think you’re just watching this great action scene but then, later on in other action scenes, it becomes clear Heo and Han are doing a beautiful job cutting it. And somehow Lee, who’s got some super bland Panavision composition during the exposition (it shouldn’t have been shot so wide but it’s now the norm since it no longer takes work or talent to shoot so wide), knows what shots to get during the action scenes to allow Heo and Han to make it pretty.

Very strange.

But good, because it pays off in the third act, which goes on way too long. And in the second act, when there’s a great fight scene with Kim and Ma teaming up. Really good fight scene.

The film’s super power—not it’s secret power, but it’s obvious power—is Ma. He’s great. Even with a razor thin part and a questionably competent director, Ma turns in a phenomenal performance. Sometimes you just sit and wonder what it would be like to see Ma directed with ability. He knows what he needs to do in a scene, even if Lee seems to have no idea.

Still, while Ma’s great, it’s not a great part. Devil shortchanges him. Ma’s a super star without a super star part.

So there are some significant caveats, and it goes on forever because Lee’s narrative storytelling chops are rough… but Devil’s fine. It’s engaging thanks to its cast and the plot hooks. And that editing. That gorgeous, gorgeous editing.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Won-tae; director of photography, Park Se-Seung; edited by Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu; music by Jo Yeong-wook; produced by Jang Won-seok and Seo Kang-Ho; released by Acemaker Movieworks.

Starring Ma Dong-seok (Jang Dong-soo), Kim Mu-Yeol (Jung Tae-seok), Kim Sung-kyu (Hong Gil-dong), Choi Min-cheol (Kwon Oh-sung), Yoo Seung-mok (Captain An), and Kim Gyu-ri (Cha Seo-jin).


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