Foreign

Enter the Fat Dragon (2020, Tanigaki Kenji)

Enter the Fat Dragon is about Hong Kong super-cop Donnie Yen (already in a pound of makeup before he puts on the fat suit, presumably to look more age appropriate for love interest Niki Chow) who goes too far one too many times and finds himself busted down to the evidence room. After Chow dumps him—they’ve been together ten years and just now about to get married and he ruins their engagement photo shoot with his opening action sequence (it’s a bigger deal because she’s an actress whose profession he doesn’t respect)–Yen hits the junk food hard, which is clearly a big change for him since he started the movie junk food shaming subordinate then boss Louis Cheung for eating a slice of pineapple. Pretty soon he’s put on a hundred pounds; Yen started the movie at a cool one-fifty, because it’s in the opening narration.

It’s weird for a fifty-seven year-old man to talk to you about his weight at the start of a movie but whatever.

He’s clearly only supposed to be thirty-five.

Anyway. Dragon is a movie from 2020 where star producer hyphenate Yen thought it was a great idea to put on a fat suit and do wire-fu on an absolutely fantastic Japanese street set. It took a while to realize it was a set, but once I did, I kept getting distracted with the great detail in the background cast. Whoever designed the set, built it, directed the extras, just phenomenal work.

Lee Kin-wai’s the art director, so maybe it’s Lee Kin-wai’s department.

There’s an okay fight scene on the street set, going on the rooftops and such. Tanigaki’s direction gets most of the martial arts action, but doesn’t do anything interesting with it. It doesn’t showcase Yen well, which might more be because he doesn’t get any close-ups in the movie because of all the make-up he’s clearly wearing.

And some of the other action is fine. It’s too rush—Dragon runs just over ninety minutes and hurries through subplots. But it’s obvious we’re not missing much.

After a while—and all the junk food in the vending machine—Yen goes to Japan on his redemption assignment, a prisoner transfer (throughout Dragon feels like a mix of an eighties action movies, James Bond, and whatever else I’ve forgotten—just never Enter the Dragon, outside some forced references). The transfer goes wrong thanks to dirty Japanese cop Takenaka Naoto and Yen’s stuck in Japan—he also loses his luggage, leading him to ex-Hong Kong cop Wong Jing. Wong—who also cowrote—is a big lovable dope who loves the restaurant owner (Teresa Mo) across the street. Together they’re basically joint foster parents to lovable teen orphan Lin Qiunan. Every Chinese person Yen meets in Japan is great and every Japanese person he meets in Japan is a villain.

The main villain is Joey Iwanaga, who’s more enthusiastic than the role needs or the movie seems to care. He’s Yakuza and behind Yen’s prisoner transfer problems; he’s also Chow’s new boss.

It’s never good—though there are a handful of great laughs, most of them exceptionally cheap because Enter the Fat Dragon is slapstick. Some of the way they “get away” with Yen being clumsy in the fat suit is having him be clumsy before the fat suit, when he’s just in that pound of make-up. Most of the slapstick’s not good.

The end is a large scale action finale; not good either. There may even be a Superman: The Movie nod.

Dragon’s bad slapstick with a lot of cheap jokes. Not the expected ones, but still cheap ones.

Yen’s not able to even make micro-expressions in his makeup so he hasn’t got much of a performance. The martial arts stuff looks good enough it’d be nice if the movie had a good director.

Chow’s eh. Even though they’re even more age inappropriate, Jessica Jann—as Takenaka’s Chinese national interpreter but not accomplice—and Yen have more chemistry than he ever has with Chow. It’s not her fault; she’s kind of a villain? She’s shallow because she doesn’t want him to be a super-cop, which somehow manages to become a subplot, though I guess you need it for the reconciliation arc.

The first act kept having… not exactly potential, but enthusiastic possibilities only it never takes them on. Instead—outside that great street set and some technical aspects of the finale–Dragon never really does anything. It’s milquetoast.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Tanigaki Kenji; written by Chan Kin-Hung, Lui Koon-Nam, and Jing Wong; directors of photography, Fung Yuen-man and Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Lee Ka-wing; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; produced by Connie Wong and Donnie Yen; released by Mega-Vision Pictures.

Starring Donnie Yen (Fallon Zhu), Niki Chow (Chloe Song), Joey Iwanaga (Shimakura), Jing Wong (Thor), Teresa Mo (Charisma), Lin Qiunan (Little Tiger), Louis Cheung (Commander Huang), Takenaka Naoto (Inspector Endo), Jessica Jann (Maggie), and Watanabe Tetsu (Grandfather).


Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



The Raid (2011, Gareth Evans), the international version

For the first forty-five minutes or so, The Raid is able to keep going on the idea lead Iko Uwais is going to be the most kick ass fighter in the movie. There a handful of short expository scenes throughout the film, plus a prologue, where Uwais prays, does some martial arts workouts (it’s all Indonesian martial arts in the film), kisses pregnant wife Fikha Effendi goodbye, has plot twist foreshadowing moment with dad Henky Solaiman, and is off to work—but otherwise it’s all action. For a while it’s shooting action, as Uwais and his fellow SWAT team members infiltrate a high-rise tenement run by drug lord Ray Sahetapy. Once it goes to martial arts action, however, it’s all martial arts action, finally letting Uwais deliver on what the prologue promised.

Except by then we’ve already seen Yayan Ruhian and the movie doesn’t even pretend Uwais is going to surpass Ruhian. When Uwais does finally get around to fighting him, it’s Donny Alamsyah teaming up with Uwais to fight Ruhian. Director Evans knows no one’s going to think Uwais can handle this one on his own, which sort of leaves Uwais an awkward action hero. He starts the movie a renegade—because he’s the only caring SWAT cop, which we know because they were ready to kill civilian Iang Darmawan for being around and Uwais steps in to save the guy—ends up doing the action scenes out of a couple different buddy cop movies, then ends it all solo, even though he’s with a literal cop buddy for it. But it never feels like Uwais is getting short-changed, at least not in the second half; the hero of the first half is Joe Taslim. He’s the sergeant and the only one who knows there’s something shady about the raid because he knows Pierre Gruno is a shady guy. Meanwhile Gruno doesn’t want cannon fodder like Uwais getting in his way, even though Gruno’s not a martial arts bad ass like everyone else in the movie.

The Taslim as lead thing is just weird because director Evans just assumes the audience is going to go for it. The Raid has some beautifully executed action sequences and some great fight choreography, but Evans’s best instinct is for what works with the cast. The movie starts with Uwais, sticks with Uwais—introducing Taslim as the leader and quickly establishing his relationship with Gruno—but when it’s time for Taslim to take on Ruhian, it’s not a supporting character’s fight scene. It’s the big hero’s fight scene.

Uwais’s arc sort of stalling out probably doesn’t help him maintain the spotlight. After the first big action sequence, Uwais has a whole “help wounded comrade” survive arc. Tegar Satrya’s the wounded comrade. The movie’s only ever established he’s a dick, which makes Uwais saving him somewhat more dramatic maybe, but no more entertaining to watch. Plus Satrya’s unlikable. Only he and Gruno are unlikable. Everyone else, good or bad, is enjoyable to watch. Like Alfridus Godfred, who’s basically just “Machete Guy,” because everyone gets their hands on a machete. Godfred’s terrifying, just a walking embodiment of probable dismemberment. But you want to see him, you want to see him more, as the film builds to whatever fight sequence he’s going to participate in. Again, Evans has great instincts for rising action scene tension.

The drama stuff, involving Uwais, Alamsyah, Gruno, Darmawan, and Sahetapy? Eh. Sahetapy’s is the best because Sahetapy’s a very evil hoot of a villain. Evans also knows how violent to get and not to get, when to show, when to tell, when to imply. But the drama? It’s take it or leave it. It’s not bad, just pedestrian and superfluous. Or should be.

See, while everyone who’s got a big fight scene—Taslim, Uwais, Alamsyah, and, obviously, Ruhian—is great at the fighting… Evans isn’t great at the directing. He’s good enough at it for a while, but when it’s the marathon Ruhian vs. Uwais and Alamsyah fight? It gets boring. Evans can showcase his actors’ skills but he can’t keep them compelling. Evans also edited the film and most of the editing is excellent, but the longer fight scenes—usually when there’s not scenery around to damage—the cuts are just between not great shots. It’s a bummer.

Nice photography from Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono, great music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese (which is the difference between this international version and the original, plus an added subtitle, Redemption, because of rights issues). The Raid is about as good as you can get for an all-action martial arts movie with the barest hints of a real story and flat direction on the martial arts themselves. It’s very impressive work from Evans and company.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written, directed, and edited by Gareth Evans; directors of photography, Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono; music by Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese; produced by Ario Sagantoro; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Iko Uwais (Rama), Joe Taslim (Jaka), Donny Alamsyah (Andi), Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog), Pierre Gruno (Wahyu), Ray Sahetapy (Tama), Tegar Satrya (Bowo), Iang Darmawan (Gofar), Eka ‘Piranha’ Rahmadia (Dagu), Verdi Solaiman (Budi), and Alfridus Godfred (Machete Gang #1).


Elite Squad (2007, José Padilha)

Elite Squad is about how hard it is to be a fascist stormtrooper in Rio de Janeiro, because not only do you have to deal with militarized criminals, corrupt cops, smooth-talking (and sexy) liberals, you also might have a wife who doesn’t like you being a fascist stormtrooper or some dead kid’s mom come ask you to help find his body because you left it, but the worst thing is how you yourself know it’s wrong to be a fascist stormtrooper and you can’t make the shakes go away.

The only way to make them go away is to fully commit and wouldn’t that development be the greatest tragedy, to watch narrator and “Elite Squad” captain Wagner Moura—it’s not called Elite Squad, it’s BOPE (for Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), it’s like if SWAT were officially supposed to be a hit squad—anyway, wouldn’t it just be so sad to see Moura have to give in and be a BOPE officer forever. Because he wants out, but he couldn’t leave until they take out one last drug dealer (Fábio Lago), even if it costs him his marriage to Maria Ribeiro. Once he gets Lago, Ribeiro will take him back. We don’t know Ribeiro will take him back because she leaves his ass after he sticks his finger in her face and screams at her about being the boss of the house. But, in his narration, Moura seems sure. Because in his narration, Moura sounds like a sociopath, which actually sets him apart from the rest of the BOPE officers, who have maybe one scene with any personality and the rest of the time are just action figures.

Action figures without personality is better than the regular cops, who are either entirely corrupt or just plain psychopaths. You have to be more restrained to be a BOPE, so they can only take the sociopaths.

The movie’s actually the story of best friends, roomies, and rookie cops André Ramiro and Caio Junqueira, who are finding out just how corrupt things are with their fellow brothers in blue. Squad’s at its best when Junqueira’s got his whole odyssey through the cops’ corruption racket, how they’ve split up the city into protection zones and squabble with one another to extort the most money. It’s fascinating and beautifully paced. It helps Junqueira’s guide is dirty cop Milhem Cortaz; Cortaz is great during this part of the film. He falls apart later, when he, Junqueira, and Ramiro end up at the boot camp. The boot camp sequence, with Moura’s omnipresent narration, is… troubling. It’s where the film gradually forgets dehumanized fascist stormtroopers are bad and instead, with the narrator guiding the way, decides maybe they’re really cool. Especially when they’re breaking in the newbies.

Because it turns out the only solution to Rio’s crime problem is these BOPE soldiers. The criminals are militarized and every single one of the ones Moura tortures turns out to be lying to the cops, so you know, it’s the poors in the slums too. The corrupt cops you occasionally get to kill when they’re taking payoffs. The smooth-talking, sexy liberals are a big problem—Ramiro’s got an exhausting subplot about law school and liberal rich girl (Fernanda Machado) who runs an NGO in the slums to help the youths at least stay in school-they’re going to try to seduce you away from the real problem.

And what’s the real problem? Elite Squad isn’t one of those “asks tough questions” pro-fascist stormtrooper movies. It’s not one of those “doesn’t ask tough questions” ones either. It just kind of shrugs. It’s not even committed enough to do the “cops as a gang” thing.

Now, as it turns out, some of that lack of commitment to anything might have to do with co-writer Bráulio Mantovani and director Padilha deciding in post to make the movie about Moura and having him record the omnipresent narration and make some other cuts. I mean, it probably helps a lot—without Moura narrating Junqueira and Ramiro’s stories those portions of the film would be rather rough. Ramiro’s boring (though Machado’s good). Junqueira’s just an unpleasant prick. So even though Moura’s actual omnipresent, past-tense narration is really dumb—it occasionally drops in statements like, “So and so later told me,” and it’s like, sure, Jan—it’s a lot better than the thought of Ramiro and Junqueira unaccompanied.

Good direction from Padilha, great editing from Daniel Rezende, great photography from Lula Carvalho. If something goes wrong with either, it’s because of something Padilha’s doing, not Rezende’s cuts or Carvalho’s lights.

Elite Squad is kind of like a grim and gritty G.I. Joe toy commercial going off the rails when it realizes how messed up to be a fascist stormtrooper, but then somehow goes even more off the rails when it decides the coolness of being a fascist stormtrooper is better, actually.

The best performances are Cortaz, Lago, Machado, and Ribeiro (which is something because Ribeiro’s got a crap part). Ramiro’s less unlikable than Junqueira, but Junqueira’s probably better. Moura’s… fine. His narration performance isn’t great or good or even as fine as his onscreen one. If it were… might be better, might not matter. Padilha and Mantovani seemed to think it made the film better. No reason to assume they were wrong.

Just doesn’t make it good. Elite Squad’s a capable production team in search of a better project… with a better cast.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by José Padilha; screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani, Padilha, and Rodrigo Pimentel, based on the book by André Batista, Pimentel, and Luiz Eduardo Soares; director of photography, Lula Carvalho; edited by Daniel Rezende; music by Pedro Bromfman; production designer, Tulé Peak; costume designer, Cláudia Kopke; produced by Padilha and Marcos Prado; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Wagner Moura (Capitão Nascimento), André Ramiro (Aspirante Matias), Caio Junqueira (Neto), Milhem Cortaz (Capitão Fábio), Fernanda Machado (Maria), Maria Ribeiro (Rosane), and Fábio Lago (‘Baiano’).


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).


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