Cinema Service

My Sassy Girl (2001, Kwak Jae-young), the director’s cut

The most important action in My Sassy Girl takes place off screen–the film takes place over a few years (though the main action is over three and a half months), with listless Cha Tae-hyun home from compulsory national service and back in school and having no idea what to do with his life. Enter Jun Ji-hyun's mystery girl, who doesn't just give Cha a love interest, but often provides him with someone to care for (she can't drink, but does) and someone to give him an energy boost.

Director Kwak never goes into either characters' home life too much, but both are still living with their somewhat overbearing parents. The parents get enough personality to be memorable, but Kwak can't give them too much time because My Sassy Girl has a very tight, very meticulous structure. Most of Jun's off screen life is a mystery and it turns out a lot of Cha's is too. And Cha narrates the film, but Kwak wants to fix the audience's attention.

The film is unambiguous–for the comedic scenes, Kwak goes for silent era slapstick music, for melodramatic ones, composer Kim Hyeong-seok is ready with a devastating piece. But Kwak identifies exactly what film stereotypes he wants to play with–Cha and Jun have a scene discussing melodrama in Korean cinema, with a “movie in the movie” example, no less.

Thanks to Kwak's sincere yet ambitious directing and scripting and excellent performances from the leads–Jun gets the harder one and excels–My Sassy Girl is outstanding.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kwak Jae-young; screenplay by Kwak, based on a novel by Kim Ho-sik; director of photography, Kim Sung-bok; edited by Kim Sang-beom; music by Kim Hyeong-seok; production designer, Oh Sang-man; produced by Shin Chul; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Cha Tae-hyun (Kyun-woo), Jun Ji-hyun (The Girl), Kim In-mun (Kyun-woo’s Father), Song Wok-suk (Kyun-woo’s Mother), Han Jin-hie (The Girl’s Father), Hyun Sook-hee (The Girl’s Mother) and Seo Dong-won (The Deserter).


Arahan (2004, Ryoo Seung-wan)

Arahan has a couple big problems. One is just for me–I didn’t get the final joke. I wonder if it was something cultural. The other one has to do with mainstream Korean cinema. Arahan takes a lot from Western blockbusters (most obviously The Matrix… though there’s a nice Back to the Future homage) and marries it to Korean filmmaking sensibilities. It just doesn’t have the budget and director Ryoo doesn’t have the ability to make it special.

As a comedic martial arts fantasy, it’s an enjoyable outing. The third act fight scene, lasting something like twenty minutes, is a little long but Arahan has just spent ninety minutes making the protagonist so likable, it gets the leeway.

The film just can’t achieve its potential, not with Ryoo, the occasionally weak special effects and the awful music from Han Jae-kwon.

Ryu Seung-beom is very likable in the lead–he’s an earnest, if naive young cop who stumbles into his magical abilities. Yoon So-yi plays his love interest and comedic straight woman. They’re good together, but the film drags out the courtship a little long. Possibly because it’s paced so well, actually. Some of Arahan‘s best elements work against the whole.

Ahn Sung-kee plays the wise mentor; he gives a good performance, but can’t overcome some of director Ryoo’s worst choices. As the villain, Jung Doo-hong makes almost no impression (again it’s probably Ryoo’s fault).

Arahan is fun but doesn’t have any of its implied substance.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ryoo Seung-wan; written by Ryoo, Eun Ji-hie and Yu Seon-dong; director of photography, Lee Jun-gyu; edited by Nam Na-yeong; music by Han Jae-kwon; produced by Lee Chun-yeong; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Ryu Seung-beom (Sang-hwan), Yoon So-yi (Wi-jin), Ahn Sung-kee (Ja-woon), Yun Ju-sang (Mu-woon), Kim Ji-yeong (Banya), Kim Yeong-in (Yuk Bong), Baek Chan-gi (Sul Woon) and Jung Doo-hong (Heuk-woon).


Murder, Take One (2005, Jang Jin)

Usually when I say Korean films effortlessly mix genre, I mean it in a good way. It’s still impressive in Murder, Take One; director Jang definitely makes the final ingredient a surprise, but it’s a questionable choice….

The majority of the film—albeit on a reduced budget—is successful. It’s a police procedural with one caveat, the entire investigation is being broadcast live. It’s unclear why the police department is teaming with the TV producers, but it isn’t particularly important. The case is interesting enough (turning out to be Agatha Christie influenced) and the acting is good. Jang is able to make Murder, Take One feel absurdist, while still reasonably grounded.

Until the end, when he doesn’t just take away from the absurdist nature of the television show, he brings in a whole new element. It doesn’t destroy the film—it just pushes it below the fail line.

The acting is, as I said before, all good. Lead Cha Seung-won takes a while to get going—his first scene is opposite Shin Ha-kyun, who’s a far more nuanced actor—but he eventually turns in a solid performance. Ryu Seong-ryong is good as Cha’s colleague and initial competitor (they’re both racing to solve the case before the TV producers muddle it too much) and Jang gives them a nice arc.

Murder, Take One moves well—the first hour flies past; Jang knows how to plot a procedural. His composition’s decent, though he cuts too fast.

It’s generally okay.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jang Jin; directors of photography, Choi Yun-man and Kim Joon-young; edited by Kim Sang-beom and Kim Jae-beom; music by Han Jae-kwon; produced by Lee Taek-dong; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Cha Seung-won (Choi Yeon-gi), Shin Ha-kyun (Kim Young-hun), Shin Goo (Yun), Park Jung-ah (Han Mu-suk), Jeong Jae-yeong (Bully), Kim Ji-su (Jung Yun-jung), Kim Jin-tae (Oh) and Kong Ho-su (Dr. Han).


R-Point (2004, Kong Su-chang)

Kong has definitely seen Apocalypse Now–to the point he pays homage–and Full Metal Jacket–to the point he doesn’t really pay homage, but kind of just lifts moments and shots.

I guess a horror movie set during the Vietnam War’s a good idea. I mean, there’s a lot of history, a lot of possibilities for ghosts–one of the better things about R-Point is its preference to infer, instead of explain, it makes it seem a lot more thoughtful than it turns out to be.

There’s some scary music, but it’s scary in the not-so-scary way. It’s intentionally creepy, with anything possibly creepy broadcast minutes before it comes to pass.

The ending is sort of like the music in that regard. It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen at the beginning of the ten minute end sequence–there’s one “surprise,” but it’s not scary or particularly interesting so I’m not sure why it’s even in the picture–R-Point just moves along towards its inevitable conclusion. Actually, a couple things seemed possible early on, didn’t come to pass, and the film suffered for it. My expectations for its common ghost story elements were better than what Kong came up with.

Kong’s a rather good director, but he slowly loses grasp of his film, clearly narratively, but also filmically. Some of the shots look like terrible DV, it hurts the experience–with the weak script, Kong can’t afford the missteps.

The fine acting all around helps.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kong Su-chang; director of photography, Seok Hyeong-jing; edited by Nam Na-yeong; music by Dal Pa-lan; produced by Choi Kang-hyeok; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Kam Woo-seong (Lieutenant Choi Tae-in), Son Byung-ho (Sergeant Jin Chang-rok), Oh Tae-kyung (Sergeant Jang Young-soo), Park Won-sang (Sergeant Cook), Lee Seon-gyun (Sergeant Park), Song Jin-ho (Sergeant Oh), Kim Byeong-cheol (Corporal Joh Byung-hoon), Jeong Kyeong-ho (Corporal Lee Jae-pil), Mun Yeong-dong (Corporal Byun) and Gi Ju-bong (Captain Park).


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

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

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

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

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

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

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

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


Art Museum by the Zoo (1998, Lee Jeong-hyang)

The film’s title, Art Museum by the Zoo, suggests some geographic awareness–or at least, recognition of a geographic relationship–but there’s never an establishing shot of the art museum or the zoo. There are shots of the intersection leading to either location and there are shots in the museum and at the zoo, but never any to establish either in the viewer’s imagination. The title sounds pleasant and conjures up a lot of its own imagery, which works for the film, since the film lets the viewer conjure up a lot on his or her own too.

Art Museum by the Zoo is a romantic comedy, playing by romantic comedy rules. I place these rules’ inception in 1938, with H.C Potter’s The Cowboy and the Lady. Art Museum seems, at first, to be doing little with the rules. There are the two leads, the man and the woman who can’t stand each other and are forced into each other’s company, there are their two love interests, and the film seems like its going to predictably decouple, then reconnect. Around forty-five minutes in, I became aware Art Museum was doing something different. The supporting cast–the ostensible romantic interests of the leads–disappear. The actors don’t disappear–the two leads start writing a screenplay about a couple and the roles in the movie in the movie are played by their love interests–but the actors don’t appear again in the “real” roles. Art Museum becomes solely about the two leads, played by Shim Eun-ha and Lee Sung-jae, so much so, I think there’s only one new actor in the film–a guy on the street–in the last hour. Art Museum is the first Shim film I’ve seen and I think I’ve read she was South Korea’s most popular actress and retired at the height of her popularity. She’s an excellent lead, both as an actor and as a star. Art Museum is her film–it sets itself up as her film and it all revolves around her, so when the story asks the viewer to accept Lee guiding it, there’s a bit of a disconnect. His character changes drastically–he has an internal, blink-and-you-miss-it revelation–because it’s time for him to stop being a jerk and start being the good guy (just because Art Museum is a little different, doesn’t mean it isn’t going to go where romantic comedies go).

While the closed storytelling approach is interesting, too much emphasis is put on the movie in the movie. The characters’ script isn’t good and the scenes from it aren’t good. The female actor in their script comes off like a simpleton and the male lead is even more unlikable than the real male lead (because his big changeover). However, the direction is such it does more than just hold Art Museum together, it makes the experience a pleasurable one. Director Lee Jeong-hyang shoots the film through a high contrast, amber filter–but never manages to lose lush greenness–and the film’s look, coupled with her composition, makes Art Museum… well, I was going to say a visual feast, but that description’s going a little far. But only a little.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Jeong-hyang; director of photography, Jo Yeong-gyu; edited by Kim Sang-beom; music by Kim Yang-hee; produced by Lee Choon-yeon; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Shim Eun-ha (Chun-Hi), Lee Sung-jae (Chul-su), Ahn Sung-kee (In-Gong) and Song Seon-mi (Da-Hye).


An Affair (1998, Lee Je-yong)

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

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

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

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

3/4★★★

CREDITS

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

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

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


Some (2004, Chang Yoon-hyun)

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

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

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

1/4

CREDITS

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

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


The Classic (2003, Kwak Jae-young)

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

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

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

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

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

2/4★★

CREDITS

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

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


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