Jun Ji-hyun

Assassination (2015, Choi Dong-hoon)

Assassination is not effortless. Director Choi makes it look effortless, whether he’s doing an intricate action sequence or one of the film’s many complicated expository scenes. But then there’s also the entire structure of the film, which opens with one character as protagonist, slowly moves to another, but keeps the initial character around as antagonist. All of the film’s storytelling gymnastics work because Choi actually wants to let his actors impress, not the plot machinations.

The script, from Choi and Lee Ki-cheol, is phenomenally constructed. Assassination is about Korean freedom fighters–in 1933–plotting to assassinate a Japanese general and a collaborating Korean businessman. There’s all sorts of double-crossing, all sorts of complications. Choi takes his time with what should otherwise be contrivances, working the scenes–in no small part thanks to some beautiful photography from Kim Woo-hyung–until he finds the honesty in them. Choi, through his direction and he and Lee’s script, wants the viewer to understand what Assassination is doing and how it’s getting there. There’s a sincerity, which lets contrivances pass, but there’s also the acting.

Great performances all around. Jun Ji-hyun, Ha Jung-woo and Lee Jung-jae are the leads, but it takes the film a while to get them all introduced. Assassination runs almost two and a half hours and couldn’t really be any shorter. When Choi does run into problems, it’s because he can’t go twice as long. But the supporting cast is all great too–especially Oh Dal-su and Jo Jin-woong.

Only in the last few minutes of the film does Choi go too far. He knows he can do it, but his victory lap–which is a combination of that sincerity towards the filmmaking and letting his actors show their considerable talent–is one too many. I’m not sure where Choi could’ve taken Assassination to maintain the sublimeness he finds in combining period espionage and action and, although I wish he’d found it, he brings the film to an uneven, but considerably successful conclusion.

Assassination is excellent, epic filmmaking. Somewhat odd title though. A little too on the nose.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Choi Dong-hoon; written by Choi and Lee Ki-cheol; director of photography, Kim Woo-hyung; edited by Sin Min-kyeong; music by Jang Young-gyu and Dalparan; production designer, Ryu Seong-hie; produced by Ahn Soo-hyun and Choi; released by Showbox.

Starring Jun Ji-hyun (An Ok-yun), Ha Jung-woo (Hawaii Pistol), Lee Jung-jae (Yeom Seok-jin), Jo Jin-woong (Sok-sapo), Choi Duek-mun (Hwang Dok-sam), Oh Dal-su (Young-gam), Heo Ji-won (Myeong-Woo), Lee Kyoung-young (Kang In-Gook), Kim Eui-sung (the butler), Park Byung-eun (Kawaguchi) and Kim Hae-suk (the bar owner).


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).


The Thieves (2012, Choi Dong-hoon)

The Thieves doesn’t try to redefine the heist genre. Instead, it shows the genre’s possibilities. The film has the traditional flashbacks, double crosses, triple crosses and so on, but it also brings a tenderness. And it’s a sincere tenderness; the film resonates because of its characters, not its spectacles. However, director Choi does everything he can to make the film viewing experience spectacular. When the film achieves its singular successes, it’s because how of he mixes the ingredients.

There are a lot of characters in the film. Ten thieves and some (mostly) comic relief supporting cast. Choi opens establishing the Korean thieves–they team up with a Chinese crew for the heist–before moving into the film’s central heist. And it’s a central sequence. The Thieves is a never boring 136 minutes and the heist sequences come relatively early. Once it’s done, Choi then moves into the film’s most surprising turn. It becomes an urban adventure thriller. There’s some astounding sequences, which shouldn’t work because of tone, but Choi and his actors bind the everything together seamlessly.

There are showy performances–Kim Yun-seok, Lee Jung-jae and especially Oh Dal-su–and there are quiet performances– Kim Hye-su, Kim Soo-hyun and Simon Yam–and there are quiet performances masquerading as showy ones–Jun Ji-hyun and Kim Hae-suk. They quietly collide and create wonderful energy.

The Thieves isn’t perfect–Choi never finds the right way to end it–but it’s excellent and a lot of fun.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Choi Dong-hoon; written by Choi and Lee Gi-cheol; director of photography, Choi Yeong-hwan; edited by Shin Min-kyung; music by Jang Young-gyu; produced by Ahn Soo-hyun; released by Showbox.

Starring Kim Yun-seok (Macau Park), Lee Jung-jae (Popeye), Kim Hye-su (Pepsi), Jun Ji-hyun (Yanicall), Kim Hae-suk (Chewing Gum), Oh Dal-su (Andrew), Kim Soo-hyun (Jampano), Simon Yam (Chen), Angelica Lee (Julie), Tsang Kwok Cheung (Johnny), Ju Jin-mo (the chief inspector), Choi Deok-mun (the casino manager), Yee Soo-jung (Tiffany) and Shin Ha-kyun (the art gallery director).


Blood: The Last Vampire (2009, Chris Nahon)

What a disaster.

It seems like it should be a good idea… wait, no, it doesn’t. The only time Blood: The Last Vampire works is when it’s a homoerotic romance between Jun Ji-hyun and Allison Miller. The film never recognizes this element, but there’s so much of it, it must have occurred to someone. Jun plays the tortured half-human, half-demon who desperately tries to attain humanity and Miller’s the girl who loves her for it. It’s no different, in the way it plays, than any vampire or werewolf or demon movie with the Romeo and Juliet thing going on.

And it works on that level.

The rest of it is a mess. The script’s awful, the cast is the finest mediocre British actors playing American I can think of (it’s like if the British produced Sci-Fi original movies).

The direction’s occasionally solid. The fight scenes are well choreographed and never too self indulgent. To work, one has to be interested in seeing Jun defeat a bunch of demons. And it does work.

Jun’s a famous (and excellent) Korean actress and Blood‘s her English-language debut. When she isn’t talking, just acting, she’s good. When she’s protective of Miller, she’s good. When they’ve got her talking, it never quite works.

There’s also the seventies setting. It’s a cool idea, but the film doesn’t really do anything with it.

And the end, when the film really could turn around with the big handholding, hug or kiss, really bombs.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Chris Nahon; screenplay by Chris Chow, based on the character created by Kamiyama Kenji and Tereda Katsuya; director of photography, Poon Hang-Sang; edited by Marco Cavé; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Nathan Amondson; produced by William Kong and Abel Nahmias; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Starring Jun Ji-hyun (Saya), Allison Miller (Alice Mckee), Liam Cunningham (Michael), JJ Feild (Luke), Koyuki (Onigen), Yasuaki Kurata (Kato Takatora), Larry Lamb (General Mckee), Andrew Pleavin (Frank Nielsen), Michael Byrne (Elder), Colin Salmon (Powell), Masiela Lusha (Sharon), Ailish O’Connor (Linda) and Constantine Gregory (Mr. Henry).


A Man Who Was Superman (2008, Jeong Yoon-chul)

There’s something rather deceptive about A Man Who Was Superman. It opens as a comedy drama. Reality TV segment producer Jun Ji-hyun’s disillusioned with her job, sick of people, and longing for her absent boyfriend. In short, she’s basically a female version of any late twenties, early thirties male professional in a movie (well, movies until about ten years ago). She’s fine playing burnt out, maybe not deserving of the long time director Jeong takes to show her face (Jun’s a big star in Korea and this film is her first in a couple years).

The rest of the first act involves Hwang Jeong-min as a Superman of the street. He helps old ladies up with their bags, saves Jun from getting hit by a car and even finds missing puppies. Jeong frames these scenes as riffs on the Donner Superman, with Hwang occasionally cowlicked and frequently mimicking Christopher Reeve’s more famous physical poses. And it works. It’s kind of cute and it’s Hwang makes the whole thing a lot of fun. He has a great time in the role and he’s very likable.

It’s also somewhat interesting to see how the film gets around violating copyright–the music never even nears the John Williams realm, but there are a few times where it’s in a strangely identical neighborhood–and Lex Luthor only being referred to as “the bald villain” is good.

Eventually, the film veers into dramatic territory and never gets out. Obviously, if it’s not a screwball comedy and is going to actually examine why Hwang’s running around as a tropical-shirted Superman… it’s going to get into some dangerous (in terms of melodrama) territory. Somehow, A Man Who Was Superman so fully embraces that risk, it comes through clean.

The key is Jun. Her performance, restrained and passive, makes the whole film work as it progresses. It isn’t her ability to show the emotional turmoil the film’s events put the character through. Instead, it’s the way she let’s the viewer see the internal changes in her unmoving face. By the time she gets to have a big emotional scene, it’s entirely natural.

Jeong’s direction–and Choi Yeong-hwan’s cinematography–is unassumingly fantastic. Choi never gets glitzy, even in the more fantastic scenes, and Jeong keeps everything grounded. He mixes comedy and drama easily; where he excels is in his handling of the enthusiasm. A Man Who Was Superman could easily descend into goofy hyperbole, but never does. Jeong keeps it from flying out of control.

The film opens, rather amusingly, with a crystal starship much like the original Superman coming to earth. Combined with all those little moments, it’d be easy to see Jeong get carried away with the references (the non-trademarked ones). He doesn’t, even when it seems like he ought to run with them (he knows he shouldn’t).

I didn’t really know what to expect from A Man Who Was Superman–if only because the entire concept seemed like it couldn’t possibly work. It’s yet another quintessential Korean film, however. The beginning doesn’t let you expect the middle, much less the end. The film succeeds both because of Jeong’s script and Jun’s performance… it’s hard to imagine one without the other.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jeong Yoon-chul; screenplay by Jeong and Yun Jin-ho, based on a story by Yoo Il-han; director of photography, Choi Yeong-hwan; produced by Yoo; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Hwang Jeong-min (Superman), Jun Ji-hyun (Song Soo-jung), Jin Ji-hee (Hee-jeong), Seon Woo-seon (Miss Kim), Seo Young-hwa (Hee-jeong’s mother), Kim Tae-seong (Bong), Park Yong-soo (Doctor Kim), Woo Gi-hong (Ha Soon-kyeong) and Kim Jae-rok (Lee So-ryong).


Il Mare (2000, Lee Hyun-seung)

In graduate school, one of my classmates (or is it colleagues in graduate school?) was having trouble figuring out how to convey the fantastic, but not do magical realism. Another of my classmates (colleagues) recommended she watch Field of Dreams. Everyone was a little thrown by the comment, including me, but then I realized it made perfect sense. Field of Dreams conveyed the fantastic and the magical, but free of genre (in that It’s a Wonderful Life manner).

Il Mare has the same success integrating the fantastic without letting the narrative get swept away by the fetishizing of that element. Boiled down, Il Mare‘s really just about a couple lonely people. Sometimes it’s about the two of them together, but in a lot of ways, it isn’t. It’s two separate–but criss-crossing–narratives, informing one another, affecting one another. The greatest successes come from the raw emotions in the scenes where the leads–Lee Jung-Jae and Jun Ji-hyun–are alone. Jun was only nineteen when Il Mare came out, so she could have been younger when it was filmed, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a young female actor do such fine dramatic work.

But the film, for the majority of it, belongs to Lee. He does a great job driving the film. His story features less establishing narrative than Jun’s–his melancholy is never really defined, but still has to be palpable for the film to work. Whereas Jun’s melancholy is defined and explored, she has to express a silent self-realization in the midst of a big narrative revelation. It’s really impressive to see her pull it off too, given just how melodramatic the scene could get.

Melodrama has an interesting place in Il Mare. At first glance, the film reeks of it–Lee Hyun-seung has some wonderful, emotive shots. Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is strangely (for the content) free of high contrast sumptuousness; instead it’s matter of fact and still affects. The film’s loneliness theme works with those grayish skies. The music also plays toward the melodrama–Il Mare‘s music is nearly flawless (there are some bad vocal song choices, particularly an English one… sounding like something out of a mid-1980s TV movie). But even with those poor song choices, the music makes the film work. Il Mare makes an agreement with the viewer early on–through the music, the direction, the photography–and then kind of slips the fantastic in after he or she is already a willing participant.

This Il Mare viewing is my second. The first time, I judged the film’s conclusion rather harshly. To achieve its full potential, the film has to do one thing and it does not. It does something else instead. While it doesn’t break the experience, it’s an obvious thing it needed to do and I think it really pissed me off the first time through.

Il Mare is, on the first viewing, about experiencing the narrative (that initial agreement sort of forces the situation); my reaction was emotional and a tad juvenile. On this second viewing, well aware of the final misstep, I could appreciate a lot more. Jun’s performance, for example, really wowed me. But there are also a couple dozen exquisite sequences, which I was able to enjoy without concerning myself with their ramifications for the plot.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lee Hyun-seung; written by Kim Eun-jeong and Yeo Ji-na; director of photography, Hong Kyung-pyo; edited by Lee Eun Soo; music by Kim Hyeon-cheol; produced by Cho Min-hwan; released by Sidus Pictures.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (Han Sung-hyun) and Jun Ji-hyun (Kim Eun-ju).


The Uninvited (2003, Lee Soo-youn)

The Uninvited is a technically a horror movie, I suppose. There are ghosts and all. With the exception of the protagonist finding a kindred spirit–and her seeing ghosts too–the whole thing could work as a drama about trauma. In fact, as a drama, it would work well. During the movie, when the inevitable dumb horror movie ending is far, far away, it’s quite good. It’s a quiet drama about wounded people who don’t necessarily get better from finding other wounded people or finding out what wounded them in the first place. It’s a boring, cheerless drama. And it does run long–over two hours–which explains why there’s time to introduce the second main character, the psychic, played by Jun Ji-hyun, after a lot of establishing of the protagonist.

There’s a lot of good acting in the movie–Yu Seon as the confused fiancée (that Uninvited cheats her of being a real character is one of the biggest red flags) is particularly good. The problem with the leads are the constant backstory surprises. Park Shin-yang, playing the main character, experiences a traumatic event during the main titles and suffers from aftereffects. Through contrivance, Jun comes into his life and, because her backstory is so much more interesting, the movie loses all interest in Park’s trauma. It even gives him a deeper, more historical trauma, just so it can involve Jun. At this point, Yu sort of disappears, popping back in every once in a while to remind the viewer Park was, at one point, an important character in the movie. The big traumas at the end, which lead to the “surprise” horror movie ending (surprise is in quotations because it’s really just a standard, stupid horror movie ending), don’t make much sense and aren’t insurmountably traumatic.

One of the interesting things about The Uninvited–the direction is okay, but there’s rarely anything spectacular or compelling–is the place of Christianity in the characters’ lives. Yu’s got a great monologue about praying and a fantastic observation about people leaving church. And the movie certainly suggests religion is going to play a part in the resolution… but it does not. Not at all. The movie even misplaces a baby, it gets so wrapped up in itself.

Park’s got a few good scenes, particularly at the beginning when he’s the focus. Then there’s the twenty minutes the film plays like a mystery and he’s investigating. Those scenes work too. But at the end, when he’s a wreck, Park’s lost… the character’s actions make no sense and Park’s not a good enough actor to make them palatable. Jun’s character’s even worse, a grieving mother abandoned by the script. Lee’s more interested in giving the viewer a surprise than a considered look at grief, which is too bad. Jun, as an actress, is suited for the latter and doesn’t do at all well with the former (as evidenced by the long-shots towards the end).

For so much of the two plus hours, The Uninvited is a good, genre-busting drama. Only at the end does it become a bad horror film. There’s five or six minutes, in the third act, when the movie’s racing downhill I had a chance to get upset about… but the ending’s so dumb, I’m not even upset writer-director Lee ruined the good parts.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Soo-youn; director of photography, Jo Yeong-guy; edited by Kyeong Min-ho; music by Jang Yeong-gyu; produced by Oh Jang-wang and Jung Hoon-tak; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Park Shin-yang (Jeong-won), Jun Ji-hyun (Yeon), Yu Seon (Hee-eun), Jeong Ok , Lee Ju-shil and Kim Yeo-jin.


Daisy (2006, Andrew Lau), the director’s cut

Here’s a rule: if you’re going to have your three principal characters each narrate parts of a story (the first act, for example), make sure they keep doing it through the rest of the drama. Multi-character, scene-specific narration is a terrible idea, but at least stick with what you set-up. Not surprisingly, Daisy doesn’t stick with it. Watching the exceptionally long first act (I’m guessing forty-five minutes), I kept wondering how these narrated storytelling would work once the film–presumably–stopped being told in summary. Once it switched over to scenic storytelling, the narration stopped… so much so, at the end, I couldn’t remember the last narration I’d heard. I think there was some from the girl–Daisy is sort of a love triangle, but not really–through the second act, but definitely not in the third. She’s mute by this time and has been for quite a while, so it would have been nice. In the third act, the film makes its second attempt (the first being the relationship between the two suitors) at something interesting. It reminded me, for a minute, of Hitchcock, when the woman discovers her man isn’t the man she thought.

Korean romantic comedy–well, he’s too old to be a wunderkind, but think a late forties wunderkind–Kwak Jae-young wrote Daisy. His regular lead female actor, Jun Ji-hyun, is in the film and so I was really looking forward to it. He didn’t direct it (Chinese director Andrew Lau directs the Korean actors in the Netherlands), but if he had, Daisy wouldn’t have been any better. It’s an attempt at a tragedy. I say attempt because it never really connects enough to achieve that label. The narration keeps the characters distanced from the audience and Jun’s muteness keeps her distanced from the other characters. The long first act makes it boring and the short third act makes it unbelievable. There’s still a few good things about the film, but nothing to particularly recommend it. Lau’s direction is fine. His editing is occasionally fast in a good way, using the film to create connections in the viewer’s mind. Neat stuff. Of the two suitors, Jung Woo-sung and Lee Sung-jae, Jung is better. He’s the bad guy. He also looks a lot like Skeet Ulrich, but he can act. He can’t surmount the impossibility of the script however.

I’ve read Jun described as Kwak’s muse, but Daisy is no example of that relationship. If it had been one, she’d have been in the film enough to make an impression. Kwak didn’t like her character more than any other ones and he didn’t like her character at all, which explains everything faulty in Daisy.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Lau; written by Kwak Jae-young; directors of photography, Lau and Ng Man-Ching; edited by Kim Jae-beom, Kim Sang-beom, Wong Hoi and Chan Ki-hop; music by Chang Kwong Wing and Shigeru Umebayashi; produced by Teddy Jung; released by Showbox.

Starring Jung Woo-sung (Park Yi), Lee Sung-jae (Jeong Woo), Jun Ji-hyun (Hye-young), Jeon Ho-jin (Detective Jang), Dion Lam (Yun Joon-ha) and David Chiang (Cho).


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