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The Swindlers (2017, Jang Chang-won)

The Swindlers is all about being all about the con movie. No one in the film is meant to be trusted, though some of the characters are more sympathetic than others. The film is full of twists—the titular Swindlers aren’t a well-functioning unit, but a collection of blackmailed con artists and their corrupt district attorney boss—so someone is always either about to screw over someone else or has just gotten screwed over. How much screwing over everyone can take… well, the characters are meant to end up on a collision course. The sandbox they’re in is so small it’s inevitable, though sometimes for unrevealed reasons.

Those reveals aren’t exactly surprising, because the film invites an examination of its subterfuge; without the fun of unravelling the cons, The Swindlers wouldn’t work. More than not working, it wouldn’t exist. Writer and director Jang is very directly out to entertain, ditto his cast.

The film opens in flashback. South Koreans have just fallen victim, en masse, to a Ponzi scheme. The perpetrator escapes, with millions. Jang moves between various victims (and various kinds of victims) before settling on ostensible lead Bin Hyun. Bin’s a small-time crook, son to a world-class forger; turns out dad (Jung Jin-young) is also involved with the Ponzi guy. Bin gets a little bit of character development, mostly reactionary, then the movie jumps ahead to the present. And Bin disappears.

Instead, the film follows con artists Im Jin-ah, Ahn Se-ha, and Bae Seong-woo. Im is the gorgeous con woman who apparently likes jewelry (none of the three get any actual character details after their first two scenes). Ahn is the computer guy. Bae is the straight man. Yu Ji-tae is their boss, a corrupt district attorney who’s on a mission to shutdown the Ponzi schemer’s collaborators. Sometimes he uses his team of con artists, sometimes he uses the cops and his staff, sometimes he uses a street gang he’s also blackmailing. The film never really pauses to dwell on Yu’s villainy. But it’s considerable, especially as the film progresses, as he adds greed to his list of sins. Once hundreds of millions of won are in play, Yu becomes even less trustworthy.

Of course, the alternative is to trust Bin, who eventually aligns himself with Yu and team to take out the Ponzi schemer, who’s too smart to come back to Korea so instead he sends straight-edge stooge Park Sung-woong. Im ends up with the job of gaining Park’s trust, leading to some rather amusing sequences. Park and Im work well off each other; no one else in the film really has the opportunity to work up any rapport. So it’s nice they’re so good together.

Though it’s never clear how Ahn and Im, in particular, operate in such a dangerous world. Bae’s a brute and Bin and Yu are dueling masterminds, but Ahn and Im are kind of just nice people. Sure, they’re con artists, but they lack the temperament for all the potentially perilous situations they’re in.

Again, Jung doesn’t really care. He just wants Swindlers to amuse and he succeeds. Ahn and Im are both perfectly good. Bae’s good. Bin’s really likable. Choi Duk-moon’s hilarious as one of the marks. Yu’s not likable, but he’s a pleasant bad guy to follow around. He’s always got to be on guard with his team, which somehow gets him some sympathy. For as long as the movie needs it before things get more intense, once the money score aspect of it gets introduced. Because everyone’s got a different agenda they’re trying to achieve.

Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be Swindlers.

The film’s technically solid. Jang’s not a great director by any measure, but he’s competent at directing the actors through the various plot twists. Their general likability makes it work. Nice editing. The music is a little much but composer Bang Jun-seok seems to understand the film needs help and goes all out to provide it. If Jang were a better director, the music would be way too much. But its enthusiasm is good, given the circumstances.

The Swindlers is slight. It’s also consistently amusing and has a great pace. It’s cute. Not in a pejorative sense at all, but like many of its cast members (Bin, Im, Ahn, Park), it’s just cute.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jang Chang-won; director of photography, Lee Tae-yun; music by Bang Jun-seok; produced by Sung Chang-Yeon; released by Showbox.

Starring Bin Hyun (Hwang Ji-sung), Yu Ji-tae (Park Hui-su), Im Jin-ah (Choon-ja), Bae Seong-woo (Ko Seok-dong), Ahn Se-ha (Kim), Park Sung-woong (Kwak Seung-geon), Choi Duk-moon (Lee Kang-suk), and Jung Jin-young (Hwang Yoo-suk).


The Prison (2017, Na Hyeon)

The Prison takes place in 1995. Is it because smartphones would ruin the execution of the premise? Or maybe something has changed in the South Korean prison system to no longer make the premise plausable? I don’t know. It’s a pointless and somewhat distracting detail.

The premise pretends to be high concept. Han Suk-kyu is the boss of The Prison. Not just the inmates, but the guards and the warden. He’s a crime boss, he orchestrates hits, he puts together heists, he just does it all from inside The Prison.

Disgraced ex-cop Kim Rae-won has just arrived. He immediately gets into a fight with Sin Seong-rok’s fourth tier thug. Kim arrested Sin. There’s a number of well choreographed fight scenes between the two of them throughout the film. But it puts Kim in Han’s orbit and pretty soon Kim is slowly becoming more and more important in the prison crime empire.

Sin stays present throughout, occasionally as comic relief, and there are subplots involving the corrupt warden (Jeong Woong-in) and some of Han’s gang. Something is always happening in The Prison. Keeping it busy means writer-director Na doesn’t have to worry about character development. The Prison’s real simple, it’s an action thriller set in a prison, it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously. Han hints at some depth in his performance, but there’s nothing supporting it in the script. Kim has a bigger backstory, but it eventually just makes a mess of the present action. Simply, Na’s storytelling instincts aren’t good. He thinks The Prison needs a gimmick to be engaging. It doesn’t, of course, it has Han and Kim.

Despite a thin character, Han gives a great performance. If the writing were better, Han would be better. Instead of excelling thanks to The Prison, Han just holds it together. Kim’s a lot broader. He doesn’t encourage stability or investment–his writing is bad too. Na’s problem is he doesn’t have any idea what to do with Han or Kim after establishing their both great at their jobs. Han is a great crime boss, Na just doesn’t give the character enough backstory for the narrative to be plausible. Ditto Kim. He was a great detective, idealistic in his corruption, who ends up in jail and finds himself applying his existing skills to help criminals. There’s even dialogue about it in the script; Na can’t figure out how to show it.

The third act feels way too rushed, way too contrived. There’s a lot of varied action; Na and editor Kim Chang-joo do fine with the individual action scenes, just not with stringing them together. Bang Joon-seok’s score doesn’t help matters, especially not in the third act.

Fine cinematography from Hong Jae-sik. Na’s a more than competent director, he just didn’t write well enough to end up with anything at the end of the film. Kim’s likability matters a lot more than it should. Na leverages the whole movie off that likability; otherwise, Kim’d be so thin he’d get stuck on the wall.

Most of The Prison’s solid though. It doesn’t even start to feel long until the epilogue.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Na Hyeon; director of photography, Hong Jae-sik; edited by Kim Chang-joo; music by Bang Joon-seok; produced by Lee Sung-hun and Choi Ji-yoon; released by Showbox.

Starring Han Suk-kyu (Jung Ik-ho), Kim Rae-won (Song Yoo-gun), Jeong Woong-in (Manager Kang), Jo Jae-yoon (Hong-pyo), Sin Seong-rok (Chang-gil), Kim Seong-gyoon (Dr. Kim), and Lee Kyeong-yeong (General manager Bae).


Tunnel (2016, Kim Seong-hun)

Tunnel is a small scale disaster movie. It’s also not. It’s about a small scale response to a big disaster. Writer and director Kim takes some time introduce threads about craven reporters, craven government officials, craven capitalists, but most of the movie is lead Ha Jung-woo stuck in a tunnel. The first ninety minutes of the movie move real, real fast. Ha’s stuck in his car in a collapsed vehicular tunnel; it’s 2016 so he’s got a cellphone with some reception and he’s got some water so it’s mostly an unpleasant camping experience for the first act.

Then Kim starts introducing more drama, more tension. There’s the initial terrifying experience–a tunnel collapsing as Ha drives through–but the film quickly finds a rhythm. The cellphone helps; it lets Ha talk to wife Bae Doo-na and rescue chief Oh Dal-su. Because Tunnel’s not an actor’s film. Ha’s role is good, but he doesn’t have any amazing “man stranded under 200 kilometers of mountain” scenes. Kim’s more interested in keeping Tunnel moving, keeping it surprising in its relatively limited narrative space. Kim has some texture scenes in the second act, but the action never goes too far from the tunnel.

Bae does eventually get some great scenes. She never gets to take over the movie though. Kim’s direction, with a handful of character moments, is all about the drama, all about the gimmick. Man trapped in tunnel. And he does an excellent job with it. There’s enough tension inherent in the narrative itself, going down a rabbit hole with Ha or Bae is just going to distract. Instead, there are those great character moments and there’s also a lot gentle symbolism. Kim’s got to engage the audience’s sympathy quickly but he doesn’t want to be cheap about it. Tunnel’s deliberate pace, which gets positively exhausting in the third act, is one of Kim’s best contributions to the narrative. His direction of his script is spot-on.

But all of his direction is spot-on. Tunnel’s not sensational enough to push the limits of disaster movie (it’s anti-sensational) and it’s not introspective enough to be a character study. It’s an effects-filled, restrained disaster thriller.

Great photography from Kim Tae-Sung, especially fantastic editing from Kim Chang-ju. Director Kim makes a conscious choice to abandon Ha in the tunnel occasionally, even when his narrative might apparently be more compelling then the subplots; the pacing of everything has to be just right. And Kim Chang-ju’s editing makes it happen. There’s not just audience expectation, there’s the characters’ expectations too. The tension is insoluble, but still reasonably gentle.

Oh has a great time as the rescue chief. He doesn’t exactly get to be comic relief, but he gets closer than anyone else. But he’s also got to be the audience’s objective viewpoint. He’s got to be reliable. For both audience and characters. It’s kind of serious, kind of not. Oh excels at it.

And Bae is phenomenal towards the end of the picture. She sort of takes the protagonist role–as much as Tunnel has one–from Ha.

Good support from Nam Ji-hyun.

Maybe Tunnel could’ve gone further, but Kim’s ambitions are confidently realized where it goes. It’s just a thriller after all. We can’t always be worried about tunnels coming down….

Can we?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Seong-hun; director of photography, Kim Tae-Sung; edited by Kim Kim Chang-ju; music by Mok Young-Jin; production designer, Lee Hwo-Kyoung; produced by Billy Acumen and Lee Taek-dong; released by Showbox.

Starring Ha Jung-woo (Lee Jung-soo), Bae Doo-na (Se-hyun), Oh Dal-su (Dae-kyung), and Nam Ji-hyun (Mi-na).


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).


The Suspect (2013, Won Shin-yeon)

The Suspect isn’t just another action thriller where the director never lets up the pace; it’s also one where the filmmakers constantly force the viewer into one emotional response–a negative one–before relieving the tension a little and creating a hopefulness, then repeating an even more negative situation.

It’s expertly manipulative and director Won seems to understand as long as he goes out with the viewer rewarded enough, no one’s going to hold it against the film. It provides a good ride with minimal resentment.

Even after the final manipulations–Won and writer Lim Sang-yoon eschew a sublime ending for a melodramatic (and entertaining) one–the biggest problems with The Suspect are the technical ones it has all along. Won relies way too much on digital video to insert lame noveau cinéma vérité shots (Suspect is very post-Greengrass Bourne), Shin Min-kyung’s editing is weak and Kim Jun-seong’s music is a little much. But Won makes up for those unpleasantries with excellently staged action sequences and fine directing of his actors.

Gong Yoo plays a North Korean defector who just happens to be a super spy and just happens to find himself in a bunch of trouble. Luckily he’s got the help of a reporter–Yoo Da-in–who’s got an agenda of her own. Too bad his old nemesis from his spying days, Park Hee-soon, is assigned to catch him.

It’s a contrived setup but the actors all make it work; Won handles it all earnestly too. Even the exaggerated costumes.

The Suspect’s a welcome diversion.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Won Shin-yeon; written by Im Sang-yoon; director of photography, Lee Sung-je; edited by Shin Min-kyung; music by Kim Jun-seong; produced by Yoo Jung-hoon and Shin Chang-hwan; released by Showbox.

Starring Gong Yoo (Ji Dong-cheol), Park Hee-soon (Min Se-hoon), Jo Seong-ha (Kim Seok-ho), Yoo Da-in (Choi Kyeong-hee), Kim Seong-gyoon (Ri Gwang-jo), Jo Jae-yun (Captain Jo), Kim Min-jae (Soo) and Song Jae-ho (Chairman Park).


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).


The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho)

If the original Godzilla (the Japanese version, before Raymond Burr) was about the United States as a nuclear power, The Host is a metaphor for the United States as a terrorist state. Or maybe it’s not a metaphor. It’s just about a situation involving Americans and they act with complete disregard for the safety of people and then go and terrorize them for no reason… Yeah, a metaphor suggests it’s coy. The Host is very straightforward in its portrayal of the United States and its foreign policy, which makes the film’s upcoming U.S. release a mystery to me. It’s a release for critics mostly, some way to get knowledge of Korean films out there. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.

But the politics aren’t the center of The Host, they’re just reality. People who’d seen it at festivals touted it online as the superior giant monster movie, but that blurb is a bit of a misnomer. While the film does feature a giant (well, not too giant, about the size of a bus) monster, it’s not really a giant monster movie because it doesn’t follow the rules. With the exception of that original Godzilla, these films tend to fetishize the monster, because it’s the special effects feat. This fetishization goes back to the 1925 Lost World, because the monster was the deal. The films are about seeing what the monster will do. Deviations from this norm are usually considered failures (and sometimes, to be fair, are failures). The Host isn’t about what the monster’s going to do–seeing that exciting special effect–but about the effect of the monster. The Host is one of the most sensitive films I’ve seen–probably the most sensitive Korean film I’ve seen. It’s almost indescribably affecting. From maybe thirty minutes in, there’s one thing going on and the film drags you through it.

I’ve seen director Bong’s other big film, Memories of Murder, and while it’s a good film, The Host is far beyond my expectations. As a director, Bong is quiet and direct. He’s delicate, actually. The Host is a delicate film, not because it might break, but because it might break you. At times it’s a father-son film, a brother film, a father-daughter film, a comedy, an action film, but it mixes all these elements without detriment, because they’re the traditional terms for things like what is going on in The Host. It’s its own film, so I’m sort of handicapped by the terminology. Korean films tend to defy easy genre assignment (my favorite new genre from Korean films, however, will always be the sexual harassment comedy) and, while The Host is no different in that respect, it takes it to a new level. It is, as I said before, indescribable (in a very, very good way).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Baek Chul-hyun and Ha Won-jun; director of photography, Kim Hyung-ku; edited by Kim Seon Min; music by Lee Byung-woo; production designer, Ryu Seong-hie; produced by Choi Yong-bae; released by Showbox.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Kang-du), Byeon Hie-bong (Hie-bong), Park Hae-il (Nam-il), Bae Du-na (Nam-ju) and Ko Ah-sung (Hyun-seo).


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).


Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005, Park Kwang-hyun)

Welcome to Dongmakgol is about an idyllic village in the midst of the Korean War. Two soldiers from the South, three from the North, and an American flyer end up there. Obviously, they learn people are just people and wars are a bad idea, but Dongmakgol revels in itself so much, it’s impossible to dismiss the film as commonplace. It starts strange, with the American crashing. Good CG has obviously made it to Korea and director Park Kwang-Hyun uses a lot of it in Dongmakgol, trying new things with it, fully utilizing it as a storytelling device. Even though the crash looks good, I was unsure of Dongmakgol, since I really didn’t know what it was about. Sometimes not knowing is good, sometimes it’s bad. Immediately following the crash, there’s a standard stand-off when the Communist officer proves himself a decent guy. Again, something else I was worried about. Then, horribly, a battle scene straight from Saving Private Ryan. It’s apparently become the standard for battle scenes.

But once they get the village–which isn’t a Shangri-La aware of its blissful isolation, just ignorant of world events–the film starts to get better and doesn’t stop improving. The Northern and Southern soldiers take time working out their differences, starting with their personal problems first. The pacing is methodical, which hurts the film scene-to-scene, but nurtures a more rewarding experience overall. Somewhere in the middle of the film, Park goes for broke with a three or four minute action sequence done in the studio. It’s a surrealistic CG scene and he pushes it too hard, making the proposition of the scene work better than the scene itself, but it’s done with so much enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to enjoy. Once the film gets back on a more predictable path–it veers again, of course–Park treats the audience to some more exuberance. The end sequence features some great CG and gives the film a great, unexpected, wrap-up.

However… the music, by Joe Hiaishi, almost does the film in. Park’s creating an audio and visual experience with Dongmakgol and Hiaishi recycles one theme over and over again (it sounds like a song from The Muppet Christmas Carol). Stylistically, the music’s out of an episode of “Magnum, p.i.” or “The Incredible Hulk.” It’s far from good enough and doesn’t even achieve a solid mediocrity.

The acting in the film is all high quality. Best is the Communist officer, played by Jeong Jae-yeong, as he’s got the most to do for most of the film. His Southern equivalent, played by Shin Ha-kyun, is good too, but his character’s internally conflicted so he mopes for a lot of it. Ryu Deok-Hwan’s character learns the most about himself in the film, so he’s probably the most interesting. The American, played by some guy named Steve Taschler, is okay. Taschler looks like a cross between Hugh Laurie and Michael O’Keefe, only young, and he’s fine in most of his scenes, especially when there are other people around. I’ve never seen an American actor incorporated so well into an Asian film before (the Godzilla films usually do it to great comedic success, but nothing else).

Dongmakgol is Park’s first film–something almost unbelievable given how well he uses that CG–and it sets him up for one heck of a sophomore slump. It’s an impressive film and Park’s a visual filmmaker, something rare (in quality anyway) these days. I’d probably be calling it one of the best films of last year if it wasn’t for that music.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Park Kwang-hyun; screenplay by Park and Kim Joong, from a play by Jang Jin; director of photography, Choi Sang-ho; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Joe Hiaishi; produced by Choi, Jang, Ji Sang-yong and Lee Eun-ha; released by Showbox.

Starring Jeong Jae-yeong (Chief Comrade Lee Su-Hwa), Shin Ha-kyun (2nd Lt. Pyo Hyun-Chul), Kang Hye-jeong (Yeo-il), Lim Ha-ryong (Jang Young-hee), Seo Jae-kyeong (Army Medic Mun Sang-sang), Ryu Deok-Hwan (Seo Taek-ki) and Steve Taschler (Smith).


Antarctic Journal (2005, Yim Phil-sung)

I guess this film has gotten some bad reviews. Or just excessively mediocre ones. It’s not quite populist enough–it sets itself up as a supernatural thriller set in Antarctica, but it’s all really about internal human conflicts and some creepiness sure. I’m trying to think of a good way to describe it and I suppose the best way is… imagine one of John Carpenter’s “horror” movies from the 1980s (They Live and Prince of Darkness). Now imagine it’s decent. Antarctic Journal is not bad. At some points, it could have gone either way. Respectably uncanny or human conflict. It didn’t need to have both and using the uncanny to fuel the human conflict, well, it’s cheap. I don’t if that’s why the film wasn’t successful. I doubt it. Emotional cheapness is highly rewarded by film-going audiences.

As a “box office failure,” Antarctic Journal is a bit of filmmaking achievement. It’s beautiful–snowy New Zealand fills in for Antarctica–it’s well-directed, the plotting isn’t bad, but the characters never gel. We don’t care enough about the ones who die first (it’s Korean, so it’s not Ernie Hudson) and we don’t worry enough to fuel that internal human conflict I mentioned early. The characters just aren’t full enough. They serve the filming location. The acting is good, even when you expect them to go overboard, the characters keep it under check.

I was fully expecting to turn Antarctic Journal off. I was going to watch the other night’s episode of “The Office,” maybe “Boston Legal” too, if I had time. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped a Korean movie. (The place isn’t called The Stop Button for nothing). That says a hell of a lot about a film industry….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yim Phil-sung; written by Yim and Bong Joon-ho; director of photography, Jeong Jeong-hun; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Kawai Kenji; produced by Lim Heui-cheol; released by Showbox.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Choi Do-hyung), Yu Ji-tae (Kim Min-jae), Kim Kyeong-ik (Yang Geun-chan), Park Hee-soon (Lee Young-min), Yoon Jae-moon (Kim Sung-hoon), Choi Duek-mun (Seo Jae-kyung) and Kang Hye-jeong (Yoo-jin).


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