Sung-jae Lee

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.


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).


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).


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