What is this madness? It’s almost the eve of February and here I am with another year-end review, right? Nah, let’s just call this a ‘collective film review’.
What a great year for Chungmuro! Bravo! It was filled with so many delights. I found myself striking gold subsequently with each flick that I casually picked. Even from those I least expected to deliver. Though to varying degrees, some were more magical than others, but of the ten I watched I was dissatisfied with absolutely none — which is quite amazing. Considering I’ve suffered for a handful of years now where the couple of films I did watch left a LOT to be desired. And what was with these posters, man? Coincidentally poor Kim Sae-ron was getting herself kidnapped in every single one of those (though I never watched them, so pardon the inaccuracies). But I digress.
Not to fret, I took a crash-course in how to write reviews sans spoilers, so go ahead and read. I might sound redundant and vague as a consequence of being spoiler-free though (aha, that sounds like a good excuse for sloppy writing!).
I am a little regretful that I’ve not had the time to find and watch Wandeuki, The Showdown and Noh Hee-kyung’s Late Blossom, part of my delay was because I had intended to include them.
These are in no particular order, I just threw them in there randomly and please note these films have multiple English titles but I’ll be sticking with just one for each.
This was much better than I had expected it to be. It felt a tad reminiscent of a noir 1950s Hollywood Detective flick, but with an interlaced very Korean humour, writing and directing was by Park In-jae who seems to have little prior credit.
Hwang Jung-min leads the cast playing a reporter wishing to unearth the truth behind the culpability of those suspected to be responsible for the Balam Bridge blast in Seoul, 1994 (fictional). The blame is being pinned on North Korea, and the media is in a frenzy. He is joined by fellow reporter, bumbling idiot but not without his own set of handy field skills – Kim Sang-ho, a nerdy but brilliantly ballsy Kim Min-hee and his editor played by a whipsmart Kim Bo-yeon. However, there are forces at play that would want the truth to remain concealed and our team of reporters are soon threatened. Ensue cat and mouse games where the stakes are life and death, I’m not using that term lightly either.
Honestly? I watched it for the face that ultimately got me into kdramas; Jin Goo (ok, Kim Rae-won and Choi Min-soo also had a part in that). I’m almost ashamed admitting this but I never really finished watching All In, in spite of being considered a classic, solely because Lee Byung-hun could never really draw my attention in the same way Jin Goo had done as his character’s younger counterpart. The latter continues to elude us by flying under the radar with his project choices, but he’s still very much around and still sexy as hell.
I was just pleased to finally watch him again after all these years, and he didn’t fail me. Playing a shady, mysterious character on the run from the authorities and harbouring a guilty secret, that ties him with the Balam Bridge incident.
And yes, there are allusions towards its title, it wasn’t just randomly selected. Moby Dick was a literary work by an American author and the underlying message in this film influenced by that of Moby Dick is, in a roundabout, ironic way, a concealed dig at the American government’s imperialistic nature and its foreign policy.
I curled up to watch this over a rainy night. It was actually my most anticipated flick in 2011. Mostly for two reasons, Nam Ji-hyun and The Way Home’s lady director and screenwriter Lee Jung-hyang, this was actually her return to cinema since the 2002 hit.
I don’t quite know what to make of this film, the directing was nothing too fancy but not shabby either. The dialogue was solid, but the film’s ambiguous nature and open-ended conflicts kind of lost me on both a mental and emotional level, but that’s not to say it didn’t engage me. It wasn’t a waste of my time either – it was an interesting film with some wonderfully shot sequences.
I don’t mind Song Hye-kyo, sure, she’s a little deadpan most of the time, a little pouty even, but my how she stepped up her game in Today. This was her most natural performance to date, she was so immersed in her character I can only applaud her for her obvious improvement as an actress.
I have to admire how Nam Ji-hyun handles her roles. Don’t be fooled by her deer-in-headlights expressions when she initially enters the scene, she’s a clever little actress who seems to know exactly what she’s doing with each of her characters and here is no different. It was actually Nam Ji-hyun’s character subplot that distracted me from the rest of this film, I couldn’t look past her plight as a victim of abuse and the lack of intervention.
Song Hye-kyo’s misery and grief over her loved one got old too quickly, oh, the actress was great but I stopped caring about how much she was struggling to come to terms with her loss, and the whole brouhaha that explores ‘forgiveness’ that constituted the real meat of the story. Why? Because it was all in the past and the entire film was spent locked in that past with little story progression, simply mulling over what had happened, yet the past is the past, it will remain unchanged. So how about our female lead wake up to the present and finally pay more attention towards one particular ticking timebomb that was frantically ringing out for her particular attention?
Or maybe it’s just me, but I just didn’t get what Ms. Lee was trying to get at, or maybe that was exactly her point?
And then, like a hero, I watched this next film straight after on the same night, I went into it blindly not having researched it prior. Big mistake! It took what Today had done in small doses and multiplied it ten-fold.
Child exploitation in films sickens me. I’m not talking about within the film in the fictional realm but the harsh reality, knowing that a child was made to enact some sordid, disturbing scenes that are beyond their years for the sake of entertainment – think the Moroccan kids in Babel, the two children in 2009’s Into the White Night. I could give more extreme examples but then I’m sure no-one here needs to hear such a tirade.
Crucible, similarly has its child cast play out scenes are disturbing and vile. But, I feel I could forgive this film, because those scenes were deliberately made in such a way to serve a purpose, Crucible is based on a true series of incidences in a school for deaf children where the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice. And seeing how there was a public outcry from a very affected audience after watching this film it’s safe to say, its method was effective and something would become of this – hopefully.
Another aspect of this film that actually made it more affecting was how it managed to interweave a few stolen moments of light and hope, happiness, childhood innocence and even heroism in the guise of Gong Yoo’s schoolteacher character. I’ve never been much of a Gong Yoo fan but oh, how much I loved him in this film, he was all warmth, heart and then there was his earnest struggle to save the children and save the day. Alas, this was not that kind of film.
The biggest stars of this show were neither Gong Yoo nor female lead Jung Yumi but the child actors. Kim Hyun-soo (little Dahm-ie from Tree with Deep Roots) was so convincing in her turn as a deaf-mute and I won’t forget the spine-tingling courtroom scene, but the real revelation here was Baek Sung-hwan. My goodness, this kid is phenomenal! He has played blink-and-you’ll-miss-him roles in sageuk Tree with Deep Roots and currently airing Queen Insu and I believe he’s the only real threat to Yeo Jin-gu in the child acting fold. Hopefully by way of this film he will get more exposure. Because after you’re done watching this film, it will be nigh-impossible forget that face.
Client had me fooled. I really thought I had sussed it all out following the clues and my viewer’s intuition, but the last half-hour was so unpredictable. I will bet anyone, you can’t outwit this film, really! OK, maybe you can, if you’re all smarter than me.
I like Jang Hyuk, I like him a lot, and this was a film where he played a character who was pretty much the antithesis of his more popular characters, Dae-gil and Chae-yoon. Vulnerable, pitiful, accused of a crime he may or may not be guilty of – the murder of his wife, and he was so silent – no mighty roars from him here, he barely spoke a word throughout the whole film. He played his character so brilliantly, he stirred up compassion in not only me but also his defending lawyer played by Ha Jung-woo.
Ha Jung-woo was a delight, playing his lawyer character almost like a character straight out of Goodfellas, I loved the accent, too. Park Hee-soon was equally great as Ha Jung-woo’s steely rival attorney on the case and also doubles as his smug frenemy.
The film was well-made, Sohn Young-sung’s directing was slick and dark and though the film was also sold as a courtroom drama it didn’t spend too long confined to the courtroom, the dialogue was fitting, acting was top-notch, it was thrilling, mysterious, suspense-filled and all those elements you would like to see in a film of this genre, give or take some subtle humour, and a bit of a three-way bromance between three very sexy, sexy guys. Oh and there’s Sung Dong-il. Win!
This is a beautifully shot, stylish and atmospheric flick boasting a stellar cast. Shin Se-kyung plays our lead assassin, a femme fatale but with a difference. I do adore Shin Se-kyung, quite a bit, ever since appearance in Queen Seon-deok actually. She has a certain spark and like that she generally shirks cutesier trendies and opts for more meaty, serious roles which she delivers quite convincingly. (I watched this before Tree with Deep Roots, so let’s not go into how cool she was in that — all that plunging off cliffs blindfolded and stuff.) However, while her performance in Blue Salt wasn’t bad per se, in a few scenes she did seem to be trying too hard to appear more cool, detached and tomboyish (and that hair, ugh! Does not suit us girls with heart-shape faces). All in all, I did like her more muted, girl-next-door approach to playing a leather-clad female assassin.
While the cinematography was sleek, the mood was intriguingly pensive; Lee Hyun-seung’s penned story was pretty sparsely told and left me quite lukewarm. The PD-writer also wrote and directed Il Mare, and that also hinged more on mood and aesthetically pleasing cinematography and pretty faces. Even the action was pretty limited, I didn’t find it particularly compelling, nor were the stakes high enough and the film was quite chaste for its genre – though I didn’t mind that, anything raunchy would have been gratuitous and cringeworthy.
It was the acting that was its true saving grace, acting by male lead Song Kang-ho in particular, whose retired Busan crimelord character was all charm and charisma. All in all, I enjoyed the film while watching it, even if it didn’t particularly draw me in convincingly.
But if you want a similar female assassin story but more wholesome, bolder, more kickass, and better told, try the short drama Girl K instead.
The Front Line
What a fantastic war film! I’m not the biggest fan of war films, yet some of the greatest works I’ve seen both in (the Korean and Japanese) film and drama realm happen to be of the war genre. I watch them more for the human drama elements, how convincingly they sell the story and then the politicking also makes them shades more compelling. The best of them however, are the ones where no specific sides are taken, like in Front Line.
The story was fabulous, though not too dissimilar to 2010’s Comrades, its approach to the retelling of a similar story during the Korean War in the 1950s couldn’t be more refreshingly different. Screenwriter was Park Sang-yeon (of Tree with Deep Roots). Directing by PD Jang Hun (of Rough Cut) was reliably impressive and the acting? Even better.
Go Soo turned in a brilliant performance, I would even go as far as saying, the best role of his career. I still have an issue with him in the sense that I still can’t fathom him as an actor. He lacks a certain depth and it kills me, because I feel that it’s there but he’s just not tapping into it. In this film however, it worked, because he’s a mysterious unfathomable character who you’re deliberately unable to read and his stony-face fit the bill.
Lee Je-hoon, Jo Jin-woong, Ryu Seung-soo, Kim Ok-bin, Ryu Seong-ryeong and pretty much the rest of the cast were perfect and quick to endear themselves and feel familiar to me within moments of their appearances, even Giant’s General Hampton turned in a convincing performance in his short appearance (as a wait for it… dumb American. Seriously, how do these guys think they rule the world exactly? Haha!).
But Shin Ha-kyun? Oh… My…G… Such perfection. I can’t even begin with the superlatives. I will simply say he was to film what Han Seok-kyu was to drama in 2011.
War of Arrows
War of Arrows was a like a whirlwind, it came, it knocked my breath out of me and left as swiftly as it had come but it left its imprint just so that I will not confuse the whole experience as having been a mere illusion.
It was epic, it was wholesome, it was filled to the brim with substance, with character, with badass attitude, beautifully subtle moments, blazingly intense moments, a palpable fear, both humane and vicious — it was just perfection.
Moon Chae-won kicked some ass in this film, I found her riveting. I was in the minority and couldn’t get into Princess’ Man, but I’m happy enough seeing her here, in particular in a scene where she faces off against Park Ki-woong, playing a Qing Dynasty prince.
But the show belonged to Park Hae-il and his piercing gaze, who in this, plays her older brother. A trained archer who all but single-handedly took on a Manchurian invasion in a 17th Century Joseon, the film was based on actual history. I liked the touch with the hero recycling his arrows, it made the whole experience feel all the more nuanced and real.
On a separate note, a plea to all Korean guys in film and drama: please, never buy shoes for your sister! Dammit!
All in all, a great directorial and writing effort from Kim Han-min (of Paradise Murdered).
–And just because I need to state that not all my movie choices are as morbid and depressing as my drama choices. Here are some relatively happier numbers. (Emphasis on ‘relatively’.)–
Officer of the Year
This film was a riot and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sure it didn’t even try to be original as a comical cop procedural, sure this was no groundbreaking Memories of Murder, but rookie Im Chan-ik’s film was action-packed, funny and it was also heartfelt.
Not to mention my main motivation to watch it, its spectacular cast, among those, three of my favourites, Lee Sung-min, Choi Deok-moon and Kim Jung-tae, though they are character actors who tend to be in many projects, it was delightful to learn of a project where all three would appear together.
However, I came out loving Lee Seon-kyun and Park Jung-hun more than ever in their roles as top detectives of rival police stations both closely situated across two neighbourhoods in Seoul. Park Jung-hun leads Mapo as chief, flanked by Kim Jung-tae and crew all donning crisply tailored suits and smug attitudes. Lee Seon-kyun is his shabbier tracksuit-wearing counterpart who leads Sodaemun’s less sophisticated set of detectives, among those is a bumbling Lee Sung-min. The wars that break out between both sets of detectives are absolutely hilarious, often they are so engaged in their competitive feuds, they let the criminals get away.
And there is one particular criminal who continues to evade them who has a bounty on his head, that bounty being that whichever officer catches him will be titled the Officer of The Year.
It wasn’t all lighthearted fun, there was some darker content in the second-half of the film. With a cast like that it would be a crime to not let them handle meatier material. But, the ending was so endearing and winning, it made me beam with happiness. Gah! I love this cast!
Oh Sunny. How could you be so full of win!? What a classic feel-good film. Also one of the funniest films I’ve seen for ages.
Set in the 80s and the present-day as we follow the lives of seven schoolfriends (some stories covered more extensively than others) we flit between their teenage misadventures in the glorious eighties to the present-day as struggling fourty-somethings.
This film opened with one of my favourite all-time classics Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time. Ah, how could it not be true love?
Though I realise now that it might be a tad uneven, the present-day Sunny gang were less fun than their younger counterparts (deliberately?) and I wasn’t so sure about the rushed ending. But those are minor quibbles.
PD/writer Kang Hyung-cheol’s last project Speedy Scandal was also a popular and much-loved film but he went above the convention of popular comedies with an edgier more experimental, broader field to play on with Sunny – the film being littered with creative kinds of profanity made it delightful, as with the different and hilarious take on the political upheaval of the eighties. In some aspects it reminded me a little of Billy Elliot with how it balanced a grittier atmosphere with a darker shade of humour with lots of heart, a social commentary that was present but barely drew attention to itself and cultural references so well-attuned to the two eras the film was depicting, like for instance the hospital scene and the ahjumma patients watching their makjang daily drama in the current day. I loved all those details. And the choice of retro music!
Everything that was great and winning about it has already been spoken of so I feel I won’t need to go into any more detail than I already have. Besides, Blue1004 wrote a great recap/review of it on her blog. Read here.
Penny Pinching Romance
The film where Song Joong-ki graduated from man-child to a fully-fledged man.
Though not referring to the first half of the flick where he’s a less than desirable cig-smokin’, beer-guzzling, self-fondling, pervy Jack the Lad. Nothing overtly wrong with some of that, but the fondling bits were a bit unpleasant. Only Song Joong-ki could pull this off in the way he did, with his natural and unpretentious brand of acting and his pretty, pretty face saving his character from being outright despicable.
Han Ye-seul is good in this, IF you like her. She has an earthy charm about her and I know she’s er, a bit delayed in her delivery as an actress (I do have a word for her brand of acting, but it may be thought offensive) and the Myungwol debacle this previous summer did her no favours but watching this film, I am reminded of why I can’t quite bring myself to hate her either… Dammit. (It’s my fondness for Ji-wanaaahh!) But even if you happen to passionately hate her, it doesn’t matter; this is truly a Song Joong-ki vehicle and this film is all about him.
See, I was expecting a conventional rom-com but got a beautifully shot, subdued comedy which ultimately turned into a riveting and evocative romance which held me captive through its run. The atmosphere was heady and romantic, even if the lead couple were more platonic than romantic. They did have a certain bond, and an understated chemistry that worked.
Scratch that, for those who have watched the jdorama Zeni Geba, this is its more sympathetic, attractive, genteel cousin who will hold your hand and take you on a journey to discover the extent of the fragility of human life in the face of cold hard money. Because it truly can make or break us. Alongside it we learn that the value of love is akin to the value of life itself, and that a Song Joong-ki in love is… (sigh) quite the force to be reckoned with.
The cinematography was breathtaking, directing was pretty flawless, but it was the writing that was pitch-perfect for me. I will look out for more projects by Kim Jeong-hwan, who both directed and penned this show, while not a major commercial success, it was a very decent attempt. As he skilfully interspered edgy, upbeat humour with a story that managed to tap beneath surface level. It actually reminded me of some of my favourite Hong Kong romance classics with the romance-filled atmosphere, it actually invoked feelings of being in love, like a good romance film/drama should do. No really, it’s often one of my gripes with some rom-coms and the trendy that keeps on recycling itself, as I feel they seem to bastardise the emotion that is love by overselling it. But then… I suppose I also… bastardise the emotion of love when I fall head over heels far too often and for inaminate objects, fooood, imaginary characters… But I digress. Simply watching Song Joong-ki falling in love, fumbling his way through it and growing as a character as a result, was worth the price of admission alone.
I realise I am now babbling as a pretense to post more pretty Song Joong-ki pictures as I wrap this thing up. He is probably mine and thundie’s only mutual crush and since this post is dedicated to her as a special thank you, for this little spot she gave me on her treasured blog, and how much I appreciate it her thoughtfulness…
Oh, and Ha Jung-woo was totally HOT in Client, here.