aka 아가씨 aka Agassi
Written by Park Chan-wook & Chung Seo-kyung
Based on the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Directed by Park Chan-wook
If you aren’t a fan of Park Chan-wook by now, I’m not sure what it will take to convince you to get out and see The Handmaiden. But if you are one of the millions of his fans around the globe, you know that Park Chan-wook is a force of awesomeness in the movie community, and The Handmaiden continues that tradition of awesome movies from an awesome guy. Basically, run, don’t walk, to the theaters and check out a wonderful psychological thriller. There is a trio of amazing performances by Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, and newcomer Kim Tae-ri. Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith is moved to 1930s occupied Korea, where it still manages to work in a culture of repression and male dominance.
Kim Min-hee is heiress Lady Hideko. Hideko is isolated and lorded over by her cruel uncle, Kouzuki, who covets her money and title. Her mother died in childbirth, and her aunt was found hanging in a tree when she was a child. Hideko never leaves the family estate and her only contact with outsiders is a weekly reading of erotic literature to exclusive guests. If you are familiar with the concept of that literature, some of it is ridiculous, basically the dime store erotic trash novels peppered with flowery poetry and filled with imagery that at times stretches believability that the writers have even interacted with people who have sex. Hideko’s Uncle Kouzuki has designs on becoming a Japanese nobleman despite being neither of those things and Hideko’s money and title his avenue to obtain them. Kouzuki rejects his Korean heritage in an admiration for the occupying Japanese, but his true passion is rare books, specifically the aforementioned erotic literature.
Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-hee, a gifted pickpocket and thief embedded as a handmaiden whose job it is to help convince Hideko to fall for the fake Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo — Assassination). Fujiwara has a knack for making forgeries and is just the thing Hideko’s creepy uncle needs, as he can’t bear to part with any of his rare books, but is perfectly fine with selling off faked replicas of them. This gives Fujiwara the access he needs to scope out Lady Hideko and enact his plan of seduction and asset seizure, enabled by Sook-hee as Hideko’s new handmaiden. And then it is seduction time.
aka 암살 aka Amsal
Written by Choi Dong-hoon and Lee Ki-cheol
Directed by Choi Dong-hoon
Despite the years of ups and downs, South Korea cinema continues to deliver great films, even if it isn’t at the breakneck pace that it once had. And deliver Assassination does, giving us a great wartime espionage tale with a core group of interesting players to follow. Characters battle and scheme, motivated by their honor, for some the honor of appearing strong and powerful more alluring than the actuality.
Assassination wins not because of the action sequences of the story of a ragtag group of unlikely heroes battling against a gigantic evil Empire, but because of the scenes of characters interacting. A heroic sniper, bounty hunters with consciences, and traitors that put their own power above their nation and peoples’ survival battling it out is well and good, but I’m going to remember Ahn Ok-yun sitting in a diner next to Hawaii Pistol where they concoct a fantasy of being a couple in order to evade detection by the Japanese army. Or Hawaii Pistol recounting how he killed his own father and wanting to spare Ahn Ok-yun the same fate. Or a traitor wiping out anyone who threatens to expose him because of he doesn’t want to die. The little bits in the larger whole where characters switch from the stereotypes you think they are to fully fleshed out beings.
Assassination spins its web of spies and intrigue before setting up the next big action scene that causes the surviving players to shuffle around and prepare for the next web. Choi Dong-hoon was best known for his heist films, including the international hit The Thieves, and while Assassination is a different genre, it still has the large cast and multiple story angles all coming together. It even follows some of the same story beats, with a mid-movie action sequence (or heist) that everything was working up towards, but it turns out it was just the beginning of the second half of the film with a smaller but larger staked sequence to follow.
aka 더 파이브 aka Deo Paibeu aka The Fives aka Deo pa-i-beu
Based on The 5ive Hearts by Jeong Yeon-shik
Written and directed by Jeong Yeon-shik
The Five is a good example of Korean film’s ease of switching emotional tracks like Grand Central Feelings Station. It’s also a good crime film featuring normal people tracking a crazy killer, a good film to watch for fans of shows like Hannibal that regularly depict killers with complicated psychoses and the flawed and broken people who track them down.
The Five began life as a webtoon feature called The 5ive Hearts by Jeong Yeon-shik, who went on to write and direct this adaptation. It’s a tale of desperate people banding together to do a dark task that is much easier said than done.
A happy and idealic family is shattered by a brutal psychopathic killer. Film production team member (and fancy domino effects designer) Ko Eun-a (Kim Sun-a, She is on Duty) has a normal happy life in Korea, but we’d have no movie if bad things didn’t happen. Eun-a’s daughter recognizes the murderer from seeing him with his latest victim, a former classmate of hers, though she thinks he is the girl’s uncle and doesn’t know she’s been killed. Despite their ignorance, the family is now marked for death by killer Oh Jae-wook (On Joo-wan), who tracks them home and begins the slaughter.
By a sort of miracle, Ko Eun-a survives, though a desperate doctor, Cheol-min (Jung In-gi), is willing to declare her brain dead in order to use her organs on his sick daughter. She awakens just in time, but two years later she’s wheelchair bound, and most of her waking hours are spent trying to track down the person who destroyed her family by the only clue she has, her husband’s lighter that the killer stole. After buying boxes full of the specific lighter, there is finally a clue, and an IP address to track down
Steal My Heart
aka 캐치미 aka Kaechimi aka Catch Me
Written and directed by Lee Hyeon-jong
Let’s jump back down the well of Korean romantic comedies again with Steal My Heart! It’s got super star Kim Ah-joong, it’s got Joo Won, it’s got a director who hasn’t done much before, how can it go wrong? Unfortunately, that’s what we need to find out, because it doesn’t go right. Instead of a great film, we just get a film that squanders all opportunities to better itself. If there is anything I hate most of all, it’s a film that wastes potential.
Police profiler Lee Ho-tae (Joo Won) was having a good day, having just figured out the routine of a serial killer plaguing the area and leading a stakeout to catch him. One hiccup is the suspected kill is ran over (twice!) by a hit and run driver, which turns into a joke hanging over Lee Ho-tae’s head to the point where people are saying the car solved the case and not him (why no one seems too happy that a guy who murders people is off the streets nor that Lee Ho-tae did all the work finding him is never explained). Lee Ho-tae tracks down the car and driver to save his career, the only hitch being the driver is Yoon Jin-sook (Kim Ah-Joong), who he knew ten years ago as Lee Sook-ja when he was dating her.
Through a series of misadventures and attempts to protect Yoon Jin-sook (and that she’s sick with a cold, probably the only time in movie history a character will cough and not be dead by the end of the film!), she ends up staying at Lee Ho-tae’s place, while he finds out more and more about how she’s a master criminal thief. They attempt to make amends by returning some of the art she’s stolen, all while staying one step ahead from the rival Detective Oh (Baek Do-Bin), who keeps getting assigned the cases that Yoon Jin-sook committed. But Yoon Jin-sook knows she has to answer at some point for the things she’s done.
A cop vs. criminal romantic comedy is one of those obvious opposites attract scenarios that you’d think this would be a hit out of the park. Especially with Korea producing a few good heist flicks recently. But instead, things are so by the numbers that Steal My Heart never rises above the material to say much of anything. Yoon Jin-sook is far to sympathetic as a criminal, and far too eager to go to jail for her crimes when caught. Lee Ho-tae is powerless before the woman he used to love before fate intervened and he thought he lost her, and now finds out he barely knew her at all.
aka 설국열차 aka Seolgugyeolcha
Story by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson
Based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
2013 saw three of the best directors of Korea produce English-language films. First was Kim Ji-woon with The Last Stand, an entertaining but forgettable Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle. Next was Park Chan-wook and Stoker, an amazing coming of age story covered in Hitchcock influences. The finale was Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which would have been an amazing capstone. Unfortunately, history repeated itself in the Weinsteins ruining everything, delaying the film and demanding a bunch of cuts and added narration. After a bunch of arguing, Snowpiercer got a limited run uncut in America, but by that time it had already hit BluRay in several foreign markets.
Having now seen the film, I have no idea exactly what would have been cut, as most of it was essential. Almost the entire film is in English, so this isn’t a case of people that would be turned off by subtitles. The only thing I could think of was to alter the film fundamentally to try to remove some of the class warfare aspects, which would only serve to protect the upper class and ruin the film by eliminating most of the motivation to revolt. The delay probably cost Snowpiercer a huge percentage of its audience, which will in turn be used as more evidence that films like this just don’t work as releases and lead to less good films getting releases. I hate to be pessimistic, but this has happened before and will happen again.
Shelving this film was all bunk because Snowpiercer is damn amazing. It’s better than Stoker, and Stoker was one of my favorite films from 2013. Not only is it a fun science fiction adventure with a unique premise, but it deals with the struggle of class inequality and revolutions against tyrannical governments. As the world lies frozen due to adverse effects from attempts to combat global warming, the only life left is on the unstoppable train known as Snowpiercer, which travels the world on an endless loop journey once every year. It has now been 16 years since the world froze, and things on the train aren’t very well.
Above is a shirt I tried unsuccessfully to get my wife to buy. And below are a bunch of links I’ll successfully get you to click on, along with some random movie news that didn’t warrant their own updates.
**Derek Yee Tung-Sing (爾冬陞) has begun work on his next director’s gig, a 3D film called The Sword Master (三少爺的劍), which is written by Tsui Hark! The Sword Master is about a retired master swordsman who returns to the martial world to try to settle a dispute with his longtime nemesis. It will star Lin Gengxin (林更新), Peter Ho (何卓榮) Jiang Yiyan (江一燕) and Jiang Mengjie (蔣夢婕). The lack of big name stars was apparently controversial, which caused Derek Yee to say “If a collaboration between Tsui Hark and I still need big stars to get you to waste your time and spend your money on a ticket, then we might as well pack up, go home, drink whiskey and shoot the breeze.”
**The teaser trailer is out for High Heels (하이힐). The film stars Cha Seung-Won (차승원) as Detective Ji-Wook, who solves violent crimes and also desires to become a woman. The film will costar Esom (이솜) as mysterious woman Jang-Mi, and Oh Jung-Se (오정세) as Heo-Gon, who didn’t get a character description in English. High Heels is directed by Jang Jin (장진), who did the classic Guns and Talks and the more recent The Quiz Show Scandal .
**Have a nice list of the 100 best Mainland Chinese films to argue about!
**Reminder that Kate Mulgrew was tricked into narrating a documentary where it’s alleged that the Earth doesn’t revolve around the sun.
**A cool essay about African American women in the silent film industry
**Hey, Ju-On (The Grudge) is getting another Japanese installment!
**Hey, The Grudge (Ju-On) is getting another American reboot!
**Will there be a Gamera reboot? Probably if the Godzilla remake doesn’t bomb.