Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다) – ★★★★☆

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)

Arriving in Suwon City a day earlier than scheduled, film director Chunsoo (Jung Jaeyoung (정재영) bides his time by wandering around the local landmarks. By chance, he runs into pretty artist Heejung (Kim Minhee (김민희) and persuades her to join him for a cup of coffee. As the two spend the day together conversing awkwardly over meals and drinks, Chunsoo and Heejung become closer.

Then, events play out again with Chunsoo’s more gentlemanly manner and Heejung’s greater sense of independence arousing slight variations in their burgeoning relationship.

Director Cheon-soo persuades artist Hee-jeong to have coffee

Director Chunsoo persuades artist Heejung to have coffee

Undeniably charming and beautifully told, director Hong Sangsoo‘s Right Now, Wrong Then is a genuine delight. The stirringly sensitive drama is the kind of story only the acclaimed auteur could produce, capturing the endearing awkwardness of human interaction with keen insight and is wholly deserving of its accolades – namely the Golden Leopard (Best Film) and Best Actor for Jung Jaeyoung at its premiere in Locarno International Film Festival, with more undoubtedly to follow.

It’s become almost a cliche in itself to point out director Hong’s interest in capturing the subtleties of human interaction, the awkward clumsiness of smart men over confident women, of repeating scenarios with slight adjustments in characterisation that result in rather different outcomes, but as he does it so insightfully it’s hard not to constantly acknowledge his deft skill in such areas. With Right Now, Wrong Then director Hong wonderfully succeeds in capturing the beauty of such moments with an endearing humour and grace that is captivating, conveying a palpable charm that was somewhat lacking in his prior effort Hill of Freedom.

Right Now, Wrong Then is in fact two films in one, and much of its pleasure is derived from juxtaposing both stories. In the first installment, film director Chunsoo is shy, secretive, and akin to a wannabe philanderer; in the second he is a shade more confident, honest and direct. The differences that arise through his interactions with artist Heejung, who is shy and passive in the first tale before later becoming more independent and assured, are subtle yet profound as conversations take alternate trajectories that greatly effect them both, resulting in radically different outcomes for their relationship.

Hee-jeong and Cheon-soo drink and converse as they grow closer

Heejung and Chunsoo drink and converse as they grow closer

In lesser hands such simple tales of strangers meeting would be mildly entertaining, yet actors Jung Jaeyoung and Kim Minhee fulfil the roles with astonishing nuance and depth, propelling the drama into one of the best K-films of the year. Jung, who previously worked with director Hong in Our Sunhi, excels as the sensitive Chunsoo by conveying the character’s social ineptitude wonderfully with awkward mannerisms and speech, while also managing to capture a unique sense of charisma with his forthright honesty later in the film. It’s clear why Jeong was the recipient of the Best Actor award at Locarno and he’s sure to add further trophies to his cabinet as Right Now, Wrong Then screens at more international festivals.

As Heejung, Kim Minhee is absolutely captivating. Her performance is unquestionably deserving of high praise and accolades. Her facial expressions and quirks, particularly during some of the film’s pivotal and revelatory scenes, contain so much palpable emotion that they resonate long after the credits have rolled. With Right Here, Wrong Then, and with her upcoming turn in Park Chan-wook‘s Fingersmith, Kim Minhee looks set to become one of the K-Film industry’s most sought after actresses.

The subtle differences in characterisation result in alternative outcomes

The subtle differences in characterisation result in alternative outcomes

Verdict:

Director Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then is a charismatic, endearing tale of burgeoning relationships only the celebrated auteur is capable of telling. Wonderfully subtle, insightful, and humorous, the drama is a heartwarming tale of human interaction and the possibilities of tender new emotional experiences.

★★★★☆

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Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

The Piper (손님) – ★★☆☆☆

The Piper (손님)

The Piper (손님)

Shortly after the Korean War, travelling musician Woo-ryong (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and his sickly son Yeong-nam (Goo Seung-hyeon (구승현) embark on a trip to Seoul to treat the youngster’s tuberculosis. On the journey, the exhausted pair are granted refuge at a secluded mountain village presided over by a kindly Elder (Lee Sung-min (이성민), but it quickly becomes clear that something very strange is transpiring amongst the folk residing there. Learning of the severe rat infestation, Woo-ryong boldly offers to rid the village of the vermin, yet when the residents renege on the fee and cast them out, the piper seeks a very unique brand of revenge.

Woo-ryung and Yeong-nam play for the villagers

Woo-ryung and Yeong-nam play for the villagers

Taking The Pied Piper of Hamelin as its cue, director Kim Kwang-tae’s ‘reimagining’ of the classic European fable into a Korean morality tale is a bland, fractured, and unengaging effort. Aside from some attractive cinematography The Piper consistently appears as if still in the development stages conceptually, which serves to dilute audience interest and lessen thrills – a crucial issue for a film about killer rats.

From the moment it begins, The Piper generates a sense of intrigue as Woo-ryong and son Yeong-nam hide in a secluded cave during a storm, the wind of which blows so strongly that a secret path to a hidden village is revealed. As the duo seek respite there for a day or two, suspense grows as the inhabitants appear to exchange meaningful and worried glances due to the arrival of their new guests. Yet while events are set up promisingly the mysterious nature of the film is largely a direct result of its structure and a strange sense of incompleteness. Occurrences, characters and relationships arise and recede with precious little introduction or general context making the story a rather fragmented and confusing effort. As such, audiences aren’t given any reasons to care for any of the protagonists, or even dislike the antagonists, other than the fact it’s clear a macabre secret is being hidden.

Woo-ryong develops feelings for widowed shaman Mi-sook

Woo-ryong develops feelings for widowed shaman Mi-sook

The story itself is a symbolic tale, using the microcosm of a mountain village to articulate how war, history and paranoia looms large in times of unrest and influences people into evil deeds. It’s a solid premise and one that’s full of potential, however director Kim Kwang-tae doesn’t manage to effectively convey the scope of his message. In part this is due to the fractured story and characterisation, but also the rats simply aren’t the potent menace they ought to be and are not frightening in the slightest, and though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper doesn’t really fit into either genre, generally conforming to genial drama tropes. Furthermore, Welcome to Dongmakol and Moss dealt with similar subject matter and while viewing it’s impossible not to think of these superior examples with nostalgia.

The fractured narrative structure makes it even more difficult for Ryoo Seung-ryong to carry The Piper on his shoulders, and though he tries his best to infuse the role and the film with an infectious energy, it often translates as overly theatrical and bothersome. His burgeoning romantic relationship with widowed shaman Mi-sook falls completely flat due to the lack of development and contrivances within the script. As Mi-sook, Cheon Woo-hee – certainly the best actor in the film – desperately tries to wrangle something from the role and manages to infuse some palpable emotion in a scene here and there, yet as the audience is never given any information about her or as to why empathy should be given, her efforts are tragically wasted. Lee Sung-min isn’t provided with scenes of gravitas to make him a worthy nemesis, while K-pop star/actor Lee Joon makes blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances. The most compelling role falls to youngster Goo Seung-hyeon as tuberculosis suffering Yeong-nam, who brings a surprising amount of empathy to the story.

The villagers are hiding a secret related to the rats, but what is it?

The villagers are hiding a secret related to the rats, but what is it?

 Verdict:

Though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper is ultimately neither. While the cinematography is consistently gorgeous and director Kim Kwang-tae’s premise has merit, the film suffers enormously from a fractured structure that conveys it as incomplete, resulting in audiences unable to engage or empathise with characters and events, or even enjoy the sporadic thrills.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Veteran (베테랑) – ★★★★☆

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

After a three month sting operation involving stolen cars, tough detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) and his team, headed by Team Leader Oh (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), congratulate themselves and prepare for the inevitable promotion their work has wrought. Yet the celebration is cut short when Do-cheol’s truck driver friend Bae (Jeong Woong-in (정웅인) is critically hurt while protesting for unpaid wages, with all evidence pointing to rich, spoilt conglomerate owner’s son, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in (유아인). While Jo’s aide Choi Sang-moo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진) attempts to use money and influence to have the case closed, Do-cheol is relentless in his pursuit for Jo’s incarceration.

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

Brilliantly entertaining, wonderfully inventive, and featuring a gripping politically-charged story alongside bone-crunching stunts, director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is easily the most exciting slice of Korean cinema in 2015 so far. In what has been a particularly poor year for the industry, Veteran offers a badly needed revitalising breath of fresh air as well as marking director Ryoo’s most accomplished work to date.

Veteran begins in incredibly strong fashion as Do-cheol and his team take down an international car smuggling ring, with the quips flying almost as fast as the punches. It’s a fantastically thrilling introduction to director Ryoo’s distinct stylisation as well as the quirky characters on the investigative team, as the film excels with brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour mixed with frenetic stunts to hugely entertaining effect. For action aficionados Veteran also manages to include comedic riffs on other examples of the genre, notably Transporter 2‘s garage sequence, to raise self-referential laughs. It all makes for one of the most high-octane adrenaline-pumping openings in recent memory and is an absolute riot.

After kicking off so impressively, Veteran‘s pacing dramatically changes gears in order to lay the foundations for the central narrative. It’s a jarring alteration yet also a necessary one, as helmer/scribe Ryoo takes his time to incorporate new conflicts and antagonists, building the politically-charged threats posed to palpable levels. It’s an effective technique that demands investment while allowing the film to roar to life through exciting set-pieces, culminating in an explosive pulse-pounding crescendo that will have audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure.

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Veteran never forsakes the story for action, with the engaging narrative consistently touching upon highly politically sensitive issues within contemporary Korean culture. News media in the peninsula has for years reported on the spoilt and selfish behaviour displayed by chaebol (conglomerate) CEO’s children – the most recent of which was the infamous ‘nut rage’ incident – and Veteran picks up such themes brilliantly by exploring how such figures employ their power, finances and influence to avoid legalities. Bolstered by a basis in modern society, it’s great material for the genre, providing villainous personal and corporations and some compelling twists and turns, whilst also granting a sense of catharsis for the general public.

While corruption informs the impetus of the story, Veteran is also at its core a tale of two men in bitter conflict, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors other than Hwang Jung-min and Yo Ah-in fulfilling the roles so emphatically. Hwang Jung-min in particular is clearly having an absolute ball as detective Do-cheol, bringing incredible humour and charisma to the role so that even when he is being stubborn and downright dirty, he is nothing less than engrossing. Yoo Ah-in meanwhile is in absolute top form as the vile Jo Tae-oh, with his performance earning considerable praise. The characterisation is a tad excessive yet Yoo Ah-in commits so confidently that he’s an absolute joy to hate. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-so gets some of the film’s best laughs, while it’s great to see Yoo Hae-jin, who’s often typecast in comedic roles, stretched into new terrain.

Although an enormously entertaining film, Veteran is not without problems. Writer/director Ryoo still seems to have difficulty writing three-dimensional female characters, constructing them either as nagging bitches or wholesome victims. Miss Bong, wonderfully portrayed by Jang Yoon-ju, is somewhat of an exception and a welcome kick-ass heroine but tends to provide punchlines rather than development.

That aside, Veteran is easily the best slice of popcorn cinema this year and a joyous thrill ride from start to finish.

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Verdict:

Veteran is a revitalising, pulse-pounding action/thriller from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Examining the corruption in chaebols has never been so cathartic as the film is consistently entertaining, wonderfully inventive and featuring some truly exciting and hilarious stunts that has audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure. Easily the best slice of popcorn cinema in 2015.

★★★★☆

Reviews

Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인) – ★★★☆☆

Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인)

Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인)

Talented artist Ji-yoon (Lee Si-yeong (이시영) is the creator of one of the most popular web comics series in Korea. Her forte is the horror genre, illustrating gruesome scenes of death and suffering  as supernatural forces return from beyond seeking vengeance. However upon submitting her latest edition to the company, the editor is later found dead and brutally disfigured in the exact same fashion as the panels within the art. While all signs point to suicide, detective Lee Gi-cheol’s (Eom Gi-joon (엄기준) instincts lean towards murder and an investigation into the only potential suspect – Ji-yoon – begins. Yet as Ji-yoon is struggling to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and with corpses beginning to pile up all referencing her web toons, can the culprit ever be stopped?

Ji-yoon is the creator behind a successful horror web toon series that begins to come true

Ji-yoon is the creator behind a successful horror web toon series that begins to come true

A solidly entertaining K-horror, Killer Toon is the latest macabre offering from The Red Shoes director Kim Yong-gyoon. Featuring an intriguing premise that is brilliantly visualised in the first act with gruesome excitement, the film gradually seeps into melodrama before succumbing to a frustrating and illogical finale. That said, Killer Toon remains one of the better – and certainly more successful – additions to Korean horror cinema in years.

One of the great frustrations of K-horror is the recurring utilisation of episodic vignettes that don’t coalesce into a satisfactory whole, thereby diluting the compulsion of the story and undermining the very scares within. Killer Toon however takes a refreshingly novel approach to such criticism, constructing a variety of macabre sequences within the framework of webtoon narratives, ironically adhering to the problematic episodic nature while also managing to construct an engaging structure. By using an artist and her comic strips as the framework and source of terror, director Kim Yong-gyoon is given free reign to impose any sadistic sequences of his choosing within the greater whole, amalgamating the disparate features into an impressive and entertaining horror package.

Due to the concept Killer Toon is also a visually absorbing affair, with comic panels employed effectively to heighten suspense and terror, bringing a new dimension to the genre. The comic panels are frightening in themselves with the seemingly interactive depictions of death and murder, even comedically knocking macho detective Lee from his chair in one scene, yet combined with real sequences of terror Killer Toon is elevated above its peers.

Horror scenes are combined with webtoon panels, adding heightened frights

Horror scenes are combined with webtoon panels, adding heightened frights

Yet much of the praise lies primarily within Killer Toon‘s first act, as from there the narrative veers into generic melodrama territory. Rather than focus on the intriguing premise, the source of the webtoon becomes the prime concern. Along with detective Lee, Ji-yoon attempts to uncover the mysterious origins of her ideas by way of a myriad of cliched developments audiences have witnessed multiple times before. As such, the potential offered by the refreshing concept is squandered in order to clarify a mystery that really didn’t need to be explained – the power came from not knowing.

While the cliched second act is frustrating, it pales in comparison to the irritations in the third. In a bid to tie up all the narrative loose ends and add a few twists to keep audiences guessing, the finale becomes wildly illogical and ridiculous. Chiefly this is a result of protagonists being completely re-characterised to provide shock, but it goes against prior developments and serves to remove viewers from the story. That said, the morality tale that arises due to their actions is one that resonates, particularly in contemporary society.

Ji-yoon searches her illustrations for clues to the origin of the deadly webtoon

Ji-yoon searches her illustrations for clues to the origin of the deadly webtoon

Verdict:

With its original approach, Killer Toon is one of the most refreshing additions to K-horror for quite some time. Employing comic panels as the source of horror allows director Kim Yong-gyoon to create some visually stylish and suspenseful macabre scenes, a promising opening that has its potential later squandered by cliched melodrama and illogical twists. Yet the morality tale resonates, making Killer Toon a solidly entertaining piece of horror cinema.

★★★☆☆

Reviews

Ode To My Father (국제시장) – ★★☆☆☆

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

In modern day Busan, cantankerous old fogie Deok-soo (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) runs a general store in the famous international market region. Walking around the area with family and friends prompts memories from his past to return to the surface, reliving the experience that he and his country endured on the path to modernisation after the Korean War. Deok-soo recalls the traumatic events his family suffered through during the Hungnam Evacuation in the winter of 1950; working in the coal mines of West Germany, and meeting his wife Yeong-ja (Kim Yoon-jin (김윤진); operating as an engineer during the Vietnam War; and striving to reunite with the people he lost so many years ago. Always at his side is best friend Dal-goo (Oh Dal-soo (오달수) as they sacrifice everything for family.

Deok-soo recalls the horrific experience his family endured during the Hungnam Evacuation

Deok-soo recalls the horrific experience his family endured during the Hungnam Evacuation

Impressive production values and an epic sense of scale are the scant positives of director Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode To My Father, a disturbingly nationalistic take on recent Korean history that eschews the complexity of the era in favour of manipulative melodrama. Poorly written, shallow, and horribly acted throughout, the film’s revisionist take on past hardships and overtly patriotic sentiment ensured its success with the middle aged while perpetuating the alarming trend of ultra-conservative cinema for everyone else.

Ode To My Father – literally translated as International Market – is best described as ‘the Korean Forrest Gump‘ for the manner in which the film depicts dark periods of history through rose-tinted glasses, centred around the actions of one man. Indeed, while the events onscreen are specifically and uniquely Korean, the narrative structure as well as visual devices are constantly ‘lifted’ from its American counterpart. While Forrest Gump rightly received criticism for its revisionist take on American history, Ode To My Father takes such conservatism to new heights by completely removing any mention of the military dictatorships and authoritarian rule Korea endured following the war while crucial events aren’t even alluded to. Korean films that were produced during the strict censorship of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – when Ode is set – contained more insight and compulsion so it’s perplexing to see the periods romanticised in the contemporary age.

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

While Park Su-jin’s screenplay eschews historical detail, director Yoon Je-kyoon instead puts all of Ode To My Father‘s large budget onscreen with considerable flair. The Hungnam Evacuation is brilliantly realised as thousands of panic-induced refugees seek transportation to evade war; the claustrophobia of the West German mines is palpable; Vietnamese jungles and bases appear authentic; and the collective grief of TV show ‘Reuniting Separated Families’ is powerfully poignant.

However in each case the impressive production values are undermined as melodrama is exalted above all else, serving to greatly limit the impact such scenes attempt to generate. Director Yoon is so determined to make audiences cry during the (a)historical vignettes that national pride and overacting take place over subtlety and good taste.

The scenes in Vietnam are employed merely to at as a crude parallel to Korea decades earlier and to boast of the nation’s advancement, while a dramatic bomb blast sequence is all but ruined due to a voice over articulating Korean struggles. Yeong-ja is forced to halt her legitimate argument with Deok-soo in order to rise to the national anthem (reportedly President Park Geun-hye’s favourite scene according to several news outlets). Even conveying the importance of TV show Reuniting Separated Families is impaired when an American adoptee, who cannot speak Korean, suddenly recalls perfect sentences from her youth 30 years prior while wailing uncontrollably.

Deok-soo's journey to Vietnam acts as a crude parallel to Korea

Deok-soo’s journey to Vietnam acts as a crude parallel to Korea

Further exacerbating the situation is the manner in which Korean celebrities are horribly shoehorned in throughout the narrative, as well as the representation of youths as ungrateful, rude and self-centred, which serve to provide catharsis for the target audience – middle-aged Koreans – and in that sense is a resounding success, but the achievements come at the cost of context, respect and decency.

Carrying the entirety of the film on his shoulders is Hwang Jeong-min, a usually reliable actor with an impressive filmography, yet in Ode To My Father his theatrically is unnecessarily excessive and akin to a bad TV drama. Certain scenes are absolutely cringeworthy to experience, particularly his rendition of being elderly. Kim Yoon-jin fares slightly better as wife Yeong-ja, yet that’s primarily due to her character’s absence for much of the running time once she’s served her purpose of marriage. There is no chemistry between them thanks to the poor script and characterisation, which attempts to make the couple saintly figures.

Oh Dal-soo, as is often the case, is the most entertaining presence. Using his knack for great comic timing he is fun to watch, and ironically it’s his bromance with Deok-soo that forms the central relationship of the film. However even Oh Dal-so cannot save Ode To My Father from being little more than a well-made nationalistic melodrama.

Whilst working in Germany Deok-soo falls head over heels for nurse Yeong-ja

Whilst working in Germany Deok-soo falls head over heels for nurse Yeong-ja

Verdict:

Ode To My Father boasts an epic scale and lavish production values yet is a disturbingly nationalistic and highly melodramatic take on recent Korean history. Director Yoon Je-kyoon is determined to force audiences to cry throughout his revisionist tale and for middle-aged Korean it undoubtedly provides catharsis, while simply perpetuating the alarming trend of ultra-conservative cinema for everyone else.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸) – ★★☆☆☆

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸)

Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island (조선명탐정: 놉의 딸)

It’s 1975, and Joseon (Korea) is struggling. The country relies heavily on imported goods from Japan to sustain the economy, particularly silver. Yet when a deluge of counterfeit silver currency enters circulation, Joseon’s very existence comes under threat. Detective Kim Min (Kim Myeong-min (김명민) and his trusty sidekick Seo-pil (Oh Dal-soo (오달수) are sent to investigate, however instead of being rewarded for his efforts the sleuth is bizarrely exiled onto a tiny island. There he befriends young servant girl Da-hae (Lee Chae-eun (이채은) whose sister has mysteriously disappeared and, disregarding his royal punishment, sets out to solve the both the counterfeit silver and kidnap conundrums, yet what role does Japanese giaseng Hisako (Lee Yeon-hee (이연희) play?

Detective K and Seo-pil again find themselves on a madcap race for their lives

Detective K and Seo-pil again find themselves on a madcap race for their lives

Comedy-sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island is much like the original – colourful and madcap, sporadically humorous, and tonally all over the place. Kim Seok-yoon steps back into the director’s chair bringing all the same strengths and weaknesses as before, resulting in halfhearted yet quite amiable Sunday matinee fare.

One of the great strengths of Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow was the tongue-in-cheek nature of the comedy combined with an OTT pretentious hero who, more often than not, was a victim of slapstick situations of his own making. Detective K 2 delivers much the same, as investigator Kim and loyal sidekick Seo-pil are caught in farcical situations that end in silly humiliations. However as much of the original’s charm has dissipated, such encounters provoke titters rather than laughs. This is often due to a lack of gags and set pieces, but primarily a consequence of the relationship alteration between the lead duo. In the first instalment the pair frequently clashed, comedically employing misdirection as their friendship developed, yet in Detective K 2 they are close comrades and the chemistry has dulled as writers Kim Su-jin and Lee Nam-gyoo have characterised the duo as more serious, and sometimes downright mean, in nature. Actor Kim Myeong-min still hams it up as the arrogant sleuth as best he can despite given far less opportunity to do so, while his frankly horrible characterisation towards servant girl Da-hae makes him quite dislikable as well as detracting from his journey to solve the case. Meanwhile Oh Dal-soo tries desperately to make his character more relevant in a story that largely regards him as a prop.

Detective Kim and Seo-pil continue to find themselves in slapstick stiuations

Detective Kim and Seo-pil continue to find themselves in slapstick stiuations

Detective K 2, while competently helmed by returning director Kim Seok-yeon and featuring the same impressively zany and colourful interpretation of old Korea, contains tonal imbalances even more severe than the previous instalment. In the original the largely fun narrative gave way to a story about religious persecution which diluted the light-hearted appeal; in the sequel however the case involving counterfeit silver gives way to themes involving prostitution, child slavery and murder, and paedophilia. Such issues are not appropriate nor ripe material for a slapstick adventure like Detective K and naturally the film suffers for it.

Despite such concerns, Detective K 2 is generally a well-made and jovial jaunt through old Joseon. The film consistently features attractive set designs and amusing comedy set pieces, enough to consider it an enjoyable, if largely forgettable, viewing experience. That said, if director Kim Seok-yoon wishes to return and complete a successful final instalment for a Detective K trilogy, the tonal imbalances, characterisation, and a female role that requires the respective actress to do something other than look attractive, is an absolute necessity.

Giaseng Hisako has mysterious motivations

Giaseng Hisako has mysterious motivations

Verdict:

Comedy sequel Detective K: Secret of the Lost Island is a zany and cheerful jaunt through old Joseon, much like its predecessor only less so. While returning director Kim Seok-yoon helms the shenanigans competently, the film suffers greatly from mismanaged characterisation as well as employing weighty themes involving child murder, slavery and prostitution. Sporadically humorous, Detective K 2 is amiable, yet quite forgettable, matinee fare.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970) – ★★☆☆☆

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

Gangnam Blues (강남 1970)

In the 1970s as Korea attempts to rebuild itself following the devastation of the war, the attention of the political and social elite turns to a new vital area of power – land. The countryside region known as Gangnam (literally ‘south of the river’) rapidly becomes the most desirable, with each faction preparing schemes and machinations in order to accumulate the most profit. Yet for such plans to achieve fruition first the democractic parties need to be quashed, and local ragmen and best friends Jong-dae (Lee Min-ho (이민호) and Yong-gi (Kim Rae-won (김래원) are hired to join mobsters in obstructing the movement. During the fight however the duo become separated yet three years later they meet again, as the leaders of rival gangs all vying for the lucrative land in Gangnam.

Yong-gi and Jong-dae are reunited three years later as friends and rivals

Yong-gi and Jong-dae are reunited three years later as friends and rivals

Boasting high production values throughout, director Yoo Ha’s Gangnam Blues is a well made gangster flick which explores the rise of the now-affluent district of Seoul with interest. Yet as much of the narrative developments occur in repetitive boardroom meetings tedium quickly sets in which, combined with the overly long running time, make the film a moderate slice of genre entertainment.

Alongside Once Upon A Time in High School (2004) and A Dirty Carnival (2006), Gangnam Blues is the final instalment of writer/director Yoo Ha’s ‘street trilogy’ and is arguably his most visually sophisticated film to date in a resume that also comprises A Frozen Flower and Howling. Director Yoo employs his locations and colours effectively to create a surprisingly vibrant crime drama, with the lush greens of the old Gangnam countryside impressively contrasted with the grey city environs and shadowy clandestine meeting rooms, while still managing to save the best for last with the film’s remarkably violent-yet-attractive final battle royale. The sets are also generally superbly realised, notably the country dry cleaning store in run by former crime boss Gi-soo, articulating the great deal of effort spent on generating high quality production values. While such stages are required as Korea’s landscapes have so vastly altered, however, ironically such settings do often convey a manufactured sensibility that lacks the gritty authenticity of the era and serves to pull audiences from the story.

For fans of Korea there is also enjoyment to be had in watching the rise of Seoul’s most famous district. The collusion between politicians, the social elite and crime syndicates in developing Gangnam for their own corrupt purposes is initially fascinating to experience, as morality and the distinctions between them are erased in their mutual pursuit of greed and power. The film is largely based on historical fact in this respect and frequently insinuates that today’s politicians, now sporting incredible wealth and status, were the greatest criminals of the era, a feature that is so on the nose that Gangnam Blues opens with a preface explaining it as a fictitious story and sparring director Yoo legal ramifications.

Politicians and gangsters collude as most developments occur in clandestine boardroom meetings

Politicians and gangsters collude as developments occur in clandestine boardroom meetings

Yet while the origins of Gangnam’s progress are interesting, so much of the narrative development occurs within boardroom meetings that repetition and tedium quickly arise. Indeed, there are so many conversations of cheating farmers out of land, plans for redevelopment and betraying allies that compulsion wanes and such a strong sense of déjà vu occurs it feels as if the film is on repeat. Coupled with an overabundance of characters on all sides vying for power as well as an overly long running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, boredom frequently ensues.

To humanise the story amongst all the political machinations, poverty stricken ‘ragmen’ Jong-dae and Yong-gi give the story focus and heart, yet they are marginally successful in doing so. As the central protagonists they succeed in drawing attention but the characterisation is particularly weak making it difficult to fully invest in what they try to achieve. There are several attempts throughout the narrative to generate more intense emotional connections with them, such as scenes involving Jong-dae’s sister Seon-hye (Kpop’s AOA star Seol-hyun) as a victim of domestic abuse, the fleeting and redundant love interests both have, as well as a handful of unnecessary and gratuitous sexual sequences, yet they all fall flat and have little bearing on the story with most so easy to disregard they don’t even bother to receive any kind of resolution.

Gangnam Blues has largely been marketed as a vehicle for Lee Min-ho, who admirably tries to break out of his star mould and become an actor in his own right. There are glimmers that he is capable of doing so, but he typically falls back on his star image of appearing cooler and more attractive than the supporting cast. As such it’s particularly hard to buy into his status as a crime boss as he lacks the gravitas of his counterparts in the far superior New World and even Nameless Gangster. Kim Rae-won fares better as the ambitious Yong-gi, though marginally so and largely due to the more conflicting situations within which he finds himself.

Jong-dae prepares for the battle royale

Jong-dae and his crew prepare for the battle royale

Verdict:

Gangnam Blues is the concluding chapter in writer/director Yoo Ha’s ‘street trilogy’ and marks what is arguably his most visually sophisticated film to date. While he makes great use of colour and environments, and the story of Gangnam’s origins is an interesting one, the crime drama lacks compulsion becoming quite repetitive and tedious during the overly long running time, while Lee Min-ho lacks gravitas.

★★☆☆☆

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