Chihwaseon (취화선) – ★★★★☆

Chihwaseon (취화선)

Chihwaseon (취화선)

In 1882, the Joseon dynasty is coming to an end. As the country battles with foreign invaders seeking to colonise the region and as corrupt officials tear the country apart from within, Joseon stands on a knife edge. It is at this time that a wealthy Japanese dignitary requests a conference with renowned artist Jang Seung-ub (Choi Min-sik (최민식), one of the greatest painters of the era, in order to purchase his work. Yet when he enquires as to how a man of such humble origins can acquire such talent, Seung-ub merely laughs. The artist recounts his life as a young man in squalor during the mid-19th century, of being saved by kindly scholar Kim Byung-moon (Ahn Sung-gi (안성기), of the development of his skill followed by his strident desperation to go beyond the boundaries of art, of his ever growing addiction to alcohol and women. Through Seung-ub’s story, the history of a country in turmoil and the artistic fervour of the era are revealed.

Friendly scholar Kim Byung-moon notices Seung-ub's artistic skill and sets him on the path

Friendly scholar Kim Byung-moon notices Seung-ub’s artistic skill and sets him on the path

Chihwaseon – also known as Strokes of Fire, Painted Fire, or more colourfully as Drunk on Women and Poetry – is a lovingly crafted tribute to the beauty and philosophy of traditional Korean art by film maestro Im Kwon-taek, which also notably won the veteran filmmaker the Best Director Award at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2002. The accolade is well-deserved as the drama is absolutely superb in capturing the turbulent spirit of the era through the story of real-life artist Jang Seung-ub. As historical records reveal little in regards to Jang Seung-ub’s life, director Im is free to apply his own brand of artistic license in depicting the great man and he skillfully uses the opportunity to examine Korean traditional artistry and the quest for perfection with palpable devotion. The methodologies and principles employed, the poetry infused within every stroke, even the manner in which such convictions stifled creativity, are all explored through the perspective of Seung-ub which, due to his status as a commoner, often results in affectionately poking fun at the artistic philosophies as much as revering them.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are captivating throughout Chihwaseon. The visuals wonderfully portray the abject squalor of the artist’s youth in the 1850s as he runs through muddy and poverty-stricken hanok villages, which contrast incredibly effectively with Seung-ub’s later years as he is exposed to the affluence of the middle classes as he serves various masters, before he himself becomes a wealthy man of renown. Such locations provide stunningly poetic backdrops for the journey Seung-ub undertakes as director Im explores the artist’s destructive quest for aesthetic perfection, as his tumultuous personality, as well as critical moments tied to historical circumstance, result in tragic irony in the creation of – and annihilation of – countless masterpieces.

Seung-ub is drunken womanising rogue at war with himself

Seung-ub is a drunken, womanising rogue at war with himself

Choi Min-sik utterly excels in portraying Seung-ub as a man at war with himself, desperately seeking to go beyond the limitations of his birth and his craft while drinking and womanising and causing conflict wherever he roams. Yet amazingly the actor never makes him a figure of ridicule but rather a loveable rogue, and certainly one of the most memorable characters in director Im’s filmography.

If there is criticism to be made of Chihwaseon, it comes in the form of the breakneck pace of the film’s early stages. The events that transpire move so quickly during the artist’s formative years that it halts the creation of an empathetic connection, which is of particular import given that his inspiration, motivation, and self-loathing all stem from the period. Following the opening, it’s an issue that the film struggles with throughout as the investment in Seung-ub’s journey ultimately becomes less compelling, yet it’s a testament to director Im’s prowess and Choi Min-sik’s charismatic performance that the drama continues to be engaging.

Seung-ub's quest for perfection results in the creation (and destruction) of notable masterpieces

Seung-ub’s quest for perfection results in the creation (and destruction) of notable masterpieces

Verdict:

Chihwaseon is a beautifully crafted tribute to traditional Korean artistry by virtuoso director Im Kwon-taek. Featuring stunning locations and mise-en-scene, the period drama is superb in capturing the tumultuous spirit of the era as well as the unbridled dedication to art and poetry, while Choi Min-sik is on top form as charismatic yet self-loathing artist Jang Seung-ub. Chihwaseon is a genuine testament to the creativity and grace of the past masters.

★★★★☆

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Revivre (화장) – ★★★★☆

Revivre (화장)

Revivre (화장)

As the vice-president of a leading cosmetics company, Oh Sang-moo (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) is every bit the diligent leader, working hard to ensure the brand is a success. Yet when his wife (Kim Ho-jeong (김호정) is diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, Sang-moo dutifully divides his time between taking care of her and fulfilling his role at work, attending the company during the day and sleeping at the hospital at night. Tired and stressed from the routine, Sang-moo’s attentions are suddenly diverted when Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri (김규리), a young and beautiful new manager, joins the office. While Sang-moo strives to adhere to his responsibilities his mind begins to drift towards Eun-joo, creating a torrent of conflicting emotions that only seem to become more and more difficult to control.

Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great

Sang-moo works hard to fulfill his duties as both a husband and vice-president, yet the toll is great

As his 102nd film, Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. Rarely do films manage to capture such fraught emotional complexity as contained within Revivre, conveyed with a subtle, elegant grace that wonderfully displays director Im’s wisdom and prowess. Similarly, Ahn Seong-gi provides a towering performance as the emotionally conflicted VP, whose tempered, poignant portrayal is captivating throughout. In lesser hands Song Yoon-hee’s script would be a standard drama, yet through director Im and Ahn’s collaboration the story delicately unfolds in a classic, dignified fashion that only they, with their combined life and filmic experiences, could possibly accomplish.

Revivre is at once both an incredibly complex and wonderfully simple tale. The story of a middle-aged man whose gaze is diverted by a younger attractive woman is nothing new in cinema, yet the drama is infused with a startling array of poignant nuances that allude to the great psychological and emotional anxieties Sang-moo experiences. Moments that feature Sang-moo’s inability to urinate due to stress, and the emotionless manner in which he takes care of his sick wife, articulate a keen gravitas and so much more than dialogue could possibly hope to achieve. Director Im, celebrated for his reverential portrayal of Korean culture onscreen, further adds weight to the material by introducing such traditional features as traditional Buddhist funeral rites and saunas to make Revivre a truly Korean production that explores the issues from a truly Korean perspective.

The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo

The arrival of beautiful new manager Choo Eun-joo rekindles a spark in Sang-moo

The relationship between Sang-moo and attractive new arrival Eun-joo is superbly paced and developed throughout the course of the film. The manner in which she is introduced into Sang-moo’s life, quite literally bursting into it, is a wonderful metaphor that sparks his interest in her and the possibility of a new life away from the stresses of his current one. Sang-moo’s affections for Eun-joo are captured with sincerity, from stolen glances at the office through to the palpable chemistry contained in their direct interactions. Much of the development occurs within Sang-moo’s imagination as he fantasizes about chance encounters that serve to add sweet romantic connotations to his infatuation, while scenes in which he behaves foolishly just in order to see Eun-joo are constructed with genuine care and affection. As Eun-joo, Kim Gyu-ri is perfectly cast. Her natural elegance and stunning beauty are entirely believable as distractions for Sang-moo, even as he desperately tries to be a good, dutiful man, while Kim’s performance as an independent career woman is also impressive.

While Revivre is a powerful emotional drama for much of the running time, the film begins to lose its way  as it attempts to come to a close. After featuring some incredibly powerful and nuanced scenes throughout the film as well as poignantly subtle character development, due to the quite ambiguous finale Revivre ends on a symbolic yet somewhat unsatisfying note. Director Im, however, wisely adds an epilogue of sorts to construct the end as coming full circle through traditional Korean Buddhist culture, conveying the inherent beauty in life, death and cultural forms as a means in which to appreciate the nature of existence.

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Scenes featuring Sang-moo and his wife as her health deteriorates are strikingly poignant

Verdict:

Revivre is director Im Kwon-taek’s finest, most accomplished work in years. His 102nd film, Revivre beautifully captures fraught emotional and psychological complexities with subtle elegance and grace, as a vice-president with a sick wife begins to fall for the charms of a new and quite beautiful manager. As the VP, Ahn Seung-gi provides his best performance in years and his collaboration with director Im produces a powerful film that only they, with their combined experiences, could have possibly achieved.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014
Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Top Star (톱스타) – ★★☆☆☆

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Actor-turned-director Park Joong-hoon (박중훈) has crafted a highly polished and glitzy directorial debut with Top Star (톱스타).

The heavyweight actor – who has hit films including Haeundae (해운대)Radio Star (라디오 스타) and Nowhere To Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다) in his back catalogue – has clearly exercised his connections within the industry as Top Star features an assortment of high profile names from Korean cinema.

Unfortunately however, while there is enjoyment to be had in watching the beautiful faces, lavish lifestyles and celebrity scandals, there is precious little substance beneath the glamour. Director Park has clearly aimed his debut at a broad audience and in doing so he has produced a competent, though unremarkable, film about the nature of stardom.

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Superstar Won-joon (Kim Min-joon (김민준) has it all – good looks, a career in film and television, an expensive lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Mi-na (So I-hyeon (소이현). Yet behind all the glitz and glamour, Won-joon is taken care of by an agency, particularly by diligent manager Tae-sik (Eom Tae-woong (엄태웅). Tae-sik’s adoration of Won-joon leads him to help cover up scandals and, in helping in one case of some magnitude, Tae-sik suffers great personal distress. Stunned by his selflessness, Won-joon grants Tae-sik a sizeable role in his latest television series and is happy to see his ambitions of becoming an actor finally materialize. Yet in discovering fame, Tae-sik begins to change, leading him into a rivalry with Won-joon.

One of the great benefits of having a veteran actor step behind the camera for Top Star is that the portrayal of the world of celebrity is convincing. The conversations and behind-the-glamour events clearly come from a person of experience, from discussions in limousines and public-relations meetings to relaxation at home portrayed with insight. Director Park does well in balancing the realms of stardom and downtime, conveying the former as merely attractive but shallow superficiality and working to build character in the latter. It generally works well, although the script routinely employs cliches and contrivances that have been utilised better before, as in 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워). Foregrounded, however, is the rivalry that develops between Tae-sik and Won-joon that occurs in both worlds, which is also where the more interesting events transpire.

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

The initial friendship between Tae-sik and Won-joon is articulated well, as the manager idolises his talent by helping to cover up scandals with no questions asked. Yet the story does become somewhat absurd as Tae-sik suffers a great personal burden in order to provide an alibi for one particular scandal, one that stretches believability almost too far. As Top Star is clearly marketed towards family audiences, director Park omits psychological exploration of Tae-sik’s adoration, yet while it is arguably ‘dark’ material it is depth that is sorely required as the film is so concerned with his unstable personality. Still, sequences in which Won-joon advises Tae-sik on the merits of acting are enjoyable and humourous as their camaraderie deepens on the set of their TV show. Yet just as the story begins to get interesting the film jumps years into the future, bypassing all the fascinating moments that have transpired to trouble their relationship and instead placing audiences in the distressed middle period.

As such Top Star loses all momentum, and the film is forced to reestablish itself once more by reintroducing characters and their new situations. It’s an event from which the story never fully recovers and as the film once more sets up events and attempts to take a belated darker tone, they lack the potency they would otherwise have contained. Additionally the (again belated) inclusion of melodrama amongst all the protagonists is horribly cliched and detracts from the viewing experience. One of the major benefits of Top Star‘s second half however is the greater screen time afforded to actress So I-hyeon as TV producer Mi-na. The role is wafer thin and one-dimensional with So I-hyeon very much required to be just a pretty face, although the actress stretches the material as much as she can and is quite charismatic. Yet undermining everything is the manner in which the story wraps up, as it is far too neat and with little – if any – ramifications despite all the wrongdoing. Top Star is great in representing the glitz and glamour of the movie business but, try as it might to explore the nature of celebrity, the film crucially lacks any depth to do so.

Tae-sik's longing for Mi-na and Won-joon's life in general clouds his judgement

Tae-sik’s longing for Mi-na and Won-joon’s life in general clouds his judgement

Top Star (톱스타) is a highly polished and glamourous directorial debut from veteran actor Park Joong-hoon (박중훈). The film attempts to explore the nature of celebrity as a talent manager turned actor desperately works to retain his fame, even creating a rivalry with his idol. As director Park aims Top Star squarely at family audiences however, he doesn’t delve into the psychology of his protagonists resulting in a film that is wonderfully glitzy, but lacking in any real depth.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews
Professor Kim Gyeong-ho fights for the truth using the law, which is being abused

Unbowed (부러진 화살) – ★★★★☆

Unbowed (부러진 화살)

Unbowed (부러진 화살)

Courtroom dramas are not a staple of Korean cinema, which is somewhat surprising given the tumultuous relationship between the social elite and corruption. And yet, in the past two years two prominent films based on real events have emerged – Silenced (AKA The Crucible) (도가니), about the sexual abuse of deaf children, and Unbowed (부러진 화살). Politically-charged, socio-cultural critiques are a huge reason why Korean cinema attracted such attention during the late ’90s, and while contemporary output has been much more commercially driven, it appears the industry could be moving back to what made Korean cinema so initially unique. If this is indeed a movement, then Unbowed is certainly part of it.

Unbowed, by director Chung Ji-young (정지영) who returned to the helm after a thirteen year absence, is based on the true story of a professor whose trial for unfair dismissal was rejected. Upset with the verdict, the professor challenged one the judges outside his home with a crossbow. The story, understandably, made headlines; but as time passed it became clear that the story reported in the press and the truth were markedly different. Director Chung Ji-young – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Han Hyeon-geun (한현근) – presents the tale of Professor Kim Gyeong-ho (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) and his defence lawyer Park Joon (Park Won-sang (박원상) with a highly effective stark social realist aesthetic, much like the very logical, no-frills protagonists themselves. The result is a courtroom drama where the facts speak louder than any directorial style, and the infuriation when clear violations of the law are committed are palpable. However, the focus and development of the central two protagonists is stunted due to far too many characters and secondary narrative elements inhabiting the story, forcing the impact of scenes, and the film overall, to become lessoned.

Professor Kim Kyeong-ho fights for the truth using the law, which is being abused

Professor Kim Gyeong-ho fights for the truth using the law, which is being abused

Interestingly, director Chung Ji-young opens Unbowed with the very event that made headlines as Professor Kim confronts the judge from his case with a crossbow. Yet rather than portray the entire confrontation from beginning to end, the professor’s subsequent incarceration is edited in as well as the journalism that appeared once the incident became public knowledge. While initially a tad frustrating, it becomes readily apparent that the filmmakers wish for the facts – rather than artistic license – to drive the narrative as well as the audience’s desire for more information. This is certainly a noble attempt, yet as the names of those involved as well as other features have been altered this is somewhat undermined. Luckily such a contradiction doesn’t detract from the overall narrative as from the outset the blatant disregard of the law by judges and lawmakers, the questionable evidence and Professor Kim’s charismatically stubborn refusal to submit continually shines through. Likewise the casting of Ahn Seong-gi as the professor is a masterstroke, who brings his incredible likability to the role yet also stretches himself into new territory conveying such a highly logical, intelligent, and occasionally cold protagonist with the utmost sincerity.

Unbowed largely succeeds due to the character of Professor Kim. Ahn Seong-gi portrays him as a humble yet highly intelligent man, a man of principals and ethics undaunted by the challenges before him. Scenes in the courtroom are wonderfully shocking and amusing as the Professor admonishes the judges for cutting him off during speeches, or for simply disregarding the law. An understanding of Korean culture, where seniority is incredibly important, makes such sequences all the more entertaining and are unfailing in creating a triumphant underdog narrative. Similarly the flashback scenes establishing the case, including the Professor’s time at university, prior court cases, and even family scenes, construct him as a genuinely likable and modest man, who simply wants nothing more than fairness for his students, his countrymen and women, and himself. However, the best examples of the courtroom  drama convey how the case fundamentally changes those involved and in this sense Unbowed stutters. From the outset Professor Kim is, despite his stubbornness, a great man which leaves little room for character development. There is only one instance where the film takes a decidedly dark tone for the protagonist, yet what occurs takes place off camera and the ramifications are only alluded to and not explored, which is a missed opportunity. Yet this lack of examination is also due to the great deal of focus bestowed upon defence lawyer Park Joon, who fights for the Professor’s freedom in his own unique manner.

Defence Lawyer Park Joon attempts to garner the support of the public using the media

Defence Lawyer Park Joon attempts to garner the support of the public using the media

Professor Kim’s relationship with defence lawyer Park Joon forms an integral part of the film and is executed well, with Park Won-sang highly competent in the role. The actors respond and play off of each other well, although they manage to form their alliance quite quickly and easily despite their protestations to the contrary. Oddly, the narrative often seems more concerned with Park Joon’s story as he must battle alcoholism, the bankruptcy of his company, the tug of war between his wife and an attractive journalist, and his disillusionment with the law due to a past mistake. If all this appears too much then you’d be correct, as there are so many narrative tangents that add precious little to the main arc that their inclusion is often quite redundant. It also comes at a price, as genuine character development is sacrificed in order to accommodate so many threads. The lawyer’s love interest, in the form of journalist Jang Eun-seo (played by Kim Ji-ho (김지호), is also critically underused as she offers little more than a female presence rather than a crucial figure in the development of the case. Additionally, Park Won-sang is unfortunately required to provide comedic relief, and despite these scenes acting as brief interludes they are generally a wholly unnecessary distraction from the Professor’s story. That said, as the trial begins to gather pace and focus is applied to the final verdict, Unbowed recaptures the verve and vitality that makes the story so compelling and enthralling.

The judges continually reject evidence and pleas that would clarify the truth

The judges continually reject evidence and pleas that would clarify the truth

Verdict:

Unbowed is a highly entertaining courtroom drama, filmed in a modest social realist aesthetic by director Chung Ji-young and featuring a charismatic and articulate performance by Ahn Seong-gi. Both of these features work wonderfully together in portraying the based-on-true-events narrative, adding realism, sincerity, and credibility to the plight of the Professor as well as highlighting corruption within the Korean legal system. While too many narrative threads involving defence lawyer Park Joon overburden the main arc, Unbowed is a great example of a Korean courtroom drama done right.

 ★★★★☆

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The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist (형사) – ★★★★☆

Duelist (형사)

Duelist (형사)

Well before the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, martial arts epics set in ancient Asia were incredibly popular. However it was Ang Lee’s classic tale of love and sword-play that thrust the sub-genre into Western cinemas with unprecedented popularity, resulting in even more entering production. Of these, Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) are noted as perhaps the most critically acclaimed with the Chinese auteur’s keen sense of colour and balletic style proving a winning formula for audiences.

Lee Myeong-Se’s (이명세) Duelist (형사) is one of Korea’s forays into the martial arts epic, and as with most of the auteur’s films it will instantly polarize audiences between those with preconceived mainstream expectations, and those with more art-house sensibilities. Those who fall into the latter category will highly enjoy the exquisite mise-en-scene, abundance of visual metaphors and cinematic playfulness for which the director is renowned.

Set during the Joseon Dynasty, Duelist features Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won (하지원) and Detective Ahn (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), officers working undercover trying to discover the source of a counterfeiting scandal that is disrupting the country by devaluing the monetary system. The duo track down a gang suspected of circulating fake coins to a market place, and a chaotic battle ensues. Yet before Nam-soon and Detective Ahn can apprehend the criminals, a performing masked swordsman enters the fray and murders all the suspects in an unbelievable display of grace and speed that shocks them all. Spilling a cartful of fraudulent coins to cover his escape, the swordsman flees yet is pursued by Namsoon who engages her target in battle wielding knives, proving herself to be equally as adept by cutting off a portion of his mask. Calling him Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won (강동원), Nam-soon and Detective Ahn must track him down and halt the counterfeit operation before the hyperinflation destroys the country and the monarchy.

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist is an absolutely stunning film, featuring sumptuous visuals and incredible cinematography. The locations are rendered with striking attention to detail, with wonderfully vibrant colours conveying the passion in the markets while shadows consume the back alleys with a noirish aesthetic. As has become expected of director Lee Myeong-Se (이명세), the highly articulate and almost playful artistic style extends to both the narrative and the technical proficiency and in doing so Sad Eyes and Nam-soon are constructed in terms of their opposing gender, offering a radically different stance on traditional action film conventions. Sad Eyes is feminised through his long hair, elegance and grace. His sword-play is mostly captured in slow-motion to convey his fluidity and finesse, while his calm demeanor adds a feminine charm that is simultaneously meek yet confident. Sad Eyes is also without a name, existing purely as image and a prize to be sought after, tamed, and dominated, attributes traditionally enforced upon female roles. As such, Sad Eyes becomes more beautiful than handsome, while his counterpart Nam-soon becomes more handsome than beautiful with her incredibly boisterous and hot-tempered characterisation. She curses, starts fights, and conveys mannerisms akin to a lower-class ruffian, even stalking Sad Eyes in an overt masculine fashion. The ambiguity of gender is enthralling with the role reversal offering an alternative perspective on traditional action and romantic narratives.

Such romantic sentiments are expressed through their martial arts displays, as the fighting is more a highly choreographed dance than a duel to the death. Their styles match perfectly together, flowing and moving as if one, expressing the passion, anger, frustration and longing contained within them knowing that as officer and criminal their relationship can never be. The fighting styles also express their characterisation as Nam-soon’s passionate masculine fervour is contrasted with Sad Eyes’ restrained elegance, moving in and out of shadow, through regular and slow motions, and in the most beautifully poignant scene under gently falling snow.

The lovers' displays of martial arts convey their longing

The lover’s displays of martial arts convey their longing

In addition to employing technical techniques to portray the artifice of cinema, Lee Myeong-se also emphasizes performance in this regard. Ha Ji-won’s tendency to over-act is superbly exploited in Duelist as her exaggerated mannerisms highlight the performance of masculinity, and the hypocrisy in the social acceptance of it for one gender and not the other. Her acting is also amusing particularly when she is forced to adopt a traditional feminine role through wearing hanbok and pouring tea for aristocratic men, the degradation and artifice of which she clearly loathes. Ahn Seong-gi is also required to over-act, yet his performance often alludes to mocking traditional authoritative patriarchal roles of the father figure and law-giver. His mannerisms are quite comical, usually reserved for sidekicks and jesters, undermining his position as authoritarian while simultaneously crafting Detective Ahn as kind and likable.

As he functions primarily as image, Kang Dong-won gives a highly restrained performance allowing his mannerisms, eyes, and the mise-en-scene to convey his characterisation. He does so with incredible skill, conveying a feminine beauty and elegance that are impossible to miss. His eyes are indeed sad, especially when his identity and passivity are expressed, whereby he emerges comparable to a socially suppressed princess with an undesired fate.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

Verdict:

For cineastes with an appreciation of the aesthetics of cinema, Duelist is an incredible treat with its sumptuous visualization of the Joseon Dynasty era and the gendered role reversal of the leading protagonists. Rather than produce standardized mainstream fare, director Lee Myeong-se has crafted an elegant alternative perspective of martial arts action, making Duelist one of the most impressive contributions to the sub-genre and an outstanding addition to his exemplary filmography.

★★★★☆

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Cha Hae-joon (차해준) faces off against the monster

Sector 7 (7광구) – ★☆☆☆☆

Sector 7 (7광구)

Sector 7 (7광구)

When Sector 7 (7광구) was announced, it came with a wave of anticipation. It had a blockbuster story that resembled Hollywood fare, guaranteeing a foreign market; it had assembled some of the most popular actors in the country, including hot property Ha Ji-won (하지원) also known as ‘the Korean Angelina Jolie’; and it was to be filmed in 3D, insinuating the high level of confidence film executives had in the project.

The story, about workers on an oil rig that come face to face with a monster, had more than a few similarities with Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979) and had cinephiles wondering if it could compete in Hollywood and reignite international attention in Korean cinema. To be fair, the expectations were so ridiculously high that any film would have fallen short. But no-one was prepared for just how far short, and how awful, Sector 7 truly is.

On an isolated oil rig off the coast of Jeju Island, the crew are experiencing difficulties as there is no oil to be found. The supervisor (Park Jeong-hak (박정학), wants to abandon the search but is repeatedly challenged by team member Cha Hae-joon (Ha Ji-won (하지원) for his cowardice. That is, until senior official Jeong-man (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) returns to the rig and demands the search continues until an oil well is found; yet once their objective has been achieved, members of the crew are found dead. As the crew attempt to find the murderer, the come face-to-face with a monster from the depths of the ocean.

Cha Hae-joon (차해준, Ha Ji-won (하지원) searches for the unseen killer

Cha Hae-joon (Ha Ji-won) searches for the unseen killer

The narrative itself is not an inherently bad premise, yet director Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) continually pushes audiences’ suspension of disbelief well beyond their limits. For example, motorcycle drag racing on an oil rig appears to be a commonplace activity on this particular rig, as does the bizarre mixture of futuristic and archaic technology within it. The absurdity is not helped by the use of terrible CGI and green screen that seriously detracts an sense of logic to the proceedings. The worst is saved for the monster itself, an unbelievably poor creation that appears like a reject from a Final Fantasy video game. The monster has supposedly been forcefully evolved from a smaller creature yet bares no resemblance to it whatsoever, and exhibits an entirely different set of abilities. Luckily most scenes involving the creature are at night and in shadows, yet even then the lackluster design, movement, skin texture and so on are obviously apparent. This is all the more baffling when considering Bong Joon-ho‘s incredible monster film The Host was made 5 years earlier.

The crew must fight to survive the new menace

The crew must fight to survive the new menace

The actors portraying the tyrannized protagonists are also unimpressive, although they cannot be held fully accountable as the dialogue is woeful. Ha Ji-won is usually an actress that guarantees quality, yet even she provides an under-par performance as she schizophrenically flits from cute airhead to hardened independent woman. Her love interest played by Oh Ji-ho (as Kim Dong-soo (김동수) is so under-represented that he hardly warrants being in the film, let alone providing adequate interest as the source of her affections. Duo Park Cheol-min (박철민) and Song Sae-byeok (송새벽) are intended to add comedy to the mix however become so irritating that it’s something of a relief when they meet their demise. Park Cheol-min in particular shouts his way through his dialogue, while his compatriot merely whines. The less said about Park Yeong-soo’s (박영수) mentally ill crew member Jang Chi-soon the better. Only Ahn Seong-gi as senior crew member Jeong-man conveys credibility through his quiet-albeit-authoritative tones, yet he too succumbs to the oddities in the narrative when his supposedly true nature is revealed.

Cha Hae-joon (차해준) faces off against the monster

Cha Hae-joon faces off against the monster

Verdict:

Sector 7 is not a complete disaster, as director Kim Ji-hoon competently composes scenes and keeps the action moving at a swift pace. Apart from the awful CGI it’s clear that Sector 7 has a large budget which has been well spent on creating the mise-en-scene of an oil rig. It’s a shame that so many negative features outweigh the few scant positives, rendering a potential blockbuster into a substandard film well below the talents of all involved.

★☆☆☆☆

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