Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해) – ★★★★☆

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해)

Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해)

The voices of young women are often ignored in mainstream cinema. Those that do appear tend to focus on frivolity, particularly consumerism where the characters purchase the latest fashions often in the attempt to catch the attention of a love interest. Such latent sexism is wonderfully rejected in director Jeong Jae-eun’s (정재은) indie drama Take Care of My Cat (고양이를 부탁해), a refreshing drama about five friends who increasingly grow apart after high school. The film had a very successful festival run following its debut at the 2001 Busan International Film Festival, appearing at Berlin and Rotterdam amongst others, and launched the careers of the principal cast, notably Bae Doo-na who went on to star in several high profile productions such as Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Hollywood movie Cloud Atlas.

Following graduation from high school, five friends from the port city of Incheon who were previously extremely close begin to drift apart. Shin Hae-joo (Lee Yo-won (이요원) lives in Seoul working hard to achieve a career, becoming driven by appearance and success. Yoo Tae-hee (Bae Doo-na (배두나) works for her father’s business for free, struggling to find her own identity and ambitions. Seo Ji-young (Ok Ji-yeong (옥지영) is an aspiring textile artist, yet her poverty-stricken lifestyle has left her with little prospects. Finally, twins On-jo (Lee Eun-Ju (이은주) and Bi-ryu (Lee Eun-Sil (이은실) simply attempt to get by, making cheap jewelry to be sold at market. As Tae-hee works hard to keep the bonds of friendship strong, events occur that profoundly change the young women and take them all in different directions resulting in the passing of a pet cat between them.

The friends reunite for Hae-joo's 20th birthday

The friends reunite for Hae-joo’s 20th birthday

Take Care of My Cat is an intelligent character-driven film, one that eschews the trappings of melodramatic story-lines so often ascribed to women’s roles in cinema. Director Jeong, who also takes writing duties, instead opts for more realism, conveying the struggles of young women fresh from high school, struggling to succeed in the highly competitive society. With each protagonist director Jeong highlights and interrogates particular features of Korean culture, balancing the social critique between them while simultaneously conveying how such forces shape them into different women. Hae-joo – wonderfully brought to life by actress Lee Yo-won – must contend with the extreme diligence of the employment sector in Seoul, constantly striving to be ‘better’ and prompting an arrogance and selfishness her friends are unaccustomed to. Meanwhile Tae-hee is forced to endure the misogyny within Korean culture as exemplified by her father who passes tips on how to be a ‘real man’ to his son. With Ji-young, her poverty forces limitations on her creativity and forces her outside the margins of society. In each case, director Jeong explores the notions of female identity and its construction with skill and insight, organically debating them within the narrative as the quintet of friends observe the change the personalities and the distance generated amongst them.

In this regard it is Tae-hee who, as the central figure who arranges meetings, becomes the heart of the film and the window through whom the audience identifies most. As Tae-hee attempts to bring the group closer it becomes clear she’s fighting an uphill battle, and her observances reflect the audience’s own. Bae Doona brings a wonderful and nature grace to the role, both endearing and sincere, conveying a young woman yearning for identity and ambition that always seem just out of reach. She is the person with whom young people can relate the most, someone who wants independence and individuality yet is trapped by the culture that surrounds her.

Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

Tae-hee dreams of exploring the world beyond the trappings of her existence

The titular cat also functions as pertinent and insightful metaphor for female identity. As director Jeong has often stated in interviews, cats are fussy and independent, don’t listen, and leave home whenever they wish. As the cat is passed between the friends it becomes symbolic in inspiring the owner to yearn for more, to become increasingly frustrated with her existence as it stands. As Koreans are traditionally uneasy with cats, the director seems to be suggesting that Korean culture struggles with the notion of female identity and independence. Director Jeong emphasises such traits through each of the protagonists, especially Tae-hee and Ji-young by exploring their unhappiness and desire for change. The narrative is quite unbalanced in regards to twins On-jo and Bi-ryu however, and their inclusion is underdeveloped and arguably unnecessary. They serve little function throughout, except to sell cheap home-made accessories to other women, again tying into the debate of physical attractiveness women are expected to partake in.

Yet Take Care of My Cat is not all deep metaphor and social debate, as the film makes effective use of lighting techniques, an otherworldly electronic soundtrack, and text messaging/typing graphics to give the film a distinctly ‘cool’ edge. These features combine incredibly well and lend the film something of a ‘cult’ vibe, and has clearly served as an inspiration to later films who have employed such techniques.

Ji-young's poverty-stricken life is difficult to endure

Ji-young’s poverty-stricken life is difficult to endure

Verdict:

Take Care of My Cat is a wonderfully charismatic film that provides young women with a voice that’s sorely lacking in contemporary cinema. By eschewing notions of consumerism and melodrama, writer/director Jeong Jae-eun instead focuses on female identity and its construction with skill and insight. Furthermore the electronic soundtrack, amongst other techniques, make it something of a cult film, as well as an intelligent, profound offering in the debate of womanhood in modern Korean society.

★★★★☆

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Camaraderie initially proves difficult

As One (코리아) – ★★☆☆☆

As One (코리아)

As One (코리아)

The divide across the Korean peninsula has provided history with some of the most fascinating and horrifying accounts of human endeavour. Both the North and the South have flip-flopped between moments of sheer brutality against each other yet have also achieved poignant moments of recompense. While terrorist attacks and threats grab headlines, the strong underlying sense of nationality and ‘brother/sisterhood’ has spurred other stories of joint enterprise, family reunification and co-op sporting events that are smaller and more intimate in nature, hinting at the potential future for a united people; they are, after all, Korean.

One such tale of triumph over (ideological) adversity was obtained during the 1991 International Table Tennis Championships in Chiba City, Japan, where South Korean and North Korean table tennis players partnered to compete against the rest of the world. Brought to celluloid by director Moon Hyeon-seong (문현성), As One (코리아) flirts dangerously close with being an average TV movie for the majority of its’ running time yet manages to become an engaging and effective sports drama in the final act.

Facing off in the semi-finals during the 1990 Asian games, South Korean table tennis player Hyeon Jeong-hwa (Ha Ji-won 하지원) confronts her Northern rival Lee Boon-hee (Bae Doona 배두나), both determined to win not only for themselves but for the pride of their respective countries. Narrowly defeating her opponent, Jeong-hwa moves on to the finals but is bested by the Chinese champion (Kim Jae-hwa (김재화), nicknamed ‘The Great Wall’. As the teams prepare themselves for the 1991 Championships in Chiba City, the governments of the North and South make a surprising statement – they will combine their athletes to create a ‘Unified Korea’ team. Forced to play alongside each other, Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee must train to overcome the ideological differences between them and defeat their Chinese rivals once and for all.

The champions from the North and South unwillingly join forces

The champions from the North and South unwillingly join forces

Contemporary Korean films have a reputation for being remarkably even-handed in their representation of Northern protagonists, and As One is no exception. In fact, it’s largely thanks to the balanced approach and ideological banter that the film continues to be compelling during the incredibly lackluster first and second acts. For every quip about human rights comes a retort regarding misogyny; for every representation of stoic obedience is a portrayal of thoughtless misbehaviour. Interestingly it is the Northern athletes, led by Boon-hee, who are the most sympathetic and accommodating protagonists, while those from the South are often rude, aggressive and stubborn, as exemplified by Jeong-hwa. Such a concoction of characters offer predictable pleasures, but are entertaining nonetheless.

However the contrivances of the narrative appear all too frequently and reduce the athletes into one-dimensional caricatures often found in Korean TV dramas – yet without the possibility for development – with only Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee narrowly escaping. A true story such as this means the finale is inevitably predictable, yet the decision to include a supporting cast of stereotypes with stereotypical scenarios is perplexing and detracts from the overall enjoyment. Also halting the engagement of the audience is the soundtrack, which rarely naturally enters the film. With the exception of the final act, the music is continually a distraction and is often disjointed from prior scenes.

Luckily As One manages to redeem itself during the last moments as the final matches of the tournament are thrilling. Director Moon Hyeon-seong (문현성) makes wonderful use of editing and slow-motion techniques to deliver exciting and suspense-filled moments that are riveting and adrenaline-inducing. Strangely he constructs the penultimate match as more thrilling than the final itself, with Yoo Sun-bok’s (Han Ye-ri (한예리) underdog tale an incredibly compelling part of the film, yet also employs enough different filmic techniques to make the final a powerfully emotive viewing experience. The trials faced during the final also allows for the introduction of melodrama which is wonderfully capitalized on as the two teams are forced to part ways. It is here that the acting prowess of the two talented lead actresses finally appears as their parting is both poignantly sincere and heart-wrenching, exhibiting a quality that is a testament to how important the event was for all involved.

Camaraderie initially proves difficult

Camaraderie initially proves difficult

Much has been reported regarding Ha Ji-won’s table tennis training by the very champion she portrays, and how her skill level potentially rivals world class athletes. Sadly, due to the rapid editing and stylization, the actress’ skill level does not fully translate into film. That said, Ha Ji-won’s passionate, determined and stubborn performance is articulated well throughout As One with her reluctance to accept her long-term rivals as partners convincing. The characterization often gives her little room to manoeuvre, however during the final act Ha Ji-won is utterly enthralling as she bids farewell to her close friend as her evolving level of grief portrays incredible emotional turmoil.

Bae Doo-na shares a similar fate as Boon-hee, who gives a more stoic-yet-understanding performance and as such is the more endearing protagonist. Her weight loss, in attempting to portray the same physique as the real Boon-hee, is quite a shocking visual as her thin frame conveys a frailty and tenderness not ascribed to others. Bae Doo-na’s physical dedication also adds potency to the trials she endures throughout the narrative, while her level-headed and thoughtful acting style present a mature and contemplative counter to Ha Ji-won. Due to Bae Doo-na’s performance the final parting conveys penetrating sincerity, making it virtually impossible not to be moved emotionally.

Out of all the supporting cast only one actress rises above the stereotypical roles bestowed upon them – Han Ye-ri. Her turn as anxious novice Yoo Sun-bok is entertaining and poignant, particularly during the penultimate game. Unfortunately her tale is somewhat faded into the backgrounded as team dynamics and political tension receive focus, yet Han Ye-ri gives a highly capable performance as the underdog achiever.

Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee achieve the unthinkable on and off the court

Jeong-hwa and Boon-hee achieve the unthinkable on and off the court

Verdict:

Thanks to the true story on which it’s based, As One has plenty of potential for an incredible sports drama yet only manages to partially capitalise on the events that unfolded. While the ideological differences are balanced and entertaining, and the final matches are thrilling and exciting, the choice to fill the narrative with one-dimensional stereotypes and scenarios is detrimental to the film overall. That said, the strength of what transpired is moving and will undoubtedly remind audiences of the power of sports in uniting disparate people, and will certainly hold particular resonance for those of Korean descent.

★★☆☆☆

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Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

The Host (괴물) – ★★★★★

The Host (괴물)

The Host (괴물)

The introduction of Godzilla in 1954 was a masterstroke. The monster directly tapped into the fears and anxieties of the Japanese populace following the American atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the potential ramifications of the nuclear fallout. The popularity of the iconic character was instant, while the enduring legacy of Godzilla has remained due to the still underlying apprehension surrounding nuclear technology.

Ironically, a similar fate was to occur with neighbouring South Korea. In 2000, the American military dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde into drains which flowed directly into the Han River, the source of drinking water for the entire population of Seoul. The enormity of the public outcry was such that the U.S. military gave it’s first public apology since the Korean War, yet it did little to assuage public opinion. Enter The Host (괴물), a film that – similar to Godzilla – uses the true story as a basis for a narrative which introduces a monster into the midst of Seoul, amalgamating the fears, angers and anxieties of the society into the monstrous beast. ‘괴물’ is translated as ‘monster’, the source of the horror. However, far more interesting (and multi-layered) is the English title ‘The Host’. ‘The Host’ refers to the Han River which harbours the monster, but is also symbolic of Korea for ‘hosting’ the U.S. military (arguably another source of ‘horror’ due to creating the monster and perceived imperialism). The multi-layered title is reflected within the narrative, and it is such complexity that makes The Host one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The 'average' Seoulite family

The ‘average’ Seoulite family

The Host depicts the dysfunctional Park family, who are more a collection of individuals due to their differing personalities and interests. The slacker of the family, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho (송강호) works at a convenience store with his diligent father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong (변희봉) on the banks of the Han River. Living with them is Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) a middle school student who dislikes her father’s laid-back attitude. One day whilst serving customers, a mutated amphibious fish monster emerges from the river wreaking havoc. Gang-du and an American soldier bravely try to stop the monster from eating people, but during the struggle the soldier is gravely injured as the monster tries to consume him. Wounded by Gang-du, the monster runs back to the safety of the Han River and snatches the unaware Hyun-seo on the way. With Hyun-seo believed dead, the Gang-du is joined by his salaryman brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il (박해일) and archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona (배두나) in mourning. However, the American soldier is reported in the media as having a new strain of disease due to contact with the monster, and the military immediately incarcerate and quarantine the entire Park family against their will. That night, Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyeon-seo who is trapped in the monster’s sewer lair, and as the military refuse to help, the Park family resolve to escape their imprisonment and find Hyeon-seo before it’s too late.

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호),  who also co-wrote the film with Ha Joon-won (하준원), Joo-byeol (주별) and Baek Cheol-hyeon (백철현), has crafted a magnificent and multi-layered film that examines an incredible array of socio-cultural anxieties within Korean society. The Park family are a microcosm for the disparate identities and labour forces within Korea. Grandfather Hee-bong represents the hard-working older generation; Gang-du exemplifies the manual labour force; Nam-il constitutes the university-students-turned-office workers; Nam-ju represents women in Korea, hesitant to display their power and talent; and Hyeon-seo embodies the innocence of the younger generations. As such the family unit is allegorical of Korea itself, emphasising that for the family/Korea to succeed in killing the monster and saving their daughter/youth, they must forgo their differences, come together and work as one. The ‘monster’ the family must defeat is somewhat ambiguous. The mutated animal is the most obvious example, yet the media is equally as monstrous in inspiring panic throughout the citizens of Seoul, reports which are ultimately lies. Behind those lies are the American government and military who use the panic to their advantage, expanding American influence/imperialism and releasing ‘Agent Yellow’ (a not-so-subtle reference to toxic Agent Orange) into the atmosphere, which does little except to add further poison to the atmosphere. Korean society is also interrogated by depicting bribery and the traitorous actions of office workers due to their escalating debt. Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) continually references the multitudinous ‘monsters’ the family confront through a variety of representational devices, serving to add astonishing political and socio-cultural depth within the narrative.

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster’s lair

The blending, and subversion, of genres is seamless. Most science-fiction films tend to refrain from fully revealing their antagonist until the final acts, surrounded by darkness to both convey suspense and hide the limitations of CGI. Not so in The Host, which has one of the most staggering introduction sequences ever constructed for a monster, all during the bright daylight hours. The rampage is truly astounding, and Bong Joon-ho employs a variety of techniques in capturing the the monster’s behaviour and the panic of the crowd. The actors are, as one would expect from such highly talented individuals, perfect in capturing the essence of their respective protagonists, conveying powerful performances that virtually command attention and empathy. With so many narrative devices included, it’s astonishing how each protagonist also manages to evolve throughout the film, leading to a socialist-esque finale in which they all overcome their flaws to fight as one with the proletariat landing the final blow.

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Verdict:

The Host is an incredible film, and highlights the sheer talent and innovation of all involved. While it is unashamedly mainstream, the film never falls into cliche or parody as is often the case in the genre. Instead, The Host employs layers upon layers of political and socio-cultural subtext that adds phenomenal depth to an already highly entertaining premise, and cannot be recommended highly enough.

★★★★★

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Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것) – ★★★★☆

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것)

Anyone even remotely aware of Korean cinema understands that the theme of revenge is commonplace. There are, of course, a great number of socio-cultural reasons as to why vengeance is prevalent. Historically, Japan has brutally colonised Korea several times over the past few centuries. Following the Second World War, the then-military government oppressed the people until an uprising forced change. Then, after a democratic capitalist government took power, the race to catch up with ‘Western’ countries divided the rich and poor to an even greater degree, with traditional values altered and livelihoods destroyed in order to create infrastructure. The theme of revenge is dominant as it undoubtedly provides catharsis for a nation of people whose identity has been in a constant state of instability due to external factors beyond their control.

Director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) explores such notions of revenge in his infamous ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ beginning with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (복수는 나의 것), and followed by Old Boy (올드보이) and  Lady Vengeance (친절한 금자씨) respectively.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is concerned not only with revenge but the very basis and cyclical nature which it evolves into. Ryu (Sin Ha-gyoon (신하균) is deaf and mute, and lives a meager existence working in a factory. His sister (Lim Ji-eun 임지은) suffers from kidney disease and is in urgent need of a transplant. Fired from his job and distressed that his sister may die, Ryu turns to the black market and strikes a deal – he will give all his money and donate his own kidney, and in exchange he will receive a healthy kidney for his sister. Yet, when Ryu wakes up after the operation, he finds his kidney, and his money, have been stolen. Worse still, thanks to a miraculous donation a kidney is now available at the hospital, but without his savings the operation cannot commence.

Ryu (류) wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Ryu wakes up to find his money, and his kidney, have been stolen

Desperate, Ryu and his anarchist girlfriend Cha Yeong-mi (Bae Doona (배두나) scheme to kidnap the daughter of his former boss Park Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho (송강호) for ransom. With the transplant money secure, the duo plan to release the girl and restore the equilibrium; yet when Ryu’s sister discovers the plot she cannot take the shame and burden, and commits suicide. Ryu and the boss’s daughter bury her body by a riverbank, but the youngster falls into the water and drowns. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance then evolves into two separate narratives of revenge; Ryu’s quest to hunt down the black market organ dealers, and Dong-jin’s desire for vengeance over his dead daughter. Each man has lost someone special, someone who helped to define their identity and give them purpose and subsequently, as each man follows his agenda, their humanity becomes lost amid their barbarous acts of vengeance. Both Ryu and Dong-jin are good men, but are transformed into murderers due to external economic and medical forces, adding sympathy and poignancy as they lose their identity with each act of violence. The evolution of the protagonists are superbly conveyed by Sin Ha-gyoon and Song Kang-ho (송강호), the latter in particular giving a towering performance transforming from emotional businessman to hardened killer. Neither man understands the futility of their vengeance nor that the escalation of violence produces more victims that demand justice.

Dong-jin (박덩진) transforms from father to murderer

Dong-jin transforms from father to murderer

The evolution of the protagonists is masterfully constructed by director Park Chan-wook, who expertly composes each shot to reinforce the sympathy, and the insanity, of their actions. The cinematography is incredible in places, particularly in the recurrence of aerial shots that emphasize the loneliness of the men and the fragility of their humanity. Additionally, the utilisation of space and depth of field highlights their terrible position, both literally and figuratively, in horrific environments and circumstances. Ryu’s world is conveyed effectively and dramatically due to his inability to hear, as alternating POV shots establish how silent and disadvantaged his world is compared to those around him adding yet another layer of compassion to his predicament. Park Chan-wook’s presentation of violence is thoughtful and initially restrained, gradually building tension in order for graphic scenes to have the utmost impact.

Director Park Chan-wook's recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Director Park Chan-wook’s recurrent use of aerial shots emphasize loneliness and futility

Verdict:

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a fascinating exploration into the nature of revenge and violence, highlighting how two seemingly ‘good’ men can evolve into psychotic killers when they are bereaved. However, further exploration of the socio-economic problems that created the black market organ trade and the lay-offs at the factory, could have enhanced the poignancy of their predicaments further, as would have additional characterization before the crises developed. Yet despite this, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a riveting and emotionally charged debate on the escalation and futility of vengeance, and how the loss of a loved one can become poison when the path of revenge is taken.

★★★★☆

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