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.

★★☆☆☆

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Fantasy-thriller The Piper receives an English subtitled trailer

The Piper (손님)

The Piper (손님)

The Piper (손님) – or more literally translated as The Guest – has received an English subtitled trailer ahead of its July 9th release date in Korea.

Loosely based on the classic tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, the fantasy-thriller is about a father and his sickly boy who, shortly after the Korean War, find themselves at a strange remote village in the mountains on their way to Seoul. Intending to stay there only for a day before moving on, the duo start to experience surreal events amongst the citizens that leads the father to pick up his mysterious pipe.

First time director Kim Kwang-tae takes the helm, although he has previously worked as an assistant director on erotic period drama Untold Scandal and romance flick Almost Love.

The Piper also features some of Korean cinema’s incredible acting talent. With Ryoo Seung-ryong (The Admiral) in the lead as the father and Lee Sung-min (Kundo: Age of the Rampant) as the village elder, the film also includes Chun Woo-hee (Han Gong-ju) and popular star Lee Joon (Rough Play), as well as child actor Goo Seung-hyeon (The Fatal Encounter).

Please see below for the English subbed trailer.

The Piper

Film News

Cart (카트) – ★★★★☆

Cart (카트)

Cart (카트)

With only 3 months more service until she becomes a regular employee, supermarket cashier Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah (염정아) works diligently for the position that will enable her to provide greater stability for her family. Despite the difficulties of raising wayward teenage son Tae-yeong (Do Kyeong-soo (도경수) and a young daughter (Kim Soo-an (김수안) alone, Seon-hee strives to make ends meet for them all. Yet when the supermarket officials decide to layoff all the workers in favor of cheaper labor, the mostly female staff – many of whom have worked with the company for years – are outraged. Led by fellow cashier Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee (문정희) and cleaner Soon-rye (Kim Yeong-ae (김영애), the women begin to unionize and issue demands for reinstatement. However when their efforts are ultimately ignored, the women decide that more drastic strike action is necessary for their voices to be heard.

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Seon-hee witnesses abuse at work, yet her desire for job stability keeps her silent

Based on a true story, director Boo Ji-young’s (부지영) Cart (카트) premiered to high acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, as well as later back home in native Korea at Busan. The drama is an incredibly impressive exploration of the issues plaguing the temporary workforce in contemporary Korea. From the very moment Cart begins director Boo effectively portrays the grueling monotony of menial labor, employing a brilliantly washed out colour palette in conjunction with fluid camerawork that depicts workers performing machine-like tasks under the watchful eyes of aggressive management, evoking the same sensibilities as Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. Rather than individuals, the workers are consistently framed as cogs in a machine hurriedly operating the factory-esque supermarket whilst robotically repeating phrases such as, “We love you, customer!” Director Boo wonderfully juxtaposes such hard work and empty slogans with the awful humiliations dealt by the customers and executives, while the workers themselves tolerate such human rights abuses simply in order to keep their jobs.

The contrast between such scenes and the representation of the characters personal lives offer a powerful, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. As the vast majority of the workers are underprivileged women, the film depicts the daily struggles of the female workforce as they endure abusive employment in order to desperately stave off poverty, emphasising an array of feminist issues with potent insight. Director Boo has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one which is a true rarity in both current Korean and international cinema. The range of characters within the film, each with their own dilemmas, poignantly capture the challenges facing modern women in society. While Seon-hee and Hye-mi struggle to raise their children alone, Soon-rye exposes the plight of the elderly, while the inclusion of married protagonists as well as disaffected graduate Mi-jin (Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) convey the breadth and scale of discourses effecting contemporary women. Cart is a truly refreshing alternative to male-centered narratives, one that unequivocally portrays working class women as heroines in their own right.

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The mostly female workers keep in good spirits as they demand reinstatement

The power of Cart lies in the conflict between the mostly female workers and the male executives, as the unfair dismissals result in unionization, and the ignorance of which in turn spurs strike action. Director Boo structures the escalation of hostilities between both sides with skill, as the workers who stage peaceful protests with colourful clothes and slogans are confronted by the dark bullying tactics of the company. In so blatantly portraying the corruption and underhand manner of the corporation, director Boo has produced a challenging and provocative film that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers amongst the conservative upper classes, who are depicted offering bribes, employing gangsters, and hurting innocents in the bid to continue profits and to save face. Yet director Boo also implicates government agencies in the scandal, particularly the police force and their unnecessary brutality, as the women peacefully demonstrate against injustice, making Cart not only an insightful film but a courageous one too.

Cart does however suffer from a case of over ambition as too many protagonists feature, which ultimately makes it difficult to invest in all of the narrative threads that arise. All the characters certainly add a perspective on the discourses through the film, yet as there are so many tangents it’s difficult to invest in every one. Screen time is mostly ascribed to Seon-hee and her family, and an impressive contrast is made between her and her difficult son Tae-yeong, implying the conditioning of the populace as automatons as one that begins from a young age. However Tae-young’s story line, in which he becomes attached to prospective girlfriend Soo-kyeong (Ji Woo (지우), is a little trite and appears to be a device to attract teenage audiences. Scenes such as these, and others that feature the quite cheesy musical score, sometimes threaten to put Cart in TV drama territory, yet director Boo never lets the story stagnate and consistently keeps the drama moving apace.

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

As tensions escalate, Seon-hee and Hye-mi fight back against their affluent male abusers

Verdict:

Cart is moving, provocative glimpse at class and gender warfare as well as social injustice in modern Korea. In depicting the unfair working conditions and the incredibly strong women attempting to stave off poverty, director Boo Ji-young has crafted an empowering social rights drama, one that examines the status of human rights and feminist issues with insight and sincerity. A powerful film, Cart is a real rarity in both contemporary Korean and international cinema.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – ★★★★☆

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말)

Life is good for single mother Hyeon-sook (Kim Hee-ae (김희애) and her two teenage daughters Man-ji (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) and Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-ki (김향기). Despite the financial hardships of living in a single parent household, the three are like any other typical family. That is, until the day Cheon-ji commits suicide. Devastated by the loss, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji move to a new home and attempt to start afresh. Yet as Man-ji begins to think more and more about her younger sister’s death, as well as the lack of a suicide note, she becomes driven to find the cause behind Cheon-ji’s suffering. As she  questions those close to Cheon-ji, including best friends Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jeong (김유정) and Mi-ran (Yoo Yeon-mi (유연미), Man-ji starts to unravel the elegant lies involved and begins to understand that she may not have known her younger sister as well as she previously thought.

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

The family are devastated from Cheon-ji (center) commits suicide

Thread of Lies (우아한 거짓말) – or directly translated as ‘Elegant Lies’ – is a powerfully compelling and tender family drama by director Lee Han (이한) and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon (이숙연). It is a well-documented fact that the suicide rate in Korea is the highest amongst the countries in the OECD – and in particular it’s the leading cause of death amid the younger generations – yet while several films have explored the issue from the perspective of those suffering from depression, Thread of Lies approaches the topic quite differently. By exploring the situation from the view of a family struggling to come to terms with loss, the film effectively captures not only the trauma and guilt generated by losing a loved one to suicide but notably how it’s possible to live with someone and not truly know who they are. Director Lee beautifully conveys the complexity of emotions and relationships in the aftermath of loss with acute sincerity, while also subtly intertwining a critique on the notion of pretense in Korean society. Falsity is presented through a heartbreaking scene in which Cheon-ji arrives late to a birthday party and is bullied on kakao messenger service, within her view and by people claiming to be her friends, and is superbly contrasted with a scene depicting her mother being forced to practice customer service and etiquette at a supermarket. Thread of Lies examines the various ways in which people in contemporary Korea are forced to subsume their true emotions for socially acceptable ones, yet director Lee also superbly manages to balance such weighty material with tasteful light-hearted comedy, infusing the story with positivity and hope as well as tender poignancy .

Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Outcast Cheon-ji is bullied by her entire class, yet keeps her suffering to herself

Thread of Lies is in many ways an examination of guilt, and the lies told in order to assuage it. Older sister Man-ji is cool to the point of arrogant, yet in her quest to discover Cheon-ji’s motivations she uncovers a web of depression, pain, and half-truths that fundamentally change her, and as such her development into a more mature and aware young woman is a deeply affecting journey. The conversations Man-ji has with Cheon-ji’s classmates Hwa-yeon and Mi-ran are incredibly illuminating, as the young girls reveal a history of bullying and psychological abuse yet desperately remove any notion of their role in the lead up to the suicide. Their interactions are brilliantly contrasted with the truth via flashback scenes depicting the events as they occurred, revealing the full impact of wrongdoing on the young and sensitive Cheon-ji. Director Lee effectively employs such moments to reveal that blame lies not with one singular person, but with a large number of people who are all culpable in the build-up to suicide as they thoughtlessly mistreat those around them. As such, Thread of Lies is a socially-conscious, poignant and sincere examination of a timely issue, and is an exemplary piece of filmmaking.

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Man-ji and her mother learn to cope with the loss after discovering the truth

Verdict:

Thread of Lies is a powerful and compelling family drama that deals with the aftermath of suicide. Director Lee Han captures the complex emotional and relationship issues within Lee Sook-yeon’s script with sincerity and tenderness, as Man-ji attempts to understand her younger sister’s death. Featuring an exemplary examination of the guilt and lies associated with suicide, and cultural existence of pretense within contemporary Korean society, Thread of Lies is a fascinating and empowering exploration of a timely issue.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews