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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Reviews
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.

★★★★☆

Reviews
Dr. Daniel Martin, director Lee Myeong-se, and the very talented translator

London-Korean Film Night, Jan 2012 – ‘Duelist’ (형사) and Q+A with director Lee Myeong-se (이명세)

On Thursday the 26th of January, the Korean Culture Centre in London held the first of twelve planned Q+A film nights with legendary Korean directors.

A month dedicated to director Lee Myeong-se (이명세)

A month dedicated to director Lee Myeong-se (이명세)

For January’s edition the director in question was Lee Myeong-se (이명세) in conjunction with his 2005 film ‘Duelist’ (형사). Presiding over the event was Dr. Daniel Martin who introduced both the film and the director, giving the history and context to Lee Myeong-se’s (이명세) illustrious career and auteuristic sensibilities.

The film was very well-received by the audience, and during the following Q+A Lee Myeong-se (이명세) was in good humour throughout and very entertaining.

Dr. Daniel Martin began the Q+A with some questions about Lee Myeong-se’s (이명세) career, and particularly the actors that he has worked with. The director replied that he wanted to work with Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) as the actor had a very strong image as a good man in Korean cinema, and that his roles were limited due to typecasting. Director Lee wanted to change that and play with such preconceptions and cast him in Nowhere to Hide. In addition, Director Lee also cast his own mentor in a comedic role, as he had always had ambitions to be an actor; yet his mentor later revealed the role reversal, where Director Lee had to give instruction, had made him rather uncomfortable. In regards to using younger actors, Director Lee said he was impressed with Ha Ji-won’s (하지원) TV drama work and Kang Dong-won (강동원) had acted well in a prior film and had the ‘look’ he wanted.

For his next project, Director Lee stated he is planning an action film titled ‘Mr. K’ and jokingly claimed that it will surpass the James Bond films.

Dr. Daniel Martin, director Lee Myeong-se, and the very talented translator

Dr. Daniel Martin, director Lee Myeong-se, and the very talented translator

When asked about why he is concerned with the artificiality of cinema rather than attempting to achieve realism, Director Lee answered that he didn’t watch films when he was young which he is now grateful for as he wasn’t exposed to the conventions of cinema. Instead he is inspired by poetry and other creative works in discovering ‘what makes a film’.

In regards to the wide variety of music from other cultures and eras within ‘Duelist’ (형사), Lee Myeong-se (이명세) replied that if he likes music and it fits with his vision within a film, then he will use it regardless of faithfulness to an era.

Quizzed about his own martial arts prowess, Director Lee explained that he, like all Korean men who have undertaken military service, is a black belt in Taekwondo. However if he were to give a display, it would be highly comedic.

Following this, the director very kindly gave autographs and pictures to those who attended – including me!

Me with director Lee Myeong-se!

Me with director Lee Myeong-se!

Next month, the Korean Cultural Centre will be dedicated to director E J-yong with the Q+A to be held on February the 23rd alongside the screening of his 2009 film Actresses (여배우들).

Festival News
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.

★☆☆☆☆

Reviews
TIFF Tokyo 2011

Tokyo International Film Festival 2011 to Show Variety of Korean Films

TIFF Tokyo 2011

TIFF Tokyo 2011

The Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), which runs from the 22nd – 30th of October, will play host to a variety of Korean films.

Monster movie Sector 7 (7광구) featuring Ha Ji Won (하지원) will be screened, as will international favorite The Yellow Sea (황해). In addition, sci-fi drama Two Rabbits in Osaka and romantic-drama One Shining Day (눈부신 하루) will also be showcased in the ‘Winds of Asia-Middle East – SUGINO Kiki: Muse of the Asian Indie Cinema’ category. This section will be a celebration of actress Sugino Kiki.

As part of the ‘Winds of Asia-Middle East – Discovering Asian Cinema: Film History A La Carte’, the newly restored Kim Ki Young 1961 classic Hyeon-hae-tan Knows (현해탄은 알고 있다 ) will be screened.

For the full Kobiz report, please visit here.

Festival News Festivals 2011