Veteran (베테랑) – ★★★★☆

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

★★★★☆

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Ode To My Father (국제시장) – ★★☆☆☆

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

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

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

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

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

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

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verdict:

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

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

You Are My Sunshine (너는 내 운명) – ★★★☆☆

You Are My Sunshine (너는 내 운명)

You Are My Sunshine (너는 내 운명)

In a small picturesque countryside town, cattle farmer Seok-jung (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) yearns to be married. Having saved plenty of money he initially considers finding a bride in The Philippines, however decides that the absence of love defeats the purpose. Close to giving up hope, Seok-jung spies new resident Eun-ha (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) in the village who works as a ‘coffee girl’/prostitute, and is instantly smitten despite his mother’s (Na Moon-hee (나문희) disapproval. Seok-jung showers Eun-ha with affection in order to win her heart, with the worldly-wise Seoulite gradually succumbing to his country charms. Yet Eun-ha’s turbulent past eventually catches up to her, testing the limits of their love.

When Seok-jung sees Eun-ha, it's truly love at first sight

When Seok-jung sees Eun-ha, it’s truly love at first sight

Director Park Jin-pyo (박진표) cemented his status as a filmmaker of repute with You Are My Sunshine, a romantic-drama that impressively employs the cliches and predictable pleasures of the genre in becoming an effective and entertaining tear-jerker.

While You Are My Sunshine doesn’t push any boundaries in terms of originality, director Park perceptively infuses the film with generic conventions alongside an awareness of their strengths and limitations, following tried-and-tested motifs yet still managing to avoid descending into corny melodrama. Indeed, certain scenes even playfully poke fun at the huge popularity of such tales despite the silliness, in amusing self-referential moments. As well as the clearly self-aware narrative, the camerawork and cinematography apply a more social-realist aesthetic than is typically found in other examples of the genre, halting the story from becoming too whimsical by grounding events with a distinct air of realism. Luckily this doesn’t translate into the story taking itself too seriously, as You Are My Sunshine fully embraces the cliches as virtues and emerges stronger for it.

Coffee girl Eun-ha gradually starts to fall for Seok-jung's sincere declarations

Coffee girl Eun-ha gradually starts to fall for Seok-jung’s sincere declarations

The power of You Are My Sunshine resides in the central relationship which features fantastic performances by leads Hwang Jeong-min and Jeon Do-yeon, who received critical acclaim as well as notable accolades, for their turns in the film. Hwang Jeong-min is incredibly charismatic as farmhand Seok-jung. He clearly bulked up for the role as his size is particularly imposing, which ironically contrasts with his boyishly energetic mannerisms and speech that convey a kindly and naive, yet intellectually limited, suitor. Much of the film’s enjoyment is derived from his boundless hopefulness and innocence as he pursues and is constantly rejected by a ‘coffee girl’ – a desire his mother and friends are baffled by – yet his persistence and sincerity are heartwarming despite the cliches. Jeon Do-yeon, meanwhile, opts for an alternative approach in her portrayal of Eun-ha as she doesn’t merely act the role, but inhabits it completely. She is simply brilliant throughout, channeling Eun-ha’s pessimism and experience in confrontations with Seok-jung with acute sophistication.

Unfortunately however the narrative falters in the final act as the pressure to succumb to melodrama is impossible to avoid, although fans will undoubtedly be highly satisfied. Director Park employs a life-threatening illness as a plot device to generate to required sentiment which is quite exploitative, however he manages to sidestep the full brunt of criticism by using it to explore the ignorance of local townsfolk, the negativity inherent in gossip, as well as the manner in which the media appropriate such events for gain. It amalgamates into a finale that is ultimately far too long yet it does contain some interesting debates regarding Korean society and law.

The lovestruck couple find their love is tested in ways unimaginable

The lovestruck couple find their love is tested in ways unimaginable

Verdict:

You Are My Sunshine is an entertaining romantic-drama by director Park Jin-pyo, who employs the cliches and conventions of the genre effectively without succumbing to whimsical melodrama. Featuring wonderful performances by Jeon Do-yeon and Hwang Jeong-min, as well as a sense of self-awareness and greater realism than its peers, the film is particularly effective in conveying a fraught tale of romance that fans of the genre are sure to relish.

★★★☆☆

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As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

New World (신세계) – ★★★★☆

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Coppola’s 1972 classic The Godfather has long been a source of inspiration for audiences and filmmakers alike. The themes of family, power and corruption, alongside seminal performances from cinematic icons, make it one of the premiere examples of the gangster genre and a masterpiece in its own right. Director Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정) is clearly a huge admirer – he claims to have watched The Godfather over a hundred times – for he explores such topics, in conjunction with his own unique vision developed as screenwriter of The Unjust and I Saw The Devilwithin exemplary gangster film New World (신세계).

Exploring the dynamics of power within a criminal cartel turned conglomerate (or chaebol, as they are known in Korea), the story weaves a twisted and highly engaging web of suspense-filled intrigue. Ironically however, the focus on such power struggles makes the narrative a somewhat impersonal affair. Yet the film features excellent performances by an A-list cast alongside some truly gorgeous cinematography, combining to make New World a powerful and captivating addition to the genre.

Senior gangsters and close friends Jeong Cheong (left) and Ja-seong greet at the airport

Senior gangsters and close friends Jeong Cheong (left) and Ja-seong greet at the airport

When the head of the Goldmoon corporation is killed in highly suspicious circumstances, a power vacuum is left in his wake. Yet the company is not a typical chaebol. It is an amalgamation of several different criminal organisations, brought together to expand their illegal operations under the guise of an enterprise. Among the candidates to become the next ‘kingpin’ of the cartel are stoic Lee Ja-seong (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and close friend Jeong Cheong (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), as well as the aggressive Lee Joong-goo (Park Seong-woong (박성웅). Yet unknown to everyone within the organisation is Ja-seong’s dual role as a police officer, repeatedly putting his life on the line to report to Section Chief Kang (Choi Min-sik (최민식). As people on both sides of the law wage war for power, choices must be made and bloody confrontations forced in order to sit at the head of Goldmoon.

As with prior film The Unjust, director Park once again proves himself a master of balancing multiple characters. Each member of Goldmoon and the police force has an agenda, and director Park does incredibly well in portraying how each of them attempts to achieve their goals. The character development is consistently believable and occurs as a result of the desire for power, making the story an enthralling experience. This is also in no small way due to the performances of the A-list cast. Choi Min-shik in particular is outstanding as Chief Kang, a veteran cop who realises the monster he has become yet cannot quit. The actor conveys a brilliant complexity within the role, authoritative and intelligent yet self-loathing and frustrated. As Chinese descendant Jeong Cheong, Hwang Jeong-min is also superb. Amazingly he turns an extremely deplorable gangster into a likable jerk, with his foul-mouth and extravagance with fake goods masking a dangerously violent criminal. Ironically Lee Jeong-jae is somewhat short-changed as lead character Ja-seong. His role is the most complex as Ja-seong must play both sides of the law and stay alive, yet there are only a handful of moments where the character develops and genuinely feels threatened. Nevertheless, Lee Jeong-jae is very competent in the role.

Chief Kang meets with Jeong Cheong with an offer

Chief Kang meets with Jeong Cheong with an offer

Furthermore, rarely has a gangster film been so attractive. Director Park immediately places the audience within the violent, dark underbelly inhabited by the protagonists utilising great vision and skill. The composition, lighting and cinematography combine to produce some truly gorgeous aesthetics, conveying the Goldmoon hierarchy, the brutal violence, and stunning landscapes with minimal dialogue. The beauty of the dockyards at dawn is wonderfully contrasted with characters forced to swallow cement, and wonderfully captures the bizarre duality inherent in Ja-seong’s life. Such powerful and compelling imagery continue throughout the entire film, from the cold metallic offices in Goldmoon to the shadowy secret liaisons and deals that take place. New World is a genuine visual triumph, and the passion and attention to detail within every shot is palpable.

While director Park does a great job balancing and positioning the protagonists within the film to culminate in a powerful conclusion, the film also suffers from being overly ambitious. As enthralling as the story is, there are simply far too many characters within the narrative and too little time to fully construct them. Song Ji-hyo exemplifies this issue, as the talented actress is given precious few scenes in which to establish her role as a crucial player. However it is again Lee Jeong-jae who suffers the most in this regard, as his personal life – including an interesting sub-plot regarding his pregnant wife – is glossed over in favour of focusing on his status as a mole. The narrative is so concerned with the Goldmoon power play that, crucially, there is little reason provided to care about Ja-seong’s predicament on an emotional level.

Despite such criticism, New World is an incredibly powerful and exemplary gangster film. The exploration of power and corruption within the Goldmoon chaebol as well as the police force is continually fascinating,  even more so when taking into account such issues are a genuine social concern within contemporary Korea. Director Park has crafted an enthralling gangster epic, and fans of the genre will undoubtedly love it.

As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

As tensions become increasingly frayed, the line between ally and enemy becomes blurred

Verdict:

New World is a powerful and exemplary gangster film, examining the power play that occurs when the head of a criminal corporation is killed. Director Park Hoon-jeong expertly weaves a tangled web of gangsters and police into a compelling and thrilling story of corruption and betrayal. The film is also bolstered by fantastic performances from A-list stars including Choi Min-shik, Hwang Jeong-min and Lee Jeong-jae, who are continually fascinating to watch. While the focus on positioning characters and the shady deals that are made make the film a somewhat impersonal affair, New World is enthralling gangster epic that fans of the genre will not want to miss.

★★★★☆

Reviews
In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹) – ★★★☆☆

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Based on the popular web cartoon by Lee Jong-gyu and Lee Yoon-gyun, Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹) is the latest offering from prolific film-maker Kang Woo-seok (강우석). The premise is a simple one; three middle-aged men who were friends in high school find themselves down on their luck and, tempted by the prize money offered by a TV fighting show, find themselves reunited in the ring. As such the film evokes a Rocky Balboa/Warrior sensibility, with a dash of classic Korean gangster film Friend (친구) thrown in for good measure. Yet Fists of Legend never gets anywhere close to the quality of what inspired it, with a cliched and hackneyed narrative, awful TV drama-esque acting, and complete mis-use of the principal cast, while the overly-long running time adds further tedium. Luckily veteran actor Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is on hand to elevate the film out of monotony, alongside the interesting flashback sequences. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Fists of Legend is a big disappointment, and beneath all of the lead actors involved.

Tough, cynical producer Hong Gyu-min (Lee Yo-won (이요원) presides over a TV show which pits middle-aged men – who were ‘legendary fighters’ back in their youth – against each other in a mixed martial arts ring for entertainment. After receiving a tip-off, Gyu-min tracks down gentle noodle restaurant owner Im Deok-gyu (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), who was known as a talented boxer in his youth. In need of money following an incident involving his daughter, Deok-gyu reluctantly agrees to fight and surprises everyone when he emerges victorious. However his winning streak starts a series of events that sees former friends and rivals in the form of salaryman Lee Sang-hoon (Yoo Jun-sang (유준상) and gangster Shin Jae-seok (Yoon Je-moon (윤제문) enter the tournament, while the unearthing of his checkered past brings difficulty for Deok-gyu and his family.

In need of money, widowed restaurant owner Deok-gyu accepts the producer's challenge

In need of money, widowed restaurant owner Deok-gyu accepts the producer’s challenge

Fists of Legend begins well as it gloriously parodies middle-aged masculinity, featuring high-octane action sequences of svelte teenage fighters who give way to their chubby older counterparts battling on TV. The subversion of the action genre is highly entertaining as the fighters, described as teenage legends, are publicly beaten and humiliated as they attempt to prove their manliness. The comedy derived from such sequences is a fun way to introduce the concept of the show, and sets up the narrative well for the introduction of the central protagonists. Yet the film falters almost immediately in doing so as Lee Yo-won ridiculously overacts as producer Hong Gyu-min, spouting clunky dialogue about her resilience and tenacity as well as what constitutes a ‘real man’ in the attempt to recruit Deok-gyu for the show. Deok-gyu is, for all intents and purposes, the Korean Rocky Balboa; not particularly bright yet kind-hearted, widowed, and with a precocious child, the aged fighter is down-on-his-luck in every respect. Actor Hwang Jeong-min injects real heart into the role, squeezing every nuance he can muster from the character to generate sincere charisma and likability. His quality is such that whenever he comes into contact with other characters the result is often cringe-inducing, as the overacting by the supporting cast – especially Lee Yo-won and Deok-gyu’s daughter – appears even worse next to Hwang’s calm and mediated approach. Indeed, it is largely due to Hwang that Fists of Legend is engaging at all, as the journey he undertakes in which he is forced to reevaluate his past is compelling as well as adding depth to Deok-gyu’s predicament.

In order to fully articulate such self-reflection, director Kang repeatedly whisks the audience back to Deok-gyu’s past to convey how he and his friends came together. The veteran director crafts the drama well, so much so that he appears to be more invested in the flashbacks than the current crises as so much of the running time is focused on the formative years that the impetus of the fighting tournament is almost lost. Experiencing the developing friendship between Deok-gyu and his friends, as well as their eventual parting of ways, are some of the genuine highlights of the film yet the sequences feel at odds with those in the present. It’s as if two screenplays are being forced to coalesce but only partly manage to do so, and the result is a film that is at least 30 minutes too long. Furthermore, as the pace in the modern era falters in the second act, contrived features are added to the past in the attempt to flesh out relationships and dramatic tension for the fights in the present, but ultimately feel tacked on.

As high school students, the friends are forced to make tough choices

As high school students, the friends are forced to make tough choices

With such a large focus on Deok-gyu, it’s easy to forget that his two former best friends are also in the tournament. The lack of characterisation – on the adult counterparts at least – is a genuine shame as actors Yoo Jun-sang and Yoon Je-moon are highly competent performers, yet they are given such slight material to work with that they barely register throughout the film. This also serves to remove any kind of dramatic tension for the battles between them which is disappointing given that the hype generated for the contest of champions is enormous, yet they ultimately have little legitimate reasoning for wanting to fight each other. The tournaments are anticlimactic for a number of reasons, notably for director Kang’s limitations when filming action. Aside from one shot, in which the camera rolls with the fighters during a takedown, the action is bland and uninspired while the notion that these middle-aged men could somehow become mixed martial arts specialists almost overnight is just silly. The cliches that enter the film during the fight sequences, such as rousing music when a character becomes angry, are reminiscent of 1980s action films yet without the self-reflexive tongue-in-cheek attitude to make them work, and become laughable as a result. The inclusion of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ compounds the film’s 80s sensibilities further but it just serves to remind the audience of the superior Rocky series of films instead. Yet despite such criticisms, Deok-gyu’s bouts are compelling due to Hwang’s performance, and there’s always something cathartic about an underdog rising up against insurmountable odds.

In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

Verdict:

Fists of Legend, by veteran director Kang Woo-seok, is an odd action film that attempts to combine the themes within Rocky, Warrior and Korean classic Friend, in depicting a fighting tournament for middle-aged men. Yet with clunky dialogue, awful over-acting and an overly-long running time the film doesn’t achieve anything near the films from which it takes inspiration. Luckily Hwang Jeong-min’s performance is the saving grace of Fists of Legend, and his underdog story gives the film the compulsion it so sorely requires.

★★★☆☆

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Hyeon-soon leads a humble, yet satisfactory lifestyle

Jesus Hospital (밍크코트) – ★★★☆☆

Jesus Hospital (밍크코트)

Jesus Hospital (밍크코트)

Religiously-infused films often walk an incredibly precarious line; should the narrative either condone or condemn the ideology being portrayed, the risk of alienating – or worse, offending – factions of the audience is great. And yet seemingly any cinematic foray into the subject inescapably stokes controversy as the predicaments, decisions and actions taken through faith, whether situated within historical or contemporary contexts, generate enormous debate amongst the religious and non-religious alike.

With a title such as Jesus Hospital (밍크코트), audiences could understandably be forgiven for preconceiving that the film features overtly biased, pro-Christian debates. Yet Jesus Hospital does no such thing, instead focusing on a family tragedy while the emotionally fraught relatives struggle to make sense of their situations through their own interpretations of religious texts. The film is incredibly successful in portraying a balanced, mediative approach, and aside from a rather bland second act, is an interesting and thought provoking independent drama.

Despite her humble life, Hyeon-soon (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is relatively happy. However she hides a secret from the rest of her devoutly Christian family, as Hyeon-soon’s beliefs are more akin to the Old Testament and she frequently worships in such a manner. When her mother becomes gravely ill, Hyeon-soon and the rest of her estranged family must reach an agreement – should they end the life support keeping their mother alive, or wait in the hope that she will one day awaken? As each member of the family wrestles with the ethical dilemma and their religious beliefs, the introduction of Hyeon-soon’s pregnant daughter Soo-jin (수진) shakes the familial ties to their very foundations and forces them to acknowledge factors they have long sought to keep hidden.

Hyeon-soon leads a humble, yet satisfactory lifestyle

Hyeon-soon leads a humble, yet satisfactory lifestyle

The title Jesus Hospital is a bizarre, religiously-infused differentiation from the original ‘Mink Coat’, and is also something of a disservice as the film is much more concerned with familial relationships and ethical dilemmas than in foregrounding Christian ideology. Religious beliefs are however wonderfully interrogated throughout the domestic strife in Hyeon-soon’s family, as each member applies rhetoric to suit to their own desires yet appear wholly ignorant of their selective manipulation. Yet co-directors Lee Sang-cheol (이상철) and Shin A-ga (신아가) are incredibly balanced in their portrayal of Christian beliefs, neither reinforcing nor detracting from the ideology and instead allow each protagonist to convey their religious position throughout the drama. As such the narrative is – as with each protagonist’s relationship with the bible – open to ambiguity and interpretation, forming a mature and insightful foundation within which events transpire and decisions are made. Such a highly symbolic nature again emphasises the importance of the original title, as Mink Coat alludes to the themes expressed within the film with acute poignancy.

Jesus Hospital begins promisingly, as Hyeon-soon’s poverty-stricken life is revealed through a series of rapid extreme close-ups that starkly convey her hardships, from her aging skin through to the dilapated locations within which she monotonously delivers milk. Her dreary existence is wonderfully constructed and conveyed, as the directors have drained all colour from the mise-en-scene and emphasise Hyeon-soon’s boisterous character through confrontations with the public. Most notably, however are the conflicts with her family which are simultaneously humorous yet uncomfortably tense as the members trade quips with each other within seemingly intrusive camerawork. When Hyeon-soon’s mother is placed on life-support several months later, each family member’s Christian values – and deviation thereof – are employed to argue whether to end the life of the kind old woman, or to preserve it. With such an interesting premise it’s therefore surprising that the rest of the second act is a rather muted and bland affair, as the co-directors and the actors themselves fail to capitalize on the urgency of the situation, or the deviousness of those involved. Thankfully Jesus Hospital regains momentum with the introduction of Hyeon-soon’s estranged daughter Soo-jin, whose turn as a outspoken mediator makes the final act incredibly compelling.

The introduction of pregnant daughter Soo-jin increases the familial tension

The introduction of pregnant daughter Soo-jin increases the familial tension

As central protagonist Hyeon-soon (현순), Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is wonderfully convincing as a poverty-stricken woman who dearly loves her mother and who seeks solace from her existence in Old Testament-esque worship. While her boisterous character is skillfully conveyed, her religious fortitude is often expressed through wide-eyed glares and wringing of hands which somewhat detracts from the zealous fundamentalism which is so often hinted. Nonetheless, Hwang Jeong-min portrays a fascinating character and continually alludes to the humor, loneliness, and anger of a woman striving to make sense of her life.

Despite her supporting role status, Han Song-hee (한송희) is incredibly compelling and likable as pregnant daughter Soo-jin (수진). Her ambivalence and indifference to family matters is performed convincingly, as is her radical change of stance upon learning the role of the mink coat within the family. It is largely due to her presence that the film recaptures the momentum contained within earlier scenes, and the actress brings a palpable sense of urgency and morality to the proceedings which had been absent.

The rest of the supporting cast all perform competently. In the role of Hyeon-soon’s older sister, Kim Mi-hyang (김미향), and of brother and sister-in-law Kim Nam-jin (김남진) and Baek Jong-woo (백종우), all three perform well as a devious trio each with their own agenda. However the actors generally fail to fully convey the complexity of their roles and the haste in which they wish action to be taken. Despite this, they perform well and their interactions with Hwang Jeong-min are humorously-uncomfortable highlights.

Hyeon-soon seeks advice from the heavens

Hyeon-soon seeks advice from the heavens

Verdict:

Misleading title notwithstanding, Jesus Hospital is an insightful and compelling independent drama that examines morality with a family during a period of crises. Writer Shin A-ga has constructed a well-balanced and incredibly mature exploration of the selective application of faith, which she skillfully co-directs with Lee Sang-cheol in conveying the complex relationships and ethical dilemmas. While duo somewhat fail to capitalize on the intriguing premise during the second act, Jesus Hospital is an engaging film and a significant contribution to Korean independent cinema.

★★★☆☆

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Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

The Unjust (부당거래) – ★★★★☆

The Unjust (부당거래)

The Unjust (부당거래)

If there is one universal truth within Korean cinema, it is the representation of every level of the law enforcement infrastructure as incompetent, unprofessional, and corrupt. In certain cases, such as true-life thriller Memories of Murder (2003), the result can be an incredibly intense and fascinating character study; in other more generic offerings such as S.I.U. (2011) the incompetence of the force is frustratingly infuriating. Yet regardless of whether the central protagonist(s) are operating within law enforcement or without, the abuse of human rights, flagrant disregard for procedure and scandalous corruption are seemingly inherent to the respective institutions.

The Unjust (부당거래), director Ryoo Seung-wan‘s (류승완) eighth feature, continues such ideological distrust with the auteur’s trademark wit, ingenuity and postmodern sensibilities. With an incredible screenplay by Park Hoon-jeong (박훈정), The Unjust is a highly engaging and intense thriller featuring electric performances by the principal cast and arguably the highlight of Ryoo Seung-wan’s career thus far, winning ‘Best Film’ at 2011 The Blue Dragon Awards.

With intense mounting pressure from the media, citizens and politicians, the police are desperate to catch the perpetrator of the serial rape and murder of young girls in Seoul. Yet when the only major suspect is killed, the law enforcement are in dire need of someone to take the blame and to be held accountable. Director Kang (Cheon Ho-jin (천호진) believes he has the perfect officer to find such a scapegoat – Choi Cheol-gi  (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), an incredibly efficient officer who is routinely passed over for promotion as he did not emerge through the academy. Employing the help of gangster Jang Seok-goo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), the pair find a viable replacement. Yet Jang’s corrupt business rival enlists the help of Prosecutor Joo-yang (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find something – anything – that will stop Jang and Choi and allow his business to prosper. As the fate of all three becomes increasingly intertwined, they delve deeper into a moral abyss from which they may never return.

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

Detective Choi (right) enlists the help of Jang to find a scapegoat

The script by Park Hoon-jeong – which received the best screenplay award at The Blue Dragon Awards – wonderfully balances the array of characters and plot threads at an incredible pace, rarely slowing the momentum or intensity. From the second the film begins the speed at which the narrative is set-up and the players are introduced is spectacular, conveying the seriousness of the situation convincingly. Director Ryoo Seung-wan – who also received an award at The Blue Dragon Awards for best directing – brings the script to life with confidence and style, with camera movement and rapid editing raising the level of excitement to a staggering level. The partnership between both filmmakers is seemingly a perfect match as their respective styles compliment one another in tone, pace and content. The array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties within The Unjust are vast, from minor subtle issues such as favoritism within the police department, public hysteria and presidential involvement, to more scandalous affairs including secret meetings with criminals, corruption, and personal promotion over public service.

The relationships between protagonists and the various underhanded methods employed to gain leverage are brilliantly portrayed and are highly engaging. In particular Detective Choi and Prosecutor Joo-yang are excellent character studies as well as serving as mirrors of each other, of which they are subconsciously aware as they attempt to prove their superiority through obtaining incriminating evidence. Their methods of corruption are wonderfully explored, with Detective Choi more violent, impoverished and urban while Prosecutor Joo-yang meets executives at fancy restaurants and is introduced to high-ranking officials through his father-in-law. Even the gangsters they deal with have differing social statuses, and as such The Unjust is also concerned with class divide and power, as well as the motivations and loop-holes that are exploited in corrupting those within.

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Prosecutor Joo-yang and Detective Choi confront each other over their corrupt behaviour

Hwang Jeong-min gives a towering performance as Detective Choi Cheol-gi, with his absence from the ‘Best Actor’ category a bizarre oversight. The actor convincing conveys the underdog cop as a violent and diligent yet honest man, who is forced to sink ever-lower due to the request of his captain. His mere physical presence adds intensity to each scene with his height and mannerisms an intimidatingly powerful force. Hwang Jeong-min is so compelling as the violent corrupt cop that when he eventually breaks down it is something of a visceral shock, adding a dimension to his character that creates empathy despite his crimes.

Ryoo Seung-beom is also highly competent as Prosecutor Joo-yang, conveying weasely charm in abundance and is a delight to hate. The actor, nominated for his role, also adds a comedic sensibility to his role as he slithers from one lie to the next as he attempts to rectify his situation wth his superiors and corrupt colleagues. As a slight negative, Ryoo Seung-beom does have a tendency to shout his lines rather than act them which can be distracting.

As street gangster-turned-businessman Jang Seok-goo, actor Yoo Hae-jin is terrific. Also nominated for his supporting role, Yoo Hae-jin oozes criminality and effectively conveys his internal war with his urban thug mentality hiding beneath his fitted suits. The actor clearly relishes scenes in which he gains the upper-hand, smarmy and condescending with glee at the misfortune of his rivals and partners.

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Detective Choi risks everything to keep the scandal secret

Verdict:

The Unjust is not simply another continuation of Korean cinema’s distrust of law enforcement agencies; it is an incredibly thrilling and compelling exploration of an array of socio-cultural discourses and anxieties, articulated with an intelligent script and visualised with a career-best by director Ryoo Seung-wan. The fast pace, confident stylisation and electric performances make The Unjust one of the best cop thrillers in recent years and a fantastic addition to the genre.

★★★★☆

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