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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Reviews
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.

★★★☆☆

Reviews
JIFF 2013

JIFF 2013: Korea Cinemascape

JIFF 2013

JIFF 2013

As part of the build up towards the 2013 installment of the Jeonju International Film Festival, last time here at Hanguk Yeonghwa the ten selected independent films that form the ‘Korean Films in Competition’ were profiled. What they highlight is that JIFF is still continuing to seek out new and fresh film-making talent as the directors are all relatively unknown, raising the possibility for ‘discovering’ quality productions and act as a potential springboard for future festival runs.

Yet JIFF 2013 is also featuring some of the more commercial films to emerge from Korea under the banner of ‘Korea Cinemascape’. In keeping with the festival tradition the themes are quite broad in scope allowing for a range of diverse projects to appear, from star-studded gangster and action epics through to more low-key dramatic pieces. Here are the films announced as part of the ‘Korea Cinemascape’.

Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible (연소, 석방, 폭발, 대적할 이가 없는)

Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible (연소, 석방, 폭발, 대적할 이가 없는)

Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible (연소, 석방, 폭발, 대적할 이가 없는)

Director: Kim Su-hyun  (김수현)

Synopsis: A title that’s almost a story in itself, Burn, Release, Explode, The Invincible charts the life of actor Kim Sang-hyun and the unfolding drama. Described as ‘bohemian and arty’, the 53 minute drama sounds like an interesting exploration of the acting world.

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Director: Kang Woo-seok (강우석)

Synopsis: Blockbuster action film Fists of Legend features several A-list stars including Hwang Jeong-min and Yoo Joon-sang, and helmed by the mighty Kang Woo-seok who has been responsible for a string of hits both as producer and director. Word of mouth is positive on this tent-pole actioner, which sees three middle-aged friends reunited in a fighting contest for a large cash prize. As JIFF is mostly concerned with independent features, Fists of Legend will offer a change of pace for those seeking big-budgeted action. Check out the trailer below:

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Director: Park Ki Yong (박기용)

Synopsis: This documentary feature by director Park Ki-yong explores the immigrant experience of workers residing in Garibong-dong. Stories involving foreigners and the difficulties of cultural assimilation have become more prominent in recent years, and Garibong could offer a fresh perspective.

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Director: Kang Yi-kwan (강이관)

Synopsis: Juvenile Offender made waves upon its release in 2012, with its story of disaffected youth, crime, and familial relationships. The film from director Kang, who previous helmed the Moon So-ri starring Sakwa (사과), premiered in Vancouver and won the coveted Special Jury Award and Best Actor for Seo Young-ju at the Tokyo International Film Festival. With the focus on human rights (indeed, it was partly funded by The National Human Rights Commission of Korea) and timely examination of socio-cultural issues it’s great to see the film get more exposure at JIFF. See below for the trailer:

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Director: Lee Kyung-sub (이경섭)

Synopsis: Renowned character actor Oh Dal-su stars in Mr. Vertigo, a story about a man seeking to add excitement and difference to his boring life. At 25 minutes long, the film has the potential to be one of the more off-beat and humourous short stories at the festival.

My Paparotti (파파로티)

My Paparotti (파파로티)

My Paparotti (파파로티)

Director: Yoon Jong-chan (윤종찬)

Synopsis: Since its release, My Paparotti has been quite successful earning around 1.45 million admissions (at the time of writing), despite mixed critical reactions. Featuring rising star Lee Je-hoon alongside Han Seok-kyu, the comedy-drama charts the relationship between a washed-up music teacher and  young gangster who sports an exceptional singing voice. See the trailer below:

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Director: Park Hoon-jung (박훈정)

Synopsis: Gangster epic New World has been incredibly well-received both domestically as well as internationally, selling to multiple territories with its tale of violence and paranoia. Directed by Park Hoon-jung, the writer behind hits I Saw the Devil and The Unjust, the film also features heavyweights Choi Min-shik, Hwang Jeong-min, Lee Jeong-jae and Song Ji-hyo. New World has been likened to Infernal Affairs/The Departed which is high praise indeed. Check out the trailer below:

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Director: Baek Seung-woo (백승우)

Synopsis: When he ROKS Cheonan was sunk in 2010, escalating tensions between North and South Korea, several conspiracy theories appeared despite the official verdict that a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo. Documentary Project Cheonan Ship explores the events as well as the reactions by Korean society.

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Director: Yang Ik-june (양익준)

Synopsis: The 19 minute Korea/Japanese co-produced drama explores the final moments of a couple as they are about to separate. Director Yang Ik-june is the reason to be excited for this film as his exemplary drama Breathless proved his abilities behind the camera.

Talking Architecture, City:Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀)

Talking Architecture, City:Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀)

Talking Architecture, City:Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀)

Director: Jeong Jae-eun (정재은)

Synopsis: The controversial City Hall project in Seoul has been fraught with difficulty since day one, and this documentary shines a light on the issues that occurred throughout construction. It looks to be an interesting piece, especially in the conflict of old (Japanese) versus new (Korean).

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

Director: Kim Ji-Yeon (김지연)

Synopsis: Timing looks set to be a sensitive drama, as a woman attempts to resolve loose ends before she moves abroad to study. In doing so she discovers the complex emotions of the sadness of letting go of the past and the fear of starting afresh.

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

Director: Hwang Qu-doek (황규덕)

Synopsis: To Be Reborn is a documentary that follows the director himself, as he pursues another avenue in life when frustrated with the film industry. The film-making frustrations depicted could resonate well with the independent audiences and prove to be a success.

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Director: No Zin-soo (노진수)

Synopsis: The oddly titled Total Messed Family appears to be a more traditional family comedy-drama offering in which a group of mismatched personalities are forced to come together during a crisis. This certainly has the potential to be one of the ‘feel-good’ films at the festival.

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

Director: Jo Mee-hye (조미혜)

Synopsis: The only film to feature the transsexual experience in the category, The Woman portrays the story of Yoon-hee whose life is thrown into turmoil when her brother informs her of their mother’s illness. It will be very interesting to see how such issues are explored, as Korean culture is still quite conservative.

Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제14회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2013