The Shameless (무뢰한) – ★★★☆☆

The Shameless (무뢰한)

The Shameless (무뢰한)

When criminal lowlife Hwang is murdered by gang enforcer Park Joon-gil (Park Seong-woong (박성웅), hard-boiled detective Jeong Jae-gon (Kim Nam-gil (김남길) is tasked with locating the felon. The assignment proves problematic as Park is gifted at evading capture, yet his passionate relationship with brothel madam Kim Hye-kyeong (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) could provide the detective an opportunity for the arrest. Going undercover to win her trust, Jae-gon contends with fending off corrupt cops and violent local gangsters all seeking Joon-gil for their own ends, while struggling to keep up his charade as he becomes increasingly attracted to Hye-kyeong. With his desire for her heightening, Jae-gon discovers his morality becoming progressively blurred.

In the squalid urban landscape, detective Jeong discovers a murder case

In the squalid urban landscape, detective Jeong discovers a murder case

Premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2015, writer/director Oh Seung-wook’s noir thriller The Shameless begins as a visually stimulating and compelling crime thriller before descending into tepid drama at the halfway point. Gorgeously realised and featuring a great performance by the ever-reliable Jeon Do-yeon, The Shameless is ultimately let down by Kim Nam-gil’s uninspired lead and a bland final act.

Helmer/scribe Oh Seung-wook, responsible for penning acclaimed films Green Fish and Christmas in August, steps behind the camera for the first time since 2001’s Kilimanjaro and immediately appears as if he never should have left. The Shameless opens in wonderful style, as a long take follows detective Jeong as he traverses Seoul’s under-construction landscape in the pale blue hue of the dawn, wonderfully articulating the gritty nature of the narrative and the complex attributes of the capital itself. The dilapidated environs, complete with renovation on the horizon, are visually inspiring and set up the region as a wholly believable arena in which crime and corruption are rife.

The plot, too, begins in a satisfactory hardboiled fashion as Jae-gon is assigned to capture fugitive Seong-woong due to a gruesome murder. With both the police force and local gangsters claiming a stake in locating the perpetrator it’s not long before their mutual goals aline, with Jae-gon consistently questioning which side of the law he is now on. To complicate matters, Jae-gon’s increasing attraction to femme fatale Hye-kyeong stirs even greater trouble for them both.

Hostess bar madam and femme fatale Hye-kyeong poses a love interest

Hostess bar madam and femme fatale Hye-kyeong poses a conflict of interest

Yet while all the classic features of film noir are setup, The Shameless becomes difficult to invest in due to the narrative structure alongside Kim Nam-gil’s indistinct performance. The actor certainly gives it his best, but he simply doesn’t have the gravitas or presence to be the hardboiled cop the film requires, while the script’s venture into generic drama territory dismantles the tense noir elements within and ultimately leads to an unsatisfactory finale. Bizarrely, the disappointing climax occurs around the 1hr 40 minute mark with an additional 20 minutes seemingly tacked on as an epilogue of sorts, slavishly dedicated to wrapping up loose narrative tangents. It’s an unnecessary extension, resulting in an overly long running time with little payoff.

Such criticisms do not apply to Jeon Do-yeon however, who adds yet another compelling performance to her already outstanding resume. While she isn’t given a great deal to work with, her turn as strong, street-wise bar madam/prostitute Hye-kyeong is consistently charismatic, imbuing the antagonist with sophisticated canniness and just a hint of vulnerability. Due to the nature of the narrative structure, The Shameless eventually comes to rest on her shoulders and she carries the film much more convincingly than her co-star with her endearing performance.

Hye-kyeong and Jae-gon develop a dangerous relationship within the criminal underworld

Hye-kyeong and Jae-gon develop a dangerous relationship within the criminal underworld

Verdict:

The Shameless is a gritty noir crime story by helmer/scribe Oh Seung-wook, who brilliantly employs the urban landscapes of Seoul to construct a visually stimulating film. While the opening is effective in establishing a compelling thriller and the ever-reliable Jeon Do-yeon adds sophistication, the narrative slips into tepid drama and an overly long uninspired finale, making for a competent yet sterile noir tale.

★★★☆☆

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Lee Byung-hun’s Comeback ‘Memories of the Sword (협녀: 칼의 기억)’ Gets English Subtitled Trailer

Memories of the Sword (협녀: 칼의 기억)

Memories of the Sword (협녀: 칼의 기억)

Martial arts period drama Memories of the Sword has finally received a teaser trailer with English subtitles.

Originally set for release at the end of 2014, the film was reportedly delayed due to the blackmail scandal involving Lee Byung-hun, yet as the issue has now subsided an August 2015 date has been announced.

The swordplay epic follows the exploits of three warriors during the Goryeo dynasty who instigate an uprising, yet when their plan is finally set to achieve fruition master swordsman Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun) betrays his comrades. To escape his wrath, Seol-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) flees with her young daughter to a place he can never find them. Eighteen years later, Deok-gi has positioned himself as a powerful ruler while Seol-rang – now blind – trains her daughter Seol-hee (Kim Go-eun) in ways of martial arts, preparing to exact her bloody revenge.

Directed and co-written by Park Heung-sik – who previously worked with Jeon Do-yeon on My Mother the Mermaid (2004) and I Wish I Had A Wife (2001) – Memories of the Sword will be a real test of the combined star power of three of Korea’s top tier actors, as well as a good indicator as to whether Korean cinema-goers have gotten over Lee’s transgressions.

MotS Kim Go-eun

MotS Kim Go-eun

MotS Lee Byeong-heon

MotS Lee Byeong-heon

MotS Jeon Do-yeon

MotS Jeon Do-yeon

Film News

Secret Sunshine (밀양) – ★★★★★

Secret Sunshine (밀양)

Secret Sunshine (밀양)

Following her husband’s untimely death, Seoulite Sin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) decides to fulfill the late man’s greatest wish by relocating to his hometown of Miryang and raise their son Jun. Initially the countryside town seems an odd place, yet Sin-ae quickly settles in by making acquaintances with overly friendly mechanic Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho (송강호) and setting up a piano academy. The newly single-mum also reveals her intentions to develop an area of land to the residents, and begins scouting with assistance Jong-chan in tow. Yet when a further terrible tragedy occurs, Sin-ae’s very sanity is tested as she struggles to cope in the aftermath. As she turns to any available source to alleviate her trauma, Jong-chan continues to try and help.

Sin-ae and Jun relocate to Miryang and meet friendly mechanic Jong-chan

Sin-ae and Jun relocate to Miryang and meet friendly mechanic Jong-chan

Secret Sunshine is an absolutely exceptional film and a true modern classic of Korean cinema.

Throughout his relatively small but undeniably brilliant filmography, director Lee Chang-dong (이창동) has keenly and insightfully explored a multitude of social discourses that afflict contemporary Korea. With Secret Sunshine the auteur examines the nature of grief and psychological instability following devastating trauma, as well as the ideology of small country towns alongside the devout embrace of religion. It’s extremely weighty material yet director Lee deftly constructs both the narrative and the visual aesthetic with such an assured poetic confidence that the themes combine seamlessly, as well as expressing a level of wisdom and awareness many other filmmakers can only dream of. The result is a drama that is a simultaneously beautiful and incredibly intense viewing experience, one which impresses and inspires on multiple levels with its insightful poignancy, while also exuding a power that resonates long after the credits roll.

The intensity and emotional magnitude of Secret Sunshine ironically lies in the subtle grace within which the story is told. The social-realism director Lee employs is as potent as ever, yet with Secret Sunshine he seems to remove any and all directorial flourishes. The approach is incredibly effective as the absence of dramatic devices allows the story to simply stand on its own merits and forces the audience to engage intellectually, emotionally, and morally with the topics being explored, as well as demand that they draw their own conclusions from the debates put forth. As such the film is a truly immersive experience that is ingenious in its simplicity yet phenomenally affecting.

Following a tragic incident, Sin-ae spirals into grief and despair

Following a tragic incident, Sin-ae spirals into grief and despair

Chiefly, the debates examined in Secret Sunshine are centered around the general negligence involved in suffering, and the role of religion in society. In taking a step away from employing potentially manipulative cinematic devices, director Lee quite naturally allows the issues to expose themselves for the ignorance and hypocrisy inherent within. The manner in which he does so is fascinating, as within the context of Shin-ae’s attempts to reconcile her grief he simply applies the logic of the ideology in question so that it ultimately ridicules itself. For example, Shin-ae’s internal conflict involving the notion of forgiveness is potently used to express the pretense involved in religion and in revealing the nature of grief, as well as articulating the narrow-minded sensibilities of the local community. The remarkable story itself holds the compulsion of debate, and director Lee is masterful in letting it speak volumes.

Yet Secret Sunshine would lack all conviction if not for the exquisite performance of Jeon Do-yeon. Jeon’s breathtaking, captivating turn as the grief-stricken mother earned her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, cementing her position as one of the most highly regarded film talents in Korean cinematic history. It is difficult to overstate just how incredible the performance is, as Jeon’s uncanny ability to inhabit a role rather than act it reaches unbelievable levels of sincerity and poignancy, absolutely deserving every ounce of praise and acclaim. From the moment Secret Sunshine begins it gradually becomes clear that Jeon infuses the character of Sin-ae with psychological instability, with the manner in which she transitions into different realms of neuroses following a series of terrible events a masterclass in acting prowess. Jeon Do-yeon’s performance is so mesmerizing that co-star Song Kang-ho is largely overshadowed, although he also provides a highly compelling role as overly-kind yet somewhat unnerving mechanic Jong-chan.

Sin-ae's fragile psychological disposition leads to looking for the secret in the sunshine

Sin-ae’s fragile psychological disposition leads to looking for the secret in the sunshine

Verdict:

Secret Sunshine is a truly exceptional film and a genuine modern classic of Korean cinema. Auteur Lee Chang-dong is simply remarkable in crafting the insightful story of grief, removing directorial flourishes to allow the incredible story to present debates on its own merits and forcing audience engagement with difficult material. Featuring an exquisite performance by Jeon Do-yeon, who took the top prize at Cannes for her role, Secret Sunshine is a phenomenal drama that every film fan should see.

★★★★★

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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Gyeong-sun and Su-jin attempt to flee from Dok-bul

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이) – ★★★☆☆

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이)

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이)

It goes without saying that the films of Quentin Tarantino have left an indelible impression on the cinematic landscape. This is especially the case with Pulp Fiction, whereby the amalgamation of extreme violence, pop culture, and variety of narrative threads have invited a host of admirers and homages. Director Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완) fits both areas, consistently expressing similar themes throughout his body of work albeit with his own Korean flair. Indeed, his nickname as ‘the Korean Tarantino’ is not entirely undeserved.

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이), director Ryoo Seung-wan’s second feature, has clearly taken gangster films such as Pulp Fiction and Snatch as huge sources of inspiration, featuring a multi-strand narrative with an assortment of colorful low lives and gangsters seeking the perfect score. Being a Korean production, there is also a great deal of Confucian ideals and martial arts added to the mix for good measure. It’s a largely enjoyable ensemble piece featuring some wonderful character actors, yet the disparate narratives never coalesce convincingly, in addition to the vast number of protagonists, tonal imbalances, and blatant misogyny that permeates throughout the story.

Gyung-sun (Lee Hye-yeong, 이혜영), a down-on-her-luck taxi driver, is continually harassed by loan sharks seeking debt collection and the police for her criminal past. While attempting to forge a life for herself despite awful passengers, her taxi is hit by Su-jin (Jeon Do-yeon, 전도연) who is on the run from her violent boyfriend Dok-bul (Jeong Jae-yeong, 정재영). A former boxing champion, Dok-bul works for the aging local kingpin KGB, or Kim Geun-bok (Sin Goo, 신구) whose power base is unchallengeable particularly while flanked by martial arts master the Silent Man (Jeong Doo-hong, 정두홍). Unknown to KGB however, is that everyone around him is conspiring to steal his fortune, even local karaoke worker Chae Min-su (Ryoo Seung-beom, 류승범).

Gyeong-sun has trouble with loan sharks and the police

Gyeong-sun has trouble with loan sharks and the police

One of the great strengths of No Blood No Tears is the gritty, violence-fueled world of Incheon inhabited by the array of gangsters and charlatans. The aesthetics employed by director Ryoo Seung-wan, such as the wonderful use of low key lighting, convey an urban landscape fraught with danger and violence, while the dilapidated arenas in which confrontations occur lends a disturbing sense of realism to the proceedings. Within this world are a vast number of protagonists, each with their own foibles and agendas, all connected with one another through various relationships and each strand unfolds in a thoroughly entertaining manner. As such comparisons with Pulp Fiction are inevitable, particularly as director Ryoo Seung-wan uses similar non-linear editing techniques in which to orchestrate events, although he later succumbs to traditional linear storytelling. Unfortunately however, with so many characters the director doesn’t manage to balance the vast number of plot threads and therefore underdevelopment of key personnel is a profound issue throughout the film. This is acutely the case with indebted taxi driver Gyeong-sun and wannabe pop starlet Su-jin, who are the masterminds behind the heist but are forced to the sidelines while focus is granted to the male roles. The intention is clearly a Thelma and Louise style narrative whereby two unlikely women join forces to take on a male-dominated world, yet as well as lack of development the film contains some frankly awful misogyny as Gyeong-sun and Su-jin are repeatedly beaten to an absurd degree by the men around them.

Stylised violence is one of director Ryoo Seung-wan’s greatest assets, and when not used to abuse the female characters, it is a genuine delight. Of particular note is the confrontation between retired boxer Dok-bul and the Silent Man, which features some lightning fast and bone crunching moves made all the more powerful through utilizing the gritty realism of Incheon’s underworld. The blood, sweat, and deft use of light and shadow are exhilarating to behold as the men fight for their lives – and their stake of the money – within the battleground of a dog fighting cage, and is a testament to the director’s skill and flair for action sequences.

KGB gives orders to Dok-bul, while flanked by the Silent Man

KGB gives orders to Dok-bul, while flanked by the Silent Man

The violence is also accompanied by a healthy dose of black comedy through humorous use of bad language and bizarre confrontations between the eccentric characters. While not as sophisticated as the films which inspired it, the comedy within No Blood No Tears is still highly enjoyable. A large amount of humor is left to the director’s brother, Ryoo Seung-beom, as dim-witted karaoke worker Chae Min-su. Unfortunately this tends to be slapstick in nature, although there are laugh-out-loud moments to be had. Most of the comedy appears through the double-crosses and surprise encounters as everyone attempts to outsmart each other and disappear with the money, and the quick pace as events unfold is entertaining. It is, however, difficult to be fully invested in the antics as Gyeong-sun and Su-jin tend to have little involvement in the robbery despite their central roles in the film, while villainous thug Dok-bul seems to emerge as an anti-hero of sorts, only for things to later reverse in an attempt to wrap all the narrative threads up nicely. As such, while certainly enjoyable, the finale is lacking in compulsion making the film somewhat hollow and bittersweet as the credits begin to role.

Gyeong-sun and Su-ji attempt to flee from Dok-bul

Gyeong-sun and Su-jin attempt to flee from Dok-bul

Verdict:

No Blood No Tears is a gritty, urban tale of gangsters and charlatans in a Korea-meets-Pulp Fiction style. Director Ryoo Seung-wan has crafted a world of danger and violence with expert use of lighting and environments, while his trademark of stylized action is exhilarating to behold. Yet the unbalanced narrative and lack of character development due to the enormous cast results in a lack of investment, particularly with the central female roles, who suffer from awful misogynistic abuse throughout the film. No Blood No Tears is ultimately an enjoyable, though uneven, gangster romp.

★★★☆☆

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Ha-cheon is a sultry, charismatic con-woman who easily manipulates men

Countdown (카운트다운) – ★★★☆☆

Countdown (카운트다운)

Countdown (카운트다운)

The partnership of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney brought back the ‘cool’ of the con-man in their remake of the classic ratpack film Ocean’s Eleven (2001). With Soderbergh’s vision for capturing the flamboyance and decadence of Las Vegas and Clooney’s uncanny knack for emanating panache and suavity, the duo made the con-man someone to root for again as the intelligent, just-one-step-ahead, underdog. Yet the machismo comes with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, as Clooney and his cohorts are constantly bamboozled by the feminine wiles of their love interests who are equally as intelligent, cunning, and charismatic. The chemistry between them, and the cat and mouse games they play, add to the appeal of the thrilling con-man lifestyle as to who will outsmart the other and emerge victorious, walking away with a small fortune.

Countdown (카운트다운) endeavours to re-create such chemistry, as two highly charismatic actors – Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) and Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영) – must compete against each other while attempting to outwit other con-artists in parting with their money. It’s a competent venture for the most part, although suffers from a lack of direction in the third act and the awful misogynistic representations throughout.

Tae Geon-ho (Jeong Jae-yeong) is a tough debt collector, a man not afraid of breaking a few bones in order to obtain the money owed. His self-destructive approach has made him the top collector, but upon discovering he has only a couple of weeks left to live due to liver cancer, Geon-ho quits and seeks out potential donors. As none exist, his only option is to find people who received transplants  from the organs of his deceased son. Only one of these can provide him with a new liver, the enigmatic con-woman Cha Ha-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon) who ripped off several high-profile gangsters before a betrayal landed her in jail. Shortly to be released, Ha-yeon makes Geon-ho a deal – help her to get revenge on those that framed her, and she’ll willingly undergo the procedure. With time counting down on Geon-ho’s life, he and his co-hort play cat-and-mouse games with each other and criminal organisations in the hope that, when everything is settled, Ha-yeon will have her revenge and Geon-ho will have a new liver.

Geon-ho is a tough debt collector, who failing liver means his life is in countdown

Geon-ho is a tough debt collector, who failing liver means his life is in countdown

Countdown incorporates an interesting mix of visual styles thanks to director Heo Jong-ho (허종호), who blends the dark tones of the criminal underworld with the bright lights of deceiving the rich with skill. In the former is Geon-ho, and the director portrays his world of shadows, violence, and debt collecting as a mixture of horror and action that threatens to engulf his central protagonist. In building the character of Geon-ho, Heo Jong-ho takes time to examine an alpha male with nothing to live for, a self-destructive selfish man, who bizarrely decides to fight for his life when faced with his own mortality. Jeong Jae-yeong portrays the stoic role well, delivering dialogue with intensity and menace while despising his place in the world. In later scenes, which take a more dramatic turn, Jeong Jae-yeong gives a stellar performance proving why he is currently one of the best actors in contemporary Korean cinema, with highly emotionally charged scenes that convey deep empathy and poignancy.

Contrasting completely with this world is Ha-cheon, as her frivolous life of consumerism and con-artistry  is depicted as luxurious, glamourous and fun. The wealthy lifestyle she targets/acquires is emphasised through the portrayal of boats, fancy restaurants, and designer clothes that reveal her incredible sex appeal and charisma. However, it is also offensively misogynistic as Ha-cheon is conveyed merely as a lying high-class prostitute rather than an intelligent and manipulative woman. References are continually made to her ‘technique’ of providing pleasure in the bedroom, and even undergoing vaginoplasty, in order to get what she wants – money and designer clothes. Ha-cheon’s history, as a mother who abandoned her daughter, serves to cement her role as a deceitful whore with no redeeming qualities, not so much femme fatale as femme devil. Furthermore, she always fails in her cons and needs rescuing by the alpha male partner she continually abandons, connoting a lack of intelligence, strength and functioning as a damsel in distress. Quite why an actress of Jeon Do-yeon’s outstanding calibre was selected for such a role is indeed puzzling, as the one-dimensional pro/antagonist offers her – and the representation of women in general – nothing of merit.

Ha-cheon is a sultry, charismatic con-woman who easily manipulates men

Ha-cheon is a sultry, charismatic con-woman who easily manipulates men

In terms of the narrative, which was co-written by director Heo Jong-ho and Lee Hyung-suk, Countdown is thrilling in the first and second acts, before becoming a mundane drama in the third. Korean cinema is wonderful for its innovative use of amalgamating genre techniques to create something original and/or veering into an unexpected territory. With Countdown this is something of a hinderance, as the initial premise is engaging and the mismatch of such distinct characters and the games they play is highly enjoyable. Particularly of note is a scene in a department store, where Ha-cheon outwits Geon-ho as well as a cadre of gangsters with style and elegance, escaping with a bag full of money…only to be captured by a different organization. The rapid editing and camera movement create a thrilling chase, and serve to heighten expectations for a similarly natured finale that never materializes. The true villain of the film, gangster boss Jo Myeong-seok (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) is delightfully vindictive although it’s a long time before he is introduced into the narrative, which impedes the potency of the threat he presents. Despite this, on the few occasions Myeong-seok is portrayed, his violent and unforgiving style is gripping.

The final act however is disjointed in that, after the glamourous con-artistry and action scenes, kitchen sink melodrama is unnecessarily shoe-horned into the narrative. Ha-cheon’s 17 year old abandoned daughter Hyeon-ji (Lee Min-yeong (이민영) adds absolutely nothing to the proceedings except to give Geon-ho another female to save. Additionally, Geon-ho’s missing memory returns yet as his amnesia had not been a serious and impeding – or even recurring – feature, the impact is minimal despite the strong performance given by Jeong Jae-yeong.

Myeong-seok is the ruthless boss of a criminal empire

Myeong-seok is the ruthless boss of a criminal empire

Verdict:

As an attempt at creating romantic chemistry through deceitful but fun con-artistry, Countdown somewhat succeeds. As always, Jeon Do-yeon and Jeong Jae-yeong give wonderful performances, and director Heo Jong-ho conveys the two opposing worlds his protagonists inhabit with skill. However, the potency of Countdown is greatly reduced through the offensively misogynistic representation of its lead female, and with a final act that holds little relation with what came before. Despite this, Countdown is an enjoyable, albeit stunted, take on inept gangsters and the glamorous world of con-artists.

★★★☆☆

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Soo-ha and Hong-yeong share a tender moment

The Harmonium in My Memory (내 마음의 풍금) – ★★★★☆

The Harmonium in My Memory (내 마음의 풍금)

The Harmonium in My Memory (내 마음의 풍금)

Nostalgia is a difficult balance to achieve in film. If done overly reverentially, it can easily fall into the realm of cliché and ‘camp’; if not revered enough, then the purpose of placing the narrative within the era is rendered obsolete. Romance fits much more neatly into nostalgic territory than other genres due to notion that the past was a time of innocence, enhancing the ‘purity’ of the love portrayed and removing the cynicism that comes with age. The Harmonium in My Memory (내 마음의 풍금) does all this and more, conveying a well-balanced nostalgic love story set in a post-war 1963 village that never becomes trite or sentimental.

Yun Hong-yeon (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) has a difficult life in her rustic farming village in Gangwon province. With an absent father – as most men never returned from the war – Hong-yeon must help her mother raise three younger siblings. At 17 she is the eldest in her middle school class, and as the new term begins she and her classmates await the arrival of their new teacher, 21 year old recent graduate Kang Soo-ha (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌). Hong-yeon is instantly smitten and is desperate to get attention, yet Soo-ha begins to develop an infatuation with another teacher, the elegant  Yang Eun-hee (Lee Mi-yeon (이미연).

Hong-yeon meets Soo-ha on his first day, and instantly falls in love

Hong-yeon meets Soo-ha on his first day, and instantly falls in love

The decision to film The Harmonium in My Memory in film stock used in decades past is a masterstroke, adding authenticity to the nostalgic vision of first love through the grainy textures. Additionally, ‘내 마음의 풍금’ directly translates as ‘The Organ in my Heart’ and as such music from the era plays a pivotal role in articulating the love held within the protagonists, as well as signalizing exchanges of affection. Director Lee Yeong-jae (이영재) employs sumptuous use of mise-en-scene in portraying the rural lifestyle in the early ’60s, with a romantic verve that captures the innocence and fellowship of the community but never shying away from the difficulties. In fact, Lee Yeong-jae conveys nostalgic comedy within such hardships, such as Soo-ha telling his students to wash more than once a month, and Hong-yeon changing her siblings soiled clothes in class. Generally Lee Yeong-jae allows the combination of these elements to dictate and present the narrative, competently directing but never really conveying an authorial style.

Eun-hee captures Soo-ha's heart with music

Eun-hee captures Soo-ha’s heart with music

All of these cinematic features are amalgamated in order to portray the innocence and naivety of ‘first love’, and in that respect The Harmonium in My Memory succeeds incredibly well. The delicacy and poignancy of ‘first love’ is all the more endearing as for most of the narrative the love is unrequited. Hong-yeong loves Soo-ha, yet Soo-ha loves Eun-hee, and the ways in which they attempt to woe their targets is both touching and comedic. Hong-yeong in particular is very amusing as she works hard in class, presents anonymous gifts, and communicates with Soo-ha through the use of her daily journal which evolves into a diary/love letter. Her naivety is endearing such as when Hong-yeong writes spiteful remarks about teacher Eun-hee and her age, causing Soo-ha to become conflicted. Similarly, Soo-ha’s attempts for Eun-hee are also romantic and enchanting, using music to overcome the initial awkwardness between them and creating indecision for Eun-hee. The loves, and rejections, are subtly and organically portrayed by the excellent cast, especially Jeon Do-yeon who displays incredible talent conveying a shy but headstrong young woman in 1960s Korea. Lee Byeong-Heon is also wonderful in playing an emotionally charged young teacher desperate for love.

Soo-ha and Hong-yeong share a tender moment

Soo-ha and Hong-yeong share a tender moment

Verdict:

The Harmonium in My Memory is a wonderfully endearing romantic tale of the hurdles and triumphs of ‘first love.’ The nostalgia is perfectly balanced throughout and lends an incredible innocence and delicacy to the narrative through the subtle use of film stock, mise-en-scene, and music from the era. As nostalgia and innocence are so integral to the narrative, director Lee Yeong-jae does not provide an in-depth examination of relationships. Rather, he opts to convey the time of love before serious complexity enters, making The Harmonium in My Memory a light-hearted and touching love letter of the awkwardness, naivety and innocence of first love.

★★★★☆

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