The Fatal Encounter (역린) – ★★★☆☆

The Fatal Encounter (역린)

The Fatal Encounter (역린)

The year is 1777. King Jeongjo (Hyeon Bin (현빈) has only been in power for a year yet has survived numerous assassination attempts, while the political machinations within the kingdom due to conflict with the rival Noron group has resulted in a tenuous grip on power. Paranoid and afraid, King Jeongjo retreats to a small study to protect himself and to find a resolution to the crisis, trusting only his eunuch servant Kap-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영). Unbeknownst to King Jeongjo, another attempt on his life will soon be made by a collusion between his young grandmother Queen Jeongsun (Han Ji-min (한지민) and Noron military General Goo Seon-bok (Song Yeong-chang (송영창). Yet the conspirators have also enlisted the services of an assassins guild led by Gwang-baek (Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현), who orders his best killer Eul-soo (Jo Jeong-seok (조정석) to carry out the task lest his girlfriend Wol-hye (Jeong Eun-chae (정은채) be killed instead. In the final 24 hours leading up to the attack, King Jeongjo must use every means at his disposal to save himself, his mother Lady Hyegyeong (Kim Seong-ryeong(김성령), and the very kingdom itself from the sinister coup.

The paranoid King retreats to his secuded study to avoid assassination and to find a resolution for the internal political crisis

The paranoid King retreats to his secluded study to avoid assassination

The Fatal Encounter (역린), also known as The King’s Wrath, is a visually impressive feature debut by director Lee Jae-gyoo (이재규), whose previous credits have largely applied to television dramas. Director Lee makes to leap to film with incredible confidence and fortitude, expertly constructing the ominous tone leading to the assassination attempt with beautifully realised composition and quite lovely cinematography. His prowess is often astonishing, ranging from scenes depicting a dark foreboding rain-soaked palace at night to stunningly colourful scenes in which the King’s clothes are dyed and worshipped; from ethereal shots on a lake during clandestine meetings to tense and sexually-charged confrontations between the King and his young grandmother. From beginning to end, The Fatal Encounter is a gorgeously attractive film.

Yet while the film is consistently visually engaging, unfortunately the same cannot be said for Choi Seong-hyeon’s (최성현) script which, while competently written, becomes weakened due to the overly-ambitious narrative juggling act and the vast number of characters within. Set in the 24 hours leading up to an assassination attempt, the narrative attempts to fill in the gaps of certain complex relationships and historical events by employing flashback sequences. This is itself is an effective storytelling device, however the great number of flashbacks utilised within the narrative structure proves a great distraction from the main tale of King Jeongjo’s efforts at securing stability within the kingdom, becoming subsumed beneath the weight of so much excess. With far too many protagonists and antagonists to cover, it’s difficult to invest in the King’s struggles, or to care that this could potentially be his final day on earth.

Scenes in which King Jeongjo confronts his grandmother are intense

Scenes in which King Jeongjo confronts his grandmother are intense

The Fatal Encounter features a stellar cast, headlined by superstar Hyeon Bin as the King. The actor is an imposing presence as the royal leader, conveying a restrained strength and stoicism that is expected of such a role. The stoicism does however occasionally veer towards blankness, while the absence of subtlety suggesting paranoia is something of a missed opportunity. Interestingly it is Jeong Jae-yeong who steals the limelight as devoted eunuch Kap-soo, as he impressively balances his unquestionable loyalty to the King with nuances suggesting disquiet as well as a range of emotional angst. The best moments of the film come from the interplay between the King and Kap-soo as their relationship is explored and develops into new territory.

For the myriad of other talents within The Fatal Encounter, their characters tend to be limited to one-dimensional stereotypes, yet the cast all perform competently. Han Ji-min is particularly impressive as femme fatale grandmother Queen Jeongsun, conveying an intense sexual energy in her scenes with King Jeongjo which she has clearly perfected from her similar characterisation in Detective K.

The abundant cast results in so many narrative strands and sub-plots, in multiple time streams no less, that The Fatal Encounter loses the sense of urgency required in making the countdown to assassination compelling. While director Lee excels in crafting a visually striking film, and in executing a kinetic action-filled finale well, the overly-ambitious narrative structure ultimately combines to make The Fatal Encounter a mediocre period piece.

The Fatal Encounter is consistently visually impressive

The Fatal Encounter is consistently visually impressive

Verdict:

The Fatal Encounter is a visually arresting feature film debut by Lee Jae-gyoo, who confidently and impressively constructs beautifully realised compositions of the ominous 1777 era. Yet the film loses agency due to the combination of an overly ambitious narrative structure in conjunction with an over abundance of characters, resulting in a very attractive period film that is difficult to invest in.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Our Sunhi (우리 선희)

‘Our Sunhi’ (우리 순희) gets a Trailer and Invitation to Locarno Film Festival

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Director Hong Sang-soo’s (홍상수) latest film Our Sunhi (우리 순희) has been invited to Switzerland’s prestigious Locarno International Film Festival, which is due to commence on the 7th of August.

The film tells the story of Sunhi (Jeong Yu-mi (정유미) who, after graduating with a degree in film, returns to university seeking a letter of recommendation from a professor in order to continue her studies in America. Yet Professor Choi (Kim Sang-joong (김상중) is not simply content to give the letter as he likes her, and attempts to give advice for Sunhi’s future. Complicating matters further, Sunhi meets two other men from her past – film director Moon-soo (Lee Seon-gyoon (이선균) and veteran filmmaker Jae-hak (Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영). As they enter her life once more all three men seemingly can’t control their liking of the young woman, and continue to hang around her acting as mentors.

Our Sunhi  is director Hong’s 15th film, and will feature within the ‘Concorso Internazionale’ program of the festival, where it will also receive its world premiere. Please see below for the trailer, which also has English subtitles.

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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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Hae-gook must traverse a literal tunnel of deceit

Moss (이끼) – ★★★★☆

Moss (이끼)

Moss (이끼)

The corruption of the ruling elite is certainly nothing new in Korean cinema. After years of military dictatorships and scandalous corporate backhanders, it’s clearly understandable why such themes are continuously prevalent. However these narratives often approach from a reactionary perspective, highlighting the suffering of those victimized by injustices. Little explored are the foundations of a community, the roles and interplay of law, religion, power, crime and punishment in the creation of a society. Such Shakespearean motifs are traditionally reserved for period dramas, yet Kang Woo-seok’s (강우석) Moss (이끼) wonderfully examines the labyrinthine networks of power in a contemporary village in Gangwon province. Based on the incredibly popular internet comic, Moss is an exhilarating and fresh addition to the thriller genre.

While struggling against a law suit, Ryoo Hae-gook (Park Hae-il (박해일) receives news that his estranged father, Yoo Mok-hyeong (Heo Joon-ho (허준호), has died. Visiting the estate, Hae-gook is surprised to learn of his late father’s role as one of the elder statesmen of the village, yet merely wishes to resolve  any outstanding affairs and return to his life in Seoul. However Hae-gook’s curiosity is piqued when his father’s partner, the powerful village foreman Cheon Yong-deok (Jeong Jae-yeong (정재영) and his three right-hand men – Kim Deok-cheon (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진), Jeon Seok-man (Kim Sang-ho (김상호), and Ha Seong-gyoo (Kim Joon-bae (김준배) – continually attempt to persuade him to leave.  As Hae-gook digs deeper into the mystery of his father’s death and the strange behaviour of the residents, he must confront the disturbing truth about the village and its inhabitants.

The residents of the village are not all they seem

The residents of the village are not all they seem

Screenwriter Jeong Ji-woo (정지우) has translated the web-comic to film with incredible skill, lacing each protagonist with depth and nuance – as well as fully realised character arcs – that makes each confrontation compelling viewing. This is remarkable as the 163 minute running time may seem excessive, but the narrative is so fueled with suspense and the protagonists so fascinating that the time is hardly noticeable. The plot is the epitome of labyrinthine, carefully taking time to construct the scenario through flashbacks and the creation (and breakdown) of relationships through subtle character defining events. Director Kang Woo-seok is impressive in visualizing such dense material, from the intimidating fortress overlooking the village to the claustrophobic subterranean tunnels. Praise should also be bestowed upon the set design, lighting and editing departments, who display ingenuity in creating the tension-filled world of Moss.

The actors are also wonderful in bringing the community of Moss alive. Park Hae-il is excellent as the idealistic Hae-gook who is continually involved in events beyond his understanding, while his nemeses – Yoo Hae-jin, Kim Sang-ho and Kim Joon-bae – are incredibly unnerving and intense in portraying the criminal classes/extensions of power. However, the most exceptional performance belongs to Jeong Jae-yeong, who is loud, violent and ambitious as a young man, but silently commands respect as an elder. The sheer intensity conveyed through his expressions is amazingly sinister, demanding obedience with merely a glance. The weakest link is Yoo Seon as store owner Lee Yeong-ji through no fault on her part, as her role is virtually forgotten until the third act when her presence is suddenly elevated into a lead protagonist.

Hae-gook must traverse a literal tunnel of deceit

Hae-gook must traverse a literal tunnel of deceit

Thematically, Moss is also a triumph. The portrayal of corruption seemingly endemic with the ruling elite is hardly original, but Moss strives to explore all areas in the creation of a society, notably the role of religion. As such, the village in Moss acts as a microcosm for society, and how the younger generation must fight against the greed of their elders. Yong-deok, the village foreman, was a corrupt police officer in his youth but his ambition for power was continually unfulfilled. That is, until he met Mok-hyeong, a man with a violent past that had apparently found redemption through religion who was quickly amassing followers. The jealousy for power and influence ultimately fuels their relationship, yet both are keenly aware that alone they can achieve little. In joining forces to create a community both men have similar intentions but are ideologically opposed, as they wish to exert dominance over others but through different means. Each man is clearly representative of the ideological vie for power in society, and the process in which they become increasingly more corrupt is as organic as it is alarming. There is rather blatant bias however, as Mok-hyeong’s Christian ideology is constantly  represented as inherently ‘good’ which diminishes the exploration somewhat.

In discovering the sinister origins of the village, Hae-gook is representative of the younger generation that must reveal and persecute such greed. Hae-gook studies old books and documents, finds subterranean tunnels, and must even join forces with an enemy in the pursuit of his father’s murderer. As a young divorcee, Hae-gook embodies the change in society as the shift away from tradition becomes ever more apparent. His naivety and idealism is endearing but simultaneously foolhardy, as he continually fails to understand the larger events at hand.

The young and idealistic Hae-gook must face the old and corrupt Yong-deok

The young and idealistic Hae-gook must face the old and corrupt Yong-deok

Verdict:

Moss is a incredibly well executed thriller that delves into Shakespearean themes of the vie for power amongst the ruling classes. The interplay of different features of society, from religion to the criminal classes, constructs a dense tale of suspense that highlights the unfairness, and the generational differences, within a culture and emphasizes the importance of prosecuting the corrupt. The bias nature in representing Christianity, and the under-developed female role slightly detract from the viewing experience, but despite this Moss is a highly entertaining and compelling foray into corruption in contemporary Korea.

★★★★☆

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