4th Place (4등) – ★★☆☆☆

4th Place (4등)

4th Place (4등)

Youngster Joon-ho (Yoo Jae-sang (유재상) loves to be in the water and has a real talent for swimming, yet for some reason he always places fourth in competitions. Furious at her son’s lack of improvement despite her constant scolding, Joon-ho’s mother (Lee Hang-na (이항나) seeks out a renowned swimming coach with terrible reputation – former olympic hopeful Gwang-soo (Park Hae-joon (박해준). As Joon-ho’s training commences, coach Gwang-soo’s methods become increasingly violent, revealing the extremes taken and endured in such a competitive culture.

Joon-ho adores swimming and is mesmirised by the nature of light and water

Joon-ho adores swimming and is mesmirised by the nature of light and water

Produced in conjunction with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 4th Place is a potent exploration of the extremely competitive education culture that exists within Asia. Studies routinely reveal that Korean children are amongst the unhappiest in the world with shocking levels of suicide, due the incredible stress heaped upon them by strict parents and teachers, and as such director Jeong Ji-woo deserves respect merely for broaching the issue on film.

Director Jeong examines the issue through Joon-ho, a youngster who deeply enjoys swimming yet is incessantly berated and belittled by his shrill mother for not taking the sport more competitively. The manner in which she psychologically torments her son is equal parts horrifying and infuriating to behold, as she manipulates Joon-ho into equating his lack of success as a lack of love for her, initiating deep internalised guilt. Through her machinations at church – which director Jeong subtly insinuates as a place of corruption – she finds a coach for Joon-ho, one who verbally and physically abuses the youngster. Parallels are clear with the exceptional drama Whiplash, and while 4th Place never reaches those heights it deserves commendation for tackling such a vital societal issue.

Joon-ho's training often includes bouts of violence and verbal abuse by the coach

Joon-ho’s training often includes bouts of violence and verbal abuse by the coach

Visually, 4th Place is beautifully shot during the swimming scenes. The lighting and lenses used serve to create a world of majesty and elegance under the water, a place where Joon-ho can escape and find enjoyment in solitude. Such sequences wonderfully convey the youngster’s love of swimming and the freedom it brings, as he gracefully glides through the water as if it’s his natural state of being. Yet such cinematic stylisation rarely extends beyond the arena of the pool however, with director Jeong’s more sophisticated dramatic techniques as employed in prior films Eungyo (A Muse) and Happy End sadly missing during scenes of family conflict.

The dramatic tension is also undermined by the lack of a central figure. Whiplash is a phenomenal film largely due to Miles Teller’s central performance from a mild-mannered to psychologically unhinged student, yet in 4th Place acting duties are generally shared equally among the cast resulting in a lack of singular perspective and characters that are largely one-dimensional. Perhaps worryingly, the most developed member of the film is the violent coach due to (an overly long) prelude that simultaneously infers the circular nature of corporal punishment and generates sympathy for him – arguably more so than young victim Joon-ho. In more adept hands the emotional complexity of the mother and coach could shine through despite the script’s shortcomings, though Lee Hang-na and Park Hae-joon are unfortunately not up to the task as they over-exaggerate their respective performances.

Nevertheless the story is a timely and important one, with the film’s finale one of the most creative and enjoyable sequences witnessed in Korean independent cinema in quite some time.

Follwing physical abuse and family strife, Joon-ho must decide his future

Follwing physical abuse and family strife, Joon-ho must decide his future

Verdict:

Co-produced with the Korean Human Rights Commission, 4th Place is a powerful reminder of the brutal nature of Korea’s competitive educational system, and the inordinate abuse applied by authority figures toward students. Director Jeong Ji-woo explores the issue well and is particularly impressive during swimming sequences, resulting in a timely film that deserves commendation for tackling important and challenging subject matter.

★★☆☆☆

Advertisements
Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews
17 year old Eun-gyo is a naturally charismatic young woman

A Muse (은교) – ★★★☆☆

A Muse (은교)

A Muse (은교)

An age gap between lovers can make for incredible drama as the couple step outside preconceived notions of what is deemed socially acceptable in a relationship. The seminal film The Graduate (1967) is the most prominent in this regard which, while comical, also conveyed the ideological differences between generations. In Korea such themes have also played out, most notably in Kim Ki-young’s exemplary 1960 classic The Housemaid (하녀), while more contemporary offerings have arrived in the form of Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow (활) and Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless (똥파리). While each film approaches the subject differently they all exhibit the conflict that arises between youth and maturity, attraction and repulsion, desire versus social acceptance.

A Muse (은교), directed by Jeong Ji-woo (정지우), provides a gently poetic, emotionally fraught, and symbolic take on the romantic theme, in keeping with his back-catalogue. The exploration of the relationship between the three central protagonists contains poignant depth, bolstered through an interrogation regarding the nature of age and talent. However, the film is also somewhat hampered by the casting of Park Hae-il as an old man, while the constant fetishization of Eun-gyo’s body – rather than her mind and spirit – undermines the purity of their relationship.

As a poet and national icon, elderly Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il (박해일) has enjoyed incredible success, even preparing for a museum to be constructed in his honor. Yet now is the time for his young apprentice Seo Ji-woo (Kim Moo-yeol (김무열) to shine as his new novel becomes an incredibly popular and rapid bestseller. However their lives, and their relationships, are drastically altered when a young girl named Han Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun (김고은) visits their home, charming them both with her youthful vitality and curiosity.

17 year old Eun-gyo is a naturally charismatic young woman

17 year old Eun-gyo is a naturally charismatic young woman

While A Muse takes quite some time in establishing the life of poet Jeok-yo and that of his student Ji-woo, the inception of Eun-gyo – also the name of the original Korean title – distinctly elevates the film and gives it direction and purpose. Director Jeong Ji-woo does an incredible job of constructing Eun-gyo as an intoxicating protagonist, a young woman whose youth, energy and curiosity are infectious and spellbinding. However, the most prominent form in conveying such devotion is through the fetishization of her body, featuring close-ups of her skin and various body parts, sexualizing Eun-gyo to the point of worship. With the knowledge that Park Hae-il portrays the elderly poet, such scenes are (despite the misogyny) tender and romantically sexual, yet had an actor of the correct age performed the role perversity would undoubtedly enter critical debate. Luckily Jeong Ji-woo also emphasizes the emotional and spiritual connections between the two, and that Jeok-yo desires Eun-gyo’s youth, purity and innocence as much as her physique, as she is in turn attracted to his depth of character and devotion. Age may suggest otherwise but they are kindred spirits, and sequences in which they strengthen their bond are heartwarming and endearing, particularly during the soft-focus scenes where Jeok-yo imagines himself as a young man. Their relationship is in stark contrast to those involved with Ji-woo, who worships Jeok-yo as a respected surrogate father and idolizes Eun-gyo due to their similar ages and as someone who can heal his loneliness. The director is highly intelligent in constructing each relationship as distinctly different entities, evolving each subtly and with realism as jealousy and desire intermingle with love and affection. However as Ji-woo is certainly the less developed of the three he perhaps unfairly falls into a villainous category, rather than a conflicted young man.

Romance and personal connections inform the exploration of age within A Muse, which is arguably the central concern of the narrative. The depth, symbolism and subtlety are eloquently conveyed as each protagonist gradually reveals their shortcomings seemingly ascribed through age. Jeok-yo, having lost his youth, uses Ji-woo and Eun-gyo as agencies through which to live again, contrasted with Ji-woo’s competitive masculine nature  and Eun-gyo’s innocence and curiosity. What is fascinating throughout the narrative are the ways in which each protagonist views things differently and the ways in which they display emotion and respect, allowing audiences to genuinely understand them and their motivations. As such, when the film ends, the tragic fallacies and the impact of events linger and resonate long, long after the final credits.

Jeok-gyo and Eun-gyo share intimate moments

Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo share intimate moments

Kim Go-eun gives the stand out performance within A Muse as high schooler Eun-gyo and is enthralling. The actress inhabits the role completely, conveying innocence, curiosity and vitality with genuine charisma forcing audiences to adore her as much as the protagonists do. Kim Go-eun’s charismatic performance is such that it is easy to forget her age and occupation, drawing spectators in with her enthusiasm and smile whilst also sympathizing with her as the unwitting catalyst in a love triangle. Passionate scenes are also sincere, and while the constant fetishization of her body occasionally undermines her character Kim Go-eun utilizes her physicality to convey a range of emotions depending on who she is with.

As always Park Hae-il gives a highly competent performance as elderly poet Jeok-yo. His casting is odd but understandable given the sexual scenes and fetishization of his love interest’s body, but it is difficult not to think that an older actor would have lent more credibility to the role. There are certainly a lot of actors of this age group in Korea that are incredibly talented, as Lee Chang-dong’s sublime Poetry, and Choo Chang-min’s Late Blossom, highlighted. In any case, Park Hae-il portrays the stoicism and loneliness of Jeok-yo well, conveying the evolution of the character subtly and organically. However there are several occasions where the actor is clearly trying to act like a senior citizen to the detriment of the scene, distractions in an otherwise competent display.

Kim Moo-yeol, despite receiving the least amount of screen time, portrays the role of jealous young author Ji-woo competently. The driven and arrogant nature of the character is performed well, as is his complete lack of understanding in regards to the depth of both Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo. Ji-woo’s love/hate relationship with them both is also interesting to watch unfold and is never contrived, resulting in a slow build of tension just waiting to erupt.

Eun-gyo also attracts the attention of prodigy Ji-woo

Eun-gyo also attracts the attention of prodigy Ji-woo

Verdict:

A film of great depth and symbolism, A Muse is an eloquent exploration of the nature of age, love, and relationships. While the fetishization of Eun-gyo’s body tends to undermine the spiritual connection between her and Jeok-yo, with Park Hae-il’s casting simultaneously helping to alleviate the sexualization as well as being an oddity, the film succeeds on the strengths of a wonderfully character driven narrative  and a superb debut by actress Kim Go-eun. With the subtle, organic and romantic performances and directorial style, the themes explored within A Muse will undoubtedly resonate with audiences long after the finale.

★★★☆☆

Reviews
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.

★★★★☆

Reviews