The Priests (검은 사제들) – ★★★☆☆

The Priests (검은 사제들)

The Priests (검은 사제들)

When Catholic student Yeong-shin (Park So-dam (박소담) is involved in a hit-and-run incident, she begins to develop peculiar maladies that doctors are at a loss to explain. Upon visiting the distraught youngster, Priest Kim (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) becomes convinced she’s possessed and prepares to exorcise the demon within, despite the church ‘s refusal to sanction the ritual. Yet Kim cannot perform the ceremony alone, and employs the help of Deacon Choi (Kang Dong-won (강동원). Together, they may just have a chance at saving Yeong-shin’s life…or perhaps Kim really is as crazy as the allegations against him claim to be.

Yeong-shin begins to develop bizarre symptoms following her accident

Yeong-shin begins to develop bizarre symptoms following her accident

One of the surprise sleeper hits of 2015, writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon’s exorcism drama The Priests is far more fun and entertaining than it has any right to be. While religious mystery-horrors are quite a rarity in Korean cinema, Jang popularises the risky prospect by imbuing the film with an unexpected amount of wit and charisma which, alongside impressively constructed exorcism scenes, are enough to overlook the various narrative shortcomings.

Adapting his well-received 2014 short film 12th Assistant Deacon – which notably won the Best Director Prize at Jeonju International Film Festival – into feature length format was no easy feat, but director Jang succeeds much more than he fails.

The Priests is an enjoyable affair chiefly due the characterisation and resulting conflict between stoic Father Kim and lackadaisical Deacon Choi who, as polar opposites, play off each other well throughout the film in ways both comedic and entertaining. The narrative unveils predominantly through Choi’s perspective as he is asked to join Kim for the exorcism ritual, while never really quite sure of the reality of the situation. Kang Dong-won is somewhat miscast in the role as the naive Deacon but he infuses the role with a palpable likability while the approach is a good one, introducing the concept to unfamiliar Korean audiences while also addressing the cynicism such tales evoke.

Deacon Choi joins Father Kim as they prepare for the ritual

Deacon Choi joins Father Kim as they prepare for the ritual

The humour and mystery involved in preparing for the exorcism is entertaining enough to distract audiences from the fact that there are plot holes and unresolved tangents galore as well as the curious absence of an emotional core. In the original 1973 horror classic The Exorcist director William Friedkin spent much of the first act developing Regan prior to her possession in order to heighten audience empathy with her situation; in The Priests no such effort is made with Yeong-shin and as a result her ordeal is difficult to invest in despite the shock value. That said, however, Park So-dam embodies the role of the traumatised teen brilliantly and works wonders with the little material she has, flitting between innocence and raving lunacy seemingly at ease to make sequences particularly disturbing.

Much of the first half of the film, while enjoyable, is mostly filler prior to the actual exorcism itself, where The Priests ultimately unveils its unique aesthetic. Taking cues from previous films involving exorcism whilst incorporating a distinctly Korean take on the material, director Jang and the production crew are to be commended for constructing a startlingly effective sequence of macabre events as the ritual unfolds. The set design alongside impressive practical effects create scenes of supernatural horror that are thoroughly engaging, and offers one of the more unique cinematic experiences from the Korean film industry.

Father Kim dedicates himself to exorcising the demon within Yeong-shin

Father Kim dedicates himself to exorcising the demon within Yeong-shin

Verdict:

The Priests is quite a rarity in Korean cinema, with writer/director Jang Jae-hyeon’s take on exorcism subject matter far more entertaining than it has any right to be. The comedic and mysterious undertones help to mask plot holes and the lack of an emotional core, yet the drama comes into it’s own during an engaging final act and as a result is one of the more surprisingly enjoyable films of 2015.

★★★☆☆

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KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) – ★★★☆☆

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대)

Upon release, summer blockbuster KUNDO: Age of the Rampant (군도:민란의 시대) broke the record for opening day admissions and helped to breath new life into what was a flagging year for Korean cinema…until it was soundly beaten a week later by maritime epic The Admiral: Roaring Currents.

It’s particularly ironic that both tentpole films achieved such a feat, given that they contain such strikingly oppositional philosophies and content. While The Admiral focused on generating hyper-nationalism to achieve success, KUNDO opted for an anti-establishment sensibility, as a group of Robin Hood-esque outlaws band together to fight against the tyrannical Prince.

Curiously, while the ideological leanings of each film differ, both suffer from a similar set of issues. KUNDO, while boasting impressive production values, competent directing and an array of popular stars, ultimately feels rushed and unfinished due to the poorly structured and conceived narrative.

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

A band of outlaws band together to fight against the vicious prince Jo

Centuries ago, Korea was a land in turmoil. With starvation and death commonplace, corruption in society was rampant, particularly amongst the ruling classes. In the face of so much injustice a group of working class heroes band together to rob from the rich and give to the poor, attempting to appease the suffering of the people.  Yet in a nearby city, a greater villainy is brewing. Born to a nobleman and courtesan, Prince Jo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) seeks to usurp his father and reign over the land. Only one challenge to his rule remains – his sister-in-law and her son, the rightful heir. Butcher Dochi (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) is hired to kill the pair, yet when he cannot, he is viciously betrayed and punished. Furious, Dochi finds a place with the band of thieves and begin their revenge as they plan to halt the Prince’s machinations.

From the moment KUNDO opens, it’s clear that the production values are some of the highest in recent memory and are particularly outstanding. Director Yoon Jong-bin (윤종빈) and his team have noticeably worked hard to put striking visual detail in every shot, from the incredible costumes of the cast through to the great variety of landscapes and arenas in which the action takes place. The attention to detail generates a sense of sincerity and wonder, and is in itself an phenomenal achievement. In regards to each member of the cast, their histories and occupations are wonderfully captured in their costumes whether it be a Buddhist monk, a butcher, or a wealthy prince and significantly contributes to the power of the film, an acute attention to detail that earned designer Jo Sang-gyeong the award for Best Costume Design at the 51st Daejong Film Awards.

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

The prodction values in KUNDO are outstanding

Yet where KUNDO falters is in the narrative structure, which is consistently haphazard. The story jumps between time lines and characters to confusing effect, and to compensate a random and quite sporadic voice-over attempts to help allay by filling in back stories and histories yet serves to provide only a further sense of disorganization. The poor structure is impossible to miss and insinuates even to the casual cinema-goer that several more drafts of the screenplay were needed before cameras started rolling.

Screenwriter Jeon Cheol-bin is further hampered by an overly – and insanely – large cast which is a huge challenge for any scribe to make each character relevant. While Jeon has clearly worked hard to do so, the sheer amount of protagonists weighs down the film due to the attempt at giving everyone screen time, resulting in a story that lacks conviction or indeed compulsion, and one that is particularly hard to invest in.

Such issues also afflict the actors. As KUNDO focuses primarily on Prince Jo-yoon and butcher Dochi, Kang Dong-won and Ha Jeong-woo have the greater chances to shine. Ha Jeong-woo in particular seems to be having a great time as the butcher-turned-criminal with his cocky and self-assured performance certainly the most enjoyable aspect of the film. Kang Dong-won – in his first film role since completing mandatory military service – also appears to relish portraying the villainous prince. Yet for them and the rest of the enormous supporting cast, the lack of screen time results in highly capable actors providing competent performances, making KUNDO an entertaining but not especially compelling viewing experience.

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

The villainous prince battles against the uprising

Verdict:

KUNDO: Age of the Rampant is a record-breaking tentpole film of 2014 by director Yoon Jong-bin. Boasting hugely impressive production and costume design as well as a host of capable actors including Ha Jeong-woo and Kang Dong-won, KUNDO is ultimately let down by a haphazard narrative structure, an insane amount of supporting characters, and a story that is hard to invest in. As a result KUNDO is an enjoyable, though unchallenging, viewing experience.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist (형사) – ★★★★☆

Duelist (형사)

Duelist (형사)

Well before the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, martial arts epics set in ancient Asia were incredibly popular. However it was Ang Lee’s classic tale of love and sword-play that thrust the sub-genre into Western cinemas with unprecedented popularity, resulting in even more entering production. Of these, Yimou Zhang’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) are noted as perhaps the most critically acclaimed with the Chinese auteur’s keen sense of colour and balletic style proving a winning formula for audiences.

Lee Myeong-Se’s (이명세) Duelist (형사) is one of Korea’s forays into the martial arts epic, and as with most of the auteur’s films it will instantly polarize audiences between those with preconceived mainstream expectations, and those with more art-house sensibilities. Those who fall into the latter category will highly enjoy the exquisite mise-en-scene, abundance of visual metaphors and cinematic playfulness for which the director is renowned.

Set during the Joseon Dynasty, Duelist features Nam-soon (Ha Ji-won (하지원) and Detective Ahn (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), officers working undercover trying to discover the source of a counterfeiting scandal that is disrupting the country by devaluing the monetary system. The duo track down a gang suspected of circulating fake coins to a market place, and a chaotic battle ensues. Yet before Nam-soon and Detective Ahn can apprehend the criminals, a performing masked swordsman enters the fray and murders all the suspects in an unbelievable display of grace and speed that shocks them all. Spilling a cartful of fraudulent coins to cover his escape, the swordsman flees yet is pursued by Namsoon who engages her target in battle wielding knives, proving herself to be equally as adept by cutting off a portion of his mask. Calling him Sad Eyes (Kang Dong-won (강동원), Nam-soon and Detective Ahn must track him down and halt the counterfeit operation before the hyperinflation destroys the country and the monarchy.

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

The masked swordsman displays incredible grace and skill

Duelist is an absolutely stunning film, featuring sumptuous visuals and incredible cinematography. The locations are rendered with striking attention to detail, with wonderfully vibrant colours conveying the passion in the markets while shadows consume the back alleys with a noirish aesthetic. As has become expected of director Lee Myeong-Se (이명세), the highly articulate and almost playful artistic style extends to both the narrative and the technical proficiency and in doing so Sad Eyes and Nam-soon are constructed in terms of their opposing gender, offering a radically different stance on traditional action film conventions. Sad Eyes is feminised through his long hair, elegance and grace. His sword-play is mostly captured in slow-motion to convey his fluidity and finesse, while his calm demeanor adds a feminine charm that is simultaneously meek yet confident. Sad Eyes is also without a name, existing purely as image and a prize to be sought after, tamed, and dominated, attributes traditionally enforced upon female roles. As such, Sad Eyes becomes more beautiful than handsome, while his counterpart Nam-soon becomes more handsome than beautiful with her incredibly boisterous and hot-tempered characterisation. She curses, starts fights, and conveys mannerisms akin to a lower-class ruffian, even stalking Sad Eyes in an overt masculine fashion. The ambiguity of gender is enthralling with the role reversal offering an alternative perspective on traditional action and romantic narratives.

Such romantic sentiments are expressed through their martial arts displays, as the fighting is more a highly choreographed dance than a duel to the death. Their styles match perfectly together, flowing and moving as if one, expressing the passion, anger, frustration and longing contained within them knowing that as officer and criminal their relationship can never be. The fighting styles also express their characterisation as Nam-soon’s passionate masculine fervour is contrasted with Sad Eyes’ restrained elegance, moving in and out of shadow, through regular and slow motions, and in the most beautifully poignant scene under gently falling snow.

The lovers' displays of martial arts convey their longing

The lover’s displays of martial arts convey their longing

In addition to employing technical techniques to portray the artifice of cinema, Lee Myeong-se also emphasizes performance in this regard. Ha Ji-won’s tendency to over-act is superbly exploited in Duelist as her exaggerated mannerisms highlight the performance of masculinity, and the hypocrisy in the social acceptance of it for one gender and not the other. Her acting is also amusing particularly when she is forced to adopt a traditional feminine role through wearing hanbok and pouring tea for aristocratic men, the degradation and artifice of which she clearly loathes. Ahn Seong-gi is also required to over-act, yet his performance often alludes to mocking traditional authoritative patriarchal roles of the father figure and law-giver. His mannerisms are quite comical, usually reserved for sidekicks and jesters, undermining his position as authoritarian while simultaneously crafting Detective Ahn as kind and likable.

As he functions primarily as image, Kang Dong-won gives a highly restrained performance allowing his mannerisms, eyes, and the mise-en-scene to convey his characterisation. He does so with incredible skill, conveying a feminine beauty and elegance that are impossible to miss. His eyes are indeed sad, especially when his identity and passivity are expressed, whereby he emerges comparable to a socially suppressed princess with an undesired fate.

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

The cinematography and mise-en-scene are stunningly rendered

Verdict:

For cineastes with an appreciation of the aesthetics of cinema, Duelist is an incredible treat with its sumptuous visualization of the Joseon Dynasty era and the gendered role reversal of the leading protagonists. Rather than produce standardized mainstream fare, director Lee Myeong-se has crafted an elegant alternative perspective of martial arts action, making Duelist one of the most impressive contributions to the sub-genre and an outstanding addition to his exemplary filmography.

★★★★☆

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Min-woo is a successful author with an idea he can't conceptualize

M (M (엠)) – ★★★★☆

M (M (엠))

M (M (엠))

Identity and memory are complicated postmodern concepts to convey cinematically. Michel Gondry’s sublime Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is perhaps the most renowned mainstream production to interrogate such abstract subject matter, conveying the importance of love, loss and memory as fundamental in the creation and evolution of identity. Without them, Gondry posits, a person will forever be trapped in an identity loop where choices and mistakes are destined to be repeated.

M (M (엠)) also explores such abstract themes and, thanks to artistic auteur Lee Myeong-se (이명세), in a postmodern art-house style. The result is one that instantly polarizes audiences between those with expectations of mainstream conventions and those with an appreciation of art cinema; the former will dislike the absence of structured storytelling and unconventional visualization, while the latter will find enjoyment in the colours, mise-en-scene, and technical innovation.

Min-woo (Kang Dong-won (강동원) is a successful novelist, struggling to write the amazing idea locked within his brain that he can’t fully recall. Plagued by insomnia, Min-woo suffers from hallucinations and stress – when he does sleep, he is hounded by nightmarish dreams. The boundaries between reality and his subconscious blur constantly as Min-woo is confronted by images and scenarios both new and  vaguely familiar, all the while stalked by love-stricken Mi-mi (Lee Yeon-hee (이연희). Finally confronting each other in a bar, Min-woo tells Mi-mi his idea but awakes in his apartment with no recollection. Pushing away his faithful wife Eun-hye (Kong Hyo-jin (공효진) with his erratic behaviour, Min-woo attempts to track down the mysterious Mi-mi within the surreal landscape in order to unlock the story seemingly trapped within his subconscious.

Min-woo is a successful author with an idea he can't conceptualize

Min-woo is a successful author with an idea he can’t conceptualize

The visuals within M are astounding and a testament to the creative flair of Lee Myeong-se, who constructs and frames locations with phenomenal artistic skill. Each venue is masterfully created to portray the wildly different emotions within the subconscious of Min-woo. A street scene, which serves as something of a nexus point within the film, is constructed akin to a Parisian boulevard with the placement of sunlight and the camera filters working in conjunction to convey a beautifully romantic setting, emphasizing the purity of the love Mi-mi exudes despite her stalking. Conversely the employment of shadows and darkness adds genuine horror to scenes within Min-woo’s apartment as insomnia and nightmares take hold, while the alley leading to Lupin’s bar is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s dystopian Bladerunner (1982).

Similarly the technical prowess within M virtually demands recognition for the innovations displayed. Camera angles and movements allow the audience to experience the disorientation felt by Min-woo, resulting in both having difficulty in perceiving dreams from reality. When Min-woo meets Mi-mi in Lupin’s bar their conversation alternates between moving and still images that capture the moments they share, as if being monitored as well as emulating photographs from a date. The meeting between Min-woo and his agent and later his father-in-law are absorbing as the camera zooms into a painting that emulates the restaurant itself; the painting-within-a-painting becomes a painting-within-a-film-within-a-painting becoming a wonderful visual device that expresses Min-woo’s confused perception.

The visual devices within M are highly innovative

The visual devices within M are highly innovative

The focus on artistic and technical merit results in lack of attention on the narrative itself, with the trajectory often not strong enough to link scenes and propel the film forward, instead relying on the suspense and mystery of the visuals to connect scenes. This is unfortunate as the narrative is highly compelling when given attention yet this occurs randomly and infrequently, detracting from the drive for resolution.

This criticism can also be applied to the performances of the central cast, often employed as a focus for the mise-en-scene rather than their acting ability. This particularly applies to Kang Dong-won as Min-woo, as his character is constantly a conundrum due to the various extremes of emotions that he portrays. As such it is problematic to form an empathic bond with him, made more difficult during moments of over-acting. Lee Yeon-hee however is incredibly endearing as Mi-mi, exuding innocence and demure femininity with confidence. Her stalking is cute rather than creepy through her wonderful mannerisms, and her battle with the shadows is full of suspense and horror. Despite the small screen-time given to Kong Hyo-jin, as Min-woo’s wife Eun-hye, she competently portrays an ignored housewife.

The street 'nexus' is highly romantic while Mi-mi's stalking is sweet natured

The street ‘nexus’ is highly romantic while Mi-mi’s stalking is sweet natured

Verdict:

M will undoubtedly not appeal to fans of structured mainstream films, with its abstract exploration of memory, loss and identity. For those interested in more artistic and experimental filmmaking, is a visual tour-de-force with incredible expression of colour and technical confidence. The poignancy of Min-woo’s journey through his subconscious is acute, and serves as a wonderfully thrilling and romantic addition to auteur Lee Myeong-se’s filmography.

★★★★☆

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