In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹) – ★★★☆☆

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Based on the popular web cartoon by Lee Jong-gyu and Lee Yoon-gyun, Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹) is the latest offering from prolific film-maker Kang Woo-seok (강우석). The premise is a simple one; three middle-aged men who were friends in high school find themselves down on their luck and, tempted by the prize money offered by a TV fighting show, find themselves reunited in the ring. As such the film evokes a Rocky Balboa/Warrior sensibility, with a dash of classic Korean gangster film Friend (친구) thrown in for good measure. Yet Fists of Legend never gets anywhere close to the quality of what inspired it, with a cliched and hackneyed narrative, awful TV drama-esque acting, and complete mis-use of the principal cast, while the overly-long running time adds further tedium. Luckily veteran actor Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) is on hand to elevate the film out of monotony, alongside the interesting flashback sequences. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that Fists of Legend is a big disappointment, and beneath all of the lead actors involved.

Tough, cynical producer Hong Gyu-min (Lee Yo-won (이요원) presides over a TV show which pits middle-aged men – who were ‘legendary fighters’ back in their youth – against each other in a mixed martial arts ring for entertainment. After receiving a tip-off, Gyu-min tracks down gentle noodle restaurant owner Im Deok-gyu (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민), who was known as a talented boxer in his youth. In need of money following an incident involving his daughter, Deok-gyu reluctantly agrees to fight and surprises everyone when he emerges victorious. However his winning streak starts a series of events that sees former friends and rivals in the form of salaryman Lee Sang-hoon (Yoo Jun-sang (유준상) and gangster Shin Jae-seok (Yoon Je-moon (윤제문) enter the tournament, while the unearthing of his checkered past brings difficulty for Deok-gyu and his family.

In need of money, widowed restaurant owner Deok-gyu accepts the producer's challenge

In need of money, widowed restaurant owner Deok-gyu accepts the producer’s challenge

Fists of Legend begins well as it gloriously parodies middle-aged masculinity, featuring high-octane action sequences of svelte teenage fighters who give way to their chubby older counterparts battling on TV. The subversion of the action genre is highly entertaining as the fighters, described as teenage legends, are publicly beaten and humiliated as they attempt to prove their manliness. The comedy derived from such sequences is a fun way to introduce the concept of the show, and sets up the narrative well for the introduction of the central protagonists. Yet the film falters almost immediately in doing so as Lee Yo-won ridiculously overacts as producer Hong Gyu-min, spouting clunky dialogue about her resilience and tenacity as well as what constitutes a ‘real man’ in the attempt to recruit Deok-gyu for the show. Deok-gyu is, for all intents and purposes, the Korean Rocky Balboa; not particularly bright yet kind-hearted, widowed, and with a precocious child, the aged fighter is down-on-his-luck in every respect. Actor Hwang Jeong-min injects real heart into the role, squeezing every nuance he can muster from the character to generate sincere charisma and likability. His quality is such that whenever he comes into contact with other characters the result is often cringe-inducing, as the overacting by the supporting cast – especially Lee Yo-won and Deok-gyu’s daughter – appears even worse next to Hwang’s calm and mediated approach. Indeed, it is largely due to Hwang that Fists of Legend is engaging at all, as the journey he undertakes in which he is forced to reevaluate his past is compelling as well as adding depth to Deok-gyu’s predicament.

In order to fully articulate such self-reflection, director Kang repeatedly whisks the audience back to Deok-gyu’s past to convey how he and his friends came together. The veteran director crafts the drama well, so much so that he appears to be more invested in the flashbacks than the current crises as so much of the running time is focused on the formative years that the impetus of the fighting tournament is almost lost. Experiencing the developing friendship between Deok-gyu and his friends, as well as their eventual parting of ways, are some of the genuine highlights of the film yet the sequences feel at odds with those in the present. It’s as if two screenplays are being forced to coalesce but only partly manage to do so, and the result is a film that is at least 30 minutes too long. Furthermore, as the pace in the modern era falters in the second act, contrived features are added to the past in the attempt to flesh out relationships and dramatic tension for the fights in the present, but ultimately feel tacked on.

As high school students, the friends are forced to make tough choices

As high school students, the friends are forced to make tough choices

With such a large focus on Deok-gyu, it’s easy to forget that his two former best friends are also in the tournament. The lack of characterisation – on the adult counterparts at least – is a genuine shame as actors Yoo Jun-sang and Yoon Je-moon are highly competent performers, yet they are given such slight material to work with that they barely register throughout the film. This also serves to remove any kind of dramatic tension for the battles between them which is disappointing given that the hype generated for the contest of champions is enormous, yet they ultimately have little legitimate reasoning for wanting to fight each other. The tournaments are anticlimactic for a number of reasons, notably for director Kang’s limitations when filming action. Aside from one shot, in which the camera rolls with the fighters during a takedown, the action is bland and uninspired while the notion that these middle-aged men could somehow become mixed martial arts specialists almost overnight is just silly. The cliches that enter the film during the fight sequences, such as rousing music when a character becomes angry, are reminiscent of 1980s action films yet without the self-reflexive tongue-in-cheek attitude to make them work, and become laughable as a result. The inclusion of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ compounds the film’s 80s sensibilities further but it just serves to remind the audience of the superior Rocky series of films instead. Yet despite such criticisms, Deok-gyu’s bouts are compelling due to Hwang’s performance, and there’s always something cathartic about an underdog rising up against insurmountable odds.

In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

In the tournament, Deok-gyu gives his all in a bout with Mr. Turtle

Verdict:

Fists of Legend, by veteran director Kang Woo-seok, is an odd action film that attempts to combine the themes within Rocky, Warrior and Korean classic Friend, in depicting a fighting tournament for middle-aged men. Yet with clunky dialogue, awful over-acting and an overly-long running time the film doesn’t achieve anything near the films from which it takes inspiration. Luckily Hwang Jeong-min’s performance is the saving grace of Fists of Legend, and his underdog story gives the film the compulsion it so sorely requires.

★★★☆☆

Advertisements
Reviews
JIFF 2013

JIFF 2013: Korea Cinemascape

JIFF 2013

JIFF 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Kim Su-hyun  (김수현)

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

Fist of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Fists of Legend (전설의 주먹)

Director: Kang Woo-seok (강우석)

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

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Garibong (가리봉)

Director: Park Ki Yong (박기용)

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

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Juvenile Offender (범죄소년)

Director: Kang Yi-kwan (강이관)

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

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Mr. Vertigo (축지법과 비행술)

Director: Lee Kyung-sub (이경섭)

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

My Paparotti (파파로티)

My Paparotti (파파로티)

My Paparotti (파파로티)

Director: Yoon Jong-chan (윤종찬)

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

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

New World (신세계)

Director: Park Hoon-jung (박훈정)

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

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트)

Director: Baek Seung-woo (백승우)

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

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Shibata and Nagao (시바타와 나가오)

Director: Yang Ik-june (양익준)

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

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

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

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

Director: Jeong Jae-eun (정재은)

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

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

Timing (타이밍)

Director: Kim Ji-Yeon (김지연)

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

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

To Be Reborn (환생의 주일)

Director: Hwang Qu-doek (황규덕)

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

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Total Messed Family (오빠가 돌아왔다)

Director: No Zin-soo (노진수)

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

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

The Woman (그 여자)

Director: Jo Mee-hye (조미혜)

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

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