Twin Folio, the legendary ’60s duo that emerged from Seoul music cafe C’est Si Bon, is due to be the subject of a television show. Yet when music producer Lee Jang-hee, the man responsible for their creation, is quizzed about the rumour of an original third member, he begins to reminisce about the era. Back in the ’60s, C’est Si Bon was the hottest place in the city to listen to folk song competitions. With his silky voice Yun Hyeong-ju (Kang Ha-neul (강하늘) was the star of the cafe, until newcomer Song Chang-sik (Jo Bok-rae (조복래) instigates a rivalry. With their clashing egos a duo would be impossible, and as such Jang-hee (Jin Goo (진구) enlists talented country boy Oh Gun-tae (Jeong Woo (정우) to make a trio. Their inability to work together changes when beautiful aspiring actress Min Ja-yeong (Han Hyo-joo (한효주) enters the club, inspiring them to collaborate and become one of the most successful bands of the era.
The original trio learn to collaberate due to their muse Ja-yeong
C’est Si Bon is something of a love letter to the vibrant music scene of 1960s/70s Seoul, one that attempts to capture the spirit of the era through the story of the renowned cafe. Generally it succeeds, particularly in the opening act as there is much enjoyment to be had in witnessing the titular music arena being introduced, the band coming together and egos clashing. The C’est Si Bon cafe is a wonderfully charismatic and dynamic place due to some quite lovely set and costume design, helmed competently by director Kim Hyeon-Seok (김현석) who is likely hoping for the same success as his prior romantic endeavour Cyrano Agency.
Yet following an enjoyable 30 minutes, the film eschews the fun and vitality of the music scene to descend into a cliched romantic tale. As the members of the band all fall in love with Ja-yeong and attempt to out-perform each other to win her affection, the story moves away from the enjoyment of the band’s origins to become a standard rom-com. To be fair to Han Hyo-joo, she is absolutely stunning throughout and has rarely looked better, however due to the focus applied to her as the muse of so many admirers, C’est Si Bon consistently feels like a vanity project for the actress. Ironically however, as Ja-yeong tends to use and manipulate the men in her life as they constantly try to impress her, the result is an attractive but not a particularly likeable lead female protagonist which significantly lessens the romantic appeal.
Ja-yeong is the muse of seemingly everyone at music cafe C’est Si Bon
Recently in Korean cinema a greater number of films are being produced with older audiences in mind which is welcome news for diversity, and C’est Si Bon fits neatly within the paradigm. Yet the film also perpetuates the disturbing trend of romanticising Korea’s totalitarian past. Curfews, police brutality and authoritarianism, and even scenes of intimidation reminiscent of prelude to torture, feature within the narrative. However due to the romantic-comedy contrivances of the film such issues are presented as nostalgia, alarmingly either employed for humour or simply glossed over.
Things change from bad to worse for C’est Si Bon in the final act through the inclusion of scenes set in America, years after the rise and fall of the famous cafe. Apart from feeling acutely tacked on and frankly dull, the sequences are unintentionally, and quite literally, laughable. For instance, during highly emotional scenes between veteran actors Kim Hee-ae and Kim Yoon-seok are some incredibly poorly timed interludes by bad American actors that simply destroy all tension and instead generate laughter. As such, C’est Si Bon ends on a sour note, despite the initial enjoyment and promise displayed in the first act.
Years after the rise and fall of the cafe, Geun-tae performs in America
C’est Si Bon is a love letter to the vibrant music scene that existed in Korea in the 1960s, with a particularly enjoyable first act that introduces the styles and catchy music of the era, as well as the formation of the band Twin Folio. Yet director Kim Hyeon-seok’s film oddly eschews such promise by later descending into bland rom-com cliches and romanticising Korea’s totalitarian past, before ending with an unintentionally funny and quite poor finale.
Director Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) has a lot riding on disaster film The Tower (타워). His last film, sci-fi monster movie Sector 7, was reviled by critics and audiences alike and became one of the worst flops in Korean cinematic history (although it went on to secure the highest gross for a Korean film in neighbouring China). As such, questions involving his next project The Tower lingered. Had director Kim Ji-hoon managed to develop his visual aesthetics, and more complex characters and plots, into a more convincing, compelling film? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes and no.
The Tower undoubtedly boasts some of the most impressive visual effects work ever produce within a Korean film, to the extent that it’s comparable with Hollywood productions. The sets and the stunt work are genuinely enthralling, combining to produce edge-of-the-seat sequences that are incredibly engaging and convey a palpable sense of realism and danger. That said, the movie only contains an emotional core due to the performance of Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) as firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi as the vast majority of protagonists are one-dimensional stereotypes, while the actors that portray them overact to an almost ludicrous degree.
It’s Christmas Eve in Seoul, and that means only one thing for the luxurious Sky Tower buildings – an exclusive Christmas party amongst the social elite of the country. Overseeing the operations are operations manager Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경), and the object of his affections catering manager Seo Yoon-hee (Son Ye-jin (손예진), who become closer as the deadline approaches. As the party grows nearer safety concerns begin to amount, yet are disregarded with plans forced through by the rich and powerful. When helicopters begin to circle the buildings creating a snow effect, the high winds force one of the choppers into a tower causing a fiery explosion and cutting off all exits for the patrons. Springing into action, firefighter Captain Kang Yeong-gi (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) leads his men, including joker Byeong-man (Kim In-kwon (김인권) and rookie Lee Seon-woo (Do Ji-han (도지한), into the building to hunt for survivors.
One of the towers is set ablaze from a helicopter crash
Taking huge reference from 1974’s The Towering Inferno as well as the 9/11 twin tower attacks, director Kim Ji-hoon’s The Tower is an exciting and exhilarating experience. Post-production on the disaster film has taken around two years to complete and it shows; the explosions, destruction, and stunts are convincing throughout as fires rage and people die in tragic and horrifying fashion. The film undoubtedly sets a new standard of quality in Korean cinema for special effects prowess, as helicopters collide, concrete fractures underfoot, and fire engulfs everything in its path. Interestingly, the cause of the disaster is akin to Titanic in that the sheer arrogance of those who dwell in Tower Sky, continually referring to their location as ‘heaven’ and close to God, are conveyed as the symbolic perpetrators of the destruction, adding something of a morality play to the devastation.
Yet the visual aesthetics are nothing without an emotional core, and in this respect The Tower somewhat succeeds. The introduction of the various protagonists working and dwelling within Tower Sky is a highly mixed affair, generally featuring stereotypes. Interesting members such as operations manager Lee Dae-ho and daughter Ha-na, and catering manager Lee Yoon-hee, are compelling but receive little character development due to unimportant tertiary characters entering the narrative that have no real impact. Also, the extreme overacting by most of the cast is an enormous irritation, notably Kim Seong-oh (김성오) as chef In-geon who is intended as comic relief but is infuriating throughout. The saving grace of The Tower comes in the form of firefighter Captain Kang Yeong-ri, who provides much needed heart and soul to the rescue attempt as he gallantly battles blazes, disintegrating floors, and corrupt officials in his single-minded quest to get the survivors to safety. Wonderfully performed by actor Seol Kyeong-gu, the captain’s mission is the driving force of the film and is genuinely enthralling to watch, with his sense of duty and responsibility simultaneously sincere and poignant.
Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze
Captain Kang Yeong-ri is also joined by the humorous Byeong-man and newbie Lee Seon-woo in the search for survivors. Byeong-man provides comic relief, generally in the form of silly frivolity, which is mildly amusing in breaking up serious scenes. Lee Seon-woo however is one of the more intriguing characters, as he undergoes a transformation from reluctant rookie to employing skills learnt from Captain Kang, and his development is highly enjoyable. The three fire fighters routinely feature in very impressive stunt work throughout the film, and their successes and failures do not fail to induce an adrenaline rush.
Operations manager Lee Dae-ho also partakes in stunts, as the ‘everyman’ forced to find courage to protect his makeshift family. Such scenes are also entertaining, although they often push the suspense of disbelief to its limits, yet are engaging nonetheless. Unfortunately due to the vast number of supporting roles, Lee Dae-ho’s burgeoning relationship with Seo Yoon-hee is largely overlooked, begging the question why such talented big name stars as Kim Sang-kyeong and Son Ye-jin receive so little screen time. However, despite being underdeveloped their relationship does provide impetus to certain scenes as well as some tender moments.
Those remaining desperately fight for survival
The Tower is an extremely visually impressive disaster film, and a return to form for director Kim Ji-hoon. The special effects and stunt work are some of the best ever produced within a Korean film, and certainly on par with Hollywood films of a similar ilk, conveying a genuine sense of danger throughout. That said, the vast number of stereotypical supporting roles bog the story down resulting in an overall lack of character development and audience investment. Lucky then that Seol Kyeong-gu enters the fray as Captain Kang Yeong-ri, who single-handedly lifts the film into a compelling and emotional story, making The Tower an enjoyable entry into the genre.
Mark Twain’s seminal novel The Prince and the Pauper has long endured arguably for the manner in which it exposed the gulf between the upper and lower economic classes. The trials and tribulations that Prince Edward and Tom Canty undertake allow Twain to explore the vast lifestyle differences amongst the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, with each protagonist utilising their prior experiences to emphasise the hardships, and the unfairness, of both existences. In doing so the story has resonated with audiences of all socio-economic backgrounds, and in the contemporary financial climate, is perhaps even more relevant than ever.
With Masquerade, screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon has adapted Twain’s novel to Joseon dynasty Korea, with the case of mistaken identity transferred between King Gwang-hae and a lowly comic actor. With a well-structured and highly entertaining script, incredibly competent directing from Choo Chang-min, and an enthralling set of performances from Lee Byeong-heon, Masquerade is without doubt one of the best films of the year and a testament to the quality of the period dramas Korea can produce.
King Gwang-hae (Lee Byeong-Heon (이병헌) is deeply unpopular in court, and as spies and threats surround him, becomes increasingly paranoid. Under a veil of secrecy, the King instructs his most loyal subjects to find a suitable surrogate who can impersonate him during the night should any assassination attempts be made against him. By chance, one such subject exists – a comic performer (Lee Byeong-Heon) who routinely mocks the King during his performances. Yet while the ruse works well initially, the King suddenly becomes critically ill and taken to a remote location to recover. Thus it falls to the actor, as well as the loyal Chief Advisor (Ryoo Seung-yong (류승룡) and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang (장광) to fool the members of the court until the true King can regain his health and return to secure his kingdom. However as time passes, the actor becomes increasingly aware of the unfairness and corruption inherent in the ruling elite and begins to introduce changes of his own.
King Gwang-hae becomes increasingly paranoid as attempts against his life are made
The aesthetics and cinematography within Masquerade are stunningly sumptuous, and are wonderfully realised by director Choo Chang-min. Indeed, the film opens with a montage emphasizing the extreme prestige of the royal lifestyle and the flamboyant colours inherent within, composed to convey the luxurious – and arrogant – nature of the ruling elite. The world of the Joseon dynasty is also recreated with incredible attention to detail ranging from the elegant clothing to crockery to the king’s lavish homestead, producing an enthrallingly convincing arena in which the exchanges and sedition take place. In setting up such narrative events screenwriter Hwang Jo-yoon borrows the catalyst from The King and the Clown as the King’s double receives unwanted attention through his critical portrayal of the King. There the similarities end however as once the King and the actor exchange places the discord in the court is explored through thoroughly different means, as the actor routinely, and naturally, comes face-to-face with issues that plague the kingdom yet have been ignored by the monarch. Surprisingly Masquerade also features an array of comical moments amongst the drama as the actor bumbles his way through the customs and etiquette of his new environment. Many of the jokes are crude and based on bodily humour, yet rather than a criticism this is actually an intriguing method of exploring the differences between the social classes and allows the audience to gain greater empathy with the actor who seemingly cannot perform the simplest of tasks without an entourage. In forging a greater alignment with the unwitting counterpart and his more middle/lower economic sensibilities, the various discussions on taxation, crime and punishment, and slavery achieve more prominent emotional resonance making the actor’s growing confidence and the enforcement of his own rulings to save the Joseon people – despite the awareness of his it could bring his demise – a source of great nationalistic inspiration and strength.
Instrumental in such a portrayal is the excellent performance from Lee Byeong-heon. He conveys the arrogance, stoicism and ruthlessness of King Gwang-hae incredibly well and stands in stark contrast to his astoundingly portrayal as the foolhardy yet well-meaning doppelganger actor. Lee Byeong-heon’s comic timing is impressive as he conveys the humorous moments within the narrative with deft skill and, with convincing clumsiness, faltering through all manner of routines that never fail to inspire laughter. Yet where Lee Byeong-heon’s performance really shines is through the evolution of the actor from an unwitting clown to a man of dignity and stature, the progression of which is wonderfully subtle and well-paced and never feeling in the least bit contrived. The manner in which the protagonist evolves is great, and the internal conflict that appears over his face when making decisions that will effect the court and the denizens of the entire kingdom, in the knowledge it will result in his eventual execution, is remarkable to behold. If there is criticism to laid, however, it’s in the protagonist’s relationship with the Queen, although this is no fault of either Lee Byeong-heon nor Han Hyo-joo (한효주). The Queen merely exists to provide the counterpart with a beautiful damsel in distress to save, and the Queen’s function in the narrative doesn’t extend beyond the stereotypical role. That said, the exchanges that occur between the Queen and the actor do not detract from the narrative and are enjoyable and well-performed.
The King and the impostor come face-to-face
As previously mentioned, Lee Byeong-heon is phenomenal in his dual roles as both the King and the impostor, and it would be difficult to imagine that he will not be honoured with – at the very least – an acting award nomination for his incredible performance.
Yet Lee Byeong-heon is also surrounded by an eclectic group of established actors who also conduct their roles with incredible skill.
Ryoo Seung-yong is simply wonderful as the stoically loyal Chief Advisor. The actor coveys the Chief Advisor’s commitment to the kingdom with the utmost competency and sincerity, yet is also adept in comic timing as his exchanges with the King’s counterpart are consistently laugh-out-loud moments that also simultaneously serve to highlight the change in attitude towards each other. As with other features of the narrative, the subtle manner in which their relationship alters is highly entertaining as the Advisor initially admonishes the clown for his foolishness only to come to admire his tenacity alongside the audience, and Ryoo Seung-yong does an incredible job of conveying the evolution.
Similarly the Chief Eunuch, played by Jang Gwang, also expresses the change in attitude yet also serves the role of ‘the helper’ in enlightening the King’s counterpart on the issues facing the kingdom. As the more maternal of the two advisors, Jang Gwang is excellent as the subservient member of the court and brings an understated emotional core to the film, particularly in the early stages.
As the Queen, Han Hyo-joo is competent throughout. Unfortunately for her the role is generally underdeveloped and stereotypical of a beautiful woman in need of saving, yet she performs with grace and dignity.
Also worthy of mention is the loyal Captain, performed by Kim In-kwon. Initially a somewhat overshadowed character, the Captain takes a prominent position in the final act with Kim In-kwon more than adequately portraying the loyalty of a devoted man with emotion and heart.
The long suffering Queen begins to notice the differences in the new ‘King’
Masquerade is a wonderfully realized and incredibly entertaining film, one that uses the basis of The Prince and the Pauper and rapidly makes it into a uniquely Korean period production. Alongside the very well-written, well-paced script is visually stunning direction and, while it somewhat lacks in scale, it conveys the colourful regal elegance with striking skill. Yet it is Lee Byeong-heon who gives the film heart with his exceptional dual performances that serve to emphasis the gulf between the classes in society and the injustices that, no-matter the era, plague the ruling elite. Masquerade is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year and is highly, highly recommended.
The action-comedy sub-genre can be a gleefully entertaining experience, eschewing the penetrative socio-cultural material conveyed through critically acclaimed work and focusing primarily on exhilarating stunts and battles, charismatic lead actors, and downright silly fun. The amazing Jackie Chan has built a career through action-comedies with his incredibly unique vision for fight sequences and stunt work that made insurance companies weak at the knees. Similarly, Jason Statham’s The Transporter and Crank genre vehicles helped cement his role as action hero, while The Fast and The Furious has such popularity with its fast cars and overt machismo that a seventh sequel is currently planned.
Quick (퀵) aims to emulate such successes, featuring racing motorcycles, rogue police officers, and a race against time to stop the Machiavellian ne’er-do-well from exploding yet another building. However, the striking lack of originality, lack of charismatic leads, and general lack of comedy make Quick a forgettable viewing experience.
Han Gi-soo (Lee Min-ki (이민기) is a legendary biker gang leader, always in trouble with the law yet despite this dates the studious Choon-sim (Kang Ye-won (강예원). Caught kissing another girl, Gi-soo simply rides away but is pursued by Choon-sim who demands answers for his betrayal. During the chaos, the bikers cause several traffic accidents resulting in the destruction of a number of cars and lives lost. A few years later, Gi-soo works as a bike courier renowned for delivering packages in ultra-fast time. One afternoon Gi-soo is instructed to transport a person to a studio, which turns out to be Choon-sim who has re-invented herself as Ah-rom (아롬), a member of a Kpop girl group. Yet when she puts on her helmet, a bomb is triggered and a mysterious voice on a cell phone claims he will detonate if Gi-soo refuses to deliver packages to various recipients. In addition, Gi-soo is also tagged with a bracelet linked to Choon-sim’s helmet – if they are more than 10 meters away from each other, the bomb will also detonate. Gi-soo and Choon-sim are forced to work together to deliver all the packages in time and escape with their lives, as well as discovering why they were chosen for the task.
Gi-soo and Choon-sim are forced to work together or the helmet-bomb will detonate
Director Jo Beom-goo (조범구) competently constructs and frames the action, filming multiple car pile-ups and explosions with confidence. The motorcycle stunts, despite the suspension of disbelief required, are thrilling and entertaining to watch as Gi-soo and Choon-sim jump over ramps, rooftops, and even over streets into nearby buildings as they avoid the fleet of police officers hunting them down and the fiery infernos that are left in their wake. To this end the editing must also be acknowledged as the rapid style adds excitement and conveys the speed of the race-against-time scenario. The same cannot be said for Park Su-jin’s (박수진) script which is overly convoluted featuring corporate espionage, gang warfare, and an ineffective police force. Overburdened with so many narrative tangents, and so many protagonists inaugurated to achieve those ends, the core plot of Quick quickly becomes submerged which detracts from the enjoyment of the over-the-top action spectacles. Quick (퀵) also blatantly ‘borrows’ gimmicky ideas and themes from other films of the genre, most notably The Transporter and The Fast and The Furious franchises, in a less-than-subtle attempt to become Hollywood fare. The reason such devices worked in prior films was due to their originality and the charisma of the actors involved, who clearly understood the tongue-in-cheek nature of their role. Quick unfortunately has neither.
Gi-soo and Choon-sim find themselves in an array of dangerous situations
While lead actor Lee Min-ki and actress Kang Ye-won are incredibly attractive, their performances leave little to be desired. The roles themselves are extremely limiting as they function as devices simply to move from one set piece to the next, but even so, Lee Min-ki is not convincing as an action star. His lack of physical prowess notwithstanding, the tough-guy street-savvy attitude and intimidating personality are noticeably absent with the singular – and unimpressive – fight scene doing very little to remedy the matter. Similarly Kang Ye-won’s role, in which she miraculously changes from teenage bookworm to Kpop superstar, is merely to complain, whine and scream throughout the narrative. But by far the most irritating protagonist is biker-turned-traffic cop Kim Myeong-sik, played by Kim In-kwon. While initially humourous, Myeong-sik quickly becomes aggravating due to recurring gags and his constant yelling for his unrequited love interest. It’s also puzzling as to why so many protagonists are deemed necessary, as the abundance of police officers, gangsters, and corrupt office workers severely impede the character development of the lead roles.
The couple must take to the pedestrian-filled streets to escape the police
Quick is an enjoyable, albeit mediocre, action comedy. With some entertaining stunt work and fun set-pieces, Quick is a fast paced and – thanks to the lead actors – an attractive viewing experience. However the film is weighed down by excessive narrative tangents and protagonists, and the resulting lack of character development detracts from creating empathy with the leads and portraying the intensity of their situation. Despite these shortcomings, there are enough car and motorbike crashes, highway chases and explosions to keep fans of the genre happy.