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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The Thieves (도둑들) – ★★★☆☆

The Thieves (도둑들)

The Thieves (도둑들)

Following a spectacularly daring art heist, criminal Popie (Lee Jeong-jae (이정재) and his band of thieves – Yenicall (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), Jampano (Kim Soo-hyeon (김수현) and Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook (김해숙) – have too much heat on them to operate in Korea for the foreseeable future. Yet as luck would have it, a job offer in Macau arises from master thief and former associate Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석). Joined by safecracker Pepsee (Kim Hye-soo (김혜수), the gang join forces with a team of Chinese bandits to steal a $20 million diamond named  ‘The Tear of the Sun.’ Yet Macao’s plans to sell the diamond back to owner and ruthless mobster Wei Hong, as well as the alternative agendas of everyone within the team, results in a crime caper that goes anything but smoothly.

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist - to steal 'The Tear of the Sun' from a mob boss

The team gathers to prepare for their latest heist – to steal ‘The Tear of the Sun’ from a mob boss

When The Thieves was released back in the summer of 2012, it rapidly became a cinematic phenomenon. Within its opening weekend the film had grossed over 2 million admissions; on its ninth day, The Thieves became the most attended Korean film of the 2012 before beating that record four days later by becoming the top selling film of the year. 22 days after release the crime caper joined the elite ’10 million admissions’ club, before passing 12 million 11 days later. At the end of its theatrical run The Thieves had taken almost $83 million at the Korean box office, as well as becoming the second most attended film in Korean history at the time. The success and popularity were unprecedented, yet that aside, is it any good?

The Thieves is a noble effort at producing an entertaining all-star international crime caper. Writer/director Choi Dong-hoon has established himself as a success within the genre for quite some time with The Big Swindle and Tazza: The High Rollers, however The Thieves marks an altogether different, more Hollywood-esque, approach for the filmmaker and it’s one that has paid enormous dividends to his career. The pleasure of witnessing some of the Korean industry’s biggest stars interacting and attempting to outwit each other in exotic locations is particularly enjoyable, often – and especially the case for 12 million domestic viewers – taking attention away from the frustratingly convoluted narrative. Juggling such an inordinate amount of actors is an impressive feat and director Choi does his very best to give every character a history and motivation, some of which works well amongst an array of superfluous tangents, and while occasionally entertaining it also serves to create periods where precious little actually occurs as well as to make The Thieves acutely overly long.

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

Safecracker Pepse and thief Popie make a play for the diamond

One of the reasons attributed to the success of The Thieves is the presence of Jeon Ji-hyeon and her flirtatious relationship with heartthrob Kim Soo-hyeon (indeed, their chemistry together later translated into incredibly lucrative TV drama You Came From the Stars). While the crime caper is a great comeback vehicle for Jeon, who has clearly been selected to bring sex appeal both on and off screen, her and Kim Soo-hyeon appear rather sporadically throughout. Instead, it is Kim Hye-soo who steals the limelight in terms of both beauty and allure as well as in forming the emotional centre of the film. Her appearances within the film are magnetic and amongst all the betrayals and double-dealings that arise, her steadfast character provides a stabilising core that is sorely needed. Ultimately however the simply excessive amount of characters weighs the story down, and The Thieves would have benefited from jettisoning several of them – particularly the Chinese criminals, who bring little to the story – and developing the core team instead.

Yet The Thieves really hits its stride in the wonderfully kinetic final act, where all the various parties involved in the diamond heist collide with extreme effect. The acrobatic wire-work battles and blazing stand-offs with criminals brandishing automatic weapons are impressive, and are consistently highly entertaining, silly, fun. It’s pure popcorn cinema, and director Choi does an excellent job in constructing an enjoyable finale while still keeping to the spirit of Korean crime caper.

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Flexible wire work thief Yenicall brings deceptive sex appeal

Verdict:

The Thieves is an entertaining crime caper, and a real pleasure to witness some of the best stars in Korea go head-to-head in ‘winner take all’ race to the finish. Director Choi Dong-hoon juggles the excessive cast well throughout the convoluted narrative, yet tedium does occasionally appear during the overly long running time. The Thieves is pure popcorn cinema, and consistently entertaining, silly, fun.

★★★☆☆

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C’est Si Bon (쎄시봉) – ★★☆☆☆

C'est si bon (쎄시봉)

C’est si bon (쎄시봉)

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

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

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

Years after the rise and fall of the cafe, Geun-tae performs in America

Verdict:

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.

★★☆☆☆

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Haemoo (AKA Sea Fog) (해무) – ★★★★☆

Sea Fog (해무)

Sea Fog (해무)

Haemoo (aka Sea Fog) (해무) is an exquisitely shot, beautifully melancholic tour de force and a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers by director Sim Seong-bo, here making his feature debut. Co-written by director Shim and film maestro Bong Joon-ho – who also takes a producer credit – Haemoo is a riveting account of a sea expedition gone wrong, and the depths to which humanity can sink when faced with calamity. While the story is a compelling drama for the most part, Haemoo wobbles in the final stages by slipping into traditional genre fare, with the tying up of loose narrative ends feeling somewhat tacked on. That said, Haemoo is still one of the most provocative and gripping films of 2014 so far.

What remains to be seen is how Korean audiences will react to the film. With the Sewol ferry tragedy still very much a sensitive issue within the social consciousness, Haemoo – with its story about macabre events at sea – may very well turn cinema-goers off which is understandable, although a great shame indeed. Foreign audiences will undoubtedly embrace the film however, particularly with the hype it’s receiving for its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

The crew work hard in fraught conditions, but camaraderie prevails

After a long and laborious expedition at sea, the crew of a small fishing vessel return to port with a frustratingly meagre haul. As the men take a well deserved rest on land, Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석) is provided with an opportunity to make some serious cash – by transporting illegal immigrants from China into Korea. Hastily agreeing, Captain Cheol-joo gathers his crew, including young deck-hand Dong-sik (Park Yoochun (박유천), and set sail for open waters once more where they dock with a ship to acquire their human cargo. Following a near-death experience with pretty migrant Hong-mae (Han Ye-ri (한예리), the vessel begins the voyage home yet weather and the authorities seem to conspire against them, leading to a tragic event that sees their very humanity tested.

Haemoo opens with a wonderful montage featuring the crew toiling at sea, capturing the backbreaking labour and arduous conditions of life on the waves with tremendous vision. The attention to detail is absolutely superb – from the grimy, rundown equipment and rusting, dilapidated boat to the tattered old clothes and sweaty brows of the crew – as each scene conveys the daily routine of a fishing boat with confident authenticity.

The same deft technical precision is applied within the ship. The mise-en-scene in each location is constructed with such meticulous consideration that each arena becomes akin to a different realm, whether it be the hellish steampunk engine room or the cluttered yet cosy sleeping quarters, providing distinct interiors within which the action takes place.

Cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo (who previously worked on Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer) exploits the opportunities afforded by such locations with absolute relish, with his compositions continually stunning and one of the great highlights of Haemoo. Space would initially seem to be an issue with a film largely set in the confines of a small fishing vessel, yet his uncanny ability to capture arenas in alternative fashions never ceases to be visually striking.

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

The composition within Haemoo is continually striking, both within the ship and without

While it may sound bleak, the camaraderie between the crew quickly makes for endearing viewing as they smile and tease while undertaking their grinding tasks, portraying the rugged ensemble as an unlikely family of sorts. That is, until tragic events occur that serve to generate incredible tension between them replacing the humorous juvenile antics with well-paced suspense that builds into abject terror. The cast are excellent in conveying the range of emotions required by the harrowing story and understandably so as Haemoo contains some of Korea’s most experienced supporting actors in the form of Moon Seong-geun (National Security), Kim Sang-ho (Moss), Yoo Seung-mok (Han Gong-ju) and Kim Yeong-woong (How To Use Guys With Secret Tips). Acting powerhouse Kim Yoon-seok (The Thieves, Chaser) headlines the talent on display and gives a respectable, competent performance although as he has been playing these kinds of roles for quite some time, Kim is never really pushed into new territory. Haemoo notably serves as a great showcase for new talent in the form of Han Ye-ri (Dear Dolphin) and Park Yoochun (Kpop’s JYJ). The duo, particularly Han, are remarkable in capturing the awkward relationship that arises between them and form the emotional center of the film, which is an impressive achievement considering the wealth of talent on display.

Where Haemoo falters however is in the final act. After a wonderful set-up followed by a compelling crisis, the story descends into standard genre territory in order to wrap up all the narrative loose ends. That is not to say that Haemoo’s finale isn’t exciting as director Sim displays great prowess in creating an effective thriller, but given the quality of what’s gone before, it’s something of a disappointment. This is particularly the case with the epilogue scenes which feel tacked on and offer very little to the story. Yet even with such criticism, Haemoo is still head and shoulders above other Korean thrillers released this year, and is very much recommended viewing.

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, and forms the emotional heart of the film

Han Ye-ri is the break out star as migrant Hong-mae, forming the emotional heart of the film

Haemoo is a beautifully shot, extremely compelling film by first time director Sim Seong-bo, and is a welcome return to form for Korean thrillers. Based on a tragic true story, the film is a powerfully provocative exploration of morality pushed to the extreme, with the tense situations performed superbly by the experienced all star cast. Coupled with the gifted vision of cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo the story is consistently visually striking, and while it falters during the final act, Haemoo is undoubtedly one of the most gripping films of the year.

★★★★☆

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