Venus Talk (관능의 법칙) – ★★★☆☆

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Three successful best friends explore love, life and sex in the city in Venus Talk (관능의 법칙). Glamorous TV producer Sin-hye (Uhm Jung-hwa (엄정화), dumped by her cheating boyfriend, begins a relationship with young 20-something intern Hyeon-seung (Lee Jae-yoon (이재윤). Housewife Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri (문소리) has an incredibly high libido and loves to play sexual games with her husband Jae-ho (Lee Sung-min (이성민), yet unbeknownst to her he is secretly taking viagra to keep up with her demands. Bakery store owner and single mother Hae-yong (Jo Min-soo (조민수) is dating local carpenter Seong-jae (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) who is reluctant to commit to a serious relationship. The three women talk, laugh and support each other through the minefield of dating as middle-aged women, strengthening their bonds of friendship with their frank discussions of love and sex.

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have frank conversations about their love and sex life

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have funny and frank conversations about their love and sex life

Venus Talk sells itself as the Korean answer to Sex and the City, and for the opening 20~30 minutes that is very much true. The forthright manner in which sex and relationships are explored is an extremely refreshing and welcome change from the filmic roles typically ascribed to Korean women, with the comedy derived from their open discussions genuinely engaging as well as entertaining. Writer Lee Soo-ah’s (이수아) script is great in capturing the spirit of three independent and empowered women who do not function solely as love interests, but who have aspirations, responsibilities and desires, the kind of women who tend to rarely enjoy screentime in mainstream Korean cinema. Single TV producer Sin-hye is a career savvy, hard working women of particular repute, and her dilemmas regarding her relationship with a 20-something junior are consistently funny as well as exposing the ageism that exists within Korean culture. Meanwhile single mother Hae-yeong contends with dating, motherhood and running a business, and highly sexed Mi-yeon strives to introduce exciting sex games to keep the passion alive in her marriage. Often such characters are reduced to stereotypes and/or ‘contained’ by the narrative, yet in the opening 20~30 minutes of Venus Talk the women express their desires, sexual or otherwise, freely to each and without fear of judgement, with the depictions of their sexual antics both funny and endearing.

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

Unfortunately after such an invigorating opening Venus Talk, seemingly unable to continue the momentum of portraying the lives of empowered women, descends into standard K-drama tropes. After some quite funny moments of sexual liberation as Mi-yeon prepares erotic toys, Sin-hye has an affair with a young colleague, and Hae-young acts like a teenager with her lover, the narrative jettisons it all to focus on bland, tried-and-tested arcs that seek to almost ‘punish’ the women for their transgressions. Each protagonist comes close to loosing everything they hold dear typically due to their own actions. All three are blamed, harassed and scolded simply for being women who fall outside of socially acceptable roles in Korean society, which comes as a saddening surprise given the empowered opening. Mi-yeon, for example, is treated terribly by her husband and is later attacked by a criminal; yet when she reports the assault she is chastised for being a woman ‘of a certain age’ and is told, even by her friends, that she should forgive her husband. The turnaround from feminist to embracing traditional stereotypes is quite extraordinary.

Director Kwon Chil-in (권칠인) competently helms the film yet he occasionally seems to forget his target audience, notably during a quite graphic sex scene in which he focuses primarily on Uhm Jeong-hwa’s body. He has however made excellent choices with his cast, employing actresses who are not only extremely talented but who also have sexy screen personas – Uhm Jeong-hwa (Marriage Is a Crazy Thing), Moon So-ri (A Good Lawyer’s Wife), Jo Min-soo (Pieta) – with each actress performing their respective roles well. The narrative tends to focus primarily on Uhm’s character, and she conveys her frustrations as a businesswoman being victimized by gossip particularly well. Moon So-ri displays impressive comedic skills throughout the film, particularly in regards to scenes with her long-suffering husband. It is Jo Min-soo who shines the brightest in Venus Talk, displaying prowess as a strong single mother yet one who is also vulnerable and longing for love. The scenes in which she is reunited with her boyfriend following surgery are stunningly performed by Jo, and while it’s a great shame that the narrative does’t explore the tangent further, the power expressed through such a short amount of screentime is palpable.

The women are seemingly 'punished' for their transgressions

The women are seemingly ‘punished’ for their transgressions

Verdict:

Venus Talk is Korea’s attempt at crafting a Sex and the City style, and for the opening 20~30 minutes director Kwon Chil-in and screenwriter Lee Soo-ah do well in portraying three empowered and sexually liberated friends as they discuss life, love, and sex. Yet the film later takes a turn into typical K-drama fare, and worst still, seemingly attempts to ‘punish’ the the central protagonists for being modern feminists. Yet with a great cast and funny moments, Venus Talk is an enjoyable effort.

★★★☆☆

Advertisements
Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
The girls await their mother atop the 'treeless mountain'

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산) – ★★★★☆

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산)

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산)

The notion of family is incredibly important within all cultures, yet while ‘Western’ countries have dealt with the breakdown of the family unit for several generations it is only in the last decade that Korea has seen an enormous rise in the national divorce rate. Due to the highly competitive culture and emphasis on diligence and financial earnings, such divorces often result in the ignorance, or outright abandonment, of the children and their needs as parents strive in the workplace or seek pastures new.

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산), the second feature written and directed by Kim So-yong (김소영), explores the lives of two such children with elegance, grace, and poignancy. The simplistic narrative allows the director to convey every emotional nuance from the young actresses, resulting in an outstandingly heartfelt drama of loss and the desire for kindness, the effects of which stay long after the closing credits.

At seven years old, Jin (Kim Hee-yeon (김희연) is developing well at school and is beginning to display keen intelligence. Yet when school is finished, she must rush home to take care of her younger sister Bin (Kim Seong-hee (김성희) until their mother (Lee Soo-ah (이수아) returns from work. Struggling financially, their mother decides to leave Jin and Bin with their aunt (Kim Mi-hyang (김미향) while she looks for their father, promising to return when their piggy bank is full. Distraught, Jin and Bin set out to earn enough money to fill their piggy bank, and await the return of their family unit.

Jin and Bin work hard to fill their piggy bank

Jin and Bin work hard to fill their piggy bank

Writer/director Kim So-yong does a masterful job in conveying the unkind world inhabited by youngsters Jin and Bin. Jin in particular receives the most focus and is the heart of the film, old enough to understand that changes are occurring within her life yet too young to comprehend why. Jin’s intelligence in school, as well as her lack of self-confidence, are wonderfully conveyed only to be later poignantly contrasted with her parental role as caretaker of her younger sister Bin. Her resentment of the role is amazingly restrained, while her heartache as Bin receives more attention and affection from their mother is heartbreakingly sincere. Such subtle emotional responses are expertly captured by Kim So-yong, with her highly effective and consistent use of close-ups and extreme close-ups making for a simultaneously riveting and a borderline claustrophobic experience, forcing the audience to engage and empathize with the young girls. While Jin almost instinctively takes on the role of responsibility, Bin is excellent in attempting to ignore the sense of abandonment and pretend everything is fine, as exemplified by her princess dress which she constantly wears. She is delightfully optimistic and treats her mother’s abandonment as a quest or game, the completion of which involves filling a piggy bank full of coins by any means necessary. Jin and Bin’s childhood logic in fulfilling the task set by their mother is comical, endearing and tragic, making their plight ever more compelling.

As well as depicting the story of the two young girls, Treeless Mountain is a scathing account of the contemporary absence of parental responsibility. Jin and Bin’s father never appears within the film, and while their mother is caring she also treats Jin unfairly, as well as failing to return to her children as promised. While the situation is never made clear, the mother’s quest of finding the father of her children is her ultimate goal and decides to stay with him – the man who abandoned his family – rather than return to their children. Similarly, the aunt who takes responsibility for Jin and Bin during this time is woefully inept, using money to drink alcohol rather than on food for the hungry youngsters. It is only the mother of a disabled child and Jin and Bin’s grandmother who are portrayed as understanding the nature of parenting, clearly stating that parental responsibility is a specialist comprehension that is shockingly absent in contemporary society.

The girls await their mother atop the 'treeless mountain'

The girls await their mother atop the ‘treeless mountain’

Kim Hee-yeon is absolutely enthralling as Jin, giving an astonishing performance for such a young actress. She completely shines in every scene and conveys a startling array of emotional depth throughout the film. Her intelligence, shyness, and her desire to play and live the life of a child are wonderfully performed, yet the young actress really excels during more dramatic events that reveal her animosity and resentment towards her situation, lashing out at younger sister Bin in moments of frustration and later subtly expressing guilt through kindness. Throughout Treeless Mountain, Kim Hee-yeon performs with utmost sincerity.

As younger sister Bin, Kim Seong-hee is also wonderfully endearing. Her childish optimism and logic are a joy to watch, as is her boldness which helps her and her reluctant older sister during times of hardship. Her innocence and naivety are excellent counterparts to Jin’s growing awareness and cynicism, and the co-dependency they share in their relationship is elegantly symbiotic.

Jin and Bin are continually uprooted and made to feel like a burden

Jin and Bin are continually uprooted and made to feel like a burden

Verdict:

Writer/director Kim So-yong has crafted a beautifully poetic tale of the hardships of childhood in Treeless Mountain, with incredibly endearing performances by the two young leads that are conveyed with a startling level of sincerity. The film is one of the few to tackle the concept of the breakdown of the family unit from the perspective of the children, lambasting parents who renege on their responsibilities yet emphasizing the resilience and adaptability of the youngsters. Treeless Mountain is an elegantly poignant film about the desire for kindness in a cynical world, and is an absolute delight.

 ★★★★☆

Reviews