The Piper (손님) – ★★☆☆☆

The Piper (손님)

The Piper (손님)

Shortly after the Korean War, travelling musician Woo-ryong (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and his sickly son Yeong-nam (Goo Seung-hyeon (구승현) embark on a trip to Seoul to treat the youngster’s tuberculosis. On the journey, the exhausted pair are granted refuge at a secluded mountain village presided over by a kindly Elder (Lee Sung-min (이성민), but it quickly becomes clear that something very strange is transpiring amongst the folk residing there. Learning of the severe rat infestation, Woo-ryong boldly offers to rid the village of the vermin, yet when the residents renege on the fee and cast them out, the piper seeks a very unique brand of revenge.

Woo-ryung and Yeong-nam play for the villagers

Woo-ryung and Yeong-nam play for the villagers

Taking The Pied Piper of Hamelin as its cue, director Kim Kwang-tae’s ‘reimagining’ of the classic European fable into a Korean morality tale is a bland, fractured, and unengaging effort. Aside from some attractive cinematography The Piper consistently appears as if still in the development stages conceptually, which serves to dilute audience interest and lessen thrills – a crucial issue for a film about killer rats.

From the moment it begins, The Piper generates a sense of intrigue as Woo-ryong and son Yeong-nam hide in a secluded cave during a storm, the wind of which blows so strongly that a secret path to a hidden village is revealed. As the duo seek respite there for a day or two, suspense grows as the inhabitants appear to exchange meaningful and worried glances due to the arrival of their new guests. Yet while events are set up promisingly the mysterious nature of the film is largely a direct result of its structure and a strange sense of incompleteness. Occurrences, characters and relationships arise and recede with precious little introduction or general context making the story a rather fragmented and confusing effort. As such, audiences aren’t given any reasons to care for any of the protagonists, or even dislike the antagonists, other than the fact it’s clear a macabre secret is being hidden.

Woo-ryong develops feelings for widowed shaman Mi-sook

Woo-ryong develops feelings for widowed shaman Mi-sook

The story itself is a symbolic tale, using the microcosm of a mountain village to articulate how war, history and paranoia looms large in times of unrest and influences people into evil deeds. It’s a solid premise and one that’s full of potential, however director Kim Kwang-tae doesn’t manage to effectively convey the scope of his message. In part this is due to the fractured story and characterisation, but also the rats simply aren’t the potent menace they ought to be and are not frightening in the slightest, and though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper doesn’t really fit into either genre, generally conforming to genial drama tropes. Furthermore, Welcome to Dongmakol and Moss dealt with similar subject matter and while viewing it’s impossible not to think of these superior examples with nostalgia.

The fractured narrative structure makes it even more difficult for Ryoo Seung-ryong to carry The Piper on his shoulders, and though he tries his best to infuse the role and the film with an infectious energy, it often translates as overly theatrical and bothersome. His burgeoning romantic relationship with widowed shaman Mi-sook falls completely flat due to the lack of development and contrivances within the script. As Mi-sook, Cheon Woo-hee – certainly the best actor in the film – desperately tries to wrangle something from the role and manages to infuse some palpable emotion in a scene here and there, yet as the audience is never given any information about her or as to why empathy should be given, her efforts are tragically wasted. Lee Sung-min isn’t provided with scenes of gravitas to make him a worthy nemesis, while K-pop star/actor Lee Joon makes blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances. The most compelling role falls to youngster Goo Seung-hyeon as tuberculosis suffering Yeong-nam, who brings a surprising amount of empathy to the story.

The villagers are hiding a secret related to the rats, but what is it?

The villagers are hiding a secret related to the rats, but what is it?

 Verdict:

Though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper is ultimately neither. While the cinematography is consistently gorgeous and director Kim Kwang-tae’s premise has merit, the film suffers enormously from a fractured structure that conveys it as incomplete, resulting in audiences unable to engage or empathise with characters and events, or even enjoy the sporadic thrills.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

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