Whistle Blower (제보자) – ★★★☆☆

Whistle Blower (제보자)

Whistle Blower (제보자)

In 2004, Korean doctor Hwang Woo-suk published that he, along with his team of researchers, had successfully cloned a human embryo and were able to remove stem cells from it. The revelation rocked the scientific community as the breakthrough was the first of its kind, yet it was surpassed only a year later when Hwang claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cells. As such, Hwang and his team had the ability to work on remedies for diseases previously believed to be incurable, catapulting the doctor into the limelight as a national hero and a savior of the Korean economy. Except that, as an investigation in 2006 by MBC reporters revealed, it was all a lie. Despite the evidence however, many Koreans still believe that doctor Hwang is the ‘pride of Korea’, and that to question his work is unpatriotic.

Whistle Blower (제보자), by director Lim Soon-rye (임순례) and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong (이춘형), is based on the scandalous affair that caused international embarrassment for the Korean scientific community. The thriller focuses on investigative journalist Min-cheol (Park Hae-il (박해일) as he is tipped off about the stem cell hoax by whistle blower Min-ho (Yoo Yeon-seok (유연석). Joining forces with intrepid young reporter I-seul (Song Ha-yoon (송하윤), the duo begin digging into the claims of Doctor Lee Jang-hwan (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영), and uncover a series of shocking revelations while also contending with angry Korean citizens.

Producer Min-cheol interviews whistle blower Min-ho, who claims to have knowledge of a  national scandal

Producer Min-cheol interviews whistle blower Min-ho, who claims to have knowledge of a national scandal

Given the electrifying and scandalous subject material, the potential for a explosive and culturally resonating conspiracy thriller was high. Yet with Whistle Blower director Lim and screenwriter Lee have crafted a standard effort, one that is competent and ticks all the boxes of the genre yet is uninspired and barely scratches the surface of the core issues with which the film is concerned.

The true-life crime features not only a hoax on an international scale, but the collusion of the then-government and media in both propelling the fraud into the national consciousness as well as stifling the investigation into it, while the zealous nationalistic fervor of the populace offers potent introspective exploration. Such issues are depicted in a very limited capacity or completely omitted altogether which is more than a little disappointing, and while watching Whistle Blower the sense that the filmmakers were censored as much as the characters within the film adds an acute sense of irony.

Where Whistle Blower succeeds is through the journey of producer Min-cheol, as he attempts to uncover evidence to support his case against Dr. Lee. Director Lim does well in representing the variety of obstacles in his path and paces the story well, resulting in a thriller that moves along briskly and is rarely dull. The various tip offs continually spur interest while the back room politics within the station add an additional threat of urgency, as well as hinting at the larger scale corruption of Korean conglomerates.

Producer Min-cheol and intrepid assisstant I-seul uncover the evidence

Producer Min-cheol and intrepid assistant I-seul uncover the evidence

Park Hae-il is in typically good form as the investigative producer, though as there is little in the way of character development the role is far from demanding. He works best when playing off of the supportive cast, particularly his intrepid assistant I-seul and team leader Seong-ho, played by Song Ha-yoon and Park Won-sang (박원상) respectively. Despite their limited presence throughout the film both Song and Park are highly charismatic, endearing protagonists, giving impressive performances and often steal the show whenever they are on screen.

Ironically whistle blower Min-ho is given very little screen-time and development that mostly requires actor Yoo to walk around appearing pitiful, with the narrative largely focusing – repetitively – on his and wife Mi-hyeon’s (Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong (류현경) sick child. This is a great shame and a missed opportunity given that that real whistleblower is still considered something of a traitor by many in contemporary Korea. Luckily however, actress Ryoo provides the best performance in the film despite her extremely limited presence, making the situation one possible to invest in.

Interestingly, the filmmakers have opted to represent the fraudulent Dr. Lee in a rather positive, sympathetic light. The narrative seeks to portray the doctor less as a criminal, and more of a man whose ambition to help both the sick and Korea at large got the better of him. There are occasional hints at his manipulative genius, yet the story doesn’t delve deeper into the illegalities outside of the fabricated stem cell research, which is truly bizarre and a waste of potential.

The reporters must contend with rampant nationalism in their quest to expose the truth

The reporters must contend with rampant nationalism in their quest to expose the truth

Verdict:

Given the scandalous true story on which the film is based, Whistle Blower had the potential to be an explosive thriller and a keen exploration of a variety of facets in contemporary Korean culture. Yet director Lim Soon-rye and screenwriter Lee Choon-hyeong have produced a standard, uninspired example of the genre, one which fulfills the criteria but never delves deeply into the issues of the time. Whistle Blower is competent yet disappointing, and is a real missed opportunity.

★★★☆☆

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Gyeongju (경주) – ★★★☆☆

Gyeongju (경주)

Gyeongju (경주)

When his childhood friend tragically dies, Professor Choi Hyeon (Park Hae-il (박해일), having spent the past several years working at Beijing University, returns to Korea for the funeral. Hyeon however seems less concerned with reconnecting with old friends than he is rediscovering his roots, and to that end he visits Gyeongju, the former capital of the ancient Silla kingdom full of historical landmarks. Rather than sightseeing, Hyeon is strangely motivated to find an old pornographic painting he and his friends encountered on a trip there years prior. Upon locating the teahouse Hyeon is greeted by the new owner Yoon-hee (Sin Min-ah (신민아) and the two form an intriguing relationship.

Hyeon locates the teahouse from his past, and meets owner Yoon-hee

Hyeon locates the teahouse from his past, and meets owner Yoon-hee

Gyeongju is a poetic, meditative exploration of history and relationships by director Zhang Lu (장률). That may come as a surprise considering the film has been marketed as something of a romantic-drama (see the trailer below), yet director Lu’s film is far removed from typical genre fare as from the moment it begins it is clear he has crafted an artistically conscious, rather than commercially minded, examination of relationships. The approach subtly inhabits every sentence and every frame as Hyeon attempts to explore and understand his complex connection with history, and how the relationships of his past inform his present. As the story is so introspective director Lu relies heavily on visual aesthetics, skillfully composing highly attractive shots of Hyeon, particularly in relation to his surroundings and with other people, to convey a wealth of powerful yet understated meaning. Many of the shots within Gyeongju certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a filmmaking textbook such is the director’s prowess, notably in the manner in which he employs space and distance. The meticulously constructed, elegant shots at Yoon-hee’s Arisol Teahouse, for example, are emblematic of his penetrating insight into the psychological state of the characters within.

The composition and framing within the teahouse subtly reveals a wealth of meaning

The composition and framing within the teahouse subtly reveals a wealth of meaning

As Hyeon walks around the old capital contemplating the landmarks and the people he encounters, it becomes increasingly clear that the film is also highly concerned with the notion of identity and belonging. As a Korean living in China and married with a Chinese woman, Hyeon lost his connections with not only his friends but also his country, history, and sense of identity. As such Gyeongju serves not only as a place for quiet contemplation but also an arena in which he attempts to trace his roots, which proves increasingly difficult the longer Hyeon stays there. His troubled psychological state finds a companion in Yoon-hee, who is also unsure of her place in the world. Their connection is not so much romantic as it is motivated by a desire to belong, and as the two are surrounded by history and death (in the form of tombs), the film puts forth interesting debates about the nature of relationships.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes however, to say that Gyeongju is overly long is quite an understatement. As the film is so introspective Gyeongju is an incredibly slow-paced affair, and while for the first hour the story is compelling enough for it not to be an issue, when the film begins to meander viewing becomes somewhat laborious. Primarily this occurs during the scenes at night, when Hyeon and Yoon-hee develop their relationship further which feels not only contrived but also unnecessarily long, despite great performances from Park Hae-il and Shin Min-ah. Bizarrely, after 2 hours of controlled and moderated pacing, Gyeongju suddenly becomes in a big hurry to end, which results in an unsatisfying finale to an otherwise deep and insightful film.

Hyeon contemplates his identity and existence in Korea's picturesque former capital

Hyeon contemplates his identity and existence in Korea’s picturesque former capital

Verdict:

Gyeongju is a poetic, introspective exploration of history, identity and relationships by director Zhang Lu. The film is very much artistically focused rather than commercially orientated, and as such it benefits from wonderfully composed shots and framing devices, as well as a controlled meditative pace, that subtly convey a wealth of meaning over exposition. Yet at 2 hours and 20 minutes Gyeongju is also incredibly overly long and feels particularly laborious after the halfway mark, while the artistic sensibilities won’t be for everyone.

★★★☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews

Boomerang Family (고령화가족) – ★☆☆☆☆

Boomerang Family (고령화가족)

Boomerang Family (고령화가족)

As anyone familiar with Korean cinema is aware, comedy-dramas based around family are quite prolific. With the traditional family unit undergoing changes in recent years, the problems and dynamic appearing on screen has followed suit to reflect the evolving societal issues. Boomerang Family (고령화가족) is director Song Hae-seong’s (송해성) foray into the arena, and with previous films including Failan (파이란) and Maundy Thursday (우리들의 행복한 시간), the potential is certainly there for a penetrating examination of the contemporary family unit. Indeed, the trailer suggests a fun-filled look at at such dysfunctional characters. Except that it isn’t. Hitting someone over the head with a brick isn’t funny. Rape and sexual assault aren’t funny. Alongside spectacularly unlikable characters, cliched melodrama and the frankly bizarre last-minute inclusion of gangsters, the contrived and misogynistic screenplay is awful. While there are occasional moments of comedy and drama, and the idea of the close-knit family is debunked, there’s little else positive to say about Boomerang Family.

40 year old film director In-mo (Park Hae-il (박해일) is broke following the failure of his movie and separation from his wife, and decides to move back home with his mother (Yoon Yeo-jeong (윤여정). However older brother Han-mo (Yoon Je-moon (윤제문), a 44 year old ex-convict who still lives at home, is not happy about the move as he doesn’t wish to share. While trying to accept the new situation, they are joined by 35 year old sister Mi-yeon (Kong Hyo-jin (공효진) and her daughter Min-kyeong (Jin Ji-hee (진지희). As the family continually bicker and fight placing stress on their poor mother, Min-kyeong decides to run away from home which forces them all to unite.

In-mo returns home to a beating from older brother Han-mo

In-mo returns home to a beating from older brother Han-mo

The opening of Boomerang Family adequately sets up the kind of comedy to be expected during the film. In-mo fights a man who slept with his wife, and as he begins to lose, In-mo clubs the man on the back of the head with a rock before kicking him while he’s down. Yet as the soundtrack is a light-hearted, French style ditty, these violent images are intended to be humourous. Bizarrely this becomes a running ‘gag’ throughout the film, as when difficult situations arise the respective character simply uses a brick to the head to resolve it. One such incident involves Han-mo who spies a woman in the process of being sexually assaulted and/or raped, and he becomes very excited at the prospect of watching it continue. It’s only when he realises the woman in question is his sister than Han-mo acts by beating the man to a pulp, yet Mi-yeon ends the confrontation by clubbing her own brother with a brick. The reason? The man is her boyfriend. Yet this is not the only incident of misogyny. Despite being the central protagonists In-mo also tries to sexually assault a hairdresser, in order to upset his brother. Luckily she fights him off, but then In-mo staggering admonishes her by stating that people their age can’t love, that only physical needs remain. Rape and perversion are apparently sources of comedy – and are forgivable – in the world of Boomerang Family.

Such incidents highlight the serious problem with the film, as none of the family members are actually likable save the mother and youngster Min-kyeong, both of whom are largely ignored within the family and by the script. When Mi-yeon returns home claiming she wants to divorce her husband, she is scolded by her brothers even after they have seen she is a victim of domestic violence. To resolve the problem In-mo and Han-mo drink with the husband and beg him to take her back, yet when he insults the family the brothers – surprise! – club him with a brick. When In-mo meets with his cheating spouse to discuss divorce she also offends the family, and he responds by nearly striking her in public. Meanwhile Han-mo masturbates by using his niece’s panties as stimulation. It is very difficult to align with any of the characters save the female protagonists, yet Mi-yeon and Min-kyeong are so stuck up and rude it’s not easy with them either. Ultimately what’s left to enjoy is the family interaction and squabbling.

The mother must suffer the awful behaviour exhibited by her children

The mother must suffer the awful behaviour exhibited by her children

The in-fighting displayed by the family is certainly the most enjoyable aspect of Boomerang Family as they curse and hit each other in the manner expected of pre-school children. The immaturity is somewhat humourous, although the comedy is very hit-and-miss and there’s only so many times that kicks to the stomach and fart gags can be funny. For his part director Song Hae-seong competently helms the film although he is never really displays any flair or challenging material as he has done with his previous works. A similar criticism applies to all the acting talent involved, as they all give solid performances without doing much more. This is mostly due to the script which has precious little characterisation for them to work with, and as such audiences are forced to rely on knowledge of the actors star persona and receive enjoyment from them doing silly things.

The script is also responsible for writing the characters into a corner, and then struggling to get them out of it. The result is a family meeting whereby all the secrets they’ve been withholding are revealed, and clearly the attempt is for comedy as each secret becomes more shocking then the last. Yet these revelations are actually more dramatic and sad than funny, and despite the big shocks there isn’t any real exploration or impact. However, the screenwriters use this event as the catalyst for Min-kyeong to run away from home, and thus begins the contrite twist which so often plagues the Korean film industry. Gangsters suddenly emerge to threaten the family, shady business deals with huge amounts of money are made, criminals that abduct and rape teenagers appear, flashbacks to unseen melodrama feature, and so forth. One incident of extreme violence forces Park Hae-il to provide a glimpse of a performance he is capable of, but it’s fleeting.  However, the real question is, can everyone make it to Mi-yeon’s wedding – to the guy that previously tried to assault her – and have a happy ending? It’s very hard to overlook such flaws in order to accept such a finale.

Can the prospect of a new marriage bring peace to the family?

Can the prospect of a new marriage bring peace to the family?

Verdict:

Boomerang Family is a comedy-drama about bickering, immature siblings that crucially is neither funny nor dramatic. The violence of hitting someone with a brick to the head is not comedic, nor is the rampant misogyny featured throughout where rape and sexual assault are not only intended to be entertaining, but also forgivable. Director Song Hae-seong competently helms the film, while solid performances are provided by the actors involved, yet as their characters are so utterly unlikable it’s difficult to align with them let alone find enjoyment.

★☆☆☆☆

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17 year old Eun-gyo is a naturally charismatic young woman

A Muse (은교) – ★★★☆☆

A Muse (은교)

A Muse (은교)

An age gap between lovers can make for incredible drama as the couple step outside preconceived notions of what is deemed socially acceptable in a relationship. The seminal film The Graduate (1967) is the most prominent in this regard which, while comical, also conveyed the ideological differences between generations. In Korea such themes have also played out, most notably in Kim Ki-young’s exemplary 1960 classic The Housemaid (하녀), while more contemporary offerings have arrived in the form of Kim Ki-duk’s The Bow (활) and Yang Ik-joon’s Breathless (똥파리). While each film approaches the subject differently they all exhibit the conflict that arises between youth and maturity, attraction and repulsion, desire versus social acceptance.

A Muse (은교), directed by Jeong Ji-woo (정지우), provides a gently poetic, emotionally fraught, and symbolic take on the romantic theme, in keeping with his back-catalogue. The exploration of the relationship between the three central protagonists contains poignant depth, bolstered through an interrogation regarding the nature of age and talent. However, the film is also somewhat hampered by the casting of Park Hae-il as an old man, while the constant fetishization of Eun-gyo’s body – rather than her mind and spirit – undermines the purity of their relationship.

As a poet and national icon, elderly Lee Jeok-yo (Park Hae-il (박해일) has enjoyed incredible success, even preparing for a museum to be constructed in his honor. Yet now is the time for his young apprentice Seo Ji-woo (Kim Moo-yeol (김무열) to shine as his new novel becomes an incredibly popular and rapid bestseller. However their lives, and their relationships, are drastically altered when a young girl named Han Eun-gyo (Kim Go-eun (김고은) visits their home, charming them both with her youthful vitality and curiosity.

17 year old Eun-gyo is a naturally charismatic young woman

17 year old Eun-gyo is a naturally charismatic young woman

While A Muse takes quite some time in establishing the life of poet Jeok-yo and that of his student Ji-woo, the inception of Eun-gyo – also the name of the original Korean title – distinctly elevates the film and gives it direction and purpose. Director Jeong Ji-woo does an incredible job of constructing Eun-gyo as an intoxicating protagonist, a young woman whose youth, energy and curiosity are infectious and spellbinding. However, the most prominent form in conveying such devotion is through the fetishization of her body, featuring close-ups of her skin and various body parts, sexualizing Eun-gyo to the point of worship. With the knowledge that Park Hae-il portrays the elderly poet, such scenes are (despite the misogyny) tender and romantically sexual, yet had an actor of the correct age performed the role perversity would undoubtedly enter critical debate. Luckily Jeong Ji-woo also emphasizes the emotional and spiritual connections between the two, and that Jeok-yo desires Eun-gyo’s youth, purity and innocence as much as her physique, as she is in turn attracted to his depth of character and devotion. Age may suggest otherwise but they are kindred spirits, and sequences in which they strengthen their bond are heartwarming and endearing, particularly during the soft-focus scenes where Jeok-yo imagines himself as a young man. Their relationship is in stark contrast to those involved with Ji-woo, who worships Jeok-yo as a respected surrogate father and idolizes Eun-gyo due to their similar ages and as someone who can heal his loneliness. The director is highly intelligent in constructing each relationship as distinctly different entities, evolving each subtly and with realism as jealousy and desire intermingle with love and affection. However as Ji-woo is certainly the less developed of the three he perhaps unfairly falls into a villainous category, rather than a conflicted young man.

Romance and personal connections inform the exploration of age within A Muse, which is arguably the central concern of the narrative. The depth, symbolism and subtlety are eloquently conveyed as each protagonist gradually reveals their shortcomings seemingly ascribed through age. Jeok-yo, having lost his youth, uses Ji-woo and Eun-gyo as agencies through which to live again, contrasted with Ji-woo’s competitive masculine nature  and Eun-gyo’s innocence and curiosity. What is fascinating throughout the narrative are the ways in which each protagonist views things differently and the ways in which they display emotion and respect, allowing audiences to genuinely understand them and their motivations. As such, when the film ends, the tragic fallacies and the impact of events linger and resonate long, long after the final credits.

Jeok-gyo and Eun-gyo share intimate moments

Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo share intimate moments

Kim Go-eun gives the stand out performance within A Muse as high schooler Eun-gyo and is enthralling. The actress inhabits the role completely, conveying innocence, curiosity and vitality with genuine charisma forcing audiences to adore her as much as the protagonists do. Kim Go-eun’s charismatic performance is such that it is easy to forget her age and occupation, drawing spectators in with her enthusiasm and smile whilst also sympathizing with her as the unwitting catalyst in a love triangle. Passionate scenes are also sincere, and while the constant fetishization of her body occasionally undermines her character Kim Go-eun utilizes her physicality to convey a range of emotions depending on who she is with.

As always Park Hae-il gives a highly competent performance as elderly poet Jeok-yo. His casting is odd but understandable given the sexual scenes and fetishization of his love interest’s body, but it is difficult not to think that an older actor would have lent more credibility to the role. There are certainly a lot of actors of this age group in Korea that are incredibly talented, as Lee Chang-dong’s sublime Poetry, and Choo Chang-min’s Late Blossom, highlighted. In any case, Park Hae-il portrays the stoicism and loneliness of Jeok-yo well, conveying the evolution of the character subtly and organically. However there are several occasions where the actor is clearly trying to act like a senior citizen to the detriment of the scene, distractions in an otherwise competent display.

Kim Moo-yeol, despite receiving the least amount of screen time, portrays the role of jealous young author Ji-woo competently. The driven and arrogant nature of the character is performed well, as is his complete lack of understanding in regards to the depth of both Jeok-yo and Eun-gyo. Ji-woo’s love/hate relationship with them both is also interesting to watch unfold and is never contrived, resulting in a slow build of tension just waiting to erupt.

Eun-gyo also attracts the attention of prodigy Ji-woo

Eun-gyo also attracts the attention of prodigy Ji-woo

Verdict:

A film of great depth and symbolism, A Muse is an eloquent exploration of the nature of age, love, and relationships. While the fetishization of Eun-gyo’s body tends to undermine the spiritual connection between her and Jeok-yo, with Park Hae-il’s casting simultaneously helping to alleviate the sexualization as well as being an oddity, the film succeeds on the strengths of a wonderfully character driven narrative  and a superb debut by actress Kim Go-eun. With the subtle, organic and romantic performances and directorial style, the themes explored within A Muse will undoubtedly resonate with audiences long after the finale.

★★★☆☆

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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.

★★★★☆

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Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

The Host (괴물) – ★★★★★

The Host (괴물)

The Host (괴물)

The introduction of Godzilla in 1954 was a masterstroke. The monster directly tapped into the fears and anxieties of the Japanese populace following the American atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the potential ramifications of the nuclear fallout. The popularity of the iconic character was instant, while the enduring legacy of Godzilla has remained due to the still underlying apprehension surrounding nuclear technology.

Ironically, a similar fate was to occur with neighbouring South Korea. In 2000, the American military dumped 20 gallons of formaldehyde into drains which flowed directly into the Han River, the source of drinking water for the entire population of Seoul. The enormity of the public outcry was such that the U.S. military gave it’s first public apology since the Korean War, yet it did little to assuage public opinion. Enter The Host (괴물), a film that – similar to Godzilla – uses the true story as a basis for a narrative which introduces a monster into the midst of Seoul, amalgamating the fears, angers and anxieties of the society into the monstrous beast. ‘괴물’ is translated as ‘monster’, the source of the horror. However, far more interesting (and multi-layered) is the English title ‘The Host’. ‘The Host’ refers to the Han River which harbours the monster, but is also symbolic of Korea for ‘hosting’ the U.S. military (arguably another source of ‘horror’ due to creating the monster and perceived imperialism). The multi-layered title is reflected within the narrative, and it is such complexity that makes The Host one of the best science-fiction films of all time.

The 'average' Seoulite family

The ‘average’ Seoulite family

The Host depicts the dysfunctional Park family, who are more a collection of individuals due to their differing personalities and interests. The slacker of the family, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho (송강호) works at a convenience store with his diligent father Hee-bong (Byeon Hee-bong (변희봉) on the banks of the Han River. Living with them is Gang-du’s daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-seong (고아성) a middle school student who dislikes her father’s laid-back attitude. One day whilst serving customers, a mutated amphibious fish monster emerges from the river wreaking havoc. Gang-du and an American soldier bravely try to stop the monster from eating people, but during the struggle the soldier is gravely injured as the monster tries to consume him. Wounded by Gang-du, the monster runs back to the safety of the Han River and snatches the unaware Hyun-seo on the way. With Hyun-seo believed dead, the Gang-du is joined by his salaryman brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il (박해일) and archer sister Nam-joo (Bae Doona (배두나) in mourning. However, the American soldier is reported in the media as having a new strain of disease due to contact with the monster, and the military immediately incarcerate and quarantine the entire Park family against their will. That night, Gang-du receives a phone call from Hyeon-seo who is trapped in the monster’s sewer lair, and as the military refuse to help, the Park family resolve to escape their imprisonment and find Hyeon-seo before it’s too late.

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Gang-du and Hyeon-seo run from the monster

Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호),  who also co-wrote the film with Ha Joon-won (하준원), Joo-byeol (주별) and Baek Cheol-hyeon (백철현), has crafted a magnificent and multi-layered film that examines an incredible array of socio-cultural anxieties within Korean society. The Park family are a microcosm for the disparate identities and labour forces within Korea. Grandfather Hee-bong represents the hard-working older generation; Gang-du exemplifies the manual labour force; Nam-il constitutes the university-students-turned-office workers; Nam-ju represents women in Korea, hesitant to display their power and talent; and Hyeon-seo embodies the innocence of the younger generations. As such the family unit is allegorical of Korea itself, emphasising that for the family/Korea to succeed in killing the monster and saving their daughter/youth, they must forgo their differences, come together and work as one. The ‘monster’ the family must defeat is somewhat ambiguous. The mutated animal is the most obvious example, yet the media is equally as monstrous in inspiring panic throughout the citizens of Seoul, reports which are ultimately lies. Behind those lies are the American government and military who use the panic to their advantage, expanding American influence/imperialism and releasing ‘Agent Yellow’ (a not-so-subtle reference to toxic Agent Orange) into the atmosphere, which does little except to add further poison to the atmosphere. Korean society is also interrogated by depicting bribery and the traitorous actions of office workers due to their escalating debt. Director Bong Joon-ho (봉준호) continually references the multitudinous ‘monsters’ the family confront through a variety of representational devices, serving to add astonishing political and socio-cultural depth within the narrative.

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster's lair

Hyeon-seo is taken to the monster’s lair

The blending, and subversion, of genres is seamless. Most science-fiction films tend to refrain from fully revealing their antagonist until the final acts, surrounded by darkness to both convey suspense and hide the limitations of CGI. Not so in The Host, which has one of the most staggering introduction sequences ever constructed for a monster, all during the bright daylight hours. The rampage is truly astounding, and Bong Joon-ho employs a variety of techniques in capturing the the monster’s behaviour and the panic of the crowd. The actors are, as one would expect from such highly talented individuals, perfect in capturing the essence of their respective protagonists, conveying powerful performances that virtually command attention and empathy. With so many narrative devices included, it’s astonishing how each protagonist also manages to evolve throughout the film, leading to a socialist-esque finale in which they all overcome their flaws to fight as one with the proletariat landing the final blow.

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Gang-du squares off against the monster

Verdict:

The Host is an incredible film, and highlights the sheer talent and innovation of all involved. While it is unashamedly mainstream, the film never falls into cliche or parody as is often the case in the genre. Instead, The Host employs layers upon layers of political and socio-cultural subtext that adds phenomenal depth to an already highly entertaining premise, and cannot be recommended highly enough.

★★★★★

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