Veteran (베테랑) – ★★★★☆

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

After a three month sting operation involving stolen cars, tough detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) and his team, headed by Team Leader Oh (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), congratulate themselves and prepare for the inevitable promotion their work has wrought. Yet the celebration is cut short when Do-cheol’s truck driver friend Bae (Jeong Woong-in (정웅인) is critically hurt while protesting for unpaid wages, with all evidence pointing to rich, spoilt conglomerate owner’s son, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in (유아인). While Jo’s aide Choi Sang-moo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진) attempts to use money and influence to have the case closed, Do-cheol is relentless in his pursuit for Jo’s incarceration.

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

Brilliantly entertaining, wonderfully inventive, and featuring a gripping politically-charged story alongside bone-crunching stunts, director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is easily the most exciting slice of Korean cinema in 2015 so far. In what has been a particularly poor year for the industry, Veteran offers a badly needed revitalising breath of fresh air as well as marking director Ryoo’s most accomplished work to date.

Veteran begins in incredibly strong fashion as Do-cheol and his team take down an international car smuggling ring, with the quips flying almost as fast as the punches. It’s a fantastically thrilling introduction to director Ryoo’s distinct stylisation as well as the quirky characters on the investigative team, as the film excels with brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour mixed with frenetic stunts to hugely entertaining effect. For action aficionados Veteran also manages to include comedic riffs on other examples of the genre, notably Transporter 2‘s garage sequence, to raise self-referential laughs. It all makes for one of the most high-octane adrenaline-pumping openings in recent memory and is an absolute riot.

After kicking off so impressively, Veteran‘s pacing dramatically changes gears in order to lay the foundations for the central narrative. It’s a jarring alteration yet also a necessary one, as helmer/scribe Ryoo takes his time to incorporate new conflicts and antagonists, building the politically-charged threats posed to palpable levels. It’s an effective technique that demands investment while allowing the film to roar to life through exciting set-pieces, culminating in an explosive pulse-pounding crescendo that will have audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure.

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Veteran never forsakes the story for action, with the engaging narrative consistently touching upon highly politically sensitive issues within contemporary Korean culture. News media in the peninsula has for years reported on the spoilt and selfish behaviour displayed by chaebol (conglomerate) CEO’s children – the most recent of which was the infamous ‘nut rage’ incident – and Veteran picks up such themes brilliantly by exploring how such figures employ their power, finances and influence to avoid legalities. Bolstered by a basis in modern society, it’s great material for the genre, providing villainous personal and corporations and some compelling twists and turns, whilst also granting a sense of catharsis for the general public.

While corruption informs the impetus of the story, Veteran is also at its core a tale of two men in bitter conflict, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors other than Hwang Jung-min and Yo Ah-in fulfilling the roles so emphatically. Hwang Jung-min in particular is clearly having an absolute ball as detective Do-cheol, bringing incredible humour and charisma to the role so that even when he is being stubborn and downright dirty, he is nothing less than engrossing. Yoo Ah-in meanwhile is in absolute top form as the vile Jo Tae-oh, with his performance earning considerable praise. The characterisation is a tad excessive yet Yoo Ah-in commits so confidently that he’s an absolute joy to hate. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-so gets some of the film’s best laughs, while it’s great to see Yoo Hae-jin, who’s often typecast in comedic roles, stretched into new terrain.

Although an enormously entertaining film, Veteran is not without problems. Writer/director Ryoo still seems to have difficulty writing three-dimensional female characters, constructing them either as nagging bitches or wholesome victims. Miss Bong, wonderfully portrayed by Jang Yoon-ju, is somewhat of an exception and a welcome kick-ass heroine but tends to provide punchlines rather than development.

That aside, Veteran is easily the best slice of popcorn cinema this year and a joyous thrill ride from start to finish.

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Verdict:

Veteran is a revitalising, pulse-pounding action/thriller from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Examining the corruption in chaebols has never been so cathartic as the film is consistently entertaining, wonderfully inventive and featuring some truly exciting and hilarious stunts that has audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure. Easily the best slice of popcorn cinema in 2015.

★★★★☆

Reviews
I Saw You (너를 봤어)

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화) – ★★★☆☆

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화)

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화)

Omnibus film MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화) has the notable distinction of featuring not only three of Korea’s top name directors in the form of Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완), Han Ji-seung (한지승) and Kim Tae-yong (김태용), but also for serving as the opening film for the 15th Jeonju International Film Festival. The collective work is quite a landmark for an opening film due to the use of 3D, which is, in part, used to emphasis the new vision and production role of KAFA+ (The Korean Academy of Film Arts).

The three segments are each designed to explore human relationships through a connection to a form of popular culture. Director Ryoo Seung-wan helms the first short titled Ghost (유령), about a boy who is addicted to his cell phone; director Han Ji-seung is responsible for I Saw You (너를 봤어), which is concerned with a futuristic zombie apocalypse; and finally director Kim Tae-yong explores the life of a young girl with an autistic brother in Picnic (피크닉).

In the interest of fairness, each short within the omnibus has been reviewed individually, in the order in which they appear onscreen.

Ghost (유령)

Ghost (유령)

Ghost (유령) –  ★★★☆☆

Ghost depicts teenager Seung-ho (Lee David (이다윗) who is more concerned with the digital world of chat rooms, sms, and computer games rather than reality. When Woo-bi (Son Soo-hyeon (손수현), a girl from his chatroom, claims she is in danger from an abusive boyfriend, Seung-ho teams with Bi-jen (Park Jeong-min (박정민) to help her.

Based on a true story, Ghost is quite a departure from director Ryoo Seung-wan’s typically action-orientated projects, and he ably handles the focus on low-key personal drama. Scenes featuring Seung-ho’s bedroom are expertly filmed and wonderfully convey his fractured relationship with reality, while the social pressures from his school and father are competently expressed. However the tension that a film such as Ghost requires is curiously absent, particularly when Seung-ho and Bi-jen attempt to help Woo-bi. The use of 3D is also quite unnecessary  as the drama rarely features it effectively.

Luckily the ever-reliable Lee David holds everything together well, with his likeable ‘everyman’ charm again forcing audiences to empathise with his plight. That said, the actor is never pushed into new territory and as such his performance doesn’t contain the intensity of his prior work, yet Lee David does what he can with the material on offer. It’s Park Jeong-min, however, who gives a wonderful performance as the socially inept Bi-jen. Complete with thick-rimmed glasses, protruding jaw and nervous ticks, Park’s characterisation is a radical departure from his previous roles conveying angst and social-dislocation with aplomb.

I Saw You (너를 봤어)

I Saw You (너를 봤어)

I Saw You (너를 봤어) – ★★☆☆☆

In the not-too-distant future, zombies have emerged causing catastrophe in their wake. Yet the arrival of a cure for the affliction has allowed the undead to rejoin society. Factory manager Yeo-wool (Park Ki-woong (박기웅) presides over zombie laborers, pushing them to work harder and harder. When a zombie named Si-wa (Nam Gyoo-ri (남규리) attempts to communicate with him, Yeo-wool begins to understand their connection.

Director Han Ji-seung’s I Saw You is certainly the weakest within the omnibus. Poorly scripted, badly acted, and featuring precious little depth, the superficial rom-com-zom is a hollow experience. Director Han’s ambition is clearly bigger than his budget, yet instead of scaling down the film into a more focused piece he has constructed a poor imitation of a large production, one where the narrative veers wildly resulting in a lack of interest in the central couple. There is an attempt to emphasise the importance of memory as with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet it becomes lost amongst the various narrative tangents and oddities.

Bizarrely, I Saw You also fails to use the 3D technology effectively. This is the one production within the omnibus where the genre lends itself to fun 3D antics, however the potential isn’t capitalised on, resulting in a rather bland offering.

Picnic (피크닉)

Picnic (피크닉)

Picnic (피크닉) – ★★★★☆

Su-min (Kim Su-an (김수안) lives a humble life with her seamstress mother (Park Mi-hyeon (박미현) and autistic younger brother. Despite her young age Su-min is often forced to take responsibility for her sibling, and her only respite is to lose herself with the ages of a romantic comic book.

Picnic is a beautifully told, wonderfully charming story of youth and innocence, and is undoubtedly the most accomplished segment with the entirety of MAD SAD BAD. Screenwriter Min Ye-ji has constructed a poignant, sensitive and compelling story regarding those who live on the fringes of society, one which is elegantly depicted by director Kim Tae-yong. Director Kim ‘s uncanny ability to deeply understand and convey his characters motivations is once again apparent as he portrays a frustrated, overburdened young girl with an acute sense of subtly and artistry. Director Kim is also the only director in the omnibus to employ 3D effectively. Picnic features some truly sumptuous cinematography which the 3D technology vibrantly brings to life, particularly scenes of nature as with a pier at sunset and a mysterious forest.

The compulsion of the film rests on young actress Kim Su-an’s shoulders, and she delivers wonderfully. Her performance is continually captivating and displays a quality that belies her youth, proving that her prior films, including Berlinale winner Sprout, were no fluke. Kim’s charismatic performance conveys an adult sense of responsibility and independence alongside a youthful innocence and vitality, generating a deep sense of empathy and that never fails to entertain.

★★★☆☆

Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제15회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
The 15th Jeonju International Film Festival

The 15th Jeonju International Film Festival

The 15th Jeonju International Film Festival

The 15th Jeonju International Film Festival

The 2014 Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF) is due to commence from May the 1st through to the 10th.

Now in its 15th installment, JIFF has long been the festival for showcasing up and coming Korean independent talent as well as serving as a platform for international indies to receive attention. This year is of course no exception, as new features have added and programs extended in conjunction with the traditional core categories.

Last year, JIFF provided the launchpad for several notable Korean indie films that later went on to become successful on the international circuit. Family documentary My Place (마이 플레이스) and drama-thriller Lebanon Emotion (레바논 감정) were the most prominent, enjoying lengthy festival runs and scooping several awards domestically and internationally while other productions including Dear Dolphin (환상속의 그대)Cheer Up Mr. Lee (힘내세요, 병헌씨)Talking Architecture, City: Hall (말하는 건축, 시티:홀), and controversial documentary Project Cheonan Ship (천안함프로젝트) also performed well. Breathe Me (울게 하소서) was the most celebrated short film to emerge from the festival, later appearing in Cannes in the prestigious Critics Week category.

This year however sees not only an array of new Korean filmmakers but also some of the most renowned and reputable names in the independent film industry screening their latest work. Furthermore, the festival design is clearly emphasising JIFF as a celebration of elegance and subtle sincerity, as can be viewed in the trailer below.

The big change at JIFF 2014 lies in the greater focus on Korean films. Korea Cinemascape has now become a distinct program in its own right, and while previously more mainstream Korean films were integrated within, the focus has now shifted to more independent and low-budget productions. As such, there are some big names in indie cinema within Korea Cinemascape this year, including Lee Song Hee-il (White Night), Lee Sang-woo (Barbie) and Kim Kyung-mook (Stateless Things), as well as a greater number of world premieres which further cement JIFF’s reputation for discovering new talent.

In addition, two of JIFF’s staple programs – Jeonju Digital Project and Short! Short! Short! – have been amalgamated in order to enhance the overall quality of the productions as well as elevating the films into features. This year, two of of the three films are helmed by Korean directors.

The festival is also now separated into two distinct parts – from May 1st~7th JIFF will operate is normal, while May 8th~10th will focus more on the films in the International Competition. The Closing film has been abolished, and instead the Grand Prize winning film from the International Competition will screen instead.

Opening Film

MAD SAD BAD (신촌좀비만화) 

Directors Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완), Han Ji-seung (한지승), Kim Tae-yong (김태용)

Ghost (유령)

Ghost (유령)

I Saw You (너를 봤어)

I Saw You (너를 봤어)

Picnic (피크닉)

Picnic (피크닉)

MAD SAD BAD is a fascinating and exciting departure from traditional opening films. The 3D omnibus is helmed by three of Korea’s extremely talented directors. In Ghost, director Ryoo Seung-wan (The Berlin File) explores the life of a high school student who retreats from the world and instead finds purpose talking with a girl on SNS. The segment stars red hot indie star Lee David (Pluto, Poetry), Kwak Do-wan (The Attorney, National Security) and model Son Soo-hyeon in her acting debut, while the film itself is based on a true story. In futuristic zombie film I Saw You, director Han Ji-seung (Papa) plays with a variety of genres as he portrays the undead as factory workers. Featuring Park Ki-woong (Secretly Greatly) and kpop star See Ya’s Nam Gyoo-ri (Death Bell), the romantic musical horror will certainly be an attractive affair. Rounding out the omnibus is Picnic by director Kim Tae-yong (You Are More Than Beautiful). When a young girl loses her autistic brother on a picnic trip, her frantic search calls forth the realms of her imagination inspired from her beloved comic books. Child actress Kim Soo-an (Hide and Seek) stars.

Please see below for the MAD SAD BAD trailer.

Festival News Jeonju International Film Festival (제15회 전주국제영화제) Korean Festivals 2014
The 18th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2013: Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

The 18th Busan International Film Festival

For exciting new Korean films, the Korean Cinema Today program at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) highlights some of the best and latest productions emerging from the industry.

Korean Cinema Today is separated into two sub-categories – Panorama and Vision. While Vision explores the latest independent films and exciting new filmmaking talent, Panorama showcases some of the big domestic and internationally acclaimed films, as well as more high profile world premieres.

The 14 films in Panorama 2013 contains some of the biggest names working in the industry today. For arthouse fans, Kim Ki-duk’s highly controversial Moebius, as well as two Hong Sang-soo films – Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi – make appearances. Two directorial debuts are included in the form of superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s Fasten Your Seatbelt, and veteran actor Park Joong-hoon’s Top Star. King of Pigs director Yeon Sang-ho’s latest animation The Fake is featured. There are also exciting new projects that involve crowdfunding, human rights issues, and the debut of K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in a lead role.

For the lowdown on all the films within the sub-category, please see below.

Korean Cinema Today – Panorama

Abbi (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Abbi (Twisted Daddy) (애비)

Director: Jang Hyun-soo (장현수)

Synopsis: Abbi – or rather, Twisted Daddy – is a drama about a father whose dedication to his son becomes out of hand. Working hard to ensure his son can study law and become successful, the aging father risks everything.

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Another Family (또 하나의 가족)

Director: Kim Tae-yun (김태윤)

Synopsis: Crowdfunding was sourced to produce this real life legal drama about a woman who contracts leukemia while working at a Samsung factory. The film follows the family’s efforts overcome the disease as well as the corporation responsible.

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

Director: Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완)

Synopsis: The Berlin File was a big hit upon release earlier his year. With an all-star cast including Ha Jeong-woo and Jeon Ji-hyeon, the action-thriller showcased director Ryoo’s style like never before. For the full review, please click here.

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

The Fake (사이비)

Director: Yeon Sang-ho (연상호)

Synopsis: Following on from his hugely successful film King of Pigs, director Yeon Sang-ho employs his biting cultural critique stylisation to explore corrupted religious officials who are holding a small town to ransom.

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Fasten Your Seatbelt (롤러코스터)

Director: Ha Jeong-woo (하정우)

Synopsis: Fasten Your Seatbelt – or ‘Rollercoaster‘ in Korean – marks superstar Ha Jeong-woo’s directorial debut. The comedy sees mismatched characters collide when their plane encounters a typhoon.

God's Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

God’s Eye View (시선)

Director: Lee Jang-ho (이장호)

Synopsis: Lee Jang-ho was a prominent director during the 1970s and ’80s, and after an 18 year hiatus has re-entered filmmaking with God’s Eye View. The film explores a group of missionaries whose faith wanes after abduction by Islamic rebels.

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Genome Hazard (무명인)

Director: Kim Sung-su (김성수)

Synopsis: A co-production between Korea and Japan, sci-fi Genome Hazard depicts a man seemingly losing his sanity following the apparent death of his wife. Director Kim previously worked with Park Chan-wook and Son Il-gon.

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

If You Were Me 6 (어떤 시선)

Directors: Min Yong-keun (민용근), Lee Sang-cheol (이상철), Shin A-ga (신아가), Park Jung-bum (박정범)

Synopsis: Produced by the National Human Rights Commission, this omnibus film represents radically different stories about people living on the fringes of society, and the hardships they endure.

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Moebius (뫼비우스)

Director: Kim Ki-duk (김기덕)

Synopsis: Moebius was marred by controversy before it was released.  Kim Ki-duk’s psychosexual thriller examines a family torn apart by adultery, penis dismemberment, and incest.

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

My Boy (마이보이)

Director: Jeon Kyu-hwan (전규환)

Synopsis: Town trilogy and The Weight director Jeon Kyu-hwan explores the life of an impulse disorder patient and his long-suffering family in My Boy. cultural attitudes towards mental health and the medical system are examined.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (누구의 딸도 아닌 해원)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: University student Haewon feels lonely following her mother’s departure for Canada, and contacts married lover – and professor – Seong-joon. A story of a young woman’s quest for identity.

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Our Sunhi (우리 순희)

Director: Hong Sang-soo (홍상수)

Synopsis: Sunhi is a film student who, wishing to continue her studies in America, seeks a recommendation letter from her professor. Yet in doing so, she unwittingly allows 3 different men attempt to advise her over her future.

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Rough Play (배우는 배우다)

Director: Shin Yeon-shick (신연식)

Synopsis: A sequel of sorts to Rough Cut, Rough Play is concerned with a rising film star who becomes involved with gangsters, leading to a downward spiral. Based on an idea by Kim Ki-duk, the film features K-pop idol Lee Joon from MBLAQ in the lead role.

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Director: Park Joong-hoon (박중훈)

Synopsis: Veteran actor Park Joong-hoon makes his debut with Top Star, a film about a talent manager who suddenly becomes a superstar. Yet as his popularity increase, so does his arrogance and determination to stay at the top.

 

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013
The relationship that develops between Jong-du and Gong-ju is beautifully poignant

Oasis (오아시스) – ★★★★★

Oasis (오아시스)

Oasis (오아시스)

Oasis (오아시스), the third film by auteur Lee Chang-dong (이창동), is an absolute masterpiece. Director Lee has built his career on exploring and critiquing Korean culture through artistic frameworks, and with Oasis he deftly examines the challenging subject matter of the plights endured by the mentally ill and disabled. In depicting the burgeoning romance between mildly mentally ill Hong Jong-du and cerebral palsy sufferer Han Gong-ju, director Lee also highlights the intolerance and hypocrisy of society and the resulting impact on their lives. The power of the film is such that it won several notable awards upon release – particularly at the Venice Film Festival – for the novelist-turned-director, as well as for the exceptional performances by lead actors Moon So-ri (문소리) and Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구).

During the middle of winter, mentally ill Hong Jong-du (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) is released from serving a two and half year prison sentence for a hit-and-run that resulted in a man’s death. Returning to society in his summer clothes, Jong-du discovers that his family has moved without letting him know though rejoins them again through another brush with the law. Attempting to fit in with society once more, Jong-du feels compelled to visit the family of the man who was killed and discovers his daughter, Han Gong-ju (Moon So-ri (문소리), who suffers with cerebral palsy. Immediately fascinated by her, Jong-du visits Gong-ju when she is alone and frightens her, yet as time passes the two form an incredible bond despite the pressure from family and society.

Jong-du is released from prison to find his family have moved without notifying him

Jong-du is released from prison to find his family have moved without notifying him

Oasis is an exceptionally poignant film. Director Lee employs a social-realist aesthetic in exploring the difficulties of the disabled, adding compelling realism to the trials they are forced to endure. The notion of family is notable in this regard and the film pulls no punches in articulating the selfish ambitions, hypocrisy and ignorance exhibited by the relatives. Such discourses begin immediately as Jong-du, who has the mental ability of a child, cannot find his family once released from prison and only reunites with them when he once again gets in trouble. The intolerance displayed by the family is indeed shocking throughout as they attempt to force Jong-du to become part of society despite his obvious limitations, reprimanding him with astonishing lack of compassion when he inevitably fails. Gong-ju is abused in a similar fashion as she is routinely exploited by her family when required but discarded almost immediately after. Director Lee portrays the suffering of the lead protagonists with incredible potency, never judging any of the characters or events with cinematic techniques but simply allowing the actors to convey the respective personalities, to which audiences can ascribe their own opinions. This lack of manipulation is executed superbly and deftly sidesteps the all-too-easy pitfalls of melodramatic conventions, and as such the palpable emotional weight within Oasis is the result of some of the finest acting in contemporary cinema.

It is impossible to discuss Oasis without referring to the simply exquisite performances conducted by Moon So-ri and Seol Kyeong-gu. Moon So-ri in particular is exceptional as cerebral palsy suffering Gong-ju, contorting her body and facial features with astounding skill to convey the protagonist with absolute sincerity. Gong-ju’s frustrations at her inability to move and speak freely are genuinely moving, yet it is her development from lonely wallflower to confident young woman that is a joy to behold. The love and companionship nurtured between her and Jong-du grows subtly and naturally, with the evolving happiness and dignity on display a constant source of compulsion. Within this development Seol Kyeong-gu is momentous as Jong-du, conveying the character’s mannerisms – including a constant cold – and infectious child-like behaviour with real skill. Director Lee continues his deconstruction of Korean masculinity through Jong-du, who initially loses control of his faculties and attempts – and fails – to rape Gong-ju, yet learns that compassion is more important than such base desires. It is a notion lost on the other male antagonists, who continue to view women as little more than commodities.

The relationship that develops between Jong-du and Gong-ju is beautifully poignant

The relationship that develops between Jong-du and Gong-ju is beautifully poignant

In addition to family, Oasis examines the society inhabited by Jong-du and Gong-ju, highlighting the terms of difference and exclusion in which it operates. Wherever the couple visit, and whatever events they attempt to partake in, they are shunned, rejected, and forced to the margins. Yet rather than focus on the negativity such incidents incur director Lee instead portrays how such marginalization brings the couple closer together as kindred spirits, reinforcing their spiritual connection through their mutual suffering.

Given the social-realist aesthetic it is surprising that the director occasionally injects fantasy sequences within the narrative, but far from detracting from the development they serve to enrich it. The moments in which Gong-ju’s deepest desires achieve fruition are tender and sweet, allowing her to express freely what her taut frame otherwise doesn’t allow. Within this realm lies the true potency of the film’s title, at once expressing Gong-ju’s fear of the darkness encroaching on her life but simultaneously providing a secret space for her and Jong-du to truly express their devotion without judgement. Such scenes are moving, artistic, and beautiful in their construction, capturing the depth of their understated love in the most compelling and sincere fashion.

The 'oasis', the dream in which they can live a life free from the ignorance of others

The ‘oasis’, the dream in which they can live a life free from the ignorance of others

Verdict:

Oasis is an exceptional masterpiece. The social-realist aesthetic applied in depicting the burgeoning relationship between the lead couple is executed magnificently by auteur Lee Chang-dong, who deftly sidesteps melodrama in conveying the development of love between mentally ill and cerebral palsy individuals. Moon So-ri and Seol Kyeong-gu are simply exquisite in the lead roles and are utterly captivating throughout, articulating acute sincerity ad poignancy within their respective performances. Oasis is an absolute must-see film.

★★★★★

Reviews
Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he bargained for

The Berlin File (베를린) – ★★★★☆

The Berlin File (베를린)

The Berlin File (베를린)

The hype generated for writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan’s (류승완) latest action-thriller The Berlin File (베를린) has been fierce. Boasting a stellar line-up of acting talent, and with the director’s last film The Unjust (부당거래) proving popular with audiences and critics alike, curiosity has been fervent as to whether director Ryoo could take his trademark mix of multiple narratives and high-octane action to the next level.

The Berlin File features a genuine evolution in director Ryoo’s style, with some of the most adrenaline-inducing action sequences in recent memory and a huge leap up from his prior films. Yet as with his past filmography, The Berlin File is also stunted by far too many protagonists and a highly convoluted narrative, while his preoccupation with male characters relegates Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현) to the sidelines. However, the director must be congratulated for the scale of the film, not only for filming in a foreign country with the inclusion of several languages, but also for featuring a North Korean spy as the hero of the film.

After a weapons deal in Berlin goes wrong, top North Korean agent Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jeong-woo (하정우) attempts to flee the scene. Unbeknownst to him however are the South Korean agents on his tail, led by Jeong Jin-soo (Han Seok-Kyu (한석규). As the two men clash Jong-seong manages to escape back to his safe house and wife Ryeon Jeong-hee (Jeon Ji-hyeon (전지현), who works as a translator – and ‘entertainer’ – at the North Korean consulate. With the new Kim Jong-un government establishing themselves, suspicions arise that a traitor exists in the Berlin offices. Dispatching ruthless North Korean agent Dong Myeong-soo (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) to find the mole, all the evidence seemingly points to Jeong-hee. Yet Jong-seong and Myeong-soo come into conflict, tensions reach breaking point when the CIA, Mossad, Arabic forces and the South Korean agency all enter the fray, leading to a violent showdown.

Following a botched weapons deal, North Korean agent Jong-seong's life is in danger

Following a botched weapons deal, North Korean agent Jong-seong’s life is in danger

With The Berlin File, director Ryoo has eschewed the reverential martial arts fare of his prior films in favor of the brutal espionage style exhibited within The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum, and emerged all the stronger for it. Indeed, the director has adopted many of the features of Paul Greengrass’ spy classics by utilising a moving camera and rapid editing during the lighting-quick action sequences, producing some of best work of his career and representing a true evolution in his abilities. In addition to the exhilarating action and stunt work, the danger of the spy world is wonderfully conveyed. The various betrayals and secret dealings between the disparate agencies produce an intense atmosphere of uncertainty and distrust that continually keeps the audience guessing, harnessing the paranoia of the Cold War era in a contemporary context. By tapping into the fear of the transitioning North Korean government, the story achieves potency as the war for information and power takes on an all-too-real aspect that serves to heighten tension further. Similarly the choice of Berlin is a masterstroke given its history, and director Ryoo films the city as if it were a character itself. The distinctly European style coffee shops and restaurants, the lively streets and the shadowy alleyways all converge to portray the German capital as a hub of culture and intrigue, and one where danger lies at every turn.

Placing a North Korean agent as the ‘hero’ of The Berlin File is also an enthralling decision, representing a genuine shift in the relevance of protagonists from the country. Just as Shiri (쉬리) opened up a wave of storytelling regarding ‘brotherhood’ between the two nations, The Berlin File takes it a step further by emphasizing Jong-seong as more active than his South Korean counterpart Jin-soo, despite the corruption that blights them both. As the top spy of the communist country, Ha Jeong-woo gives a great performance and is highly convincing as the cold, detached secret agent. His lines in English and German are delivered with confidence and assuredness and are quite impressive throughout, while his composure during action sequences mark him out as a genuine action star. Ryoo Seung-beom also handles himself particularly well as ruthless agent Dong Myeong-soo, conveying an unsettling villainy with cocky self-assurance that serves as a great counterpoint to Jong-seong’s naivety. It is acutely fitting that Shiri star Han Seok-Kyu features within the film as older South Korean agent Jin-soo, almost forming as an angrier, more frustrated extension of the prior character. While he occasionally stumbles when performing in English the actor conveys the bitter frustration of his situation convincingly. Unfortunately, out of all the protagonists it’s Jeon Ji-hyeon who is short-changed as translator Jeong-hee. The actress performs the role with skill, however it simply isn’t developed enough for her to display her talent, and as such she functions as little more than a damsel in distress.

Jong-seong's wife, translator Jeong-hee, comes under suspicion as a traitor

Jong-seong’s wife, translator Jeong-hee, comes under suspicion as a traitor

The issues with Jeon Ji-hyeon’s underdeveloped role highlights the main, and rather large, issue within The Berlin File. There are just far too many characters within the narrative, each containing their own history and motivations for taking part in the proceedings, enacting scores of double-crosses with those around them to achieve their goals. Director Ryoo ambitiously attempts to give service to every faction and individual, yet in doing so he loses focus on the core protagonists and as a result their development suffers. The array of narrative tangents also bogs down the main impetus of Jong-seong’s mission which a great deal of time and effort was spent constructing, while the variety of betrayals and red herrings that occur make the plot a confusing, and somewhat frustrating, viewing experience.

Perhaps for this reason director Ryoo seems unsure how to finish his spy thriller, and as a result the finale boils down to something of a stereotypical stand-off seen in generic action films. To the directors credit, the final act is indeed exciting as gunfire hails from all directions while physical confrontations feature some vicious, wince-inducing moments. Yet despite the exhilarating fun of watching the good and bad guys duke it out in the high stakes battle, it’s difficult not to feel that it is mismatched with what came before, and that a less convoluted plot would have ultimately led to a more rewarding finale.

Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he garbained for

Ruthless Myeong-soo visits Berlin to find the mole, but gets more than he bargained for

Verdict:

The Berlin File represents a stylistic evolution for director Ryoo Seung-wan, featuring some of the best action and stunt sequences in recent memory and arguably the best of his career. The director captures the paranoia of the spy world with confidence and skill, employing the city of Berlin incredibly well as the location of espionage. While the over-abundance of characters and narrative tangents bog down Jong-seong’s mission, director Ryoo deserves credit for going beyond the themes of ‘brotherhood’ by actually placing a North Korean agent as the ‘hero’ of the film, making The Berlin File an exhilarating, if somewhat convoluted, spy thriller.

★★★★☆

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Gyeong-sun and Su-jin attempt to flee from Dok-bul

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이) – ★★★☆☆

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이)

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이)

It goes without saying that the films of Quentin Tarantino have left an indelible impression on the cinematic landscape. This is especially the case with Pulp Fiction, whereby the amalgamation of extreme violence, pop culture, and variety of narrative threads have invited a host of admirers and homages. Director Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완) fits both areas, consistently expressing similar themes throughout his body of work albeit with his own Korean flair. Indeed, his nickname as ‘the Korean Tarantino’ is not entirely undeserved.

No Blood No Tears (피도 눈물도 없이), director Ryoo Seung-wan’s second feature, has clearly taken gangster films such as Pulp Fiction and Snatch as huge sources of inspiration, featuring a multi-strand narrative with an assortment of colorful low lives and gangsters seeking the perfect score. Being a Korean production, there is also a great deal of Confucian ideals and martial arts added to the mix for good measure. It’s a largely enjoyable ensemble piece featuring some wonderful character actors, yet the disparate narratives never coalesce convincingly, in addition to the vast number of protagonists, tonal imbalances, and blatant misogyny that permeates throughout the story.

Gyung-sun (Lee Hye-yeong, 이혜영), a down-on-her-luck taxi driver, is continually harassed by loan sharks seeking debt collection and the police for her criminal past. While attempting to forge a life for herself despite awful passengers, her taxi is hit by Su-jin (Jeon Do-yeon, 전도연) who is on the run from her violent boyfriend Dok-bul (Jeong Jae-yeong, 정재영). A former boxing champion, Dok-bul works for the aging local kingpin KGB, or Kim Geun-bok (Sin Goo, 신구) whose power base is unchallengeable particularly while flanked by martial arts master the Silent Man (Jeong Doo-hong, 정두홍). Unknown to KGB however, is that everyone around him is conspiring to steal his fortune, even local karaoke worker Chae Min-su (Ryoo Seung-beom, 류승범).

Gyeong-sun has trouble with loan sharks and the police

Gyeong-sun has trouble with loan sharks and the police

One of the great strengths of No Blood No Tears is the gritty, violence-fueled world of Incheon inhabited by the array of gangsters and charlatans. The aesthetics employed by director Ryoo Seung-wan, such as the wonderful use of low key lighting, convey an urban landscape fraught with danger and violence, while the dilapidated arenas in which confrontations occur lends a disturbing sense of realism to the proceedings. Within this world are a vast number of protagonists, each with their own foibles and agendas, all connected with one another through various relationships and each strand unfolds in a thoroughly entertaining manner. As such comparisons with Pulp Fiction are inevitable, particularly as director Ryoo Seung-wan uses similar non-linear editing techniques in which to orchestrate events, although he later succumbs to traditional linear storytelling. Unfortunately however, with so many characters the director doesn’t manage to balance the vast number of plot threads and therefore underdevelopment of key personnel is a profound issue throughout the film. This is acutely the case with indebted taxi driver Gyeong-sun and wannabe pop starlet Su-jin, who are the masterminds behind the heist but are forced to the sidelines while focus is granted to the male roles. The intention is clearly a Thelma and Louise style narrative whereby two unlikely women join forces to take on a male-dominated world, yet as well as lack of development the film contains some frankly awful misogyny as Gyeong-sun and Su-jin are repeatedly beaten to an absurd degree by the men around them.

Stylised violence is one of director Ryoo Seung-wan’s greatest assets, and when not used to abuse the female characters, it is a genuine delight. Of particular note is the confrontation between retired boxer Dok-bul and the Silent Man, which features some lightning fast and bone crunching moves made all the more powerful through utilizing the gritty realism of Incheon’s underworld. The blood, sweat, and deft use of light and shadow are exhilarating to behold as the men fight for their lives – and their stake of the money – within the battleground of a dog fighting cage, and is a testament to the director’s skill and flair for action sequences.

KGB gives orders to Dok-bul, while flanked by the Silent Man

KGB gives orders to Dok-bul, while flanked by the Silent Man

The violence is also accompanied by a healthy dose of black comedy through humorous use of bad language and bizarre confrontations between the eccentric characters. While not as sophisticated as the films which inspired it, the comedy within No Blood No Tears is still highly enjoyable. A large amount of humor is left to the director’s brother, Ryoo Seung-beom, as dim-witted karaoke worker Chae Min-su. Unfortunately this tends to be slapstick in nature, although there are laugh-out-loud moments to be had. Most of the comedy appears through the double-crosses and surprise encounters as everyone attempts to outsmart each other and disappear with the money, and the quick pace as events unfold is entertaining. It is, however, difficult to be fully invested in the antics as Gyeong-sun and Su-jin tend to have little involvement in the robbery despite their central roles in the film, while villainous thug Dok-bul seems to emerge as an anti-hero of sorts, only for things to later reverse in an attempt to wrap all the narrative threads up nicely. As such, while certainly enjoyable, the finale is lacking in compulsion making the film somewhat hollow and bittersweet as the credits begin to role.

Gyeong-sun and Su-ji attempt to flee from Dok-bul

Gyeong-sun and Su-jin attempt to flee from Dok-bul

Verdict:

No Blood No Tears is a gritty, urban tale of gangsters and charlatans in a Korea-meets-Pulp Fiction style. Director Ryoo Seung-wan has crafted a world of danger and violence with expert use of lighting and environments, while his trademark of stylized action is exhilarating to behold. Yet the unbalanced narrative and lack of character development due to the enormous cast results in a lack of investment, particularly with the central female roles, who suffer from awful misogynistic abuse throughout the film. No Blood No Tears is ultimately an enjoyable, though uneven, gangster romp.

★★★☆☆

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