Original director Lee Myeong-se and the cast of The Spy:Mr. K

Action/comedy ‘The Spy’ (스파이) gets a trailer

Original director Lee Myeong-se and the cast of The Spy:Mr. K

Original director Lee Myeong-se and the cast of The Spy/Mr. K

Superstars Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) and Moon So-ri (문소리) are again teaming up for the big screen, this time with Daniel Henney (다니엘 헤니) for an action/comedy tentatively titled The Spy: Undercover Operation (스파이/협상종결자). 

The film – initially called Mr. K – has been in development for quite some time and has been surrounded in controversy, chiefly due to the very public disagreements between original director Lee Myeong-se (이명세) and the production team, whose visions for the blockbuster apparently differed wildly. Director Lee, whose credits include M (엠) and Duelist (형사), is an excellent filmmaker and one of the few genuine auteurs working within the Korean film industry today, however it was always something of an odd choice to have such an artistically-minded person at the helm of a big summer film. With director Lee’s departure, new director Lee Seung-joon (이승준), who was the assistant director on action film Quick (퀵) was brought on board, and now finally a trailer has arrived.

The Spy: Undercover Operation sees top Korean spy Kim Cheol-su (Seol Kyeong-gu) on a mission to solve a terrorist attack that occurs in Seoul, with the investigation taking him to Thailand. Yet being the best has meant neglecting his flight attendant wife Young-hee (Moon So-ri), putting a strain on the relationship. However while undercover in Bangkok, Cheol-su spots his wife with handsome rival Ryan (Daniel Henney) and begins to go against orders to discover what his wife is up to.

It’s quite a departure for the Seol/Moon team-up that brought audiences powerhouse performances in Oasis (오아시스) and Peppermint Candy (박하사탕). Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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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.

★★★★★

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Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) – ★★★★★

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕)

Peppermint Candy (박하사탕) is an exceptional piece of cinema. Opening the Busan International Film Festival in 1999, it must have been uncomfortably ironic for the audience that such a prestigious Asian festival would feature such a poetically raw dissemination of Korean culture. Directed by auteur Lee Chang-dong (이창동), the film critically examines a twenty year period of Korean history, revisiting pivotal moments through the main protagonist while also psychoanalytically deconstructing his – and by extension, Korean -masculinity. Peppermint Candy is a simply breathtaking exploration of how a person’s life is forged through culture and trauma and, featuring a staggering performance from Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구), is one of great examples of the vibrant socio-cultural power of Korean filmmaking.

In 1999, a man named Kim Yeong-ho (Seol Kyeong-gu) emerges by a riverside where a group of middle aged people are having a picnic. Interestingly, members of the group recognise Yeong-ho and invite him to join them but his erratic behaviour proves too much to bear. Leaving the picnic, Yeong-ho climbs onto train tracks with the intention of suicide, yet just before the train collides he screams, “I want to go back!” Suddenly Yeong-ho begins to revisit key moments from his life – and Korean history – that forged him into the person he has become, including meeting his estranged wife Yang Hong-ja (Kim Yeo-jin (김여진), his career as a police officer, and his first love Yoon Soon-im (Moon So-ri (문소리).

Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Kim Yeong-ho climbs atop the rail tracks, ready for death

Director Lee Chang-dong has crafted an incredible journey through exploring the life of Yeong-ho, conveying his personal development as inherently tied to the development of Korea over a twenty year period. Initially, Yeong-ho is supremely dislikable and downright weird as he crashes the riverside picnic, behaving terribly towards people who are simply attempting to welcome him. Yet from the moment Yeon-ho steps onto the train tracks, it becomes clear there is a depth to his madness. Over the course of Peppermint Candy director Lee Chang-dong peels back layer upon layer of Yeong-ho’s psychosis in a highly poetic, subtle and symbolic manner, examining how a person’s innocence is twisted by culture and forces beyond control. The train track, for example, is much more than a place for suicide as it comes to represent his path of destiny. As the train moves back in time to revisit Yeong-ho’s past it becomes his timeline, stopping at pivotal moments until the symbolic sound of the train horn conveys that it is time to move on. As such the train and track are ethereal, spiritual beings within Peppermint Candy and are beautifully poignant narrative devices.

 As the train gently takes the audience deeper into Yeong-ho’s history, a great deal of empathy is aroused as his very character is stripped bare. From the initial quick judgement that Yeong-ho is an odd fool, each turning point in his life delicately alters the rash perception to the point where genuine sympathy is evoked from his personal tragedies. When his business suffers as a result of the Asian financial crisis, when his marriage begins to fall apart, when he loses his first love; all have penetrating emotional and psychological impact on Yeong-ho, and it is utterly enthralling to behold the events that molded him into his suicidal state. Director Lee Chang-dong also masterfully ties Yeong-ho’s increasingly fractured state as inherently Korean. As well as the aforementioned financial crisis, Yeong-ho’s career in the police force during the infamous brutality of the 1980s is portrayed, in addition to his role in the 1981 Gwangju Uprising (or rather, massacre).

Yeong-ho revisits his military past, in which he took part in the Gwangju massacre

Yeong-ho revisits his military past, in which he took part in the Gwangju massacre

In each instance, the director examines not only the manner in which Korean people were brutally oppressed during the era but also how men such as Yeong-ho, who is an analogy of all Korean men during this period, were fundamentally changed into abhorrent examples of humanity. Issues such as violence and patriarchal order are interrogated in compelling fashion and conveyed not as features of masculinity, but as cultural constructs that warp the innocence of young males.

Yeong-ho’s journey into the past is also enthralling due to the phenomenal performance of Seol Kyeong-gu. Throughout the entirety of Peppermint Candy the actor is superb in articulating the emotional and psychological state of Yeong-ho with incredible sincerity. From his unhinged suicidal behaviour through to his bitter and violent 30s, from his attempts to rebuild his life following military service through to his innocence as as student, Seol Kyeong-gu is simply amazing. His performance is keenly heartfelt at every stage of Yeong-ho’s life, so much so that his journey of self-discovery lingers long after the film has come to an end. His victories at the Grand Bell Awards and Blue Dragon Awards in 2000 attest to his prowess, and are completely deserved.

Yeong-ho and his first love Soon-im share a tender moment

Yeong-ho and his first love Soon-im share a tender moment

Verdict:

Peppermint Candy is undoubtedly one of the modern classics of Korean cinema, and is an exceptional entry by director Lee Chang-dong. The story is equal parts poetic and subtle as well as raw and compelling, as the emotional and psychological layers of main protagonist Yeong-ho are gradually peeled away. In doing so the director intricately examines the notions of contemporary Korean masculinity, yet it is made even more enthralling through the link with defining moments in Korean history. As such, Peppermint Candy is a journey both personal and national, and coupled with the phenomenal performance of Seol Kyeong-gu, is an absolute must-see.

★★★★★

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Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze

The Tower (타워) – ★★★☆☆

The Tower (타워)

The Tower (타워)

Director Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) has a lot riding on disaster film The Tower (타워). His last film, sci-fi monster movie Sector 7, was reviled by critics and audiences alike and became one of the worst flops in Korean cinematic history (although it went on to secure the highest gross for a Korean film in neighbouring China). As such, questions involving his next project The Tower lingered. Had director Kim Ji-hoon managed to develop his visual aesthetics, and more complex characters and plots, into a more convincing, compelling film? The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes and no.

The Tower undoubtedly boasts some of the most impressive visual effects work ever produce within a Korean film, to the extent that it’s comparable with Hollywood productions. The sets and the stunt work are genuinely enthralling, combining to produce edge-of-the-seat sequences that are incredibly engaging and convey a palpable sense of realism and danger. That said, the movie only contains an emotional core due to the performance of Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) as firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi as the vast majority of protagonists are one-dimensional stereotypes, while the actors that portray them overact to an almost ludicrous degree.

It’s Christmas Eve in Seoul, and that means only one thing for the luxurious Sky Tower buildings – an exclusive Christmas party amongst the social elite of the country. Overseeing the operations are operations manager Lee Dae-ho (Kim Sang-kyeong (김상경), and the object of his affections catering manager Seo Yoon-hee (Son Ye-jin (손예진), who become closer as the deadline approaches. As the party grows nearer safety concerns begin to amount, yet are disregarded with plans forced through by the rich and powerful. When helicopters begin to circle the buildings creating a snow effect, the high winds force one of the choppers into a tower causing a fiery explosion and cutting off all exits for the patrons. Springing into action, firefighter Captain Kang Yeong-gi (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구) leads his men, including joker Byeong-man (Kim In-kwon (김인권) and rookie Lee Seon-woo (Do Ji-han (도지한), into the building to hunt for survivors.

One of the towers is set ablaze from a heicopter crash

One of the towers is set ablaze from a helicopter crash

Taking huge reference from 1974’s The Towering Inferno as well as the 9/11 twin tower attacks, director Kim Ji-hoon’s The Tower is an exciting and exhilarating experience. Post-production on the disaster film has taken around two years to complete and it shows; the explosions, destruction, and stunts are convincing throughout as fires rage and people die in tragic and horrifying fashion. The film undoubtedly sets a new standard of quality in Korean cinema for special effects prowess, as helicopters collide, concrete fractures underfoot, and fire engulfs everything in its path. Interestingly, the cause of the disaster is akin to Titanic in that the sheer arrogance of those who dwell in Tower Sky, continually referring to their location as ‘heaven’ and close to God, are conveyed as the symbolic perpetrators of the destruction, adding something of a morality play to the devastation.

Yet the visual aesthetics are nothing without an emotional core, and in this respect The Tower somewhat succeeds. The introduction of the various protagonists working and dwelling within Tower Sky is a highly mixed affair, generally featuring stereotypes. Interesting members such as operations manager Lee Dae-ho and daughter Ha-na, and catering manager Lee Yoon-hee, are compelling but receive little character development due to unimportant tertiary characters entering the narrative that have no real impact. Also, the extreme overacting by most of the cast is an enormous irritation, notably Kim Seong-oh (김성오) as chef In-geon who is intended as comic relief but is infuriating throughout. The saving grace of The Tower comes in the form of firefighter Captain Kang Yeong-ri, who provides much needed heart and soul to the rescue attempt as he gallantly battles blazes, disintegrating floors, and corrupt officials in his single-minded quest to get the survivors to safety. Wonderfully performed by actor Seol Kyeong-gu, the captain’s mission is the driving force of the film and is genuinely enthralling to watch, with his sense of duty and responsibility simultaneously sincere and poignant.

Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze

Firefighter captain Kang Yeong-gi races to battle the blaze

Captain Kang Yeong-ri is also joined by the humorous Byeong-man and newbie Lee Seon-woo in the search for survivors. Byeong-man provides comic relief, generally in the form of silly frivolity, which is mildly amusing in breaking up serious scenes. Lee Seon-woo however is one of the more intriguing characters, as he undergoes a transformation from reluctant rookie to employing skills learnt from Captain Kang, and his development is highly enjoyable. The three fire fighters routinely feature in very impressive stunt work throughout the film, and their successes and failures do not fail to induce an adrenaline rush.

Operations manager Lee Dae-ho also partakes in stunts, as the ‘everyman’ forced to find courage to protect his makeshift family. Such scenes are also entertaining, although they often push the suspense of disbelief to its limits, yet are engaging nonetheless. Unfortunately due to the vast number of supporting roles, Lee Dae-ho’s burgeoning relationship with Seo Yoon-hee is largely overlooked, begging the question why such talented big name stars as Kim Sang-kyeong and Son Ye-jin receive so little screen time. However, despite being underdeveloped their relationship does provide impetus to certain scenes as well as some tender moments.

Those remaining desperately fight for survival

Those remaining desperately fight for survival

Verdict:

The Tower is an extremely visually impressive disaster film, and a return to form for director Kim Ji-hoon. The special effects and stunt work are some of the best ever produced within a Korean film, and certainly on par with Hollywood films of a similar ilk, conveying a genuine sense of danger throughout. That said, the vast number of stereotypical supporting roles bog the story down resulting in an overall lack of character development and audience investment. Lucky then that Seol Kyeong-gu enters the fray as Captain Kang Yeong-ri, who single-handedly lifts the film into a compelling and emotional story, making The Tower an enjoyable entry into the genre.

★★★☆☆

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