Possessed (불신지옥) – ★★★☆☆

Possessed (불신지옥)

Possessed (불신지옥)

Living in Seoul is a tough existence for Hee-jin (Nam Sang-mi (남상미). Studying for exams during the day while moonlighting at night as a personal tutor and convenience store clerk, Hee-jin’s health is beginning to suffer from a combination of stress and exhaustion. Her usual routine is disturbed one night when younger sister So-jin (Sim Eun-kyeong (심은경) abruptly calls and leaves a mysterious message…however the next morning when Hee-jin’s mother (Kim Bo-yeon (김보연) informs her that So-jin is missing, she becomes worried and decides to return home to help with the search. Teaming with detective Tae-hwan (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡), the duo begin to notice strange machinations and events occurring at the apartment complex, yet So-jin is still nowhere to be found.

Hee-jin feels something is terribly wrong in the apartment complex

Hee-jin feels something is terribly wrong in the apartment complex

An impressive addition to the K-horror canon, Possessed – as known as Living Death – is a pertinent example of eerily-effective and scarily-suspenseful storytelling on a tight budget. Director Lee Yong-joo’s debut is a potent mix of the horrors of religious fervour and taught claustrophobic locations that, while lacking in terms of character development and resolutions, is an accomplished chiller.

Proving that large budgets aren’t necessary to create unsettling tension and scares, director Lee instead relies on generating fear through the claustrophobic environs of a dilapidated apartment block to great effect throughout Possessed. The methods in which he produces moments of terror by exploiting the narrow confines of rooms and hallways, in conjunction with unnerving close-ups and chiaroscuro lighting, makes the film consistently disturbing and serves to make Hee-jin’s search for her missing sister all the more compelling. Thankfully, director Lee rarely employs cheap ‘jump’ scares to frighten his audience, generally taking his time to develop a sense of foreboding so that the sense of dread resonates throughout.

Hee-jin enlists the help of cynical detective Tae-hwan

Hee-jin enlists the help of cynical detective Tae-hwan

Possessed is also memorable for its chief source of horror – religious fervour. As Hee-ji and obstinate detective Tae-hwan begin to search for So-jin, they uncover an array of eccentric residents within the apartment complex each with their own odd peculiarities and ties to the missing girl. The narrative potently examines how folk who have endured difficulties turn to religious ideologies with frightening levels of enthusiasm, and the clues uncovered reveal a number of potential suspects in the case that adds greatly to the suspense.

Yet the horror film is not without issues, particularly in regards to character development and resolution which are generally lacking. This is acutely the case with Hee-jin who, aside from the fact her younger sister is missing, has very little of her life revealed. Hints are laced though the film that she has supernatural gifts although such themes frustratingly go unresolved. Actress Nam Sang-mi however gives a great performance in the role and generates enough likeable charm that it’s impossible not to invest in her story. Other resolutions, such as the apparent ‘possession,’ present certain motifs such as the elegant crane yet answers are in short supply, while the film ironically ultimately ties up all loose ends far too neatly in order to adhere to a generically satisfactory finale.

Flashbacks shed light on So-jin's mysterious disappearance

Flashbacks shed light on So-jin’s mysterious disappearance

Verdict:

Possessed is an impressive K-horror by debut director Lee Yong-joo, who uses his tight budget highly effectively to craft a suspense-filled tale of intrigue about a missing girl. Employing claustrophobic environs and a story that examines the frightening religious fervour within communities, Possessed is – lack of character development and resolutions notwithstanding – a chilling delight.

★★★☆☆

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Mal-soon embraces her youth as Doo-ri, and lots of body comedy ensues

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀) – ★★★☆☆

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀)

With the Lunar New Year approaching, comedy Miss Granny (수상한 그녀) attempts to take advantage of the holiday season by poking fun at the modern Korean family unit. Occasionally uplifting and humourous  yet very much by the numbers, Miss Granny attempts to appeal to the broadest possible audience and as such combines a host of genres and cliches throughout its predictable narrative. Surprisingly however it all gels together quite well and, thanks largely to actress Sim Eun-kyeong, Miss Granny is light-hearted and mildly entertaining throughout.

Cantankerous granny Oh Mal-soon (Nah Moon-hee (나문희)) is an extremely stubborn and strong-willed old lady, still managing to get involved in fights despite her age. Yet the stress Mal-soon invokes upon her family puts her long-suffering daughter-in-law in hospital, and discussions arise as to whether a care home would be the best course of action. Depressed, Mal-soon visits a photography studio in an attempt to feel younger, but upon leaving the store she discovers she has miraculously de-aged. Taking on the new name of Oh Doo-ri (Sim Eun-kyeong (심은경)), Mal-soon runs away from home and begins to establish herself as a singer while her family and friends frantically search for the missing pensioner.

Strong-willed Mal-soon works in a coffee shop where she still gets in trouble

Strong-willed Mal-soon works in a coffee shop where she still gets in trouble

Miss Granny has been written very much for Korean audiences, and the comedy derives from sending up stereotypes associated with the elderly within the country. As the jokes are so culturally specific, Koreans (arguably together with Chinese and Japanese audiences) as well as those familiar with Korean culture will find the jokes quite amusing, but for others the humour could well be lost on them as Mal-soon blusters her way through a variety of comical situations.

The strength of the film lies in the tongue-in-cheek fashion of poking fun of the elderly. Korean grandmothers are well-known for their incredibly strong characters and straight-talking approach and director Hwang Dong-hyeok (황동혁) does well in creating laughs without being detrimental towards his central characters. The real comedy comes after the transformation however, as the 20 year old Oh Doo-ri continues to use her dominating personality when, according to Korean culture, younger generations should be much more humble. Scenes in which Doo-ri scolds a mother for having poor breast milk and talks opening about sexual matters are entertaining as she boldly confronts modern life. As these examples indicate, Miss Granny fully embraces slapstick and body-comedy for laughs, and fans of this style will find much to enjoy.

Mal-soon embraces her youth as Doo-ri, and lots of body comedy ensues

Mal-soon embraces her youth as Doo-ri, and lots of body comedy ensues

 However, Miss Granny recycles everything audiences have seen dozens of times before. The film is incredibly similar to 200 Pounds Beauty – simply exchanging ‘obese’ with ‘elderly’ – with the cliches and predictability creating a simple and mild slice of entertainment. In doing so the story has mixed messages as it seeks to bypass elderly and female stereotypes yet wholly conforms to them, while the issues regarding what exactly is age-appropriate gets lost along the way. Furthermore, the use of the musical reality TV show as a way for the characters to achieve fame and find passion is ridiculously tiresome at this stage, and  doesn’t really add to the underlying theme as it did with 200 Pounds Beauty.

The attempt to keep the comedy rolling also highlights the haphazard structure within the film, as Miss Granny generally moves from set piece to set piece, most jarringly when everyone suddenly appears in a water park for no apparent reason. Indeed, so many set-pieces, locations and supporting characters are juggled to mine as much out of the fantastical situation that the running time reaches roughly two hours, which is far far too long. Ironically however the best laugh is saved until last, which film and TV fans will undoubtedly enjoy.

As is often the case with Korean comedies such as these, Miss Granny employs a healthy dose of melodrama in attempting to entice audiences of all ages. Interestingly it works quite well within the context of the story, as montages of Mal-soon’s extremely difficulty life conveys not only Korea’s troubled past but also explains why the elderly are often so cantankerous. These scenes are unfortunately fleeting but poignant while they last.

Set pieces, such as a visit to a water park, provide laughs

Set pieces, such as a visit to a water park, provide laughs

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀) is a light-hearted and mild family comedy, one which pokes fun at the elderly in Korea in a fun, tongue-in-cheek fashion. Ultimately enjoyment of the film will depend on audience knowledge and experience of the elderly in Korea, as the humour mainly derives from stereotypes, slapstick and body comedy. The story is incredibly cliched and predictable although it gels together well, while the additional melodrama is fleeting but poignant while it lasts. 

★★★☆☆

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The girls become close friends through song, dance and school life

Sunny (써니) (2011) – ★★★★☆

Sunny (써니)

Sunny (써니)

Sunny (써니) is labelled as a ‘coming of age’ film, which is slightly misleading; in actual fact, it’s a ‘coming of ages’ film, and one of the best examples of the subgenre.

Na-mi (Yoo Ho-jeong (유호정) is a 40-something housewife whose identity has become lost in the daily routines of domesticity. Her husband generally ignores her and shows no affection; her daughter is spoiled and doesn’t communicate. Na-mi’s life revolves around performing chores and familial duties within the sexist patriarchal framework to which she has become accustomed. What sounds like the basis for an intense drama is comedically interrogated by writer/director Kang Hyeong-cheol (강형철), who incessantly ridicules such archaic sensibilities in both overt and subtle ways.

As both her husband and daughter refuse to acknowledge their sick mother-in-law/grandmother, Na-mi visits the hospital alone. There the comedy begins, as the intricacies of relationships are picked apart. Na-mi’s husband receives all the credit for her hard work; star-crossed lovers on a TV drama are revealed as siblings; and Na-mi’s mother reminds her daughter that she was very difficult to raise.

Walking through the ward, Na-mi accidently meets old school friend Choon-hwa (Jin Hee-kyeong (진희경), who now suffers with cancer. As the two catch-up on old times, a plot is hatched – to reunite their group of friends before Choon-hwa’s time is up. Sunny then becomes a film of two stories; Na-mi as a child and the difficulties of starting school and making new friends, and adult Na-mi as she reunifies her friends after years of separation. Director Kang Hyeong-cheol (강형철) expertly handles each narrative and interlinks them so well that the film flows with ease. Just as young Na-mi meets friends and discovers her identity, so too does her adult counterpart whose identity must be rediscovered. This leads to some incredibly funny and touching moments, such as when young Na-mi’s lateness is contrasted with her adult-self constantly chastises her daughter for the same thing. Also young Na-mi complains she doesn’t have ‘cool’ clothes like her friends, while in adulthood she tries on her daughter’s school uniform only to be caught red-handed.

Na-mi must find her old friends, and in the process rediscover herself

Na-mi must find her old friends, and in the process rediscover herself

The journey of meeting new friends is joyous to see unfold. Young Jang-mi (Go Soo-hee (고수희) is a large girl desperate for surgery and loves fake eyelashes; young Jin-hee (Hong Jin-hee (홍진희) has the filthiest mouth in town; young Geum-ok (Nam Bo-ra (남보라) has dreams of becoming an author; young Bok-hee (Kim Bo-mi-I (김보미) plans to be the next Miss Korea; pretty Su-ji (Min Hyo-rin (민효린) is quiet and intense; and leader young Choon-hwa (Kang So-ra (강소라) is the powerful authority figure. The trials and tribulations that bring these characters together and bind them is a nostalgic love letter to the teenage years and to the 1960s. A political context is also comedically interrogated, as the group of girls (now called ‘Sunny’) face off against a rival group, as too do protestors and government forces in the same area. While the girls slap and pull hair, the moves are mirrored in the violent protest and pokes fun at power struggles at all levels. It’s also the music and dance of the era that brings the girls together, providing a great soundtrack to the coming-of-adolescent-age segment.

The girls become close friends through song, dance and school life

The girls become close friends through song, dance and school life

However, rediscovering Na-mi’s friends is equally as humorous and poignant. For some, life has been kind; for others, radically different from the plans they had as youths. For them all life is not what they had hoped for and their personalities changed accordingly, yet as they are gradually reunited they inspire each other to remember the hopes and dreams they once had. If that sounds sentimental, then that’s because it is as Sunny combines comedy and melodrama to great effect. The poignancy of rediscovering an old friend whose tumultuous life has resulted in hardship is intertwined with tongue-in-cheek humour that helps the protagonists to initiate change, and to remember the importance of friendship.

The women reunite and rediscover themselves

The women reunite and rediscover themselves

Verdict:

Sunny is certainly a ‘feel-good’ film that does a wonderful job of employing the nostalgia of the ’60s to help the characters grow in the present. It is also incredibly refreshing to see a film that portrays women so vibrantly. The tendency of portraying women as purely love interests or kick-ass chicks is completely jettisoned, allowing the actresses to simply be women in the contemporary world, which they clearly relish. In fact, there are very few male roles in the film and those that are are a far cry from the ideal man. This again helps to bolster the woman as they are not restricted by archaic notions of housewife/mother stereotypes, and can fully express themselves to the point that by the end of the film, they have all recaptured their true personalities. As Sunny is such a fun and sentimental film it cannot be as critical and insightful as other dramatic examples, such as Girl, Interrupted (1999), are. But then, Sunny doesn’t need to be as it’s such a funny, moving, uplifting and charming film in its own right.

★★★★☆

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