Secret Sunshine (밀양) – ★★★★★

Secret Sunshine (밀양)

Secret Sunshine (밀양)

Following her husband’s untimely death, Seoulite Sin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon (전도연) decides to fulfill the late man’s greatest wish by relocating to his hometown of Miryang and raise their son Jun. Initially the countryside town seems an odd place, yet Sin-ae quickly settles in by making acquaintances with overly friendly mechanic Jong-chan (Song Kang-ho (송강호) and setting up a piano academy. The newly single-mum also reveals her intentions to develop an area of land to the residents, and begins scouting with assistance Jong-chan in tow. Yet when a further terrible tragedy occurs, Sin-ae’s very sanity is tested as she struggles to cope in the aftermath. As she turns to any available source to alleviate her trauma, Jong-chan continues to try and help.

Sin-ae and Jun relocate to Miryang and meet friendly mechanic Jong-chan

Sin-ae and Jun relocate to Miryang and meet friendly mechanic Jong-chan

Secret Sunshine is an absolutely exceptional film and a true modern classic of Korean cinema.

Throughout his relatively small but undeniably brilliant filmography, director Lee Chang-dong (이창동) has keenly and insightfully explored a multitude of social discourses that afflict contemporary Korea. With Secret Sunshine the auteur examines the nature of grief and psychological instability following devastating trauma, as well as the ideology of small country towns alongside the devout embrace of religion. It’s extremely weighty material yet director Lee deftly constructs both the narrative and the visual aesthetic with such an assured poetic confidence that the themes combine seamlessly, as well as expressing a level of wisdom and awareness many other filmmakers can only dream of. The result is a drama that is a simultaneously beautiful and incredibly intense viewing experience, one which impresses and inspires on multiple levels with its insightful poignancy, while also exuding a power that resonates long after the credits roll.

The intensity and emotional magnitude of Secret Sunshine ironically lies in the subtle grace within which the story is told. The social-realism director Lee employs is as potent as ever, yet with Secret Sunshine he seems to remove any and all directorial flourishes. The approach is incredibly effective as the absence of dramatic devices allows the story to simply stand on its own merits and forces the audience to engage intellectually, emotionally, and morally with the topics being explored, as well as demand that they draw their own conclusions from the debates put forth. As such the film is a truly immersive experience that is ingenious in its simplicity yet phenomenally affecting.

Following a tragic incident, Sin-ae spirals into grief and despair

Following a tragic incident, Sin-ae spirals into grief and despair

Chiefly, the debates examined in Secret Sunshine are centered around the general negligence involved in suffering, and the role of religion in society. In taking a step away from employing potentially manipulative cinematic devices, director Lee quite naturally allows the issues to expose themselves for the ignorance and hypocrisy inherent within. The manner in which he does so is fascinating, as within the context of Shin-ae’s attempts to reconcile her grief he simply applies the logic of the ideology in question so that it ultimately ridicules itself. For example, Shin-ae’s internal conflict involving the notion of forgiveness is potently used to express the pretense involved in religion and in revealing the nature of grief, as well as articulating the narrow-minded sensibilities of the local community. The remarkable story itself holds the compulsion of debate, and director Lee is masterful in letting it speak volumes.

Yet Secret Sunshine would lack all conviction if not for the exquisite performance of Jeon Do-yeon. Jeon’s breathtaking, captivating turn as the grief-stricken mother earned her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, cementing her position as one of the most highly regarded film talents in Korean cinematic history. It is difficult to overstate just how incredible the performance is, as Jeon’s uncanny ability to inhabit a role rather than act it reaches unbelievable levels of sincerity and poignancy, absolutely deserving every ounce of praise and acclaim. From the moment Secret Sunshine begins it gradually becomes clear that Jeon infuses the character of Sin-ae with psychological instability, with the manner in which she transitions into different realms of neuroses following a series of terrible events a masterclass in acting prowess. Jeon Do-yeon’s performance is so mesmerizing that co-star Song Kang-ho is largely overshadowed, although he also provides a highly compelling role as overly-kind yet somewhat unnerving mechanic Jong-chan.

Sin-ae's fragile psychological disposition leads to looking for the secret in the sunshine

Sin-ae’s fragile psychological disposition leads to looking for the secret in the sunshine

Verdict:

Secret Sunshine is a truly exceptional film and a genuine modern classic of Korean cinema. Auteur Lee Chang-dong is simply remarkable in crafting the insightful story of grief, removing directorial flourishes to allow the incredible story to present debates on its own merits and forcing audience engagement with difficult material. Featuring an exquisite performance by Jeon Do-yeon, who took the top prize at Cannes for her role, Secret Sunshine is a phenomenal drama that every film fan should see.

★★★★★

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The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계) – ★★★☆☆

The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계)

The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계)

Kang In-gu (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is far from the average gangster. While he joins his compatriots in the Dog Gang as they partake in criminal activities and expand their territory, In-gu also wants the joy of having a typical family. Yet his long-suffering wife (Park Ji-young (박지영) and daughter (Kim So-eun (김소은) are deeply ashamed of his occupation, with In-gu’s efforts to impress them and earn their respect constantly failing. Thankfully, due to a great deal secured by In-gu, he can finally quit the gangster lifestyle and focus on creating the perfect home in the suburbs. Yet when the ambitious younger brother (Yoon Je-moon (윤제문) of the big boss (Choi Il-hwa (최일화) makes a play for power, In-gu’s dreams quickly begin to unravel.

In-gu's attempts to have a career as a gangster as well as a family strain his relationships

In-gu’s attempts to have a career as a gangster as well as a family strain his relationships

The Show Must Go On is a unique gangster tale in that director Han Jae-rim does away with the overt machismo and glamourisation of the underworld lifestyle, presenting a more grounded and comedic interpretation of the genre. Crime comedies have become somewhat of a staple in Korean cinema with the Marrying the Mafia and My Wife is a Gangster series, but what sets The Show Must Go On apart from its peers is that overt humour is jettisoned in favour of irony and satire. The original Korean title translates as ‘Elegant World‘ yet In-gu’s life is revealed as anything but, as he works hard in absurd situations in order to provide for his family but succeeds only in upsetting them further. When his daughter’s grades slip, for example, In-gu attempts to bribe the concerned teacher with vouchers incurring greater animosity from the family. In his role as senior gangster, In-gu is forced to wrestle with a short middle-aged man and bite his fingers in order to acquire prints for a contract. It is through such ironic moments that director Han pokes fun at both the lifestyle and the genre, resulting in a film with a distinct identity.

That said, the humour within the crime-comedy-drama misses more often than it hits. While director Han competently helms the action and creates certain confrontations that raise a smile, others mostly just fall flat and give way to violent conflict, dramatic scenes, or a combination of the two. As such the tone within The Show Must Go On veers uncontrollably throughout the narrative and is incredibly uneven from beginning to end. Certain set-pieces – such as a battle royale between gangsters and striking construction workers, presented as comedic through the overtly feminine fighting styles of the supposedly tough criminals – make light of keen social problems which tends to seem in bad taste. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-soo is employed to help bring a greater element of fun as In-gu’s best friend from a rival gang, however his paltry screen-time unfortunately allows him little room to maneuver.

In-gu and best friend Hyun-soo joke around in one of the film's lighter moments

In-gu and best friend Hyun-soo joke around in one of the film’s lighter moments

The uneven tonal balance extends to The Show Must Go On’s weak final act, where the film disappointingly falls into repetition and melodrama. At 112 minutes the film doesn’t have a particularly long running time yet due to the imbalances and protracted finale, tedium sets in ultimately resulting in a film which feels overly long.

What makes The Show Must Go On watchable and entertaining is the highly charismatic performance of Song Kang-ho, who carries the entire film on his talented shoulders. The star has made a career out of playing incredibly likable, bumbling, well-intentioned fools and he channels such prowess brilliantly into the character of In-gu. Song also manages to construct the protagonist as so appealing that a great deal of sympathy is almost demanded from the audience, despite In-gu’s status in the criminal underworld. The actor conveys the gangster first and foremost as a sensitive husband and father, desperate to do right by them yet as he is his own worst enemy, he simply creates further embarrassment and tension. In removing the overt machismo and swagger so often associated with the genre and constructing In-gu as a character with more diversity and depth, Song has taken a highly uneven script and made it an engaging drama.

In-gu is violent when necessary but first and foremost is a family man

In-gu is violent when necessary but first and foremost is a family man

Verdict:

The Show Must Go On is a unique offering by director Han Jae-rim, who seeks to construct a gangster comedy with ironic and satirical sensibilities. The result is very hit-and-miss with a tone that is generally all over the place, despite the competent directing on display. The film is saved however by Song Kang-ho’s wonderful performance as a sensitive father/criminal, and fans of the actor will no doubt find much to enjoy.

★★★☆☆

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Woo-seok blasts Chun Doo-hwan's regime in an explosive court room battle

The Attorney (변호인) – ★★★★☆

The Attorney (변호인)

The Attorney (변호인)

Gathering over 11 million admissions during its cinematic run, director Yang Woo-seok’s (양우석) highly impressive courtroom drama The Attorney (변호인) has certainly struck a chord with Korean audiences. Inspired by the early years of former president Roh Moo-hyun, the film explores the anti-communist witch hunts and suppression of human rights that targeted students during dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s regime. The Attorney has clearly struck a nerve with film-goers, many of whom were alive – and victimized – during the persecutions, and with regular protests held regarding current President Park-hye’s administration the film is timely indeed.

The Attorney is an incredibly powerful film and a stunning debut for first-time writer/director Yang Woo-seok. The pacing and structure is wonderfully constructed as the underlying messages within are gradually introduced and explored through the central protagonists. The tendency to delve into melodrama is luckily side-stepped and the film is all the stronger for it, with actor Song Kang-ho providing a phenomenal performance that cannot fail to incite emotional resonance within audiences, Korean or otherwise.

Song Woo-seok is very successful is he embarks on his quest to be a top attorney

Song Woo-seok is very successful is he embarks on his quest to be a top attorney

During the early 1980s, attorney Song Woo-seok (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is continually ridiculed by his peers for only graduating high school, yet they are soon embarrassed when Song’s ambition and drive to succeed places him as one of the top lawyers in Busan. As his business is on the verge of expanding, a friend’s son is mysteriously kidnapped by the military authorities. Agreeing to take on the case at great personal risk to himself and his family, Song begins to investigate the human rights abuses perpetrated by Chun Doo-hwan’s regime, leading to an explosive courtroom battle.

The Attorney would be a great accomplishment for any filmmaker, yet as director Yang Woo-seok’s first film it is an incredible achievement. The skill with which he guides the story in no way conveys his novice status, as the pacing of the story and wonderfully fluid camerawork expertly absorbs the audience within the film. Furthermore director Yang’s subtle use of colours is continually highly effective, from the warm hues of the family homestead to the washed-out palette used for scenes of torture. The impressive technical prowess is bolstered by a very well written and extremely well paced script, one that subtly guides the audience through the issues of 1980s Korea (and more specifically, Busan) by way of the struggles of attorney Song Woo-seok. While the film is concerned with human rights abuses, such scenes are only introduced after considerable time has been spent constructing the protagonists, heightening the impact of events significantly. As such it is impossible not to invest in Song’s plight, and the approximately two hour running time simply flies by.

Woo-weok is shocked to discover Jin-woo has been tortured and vows to defend him

Woo-seok is shocked to discover Jin-woo has been tortured and vows to defend him

It is impossible to discuss The Attorney without mentioning Song Kang-ho’s electric performance. Song has a remarkable gift for making his characters likeable and relatable and as the titular lawyer, he consistently conveys a man of dignity who strives for better for himself and his family. Song infuses the role with morality and determination to succeed in conjunction with a comic humility that is ever-endearing, from the rags-to-riches story of his early years through to his successes as a top attorney in Busan. As such, his outrage at the incarceration and torture that transpires is truly palpable while his battle against the insurmountable odds is poignant and inspiring.

Song Kang-ho is also supported by a great cast including the ever-reliable Oh Dal-su – once again in a comic sidekick role – as well as Kim Yeong-ae as a humble restaurant owner. Kim’s performance in particular is incredibly moving following her son’s disappearance, restraining her desperation perfectly as to not step into the realm of melodrama. Kwak Do-won steps into his villainous role with great aplomb as the wonderfully vile as the chief anti-communist torturer. His arrogance and disdain for any who criticise Chun’s military regime makes him the perfect love-to-hate scoundrel, yet the basis on real life events grants a potency that cannot fail to instill anger.

While powerfully moving, The Attorney does have issues. Ironically while the film itself is based on Roh Moo-hyun’s life, the change of name for the lead role insinuates that censorship and freedom of expression are still under threat in contemporary Korea. The torture sequences, so expertly achieved in director Chung Ji-young’s National Security, don’t contain the same gravitas as to convey the horrors of Chun’s regime and what’s at stake in Song’s/Roh’s crusade against injustice. These are small points, yet ones that make  The Attorney just shy of greatness.

Woo-seok blasts Chun Doo-hwan's regime in an explosive court room battle

Woo-seok blasts Chun Doo-hwan’s regime in an explosive court room battle

Based on the early years of former president Roh Moo-hyun, The Attorney (변호인) is a powerful and utterly absorbing court room drama. Director Yang Woo-seok’s debut is wonderfully structured and character-centered, with the exploration of human rights abuses during the Chun Doo-hwan regime naturally emerging through the story that unfolds. Featuring a brilliant performance by Song Kang-ho as the titular lawyer, The Attorney is a timely and poignant film that cannot fail to incite emotional resonance.

★★★★☆

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Eun-yeong and Sang-gil track down the perpetrator

Howling (하울링) – ★★★☆☆

Howling (하울링)

Howling (하울링)

Feminism and misogyny are problematic concepts in Korean cinema. While contemporary output is slowly starting to reflect the complex roles inhabited by women in Korean society, the male-dominated industry often submerges female narrative arcs within the central hero’s quest. As such, women’s issues tend to be explored through art-house and independent films such as the works of Lee Chang-dong, Im Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk, yet these productions can also be problematic either for portraying women’s issues from a male perspective, or for their limited domestic release. When a mainstream film attempts such endeavors, as with rom-com You’re My Pet (너는 펫), the results can be quite extreme.

Howling (하울링), from director Yoo Ha (유하), is promoted as a taut thriller involving the curious mix of spontaneous combustion and a killer wolf in a spate of homicides. Yet it is surprisingly primarily an examination of the difficulties faced – and endured – by women in the workplace. Yoo Ha is clearly more invested in this theme than the various disparate narrative strands, strands which never convincingly coalesce into a satisfactory whole making Howling an interesting yet disappointing thriller.

Jo Sang-gil (Song Kang-ho (송강호) is called to the scene of a bizarre crime in which the victim seemingly died from spontaneous combustion. However, the presence of a wolf, stated from the testimony of a nearby drunkard, adds a complicated twist to the  homicide. Reluctant to take the case yet desperate for promotion, Sang-gil begins to investigate with rookie cop Cha Eun-yeong  (Lee Na-young (이나영), a partner he makes clear he neither wants or needs thus forging an antagonistic relationship. However, as savagely mauled bodies begin to appear, it becomes apparent this is no simple investigation and the hunt for the wolf is on. Sang-gil’s selfish motivations threaten to jeopardize the entire case while Eun-yeong’s by-the-book professionalism may well be the key to unlocking it. While Sang-gil attempts to overcome domestic issues and Eun-yeong the rampant misogyny within the police force, the two cops must set aside their differences to solve the mystery of the wolf murders.

Sang-gil and rookie Eun-yeong reluctantly investigate together

Sang-gil and rookie Eun-yeong reluctantly investigate together

Howling opens as thoroughly standard fare with an unexplained death with hints of foul play, the rugged results-at-any-cost cop put on the case, and his forced partnership with an idealistic rookie which creates tension. However the film begins to excel when such American TV cop drama tropes are eschewed, and greater focus is bestowed upon the central pair and how they are forged within the Korea cultural system. For Sang-gil, as a single father of two attempting – and failing – to provide and take care of his family, his flaws are readily apparent. Continually passed over for promotion and mocked by co-workers, Sang-gil works hard on the case yet selfishly keeps the vital information to himself in an effort to obtain praise, and advance in the force. While the tough cop is very much to blame for the debacles that ensue, director Yoo Ha conveys him as a sympathetic protagonist while portraying the real enemy as the ‘points system’ in place within the police force as a means for establishing assessment. However, Howling is in fact Eun-yeong’s story. As an intelligent, ambitious, and diligent woman Eun-yeong possesses all the skills necessary to become a high-ranking detective. Yet from the outset her male colleagues think quite differently, ordering her to clean and arrange files, make crude jokes about her sexuality and relationships with others, as well as making sexual advances. The sequences in which Eun-yeong is forced to endure such torments are simultaneously chilling and infuriating, as the director meticulously composes tense, powerful scenes that emphasize her secondary status. As such, Howling is an incredible exploration of the role of women in the workplace in contemporary Korea.

The wolf goes on the prowl on the streets of Seoul

The wolf goes on the prowl on the streets of Seoul

Yet as Eun-yeong’s trials take center stage within the narrative, the importance of the murders themselves dissipates. The homicides are generally quite farcical, from a bizarre instance of spontaneous combustion to the killer wolf stalking the streets of Seoul for victims. This is unfortunate as while these devices are somewhat trite the motivations behind the deaths are quite striking and provide another instance of keen social commentary. The importance of the examination is lost, or rather subsumed, beneath the various sub-plots and red-herrings intended to add mystery to the narrative, while the unbalanced focus bestowed upon the misogyny within the police force also detracts from any shocks. Interestingly, scenes in which Eun-yeong endures tirades of abuse carry much more potency and impetus than the murders, highlighting the director’s clear area of investment. Director Yo Ha has simply attempted to achieve too much within the running time, and as such each narrative strand suffers and doesn’t manage to coalesce or wrap up threads convincingly. Ultimately it is Eun-yeong’s story, rather than the killer wolf, that takes priority and Lee Na-young performs the role incredibly well simultaneously conveying tenacity and victimization with skill. Song Kang-ho, meanwhile, gives a solid rendition of a faulty cop yet he is never really stretched as in his prior films. As such, Howling is very much a thriller about the abuse of women in contemporary Korea first, and a murder mystery second.

Eun-yeong and Sang-gil track down the perpetrator

Eun-yeong and Sang-gil track down the perpetrator

Verdict:

Howling is an interesting thriller, one that attempts to blend an array of socio-cultural critiques alongside traditional cop fare with spontaneous combustion and a killer wolf thrown in for good measure. Director Yo Ha never manages to converge all the disparate threads into a satisfactory whole, but he excels in conveying the misogyny endured by women in contemporary Korea, with some riveting scenes and a great performance by Lee Na-young.

★★★☆☆

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Sistar performed some of their hits and dance routines to an adoring crowd

The 17th Busan International Film Festival

BIFF 2012 at Haeundae (해운대) Beach

BIFF 2012 at Haeundae (해운대) Beach

While most film festivals promote themselves as bigger and better every year, the 17th installment of the Busan International Film Festival is certainly living up to the hype. With the first non-Korean hosting the opening ceremony in the form of Chinese actress Tang Wei, with the festival spread out across 10 days (as opposed to 9 in 2011), and with 132 world and international premieres, BIFF 2012 has done an incredible job in cementing itself as one of the key film festivals throughout Asia. The popularity of this years installment is acutely visible, as online tickets sold out rapidly whilst the 20% allocation at the event disappeared by mid-morning.

There were a lot of events to be had during the opening weekend of BIFF 2012. While Haeundae Beach was the host for several interviews and performances, the screenings themselves also often sported Q & A sessions with directors, producers and/or the stars themselves to an unprecedented degree in BIFF’s history. It was also common to walk into or past coffee shops and see film-makers meeting and conversing, creating a very relaxed atmosphere with their approachable demeanor.

On Friday the 5th, a private party was held for those that work within the film industry as well as journalists, while the cast of Kim Ki-duk‘s latest feature, the incredibly successful Pieta (피에타), were also in attendance.

Actress Jo Yeo-jeong co-hosts the Lotte Red Secret Party

Actress Jo Yeo-jeong co-hosts the Lotte Red Secret Party

Saturday the 6th saw two events take place. The Lotte Night Party – Red Secret was hosted by The Servant (방자전) actress Jo Yeo-Jeong and gave awards to those who had contributed significantly over the past year. Among those receiving awards were notable screenwriters and actors, including host Jo Yeo-Jeong and A Muse (은교) actress Kim Go-eun (김고은). Also in attendance were actor/director Yoo Ji-tae (유지태) and his wife, as well as Ahn Seong-gi (안성기), and former BIFF director Kim Dong-ho (김동호). Yet the most memorable event at the Red Secret party was the arrival of now-global-megastar Psy, who performed several of his hits as well as the groundbreaking Gangnam Style to a rapturous crowd.

Psy performs for the emphatic crowd

Psy performs for the emphatic crowd

The second party of the night was held by CJ Entertainment, and the style was markedly different.

Sistar performed some of their hits and dance routines to an adoring crowd

Sistar performed some of their hits and dance routines to an adoring crowd

In terms of performers parody group The Wonderboys were amazing fun as well as providing some great music to warm up the crowd for the main act – Kpop superstars Sistar. The quartet sang some of their most famous hits accompanied by their signature dance moves that had the crowd chanting their names. In attendance were a variety of people involved in the film industry including REALies president Kim Ho-seong and renowned editor Lee Sang-min. There were also a whole host of film and television stars, including the cast of period drama-comedy Masquerade (광해, 왕이 된 남자) – Lee Byeong-heon (이병헌), Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and Jang Gwang (장광) – as well as TV star Kim Min-jong (김민종) and As One (코리아 ) actor Lee Jong-suk (이종석).

Actress Go A-ra was a delight

Actress Go A-ra was a delight

However a genuine highlight of the night was actress Go Ah-ra (고아라) (star of Pacemaker (페이스메이커) and Papa (파파)), who was incredibly kind, courteous and humble, giving genuine insight into the differences in working in the Korean film and television industries.

Sunday night saw the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) event, which saw fellow The Good, The Bad, The Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈) actors Song Kang-ho (송강호) and Jeong Woo-seong (정우성) attending, in addition to a myriad of other stars and members of the film industry.

And so ended the first weekend of the 2012 Busan International Film Festival. With the incredible selection of films, variety of events in which the public could have access to members of the film industry, and unprecedented popularity, it is difficult to imagine how BIFF will grow and improve in with future installments but one thing is for certain – the BIFF team will undoubtedly find a way.

Festival News Festivals 2012
Doo-heon is drawn back to the syndicate through his best friend's death

Hindsight (푸른 소금) – ★★★☆☆

Hindsight (푸른 소금)

Hindsight (푸른 소금)

Gangsters attempting to retire from a life of organised crime is an oft-explored subject within the gangster genre. Leaving the syndicate prompts an array of scenarios. Is it possible to live a ‘normal’ non-violent life? Can the vacuum of power be fulfilled without anarchy? Perhaps most importantly, can the organisation allow the risk of a member, who is privy to countless illegal activities, to live?

Hindsight (푸른 소금) attempts to address such hypothetical questions as second-in-command Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho (송강호) retires from the syndicate he co-founded to open a restaurant. While the premise has potential and action sequences convey directorial flair, the cliches, absence of identity and lack of narrative cohesion make Hindsight quite a disappointment.

Doo-heon (Song Kang-ho) lives in the laid-back port city of Busan, studying the culinary arts in order to open his own restaurant. He retired from a Seoul criminal syndicate he co-founded years earlier, turning his back on his former violent lifestyle yet is still friendly with members of the organisation. Doo-heon’s new carefree life has led to forging a friendship with a fellow student in his cooking class, a young and feisty woman named Se-bin (Sin Se-kyeong (신세경), who often jokingly chastises him for his poor abilities in the kitchen. However things change when word of his best friend, and head of the criminal empire, dies in an accident. As the former second-in-command Doo-heon can lead the syndicate, yet other mob bosses have other ideas and order their mole – Se-bin – to kill Doo-heon.

Doo-heon and Se-bin become close during their culinary class

Doo-heon and Se-bin become close during their culinary class

Hindsight‘s real title ‘푸른 소금’ directly translates as ‘blue salt’, both of which are continually referenced through the film. Blue filters and metallic mise-en-scene are often employed by director Lee Hyeon-seung (이현승), conveying the cold and harsh, yet futuristic and stylish, lifestyle of gangster Doo-yeon and his associates. It is through such scenes that Lee Hyeon-seung excels, conveying the isolated sophistication with confidence and the action sequences with real skill. His vision in the final confrontation is also of note, employing blue filters to a stand-off in a field of rice paddies that is visually impressive.

Where Hindsight falters is through ‘salt’, a device so overused that it quickly becomes tiresome and is symbolic of the abundance of cliches and narrative shortcomings. Salt is constantly employed in an unsubtle fashion in order to develop the relationship between Doo-heon and Se-bin, but the references are often inorganic and highlight the artificiality of the plot device. When Se-bin constructs ‘salt bullets’ for her targets the predictability becomes painfully clear while a leap in the suspension of disbelief is required for the narrative to remain logical and enjoyable. This unfortunately also applies to the narrative as a whole which contains vast plot holes, thoughtless characterization, and a lack of synergy between the disparate parts. While the amalgamation of different genres is one of the highly entertaining features of Korean cinema, in Hindsight it serves to remove any sense of identity and narrative cohesion. When the gangsters search for Doo-hyeon – an easy task considering he stays within his apartment – any sense of threat posed by the assassins is destroyed by the overly-long focus on his relationship with Se-bin. When Se-bin’s dual identity is revealed, a bizarre MTV style montage of her dancing with a friend appears rendering the drama moot. Director/screenwriter Lee Hyeon-seung seemingly can’t decide if Hindsight is a gangster film or a love story, with the rigid narrative framework and lack of editing between the two worlds also largely responsible for halting the suture between them.

Doo-heon is drawn back to the syndicate through his best friend's death

Doo-heon is drawn back to the syndicate through his best friend’s death

Characterization and performance are further issues within Hindsight. Much has been said regarding Sin Se-kyeong’s acting skills, with critics claiming she ‘holds her own’ against screen legend Song Kang-ho. While she certainly gives a competent performance, Hindsight is very far from Song Kang-ho at his best. His character schizophrenically flits from overly kind middle-aged man to psychotic maniac, further adding to the lack of cohesion between the romantic and gangster genres within. To his credit Song Kang-ho is charismatic in both capacities, which unfortunately emphasizes the wasted potential of the premise. Sin Se-kyeong has similar problems portraying Se-bin, a cliched female protagonist who is stereotypically beautiful-yet-damaged, one minute stone-cold killer and the next sweet and innocent. Despite this, she performs the role ably.

The same cannot be said for the array of gangsters, all of whom are woefully underdeveloped. In addition to the overabundance of criminals, they are also subjected to a disproportionate amount of screen time compared to Doo-heon and Se-bin equating to a severe absence of threat and drama with the various betrayals and murders that ensue.

Se-bin is ordered to kill Doo-heon

Se-bin is ordered to kill Doo-heon

Verdict:

Hindsight (푸른 소금) is a problematic entry into the gangster genre due to the lack of cohesion between the disparate genres in conjunction with simplified and underdeveloped characterization. As such the film’s identity and the narrative direction are often highly ambiguous, despite the competent direction particularly in regard to the action sequences, that make Hindsight an occasionally stimulating but rather flawed addition.

★★★☆☆

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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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