A Girl at My Door (도희야) – ★★★★☆

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

A Girl at My Door (도희야)

Forced to relocate in the countryside due to an undisclosed issue in the city, police officer Yeong-nam (Bae Doo-na (배두나) prepares herself for a year of exile. Despite being one of the youngest adults in the city Yeong-nam is appointed chief of police, and in getting to know her new surroundings she is quickly exposed to the middle-aged, laid back way of life, as well as the migrant workers who help keep the town alive through manual labour. Yet no sooner as she attempts to settle, Yeong-nam is confronted with horrific child abuse against her young neighbour Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron (김새론) by her father Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok (송새벽) and grandmother (Kim Jin-goo (김진구). To protect Do-hee from further domestic abuse Yeong-nam takes the child under her care, just as her past begins to catch up with her.

Do-hee is a victim of terrible domestic abuse in the country town

A victim of terrible abuse, Do-hee is a social outcast in need of protection

A Girl at My Door (도희야) is a simply phenomenal debut by writer/director July Jung (Jeong Joo-ri (정주리). Director Jung’s film is a powerful and intelligent exploration of discrimination and violence in Korean culture with a uniquely feminist spin that is all too rare in the industry. The approach taken in exploring such social issues is reminiscent of cinema legend Lee Chang-dong‘s work, particularly Poetry, which more than likely explains his decision to take a producer credit on the film. A Girl at My Door differentiates itself from director Lee’s work however in that director Jung’s layered script not only employs a multitude of perspectives in interrogating discrimination, but also in that she keenly conveys the ironies of Korean culture, particularly in regard to pretense. Central protagonist Yeong-nam projects a strong and stoic image as the chief of police, concealing her fraught complexity in regards to her history, emotional state, and very identity. Her dependancy on soju, which she conceals in water bottles, adds potent irony to an already paradoxical situation as she hides her addiction from those around her in a bid to remain a socially acceptable image. Director Jung captures moments such as these with incredible prowess conveying them in ways both subtle and obvious, balancing her character study with a skill belying her experience.

Yet where director Jung truly excels is through the relationship that develops between Yeong-nam and abuse victim Doo-hee. This is in no small part due to the astounding performances of both Bae Doo-na and, particularly, Kim Sae-ron. Bae Doo-na is constantly captivating as the police chief as she wrestles her internal conflicts, conveying a cold stoicism when in the presence of others yet a subtle fragility when alone. Yet it is youngster Kim Sae-ron who steals the limelight with her astonishing turn as social outcast Do-hee. Her range throughout A Girl at My Door is staggeringly impressive as an abuse victim desperate for love, with her unpredictability compelling to the utmost degree. Despite having two radically different characters director Jung crafts their relationship with a natural sincerity that never fails to be engaging. From small moments at meal times to more intimate scenes as they become closer, director Jung captures Do-hee’s reverence and Yeong-nam’s responsibility-turned-devotion with palpable affection.

Yeong-nam invites Doo-hee to stay with her for a summer, where their relationship considerably develops

Yeong-nam invites Do-hee to stay with her for a summer, where their relationship considerably develops

Through the central relationship as well as Yeong-nam’s position as law enforcement, A Girl at My Door explores discrimination within Korean society through the microcosm of a small countryside town. Director Jung interrogates the issue from a variety of perspectives, chiefly the sexism, homophobia and ageism that is so openly expressed by those in society. Despite her position as chief of police Yeong-nam is still subjected to gender and age discrimination by those she protects and works with, while her status as someone from the city also adds to the prejudice received. Do-hee is subjected to abuse which is justified due to her social status as a young orphan of sorts. The narrative impressively examines how such discrimination has become normalised within culture at both societal and governmental levels, with the frustration of innocents attempting to fight against it a source of inspiration and empowerment. Racism also arises through the incorporation of migrant workers within the story, adding a further perspective on the issue as they are forced to endure manual labour. Through her sense of irony director Jung astutely conveys how contemporary society is willing to accept such prejudice as long as their quality of life is assured, and their terrible reaction when it is challenged even in the name of the law.

The stakes are raised when Do-hee's father Yong-ha is arrested for assaulting his workers

The stakes are raised when Do-hee’s father Yong-ha is arrested for assaulting his workers

Verdict:

A Girl at My Door is a phenomenal debut by director July Jung, who examines issues of discrimination in contemporary Korea through the microcosm of  small countryside town. Featuring beautiful cinematography and an intelligent, irony-laced script, A Girl at My Door also boasts two exceptional performances from Bae Doo-na and in particular from rising star Kim Sae-ron. Not to be missed.

★★★★☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok plan their future together, until a text message threatens to destroy their relationship

My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억) – ★★★☆☆

My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억)

My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억)

Following a series of bad relationships, pretty 29 year old Eun-jin (Kang Ye-won (강예원) again finds herself on the receiving end of heartache. Dumped by her boyfriend, Eun-jin gets horribly drunk and, unable to pay for a taxi home, shares a ride home with geeky Hyeon-seok (Song Sae-byeok (송새벽). Despite being very different people Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok feel the spark of romance and begin dating, with the relationship going so well that they eventually begin to talk of marriage. However as they pick to choose furniture for their future together, curiosity gets the better of Eun-jin and she checks her lover’s phone…only to find a message from another woman. Filled with anger and jealousy Eun-jin starts investigating Hyeon-seok to prove he’s the same as every other bad guy. Yet as she digs deeper, nothing could prepare Eun-jin for the dark secret of Hyeon-seok’s identity.

The closing film for the 2014 Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival, My Ordinary Love Story (내 연애의 기억) is an enjoyable and quite refreshing romantic-comedy from director Lee Kwon (이권), who is more recently known for the 2012 TV drama Shut Up: Flower Boy Band (닥치고 꽃미남밴드). Initially My Ordinary Love Story is a formulaic rom-com yet in true Korean style the story comes to embrace a multitude of genres, with the blend elevating the film out of mediocrity to be a surprisingly effective viewing experience.

Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok plan their future together, until a text message threatens to destroy their relationship

Eun-jin and Hyeon-seok plan their future together, until a text message threatens to destroy their relationship

My Ordinary Love Story is very much Kang Ye-won’s film, with her performance the central reason why the story is so endearing. Kang captures Eun-jin’s selfish, jealous and nagging personality well yet never makes the character unlikeable, largely due to Eun-jin’s terrible dating history and potential as a victim of cheating, but also thanks to Kang’s unique overacting style which suits the role – and filmic style – agreeably. As the film is, for the most part, a generic rom-com the sexual politics are particularly unenlightened – the desperation for a woman to be married before 30, for example – however as Eun-jin takes agency and launches an investigation to prove Hyeon-seok’s guilt, a sense of empowerment also pervades and promotes Eun-jin as a character to root for.

Director Lee Kwon attempts to infuse various strands of quirkiness within the film in order to generate a sense of identity, seemingly inspired by the remarkably fun How to Use Guys With Secret Tips. He somewhat succeeds, yet the lack of consistency ultimately undermines his attempts as onscreen text, animation and voice-overs appear and disappear randomly, creating a sense of stylistic incohesion. Luckily such issues don’t impact the entertainment too deeply as the flighty stylisation, coupled with the enjoyably silly supporting characters and jokes, still serve to entertain.

The unique nature of My Ordinary Love Story comes from merging typically disparate genres to become one of the more memorable recent rom-coms. In steering the generic romance into macabre territory director Lee takes a big gamble yet it’s one that works, adding new layers of enjoyment to an otherwise predictable narrative. The change in direction unfortunately comes a tad too late in the story as the compelling nature of such scenes, and Hyeon-seok himself, lack sufficient exploration to be effective, yet as the story is largely a light-hearted comedy it’s perhaps understandable and is enjoyable regardless.

Hyeon-seok and Eun-jin attempt to overcome their hidden truths

Hyeon-seok and Eun-jin attempt to overcome their hidden truths

My Ordinary Love Story is an enjoyable genre-bending outing by director Lee Kwon. The film elevates itself out of mediocrity by beginning as a generic rom-com before delving into darker territory, carried ably by the charismatic performance of Kang Ye-won. While there are pacing and technical issues within, My Ordinary Love Story is an entertaining feature and is one of the more refreshing examples of the genre.

★★★☆☆

Korean Festivals 2014 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (제 18회 부천국제판타스틱영화제) Reviews
Cha Hae-joon (차해준) faces off against the monster

Sector 7 (7광구) – ★☆☆☆☆

Sector 7 (7광구)

Sector 7 (7광구)

When Sector 7 (7광구) was announced, it came with a wave of anticipation. It had a blockbuster story that resembled Hollywood fare, guaranteeing a foreign market; it had assembled some of the most popular actors in the country, including hot property Ha Ji-won (하지원) also known as ‘the Korean Angelina Jolie’; and it was to be filmed in 3D, insinuating the high level of confidence film executives had in the project.

The story, about workers on an oil rig that come face to face with a monster, had more than a few similarities with Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979) and had cinephiles wondering if it could compete in Hollywood and reignite international attention in Korean cinema. To be fair, the expectations were so ridiculously high that any film would have fallen short. But no-one was prepared for just how far short, and how awful, Sector 7 truly is.

On an isolated oil rig off the coast of Jeju Island, the crew are experiencing difficulties as there is no oil to be found. The supervisor (Park Jeong-hak (박정학), wants to abandon the search but is repeatedly challenged by team member Cha Hae-joon (Ha Ji-won (하지원) for his cowardice. That is, until senior official Jeong-man (Ahn Seong-gi (안성기) returns to the rig and demands the search continues until an oil well is found; yet once their objective has been achieved, members of the crew are found dead. As the crew attempt to find the murderer, the come face-to-face with a monster from the depths of the ocean.

Cha Hae-joon (차해준, Ha Ji-won (하지원) searches for the unseen killer

Cha Hae-joon (Ha Ji-won) searches for the unseen killer

The narrative itself is not an inherently bad premise, yet director Kim Ji-hoon (김지훈) continually pushes audiences’ suspension of disbelief well beyond their limits. For example, motorcycle drag racing on an oil rig appears to be a commonplace activity on this particular rig, as does the bizarre mixture of futuristic and archaic technology within it. The absurdity is not helped by the use of terrible CGI and green screen that seriously detracts an sense of logic to the proceedings. The worst is saved for the monster itself, an unbelievably poor creation that appears like a reject from a Final Fantasy video game. The monster has supposedly been forcefully evolved from a smaller creature yet bares no resemblance to it whatsoever, and exhibits an entirely different set of abilities. Luckily most scenes involving the creature are at night and in shadows, yet even then the lackluster design, movement, skin texture and so on are obviously apparent. This is all the more baffling when considering Bong Joon-ho‘s incredible monster film The Host was made 5 years earlier.

The crew must fight to survive the new menace

The crew must fight to survive the new menace

The actors portraying the tyrannized protagonists are also unimpressive, although they cannot be held fully accountable as the dialogue is woeful. Ha Ji-won is usually an actress that guarantees quality, yet even she provides an under-par performance as she schizophrenically flits from cute airhead to hardened independent woman. Her love interest played by Oh Ji-ho (as Kim Dong-soo (김동수) is so under-represented that he hardly warrants being in the film, let alone providing adequate interest as the source of her affections. Duo Park Cheol-min (박철민) and Song Sae-byeok (송새벽) are intended to add comedy to the mix however become so irritating that it’s something of a relief when they meet their demise. Park Cheol-min in particular shouts his way through his dialogue, while his compatriot merely whines. The less said about Park Yeong-soo’s (박영수) mentally ill crew member Jang Chi-soon the better. Only Ahn Seong-gi as senior crew member Jeong-man conveys credibility through his quiet-albeit-authoritative tones, yet he too succumbs to the oddities in the narrative when his supposedly true nature is revealed.

Cha Hae-joon (차해준) faces off against the monster

Cha Hae-joon faces off against the monster

Verdict:

Sector 7 is not a complete disaster, as director Kim Ji-hoon competently composes scenes and keeps the action moving at a swift pace. Apart from the awful CGI it’s clear that Sector 7 has a large budget which has been well spent on creating the mise-en-scene of an oil rig. It’s a shame that so many negative features outweigh the few scant positives, rendering a potential blockbuster into a substandard film well below the talents of all involved.

★☆☆☆☆

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