Venus Talk (관능의 법칙) – ★★★☆☆

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Venus Talk (관능의 법칙)

Three successful best friends explore love, life and sex in the city in Venus Talk (관능의 법칙). Glamorous TV producer Sin-hye (Uhm Jung-hwa (엄정화), dumped by her cheating boyfriend, begins a relationship with young 20-something intern Hyeon-seung (Lee Jae-yoon (이재윤). Housewife Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri (문소리) has an incredibly high libido and loves to play sexual games with her husband Jae-ho (Lee Sung-min (이성민), yet unbeknownst to her he is secretly taking viagra to keep up with her demands. Bakery store owner and single mother Hae-yong (Jo Min-soo (조민수) is dating local carpenter Seong-jae (Lee Kyeong-yeong (이경영) who is reluctant to commit to a serious relationship. The three women talk, laugh and support each other through the minefield of dating as middle-aged women, strengthening their bonds of friendship with their frank discussions of love and sex.

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have frank conversations about their love and sex life

Hae-yeong, Mi-yeon and Sin-hye regularly have funny and frank conversations about their love and sex life

Venus Talk sells itself as the Korean answer to Sex and the City, and for the opening 20~30 minutes that is very much true. The forthright manner in which sex and relationships are explored is an extremely refreshing and welcome change from the filmic roles typically ascribed to Korean women, with the comedy derived from their open discussions genuinely engaging as well as entertaining. Writer Lee Soo-ah’s (이수아) script is great in capturing the spirit of three independent and empowered women who do not function solely as love interests, but who have aspirations, responsibilities and desires, the kind of women who tend to rarely enjoy screentime in mainstream Korean cinema. Single TV producer Sin-hye is a career savvy, hard working women of particular repute, and her dilemmas regarding her relationship with a 20-something junior are consistently funny as well as exposing the ageism that exists within Korean culture. Meanwhile single mother Hae-yeong contends with dating, motherhood and running a business, and highly sexed Mi-yeon strives to introduce exciting sex games to keep the passion alive in her marriage. Often such characters are reduced to stereotypes and/or ‘contained’ by the narrative, yet in the opening 20~30 minutes of Venus Talk the women express their desires, sexual or otherwise, freely to each and without fear of judgement, with the depictions of their sexual antics both funny and endearing.

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

The sexual antics of the three friends are funny and endearing

Unfortunately after such an invigorating opening Venus Talk, seemingly unable to continue the momentum of portraying the lives of empowered women, descends into standard K-drama tropes. After some quite funny moments of sexual liberation as Mi-yeon prepares erotic toys, Sin-hye has an affair with a young colleague, and Hae-young acts like a teenager with her lover, the narrative jettisons it all to focus on bland, tried-and-tested arcs that seek to almost ‘punish’ the women for their transgressions. Each protagonist comes close to loosing everything they hold dear typically due to their own actions. All three are blamed, harassed and scolded simply for being women who fall outside of socially acceptable roles in Korean society, which comes as a saddening surprise given the empowered opening. Mi-yeon, for example, is treated terribly by her husband and is later attacked by a criminal; yet when she reports the assault she is chastised for being a woman ‘of a certain age’ and is told, even by her friends, that she should forgive her husband. The turnaround from feminist to embracing traditional stereotypes is quite extraordinary.

Director Kwon Chil-in (권칠인) competently helms the film yet he occasionally seems to forget his target audience, notably during a quite graphic sex scene in which he focuses primarily on Uhm Jeong-hwa’s body. He has however made excellent choices with his cast, employing actresses who are not only extremely talented but who also have sexy screen personas – Uhm Jeong-hwa (Marriage Is a Crazy Thing), Moon So-ri (A Good Lawyer’s Wife), Jo Min-soo (Pieta) – with each actress performing their respective roles well. The narrative tends to focus primarily on Uhm’s character, and she conveys her frustrations as a businesswoman being victimized by gossip particularly well. Moon So-ri displays impressive comedic skills throughout the film, particularly in regards to scenes with her long-suffering husband. It is Jo Min-soo who shines the brightest in Venus Talk, displaying prowess as a strong single mother yet one who is also vulnerable and longing for love. The scenes in which she is reunited with her boyfriend following surgery are stunningly performed by Jo, and while it’s a great shame that the narrative does’t explore the tangent further, the power expressed through such a short amount of screentime is palpable.

The women are seemingly 'punished' for their transgressions

The women are seemingly ‘punished’ for their transgressions

Verdict:

Venus Talk is Korea’s attempt at crafting a Sex and the City style, and for the opening 20~30 minutes director Kwon Chil-in and screenwriter Lee Soo-ah do well in portraying three empowered and sexually liberated friends as they discuss life, love, and sex. Yet the film later takes a turn into typical K-drama fare, and worst still, seemingly attempts to ‘punish’ the the central protagonists for being modern feminists. Yet with a great cast and funny moments, Venus Talk is an enjoyable effort.

★★★☆☆

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Busan International Film Festival (제19회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2014 Reviews
Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Top Star (톱스타) – ★★☆☆☆

Top Star (톱스타)

Top Star (톱스타)

Actor-turned-director Park Joong-hoon (박중훈) has crafted a highly polished and glitzy directorial debut with Top Star (톱스타).

The heavyweight actor – who has hit films including Haeundae (해운대)Radio Star (라디오 스타) and Nowhere To Hide (인정사정 볼 것 없다) in his back catalogue – has clearly exercised his connections within the industry as Top Star features an assortment of high profile names from Korean cinema.

Unfortunately however, while there is enjoyment to be had in watching the beautiful faces, lavish lifestyles and celebrity scandals, there is precious little substance beneath the glamour. Director Park has clearly aimed his debut at a broad audience and in doing so he has produced a competent, though unremarkable, film about the nature of stardom.

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Diligent manager Tae-sik helps superstar Won-joon at every turn

Superstar Won-joon (Kim Min-joon (김민준) has it all – good looks, a career in film and television, an expensive lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Mi-na (So I-hyeon (소이현). Yet behind all the glitz and glamour, Won-joon is taken care of by an agency, particularly by diligent manager Tae-sik (Eom Tae-woong (엄태웅). Tae-sik’s adoration of Won-joon leads him to help cover up scandals and, in helping in one case of some magnitude, Tae-sik suffers great personal distress. Stunned by his selflessness, Won-joon grants Tae-sik a sizeable role in his latest television series and is happy to see his ambitions of becoming an actor finally materialize. Yet in discovering fame, Tae-sik begins to change, leading him into a rivalry with Won-joon.

One of the great benefits of having a veteran actor step behind the camera for Top Star is that the portrayal of the world of celebrity is convincing. The conversations and behind-the-glamour events clearly come from a person of experience, from discussions in limousines and public-relations meetings to relaxation at home portrayed with insight. Director Park does well in balancing the realms of stardom and downtime, conveying the former as merely attractive but shallow superficiality and working to build character in the latter. It generally works well, although the script routinely employs cliches and contrivances that have been utilised better before, as in 200 Pounds Beauty (미녀는 괴로워). Foregrounded, however, is the rivalry that develops between Tae-sik and Won-joon that occurs in both worlds, which is also where the more interesting events transpire.

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

Tensions build as Tae-sik and Won-joon clash in the bid for superiority

The initial friendship between Tae-sik and Won-joon is articulated well, as the manager idolises his talent by helping to cover up scandals with no questions asked. Yet the story does become somewhat absurd as Tae-sik suffers a great personal burden in order to provide an alibi for one particular scandal, one that stretches believability almost too far. As Top Star is clearly marketed towards family audiences, director Park omits psychological exploration of Tae-sik’s adoration, yet while it is arguably ‘dark’ material it is depth that is sorely required as the film is so concerned with his unstable personality. Still, sequences in which Won-joon advises Tae-sik on the merits of acting are enjoyable and humourous as their camaraderie deepens on the set of their TV show. Yet just as the story begins to get interesting the film jumps years into the future, bypassing all the fascinating moments that have transpired to trouble their relationship and instead placing audiences in the distressed middle period.

As such Top Star loses all momentum, and the film is forced to reestablish itself once more by reintroducing characters and their new situations. It’s an event from which the story never fully recovers and as the film once more sets up events and attempts to take a belated darker tone, they lack the potency they would otherwise have contained. Additionally the (again belated) inclusion of melodrama amongst all the protagonists is horribly cliched and detracts from the viewing experience. One of the major benefits of Top Star‘s second half however is the greater screen time afforded to actress So I-hyeon as TV producer Mi-na. The role is wafer thin and one-dimensional with So I-hyeon very much required to be just a pretty face, although the actress stretches the material as much as she can and is quite charismatic. Yet undermining everything is the manner in which the story wraps up, as it is far too neat and with little – if any – ramifications despite all the wrongdoing. Top Star is great in representing the glitz and glamour of the movie business but, try as it might to explore the nature of celebrity, the film crucially lacks any depth to do so.

Tae-sik's longing for Mi-na and Won-joon's life in general clouds his judgement

Tae-sik’s longing for Mi-na and Won-joon’s life in general clouds his judgement

Top Star (톱스타) is a highly polished and glamourous directorial debut from veteran actor Park Joong-hoon (박중훈). The film attempts to explore the nature of celebrity as a talent manager turned actor desperately works to retain his fame, even creating a rivalry with his idol. As director Park aims Top Star squarely at family audiences however, he doesn’t delve into the psychology of his protagonists resulting in a film that is wonderfully glitzy, but lacking in any real depth.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (제18회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Festivals 2013 Reviews