Veteran (베테랑) – ★★★★☆

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

After a three month sting operation involving stolen cars, tough detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) and his team, headed by Team Leader Oh (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), congratulate themselves and prepare for the inevitable promotion their work has wrought. Yet the celebration is cut short when Do-cheol’s truck driver friend Bae (Jeong Woong-in (정웅인) is critically hurt while protesting for unpaid wages, with all evidence pointing to rich, spoilt conglomerate owner’s son, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in (유아인). While Jo’s aide Choi Sang-moo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진) attempts to use money and influence to have the case closed, Do-cheol is relentless in his pursuit for Jo’s incarceration.

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

Brilliantly entertaining, wonderfully inventive, and featuring a gripping politically-charged story alongside bone-crunching stunts, director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is easily the most exciting slice of Korean cinema in 2015 so far. In what has been a particularly poor year for the industry, Veteran offers a badly needed revitalising breath of fresh air as well as marking director Ryoo’s most accomplished work to date.

Veteran begins in incredibly strong fashion as Do-cheol and his team take down an international car smuggling ring, with the quips flying almost as fast as the punches. It’s a fantastically thrilling introduction to director Ryoo’s distinct stylisation as well as the quirky characters on the investigative team, as the film excels with brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour mixed with frenetic stunts to hugely entertaining effect. For action aficionados Veteran also manages to include comedic riffs on other examples of the genre, notably Transporter 2‘s garage sequence, to raise self-referential laughs. It all makes for one of the most high-octane adrenaline-pumping openings in recent memory and is an absolute riot.

After kicking off so impressively, Veteran‘s pacing dramatically changes gears in order to lay the foundations for the central narrative. It’s a jarring alteration yet also a necessary one, as helmer/scribe Ryoo takes his time to incorporate new conflicts and antagonists, building the politically-charged threats posed to palpable levels. It’s an effective technique that demands investment while allowing the film to roar to life through exciting set-pieces, culminating in an explosive pulse-pounding crescendo that will have audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure.

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Veteran never forsakes the story for action, with the engaging narrative consistently touching upon highly politically sensitive issues within contemporary Korean culture. News media in the peninsula has for years reported on the spoilt and selfish behaviour displayed by chaebol (conglomerate) CEO’s children – the most recent of which was the infamous ‘nut rage’ incident – and Veteran picks up such themes brilliantly by exploring how such figures employ their power, finances and influence to avoid legalities. Bolstered by a basis in modern society, it’s great material for the genre, providing villainous personal and corporations and some compelling twists and turns, whilst also granting a sense of catharsis for the general public.

While corruption informs the impetus of the story, Veteran is also at its core a tale of two men in bitter conflict, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors other than Hwang Jung-min and Yo Ah-in fulfilling the roles so emphatically. Hwang Jung-min in particular is clearly having an absolute ball as detective Do-cheol, bringing incredible humour and charisma to the role so that even when he is being stubborn and downright dirty, he is nothing less than engrossing. Yoo Ah-in meanwhile is in absolute top form as the vile Jo Tae-oh, with his performance earning considerable praise. The characterisation is a tad excessive yet Yoo Ah-in commits so confidently that he’s an absolute joy to hate. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-so gets some of the film’s best laughs, while it’s great to see Yoo Hae-jin, who’s often typecast in comedic roles, stretched into new terrain.

Although an enormously entertaining film, Veteran is not without problems. Writer/director Ryoo still seems to have difficulty writing three-dimensional female characters, constructing them either as nagging bitches or wholesome victims. Miss Bong, wonderfully portrayed by Jang Yoon-ju, is somewhat of an exception and a welcome kick-ass heroine but tends to provide punchlines rather than development.

That aside, Veteran is easily the best slice of popcorn cinema this year and a joyous thrill ride from start to finish.

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Verdict:

Veteran is a revitalising, pulse-pounding action/thriller from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Examining the corruption in chaebols has never been so cathartic as the film is consistently entertaining, wonderfully inventive and featuring some truly exciting and hilarious stunts that has audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure. Easily the best slice of popcorn cinema in 2015.

★★★★☆

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The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow (우리별 일호와 얼룩소) – ★★★☆☆

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow (우리별 일호와 얼룩소)

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow (우리별 일호와 얼룩소)

After circling the Earth for years transmitting data, satellite Il-ho (Jeong Yu-mi (정유미) intercepts the sound of a beautiful song. Nearly at the end of its lifespan, Il-ho decides to return home and find the source of the song before its power is drained completely. Upon arriving however, Il-ho discovers a walking, talking milk cow being pursued by a giant incinerator, and upon impact with the metal creature Il-ho is transformed into the form of a girl. With the help of magical toilet paper Merlin the wizard, they discover that the milk cow is actually musician Kyeong-cheon (Yoo Ah-in (유아인), and the group try to set him free of the curse while fighting against those who would steal his liver.

Satellitle Il-ho learns that musician Kyeong-cheon has been transformed into a milk cow

Satellitle Il-ho learns that musician Kyeong-cheon has been transformed into a milk cow

Upon release, The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow (우리별 일호와 얼룩소) had certain critics comparing it with Japanese animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli output, which is both huge praise as well as a disservice. Writer/director Jang Hyeong-yoon’s (장형윤) feature length is a charming animation that features wonderfully quirky and lovable characters who traverse different realms, which is undoubtedly the source of such comparisons, yet the film is also a uniquely Korean blend of sci-fi and fantasy that ultimately lacks the grace and polish of Miyazaki’s work.

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow is certainly one of the most entertaining and wacky family-orientated Korean animations in quite some time. Director Jang has impressively combined the conventions of science-fiction with magical fantasy and the results are consistently enjoyable and fun, particularly due to the wonderfully eccentric cast of characters. Kyeong-cheon is front and center in this regard as the visually comedic milk cow, with the obstacles he endures to become human forming the crux of the narrative. The gags often come at his expense and are often really enjoyable, especially scenes in which he has difficulties with his human ‘suit’ made of toilet paper and his attempts to continue living as he did before his transformation. Other jokes tend to come out of left field, such as literally being milked in order to pay the rent, which are quite odd yet are still amusing. Kyeong-cheon’s melodramatic character works well when playing off robotic satellite girl Il-ho and bizarre tissue magician Merlin. Their conversations and conflicts are by far the most entertaining and engaging feature of the film and drive the story forward.

The conflicts that arise between Il-ho and Kyeong-cheon are charming and fun

The conflicts that arise between Il-ho and Kyeong-cheon are charming and fun

Yet while the animation is fluid and the characters charming, The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow comes undone due to the haphazard narrative. The screenplay really requires several more rewrites as the film is mostly comprised of a series of sketches rather than an overarching story, and while such vignettes are enjoyable there really isn’t a sense of a greater story being told.  As Kyeong-cheon attempts to continue his life as a milk cow and Il-ho seeks to understand her purpose of existence, a variety of tangents enter the fray that stop both of them from exploring such desires, serving as fun yet distracting moments from the greater quests at hand. Such events rarely contribute to the story and often create a greater number of sub-stories that never achieve fruition.

As the story tends to jump between various events further supporting characters are also introduced, including an old witch in the form of a boar as well as a shadow organisation that harvests the livers of citizens-turned-animals. Each inception holds a new and interesting concept yet they are never explored or capitalised on, and have very little impact on the overall story. A prime example is the giant incinerator, which exists solely as a central threat in the film without rhyme or reason, appearing when the story has no other place to maneuver and needs a sense of urgency. There are so many unresolved elements within the film that, combined with the unfocused central story, serve to make The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow an enjoyable but not particularly magical viewing experience.

Il-ho and Kyeong-cheon develop feelings for each other against the odds

Il-ho and Kyeong-cheon develop feelings for each other

Verdict:

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow is one of the most entertaining family-orientated animations to come from Korea in quite some time. It’s a charming effort by writer/director Jang Hyeong-yoon who blends the worlds of magic and sci-fi well, but it’s let down by a haphazard script and too many characters and tangents that go unresolved, making the film an enjoyable experience rather than a magical one.

★★★☆☆

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Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Punch (완득이) – ★★★☆☆

Punch (완득이)

Punch (완득이)

The representation of those outside of ‘mainstream’ culture is often problematic within cinema. While their daily struggles against prejudice and other such conflicts are incredibly compelling, it is easy for protagonists to fall into the ‘pitiable’ category and thus undermine their accomplishments.

Punch (완득이) deftly sidesteps such narrative pitfalls with a wonderfully moving and charming story about those on the fringes of society, one that never patronizes those within and instead focuses on the three-dimensional features and ironies of their lives. In a culture – and national cinema – where physical appearance and financial stability are highly regarded, Punch is a refreshing and comical perspective on oft-ignored contemporary issues.

Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in (유아인) lives a troubled existence, failing at school and perpetually involved in fights. His father (Park Soo-young (박수영), a hunchback, is ridiculed for his appearance yet supports them as a dancer and entertainer with mentally ill ‘uncle’ Min-goo (Kim Yeong-jae (김영재). Yet the real bane of Wan-deuk’s life is his teacher Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok (김윤석), who takes an active interest in the young man and encourages him to stretch and develop in ways unwanted. But when Wan-deuk’s estranged Filipino mother (Jasmine Lee (이쟈스민) arrives requesting time together, the young man is forced to mature and understand the complexities of those closest to him.

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Wan-deuk and his family live a meagre existence

Punch – an odd title considering the original is the lead protagonist’s name – succinctly and organically explores an array of societal issues without foregrounding any one in particular, nor ramming any ideological message into the audience. Instead, Punch eloquently depicts the story of a young man at the head of a makeshift and dysfunctional family, suffering from the idiosyncrasies of life on the poverty line with charismatic sincerity. Kim Dong-woo (김동우) has crafted a wonderfully character-driven script that makes it virtually impossible not to empathize with Wan-deuk and his coming-of-age story, which director Lee Han (이한) competently brings to life.

What makes Punch such an interesting and unique offering are the variety of characters within and the ways in which they strive to turn what mainstream society considers to be weaknesses into strengths. Wan-deuk is an incredibly conflicted young man; as a young boy he idolized his hunchback father for his dancing ability alongside his mentally ill ‘uncle’, tragically ignorant to the reality of the entertainment being provided. Without a mother figure in his life, Wan-deuk, his hero-turned-ridiculed father and his kind ‘uncle’ form a makeshift family, relying on the charity of others to live. Wan-deuk’s inner turmoil is wonderfully conveyed through his apathetic stance towards life, simultaneously a class clown and violently entering in fights even when outnumbered, making him likable and engaging. Wan-deuk’s teacher, Dong-joo, is a highly charismatic character with his own conflicts yet strives to find and encourage the potential within everyone around him, an unsung hero in a deprived community. Yet the characters only truly align with the introduction of Wan-deuk’s estranged mother, shocking him with her Filipino nationality and desire to reconnect. The cultural problem of importing wives from developing Asian countries has been slowly encroaching Korean national cinema for the past few years, yet none are as three-dimensional, nor approach the situation from the perspective of the women themselves, as within Punch. The focus on such disparate characters, and the humanity they exhibit and discover as they come together, is undoubtedly what makes the film is so entertaining and life-affirming.

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk's life more difficult

Teacher Dong-joo seemingly enjoys making Wan-deuk’s life more difficult

Yoo Ah-in gives a restrained performance as Wan-deuk, making the character likable with his irregular combination of dumb-struck apathy and belligerence. In lesser hands the role could have disintegrated into melodrama or portray his frustrations as disdainful, yet Yoo Ah-in balances the characterization well.

Yet by far the most engaging, comedic, and heart-warming protagonist is that of teacher Dong-joo, played by Kim Yoon-seok. The actor is wonderful in portraying the modest educator, doing so with sincerity, conviction, and with a great sense of comedic timing. His unorthodox style of teaching and encouraging students is humorous as well as unconventional, prompting his students to expand when others have given up. As such, Kim Yoon-seok forges his role into the soul of the film, with each layer of information revealed making him increasingly more charismatic and interesting.

If Dong-joo is the heart of the film then Wan-deuk’s mother, performed by Jasmine Lee, is the heart. Her introduction within the narrative is the catalyst for the disparate characters to bond together, and Jasmine Lee is excellent in conveying the sincerity of a mother wishing to reconnect with the son she abandoned. The actress performs the role with sincerity and integrity, forging sympathy with audiences yet never descends into pity, and her modesty and plight acutely reflects the difficulties faced by imported wives.

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Wan-deuk is encouraged to take up kickboxing

Verdict:

Punch is a charming and heart-warming film about those on outside of ‘mainstream’ society and culture, made compelling by the wonderful characterization within. While the film may not push boundaries, the character-driven script features such an array of protagonists, issues and comedic idiosyncrasies that Punch becomes unique in its alternative perspective on a familial drama, and is highly entertaining.

★★★☆☆

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