Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Original Title: Choyonghan kajok
Year: 1998
Director: Ji-woon Kim
Writer: Ji-woon Kim
Genre: Dark Comedy

A family decides to buy a lodge in a remote hiking area. Their first customer commits suicide and the distraught family buries his body to avoid the bad publicity. But their luck gets worse, the bodies start piling up, and the family becomes frantic to rectify the situation.

While not exactly a Kang-ho Song vehicle, I threw on The Quiet Family last night and had quite a different experience than the previous films I have covered here this month. Faster paced, less stylistic and darkly funny, this one was quite enjoyable! (Obviously the other flicks have been enjoyable for me, just not in the same way)

No delicate shifts going on this time. Right off the bat you get a good sense of the direction this film is headed. A family has purchased a somewhat remote lodge along a hiking trail, work hard to fix it up, but then get no customers. They all sit around awkwardly, watch people walk by without stopping, eat near-silent dinners together.

After a strange seemingly-insane woman comes up to their lodge screaming at an invisible head on the roof, they finally get their first customer. I loved the scene as the family crowds around him, watching him sign the registry, in disbelief that after so long they have their very first customer.

He is mysterious and creepy, and the morning after they literally stumble upon his corpse. He has brutally committed suicide. The father, Tae-gu Kang (In-hwan Park), believes that a police investigation will ruin their already tiny business, so he makes the decision to bury the lonely man's corpse and pretend it never happened.

And hijinx ensue! Ahhh, good ol' hijinx.

What follows is a dark, gory, and often funny romp where one tragic moment leads to another. It made me smile seeing the characters bothered and exhausted from initially hiding bodies, to it becoming just a thing as they become increasingly desensitized to the craziness going on. There is a great moment later in the film where the son Yeong-min, played by Kang-ho Song, brags about his ability to quickly dig a hole. He even offers to quickly bury a kim-chee pot which gets a laugh from his family.

Kang-ho Song is not the main character here... as that is essentially shared by everyone in the 6-member family, but he is definitely funny. He creeps about the lodge, spies on couples having sex, and acts often like a 13-year-old.

What I may like most about Song's role is his facial expressions when irritated or ecstatic. He will talk with his mouth full and laugh a high pitched laugh. I laughed a lot at just some of his deliveries.

A role I really enjoyed was the mother played by Mun-hee Na. She looks like a sweet, older lady, but this mystique is broken quite early with some snarky comments she makes toward people that pass the lodge without actually coming in. I really laughed when she yells after a guy that he will never get laid acting like he is. A standard film would have the mother of the family be hysterical or in denial or something, but Mrs. Kang gets her hands as dirty as the rest of them. I think Na is very good at sometimes giving a deadpan, sarcastic delivery while still showing shock and surprise at some pretty horrific things that pop up throughout the film.

There are some nice moody shots and closeups dispersed here, but largely this film is straight forward in its presentation and its storytelling. Director Ji-woon Kim, who would later go on to direct A Bittersweet Life which I have mentioned, as well as The Good, The Bad, and The Weird which I reviewed, started his directorial career with this film. It's interesting to see him getting his start in dark comedy such as this, and also his film Foul King which I will cover as well, before moving on to films deeper and broader in scope.

I really like his handing of character interactions in the film, and the quick cutting, especially in scenes of violence, really keep the film feeling nervous and frenetic, unlike the name of the film may let on. It's a constant comedy of errors as the family must correct one gruesome mishap after another. As with most comedies, you just take many things with a grain of salt as there are some coincidences that occur to keep things moving along, but ultimately it works.

I enjoyed Kim's choice in music for the film as well. It is largely American artists... punk sounding music and even a song I could sing along with - So Alive by Love and Rockets. Silly, but I love when that happens!

This film is as light-hearted and silly as possible given the subject matter without ever getting ridiculous. There are corpses and fires and people getting stabbed and smashed with shovels, but it never gets heavy and just borders on absurd. It's not perfect, but i definitely enjoyed it for it's quirkiness.


Score: 7.25 / 10

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Original Title: Salinui chueok
Year: 2003
Director: Joon-ho Bong
Writer: Joon-ho Bong, Kwang-rim Kim, Sung Bo Shim
Genre: Crime, Drama

South Korea in 1986 under the military dictatorship: Two rural cops and a special detective from the capital investigate a series of brutal rape murder. Their crude measures become more desperate with each new corpse found. Based on a true case.

Kang-ho Song month, limited as it may be, rolls on with another fantastic entry in Memories of Murder. This film, for various reasons, took me forever to finally finish, at no fault whatsoever to the film itself. But I am so glad I finally finished it today!

Since it is his month here afterall, we will start with Mr. Song and his again phenomenal performance. He plays a rural detective, Doo-man Park, who is a little chubby, a little lazy, and a little too sure of his investigative skills. What has fallen into his lap in his little Korean village is a serial murder case that immediately feels much broader in scope than what his limited police office can handle. He doesn't seems to take things as seriously as he should, but the case that finds its way to him sets a change in motion.

Song is so great as he portrays a gradual transformation in Detective Park as the story unfolds. Very funny at times and very frustrated and confused at times, he goes from the corner-cutting clod to a more introspective, serious man as he becomes increasingly involved in this seemingly unsolvable murder. His character is played off nicely against the more serious Detective Seo Tae-Yoon, played by Sang-kyung Kim.

Detective Seo is brought in from Seoul when it becomes apparent to the local police that this serial murder case is beyond their scope. He sits on the sidelines, investigating quietly and seriously while Park and his hothead partner Detective Cho Yong-koo (Roe-ha Kim) torture suspects and plant evidence, trying to just get a confession and end the case easily. Seo claims that documents never lie, and where Park relies on his instinct to do his job, Seo pours over these documents for his. It's a straightforward approach that also begins to shift toward a more Park-like frame of mind as the film progresses.

We can almost see the exact point when the investigation has Seo and Park passing like two trains, as Park grows up and Seo's emotions and frustrations surface and he begins problem solving with his heart as well.

Kim plays an understated role here, almost the opposite of Song's character, until he begins to bubble over as the case frustrates him as well.

Joon-ho Bong does a great job here in constructing this story for the screen. While an ordinary film would have gone the route of the detectives simply trying to solve a case, Bong here makes this story just as much about these two very different detectives morphing as this case becomes more and more frustrating. As with many of the Korean films I have seen from this time, Bong's gradual and delicate storytelling can seem to meander initially, but things compound upon themselves and the ending, while not explosive and decisive, is very impactful.

Is impactful a word? There are a few dropkicks in the film which are definitely impactful. Awesome!

Bong's characters are very interesting, and often shot very closeup in emotional moments. Lesser actors would definitely be exposed in scenes such as these. This along with some beautiful camerawork in outdoor locations make the film a true joy to watch. Cinematographer Hyung-ku Kim definitely deserves much credit for the lighting in some fantastic dark and rainy scenes.

As I said, the story in the first third of the film does feel like dragging feet in a way. As characters are established, I really felt like this was going to be a generic detective story with the little twist of one of the prime investigators being lazy and the other very driven. A little patience goes a long way, and it does seem that this may be a common element in Korean film structure. I do not want to give away any plot points really, but the story is never overly complex, but instead the character interactions are. The true plot becomes the relationships and transformations.

I had similar feelings about JSA: Joint Security Area at first as well, as it starts feeling one way and turns into something quite different and quite remarkable.

I have to highly recommend this film for Kang-ho Song's and Sang-kyung Kim's performances, for it being beautifully shot and very well told. I think any imperfections I may have noticed can come down to a difference in American and Korean storytelling in cinema as well as my watching it unfortunately in a broken schedule.

Grade A filmmaking.

Score: 8.75 / 10

Friday, November 20, 2009

Two awesome posters

I ran across these in my unemployed journeys around the interwebs. They have nothing to do with one another except they both are loved by yours truly.

While very 60s/70s in it's style, this poster for Wrestling Queen, a documentary about the lifestyle and fans of professional wrestling in the 1970s is very well illustrated, and I love that super thin font at the bottom.

This one is quite different. A quirky, near low-brow art poster for what appears to be quite the quirky Japanese film called A Crazy Family.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Before I begin here, I want to thank Mr. Coffin Jon of Varied Celluloid (a weekly genre-centric videocast on Livestream) and Large William of The Gentlemen's Guide to Midnite Cinema for helping me out with Korean name structure (?) this week. I honestly had no clue which name was first or last, and was calling people by their first names instead of last simply out of confusion.

So Mr. SONG, this is your theme month.

And Jon and Will, this review is dedicated to you both!

Original Title: Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA
Year: 2000
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Seong-san Jeong, Hyeon-seok Kim, Mu-yeong Lee, Chan-wook Park, Sang-yeon Park (novel "DMZ")
Genre: Drama

In the DMZ separating North and South Korea, two North Korean soldiers have been killed, supposedly by one South Korean soldier. But the 11 bullets found in the bodies, together with the 5 remaining bullets in the assassin's magazine clip, amount to 16 bullets for a gun that should normally hold 15 bullets. The investigating Swiss/Swedish team from the neutral countries overseeing the DMZ suspects that another, unknown party was involved - all of which points to some sort of cover up. The truth is much simpler and much more tragic.

I want to be very careful with this review as not to give away the delicate story that unfolds here. This slow reveal of elements of this tale made this truly great to me, and one of the best films I have seen in a long, long time. So at the same time I am wanting to go on and on about it.

I'm also afraid my ramblings will not do the film justice. How about this; if you run into some BS of mine that you just can't get past... just go watch this now.

It is worth your time.

JSA is still part of my Kang-ho Song theme I have running here, and he appears playing a North Korean soldier and one of the three individuals in the middle of an investigation of what exactly happened the one night when two North Korean soldiers are mysteriously killed. If for some odd reason I wasn't a Song fan before, I definitely would be after this role. He is simply phenomenal as Sgt. Oh Kyeong-pil, at the same time fiery and dedicated/loyal. You can see the wide range of emotions he goes through, but at the same time manages to still keep the character private and emotionally even for the most part.

Sgt. Oh is a very interesting character who is older and more experienced than the rest of the major players. He seems to be torn unlike the others in the strength of his contradicting loyalties, but he handles the contradictory emotions more maturely than the others might. You really get the sense through how the character is constructed and through Song's performance that Sgt. Oh is a realist where those around him are quite a bit more ideal. Oh's experience and perspective coming from an oppressive regime shapes his outlook on things.

The other role I want to discuss is another repeat performer on Assorted Loaf here as well: Byung-hun Lee's Sgt. Soo-hyeok Lee. (He played The Bad in The Good, The Bad, and the Weird.)

Sgt. Lee is one of those approaching-idealist characters I just spoke of. That might not really be a fair description, as no one in the film really is an idealist. Sgt. Lee just has a more innocent and optimistic view of how things could be.

He is the other main player in the drama that unfolds after the shooting of the North Korean soldiers, and throughout the film you learn that he is much less experienced in life and in the military than Sgt. Oh is. Where Oh knows what is possible and what is not, Sgt. Lee looks at things more as a child would. Or maybe it is as someone who is from a free society instead of an oppressed one.

Byung-hun does a great job with this role as well, and gives quite a touching performance. I associate it more with his performance from A Bittersweet Life, although this is still different as he wears his heart on his sleeve so to speak here. He deals with real, raw emotions, and you really feel for the character in what he is going through.

The direction of the film, as with Good, Bad, Weird, was the true highlight for me, and that's not to take away one ounce of anything from the performances of Song and Lee. Chan-wook Park is masterful here in my opinion.

Ultimately the story is simple, but it is presented in a deep and complex way. It unfolds gradually and as a result, I felt a bond with those involved. It was a story where after it was over, I found myself wanting to know what happened to certain characters as if they live on outside of the film.

Not only do we get endearing characters, and wonderful (and nostalgic in a way) relationships that form, Park creates an anti-war message in the film that never beats you over the head. It becomes a much larger story of brotherhood, innocence, and how trivial certain conflicts can seem when all it takes is a couple people to start a change.

The filmmaking is never flashy, (I think that could have been problematic with how the story was meant to unfold, so subtle is best) but there are little touches here and there... things you will notice once and then again... nuances in setting or whatever that just add perfectly to a scene. It all shows the great amount of care that went into the film's creation.

One element in particular I really liked was the ever-present signs of conflict even between people who are on the outside close friends. They play games not with dice but with live ammunition. They arm wrestle and push one another around. It's boyish and innocent, but at the same time telling of an underlying tension that goes way beyond themselves and the room they are in.

The film is divided into three distinct acts. The first act will have you feeling like you're watching a military set murder mystery. The neutral team from Sweden is investigating this murder that has increased tensions between two countries who are always seemingly on the brink of physical conflict. The Joint Security Area is impossibly small. I had no idea it was this way, but the military forces from North and South Korea are shown here as divided by a simple line... not a grey neutral area. They keep constant watch over one another, and Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Yeong-ae Lee) is told to be 100% subjective in her investigation as to not raise tension any further.

The second act is largely flashback and builds what truly happened that night. This is when the audience grows close to the characters and everything begins to be seen under a different light. Then obviously the third act is the resolution.

The first act in a way feels like a different movie... especially at first. It lasts awhile, and in hindsight I wish the second act flashbacks just happened a bit sooner. But when things shift in perspective and tone, the change is surprising and I think hits home even more, so my criticism here is probably just silly.

Throughout it all, Park keeps the tension high, makes the characters very endearing and complex, and does an A+ job of showing how so much can balance on one single bullet.

Thinking about this film right now, and while writing this review, I get a little choked up. It is touching and a complexly constructed simple story that still manages to carry a much larger message. The young men here are part of something much bigger, and I could feel their struggle at times. That to me is a successful film.

I feel like male viewers may be able to get into this film more than female because of the type of relationships that are built, but really it can be appreciated by anyone into great filmmaking.

Highly recommended. One of the best films I have seen in a long time.

Score: 9 / 10

Friday, November 13, 2009


Original Title: Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom
Year: 2008
Director: Kim Ji-woon
Writer: Kim Ji-woon, Kim Min-suk
Genre: Western

The story of three Korean outlaws in 1940s Manchuria and their rivalry to possess a treasure map while being pursued by the Japanese army and Chinese bandits.

If the title of the film alone wasn't enough to clue you in, this is a high budget Korean retelling of sorts of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Three less than desirable fellows all pursuing a common "treasure" and dealing with one another along the way. Replace the American military and the Civil War backdrop with Chinese military circa 1930 or 40, and there you have it.

I guess it's "inspired by" the Leone epic.

This is actually the first film I ever watched with Song Kang-ho. He is Yoon Tae-goo or The Weird. In addition to his awesomely frizzy hair, he does a great job acting-wise living up to his name as the offbeat bandit who is just not as slick as the two pros he becomes involved with. This role is what made me want to see more of Kang-ho's work. The character carries around two Walther's, so that automatically gives him some cool points there.

The Weird stumbles across a map early in the film that he believes leads to some great treasure in China.

His role of the three major characters is primarily comic relief. He is the sort that stumbles into trouble, but has a good street sense about him, is willing to be nasty if needed, and some luck apparently, that allows him to be a successful thief. Kang-ho is really a lot of fun as the Weird.

Almost the exact opposite character is the cocky and handsome Park Chang-yi or The Bad, played by Lee Byung-hun. I've seen Byng-hun in other films including the remarkable A Bittersweet Life, another Kim Ji-woon directed film, where he plays a quiet but very efficient bodyguard of sorts. He also plays Storm Shadow in the GI Joe flick from this past summer.

Here, Ji-woon emphasizes Byung-hun's sinister attributes, including a fantastic hairdo to make him a great villain. And that's not to discredit Byung-hun's portrayal by any means. But when you already look like a great villain, it certainly helps. But Byung-hun is nasty and vengeful and really good in this role. I really like the contrast between this character and his character from A Bittersweet Life. He's the cold motherfucker that shoots a mate and just asks if it hurts. Badass!

The Bad has been hired to find a particular map that leads to a treasure somewhere in China. Hmmm... sounds familiar.

Then we come to the least compelling character... at least for me. He is the bounty hunter after both The Weird and The Bad. Park Do-won, or simply The Good, played by Jung Woo-sung, is your typical spaghetti western anti-hero. He is a phenomenal shot 99% of the time with whatever weapon he is using and can perform almost superhuman feats. There is a scene in the film where he is almost flying - or maybe slinging like Spider-Man - through a crudely constructed village. Woo-sung plays this character just as you might expect. He is quiet and efficient and seems private. It's straightforward and not as interesting as the other two, but I suppose you need this character to complete a trio.

His best scene in the film as far as character development go I think comes at a campsite with The Weird. They discuss what they will do with the treasure if they find it, discuss Korea, and life in general. It's a nice scene and sometimes funny... one of the best in the film for being a down moment. We see a human side of The Good, yet he still remains a mystery.

"Life is about chasing and being chased. There is no escape."

The interactions and story of these three is definitely inspired by The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but in a way it reminded me of Enzo Castellari's film Go Kill and Come Back, which I reviewed here in September. In that film, we also have a bounty hunter pursuing a handsome bandit, but then becomes involved in a treasure hunt as well. Edd Byrnes as a banker in that film doesn't exactly match up as The Ugly or The Weird, but he is the closest of that particular trio to the comic relief role.

The high point for me in the film is the direction and storytelling of Kim Ji-woon. Yes, the overall structure is borrowed, but along with cinematographers Lee Mo-gae and Oh Seung-Chul, he crafts a grand, sweeping tale with so many similarities to the Westerns we all know and love, and a definite Asian flavor with humor and some fantastic costumes and quirky side characters. Not only are there fantastic wide shots, but shaky action, some great indoor lighting, and cool little camera tricks that keep the film very lively.

I particularly like the camerawork in an opium den scene as The Weird slowly becomes inebriated without realizing it. It's slow and subtle as things slowly revolve and shift. Song Kang-ho is really good here also as he gets annoyed with the girls around him blowing smoke in his face.

As the story progresses, things get bigger and bigger in a manner of speaking, as we learn more and more about the treasure map and about all the forces involved in its retrieval. Our characters find themselves even in something much, much larger than anticipated, and it leads to one climactic scene with unbelievable stunts and camerawork.

Some of the scenes are CGI I believe, but it really does not hinder the film. It is all blended very well and is never a distraction.

The setting in 1930s/40s Manchuria is very interesting to me. And old world is meeting a new world, as buildings are constructed from bamboo but the urban crowding is already apparent. Horses run next to jeeps and motorcycles. Pistols fire and traditional weapons fly. (There's even a MAUL in there... incredible.)

These contrasts in eras all meeting together makes this film really unique to me and allows it to stand out from its older siblings.

There are a few issues with the film, but really nothing worth going into in detail. The final standoff (you knew that was coming) goes on a bit long despite some cool twists being thrown in there, but it's a minor gripe. I think things just could have been shaved down a bit more. The film's runtime is 2:15 or so, and this could have just been a little tighter while still having some of those special downtimes.

I had loads of fun with The Good, The Bad, and the Weird and would recommend it to anyone interested in Westerns, Asian cinema, or action films in general. It looks phenomenal, is very well acted, funny at times and bloody and gritty at times.

Great, great effort.

Score: 8.75 / 10

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Original Title: Bakjwi (Bat)
Year: 2009
Director:  Park Chan-wook
Writer: Jeong Seo-GyeongPark Chan-wook
Genre: Horror

Beloved and devoted priest from a small town volunteers for a medical experiment which fails and turns him into a vampire. Physical and psychological changes lead to his affair with a wife of his childhood friend who is repressed and tired of her mundane life. The one-time priest falls deeper in despair and depravity. As things turns for worse, he struggles to maintain whats left of his humanity.

Having recently seen this film in the theater, and not initially planning to review it (as with my review of Paranormal Activity a couple weeks ago), this review will probably differ a bit from my norm. Namely, you'll not see my always incredible, entertaining, deftly snapped screen captures, but instead some stills that I blatantly stole from other websites.

Hey, I need some sort of crutch for my writing, and images are the best way I know how without having a monkey in a tuxedo read the review to you.

So this is my first review for Kang-ho month!

Song Kang-ho plays the devoted priest Sang-hyeon mentioned in the synopsis. He is constantly called upon to issue last rites and pray for terminally ill patients in a hospital near his monastery. Sang-hyeon struggles with constantly seeing so much death, and wants to help in some other way. He volunteers for a vaccination trial in some African country for a disease which causes those inflicted to cough up blood, be covered in boils, and seemingly suffocate. No man ever lives ones infected, and Sang-hyeon is no exception as he dies a pretty gruesome death. He is given an accidental transfusion of vampire blood, however, and he is brought back to life.

This sequence sums up much of what I felt about the film. The moments leading up to Sang-hyeon's death are slow and quiet. A doctor explains to him what will most likely happen once he is infected with the virus, and then we see it happen. Park Chan-wook is very good I think in these scenes, as we cringe and feel the stress despite everything feeling so calm. There is a scene with blood pouring from Sang-hyeon's small woodwind instrument that is very jarring.

But on the flip side, despite the well handled scenes and imagery, there are story elements that feel a bit disjointed. It was difficult for me to buy the priest's motivations for taking part in this experiment which he knew would lead to his death. And I'm not sure if I missed it, but I am pretty sure that they never explain where vampire blood even came from or why this team of doctors may have had it. It made Sang-hyeon's "resurrection" feel a bit forced.

As I said, this is in a way how the entire film unfolds. There are some great scenes and some fantastic imagery, but at other times the pacing feels sluggish or just off, the story gets disjointed, and motivations are glossed over for the sake of a little more shock.

Kang-ho is solid as the priest, but at times also a bit underwhelming. I don't think this was a fault of his, but rather how the character is written. There are moments that are very interesting as the priest is dealing with his new vampirisim, but there are other times when he just "does" and it begins to seem very out of character at times. All the while, Kang-ho keeps his calm demeanor so there's not much to go on to figure out the character's intentions. I think it could have been much more interesting had Chan-wook delved much farther into the whole priest struggling with this evil aspect as opposed to focusing on his gory relationship with Tae-joo.

Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) ends up being a more interesting character than Priest Sang-hyeon because she starts as a frustrated young lady forced into a pretty mundane and near-abusive lifestyle, and as a result undergoes drastic changes throughout the film. Sang-hyeon knew Tae-joo as a child, and as a vampire now has trouble resisting being around her sexually. The initial moments between the two are done very awkwardly, but in a good way, as they both learn about one another as they come out of their respective shells.

But again, this dynamic gets lost in the shuffle of the film as much time is spent instead on us watching vampire acts, seeing some gore, and getting some very slow paced character development. There are some fantastic scenes in there: Sang-hyeon feeding while lying on a hospital room floor, a "haunting" of sorts from a very wet and snotty apparition... but ultimately the pacing overwhelms them all and they become just a collection of cool moments for me instead of continuing to press themes that are touched upon then forgotten.

I do not want to give some big plot elements about the story away, so I'm not sure how far I can take the discussion. There are definitely bright moments in this story, but at times I really just thought it dragged and it felt very long (2 hours, 13 mins) when all was said and done. There are also some humorous moments in there which creates a change of pace.

I think with some slower scenes edited down, the film could have been better, but I really believe what could have made it a great film was really focusing on how a priest would deal with becoming such an embodiment of evil. As is stands now, I see Thirst as what could have been. It's like a really awesome film wearing an average film's disguise.

I enjoyed it, but wanted it to be so much more.

I'd recommend seeing it, particularly those fans of Chan-wook's work. I did not enjoy it as much as I enjoyed his film Oldboy for instance, another slower paced film, but the images here will linger with you.

Score: 6.75 / 10

Monday, November 9, 2009

Time to get back to it

I know you missed me all my babies!

I'll admit, I stretched myself pretty thin there trying to fill in everything I set for myself in Mexploitation Month. I hope everyone enjoyed the reviews, but know that some of those films were a struggle! That was probably more due to the fact that I was watching them daily.

Anyway, I do love a good theme, so I have decided to review a few films this month with an actor I have only discovered this year and have really grown to like from the few roles I've seen him in.

Mr. Song Kang-ho

Without actively searching him out, in recent months I have seen three films which he starred in, and have several more that he appears in to some degree in my ever-growing to-watch pile.

What better time to watch them than the present, yes?

All of them are Korean, and seem great. I'm obviously not going to be reviewing nearly a film a day as with Mexploitation Month, but let's see where this much abbreviated journey takes us.

Enjoy Kang-ho Month!