okja (joon-ho bong, 2017)

Okja is the fifth movie by Joon-Ho Bong that I have seen. I've been impressed by all of them ... even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work. As I wrote of Memories of Murder:

Thus far, Bong has demonstrated the ability to make very good movies, but for some reason, I wouldn’t put any of them in the “great” range just yet. He’s got time, of course, and he has yet to make a stinker. Even his American movie was good (Snowpiercer). Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next, and Okja is a perfect example. Like Snowpiercer, Okja is an American movie. Unlike Snowpiercer, a significant amount of the film is in Korean. Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun). It's a bit like a live-action Miyazaki movie, except with cussing and some brutal slaughterhouse scenes.

The cast is interesting, with Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead, Paul Dano, Lily Collins, and Devon Bostick from The 100 as a group of animal-rights activists. Giancarlo Esposito is a bad guy, and Tilda Swinton (who was also in Snowpiercer) plays twin sisters. Swinton manages to chew the scenery while somehow being subtle about it, although this may just be her ethereal look, the way she seems magnificently odd.

I mention this because the worst part of Okja comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, whose overacting takes over the movie whenever he's on the screen. Gyllenhaal has been fine in many films, and I'm not sure what has prompted this performance, which is as if Ace Ventura popped in for a lengthy cameo. In such cases, my tendency is to blame the director. Gyllenhaal doesn't make Okja unwatchable ... I'm exaggerating his awfulness, and he is not the main character. But he, as much as anything, contributes to Okja being yet another Bong movie that is very good, but not great.

Bong is one the best living directors, and he's only 47. To quote myself, he's got time, and he has yet to make a stinker. 8/10.

 


train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.

Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies  are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre. 8/10.

 


the host (bong joon-ho, 2006)

I wrote about The Host almost ten years ago, and I guess you could it was a case of damning with faint praise, when I devoted a mere one sentence to what I thought was a 7/10 movie: “Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it.” Having just watched it again, I have to say, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking back in 2008. At the least, I should have realized that “a few dozen rungs” is a lot.

Partly, I have context now, having seen a lot of Korean horror since 2008. Just to take Bong’s movies, there are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Snowpiercer (the latter actually being his American sci-fi-action flick). In other words, I’m a fan of Bong and Korean movies in ways I wasn’t when I first saw The Host, so I’m more predisposed to like it.

There are other little things ... Scott Wilson, who’s had a long career in everything from In Cold Blood and The Great Gatsby to The Walking Dead, has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. And Doona Bae, who I hadn’t noticed before in several movies, but who is a fave of mine on Sense8, so now when I re-watch The Host, there’s Bae as the archer. These are the kinds of things that bring a familiarity to The Host that wasn’t there before.

But enough explaining. I still missed the boat, because The Host isn’t just a few dozen rungs better than Sharknado, it’s in another league. The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster.

Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie.

I still think I’d start with Mother if I wanted to introduce someone to the work of Bong Joon-Ho. But The Host is getting closer. #104 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st cenury. 8/10. (At this rate, if I watch it again in 2026 and 2035, I’ll give it a 10/10.) (Trying to imagine me watching a Korean monster movie when I’m 82 years old.)


film fatales #20: paju (chan-ok park, 2009)

After seeing so many Korean horror films (most of them quite good, of course), it was an interesting pleasure to take in a Korean movie whose horrors are implicit. Paju is many things, but at its heart, it is a character study, and while I assume I am missing some of the more local Korean reference points, it works fine in the simplified world of character.

Which isn’t to say that Paju is simple. Park draws on complex film techniques, most notably in her use of flashbacks, which are rarely identified precisely. The placement of those flashbacks leads more to uncertainty than to confusion, and throughout, Park is building a story for her characters that may be told out of order but which make an emotional sense. The relationship between the primary characters, Joong-sik and Eun-mo, is the heart of Paju, but external events drive the story ... in the “present”, Joong-sik is part of a team of activists fighting developers with something resembling guerilla warfare, while in the “past”, he is a horny young man who experiences something tragic. The key to the relationship between Joong-sik and Eun-mo lies in her sister, Eun-soo, who is married to Joong-sik (thus, Joong-sik is Eun-mo’s brother-in-law). Eun-soo does not exist in the primary “past” (Joong-sik hasn’t met the sisters yet) or in the present (Eun-soo is dead). We see her in the period between the two main periods, but we don’t know until the end why she disappeared. All of this leads Eun-mo to mistrust her brother-in-law ... she wonders if he was responsible for her sister’s death ... but their close relation gradually leads to love, which is a problem since she is still young.

Or so I think. As is often the case, I lost track of the plot on several occasions. But it mattered less than usual, because I was taken with the stories of the characters. And Seo Woo (or Woo Soo ... I am not aided by the fact that various sources list Korean names in different order, so she is Seo Woo on Wikipedia but Woo Seo on the IMDB) does wonders with the young Eun-mo, capturing the screen every time she appears. Also, I never got the feeling Park was using a fractured time frame just so she could show off or obscure. While at times confusing, the various flashbacks deepen our understanding of the characters, and so feel central to the film in ways that are not simply annoying. 8/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


what i watched last week

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). Due to some confusing marketing in the home video field, some call this movie “Live Die Repeat”, which was an advertising tag line and which admittedly is a better and more appropriate title for this one. Edge of Tomorrow is easy to describe, like the movie pitches parodied in The Player: “It’s Starship Troopers crossed with Groundhog Day, with Tom Cruise in the Bill Murray role!” (My choice for a more obscure movie that could fit into this scenario is The Americanization of Emily.) The comparisons aren’t quite fair. It’s not as good as Groundhog Day, which isn’t really a criticism, and while it is better than Starship Troopers, it lacks the lunacy Paul Verhoeven brought to that project which makes it so endlessly watchable to this day. Making those comparisons also emphasizes the ways Edge of Tomorrow lacks newness. But it does some of the same old things with panache, it is never boring and not bloated (in this day and age, to bring in a big-budget action movie that runs under two hours is remarkable). Cruise is fine in his action mode, with a pleasing underpinning of cowardice (as mentioned, see James Garner in Americanization of Emily). Speaking of Emily, Emily Blunt makes a terrific action hero, and for the most part, the film avoids the pitfall of making her Cruise’s sidekick. Add the always reliable Bill Paxton as a bad-ass, and some aliens that look far more inventive than the norm, and you have a solid movie. #791 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is stretching it a bit. 7/10.

Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa and Kôji Morimoto, 2004). I am not knowledgeable about anime ... to take a list at random, of the 92 films on a “Guide to Anime Movies”, I have only seen 12. Mind Game seemed seriously out there to me, but for all I know, it’s standard fare in the genre. Yuasa and Morimoto (Robin Nishi should also be mentioned, as the author of the original comic) take a kitchen sink approach, so you never know what is coming from one moment to the next. There is a “plot”, but to me, it was irrelevant. It’s just a dazzling movie, in spite of (because of?) its incoherence. The colors, in particular, are jarringly gorgeous, and occasionally, an animated face will be replaced on the screen with the face of the voice actor for that character, like Clutch Cargo only for an entire face. A scene near the end where the four heroes swim for their lives is stunning (and here, I’ll mention Fayray and Seiichi Yamamoto and Shinichiro Watanabe ... I can’t figure out who did what ... for the music, which is brilliantly integrated into the action, particularly in that long swimming scene). I liked Mind Game ... it’s not a movie for me, but I saw elements of the French New Wave, and The Road Warrior, so maybe I don’t know my own taste. #758 on the TSPDT 21st century list. 8/10.

Mother (Joon-ho Bong, 2009). I revisited this one after six years. I’ve watched more contemporary Korean films than I had back then, including several by Bong, who has yet to make one I didn’t like. Mother might be my favorite ... that or the English-language film Snowpiercer. What is clear is that Bong is more than willing to take on a variety of subjects. Of the ones I’ve seen, Memories of Murder is a brutal movie about a serial killer, The Host is a monster movie, Mother is a psychological thriller, and Snowpiercer is a science-fiction picture with an international cast. To some extent, it doesn’t matter that Bong moves from genre to genre, since he likes to turn them on their heads, anyway. But they always work. Watching Mother this time, I felt a connection to some of Hitchcock’s sicker movies. I also don’t think I realized the first time that Hye-ja Kim, who plays the titular mother, was a star of Korean television very well-known for playing wholesome, loving moms. Mother was surely a revelation on its release, as if Barbara Billingsley had followed Leave It to Beaver by playing Norman Bates’ mom. #280 on the 21st-century list. 8/10.

Quartet (Dustin Hoffman, 2012). 6/10.


by request/blu-ray series # 22: i saw the devil (jee-woon kim, 2010)

(This was recommended by Kasey, and was a birthday gift from Sue and Paul.)

Another film in my continuing education in recent Korean cinema. It’s my first Jee-woon Kim movie, as well as my first movie with Byung-hun Lee. Min-sik Choi was also in the excellent Oldboy. I’m starting to recognize some of these actors (Choi is hard to miss, and he’s terrific ... Doona Bae is in the new series Sense8, and she looked familiar to me, so I looked her up and saw she was in The Host). When I buried myself in Hong Kong movies back in the day, one of the best parts was seeing the top stars turn up in multiple movies, and I’ve got a lot of Korean films on my to-see list, so perhaps this will happen again.

I tend to question my wife’s love of the TV show Criminal Minds, which deals with serial killers. It seems from my outsider’s perspective to be a sick show that spends a lot of time showing women being tortured. Well, as long as I watch movies like I Saw the Devil, I have no room to talk. It’s like an episode of Criminal Minds, if it was rated X and the heroes became as sick as the villains. It’s even worse than that sounds. An accurate description comes from one of the film’s taglines: “He’s not getting even. He’s just getting started.” When the hero catches the villain, the movie still has an hour or so to go, and you may find yourself wondering what might fill the remaining time. Without giving away too many spoilers, let’s just say the second half of that tagline is a big hint.

There may be some redeeming social commentary here. The old “to defeat a monster, you must become a monster” angle is well-represented. There isn’t a lot of class context ... the victims are women, but the extreme violence is often directed towards men. There’s cannibalism, but I think it’s there for comic relief, believe it or not. The cinematography and editing and acting are all top-notch, which makes it all the more disturbing.

Min-sik Choi is so good as the villain, and his character is so evil, that you can’t help but root for the hero, not only to solve the crimes and stop the bad guy, but to extract some measure of revenge. Which, of course, implicates the audience in actions as evil as those of the bad guy.

You should know now whether you’ll like I Saw the Devil. It goes far enough to discourage many viewers, and I understand this ... there are movies I won’t see, too. If you can stomach it, though, this is very well done. Oldboy remains my favorite Korean film, though, with Mother in second place. 7/10.


what i watched last week

Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). Has a little of everything, but surprises along the way. It’s a near-future dystopia, it’s an action adventure set on a train, it’s a caustic screed against the 1%, it has black humor and violence, and it’s the first American film from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. The violence will scare some people away, and others might be scared away by the trailers, which emphasize the grimy look of much of the film. It owes much to Brazil, a movie I didn’t much like. It also reminded me of Michael Radford’s film of 1984, although it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that one (as I recall, I liked it). The various compartments on the train each had its own décor, which was nicely done, and if the condemnation of the 1% was a bit simplistic, well, so what, I was glad it was there. If you are looking for an introduction to the wonders of modern Korean cinema, this isn’t the place to start ... it’s more American than Korean. But it is also more successful than the movies of many other Asian directors in the U.S. ... John Woo had his hand in more than half-a-dozen U.S. films, and only one (Face/Off) came close to the level of Snowpiercer. (Of course, Woo also made many HK and Chinese movies that are better than Face/Off or Snowpiercer.) #510 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10. Check out 2009’s Mother for a different side of Bong.

Since there is only one film on the list for this week, I’ll take this space to expand a bit on one aspect of Snowpiercer that it shares with some other movies. I write these short, one-paragraph reviews, knowing that in most cases, the movies in question deserve a lot more space. I try to address things that caught my attention, while also avoiding spoilers when possible, which in itself is a limiting move. [What follows includes spoilers.] In the case of movies like Snowpiercer, I don’t think it would be useful to extend what I’ve written above. It’s worthy and complicated and there are a lot of talking points. But I fear I’d just resort to a check list. The construction of Snowpiercer is ingenious ... it’s also perfect for a good six-page essay in an honors class for college undergraduates. The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class. That’s why it would make a good topic for an undergraduate essay: there is something to talk about, but it isn’t hard to find. It would also make a good topic for an extended essay that closely broke down the presentation of class, critically analyzing what Bong has done. But I’m not going to write either of these on this blog, not a six-page essay, not a chapter for a book. I’m going to write a paragraph, or two or three. And in the case of Snowpiercer, once I’ve mentioned the basics, I don’t see the point in adding a paragraph to state the obvious: that the cars on the train represent various social classes, that even if the nominal hero manages to take the train away from the nominal villain, nothing concerning classes will have been truly answered, that the two young people who escape the train are the future because they don’t conquer the train, they escape it. I could say all that, but if you watch the movie, you’ll figure it out for yourself. And unless I’m prepared to write 2500 words on the subject, I’m better off just sticking to a paragraph.


what i watched last week

Voices (Ki-hwan Oh, 2007). I decided I should pass some time by watching a Korean horror movie, and ended up here. The plot was pretty goofy, but it snuck up on me, which is to say, it didn’t seem so goofy at first, and by the time I realized it was silly, it was too late. I was already hooked. It’s the kind of horror movie that tosses in something scary and/or gory every dozen minutes to keep your attention, and it worked, since I spent most of the movie oohing and aahing. It’s possible there was supposed to be some larger message here, but if so, I missed it. Voices demonstrates a pretty depressing vision of humankind, but this, too, sneaks up on you; for most of the movie, you think you have someone to root for. By the end, such people were long gone. Not as good as Oldboy or Mother, but still an easy 7/10.

Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010). This sci-fi movie couldn’t be more different from Voices. Made for $800k, or $500k, or a lot less than $500k, depending on who you asked, Monsters features two professional actors along with amateurs who may have thought they were in a documentary. It’s about aliens who land in Mexico and turn into giant octopus-looking creatures. It’s the first feature for director Gareth Edwards, who did the special effects in his bedroom using off-the-shelf computer software. And the male lead’s name is Scoot. I assumed it would be akin to a made-for-SyFy Channel movie, only without a big star like Eric Roberts. Boy, was I wrong. Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 4. Andrew O’Hehir in Salon called it “a dynamite little film, loaded with atmosphere, intelligence, beauty and courage.” It won three British Independent Film Awards. And Edwards was handed the reins for the Godzilla reboot to be released in 2014, which will likely have a slightly larger budget than Monsters. Monsters isn’t quite as good as the above suggests, but it’s certainly better than a SyFy Channel movie. And the final scene with two aliens is unexpectedly moving. I’m giving it the same rating I gave to Voices, but it sure comes at its 7/10 in a different manner from the Korean film.


what i watched last week

These actually cover more than a week … for some reason last week’s got posted too soon, leaving me with a couple of leftovers.

Slacker. It’s interesting to watch this movie after seeing 20 years of Linklater’s work. All of these voices jabbering away about whatever is on their minds … we get similar people doing similar things in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Something that seemed new and unique in 1991 now seems like What Richard Linklater Does. I’ve liked every one of his movies I’ve seen (with the exception of Tape, which I hated), and if Slacker isn’t the best of them (I’m partial to Dazed and Confused), it’s innovative and worth a return visit every couple of decades. 7/10.

Green Zone. This movie works, but I’m not sure why. Matt Damon makes a good soldier with a brain, the feeling of dread would seem to match life in Iraq at the time the film takes place, and Paul Greengrass doesn’t overdo his usual frenetic camera work until the final action sequence, which is exciting but confusing. And the movie calls the U.S. on the lies we told ourselves to get the war started. Good movie, but far from great. 7/10.

Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed. Remarkably, it doesn’t suck. It’s not Evil Dead II good, but it’s good enough to watch if you were a fan of the first one. Still, the first one is a classic, while the second doesn’t suck. 6/10.

Chungking Express. Watching this the same week I watched Slacker made for interesting comparisons … not that they are similar films, but because both directors offer unique, uncompromising visions. Wong Kar-Wai may be his generation’s Godard, but as is appropriate, that is both a positive and a negative. When I first saw this movie, I wasn’t impressed, but once In the Mood for Love made me a Wong fan forever, I’ve been willing to reassess his movies, and I’ve enjoyed Chungking Express every time I’ve seen it since. This time, I realized how much I prefer the second part. I also notice how young Tony Leung is (I guess I need to watch Hard-Boiled again, since he’s even younger in that one, or Bullet in the Head, which is before all of them). Faye Wong makes you wish she made more movies … Brigitte Lin is one of the most beautiful actresses ever, and there are hints of this if you look closely past the blonde wig and large sunglasses. #320 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

City Hunter. A very stupid movie, redeemed a bit by a great fight at the finale between Jackie Chan and Richard Norton. There are a lot of very weird things here, which, if you are fan of the original anime, might seem appropriate. I don’t know the original, and most of what’s on the screen flops. A fight scene where the two combatants become characters from Street Fighter II is better than the fight scene in a movie theatre playing Game of Death, with Jackie fighting two tall black guys while Bruce Lee takes on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the screen. There are a lot of beautiful babes running around … the unstoppable Chingmy Yau comes off the best, but really, they’re as much eye candy as anything else … this ain’t exactly The Heroic Trio. 5/10.

Mother. A genre film, I suppose, although it encompasses multiple genres and defies our expectations along the way. It isn’t a slapdash approach by any means … it isn’t there just to show us how many movies director Joon-Ho Bong has seen. Bong is quite precise. The Host took the monster movie to a different place, and was more loony than Mother. Mother may be the better film, though. It probably says more about me than about the relative merits of the two films that I gave The Host 7/10, while I’ll give Mother 8/10.


what i watched last week

Oldboy. It took me three years, but I finally got to the second film in Park Chan-wook’s “revenge trilogy” (I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2006). I thought the earlier film was the work of a stylish director with little to say. Oldboy is much better. The violence, implied and actual, remains excruciating, but where I said about the first movie that the violence was “cool and pretty,” this time it’s not cool at all … I’d call it gruesome and funny, which I understand is an odd combination. And while Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience. Don’t get me wrong … if screen violence bothers you, stay away from this one. #75 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top films of the 21st century. 9/10, which appears to be the highest rating I’ve ever given to a movie in Korean (I haven’t seen many).