There are several fight scenes throughout the movie. We see bullet wounds, stabbing etc and blood gushing continuously. Copious amounts of blood sprays from wounds during seamless and prolonged scenes of combat. Impalement is common along with creative ways to strangle, smash, hack and bleed people from innumerable angles. A Man lies in a pool of blood and smiles at his daughter before being hit with a sledgehammer in the side of his head. Blood sprays on the girl's face. A man's hand is severed with a hatchet, spraying blood around the inside of a bus while screaming in pain.
Which I suppose is another way of reminding us that this is a Korean movie. There are plenty of good things about The Villainess. Director Jung Byung-gil has a real flair for action, and he used new, tiny cameras to achieve some mind-bending cinematography (Park Jung-hun is the cinematographer). Kim Ok-vin (Thirst), who I think plays the title character (the plot is, shall we say, confusing), is terrific in the action scenes (she is a legit martial artist as well as an actor).
But outside of the action set pieces, The Villainess drags. The basic plot is simple enough ... think the various permutations of Nikita ... but the explanation(s) for the behavior of The Villainess are so messy, the movie ends up relying too much on flashbacks that are supposed to clarify things. It's a two-hour movie that could be even better at an hour-and-a-half.
Still, it's hard to argue with those action scenes ... well, they are so indiscriminately brutal you either get desensitized or you quit watching (if you started in the first place). Your mileage may vary, is what I'm trying to say.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen theatrically released film adapted from a television series. Here's a good list.
I wish there was more to say about this movie. Its built-in audience should be happy, and newcomers to The Simpsons will likely tolerate it. As Glenn Kenny wrote, "If this is in fact merely a longer Simpsons episode, it's a damn good Simpsons episode." There are the endless pop-culture references (many of which refer back to The Simpsons TV show), the characters we know and love, and, perhaps, a bit more moralizing than I, at least, was used to. The plot is good enough to get us through 87 minutes, Tom Hanks and Green Day make celebrity cameos, and Marge says "goddamn".
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the K-Horror film.
Thirst comes with a solid pedigree. Director Park Chan-wook is a master of Korean horror (his Oldboy is as good as it gets). The male lead, Song Kang-ho, is recognizable to many viewers here in the U.S. for his roles in films like Parasite, Snowpiercer, and The Host. And the female lead, Kim Ok-bin, a young actress near the beginning of her career, gives and award-winning performance that matches Song, scene for scene.
If we are to believe Park, the plot was influenced by Émile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, and it makes sense. Except Zola wasn't writing about vampires. Song plays a devout Catholic priest who takes part in an experiment to try and find a vaccine for a deadly virus. The experiment fails, but the priest gets a blood transfusion that leads him to sinful thoughts, including but not limited to drinking blood. He has lustful feelings for the wife (Kim) of his childhood friend, she shares those feelings, and then ... well, I've already told too much of the plot. Part of the fun of Thirst is seeing just how far and off-the-wall Park will go. Suffice to say that once Kim starts having feelings, she nearly steals the movie.
I won't lie ... the plot gets loony at times. You could make an argument that Thirst is style over substance, although the priest's religious conflicts are taken seriously in what is nonetheless often pretty funny. It's not quite as good as my favorite vampire movie, Near Dark, but it's the equal of a much different vampire film, Let the Right One In.
This is the tenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 10 is called Korean Cinema Homework Week:
Following Parasite's incredible hot streak and the pleasant surprise of it winning Best Picture at the Oscar's, a lot of people were curious as to where start when looking into more South Korean cinema. Thankfully, Katie Rife, senior writer at The A.V. Club, offered up some recommendations for those looking for some guidance. Take a look!
I had seen about half of the movies on the list, and was happy to check out 3-Iron from Kim Ki-duk, who directed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, which I watched a few months ago. I said of that movie, "Nothing is 'real' at all on some level, but it doesn't play as fantasy", and that holds to some extent for 3-Iron. 3-Iron seems more 'real' at first, but as the movie goes on, it feels more fantastic. The plot, as established at the beginning, has young Tae-suk (Jae Hee) as someone who breaks into people's houses when they aren't at home, settling in, fixing things, doing laundry, eating, then leaving before they return. It seems rather ingenious, and when he is caught by Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), an abused wife, she comes with him and joins on his sprees. This is clever, and if a bit like a tall tale, Kim presents it in a relatively realistic way. But Sun-hwa's husband wants revenge, the police are corrupt, and gradually Tae-suk demonstrates skills that are at least a little magical. None of this is hard to follow, but the magic sneaks up on you, and to be honest, by the end of the film, I wasn't quite sure if I'd actually seen any fantasy at all.
The two main characters never talk, leaving the actors to work via facial expressions ... it's fine, especially since the two are gorgeous to look at. Kim has little interest in the mainstream, and from what I've seen, the mainstream probably has little interest in his work. But at least based on the two films I've seen, he mostly avoids the abstract, even as he walks a line between real and fantasy. #573 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Among the movies chosen to meet this challenge were Oldboy, Memories of Murder, Mother, The Host, The Handmaiden, Snowpiercer, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Burning.
I'm not a Buddhist, but I think I'm safe in saying this is a Buddhist film. There are few characters, but a couple of the main ones are monks or monks in training. But it's not the narrative that is Buddhist, as much as it is the setting, the pace, the spiritual nature of the film. Most of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring takes place in a monastery that sits in the middle of a lake. It is never explained how the floating monastery got there, or even how it floats. On the other side of the lake are large doors through which the camera, and at times the characters, move. But the doors don't serve a concrete purpose ... anyone could just walk around them. In a similar fashion, while the monastery only has one room, there is a door that people go through, even though they, too, could walk around them. There is something respectful about how these doors are treated. It is also part of the overall reality of the movie ... nothing is "real" at all on some level, but it doesn't play as fantasy. It's just a visualization of the spiritual. #938 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#173 on the 21st-century list).
At the beginning, we meet a monk and his young apprentice. With the passage of each season into another, time moves forward and the apprentice ages, from teenager to adult to middle age. Finally, he takes on his own apprentice. Kim manages to create a calm film, thanks to the pacing, the beauty of the imagery, and the musical score. It's not that "nothing happens", or even that only "nice" things happen. A broad spectrum of human behavior is seen in the film. The calmness comes from the acceptance that everything is one. Or not ... like I say, I'm not a Buddhist.
Nothing was going right. I tried to order dinner for delivery and kept failing. We decided to watch a movie, picked Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the Blu-ray didn't work. I threw up my hands and watched Train to Busan again.
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.
The only thing I'd add is that it fit right in with our times. The zombie breakout is like a virus, and the government pretends everything is OK. It's not. I really like this movie, and enjoyed a second visit.
This is a tough one. I've seen one other film from Chang-dong Lee, Secret Sunshine, which I liked quite a bit. The Metacritic score for Burning was 90/100 ("Universal acclaim"). It's # 116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. And it came up recently in a comment from a friend I respect who called it "my favorite film last year -- and one of my favorite films of the 2000s" (hence, "by request", although he didn't specifically make a request).
But Burning mostly left me scratching my head.
It falls into a few categories I've invented over the years. There's the "It wasn't made for me" category, usually combined with "Director achieved their aims", resulting in a movie I don't much like but that I nonetheless respect. (The patron saint of these categories is Terrence Malick.) Perhaps a bigger reason I was left unsatisfied is less because of a category and more because of a taste preference (although I guess that falls under "not for me"). I don't often like ambiguity in a movie, especially when I think it is purposeful. I used to complain about this, but over time I've realized it's more about me than about the filmmaker. I never understand the byzantine plots of international spy thrillers, and am always asking my wife, "what just happened?" (She has her own version of this ... if a movie mostly ignores narrative thrust, she is likely to ask, "is this about anything?" But she never loses her place in a spy thriller.) With movies like that, I'm left to appreciate the action, or the acting, or anything that doesn't remind me I have no idea what is going on.
Chang-dong Lee is intent on ambiguity in Burning. In one interview, Lee used the words "ambiguity" or "ambiguous" 11 times. It comes as no surprise, then, that his film is filled with ambiguity. I love movies that are non-judgmental towards their very human characters (Sid and Nancy), and that's a form of ambiguity. But Lee's ambiguities are larger than simple characters ... in the interview, he says "I wanted ... to discuss the ambiguities of the world we live in and how there seems to be no answer to the questions that we have today". Lee is up to something, to be sure, which is why I'd categorize it as "Director achieved their aims" ... he wanted to discuss ambiguity in the world, and he did so by making an ambiguous film. But, as I said before, my brain doesn't work right for this kind of purposeful ambiguity. More often that not, I'm wondering, "what is this about" or "what is happening" or "is this entire movie made up in the head of the main character"? And that gets in the way of my appreciation for the film.
As I was watching, I was thinking about a favorite movie of mine, L'Avventura. In that movie, a group of upper-class people are on a yachting cruise when one seemingly key character disappears. Her friends try to find her, but they soon lose interest. Only two of them stick with the search, but ultimately they are hardly better than the others, eventually beginning an affair. One of Antonioni's points is that these people are so self-absorbed that the loss of their friend means little or nothing to them. The audience may wonder whatever happened to the missing woman, but like the characters, we push that question to the back burner ... it's not what makes the movie interesting.
A woman disappears in Burning, too. But here, one character really cares about her fate. In fact, he obsesses about it, and that obsession is crucial to the film. We never find out what happened to her, or even if she existed ... ambiguity. But Lee makes us care about what happens to her. When Antonioni decides not to explain his disappearing woman, he is commenting on the way the people in the film have forgotten her. But Lee, in focusing on the man's obsession, invites us to understand what has happened, and when he purposely skips that information in order to maintain his ambiguity, well, he achieved his aim of discussing the ambiguities of the world, by making an ambiguous picture ... and that's going to end up in my "not for me" category.
Despite everything I've said, there is plenty to like about Burning. The actors portraying the three main characters (Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, and Yeun Sang-yeop) are wonderful. This was Jun's first movie, and it doesn't show ... she effectively shows us the complicated nature of her character. Yoo is masterful in showing the way his obsession gradually grows. Most notably, at least for American viewers, is Yuen as the most mysterious character of them all ... notable because we know him as Steven Yuen from The Walking Dead, mysterious because we learn so little about him, and Yuen's facial expressions suggest a self-satisfied knowledge, as if we don't know, but he knows everyone else.
I am going on and on about a movie that will appeal to many ... all those critical raves, not to mention that of my friend, are evidence of that. Even as I complain, I find myself wanting to watch it again, see if it makes more sense. So if, for instance, you are intrigued by a movie where a greenhouse may not be just a greenhouse but a metaphor for something else, where your interpretation of the meaning of those greenhouses is a key to the story and your reaction to it, and where that meaning will inevitable be ambiguous ... then you should check out Burning.
Selected passages from posts about the six films I have seen directed by Bong Joon-ho:
Memories of Murder (2003): "I’ve liked every one of Bong’s movies that I have seen, and each of them have refused to be held down to clear genre expectations.... Bong is capable of anything.... Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next."
The Host (2006): "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."
Mother (2009): "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."
Snowpiercer (2013): "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."
Okja (2017): "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.... 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."
Parasite (2019): "I'm not sure I can even reduce Parasite to a specific genre, which may be a sign that I liked it even more than the others.... Parasite starts off as one kind of movie, almost a comedy, gradually and almost unnoticed takes a turn into another kind of movie, reflects on the notion of parasites, and somehow at the end you realize it was never just one kind of movie, but always all kinds of movies. It is constantly surprising."
This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":
Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.
Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.