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Sonyeo (2013)
7/10
The evil that men do
18 July 2014
Steel Cold Winter is a very bleak movie that delivers in every possible way. It takes a basic premise that could lend itself to a K-drama treatment and a cast of young actors that would be at home in any romantic comedy only to create a claustrophobic atmosphere charged with anguish without ever becoming melodramatic.

We follow a boy haunted by a traumatic past who transfers from Seoul to a small town where he ends up falling in love with the local outcast girl. Their relationship is at the core of the movie, it evolves very naturally through a series of very well crafted scenes that shine thanks to the flawless interpretation of the two leads. Particularly impressive are the ice skating sequences that range from playful to downright frightful.

True to the title, the wintry landscape rules supreme and the contrast between majestic snow swept mountains and the narrow mindedness of people serves as one of the main thematic axis of the entire movie. This is a sick village where pigs are buried alive along with the hopes of the vulnerable who are made to suffer.

Teenage angst is framed in a context in which it not only makes perfect sense as it merges with something much greater, it becomes an outcry against injustice. Without being a thriller, there is enough suspense to keep the viewer engaged and the topnotch human drama is explored with brutal honesty.

There are even a few surreal moments as Steel Cold Winter plays with expectations. It shows the devastating effects of discrimination how explosive the consequences of gossip can be in such an enclosed environment.

Unlike other Korean movies in the same vein, there is no epic element here. The movie deals with the banal side of evil, a pervasive kind of abuse that snowballs into something absolutely monstrous. It is almost believable and all the more horrifying for that.

This is not an easy viewing experience, its worth relies in precisely that. It forces the viewer into very uncomfortable territory that is all the more damaging because the characters are fleshed out as real people.

It is also worth mentioning that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie, Korean cinema is not always as respectful of the rights of animals as it ought to be so it is reassuring to see that this attitude is changing: the credits mention the involved of CARE, Coexistence of Animal Rights On Earth.
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8/10
Almost Plausible
5 January 2014
The Terror Live is a very tight thriller in the best Korean tradition. It follows a former successful TV news anchor Yoon who has been demoted to a radio host. One day an upset caller threatens to blow up a bridge only to be dismissed, needless to say it was no mere idle threat and in a matter of seconds after the call is over a bridge does did explode.Thus begins a tense back and forth between Yoon and the terrorist while the nation watches in growing horror.

There are many good things going for this movie. The real time format never gives the viewer a break and the tension builds up to such a pitch as to be almost palpable. This comes across through the main's superb acting, the actor's voice and demeanor carry his distress as he scrambles for self-mastery in facing the cameras installed in his radio studio. What at first seemed like the chance of a lifetime as Yoon puts it, the perfect opportunity for going back to his television stardom, degenerates into a veritable nightmare on all fronts. Yoon pays greatly for his choice of exploiting the terrorist attack for his career.

It is interesting how The Terror Live focuses exclusively on domestic terror. The highly contentious neighbor country of North Korea is not even mentioned, the movie is firmly steeped in a South Korean reality through and through. The very premise of the media having such a swaying control fits well with South Korean society.

Strangely enough social media plays no part in this movie but it does feel very modern. The shooting style, with well thought out closeups to heighten intensity and almost exclusively centered on the studio, creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia.

This is a very Korean movie so one should expect a great blurring of the line between terrorism and highly corrupt authorities, there are no heroes here to speak of but the human element comes across through the haze of panic.

A few minor plot points keep this from reaching perfection but it is a remarkably well crafted movie and well worth watching. And it could happen in real life. Almost.
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As predictable as it is enjoyable
20 August 2013
This is one of those movies that deliver precisely what you expect and true to the Korean tradition of comedy laced with drama it manages to be highly entertaining. The plot follows a hustler who runs into debt because of his father's scamming ways. He is hired by an old lady to locate her long lost granddaughter and sets out to the countryside around the area the then child was last seen 25 years ago. He ends up pretending to be a doctor and staying at the house of a ditzy young woman who had a daughter at age 15, the mother/daughter relationship being a rocky one. The advent of the hustler complicated matters further especially when he is driven to marry the mother in order to get access to her bank account when his original money making project fails.

It is the old routine of the crook who starts off pretending to love the underdog only to fall in love for real but the execution is so flawless one is drawn in. The relationship between the very immature young and highly studious daughter has been seen before as well but both actresses are great in their role and play off each other beautifully. This angle is probably the best aspect of the whole movie. The daughter is a bit embarrassed because her mother is so young and often lashes out but there are touching moments between them that endear the viewer. In one particular moment she tells the hustler that she does love her mother that she will never have a love that causes people to look down on her.

The fact that the mother and daughter are only 15 years apart makes the slapstick between them very effective and the way they both vie for the same man forms one of the funniest elements.

As for the hustler himself he gets plenty of character development as well and his moments of frustration as he tries desperately to scramble for money will put a smile on anyone's face. The contrast between his handsome charming persona and his real self is pulled off greatly thanks to the overall acting talent that abounds in the cast.

And speaking of the cast, we have the three stooges in the shape of the town's silly guys one of which has been courting the mother for ages with no success. They are purely there for comedy relief until the very end in one of the few surprising moments in the movie.

It is never hilarious but it is funny enough with the expected dip into drama about two thirds into it. But it does not get too tragic, the movie knows how to keep lighthearted with enough depth to keep it from being fluff.

My only complaint is that it is difficult to believe that the hustler could fail to notice some very obvious facts until the plot demanded that he found them out.

Overall, this is a very Korean comedy movie: beautifully acted, with great chemistry between the characters, very solid and with just the right amount of drama. Viewers familiar with this stripe of cinema will love it as long as they do not expect much originality, those less familiar will find in this movie a good entry into one of the best cinema in the world.
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7/10
Strange comedy
9 August 2013
'The Weird Missing Case of Mr. J' is a very Korean comedy. It is strange, off-beat and full of quirks moments. Unlike most movies in the same vein, this one remains funny throughout. It flirts with drama on occasion but it never goes into full out tragedy.

The plot revolves the eponymous Jeong Seung-pil, an overworked yuppie who does not even have time to spend with his bride who is less than happy about his lack of involvement in planning for the incoming marriage. This leads to an argument, Seung-pil storms out of the bridal store and due to a series of accidents finds himself locked in a derelict bathroom and unable to escape.

The remaining movie is about the police looking for what they believe is a kidnapped Seung-pil, some dishonest reporters who are hyping the whole thing for the sake of ratings, the bride who turns out to be quite capable to kicking ass and Seung-pil's relatives who come all the way from the countryside. And here we have assembled an interesting representation of many Korean tropes, from the TV crew obsessed with profit to random people who are so eager to be famous that they will invent anything, without forgetting the crazy cop (in this case we have a woman hating policeman who blames females for everything ever since his girlfriend ran out on him with his money) to the country bumpkins who are clueless about Seoul.

These characters have some great interaction full of amusing moments made funnier especially as they go about trying to figure out just what happened to Jeung-pil. Add to this a busty yoga instructor giving a demonstration that has all cops and quite a few gangsters drooling and we are all set for slapstick.

What makes the movie oddly moving is Jeung-pil himself as he attempts to escape from his dreadful prison. He goes from stressed business man to desperate outcast. There are emotional breakdowns and his sanity is greatly shaken so that he starts hallucinating. This provides some of the strangest and best moments of the whole movie including a singing cockroach and sappy lyrics galore. It is brilliantly surreal.

The very end is surprising. It seems to mock romantic clichés and even make fun of the typical 'love saves' Deus ex machina but it is all done to keep the tone firmly in the comedy territory.

Overall, this movie is successful. It keeps the viewer's attention and even has suspense to counter the silliness. That it could have been a very tragic movie if only a few things were to change seems to be a deliberate choice and perhaps a mockery of Korean cinema's love for having tragey in most funny movies.
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Bicycle Sighs (1990)
Early Sono
3 August 2013
This is an early Sono Shion effort, both directed and acted by him, that has not received enough attention despite the cult status the director has achieved. Yet a lot of Sono's trademarks are already present in 'Jidensha Toiki', from the disregard for conventional modes of storytelling to the gripping imagery and maladapted cast.

This is something of a coming of age movie but told in a strange way as is to be expected from Sono. While not quite a character study it is the characters that propel the movie forward. Sono plays Shiro, one of the leads, a young man who is somewhat stranded having failed to enter college and who regresses into the pat by obsessing about a movie he started with his high school friends; one of this is the other lead, Keita, who is also in a limbo of sorts regarding his future. Then there is Shiro's younger sister Katako who suffered from polio but recovered due to a running routine that she retains and Keita's ex-girlfriend who is studying in Tokyo.

The plot is simple enough, youths adrift in a small town in Japan cling to movie making as they go through emotional breakdown but the way it all transpires on screen is hardly conventional. There seems to be a self referential element to 'Jidensha Toiki', not only is the main played by Sono himself as he is driven to pursue movie making to the exclusion of all else.

This movie-within-a-movie is interesting in itself. It features a baseball game with invisible players, the first of all is a tall figure wearing a Godzilla mask, then it spirals into a conspiracy with plenty of cheesy B-movie techniques of shooting. Meanwhile this mysterious masked person takes off with a line marker and goes on a journey that later comes to play into the narrative proper.

A lot of this movie-within-a-movie is shot in a ruined playground that morphs into the headquarters of the bad guys once the conspiracy subplot kicks in. It results in one of the most impressive images as it becomes all lit up. But in the reality of the movie in which Shiro, Keita and the others exist this playground is a hangout place that makes sense: they all fail to progress into the future, in Shiro's words 'time stopped for me when high school ended', so it figures they should haunt ruined hallmarks of childhood.

'Jidensha Toiki' seems to veer into Lynchian territory on occasion: Keita's father who is pushing for him to succeed him as the head of the family hospital and as such study medicine, only appears wearing an animal suit and masks abound in unlikely situations. Perhaps to display how alienated the characters are.

As the title implies (Bicycle Sighs) there is plenty of riding of bicycles of also having a funeral for one and burning another. Following lines starts out as a quirk in the movie they are shooting to then gain a symbolic depth as the movie moves toward its ambiguous climax.

What makes the movie difficult to follow is not so much the medium, there is a lot of hand-held camera before such a method became popular, as the characters' reactions. Everyone seems gradients of insanity with bursts of self-affirmation that seem doomed to fail. These means of making a stand are very Japanese: Katako write 'watashi' (a formal unisex pronoun for 'I') on a flag, climbs on the house's roof and shouts her name that she explains in its meaning ('Kata' meaning 'route' and 'Ko' meaning 'child') and Shiro writes 'ore' (informal male pronoun for 'I') on a flag and runs around town waving it after having a fallout with Keita.

Not a lot is explaining but the viewer can feel a shared history between these characters and how much at a loss they are. The movie moves from non-conventional to almost surreal as it progresses but it remains solid throughout. Instead of the usual flashbacks we have the movies they make: Keita's movie about his girlfriend is a short silent piece that tells more than a lot of dialogue would have done.

The acting is good even if at times veers into overreacting. Overall, 'Jidensha Toiki' is a small movie with a lot to say that may not always come across all that well. It is an indie production that knows how to use its potential limitations to its advantage. While apparently disjointed there is a lot of deliberate structure underneath it all and recurring themes that tie it all together.

Fans of Sono's well known works should give this a go if only for the sake of curiosity. Those not familiar with Sono should probably not choose 'Jidensha Toiki' as their introduction to such a forceful and original director.
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Indie movie and proud of it
8 July 2013
Beautiful Crazy is a Chinese indie movie of the Taiwanese stripe. Which means that it's very slow and deliberately confusing more often than not. It's not that the plot is at all complex but the editing makes it difficult to figure out what is going on. It follows a pattern: we'll see a scene that seems to come out of nowhere and then we'll see the scenes that preceded it and then scene proper will be repeated. At times it seems as if the movie is about to break the forth wall as the characters appear to be staring straight at the viewer but the explanatory device will then put things in perspective. After a while it gets a bit contrived and it does not even fully reconstruct a coherent chronological order of events.

Apparently the movie was shot in a few days, most of the dialogue being improvised, and the editing took a year. It shows. The acting is flawless and believable as we follow two estranged teenage girls both in their high school days and as young adults.

The lesbian overtones and mixed love triangles is something of a staple of Taiwanese cinema and while interesting it is not as enthralling as the girls' backgrounds: Angel's father is an overweight man who stares out the window all day and refuses to at all acknowledge her even as she jumps up and down in front of him; Xia Bu is very much conflicted about life in general and at one point collapses on the street for reasons unknown.

The problem is, what makes the movie great are these flashbacks. Cleverly woven into the narrative, the past events have a poignancy that seems mostly absent from the present even when events take a turn for the highly emotionally tense. The present demands crazy coincidences that are way too unlikely. Also, by tackling this kind of mixed gender love triangle Beautiful, Crazy is setting itself against powerhouses of Taiwanese cinema like Eternal Summer and Girlfriend, Boyfriend, that considerably superior in almost every respect.

This element of teenage dystopia reminded me of All About Lily Chou-Chou, the better conceived scenes in particular invoke the same kind of forlorn nostalgia. From the two girls sitting on the swing, to Angel looking around in a field of big sunflowers and Angel and Xia Bu dancing in an underground tunnel while playing with the shadows. They move in a derelict world, in old buildings falling apart, ruins and empty pools filled with debris.

The movie revels in being an indie production and does so with gusto. And technically it has some very interesting moments like this long pan-out scene as the camera pulls away through a series of carriages of a movie train. The use of black and white works remarkably well.

Overall, I would not recommend this movie unless you are a huge fan of Taiwanese cinema. If that's your thing then odds are you will appreciate this movie for what it tries to accomplish.
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Ki no umi (2004)
9/10
Portrait of a nation's sickness
5 March 2013
Suicide is a pressing issue in Japan, to the point it has become truly critical. The highly competitive society adds more pressure to individuals who find themselves unable to cope. And few movies manage to tap such a tricky subject matter as well as 'Jyukai'.

The movie follows several characters who for many reasons end up in the infamous forest near Mount Fuji, a location known as a hot-spot for suicides. It is an eerily silent place, thickly covered with trees and strewn with mementos of the dead. The movie conveys the atmosphere very effectively: for soundtrack there is the rustling of trees.

The narrative is fragmented as each character has their own story but they do intertwine in a natural and unobtrusive manner, just strangers that brush past one another on their way to death.

What makes 'Jyukai' so strong apart from the tight cinematography is the characters. They cover a whole spectrum of society, from a young woman stalking a married man, to a middle aged man who chooses to die because of his debts without forgetting a young man who is beaten up and dumped on the forest to die.

The movie manages to touch upon the multitude of ways that conspire to drive one to commit suicide. It is deeply rooted in the Japanese reality of loan sharks preying on lonely young women, on debts that snowball to the point people feel only their death can avail their family, to stalkers whose obsession ends up causing so much grief.

Interestingly enough the point of view is often unusual: we see through the eyes of a stalker how it feels to be so wrapped up in another person, we see that loan sharks can be as much victims as those they force into debt.

And despite the dark tone there are many chances of redemption. Some characters managed to move on and often with the help of others that are equally at a loss. Perhaps that is the main message, there is no one who knows precisely how to navigate through life but if we work together we can make it.

There is even a police investigation about one of the suicides. It sparkles all sorts of questions about suicide as a phenomenon but also as a personal choice that ultimately can never be fully explained because the one person who knows cannot tell. The moment is one of sadness but also nostalgia as we follow the girl's temporary happiness when Japan was playing in the soccer world championship. As a character points out perhaps she was happy because it was a time when everyone was together as one.

Subjacent to the movie is the idea that everyone is alone but the situation can be improved upon. The very sober approach with no melodrama at all lets these private tragedies shine for what they are, humans trying to deal with the world around them. There are highly moving scenes that border on absurdity like the young man who upon finding himself alive after being left for dead decides he might as well die after all only to leave the forest after taking care of the body of a hanged man.

'Jyukai' does not offer easy answers to such a complex problem. What it does do is show that it is indeed a complicated issue that results from social forces as well as individual choices. It is important in a Japanese context as self-reflection, very interesting to a foreigner for its insight into the Japanese condition and relevant to everyone for the way it tackles the contradictions of the human heart.

Highly recommended.
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9/10
The price of forgiveness
11 July 2012
O-neul is a very Korean movie. From its very sober execution to the way it dissects moral issues: all are trademarks that have elevated this country's cinema to the high standard it holds.

Here we are presented with a young Christian woman who loses his fiancé in an accident and perhaps against all odds chooses to forgive the assaulter. She even goes to the extent of signing a petition to release him. When her church tasks her with making a documentary about people who also forgave those who killed their loved one she is joined by a teenage girl with a very violent family background.

The main plot is rather simple and that only served to heighten the emotional impact. Little by little we realize that peace can be nothing but apathy and that forgiving at any cost costs one more in the long run and causes more pain than anything else. Yet these are lessons won through much anguish and are not easily arrived at.

Whether to forgive or not is at the heart of the movie. It is a universal question that in this case is deeply woven with the Catholic faith. Is forgiveness is cheaply achieved through mere ritual then its value may be questionable. And who has the right to forgive other than those who suffered? If the young woman is the main character, the teenager balances her beautifully. Being brutally beaten by her father and overall abused by her entire family she still struggles to keep a positive outlook that breaks down into virulent spite as she voices pent-up resentment. Hers is a difficult role, pointing out hard truths, cheering up those in grief, suffering breakdowns that also result from a deadly disease: it is proof of her acting skills that she manages to portray a believable character.

Some interesting notions fuel the movie's topic: that illness results from not lashing out in anger, if one does not hurt others then one must end up hurting oneself; that people ultimately forgive to cease their pain at times at the expense of losing track of their own suffering with disastrous effects; that it is inhuman to possibly get rid of hate, the best one can do is push it to the background and go on living; that forgiveness can be a double edged sword, especially within the family, since there are no repercussions.

This last point ultimately leads to the young woman questioning her own actions as she learns that the boy responsible for her fiancé's death has since killed another boy. How much responsibility does she bear, if any? In the end there is no happy conclusion. The movie weaves in flashbacks flawlessly, the past intervenes into the main narrative without disturbing but illuminating: and the very last scene illustrates this beautifully.

With topnotch acting and solid cinematography, this is an underrated jewel that deserves more attention for the brave way it confronts its touchy subject matter. Coming from a country known for delivering so many revenge movies, this effort in the tricky mental and psychological underpinnings of forgiveness is very welcome as original and relevant.
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4/10
Meandering Mess
13 May 2012
'Kyofu' starts out as intriguing only to plummet into muddled vagaries and plot-less shenanigans with an overly ambitious undertone and is never fully realized. The initial thrust of the movie includes a failed suicide who ends up a guinea pig captive of her own mother, the experiments including brain surgery in a quest to alter human perception and bring the species to a whole new level. A chilling scenario given that the point of the reference were human experiments that the Imperial army actually performed on prisoners of war during WWII.

In fact, the horrors of such things like Unit 731 are beyond anything 'Kyofu' could ever hope to achieve, testifying that real life can so often trump fiction. But perhaps it is unfair to expect this movie to deliver on that account, however, this is a movie spawned from a rich tradition of scary cinema and it fails to live up to the expectations within the genre.

Instead of exploring a genuinely scary story the movie loses itself in meanderings about life after death, virgin pregnancy, a looming bright light that becomes very fake looking CG created fog to represent the never quite explained threat, and there is even one of those infuriating twists that by now are all too tiresome.

'Kyofu' does try to be scary and its vocabulary is for the most part that of Asian horror with a slow pace, plenty of moody scenery be it a creepy clinic or the many forest scenes that seem to invoke such classics as the Tale of Two Sisters. Unfortunately it does not adhere to the aesthetics by adding conspicuous special effects that become more laughable as the movie reaches its convoluted climax.

Through most of it there is a feeling of disconnected bits all pieced together with no actual sense, almost as if scenes could have been edited in any random order to the same general effect. While not long it feels like it exhausted itself long before it comes to an actual conclusion. The characters seem only half present and their very stilted lines about the afterlife ring hollow.

All and all, it's a shame how such promise was wasted. Here was an opportunity for dealing with one of the darkest sides of Japan, its frighteningly high suicide rate and to possibly go into beyond disturbing human experiments to justify the title of 'Kyofu' (Fear). Hailing from the writer of the ever so famous Ringu this effort comes across as a disappointment on all fronts.
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Bleak Night (2010)
9/10
Sincere look into suicide
8 May 2012
'Bleak Night' is a remarkable movie. Not only does it delve into highly emotionally charged territory without going into theatrics as it does so through clever shooting techniques that lend it a very true to life feel.

The plot kicks off with a bereaved father looking for answers, his teenage son having committed suicide. What follows are a series of interviews with the boy's friends interwoven with flashbacks so that the narrative progresses on two levels: the present and the past. Here lies one of the strengths of 'Bleak Nights', the natural way in which the flashbacks are introduced. Memories are spliced into the story without actually breaking the narrative proper even as the highlight the changes that the tragic event had on everyone involved.

This is an environment where violence seems underneath every interaction, an all boys high school bordering on the delinquent side. And yet there are light hearted moments of daily happiness such and playing mock baseball at the rail-track or going to the beach with friends. These interludes serve as contrast to the overall effect of bleakness thus giving it another dimension.

The dead boy is something of a wannabe gangster. He is the leader of a group of boys and has no qualms bullying even friends. More than just violent he seems to be emotionally unstable, swinging between bouts of uncalled for aggression to contrite admissions of guilt that again result in more and even increased violence. It is a hopeless cycle that little by little costs him all of his friends and results in utter alienation.

There are hints that the tension behind this angst may be denial over homosexual tendencies but like most things the movie does more hinting than outright stating. Events are revisited from different points of view so that the viewer is treated to a multiple perspective that yet does not reveal everything.

The shots are mostly closeups or inserted so that the characters seem to be just at hand. It creates a sense of partnership with the viewers as if we too were inside the screen instead of merely witnessing it all unfold. There is a certain voyeuristic quality but it is elevated by this sincere approach. The movie remains highly realistic and as such believable by its being so understated.

All this could only be achieved with an excellent cast and no-one disappoints in this respect. From the boy himself, to his father and his former friends, all are credible in their respective roles. Particularly interesting is the ex-best friend whose reaction to betrayal become a turning point of sorts. It is through the interactions with him that we learn that there was more to the dead boy than a troublemaker, that he understands all too well that such behavior is necessary to stand atop the school hierarchy and yet how little it matters in the grand scheme of things for come graduation it will all be over and the underlings so faithful the day before will disappear.

It captures a paradox that is very true of high school life, it both seems to go on forever and yet it is gone in an instant. The boys are all trapped in this kind of warped time and trapped even more by their unwillingness to face up to what happened.

While not long the movie manages to tackle many issues, such as the breakdown of family ties, the catastrophic importance attached to reputation and how they can ruin someone's life in an all too literal sense, the failure of the education system to provide guidance to youths. These are weighty themes conveyed through the characters so that 'Bleak Night' never loses sight of the fact that these are issues that affect real people.

Despite the fact that the conclusion is known beforehand- the boy has killed himself- the end still packs a punch. By gathering all of the resources that make 'Bleak Night' so exceptional, the excellent acting, the splicing in of always relevant flashback scenes, the camera's approach that puts the viewer on the same level as the characters; the final scene offers us a dialogue that will never happen but that could have corrected everything if it had.

There are no easy solutions in this movie. The tone remains one of sadness and regret through and through. This is not a story of redemption although it may be there at the very end of the line, it does not need to be: 'Bleak Night' is about despair, guilt and ultimately coming to terms with how one's actions impact others. And in that it achieves nothing short of brilliance.
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An unlikely mash of genres
8 January 2012
War movies are for the most part serious and bleak without as much as a hint of comedy but not so in this case. Pyongyang Heroes manages to weave humor and slapstick into a war narrative and does so with gusto. The historical backdrop is explored for all it is worth with lavish armors and the whole ensemble of epic battles expertly produced in the best tradition of the genre.

The conflict erupts between Korean warring Korean kingdoms and the Chinese forces that are patiently waiting for a chance to invade the weakened peninsula. Diplomatic screen smokes are thrown around to serve complicated power manipulations that would surely add to the serious subject theme in any other movie but Pyongyang Heroes revels in being the exception: the Koreans often foil the Chinese by acts of clever obfuscation that including playing the part of the fool and at times being nothing short of clueless.

As a result every strata of character is involved in showing the absurdities inherent to war: from the reluctant peasant turned soldier who finds love on the battlefield to the wise sage who appears slumber through most of the war councils without forgetting the petty bickering within the strongholds themselves.

The comedy is supported by very competent action scenes that can be rather original including such tactics as covering up the enemy with honey and then releasing teeming hives of hives on the sticky soldiers. It is a situation that lends itself to mockery despite the destruction of lives.

Which is not to say that the movie is morbid. It invests in silly antics but not so much at the expense of horrible carnage as despite of it. And there are plenty of serious moments that gather momentum at the climax. In fact the movie ends with an exordium that can even been seen in the light of the contemporary situation if the divided Koreas.

Pyongang Heroes is an oddity in the way the tackles the subject of war and for that it is refreshing and worth watching.
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8/10
Extremely underrated
26 August 2011
'The Quiz Show Scandal' is a very underrated movie that unfortunately fell through the cracks despite bordering on exceptional. The plot is original: due to an accident a group of strangers learns the final answer to an impossible quiz show that has yet to be beaten. They part ways and work on how to answer the remaining 29 in order to take the ultimate prize of 1.3 million dollars.

Each of the contestants offers a glimpse into Korean society, particularly the shadier side, with a comic flair. There are petty gangster wannabes that deliver food; an uptight high school girl who is part of a depression support group; salarymen; a bickering married couple; a family of father and teenage son with an infirm mother; a pair of hit men. They either clash on the contest proper or form unlikely alliances. Their backgrounds come into play when answering the many questions. Particularly interesting is one of the categories in which contestants ask one another questions. It highlights the fact that it is almost impossible to possibly beat the system, there is always a question that will trip a contestant despite how educated s/he may be.

The movie delves deep into the mechanics of quiz shows (this one is clearly based on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire) and on how the questions are chosen so as to cause problems. An example mentioned is that of a scientist who came close to win only to stumble on a sports' related question that virtually everyone else could have answered. Being proficient in an area of expertise makes it likely that one will be less know about other areas. There is an attention given to how people think and it energizes the movie.

The two characters that emerge are a jaded and highly intelligent hit-man and the teenage boy. They strike something of a strange friendship and both battle and help each other out along the way. Despite the strong comedy element the drama is topnotch and the reveal of what the final question is truly about is heartbreaking and well executed.

'Quiz Show Scandal' deserves much more exposure. It can be very funny, visually complex in some scenes like the one of the car accident, and yet deep without ever being boring. Add this a great cast and acting and there is little more than one can ask.
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Rather bad
26 August 2011
The first Battle Royale movie was somewhat rushed, it being impossible to fully explore the manga's cast of 42 characters in such a format, but still interesting and for the most part it stayed true to the franchise. This sequel fails on almost every front.

The program has been redirected to now target Nanahara from the first movie and a group of 9th graders is forced to become a commando squad of sorts to storm his island compound. Which does not make much sense but might perhaps be rescued if the plot served to develop the characters but unfortunately all too soon the movie degenerates into a sub-par war movie routine that seems to go on endlessly. There is a lot of random shooting and decisions that make one wonder if the people involved are not mentally challenged. Too many characters are without without the viewer even knowing who they are and even the students that the movie follows are ultimately an afterthought.

Which is a shame, especially considering that the new class includes Kitano's daughter (played by Ai Maeda, Aki Maeda's younger sister) seeking revenge for the death of her father. That alone deserved more screen time and could very well become the main thrust of the movie and its distinctive feature that still ties the two movies together. Instead she is added to the mix as one more student and apart from a few flashbacks we hear little more of her.

This time around each student is linked a counterpart and if s/he dies the other one follows suit. It could be an interesting twist in a traditional BR setting (it should force some students into unwilling cooperation) but in a commando assault one hardly even notices it. With so many bullets flying and explosions this new quirk to the system can almost be overlooked.

There is a particularly awful scene before the very end and the actual conclusion throws realism completely off the window to settle for silly drivel about hope and what have you. There must be a reason why Aki Maeda who plays Noriko only appears for a cameo at the very end, she must have realized what a dreadful mess this movie was.

Battle Royale II is another case of a sequel that fails to live up to the original's greatness.
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April Snow (2005)
8/10
Love and everything else
26 August 2011
'Oechul' takes a premise that may seem forced and elevates it to a heartfelt yet very sober movie. One of the strongest points is precisely the subtle treatment of highly dramatic events so that they feel closer to reality. Feelings are captured in a natural way that allows for their complexity to shine through.

All this goes into exploring the psychology of multi-layered characters. Torn between loyalties and wounded by betrayal, the main couple is placed in a highly stressful situation. Restrain and painful outbursts are tensely balanced. The budding relationship evolves with the natural flow of the cinematography, with increasingly intimate moments assisted by smart camera work.

There are also scenic shots of great beauty and an interesting play on outside scenes and inside ones. It all invokes an atmosphere charged with human emotion in which love is believable as a struggle for happiness. With a brilliant conclusion that ties in the title of 'April Snow' to the story, 'Oechul' is not to be missed and especially recommended to fans of romance that is true to life.
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Ultra Zebraman
25 August 2011
Sequels are often poorer when compared to the originals. Zebraman is an exception. The second movie builds an entire world around the Zebraman concept to the point that the color scheme is almost entirely black and white. Instead of weaving the superhero aspect into present day Japan Zebraman 2 takes place in a strange future with plenty of Orwellian vibes. Dystopia matched with oppression of the vaguely Fascist kind are brought to life with flashy visuals and fast paced scenes.

The movie takes Zebraman and turns it into a mythology of sorts with a strong polarity between good and evil. The campy aspect of the franchise is upgraded to include a lot of sexiness and tight music videos spliced into the video and even connected with the plot. At points this sequel's main point seems to be to promote the music but strangely enough it works remarkably well.

There is still plenty of corny humor but the overall tone is serious with even something like social critique with 'Zebra time', five minutes per day in which any violent act is permitted. The greatest innovation has got to be the new villain, a very attractive girl with black latex outfits worthy of any dominatrix worth her salt. She is also responsible for delivering the song around which so much of the story revolves. Her performance adds a flair of traditional comic book evilness and spices things up.

Some points do not seem to jive all that well with the original, back is Asano, the little kid befriended by Zebraman, now all grownup but for some reason Zebraman's family is never of again nor does he even ask about it. The final battle is as epic as it to be expected but followed by an hilarious conclusion.

Zebraman 2 is everything that the first one was and then much more. It is bigger, louder and maybe even crazier. Recommended for fans of the original but avoid the spin-off at all costs.
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9/10
A charming gem
1 April 2011
This is a gem of touching cinema. Despite the English translation of the title- Accidental Kidnapper' this is far from being a slapstick movie. Which is not to say that there is not plenty of comedy but it is the clever balance between drama and humor that sustains the story and allows for the character interaction to truly shine.

It is precisely the relationship between the main characters forms the core around which the movie builds itself as a charming tale of human bonds. This can only be achieved through topnotch acting and in this area the child actor needs be praised for his effortless interpretation of a lively little boy that does not veer into cliché. The duo of child and dispirited man turned kidnapper is not precisely a novel combination but it is tackled with fresh sensibility. The changes that these two undergo, and the repercussions on the boy's family, are gradual enough so not to seem forced. Both kidnapper and child grow closer throughout their adventure that is spiced with plenty of yakuza antics.

The secret to the success of this movie is the subtle approach to the formula. There are genuinely heart warming moments and breakthrough scenes of emotional important but these are played in an understated manner that works remarkably well. From the Kurosawa tribute in the 'High and Low'-like ransom delivery to the interludes of semi surrealism everything flows perfectly so that 'Accidental Kidnapper' does not so much switch gears from light hearted to serious as it flows between these two poles with seamless ease.

It is interesting to contrast how the same basic premise can be handled so differently: in terms the guiding plot lines this movie is very much like 'Sympathy for Mister Vengeance' and yet they could not possibly be more diametrically opposed. 'Accidental Kidnapper' stands on its own merits as a tale of redemption and of human bonds.
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4/10
All Over the Place
4 March 2011
There are many things amiss in 'Shock Labyrinth'. It is a supernatural revenge story with a time travel paradox twist but it collapses inwardly on its convoluted execution until any sense of mood is completely destroyed. Plot-wise it has potential: something dreadful happens to a group of children when they enter a haunted house attraction after closing hours. Ten years later the girl who went missing returns, causing them all to face the past.

An interesting premise only makes it more painful when the movie does not live up to it. Extremely redundant repetitions make 'Shock Labyrinth' extremely predictable yet at the same time rather random. Images that are supposed to be disturbing are overused to the point of becoming silly, such as the floating bunny plush toy. Dummies staggering about add insult to injury since they do not even fit into the narrative and only seem to be there for the sake of filling movie time.

As far as acting goes, the child actors go very well and capture how a combination few childish mistakes can end in tragedy but the adult cast is for the most part hopeless. The one who does hold her water just so happens to disappear from the screen all too soon. There is much walking about in ill lit corridors and even if the deliberately cheesy set is unsettling at first it becomes tiresome all too soon. Good horror manages to increase the tension with each repetition but bad horror cannot help but flounder when employing such a tactic.

And 'Shock Labyrinth' is a bad horror movie. After skipping about madly as if in search of closure the plot settles for the never missing twist. It is disappointing that a director that has already shown how he can inject innovation into J-horror should produce such a dispirited movie.
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5/10
Almost a Slasher
4 March 2011
This movie mixes elements from the Western tradition of Slasher movies along with a peculiar kind of creepiness so typical to Asian horror. An interesting combination that should have been much more successful. Unfortunately 'Kuchisake-onna' is overall mediocre and downward pedestrian at times. It fails whenever it adheres to clichés such as making sure that everyone confronting the villain in the grand finale is without weapons of any kind but there are a few redeeming points. The positive parts include the child abuse angle that pervades and drives the plot, the fact that the villain does not only lurk in dark shadowy places but actually acts in broad daylight and a possession story that is original.

With so much going on for it, it is a true shame that the movie manages to fall into tired recipes that do away with so much potential. After all, in a story in which the villain targets children is open to horror as perceived from their point of view. That approach would have elevated it from the usual supernatural thriller to something more unique. And the movie itself seems to be aware of this on occasion.

With some psychological bits and a decent slasher angle this is a movie that fans of the genre will probably find worth watching but it does have a limited appeal without being part of the elite in the competitive world of J-horror.
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Too Rushed
11 February 2011
The problem with this movie is that it has to compact the material of 13 volumes of manga into a 2 hour long movie. The very format forced some of 'Kaiji's strongest points to lose much of its impact, namely the gambling aspect of what is a very brainy and interesting manga. The movie cuts down on the mental gymnastics that make Kaiji able to beat the odds in a believable way. As a result the viewer cannot quite grasp his genius as everything is edited to the point of losing coherence. The manga is plotted in such a way as to cover several arcs, each with its own crazily high stakes and particular flavor. The movie cannot frame a transition of the moments of the narrative without coming undone at the seams.

Some choices in the adaptation were odd such as changing Endou's gender and changing the order of some events and there are other changes that may seem minor on the surface but end up diluting the tense do-or-die atmosphere that had readers of the manga flipping the pages anxiously and sitting at the edge of their seats. Such as the terrifying ear perforation device or the finger guillotine, both if which are completely absent in the movie.

Kaiji's inner dialog is hyped mostly as an emotional appeal without the counterbalancing effect of his quick mind. The manga's eponymous hero is known for bursting into tears rather often but he remains a very clever young man whose gambles have plenty of reasoning behind them, the movie shows us only flashes of this. It is also unfortunate that some of the more intense moments of the 'Kaiji' saga take place in material that is not covered by the movie.

The acting is solid, namely Fujiwara who plays Kaiji flawlessly, a completely different role of Death Note's Light that first introduced me to him. Having a woman playing a loan shark lends itself to romantic vibes but these never materialize.

Fans of the manga may enjoy seeing Kaiji in 3D but this movie does not match the brilliance of the original work.
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3/10
Disappointing
11 February 2011
'Pyega' follows the Blair Witch Project formula almost to a t. From the setting of a documentary about a haunting to the first person hand held camera perspective to dimly lit scenes and plenty of screaming: the recipe for this type of horror has become common place at this point. Although this is a Korean movie it has none of the hallmarks of Asian cinema, instead it insists on adhering so closely to Blair Witch that it becomes nothing but an exercise in tedious repetition.

The haunted house in question is half ruined to such a point that it is already dangerous without any claims to a supernatural entity with a malign intent. Perhaps the one saving grace of this movie, apart from the decent acting, is that despite a good one third of it being too dark to see anything at all in the final scenes the viewer does get to glimpse at something disturbing.

Ultimately, there is not anything new or exciting about this movie and it ends up being rather disappointing. Coming in 2010 it is something of an anachronism in the world of horror in the way in reiterates well treaded ground without a hint of originality.
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Formula 17 (2004)
Funny and a bit too predictable
29 October 2010
As the title itself states, 'Formula 17' does follow a formula that has been done many a time: wide eyes romantic virgin with fanciful ideas of true love meets jaded playboy. This is the gay version of that older than old staple of romance comedy. But there is enough in this production to keep it fresh and interesting. First of all the awkwardness between the leads is very genuine. The acting is very good all around but secondary characters are of course either zany and over the top or of the straight man kind, a requirement that seems even more present in homosexual themed films. This leaves only the main couple to truly shine in terms of acting. Their awkward interaction gives a hint of realism in a whacky comedy.

The parody element is important in that it pokes fun at gay clichés with gusto, with narrated flashbacks staged as theater pieces and light heartedly making fun of being overly emotional. Jokes around lack of communication between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers will probably go over the head of most Western (or even non-Chinese) viewers but they keep the comedy from being too one note. Some nuances are introduced in the general outline of the movie since the jaded man is undergoing therapy to cure himself of his Don Juan ways. Not that this is at all taken seriously. Even when the story plods into its mandatory crisis two thirds into it there is never a feeling that anything is at all in jeopardy.

It ends as the viewer expected it too from the every first frame. The conclusion may be a bit too neat and there is something horribly distracting about the soundtrack, especially during intimate scenes. This movie has a certain amateur aura to it but that ends up being its greatest selling points. Shot in a fresh way and with plenty of color across the screen 'Formula 17' cannot help being formulaic but it is a worthy effort for all that.
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Boy's Choir (2000)
8/10
Music, politics and love
15 October 2010
Despite it's title, 'Boy's Choir' is not so much about a group of singers as it is about two boys in particular that strike a rather ambiguous relationship. Music is the vehicle through which they grow but it is also mingled with a political awareness. Artistic discipline lends itself very well to spreading a doctrinal message and the boys read about the Russian revolution in between intense rehearsal sessions. As someone who has been in a choir I can only commend the enthusiasm that veers of military training.

But it is here that the danger lies: too much devotion for a cause can result in destruction. The nostalgic aura that pervades the movie is already a hint of later developments. Very interesting is the way the main boys relate to each other. It starts as something conventional, the star of the company befriending the clumsy stuttering newcomer and showing him the wonders of singing, to develop into a complicated web of dependence and complicity in which it is the by now well adjusted new comer that supports the off kilter shining star. While I did come across this title in a list of gay themed movies there are only undertones of homo-erotic tension. And these suffice to convey the confusing awkwardness of going through puberty.

Ultimately, it is precisely an inability to progress toward adulthood and accepting all that comes with it that leads to the climax. It is always very refreshing to find a movie with teenagers that manages to go beyond clichés and this is such a movie. Choir life is captured perfectly. The combination of political and individual concerns set against a mildly religious background is seamless. Character growth is at the heart of it all.

Covering a vast emotional spectrum and relying on wonderful acting 'Boy's Choir' is not an easy watch but a rewarding one.
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High and Low (1963)
8/10
More than a detective story
14 October 2010
There is much going on in this movie. The brilliantly constructed detective story plot is woven and relies on an analysis on the growing social divide in Japan. These are the two main tensions that propel the action forward but there is no cheap simplification of the conflict between the classes. At a time when the country was gearing up to become the major industrial power that it would later achieve, the movie provides a lead whose wealth, while considerable, is imperiled.

All this serves as the background to the fascinating dilemma with which Gondo is faced: should he give up on all he was worked for his entire life for the sake of a child that is not even his. The moral issue is presented in sober tones that make it all the more pressing. Doing what is right cuts across the social spectrum and in this 'High and Low' escapes the danger of being a cliché of the good hearted poor against the evil rich. The staggering difference in terms of wealth is brought home mostly through solid cinematography that needs only contrast the cesspool around which cluster dilapidated houses to the hill upon which the mansion is poised. One thing that should be mentioned is that large interiors are extremely rare in Tokyo.

From this perspective the title 'Tengoku to jigoku' (literally 'Heaven and Hell') can be seen in this juxtaposition of privileged and underprivileged but this is a multi-layered layer. The title also fits the state of mind that results from a pacified and tormented conscience respectively. The terse but loaded ending adds more strength and subtlety to the character study. Kurosawa matches some of his favorite actors to assure that the acting is top notch.

The intrigue that supports this complex portrait of a society and individual responsibility is a police investigation that is also original. At one point filming is used to garner evidence in something of a shout out to the technical advances in the art of making movies by shooting from a moving train. And all this delivered with Kurosawa's genius of crafting masterpieces that make one think even as they are entertaining.
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Dreams (1990)
9/10
Very Close too perfect
11 October 2010
'Dreams' is a highly personal journey through the inner landscape of Kurosawa's mind. But it is also an oneiric reflection on Japan itself. True to the nature of dreams the movie is comprised of vignettes, most of which unconnected, a collection of threads of imagery that are stand alone and gain a greater sense of diversity when seen as a whole. This variety is deep and eccentric, it goes from traditional lore in the wedding of the Fox spirits to frightful scenes of nuclear disaster as Mount Fuji becomes a red cone without forgetting a gorgeous incursion into Van Gogh's vision.

While artistically bold and faultless in the crafting of a dreamy mood this is not an escapist movie of pure fantasy. For there is always space of nightmares in the world of dreams. Collective phantoms that are very close to the Japanese identity reappear in novel and unpredictable ways. The horrors of the war are represented in a dead platoon that does not know of its own demise; the ever present dread of a nuclear holocaust mingles with the national icon of Fujiyama and provides ground for philosophical considerations through the narrative vehicle of folk traditions; ecological concerns in a society that is increasingly more dependent on technology are soothed by a bucolic alternative of a simpler life.

Through the medium of strong impressive images Kurosawa interprets himself and his country to the world with stunning results. The movie is the culminating achievement of a master for if there ever was a masterpiece 'Dreams' is one.
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8/10
A different family
11 October 2010
'The Quiet Family's' concept is better known in Miike's remake which is a shame because while the Japanese counterpart is a masterpiece in its own right the original movie needs not be compared; it stands as a pearl of dark comedy. The mood is full of suspense as the Kang family is visited by misfortune upon misfortune. Morbid humor sets the tone of a very tight story and some typical comic tropes are adapted to fit the overall feeling of stress as things get out of control. The cinematography is understated but highly competent with an emphasis on indoor scenes that add to the claustrophobia of the situation.

Off beat and tense, the movie's aesthetics are close to the noir genre. It never degenerates into nonsense territory and much of its entertainment value resides on how believable the characters' reactions are. This quiet family systematically makes the wrong choice that of course leads to further complications but the entire insanity is understandable and made more hilarious for that. A grim fatalism pervades everything as if for all their mistakes the Kangs are indeed cursed.

On top of the freak deaths, the scrambling for hiding dead bodies, the crossing the line into crime, the movie is true to its title: a portrait of a family that would rather live in peace. Their struggle for keeping their both their livelihood and quiet walks a very thin line as far as morals go but the family unit is so tightly knit that somehow overrides this. The finale brings this home in a simple and effective manner. Cleverly plotted and with solid performances all around, 'The Quiet Family' should be seen by anyone willing to be amused by something different.
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