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Jeni, Juno (2005)
Not compelling, but somehow still cute and enjoyable
Jenny, Juno is a Corean romantic comedy released in 2005 that deals with teen pregnancy. Despite the rather serious subject matter, the film actually manages to keep a very lighthearted, primarily romantic, tone, which led to the ratings board to initially slap it with a 18+ rating, despite its otherwise innocent nature, with the argument that the film trivializes teen pregnancy and makes it seem rather easy. Eventually, the film ended up with a 15+ rating.
The story opens with Jenny (Park Minji), a high-achieving middle- schooler, discovering that she's knocked up and quickly informing Juno (Kim Hyesun), her middle-school boyfriend. There is brief ensuing drama, very similar to Apatow's Knocked Up, where the two decide to keep the baby and raise it together. From there it's a matter of keeping the pregnancy thing secret from parents and further building their relationship.
Something that immediately impressed me about Jenny, Juno, was how it was able to keep dramatic urgency, despite the fact that the conflict remains rather light throughout the first half of the film. Instead, we primarily see Jenny and Juno continuing their very sweet relationship and working to both help Jenny be a healthy mother and Juno be a responsible father. The trick to retaining drama, it turns out, is the unspoken threat of parental action should the parents find out about the baby. (And it should be no spoiler to note that they eventually do.) Overall, the story kind of reminds me of female-centric comic books popular in both Corea and Japan, as the story progression, action, scenes from flashbacks, have a very Asian comic book feel and some of the comedy draws from that sort of visualization. I also liked how it retained a light hearted cheerfulness throughout. When things are supposed to get serious, they do, but unfortunately, the drama is more than a little hamstrung, because of the film's continuing push to keep its very optimistic outlook intact. Ultimately, though, the end problem with the story lies in that we don't actually get to see any development in either Jenny and Juno or the people around them (and it should be the parents that we see the most development in as Jenny and Juno both seem like a pair of "magical" characters, who affect those around them). Also, the film really is rather unrealistic throughout, with little drama in the high school and setting up a rather pregnancy friendly situation for Jenny by giving her a wealthy family.
The film is modern and composed adequately. I was very impressed by the two young actors, both young teenagers themselves, although the roles weren't all that challenging. The supporting cast was well done too, although their characters were also more archetypal than complex. The music is understated with the exception of the theme song to the movie, which is rather catchy, but gets a little overplayed throughout.
Honestly, I have to say that I found this film rather refreshing, despite its rather notable problems, in both that it somehow manages to stay sunny throughout the first half and still retain its drama, as well as enjoying the romance between the two kids. That doesn't absolve the film of its problems with being so light-hearted that it floats away from dramatic grounding or its too-good-to-be-true atmosphere. And yet, somehow I found myself enjoying the film regardless. It's not great and is only arguably decent, but I liked it. It was cute. 7/10.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Too much, too contrived, but somehow still Spidey
Spider-Man 3 is the first movie where Sam Raimi has disappointed me. It's certainly a Sam Raimi film and it very much follows the previous movies in terms of style, presentation and even in terms of where its story goes, but where it fails is to tell a well woven tale.
The story follows after the events of Spider-Man 2 and both of the previous movies are briefly summarized visually during the opening credits, which is nice for those who have to catch up. Spider-Man has become the talk of the town and Mary Jane is opening up a show. Uh, then a whole ton of stuff happens in a hurry, including the introduction of three villains and a retcon of the first movie, which leads to a whole lot of emo-spidey/Peter Parker.
And there's so much attempted in this story that it just doesn't hold together. Several elements of the stories feel heavily contrived, just to get all the villains present. The Harry Osborn, the the Black Suit and Eddie Brock have enough going for them that they could have all held together their own movies separately, using just the Sandman as an intermediary villain, but so little time is spent developing any of the major story lines that the film literally tells us what's going on most of the time and does things like retconning events of the first movie to fit in motive for the second emo-Parker. Which in itself is an inversion of the whole "Raindrops Are Falling On My Head" sequence from the second film. Unfortunately, the charm wore off and the sequence went on far too long this time around. Also, because the film has to juggle so many events, it felt like I was a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between a heated game of "let's change up the entire tone of the film with a dramatic twist" over and over again. I really didn't appreciate that we hit emo-Spidey/Parker three entire times over the course of the film, with him "getting better" each time. The stories, the Mary Jane/Peter Parker story, the Harry Osborn story, the Eddie Brock/Black Suit story and the Sandman story all just aren't given enough time to breathe and set before things change over again.
I got bored and I got frustrated. Furthermore, the Sandman, as a character is poorly developed and so are his powers, which ultimately seem overwhelming and it's surprising how easily he's defeated. The only character that gets some interesting development is Harry Osborn, but not enough time is spent with him and it doesn't feel like, at the end, what happens with him is earned by the film. So almost every element of the film seems a little forced.
Technically, the film is up to the standards of the previous films. It looks great and Raimi and company maintains their eye for color, for camera-work, for adding cheese when wanted and providing kinetic action. The actors all remain up to the standards established by the previous films and I really do like how the film feels so much like the previous two in terms of the overall presentation.
Ultimately, the only problem with Spider-Man 3 happens to be a huge one. The story essentially tries to sandwich what might be three movies worth of plot into a two hour movie (and yes, the movie really felt too long) and it just fails to pull me into its world, making me feel like I was getting smacked around by a giant plot stick. And it just seemed too obvious that it was trying to do that. And, so, I was quite disappointed by Spider-Man 3. It's not "the suck" entirely, because, contrived as it is, it still does try to tell a story (or two, or three) that might be coherent and meaningful if more time was given to it, but it doesn't succeed. I'd say it's fine to stop at Spider-Man 2 and leave the series on a good note. 5/10.
The Animatrix (2003)
Works best when it focuses less on the direct mythology of The Matrix
The Animatrix is a compilation companion piece to the Matrix films that collects nine short animated films set in the world of the Matrix. While it helps broaden and inform the world of the Matrix, the individual segments vary in their success in storytelling.
"Final Flight of the Osiris" opens up the film and is the CG animated number. In itself, it's just a short story about events that occur off- screen during the second Matrix film. At it mostly acts as backstory, it doesn't lend itself very much dramatic weight and spends a whole lot of time at the beginning showing off CGI attempts at life-like animation as well as CGI skin. While the visuals themselves are fairly impressive, I was ultimately underwhelmed. 5/10.
"The Second Renaissance Parts I & II" are two short films that chronicle the events leading up to the dystopia of The Matrix. An animated fauxcumentary, it sets the background of the Matrix world, step by step, showing how humans created the machines and the machines beat the humans after tons of abuse. While it's all quite well drawn (and contains dozens upon dozens of references to other films), I found it about as interesting as reading a poorly written history textbook. It does contain more interesting text than "Final Flight", especially as it deals with humanity's errors, but I have to say that despite it's strong visual style, it edged on being a yawnfest. And it doesn't pull punches. Another downside is that the more it exposed some of the backstory about how the world of the Matrix happened, the harder I found to buy it, which consequently had a negative effect on how I view the original Matrix movie. 6/10.
"Kid's Story" is really where this collection begins to pick up. I found it's hand-drawn blurry style to be rather catching, especially in capturing the waking-dream-like world of the Matrix. While the story mostly just deals with a kid's escape from The Matrix, it holds some interesting subtext about the nature of dreams (even within dreams) and ideas of fate. Not to say that this is masterful, but rather, it's a decent little piece, for what it is. 7/10.
"Program" is a piece that left me unsatisfied, because it raised questions that it failed to resolve. Essentially set within a swords- and-samurai simulation, the protagonist encounters a friend-as-adversary in the program. They talk about the nature of reality as they fight and as her friend lets her in on a dark secret. But the ending creates serious doubts in the believability of the confrontation within. Again, interesting art, but the story has large enough issues that it was hard to enjoy. 5/10.
"World Record" was actually kind of interesting. It deals with a world class runner who, in breaking records, begins to see cracks in his reality. It's quite simple and fortunately it's short, so it doesn't overstay its welcome. 7/10.
"Beyond" is by far my favorite piece of the bunch. A teenage girl starts looking for her cat, Yuki, and meets some boys who she follows to a local "haunted house", where she discovers both Yuki and an apparent glitch in the Matrix. The glitch makes some rather strange things happen, like gravity working weird and reality fading in and out. It works as an exploration of finding the strange and wonderful things in life and how reality/society/etc tries to "erase" these mistakes. Fantastic, even if it has the least to do with the Matrix mythology. 8/10.
"A Detective Story" deals with a detective named Ash who gets hired to find the hacker Trinity. His explorations lead him to some rather strange discoveries about reality. Working as an homage to hard-boiled detective films, I found it pretty interesting and it very strongly reminded me of Cowboy Bebop, including it's protagonist, who sort of reminded me of Spike. 7/10.
"Matriculation" left me with mixed feelings. Reminding me strongly of Aeon Flux in its art style (I'm guessing it's the same director), the film ultimately deals with the attempts of Zion to create machine "rebels". The Zion folk capture a runner-robot and plug it into their own Matrix and interact with it in a somewhat strange world. Unfortunately, for me, not much happens narratively within this machine- Matrix except for a series of somewhat interesting visuals and this segment goes on for quite a while. I got bored. But then it gets interesting and darker at the end and I found the ending to be rather interesting itself. So a mixed bag. 6/10.
All in all, the Animatrix is mostly watchable, but doesn't have as many highs as it just sits in the middle. The art is mostly gorgeous, but many of the stories overstay their welcome or reveal gaps in logic, whether inside the story itself or in the mythology of the Matrix. As a companion piece to The Matrix, it works all right, even if it might show off huge cracks in the Matrix mythology. As such, I have to say it's really more of a work for fans, although I think "Beyond" is solid enough in itself to watch on its own. It's okay.
Great film, but some of the more mature themes might fly over kids heads (in a balloon house nonetheless)
One day, Pixar might make a film that will just fail to be decent. Fortunately, Up is not that picture. While the story is a little fragmented, this still remains a marvel of animated storytelling that continues the Pixar legacy of releasing solid 3D animated films.
The story begins with Carl as a child and we quickly watch his relationship with Ellie, through its various phases, through its untimely end. And then we pick up again as Carl decides to make his late wife's dreams come true. He launches his house into the sky via a ton of balloons, but manages to pick up a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell and then his goal gets derailed from there. Along the way, we meet a few other kooky characters, hilarity ensues and we end on a nice note. First of all, I think Up contains some of the most mature themes and story elements of all of their films so far, especially as we watch Carl and Ellie's life together in fast forward. I don't know how much children will fully comprehend what was going on, but despite the brevity, I still found some of the moments to be borderline tearjerkers. One downside to the story is that it's essentially fragmented and requires that "life with Ellie" at the beginning, but overall, the "quest averted" concept works very well to help bring out Carl's character. Russell does cross into the land of affably annoying and at times it's difficult to retain sympathy for him due to all the trouble he causes, despite his innocence.
The art is pretty classic Pixar, clean with lots of attention to detail and the animators definitely display their considerable skill in getting the characters to display various degrees of emotions. Voice actors do a great job with their characters, even the rather simple characters. Music is used well, even if it's not hyper-memorable.
Ultimately, Up falls into line as a good Pixar film, just under the tier of great Pixar film. Of course, a good Pixar film tends to mean a great film otherwise and I won't hesitate to recommend it to anyone. 8/10.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
A sort of spiritual successor to Evil Dead II; it's funny, it's scary and it's highly entertaining!
Drag Me To Hell is a return, for writer/director Sam Raimi to a legendary film from his past, Evil Dead II. While it's in now way connected to Evil Dead II in terms of story, Raimi stamps DMTH with everything that made his Evil Dead trilogy such a cult classic. And while it's a far cry from an art-cinema masterpiece, what we have in DMTH is an unabashedly fun horror comedy thrill ride.
The story, like the referenced film, is rather simple. Our heroine, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), pisses off an old gypsy woman (yeah-- not entirely fond of the stereotypical Romani stuff going on in this film) and gets cursed. Now she has three days to escape it before she gets dragged to hell. The fun isn't so much in the rather simple story, but in how Christine struggles to escape the curse and Raimi does a surprising job of throwing around a lot of zany Three Stooges/Looney Tunes inspired comedy and still somehow maintaining all the tension and suspense required in the horror movie.
Honestly, there were some points in the film that I laughed out loud at, which doesn't happen much. Some of the setups for physical comedy are rather hilarious, including an early one where a lack of dentures leads to grossness. Speaking of gross, the film does not hesitate to indulge in gross-out effects, almost all of which was done comically (think the "wall of blood geyser" from Evil Dead II). Despite the rather comic nature of the film, Raimi still reaches deep into the bag of horror tricks and manages to make the audience jump out of its seat with scares and chills.
The only issue I have with the film can be leveled at much of the genre it occupies and that's one of the consequence. When the curtains go down and the jitters of excitement have worn off, you're left wondering, "so what"? But then again, I don't think that DMTH or many other horror films are all that concerned with that as well.
The cast does their job respectably, Lohman capably carrying the internally conflicted Christine well and managing the silly physical comedy well. Lorna Raver throws herself into the vengeful Sylvia Ganush well, also somehow managing to make the old woman rather frightful and comic at the same time. All the other players do decent jobs with their simple roles and keep us engaged. And technically, while the film might be a throwback to the Raimi of old, we're dealing with the budgets that the new Raimi can command and so all the special effects are very glossy and very likely done with a lot of CGI. Nothing looks low budget. Cinematography is subtle, but does a great job of creating lots of dark spaces for scares to happen and keeping things unsettling even when we're in the "safe" spaces in the film.
Ultimately, DMTH is a rather simple film, but one that takes its simple premise and takes it to the best degree it can, much like Evil Dead II. It's both laugh-out-loud funny and jump-out-of-your-seat frightening and the suspense is high enough to keep you at the edge of your seat. And while, Raimi might have left the small budgets of the Evil Dead trilogy behind, he seems to have ripped out its still beating heart and stuffed it into Drag Me To Hell, making a terribly fun popcorn movie that keeps its ambitions simple and meets every single of its entertainment goals. An often unbelievably entertaining film. Thank you, Sam Raimi. 8/10.
Star Trek (2009)
Enjoyable reboot of a classic with a few problems in the story logic
Star Trek is a "reboot" of the classic franchise started by Gene Roddenberry as a little television show on NBC a few decades ago. In particular, this film revisits the original incarnation of Star Trek and the subsequent movies and creates a bit of a new origin story. With a very long history of lore and legions of fans, director J.J. Abrams and company had to both respect the story of Star Trek as it was and also tread new territory. They found an out that both respected the history of the overall franchise and let them rewrite it at the same time: the alternate universe. Using the long-standing tradition in Star Trek history, the reboot boldly takes us where no fan has gone before...
The trouble all starts when revenge-bent Romulans from the future show up in the past, blowing up the ship that happens to be carrying the father of James ("Jim") Tiberius Kirk, thus altering time forever. However, Kirk, with some prodding from Captain Christopher Pike (who Star Trek fans might remember from the pilot episode "The Cage"), Kirk ends up repeating much of history anyhow. Meeting the various members of the crew that would form the Enterprise anyway, they respond to a distress call from Spock's home planet, Vulcan. Then a series of troubles occur involving the future-Romulans, amidst other things.
The story itself is convoluted at times, requires a lot of faith from the audience and takes some rather contrived leaps of logic to propel it forward. Consequently, the actual mechanics of the story often are alarmingly strange. Why is the entire Federation Fleet on the other side of the galaxy? Why would they leave their various homeworlds completely unprotected? Furthermore, a number of plot holes show up throughout the film. This is very distracting from the emotional core of the story, which is actually quite good, focusing on the friendship between Kirk, Spock and Bones as well as keeping the rest of the classic Enterprise crew well involved. If you're willing to overlook the various leaps of logic in the story, then in terms of crafting tension and twists of fate, it serves its purpose well.
One of the highlights of the film is the acting from the various players. Chris Pine does an acceptable job as Kirk, being a bit more brash and bad boy as well as generally avoiding the specific vocal inflections that William Shatner wrote into the character's legacy. Zachary Quinto's Spock was perhaps the farthest from the original portrayal, played with a lot more simmering emotion than Leonard Nimoy's original incarnation. Given the greater emphasis on Spock's human side in this incarnation, it makes sense. I also still had some trouble getting Quinto's Sylar character out of my head while watching him perform, which might have muddied my appreciation of the role. In some ways, it's the lesser members of the cast that seem to have benefited the most from this incarnation, each getting a chance to shine. Eric Bana on the other hand, gets a rather poorly drawn character to portray in Nero, having to rage and stomp around in a fit most of the time.
There are a lot of cute Star Trek references thrown in throughout the film, which Star Trek fans might appreciate. The designs for the film do a surprising amount of respect to the original designs (although I still don't understand why the female crew members get stuck in the mini- dresses reflecting the original series) while "modernizing" the appearance to appeal to our circa 2009 sense of aesthetics. Special effects are expectedly good for a tentpole pic and the overall technical production is solid.
Purists probably won't appreciate this film that much, due to its rather large deviance from canon. And anyone who bothers to think about the various story points will probably find it somewhat lacking. On the other hand, the film still does well in terms of its focus on the story of the Star Trek trio and keeps the story moving along. Personally, I find the story logic problematic enough that I was frequently distracted from the point. However, this is still a rather engaging and entertaining movie, despite those problems. It'll still be a solid distraction for those looking for a fun movie, but losing the sci-fi for adventure and its hand-waving conceits keep it from the greatness that I've heard it reflected. Which, I guess, puts it in the range of the rest of the more enjoyable Star Trek films. 7/10.
Minyeo-neun goerowo (2006)
Decent comedy, some romance and a middling story means it's decent mindless summer entertainment
A sort-of romantic comedy, 200 Pounds Beauty, is a likable, although limited shot at romantic comedy popularity, sustained by a charismatic lead performance by Kim Ajoong and a high concept.
The story revolves around an obese woman who happens to be "the voice" of a popular singer in Corea. Of course, she doesn't look the part, so she just sings in the background. And he happens to be head over heels for her producer, who also happens to be friendly with her. Due to lack of confidence, she undergoes a radical total body plastic surgery procedure and is reborn at the pretty girl she thinks she needs to be to catch her crush. I think the story overall is a little mixed up and doesn't always do a great job of keeping conflicts clear. Sometimes I wasn't sure what the real conflict was with the main character and I find its wishy washy attitude towards societal standards of beauty, as well as plastic surgery, to be too anemic to appreciate. But the film does get many moments of comedy right. Special attention should be given to Kim Ajoong's portrayal of Kim Hana. Although at first I was a little annoyed by her "clumsy fat girl" antics, in the unbelievable fat suit, because I thought it was a negative stereotype of large bodied people, I came to appreciate her performance as she continued the same character after she becomes "beautiful". I loved how awkward her body language as the skinny girl she becomes is and there are some amusing bits of comedy that come from both her and others reacting to her new appearance.
I guess the big criticism I have is the lightweightedness of the story. Despite its romantic comedy billing, I still didn't feel like that much was at stake for Kim Hana, because I don't think the story effectively sold what it was that she cared about, in addition to splitting her interest in more than three directions. Furthermore, the producer character's position never becomes really clear. Many of the actors, being given limited characters, do an adequate job, but outside of the lead role, there's not much depth given to work with. Production value is high, as should be expected for a high-concept tentpole comedy and direction does a decent enough job of capturing a proper romantic comedy atmosphere.
In no way is anyone going to mistake 200 Pounds Beauty for high art, but its limited charms make for decent entertainment. I don't feel like the story is strong enough for the concept, but the execution is adequate enough and there's enough comedy present in the film to keep it floating through its running time. It also helps that Kim Ajoong turns out to be a good listen as well when she opens up her pipes to sing in the film. Thanks to her charming performance, I can give this one passing grade. It's not a special film, but basic romantic comedy entertainment that goes down easy and doesn't leave too big of an imprint in your mind. Decent. 6/10.
Baramui paiteo (2004)
Formulaic, but fairly successful martial arts biopic
Fighter in the Wind is a Corea-produced martial arts biopic about Masutatsu Oyama (born Choi Baedal), the ethnically Corean founder of Kyokushin karate. I actually went into this film bracing for the worst kind of nationalism that I often expect from Corean film when dealing with Japan, but was pleasantly surprised at how subdued it was. In addition to some limited, but kinetic fight sequences, Fighter in the Wind ends up being a mostly satisfying, if limited, portrait of a prominent figure of the martial arts world.
The fictionalized story covers the early portion of Oyama's life in Japan. While history shows that Oyama had actually trained in two schools of karate before developing his own technique, I imagine that much of the actual of events of his life were elided for both running time as well as nationalistic purposes, in re-centering Oyama as a Corean (perhaps to appeal to the Corean movie-going populace). In addition to watching Baedal/Oyama get beat up, beat people up and become a total badass, we also watch him make friends with another ethnic Corean (the vice-ridden best friend), develop a relationship with a Japanese woman, get schooled by a Zainichi karate instructor/circus troupe guard, and spend a chunk of time brutally training in solitude in the mountains.
The film follows a rather unsurprising approach that you can find in many martial arts films, following the hero's journey as he starts from a scrapping fighter, who gets beaten, learns and trains with a master and learned to use his skills for good and not selfish ambition, is forced to fight to protect someone, beats the big bad in the end. Yeah, totally formulaic since this film mostly fits the basic formula, but like many films before it, it works. You see the growth of Baedal/Oyama's character, you see his victory from rather rough beginnings and how he changes the lives of those around him. Basic biopic/hero-film stuff. But it's pretty well executed, so although it's nothing that's going to amaze you, at the same time, the character remains interesting enough to keep your attention, like any biopic. Unfortunately, most of the Japanese villains are painted with a rather broad near-mustache-twirling brush, so if you're looking for complexity in your story-telling, you won't find it here.
The fight scenes, while not plentiful, are kinetic and hard hitting, especially the montage as Oyama takes on school after school of Japan's elite fighters. It's fun to watch the different martial arts interact and it's hard not to root for Oyama's practical underdog style. Photography is pretty good, adapting to the different dramatic material well, while still seeming cohesive and the film doesn't tank in terms of sonic presentation. The acting was overall good, although sometimes I felt like Yang Donggun, who played Oyama, had a rather limited character to work with, but he still seemed to embody that rather simple determination with his posture, even if I had a hard time believing that his body was one of a brutally effective fighter.
I still have some issues with the probably nationalistically motivated fictionalizations to Oyama's life and the rather obvious bad-guy characterizations of the antagonists, but in terms of an engaging biopic, Fighter in the Wind actually manages to make it out okay--if you like martial arts. It's no visionary work of art, but a rather modestly put together biopic that tells the story of a man whose determination and courage led to greatness. These things work for a reason and Fighter didn't screw it up, even if it did nothing astounding. Good for martial arts fans and probably passable for everyone else. 7/10.
Ra-deui-o De-i-jeu (2008)
A charming visual aesthetic and fine performances unfortunately tied to a super lightweight story
I was drawn to watch Radio Dayz because of the leading actor, Ryu Seungbeom, whose performances I'd enjoyed in previous films. Combined with a bit of a recent surge in popularity of Corean films using the rather captivating era of Japanese occupation, I thought I'd give it a shot.
Radio Dayz is essentially a comedy. It follows the story of a fictional "first Corean radio station" run during the occupation as it starts up. Not that radio stations weren't existent in Corea at the time, but more that this was the first Corean one. The film starts off with the Japanese owner and Corean staff working to try to make their station successful and eventually, they decide to put on a radio drama "The Flames of Love", a terribly melodramatic piece. Meanwhile, a group of misfit Corean independence fighters conspire to use the radio station for their own ends. Hilarity ensues.
Or I wish it did. Not to say that the film doesn't have any funny moments, but I feel like the comedy was a bit stiff or perhaps it wasn't all played the same because while some of the jokes were amusing (for example: the competition between the two glory-hogging divas), other jokes were just mildly amusing. Similarly, while there's an interesting story about how the popular play "The Flames of Love" was used as a anti-colonialist response to the occupiers, the film doesn't successfully place stakes that we're at all concerned. It's as though the film is pulling all of its punches, in both the comedy and drama departments and so the story becomes so slight as to become negligible.
Not to say that the film is entirely a failure. For one, the art direction, the costuming, the photography and all the cute references to the era are solid. I like the use of filters (or perhaps it's post- digital processing) to color the film in sepia. There's the occasional use of irises and other techniques that recall the early film era, which is well studied. I can appreciate that. In fact, the acting, including chemistry, is there. In addition to the talented Ryu as Lloyd, the two divas, jazz singer Marie (Kim Sarang) and traditional actor Myungwol (Hwang Bora) do a great job of playing up the comedy in their own roles. The music doesn't ever become overbearing and often lovingly pulls from jazz era inspiration really helping to set the scene as well as contributing a rather strong number for Marie.
Unfortunately, even with all that's right with the film, the film falls flat on story. There's just not enough present in terms of conflict or stakes, coupled with the fact that the film is directly so lightly (perhaps trying to ladle on a golden kind of nostalgia) that it just becomes hard to care. It never really becomes apparent why the characters care nor what they have to lose. In fact, a lot of the running time is spend getting the station up and going, we don't really see anything substantive happen until more than halfway through. And that's just too bad. As the end credits roll, there's also a completely detached and somewhat out-there song-and-dance number to some jazz- influenced rockabilly that almost brings to mind the crazy ending of The 40 Year Old Virgin. Perhaps with a better focus on characters and story, this film would be commendable, but as it stands, it's merely a pretty nostalgic shell tied together with a silly string of a story. If the aesthetic is all you're looking for, you might just enjoy this as it's not horrible, but for everyone else, I'd say pass. 5/10.
Rough and hard to connect to, but still decent story about urban malaise
Asako in Ruby Shoes is a film by Lee Jeyong prior to his more popular period Chosen retooling of Les liaisons dangereuses. While I find this film to be uneven and it certainly starts off quite rough, there are some charms to it's stories about urban loneliness that just barely won me over in the end.
This film features two separate stories that are interrelated by themes and connections, but the characters hardly really cross. The film starts with Uin, a government clerk in Seoul, who lives a rather lonely and bored life. He's also seemingly socially awkward and seeks (sexual) solace by viewing near-naughty pics on the internet. He also becomes attracted to a flippant and dismissive scarlet-dye-haired worker in his building. The second story follows Aya, a student in Tokyo, who is so lost that she develops an obsession with committing suicide by holding her breath. She also develops a fixation on the titular ruby shoes and picks up a couple extra jobs, including as an "actress" for a rather tame internet site catering to lonely men.
Direction-wise, the film starts fairly rough. Some of the editing and framing choices are jagged, however, as the film progresses, these problems become less noticeable and a considerably appreciable art-house type style, somewhat reminiscent of French New Wave films emerges. The story itself is also fairly interesting, although I had a hard time sympathizing with Uin, due to his often creepy obsessive tendencies. Sometimes the "crossings" between the two characters become a little contrived, especially as the film goes on, but the emotional stories of the two characters (especially Aya) becomes so much more enthralling that, while still thrown by it, I found myself appreciating the film all the same. The film also has several moments of humor, ranging from a few gags to the kind of awkward humor that makes me want to hide behind my couch, but I wouldn't really call this a comedy.
Technically, the film is still a bit rough, but some of my critique might reflect the fact that the DVD transfer I have was quite wretched. Color is off and oversaturated and at times undersaturated and it looks like the DVD transfer was taken off of a video master, giving it some rather ugly noise and interlacing issues. To add injury to insult, the film's original ratio was dropped for a 4:3 pan and scan for this Hong Kong edition that I received. Consequently, I found it hard to judge the film's production values. In terms of craft, the actors do a remarkable job and while some of the supporting characters definitely ventured into caricatures, the leads held their roles well, considering that the themes they had to embody were rather subtle.
I have to say that while it was tough going at first, I found myself actually enjoying Asako in Ruby Shoes. Unfortunately, being unable to connect with Uin on top of the contrivances, combined with a rather dismal DVD transfer, blunted my enjoyment quite a bit. Still, I think that there's enough going on in this film to merit a viewing, for interested parties. It's rough, but I like it okay. 6/10.