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Hana to Arisu satsujin jiken (2015)
Iwai Shunji's best film in years
This film perfectly captures the adventurous spirit, the whimsical imaginations, and the awkward solutions that fuels every day life of a 14 year old. As someone who grew up in this kind of environment (although a decade ago) I was uplifted by nostalgia and the naive purity of all the characters.
Just look at the screen! The sky painted in this film is absolutely stunning. Backgrounds are detailed and yet not an eye-sore. Sure the characters looked like rough sketch compared to other more visually accomplished Japanese anime, but I think it was simply a wonderful style to match the story.
Iwai Shunji, the sensitive soul behind such classics like "Love Letter" and "April Story (Shigatsu Monogatari)" reunites with the original 2004 cast of "Hana and Alice" (Yu Aoi and Anne Suzuki) to tell this small but emotionally rich story involving ballet, a school cult, and a murder investigation. It's fine that you haven't watched the 2004 film. This sets up a new story and invests time in proper character development. The film follows Alice as she interacts with a number of people and proceeds to build relationships with them. Some are hilarious (the cult leader), some are touching (an old man) and her meeting with Hana, is something else entirely. Despite an over-the-top set-up, the mystery's solution actually makes sense and isn't contrived to deliver ridiculous twist.
The laughs are there, it looks amazing, the characters are people whom I'd give big hugs to and Iwai Shunji is definitely on-form in his direction.
Omoide no Mânî (2014)
I wasn't big fan of some of Ghibli's latest pictures, notably The Wind Rises and From Up On Poppy Hill which felt like a chore for me watching them. Hooray the Miyazakis are making films they want to make! But yawn it's not something I want to see. But boy this was a treat to my eyes, ears and, yeah yeah, heart.
With a plot that might sound like a psycho-sexual horror thriller if told by wrong voices (In evil Cumberbatch voice: A sick girl is lured into an abandoned mansion by a mysterious blond woman who has some dark secrets and her own motives), this film has classic Ghibli elements: A young girl with problems. Well-meaning adults. (Beautiful) Country side. Supernatural (?) friend. You spend the first half hour just enjoying the beautiful pictures and ticking off your To-See List for a Ghibli film.
Very very slight spoilers ahead.
Then Marnie appears. I realized what the film was doing but was still mystified by it. Got to admit the change of scenes didn't really feel connected. I guess it was hard for the makers too since they resorted to "stuff disappeared while the heroine dosed off" cliché. However this is not faulting the contents but the glue.
There was a moment where I smiled and whispered "Aha!" 15 minutes before the final revelation and ended up proved wrong with a clever twist on the twist. Wow. What a pay-off it had. The obligatory explanation sequence was turned into something powerful and resonant and it's thanks to the build-up that may have baffled you earlier.
It's a shame that this film lost out to the annual regurgitation of tired old Pokemon: The Movie series. The director Yonebayashi made Arrietty for Ghibli which easily trumps Goro Miyazaki's attempts at direction. Hope the next film he makes doesn't take the same step of his two previous works and go for a whole world of fantasy.
Hyeomnyeo: Kar-ui gi-eok (2015)
In this brand new Korean FLOP, Characters spend way too much time explaining everything they've done and will do but the story is still riddled with holes.
Plot: Three master swordsmen (and woman) attempts a coup but fails due to one of the three's betrayal. Years later, the dead partner's surviving daughter vows revenge against the other two. Sounds fun right?
Only Byung Hun Lee seems to have his character in control and other actors are merely copying superior Chinese actors in this genre. The plot wants Lee's character be the villain of the piece, but the actor's charisma and the story itself makes him look like the hero. It's hard to root for the two female leads when they are well below their usual performance with characters who I assume are half-insane.
The "twist" which sets up the final action just reveals to us how nuts these two main characters are. I was slapping myself in disbelief at the lengths the screenplay went. The two female characters are so selfish and so absorbed in their own sense of righteousness that they forgot to take a step back and look what they've done themselves.
If you are going to have characters fly, why can't you have fun with some aerial combat? Why is it always artsy shots that's cool to look at but ultimately makes no sense? How does one simply teleport around locations just because plot wants them there? It's all style but no content. Another thing is that it is painfully obvious that the lead actress has no skill in stunt actions. Her scenes are always edited frantically that you have no idea of geographical aspect of the action occurring. One exception is the extended hallway fight scene that's obviously placed there as a gimmick.
With a plot that makes you expect Kill Bill set in ancient Korea (complete with snowy showdown), this is a serious disappointment. Usually Korean audiences love terrible domestic films but this one flopped. Perhaps it is due to bad publicity Byung Hun Lee is getting these days. Or maybe the public finally got it right: this is a lame film.
Finally a Confident Blockbuster
With a summer filled with less than mediocre domestic films busting blocks in box office we get a quality entertainment from director Ryu Seung-Wan. This is not an entirely original film but Ryu packs it with enough real life relevance and intrigue in the plot to keep the audience thoroughly entertained.
The plot which has the same structure as "The Public Enemy" series, very popular and also from Korea, follows a hardboiled cop trying to take down a psychotic rich kid after his acquaintance ends up in hospital. Both parties do what they do best. One follows leads and the other does whatever it takes cover it up.
As mentioned above, the film's action scenes and its general tone (comic reliefs, charismatic yet evil rich baddies) are very similar to Public Enemy series. However the story is more focused here with director Ryu's confidence in his own style.
The entire cast turns in solid performances but the standout is Ah In Yoo, making a real nasty playboy who can convincingly smirk and get under your skin. Also worth mentioning is Hae Jin Yoo who's presence in a film almost always indicate solid performances. He plays a man who needs to juggle around running the company and keeping the young maniac under control. In its final action sequence, fans of Korean cinema will chuckle at a familiar face making a goofy cameo.
So far Ryu hasn't made a single film that wasn't worth the admission price. Sure, his film can come off cheesy at times but they were never boring. Ryu's style can also compensate for not entirely original plots in films like "Veteran" and "Berlin Files". A great success in box office, this film will pretty much guarantee the director to make any film he wants to make next. Anything he makes, I'll be first in line.
I actually think Korean cinema is going backwards on its quality. The latest blockbuster smash hit is directed by Donghoon Choi who made top notch popcorn flicks with his latest outing being Thieves. Thieves was an entertaining film but there were signs that it was making a formula which can just be recycled.
Now here comes Assassination and it really indulges itself in that formula Choi created for himself. Characters are given quirky nicknames (Hawaii Pistol, Big Gun), the cast is composed of A-listers who try to compete each other for screen presence, and the story is as generic as it gets with few twists to add shock value but riddled with holes nonetheless. What is new is the sense of cheesy patriotism being shoved down our throats. Yeah as sadistic as it sounds, Koreans just love it when lots of Japanese soldiers die on screen. Sure they are bad guys so they deserve to die! We are fighting for our country so it's okay!
While Thieves boasted at least some great stunt action sequences rare in Korean cinema, this film doesn't even try. Action scenes are not only scarce but they're also quite generic bang bang shootouts and nothing really sticks in your mind. The camera movements are so full of itself and actually looks like it thinks the action that's taking place is the best ever.
As usual in lame Korean movies like this Oh Dalsu is the best thing in it. His character has a ridiculous wig, Pringles mustache, smokes a big cigar and wields a machine-gun to blast the baddies. He also packs natural humor and is charismatic here.
What it all comes down to is that this is basically a cartoon that has been stamped with forced patriotism which Koreans love with blind passion. A film designed to make money (it did) and entertain (it didn't). Try harder.
This film managed to be worse than it's predecessor.
How, you may ask when the first film had crappy effects, cheesy dialogue, no plot and laugh-free? By adding lots and lots of dead little girls, of course!
There's no attempt at historical accuracy and the acting is below average. Oh Dal-su is a kind of actor who Koreans instantly laugh by him just standing in the scene. But even he can't really save this crap.
A lame "action moment" happens when the hero uses a grenade to create diversion and get away while actually not harming anyone. Then it happens again. And then it happens again! And holy cow, it happens again!!
The twists aren't really predictable but that's because the film cheats and slavishly ticks all the clichés of this genre when it's obviously inappropriate
I guess the first film was harmless (despite being really bad) with some dumb laughs here and there but this one manages to be offensive too.
Warning for real bad after-taste since this is the first comedy I've seen where many many young girls end up severely poisoned if not dead already.
Thumbs way down. The competition is pretty high in Korean cinema when choosing the worst film of the year, but I know this one will be there since it's memorably terrible.
Bun-no-ui Yun-ni-hak (2013)
Nice directing effort and unique characters
In a year filled with lame dumb unoriginal flicks dominating the box office in Korea, this was a fresh and really solid effort of new direction.
The topic isn't for everyone's taste as this is cruel, violent and very disturbing. However, the characters are very unique with some excellent performances. Rising star Lee Jae-Hoon plays a police officer by day and screwed-up wiretapper by night. This is a character unseen in any other Korean films of the same year. He has the most screen appearance, but isn't the hero. In fact, there is no hero in this. There's only bad and the dead.
With each classic musical number another character linked to the whole incident is introduced. I felt like the characters revealed got more and more *beep* up, but that is up for debate. There is a whiny professor who has committed adultery, A philosophical gangster boss with a knack for foot fetish, The stalker who actually killed the dead girl, and an angry woman who wants to cover it all up. They are all linked to a woman who is dead during the film.
The direction was innovative and it was unlike any other money-making idiocies. At points, it's very (blackly) funny especially with the gangster who is played by Cho Jin-Woong. The story is a bit far-fetched but the dialogue funny and perfectly delivered ("Hey miss, call an ambulance..." "I'll hit everywhere except your hands" "You know I exercise a lot... Especially my lower body.").
Unfortunately, the marketing was poorly done (mostly because the distributors didn't spend enough money for it) and the trailers made it look like a thriller with R18 sex scenes. It's a shame.
In the end no-one gets away clean and that's something not many Korean films dare to end themselves with.
Yi dai zong shi (2013)
Starts with a Pumping Pulse and Arrives to a Halt.
The Grandmasters has too many soft spoken words, too many slow camera movements, too many close-ups, too many backsides of actors, too many shadows, too many blurred vision and most horrifyingly, too little action. I didn't get the full grasp of the story as it leaps through time and characters and was bewildered by its lack of coherence. The precious few action scenes are good, but oh boy oh boy, what are they fighting about?? For me, Wong Kar Wai's direction for the story of Yip Man, is all wrong. Yes, it can be artistic, yes it can have visuals so gloomy and shadowy its hard to make out what we are seeing. But wouldn't it helped if all these were, you know, engaging and entertaining?
To be sure, Tony Leung makes a fantastic Yip Man. Better than Donnie Yen's version, Leung has a charisma and laconic charm with the character. One glance at his eyes, I'm drawn into this man. So imagine my pity as the film never gives chance for him to really act nor really fight until he runs out of breath. It's all so suave, all so elegant and all knowing. The dramatic high point for the acting is during the hard times, but it passes on quite quickly because the film has more uninteresting things to throw at us. It certainly takes a different direction to Donnie Yen's Yip Man series, and its for the worse. Instead of making sensible situations for the hand-to-hand combat, Yip Man here searches for the mysterious legendary martial arts moves only Ziyi Zhang knows. And the two characters have love affair of sorts despite Yip Man already having a wife. All this heavy focus on martial arts gets me to wonder, are there still modern day audiences for this film who knows all the ancient/traditional martial arts moves and feel compassionate towards them to actually care for it?
One merciful element was its choice not to concentrate on Yip Man beating up Japanese soldiers in an overly dramatic fights. Although this saps the film of its possible actions, compared with the government propaganda scene in recent Chinese action films, in which the baddies are almost always Japanese soldiers and/or Whites, the film doesn't put much focus on Japanese invasion. Just the period itself. But I guess with a film this dull and light on action scenes, a few clobbering of Japanese soldiers could have been fine.
Wong's direction has no sense of fun, and its all gloom. The actors do what they can, but the script they are given didn't tick my interest. I really looked forward to this film, interested to see Wong's take on the legendary Kung Fu master, but I guess his interest in him differed with mine.