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Masquerade (2012)
8/10
Korean Kagemusha Wannabe
23 September 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Gwanghae, The Man Who Became King, distributed internationally as Masquerade, is billed by its distributors as a "2012 Korean Historical Movie version of Mark Twain's 'The Prince & Pauper'". I saw it on 22 September 2012 at CGV Cinemas in Los Angeles' Koreatown, a reliable local venue for the latest Korean film releases.

Last seen two years ago as a secret agent opposite Choi Min-sik's superhuman sociopath in Kim Jee-woon's superb neo-Elizabethan revenge tragedy I Saw the Devil, Lee Byung-hun plays both titular characters: Prince Gwanghae, the ill-fated fifteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty, and Ha-sun, the lowly comedian pressed into service as a stand-in for the monarch who faces the threat of assassination. This speculative fiction draws upon an episode in the eighth year of Gwanghaegun's reign, when the court chronicles recorded his saying, "Do not put on record what is meant to be hidden", followed by two weeks' worth of missing entries. The central conceit of the plot is that the king's loyal and able adviser Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-Ryong) forced Ha-sun to impersonate Gwanghaegun while he recovered a coma after an apparent poisoning attempt. While this contemptuous potentate starts out by micromanaging his puppet through his official court functions, he soon develops an appreciation of Ha-sun's patriotic and humanitarian concerns for the kingdom and its subjects. Meanwhile, the head of an opposing Greater Northerner faction, Park Chung-seo (Kim Myung-gon), the Queen Consort Lady Ryu (Han Hyo-joo), and the king's bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In Kwon), all become suspicious of the sudden shift in the king's behavior.

Said to have been filmed in the real historical palaces in Seoul, the movie combines lavish mise en scène with competent direction of fine actors playing strong characters in a familiar story. While not quite Kagemusha caliber, being far more affected than Kurosawa's masterwork, it makes for a compelling spectacle in its own right, marred slightly by Ha-sun's tendency to emote by shedding tears on demand. The climactic confrontation between Captain Do and a band of assassins dispatched by the recovered king to retire his stand-in with extreme prejudice, is especially notable as a vivid illustration of the vital difference between slashes and cuts in a sword-fight. I recommend it to all fans of international costume drama.
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Gozu (2003)
10/10
Yakuza Jules and Jim
2 November 2003
Warning: Spoilers
POSSIBLE SPOILERS:

Takashi Miike's surrealistic provincial travelogue punctuates jaw-dropping derangement with hysterical chortling, while building up to a climactic anal electrocution, and thence to a grand postcoital finale in a unique take on vagina dentata bonding sexually timid Minami (Hideki Sone) to his yakuza big brother Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), condemned to execution for his erratic violent outbursts by their lascivious gang boss (Renji Ishibashi). Black comedy afficionados are well advised to seek out the bootleg U.S. DVD by Ctenosaur.
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Sabu (2002 TV Movie)
9/10
Studmuffin Reformed by Unearned Punishment
2 November 2003
Coming from the prolifically warped Takashi Miike, this is a surprisingly straightforward psychological period drama. As witnessed and protected by his self-effacing best friend Sabu (Satoshi Tsumabuki), pretty boy Eiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) receives proper comeuppance for his arrogance through being wrongfully accused and punished for a crime inspired by his allure. The bootleg U.S. DVD by Ctenosaur is a work of love. Highly recommended.
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Northfork (2003)
10/10
Death Dirge
20 July 2003
It is a rare and fine spectacle, an allegory of death and transfiguration that is neither preachy nor mawkish. A work of mature and courageous insight, Northfork avoids arthouse distinction by refusing to belong to a kind. Unlike the most memorable and accomplished film to impose an obvious comparison, Wim Wenders' 1987 Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), it sustains an ambivalence in a narrative spectrum spanning from the mundane to the supernatural. This story of earthly and celestial eminent domains in the American West withholds the fairytale literalness that marked its German predecessor in the ad hoc genre of angels shedding their wings with obsequious sentimentalism. Its celestial transcendence, be it inspired by doleful faith or impelled by a fever dream, never parts ways with crud and rot. This firm grounding redounds to great credit for writers and directors Mark and Michael Polish.
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Heaven (I) (2002)
2/10
Startlingly Stupid
20 July 2003
Kieslowski's vapid posthumously produced tale of an altruistic terrorist schoolmarm is imbued with arrant contempt for its audience that caused this hapless constituent to sympathize with the corrupt Italian policemen framing the plucky heroine in a fictitious conspiracy. This film breaks new ground in accomplished badness. Unlike meretricious Hollywood blockbusters, this dreary arthouse spectacle strives for, and achieves, a recasting of the self-appointed avant-garde morality of Socialist Realism into smarmy Catholic individualism. If this Heaven fails to affront your scruples and insult your intelligence, you are made of sterner stuff than this ex-Soviet moviegoer.
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Dead Man (1995)
Rites of Passage
5 November 2002
This film plays like an extended meditation on the observation, due to Arnold Van Gennep and Robert Hertz, that death, as an extreme form of such changes of state in human organisms as baptism, communion, coming of age, or marriage, derives its nature from a social rite of passage rather than a biological transition. With his trademark deadpan approach, Jim Jarmusch treads on the beaten path made familiar from such mystical variations on the theme as Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. Nonetheless, his morbidly funny and touching interpretation of an ancient anthropological commonplace is distinguished by its spectacular casting, sharp photography, snappy dialogue, and smoking soundtrack.
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10/10
Therapeutic Love
27 October 2002
As a commentary on Shelley Duvall's performance of He Needs Me, sung by her Olive Oyl concerning Robin Williams' Popeye in Robert Altman's eponymous 1980 musical incarnation of the Elsie Crizler Segar Depression-era cartoon characters, this movie aptly palliates our recessionary anxieties with an edgy tale of a dysfunctional man-child sustained and redeemed by the love of a good woman. The predicament of Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), an explosive, emotionally stunted novelty toilet plunger manufacturer oppressed by well-meaning ministrations of his seven sisters, consigns his story to the social misfit ground familiar to fans of P.T. Anderson's previous efforts. In contrast with them, the redemptive message delivered through unfathomably determined affection of Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), an indeterminately professional colleague of Barry's overweening sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub), yields the most uplifting offering to date from an auteur still budding after a six-year, four feature film career. The palpable chemistry and razor-edged timing between Barry and Lena are well complemented by the economic backstory of useless trash production enlivened by a cunningly subverted marketing scheme and a violent phone sex scam, adding up to a tasty date night nostrum of love before first sight.
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Fireworks (1997)
10/10
Civilian Reckoning For Policeman's Sins
24 October 2002
"Hana Bi", the Japanese word for fireworks, literally translates its two Kanji characters as "Flowers (of) Fire", the contraposed coupling of evanescent life with violent death. At the core of the movie is its disagreeable moral. Detective Nishi is responsible for the crippling of his partner Horibe, shot on a stakeout while he absents himself to visit his terminally ill wife Miyuki at the hospital. Nishi constantly relives the death of another cop at the hands of an armed robber he was unable to control. In thrall to failure and remorse, Nishi quits the force and borrows money from the yakuza to enable Horibe to become a painter and support the young police widow reduced to working at a fast food stand. In order to repay the yakuza he buys a stolen taxicab from a junkyard, paints it as a police car, dons a patrol uniform, and singlehandedly robs a bank with a toy revolver. While Nishi returns the principal to his creditors, he neglects to pay the interest, knowing full well that this oversight will oblige them to pursue him. The profit from his heist underwrites Nishi's final farewell to Miyuki on a sentimental pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji, as he wipes out his pursuers and flabbergasts salarymen with his retaliatory justice disregaring all native decorum.

Kitano's oblique depiction of ultraviolence is both very Japanese and very revisionist in style. A sixty-second scene in Kurosawa's Red Beard shows Toshiro Mifune, who plays a provincial doctor in Tokugawa Japan, confronted by a dozen yakuza in a whorehouse yard over a sick little girl he intends to rescue therefrom. Encircled by arrogant louts, Mifune somberly dispatches them in a smoothly flowing sequence, visiting just deserts upon each adversary with his bare hands, only to survey the carnage and express his regret of having transgressed the Hippocratic principle to his ambitious young samurai understudy. So Beat Takeshi, boxed in and surrounded by sneering goons in the yakuza Benz, swiftly addresses each of them with a revolver abruptly confiscated from their hapless colleague, then proffers a posthumous admonition to the inert body of a pompadour punk, thrice-thrashed, yet thitherto twice spared. The action is distilled and compressed; the therapeutic protagonist's conscientious alter ego is inverted and mooted.

On a break in their journey, as Miyuki squats at a lake shore to water a bouquet of dead flowers, a boorish interloper upbraids her about the futility of her melancholy gesture. Nishi abruptly shoves him underwater and colors the lake with blooming petals of his blood, in a warm-up for dealing with the next batch of yakuza pursuers due to catch up with them shortly. This juxtaposition of sentimentality and ultraviolence retreats from the more tough-minded narratives of Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Gosha, whose stoic brooding heroes Takeshi Kitano obviously seeks to emulate. But the staccato beat of action punctuating the contemplative portrayal of the hero's love for his dying wife, equally well rooted in the chambara tradition It is evocative of Tatsuya Nakadai soulful oyabun, deferring to the prior claim on his wife left loyally unarticulated by his recovering amnesiac retainer in Gosha's Hunter in the Dark, both in munificence of spirit and operatic surfeit of suppressed emotion. These devices epitomize the Liebestod suggested by the title, a plot device destined to be imitated but unattained by lesser filmmakers.
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10/10
Lies bring forth the Truth
17 October 2002
A deeply conventional moral emerges from a denaturalized plot involving a phony psychic, her meek husband, and a manipulative police superintendent. While Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough acquit themselves spectacularly as the couple undone by overweening ambition of a childless wife, the film is indelibly marked by an all too brief final appearance of Patrick Magee, a stage actor seen to fair advantage on film only infrequently, and nearly always in supporting parts. Watch this favorite actor of Samuel Beckett, the originally intended performer of Krapp's Last Tape, in a performance of trenchant subtlety, enforcing Law through measured duplicity and chilling subterfuge.
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2/10
A dour, turgid Lone Wolf & Cub ripoff
14 July 2002
The best way to disparage Tom Hanks' dour, turgid turn in Road to Perdition is through a contrast with the 1972-3 film adaptation of the acknowledged Japanese inspiration of the original graphic novel version of this tale of Great Depression-era hit man fatherhood. The American film is devoid of even the minimal moral consideration manifest in the Tomisaburo Wakayama serial Kozure Okami. Unlike the wrongfully ostracized executioner Ogami Itto, who presents Daigoro with the choice between a rattle and a sword, Michael Sullivan evinces no concern over enlisting his son in his vengeful mission. And as the 2002 Lone Wolf and Cub movie replaces the insular totalitarian conditions of the Japanese Shogunate with the democratic transcontinental vistas of XXth century America, its story makes no accommodation for the vast range of options open to Michael Sullivan in effecting his revenge. Knowing full well that his enemy is destined for eventual execution by the mob, the widowed hit man declines every opportunity to accommodate his responsibility for single parenthood by forming alliances and biding his time. Nor is Tom Hanks plausible as the Western incarnation of the faithful samurai wronged by his treacherous master. Lacking the stylish detachment of Alain Delon's Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1967 Le Samouraï, or the soulful self-effacement of Forest Whitaker's Ghost Dog in Jim Jarmush's eponymous 1999 pastiche of the bushido ethos, Tom Hanks as directed in his stealthy mustachioed guise by the smarmy, saponaceous Sam Mendes, unthreateningly alternates between line delivery ostensibly retarded by mainlining major opiates and pained facial scrunching pandering to the multiplex audience. As a whole, this film's ostentatious thoughtlessness epitomizes the worst of focus group worship that infests present-day Hollywood productions.
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The Hot Spot (1990)
8/10
A tightly crafted, sun-drenched film noir
14 July 2002
Dennis Hopper delivers the goods in this meticulously conventional tale of a charismatic underachiever finding his level. Harkening back to the gender and class warfare sensibilities of the Forties, The Hot Spot excels across the board, in acting, dialogue, plotting, music, and cinematography.
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10/10
A Warm-Hearted Miike Movie?
28 June 2002
Falsely charged with heroin possession and unceremoniously traded in by his fiancée, slick yuppie Kohei Hayakawa (Koji Kikkawa) finds himself a stranger in Paradise of a very wrong kind. Stranger yet, in the fullness of time this Phillipines prison camp becomes his dwelling of choice. But the film belongs to Tsutomu Yamazaki, best known thanks to Juzo Itami as the swaggering trucker Goro in Tampopo and the master tax cheat Gondo in Marusa no onna, who stays in character as the would-be crook Katsuaki Yoshida come into his own in the jailhouse, to trade his insider survival skills for Hayakawa's business acumen. The political subtext contrasts the élite position of the stiffly crooked Japanese with the vibrant corruption of neighboring Asian cultures. While lacking the moral rigor of Audition and the manic intensity of Ichi the Killer, this film will reward the viewers with what may be the most life-affirming message delivered by Takashi Miike to date.
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10/10
Tie me up and deliver me from the hands of middle-class morality!
22 June 2002
Rape, ultraviolence, and Takashi Miike stand ready to tie you up and deliver you from the hands of middle-class morality. The only redemption our time deserves comes in the form of this live action anime. If you lack the egotism or stupidity required for happiness in clear view of the daily news, seek your release in perfected products of postmodern art. This movie epitomizes the Japanese knack for distilling Western culture. What Sade was to Robespierre, Miike is to the makers of our future. Watch him closely to learn where we are going. Then revisit that news broadcast with your eyes freshly peeled.
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Pistol Opera (2001)
10/10
A Lavish Spectacle
22 June 2002
This long-awaited sequel to the 1967 Koroshi no rakuin (Branded to Kill) replaces the redoubtable Jo Shishido as Number 3 with Makiko Esumi, an actress of the same vintage as the original film, seen to good advantage as a very different type in Maboroshi no hikari (1995). As in the original, her character Miyuki Minazuki, nicknamed "Stray Cat", is a stylish contract killer striving to attain top ranking among her peers in the most natural and conclusive fashion imaginable. As in Suzuki's splendid yet seldom seen Zigeunerweisen (1980), the 2001 film deftly alternates between cryptic narrative constructions in the manner of David Lynch and dreamlike compositions reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky at his best. I urge every fan of these directors to see it at any cost.
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