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5/10
Not Bad but Needed More
18 July 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Despite often returning poor to mediocre box office results, actor Myeong-Min Kim has always been quite a charismatic presence in Korean films. In this crime comedy thriller "Proof of Innocence", he plays Pil-Jae who was once a cop and is now acting as a broker between criminals and police. It is a rather familiar role for Kim: always smartly dressed, speaks bluntly without hesitation and cynical in his worldview. This character is your classic noir detective and Kim knows it. He plays the role with finesse and charisma that you do root for him even when he's hurting the feelings of the victim's daughter. Sadly the main character's likability cannot carry the weight of the entire film which embraces mediocrity.

The plot: A random letter by convict on death row lands Pil-Jae's attention. Initially Pil-Jae investigates to take revenge against his former colleague (who framed him as a dirty cop) but soon he realizes that he's kicked a hornet's nest. The queen of the nest is the Madam, who is the head of Dahai corporation (probably based on Hyundai), and she's a nasty business as women usually are in films like this.

There are nods to genre classics such as "Chinatown" and the audience of Korean cinema will recognize the current trend of "Rich villains vs Rough heroes" also seen in (and done much better) "Veteran" and "Inside Men". And it is with these comparisons, the film's problems become visible. This film does not offer anything other than simple plot progression. There's setup to intrigue, there's problem solving in the middle and then comes the solution. While "Veteran" had some memorable action sequences and "Inside Men" offered gritty and dirty look at high class society in Korea, this film offers neither and wastes its characters in obligatory clichés.

Cliché #1: Dong-Il Sung's character. The usual comedic relief sidekick (whose position would actually make him Kim's boss) who occasionally tags along and requires some rescuing later.

Cliché #2: The victims. Of course they are completely innocent. Of course they make all the wrong choices that make problem solving more complicated than it already was.

Cliché #3: The climax. After all that running around and getting beaten up, the solution to the crisis at hand relies on the old "Aha! I was recording this conversation all along!"

All this would be forgivable had "Proof Of Innocence" been at least entertaining. Sprinkling some stunt sequences here and there, giving it more shock value would have helped out a lot. Alas, director Kwon cannot escape his own below average directing skills. At the end of the day, not taking any risks in trying something fresh has created another generic product in already rotting pit of Korean cinema.
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Harmony (2015)
5/10
Interesting Ideas, Convoluted Execution
14 June 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Following "Shisha no Teikoku (The Empire of Corpses)", this is the second feature length anime adaptation of Itoh Keikaku's three novels. Similar to that film, "Harmony" tackles an alternate universe (this time set in future), where the world has achieved a whole new different level of human life-style. And also similar to "Shisha no Teikoku", its ideas have been over-cooked by pretentiousness.

It was always going to be a tall order to adapt a novel by Itoh Keikaku (SF writer who met premature death in 2009). The danger is that it is very easy to over-indulge and lose its audience. Or you could turn it into an action flick and fail to capture the novel's message. With "Harmony", it is the former case.

The film opens with an action sequence (something that might whet some viewers' appetite but it's the only action scene in the film on this scale) which triggers the main character's return to her home country, Japan. There she meets with her childhood friend who proceeds on to stabbing herself in the neck in front of our protagonist during their lunch together. Here's where the problems arise. The scene where it is supposed to be of a great shock to the viewers only achieves a "meh" response due to the fact that the film taking everything slow and calm. There's no sense of urgency to this scene but just plain repugnance to the visual display of blood fountain.

Every location, every dialogue and every character interaction in this film feel like the viewers are meant to meditate upon them. Characters appear and look important to the plot but then he or she disappears and we never see them again (the smuggler, the step-mother of another major character, the doctor, the comrades, the other doctor etc). The enigmatic dialogue seems to never get to the point which leaves the audience wishing for subtitles and pause button to decipher what conversation took place.

Another problem is the visuals. Normally I'd be praising a Japanese animation's visuals saying how my eyes grow watery just by looking at the screen. But not here. That is not to say the film looks horrible, but it actually does in comparison to other animated films made in Japan. "Shisha no Teikoku" had lots of problems as well but that film at least had top notch visuals. Here, everything lacks texture. Characters' faces look very strange in some scenes, architecture look absurdly inconvenient, the future environment shown in the film is very unremarkable and nothing leaves much of an impression. It doesn't help that the damn camera is constantly swaying around instead of focusing on something. It's always either moving around its characters or showing something else (like scenery for example).

Now, the film does have its charm. Our main protagonist, Tuan Kirie, is a strong female (and lesbian at that) character with consciousness and does not have big breasts. Mystery element that fuels the film is Miach Mihie, who has eerie vibe radiating from her just by her standing around in the scene. Her charm is seductive and it's no wonder Tuan is dominated by her in childhood. The plot does make logical steps up to some point and is very interesting. Anime fans will enjoy the "End of Eva"-vibe as the film progresses. The world-building also works greatly in the film's favor which amplifies the tragedy once it gets violent. Some segments of the film which relies on dialogue in tell-not-show style is done nicely too.

Although I kind of liked the film for above reasons, there's constant sense that it should have been better. That it could have been better by giving it more urgency, making it more shocking and critical in social commentary (Japan does have high teen suicide rate). It's another disappointment for "Project Itoh". Here's hoping "Genocidal Organ" is better. Much better.
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Wood Job! (2014)
10/10
Excellent comedy from Japan
2 June 2016
It was bright, upbeat and I think the director Shinobu Yaguchi has mastered his style with this film. His films take closer look at certain jobs we take for granted and succeeds in creating a joyful comedy drama out of its everyday life. Wood Job! is about a high-school graduate giving forestry work a go to pass his time and finding joy in hard work and country life. Basically a fish out of water story with all the lessons and moral ticks. However, don't let the rather predictable plot put you off.

This film is fast paced, lots of things happen quickly, and hilarious from the beginning to end. Much of the work is done by Shôta Sometani whose comedic timing is impeccable and has the right face for the character. Even when he's smug, you just gotta love the guy. One moment he seemingly pulls his weight in his work but the next he's shrieking at something unexpected. The rest of the cast are excellent as well. Most memorable is Ito Hideaki who's manliest man (and very handsome) of them all and initially give our protagonist a hard time but eventually... you know it already.

It is a pleasant ride throughout. Comedy is not relied on dirty jokes but clear visual gags and quirky characters. This is one of the funniest films I've seen this year.
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9/10
A rollicking Sci-Fi spectacle with Food for thought.
28 March 2016
Honestly it was great fun. The setup was good, the plot was clear and the three main characters were all very likable.

Plot: When a hacker called "Frontier Setter" hacks into an ideal virtual world where most of remaining humanity resides, the Officials of the system dispatch "Angela Balzac" to Earth where she'll not only have to cope with the harsh conditions of wasteland Earth but with her guide "Dingo" and her new body. The unlikely duo track down "Frontier Setter" and discovers a shocking truth that will lead to an unexpected battle against time.

Of course there's philosophical talk. "What makes a person... human? Can robot have consciousness of its own?" It's a familiar theme, almost a standard in big budget Japanese theatrical anime. But it wasn't over-done and the message was straight-forward. Of course the female lead is impossibly hot (even in her "under-developed" "16 year old" body). It's textbook stuff, mate. There will be flashes of her naked body. She will wear clothes that show off her amazing physique and nobody in the film will bat an eye. And of course there will be big showdown involving missiles, lasers, machine-guns, robots, booby-traps, sniper rifles and giant swords.

It is also predictably amazing in its visual aesthetics. Every frame is filled with detail and the sheer clarity of it all makes current CGI animation doodles on photo-shop. Lively camera work also adds to the action taking place while never losing focus on its characters. But you know all of this when you're even searching on IMDb for this film.

This is not a game changer for mainstream anime. Nor is it a must-watch for newbies to get a taste of what an anime genre can offer. What it is that it's a pure entertainment that combines what's best in the industry and jam-packed into 100 minutes of rollicking ride. Your eyes shall water, your mind shall think and it will leave you satisfied. Nothing more, nothing less.

My only wish for improvement is with plot in DEVA. It's a fantastic premise (although yes, it does sound like Matrix) and well deserves its own action sequence within. The possibility of it is endless and yet we are only given teases of it. However it's just a thought that comes way later after losing yourself in the film's world and its attractive characters. Oh and stay in for the credits. You'd be missing out otherwise.
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10/10
Iwai Shunji's best film in years
16 October 2015
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.
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10/10
Uplifting joy
16 October 2015
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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3/10
Awful Bore
30 September 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.
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Veteran (2015)
8/10
Finally a Confident Blockbuster
30 September 2015
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.
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Assassination (2015)
5/10
Disappointing Blockbuster
30 September 2015
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.
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2/10
Memorably Terrible
3 July 2015
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.
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9/10
Nice directing effort and unique characters
24 November 2014
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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5/10
Starts with a Pumping Pulse and Arrives to a Halt.
27 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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