Monday, September 29, 2014

Review: Secret Reunion (2010)

Secret Reunion (Review)
Jang Hoon/Song Kang-ho, Kang Dong-won/2010
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a very exciting and entertaining film..."

Years after a botched mission to stop a notorious North Korean hitman named Shadow, former NIS Agent Lee Han-gyoo (Song Kang-ho) crosses paths and secretly teams up with the abandoned North Korean rookie Ji-won (Kang Dong-won).

Secret Reunion mainly follows Han-gyoo six years after the failed mission to stop Shadow and Ji-won. So, Han-gyoo becomes a private investigator of sorts and Ji-won, who was abandoned by his country due to a misunderstanding, finds work with immigrants. They eventually cross paths and start working together in Han-gyoo's line of work, each trying to hide their identities and each with their own intentions. The film blends its action and humor very well, with a subtle social commentary, and ends with an excellent climax.

The Secret Reunion starts off a little rough. The introduction features a great action set-piece, but it is partly spoiled by a weak plot contrivance. ("Oh no, I dropped my gun for no apparent reason.") It doesn't break the film, but it's worth noting. Fortunately, the film quickly recovers for a less contrived approach -- in fact, it drops most plot contrivances.

The rest of the film is a great blend of humor and action. It's not an action-comedy per se, but it clearly uses both elements -- and it uses them well. The use of quirky and often laugh-out-loud humor and great action sequences makes for a very balanced and excellently-paced film. In fact, I didn't check the runtime at all, and it was over before I knew it. I loved Han-gyoo's quirky and often incompetent character, and I loved Ji-won's ferocious action.

As for the underlying message, or at least what I got from the film, it does not preach -- you don't even have to see it, or you may not even recognize it. Anyway, the film is really about people and inhumane actions. How we should treat people as humanely as possible, regardless of their origin. Simply because someone is from a different region doesn't mean we should treat him inhumane.

The acting is great from both Song Kang-ho and Kang Dong-won. Song Kang-ho is as energetic and as lively as ever -- he really brings life to every film he stars in. The film is also shot well, and features a standard action soundtrack. The Netflix Instant stream is mediocre -- the translation has some misspellings and broken grammar, and some of the subtitles are cut, though. This version also looks worse than a DVD. Director Jang Hoon, who has helmed Rough Cut and The Front Line, finds the perfect balance in action, humor, and commentary -- it's a very exciting and entertaining film thanks to his precise and focused directing.

Overall, Secret Reunion is a great film. It starts off a little rough, but quickly recovers for an entertaining action-comedy hybrid. Although I think it's very well-paced and balanced, there is some room for improvement -- by some, I mean just a tiny bit. If you're looking for something entertaining and exciting, Secret Reunion is for you.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Violence and blood.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005)

Welcome to Dongmakgol (Review)
Park Kwang-hyun/Jung Jae-young/2005
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...can make you laugh out loud one moment, cry the next, and make you genuinely feel."

During the Korean War, three North Korean soldiers, two South Korean soldiers, and a downed U.S. pilot find themselves in a secluded village called Dongmakgol.

Welcome to Dongmakgol follows this group as they separately stumble upon the village of Dongmakgol. This village is secluded, and the villagers live unaware of their surroundings -- including the devastating war that has engulfed the region. In fact, the villagers live carefree, yet taking care of each other. This group of soldiers begin their relationship with guns and grenades, but develop into something more brotherly. The ending is bittersweet and thought-provoking -- much like the rest of the film.

Welcome to Dongmakgol is far from a traditional war film. This film is more about people, regardless of origin. It blends some action and suspense, but the bulk of the film is filled with lighthearted and charming humor. It's one of those films that really brings a smile to your face. It's also one of those films that can tear you apart thanks to its emotional depth. As I mentioned earlier, the film is also very meaningful. It doesn't preach an anti-war message; instead, it gives a strong message about caring for people. That's all we really are, regardless of color or origin: we're people.

The film stars a wonderful cast led by Jung Jae-young, Shin Ha-kyun and Kang Hye-jung. This trio deliver a wonderful set of performances, they bring life to a film full of wonder. Like most Asian films starring English-speaking actors, though, the English-speaking cast is the low point of the acting. Steve Taschler, who leads the minimal English-speaking cast, isn't particularly bad, but just doesn't have a natural performance.

The film looks magnificent thanks to the beautiful cinematography. The setting looks elegant and pops with rich colors. The music by Joe Hisaishi is also superb; it adds to the film's overall personality, and invokes great emotion. The special effects, particularly the use of green screen, are outdated, but I felt like it added to the charm of the film. Director Park Kwang-hyun meticulously crafts a hilarious yet meaningful film, while pulling superb performances from the cast -- I hope to see more from the director as it has been almost a decade since his debut.

Overall, Welcome to Dongmakgol is a masterpiece. It's a story that becomes much more than a typical war film. It's a film that can make you laugh out loud one moment, cry the next, and make you genuinely feel. It's also a film that can make you think, and think very deeply about its significant message. Although the English subtitles have some momentary flaws in the Netflix Instant stream, the high definition version available is a film that you must seek. Don't miss this film -- for anything.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Violence and blood.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Missing (2009)

Missing (Review)
Kim Sung-hong/Moon Sung-geun/2009
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...ultimately works well as a thriller."

Hyeon-jeong (Choo Ja-hyun) begins to search for her sister, Hyeon-a (Jeon Se-Hong), after she goes missing in a rural countryside village...

Missing begins with a short home video of Hyeon-jeong and Hyeon-a being friendly. Immediately afterward, Hyeon-a is in the middle of an argument with her sister as she runs off with a director. Then, she gets kidnapped by an old man named Pan-gon (Moon Sung-geun). Pan-gon tortures Hyeon-a while Hyeon-jeong frantically searches for her sister. That's about it. Although I liked how the third act played out, it is on the contrived and cliché side. The ending is chilling, though.

I think the biggest problem with Missing is that it doesn't have enough character. All we have to identify the sisters' relationship is the short 30-second video in the beginning and a phone call. In fact, we see more of a relationship between Hyeon-a and Pan-gon than anyone else. This makes the film much less effective than it could've been -- it just never connects with the audience on an emotional level.

However, Missing does work as a standard crime thriller. Like I said, it's missing the emotional connection, but it has some great suspense and some very grizzly scenes. Some of the scenes of torture are cringe-worthy. The suspense and tension also helps create an engaging film. It's not the pinnacle of suspense, but it helps. That's really the best way to describe, though: standard. It passes as an entertaining thriller, but doesn't bother to excel, despite the many opportunities.

Choo Ja-hyun is great; I think she delivers a powerful performance with amazing conviction. Moon Sung-geun also plays his role perfectly -- he makes his character sinister. The film looks and sounds good, too; the music was often poorly edited, though. The English subtitles on the Netflix Instant stream are good -- you'll understand the story, but there are some grammar and spelling errors. Director Kim Sung-hong does well in pulling great performances from the cast and conjuring some suspense and tension, but misses a grand opportunity to make an emotional connection with the audience.

Overall, I think Missing is a good film. It is somewhat disappointing due to the lack of buildup and character, but it ultimately works well as a thriller. The story is familiar but engaging, there is some cringe-worthy violence, and the ending is haunting. If you don't mind revisiting familiar territory or simply want to kill an hour and a half, this is for you.

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Graphic violence and blood, sex and nudity.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Review: Breathless (2008)

Breathless (Review)
Yang Ik-june/Yang Ik-june/2008
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...may leave you breathless by the end..."

A violent and angry debt-collector, Sang-hoon (Yang Ik-june), develops a friendship with a troubled high school student, Yeon-hee (Kim Kkot-bi).

Breathless is a slow-paced drama following Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee as they develop their friendship, despite their age difference. Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee share similar personalities, as well as similar lifestyles and lives, which brings them close together. They bicker and curse at each other at all times, but they have a subtle understanding. It seems that most of their lives have been dominated by violence. Breathless leads to a very powerful ending.

Breathless may seem like a simple drama based off of my explanation, but it's really a complex, character-driven film. The story meticulously crafts a genuine and effective friendship between Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee. Particularly because it also takes time to craft Sang-hoon and Yeon-hee as individual characters. We really delve deeply into characters like Sang-hoon. Breathless also makes strong statements about life, family, and violence.

I may not even have to say this as you probably already realize, but Breathless is a very bleak and depressing film. It's a film that revolves around troubled characters and an endless cycle of violence. And, it's extremely effective, without being melodramatic. This is a film that just may leave you breathless by the end -- it's that powerful. If you're looking for a film about happiness, this isn't for you. There's only but a glimmer of hope in Breathless. If you're the type of person who loves to feel during film, good or bad, like myself, then Breathless is a must-watch.

The acting is all-around superb. Yang Ik-june, who also directs the film, delivers a fantastic performance -- a subtle and effective performance for an intricate character. Kim Kkot-bi also does very well. The film has a quite a few closeup shots; they can be a little overwhelming, especially during scenes with a lot of movement. The film doesn't utilize a lot of music, which makes the drama much more impressive, but I did love the music that played during the credits. The film looks great in high definition, and the English subtitles on the Netflix Instant stream are great -- a few spelling and grammatical errors, though. Writer and director Yang Ik-june crafts a very bleak and effective drama without compromise and superb subtly.

Overall, Breathless is a masterpiece. It's one of the few films nowadays that can break you down, and for good reason. It's bleak and depressing, but it's with purpose -- it makes a great statement. If you like slow-paced films and don't mind one-too-many closeups, Breathless is a must-watch for any fan of the genre, and any fan of Korean cinema. I hope to see more of Yang Ik-june in the future.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Review: Punch (2011)

Punch (Review)
Lee Han/Yoo Ah-in/2011
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...Punch packs a very effective punch."

Troublesome student Do Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in) forms a relationship with his unconventional homeroom teacher Lee Dong-ju (Kim Yoon-seok).

Punch is a coming-of-age drama that mainly follows Wan-deuk and Dong-ju. Wan-deuk is a poverty-stricken, troubled student whose father is hunchbacked. Dong-ju is a harsh and unconventional teacher who just so happens to live next door to Wan-deuk. As their relationship forms, Wan-deuk grows to understand more. Really, he simply grows. He'll find some solace in kickboxing, develop a relationship with his love interest, meet his estranged mother and so on. The film leads to a positive and fulfilling ending.

I liked Punch. It's a great coming-of-age drama. As a coming-of-age film, it doesn't necessarily break new ground. And it doesn't have to. Punch is a very effective film, and that's really what matters. As a drama, the film is a very effective tale of people. It uses its themes of family and culture very well to tell its story. It uses these themes to tell a great coming-of-age story, and also subtly deliver a message about said people. It has a great blend of humor, too. Lee Dong-ju, in particular, is hilarious. Some of its humor doesn't really land, but it's a welcomed addition. All-in-all, Punch is a wonderful blend of drama and humor -- a very balanced and versatile film, which helps the pacing and runtime.

Yoo Ah-in is great as the lead, but Kim Yoon-seok steals the show. Kim Yoon-seok, who is magnificent in films like Hwayi: A Monster Boy, is very funny and charismatic in this film. The film is shot well, I have no complaints for the cinematography. The music blends well with the film, too. The English subtitles on the Netflix Instant stream (which may be expired by the time this review goes up), are good, but there are a few mistranslations. The film looks superb in High Definition. Director Lee Han delivers a very consistent and balanced coming-of-age film; it treads familiar territory and some of its subplots are underutilized, but Punch delivers a refreshing blend of drama and humor.

Overall, Punch is a fantastic film. It's very entertaining thanks to the effective drama and humor, but it's also very meaningful. And, it doesn't preach. It handles its message with respectful subtly. There is some room for improvement, but Punch packs a very effective punch. (you have to end a review with cheesy wordplay, sorry.)

Score: 9/10
Parental Guide: Some brief violence and blood.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Nightmare (2000)

Nightmare (aka Horror Game Movie) (Review)
Ahn Byeong-ki/Kim Gyu-ri/2000
Where to watch:
Netflix Instant
Amazon Prime

"...offers enough horror to make up for the story's shortcomings..."

Hye-jin (Kim Gyu-ri) and her friends are haunted by an ominous and mysterious figure of their past... but why?

Nightmare is follows this group of friends as they are picked off one-by-one by an ominous spirit of their past. Seon-ae (Choi Jung-yoon), a close friend of Hye-jin and the rest of the group, believe Eun-ju is responsible. Eun-ju, who had supposedly killed herself, shares a past with this group... a past with a devastating secret. Is she really killing them or is it all in their heads? Nightmare is somewhat convoluted and confusing, but I think most audiences will get the gist of it. The ending is predictable, especially for those with experience in the genre, but still managed to send some chills down my spine; the climax also dragged a bit and there is a small hole, but nothing too bad.

Like I said, though, the biggest issue for Nightmare is the storytelling. It gets the point across, but it is also inefficient. Not only can it be confusing, but it also lacks a natural flow – some scenes do not connect and it causes the film to feel disjointed. For example, during the first act, there are more than a handful of scares, but no bridge to connect them; a scare here, then the character suddenly appears in a whole new scene, another scare, and so on. The perception of time can be difficult, too; the film starts off as 2 years earlier, then skips to the present, then back to the past... but it lacks a suitable transition – I honestly didn't realize it had skipped to the past initially.

Fortunately, Nightmare is frightening. It's an old-school type horror film, like many American 90s slashers – of course, with a supernatural twist. The film develops an ominous atmosphere and mood early on and keeps it throughout. It also builds some decent suspense, which helps make the many jump-scares so much more effective. The visuals are the typical long-black-haired ghost, but it was still creepy; there's also a doll in the film, albeit underutilized, that was very spooky. All-in-all, the horror is very effective and very exciting.

The acting was also very impressive – especially by horror standards. Kim Gyu-ri is great as the lead, and she has wonderful support from Choi Jung-yoon and Yoo Ji-tae. A little melodramatic at times, but mostly great. The film is also shot very well, I would've loved to watch this film in high definition. The music is a little overwhelming and even melodramatic, but it definitely helps in building the atmosphere; it sounds like a traditionally horror soundtrack, and I'm okay with that. I watched the DVD of this film; the picture quality is decent, at least considering the age of the film, but the English subtitles were at least more than good enough. Although the story suffers from inefficient storytelling, Ahn Byeong-ki's direction is strong; he pulls great performances from the cast and crafts the terror very well.

Overall, Nightmare is a good film. The story, despite lacking originality, is satisfying; the storytelling, on the other hand, is mediocre and damaging. Fortunately, the film offers enough horror to make up for the story's shortcomings – at least enough horror to warrant one viewing. So, rent it or buy it at a low price. (It's very cheap nowadays.)

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and violence, some brief nudity.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Bleak Night (2010)

Bleak Night (Review)
Yoon Sung-hyun/Lee Je-hoon/2010
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a very sad and effective film that works impressively off of dialogue..."

A father begins to unravel the events that led to his son's death.

Bleak Night tells the present and past. In the present, a father is looking for closure. His son, Ki-tae (Lee Je-hoon), is dead, and he wants to know why one best friend moved prior to his death and why the other missed the funeral. In the past, a seemingly honest misunderstanding begins to cripple this trio's close relationship. From one misunderstanding to another, the relationship spirals into madness. The ending is somewhat unfulfilling; I like its openness, but it feels like there is still a lack of closure -- maybe purposefully?

Bleak Night is a very bleak and effective coming-of-age drama. Or maybe more of a coming-of-death drama? (in other words: it doesn't really feel like a typical coming-of-age film.) The story mostly follows this trio of friends as their relationship slowly crumbles. It works very well off of its dialogue. The conversations are very tense -- and it usually does this without music, which I believe to be an accomplishment. In fact, I really like the realistic approach, it didn't feel melodramatic. Anyway, the film really keeps you the edge thanks to the dialogue and bleak atmosphere. It is a slow-burn, and it is occasionally too slow for its own good, though. Some of the storytelling can be a little confusing at times, too.

Lee Je-hoon is fantastic. In fact, most of the cast deliver realistic and honest performances. The film is shot very well; the cinematography is great. The film hardly uses music, but when it does, it blends very well with the film. The English subtitles are great and the film looks great in High Definition on Netflix Instant. (it may no longer be available on Netflix when this review goes live.) Director Yoon Sung-hyun does well in crafting a bleak atmosphere and making a tense story out of what could've been just another high school drama; there are some pacing and storytelling issues, though, and the closure isn't satisfying.

Overall, Bleak Night is a great drama. It's a very sad and effective film that works impressively off of dialogue -- in other words, the tension never feels fabricated. It also has amazing performances. However, the pacing and storytelling could've been fine-tuned. If you like films that make you feel, and don't mind a slow pace, this one is for you.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Some violence.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: My Tutor Friend 2 (2007)

My Tutor Friend 2 (Review)
Kim Ho-jung, Ji Kil-woong/Lee Chung-ah, Park Ki-woong/2007
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a great blend of goofy, quirky, and slapstick humor..."

Junko (Lee Chung-ah) travels from Japan to South Korea as an exchange student with intentions of finding her lost love, but instead finds a cheeky and arrogant tutor...

My Tutor Friend 2 follows Junko as she moves to Korea and befriends Jong-man (Park Ki-woong), or as Junko calls him "Junk-man." Jong-man doesn't really care for Junko, but his father forces him to become her tutor. So, hilarity ensues as Jong-man takes advantage of the opportunity, and Junko faces plenty of embarrassment. It's a very funny and even refreshing story. At least until the final act, when the story starts to pile on the plot contrivances and the clichés. The film ends up going exactly where you think it's going; however, I thought the ending was sweet -- a little cheesy, but sweet.

I suppose that's one of the bigger problems romantic comedies face nowadays: they all tend to end up at the same place. I don't fault it much, partly because it's expected and also because it still works, but it is disappointing. The movie starts off so well, then it starts becoming so predictable and familiar -- almost like you're watching the same movie again. The only other issue I had with My Tutor Friend 2 was the bloated runtime. The film is really long due to some unnecessary filler and repetitive scenes.

Fortunately, My Tutor Friend 2 is hilarious! It's a great blend of goofy, quirky, and slapstick humor, and it's all packaged in a very lighthearted and warm atmosphere. I loved the classrooms scenes with Junko, as well as the quiz show scene. In fact, I loved Junko's character, as well as her interactions with Jong-man. The romance is subtle -- it's not lovey-dovey, but it still plays out like you expect it, too. Now that I think of it, if this were a regular comedy without the romance, this film would've been perfect! It would've been shorter, more focused, and less cliché.

Lee Chung-ah and Park Ki-woong are great as the leads, they share great onscreen chemistry. Lee Chung-ah doesn't really play the perfect Japanese girl, though, obviously because she's Korean; she works out in the end, but I wonder why they didn't hire a real Japanese girl for the role? Otherwise, it's practically a standard romantic comedy -- music and all. The English subtitles are great on the Netflix Instant stream, which may be expired by now. Directors Kim Ho-jung and Ji Kil-woong do very well in conjuring some hilarious moments and creating great chemistry, but the film ultimately fumbles during the cliché and predictable final act.

Overall, My Tutor Friend 2 is a very good comedy. It has plenty of laugh out loud moments, and some genuine charm and quirky. The cliché romance elements don't match up to the humor, but they get the job done. The only issues I had with the film were its unnecessarily long runtime and cliché finale. Otherwise, it's a fun time.

Score: 7/10
Parental Guide: Some violence and blood.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Fortune Salon (2009)

Fortune Salon (Review)
Kim Jin-Young/Park Ye-Jin, Im Chang-Jung/2009
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...humor was great, but it didn't feel like there was much romance..."

A famous fortuneteller with a cursed love life finds her destiny in a former horse jockey who now collects horse urine for drug tests.

Fortune Salon follow Tae-rang (Park Ye-Jin), the famous fortunetelling shaman, as she tries to date Seung-won (Im Chang-Jung), who she believes she's destined to be with because of the fortune her mother gave her as a child. Problem is: they are polar opposites. Tae-rang is very serious about her love life and profession, while Seung-won is more of a carefree goofball. The story starts off very funny, but loses some momentum during the second half. Much like every other romantic comedy out there, the ending is as predictable as ever; the scenes during the credits are funny, though.

Fortune Salon is a good comedy. I liked the slapstick and quirky humor. Seung-won, although often arrogant, is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Tae-rang has a few funny scenes, too. I also liked the humor surrounding fortune telling, it makes for some unique comedy. But, as a romance film, it just doesn't work very well. I know Tae-rang's character is supposed to be closed-hearted, but this makes it so the pair rarely have any chemistry. They have scenes together, they hold hands and all, but it never feels like a genuine romance.

Im Chang-Jung delivers a charismatic and quirky performance. Park Ye-Jin, on the other hand, feels bland. Most of the time, she looks bored -- again, maybe it's because of the character. Otherwise, the film looks good and sounds good. The English subtitles on the Netflix Instant stream are good, too -- a couple of spelling and grammatical errors, but nothing detrimental. Director Kim Jin-Young, director of Baby and Me, fails to spark up a romance, but succeeds in crafting many funny situations; the film is also very well balanced and paced, aside from a few slow moments.

Overall, Fortune Salon is a decent film. The story is mostly good, at least until its cliche and predictable final act. The humor was great, but it didn't feel like there was much romance going on. I liked Im Chang-Jung's performance and character, but felt like he was underutilized. Park Ye-Jin plays the close-hearted character well, but maybe too well -- she just doesn't seem too into the role. It's not a film you'll hate yourself for not watching, so it is a decent time killer.

Score: 5/10
Parental Guide: Some sexual reference.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: The Executioner (2009)

The Executioner (Review)
Choi Jin-ho/Cho Jae-hyun/2009
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...the film successfully transmits the on-screen conflict to the audience."

The first executions in over 12 years creates a conflicted atmosphere at a Korean prison.

The Executioner follows correctional officers Bae Jong-Ho (Cho Jae-hyun) and rookie Oh Jae-Kyeong (Yoon Kye-sang), as well as three other unlucky officers, as they prepare for the execution. Hard-boiled officer Jong-Ho is more than willing, while Jae-Kyeong and others are visibly unsure. One inmate is a vicious serial killer, the other has repented for years and can't hurt a fly. These are the conflicts we witness; these are the conflicts we contemplate about. The film ends with a devastating epilogue; I don't agree with the extremely irrational actions of one particular character during the epilogue, but that's film for ya -- you can't always have it your way.

The Executioner is a great prison drama. It's a tad on the melodramatic side, but it works -- and it works well. There are some very interesting characters and inner conflicts -- not only in the prison, but the film also shows the toll of their work on their personal lives. It did skimp on some details and buildup, though. For example, there's a third criminal being executed, but we never get any insight on his situation. Anyway, it didn't feel like a film that preached. It's not a film that beats you over the head and tries to tell you what's right or wrong.

Instead, The Executioner presents two sides. Like I said, it shows you the life of a veteran and rookie officer, or at least their lives at that very moment. It also shows you two different criminals. It's hard to debate the serial killer didn't deserve it. And, it's hard to say the repenting criminal did deserve it. In a way, the film successfully transmits the on-screen conflict to the audience. I mean, I'm genuinely conflicted by my own thoughts and opinions. (If you've seen it, what did you think?)

The acting is all-around great. Like I said, the film is a tad melodramatic, but Cho Jae-hyun and Yoon Kye-sang deliver genuine performances. The film is shot well, too. The music fits the mood perfectly -- it definitely helps in invoking some powerful emotions. The Netflix Instant stream is mediocre. The English subtitles have some grammar and spelling errors, but the picture quality is the worst -- it moves at such a choppy framerate. Director Choi Jin-ho does very well in developing the tense and conflicted atmosphere; I don't mind the melodramatic approach, and I'm very glad he didn't preach.

Overall, The Executioner is a great drama. The film's story is engaging and emotionally-powerful. It's also thought-provoking without being intrusive or preachy. There are some pacing issues and the film does skip on some of its potential, though. Definitely worth seeking for fans of emotional and contemplative dramas.

Score: 8/10
Parental Guide: Some violence and blood, and some very brief sex and nudity.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Lady Vengeance (2005)

Lady Vengeance (Review)
Park Chan-wook/Lee Young-ae/2005
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...sympathy for who?"

Recently released after being wrongfully imprisoned, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) seeks vengeance from the man who betrayed her...

Lady Vengeance follows Geum-ja in a nonlinear story -- that is, the story is not told in chronological order. Geum-ja is released from prison after serving time for a child murder. Well, as it turns out, Geum-ja was an accomplice to the murder but school teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) was the actual killer. So, as we leap from past to present, Geum-ja concurrently plans and executes her master plan for vengeance. In prison, she makes friends with her fellow inmates, and when free, she uses them to execute her plan. The final act picks up the pace for a very strong climax and great ending.

Lady Vengeance, also known as Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, is the final installment in Park Chan-wook's thematic Vengeance trilogy. Unfortunately, I found it to be the most disappointing. First, the storytelling is often unnecessarily convoluted. There's one sequence where we start in the present with Geum-ja, move to another character who hasn't been introduced, then leap back to the past in prison, then back to the present. It doesn't take away from the story, but it is inefficient. It reminds me of the issue I had with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but this one is a bit more glaring.

Next, I feel like the film places style over substance. It feels like the film is so set out on making a badass lead character that it suspends logical and rationale. Geum-ja is mostly presented as heartless and manipulative, and can overcome impossible odds. There's a scene where she's attacked by two people, and somehow the characters are so incompetent, she can simply walk up to an inch away with her short range weapon and save herself and daughter. Her other actions and dialogue also scream "cool" but for what purpose? The style-over-substance is also evident during some plot points, so it's not solely a character issue.

This character issue, however, continues as it also conflicts with the themes, or at least the themes of the trilogy. You see, it's very difficult to feel sympathy for any character in the film. Geum-ja is heartless during most of her scenes, and she's also an accomplice to the murder to begin with. Mr. Baek is all-around a terrible person. So, sympathy for who? The only people I felt sympathy for were the family of the victims, and they play a minor role during the redeeming third act. It's not like the first two films where you can feel for the characters or where the vengeance makes a statement. It really feels like this skimped on the writing.

Looking back, I really tore into Lady Vengeance. But, not all is bad. I did, in fact, like the style -- it looks very slick and it does make for some epic, unforgettable moments. The story was also interesting and engaging enough to keep me hooked until the end. Also, although the vengeance lacks sufficient buildup and is not nearly as memorable or jaw-dropping as the first two films, it is very satisfying. I wish the film spent more time with the actual victims, so we can really feel, though. Otherwise, it's a standard revenge-thriller with a lot style.

The acting is great. Lee Young-ae is very versatile, it's almost like she's playing two different characters. Choi Min-sik shares little screen time, but he's perfect at playing the villain -- and I say villain rather than antagonist, because Min-sik makes his character pure evil. The film is beautifully shot. The classical music is the perfect fit for the style of the film and works well in helping the film build a distinct identity. The technical side of the film is superb, really. Park Chan-wook's direction is stylish and consistent; however, the writing feels weak -- the themes, the symbolism, the characters -- it all seems so forced and unnatural.

Overall, Lady Vengeance is a good revenge-thriller. The technical side of the film is great and the story is entertaining. However, It doesn't break any ground, its characters feel unnatural, and the themes miss their mark. Maybe if this wasn't part of the Vengeance trilogy I wouldn't have been so disappointed, but it is -- and I am. I love all of Park Chan-wook's work, but the strong focus on style makes it feel like the success went to his head, at least for this film.

Score: 6/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, sex and nudity.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Oldboy (2003)

Oldboy (Review)
Park Chan-wook/Choi Min-sik/2003
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a brilliant mystery and exhilarating thriller..."

Kidnapped and held in a prison-like hotel room, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is released after 15 years and given 5 days to find out why...

Oldboy is a mystery-thriller hybrid that follows Dae-su as he tries to unravel this mystery. Dae-su looks for hints of were he was held and what he ate, as well as recollecting about his past and who he may have angered enough for such a bizarre and vicious punishment. Dae-su finds some aid in a young restaurant chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), as well. I don't want to get to deep into the story details, though: this is a story where the less you know, the better the experience. Regardless, I can say: this engaging and stylish mystery-thriller leads to a jaw-dropping climax and superb ending.

Oldboy is a fantastic mystery-thriller. The story is very interesting and engaging, keeping me hooked from the humorous introduction to its bittersweet ending. The mystery is very well crafted, too, always keeping me guessing. This is one of those masterful mysteries where you pull out your notepad and participate. As for action and thrills, Oldboy has some very stylish and violent action sequences; they're thrilling and elegantly vicious. They also work very well in balancing the film. So, you have some great character development and investigative work, then, BOOM, an unforgettable hallway brawl. The climax is shocking, one of the few that I can say will literally drop your jaw. Don't read about it beforehand, just prepare for the unexpected.

The acting is superb. Choi Min-sik is absolutely superb with a very genuine and versatile performance. Kang Hye-jung is also great, but shares far less screen time. Yoo Ji-tae delivers a very charismatic performance, too. The music is fantastic; this is a soundtrack that I listen to without the movie, very creative yet well-fitted. The film is shot beautifully, the cinematography stands out, and the camerawork is exemplary. Director Park Chan-wook meticulously and masterfully crafts a brilliant mystery-thriller; his vision and statement of vengeance never compromises, and his style is brilliant.

Overall, Oldboy is a masterpiece. It's a brilliant mystery and exhilarating thriller with a superb, unforgettable climax. Choi Min-sik delivers the performance of a lifetime, and Park Chan-wook's efficient and stylish direction is better than ever. Furthermore, if you're looking for a film that enters darker, more taboo territory than the usual, then this film will fill that need.

Score: 10/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, sex and nudity.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Review)
Park Chan-wook/Shin Ha-kyun/2002
Where to Watch:
Netflix Streaming
Amazon Prime

"...a haunting film, it'll stay with you long after its completion."

In order to raise money for his sister's kidney transplant, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf-mute man, devises a plan to kidnap the child of Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), a seemingly wealthy company executive...

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance mainly follows Ryu as he, and his anarchist girlfriend, kidnap Dong-jin's child and hold her for ransom. Ryu has already been down and out, being previously laid-off and having his own kidney stolen, so he has a lot running on this plan. But, as one would expect, the plan falls apart in the worst way possible. The second half follows Dong-jin as he tracks Ryu, as well as Ryu as he tracks Dong-jin. This vicious trail of brutal vengeance leads to an equally devastating ending. It's a film where the less you know the better, so it may seem like a simple story from my description -- but it's not.

In fact, during your first viewing, you may find Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance to be a little on the convoluted and complicated side, especially during its first act. It takes a while to sink in and really hook the audience, but once it does, it never lets go -- it has a firm grip on your throat. The story is depressing and sad, with unfortunate event after another. It's just brutal in every which way. But, I think it makes it extremely effective. I've never felt more secure saying it: this is a haunting film, it'll stay with you long after its completion. There's a lot of suspense, dreadful tension, and some very bloody violence. Also, the characters are well-developed and interesting, with some gritty character arcs; this focus on character amplified the emotional story.

The acting is fantastic. Shin Ha-kyun doesn't have to say a word, yet you can recognize and understand his character -- that's an accomplishment. Song Kang-ho shares less screen time but delivers an equally impressive performance. The music doesn't have a strong presence, but works well in creating the atmosphere for the film. The film is shot beautifully, despite such a bleak subject, with some fantastic camerawork. Director Park Chan-wook, who also participated in the writing, masterfully crafts this vicious yet stylish revenge thriller; some of the writing could've been a bit more efficient during the first act, though.

Overall, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a masterpiece. It's a bleak and depressing revenge thriller that hasn't left my mind since my initial viewing years ago. During your first viewing, you may find some moderate flaws in its storytelling, but it gets better during the following viewings -- take it from experience. I may not be happy watching it considering the subject, but it's a film that I appreciate more and more every time I watch it.

Score: 9/10
Parental Guide: Strong violence and blood, sex and nudity.