Sunday, April 29, 2007

She's on Duty (Korea 2005)

She's on Duty (Jambok-geunmu) is a 2005 South Korean film about a police detective who goes undercover in a high school to befriend the daughter of an elusive gangster.It stars Kim Seon-ah as Chun Jae-in (Jane Chun), Nam Sang-mi as Cha Seung-hee, Kong Yu as Kang No-young, Kim Kap-su as Cha Young-jae, and Kim Sang-ho as Detective Kang.

When we first meet Kim Seon-ah (Jane) she is deep undercover in the middle of a prostitute ring that is seconds from being exposed. She loses control of her situation and botches the sting. She gets a second chance to prove she has what it takes to still be an asset as a detective. This time her new assignment is to go undercover in high school and keep tabs on Seung-Hee (Nam Sang-Mi) the daughter of Cha Young-Jae (Kim Kap-Soo), an on the run dad that no one can find who has a testimony to shut down a local angry mob boss! So Jane's mission is to keep Seung-Hee safe while remaining on the lookout her dad.

Jane completely loathes the idea of going back to school, and more or less reverts back to her tom-boyish, anti-social, trash-talking ways. So while fending off bullies, cheating on exams (thanks to her commander) and pretty much doing everything to make herself stand out from the crowd, she meets Kang No-Yong (Gong Yoo) who gives her something else to keep an eye on due to his odd behavior.

Now for the most part this all plays out pretty well. But I know what your thinking "Hasn't this been done before?" Yes it has. This subject matter has been done tons of times before (Fight Back To School, and even Never Been Kissed for example). But Kim Seon-ah does a decent job at trying to hold the movie together despite a long running time and pacing which seem like the real bad guys of the film. The easy laughs begin to thin out through it's near two hour running time. The tacked on love interest story between Jane and Kang No-Yong, doesn't seem to help matters either. The real disappointment is that you'll want to really like this movie, but it just wont let you. Kim Seon-ah is very likable and tries her best, but even she can't take the brunt of this weak presentation. So if you're a fan of the leading lady, than its worth a watch, but unfortunately if your not, this movie won't make you one. (Converter)

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK (Korea 2006)

It's the newest movie from Park Chan-wook. Should I really have to say anymore than that? I mean, we are talking about a man that is responsible for four of the greatest Korean movies, no...scratch that, four of the greatest movies period that I've ever seen: J.S.A., Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Old Boy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. So naturally, I'm going to have high hopes for his newest outing I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK, and chances are if you're familiar with is work, you're pretty excited about this yourself. Heck, even if it Park Chan-wook had nothing to do with this movie chances are I'd still check it out going off the title alone. I can't even begin to compare this film with those of his past works, because it would be like comparing apples to oranges, and besides, you just don't and shouldn't do that regardless. However, that being said I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK really is another exceptional and entertaining entry into Park Chan-wook's already stellar filmography.

Young Joon (Lim Soo Jung of “Tale of Two Sisters” fame) is sent away to an insane asylum after what appears to be and attempt to commit suicide at her assembly line job. However, the reason why she's committed and not hospitalized is because she believes that she's a cyborg. Mental problems seem to run in the family, as Young Joon's grandmother was taken away by the “white coats” as well, believing her children to be mice and showing an unnatural (and possibly unhealthy) addiction to eating radishes. All Young Joon has left of her beloved grandmother is the dentures she left behind, which she uses to communicate with her radio, fluorescent lights, and other electronic devices as they can only hear Young Joon when she's wearing her grandmothers dentures. This doesn't begin to explain the depths of insanity this movies portrays, but I digress. It seems her real problem is that fact that she won't eat anything because she believes she'll “shut down”, due to the fact that she's a 'cyborg'. As we all know this to be impossible, her health begins to suffer. The mental hospital that Young Joon stays in is filled to the brim with other characters that almost match her level of uniqueness. Seeing the various ticks and eccentricities of these characters is a large part of what makes this movie so entertaining and even 'fun' at times. One such patient is Il Soon (Jung Ji Hoon or Rain as he's more commonly known) who (almost) always wears a mask and is a self-confessed thief. Il Soon begins to become obsessed with Young Joon and her cyborg like way of doing things, but he realizes that she needs to start eating or things will just get worse.

Li Sum Jung recharging as Young Joon

The story is fairly simple, but the way in which it's told is what makes it seem deeper than perhaps it really is. Watching this movie I found myself trying to define it; in the sense of how it should be categorized. I've seen it listed as a comedy, a romance, a romantic-comedy and so on, but I'd really have to say that it's a drama more than anything, albeit a drama that incorporates all of the other elements mentioned. Park Chan-wook seems to be riding a very fine line with how he portrays everything in the film. It's hard not to look at this film as a comedy because the very idea behind it is so silly, but I often felt that the underlying subject matter (being hospitalized for mental problems) was too prevalent to make it a completely humorous movie. A lot of scenes are deliberately filled with a sense of seriousness and sadness. You'll feel bad for Young Joon on more than one occasion as you start to realize that behind all the comical situations her state of mind brings, she also appears to be aware of her problem at times translating into some really heart-breaking moments. The visuals in the film are on caliber with what fans have come to expect from Park Chan-wook, and there is just a certain quirkiness in the very idea of it all that has his name written all over it. I particularly enjoyed the way he managed to reference his “sympathy” films by means of an ingenious plot device used by Young Joon and Il Soon. This is really where the visual creativity of the film takes off, through what is referenced as the “Seven Deadly Sins”, and it's really too big of a surprise to tell you how the creativity of these mental patients is portrayed on screen. Also of note is the very cool opening credits sequence.

Rain as Il Soon

Lim Soo Jung as Young Joon is nothing short of amazing in this movie. Who knew that a 'cyborg' could effectively display such an array of emotions. Asian super pop-idol Rain, puts on a very impressive film debut performance as Il Soon. I can testify to the fact that I've never heard his music, so for his sake I'll just think of him as an actor and a pretty darn good one at that. Sure, they managed to find away to let Rain sing in the movie, which I though would bother me, but it didn't feel tacked on and ultimately it worked in the film's favor.

I went in to I'm a Cyborg, but I'm OK with seriously high expectations. I really hate to get my hopes up about any movie due to letdowns stemming from said high expectations. Although now, I can breath a sigh of relief. I can honestly say that I never doubted the skill of Park Chan-wook, but his venture into a genre that he had previously only dabbled in (A Boy who went to Heaven), made me really curious as to what the end result would be. The end result is movie-watching experience that should not be missed for any reason. I can guarantee that like me, you haven't seen anything like it, but more importantly, it will leave you feeling as if you watched something truly original. (Lee)

Buy I'm a Cyborg, but that's OK on DVD or VCD at YESASIA!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Diary (Hong Kong 2006)

There's a saying that I use a lot when I'm telling someone my thoughts on a movie. It's not something I want to say about a movie, but it happens more often than not. That saying? “It was great idea, but poorly executed.” Unfortunately, I found myself saying this again after watching Diary, the most recent psychological suspense-thriller from Thailand's hottest export Oxide Pang.

In Diary, Charlene Choi (one half of the Hong Kong super-duo Twins) stars as Winnie Leung, a seemingly harmless perfume store employee who leads a rather lonely life. Remember one sentence ago when I said “seemingly harmless”? Well the catch here is that it turns out young Winnie isn't so harmless after all. She has serious mental delusions...oh who am I kidding, the girl is crazy! Oxide Pang makes it a point from the get-go to inform the viewer that Winnie is far from the ideal of picture-perfect mental health. At times she's intently staring at things that don't seem to exist and at other times she's distracted by sounds and movements of things the viewer is unaware of. As to what these 'things' are, I shall go no further for the sake of not ruining any surprises.

She paces her tiny apartment wondering where her boyfriend Seth (Shawn Yue) has disappeared to, calling him on his cell phone (to no avail) and expressing her feelings of urgency and anxiety to her best friend (played by Isabella Leong). No matter how much Winnie tries to contact Seth, she continues to come up short...until she goes to wait for him at his job. She sees Seth coming out of the building and confronts him, but the weird thing is, Seth doesn't seem to recognize Winnie, because this guy isn't Seth, his name's Ray and the two just happen to look alike. Confused yet? It's OK if you are, because it's bound to happen sooner or later. Like I was saying, this case of mistaken identity of Ray for Seth turns into a lunch date, which eventually turns into acceptance on Winnie's part that Seth just might not be coming back. So Winnie and Ray begin seeing each other and eventually become something of an item. The relationship these two develop is anything but perfect, largely due to the fact that Winnie can't stop talking to Ray about her ex Seth. I mean seriously, what guy wants to keep hearing about his girlfriends ex-boyfriend? Winnie also, from time to time, writes in her diary (hence the movie's title) about her issues with the opposite sex and...other things. You'll see just how relevant it all is by the time the movie ends, trust me.

Now at this point you're wondering about a few things: just how mental is Winnie? Where did Seth go? Why is this story trying to do more than it's obviously capable of doing? Oh the mysteries of the universe. Sure, you'll get the answers to at least one of these questions, but once you do you'll also wonder if the wait was worth it. Oxide Pang, as most of us are aware, is a very capable director in terms of making it all look good, and he does a pretty notable job at creating some simple, yet effective environments for the small cast to work in. The problem is with the telling of the story. It's incredibly over-ambitious in what it tries to do and convey to the audience, often times feeling muddled together. More often than not, we're left wondering what exactly is going on, and not in the, “I know theres a cool twist-ending coming” kind of way either. Charlene Choi shows a side to acting chops that most of us didn't even know existed. She's incredibly believable as the clearly unstable, jittery, possibly schizophrenic Winnie Leung. Shawn Yue isn't going to win any awards with his performance as Seth/Ray. He does his job and that's about all. Isabelle Leong has a small role, providing advice and guidance for Winnie as she struggles to cope with her relationship issues. Again, nothing spectacular.

This is a tough movie to review without giving anything away, because Diary is just that kind of movie. It's all about questions and what you hope will be answers. You also know that your going to have a twist-ending that you're not supposed to see coming a mile away, and again, due to the odd method of story-telling, you probably won't. Diary is a movie with a premise that I wanted to really stand behind and enjoy, and many of you probably feel/felt the same way, but I have to close this review the same way it began: good idea, poorly executed. (Lee)

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Protege (Hong Kong 2007)

It's a movie about the seedy world of drugs; those who deal, sell, and how people's lives are affected by it all. Doesn't sound like anything we haven't seen or heard before does it? Of course not. However, thanks to director Derek Yee, and performances ranging from good to fantastic from the cast, Protege winds up being one of the better Hong Kong movies I've seen in a very long time.

When I first heard about Protege, I understandably had my hopes up. Any movie with Andy Lau in it is sure to get my attention. Throw in tired, but edgy for Hong Kong subject matter, Daniel Wu, and Louis Koo, and you've got an almost slam-dunk recipe for success. The story revolves around Hong Kong's top drug lord Kwan (Andy Lau) who is beginning to show his age and thus needs someone to take over the 'business'. Enter Nick (Daniel Wu), who works for the police and has been undercover for the past seven years, learning the ins-and-outs of the drug trade presumably to take over as Kwan's successor. Nick lives in a shoddy apartment complex and is neighbors with Fan (Zhang Jingchu), who has a young daughter...and a heroin addiction. Fan's drug addiction appeals to Nick in the sense that he feels compelled to take care of her and her child. Thus, we are introduced into the two main worlds that Nick lives in: Kwan's business world of drugs where money is everything, and the devastating affects of addiction in Fan's world. Louis Koo plays Fan's junkie ex-husband who pops into the picture just in time to ruin any chance Fan may have had at cleaning up her act.

It's an outstanding cast that does it's best with the material they've been given. Andy Lau, as usual, puts forth a quality performance which makes me continue to believe that it would harder for him to put on a poor performance. Good acting just comes naturally to the man. Daniel Wu is an actor I've been on the fence about for a long time, but it seems that he's making more of an effort to take on more challenging, complex roles these days. My problem with him in this film is that even though he's been undercover for over seven years in the world of the drug trade, he seems completely oblivious to what drugs can really do to people. I couldn't help but think, “what are they teaching you in police academy?” His naivety at times really contradicted the story behind his character. Zhang Jingchu is the real stand-out in the film. Her performance really grabs a hold of you; making you feel her pain and struggle to overcome addiction. The only downside in the cast is having Louis Koo playing Fan's junkie ex-husband. Don't get me wrong, he's a more than capable actor, but he just didn't feel right for the role. The fact that they had to give him prosthetic teeth in order to “ugly him up”, should have been a sign for the casting director's to go with someone that isn't known to be a sex symbol. His character feels like a caricature of what a drug abuser should be, rather than what it really is.

The story is decent enough to keep your interest. Nick tells the events of what happens in the beginning of the movie in the form of narration. So really, it's all a matter of waiting to see how these events unfold. Nick learns a thing or two, or three, about the drug trade (so much so, that I felt like I could start my own drug empire after Andy Lau's lessons), and continues to develop relationships with Kwan and Fan throughout. Nick occasionally meets up with his superior to remain filled in on what's going on, but of course he has to remain conspicuous while working for Kwan. A major scene in the movie involves Nick running from customs agents who are watching his every move. Now this is supposed to be a suspenseful scene where Nick's cover could be blown, ruining years of work. Without giving anything away, I had serious problems with this scene and it had too many parts that just felt unnecessary. All I'll say is, “why weren't Nick's superiors communicating with customs to avoid situations like this!!??”

The movie wraps its characters up nicely in the end, with everything just feeling right and making sense...except for Nick's character. Watch the last five minutes and you'll know what I mean. Didn't he learn anything? Does he have the curious mind of a 10 year old? Some may think it's a necessary ending because everything comes full-circle (oh the irony! etc. etc.), but for me it just made me continue to question Nick's ability as an undercover agent...or a regular cop for that matter!

Protege felt like a mixed-bag for most of the film due to some poor thought behind certain characters (Nick and Louis Koo) and the fact that not a lot happens. However, the rest of it was strong enough to put my faith back into newer Hong Kong films. With the movies that have been coming out in the past few years, that's enough to give Protege a standing ovation. (Lee)

Buy Protege on DVD or VCD at YESASIA!