Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Show Must Go On (Korea 2007)

It ain't easy being a gangster, and The Show Must Go On (우아한 세계) is a prime example of this saying. It's even harder when you have a family to take care of. An often dark and serious drama in every sense of the words, great comedic moments still manage to weasel their way in from time to time, making for an excellent twist on the well-worn gangster tale.

Kang In-goo (Kang-ho Song) is just like any other family man, except for the fact that he's a well-respected, and high-ranking member of the Dog's gang. He manages to secure a major deal for his gang by landing the contract for an apartment building's construction. In-goo's boss, Chief Roh (Choi Il-Hwa), gives In-goo the responsibility of over-seeing the construction site. Chief Roh's younger brother Sang-jin (Yoon Je-moon) is naturally jealous about In-goo's promotion and tensions rise between the two of them over money and rank. Naturally, In-goo's family; his wife Mi-ryung (Ji-yeong Park) and daughter Hee-soon (Kim So-eun), aren't happy with his line of work and want him to get out of the gangster life as soon as possible. In-goo promises that after he's made his money through the construction deal, he'll tell his boss that he wants out. He even begins looking for a new home for his family so that they can all start a new life together. After an embarrassing incident with his daughters teacher, In-goo is having a hard time connecting with his daughter, and after an invading her privacy when she leaves the house, things go from bad to worse. Mi-ryung is incredibly disappointed in him, and Hee-soon would rather her dad just die. The very next day finds In-goo in a position where he's fending for his life against hired thugs. His closes friend and childhood buddy Hyun-su (Dal-su Oh), who also happens to be a high-ranking member of the opposing Jaguars gang, informs In-goo that everything isn't what it appears to be and that he should be careful who he trusts.

The family has had enough of In-goo's violent and unstable profession and decide to leave him. In-goo realizes now, more than ever, that he needs to get out of the gangster life while he still has a chance to save his family and his life. To make amends for earlier accusations, In-goo confronts Sang-jin and decides it's best to smooth things over before he talks to Chief Roh about getting out. As you can imagine, things don't go as planned, and what follows is a chain of events that will change In-goo's life forever.

An amazingly entertaining movie from start-to-finish, The Show Must Go On is a reminder of why I enjoy Korean cinema so much. It's a film that refuses to follow the Hollywood-formulaic rule book. It makes it's own rules, and that's what makes it so refreshing. Gangster stories are nothing new, especially in Asian cinema, so the real challenge is finding a way to infuse elements of originality to keep you interested. The Show Must Go On does that by showing us a man that is getting older, has a family that wants a new life, and ultimately is forced into deciding what he wants to do with his. The acting is all spot-on, with Kang-ho Song once again showing us why he is the reigning champ of Korean cinema. The ending alone will make you want to see everything this man's ever done. The elements of comedy are welcomed throughout, as the movie can be very dark and serious at time. I love the relationship between In-goo and his best friend Hyun-Su, and the scenes with both characters are a lot fun to watch. Like a lot of Korean movies that have a serious tone, you never really know what to expect and you're always kept anxiously waiting for the next thing to happen. As a whole, the film has an incredibly realistic feel, not in the sense that I know what gangster life is like and can attest to it all, but in the sense that you truly believe the things that are taking place on-screen.

Do yourself a favor and see The Show Must Go On. You'll be enthralled from beginning to end, and you'll find yourself hoping that more films of this caliber are made in the future. (Lee)

Grade: A

Friday, July 27, 2007

Linda Linda Linda (Japan 2005)

Charming and light-hearted, Linda Linda Linda tells an incredibly simplistic story, but managed to keep me entertained. While comparisons to the much-loved Swing Girls are sure to be made, Linda Linda Linda makes a name for itself thanks in large part to the excellent performances from it's four leading ladies. Sometimes movies don't have to reinvent the wheel to be great.

Kyoko (Aki Maeda), Nozomi (Shiori Sekine), and Kei (Yu Kashii) are high-school friends that also happen to be in a band together. Kyoko plays drums, Nozomi plays bass, and Kei kinda plays the guitar, but they're in a hurry to find a replacement singer after their original vocalist Moe (Shione Yukawa) quit after suffering an injury. Time is of the essence to find a new singer, because in a few days, they plan to perform in their school's rock festival. Not only do they have to find a singer, but they also have to practice the songs they plan to cover for the show. Since their original singer is out of the picture, the girls decide to cover songs by the popular Japanese punk band "The Blue Hearts" (Linda Linda Linda was a big hit of theirs). Without time to give it much thought, Kei suggests that the next person to walk into their sight from where they're sitting will be the new lead singer. After awhile, Son (Du-na Bae), a foreign-exchange student from Korea, walks down the stairs in front of the girls, and that's when Kei offers her the position. Now the girls have their singer, but a new problem has presented itself: Son doesn't speak fluent Japanese! Nothing seems to be going smoothly for the girls, and as if practicing for the school festival wasn't enough pressure, Kyoko finds herself wanting to tell her schoolmate Kazuya (Katsuya Kobayashi) how she feels about him. Kei's ex-boyfriend comes back into her life, and "Mackey" (Kenichi Matsuyama) confesses his feelings for Korean! Everything seems to be happening at the most inconvenient time, because the girls need to focus on the music and nothing else! The last day of practice arrives, and the girls have a show time of 3:30. What else could possibly get in their way?

To be honest, not a lot happens in Linda Linda Linda, but the little that does happen is really good stuff. All of the performances are fantastic, with each girl seemingly representing a different personality trait. The movie even tells viewers that Kei is the sassy, but sweet one. Kyoko is cute and talented one, and Nozomi is the shy one. So what does that make Son? Well, she's definitely unique, and quite honestly Du-na Bae's performance was my favorite thing about the movie. She gives Son so many interesting little quirks that you can't keep your eyes off her, or you might miss something. Coupled with the fact that she only speaks so-so Japanese, it makes her all the more entertaining when dealing with her bandmates. As enjoyable a movie as it is, it isn't without a few shortcomings that I feel it's my duty to point out. It's running time is a little long for this kind of movie, at around two hours, one has to question of so much time was needed to tell such a simple story. Also, as I previously mentioned, not a lot happens in the movie. The girls seem to just hang out and practice a lot, which I know is the idea behind the movie, but coupled with the length of the film, less patient viewers might have a hard time sitting still. It's all about the performances, and in that department, everyone delivers in spades.

I always enjoy movies that deal with topics that we as people can relate to. Linda Linda Linda is a film that really explores the importance of friendship, in a high-school setting, which is where most of us need(ed) good friends the most. It's also about growing up, and realizing that the things we do now, good or bad, become the memories that stay with us forever. I think we can all relate to that. (Lee)

Grade: B


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Host (Korea 2005)

The Host (괴물) is a return to the classic monster horror movie, and frankly it hits the nail right on the head. Put Godzilla 2000 and any other failed attempt at CG monster horror out of your mind. Going into this movie I didn't even know what it was about, which probably made it all the more enjoyable for me. Too bad for anyone reading this, because you've already ruined your chances at doing the same. In a nutshell, the movie is about one monster created from hundreds of toxic chemicals poured the water system, which is honestly a very unnerving first scene. This creates our monster and there's not a whole lot of detail on how it happened and really there's no need for it anyway. Too often, movies get caught up explaining every little detail resulting in nothing being left to the imagination, so I was glad when a very brief origin story took place. Then we have our family, the stars of the movie, the group that will drive our story forward and not make it a mindless movie with a shallow plot.

The family is made up of the grandfather; his unsuccessful son that runs his river shop with him, the son's daughter (sweet, but spoiled), the medal winning archer daughter, and finally the college graduate son with no job. Yes, yes, I know they all sound pretty cliche', but they work well as a family unit and through all their dislikes of each other, they truly have heart throughout the movie.

So, the monster appears in the river where the family runs a riverside food service, there's really nothing I can compare it to, it's like picnic food delivered to you in a rented space alongside the river. I desperately wanted to try it after watching this film. Anyway, after attracting a crowd, the monster comes out of the water and starts charging down civilians, resulting in one of the best reveals in a monster movie I've ever seen. The monster just chases and beats people down and really you can't hide from it. In one scene, a bunch of people run into a semi-truck trailer and the monster follows them right in. The next thing you see is blood spilling from the truck. I could go on, but I won't ruin what could be my favorite scene of the entire film. Basically, the monster is swallowing people to eat them later and he takes the granddaughter after the screw-up son grabs the wrong girls hand. The problem is, the government is saying that everyone at the beach was infected with a "virus", which prevents the family, or anyone else from leaving. They're basically using it as an excuse to try a chemical weapon on the monster. The daughter calls her dad and tells him she's in a sewer, but nobody believes the dad and our family must find a way to save his daughter before it's too late.

Overall, I really like The Host, but it wasn't without it's flaws. Sometimes the acting was too over-the-top, like when the family comes together for the first time and they all think the daughter is dead. They're literally rolling on the floor, crying, screaming, and this is the very first meeting with the Aunt and Uncle! The government parts were a little too much, yet I can totally believe something like this happening in real life. However, it really made me feel sorry for the dad and everything they were putting him through, which was probably the point, but it almost broke off into another story of it's own. Some of the pacing wasn't very good. Without ruining too much, the family divides and too much time is spent with each character and an unbelievable amount of time is spent before they all finally get their acts together to make the final rescue attempt for the little girl. I do hope Korea will continue to put out more films like this since it is a genre that needs a lot of help getting back on the right track. I would even like to see a sequel to The Host, with a different looking monster that needs to feed on unsuspecting picnickers in order to survive. A good movie to add to your collection with special features making it all the more worthy of a purchase. (CBDustin)

R-Point (Korea 2004)

R-Point, a Korean supernatural/horror film, gets the distinct honor of being the first horror film I've seen taking place during a war. What does that mean for the quality of the movie? Nothing at all, but it sure did get my attention. Unfortunately, nothing really happens in the movie until the very end resulting in a buzz-kill of my initial excitment. Strictly for those with a long attention-span.

A group of soldiers in 1972 Vietnam, led by Lieutenant Choi (Woo-seong Kam), is searching for a group of missing soldiers (they've been missing for 6 months to be exact). They make camp in a deserted, worn-down building that served as a retreat for French soldiers. Corporal Joh (Byeong-cheol Kim) gets separated from his unit after Lieutenant Choi separates the group into two units; one to investigate the building, and the other to investigate the R-point area, considered sacred land by the Vietnamese. As a side note, I'm assuming the R stands for "restricted", but it's never really clarified so call it what you will. As I was saying, Corporal Joh sees whom he believes to be one of his comrades, but what he's really seeing is the ghosts of dead soldiers...the soldiers Choi and his men were sent there to find!

Choi and his men are surprised to see a group of American soldiers making their way towards the retreat. The Americans explain that the French soldiers once occupying the retreat were all killed, and that they're betting Choi and his men won't last too long themselves. After dropping off some supplies in the retreat, the Americans disappear in the night, leaving Choi and his men slightly unsettled. The soliders know that something isn't right in the area, but they don't know what to make of all the suspicious activity. Are ghosts real? If so, these guys aren't ready to believe it just yet. However, Choi begins seeing a mysterious woman wearing all white in various places, as if beckoning him to follow her. It seems that everyone is having their eyes play tricks on them, and they're all becoming increasingly paranoid.

One of the soldiers in the group, Private Jung goes missing from the rest of the unit, and the group reports it to Lieutenant Choi. When Lieutenant Choi checks in Captain Park to let him know about the young Privates disappearance, the Captain calls Choi crazy, informing him that Jung is one of the men they were sent to look for in the first place! Out on patrol in the rain, two of Choi's men are becoming increasingly paranoid about the mysterious activity surrounding R-Point. The fact that they can't remember Private Jung being with them from the very beginning has them even more on edge. One of the men leaves the trench to do his "business", leaving the other, more paranoid of the two, alone. However, after a momentary lapse of being lost in thought, he's no longer alone. The problem is, he doesn't know who the soldier is that just joined him! The young soldier runs off into the night and is eventually cornered into an area where his men had earlier set a booby-trap to defend against the enemy. As you can imagine, the "ghost" backs the young soldier into the trap. This is only the beginning of the soldiers' problems as the ghosts seem to be picking the soldiers off one-by-one. The ghosts appear to be possessing the men, essentially turning them into mindless killing machines.

Now that things have gone from a little scary, to just plain bad, Choi and his soldiers eventually decide that it would be best to just call the search mission off and get the hell out of R-Point. Of course, the more aware they are of the supernatural presence, the more difficult things are going to get for them. They finally make contact with their base, and a helicopter evacuation is scheduled for the next day, but will Choi and his men live through the night?

I know that you're probably thinking the storyline of R-Point sounds pretty darn good, and you would be right to say that. However, the problem, as usual, rests with the execution of it all. Finishing up at just around one hour and fifty minutes, it's a shame to say that nothing, at least nothing of significant importance, happens until the very end of the film. Sure, you have a few "spooky" run-ins with the ghosts from time-to-time, but most of the film is spent building up to what you hope will be an exciting and gratifying climax, which really is the only time the whole movie comes together and shines. Sadly, throughout the rest of the movie, the decision is made to create a lot of really tense built-up moments, but again...nothing cool comes from it. They really just seem to want to tease the viewer. It's does manage to earn some "cool" points by incorporating war with horror, but it never feels like these soldiers are in the middle of a war.
Definitely more of a psychological horror movie than a gore-fest, R-Point manages to grab your attention with the initial premise, but ultimately lets you down with it's pacing and execution. (Lee)

Buy R-Point on DVD or VCD at YESASIA!

Slim Till Dead (Hong Kong 2005)

The traditional murder-mystery genre takes an almost interesting twist in Slim Till Dead ( 瘦身), a film that also makes a laughable attempt at social commentary by taking a dig at Hong Kong's obsession with weight loss. We're all familiar with movies that try to make you stop and think about the world you live in, but the message in Slim Till Dead is really a moot point because the film just doesn't take itself seriously.

Sergenat Tak (Anthony Wong) can't seem to land that one big case that has eluded him for so many years. It's always been the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, until the day he finds a skeletal-looking corpse stuffed into a box in an alleway. The body is that of Ivy, a popular model from a slimming center, and her body has been marked with a label that says, "70 lbs". It turns out that the models weight at her time of death guessed it, 70 lbs. Tak finally has a big case on his hands, and if that weren't good news enough, he finds out from his partner Bull (Raymond Wong) that he's the top candidate to take over as the new superintendent. However, his dreams are soon dashed when he finds out that the position has been given to another man by the name of William Hung (played by none other than the writer/co-director himself Wong Jing). To add to his defeat in the promotion department, Tak's homelife isn't any better. His wife Ling (Sheren Teng) refuses to have sex with him, and manages to make him feel even more inferior by seemingly knowing more about his cases than he does! See, Ling used to work on the same police force as Tak does, so she knows a thing or two. To keep adding to the problems in Taks life, we learn that he has trouble handling a firearm because of a traumatic shooting incident from his past where an innocent bystander was killed. At this point, you really want something to come into Tak's life that helps him out. That's when we meet Tin Fuk (Wu Qing Zhe), a reporter from Mainland China who knows all about the person killing these models, and he wants to assist the police in bringing the man down. Tin Fuk tells Tak and his crew that the main responsible for these killings is Ken (Jing Gang-Shan), who was suspected of killing a woman in the same manner in Mainland China. Ken continues to elude Tak and other members of the police force, yet still finds time to meet with his lady Cherrie (Cherrie Ying), who happens to be the assistant to the top model in the biz and a body-slimming consultant at Forever Beauty salon. Other models begin disappearing in the same manner as Ivy, and the models find themselves chained in a room of mannequins and mirrors. The killer (with help from a voice distorting device), informs them that they must reach 70 lbs before the end of one week of they'll be killed. It's literally a race against time for Tak, Bull and the others to find this crazed killer before more beautiful women turn up dead!

That last line may have sounded sarcastic, but that's basically what's going on in Slim Till Dead. Someone is going around and killing all of the beautiful, thin women in Hong Kong. The story isn't completely absurd, as psychopaths seems to abandon all rhyme or reason to why they're killing people in the first place. The problem is that the movie has so many different elements involved that it's hard to keep focus on which ones are important. Not to mention the fact that for a movie based around serial-killer, Slim Till Dead never manages to take itself as serious as the content might suggest. It has wacky dialogue at times, and even an even wackier score. Some shots in the film seem so completely unnecessary (various montages reminiscent of a music video) that they really distract from the overall visual tone of the movie. Acting-wise, I'm always excited to see Anthony Wong in action, but his role as Tak wasn't anything special. The scenes with him arguing with his wife are borderline annoying. Crystal Tin, playing a model by the name of Sisi, puts in the most interesting performance out of all the actors involved. Slim Till Dead really asks for it's viewers to keep on guessing who they think the killer is. This is always a fun thing when watching a murder-mystery...except when the guilty party is so completely obvious! I won't ruin the ending for you (lord knows the movie does that well enough on it's own), but let's just say that things aren't always what they appear to be.

It's predictable, unimpressive, possibly an example of Anthony Wong owing Wong Jing a favor, and completely forgettable. I've seen a lot worse than Slim Till Dead, but I've also seen much, much better. (Lee)

Grade: D


Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kung-Fu Mahjong 2 (Hong Kong 2005)

Fanny (Cherrie Ying) is a mahjong phenomenon and a loyal housewife to her husband Johnny (Terence Yin), who forbids her to play the game. Johnny's boss, Demon (Keung Ho-Man), invites the young couple over for dinner and to offer Johnny a promotion in his dirty gambling ring. They're also introduced to Demons sister Curvy (Zuki Lee), who is making moves for Johnny's affection. Fanny, being asked to leave after making a scene with Curvy, meets up with her brother Ronaldhino (Sammy) and her Mahjong sisters Auntie Fei (Yuen Qiu), from the first KFM also brings back her husband Chi Mo Sai (Yuen Wah), and First Love (Tiffany Lee), who were all tought by master Three Tiles (Wong Tin-Lam). Fanny shares with her sisters her problems in the love department and they give her tips on how to keep her man interested. When she plans to implement her new love tips, she finds out that Johnny is leaving her for Curvy. Now, with the loss of her husband and her mahjong skills, she tries to end it all, but her sisters won't allow it. Now it's time for Fanny to train and refocus in order to get revenge and win the Mahjong tournament.

Well, if you're not a fan of Wong Jing or his movies, KFM2 won't make you one. But one thing is for sure here is a lot more Mahjong than Kung Fu in Kung Fu Mahjong 2 (雀聖2自摸天后). If you're familiar with the rules of the game, that will help you enjoy the movie a little more, if at all. The attractive Cherrie gets her first staring role in KFM2, but she comes off as a little too corny and really kind of annoying. Tiffany Lee, Sammy, and the rest of the cast all do their part, but again, the performances are nothing to write home about. Granted, there are some funny parts, but then there are some parts that are just hard to watch. They throw in a few topical jokes, as well as some jokes aimed at making fun of movie stars, but they all fall flat. The story is completely by-the-numbers and shows no signs or originality. So if you saw the first one, and want to see what happens to this cast of characters, go ahead and give it a try so you can find out what happens when you're "self-made". (CBKevin)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Swing Girls (Japan 2004)

Tomoko Suzuki ( Juri Ueno) is spending her summer in a remedial math class. As her teacher, Ozawa (Naoto Takenaka), continues droning on, Tomoko peers out the side window and notices the schools Brass band gearing up and heading out to support their baseball team. As the bus leaves, the Brass bands catered lunches show up. So Tomoko and the other girls volunteer to take the lunches to the game. While on the way, the girls dine on one of the lunches. When they finally arrive, everyone receives a lunch except dorky Nakamura (Yuta Hiraoka), whose lunch was eaten. Due to a little carelessness from the girls, all the lunches were spoiled due to the heat, and in turn, makes the whole Brass team sick...everyone except Nakamura, who wanted to quit the team anyway. So with the Brass team out, Nakamura holds open auditions to get a new Brass team together, because the school still has to have a band. Tomoko and her friends show up, along with a stream of wannabes, but there are only sixteen of them, making the team far too small to play as a complete Brass band, but just enough for a jazz group. Now that they're together, can Nakamura really teach these girls to play anything?

When an idea as simple as Swing Girls presents itself, there can only be one thing that makes it stand out and that is it's execution. As for Swing Girls, it has a shine and charm that makes it very enjoyable to watch. You get to see the girls come together and learn the music, the instruments and rhythm, make a band and keep the band, all the while feeling like you're on the journey with them. It's not something that feels forced. The girls all take turns with their different traits, the shy one, the boy crazy one, the chubby one and so on, but it really doesn't get in the way or become over played. Swing Girls just turns into a story about the girls themselves and their love for the music. So just smile, laugh and enjoy the simple, yet entertaining ride that happens when these girls discover the beauty in jazz. (Converter)

Buy Swing Girls on DVD or VCD at YESASIA!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Scared (Thailand 2005)

Phii May (Sumonrat Wattanaselarat), is leaving home for her freshman year at college. To celebrate the arrival of a new student, a trip is planned. While going through the rain forest, the bus full of kids come across a small outpost where a local warns them that they can't take the road ahead of them and that they'd best go home. Outraged, the group of kids are interrupted by a mysterious stranger who says he'll show them the way for a ride. Once inside the rain forest, the landscape reveals various odd shrines and an old, long bridge that the bus attempts to cross. Less than halfway across the bridge, it begins to break and the bus falls into the river, killing half of the kids on board. The survivors disperse and find a small abandoned town just in
time to find out that someone is responsible for killing the students off.

Pakphum Wonjinda brings us a "teen slasher" movie that does a few things right, and does it's best to spice up it respected genre. The deaths of the kids are quite gory, which is a plus, and you do get a pretty high body count. When the killing starts, the kids start dropping like house flies! The atmosphere of the deep rain forest, followed by the small town, does its part in creating a hopeless, lonely feeling for the cast. The characters are incredibly one-dimensional, which is fine due to the fact you don't get enough time to figure out who is who anyway! So don't look for any character development here. The plot isn't a brain teaser by any means, it simply gets the kids to where the killing takes place, but it does try to spice things up at the end. If you're a fan of teen slasher films, horror, or just want to see some original deaths, you might find something to smile about in Scared. (Converter)