Sunday, February 24, 2008

The City of Violence (Korea 2006)

With a name like The City Of Violence (짝패), you can only expect for things to be brutal and well...violent. Both adjectives fit the film perfectly in the grand scheme of things, but unfortunately the package as a whole is only slightly above average. Entertaining, but also nothing spectacular.

Seoul police officer Jung Tae-soo is stunned when out of the blue he gets a phone call from his friends wife, Miran, informing him that her husband, and one of Tae-soo's oldest friends, Oh Wang-jae (Ahn Kil-kang), is dead. When he arrives at the funeral house in Onsung, it's a bittersweet reunion of sorts as he meets up with his childhood friends Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo), Dongwan (Jeong Seok-yong), and Dongwan's younger brother Seok-hwan (writer/director/actor Ryoo Seung-wan), all of whom he hasn't seen in years. They head off to the bar that Wang-jae ran by himself and Tae-soo wants to know everything about his friends death. It seems that the bar was particularly busy on the day when a trio of thugs came in and started causing some commotion. Wang-jae, trying to best to keep a cool head, couldn't just let them harass his customers, so words are exchanged and the thugs begin to trash his bar. The three thugs then make a run for it, but Wang-jae being the old hardened ex-con that he is, followed in pursuit which ultimately led to him being stabbed in an alleyway scuffle. Tae-soo refuses to go back to Seoul until he sees this case closed and Seok-hwan has every intention of killing those responsible for Wang-jae's death. These two are taking matters into their own hands and are meeting resistance around every corner in the form of stylized teenage street gangs all too reminiscent of the 1979 film classic, "The Warriors."

As for the other two, a lot has changed in the ten years since Tae-soo has been home. Wang-jae used to be a high-ranking gang member who left the life and passed his position on to Pil-ho. Pil-ho is strong-arming the community in order for a casino to be built on a piece of land in total gang-leader fashion, and Dong-wan, having blown the family money on what he claimed was "scholarly pursuits", has in reality been spending it all on drugs. After the police starting shutting down all of Pil-ho's boys, Dong-wan started sending over his students to work for Pil-ho in exchange for market space for his mother. Mr. Jo, a casino operator from Seoul, started making things more difficult for Pil-ho by threatening their partnership, amongst other things, if he didn't get the land for the casino. Things really came to a head when Pil-ho, using the funds from his Seoul partners, began loan-sharking operations to people around town. Wang-jae and Pil-ho's falling out resulted from Pil-ho basically ruining the town by trying to rule it with an iron fist. Now everything is a mess with Tae-soo and Seok-hwan working desperately to try and find Wang-jae's killer; Dong-wan trying to redeem himself as more than a junkie; and Pil-ho losing his way because of a power-hungry mentality.

There is always something a little depressing about a storyline that shows childhood friends growing apart as they get older. It's also a story that many of us can relate to because we ourselves have experienced it. Granted, the angle that The City Of Violence takes with this premise is much darker than the lives of the average joe. The search for those behind the murder of a friend and straight-up revenge are what fuel this, at-times, action-packed ride. The fighting, when it happens, is filmed rather well and is definitely entertaining to watch. The finale, where the casino members meet, is the clear stand-out scene with wonderful sword-play and martial-arts choreography taking place. Triple-threat Ryoo Seung-wan definitely knows what he's doing behind the camera and his unique style of filming, especially the fight scenes, are refreshing to say the least. The acting, while given many opportunities to be portrayed in an over-the-top fashion, is handled in a more admirable way making for a cast of interesting characters. Lee Beom-soo as Pil-ho is definitely the one to watch in this film.

Truth be told, the story in The City Of Violence, while not completely engrossing, is overshadowed by some rather exceptional action scenes. Die-hard martial-arts fans will definitely get their money's worth out of this film, and in regards to the fighting, it's a rare treat to see such style coming out of Korea. With my bad-luck streak of movies reviewed lately, I'll gladly take above-average. (Lee)

Grade: B-


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Soo (Korea 2007)

Soo (수) is a tale of revenge that's heavy on the bloodshed and Park Chan-wook isn't the man behind the lens. This time it's Japanese born director Yoichi Sai, who goes by the name of Choi Yang-il in Korea, filming his first all-Korean film. So how did he fair? Park my man, you don't have anything to worry about just yet.

Tae-Soo (Ji Jin-hee), or Soo as he's known, hasn't seen his brother Taejin (again Ji Jin-hee) in over nineteen years. When the two of them were young and had no one to rely on but each other, Soo made the mistake of trying to steal money from a gang boss by the name of Ku Yangwon. Since the boys are twins, the gang grabs Taejin mistakingly, beats the hell out of him, and from there out the boys were separated. After years of searching and using private investigators, Soo finally gets the call he's been waiting for. He contacts his brother so they can get together, but just as they are about to meet face-to-face, a bullet flies clear through Taejin's head, killing him instantly. After a heart-wrenching scene with what remains of estranged brother, Soo begins to look into Taejin's life to find out who he was. Taking things a step further, Soo even goes so far as to take on his brothers appearance (not hard considering they were twins) and identity by taking up his position as homicide detective at the local precinct. Settling into his new position, Soo is taking a statement from a thug brought in after getting into a fight. However, there's more to this guy than how he appears. He admits to Soo that he's a bit baffled to be sitting in front of him because he had put a bullet through his brain the night before. As you can imagine, Soo is losing his cool as he realizes the thug sitting before him is his brother's killer. At that moment, Soo receives a phone call from a mysterious man that thinks he's talking to Taejin. Police officer or not, it's clear that Taejin was dealing with some shifty characters and Soo wants to find out who these people are and what they're were all doing together. The minute the thug is released onto the street, he makes an attempt on Soo's life, with Soo confronting his attacker to try and get some answers but lets the killer go because he knows too much about Soo impersonating his brother. When he gets home, Soo is confronted by Taejin's girlfriend (Kang Seong-yong), also a cop, who can see through Soo's facade and wants answers, but Soo isn't ready to give 'em. Begrudgingly, the two of them begin to work together to find Yangwon's location so Soo can get his revenge.

There isn't a lot to Soo besides a simple plot of revenge. The gang killed his brother and now he wants them dead. Period. Before I started watching it, I was under the impression that this was going to be an "edgy" film with lots of over-the-top violence in it. For the most part the violence is there, but it's the bloodshed that feels over-the-top. I mean, these guys are practically swimming in the red stuff. I wasn't shocked or even that impressed with the action taking place. One scene has Soo using a lighter and a can of hairspray to stop invaders from breaking into his apartment. Instead of being a clever tactic, I thought it was too much and felt like watching "MacGyver". The "action" scenes are unfortunately spaced too far apart, and you're left with incredibly boring story elements in-between. Kang Seong-yong, who plays Taejin's girlfriend, acts as if shes in love with Soo even though they've only known each other a few days. The two of them get in way too many fights that seem as if they're an old married couple and it just feels strangely out of place. Her character got on my nerves because she just nagged Soo the entire time. There are other story elements in place here, such as the homicide detective trying to find Soo and the relationship that Soo has with his mentor (Jo Kyeong-hwan), but both feel like nothing more than distractions from Soo trying to get his revenge. Really, you just don't care about these elements of the story. By the time Soo confronts Yangwon I knew it would just be more stabbing and not much else. Basically, not very satisfying.

As a whole, unsatisfied is exactly how Soo left me feeling. Maybe I was foolish for expecting more (damn you internet forums!), but what started off interestingly enough, ended up as entirely mediocre. It's been said many times before, but you'd be much better off watching any of Park Chan-wook's revenge-themed films. (Lee)

Grade: C-


Monday, February 18, 2008

Dragon Tiger Gate (Hong Kong 2006)

"Never go against someone from the Gate."

Take one long-running manhua (comic book), and team up the combo of the great Donnie Yen with Wilson Yip, the same men that brought us the fantastic SPL and Flash Point, and you should have a movie that beats 100% ass! Well at least you'd hope...

The Dragon Tiger Gate is a martial-arts school that has helped rid the town of gang activity and has also become a safe haven for kids that have become orphaned due to the Triad. Dragon (Donnie Yen) and Tiger (Nicholas Tse) are orphans in their own right, and are the sons of one of the schools co-founders, Wong Fu Hu, albeit from different mothers. Dragon's mother chooses to leave the Gate and live alone with her son. She gives him a jade pendant which has the character, "dragon" written on it, and tells him that Tiger wears the matching half of the pendant so that they will always know they are brothers. Dragon looses his mother to a house fire and tries to rush back and save her. Ma Qwun, the Triad boss working for Lousha Gate, a rival martial-arts gang, stops him from entering the burning building so that he doesn't lose his life. Now Dragon is under Ma Qwun's care and as he gets older, he takes on the role of Ma Qwun's bodyguard.

Years later, Tiger and his brothers from the school are dining at the same restaurant that Ma Qwun is receiving the Lousha plaque, which will prove that he is the top Triad boss in the Lousha Gate; second only to it's leader, Shibumi. While dining, Tiger sees a couple getting bullied and feels the need to intervene. The disrupts the deal going on upstairs and triggers a fight with Lousha's men. Dragon is called in to shut Tiger down, but during the fight Tiger gets his hands on the plaque. Ma Qwun sends Dragon to get it back by any means necessary. Another of Ma Qwun's retainers who is vying with Dragon to be the next in line to take over the Triad, shows up with some of his cronies to get rid of Tiger once and for all and take the credit for getting the plaque back. During the fight, Tiger receives help from a fellow patron named Shek Hak Long (Shawn Yue), and together they dispatch the horde of thugs. During the fight, Dragon looses his pendant and Tiger happens to be the one to find it; making the realization that they are indeed brothers. Will Dragon go back to his roots and rejoin the Gate? And will Tiger be able to get his help in bringing down the Lousha army?

Whew...there is a lot going on in Dragon Tiger Gate and I gave you the super abridged version. They story has been laid out by the comic book and the film tries its best to respect the source material, but when you have so much story to tell and such a short running time to tell it in while trying to keep it interesting, well that's one hell of a battle my friend. Dragon Tiger Gate does an decent job of trying to do such a task, but in the end it just comes off as stale with flashbacks happening left and right which take you away from the story at hand. So really, you just end up waiting for the next fight to take place. That's the main complaint with comic book movies, American or otherwise. Other than that, the fighting, when it happens, is pretty fun to watch. I highly enjoy the Japanese restaurant fight and the camera work that took place during it. Think Storm Riders with less "powers" and a lot more arm - swing - punch - pose. Don't go looking for a SPL or Flash Point style of fighting or you'll just be setting yourself up for disappointment. I know the idea was to make sequels for this movie, so I just would've liked to see the story paced out accordingly. As for the acting, the three lead characters were passable, but not being familiar with the comic I couldn't call them out on any discrepancies that they maybe didn't fulfill. So in closing, is Dragon Tiger Gate a great action movie in compression? No. Is it something to watch in order to fill an afternoon and say, "man, I saw Donnie Yen with long hair kickin' ass."? Yes. (converter)

Buy Dragon Tiger Gate 2-Disc Set US Version DVD from YESASIA!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fighting Beat aka: Pahuyut Muay Thai Chaiy (Thailand 2007)

"Why the hell these guys use Muay Thai moves I never seen before, goddamn it"?!

As Thailand slowly finds it's bearing in the cinematic world, we, as lovers of foreign film get to share their successes and unfortunately their failures. Fighting Beat does one of these better than the other.

Phi Phi Island is a tropical paradise that holds an exciting bar that keeps the drinks flowing Muay Thai action hot, which keeps the foreigners happy as they spend all of their money on the festivities. This is also home to Kem (Thun Thanakorn) and his friend. They work at the bar serving drinks and letting random customers beat them in controlled fighting matches. When they lose, the customer is then encouraged to give a tip for the hospital care they have to receive for the harsh beating. Even though they're just taking a fall in order to earn some quick cash, Kem is haunted by the fact that his father was murdered in this same location years ago which left him as an orphan residing at a local temple. Under the watchful eye of his new caregiver, Kem begins to learn the ways of Muay Thai. However, things hit a snag as a group of thugs come in and want to buy the bar from the owner, Uncle Praow. Praow immediately makes it known that he isn't interested in selling. Naturally, the thugs try to take the bar by force, but are swiftly defeated by Kem and his friends. The thugs later return to their boss to report their failed attempt, but the boss isn't too concerned as he has a friend who's just gotten himself out of jail and he just happens to be the man who killed Kem's father.

When I first saw the poster for Fighting Beat, my eyes widened and my heart went a flutter. I had been looking for a balls-out slug-fest to hold me over until, "Chocolate" comes out. I actually thought to myself, "this is it." The cover alone reminded me of the 16-bit beat 'em up games of yesteryear like, "Streets of Rage", "Final Fight", and so on. So needles to say, I was eager to watch this one. The carnal rule, at least for me, when it comes to movie-watching, especially foreign films, is to expect nothing and hopefully be pleasantly surprised. If you don't follow this rule, you end up with the same feeling I had after watching Fighting Beat...sadness.

At second glance, Fighting Beat comes off like a teen Thai pop vehicle that's meant to use these multi-talented entertainment forces (i.e. Twins, Boyz) to bring in a younger audience, but even that didn't work because the movie tanked at the box office. That being said, it's left to stand on it's own merits which is where Fighting Beat does just about everything wrong that you can do in a "martial-arts" movie. The lead actor can not fight at all. He can barely mimic some kicks and jumps, and I understand that trying to show authentic Muay Thai is what the director is striving for, but Thun Thanakorn looks as if he's never heard of it. Hell, I'm not even sure director Piti Jaturaphat has heard of it, because he presents it in the most uninteresting way possible. The supporting cast is as lame as he is, if not more so. Are they supposed to be funny comic-relief or bad-ass Muay Thai students? It doesn't matter because they can't seem to be either. The women in the group are pretty hot, but that's about it. The acting is god-awful, especially when they attempt to act in English. The story is paper thin and on the wrong side of retarded, leaving you to wonder why things didn't move away from the bar within the first thirty minutes. Do these guys do anything with their beach-bum lives other than hustle foreigners? Well I guess it doesn't matter, because if you're the foreigner wasting time watching this; consider yourself hustled. (converter)

Buy Fighting Beat on DVD from YESASIA!

The official Fighting Beat website *In Thai

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Paradise Murdered (Korea 2007)

What can I say about Paradise Murdered (극락도 살인사건)? It's definitely a who-dunnit-murder-mystery, but it's also an incoherent mess with questionable acting and direction. Watching this movie was no walk through paradise. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

1986; two officers make their way towards Paradise Island to investigate the disappearance of seventeen people inhabiting the island. When we first meet the villagers living on the island, which by the way was voted number one remote island by the Korean government, the village is celebrating the 80th birthday of Grandpa Cheol-yong's (Kim In-moon), the sole surviving member of his family who owns the island. After the good times, and even a near death incident, everyone retires for the evening except for two engineers and Deok-su (Park Gil-soo), who head off to the engineers place to do a little gambling. The next day, Woo-sung (Park Haeil), the doctor on the island, is awaken to Tae-gi, the resident little boy, banging on his door. When he runs to see what all the commotion is, he sees the bodies of the two engineers from the previous evening, brutally murdered, but Deok-su is nowhere to be found.

The villagers all get together to figure out what they're going to do next. During the initial search, Deok-su's shoes, and the knife use to kill the engineers were found by the ocean cliffs. This causes imaginations to run wild, and they eventually begin to think that Deok-su has been killed as well. Woo-sung throws out the idea that maybe he committed suicide in an attempt to calm the panic stirring amongst the others. However, it has the reverse effect of what he intended and the mayor (Choi Joo-bong), and others, begin to suspect the doctor. The mayor locks up the doctor under the premise that if another murder is committed while he's locked up, then it obviously isn't him. With the knowledge that patrol boats will be at the island within the next few days, the doctor agrees to being locked up in order to keep the peace. Meanwhile, Gwi-nam (Park Sol-mi), the island school teacher who arrived with the doctor, is spending her time trying to find out who the murderer is in an attempt to clear the good doctor's name. In the middle of the night, a masked man breaks into the mayor's home looking for something specific. The mayor and his two sons, Sang-ku and Jong-ku, wake up and attempt to stop the man they assume is the murderer. In the process Jong-ku is killed, and when the killer makes a run, another resident of the island, Yong-bong, tries to stop him. Gwi-nam witnessed the entire scene and believes that it's the work of Choon-bae (Seong Ji-roo), resident wacko, that's behind the murders. Gwi-nam heads to the doctor to tell him about what she saw, and Tae-gi and Bong-soon, Deok-su's daughter, are also on their way to see the doctor. During their trip, Tae-gi's ankle is grabbed by a dying Yong-bong, but when Tae-gi looks at him, it appears to be the young boy's dead father. Strange things are brewing on the island. After an unfortunate incident involving Tae-gi and the seaside cliffs, everyone on the island seems to be losing their minds and pointing the blame at each other. So what's behind the madness on the island?

That is indeed the ultimate question you'll be asking yourself when you watch Paradise Murdered but you'll probably also be asking, "what the hell is going on in this movie?". When I finally found out what the twist was at the very end of the movie, it felt like it came out of nowhere and there was nothing in the movie that really hinted at what was going on. The acting is almost not worth mentioning because it's really just a bunch of people screaming at each other for two hours. These are definitely all major problems, but the real annoyance was the feeling that the movie didn't know whether it wanted to be a serious thriller or an at-times dark comedy. Some scenes are so strange and out of place that I literally laughed out loud.

When all is said and done, I was happy when Paradise Murdered came to an end. I felt so lost watching it that I didn't really care about the big explanation at the end, and it ended up just irritating me more than surprising me. A good story should engage the viewer and leave clues along the way in hopes that they feel like they're interacting with the story. That feeling is completely missing here and so was the entertainment value. (Lee)

Grade: D-