Sunday, July 20, 2008

Oldboy (Korea 2003)

I've been asked, "why are you even bothering to review that movie?", when I mentioned I'd be taking on Park Chan-wook's already classic Oldboy (올드보이). I was asked this because the movie is considered that good amongst nearly everyone whose seen it. It is as good as you've heard, and almost defies the need to be reviewed. However, almost leaves me just enough room to voice my opinion.

Oh Daesu (Min-sik Choi) is a drunk and belligerent man whose been brought into police custody while on his way home to be with his daughter for her birthday. Once his friend Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji) comes to pick him up, he makes a call to his daughter to let her know he's on his way home...or so he thought. The next time we see Daesu, it's been months since he went missing on his daughters birthday and he's been imprisoned in a small room with nothing but a bed, TV, toilet, shower, and a regular diet of the same fried dumplings on a daily basis. Daesu is literally a prisoner of this room, with no idea who his captors are. Watching the news, he learns of his wife's murder, with him as the prime suspect as things taken from his "new" home are placed at the scene of the crime. All he can do is watch helplessly. Months turn in to years, fifteen to be exact, and as the years go by, Daesu fills his time by digging an escape tunnel behind his bed, training his body and mind, and watching television; his only contact with the outside world. Just as his escape tunnel is near completion, Daesu is surprisingly released from his prison and awakens on a rooftop in the outside world. As you can imagine, the world he once knew has changed significantly. As he begins to explore this new world, he is intercepted by a homeless man in front of a sushi restaurant who hands him a wallet full of money and a cellphone. Just because he's been released, doesn't mean he isn't being watched. After going into the sushi restaurant, he meets a beautiful young woman by the name of Mido (Hye-jeong Kang) preparing the sushi. When she reaches to touch Daesu's hand, he passes out, later awakening in her apartment. The two seem to be taken with one another, and Mido, after learning of Daesu's tale, agrees to help him on his quest to find out who's responsible for killing his wife, what happened to him and where his daughter could possibly be after all these years. Eventually Daesu confronts the person responsible for his capture, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yoo), but instead of exacting his revenge on the man, he decides to play Woo-jin's game in order to find out the why instead of the who.

Oldboy is considered to be part two in Chan-wook Park's "vengeance trilogy", with parts one and two being Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance respectively. That being said, this is in no way a sequel and is a stand-alone film that simply shares vengeance as the central theme that ties the films together. With that out of the way, I can say that Oldboy is a movie that puts an entirely new spin on the desire to seek revenge. The story is smart, in the sense that it has you guessing from the very beginning as to who's responsible for ruining Daesu's life and as to why they're doing it. It's done in such a strong, well thought out way that when everything is finally revealed to the viewer, you'll genuinely be shocked at the end. There is a lot of shocks to be had in this movie, and it can be graphic at times, but none of it seems contrived. The way in which Oldboy is filmed wonderful, and I hate to mention the hallway hammer scene as everyone seems to, but it's a sight to behold and the shot is outstanding. The acting is award-winning stuff, and the Grand Bell Awards in South Korea seemed to agree as Min-sik Choi was awarded best actor and Chan-wook Park was given the best director award. Seriously, Min-sik as Oh Daesu is simply amazing and shows a range that couldn't be described as anything but professional. Ji-tae Yoo is also superb as the emotionally drained Woo-jin. Both actors make all of the pain expressed seem absolutely real.

So is Oldboy worth all of the acclaim it's received? Absolutely. If you disagree or don't "get" the movie, than I'd honestly be surprised. Do yourself a favor and see what all the fuss has been about. With an American release courtesy of Tartan (r.i.p.), the film is now more accessible than ever, so you definitely have no excuse. (Lee)

Grade: A+


Hana and Alice (Japan 2004)

Based on a series of short films made to celebrate Kit-Kat's 30th anniversary in Japan, the story of Hana and Alice (花とアリス) was expanded into a feature-length release. It's an interesting portrayal of friendship and how first loves can change that dynamic, but with a run-time of 135 minutes, it's entertainment value is dragged down considerably.

Best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) have a friendship that can only be developed over years, and it appears that nothing could come between the two. On one of their routine train rides to school, the girls begin to take notice of a Masashi (Tomohiro Kaku), a boy that rides the same train as them. Alice tries to get Hana interested in him, but she doesn't seem to really care. However, it appears she's just playing coy and secretly pines for him, to the point of stalking him with her camera. Heck, she even goes so far as to join the same comedy club as him at school. After school one day, Hana follows Masashi home, and he is so engaged in his book that he smacks his head against a metal gate which knocks him unconscious. Hana, seeing an opportunity, convinces the confused boy that he has confessed his love for her and just can't remember. Hana's lie eventually turns into a relationship with Masashi, but he can't help but feel completely lost as to why he's with her. Meanwhile, Alice is also caught up in Hana's lie, as she plays Masashi's ex-girlfriend and has to act as if she used to go out with him. See, Masashi found the photos that Hana took of him and the only way he'd believe that Hana wasn't crazy was to make it appear as if Alice took the photos. The two girls are basically creating the boy's memories for him. Aren't lies wonderful!? When Alice isn't trying to convince Masashi that they used to be an item, she's discovered by a talent agency and begins going on various modeling and acting auditions. However, she has no real talent, other than ballet, so she comes up empty handed at each opportunity. The more time Alice begins to spend with Masashi, the more the two of them begin to develop real feelings for one another. This, as you can imagine, creates a rift between Hana and Alice and poor Masashi is stuck in the middle. Will the girls finally tell Masashi the truth? And will Masashi want anything to do with either of them if he does find out the truth?

Ah young love. Is there anything cuter than that? Well I'm sure there is, but it's unquestionably a major turning point in any young persons life and the attempt at portraying it in Hana and Alice is a noble one. I have to admit that I haven't seen the three shorts films that the movie is comprised of individually, but I still can't help but think that those shorts films would have sufficed in getting the story across just fine. No buts about it, Hana and Alice is a long movie folks. It doesn't take long to get the ball rolling with Hana convincing Masashi that they're a couple, but after that, it's a lot of stuff that doesn't have much at all to do with that major plot point. The movie doesn't take itself too seriously, and that's possibly where I had my biggest problem with it. I could never understand why Masashi didn't get more upset over the fact that these two girls were so blatantly deceiving him and seemed to think nothing of it. Most of the film just acts as if this sort of behavior is normal, and that seemed incredibly bizarre to me. On a brighter note, the cinematography throughout the film is wonderful, with some scenes having been shot beautifully. There is a quirky sense of the humor to the film, that while not flat-out hilarious, will make you smile on more than one occasion. The performances, most notably from Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi, are impressive, with Yu Aoi going on to win a Best Actress award in 2005 at the Japanese Professional Movie Awards. These girls just seem like complete naturals in front of the camera, which in turn, seems like an ironic joke in regards to Alice as she performs so terribly at auditions within the movie.

In the end, Hana and Alice is a cute look into the friendship of two teenage girls and how their friendship is compromised because of a boy. This is certainly a reality for many young people out there, but the way it's played out here doesn't necessarily feel realistic. Hana and Alice is at times heart-warming and engaging, but with little substance to stretch over such a long running-time, even the most patient of viewers will find this innocent look at love a trying experience. (Lee)

Grade: B


Seven Days (Korea 2007)

I know what you're thinking, "Hey! I recognize that lady in the poster! Isn't she in that show Lost?". Why yes...yes she is. Seven Days (세븐 데이즈) stands as Yoon-jin Kim's return to Korean cinema after becoming a break-through star with the previously mentioned hit television series. Sure it's another movie about child abduction, and we all know that's nothing new, but it's still somehow entertaining.

Superstar attorney Ji-yeon Yoo (Yoon-jin Kim) never loses a case and has become something of a media sensation because of it. Her lawfirm takes on all the big cases because their confidance in Ji-yeon is unwavering. Seeing as how she takes on so many cases and is almost always working, this leaves her very little quality with her seven year old daughter Eunyoung (Ra-hye Lee). Eunyoung really wants her mom to particpate with her in her schools mother-daughter relay race, and Ji-yeon promises to be there. On the day of the event, everything seems to be going according to plan, until Ji-yeon finishes her winning run only to find that Eunyoung is nowhere to be found. Ji-Yeon, naturally, contacts the police and prepares a large sum of money as payment for what she assumes is a ransom situation. However, the kidnapper interestingly enough isn't after money, but makes a demand for Ji-yeon to use her outstanding skills as an attorney to free someone on death row. Not understanding the details of the case she's dealing with, it doesn't take Ji-Yeon long to agree to the terms as she only has seven days (hence the title) to prove the inmates innocence. She gets her detective friend Seong-yeol Kim (Hee-soon Park) to help her in her quest to find her daughter while she tries to focus on the court case as well. As you can imagine, it's a race against time to get her daughter back before the case is closed for good.

My interest to see Seven Days stemmed from the fact that I'm a big fan of Lost and I wanted to see Yoon-jin Kim's return to the movies as the main star. I'm pleased to say that she puts in a wonderful performance, showing a gamut of emotions I can only imagine one goes through when faced with a nightmare scenario such as this. In fact, I don't appear to be the only one that feels this way as Yoon-jin later went on to win the Best Actress award at the 45th annual Daejong (Grand Bell) festival in South Korea. Hee-soon Park, her "sidekick" for most of the movie, is just one of those guys that you really love to stand behind because he means well in his intentions and looks cool while doing it. The child-abduction formula is given a mild breath of fresh-air thanks to an interesting plot-twist that doesn't have anything to do with money. However, there's not all praise to be given here as writer Je-goo Yeon, while doing alot of things right, also tries to cram way too many story elements into a movie that's based around limited time. This can be annoying when you wish the film would just focus on the main plot of Ji-yeon and Seong-yeol getting Eunyong back. Director Sin-yeon Won does an excellent job at making everything look incredibly polished, in a Hollywood blockbuster way, and that look fits the bill just nicely.

So if nothing else, Seven Days proves that Yoon-jin Kim really is a great actress that is more than capable of being an engaging lead and that Korean audiences will embrace her with open arms. After this performance, I'll be more than happy to join them. (Lee)

Grade: B-


Sunday, July 13, 2008

New Police Story (Hong Kong 2004)

Symbolizing the long-awaited (by most) return to Hong Kong cinema for Jackie Chan, New Police Story (新警察故事) is almost exactly what you'd expect from everyone's favorite death-defying entertainer. It's got high-flying leaps, well-choreographed fights, and a lot of shattering glass, which is customary in Benny Chan territory. Not the best JC movie on the market, but an excellent return to form nonetheless.

Detective Kwok-Wing Chan (Jackie Chan) is merely a shell of his former self. What remains of the happy-go-lucky policeman of yesteryear is a sad, drunken, mess of a man, who honestly has every right to be that way. It's only been a year since the team under his command was brutally murdered on what appeared to be a fairly routine operation. However, Wing severly underestimated the sadistic nature of Joe (Daniel Wu) and his cop-killing cohorts (say that three times fast). The gang get their kicks by robbing banks and killing as many police officers as they can to earn "points" for their sick game. Wing and his men, including his soon to be brother-in-law (Deep Ng), were led into a warehouse rigged with numerous traps that led to them being picked off one-by-one. Clearly distraught by having his men mowed down, Wing is unable to fight Joe and his croneys off by himself, leaving him with unbearable amount of shame and guilt. Fast-forward to today and Joe and his gang still haven't been caught as they continue to rob banks and kill cops all for the thrill. The newest cop on the force, Frank (Nicholas Tse), has been assigned as Wing's new partner to take on the case. Frank knows that Wing has a score to settle and wants nothing more than to help return Wing to his former glory. Not only does this entail getting him back to the detective he used to be, but by also restoring his relationship with his girlfriend Ho-Yee (Charlie Young), as the two haven't been the same since her brother's death. Needless to say, Frank gives Wing the push he needs in order to get back in the saddle and take down these baddies once and for all.

We eventually see what makes Joe tick, as his father is a chief police inspector who constantly beats Joe at home for being a lazy, good-for-nothing brat. This in turn makes Joe hate authority figures, police included. Growing up I could definitely understand the desire to be angry with authority figures, and while I've never been treated as poorly as ol' Joe in New Police Story, the urge to murder every single cop I possible could never seemed like the right avenue for me. What I'm saying is, the motivation driving Joe and his gang of thugs seems a bit much, but it's an action movie, so no one is really going to care. They just want to see Jackie Chan do what he does best, and in New Police Story he delivers in spades...for the most part. Jackie isn't getting any younger, so naturally the presence of more wire-work is more obvious, but you can still overlook it for the sheer fact that you still know it's Jackie putting his butt on the line for your entertainment. Not many Hollywood-types can claim to go so far. Also of note is Jackie's performance in the film. We're all used to see the wacky, slapstick-humor Jackie in just about every one of his movies, but in New Police Story we see a different side to his acting. He's carrying a lot of emotional baggage and is generally just an unpleasant person to be around. Life has hit the man hard, and his portrayal of such a distraught soul is admirable, if not a bit over-the-top at times. Nicholas Tse is great at taking over the comic-relief role, and even Daniel Wu (Golden Horse Winner for Best Supporting Actor) conveys the troubled-youth angle in a believable fashion. Andy One (on the the gang members) does an excellent job holding his own in the fight scenes with Jackie. All I'll say is I love Legos! Charlene Choi of TWINS makes an appearance as the police departments IT personality, and is really only notable because I know there are a lot of TWINS fans out there.

I really welcomed New Police Story with open arms. Jackie had been reduced to side-kick only roles (for the most part) here in the states, and when he was the leading man, it was a sad sight to see (The Medallion, The Tuxedo, etc.). I really couldn't have expected more out a man well into his fifties, that continues to impress and entertain with his acrobatic ability. It has the feel of a well-polished popcorn movie, but for Jackie Chan fans, it's a ray of hope in what appeared to be a career on the downward spiral. A return to the motherland, is a return to form. Viva la Hong Kong! (Lee)

Grade: A


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Shaolin Soccer (Hong Kong 2001)

Shaolin Soccer (少林足球), the 2001 masterpiece (yes, I said masterpiece), by the amazing Stephen Chow (hailed by People magazine as the Jim Carrey of Asia...hmm, whatever), is exactly what I look for in a Hong-Kong comedy: wild slap-stick humor, entertaining acting, fun and decent-looking special effects with a story that does a good enough job taking the film from point A to point B. A must-see for any fan of Hong-Kong cinema or simply comedy for that matter.

The once much-revered soccer star Golden Leg Fung (Ng Man-Tat) is now a washed up, handicapped, street-beggar after being let go by his once teammate/boss Hung (Patrick Tse). A particularly important soccer match when both were in their prime led to Fung being crippled by a group of rioting fans, and Hung took over his spot as team favorite. Now that Fung is out of a job, he also has nowhere to go. He eventually runs into a lowly street cleaner by the name of Sing (Stephen Chow) who, when he's not collecting trash, is trying to peddle kung-fu lessons to anyone who will give him the time of day. The two men discuss their views on soccer and kung-fu, resulting in Fung storming off and believing Sing is just some crazy guy with an incredibly strong kicking leg. Sing then meets up with brother Iron Head (Wong Yat-Fei) whom is trying to make a living working with a bunch of gangsters. Sing is desperatley trying to find a way to incorporate his Shaolin kung-fu with other forms of entertainment (singing and dancing for example). After having his interest peaked on the soccer field, Sing thinks that mixing his Shaolin kung-fu with soccer would be a great way to get the public interested in kung-fu and Fung sees the potential in Sing's "steel leg". Seeing as how the upcoming soccer tournament could make Fung a cool million dollars, he agrees to teach Sing how to play soccer and the two of them head out to recruit Sing's "brothers" to fill up the team. Each member of the team, Iron Head included, have special Shaolin kung-fu abilities that they can ulitize on the soccer field. Now they just need to learn how to play the game. The ability to play the game and Hung's "Evil Team" are the only things standing in their way of the million dollars the championship trophy.

Well this definitely wasn't the first time that I'd watched Shaolin Soccer, but I figured it was time to get a review going for this modern-day classic. Really, I feel like this is already a classic. Stephen Chow won awards for best director and actor and the list of awards and nominations for the film fall into basically every single category imaginable. Sure, the story is a simple one of redemption and underdogs having their moment in the sun, but the entertaining characters, special effects, and overall feeling of "what are they gonna do next!?" is what makes Shaolin Soccer so enjoyable. The magic these characters pull off on the field is always a blast to watch and you'll really want to root them on when they're faced with daunting challenges.

Shaolin Soccer put Stephen Chow on the map in the States, and continued solidifying his already concrete-career throughout Asia. It's a film that will make you want to explore the man's impressive catalog of films and you'll almost certainly be a fan that will follow his future works as well. For that reason alone, you should really purchase this movie and see what all the fuss was, and in some circles, continues to be about. (Lee)

Grade: A