Sunday, November 30, 2008

Voice of a Murderer (Korea 2007)

Based on a true story, and serving as one of the most heart-wrenching films I've seen in years, Voice of a Murderer (그놈 목소리) is a fictional account of the very real disappearance of nine-year old Lee Hyung-ho in 1991. Stories like this stay with you for a long time.

Kyung-bae Han (Kyeong-gu Seol) is a successful news anchor who is recognized and admired the nation over. He seems to be on top of the world, with his beautiful loving wife Oh Ji-sun (Kim Nam-joo), and nine-year-old son Sang-woo. The families wonderful world is suddenly torn apart when Sang-woo doesn't come home after playing outside. Immediately, Ji-sun begins to panic and wants to alert the police, but Kyung-bae keeps a level head and feels it would be better if they just waited a bit to see if he returns. A short time later, the telephone rings, and when Kyung-bae picks up the line, the person on the other end explains that Kyung-bae needs to get 100 million won together if he ever wants to see his son again. The kidnapper explains that Kyung-bae needs to get a phone installed in his car, and that when he calls, either Ji-sun at home, or Kyung-bae in the car, that he'll only let the phone ring three times. As you can imagine, if any of the demands or rules aren't met, Sang-woo will be killed. Ji-sun panics and calls the police, much to the disappointment of her husband and the kidnapper. The kidnapper is infuriated that the police are involved, and the couples chances of getting their son back begin to diminish. The phone calls, demands, and meaningless tasks continue for more than a month, and the only thing keeping Kyung-bae and Ji-sun's hope alive is a few seconds of hearing Sang-woo's voice over the phone, pleading for help. The police are completely stumped as to who the kidnapper can be, and are running out of answers to give the worried couple. As the days slowly pass, everyone begins losing hope that Sang-woo will come home.

Voice of a Murderer is a re-telling of actual events that took place in 1991, and even though director Park Jin-pyo changes some of the details, the story at it's core remains the same. If you really do the research, you'll see how this story ends, but for the sake of this review, I promise not to spoil anything for you. I always have a hard time with movies that are based on true stories, especially when the subject matter is so dark and depressing. It's hard for me to find any entertainment value when dealing with such subjects based on reality, and if you're like me at all in that respect, watching this film can be difficult. It's not that the movie is bad by any means, in fact, the story is told in a manner that really places you in the nightmare that these parents are going through, and being engaged in the story like that is what filmmakers generally strive for. The acting is really top-notch. Kyeong-gu Seol, and Kim Nam-joo, as the victimized parents, put in stellar performances that looked absolutely draining for them emotionally. It's possible that people might have issues with the film being slow at times, and that's because it takes you through this harrowing journey that lasts nearly 45 days. I can understand the directors intention with showing the daily process of the investigation, but it can be a bit much for less patient viewers. It really just depends on how engaged with the proceedings you are. I have to point out that the ending is easily one of the most haunting things I've seen or heard in a movie and will stick with me for quite some time.

Again, Voice of a Murderer is the type of film that doesn't exist to entertain and won't easily be forgotten after viewing. It exists to tell a story, that whether you like it or not, is real. I recommend this film for that very same purpose, because this is a story that deserved to be told and should most definitely be seen. (Lee)

Grade: B+


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Death Bell (Korea 2008)

Akin to more well-known movies like Saw and even Japan's Battle Royale, Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사) may not be the most original horror movie ever conceived, but it's entertaining enough so that it doesn't necessarily have to be. Some genuinely startling moments, and creativity help make this film worthwhile.

Chang-in Foreign Language high school is preparing for it's special class, consisting of the top 20 students, to cram for the upcoming college entrance exams and to help put on a great face for the school. The pressure to succeed in school can put a tremendous strain on the students, but Mr. Hwang (Lee Beom-soo), is there to help guide these students to success. However, during the first day of the special class, a mentally unstable student begins to see things that may or may not be there. His behavior becomes erratic and the authorities are brought in to take him away. Could the stress of the exam be that great? Once the children have calmed down, a strange song begins to play over the PA system and a mysterious person with a disguised voice begins to address the class. The school television monitors then show one of their classmates trapped within a glass aquarium that has a math problem written on it. He instructs the class that they have to figure out the problem or the girl will die, and that if they try to leave the school, they too will be killed. No one can figure out what is going on, and aren't quite sure they believe what they're seeing...until the girl in the aquarium begins to drown. The students begin disappearing one by one, and Mr. Hwang, along with English teacher Choi So-yeong (Yoon Jeong-hee), and the remaining students, have to figure out more puzzles in order to save the these kids. Eventually, one of the students, I-na (Nam Gyoo-ri), figures out that the students are being taken according to their rankings in the school exam. Now the group knows who to keep their eyes on, but who's killing these kids, and why? When the truth is discovered, everyone begins to question who they trust.

Death Bell doesn't try very hard to differentiate itself from the popular horror movie Saw. The children are each taken and placed in near-death situations that are almost impossible to get out of. The only difference is the victims are counting on the smarts of their peers to get them out alive. If you're into gore movies with clever trappings, than you'll more than likely enjoy this films way of presenting things. The presentation is enthralling, and really does a great job in creating a tense situation. I particular like some of the creative death scenes, as morbid as that sounds. The actors are all more than competent, which is high praise considering I hate child actors. There is a sub-plot with the aforementioned mentally unstable student seeing ghosts, but that story isn't told very well and seems to clash with the rest of the movie, when in fact it should be better intertwined. Like any horror movie, there are moments where you question the actions of the characters because they seem so absurd and illogical, but then you realize it's all part of the fun. My biggest gripe has to do with the ending, which I hate admitting almost as much you probably hate reading. When you realize who or what is behind all of the killing, it will seem completely unfathomable, especially considering how intricate the kidnappings and killings were played out. Sadly, you'll also question why the these students were being killed in the first place.

It clearly borrows ideas from proven successful films, but Death Bell still does enough on it's own to keep you entertained while following the whodunit storyline. There are problems with the film, but forgiving audiences can definitely overlook them and just have a good time (and a good scare), and Death Bell will fit the bill just fine. (Lee)

Grade: C+


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Miss Gold Digger (Korea 2007)

Miss Gold Digger (용의주도 미스 신), a romantic comedy that aims to show us that sometimes it's alright to live for yourself, is almost a complete failure thanks to an incredibly annoying protagonist, amongst other things. This film has so many problems that it's downright embarrassing.

Sin Min-soo (Han Ye-seul) is a successful advertising specialist who is extremely confident in herself, her work, and her love life. She is so confident in fact, that she manages to juggle three different boyfriends; aspiring district attorney Yoon-cheol (Kim In-kwon), young, directionless singer/rapper Hyeon-joon (Son Ho-young), and the incredibly wealthy, and over dramatic Joon-seo (Kwon O-joong). However, when a new neighbor, Dong-min (Lee Jong-hyuk), moves into her building, the two get off on the wrong foot which leads to a number of awkward encounters. The two just can't seem to get along, and once Min-soo has begun to accept that fact, a situation at her work requires that she get along with him. Dong-min isn't making things easy for Min-soo, because unlike her three suitors, he sees Min-soo for the lying, self-centered snob that she is. As you can imagine, Dong-min's cold shoulder is appealing to Min-soo because no one has ever treated her that way. Meanwhile, the three boyfriends are doing everything they can to win Min-soo over, but she refuses to commit to just one. She really wants to weigh all of her options with each guy in order to determine who can provide her with the most fulfilling way of life. Eventually, Dong-min begins to find himself caught up in Min-soo's web of seduction, whether he likes it or not. Min-soo has her fair share of men to choose from, but will she eventually come clean with them? Or will she be forced to learn a harsh lesson?

To be as frank as humanly possible, I really hated Miss Gold Digger. From the very beginning the filmmakers decide to make Min-soo's character as nasty as they possibly can. She's conceited, a liar, and only looks out for herself, showing almost no remorse for the terrible behavior she exudes. This didn't really bother me because I knew that she would eventually learn a lesson from the way she acts, but that didn't happen until there was only 15 minutes left in the film. Honestly, by that point it was too little too late. Her character had gone so far into the red, so to speak, that there was no turning back for her. I felt absolutely no pity for her whatsoever when her world started falling apart. When it did, I just thought to myself, "serves you right!", when the filmmakers probably intended viewers to sympathize with her. I felt no chemistry between Min-soo and Dong-min, and the three boyfriends were the only amusing characters in the movie. When you see the ending, you'll wonder if Min-soo's character learned anything at all. Negativity aside, I will say that the film is filled with competent actors who all play their parts well, and the feel of the movie was also consistent from start to finish, with no major emotional highs or lows detracting from things.

Miss Gold Digger was just mind-numbingly bad the entire two hours through. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie where I literally didn't care about any of the characters. I've seen Han Ye-seul in television dramas before and thought she was great, so as her big screen debut this film was all the more disappointing for me. Maybe next time, but this is a definite pass. (Lee)

Grade: D-


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Going By The Book (Korea 2007)

Going by the Book (바르게 살자), a comedy about a police training exercise taken too far, has a premise that manages to be both unique and paper-thin at the same time. If that hasn't grabbed your attention, then this may not be the film for you.

Jeong Do-man (Jeong Jae-young) is a traffic cop working in a small country town who takes his job very seriously (as the film title implies). He takes it so seriously in fact, that when his new commanding officer, Son Byeong-ho (Lee Seung-man), arrives in town, and just so happens to take an illegal left hand turn, Do-man gives him a ticket even after he learns who the man is. After settling in at the police station, Byeong-ho is disturbed at the high number of bank robberies taking place within their town in such a short amount of time. Public confidence in the police and their capabilities is at an all time low and people are concerned about using the banks. Byeong-ho devises a plan to prove to the media and the public that the police are capable of stopping the banks from getting robbed. A drawing takes place, where every officer will receive a different part to play in a publicly televised training program in which a robbery staged by the police will take place. After seeing Do-man's police work first-hand, and hearing about this by-the-book reputation around the station, Byeong-ho knows exactly who he wants to play the robber in this scenario. Do-man, reluctant to take the position, eventually agrees under the pretense that he is to do his best and that his captain feels he is the only one who will take the responsibility seriously. So Do-man begins a meticulous training regimen of sorts, by studying up on past bank robbers and learning different methods on how to approach the situation. When he finally gets to the bank and makes the demand for cash, the undercover agents at the bank, as well as everyone else, are startled at just how serious Do-man is. With the whole country watching, Do-man plans to give his fellow officers a training experience they aren't soon to forget.

As you can probably tell, and as I mentioned previously, the premise for Going by the Book is one-dimensional for the most part. It's literally a bunch of bank robberies triggering a public training display by the police. However, the way in which the idea is executed is somewhat inventive and can be quite funny at times. Obviously, Do-man isn't going to kill or hurt anyone, so the running gag with the signs he hangs around his hostages necks is quite amusing. The hostages range from funny to annoying, with only one of them being relevant to the big picture. The problem with the story for me is that when the training goes too far, and too long into the night, the police seem to have no way of infiltrating this bank. I got the impression that Do-man was definitely a by-the-book cop, but he's later presented as the most intelligent cop ever by out-smarting everything the police throw at him. Do-man is always one step ahead which I thought was a bit much. There is a bit of a back story when they explain why Do-man is just a simple traffic cop and not in a higher ranking position, but it really wasn't needed in a movie as silly as this one, and to be frank, I didn't care about his past because there isn't any character development in Going by the Book. Characters are simply just thrown together. Speaking of which, some characters are well-rounded, while others seem like over-the-top parodies (such as the SWAT commander). On the plus side of things, I will say that the film stayed a comedy throughout, with the exception of a few small instances, and that seems to be a rarity today in Korean comedies. I'm happy to report that there isn't some misplaced melodrama halfway through. There is some terrible music played throughout the movie, but I may just be nit-picking at this point.

Truth be told, Going by the Book is a fun movie because it feels unique and has some amusing gags. Just don't expect anything great from it, either in terms of story-telling or performances. It's mindless entertainment, and in this case, there's nothing wrong with that. (Lee)

Grade: C


Sunday, November 16, 2008

L: Change the World (Japan 2008)

He's back! Everyone's favorite brain with a sweet-tooth, L, from the insanely popular Death Note series, returns with a movie of his own in L: Change the World (Lの本当の秘密). The bad news is that it's nowhere near as good as those movies, but the good news is that it still manages to entertain at times. However, calling it a prequel seems inaccurate.

L (Kenichi Matsuyama), still has 23 days to live, but now he's all alone as his beloved caretaker Watari (Shunji Fujimara) has passed on. However, he still chooses to spend his remaining days working and solving major cases with Interpol. We learn that L is merely one in a number of similar agents, all with one-letter names, that come from the Wammy House organization. He has reestablished contact with the mysterious K, and another fellow agent, F, is seen in a virus-ridden village in Thailand trying to rescue a small boy who appears to be immune. He makes sure the boy is delivered to L, and before long, L finds himself practically running a daycare when 12-year old Maki (Mayuko Fukuda), also carrying the virus, shows on his doorstep as well. The girls father, Nikaido (Shingo Tsurumi), the brilliant doctor who developed the virus, is killed by the those wanting to use the virus for their evil deeds. Nikaido knew Watari and told his daughter he'd be able to care for her. However, L is now responsible for these children and has to find out who's after the virus. The bad guys want to use the virus as a form of population control, so they can rid the world of people they feel are too stupid to exist. Only the brightest minds should live in their utopia! With the days literally counting down the rest of L's existence, time is now a luxury for the three as they rush to find a cure and stop the villains from executing their plan for world domination. Could the children be the key to finding a cure?

L: Change the World
is bit of a letdown when you think about where this character was last seen. In the Death Note films, his superior intelligence was really on display in the battle of smarts with Light Yagami. So it's definitely a letdown to see the L character in a film where he doesn't appear to use the characteristic that made him so special when viewers first saw him. Truth be told, a doctor later on the in the film does most of the thinking for him. The story of stopping a virus from eliminating most of the world's population, again, is nowhere as interesting as the content we saw L dealing with in Death Note. It feels too ordinary of a story for such an extraordinary character, and the way it's told just isn't that interesting. For such a simple idea, the movie seems to go out of it's way to make it all sound more complicated than it really is, which makes the movie feel long at times. However, that doesn't take away from the charming performance Kenichi Matsuyama gives as L. He does such an outstanding job with this character that you really can't picture anyone else playing it at this point. He truly made L his own. The cast of characters all do a great job in their roles and are entertaining to watch, but the story they're stuck in definitely works against them.

In the end, L: Change the World, is a spin-off for the character of L, who stills manages to be fascinating to watch, but isn't strong enough to float an entire movie on his own. The world his character comes (Death Note) from suits him best, and when taken out of that world, it doesn't translate into that same feeling you got when you first saw him. If you love L, you'll probably enjoy watching him here, but you can't help but feel as if he just doesn't belong. (Lee)

Grade: C


The Chaser (Korea 2008)

A battle of the wits, cat-and-mouse style Korean thriller, The Chaser (추적자), has it's moments of real suspense, but the relationship of it's characters seems underdeveloped thereby making the proceedings feel somewhat unwarranted. Above-average entertainment awaits.

Jung-ho (Kim Yoon-seok), is an ex-cop turned pimp who finds that his new career choice isn't without it's problems when his girls start to go missing. Determined to find out who or what is responsible for this mess, he begins to connect the dots by matching up the phone number with the corresponding nights when these girls seem to disappear. The problem is trying to figure out who's making the phone calls and requesting these women. Once the suspect calls in again for another woman, Jung-ho sends Min-jin to service his needs, but this time Jung-ho orchestrates a plan so that he can catch the caller. He instructs Min-jin to text him the caller's address upon arrival and that he'd be in there to handle business shortly thereafter. The problem is, the man responsible for these women disappearing has already planned ahead. Min-jin is now trapped in this house with Young-min (Ha Jeong-woo), the psychotic who's been kidnapping and murdering these call girls, and she has no way of contacting Jung-ho. Thanks to retaining some of his detective skills, Jung-ho eventually finds out that Young-min is the prime suspect, and Young-min actually confesses to his crimes almost immediately. However, when the police chief comes in to hear his story, Young-min stays quiet and acts as if he never admitted to anything at all. He knows that the police can only hold him for a certain amount of time without any evidence, so the police and Jung-ho are in a race against time to find Min-jin and possibly more bodies.

The Chaser is a really interesting movie in the way that it's story is told, because it doesn't take very long at all for Jung-ho and the police to catch Young-min. While I was watching it, I wondered where the story was heading because all of this was happening so fast. However, I soon realized the real intensity of the story happens when Young-min begins toying with the police and playing the oblivious card. It's a fairly unique method of story-telling, when you realize who the bad guy is instantly, and having him get caught right away, you wonder what's left to show. That's where The Chaser really shines. The suspense created by having this impending time constraint, with how long the police can hold Young-min and trying to find Min-jin during these few hours, is really intense. There are definitely some edge-of-your-seat moments to be found here as you follow the search for Min-jin. The problem is the incredible desire Jung-ho has in finding Min-jin, as if he has this strong emotionally connection with her. Don't get me wrong, I can understand him wanting to find her because they might share a bond or a strong relationship, but as a viewer I never really felt that and during the climax of the movie, Jung-ho's reactions seem a bit over-the-top. The use of Eun-ji (Kim Yoo-jeong) as Min-jin's daughter, as an attempt to connect Jung-ho to Min-jin, felt unrealistic to me, regardless of how cute the kid was. The character development with the protagonists just aren't that strong, but Ha Jeong-woo as Young-min is the star of the show. He has the frightening calm about him, where you truly wonder what he's thinking and what he'll do next. He can turn his emotions from zero to eleven at the drop of a dime. The ending is also a strong part of the film, because by the time I got there, I honestly didn't know what to expect, and what I saw was intense (there's that word again) to say the least.

Overall, The Chaser earns big points by presenting it's story in a somewhat original fashion. It's a suspense-thriller and it lives up to that genre definition. I would have loved some more character development, but other than that I would definitely recommend the film to anyone looking for a fun, nail-biting time at the movies. (Lee)

Grade: B