Sunday, January 18, 2009

Venus and Mars (Korea 2007)

With a name referring to just how different men and women are, Venus and Mars (싸움), shows us the extremes people are willing to go to when relationships don't work out as planned. The world of marriage and divorce has never looked so ugly.

Jin-ha (Kam Tae-hee), and Sang-min (Seol Keyong-gu), have officially called it quits after two years of being married. It's safe to assume that things didn't work out between them, and in their case, it really didn't work out, because these two simply cannot stand each other. Sang-min is working at a university teaching entomology, and Jin-ha is working as a glassblower, trying to start her own line of glassware products with her best friend Hyang-mi (Jeon Soo-kyeong). With the distaste these two have for one another, there would be no other reason for them to come into contact, except for the fact that Sang-min has obsessive compulsive disorder. After the seperation, they decided that it would be best to just split everything 50-50, and Jin-ha ended up with the pendulum for the clock that Sang-min bought while on vacation in Europe. Sang-min's OCD about his missing pendulum drives him insane to the point where he meets with Jin-ha in order to get it back. However, their reunion doesn't go so well and soon the two are screaming at each other, with Jing-ha refusing to give him back the pendulum because she knows it means so much to him. Sang-min can't stand Jin-ha for her stubbornness, and the fact that she won't give his pendulum back, and Jin-ha hates Sang-min because he can never admit he's at fault and refuses to apologize for anything. Clearly, there is a lot of pent up resentment here. When Jin-ha get's her big break marketing her products on the Korean Home Shopping Network, Sang-min ruins the opportunity by faking his involvement in a car accident. These two go back and forth with their screaming matches, and attempts at hurting one another, with Jin-ha even going so far as to run Sang-min's car into an oncoming train. So fed up with the behavior she's exuding, Jin-ha finally agrees to give Sang-min his pendulum back. Before they meet, so she can give it to him, the two are speaking on the phone when Jin-ha yells out that her workplace is on fire. Sang-min assumes that she's pulling a fast one on him, as he did to her, but her situation is all too real. When these two meet again, face-to-face, they finally have a chance to let out of their emotions, but is it enough to mend the history, and the relationship they once shared together?

Venus and Mars shows the ugliness of people coping with a divorce. It obviously isn't a pleasant thing to experience, and it can make even the best of people show their worst side. The general theme of the movie is pondering the question, "how can two people that love each other so much, end up hating each other to the point where they'd do anything to hurt them?". I can understand having feelings of resentment towards the person you split with, but Kim Tae-hee and Seol Kyeong-gu are absolutely insane in this movie. These two are so psychotic, they make marriage look like the last thing you would want to do simply because of the possibility of divorce. All that aside, there are some entertaining parts in the film, mostly when these two are trying to kill each. The problem is, that's pretty much all these two do the entire time. It's basically an hour and a half of screaming, fighting, and not much more. There is a lot of emotion on display, and both actors definitely deliver it, but it all gets really old after awhile.

I can't say I recommend Venus and Mars, mostly because there isn't a lot that happens. I'm not saying you have to have a busy story to keep things entertaining, but you have to have something. There simply isn't enough meat on these bones to keep it satisfying. Fine performances, but nothing more. (Lee)

Grade: D


Beyond Our Ken (Hong Kong 2004)

Feeling like one of the most indie-style films I've personally ever seen out of Hong Kong, Beyond Our Ken (公主復仇記), is an interesting performance piece for both Gillian Chung and Tao Hong. A story of two women, the man that did them wrong, and the resulting emotional fallout.

Things start off with Ching (Gillian Chung), meeting with Shirley (Tao Hong), and explaining that she used to date Shirley's current boyfriend, Ken (Daniel Wu). The reason she wanted to meet with Shirley was to explain to her that Ken might not be as perfect as he seems to be. Ching explains that after sleeping together, Ken posted pictures of the two of them on an adult website, which resulted in her getting let go from her job. Shirley, naturally resistant to the claims Ching is making, soon starts to realize that they both have had the same experiences with Ken. He used the same lines and the same moves on both girls. Ching wants Shirley's help at getting the nude photos that Ken took of her because she's afraid that he may post more in the future. She tells Shirley about all of the horrible things he did when he was with her and how Shirley needs to stay on her toes unless she wants to be hurt as well. Ken is definitely deserving of the ill-feelings both girls share towards him, because he's clearly a womanizer, a point both girls find clearly evident as they continue to share stories. Meanwhile, Ken goes about his relationship with Shirley oblivious to the two girls meeting with each other and actually starting to build a friendship. Out of the blue, Ching calls Shirley and tells her that Ken has posted more photos of the two of them in the nude, and Shirley is a sympathetic ear in Ching's time of need and is now, more than ever, willing to help her get the photos back. Still in possession of Ken's house key, Ching takes Shirley along to sneak into his home while he's at work, with only Ken's Grandma as an obstacle. So what becomes of Shirley's relationship with Ken? And is Ken really as horrible as the girls seem to think he is?

That is the whole synopsis in a nutshell, of course without giving away any specifics. Beyond Our Ken, directed by Pang Ho-Cheung, is filmed in a interesting, criss-crossed fashion, with transitions between past and present that ultimate piece the story together for the viewer. There are a few big reveals in the movie that make it necessary to be filmed in this manner as to not ruin things from the beginning, and when you see what's really going on, it takes the proceedings into an entireley different direction. Needless to say, it's all really engaging stuff. The acting on display, especially from Gillian Chung and Tao Hong, is fantastic to the point where you couldn't expect more. I believe this was Tao Hong's first major film and she comes out like a true professional, and with Gillian Chung, previously dismissed as just a cheesy popstar, she dismisses her critics with a truly impressive performance as well. There is a slightly amusing irony in reviewing this film now, as the story of Beyond Our Ken seems to run parallel to the real sex scandal that Gillian got caught up in with Edison Chen back in 2008. Where is she now? It's really a unfortunate mess. Regardless, the emotions on display in the film are portrayed in way that seems wholly realistic, leaving you feeling somewhat empathetic.

With a creative sense of cinematic flair, Beyond Our Ken, proves that you don't need a huge budget, special-effects, or even a huge cast of big name stars to make a really great movie. It is however, a perfect example of how the core ingredients of a good story, fantastic performances, along with smart pacing and cinematography are all you need. (Lee)

Grade: A


Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (Japan 2005)

A period piece unlike any you've probably seen, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, is a tale of tragic love with special-effects laden action scenes. Reading that sentence, I don't know why anyone would want to see this film, but it honestly isn't as bad as it sounds.

The year is 1614, and the Iga and Koga clan are keeping the ruler of the Tokugawa shogunate from moving society forward by remaining isolated in small villages across the land. The head of the Koga clan, Danjo Koga (Minoru Terada), and the head of the Iga clan, Ogen (Riri), are summoned by the shogun and are told that they must assemble the five best warriors of their respective clans in order to battle each other to the death. However, the shogun hasn't issued such an order just to see which clan is stronger, or to end their ongoing feud, but more so to have each clan eliminate each other so that his reign isn't threatened. Danjo picks his five best, headed by Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri), and Ogen picks her five best, headed by Oboro (Yukie Nakama). Both clans have an interesting cast of characters with abilities that range from taking on the appearance of ones enemy, delivering a kiss of death, to a character that uses his long hair as a weapon. Unbeknownst to each clan, Gennosuke and Oboro have been having a secret romance with one another and have even made plans to marry. Gennosuke, realizing that he may soon be pitted against his beloved, is completely against the idea of going into battle. When his chief goes head-to-head with Ogen from the Iga clan and doesn't survive the encounter, he begrudgingly leads his crew into battle with intentions of making it to the shogun to question his orders. Oboro feels the same way as Gennosuke, but as the two clans members continue to battle one another and people begin to die, her hatred begins to consume her. The two clans fight their way through the land and soon Gennosuke will be face-to-face with the woman he loves. Will their love be strong enough to ignore the bloodshed of their fallen comrades?

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is truly a love story at it's core, but that doesn't mean it's without some really cool, comic-book style action. Each member of each clan has a unique ability that is shown off with style and decent special-effects. From the very beginning you know that the love shared between Gennosuke and Oboro is doomed, but you're left watching and wondering how, if possible, will they be able to overcome their forced situation. The storytelling is really the strength of Shinobi for me, because as a viewer, you're instantly pushed into their romance and hope that they can find a way. The action of course is a visual treat, with our two main protagonists having some of the more intense abilities, which I hate to ruin for any potential viewers. The film as a whole rides that fine line between being too comically cheesy at times and taking itself too seriously, but in the end, I think it does a great job of striking the right balance.

I always felt that Shinobi was going to be one of those silly movies that relied on fancy special-effects in order to reel people in, possibly because of the way it was marketed, but I was definitely wrong with that perception. I'm glad that I took the time to see what this movie was all about, because the mix of various elements actually made for a surprisingly entertaining viewing experience. (Lee)

Grade: B

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Truck (Korea 2008)

An edge-of-your seat, high-suspense thrill ride...OK, maybe that's being a little too "Hollywood" in it's description, but Truck (트럭), aside from the ridiculously bland name, actually does a good job of fitting that description.

Truck driver Jeong Cheol-min (Yoo Hae-jin), leads a simple life as a single, widowed father to his seven-year old daughter Da-yeong (Lee Joon-ha). His daughter is his whole world, and it appears that he wouldn't have it any other way. Sadly, his daughter has a hereditary heart defect that ensures that she can't over-exert herself in a physical manner. It's work as usual for Cheol-min until he gets a phone call from his mother saying that Da-yeong had collapsed on the playground and is now in urgent care at the hospital. The doctor, unfortunately, has no good news for Cheol-min, as he informs him that he'll need to come up with $60,000 so that they can go forward with the heart surgery she so desperately needs. Immediately, Cheol-min does everything he can, from cleaning out his savings, to borrowing from loan sharks, in order to collect the money he needs. Still coming up short, an acquaintance of his tells him about a high-stakes poker game that he can get in on, and that he'll also help Cheol-min win big by giving him signals to let him know when to bet more. The game doesn't end up as planned and Cheol-min loses all of his money, chasing after the man who took it all. He ends up busting in on a gang boss (Kim Joon-bae), who murdered a room full of people. The bosses thugs explain the situation with the poker game and the boss gives Cheol-min an opportunity that will let him keep his truck and the winnings. Cheol-min must dispose of the corpses that the boss and his gang load into the back of the truck. Reluctant and afraid, Cheol-min begins his drive to a lake in the middle of the country where he hopes the bodies will never be found. Along the way, he sees a police transport vehicle wrecked, laying on it's side on the side of the road, and everyone inside is dead. It turns out the police were transporting serial killer Kim Yeong-ho (Jin Goo), and now he's nowhere to be found. After picking up Yeong-ho, disguised as a police officer, Cheol-min is unaware that he's assisting a serial killer in his escape. It's not long before Cheol-min discovers the true identity of his passenger, but due to the contents of his truck load, involving the police isn't an option. What does Yeong-ho want with Cheol-min? And will Cheol-min complete his mission in order to save his daughters life?

Writing up that "synopsis", I realized just how much is going on in Truck. It seems like almost enough just to have Cheol-min transporting countless dead bodies to be dumped in order to save his daughter, but that wasn't enough for the filmmakers. They threw in a serial killer storyline just to amp things up, and it actually works. There is genuine suspense in the interactions between Cheol-min and Yeong-ho. Unfortunately, sometimes inconvenient things happen for the main characters a little too conveniently. There's always a cop at the wrong time, or a roadblock with police checking out vehicles for instance. But it all makes for some intense moments and can be easily overlooked by simply wanting to see what happens next. The acting is excellent, especially from Yoo Hae-jin, and Jin Goo plays a suitably creepy serial killer in convincing fashion. It has to be said, young Lee Joon-ha is absolutely adorable.

I honestly didn't expect much from Truck, mostly because of the title. However, in a movie where the name is about as unimaginative as it gets, the actual imagination shown in the storyline is surprisingly good. Truck really is a great suspense-thriller that will have you engaged until the very end. (Lee)

Grade: A-


Almost Love (Korea 2006)

The super-duo from My Tutor Friend, Kim Ha-neul and Kwan Sang-woo, are back in Almost Love (청춘만화). Is it as good as their first pairing together? Of course not, and not many Korean romantic comedies are. A sharp turn into the melodramatic keeps this one from being a complete success...oh so close.

Ji Hwan (Kwan Sang-woo), is an aspiring stuntman who emulates his lifestyle, and look, after that of the legendary action-star Jackie Chan. His best friend since childhood, Dal-rae (Kim Ha-neul), also aspires to enter the world of entertainment as an actress. The two friends know more about each other than anyone else in the world and it shows. They have the best times together and they also can get on each others nerves better than anyone, and Ji Hwan definitely loves driving Dal-rae crazy. The textbook definition of best friends. Dal-rae begins dating Young-hoon (Lee Sang-woo), who is a friend and fellow Taekwondo teammate of Ji Hwan. It's soon apparent that three can definitely be a crowd when they all hang out together, because Young-hoon can't help but notice that no matter how hard he tries, he will never know and understand Dal-rae as good as Ji Hwan does. It isn't all bad though as Dal-rae, after countless failed auditions, lands her first acting gig, and Ji Hwan finally gets his big break pulling off the main stunt in a major film. Things couldn't be better for the two in a professional sense, and naturally they look forward to telling each other about their success. However, they aren't able to savor their achievements when personal tragedy strikes Ji Hwan. What happens is so incredibly huge that Ji Hwan can't even bear to face his friends and family and disappears on a year-long soul search. Dal-rae, Young-hoon, and Ji Hwans father (Jeong Gyoo-soo), are frustrated at his disapperance, but try their best to understand what he's going through. Ji Hwan must come to terms with the new life that awaits him if he wants to see his loved ones again. Is his bond with Dal-rae strong enough to bring him home?

Make no mistake about it, the on-screen pairing of Kim Ha-neul and Kwan Sang-woo is cinema gold. These two have proven they have entertaining chemistry together and it's clearly evident in Almost Love as well. That being said, the issues I have with the movie have nothing to do with the competency, or quality, of the actors, but more so in the brick wall of melodrama that the story crashes into. The first half of the movie is romantic-comedy all the way, and it does that just fine. After the personal tragedy for Kwan Sang-woo's character, the second half of the movie turns into a melodrama, thereby making the movie feel like two separate genres, and almost two separate movies...almost. However, the relationship between our two protagonists is so strong, and so well built, that even through the sudden change in the story, they manage to keep things entertaining, engaging, and even very touching.

Almost Love is an unbalanced affair, but still a very worthwhile viewing experience. Most will watch this one for it's two main stars, and that's really who this film is for. That target audience of fans should be more than pleased. (Lee)

Grade: C+


Friday, January 9, 2009

Papa Loves You (Hong Kong 2004)

The movie poster for Papa Loves You (這個阿爸真爆炸) should have been a dead give-away that below-average quality was rearing it's ugly head. Surprisingly, there are some slightly entertaining and even heart-warming moments to be found here. However, don't let those few moments fool you into thinking this is a great movie, cause boy howdy it ain't!

Yam (Tony Leung Ka Fai), is an over-protective single father to his teenage daughter Ellen (Charlene Choi), who happens to be at that age where she wants nothing more than to resist her obsessive fathers ways. Having to come to terms with the fact that his daughter is growing up, Yam continues to grow concerned about Ellen's behaviour and begins following her around to see just what it is she's up to. While dining in a cafe, Yam just happens to stop an attempted hit on Triad boss leader Hung (Eric Tsang), with his "shadowless hands" technique, a move that he only seems to use in cleaning up around the house. This fateful turn of events changes Yam's life considerably. Not only is Hung indebted to Yam, but Yam also develops a reputation around town as being the legendary Mo Ye Fei Ying, an assassin who supposedly took out over 100 men during a knife fight. The boys at Ellen's school, Orange (Kenny Kwan), and Fung (Steven Cheung), become obsessed with Yam, thinking he's a hardcore assassin, and want to learn how to fight from him. Of course, Yam has nothing to teach these boys, but he makes them believe he does and will teach them everything if they promise to keep an eye on Ellen to make sure she stays out of trouble. Things don't end up going so well when Ellen actually does get involved with the real Triads and Yam has to face their leader down, fronting as the legendary assassin. It's definitely not a good thing to be known as an exceptional fighter and triad member, when in reality you just teach piano. That type of reputation eventually creates a problem when Yam is forced into having a showdown with the real Triads in order to protect his daughter.

Let me be as frank as possible by saying that Papa Loves You is a ridiculous film. I know it's meant to be a comedy, and there are a few scenes where that genre label actually seems to fit. However, most of the film is so absurd and even downright cheesy, that you feel embarrassed to be watching it at all. This movie came out when popstars were still running rampant throughout every movie in Hong Kong, so the overall feel of the film has that artificial, childish vibe to it that only those who are familiar with the EEG films will know what I'm talking about. Tony Leung, as many know, is a more than adequate actor and his role here seems shockingly out of place, but he pulls it off to some charming extent. Eric Tsang, who I hold in pretty high esteem in the HK cinema ranks, turns in a "what was he thinking" cameo as triad leader Hung. Honestly, the whole movie will leave you scratching your head with it's questionably entertaining content.

I know my words seem incredibly harsh, but Papa Loves You is mostly deserving of those words. It's complete throw-away, teeny-bopper entertainment that really only serves that one specific demographic. Everyone else should probably steer clear, because calling the movie cute is about the best compliment I can muster. (Lee)

Grade: D


Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Wife Is A Gangster 2 (Korea 2003)

The sequel to the highly-enjoyable My Wife is a Gangster, My Wife is a Gangster 2: The Return Fable (조폭 마누라 2 : 돌아온 전설), sadly, isn't nearly as entertaining as the first. However, Sin Eun-kyeong, as our beloved protagonist, is still interesting to watch. It's everything you would expect from a sequel...which isn't much.

Gang boss Cha Eun-jin (Sin Eun-kyeong) is up to her usual activity when the film kicks off with a major rooftop brawl with her gang mixing it up with another group of thugs. During the melee, Eun-jin is knocked off the roof of the building and is, understandably, knocked senseless. A very drunk Yoon Jae-choi (Park Joon-gyu), notices Eun-jin laying in the gutter and ends up carrying her off to his neighborhood where he runs a small Chinese restaurant. Eun-jin's crew assume the worst, and every attempt to contact their boss doesn't seem to pan out, yet they continue to search for her. Why the police aren't involved in the search is anyone's guess, but I imagine gangsters don't work with the police on any level. Regardless, the story picks up months later, and Eun-jin is working as a delivery girl for Jae-choi at the Chinese restaurant with no memory of her former gangster life. Jae-choi is aware of the fact that she doesn't remember a thing, but she's so good at deliveries, even going so far as to invent a delivery box for serving, that he is in no hurry to help her regain her memory. Eun-jin genuinely seems to be happy with her new life, working and living with her new boss and his teenage daughter. However, little-by-little, Eun-jin begins to piece parts of her former life together, not to mention the fact that she really knows how to fight, when new situations in her life bring out that side of her. White Shark, the gangster whom I believe is from part one, returns, albeit it with a new wig and vocoder on his throat. He plans to finally seek revenge against Eun-jin, and even though she can't remember who he is, White Sharks threats against her and her bosses family prove enough in getting her to take action.

Sequels...what can I say? Love 'em or hate 'em, they can either be seen as a genuine extension of a story created in part one, or simply as a way to cash in on the name. My Wife is a Gangster 2 unfortunately falls into the latter category. As much as I enjoyed certain aspects about this film, it just couldn't match up to the level of it's predecessor. The biggest smack in the face comes from the fact that Eun-jin's husband from part one is nowhere to be found in this film, and they don't even mention him, so you're left wondering what became of his character. Park Joon-gyu, serving as the male comedy relief this time around, does an admirable job filling those shoes, but it definitely isn't the same feeling that Park Sang-myeon provided. It's a shame he was written off. The relationship of the characters is completely different this time around, and when you have a character as cool as Eun-jin is, that isn't necessarily a good thing. She's definitely more amusing in part two, but I missed her character from the first film. That isn't to say that everyone will feel the same as I do, because these changes might please a lot of viewers out there, but it just wasn't my cup of tea. For example, White Shark, while feeling like an actual villain and threat in part one, was portrayed as an incompetent goofball in the sequel. It's creative decisions like this that take away from the feeling and overall vibe created in the first film, ultimately making it feel like an unbalanced sequel.

There are laughs and good times to be had in My Wife is a Gangster 2, but like most sequels, as a whole, it isn't as good as the first. It feels more light-hearted than it's predecessor and that could be an intentional move by the filmmakers, but for me, it took the series in the wrong direction. If you loved the first one, by all means check part two out, but by all means, lower your expectations. (Lee)

Grade: B-


My Wife is a Gangster review

My Wife is a Gangster 3 review