Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mitsu no Aji (J-Drama 2011)

I hate myself. That has to be the only reason I sat through all 11 episodes of Mitsu no Aji (蜜の味). Okay, not the only reason, as I'm a big fan of Kanno Miho, but my God...sometimes being a fan can lead you down a dark road. Set your sails for incest (yes, you read that right)!

Naoko (Eikura Nana), is a young woman living in the rural town of Ushimado, eagerly awaiting her entrance exam results to Towa medical university. Her uncle, Masato (ARATA), a surgeon at the university, rushes to find out the results and ends up giving her the good news; she's in! Naoko is incredibly excited by the news, not only because she's been admitted to one of the top medical universities in Tokyo, but because she'll soon be by her beloved uncle's side; something she's been pining for. See, the two of them shared a moment in the rain back in Ushimado; a moment where their relationship changed, at least from Naoko's perspective. She stopped looking at him as just an uncle, but as a man that she's in love with. I know, weird right? Thank the heavens I'm not the only one that thinks this is weird, as Naoko knows that she can't tell anyone, especially Masato, about the way she really feels about her uncle. So she goes to Tokyo and begins her schooling, happy to be closer to Masato and seemingly content to adore him in secret. However, her dream to be by his side is soon disrupted as she's introduced to Aya (Kanno Miho), the woman (and fellow doctor at Towa university), that Masato has been dating for years. Naoko is crushed to know that Masato has a serious relationship and her uneasiness about it begins to show itself through her behavior. She becomes more distant with Masato and has an attitude whenever dealing with Aya. Naoko tries to seek comfort and distraction amongst her friends at the university; Norisugi (Mizobata Junpei), and Rai (Kimura Fumino), to name a few. Naoko's change in behavior does not go unnoticed by the ever-cunning Aya, with Aya soon taking steps of her own to ensure that Masato is her's and her's only. She pushes Masato towards marriage, even though she had rejected his proposal weeks earlier, and put's it on the fast track. Aya even invites Naoko and her friends to her home for dinner, all of this in an attempt to send Naoko a message that she better back off. Eventually, Masato begins to take notice of Aya's spiteful behavior towards his niece and the amount of time she focuses on work research, as opposed to him and their marriage, and he's had enough. He wants to call it quits with Aya and realizes that the only way for him to find some comfort in his life is to leave the country when an opportunity to study in Pittsburgh comes about. The news is sudden and heart-breaking for Naoko, but it's a necessary move for Masato and he leaves her with a memorable goodbye.

Aya refuses to file the divorce papers, thinking that Masato will be a different man when he comes back from studying abroad; even though he's given no indication as to when that will be. It's now 8 years later and Naoko is a doctor at Towa and in a relationship with her former classmate Norisugi. Her best friend Rai is dating another doctor, Yuji (Yamazaki Shigenori), who just so happens to be married. (This is a side-story that annoys more than anything else). Ah, good ol' fashioned adultery! Mind you, she's completely alright with this, but continues nudging him to divorce his wife. Everyone seems to have moved on from the mess of 8 years prior, but Masato has made his triumphant return to Japan in order to operate on head professor at Towa, Professor Takinohara (Masu Takeshi). Masato is a well-trained pro at this point and Takinohara needs him to keep the operation a secret because he's up for the position of medical director and he can't be perceived as weak or he'll never get the votes. Takinohara teams Masato up with Naoko and uncle and niece are once again together after all these years. All of those past feelings begin rushing through Naoko's head, even though she now shares a home with Norisugi and he wants to get married. Needless to say, things are getting complicated again. Masato still has no plans to get back together with Aya but they make a tentative plan to get along as professionals. No one knows about Takinohara's operation but Masato and Naoko, but that just lends itself to a perfect opportunity for Aya when it appears that things are looking a bit too familiar; 8 years ago familiar to be exact. Even if Masato wants nothing to do with her, there's no way Aya plans to let Naoko get so close to him again. Can everyone coexist without letting the past interfere after all this time? Will Masato and Naoko throw everything away to finally answer their true feelings for one another? And will Aya just relax and ease up from all the nasty back-stabbing and sneaky maneuvering?  

Mitsu no Aji is a Japanese drama that definitely has no shortage of drama. Before you get too excited after reading that, realize that it's not necessarily a good thing. This drama was so over-the-top in it's presentation, acting-wise, music-wise (oh that dramatic music whenever something "bad" was gonna happen, sigh), and even direction (flashbacks and effect-shots ahoy!) that I spent most of the time either laughing at what was happening or just angry. Angry at what was going on in the show but angry at myself mostly for sticking with this mess. The characters in this drama are incredibly unlikable and it's a fairly big cast to be annoyed with. I do mean all of the characters when I say this. I really had a hard time with Eikura Nana as Naoko; finding her extremely annoying, immature, and to be frank, just easy to dislike. That being said, anytime Aya had something nasty planned for her, or any of the other characters for that matter, I thought, "get on with it. these are the only interesting parts". Is it wrong that I only perked up in times when Aya's character had something nasty planned for the others? So be it. While we're on the topic of annoying character's, Rai, Naoko's best friend, was near unbearable for me. I think there were a few moments where I'd literally talk to my screen, wanting her to shut up. She's there to lend an ear to Naoko, but she spends the series sleeping with a married man, so she's better off keeping her mouth shut. Norisugi was actually a decent character until the end of the series when the powers that be suddenly decide to change his character completely. His behavioral change, while not unwarranted, seems to come out of nowhere. Last, but certainly not least, let us not forget that this story centers around a niece falling in love with her uncle. I'm talking blood relation here. To say it's taboo to engage in such a relationship would be putting it lightly, but hey, who am I to pass judgement. That being said, I just had an incredibly hard time rooting for incest to happen, thus making our protagonists unappealing. Hey, maybe you're cool with that and want to see what happens with such a story line, but trust me, Mitsu no Aji is a hard series to sit through and not just because of the subject matter.

I'm not going to soften my words here; I hated this drama. I didn't like any of the characters. The storyline, while at first intriguing, became uninteresting by the way it plays out, and the overall presentation made me laugh in an, "oh this is embarrassing", sort of way. Mitsu no Aji, or "A Taste of Honey", left me with a taste in my mouth, but it sure wasn't something as sweet as honey. (Lee)

Grade: F
Official "Mitsu no Aji" site (Japanese)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Black Mini Dress (Korea 2011)

Seemingly obnoxious and shallow from the outside looking in, things aren't what they appear to be as My Black Mini Dress (마이 블랙 미니드레스), actually has a meaningful story to tell. Trust me, I'm probably as surprised to say that as you are to read it. 

Four close friends, Yoo-min (Yoon Eun-hye), Hye-ji (Park Han-byeol), Soo-jin (Cha Ye-ryeon), and Min-hee (Yoo In-na), have just graduated college and are ready to celebrate a new chapter in their lives. It's time to grow up, leave behind the partying lifestyle and find real jobs right? Well, maybe not for everyone and reluctantly so for others. These girls are used to living a very free lifestyle; going to the club every other night, partying and just having a good time. Time has passed since graduation and our girls are now 24 year old women. Yoo-min is trying her hand at being a broadcasting writer; Soo-jin is tutoring teenage students while secretly attending auditions because her dream is be an actress; Hye-ji is wealthy so she's content just partying and Min-hee, also from a family of wealth, chooses to take an English course, complete with her own puppy-love storyline, so that she can study abroad. It would appear that Hye-ji and Min-hee are the only ones content with their lives, while Yoo-min and Soo-jin are struggling to keep up an optimistic front when they're all together. Hye-ji introduces Yoo-min to the young and wealthy Seok-won (Lee Yong-woo), because she worries that her friend is struggling in love. At the club, just by chance, a guy spots Hye-ji and offers her the opportunity to star in a Levi's jeans commercial, an opportunity that will change the direction of her life. The other girls find out about it while buying tickets for a movie as it plays on a giant monitor overhead in the lobby. Naturally, they're all shocked to see their best friend starring on TV with a new-found entertainment career that seemed to come out of nowhere. However, not everyone is as happy as they appear to be, or possibly should be, and it's not long before the green-eyed monster starts to show itself. Soo-jin, and her secret struggle to become an actress, isn't shy about expressing her feelings of irritation about how Hye-ji, the girl with everything, is yet again given more. Meanwhile, Yoo-min is trying to have a relationship of sorts with Seok-won, and is dealing with an unbelievable boss (Jeon Soo-keyong), who constantly makes unrealistic demands. She does begin to find some comfort when an old schoolmate, Young-mi (Choi Yoon-young), comes into her life with friendly advice, as she too is working in the same field. When an incident involving Hye-ji brings the girls together again, Soo-jin and Hye-ji get in a huge argument in which their true feelings come to light. This is the tipping point that sends all four girls in different directions, forcing them to evaluate the friendship they've had all these years and if they all know each other as well as they had thought. Will Soo-jin and Hye-ji be able to let bygones be bygones in order to be friends again? And can Yoo-min figure out what love is while at the same time trying to find her place in a professional world where she struggles to fit in? 

I wasn't in a hurry to see My Little Black Dress because quite frankly I thought it was going to be a chick-flick, and in many ways it is. However, my crush on Yoon Eun-hye wouldn't allow me to avoid it and I'm glad I didn't. Things start off a little bumpy as our four main characters aren't introduced in a flattering light, and it takes a while to warm up to them and take notice of their individuality. Yoo-min is your straight-shooter, Hye-ji is the spoiled, live-life-with-no-consequences type, with Soo-jin being the serious one and Min-hee being your slightly air-headed comic relief. Yes, I realize these characters are all representing different character-types, but they do it well. Yoon Eun-hye, regardless of my feelings about her, really does a nice job at showing the difficulties in transitioning into adulthood and the responsibilities young people face. Hye-ji was a tough character to warm up to for me, but she's meant to be that way because she's spoiled and comes from a background that most of us can't relate to. I personally enjoyed Cha Re-yeon's performance and her character's actions because even though, as a viewer, you know she's just jealous of Hye-ji, it comes across as believable and you can even understand it. Many of us have been in similar positions. As for Min-hee, well...she's just cute and her moments were amusing. There's a story told here about friendship and trying to define just what exactly a friend is. The girls begin to realize they they may not know each other at all when their own lives start falling apart and they look for a shoulder to lean on. I found the story-telling to be a smart, true-to-life tale serving as food-for-thought in many ways, regardless of the movie being geared toward a female audience. I know I've had times where I felt I couldn't tell even my closest friend things and wondered why that was. There's a dark twist in the third act, a plot device that tends to anger me in most films, but here it seems to work. I will also say the ending had a bad case of, "this isn't over yet?", syndrome, in which you thought the scene you were watching was the last, only for there to be another scene and yet another. Silly filmmakers, you got me!

A story that rings true and strong performances that sell the story all the more are what help to put My Little Black Dress into recommended viewing territory. I love when a movie can make you feel introspective and that's how this one left me. Plus, that Yoon Eun-hye is just too darn cute. (Lee)

Grade: B

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Solanin (Japan 2010)

Not exactly what I'd call a feel-good movie, Solanin ( ソラニン), does however do a great job at making you think about your life and the direction you're taking it. Oscar Wilde once said, "life is too short to be taken so seriously", and we're reminded with this film that he just might be right.

Meiko (Aoi Miyazaki), and her boyfriend Taneda (Kengo Kora), live together in her apartment and their relationship seems to be in a really great spot. As a recent college graduate, Meiko is stuck in an office job that she doesn't like and her boyfriend is only working part-time as an animator. Also unhappy with his job, he enjoys playing music with his band Solanin, even if they mostly just get together to jam. Even though neither of them are really happy with their work situations, they're happy to have and support each other. However, when Meiko expresses her desire to quit her job and live off of her savings until she finds what she wants to do, their relationship is tested. Tanedo starts to feel a lot of stress about everything and it begins to take it's toll on them both. Meiko is also feeling stressed because she doesn't have the nerve to tell her mother that she quit her job. Taneda's bandmates, Billy (Kenta Kiritani), and Kenichi (Yoichi Kondo), are all in situations where they have to finally grow up, face reality, and get "real" jobs. Even though their relationship is in a slump, Meiko encourages Taneda to start taking his band seriously because they're good enough to make it and she knows he's unhappy at work. He agrees to it and him and his bandmates are soon on their way to putting out their first demo. They ship the CD around to different labels and just when they think they've snagged some interest, it turns out that the company simply wants the band to write original material for an idol singer they represent. Feeling discouraged and defeated, Taneda tells Meiko that he's stepping out for a bit and ends up disappearing for days with no correspondence to anyone, which of course leaves Meiko worried sick. It seems he simply wanted to figure things out in his head and needed to get away. Sure, it's a selfish way to do it, but sometimes you do what you have to do. He calls Meiko to inform her that he's sorted some stuff out and he's ready to come home, but little could she know, that phone call and the events that followed would change her life forever. Can Meiko find a path that truly makes her happy? And will Solanin ever get their big break?

In true spoiler-free fashion, I chose to end the proceeding paragraph where I did for a reason. The events surrounding that fateful phone call with Taneda change the direction of Solanin's story, as well as the emotional tone. That being said, the story of Solanin is a great one and one that's based off a manga of the same name by Inio Asano. It's a look at the lives of young people, the feeling of misdirection and confusion that many of us, no matter where we're from, feel and can relate to. It's a story of desire and dreams; wanting and wishing for more than you have and knowing that even though life can be a real pain sometimes, we can't let ourselves get pinned down by the negativity. Aoi Miyazaki and Kengo Kora are great at portraying a young couple in love, who are weighed down by the realities of life, yet deep down they strive for more out of it. I think we've all been there and some of us still are. As a viewer, we're really reminded of the importance of living life and seizing the day while we still can. The film has a nice, independent look to it, as opposed to a Hollywood-type gloss, which suits the overall feel and tone of the story. Some might say Solanin is a rock-themed film, but I'll just say the music in it is awesome, with Asian Kung-Fu Generation contributing the superb title-track. I have to say that the movie starts to feel long at times, at a little over two hours in length, but the third act tries to make up for it with an emotional display of friendship that I feel most viewers will find touching and satisfying.

It's longer than it needs to be and a bit heavy-handed at times, but Solanin still gets it's point across with a thought-provoking story and fine performances. You might want to bring the box of tissues with you on this one. (Lee)

Grade: B

Howling (Korea 2011)

Is it action, drama, suspense, or supernatural thriller? Howling (하울링) certainly feels like all of the aforementioned at times, which leads me to my point; this is a mixed bag on so many levels. You can't win 'em all Song Kang-ho.

Detective Sung-gil (Song Kang-ho), has been around the force for quite some time. There's not a lot he hasn't seen or dealt with and quite frankly he's ready to move up in the world and is looking for his big promotion to captain. However, his movement to the top appears to get sidelined when his boss sticks him with Eun-young (Lee Na-young), a driven female rookie detective who simply wants to do the job right. They're assigned to a case in which a man catches fire spontaneously while sitting in his truck in a parking garage. They find out that the fire stemmed from his belt-buckle, which was fitted with a timer and a chemical to ignite at a specific time. Pretty elaborate stuff. The coroner, upon examining the body, informs the detectives that he found deep bite marks, from what appears to be a dog, on the man's leg. We find out the victim was into gambling and drug-use which leads Sung-gil and Eun-young into following the drug trail. The drugs lead them to a low-life's home in which they discover a secret area where young girls are being pimped out. What had appeared at first to be a case of accidental death has lead these two to much darker places. Meanwhile, someone is attacked on the street by the dog and the police now know that the first victims bite marks are more than coincidental. Things seem to be moving forward in the investigation but Sung-gil decides to keep his and Eun-young's findings to himself and not report it to the Captain or the other officers, much to Eun-young's dismay. Sung-gil feels that if he can solve this case without assistance, then he'll surely be promoted. As you can imagine, this selfish style of police-work backfires on him and both Sung-gil and Eun-young are reprimanded, with their credibility taking a hit in the process. As if things weren't bad enough with her coworkers, Eun-young has to deal with being the only female in the group and these guy's stop at nothing in making her life as uncomfortable and inconvenient as possible. Sung-gil eventually starts warming up to his partner but does his best not to show it. We learn that Sung-gil isn't such a bad guy when we get a look at his family life. He doesn't exactly have it easy himself. So with this second victim, dead from an attack by what forensics are now saying could be a wolf, the team are trying to figure out where to find this animal and where it could possibly strike next. A connection begins to develop between the victims, as they all appear to have ties to child prostitution and drugs. The wolf is taking them out one by one! Sung-gil and Eun-young begin to question private dog trainers, as well as officers that work with dogs in order to find a suspect but their search comes back empty. Eun-young get's a bright idea in her search and comes back with the name Kang (Jo Young-jin); a name that changes their investigation completely. Who's using this wolf-dog as a murder weapon and why? What is their connection? Can Sung-pil and Eun-young find this animal before it kills again?  

A dog as a murder weapon. I personally can't say I've seen that before in a movie, but now that I have, I can say that there's probably a reason for that. It's all a bit silly. Howling gives us this fairly unique concept and delivers it in a muddled, overly melodramatic way. I have problems with the execution of how the story unfolds here because there are times where I wondered if the dog was some sort of supernatural being. That's how amazing this animal is or is at least presented. It seemingly comes out of nowhere and it seems to be able to do things even Lassie would be envious of (I'm thinking mostly of the movie's ending for that reference). To me, it all just rang a bit too fantastical and I never really felt a connection with the dog, as other characters in the movie clearly did. Now I love Song Kang-ho, he's my favorite Korean actor, and he's as sharp as ever here, even if his character isn't exactly the most likeable. Therein lies another problem for me with this film; I had a hard time liking any of the characters, aside from Eun-young. Lee Na-young does a great job at conveying the struggle her character goes through in being the sole female on the force, the adversity tied in with that and in general, just being a sympathetic character to root for. However, the police force, Sung-gil and Eun-young's coworkers if you will, are completely deplorable, detestable characters. I didn't care about any of them, one bit, other than to see them humiliated. In true Korean cinema fashion, these guys are made to look buffoonish, irresponsible and incapable, as well as immature and over-the-top sexist. The way they treat Eun-young was quite shocking for me, making me hate them and I found them to be almost villains for Eun-young's character. Yeah, that bad. As much as I liked Eun-young's character, I found some glaring inconsistencies with her behavior. Look no further than the scene where she goes to investigate Kang's home. This is a by-the-book, straight-shooter detective that breaks all of her own rules just by being at that house. It bothered me. The story-telling is quite intriguing in the first half of the movie, especially as you unravel clues with the detectives, but for me, the end result and the big reveal just didn't do anything for me. I felt it just lost that spark of intrigue from the first half and didn't have any impact.

Howling was a disappointment for me because it felt like a movie that didn't know what it wanted to be. The crimes within are horrible and incredibly dark, yet there are moments where the proceedings just seemed laughable. Check it out if you're a fan of the main stars (as I am), but it was a little too campy for my taste. (Lee)

Grade: C