Sunday, October 8, 2017

I Saw The Devil (Korea 2010)

Are you willing to become the very thing that you're trying to stop? In the case of, I Saw The Devil that thing would be a vicious, cold-blooded killer. I can not believe it took me so long to finally see this movie but here we are and I might be slightly traumatized. 

NIS agent Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), is on the phone with his fiance Joo-yun, who happens to be stranded on the side of the snowy road with a flat tire, waiting for a tow-truck. He's a man that is always busy with work but naturally, he's concerned about Joo-yun's well being. An older man in a school shuttle van drives up and offers to help Joo-yun in her situation, but after being told that his help wouldn't be needed, he attacks Joo-yun and takes her back to his, for lack of a better word, lair. What takes place here is pretty much horrific and shows us that this killer is next level crazy. As the police begin the search for Joo-yun, her father, retired police chief Jang (Jeon Gook-hwan) and Soo-hyun arrive to the scene and are overwhelmed at the reality of what has happened to their Joo-yun. Soo-hyun takes some time away from work and together with chief Jang, compile a list of suspects. One-by-by, Soo-hyun begins to hunt these individuals down, coming up empty-handed until he learns about Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), a school academy bus driver that's estranged from his parents and his own son. Kyung-chul takes women, who tend to be alone, and brutally rapes and murders them. When police Section Chief Oh (Chun Ho-jin) and his team also catch on to Kyung-chul, they try to bust him as he drives a shuttle full of school girls home. Kyung-chul knows that he's been discovered and before he can assault a young schoolgirl, Soo-hyun shows up and the two have an intense confrontation. Seemingly getting the upper hand, Soo-hyun doesn't kill Kyung-chul and doesn't hand him over to the police, but instead shoves a tracker down his throat, leaving him to ponder why he's still alive. From here, we have a game of cat-and-mouse where the protagonist is doing the torturing and the chasing deliberately, just to show Kyung-chul that he can get to him anytime he wants. However, as you can imagine when dealing with someone so dangerous, Soo-hyun get's a little too confident and prey gets away, leaving his loved ones exposed and at risk.

I'm a big fan of director Kim Jee-won (A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life), and I honestly don't know why I never watched I Saw The Devil until now. I think it was just a matter of, "I'll get around to it" and then life got in the way. I'm so glad it came across my radar again because I Saw The Devil is one of those films that reminds you of how hard Korea can go. I'm not easily shocked by films but there were moments here where I thought, "My God, this is hardcore." So yeah, it's not for the squeamish but if you can stomach it, there is so much pleasure in watching the tables turn on a villain as evil as Kyung-chul. It turns into a situation where you know that what Soo-hyun is doing isn't morally right and quite frankly, illegal. But you look past it (at least I did) because the movie does such a great job of putting you in the middle of his pain both in large part of Lee Byung-hun's fantastic and subdued performance and in the graphic nature of Kyung-chul's behavior. You want this monster stopped almost as much as Soo-hyun does. At 141 minutes, I never felt like the movie was dragging and the pacing keeps you glued to the screen the entire time. The only moments where I felt like maybe the film was going too far in trying to shock was when Kyung-chul meets up with his friend Tae-joo (Choi Moo-sung), who has a cannibalistic nature. He was a bit over-the-top for me and that whole scene tried dragging the movie more into the surreal and almost felt comical. 

I definitely think I Saw The Devil is a polarizing movie. Some will say, "How can you even watch a movie like that?" and there will be those that love it because it's extreme. More than that however, the performances by our two leads are amazing, the tension is real and how things play out will really keep you guessing. Yes, the content is graphic but it shouldn't be defined by it and to be honest I was only half-joking about being traumatized. (Lee)

Grade: A

Monday, June 26, 2017

Kimi no Na wa (Japan 2016)

A near perfect example of how to make an animated film that is so much more than just a, "cartoon", Kimi no Na wa (Your Name) is everything you come to expect from director Makoto Shinkai and is certainly his greatest cinematic achievement thus far.

Taki (Ryunoske Kamiki) lives in the big city of Tokyo and Mitsuha (Mone Kamishirashi) in the small fictional rural town of Itomori. Two teenagers who seemingly have no connection with one another live entirely different lives, yet suddenly find themselves in an unbelievable situation when they wake up to find they've switched bodies. Yes, the ol' body-switch movie but oh, this is so much more than that. Taki, like most boys (let's be honest), innocently explores his new found feminine physique and tries to adjust to life in Itomori now that he has a younger sister Yotsuha (Kanon Tani),  and Grandma Hitoha (Etsuko Ichiara) to live with in a town he doesn't know. Meanwhile, Mitsuha isn't necessarily thrilled to be in Taki's skin, but she's excited to be experiencing life in Tokyo, something she's been pining for. It doesn't take long for both Taki and Mitsuha's circle of friends begin to notice the changes in behavior. Seeing as how neither of them can explain the reasoning behind the randomness of when they switch, Taki and Mitsuha begin leaving each other messages and tips on how to navigate each other's lives until a solution for their problem can be found. Taki learns, from Grandma Hitoha, some very important aspects of ancient religious customs that involve the threads of time and how things are connected in this world. Mitsuha and her sister perform a ceremony for the God's involving kuchikamizake, an alcohol fermented with the saliva of the person performing the ceremony. Why am I telling you this? Well, because it plays an important part in how the story unfolds, but I refuse to spoil things for you. When the two stop switching bodies suddenly, Taki and his friends decide to take a trip to find Mitsuha and her hometown. However, something isn't quite right in his attempt to find her and Itomori isn't exactly what he remembered it to be. Where did Mitsuha go? And what happened to Itomori?

I'm not one to buy into the hype of anything and Kimi no Na wa certainly had plenty of that. I recall reading a lot about the stellar reception it was receiving by both audiences and critics alike and the fact that it ranks as the highest grossing film in Japan speaks volumes. My feeling after viewing Kimi no Na wa was that I truly understood why it is as praised as it is. Is it the best anime film ever made? That's purely subjective. However, it is one of the best anime films that I've personally ever seen. Makoto Shinkai continues to prove that he's the guy to watch in this industry. His storytelling and direction seem unmatched in this field and this film, as well as his prior works, drive that point home. He has a way, including with this film, to tap into the Japanese' strong love of nostalgia and their longing for the simpler life of high school days is a big component of that. CoMix studios, the animation studio that Shinkai-san works with, create some of the most stunning visuals in anime. It's no wonder he chooses to work with them because the level of detail and realism they create is the best I've seen. There are so many elements involved with this production that are firing on all cylinders and that's part of why Kimi no Na wa is so great. While initially, I didn't think the premise of body-swapping was all that original, it turns out to be so much more than that in the 2nd half. It's a film with a lot of heart, memorable characters, insanely good visuals, an amazing soundtrack composed by the popular group RadWimps and it is the sum of all these parts that create something truly special.

It's not everyday that you get an animated film of this caliber. One that both manages to take it's home country by storm, but also manages to charm audiences across the globe. Kimi no Na wa has left it's mark as something definitely worth-seeing and certainly worth remembering. (Lee)

Grade: A

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Gurame (J-Drama 2016)

Completely forgettable, Gurame: The Prime Minister's Chef  is formulaic stuff that is not without its charms yet is lacking in anything of real substance.

You know as well I do that judging a book by it's cover is never a good idea. Kurumi Ichiki (Ayame Gouriki) is a perfect example of that old adage. On the service, she's just an ordinary waitress, albeit a young, pretty one with a sharp sense of wit about her. She also happens to be working at a traditional Japanese style restaurant with a customer base that includes high-ranking government officials. Unbeknownst to her fellow staff, Kurumi has more skills up her sleeve than just taking orders. A chance encounter with one of the aforementioned government figures, Seiji Koga (Kenichi Takito), turns Kurumi's world upside down and she suddenly finds herself cooking at the Prime Minister's official residence and being appointed personal chef for Prime Minister Ato (Fumiyo Kohinata). With Kurumi's superior cooking skill-set now out in the open, she finds herself butting heads with Haruki Kiyosawa (Issei Takahashi), the head of the PM's cooking team, who feels his territory is being tread upon. Luckily she has help in her sous chef, Tomokazu Tamura (Hiroki Miyake), to help her keep a cool head but can she manage to perform under pressure in order to maintain the rep of both herself and Prime Minister Ato?

By and large, Gurame is a rags to riches story but without our protagonist being all that destitute. She is, however, an ordinary person with a hidden superior skill-set and suddenly finds herself in a very surreal situation; cooking for the most high ranking official in the nation. Yes, like most dramas, you're asked to suspend disbelief. The main element of this show that occurs in each episode, of which there are 8, is that a threatening situation befalls the Prime Minister and his office and Kurumi is called upon to create a dish that conveys a message from the PM in order to make a point to the guest (PM's from other nations, Food company CEO's, rival candidates, etc.). Sure, the premise is silly, but it's all in good old fashioned light-hearted fun and on occasion, there is a semi-profound message to be had for the viewer. Gurame, I assume, is a show meant to showcase various high-class dishes in an attempt to ride the wave of newfound food appreciation in today's culture while injected a bit of food history in along the way. My biggest issue with this drama is that there is no over-arching story underneath the repetition of conflict that the PM faces in each episode with Kurumi and Tomokazu having to create a dish. Haruki is a suitable enough rival for Kurumi, in that he feels his position being encroached upon by someone who he deems unsatisfactory. We get it, he has a chip on his shoulder and he maintains that grudge for the entire series. However, there's really no background to him, so instead of coming across as a hardened individual that may be misunderstood, I'm left feeling like he's really just a jerk. There's also no struggle for Kurumi to overcome behind the scenes. It's simply just the challenging cook she faces in each episode. Somewhat interesting elements, such as the PM and his relationship with his mysterious daughter Riko (Risa Naito) for example, aren't really explored and heck, maybe they're not meant to. I should say, they're clearly not meant to because 8 episodes does not afford the writers a lot of time to flesh certain plot points out. Therein lies the problem. Most Japanese dramas are around 10 episodes, which isn't a lot, but they manage to feel more substantial than this. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I'll just accept that the writers didn't want anything deeper than what we got but I personally like a little more meat on the bone.

Unless you have an Ayame Gouriki bias, which I admittedly have, then there's really no reason for me to recommend Gurame. You hardcore foodies might have an okay time with it but I honestly wouldn't expect much. Confection! (Lee)

Grade: C+