Movie Review – Oldboy

Oldboy (2003)
Written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung, and Park Chan-wook
Directed by Park Chan-wook

It’s hard to pinpoint just when exactly American audiences got turned on to South Korean cinema. This year’s Parasite did wonders in spotlighting the great working coming out of that country. But back in the early 2000s, Oldboy was a film that seemed to grab the attention of audiences and not let go. Seventeen years later, it is still a harrowing experience, a combination of fantastic fight choreography and a nightmarish baroque plot of betrayal and other terrible things.

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Movie Review – Parasite

Parasite (2019)
Written by Bong Joon-ho & Jin Won Han
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Bong Joon-ho is a filmmaker genuinely interested in issues of class and social structures. You can see that in his previous work, especially Snowpierce, Okja, and The Host, but there are elements of this in all his work. Parasite is the synthesis of all these ideas, a perfect summation of his thoughts on the class divide and human nature. This is a film made by a creator who is at the height of their confidence. Bong Joon-ho is clear-headed with a thorough understanding of the story they want to tell and the psychologies of the characters populating that narrative. It may sound grandiose to say this, but this is an example of about as close as we can get to having a perfect movie.

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Movie Review – Burning

Burning (2018)
Written by Jungmi Oh & Chang-dong Lee
Directed by Chang-dong Lee

Jong-su Lee is from a rural community north of Seoul but travels down to the big city to do odd jobs. While on one of these gigs he runs into Hae-mi, a woman he grew up with but only has faint memories of. They go out for drinks, and she explains how she’s going on a trip to Africa soon and wonders if he would stop by and feed her cat while she’s gone. Lee comes over to her apartment where they have sex, and then his life becomes distracted by his father’s arrest for assault and caring for the farm. When Hae-mi returns from her vacation she has Ben in two, the only other Korean she met while in Africa. Ben immediately captures her attention, and any feelings she had for Lee seem to have evaporated. However, Lee feels that there is something off about Ben, a man who makes money through mysterious circumstances and admits he doesn’t understand the emotions of other people. Lee fears that something terrible is going to happen to Hae-mi.

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Movie Review – Okja

Okja (2017)
Written by Jon Ronson & Bong Joon Ho
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho

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In 2007, Lucy Mirando, heir to the problematic Mirando Corporation announced the discovery of a new animal, superpigs. These miracle animals appear to be the world’s answer to the problem of hunger, and the 26 best are sent around the world to be raised by varying farming cultures in a bid to figure out how best to raise them. One of these superpigs, Okja ends up in South Korea raised by an old man and his granddaughter Mija. Jump to ten years later, and Mirando is calling in all the pigs for a contest that will kick off superpig meat coming to a store near you. These means Okja will be taken away, sent off to New York for “processing.” Mija is having none of this and sets off to reclaim Okja, unaware she is about to uncover the dark secret behind the Mirando corporation.

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Movie Review – The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook)

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In the 1920s, Korea was under the control of Japan as part of its expanding empire. In this state of affairs lives Tamako, a pickpocket raised by a Fagin-esque house mother. Tamako is chosen by the art forger “Count Fujiwara” to be his accomplice in collecting the fortune of a young Japanese noble lady. This involves Tamako posing as her new handmaiden and traveling to live with the woman on her uncle’s rural estate. Tamako feels an almost immediate bond with her new mistress, Lady Hideko when they first meet. However, she begins to learn the relationship between Lady Hideko and Uncle Kouzuki is much more complicated and darker than she first expected. When Fujiwara arrives at the estate, Tamako finds herself forced to carry out a plan she is no longer comfortable with. But there is more going on here than our protagonist realizes.

I haven’t devoured the work of Park Chan-wook, but what I have seen I’ve loved. Oldboy is the title most film fans would recognize, but I enjoyed his vampire film Thirst more. His first English-language film Stoker was an engaging moody art house flick. But The Handmaiden feels like a pinnacle film. Much like, Moonlight which I just watched and reviewed, The Handmaiden is made by a filmmaker who is very confident in his work. Every technical, structural, and character element is finely crafted and presented. The story elements are woven with a subtext that speaks to colonialism, identity, and sexuality. What you end up with is a film that misses no marks and is near perfection.

The film is presented in three chapters, the first is focused on Tamako, the second on Lady Hideko, and the third acts as the denouement of the story. From the opening frames, Tamako is presented as a very captivating character. She is an incredibly confident young woman who quickly switches between her own personality and the submissive handmaiden, Sook-lee. Without giving away the second act reveal, our presentation of Tamako is colored in a very biased way and in the second chapter we see her in a very different light, the same is said for Lady Hideko.

Lady Hideko, the co-protagonist of the film, is an incredibly complicated character. She was raised by her Uncle and late Aunt, and the dark history she has in the estate is truly disturbing. Her Uncle treasures his vast book collection many than any human, his late wife included, and this obsession has ties to what led her to be found hanging from the cherry blossom tree in the yard. Hideko is a character who provokes emotions and reactions from everyone around her, a trait that is important as men come from Japan to hear her do dramatic readings from her Uncle’s collection. What she does to Tamako can at times seem cruel, but there is a dark secret behind her motives.

The Handmaiden is a very difficult film to talk about without giving away secrets. The film borrows heavily from the tone of classic Gothic literature (Rebecca, Jane Eyre) but also feels indebted to Noir like Double Indemnity. The estate itself is a fusion of Japanese and English architecture (the film is based on a British novel). Beyond the story is a commentary on the complicated history between Japan and Korea. Hideko’s Uncle is a Korean who desperately wishes to be Japanese. So much so he married a Japanese noblewoman and took her family name over his. He comments at one point that everything about Korea is filth and he wants to wash it away. Moments like that elevate a film that could be a simple thriller to a piece of filmmaking that has something to say about it’s creator’s cultural history. This is a film that once you see it, you’ll have frames frozen in your mind for a long time after.

Asian Cinema Month – Thirst



Thirst (2009, dir. Chan-wook Park)
Starring Kang-ho Song, Ok-bin Kim, Hae-sook Kim, Ha-Kyun Shin

What if Double Indemnity was a vampire flick? That’s part of the premise going on in this visually startling South Korean horror flick. I’ve only seen one other Chan-wook Park film (Oldboy) and now after Thirst, I know I need to see more. No other country in the South Asian region produces films that excite me as strongly as South Korea. Unlike their neighbors, South Korea seems to find a perfect balance between the craftsmanship or artsier fare and the dynamic storytelling of Hollywood films. So how does this vampire noir stack up?

Father Sang-hyun is living in a world infected by the Emmanuel virus, a plague that behaves like a sort of super leprosy, affecting only men. Sang has grown tired of seeing the patients of his Catholic hospice dying and volunteers to be a guinea pig for vaccine tests. He ends up being the only one of 500 test subjects to survive, after receiving a life saving blood transfusion. Sang returns to his parish only to be greeted by a throngs of devotees believing him to be some sort of savior. Sang has doubts but nevertheless comes to the hospital bed of a cancer patient. As fate might have it, the patient is Sang’s childhood friend Kang-woo, who is married to Tae-ju, a girl they both fancied years ago. Along with this, Sang has developed an unnatural thirst as a result of the transfusion, he now craves blood. First, he gets it from a coma patient in his hospice but the hunger grows stronger and after ending up in a illicit relationship with Tae-ju it is obvious things will not end well.

The first thing you’ll notice about this feature is the strength of the visuals. No matter what anyone thinks of the quality of story and character development, you have to give up for some crazy and inventive camera play. In many ways Park is disciple of the Tarantino-aesthetic. The camera will maneuver in ways that are not physically possible, yet Park is able to hide the CG trickery in a way that never takes you out of the film. Thirst is also not short on gore, but more in the sound department than visual. When Sang suckles on an IV or an open wound, the noise of his slurping swallows up the screen. There is a lot of blood and some moderate subtle gore, but it will be the sounds that linger with you.

The two main characters, Sang and Tae-ju are perfect counterbalances to each other, a sort of Korean Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Sang is contemplative and worried about his condition while Tae-ju is desperate and manic about exploiting his vampirism for her own gain. The film balances its horror with some comedy and the mix of the two is very disturbing. A great piece of counter-programming to Twilight and would be an awesome double feature with Let the Right One In.