Category Archives: Foreign

Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


The Witch: Subversion (2018, Park Hoon-jung)

About halfway through The Witch: Subversion, I wondered why they’d opened with a flashback showing presumably chid witch Kim Ha-na escaping from her government “doctors.” The prologue introduces evil scientist lady Jo Min-soo and her chief fixer Park Hee-soon, it introduces the secret castle-like laboratory fortress, it has a lot of blood. The opening titles are a series of photographs hinting at the ground situation with the lab. Medieval witches bred in captivity, some Nazis, twentieth century science, little kids. Then the lab covered in blood and Jo berating her staff for failing their mission. Director Park, both in his direction and his script, doesn’t provide a lot of details but does provide a lot of information the audience isn’t going to misinterpret.

Even if it doesn’t end up being directly related to the photographs in the opening titles… it’s clear Kim is a dangerous, dangerous, dangerous individual.

So then when the movie jumps ahead ten years and Kim Ha-na has grown into Kim Da-mi, who seems to have no memory of her time as a child science experiment, but then finds herself propelled into the spotlight after going a Korean variation of “American Idol,” it seems like Witch might have gotten more mileage out of the audience being just as unsure of Kim’s potential as Kim. Park takes his time introducing some aspects of the character too, spending the first act playing with the audience’s expectations. It works out—exceedingly well thanks to the third act—but it’s a twisty road with some sharp curves.

Because Kim is in a Clark Kent situation. Kindly farmer Choi Jung-woo and wife Oh Mi-hee have taken her in after finding her unconscious and bloody in the yard. The worst behavior Kim ever exhibits is taking Choi’s truck into town to get cattle feed so he doesn’t have to worry about it and can take care of Oh, who’s sick. Kim’s best friend is Go Min-si, daughter of the police chief; Go’s the typical (somewhat) rebellious cop’s daughter while Kim’s the good girl. It’s a great situation for surprises, only there can’t exactly be surprises since the audience is primed for them (thanks to the prologue). So after Kim wins the regions on national television–getting there because she’s able to do an amazing magic trick, which freaks out Choi and Oh—and creepy hot boy Choi Woo-sik starts stalking her, then fixer Park shows back up… it’s clear the situation’s volatility is leading to an inevitable explosion.

Only director Park drags it out. So long. Park drags it through most of the second act, willingly losing all the energy and drama he got out of introducing Choi (not to mention Kim winning “Idol” with an absurdly successful pop rendition of “Danny Boy”), and sort of battering the supporting cast of good guys with some malice… but then he brings it all together for the finale. The third act of Witch pays off in ways you didn’t even think the movie would ever need to pay off in. The film’s a smorgasbord thrown into a kitchen sink, mixing horror, teen drama, sci-fi, action, superhero—but then what Park brings out of all those mixed ingredients in the third act is something else entirely. It’s awesome plotting, awesome execution. When Park finally does get around to the action sequences, he spices them with so much horror gore….

It’s simultaneously gruesome and spellbinding. All of a sudden Kim Chang-ju’s perfectly solid editing becomes breathtaking cutting.

So good.

Great lead performance from Kim. It’s all on her. She can’t miss a beat as she’s under everyone’s close observation—the secret government telekinetic assassin child who escaped too well and is going to get her family and friends kill for the trouble without ever knowing why exactly. Park directs Kim’s scenes like a character study, one with tragically too much action.

Choi’s an awesome villain, sufficiently wise and cruel beyond his teenage years, though not entirely unsympathetic because he’s Jo’s science project and it’s clear his keepers tormented him. Fixer Park was version 1.0 and never lets the newer generation forget he’s got the Power even if they have more power.

There’s an unnecessarily tacked-on epilogue to set up a sequel, which makes some intriguing promises, but it’s not like the movie hasn’t already got the audience juiced for the idea of the next chapter.

Park does a fantastic job with The Witch, which hinges entirely upon Kim and she makes the impossible pedestrian. It’s a really couple hours.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Park Hoon-jung; directors of photography, Young-ho Kim and Teo Lee; edited by Kim Chang-ju; music by Mowg; produced by Park and Yeon Young-sik; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kim Da-mi (Ja-yoon), Choi Woo-shik (male witch), Go Min-si (Myung-hee) Choi Jung-woo (Ja-yoon’s father), Oh Mi-hee (Ja-yoon’s mother), Jo Min-soo (Dr. Baek), Park Hee-soon (Mr. Choi), Da-eun (female witch), and Kim Ha-na (Young Ja-yoon).


Cronos (1993, Guillermo del Toro), the U.S. theatrical version

Cronos opens with an English-narrated prologue about a sixteenth century alchemist making a device to prolong his life. The uncredited narrator is wanting, the music isn’t good—it doesn’t seem like the rest of Javier Álvarez’s score, but who knows (well, the distributor would); it’s a change for the U.S. theaters and a bad one.

So it’s great when the film’s able to overcome that awkward opening—given the difference in tone, it’s hard to say if the original Spanish version would make much difference… some of the problem is the prologue content itself. But once writer and director del Toro gets Cronos settled in the present action, with a patient, deliberate introduction to lovable grandparents Federico Luppi and Margarita Isabel and their almost always silent granddaughter, Tamara Shanath, the iffy opening is an immediately distant memory. Cronos has MacGuffins in its MacGuffins, especially considering where the film ends up; the prologue is one of them. Or two of them.

The first act is mostly Luppi and Shanath hanging out at his antique shop—he’s an antiques dealer, grandma Isabel teaches dance, Shanath’s parents seem to both be deceased, she’s their paternal grandchild. There’s a cute little story Luppi eventually tells Shanath about her dad, who once tried to get Luppi to stop smoking by hiding Luppi’s cigarettes. Shanath’s doing the same thing, sort of; she’s hiding Luppi’s Cronos device.

Getting ahead of myself here.

So Luppi and Shanath are in the shop and they discover a statue with a hollow base. They discover it because some tweaker-type shuffles into the antique shop, looking at some of Luppi’s still wrapped pieces. Luppi gets curious, unwraps the statue, finds the hollow base, opens it, takes out a golden scarab looking thing. Pretty soon it latches on to Luppi’s arm and pokes him with its six legs. Inside the device—the biggest effects sequences in the film are the interiors, close ups of miniature gears—is an unidentified insect. It acts as a filter, presumably putting its own antibodies into the user’s blood, then distributing it back into the body.

The actual process of the device never gets too much attention, partially because there probably aren’t any bugs out there able to turn people into vampires—getting ahead again, sorry—but also because del Toro avoids painting himself and the film into any corners. It’s going to have shades of comedic absurdity in the second act, whereas the first just has echoes of magical realism (via the mechanical). Del Toro needs to keep things relatively loose.

Luppi becomes immediately addicted to the device, something he hides from wife Isabel but granddaughter Shanath finds out right away. Shanath’s not in favor of the Cronos device, but eventually relents enough to allow Luppi to keep it (as opposed to her hiding the device from him). Unfortunately, bad guys Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman also want the device and they’re willing to get violent about it.

Brook’s an old rich guy living in a sterile room in an industrial district with only American nephew Perlman to care for him. Perlman’s an errand boy, waiting for Brook to die for some inheritance. Brook doesn’t even tell Perlman why they’re looking for the device; besides the opening narration, all the exposition about the device comes from Brook, who never tells Luppi quite enough to make informed decisions.

Because pretty soon, Luppi starts noticing he’s lusting for human blood. He’s also lusting for Isabel, reinvigorated, clean-shaven, horny. Shanath really doesn’t like the amorous grandad, though Isabel doesn’t seem to notice the severity of the change.

At this point in the film, however, Cronos completely shifts gears as it prepares for the third act, which is all about Shanath having a grandfather who’s a vampire. There’s a lot of cute stuff with Shanath having a grandfather who’s a vampire, even though Luppi’s face is literally molding off. Isabel, who’s always a distant fifth in the film, disappears for the most of the last thirty minutes. It’s all about Luppi and Shanath trying to get things sorted out with Brook and Perlman, which seems like it’s the most important thing in the third act, but really isn’t. Despite being murderous, Brook and Perlman aren’t particularly threatening.

Probably because del Toro plays them for laughs a lot. Perlman’s doing a mostly comedic part. Brook’s doing a Mr. Big thing, only his performance is weak and his moments are where Cronos feels a tad cheap.

The film’s got a low budget and del Toro’s inventive with compensating for it, often successfully, but the cartoon villains are a mistake. Though as Cronos winds down, it seems like everything’s gotten to be a mistake, even Álvarez’s usually excellent score. Del Toro tries for something with the finale and misses, ending the already run down, deus ex machina’d Cronos on a shrug. Some of it’s the composition, with del Toro going in too tight on some of the shots—again, might just be budgetary, he and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro have some need cost-saving tricks throughout—but even so qualified, it’s a miss. The wandering narrative distance doesn’t do the film any favors.

There’s some great color palette stuff throughout from Navarro—the blue nights, the colors on the costumes, especially Shanath’s, then Shanath’s green glow stick, which becomes a familiar visual trope—but also some bland photography.

Cronos isn’t a failure by any means, but it’s also not the success it ought to be. Perlman’s bold comic villain turn, for example, is never as successful as it should be. Luppi’s turning into a vampire takes away all the subtext in his performance, replacing it with the inevitable inevitable blood lust. Isabel’s good but barely in it. Shanath’s in a similar situation. She’s always around but rarely the focus, even though it’s her story.

Del Toro does a great job stretching the budget, which is where Cronos is the most impressive. But that success really shouldn’t be the film’s most impressive feat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Raúl Dávalos; music by Javier Álvarez; production designer, Tolita Figuero; costumer designer, Genoveva Petitpierre; produced by Arthur Gorson and Bertha Navarro; released by Ventana Films.

Starring Federico Luppi (Jesús), Tamara Shanath (Aurora), Ron Perlman (Angel), Margarita Isabel (Mercedes), and Claudio Brook (De la Guardia).


The Battle of Jangsari (2019, Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon)

I’m curious enough about The Battle of Jangsari I think I’m going to read War in Korea: The Report of a Woman Combat Correspondent by Marguerite Higgins, which might have some information about the actual battle of Jangsa-ri because there’s nothing on the Google not about the movie. The big details, which you assume the movie isn’t going to change: 772 seventeen year-olds with ten days of boot camp being used a diversionary tactic at the battle of Incheon. Lambs to the slaughter, the unpleasant reality of war. Though the only ones talking about that reality are the guest stars.

See, Battle of Jangsari is not some awesome white savior but pseudo-woke adaptation of Higgins’s life story—the film’s not officially based on the book and makes sure to point out Megan Fox is playing a composite, not Higgins, which is why Fox doesn’t have a last name—it’s a jingoistic war movie. Just one with a couple down on their luck American actors doing inserts, possibly with digital backdrops. Jangsari uses a lot of digital backdrops, lot of all digital shots. Lot of really bad digital. Jangsari looks like the CG was done on a low quality render versus a high. Like a demo reel for the finished effects. Same goes for Komeil S. Hosseini’s music. It’s like… Hosseini didn’t see the movie, did he? He just sold them some music. Like temp music.

And Fox… Fox feels like a temp performance. Though not as much as George Eads feels like understudies run wild. Eads is real bad. Fox is just bad bad. The script’s terrible for Fox. It’s too brief to be terrible for Eads. He doesn’t even pretend to pretend to care about sounding like he knows what he’s talking about. His performance is a combination of impatience and indifference. It’s a great commentary on the U.S. involvement in the Korean War… they can’t even try to pretend to come up with a reasonable rational in 2020. Not even in a jingoistic, poorly lighted (Kim Sung-hwan’s photography is uncomfortably bad), weird war movie about slaughtered teenagers; the film never gives the number of survivors, which is just curious. Since the actual event is apparently untranslated or in some very obscure collection of female news articles… the film’s got no obligation to be honest. Why does it matter so much?

Because as a true story, Battle of Jangsari is an incompetent rendering of a compelling tragedy. It doesn’t matter if the kids’ sob stories are true, they’re all baldly manipulative. Choi Min-ho is the North Korean kid who moved South before the war and is now fighting to avenge his dead family, bombed by the North (while in the South). Choi’s got a North Korean accent he can do, which seems… odd. Would they really have had such a different accent back then? It seems like you’d want to be able to check it wasn’t creepy anti-North propaganda but then they run into some North Koreans who are butchering a cute puppy so you know they’re really bad people.

I’m super unclear on why these “let’s Raymond Burr these cash-hungry American stars into a Korean movie” movies exist. Are the American stars supposed to appeal to the Korean audience or to the international one. Because Fox is, like, never in a shot with any of the Korean stars. Eads maybe is in a room with one once. Fox is a small digital figure when she’s in a scene with the Korean cast. There’s clearly no crossover.

So pointless.

Anyway, the other main kid is Kim Sung-cheol. He’s a son-of-a-bitch thug bully sociopath and he’s the real hero. He gets a redemption arc after killing someone’s cousin. Like… South Korea’s got mandatory conscription so there’s some message it’s sending its audience and I want to know what. More than I want to see Kim and Choi become pals, because even though Jangsari’s only real chance is to go all in on the teen war melodrama… it does not. Lee Man-hee’s script avoids the kids whenever it can and when it can’t, they get not funny but kind of funny in a very sad, tragic, empathetic way set pieces.

Though those set pieces are far better than when directors Kwak and Kim get to do their lengthy first-person-shooter inspired war in the trenches sequence. They spend much of the first act with the shakiest shaky-cam they can get away with, all while it’s becoming obvious they doesn’t know how to compose any kind of shot, much less his fake Panavision one. Throw in Kim’s photography and it’s not a nice looking film. Not at all. It is visually unpleasant.

And not when there’s war gore. The film overdoes it on war gore. Because even though you feel inspired with love of country, you’re going to die in potentially gross ways.

Kim Myung-Min plays the commander. He’s… fine. I mean, he’s not bad. There’s something with his true story too but it’s not clear what because the postscript doesn’t give any real information. Kim In-kwon is the cool older guy. He’s… I mean, I don’t know. Could Battle of Jangsari have been better with a totally different crew but the same cast? Probably. None of the performances really stand out, good or bad, which is something of a blessing.

And, hey, got me interested in reading again right? I mean, maybe I’m curious enough… see, it’s a really compelling story. The movie just doesn’t do a good job telling it.

Except maybe all the puking in the ship as the kids go to the landing point. The puking is legit.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Kwak Kyung-taek and Kim Tae-hoon; written by Lee Man-hee, Brian Chung, and Cory Gustke; director of photography, Kim Sung-hwan; edited by Kim Chang-ju and Kim Woo-hyun; music by Komeil S. Hosseini; production designer, Lee Tae-hoon; costume designer, Sim Hyeon-seob; produced by Ko Sung-mi and Yang Jang-Hoon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Choi Min-ho (Choi Sung-pil), Kim Sung-cheol (Ki Ha-ryun), Jang Ji-geon (Guk Man-deuk), Kim Myung-min (Lee Myung-Joon), Kwak Si-yang (Park Chan-nyeon), Kim In-kwon (Ryu Tae-seok), Lee Ho-jung (Moon Jong-nyeo), Lee Jae-wook (Lee Gae-tae), George Eads (Colonel Stephen), and Megan Fox (Maggie).