Doggy Poo: cute existential heartwarmer about the value of all creation

Kwon Ohsung, “Doggy Poo” / “Ganggajidong” (2003)

Here is a very sweet and beautiful little film about having purpose in life and being valuable in the greater scheme of things, even if you are a little, uh … a little piece of shit. In a rural part of South Korea, a small dog does his dump on the side of the road and leaves behind Doggy Poo, the cutest little turd you could ever avoid treading on or kicking. Doggy Poo is visited by various living and non-living beings including a lost lump of soil from a farm but all either reject him or leave him. Doggy Poo grows despondent from the ridicule and, as he can’t move at all, becomes very lonely as potential companions either avoid him or are taken away. The seasons pass, snow falls on him and melts away, a star streaks across the sky and Doggy Poo wishes that one day he too will be beautiful and bring beauty to all around him.

The early half of the film can be very dark as a couple of characters discuss death and having a purpose in life with Doggy Poo. The lump of soil laments causing the deaths of some pepper plants during a spell of hot, dry weather and is sure that the next time the ox-cart comes by, he will be crushed to death under its heavy wheels. The autumn leaf tells Doggy Poo that her life-span is short and that she has no control over her life as she must go wherever the wind takes her. These characters demonstrate a few philosophical views about the random and often cruel nature of life and natural systems. Some viewers who see the English-language version of “Doggy Poo” may object to the English-language opinions expressed by the lump of soil who mentions God quite a lot in his US Southern accent, seeing his views as indicating a Christian religious slant to the film. References to God may be just part of an awkward translation of the original Korean script: what the soil means to say is that everything that comes into the world has a purpose in life but only the Supreme Creator knows what is in store for Doggy Poo. The soil can only speak for himself but has no other knowledge of what other beings, living and inanimate, come into existence for.

The stop-motion clay animation looks very good and the later parts of the film in which seedheads of a dandelion disperse and float through the air and over the countryside and mountains are visually gorgeous and uplifting. The music, most of it plaintive piano melody, matches the drama well as Doggy Poo endures changes in weather and humiliating treatment from a hen and her chicks. The central character himself is very weepy and his little eyes spend much screen-time brimming with tears but his earnest nature, appreciation of the natural beauty around him and desire for meaning and company in his life are sure to win him many fans. For a doggy poo, he looks very well-scrubbed with smooth fat cheeks and a little wispy kink on his head and it may be no coincidence that his little poo pieces around him make him look like a toy dog splayed on the ground with paws sticking out in all directions. How cute!

Comparison with the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling” and maybe also that writer’s “The Little Mermaid” is obvious as Doggy Poo eventually realises his dream of becoming beautiful and finding companionship but this requires self-sacrifice on his part. Doggy Poo’s life and transformation might be seen as part of a Buddhist spiritual view of life: life is transient but is part of a cycle of birth, living, death and rebirth, and each step in the cycle may involve a transformation to something different, higher and more beautiful perhaps, depending on how one has lived one’s previous life.

Had this film been made outside South Korea, Doggy Poo would be looking for love, not purpose, in his life and the story would be much less effective and emotional and more queasily sentimental than it is. A Japanese treatment might have made Doggy Poo a more stoic and perhaps less appealing character and the treatment dished out to him by unfriendly birds might be more sadistic. It is quite possible that some politically conservative politicians, economists, academics and others may interpret and exploit the film as urging self-sacrifice on workers for the so-called “national good”.  We should worry if that happens for “Doggy Poo” is a deeply compassionate yet simple film about a lowly little shit who doesn’t ask for much, just some respect and a purpose that makes his mean lot in life worth enduring.

 

Spider Forest: amusing psych horror / art-house drama that maps an amnesiac mind’s networks

Song Ilgon, “Spider Forest” (2004)

Amusing if eccentric film that straddles a grey zone between art-house drama and psychological horror thriller, “Spider Forest” carries themes about the role of memory and memory networks in forming people’s identities and how the mind under amnesia tries to reconstruct identity and reality. It starts innocently enough looking like a psych horror / slasher flick in which a lone everyday man, Kang Min (Kam Woosung), by occupation a TV producer who makes a mystery show series, finds himself in a remote forest and sees a cabin some distance away. Walking and entering the cabin, Kang is horrified to discover the body of a man brutally and frenziedly hacked to death in one room and a dying woman in another part of the building. He recognises the woman as a friend, Suyoung, as she dies in his arms. Kang is then chased back into the forest by a shadowy intruder who beats him around the head with a bat. Dazed, Kang later stumbles into a traffic tunnel where he is hit by a car. The last thing he sees is a blurry image of someone looking down at him before he lapses into a coma.

When he wakes up again, Kang is in hospital. He requests that police investigate two murders in the forest, known as Spider Forest. Detective Choi (Jang Hyunsung) comes to see him in the hospital and Kang tells him what he knows. The police conduct a search of the cabin and identify the two dead people as persons Kang knows: the man is his ex-boss (Choi Sungha) at the TV station and the woman, Suyoung (Kang Kyunghun), is his co-worker with whom Kang had been having a romance.

From this point on, Kang, urged on by Choi, tries to remember the events leading up to his discovery of the bodies in the cabin in Spider Forest. People who Kang remembers from the past – his wife, for example, who died in a plane crash – intrude into his attempts to remember and retrace what happened that might lead Choi and the other police to the killer. Along the way Kang meets Sujin (Suh Jung), an enigmatic photography shop assistant, who may be an imaginary construct in his mind as it struggles to restore hiis “reality”.

The structure of the plot, moving from present to bits and pieces of the past that run in parallel and back, bouncing from one time period to another, revisitng various memories, mirrors the way Kang’s fractured mind works to restore his memories and sense of self. How much that is restored reflects actual reality and how much is or should be linked to the Spider Forest murders is the puzzle for viewers to consider. There’s the possibility that Kang’s mind is working to prevent him from feeling any guilt or responsibility for what happened in the cabin or to deny what part he might have played. Scenes in which Kang edits his TV show while it is broadcasting and his boss fires him for doing so among others suggest Kang has often avoided responsibility for serious mistakes or fled problems when they should be confronted. Denial definitely plays a part in his flight response: the legend Sujin tells Kang about a boy and a girl who witness a murder in the Spider Forest cabin turns out to be partly based on something that actually occurred in Kang’s childhood which forced him and his father to leave their community. Denial and avoidance thus became part of Kang’s mental arsenal of dealing with life and its problems at an early age.

Kang’s need to visit Spider Forest in spite of his injuries and the constant replay of death and murder in his mind suggest a growing realisation that he can no longer live his life by old mental habits and must face up to his ultimate responsbility, portrayed in the movie by what he discovers behind a metal door in a cave deep in Spider Forest in the climax. This is the loopiest (literally) scene in the movie, very much like what I’d expect to see in a David Lynch film, yet it makes good sense if “Spider Forest” is read as a film about memory, the process of remembering, and people learning to live with losses and to confront and tackle things and issues they have tried to deny or evade in the past.

There’s much visual beauty in the film, particularly in the daytime scenes filmed in the forest that serves as Spider Forest and in the scenes where Kang and Sujin take a ski-lift ride and are briefly suspended in the blue sky overlooking the mountain scenery. In the evening scenes, the forest appears as tall spindly ghostly beings that might well harbour creepy spiders (representing the dark niches of memory that store unpleasant secrets) and vengeful killers. The acting is understated with Suh Jung notable in playing two roles, the impassive, almost anaemic Sujin and the lively, laughing wife Eun-ah. Kam is impressive also, having to carry the entire film as a man having difficulties in accepting his wife’s death and being forced to face up to denial, failure and responsbility in his life, and then on top of all that, being knocked over physically and enduring serious head injuries and problems.

The atmosphere can be creepy and often has an ethereal, spiritual feel throughout the film. Some viewers may find the pace quite slow and the tension builds up little by little for a resolution to the murder that many people will be able to solve about halfway through the movie. Being billed as just a horror movie does “Spider Forest” no favour as, in spite of the name and the first several minutes, there’s really nothing about the film at all that fits the conventional horror movie template: calm, even laidback in some ways, the obvious “horror” aspects like the mysterious cellphone caller and the ghost forest appearance appearing like McGuffins that in the end add nothing to the plot, “Spider Forest” turns out to be a well-dressed and visually stunning art-house puzzle. Recommended for those with no preconceptions of what a psychological study / horror / art-house drama should run like, the movie should be seen at least twice or three times for its meaning to be properly understood.

Members of the Funeral: interesting film about a dysfunctional family of self-absorbed isolates

Baek Seungbin, “Members of the Funeral” (2008)

An interesting little gem from South Korea that’s flown under the radar of many movie websites, this film probes the relationships within a dysfunctional family whose members have been brought together, as if for the first time, by the funeral of a teenage boy not related to any of them. The plot explores the psychological histories of the husband (Oh Kwangrok, playing a medical professional in denial about his homosexuality and his need for, and to be, a father figure), his estranged wife (Park Myeongsin, a teacher with frustrated ambitions of being a writer) and their remote daughter Ami (Kim Byeol, a schoolgirl with a fixation bordering on necrophilia), and their separate and parallel relationships with the boy, Noh Heejun (Lee Juseung), a fatherless youngster with a flair for writing and a liking for 19th century English Romantic literature. Through Heejun, the three family members find some fulfilment of their desires, to the extent that they try to control him in ways they have learnt from their birth families and early experiences. With his death, they find themselves flung together unexpectedly and discover that the novel he has been writing about a creepy gay man, a teacher and girl is about them!

The movie’s themes can be creepy and sinister for a comedy which might perhaps explain why the film isn’t better known. The characters are hardly attractive people – teacher Mum is a particularly nasty piece of work (but she’s unconsciously emulating her misogynist grandfather literature professor after all) and the daughter’s facial expressions go from one kind of blank to the next kind of blank and the next – and only Heejun might elicit any sympathy at all from the audience as he goes from one family member to the next. The under-acting is deliberate so as to draw viewers’ attention to the characters’ isolation from one another with only Heejun uniting them all. The notion that people in a family can be so self-absorbed and estranged from one another that none of them knows what the others get up to and can’t recognise themselves or their relatives in a schoolboy’s novel makes for a very dark comedy rich in its observation of alienated individuals and their secret hopes, desires, thwarted ambitions, friendships gone forever and lost opportunities.

Admittedly the film is low on tension and its pace can be slow. Viewers might wonder, particularly with the daughter who spends her spare time in the office of a pathologist (the father of a childhood pal who died young) looking at dead bodies, if the film’s going to turn into a B-grade K-horror flick with the girl and Heejun being chased by the childhood pal’s soul through dark streets and alley-ways. There is very little violence though and the film is more quietly gruesome than horrific. How the plot resolves itself in its weaving, side-stepping way, and what the family members will do when confronted with the truth about their secrets, is the thing that has to sustain viewers’ attention to the end; some viewers might find the jumping around from one character’s viewpoint to another’s a bit tiresome and pretentious. Personally I had no problem, perhaps because knowing the characters’ back-stories and how these fed into their obsessions and attempts to manipulate Heejun for their own gain was in itself intriguing.

From a technical point of view, the film can be a little annoying with parts filmed with a hand-held camera; close-ups of actors’ faces while conversation is going on are often jerky when they should be still. This jerkiness might be intended to add some tension to particular scenes, especially those scenes in which the teacher is criticising Heejun and his writing. The jerkiness seems to emphasise the woman’s enjoyment of unnecessarily tearing strips off the boy.

Quite a likeable film in spite of the often unpleasant issues touched on and well worth repeated viewings. “Members of the Funeral” features some excellent acting performances and first-time director Baek shows some flair for unusual narrative and inventive story-telling, if he can only keep the camera steady!

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring: lovely to look at but hollow

Kim Kiduk, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring” (2003)

Presented in five episodes that mimic the yearly cycle of the seasons, this film follows a man’s path from his early childhood through adolescence and youth into middle age. Adopted by a hermit monk who lives at a Buddhist shrine on a tiny island in a lake in remote mountainous country, the man grows up close to nature and learns Buddhist doctrine and contemplation; his upbringing, worthy though it is, fails him when as a teenager he is confronted with sexual and other desires when a girl his age stays at the shrine temporarily to recover from an unknown illness. He elects to leave the srhine to follow the girl into the wider world. He marries her but she later deserts him for another man and he kills her. Returning to the shrine, he attempts suicide but is thwarted by the monk who forces him to repent of his sin. Detectives come to take the man to justice and prison and the monk himself then commits suicide.

The story is beguilingly simple and straightforward with very little dialogue and almost no conversation: nearly every utterance is a statement that underlines some aspect of the action on screen. The cinematography makes great use of fixed shots set at some distance from the actors to show their interactions with objects or the natural environment together with some close-ups, as though to show that, no matter how much humans isolate themselves, their environment and by extension the wider world of human society and relationships will encroach on them. By killing himself, the monk acknowledges perhaps that he has done as much for his disciple as he can and from now on the disciple must be his own teacher and learn from his experiences as well as remember his lessons. The world of the shrine and its surrounds, beautiful though it is – the cinematography emphasises the beauty, colour and vivids moods of nature throughout the year – can’t encapsulate all the man needs to know about life in order that he might more fully appreciate what the monk has tried to teach him.

The cyclical nature of life which  renews itself is emphasised in frequent shots of snakes (an age-old symbol of renewal) and fish, and in an unexpected twist towards the end of the movie when the man has returned to the shrine after serving time in prison: a woman visits him and leaves her baby son behind. She has an accident that is partly the man’s fault and the man is left alone to bring up the child. We can presume that the child as he grows up will repeat the man’s experiences; the challenge is whether the man might be a different teacher, perhaps more forgiving or less forgiving, more inclined to punish or less inclined, based on his experiences, than his teacher was.

Director Kim Kiduk’s narrow focus on the story, with all the action centred in the shrine and its surrounds, leaves out a great deal about the hermit monk and his disciple which audiences have to assume for themselves. The two actually have some interaction with the outside world: they acquire a rooster and a cat during the course of the film and the monk does get supplies from the outside world. During one such shopping trip, he learns about his disciple’s crime from the newspaper wrapping around some food. This narrowed focus, while intended to relay a story of change and renewal (and with it, faith, hope and the possibility of reincarnation), gives very little insight into the motivations and behaviour of the monk, disciple and other characters; in particular, we have no idea why the old monk commits suicide and we are left to speculate on possible reasons ranging from despair to resignation at the disciple’s behaviour.

As a result, there is something empty and unsatisfying about this film and there is an underlying misogyny that is disturbing as well. Though the film offers hope in the form of a new acolyte, it also suggests that the youngster might well follow the man a little too closely in his ways and the man may offer much the same advice to the young ‘un about love, lust and life as his mentor did. The same mistakes may be repeated, the cycle of life and renewal may continue but do humans, can humans, learn from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them, or not to repeat them the same way?

The Host (dir. Bong Joonho): political and social commentary combine with strong characters in monster flick

Bong Joonho, “The Host” (2006)

Often billed as a horror film, “The Host” actually has as much comedy, drama and suspense thriller as it has horror. The emphasis is on one family’s efforts against great obstacles, more human than non-human, to rescue its child from a mutant monster. Hero of the movie, Gangdu, played by Song Kangho, one of South Korea’s top actors, is a most unconventional one: the black sheep of his family, not too bright and dozing off a lot, he seems a pathetic outsider in a society that values worldly achievement and success over human values. When his teenage daughter Hyunseo (Ko Asung) is captured by the scaled-up fish freak, Gangdu becomes single-mindedly determined to save her and rallies his father and two siblings against formidable odds. The family is arrested and imprisoned by government authorities; when they break out, they are declared dangerous and have a huge price on their heads. Together and separately, Gangdu and his siblings undergo trials that often end in failure in their attempts to get Hyungseo back home.

Bong’s direction creates a very moving story about the heroism of individuals, singly and together, in striving to achieve something despite overwhelming social and political resistance against them and repeated failures. Gangdu and his family often act before they think and their planning is more impulsive than considered; a lot of time and effort gets wasted and someone dies before they think of linking Hyunseo’s desperate cellphone calls to her location. There’s a subtext too that criticises South Korea’s subservient relationship to the United States: the monster itself is a creation of an unintended science experiment when a science lab worker is ordered by his American supervisor to pour a mix of chemicals down a sink in violation of lab procedures. The chemicals go untreated into the Han river which flows through Seoul. Years later when the monster starts its rampage through parts of the city, the US military tells the government to detain everyone who’s had contact with the monster under the guise of preventing a virus outbreak. Society is forced into lockdown and people’s rights and freedoms are suppressed. This forces Gangdu and his siblings to become fugitive outsiders in order to rescue Hyunseo. Western audiences at least get the message about how even the mere threat of “terrorism”, biological or other, can serve as an opportunity for governments to clamp down on democracy and what should be the rule of law.

As Gangdu, Song virtually carries the film on his shoulders and gives his comic, clownish character great emotional depth and inner strength that make his feats credible. Dim-witted and lazy he may be but Gangdu often exhibits animal cunning in evading or tricking the authorities. Park Hae-il gives excellent support as Gangdu’s unemployed uni graduate brother who initially looks down on Gangdu but becomes a minor hero in risking his freedom to locate Hyunseo through her cellphone calls and in trying to kill the monster. These characters help to keep the film going during its last hour when the plot sags with Gangdu’s recapture by the authorities and his sister (Bae Duna) knocked cold by the monster.

As in many of Bong’s films, the cinematography is often brilliant with incredible shots of the river and the huge concrete bridge where the monster hides among the pylons. The creature’s habitat becomes an important part of the film’s winding plot which begins and ends near the bridge and makes frequent visits there.

It seems that whenever Bong turns his attention to a particular movie genre, be it horror, murder mystery or whatever, the result always enriches and transcends the genre in some way. The film ends up a subtle critique of South Korean society, its history and its obsession with a certain set of rules and values that don’t make allowances for underdogs or nonconformists. While Bong clearly sympathises with people like Gangdu who operate more on instinct and intuition than on intelligence and who are often at odds with society, his view of society isn’t idealistic and there is irony in the way the monster is finally vanquished: a dangerous chemical Agent Yellow supplied by the US army is needed to weaken it before it can be killed.

Memories of Murder: masterpiece film about rival detectives in a corrupt society

Bong Joonho, “Memories of Murder” (2003)

A sober film based on actual events about a group of detectives in rural South Korea investigating a series of grisly rape-murders in the late 1980’s, “Memories of Murder” was the second movie directed by Bong Joonho and is ample evidence of his talent. The plot is very tight and well-paced and the film moves (if perhaps a little slowly and less noisily for fans of American TV crime thrillers) confidently to a stunning conclusion which confirms the viewer’s suspicions that arise about the characters and the crime investigation during the course of the movie, and what the suspicions imply about the nature of South Korean society during the period in question. Along the way the viewer gets the sense of an inevitable culture change from an authoritarian culture based on coercion and unquestioning respect for authority and hierarchy to a culture based on reason, the questioning of authority and tradition, and the use of abstract principles as a basis for behaviour and action, skilfully embedded in the familiar crime-show device of pairing two detectives from different backgrounds and with varying temperaments – the “mismatched buddies” – as the country-bumpkin police are joined by a city-slicker investigator from Seoul who brings more up-to-date skills and knowledge on how to pursue the investigation.

Early on we realise that detective Park (Song Kangho) and his colleagues aren’t up to the job of finding the serial rapist/killer when, in investigating the first murder, they accidentally destroy much of the crime scene evidence. Park makes a list of likely suspects and quickly zooms in on the local teenage village idiot Kwangho (Park Noshik) who he and his sidekick Cho (Kim Raeha) bring in for questioning and torture to get a false confession. Detective Suh (Kim Sangkyung) arrives from Seoul to assist the investigation and quickly determines that Kwangho is innocent and sets him free. Though Suh and Park are supposed to work together, mutual suspicion of their methods and approach prevent them from doing so, at least until Suh’s predictions that the killer will strike again and again come true. The detectives chase a number of leads, miss important evidence due to their brawling, arrest another innocent man and then, more by good luck and accident, discover the man (Park Haeil) who may actually be the killer. Autopsy evidence also comes the investigators’ way but they must send the semen samples and the new suspect’s DNA to the US as the appropriate skills and technology are lacking in South Korea.

Park and his country colleagues distinguish themselves early on as inept, lazy, stupid and brutal police overwhelmed by crimes the like of which they have never experienced and which all their knowledge and skill are inadequate to deal with. The viewer soon realises these men have been made the way they are by their society. In the 1980’s South Korea was a highly authoritarian society with a military government; there was little accountability and transparency in government activities affecting the people, and secrecy, corruption, incompetence and an expedient “whatever it takes” attitude to getting things done, leading to bullying, bribery, blackmail and violence, would have been rampant. Institutions responsible for law and order would have been infected by such a culture and the film demonstrates in its later half the public’s resentment of the police for their incompetence and brutality, particularly in scenes in which a drunken Cho causes a ruckus in a local restaurant and the diners leap onto him, causing him to have an injury that results in tetanus and leads to his lower leg being amputated.

Interestingly as the investigation drags on with little to show for progress and the murders continue relentlessly (curiously the public shows few signs of panic and concern but maybe that’s because the killings are being covered up deliberately), Park adopts some comical and pathetic methods of gathering evidence, including consulting a shaman who advises leaving a sheet of mud at the scene of the most recent crime (the mud supposedly forms an image of the killer’s face). At the same time, Suh, frustrated with the people and the organisational culture he has to work with, and the lack of help from outside, resorts to more violent methods of getting results. Viewers can see quickly how good police officers, eager and idealistic at first, become disheartened and disillusioned and end up being absorbed into the culture of violence and intimidation within the police force when the central bureaucracy, interested in looking good rather than being good, is unwilling to supply adequate back-up, resources, education and training to officers in the field. (And the serial killer often cunningly commits his crimes during siren calls when everyone, including the police, must stay indoors.) Eventually Park and Suh do co-operate together after previous temper flare-ups and fights in the office but it’s a case of “too little, too late” and Park eventually realises that even with modern and traditional methods of fighting crime, he and Suh are too far in over their heads with the resources and back-up they have, and that Suh is being corrupted by the stress of the difficult investigation and the failure of the authorities to support them.

As I’ve come to expect of him, Song is an excellent actor here as Park, in turns belligerent, comic, violent and, later in the film, capable of some insight into his behaviour and the situation he is thrust into. He sees that his use-by date has come and gone and it’s time for him to get out of detective work and start afresh. The question is whether Suh can realise the same thing as well and get out before he is too brutalised by police work and ends up another violent cypher in the system. All other actors around Song rise to the challenge of bringing a difficult and thought-provoking real-life CSI story to life and all do a great job. There are moments of humour and comedy as well as sheer horror and tension in the film and these demand versatile actors to carry them off successfully; with Song at the helm, film directors have much of their work done already, as he has a substantial track record of playing multi-faceted characters who can be comic and serious at the same time and it’s no big surprise that directors like Jong and Park Chanwook have frequently called on Song to play the lead in several films and that audiences outside South Korea readily recognise him as his home audiences do.

Visually the film is a treat to watch with beautiful and often moody background scenery of golden fields, lush green grass and dark, wet forests at night, depending on the plot’s requirements, to portray the countryside of South Korea as it might have appeared in the 1980’s. Attention to historical detail in background scenes and the technology used in the 1980’s, the detectives often relying on mini-cassette recorders to record interviews, looks impeccable. The film is almost entirely in flashback and all flashback scenes are in mostly dull shades of earth-based colours: brown, yellow, green and blue with the odd splash of red that calls attention to the serial killer’s quirks.

I’d say if you’ve never seen movies about crime scene investigations and you want to see at least one, try “Memories of Murder” first. It is a historic drama set in a particular period of South Korea’s history when the country was about to undergo a great political transformation from military rule to genuine democracy so there’ll be much that audiences outside that country won’t understand. It would be worthwhile for people to learn some recent Korean history to understand why and how South Korea had a military government in those days and how reviled it was in spite of past achievements in transforming the country from war-torn poverty to an industrial nation. As a film about detectives investigating a series of hideous crimes that they are woefully under-equipped for and which takes a heavy toll on them, it’s mesmerising viewing. One of the four most popular movies for cinema-goers in South Korea in 2003, the film is currently being remade in southern India in the Tamil language with a 2011 release date.

The actual series of crimes on which “Memories of Murder” is based remains unsolved and there were calls within the South Korean government in 2006 to have the statute of limitations extended to enable police to find the murderer.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: disturbing film about vengeance and how it distorts humanity in a warped society

Park Chanwook, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005)

“… Lady Vengeance” is the third of South Korean director Park Chanwook’s revenge-themed movie trilogy that began with “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and continued with “Oldboy”. Both the second and third films in the trilogy are in line for remakes by Hollywood (because as we all know, American and Australian audiences hate reading sub-titles and don’t understand movies where everyone looks foreign), demonstrating that across the world, revenge is a popular theme for drama. As you’d expect, “… Lady Vengeance” or just “Lady Vengeance” as it’s sometimes called follows the standard revenge-story format: the protagonist has been wronged in the past, spends some time in a state of suffering and on release from that suffering plots and carries out the revenge against the villain. Usually for some reason the law is of no help to the protagonist so s/he must operate semi-legally or illegally and consequently exerts considerate effort to achieve the goal. Once the revenge is complete, the drama ends but often at this point the real curve-ball is thrown at the audience: does the hero get any real satisfaction out of carrying out the revenge?

Consider the case of Lee Geumja (Lee Yeongae) who has spent the past 13 years in jail for the kidnap and murder of a small child called Wonmo.. Flashbacks in “Lady Vengeance” show Lee was blackmailed by the real murderer Mr Baek (Choi Minsik, who played the avenger in “Oldboy”) who threatened to kill her baby daughter if she didn’t admit guilt. Lee is arrested, charged and given a long sentence in a women’s jail. During the 13 years, Lee becomes a kind-hearted ministering angel to her fellow prisoners, performing many good deeds which include killing the prison bully with poison. After her release, Lee plans and carries out her revenge against Baek by calling in all the favours she’s done for various ex-convicts. She also tracks down and is reunited with her daughter who has been adopted and named Jenny by an Australian couple in the meantime.

Once she’s found Baek and taken him to an abandoned rural school-house, Lee discovers she hasn’t the heart to kill him outright. On discovering his mobile phone is festooned with various small trinkets, she realises he’s a serial child murderer who has lured children to him using their toys. With help from Baek’s estranged wife, she sets about tracking down the identities of the dead children, locates their relatives and brings them to the school where she informs them of Baek’s crimes and lets them decide what justice Baek deserves. They decide as a collective what to do and carry out the gory deed. With Baek out of the way, Lee and the relatives take a group photograph that implicates all of them in their crime and they all swear not to report one another to the authorities. They go to the cake-shop where Lee has been working since leaving prison and hold a birthday celebration ritual that allows them all to remember and let go of the deceased children and move on (?) with their lives.

Sorry I had to tell the story but the point of “Lady Vengeance” isn’t whether Lee succeeds or not in her vengeance – the film’s English title implies she does succeed – but in whether the relentless planning and pursuit of Baek makes Lee a better or worse person than he is and forces the audience to decide if she deserves compassion and sympathy for what she does. The film makes plain that Baek is a menace to society but the fact that he’s been able to commit heinous crimes around the country without arousing suspicion suggests that the law, and society in some way, lacks power or the ethics to deal with his kind of criminal. Perhaps Geumja is indeed justified in resorting to extreme measures to stop and punish him. At the same time the emotional and physical toll of her revenge is just as extreme; after Baek is gone, Geumja seems to become a mere shell, perhaps no longer able to relate to her daughter (who eventually returns to Australia with her adoptive parents), and this psychological emptiness is the true horror of what Baek has done to the woman.

The film is presented in a visually gorgeous and artistic way that creates a clinical distance between the characters and the audience. Nearly every scene is a tableau where action and dialogue happen to be staged. Scenes are filmed at unusual or awkward angles so as to become abstract: stairways appear as geometrical formations, a bathroom becomes an architectural fantasy and snow country is a backdrop for a painting of dog-paw patterns or curves created by sleds. The whole film has an unreal, staged quality where beauty exists everywhere, masking or denying life with all its horrors and untidiness, and even street scenes look artfully designed. The apartment Lee lives in, decorated in lurid black-and-red tiger-stripe wallpaper, seems devoid of passion even when passion occurs within its walls. You’re looking at a society of fragmented art-gallery scene puzzles whose citizens have to find the joins to make sense of the world they live in and of themselves as permanent residents.

Geumja herself, from the time she leaves prison to just after the cake-shop celebration ritual, wears highly stylised, minimal war-paint that masks and maybe eventually denies an inner emotional repression or turmoil; on taking the make-up off, she becomes drained of all colour and is as bland as the tofu cake, representing goodness and purity, that she ends up bashing her face in and trying to suck up, to ingest the goodness that perhaps she realises she lacks. One assumes that when Jenny returns to Australia, Geumja will find a new place and wardrobe that will be as washed-out as the tofu cake. There could be hope in that cake; possibly Geumja is ready to be truly good as opposed to pretending to be good and doing good while in the slammer.  There may be redemption or there may be a bland, slightly saccharine-sweet tofu-cake sort of life, empty of true passion and feeling, in a society that abandoned her and those lost children in the first place. A scene in the bathroom near the end, in which Geumja has a vision of a grown-up Wonmo (Yu Jitae who appeared in “Oldboy”) stuffing a cork into her mouth, suggests there is no redemption, at least not of the inner psychological sort, and her future life will be emotionally sterile.

Lee Yeongae’s acting as Geumja is very controlled and restrained right up to the last few scenes where her beautiful luminous face breaks into something that’s half-sorrow and half-happiness – it’s hard to tell and the ambiguity is deliberate – and it’s only really in the last scene with the tofu cake that Lee really lets rip with emotion for what she has lost and what perhaps lies ahead. Choi Minsik offers excellent support as the boorish, animalistic Baek who reveals little emotion and remorse right up to his last moments of torture and suffering and eventual death.

There is a feminist aspect to “Lady Vengeance”: most female characters in the film are clearly on Geumja’s side and offer help and advice on how to go about capturing Baek. The male characters who support her are passive and follow her instructions: for example, the police detective who arrested her over a decade ago is reduced to a tea-lady role at the school where Lee informs the relatives of the dead children of what happened to them. Of the characters who support Baek, all of them are male, among them the Christian who tries to persuade Geumja not to give up the good-girl attitudes and behaviours she acquired during imprisonment. This implies that institutions in Korean society that are supposed to be morally and spiritually uplifting and protective of vulnerable people are in fact supporting corruption and evil.

This can be a disturbing film that calls into question the nature of vengeance and what it can do to people who have no choice but to carry it out under conditions that drain and distort their normal human development and relations with others in a warped society that denies its most vulnerable members (like young children and naive women) proper justice.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird: escapist and fun spoof homage to Sergio Leone spaghetti / paella Westerns

Kim Jiwoon, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2010)

An affectionate homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti / paella Westerns of the 1960’s, this Korean riff on horse operas is set in Manchuria in the 1930’s when that region had been taken over by Japan forcibly from an unstable China for its mineral wealth. The Korean peninsula had already been chafing under Japanese rule for nearly three decades so many individual Koreans, Japanese and Chinese alike were escaping to Manchuria, Japan’s Wild West, to make their fortunes. A steam train whooshing along a new rail line in that territory is carrying many such hopefuls and one passenger in particular is a Japanese official with a Russian map in his possession. His journey would be relaxing and uneventful were it not for a lone bandit, one Yoon Taegu (Song Kangho), who insists on taking the map for himself. While Taegu is shaking down the official (I’ll refer to the main characters by their personal names, not their surnames for obvious reasons), a group of ruffians led by debonair hitman Park Changyi (Lee Byunghun) arrives and derails the train; Changyi is also after the map on behalf of someone. While Changyi and his men rampage through the train carriages, a bounty hunter, Park Dowon (Jung Woosung), arrives on the scene searching for Changyi. In the ensuing bullet-zinging match, Taegu manages to get away on foot and scoots across the desert to where his pal Mangil is waiting on a motorbike. The two comrades race away from the train, observed by a second bunch of rogues led by Byungchun (Yoon Jemoon) on a distant hill.

This is but the prelude to an extended series of chases in which Changyi and Byungchun pursue Taegu for the map which Taegu believes will lead him to hidden Chinese treasures located somewhere deep in the interior Manchurian badlands. Along the way we have punch-ups and shoot-outs in a bar, an old lady’s home and through the alley-ways of a dusty town (over which Dowon, hanging onto a pulley with one hand and brandishing a gun in the other, swings above buildings and scaffolding Tarzan-style and picks off Changyi’s men in an inspired episode) and divers other locales. Everything culminates in a race across the desert, Taegu on the motorbike hightailing it for the mountains where the treasure is buried, with Changyi and Byunchun and their men in hot pursuit on horseback, eagerly followed by units of the Japanese Imperial Army. Dowon also turns up on his trusty steed, working his way through the soldiers and decimating them; being the good guy, of course he can take on hundreds of disposable soldiers and bandits and kill them all while remaining unscathed. Eventually Taegu, Changyi and Dowon converge on the place that corresponds to the spot marked “X” on the Russian map and find themselves in a three-way Mexican stand-off. Changyi reveals a secret and we viewers realise Changyi’s been pursuing Taegu for a personal reason as well; the dynamic between Dowon and Taegu, hitherto allies of convenience, changes drastically. This means more hot lead gets wasted – and who of the three also gets wasted? And does any of them actually find the treasure that’s thought to be buried in the ground?

The film is brisk and fast-paced with hardly any let-up: no sooner does one episode of bullet-fuelled mayhem end than another episode of frantic violence begins or has its roots. Short scenes of exposition link the action episodes and provide just enough information about the three main characters so we know something of their motives and why they’re chasing each other and the treasure. Clean-cut, plain-looking bounty hunter Dowon just wants to bring Changyi to justice and Changyi is an all-out psychotic villain with a certain Johnny Depp / Captain Jack Sparrow flamboyance in his hair-cut, make-up, clothes and ear jewellery. Most complex of the three is Taegu, the stocky and mostly clownish bandit who gets out of scrapes in the most comic of ways – though Western viewers will find his treatment of two antagonists in an out-of-town brothel a literal pain in the arse – and generally presents as a lovable if not too bright or morally upright chap until near the end when Changyi drops his clanger about a notorious bandit called Finger Chopper. Song who is already familiar to Western audiences in South Korean arthouse flicks “The Host” and “Thirst” does a sterling job giving substance and humanity to an otherwise stock cardboard comic character so that by the end you really can believe Taegu was once a hard-boiled criminal. The two Parks (the good one and the bad one) are rather more stereotyped, the good guy Dowon in particular not much more than a do-gooder, efficient robot with not much screen-time to show he may have motives other than the bounty money to want to chase down Changyi.

Some breath-taking desert and mountain landscapes feature in the film and the frontier towns with their wooden scaffolding, sturdy if slightly ramshackle buildings and surprisingly clean streets and alleys have an air of expectant excitement as though gunfights are a daily occurrence with regular set times, durations and body counts. Unusual filming techniques such as rotating the camera to get a panoramic view or following a character very closely through the train or the street add to the fast pace and give an edge to the already deranged plot and the crazy people populating it. The music deserves an honourable mention: true, it’s not a patch on Ennio Morricone’s score for the Sergio Leone flick whose title inspired this Korean film’s title but its mix of steel-tinged guitar melody, acid psychedelic synth tones and stern ghostly chanting is original and off-beat and suits the daft and goofy spirit of the film.

The film is very over-the-top and there are in-jokes, spoofs of horse opera genre conventions and sly digs at Korean, Japanese and Chinese nationality stereotypes that will go completely over a lot of people’s heads due to the frantic pace. I’m not sure that many people will be able to remember what they’ve seen after the film finishes as there is so much happening in a 2-hour span. There is a sketchy message about nursing past hurts, knowing when to let go, allowing bygones to be bygones and giving people the chance to make a new beginning for themselves. With regard to this message, director Kim had done an alternative ending for Korean audiences in which two characters survive the three-way gunfight but then one starts chasing the other in a never-ending futile cat-and-mouse game. Even the treasure itself turns out to be something other than what Taegu and everybody else had imagined so the whole chase itself, escapist and fun though it’s been, has been in vain.

Mother (by Bong Joon-ho): force of nature that can’t be pigeon-holed

Bong Joon-ho, “Mother” (2008)

There aren’t many good movies these days where the central character is a middle-aged woman. Of course she’s a mother – most women her age are mothers after all – but never was there a mother like the unnamed Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) whose protective instincts for her son Do-joon (Won Bin) and sense of justice combine to make her an unstoppable force of nature, resulting in her finding out things she really doesn’t want or need to know, getting into dangerous situations and behaving in ways she’ll later regret. Right from the start, you know Mother is no ordinary woman: the film’s opening scenes set her standing or walking alone in a vast sea of wild greenery, looking as if she’s communing with the spirits of the trees, the earth and the sky; later we see her in her herbal shop, cutting up some strange dried roots and an inspector comes by to chide her for practising acupuncture without a licence. The suggestion that Mother is a throwback to Korea’s shamanic tradition, usually passed down from mother to daughter, is strong. We see Mother going about her business and learn that she has an adult son who might be mentally retarded and is easily led astray by his friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu). An early scene hints that Mother and Do-joon may have an incestuous relationship though perhaps the simplest explanation is that Mother has always had Do-joon in her bed since the day he was born.

Do-joon is accused of beating a teenage schoolgirl to death and is forced to sign a confession by the police. Mother simply cannot believe her son is capable of murder so she enlists the help of police and a lawyer to help clear his name, only to be frustrated at their apathy or incompetence so she resorts to playing detective herself. This investigation leads her into a near-confrontation with gang violence and some seedy information about the teenage victim among other things.

One thing about this movie is that it never settles into one thing or one stereotype about people. Is the film a crime film, a social commentary or a character study thriller? It’s a bit of everything: “Mother” sweeps from one genre to another as Mother impulsively dives into one perilous situation and then another, oblivious to her own safety until actually threatened, at which point she may scuttle somewhere, hide or just lash out instinctively without thought for the consequences. You kind of sense that director Bong himself lost control of the plot at times and allowed his star Kim to drag him and the film crew into wild rural locations which, though beautiful on the screen, were also uncomfortable: in later scenes, Mother treks through mud and marsh just to reach a lone eccentric in his shack and the film crew has to follow. Kim Hye-ja gives everything she has to her role as Mother and holds the whole film together despite her unassuming manner.

In the end (OK, spoiler alert here), the police find the culprit but in a way that suggests that, nasty enough fellow though he is, he has also been tortured into making a confession. By this time, Mother herself has become a changed woman. Her investigations have come to naught but has she learnt something about herself and the people around her? Will Mother be more conforming, more considerate of others, more thoughtful about her actions and their impact on others? Will she be a less attractive character as a result?

As for the other characters, Won as Do-joon gives a good impression as the son who can be amazingly lucid at times yet is clearly immature and needs the kind of guidance that Mother and Jin-tae aren’t able to give. Something about him hints that he may indeed be capable of murder. In short, like Mother he just can’t be pinned down to a good-guy or bad-guy stereotype. Everyone else serves as a means of highlighting the system that victimises Mother and Do-joon as outsiders and leads Mother to commit desperate acts; so folks may appear to be one thing in one situation and then something else again in another. Generally what we see here through “Mother” is Bong’s exploration of a society that is rigid, self-controlled and self-censoring, treating people as things to push around when it wants and demanding much out of them. To survive in such a society, people end up being two-faced: the lawyer is initially officious and demands a hefty fee, then becomes a drunken womaniser; the police are lazy yet quick to punish; teenagers may be good kids at school and at home and still get involved in trading sexual favours.

No wonder that Mother is only really at peace when she is in contact with Nature which becomes an essential character in the movie: there are many scenes with rural or semi-rural backgrounds, all lovingly filmed in a lingering way, so beautiful and so appealing to the eye. If movies could be travelogues for countries, then “Mother” could be one for provincial South Korea, just for the countryside and the picturesque houses alone; as for the people who populate the place, I’m not so sure … Even so, Nature is a pretty hard partner to manage and Mother’s own nature, operating on emotion and intuition, leads her into situations and actions that can be horrific.

There are some really very powerful issues within this movie about the nature of Korean society and the oppression that people like Mother and Do-joon suffer under it, and how it affects the way they think and act and must cope with the consequences of their behaviour.

The Housemaid (dir. Im Sang-soo) delivers high-gloss soap opera entertainment

Im Sang-soo “The Housemaid” (2010)

How do you remake an old film regarded as a classic and made by a director who’s not only influenced you but also most of your fellow directors? That must surely have been the question hanging over Im Sang-soo when he took on Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film “The Housemaid”. I’ve never seen the original movie but from what I’ve been able to read about it, it must have been pretty mind-blowing at the time. A woman employed by a family rising on the social mobility escalator has an affair with her employer but is forced to abort her baby so she swears vengeance on the family and the resulting murder-suicide is not a pretty sight to behold. Doesn’t sound like much but the real attraction of the film was in its melodramatic and expressionistic direction, the way in which characters’ demented actions reflected something of their dire circumstances and the crazy society they lived in. I guess the answer to the question is to turn the original film’s premise on its head while otherwise being faithful to the plot and some of its themes, superficially at least: whereas in the original, the maid tormented the family, in the remake it’s now the family’s turn to torment the maid and in that, reflect something of the circumstances and the current crazy society in which the protagonist and antagonists live.

Im ends up delivering a glossy film that probably has little of the thrill of the original movie. A young woman Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is employed as housemaid and nanny by a wealthy couple in their palatial mansion. From the outset, the odds are stacked against the housemaid: the housekeeper Mrs Cho (Yoon Yeo-jeong) blows hot and cold in her loyalty to the family, let alone in her attitude towards the maid; the lady of the house Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is a heavily pregnant self-centred spoilt trophy wife; and her husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) is a self-assured princeling of an unnamed powerful business dynasty who’s used to taking what he wants. Only little daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun) shows Eun-yi any affection and sympathy for the work she does. Even the house itself is a formidable character: much of it is huge empty space and its surfaces are polished marble, reflecting the emptiness of the family’s emotional life together and the gloss they wear figuratively as well as literally in their clothes and accessories. The family follows a hyper-Western lifestyle, collecting abstract art, playing and listening to classical music, employing personal trainers and requiring their domestic staff to wear starched Western uniforms and prepare Western meals of the nouvelle cuisine kind.

Perhaps Hoon watches a lot of sexy Western arthouse movies too for he quickly warms to Eun-yi and before you know it, they’re bonking away like rabbits, Eun-yi blissfully happy at the attention Hoon pays to her (and probably blissfully unaware that he might have done the same thing to the last housemaid). The inevitable happens and Mrs Cho passes the news to Hae-ra’s mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young) who goes straight into bitch-mother mode, causing Eun-yi to have an accident that lands her in hospital where the staff confirm the pregnancy. When Hae-ra is convinced of her husband’s infidelity, she and Mi-hee plot to force Eun-yi into having a miscarriage and then an abortion – the film suggests both – and Eun-yi, learning from Mrs Cho what the two women have done, plans her revenge.

The movie moves just too fast for the seduction scene and Eun-yi’s apparent joy at being seduced to be credible; it’s as if Im assumes everyone watching the film already knows the original movie so he’ll just cut straight to the chase and show how bitchy rich women can be when a poor woman threatens to usurp their position by getting pregnant to the master. Nearly everyone in the film lapses into a character stereotype: Eun-yi as poor, put-upon housemaid who’s a bit thick in the head; Hoon as the smarmy rich chauvinist ruling the roost; Hae-ra as the high-maintenance wife and Mi-hee as Supreme Bitch Queen. The only really interesting character is housekeeper Mrs Cho, taken for granted by the family: starting off as a bitter slave, jealous and contemptuous enough of Eun-yi that she tittle-tattles on her to Mi-hee, setting off the tragic train of events, Mrs Cho becomes Eun-yi’s potential saviour, offering the younger woman freedom at various points in the movie and summoning the bravery to quit her job and walk out. In-between the more momentous parts, Mrs Cho provides light comic relief by parodying her employers’ actions when no-one’s looking: scoffing meal leftovers, getting tipsy from the hooch and lounging on the furniture.

On the whole the movie’s too busy speeding towards the showdown between Eun-yi and the family to pay attention to character development. If Im intended this movie as an allegory on the nature of class relationships in modern South Korean society, he’s done a good job here: poor people can protest as much as they want at the injustices pissed on them by the rich but their actions end up backfiring on themselves. The rich may be shocked and apologetic but this state is temporary. The nature of Eun-yi’s revenge and the coda that follows suggest as much: Eun-yi creates havoc which makes for incredible melodrama but it ends up consuming her. One has no real sense of the depth of her suffering and the revenge comes across as selfish and futile, not as a cry for justice. The family continues on without Eun-yi and Mrs Cho. Apart from the social-political message, the film isn’t more than a tarted-up soap opera with stock characters and a grotesque conclusion.

Let’s be fair to Im though: how many other directors in South Korea and elsewhere, given the opportunity to remake Kim Ki-young’s movie, could have done it justice? There is a reason he and the original “The Housemaid” are so famous: Kim must have been one of a kind, willing to investigate conditions in Korean society in 1960 at the time, how they affected people and women in particular, and interpret them in a way that resonated with the public and captured its imagination.