A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 556 – The Host

The Host – September 7th, 2011

I have probably asked Andy what this is every time I’ve looked at our movie list. It wasn’t something I recognized and his description of it wouldn’t stick in my head. Probably because I’m pretty sure his description was usually something very short, like “It’s a Korean monster movie” or “It’s a Korean horror movie.” And to be honest, that just doesn’t grab me. Nothing about that tells me what the movie’s story is or how it’s done. Really, that’s a very generic description, and as I’m not a horror fan and he didn’t give me much in the way of details about the monster, it had very little to set it apart in my mind. I thrive on details. Telling me something is “a period drama” or “a musical” isn’t going to get me excited either. There had to be a reason why this Korean monster movie and not another, right? But without details, how am I supposed to know that reason?

Turns out the reason is that it’s a very well done monster movie with a sense of humor I’m beginning to consider a staple in Korean movies. It’s not a comedy. Far from it. But it has comedic aspects to it that would feel bizarrely out of place in most other serious monster movies. And make no mistake, this is also a serious movie. It has Things To Say about the government and pollution and the United States military. And the monster kills people. This isn’t some goofy monster that just causes panic or something. It doesn’t destroy buildings but leave the people unharmed. No. It kills people and eats them and saves some to savor later. It belches out the bones of its prey after digestion, leaving no doubt that it’s a killer. It is a malicious force and the movie sets that out right at the beginning. There is no question.

Still, there is humor here. Mostly from the main cast and their interactions. The Park family runs a snack cart near the river, serving up fried squid, instant ramen and beer to people relaxing on the riverbank. The family consists of the owner of the cart, Park Hee-bong, his three adult children (unemployed college grad Nam-il, archery champion Nam-joo and lazy eldest son Gang-du) and his eldest son’s pre-teen daughter, Hyun-seo. The whole family loves Hyun-seo, but derides Gang-du for always being asleep and for not even attempting to do anything with his life. Really though, the whole family has problems. There’s Gang-du, obviously, who spends all his time working at his father’s cart and sleeping. Nam-il finished college (paid for by his father’s tireless work at the snack cart) but all he’s done since is drink. And Nam-joo has the makings of a gold medalist, but hesitates every time and always lands lower than she should. Hyun-seo obviously loves her family, but is exasperated by her father and uncle and saddened by her aunt’s failure to live up to her potential. And the movie takes the time to introduce all these characters to the audience and make them at least a little sympathetic as individuals and more sympathetic as a family. And then it has the monster kidnap Hyun-seo.

The monster is created early in the movie, well before we meet the Park family. An American military doctor tells a Korean assistant that the formaldehyde bottles in the morgue are too dusty and to dump all of it. The assistant argues that dust on the bottles doesn’t mean they have to dump it all and that the chemicals are dangerous and shouldn’t just be dumped. But the doctor insists and so the formaldehyde is dumped down the drain and into the Han river in Seoul. I suspect it’s meant to be more than just formaldehyde. I have a vivid recollection from high school of being told to be careful mixing formaldehyde with other chemicals. And given the results, it seems like it would make sense for it to be a combination of noxious chemical liquids that produces the giant fish monster that is the basis for the movie. Formaldehyde alone just doesn’t work for me, so even though it’s the only chemical mentioned by name in the English subtitles, I’m going to run with “formaldehyde et. al.” to describe what gets dumped. Formaldehyde alone would be boring.

So this big fish monster with legs comes up out of the river one day and attacks a ton of people hanging out on the shore. Gang-du runs, tries to fight it along with a American dude, sees it kill people by the dozen, then tries to grab his daughter to keep her out of harm’s way and finds that he’s grabbed a similarly dressed stranger by accident. The monster has Hyun-seo. Everyone who was present for the attack gets quarantined, especially Gang-du, who was in direct contact with the creature. And in the middle of all of this somewhat serious monster movie drama the entire Park family engages in over-the-top hysterics and slapstick fighting while grieving for Hyun-seo. It is one of the stranger things I’ve seen in a movie recently because it just seems so unlike what I expect from the tone of the rest of the movie. And it’s not the first or last time there’s a bit of slapstick comedy tossed into an otherwise serious plot. I’ll just have to make a point of watching more Korean movies to see if it’s a cultural thing I’m just not personally familiar with. I like it! I’m just a little bemused by it.

Anyhow, it turns out that Hyun-seo isn’t dead. She’s been stashed in a sewer for the monster to snack on later. So the family breaks out of the hospital and cashes in everything they have to pay for weapons and a map of the sewer system so they can go find her. Things escalate and one member of the family gets killed. The government bans people from the whole river area and news comes out of the US that the monster transmitted a deadly virus to the American guy Gang-du fought the monster with. It all turns out to be a smokescreen for the Americans to save face after being the cause of the monster’s existence in the first place and the movie’s pretty clear on that. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, and I’m not just talking about the monster and the action and the family drama. Reading over some analysis done by people native to Korea, it makes me wish I knew more about the culture and country. There’s some very obvious messages, such as the dumping of the formaldehyde (et. al.) in the river and the US lies about the creature. But then there’s some subtle stuff I didn’t pick up on at all. It was an interesting movie, and a well made movie. It also wasn’t at all what I was expecting, which is a good thing, because I was expecting something generic and forgettable and that’s not what I got.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Host

September 7, 2011

The Host

Many times in the last year and a half that we’ve been doing this movie-a-day project Amanda has looked at our list of movies to review and asked “What’s The Host?” A couple of times I’ve had to stop and think for a moment. What is The Host? Oh, yeah. It’s that weird Korean monster movie. Now Amanda doesn’t have quite the same fondness for monster movies that I have from my youth, so this hasn’t been high on her list of must-see films. Indeed, as we started watching tonight she wondered aloud just what possessed me to buy this in the first place. The short and easy answer is that I was intrigued by the glowing reviews I read in Entertainment Weekly which hailed this as a new Godzilla. here’s more to it than that though. I’m always on the look out for well regarded foreign films because I like to see viewpoints I’m not familiar with represented in my collection. And let’s face it, I’m a sucker for a cool creepy beast that eats people. This movie delivers well on both those fronts.

This movie is decidedly not American. Indeed the primary villains (aside from the monster I mean) are all Americans. They’re responsible (through their irresponsible pollution) for the creation of the beast. Then they’re the ones who start the entire virus scare that pretty much drives the plot. In point of fact the Americans in this movie are rock stupid and obstinate. Then there’s the strangely comedic elements of the film which seem out of place in a tense horror film. There’s a distinctive sort of tongue in cheek sense of humor that Amanda and I have noticed in all of our Korean action films.

The protagonist of this movie is a bit of a loser. he’s a dim, mouth-breathing, semi narcoleptic screw up named Park Gang-Du. Gang-Du is an embarrassment to his father Hie-bong, who allows him to work in the family refreshment kiosk and to his seventh-grade daughter Hyun-seo. His brother Nam-il is a wastrel and a drunkard. His sister Nam-Joo seems to be the most successful of the whole family as a championship archer, though she has a strange emotional detachment to her.

The other star of the movie is of course the monster itself. It is a kind of giant lumbering fish thing that rises up out of the river near the Park family stand and starts killing people. It moves quite quickly considering its ungainly bulk, dragging itself around on its misshapen fore-limbs and swinging from its prehensile tail. Director Bong Joon-ho does a great job of keeping the creature enigmatic. It’s so malformed and bizarre that even when it has considerable screen time it is difficult to figure out its anatomy. It has a fish like mouth with no teeth but prominant gums like a parrot fish, but with multiple mandible like jaws and fangs surrounding its gullet. It has sort of toe-like protuberances on its flippers and multiple twisted limbs projecting from its sides and back.

When the creature first emerges from the river and starts menacing people it ends its rampage by grabbing Gang-Du’s daughter and carrying her off. At first he and his family think she is dead, and they mourn her rather over dramatically. Then the government starts to quarantine survivors, claiming that the monster is host to a deadly virus. While in quarantine Gang-Du receives a phone call from his daughter who, it turns out, has survived and is being kept by the monster, presumably as a midnight snack. Nobody will listen to or believe his tale though, so he and his misfit family must break out of the hospital to search for her on their own.

This movie has so many familiar elements. The plucky normal people forced to take matters into their own hands when their government lets them down. The strange government cover up and attempts to use the event to dominate people and drop poisonous “agent yellow” on the river banks. The lone survivor of a devastating attack trying to stay alive and escape. All of it has a distinctly foreign air to it though. It just feels slightly off kilter, and I think that’s what I like about it most.

This movie reminds me most of District 9 out of the films in our collection. It has the corrupt powers that be attempting to perform sick experiments on their own people. It has that air of an independent film made with cutting edge special effects which defies Hollywood convention. It’s simultaneously slick and well made and strange and unfamiliar. Some of it is the cultural divide between myself and the probable intended audience, but some of it is that this movie just isn’t trying to be the same as the films I’m used to. It’s a huge blockbuster hit, but it wasn’t made to sell popcorn and carbonated sugar water to bloated Americans. It was made for an altogether different demographic, and that was just the kind of movie I was looking for when I added it to my collection.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 386 – The Good, The Bad and The Weird

The Good, The Bad and The Weird – March 21st, 2011

After so many movies, we’ve found that this project makes for good conversation fodder. After all, we’ve usually seen something weird no one’s heard of, and we’ve also seen things everyone knows. If movies come up in conversation we are well equipped. And since we tend to hang out with people who like movies, it’s a common conversation topic. So the week before last, when we had a guest before PAX East, the conversation did indeed turn to movies. We explained the project and we talked movies and we exchanged suggestions. We suggested Volcano High to her and she suggested this to us.

I admit, it sounded familiar, vaguely, but I couldn’t dredge up the specifics. Turns out I’m pretty sure another friend had mentioned it, but before this project, and I’d never gotten around to buying it. But we have it now! Truth be told, had I remembered specifics, I might have been a little more skeptical. Because see, this is a Western. It’s just a Western set in Manchuria in the 1940s. And okay, I feel a little underinformed about the time period and location, but I know enough to get the basics. And there’s a mini history lesson in the middle of the movie, so that helps (not much, since the person giving the lecture is also trying to drug the person he’s giving it to, but still). I wouldn’t be much concerned with it, except that there is fair deal of talk about the three main characters being in Manchuria because they’ve had to leave Korea behind. They talk about not having a country anymore and being on their own and if I were to take this movie seriously, I’d have to give it a little more attention.

As it stands, it’s hard to take this movie too seriously because it doesn’t take itself completely seriously. There’s a wink to the audience going on throughout this entire movie. Every scene has something in it that’s only half serious at most. The focal character of the three leads is definitely a comedic performance much of the time. Things are played for laughs all over the place even in the middle of fight scenes, but it doesn’t come off as farce. I’m not sure how it quite manages that, but it toes the line and never really crosses it. It’s still a fun action shoot-em-up, it’s just got the perfect amount of tongue-in-cheek to keep things fun.

The plot revolves around a stolen treasure map and three men who want to get the map and to take each other down. Yoon Tae-goo is a thief who’s gotten onto a Japanese train crossing Manchuria. He breaks into a private car, takes out the guards and officials carrying the map and steals it along with a good deal of cash and jewelry. But at the same time bounty hunter Park Do-won is searching for a bounty to collect on and the sinister Park Chang-yi had plans to stop the train and steal the map himself. Since Tae-goo got there first, Chang-yi goes after him. Do-won goes after them too, wanting to collect on a bounty (and they’re both listed). Oh, and the map? Is immensely important to a lot more people. It supposedly shows the location of a treasure that could mean Korea’s freedom or riches for either Japan or China. The Japanese army and a bunch of Manchurian bandits end up on Tae-goo’s trail as well.

As the movie goes on, Tae-goo tries to sell the map, then decides not to, then loses it, then gets caught by Do-won and then he gets drugged and soon we’re riding across the desert with horses and jeeps and motorcycles and mortar blasts and guns. While I would say that 90% of the movie is shoot outs and fights and action, half the bits that aren’t (and most of the bits that are) have to do with him trying to get away from someone who wants him dead or wants the map or both. The parts that aren’t to do with all of that are about Chang-yi and his vendetta against Tae-goo and how he is a total fucking bad ass. And let me say, the bit of fan service where he’s all shirtless? Byung-hun Lee, who plays him, is easy on the eyes and I did not mind one bit.

But all this is ignoring the badassery of Do-won. Now, as the bounty hunter, tracking down a notorious criminal known as the Finger Chopper, Do-won is unmistakably the “Good” of the title. He is also incredible. And I knew this while watching him. He’s got an effortless sort of competence about him. Like looking at him you know damn well he’s good at what he does and he doesn’t have to demonstrate. But after the movie was over and we watched some of the behind the scenes footage, I got a true appreciation for just how fantastic the actor playing him, Woo-sung Jung, is. Because a ton of the effects and action and stunts here aren’t really effects, and the stunts seem to largely be performed by the actors. At least, that’s the impression I got. And there’s this scene where Do-won is racing along on horseback, almost but not quite standing in his saddle, firing off his rifle and swinging it around and flipping it and reloading and firing again. In the footage we watched? There is no effect there. That is a truly impressive actor on a scarily fast horse with no apparent safety rig whatsoever, handling that rifle as if he knows exactly what he’s doing. Is that sort of stuff in classic Westerns? Because if so, I might be persuaded to take a look.

What I’m trying to say here is that this movie is full of people doing awesome stuff. It’s got some great comedic and serious acting from all three of the leads and more fantastic action and fight scenes than I can recount. It’s fun and it’s silly and it’s also set during a serious time but it never gets bogged down. It’s got a fascinating tone I can’t quite name but which I greatly enjoyed. And so I want to thank our houseguest for the suggestion. I hope she likes Volcano High and the other movies we suggested and I’m truly looking forward to watching her other suggestions. They won’t be exactly this (what could be?) but I’m hoping they will be just as awesome.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Good The Bad The Weird

March 21, 2011

The Good The Bad The Weird

Yoon Tae-goo just chose the wrong train to hold up. He’s a small time Korean thief with a past in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. Unfortunately for him the train he is robbing has on board a Japanese envoy who has in his possession a certain map. A map that everybody seems to want. A Korean businessman has hired a notorious and heartless killer to get the map back. The entire Japanese army is after it. A group of Manchurian marauders are after it. A gang of thieves call the Ghost Market Gang want it as well. On top of it all there’s a bounty hunter who doesn’t care about the map but is after Tae-goo and the assassin Park Chang-yi.

Back before Pax East started we had a friend over to spend the night and we got to talking about our project. She recommended a few movies we didn’t have in our collection and this was one of them. It has been described (by its director) as a “kimchee western” (as opposed to a spaghetti western.) If Sergio Leone had filmed an Indiana Jones movie set in Manchuria this might have been what would have resulted. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Well it is!! There’s a quirkiness to the Korean films we have in our collection that sets them apart. Volcano High, this movie, even the monster/horror movie The Host all have a strong comedic thread that runs through them. Tae-goo could have been a serious adventurer. He has a mysterious past with Chang-yi and a preternatural ability to survive the unsurvivable. Kang-ho Song, who plays Tae-goo, absolutely steals the movie though with his inescapable charm. Woo-Sung Jung, as the steadfast bounty hunter Park Do-won gets all the coolest stunts and gunfighting. Byung-hun Lee is wonderfully sinister and badass as Park Chang-yi. At one point early in the film I commented to Amanda that he was the Korean Johnny Depp. He has an effortless smoothness that completely sells the character.

So you have these three great actors and these three great roles, and the rest of the movie is them just playing. There’s battles on a moving train. There’s daring shootouts in a marketplace. There’s an absolute whopper of a chase scene with jeeps, horses and motorcycles as all the various parties come together in a race to reach the mysterious destination the map leads to. The action is simply unbelievable, even more so if you watch the making of features on the DVD and see just how many of the stunts were simply superhuman feats of daring-do. Particularly the astonishing Woo-Sung, who absolutely floored both me and Amanda with his ability to cock a lever action rifle on a horse at full gallop. Holy shit. Furthermore, it seems that the cameramen themselves were stuntmen of a kind with some of the amazing rigs that they had to work in.

This movie is everything a thrilling western should be. It’s got operatic meditations of good and evil. It’s got men in dusters with rifles. It’s got horses, dynamite, shootouts, trains… and it infuses the whole thing with a distinctly Korean vibe that makes it even more fun. Now if you’ll excuse me I want to watch that climactic chase scene again. Wow.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 317 – Volcano High

Volcano High – January 11th, 2011

My first exposure to this movie was through MTV. For some reason they decided to do a recut of the movie, altering the plot and dubbing new lines in with the voice acting done by American rappers. They played it several times back when they first did it and eventually I saw the whole thing. And I liked it, but found it a little choppy. Only when I went looking for a copy to buy did I find out that it had been so very heavily edited. And so we got the regular version, in Korean, with English subtitles. And I liked it even more. I’ve heard it described as a polarizing movie that people either love or hate and I definitely fall under the former category.

I’m not sure what it is about this movie that makes me love it so, but love it I do. It’s utterly ridiculous, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to be this outrageous martial arts magic fest, full of over the top characters and tropes and plenty of fight scenes. There is no doubt in my mind that the folks who made this movie did so with their tongues firmly in their cheeks. Which is fantastic. It’s got a sort of serious mystical plot to it, but it’s also got a hell of a sense of humor running through everything. And while I did enjoy the strange MTV adaptation of the story, I like the more complete version better.

The movie takes place at Volcano High, an elite school where many of the students are extremely skilled martial artists. The thing is, they’re not studying martial arts. They’re mostly just high school students. And while there is a judo team and a kendo team and so on, there’s also a weightlifting team and a rugby team. And the main characters are spread out in a variety of after school activity groups. Sure, they’re kickass martial artists, but that’s sort of made out to be a matter of course. The various activity groups have a bit of a rivalry, with the weightlifting team – the Dark Oxen, led by the minor baddie Jang Ryang – being the de facto bullies. But all seems fairly even keeled, if a little uneasy, under the watchful eye of Song Hak-Rim, the best martial artist in the school.

It all comes crashing down the day our hero, super powerful but also super dorky Kim Kyeong-Su, shows up. He’s been expelled from eight schools already thanks to a total lack of control over his powers, and he’s determined not to blow this last chance, even if it means letting all sorts of chaos go on. Jang Ryang and the vice principal of the school set up Song Hak-Rim to be framed for the poisoning of the principal, who is also the keeper of an ultra powerful secret manuscript. The vice principal turns on Jang Ryang almost immediately, bringing in five sinister teachers who quickly take control of the school by means of their own martial arts skills and mystical powers. Realizing that he’s been abandoned, Jang Ryang throws in his lot with the other students and eventually there’s a big showdown in the schoolyard (in the rain) between Jang Ryang, Kim Kyeong-Su and the captain of the Kendo team, Yu Chae-i and the teachers.

Throughout the movie Yu Chae-i and her co-captain, Shim Ma, try to enlist Kim Kyeong-Su’s help. They know he’s got major skills and they know if he joined them they’d have the strength they need to rescue Song Hak-Rim and overthrow the vice principal and his cadre of evil teachers. But Kim-Kyeong-Su won’t do it. Ever since he got his mystical powers during a lightning storm when he accidentally fell into a tank of eels (yes, really) he’s been unable to control them and it’s caused him nothing but grief. So no, even though the school is in chaos and the new teachers are threatening students and his crush, Yu Chae-i, wants his help? Nope. He’s just going to do his thing and get by. It’s so outrageous it has to have been written to make fun of the concept. By the time the big climactic battle hits you know damn well what’s coming. It’s just funny.

The movie has this bizarre mix of thoroughly serious and utter parody. I mean, it’s not just slapstick or done for giggles. It’s done as homage, so there’s some care put into it all. But then the names are all presented seriously and the teachers are too and it’s all so very serious that it’s not serious at all anymore. Unfortunately for me, I think there’s likely a whole other level of humor and parody and homage going on but I’m not familiar enough with the source genre to catch it. I also don’t understand Korean and I don’t know the culture well enough to catch referenced and linguistic tricks. There’s a lot of what sounds like nonsense sometimes. Non sequitors that might still be disconnected to the plot in the original version but I have no way of knowing. I can say that the romantic subplot is a little oddly shoehorned in, but not enough so to turn me off the movie. And I like how Jang Ryang joins the other students and the whole idea of the students coming together against a common enemy after spending much of the beginning of the movie bickering. So I’m willing to put up with some missing scenes and things I don’t get because it’s so very much fun anyhow.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Volcano High

January 11, 2011

Volcano High

We needed an antidote to the overblown pretension of the Matrix sequels, and both Amanda and I thought that this movie would be just the thing. The Matrix movies share some of the same visuals with this Korean effects-laden martial arts movie, but Volcano High is much more light hearted in nature.

This movie is all about a troubled teen named Kim Kyung-soo who has been kicked out of every high school he’s ever attended. As the movie starts he is coming to a school of last resort – Volcano High. Here he must keep his head down and find a way to fit in with the rambunctious student body that pretty much run the school. There’s the kendo team (entirely made up of badass girls) with their captain “Icy Jade” Yoo Chae-yi. There’s the weight-lifting team headed by “Dark Ox” Jang Ryang. There’s a rugby team and I’m pretty sure I saw students with field hockey sticks as well. All of these rival gangs are held in check by the most powerful member of the student body, the wise and aloof “Elegant Crane in a Pine Forest” Song Hak-rim and the kindly old principal of the school who has in his possession a legendary Secret Manuscript which brings great power to anybody who possesses it.

Things start to go wrong when Jang Ryang enacts a scheme to poison the principal and frame Song Hak-rim for it so that he can take over the school. If he can prove himself to be the most powerful student he hopes that his partner in crime – the vice principal – will give him the Secret Manuscript. So Jang beats down all the heads of all the other clubs and declares his love for Yoo Chae-yi, and there is only one person who can possibly stand in his way. Kim Kyung-soo has enormous hidden power, but he’s desperate to remain in the background.

We soon realize that Kim is not a bad guy. Maybe a little accident prone. He has been expelled from nine schools before Volcano High though because he has trouble containing his power. When it flares up people get hurt. So although he’d like to win the favor of Yoo Chae-yi and stop the violence that has overtaken the school he does not dare let himself go.

Then things get really bad. The vice principal, frustrated by the chaos overtaking the student body and his inability to contain it, brings in five unstoppable new teachers. Very soon these five teachers have taken complete control of the school using their dark martial arts mastery. There are also hints that the leader of the five teachers, Mr. Ma, has some history with Kyung-soo.

The entire movie is played for laughs. Everybody mugs delightfully for the camera and there are plenty of lighthearted bits mixed in with all the wire-work and CGI. There’s a decidedly anime influence throughout as well, from the extreme hair styles to the camera angles and editing techniques. It’s just a treat to watch.

My one complaint would be that the pacing and the way it is put together make it hard for a big dumb American like me to keep up sometimes. The subtitles hint at clever word-play and such that go completely over the head of anybody watching the film who doesn’t know Korean. Which I clearly do not. I feel like there’s a lot of subtlety that I’m missing, which is kind of sad.

Then again, subtlety is not really what this movie is about. It’s about pure unadulterated cool. From the effortless relaxes saunter of ice-cold Yoo Chae-yi to the wintery glare of the sinister Mr. Ma this movie is packed with awesome. How can it be goofy and awesome at the same time? Well, that’s part of its charm and part of what makes it such a treasure.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment