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Hae anseon (2002)
Pointless and uninteresting
An incident that takes place at night in poor visibility and perpetrated by a rather over-enthusiastic soldier wreaks havoc on a local community. Mistaking a ground-level head that he sees in his night-vision goggles for that of a spy, the soldier opens fire, then as the poor guy crawls desperately away, he is blown to smithereens with a grenade. Presumably this is what the soldier is trained to do, as he is rewarded for his bravery and given a week's furlough to pull himself together.
Turns out the dead guy was an innocent local, who was killed as he was making love to his girlfriend in a forbidden area of the beach. Naturally, the girlfriend is traumatised by the incident which sends her mad. She starts hanging around the base, clinging to any and all soldiers she finds, mistaking them for her boyfriend. The soldiers are rather obliging, and she winds up pregnant.
The soldier, who also experiences an estrangement from rational thought, is discharged and he too begins to haunt the base, gradually becoming more and more unhinged, and taking revenge on the unit he feels has betrayed him.
Also known as The Coast Guard, this film sheds no new light on anything (unless you're unfamiliar with the existence of two Koreas). I could see no real point to it - all the themes it raises are not resolved. nor are the incidents at all realistic. If the aim of this film was to make a kind of fable, it's a failure. If you want to see a film that has heart, drama, reality and An Actual Point, see Joint Security Area - JSA (2000, director Park Chan-wook)
Original, often hilarious but rather uneven
There is such an appealing wit and charm about this film that, for all it's changes of tone and balance, it's still well worth seeing.
Set in a Korea of several hundred years ago, it's the story of a scholar/author, Yun-seo, who, while investigating art fraud, stumbles upon a scribe copying an indecent novel. After token resistance at the appalling idea of one so scholarly as he lowering himself to reading such trash, he tries his hand at writing one. As a mental exercise, of course.
It proves a great success with (ahem) desperate housewives all over the city. It's such a hit, in fact, that he is urged to write a sequel. This time, he decides to illustrate it with suitably saucy drawings. He enlists the local Chief of police (and traditional family enemy), Gwang-heon, who has a talent for art and doodles as a hobby. The problem is, the positions Yun-seo describes are so outlandish that Gwang-heon can't draw them, simply because he can't picture them in his mind's eye.
Enter the King's wife, Queen Jeong-bin, who happens to have read the books and is tantalised by the thought of meeting the author. In Jeong-bin, Yun-seo finds the perfect muse for his imagination, and Gwang-heon finds the necessary model for his illustrations. The troubles, for both the characters and the film, come with Jeong-bin discovering that she is being used. The revenge she exacts is way gruesome, and the emotional distress of the King at finding out about the affair is really out of place with the tone of the rest of the film.
Nevertheless, the director and writer Kim Dae-woo has taken a potentially gratuitous, one-joke idea and fleshed it out in very unexpected ways. Although the film is focused on sexual gratification and sexual repression, the ways in which the viewer is shown what it being described - from tiny holograms climbing onto a table to demonstrate a position, to the old scribe having his rickety old legs manipulated by Yun-seo - have to be seen to be fully appreciated. If you don't laugh out loud several times at the sheer ingenuity of it, there just might be something wrong with you.
It gets an 8/10 even though the ending was a bit of a disappointment.
Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA (2000)
A highpoint of Korean cinema
The story is simple but never simplistic. The two Koreas are separated by the narrowest of bridges, on either side of which is a command post each manned by two soldiers. There is a neutral investigation in progress over an 'incident' at the border patrol that left three men dead and two men injured. Neither North or South wants the situation to escalate, but the investigators are having trouble getting the surviving soldiers to talk.
Therein lies the drama. Why, when both armies have been indoctrinated to hate the other, is nobody willing to point the finger? What really happened out there to cause such a bloodbath? So many issues are broached - the absurdity of war, the futility of war deaths, loyalty, friendship, trust, suspicion, and love - and all of them treated in a fresh and quite original way.
It's a thriller, a drama, a black comedy at times, and ultimately a plea. If you stick it out for the first twenty minutes or so, burdened as they are by some rather stilted acting and dubious accents, you're in for a treat. This movie is a real surprise - beautifully scripted, wonderfully acted and clearly a labour of love for all concerned. SEE IT.
Smart and thought-provoking
An old idea given a new spin, this film ponders the idea of a living person possessed by the soul of the dead. But it's not the Exorcist - there's no horror, no gore, just intricate, unsettling emotions and impossible-to-answer questions.
Two brothers, Ho-jin and Dae-jin, are close but with the kind of tolerance and exasperation that comes from a lifetime of living with someone who is your polar opposite. Ho-jin is a carpenter who is about to have an exhibition of his carefully crafted furniture. Dae-jin is a bit of a lout, races cars for a living, and doesn't really pull his weight around the house.
They share a home with Ho-jin's wife, Eun-su. Ho-jin and Eun-su enjoy a special relationship, writing letters to one another daily and treasuring their good fortune at having found one another. On the day that Dae-jin is to race in a rally, Ho-jin, running very late, catches a cab to the speedway. Then disaster strikes: both brothers are simultaneously the victims of shocking car accidents. Both end up in the hospital in deep comas.
A year later, we see one of them awake. Dae-jin opens his eyes, staggers out of bed and catches sight of himself in the mirror. The significance of this is not overdone, but the shot is held long enough to let the viewer know that it's important. He is released from the hospital and goes home to pick up his life. It's slow going - he is often confused and distracted, frequently falling into very long sleeps, and physically shaky. He begins to adopt habits; watering the garden, making elaborate dinners, building furniture, putting toothpaste on Eun-su's toothbrush in the early morning. This freaks Eun-su out - these are all things that Ho-jin used to do.
It becomes clear that Dae-jin believes himself to be Ho-jin inside Dae-jin's body. The tension comes from the fact that, as he tries to convince Eun-su of this by revealing facts about her that only Ho-jin would know, the viewer is also likewise convinced. The question - is soul possession possible, and if so, is Ho-jin really living within Dae-jin - which outside the confines of this movie may strike you as rather silly, is treated in all seriousness and therefore works a treat. The ending, which I will not reveal, is highly ambiguous and therefore fitting.
The lead actors, Lee Byeong-heon as Dae-jin, and Lee Mi-yeon as Eun-su, are a perfect balance. Lee Byeong-heon in particular is quite amazing. His voice, his body language, his facial expressions, are all noticeably different when the transformation from Dae-jin to Ho-jin takes place. Lee Mi-yeon has an ethereal quality to her that makes Eun-su's struggle to believe all the more poignant.
At 114 minutes, this is well worth your time.
More of the same
This film starts out as a total slapstick and ends on a much more serious note. It seems the director was having a bet each way and trying to cater to everyone. It's a pity he didn't choose one or the other path to follow through, rather than trying to walk two paths simultaneously.
Simple story outline: two childhood friends, Ji-hwan (Kwon Sang-woo) and Dal-rae (Kim Ha-neul) have grown up side by side. They know everything there is to know about the other, good and bad. Ji-hwan, complete with early JC-imitative hairstyle, wants to become the next Jackie Chan. He practices relentlessly, and he comes across as a bit of a dim-witted lech. Dal-rae wants to be an actress, but she's painfully shy. They tease each other mercilessly about their respective flaws, but underneath it is an understanding built over thirteen years.
Enter The Boyfriend, played by Lee Sang-woo. He's handsome, athletic, charming, thoughtful etc. The problem is, Ji-hwan is jealous of him and can't admit it, and Dal-rae just can't relax with him. When she has a problem, or something on her mind, she goes first to Ji-hwan. They have a brief falling-out, and a reluctant reconciliation spearheaded by the Boyfriend and come to realise how they really feel blah blah blah. Though it's been done to death as a plot point, it's pretty well done here.
And this should have been the story. Instead, there is a melodrama tacked on in the shape of a critical injury for Ji-hwan, which means he will never realise his dream. It seems oddly out of place and it makes the running time way too long (116mins).
Also, I was left wondering: Is there EVER going to be an end to the fixation with childhood sweethearts who are Meant For Each Other? Just once, I would love to see the childhood friend ditched for the Boyfriend. Now that would be groundbreaking - at least for Korean cinema.
See it if you're curious, or you find someone in the cast rather dishy. Otherwise, see FORBIDDEN QUEST and get your money's worth.
Nam yan sei sap (2002)
Should Be Required Viewing
A rich experience is to be gained from watching this film.
This is a seemingly simple story of a gifted pupil, Yiu Kwok, who later becomes a teacher of classical Chinese poetry. He is married with two sons, and things at home seem normal. He still loves his wife after twenty years of marriage, and his sons alternately fill him with pride (the elder one) and disappointment (the younger one).
His passion for the poetry makes him an object of infatuation for a senior student in one of his classes. The student, Choi Lam, draws pictures of him during class, significantly, one of him with a flower coming from his mouth. She teases him more with her intelligence than her sexuality, although that too is an element. He of course is not immune to her attention, though he tries for a while to keep the demarcation line between teacher and student in place.
The reason why he doesn't succeed in the end is complicated. Firstly there is a real depth to the communication between him and Choi Lam. It becomes clear that she genuinely likes him, and it's mutual. Secondly, there is a long-standing problem in his marriage that is brought to light when an old friend of both his and his wife becomes ill. The consequences of the wife's involvement with this friend, both past and present, are almost too sad to bear.
Nothing is treated trivially in this film. All the characters have a vivid internal life, and an easily discernible history. The two leads, Jacky Cheung and Anita Mui, are outstanding, as are Karena Lam as the student Choi Lam, and Shaun Tam as the elder son On Yin.
Recommended without reservation.
Mo li hua kai (2004)
Wither Zhang Ziyi
Three women, three generations, three stories, all tragic and doomed.
In each, Zhang Ziyi plays a daughter (Young Mo, Young Li and Young Hua), and in the the third story, she also plays a mother. Joan Chen, with dubious Mandarin pronunciation, plays the Mother Mo, Elder Mo and Elder Li. It's not nearly as confusing (or interesting) as it sounds. It is, in fact, vacuous and tiresome.
The male characters are all no-hopers that either use the daughters or can't get it together enough to do the right thing by them. Men must get pretty tired of seeing themselves portrayed this way, but I don't think many men will voluntarily watch this film, and nor should they. Or anyone else, for that matter.
I have to confess, I don't understand all the fuss about Zhang Ziyi. Undeniably pretty, and pretty darn bendy as well, she unfortunately does not (yet) have the depth required to play three different characters in the same film. These three characters ended up being more like three facets of one character.
There's no compelling reason to see this film. Save those precious 130 minutes and go have some fun instead.
Tear Jerkers R Us
This traditional and predictable romance features all the plot devices Korean romance dramas are famous for.
School sweethearts Soo-ho and Soo-eun are thrust into the heady world of first love and subsequent first loss. It's always summer or autumn in Korea, so the lovers can take leisurely walks and bike rides through the countryside, and visit the beach, all in spectacular scenery.
She's the prettiest and most popular girl in the school, he's considered a bit of a dork. She playfully taunts him, he completely adores her; things are looking good for them.
But...there's a terminal illness waiting in the wings to snatch their happiness away. This comes as no surprise, since we are told in the first five minutes what will happen. The amazing thing is, even when you know how it will end, you still keep hoping that the opening scene was somehow a mistake.
It's so much better than you think it will be, mostly due to the charm of the leading actors, Song Hye-kyo (who is 24) as Soo-eun, and Cha Tae-hyeon (who is 29!!) as Soo-ho. It's surprisingly effective and emotionally engaging, and has several moments of real and deep feeling. You will almost certainly need your hanky.
Cheong yeon (2005)
Starts Slowly and Gradually Builds
Blue Swallow (Cheong-yeon) is the dramatised story of Korea's first female aviator, played by Jang Jin-yeong. The movie is uneven in tone, with some rather poor direction and a somewhat inadequate script. It doesn't seem to know what kind of film it wants to be, which is a real pity - it has all the ingredients for a top class drama.
The story begins in her village early in the 1900's, where it's established that she is predictably downtrodden and ill-treated by her father. He wants to pull her out of school and put her to work; she argues that her life and education is just as important as a boy's. This must have been outrageous conduct for a little girl in turn of the century Korea, but not much is made of it, because suddenly, there she is in aviator training school as though it were the simplest thing in the world to accomplish. A brief mention over drinks of the four years of technical study it took to get herself there is woefully inadequate. In order to appreciate her journey, her struggles need to be shown more fully.
There seems to be little or no sexism, and she is treated the same as any other pilot. In fact, she consistently outdoes her male co-trainees, and they appear to accept her readily. This doesn't seem at all realistic, even in the context of a "boy's (girl's?) own" type of film such as this.
Later, however, she enters into an affair with a free-wheeling young man, played by Kim Joo-hyeok, and things take a very serious turn. All the dreamlike qualities of the first half disappear. The then current political situation with Japan is shown in quite graphic detail in some surprisingly grisly torture scenes (that wouldn't have been out of place in Old Boy), and the Japanese methods of manipulating public figures for political gain is portrayed quite effectively. This is really the first time that you are able to care for any of the characters, and though it comes a little late, it's a tribute to the actors that it's still enough to leave you with a sense of real loss and despair for them.
For all its flaws, it's still well worth seeing.
Long and Sad
Ireland, aka Aillaendeu, is a mini-series about the lives of 4 people.
Lee Jung-a (Lee Na-young) is a medical doctor with a severe depressive illness that requires daily medication to control. Adopted as an infant by an Irish family, she returns to Korea after witnessing their violent deaths.
Kang Guk (Hyeon Bin) is a kindly security guard who works in a plush hotel that frequently houses movie stars or otherwise famous and successful people. He can't stop himself from reaching out to those who need help, whether they ask for it (or want it) or not. In Lee Jung-a, he sees such a person.
Lee Jae-bok (Kim Min-jun) is a twenty-something guy with few prospects. He's not very smart, and poorly educated, but he has charm, enough to be able to sponge off his actress girlfriend.
This girlfriend (Kim Min-jeong) is working in the blue movie industry and desperately trying to break into legitimate movies. Not only does Jae-bok sponge off her, so do her parents and her four brothers and sisters.
The plot is quite simple - it turns out that two of these four people are actually brother and sister. The complications come from their not knowing this fact, and consequently falling in love.
The adoption theme is common enough, particularly in Korean dramas, but incest as a topic for a sudsy drama is quite novel, and perhaps a bit touch and go. Nevertheless, it's very well-acted and worth watching. Hyeon Bin in particular manages to make a potentially weak and effete character into something resembling noble, and Lee Na-young is one of the most effective on-cue-weepers I've ever seen.
If you're a sensitive soul who hates seeing kind people treated badly, have the tissues ready and settle back for some fine entertainment (a whopping 960 minutes of it).
Yeoleum hyangki (2003)
Turgid miniseries saved by some amazing acting
Yeo-leum-hyang-ki, also known as Summer Scent, is a 20 esp mini-series from South Korea.
Basic plot: A young woman, Hye-won, has a life-saving heart transplant after many years of failing health. After her recovery, her personality begins to change, and she develops a passion for life and an optimism that was denied her prior to the operation. She is involved with a young man, Jung-jae, who has been her sweetheart since high school, and things are looking good for her.
A young man, Min-woo, loses the love of his life, Eun-hye, in a car accident on what appears to be his wedding day. Unable to get over her, he leaves the country to study architecture in Italy. A couple of years later, he returns to Seoul to try and pick up the threads of his life.
Fate intervenes. The two have a chance meeting on a nearby island when Hye-won, there to photograph wild flowers (she is a florist) is injured in a fall, and Min-woo hears her calls for help. Because she cannot walk properly, the two end up stranded there by approaching night and bad weather. They are forced to spend the night in a hut. They find they have a lot in common, a situation further exacerbated by the fact that Hye-won is strikingly similar to his dead girlfriend, from the words she uses when speaking, to her tastes and even the thoughts she expresses. Min-woo is both freaked out by and drawn to her. Hye-won in turn feels her heart beat painfully just by being near him.
You can just about guess the rest. Of course, they fall in love. And of course, Hye-won's donor turns out to be Eun-hye. Therein lies the drama: neither party knows the history of the other, but it is discovered bit by bit, and exploited and used as leverage by Jung-jae, and also Jung-jae's sister, who has a wild and unreciprocated crush on Min-woo.
Several themes are explored. And explored. And explored. To whit: Is the change in Hye-won's personality the result of her having a new lease on life after the transplant, or is it because she has taken on the traits of the donor? Does Min-woo love her for herself, or because she reminds him so much of someone he loved and lost? Does she, Hye-won, love him, or is it Eun-hye loving him through her, and she's just the body? Is her will her own, and does she even have a 'self' any more? And what of the long-time boyfriend who wants to marry her and will not give her up no matter what? And the sister who schemes to break them up?
Stretched over twenty episodes, it becomes at times woefully repetitive. Supporting characters have little more to do than eat, connive and advance the plot. So why watch it?
Two reasons: Son Ye-jin as Shim Hye-won, and Song Seung-heon as Yoo Min-woo. They are a match made in TV drama heaven. She is meltingly lovely and he is impossibly handsome. They bring a surprising depth to characters that could've been unbearable in lesser hands. Watching Song Seung-heon's eyes run the gamut from disbelief to fear to unbearable longing as he hears Hye-won speaking words he has heard before but coming from a different mouth, is a marvel of subtlety and beauty. This from the guy who made 'He Was Cool'!! Watch it and be stunned.
The Horror! Run Away Now!
This movie exists for the sole purpose of following Hyeon Bin's face with a camera. And while it is indeed a thing of no small beauty, it's unfortunately not enough to sustain 116 minutes of film.
And what of the plot, such as it is? Young rich brat leads dissolute life, doesn't go to school, drinks too much, gets into fights, throws his weight around, then turns 18 and inherits a fortune from his dead grandfather, but on one condition: graduate from high school or you get nothing.
So he goes back to school, and doesn't he look nice in his uniform! The school is somewhere in the countryside, there are only half a dozen kids in a class which resembles a casting director's idea of special ed. Within about a minute, rich brat falls in love with the petrol station attendant-substitute teacher-dying girl, and overnight becomes A Nice Guy. Oh, did I mention that he, and she, are Orphans? And there's an orphanage-saving scheme thrown in for pathos?
It's so stupid and underwritten it doesn't really deserve a review. It's a shocking mish-mash of styles. The script is woeful and embarrassing. The acting is at times unbelievably bad. There is no effort made to make the plot or the relationships even slightly realistic.
The tragedy of it is, Hyeon Bin can do so much more than just look good. In two different mini-series, Ireland and My name is Kim Samsoon, he proved he is capable of quite a bit. One hopes his movie career doesn't start and finish with this piece of swill. So dreadful it gets 3/10 - 2 for Hyeon Bin's face, and 1 for his hair.
I jukilnomui sarang (2005)
Overwrought but Enjoyable
You have to hand it to the makers of Korean TV programs. They make so many, there's something to please (or disgust) everyone.
You have your choice of standards - for example, HIGH - Green Rose (Geu-rin Ro-jeu) and My Name is Kim Samsoon (Nae Il-eum-eun Kim Sam-soon); MEDIUM - Full House (Poolha Wooseu), and Only You (On-li Yoo); and UTTER RUBBISH - like Princess Lulu (Loo-loo Gong-joo) and Sorry, I love you (Mianhada, Saranghanda). This 20 episode series swings between all three categories.
The main plot is simple: a young man (Jung Ji-hoon aka Rain) is reunited with his older brother (Kim Yeong-jae) after a long separation. The older brother is so obsessed with a famous actress (Sin Min-ah), that he comes to serious grief over it. The younger brother blames her and swears to exact revenge. The problem is - and there is always a problem, or there'd be no drama - once he gets close enough to her to be in a position to hurt her, he too becomes obsessed with her.
There is nothing really new in the plot, but the series works for two main reasons. Firstly, the three lead actors are outstanding, as indeed are most of the supporting cast, particularly Lee Ki-woo in a really unsympathetic and gormless role of suitor to Sin Min-ah's character.
Secondly, there is the clever and interesting use of partial flashback. This means that only part of each event is told at any one time, and several flashbacks to the same event, told from different perspectives and with additional details, are required to give the full story - the past of each character is slowly fleshed out and secrets are revealed. What is the reason behind the panic attacks the actress often suffers on-set? Why is the older brother so obsessed with her that he throws his life away? Why is the younger brother so reckless and violent?
There are several sub-plots, and character complexities are explored at length. Because the series is unusually long, you'll you need to pay a bit of attention to details for the story to make sense. This makes a very welcome and unexpected challenge from a series of this nature.
It's also the biggest problem. Suspension of disbelief is a necessary part of any drama because (gasp) it's not real. By watching it, you partly agree to buy into the world that's being created for you. The difficulty is; can you do it over 20 episodes? When the twists and turns are stretched to maximum elasticity as they are here, and when there are inconsistencies and even a couple of errors of logic in the working out of plot points, you may stop caring who did what to whom and why, or what finally becomes of them all.
But if you can stick it out for the long haul, there's a lot to be savoured and enjoyed, and maybe just a little to be tolerated.
Sangdooya hakgyo kaja! (2003)
Funny Title for a Sad Story
This sixteen episode TV Series seems to be another light-hearted, humorous romp through the halls of a Korean High School, where the school uniforms could have been designed by Chanel or Prada, and where the kids are either unbearably good-looking or terminally geeky.
When we first see Sang-doo, he is a young adult, working as a gigolo under the tutelage of his Uncle. He is a smarmy, superficial poser, turning on the charm to an embarrassing degree.
On the same day we meet Sang-doo, and in the same place at the same time, we also meet Eun-hwan. She is a teacher at the High School, engaged to a doctor, and her life is uncomplicated and not unhappy. Disguised as a student, she comes on behalf of one of her students to intercept a meeting with An Older Man. As events unfold we realise that Sang-doo and Eun-hwan once knew each other.
Gradually we are introduced, in flashback, to the young Sang Doo, a handsome, lively, popular kid at his high school, who has a major crush on the serious and slightly self-conscious Eun Hwan. She, in turn almost can't believe her good luck at attracting his interest. Their youthful romance features all the hallmarks we expect of a KTV romance - leisurely bike rides through the floral Korean countryside, walks on pebble-strewn beaches, the inevitable twisted ankle that results in the first shy physical contact. Everything seems sweet and simple. Then tragedy strikes and they are separated.
The title of this series highly misleading - this is not a comedy. Though it has comedic elements, it's essentially a (melo)drama, a romance, and ultimately a tragedy. The adolescent love turns out to be deep and abiding, marred by a freak accident that has serious repercussions for both the young couple and, eventually, their loved ones.
There is a desperately sick child who needs constant and expensive medical care; a young mother who works as a model, has little education and no common sense; an irresponsible uncle with no moral centre; a grown mother who sent her young daughter away because she had planned to kill herself; and Sang-doo, a person with too many people relying on him, too many responsibilities, and no way out of his situation. None of these characters are happy or well-adjusted.
Singer and actor Rain, billed in the credits under the Korean word for rain, Bi (real name Jung Ji-hoon), plays Sang-doo. For those who think he was only cast because of his popularity as a singer (and because he's pretty easy on the eye), you will change your mind after watching this performance. It is sometimes hilarious, frequently moving and at times almost too painfully real to watch.
Kong Hyo-jin plays Eun-hwan as a seemingly strong but actually frail woman who can't let go and can't move forward. Lee Dong-geon plays the doctor, and he brings a very clever ambiguity to his character that is charming and intriguing. Hong Soo-hyeon plays the difficult role of the sick child's selfish and childish mother very well.
To say any more about the plot or the complex relationships between the characters, would be to ruin part of the enjoyment of watching it. Staying with a complete series is a time commitment that can end up being a waste, but in this case it's well worth it. Highly emotional but highly recommended.
Note: Not really suitable for a relaxing night in
Nae ireumeun Kim Sam-soon (2005)
As Good As A K-TV Series Will Ever Get
My Name is Kim Samsoon (sometimes called My Lovely Samsoon) is original, funny, clever and a genuine breakthrough TV series.
Allegedly fat, old and plain (that is, she's not skinny, coming up 30, and she doesn't wear make-up and skin-tight clothes), Samsoon is a pastry chef who stumbles into a job by slamming a home-made mango mousse in the face of her future employer, owner of a Western-style cuisine restaurant. Through this unlikely event, she becomes an indispensable member of his staff, and eventually a beloved part of his life. On paper it looks like a cookie-cutter K-Comedrama. This couldn't be further from the truth.
To enumerate the twists and turns of the series is almost doing it a disservice. For instance: there's a potentially terminal illness; a car accident resulting in two deaths and two traumatised survivors; a 'love contract' that would never happen in real life; and past love affairs that ended miserably and continue to affect the present. All these ideas have been explored before, but never in quite the way they are tackled here.
The series has a lot to say about the role of Korean women, male-female dynamics and control, class, money, obedience and tradition, self-worth, and the value society places on physical beauty and a feminine ideal to which a woman like Samsoon could never and would never conform. But it's all handled with tremendous humour and intelligence, and frequently with genuine pathos.
Played with zest and conviction by lead actress Kim Seon-a, Samsoon, third daughter of a grist-mill owner, has had only a basic formal education. She has a tart mouth and a temper, ready to use her fists when wronged, but she's multi-dimensional, quick-witted, ready to defend herself and others, gentle and compassionate, and capable of great depth and loyalty. She's believable because she's occasionally annoying, sometimes immature, and often hopelessly sentimental.
The role of the rich, fussy, arrogant restaurant Boss (Hyeon Jin-heon) is played by Hyeon Bin with an iciness that's underscored by sadness. The reasons for his thoughtless behaviour start to become more clear when we see his relationship with his sometimes shrewish mother, whom he almost exclusively refers to, with great sarcasm, by her job title. It's a tricky role, because we as an audience are also supposed to grow to love him, as Samsoon eventually does, but it's no easy task: the script calls upon this character to say and do some truly cruel things, but it is balanced by the demonstration of his obvious love for his niece, and the gradual revelation that his heart had been completely broken, and not just once.
Of course, it's not perfect. Some of the other roles are a little underwritten, particularly those of 'love rival' Yoo Hee Jin (played by Jeong Ryeo-won), and that of Henry Kim (Daniel Henney), the Korean-American doctor who appears unexpectedly and further fans the flames. There are a few too many contrivances, but overall this sixteen episode series is uniformly well-acted, especially by some of the minor characters like Samsoon's mother. Kim Seon-a's comic-timing is frequently incredible, and she's a pleasure to watch, as is the entire series.
One note: The English subtitles are indifferent and occasionally incompetent, but if you can read Chinese or speak Korean, this won't be a problem. Ultimately, it's unlikely to spoil your enjoyment.
Indian seommeo (2001)
Predictable but oddly affecting
As courtroom/relationship dramas go, this one is obvious yet refreshingly portrayed.
A brief synopsis of the plot might go something like this: a lawyer with a temper and a habit of dressing improperly in court (which by Korean standards appears to mean a suit and trainers), finds himself representing a woman accused of murdering her husband.
He sees her for the first time in court, and is of course smitten. And of course, we are left wondering - did she or didn't she? No surprises so far. This movie has been made so many times before, under various titles and in various languages, and will be again, so one wonders: why make yet another with a story line this well-worn? It's a fair question, but the conviction of the players, lead and support roles both, and the naturalism of the acting is enough to push this film out of mediocrity and into something that approaches compelling.
Of the two leads, it is Shin-yang Park as the lawyer who is most affecting and effective. Emotionally stretched by the woman, played by Mi-yeon Lee, but unwilling to give her up, he is pulled from pillar to post trying to build a relationship with a fragile person, who may or may not be guilty of murder. Lee is less effective, but it might just be that the role itself is so understated, and therefore underplayed, that it's hard at times to see why he is so besotted by her.
It's not the best movie you will ever see, but it is well executed, well-acted and very enjoyable. And, somewhat amazingly for a recent Korean film, strong-sex-and-violence free. Recommended, but not unreservedly.
Boli zhi cheng (1998)
Flawed but Not A Complete Waste
Starring Leon Lai and Shu Qi, this is a small scope film with epic aspirations that don't quite come off. If you like one or the other actor, you will probably find something to like in the film.
Ostensibly, this is the story of two young people falling in love in times of political and social turmoil, and then separated by circumstance and differing goals. One goes to Paris to study, the other stays behind in Hong Kong. They marry other people, and both have a child. When they are reunited by chance at a Mandarin language school, they realise they have never stopped loving each other, and the obligatory affair ensues. Now both rich and successful, they are able to buy a home together and take flying lessons in their spare time. It's hard to feel sympathy for them, however: they seem like two people who never quite let go of adolescence and embraced adulthood.
By contrast, the more interesting story is that of the now grown children, played by Daniel Ng and Nicola Cheung, through whom the story of the parents is told in retrospect. They are sweet and believable, much more so than the parents. Daniel Ng in particular, was a pleasant surprise, and Nicola Chueng displayed charm and depth. Their relationship is more affecting, since it's initially based on mutual suffering and loss, but then gradually more on genuine affection.
The plot has very little suspense, which is necessary for a film such as this to work, since the denouement is revealed at the beginning of the film. It did seem rather a lot like an excuse for Leon Lai and Shu Qi to gaze winsomely into middle distance, and I maintain my position that Mr Lai should never be allowed within spitting distance of a microphone or a guitar, but if you are hard up for something to watch on a rainy evening with your girlfriends, this may just hit the spot for you.
Goo nam gwa lui (2000)
Sweet as Sugar but without the Toothache
I won't bother to describe the plot because what's going to happen is obvious within the first ten minutes. So while it may be predictable and even unrealistic, as all romantic comedies are, it's done with such lightheartedness, and with so much comic flair, that it's a joy to watch.
Both actors (Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau) are in their element, and although they may not be stretched dramatically, they are convincing and sweet. Watching Kinki put Hua Shao through an emotional wringer that leads him to adopt her habit of chronic cleaning when stressed, is funny and touching.
There are logic problems and convenient occurrences that force the characters together, but since that's what the audience wants all along, the pleasure is in watching them get there.
This is not a feel-good movie, it's a feel-wonderful movie. Highly recommended.
Sau sun nam lui (2001)
Sweet as Honey and Still Filling
If you're looking for a potential source of wall to wall fat jokes, look elsewhere. This is no Shallow Hal.
In terms of plot, it's nothing unexpected. A recently large lady, Mini Mo (Sammi Cheng), pines after her old boyfriend, a classical pianist whose work forced them apart. Lonely and depressed she turns to food.
While stranded in Japan, where she has spent all her money following her old boyfriend around the recital circuit, she meets an equally large man, always called Fatso (Andy Lau), a travelling knife salesman. In order to make a sale, he reluctantly takes on the responsibility of caring for her, then genuinely comes to like her. Their growing friendship inspires her to shed the pounds so that she has the courage to meet her old boyfriend, who she hopes will take her back. Mini and Fatso undergo a series of tests to the friendship and gradually fall in love. Because Mini is still theoretically in love with the Pianist, they go on as if nothing is between them, though both know there is definitely something. The novelty is, they are still very large people when this happens.
The tension, for all movies in this genre must have tension, is: who will Mini choose? The perfect Ex or this Larger than Life Man who loves her enough to send himself to the poorhouse, and become a human punching bag, so that she can achieve her dreams?
This movie just may be Andy Lau's best performance. Hidden under a pretty convincing 300lb fat suit (apart from the rather fake-looking hands), the handsome People's Idol is invisible. With his eyes the only thing recognisable, we get a fully fleshed-out character with insecurities and flaws. Lau seems to relish the opportunity to be less than physically perfect, throwing himself into the role with obvious enjoyment.
The equally attractive Sammi Cheng is adorable, even when throwing a tantrum in a parking lot. Her comic timing is spot on, and her facial expressions have to be seen to be believed.
Far from perfect, but sweet, tender and funny, it stands up to repeated viewings.
Do lok tin si (1995)
Uneven but Deeply Affecting
We follow the lives of five isolated and desperately lonely people who will cling to anything that will make them Feel.
One is a Hit-man (Leon Lai) who does his job in a messy but workmanlike fashion. He kills several people at once, then he switches off the light as he leaves and hops a bus to go home, just like those who work 9-5. On one of these bus rides, he is recognised by an old friend from school, whose 'normal life' reminds him of how much he hates his own. He wants to get out, but he doesn't know how to do anything else.
Another is the Partner of the Hit-man (Michelle Reis), who sets up his jobs for him and cleans his flat when he's not there. They have never met but she develops an obsession with him that includes taking his garbage home and rifling through it, going to his favourite bar and sitting in his favourite seat, and masturbating on his bed, because it makes her feel close to him. He is aware of what she's doing, but doesn't know how to handle it. He arranges to met her but can't bring himself to show up.
A third character is a Man-Child (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who lost his voice eating a can of rotten pineapple. He roams the streets at night, breaking into shops and imagining he is working there. He also forces goods and services on people, who as often as not give him money just to get rid of him. He lives with his father in a small and stuffy apartment in a large and run-down building that also houses Michelle Reis's character. They know each other by sight, but they never speak.
The fourth main character is a Girl (Charlie Young) who finds out over the phone that the man she loves is marrying someone else. In her rage and brokenness, she latches on to the Man-Child, who then fancies himself in love with her. She is all he has. But just as quickly as she appears, she leaves. Later he sees her on the street, cleaned-up and apparently leading a better life. He tries to get her attention but she ignores him. She doesn't want to be reminded.
The fifth character (Karen Mok) is a bleached blonde who is close to having a nervous breakdown. In an otherwise empty McDonalds, she insinuates herself on the Hit-man, who it turns out was once her lover. He doesn't recognise her, which seems to be the story of her life. He tells her straight out that he doesn't want anything other than a companion for the night, and in the absence of anything better, she agrees. She imagines she will woo him into changing his mind and staying with her.
This film left me with an internal atmosphere I couldn't shake for days. It's claustrophobic, meandering, chaotic and at times very indulgent, but overall it's a sad, moving study of loss and emptiness, and people's inability to connect with others.
Shi mian mai fu (2004)
As beautiful as a dream, and just as fraught with logic problems
Beautiful and poetic, the first two-thirds of this film are sensational.
Murder, revenge, love, betrayal - these are all tired by-words that bounce off a potential movie-goers brain when we see them in advertisements. If that's your response too, this time I urge you to ignore it, because, final score notwithstanding, there is so much to be savoured and enjoyed in just looking at the screen.
Zhang Yimou, once a photographer and cinematographer himself, has an exquisite eye. Colour is a recurring feature of his films, with a life and story of it's own to tell, and this film is textured almost to the point of gluttony. To call it breathtaking is not overstating it. But unlike the deliberate stylisation of Hero, the settings here are much earthier. You can feel each flower and blade of grass, and marvel at the vivid detail in the costumes. It's wildly sensuous on a visual level. The drama, as we have seen from Zhang before, is heightened by the moodiness of the weather, and emotions are expressed through the changing of seasons.
The combat sequences are inventively executed, giving the violence an uneasy beauty. As is often the case in this genre, the fights might astound you with the precision and power of the choreography, but they keep you at a distance from the pain and injury. Not so in the final showdown between the characters Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau Tak Wah). This is a man's fight, brutal, bloody, messy and decidedly ungraceful. When Leo raises his sword to kill Jin, he means it. His anger is so ferocious that it can only be represented by a drastic change in season. Mid fight, Autumn becomes Winter, showing that the friendship these men once had has gone irreparably from cool tolerance to icy, implacable fury. It is a feature of the novels from which many of these stories are taken, that the martial arts skill of the protagonists is so great they are actually able to harness the power of the elements to use to their own advantage. This may or may not be the case here; no-one benefits from the snow and sleet, for all, as Shakespeare once put it, are punished.
However, when the melodrama hits, the rhapsody is seriously tainted. In any movie, some suspension of disbelief is a given, but when it's suspended over a gaping chest wound and under three feet of snow, and it's already hanging by the thinnest of threads, it becomes comical instead of dramatic. My friend and me both wailed with disbelief every time Mei (Zhang Ziyi) was resurrected towards the end (Don't tell me she's getting up AGAIN!??). Had she died the first time she was stabbed, and actually stayed dead, the effectiveness of the movie would have been increased by 90%. Unfortunately, some of the high marks earned were lost by the stupidity of this plot-point.
Further, the dialogue at key moments was just cheesy and embarrassing. I thought perhaps it was a translation problem, but my friend, who is from Mainland China, assured me it was in equally poor taste in Mandarin. Such a pity, because it could've been salvaged by some ruthless script doctoring.
First two thirds: 7/10 Last third: 3/10 Score out of 10 = 5.5, but I'll round it up to 6.
(As an aside, Andy Lau's Mandarin was an achievement in itself. I understand it was dubbed later to achieve the maximum correct pronunciation, but at least it was dubbed by him and not another actor. After watching around half of his hundred or so movies, all in Cantonese, it was a great pleasure to see him take on the task and do so well. My friend would not believe it was him, it was so good.)
Tian mi mi (1996)
A Wonderful Film
This movie is delightful from start to finish. Although some of the coincidences and chance meetings are highly improbable (both going to NYC? Both watching the same TV set at the same time?), they cannot spoil what is a genuinely touching and moving experience.
Instead of a the usual scenario where two people try desperately to find love, the two leads, Li Chiao (Maggie Cheung) and Li Xiao Jun (Leon Lai), try desperately to avoid it. Both Mainlanders, she has come to Hong Kong to make her fortune; he has come to earn enough money to marry his long-time fiancée back on the Mainland. Through a brief meeting in a McDonalds where Li Chiao works one of her several part-time jobs, and Xiao Jun has come to experience the unknown-in-his-hometown food, they become friends. They discover a shared love for the songs of Taiwanese singer Teresa Tang, which become the soundtrack to their relationship. Both are lonely, and gradually they form a genuine friendship, then a not-so-casual intimate relationship. Their struggle to remain true to their original goal in coming to Hong Kong leads to an emotional crisis for both them and their partners. The struggle takes place over a ten year period, during which they separate only to keep bumping into one another and reopening old wounds. The resolution of this struggle is sweet indeed.
The lead actors are both exceptional, particularly Leon Lai, who always seemed to be playing a variation on himself until this film. He is completely believable as the naive and trusting Xiao Jun, and Maggie Cheung is, as ever, radiant and affecting. The songs of Teresa Tang are used to great effect, one of which gives the film it's title (Tian mi mi, the title of the Chinese version, roughly translates as Sweet Like Honey).
Loses a point for the number of coincidences, but otherwise unreservedly recommended.