South Korea

THE ADMIRAL

Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) was a revered Korean military commander, but after a Japanese plot involving false intelligence left him looking like a traitor he was relieved of duty and tortured by the men he had previously served and fought beside. The government’s attitude changes though when a second Japanese invasion heads towards their shores in 1597. The invaders sink most of the Korean navy and aim their forces for the capital, Joseon, leading a reluctant king to reinstate Yi as their last hope of fending off the enemy. He has his work cut out for him as only twelve ships remain in his ocean-going arsenal, a number that pales beside the 300+ Japanese vessels heading their way, but with the right strategy and the right location one man can fend off thousands. Well, that’s his working theory anyway. The Admiral — also known as the far more accurate and descriptive Roaring Currents outside of the U.S. — is a new South Korean film that tackles a legendary true tale from the Joseon Dynasty period, and it does so with historical detail and cinematic flair. In a way it splits those two attributes evenly into two halves of the film, and while both have their strengths they’re equally balanced by somewhat minor issues.

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CJ Entertainment

If you had to list the greatest naval warfare films — specifically ones focused on surface combat as opposed to submarine action — how many of them would be movies released in this century? You’ve got Peter Weir’s Master and Commander in 2001 and then… what? (Sorry, but the Pirates of the Caribbean films are not great, and I’m not currently drunk enough to allow an argument for the inclusion of Battleship.) The challenge grows only slightly easier if we extend the time frame to films released in the last fifty years and remove the “greatest” qualifier. For whatever reason, filmmakers just aren’t making ocean-set tales of war these days. Odds are it’s a cost issue, and that’s a shame as the sub-genre (not to be confused with the sub sub-genre) is one rich with exciting true-life stories and opportunities for incredible action and visuals. Happily, South Korean director Kim Han-min (War of the Arrows) didn’t get the memo on avoiding naval warfare movies. His latest feature, The Admiral: Roaring Currents, recounts one of Korea’s greatest military battles, a 16th century incident that saw Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) sink over 300 Japanese ships with only a dozen Korean vessels at his command. Check out the official trailer below.

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. The Daybreakers are a group of five men whose rap sheets include murder, armed robbery, assault and worse, but after trying their hand at kidnapping a three year old boy only to see the ransom drop go bust they decide to add something new to their repertoire — fatherhood. They raise the boy, now named Hwayi (Yeo Jin-gu), as their own. It’s a harsh childhood as five sociopathic fathers is no replacement for the love of a real parent, but he learns kindness and affection from his surrogate mother, Yeong-joo (Lim Ji-eun), who’s also a long-term captive of the men. Hwayi is raised to fear and respect his fathers, but they’re also capable of bonding with the boy in an attempt to shape him into one of them. Over the years they teach him their various specialties until finally, twelve years after stealing him from his parents, they take him on a job and pressure him to make his first kill. Already affected by being forced to murder someone, Hwayi is thrown for a far bigger loop when he discovers the identity of the victim and the details of his own existence. Hwayi: A Monster Boy is a rare example — and I don’t say this lightly — of nearly perfect genre cinema. Writer/director Jang Joon-hwan‘s long-awaited follow-up to 2003’s Save the Green Planet is a deft and bloody melange of action, suspense, comedy, heart, drama and humanity […]

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Fantasia 2014

Fantasia International Film Festival 2014 runs July 17 to August 6. Follow all of our coverage here. A family is involved in a minor fender bender and proceed to snap some pics of the accident, but South Korean soldiers arrive in an attempt to confiscate their cameras. No photos are allowed this close to the border between South and North Korea, but the matriarch of the family stands firm asking the soldier incredulously, “What, do you think we’re spies?” Of course they are North Korean spies, passing themselves off as an entire family of four, and they’ve been living and working in the South for years. But while they’ve committed murder and other deeds in the name of the Great Leader back home the pressures of being away from their own families as well as being immersed in a more free and open society are beginning to take a toll. When news from the North triggers the team to take an unsanctioned action they find themselves on the wrong side of their vicious handlers and facing the end of not only their mission but also of their lives. Think of Red Family as a season of “The Americans” condensed into a 100 minutes, and you’ll have an idea of the genre dynamics and subjects at play here. The balance between honoring and respecting their homeland while facing constant exposure to a place that goes against everything they ever knew leads to temptations, behaviors and decisions that Kim Jong-un would most definitely […]

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NYAFF 2014

NYAFF 2014 runs June 27-July 14 in New York City. Follow all of our coverage here. Being a member of an elite police surveillance team requires more than a few skills, and Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-ju) thinks she has what it takes. She’s observant and aware of her surroundings, she knows how to blend in to a crowd and she’s capable of defending herself if necessary. Her only weakness really is a refusal to follow orders when it means letting an innocent person suffer, whether they be partner or passerby. Her skills are put to the test when a brash and brutally effective team of bank robbers starts targeting the city’s financial institutions leading to deadly confrontations. Her boss, Chief Detective Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu) believes his team is up to the task, but when the criminal mastermind known only as James (Jung Woo-sung) catches their eye he realizes too late that some of them may be in over their heads. Cold Eyes is a simply-plotted but fantastically entertaining thriller that manages impressive action sequences and scenes of suspense alongside character development and a sense of humor. It shouldn’t be a difficult combination, but so few films seem capable of finding that balance as well as this one.

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review the attorney

It’s easy to forget for those of us in the United States that as recently as the mid 1980s South Korea was under a military-led despotic rule. Post-war Korea saw universities and libraries at risk of closure, free speech and freedom of the press curtailed, and the concept of democracy destined to be little more than a dream. That ended less than thirty years ago, but for many South Koreans it must seem like only yesterday. Their action/revenge films may be the ones that most frequently reach our shores, but the Korean film industry also has a subgenre of films exploring this delicate and frightening time in their relatively recent history. Im Sang-soo’s excellent and absurd The President’s Last Bang is one of the more well-known examples, and Yang Woo-seok‘s The Attorney begins roughly around the same time in the late ’70s. Song Woo-seok (Song Kang-ho) is a lawyer whose lack of “proper” education has forced him to be craftier in his trade than those around him. His tactics earn him scorn and derision along with a healthy income, but his thirst for cash takes a backseat when he stumbles into a case involving government-sanctioned torture of Korean citizens. On the surface, The Attorney is a David & Goliath-type tale about a lone lawyer standing up for what’s right against the power and threats of a corrupt police department and legal system. It works well enough on that front to satisfy viewers looking for a dramatically thrilling story, but the film earns […]

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clip the suspect

South Korea produces a higher consistency of quality action-thrillers than any other country. Fact? Opinion? Either way it’s true to me. The last few years alone have seen a barrage of near-instant classics including The Man From Nowhere, The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, A Company Man, Confession of Murder, Secret Reunion, I Saw the Devil, and more. Their success comes from a combination of attitude and aesthetic with the other common element being some stellar fight/action choreography. The most recent film hoping to join the ranks of the ones above is The Suspect. Director Won Shin-yeon‘s latest comes six years after his solid 2007 thriller, Seven Days, but unlike that one this appears to have a somewhat political bent. The story follows a North Korean defector now living in the South who is forced on the run after he’s accused of a triple murder. All is not as it seems though, and soon some explosive truths come to light. Check out an exclusive clip below featuring the first of The Suspect‘s many fight scenes.

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ff moebius

Silence is golden, unless you’re Kim Ki-duk. For Kim it is just another void to stuff to its breaking point with all things emotionally jarring. Outside of natural ambiance and some sparse music, Moebius is devoid of any audible dialog. Instead it relies on the power of performances and the intensity of a wickedly sharp and revolting story. This time around the South Korean director sets his sights on family dysfunction, and make no bones about it, he has a killer eye and won’t blink. Moebius‘ vulture like focus hovers around a family already stretched to its tensile limit. Mom drinks, Dad dabbles in less than secret infidelity, and their son (Seo Young-joo) is a meek, silent witness to their ensuing battles. When mom’s jealously boils over, the knives literally come out, inflicting visceral and devastating wounds to the ones she loves. Unable to cope with the maelstrom she removes herself from the turmoil, leaving the fragments of her family to sift through the ruins to salvage what they can.

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review the terror live

Single location thrillers can be tough on filmmakers and audiences alike, but things get a little easier the bigger you make that single location. A coffin (Buried), a car trunk (Brake) and a remote banking stand (ATM) pose all kinds of troubles, but what if the location was a radio station studio in a highrise building with a view? Yoon Young-hwa (Ha Jung-woo) was a high profile TV news anchor before being demoted to radio talk show host after some embarrassing and potentially dirty dealings. In the middle of his latest show discussing the pros and cons of federal taxes a disgruntled caller threatens to blow up a downtown bridge. Thinking the man is little more than a radio troll Yoon encourages the act before moving on to the next caller. An explosion outside the office’s windows reveals a smoking bridge near collapse, but instead of bringing in the authorities Yoon moves fast to secure a deal to return him to a network anchor chair knowing the man will be calling again. He’s less sure of his plan once he discovers there’s a bomb in his earpiece too. What follows is an often tense but occasionally inane back and forth as Yoon tries to milk the situation for personal gain. The Terror Live moves forward mostly in real time, and it finds an interesting and suspenseful footing early. By the time it hits the third act though all pretense of real world logic or consequence has gone out the window, […]

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nyaff lesson of the evil

The 2013 New York Asian Film Festival runs June 28 – July 15. If you’re lucky enough to be in the area and interested in tickets check out the official NYAFF page here, but if not feel free to follow along with us as we take a look at several of the movies playing the fest this year. As the name implies the festival presents new and select films from several countries including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Our fourth look at the films of NYAFF 2013 examines the evils that men (and women) do in the name of fame, madness and love.

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fo berlin file

Korean cinema has developed certain genre expectations over the years, and those external pressures seem to dictate a lot of what gets made and distributed internationally. Violent revenge and romantic comedy seem to be the two areas that encompass much of people’s perception of Korean films thanks to break-out hits like Old Boy and My Sassy Girl having spawned dozens of hopeful imitators. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as numerous quality films have released under these generic genre banners, but it’s still nice to see Korean filmmakers moving outside those comfort zones. Ryoo Seung-wan‘s The Berlin File doesn’t necessarily break new ground within the action/spy genre (thanks to predecessors like JSA and Shiri), but for one of the first times the action and drama takes place entirely outside of Korea. The film follows a North Korean spy stationed in modern-day Berlin who is framed by his own agency when a deal turns deadly. He and his estranged wife, who’s also been implicated, are forced on the run with agents from both sides of the Korean peninsula chasing after them. The plot grows ever complicated, too much so unfortunately, but the action set-pieces including gunfights and hand-to-hand combat are impeccably done and exciting as hell.

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fo_taste of money

Im Sang-soo‘s The Housemaid is a devastating look at class distinctions in South Korea couched in a film that manages to be sexy, blackly comic and stunningly photographed. Its heady mix of beauty and wit makes it a film that stuns and engages on multiple levels. Im’s latest film, The Taste of Money, takes aim at a similar target, but while nearly every frame is pleasing to the eye it misses the mark in some key areas. Yoon (Baek Yun-shik) is the CEO of a large Korean corporation looking to expand into the Americas, but while he runs the company his wife Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jung) rules everything else with a watchful eye and an iron fist. Her secretary Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) is ambitious and looking to climb the ladder of wealth and status, but the behaviors he witnesses are slowly breaking his resolve. The couple’s grown daughter, Na-mi (Kim Hyo-jin), is torn between the lifestyle and pangs of kindness and sympathy with those around them. Memories of a certain housemaid who perished before her eyes aren’t helping matters any either. Yoon beats them both to the conscientious punch though when he falls in love with the maid (Maui Taylor) he’s been diddling on the side and decides to walk away and choose happiness over wealth. His actions don’t sit well with Geum-ok, especially as they coincide with legal issues brought on by their son’s (On Ju-wan) illicit behavior, and soon events take an even darker turn.

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The Host

Bong Joon-ho‘s 2006 hit, The Host, was both a domestic success and an international one that accomplished two things in short order: it moved Bong to the list of top tier Korean directors, and it showed that the country was capable of large scale, effects-heavy productions. It’s also an incredibly entertaining flick. Box-office made a sequel inevitable, but without Bong’s involvement it floundered like a fish out of water for years with only a hint of a plot synopsis seeing the light of day. Finally though proof has arrived that someone somewhere has actually been working on this thing. (No, not the pic above. That’s from the original film.) But this clip isn’t! Consider it proof and check out the first clip from The Host 2 below.

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Foreign Objects - Large

An elaborate theft involving high flying acrobatics, gadgetry and a con job opens writer/director Choi Dong-hoon‘s latest action/comedy, The Thieves, and it sets a perfect tone for the next hour. Close calls and comedic scrapes trade time with insult-filled bickering amidst the group of thieves always looking out for their next score, but when the tight-knit Korean gang joins forces with a Chinese team for an enormous theft the banter takes on a far more dangerous edge. Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok) is the connective tissue bringing the two groups together with the goal of liberating a $30 million diamond called the Tear of the Sun away from its current owner. Each side, and each individual thief, brings a necessary element to the job, but they also bring an unavoidable uncertainty as to their loyalties. The predicament is reminiscent of the tale of the frog and the scorpion trying to cross a river… except in the world of thieves everyone is a scorpion.

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31 Days of Horror - October 2011

They said it couldn’t be done. A fifth year of 31 Days of Horror? 31 more terror, gore and shower scene-filled movies worth highlighting? But Rejects always say die and never back away from a challenge, so we’ve rounded up the horror fans among us and put together another month’s worth of genre fun. Enjoy! Synopsis: Father Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is searching for ways to help his flock, but when a failed medical experiment leaves him with a thirst for blood and a craving for life’s more carnal desires he finds serving the Lord may no longer be an option. Complicating things further is a young woman named Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) whose plea for help leads to seduction, murder and a threat to his new lifestyle. Director Park Chan-wook‘s last Korean film before turning his eye towards his upcoming American debut (Stoker) is a sexy, bloody, beautifully shot and blackly comic horror film.

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The beginning of a filmmaker’s career is often the most exciting time to watch as their developing abilities are a visibly tangible thing. Talents on display in a first film can mature greatly by the time a sophomore effort sees a release. This year’s Fantastic Fest already has one example of such a feat with the Soska Sisters’ American Mary which, narrative issues aside, is a tremendous leap in quality from their debut (Dead Hooker In a Trunk). South Korean director Oh Young-doo has accomplished a similar feat with his second film, Young Gun In the Time. And not only is it an improvement over Invasion of Alien Bikini, it’s a pretty great film period. Young Gun (Hong Young-geun) is a private eye with mounting debt and a lack of clients, and with a secretary (Ha Eun-jung) who doubles as his landlord he’s forced to take any case that comes along. He draws the line at murder though so when a young, cute, hoodie-wearing scientist named Song-hyun (Choi Song-hyeon) appears asking him to find a mysterious watch and kill its owner he refuses on principle. Minutes later he watches helplessly as she’s abducted on the street and killed. Racked with guilt and more than a little bit curious he begins to investigate the case anyway and soon finds himself caught up with a mysterious murderer and a possible time-travel device. And then he sees Song-hyun walking around perfectly healthy and alive.

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King of Pigs

Editor’s Note: This review appeared as part of our coverage of the 11th Annual New York Asian Film Festival, and we’re bringing it back to be part of our Fantastic Fest coverage. Animated films are traditionally the home of kiddie fare and pure entertainment, but on rare occasions filmmakers use the format to tell decidedly adult stories. Heavy Metal is probably the most notorious example, but even rarer are the animated films that attempt to tell truly dramatic tales about more than big boobed space warriors and horny robots. The Plague Dogs and When the Wind Blows are two fantastic examples of serious films with serious themes being told by way of animation. And now one more bleak, occasionally stunning and depressing as hell cartoon can be added to that short list. Kyung-min stands naked in the shower as his recently deceased wife sits dead at the kitchen table. Jong-suk suspects his wife is cheating on him and knocks her to the ground in his rage. The two men, once childhood friends, reunite after two decades apart to commiserate and reflect on their last year together in middle school. The year they discovered their place among the lowly, subservient pigs and the cruel, entitled dogs. The year they first noticed the small smile of tired acceptance worn by the defeated. The year they met Chul, a young boy who showed them how even a pig could fight back by matching brutality with brutality.

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Foreign Objects - Large

Little Ye-eun is dying. The child has a weak heart on the edge of failure, and if she doesn’t get a transplant soon it will be too late. Her mother, Yeon-hee (Kim Yun-jin), is desperate and willing to go outside the usual channels to find her daughter a heart. An opportunity arises from a shady source, but when Yeon-hee is introduced to the still-living man whose heart she’s meant to have she decides that taking advantage of his situation is going too far. And then her daughter gets even sicker. Hwi-do (Park Hae-il) is a wannabe thug always looking for the angle that will net him a payday. He constantly harasses his estranged mother for money, but shortly after she cuts him off for good with a final payout she has a stroke and ends up in a coma on life support. Knowing the woman’s prognosis is poor, Yeon-hee offers money to Hwi-do if he’ll pull the plug so the heart can go to little Ye-eun. What should be a simple (if not morbid) transaction soon spirals out of control when Hwi-do decides he wants his mother to live and Yeon-hee decides she’s done waiting.

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Foreign Objects - Large

South Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk has been a critically acclaimed filmmaker for almost as long as he’s been a controversial one. From his debut in 1996 with Crocodile to 2008’s Dream he made fifteen films of varying quality and similar themes usually populated by violent loners searching for love and acceptance in the worst ways possible. Their journeys often included both inward and outward-facing acts of brutality, and they rarely spared the fairer sex from the abuse. It’s that last bit that led to Kim being labeled on more than one occasion as an unrepentant misogynist. For a director averaging more than a film a year his subsequent three year absence from cinema following Dream left many people, both fans and detractors, wondering as to the reason. Had he quit the movies due to their poor reception in his home country? Had he finally run out of rage, emotion or ideas? Had he moved to Hollywood to pursue a gig on the next Hunger Games sequel? It turns out to be none of the above. Kim returned to theaters this year with a documentary of sorts called Arirang. (He also returned to Cannes and left with the Un Certain Regard award.) Written, directed, produced, edited, lit, shot and catered by Kim, and featuring nobody but Kim, the film acts as an explanation of his sabbatical and a look into his mind, heart and occasionally tortured soul. Exactly how much of it is the truth though may be up for debate…

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Foreign Objects - Large

The beaches of Normandy were most likely filled with many surprises on D-Day, but one of the most unexpected had to have been US soldiers finding a Korean man surrendering to them while wearing a German uniform. His footnote in history forms the basis of the most expensive Korean film ever made, My Way. Kim Jun-shik is a Korean farmer’s son who even as a young boy is known for his love of running. The late twenties saw Japan invade and retain control of Korea, and when a new Japanese headmaster arrives Jun-shik immediately forms a rivalry with the man’s spoiled son, Tatsuo Hasegawa. The two boys compete through their teen years and carry that battle of wills into WWII when Jun-shik and many other Koreans are conscripted to fight for the Japanese against the Allies. The film follows Jun-shik through a deadly series of explosive adventures and sadistic nightmares that eventually lands him in German fabric firing a machine gun at the encroaching Americans. It’s director Kang Je-kyu’s first film in seven years and sees him return to the genre that gave him his last triumph, Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood. This time he’s moved from the battlefields of the Korean war to the international landscape of World War II, and the result is even more bombastic, brutal and epic. But what Kang gains in scope and graphic detail he loses in nuance, character and honest emotion. The result is a visual feast that leaves the eyes and ears satiated but […]

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published: 11.21.2014
D
published: 11.21.2014
B+
published: 11.19.2014
C+
published: 11.19.2014
B-, C


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