The King of Jokgu (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Let me play Jokgu!

thekingofjokgu02 Before talking about South Korean film “The King of Jokgu”, I must confess to you that I do not know anything about “Jokgu”, a Korean term for foot volley. I have never played it with others, and I have never seen Jokgu games as far as I can remember, and I do not know much about its rules, except that players are only allowed to use feet instead of hands when they handle their ball.

But that was not a big problem for me at all when I watched this hilarious comedy film, which is probably the funniest South Korea movie of this year. Its premise is corny and ridiculous to say the least, but the movie cheerfully pushes its fairly predictable plot with its colorful assembly of likable performances to be savored, and it keeps its ball hanged in the air through a bunch of good laughs generated from silly and amusing human behaviors we can easily recognize.

When we meet our hero Bong Man-seop(Ahn Jae-hong) during the opening scene, he is enjoying his another Jokgu game with the other soldiers in his unit, but now his fun time is about to be over. This is the last day of his obligatory military service, and that means he will soon return to the society as an ordinary college student after his official discharge.

While he is happy to be back in his campus, things do not look that promising for him from the beginning. He is assigned to a dormitory room which he shares with three other students, and the senior student in the room sternly advises Man-seop that he should prepare himself up for the next step of his life before it is too late. His new semester seems to start well at first, but then there is a problem involved with his student loan; although he gets a couple of part-time jobs to pay back his loan, he keeps getting calls from the bank, which demands him to pay the interest as soon as possible(and it turns out they are very serious about that).

thekingofjokgu06But all Man-seop cares about at present is playing Jokgu. When he learns that the place where he and others played Jokgu becomes a tennis court, he becomes determined to get his Jokgu ground back. With a junior student named Chang-ho(Kang Bong-seong) as his bumbling sidekick, he petitions to the college chancellor, and he also asks other students to sign his petition, but, not so surprisingly, he does not get much response from them.

And then something happens to change this hopeless situation. During his English class, Man-seop meets Anna(Hwang Seung-eon), and he is instantly attracted to this pretty girl who is also the queen of the campus. While she seems to be in the relationship with Kang Min(Jeong Woo-sik), Anna does not mind about dating Man-seop as he desires, and that certainly makes Kang Min sulky about what is going on between Man-seop and Anna. As a former professional soccer player who was once very popular before his unfortunate injury, Kang Min challenges Man-seop to a Jokgu duel for a woman they both like, and their Jokgu duel unexpectedly goes viral on the Internet as everyone watching on their duel out of curiosity.

Thanks to this happening, Jokgu quickly becomes popular around the campus, and the chancellor, who also has a soft spot for Jokgu like any average South Korean old guys, gladly allows the Jokgu tournament to be held in the campus, so we get the familiar scenes of characters preparing for their upcoming games. Because Man-seop’s team needs the third member besides him and Chang-ho, an overweight female student named Mi-rae(Hwang Mi-yeong) joins their team, and one of the big laughs in the movie comes from the scene where they realize how hopeless she is as a Jokgu player. Yes, her appearance is certainly an easy target for laughs, but the movie never looks down on this character, and her growing relationship with Chang-ho is rather sweet to watch.

thekingofjokgu03 While you can easily guess how things will be played out during the Jokgu game scenes, the movie is still fun and engaging even during its most predictable moments thanks to its bouncing wit and energy. As a guy who has spent almost 15 years in the KAIST campus, I liked its ordinary but pleasant campus mood, and I could not help but be amused by a very funny scene involved with the open talk session between the chancellor and a group of students in the auditorium. While he may be an ineffectual chancellor who somehow got his position, the chancellor gives blunt and honest answers to his students’ questions, and that certainly makes his fastidious aid very uncomfortable.

As the hapless but lovable hero, Ahn Jae-hong instantly wins our affection in his amiable comic performance which will be a breakthrough for his career. Like Song Kang-ho, Ahn has natural likability in his screen presence, and you cannot help but cheer for his character even when you are well aware of a transient victory he passionately pursues. Regardless of whether he wins his final game or not, his mundane life with no promising future will be there for him as before, but he is willing to go all the way for getting another excitement from a trivial sport he dearly loves, and I must admit that there is something admirable about his innocent passion.

thekingofjokgu04 The supporting performers around Anh are solid with extra laughs for us. Hwang Seung-eon has a fun with her character while being credible in her character’s complicated feelings about two men around her, and she and Ahn have a surprisingly emotional scene during their English class presentation where they have to play a certain scene from the “Back to the Future” trilogy. While Jeong Woo-sik is also good as the third character in the triangle relationship in the story, Ryoo Hye-rin and Park Ho-san are fun to watch as seasoned college students, and they make a nice contrast to Jeong Woo-sik and Hwang Mi-yeong.

This is the debut film by the director Woo Moon-gi, and he handles well the screenplay by Kim Tae-gon with a good sense of comic timing as engaging our attention through his competent direction. While there are several exaggerated moments which may look too cartoonish for you, this is a comedy willing to do anything for laughs, and it succeeds in most cases while drawing good laughs from us. I still do not have much interest in Jokgu, but this is a small, charming fun to play and laugh with.


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Night Flight (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Alone in a harsh school life

nightlfight01 When I searched for the articles about South Korean film “Night Flight” not long after watching it, I came across an article about its press conference attended by the director Lee Song-hee-il and his actors. According to the director, the foreign audiences were shocked by its depiction of harsh school life when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, and they asked him later whether teachers and students are really cruel and uncaring like that in South Korean schools.

I cannot say whether things have changed much in the South Korean education system since I managed to escape from my high school without any serious trouble 14 years ago, but I can say that “Night Flight” touched some unpleasant memories inside me like other dark, memorable South Korean high school dramas such as “Bleak Night”(2010) and “Pluto”(2012). Although I only cared about books and movies and test scores during my school years. I knew one or two things about being alone and being bullied, and the movie instantly brought out lots of sympathy from me toward its lonely adolescent characters even though they are a lot different from a 16-year-old boy of myself in many aspects.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Yong-joo(Kwak Si-yang), a bright high school kid who will be probably accepted into the Seoul University if he keeps studying hard and getting high test scores as usual(the Seoul University is No.1 university in South Korea where every bright student in South Korea wants to go, by the way). Although his home is not very affluent, he has a good mother who has raised him alone since his birth, and he also has a close friend whom he has known since his middle school years.

nightlfight05But he has a secret he does not dare to tell anyone except Joon-woo(Lee Ik-joon), a student in the other high school in his neighbourhood. He and Joon-woo have accepted their homosexuality, but that is something they cannot reveal to others around them. During one sadly amusing moment, they check a mobile phone application for locating any gay kids they may hang around with, but it looks like they are the only ones in their neighbourhood. At least, they managed to find their own private place, which is a closed gay bar to be demolished sooner or later(the title of the movie comes from the name of this bar).

The life at his high school is not very bad for Yong-joo as long as he keeps his sexuality in his closet, but it is virtually a hell for his close friend Gi-taek(Choi Joon-ha), a chubby boy who is a frequent victim of the cruel bullying by Seong-jin(Kim Chang-hwan), the leader of their class who has been actually associated with several bad kids in the school while maintaining his exemplary appearance in the class. After getting beaten up by Seong-jin’s gangs, Gi-taek tries to do something about it at one point, but teachers are not very sympathetic to his torment while always emphasizing the preparation for the upcoming college entrance test, and it is not very easy to fight against a bully who has not only goons ready to follow his order but also rich, influential parents who will cover anything for their spoiled kid. Even before they enter the society, everything is already set for these kids to determine who should be at the top or the middle or the bottom in their small world, and we cannot help but feel angry to see that nobody does anything about this problem.

One of those bad kids associated with Seong-jin is Gi-woong(Lee Jae-joon), and he has already been destined to be at the bottom of the society. His father has been missing due to his union trouble, so he has to work to earn money like his mother whenever his school time is over. The teachers in the school do not have much expectation on him because of his bad behaviors, and Gi-woong does not give a damn about his future either while the feeling of suffocation grows inside him everyday.

nightlfight07 It is slowly revealed to us that there was a time when he was close to Yong-joo and Gi-taek. Through a number of flashback scenes, we see that Gi-woong was a lot less tough during their middle school years, and we also come to realize that Yong-joo has harbored a certain feelings toward Gi-woong. Although they have been estranged from each other for a while, Yong-joo finds that he is still carrying a torch for Gi-woong, and his feeling grows more especially when they happen to get involved with each other through their accidental conflict on Yong-joo’s bicycle.

Yong-joo eventually decides to come out to Gi-woong, and, though he is repulsed by that at first, Gi-woong finds himself being gradually closer to his old friend. Although he does not seem to be sexually attracted to Yong-joo, he shows his gentle side as spending more time with Yong-joo, and Young-joo is certainly happy to be with him even though he is not so certain about what will happen next in their fragile relationship.

As their story slowly rolls on the fine line between friendship and sexual feeling, the director/screenplay writer Lee Song-hee-il, who has made several notable gay drama films including “White Night”(2012), accentuates the melancholic mood surrounding his characters through several poetic scenes which occasionally occur in the mundane realistic background of the film. The scenes at the abandoned gay bar, which is placed at the rooftop of some building, are usually shown with the soft lights of sunset, and there is a lovely scene when Yong-joo and Joon-woo discover to their delight that their private place is a more colorful one than they thought.

nightlfight03 The actors in the movie are believable even though they look a little too old as adolescent characters. Newcomer actors Kwak Si-yang and Lee Jae-hoon ably carry the movie in their sensitive performances, and Choi Joon-ha, Kim Chang-hwan, and Lee Ik-joon are also convincing as the other high schooler characters in the film. As Yong-joo’s caring mother hoping to find her Mr. Right someday, Park Mi-hyeon brings a little humor into the story, and she has a good scene when her character tells something important to her son as an unwed mother who knows well about being ostracized by others.

Although it does have a couple of explicit scenes probably responsible for its 18-rating in South Korea, I do not see any problem in allowing teenager audiences to watch the film, and I strongly believe that, like another acclaimed South Korean film “Han Gong-ju”(2013), this powerful movie can make them have some understanding and empathy toward others while actively thinking about several social matters in their world. It is really hard out there for these two kids in the movie, and that harsh fact of their reality does not change much even after the expected melodramatic climax packed with betrayal, anger, and redemption, but, as watching its touching finale, I was reminded again of why we should not lose the ability to understand and comfort others. Things may not change easily, but that is usually the best we can do at least as decent human beings.


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The Missing Picture (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Memories of a genocide

themissingpicture01 The documentary film “The Missing Picture” attempts an unconventional approach for its grim historical subject. Mainly through its simple but delicate presentation of clay figurine dioramas, it conveys to us the personal memories of pain and horror from one of the most infamous genocides in the 20th century, and the result is something unique and beautiful to observe and admire.

The director Rithy Panh, who managed to survive the Cambodian Genocide and then settled in France later, was about to have his 11th birthday when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 12th, 1975, and that was the end of his happy childhood. Not long after the fall of their city, he and his family and other many citizens of Phnom Penh were relocated to those notorious labor camps in the countryside for their ‘re-education’, and that was the beginning of a long living nightmare for everyone.

Like “The Killing Fields”(1984), a powerful film based on the real-life story of another survivor of that genocide, the documentary gives us a harrowing and horrific account of what happened to many Cambodian people during that gloomy period. Right after the arrival at their labor camp, young Panh and others were ordered to give up everything in their possession(they even took away toys from children just because private possession was forbidden), and then they were forced to work on rice paddies under a very poor condition which soon caused famine and diseases among them.

themissingpicture02 Young Panh witnessed many atrocities of the Khmer Rouge soldiers as struggling to survive everyday. Being pushed to work more while getting fed less, lots of people starved to death at the labor camp without getting no help. They were severely punished for minor deviations, and he remembers a heartbreaking circumstance in which a mother was accused by her own daughter and then promptly executed just for stealing a few mangos. Panh’s father chose to get himself starved and then died because of his righteous indignation toward being treated like a slave, and the other family members followed him later. When his mother was sent to a camp hospital, which was more like a morgue rather than a hospital, young Panh managed to catch a fish for his starving mother while not getting caught and executed for that, but, sadly, it was too late when he arrived at the hospital.

It goes without saying that his story is painful to tell, but Panh steadily maintains a restrained attitude throughout his film. He never fully appears in front of his camera, and he even had the narration read not by himself but by other narrators instead(The narration was done by Randal Douc in the original version while Jean-Baptiste Phou did the narration in the English version). Even during a number of scenes showing him working on his dioramas, we only see his hands sculpturing his clay figurines.

His pieces of memories are depicted through the admirable simplicity of his dioramas full of small and big details, and the resulting effect is as evocative as Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir”(2008), a memorable animated documentary about Folman’s personal journey into his repressed memories involved with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. These simple clay figurines in Panh’s dioramas are mostly in still positions, but, through their faces and bodies, they tell so much more about the horrors and tragedies during his days at the labor camp than mere words or conventional visual images like photographs.

themissingpicture07 Panh also gives us a handful of bright, lyrical moments, and we see a number of his happy childhood memories which consoled young Panh a lot during his difficult time. He remembers that amazing moment when he and others watched the first moon landing on TV in 1969, and he also remembers when he happened to watch a filmmaking process on one day through his neighbor, which might have inspired him to become a filmmaker later in his life.

These diorama scenes are effectively mixed together with the various surviving archival footages which show us more on how Cambodia was turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge regime. After Phnom Penh was fully vacated by the mass relocation of its citizens, the city virtually looked like a big ghost town, and then it was filled by the Khmer Rouge soldiers and their followers. The local infrastructures were virtually collapsed as their leader Pol Pot’s ambitious but ultimately disastrous plan for remodeling the whole country began its first murderous step, and money lost its value completely as a consequence. At one point, we get a striking archival clip which shows lots of paper money falling to the ground as worthless pieces of paper.

Many people were tortured or executed or driven to work to death during this time, and it was estimated that 1.7~2.5 million people died before Pol Pot’s reign of terror was ended by the Vietnamese Invasion in 1979(The population of Cambodia in 1975 was around 8 million, by the way). It is chilling to watch at times as the documentary shows the insane gap between glorious propaganda and grim reality; in the case of one cheery newsreel footage showing a big party meeting attended by Pol Pot and many other Khmer Rouge members, it is apparently riddled with some technical problem, and the narration calmly tells us that a man behind the camera was executed just because of that. Listening to the narration, I could help but think of Barbet Schroeder’s horribly amusing episode with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who executed a cameraman for messing up his TV appearance and then executed an editor later when Schroeder pointed out to him that it was not that cameraman’s fault.

themissingpicture05 I watched the film with a certain degree of interest while appreciating Panh’s painstaking efforts put behind his elaborate dioramas, but then it becomes increasingly repetitive around its second half while making no particular forward move, and that was where I began to feel a bit impatient with the film. It admirably stays within its personal viewpoint as intended, but it also feels meandering at times in its contemplative mood, and the historical perspective it provides around its ending looks more like an afterthought tacked onto itself later.

Nevertheless, “The Missing Picture”, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar early in this year, is still an engaging documentary which has a story worthwhile to be told, and Rithy Panh, who received the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this film in last year, did a respectful job of making a sincere and humble remembrance of his past and his family. It may be not very informative, but this is not a straight documentary from the beginning, and it works as a poignant personal retrospection in its own distinctive way.


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Starred Up (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : He finally meets his match – his dad

starredup05 While it is a mix of familiar elements to be expected from its main subjects, “Starred Up” is a compelling mix to watch none the less. Mainly through its violent young antihero with issues, it transfers us into a harsh, brutal world behind prison walls, and then it strikes us through his constant clash with this cruel world which is always ready to punish its denizens with no mercy. Yes, this is indeed something we have encountered many times before, and I was naturally reminded of other similar films during my viewing, but the movie is a riveting prison drama pulsating with its gritty realistic style and, above all, a remarkable breakout performance worthy of the praises it has been gathering.

When we meet Eric Love(Jack O’Connell) for the first time, he has just arrived at a prison where he is going to serve out the rest of his sentence. The opening scene effectively sets the tone as calmly observing prison officers processing him step by step. After his transfer is registered, he is ordered to take off his clothes, and then the prison officers thoroughly examine his body for a while. New prison clothes are given to him after that, and then we see him being passed through several metal safety doors to arrive in his cell.

He looks quite young compared to other prisoners, but we learn later that he was sent from the institution for juvenile offenders to this place due to his extremely violent behaviors(the title of the movie is a British term for describing the early transfer of a criminal from a young offender institution to an adult prison). He certainly looks anxious when he is finally left alone in his cell, but this is a tough lad with experiences, and he soon prepares himself up to face his new harsh environment; he makes a sharp weapon using a toothbrush and a metal piece and then finds a good place to hide it, and he also does some push-ups with his fists.


He quickly becomes a new walking trouble in the prison mainly thanks to his hair-trigger temper and anti-social attitude. It is just a small misbehavior around meal time at first, but then he gets himself into a serious trouble when he happens to nearly kill an innocent inmate. He immediately regrets about that, but he responds with more sound and fury when prison officers are going to seize him and then punish him for that.

Jack O’Connell, a young British actor whom we will see again in Angelina Jolie’s upcoming movie “Unbroken”, is simply electrifying in his impressive physical performance. O’Connell does not say much during the aforementioned opening scene, but his face and gestures are more than enough to fully establish his character, and then he galvanizes several violent moments with the full swagger reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange”(1971) and Tom Hardy in “Bronson”(2008). When Eric goes ballistic in his cell as a group of heavily equipped prison officers are about to suppress him, he is determined to resist against them by any means necessary even though he has no chance of winning, and we cannot help but feel his volcanic fury as watching his body literally vibrating with it. Pouring oil on his body just for making the prison officers’ job difficult is merely the first step for him – he is even willing to bite off a certain body part of some very unlucky prison officer at one point.

And we also gradually come to see a damaged kid behind these extreme behaviors of his. Jonathan Asser’s screenplay wisely avoids the pitfalls of explaining more than necessary(the screenplay was inspired by Asser’s own experience as a voluntary therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth), and it slowly lets us gather several pieces of information about Eric’s history of childhood abuse and trauma for ourselves as listening to Eric’s casual remarks on his past(but it will be sometimes difficult for some of you to understand the dialogues in the film because of accents and slangs).

starredup06At least, he gets some help from two different characters – for now. One is a group therapist named Oliver(Rupert Friend), and he manages to persuade Deputy Governor Hayes(Sam Spruell) that he can help Eric dealing with his temper problem, but his group session with Eric and other inmates is always fraught with the potentials of sudden physical clash, while all Oliver can do for them is continuing his session as much as he can with necessary moderation. Friend, O’Connell, and the other actors are very convincing in their uneasy sessions scenes which are equivalent of emotional minefield; any thoughtless word can be led to a violent outburst at any point, and that usually means another frustrating end of session for all of them.

The other one is Nevile(Ben Mendelsohn), Eric’s father who has already been in the prison for quite a long time. Neville tries to help and protect his son in his own way while attempting to reconnect with him, but it does not go as well as he initially thought. He may be a little more mild-tempered than he was, but Neville begins to show his old hot temper while trying to make Eric a little more obedient to the system which will hold them for many years to come, and we can clearly see the inheritance of violence through his tough conflict with Eric. Mendelsohn, who was memorable as one of the amoral criminal characters in “Animal Kingdom”(2010), gives another exceptional performance which supports O’Connell well along with Friend’s equally good performance, and the dynamic relationship between their characters works a fascinating center of the movie.

Wholly focusing on his characters and their closed world, the director David Mackenzie imbues his film with that confined ambience of prison. The cinematographer Michael McDonough is rarely static while never losing the sense of confinement within its widescreen, and his camera smoothly moves along with characters during a couple of crucial scenes in the film for generating considerable amount of verisimilitude.

I must point out that the third act of the movie is a little weak in comparison because of its rather contrived climax, but that part mostly works as a payoff for what has been established during the rest of the story, and the movie remains to be very satisfying thanks to its direction and performances on the whole. It does not break any new ground in its territory, but it is surely a well-made work with one hell of performance which introduces us another interesting actor to watch.


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Ida (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A nun’s journey

ida01 Polish film “Ida” looks so simple and concise that describing its plot will not be enough to explain why it is one of the most memorable experiences of this year. I initially observed the movie with admiration toward its impressive technical aspects, and then I appreciated more how its distinctive approach actually supports and enhances its haunting story about a young woman who suddenly has to deal with the past she never knew before.

In the beginning, we slowly gather the background information as watching a young novice nun named Anna(Agata Trzebuchowska) and the daily scenes at her convent. It is 1962 in Poland, and the country has been under the communist rule for more than 10 years, but the world inside the convent does not seem to be affected much by this social/political change. The opening scene shows Anna and other novice nuns doing a polishing job on a Christ statue they are going to fix on the ground later, and then we see them going through daily routines with others in the solemn environment of the convent which feels like a throwback to the medieval time.

While preparing for taking vows with other young nuns, Anna comes to learn a surprise fact about her family from Mother Superior. As an orphan who has been raised in the convent since she was very young, she thought she did not have any close family member(she only knew that her parents died a long time ago), but now Mother Superior informs her that Anna actually has an aunt, and she advises Anna that she should visit her aunt before taking vows, although her aunt has never attempted to meet Anna during all those years even though she knows where Anna has been.

ida2 Though she is not very cordial to Anna when she sees her niece at the door of her apartment, Wanda(Agata Kulesza), who was once a prominent prosecutor for her communist government but now becomes stuck in the position of a local judge presiding over trivial cases while going through the tarnished lifestyle of a high-functioning alcoholic, tells her niece a couple of important things she ought to know; Anna is Jewish, and her real name was Ida(it is pronounced as “Ee-da”, not “Aye-da”, by the way). Her parents were killed during the World War II, and even Wanda does not know where they were buried, let alone what really happened to them during the war.

And that is the start of their journey into the past. They go to the town where Anna’s parents lived. They meet the current owner of the farm which once belonged to Anna’s family. They try to search for a man who may give the information about how Anna’ parents were killed and buried. At one point, they come upon a hitchhiking tenor saxophonist(Dawid Ogrodnik) on the road, and they meet this young guy again while they are staying at the hotel where he performs jazz music with his fellow musicians, which manages to brighten up the mood a bit among the hotel guests. Anna is mostly quiet and wordless, but it looks like his presence touches something inside her, like her hidden past shakes her idea of who she is.

Maintaining its slow, contemplative pace, the movie frequently observes its characters from the distance, and the stark but stunningly gorgeous black and white cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal further emphasizes the barren, oppressive mood surrounding them through its precise, thoughtful scene composition. The characters are usually placed in the lower part of the screen during many notable shots in the film, and they seldom occupy the center of the composition even during close-up shots. Our eyes become more aware of the empty space above their heads, and this curious vertical composition amplifies the somber feeling of oppression in the screen of 1:33 ratio, which sometimes makes the characters look like inconsequential prisoners of their gray world.

ida04And their world still has its past sleeping below its surface, as implied through the minor characters who are not so willing to talk about their time during the war. Although it does not look directly at that atrocious past behind its story, the movie gradually lets us see it through its main characters’ journey, and it firmly keeps its restrained attitude even when they finally arrive at the emotional end of their journey. The camera merely observes them and a certain character during one important scene in the middle of some forest, but there is a quiet but palpable sense of sorrow and guilt on the screen, and we come to reflect on how people can be capable of anything during war.

The movie depends a lot on the solid performances by its two lead actresses, and Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska complement each other well as two people who cannot possibly be more different from each other despite their family tie. Trzebuchowska, a non-professional performer who was literally cast by chance, brings unadulterated qualities to her reserved but effective performance. There are some elusive moments which make us wonder about what is going on inside her character, but Trzebuchowska’s engaging natural presence constantly holds our attention as the center of the story, and we come to understand more about Anna’s circumstance even when she does not reveal a lot to us in her usual docile appearance.

On the opposite, Kulesza, a veteran Polish actress with considerable acting career, makes a nice contrast to her co-actress Trzebuchowska. We later comes to learn that there is a motive behind Wanda’s sudden decision to help finding the burial site of her niece’s parents, and Kulesza’s nuanced acting subtly reveals the complex sides of her character who eventually admits to herself that she still has a heart to feel more pain behind her jaded cynicism hardened by her own difficult, complicated past. She was a victim of the war, but then she was also a perpetrator who drove a number of people to death during the Stalinist purge in the 1950s, and there is a brief moment when she bitterly tells her niece about the time when she was nicknamed “Red Wanda”.

ida03 The movie is directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, who has established his directing career outside his country through several films including “Last Resort”(2000) and “My Summer of Love”(2004). I only watched his previous film “The Woman in the Fifth”(2011), but that was enough for me to see that he is a talented director to watch; I felt baffled and confused at times while watching that mystery film, but I was also intrigued by its odd mood and the elusive undercurrent behind it, and it was sort of a satisfying experience despite its ambiguous ending which baffled me again.

“Ida”, which is recently selected as Poland’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, is a movie which is easier to admire than like, but its austere presentation of the Polish society in the 1960s works as an interesting look into the past, and you may notice an ironic parallel between its heroine and her society, in which communism and religion somehow co-exist side by side among its people just like her Jewish heritage and Catholic upbringing inside her. The movie is a stunning achievement worthy of more attention, and it will be quite a rewarding experience if you are ready to immerse yourself into it.


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Cats and kittens (08/22/14)

 The day was comfortable for them to rest outside…


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The Normal Heart (2014) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): Their fight against a plague – and the system

thenormalheart01 HBO TV movie “The Normal Heart” is frequently blatant in its melodramatic approach, but there is a big heart palpitating with emotional truths inside its story, and we cannot ignore what it wants to tell us. We can clearly see how it is going to pull the strings for its dramatic effects, but there is also sincerity and honesty behind its manipulation, and it ultimately becomes more resonating than expected while looking at anger, frustration, fear, pain, and sadness from its characters struggling with their dark, difficult time.

It is 1981, and everything looks fine and beautiful to Ned Weeks(Mark Ruffalo) and his fellow gay friends. Riding on the sex culture revolution during that time, they can be more opened about their sexuality than before, and we see these guys and other gays having a big fun with their beach meeting where nearly everyone is ready to enjoy their hedonistic freedom. While there is a big, exciting dance time during which everyone is flirting with each other, we also get a brief moment of group sex in a nearby forest, and even Ned, who is relatively shy and introverted compared to his friends, cannot say no to this liberating mood in the end.

But a very bad news is approaching to them as they enjoy their days of heaven. Craig(Jonathan Groff), a current lover of Bruce Niles(Taylor Kitsch), suddenly collapses on the ground on one day, and he becomes sicker day by day. Ned comes across a New York Times article on the unprecedented cancer cases observed from 41 gay patients, and that leads him to Dr. Emma Brookner(Julia Roberts), one of the first doctors who begin to notice a certain unknown disease being spread around her gay patients.

thenormalheart03 We all know that this is the first grim chapter of the AIDS epidemic in US during the 1980s, and the movie directly stares at the horror of this disease with no pretension. We see those skin lesions and the other medical problems resulted from the destruction of immune system due to HIV virus infection, and that is just the start of long, painful death. Close friends and acquaintances around Ned and Bruce become AIDS patients one by one as the time goes by, and they feel scared and helpless in front of this new disease while not knowing how to fight against it for their survival.

Ned, Bruce, and their friends including Tommy Boatwright(Jim Parsons) and Mickey Marcus(Joe Mantello) set up their community organization to prevent the spread of AIDS, but their organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis(GMHC), is not as successful as they want, and the government officials are not willing to help them mainly because of their prejudice and ignorance. As AIDS is labelled as a gay-related disease with no particular understanding of its cause or its infection route, the prejudice against gay people becomes more intensified as a result, and there is a particularly heartbreaking moment when a young dying AIDS patient is denied of his rights even after his tragic death.

While they stick together at first for their common goal, Ned frequently clashes with his colleagues on how they should persuade others to help them. Ned thinks they should use more direct and aggressive tactics for their crisis getting recognized in public, but Bruce and others prefer more tactful ways of approaching to the people who can help studying and preventing AIDS. Ned also thinks they should be more opened about their sexuality, but not many of his friends are willing to come out of their closet, mainly because they are afraid of losing their social positions.

thenormalheart05 This inner conflict causes lots of discords between Ned and others in GMHC as everyone is more frustrated with the slow response from the US government. Dr. Brookner tries to get the grant for her research on AIDS from the National Institutes of Health, but her proposal is unfairly rejected, and she cannot help but explode with anger and frustration against her system at one point. As powerfully shown in Oscar-nominated documentary film “How to Survive a Plague”(2012), it took a lot more time for the AIDS activists during that time to get better chances of survival while fighting against prejudice and incompetence, and, as watching the epilogue of “The Normal Heart”, I was reminded again of how ignorantly the Reagan administration mishandled the AIDS epidemic which took away so many precious lives at its height.

The director Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story”, sometimes tries a little too hard to energize the story(I find the handheld camera approach in several scenes a bit distracting, for example), but he draws a number of strong performances from the cast, which are the emotional anchor for us to hold onto the episodic narrative of his movie. The adapted screenplay by Larry Kramer, which is based on Kramer’s own acclaimed stage play, feels theatrical especially when the characters pour out their feelings and thoughts on the screen, but these moments ring true thanks to Kramer’s good writing, and the actors elevate them into many powerful scenes to behold.

thenormalheart02  While Mark Ruffalo, who will probably win an Emmy for this movie, deftly swings between righteous anger and gentle sensitivity without any single misstep in his superb performance, the supporting performers surrounding him have each own moments to shine. While Julia Roberts gets another nice chance to utilize her talent after her recent Oscar-nominated turn in “August: Osage County”(2013), Alfred Molina has a couple of wonderful scenes as Ned’s lawyer brother who has his own prejudice to overcome despite his deep affection toward his little brother. He does care about Ned, but he does not think his brother is ‘normal’, and Molina and Ruffalo effectively convey to us the complex relationship between them during their scenes. Although they look relatively less confident, Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons are adequately cast in their respective roles, and Joe Mantello has a showstopper moment when his character finally reaches to the breaking point and then explodes into a frantic monologue. In the case of Matt Bomer, who lost 40 pounds(18-kg) for some of his scenes, he is simply devastating as Ned’s young partner, and he and Ruffalo are superlative in their harrowing and touching portrayal of two lovers painfully going through their losing battle against the disease which is going to separate them apart sooner or later.

Like “Longtime Companion”(1989) and “Dallas Buyers Club”(2013), “The Normal Heart” tells us a lot about that gloomy era when things looked quite hopeless to many people. Things are better now as AIDS becomes a treatable disease and several civil rights of sexual minorities are legally recognized, but I think we need to be reminded of how difficult it was for them to begin that progress, and the movie did its job with considerable emotional effects to linger on us.


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