Set Me Free (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A boy suffocated by his harsh world

setmefree06 Watching “Set Me Free”, which is another small nice surprise from South Korea, is not a pleasant experience – and the same thing can be said about its adolescent hero. While usually being selfish and opportunistic, he is often dishonest and insincere in front of people to be used by him, and he can also be quite callous to others who are as desperate as him in their harsh world.

The main strength of the movie is that it makes us to have empathy on its hero as not making any excuse on his bad behaviors. As it observes him closely, we come to understand anger and despair growing inside him day by day, and we gradually see a desperate boy stuck in the world which does not help him much for the next stage of his life.

As watching Yeong-jae (Choi Woo-sik), the movie lets us slowly gather the details of his unhappy adolescent life. Because his parents could not take care of him, he was sent to a group home supported by church, but the daily life at his group home is not that bad to him although this is not exactly a warm shelter for kids. The director of group home and his wife are not very bad people, and they do their duties as the foster parents of Yeong-jae and other kids in their house, but they are not paragons at all. Because they are now grown up enough to leave their group home, Yeong-jae and his roommate Beom-tae (Sin Jae-ha) feel more pressure from the director every day, who always coldly looks at them and sternly talks to them as if they were prisoners to get rid of sooner or later.

You may feel sorry for Yeong-jae at first, but then he is no saint either. He sometimes steals sneakers from the stock room of his group home, and he sells them to other students in his high school for earning extra cash. Of course, the director soon discovers the theft later, but Yeong-jae manages to avoid suspicion mainly through his superficially exemplar behaviors to please the director’s wife, who has never imagined Yeong-jae’s deceitfulness behind his ingratiating attitude.

setmefree02 With that dishonest attitude as his survival strategy, Yeong-jae is also trying to get enrolled in divinity school which might be his next shelter to live, and he often goes to the church just for looking good and faithful in front of others including a young priest. When the priest asks Yeong-jae at one point whether he really wants to devote his life to serving God, Yeong-jae lies to him with no hesitation, and he is later introduced to Yoon-mi (Park Joo-hee), a kind college student who genuinely cares about him and is willing to help his study for enrollment exam.

And we get to know more about his family – and the reason why he wants to distance himself from them so much in any possible ways. His father is no more than a useless alcoholic bum who shamelessly attempts to get support from several churches at once as shown during one brief scene, and Yeong-jae hates his father more than anyone in his life. His mother, who has been resting in her hometown due to her recent injury, flatly admits her inability to support Yeong-jae and his younger brother Min-jae (Jang Yoo-sang), who is currently living with their father but may be also pushed into Yeong-jae’s group home someday. We can see that Yeong-jae is still angry about his parents who did not provide many things to him and his brother, and both his father and his mother feel helpless in front of their son’s deep resentment toward them.

I sensed personal feelings inside the movie during my viewing, and I was not very surprised to learn later that the director/screenplay writer Kim Tae-yong also went through his tough adolescent years at group home. Like his adolescent hero, he once attempted to be on the way to priesthood while lying about his motivation, and I heard that many moments in the film are based on his real-life experiences. They do feel real and authentic through his dry, realistic approach reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers’ works, and his human characters sometimes show complex sides which cannot be simply defined as good or bad. The director of group home is surely a little too harsh and strict to the kids under his charge, but we come to see that he is just a jaded man who has seen various kids coming in and out for years – and that is why he can sense something obsequious from Yeong-jae and is accordingly watchful of him.

Through handheld camera, the movie always sticks to Yeong-jae’s viewpoint as calmly generating low-key tension from the increasing uncertainty in Yeong-jae’s unstable life. The camera frequently focuses on his face in close-up shots, and the emotions churning inside him are palpable even when he tries not to reveal them to others, and the tension on the screen becomes sometimes so gripping that we feel agitated and suffocated as much as him.

setmefree01 Lead actor Choi Woo-sik gives a good natural performance which will definitely boost this young actor’s burgeoning career. Considering how he can be cruel and careless to the other boys at his group home or how he tries to manipulate the adults around him with his lies, Yeong-jae is not a very good boy to say the least, but we somehow feel sorry for him as watching how he desperately wriggles to get out of his hopeless reality. Choi constantly holds our attention while never asking for pity on his character, and he is especially good during a heart-wrenching scene in which what has been accumulated inside his character finally bursts out with full emotional devastation. It is quite difficult to watch for me and other audiences, but that hurtful scene is also powerful enough to grip us thanks to Choi and the other actors, and we cannot help but be overwhelmed by its sheer pain and despair virtually pouring out of the screen.

The rest of the cast also gives solid performances. While Kim Su-hyeon is both pathetic and loathsome as Yeong-jae’s lazy loser father, Kang Sin-cheol occasionally shows glimpses of humanity inside his unlikable character, and Sin Jae-ha and Jang Yoo-sang ably handle their respective roles which are crucial in the story. Yang Ik-june, for whom Kim Tae-yong worked as a crew member in “Breathless” (2009), briefly appears during one small scene as another crummy father, and Park Joo-hee, who was quite chilling as an employee from hell in South Korean low-budget film “The Wicked” (2013), looks completely different here as one of a few warm spots in the movie, and her gentle scenes provide some respite for us as well as Yeong-jae.

“Set Me Free” is a sad, gloomy coming-of-age drama which is not very comfortable to watch, but it vividly presents us a tough slice of life in the shabby corner of society as tentatively suggesting a glimmer of hope during its last minutes. While eventually learning a painful life lesson which may benefit the rest of his life, Yeong-jae still has no choice but to keep struggling as before in his suffocating reality – and we can only hope that things may get a bit better for him.

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Cart (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : This is not fair

cart01 This is not fair. After virtually exploited for their labor while not being paid enough, they are about to be driven to the edge, and this unfair treatment gets worse as they try to deal with it. Although it is sometimes heavy-handed in its uneven storytelling, South Korean film “Cart” has undeniable earnestness in its angry urgent drama about a group of helpless workers who are suddenly discarded in the name of profit, and its rather conventional drama has some painful moments which may remind of South Korean audiences of a number of infuriating recent news in their reality.

To Seon-hee (Yeom Jeong-ah), all she cares about in her life is supporting her family well. She has worked hard as one of the non-contract employees of some big supermarket chain (it is called “The Mart”, by the way), and, as shown during the opening scene, she has been recognized as a model employee for 5 years. Her direct boss emphasizes to her and her fellow non-contract employees that their hard work will be rewarded someday, and he also openly promises to Seon-hee that she will be soon promoted as a formal employee.

But we come to see that things are not as optimistic as they look on the surface. Her direct boss frequently demands Seon-hee to do overtime, and we learn later that such a demand is a usual part of the daily work of Seon-hee and others – and they do not even get properly paid for their extra work. As reflected through their small, shabby locker room somewhere inside the building, the company does not provide any convenience to its employees while always demanding more labor and service, and it sometimes feels as if the time went backward to when labor rights were frequently disregarded. At one point, one impertinent customer demands an apology from one of the employees, and that employee has to endure an humiliating moment later as she is forced by her direct boss to kneel and apologize to that customer. This may look outrageous to some of you, but I can assure you that I have heard about such disgusting incidents many times from others and media.

cart04 Seon-hee and other non-contract employees do not dare to complain about their poor work condition because they may lose their jobs, but then they get a sudden bad news on one day. Mainly because their company is about to be acquired by some other company, it was decided that non-contract workers are expendable in the upcoming takeover process, so Seon-hee and all of her colleagues are notified that they are fired, and everyone is shocked by this. Like Seon-hee, most of them are mothers with families to support, and they feel more helpless as they learn more about how disadvantageous their position has been since they started their first day at the supermarket.

Although they do not have no idea on what they should do at first, they eventually form the union with Hye-mi (Moon Jeong-hee) and Soon-rye (Kim Yeon-ae) as its key members. Seon-hee is reluctant to join the union at first, but then she finds herself participating more and more in her co-workers’ protest – even after a tempting deal is offered to her by the company.

Not so surprisingly, the company has no interest in any negotiation while looking down on its employees as usual. The strike gains momentum as the formal employees including Dong-joon (Kim Kang-woo) also take part in the movement after realizing how expendable they can also be, but the company is ready to do anything to defeat them, and Seon-hee and others feel more pressured day by day even when they try harder to stick together. They are arrested and incarcerated by the police although all they did was protesting for their labor rights, and then they are also attacked by a bunch of hired goons. In addition, Seon-hee and the other key members of the union are sued by the company, which is already working on creating bad images to put upon them.

cart02 While the movie works well when focusing on the social injustices it wants to emphasize, the screenplay by Kim Kyeong-chan falters at times for its several weaknesses. The subplot involved with Seon-hee’s sullen teenager son Tae-gyeong (Do Kyeong-soo) feels flat and predictable although it functions as another case of mistreatment of non-contract employee in the story, and I think the movie could have dug more into the details of the strike rather than softening its mood with typical heartwarming moments for the audiences.

The flaws in the movie are mainly compensated by its main actresses, who bring each own color to their characters under the competent direction of the director Boo Ji-young. Yeom Jeong-ah naturally holds our attention through her likable appearance, and there are a couple of good scenes in which her character bravely rises to the occasion. While Hwang Jeong-min and Cheo Woo-hee are reliable as usual in their small but crucial supporting roles, Moon Jeong-hee is also excellent as a seasoned employee who comes to face her vulnerability despite her determination, and Kim Yeong-ae always draws our attention as an old but feisty employee with no-nonsense attitude.

Although it eventually ends its story with a dramatic finale to draw some tears from the audiences, “Cart” reminds the audiences again of the bitter injustice in South Korean society before its end credits (I heard later that the movie was partially inspired by a real-life strike by non-contract supermarket employees). I have some reservation mainly due to its weak points, but it did its job mostly well as intended, and I could not help but feel angry about a lot of unfairness depicted on the screen during my viewing. It is getting harder and harder for many people nowadays, and maybe we should listen to them at least – even if we become frustrated as much as them in the end.

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The Homesman (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4): It was hard for men – and harder for women

thehomesman01 Wide, endless plains are usual sights in the Western movie, and “The Homesman” instantly drew my attention with the beauty of its vast, barren landscapes which usually have nothing but plain and sky above it. This is a severe world where civilization has not fully advanced into yet, and it goes without saying that life is indeed hard for men in the Wild West era of the 19th century – and harder for women who have far more limited choices than men.

When we meet Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) during the opening scene, she is working alone in her own farm located in the middle of a wide plain area of Nebraska. Although the movie never explains how an educated woman like her came alone to this remote frontier area from her hometown in New York state, but Swank’s nuanced low-key performance tells everything we need to know about her character even though she does not say a lot about her past. It is apparent that she is a diligent and faithful Christian woman who does not give up easily with her strong belief, and we sense that she has been taking care of herself and her farm well for herself.

However, she does not want to get old alone, so she hopes to get married someday, but she has been so far unlucky in that aspect. When Cuddy is visited by her neighbor Bob Giffen (Evan Jones), she invites him to have a dinner with her, and then she approaches to him in a rather naive and clumsy way around the end of their dinner, but Giffen flatly breaks the mood as callously, and cruelly, reminding her again of why she has not been desired much by him or any other guys who passed by her before. She does not look attractive to them while already being over 30 (30 was old age during that era), and, above all, men do not want to marry someone who is “too bossy” like her.

thehomesman02 While Cuddy is driven to more despair by this hurtful moment, we see three married women in her frontier town gone insane for their respective reasons. They are all broken down by the hardships of their difficult frontier life one way or another, and their husbands do not know what to do with their wives except sending them together to a town in Iowa, where they might be taken care of a little more properly.

Of course, someone in the town should escort them to Iowa, but the husbands are reluctant to volunteer for that job, because they are busy with their works, and journeying across plains to Iowa can be difficult and dangerous not only because of these unstable women but also the possible dangers lurking around the route. After one of them cowardly walks out of the scene just because he does not want to be picked at all, Cuddy boldly volunteers to fill the empty place instead when it is decided that they should decide on their matter through drawing lots, and, unfortunately, she is picked as the one who will do the job.

At least, she happens to encounter someone who can accompany and help her during her journey to Iowa. When she comes across George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), this grumpy claim-jumper has been left alone to be hanged sooner or later while being tied on his horse, and, after saving him from his danger, she hires him although he does not look that trustworthy. They pick up their three mad women to be escorted one by one as they go around each of these women’s homes, and they soon embark on their journey with a sincere blessing from the town pastor.

thehomesman03 As it takes a considerable amount of time in its set-up part, the movie patiently moves along with its main characters in its calm, leisurely pace, and, mainly thanks to the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, we are treated with many barren but fabulous wide shots of landscapes which sometimes look endless and hopeless on the screen. Many scenes in the film are notable for their classical style in scene composition, and the strict, precise mise-en-scene in some of them effectively conveys the feeling of isolation and suffocation inside Cuddy, who begins to feel more exhausted and desolated than ever as she keeps moving on with Briggs and others in her journey. She is surely tough and resilient, but the crazy women under her charge gradually remind her of what has been eating her inside, and we slowly begin to wonder whether the motive behind her decision to participate in that draw was more than an ethical choice from the beginning.

As she and Briggs struggle along with each other for getting their job done, Briggs turns out to be more dependable than expected while revealing some soft sides. Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel, effortlessly imbues the role with his screen persona virtually ready for Western films. Even when he looks a bit goofy, you can feel many years of experiences from his shabby, wrinkled appearance along with some sense of decency, and you can see that Cuddy saw a right man for the job despite their rather silly awkward first meeting.

Now it sounds like a typical adventure romance a la “The African Queen” (1951), but the movie sticks to its somber and desolate tone. As getting to know a bit about Briggs, Cuddy begins to consider Briggs as her potential spouse, but it does not take much time for us to see that life of settlement is the last thing Briggs can imagine. There is a crucial scene in which Cuddy attempts something of which she has probably never dreamed as a devout Puritan woman, and what happens after that leads to a sudden plot turn which also works with devastating dramatic effects to hover around the rest of the film.

thehomesman04 Jones assembles an impressive array of performers around him and his co-star, and they ably fill their archetype roles. While they are pushed to the background along the progress of the story, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter hold their places as miserable women hopelessly stuck in each own madness, and David Dencik, William Fichtner, and Jesse Plemons are also good as their husbands. While Tim Blake Nelson has one brief but memorable scene, James Spader is utterly despicable as a guy who surely deserves what he gets in the end, and John Lithgow, Hailee Steinfeld and Meryl Streep function as several small bright spots along the story.

“The Homesman” is the second film directed by Jones, who previously made a wonderful debut with “The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada” (2005). That movie was an untypical Western film which delivered a number of powerful and poetic moments in its unexpected ways, and “The Homesman” is also an interesting untypical Western film with feministic ideas to reflect on later. I think its last act could have been shortened a bit, but that does not hurt much its sad, haunting story on the whole, and I was involved in its authentic mood as caring about its main characters’ struggle. They are good people with flaws, and you may agree with me that they deserve better, but, alas, the world goes on as usual without caring much. So it goes, but it is still sad indeed.

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Interstellar (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Awe and wonder wrapped with grand ambition

interstellar01  Full of awe and wonder wrapped with artistic ambition, “Interstellar” overwhelms us with its massive visual experience which is worthy of extra ticket price for IMAX. Although it stumbles at times on the plot level as reaching for its challenging goals, the movie works as an intriguing science fiction story which boldly pushes its ideas and itself into an uncertain area, and it is also poignant to watch at times as its characters struggle hard with their desperate matter of time and gravity in the story.

The first part of the film establishes a gloomy future world where everything has been hopeless due to some global environment change which caused a massive famine around the world. Securing food has become a far more important matter than any social/political ones, the human society has concentrated their resources on agriculture while giving up many chances for technological/scientific advance. We come to learn that NASA was one of the first things to be discarded and forgotten in the US government, and one of the most amusing details in this changed world is that a new history textbook says the Apollo space mission was nothing more than a hoax to defeat the Soviet Union.

Our hero Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was a pilot/engineer working in NASA, but now he uses his resourcefulness mostly on corn farming while raising his two kids alone in his hometown. He and his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) hope things will get better for Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet), but, though it is not that bad yet, it becomes more apparent to everyone that the situation has been getting worse year by year. Many crops are dying because of the continuing epidemic of some terrible blight, and even corn, which has endured this disaster better than other kinds of crops, also begins to be affected by the disease now.

interstellar07 To make the matters worse, dust storm becomes a usual incident in their daily life, and the movie provides a couple of striking scenes which evoke the Dust Bowl era during the 1930s. Watching one dust storm approaching to the town on the IMAX screen during last Sunday afternoon, I was particularly reminded of that epic dust storm scene in Hal Ashby’s “Bound For Glory” (1976), and the movie even has documentary footage of old people reminiscing about their hard time in front of the camera.

Meanwhile, something strange keeps happening in Murph’s room, and then she and Cooper come to discover a message sent from somewhere. Although they do not know the reason behind this mysterious happening, the message leads them to a hidden government facility, and they eventually meet Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper’s old mentor who has been leading a secret project with other NASA people for the future of humanity. It turns out that the global disaster is far more worse than they thought (besides dying crops and dust storms, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere has been decreasing to an alarming level), and Professor Brand and others have been trying to find any chance to leave the Earth and then settle in a new inhabitable planet.

That surely sounds inconceivable, but there is indeed an opportunity, for they found a wormhole which suddenly appeared near Saturn for no apparent reason (Considering “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), I guess Jupiter has already been occupied). They sent 12 astronauts into this wormhole which transported them to the other part of the universe where they may find a new home for humanity, and it looks like a few of these astronauts found candidate planets as they bravely threw themselves into their mission which promised no return at all from the beginning. While still working on a gravity theory which may make it possible to transport the people on the Earth to the space, Brand wants Cooper to lead a new mission to check whether those candidate planets are really suitable for humanity.

Cooper accepts Brand’s request while being well aware of his personal risk, and we soon see him in a long journey to the wormhole along with the other NASA crew members: Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi), and Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who is Brand’s daughter. As they start their journey, the movie begins to amaze us with its wondrous sights in the space, and then it impresses us more with its painstaking verisimilitude reminiscent of “The Right Stuff” (1983), “Apollo 13” (1995), and, of course, “2001: A Space Odyssey”.

interstellar08 The director/co-screenplay writer Christopher Nolan and his crews did a fantastic job of making the space journey look realistic as much as possible on the big screen. Many of its special effect shots did not depend on CGI, and, thanks to Nolan’s close collaboration with his science consultants including leading theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne (he is also one of the executive producers of the film), the movie firmly sticks to the laws of physics except several moments in which artistic choices come first. While no sound can be heard in the space, its thrilling action sequences are inexorably ruled by Newton’s laws of motion to generate more tension and stakes. The movie also gives us a compelling case of time dilation according to Einstein’s theory of relativity; it is just a few hours for Cooper at one point, but then he is surprised to see how much time has passed on the other side meanwhile, though he and others knew well in advance that how the dimension of time can be affected by gravitational force.

And we see how the other characters struggle on the Earth as waiting for any news from the space. Murph, now played by Jessica Chastain, grows up to be a young scientist working with Brand, and Tom, now played by Casey Affleck, has worked as a farmer while raising his own family at their old family house. The situation becomes worse than before in their world, and Murph begins to lose hope while still wishing for any possibility of breakthrough in her study with Brand – and the reunion with her dear father who may return too late or will never return.

The most poignant film in the film comes from the scene in which Cooper looks at the fleeting passage of time on the Earth through video clips sent from his kids. Matthew McConaughey, who has been riding on one of the most remarkable career renaissances in recent years, gives another commendable performance which works as a precious little beating heart in the middle of the big picture of the film, and he is especially good when Cooper is slowly overwhelmed by various emotions as he feels the gap between him and his kids getting wider and wider in the dimensions of time, space, and gravity. He misses them more than ever, but, as we and he know, there is nothing he can do for now.

The screenplay by Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan has visible plot gaps and holes here and there while occasionally feeling overstuffed with explanatory dialogues for the audiences, but it keeps rolling with the sense of urgency while steadily maintaining its pace during its long running time (169 minutes). It sometimes feels too heavy-handed in its unabashed family melodrama, but it is supported by sincere feelings thanks to McConaughey and the other cast members. As young Murph, Mackenzie Foy is touching as a daughter deeply hurt by her father’s sudden departure, and she and Jessica Chastain (and a certain Oscar-winning actress) create another emotional coordinate in the story we can hold onto.

interstellar02Anne Hathaway and other notable actors in the cast feel relatively underutilized due to their functional roles, but they ably fill the roles with their talents. Michael Caine, who collaborated with Nolan again in this film (this is their sixth collaboration), is engaging to watch as usual, and the special mention must go to Bill Irwin, who provides the voices of TARS and CASE, two artificial intelligent robots functioning not only as the main source of humor but also as the key supporting roles in the story. Observing their plain, black rectangular shape and flat voice, you cannot help but think of HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but I can assure you that these machines are more friendly compared to their murderous senior.

As pushing itself more and more during its climax, the movie dazzles us with more stunning moments which surely guarantee a number of Academy Award nominations in the technical categories in the next year. I do not know how much accurate its spine-tingling presentation of a giant spinning black hole is (I heard from others that it is quite an accurate one), but the black hole in the film looks vivid and amazing on the surface at least, and I watched the grandiose depiction of its certain unknown area with the mix of awe and amusement. I am not going to describe how it looks like, but that moment reminded me of what great director Werner Herzog once said. He said our civilization is starving for new images, and, in my opinion, that moment is something new to enliven our curious mind, along with that giant spinning black hole on the screen. Can we ever perceive something beyond our dimension? And can we possibly advance to the next level for that?

While it is not successful in its every aspect, “Interstellar” remains both intriguing and mesmerizing in many ways, and I think we will probably continue to talk more about this ambitious work along with “Gravity” (2013). Its ultimate message at the end of journey sounds rather corny indeed, but it feels truthful with images and emotions to grip your attention, and you may admire how daringly Nolan pushes his familiar science fiction elements all the way to the far corner of space and time in his ambitious attempt. It may not be a great film, but this is definitely a film with bold, grand gestures to be appreciated for many years.

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Free Fall (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Falling into an affair

freefall01 German movie “Free Fall” is a nice film which could have drawn more attentions if it had been made 10 years ago. Thanks to notable films like “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “The Kids Are All Right” (2010), and “Weekend” (2011), homosexuality has become a subject which can be handled more candidly than before during last 10 years, and that is the main reason why the movie feels like a late arrival in comparison although it is good enough to recommend.

In the beginning, everything seems to be going well for Marc Borgmann (Hanno Koffler), a young police officer undergoing a training course for his riot control unit. Although he really needs some improvement in his physical strength, that is just a minor problem he can deal with, and we see him trying hard as much as he can while going through the training course along with other young police officers at the police academy.

In case of his private life, he has been in a long relationship with Bettina (Katharina Schüttler), who is soon going to give birth to their child. Although they are not married yet, they recently decided to move together to a new house where they may begin a family life with their child in the future, and everyone around them including Marc’s parents is glad about that.

Meanwhile, Marc begins to get close to Kay (Max Riemelt), his roommate at the police academy. They were not that friendly to each other at first, but they get accustomed to each other while spending time together. At one point, they sneak out of their dormitory to enjoy their private time during one night, and we see them jogging together in a nearby forest mainly for improving Marc’s physical strength.

freefall02 And then it becomes apparent that Kay has a certain feeling toward his roommate. After some indirect acts of flirting, he eventually approaches to Marc in a far more daring way when they are jogging in the forest as usual. That act of his surely startles Marc, who becomes further upset by the fact that he let himself swept along with Kay’s sexual advance. He tries to stay away from Kay, but he cannot get Kay out of his mind, and then Kay joins his riot control unit not long after their first sexual interaction.

Feeling more attracted to Kay, Marc eventually begins an affair with Kay while hiding it from Bettina. Their relationship looks like a short one to be terminated at any time, but the situation only becomes more difficult for Marc. While he continues his affair with Kay, his child is born at last, and Marc feels more pressured to see that he must make a decision in one way or another before it is too late.

Like “Brokeback Mountain” works as a universal love story about two tragic lovers, “Free Fall” works as a familiar drama about a man falling into an affair which brings him agony as well as pleasure. While Marc knows too well that his affair will definitely hurt Bettina a lot if she learns it, he hesitates to deal with his increasingly difficult problem, and he finds himself visiting Kay’s apartment again and again. He becomes more miserable and frustrated as trying to avoid the awakening of his sexuality, and, not so surprisingly, Bettina starts to be suspicious about what her man is doing behind his back as the estrangement between them feels more palpable even after the birth of their child.

freefall03 The screenplay by the director Stephan Lacant and Karstan Dahlem takes predictable turns we can easily see from the distance, but it holds our attention through its believable characters. Its two lead actors play well along with each other on the screen, and a number of sex scenes in the film are handled with taste and sensitivity while conveying us the heated attraction between its two heroes. There are also a few expected moments involved with prejudice, and the movie wisely handles most of them with sensible restraint; homosexuality is no longer a taboo in Germany and many other advanced countries nowadays, and most of policemen in Kay and Marc’s precinct do not become hostile to Kay when he happens to get his sexuality exposed later in the story. They do not mind having a shower with him, but then there are always some people with prejudice no matter how much their society has advanced for the tolerance of minorities.

The movie eventually arrives at an inevitable point where Marc must be honest about himself regardless of what will happen in the end, and Hanno Koffler is especially good when things are falling apart for Marc as the devastating consequence of his hidden passion. While Kay is less characterized compared to Marc, Max Riemelt brings enough sparks into his character; it might have been a mere seduction for him at first, but it turns out Kay is really hurt by his lover’s indecisiveness, and he even makes a desperate attempt when he comes to Marc’s house as a rather unwelcomed guest. At the third main character of the story, Katharina Schüttler also gives a terrific performance, and she is heartbreaking to watch at times as her character copes with her worst fear; she instinctively senses something is wrong between her and her future husband after his first suspicious absence, but she also knows that the truth might be something she does not want to know at all.

While “Free Fall” is a good film with strong dramatic moments to notice, I must point out that it is bound to look tame compared to other recent films about homosexual characters. “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013) went boldly into more daring areas as vividly presenting a dynamic relationship between its two lesbian heroines, and the same thing can be said about “Strangers by the Lake” (2013), which drew lots of attention for its literally naked depiction of its gay characters. It goes without saying that “Free Fall” is less distinctive in comparison, but it is still a well-acted drama about human passion and pain you may relate to, and I came to reflect amusingly on the universal aspects inside its story. Regardless of whatever attracts us on sexual level, we all simply cannot help ourselves sometimes, can we?

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The Wicked (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4): Employee from Hell

thewicked01 The first 30 minutes of South Korean film “The Wicked” work like a solid short film based on an insidious premise. We know something bad will happen in one way or another, and the movie increases its level of anxiety step by step as approaching to a certain point. It inevitably begins to lose its steam after that point, but it does not entirely lose its sense of dread, and it is also supported well by its chilling lead performance which deserves to be praised and recognized.

When we meet Se-yeong (Park Joo-hee) at the beginning, we can instantly sense that there is something creepy about this quiet young woman. Besides her anti-social behaviors which usually annoy and perplex others at her workplace, there are weird stories about this enigmatically ominous lass with the aura of Wednesday Addams, and we see one of them through the series of short flashback scenes in the film.

To Lee Seon (Na Soo-yoon), the boss of Se-yeong and her co-workers in the office, Se-yeong merely looks like an annoying new employee she has to deal with at first. When Se-yeong has screwed up one important task due to her lack of experience, Lee Seon chides Se-yeong like any office boss would, and, like any employee would in such a situation, Se-yeong passively promises to her boss that she will try harder to finish her task properly.

But then Lee Seon becomes a little meaner. She sarcastically asks Se-yeong whether she will be ready to give up one of her fingers if she cannot get the job done before PM 8:00, and, to her surprise, Se-yeong responds without any hesitation that she is willing to put her against that challenge. But she has one condition; if she wins, Lee Seon should be the one who will lose her finger.

thewicked02 Lee Seon accepts this bet without much thought, but then it slowly creeps into her mind that she has probably made a big mistake. As the others in the office, who have been equally disturbed and annoyed by Se-yeong, tell their boss more about her, Se-yeong increasingly looks like someone you should never mess with in your whole life. At one point, she makes one of her colleagues very uncomfortable as casually telling about how one of her close schoolmates came to have an unfortunate accident just because she was obsessed with that schoolmate’s left-handedness. She also seems to see through others and know everything about them; she embarrasses her boss in front of others while blatantly exposing something her boss does not want to talk about, and we get a spooky moment in which she gives a menacing warning to someone whom she has probably never met in person. How can she possibly know so many things about that person in question?

As others leave the office one by one, Lee Seon becomes more nervous than before. Only she and Se-yeong are left in the office now, and it becomes quite possible that Se-yeong can finish her work before the deadline – and it is also quite probable that she will literally stick to her words, regardless of who should give up her finger in the end.

Now I am not going to tell you more about the plot, though I think most of you already have a pretty good idea about what will happen in the end of this tense situation. The director/writer Yoo Yeong-son did a competent job of dialing up the degree of suspense smoothly along the scenes of this part, and he also provides a number of unnerving scenes which will make some of you cringe for its clinical presentation of body mutilation. One of those scenes involves with broken ceramic fragments, and it is frightening to watch an unspeakable act of self-mutilation even though there is not much blood on the screen.

thewicked03 The latter half of the movie revolves around the mysteries behind Se-yeong. Sometimes she looks like one of those scheming, obsessive female aggressors we have seen from countless Hollywood thriller movies, but then it is also suggested that she may be a lot more than an unhappy woman with pathological need to be liked and loved. At one point, she tells that she has been destined to bad luck since her birth, and it seems she has some power to make unfortunate things happen to others, but can we really trust what she says?

The movie constantly toys with that unreliable aspect as Lee Seon tries to get more information about her opponent during its second part. She searches for several people who unluckily encountered Se-yeong in their past, and, as they tell their stories to Lee Seon, it becomes more apparent to her and us that Se-yeong is a malicious force to reckon with. As one character warns to Lee Seon, it may be wiser to avoid her than try to deal with her, but then Lee Seon eventually arrives at a certain place which may contain something more than she can possibly handle for herself.

The ending is a letdown compared to the rest of the story, but I had sort of a dark fun with the movie, which does not look that cheap although it was produced with the small budget which was less than $ 30,000. While revealing little about her character, Park Joo-hee gives an engaging performance which is both scary and enjoyable to watch; as watching how much evil Se-yeong can be, you cannot help but be fascinated with her dark nature – and you come to fear for whoever happens to be around her. The movie is not wholly successful, but it is worthwhile to watch just for her performance, and you may hope for better things to come for this relatively unknown South Korean actress.

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The photos from KAIST (2014/10/30)

There are other things besides cats and geese in the campus…

 

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