Queen of Walking (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Walk, Man-bok, Walk!


Have you heard of racewalking? I did not know anything about this rather obscure sport until I watched a little lovable South Korean film called “Queen of Walking”. Before writing this review, I checked Wikipedia, and I was surprised to learn that there are actually two racewalking distances contested at the Summer Olympics besides several top-level athletics championships in the world. As a matter of fact, you can easily find a number of YouTube clips showing those racewalking athletes competing with each other at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.

For the young heroine of “Queen of Walking”, long-distance walking has been a part of her daily life in Gang-hwa Island, which is located near the metropolitan area of Seoul. Because she has an extraordinary motion sickness problem, Man-bok (Sim Eun-kyeong) cannot ride any kind of vehicle at all (she cannot even ride a slow-moving cart, for example), so she prefers to be on foot, and that means she has to walk for no less than 4 hours as she goes back and forth between her home and her high school. Due to her daily long-distance walking, she is frequently late for school while also often getting sleepy during her classes, but she does not care much because she is mostly fine with her life. She is happy at her cozy home, and her dear parents will soon welcome another child of theirs.

However, Man-bok’s home room teacher, who is a little too enthusiastic about encouraging her students, comes to believe that Man-bok needs to be motivated for her future. Noticing that Man-bok can be a good athlete, she asks the school athletic club coach to allow Man-bok to join his team, and the coach does not object to this at all, mainly because he has carried a torch for Man-bok’s teacher without her knowledge.

After casually evaluating Man-bok’s physical ability, the coach instructs her to begin the training for racewalking, and he tells her (and us) about its simple rule; while you may walk as fast as you can, your foot must appear to be in contact with the ground all the time – or you can be disqualified. This certainly looks like an easy thing to Man-bok, and her life becomes a little more exciting than before as she feels buoyed by what she may attain someday.


However, she does not look so serious in the viewpoint of Soo-ji (Park Joo-hee), a senior member who was once a promising long-distance runner before her unfortunate injury. Although she is advised by her doctor that she should consider other ways for her future, Soo-ji still cannot give up her dream to which she devoted herself for years, and that is why she has been pushing hard herself into racewalking, which is the only athletic option for her at present.

Not so surprisingly, Man-bok and Soo-ji do not get along well with each other right from their first day, and you may expect a dramatic tension or conflict from that, but then the movie surprises us with its gentle, thoughtful depiction of their strained relationship. While Man-bok comes to realize through her senior that she should be more serious about her training, Soo-ji also comes to learn something important from her junior, and there are several unexpected touching moments as they get to know about each other as well as themselves.

The director/writer Baek Seung-hwa, who previously directed two music documentaries “Turn It up to Eleven” (2009) and “Turn It up to Eleven 2: Wild Days” (2012), balances his story and characters well between lightweight humor and heartfelt drama, and the movie provides a number of funny moments which succeeded in inducing big chuckles from me during my viewing. While the movie certainly uses Man-bok’s motion sickness for laughs more than once, it thankfully does not go too far while delivering enough humor to tickle us, and I was also amused by Man-bok’s simple logical way for sidestepping her motion sickness to attain her goal later in the story.


Sim Eun-kyeong, who was fabulous in her breakthrough performance in “Sunny” (2011), gives an amiable lead performance which grows more on me after my viewing. Man-bok looks a bit silly at first, but we gradually come to like this sunny, plucky girl who becomes more sure and confident about herself and her life, and we cannot help but cheer for her especially during a moment which feels like a comic variation of the climax scene in “The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner” (1962).

Sim is surrounded by the dependable supporting performers who have each own moment to shine in the movie. Park Joo-hee is an effective dramatic counterpart to Sim, and the same thing can be said about Yoon Ji-won, who is also good as Man-bok’s practical schoolmate who turns out to be more clear-sighted than expected. Kim Sae-byeok, Heo Jeong-do, An Seung-gyun, Kim Kwang-gyoo, Kim Jeong-yeong, and Lee Jae-jin are solid in their respective broad but colorful supporting roles, and the special mention goes to a cow raised in Man-bok’s house, who gets juicy deadpan moments as the narrator of the film (The voice is provided by Ahn Jae-hong, who was very hilarious in “The King of Jokgu” (2013)).

Like another recent South Korean film “Overman” (2015), “Queen of Walking” is refreshingly bright and sincere with its optimistic attitude, and this likable female coming-of-age comedy drama is an ideal antidote to those solemn male-dominant South Korean noir films like “Asura: The City of Madness” (2016). Thanks to “Queen of Walking” and other equally notable films including “Snow Path” (2015), “Steel Flower” (2015), “The Handmaiden” (2016), “The World of Us” (2016), “The Truth Beneath” (2016), “The Queen of Crime” (2016) “Worst Woman” (2016), “The Bacchus Lady” (2016), and “Our Love Story” (2016), I and other South Korean audiences have beheld a considerable number of strong, interesting female characters to remember during this wonderful year, and I hope this emerging feministic trend will be continued for a long time.


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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The Beatles during its finest moments


As a tribute to one of the iconic pop bands during the late 20th century, Ron Howard’s documentary film “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” may provide nothing particularly revealing even to the audiences with vague knowledge on the Beatles, but this is a first-rate musical experience which vividly conveys to us that dizzy, frantic, and exhilarating period swirling around the four members of the band. As the documentary focuses on their finest moments during that period, we cannot help but be amused and awed by their insanely rapid rise to enormous international fame and success, and it is fascinating and entertaining to watch how they bounced together from one point to another during that period which changed their life and career forever.

As many of you know, the early years of the Beatles were plain and humble as they tried to reach for their hope and dream as young aspiring musicians living in Liverpool during the late 1950s. After playing together for a while, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison came to go through a couple of brief stint periods in Hamburg during 1960-61, and that was the point around which the potential of their band began to emerge. As they became a little more popular than before in their hometown, they happened to be noticed by a young local record store owner named Brian Epstein, who became their manager and subsequently led them to George Martin, a legendary music producer who was the head of EMI’s Parlophone label during that time.

After Ringo Starr joined them during their first recording sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London, the Beatles as we know was finally formed, and they soon had a phenomenal breakthrough via their debut album “Please Please Me”. Many of young people in Britain quickly became their ardent fans, and the popularity of the Beatles was soon expanded to US and other countries around the world as the band continued to rise forward with more concerts and albums during next several years.


The fervent excitement and adoration toward the Beatles was unprecedented to say the least, and a number of archival footage clips in the documentary show us that the frantic opening sequence in their great musical film “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) is no exaggeration at all. For many young people, the Beatles concert was an event they could not miss, and they were enthralled and excited whenever they got a chance to see the Beatles inside or outside concert places. When the Beatles began their third US tour in New York City, the members had to perform at Shea Stadium instead of any available concert hall because there were so many eager fans to see their performance, and we are told that this was quite a challenge to them as well as many technicians at the concert because they had no experience with such a big event like this.

As pointed out in the documentary, one of the main reasons for the unbelievable success of the Beatles was that it happened to come at the right moment to boost the band way to the top. While usually maintaining their uniformly dapper, youthful appearance, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr exuded each own personality, and they naturally represented the social/generational changes to strike the 1960s as the world was swept by many of their memorable songs to be remembered.

Of course, they became less enthusiastic than before as they started to feel like being stuck in their continuing success. As an attempt to recapture the magic in “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Help!” (1965), their another musical film directed by Richard Lester, was less successful in comparison, and they understandably had less fun with making that movie. While they became exhausted by their relentless concert and recording schedule, they often received negative reactions as being direct and frank about themselves, and then there came that silly religious controversy surrounding Lennon’s casual remark on their celebrity.


Struggling with the increasing weight of their burdensome fame, they held and supported each other none the less. After their concert in San Francisco in 1966, they stopped concert tour and then focused more on recording albums, and they soon found themselves getting in the groove again while having lots of fun with their musical experiments, though they eventually arrived at the inevitable break-up not long after their final public performance which was held on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building at 3 Savile Row, London in 1969. As they admitted, they were forced to grow up too soon because of their unexpected success, but they endured and prevailed over their fame unlike many of ill-fated contemporary pop musicians, and they could go on further even when their artistic paths were eventually separated from each other.

Although Lennon and Harrison are not available due to their respective demises, the excerpts from their past interviews are flawlessly mixed together with the new interview clips of McCartney and Starr, and other interviewees including Elvis Costello, Whoopi Goldberg, and Richard Lester also provide interesting things to engage us. In case of the archival footage clips of the Beatles concerts, the documentary gives us enough time for us to absorb and appreciate the musical excitement contained inside them, and their quality is often better than you would expect. The best example comes from the 35mm film footage shot during the band’s 1965 concert at Shea Stadium, which was digitally restored for the documentary to 4K resolution with significantly improved sound. The 30 minutes of the footage is presented right after the end credits of the documentary, and this is surely a delicious bonus for anyone familiar with the works of the Beatles.

While it mostly recounts many well-known things about its subject, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” presents them in such an entertaining way that you will probably not mind even though it essentially plays the same tunes you have heard before. To be frank with you, I do not know much about the Beatles besides some of its most famous songs, but I found myself excited by the undeniable talent and spirit observed from its four members, and I frequently nodded with joy and smile as enjoying their concert clips on the screen. No wonder their music is still alive and well even during our current century.


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Children of Men (2006) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A dystopian world with no future


Science fiction films about dystopian world are dime a dozen in these days, but not many of them can surpass the sheer verisimilitude of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men”, which has become more relevant since it came out 10 years ago. When I recently revisited it again at a local movie theater thanks to the belated theatrical release in South Korea (it already went straight to DVD/blu-ray release here in 2007, by the way), I was drawn again into its grim dystopian world right from its striking opening sequence, and I admired more of the skills and efforts put onto into this superlative work which is one of the best science fiction films during the 2000s.

The premise of its story, which is based on P.D. James’ novel “The Children of Men”, may sound preposterous at first. In 2009, a sudden epidemic of human female infertility was quickly spread around the world, and it was already too late when people came to realize what was happening. Wisely not explaining the cause of this epidemic, the movie instead focuses on the realistic depiction of its dire ramifications on the human society. Children no longer exist now in 2027, and the opening sequence begins with the news reports about the death of an 18-year-old celebrity who has been the youngest person in the world.

As people come to lose hope in front of this slow but unstoppable end, the world has become more violent and despairing due to more wars, conflicts, and disasters. This is reflected well through one particular scene unfolded within a small, closed place. Its walls are fully covered with numerous depressing newspapers articles, and some of them are quite alarming to say the least (One example: “Russia Detonates Nuclear Bomb – Kazakhstan Annihilated”).

Britain has been a relatively safer place than many other countries, but it is turned into a harsh, oppressive police state which does not welcome any illegal immigrant coming into Britain. Illegal immigrants are openly labeled as the enemy of the state, and their human rights are callously disregarded by soldiers and policemen. Although feeling so sad about the death of the youngest person in the world, most citizens do not care a lot about the ongoing inhuman cruelty and injustice in their crumbling society, and they keep slogging through their another gray shabby day while their government constantly reminds them of being watchful of the threats from inside and outside. Imagine an Orwellian world with no future to be controlled at all, and you will get the picture.


In the overwhelming absence of the future, people naturally hold more onto the past. Heavily guarded by soldiers, the central area of London looks a bit safer and brighter compared to other urban areas as maintaining its status quo on the surface, but the lifeless mood of doom still hovers around there. At a special government facility, its supervisor boasts about various invaluable artworks salvaged from the social/political chaos in Europe, but it goes without saying that all of these beautiful artworks will not matter at all around the 22nd century.

For Theo (Clive Owen), a weary government employee who put behind his left-wing political activity a long time ago, the past is mainly represented by his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), an old former political cartoonist quietly living with his catatonic wife in a rural forest region outside London. Enjoying his short respite at Jasper’s cozy residence filled with the memories of their past, Theo is brightened a little although he still feels unsettled by a recent bombing incident which could have killed him, and there is a wry moment of gallows humor when Jasper tells a joke about the continuing collapse of their world.

After he goes back to his usual daily life in London, he is approached by Julian (Julianne Moore), who has been the leader of an underground anti-government organization after their separation following the death of their young son. There is someone who must be smuggled out of Britain, and she wants Theo to help getting transit papers from the government. Theo is understandably reluctant at first, but he comes to agree to help her for old time’s sake and the money promised to him.

The person in question is a young illegal immigrant girl named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and Theo later comes to see why this girl is so important, as getting involved with Julian’s plan more than expected. I will let you behold Kee’s undeniable importance for yourself if you have not watched the film yet, but I can tell you that Theo eventually accompanies Kee along with Miriam (Pam Ferris), a middle-aged nurse who is another person Kee can trust besides Theo and Julian. As planned from the beginning, they must take Kee to an offshore spot near the coast where a big refugee camp is located, and they should hurry before it is too late for her chance to be sent to some safer place far from Britain.


The immediate sense of danger and fear is further increased around that point, and there are a number of stunning long take sequences to be admired for their visceral dramatic/visual impact. With a devastating plot turn, that famous sequence mainly unfolded inside a moving vehicle is indeed intense and captivating, and so are other equally masterful sequences in the film. In case of one action sequence, it is simply about pushing a vehicle along a gentle slope as quick as possible, but I can assure you that it is far more real and gripping than many bland CGI action sequences we have to endure in these days.

Rather than merely being showy technical exercises, these long take sequences function as an organic part of Cuarón’s realistic storytelling approach. As his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera steadily and fluidly sticks around characters, we become more involved in their urgent circumstances without interruption, and we become more aware of possible perils around them which can get them killed at any point. Visual effects are judiciously used here and there throughout the film for more realism without drawing our attention to themselves, and I learned later that some long take sequences in the movie actually consist of multiple takes seamlessly connected together for generating continuous visual flow on the screen.

Because he intended to make an ‘anti-Blade Runner’ film from the start, Cuarón makes his film look contemporary as much as possible except modest futuristic details, which now look more contemporary to our amusement. Those transparent display monitors shown in the movie will soon look common to us considering recent technology developments, and a minor character occupied with his small electronic gadget during one scene reminds me of how much we spend our time on smartphones nowadays. Except their tarnished dystopian texture, many other things in the movie including clothes, vehicles, and buildings look mundane and familiar to us as before, and I guess we will probably get the same impression when we enter 2027.


And the dystopian world in the movie comes closer to us as resonating with our ongoing post-9/11 era via many stark moments of human darkness. Its ghastly sights of illegal immigrants brutalized by soldiers at the refugee camp certainly evoke those atrocities committed in the name of the War on Terror, and there is even an apparent moment based on one of the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. Looking around the bleak, volatile environment of the refugee camp roiling with multi-cultural cacophony, we cannot help but think of many wars and conflicts during our time – including what is happening now in Syria. Considering the increasing hostility toward refugees in many countries and the accompanying rise of reckless nationalistic demagogues during recent years, what is shown in the movie does not look like an inconceivable future at all, and that makes the movie more chilling and disturbing at this point.

The performers look convincing as people who have lived with the approaching doom of their world for years. Clive Owen brings glum cynicism and gritty tenaciousness to his reluctant everyman hero, and he and Julianne Moore convey well the long history between their characters even though they do not say a lot about it during their scenes. While Clare-Hope Ashitey, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, Pam Harris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, and Michael Caine are also effective in their respective archetype supporting roles, Caine is especially poignant when his goofy but wise, compassionate character makes a small gesture of defiance although he probably knows well what is going to happen.

After the critical success of “Children of Men”, Alfonso Cuarón had been rather silent for several years, but then he returned with “Gravity” (2013), a technical tour-de-force which will be remembered as the crowning achievement of his filmmaking career for a long time. While the far bigger success of the latter eclipses the former to some degrees, both made me reflect on our world in each own different way. While the space adventure story of “Gravity” reminds me of how fragile our world is as being only protected by a thin layer of atmosphere from the space out there, the gloomy dystopian tale of “Children of Men” reminds me of how easily we can lead our world to ruin as letting ourselves blinded by fear and despair. As its ambiguous but powerful finale tentatively suggests, we can only hope that, regardless of whatever will happen to us during this century, we will be able to do better for ourselves – and, above all, our children and next generations.


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The Infiltrator (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Follow the money


A real-life story which inspired “The Infiltrator” is an interesting tale worthwhile to be told. Using that inexorable connection between crime and money, American federal agents attempted to infiltrate into the money laundering network of Pablo Escobar’s infamous Columbian drug cartel in the 1980s, and their highly risky undercover operation eventually succeeded in throwing a major blow to Escobar’s criminal business. However, the movie does not have enough things to distinguish itself from other similar police procedural movies such as “Miami Vice” (2006), and the overall result is deficient in style and personality despite the diligent work from its cast members.

Its hero is Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston), a U.S. Customs and drug enforcement agent who was a key participant of that operation. The opening sequence shows him in the middle of his latest undercover operation at a local bowling alley in Tampa, Florida. His mission could be ruined due to an unexpected technical problem inside his clothes, but Mazur manages to hide that problem in front of his unsuspecting target, and the mission is finally accomplished thanks to that.

While looking for any possible way of approaching closer to Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, Mazur gets one clever idea; rather than pursuing the cartel’s drug traffic as before, they should go after its money laundering process instead. His fellow undercover agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) happens to have an informer who can lead them to cartel members, and then everything is quickly set up for their new undercover operation. With his seemingly credible fake background and appearance prepared in advance, Mazur becomes a successful financial business named Bob Musella, and he soon comes to befriend several cartel members who can unwittingly help his infiltration.


The most entertaining part of the movie comes from how Mazur presents himself as a rich guy venal and opportunistic enough to launder any dirty money with no qualms about that. He begins to deal with a big international bank which has handled many shady financial transactions around the world behind its respectable façade, and the executives of the bank do not mind even when their latest big client frankly tells them why he wants their service. Besides impressing his cartel associates enough with his fake show of wealth and luxury, Mazur also gets extra criminal authenticity from Dominic (Joe Gilgun), a criminal who has served his time in prison thanks to Mazur but agrees to cooperate with him anyway as his driver.

Still, he always has to be careful for gaining more trust from the cartel, and it turns out that he needs to do more than he thought for maintaining his cover. At one point, one of his cartel associates treats him to a prostitute, but Mazur does not want her because he is a married guy with two kids. He lies that he cannot accept this ‘gift’ due to his recent engagement, so now he has no choice but to be accompanied with a young female agent who is going to be his ‘fiancée’. As he spends more time on his undercover operation, his wife Evelyn (Juliet Aubrey) naturally becomes frustrated, and then she gets an unpleasant glimpse of her husband’s ongoing work when they happen to encounter a cartel member by coincidence.

The adapted screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman, which is based on Mazur’s memoir of the same name, tries to juggle many other things besides the aforementioned ones, but it fails to generate enough tension or interest to hold our attention, and we are confused at times as its plot merely hops from one point to another without much narrative momentum. In case of a subplot involved with CIA, it only ends up being no more than a minor footnote in the story, and so does that amusing irony associated with the hypocrisy of the US government during that time, which pushed the War on Drug on the surface but indirectly helped drug cartels as mentioned before the end credits. As the story trudges toward the expected ending, it becomes more predictable, and even a supposedly dramatic scene involved with a fake wedding ceremony somehow feels lackluster despite its inherent absurdity.


For Bryan Cranston, his role is surely a nice opportunity to play someone a lot different from his criminal character in acclaimed TV series “Breaking Bad”. Although his other recent performance in HBO TV movie “All the Way” (2016) is more compelling and interesting to watch, Cranston’s measured performance ably carries the movie, and he deftly handles several scenes where Mazur must keep his disguise intact around potential dangers.

Some of the supporting performers surrounding Cranston give solid performances to appreciate. John Leguizamo is suitably volatile in contrast to Cranston, and Diane Kruger brings considerable spirit into her agent character who turns out to be more resourceful and caring than expected. Benjamin Bratt is slick and confident as a high-level cartel member who comes to trust and like his new associate more than Mazur wants, and Joe Gilgun, a British actor who was one of memorable characters in “This is England” (2006), holds his own small place as a guy who comes to form an unlikely relationship with Mazur. In case of Amy Ryan, Said Taghmaoui, and Juliet Aubrey, they are unfortunately wasted in their respective thankless roles, and it is too bad that we do not get enough of Olympia Dukakis, who is simply delightful during her brief appearance as Mazur’s old but spunky aunt.

The director Brad Furman, who is incidentally Ellen Brown Furman’s son, previously directed “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011). That movie was basically your average crime mystery legal drama, but it was filled with colorful personality thanks to the enjoyable performances from Matthew McConaughey and its other cast members, and that was the main reason I recently revisited it just for fun. Compared to that, “The Infiltrator” is merely plain and uncharacteristic without much lingering impression, and I doubt whether I will ever watch it again.


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Don’t Breathe (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): They made a huge mistake…


“Don’t Breathe” does two things well as an exemplary thriller/horror movie. In the beginning, it takes some time to establish its modest ground for plot and character to engage us, and then it jolts us with a twisted reversal of the situation surrounding its few characters. After that, the movie steadily and efficiently pushes its story and characters into more horror and darkness to be revealed via its deadly, suspenseful cat-and-mouse game, and we do not mind even when it tries several usual genre clichés, which are effectively utilized here in fact.

The movie begins with a trio of small-time young burglars operating around the decrepit neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan. They are Alex (Dylan Minnette), Rocky (Jane Levy), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), and they are breaking into a posh residence when they are introduced to us during their first scene. Because Alex’s father is an employee of a security company which provides its service to numerous houses in their neighborhood, they can turn off the security system in the house right after their intrusion, and they are also discreet about what they are going to steal just in case.

We get to know a little bit more about them after they succeed again in their criminal activity. Like her two accomplices, Rocky has yearned to get out of their miserable neighborhood which has no future for them, and she hopes that she will amass enough money soon for leaving for a better life in California along with her dear young sister. While Alex has carried a torch for Rocky, this reserved young man mostly keeps his feelings to himself mainly because she seems to be closer to Money, who is your average cocky hoodlum with lots of swagger.


While their dream still seems to be out of reach, they come across a risky but tempting chance which may finally make their dream come true. There is an old veteran who has lived alone in his shabby house for years, and, according to a tip from Money’s criminal associate, this man has $300,000 in cash, which was given to him as a part of settlement after his only family member was killed by a car accident not so long ago.

Alex is reluctant because they will be in a much more serious legal trouble if they get caught during their attempt to steal such a big amount of money like that, but he eventually agrees to go along with his accomplices mainly due to his affection toward Rocky, and everything looks fine and easy as they do some reconnaissance around the old man in question before their break-in. Although the old man has a big dog which can be very loud and aggressive, it can be promptly sedated, and the surrounding area is quite remote because nearly all of nearby houses around the old man’s residence have been empty and abandoned. Besides, the old man is blind due to his battle injury.

When they attempt to break into the house at night, things initially go well as planned except several minor setbacks, but they soon come to realize they made a huge mistake when they happen to confront the blind old man, who turns out to be far more than a match they can handle. He is still a tough fighter with his remaining senses which have been heightened by his blindness, and, as implied during the disturbing prologue scene in the movie, he is not going to let his unwelcomed guests leave his house easily because of a dark, monstrous secret kept somewhere inside the house.


The director/co-writer/co-producer Fede Alvarez, who wrote the screenplay with his co-writer Rodo Sayagues, skillfully increases the level of dread and suspense through a series of well-made sequences to enjoy, and the result is more entertaining than his previous film “Evil Dead” (2013), which was a dismal and unnecessary remake of Sam Raimi’s classic 1981 horror movie (Raimi co-produced both that movie and “Don’t Breathe”, by the way). During one impressive long-take sequence unfolded around the characters and the interior of the house, the cinematographer Pedro Luque’s camera smoothly moves here and there to convey us the clear sense of space in advance, and Luque and Alvarez also make sure that the night scenes in the movie do not look too dim while looking dark and nightmarish as demanded. At one point, we get a frightening moment reminiscent of the climactic part of “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), and we are completely involved in its non-blind characters’ helpless circumstance even though we can clearly see what may happen on the screen.

While its three young performers are competent in their respective roles, our attention is naturally drawn to Stephen Lang, a veteran actor whom I noticed for the first time through his excellent performance in “Last Exit to Brooklyn” (1989). Although his blind character becomes all the more unsympathetic later in the movie, Lang always keeps us on the edge as a formidable monster to terrify us, and his chilling performance mainly consisting of small and big physical nuances is as memorable as those barren, tarnished outdoor locations of Detroit, which contribute a lot to the moody and creepy atmosphere on the screen like they did in “It Follows” (2014), another notable recent horror film set around Detroit.

As a solid genre piece somewhere between “Wait Until Dark” (1967) and “Panic Room” (2002), “Don’t Breathe” is both scary and entertaining on the whole. The movie deftly and smartly plays with our expectation within its small ground, and I must confess that there were a couple of time I got genuinely frightened during my viewing. It is really terrible to be helplessly blind alone in darkness, you know.


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The Bacchus Lady (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Miss Yoon Abides


Here is to you, Miss Yoon Yeo-jeong, who is indubitably the best thing in South Korean film “The Bacchus Lady”. While the movie itself often steps back from its main subject and stammers around other things, this wonderful actress did everything she could do as its leading performer, and her nuanced performance makes the movie worthwhile to watch even during its weakest moments. She is always the solid human center to hold everything in the film, and I can only admire how she pulls that out even though the movie is not as committed as what may be one of the best performances in her long, illustrious acting career.

Yoon plays an old prostitute named So-yeong, and we get to know about her bit by bit after two things happen to her in the beginning. At a clinic, she is notified that she gets gonorrhea, and it seems she was infected from her latest client (the movie never shows us who that bastard is, by the way). Not long after the meeting with her doctor, the doctor happens to be stabbed by a Filipino woman during their quarrel over their Kopino son Jason (Ha Jeong-hoon), and So-yeong comes to take the boy to her small home after his mother is arrested.

We meet a few people living around So-yeong at a house located somewhere in the Itaewon-dong area, where you can often come across its various minority residents. While her landlady Tina (Ahn Ah-joo) is a sassy transgender girl working at a local nightclub, So-yeong’s fellow tenant Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-sang) is an amiable young man with a certain disability to be revealed later, and there is also a hearty African woman who works at a nearby grocery store for foreign residents. In fact, I actually saw that grocery store during my brief visits to the Itaewon-dong area during this summer, and I can gladly tell you that the store is one of many things which imbue foreign personalities into its neighborhood besides Seoul Central Mosque, a big but modestly lovely building which is incidentally shown from the distance in one brief evening shot of the film.


We also see how So-yeong operates around Jongmyo park, a public park which is frequented by other prostitutes like her and old guys who come there as their potential clients. When she approaches to her possible client, she pretends she is trying to sell a bottle of an energy drink named Bacchus, which is a sort of code word for offering sex in her field (that is why those old women like her are called ‘Bacchus ladies’). Because of her current medical condition which should be taken care of sooner or later, intercourse is out of the question for now, but there are other ways to satisfy her clients at a cheap motel near the park – and she is ready to do whatever is necessary for earning her living.

The movie has a number of uncomfortable scenes which are clearly intended to reflect the seedy and unpleasant reality So-yeong has to deal with everyday, and Yoon willingly pushes herself into these challenging moments which would be quite daunting even for far younger performers. I was disturbed to hear about how inconsiderate the director/writer Lee Jae-yong was to his leading actress without enough assistance or understanding while he shot these scenes, but, as far as I could see from the screen, Yoon’s acting supports these scenes with no-nonsense attitude and commendable commitment while never letting So-yeong become someone to be merely pitied. So-yeong knows too well that her life is not that decent at all, but she is not ashamed of herself at all, as a practical woman who is simply fine with what has been one of a few options in her poor life.

While Yoon is fully prepared for anything along with her character, the story unfortunately takes a more conventional and sentimental route as paying attention to a little too many other subjects. As So-yeong continues to take care of Jason along with Do-hoon and Tina, they certainly look a lot like your average alternative family, and then there comes an impending matter of Jason’s mother, who surely represents those many unfortunate Southeastern Asian women impregnated and then abandoned by their lousy South Korean guys. In addition, there is a goofy documentarian eager to get any interesting story from So-yeong, and I am still wondering whether this redundant subplot is the director’s artistic alibi.


And then we get another subplot involved with So-yeong’s close clients. I cannot discuss this part in detail due to a spoiler problem, but let’s say I was not so pleased with how the movie clumsily handles a serious subject in this part. I could not help but notice its cheap emotional manipulation, and I especially felt insulted during one certain scene unfolded at the top of a mountain, which is morally and ethnically questionable but is simply discarded away after a brief, solemn obligatory moment of guilt and remorse.

Nevertheless, I remember good moments generated from Yoon’s performance which is neither sappy nor sentimental throughout the film. I appreciate how she wordlessly conveys so much during a small poignant scene where So-yeong happens to encounter someone from her old past – or when she calmly and gracefully accepts the inevitability of her situation during the finale, which is regrettably marred by the last two unnecessary unsentimental scenes (this expression may sound ridiculous, but I am not kidding at all).

“The Bacchus Lady” is riddled with glaring flaws which still bother me even at this point, but I recommend it mainly because I really enjoyed how Yoon’s performance abides despite that. Although she has led her enduring movie star career for 45 years since her debut film “Woman of Fire” (1971), I belatedly came to notice her through her scene-stealing performance in “Actresses” (2009), and this 69-year-old actress has never been boring since my late moment of recognition. She is a living national treasure as valuable as Lily Tomlin or Betty White, and, yes, she deserves to be served better than this.


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Breathing Underwater (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): The life and death of the women of the sea


South Korean documentary “Breathing Underwater” is about an interesting group of women in one small island. For earning their living, they dive into the sea without any special equipment except a few rudimentary tools, and the documentary touchingly observes how their life has been connected with their deep blue workplace where they have to work with considerable risks.

To me and many other South Koreans, ‘haenyeo’, which means ‘the woman of the sea’, is one of the most familiar words representing Jeju Island, a big volcano island located in the far south sea region of South Korea. Many women in the island worked as haenyeo in the past, and Udo, an islet located near Jeju Island, has been known as the origin of this old occupation. Because it is not easy to grow any crop in this islet because of its tough earth and rough weather, its people naturally depended on whatever could be harvested from the sea, and that was how women came to work at the sea. They often had to support their families for themselves due to the absence of their men who usually died in the ocean, and it surely helped that their female body gave them more biological advantages in diving.

As the documentary looks around a group of haenyeos living in Udo, the narration tells us how haenyeos are divided into three classes based on each own breathing competency. While low class members work in the shallow areas of 3-meter depth, middle class members operate in the deeper areas whose depth is around 5-9 meters, and high class members have the farthest areas whose depth is around 15-20 meters. Once how long they can hold their breath in the water is determined during their early career years, there is not much chance of class upgrade because, well, that inherent limit of our human body is not something which can be easily surpassed no matter how much we try.


We see how this categorization is related to their average earning per one day. Due to their less bountiful harvest areas, low class members cannot harvest much compared to middle class members, and the areas belonging to high class members surely look bounteous with many precious things to be harvested. We learn that high class members can earn around $ 36,000 per one year, and we meet a middle-aged woman who has her own skillful way of underwater work as the very top of her class. She may not hold her breath longer than her peers, but she can instinctively find good places for her harvest, and we see her being helped by her colleagues when her harvest during one day happens to be too much to be carried by herself alone.

We also learn about how dangerous and demanding their working condition is. For example, they have to work at the sea for at least 8 straight hours per one day, and they even do not eat or drink during their working time. Besides the external dangers including shark attack, they must be always careful about their little precious underwater time inexorably determined by their deep breath before diving, but, as they casually admit during their interviews, they are often tempted to stay longer in the water than they can – especially if there is a good chance of earning more money right in front of their eyes.

Such a risky action like that can lead to the fatal situation of getting water into their lungs, which is called ‘Mool-soom’ (It means ‘breathing underwater’). For avoiding that danger, they must go back up to the sea level as soon as possible before it is too late, and we see them making their distinctive whistling sound while they breath air deeply and quickly as trained for many years. This is the assuring sign which reminds them that they are still alive and well, and then they are soon prepared for their another diving into the sea.


However, they are often reminded that the possibility of death is always around them during their work. During an annual shamanist ritual, they pray and hope that nothing bad will happen, but accident can happen to any of them, and there is a sad moment involved with the unexpected death of one of their prominent senior members. When we see the meeting of the youngest members, we cannot help but notice that they are all around 40s or 50s; they may be the last generation of their profession which has been inevitably faded into the past thanks to the advance of modernization.

Nevertheless, these ladies keep moving on with their life as actively taking care of themselves and their families. The director Koh Hee-young, who was born and grew up in Jeju Island, worked on her documentary for 7 years for getting a closer look at her human subjects, and her respect and affection toward them can be clearly felt from the final result. The underwater footage shots from haenyeos’ working hours look vivid and beautiful with those gorgeous marine sceneries full of various sea animals and plants, and Udo looks terrific along with the wide aerial shots of the surrounding sea.

Although “Breathing Underwater” often feels like one of those average TV documentaries in its modest appearance, it has enough good things to watch and appreciate during its rather short running time. As seasons come and go, these remarkable women who are as feisty as those old female fighters in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) continue to go to their sea as they did many times before – and nothing can stop them as long as they can dive and swim for their ongoing life.


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