Saturday, May 20, 2017

Asian Audient: Korean double feature

This is the fifth in my monthly series Asian Audient. Yes, I know it's a broad subject. At least I didn't call it "Oriental Audient."

Last month I couldn't properly source a movie made in South Korea (or by a South Korean filmmaker). This month, I sourced two of them, though I'm only counting one as May's "official" entry in the series.

That official entry is Kim Jee-woon's 2008 western The Good the Bad the Weird, which I am choosing to write without commas, though the internet is fairly evenly split on how to manage that. There are no commas when the title appears on screen in the movie, which is usually how I make such decisions. Also, I just don't really like it when a movie title contains commas, as it makes it more difficult to write when listing it along several other movies in the same sentence. You have to get semi-colons involved, which no one wants. And even that is a grammatical compromise, a typographic way of representing something that betrays the original (and quite useful) function of a semi-colon.

The unofficial entry, which I actually watched first, was last year's The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook. I didn't consider this as a full-on regular entry in this series because it came out too recently. The original impulse behind these annual themed viewing series was to create a regimented system for watching older films. I guess 2008 counts as "older" for these purposes -- it's not a new release, anyway, which is the type of film I am most naturally motivated to seek out (for reasons of compiling year-end lists and what not). And just to avoid confusion -- whatever that means -- I probably would not have watched The Handmaiden this month, except that it was made available from iTunes as the weekly 99 cent rental. That was an opportunity I couldn't bypass, especially since the HD version is also 99 cents and I expected this film to look beautiful (and possibly even "gorgeous," ha ha. See my most recent post if you don't know why I'm laughing). And because I touched on it briefly in my last post, I'll touch on it only briefly again here.

The two movies do have more in common than being Korean, though. They both take place in the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and they also both include characters who chop off people's fingers. That's fairly specific. The Handmaiden was based on a book called Fingersmith, and The Good the Bad the Weird has a character known as Finger Chopper. After cutting my thumb on Saturday night while slicing a lime, just an hour or two before I started The Handmaiden, I might have watched those scenes with a little bit of an extra wince.

But let's get specifically into the film that pays homage to Sergio Leone in more than one way, The Good the Bad the Weird. This is an electric gas of a good time. It's so fun, in fact, that I had a hard time recognizing it as the work of the same man who made the misanthropic, ultra-violent serial killer movie I Saw the Devil. TGTBTW is violent, too, but in a cartoonish way. As I was watching, I was pretty sure Kim was the guy whose American debut, the Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, was a surprisingly fun time a couple years ago. The two films have similar temperaments. But I wouldn't have seen the I Saw the Devil connection, as that film seems to represent completely opposite sensibilities to these. (And speaking of The Last Stand, the timing of seeing this film is interesting, as well, as we're currently watching season 2 of Netflix's Love, which features a Korean director making an American action movie.)

In fact, if only because of the broad similarity of them both being from Asian filmmakers (and what is this series about if not making things more broad than they probably should be?), the filmmaker this reminded me of most is Stephen Chow, director and star of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Hustle is where the similarity really strikes me, even though there's little hand-to-hand combat in TGTBTW and none of the ancient arts. Yeah, this is a gunslinger movie to be sure, but the same kind of heightened reality, active camera and snappy editing inform both films.

The plot is not super important but I will give you some of it anyway, by custom. It essentially focuses on three gunslinger/mercenary types, played by Jung Woo-sung ("The Good"), Lee Byung-hun ("The Bad") and Song Kang-ho ("The Weird"), though only through IMDB did I learn that these characters were meant to correspond directly with the three thirds of the title. The three are variously involved with the attempted acquisition of a map to buried treasure somewhere in the Manchurian desert, which takes them through gunfights aboard trains, in shanty towns, on horseback in the open expanses of the desert, and so forth. There's an uneasy alliance between the characters representing good and weird, with possibly the most lethal of them ("The Bad") tracking them. It's a truly international effort involving Korean and Chinese mercenaries and the Japanese imperial army. Anyway, the map is a bit of a MacGuffin designed to get them all shooting at each other.

And shoot at each other they do. This is some of the most entertaining gun play I have ever seen in a movie, and the staging is truly operatic, with the camera whipping around in time to catch that person falling off that balcony but still getting another person jumping through a window a second later halfway across the set. This is absolutely virtuoso action filmmaking. Kim does one of the most impossible things I have ever seen with a camera in the backseat of a taxi cab in I Saw the Devil, so in retrospect, all this fantastic camera work is no surprise.

But Kim is also a director in the original sense of that word, getting truly charismatic performances from his three stars, as well as a variety of colorful extras. I have rarely seen a cast having as much fun as everyone clearly had making this movie, even with a body count probably over 100. The tone works perfectly.

I suppose at the end of the day it's essentially an inconsequential film, which limited my star rating to "only" four stars. But it's an immensely enjoyable watch, and I don't know how a whole two hours and 11 minutes passed while I was watching it. It flies by.

It strikes me as a bit odd that I have now seen The Good the Bad the Weird, but I have yet to see the movie whose title inspired this one, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (See, there's that awkward sentence structure when the title has commas.) One of these years I'm going to need to focus on westerns as the theme of my annual viewing series.

As for The Handmaiden ... well, that got 4.5 stars, both because of its enviable beauty and because of an intricate narrative that is both intellectually rewarding and easy enough to follow. The story of a rich heiress, a conman trying to seduce her out of her fortune and the handmaiden he hires as his inside woman is told twice from different perspectives, the second of which elucidates things we thought we knew the first time, then continues toward a compelling conclusion with several more twists along the way. It's a feast for the eyes, of course, and sure, it's also quite sexy. (The film features graphic lesbian sex at certain points, if you didn't know.) But the script is also an unexpected strength. I say "unexpected" because Park's movies, while always quite memorable, do not always proceed forward tightly or in ways that make total sense. This is a real exception, and the movie is so composed and fully realized that I have a hard time believing it was made by the same person who made the dull and disastrous Stoker.

What say I for this series in June? I see that getting out of China and Japan (while not totally escaping them, as the content of these two movies reveals) worked quite well, so I'll try it again. I'm thinking something by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but it'll kind of depend on the availability of those films, which is so far somewhat elusive. 

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