Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스, Kim Jung-hoon, 2010)

petty-romanceKorea is quite good at rom-coms. Consequently they make quite a lot of them and as the standard is comparatively high you have to admire the versatility on offer. Korean romantic comedies are, however, also a little more conservative,  coy even, than those from outside of Asia which makes Petty Romance (쩨쩨한 로맨스,  Jjae Jjae Han Romaenseu) something of an exception in its desire to veer in a more risqué direction. He’s too introverted, she’s too aggressive – they need each other to take the edges off, it’s a familiar story but one that works quite well. Petty Romance does not attempt to bring anything new to the usual formula but does make the most of its leads’ well honed chemistry whilst keeping the melodrama to a minimum.

Manhwa artist Jeong Bae (Lee Sun-kyun) is not having much success with his latest project. In fact, his publishing house has been using his submitted drafts as scrap paper. He’s also got a problem in that a gallery owning friend of his late father has been the caretaker of a precious painting left to him in his father’s will but now wants to call in a loan or sell it to get the money back and so Jeong bae is in desperate need of fast cash.

Across town, Da-rim (Choi Kang-hee) has managed to bag a writing gig on her friend’s woman’s magazine but finds herself out of her depth working on a sex advice column when she has no direct experience of love or dating. Given the axe by her friend and living with her moody twin brother to whom she owes money, Da-rim is also in need of something to sink her teeth in to.

When a friend of Bae’s lets him know about a new competition with a $100,000 cash prize it sounds like just what he needs. The only snag is the competition is for “adult” manhwa which has not generally been Bae’s thing. Taking his editor’s advice, Bae decides to work with a writer but most of his interviewees are not exactly what he’s looking for. Da-rim with her “experience” in translation and publishing, as well as her unusual forthrightness concerning the subject matter very much fits the bill.

Kim doesn’t waste much time in getting the two together though their love/hate relationship is a definite slow boil as both Bae and Da-rim spend most of their partnership playing each other to try and get the upper hand. Bae’s trouble, according to his editor, is a talent for action but a failure with narrative – hence the need for a writer. Da-rim, by contrast, has altogether too much imagination coupled with the kind of arrogance which masks insecurity. Having blagged her way into the job, Da-rim spends most of her time ensuring that she’s in a superior position to Bae so that he will have to do most of the work while she enjoys freshly made coffee ordered to distract him from the fact that she has no idea what she’s doing.

Despite coming up with a promising storyline about a sex obsessed female assassin, Da-rim’s naivety is palpable in her attempts to come up with a suitably “adult” atmosphere. Disney-esque scenarios of handsome princes and desert islands, even if spiced up (in the most innocent of ways), isn’t quite striking the tone for the kind of prize winning raunchy manga that the pair are aiming for. Pushed further, Da-rim’s extrapolations from “research” are so unrealistic as to set Bae’s alarm bells ringing but offered with such insistence as to have him momentarily doubt himself.

Kim makes good use of manhwa as a visual device allowing him to include slightly more erotic content than usual in a Korean romantic comedy in an entirely “safe” way. Refreshingly he keeps the usual plot devices to a minimum though there is the “sibling mistaken for lover”, “mistimed job offer,” and “aggressive rival” to contend with, even if the major barriers are entirely centred around the personalities of the protagonists who are each fairly self involved in their own particular ways. Despite making good use of the chemistry generated by previous collaborators Lee Sun-kyun and Choi Kang-hee, Petty Romance lives up to its name in providing enough low-key drama to keep rom-com fans happy but never quite moves beyond the confines of its genre.


Available to stream on Mubi (UK) until 15th March 2017 courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monster Chronicles: Tiktik (Erik Matti, 2012)

Tik tik posterReview of Erik Matti’s Philippine folklore/comic book inspired horror movie The Monster Chronicles: Tiktik (also known as Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles) up at UK Anime Network.


An “aswang” is a supernatural monster from Philippine folklore which is basically a vampire, zombie and were-creature all rolled into one. Appearing just like everyone else in everyday life, the aswangs can disguise themselves as various animals in order to trick unsuspecting people into letting their guard down so they can feast on their hearts and livers. Aswangs are particularly fond of the flesh of unborn babies and will even attempt to sneak into the homes of unsuspecting expectant mothers to suck the child from their very wombs as they lie peacefully asleep.

All of this is very bad news for metropolitan city slicker Makoy who’s managed to trek all the way out to a remote village backwater hoping to win back his heavily pregnant girlfriend who has left him after finally becoming fed up with his total uselessness. However, his efforts seem to have been in vain as Sonia, the possibly ex-girlfriend, doesn’t even want to see him and her domineering mother Feley is dead against this dead beat city boy who’s got her daughter pregnant coming anywhere near her family ever again. Luckily, Sonia’s father, Nestor, is a little more open to the idea of a reconciliation with his grandchild’s father and eventually invites him to stay for Sonia’s birthday celebrations.

At this point Makoy decides to make himself useful by haggling down the price of a pig for roasting at the party, only after managing to pay a whole lot less he ends up with a whole lot more than he bargained for. The local villagers all turn out to be a colony of aswang and now they know about Sonia’s unborn baby it’s not long before all hell breaks out at the prospective parents-in-law of the previously feckless Makoy!

Director Erik Matti (perhaps best known for his urban crime thriller On the Job) opts for a comic book inspired aesthetic by emphasising the artificiality of his studio bound film through noticeably fake CGI backgrounds. Playing out like a Philippine From Dusk Till Dawn, the film has an ironic, pop-culture filled humorous tone and further brings out its comic book trappings through the frequent use of split screens which divide the frame almost like panels do a comic book page. The slightly old fashioned appearance of the split screens coupled with the heightened colour scheme and CGI graphics also add a retro appeal which helps to create the crazy, almost cartoon-like universe in which the film takes place.

However, even if Tiktik has a Saturday morning toon aesthetic, it’s very much an adult affair filled with blood, guts and viscera. An old lady sitting next to Makoy on the cart into town ominously seems to be carrying a large bag of intestines which only seems to foreshadow events to come which will see Makoy wielding a large pitchfork with the guts of an aswang coiled around it like the messiest spaghetti you’ve ever seen.

The aswang might be known for their transforming powers but the real transformation we’re being asked to witness of that of Makoy himself as he plays the classic “stranger in town” role whose arrival is the catalyst for everything going to hell. In the beginning Makoy is an arrogant townie who can’t quite believe the backwardness of this tiny village with no cellphone signal or transport options. He arrogantly assumes he can haggle and barter with the locals by treating them with a superior attitude and the distain of a recent visitor from “civilisation”. This only earns him the additional ire of the aswang who are now, quite literally, out for blood. Sonia may have left him because of his laid back, slacker ways but if he wants to save her and their baby from being devoured by slavering, ugly monsters that no one quite believes in anymore, he’ll finally have to man up.

Makoy manages a little better than Sonia’s father, Nestor – a mild mannered and kind man who loves his fierce wife very much but still can’t quite find the necessary strength within himself to protect his family. If Makoy is to succeed he’ll have to jump into the shoes of a father with both feet, taking charge of a situation which he is not fully equipped to understand.

The film neatly divides itself into two halves with the set-up economically established early on giving way to the aswang assault. Though the action scenes are often exciting and inventive with a fair bit of humour thrown in, Tiktik loses momentum when it switches from the CGI enhanced actors to the completely CGI creatures which are never quite convincing. A genre affair throughout, Tiktik will undoubtedly play better to the Midnight Movie crowd (as it is intended to do) but uninitiated viewers may find themselves tiring of the gore tinged action long before the last aswang is split in twain.


The Monster Chronicles: Tiktik is out now in the UK from Terracotta Distribution following its appearance at the Terracotta Festival in 2014.

 

King of Pigs (UK Anime Network Review)

image-8-king-of-pigsFirst Published on UK Anime Network in May 2013


Korea has a long tradition of animation but is perhaps more famous overseas for providing technical services to higher profile productions from other countries. The King of Pigs is the first feature length Korean animation to be shown at Cannes and has been screened at several other film festivals worldwide, picking up a few awards along the way too. Korean live action cinema of recent times has earned itself a reputation for being unafraid of violence and difficult subject matters – an ethos which appears to have directly penetrated into King of Pigs which nothing if not extremely bleak.

As the film begins, failed businessman Kyung-min weeps naked in a shower while the contorted face of a strangled woman lingers hauntingly in the next room. He makes a phone call hoping to track down an old childhood friend – perhaps because he feels he’s the only one who can help him understand what he’s done or because he feels somehow as if this person represents a fracture point in his life where everything started to go wrong. This long lost friend, Jong-suk, seems to be in a similarly dismal situation – an under appreciated ghost writer who’s constantly berated for writing unemotional prose, he returns home to beat his wife after accusing her of having an affair (which turns out to be doubly wrong as she’d been meeting with a publisher about Jong-suk’s own novel). The two men meet and talk over a traumatic period in their childhood when their only protector was another boy, Chul – self titled King of Pigs.

The school system was divided rigidly along lines of economic/social status and academic prowess and neither Kyung-min nor Jong-suk found themselves in the elite camp. Beaten, humiliated and molested the boys appear to have no recourse except to grin and bear it – even the teachers and authorities appear complicit in this unofficial caste system. That is until Chul dares to fight back, violently, on behalf of not only himself but all the other ‘pigs’ too. The three end up becoming a team bound by mutual suffering much more than friendship or human emotion. It takes more than one boy to destroy a system though and circumstances conspire to ruin whatever headway they might have made. These times will affect each boy more than he could ever have guessed and these changes will not be for the better.

The King of Pigs is certainly not an optimistic film. Though it seeks to depict a corrupt system based on arbitrary and unfair principles, perpetuated by the adults in charge and those trapped inside it, it has to be said that by the time we meet the young counterparts none of them is especially sympathetic. It’s an unfortunate part of the film’s message but the fact that both the young boys are so passive and complicit in their own degradation makes it very difficult to build up a sense of sympathy for them. You might think then that Chul would be the natural hero of this piece as the self appointed ‘savior’ of the hopeless cases but his manifesto rapidly turns so repellant that you can’t get behind him either. What you’re left with is a group of misogynistic ‘little men’ who in turn transfer the frustration they feel with their own sense of inferiority on to those they believe to be even weaker than themselves. The film tries to imply that the grown up failures of these men are a direct consequence of a broken school system, yet as we meet them already in the system rather than as totally innocent children, it’s not possible to follow this line of reasoning as the boys appear deeply unpleasant from the offset.

Unfortunately, another thing the film isn’t is subtle. The director really wants to hammer home his message about the socio-economic unfairness that seems to penetrate every area of society and prevent any sort of social mobility, but often it’s akin to being hit over the head with the same idea repeatedly several times over the course of the film. It is extremely violent in a deeply uncomfortable way to the extent that you could call this a ‘nasty’ film – the scene of animal cruelty alone feels both like an underdeveloped cliché and a thinly veiled attempt at shock value. In short, the film constantly undermines itself by shooting straight for the extreme where a more nuanced approach may have made its subject matter all the more powerful.

As it stands, it’s quite difficult to recommend The King of Pigs either as an entertainment piece or as a serious art film seeking to examine Korea’s attitudes to social class. The film was made on an independent basis and some may find its aesthetic a little basic in terms of animation quality yet it does have some interesting directorial ideas and composition. Though it ultimately fails, the film does deserve some praise for tackling such a difficult subject matter – genuinely adult contemporary animation can often be difficult to find. However it’s partly its desire to be ‘adult’ that destroys its ability to be taken seriously – by skewing towards the ‘extreme’ audience who may only be interested in the violence rather the problems that underly it, The King of Pigs risks been seen as a schlocky horror story rather than a parable about some very real social issues.


Available now in the UK from Terracotta Distribution.

Review of Yeon Sang-ho’s second and much improved animated feature The Fake.

 

King of Fists and Dollars (錢王、拳王, Chen Ming-Hua, 1979)

vlcsnap-2015-05-25-17h07m52s233Review of this rare martial arts movie up at UK Anime Network.


Terracotta have always been keen to bring us the best of contemporary Asian cinema but with the “Classic Kung Fu Collection” they aim to shine a light on some of the much loved movies of the martial arts golden age that have been absent from UK screens for entirely too long. This third entry in the series, King of Fists and Dollars, is a more niche release than the others in the series and has been long unavailable in its original Mandarin language version. Shot in Taiwan in 1979 but starring a host of Shaw Brothers favourites King of Fists and Dollars is a fairly typical example of its genre but perhaps fails to offer anything more.

In feudal China, a tyrannical lord, Chien, rules over the local population with extreme cruelty and disdain. Following a mining accident in which several miners are killed or injured and Chien outright refuses to pay compensation to their families and the townspeople begin to look for a champion to fight Chien on their behalf. Luckily a famous kung-fu master lives in the town, but unluckily he’s retired and not that keen on helping. Nevertheless he finally agrees and a mini rebellion begins to take place, however, Chien is not someone to be lightly overthrown.

King of Fists and Dollars is pretty much your typical late ‘70s kung-fu film. The plot is fairly simple and set piece heavy with the consequence that we simply move from fight scene to fight scene with a few comedy moments thrown in. There is the standard trope of the young hopeful who is forced (or in this case tricked for comic intent) to complete a series of bizarre tasks – this time including catching 100 frogs and hanging upside down all night in a tree in order to prove worthy enough to be allowed to train with the great master. Indeed, training scenes make a large percentage of the movie as Iron Fist trains up a force to beat Chien with the usual bucket based workouts and tricky games of agility.

However when the action scenes arrive they are fairly impressive. All of the different characters fight in different styles and poses and the choreography leans more to traditional clearly defined moves than the more fluid technique prevalent later. There is a fair bit of obvious wire work and off camera trickery at play but fans of old school action will find plenty to enjoy here, especially in the later part of the film which sees the gang facing off against Chien’s seemingly unstoppable champion.

Fans of older kung-fu movies may be more likely to forgive the obvious problems with the film’s presentation which to put it kindly is “imperfect”. The film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio rather than the original 2.35:1 (explaining why one character finishes her martial arts trick off screen) and has not been particularly well preserved. Crackly, worn and a little fuzzy the image quality is often disappointing though to be fair this may be the best available at the present time. The disc comes with the English dub as the default soundtrack with the original Mandarin plus French and Spanish dubs with English subtitles available from the menu screen. The Mandarin language soundtrack is similarly fuzzy with a few brief drop outs every now and then and the subtitles are generally fine. Given the film’s rarity (particularly in its Mandarin language version with English subtitles), many genre enthusiasts may find tolerating these defects an acceptable trade off in return for seeing the film but casual fans may have a much harder time forgiving them.

King of Fists and Dollars is therefore something of a mixed bag. A fairly ordinary, pretty typical Taiwanese martial arts film from the late ‘70s it offers everything you would expect but perhaps not much more. The cast of starry Shaw Brothers faces including: David Chiang, Danny Lee, Pearl Cheung Ling and Chao Hsiung are all accomplished performers doing what they best but nobody is really expected to stretch here. Genre fans will certainly jump at the chance to see this rare film but for the casual viewer its charms may be harder to discern.


Available in the UK now from Terracotta Distribution

Shanghai 13 (上海滩十三太保, Shàng Hǎi Tān Shí Sān Tài Bǎo, 1984)

vlcsnap-2015-02-04-17h43m36s189Look at baby Andy Lau!!!

Review of Chang Cheh’s 1984 kung fu extravaganza Shanghai 13 up on UK Anime Network. Out now on UK DVD courtesy of Terracotta Distribution and their new Classic Kung Fu collection!


Shanghai 13 is the second in Terracotta Distribution’s new strand featuring Kung-fu classics. Directed by one of the masters of the genre, Chang Cheh himself who directed such well loved pictures as One Armed Swordsman and The Five Deadly Venoms, Shanghai 13 certainly falls into this category though its charms may be enhanced through the glow of nostalgia. Thin on plot but high on action, Shanghai 13 is not a film to give your brain much of a work out but it will get those fists flying!

Set during the Sino-Japanese war, a government official – mister Ko, has discovered he existence of a secret plot to collaborate with the Japanese. With the help of the famous safecracker Mr Blackhat, Ko obtains the incriminating documents and becomes a prime target for those behind the conspiracy. Mr Ko needs to get to Hong Kong where he can expose the conspiracy to sympathetic forces and enlists the aid of the famous “Shanghai 13” group of outlaws and heroes for protection. However, not all of the 13, it seems, are on his side!

Let’s be honest, not that many people really care about the plot of an action movie which is just as well because the plot of Shanghai 13 is about as thin as they come. Structurally, it’s akin to a video game where Mr Ko and his current protector must face a series of bosses with increasingly impressive fighting prowess in order to “level up” until they finally get Mr Ko to safety. The whistleblowers are the good guys and the people who are trying to stop them are the bad guys. It’s fairly black and white in that everyone on the “right” side is fighting for China and everyone else is either a traitor, Japanese sympathiser or just a soulless mercenary willing to sell out their country for a few coins. If you were looking for the kind of action movie with a nuanced plot, a bit of romance or emotional connection you’d best move along, there’s nothing to see here.

However, if killer action scenes are your bag you’ve come to the right place. Chang Cheh is not a legend for no reason even if Shanghai 13 is not his strongest effort. The film is sort of bookmarked by each of the titular 13 heroes who each have their own outlaw titles and particular fighting style. As usual, Chang has amassed some of his regulars which include some of the most famous names in kung-fu history such as Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng but he’s also made room for a few newcomers like an extremely young Andy Lau! The action scenes maybe fairly episodic but each are well designed and varied thanks to being entered around each of the fighter’s particular skills.  Again, they may not be reinventing anything, but each action sequence is impressively choreographed and exciting in its own right.

Shanghai 13 might not be the best example of its genre but it is certainly a typical one. Very much of its time, its appeal maybe be greater to those who view it through a heavy film of nostalgia but that’s not to say it isn’t often hugely entertaining to first time viewers too. The presentation is fairly pleasing and the disc includes both the original Cantonese language track plus an English dub for those who prefer it. The English subtitles are sometimes a little strange and riddled with obvious grammatical errors but not so much as to make them unintelligible though they may detract from some viewers enjoyment of the film. Shanghai 13 is undoubtedly a lesser offering from the great Chang Cheh, but fans of classic kung-fu are sure to plenty to admire nonetheless.


 

Moebius (뫼비우스, Kim Ki-duk, 2013)

pXQzqHE - ImgurKim Ki-duk’s latest reviewed at uk-anime.net.


A Moebius strip is a twisted loop with no beginning and no end. No matter where you start your journey, you could pass the same point many times without ever crossing a boundary. It this inexorable and infinite cycle to which Korean auteur and professional cage rattler Kim Ki-duk now turns his unfaltering gaze as the ancient wheel of sex, death and violence trundles on untroubled by our modern day pretences of a more enlightened society. Completely dialogue free, Kim presents a contemporary greek tragedy framed as the blackest kind of satire.

Things are not going well in this quietly suburban, middle class household. It’s not even breakfast time but the father has retreated to his study because the mother is already perched on the stairs, a large refilled glass of red wine in hand and all while the bemused teenage son looks on disinterestedly. This is a normal morning, nothing has changed very recently. Things are about to change though – quite drastically. Finally at the end of her tether and filled with a Medea-like fury the mother decides to put an end to her husband’s philandering days by means of a kitchen knife. She is extremely drunk and half crazed so her husband easily disarms her at which point she comes up with another idea – if she can’t hurt her husband himself, she can cause him pain by proxy and takes her knife to her unsuspecting son’s room. Literally emasculated by his mother, the young son must then face difficult questions regarding the nature of his masculinity, particularly as it appears to others. His father in turn must cope both with the guilt of his own sins being visited on his son as well as that of his own behaviour as a father, husband and finally a man. Never one for easy answers, Kim Ki-duk’s examination of modern day Korean society continues apace but its implications are far more wide reaching.

Though Kim is firmly focussed on his native Korea, the questions he presents are as old as the hills and common to almost every culture (at least to those that also male dominated). It’s not the first Korean film where the successful father is having an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter, or the first where the wife’s humiliation spills over into violence but the nature of her revenge is so specific, and perhaps bizarre, that it brings its own particular line of discourse. The first question is one of traditional masculinity and how that is defined between men. The son seems to feel emasculated and looks for different ways to explore his manhood but is at pains that no one should discover the nature of his injury. Though he approaches the woman who had been his father’s mistress (played by the same actress who plays the mother), he backs off when she reaches for his genitals. Later, he makes an attempt to step in when she’s being hassled by a gang of dangerous looking youths but quickly subjugates himself to them and, when they do actually gang rape her, pretends to join in rather than stand up to them or have them think he is less than a man.

The fact the object of his adolescent lust is both his father’s mistress and looks eerily like a younger version of his mother is another ancient problem where, as they say, everyman kills his father and beds his mother. The father’s first reaction to his son’s predicament is to look for ways someone without a penis might experience orgasm – the answer he comes up with also speaks volumes and points to another of Kim’s ideas of circularity, that pain and pleasure aren’t so much linear poles but a circular continuum where both can exist equally at the same time as a sort of self feeding vortex. The second idea he has is a penis transplant, and as the boy’s is no longer available he makes the ultimate decision to sacrifice his own source of pleasure in favour of his son’s. Unfortunately, it comes with some sort of homing device which means it only works with the mother (perhaps her ultimate revenge). The relationship between father and son changes again as they become rivals in an incestuous love triangle only now it is the father who has become impotent and the son, literally, the man of the house.

If you think this all sounds a bit ridiculous (is a penis transplant even possible?) you aren’t wrong, and Kim Ki-duk knows too. Odd as it might sound, Moebius is a comedy, even if a macabre one. Sexual violence, incest, penis theft – not traditional comedic ingredients it has to be said but Kim Ki-duk’s very definitely of the it’s better to laugh than cry school of thought and the sheer scale of Kim’s vision gives the entire project the sort of absurd grandiosity that makes it very difficult not to find humour even the bleakest of situations. Kim isn’t proposing any answers here so much as offering a series of (critical) observations of human nature. The world isn’t going to change just as it hasn’t changed since Euripides first started telling stories of people driven to the edge of madness. We’re all walking on a Moebius strip, repeating the cycle endlessly completely unaware that, at some point, we began walking on the other side. Like the best Greek tragedies, Moebius is has a feeling of inevitability driven by the most primal of emotions. Once again Kim proves he’s not afraid to look deep into the dark heart of human nature and, though not for the faint hearted, Moebius is one of his most accomplished films to date.