Thursday, February 29, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Beat (1997)

 Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Ko So-young, Yu Oh-seong, Kim Bu-seon, Im Chang-jung, Sa Hyeon-jin, Song Keum-sik

Just two short years after bursting on to the scene with Runaway, Kim found his real runaway hit with the 1995 tale of Korean delinquencies, a film that has become synonymous with both 90s youth and that of a very prolific career boom for one Jung Woo-sung, and that is the undeniable classic... Beat. It has become a piece of pop culture. I've seen it mentioned time and time again within various outlets of Korean television, so there's no denying its place within the streamline of cinema that was beginning to bubble up at the end of the decade, just on the cusp of the explosion of international success that would come the country's way shortly after. A re-release of both this film and City of the Rising Sun are happening in March of this year, so hoping to see both of these works be back in the spotlight again.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Runaway (1995) Review

Directed by: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Lee Byung-hun, Kim Eun-jeong, Jang Se-jin, Lee Kyung-young

In 1993, a budding filmmaker named Kim Sung-soo was met with critical acclaim with his short 18 minute film, Dead End, which quickly thrust him into the world of feature filmmaking and a two short years later, in '95, he debuted with Runaway, which features Lee Byung-hun in one of his very first roles, and features among other things, a sweeping jazz score, lots of blue lighting, sweaty (comically so) scenes of eroticism, and of course, a whole lot of 90s culture. The plot is also as of the era as imaginable. A video game designer (Lee) hooks up with an artist (Kim), and the two have a good time together one night, but as their steamy night comes to a close, the heat picks back up when a murder is witnessed just outside of Kim's apartment window. Seemingly out of nowhere, the two find themselves pulled into a game of cat-and-mouse as they begin to be hunted down by the group of murderers.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | Narco-Saints (2022) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Hwang Jung-min, Park Hae-soo, Jo Woo-jin, Yoo Yeon-seok, Chang Chen, Choo Ja-hyun, Kim Min-gwi, Hyun Bong-sik, Lee Beong-ryeon

Episodes: 6

Coming to the end of my journey with director Yoon Jong-bin, I took a journey with his most recent project, his first foray into television, with the Netflix original limited series, Narco-Saints, based on true events about a man who happens upon a fish-selling scheme that he falls victim to, which ends up being a "laced" situation. Unaware of what was in the fish he had traveled from South Korea to Suriname to gather and sell for profit, Kang In-gu (Ha Jung-woo) finds himself working for the NIS when it is brought to his attention that a powerful drug lord, a local pastor named Jeon (Hwang Jung-min), screwed over his life. Hellbent on getting revenge and a boatload of promised cash in the process, In-gu agrees to help the agent that approaches him, and thus a journey of drugs, bloodshed, and a little worship for good measure ensues.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | The Spy Gone North (2018) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Hwang Jung-bin, Lee Sung-min, Cho Jin-woong, Ju Ji-hoon, Jung So-ri, Kim Hong-pa, Gi Ju-bong

Set in the year 1993, a man named Heuk Geum-seong is sort of pulled against his will into becoming a spy for South Korea. He goes by the codename Black Venus and is posing as a businessman selling Chinese products in Beijing, snowballing into linking up with the North Korean government in hopes of acquiring intel on North Korea, Kim Jong-il, and digging into the state of their nuclear weapons and seeing just how powerful the hidden country may be. This is based on a true story, and of course, with any film of this nature, there will always be details altered for dramatization purposes, but with this end result in the form of The Spy Gone North, what we have is a powerfully told story of espionage that doesn't find itself stuck in the genre trapping of most spy films. There are no guns fired and no real action set pieces. Instead, the intensity, which is almost unbearable at times, comes from the real-life threat of the situation, which unfortunately remains true to this day, and the looming threat of war breaking out at any moment. This is right up there with the very best work from Yoon.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Gang Dong-won, Lee Kyung-young, Lee Sung-min, Cho Jin-woong, Ma Dong-seok, Yoon Ji-hye, Kim Hae-sook Han Yeri, Kim Kkob-bi

After having dropped an extraordinary gangster film, my eyes and heart had become set on whatever Yoon Jong-bin would go on to do next, and then in 2014, only two years later, he revealed to the world a genre mash-up in the form of Kundo, a massively entertaining action film, filled with plenty of laughs and thrills. It's an emotionally adept film that never shies away from the brutality that many faced in their lives during the era in which the film takes place. It almost feels like a Tarantino-esque picture (not someone I usually like comparing others to), but it feels like it here. It takes a lot of genres, old martial arts and wu xia pics from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Spaghetti Westerns that Italy was putting out in its heyday, and brings it all forward with a modern lens and sense of filmmaking. There is a lot of harkening back to those works, even in the editing and, at times, the techniques (plenty of great snap zooms used here), but the film also has an identity and flavor of its own, and that helps to make it a truly invigorating and vivacious piece of work.

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | Nameless Gangster (2012) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Choi Min-sik, Ha Jung-woo, Kwak Do-won, Ma Dong-seok, Kim Sung-kyun, Kim Hye-eun, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Young-sun

During the sort of boom of Korean cinema in the early 2010s, many films came out that I consider to be absolute modern classics, some even masterful pieces of genre film. Among them, and there is a decent amount, would be one in the gangster genre. It has one stellar ensemble cast, including the likes of Choi Min-sik, Kwak Do-won, Ma Dong-seok, who was becoming increasingly popular at the time, and the same could be said for Cho Jin-woong. It is no surprise, but most certainly welcome that Yoon's muse and long-time collaborator, Ha Jung-woo, would also star alongside Choi, making for a fierce dynamic duo that lights up the screen from start to finish. Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time is a bona fide gangster film through and through, and it absolutely deserves to be placed among the best of the best from any period of time in cinema history.

It's the year 1990, and a massive war on crime has been declared by Busan police officials as corruption and criminal activity have soared to an all-time high. We bounce back and forth throughout the '80s and early '90s as we see the rise and fall of Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik), a customs officer who is near losing his job and completely down on his luck, until one fateful night when he finds himself upon a one-way ticket into the criminal underworld, in which he finds out that he just may be better at than he ever imagined. He teams up with a distant family member Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), who has been in the game for many years. The two hit it off, and Ik-hyun finds himself quickly rising to power, and the things it cost him along the way only seem to make him more powerful in the end. Things get twisty and turny, as you can imagine with any film in the genre, and lies and deceit come into play, and a lot of things are smashed into peoples' skulls as a result, and I mean a whole plethora of objects. I'll just say I can't imagine the amount of glass that a certain character gets embedded into his scalp and how long it must've taken to be dug out. Eesh.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

A Bromantic Ride: Ransomed (2023) Review

Director: Kim Seong-hun

Notable Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Ju Ji-hoon, Lim Hyung-kook, Kim Eung-soo, Kim Jong-soo, Park Hyeok-kwon, Fehd Benchemsi, Burn Gorman

This is a much better Point Men. South Korea has been on a kick with patriotic diplomats rescuing fellow Koreans in a foreign country that is at war films. It's become a relatively popular genre in the last handful of years, and I've watched most of, if not all of them. For me, what makes Ransomed work so well, and what helps to set it apart from the norm, is the blooming bromance between Lee Min-jun (Ha Jung-woo) and Kim Pan-su (Ju Ji-hoon). Their characters feel typical of the genre, but they both give admirable performances and their chemistry is electrifying, which really help this 2hr and 15min journey feel well alive and constantly moving forward. Ransomed is one of the better offerings in this genre, and I think it is worth seeking out, even if you haven't been the biggest fan of these types of works.

Lee Min-jun is a budding diplomat who is trying his hardest to be someone. When everyone and everything seems to be working against him and his desires, one day, he receives a life-changing call. A fellow Korean diplomat is being held hostage in Beirut, Lebanon, from the war that had broken out two years prior in 1986. Seizing the opportunity to finally get his big break, Lee heads deep into the country on a highly intense mission with a large bag of ransom money. When he arrives, things go as wrong as one could imagine and he is thrust deep into a large-scale shootout and ultimately a run for his life; Lee happens upon a man in a taxi named Kim Pan-su, coincidentally a man of Korean heritage, and one with deep ties to Lebanon. The two meet by fate and find themselves on an action-packed journey to rescue a hostage who has since been forgotten about. Soon, news breaks, and the entire country has its eyes on them.

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Directors in Focus: Yoon Jong-bin | Beastie Boys (2008) Review

Director: Yoon Jong-bin

Notable Cast: Yoon Kye-sang, Ha Jung-woo, Yoon Jin-seo, Kim Min-joo, Ma Dong-seok, Ya Hu-jun, Kwon Yul, Hong Yi-joo

Three years after his very successful student film, director Yoon Jong-bin put forth his sophomore effort, his first studio-backed film, a dark and moody drama, Beastie Boys, a.k.a The Moonlight of Seoul. The direct translation of the Korean title is where the first title comes from, but admittedly, and probably due to associating a said name with the iconic hip-hop trio, I can't help but gravitate towards the alternative title, which I also feel encapsulates the mood and overall vibe of the film so perfectly. The themes of toxic masculinity and the self-destructive and outwardly explosive behavior of certain men are explored here yet again, and with Ha Jung-woo back to play one of the leads, there is much to be liked here, and while I certainly think the film is quite good and well made, I'm not sure it all quite hits as hard as the debut of Mr. Yoon. Still, the journey is absolutely worth embarking on.