Sunday, March 24, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Please Teach Me English (2003)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Lee Na-young, Jang Hyuk, Angela Kelly, Jeong Seok-yong, Na Moon-hee

From my understanding, Kim had gotten really deep into teaching film at University during this point in his career, and he made this film at that time. Why bring that up? I'm not sure. I think part of me is looking for a way to preface this write-up, knowing that the finished film is just not very good. Is Please Teach Me English a complete abomination to cinema? No, but it is certainly a stain on director Kim's otherwise pretty phenomenal filmography. People say even the greatest filmmakers can stumble, which is certainly the case here. While the film is fun and certainly doesn't take itself seriously whatsoever, it's this broad and over-the-top abrasive approach to the comedy that somehow both works in the film's favor and also as its very own downfall. This film certainly has garnered a fan base over the years and, in fact, was recently remastered and released on physical media once again in South Korea, so there is that. I will try my best to speak on the positive and negative aspects of this film, but I admit that I sometimes struggle to do so adequately, so bear with me.

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | Musa: The Warrior (2001)

 Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Zhang Ziyi, Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo, Park Yong-woo, Park Jeong-hak, Jeong Seok-yong, Lee Du-il, Han Yeong-mok, Er Cha Huo, Yoo Hai-jin, Yu Rongguang, Song Jae-ho

Only those on journeys will see the dim roads that lead the way home.

After having crafted two of the most successful films in the '90s about the hot-blooded youth of Korean men, Kim took a surprise turn in the entering the 00s with something quite a bit different: A sprawling period of epic co-production between South Korea and China. In doing so, he created one of the most iconic sword-centric films of the era with the massively successful Musa: The Warrior (2001). He brought his muse Jung Woo-sung back on board to play Yeo-sol, the hero of the picture but also added Korean talents such as Ahn Sung-ki, Ju Jin-mo, and Yoo Hai-jin in one of his first iconic roles. In addition to the local talent, he casts Chinese screen giants Zhang Ziyi and even Yu Rongguang (of Iron Monkey fame). Needless to say, this film had a lot of attention on it from the moment it came out and it ended up gaining the hearts of many fans the world over. I remember seeing this in video stores when it came out when I was heavily into martial arts and wu xia films. Still, my passion for Korean cinema hadn't begun yet, and in fact, I don't believe I even realized its country of origin at that age, but I digress. The point is that this film was rising among hits such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , and the two Zhang Yimou films that would follow this: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I know these films are all Chinese productions and follow more traditional wu xia sensibilities. Musa was more grounded and would inspire local productions, such as Sword of the Moon , and set a trend with more realistic war-centered period pieces.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Grave Calling: Exhuma (2024) Review

 Director: Jang Jae-hyun

Notable Cast: Choi Min-sik, Kim Go-eun, Yoo Hai-jin, Lee Do-hyun, Kim Jae-chul, Kim Min-jun, Kim Byung-oh

"And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken" - Ecclesiastes 4:12

Horror films that deal with religious aspects have been around for decades, and I know titles are flooding to mind as you read this, so no need to name-drop anything. Faith and spirituality are truly remarkable and beautiful ways of life for many humans. Regardless of what you may or may not believe in, what awaits beyond death's door, with our understanding of this life, good or bad, can be exciting or terrifying. Since this is a spooky piece of cinema, as you can imagine, the supernatural forces that be aren't the friendliest lot around, and that is the very basis for Exhuma, the newest outing by acclaimed horror director Jang Jae-hyun, who previously won audiences over with his works Priests (2015) and Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019). He continues his religion-themed horror here, this time delving into shamanism, among many other things, and what awaits the viewer embarking on this chilly and bloody adventure is a lot of thrills and a whole lot of pissed-off evil spirits.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Keep It Closed: Skeletons in the Closet (2024) Review

Director: Asif Akbar

Notable Cast: Terrence Howard, Valery M. Ortiz, Cuba Gooding Jr, Udo Kier, Appy Pratt, Louis Mandylor, Michelle Jubilee Gonzalez, Clifton Powell, Ariana Deppe, Michelle Wang, Sally Kirkland


Niche entertainment services will always have content that wouldn’t make it anywhere else. Hallmark often weaves a tale of the city girl who finds herself (and a new love interest) in a small town, usually with a dog and hot chocolate, and she will inevitably fall into every predictable trap on her way to rediscovering her traditional values. Crunchyroll has some anime that might make even the most seasoned anime lover roll their eyes, and the NBA has the modern slam dunk contest. All these specialty services offer audiences the opportunity to find hidden gems, a pursuit that sometimes pans out and sometimes not.

Shudder is no different, except that the horror community is particularly divisive, potentially even more than diehard NBA fans, which makes finding gold a subjective and challenging task. I wish I could say that I was writing today about a story of finding gold, but alas, I am not. Skeletons in the Closet has every signature failing of a Hallmark movie but as a horror feature. Let me say that I REALLY wanted to like this. I tried very hard to give it time, if only for its star-laden cast, but it never materialized into anything worth watching.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

A Reality to Experience: Dune: Part One (2021) Review

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Notable Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, Chang Chen, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, David Dastmalchian


Although Denis Villeneuve states that Dune was always a dream project for him, it’s fascinating to see how his career has been building up to this film. Whether it's the political and cultural conflicts at the heart of Sicario or the stylistic leap into Sci-Fi IP with Blade Runner 2049, his filmography reads like a road map building up skills to create the world of a successful cinematic Dune adaption.

And quite frankly, it led him to thrive in the film he will be remembered for as an auteur blockbuster director, Dune: Part One


Well, he might be remembered for the two films and not just this one part, as Dune: Part Two finally sees the light of day some three years later, but as the first half of his massive science fiction opera epic, Dune: Part One is an impressive feat of tone, storytelling, visuals, and finding balance. It’s the kind of totemic film that defines a career in a positive way, judging by the success of this film both commercially and in awards circles. Justifiably so. Dune: Part One is CINEMA in most of the best ways, and its blend of commercial appeal and auteur-driven style is impeccable, to say the least. 


Saturday, March 2, 2024

Directors in Focus: Kim Sung-soo | City of the Rising Sun (1998)

Director: Kim Sung-soo

Notable Cast: Jung Woo-sung, Lee Jung-jae, Lee Beom-soo, Han Go-eun, Park Ji-hoon, Lee Ki-yeol, Park Sung-woong

In the late 90s, with the great success of Beat, Kim would follow up quickly, just a year later, with another Jung Woo-sung starring vehicle, titled City of the Rising Sun. What makes this title unique, among many other things, is that Jung co-starred alongside Lee Jung-jae, which would be a bromance that would blossom beyond the screen and hold up well over the years, as Jung and Lee have been friends ever since, and the two would end up directing their own films just in the past few years. Needless to say, they have a chemistry like no other, which is one of this work's very best elements. The two are simply electrifying together and light up the screen from start to finish. The style that Kim had been building up over the previous two directorial efforts would reach maximum impact here. This concoction of machismo, a bumping soundtrack, and visuals to the max make up a film that is certainly style over substance, but the style is oh so magical, and I cannot help but be enraptured by it all.