Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mondocurry NYAFF report vol. 6: Vicious Bites, 3 films from Korea

Last night I strapped myself in for three action packed suspense thrillers from Korea. The evening progressed with two tightly wound societal dramas (THE UNJUST, BEDEVILLED) as bookends on either side of one highly spirited spree of comic book violence (HAUNTERS).
Here are a few thoughts on each.


This is a Ryoo Seung-Wan thriller that channels the intensity of his earlier hit CITY OF VIOLENCE through verbal exchanges and immoral actions. It focuses on two different individuals swept up in corruption: a hardened cop and a public prosecutor for the district attorney. Ryoo Seung-Wan brings forth engrossing performances from both leads. As events spiral in and out of their control, the film shows their responses under pressure as coils are wrapped tighter and tighter. When their springs are sprung, there is a multitude of reactions: sermonizing tantrums, violent outbursts, grovelling...none of it pretty. Nobody seems to learn until it’s to late in this harrowing depiction of the slide down a slippery slope. Ryoo Seung-Bam, the director’s own brother, is incredible as the district attorney full of a constant teetering between boast and blunder.


This is pure comic book fantasy. You’ll want to suspend your disbelief, every last ounce of it, to enjoy this fast-paced battle between good and evil. At times, the dramatic moments between characters, particularly the lead and his two expatriate friends, leans toward the goofy side. But when the film is in action mode, it is surprisingly dark and gritty looking, relying on few special effects. It boils down to a boy born with the power to psychically manipulate the physical actions of anyone he lays eyes upon, who uses his powers to his own selfish end rather than good. Life is going along fine for him until he runs into Kyu-Nam, a humble junk yard laborer whose superpower is only that he is impervious to the antagonist’s will. They battle across a small section of the city, where legions of citizens, traffic, and police officers become unwitting weapons used against the unrelenting Kyu-Nam. The movie is reminiscent of Death Note (not the horrible movie, but the wonderful manga on which it was based) with its back and forth attempts to outwit one another between the two leads, only it happens on a much smaller scale with less plotting and more fighting. The super powerful antagonist calls to mind other sickly yet stylish characters from Asian thrillers, like the hypnotist in CURE and of course L from the aforementioned DEATH NOTE (only playing on the opposite side of the fence). There are important moments of the film which play out with an utter abandonment of logic that will surely irritate some viewers. But it can be counted on for a good, darkened, blast of comic book action.


This is an engrossing film that will test the mettle of even the most tried and true suspense fans and send the squeamish packing for the hills. In a few economically spent moments at the beginning of the movie, first time director Jang Chel-Su introduces a Seoul where the weak, particularly women, are infuriatingly frozen in a fearful state, unable to stand up for themselves against their aggressors, while society stands by and looks the other way. Hae-won is one such woman, and her job, social life, and ability to relate to her peers also seem to be suffering as a result. This leads her to take respite in a remote island community, which is also her hometown. But the island turns out to be a microcosm of societal dysfunction carried out brutishly by its few inhabitants. There, Hae-won meets her childhood friend, Bok Nam, who bears the brunt of the island’s woes, and we find that the film is far from centered around Hae-won alone. The beauitfully shot film meanders about the island for a while, almost peaceful, but slowly filling with a growing, discomforting tension. When the inevitable hellish eruption comes, it is not disappointing. Some, I’m sure, will complain that the movie was 15 minutes too long. However, by the time the movie ends, there is a sense of completion, a return to deal with issues that may have been forgotten but are important, making it more than just a trifle of stylized violence. BEDEVILLED speaks to facing one’s past, and the catharsis that comes when change is desperately needed. It is the most intense pot-boiler of a suspense film I’ve seen at the festival so far, and maybe my favorite.

THE UNJUST plays again Wednesday, July 13 at 9:00 pm (with director Ryoo Seung-Wan in attendance!)

HAUNTERS plays again Saturday, July 9 at 9:30 pm

BEDEVILLED lays again Sunday, July 10 at 7:00 pm

All screenings are at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center.

How was Foxy Festival?

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