Tag Archives: Korean

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE FIFTH THORACIC VERTEBRA (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Park Syeyoung

FEATURING: Jung Sumin, Haam Seokyoung, Moon Hyein, Jihyeon Park, Seungki Jung, Oh Jeongyeon

PLOT: Mold formed in widely traveled mattress gains awareness and, eventually, a humanoid form.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: “Cinema-verité meets monster movie, wherein grand philosophical questions about the nature of the self and awareness are explored by way of a creepy-tendriled fungus with a hunger for human spine.” I’m hoping that’s sufficient.

COMMENTSThe Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is art-house-mumble-core, showcasing slices of Korean life as a mattress travels from the center of Seoul to the city’s periphery, and even further, up toward North Korea. Slow dialogue, poignant encounters, life and death, aborted love, and… an increasingly sentient mold. This hook in Park Syeyoung’s feature debut allows for the mundane to sidle up to the grandly philosophic, thanks to the collective organism that seeks to learn about its milieu through the consumption of its victims’ fifth thoracic vertebrae.

The director (who is also the screenwriter) has a knack for dialogue, and has devised a method to gather authentic performances from his cast. He remarked in the Fantasia Festival post-screening Q&A that all the male actors were musicians—ones, incidentally, he refused to allow to compose the film score—with no acting ability. By accumulating various takes of their scenes, just like his film’s mold-y protagonist accumulates expansions of itself, he was able to play around with social tonality, grabbing the best of the various performances to graft on to his film as he grew it from the ground up. Without the hyper-realism of the ambient action (or, often the case, inaction), The Fifth… could easily have sputtered to a clunky collapse under the weight of its pretenses.

But it doesn’t. The cognizantial arc of his mold begins slowly; the film even begins some couple of hundred days before its “birth.” Once the mold forms, it seems to breathe. Sound design carries a great deal of weight, as the audience hears the strange crackling, moaning, and creaking-breathing (?) of this odd main character, and there is a sensation of complete acceptance when, at last, its first knobby tendril emerges from the slickened crack in the mattress, reaches toward its victim… and snatches a section of their back-bone. As the days fly by, the mold begins to learn the rudiments of speech, and we eventually reach a poignant scene where a dying woman leaves a letter to her daughter in its charge (its mattress-home having now traveled quite far). The letter is never delivered, but becomes part of the organism’s sentience.

The closing sequence is both touching and quietly monumental. A reviewer pal of mine described The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra as “boring”; and while I must admit to it being a slow and quiet movie, I found it much more of a peaceful, contemplative film—one that organically grew into near-cosmic significance. Immediately upon viewing, it occurred to me that Park Syeyoung’s debut film would be a fitting B-side to ‘s debut; addressing similar themes, albeit from a different bio-organic perspective, the meditative nature of The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the perfect come-down from Tetsuo‘s frenzied hyperactivity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Syeyoung Park’s imaginative debut feature blends the body horror of early David Cronenberg with the witty eccentricity of Quentin Dupleux and adds its own flavours of melancholy and wistfulness… {Park]  teases out the bizarre in the everyday and finds beauty in moments of horror. His first feature may be unpolished but it shows a good deal of unsettling originality.”–Allan Hunter, Screen Daily (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

“Circo Animato” 2020 program

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

For a well-deserved break from reality, instead I spent my Sunday morning enjoying thirteen cartoon shorts from around the world.

“The Spinning Top” – dir. by Shiva Momtahen

An ornately told tale from Iran about an enthusiastic child who ends up trading his ability to sing and shout for a spinning top. The animation is distinctly non-Western, and beautiful. The little boy in question travels within an  ever-shifting frame of stylized flowers as he encounters the quilt man, pool man, and the salt man. The up tempo feel is brought down to earth when the salt man takes away the boy’s youthful vigor, leaving only the memories within the top.

“Kkum” – dir. by Kim Kang-min

This is the only foam-imation I’ve ever seen, and accompanying the weird look achieved by animating its weird narrative about a young man who is protected by his mother’s dreams with polystyrene. Four dreams in particular–“Fire,” “Insect,” “Pumpkin,” and “Corpse”–are highlighted, each heavily symbolic and lovingly rendered in Styrofoam. The short ends with the mother advising her son (grown, with wife and child) not to go out that day; the grateful lad thanks the heavens for the meticulous fence his mother has constructed around him.

“There Were Four of Us” – dir. by Cassie Shao

By a whisker, this was the strangest short of the crop—both to listen to, and to look at. The sound is purposely muted, as if one is listening to the dialogue (actually, mostly monologues) through a telephone propped against an old tape recorder. The visual element, however, practically shouts from the screen. What is going on here? There are too many clues, too many things going on, to be certain; the final shot suggests a hospital. And the garbled vocal exposition suggests a mental one, at Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

CAPSULE: THE MOON IN THE HIDDEN WOODS (2019)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Takahiro Umehara

FEATURING: Voices of Lee Jihyon, Jung Yoojung, and Kim Yul

PLOT: Muju, a dark cosmic lord, is enveloping the earth’s sky more and more each night because the moon has gone missing; a young princess and musician must work together to stop Muju and his earthly minion, the despicable Count Tar.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Moon in the Hidden Woods features two spectacular scenes of psychedelic light play, as well as a host of novel monsters and battles, but is grounded at heart in the world of fantasy.

COMMENTS: The Moon is the Hidden Woods‘ varied elements give it a feeling of timelessness. As a Japanese director of a South Korean story, Takahiro Umehara imbues The Moon Hidden in the Woods with a touch of universality, as well. Upon finishing the film, I felt that it could have just as easily been made forty years ago as a month or two ago. This is no criticism: it has the style and aura of a film you might have seen on occasion, with great excitement, as a child, reveling in the unfolding of a truly grand adventure grounded by young, likeable heroes.

These heroes are up against the double adversaries of the great, terrible alien, Muju, and the vain, manipulative Count Tar. The story begins in a bazaar where two troupes of musicians have gathered for a percussion battle. Janggu is the leader of “Nova Folk Band,” and with the help of the incognito princess Navillera, his team handily dispatches the sitting champions, “Pipe Beat.” The action then goes into overdrive, as royal guards pursue Navillera and Janggu, who escape with meteorite hunters riding mechanical war birds and retreat to the Nova village outside of the city. One of the Count’s agents betrays the villagers and Janggu and Navillera are forced to flee into the Hidden Woods. They know they must stop Muju, who threatens the planet, while being harried by Count Tar’s henchmen.

All that is merely skimming the surface of the goings-on in The Moon in the Hidden Woods. Though he’s perhaps late to the game, Umehara creates something almost mythopoeic in this movie. Although largely based on ancient Korean customs and myths, this distillation is a singular vision of the director and his animation team. The stylistic flourishes enhance the underlying mythology: the prevalence of Korea’s five colors which make up the world (black, blue, white, orange, and yellow); the importance of drum music, along with its metaphorical significance of “bouncing back” from adversity; and a Middle Ages-meets-steampunk mechanical aesthetic.

Admittedly I only fully appreciated what was going on after having interviewed the filmmaker the morning after the screening. But my initial impression, wholly ignorant of the film’s precedents, was still one of “kick-ass wonder”. The Moon in the Hidden Woods shows a vibrant society squaring off against great evil, the staple of any great epic. While its different threads are pulled from a particular culture, Takahiro Umehara, as an outsider, revels in the opportunity to weave them into something completely new. The one caveat to my praise is that Moon very much has the feel of a children’s movie. That said, it’s a children’s movie head and shoulders above the competition.

You can also read our interview with director Takahiro Umehara.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…will delight you with all the cool visuals and small details, while making you wish the filmmakers had been as creative with their story as the visuals.”–Steve Kopian, Unseen Films (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MAGGIE (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Yi Ok-seop

FEATURING: Lee Ju-young, Koo Kyo-hwan, Moon So-ri, Koo Gyo-hwan

PLOT: Maggie the catfish acts as a piscine confessor for Yoon-yong, who’s going through some problems with her work and home life; the fish predicts the appearance of some troubling sink-holes springing up (er, down) around the greater Seoul area.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: A psychic fish narrator, social commentary via sinkholes, and the appearance of a “manic pixie dream boy” all fuel this strange hybrid of dark Wes Anderson and light Quentin Tarantino.

COMMENTS: Many years ago, I was forced to take a seminar class for my degree and ended up enduring a semester-long trial entitled “Filmmakers with a Social Conscience.” It’s not that I don’t want awareness raised about society’s ills, but I had the suspicion before-hand that most of the movies would be heavyhanded and tediously paced. My fears proved correct at the time, but now, having seen Yi Ok-seop’s directorial debut, Maggie, I now must admit that lightning can strike even the smallest targets. And it strikes well, with humor, quirkiness, and pathos (a “p” word that seems to be cropping up a bit this festival).

A pre-penetration x-ray circulates among the staff of a small hospital in the outskirts of Seoul. Rumors fly about whose body parts were caught in the act of lovemaking, with nary a thought as to the who or why behind the snapshot’s existence. The following day, every staff member calls in sick except for the young nurse who’s “in” the photo and an osteopath who’s just about lost her trust in her fellow man. Subsequent events involving sinkholes, unemployment, and relationship dynamics proceed apace, all narrated by the omniscient titular character, Maggie the catfish.

There is a vibrancy throughout Maggie that weds the two dominant themes of whimsy and social commentary. There is brightness everywhere: the outdoor scenes, the well-lit hospital, and even the night-time streets illuminated by the colorful, flashing glow of warning lights surrounding the big holes in the ground that keep appearing. Chapter designations like “Everyone Likes the X-Ray Room” and “The Stairs of Death” act as synopses along the way while also providing wry counterpoint to the events. And though it has a cheerful, meandering nature throughout, everything gets wrapped up nicely—through the convenience of a key character who’s swallowed up by the ground at an important juncture.

Maggie‘s weirdness isn’t “in your face”, but more of a gentle squeezing of the shoulders from start to finish. There are definitely overtly odd things (the catfish, the eccentric hospital, and the ballad to “Maxine” around the midpoint), but it’s all very low key. What swayed me toward inclusion was the fact that all of this is being done for a purpose (and, I learned in a subsequent interview with the filmmakers 1, was funded not only sight-unseen, but script-unseen). My one criticism would be that when the story focuses on the slacker boyfriend, the movie rambles a little pointlessly—but even that’s apt, considering the character we’re following. And though I didn’t quite agree with another choice, I was impressed by the director’s decision to eliminate a character without allowing for an explanation. Director Yi Ok-seop and writer/producer/actor Koo Kyo-hwan strongly feel that violence has no excuse, and they make that point in a memorable way that really lets it… sink in.

WHAT THE CRITICS ARE SAYING:

“The director is riffing on the idea of how misunderstandings snowball, but, without a solid central idea to anchor the wackiness, the exuberantly nonsensical chaos of this movie is likely to have only niche appeal.”–Wendy Ide, Screen Rant (festival screening)

316. SAVE THE GREEN PLANET! (2003)

Jigureul jikyeora! 

“I sometimes feel as if movies from all over the world have melted inside me.”–Joon-Hwan Jang

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joon-Hwan Jang

FEATURING: Ha-kyun Shin, Yun-shik Baek, Jae-yong Lee, Jeong-min Hwang

PLOT: Aided by Sooni, a lovelorn acrobat, Byung-goo abducts Kang, a pharmaceutical company executive, believing him to be a high-ranking agent of a group of aliens from Andromeda bent on eradicating the earth. As a pair of detectives close in on Byung-goo, the delusional man tortures the businessman in the basement of his remote cabin, hoping to force him to use his “royal DNA” to contact the prince of the Andromeda galaxy. Kang escapes but is recaptured and hobbled, and begins to play a psychological game with his tormentor, pretending to cooperate to avoid further injury.

BACKGROUND:

  • Jang says the scenario for Save the Green Planet! was inspired by an Internet post suggesting was an alien in combination with his fondness for (and dissatisfaction with) Stephen King’s Misery.
  • This was Joon-Hwan Jang’s debut feature. He has made two movies since, a crime feature and a historical drama, neither of have shown significant weirdness or drawn many eyeballs outside of South Korea.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Byung-goo’s homemade alien hazmat suit: a trash bag poncho with a modified miner’s helmet rigged with blinking gizmos (including a rear view mirror that bobbles up and down) of uncertain purpose and utility. The first time you see him outfitted in this garb, you know exactly who you’re dealing with.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: One bullet, one bee; ghost mom with meth; aliens did kill the dinosaurs

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The first two thirds are a demented genre mashup of sci-fi, comedy, horror, thriller, and action elements whose rambunctiousness is aimed squarely at midnight movie audiences. But it’s the final act, which shifts to an even madder perspective and goes so far as to outright steal scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—while still managing to feel original—that puts it over the top.


English-language trailer for Save the Green Planet!

COMMENTS: Despite a sometimes (and sometimes not) predictable Continue reading 316. SAVE THE GREEN PLANET! (2003)