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Gripping political thriller with a human side
The story begins with a corpse, a student tortured to death by the anti-communist secret police. This should be another forgotten death, but there's a general sense of outrage and one after another, the officials whose paper trail would normally cover up the mess, refuse to cooperate. As the story snowballs, the lives of those involved, as well as the broader political situation, change significantly.
A thrilling and moving film, well directed and acted, as well as informative for those of us who don't know much modern Korean history.
Waiting for 'Superman' (2010)
If you want to know what's wrong with education, avoid this film
This documentary attempts to explain why public schools in the US are failing. It blames some of the usual suspects (lousy teachers, unions) without getting their side of the story. It acts as if mediocre politicians who want to act as if they're "bringing change" as they further their political careers are doing their best. And "superteachers" are of course the heroes even though they spend most of the documentary telling us how wonderful they are and how it's the other teachers who are to blame for all the problems. And seriously, since when is Bill Gates an expert on education?
Political and social contexts, economic causes and other factors not related to "bad teachers" are totally ignored, which makes the documentary pointless and superficial. Instead, the solutions are empty rhetoric, meaningless business jargon and ridiculous psycho-babble.
So if you want a more comprehensive and serious analysis of the why schools are failing you should watch The Wire season 4. Sad, isn't it?
PS. It's worth listening to the closing song. I think it's John Legend.
The Cove (2009)
A superficial, almost racist handling of a good topic
This documentary could have been very good. There were three particularly interesting threads that came up: 1. The environmental cost of fishing. 2. The high levels of mercury in certain types of fish. 3. The reason for Japan's insistence on this type of fishing.
Unfortunately these three topics were talked about only superficially whilst the film went on about how dolphins are special, how the team making the documentary were wonderfully heroic and other sentimental, superficial nonsense.
The thing is that the core topics in the documentary are not specific to dolphins or Japan but affect all of our habits internationally and are the collective responsibilities of all of us who like to eat our fish, our chicken and our meat. Think about these simple facts: while the documentary made a big deal about 23,000 dolphins being killed in Japan, this pales in comparison to the 5m+ tons of tuna fished every year. Tuna, like dolphin, is affected by mercury poisoning. The destruction of tuna stock is far more important to the bigger picture of environmental destruction than the killing of 23,000 dolphins a year. In fact, the killing of dolphins in Taiji has no significant environmental effect compared to the farming and killing of beef or chicken in the US.
And when the documentary tried to explain why Japan insists on allowing the massacre of small numbers of dolphins it simply classified it as misjudged national pride. There was no attempt to discuss this with Japanese people, no attempt to get their perspective. In fact, the only times we actually were allowed to hear what Japanese people said was when they were being ridiculed. Instead we were told by our all-knowing American heroes what the Japanese thought they thought and how they were actually wrong.
The way in which the documentary tried so hard to present Japan in a negative light was shocking, particularly as almost every criticism that was levelled at Japan could be levelled at the US and Europe: 1. Giving priority to special interests over citizens' health? Check. 2. Buying votes at international organisations like the UN? Check. 3. Using state powers to cover-up embarrassing issues? Check. 4. Having irrational policies? Check.
So why was the documentary so eager to point out numerous Japanese flaws even though these flaws are even more relevant in the US or Europe? Why was the documentary so eager to focus only on dolphins even though the issues raised by the killing of dolphins are even more relevant to meat, poultry and other type of fish? Why was the film so eager to ignore the most important implications of its story instead making this a documentary about poor cuddly dolphins and bloodthirsty evil Japanese fishermen?
I think the answer is political. If the documentary had tackled the big issues it would be putting the whole food industry on trial - including important American and European corporations with a lot of influence. Furthermore, a documentary which criticises events in a far off country is not going to offend anyone back home, whereas a documentary that links what's happening in a far off country to our own practices back home will touch a raw nerve that will upset the status quo and will therefore be ignored.
Finally Japan is an easy target: the US has long been suspicious and even jealous that Japan has higher standards of living, a stronger sense of culture, major international influence, and a more robust and successful economy. In other words, if you want to make a documentary that will win awards, criticising Japan is probably a good idea.
Le dernier vol (2009)
Better than average
The film has some good points. It begins as a film about a French lieutenant in French Sahara who is trying to prevent his idiotic captain from causing a full-on crisis between the army and the Touareg. Along comes a French woman looking for her lost lover. At first it's just a distraction from the main, more interesting plot. Thus, for the first hour I really got into the film and was expecting to see the conflict between the French and the Touareg lead to an exciting climax. However, as the woman's story takes over the film turns into a disaster of boredom.
None of the characters are well developed, and it is particularly sad that none of the Touareg were developed as characters. On the good side, the visuals are nice, the soundtrack excellent, and Marion Cotillard is pleasant to look at.
Overall, this film is a prime example of could-have-been-better. A greater focus on the Touareg characters and their motivations, a more in-depth representation of the conflict between the French and the Touareg, and subjugating the love story to the background could have made this a great film.
Not quite good enough
Confessions has stunning cinematography, amazing actors and a thrilling story. It should have been a great film. And yet when I finished watching it about 30 minutes ago I thought 'Hmmm, watch shall I watch now?'
Two obvious things that I didn't like: 1. If you've ever seen This World of Ours (oretachi no sekai), which was written and directed by then-19 year old Ryo Nakajima, this film seems like a bigger-budget film which simplifies complex problems in order to make the adults feel better.
2. Kind of related to the first one: Battle Royale looked at the issue of young people 'misbehaving' with the underlying assumption that kids have a sense of humanity. In Confessions, however, everybody is essentially mean and cruel (apart from one girl). Having done my secondary education in an inner city school, having had friends that robbed people, burgled, took (and sold) drugs, etc..., I would say from personal experience that Battle Royale is a far more realistic representation of young people than Confessions.
Overall then, the film is quite a superficial story, but given a sense of gravitas thanks to the amazing production values and cinematic techniques. But on closer inspection it's a fake: a silly thriller with nothing to say pretending to be more profound.
To top it off, it was all too predictable. I never throughout the film felt any genuine surprise by the obvious twists and turns.
Du Lala sheng zhi ji (2010)
This is a film to watch if you're in an analytical mood, even though it does not aspire to be anything more than a superficial romantic comedy - a job that it does just fine.
This modern Chinese tale of love and work tells the story of Lala, a woman in her mid-twenties who gets a good job with an American company in China (that only gives 10 days annual leave) with the intention of working her way up to the top. Unpretentious, talented and hard-working, she has all the tools to get there, until love gets in her way.
How this conflict between work and love is presented is the most interesting aspect of the film. The convention is that love conquers all and a woman will forget her career for love. But here the convention is broken, and loyalty and the desire to better oneself are just as important.
This is not a totally new phenomenon in Asian cinema. Anyone familiar with Japanese films will have come across the "do your best!" mantra. Speaking once to a Japanese sociology professor, he commented how this "do your best" attitude played an important role in Japanese development after WW2. Consequently it's not surprising to see a 21st century neoliberal take on the same mantra: do your best for yourself and for your corporation.
As corporations take over China and wages decrease in relation to living costs, most people will have little choice but to put their career before love, and loyalty to their company before loyalty to anything else.
In that sense, the film is an unwitting indictment of the very culture it seeks to glorify. This alone makes it worthwhile.
Oretachi no sekai (2007)
I saw this film about three years ago and it's so powerful that the feelings of madness I felt after watching it are still with me.
It tells the story of three inter-linked characters: Ryo, a bully who loses it when one of his victims almost kills him; his classmate, a manipulative girl who attempts to manipulate those around her in order to cover up for her lack of self-esteem; and her tutor, a nearly-graduate who wants to be a rebel because of his fear of becoming just another salaryman. The character's inability to solve their internal contradictions leads to tragedy, although there is the feeling that some characters begin to see light at the end of the tunnel before the film finishes.
This film was written by Ryo Nakajima when he isolated himself from the world as a 19-year old. Pretty amazing.
Ying han (2008)
Fascinating main character, somewhat strange plot
Ye Liu is excellent in the role of Lao San as a (somewhat) mentally-disabled former soldier who dispatches petty criminals with glee. His best friend is a child who idolises him and who helps him on his vigilante escapades, and his girlfriend only sticks around because of the memory of who he was before suffering from brain damage when he had an accident while he was a soldier.
In a way the main focus of the film is Lao San's questioning of who he is, and whether his future lies in being a vigilante. Both his mother and his girlfriend want him to put down his weapons and stop fighting, but the training he received in the military and by which he tries to live as a civilian tells him otherwise. What is he to do when he doesn't have the ability to think things through properly?
In order to resolve his dilemma, Lao San needs an external actor who comes in the form of triad leader Anthony Wong. The crossing of their paths leads to a climax where Lao San is forced to re-evaluate how he lives his life. Will he choose to be a vigilante hero or will he become a normal man for the sake of his true love?
On the whole I found this film interesting because the central character is really quite unique. Furthermore, the film isn't about his brain damage in the way Rain Man is about autism. The plot moves independently of whether Lao San suffers from brain damage or not, and we are not expected to treat him as a figure to be pitied. He is who he is, with whatever that entails. He struggles with his sense of loyalty to his military principles and his desire to become the more normal boyfriend his girlfriend yearns for. He beats up the petty criminals but stops hitting them on the condition that they'll take the kid in their gang to school. Both tender and tough, mentally handicapped, unsure with how to deal with the outside world, Lao San is one of the most interesting characters I've seen in a long time.
The rest of the movie is pretty average. Sometimes the story doesn't quite make sense, characters appear were you least expect them, they act in a way that goes against character, they say some corny lines, and all those other things Chinese action movies do so well.
Lang ya (2008)
Solid action movie with some nice touches
This is not an art-house movie nor the most amazing action movie you will ever see. But it is a good, solid, entertaining action movie.
The relationship between Jacky Wu and Celina Jade was nice, the café scene was both funny and with great action, the scenes at the police station were a mixture of tension and comedy, and the climax fight scene was ridiculous but who cares?
I'd never seen Jacky Wu before and I found his silent stoic character rather enjoyable. This appears to be Celina Jade's first film and she was excellent, as well as rather attractive. Secondary characters played there roles acceptably (although the blonde policeman seemed to be in the wrong film).
The point is that I was thoroughly entertained for the duration, and even my wife enjoyed it. Overall I think that's pretty good.
Nodame kantâbire (2006)
Amazingly funny comedy and romance revolving around students at Japan's top music school
When I started watching this I didn't have very high expectations. But this is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable TV series I've ever watched. It is based on a manga, and a lot of the manga aesthetic -and even acting- comes through.
Chiaki is an extremely talented, motivated, efficient and arrogant piano player whose real dream is to become a conductor. However, his fear of flying means he cannot travel to Europe to study under the masters. Oh, Chiaki is also extremely handsome, making him the hottest boy in school.
Nodame is his next-door neighbour. Although she is equally talented, she has no inclination to be a professional. She would rather raid people's lunch boxes, play silly songs on the piano and live a carefree life in her extremely messy bedroom.
They study at the same music school, and alongside them are a whole range of characters: Chiaki's girlfriend Saiko, perverted conductor Strezemann, the eccentrically gay Masumi, rock violinist Eita, calm & cool beauty Asami, and at least two orchestras' worth of characters.
As the story develops Chiaki learns to become more human, and Nodame learns to appreciate her exceptional talent.
The series fits into the "achievement" genre, a bit like all those sports films where the underdog eventually wins. But the fact that it's done through comedy makes it much more enjoyable and far less presumptuous. The use of music is also inspired, and if I may say so, very informative. Until I saw this series I really thought a conductor simply moved the stick to the rhythm of the music. I have also learnt to appreciate classical music much more than I ever did before. I may even go to see an orchestra now.
Anyway, all in all a very enjoyable series. Overall the acting was excellent, technically the film is great (apart from some odd sudden changes in the colour correction), and it is a delight for the ears.
Kame wa igai to hayaku oyogu (2005)
Seeking solace from boredom
This film's main attraction is Juri Ueno whose effortless charisma and charm make the film quite watchable if somewhat uneventful.
Ueno plays Suzume, a bored housewife who decides to train as a spy at the hands of a middle-aged couple. Some scenes are extremely effective, such as Suzume's attempt to order something so normal that the waitress won't remember what she ordered, but they are the exception rather than the norm.
The films moves along smoothly enough, including a de-rigeur chaotic climax with which the film concludes.
The film is enjoyable enough. Ueno is always a pleasure to watch, and the quiet charm of the film leaves you with a smile on your face.
Nihon igai zenbu chinbotsu (2006)
I read a brief description of this film and thought it sounded like an excellent premise for a hilarious comedy. Unfortunately, the first time I started watching it I gave up after about ten minutes. After I finally watched the film I wondered I why I'd tortured myself.
The films suffers from four major flaws: 1. Production values are non-existent. 2. It has an awful script without a coherent plot where all the characters are underdeveloped. Instead we get cheap gags that rarely raise a laugh because no empathy has been built up. 3. The Japanese actors are OK, but the foreign actors are awful and barely watchable. 4. The 'social commentary' is largely superficial and even where interesting issues are brought they swiftly disappear and get ignored.
It's a shame the film is so poor. With such an interesting premise a brilliant film could have possibly been made. Instead we get a truly bad film.
Strawberry Shortcakes (2006)
Quietly moving film
Strawberry Shortcakes tells the story of two pairs of women: Akiyo, an escort/prostitute, and Satoko, receptionist at Akiyo's escort agency. On the other hand we have Toko, a graphic artist who rents a room to office girl Chihiro.
The film looks at the idea of loneliness in the big city, where meaningful relationships are difficult. Akiyo wants to commit suicide because the man she loves isn't interested in her. Satoko dreams of being loved by anyone but her creepy boss. Toko tries to forget her former boyfriend by immersing herself in her work, and Chihiro hopes to marry a selfish loser.
As the film progresses the two pairs of women make friends: Akiyo and Satoko on the one hand, Toko and Chihiro on the other, and as the friendships develop the need to find love/marriage becomes less important.
Slow, deliberate and revealing, I found this film one of the most moving films I have seen in the last few years.
Approachable Ozu masterpiece
Ozu's common themes of ageing, filial ties and modernisation are as present here as in many other of his films. But in this film, as well as the melancholy and gentleness we are accustomed to, there are large doses of comedy which makes this film far more accessible for the uninitiated.
The story centres around a widow (Setsuko Hara) and her daughter (Yoko Tsukasa). The daughter doesn't want to get married because she wants to care for her mother, whereas the mother wants her daughter to marry even though she realises she'll be left alone. So far everything is extremely familiar. Except that in this case the dead husband's friends get involved, trying to find suitors for both mother and daughter, thus creating comical situations, causing family tensions, and finally necessitating for the daughter's friend to step in and sort out the mess.
All in all highly recommended for anyone who wishes to try out this highly prestigious director, and a strong reminder for fans of why we love him so much.
Saekjeuk shigong (2002)
Shocking, but surprisingly good
Having watched a number of Korean films over the years, I got hold of this film assuming that in spite of its raunchy title and subject matter there would be little sex, nudity and grossness. Boy was I wrong! This makes American Pie look like children's TV. Sperm sandwiches, masturbating burglars and anal intercourse slapstick mean that the first half of the film is actually very funny. But like other Asian comedies, a light-hearted beginning leads to a serious second half designed to make the conclusion cathartic.
The film begins with Lim Chang-Jung as a student returning to university after completing his military service. Upon his return he falls in love with one of the cute girls in the university, but she only has eyes for the rich boy who oozes superficiality. Nevertheless Lim Chang-Jung befriends her and tries to help her deal with the difficulties of having a superficial, snobbish boyfriend. It is those scenes where he tries to be there for her that totally change the tone of the film. The serious issue of an unwanted pregnancy is dealt with in a way which is very touching and believable, even if there are certain scenes which are over exaggerated (Lim Chang-Jung getting hit over the head with a hammer in the aerobics competition is ridiculous).
There is an element of fantasy in this film, but perhaps it is more from the female perspective. The man who dedicates his life to make a woman happy and is willing to make extreme sacrifices for her sake seems like the type of ideal man in Sex and the City.
This is a very warm and poetic film. It's about a mother's relationship with her autistic son and her insecurities regarding him, about his desire to run a marathon and how that relates to his relationship with his mother, and about how his running coach inadvertently helps to bring them together. It is one of the most touching films I have seen in many years.
Some people have compared it to Rain Man, but that's a comparison which does not stand. Firstly, the selfishness of Tom Cruise character and Dustin Hoffman's overacting make Rain Man a far less touching film because the characters are far less sympathetic. There is also the crucial difference in that in Rain Man the Tom Cruise character really had no interest in his autistic brother and did not wish to really have any type of relationship with him. In Marathon, however, the whole film is about the problems the mother has precisely because she wants to have a relationship with her son. It is this dilemma (the wanting to have a relationship and not really being able to do it) which makes the film so interesting and touching.
Furthermore the acting is very good, the cinematography is rich but not overdone, the music is very good at emphasising the poignancy of particular situations and the film has a wonderful pace: neither too fast nor too slow. All in all a very enjoyable film highly recommended for anyone who wants to smile, laugh, cry and generally feel happy.
This film is quite interesting. Most of what I would like to say has already been said. It certainly isn't one of the best Korean movies I've seen.
My main complaint is that the motivation of the murderer is never made clear. Perhaps this is my fault and I missed at the hints, but I kept on wondering why the murderer would kill these people and rip up their bodies. Still, it soon seemed quite obvious who the murderer would be (my wife guessed after about 20 minutes). And this was the largest problem with the film: the film is beautifully shot, well acted, well told, but you still can't work out the murderer's motivation or empathise with her.
Nice but dim
Cute film. But the only reason I gave it 8 out of 10 is because it's extremely enjoyable just to look at Kim Jung Hwa. Not only is she staggeringly beautiful, but she has a graceful demeanour and delightful innocence which makes guys want to marry her and women want to be her. This is the main quality of the film.
The cinematography is adequate, the North Korea/South Korea plot is more significant if you're Korean (the old spies pining about the old days are quite funny), the comedy is too safe to be funny, and perhaps most frustratingly, the romance is kinda wack because the relationship never really develops.
The problem I tend to find with most Korean comedies is that they rarely actually make you laugh but keep you smiling at best. This is no exception although it has some nice touches.