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Extreme Job

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Not since Colonel Sanders’ eleven herbs and spices has there been as big of a secret in the fried chicken world as the undercover stakeout at the centre of Korean action-comedy Extreme Job.

Pressure placed on Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-ryong) to advance in the ranks of the Korean narcotics investigation unit finds him and his ragtag crew of accompanying misfits go undercover as owners of a fried chicken restaurant. Under their surveillance is neighbour Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun); a resurfacing drug-kingpin who dreams of “an era of meth” in Korea.

The fact that a charming film like Extreme Job exists is a testament to absurd yet interesting ideas actualised in Korean cinema.

The motley crew assembled in the stakeout – including a newbie recruit keen to make his first arrest, a budding chef, a tough as nails operative, and a determined moustachioed gent – dazzle due to their well-meaning-but-clumsy nature, with their time on the job a comedy-of-errors.

The most exemplary failure made by the team is in their success as restaurateurs. A feat which renders them unable to focus on the investigation due to the insane demands of the business. You know that restaurant on Instagram that everyone goes to? This would be the one. Their struggles with popularity are the only stumbles of Extreme Job; like an overcooked piece chicken left in a fryer, the film spends an excessive amount of time dwelling on the narcotic unit’s inability to investigate.

Here, the action takes a back-seat in favour of pseudo-drama, drying out the meat on what is otherwise a tender film that focuses on family and classism. Extreme Job, however, regains balance towards the tail-end of the movie with director Lee Byeong-heon serving up a deliciously camp action set-piece that rewards the viewer’s patience.

Drugs. Stakeouts. Fried chicken. Extreme Job is a golden nugget of a film that is as unashamedly-ridiculous as it is entertaining.

 
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Inseparable Bros

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Written and directed by Yook Sang-hyo, Inseparable Bros [The film’s literal translation from Korean is “My Special Brother”] is a gorgeous tale of the yin and yang of co-dependent friendship.

When the movie opens, Kang Se-ha (later played by Shin Ha-Kyun) is a teenaged and quadriplegic boy confined to a wheelchair. With no immediate family left to care for him, his second cousin doesn’t want to be responsible and so foists him off on a local priest who runs a home for mentally-challenged youngsters. There, Kang Se-ha stands up to bullies with intelligence and scorn.

Also a resident of the home, his simple-minded “brother”, Dong-gu (Lee Kwang-Soo) helps him with daily tasks such as eating, going to the toilet and brushing his teeth for him, even assisting Kang Se-ha to read and get around.

We jump ahead to adulthood and see how Kang Se-ha negotiates his way through life by being the brains, while Dong-gu somewhat ineptly follows his minute instructions. Eventually, Kang Se-ha engineers a savvy business providing various services (such as translation and compiling reports) for cash while trading the skills of those seeking his help to assist others at a volunteer organisation.

Every time circumstances throw a new obstacle at him/them, Kang Se-ha has to use his wits to come up with a creative solution.

One day, the duo crosses paths with a young woman at the local swimming pool where Dong-gu loves to play. Always looking for ways to make enough money for them both to survive, Kang Se-ha engineers a meeting with Mi-Hyun (E Som) and offers her an irresistible and mutually beneficial proposal. She proves to be the only person to treat them without prejudice. Eventually, Mi-Hyun helps the pair broaden their horizons. The unexpected reappearance of Dong-gu’s mother upsets the balance of their friendship as she petitions to bring him back into their family circle, unfortunately at the expense of Kang Se-ha.

Sang-hyo’s visual style is beautiful but mostly pedestrian – that is to say, in service of his storytelling. Occasionally we see fun scenes such as the action-packed and vertiginous sequence where our enterprising duo deftly use strategic manoeuvers on a pedestrian ramp to outrace an elevator. The writer/director’s strengths lie in his candid dialogue that frequently cuts to the heart of the matter. His gifts are best displayed in his ability to present a tight trio of endearing characters who ingeniously navigate the stuffy constraints of bureaucracy and wrangle social and standard media to their advantage.

Shin Ha-Kyun gives an excellent performance despite his character being mostly immobile and restricted to his wheelchair, while Lee Kwang-Soo is especially endearing and convincing as the goofy Dong-gu.

Heart-warming and infused throughout with mild drama and gentle comedy, Inseparable Bros is an adorable film that champions love and family beyond blood-ties.

 
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The Sweet Requiem

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Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem is the story of the untold struggles of Tibetan refugees. The film focuses on Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), who made the grueling trip from Tibet to India at the age of eight. She is now twenty-six and living in New Delhi, India.

The film alternates between Dolkars’s present life and the past in the form of flashbacks that she had repressed for years. Dolkar’s friend Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee) assists the Tibetan community in Delhi and works alongside a man whose real name is Gompo (Jampa Kalsang Tamang), who they believe is a Tibetan activist.

When Dolkar sees Gompo, she immediately recognises him as the man who guided her group through the mountains and into the pass that leads into India; a difficult trek where losses were incurred. Dolkar struggles to forgive Gompo for the pain that his actions put her through. We also see her struggles with reaching her family back home, when she learns her sister has gotten married and has a two month old daughter.

The Sweet Requiem shines in its focus on Dolkar, a refugee that has made the most of her new life and who has tried to bury her past for the last eighteen years. Themes such as loneliness, alienation, and repression are explored throughout the visually impressive film. The mountain-set aspect of the film gives the viewer a wonderous sense of the journey, expertly contrasted with scenes of the crowded and busy streets of Delhi.

The intriguing The Sweet Requiem has its slower parts, but it is rich in its storytelling and its subtle approach to bringing attention to a struggle that is lacking in awareness by the general public. The film doesn’t come off as a cry for help, but rather, a true visual representation about something that is very real but unfortunately overlooked.

 
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Gully Boy

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Somewhere in the streets of Mumbai, up-and-coming Muslim rapper Murad aka Gully Boy (Ranveer Singh) lies down on his bed and dreams of an India free from social disparity. He sits with headphones on, not to drown out the sounds of his mother fighting with his abusive father about his second wife, but to unleash his frustration at a class system that defines impoverished people like him as unworthy.

His grandmother, who sleeps a few metres away from him, watches as the drama between his mother and father escalates into violence. If the heat of the argument didn’t make the room feel smaller than it already is, the tourists who pay to tour their house – buying into Indian struggle as a form of spiritual enlightenment – do not help the situation either.

These hardships inspire Gully Boy’s raps with lyrics flowing through him like lava in a volcano. It is not enough for these lyrics to remain hidden on his phone. For Gully Boy, he must be the change he wishes to see in India, or else he remains just another dreamer.

A hip-hop fairy-tale, the parallels between Gully Boy and 8 Mile are evident. Murad, a boy from a poor background, rises-up in the Mumbai hip-hop scene and uses the platform as a soapbox to inspire change. Anything less in Gully Boy’s mind would be an acceptance of oppression, with Director Zoya Akhtar cleverly using hip-hop as a voice of rejection towards classist norms embedded in Indian culture.

Gully Boy is frustrated at the state of modern rap – seeing it less as a voice of the people and more as a voice for materialism. He hears what the world thinks of him when he participates in rap battles, with competitors reducing him because of the status of his ‘servant’ father. Rather than be ashamed of his upbringing, Gully Boy celebrates the hustle his family goes through by turning all disses about his social standing into recognition of his fight to survive. These barbs have less bite when translated from Hindi to English (“Your biggest dog is a poodle on my street” being one of the many highlights) but when considered in the context of a male-centric Indian culture, they go straight for the jugular.

Despite being restrained by cultural norms that prevent complete independence, Akhtar ensures there is no shortage of strong women featured in Gully Boy. Student-doctor and love interest of Murad, Safeena (an impressive Alia Bhatt), is a driving force for change in the film thanks to her refusal to remain complacent. Safeena is frustrated by a regressive system that disadvantages women so much that she chooses to be defiant if-not independent.

The music in Gully Boy comes through as kinetic, creating a heavy vibe that matches the rising frustration felt by a new wave of young Indians fighting against discriminatory traditions. The continued use of high energy music helps keep the film burning, which when you factor in the two-and-a-half-hour length (half an hour shy of Avengers: Endgame), helps keep the viewers’ mind from any impending numbness.

All elements considered, Gully Boy exists as an important rejection of discrimination and represents a progressive foot forward for Indian cinema.

 
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Another Child

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Known predominantly as an actor in South Korean crime and action thrillers such as The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, actor Kim Yoon-seok directs, co-writes and stars in this strangely tender familial drama Another Child (originally called Underage).

It follows Joo-ri (Kim Hye-jun), a high-schooler who discovers that her father has had an extra-marital affair with the mother of her classmate Yoon-ah (Park Se-jin). This confronting revelation comes with even more complexity: Yoon-ah’s mother, Mi-hee (Kim So-jin), is pregnant.

Angry with her own mother’s actions and resenting the arrival of a baby that threatens to wreck the one-on-one relationship she’s enjoyed with her mother all her life, Yoon-ah directs her anger and frustration at Joo-ri, which signals the start of a strangely adversarial friendship between the young girls as they’re forced to reckon with the massive upheaval that’s been foisted on them by their respective parents.

Joo-ri’s mother, Yeong-joo (Yum Jung-ah), finds out about her cheating husband at the same time as her daughter. Feeling betrayed by her husband she decides to project her anger towards the pregnant Mi-hee and decides to confront her. Meanwhile Mi-hee, who’s been single for a long time, feels that she once again has purpose and meaning in her life though even she feels the situation is untenable and her adulterous relationship, doomed.

The person most responsible for the mess they’re in is the feckless and responsibility-shy father of Joon-ri, Dae-won (played by director Kim Yoon-seok). It’s the cowardly way his character refuses to deal with the situation that’s the fulcrum for the film’s drama, where the women left in the wake of his behaviour must find a way to cope and move on.

While the setup may seem slightly soapy, the execution is, dramatically-speaking, rather spartan and devoid of melodramatics. It’s really a remarkable showcase for Kim Yoon-seok’s deft direction and the very fine performances he manages to get from his cast. Despite its seemingly convoluted plot, what ultimately emerges is a quietly tender tale of two families in crisis, inextricably linked by betrayal and the birth of a new life, while the young girls caught in the middle are forced to grow up rapidly, in order to compensate for their parent’s all-too-human flaws.

 
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Bulbul Can Sing

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Bulbul Can Sing is a film that is realistic, hard hitting and emotionally resonate. The story follows teens in a rural Indian community as they navigate through school life, relationships, values and culture.

The majority of the film is built on situational realism, where it is focused on the characters rather than the plot, which allows the viewer to get fully immersed in the story. These characters, some underwritten and unlikeable, are your guide throughout and this approach acts as an effective framing device. The performances certainly help sell it, with Manoranjoan Das, in particular, fantastic as Suman.

The film is full of longer scenes and repetitive plot points which enhance the themes: maturity, self-realisation, cultural ethics and modern societal issues faced by rural areas. The ambition is laudable, however, the ending doesn’t provide the necessary cohesion.

However, what brings it together is the cinematography, which provides striking moments of beauty, most effective when juxtaposed with Rimas’ verite style of filmmaking. It’s clear that the director has a pure love for her culture. It’s a joy to see these characters in such an uninhibited environment and that is the true beauty of the film.

Bulbul Can Sing screens as the opening night film of the Indian Film Festival Melbourne in Assamese with English subtitles

 
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A Resistance

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This South Korean historical drama, A Resistance – written and directed by Joe Min-ho – is relentlessly bleak and bleached of colour yet riveting in its emotional journey.

Set in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, we meet a victim of the brutal crackdown of political protestors; Koreans defying the Japanese invasion and oppression.

We see inhuman and abusive treatment of Prisoner 371, a young Korean female. We learn her name is Yu Gwan-sun (portrayed passionately by Ko Asung). She is reunited with neighbours from her village and compatriots in a stiflingly crowded prison cell where they are deprived of all basics. As she is berated by some and supported by others, we form a picture of what has transpired. Eventually we learn of her (and their) activism and subversive actions that clearly have led to their present incarceration.

Throughout, Gwan-sun’s persistent defiance unites and inspires small acts of rebellion amongst the other prisoners.

The movie reverts to muted colour for the flashbacks to somewhat happier times, then also for other more horrifying scenes of the brutal crackdown. Soon we see Gwan-Sun being beaten and sadistically tortured for her continuing defiance. Director Min-ho goes all out with these excruciatingly realistic scenes, and they’re difficult to watch. Eventually Gwan-Sun learns her brother is incarcerated in the same prison facility. Tiny morsels of information give her hope and fuel tiny acts of insubordination.

Joe Min-ho guides Ko Asung in her intense and sympathetic performance in order to craft an emblematic portrait of irrepressible defiance and leadership. It’s a wonderful representation of heroic defiance, and hers a magnificent performance within a powerful film based on a true story.

 
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The Great Battle

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Peter Jackson’s treatment of The Two Towers ‘Helms Deep’ battle looms large in this South Korean period action epic, loosely based around historical events from 625AD, during the Tang Dynasty when Chinese emperor Taizong was rolling across outlying nations unopposed. His armies attempted to annex the nation of Goguryeo, on the Korean peninsula.

In a version of the Thermopylae scenario (immortalised in Zack Snyder’s 300) where an outnumbered few stood against many, a rag-tag handful of crazy-brave warriors stand against Emperor Taizong (Park Sun-Woong) and his 200,000 strong army. The five thousand warriors take refuge within the walls of the Fortress of Ansi, commanded by Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung). The odds are not good.

While director Kim Kwang-sik goes for a fairly classical treatment of the material, there’s a good amount of creative liberty taken with the plot and execution. The story begins as a young officer named Samul (Nam Joo-hyuk) is despatched to the fortress of Ansi, where Commander Yang Manchun (Jo In-sung) has supposedly gone rogue and become disloyal to his lord, Yeon Gaesomun (played by Yu Oh-seong who starred in the recent South Korean film The Spy Gone North).

After spending time with Commander Yang Manchun, the young officer wrestles with his own loyalty to his orders and whether this man is a traitor or a well-loved leader of a large civilian populace and army. Once Emperor Taizong and his armies arrive, the testing of the people within the fortress begins and the young Samul sees real sacrifice and honour, first-hand.

Given the extensive battle sequences, it’s no surprise that their nimble execution is paramount. There’s a very stylised approach to the violence, including ye olde Zack Snyder-style ramping slow-mo effect (that 300 made famous) that ensures the audience can clearly see the jets of claret and slicing swords, something Kim Kwang-sik deploys with aplomb. CG aerial views and close-quarters combat meld with a visceral intensity that indulges in some CG enhanced bloodletting and hyper-stylised fight choreography that’s more than a little Manga inspired.

Overall, this rip-roaring battle epic has genuinely got the goods, with big emotions and accessible characters, while never descending into saccharine theatrics; it chugs along like a rollicking hybrid of Seven Samurai, 300 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Terrifically enjoyable.

 
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Rampant

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Hyun Bin and director Kim Sung-hoon teamed up last year for the South Korean buddy cop actioner Confidential Assignment, which showcased Kim Sung-hoon’s keen eye for action filmmaking. Rampant sees them teaming up again, though this time it’s for a zombie extravaganza set in feudal Korea, in the kingdom of Joseon.

The setup is convoluted but in a nutshell: Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) summons his carousing, roguish brother Lee Chung (Hyun Bin) back to the kingdom after years spent away (for reasons unknown). The cause for the Crown Prince’s invitation is that his kingdom is besieged by a zombie infestation that he hopes his estranged brother (who’s also a renowned sword fighter) can assist in quelling.

Sumptuously photographed and with lavish production design, this fusion of historical epic and zombie gore-fest largely works on the level of spectacle and for the most part, it chugs along with percussive momentum, setting up and executing terrifically enjoyable set-pieces.

The performances are curiously unengaging in terms of characterisation, which is not to say they’re unenjoyable, it’s only that they lack any semblance of irreverent humour or a knowing wink at the audience but Oldboy writer Hwang Jo-yoon and director Kim Sung-hoon are playing this for its drama, the only issue being that the drama is deeply ordinary and devoid of emotional heft.

There is enjoyably gruesome zombie imagery and when it does kick into high gear during the many set-pieces, it never seems to fall headlong into being a satisfying all-out zombie actioner, which would sate the horror crowd; it instead prefers to maintain a statelier period tone and try to play to a wider audience.

For fans of the undead genre and the frenzied spilling of arcing jets of claret, this is an entertaining ride through a juxtaposition of genre tropes; for the horror uninitiated, it may be too much of a gory punch to the face that lacks the ‘feels’ to pull you through the story.