The Age of Shadows


Viewed – 05 May 2018  Blu-ray

I’m certainly a fan of Korean cinema.  Over the years I’ve discovered some real gems and found myself liking certain directors and actors the more I see their movies.  This critically acclaimed thriller follows Police captain Lee Jung‑Chool (Kang Ho-song) who infiltrates a group of resistance fighters who are reportedly planning a series of bombings on Japanese establishments during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1920s.  As a Korean born man, Lee Jung finds himself questioning his allegiance when a charismatic resistance fighter befriends him and lets him in on their plans.

the-age-of-shadows

This tale of loyalty, double crosses and war time espionage is shot with no end of style and class.  The set design and photography here is simply breath-taking and further cements director Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) as one of the best the country has to offer.  Although at times overly-complicated, this was gripping stuff with some brilliantly executed set-pieces including a tense sequence aboard a train and an exhilarating finally set to the music of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.  Add to this two strong turns from Kang-Ho Song (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, The Host) and Gong Yoo (Train to Busan) and even though occasional shoot-outs got a tad repetitive … it was the battle of wits at the centre of the story that came across the strongest.

Not one of those Korean movies I’d leap to recommend over so many others, but if you’re a fan of well-made world cinema, this is definitely worth your time.

Verdict:  3.5 /5

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The Villainess


Viewed – 18 February 2018  online-rental

I was first exposed to the wonders of Korean cinema quite like many were I presume with Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.  From that starting point firstly, that director became a firm favourite, and I also was treated to some real gems; including last year’s personal top ten entry Train to Busan.  So we come to this somewhat under-hyped action thriller.  Sook-hee has been trained from a young girl to become a deadly, highly skilled assassin.  However upon the death of her mentor, she vows revenge which ultimately lands her in the custody of a government organisation that would like to put her skills to work.

The-Villainess

This starts brilliantly with a no-holds-barred visceral action sequence filmed mostly in first person that well, has to be seen to be believed.  This immediately hooked me, and once again it seems I was in for a top level Korean movie that I’d be recommending to anyone willing to listen.  There’s clear echoes of French classic La Femme Nikita here, as well as Lady Vengeance.  Also the direction, with rapid-fire editing and impossible camera work certainly makes this an experience.  It’s sad to report then, that this is all held together with a rather generic and muddled plot with a myriad of flashbacks that only help to confuse matters.  Performances are largely decent, especially from Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee and there’s some fun characters and interesting twists.  It also doesn’t take any prisoners and is at times very bloody and violent.  I also found myself caring for the central protagonist’s plight and affected by the shitty things that happen to her … but with a villain who’s motives seem simply ‘because I’m evil’ this ended up not being the full package.

See it for it’s action and impeccable style.  Not so much for it’s plot.

Verdict:  3.5 /5

The Handmaiden


Viewed – 06 August 2017  Blu-ray

Let me say straight away that I regard Korean director Park Chan-wook as one of the best around and his much acclaimed vengeance trilogy (which includes the famed ‘Oldboy’) speaks for itself.  Add to this his previous American debut ‘Stoker’ being an underrated gem and well to say I was looking forward to what came next, was an understatement.  Once I discovered it would be a period piece though, for a director more known for contemporary (and bloody) revenge thrillers … I did feel a little trepidation.

The Handmaiden

A seasoned crook (Ha Jung-woo) with his eye on a wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee), sends a trusted young pick pocket (Kim Tae-ri) to pose as her handmaiden.  Once gaining the Heiress’s trust the crook himself poses as an eligible count in hope of marrying the heiress and gaining access to her fortune.  Once plan is set in motion however the pick-pocket/handmaiden finds herself drawn to the lonely heiress who has lived all her life in a secluded mansion, overseen by a controlling and perverted uncle.

This beautifully shot film is full of character and period atmosphere, complete with stunning costumes and spot-on performances.  It’s an intriguing premise that twists and turns, spread over three distinct parts, where we get to see the differing points of view of the various characters and gradually learn about each of their underlying plans and cunning manipulations.  Who will come out on top?  Think to some extent Dangerous Liaisons and you’ll have a good idea what this about.  It’s got a quirky sense of humour (especially during some explicit but not particularly erotic sex-scenes) and some of the Korean / Japanese traditions are fascinating.  For a film by Park Chan-wook however it lacks the showmanship he’s displayed in the past, going for a more sedate, realistic vibe that’s still eye-catching thanks to gorgeous cinematography and lavish locations / set design.  At over 2 and half hours, it’s a bit drawn out, but packs in a lot of personality.  Not as immediately essential as his best work … but still one to check out if your a fan or enjoy quality Korean cinema.

Verdict:  3.5 /5

The Wailing


Viewed – 04 March 2017  Blu-ray

The arrival of a mysterious Japanese hermit in a small South Korean village sparks suspicion and escalating stories amongst the townsfolk, which quickly turn to hysteria when a strange virus begins to cause the people to turn violent and kill each other.  A bumbling Police Sergeant becomes involved in the investigation and soon learns his young daughter may have contracted the same virus.

The Wailing

This acclaimed horror / thriller is directed with no-end of visual flair by Na Hong-jin (The Chaser) and is filled with interesting, flawed but very believable characters and not-unlike-Seven atmosphere in a constantly rain-swept village.  It has a very compelling mystery at it’s core and several strong performances that kept me interested.  The inclusion of Korean and Christian beliefs and superstition mixed with the spreading of rumours and prejudice towards the mystery hermit was also a clever approach.  Add to this some gorgeous cinematography as well as several memorable scenes and I was having a great experience with this latest Korean effort.

However as the story neared it’s conclusion, a twist turned events on their head but thankfully impressed me with how well it suddenly made everything fall into place … that was until a second twist turned that revelation on it’s head also, and then I was left confused.  Up until that point I’d been gripped and the very well observed and powerful ‘father trying to save his daughter’ narrative was looking to make this an easy recommendation.  But despite a dark-as-it-gets ending (which did leave it’s mark) I came way feeling rather cheated.  Shame.

Verdict:  3 /5

Train to Busan


Viewed – 28 February 2017  Blu-ray

There’s certainly been a number of quality movies coming out of Korea in recent years … from the acclaimed films of Park-chan Wook (‘Old Boy’, ‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’) to quality horror like ‘I Saw The Devil’.  So I thought after enjoying such movies, I’d better seek out some more Korean cinema.  So we come to this much talked about take on the 28 Days Later formula of a virus outbreak and a hoard of ‘infected’.  This time during a routine train journey.

Train to Busan

We’re introduced to a businessman (Yoo Gong) going through a messy divorce and trying to retain some sort of relationship with his daughter.  However on a train journey to take her back to her mother, said business man and a group of interesting characters soon discover that a virus has broken out and is spreading like wildfire.  This is classic stuff, not dissimilar to a disaster movie where the viewer is introduced to a range of personalities each with their own agendas and back stories.  However with the threat of a growing number of infected on the train and not knowing if the destination is safe, a battle for survival quickly ensures with tension cranked up to 11.  I felt this brought back genuine thrills and intensity to horror that seems to have been missing for a while.  It favours heart-in-mouth moments (whenever a window shatters) over gore and has impressive CGI and slick production values throughout.

The setting was claustrophobic and made for some genuinely chilling moments and the range of different characters (all well acted, particularly the young girl) made me care for not just the principle leads but almost everyone (bar a particularly selfish guy who you’ll be booing towards the end).  It’s the sort of movie that keeps you guessing about who will survive and how things will turn out and for me, made for probably the best movie of the year so far.

Verdict:  5 /5