Stoker – Park Chan-wook (2013)


There could have been something to this dark film about India (Wasikowska), a misfit girl whose secret family history is unbound following the death of her father, but director Park Chan-wook refused to get out of his own way, overloading the film with a hyperactive camera, an overbearing level of CGI that never quite manages to enmesh itself with the live action and a collection of somewhat pointless transition gimmicks. Through the cold, calculated muddle, Mia Wasikowska emerges as the only element of interest, but that can’t sustain a film for 100 minutes, especially when that film is ostensibly a thriller.

Getting out of his own way has increasingly become a problem with Park since the Vengeance Trilogy ended, as if he were working overtime to convince the world that he really was a visionary director. He’s not, he’s a good director, or once was; he can be again, but that’s up to him.

The Taste of Money – Im Sang-soo (2013)


After the unprecedented crossover success of Psy’s hit singleGangnam Style – about the horse-dancing absurdities of the rich in South Korea — Im Sang-soo’s follow-up to 2010′s The Housemaid would seem to be coming along at the right time. Set in the same luxuriously moneyed world as The Housemaid,The Taste of Money is a more serious, high-gloss-finish take on the absurdities of the very rich that starts on a different path than Gangnam Style but ultimately spins into the same kind out-of-control parody.

No matter the country, wherever you find money, you will also find sex and power. Almost to flaunt it, the film begins in the Baek family vault, where Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik) and his bodyguard Young-jak (Kim Kang-woo) are filling suitcases with cash to get Yoon’s son, Chul (On Joo-wan), out of jail. It’s not bail, it’s a bribe, a time-honored Baek family tradition it would seem. Chul, in his mid-20s now, is a rising star in the company founded by his grandfather, which Yoon currently runs but is losing interest in.

Not shockingly, Yoon’s interest was always purely int the money and the power, not the family business he married into. And the sex, of course, but not with his aging wife, Geum-ok (Yoon Yeo-jeong). When Yoon goes too far, though, and seduces the Filipino housekeeper, Eva (Maui Taylor), promising her a life together with her children, Geum-ok discovers his secret and takes her revenge, seducing Young-jak.

The Taste of Money is a somewhat twisted sequel in that it really isn’t a sequel. Im calls it a spiritual sequel, but only the children, Nami (Kim Hyo-jin) and Chul , now grown, seem to carryover from The Housemaid, and aside from a few vague references that Nami makes relating to the fiery climax of The Housemaid, very little of the story carries over. They would be better described as parallel films, like a comic book alternate universe, where Nami and Chul are the parallel conduits to different stories.

While the Korean actors are all well cast, Darcy Paquet as the American business man that Chul is trying to woo for a big and highly immoral and probably illegal deal, is a serious weak link in the film. Paquet is an American journalist and translator who runs I’ve interviewed him for articles in the past and hold him in such high regard that it pains me to say that he is the weak link in the film. He’s far from the only weak link in the film – Maui Taylor is equally hard to bear in the film, and for the same reason: neither have an actor’s voice, and something as simple as that is often the downfall of actors.

It’s not the downfall of the film, it just pegs it back a few notches from what it could have been. It’s a bit of a tough film to digest though, on an empathy level especially. It’s hard to find anyone to root for, let alone empathize with. Nami and Eva work to an extent, but only to an extent. It’s a cold and calculating thriller though, and on that level it works with extreme efficiency and skill. Empathy would likely just ruin it.

Punch – Han Lee (2012)

As one of the biggest South Korean films of the year, trailing in box office behind only The War of the Arrows and Sunny, the anticipation for the DVD release for Han Lee’s Punch was substantial. But it seems that more often than not, just like the American box office, that’s a dangerous thing to base any kind of hope on.

Like Sunny, Punch is another coming of age film, this time from a boy’s perspective. But instead of the bright, cutting sentimental edge that Sunny came out and won hearts with, Punch is little more than an amiable but misfiring attempt to take a bite out of the hardships of life for the poor in Korea. The bite barely makes it past the skin, foregoing the larger questions for easy answers, when there are answers at all.

Operating on the basis that hard luck stories will pull on everyone’s heartstrings with little coaxing, the film sscillates back and forth through a series of challenges and life obstacles for its teenage protagonist, Wan-deuk (Yoo Ah-in), that never go anywhere or mean anything. Punch even fails at the basic task to at least put something interesting on the screen to mask the film’s puddle deep thought process.

So what are Won-deuk’s problems? The film starts out as the 18 year old’s father (Park Soo-young), a hunchback single dad just scraping by as part of a comedy dance act, loses his job when the cabaret he works at goes under. Because it’s the only thing he knows how to do, he tries to keep his act going by hitting the road, dancing at big flea markets, but ends up running afoul of the gangsters who run the place.

But that’s not really his problem. Because his father forbids him to quit school to start earning a living early, Won-deuk is left home under the not-so-watchful eye of their neighbor, Dong-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). That’s his problem.

Dong-joo, aside from being a bad neighbor is also Won-deuk’s homeroom teacher, an emotional bully who torments him there even more than at home, where Won-duk can at least evade the man if he steps quietly enough up the stairs, even if he has to share his food aid packages with the demented mentor.

At church, Won-deuk pleads with God, begging him to strike Dong-joo dead. Of course, God doesn’t work like that, and even if he did, movies don’t work like that, and besides, Dong-joo is a wide-reaching problem, as he is an elder at the same church, and seems to never be without his bible. He even seems to be trying to help Won-deuk out, taking him to learn kickboxing and reuniting him with his estranged mother, who Dong-joo knows through church.

Our problem is that film never really delves deeply into any of Won-deuk’s problems, it just sort of states them matter-of-factly and either solves them without a whole lot of soul searching or definition, or just lets them pass quietly in the night. Punch is the definition of the neat little bundle. Won-deuk didn’t necessarily have abandonment issues, so when his mother comes into the picture and they start to creep up on him, they are underdeveloped and almost entirely contained by the fact that she is now around, making him dinner while is father is out trying to earn them some money. His biggest pang of doubt seems to be that it was the evil Dong-joo who reunited them. So Won-deuk’s new problem becomes that fact that his nemesis might not be such a bad guy afterall.

Kim Yoon-seok and his yelling matches with an irritable neighbor (Kim Sang-ho) are the lone bright spots in the film. I used to consider Kim something of a poor man’s Song Kang-ho, but he might have a little more width to him than that. He’s funny in an understated way that, like Song Kang-ho, sometimes spills over into short bursts of violence to shake away the boredom of an otherwise unimpressive film.

Rainbow (aka Passerby #3) – Shin Su-won (2010)

When the vanguard films of the first South Korean wave hit in the early 2000s, most of us were caught off guard, unaware that such a place like Chungmuro–a center of great filmmaking, where melodrama wasn’t a negative and voice over wasn’t a crutch–even existed. The quirkiness of My Sassy Girl, the magic realism of Il Mare, the intensity of Chingu–these were new experiences, something American and European films, which were still stuck in a cycle of vacant gun play and artless conversation films, didn’t offer.

Somewhere it went all wrong, though. Maybe it had been all wrong from the start. Maybe the sudden and intense interest allowed years of great films to float to the top all at once, to be consumed as if they all came out in a single year. But even if it were all wrong from the beginning, there was still a change somewhere between My Sassy Girl and Oldboy winning the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Shin Su-won’s Rainbow (aka Passerby #3) seems to remember a time when there was still joy left in filmmaking, but that spirit has since been exercised to near death. Rainbow offers a bleak and thoroughly depressing look at the inner workings of the popularity-or-bust film industry that once, even if briefly, thrived with a real sense of Korean identity, which has since given way to a sanitized version of itself for a globalized world.

Films, now, are made or not made by committee, and within that committee, directors are met with reams of statistics on what is likely to be commercial, and any popular whim that occurs requires the production to completely change at a moment’s notice.  More often than not, their projects are not given the green light to go ahead, which is where we find Ji-won (Park Hyun-young), a director about to turn 40 who caught the filmmaking bug a little too late in life and still hasn’t made her debut yet.

After resigning from her job to pursue her new dream, Ji-won has found little more than a brick wall to run face first into with each new project she begins. Her husband is frustrated with her lack of progress, and her son, the socially awkward Si-yeong (Baek So-myeong), is even less supportive, openly taking out every flaw in his life on his mom. I would have gotten a mouthful of lava soap if I said any of the things that Si-yeong says in the film to his mother, but Ji-won’s meek character allows it, just as it allows her to be stepped on at work, where, even after making a major artistic breakthrough, finding the voice and the kernel of a story she had been so desperately looking for for so long, she is cheered on with a smile into changing her script to better fit the marketing plan. To make it more popular.

As a film, Rainbow has a tendency to oscillate back and forth between empathy with Ji-won, as she goes through her creative process trying to remember what drew her into filmmaking in the first place and trying to free her artistic wings, to a multi-layered frustration that is so deeply rooted in the film that it threatens to spoil it. Every character comes from a place of frustration: Ji-won’s frustration at seeing younger filmmakers than her begin their productions, her husband’s frustration at having to share a wife with a so-far fruitless endeavor, her son’s frustration at being a poor guitarist and the subject of senior bullying, and even her producer’s frustration at not receiving material from Ji-won that she can do anything with.

In fact, it’s a surprise that this film was even made, it’s so critical of the film industry. But it puts a voice to the frustration that I think a lot of people feel when it comes to Korean film in the last five or six years, since American studios started buying up remake rights.

The saying goes that there are two things you never want to let people see being made: laws and sausages. But the ways in which a film comes to be made–or, worse not made–is often more uncomfortable to witness. Almost every reason for a film to be made is a bad reason, and almost every reason not to make a film is a good one. But it’s a sickening truth to realize, to live in a world where this is so. Shin Su-won captures the spirit of that thought, but the underlying problem remains. Film going is a casual experience for a far greater percentage of the population, and that’s who will always get served first, but they already have the rest of us, and they know it.

Marriage is a Crazy Thing – Ha Yu (2002)

A fall afternoon. A blind date. Two people, meeting over orange juice and coffee. Polite smiles, banal conversation, a dull movie that she’s already seen. This is the perfectly benign set up for Yoo Ha’s Marriage is a Crazy Thing.

But as the alcohol flows and the right articles of clothing come off, something else entirely happens: they begin to actually speak to each other. There is a self-awareness to how absurd the situation is, and the talk goes on, they both unveil the ugly-yet-playful side of their personalities.

I don’t like either of the characters: Yeon-hee (Uhm Jung-hwa), a serial dater who has some financial independence but values financial security so much that she can’t find Mr. Right; and Joon-young (Kam Woo-seong), a part time English lit professor whose career is stuck on the launch pad. He has no financial freedom or independence but is also a serial dater, and possessed the rare combination of being deeply sullen and supremely cocky.

So, then, why do I like this film?

Marriage is a Crazy Thing is among my favorite Korean films–one of the first I ever saw–but I’ve never truly been able to figure out why that is. The film has always had an asterisk next to it in my head, and in the past I’ve likened it to three-chord rock bands that aren’t technically good but just have something–some spark, some elusive glimpse that is hard to pin down–to them.

A few months ago, film critic Kartina Richardson wrote a post on Mirror Film about the various problems one encounters when writing film criticism. Her starting point was about race and color, but (being a white male) I latched on to a different part of her essay. “I never want to discuss cinema in a leaden and academic way, but what other way is taken seriously?” she asks. “Emotional discussion of film is often dismissed as juvenile,” she says. And she’s right. And it’s absurd. Why should films be reviewed differently than they are viewed?

Film is a thoroughly emotional medium.

Movies are meant to make you feel, or they fail. They can also make you think. But while a film that can make you only feel is fine, a film that only makes you think seems to be missing something: a soul, a center, heart, a point of view. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the emotional element that is missing from otherwise good films, such as Syriana or, for me — though some will disagree — Barking Dogs Never Bite or A Single Spark, that keep them from reaching a certain level, from really digging in under the skin and into the vital organs.

When I go back and read over the bad reviews I’ve written – either the ones I didn’t write well, or the movies I didn’t like – the thing missing in them is generally an emotional point of view. Now, the catch to that is that emotions are also the easiest thing to manipulate in film. The mainstay of South Korean drama: the melodramatic tearjerker, for instance. But they can’t be manipulated clumsily. If we see the strings of manipulation, we can cut them off and be free of them.

Where does Marriage is a Crazy Thing fit into that?

It’s a perfect example of a film meant to be viewed emotionally rather than intellectually. Your brain will only get in the way of the story, which lays itself out almost like a modern fairy tale, but in reverse, where the man is the powerless maiden waiting to be freed from his cell by the one he loves as friends and family around him move on in life, get married, have kids and careers.

Joon and Yeon-hee’s relationship was designed by them to be a weight station along the road, just a temporary stop before their final destination, but they never quite found a way out. They meant to, sure that each would cheat on the other, confident that the other was not fully up to building a real life around, but the thing about it is that they mesh so well, compliment each other so perfectly in their awfulness that it is kind of endearing.

Even after Yeon-hee’s marriage they can’t end it, becoming a weekend couple, when Yeon-hee lends Joon money to move out of his parents’ house, into a small roof room apartment. From the outside it appears that this actually the only way their relationship can truly function.

It’s the apartment, tiny, cramped, decorated by her, but lived in by him that makes all the difference in the world for the film. It’s a perfect stroke from the writer-director, Ha.

So, the somewhat strange conclusion to the question, I think, is that I like Marriage is a Crazy Thing because of its emotional selfishness. The meeting of these two characters in their little roof room getaway sparks some kind of a firewall into existence, where common sense, morality, guilt, conscience, law — or anything related to the brain — cannot penetrate, if only for a small amount of time. When something does finally penetrate it, it is a tide of emotion. It makes a mess, but it’s a true mess. Emotions always are.

Crying Fist – Ryoo Seung-wan (2005)

It’s kind of a curious thing that a sport I really don’t like could end up producing so many films that I do: RockyRaging BullRequiem for a HeavyweightThe Great White HopeKiller’s Kiss. Even Chaplin’s boxing bit from City Lights is among my favorite Chaplin scenes. Ryoo Seung-wan’s gritty boxing film Crying Fist, starring Choi Min-sik and brother Ryoo Seung-beom, easily finds a home in that list.

The fight film is almost always one of redemption, and it’s no surprise when we meet Gang Tae-shik (Choi) and Yoo Sang-hwan (Ryoo) we find them stuck in dead-end paths that call for them to redeem themselves. In Tae-shik’s case, it is his wife and son who he has wronged most, failing them in every possible way, time after time. Tae-shik is the definition of a broken man, the next in line after Rocky Balboa (Sylvester StalloneRocky) and Mountain Rivera (Anthony QuinnRequiem for a Heavyweight). Uneducated, a bad father, an even worse husband, Tae-shik is in throes of dementia pugilistica (punch drunk), but only knows how to box to make back the money he owes. At every step, it seems to be destined that whatever decision he makes is the wrong one. But his actions seem to be only halfway borne from a lack of brains. The rest seems from the deep bitterness of never making it as a boxer or a man.

For Sang-hwan, it’s more himself that he needs to prove something to. He’s gone so far astray that he’s found himself in a prison nightmare for manslaughter after a stick up gone bad. Life on the inside and outside become even worse for Sang-hwan until he finds boxing as an outlet. But boxing is the kind of thing that isn’t an outlet right away. It’s a rededication of lifestyle, but a frustrating one as you realize just how uncoordinated you actually are as you take beating after beating. But it’s easy to argue that Sang-hwan deserves the beatings he takes. He does.

It begs a legitimate question: can boxing really redeem a person? More specific than that, can boxing really redeem these two men?

For both men, it seems like boxing is the Last Chance Saloon. That it is only a lifetime full of bad choices that brings people to the brutal ballet. It seems to have an allure to it, that the training of the body can somehow contain a person’s worst instincts, or at least reel them in a little. It’s a theory that works well as a metaphor in film, though one Mike Tyson seemed to disprove in real life during his downward spiral.

Thus, it’s tempting to look at the two central characters as an old and young embodiment of the same man continually stuck fighting his demons, chasing his own tail around the ring in a never ending battle with himself, but it robs from the individual struggle each is fighting for. In the end they may not find redemption, but redemption is a fleeting thing anyway. Like the beginning of an education in boxing, redemption is a rededication of lifestyle, not something you get your fill of in one go. This is the first step, but there is a second. And a third.

The Front Line – Jang Hun (2012)

In America, we’re not all that used to films about the Korean War. There were some films in the 50s and 60s, like The Bridges at Toko-ri and The Steel Helmet, and of courseM*A*S*H as both a film and a long-running television show in the 70s and 80s, but for some reason it never hooked on with the Hollywood machine in the same way that World War II or Vietnam did. For some families, like mine, the Korean War is the only war that was fought in by relatives, so a gap exists between the horror stories you got to hear after a few too many sips of Jameson, and the movies you got to watch late at night with the sound down low.

Naturally, what we lack in focus on the Korean War is more than made up for by South Korea’s own film industry, and these films seem more relevant than ever because of the tensions since Kim Jong-il’s death. Though the recent shoving match seems to be over Yeonpyeong Island, towards the end of the Korean War, it was all about hills and borders: who got what and where when the cease fire was signed. As we see in director Jang Hoon’s new film The Front Line, everything seems to ride on the claim of a small, strategic hill on the front called Aerok Hill, one that changes hands between North and South so frequently that the generals at the negotiation table can’t even keep track of it.

When mail from a North Korean soldier to his family in the South is found, Kang (Shin Ha-kyun), a counterintelligence officer in trouble for badmouthing Japanese loyalists in the South’s high command, is sent to the front undercover to discover if there is a mole in the unit or not. What he finds is a unit in disarray, one being led by junior officers (like his friend Soo-hyeok (Ko Soo)) because of the high kill rate in the dangerous region, filled with the usual war film suspects that cover all of the emotional bases who have bonded tightly over the course of the war, sharing stories and songs and life and death moments. The problem is that there isn’t anything terribly original here. It’s a complaint that isn’t specific to this film, and of course it’s a story that’s 60 years old now, but The Front Line suffers some because of it.

Maybe that’s because there isn’t anything original left in war to cover. No matter the war, it’s all the same themes, the same actions, the same conclusions. It’s the nature of life. Go there, do this, he’s gonna die, so is he, so are you. Maybe there have just been too many war films in general, especially by those who have never experienced war (which I also have not). But The Front Line seems to be assembled almost entirely from bits and pieces of other war movies: a little bit of Saving Private Ryan, some Full Metal Jacket, a dash of Jouex Noel, a pinch of Taegukgi. They’re all in there, and even a dollop of Braveheart, in the way the two sides meet on the battlefield, shooting and hacking away at each other until the camera lens is streaked with spilled blood. In Pork Chop Hill, too, there is a hill that needs to be captured and defended, though it is a real hill, based on a real battle, while in The Front Line, it is a fictional, symbolic hill called Aerok being battled over as the cease fire is being negotiated. Look at “Aerok” in a mirror and you’ll see its “Korea” being fought over in a backwards way, a rather blunt little easter egg that one would hope has lost some of its subtlety in translation.

Still, it gets you. Or it got me anyway, with its brotherhood, its jokes, its desperation, its juxtaposition of humanity with inhumanity and sparing dips into melodrama. Even if it is something of a rehash, it all still works because of the load carried by the actors in smaller roles who pepper the film with a measure of believability. Lee Je-hoon, for instance, who played Il-young, the stoic young commanding officer with a morphine addiction to numb the pain, and Ko Chang-seok who played Yang, the seasoned veteran who fought against the Japanese and lived to tell (and tell and tell and tell). It’s the quiet moments spent inside tents and spider holes sipping rice wine and hazing the rookie they’ve taken under their wing (Lee Da-Wit) that give the film its meaning and ultimately its heart.


The Day He Arrives – Hong Sang-soo (2011)

If there is a director who has essayed the uncomfortable randomness of meeting someone on the street — or the soju sit downs that so often follow it — better than Hong Sang-soo, I’ve never seen it. In The Day He Arrives, he’s boiled the film down almost entirely to that: walking, talking and drinking. But in not blazing a new stylistic path, he has almost redefined himself in the way Kim Ki-duk did with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring, stripping away everything that wasn’t at the very core of his idea, even the color. The Day He Arrives is a lean film, running at just 78 minutes, and shot in black and white, the fat trimmed off entirely. It is a whiskey-and-soju-soaked play on the ideas of déjà vu, coincidence, human contradiction, and the way we often live our lives at two different extremes.

Not to break with the familiar territory theme, Hong has set his story in a world populated by filmmakers, or at least the filmmaking adjacent. Seong-joon (Yoo Joon-sang) is a once-successful director who used to be based in Seoul but now teaches in Daegu. He’s made four films, but has run out of creative steam since. Likely a middling talent, he seems to now only be known by fellow filmmakers and critics. Luckily — or unluckily — for him, he is surrounded by filmmakers, actors, and film school professors. He is back in Seoul to meet up with his old friend, Yeong-ho (Kim Sang-joong), but more likely it’s to see an old girlfriend, Kyeong-jin (Kim Bo-kyeong), with whom he is still obsessed. After suitably embarrassing himself in her presence, he goes on drinking with his film friends who mention his work in passing, but never in depth. He nods appreciatively, but would like to talk about anything but, especially with Joong-won (Kim Ee-seong), the leading man of Seong-joon’s first film, who was replaced at the request of the producer in his second film and has since fallen on hard luck. More than having been replaced, it seems to be the act of cowardice that Seong-joon had his assistant call Joong-won to tell him that he’d been replaced instead of doing it himself that looms like a sulpher cloud over their drinking excursion. Seong-joon squirms and evades, eventually escaping outside to smoke, hoping the bar hostess (also played by Kim Bo-kyeong) will join him. She does, but she also doesn’t.

What I mean by that is that the film seems to fall back on itself throughout, repeating scenes of street meetings and drinking sessions, while simultaneously striding forward: repeated scenes seem to take place in consecutive days, but there is never a true marker, and everything is ever-so-slightly different to the point that you’re never actually sure of the film’s timeline. By the end, even Seong-joon can’t remember how many days he’s been in Seoul for or how many days he has left.

In that fog of the time-space continuum, Hong allows his characters to muse on in rambles about whether or not reality has a special force behind it, or whether the brain is trained by our own insecurities to create a through-line for life out of the random threads of passing time. It’s a question that could be readily overheard in any college dorm room (especially the ones with the funny smell wafting from under the door), but that may be part of the joke. The thing about Hong’s films is that, though they seem to be heavy dramas, it is okay to laugh at them, especially the characters. More often than not, it seems that Hong is torturing his characters for our benefit. They are often selfish and pathetic, people who once had promise in life, but did not fulfill it, especially the men. They are past the point of redemption with their habits or the ways they’ve hurt their friends and lovers, but there is a tongue-in-cheek element to his films. Hong never explicitly winks at us with his camera, but he sometimes gives us the hint of a barely contained laugh as they flounder or a forehead slap when they wound. He does seem to care for his characters, even – or especially – the unlikable ones, but still creates an environment for them that is harsh, in which they lash out in ways that they don’t seem to be in control of, especially here in the scene where Seong-joon visits his old girlfriend and embarrasses himself. He seems to be drawn to her apartment by a magnet set by Hong and doesn’t know what he’s doing there, or why he’s suddenly crying. This scene happens early on in the film though, where it would happen at the end of most films. But in Hong’s world, that’s a much better place to start than end, if only because it leads straight to the whiskey.

A Better Tomorrow – Song Hae-sung (2010)

It’s been twenty four years since John Woo and Chow Yun Fat conspired to make trench coats and firearms as a permanent fixture in our minds by pitting them together in the sweat-drenched street scenes of A Better Tomorrow. But for everything iconic about the original, Song Hae-sung’s remake of the film makes little to no impression at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course — and honestly, it’s almost criminal that it was. Song and his army of writers (Kim Hyo-seok, Lee Taek-kyung, Choi Geun-mo & Kim Hae-gon) began their film by weaving a pattern of homegrown depth, setting their story against the backdrop of a splintered Korea in the shape of a family who get separated as they try and flee the repression of the North.

Twenty years after the fact, Kim Hyeok (Joo Jin-mo) ends up a gangster in the South, middle management for a drug-smuggling Pusan mob. His mother and younger brother, Yeong-choon (Song Seung-heon), are held captive and regularly beaten by North Korean guards. Through his mob connections that apply the right amount of grease to the right palms, Kim Hyeok searches furiously for his little brother and manages to find him in a North Korean prison camp. Little Brother is not so forthcoming with forgiveness when he meets Kim Hyeok for the first time — their first meeting since childhood.

The two films – both of which are actually remakes of an even earlier Mainland China film – follow roughly the same path: a deal that goes bad lands Kim Hyeok in jail for three years after being double crossed by the insipid, cloying underling Tae-min (Jo Han-seon), who has been a gangster for about three hours and already wants to be boss. Sometimes all it takes are the balls to want something for which you’re willing to kil. While Kim Hyeok is in jail, Yeong-choon is repatriated and becomes a cop in Pusan, keeping such a close eye on Tae-min he’s almost thrown off of the force.

But Song Hae-sung is not the visionary cinematic tailor that John Woo once was (and no longer is), and cannot weave anything compelling out of his attempt to recapture a special film. Pusan plays its own role – the music of the docks at night and the comfort of family noodle stands – but again, Song can not pull the same magic out of the atmosphere that Woo managed to make with Hong Kong. For all of its failings to live up to the original, it does make the grade in one area, though: sticking religiously to the John Woo doctrine that states, “Why use 1 bullet when 10 look so cool?” Even after all of these years and all of the half-assed attempts to emulate this image, I have to admit that it is still satisfying to see the lollipop sucking Lee Young-Choon (Song Seung-Heon), Kim Hyeok’s best jopok buddy, storm their rivals’ massage parlor two-fisted in order to take out revenge for the double cross.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare this remake so closely to the original, but that’s the problem with remakes, especially for classic films. The standard is set in stone. I struggle to see the point of remaking this film a quarter century later. John Woo’s film has only grown over the years and has not been forgotten. Unless you’re going to bring something new to the table, some point of view, something to say, some basic reason besides money to revisit the well worn story of cop and criminal siblings…why do it? They could have gotten to all of those, and even started to, but then didn’t. Again, why? Cop versus criminal is not a dead trope — well, not yet, despite world cinema’s best efforts to kill it — but it ended up being a wasted opportunity to expand on John Woo’s work by introducing and delving into the wealth of thematic baggage that comes with being a North Korean refuge in South Korea. Instead of diving in head first to this rich topic, director Song tiptoed around the issue and largely used it as a cosmetic trait, not a theme. The rest of the film took its cue from the cautionary tiptoeing and did not develop significantly beyond a cheap revenge film with a pretty cast and a lavish bullet allowance.

Happy Ero Christmas – Lee Geon-dong (2003)

There are certain types of people in the world who tend to over-sentimentalize the holidays, especially Christmas. Based on the dozen or so movies he’s made, you’d have to expect that Cha Tae-hyun would be one of them — or at least his characters are. So it’s entirely fitting then that that’s exactly what happens in Happy Ero Christmas, a romantic comedy set in a small spa town as Christmas approaches.

Cha plays Seong Byung-ki, a well-meaning but hapless young cop that gets no respect from anyone in town, not even his fellow officers. Byung-ki grew up in this small town, which is seemingly run by gangsters, and they’ve been giving him a rough go of it since he was a a child. He’s been dead set on cleaning out the gangsters ever since one of them, Bang Suk-doo, threw him into a scalding hot bath when he was too small to fight back. But given his low position in the police force and the clout of the gangs, he’s unable to do so. He spends most of his time trying to get the attention of Min-kyeong (Kim Seon-ah), the shy, loney bowling alley clerk who doesn’t seem to have any interest in him. Byung-ki initially tries to downplay his interest in Christmas, but is unable to when he discovers that it is also Min-kyeong’s birthday.

Suk-doo himself, who has grown to become boss of one of the warring gangs, is just recently out of prison and extremely lonely when we meet him. Instead of running his business with the iron fist normally required of such a profession, he whiles away his days watching Shunji Iwai’s snowy, sentimental Love Letter, wistfully hoping he could find a girl like that one day too. His underlings, faced with a rival gang moving in on their territory — headquarted in “the Sexy Palace” — don’t understand his new outlook, which seems to forbid the violence they crave. He just doesn’t want any of them to spend Christmas in prison like he did.

Naturally, when Suk-doo finds a girl to fall in love with, it’s Min-kyeong, who he only notices when she accidentally spits on his head. It’s fate, he says, because it would have been too difficult to spit on his head if she were really trying. Min-kyeong, for her part, is afraid of Suk-soo at first because of his gangster ways, but softens her stance on him somewhat when he reveals his gentle side to her, lavishing her with gifts and flowers. Byung-ki becomes desperate to keep her out of trouble when he finds out about Suk-doo’s full court press on her, and installs a police box in front of her house, vowing to never be more than three minutes away from her should she be in trouble and need him, but his still bubbling rage over Suk-doo dumping him into the hot spa as a child turns him into the monster that she ends up despising.

Happy Ero Christmas was directed by Lee Geon-dong, one of the many Korean directors that, as far as I can tell, has only directed one film. It’s not hard to figure why. The film is truly a mess, a funny-violent Korean slapstick put together in the same style of an ensemble piece like Love Actually, but without the technical efficiency or slickness of Richard Curtis. The comedy is often glacially-paced, and many of the story strands are only peripherally connected to the main story of Byung-ki and Suk-doo’s rivalry. Of these, there is one brilliantly funny sequence during the 18th Annual Mrs. Spa pageant, but verbalizing the joke would only ruin it.

The movie is flawed, but not fatally so. It stays afloat through the flaws because of chemistry between Cha Tae-hyun and Park Yeong-gyoo, who are great foils for each other. In fact, much of what you feel about this film will lay squarely with how you feel about Cha Tae-hyun. Like a lot of Westerners, my first experience with South Korean film was seeing Cha deal with a drunk, passed out Jun Ji-hyun on a subway platform in My Sassy Girl, and Cha plays basically the same role here. That’s the persona he has cultivated since My Sassy Girl, playing the sweet, if a bit goofy, nice guy. Despite being nice guys, his characters are prone to bouts of righteous indignation, and even violence, though he usually ends up taking the brunt of it himself. He takes it so well, constantly popping up with an undefeated smile through the pain, that I find it hard to believe anyone could not like him. He’s not quite as endearing in Happy Ero Christmas as he was in My Sassy Girl or even Speedy Scandal, but he’s got just enough charm here to make it work anyway.