Category Archives: Foreign

Return of the Street Fighter (1974, Ozawa Shigehiro)

Return of the Street Fighter almost stages a third act rally. It comes so close, then it doesn’t. After a string of boring fight scenes, director Ozawa finally gets in a couple good ones. Lead Sonny Chiba against one adversary, instead of a half dozen, two dozen, or four dozen. The failure to do big fight scenes is all on Ozawa. Chiba’s holding up his end–vicious karate killing machine–but Ozawa’s not shooting the fights well. When it’s just Chiba and someone else fighting, Ozawa and editor Horiike Kôzô create this rhythm to the cuts; the “story” pauses entirely for the fight.

When it’s Chiba vs. the evil karate school? Yawn. No fault of Horikke’s though; there’s just no good footage. Ozawa doesn’t do establishing shots. No matter how long Chiba’s fighting or how much ground he’s covered, no establishing shots. Ozawa never takes the camera off Chiba and never lets Chiba stop moving. Not fighting moving, but actually moving from place to place moving. It’s sort of narratively efficient but it doesn’t get the film anywhere. It’s just another unfortunate Return detail.

The story this time has Chiba working for evil karate school owner Tanaka Hiroshi–mostly doing hits. Chiba’s got a plucky, cute girl sidekick, Ichiji Yôko, who seems a little too cozy with Tanaka. Because Chiba doesn’t believe in Tanaka’s brand of karate, Tanaka’s just another client. And when Tanaka tries to hire Chiba to take out rival (good guy) karate school owner Suzuki Masafumi… well, Chiba’s got a line.

Thanks to flashback footage from the first film, we know Suzuki is the only karate school owner Chiba’s ever going to trust. Because we get to see their entire fight scene from the previous film. Return doesn’t even run ninety minutes and there are three lengthy flashbacks using first movie footage, then there’s Ozawa’s karate documentary where he showcases the various weapons and styles in use at Tanaka’s school. Why? Because then when there are actual fight scenes involving weapons and styles, Ozawa gets to rush through and just get to Chiba running away before taking the bad karate men down.

Again, it’s narratively efficient, it just doesn’t do anything good. It makes the actual fight scenes seem abbreviated. It’s a shame. When Ozawa wants, he can direct one hell of a fight scene.

Koiwa Hajjime’s script is pragmatically plotted, even when it misses opportunities. The connecting scenes between fights improve a lot in the second half of the film, contributing to the impression it’s going to get really good for the finale.

None of the cast stands out. Chiba’s pretty good, but underutilized. And it’s not like he can fix the poorly directed group fight scenes. Ichiji is annoying, but because she’s a narrative drag, nothing about the performance. Claude Gagnon is an unimpressive Mr. Big, however. And the showdown with returning baddie Ishibashi Masashi disappoints. Group fight.

The more obvious to becomes Return of the Street Fighter has nowhere to go, the more hurried the film becomes. It’s too bad; Return has the pieces to make something. The good fight scenes are quite good. They’re just dramatically inert. Given the whole film’s about Chiba resolving threads from the last movie, dramatic inertness shouldn’t even be possible.

But dramatically inert Return gets. It’s not all on director Ozawa. Most of it is on him, though.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa; screenplay by Koiwa Hajjime, based on a character created by Takada Kôji; director of photography, Yoshida Sadtsugu; edited by Horiike Kôzô; music by Tsushima Toshiaki; released by Toei Company.

Starring Sonny Chiba (Tsurugi), Ichiji Yôko (Boke), Claude Gagnon (Don Costello), Ishibashi Masashi (Shikenbaru), Tanaka Hiroshi (Otaguro), Shima Naoki (Yamagami), and Suzuki Masafumi (Masaoka).


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The Villainess (2017, Jung Byung-gil)

The Villainess manages to be technically superior without ever being technically impressive. Despite editor Heo Sum-mi and cinematographer Park Jung-hun cutting together extravgent action sequences–the finale is protagonist Kim Ok-bin chasing down a bus, jumping onto it, attacking the bad guys within, getting inside, and going through multiple different fistfights. The camera is fluid–with director Jung getting his pointless fisheye lens on again–and the editing is… well. The editing isn’t smooth, because it’s intentionally choppy. Villainess drops frames for mood. The editing is successful; successful is more accurate.

The film starts with a first person action sequence. It’s like watching a video game. It’s amazing fight choreography and so on, but it’s crap narrative. Jung’s an utterly tepid action director. Usually he can at least shoot big set pieces, but sometimes he lets the technical possibilities get in front of the narrative neccessities. Jung’s got no respect for the action itself, just those technical tricks. But he’s fine at pretty much everything else he has to direct in Villainess, whether romance, melodrama, or even tragedy.

In that first sequence, Kim is an unstoppable killing machine. While I didn’t count, she probably kills forty or fifty guys. We don’t know why she’s killing them. They’re dudes, which isn’t hard to stretch into reason enough. It’s a gang of some sort. The eventual motivation given for Kim’s attack is undercooked, but nowhere near as undercooked as some of director Jung and Byeong-sik’s script. They’re much better at flirt scenes than international assassin exposition.

Caught after the killing spree–that apprehension doesn’t make logical sense, with Jung pacing out the sequence for melodramatic effect–Kim ends up in a secret government agency training young women to be assassins. They also learn cooking, stage acting, and something else. It’s basically La Femme Nikita. Kim Seo-hyeong is the strict but fair boss of the agency; it’s a thankless role. The tough assassin boss lady sending her “daughters” to death. Sung Jun is the cute desk agent (all the men are desk agents). He falls in love with lead Kim and gets assigned to be her handler–though she doesn’t know it–and romances her. He’s nice to her kid.

And Sung and Kim are pretty good together. The film’s perfectly well-acted. Whatever Jung’s directing faults, none have to do with how directs the cast. He’s fine at it. Good when it’s the flirty stuff. The Villainess always wants to be cute because then it can tug at the heartstrings. Except the script doesn’t give it any heartstrings.

In flashback, we learn how Kim ended up at the gang headquarters level. Turns out her father was killed in front of her eyes and she was taken by his murderer. Then she’s rescued by “good guy” assassin mastermind Shin Ha-kyun. She’s a kid at this point. He trains her to be his best assassin. Then they get married because she’s fallen in love with him. Then he gets killed trying to find her father’s murderer.

It takes more than half of the film’s two hour plus runtime to get all the back story out. And then, of course, there are further reveals later on because everyone’s been lying to Kim. Except the viewer knows it so you just have to watch her be humilated for her shortcomings. Sometimes it’s her intelligence, sometimes it’s her cooking, sometimes it’s her inability to kill with superhuman ability anymore. There’s no explanation for why Kim goes from super-killer to someone who wants to run run run away. Oh, she has a kid, but it’s a mystery kid and then it gets to be a toddler in no time, as Kim trains to be an assassin.

The movie where Kim learns to be an assassin while being a single parent living in an assassin school with fifty other deadly female assassins, many who don’t like her? There’s a movie. And probably one Jung would direct better.

There are third act reveals, one after the other, big and small. Then there’s the action finale.

The third act’s a misfire and Jung thinks the size of the set piece is going to make all the difference. But it doesn’t. The script’s got too many bad decisions piled up by the end. It’s failed the actors too much. Kim goes from having this great character to being Sung’s girlfriend. He even takes over the child care scenes, so Kim loses her kid’s presence. Instead, Kim goes on missions but never good ones. She always screw up. Because she’s not an unstoppable killing machine.

It’s too bad The Villainess doesn’t work out. It didn’t need to do much, just not get too stupid. Enter the script.

Kim’s good, frequently obviously capable of more. The movie just doesn’t give her scenes. Sung’s a solid goofus sweet nerd guy. Kim Seo-hyeong’s fine as the boss. Shin’s mostly good as the assassin with a heart of gold. The script’s the problem.

And Jung’s direction. If he could direct action sequences instead of just coordinate them, The Villainess might have been able to weather its stupidity.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jung Byung-gil; written by Jung Byeong-sik and Jung Byung-gil; director of photography, Park Jung-hun; edited by Heo Sun-mi; music by Koo Ja-wan; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Kim Ok-bin (Sook-hee), Shin Ha-kyun (Joong-sang), Sung Jun (Hyun-soo), Kim Seo-hyeong (Chief Kwon), and Jo Eun-ji (Kim Seon).


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The Prison (2017, Na Hyeon)

The Prison takes place in 1995. Is it because smartphones would ruin the execution of the premise? Or maybe something has changed in the South Korean prison system to no longer make the premise plausable? I don’t know. It’s a pointless and somewhat distracting detail.

The premise pretends to be high concept. Han Suk-kyu is the boss of The Prison. Not just the inmates, but the guards and the warden. He’s a crime boss, he orchestrates hits, he puts together heists, he just does it all from inside The Prison.

Disgraced ex-cop Kim Rae-won has just arrived. He immediately gets into a fight with Sin Seong-rok’s fourth tier thug. Kim arrested Sin. There’s a number of well choreographed fight scenes between the two of them throughout the film. But it puts Kim in Han’s orbit and pretty soon Kim is slowly becoming more and more important in the prison crime empire.

Sin stays present throughout, occasionally as comic relief, and there are subplots involving the corrupt warden (Jeong Woong-in) and some of Han’s gang. Something is always happening in The Prison. Keeping it busy means writer-director Na doesn’t have to worry about character development. The Prison’s real simple, it’s an action thriller set in a prison, it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously. Han hints at some depth in his performance, but there’s nothing supporting it in the script. Kim has a bigger backstory, but it eventually just makes a mess of the present action. Simply, Na’s storytelling instincts aren’t good. He thinks The Prison needs a gimmick to be engaging. It doesn’t, of course, it has Han and Kim.

Despite a thin character, Han gives a great performance. If the writing were better, Han would be better. Instead of excelling thanks to The Prison, Han just holds it together. Kim’s a lot broader. He doesn’t encourage stability or investment–his writing is bad too. Na’s problem is he doesn’t have any idea what to do with Han or Kim after establishing their both great at their jobs. Han is a great crime boss, Na just doesn’t give the character enough backstory for the narrative to be plausible. Ditto Kim. He was a great detective, idealistic in his corruption, who ends up in jail and finds himself applying his existing skills to help criminals. There’s even dialogue about it in the script; Na can’t figure out how to show it.

The third act feels way too rushed, way too contrived. There’s a lot of varied action; Na and editor Kim Chang-joo do fine with the individual action scenes, just not with stringing them together. Bang Joon-seok’s score doesn’t help matters, especially not in the third act.

Fine cinematography from Hong Jae-sik. Na’s a more than competent director, he just didn’t write well enough to end up with anything at the end of the film. Kim’s likability matters a lot more than it should. Na leverages the whole movie off that likability; otherwise, Kim’d be so thin he’d get stuck on the wall.

Most of The Prison’s solid though. It doesn’t even start to feel long until the epilogue.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Na Hyeon; director of photography, Hong Jae-sik; edited by Kim Chang-joo; music by Bang Joon-seok; produced by Lee Sung-hun and Choi Ji-yoon; released by Showbox.

Starring Han Suk-kyu (Jung Ik-ho), Kim Rae-won (Song Yoo-gun), Jeong Woong-in (Manager Kang), Jo Jae-yoon (Hong-pyo), Sin Seong-rok (Chang-gil), Kim Seong-gyoon (Dr. Kim), and Lee Kyeong-yeong (General manager Bae).


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Bluebeard (2017, Lee Soo-youn)

Bluebeard runs just under two hours. The last forty-five minutes of it basically undo–or seem to undo–everything in the first seventy-five minutes. Writer and director Lee doesn’t want to answer the questions the film’s mysteries raise, but reveal entirely new mysteries with entirely new answers. With some exception.

It’s a shame, because until that point–and there’s a very definite point when Bluebeard jumps off the track–it’s a rather outstanding thriller.

Down on his luck, recently divorced doctor Jo Jin-woong moves into a crummy little apartment and discovers his landlords might be infamous serial killers. He’s not entirely sure about it, but more and more evidence comes to light, whether he pokes around or not.

Lee composes these wide shots, with fantastic photography by Uhm Hye-jung, where Jo finds himself reluctantly finding out more and more. Especially when one of the landlords, Kim Dae-myung, starts buddying up with him. There’s this palable danger, which Kim Sun-min’s editing helps with immensely.

It’s just a shame Lee’s script is, after that seventy-five minute mark, nothing but a combination of trite, predictable, and manipulative. Not even Kim Sun-min’s editing withstands the film’s plummet in quality. Uhm’s photography weathers it, though Lee’s composition quickly fails. There’s the first directing approach, the second directing approach, then an even more narratively ill-advised third approach. Stylistically, the second approach is bad. The composition, even Lee’s direction of the actors, which had previously been fine, everything goes. All of the newly introduced script elements, which simultaneously try to surprise and reveal, are a mess. Had Lee paced out reveals better, it might have helped. Probably not, just because all the reveals are inane, but at least Bluebeard wouldn’t immediately lose it’s momentum.

The script failures even drag down Jo, who’s excellent when Bluebeard is actually suspenseful and not a trite thriller. Similarly, the narrative eventually trashes everyone else’s performance, though Kim Dae-myung’s okay enough throughout. Lee Chung-ah suffers the most (besides Jo, of course).

It’s a shame Bluebeard doesn’t deliver on any of its many promises, though it could be a lot worse. Lee has many worse instincts and impulses, she forecasts them throughout the picture. After almost forty minutes of the film hemorrhaging goodwill and good ideas, Lee throws on an epilogue sequence in way of a bandage. It does slow the bleeding, but it can’t stop it, much less seal any of Lee’s later incisions.

Bluebeard shouldn’t just be better, it should be good. For more than half its runtime, it’s good; then Lee decides to flush it all for some manipulative, ostentatious reveals. She can’t direct them or write them, the actors can’t act her script, and Kim Sun-min can’t cut them into good scenes.

The film ends up a race to end before completely imploding.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Soo-yeon; director of photography, Uhm Hye-jung; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Jeong Yong-jin; production designer, Lee Soon-sung; produced by Cho Jeong-jun; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Jo Jin-woong (Seung-hoon), Kim Dae-Myung (Sung-geun), Lee Chung-ah (Mi-yeon), Yoon Se-ah (Soo-jung), Shin Goo (Sung-geun’s Father), and Song Young-chang (Jo Kyung-hwan).


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