Tag Archives: Hie-bong Byeon

Mission Sex Control (2006, Ahn Jin-woo)

Mission Sex Control opens as an almost farcical comedy. The Korean President (circa 1972) meets with his cabinet to discuss family planning and its effect on the GDP. The meeting devolves into a screaming match between two cabinet members, then the opening titles splash across the screen. It all seems very comic, even as the film proper gets going. After that prologue, the leads are immediately established–Kim Jeong-eun as the family planning counselor taking the message to a rural village, Lee Beom-su as the villager who helps her.

Kim and Lee play very well with each other from their first scene, which is important, since she immediately starts relying on him for help. The film’s still very funny as the two eventually convince the villagers to listen. It’s hard to see Lee as anything but a comic actor and the first half of Mission Sex Control does nothing to suggest he’s going to be doing something else. Eventually, however, he does. Some time after the halfway mark, the film takes a drastic, unexpected turn toward the dramatic and personal.

Ahn Jin-woo’s direction–and the film’s full and vivid Panavision frame–really suggests a comedy. With the transition to the tragic, Ahn introduces all the consequences the comedy in the first half disguised. It’s not a deceptive move; Kim and the viewer experiencing these repercussions in unison. There’s a good surprise at the end, maybe one I should have been expecting, but Ahn does a great job presenting it. He keeps the comedic sensibilities well into the dramatic portion of the film, only supplanting it in the very end for some key scenes. It’s in these scenes too where the characters, who have been mild caricatures, fully form.

The film’s got a lot of complexities. Lee’s character is probably the fullest, even though Kim is the protagonist. But Kim’s there to accompany the viewer on the journey (the modern viewer, the film’s only a couple years old). Kim’s got a character, but she’s also got a real narrative purpose. Ahn has a bit of trouble establishing her, using a lot of subtle moves to get it done in the end. They’re really nice moves too and he applies similar ones to other characters as well. The film has a large cast of characters and Ahn can’t give all of them the treatment, but he gives it to enough the film reveals itself to be a lot bigger than it seems throughout.

Both the film’s length–a lot happens as the plot develops–and the composition complement that unperceived depth. Something about the widescreen allows for there to be more room. It’s a strange, but natural relationship and the film might be the finest example of the genre fluidity of Korean cinema.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ahn Jin-woo; director of photography, Kim Yun-su; edited by Park Gok-ji; music by Park Ho-jun; production designer, Chen Ihn-han; produced by Tony M. Kim; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Lee Beom-su (Suk-gu), Kim Jeong-eun (Miss Park), Byeon Hie-bong (Village Chief Kang), Jeon Mi-seon (Soo-ni), Ahn Nae-sang (Chang-su) and Woo Hyeon (Chang-hyuk).


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Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000, Bong Joon-ho)

Bong’s first film is unique, not just of Korean cinema, but of most. It’s a mostly lyrical piece–lyrical in the storytelling sense, not the filmmaking (there are only a couple of stylized moments in the film)–juxtaposing Lee Sung-jae and Bae Du-na. Lee’s a grad student trying to become a professor, Bae’s an office assistant in his apartment complex. Bong ties them together–and relates to the film’s title–through the incidence of a missing dog. (Lee took it–for barking–and Bae’s trying to help find it). But Bong also ties them together through the film’s tone. It’s an examination of listlessness and unnamable wishes. The film’s incredibly delicate for how outrageous it occasionally gets and some of Bong’s conclusion nears Danny Rose caliber, which is rather high for a first time filmmaker.

Although Lee’s ostensibly more the main character, the film rests with Bae. She carries it, especially through the sections where Lee is after one dog or another (the barking is irritating him). Bae maintains a tranquility as the story occasionally goes crazy around her. Bong’s tone helps a lot, of course, but Bae’s silence–much like Lee’s wife (finding the actors names–on an English page anyway–for the film is proving impossible)–often does a lot more than talking would accomplish.

Googling around, looking for those names, I’m seeing Barking Dogs Never Bite described as a black comedy. The label works to some extent, but about halfway through, it stops applying… Bong takes the film to a further level (that one evoking Broadway Danny Rose). For example, as funny as one long sequence about a ghost in the boiler room gets, it’s nowhere near as effective–in terms of triggering the viewer’s imagination–as a sequence involving a bet and a roll of toilet paper. Similarly, while Lee spends lots of his time alone and his wife doesn’t–from my bilingual fellow Korean film enthusiasts–merit a name transliteration, the relationship between the couple (she’s pregnant and working) is the spine running through the film. At the beginning, Bong doesn’t establish Lee as married and the marriage’s importance becomes gradually lucid even after it’s introduced… it’s another one of the film’s delicacies.

Bong ends the film well after a possibly rocky third act. It’s a deft save, when he brings in a little stylization and hits that Danny Rose moment. I keep trying to come up with a sentence to capture both its impressiveness as a first film, but also to disregard that impressiveness since the compliment seems like it’s qualifying the film’s quality, which I do not want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Song Ji-ho and Derek Son Tae-woong; directors of photography, Cho Yong-kyou and Jo Yeong-gyu; edited by Lee Eun Soo; music by Jo Sung-woo; production designer, Lee Hang; produced by Cho Min-hwan; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Sung-jae (Yun-ju), Bae Du-na (Hyeon-nam), Byeon Hie-bong, Kim Ho-jung and Kim Roe-ha.


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The Host (2006, Bong Joon-ho)

If the original Godzilla (the Japanese version, before Raymond Burr) was about the United States as a nuclear power, The Host is a metaphor for the United States as a terrorist state. Or maybe it’s not a metaphor. It’s just about a situation involving Americans and they act with complete disregard for the safety of people and then go and terrorize them for no reason… Yeah, a metaphor suggests it’s coy. The Host is very straightforward in its portrayal of the United States and its foreign policy, which makes the film’s upcoming U.S. release a mystery to me. It’s a release for critics mostly, some way to get knowledge of Korean films out there. I don’t know. I can’t figure it out.

But the politics aren’t the center of The Host, they’re just reality. People who’d seen it at festivals touted it online as the superior giant monster movie, but that blurb is a bit of a misnomer. While the film does feature a giant (well, not too giant, about the size of a bus) monster, it’s not really a giant monster movie because it doesn’t follow the rules. With the exception of that original Godzilla, these films tend to fetishize the monster, because it’s the special effects feat. This fetishization goes back to the 1925 Lost World, because the monster was the deal. The films are about seeing what the monster will do. Deviations from this norm are usually considered failures (and sometimes, to be fair, are failures). The Host isn’t about what the monster’s going to do–seeing that exciting special effect–but about the effect of the monster. The Host is one of the most sensitive films I’ve seen–probably the most sensitive Korean film I’ve seen. It’s almost indescribably affecting. From maybe thirty minutes in, there’s one thing going on and the film drags you through it.

I’ve seen director Bong’s other big film, Memories of Murder, and while it’s a good film, The Host is far beyond my expectations. As a director, Bong is quiet and direct. He’s delicate, actually. The Host is a delicate film, not because it might break, but because it might break you. At times it’s a father-son film, a brother film, a father-daughter film, a comedy, an action film, but it mixes all these elements without detriment, because they’re the traditional terms for things like what is going on in The Host. It’s its own film, so I’m sort of handicapped by the terminology. Korean films tend to defy easy genre assignment (my favorite new genre from Korean films, however, will always be the sexual harassment comedy) and, while The Host is no different in that respect, it takes it to a new level. It is, as I said before, indescribable (in a very, very good way).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Baek Chul-hyun and Ha Won-jun; director of photography, Kim Hyung-ku; edited by Kim Seon Min; music by Lee Byung-woo; production designer, Ryu Seong-hie; produced by Choi Yong-bae; released by Showbox.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Kang-du), Byeon Hie-bong (Hie-bong), Park Hae-il (Nam-il), Bae Du-na (Nam-ju) and Ko Ah-sung (Hyun-seo).


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Memories of Murder (2003, Bong Joon-ho)

So all Song Kang-ho needs is a good movie… Well, not quite. In my Foul King post, I accused Song of being the weak link in Korean cinema and maybe he’s not. Maybe he just makes some bad choices. Still, in Memories of Murder, he plays a well-intentioned buffoon of a detective facing a rural serial killer. Memories runs strong for the majority of the film, but it’s based on a true story and that reality mucks up the denouement. It’s a mix of a mystery, thriller, and a comedy, but in the end it needs to be a drama about men working together and the film hasn’t been building for that conclusion.

Bong Joon-ho is a wonderful director and his sense of composition and timing makes Memories work, then he goes and breaks a big rule. Never have someone look into the camera unless it’s going to work. He does it and it doesn’t work and it hurts the film. Otherwise, he’s great. Memories has a quietness about it when it’s among the rice paddies or in the fields or anywhere in outdoor rural settings. When it gets to the town or city, Bong loses the film. For example, the rural town is never visually defined. It doesn’t seem too rural, as it’s got a huge factory district and such. The lack of establishing shots only becomes a problem when he’s moving from country to town.

The script is a more complicated matter. The film has two and a half protagonists, Song, a city detective played by Kim Sang-kyung, and another rural thug cop played by Kim Roe-ha. The thug cop is hardly a character at times, more just a reminder of Song’s character’s mindset before he realized his tactics weren’t going to stop the killings. The real killings took place over five years. In the film, it seems like six months at best. There’s never any look at the city detective–who the film follows once he arrives–outside his police work and there’s never any hint he exists outside the police station.

While inside the police station, everything–writing, directing, acting–works great. When it’s about the investigation of the crime, it works great. But when it gets to cinematic moments (except a great chase scene), Memories of Murder trips. It’s a slick looking film–lush colors and perfect film stock–so any grittiness has to come from the characters, and the actors don’t really have any to offer. Kim Sang-kyung is fine through most of the film, but when it’s most important for him to be really good, he isn’t. He doesn’t have any subtext (which, oddly, Song does).

In the end, the film can’t escape the realities of the actual murder investigation. While it doesn’t let the audience predict (unless the viewer knows something about the case), Bong doesn’t prepare the film for where it goes. The end is a disconnect from what came before and it’s too bad, because until the third act, Memories was going to be outstanding. Instead, it’s just really good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Bong Joon-ho; written by Bong, Kim Kwang-rim and Shim Sung Bo; director of photography, Kim Hyeong-gyu; edited by Kim Seon Min; music by Iwashiro Tarô; production designers, Ryu Seong-hie and Yu Seong-hie; produced by Cha Seoung-jae, Kim Moo Ryung and No Jong-yun; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Detective Park Doo-Man), Kim Sang-kyung (Detective Seo Tae-Yoon), Kim Roe-ha (Detective Cho Yong-koo), Song Jae-ho (Sergeant Shin Dong-chul), Byeon Hie-bong (Sergeant Koo Hee-bong), Ko Seo-hie (Officer Kwon Kwi-ok), Park No-shik (Baek Kwang-ho), Park Hae-il (Park Hyeon-gyu) and Choi Jong-ryol (Du-man’s father).


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