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There’s something downright philosophical about it. Abour gratuitous violence. About all the things that can happen to a human body. I’m not just talking your average big guy with a machine-gun mows ’em down; I’m talking about guys who are seriously screwed up, seriously screwing up other people. Guns, fists, knives, stabbing weapons – it’s all good. Here are some of the best and most violent movies I’ve discovered from that wackjob realm we call Southeast Asia – I’ve tried to limit this list to one movie by each director, I guess so that maybe you can seek out the rest…

As for the Extreme Meter, that guages only the brutality of the violence. Let’s say that a 1/5 is like… La Femme Nikita. Violent, but not very. A 3/5 would be something in the range of City of God. Violent, but not overmuch. 5/5 would be like Ichi the Killer. But that movie is stupid. There’s not gonna be any tongue-in-cheek, Crank-like goofy violent movies. Sorry Ryuhei Kitamura.

The Man from Nowhere (2010)
Director: Jeong-beom Lee
Stars: Bin Won, Sae-ron Kim

This movie is pretty good. It holds your attention in between the set-pieces – but the reason to watch this film is for the ending fight sequence. It’s not enough to just research it on YouTube (I’ll provide the link), because that way you don’t get the catharsis. These assholes deserved what came to them, and holy crap did they get it bad.

Up until the ending we have a slow build of character, and I was pulled in… mostly. I hesitate to call this movie truly affecting, and it did afterall go for the happy ending, which can’t really be said for any of the other movies on this list.

It’s a good flick, very solid. I just wish he would’ve cut that stupid hair earlier. And isn’t that guy the guy who played Private Nam in JSA? I swear to God it is… I guess that makes me a racist.

Extreme Meter: 3/5

A Better Tomorrow II (1987)
Director: John Woo
Stars: Leslie Cheung, Yun-Fat Chow

Yes, even a John Woo movies gets a place here. Even though movies like Hard-Boiled and The Killer and even Face/Off are more remembered for the action and less for the bloody violence, A Better Tomorrow II shows the more brutal side of the director. The climatic gun battle is awash in crimson, and it shows up perfectly on those white walls. The scene is also notable for two later influnces: Cowboy Bebop and Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction. According to Wikipedia, anyway, Tarantino got the inspiration for the suits from this movie, and they sure do know how to take bullets. For Cowboy Bebop, we have a moment where two duellists kick guns over to each other before they fight, echoed in the final episode of the anime.

At one point the hero has a samurai sword, and I was recalled to another movie set in the modern day where a sword was used – The Yakuza. A great movie, but when people got slashed in the stomach they didn’t spray their insides out and flip over in slow-motion.

As a matter of fact, everything about this movie is extreme. The melodrama is cranked up to 11, and it may not work quite as well when the case was the same in Bullet in the Head, but it works to create an atmosphere thick with What the Fuck? moments, which is what counts here. It’s full of surreal moments, including those with the saddest gangster ever, and lousy, dirty Americans who not only partake in a terrorist bombing – in New York – but act overly aggressive and smash their plates at Chow Yun-Fat’s restaurant yelling – in slow-motion – FUCKING RICE!

It’s pretty wild, but like all of John Woo’s movies – with key exceptions *Paycheck* I guess – surprisingly emotionally effective at points. Whereas Bullet in the Head and A Better Tomorrow and The Killer were better at the melodrama and and had better character moments, this movie gets there halfway, but totally kicks your ass to make up for it…

Extreme Meter: 2/5

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)
Director: Chan-Wook Park
Stars: Kang-ho Song, Ha-Kyun Shin

This movie is slow, contemplative, brooding, sometimes even cute – and all of a sudden something changes and people are dying. Then, people are killing, and it’s crazy. The turning point in this movie hits you just as hard as Ryu pops that guy on the back of the head with the baseball bat. Goddamn. The scene where he takes vengeance on the organ dealers was for a time the most violent thing I had ever seen in a movie. But then I saw Irreversible.

Unlike Irreversible though, I really like this movie. It’s all about misfortunes and lives unraveling around each character, as well as how these people deal with that.

Extreme Meter: 4/5

I Saw the Devil (2010)
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Stars: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi

Halfway through the movie I figured that I Saw the Devil was going to just be a depressed movie with no moral compass; appropriate then, that its fight scenes are incredibly brutal, and the violence totally over-the-top. And yet, the realism never wavers, even as people are having ankle surgery.

Choi Min-sik is no stranger to villains – whether he’s the North Korean terrorist from Shiri or Mr. Baek, child killer from Lady Vengeance, he always hits his mark despite looking pretty harmless. In those two movies though we never got to really see him go at it, and in this one he’s pretty wild. Several attempted rapes, several bludgeonings, several stabbings. He’s a savage dude, but this movie asks… were we to go after him, would we not become him?

It’s either the Nietzsche line or I guess don’t fight the monster lest you become it or whatever. In the end, this movie is about empty people and how like in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the snowball effect leaves everybody’s lives either taken or ruined. Pretty cynical, but perhaps logical given the subject matter.

This really does feel like somebody saw the Vengeance Trilogy and wanted to one-up it. It’s not as poetic or as beautifully shot/composed as Park’s movies (it comes close), but it’s a hell of a lot more violent. Holy crap. Lot of cringe-inducing moments.

Extreme Meter: 5/5


If this is the first Dreck Fiction post you’ve read, trust me – this is unprecedented; I’ll never ever write another thing this long

Seeking out the films of Chan Wook Park after being exposed to Oldboy turned out to be a lucrative affair; JSA became an important movie to me while Lady Vengeance and Thirst were dazzling if difficult to penetrate. One thing was a constant across the five films of his widely available in the United States, something compelling and somewhat startling to me: there’s a confidence in his camera, in the composition, in the movement. Whether he employs the Steadicam or decides to shake around, the lens through which we experience brutality, terror, tragedy, and a startling breadth of human emotion and suffering is organic and the action depicted is unfaltering.

All too often in a movie will an actor stand up from sitting down in a medium shot and the camera will be too slow to follow, or try to rest after a slow pan and not quite settle for the duration of the shot. It makes me wonder why the director felt satisfied with the shot if there was a slight imperfection, a minor blemish. I may be paying too much attention to unimportant details but it feels like something of a compromise. Certainly there aren’t high brow camera techniques I’m getting at here, they’re ‘the details,’ and if a director is willing to map out a film to the details like these, they’ll go the distance, and this is evident in movies by Park, who was a master of the frame, as was Hitchcock and Leone. It gives the viewer the sense that goddamn these people knew what they were doing when they made those films.

It somehow didn’t occur to me that Edgar Wright too was in this league until Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and on further inspection in a reviewing of Shaun of the Dead I’ve found confirmation of this stirring suspicion. Shaun of the Dead was beautifully orchestrated on every level; the thematic mundane demonstrated in the opening titles establish an early sense of repetition, which carries throughout and touches on the film’s thesis – which is seemingly never necessary in the first place – that we need to stop being zombies and change sometimes to be happy.

Shaun battling zombies is a visual manifestation of this thesis, its cinematic equivalent if the idea is first captured on paper or in the writer/director’s head. Shaun is a comedy film, so one might imagine that it didn’t need a message or an intricate, relatively speaking, thematic framework to be funny. But this is Edgar Wright. And this is a comedy film, and its clear that the man takes his craft seriously, regardless of genre. The humor is integral to the movie, and that’s why ultimately, Shaun of the Dead requires the message and the discussions of habit – and the zombies – it’s a vessel for the humor. It is funny when the patterns are recognized, when Shaun takes the identical trip to the convenience store and doesn’t notice anything, when we discover that the silhouetted couple making out outside the pub turn out to be one zombie feeding on another – these instances of clever comedy have depth rarely seen in other comedies, and are all in service to what Shaun of the Dead means as a movie, as the best horror/comedy in ages.

But there I go again with the superlatives. I’m not an ace at this review nonsense – I could blame it on my age but that might not bode well in the future – so I tend to praise a film by calling it the best of something (see the Reviews section of this site for dastadly confirmation). So by all means I surprised myself by the modesty in my voice when talking about Scott Pilgrim with various people. To Podcast Co-Host I said simply that it was something I was enamored of, and to another I think I just explained how embarrasingly in love with Mary Elizabeth Winstead I was/am. I hesitated to call it a truly great film, and I guess I’ll continue to do so, because it just doesn’t sound right. I will say this: it’s a movie I love and it’s the obvious work of an obvious master.

The director’s confident camera is found in Scott Pilgrim, and so are the details and all that other stuff. It’s apparent in every shot that there was a great amount of planning and artistry set to work – it’s a smooth flow of film, if there ever was such a thing.

Wary of retreading an earlier review of the very same movie, I won’t talk about the technical aspects of the movie that I thought to cover before, but focus instead on the director’s craft. As mentioned earlier, Edgar Wright is a technical wizard, and not just because he keeps the camera still when an actor stands up or whatever, but because the movie’s visuals are both entertaining and significant on a higher level.

Every scene has a unique ‘gimmick,’ and that may sound bad but in the context of the film it keeps us engaged on a subconscious level. A few examples of the gimmick from scene to scene to note their differences: the Seinfeld laugh track after Scott’s second date with Ramona, which cuts off abruptly when Wallace hits a switch on the stove; Envy’s “Oh yeah’s” in between Scott and Ramon’s conversation at the Clash at Demonhead concert; the time cards during Scott’s dinner with Ramona; the censor bars over Aubrey Plaza’s dialogue; the labels for each of his friends (i.e. Stephen Stills, “The Talent”), and many more that are harder to approximate in words.

Because of the video-game influences and the ‘gimmicks,’ the latter of which were evident in Shaun of the Dead, as well as the absence of anyone over the age of 30 save the two ‘authority figures’ that later burst through a wall, it’s easy to call this a film for the ADD generation, or whatever name you give to such a thing. This makes for a high-energy experience, a film with a bizarre cadence and rapid pace. Not only does all of this translate to ‘uniquely entertaining comedy with some cool action and a distinct voice,’ but is consistent with the narrative.

Of course, one can dismiss these eye-popping visuals as eye-popping visuals and be on their merry; one complaint that I’ve heard about Scott Pilgrim is that it felt overdone, and this is not without justification. Obviously not everybody is going to appreciate a movie seemingly fixated on the ‘ADD generation’ because not everybody is from that generation (as it turns out, only one is… [laughs to himself]). Some older critics have said that the movie touches on feelings of nostalgia, while others say that it’s self-indulgent or whatever they say. Basically if you thought the only thing more nauseating and offensive than Crank was Crank 2 and that Avatar looked like a video-game cutscene (I don’t know what video-games you guys are playing, Christ) you won’t like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Speaking of Avatar, let’s look at the effects for a moment. Everything from the hearts emanating from kissing to the vegan superpowers; these had to be created in a computer in order to emulate the comic-book. When an audience sees a trailer for the next alleged special effects movie, though what they’re really seeing is the visual effects, they divide. One half says “Uh, give it a rest Michael Bay,” and the other half is twelve years old. This too isn’t without reason, as we as audiences have had a torturous cinematic history of bad special effects movies, exacerbated to new heights by the endless cycles of Marvel and DC $175 million dollar extravaganzas, which are rarely good.

The 90s and ‘2K era’ provided many Stan Winston films that made people scratch their heads and wonder, as the late screen magician did, ‘will there ever be a balance between special effects and story?’ Winston grew up with the science-fiction of the 50’s, you know, those types where if I said, “Attack of the Mars Snakes,” as a bad joke I might have named a real film, and he was upset that these movies were just effects vehicles that didn’t even show the damn Mars Snakes that much. That’s why he eventually turned to directing, but that’s another story for the Dreck Fiction to get into.

Jurassic Park may look good, holding up 18 years later while Carnosaur languishes in the embarrasing memories of a few, and even Walking with Dinosaurs seems CG-obvious nowadays, but where’s the human drama? Same with other major sci-fi movies that aren’t just straightup popcorn farces like Independence Day or Total Recall tend to be. Or John Carpenter’s The Thing, apparently, which is the movie I always use to begin one of the special effects arguments: it may look fascinating, but it’s ‘shallow.’ How wrong you are, critic #73, how wrong.

When will film use its special effects to enhance the story, when will story necessitate the special effects – when will a sci-fi or fantasy fulfill that audio/visual promise of the cinematic medium? It’s only rare this happens, and even rarelier from Hollywood. T2 I believe comes close, but some of the CGI feels superfluous. Only a little bit, but that’s just the Cameronman for you. Scott Pilgrim does this, but it isn’t necessarily an outstanding example – the outstanding example has yet to come and be popular/successful. Blade Runner may be popular now, but that’s what… thirty years later?

The visual effects in Scott Pilgrim are used to convey the two other major pieces of the movie: video-games and music. Romance is the main piece, and all three round out what’s important in Scott’s life. Here is where we get back to that point alluded to earlier with the purpose of the effects in the narrative…

Having never read or heard of Brian Lee O’Malley’s original comic series, Scott Pilgrim (the second volume’s title was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), I’m not sure exactly what was being said. I can make a guess however at the movie, and I have the strong feeling that it’s a movie, similar to Shaun of the Dead, about getting over yourself and moving on with your life to be happy. As much as the film was a celebration of retro-games, it was something of a criticism; I see their prevelance and significance to the fabric of the visuals as a metaphor for maturation on two levels. Not only are video-games typically ‘for kids,’ but we’re talking about retro-games like Zelda and um Tetris, which the medium left behind for our more modern Grand Theft Auto‘s and Call of Brothers in Honor Arms Battlefield Duty: Vietnam: Modern Warfare‘s.

Edgar Wright tends to see the movie as something of a daydream of Scott’s, where he imagines he’s the hero of his very own film. The feeling that we are in the guy’s mind is evident in the every scene, every piece of the frame; it’s so goddamn subtle. Sounds in the background like the thudding of suspenseful music will morph into some guy tapping a distant microphone – it’s a subconscious effect, and it works. If this movie sort of happens inside his mind, it makes sense that a big ol’ “VS” slaps the screen before a battle, anticipating the massive “KO” or in one instance a “BASS BATTLE,” as in “BOSS BATTLE” from a side-scrolling beat-em-up or fighting game. It is then internally logical that he doesn’t dump quarters in when the arcade screen from ‘Ninja Ninja Revolution’ prompts him to CONTINUE? 9, 8, 7… because he’s ended up with the right girl, not just the one of his dreams but the one he’s confident enough to say he’s in love with. He’s moved on from his world of Final Fantasy II and through the door, the thingy over there.

The video-game stuff and the visual effects stuff, which serve each other, are in tandem here to elevate the main theme of romance. As much as this is an action comedy, it’s a story of romance threatened by the past and bad habits.

If Scott ended up with Knives Chau the story wouldn’t have worked in the end because we’ve followed Scott and Ramona’s development, their making peace with the past (sometimes by headbutting it so hard it bursts) and trascending dabbling in being bitches by being with each other. Staying together after they go through the door is sort of the solution to the equation of their relationship. The only character arc Knives goes through is becoming a ‘badass,’ something that I do take issue with.

So the central theme is romance, and I’m not a coinesseur in romantic films so I can’t tell if it’s a ‘good romance,’ or a hackneyed one. My perception of this romance as ‘good’ is also probably sabotaged by that aforementioned crush, which is hilarious.

Anyways, Knives is one of the only characters, perhaps the only one, that I didn’t like. She certainly changes throughout the course of the film, starting out timid and dorky (she says “I’ll be quieter” really softly even though she hadn’t been saying anything, which was kind of funny), and then being driven crazy by Scott’s relationship with Ramona, the fatass white girl. By the end of the movie we’re supposed to believe that she is indeed too cool for Scott, and that’s why she can leave and Scott can finally have a peaceful breakup.

This is derived because as I think Edgar Wright had said she’s become something of a badass by the end of the movie, note the Gideon fight where she fought both Ramona and then Gideon with swords and a rather long scarf that was quite the trouble during production. I can see what they were going for here, that this evolution of the character from timid dorky schoolgirl into rocker badass ninja was what makes her ‘too cool’ for Scott, but there’s a major problem. Crazy as it sounds – I didn’t even notice that she was a rocker badass ninja.

When she flies out of the ceiling to fight Ramona I didn’t think anything of it. I mean didn’t we just see Ramona totally kick ass like five seconds ago? Or what about Scott Pilgrim, a normal kid, when he suddenly knew kung-fu and got the first hit off in the Matthew Patel fight? The movie employs an absurd logic, but it’s consistent, so Knives being a crazy fighter didn’t seem out of the ordinary when I guess it should have.

Another issue I had with Knives was her all the time during the second act of the film, after she’s seen Scott with Ramona for the first time, and notes that this blue-haired girl must be like twenty-FIVE. That whole montage of her changing her hair to blue and plotting to get Scott back all while accompanied by her straight-man friend was played for the laughs, but that wasn’t really my type of humor. Though to think of it, the things that I tend to laugh at the most in this movie aren’t even jokes so I’m probably wrong.

I just thought that her going crazy and acting out was too much comedically for this actress to handle, or maybe it was just uncomfortable to watch because it’s a weird stalker sequence. Who knows.

But anyways, I like the jokes in the movie, like the “She dusts,” bit, or “Is that the Uma Thurman movie?” (because seriously who the hell is ever gonna reference My Super Ex-Girlfriend? Though on second thought it was a new movie when the comic was coming out… who knows who wrote the line?) but it’s actually little moments in the dialogue that get me the most, certain deliveries like Brandon Routh saying “Thanks tool,” and Chris Evans saying, “It’s called a grind bro,” or “You really think you can goad me into doing a trick like that?” or saying “Prepare-” before ripping the background on the movie set and trying again with his ‘menacing’ delivery. That’s the kind of humor that’ll stick to a movie, but there is comedy in the film that won’t last.

Like Family Guy, some of this stuff is just too cutting edge. Only instead of being so modern you’re referencing the goddamn commercials of the day like that show does, Scott Pilgrim has a lot of comedy that is meant to appeal to that ADD Generation, the kind of implaceable humor that’s hard to describe, but I know isn’t my type and isn’t many’s, and won’t be cool for very long. Stuff like “Why is he dressed like a pirate?” “Are you a pirate?” “Pirates are in this year…” Hm.

But then Thomas Jane crashes into the wall with the bad guy from Crank 2 and he says, “Milk and eggs, bitch,” and everything’s back to normal. I swear – Edgar Wright in his technical commentary of the movie (a movie he’s made, mind you) had the same reaction to Thomas Jane that I and hopefully many others did: *laugh your ass off* “Holy shit it’s Thomas Jane!”

As great a film that I accuse Scott Pilgrim of being, it’s not something that I can just show off to people like I could with Strange Days or City of God – undeniably cool and interesting films, movies that even if you dislike, you are compelled to recognize as good. It’s a movie for teenagers, and it’s a comedy with very specific humor, some of which I don’t even appreciate. It’s also a Michael Cera movie in this post-Youth in Revolt, Year One, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Superbad world. I was clever enough to avoid all of those movies and so I never got burned out on the guy – I still think he’s funny. I’ve only seen the first season of Arrested Development and some of Clark and Michael, and both of those are hilarious, so I’m still a fan of his.

It does make me wonder though where Edgar Wright is headed next. This was his biggest financial disappointment thus far, which is not good, as it was his only American movie, and his only PG-13 rated movie. I believe he’s co-scripting the Tintin movie and he plans on doing Antman and a third “Blood and Ice Cream,” flick, rounding out a trilogy following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with the old Simon Pegg/Nick Frost team. My only concern there is with the Antman movie – Scott Pilgrim seemed to fit his style almost uncannily; the material and the director were a perfect match, just like the casting of Robert Downey Jr. to Barris in A Scanner Darkly. Some things, man, they just work. Will Antman allow for such visual trickery and thoughtfulness? I know it’s a humor-based superhero, but beyond that I know nothing of it.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, but with this guy at the helm and his three movies as evidence, I’m sure it’ll be wowyeah, wow


A look back on the various movies that recall why I like movies any. This week, it’s yet another Chan-Wook Park movie

Introducing the Chan-Wook Park film Oldboy (2005) to an unsuspecting filmgoer is an experience in itself, almost rivalling in personal satisfaction the first time watching. You’re watching the person next to you just as much as the screen, anticipating the reaction. Essentially, Oldboy operates in this way like a horror movie, but with only one big scare at the end.

It’s not easy to forget how powerful an experience this is. The twist is shocking and will be shocking even to someone who’s read too many times how shocking it is because it appeals to a universal horror that not only grates your soul, but pierces it with the unwavering power of social taboo and general human distaste. The ending will kick your ass, unless you guess it, which I’ve heard is a reality, but I don’t believe it. I can’t imagine sitting through the whole movie anticipating the reveal but knowing it – I wouldn’t believe the creators to be that crazy, but then again, that tooth did just get pulled out, that hallway fight scene was without cut…

The movie has such a solid story that it is a joy to see it play out and knowing in advance the beats and when certain actions are going down, just like its predecessor. Repeated viewings are recommended, though I was more than hesitant to do so myself, because the sex scenes in the movie rival in straight disturbing the movie Irreversible. In fact, the first sex scene, knowing already what’s actually going on, is incredibly intense. The editing, the lighting, the music, and the acting all work to create something very unsettling.

But that of course is true of all the movie. The editing I think is a far cry from the very slow, deliberately shot and paced Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Sure, there are still moments like the editless hallway fight, but the first fight scene is more conventional, and it works, where he’s seeing if 15 years of imaginary training can be put to use. Apparently it can, and the scene is shot with the shakycam practice that is a staple of American action cinema in the post-90s eras. But it’s done with the careful attention to product that is consistent with every scene, and doesn’t lose focus of the action or try to involve the audience members themselves by dizzying or naueseating them.

Clever editing also comes into play much later, when we’re cutting back and forth between the leadup to the final showdown and the good-bye between tragic lovers. As the action ramps up the cutting increases, and the highlight here is the toothbrush fatalities. “Grab him!” *grabs brush, hotel* *snaps brush, penthouse* *stabs guy, penthouse*

The ending of the movie is a beatiful demonstration of the power of cinema. We’re already on edge because of the reveal, and everything that happens after – the fighting and death of Mr. Han, the begging of forgiveness, the tongue cutting, the last futile revenge of Oh Dae Su, the reminiscing and death of Woo-Jin – would be hard-hitting enough, but brings the film to a deafening peak that ends with the snap of a gunshot. It’s a technical tour de force, to recycle words I think used by a critic to describe this very movie; every technical aspect dovetails magnificently.

I’m not even going to mention what happens after Woo-Jin’s suicide. It works as a good break to exhale with, but creates an unnecesary ambiguous scenario. As a huge anti-fan of the ambiguous ending, I justify it to myself by noting that in reality, it doesn’t matter whether or not they can ever love each other again, at least, in the entire scope of the narrative. Is this a fault? Possibly, but it’s one that is embarassingly minimized by everything else in the movie. In my opinion, Oldboy is the greatest movie that came out this decade. Not my favorite, though my favorite was by the same director. It’s a two hour display of sheer talent and ingenuity, an artist’s demo reel with a Shakespearean tragedy narrative. Well, a Shakespearean tragedy with a low bodycount. Oh Dae Su might as well be dead though, based on what ending you choose for him.

In terms of lasting impressions, Oldboy will stick with you, and not just because of the gut punch twist that is revealed so beautifully, but because of some of the images on display here. The violence is shocking but real, recalling Scorsese or Tarantino – Woo-Jin killing Dae-Su’s friend with a broken CD is a brilliant character moment that’s punctuated by extreme violence. I wouldn’t say that it ever reaches the brutal heights of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it doesn’t have to. The psychological terrorism extends to the audience perhaps more than any cinema violence could – this is truly the evolution of a great director.



A look back on the various movies that recall why I like movies any. This week, it’s a Chan-Wook Park movie

JSA is a movie that’s all about details. It took me finally watching at 1:00 AM to understand a few of the questions I had left: why exactly does this lie even exist? I had forgotten that Kang-ho Song was indeed the one who shot the North Korean guy. This is interesting too, and concretes the idea that nothing in the movie happens without reason, or setup. The rivalry between Kang-ho Song and his superior is established early on, and his treason is not only practical given the circumstances, but not unmotivated. The scene that introduces the character, where he kicks Kang-ho Song into the swamp serves to shake up our perceptions of both sides. We see this seemingly great soldier fed up with this shit, as he sits there, head down, in the water – totally defeated. This villainization of the superior character works because of the sympathy we feel for Kang-ho Song.
I had also wondered why Nam ran away from the base, leaving Soo-hyuk there, crippled and like, “what the hell?” At least, it seems like “what the hell?” but Kang-ho Song’s orders were that Nam was never at the base – he had to get away. Stuff like that always went over my head, and it might just be because of the shock of the previous scene. This is definitely a movie that gets better the more you see it, given you like the characters outright. Because I do, I was so swept along by the shooting scene that my mind couldn’t function properly – by the immediate scene following it I was scatterbrained, and that’s when the big action scene happens.
The first shooting scene, which happens inside the base, works because of the emotional investment, and I’ve always heard about movies where the dramatic events are eleveated because the audience cares about the characters. As a purveyor of science-fiction, I’ve only rarely seen this. 

Their culmination as brothers and comrades is depicted in an action that also destroys them; this is when I take kindly to allegory. Nam is taking a picture of the other three soldiers, and can’t seem to find the right angle. He finally gets it right – edges out the pictures of the big politcians on the wall over their shoulders. He snaps the picture, and we see the flash from the outside of the base, which makes the same light effect as the gunshots did in the deposition scenes. In those scenes, the light emanating from the base anticipated the arrival of trouble – that’s when the militarymen of both sides come and fight. In the flashback with the photo, we soon see the arrival of the superior dude, possibly summoned by the mysterious flash.This scene reflects on the theme in saying that their brotherhood edges out the politics and the ideologies, and this is what destroys them. This is so subtle that I only recently understood what was being said, but that isn’t a problem because the same philosophy is repeated in a sense in the Tarantino-style Mexican standoff. Though instead of being cool and collected like Kietel or Jackson in a QT movie, these guys could break at any moment, and their tenseness is reflected on the audience because we’re so commited to these characters.  Well, we might be. If the movie did work for you and you cared about the four characters, then expectations would be shattered – there’s no way this movie could be about the reunification of Korea, the scale of the movie has already been established. So we know ahead of time that this brotherhood has a time limit, and this is even further cemented by the rising tensions on both sides, “We shouldn’t go over anymore,” Soo-hyuk says to Nam during the explosion of the minefield. Things are getting worse, but we want to see them succeed anyway.The celebration of Ha-kyun Shin’s birthday is appropriately sombre, and the emotional shift that takes place – depressed, sad, recovering – works as a leadup to the invasion by the superior dude. The group reaches a sincere point of connection (not gay) before getting a bit more lighthearted. And the dude walks in and everything’s ruined, despite their best efforts to mitigate the melancholy.The character played by Young-Ae Lee, Maj. Sophie Jang, is deceptive in role; she appears to operate only as audience proxy, and to move the plot forward in that sneaky way films generally have to, but as a standalone character is interesting. Similar to the other Major (Ghost in the Shell), this character works not for her complexity or depth as most other good characters do, but in premise. She’s cold and calculating, driven by the case. As noted by her superior, her methods drove Private Nam to attempt suicide. She’s also got a mild temper on her, where initial frustration over the silence and noncompliance of Kang-ho Song and Byung-hun Lee prompts displays of impatience. Even some of her more subtle tactics come off as cold, “My you have a nice voice,” she says sort of sarcastically after Byung-hun Lee breaks his silence. Because of these characteristics she offers an antithesis to the soldiers’ warm brotherhood, which culminates in her deadly misunderstanding of it, and that’s what leads to Byung-hun Lee’s suicide. She doesn’t think that reminding Byung-hun Lee that it was he who actually killed Ha-kyun Shin could be damaging, and finally shows emotion by shedding a tear upon realization of what she’s done. Roll credits… 

I’ve heard JSA described before as a political thriller, and while this seems to be accurate, it’s a bit of a misnomer. Chan Wook Park and the other screenwriters and novelist who wrote the film/original story worked to tell a human story first, and while the political stuff is integral to the identity of the movie, it could be swapped out for something else, much like a lot of science-fiction worlds. There’s also no political agenda behind this movie, unlike The Host, which is laden with allegory and anger (Agent Yellow… tee hee). It’s not necessarily pro-South Korea or pro-North Korea – that would be adverse to the themes of the movie. In the beginning we’re told by a South Korean higher up that there are commie bastards and commie bastards’ enemies – he looks down on Sophie’s Neutral Nations Supervisory, thinking it doesn’t have a place in a country that mandates side-taking. Side-taking is what leaves four people dead and one guy injured by the end – it’s what breaks up the four brothers.

Let’s also compare this movie to another Korean film, this time of similar subject nature: Shiri, starring the beautiful Yunjin Kim of Lost fame. Shiri also told the story of people whose bond is torn by the Korean divide, but descended into melodrama, though it didn’t exactly start much higher to begin with. Had a great cast though. JSA is much more genuine, forgoing what Koreans percieve as Hollywood romance and writing a much more difficult relationship. Not only that, it’s a movie that doesn’t otherwise fall on cliches – Shiri is a shootemup in the Hong Kong variety, with the budget aspiring to the level of Hollywood actioners. The visuals pop with the exploding glass and the equally exploding bodies, but the draw of the movie then becomes a bit shallow in retrospect. On a visual level, JSA’s opulence comes from masterful cinematography of beautifully lit fields at night, snowy forests, and even more mundane things like a rainy rooftop.

Even if Shiri represents an average-to-okay level of quality in Korean New Wave cinema, that’s pretty good. Sky Blue and Natural City are kind of at the bottom, Memories of Muder and Lady Vengeance higher up. The future is exciting!

So basically, I think I discovered my new favorite movie, and it struck me as beyond odd that I could never really articulate why I liked it so much; it appears to be a by-the-numbers drama. But there’s a lot more there. What exactly is this post for? Is it for me or you? I don’t know. But until I figure out at least you have some analysis, and people like that, maybe.





I don’t want to keep talking about Chan-Wook Park, I’ve done it so much. But I recently happened across a French movie called La Haine. Haven’t seen it yet, but it seems interesting, kind of a Boyz N the Hood but with Vincent Cassel, which is fine by me. I looked up the director, and it seems that the latest movie he did was Babylon AD, AKA shitty Children of Men. This is a pretty common thing, and I don’t know why, but you see it all the time: foreign filmmakers coming to America and destroying their careers. Only John Woo made it back. And it’s usually like horror remakes they do – there was a time where if you saw a trailer for some PG-13 horror remake about ghosts, it’d have some Asianguy name attached to it as director.

Chan-Wook Park was offered to remake The Evil Dead in the United States – that surely would’ve ruined him just like America did Ryuhei Kitamura and all them. And that sucks because America already has a bad reputation when it comes to foreign movies. There’s a video on YouTube called something like Akira: the American version. It’s a funny video in execution, but deadly serious in premise. All the comments below fight the good fight the video does in it’s anti-American movie cause. It’s crazy how narrow-minded people can be; I recall one of the more egregious comments being something like “I hate it when people make a movie but don’t understand the source material.” How the hell do you know that nobody understands the source material? I haven’t read the manga, but the movie isn’t deeper than every American movie ever. Goddamn.

Foreign filmmakers aren’t the only ones who can fall victim to the biggest film industry in the world – so too can our homegrown. Give them too much money, and fans will note to the end of time how they got too much money. For the most part it seems to be true, at least, that’s how it’s percieved. David Twohy did Pitch Black, and then he did The Chronicles of Riddick. Kurt Wimmer did Equilibrium, and then he did Ultraviolet. I haven’t seen Ultraviolet, but critical consensus has steered me clear. James Cameron to a lesser extent also seems to get worse with increased budget, but that’s more complicated. Terminator 2 was totally sweet, but Avatar… not so much.

One of the more tragic examples is Alex Proyas. This is one frustrating filmmaker, not only because he’s so damn picky with scripts he seemingly barely makes movies, but because he’s had a visible downward spiral. I haven’t seen The Crow but was told recently it was pretty meh. I haven’t seen Knowing either but I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. I tend not to believe that because anything with Nicolas Cage is both a hater-magnet and the greatest thing ever. The thing is – Dark City was really good, and I, Robot, while good for what it was, is a startling step downward in quality and step up in budget. All of the visual opulence from Dark City was there, though I am a dead sucker for cyberpunk anything, but the attention to detail, the lack of cliche, the script – it was all gone.

When studios give writer/directors these big budgets, they tend to flounder and seemingly forget whatever style they had used before. Why did John Singleton stop making personal movies about South Central? I’m not saying that that’s the only thing he’d be good at, but I don’t care for 2 Fast 2 Furious, aside from the obviously great title.

I watched a trailer for Insomnia, a movie by Christopher Nolan, and it looked very similar to Memento – a briskly paced, possibly clever psychological thriller. When the studios handed the job down to Nolan to do Batman, I’m sure there was someone who feared a ‘dumbing down’ of his style. But rather than do as others before him had, he made the Batman movies very much in the fashion of the smaller budgeted Memento rather than just making the Batman movies like the Burtons and Schumakers had before him.

Inception, another big budget movie, cements Nolan as someone who hasn’t lost the touch, hasn’t forgotten his roots. When the roots are good, we hope that these guys don’t forget them, but unfortunately Nolan is rare. And certainly the Batman movies aren’t as deep as Memento, but that’s not really important – I believe that the two movies were a test, and that he arrived on the other side unchanged is a major victory for everyone.


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