Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mini-Reviews: 7 KOREAN Films on ASIANA Airlines (May 2017)

June 10, 2017

Last month, we rode Asiana Airlines for the first time for a long-haul flight. Since Asiana is a Korean airline company, I immediately looked for the Korean film selection they had on their in-flight entertainment system. During our time in the airplane flying to our destination and back home, I was able to watch all seven of the Korean films they were offering. 

In the order I watched them, these are the seven films and my mini-review of each one. I disclose that I know very few Korean actors. I am not a K-drama nor K-pop fan. However, I do enjoy watching Korean movies for their unique stories and distinct style of storytelling, with always that heart-warming hook. We see this hook even in zombie films, like "Train to Busan", my #1 film of 2016.

1. MASTER (2016)
Director: Cho Ui-Seok: Writer: Cho Ui-Seok, Kim Hyun-Duk

Jin (Lee Byung-hun) is the head of One Network, a complex financial scam network. He is being investigated by a team of operatives against fraud headed by Kim Jae-myung (Kang Dong-won). Kim's approach was to pressure Jin's close associate Park Jang-goon (Kim Woo-bin), the young hotshot IT of the One Network. When the authorities close in, Jin fakes his own death and transfers his operations to Manila (!).

This was the first one I chose to watch because it had a good reputation preceding it. In fact, this was the only title I had previously heard of in the list. All three main actors portrayed their roles very well. I know Lee Byung-hun had already made the jump to Hollywood films, like in the recent remake of "The Magnificent Seven." I am pretty certain that the tall and dapper Kim Woo-bin would have a horde of adoring female fans. Kang Dong-won matches them both in strength of screen presence and acting intensity. With such a stellar cast, interesting story and exciting action scenes, it was no wonder that this film is one of the biggest box-office hits in Korea last year. 7/10.

2. LUCK-KEY (2016)
Director: Lee Gye-Byeok
Writer: Kenji Uchida, Jang Yoon-Mi

Jae-sung (Lee Joon) is a wannabe actor who can't seem to get his life in order. One fateful day at the public bath, a rich man accidentally slipped and lost consciousness, Jae-sung stole the man's keys and proceeded to live that man's high life suspiciously tinged with dangerous characters. On the other hand, the other man Hyung-Wook (Yu Hae-Jin) lost his memory after the accident and upon recovery, went on to take over the miserable life of Jae-sung, but makes significant improvements on it along the way.

Despite some violent aspects, this film turned out to be quite a delightful surprise. This is mainly due to the very charming performance of uncharacteristically homely lead star Yu Hae-jin in the role of the amnesic hit man. It was his character that carried this film and gave it so much heart and soul. Those scenes in the restaurant with his new adopted family, the scene in the barbershop with the father, those romantic scenes in the TV dramas he was shooting -- all emotionally on point. 8/10.

Director: Kwon Soo-Kyung, Writer: Yoo Young-A

After a bad flip and slam on the mat at an international judo competition, young Doo-young (Do Kyung-soo) damaged both his optic nerves and becomes permanently blind. His con-man older step-brother Doo-shik (Jo Jung-suk), despite being estranged from Doo-young for more than 10 years already, takes advantage of this unfortunate event to get himself paroled from prison  supposedly to take care of his younger brother. Of course, their reunion was not good.

Despite the funny-sounding title, as you can surmise from the short summary above, this is not a comedy, but a family drama. The performance of Doo-young as the blind younger brother is the heart of the film. As can be expected, the two brothers will clash when they first live together after all those years of estrangement, but will eventually build a brotherly bond between them. The ending twist though can't be said to be entirely surprising, but it still packs a strong emotional punch. 7/10.

4. WILL YOU BE THERE? (2016) 
Director: Hong Ji-Young; Writer: Guillaume Musso (novel), Hong Ji-Young

During a medical mission in the mountains of Indochina, a mysterious old man gives senior surgeon Soo-hyun (Kim Yun-seok) receives 10 golden pills which allowed him to travel back into his past. He meets and interacts with his younger self (Byun Yo-han) who by then was still a doctor starting out in practice, just about to marry his girlfriend, a vivacious dolphin trainer named Yeon-a. Given his knowledge in the future, can tragedies that happened in his past still be prevented?

The time travel story is very intriguing and engaging with all the possibilities it opened up. Meeting and actually talking with your younger self is a story concept that will make everyone reflect on their own youth and what changes you may want to make in your past. Of course, the fact that the main character was a surgeon earned extra points for me. The two actors playing the surgeon at different stages in his life (Kim Yun-seok and Byun Yo-han) both gave powerful performances. 8/10.

5. VANISHING TIME: A Boy Who Returned (2016)
Director: Uhm Tae-Hwa; Writer: Uhm Tae-Hwa, Jo Seul-Ye

Soo-rin (Shin Eun-soo) is a reclusive 14-year-old girl who develops a close friendship with a 13-year old orphan boy from school named Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je), exchanging notes coded in symbols known only to the two of them. One day, Soo-rin joins Sung-min and two other boys to explore a cave in the mountain and discovers a pool with a glowing egg inside, which the children brought out. While Soo-rin was still inside the cave, the three boys decided to crack the egg, and when it did, they all mysteriously disappeared. When Sung-min finally comes back, he is already an adult (Gang Dong-won).

The plot conundrum where the world froze in time yet the boys continued to age is the main draw of this film. The filmmakers gave this segment of the film a very strange ethereal quality, dreamlike usually, nightmarish in parts. The scenes when Sung-min actually comes back as a grown man of 30 while Soo-rin was still half her age may send some creepy vibes to some. But as this was a Korean fantasy drama, the treatment was light and bittersweet for its teenage audience. 7/10.

Director: Kim Sung-Hoon, Writer: Yoon Hyun-Ho

Ex-North Korean army officer Cha Ki-seong (Kim Joo-hyuk) brought his US dollar counterfeiting operations to South Korea. Im Cheol-ryung (Hyun Bin), a deadly serious North Korean special investigator, was sent down to apprehend Cha. South Korean police detective Kang Jin-tae (Yoo Hae-jin) was given the confidential assignment to be Cheol-ryung's temporary partner, even providing his guest a room in his own humble family home.

Yoo Hae-jin, whom I first saw in "Luck-Key," is here again in another action-comedy role. This guy seems to be someone audiences can relate to easily. His handsome co-star Hyun Bin is elegant to watch in all those death-defying action stunts, all executed in his cool unruffled style, with moves like an Asian James Bond. The contrasting political, military, police and domestic cultures of the two Koreas was also very interesting to see. 7/10.

Director: Park Kwang-Hyun; Writer: Park Kwang-Hyun, Oh Sang-Ho

Kwon Yoo (Ji Chang-wook) is an unemployed bum who spends his time playing online video games in a local internet cafe, where he is acknowledged to be a topnotch gamer. One day, he was suddenly arrested by the police and later wrongly convicted as the rapist and murderer of a young girl. When he was able to escape from prison, he sought the help of fellow gamers to clear his name and destroy the real perpetrator of the crime.

The whole intricately meticulous remote-control "murder and frame" crime scenario presented in this film is very outlandish and original. Within this cold framework of futuristic crime, the filmmakers still manage to inject a dose of maternal and prison melodrama. Lead star Ji Chang-wook gives an intense performance as his character goes through physical and emotional wringer. Oh Jung-se was Min Chu-sang, an over-the-top Joker-like mastermind antagonist. Kim Sang-ho, whom I also saw as the surgeon's best friend in "Will You Be There?," was menacing as a prison kingpin Ma Deok-soo, but also funny when he tries to shoot a gun. 7/10.

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