Movie Review – Grace [NYAFF 2016]

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EXPECTATIONS: A darkly comedic yarn, similar to Eli Roth’s Knock Knock.

REVIEW: Social media has become a popular trope in films today, whether it is just used as a means for sufficient storytelling to making biopics about people that have pioneered the trend to even using it as social commentary. And from social commentary, it has even sprouted into more sub-genres; the popular one being cyber-bullying. Shown in mostly horror films and teen dramas like the underrated Unfriended and the darkly hilarious Knock Knock, this particular theme can be mined for compelling thematic material. Enter the Thailand thriller, Grace, a film that is part home invasion thriller, part exploitation flick and part psychological character study; all wrapped within a slither of dark social commentary. Does the film reach up to its ambitions or will it be forgotten like another social trend like…planking?

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Ple (Latkamon Pinrojkirati) is an ordinary high school student who loves spending quality time with her best friend, Care (Napasasi Surawan), who is popular for being precocious and cute. Together, they create a Facebook page (called Summer Trick) for Care to share her personal photos and videos to garner Facebook likes from the public, in hope of becoming a popular internet idol. It then captures the attention of Grace (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) and her obsessive fan; a deranged lunatic named Jack (Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich), as Care’s Facebook page is public for everyone to see. Grace and Jack devise a plan to take Care and Ple hostage, with their motives unbeknownst to each other. Stricken with jealously over her swift rise to Facebook fame, Grace torments and abuses Care, which sets off a cataclysmic sort of events that end up in bloody circumstances.

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“We all live in public now, we’re all on the Internet. How do you think people become famous anymore?! You don’t have to achieve anything! You just gotta have fucked up shit happen to you.” That is a quote from the underappreciated Scream 4, and boy, does this quote apply to Grace. Themes like cyber-bullying and the objectification of women through pop culture and social media are given a thrashing of an exploration by writers/directors Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai. Deftly shown through flashbacks developing the character Grace, it presents a condemning examination on the price of popularity and how the objectification of women has warped Grace’s mind, and the directors have presented that well. I haven’t seen a scathing look at the objectification of women since Sion Sono’s trippy horror film, Tag.

And when I said that the quote above applies to the film, I also meant the titular character as well. Played with such sadistic glee and understated sadness, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk is a ball as Grace; so much so that it was decided that the international title of the film was named after her. Good thing too since she is the best thing in this film. The rest of the cast do fine with what material they are given, particularly Napasasi Surawan as the innocent-looking Care and Nutthasit Kotimanuswanich, who surprisingly gives an understated and realistic performance as the perverted and depraved Jack, who just might have a conscience. But the real star is Sakuljaroensuk, which is ironically the best thing about the movie as well as the worst thing in the story. If that makes sense.

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Although this does not bother me much, I have to state that this film is shockingly violent and it gradually becomes more so till its bloody climax. It actually is reminiscent of French horror films like High Tension and Inside. The gore is not overstated like torture porn films like Saw, but it will definitely rile some people.  And the same goes for some of the actions of the characters, which are very few, but they can irk some people i.e. It is not a good idea that you antagonize the culprit when they are armed and at their most vulnerable.  The flashbacks, while are very important to the character development, can be a bit confusing due to how they are inserted, since there is very little use of transitions to inform the audience about them. Also hindering the storytelling is the English subtitles. They can be a bit confounding when they translate Thai text from Facebook, which may dilute the drama, particularly the ending, so for those who need glasses better equip yourself for some fast reading.

Grace is full of fury and anger but a great performance from Apinya Sakuljaroensuk; the game supporting cast; the razor-edged look on cyber-bulling, social media, popularity and the objectification of women and its shocking violence will make it a cult experience for brave viewers.

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Quickie Review

PROS

A fantastic performance from Apinya Sakuljaroensuk

Enthusiastic supporting cast

Themes and social commentary add a lot of punch

CONS

Violence will shock some

English subtitles may be hard to read in scenes involving Facebook

Confusing actions from characters

Flashback insertions can be a bit confusing

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Nuttasit Kotimanuswanich, Parisa Pinyakamolchart, Napasasi Surawan
Director: Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai
Screenwriters: Pun Homchuen and Onusa Donsawai

Movie Review – Alone [NYAFF 2016]

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EXPECTATIONS: A trippy ride of a thriller.

REVIEW: Psychological thrillers have always been a favourite genre of mine and with talented directors like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Dario Argento, Park Chan-wook, Satoshi Kon, Roman Polanski all being responsible for my favourite movies, watching the 2015 Korean film, Alone, should be right up my alley. Alongside the positive reviews and the reputation of the director, I decided to watch this movie. Am I going to like it and end up joining the devotees of this film or will I be left alone in my negativity?

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The film starts off with a POV shot from in a supposed murder scene, with blood everywhere and the character looks at a photo of a woman. The film transitions to another scene set in an undisclosed time. Three masked men drag a woman to the top of a building and supposedly kill her. By chance, Su-min (Lee Ju-won) sees them from a balcony several buildings away. He shoots the scene with his camera. One of the men notices him, and they start moving towards his building. Su-min tries to hide in his small apartment, but they find him, and then we discover Su-min, left for dead on a street corner, stark naked. He starts finding his way around the area. Being built on a hill, pathways go up and down, a veritable maze of alleys and back alleys. He encounters a child wielding a large knife, a catatonic woman and some other peculiar characters but soon enough finds his way back to his building. He discovers a decapitated person wearing his clothes in his apartment, and is attacked again by one of the masked men. Then he wakes up once more on the same street corner, and the journey starts again, this time with clothes.

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The film starts off really promising, with the criminals descending on Su-min’s apartment and he cowers in fear. It may seem cliched but director Park Hong-min pulls it off with style. With a pounding score and nail0iting tension that the camera captures when it refuses to cut, Park really immerses the viewer with its thrills. When it gets to the dream (or is it memory?) sequences (yes, there are more than one), the labyrinthine settings and the noir cinematography are fantastic since they both immerse the audience into its intriguing surroundings and its metaphorical implications. The feeling of claustrophobia and confusion is very palpable and director Park should be commended for that, especially with the budget and resources he had. Lee Ju-won’s fearless performance certainly helps, as he handles his character’s psychosis and physicality quite well despite the film’s shortcomings.

Which is a shame that after the first act, the film falls apart like a pack of cards. Revelations become surprisingly predictable and cliched, character interactions last way longer than they should (a scene between Su-min and Ji-yeon is a low-light) and lines of dialogue are way too expository to the point that it makes the audience look like idiots. Su-min actually says that the dark alleys are like pathways to his brain. And that is in the final act! And don’t get me started on the scene where he is confessing his doubts and fears to an unknown cameraman, who turns out to be SPOILER ALERT! HIMSELF! END SPOILER ALERT!

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But one of the biggest problems is that the journey does not lead to a destination that would leave the audience satisfied. There’s nothing worth noting in the climax of the film other than the revelations that you could easily guess; except for the incredibly blunt lines of expository dialogue. And for a psychological thriller, other than the beginning, there are absolutely no thrills to be found in this film. And the main reason for that is that there are no stakes. We never truly fear for Su-min’s safety. The masked men that apprehend him do appear from time to time, but they gradually turn into a background detail rather than an actual threat. It also doesn’t help that the character of Su-min is a bit of a jerk, which is clearly stated by his girlfriend Ji-yeon (Song You-hyun, adding life to a thankless role) on many occasions; it only serves to make the audience easily guess the revelations and it gets, quite frankly annoying and predictable.

Alone has such a great premise, fine acting and director Park Hong-min is certainly a talent with the film’s production values, but the storytelling is such a frustrating, plodding and infuriating bore that it almost undoes every effort Park has made. Alone is a perfect title for this movie, because it leaves the viewer as lost as Su-min does.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The acting is great

Park Hong-min’s directing is immersive

The settings and cinematography adds intrigue

CONS

Embarrassingly literal

Revelations are incredibly predictable

The ending is really anti-climactic

Slow pace and long dialogue sequences will bore

SCORE: 5/10

Cast: Lee Ju-won, Song You-hyun, Kim Dong-hyun, Yoon Young-min, Lee Sung-uk, Kwon Young-hwan, Nam Yeon-woo, Noh Seung-woo
Director: Park Hong-min
Screenwriters: Park Hong-min, Cha Hye-jin

Movie Review – The Bodyguard (Yue Song) [NYAFF 2016]

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EXPECTATIONS: A China-pandering, cheap mess.

REVIEW: Director Yue Song must have had a time machine when he made this film. Best known for his martial arts skills and for being a one-man film-making crew for his first film, The King of the Streets, he comes back for his sophomore effort, The Bodyguard (aka Super Bodyguard). Not to be confused with the 2016 Sammo Hung effort of the same name (which is also known as My Beloved Bodyguard). The first time I heard about this film was from the ridiculously bold trailer that had boastful quotations like “The Best Kung Fu Film of the Last 20 Years!” and “The New Bruce Lee (Is) Coming!”. The trailer had me laughing so hard and so derisively that I knew I had to see it, expecting to trash-talk and criticize the hell out of it. So does the film live up to its frankly ridiculous remarks or will it fail miserably and disappear into mediocrity?

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Director, writer, editor and star Yue Song stars as Wu Lin, a martial artist, village bumpkin and all-round badass. After the death of his master, Wu Lin leaves his home to look for his friend and fellow student, Jiang Li (Xing Yu), also a martial artist and all-round badass who could not be any more obvious as the villain unless he had it tattooed on his forehead. After a weird and absolutely scary encounter with a snotty little brat of a kid (I’m not kidding, you need to see it to believe it), he sees a man being attacked by a bunch of thugs and he saves him. The man turns out to be Jia-Shan Li, one of wealthiest men of the city. Out of sheer coincidence, Wu Lin bumps into Jiang Li and the two catch up on old times, like all bro-mances go, unfortunately without all the homoerotic undertones. Wu-Lin is then hired by Jia-Shan Li to be the bodyguard (hence, the title) Fei Fei, a rich, petulant woman who wants nothing to do with her father and especially not Wu-Lin. As the two bitch and moan (and not in a good way, it is a China film after all) to the point of actual bonding, Jiang Li goes on with his diabolical and villainous schemes to the point that it puts Wu Lin and the people around him at risk. With no options to retreat or surrender, he chooses to put the foot down. And I don’t just mean on the ground.

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You may wonder why I am writing my synopsis with a snarky tone. Well it is because the story is cliched and predictable as hell, that the only people who would be surprised at a story such as this would be people who have never seen a movie before. But predictability does not ruin a film; the execution does. So how does the film hold up? The acting is overstated, the scene transitions are jarring, the storytelling is slipshod to the point that feels like Cliff Notes to a larger story, the dubbing is horrendous, the subtitles are full of grammatical errors and the tonal shifts are so abrupt, you can hear the necks of the audience break. While all of those factors would be low points in a critical standpoint, but in the case of The Bodyguard, they can actually be seen as positives, even highlights of such a film. Let me clarify my viewpoint a little.

What do all 90’s modern-set Hong Kong martial arts films have in common? They all have abrupt tone shifts, they all have crummy storytelling, they all have inconsistent acting, the subtitles are grammatically incorrect, the synthesizer music and they all have ill-fitting dubbing. But they also all have a palpable passion and enthusiasm in the film-making that makes them undoubtedly entertaining. And it is in that comparison that I ask: Did director Yue Song use a time machine to make this film? Because that has to be the only explanation to explain why The Bodyguard is one of the most nostalgically and unintentionally fun experiences I’ve seen so far this year.

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All the actors play their archetypal roles in such an overstated way, that it becomes quite endearing. Yue Song plays the role of stoic hero to a T, but he is quite charismatic, in between all the posing, that is reminiscent of 90’s Jet Li, without the rock-like emotion. For Xing Yu, he plays the villain with ease and keeps up with Yue Song really well. He could actually be seen as either a 90’s Collin Chou (who is also in this film as a small cameo) or Chin Siu-ho, the villain in the 1993 Jet Li film, The Tai-Chi Master. As for the supporting cast, they’re just there as plot devices, but Li Yufei stands out just due to her commitment into portraying such an spoiled, annoying socialite that it is alternately annoying and entertaining, similar to Christy Chung’s role in The Bodyguard from Beijing. Am I noticing a pattern here? The cameos from noted martial artists Michael Chan Wai-man and Collin Chou aren’t much if one is expecting a fight scene or two from them, but it is the dubbing to them that makes them stand out since it is so bad, that it becomes laughable.

As for the fight scenes, they are wildly energetic and are refreshingly free of CGI. The stunt-work looks fantastic and the full contact of it all makes it entertainingly cringe-worthy. But the use of style of the fight scenes can polarize at times. First off, there are times that undercranking (speed up) is utilized and it comes off as unintentionally hilarious, but it only happens in the first fight scene and I think it was intentional. It is reminiscent of 90’s Donnie Yen films like Legend of the Wolf and even his TV series of Fist of Fury. While the climactic fights tend to overcrank (slow down) that it takes out the urgency of the fight at times. But overall, they are fantastic to watch and it helps that all the opponents that Yue Song fights are actual martial artists or people that have the right physicality for their roles. Actors like Jiang Baocheng (The Wrath of Vajra), Xu Dongmei (Little Big Soldier) and others lend a lot of credibility to their fight scenes.

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But the problems in the film come from the flaws I stated above and while they add to the nostalgic throwback 90’s vibe of the film, it can irk current viewers. One example is when Wu Lin is stretching his big, long legs (good for ballet, by the way) for the splits, a woman is doing a lap dance on him until she stops because his package is too big for her. By the way, this happens right after the villain makes it so obvious that he is the villain, that he might as well have two mustaches. Another example, a child’s penis is shown urinating on the camera as a gag reflex gag. No, I am not joking. It certainly shocked and made me laugh, but it was such a random insertion that you have to wonder what the hell was going on in Yue Song’s mind when he wrote this? But then again, a eerily similar gag is shown in Wong Jing’s 1995 Die Hard rip-off, High Risk, which adds to my theory that Yue Song has a time machine. It is jarring humour and tone shifts like that and many other scenes that will have people laughing awkwardly or wholeheartedly. Or they will exclaim in horror over and over; who the hell knows?

Plus, the story is a mess, structurally. Alongside the sledgehammer-like predictability, the revelations and plot reveals that come with the film are so forced and so random, it’s almost as if the script was torn to shreds and put back together again. Nothing is foreshadowed properly so when the revelations occur, it will just provoke laughter or puzzlement; clearly not the intended reaction from the film-makers.

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Laughter is good for you, no matter what the context is, and unintentional entertainment is still entertainment. Don’t fight it. With the right frame of mind (or you are an aficionado or cineaste of Hong Kong cinema), you can have a lot of fun with The Bodyguard. As for the statements in the trailer, the film doesn’t even come close to those, but like the trailer itself, you can’t help but admire its chutzpah.

Quickie Review

PROS

Yue Song and Xing Yu are capable actors and even better fighters

The fight scenes and stunt work are impressive and ferocious

The throwback and nostalgic vibe of 90’s Hong Kong action films adds a lot of fun (whether intentional or unintentional)

CONS

Jarring sense of humour (a scene in the first three minutes scared the shit out of me)

Revelations come out of nowhere

Fight scenes can be quite overedited

Collin Chou does not have a significant role and doesn’t fight much at all

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Yue Song, Xing Yu, Li Yufei, Michael Chan Wai-man, Collin Chou, Jiang Baocheng, Xu Dongmei
Director: Yue Song
Screenwriters: Yue Song

Movie Review – A Bride for Rip Van Winkle [NYAFF 2016]

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EXPECTATIONS: Something along the lines of life-like fantasy films like Hana & Alice and Love Letter.

REVIEW: I’ve been a Shunji Iwai fanatic for a long time and I do not want to repeat myself over and over like in my other reviews about how I had my first experience of his films so I’ll just get on with this review. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is Shunji Iwai’s first live-action Japanese theatrical release since 2004’s Hana & Alice. That time gap alone was a really long wait (with Iwai’s 2011 English-language debut, Vampire not sufficing much) and it seems that Iwai has found a new muse with incredible rising talent Haru Kuroki (who eerily reminds me of Iwai’s other muse, Yu Aoi) and others like Go Ayano (too many films to mention) and Cocco (a revelation in Shinya Tsukamoto’s 2011 drama, Kotoko) for the film. Will A Bride of Rip Van Winkle be a fantastic return-to-form (live-action) or will be a bloated disappointment?

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Nanami (Haru Kuroki) is a timid and gullible part-time junior high school teacher, whose only sense of peace comes from connecting with others on Planet, a new social media platform similar to FaceBook. One day, looking like a lost girl in a deep sea of people, a young man named Tetsuya (Go Jibiki) messages her and asks to meet in person. The two begin dating and in a blink of an eye, they become engaged. When Tetsuya begs Nanami to increase her guest list for the wedding, Nanami reaches out to online-friend, Amuro (Go Ayano), a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, who hires actors to play Nanami’s guests on her big day. A few weeks following the ceremony, Tetsuya’s mother confronts Nanami with allegations of lying and cheating. Heartbroken and despondent, Nanami checks herself into a hotel and manages to get hired there as a maid. One day, Amuro offers Nanami a housekeeping job in an old mansion, whose sole resident’s infectious spirit helps Nanami to open her heart. However, Nanami soon realizes that Amuro, the mansion, and its occupant aren’t what they seem.

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Boy, was this an unexpected emotional ride! This movie was very little of what I expected and it might actually be the reason why I liked this movie so much. Apart from 2015’s animated prequel, The Murder Case of Hana and Alice, the twelve-year gap between his last Japanese live-action film and the present time must have had an effect on him because A Bride of Rip Van Winkle is Iwai’s most cynical and cruel film since 2001’s All About Lily Chou-Chou. And despite all of its dark moments (one scene involving Nanami meeting the husband of her husband’s lover was downright disturbing), the film is really a huge subversion of Iwai’s soulful fantasy-like films like Hana & Alice and Love Letter. The typical-Iwai (lots of soft focus and sun flares) cinematography of Chigi Kanbe and the music by Mako Kuwabara certainly plays off of the film’s events and manipulating the audience of what to expect.

As much as torturous as Nanami’s fall from grace is and also including the many role-plays of Amuro’s fraudulent schemes, there is a striking beauty that Iwai finds beneath the surface. With its hopelessly romantic and deceitful characters in increasingly surreal situations (like Nanami working as a maid in a giant mansion for a brooding master) that would not be out of place in a Twin Peaks episode, it is surprising that Iwai manages to find something remarkably human out of it; particularly in its exploration of human relationships. Alongside the beauty, there is also a surprisingly ample amount of tension as the audience is mulling at how the motives of Amuro and other characters fit into the story and how it will pay off.

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Like all of Iwai’s films, there are many small details littered throughout the film that seem random and meaningless (in the case of Winkle, many involving social media), but they all payoff in various ways. For example, the title of the film is actually referring to a character in the film via the account name on Planet. What is the significance of the name? The ending of the film answers that question cleverly. The element of social media in the story (which is reminiscent of the message board element of All About Lily Chou-Chou) also adds commentary and power to the character relationships; especially when you compare Nanami’s relationship with Tetsuya (which was conceived through social media) and her relationship with Mashiro (Cocco), which is portrayed really well without looking fake or prurient; or how Nanami’s use of the social media platform, Planet, is basically a safe haven for her as she is assuming another identity.

None of this would work without its rising young talent. Haru Kuroki (whom I really enjoyed in When the Curtain Rises and The Little House) is convincingly timid, yet likable and relatable enough to care for, even through her most questionable decisions which might irk the audience. I really hope she gets more leading roles (her role in Rises is a complete 180 from Winkle). Go Ayano is compellingly enigmatic as Amuro, whose motives involving Nanami are shrouded in mystery until the end. It is thanks to Go’s charisma and Iwai’s direction that we want his character to be good-natured but the film’s story always alters our perception of him. As the new friend that Nanami befriends, Cocco proves her acting debut in Kotoko was no fluke, as she easily conveys her character’s maverick attitude and enthusiasm with aplomb. Alongside Amuro’s character reveal, her character’s eventual reveal is also satisfyingly dealt with subtlety, as Cocco portrays her pain and anguish like a pro. As good as Kuroki is, both Ayano and Cocco have the best moments in the film and give the film a lot of vibrancy.

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But with the small details that Iwai is known for, they do drag the film at times, especially when the running time is 3 hours. The running time especially drags during the first act, with major scenes like Nanami’s wedding taking too much time.  Plus, the character of Nanami may annoy some with her cutesy voice and her indecisiveness that may be seen as either stupidity or neurosis. Plus, the direction can be a bit cloying and insistent at times, since it reiterates the point that we are meant to be sympathetic of Nanami’s plight, like the usage of music and slow-motion.

But other than those two flaws, I really see no objection for this movie not to be wed seen by Iwai fans or those looking for a unorthodox relationship drama. A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is Iwai coming outside the box and it was a moving, suspenseful and richly rewarding film that I hope that it doesn’t take another decade for him to make a live-action film.

P.S – The film was also released in a 2 hour cut in various countries, but in my opinion, that is a lot of lost material that could potentially undermine the journey, if not the destination the film reaches.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Shunji Iwai’s direction taking different directions

Production values are above reproach

Exploration of the story’s themes is thought-provoking

CONS

Long running time

The character of Nanami may annoy some

SCORE: 8/10

 

Cast: Haru Kuroki, Go Ayano, Cocco, Go Jibiki, Hideko Hara, Soko Wada, Tomoko Mariya, Akio Kaneda, Ririi.
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenwriters: Shunji Iwai, based on his own book of the same name

Movie Review – The Handmaiden (Sydney Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something gloriously trashy, excessive, operatic and grand.

REVIEW: When cineasts are asked to name one Korean director, the director in question will most likely be Park Chan-wook. Receiving critical acclaim with the 2000 war-drama JSA (Joint Security Area) and the revenge flick Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park received worldwide recognition from critics and audiences alike with the crime thriller masterpiece, Oldboy. Since then, he has branched out his film-making skills, going into arthouse territory with Lady Vengeance; whimsical romance with I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK; operatic horror with Thirst; venturing to Hollywood with the gothic piece Stoker and now we have The Handmaiden. Given the massive buzz it achieved from Cannes, achieving the record for the best-selling Korean film in history and my love for overstated and excessive soap opera stories, I was so psyched to see this. Now let’s set this review from dignified to steamy!

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Set in the 1930s when Korean was under Japanese rule, newcomer Kim Tae-ri stars as Sook-hee aka Tamako aka Okju, a hardened street-smart thief who is hired as the titular occupation to look after Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress who has very little experience of the outside world. Hideko is currently arranged to marry her twisted freak of an uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong); and her only sense of peace is her time spent with Sook-hee. The two gradually bond to become friends but what Hideko does not know is that Sook-hee is colluding with Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to steal Hideko’s fortune by arranging a marriage between Fujiwara and Hideko and then sending her to the nuthouse. The plan seems to be coming into fruition but little does Fujiwara know is that Hideko is slowly falling in love with Sook-hee. Their relationship sets off a tumultuous turn of events that involve double-crosses, rumoured ghosts, sadomasochism, lesbianism, torture and yes, even an octopus.

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To get down to the nitty-gritty, let me just say this first. I was sweating while watching this in the cinema and I also sweated when I wrote this review. In other words, I loved this film. The film is spectacularly campy, operatic, depraved, steamy and does not take anything in its frankly ridiculous story seriously. Similar to David Fincher with his 2014 hit Gone Girl, Park Chan-wook took what is essentially seen as a soap opera and turned it into a grand piece of entertainment. The cast and crew go to great lengths to make this film as fantastic as is and it applies to all facets of film-making. The direction is tight, assured and gleefully excessive (Who’s to say that you can’t have torture or a dick joke in this film?), with its surprisingly fast pace within its nearly 150 minute run-time. The cinematography by Park regular Chung Chung-hoon is so downright masterful that if I were to close my eyes while watching and randomly stop, I know that without looking, I will gladly hang it up on my wall. The musical score my Park regular Jo Yeong-wook conveys the grand scale of the operatic story that is quite reminiscent of the music of Mozart.

And saving the best for last is Park’s fantastic use of black comedy. Apparent in all of his previous films, Park uses it brilliantly to offset the potentially dark nature of the story and takes it towards something glorious and even self-aware camp. There’s a scene involving an attempted suicide that starts off grim but it gradually becomes funny because it starts off so grim. The use of black comedy even applies to the heat-inducing sex scenes, especially when the teasing starts that involves a scene involving a lollipop, a bathtub and a sharp tooth. I laughed during this film more than in most recent comedies, and that is a testament to Park’s direction.

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Speaking of the sex scenes, they work magnificently not because the actresses are attractive (I’m a guy, I noticed.), it is because they have wonderful chemistry together and Park writes the story that makes the sex scenes more than just prurience. The sex scenes signify a major point in the character development that shows the characters are in control of their destinies, unlike the male characters who are clearly drawn into their own vices i.e. Fujiwara with money and Kouzuki with sadomasochism. It makes the film both feminist and exploitative at the same time, but since the film doesn’t take itself seriously and veers towards camp, it becomes a very funny detail. Camp indeed, but very funny and entertaining nonetheless.

The gifted cast also deserves a lot of credit for their sheer commitment to the story as well as Park’s direction. What is quite surprising to me is that none of the actors have ever worked with Park before. Chosen among 1,500 candidates, Kim Tae-ri makes a fantastic debut as Sook-hee. Handling the comedic aspects like a sport (particularly when her character is naive or rude) to clearly showing no hesitance during the sex scenes (her line deliveries are even funnier during the sex) and even handling the dramatic aspects like a pro like during a mid-film twist or a scene where she has an outburst that leads her to destroy a LOT of kinky property. Kim Min-hee (whom I loved in 2013’s anti-romantic comedy Very Ordinary Couple) is thankfully given a role that she can sink her teeth into (that’s not a pun, I swear!). Playing demure to submissive to utterly controlling, Kim is very convincing and her chemistry with Tae-ri can turn a cinema theater into a sauna; clearly evident in the bathtub scene. It is these two alone that make the film worth watching.

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As for the male actors, Ha Jung-woo dexterously uses his star power to exude arrogance, greed with such a wonderfully exaggerated swagger that you can see why a woman would be charmed then be thrown away without the slightest instance; while Cho Jin-woong is entertainingly sick and depraved as Uncle Kouzuki, whose eventual character reveal is funny to witness. The supporting cast are all good in their roles, especially Moon So-ri and Kim Hae-sook, whom both make a welcome presence in a haunting fashion. As for its flaws, there really isn’t that much except for a slight drag in the second act due to its unnecessary flashbacks to previous scenes. And for those who are expecting films of a serious nature or to have a serious message will definitely not find it here.

After seeing the mixed reaction of his English-language film Stoker, Park Chan-wook came back to Korea with his vast return to form that was a locally huge box office hit. In my opinion, The Handmaiden is the film Park wanted to make with Stoker and boy, did he succeed. After watching The Wailing and now this, Korean cinema is on a roll this year and I can’t wait to see what Park comes up with next.

P.S – The cinema screening I went to for this could not have been any better. The entire audience took the humour really well and I have never heard so many legs crossing during a cinema in my entire life.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Park’s direction is gloriously excessive

First-class production values

The storytelling, tone and dark humour elevates the film to the next level in entertainment

CONS

Slight drag in the second act due to unnecessary flashbacks

SCORE: 9.5/10

Cast: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Hae-sook, Moon So-ri
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Park Chan-wook, based on a novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters

Movie Review – The Devil’s Candy (Sydney Film Fest 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: A fine horror film ruined by intrusive rock music.

REVIEW: Satanism has been a film trope in horror films for many years, and it has paid off with fantastic offerings like Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil’s Advocate and The Omen. But it has also paid off with terrible films like End of Days, The Devil Inside and Jennifer’s Body; films that tried to be different but failing for different reasons. Now we enter Australian director, Sean Bryne. His debut torture slasher/dark comedy film, The Loved Ones, was a surprise success , winning many awards and has earned him critical acclaim. Now he has changed from one horror trope to another with his second effort, The Devil’s Candy. Will he be able to deliver another great effort like The Loved Ones, or will he suffer from the sophomore slump due to raised expectations and the staleness of the Satanic genre?

The film starts off in Rural Texas, with Ray Smiley (Pruitt Taylor Vince) whining when his elderly mother stops him in the middle of a late-night, jam session. Unfortunately, that decision takes a dark turn as plugging his Gibson Flying V into a Marshall stack is the only thing that drowns out the voices in Ray’s head. Voices that come straight from Satan himself and that tell him to do very bad things.

We then meet the Hellman family, with headbanger/struggling artist Jessie (Ethan Embry); employed and comparatively mellow wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and their teen daughter who shares her dad’s love of rock, Zooey (Kiara Glasco). They have recently purchased a new house, despite the story of deaths within the house, due to the price being a steal (it always is). They seem to be happy when they settle in, but weird occurrences happen when Jesse hears the exact same voices Ray heard and gets hypnotically drawn into painting disturbing images of suffering children. The images turn out to be prophetic of Ray doing his work to satiate the appetite of Satan. Will Ray and most importantly, Jesse’s actions cause harm to Astrid and Zooey?

If the synopsis seems cliched and predictable, your fears are half founded. But what elevates this film close to greatness is the direction of Sean Bryne. Having a fantastic soundtrack that would make blockbuster films green with envy, the music actually elevates the tension as well as the storytelling due to conveying the mood of characters. Rock music is known to be the music of Satan, but director Bryne cleverly subverts this expectation to draw away the magnetic lulls of Satan. The rock ‘n roll element also adds a fresh new coat of paint to the many cliches that are present in the film. Like the average American family or the many tropes of horror like the haunted house genre. The cinematography by Simon Chapman is beautiful to witness, with plenty of extreme of wide shots, conveying the loneliness, the ennui and the hopelessness of the characters.

Speaking of the characters, the actors of the film are fantastic in their roles and do wonders to make their characters worth caring about, although the script may shorthand them at times. Ethan Embry (who looks like Matthew McConaughey playing Jesus here) is great as Jesse, who is desperate to get out of his confined shell of painting for others but not for himself; but his supposed transformation does not have a true payoff and it just results in a lull and nothing more. Shiri Appleby is sympathetic and loving as Astrid, but his role is thin, as she is stuck in the supporting wife archetype. Pruitt Taylor Vince is menacing, yet convincingly child-like as the antagonist, Ray Smiley, and as evident in his previous roles, he can play this role in his sleep.

But the standout here is Kiara Glasco as Zooey. Creeping me out before in her small role in David Cronenberg‘s film, Maps to the Stars, Glasco is put through the emotional wringer as she goes through tortuous scenes and she plays it out with aplomb. She also plays her character with utmost sincerity that she makes it easy for the audience to believe her when she empathizes with Ray when she first meets her. And her arc going from her hesitance to adapt to a new world to a strong woman by the film’s end feels strongly earned. Funnily enough, she reminds me of a young Angelina Jolie and hopefully, she’ll be just as talented in the future.

Like all pieces of candy out there, not everything about it may be good for you, and in the case of The Devil’s Candy, there are a few flaws. For one is the storytelling, as there are plot holes that will puzzle like how does Ray evade the police after the murders and missing children, despite having a criminal record? The underdeveloped characters are another problem (as mentioned above) but the biggest flaw of the film is the ending. It ends on an abrupt note that frustratingly brings more questions than answers and does not give the cathartic feel the audience needs to give it a fist-pump.

But overall, The Devil’s Candy is fitting proof that director Sean Bryne is no one-trick pony and can deftly change genres with skill and verve. Hopefully, his screenwriting improves over his next film, which I hope does not take another 6 years.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Production values are great

Rock ‘n roll gives a fresh spin on horror cliches

CONS

Underdeveloped characters

Abrupt ending

Slightly sloppy storytelling

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Kiara Glasco, Tony Amendola, Craig Nigh, Leland Orser, O’Ryan Landa, Richard Rollin, Sheila Bailey Lucas, Marco Perella, Mylinda Royer, Ash Thapliyal.
Director: Sean Bryne
Screenwriter: Sean Byrne

Movie Review – Under the Shadow (Sydney Film Fest 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something wicked this way comes.

REVIEW: A little bit of a confession before I start this review: I am not overly familiar with Iranian cinema. Apart from films by Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farahdi, I haven’t seen a lot of films from Iran, especially genre films. But I saw a film called A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a Persian-language film by Ana Lily Amirpour, that was declared “the first Iranian vampire western”. It was a fantastic film with brilliant style, original storytelling and a great soundtrack. And it was because of that film, I wanted more genre offerings from Iran and thanks to Sydney Film Fest 2016, I got the opportunity to watch the much-buzzed film of Sundance 2016, Under the Shadow. Now does the film live up to the acclaim or will it be just an over-hyped piece that belongs in the dark abyss?

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Set in 1988, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a Westernised and modern woman (as evident with her owning a VCR, with an amusing Jane Fonda workout tape) in post-revolutionary Iran, whose past involving controversial political decisions have disqualified her from completing a degree in medicine. When her doctor husband (Bobby Naderi) is ordered to help in the long-running war with Iraq, much to the anger and resentment of Shideh, she is left to care for their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Urged to leave by her husband to leave and live with his parents in the north, Shideh refuses. As bombs fall on the capital and residents begin to flee, a malevolent djinn (genie) enters their home. From her downstairs neighbor (Aram Ghasemy), a superstitious woman of old-fashioned values, Shideh learns about the djinn, spirits carried on the wind to places where fear and anxiety have paved their way. From then on, it is pure terror that strikes Shideh when Dorsa announces the djinn has promised to find her a better mother.

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Watching this film, I noticed quite a few similarities between this and the Australian film, The Babadook. They both are mostly set in the house; they are both involving mothers struggling in their place in life; they both have menacing antagonists that might be imagined and there is a sense of a metaphor beneath its malevolent surface. Fortunately, Under the Shadow is never seen as derivative due to Babak Anvari‘s wonderfully assured direction. Despite using the usual ways to provoke thrills and scares, Anvari does it with precision and style and it is all done from the most minuscule actions and events. There’s an amusing jump scare near the beginning of the film that ends with a usage of a toaster, that had the audience laughing wholeheartedly. As well as one involving a dream sequence that would be a big no-no in my book, but it is done with such skill, it still got to me, as well as the audience.

The film also gets fantastic mileage from the director’s less-is-more approach; similar to the horrors of Jaws. We do get a glimpse of the djinn, and I do mean a glimpse, but it is a haunting one and it is still tattooed in my brain as I write this review. As much as a threat the djinn is, the other threat to the characters is the world the characters live in. The oppression of women in the post-war Iran sends Shideh in such a rough ride that the djinn almost seems superfluous. There’s a scene in the film where Shideh runs away from the horrific occurrences from the house barefoot, and she is caught by the police and arrested due to her not wearing her hijab. It is a scene like this that Anvari balances real and imagined threats towards the characters that make the film such a standout, thanks to the great use of social commentary and its positive melding into the storytelling.

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But none of the scares and thematic material would matter much if the actors were not up to par, and thankfully, they are all up to the task. Narges Rashidi gives a great performance as she convincingly plays the struggle Shideh goes through, whether it is the social obstacles that threaten to shoehorn her place in the world as well as the terrors in the house. Whereas Avin Manshadi is captivating as the daughter, Dorsa, as she comes off as annoying as first, but Anvari‘s direction and storytelling warps our perception of her to the point where all of her actions throughout the film makes perfect sense, making the emotional involvement of the film payoff spectacularly in the climax. The supporting cast are all fine in their parts, but it is the mother and daughter that helps make the film as scary and frightening as it is.

As for flaws, and there really isn’t that much, the lighting during the horror scenes could be a bit brighter for better visibility and the ending can be a bit abrupt in its resolution, but it does end well in its ambiguity. Under the Shadow shows that horror is still alive and well in cinema and not only do I hope that Iran does more genre films, I really hope it brings Iranian cinema out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

The less-is-more approach works wonders with the horror

Subtext and thematic content adds greatly to the story

Execution of scares are done with an assured hand

CONS

Abrupt ending may irk some

The lighting could be more clearer

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi, Bijan Daneshmand
Director: Babak Anvari
Screenwriter: Babak Anvari

Movie Review – Alice in Earnestland (Sydney Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: An odd, quirky black comedy that will be both awkward and hilarious.

REVIEW: The dark comedy is, in my opinion, one of the hardest genres to accomplish. To take serious and taboo themes and put a humourous view on it requires an assured hand on all aspects of the storytelling. If the story is shown too serious, the humour will be seen as out-of place. If the story is too comical, the serious themes will be seen as jarring. Great examples of dark comedies are American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, Heathers and of course, Dr. Strangelove. So when I was about step into the rabbit hole to watch Alice in Earnestland, I was very nervous. Was the trip worth taking or will it end up landing with a thud?

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The film starts off during a tense therapy session of the seemingly spirited Alice Jeong Su-nam (Lee Jeong-hyeon), and she starts to recount her hard-boiled life leading up to her current situation. When she was 16, she was faced with a major life-altering decision: to get a job in a factory or to continue studying? She chose the latter and found work as an accountant (shown with great visuals and editing), in which she proved to be very resourceful in. She also met her first man, factory worker Gyu-jeong (Lee Hae-yeong), and married him, but he turned out to be almost deaf. After having expensive cochlear implant surgery (shown in all of its gory glory), Gyu-jeong then accidentally chopped his fingers off at work and thereafter stayed at home, unemployed and morose.

For the next 12 years, Su-nam worked frantically to earn enough money for them to buy a home; but as prices had gone up over time, she had to get a large loan to buy a flat. Then one day, she came home to find Gyu-jeong had committed suicide. Again failing in general, (quite amusingly I might add) he ended up in hospital, and Su-nam was hit with such huge medical bills that the doctor recommended euthanasia (hilariously sugar-coated as a positive term). So when Su-nam is drowning in debt and she has to deal with urban renewal schemes, murder, torture, improvised weapons, a vegetable of a husband; it’s obviously going to get on her nerves and it is from then on, she declares vengeance on those who have oppressed her.

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Were my fears founded when I watched this film? Thankfully, the balance between laughs and drama leaned more on the good side than the bad. Director Ahn Gooc-jin employs a lot of editing tricks (alongside editor Kim U-il) and visual cues (thanks to cinematographer Lee Seok-jin) to great effect that gives off a cartoony vibe that accentuates the humour of it all. The screenshot above is just one of the many visual jokes that is amusing. The cinematography and pacing evoke a feel that is similar to Wes Anderson and Ahn manipulates the audience into questioning the actions of the characters in humourous ways, arguably making the first half more enjoyable than the second.

The social commentary in the script does not always ring true due to how cartoony the supporting characters are. But in context of the film’s title, it actually makes sense, since Su-nam is a substitute of Alice and all of the characters surrounding her are the creatures in the rabbit hole; most of them being antagonists to her. And the social commentary provides the backbone of the story and it does ring true to the main character Su-nam, and actress Lee Jeong-hyeon fully commits to the role.

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Lee (who really reminds me of Chinese actress, Bai Baihe) capably shows Su-nam’s denial, her tenacity, her desperation and especially her humourous side with aplomb. Although her character becomes more vengeful and crazed in the second half, she never lets the audience forget that she is a victim of the South Korean economic dream. The supporting cast are great with their caricatured and villainous roles (apart from Lee Hae-yeong, who’s a  likable schlub of a husband) like Seo Yeong-hwa as the psychiatrist and especially Myeong Gye-nam as the former army veteran Choi Do-cheol, who is the catalyst of the violent turn of events.

The main flaw of the film which will irk people out there is the violence. Some scenes are obviously meant to shock to convey the stakes of the film, like a scene when Su-nam is confronted by Choi. Aside from that and some torture scenes (involving a hot iron), most of it is very over-the-top in my eyes to the point of hilarity, particularly a scene that involves an improvised throwing star and a metal pole, some will definitely be disturbed by the violence of the film. It certainly helps if you have prior knowledge of South Korean cinema to see the humour of the violence, since they have lots of references to older films, particularly Park Chan-wook films like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The film’s entertainment factor relies on the certain sense of humour the audience has, and the violence will definitely answer the question of whether they have it or not.

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Another flaw is that the main character can be hard to sympathize with when the film takes a darker turn, and it can render the emotional investment down quite a bit. Her decisions are questionable though understandable given the escalating circumstances, but again, it all depends on the tolerance and embrace of the audience. Fortunately, even through all the violence and the obstacles Su-nam faces, the abrupt, yet suitable conclusion will even make the most jaded feel warm inside, with a twisted smile on their face.

Overall, Alice in Earnestland is a well-executed and horrifically dark comedy, but is also a twisted journey about a woman who has to overcome all obstacles to determine her own future. Lee Jeong-hyeon is a force of nature and her performance alone is worth the price of admission.

P.S – Renowned director Park Chan-wook was responsible for the casting of Lee Jeong-hyeon in the lead role and is also the director of The Handmaiden, a film in Sydney Film Festival 2016.

Quickie Review

PROS

A fantastic performance from Lee Jeong-hyeon

Supporting cast do great with their cartoony roles

Production values from editing to cinematography are high-level, even on a low budget

Balance of comedy and drama is more hit than miss

CONS

Violence will irk many

Caricatured supporting characters

Lack of emotional investment

Questionable elements

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Lee Jeong-hyeon, Seo Yeong-hwa, Lee Hae-yeong, Myeong Gye-nam, Lee Jun-hyeok, Ji Dae-han, Bae Je-gi,
Director: Ahn Gooc-jin
Screenwriter: Ahn Gooc-jin

Movie Review – Finding Dory

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EXPECTATIONS: A Pixar sequel not as underwhelming as Cars 2, but along the lines of Monsters University.

REVIEW: Pixar Studios has been long regarded as one of the best animation studios in the world today, alongside Studio Ghibli, which my denial says that it still exists. But ever since the release of Cars 2, an incredibly disappointing sequel (to a film that wasn’t that good to begin with) that seems more like a product than an actual film, the seemingly infallible quality of Pixar has fallen. With other films like Brave, Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur, it seems to go towards that theory, but a creative upward surge happened with the release of Inside Out, a wonderfully exuberant and creative film. And now we have Finding Dory, the long-awaited sequel to the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. Will the film be worth the 13 year wait, or will it end up being disappointing like Cars 2?

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Approximately one year after the events of the first film, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) is now living with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence, replacing Alexander Gould). Having memories gradually coming back involving her family, Dory sets out to find her family, much to the worry of Marlin. Remembering something about “the jewel of Morro Bay, California”, the three end up at the Monterey Marine Life Institute. The three unfortunately get split up and they have to find each other as well as Dory’s parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy) with a bunch of new friends like Bailey (Ty Burrell), a white beluga whale; Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a whale shark; and Hank (Ed O’Neill), an octopus, who becomes her guide.

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Was this film worth the 13 year wait? Yes and no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly criticizing the film in any major way, but sequels with long time gaps are usually made to cash in on the nostalgia value rather than being made for valid creative reasons. But seeing this film, the reason for this film to exist makes perfect sense and fits the Disney/Pixar formula to a T. What also bothered me was the decision to make Dory the main character of the film. Considering what happened with Cars 2, which made the disastrous decision to make Mater the main character (much to the annoyance of many, including myself), I was fearful that Finding Dory would also end up being an annoyance. Thankfully, that never happened and it is all thanks to Ellen DeGeneres‘ performance.

Having perfect comic timing and seamlessly going into drama, DeGeneres is still fantastic as the lovable Dory, who is more than just comic relief. The characters of Marlin and Nemo are merely passengers for The Dory Show Finding Dory, but Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence still play off well as father and son. Marlin’s bird call still makes me laugh even when I’m writing this review. The supporting cast are great with their roles, with standouts like Ty Burrell as Bailey, a neurotic beluga whale who can’t seem to perform the act of echolocation (amusingly referred as the world’s best pair of glasses); Kaitlin Olson as Destiny, a near-sighted whale shark and childhood friend of Dory’s; and Ed O’Neill as Hank, a grumpy octopus who yearns to be confined in an aquarium and is jokingly referred as a “septopus” due to his lost tentacle.

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The Pixar formula is still running with Finding Dory, as it tries to balance laughs and emotion, but it has gotten a little bit rusty, making this film a bit inferior to Finding Nemo. The attempts of tugging the heartstrings of the audience has gotten a bit more manipulative, especially with more reliance on music cues. Plus, it does not really help that the plot of Finding Dory is still a retread of the first film. Fortunately, for what it lacks in emotional investment, it makes up for with laughs and charm. The many visual gags evoke plenty of guffaws like Hank’s camouflage and the character of Becky, a strange looking bird. But the final act of the film has one of the funniest climaxes that Pixar has ever done. Involving echolocation, car traffic, land animals and a well-placed song, it had me gleefully choking at my popcorn at one point. Plus the cuteness levels are off the charts when you see the young version of Dory and the plentiful otters. And do not get me started on the surprise celebrity voice cameo played by a fantastic actress, whom actually figures into the plot, that made me laugh so much whenever she was being referred to.

Does this film stand up to the original? Sort of. It does not make a mockery to the Pixar name like Cars 2 did, and it is better than unnecessary films like Monsters University, but it falls short of the fantastic quality Pixar films like Inside Out, the Toy Story films and Up, or even this year’s Disney animated film, Zootopia. But it is still great fun for the whole family, has a simple but important message and it shows that Pixar is far from being over.

P.S – Stay after the end credits for a delightful surprise.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic as Dory

The Pixar formula still charms and delights

Supporting characters are great

Hilarious gags, whether visual or vocal (the celebrity guest cameo had me grinning and laughing out loud)

CONS

Emotionally manipulative at times

Plot is a retread of the original film

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Andrew Stanton
Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse, original story by Andrew Stanton

Movie Review – The Wailing

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EXPECTATIONS: One hell of a bumpy ride.

REVIEW: Na Hong-jin is on one hell of a roll with his films. Famous not only in his native South Korea but all over the world, his films have thrilled audiences with their unforgivable nihilism, brutal violence and emotionally draining stories. And he’s only done TWO feature-length films: The Chaser and The Yellow Sea. And now he has The Wailing, a movie that took SIX years to make and has gained considerable buzz from its Cannes Film Festival premiere out of competition. So much that it was fast-tracked for cinema release at various countries (thanks to 20th Century Fox), including Australia (home of yours truly). Taking on different genres and mixing them in a blender, he has made his most ambitious film to date. But does it result in a film worthy of its hype and acclaim?

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Within a seemingly peaceful village, Gokseong (eerily similar to the Korean title of the film), a plague of mysterious and violent deaths suddenly take place. The police conclude poisonous wild mushrooms (or overly potent magic mushrooms) are the cause.. Freeloading and laid-back police officer Jong-Goo (Kwak Do-won) hears a rumour from a co-worker about a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) living nearby. The rumour declares that the Japanese man as the prime suspect causing these deaths. Jong-Goo, while on duty, meets Moo-Myeong (Chun Woo-hee) in a very amusing fashion. She tells Jong-Goo that she saw the Japanese man where the last deaths took place, causing Jong-Goo to doubt himself. Later, Jong-Goo’s daughter, Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-hee) gets afflicted with the same symptoms as the recently deceased and Jong-Goo becomes desperate to save her as well as to stop the culprit from causing these mysterious deaths. Meanwhile, Jong-Goo’s mother-in-law hires a shaman, Il-Gwang (Hwang Jung-min) for his help and knowledge on these supernatural events and when all the elements collide, the heat is on.

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Mentioned earlier, director Na Hong-jin mixes many genres in The Wailing and he does it extremely well. Comedy hasn’t been used in his earlier films but there are some scenes that are very funny and even fit the context of the film. For example, the scene when Jong-Goo meets Moo-Myeong for the first time, she constantly throws stones at him like a mischievous child. The scene is funny within of itself but when you put the scene in context of its themes involving religion and the supernatural, it makes perfect sense. It is moments like that give the film lots of replay value. Na also dwells into the horror genre with ease and skill. Knowing to make characters human and worth caring for as well as making the horrors more implicit than explicit, Na makes the audience squirm for all its worth and it is fantastic to witness. A scene where Jong-Goo and his friends are attacked by a possessed victim is inspired due to the masterful editing which combines thrills, dark humour, gore to one hell of a set-piece.

Speaking of editing, a fantastic scene involves two shamans chanting and conjuring to dissuade the curse away (and vice-versa) at the same time and it crosses back and forth, confounding the audience on who is doing more harm and good to the victim. The editing is fantastic and builds tension to almost unbearable limits. The fast pace, the cinematography and the nihilistic tone certainly gives a grim sensibility, but thanks to the sprinkled dark humour, the audience does gets some much-needed levity that temporarily puts them at ease. The religious themes that are explored like Catholicism and Shamanism give the story plenty of food-for-thought, especially on deciding who the villain really is and what is truly the face of evil. Once you know the suspects, director Na plays around with the audience’s allegiance and sympathy to extremes, making the climax such a nail-biter.

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None of this would have worked as well without the fantastic cast. Kwak Do-Won, who has been a character actor (including one of Na’s films, The Yellow Sea) for a long time, sinks into the lead role and plays it for all its worth. The dopey side, the conflicted side, the desperate side, he plays them all well. He makes very questionable decisions throughout the film, some to the point of almost angering the audience but Kwak shows his character’s humanity so well, that it comes off as suitably pathetic and sympathetic at the same time. Jun Kunimura makes the most out of his role as the prime suspect that even a stare can draw shivers down the audience’s spine. Hwang Jung-min makes his character compellingly enigmatic and considering Hwang’s star power and director Na’s audience manipulation, his character will provide plenty of discussion after the movie is over. Ditto for Chun Woo-hee (whom I loved in Hang Gong-ju), who plays her role as almost child-like upon her introduction to something else entirely in the third act. Kim Hwan-hee is fantastic as Hyo-jin, and her chemistry with Kwak gives the film heart, which makes the tension with her character’s affliction very hard to bear. Her portrayal of her character’s sickness and possessed state is a marvel to see and I liked director Na’s choice of NOT distorting her voice, since it keeps the realism and does not take the audience out the story. The supporting cast all play their roles well, but it is the main four that make the film.

Na’s second film, The Yellow Sea was criticized for its convoluted plot, its excessive content and its overlong running time, and The Wailing is not much different. As for its excessive content, that is a matter of audience expectations but the plot may throw people off, particularly the choices of characters that drive said plot. Some are very questionable or intentional when looked into context, but it my irk viewers looking for answers. Even so, the ending of the film is very well-done and will provoke much audience discussion about the events that preceded it. The running time is overlong, but to be honest, I cannot think of a scene that could be cut, especially when the pacing is fast and the plot is never boring.

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South Korean films are well known for their dramatic films, but surprisingly not so much for their horror films. While there are some positive cases (like A Tale of Two Sisters and The Host), their recent fare has not stood out much in terms of worldwide acclaim. But The Wailing puts South Korea back on the horror genre map and I cannot recommend this film enough. Believe the hype. I loved this hideous thing.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from the cast

Beautiful cinematography

Expert use of dark humour inter-spliced within the dramatic scenes

Frenetic, visceral direction, intricate editing and pacing add lots of tension

Hard-hitting climax with a satisfyingly ambiguous ending

CONS

Overlong running time

Some plot holes

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Kwak Do Won, Hwang Jung Min, Kunimura Jun, Chun Woo Hee, Jo Han Chul, Kim Hwan Hee, Jang So Yeon, Heo Jin
Director: Na Hong Jin
Screenwriters: Na Hong Jin