Movie Review – To The Bone

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EXPECTATIONS: An intense and even harrowing portrayal of its subject matter.

REVIEW: Films of such subject matter as To the Bone has (eg. terminal disease, AIDS etc.) particularly the ones that aim for teenagers, tend to be sappy (like My Sister’s Keeper), melodramatic and even deeply misguided, if done wrong. So whenever I hear about a film such as these, I tend to cringe. But in the case of To the Bone, I was quite intrigued.

First of all was the involvement of Marti Noxon. A talented screenwriter of both TV (due to contributions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and her recent contributions to films such as the upcoming dramatic film The Glass Castle and the video-game adaptation Tomb Raider. Not to mention that the subject matter is deeply personal to Noxon, as she went through the same experiences as the lead character.

And second of all was the involvement of Lily Collins. Ever since I saw her in Mirror Mirror (which I think is an underrated treat), I found her to be a lovely presence on screen and films like Rules Don’t Apply and Love, Rosie prove that. But she has never been truly tested with her acting potential and To the Bone seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. And once again, it helps that Collins also has a personal relation to said subject matter, having gone through similar experiences in her earlier life.

And finally, I myself have gone through a similar, although not as intense, experience. At a young age, I was severely underweight and would usually bribe my parents for playtime, rather than eat anything. It was so severe to the point where I would just throw school lunches my mother made just to go out and play. It was even suggested that I would have been forced to consume food intravenously.

Will To the Bone escape the genre trappings and become a worthy entry in the genre, or will it sink into the afterschool-special abyss, where it will repeat at 2:00 in the afternoon for eternity?

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Lily Collins stars as Ellen, an unruly 20-year-old anorexic girl who spent the supposedly better part of her teenage years going through various recovery programs, only to find herself getting worse every time.

Determined to find a solution, her self-serving family (consisting of Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Liana Liberato and Brooke Smith) agrees to send her to a group home for youths, which is led by a non-traditional doctor (Keanu Reeves, playing a doctor for the third time).

With the help of her similarly afflicted bunkmates (consisting of Alex Sharp, Ciara Bravo, Maya Ashet, Kathryn Prescott, Leslie Bibb and others), will she go on the path to recovery and achieve self-acceptance?

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Firstly, does the film deal with its issues effectively and does it execute it in a manner that is both illuminating, cinematic and thought-provoking? For the most part, yes. First of all, it is admirable that the film is not majorly about dealing with an eating disorder, but it is about finding the love and acceptance about one’s self and director Marti Noxon conveys that quite well.

There are no scenes where Ellen would magically eat or whether Ellen undergoes a complete change. It is all about the struggle before the triumph and Noxon executes it in a palatable fashion i.e. with no overuse of music, acting histrionics and most importantly, very little audience pandering.

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What Noxon does is that she leavens the film and its subject manner with a good use of surprising humour. Whether the humour is good-natured (“Lucas rhymes with mucus”, Alex Sharp jokes), dry (Keanu Reeves certainly contributes on that front) or even dark (“If you die, I will fucking kill you.”, Liana Liberato states), it lends a certain warmth to the film, as well as a sense of honesty that speaks on a personal level.

The same honesty even applies to the drama, particularly in the third act, where Ellen hits, according to Reeves’ character Dr. Beckham, “bottom”. Without spoilers, the moments in the third act, and how they culminate, are beautiful, scary, confusing, absurd; and it had me by surprise that Noxon stuck with her guns to portray those moments sincerely. Some of the images (whether physical or metaphorical) may provoke controversy, but again, it all feels personal and it has enough cinematic panache to come off as truly compelling.

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It helps immensely that the cast assembled for To the Bone give very good performances. Lily Collins finally gets a leading role where she can exercise her acting chops and she does really well, whether it is acting out the character’s cynical side, her gradual love of herself as well as others and of course, her vulnerable side.

As for the supporting cast, Keanu Reeves does dry in the way only he can do it (for clear evidence, see Thumbsucker) and he does well, providing some amusingly dry humour. Carrie Preston is convincingly paternal and verbose as Ellen’s stepmother and Lili Taylor is fantastic as the guilt-wracked mother of Ellen, and the scenes she shares with Collins, particularly in the third act, are very effective and affecting.

The young cast are all good in their roles, with Alex Sharp turning up the charm without the creepiness that male love interests on film usually have; Liana Liberato lending heart to the film with her sisterly reactions with Collins and Leslie Bibb, who is cast-against-type as a similarly afflicted pregnant woman, as highlights.

On the negative side, there are some moments where the humour and dramatic moments may irk some due to the fact that it is present in a film with such grim subject matters and the character archetypes do imply a certain vibe that this story could only happen on film, but there is enough truth and honesty in the film that it will have an emotional impact and it is a credit to Noxon and the cast that To the Bone works as well as it does, considering my reservations of the genre as well as my personal inclinations.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Collins

Honest, truthful direction by Noxon

Committed supporting cast

A strange yet effective sense of humour enlivens the proceedings

CONS

Cinematic tropes and some of its humour detract from the realistic issues

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: Lily Collins, Keanu Reeves, Carrie Preston, Lili Taylor, Alex Sharp, Liana Liberato, Leslie Bibb
Director: Marti Noxon
Screenwriter: Marti Noxon

Movie Review – Dawn of the Felines (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more melancholic and realistic than the average fare.

REVIEW: Three down, two to go. The fourth entry (for my viewing pleasure) in the Roman Porno Reboot is Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines. No, it is not a cat zombie film, but a melancholic and de-mystified drama that provides a look into the lives of three stranded women, whom we see go through their daily lives as Tokyo sex workers.

Whilst the other entries went for either comedic, arthouse and the serene approach, Dawn of the Felines goes for the realistic approach, and with Kazuya Shiraishi at the helm (whom last did the crime film The Devil’s Path and crime/comedy Twisted Justice), we can be certain this film will hit hard with its subject matter. But will the film succeed in entertaining the audience by living up to the Roman Porno name as well as conveying the director’s distinct touch?

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The film follows the lives of three women in present Tokyo and how they feel stranded due to the circumstances of life, with all three of them being led by the weaselly Nonaka (Takuma Otoo). Juri Ihata plays the homeless Masako, who develops an awkward romance with a reclusive client (Tomihiro Kaku) who hasn’t left his own building in 10 years.

We also have Rie (Michie), who is unhappily married and finds solace in the company of an old man drowning in guilt over his wife’s recent death; and we have single mother Yui (Satsuki Maue), who casually leaves behind her abused son just so she can date an obnoxious comedian (Hideaki Murata).

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First off, the positives. The performances from the cast are all uniformly good, thankfully due to the three leads. Juri Ihata, who is known primarily for being a voice actress, performs well in her first leading role as Masako, as she conveys the weariness, the laid-back attitude and especially the anger of her character very well. There is a scene where she confronts Tomohiro Kaku’s character on top of a building and she expresses her feelings, and it is clearly representative of her talents.

Michie is good as the sorrowful Rie; so much so that she makes her unbelievable subplot quite watchable. The interactions between her character and the old man character are compelling and even shocking at times. The lesser of the three is Satsuki Maue as Yui. Although she plays the selfishness and impulsiveness of her character well, she tends to overact at times, which can take audiences out of the film.

The supporting cast are all fine, with Tomohiro Kaku (best known as the boyfriend in Hana and Alice) proving he can be both enigmatic and inhumane; Hideaki Murata is a pure scumbag as the supposedly funny comedian that Yui cavorts with and Ken Yoshizawa lends presence as the suffering senior who interacts with Rie.

But the biggest standout is Takuma Otoo as Nonaka. Providing some much-needed humour to offset the downbeat story, he perfects the way of the weasel by making him likable as well as repulsive. The facial expressions he comes up with, especially during a scene where he is confronted with the police, are priceless.

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As for the direction, it is well-done, particularly how Shiraishi focuses more on the characters, rather than the story. The sex scenes are executed in a matter-of-fact fashion, rather than aiming for prurience. And for the most part, they signal the stage where the characters are in their development or reveal more of who they are. Like in a scene where Yui sleeps with Murata’s character and she finally becomes intimate with him, leading to a confrontation.

And although the film is well-edited and well-told, the film could use a bit more effort in the lighting, as the badly lit look makes it look unappealing at times. Although, the focus on character pays off in the climax, as the leads do reach their foregone conclusions in a satisfying manner (particularly the subplot of Masako), the film could have used more of a social commentary bent since the story is ripe with potential for it i.e. providing more concrete views on how the leads ended up in the situation in the first place. For example, Masako mentions that she is a university graduate but could not obtain a decent job, leading her to prostitution.

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Overall, Dawn of the Felines is a mostly compelling piece of work that has a much more humane story than one would expect. Saddled with good performances, assured direction and ample explorations into loneliness, the film may be the worst entry in the Roman Porno Reboot I’ve seen thus far, but it is still a worthwhile endeavour.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good acting from the cast

Focus on character pays off in a satisfying fashion

CONS

Lacks a certain something to make it truly stand out

Inconsistent lighting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Juri Ihata, Satsuki Maue, Michie, Takuma Otoo, Tomohiro Kaku, Hideaki Murata, Ken Yoshizawa, Kazuko Shirakawa, Kaito Yoshimura, Ryotaro Yonemura, Takaki Uda, Takamitsu Nonaka
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Kazuya Shiraishi

Movie Review – Aroused by Gymnopedies (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more poignant and sombre than the usual Roman Porno.

REVIEW: Now we are off to the third entry of the Roman Porno Reboot. Previous entries seen by myself were Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, which was a surreal, daring and transcendent surprise; and Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind, which was a hilarious and traditional entry.

And now we have Aroused by Gymnopedies, directed by Isao Yukisada. Yukisada is well-known for his soulful dramatic works like the blockbuster romance Crying Out Love in the Center of the World and queer drama Pink and Gray; and coming-of-age films like Parade and Go!

So when you apply his filmmaking chops to a project such as this, it does sound like it could result in a typical Roman Porno entry. But this is not back in the 70’s and 80’s anymore. We are in the 10’s now and political correctness (whether people like it or not) is in front and center. Considering the above, will Aroused by Gymnopedies be both a good film as well as a representative entry of the Roman Porno Reboot?

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The film follows Shinji (Itsuji Itao), a once-celebrated filmmaker whose reputation was once sterling until his star came crashing down to the point where he ends up making quickie porno films. But when Anri (Izumi Okamura), his lead actress quits, the production stalls indefinitely and Shinji wanders from one supposedly misjudged sexual encounter to the next, pleading for money along the way to get his life back on track.

His actions border on repulsive, sleeping with students, nurses, even his leading actress, for any sign of relief or denial of his current existence. And just when he cannot sink any lower, he relies on his ex-wife to prostitute herself for money to lend to him. But is the money really for the stalled film project, or is it for something else?

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First off, the synopsis does make the film seem as sleazy as one would expect. But Yukisada and his screenwriter, Anne Horizumi, aim for more of a sensitive and sombre tone and for a long while, the tone does seem to be quite jarring in comparison to the prurient feel of the film. Particularly when the piano piece(s) by Erik Satie (referenced in the title) plays over the sex scenes.

But when the film gradually reaches into the final act, Yukisada’s sensitive direction makes perfect sense to what preceded it and the music hits hard thematically and emotionally in the film’s conclusion by becoming an ode to love and loneliness.

The jarring feel also applies to the lead character. Played brilliantly by Itsuji Itao (who’s known for comedic roles), the majority of the audience will be repulsed by him. But Yukisada and Horizumi gradually hint the audience with much-needed backstory, making the audience question what they just witnessed. Without attempting to excuse or change the lead character, Yukisada and Horizumi manage to make Shinji empathetic (if not sympathetic), despite his heartless actions.

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If the film does seem to be a bit of a depressing slog, Yukisada and Horizumi thankfully sprinkle much-needed humour to the proceedings, which includes a setpiece involving a film retrospective gone wrong, that involves the majority of the characters in conflict with each other. The musical score, which comprises of jazz, is a complete and pleasing throwback to the classic examples of the genre, and it adds comic zing.

The female characters, all well-acted by the actresses (particularly Sumire Ashina as rich student, Yuka), are all surprisingly independent and self-sufficient, when compared to the counterparts of the 70’s and 80’s Roman Porno entries. Whether it is to reflect the times or it is the involvement of co-writer Anne Horizumi, it is a step in the right direction.

Case in point, during a climactic sex scene where it seems to involve Shinji, Yuka decides he is no longer needed. A scene like this would never happen back in the 70’s and 80’s, but the fact that it happened in this day of age, it is quite notable.

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As for its flaws, Shinji’s actions may be too repulsive one can take. And the deliberate pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers and those who are expecting exploitation and titillation will definitely come out disappointed.

Overall, Aroused by Gymnopedies is a strange, yet compelling mix of softcore sex and sensitive emotion, which pays off in a rewarding fashion for those who are patient enough for its unorthodox ambitions. Let’s hope the Roman Porno Reboot keeps it up with the remaining two entries, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines and Hideo Nakata’s White Lily.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Itsuji Itao gives a great performance as the pitiable, repulsive lead

Yukisada’s direction and Horizuma’s screenwriting lend a certain poignancy that correlates with the prurience quite well

The musical score is entertaining in a throwback sort of way

The final act rewards greatly

CONS

The pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers

The lead character may be too unsympathetic for some

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Itsuji Itao, Sumire Ashina, Izumi Okamura, Yuki Tayama, Mayumi Tajima, Noriko Kijima, Sho Nishino
Director: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriters: Isao Yukisada, Anne Horizumi

Movie Review – Japanese Girls Never Die (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun, anarchic story about obsession and media scrutiny. And of course, YU AOI!

REVIEW: For those who have read my reviews, it is well known that I am a huge fan of Japanese actress Yu Aoi. Ever since I saw her in Hana and Alice (which was my first Japanese film I ever saw), I have been a huge fan of her work; particularly with how soulful and precise her performances are, without any reliance on overacting or histrionics.

But funnily enough, she was just one selling point of this film. Another selling point were the themes of sexual discrimination and misogyny and how it is explored and defined in present-day Japan. Some of my favourite or memorable films of recent years happen to be films set in Japan and were about the same themes i.e. Pun Homchuen & Onusa Donsawai’s Grace and Sion Sono’s Tag and Anti-Porno.

So when I heard about the film, Japanese Girls Never Die, was going to have both Yu Aoi and the same thematic material as the films mentioned earlier, it was just too exciting to pass up. So does the film live up to my expectations? Or will it just end up being in a dark alley, beaten to a bloody pulp?

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The film starts off with a bunch of misfits causing havoc by spray painting stencils of a missing posters. The film also features a gang of high school girls who are infamous for beating up men with baseball bats (A Clockwork Pink? Okay, I’ll stop.). The face on the missing poster is 27-year old Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), an office worker who is unhappy at work, at home, and with her unrequited yearning for her childhood pal turned neighbour (Huey Ishizaki), who just happens to be beaten up by the same gang of girls.

A typical day of Haruko is filled with misogynistic and perverted male bosses making inappropriate comments about the age, appearance and relationship status of their female employees, all while trying to hire another female employee. By night, she navigates the stresses of living with her family of three generations, with her stressed mother and her aging grandmother.

We also have 20-year old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a spirited and bubbly girl who thrives on fun and excitement. She thinks she has found it in a form of a potential boyfriend, Yukio (Taiga) and the two apparently hit it off. But Yukio has other ideas with Aina, but on the side, he starts off a grafitti team with his friend, the shy Manabu (Shono Hayama) and starts tagging the city. As Aina spots the two, she joins in and they all get inspired by a missing poster that happens to feature Haruko, and a viral sensation is born.

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So basically there are two stories going on and the film is played out in a non-linear fashion, which admittedly  takes quite a bit to get used to the storytelling technique. But when you consider the unbelievable sides (including fantasy and wish-fulfillment plots)  and realistic sides of the story (loneliness, ennui and sexual discrimination) are blurred together, it actually becomes very effective, as it conveys the themes of the story in an entertaining and distinct manner.

And we got through a lot of themes here. Whether its office politics, family dynamics, portrayals of art, gender politics, Japanese pop culture, capitalism and many more, the film is absolutely jam-packed with ideas, with surprising replay value.

A lot of the credit goes to cinematographer Hiroki Shioya and editor Satoko Ohara, whom give the film a distinct look and feel, which applies to all three acts (and stories), leaving them easy to discern.

Even the use of pop culture, which director Matsui uses a lot in his prior films like Wonderful World End, (which is completely evident of perpetuating sexual objectification) is used in a satirical and metaphorical fashion.

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Even with all of the hard work going on display from behind-the-scenes, the film also packs an amazing performance from Yu Aoi. Showing subtlety, restraint and even a certain sense of cool whilst hinting a sense of anger, resentment and hostility, Aoi totally inhabits the character to the point that her screentime has a larger impact than expected. And yes, even with the expected posters and grafitti plastered throughout the film.

Mitsuki Takahata, whom I last saw in Jossy’s, is bubbly and energetic as Aina, and although she might seem a bit petulant at first, she provides a fine contrast to Aoi’s performance, as the two make it easier to see both generations shown offsetting each other very well.

The supporting cast are all good, with the men (including Taiga, Shono Hayama and Huey Ishizaki) giving relatable, yet pathetic performances, while the women (including Akiko Kikuchi and Maho Yamada) make the most out their small roles. Particularly Yamada, who has some of the best and incisive lines of the film.

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As for its flaws, not all of the ideas in the film are explored equally due to there being so many; the storytelling can be a bit off-putting in its intent in its non-linear fashion and the ending is a bit overdone, although it features a great animated cut-scene by Ryo Hirano.

But the message is loud and clear and Japanese Girls Never Die delivers that message in an exuberant, vibrant and even slightly poignant fashion. And with Yu Aoi as the face (and the heart) of its message, the film will linger in one’s mind for quite a while.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Yu Aoi

Good supporting cast

Exuberant direction, vibrant cinematography and precise editing

Much thoroughly explored thematic material to mull through

CONS

Overworked ending

Polarizing storytelling

Not all ideas are explored equally

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Mitsuki Takahata, Taiga, Shono Hayama, Huwie Ishizaki, Ryo Kase, Akiko Kikuchi, Maho Yamada, Motoki Ochiai, Serina
Director: Daigo Matsui
Screenwriters: Misaki Setoyama, based on the novel “Azumi Haruko wa yukue fumei” by Mariko Yamauchi

Movie Review – The Villainess

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EXPECTATIONS: A career-defining role for Kim Ok-bin. And also, kick-ass action scenes!

REVIEW: Kim Ok-bin is a South Korean actress that I have been following for a long time (not literally!) and I have always found her to be very talented in a variety of roles, like her dramatic film debut in the horror Voice, to her charming and adorable role in the sex comedy/musical Dasepo Naughty Girls and her comedic role in The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan.

But it was when she worked with Park Chan-wook for the dark comedy/vampire film Thirst that she started having an acting emergence. Nailing both dramatic parts, comedic parts and especially the femme fatale parts like a pro, she won many awards for her performance. Ever since then, her roles have gotten a bit smaller than expected, with small roles like The Front Line and Actresses; and she ended up in box office flops like 11 A.M.

Now, after eight years since her role in Thirst, she finally has a leading role in The Villainess, an action extravaganza from Jung Byung-gil, the director from the action/crime flick Confession of Murder. Gathering great buzz from Cannes, including garnering a 4-minute standing ovation, people have been highly anticipating this. Is the film worth the buzz?

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The film starts off with a spectacular 10-minute action scene, entirely shot in POV, as the main character takes down like 40 people through hallways, staircases and even a personal gym, leading to the title card. So it is advised that audiences should not come late to the screenings, as this takes place straight away after the opening credits.

The film is about the story of a ruthless female assassin named Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), who from an early age (residing in China, with her father) has been taught to kill. She becomes a sleeper agent for South Korea’s intelligence agency after being caught, which they promise her freedom after 10 years of service. But it’s not all that easy when two men (Shin Ha-Kyun and Bang Sung-jun) from her past and present make an unexpected appearance in her life, bringing out her deep, dark secrets.

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Let’s get to the good and bad already. The good? Kim Ok-bin herself. As seen in The Villainess, she has finally acquired a leading role that is worthy of her talents. Having capable martial arts training before tackling the role, she displays grace and capable physical prowess in her action scenes. Whether she is riding a motorcycle, scaling buildings, firing guns and throwing axes, she easily convinces as Sook-hee, the assassin.

As Sook-hee, the woman within, Kim nails the role with gusto. Lending depth and even a bit of insanity (like her character in Thirst) to her soulful, yet vengeful archetype of a character, she again shows why she made such a fuss back in 2009. If she doesn’t get better roles after this, then something seriously is wrong out there.

As for the supporting cast, they are all fine in the archetypal roles. Shin Ha-kyun (who plays an adversary to Kim Ok-bin for the third time since Thirst and The Front Line) is great as Joong-sang, as he conveys menace in a scary, yet understated manner. Bang Sung-jun is likable and brash as Hyun-soo, a love interest to Sook-hee who is more than he seems. But besting both of the men is Kim Seo-hyung. Playing a mentor character to Kim Ok-bin once again since Voice, she just nails the part of the ice cold personae, as Kwon-sook.

Now, let’s get to the action scenes. Overall, they are fantastic. Apart from the opening scene, there are scenes on motorbikes, buses, edges of buildings, restaurants and other settings, and they are all shot with so much energy and verve that it becomes almost surreal. There’s a scene where Sook-hee tries to escape from a training facility and the way the world uncovers (with smooth editing and long takes) is just so dream-like, it becomes almost enchanting. Some may find it disorienting due to the style utilized i.e. handheld camera shots, so those who suffer with motion sickness be warned.

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Now let’s get to the bad. Or a better word, mixed. The story itself is nothing new; basically an amalgam of prior assassin films like La Femme Nikita and others, but the storytelling is refreshingly free from spoon-feeding and pandering towards the audience, unlike Hollywood blockbusters, which would have characters stand to point at something and explain the plot. But the plot is told with lots of flashbacks that it does tend to get convoluted at times. Thankfully, the story is told with three distinct acts that makes it clear enough for the audience to latch on to.

Also, the drama in the film tends to be quite cheesy at times. Although some of the cheesiness makes sense due to the events of the plot but when it becomes more sincere, some of the drama becomes so melodramatic, that it can be quite laughable. And another flaw (which may be laughable itself) is the level of violence. With the amount of weapons involved including guns, knives, hammers, axes, ropes, cars, hairpins etc; it is bloody, gory and uncompromising, which will both thrill and befuddle, so be warned.

Overall, The Villainess is a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of action films, female-led films, Kim Ok-bin and South Korean cinema. I hope that after this film, both Kim Ok-bin and director Jung Byung-gil will be appreciated for their efforts and move on to do more ambitious work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kim Ok-bin gives a fantastic performance

Good supporting cast

Spectacular action sequences

Storytelling is refreshing due to lack of spoonfeeding

The editing and camerawork create a surreal feel

CONS

Cheesiness in the storytelling

The story can be quite convoluted

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun. Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyun, Jung Hae-kyun
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Screenwriters: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik