Without a doubt, Korea is becoming the brightest new country in the Asian filmmaking world. Between Shiri, Whasango, and JSA, they have put out three of the liveliest and most interesting movies released in all of Asia in the past several years. It probably comes as little surprise that two of those three movies deal explicitly with the relationship between North and South Korea: Shiri deals with it in the guise of an action thriller, while JSA is more of a tragic drama.
This is not to say that one movie is inherently better than the other. Shiri is an audience-pleaser and full of slam-bang action; JSA, derived from a bestselling thriller, is more contemplative and thoughtful, with fine acting and a fairly complicated plot that doubles back on itself several times. Both movies are likely to find their audiences easily, and in fact JSA quickly outgrossed Shiri during its run in Korean and Asian theaters.
JSA works in much the same vein as recent American military thrillers like A Few Good Men, where somewhat untested young men and women come up against the weight of the system and try to prove themselves right. JSA, fortunately, doesn't depend on any of the theatrics of that movie (or its jury-rigged plotting or ham-handed execution) to make its points. Over US$1 million (a sizable budget by Korean standards) was spent on building exact replicas of the bridges and buildings at Panmumjeom; there's never a cheesy or unconvincing moment.Read more
A movie like Whasango, you either dig it or you don't. Of course I dug it: this is a cross between a manga, a wuxia movie and a Final Fantasy-style video game come to life. It's not perfect, and anyone who's not already a fan of this sort of thing is likely to be irritated by the showiness of it all. Those of us who came for the showiness will be rolling around in glee. Those of us who were bullied in high school and want vicarious revenge will also love it.
Korea is fast becoming the new hot spot for Asian cinema. Shiri and JSA were competent political thrillers-cum-action movies (although JSA was more political than action), and now with Whasango, we get a comic-book-style FX-driven event film. It's not terribly deep — in fact it's downright silly at times — but the filmmakers know it and have a grand time with the material.
Whasango takes place, I think, in something of the same kind of alternate universe as Jeunet and Caro's fantasy The City of Lost Children. Everything is low-tech/high-tech; everything's rusted metal or stained concrete, and it's raining all the time. The kids fight in the mud of the school's athletic yard and apparently demolish half the school every time they fight, and yet somehow the walls are still standing.Read more
Chaos is a diabolically ingenious thriller, about as close to a perfect textbook example as you could get for this sort of thing. The director, Hideo Nakata, gave us the genuinely terrifying and highly influential Ring in 1999; here, a year or so later, he gives us a paranoid Hitchcockian labyrinth that's no less fascinating. Because any discussion of the movie is bound to produce spoilers, I will tread very lightly here.
The movie opens on the simplest possible note. A husband and wife are having a polite lunch at a French restaurant. He gets up to pay the bill; she steps outside, possibly for a smoke. When he returns, she's vanished. Curiously, he does not call the police, which is our first suspicious clue. Later that day at work, he gets a call: "Your wife has been kidnapped." "Can I talk to her?" the husband asks. "Not really; she's kind of out of breath. I just finished fucking her."
There's a ransom demand, of course, and the police get involved. He leaves with the police to deliver the ransom, wondering aloud about the crime in the car. "The perp might be watching now," the detective tells him. "Try not to talk to me." So far we have our suspicions that somehow the husband is responsible, but nothing to confirm it. He seems concerned enough — if it weren't for the nonchalant way he dealt with his wife's actual vanishing. (I wondered at this point if the movie was in fact going to follow the example of the great Dutch thriller of the same name, The Vanishing, in which a desperate husband follows his wife's kidnapper right off the deep end.) Read more