Friday, February 12, 2021

A meditation on South Korean entertainment

I used to joke that I didn't watch any entertainment that wasn't in Korean, only it's so frequently true that it's not really a joke anymore. Not that I'd be inclined to feel guilty about this for any reason, but even people who are shouldn't. It's too easy to snark about how unoriginal Hollywood productions are these days, and I find myself watching something made in South Korea and think, "why can't Hollywood do a story like this?"

I recently finished Delayed Justice. Two unrelated Parks -- an attorney who only went to high school, and a reporter from the wrong side of the tracks who recently lost his good-paying job -- team up to get justice for one downtrodden group of defendants after another, all connected to a corrupt judge, an uncouth businessman turned mayor of Seoul, and a kingmaker who used to be a prosecutor during the last military dictatorship. It was a fun little show, and I'd be lying if I said that some of the backstage drama -- one of the original actors got picked up for drunk driving and needed to be replaced -- didn't add to some of the appeal.

I also recently enjoyed Lucky Romance, but that was primarily because the leads (Ryu Joon Yeol and Hwang Jung Eum) are so charming and talented they could move me while reading the phone book. And A Korean Odyssey was one of the best ensemble comedies I've seen in a long time. And while sometimes I tire of derring-do in Korean action, Vagabond was AWESOME. Now if only they come back for a second season to close the loop...

K-dramas are fun, but in general they're just not as satisfying as the movies. (I don't think this is specific to Korean entertainment.) Not all movies are perfect -- I can think of more than a few that have fallen flat -- but when they're good you feel like you've spent two hours (or more) wisely. Best movie I've seen in several months is Beasts Clawing at Straws. By the title, you can guess that it's about the poor and/or desperate of South Korea trying to pull themselves up with one fever-pitched, make or break attempt, and you'd be right. The stories are intertwined, and even when you think you can see where it's going you'll still feel hit by a curve ball at least once. Can't say it had a happy ending, but most people will be satisfied by it.  

Beasts Clawing At Straws...everyone is as well-adjusted as you think they are.

I'm probably like a lot of movie viewers in that I'm prone to following good actors. Ryu Joon Yeol, mentioned above, is REALLY good. The first movie I saw him in was Believer, and he played the kind of character that made me want to hide under my covers while I hyperventilated. Then I saw him play completely different roles in Little Forest, The King, and Hit-and-Run Squad that made me feel, well, a little less panicky. He's an actor I really hope we see more from soon. 

Gang Dong Won is another compelling actor. I knew this from some of his recent films, but I was surprised at how adept he was over a decade ago in The Temptation of Wolves (look, I'm not the one who makes up these titles, okay?) and Haunters. He, like Ryu Joon Yeol, is a good actor for a director to enlist when they need someone to sell something absolutely crazy and make you believe it. 

Ryu Joon Yeol: trust me, this guy can play scary as easily as he can play charming.

No discussion of Korean cinema is complete without Song Kang Ho (you can think of him as the Parasite guy). With the glaring, horrible exception of Drug King (just...why?), he's been universally fantastic. The oldest movie I've seen him in is a ridiculous little film called Foul King, but he managed to be really touching and made the best of the material. After that, he really took off, starting with Joint Security Area and then Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. (People have probably seen him in Snowpiercer and The Host, but those just aren't my cups of my tea.) He was excellent in both The Attorney and A Taxi Driver, but my favorite of all of his roles is Age of Shadows. Basically, if you see Kang featured as an actor, it's an almost sure thing the production will be good.

Wait, aren't there Korean actresses? Um, yes, but I'm sorry to say that with few exceptions, women have better roles on television than in the big screen. Many of the movies fail the first two questions of the Bechdel test, and I've seen very few that pass the fourth question. Actresses who consistently work in movies include Kim Hye Soo, Jun Ji Hyun, Kim Tae Ri, and Kim Go Eun, but even those actresses arguably had roles with more depth on television than in film. In that regard, it's more than a little depressing that South Korea has the same problems that Hollywood does. 

Kim Hye Soo: A talented actress who should keep playing leading roles.

Deb in the City

PS Just about all of these movies are available on Netflix or Viki. Also, I am not getting any consideration from, their information is just more consistent than Wikipedia's.

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