That is right folks we are going to ride the “Korean Wave” wave again and review the 36 episode series Gyebaek–the show chronicles the life and times of the storied warrior General Gyebaek who is remembered in history for leading Baekje’s last stand against the Silla in the Battle of Hwangsanbeol. The Koreans really thought a lot of this guy saying where he walk pools of water appeared . . . well we will get to all of that.
Tag Archives: South Korea
Getting back to our Asian roots our next couple of reviews are going to cover the 36 episode series Gyebaek (2011).
A New World is the first entry in a planned trilogy—thank god.
Those of you who know anything about South Korea know they’ve been making fantastic movies for the past decade or so. Some have dubbed this phenomenon the Korean wave; I say keep surfing with the movie A New World. This is a fantastic first installment of what could be one of the greatest gangster series ever made.
Apparently Korean gangsters have gotten smart and organize themselves into corporations or at least pseudo-corporations that run not only legitimate businesses but their illegal activities as well. The chairman of Goldmoon, South Korea’s largest crime syndicate, is killed in a mysterious car accident, and the battle of who will take over the position begins. One of the candidates is Ja-sung, an undercover police officer who has been operating for eight years and is at the end of his rope and promised retirement, but the police force him to keep working and threaten to leak his identity if he refuses. Who are the real criminals here?
The police break their promise to Ja-sung a second time again refusing to let him retire. Moreover, Ja-sung’s wife was pregnant, but the stress from Ja-sung’s profession results in the baby being still-born. But our friendly police officers show no sympathy for this tragedy. It’s a good thing payback is a bitch. Because our undercover cop pulls off the ultimate coup—in fact the idea was even given to by his slave driving boss; that is, Ja-sung had already secured the loyalty of Jang’s men, leading to Jang’s own death, as well as Ja-sung’s succession as chairman. Feeling deeply betrayed by the police, Ja-sung decides to become a full criminal. He orders the murder of Chief Kang (his immediate cop superior) and Commissioner Ko (Kang’s superior) so that no record will remain of his police membership. He also murders Lee, his only possible rival. The assassins he uses are known as the Yan Bin Hobo’s and when you see the film you will know why.
The last scene is a flash-back from six years ago, when Ja-sung was still beginning as an undercover police officer. He and Jung, at that time a low-level member, successfully kill a much larger group of rival criminals, seemingly enjoying the process. This demonstrates Ja-sung’s early corruption and also the depth of Jung’s friendship with him.
If you miss this film you have only yourself to blame. It is currently playing on Netflix so you don’t have to go through some back channels to find it.
The movie starts at present day Korean peninsula, the man simply known as “Poongsan” – from the brand of North Korean cigarettes he smokes – makes regular trips across the DMZ to smuggle everything from people to antiques. No one knows whether he is from the North or the South, though from his commando-like abilities he is obviously highly trained. He makes contact with clients via a makeshift memorial bulletin board for divided families along the DMZ. On one mission he smuggles an antique, as well as a young boy, from North to South but when they are caught by the police, the South’s National Intelligence Service becomes aware of Poongsan’s existence. They contract him to bring a young woman, In-ok (Kim Gyu-ri), from Pyongyang to her lover (Kim Jong-su), a high-ranking North Korean official who recently defected and is still guarded by NIS agents. The arrogant official, who is paranoid about being assassinated (and rightfully so because he is), has been holding out on writing a report for the NIS until In-ok joins him. On the journey across the DMZ, In-ok accidentally sets off a mine that almost kills her and Poongsan, and she also has to be revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when she almost drowns.
The mission is successful but In-ok has become attached to Poongsan who saved her life. Suspicious that the two made love during the crossing, the arrogant abuses In-ok after they are reunited and she expresses a desire to return to the North. Meanwhile, Poongsan is tortured by an NIS team leader (Choi Mu-seong) to find out whether he is a North Korean agent, but is rescued by the team leader’s boss (Han Gi-jung). Poongsan is forced to rescue NIS agent Kim Yong-nam, who’s been caught in the North and is under harsh interrogation; in gratitude, and appalled by his own agency’s methods, Kim later helps Poongsan escape from the NIS’ control. But then Poongsan and In-ok are captured by North Korean agents in the South. In-ok is killed breaking Poongsan’s heart, however, he keeps working and in the last scene his luck runs out as he is shot by a North Korean while pole vaulting over a battier.
One interesting thing about this film is that Poongsan is apparently mute not saying a word throughout the whole two hour film therefore using either the words of others around Poongsan or what you imagine he would say or is thinking when he is alone to know what is going on. An interesting device/technique to be sure. The love story between a naturally mute protagonist (what else!?), about who we don’t get to know anything, and a North Korean woman who is abused by her husband, who actually loves her.
The protagonist, about whose motives we don’t get to know anything in the course of the movie either, still remains somewhat interesting. He is a border runner who doesn’t belong on either on this side nor on the other. He is homeless and yet has his home in both Koreas and therefore is most likely also a symbolization of the inner conflict of a divided Korea. He is a wanderer between the two worlds, it seems, and because of this he also has some superhuman powers.
It is fascinating to see Poongsan succeed in doing with the greatest of ease what so many of the best elite soldiers aren’t able to do: to take a walk through the demilitarized zone. No one stands a chance against this man, until the script demands that Poongsan is overpowered. In such a case it suddenly becomes pretty easy to deal with him.
Poongsan is very good film it has an original, good story and uses unconventional devices. What was the last American film you remember where the lead character doesn’t say a word throughout the entire film? Poonsang was a box office smash in Asia—as it should be. If we had films like this in American theaters I just might go back. Alas we don’t.
Joint Security Area is the first film of our Korean Cold War trifecta. In 2000 when it debuted it was the highest grossing Korean film of all time. It was shot on location at the demilitarized zone or DMZ (the heavily patrolled border dividing North and South Korea). The film is explained through a series of flashbacks, flashbacks that show low level North and South Korean soldiers becoming friends, drinking together and sharing pictures and gifts. This is of course taboo between the two countries which are still technically at war.
Two North Korean soldiers are found dead by gunshot wound while a lone South Korean soldier heads back toward his side of the DMZ. The South Korean troops get their man however a firefight erupts and two days later the fragile relationship between the two countries is on the verge of war. An international peace agency sends in a Swiss Korean Army officer who attempts to sort through the evidence and discover what actually happened. She is warned at the beginning by the ranking General in charge of the DMZ that the outcome of this proceeding is not the point, but that the process be totally neutral—a warning she ignores to her own peril.
Explained through flashbacks it is shown that Soo-hyeok (a South Korean) was on patrol with other soldiers, only to get lost on the North Korean side of the DMZ and to partially trip a mine; found by Kyeong-pil and Woo-jin, (both North Koreans) who deactivate the mine, which later prompts Soo-hyeok to throw written messages over the border to maintain contact. Eventually inviting Soo-hyeok across the border, the three become a group of friends that soon includes Sung-shik, with the four agreeing to leave politics out of their friendship so to remain loyal to their own country.
As tensions rise between the North and South, Soo-hyeok and Sung-shik return to the North to say goodbye and celebrate Woo-jin’s birthday, only to be discovered by a commanding officer from the North and resulting in a Mexican Standoff. Despite Woo-jin panicking and betraying his friends, Kyeong-pil convinces Woo-jin, Soo-hyeok and the officer to lower their weapons, only for Sung-shik to panic and shoot the commanding officer when he reaches for his radio; when Woo-jin draws his gun again, Sung-shik kills him, before shooting his corpse several times out of anger. Kyeong-pil persuades Sung-shik to lay down the gun and for the two to flee with a false alibi of being kidnapped, before throwing away the evidence that he and Woo-jin were fraternizing with Southern soldiers. After shooting Kyeong-pil to complete his alibi, Sung-shik and Soo-hyeok flee across the border, with the former getting past unseen; since Soo-hyeok has a wounded leg from the firefight, he is the only soldier seen.
As the investigator starts piecing this together (using the only real clue a missing bullet) and confronts the soldiers one South Korean throws himself out of a window putting him into a coma. After that horrific incident, her family’s past is uncovered and it turns out that her father was a general for the North Korean army tainting any neutrality she may have brought to the proceedings. Because the missing bullet which all of her theories hinged on was intentionally thrown away she cannot figure out who really shot Woo-jin due to a remaining inconsistency in their stories. Sophie (the investigator) hugs Soo-hyeok and wishes him well, only for Soo-hyeok to steal an officer’s pistol before committing suicide as he is escorted to a waiting car. It is revealed Soo-hyeok shot Woo-jin, and he committed suicide out of guilt for Woo-jin’s death and Sung-shik’s suicide attempt.
The film magnificently concludes with a photograph of the joint security area that accidentally contains all four soldiers.
This film is the perfect kickoff for our Cold War series. It has all the elements of a Cold War movie: you’ve got two sides with opposing ideologies – and in fact it’s communism versus capitalism, and as in the West, capitalism has shown its economic might over basically an ideology which in North Korea happens to be called juche instead of communism. Juche means independence or self-reliance, but in North Korea juche is simply Orwellian doublespeak for totalitarianism run horrifically amuck. But the fact of the matter is that the people of these two countries are no different from each other, and what separates them is a fence. A big fence, yes. A fence I wouldn’t want to cross, yes. A 100% jones fest, yes. The fact of the matter is that at the heart of it, in the DMZ where they all meet, in the last scene in the picture together, they are not fighting. One of them is even smiling for the camera. But that’s not the real reason this is a good movie. The real reason this is a good movie is because of the Cold War aspects of it: the spies, the electrified fences, the constant threat of total war. The stakes are high. And we see these individuals who are caught up as pawns in this very high stakes game – who really just want to go home. It’s all there for the writing – but think of how many different ways this could have been played out. It could have gone to total war. Those guys could have been court-martialed.
What parallel do we have to this situation in the United States right now? Nothing. We have some disorganized group of terrorists, who have no united front so to speak, who are intentionally walled off as cells so that one group can’t affect the other if they are caught. Moreover, in the U.S. right now our real enemies are within: the government, corrupt politicians, police brutality, big corporations and banks. There aren’t the clear sides that you have in a Cold War situation. We keep trying to manufacture wars, as if we were nostalgic for the Cold War: the war on drugs, the war on terrorism. But we find it hard to make that work when the real enemy is us: our own corruption, our own consumerism, our own fiscal irresponsibility as a country, our own fanaticism and arrogance in the face of poverty. Our own political correctness that we have let hogtie us into an inability to do anything about the “isms” that we claim to care so much about eradicating. The only good movie to come out of Hollywood to address such issues is V for Vendetta. Otherwise, Hollywood has been left as bankrupt of ideas as Lehman Brothers.
What is America missing that gives Korean cinema an edge over the domestic crap we call film? Simple, we still have a Cold War between the North and the South which invites many exciting scripts and opportunities.
For years many of America’s greatest films have a basis in some form of Cold War tension or potential disaster. Think about the many James Bond movies, or movies like The Spy Who Came in From Out of the Cold (previously reviewed on this site), Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, and the list could go on and on. However with the Cold War essentially over in 1989 all these great spy and other similar type dramas had withered away at least here in America.
Let us not forget though that North and South Korea are still technically at war. Only an armistice has been signed, not a treaty, so to say they have a Cold War between two countries is actually an understatement. Now that Sonny boy has taken over and is posing for the world by blowing up his uncles and other relatives, the potential for story lines is wide open not only for the division of North and South Korea but also for the unification of North and South Korea. Perhaps even our idiotic American writers could come up with a good script. Since 1950 we have had over 50 years of tales of the North brainwashing its citizens and the South trembling at the size of their army, each country spying the balls out of the other, the North using torture, the South using more conventional techniques. You also get some good tangential spinoffs like City Hunter (previously reviewed on this site). That’s not to even mention the gangster movies (though they have nothing to do with the Cold War). You get all three. It’s a writer’s dream. Women are even given a stronger role in Korean movies and television shows than they used to be. So let’s take a look. The next three movies we review will embody this blend of Cold War situations and themes and gritty writing. But if you are an American director, take note: we at JPFMovies are not advocating that you copy any more Asian films. These movies and shows are offered as role models and not as material to be plagiarized (as Spike Lee just did with Old Boy):
Joint Security Area
Stay alert. But beware. Once you get hooked on really good Korean cinema, you may not find yourself able to set foot in an American theater ever again. We at JPFMovies know this for a fact, as it has been over a decade since we had the stomachs for American film.
A “reverse re-make,” Kim Ji-woon comes over from South Korea and directs “The Last Stand” the 2013 action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. What the hell happened here? Part 1 of 2.
As many of you know, we here at JPFmovies have been bitching about the bankruptcy of American cinema for some time now. Holly Wood’s creative impoverishment is seen the trend that American studios and directors are now copying (or to use the polite term “re-making”) South Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Asian films in general instead of producing their own original films. Cases in point include: Spike Lee’s “re-making” the gritty South Korean film Old Boy (2003) (due sometime this year); Universal Studio’s and Keanu Reeves (based in all accounts) butchering of the Japanese classic tale of The 47 Ronin (due Xmas 2013); The Grudge (2004) a remake of the Japanese film Ju-on (2002); The Ring (2002) a remake of the Japanese film Ringu (1998); The Lake House (2006) with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves (again) a remake of the South Korean film Il Mare (2000); Martin Scorsese’s crime thriller The Departed (2006) which won an Academy Award for Best Picture is a remake of the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (2002) (a far better movie); and The Hunger Games (2012) a rip-off of Battle Royale (2000), a Japanese film/novel that came out over ten years earlier. The list does not even include films like The Seven Samurai (1954) made by the “Emperor” Akira Kurosawa.
However The Last Stand (2013) goes against the grain. How could Kim Ji-woon, director of the outstanding film A Bittersweet Life (2005), make the wretched, rigidly formulaic The Last Stand? I am pretty sure that part of the problem was Kim Jee-Woon and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s what we shall term a failure to communicate. They literally could not speak each other’s language, relying on translators because Kim can’t speak English and Schwarzenegger’s heavy Teutonic accent. Another explanation is that Holly Wood has become so devoid of ability that it actually sucks the talent out of people who have it. When Kim’s plane landed in Los Angeles, it seems like he had a temporary lobotomy. Hopefully, on his way back to South Korea, Kim will regain his full facilities.
So let’s contrast Kim’s A Bittersweet Life with The Last Stand.
First we examine the impressive A Bittersweet Life.
Korean films have come a long way, evolving faster than any other industry in the world with quality and unique films. Coming from a director known for his offbeat films with sincere inclination towards action, violence and revenge, A Bittersweet Life is a film about life’s lessons. A lesson that clarifies, in life, irrespective of who you are, good or bad, you’re sure have to moments that are sweet and bitter in nature. These moments when put together become “A Bittersweet Life.”
Kim Sun-Woo is an enforcer working for the coldest, ruthless and calculating crime boss in the city. This crime boss has bestowed all his trust upon Kim and considers him the loyal disciple. One fine afternoon, he is summoned by his boss and instructed over lunch that he’s to take on an assignment. An assignment that should be kept very secretive and the developments in it should directly reach the boss at regular intervals. The boss is romantically involved with a woman who’s younger than half his age. He loves her genuinely however feels she may be cheating on him. He appoints Kim to investigate and tells him to finish her off if caught red handed. Unfortunately, at first sight, he falls for the boss’s girlfriend and also uncovers that she’s been cheating. However, he does not have the guts to pull the trigger on her, and therefore, lets her go off the hook. When the boss discovers, Kim becomes the immediate target. With boss’s entourage on his trail, Kim should run for his life but should return sooner or later to give his piece of mind back to people who betrayed him.
Korean films love to glorify violence like no other industry in the world. This is the Kind of violence that’ll make you love violence. I mean it! The best part is Koreans love to fight with swords, knives, sickles, machetes, hammers but not guns. So, it’s gruesome to see them chopping each other in the name of revenge. I suppose their idea of carrying these instruments instead of guns is to inflict as much pain as possible. Think about it and you’d be surprised that instead of putting a bullet in someone’s head, take a knife or something and start slashing them and the sadistic pleasure you get out of it is priceless, according to these Koreans.
In life, there are moments that are good, bad and bitter; it’s the mixture of these moments which completes life and gives it a meaning. Kim’s life had its share of sweet and bitter moments however he chose to let go off the former and take control of the latter. The time spent with his boss’s daughter are his sweetest moments while the repercussion it left upon his life turned all the sweet in to bitter moments, eventually, only giving him grief to live with.
Performances were outstanding and there’s hardly anything to complain. Stunts deserve a special mention and the credit goes to Doo-Hong Jung for keeping stunts top class and highly professional. In short, A Bittersweet Life leaves you with one thought to ponder over. Life gives you good and bad but it’s your ability to choose wisely instead of dwelling on one.
Next we’ll look Kim’s The Last Stand and hope it is Kim’s last American movie.