The Wailing

Before I saw The Wailing I had seen it described as one of the scariest Asian movies of the decade – that sort of widespread feedback is enough to get me excited and wary at the same time, and by thirty minutes in to the movie I was wondering if I had accidentally selected another Korean movie with the same name, a comedy caper which was nevertheless entertaining. That’s what most of the reviews don’t tell you – The Wailing isn’t just a horror movie – it’s a comedy, it’s a drama, and it’s a tragic character study which will suck you in and spit you out if you allow yourself to be swallowed.

There’s a certain cultural divide you have to be prepared for when going into most foreign cinema. Sometimes an Asian film can be straight enough and universal enough to be fully understood by any viewer, and sometimes there can be quirky moments or pieces of dialogue or character traits which seem alien. Most of the time if the film is good enough, interesting enough, these can be overlooked or even enhance our viewing and become something a Western viewer looks forward to. When you watch a film with a certain historical or political context, or in the case of The Wailing, with numerous instances of Asian folklore, it can become a little overwhelming. I’ll admit to feeling a little lost in places while watching The Wailing – coming from someone who considers themselves a seasoned viewer of Asian Cinema. I feel like I can’t give an adequate synopsis of the plot due to this, and also due to wanting to avoid spoilers/mystery. All you need to know is that it’s about a small Korean town/village policeman and father who is investigating a mysterious sickness which has been sweeping through the town, coinciding with the arrival of a Japanese man.

The film has received universal acclaim from critics and I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed it too, even if I didn’t absorb everything I could have on first viewing. I suspect more of the puzzle pieces will become clear on a second viewing, possibly uncovering more of the Asian folklore and nods to Christianity. The film passes two and a half hours long and I feel like some of the early scenes could have been saved to get the film closer to a 120 minute run time. 150 mins plus is a long time for a horror film to retain scares and dread and threat and that opening half an hour or so almost feels like a different film, with bumbling keystone cop antics at loose character info eventually giving way to the procedural, the macabre, the horror. Mystery and myth intertwine and a father who seems careless and distant is forced to reevaluate his life and priorities in a race against time, but deception and intrigue seem to thwart him at every turn. Is it scary? There are moments, set pieces, both early on and towards the end which will scare or chill, but once the main plot picks up steam it is that sense of unearthly dread and tension which will get under your skin. The film is so well acted, so beautifully crafted, that it should unnerve even the most hardcore horror viewer – just don’t go in expecting jump scares and knife attacks. Expect the unexpected, expect provocation, and expect lots of reading up on the film after watching. I expect you’ll love it.

Train To Busan

By now if you haven’t seen Train To Busan you’ve probably at least heard of it – breaking box office records and hearts at a furious pace. If indeed you haven’t seen it, you need to set aside a couple of hours, right now, and watch it – Train To Busan is the horror movie of the year and shows that there is still plenty of life left in the shambling undead genre providing you have the right people behind and in front of the camera.

Train To Busan gets right what many horror films get wrong – character. Too often character is sacrificed for plot, or worse, for kills. I love a good beheading or stabbing as much as the next horror fan, but sometimes we want more – more substance, more feeling and care. Cannon Fodder is all well and good, but the impact when someone we actually like, or actively dislike bites the dust is more powerful and the memory of their death and the associated emotional weight stays with us longer. There’s an old belief/saying/remark that I generally accept as containing a lot of truth – that the best horror films are often made by people who don’t make horror movies. While that’s not true across the board, it does sometimes take a person outside of the genre to bring something truly unique or horrifying to the butcher’s table. While Yeon Sang Ho was no stranger to dark material, it would be difficult to classify his previous work as strictly horror – his debut animated feature The King Of Pigs an unsettling look at violence, class, bullying, masculinity, and the follow up The Fake is an equally divisive, unflinching depiction of religion and abuse of power. Train To Busan was the director’s first Live Action movie, and although he filmed it alongside the animated prequel Seoul Station, it depicts a level of character building and command of genre usually reserved for the greatest directors.

At just under 2 hours, Train To Busan covers a lot of ground and gets off the ground within moments – we meet the ‘bit of a dick’ protagonist – a divorcee who apparently cares more for his job than his young daughter. As her Birthday present, she wants to visit her mother in Busan and her dad reluctantly agrees to take her. As they get on the train we pass by several other characters – a working class tough guy with his pregnant wife, a superior wealthy business men, estranged elderly sisters, and a school baseball team with their own interconnected dramas. Just as the train is setting off, a young, sick, injured woman collapses into one of the carriages and the fun begins as she decides to take a chomp out of one of the train workers. The way the ‘virus’ spreads here is more akin to 28 Days Later where a serious bite will result in death and ‘turning’ in a matter of seconds. Within minutes the train is in chaos, with factions being formed, people being slaughtered, some hiding, some fighting, some locking others away to their doom, all while the train scurries along to its final destination.

The pace with which the virus spreads is matched by the plot pacing and direction. There is rarely a moment to breath or relax without some new twist or threat emerging. The characters from different backgrounds all react to the carnage differently, yet all want to survive. The arguments here are of course reminiscent of NOTLD and Day Of The Dead with each voice and ego demanding to be heard and refusing to accept any other opinion as valid. There are a number of terrific set pieces, from scrolling beat-em up fight scenes through zombie filled carriages, to white knuckle tension filled moments as one group tries to lock out another, to the seeming safety of arriving at another station only to find it completely overrun too. Indeed, most of the excitement and scares of the film come from the pacing and the character driven plot, rather than jump-scares or gore.

While the film has its bloody moments, it isn’t overly gory or off-putting for newcomers. Seasoned horror fans will enjoy the action and invention, while new fans will likely be sucked in by the story which is frequently heartbreaking. The performances from top to bottom are great, something vital when you are relying so heavily on character, and most of the writing is on point too. You’ll have fun guessing who, if anyone, will make it to Busan, and the energetic nature of the film will have you thirsting for a rewatch. This is a highly entertaining, game-changing zombie film which reinvigorates a genre bloated by the procession of Walking Dead episodes and clones and frequently equals the heights that the best of the genre has to offer while encouraging those unfamiliar with these types of movies to get on board.

Let us know in the comments what you thought of Train To Busan!

Hansel And Gretel

l_p1021620000

I’d had this recorded on my box for about five years but finally got around to watching it in a futile attempt to make space. I’m glad I did because Hansel And Gretel is yet another unique and beautiful thriller from South Korea which, while not reaching the heights of Chan Wook Park or Kim Jee Woon, is still a film which raises many questions and merges stunning cinematography with ugly violence.

The film follows Eun Soo, a twenty something man who seemingly fears commitment or settling down with a family. In the film’s opening moments he is arguing on the phone with his girlfriend who is recently pregnant, while driving to visit his own sick mother. The argument causes him to crash his car, and he wakes up some time later in the middle of a dense forest. A young girl finds him and beckons him to follow her home, and as he is lost, hurt, and disoriented he has little choice. Upon reaching the house, things are a little bizarre and tense – the house is filled with kids toys, games, sweets, and chocolate, and the parents of the three children seem overly cheery yet nervous. Before long Eun Soo finds himself unable to leave the forest as if he is trapped by some mystical force, and a series of odd events make him question who the children really are and if he will ever escape.

Naturally I don’t want to give too much of the plot away; the film has twists and turns and constantly forces you to question who the victim is, what the motive is, what the reason for the situation could be, and how it will turn out for everyone. All is eventually revealed and in true Fairy Tale style we… well, we get an ending – decide for yourself if it is a happily ever after. The performances from the children are particularly good – again making you question their purpose, and the film cleverly holds back from anything too obviously supernatural until the final minutes. Special credit to Shim Eun Kyung as the eldest daughter for her mature performance. There is a dream-like quality to the film – from the sets to the cinematography, the music, and the moments where the characters seem to lose track of themselves, it does feel like stumbling into a modern, dark fairy tale where no-one can be trusted and everything is trying to eat you. The film lulls, enchants, and intrigues like all good stories should and each shot is set up to look pristine and artful. This isn’t a tale of woodcuts and creatures, more a child’s vision of an ideal world which engulfs and corrupts whatever and whomever it contacts.

Hansel And Gretel may be more difficult to get your hands on than other adult oriented fairytales such as Pan’s Labyrinth but it’s one to grab if you can find it and indulge in another dark fable which reminds us why we love such stories in the first place. Let us know in the comments if you have seen Hansel And Gretel!

A Hard Day – DVD Review

Hard-Day-poster

You know, I was in two minds for a large part of the movie over whether I could really say that I enjoyed it, given that the main character and his pals are all scumbags. As things progress though, you can’t help but cheer for the protagonist as his situation gets steadily worse and more ridiculous. A likable performance by Lee-Sun Kyun as the resourceful anti-hero certainly helps matters, so try not to be turned off by the events of the opening 30 minutes or so, though by that point you should be invested and intrigued enough by the plot to want to continue.

The story follows an unusually difficult day in the life of a shady Detective – not only has he split from his wife and is being investigated by Internal Affairs for bribes and embezzlement, but he kills someone whilst speeding home to his mother’s funeral. It’s at this point that you may need to suspend some believability – it shouldn’t have been too difficult for him to wave down the approaching cop car and say that the person stepped out in front of him – and a quick examination of the body would have unveiled one of the later twists in the movie. Geon-Soo though decides to cover up the event, but when it turns out that the corpse was a wanted criminal, his own team begins to investigate, and he receives calls from someone claiming to have witnessed the whole thing.

2014 - A Hard Day (still 1)

A well constructed thriller, the film is racked with tension, and doesn’t feel rushed. Almost the first half of the film is taken up with with Geon-Soo’s attempts to cover up his crime, and the second half being an attempt to find out who the mysterious caller is in order to protect himself and his family. As many reviewers have already outlined, there is a refreshing amount of humour, though it is more subtle than on the nose, instead relying on the audience awareness of how absurd events are becoming. A few set-pieces are played out well – the body-hiding in the funeral parlor, the confrontation on the bridge while a bomb ticks down, and the apartment fight scene being the prime examples. It’s the mark of a director in complete control of his craft, which is impressive given that this is only his second directing credit. Also refreshing in the end, is how the central character and his friends are not typical Hitchcock characters, caught up in a crime they happened to stumble upon, but rather they are dirty cops always looking for a quick buck and making highly questionable decisions. This leads to some witty dialogue and of course the increasingly pressurized situation Geon-Soo makes for himself. While most of the cast get only minor supporting roles, each is believable, either as an innocent, bewildered (by Geon-Soo’s odd behaviour) family member or bystander, or as as cop on the merge of being a crook. The two biggest roles, of Geon-Soo and of Detective Choi are played well, with one verging between the typical smooth talking detective and total breakdown, and the other being a commanding, almost otherworldly wicked presence, loving the power he wields.

In summary, it’s another strong thriller from South Korea, so for any fans of Asian Cinema, or diehard crime thriller loves, this is definitely one to try. There isn’t a whole lot of action, and it doesn’t have the John Woo or Tarantino feel which the DVD cover claims, but is distinct in its own way, with plenty of tension, the odd chase and fight, and a nice amount of humour thrown into the mix.

001

Have you seen A Hard Day? Where would you rank it among recent Korean thrillers? Let us know in the comments!