Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Boss, My Hero


This Korean high school/gangster genre mash-up had me laughing out loud, and that's saying summat. No wonder, then, that it was the most successful comedy of 2001, although if you're not Korean, or haven't seen a truckload of Korean films, you might be a little freaked out by all the violence -- I'd estimate around a thousand slaps, kicks, punches and whacks with a baseball bat in the tidy 98 minute run time. What's likely to throw the average Western viewer is which slaps are supposed to be funny, and which ones are just plain wrong. The key here is in determining who deserves to be slapped. It is a generally understood concept in Korean culture that there are some people who just need to be slapped. Repeatedly. However, there are those who don't, and in doing so you do them, and the society at large, a disservice, and deserve to be slapped. See how this can all spiral out of control? In My Boss, My Hero, that's exactly what happens.

So you've got mid-level mob boss Do-shik (Jeong Joon-ho), a youthful-looking guy, well-respected, but he never finished high school and his status-conscious boss wants him to go back and graduate -- a straight-up fish-out-of-water comedic premise. But during the course of the story, myriad themes and social issues are explored, extending to the proper application of corporal punishment, corruption in the educational system, school bullying, sexual harassment, teenage prostitution, homosexual persecution and bad karaoke. Oh, and did I mention all the slapping?

Bear in mind that teachers slapping their students around has long been the norm in Korean schools (maybe it's changed, but as of 2001 it was still S.O.P., even in the Gangnam high school where the story is set). As I've mentioned before, Korea has had a rough go of it over the last hundred years -- a brutal colonization by Japan, then the civil war and subsequently a series of dictatorships, both north and south. Institutional violence has been inculcated into the culture (and they were a tough lot even before the 20th century). It's important to keep all this in mind when watching a film like My Boss, My Hero; underneath it all, they're just people like us, with the same loves, lusts, allegiances, and sense of right and wrong. Maybe a little more slap-happy …

Much of the laughs come from the casting of very funny, and funny-looking, actors. Several guys in this flick, you start laughing just looking at them. It's refreshing! Get a goofy-looking guy to play a goofy guy -- go figure, it works. Then make the goofy guy do the human tripod thing (a traditional Korean discipline/torture in which one is forced to balance on two feet and forehead, hands behind back -- also employed in the films Friend and Attack the Gas Station).

I gotta get more into Asian comedies. I wasn't disappointed by Wakeful Nights and you won't be with My Boss, My Hero.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Retribution

Another Kiyoshi Kurosawa picture, another devastating Koji Yakusho performance. Don't know what I'm talking about? That's OK, it really doesn't matter; such is the immediate, visceral nature of film, all you need do is lend 100 minutes to the screen and you'll get it. I'm forever throwing out names and dates and production trivia, but in the end, it's all about the images, the conjured floating world playing out in our eyes. Such is the paradox of film criticism: The better the film, the less you need say about it.

Hey, where are you going? I was only kidding! What you should know is this: Retribution (2006) is a moody, haunting supernatural thriller very much in the mode of Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001). I was a big Kiyoshi Kurosawa booster at one point, but stuff like Charisma (1999), Seance (2000), Bright Future and Doppelganger (both 2003) left me so cold and bored that I sorta drifted away. That said, I found Retribution to be a refreshing return to form.

What's it about? Oh drowning, mostly. There's a serial killer on the loose in Tokyo who likes to drown people in sea water (go figure). The detective on the case (Koji Yakusho) seems to have a personal connection to the case -- this backstory comes gradually, inexorably to the fore, along with a ghost. That's all I'm willing to say at this time …

Retribution is kind of an amalgam of Kurosawa's two finest films, Cure and Pulse. From Cure it takes the serial killer/police procedural thing; from Pulse, the sense of creeping, inevitable spiritual doom. It stands not quite so tall as its forebears, but is a worthy entry and worth a look.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sleepy Eyes of Death Vol. 3

Hooray! Animeigo has released the third and final batch of Sleepy Eyes of Death films (see my reviews of the first and second). The box contains the final four of 12 excellent samurai films starring the incandescent Raizo Ichikawa. You get #9 A Trail of Traps, #10 Hell is a Woman, #11 In the Spider's Lair, and #12 Castle Menagerie. I review #9 and #12 in Warring Clans, Flashing Blades. I thought they were going to include those reviews in the box, but I guess they forgot. (They did use a quote from this here blog for a box blurb.)

The later SEOD films were particularly dark, with devil worshipers and psychotic elites around every corner. Through it all, our Nemuri Kyoshiro (Ichikawa) cuts a shining path with his sharp wit and patented Full Moon Cut. I threw on Trail of Traps as soon as I got the box and found it every bit as enjoyable as the first time I saw it, maybe more. 

This one's a no-brainer, folks: Ya gotta get it. Specialty outfits like Animeigo are on their last legs these days -- you won't just be getting a bunch of lively, bizarre and thoroughly entertaining samurai films, you'll be helping to sustain an important cultural resource. I don't know about you, but I've been stockpiling disks for years -- I don't want to be at the mercy of the cloud, and someone else's idea of what I want to watch. Maybe they'll offer these films, maybe they won't. All I know is I got mine and you should get yours ... before it's too late.