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August 2008

Surfing the Korean Wave

The Korea Society

As part of the New York Korean Film Festival, The Korea Society hosted an Aug. 28 documentary screening and panel discussion on the past, present and future of Korean cinema and the Korean wave cultural phenomenon, Hallyu, sweeping across Asia and the West. 

"Cinema Korea," a documentary by Oscar-nominated director Christine Choy, combines talking head interviews with filmmakers and actors, archival footage of classic Korean films and an overview of national history and culture to contextualize its current popularity. The film dispels the notion that the golden age of Korean cinema began with Kwak Jae-young’s "My Sassy Girl" in 2001.

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For Sprightly Teacher, Life Is Sweet Indeed

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

Simon Mein/Miramax Films

It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of American audiences to "Happy-Go-Lucky," Mike Leigh’s latest film and winner of the Silver Bear at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival. The film is Leigh’s riposte to perceptions that he’s a purveyor of grim kitchen-sink realism, as he presents us with a main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), who is an eternal optimist who strives to see the good in everyone and every situation. Such a disposition is not an alien one to Americans, with their culture that highly prizes optimism and friendliness; but the film and its central character Poppy haven’t gone down too well in Mr. Leigh’s native Britain, where cynicism and pessimism are virtually national traits.

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Terror Suspect, F.B.I. Caught Up in Infernal Affairs

Traitor (2008)

Rafy/Overture Films

Two very different movies compete for the soul of “Traitor,” the new film from writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff based on a story idea of Steve Martin’s. The first and least interesting of the two follows the general, turgid outline of a thriller. It comes complete with slow intercutting between a terrorist and his pursuers, repetitious pans over the skylines of Washington D.C. and too many international locales and “action” scenes that largely consist of star Don Cheadle walking into and out of various buildings.

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Sports Clichés Keep Rollin', Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'

The Longshots (2008)

Tony Rivetti Jr./Dimension Films

Unless something special happens, most sports movies adhere to a depressingly standardized template. You know the drill: Against all odds, underdog character/squad achieves success in whatever chosen competition, with an inspirational coach and a soundtrack full of reliable pop tunes to boot. Successful entries in the genre transcend the format by finding some sort of different, interesting angle with which to approach it, or by presenting characters so well rounded and likable that it’s hard to root against them.

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It Takes a Thief, or a Cop Who Thinks Like One

Going by the Book (2007)

Courtesy photo

Heist movies can be a wellspring of creativity for talented screenwriters and directors ("Rififi," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Reservoir Dogs"). But without innovation, the conventions of set-up, heist, failed negotiations and foiled plans become stale and formulaic. Filmmaker Ra Hee-chan’s debut feature “Going by the Book” goes refreshingly high-concept in its attempt to offer all the commercial pleasures of the familiar heist premise with a slyly comic spin. Penned by Jang Jin, “Going by the Book” comes across at times as the breezier offspring of Johnny To’s one-track-minded "Mad Detective," with the hilarious genre satire of "Hot Fuzz."

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Ghosts in Residence at Korean Hospital

Epitaph (2007)

TLA Releasing

Since its release last year, "Epitaph" – directed by newcomers the Jung Brothers – has screened at several film festivals and been heralded by critics as the best Korean horror film since the 2003 masterpiece "A Tale of Two Sisters." If the latter is true, it surely says more about the floundering state of Asian horror than about the quality of "Epitaph," an overly-contrived and confusing anthology film revived only by its gorgeous aesthetic sensibilities.

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Alas, Poor Shakespeare, We Knew Him Well

Hamlet 2 (2008)

Cathy Kanavy/Focus Features

If this summer has been – as so many have asserted – a great one for comedies, it’s only appropriate that it comes to a close with the release of “Hamlet 2.” The best of the sturdy bunch, Andrew Fleming’s new film gets a lot right about the acting process and why some of us are driven to suffer the rigors and disappointments inherent in putting on any offbeat artistic production. Incisive in its understanding of the primacy of daddy issues in countless works of literature, and boasting a brilliant Steve Coogan performance, the movie is also great fun.

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Peeping Oedipus Comes of Age

Mister Foe (2007)

Magnolia Pictures

Ever since Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" – and the list goes on, the portrayal of voyeurism in film has become somewhat well-worn territory. Although there are always creative directors coming up with new and inventive ways of exploring these ideas, David Mackenzie is not one of them. His newest film, "Mister Foe," is a jumble of a movie, switching gears left and right between themes of voyeurism, coming-of-age, adolescent fantasy, love and loss - underscored by an equally confused, yet hip, soundtrack.

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Long Live Shlock

The Rocker (2008)

George Kraychyk/
Twentieth Century Fox

It is possible to have a good time watching "The Rocker" and still wish certain things had been done differently. For example, one can’t help but wonder how much better a movie it would be had director Peter Cattaneo been authorized to fully unleash Rainn Wilson’s talents. For that to happen, 20th Century Fox would need to be aware of the predominant philosophical conceit in recent comic filmmaking: R-rated is the way to go.

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Bullied Game Boy Seeks Diversion

Ben X (2007)

Film Movement

Most think the gradual democratization of the media and its resources is a good thing, but one can always find a downside. Take bullying for instance, which has reached whole new levels thanks to the advent of accessible technology. Such horrible activities, once confined to a dark corner of the playground, can now be recorded and broadcast to a generally outraged society. "Happy-slapping" (surely the most oxymoronic of terms) videos can be beamed from cell phone to cell phone, or uploaded to the likes of YouTube, turning the Internet into an instrument of humiliation as opposed to illumination.

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