Suicide Missionary

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011)

55th BFI London Film Festival

The ticket-holder line for the Vancouver International Film Festival special screening of Takashi Miike’s 3-D “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” snaked around the corner of the theater even in the miserable Vancouver drizzle. But these weren’t the typical Miike fanboys. Many were middle-aged and chatted about their fond memories of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 masterpiece, “Harakiri.” They wondered how this remake would measure up with caution in their voices: “It’s like remaking ‘The Godfather’.” For a film rarely mentioned outside critical circles compared to other Japanese films of the era, “Harakiri” — aided by Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance — developed a devoted following among cinephiles and even casual fans of Japanese cinema.

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Jogging Memories of Murder

Magnolia Pictures

Coming of age as a Yonsei University sociology major during South Korea's turbulent struggle for democracy surely contributed to director Bong Joon-ho's unique ability to transform domestic issues and contradictions into allegory. As a young cinephile, Mr. Bong was exposed to the auteurs of the region through the university cine club. He directed three short films before his feature-length debut and box-office flop, "Barking Dogs Never Bite" in 2000. But "Memories of Murder" (2003) was critically and commercially successful at home and abroad, putting his name alongside other local filmmaking wunderkinds, most notably Park Chan-wook. His next release, "The Host" (2005), an allegory of the U.S. occupation and the changing Korean family in the guise of a retro monster film, remains the top-grossing South Korean film of all time. Subsequent short film "Shaking Tokyo" in "Tokyo!" was easily the best installment in the overall uneven omnibus production featuring co-contributors Leos Carax and Michel Gondry. Finally, with recent masterwork "Mother," Mr. Bong proves that — unlike Mr. Park's latest over-stylized disappointments — his films only become richer and more intricate in their form and content. Here, Mr. Bong addresses the casting choices, cinematic influences and characters in "Mother."

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Pulling the Apron Strings

Mother (2009)

Magnolia Pictures

The intense and ultimately violent struggle one mother takes to keep her family together is at the heart of Bong Joon-ho's latest masterwork, "Mother." Wringing from the tale high melodrama, dark humor and taut suspense reminiscent of Hitchcock's best murder mysteries, Mr. Bong continues his trademark deft manipulation of multiple genres while narrowing his focus from vast national and societal issues to that of one woman on a mission.

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Priest Takes Unholy Communion

Focus Features

A priest in a vampire movie usually has one of two functions: to explain the cursed origins of the subhuman creatures or to eventually help dispatch them via a cross, holy water and a wooden stake. But what if the priest is the vampire? In “Thirst” – winner of the Prix du Jury in Cannes – commercially and critically acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook uses this narrative twist to put his own unique and visceral spin on the vampire film’s familiar themes of contagion, morality and eroticism.

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Spirited Awry

Departures (2008)

Regent Releasing/Here Media

In a surprise win over the much-hyped “Waltz with Bashir” and “The Class,” a modest film from Japan took this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. “Departures” is a beautiful, quietly moving film which hits the mark precisely because it does not try to be too ambitious in telling the simple story of a man finding his way in the world.

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Capturing the Dissonance of a Fractured Family

Regent Releasing

About 10 years ago, I was home for the summer after my freshman year in college. This was going to be the summer of catching up on all of the movies I had missed during the hectic year. I was perusing the foreign film section searching for my usual cinematic fare, which at the time was contemporary French and Chinese films. Suddenly, I come across an enigmatic cover with half of a man’s face in shadow. It said “ 'Cure,' a film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa,” and the tagline read, “Madness. Terror. Murder.” Intrigued, I read the back of the DVD case. Although I had never seen a Japanese film before and was not very interested in exploring its cinema, but a reviewer blurb compared “Cure” to recent American hit “Seven.” So I rented “Cure.” It was then and continues to be today one of the best films I have ever seen. I immediately watched as many of Mr. Kurosawa’s movies as I could find. Soon my love of his work compelled me to discover the rest of Japanese cinema, which has become my passion and area of study.

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Open Letter to Will Smith

Photo illustration by Martin Tsai/Critic's Notebook

Dear Will,

First of all, I am a fan. Although I loathed the mindless jingoism of "Independence Day" and the idiocy of "Wild Wild West," I think that "Men in Black" and "Bad Boys" are two of the most entertaining summer blockbusters in recent memory. I also think you are generally underrated as an actor because I remember your fine performances in "Where the Day Takes You," "Six Degrees of Separation" and even "The Pursuit of Happyness," which - let's be real - was some overwrought, Oscar-pandering shit in many ways, but your performance was good nonetheless.

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My Blood-Thirsty Valentine

Let the Right One In (2008)

Magnet Releasing

Leave it to the Swedes to revive the now predictable conventions of the vampire genre with their unique brand of existential depth and stark aestheticism. To say that “Let the Right One In” is a modern horror classic may be true but understates the magnitude of its success as an unflinching take on the sometimes harrowing rites of passage of adolescence and a touching tale of first love. 

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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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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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