Diva (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A diver on the brink of madness

South Korean film “Diva” is a little psychological thriller packed with conflicting emotions between two different young female athletes. Although sometimes feeling a bit too conventional and predictable as reminiscent of many other similar genre films ranging from “Repulsion” (1965) to “Black Swan” (2010), the movie is mostly competent on the whole, and I appreciated several good elements including its strong lead performance even while often distracted by a number of weak elements in the film.

After the opening scene showing one unfortunate car accident, the movie quickly establishes the relationship between I-yeong (Shin Min-ah) and her best friend Soo-jin (Lee Yoo-young). As shown from a brief flashback scene, I-yeong and Soo-jin have been inseparable thanks to their shared passion toward diving, and both of them have been the members of a prominent diving team, but it soon becomes clear to us that there has always been a considerable gap between them. While I-yeong has been the star athlete of the team, Soo-jin has been the least distinguished member in the group in contrast, and it is quite possible that she may soon be dismissed from the team.

Although she always cannot help but feel uncomfortable whenever her best friend watches her getting all the attentions from others, I-yeong tries as much as she can for keeping Soo-jin around her. Despite the team coach’s understandable objection, she decides to train along with Soo-jin for their synchronize diving in addition to keeping focusing on her solo diving as before, and then, what do you know, Soo-jin comes to show a lot more confidence and skill than before.

Not so surprisingly, tension is slowly developed between I-yeong and Soo-jin due to this unexpected change thrown into their relationship, and then the aforementioned car accident occurs. As their car is sunk into water during the accident, I-yeong manages to escape and then survive alone, but then she becomes unconscious during next several days. When she finally wakes up, she is notified that Soo-jin is presumed to be dead although the police still cannot find her body yet, but she cannot remember what happened at that time, so she naturally feels confused from time to time, while also trying to recover and then resume her training for the upcoming competition for selecting Olympian athletes.

Once I-yeong returns for her training, everything initially looks fine on the surface, but then she finds herself suddenly becoming quite nervous when she is on the diving board. During this and other key moments in the film, director/co-writer Jo Seul-yeah deftly emphasizes how much I-yeong looks vulnerable on the edge of the diving board, and you may wince from time to time if you have aversion to heights like me.

Because it simply looks like she cannot do the training along with other team members, I-yeong requests her own private place for training, and her request is quickly accepted, though her new training place is not exactly ideal to say the least. Although the place is cleaned and scrubbed a lot in advance, it still looks shady and shabby with the constant lighting problem, and it surely feels ominous as I-yeong is doing the training alone in the evening.

Anyway, this seems to help I-yeong considerably, and she does not disappoint her coach and team members during one major competition, but her mind still remains troubled as trying to figure out what the hell happened at the time of the accident. As it turns out that Soo-jin was not totally honest with her, I-yeong’s supposedly strong will and determination become more unstable, and she also begins to experience a number of very disorienting moments, which clearly signify to us that something is not right at all somewhere in her mind.

While its heroine’s viewpoint gradually becomes unreliable along the story, the movie pushes us further into her growing panic and confusion. There is a short but scary moment when a certain genre cliché involved with elevator is effectively delivered, and I also like one particularly scene where the camera smoothly follows I-yeong and then suddenly reveals her seriously disoriented status.

Although it stumbles during its last 20 minutes as hurriedly explaining everything and then delivering the expected finale, the movie is supported well by the solid performance of Shin Min-ah. While looking as convincing as required in those diving scenes in the film, she is also believable in her character’s inner conflict and deterioration along the plot, and her beautiful expressive face is certainly utilized well as the foreground of the story. Even her character does not seem to express anything, Shin subtly suggests the repressed feelings and thoughts in the corner of her character’s mind, and that is the main reason why we are not so surprised when her character comes to dive into more madness later in the story.

The other notable cast members of the film are mostly stuck with their respective functional roles while ably supporting Shin on the whole. While Lee Yoo-young did a fine job of hovering over the story as required, Lee Kyu-hyung and Joo Suk-tae are suitable as two male supporting characters at the fringe of the story, Oh Ha-nee brings some spirit and personality to her small but crucial role in the movie.

In conclusion, “Diva” is fairly entertaining at times during its 84-minute running time, but it is not successful enough to compensate for several noticeable flaws including its rather weak last act. Nevertheless, Jo, who incidentally makes a feature film debut here, demonstrates to us that she is a good filmmaker with considerable potentials, and I hope that she will soon get a chance to move onto better things for her growing filmmaking career.

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Enola Holmes (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her game is afoot indeed

Netflix film “Enola Holmes”, which was released yesterday, has lots of fun with its feministic response to the tales of one of the most famous detective characters in the history. Mainly fueled by the vibrantly plucky performance from its exceptional lead performer, the movie joyfully bounces from one narrative point to another before eventually arriving at its finale, and you may find yourself looking forward to watching its resilient and resourceful heroine’s next adventures.

Millie Bobby Brown, who has been mainly known for her electrifying Emmy-nominated breakthrough turn in Netflix TV series “Stranger Things”, plays Enola Holmes, the young sister of Sherlock Holmes who has grown up in a rural family house since she was very young. Despite what is indirectly suggested by her first name (It is “alone” spelled backwards, you know), she has never been alone under the caring guidance of her dear mother Eudoria (Helen Bonham Carter), and several early moments between them show us how well she has been home-schooled by her mother, who has taught many different things to Enola as constantly stimulating Enola’s intelligent mind.

However, Eudoria is suddenly gone in the early morning of Enola’s sixteenth birthday, though she left the birthday present for her daughter in advance. Quite baffled by her mother’s inexplicable disappearance, Enola tries to search for anything which may be a clue to her mother’s whereabouts, but she only gets more frustrated without much success, and now she has to meet her two older brothers, who will soon come from London to take care of this unexpected family matter of theirs.

Shortly after she arrives at a local train station, Enola encounters her older brothers, and they are not so pleased with how she has been taken care of by their mother. While Sherlock (Henry Cavill) appreciates a bit his younger sister’s free independent spirit nurtured by their feminist mother, his older brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin), who is your average Victorian gentleman, is aghast at how his younger sister looks and behaves, and, as having officially been the man of the house, he immediately prepares to take her to a finishing school for young ladies run by Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw), who happens to be a very close friend of his.

Of course, Enola does not want to be sent to that finishing school at all, and she comes to discern how to get away from Mycroft and Sherlock as soon as possible. It turns out that her birthday present contains a few clues left by her mother, and it does not take much time for her to deduce where her mother hid something solely intended for her. Once she is fully prepared, she instantly leaves the house early in the morning, and then she is headed for London, which is certainly big, busy, and crowded enough for her to evade her two older brothers’ following search.

Enola’s initial prime objective is locating where the hell her mother is at present, but, of course, things become more complicated than expected when she inadvertently gets herself associated with the case of an adolescent nobleman named Viscount Lord Tewksbury (Louis Partridge). When they happen to come across each other for the first time by coincidence, Viscount Lord Tewksbury is simply running away from his stuffy domestic environment, but then he and Enola find themselves in a perilous situation, and it looks like there is some insidious plot against this young nobleman.

While the mystery surrounding the main plot is as elementary as many of those Sherlock Holmes stories, the screenplay by Jack Thorne, which is adapted from the first book of the Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer, keeps things rolling as often delivering the enjoyable moments of female empowerment. For example, there is a clever and humorous scene where Enola purposefully comes to immerse herself into the traditional femininity of the Victorian era, and then we get an amusing scene where she visits a seemingly respectable spot belonging to one of her mother’s close feminist associates, who turns to be also running a training gym for a certain type of martial arts behind her back.

Above all, the movie is enlivened a lot by Brown’s indomitable screen presence. Occasionally confiding to us her character’s thought and feeling throughout the film, she effortlessly holds our attention with her own engaging qualities, and we gladly go along with her character’s bumpy adventure while also coming to root for her character a lot. At one certain point, Brown strongly impresses us with considerable maturity besides her natural confidence, and that certainly demonstrates to us again that she is already ready for more good things to come into her advancing acting career.

The other main cast members surrounding Brown in the film dutifully fill their respective spots without overshadowing her at all. While Henry Cavill and Sam Claflin are effective as Enola’s two contrasting older brothers, Fiona Shaw and Louis Partridge are also well-cast in their substantial supporting roles, and Helena Bonham Carter has her own small fun during her several juicy moments with Brown.

Directed Harry Bradbeer, who won two Emmys for directing and producing British TV comedy series “Fleabag” in last year, “Enola Holmes” is a competent piece of work thanks to its commendable production qualities, and it is certainly a promising beginning for possible sequels to follow. Yes, it is a bit too long especially during its second half which may be a little too intense for young audiences out there, but the movie is fairly satisfying on the whole, and I am really excited to see Brown advancing more as usual.

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#Alive (2020) ☆☆(2/4): A mediocre South Korean zombie flick

Some of you probably know how much I have been getting tired of zombie movies. Except several notable cases such as “28 Days Later…” (2002) or “Zombieland” (2009), most of those zombie flicks did not entertain or terrify me much due to their failure to provide something other than zombies themselves, and that is the main reason why I was delighted with South Korean film “Train to Busan” (2016) and its recent sequel “Peninsula” (2020), both of which did some nice extra work besides presenting those flesh-craving entities on the screen.

In case of “#Alive”, another recent South Korean zombie movie which happened to be released in South Korean movie theaters early in this year before “Peninsula” and then got released on Netflix early in this month, it is sadly less creative and substantial than the aforementioned two South Korean zombie movies. While it surely draws your attention as promptly focusing on the suddenly isolated status of its hero during its first part, it only comes to be hampered by weak characterization and sophomoric storytelling during its middle part, and it is all the more disappointing to see the rest of the movie resorting to a number of glaring plot contrivances without much sense of urgent or desperation.

During the opening scene, we are introduced to Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in), a lad who has apparently resided in his family apartment without anything to do except playing online games in his private room. When he wakes up in one morning, he finds a note from his mother asking him to do some grocery shopping, but he simply ignores her request and then embarks on playing his favorite online game as usual while there is no one else in the apartment.

And then something happens. Shortly after his smartphone receives a public emergency message, Joon-woo turns on the TV in the living room, and he sees an urgent TV report on an unidentified epidemic being spread all over Seoul and the rest of South Korea. When he quickly looks outside from the veranda of the apartment, his apartment complex neighborhood has already been thrown into pandemonium, and he soon comes to witness several gruesome sights, which clearly signify, yes, a zombie epidemic.

After subsequently managing to survive one perilous moment, Joon-woo locks the front door of the apartment, which he also blocks with the refrigerator of the kitchen just in case. He seems to be safe for now, but he cannot help but nervous as constantly being aware of numerous zombies wandering here and there outside the apartment, and, to his shock and awe, it turns out that some of those zombies are a little more resourceful than expected despite their infected brains.

Anyway, Joon-woo has no choice but to stay inside the apartment, and the situation becomes gloomier for him day by day. While there is some food in the apartment, it can only help him sustain this circumstance only for a few weeks, and he also finds himself getting more isolated as there is no way of communicating with the outside world. While electricity is somehow supplied as before (Please don’t ask me how that is possible), water is eventually cut off, so he has to depend on those expensive bottles of whiskey belonging to his father.

The screenplay by director Cho Il-hyung and his co-writer Matt Naylor, which is adapted from Naylor’s original screenplay “Alone”, tries to generate some tension as its hero struggles to survive day by day, but the overall result is not so successful as mostly delivering tediously conventional elements to us. Yes, we surely get several zombie scenes as expected, but they do not surprise us much as simply letting zombies suddenly popping up and here around its hero, and the movie is also pretty clumsy in the handling of a few humorous moments in the middle of the story.

Yoo Ah-in, who has been mainly known to international audiences as the lead performer of Lee Chang Dong’s “Burning” (2018), tries really hard to convey its hero’s accumulating anxiety and despair to us, but, alas, he is often on the verge of overacting as he has frequently been in many of his previous films including “Veteran” (2015) and “The Throne” (2015), and his occasionally hammy efforts on the screen only illuminate how superficial his character is in many aspects. To be frank with you, his character is pretty uninteresting as being a classic example of your average South Korean loser lad, and it is also not so entertaining to watch his character doing a number of stupid things along the story. For example, his character is so overwhelmed by a certain melodramatic moment of his that he suddenly smashes the TV just because he is very angry, and that is just one of many contrived moments in the film.

At least, the movie is later brightened up a bit by the appearance of Park Shin-hye, who plays a survivor living in another apartment building right across from the apartment building where Joon-woo lives. The movie could be more interesting if it focused more on Park’s character, but, sadly, her character is more or less than another convenient plot element, and the following interactions between her character and Joon-woo are not particularly believable due to their badly written dialogues.

By the way, many local audiences hated the finale of the movie featuring a tacked-on deux ex machina, and I fully understand their anger and disbelief. Sure, the finale of “Jaws” (1975) is as implausible as that, but we can accept it because of what has been carefully and intensely built up to that point, and “Alive” does not have anything close to that for making its finale work.

In conclusion, “#Alive” is not as terrible as I feared, but I often got bored and annoyed while I watched it yesterday, and I was glad that I promptly watched “Enola Holmes” (2020) after enduring this bland genre piece. If you still want to watch a South Korean zombie flick instead, I will recommend you “Train to Busan” or “Peninsula”, and I assure you that you will have a more productive time with either of them.

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Feels Good Man (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A cartoon character gone out of control

Documentary film “Feels Good Man”, which won the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker, presents the cautionary tale of a sincere artistic creation gone out of control. When its creator introduced it to the world outside, it was simply a goofy innocent cartoon character, but then it was turned into something quite evil and toxic as being willfully appropriated on the Internet, and it is often chilling to see how that ultimately inflicted some serious damages on our world.

The cartoon character in question is Pepe the Frog, which you have probably encountered more than once on the Internet thanks to millions of online memes derived from it. When I saw one of them for the first time around early 2016, I thought it was just a harmless joke, but I later came to learn more of its insidious and virulent aspects, and, as shown in the documentary, Pepe the Frog has been included in the hate symbol database of the Anti-Defamation League since 2016.

To Matt Furie, the creator of Pepe the Frog, this was pretty much like his worst nightmare. When he created it as one of the main characters of his comic series “Boy’s Club” in 2005, not many people paid attention to it at first, and he could exert total control over it, but it somehow drew lots of attentions not long after “Boy’s Club” began to be posted on the Internet. Although it looks less distinctive than the three other main characters, its images were frequently used among numerous Internet users out there during that time, and then there came a watershed moment via one casual line which quickly became a popular online catch phrase: “Feels Good Man.”

Thanks to its exponentially growing popularity on the Internet, Pepe the Frog was appropriated more and more by millions of Internet users everyday, and, unfortunately, Furie let that happen because he was not concerned much about that. Amused a bit about the unexpected popularity of his creation, he thought this trend would soon go away, but the appropriation of his cartoon character was continued with no sign of end, and Pepe the Frog was swiftly turned into something beyond his wildest dream during next several years.

Through several experts and 4chan users, we get to know how Pepe the Frog came to be a lasting online meme within a short period. Yes, its appearance looks pretty plain and simple on the surface, but that blank quality somehow made it into an ideal mirror to reflect the negative feelings of numerous male 4chan users, and that catch phrase came to function as a sort of ironic comment for whatever they wanted to express.

As millions of anonymous male 4chan users channeled more negative feelings and thoughts into Pepe the Frog, its various online memes consequently became quite malicious and virulent, and then the situation became very volatile when Pepe the Frog was subsequently appropriated by female users for different purposes. Quite enraged by this new trend due to mere pettiness, many of male 4chan users declared a sort of cultural war on Pepe the Frog, and that led to the creation of far more toxic online memes based on it.

And this alarming online trend reached to the peak around the time of the 2016 US Presidential Election. Once a certain image of Donald J. Trump was overlapped with Pepe the Frog, the resulting online meme went viral, and its popularity was boosted further by Trump himself, who gladly posted it from his Twitter account. As a consequence, Pepe the Frog became one of the defining images to galvanize many extreme right-wing groups and thousands of potential voters for Trump, and that was certainly one of the main factors contributing to Trump’s shocking political victory.

As watching his dear creation turned into the main symbol of extreme right-wing groups in US, Furie tried to regain the artistic/legal control over it, but, as reflected by his meeting with a group of Internet experts, there is no way for him to stop the continuing appropriation of Pepe the Frog on the Internet. Believe or not, there has already been a business market where its online memes are traded at very high prices, and one trader eagerly tells us about how quickly he got rich thanks to this growing market.

Despite being quite shy and sensitive, Furie continued to try to stop more toxic appropriation of Pepe the Frog, and there were some small victories for him. When some nasty dude attempted to publish a disgusting children’s book which clearly appropriated his dear creation, Furie took an immediate legal action, and he eventually succeeded in stopping its online publication on Amazon. When a certain deplorable extreme right-wing figure, whom I do not even want to mention here, tried to include Pepe the Frog in a hateful political poster, Furie went all the way for stopping that piece of sh*t, though he had to endure several aggressive questions from his opponent’s lawyer before the subsequent legal settlement.

While it is often alarming or infuriating to watch for good reasons, “Feels Good Man” is brightened up a bit by not only several intimate private moments observed from Furie but also the occasional animation scenes featuring Pepe the Frog, and director/co-writer/co-producer Arthur Jones did a commendable job of presenting Furie and his dear creation with affection and care. Yes, damages were already done, but there is still the possibility of change for Pepe the Frog nonetheless, and, despite my usual pessimism, I hope that it will just look sweet and innocent again someday.

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The Hunt (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Liberal elites hunting deplorable conservatives

Craig Zobel’s new film “The Hunt” is a mildly amusing horror comedy about a bunch of liberal elites hunting deplorable conservatives. While it looks promising as rapidly throwing a series of nice surprises during its first act, it comes to lose some of its sharp sense of black humor as trying to balance itself between, uh, both sides during its middle act, and then, to my disappointment, it eventually fizzles as trudging toward its predictable finale.

After the prologue part which succinctly establishes its story premise, the movie promptly puts us into a very perilous circumstance surrounding a bunch of characters. While gagged in their mouth, they are all befuddled to find themselves in the middle of some remote forest area, and then they notice a big wooden box, which turns out to contain a number of various sharp objects and firearms besides a certain little animal.

Of course, it does not take much time for them to realize that they become human targets to be hunted, and some of them are quickly eliminated one by one. There is a brief but gruesome moment which shows one character getting impaled on the ground, and you will wince more when that character soon comes to experience something far worse than that.

In the end, a very few figures including a young woman played by Betty Gilpin manage to survive the first round of hunting, and they try to figure out what is really going on around them. At first, they seem to be somewhere in Arkansas, but, not so surprisingly, that turns out to be not true at all, as shown from a key sequence unfolded within a gas station supposedly belonging to an old couple played Amy Madigan and Reed Birney.

As already shown to us at the beginning, everything is planned by a group of liberal elites who are led by a woman named Athena Stone (Hillary Swank). For a reason to be revealed later in the story, they are very angry and bitter about those deplorable conservatives in the ongoing Trump era, and their targets were chosen mainly for virulent online activities including spreading toxic fake news and conspiracy theories on the Internet.

During its first act, the screenplay by Damon Lindelof, who also produced the film along with Jason Blum, and his co-writer Nick Cuse, has lots of vicious fun as keeping shifting its focus from one character to another. Most of those hunted characters in the story are not very sympathetic to say the least, but the movie keeps holding our attention as deftly delivering a number of unexpected plot turns, and we come to accept it as a twisted comic variation of Richard Connell’s famous short story “The Most Dangerous Game”.

After entering the middle act, the movie reveals more of Athena and her fellow elite liberals, who turn out to be as unlikable as their human targets. I will not go into details here on that, but I can tell you that the movie is willing to ridicule them as much as their hunting targets, and there are several small funny moments showing how clumsy they actually are in many aspects. At one point later in the story, one of them asks too many questions, and we are not so surprised by what happens next to that character in question.

While gleefully making fun of both sides, the movie gradually tries to hold itself via Gilpin’s character, who turns out to be more than a match for Athena and her fellow elite liberals mainly due to her particular set of skills. Quite more resourceful and watchful than expected, she ruthlessly advances with some lethal counterattacks, and we also get a darkly humorous scene where she tells the morbidly modified version of a certain famous fable.

We are supposed to root for Gilpin’s character, but she does not have much personality just like the other main characters in the film, who are more or less than cardboard figures to be dispatched along the plot. Although Gilpin, who recently received an Emmy nomination for her supporting turn in Netflix Series “GLOW”, demonstrates here that she is a good actress with strong screen presence, Cuse and Lidelof’s screenplay does not provide enough human depth to her character, and it also does not delve that much into the potentially interesting social/political aspects of a certain serious situation of hers in the middle of the film.

Most of other cast members in the film are limited by their one-dimension roles, but Swank, who has been criminally under-utilized for more than a decade despite receiving two Best Actress Oscars for “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), has a few juicy scenes including the one where Athena finally has a face-to-face moment with Gilpin’s character (Is that a spoiler?). Without any excuse or compromise, Swank goes all the way just like Gilpin, and they surely show considerable commitment during that scene.

On the whole, “The Hunt” feels rather lukewarm compared to all those troubles preceding its theatrical release in US early in this year. Its theatrical release was initially postponed in last year due to the 2019 El Paso shooting and some ridiculous political fuss about it, but then it faced the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at the time of its eventual theatrical release, and then it has merely been faded away since that. It is not entirely without fun and entertainment, but “Ready or Not” (2019) did a better job of making fun of contemporary class conflict in my trivial opinion, so I recommend you to watch that film instead, though I think they may make a nice double feature show together.

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Mulan (2020) ☆☆(2/4): Stick to the animation version, please

“Mulan”, the live action remake version of the 1998 Disney animation film of the same name, is a pointless and unnecessary product which dissatisfies me a lot for many reasons. Although it is not incompetent at all in technical aspects with a few saving graces to notice, the movie is deficient in charm, humor, and spirit in comparison as trying to be more serious and respectable than its original version, and I must confess that I came to have a strong urge to revisit its original version when the movie was over.

As many of you know, the movie went through several setbacks during its production. While it was originally planned by Disney in 2010, it had been stuck in the pre-production period for next several years without much progress, and then its production was finally started in 2018 after director Niki Caro was hired in 2017, but then its initial theatrical release date in US got postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19, and then it was eventually released on Disney+ a few weeks ago while it got released in movie theaters in case of several other countries including South Korea.

Along with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (2020), “Mulan” was expected to give considerable boost to movie theater business, but it turns out to be quite disappointing even compared to “Tenet”, which is at least impressively ambitious and challenging despite being too murky and superficial for me. While it surely tries some female empowerment as expected, its attempts are mild, clumsy, and problematic in my inconsequential opinion while unwisely eliminating or modifying what makes its original version so special and precious, and it only comes to us as something which is no more than a soulless American imitation of run-of-the-mill Chinese epic drama films.

After the prologue scene which emphasizes how special its heroine was even when she was a little girl, the movie promptly moves forward to several years later. Now growing up to be a young woman expected to get married sooner or later, Mulan (Yifei Liu) tries to follow her parents’ expectation on her, but, alas, her plucky spirit turns out to be quite irrepressible during her meeting with a local matchmaker, which becomes disastrous despite her sincere efforts. While understanding well that his daughter is very different from other girls in their rural village, Mulan’s father cannot help but feel more concerned about her future, and Mulan feels guilty about causing another concern to her dear father.

Meanwhile, their kingdom is suddenly threatened by a bunch of barbarians led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a vengeful dude very determined to avenge his father’s death. With the considerable assistance of a powerful witch named Xianniang (Gong Li), he and his army invade more and more into the kingdom, and the emperor of the kingdom accordingly orders the mobilization of more troops to fight against Khan’s army, which leads to the conscription of one man from each household all over the kingdom.

When the emperor’s order is delivered to Mulan’s village, Mulan’s father promptly steps forward as the only man in his family, but he has not been well enough after getting injured with the previous war, and it is highly likely that he will die in this war. Although he is willing to die for his country as well as his family’s honor, his family members are devastated by his adamant decision, and that is why Mulan comes to decide that she will go instead while disguising herself as his son.

Right from her first day in a barrack for training recruits, Mulan faces a number of expected difficulties, and the movie gives some humorous moments as she manages to maintain her disguise, but then it falters in story and character development process. As showing more of her physical skill and talent, Mulan comes to earn some respect from other soldiers around her, but her budding friendship with one particular soldier is rather contrived, and the same thing can be said about their commander, who simply functions to remind us again of how special she is because of her ‘chi’ (It is basically same as the Force in Star Wars flicks, you know).

During the second half, the movie delivers several action sequences as required, and Caro and her crew members including cinematographer Mandy Walker try as hard as possible, but the overall result does not impress me much on the whole. Although its production design and costumes look wonderful on the surface, they do not surpass what I observed from those recent Chinese epic drama films, and the action scenes in the film often feel artificial, probably due to using too much CGI on the screen. To be frank with you, the original version has more style, beauty, and grandiosity, and that reminds me again of why live action movies cannot beat animation films in certain aspects.

The main cast members acquit themselves well although most of them are stuck in their thankless roles. While Yifei Liu diligently carries the film as demanded, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Gong Li, and Jet Li are wasted due to their flat supporting characters, and Tzi Ma, who has been always dependable in case of playing your average stoic Asian patriarchs, manages to bring some sense of life and history to his character.

In conclusion, “Mulan” fails to bring honor to its original version, and I only become more nostalgic about how much I was awed and impressed by those key moments in the original version. Even if you can put aside the growing controversies surrounding the production of the film, the movie is not entertaining enough as being hampered by its many glaring flaws in terms of story and characters, so I strongly recommend you to stick to the original version.

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AKA Jane Roe (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): The last words from Jane Roe

Documentary film “AKA Jane Roe” listens to a woman who was at the center of a women’s issue which is still very sensitive in the American society even at present. Through her and several people associated with in one way or another, the documentary gives us a glimpse into the social controversies surrounding the issue during last five decades, and you may find yourself shaking your head at times especially if you have a moderate view on the issue just like me.

The woman in question is Norma McCorvey, whose alias sounds quite familiar to you if you have some interest in women’s rights. As ‘Jane Roe’, she was the plaintiff of the Roe v. Wade in 1973, and her legal victory at that time promptly led to the nullification of many US state and federal abortion laws which strictly restricted abortion, but it was followed by the backlash movement driven by numerous conservative people, many of whom are still actively trying to overturn the US Supreme Court decision on the case.

While going through her last several months in 2016, McCorvey was approached by director/producer Nick Sweeney, and she was willing to tell everything in front of the camera. Although her health is becoming fragile day by day, she often shows her spirit with some understandable bitterness, and the documentary simply listens to her as occasionally providing some counterpoint views from its other interviewees.

At first, McCorvey tells us a bit about her poor and unhappy childhood. After her father left his family due to his wife’s alcoholism, young McCorvey often had hard and difficult times as her mother’s drinking problem got worse and worse, and then she came to commit a serious act of rebellion when she was only 11. Along with her best friend, she ran away from her home, and then she and her best friend managed to stay in some cheap hotel, where she came to be more aware of her homosexuality.

After subsequently getting arrested by the police, young McCorvey was sent to a reform school for girls, but, to her surprise, several years at that reform school turned out to be better than she imagined. When her time at that reform school was over, she was promptly sent to one of her distant cousins, and McCorvey confides to us a bit on the sexual abuse inflicted on her during that time.

What followed next in McCorvey’s life was messy to say the least. She married some guy in 1963 although she was only 16 at that time, but that was quickly terminated when he refused to recognize that she got pregnant with his child. 6 years later, she got pregnant third times, and she tried to get abortion because she decided that she could not afford to raise another child as having struggled a lot to earn her living in Texas, but abortion was strictly restricted in Texas at that time. While quite frustrated with many legal restrictions blocking her, she happened to be introduced to two young female civil rights lawyers, and that was the starting point which ultimately led to the Roe v. Wade four years later.

Although she did not get abortion during that 4-year legal battle, McCorvey felt proud of opening the door for millions of women out there, and she was also eager to step forward as the symbol of the pro-choice movement when abortion became a more sensitive and controversial issue than before during 1980-90s, but she was not that welcomed much by those pre-choice groups. While she certainly drew considerable attention when she revealed herself in public, she was regarded as a rather unreliable figure especially after she confessed that she lied for getting abortion at that time, and she was also harassed by those pro-life activists while trying to work at an abortion clinic in Texas.

Mainly through two Christian pastors, the documentary shows and tells us how the pro-life movement around that time went too far at times. Many abortion clinics constantly had to deal with angry pro-life protesters outside, and some of them were actually destroyed by those loony extremists. Believe or not, a pro-choice Christian pastor actually showed a dead fetus in front of a TV camera during one demonstration, and that was certainly grotesque to say the least.

One of these two pastors actively approached to McCorvey, and what happened next in 1995 shocked both sides. McCorvey became a born-again Christian under that pastor’s guidance, and then she said in public that she changed her stance on the Roe v. Wade. While many pro-choice activists felt betrayed by her, their opponents were surely delighted to embrace and then present her as a repentant sinner, and she willingly went along with that, though she had to give up her long relationship with a woman named Connie Gonzales.

The documentary pays some attention to the personal motive behind her sudden reversal. As admitted by these two pastors, McCorvey was a vulnerable and gullible person craving for more affection and attention, and they surely knew how to push buttons in her for drawing her to their side. In addition, as phlegmatically revealed by McCorvey and recognized by one of these two pastors, she often got paid for saying whatever they wanted her to say in public, and now she regrets about that.

Because McCorvey’s confession was already exposed in public, “AKA Jane Roe” will probably not surprise you as much as intended, but it is still a fairly engaging documentary on the whole, and you may come to feel a bit sorry for her. Sure, she was unwise and messy in many aspects, but, at least, she delivered her last words on her terms, didn’t she?

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The Woman Who Ran (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A three-act female comedy by Hong Sang-soo

Hong Sang-soo’s new film “The Woman Who Ran”, which won the Silver Bear award for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, is a breezy three-act comedy mainly focusing on the interactions amidst its female main characters. While I must confess that I do not fully grasp what it is about below its plain surface, I appreciate at least its humorous moments and good performances to be savored, and it is surely another enjoyable work from Hong.

The first act of the movie is mainly set in a residence located somewhere in a quieter area of Seoul, and the opening scene introduces us to a divorced woman named Young-soon (Seo Yong Hwa). She has recently moved to her cozy and peaceful apartment, and we see her beginning her another quite day at a vegetable garden near her residence before she happens to have a brief talk with some young woman in her neighborhood.

Some time later, Young-soon’s close friend Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) comes, and they soon have some drink together shortly after entering Young-soon’s apartment. As watching them drinking a mix of soju and rice wine, I was reminded again that soju has always been one of the recurring elements in Hong’s works, and that somehow takes me back to that exceptional moment in “In Another Country” (2012), which has Isabelle Huppert drinking a bottle of soju alone on the beach.

Anyway, the mood subsequently becomes cheerier than before when Young-ji (Lee Eun-mi), who has been Young-soon’s companion for a while, returns to Young-soon’s apartment. These three women have more drink along with some freshly roasted meat outside the apartment, and we get a little amusing moment as their pleasant conversation comes to revolve around the selective vegetarianism of one of them. While mostly sticking to its static position, the camera sometimes zooms in or out whenever something interesting seems to be happening among the characters, and we come to wonder what is exactly going on between them as they keep casually talking with each other on the screen.

While listening more to them, we notice a certain contrast between Gam-hee and Young-soon. Young-soon seems to be free of whatever happened before and during her divorce, but we often wonder about what she does not say, and you may also become curious about why she does not let her friend sleep on the third floor of her apartment (Her excuse: it is too dirty and messy at present). Although she emphasizes how inseparable she and her husband have been since their marriage, Gam-hee is now without her husband at present, and you will probably have some doubt on whether her marriage is really as strong and truthful as she tells in front of two other women.

And there is also a small funny moment involved with a male neighbor complaining about stray cats which have been fed by Young-soon and Eun-mi. No matter how much this guy argues that they should not feed those stray cats, Young-soon and Eun-mi show no intention of stepping back at all, and this scene brings us a little extra amusement thanks to a scene-stealing stray cat which happens to be at the bottom of this scene.

The second act of the movie revolves around Gam-hee’s subsequent visit to a place resided by her friend Su-young (Song Seon-mi), who has lived alone in some other quiet neighborhood in Seoul. As they talk more with each other, we come to learn that Su-young has earned a lot during last several years, and she accordingly wants to have more fun for her life, but she is not particularly interested in having somebody in her life. Naturally, Gam-hee talks again about her happy married life, but Su-young still prefers to have more fun and freedom.

This aspect of hers is more evident to us when somebody suddenly tries to see Su-young. The person in question is some young poet who has not still gotten over her breakup with him, and his pathetic pettiness surely takes you back to many silly and unwise male characters in Hong’s previous films. As your average no-nonsense lady, Su-young remains unflappable as clearly stating that their relationship has been already over, and she does not regret at all after this pesky dude is finally gone.

During the third act of the movie, Gam-hee visits a cafe run by another friend of hers. As she and Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk) continue their casual conversation, we come to sense that something happened in their past, but neither of them tries to specify that, and their conversation subsequently comes to revolve around Woo-jin’s writer husband, who has recently been enjoying some moderate success in public. Woo-jin thinks her husband looks increasingly hypocritical these days because of his success, and, of course, Gam-hee comes to talk a lot about her married life.

This scene is subsequently followed by the accidental encounter between Gam-hee and Woo-jin’s husband. Like two other male characters, Woo-jin’s husband is not shown much in front of the camera, which mostly focuses on capturing whatever Gam-hee feels about Woo-jin’s husband now. It seems they have some history between them, but Gam-hee does not care much about that now, and then we are served with the neat final shot to remember.

Overall, “The Woman Who Ran” is another minor success in Hong’s long filmmaking career (This is his 24th feature film, by the way). Although I am not so enthusiastic about Hong’s films as some other local reviewers and critics, I have admired how productive he has been during last 24 years since his first feature film “The Day a Pig Fell into the Well” (1996), and I often enjoyed how he has often taken a new artistic direction as shown from “HaHaHa” (2010) and “In Another Country”, and “Hotel by the River” (2019). Yes, his films are usually an acquired taste, but I have gotten accustomed to that, and I am already ready for whatever he will give us in the next year.

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The Terrorizers (1986) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Coincidence followed by tension

Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang’s “The Terrorizers”, which is currently being in shown in South Korean theaters, is a haunting urban drama which is subtle and deceptive in its gradual accumulation of anxiety and tension around its main characters. Because I came into the screening room without much information on the story and characters, I kept wondering where its seemingly laid-back narrative is exactly going, and then I was caught off guard as observing what has been so delicately and thoughtfully established during the first two acts leading to a series of calm but striking moments during the last act.

The story begins with a small-scale police raid on an illegal gambling spot located somewhere in the middle of Taipei in the 1980s. Although we do not get much detail on the raid, it is apparent that those small-time criminals have no way out at all as surrounded by local cops, and we see one of them trying to escape along with some young girl but eventually getting arrested by the cops already waiting for them.

The young girl, who happens to get herself injured during the escape attempt, draws the attention of a young male amateur photographer who happens to be around the cops. This anonymous lad, who later turns out to be from some rich family, wants to pursue his aspiration to become a professional photographer more, but his parents expect him to pay more attention to other things including the upcoming military draft, and his relationship with his girlfriend becomes quite deteriorated as she gets frustrated a lot with him usually putting his photography above all else. After her girlfriend subsequently leaves, he keeps focusing on his photography, but he also becomes curious about who that young girl is.

We later get a glimpse into the daily life of that young girl, who, due to her injury, gets stuck in a small residence where she and her mother have lived. Her mother is not so pleased to know that the young girl gets herself into another trouble, but the young girl and her mother have been pretty estranged from each other. At one point, her mother shows some care and affection as playing a certain famous pop song in the background, but that is all in the end, and the young girl still remains in isolation all day long while her mother is frequently absent for working outside.

However, it slowly turns out that the main focus of the story is a couple who comes to go through a serious crisis of their married life. Li Lizhong (Lee Li-chun) is a doctor working in some big hospital in the city, and he is looking forward to taking the position of his recently diseased direct boss, but his wife Zhou Yufen (Cora Miao) is not so delighted about the possibility of her husband’s promotion. She was once an aspiring young writer, and now she is trying to follow her aspiration again, but she often feels uncertain and frustrated while not getting much support from her husband, who is mostly occupied with how to beat a few potential competitors for his promotion.

And then something happens on one day. Bored with being stuck in her residence, the aforementioned young girl begins to try a series of prank phone calls, and then she comes to try on the telephone number of Zhou and Li’s apartment, which merely draws her attention by coincidence as she rummages in a telephone book (Yes, young folks, there was such a thing like that in the 20th century). To her, it is just a harmless prank phone call, but that prank phone call touches something inside Zhou’s mind, and we soon see Zhou going through a slow but gradual change in her life as stepping forward bit by bit. Starting to work at her ex-boyfriend’s company, she finally decides to apply for some prominent contest for new writers, and, to her husband’s bafflement, she also comes to have more doubt on their married life.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned young amateur photographer happens to encounter the young girl. When they happen to spend some time together in his new residence, the young girl is touched to see how much he has paid attention to her as reflected by one certain thing on the wall, but she eventually goes back to her old criminal life. While quite disappointed with that, the lad comes to decide to rectify what she did to Zhou and Li, and that is how Li belatedly comes to realize how much he and his wife have been distant from each other.

The mood accordingly becomes more tense as how one incident leads to another with more consequences around the main characters in the film, but Yang keeps sticking to his usual phlegmatic attitude, and he generates some interesting moments as simply observing empty spaces for a while at times. Like his other notable film “Taipei Story” (1985), the movie feels vivid and vibrant whenever it musingly looks at the people and locations of Taipei, and we are accordingly immersed more into its palpable and distinctive urban atmosphere. As a matter of fact, we are so emotionally involved in the story and characters during its third act that we are quite devastated by what shockingly but inevitably happens at the end of the story.

Like many of Yang’s notable films such as “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991) and “Yi Yi” (2000), “The Terrorizers” is your typical slow film which will definitely demand some patience in the beginning, but it is a very rewarding experience on the whole. I am glad that I and other South Korean audiences had the opportunity to watch Yang’s several films on big screen during last 3 years, and I sincerely wish that this will lead to more attention to his exceptional works and their immeasurable influences on many other filmmakers out there.

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The Devil All the Time (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): The Devil Is Never Gone

Netflix movie “The Devil All the Time”, which was released on this Wednesday, feels rather rote and shallow despite all those interesting elements mixed into its decidedly grim and lurid narrative. Although I was not bored at all during its 138-minute running time as appreciating its mood, details, and performances, I was also somehow distant to its story and characters without enough emotional involvement, and I still have considerable reservation on whether I can recommend it.

Based on the novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock, the movie mainly focuses on two different rural towns as casually juggling a number of various human figures stuck in their respective miserable lives. When we are introduced to a lad named Willard Russell (Bill Skarsgård) at the beginning, he seems to be happy to return to Coal Creek, Ohio after the end of the World War II, but his mind is still haunted by a grisly sight he and his comrades encountered at one point during the war, and he still does not feel that comfortable or relaxed even when he is welcomed by his caring mother after his arrival in Coal Creek.

His mother expects Willard to marry a young pretty woman who grew up along with him since she unfortunately lost her family, but Willard has already decided to marry some other young woman, whom he happened to come across at a diner in the middle of his return trip to Coal Creek. Although he and Charlotte (Haley Bennett) are total strangers to each other, something clicked between them during their accidental encounter, and they eventually move to Knockemstiff, West Virginia after their following wedding, while hoping for more happiness to come.

However, despite the strong affection between him and his wife, Willard cannot help but obsessed with that traumatic war experience of his, and that consequently drives him into his own religious zeal. At a remote spot in the forest near to his residence, he builds a sort of altar for himself, and he often forces his young son Arvin (Michael Banks Repeta) to pray along with him in addition to getting Arvin more accustomed to toxic masculinity. When a couple of guys happen to insult him, Willard initially takes the insult without showing much anger, but he subsequently demonstrates to them that he is definitely not someone they can mess with, and that surely impresses Arvin a lot.

In the meantime, the movie introduces some other crucial characters in the story. Helen (Mia Wasikowska), who is that young woman expected to marry Willard, happens to find love from a zealous local preacher, who has a wild scene where he shows off the strength of his religious belief in front of others in a rather creepy way. They eventually marry and then have a baby daughter between them, but, alas, their relationship does not last that long due to a certain local couple who starts to commit their twisted acts of killing here and there around Ohio and West Virginia.

When his wife later gets very sick with no chance of recovery, Willard becomes quite desperate, so he attempts to drive himself more into his morbid faith, and that inevitably hurts Arvin in more than one way. In the end, Arvin finds himself left alone after a series of devastating tragedies, and he is subsequently sent to Coal Creek, where his grandmother is ready to take care of him.

After several years, Arvin, who is now played by Tom Holland, becomes a young man, but it looks like he will be hopelessly stuck in Coal Creek during the rest of his life unless he gets drafted into the US Army due to the ongoing war in Vietnam. Although his grandmother and Helen’s daughter Lenora (Eliza Scanlen), who has been like a sister to him since he came to live in his grandmother’s house, are always there for him, he does not feel that fine as still haunted by his family tragedy, and he also begins to show his violent streak when he decides to do something about the mean boys who have bullied Lenora in her high school.

On one day, there comes a new preacher into Coal Creek, and it is pretty apparent from the beginning that he is not a very good one at all. While Arvin sees through this preacher as watching his smug and condescending attitude, Lenora gets involved closely with this preacher, and the preacher does not mind at all exploiting her innocent religious faith.

As the plot continues to thicken during its second half, the screenplay by director Antonio Campos and his co-writer Paulo Campos adds more elements. There is a tricky circumstance associated with the corrupt sheriff of Knockemstiff, and then there is a serious relationship problem of the aforementioned lethal couple, who has reached to a sort of ennui without getting much pleasure and excitement from their murderous ritual as before.

However, these and other elements in the story do not cohere together enough on the whole, and the overall result is often pedestrian without much depth to draw our attention. Shot on 35mm film by cinematography Lol Crawley, the movie is filled with authentic period atmosphere and details, but the flawed narrative of the film is more evident as it slouches toward the expected resolution for everything in the story, and the detached attitude of Pollock’s sardonic narration only accentuates the growing distance between us and its story and characters.

Anyway, “The Devil All the Time” is not a total failure, and I admire the efforts of its various main cast members including Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Michael Banks Repeta, Jason Clarke, Riley Keough, Sebastian Stan, Eliza Scanlen, Haley Bennett, Kristin Griffith, Mia Wasikowska, Harry Melling, and Robert Pattinson, who surely has lots of fun with his deliberately exaggerated acting as he did in “The King” (2019). I am still dissatisfied because the movie does not go that far enough for its stark and pulpy story materials in my inconsequential opinion, but I was entertained to some degree at least, so I will let you decide on whether you want to watch it or not.

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