Steel Rain (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A race against another Korean war

South Korean film “Steel Rain”, which I somehow missed when it was released in South Korean theaters around the end of 2017, is so fast, efficient, and urgent during its first half that it let me down during its middling second half. While it is not entirely without fun and entertainment, the movie could be more effective if it got rid of a number of unnecessary elements, and I also have some reservation on the nationalistic side of the finale.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Eom Cheol-woo (Jung Woo-sung), a former North Korean Reconnaissance agent who has lived a shabby daily life with his family since being discharged from his military service some time ago. On one day, he is approached by his former commander, and this dude orders Eom to carry out a secret mission which seems absolutely necessary for preventing the possible coup d’état to overthrow the current North Korean government. All Eom has to do is eliminating two certain high-ranking North Korean generals, and we soon see him accomplishing the half of his covert mission.

However, of course, it subsequently turns out to Eom that he should not trust anyone. For accomplishing the other half of the mission, he sneaks into an industry complex near the border between South Korean and North Korea, and then he waits for his target to appear along with several high-ranking officials, but then, what do you know, the target does not come while the chief of the North Korean government arrives instead.

While Eom tries to figure out what the hell is going on around him, it looks like the situation has already gone way over his head. A bunch of North Korean special agents cross the border via an underground tunnel, and then their following actions lead to the sudden attack on that industry complex. While Eom manages to survive, many people around him died or are seriously injured, and then there come a bunch of North Korean soldiers, who ruthlessly start to kill any survivor around them.

Fortunately, the chief of the North Korean government, who is simply called “No.1” without being directly shown to us, is still alive, but he is seriously injured, and Eom and two factory workers manage to get their leader out of the scene while evading the pursuit of their opponents. Because they certainly cannot go north under their situation, they have no chance but to go south, and they soon find themselves entering South Korea after luckily going through the checkpoint along with Chinese officials fleeing from the scene.

Meanwhile, the movie gives us a wider viewpoint via Kwak Cheol-woo (Kwak Do-won), who is the Chief of Foreign Affairs and Security in the South Korean government. Everyone around him including the South Korean president has been more relaxed than before as entering the transition period before the inauguration of the next president, but then there comes the news on the sudden attack on that industry complex, and the president subsequently finds himself pressured a lot by the US government, which forcefully demands an immediate response within 36 hours.

As trying to get things under control along with others, Kwak comes to learn of an incident which happened near the border not long after the attack on the industrial complex. Thanks to his lucky hunch involved with his divorced wife, it does not take much time for Kwak to encounter Eom and then discern Eom’s desperate status, and it looks like Kwan and the South Korean government now have something which will abort the increasingly perilous circumstance surrounding not only South and North Korea but also US, China, and Japan.

As our two different heroes try to prevent another war in Korean peninsula, the movie keeps maintaining the level of tension via several plot turns popping here and there along its narrative. While the South Korean president and his cabinet members are far more pressured as being sandwiched between US and China, more North Korean secret agents come down to South Korea, and our two guys come to work with each other more than expected. As going through a series of dangerous moments including one tense action sequence unfolded within a hospital building, they surely come to find something common between them, and there is a little humorous scene where they happen to have a little moment of peace at a small restaurant.

However, the screenplay by director Yang Woo-seok and his co-writer Jeong Ha-yong puts too much emphasis on the mandatory melodramatic male bonding between its two characters, and that often inhibits its plot progress in distracting ways. Although Jung Woo-sung and Kwan Do-won are engaging actors, they are often limited by their rather flat archetype roles, and the same thing can be said about the other notable cast members in the film including Kim Kap-soo, Lee Kyung-young, and Kim Eui-sung.

On the whole, “Steel Rain” is a competent action thriller flick at least during its first half, but then it comes to lose most of its narrative momentum due to several reasons including its artificial ending where everything is resolved too quickly and conveniently within around 10 minutes. I must tell you that its simple-minded view on the ongoing conflict between South and North Korea, which is blatantly expressed in several scenes including the very last one, bothered me at times during my viewing, but I will not stop you if you just want to be entertained without much reflection on your mind.

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A Most Beautiful Thing (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Rowing for changes

Documentary film “A Most Beautiful Thing”, which was supposed to be shown at the SXSW Film Festival before it was unfortunately canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is about a group of African American guys who try to bring changes into their violent Chicago neighborhood in an unlikely way. While they had each own difficult time as coping with their harsh reality, they stick together again nonetheless as remembering that positive experience in their adolescent years, and it is really moving to see how they come to bring some positive influence to not only themselves but also many others around them.

With the narration by Common, who also served as one of the executive producers of the documentary, we are introduced to a bunch of male African Americans, who were all born and grew up in the African American neighborhood area on the west side of Chicago. As they and other interviewees in the documentary tell us, their neighborhood area has been one of the most dangerous areas in Chicago with numerous shooting incidents happening every year, and all of them have more than one shooting incident victim among their family members or friends.

These dudes all attended the same high school together, which happened to be surrounded by the blocks respectively dominated by several different gang groups. For surviving in such a hazardous environment everyday, many of adolescent African American boys in this neighborhood have been pushed to join any of those gang groups, and they are subsequently tumbled into the life of crime and incarceration in addition to contributing to another cycle of misery and violence.

In 1997, these dudes happened to apply for a rowing team which was recently established by a new teacher coming to their school. Although they did not know anything about how to row a boat at first, they eventually came to improve themselves considerably under that teacher and a good coach who helped them a lot despite being ‘borderline racist’, and they soon participated in a series of competitions. Although they were not good enough to beat other teams, they tried hard as much as they could while sticking together with discipline and integrity, and they found themselves relying on each other more than expected – even when they were not training. Even though they did not get much support from others including their families, they felt good about the result of their efforts, and many of them subsequently came to try to bring more changes into their life.

The documentary gradually come to focus more on some of them, each of whom has an interesting life story to tell. Arshay Cooper, who is the most prominent member in the group, tells us about how much he and his siblings were hurt by their mother’s addiction problem, and his mother, who has been sober for years after finally entering a rehabilitation facility, does not deny anything while frankly reminiscing about when she was in the bottom of addiction. Once she was on the road to her recovery, she came to make amends with her children, and it is touching to see her and her son standing together in front of the camera.

In case of Preston Grandberry, he was on the other end of drug problem along with his mother, and he honestly talks about how he assisted her small drug business and then became more active in that criminal business several years later. He eventually spent some time in prison, but he has stayed away from crime since that time, and we later see him having a meeting with Cooper and their old rowing team colleagues at a barbershop where he works.

Discerning that many kids in their neighborhood really need positive influence just like they once did, these guys decide to assemble a rowing team again, and the documentary accordingly shows a series of obligatory training scenes where they try to be as fit and healthy as possible for preparing for the upcoming competition. Although they are not that young anymore, Cooper and his other team members are determined to push themselves a lot, and we soon see them regaining their groove to some degree through many hours of exercise and training.

The most unexpected moment in the documentary comes from when they decide to train along with several folks from the Chicago Police Department. Although the first meeting between these two groups is a bit awkward at first, it does not take much time for these two groups to get to know each other more, and this eventually culminates to a powerful scene where they stick together as one team in the competition.

Although it feels a bit heavy-handed at times especially during what is supposed to be the climactic point of its narrative, the documentary does not lose its human quality at all as steadily rowing along with Cooper and several other key rowing team members including Malcolm Hawkins and Alvin Ross, both of whom experienced pretty harsh cases of parental abuse during their childhood years. When he talks about one of his most difficult moments in the past later in the documentary, Ross cannot help but overwhelmed by bursting emotions, and that is probably the most empathetic moment for us in the documentary.

On the whole, “A Most Beautiful Thing” is a terrific documentary shining with genuine feel-good moments, and what director/writer/producer Mary Mazzio earnestly achieves here in the documentary takes me back to Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams” (1994) and “The Interrupters” (2011). Like these two memorable documentaries, “A Most Beautiful Thing” presents its plain but undeniably memorable human figures with care, respect, and empathy, and it is surely one of better documentaries I saw this year.

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Father Solider Son (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A solider and his family

Netflix documentary film “Father Soldier Son” gives us a close and intimate look into the 10-year story of one ordinary American soldier and his dear family. While it remains rather apolitical about the war which is still being continued even at present, the documentary sincerely presents a series of personal struggles observed from its human subjects, and there are several genuinely touching moments to remember.

The documentary, which was mostly shot during the 2010s, mainly chronicles how much life were changed for Sergeant First Class Brian Eisch during that period. As he tells us at one point, he was expected to be a solider by his father right from his childhood years, and he had served in the US Army for more than 15 years when he was deployed along with many other American soldiers to Afghanistan again in 2010.

When he came back to US during that year for spending two weeks with his two sons Isaac and Joey, both of them were delighted to see their father back in their world. Because their mother left them after her divorce with their father, Isaac and Joey were taken care of by Brian’s older brother instead during Brian’s military tour in Afghanistan, but they still missed their father a lot, and we get a heartfelt moment which shows Brian reuniting with his two sons at an airport. To Joey and Isaac, their father is a hero to look up to, and they are all quite eager to tell to the camera on how much they want to be just like their father someday.

However, not long after going back to Afghanistan, Brian happens to get injured seriously, and we soon see him being treated in a big military hospital for wounded soldiers. Despite the severity of his injury, he is hopeful about the upcoming recovery process, and, above all, he wants to resume serving for his country as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, things do not go well for Brian during next three years, and the documentary subsequently shows him being ready for getting an amputation surgery on his left leg, which has been the source of constant pain and stress during last three years. In front of his camera, he tells us about how he has often felt bad and moody after his injury, and his changed status feels apparent to us in more than one aspect. For instance, he seems relatively less optimistic than before, and he does not look that healthy compare to how much he looked fit and strong in 2010.

At least, Brian has been supported a lot by his caring girlfriend Maria, who has lived in his residence for a while along with one of her own three kids. Since accepting her presence in the house, Isaac and Joey have been quite accustomed to living with not only her but also their stepbrother, and we later see Joey having a playful time along with his stepbrother on the floor.

Nevertheless, Brian cannot help but feel lousy as struggling to step forward in his long and grueling recovery process. When his amputated left leg is not healed as fast as he wants, he barely suppresses his anger and frustration in front of his girlfriend and doctors. When his left leg is finally healed enough for an artificial leg, he feels a bit better, but then he soon experiences its downsides, and there is a cringe-inducing scene where he clumsily tries to load a snowplow on his truck for himself.

At his home, Brian usually spends his free time on playing those violent video games, and it goes without saying that he often misses his combat experiences a lot. Yes, he could have died at any point during that time, but he always had a sense of accomplishment as actively serving for his country, and now he feels like a useless burden to his country and the US Army, while not knowing what to do with the rest of his life.

Of course, this emotional trouble of his affects his two sons considerably. Although still respecting their father as much as before, both of them cannot help but feel the growing distance between them and their father, and Isaac comes to have doubts on whether he really wants to be a solider, while Joey also has his own painful moment in his sincere attempt to get closer to his father.

The rest of the documentary continues to follow and observe what Brian and his family go through during next five years, which turn out to be accompanied with several dramatic ups and downs. When Brian and Maria finally gets married, everything feels fine and all right for everyone, but then they are totally devastated by an unexpected incident, and then they come to have a touching moment of healing a few years later.

However, things still do not look entirely fine for Brian and his family. He tries to look optimistic in front of the camera, but Maria subsequently tells us a bit about how he still remains as troubled as before. When one of his sons eventually joins the US Army, he and Maria are certainly proud of their kid, but then he also shows some bitterness while reflecting on how the situation in Afghanistan remains as messy as when he went there for the last time.

Overall, “Father Solider Son” may not show you anything new if you are familiar with a number of movies and documentaries about American soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan during last two decades, but it still works as an engaging personal chronicle, and you will come to care a lot about Brian and his family regardless of your political opinion. To be frank with you, I think I will probably disagree with Brain on many different social/political matters, but I sincerely hope that he will eventually reach to a more stable and peaceful state someday.

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First Cow (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Two men and a cow in the Wild West

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film “First Cow” lingers on my mind more than expected. While seemingly plain and modest in terms of story and characters, this little period drama constantly engaged me via its palpable realism and elegant storytelling, and I came to care about its two different main characters a lot as often touched by their desperate struggle for hope and dream in their harsh world.

After the opening scene set in our time, the movie goes back to the late 19th century, and we are introduced Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a feeble cook who has accompanied a bunch of trappers during their journey across the wilderness area of Oregon. Everyone is pretty hungry, but he only finds some mushrooms, and it is quite apparent from his brief interaction with the trappers that he is not regarded that well by them.

When he keeps searching for anything good enough to be cooked and then eaten, Cookie comes across a naked Chinese man. After discerning that this guy really needs help, Cookie not only provides him some food but also lets him hide amidst luggages belonging to the trappers without telling anything to them, and the Chinese man appreciates his kindness although he eventually disappears not long after that.

Anyway, once they arrive in a small village, the trappers let Cookie go with some payment, and Cookie feels lost as going here and there around the village, whose shabby and muddy period authenticity will probably take you back to Robert Altman’s great film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971). For most of residents in the village, life is tough and difficult as they try to earn their living as much as they can, and their hardships feel apparent to us even when the camera simply looks at some of them for a while (One of them, who has a pet crow on his shoulder, is played by René Auberjonois, a veteran character actor who incidentally appeared in Altman’s several works including the aforementioned film and sadly died in last year shortly after the movie had a premiere in the Telluride Film Festival).

While he aimlessly spends time at a local bar, Cookie comes across that Chinese man. As he has just settled outside the village, King Lu (Orion Lee) offers a place to stay to Cookie, and Cookie accepts Lu’s offer without any hesitation. Although Lu’s current residence is a small makeshift wooden shack, Cookie is grateful for Lu’s kindness, and we soon see him cleaning Lu’s shack and then bringing a little change to its interior.

As spending more time with each other in the shack, Cookie and Lu come to bond with each other more as sharing their modest aspiration. Both of them want to amass enough money to get them outside of the village and then take to San Francisco, where they may get more chances to earn more money. They frequently talk about how to run a business in San Francisco, and their faces become brightened a bit even though the life and business in San Francisco still feel like a distant dream to them.

And then there comes a small but significant opportunity for our two heroes. As a guy who once worked in a bakery, Cookie considers making some nice biscuits, and then he and Lu decide to steal some milk from the first and only milk cow in the village, which belongs to none other than Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a British dude who is the wealthiest man in the villager.

What follows next is akin to a little heist film with some indirect social commentary not so far from that of Oscar-winning South Korean film “Parasite” (2019). At one night, Cookie steals some milk from that cow while Lu keeps a lookout for any possible danger, and they soon embark on making and selling biscuits, which turn out to be quite more popular than expected. When their biscuits eventually draw the attention of Chief Factor, he does not seem to have any idea on what Cookie and Lu are doing behind their back, and he even instructs them to prepare a special kind of bread for his meeting with some visiting military officer. As Lu cynically points out later in the story, rich people like Chief Factor usually cannot imagine getting appropriated by people below them, and that is exemplified well by a subtly tense but funny moment when Chief Factor is quite oblivious to what is so obvious to us as well as Lu and Cookie.

While amassing a considerable amount of money, Cookie and Lu become more hopeful, but, as directly announced to us in advance via the opening scene, they eventually come to run out of their luck as reaching for more money to stabilize their financial status, and the mood accordingly becomes a little more intense during the last act of the film. Even during this part, Reichhardt, who also served as the editor of the movie in addition to adapting Jonathan Raymond’s novel “The Half Life” along with him, maintains her calm and restrained storytelling approach as before, and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt continues to provide plain but undeniably haunting moments, which are austerely presented within the film ratio of 1.33:1.

In the background so vividly realized on the screen by Reichardt and her crew members, the main cast members did a convincing job of presenting human characters with the considerable sense of life and personality. While John Magaro and Orion Lee diligently hold the center via their sensitive low-key performances, and the other notable performers in the film including Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, and Alia Shawkat have each own small moment, and we come to appreciate more of how thoughtfully Reichardt handles all of her characters with equal respect and attention.

On the whole, “First Cow” is another excellent work from Reichardt, who has steadily impressed me since she drew my attention with “Wendy and Lucy” (2008). Although I merely admired “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) and “Certain Women” (2016), they have grown a lot on me after watching them, and “First Cow” has already begun to grow on me at this point. As many of other critics have said, she is indeed one of the best American filmmakers in our time, and now I belatedly concur with that opinion.

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Palm Springs (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Stuck together in a time loop

“Palm Springs” is a smart and funny comedy film which deftly handles a story promise which has been quite familiar to us since “Groundhog Day” (1993). Mainly driven by the good comic chemistry between its two appealing lead performers, the movie delivers a fair share of laughs for us via a series of clever and witty moments to be savored, and it also generates some poignancy as its two main characters try to deal with their unbelievable situation.

At the beginning, we see a wedding day via the viewpoint of Nyles (Andy Samberg), who came to a hotel located somewhere in a remote desert region along with many other wedding guests including his girlfriend. While his girlfriend is mostly occupied with how she will look good as one of the bridesmaids, Nyles is not particularly interested in the wedding to be held in the afternoon, and we see him going through the morning alone without much care or enthusiasm while drinking booze from time to time.

However, during the evening party following the wedding ceremony, Nyles delivers a rather touching speech in front of many others including the bride and the groom, and then he finds himself spending some time with Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who is the bride’s sister. As they talk with each other, something seems to click between them, and, not so surprisingly, they later go outside together for having a little private time together.

As they talk more with each other at a nearby spot in the desert, both Nyles and Sarah seem to be willing get closer to each other, but then something unexpected happens. Nyles is suddenly attacked by somebody else appearing out of nowhere, and then, despite being seriously injured, he struggles to flee into a cave not so far from the spot, and Sarah happens to follow him into the cave although Nyles desperately tries to stop her.

Sarah soon comes to realize the reason why she should not enter the cave. When she wakes up shortly after entering the cave and then experiencing something quite strange, she finds herself in the early morning of the wedding day again, and it does not take much time for her to realize that she is now trapped in a time loop along with Nyles, who has already gone through this day countless times since he entered that cave for the first time.

The screenplay by Andy Siara quickly sets the rules of Sarah and Nyles’ situation as Nyles explains to Sarah on how things have been hopeless to him with no end in sight. Like the hero played by Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”, he tried one thing after another, but it looks like nothing will be changed no matter what he does, so he has simply given up while trying to have fun and pleasure as much as he can, though there is a recurring problem involved with that dude who attacked him.

Of course, Sarah believes that there may be a way out for both of them, and the movie accordingly delivers a series of humorous moments. At one point, she tries to be awake for more than 24 hours as going far away from the hotel as much as she can, but, what do you know, she soon gets asleep and then finds herself beginning the same day again.

Eventually accepting the inexorable condition of time and space surrounding her, Sarah comes to take a course which is probably not so different from the one taken by Nyles during his initial repetitions in the time loop. Along with Nyles, she decides to go wild from time to time, and Nyles is certainly cheered up by having someone else besides him.

As going through the same day again and again, Nyles and Sarah naturally become more serious about their developing relationship, but then they also come to face each own personal issue to deal with. While finding himself quite more accustomed to the time loop more than he admits, Nyles becomes conflicted more about a certain hidden fact between him and Sarah, and Sarah comes to reflect more on how messy her life has been, especially when she begins another same day on somebody’s bed as before.

During its third act, the movie resolves the ongoing conflict between its two main characters too easily, but director Max Barbakow keeps maintaining its comic momentum, and his two lead performers ably carry the film together with their effortless comic timing. Andy Samberg, who also participated in the production of the film, and Cristin Millioti skillfully handle their numerous humorous moments in the film, and their characters come to us as flawed but likable human characters thanks to their engaging performances. In case of several other notable performers around them, J.K. Simmons and Dale Dickey are dependable as before, and I also enjoyed the brief appearance of June Squibb, whose minor supporting character may know more than she seems on the surface.

Like several recent films including “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014), “Palm Springs” is an enjoyable variation of “Groundhog Day”, and you will laugh a lot while also coming to muse a bit on how to live day by day. Yes, life feels quite long to many of us whenever we seem to be going through same day again and again, but there will be when time is over for us in the end, and that is why we keep trying to make some difference everyday, isn’t it?

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Buoyancy (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A calm but chilling drama of modern slavery

“Buoyancy”, which was selected as Australia’s submission to Best International Feature Film Oscar in last year, is often chilling to watch in its fictional representation of real-life modern slavery. As told to us at the end of the story, what is depicted in the film is not so far from what is still happening somewhere in Southeast Asia even at this very point, and the movie did a fairly commendable job of conveying the horrific sides of its subject without resorting to cheap exploitation.

At the beginning, the movie shows us how its 14-year-old Cambodian hero, named Chakra (Sarm Heng), comes to decide to leave his rural hometown. Frustrated with being poor without any money for him all the time, Chakra has always wanted to get away from his poor family and his hometown, and then, via a friend of his, he comes across an opportunity of going to Thailand for earning some money. Although nothing is certain and he does not even have enough money for a broker to take him to Thailand, he becomes quite determined to go to Thailand, and he eventually leaves his hometown early in the morning without saying anything to his family.

At first, everything seems to go well for Chakra. When he tells the broker that he does not have any money, the broker simply instructs him to go to a certain place where many other people are already waiting for being taken to Bangkok, which certainly looks better than to Chakra considering that he has probably never been outside his hometown throughout his whole life.

Of course, Chakra comes to face harsh reality as soon as a vehicle takes him and several other people to the port. They all are taken to a small ship, and he and one fellow Cambodian guy are later transferred to a fishing boat, where they are promptly demanded to work along with a few other workers on the boat. Once their worktime is over, they and other workers all go inside a stuffy cabin where they have to sleep together side by side, and another day soon begins with the angry shout from the captain of the fishing boat.

As closely observing this grueling routine of theirs, the movie slowly lets us immersed into their grim circumstance. During daytime, they are constantly forced to handle tons of many different fishes captured from the sea, which, as one character says at one point, will probably be used for producing animal feeds. Although most of the workers on the fishing boat do not know Thai, all the captain needs is shouting a lot to them, and they have no choice but to follow whatever this dude demands.

Chakra innocently hopes that he will get paid eventually as long as he always obeys to the captain, but the captain and his two cronies remind Chakra again and again of how cruel and ruthless they can be to Chakra and other workers on the boat. While not promising anything at all, these deplorable bastards callously disregard Chakra and other workers, who are all expendable and replaceable in their depraved viewpoint. Regardless of whatever happens on the boat, Chakra and other workers have to remain silent and obedient, because, well, there is no one to help them in the middle of the ocean.

As Chakra slowly descends into the dark pit of human evil and brutality, the movie gives us several gut-wrenching moments which will make you wince more than once. In case of a scene featuring one savage act of killing, we are thankfully spared from its gory details, but it feels emotionally devastating nonetheless as we can sense how much our young hero is affected by the consequence of what he is coerced to participate in.

The story becomes darker and more disturbing during its second half, but director/writer Rodd Rathjen, who received the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury when the movie was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year, keeps sticking to his calm and restrained storytelling approach as before. While occasionally providing plain but undeniably striking visual moments including the one showing our young hero having a brief moment of respite on water, cinematographer Michael Latham vividly establishes the claustrophobic atmosphere around the characters on the screen, and the sparse score by Lawrence English is succinctly used in a number of key moments without any unnecessary distraction.

Rathjen also draws the good natural performances from his cast members. As the center of the film, young performer Sarm Heng is believable in his character’s gradual transformation along the story, and he is utterly heartbreaking in the last shot of the film, which depends a lot on his face for reflecting what has been lost forever from his character. As the main villain of the film, Thanawut Kasro is alternatively disgusting and frightening as required, and Mony Ros is also effective as a crucial character who functions as a voice of conscience and decency to Chakra in the story.

Overall, “Buoyancy” is definitely not something you can easily watch on Sunday afternoon, but it delivers well its urgent social issues via its simple but thoughtful storytelling and raw but competent filmmaking, and I admire how it skillfully avoids sensationalism while never softening the horror of what its young hero is going through. Yes, this is another grueling arthouse film, but I assure you that it will linger on your mind for a long time once it is over.

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Ms. Purple (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): As her father lays dying

Justin Chon’s latest film “Ms. Purple” is a sad tale of a young Korean American woman struggling to keep going despite many hardships in her daily life. Due to the seedy and exploitative nature of her occupation, the movie is quite uncomfortable to watch at times, but it calmly handles its heroine and her daily life with enough sensitivity and empathy, and we are relieved to see some glimpse of hope for her around the end of the story.

During its first act, the movie phlegmatically observes how its heroine works as a ‘doumi’ at a karaoke club located somewhere in the Koreatown area of LA. Every night, Kasie (Tiffany Chu) and many other pretty young employees come to that karaoke club which mainly consists of several small private booths for drinking and singing, and she and her work colleagues are demanded to serve drunken male customers in these private booths while occasionally drinking along with them. While they do not provide sex, she and her work colleagues usually have to tolerate being touched or caressed by these inebriated customers, and they cannot possibly complain about that because, well, they may get paid enough in exchange for that

In addition, Kasie really needs money for a desperate personal reason. Her father, who raised her and her younger brother Carey (Teddy Lee) alone since their mother left him for some other guy to provide her wealth and luxury many years ago, has been seriously ill, and Kasie is determined to take care of her father to the end even though he is in comatose state now with no sign of recovery. When a nurse hired by her happens to quit for a better job, she recommends Kasie to take her father to a hospice, but Kasie does not agree to that at all, and we later see her desperately seeking another nurse to hire.

Unfortunately, there is not any nurse available to her, so Katie calls her brother, but Carey, who left his father and older sister some time ago due to his personal clash with their father, does not respond to her immediately. After all, he is an unemployed bum with no visible future at present, and he is more occupied with how he will manage to go through another aimless day.

However, Carey eventually comes to change his mind, and Kasie is delighted to see her younger brother on the doorstep of their home. Although he is not a professional nurse at all, Carey soon gets accustomed to taking care of his father while his older sister is absent, and there is an amusing moment when he decides to take his father out of their home for a while just because he wants to take some fresh air and spend some time at a nearby computer cafe.

Meanwhile, things seem to get a bit better for Kasie. She happens to be associated with one of frequent customers at her workplace, and this dude turns out to be a pretty rich man who may help her in more than one way. As spending more private time with him, she gets paid as much as promised, and she seems to be a little more pleased than usual when he later takes her to a traditional Korean dress shop for buying her a new dress.

Of course, as many of you have already guessed, this guy turns out to be your average free-range rude when he tries to get closer to Kasie, and he also openly humiliates her in front of others when they attend a big wedding ceremony. During this painful moment, the camera only looks at the back of her head as phlegmatically following after her, but her quiet anger and humiliation are palpable to us to say the least.

Compared to this prick and many other disgusting Korean guys appearing in the film, a Mexican American lad named Octavio (Octavio Pizano), who works as a parking lot valet at Kasie’s workplace, is quite kind and decent, and he really seems to be interested in her, but Kasie understandably hesitates. After all, he is from a different ethnic background, and, like many other people coping with low self-esteem, she thinks she is not that worthy of this nice guy.

During the last act, the mood becomes melodramatic as demanded, but the movie still maintains its dry and detached tone even during an intense dramatic moment developed from the unexpected reunion between its heroine and that aforementioned prick. Cinematographer Ante Cheng did a commendable job of vividly presenting the lurid and suffocating aspects of Kasie’s work environment, and we sometimes feel like being stuck in that stuffy karaoke booth along with her and her filthy customers.

While mostly looking docile and passive throughout the film, Tiffany Chu gives a quietly harrowing performance which functions as the tarnished beating heart of the movie, and the other main cast members surrounding her are solid in their respective parts. While Teddy Lee is effective as a pathetic loser, Jake Choi is obnoxious as required by his supporting role, and Octavio Pizano is also fine as one of a very few decent characters around Kasie.

On the whole, “Ms. Purple” is a rather tough stuff while also incidentally reminding me of those old South Korean melodrama films about young and miserable hostess girls, but it confirms again that Chon, who drew lots of attentions for his previous film “Gook” (2017), is a major talent to watch. According to IMDB, he is currently working on a film starring Alicia Vikander, and I certainly have some expectation on that.

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Gook (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): One long day of April in Paramount, California, 1992

Justin Chon’s second feature film “Gook”, which received the Best of Next Audience Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in 2017, is an interesting but ultimately uneven mixed bag. At first, it attempts a mildly sensitive character drama about race and generation gap with the 1992 LA riots in the background, but then it stumbles more than once as trying to shift itself between jarringly different tones during its second half, and I was eventually left with much dissatisfaction even while recognizing the pulsating talent behind this flawed piece of work.

Chon, who also wrote the screenplay, plays Eli, a Korean American lad who has run a shabby women’s shoe store along with his younger brother Daniel (David So) in an African American neighborhood of Paramount, California. Because they have already been behind two months’ rent for their current residence, Eli must earn more money by any means necessary, and the opening scene shows him buying a bunch of stolen new sneakers at a cheap price from some African American acquaintance of his.

The movie subsequently observes how things often can be difficult for Eli and Daniel due to their ethnic backgrounds. At one point, Eli is ridiculed and then beaten by a group of Hispanic gang members just for dressing like them, and you may be amused a bit while noticing how Daniel’s attitude and attire are not so far from what we usually observe from young African American dudes from ghetto neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, he has aspired to be a R&B singer someday, but his aspiration looks ridiculous to his older brother, and he usually causes more exasperation from his older brother whenever he does not pay much attention to their family business.

And we also get to know a young adolescent African American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker), who prefers to hang around in Eli and Daniel’s store rather than go to her school. While both of her parents are currently absent, she has lived with her two older siblings Regina (Omono Okojie) and Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.), and it is quite clear from her first scene that she is not particularly close to either of her two older siblings. As the one who has supported her family alone, Regina seems to care much about her younger sister, but Keith is usually more interested in spending time with his thug friends, and it also turns out that he hates Eli and Daniel a lot for a personal reason to be revealed later in the story.

Nevertheless, Kamilla wants to spend her time around Eli and David for the exact same reason, and Eli and David do not mind that at all. There is a spirited moment when they and Kamilla dance together during David’s impromptu performance in the store, and I particularly like a brief tender scene where Eli gives Kamilla a certain small object which poignantly reminds them of how things were nicer in their past.

In the meanwhile, the world surrounding them is about to be turned upside down. It is April 29th, 1992, and everyone in LA and its surrounding urban areas is paying attention to the upcoming verdict on those police officers who brutally assaulted Rodney King during their attempt to arrest him. Once that unjust verdict comes out in public, numerous riots happen here and there in many urban areas including South Central, and the mood also becomes a bit tense and nervous in Paramount.

However, the movie takes a rather distant attitude to what is going on around its main characters during its first half. When Eli and Kamilla happen to see smokes arising from somewhere in other urban regions, the ongoing riots still feel like a lyrical catastrophe observed from the distance to them, and Eli is not particularly concerned about whether the store will be all right during the following night.

Of course, the story inevitably delves more into the racial tensions among its main characters during its second half, and we are accordingly served with a series of melodramatic moments, which do not get mixed well together mainly due to an array of plot contrivances and awkward tone shifts. In case of what is supposed to be a climactic sequence around the end of the film, it is so clumsy and artificial in its blatant manipulation of characters and their motivations that I only came to observe the supposedly devastating outcome from the distance, and that is why the final scene does not work as well as intended, though I appreciate that Chon gives us a sort of inverse version of that striking climactic moment in Spike Lee’s great film “Do The Right Thing” (1989).

At least, the overall result is far from a total failure thanks to the considerable skills and efforts from Cho and his cast and crew members. Thanks to cinematographer Ante Cheng, the movie, which is incidentally shot in black and white film, has a number of poetic visual moments accompanied with authentic period background and details (I was delighted to notice a jar of kimchi inside the refrigerator in Eli and Daniel’s residence, by the way), and Chon and the other main cast members including his own father Sang Chon, who plays the cantankerous owner of a nearby liquor store, are well-cast in their respective roles.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend “Gook” because it is a rough piece of work still in the need of more control on its overall tone and attitude. I personally think Chon’s subsequent work “Ms. Purple” (2019) is a bit better in comparison, but that film and “Gook” surely show that he is another major Korean American filmmaker after Lee Isacc Chung and Andrew Ahn, and I will certainly pay attention to his upcoming next film.

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Greyhound (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An average World War II drama starring Tom Hanks

“Greyhound”, which was initially supposed to be released in US theaters in last month but then released instead on Apple TV+ in last week due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, reminds me again of what a good movie star actor Tom Hanks has been during last two decades. Since he showed the more serious side of his talent via his Oscar-winning role in “Philadelphia” (1993), he has gradually established himself as a modern-day equivalent to James Stewart, and, just like Stewart, he has been pretty good at embodying decency, integrity, and many other wholesome human values, as recently exemplified well by a series of various films ranging from “Captain Phillips” (2013) to “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019).

In “Greyhound”, which is adapted from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd” by Hanks himself, he demonstrates again his undeniable star quality as dutifully carrying the film, but, unfortunately, the movie somehow feels flat and anonymous despite its commendable efforts on mood and authenticity. Although it is a well-made war film packed with several intense and realistic battle sequences, the movie often overlooks human details as focusing more on procedures and maneuvers during its short running time (91 minutes), and it ultimately comes to us as something no more than your average disposable World War II flick.

Hanks plays Commander Ernest Krause, the commanding officer of the USS Keeling. It is early 1942, and Krause and his ship, which is codenamed “Greyhound”, are leading a multi-national escort group defending a merchant ship convoy which is sailing to Liverpool, England. Because he has no previous wartime experience, Krause has already been quite nervous, but he stoically keeps his growing nervousness to himself, while diligently handling the ship and its crew members as usual.

The movie gives us in advance the background information on the Battle of the Atlantic, which was one of the most prominent battles during the World War II. Once it entered the war after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 December, the American government began to send numerous merchant ship convoys to Britain, and there was always a considerable risk of getting attacked by those German submarines in the ocean. Although the convoys and the escort groups defending them could rely on protective air cover around the beginning and end of their voyage across the Atlantic, there was a wide middle area called “Black Pit”, where they had no choice but to defend on themselves as being out of protective air cover for at least 2 days.

As his ship enters this highly dangerous area along with many other ships, Krause and many others on the USS Keeling naturally become quite nervous, and there soon comes the attack from a German submarine. Fortunately, Krause and his men eventually destroy that German submarine mainly thanks to his strong leadership, and everyone on the ship is naturally excited about that, but Krause is well aware that this may be just the beginning for what they will have to go through during next 48 hours.

Of course, his worst fear turns out to be right. There is a group of German submarines lurking somewhere around Krause’s ship and other ships, and Krause and his men subsequently come to see how lethal their main opponent can be. At night, Krause’s ship and other ships are far vulnerable because of the lack of clear sight, and those German submarines certainly grab the opportunity when it inevitably comes to them.

Mostly staying close to what is going on around Krause and several men under his command, the movie provides a number of suspenseful moments as required. At one point later in the film, Krause and his men must be precise in controlling their ship for avoiding two torpedoes approaching to the USS Keeling second by second, and director Aaron Schneider, who won the Best Short Film Oscar for his short film “Two Soldiers” (2003), and his crew members did a good job of generating a palpable sense of danger on the screen.

However, despite this and other effective battle sequences, the movie did not engage me enough mainly due to its deficient storytelling and characterization. Although Hanks’ screenplay is authentic in its realistic depiction of military procedures and maneuvers, many of other main characters in the film besides Krause are not fleshed out enough to interest us, and Krause is also rather bland and colorless despite the dedicated efforts from Hanks. To be frank with you, I had some difficulty in distinguishing one crew member from another during my viewing, and I also struggled to sort out all those other ships around the USS Keeling.

Besides Hanks, you may notice a few notable performers appearing in the film, but they are mostly stuck in their functional roles. While Stephen Graham, who recently appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019), does not have much to do except constantly standing by Hanks, Elizabeth Sue is saddled with a thankless job of playing the unnecessary love interest of Hanks’ character, and Rob Morgan, who was terrific in “Mudbound” (2017), manages to leave some impression during his brief appearance.

In conclusion, “Greyhound” is not a bad war movie at all, and it is buoyed by Hanks’ genuine screen presence to some degree, but it feels rather superficial in terms of story and characters. I admire its many authentic technical details which will probably excite those military history buffs a lot, but I still think the movie could be improved more via adding more personality and humanity.

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Relic (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Something is festering in her mother’s old house…

Like any good horror movies, Australian horror film “Relic” establishes story, mood, and character first. As slowly letting us get to know more about the strained relationships among its three main characters, the movie gradually dials up the level of creepiness along its deceptive narrative, and then it goes all the way for its full-horror mode with some chilling poignancy in the end.

After the ominous opening scene involved with an old woman named Edna (Robyn Nevin), the movie starts the story from the viewpoint of Edna’s daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). When they visit the family house where Edna has lived alone since her husband’s death, it is quite apparent that Edna has been absent for a while, and, though she has not been particularly close to her mother, Kay understandably becomes quite concerned because, as reflected by numerous notes to herself throughout the house, her mother has recently shown signs of dementia.

After reporting Edna’s missing to the local police, Kay decides to stay in the family house along with Bell for several days just in case, but then she and her daughter find themselves often disturbed by the dark and creepy mood of the house. At night, they hear something creaking somewhere inside the house, and Kay also has a disturbing dream which turns out to be associated with her old family history.

Anyway, Edna suddenly comes back later, and she does not seem to remember much although she looks fine except a big strange bruise on her body. She soon resumes working on her candle artwork as if nothing serious happened to her, and she is also willing to share some of her old memories with her granddaughter, who comes to like her grandmother more than before and then starts to consider staying longer in the house for taking care of Edna.

However, Kay has a different thought. As watching how her mother still often seems to lose her mind, she decides that she should send her mother to a facility for old people as soon as possible, but she hesitates when she later looks around one of such facilities in Melbourne, which looks pretty glum and depressing due to many old people aimlessly and mindlessly going through their last years. Even though she has been estranged from her mother for many years, she cares a lot about her mother nonetheless, and she comes to stay in the family house more than expected, while still occupied with her work as before.

In the meantime, that uncomfortable aura around her and her daughter in the house keeps increasing day by day. They still hear that strange creaking noise at night, and they become more nervous about Edna as Edna shows a series of erratic behaviors for no apparent reason. At one point, she tries to destroy her several family pictures in a rather grotesque way, and Kay does not know what to do except trying to comfort her increasingly unstable mother.

Of course, there eventually comes a point where Kay and Sam come to face the darkness which has probably been hidden inside the house for many decades, and director/co-writer Natalie Erick James delivers a series of unnerving moments to remember. We get disturbed more as the house comes to show more of its sinister nature, and then we get a terrifying sequence where one of the main characters in the movie suddenly gets trapped in a stuffy maze of corridors and doors with no visible possibility of exit.

And these and other scary moments in the film are constantly driven by what has been established well between its three main characters. They all come to us as fully developed human characters to observe, and the eventual outcome of the dynamic changes in their mutual relationships along the story is surprising but inevitable, considering what has respectively happened to them during their supernatural plight.

The three main cast performers ably carry the film together. Emily Mortimer, a wonderful British actress who has been always dependable since she drew my attention for the first time via her touching performance as the caring mother of the young hero of “Dear Frankie” (2004), did a fabulous job of conveying her character’s increasingly neurotic state of mind, and she is utterly devastating when her character makes a crucial choice around the end of the movie. Complementing Mortimer well throughout the film, Bella Heathcote, who previously played a substantial supporting role in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” (2017), is absolutely convincing when her character comes to grasp the terror inside the house later in the story, and Robyn Nevin, a veteran actress mainly known for her stage and TV works in Australia, holds her own small place well between Mortimer and Heathcote.

“Relic” is the first feature film directed by James, who made four shorts films before making her feature film debut here. While looking pretty modest on the surface, the movie earns its praises and acclaims because of its effective mood, storytelling, and performance, and it surely deserves to be mentioned along with Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” (2014), another recent notable horror film from Australia. Like Kent, James is a talented filmmaker with considerable potential in my inconsequential opinion, and I will look forward to watching whatever will come next from her.

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