Monday, September 06, 2010

UI-HYEONG-JE (THE SECRET REUNION): MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Kang-ho Song, Dong-won Kang
Director: Hun Jang
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Runtime: 117 min.
Verdict: A political obligation. Generic and schmaltzy alright, but what’s disappointing is that the grit in the action sequence feels designed.
Genre: Thriller, Action

        Ui-Hyeong-je has two guys, one a South Korean agent and the other a North Korean spy-assassin, one who is divorced with his wife married to a Brit and the other away from his family, one who eats only burgers and the other who can catch a rooster and slice it and make chicken broth out of it, one who essentially does anything for money and hence is conveniently and likeably immoral and inoffensively selfish and the other high on principles and morals with his spine straight as an arrow, one who goofs his way through smartness and the other utterly humorless in his efficiency, one who has a paunch and the other a lean-mean machine, one who is a stereotype and the other who is, well, a stereotype too. The film follows a prescribed path to achieve its preset goal of sending a “let us unite and be brothers” message, and contrives its way to have them turn into stock characters for the buddy genre. I don’t need to tell you that it is superficial. I don’t need to tell you that you would be rolling your eyes so much you would count it is as calorie-burner for the day. And just when you think that the film is at least trying to be coy about its message, the South Korean agent invokes the word capitalism, and gives a stock definition of it, and the situation unfortunately is not even bad enough to cause a chuckle.
        Surprisingly I wasn’t annoyed all that much. That the South Korean agent is selfish (ah! goddamn! capitalism!), and during the opening assignment he refuses to inform backup because, hey, they might take all the credit was just, well, a cliché. And that several agents get killed. And that he still has the gall to shout back at his boss for terminating him would’ve been interesting had the film not presented the agent as a poor scapegoat/victim and the boss as a, well, standard-issue boss. It might even put you off, or leave you clueless and witless. I didn’t mind. I shrugged.
        What disappointed me most though, is that Ui-Hyeong-je is a visual bummer, choreographing its sequences just about like most Hollywood films these days. In The Chaser, Mother and The Good The Bad The Weird the Koreans have given some of the most striking visual imagery of these past few years. It is just not the images that do the talking, but quite often it is the camera that is cause for bravado, and often the editing. Faithful readers will remember my discussion on Mother, on how the mise-en-scene establishes a lie, and how a simple dissolve into one of the strangest sights of this decade causes absolute disruption to this lie, and reveals the darker truth lying underneath. You know, maybe I’m biased towards Korean cinema, and I confess I expect too much, and when an obligatorily shot product comes along from them I should rather move on than crib about it, but then I cannot help cribbing that Ui-Hyeong-je is just a whole lot of images strung together. I know, we get that from Hollywood all the time, and Hollywood that I often praise, and maybe I’ve come to expect that visual blandness from them. But here, when scenes don’t organically move on to the next, where one feels as if the movie isn’t moving and instead it is just images coming one after the other, where the images seem to run into each other, I cringe. You see reader, good editing always follows a simple principle – there needs to be a line of action in the first frame that causes it to move to the next frame, and so on. Not here. It’s like A chasing B in a car, and rather than the chase moving like they used to in the good old times, we have almost static images of A then B, then A, then B, then A and then B and so on. There’s just no flow and no rhythm, and it’s boring. The camera just doesn’t talk. There’re close-ups when there ought to have been medium-shots, there are edits when there ought to have been a continuous unedited pan, and it’s all just uninteresting. Even the humor the Koreans bring out of grit feels like self parody here, when the cop car chasing the bad guy runs through several turns barely making them (remember your first stint with those race cars in NFS) and eventually runs into a wall, the cynic inside of you sort of wonders.
        Yet, there’s a little moment of the bravado I always respond to, and that involves buddies fighting a whole lot of bullies. Shot from sideways it zooms into the action as the two guys wade into the streaming horde, sort of like 300 minus the slow-mo, and scored with a disco tune, and it is a little moment of ecstasy. Of course even that is visually uninteresting. I think it has everything to do with the heart and mind behind this film, and they way it pans out, one shouldn’t be faulted to wonder if this is a state-sponsored film with a politically correct message to spread among the masses. Which brings us to my point. That is, it might not be possible to create art without offending someone at some level. Of course, if you go and inverse the statement and try to pin it down as a corollary, then no sir, it is not true.

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