Oh, Reel-y: Taiwanese and Korean cinemas

On Monday, of the four movies I watched at NYAFF, two were Taiwanese films by new directors, and two were Korean films starring the venerable Choi Min-Sik, of Oldboy fame. Of course, Taiwan and South Korea are two very different countries, and while their movies differ vastly in style and substance, they share a unique economic and political bond: interests of the American film industry have historically impacted domestic filmmaking in both countries, and typically in not so positive ways.

On a good note, Taiwanese cinema has recently, since 2008 or so, had something of a reawakening, after several dormant decades where lifted trade restrictions flooded the box office with American films, displacing the domestic film industry. In Korea, however, Choi Min-Sik actually quit acting for four years in the mid-2000s to protest Hollywood pressure on his country’s film industry, and, as he mentioned during a Q&A following a screening of one of his films, things on that front don’t appear to be improving.

While I’m at least nominally familiar with the merits and criticisms of free trade as regards to the exchange of material goods and local manufacturing and economy, I haven’t really considered its impact on the creation and production of art. It’s disturbing to contemplate the notion that our economic foreign policy can actually dilute or even quash other nations’ creative and cultural expressions. Ultimately, this brand of cultural imperialism only stifles artistic voices from across the ocean, and we miss out on the badassery that is Asian cinema, a more tragic loss than you might realize. After all, America, do we really need any more superhero movies?


Make Up
Taiwan, 2011

Min-Hsiu is an introverted funeral home cosmetician, and she prepares the corpses she receives with great care and professionalism, whether powdering and painting away scars or molding missing appendages out of wax. However, when the body at the morgue is her high school music teacher and former lover, she has to step out of her quiet world to investigate the circumstances of her teacher’s supposed suicide. With a storyline involving the mysterious death of a beautiful woman, a mortician with a secret, an illicit love affair, a disgraced cop with anger issues, and designer drugs, Make Up might on first glance appear to be a hard-boiled crime thriller. Rather, it’s a quiet, contemplative piece on a love lost and the fingerprints left behind.

The film is measured and elegiac, with a deliberate pace that is both its strength and weakness. I can’t recall another film with a similar subject matter and plot line handled with such grace and delicacy, but at certain points the film feels so slow that it seems hardly to be moving at all. Nevertheless, Make Up is a unique film, sad and touching, with enough restraint to avoid being maudlin. Were Hollywood to option this script for a remake, it’s hard to say that that would remain the case.


Korea, 2001

As anyone who’s seen the brilliantly twisted Oldboy can and will attest, Choi Min-Sik is a force. In Oldboy, he takes a hammer to your teeth, but in Failan, he takes it to your tear ducts. (Okay, the metaphor is a bit strained, and possibly more painful than I would have preferred, but the point is, I welled up more watching this than anything since maybe, say, the teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.)

In Failan, Choi Min-Sik plays Kang-Jae, a low-rent gangster prone to urinating in sinks, threatening old ladies who showed him kindness as a youth, and selling pornography to teenagers. He gets no respect from the younger members of his gang, which is unthinkable if you know anything about Korean culture, where hierarchy means the difference between being bowed to and getting slapped. Rodney Dangerfield never had it so good.

In the midst of all his fuck-ups, Kang-Jae suddenly receives news that his wife is dead. Wife? Oh that’s right, a year ago he “married” the eponymous Failan, a young Chinese woman who needed a husband for immigration purposes. As he goes and wraps up his wife’s affairs, Kang-Jae realizes that this woman whom he never met may be the most important person of his life and his ultimate redemption.

This movie is pitch perfect, with a flawless blend of humor and heart. Choi Min-Sik inflects Kang-Jae’s dopey loser with humanity and soul, and his growth and metamorphosis is something to behold. Even though it’s over ten years old, this is easily my favorite movie of the year. See it if you’re a human being.


You Are the Apple of My Eye
Taiwan, 2011

Sweeping through Asia like a fluorescent and adolescent Genghis Khan, You Are the Apple of My Eye crushed box offices in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and China in 2011. Its screening was the most packed show that I’ve been to during my several years of attending the NYAFF. People crowded in the aisles to watch it, and the applause as the credits rolled was deafening. I may be sipping the Hatorade, but, to mix metaphors, don’t drink the Kool-aid. It’s good, but overrated.

Now, I really wanted to love this movie, and I can see why it’s such a crowd-pleaser. It’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout and an overall assured debut from first-time director and bestselling novelist Giddens Ko. You Are the Apple of My Eye, which Ko swears to be 100% true, is adapted from a memoir he wrote about Shen Chia-yi, his first crush in high school, the one that got away. (Interestingly enough, as in the book and film’s Chinese title, which translates literally to “In those years, the girl we all went after,” the apple of his eye turns out to be the apple of all his friends’ eyes, since they all nursed crushes on the same poor girl.)

The film starts off strong, but by the end I felt let down. Ko wants this to be a movie about young love, but his crush is the least interesting part of the film. It teases at being a raunchy sex comedy, Taiwan’s volley to the American Pie franchise’s serve, but devolves into something chaste, non-transgressive, and, dare I say, flaccid. The best and most hilarious parts of the movie are the various absurd sexcapades and misadventures that Ko and his pack of horn dog buddies get into. Ko and his dad walk around their apartment naked, he has a close friend nicknamed “Boner,” he stages Fight Club-style contests, and, let’s just say that if this is indeed autobiography, then I’m a fortunate educator not to have dealt with a masturbation tournament in my classroom. Ko, simultaneously character and creator, is an impressive over-sharer, but as the protagonist and the writer, Ko is more confident and far more entertaining and interesting talking about matters of the crotch than matters of the heart.

Part of it may be that I don’t fully understand the dating rituals of Taiwanese high schoolers. Ultimately, Ko’s relationships with his pals is more intimate (at least physically) and more interesting than the one with his crush, and I wish he would have shifted his focus more in that direction, because I think the movie would have worked better and been more compelling as a buddy flick than a failed love story. But hey, the movie is a hit all over Asia and with the NYAFF audience, so what do I know?


Crying Fist
Korea, 2005

I’m increasingly being swayed by arguments against watching college football, and I harbor similar reservations about watching boxing. A movie like Crying Fist, then, stirs in me mixed emotions; the film doesn’t shy from the brutal effects of boxing, but it also highlights the importance of the sport in the lives of its combatants.

Inspired by and fictionalized from real-life characters, Crying Fist pairs together Choi Min-Sik with Ryoo Seung-Beom, whom I first encountered in the terrific film The Unjust during last year’s NYAFF. In The Unjust, Ryoo Seung-Beom is outstanding as an ambition-crazed public prosecutor locked in a bloody feud of increasing stakes with a crooked cop. In Crying Fist, made five years prior, he gives an incendiary performance as a street tough seething with rage who, with a slight nod to Mike Tyson, picks up boxing in prison; it reminded me of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s terrific turn in the little-seen Manic. If you’re disappointed with the young pretty-boy actors of Hollywood, go to Korean cinema for the fire.

Of course, the always sublime Choi Min-Sik turns in another top-notch performance as a boxer on the other end of his career. He is a former silver medalist now given to whoring himself as a human punching bag to strangers on busy streets when he’s not dulling his senses with drink or making his son cry.

The film is shot in a gritty, nearly documentary style. It unabashedly portrays the crumbling lives of the two characters, neither hiding their flaws nor gilding their weaknesses. These are men on the lowest rungs of society, and their brutish behavior and calloused treatments of their families can hardly be lauded. Nevertheless, they are human, and director Ryoo Seung-Wan (brother to Ryoo Seung-Beom) unflinchingly shows us their pains, their frustrations, and their despairs; our sympathy for them is well-earned. Much of the film follows them through their harrowing journeys, and it’s not till the film’s final act that we see the boxing tournament ubiquitous in films of this genre, the final showdown with its promises of money and, more importantly, salvation. But herein lies the rub: who do we cheer for when we have two underdogs?

Crying Fist is a terrific movie, worth seeing for the performances of the two actor heavyweights alone. Beautifully shot, whether in Seoul’s back streets, city squares, or prison yards, it’s more than a boxing movie; it’s a searing portrait of two men for whom life is brutal, where nothing’s promised, nothing’s easy, and the only way forward is to punch your way through, one round at a time.


One Comment on “Oh, Reel-y: Taiwanese and Korean cinemas”

  1. Jasen says:

    Yes, it’s true. You do not know about Taiwanese or Asian culture to get the movie.

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