Sunday, February 1, 2015

Hwayi: A Monster Boy (2013) Korean movie

Hwayi: A Monster Boy (화이 : 괴물을 삼킨 아이)

aka. Hwayi: a movie even my dad would find too gory

Well, that was intense.

Hwayi may be one of the goriest, most violent movies I've seen in recent memory.  It's one of those movies that, even after the credits rolled, made me sit there for a while and think "TF did I just watch."

In a nutshell, Hwayi is about a 16-year-old who snaps and goes on a killing spree.  Throw in an actualfax monster and some adoptive father-son dialogue and you've got your movie.  And it was a pretty decent movie, all things considered.  Either that or I have a strange taste in films.  Depends on who you talk to.

Our titular teen, Hwayi (Yeo Jin-goo), was kidnapped as a child as part of a ransom scheme gone wrong and raised by five vicious criminals who kill to get what they want.  He calls them his fathers and has learned different skills from each one, be it getting girls, shooting, or driving a getaway truck.  The five have raised him to be an assassin, but he is too soft-hearted to shoot another human being.

However, since the time of his kidnapping he has been haunted by a gruesome monster that absolutely terrifies him to the core.  He goes into occasional fits of panic because of it, not helped by the fact that one of his "fathers," Seok-tae (Kim Yoon-seok), routinely locks him in the basement when he has done something wrong.  The monster follows him everywhere, its reflection appearing in windows, lurking in basements, and always just behind him.

We begin to see some rips in the thread of Hwayi's sanity when a break-in job goes wrong.  The owner of the home returns too early and Hwayi is forced to shoot.  He resists at first, seeing the fear in the man's eyes, but as his "father" shouts at him to finish the job his resolve breaks.  And once the first bullet leaves the barrel, he can't stop.

Soon after, due to an odd coincidence, Hwayi makes a discovery he would rather have lived never knowing and vows on revenge against his adoptive fathers, using his unique skillset gained from them in order to take them down.

Hwayi is set apart from many killer-teen action films in that it attempts to explore the psychology of how and why the boy snapped.  His escalation from haunted boy who yearns for a normal life to deranged, vengeance-seeking psychopath essentially burns down to this: "to stop seeing the monster, he becomes the monster," or so he seems to believe.  And yet, no matter how much the viewer disagrees with his or other characters' actions, the film manages to make the characters sympathetic and utterly fascinating.

The only real aspect of the movie that made me uncomfortable was the treatment of women.  There are three women in Hwayi, and two are mother figures for the boy. One has helped raise him since boyhood, but she's also been beaten horribly by her husband and walks oddly because he used to keep her feet chained. The other is murdered to help fuel Hwayi's rampage. The girl serves nothing more than a narrative purpose and is a sort-of-almost love interest for him.  But other than this, I enjoyed the movie and thought it was well done.

Hwayi is dark and twisted, graphically violent and often difficult to watch, but it somehow draws the viewer in with its unpredictable and tense writing and pacing.  The character Hwayi is brought to monstrous and vivid life by Yeo Jin-goo, and the five criminals who raised him are also well-acted.  The theme of nature vs. nurture is raised again and again throughout the film, and its unsparing exploration may rear more questions than you would care to think about.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

It's Okay, That's Love (2014): Korean Drama Review

It's Okay, That's Love (괜찮아, 사랑이야)
Episodes: 16
Network: SBS

It's Okay, That's Love, for lack of a better phrase, blew my mind.  I began this drama on a whim and ended up devouring the first four episodes in one sitting before having to deal with the agonizing wait each week for new episodes.  Each episode surpassed my expectations.  I hadn't been this captivated by an airing show since Nine last year.  I dare say it has become my favorite Korean drama.

It is such an amazingly crafted story with a straight-forward, unvarnished look at the realities of mental illnesses, which is a rare occurrence in television or, really, any form of media.  The romance is well-told and consent and communication are strong themes throughout the show.  Truly, this drama is a breath of fresh air.  It is mature and smart and respectful of its characters.  I definitely recommend it to everyone, even non-kdrama-fans.

It is so hard to talk about this show without wanting to spoil the heck out of it.  But I think I did all right.

The Plot
Ji Hae-soo (Gong Hyo-jin) is a psychiatrist.  She is ambitious and stubborn and has a negative view of love and personal relationships.  She meets bestselling author Jang Jae-yeol (Jo In-sung), a snarky, somewhat prickly man, on a radio talk show about the criminal mind and sparks immediately fly as their strong personalities clash.  When Jae-yeol unexpectedly starts living in the same tenant-house as Hae-soo, their bickering begins to turn to love as they help each other heal their deep emotional scars.  But Jae-yeol's wounds, and subsequently the condition of his mental health, may be more serious than meets the eye.


The Leading Lady
Gong Hyo-Jin as Ji Hae-soo
I'd seen Gong Hyo-Jin in Pasta (2010) and Master's Sun (2012) and loved her in both, but Hae-soo is definitely my favorite character of her's.  She portrayed Hae-soo fabulously, with flair and a touch of reality that grounded the character.   Hae-soo is so complex and interesting.  She speaks her mind and doesn't put up with shit from anyone, with a delightful wit and humor to boot.  She can be petty, playful, comforting, or cold.  She's both strong and vulnerable with flaws that only serve to make her all the more realistic and relatable.

Hae-soo is a successful psychiatrist and the show allows her to be good at her job (which I greatly appreciate).  She has the ability to balance her work life and her personal life and distinguish between the two, and it was both fascinating and heart-breaking to watch her struggle with keeping them separate toward the end of the show.

I loved almost all of the characters in this show, but the main leads really shone.  They are probably one of my favorite on-screen couples of all time.

The Leading Man
Jo In-sung as Jang Jae-yeol

Very rarely do I like a male lead fully and with no reservations.  But Jae-yeol-- and I'm sure Jo In-sung's acting had a lot to do with this-- became one of those rare instances.

Jae-yeol is the standard rich, charming, handsome male lead, but the show manages to turn this trope on its head with his compassion and straightforwardness.  He accepts all of Hae-soo, loving every bit of her, even her flaws.  He never forces Hae-soo to change in order to be with him and it is always apparent that the two are matched when it comes to verbal warfare.

Jo In-sung is perfect as Jae-yeol.  He plays the character with such subtlety and grace, and when it becomes apparent that Jae-yeol suffers from a serious mental illness, Jo In-sung continues to portray him in a way that never becomes over the top.  This was my first exposure to Jo In-sung, and he astounded me with his acting prowess.

I love Hae-soo and Jae-yeol so much.  I love the growth in their relationship and how they interact. They adore each other and it shows and I just love them so much.

There is communication.  Whenever there's an argument or disagreement, it's solved quickly because they talk about it. There's such a frank honesty between them.  This is a large reason why I love this show so much.  It portrays an adult relationship in which they grow individually as people and together as lovers, without all the overdone melodrama that plagues many a drama.

It's Okay, That's Love isn't a perfect show.  I side-eyed a few of the secondary characters numerous times for their behavior or for their views on certain topics.  But while there were certainly flaws to the show, they were mostly overshadowed by how well-done the rest of it was.

I have major respect for the writer for tackling such a topic with the respect she did.  The portrayals of mental illness are done so humanly and respectfully, and the stigmas addressed head-on.  The drama set out to show us that people with mental health issues are more than their illnesses, and that with proper medicine and care, they can live a normal life.  The characters are never magically cured, but they come to terms with their illnesses and each has a happy ending.

Hae-soo and Jae-yeol had a long road to travel together but they made it, hand in hand.  By the end of the drama, they loved each other unconditionally.  They had endured so much together and survived.

It's Okay, That's Love is serious but manages to keep a light-hearted tone, while always being aware of its subject matter.  The cinematography and OST compliment the atmosphere of the drama perfectly.  The cast has insane chemistry and as the drama rolls along, you grow attached to each character until you never want to let them go.  There are no words to describe how much I love this show.  Cruel City (2013) has been my favorite drama for over a year now, but It's Okay, That's Love is even better.  It hit all my buttons and continued to command my attention until the very last second.  And it was hard to say goodbye to these characters, so full of life they seemed real.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Nodame Cantabile (2006): Japanese Drama Review

Nodame Cantabile (のだめカンタービレ)
Episodes: 11

This drama is so much fun.  I laughed non-stop practically every episode.  Nodame is jdrama crack at its finest and has all the right combinations of heart, spirit, silliness and sparkles.

Based off a manga of the same name by Tomoko Ninomiya and considered a classic by many, Nodame Cantabile is insane with the bonus of classical music.

I was reluctant to watch this show at first because of the music school concept and the assumption it wouldn't interest me, but it snuck up on me and by the middle of the first episode I was hooked.  The characters are all hilariously quirky, the sets are stunning, and the camerawork is beautiful.  I enjoyed it so, so much and will definitely watch it again.

The Plot
Chiaki Shinichi (Hiroshi Tamaki) is a finicky and arrogant but talented piano major who dreams of becoming a conductor.  His parents are both talented musicians, and thus from an early age Chiaki traveled throughout and lived in Europe.  Now in university back in Japan, he wants to learn from the masters in Europe but cannot leave the country due to an intense fear of both flying and boating caused by childhood trauma (emergency landing and near-drowning respectively).

Noda Megumi (Juri Ueno), or Nodame, is a genius piano player who hates practicing and learns scores by ear.  She is sloppy and energetic and regularly steals her friends' lunches, and is generally spazzy and eccentric.

The two meet and discover that they are neighbors, and soon find themselves thrown into a newly-formed orchestra full of other quirky characters at their music university.

Before Nodame, I had only seen Hiroshi Tamaki in Guilty, Akuma to Keiyaku Shita Onna (The Woman Who Made a Pact with the Devil).  I didn't even realize he was the same person until I looked him up out of curiosity.  He hadn't made much of an impact on me in Guilty, but in Nodame he was stellar.  His portrayal of Chiaki is absolutely hilarious; as the show progresses and he loses all semblance of sanity, his facial expressions just get better and better.  Chiaki approaches everything very seriously and is not pleased to be paired up with Nodame, but gradually he comes to appreciate her quirks and unique style of playing, himself growing in the process.  Hiroshi brings Chiaki to life in all his perfectionist, piano-playing glory and then some, and his smirks and eye-twitches were ones for the record books.

This was my first exposure to Juri Ueno, and she gave an incredible performance as the enthusiastic and slightly scatterbrained Nodame.  She embodies Nodame's uniqueness perfectly with layers of resilience and underlying fragility and is so entertaining to watch.  Nodame is friendly and innocent and forges connections with each and every person she comes across.  She is so messy her apartment is filled to overflowing with garbage and junk, and she can't cook to save her life.  She dreams of becoming a kindergarten teacher and is essentially Chiaki's opposite in every way.  I laughed so, so hard at her antics throughout the show, and I will definitely watch for more of Juri's dramas.

Within Chiaki and Nodame's new orchestra, lovingly titled S-Oke (Special Orchestra), is a great cast of supporting characters.  Standouts include Ryutaro Mine (Eita), a unique young violinist and Okuyama Masumi (Koide Keisuke) the flamboyant timpani player.  Mine's blond hair and colored side hairbands were fabulous, and Eita gave a fantastic performance. He portrayed Mine's growth from rebellious rocker to someone who appreciated classical music and strove to become concert master very well, and it was wonderful to witness.  Masumi was great comic relief and his afro and little mustache were hilarious.  Nodame is an especially notable show because it is full of strong performances.  The cast had great chemistry and were a delight to watch.

The chemistry between Hiroshi and Juri is what really makes the show great.  The way their characters play off each other and how they interact is insanely fun.  Nodame almost immediately falls for Chiaki, and her romantic advances are hysterical.  I loved how their relationship developed gradually throughout the show and I have yet to see the movies, but I've heard they dialed up the romance so I'm excited to check them out.

 Something of note is the complete use of classical music in this show.  There is not one poppy jdrama song to be heard.  I'm not typically one to listen to or even like classical, but the show uses it so well, picking just the right song for each scene and performance, that even I started to catch myself humming along.  And who can resist Nodame in a mongoose costume to the tune of Rhapsody in Blue?  I can't.

Nodame is essentially a drama that lures you in with sparkles and rainbows and anime-like slapstick, then delivers on character development and romance.  All the main characters and a sizable portion of the side characters experienced growth and there was not one, but two adorable romances to be had.

If slapstick and pure glittering insanity isn't your thing, Nodame may not be your cup of tea.  But if it is, sit back and enjoy the gorgeous people, mismatched fashion, and hilarious characters, all to the tune of Mozart and Beethoven.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

God's Quiz Season 1 (2010): Korean Drama Review

God's Quiz (신의 퀴즈)
Episodes: 10

I love this show.  So.  Much.

I usually don't get so sick that I have to miss school, but every so often I'll get hammered.  Whatever was going around here in March kept me in bed for an entire week.  Naturally, I scoured the internet for a good drama to marathon.  Not being in the mood for fluff, I eventually found God's Quiz, an off-beat cable show running only 10 episodes.

God's Quiz is a crime/medical drama with suspense, some action, a disease-of-the-week set-up building to the main conflict, witty humor, and a talented cast.

If you prefer light, fluffy dramas with a high focus on romance, God's Quiz may not be for you.  But if you have an appreciation for this type of show, this is a great piece of work I definitely recommend checking out.

The Plot
Han Jin Woo (Ryu Deok Hwan) is a genius surgeon who gives up his career as a doctor and is transferred to a special team at the National Scientific Criminal and Investigation Laboratory at Hanguk University that investigates crimes involving rare diseases.  When the police and autopsy surgeons cannot figure out a person's cause of death, the body is sent to this team.  His partner is detective Kang Kyung Hee (Yoon Joo Hee), who is part of the team to detect any foul play during investigations.

The Lead
Dr. Haaaaan~!  Han Jin Woo is a know-it-all smart-ass with little to no people skills.  He likes to goof off, provoke people then hide behind Detective Kang, and cheerfully irritate his co-workers.  But even though he seems shallow at first, we soon gain insight into his many layers, under which is a warm heart and a consciousness about life and humanity.  He's probably one of my top 10 favorite kdrama characters.  His character is well-written and well-acted and he is given lots of depth.

Ryu Deok Hwan may not have standard "perfect" good looks for a male lead, but he is charismatic and charming, quite the cutie, and a great actor.  After watching God's Quiz, I saw him in the movie Our Town, and he was wonderfully unhinged and creepy in it.  He has the ability to show multiple layers in his characters at once, and he is simply mesmerizing onscreen.  His Dr. Han is energetic and funny, and his serious scenes were spot on.  He also "suffers" very realistically, and that's always a bonus.

The Lead Lady
Detective Kang is sharp and kick-ass and takes her job seriously.  She acts like a detective without yelling and acting macho to seem tough, is rarely seen in heels, and dresses like a real detective.  She initially takes Dr. Han's cheekiness and irreverence badly because of her respect for their work, but as the show continues they begin to understand each other a bit more and the two reach a mutual respect and partnership.

Yoon Joo Hee does a great job portraying Detective Kang.  She is cute and likable and makes it easy for viewers to connect with her character.  She also shows Detective Kang's tough and emotional sides well.

The Romance
The romance between Dr. Han and Detective Kang is practically non-existant for the majority of the show, but when it shows up, it burns slowly and deliciously and feels natural.  By the time the first inklings of interest start to appear, they've already started bonding as partners who look to each other.  Their romance is so flipping cute and the two have great chemistry.

The rest of the cast are also solid actors who played their characters well.  The actors felt fitted to their roles, and each character had a distinct personality and quirkiness.

God's Quiz is very well done.  It is fantastically written and feels carefully planned, with every piece of information given and every scene watched important to the show and its end game.  The directing is also well-done and the visuals are great.  You can tell the effects weren't cheap and that they took time.  The show has a balanced tone, good production values, great characters who have brains and know how to use them, and a fantastic (and adorable) slow-burning romance.  It also has a cheerful, eccentric, smart-ass hero, and I can never get enough of that.

This is one of those rare (for me) shows that, as soon as I finish the last episode, I immediately begin again.  And I enjoyed it even more the second time around.  This was my first time seeing Ryu Deok Hwan in a show and I was duly impressed, and hope to see him in more soon.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Arang and the Magistrate (2012): Korean Drama Review

Arang and The Magistrate (아랑사또전)
Episodes: 20

This show is a rare gem in kdrama- a fantasy.  There are many shows with fantastical elements, but Arang takes place in a beautiful, detailed fantasy world with developed mythology and rules.  Its stance as a historical drama also allows for maximum use of the gorgeous scenic hills and meadows where the drama was shot.  It is altogether a well-written, beautiful drama with well-fleshed out characters, and one that is already tempting me with a rewatch.

The Plot
Eun Oh (Lee Jun Ki) is a wandering noble with ghost-seeing abilities searching for his mother.  Arang (Shin Min Ah) is a ghost seeking her lost memories and the cause of her death.  Arang asks for help finding her memories and at first Eun Oh refuses because of his history being pestered by ghosts, but he agrees when he sees Arang's hair pin.  It had belonged to his mother, and for Arang to have it as a ghost she had to have died with it on her.  Together they work to solve their mysteries.

Shin Min Ah plays Arang to perfection.  She isn't afraid of getting down and dirty for the role, hiking up her skirts and running all over creation.  She is very believable as Arang, showing her complex emotions and filling out all the nuances of the character.  Shin Min Ah is a fantastic actress, and she gives her all to bring Arang to life.

Arang herself is a pretty awesome heroine, as well.  She matches perfectly Eun Oh's wits and meets him on equal footing as a partner.  She plays just as crucial a role in solving their mysteries as he.  Even though her character arcs a bit into noble idiocy in one episode, she is overall a very intelligent and capable heroine and never loses her spark.

Lee Jun Ki is fantastic in the role of Eun Oh as well.  I've seen him in other dramas (most recently having watched Time Between Dog and Wolf) and he never ceases to amaze me.  He's a great actor and he does all his own fight scenes and stunts.

At the start of the drama, Eun Oh has a policy of ignoring injustice and refusing to help the ghosts that come to him.  But as he begins to step into his role as magistrate, he becomes someone the people of Milyang can turn to.  He also starts to genuinely care about Arang and the recovery of her memories.  The transformation is wonderful to see.

All of the characters in this drama are complex and fleshed out.  They all have their backstories and motivations, and not one felt like a caricature.  The acting was also very well-done, with great performances from everyone.  The writers and actors did a great job creating such multi-faceted characters.
Arang felt like it was very carefully thought out.  Its world and sprawling mythology were complex and had many rules, but it was all handled very well and at the same time it was relatively easy to understand how everything worked.  The story was intricately-woven and told with assurance so that it felt like it was in good hands.  Everything was clearly plotted out and tightly written.

It is a very fantastical drama, and I love that about it.  It has gods and reapers and fairies and ghosts, shamans, possession and reincarnation, heaven and hell.  Everything that happens on earth is influenced by the forces of heaven and hell.  The fates of its inhabitants are determined by the Jade Emperor (Yoo Seung-ho) and his brother the King of the Underworld (Park Joon-gyu).  There is some autonomy- the gods are in charge of life and death, but they cannot predict the actions the humans they govern will take.  The mythology is the show's driving force, and is what makes the drama so unique.

Arang revolves around its mythology, and all that takes place leads back to it.  The many questions that arise as the drama progresses are answered, and are part of that mythology and the overarching plot.  The drama almost never falters- it comes out of the gate running and keeps forging on, never dragging anything on for too long.  Even its very first moments are exciting and intriguing, raising questions and enticing viewers to stay glued to the screen.  The pace keeps up for the majority of the drama as answers are dropped, secrets are revealed, and more mysteries are layered on.  I never got bored while watching this drama, nor did it ever feel stagnant.

The cinematography in Arang is gorgeous.  I was in continuous awe of its beauty for the entirety of the show.  The scenes taking place in the fantasy garden of the Jade Emperor and the Underworld were especially stunning.  The special effects were well-done and, while not perfect, added a lot to the drama's believability and mythology.  The quality of the episodes dropped a bit as the show caught up with live-shooting, but even then it was beautifully done.

None of the pics in this post are mine.
The OST is amazing.  The instrumental tracks, particularly Arang's Love Theme, were beautiful and added to the show's mystical feel.

Arang also has a great romance.  Lee Jun Ki and Shin Min Ah have great chemistry in both cute and emotional scenes.  Their connection was strong and made their slow-burning romance feel real.  I was sold on their performances and loved watching them together.

Arang's world was full of distinct and rich characters and had a heartful preconceived story that had a clear beginning and (satisfying) end.  The show brought together multiple genres successfully: fantasy, romance, humor, action, and mystery.  I loved this show so very much, for it reminded me of when I was younger and reading fantasy books.  It struck my sweet spot hard.

Watch if: you enjoy fantasy, romance, mystery, or all of the above.  It is a wonderful show that I will want to watch over and over again.