One thing to like about the films of the prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo is how grounded they are in cluttered, everyday reality. (Maybe your reality isn’t cluttered, but I’m working with what I see around me, so this looks to me like realism.) People in his movies are always going for soup and coffee and leaving beer cans sitting around, to the point where this seems like the actual subject matter of the movie. In On the Beach at Night Alone, for instance, there are long scenes around kitchen tables, in cafes, and at a beachside hotel, where the characters dump their potato chips and liquor and a can of Spam. It makes you realize how infrequently people in movies talk about how hungry they are and how they need to stop off for snacks. There should be more snacking in movies, and Hong delivers.
The once-vibrant South Korean action movie movement has slowed. What was a steady wave of semi-righteous vengeance sagas has reduced down to a trickle of straight-to-video exports. On the bright side, when one of them does still manage to make it to American theaters, they’re usually worth the ticket price.
The absurdly flashy The Villainess takes a sure-fire exploitation premise—a female assassin attempts to start a new life, while also reluctantly continuing to thin out the world’s thug population—and goes for absolute, ridiculously overt broke.
You could call Train to Busan (South Korea, 2016) “Zombies on a Train”—it certainly makes a catchy logline and it frames the premise accurately and succinctly—but it reduces this fleet, fierce, unexpectedly human thriller to a mere gimmick.
Apart from the slyly eerie prologue, the film opens without any hint of the viral rampage to come. Workaholic divorced dad Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) is a hedge fund manager in a Seoul financial firm juggling a financial crisis while his neglecting his young daughter Soo-an, one of those adorable tykes whose moon eyes and disappointed face gives us a history of neglect—not the physical abuse kind, mind, he’s just been absent in every meaningful way—and finally shames him into taking her back to her mother on the train to Busan. It’s just another ride as far as the passengers are concerned, but that because the train pulls out just before the yard is overrun in a swarm of rabid bodies, but not before one infected soul climbs aboard.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea) leaves behind the austerity and cool tone of his superb but unheralded American debut Stoker to return to the intense imagery, twisting narratives, perverse subcultures, and elevated emotions of his Sympathy trilogy. The story of con artists in 1930s Korea, adapted from the British novel “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters (also made into a British TV miniseries), has the look of a lavish period drama, the elegance of an arthouse picture, the complex plotting of an ingenious caper that only the movies could sustain, and the sex of a classy softcore picture. Park shifts the setting from Victorian England to Korea under Japanese colonial occupation, which adds national tensions to drama already roiling with class division and sexual exploitation.