The Age of Shadows (2016)

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First time with Kim Jee-woon. Nice poster.

Interesting period for a political thriller, covering resistance efforts in Japanese-occupied Korea in the late 20s. Unfortunately, particularly for the film’s first third, the design is about as polished and anodyne as a Lindt advert with the bauble-flat sheen of a Thomas Kinkade painting. There is pressure put on Korean lackey of the Japanese police-force Song Kang-ho as an intended fulcrum for intelligence, switching his allegiances after a delicate balancing-act of persuasion; however, the script and pacing are pedestrian enough to deflate most of this significance, leaving the chocolate-box first act feeling surprisingly low-stakes, too.

Part 2 is “Train to Seoul”, with the engaging premise of Gong Yoo’s Tinker-Tailor molehunting within the confines of a lavish but segmented transnational train. While AoS struggles to shake the toothless sense of a romantic BBC WWII period drama, SK-h comes to the fore here, channelling Gary Oldman’s James Gordon in his experienced wariness; Uhm Tae-goo is good value, too, as a zealously unhinged deputy. Some tense escapes and a nice showdown (with an implausible resolution).

I think its third act saves it, to some extent, by striding briskly through an expected ending into a zippy montage of classic action sequences: there’s a train-station shootout,  some legitimately squeamish torture sequences, a Bourne-esque foxhole chase, and an eventual return to the le Carré structure via a satisfyingly vengeful tying of loose ends (set entertainingly to Ravel’s “Bolero”) and a patriotic conclusion. Glad that SK-h took the reins from the likeable but less distinctive GY, too.

Passably tense and historically interesting but visually buffed to an unhealthy sheen and rather lightweight, overall.

5

The Taste of Money (2012)

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First time with Im Sang-soo. Firstly amusing to note that the film was produced in partnership with Isu Group, a Korean venture capital conglomerate.

The trajectory is signalled nicely by the film’s brief introduction, in a way formally comparable to Whiplash. Chairman Yoon encourages his deferential but quietly opinionated new secretary Joo Young-jak to skim a few bundles off the top of a colossal pile of bills in a safe, from which they are subtracting an underhand payment to a client. Alone Y-j handles the money, even kisses it, but puts it back before leaving. Even though he exhibits resilience and resistance, he is already infected with the plutolatry that defines the world into which he is to be inducted. Unfortunately, when he returns halfway through the film, we immediately telegraph his greedy grabbing. This is also indicative of the film’s trajectory, as it wends an often disappointingly predictable path through the world of the Korean superrich.

It’s quite interesting to observe the dynamics of behaviour and status. Every word is spoken either up or downhill, with meaning and weight dictated more by the power gradient than the content of the utterance. An American businessman, for some reason called Robert Altman, introduces a linguistic interface that also plays out with the film’s sacrificial lamb, a Filipina maid called Eva. She seems to be about to inject some class-consciousness into the family, but is mostly absorbed into its world of polished perpendicular surfaces, delivered croissants, and fireplaces that look like massive Apple products. Incidentally I watched this after listening to James Ferraro’s Human Story 3, which configures capitalist vapidity as more ubiquitous and essential, but the emptiness of the behaviour here still rubbed off on me.

Some interesting juxtapositions of observation: keeping your friends close and your enemies closer is updated with the risk that spying on the people closest to you can give you information you might not want. After seducing him, Y’s wife Baek Geum-ok formally inducts Y-k into voyeuristic spying in the same gesture as promoting him into power at the company.

After a while, though, the emptiness of the film’s world becomes or is revealed to be its own story’s weightlessness. The shocks are spaced widely and not particularly shocking (the first death is reminiscent of the only Eastenders episode I can remember having watched, with Marcus). G-o’s daughter Nami grows a conscience seemingly out of nowhere (apparently this is, admittedly, a sequel to S-s’s 2010 film The Housemaid, in which her character is a child). We can believe her opposition to her mother’s machinations, but her formulating this as an awakening against excess is not creditably forceful. I was rooting for Y’s degeneration into Lear, but even his final reckoning is weirdly protracted and stagey, as his family gathers round his blood-filled bathtub to hear him being somewhat rude about them.

The ending is certainly striking at first glance. However, looking back, the reintroduction of E as an accusing body – a silent scream, an albatross hung around the necks of the seemingly liberated N and Y-k – seems like a last-minute attempt to shoehorn in the physical consequences that are mostly abstracted away from both the family’s actions and, less interestingly, the film itself.

This report relates S-s’ frustration at the dead reception TToM got at Cannes, where it was apparently last in the race for the Palme d’Or:

Before and after the closing ceremony, … [Im] said to various Korean media that his failure to win was a personal “tragedy” and his participation a mistake because he was telling a “very Korean story” that foreigners can’t understand.

Naturally I concede that the behaviourist social observation, while one of the film’s more engaging aspects for me, might carry weight not accessible to me as a non-Korean. But I don’t agree with the rest of the report’s review (written for a Korean website, even), which claims to be summative of the Cannes response, labelling TToM as “nearly pornographic” and provoking only “gross satisfaction”. I thought it was passably engaging, occasionally elegant, but mostly tepid and unambitious.

5