Your Parents' Money Makes Way for Itself (Talent Optional)

Let’s get the most important, relevant issue out of the way first: a movie like The Karate Kid has no business being 140 minutes long.

Yes, that is more important than anything that has to do with race, or culture, or class, or the (not) subtle influence of China’s state run production company on the film. Because while I can accept that Mr. and Mrs. Jada Pinkett Smith were going to craft a vanity project for their son and that the Chinese government would only cooperate with such a project if it projected the image of China that they want the world to see and that it would more or less cash in on an old franchise because that’s just what movies do these days, I cannot accept such a tired premise dragged out for so long.

And the worst aspect of the length is how much of it could have been pared down were it not from the imagined necessity of fitting in tourist locations for scenes that transparently fulfill that purpose and none other. It has probably the wildest sense of tonal dissonance in any of Hollywood’s contemporary Chinoserie films. During one of the numerous training sequences, Jackie Chan solemnly intones that “everything is Kung Fu.” The film then exchanges everything that is everyday, ordinary life for the extraordinary and state-approved-for-filming glories of The Great Wall and Wudang Mountain. If “everything is Kung Fu” why do you have to travel several hundred miles to teach its most important lessons?

The bloated length of The Karate Kid is not its only problem, but it is the one that I can’t stand and it is the one that could be fixed. The direction was always going to be hackish, because the director is a hack. Jaden Smith was always going to be just on the cusp of actually acting, because he’s only eleven and hasn’t really grasped the core principles of acting. Very few eleven year old kids really do, much less ones who are handed lead roles by executive producers mom and dad.

And really, the story hasn’t changed much since the original Karate Kid unless one wants to read further into its portrayal of race and culture than I care to delve in a blog post. This really is the same “new kid gets beat up, meets grumpy aloof teacher, gets pounded on by grumpy aloof teacher, self-actualizes through teacher’s training, wins” storyline that easily fit into a twenty two minute South Park episode (RockManXZ24 and I hummed “You’re Gonna Need a Montage” so, so many times). So why? Why one hundred and forty minutes?

My friend Lightwing23 quite liked this one, but issued a reservation I like to think was inspired by me: “Easily recommended for anyone except Asian cinema aficionados...” Actually, there’s things going on that only serious fans of kung fu movies will really appreciate, like Yellow River Fighter star and Shaolin Temple villain Yu Chenghui in a cameo as a judge at an audition for the Beijing Academy of Music. I could recognize that beard anywhere. Okay, that’s a rather esoteric observation by most any standard. But if anything held my interest in The Karate Kid it was kung fu legends Jackie Chan and Yu Rongguang, who played the role of “bad coach.” Yu has been playing a bad guy since the beginning of his career (although he’s best known for playing the lead in Iron Monkey) but Chan has finally done something that I thought he never would: he’s playing the master.

Chan’s major star turn was in Yuen Woo-Ping’s 1978 kung fu comedy, Drunken Master, a film that was gloriously disrespectful of elders and teachers. It’s hard to imagine Chan, who spends most of that film ducking responsibility, hitting on girls, stealing food and picking fights, suddenly playing a reserved kung fu master with such reverence. He does it well too. And it doesn’t hurt that his first fight scene in the movie is classic Chan choreography to go along with an atypical Chan performance. Chan is so good that he elevates Smith during an emotional scene in which both of them hit the right notes (it’s the only scene where Smith does). They have really good chemistry, and it really sucks that cheesy direction makes it feel like a Lifetime movie.

But this director also thought that the movie needed to be well over two hours long. Never are real issues with Beijing (smog, crime, aids riddled prostitutes) actually mentioned, resembling something along the lines of the martial arts and action films Chinese directors produced in the eighties. Zwart also films many of the fight scenes in an unpleasantly typical way, obscuring the choreography with a shaking camera in close up. Hong Kong directors of the late seventies and early eighties filmed intricate choreography in mid and long shots with long takes because it looks best that way. The filming, particularly during the final tournament, is cheesy and bland and a disservice to the exceptionally talented Chinese performers as well as Smith, who seems to have at least trained pretty hard to actually perform martial arts.

The Karate Kid (yes, I find the title annoying myself, what with it being a movie about Kung Fu) really misses the mark with its portrayal of Beijing, of China, of very early adolescent pre-sexual relationships (watching twelve year old kids kiss is incredibly icky) and it really does itself no favors by not policing its fortune cookie sayings a little bit better. Its one redeeming element is Chan, who having actually come from nothing, deserves better than this.


A Thousand Year Old Fox (Shin Sang-Ok, 1969)

The trouble with reviewing Shin Sang-Ok’s A Thousand Year Old Fox is that what I can only compare it to things that I’ve seen and I haven’t seen any other Korean horror or fantasy films of this vintage. It would be cheap to write several hundred words comparing a very well regarded genre film -- the Korean Film Archive calls it, "The pinnacle of 1960s cinematic horror, which successfully experiments with the ingenious combination of fantasy, action, and melodrama.” -- to its mostly forgotten remake or to similar Hong Kong films from the era, like Bao Fang's Painted Skin or Li Han Hsiang’s Enchanting Shadow. But the temptation is there.

The movie takes place during the (Korean) Three Kingdoms period, in which the kingdom of Silla is besieged by bandits. The kingdom’s most accomplished general succeeds in repelling bandits, but not the queen’s amorous attention. Already married, the general refuses the queen, who responds by banishing his wife and child while he is preoccupied by his campaign against banditry. His family does not travel too far before bandits attack them, raping and killing their maid and chasing mother and child through the countryside. The pursuing bandit wrests the child from the mother and stomps on it. The general’s wife, beaten and wounded, throws herself into a pond, which the bandits won’t go near, as lightning flashes in the sky and the water starts to turn.

The pond is actually the haunt of a fox spirit, who was defeated by a Shilla emperor one thousand years prior. Looking for a new body, she finds the general’s wife an acceptable candidate, and takes possession of her at night, attempting to take revenge on the descendent of the king who destroyed her corporeal form, the Queen of Shilla.

Might as well get it out: Shin, or his writer, or perhaps all of 1960’s South Korea seem to be really tied up in knots over female sexuality. Sexually transgressive women are the impetus for everything that goes wrong in the movie, from the fox spirit (which only accepts attractive young females as sacrifices, and is described as “lewd”) to the queen whose desire for the valorous general keeps her preoccupied while her kingdom burns. The script seems to juxtapose the queen to the libidinous fox and the two of them to the virtuous wife, but that might be reading too much into it. At least in A Thousand Year Old Fox, the husband seems worthy of the admiration he receives, unlike Seong Chunhyang’s weenie scholar.

Otherwise, A Thousand Year Old Fox feels like a creaky old fantasy film. The dialog is melodramatic and the acting is somewhat curious. For instance, Kim Ji-Su, who plays the general’s wife, screams her way through the scene where she and her child are attacked by bandits. That’s understandable. In fact, she screams mostly for the sake of her child, which is rightly maternal of her. But when the actual baby-stomping occurs, she just silently watches. A reaction shot might have made this work -- showing her so shocked that she can not react -- but the way it plays out, it looks like she just stands there like an idiot while her baby gets stomped. In fact, it might really just be bad direction. The camera frames the bandit stomping without actually staging a graphic infanticide, which is about as close to good taste as a genre movie with infanticide can veer, but it doesn’t really seem that concerned with just how awful such an action would really be, especially for, y'know, the mother.

Visually, the sets look cardboard and the primitive special effects have not aged well. I will say that Shin Sang-ok was a far more competent director than many of his contemporaries. There are not too many films of this type and age available for viewing outside of South Korea, but among the ones that can be seen rather easily is a film titled (at least on the Crash Masters dvd) Hurricane Sword, a sort of Korean take on Zatoichi with a blind swordswoman out for revenge. The difference in terms of shooting and editing between that film and A Thousand Year Old Fox is roughly comparable to that of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King.
While it’s quickly paced and not exactly boring, it seems like A Thousand Year Old Fox could have been far more effective had it actually done something to make the characters interesting, or at least slowed down long enough to let us know why these characters love each other. Shin made some really great melodramas with really memorable characters. Or at least that's what I hear. The only thing I've seen that fits that description is My Mother and Her Guest. It's unfortunate that he couldn't do that while also telling a story about supernatural possession and doomed love.


Seong Chunhyang (Shin Sang-ok, 1961)

Now here’s a notable, yet not especially interesting film from Korea’s most interesting, yet not always relevant director, Shin Sang-Ok. Shin is one of the most important film makers in South Korean cinema, the prolific director of several milestones in the peninsula’s entertainment history, including Seong Chunhyang, one of the first Korean films in color.

Maybe Seong Chunhyang would interest me more if the folk tale upon which it’s based were within my cultural lexicon. The most obvious observation to make would be that the tale of young Chunhyang is the Korean variation on that archetypical tale of “doomed/tortured lovers,” in which at least one member of the relationship will suffer and/or die for the love of the other. For Chunhyang, the object of her love and suffering is the governor’s son. But shortly after their wedding, he gets whisked off to the capital for one of those inopportunely timed Confucian exams, after a scolding from his dad, who objects to his son’s marriage due to Chunhyang being the daughter of a prostitute. Never mind that her father was an aristocrat and that she is the very essence of Confucian womanliness.

And without a nobleman there to protect her, Chunhyang soon comes to the attention of the new governor of her region, who locks her up when she refuses his advances. Then he beats her...and tortures her a bit more... and then finally decides to execute her by beheading. Thankfully, her beloved is returning a secret agent out to route corruption from the lower governments. He arrives just in time to save her from beheading, while she, all the while, has resisted any and all advances for his sake, even at the threat of violent decapitation.

I wish there were more going on thematically, but Shin and screenwriter Lim Hee-jae craft a fairly direct cinematic representation of a rather slim narrative in support of Confucian purity and faithfulness. It seems wholly unfair to Chunhyang, who is such a perfect specimen of her particular gender role -- smart and charming while demure so as to make “smart and charming” seem nonthreatening -- that her favored suitor’s spineless abandonment of her carries no real consequences to himself. Why doesn’t he suffer? What actually makes him worthy of her suffering?

Setting aside the cultural dissonance that I, a foreign viewer living several centuries and thousands of miles away from the setting of Chunhyang, feel all too strongly, it ought to be noted that Seong Chunhyang is a very good looking movie. Particularly the night scenes, which Shin shoots with such saturated, dramatically colored lighting that they verge on Bavaesque. It’s enough to make one wonder what a more oneiric, fantastic take on the story might be like.

Shin, of course, made fantasy and horror films, including the curious period piece Kaiju ripoff, Pulgasari, which he directed under duress during an unsolicited, eight year visit to his northern neighbor, Kim Jong-Il’s worker’s paradise. He also directed Three Ninjas: Knuckle Up (and produced other entries in that esteemed series). This combination of bizarre personal interest (how many film makers get kidnapped by mad despots and live to tell of it?) genuine competency, and willingness to produce crap to generate money make Shin a character slightly more interesting than his movies.


For Those Who Love or Hate Uwe Boll

So, it seems like world wide Street Fighter 2 mania really hit its nadir when enterprising film makers decided to adapt it into live action motion picture entertainment. It was for the tremendously awful 1994 film by Steven E. De Souza that Raul Julia gave his final performance before his untimely death, though the two unfortunate happenings were purportedly unrelated. It's arguable that the success of Paul W.S. Anderson's Mortal Kombat film might have been unrelated to Street Fighter's failure as well, though it hardly matters now.
One wonders what became of the actors for this... thing. I like to think one or two of them died of embarrassment. Though not quite as outrageous as it looks from the clip above, the Korean Street Fighter 2 television series deserves its minute infamy. From the opening it's clear that the production value and technical proficiency are on a level just below that of a bottom tier Mexican telenovela. I watched part of an episode with RockmanXZ24, who laughed hardest at the game footage in the opening, which looks to have been taken with a vhs camera pointed at an arcade cabinet monitor. The interlacing is rather noticeable.
Having seen a full episode, I've got to say that I wasn't expecting so many faceless ninjas to get pummeled. Neither was I expecting for Ken and Ryu's master (God help me for knowing this: in the Street Fighter canon, he's known as Gouken, but I don't know Korean and doubt that they're using that name) to play such a large role, or to relate, in flashback, how he once fought M. Bison so hard that the collision of their chi set off a nuclear explosion, which looks quite like that stock footage that shows up in other low budget movies which need shots of huge explosions.

What can not really be seen in the opening is how skilled the actors actually are as martial artists. In the episode I watched, most of the fight scenes involved Ryu, and the actor who plays him is fantastic to watch. The same goes for the actors who play Bison and Ryu's Master. It's a shame that the choreography is dated, looking much like what can be seen in low-level, mid-seventies Hong Kong kung fu movies. The special effects, when they appear, are hilarious. Keep in mind that when this series aired in Korea, Hong Kong produced wild films like Kung Fu Cult Master, which pushed the limits of non-digital effects like wire work. Korean Street Fighter tries to do this as well, with hilarious results, particularly for Ryu and Ken's trademark Shoryukens and Hurricane Kicks. The "hadoken" is created with theatrical smoke, which is funnier than it sounds, but somehow, not as funny as the amateurish wire stunts.
Also notable: the actor who plays E. Honda, while not big enough to be a convincing Yokozuna, seems to really like jiggling his man-boobs.

The emergence of a short film produced as a bid to reboot Mortal Kombat as a film franchise set the nerds abuzz all over the internet recently, many of them upset or at least mystified over the attempted "real-ized" take on what might be the most insanely convoluted and silly story in service of a game where story could not possibly matter any less. At the very least, it doesn't attempt to present Mortal Kombat as faithfully as this series does Street Fighter 2.


Unlicensed Games -- Jang Pung 3

Did you think that Sangokushi 3 was kind of strange, being an unlicensed South Korean Master System cartridge with lots of English dialogue? That was rather unexpected but it doesn’t even compare to Jang Pung 3 (장풍3), which tells the story of the world’s best fighters getting together to hold a tournament which will determine who is a good enough martial artist to fight against an evil robot named Sell, created by Nazi cultists to destroy the world.
It’s pretty difficult to believe what you’re seeing when the text scroll begins after starting the game, although it’s story isn’t really that bizarre by the standards of video games, particularly games in the fighting genre. The strange thing is to see references to Nazism and the Third Reich in relation to a fighting cyborg and a martial arts tournament. Fighting games, even with contemporary settings, tend to not tether themselves to anything as real as the Nazis. That’s a good thing, actually. Putting something as serious as the Nazis in a game about badass karate experts fighting each other to decide who will fight an evil robot actually makes it way harder for me to take it seriously.
But as a game, Jang Pung 3 is an improvement over Sangokushi 3. The character selection is larger and there seems to be a little bit more difference in how the characters play. One of the problems with Sangokushi 3 and other poorly made fighting games are that the characters are almost interchangeable; the converse is unbalance to the point that all but a few characters are completely useless. The characters in Jang Pung 3 are still a bit too similar, all having similar jump heights and damage ratios, but at least some of the characters have moves that have different applications. And the character designs are pretty funny, particularly the evil clown.

If Jang Pung 3 and Sangokushi 3 are not made by the same people, they are clearly derived from the same code, as they share graphics and even English phrasing for the post fight messages (the same in both games, the same after every fight). I haven’t played Jang Pung 2, but it’s out there (no word on Jang Pung 1), and I imagine that it’s probably running on the same engine.

It’s worth noting that these games are a result of the popularity of Street Fighter 2 in South Korea. Making video games to compete with Street Fighter 2 was nothing unusual, American companies made more than a few, and there was an American film adaptation, and then a game adaptation of the movie. But when it comes to strangeness, nothing really beats Nazi robots, or for that matter, early nineties South Korean television, as we shall see very soon.


Cao Cao? Game Line Wants You.

There’s only one thing about twitter that I like, and that is official announcements. Etrian Odyssey 3: The Drowned City -- confirmed for the US! I'm a happy nerd.
But that’s neither here nor there. Hardcore Gaming 101 has just opened a new section for “Games of the World,” which quite obviously catalogs the way that people around the world amuse themselves with electronic playthings. The user who goes by “Derboo” posted the most impressive series of articles so far, and including his enormous thread on their forum and an upcoming mega-article, probably the most comprehensive look at gaming in South Korea ever seen in any language besides Korean.
Looking at my blog, I feel bad that I’ve written so little about entertainment of a Korean origin. But until fairly recently, Korean film and video games were something of a blank slate in my mind. In the west, Korean cinema was fairly low profile with few exceptions (Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? comes to mind), although that started changing in the early 2000’s when Shiri and Bichunmoo and other Korean action movies started popping up on DVD in the US. And it really wasn’t until recently that Korean games received mainstream attention, and even then, most people don’t really seem too concerned over the fact that a game like Magna Carta 2 cannot rightly be called a “JRPG.”

So I’ve decided to write a few entries over the next couple of weeks on the (South) Korean entertainment that I enjoy and some that I recently and fortuitously discovered. For instance, there is a not inconsiderable number of unlicensed Korean games for the Sega Master System, and as with nearly all obscure gaming-related stuff, there’s plenty of people dedicated to dumping ROMs for our enjoyment. Sangokushi 3 (삼국지 3) is the first game that I’ve tried, which was difficult, since the ROM doesn’t run in Kega Fusion (it runs in Meka, in case you’re dying to try it out).

I guess that I decided to play it safe with this one, as Sangokushi 3 is a fighting based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is a pretty familiar subject. That's not the only thing about the game that might be familiar to some players though. The sprites seem to be ripped right out of the Taiwanese game, Sango Fighter, and many of the interstitial screens bear a striking resemblance to those from another fighter called Jang Pung 3 (same developer... I think), and the health bar/ timer looks almost exactly like the one in Street Fighter 2.

It’s a standard 8-bit fighter, which means it sucks because there are no good 8-bit fighting games, and yes, you are welcome to prove me wrong. Besides the novelty of seeing Korean transliterations of Chinese names transliterated into English (why is there so much English in this game?), Sangokushi 3 is fun to play if only to see where it tries to reference the historical and literary Three Kingdoms. For instance when I fought Guan Yu (Kwan Woo) as Zhao Yun (Jou Woon), it was against the background of a burning ship, a reference to the battle of Chi Bi. For you purists who got pissed at John Woo’s Red Cliff, feast your eyes on Shu’s best engaging each other in a senseless fight to the death as Cao Cao’s fleet burns in the background. Madness.
Speaking of Cao Cao, irony of ironies, he’s not there (what's the Korean transliteration for 说曹操,曹操到?). In fact, it looks like only Shu generals made it into the game. I guess that’s to be expected with seven playable characters. This is the shallow end of the Korean fighting game pool. Jang Pung 3 has more characters and is, to be frank, incredible -- incredible as in hard to believe, that is. We'll be looking into that one soon, as I attempt to write for a whole week about Korean games and movies without making snarky comments about Starcraft, Park Chan-Wook, internet cafes, Kim Jong-Il (I make no promise on this one) or cheaply licensed MMOs made for Japanese franchises.
For more on the Sega Master System, be sure to check out the great resources at SMS Power.


The Red Chapel (Mads Brügger, 2009)

When I wrote on my “Wanted” page that I had already seen every documentary on North Korea, it was hyperbole. I confess. I also confess that the aspect of The Red Chapel that interested me most was not its un-kept promise of a Borat-esque series of ironic encounters between Danish comedians and DPRK officials, but the fact that Lars Von Trier’s Zentropa Productions bankrolled it.

Also, the promo I saw looked amusing, with a couple of Korean born Danish comedians, one of whom has what I think is Cerebral Palsy (he describes himself as a “spastic”) attempting to lead a group of North Koreans in a sing-a-long of “Hey Jude.” The promo misrepresents the film in the way that director Mads Brügger misrepresents himself to the DPRK government and in the way that the nation of North Korea attempts to misrepresent themselves to the rest of the world: intentionally and egregiously. Brügger’s gambit is to enter North Korea under the pretense of cultural exchange, bringing with him a left-leaning, two man theater group which will perform a comedy revue for make benefit glorious People’s Democratic Republic.

The clever part of his plan is to present the Koreans with a PR opportunity that he can easily undermine. Danish-Korean comedians Simon Jul Jørgensen and Jacob Nossell are that opportunity. Not only are they prodigal sons who return to Pongyang (as opposed to Seoul) but to sweeten the deal for both parties, Nossell has a physical handicap. North Korea is rather famously unfond of handicapped children -- their care for them could be considered quite Spartan, in the sense that too many people learned about only too recently from Zach Snyder’s 300.

But because of his physical impediment, Nossell’s Danish speech is unintelligible to the Korean handlers, allowing Nossell to speak his mind. This is used to comedic effect by Brügger, usually in the formula of Jacob remarking on the remarkably ugly nature of North Korea’s art while Brügger tells his handlers that Jacob is marveling at its beauty. This is as funny as the movie gets. The other funny part (I apologize for spoiling it) is Brügger’s recitation of Piet Hein’s well known grook, “Love is like a Pineapple / Sweet and Undefinable” at a monument to Kim Il-Sung. He tells the officials that Hein was a poet who crusaded for worker’s rights.

Those deadpan comedic moments are as funny as The Red Chapel gets, and the rest of the film is heartbreaking, for all sorts of reasons. Mads Brügger narrates the whole film, and his comments lurch from blatant attempts to tell the audience how to feel and interpret a scene to genuine insight, and are occasionally both at the same time. Rather more distressing is the State assigned tour-leader, Mrs. Pak, who accompanies the trio of Brügger, Nossell and Jørgensen for most of their stay. Most of the Koreans seem fearful of Jacob Nossell, unaccustomed as they are to even seeing the physically challenged. But Mrs. Pak dotes on him, becoming affectionate to a bizarre degree.

The obvious assumption is that as the state handler, she is to show in no uncertain terms that North Korea has no problem with the handicapped. But if that is so, she goes well beyond her duty, maybe even developing genuinely motherly feelings for Jacob. Jacob, initially creeped out by her smothering presence, seems to actually warm up to her. It is difficult to know what aspect of this woman is real when everything she does is under surveillance and informed by obligation to the state. When she cries on cue before a monument to the Dear Leader, Mads speculates in voiceover that the tears she sheds out of “National Emotion” are an act, but one that masks a cathartic release of deep hurts that cannot be expressed for fear of provoking the reprisal of her masters. Of course, he also speculates earlier in the film that she is a heartless interrogator. Whether a broken, fearful sycophant or a brainwashed cog of an evil machine she is a wretched creature to be pitied.

But Mrs. Pak is the interesting crack in the film’s foundation. The uninteresting crack is that the whole operation was doomed to fail from the get-go. The fake theater duo intends to stage a stunningly stupid and tin-eared vaudeville routine filled with slapstick and drag and recitations of Hans Christian Anderson which is greeted with confused, frowning faces when rehearsed for the DPRK handlers. It is reworked by the North Koreans into something even more grotesque than what Brügger initially devised. You see, Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat and Bruno characters only worked because he targeted people who, with few exceptions, were too civilized or craven to pose a physical or intellectual threat, while editing takes care of any self-awareness on the part of his subjects. The dour North Koreans do not suffer irony, or understand it.

It should be noted that Mads Brügger admits that he is making a propaganda film, and that he is using his comedians, especially Jacob Nossell, and that all of his footage is controlled by DPRK “video experts.” The result is a film that is challenging for all the wrong reasons. Jacob in particular is terribly lovable, and senses the wrongness of what Mads is attempting. His growing awareness culminates in a nerve-wracking sequence where he and Mads are forced to march in a demonstration in which an enormous assembly chants “death to America.” Jacob refuses to join the cheer, loudly, in his unintelligible Danish, as Mads pleads with him to play along.

Jacob is not a simpleton, but he is simple because he clearly cannot afford to complicate the world the way most of us do. The deception, the smug (and unworkable) plans that Mads has for his film and the brutal notion of IRL trolling a place as cursed with suffering as North Korea don’t sit well with Jacob, and even his cool headed, sardonic comedic partner seems quite put off when the North Korean advisors decide to rework his routine to both exclude Jacob and to glorify the regime they intended to mock. And it’s not like mockery is an especially worthwhile pursuit.

Unintentionally, Brügger has produced one of the most complete pictures of just what sort of person lives in Pongyang. Too bad he’s a douchebag who spouts liberal platitudes about how “comedy is the soft spot of all dictatorships.” Unfortunately, it’s not always the strong point of Danish documentarians.

Now how can we get Werner Herzog to make a movie about North Korea?