Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Moment to Remember

"A Moment to Remember"

South Korea. 2004. Directed by Lee Jae-han; Written by Kim Yeong-ha and Lee Jae Han; Starring: Jeong Woo-sung, Son Ye-jin, Baek Jong-hak and Lee Sun-jin.

Rating:

Now this is what I call an emotional traffic jam. It's a traffic jam so clogged up that its drivers have abandoned the road and any direction they were originally heading to. “A Moment to Remember” is so chock full of tearjerker elements in such a disorganized mess that all of its attempts to yank a few heartstrings only make discordant noises along the way.

I will readily admit that I appreciate a great, heart-tugging romance movie when I see one. I’m the guy who loved “The Notebook,” which honestly depicted a man's patience and perseverance for his wife whose memory was failing her. I even embraced “A Walk to Remember,” which was largely ignored by the public but I loved because it told such an innocent tale of love that was based on mutual trust and values instead of lust.

“A Moment to Remember” somewhat resembles “The Notebook” is that it is also about a woman who is losing her mind and her husband who sticks by her but falls way short of that far superior film. The filmmakers perhaps wanted to make a movie about whether true love is rooted in memory or something beyond that. But the story just jumps its characters through one contrived, weepy hoop after another as if made for people with ADD. So much that it takes halfway through the two and a half hour runtime to actually get to the titular significance.

The movie does not even get the initial love at first sight bit right. Cheol-su (Jeong Woo-sung) and Soo-jin (Son Ye-jin) meet at a convenience store where the latter leaves the Coke can she just bought and runs back to get it. She runs into the Cheol-su with a Coke can and thinking that he just stole her drink, she snatches it back and gulps it all to a loud belch. She later realizes that she actaully stole her drink and he kindly let her have his. So, ding, she is smitten with him, while coming off as surly and stupid. This leads to their even stupider courtship, which is just a montage of scenes showing them laughing and giggling in slow motion, accompanied by romantic Spanish music. As if that communicates that they're in love...

Of course there is some familial opposition due to their social class difference, as he is a menial construction worker and she is from a rich family. All is well, though, when she suddenly and conveniently faints on the street during the family dinner and he comes to the rescue. I'm willing to bet that she planned that on cue to get over that infinitesimal hurdle. They soon get married, which consists of Soo-jin glamorously walking down the stairs to meet her man as if making an entrance in the high school prom. That "marriage" scene is shot in white ethereal tones just in case we missed that this is a match made in heaven.

So much for a match made in heaven because the filmmakers simply descend the couple further into the pits of melodramatic hell. We have the man’s irresponsible, money-grubbing mother who cusses like a sailor and barges into her son’s office asking for money after he has succeeded well as an architect. Soo-jin tries to convince Cheol-su to forgive her because she was able to be forgiven of her faults in the past, which was having an affair with her married boss at work.

It takes about an hour in the film to actually get to the real point of the story, when an illness strikes Soo-jin. No, it doesn’t kill her physically but destroys her memory and she learns she has Alzheimer’s disease. So does the movie get into how there's more to love than a set of memories? No, it gets an unintentional laugh when we she confuses Cheol-su with that lecherous old boss who wants to come back into her life again.

Huh, is this what true love really is? Does that mean she was unable to move on and is still dumb enough to be smitten with that man after suffering irreversible humiliation? The movie sheepishly has a doctor character explain this saying the most recent memories fade away first. I would think that she is acting more like a cartoon character who got clocked in the head with a sledgehammer. Not to mention this churlish and dishonest treatment of Alzheimer's would offend many in real life who have family members suffering from this disease.

Amidst the clutter, there are a few moments of truth and insight, all involving Soo-jin's father, played by Park Sang-gyu. Whenever he appears on screen, it is like a breath of fresh air because we know he will say something wise that actually seems to come from years of experience. Even in a later scene that is unconvincing from a plot standpoint, Park manages to make it somewhat believable due to the conviction he delivers his lines with.

The director is Lee Jae-han who co-wrote the movie with Kim Yeong-ha. They apparently forgot about thematic consistency and decided to brainstorm every single tearjerker cliche they could think of squeezing into their dreafully long runtime. I kept hoping for the film to develop a single element better whether it be the messiness of marriage, guilt and forgiveness, leaving the past where it is, loving someone even they can’t remember them soon afterwards or whether we are more than the sum of our memories. I should have known the filmmakers were never that ambitious.

There is a much better, more streamlined Korean melodrama that covers much of the same elements as true love and marriage called “You Are My Sunshine” in 2005. Compared to that film, "A Moment to Remember" is a total sham. Note that I have not explicitly said that this movie is a love story. That is on purpose.

Note: This is for the director's cut of the movie, which runs 27 minutes longer than the theatrical version.

You Are My Sunshine

"You Are My Sunshine"

South Korea. 2005. Written and directed by Park Jin-pyo; Starring: Hwang Jeong-min, Jeon Do-yeon, Na Mun-hee and Ryu Seung-su.

Rating: ★★★½

The traditional marriage vow states, “To love and to cherish, to have and to hold in sickness and in health till death do us part.” Most romantic movies only cover the health part and focus solely on the initial courtship. Rarely does a film cover and portray the meaning and test of true love through the good and bad times like in the movie, “You Are My Sunshine.”

The title may seem like a cornball one and the film is a sentimental melodrama. But, loosely working off of a real-life story, writer/director Park Jin-pyo draws rich, fully dimensional characters and a serious treatment of more challenging subject matter. The true test of love comes not in the happy times but in the hard times and Park’s film makes it all real.

The movie introduces Seok-joong (Hwang Jeong-min), a 36-year old single farmer who has not yet found his true love. He tries matching with a mail-order bride from the Philippines upon his mother’s encouragement but he backs out from that at the last minute. One day, he is motorcycling around and runs across Eun-ha (Jeon Do-yeon) and is immediately smitten with her.

He finds her working in a coffee shop servicing her customers in more ways than being a waitress. He starts bringing her flowers and milk everyday to her doorstep and at first she sees him as just another client and a little jarred by his awkwardly sincere ways. Soon, however, she starts to melt down and fall for the only man who has ever treated her like a lady and he patiently waits at her bedside when she is in the hospital after being mistreated by a customer. Genuinely moved, she agrees to marry him. Life is good for both of them and they share happy times in love.

Then, there is a sudden seismic shift about halfway through the movie from this happy tone. Stop reading here if you have not seen the previews and wish to find out what causes this shift for yourself.

A violent thug from Eun-ha’s past comes knocking and, after this hostile presence refuses to go away, she decides to leave Seok-joong with a note stating, "“I hope you live happily. I love you and I’m sorry." This element of one leaving the other without any foreword out of protective love is a (usually perfunctory) cliche in a melodrama but this movie manages to make Eun-ha's reasons for leaving emotionally believable (and the details of why I will dance around). Then a doctor comes and informs Seok-joong a few days later that she has no knowledge she has tested HIV-positive. His mother (Na Moon-hee) and everyone around him tell him to simply forget about her, he vows to find and take care of her whatever the cost.

This is the kind of man many women would dream about and men would or should aspire to become, the one who will be at his lady's bedside (or even jail-side) at every moment even with the knowledge that she is dying and the pain and suffering that it will cause both of them. And the movie never sugarcoats its darker subject matter and the second half is somewhat graphic in its depiction, making this a more adult-oriented romantic tale. True commitment is about persevering through the bad times as well as the good and this film drives home that point acutely and painfully.

The film also manages to intelligently comment and criticize social prejudices that are still present in South Korea against people stricken with AIDS as well as our own. We see that the people who live in the countryside barely know about the disease and dismiss it as just another condition that "strikes down" someone instantly. Even the doctor mockingly admonishes Seok-joong at one point for insisting that he will take care of her. It is still very much a taboo subject that is not talked and educated enough about in Korea in general and with that knowledge, the characters’ love take on even greater poignancy.

And acting does not get much better, in a romantic film or otherwise, than the two heart-wrenching performances given by Hwang Jeong-min and Jeon Do-yeon. Hwang Jeong-min, making a surprising turn from his previous role as a brutal and coldhearted thug in “A Bittersweet Life” earlier in the year, is so painfully heartbreaking and moving as the naïve, mild-mannered man who will do absolutely anything for the woman he loves and make sure she is all right. Jeon Do-yeon, who is one of the best and most versatile actresses working in Korea today, equally matches his performance expressing a kaleidoscope of emotions from exuding great allure and charm to a mixture of joy and shame in how she feels unworthy of the great love and care she is receiving.

Writer/director Park Jin-pyo had previously made his debut with the controversial film, “Too Young to Die,” which was considered transgressive because it was willing to attack our own stereotypes and perceptions that older people cannot share and find real love like young people can. Here, Park is working within a very common, mainstream genre but he has deepened it with his bold tackling of important subjects and by asking profound questions such as how much we are willing to accept and overlook someone’s past and to love and cherish that special someone forever.

And the tears that arrive with this movie are all genuine and there will be many who do cry. The final, climactic scene in particular is a cathartic thunderbolt in which we see just how dedicated Seok-joong is to share the joy of love with Eun-ha again. It is quite awesome to see a movie actually depict the true meaning and foundation of love and marriage, a concept, as the film argues, that is so deep and yet so simple once you decide to commit yourself to it.

Sentiment can always be well-earned and heartfelt with emotional truth in their content and “You Are My Sunshine” may be the most brutally honest and powerful of all melodramas. It also shows that mainstream films can take risks to touch and educate audiences with skillful tact. The song, “You Are My Sunshine” eventually makes an appearance over the end credits, as sung by the two lead actors. By the time it is played, you will be listening to it in a wholly different and more complete light.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Someone Special

"Someone Special"

South Korea. 2004. Written and directed by Jang Jin; Starring: Jeong Jae-yeong and Lee Na-yeong.

Rating: ★★★★

Jang Jin’s “Someone Special” opens like an image out of a greeting card with a couple walking down a pretty garden path and the man narrating his idealistic thoughts about love. Then when she suddenly says that she wants to break up with him, he goes mad in a frenzy of outpouring emotion and barrage of nonstop swearing, until we see that it was all in his imagination.

This insertion of profane material into a romantic scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which alternates honest sentimentality with outright satire and random verbal humor to prevent the former from being mawkish. It’s a terrific opening for a movie that flies straight in the face of romantic comedies and melodramas and yet somehow respects what makes them so appealing.

It is rather difficult to sum up this endlessly fascinating film from South Korea because any one review would not be able to describe the amount of creativity and invention that the film injects into its preexisting familiar elements. Any plot description would make the movie seem like an overly sentimental and depressing affair when the film really is lighthearted and very funny. It is also complex and self-effacing as it pokes jabs at romantic comedies while still being one itself. One way to see it is that the film cleans itself of any unnecessary sentiment by ridiculing itself, which in the end is a sweet romance film, albeit one of the most unique and the best to come along in a long time.

“Someone Special” is like a career retrospective highlight and may be the most accomplished film yet from writer/director Jang Jin, whose work so far has really divided into two kinds of genres. His writing and directing credits in the comedy genre include “Guns and Talks,” about assassins who were more interested in talking than killing, and “The Spy,” about a North Korean spy who is stripped of his belongings and is forced to adjust to life in the South. For other directors, he has written sentimental tales such as “Ditto,” about a possible time-traveling romance that is not quite what it seems, and “A Letter from Mars,” about a girl who writes to her late father whom she believes has gone to Mars This time, as writer and director, he combines and joins the best of both genres and highlights his strengths of satirical comedic timing and well-controlled sentiment.

The movie makes a conscious effort to break those old tired clichés from past romance films such as the Disease of the Week, which would usually end the movie, and the washed-up baseball player. This film starts with the revelation that our hero, Chi-sung (Jeong Jae-yeong), a washed-up baseball pitcher, is dying from terminal lung cancer and builds on it. It is not about how he becomes a better player through love. In fact, he (and the movie) poses the question of what love really is to know it before he dies.

Into his life comes Yi-yeon (Lee Na-yeong), a bartender who works at a restaurant he always visits. Although he initially refuses her repeated advances and she seems almost like a stalker at first, he gradually breaks down his defenses once he realizes that she has had a lifelong crush on him since childhood (although he does not remember her) and shows various signs of unusual generosity including buying him an expensive cell phone and getting him daily medicine.

As the plot sounds, this could have become overly melodramatic but the amazing thing about the film is how it seems to redefine its tone and mood in every frame. Amidst all this, Jang generates consistent genuine comedy with big laughs by introducing a host of random characters such as a thief, a group of bank robbers and a woman getting mad at her lover for leaving her, all for him to randomly ask what love really means. This could have robbed the film of focus but Jang Jin milks these elements for all their hilarious worth to maintain a bubbly, humorous undercurrent beneath. Jang may tie these elements a bit too neatly from a dramatic standpoint but we accept them as they all thematically relate to Chi-sung’s quest to figure out what love is.

A key to this film’s success is how the film keeps its characters on a most ordinary and naïve level. Chi-sung is not the typical Romeo-like romantic lead and sometimes cannot control his emotions such as when he makes some huge blunders in baseball games due to his frustrations regarding not finding love (which also generate some great humor). Yi-yeon dresses badly, and is clumsy and a little weird. However, both are gentle spirits with her bringing him medicine everyday and him refusing to turn in the thief and instead chastising and giving him money so he won’t steal again, and we certainly haven't seen characters quite like these in movies before.

Moreover, their romance retains its innocence even in situations where most other movies would lose it. She brings and literally carries him to a hotel room for him to sleep in after he collapses drunk and depressed but nothing happens afterwards. Even when he asks to stay at her place while he is on the run from the police and she giddily agrees, they never jump into bed like in American films. They maintain their shyness in their slow mutual courtship, as we see Yi-yeon’s signs of charity for him to shine and understand how Chi-sung would slowly fall for this awkward girl (the film's original Korean title is more subtle and directly translates into "A Girl I Know"). This all leads up to a glorious romantic gesture he performs for her at the end of his ropes, which I won’t reveal.

Jae-yeong Jeong and Na-yeong Lee bring these characters to life with great charm and ease. Most audiences would have never expected Jeong to ever play a romantic lead after his role in “Silmido” as a hardened, lethal South Korean assassin but he excellently plays his character who is a little roguish yet gentle and unusually naïve. Lee, who looks beautiful in real life and in cosmetic ads, continues to choose gawky, awkward characters like in “Please Teach Me English.” Some may criticize her for trying too hard to conceal her beauty but that is what allows her effortless, immediate and personable charm to really stand out.

While all of that happens on a romantic level, the film repeatedly inserts biting satire and great witty and situational humor and adds an edge just when we think it may be getting too sappy. The highlight is a brilliant film-within-a-film montage of the movie Chi-sung and Yi-yeon watch on their first date, wherein the couple is played by the lead actors themselves. It introduces elements in romance films such as a couple deeply in love (played by the lead actors themselves) and transmitting metaphysical love through the electric poles before tragedy strikes, as Chi-sung flatly narrates it and hilariously comments on their absurdity in such a matter-of-fact fashion. His thinking is representative of many cynics or realists who often see right through many overly schmaltzy romantic films that are not necessarily true to life. That a romantic comedy implies that the idea of true love cannot always be found in movie love suggests the ironic complexity and truth contained in this film.

There are other big laughs such as in a hilarious scene when Chi-sung is interrogated by police officers about a crime that he does not know about. It is here where Jang’s impeccable verbal comedic timing shines and Jang has cast himself in a hilarious cameo as a cop who reacts to Chi-sung’s clueless nature and how he does not quite understand the trouble he is in.

“Someone Special” is one of the most original films in the romance, comedy or any genre. It understands the rules of a genre and figures out how to stand both inside and outside it like a jewel collector who finds a diamond in the rough and molds and transforms it to a new shine that no one else can recognize. This is the date movie that both the love and hate crowds of romantic comedies have been waiting for.

My Sassy Girl

"My Sassy Girl"

South Korea. 2001. Written and directed by Kwak Jae-young; Based on a novel by Kim Ho-sik; Starring: Cha Tae-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun.

Rating: ★★½

“My Sassy Girl” has moments of great inspiration and brilliance and then exhausts and deflates itself in a third act that is unworthy of everything that has gone before. It is frustrating for a movie to work you up thinking you are seeing something original in the making and ultimately show that it was nothing out of the ordinary. A movie with this much buildup should not have an ending this shallow.

The movie starts off extremely well as it introduces Gyun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) a mild-mannered, clueless college student who runs into a girl (Jeon Ji-hyeon, whose character isn’t given a name) in the subway. She causes a drunken scene in the subway after throwing up on an old man’s bald forehead and when she calls him “sweetheart,” he is seen as her lover and is forced to take care of her. From there starts an unusual courtship about a man who must endure more than a handful in order to love and keep this at turns charming and violent girl.

This certainly makes for an interesting, comedic love story and gives way to a lovable character who sticks to her no matter what kind of hell she puts him through. Surely many women, no matter how free-spirited could be drawn to this kind of man. And no one plays the bumbling but understanding nice guy better than Cha Tae-Hyun and it is no surprise that he does a fine job.

The real highlight though is Jeon Ji-hyeon in a firecracker star-making performance that surprised many audiences after her appearance as a more mature, calmer woman in the time-travel romance, “Il Mare” (which was remade in the US into “The Lake House”). She strikes a great comedic balance between getting laughs from going over-the-top and not being too mean-spirited to invoke squints. Her performance helps us understand why this sad-sack would still be attracted to her charm regardless of her other not so charming moments.

And indeed, he does put her through quite some hell. She repeatedly threatens him and in a hilarious scene when he orders for “anything but coffee,” she sharply says, “Do you wanna die?” prompting him to change his order to coffee. She forces him to read screenplays she has written or else face a beating. And in the film’s funniest scene, when she says that her feet hurt, she makes them change shoes so he wears her high heels.

The introduction of these characters is very funny and precise and I liked these characters so much that I was disappointed when I found that the screenwriters were only willing to scratch the surface of these characters. I assumed the film’s first two-thirds were understated in their implication to lead up to a point when the two participants in this relationship will have to make a compromise of some kind. However, her transition to showing that she has a warm heart attracted to Gyun-woo underneath her rough exterior is unconvincing and, in the last 30 minutes of the movie, the film relies on a cheap set-up earlier about an idyllic spot under a tree and a series of misunderstandings, hang-ups and useless waiting, with a voiceover to narrate it all This is the old cliché of having lovers separated for a stupid reason when one deep phone conversation or an exchange of apologies or “I love you” would end the whole ordeal. This kind of tired plot is insulting to the audience and I almost could picture the screenwriter shrugging after running out of ideas.

In a better film that would see its characters to the end, the film would have tried to deal with how these two disparate characters will connect either by showing her deeply warming up to him to change her ways and/or liberating his closed, reserved personality to a more free-spirited one. I imagine the writer did not want to get too deep and serious with his lighthearted story but without any poignancy, the film's last act simply passes into bad melodrama, which is unfortunately a plague that has befuddled many a Korean comedy. I understand that the movie is actually based on a romantic novel by Ho-sik Kim based on his own experiences. I can’t say anything about the novel because I haven’t read it but the conclusion of this story lacks the spark and fire that their courtship seemed to hint at in the beginning, ultimately leaving the characters as caricatures.

There is a much better and more brilliant movie called “Someone Special” from 2004, which actually critiques movies like this and balances heartfelt romance and gigantic laughs with perfect control of tone right up until the end. It is a treasure that very few people have heard of because it is so original and complex that it is hard to sum up in a phrase. "My Sassy Girl" starts out looking like it is breaking new grounds but shows that it was conventional entertainment all along.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Black Book

“Black Book”

Netherlands. 2006. Directed by: Paul Verhoven. Written by: Paul Verhoven and Gerard Soeteman. Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman and Halin Reijn.

Rating: ★★★½

After the new wave of WWII films that have attempted to deconstruct the hellish brutality faced by men on the battlefield, Paul Verhoven has created a more old-fashioned throwback to the stylish, elegant historical epics of yesteryear in the form of “Black Book.” Mixing in thrilling excitement and luminous feminine charm, this complex, ambitious story of a Jewish woman who uses braves and smarts to survive should engross audiences into a little explored chapter of WWII.

Verhoven has been working towards this movie for almost 20 years while making Hollywood films (Robocop, Total Recall) with varying degrees of success. Those who know him only based on his Hollywood product would correctly think that he is a director who is not afraid to go into sheer excess with liberal doses of violence and sex. However, the films he made back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in his native Netherlands displayed more restraint and still remain his best and after big-budget debacles such as Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, it was time for him to return to his roots.

In fact, this film works as a worthy companion piece to his brilliant 1977 WWII drama, Soldier of Orange, a story of the Dutch resistance’s significant patriotic involvement in the war against the Nazis. However, whereas that film presented a more positive portrayal of the Dutch resistance, Black Book paints its canvas with shades of gray among all sides – the resistance, the Jewish and the Nazi Germans.

Inspired by a true story, the film starts and ends with bookends involving a school teacher recounting painful memories in 1956 Israel. Within the central story set during the closing days of WWII, we are introduced to Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman whom we first see in hiding at the home of a devout Catholic family that makes her recite a Bible passage before eating her meal. All of that changes while she is flirting with a young fellow Jewish man when an air bombing raid wipes out her hiding place and that entire family. After narrowly escaping that and a massacre during an escape plan gone horribly wrong, she soon joins forces with the Dutch resistance.

Soon, the Dutch resistance put her on assignment to infiltrate a German army base that holds several of their comrades captive. Soon, she dons a new name, Ellis and uses her powers of seduction, particularly towards a German captain, Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch) to enter the world of the Nazi Reich so that her fellow resistance fighters can listen in on the Germans’ plan and hatch a rescue operation of their own.

Needless to say, the film takes far more intriguing twists and turns and it would be disingenuous for me to even hint at them. The film soon turns into more of a tense cloak-and-dagger story where she cannot know who to trust and even her own loyalties are questioned and endangered by others. Once we see all the character motivations, we are reminded once again of how the face of madness in war brought out the true colors of an individual – conniving and heartless qualities out of some we believe to be noble and yet sympathy and compassion from those we assume to be evil.

The thread that holds all this together is no doubt Carice van Houten’s fearless and tenacious performance. As a woman who doggedly perseveres and improvises to every situation, van Houten makes us feel and empathize with every horror and crushing defeat she suffers, including a moment when she is imprisoned, stripped and literally dumped on by a bucket of human waste. Being a musical actress in her native land, she is also a fantastic singer, which she shows in some fantastic jazzy numbers that serve as nice breathers in between the tense moments. Being only 29, she should benefit greatly from what will be her calling card for bigger and better things in Hollywood in the future.

The film’s cinematography is amazing to behold and the film’s production values are all first-rate. The film’s pacing moves quickly and effortlessly between moments of romance and sensual eroticism, and scenes of horrific violence and tension, including one that has a distant echo of another chilling Dutch thriller, “The Vanishing.” The only slight drawback is that Verhoven has still retained some of his Hollywood panache on his film and that glossiness somewhat takes away from horror of the situation.

That is a minor quibble for this sweeping epic film that leaves an indelible intellectual and emotional impact. The bookend resolution of the film ends with a siren going off in a Kibbutz, reminding us that there will always be some people in the world who will never escape the folly of war. And it takes a true heroine like Rachel Stein to keep one’s own sanity and composure through all the madness.

Beyond Borders

"Beyond Borders"

USA. 2003. Directed by Martin Campbell; Written by Caspian Treadwell-Owen Starring: Angelina Jolie, Clive Owen, Teri Polo and Linus Roache.

Rating:

I must admit that there is an aversion in me towards Angelina Jolie’s persona in her movies. I think she is certainly nowhere near one of the prettiest actresses in Hollywood (no, her humungous lips are not enough) and her smoldering look has been overdone and always draws too much self-conscious attention. After her well-deserved Oscar-winning turn in “Girl, Interrupted,” she has never really disappeared into her role and always seems to have the “Look at me” attitude.

When I heard that she was starring a movie called “Beyond Borders,” based on her noble intentions to support the poor people in Africa (and she eventually adopted an African child), I had some hope that she may abandon much of the pompous things that stand out like sore thumbs about her. Well, she may have eliminated giving that smoldering look for this film but she has not learned to stop drawing undue excessive attention to herself.

This is the overall glaring miscalculation of “Beyond Borders,” a romance film starring Jolie and Clive Owen as Sarah Jordan and Nick Callahan, humanitarian aid workers who become star crossed lovers (despite that she is already married). It really becomes the modern day equivalent of a wartime romance only this time with poor, impoverished people and civil war in the background. This may not be what Jolie, Owen and the filmmakers were necessarily aiming for since I have read that Jolie is really involved in humanitarian aid but that is the ultimate result.

The reason for this problem is that the film fundamentally has its focus misplaced. It intercuts scenes of extreme suffering with glamorous movie star moments until the latter takes away from the intended emotional effect of the former and takes center stage. When dealing with such harrowing subject matter, the filmmakers must burden the responsibility of portraying it with greater detail and austerity. However, this movie only places it as background to show how admirable the actors playing humanitarian aid workers are and lend supposed poignancy, which only comes off as phony.

As a result, the story undermines the true mentality of foreign humanitarian workers and never really deals with the stress and agony that real humanitarian aid workers go through. It simply assumes they can always save the day and inspire each other enough to perhaps fall in love, made all the more insensitive by its misguided attention to Hollywood glamour. Jolie, in particular, always presents herself in clean-cut uniform, which only further highlights her refusal to get realistic and shed her tendency to point to herself.

Even the one attempt to depict the harrowing ordeal of starvation comes off as exploitative. In one scene, Sarah arrives yet again in clean-cut uniform to save a severely malnourished African baby while his mother is dying. The mother leaves the baby in Sarah’s hands and Sarah promises to save and take care of the gaunt and literally stick-figured baby. The basic problem here is that this scene serves no noble end in what is ultimately a movie love story, leaving its shock value entirely unjustified and offensive.

The director is Martin Campbell who has made a string of enormously entertaining films such as “GoldenEye” and “The Mask of Zorro.” He probably wanted to do the same for this kind of material while shedding light on a serious issue but he should stick to directing lighter material instead of choosing to tackle heavier subject matter without the care and caution of an artist.

The cinematography only adds to that layer of arrogance and smugness towards its background subject matter. Its presentation of the various places of misfortune like Ethiopia, Cambodia and Chechnya is much too slick and lacks grittiness. That these impoverished refugee locations are depicted without any focus and shown only in distant shots while the two leads are so often shot in closeup further underscores the filmmakers’ ignorance towards actually tackling the issues at hand.

There are far greater, worthier films that deal with refugees, atrocities and poverty out there such as Michael Winterbottom’s “In This World,” about a 16-year old Afghan boy who tries to escape to London via a refugee trail through Pakistan and Turkey, and Terry George’s “Hotel Rwanda,” a harrowing and moving depiction about a man who made a humane difference during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. These films seek to educate the masses by focusing strong emotional storytelling to an individual incident to represent the whole.

“Beyond Borders,” on the other hand, is a careless film enamored with its own movie gloss. The tagline of the movie adds to its title, “Where hope survives.” Hoping for a glamorous romance to be made first ahead of the aid and the saving of lives in the third world is exceedingly offensive. As for Jolie, let’s just hope she becomes an actress again.

Snakes on a Plane

"Snakes on a Plane"

USA. 2006. Directed by David R. Ellis; Screenplay by Jon Hefferman and Sebastian Gutierrez; Story by John Hefferman and David Dalessandro; Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Marguiles, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard and Flex Alexander.

Rating: ★★★½

If there was ever a movie that could be called completely “critic-proof,” it’s “Snakes on a Plane” and you could say that writing a review about the movie is almost beside the point. Having been buzzed about since the beginning of this year, the producers need not have screened it to the audiences and wisely chose to let the fans of the Internet buzz catch the movie itself firsthand. I must admit to chuckling with glee when I finally made it into the theater after reading much of the buzz and parodies online to watch a movie called, “Snakes on a Plane.”

Really, the publicity the title has inspired should get just as much credit for the sheer enjoyment and even the quality of the final product since the filmmakers wisely obliged to follow their fans’ advice to make probably a far better movie than what would have been if not for the craze. The good news is that the film will surely not disappoint those who have been yearning and rolling on the aisles with laughter at the ridiculousness of the title and its high-concept premise. If you are not finding the title, “Snakes on a Plane” very funny, then you should probably skip the movie and maybe even this review.

The amazing thing about the movie itself is that upon close inspection, we can see that director David R. Ellis and writers John Hefferman, Sebastian Guttierez and David Dalessandro have, dare I say, put a lot of skill into the project. Sure, the movie is stupid, vulgar and utterly ridiculous with lots of “B” movie cheese but it is not a dumb movie. The filmmakers know who their target audience is and there is really not a laugh in the movie that is unintentional and unearned or a dramatic moment or scare that is not treated seriously. I must personally admit that is quite a feat to make an enjoyable ride that celebrates the cheesiness of “B” movies and pushes it to the hilt.

Even Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks” in 1996 failed to properly satirize the “B” movie genre because we could catch it winking at itself too obviously and thus could not really regard the satire as too humorous, like a person who tells a joke constantly laughing and takes away all opportunity for the listener’s enjoyment. This movie strikes a neat balance where the filmmakers are acknowledging the absurdity of the plot but the characters are not in on the joke and playing it straight, generating well-timed laughs like a good joke teller. And the movie certainly has milked every juice from the premise for all its worth.

Well, the plot here is almost unnecessary but here it is. The movie starts with a violent Asian gangster, Eddie Kim murdering a prosecutor and his son, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) witnessing it all but managing to escape. When his cronies come and try to kill Sean, Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) comes to the rescue and saves his life. He then convinces Sean that the latter must testify and so they catch a red-eye from Hawaii to Los Angeles . And then, of course, Eddie somehow managed to order some snakes to be on board, and once a small timed explosive unleashes them with plenty of pheromones to keep them in full attack mode, all venomous hell breaks loose.

So there are several clichés here that go without saying. Of course, the snakes look very much like CG effects and there is some occasional bad acting on display. And like an old, cheesy 70s flick, the film resorts to broad stereotypes such as the guy who acts very effeminately although he’s not gay, the air-headed blonde woman with a little pooch and the snobbish tycoon who turns on some of the other passengers to save his own skin. But the film is really celebrating these clichés while acknowledging it is gloriously inane. In addition, the film has also made sure to add some nice human moments to diffuse those clichés as well, namely the passengers, for the most part, actually working together to survive and one moment where a passenger who briefly turns on everyone else in panic actually apologizes for his actions and is forgiven by his fellow passengers.

Then there is Samuel L. Jackson. I cannot picture anybody else playing the role. Only an actor like him could figure out how to play his character straight and somehow be subtly winking at the camera to suggest how much ludicrous fun he is having. He also knows how to make a heck of an entrance and when he delivered his first line here is, “Do as I say and you’ll live” as only Jackson can deliver it, there was a collective laugh in the audience welcoming the man who will take us along on this ride. And of course, nobody could have delivered that infamous, profane line better than he does (which I won’t replicate here because those who don’t know it either have been living under a rock for the past year or have never been interested in this enterprise in the first place).

The filmmakers also seem to have thought of just about everything to do with snakes and we get people being bitten in the eyes, ears, mouth, tongue, shoulder and even a man’s crotch and a woman’s breast. And yes, the movie, responding to the Internet fans’ request, has somehow managed to include other R-rated material from the original PG-13 such as sex, nudity, drug use and swearing all in the confines of a plane (and the film will appeal more to males than females). So if you are easily offended by any of the above, you will probably want to skip this film.

What I admired about the film is how it was able to control its over-the-top nature so well while still making us care about the characters’ utterly ludicrous plight. Curiously, I was reminded of a movie called “Speed,” which also had a high concept that was also preposterous but had its characters take its premise seriously for us to worry about the potentially deadly fate of its characters. This one, being more nonsensical (I’m running out of synonyms here), tilts further towards parody but the filmmakers ensure that they do not press the buttons too long or too far right up until the ingeniously senseless ending. And you can see that describing the movie is battling a series of paradoxes.

To add another paradox, I usually think that watching a movie is the least social way to interact with your friends because everyone just has to sit quietly and pay attention to the screen but this one might just be the big exception to that rule. In fact, the more friends you watch this movie with in the theater, the more fun you will have laughing and cheering at this highly entertaining ride. And this is one stupid movie you will not regret laughing so hard at. So race to your nearest theater, buy some popcorn, and sit back, relax and enjoy the fright.

Spider-Man

“Spider-Man”

USA. 2002. Directed by: Sam Raimi. Screenplay by: David Koepp. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Willem Dafoe, Cliff Robertson, and Rosemary Harris.

Rating: ★★★½

For at least a decade, Spider-Man was sitting in production hell tossed from director to director while building almost unreasonable expectations from the numerous fans of the original comic book. Even the director of the megahit, Titanic, James Cameron had thought up some ideas for the screen in the late ‘90s, leading to a hilarious spoof poster on Mad Magazine with Leonardo DiCaprio rumored to be cast as the title character. Eventually, it would be Sam Raimi, the director of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, and writer, David Koepp who would be given the daunting task of adapting the web-slinging hero to the big screen.

Fortunately, this first outing does not disappoint the expectations of millions of Spidey fans. Wisely emphasizing the exploration of the man behind the outfit, the film builds a highly effective character study of Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the teenage boy whose genes become altered to attain strange arachnid powers such as crawling up walls and shooting cobwebs from his wrists. Faithful comic readers will note the key difference in the film in making his web-slinging power genetic (in the original comics, Peter had to make the webs to sling around himself), which is the only idea that remained from Cameron’s original treatment. However, this fantastical leap allows Raimi and crew to explore the theme the tagline presents, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

As Marvel fans know, the introduction of Spider-Man marked the first time that a superhero was truly fallible and had distinctly human traits and this film stays true to that notion in its introduction of the nerdy Peter Parker. Unlike Bruce Wayne aka Batman who is rich and has it all, Peter Parker is smart but younger, more socially awkward and not well-liked. He also has never mustered the courage to tell his longtime boyhood crush and next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) how he has felt about her all these years. All of these human traits are weaved into a movie that works as an adolescent story as well as an engaging superhero movie.

The movie does a skillful job at capturing his boyish wonder at his newfound strengths and negotiating the emotional upheavals that turn him into a crime-fighter. Here, the pivotal event that transforms Peter to use his powers to fight crime is the murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) who also serves as the moral center of the film before his untimely death. The tagline and theme of the movie come from Uncle Ben’s last words to Peter and the rest of the movie shows the latter living up to that last life lesson and his commitment to rid the city of crime (in this case, New York City). It’s not too long before he must face a real menace in town in the form of the Green Goblin (played ferociously by Willem Dafoe), whose story is developed effectively in parallel to Peter’s.

Tobey Maguire, who is at home portraying endearingly gawky characters, is a good choice for Peter Parker, capturing his book-smart eccentricities, the sheer awe at discovering his superpowers and his adolescent confusion towards romance. His scenes with Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane are some of the best in the movie, generating real romantic sparks and tension. As other female love interests do in superhero films, Mary Jane, meanwhile, is simultaneously falling in love with the heroic Spider-Man, whom she of course does not know to be Peter. This element neatly ties with her growing attraction to Peter Parker in a touching moment when he is able to obliquely express his true feelings for her.

Of course, a superhero movie must have elaborate action sequences and the filmmakers have mostly succeeded in delivering that in spades. Unfortunately, this is also where the film misses greatness with some of the visual effects looking rather cartoonish at times. For example, in the scene when Peter discovers he can jump from building to building, he looks more like a bouncing ball and we never get the sense that the weight of a teenage boy is leaping across. Perhaps that was the intended effect to stay true to a comic book feel but it somewhat takes the edge off the dramatic elements of an otherwise compelling story. The other action scenes, however, are thrillingly executed, particularly the climax of the story atop the Brooklyn Bridge, which Spidey fans will find intimately familiar.

Spider-Man is one of the superior superhero flicks to come along in many years and is far and away better than any of the earlier Batman movies, which failed to find the human qualities in the man behind the mask. Most superheroes are too silly to crossover to the non-comic book fans but here is a film that respects and understands that the most interesting and compelling heroes are really the most human.

Also read reviews for Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3.

Spider-Man 2

“Spider-Man 2”

USA. 2004. Directed by: Sam Raimi. Screenplay by: Alvin Sargent. Story by: Alfred Gough, Mile Milar and Michael Chabon. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, Rosemary Harris.

Rating: ★★★★

Spider-Man 2 is the ultimate superhero movie – intelligent, dimensional and action-packed. Like all great sequels that have the freedom to expand on established characters and ideas, this second film builds a highly compelling narrative that further explores Peter Parker’s choice to lead the life of responsibility as Spider-Man. Understanding that the heart of comic book superheroes lies not in the masked heroics but in the inner struggles of the person behind, director Sam Raimi has fashioned a superbly entertaining superhero movie in good old-fashioned storytelling with deep and resonant emotions.

Perhaps the most valuable addition to the series is the screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, who previously penned much smaller and very different character dramas as Julia, Ordinary People and Dominick and Eugene. Not that the first movie’s writer, David Koepp did not fashion a very good franchise starter, but this second film treats its titular character with added emotional truth and sincerity in his decision to choose between leading the life of a hero and pursuing the love of his life. The result is a summer blockbuster movie of the highest order.

The second film takes off right after the first film’s ending when his long-time boyhood crush, Mary Jane Watson professed her love for him and Peter Parker chose to deny his own feelings to keep her safe from the dangers of his life of heroic responsibility. As the movie begins, he struggles to balance his life of a superhero with his normal life existence as a meager-living college student. However, as his mutual but conflicted attraction with Mary Jane grows stronger and he finds it ever harder to keep up his grades in college, he slowly begins to doubt his path as a superhero.

As played by Tobey Maguire in a fantastic performance, the character of Peter Parker hearkens back to the tradition of comic books that delved into themes of heroism, sacrifice and identity. The great comic books of yesteryear did not focus so much on the flashiness of its hero as on the vulnerabilities of the man behind the outfit and this movie respects and stays true to that idea. There is a reason Superman is not as compelling as Spider-Man and that is because the former is just too good and perfect for us to identify with. Here, Peter’s inner struggles to keep his romantic feelings and personal feelings of under-appreciation at bay even cause him to lose his web-slinging abilities.

While that happens on the story level, Raimi and crew have vastly improved on the visual effects from the first film. I felt some of the first film’s special effects looked too cartoonish, namely during the scenes when Peter jumps from building to building. This time, the combination of CGI and live action is seamless with a true sense of gravity and weight as Spider-Man slings his web. Meanwhile, the filmmakers have ensured to keep all the memorable elements from the first film, most notably J. Jonah Jameson who always steals the show as the curt Daily Bugle editor who refuses to acknowledge Spider-Man as a hero. In addition in Uncle Ben’s absence, Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) steps in as the moral center for Peter to remind him of the necessity of a hero and role model.

A hero needs a worthy adversary and, as with the first film, another gifted veteran actor has taken the role of the villain – this time, Alfred Molina as Otto Octavius aka Doctor Octopus or Doc Ock. Octavius starts out as a scientist who plans to use cold fusion to sustain and control the energy of the sun to power electricity for the masses. But when an experiment goes horribly wrong and the mechanical arms he used to manipulate the reaction becomes welded onto him, the arms take on a life of their own and evoke his darker compulsions to complete his science experiment, threatening the masses and beckoning Spider-Man to the rescue. Again, true to its comic book roots, his character builds great conflict as he struggles to control his technology rather than be controlled by it.

The real heart of the movie, of course, is the tormented love story between Peter and Mary Jane that reflects genuine and heartfelt emotions. His caring love for her prevents him from pursuing her (“If my enemies found out about you, if you were hurt, I couldn’t forgive myself”), which she does not understand, or does she? Mary Jane, as played by Kirsten Dunst, is also given great complexity as she grows instinctively closer to guessing that Peter and Spider-Man may be one and the same. This builds to one of the most memorable scenes when she kisses her fiancee upside down, remembering her one kiss with Spider-Man.

And that’s only of one of many rewarding moments in a film that has impressed comic book fans as well as non-comic book fans. By returning to the Marvel tradition, Raimi and crew have fashioned a universally endearing story peppered with great excitement and action to remind us why comic book characters are so beloved by children and adults alike. Peter Parker is a flawed, vulnerable figure just like any one of us and Spider-Man 2 is all the more brilliant for it.

Also read reviews for Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Spider-Man 3

“Spider-Man 3”

USA. 2007. Directed by: Sam Raimi. Screenplay by: Alvin Sargent, Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi. Screen story by: Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi. Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard.

Rating: ★★

The tagline for Spider-Man 3 reads, “The greatest battle lies within.” That statement applies not only to its titular hero, but unfortunately to the movie itself as well. After compellingly adapting Spider-Man onto the big screen in two films in a row, director Sam Raimi seemed like he could do no wrong with this franchise, until now.

The brilliance of the first two movies was that it treated its hero and his alter-ego, Peter Parker with distinctly human qualities, warts and all. Sure, they had sly humor, too, but their treatment of Peter’s personal issues played as effective drama. This third one suffers from creativity and plot overload and does not know whether it wants to be taken seriously or as completely farcical.

I guess it was too much to expect lightning in a bottle once again. After all, the '90s “Batman” movies descended in quality ever so quickly once it got too silly with its own flamboyance and became a traffic jam of stock villains. I never thought these flaws would catch up with the Spider-Man franchise. Now has it ever…

The film starts out well enough as it begins where the second film left off. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has got the love of his life, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and is about to propose to her, and Spider-Man is loved for all of his heroic efforts by all of New York City. As a result, he starts becoming arrogant and ignorant of Mary Jane’s personal issues such as her getting fired from her Broadway show. Then, one day, he gets a black alien symbiote that attaches to his motorcycle and ultimately to his suit only to bring out his darker, aggressive side.

So it sounds like a good premise on paper with a nice contrast in Peter Parker to his more modest character in the previous second film. The film initially maintains the tone of the second film and plays as effective human drama between Mary Jane and Peter for the first half of the film where the former is consistently heartbroken by the latter’s utter ignorance of her emotions. Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) is once again the sound voice of moral reason, particularly in a heartfelt moment when she explains to Peter why she rejected Uncle Ben's first marriage proposal ("I didn't want to rush into something with nothing but love to sustain us."). The action sequences, of course, are impressive and thrilling to behold and handsomely show the hefty $250 million budget on the screen. J.K. Simmons is also back to add some welcome humor as the curmudgeonly Daily Bugle editor. Best of all, the brief cameo by perennial Raimi favorite, Bruce Campbell is absolutely priceless.

The film near completely unravels, however, once the alien symbiote gets on his suit and Peter goes over to the dark side. Peter Parker dons a ridiculous emo hairdo, flicks his hips in front of ladies passing by and tries to act “bad” as only a true nerd like him can do. This leads to an abysmal interlude where Peter takes his class lab partner in college, Gwen Stacey (Bryce Dallas Howard, who is criminally underused here) and uses her to spite Mary Jane at the jazz nightclub she starts singing at, after she has broken up with him. He literally starts dirty dancing with her, plays the piano and acts as “bad” as he can. This scene, I guess, is supposed to play as comedy but after the first hour of attempted drama, it completely defuses the tone of the entire film, ever more so because from a plot standpoint, Peter is acting like a complete jerk.

The treatment of the various villains doesn’t fare much better. The first two films only had one villain each and were able to give full dimension to their conflicted evil natures in parallel contrast to Peter’s troubled love story. To be sure, Spider-Man’s villains are far and away more interesting than Batman’s archenemies. This film unfortunately has too much of a good thing and its attempt to lend weight to all three villains only leads to abrupt and unconvincing characterizations. We have Harry, of course, aka the new Green Goblin who has it out for Peter once he has figured out he is Spider-Man and may be responsible for his father’s death. There is Flint Marko aka Sandman, a robber who steals money to help his dying daughter and turns out to have been the real killer of Uncle Ben from the carjacking in the first film. Then there is Venom, who has a personal vendetta against Peter. Despite its 140-minute some running time, the film still lacks depth in all of these characters and Spidey’s ultimate resolutions with some of the villains feels like something out of Lifetime.

That schmaltzy sentiment pervades the entire narrative with a lot of people crying, particularly on the part of Peter Parker. Forgiveness and redemption are some of the major themes that the film tries to explore but the emotions here all feel completely forced and turn the film into a made-for-TV, round-pegged message movie. The key difference between heartfelt and gooey, pretentious sentiment is in its level of personal focus and honesty and the film’s inability to find a consistent tone and its cramming of too much plot severely cripples the emotional investment that should be given to all these characters.

I can almost imagine the troubled debate that must have happened at the screenwriting stage, as written by Alvin Sargent and Sam Raimi, who only directed the first two films. They kept Alvin Sargent from the success of the second film to keep the emotional content but Raimi stepped in to add some completely nonsensical comedy, hearkening back to his slapstick "Evil Dead" movies. All the more disappointing considering that the first two films effortlessly sprinkled in light comic-book style humor that never detracted from the dimensional drama.

There is already talk of a fourth Spider-Man movie and considering the huge success of this third film, it seems inevitable. One can hope for things to improve should there ever be another Spider-Man film. Spider-Man still has much growing up to do and perhaps Sam Raimi will resolve his own creative battle to deliver a more focused and mature film to depict just that.

Also read reviews for Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2.

Failan

"Failan"

South Korea/China. 2001. Directed by Song Hae-sung. Screenplay by Song Hae-sung, Ahn Sang-hoon and Kim Hae-gon. Based on a novel by Jiro Asada. Starring: Choi Min-sik, Cecilia Cheung, Kong Hyeong-jin, Son Byung-ho, Gong Hyung-jin, Kim, Su-hyun, Min Kyung-jin and Kim Hae-gon.

Rating: ★★★★

There is a scene in the movie, “Failan,” where Choi Min-sik’s character, Kang-jae sits on a nearby dock where, after he reads a letter, he wipes one tear, then two and then suddenly cannot control his tears and cries uncontrollably as if shedding away all of the bottled hurt and pain in his life. These tears are an outpouring of a lifetime of pain and resignation of the loser existence he has led thus far as a third-rate gangster.

The scene marks the transition when he finally cleanses himself and moves from resignation to finally choosing to make something better of his life. The whole movie is a buildup to that moment when we see how he is so moved by the titular character, Failan, whom he barely knew, after he has unwittingly performed an act of generosity for her and she receives it with such gratitude that she makes him feel like a somebody.

Charity and redemption are at the center of “Failan,” a moving, emotional love story of two people who never meet and a portrait of a man who meets a humbly caring woman who brings a sense of purpose to his life. The movie’s protagonist, Kang-jae (Choi Min-sik) is a low-level thug who does not think much of it when he simply makes a marriage of convenience with Failan (Cecilia Cheung), a Chinese woman who has immigrated to Korea after her parents’ death, and his act is certainly not rooted out of a good heart. However, she feels forever indebted to him for allowing her to find work in Korea and has fallen in love with him.

Failan is not introduced into the narrative until about 45 minutes into the film. We first follow Kang-jae’s dead-end existence, as we see him always being bossed around by his old friend who does not treat him like one, is forced to sell pornography to make a living and swears uncontrollably. He is also too soft to be a gangster, as he cannot get even coerce an old lady to pay up money. He does have a humble dream to earn enough money to have a fishing boat of his own. One day, that chance seems to come when he is asked by his “friend” to take the fall for him and serve time in jail for 10 years for a murder he committed. He sees this as his chance at “redemption” thinking that doing so would earn him the respect of his fellow gangsters and would also give him leverage to attain his small dream. Also, he agrees to that marriage of convenience with Failan Jang in order to help other gangsters sell her for prostitution in the red light district.

Then, one day, he receives love letters from Failan. The movie shifts perspective to tell her story through flashbacks as Kang-jae reads about her life in her letters. She came to Korea after her mother died and thought an aunt lived here. Unfortunately, her aunt moved to Canada two years ago, leaving her alone in a strange land and unable to be employed. However, after narrowly escaping being employed in Korea ’s prostitution trade, she was able to find work with a resident visa after that marriage with Kang-jae. And we see her growing love for a man she never met and is forever grateful for allowing her to find work at a Laundromat with her resident visa and continue on living in Korea . Eventually, these letters move him to look beyond his current life and reform himself.

There have been several love stories about people who have never met such as “Sleepless in Seattle .” However, this film is the most moving love story of its kind, as it integrates the basic condition of the human heart and how one has such a pure heart to turn her gratitude toward a man she has never met into genuine love. And as the protagonist is touched by this, the protagonist is able to learn and question his very own moral existence.

That narrative thrust makes this film quite an unusually uplifting and romantic film. It is rare to find a love story among two people who do not know each other simply because it is near impossible to make believable how they would fall in love. However, this film is more honest and believable than most romance films and completely devoid of maudlin sentiment due to its intense focus on the realistic depiction of the underbellies of life and the semblance of hope within. It is simultaneously ennobling and saddening to compare this kind of movie with other films about characters scheming and deceiving each other for an idiotic mind game of supposed courtship.

The writer and director, Song Hae-sung seems fascinated by unusual romantic stories about characters who cannot see each other everyday. His debut was “Calla” in 1999, about a man who tries to save the woman he loves after somehow traveling back in time after an elevator malfunction but realizing that her fate is sealed. That film felt a little meretricious and seemed to only glide by on the star appeals of its lead actors who were really quite dull. Thus, it is an enormously pleasant surprise that he, in only his sophomore feature adapting Jiro Asada's novel, shows deep control of raw and truthful emotions here in displaying a sad story of missed opportunities. He also wisely avoids vulgarizing his subject matter and characters and does not to resort to graphic violence or sex (even the murder in one of the opening scenes, despite its brutality, is tastefully done), although the near nonstop swearing from Kang-jae may put off some people.

He is helped immeasurably by the awesome performances of Choi Min-sik and Cecilia Chung. They, of course, cannot share the screen much but that gives them room to individually display their tremendous talents. Choi, who is one of Korea’s finest and most risk-taking actors, often takes roles that lay completely bare his vulnerabilities and emotions (one is reminded of Harvey Keitel in "Bad Lieutenant") and his performance is so achingly heartbreaking that his performance is captivating yet sometimes too painful to watch. Cecilia Chung is equally outstanding and absolutely radiant as a woman who makes a good-hearted yet complex character who is able to find love and joy in the smallest shred of kindness and optimism despite, or maybe because of, her loneliness and desperation.

Curiously and strangely, I was distantly reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s comedic masterpiece, “City Lights." A fundamental question in both movies is whether two characters would fall in love as much as they would if they actually met face-to-face. Like that Tramp character, Kang-jae is a true outcast who may not initially be accepted in his lifestyle if she saw his face (in "City Lights" the girl is blind) but her heart of gold reaches across the distance to bring out the good in him. Of course, whereas the Tramp character is charitable from the start, Kang-jae finds his source of benevolence in Failan and finds his road to redemption through her love.

As he reads the letters of gratitude from her, he finds the courage to admit his loser being and decides to be a better man, even if it may be at great cost to him. He may have had many misfortunes and made bad choices in his life but is lucky to have found someone like Failan to enable him to see a larger pattern in his life. One who lets him understand that true charity and humility comes from kindness and not from coercion and fear.

Have you met your own “Failan”?