Directed by: Na Hong-jin [W], Yeon Sang-ho [TB], Jung Byung-gil [V] || Produced by: Suh Dong-hyun, Kim Ho-sung [W], Lee Dong-ha [TB], Moon Young-hwa [V]
Starring: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min, Chun Woo-hee [W], Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Kim Eui-sung [TB], Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung [V] || Screenplay by: Na Hong-jin [W], Park Joo-suk [TB], Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik [V]
Music by: Jang Young-gyu [W, TB], Koo Ja-wan [V] || Cinematography: Hong Kyung-pyo [W], Lee Hyung-deok [TB], Park Jung-hun [V] || Edited by: Kim Sun-min [W], Yang Jin-mo [TB], Heo Sun-mi [V] || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean
Running Time: 156 minutes [W], 118 minutes [TB], 129 minutes [V]
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Korean filmmaking is the strongest in the world, and has been for some time. From patient, critic-friendly dramas to inventive genre-blenders to bloodcurdling crime sagas to hardcore action films, the southern half of the Korean peninsula has been showing up its international brethren from all ends of the filmmaking spectrum. No other national film culture in the world, in my personal assessment, produces as many diverse, quality pictures as consistently as Korea. Its reputation from film festivals to foreign critics to genre movie fan clubs speaks for itself.
Needless to say, exceptions are a part of any rule, including artistic trends. My initial foray into Korean romantic melodramas lead me to the confusing, forgettable My Sassy Girl (2001), and further exploration down the rabbit hole lead me to other less than exemplary productions, despite their near universal Korean charm and strong production values. The Wailing (2016), Train to Busan (2016), and The Villainess (2017) are three otherwise intriguing pictures whose execution or screenwriting missteps handicap their viewers’ ultimate enjoyment. To be sure, I enjoyed parts of all three films, and might recommend one or the other two to specific cinephile peers of mine, but as far as general artistic merit is concerned, I found myself disappointed in more ways than one.
The Wailing is a long, drawn out, ambitious mystery film of the paranormal sort. By the time I deduced this was yet another demonic possession-related horror picture I probably wasn’t going to enjoy, I was too far into the movie’s bloated 156-minute running time. I am a fan of writer-director Na Hong-jin’s work on The Chaser (2008), but both The Yellow Sea (2010) and this film display a pattern of incoherent, confusing storytelling, slow pacing, and needlessly melodramatic characterizations. Though The Wailing flaunts admirable cinematography, creative staging, and an intriguing premise, much of Na’s commendable direction is wasted on an inconsistent story that confuses more than it captivates, and whose quasi-spiritual themes come across as heavy-handed.
Compounding the movie’s problems is its wavering tone, which Korean films tend to handle better than, say, Hindi ones. The Wailing opens like a black comedy of sorts, a surrealist, dare I say absurdist mystery flick, but then grows crazier and wilder as it wallows in demonic possession and/or exorcism cliches until it reveals its full thematic hand. The story, without revealing spoilers, is confusing with a single viewing, but grows simplistic and dull in retrospect. In this way, its narrative execution is the worst of both worlds.
Train to Busan, another recent popular Korean flick, fairs a little better. It’s Korea’s ambitious take on the international cinematic zombie craze, and the film sustains narrative momentum for a good while through likable characters and a creative setting. The former involves father-daughter leads Gong Yoo and Kim Su-an, as well as notable supporting actor Ma Dong-seok and actress Jung Yu-mi, while the latter references the eponymous train setting. The majority of the film takes place on a high-speed rail car, as our principle cast travels from Seoul to Busan during a zombie outbreak.
This inventive spin on old formula lasts for a while, as these colorful characters attempt to survive not only the infected hordes, but the train’s unwieldy setup as well as each other. You’d be surprised how much tension can be added to a survival situation that takes place almost entirely within a single, but mobile setting.
However, problems emerge regarding both the antagonists and the closing act of the screenplay. More forgivable are the somewhat contrived attributes of Busan’s undead, which resemble Danny Boyle’s Rage-infected “fast zombies” from 28 Days Later (2002) more than, say, George A. Romero’s classic “slow, shoot-’em-in-the-head” zombies. These zombies bite, infect, and turn their victims in less than fifteen seconds, grow virtually helpless whenever the light dims (i.e. they need bright light to see clearly), and become passive whenever their human victims disappear from view. These aspects feel tacked on for narrative convenience in numerous instances, as if screenwriter Park Joo-suk is writing his characters out of a hole.
More problematic is the abrupt sociopolitical pandering in the film’s closing act. With little to no setup or foreshadowing, director Yeon Sang-ho shifts antagonistic focus to a minor character, a snobbish, rich businessman played by Kim Eui-sung, who transforms from a background extra to comical, mustache-twirling villain in the space of 10 minutes. Kim’s importance to Busan’s penultimate scenes, including his inexplicably callous, vicious actions, are confounding, and do much to distract from, if not undercut, enjoyment of this otherwise straightforward thriller.
One final recent genre film of note from the Korean peninsula is this year’s take on La Femme Nikita (1990), The Villainess. On the surface, this relentless, bloodthirsty shoot-’em/hack-’em-up action flick appears tailor made for the likes of me, recalling the ferocity of Gareth Evans’ Raid (2011, 2014) films or Chad Stahelski’s John Wick (2014, 2017). The Villainess does indeed embrace impressive yet relatable (i.e. brutal, but not showy) choreography, along with a plethora of blood squids and diverse weaponry, but its overall story structure and execution are a few steps behind those aforementioned genre greats of the modern age.
Like both The Wailing and Train to Busan, The Villainess is nothing if not ambitious. It opens with a nonstop barrage of first-person action mayhem, utilizing complex camera movements and fish-eye lenses to full effect. The choreography is intense yet logical, while the body-cam FX add flavor to the violence despite outstaying their welcome by the end of the first act.
Before long, budgetary restraints and a non-linear screenplay settle both narrative and characters for a while as impressive action sequences take a back seat to character development and spy-thriller tropes. It’s to the movie’s credit that lead actress Kim Ok-bin’s dramatic performance and character arc are two of The Villainess‘ greatest strengths, adding depth to the action sequences rather than distracting from them, while the sleeper cell spy plot is interesting in its own right. Accentuating these positives are cinematographer Park Jung-hun’s creative dramatic staging, including long-take crane shots, effective match cuts, and memorable instances where actors spike the camera.
Elements of the action direction are what ironically drag down the movie to a significant degree. Digital blood squibs are a constant distraction, as is the aforementioned fish-eye lens in multiple setpieces. While first-person camerawork may be effective in small doses, The Villainess overdoes this quasi-gimmick to the point where it becomes tiresome within the first action scene. The film’s climax suffers from similar visual fatigue due to the extreme wide-angle lenses, even if the action itself is no longer in first-person. This is a shame given how otherwise impressive The Villainess is as an action film, particularly when writer-director Jung Byung-gil forgoes the body-cam and shoots his star with more “traditional” photography. Like I said, Kim’s arc is worthwhile, and the narrative’s prominent yet powerful father-daughter overtones are interesting in a way that Last Train to Busan’s sociopolitical preaching and The Wailing’s on-the-nose religious symbolism are not. A few minor tweaks in cinematography and post-production could have elevated The Villainess that much further.
Altogether, I wouldn’t recommend any of these three films with much enthusiasm, though each has that distinct Korean auteur dedication most of Hollywood’s corporate controlled productions lack. Far eastern filmmaking junkies will get a kick out of each, I suppose, but the fact remains modern Korean cinema has better options in all genres. While there’s quality direction to be found throughout, screenwriting is far less consistent for The Wailing and Train to Busan, while one can argue The Villainess‘ directorial style has too much creativity and ambition for its own good. Go figure.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: These three Korean genre films all have enticing cinematic strengths, but most, if not all of those are constantly fighting against either inconsistent screenwriting or overzealous cinematographic choices. The Wailing’s central mystery is undercut by its convoluted structure, while Train to Busan’s zombie antagonists are as nonsensical as they are numerous, not to mention somewhat overshadowed by laughable social commentary; The Villainess is the one competent action movie that could’ve used longer focal length lenses, not wider.
—> The Wailing is NOT RECOMMENDED, as much as I enjoyed the initial premise, while I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to both Train to Busan and The Villainess.
? Just once, for a single moment, did you ever love me?