Tuesday, May 31, 2011



These are two films I saw the other day, and while they don't have much in common aside from the directors being both Korean, here they are anyway bunched together: the hilariously stupid and asinine DRAGON WARS: D-WAR (by Hyung-rae Shim) and A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (by Jee-woo Kim)

From the looks of just the poster of this movie, you know what you're going to get.  In fact, I might actually want this if it were a box of cereal just to get that initial sugar rush to head on over to work.  It looks super-cool and super-goofy, two things that would (or could) make the inner 12 year old in me giddy.  It doesn't, but the movie isn't ill-intentioned or directed by someone who is a total blockhead... okay, he is a little.  The director Shim is like a naive kid who has a bunch of toys to play with (and a 70 million dollar budget, which seemed high to me at first until halfway through the movie), and hasn't really updated his screenplay since first writing it in the 8th grade after watching hours of D&D.  Or something like that, I can dream, can't I?

It's one of those stories that takes off from lots and lots of exposition, the big talker coming from Not-Asian-but-Should-Be master Robert Forster who in a flashback at the start of the movie gives young Ethan Kendrick the backstory of an ancient kingdom or whatever 500 years ago that had a protector of a woman who when the time was right would bust out into dragon form to fight the 'evil' dragons.  Now it's 500 years later and somehow due to some kind of prophetic mark or pendant (no, actually the mark is on the woman, in present day named one Sarah Daniels), they have to fight a bunch of dragons who will come to Earth (LA that is, that mythical-weary town) and tear shit up.  That's about it really by way of plot.  But then again, would you expect more?

There is some shady-stuff with a government organization trying to track what is going on with these dragons and other strange goings-on, but it's really about how Ethan and Sarah find one another through some crazy past-telepathic visions (mostly for Sarah who does the typical 'cover room with markings' schitck that shows how crazy she is), and then have to face off against the dragons... eventually.  Up until halfway through the movie it's just this boring back-and-forth characterizations, with a little Robert Forster thrown in, who at one point just shows up to stop some thugs from ganging up on Sarah and then disappears without a trace, and Craig Robinson of The Office as the black friend.  No joke there, he just is.

But hey, who needs story?  What about the gorram dragons?  Well, most of them are the "bad" ones, coming down from the sky and reigning fire throughout the city, or sometimes just on a house (damn insurance premiums will go up), and then the military comes in to try and stop them... with not much success.  But ah, there are other mythological entities like, eh, Dubacks (those big green creature things the Stormtroopers rode on Tatooine in SW4 A New Hope), and other creatures that come forward in a big city action set-piece that could be pretty awesome... if it looked finished.  While the money went into these colossal dragons and other creatures flying in the air and getting into mayhem in the city (and also elsewhere like when they chase after Ethan and Sarah as they drive around), the VFX doesn't seem complete, as if the technology was there but they stop short of the full render.  In other words, close (not The Asylum company level), but no cigar.

So what are we left with?  A story with paper-thin characters mostly - and when they're not they're written in that weirdly-ambiguous style like with Forrester's character - and with a bunch of silly special effects.  But I don't think that the director is necessarily stupid with his movie.  He's a big fan of old martial-arts-dragon culture, or movies that feature it, and there's a certain tone to the movie that says 'we're harmless'.  That's fine, and while I cannot recommend the movie because it is flawed and doesn't have good acting (those two people playing Ethan and Sarah suck the life out of their scenes, especially as Sarah has to act crazy for the first half of the movie), but it's meant to be silly B-movie Saturday matinee stuff for kids and the like.  I could imagine having fun with it as long as you don't for a second take it seriously.  It's stupid-bad but not bad-bad is what I'm getting at.

The only question is if they'll ever make a sequel, continuing the mythical lineage of the 500 years past style and have a Dragon Wars-E... eh?

Sometimes it's good to just watch a movie that has a part of it that is just bug-fuck insane.  Jee-woo Kim's A Tale of Two Sisters posits itself (at least I thought it was going in) another horror movie like 'Ju-on' or 'Grudge' style where a ghost or ghosts-plural won't let a family or some wide-eyed teenage girls have any peace.  And it does have some of that.  Maybe.  But it's really more like a domesticated version of Shutter Island where we don't know really what to believe due to the character's fragmented point of view.  Could it all be just ghosts or demons or whatever of a slain family member?  Or is it the aggression of the step-mother of these two sisters manifesting itself.  Or there's just some crazy shit going on, Repulsion style, baby.

These two young teenage sisters, Bae Soo-mi and Bae Soo-yeon, return home after spending a time at a mental institution (this I was only partially clear on as the first scene of the film has sister Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim, the older and possibly crazier of the two), in an interview with a doctor that I thought was the end-of-the-movie-at-beginning kind of deal).  They're with their father, who is still not altogether with himself after the loss of his wife and the mother of his kids, but with another woman, the on-the-surface nice but really mean Eun-joo (Jung-ah Yum, excellent at making awkward dinner scenes).

As they spend more time together something doesn't seem quite right, especially with some freaky-all-too-real dreams Soo-mi has, in particular one that is a dream unto itself and when she wakes up she's still dreaming but in nightmare form as she's in her bedroom and one of those scary-what-the-fuck hair-people-demons is riding up along the wall towards her.  There are also other strange occurrences, like doors closing by themselves, weird sounds at night coming from the kitchen, and images of hardcore death (think like Shining level, that's a good indicator), and all the while the younger of the girls, who doesn't talk much (a wonderful actress doing a lot with a little, Guen-Young Moon), watches as her sister gets the brunt of the "what the HELL is going on in this house?" questions from the father and step-mother... until a cabinet comes into play.

What makes this movie as effective as it is is not so much the story, even as it takes some captivating turns that kept me on the edge anticipating every next whiplash of emotion (be it from the sisters or when the step-mother throws a dinner party where one of the guests goes into an epileptic fit after a bad jokey-story she tells), but atmosphere.  This film, more than other sorta-Grudge style movies, Kim's style is creating this house as another character, and time as one of those elements that works against the characters.  There is a sense that anything can happen in this place, and Kim keeps anticipation paramount; he and his cinematographer make this a foreboding place almost because of how ordinary it looks, or how it does just on the surface.  As the ghosts of this place, or what may just be in the mind, are opened up the terror ratchets up.

What is suggested, as often happens in horror and is an excellent rule of thumb to follow, creates more in the viewer's mind.  And Kim's direction is to suggest a little, then show some, and then let that fester in the mind as it does for the characters as well.  There's a point about halfway or maybe two-thirds through the film where it becomes clear that this could all be just in the character's head, and that her mania over her mother's death creates this visual-audio paranoia and dread (and those details which become much clearer only in the last fifteen minutes, ironically making things even *more* confusing for me till I have a rewatch).  This makes it richer as an experience, since not-knowing is one of those wonderful feelings to have during a horror movie.  But by the end we have known these people, or think we do, and that could be enough.

::translated from Korean:: "Boo"

Tale of Two Sisters- not to be confused with its American remake for some reason retitled The Uninvited- is creepy and bloody, and disturbing for how palpable it is as a story of family disintegration first; from the understanding but broken father to the believably wicked step-mother to Su-jeong Lim as a protagonist who should be the one among this cast to trust, and it's just not the case.   It's secondly a traditional ghost-haunted-house story, and in that department it's not a disappointment either (there's even blood in the floorboards for Heaven's sake).  But if there is one minor criticism to end off on here it's sense of mystery is so strong a couple of times I started to feel lost in the story.  With this kind of direction though - and Kim would later make the near-classic The Good, the Bad & the Weird and the best film of 2011 so far I Saw the Devil - it's a chance worth taking.

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