17. The Witch Part 1: The Subversion 마녀 (South Korea, 2018). A Geumwol Pictures-Peppermint & Co. Production, Distributed by Warner Brothers Korea. Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1, 2 hour 5 minutes. Director & screenplay: Park Hoon-jung. Cinematography: Kim Young-ho, Lee Tae-o. Music: Mowg. Production Design: Cho Hwa-sung. Editor: Kim Bang-joo. Costume Design: Jo Sang-gyoung. Special Effects Makeup: Hwang Ho-gyun, Kwak Tae-yong. Watched through subscription: June 2020, Netflix. The entrepreneurial-screenwriter-turned-commercially-successful-director Park Hoon-jung (The Showdown, New World and the famed scribe for Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil) came up with V. I. P. in 2017, a critical and commercial flop. Perhaps because he was accused of rampant exploitation of female characters in that film, Park insisted on turning the central protagonist and head villain of his next film into females. Although the resulting The Witch Part 1: The Subversion has gained some notable support among the fans of gory action thriller subgenre, i. e. the so-called “Extreme Asian” cinema, and gives an interesting role to a talented young actress, Kim Da-mi (Marionette), the film is ultimately lugubrious, self-satisfied and pointlessly vicious. Kim plays Ja-yoon, a bright-eyed teenager adopted by a retiree couple (Choi Jeong-woo & Oh Mi-hee), but the viewers already know from the messy and unpleasant prologue that she is a product of some awful scientific experiment on children conducted by the South Korean government in a secret project spearheaded by Dr. Baek (Jo Min-soo, Pieta). The foul-tempered and -mouthed scientist unleashes her other creations, including a constantly masticating, scarred thug Mr. Choi (Park Hee-soon) and an English-speaking twerp (Choi Woo-shik), to locate and retrieve Ja-yoon, in a plot rather similar to Brian De Palma’s psychokinetic thriller The Fury (1978).
The movie is certainly slickly put together, with some competent lensing by Kim Young-ho (The Pirates) and Lee Tae-o and suitably grungy but substantial production design supervised by Cho Hwa-sung (Illang: The Wolf Brigade) as well as Park’s sharp eye for composition and legible action sequences. However, I found the whole story and especially characterizations mostly irritating and enervating, sometimes borderline repellent. You might say, aren’t the movie villains supposed to be like that? Sure, but great villain characters have compelling charisma, convictions about the righteousness of their agenda, or at the very least entertaining or intimidating personality traits. All of the villains in The Witch are either low-brain-capacity, two-bit thugs (Mr. Choi) or hateful stereotypes of what some Korean men consider to be “deviant” males (The “handsome guy” played by Choi Woo-shik, for instance. At least I am grateful that he does not insert “fuck” into every other English sentence he tosses out). Topping them all is the female mad scientist Dr. Baek, who speaks and acts like a Korean middle-ager particularly well versed in assholery, only with her physical gender switched to “female.” I did say the film is slickly made, but this does not mean that The Witch is a model of efficient and economical storytelling. For one, it is interminably long, taking more than one hour to get the villains to properly reveal their hands to the viewers. There is altogether too much blood and sticky gore, some of them distastefully involving children. I am not even going to go into the “science” of this alleged SF thriller, strictly voodoo stuff. Unlike two decades ago, South Korean literary scene is today overflowing with sophisticated works of SF: a basic consultation with any of their authors would have yielded a far superior, more logically sensible basis for explaining Ja-yoon and her cohort’s superpowers.
One possibly innovative element about the film is Ja-yoon’s characterization, or the way the film sets the viewers up to root for her only to pull a Lucy-with-a-football on them. The “twist” is quite as nasty as the rest of the film (perhaps this was what the sub-title “subversion” was referring to?), but I do acknowledge that it does distinguish The Witch from, say, average American films of its ilk. The problem is that Kim Da-mi obviously is given no direction how to handle this about-face about her character and comes off as simply bug-eyed psychotic, losing much of the viewer sympathy accumulated for her throughout the film. Nihilistic, show-offy, macho-bullshitty but competently made, The Witch is an old Tartan DVD-marketed Extreme Asia film to a tee. Those craving for the allegedly politically incorrect pleasures of seeing beautiful Asian kids doing ugly, cruel things to one another while spitting the kind of dialogues ranging between comic book one-liners and gangsta pig grunts might have a reasonably good time with The Witch. ☆☆★★★
18. Beauty Water 기기괴괴 성형수 (South Korea, 2020). A Studio Animal/SS Animent/Triple Pictures Co-Production. Aspect Ratio, 1.85:1, 1 hour 25 minutes. Director: Cho Kyung-hun. Screenplay: Lee Han-bin. Animation Director: Lee Sang-hoon. Cinematography: Moon Seong-cheol. Music: Hong Dae-sung. Based on a webtoon series Gigigwegwe by Oh Sung-dae. Production Designer: Cho Hye-seung. Voice Cast: Moon Nam Sook (Ye-ji), Jang Min-hyuk (Ji-hoon), Choi Seung-hoon (Manager), Jo Hyeon-jeong (The Beautician), Kim Bo-yeong (Miri). Purchased through Naver Series-On, October 2020. Ye-ji is an unhappy make-up artist working for a talent agency, perennially condescended to by the latter’s pea-brained, bitchy star Miri. Once an aspiring ballerina, Ye-ji is today heavyset and depressed, snapping at her indulgent parents and surfing the internet to unload her gripes as a vicious troll. One day, she runs into a creepy commercial about a certain magic cosmetic liquid capable of transforming a person into an unimaginable beauty, by literally dissolving her unwanted flesh. Initially skeptical, she is astounded to learn that, not only the liquid exists and can be purchased by a large bundle of cash, but it also actually works. Of course, she must not forget to strictly follow the instructions.
Yet another South Korean feature based on a webtoon series and a selection at the 2020 Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival, Beauty Water is a grungy, computer-animated entry in the body horror subgenre, effective in its own way but not really innovative or envelope-pushing. The overall approach is grounded in TV-drama-style narrative conventions. The animated figures are on the “realistic” side of the spectrum, except for a few instances wherein anime-like exaggeration and stylization are deliberately invoked (as in the first incarnation of Ye-ji’s “new face,” with its completely out-of-proportion huge eyes and non-existent nose).
As is usually the case with low-budget horror films with high-concept premises (Larry Cohen’s horror opuses provide a good template), social criticism is more or less built into the film, resulting in some amusingly on-target satirical zingers. On the other hand, Ye-ji’s characterization makes it difficult for the viewers to fully invest in her: she thoughtlessly exploits her poor parents for both money and supplementary flesh (although how this “transfer of flesh” from one body to another is accomplished is not clearly explained) and typically regards other women as competitors for the affection of her handsome male paramour Ji-hoon. Ye-ji in the end receives a harsh punishment from the filmmakers for her presumably “shallow” and “selfish” desires, but it remains unclear whether the viewers should feel sad, chastened, or sadistically enjoy her awful fate. I also have an issue with the transgendered-as-a-monster stereotype that informs one of the film’s climactic “twists,” although, to be fair, this stereotype and its variants are alive and well in North American genre films too. Apparently the original webtoon’s Ye-ji was a far more pro-active and independent, although equally single-minded, woman who self-sculpts her face and body into that of an ideal beauty, instead of relying on a beautician for the latter’s surgical skills and her parents for financing her transformation: perhaps that part of her character could have been retained in the film. Not a bad slice of gruesome body horror, Beauty Water still does not quite fully exploit the transgressive or satirical potentials of its premise. ☆☆☆
19. Peninsula 반도 (South Korea, 2020). A Next Entertainment World/RedPeter Films/New Movie Co-Production. Aspect Ration 2.39:1. 1 hour 56 minutes. Director: Yeon Sang-ho. Screenplay: Yeon Sang-ho, Ryoo Yong-jae. Cinematography: Lee Hyung-deok, Jung Kee-won. Music: Mowg. Editor: Yang Jin-mo. Special Effects: Jung Do Ahn, Yoon Hyung Tae. CAST: Gang Dong-won (Han Jeong-seok), Lee Jung-hyun (Min-jung), Lee Re (Joon), Kwon Hae-hyo (Mr. Kim), Jang So-yeon (Jeong-seok’s sister), Kim Min-jae (Private Hwang), Gu Gyo-hwan (Lieutenant Seo), Kim Han-sol (Young Zombie), Pierce Conran (American TV Commentator). Purchased through Naver Series-On, January 2021. As you can infer from the US-based streaming service’s import title Train to Busan Presents Peninsula, this is Yeon Sang-ho’s official sequel to his breakthrough zombie attack epic Train to Busan (2016). There is no overlap of characters, except that both films take place in the fictional world in which a zombie epidemic had decimated the Korean peninsula. The screenplay wastes little time in setting up a McGuffin, a truck full of lucrative merchandise lost near Omokgyo, a bridge that crosses the Han River near its terminating point. Han, a former naval special forces agent traumatized by his failure to protect his sister and nephew from the infection, agrees to the retrieval mission. Once having arrived in the ruined Korean peninsula, however, he runs afoul of not only a horde of fast-running zombies but also a squad of renegade soldiers lording over civilian survivors, putting up gladiator death matches with the captured for their amusement. He is also befriended by a seemingly crackpot Mr. Kim (the indie veteran Kwon previously voice-acted for Yeon’s The Fake) and his ersatz family, Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun, A Petal) and her daughters Joon (Lee Re, all grown up from the days of How to Steal a Dog) and Yoo-jin (Lee Ye-won), who insists that a UN rescue mission is about to arrive and pick them up.
One of the most anticipated Korean films of 2020, Peninsula, while playing in the midst of the pandemic, did a fine business, racking up more than 3 million tickets and doing very well with the international pre-sales, and received mild praise-to-enthusiastic support from the critical community. Like many South Korean genre films made in recent years, Peninsula is highly competently put together. The strength and agility of the infected population is, again like in Train to Busan, terrifically illustrated, although their Energizer-bunny stamina after four years of lockdown and starvation is so unlikely it becomes funny rather than scary (The film notably downplays blood and gore effects, too, receiving the US equivalent of PG-13 rating for its domestic release). The dynamic set pieces involving harrowing escapes from these super-fast zombies, even more video-game-like here, are surely the best parts of this sequel. Yeon dutifully presses a few satirical buttons— Koreans are now referred to as “peninsula folks” as was historically so during the colonial period, for instance— but it seems clear that his heart was just not in it. Neither is he particularly interested in realistically exploring the uncomfortable new status of Koreans as refuges of a global pandemic (for your information, North Korea has also been presumably overrun by the zombie virus in this world, although the country is never directly mentioned). Bong Joon-ho’s The Host in the end did a much wittier job of addressing the American and South Korean hypocrisies regarding the prospect of a global pandemic. Yeon also for no discernible reason indulges in melodramatic touches (although as anchored in Gang Dong-won and Lee Jung-hyun’s competent performances, they are not as unpalatable as they could have been). Finally, his human villains are typical macho-stupid Korean movie thugs: instead of providing dramatic tensions, you irritatingly wait for them to fast become zombie chows.
Peninsula is not a badly made film at all and is probably superior to the majority of Hollywood movies with a similar setup in terms of execution of its admittedly cliché-ridden premise. Yet, I found it ultimately disappointing, not only failing to measure up to the genuinely suspenseful direction and sympathetic characterizations of its predecessor, but also curiously forgettable and lackadaisical. I hope I am not being unduly critical of this film due to the inevitable high expectation I had for the newest film from Yeon, a guy responsible for not just TTB and Seoul Station, but The Wailing, for God’s sake. It is difficult to avoid the impression that he is slumming here to meet the unrealistically high commercial expectations to the best of his ability, rather than grappling with his personal demons and unleashing them unto the viewers. Those who have not experienced Yeon’s other jaw-droppers might enjoy Peninsula perfectly well as a smart, above-average piece of entertainment. ☆☆☆