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The King

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Director: Jae-rim Han

Stars: In-sung Jo, Seong-woo Bae, Woo-sung Jung

Released: 2017

Reviewer: Ren Zelen

If you profess a love of cinema, but have been eschewing the excellent films coming out of Korea, you really have been missing out on some top-notch entertainment.

I went into Han Jae-Rim’s movie The King, knowing only that it had been described as a political thriller. That covers about half of it – it’s also a satire about corruption within Korea’s legal system, it’s a gangster movie, it’s a revenge tale and yes, it’s a crime thriller too. If Wes Anderson decided to make ‘Goodfellas’ with Ben Wheatley, The King might just be the movie they’d have aspired to. Imagine that.

The King is the story of a young prosecutor who rises swiftly to power, but finds that it is not at all the easy ride he imagined. The film set the Korean record for most-viewed movie trailer, and went on to score the biggest January opening at the Korean box office. Admittedly, the film boasts a talented cast, and it offers intense political drama which frequently references real events.

The film’s opening sequence starts the movie off with a bang, I won’t spoil it, but it certainly grabs the interest from the outset, and the rest of the movie is unlikely to let go of its hold on your attention.

Handsome delinquent Park Tae-soo (Jo In-Sung) rises to the top of the social system in his provincial school by his prowess in fighting. When he witnesses his usually cocky criminal father being slapped around and humiliated by a public prosecutor, he realizes that brains trump fists, and that it’s the smart kids that will eventually end up with the real power. He decides to become a prosecutor himself.

This requires unfamiliar application to his studies and Tae-soo discovers that oddly, he works best when he’s surrounded by mayhem (giving rise to another amusing sequence). Finding a unique modus operandi, his grades begin to improve dramatically and he becomes the star of his class, sailing through the bar exams.

Starting work as a young prosecutor, Tae-soo is dismayed by the long hours, low pay and lack of respect he finds because of his lack of connections. He soon becomes aware of rampant corruption behind the scenes. It appears that high-level prosecutors, gangsters, politicians and the press are all in cahoots together for material gain and in order to manipulate power.

Tae-soo reluctantly agrees to take a bribe and let a sleazy gym teacher get away with his crime – he is accused of sexual assault on a minor – because the teacher’s father is an influential politician. In exchange, he is placed on the fast-track and hired to work under celebrated Chief prosecutor Han Kang-sik (Jung Woo-sung). Han insists that ‘pride means nothing’ and that Tae-soo must ‘go with the flow of history,’ by which he means participate in the corruption around him.

Tae-soo makes his deal with the devil and effectively abandons any notions of justice in favour of a comfortable and glamorous life. Han Kang-sik leads him down a slippery slope, offering money, fast cars and fast women, although this risks his relationship with his wife.

A vicious gangster, Kim Eung-soo (Kim ui-seong), also colludes with the prosecutors, doing their dirty work in a particularly nasty way. Tae-soo’s childhood friend, Choi Du-il (Ryu Jun-yeol) is part of a minor criminal gang and shows up at an opportune moment offering to rekindle their old friendship and act as a personal heavy.

Meanwhile, Ahn Hee-yoon (Kim So-jin), a quirky but tenacious female anti-corruption investigator, is tracking Tae-soo in order to use him to get to Chief Han Kang-sik, who’s greed, arrogance and sadistic nature makes him revel in power, behaving like an untouchable ‘King’.

As his boss abandons him and slowly dismantles his life, Tae-soo realises the losses and errors in the path he has taken, and plans to take a clever revenge on those who have manipulated him for their own ends.

Han Jae-Rim’s screenplay may be influenced by the films of Martin Scorsese, but there is a uniquely Korean tone to his movie, flipping from amusing satire, to the spectacle of expensively suited big-wigs indulging in snappy dance routines, to gut-churningly violent scenes set in the criminal underworld.

Jo In-sung does a splendid job in his anti-hero role and angel-faced gangster Ryu Jun-yeol is a rising star, proving pivotal to the story. The film touches on many aspects of Korean society, shifting between the glitz of Central Seoul to the dusty countryside and from the halls of power to the sordid criminal underworld.

The King motors swiftly through its 157 minutes, as Tae-soo’s voiceover guides us through tumultuous political transitions over a 20-year period. With parallels to real-life scandals, references to the June Democracy Movement and the transitions between several presidential elections, Korean viewers may receive a jolt of recognition from seeing old footage of the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun, (particularly as the current Korean president, seen in the archival videos clips, now awaits a supreme court decision after her own impeachment vote).

Foreign viewers may not be familiar with the subtleties of the political content, but corruption is hardly unique to Korea, and the West also wrestles with the notion of monopolies who can manipulate the press and influence political power.

As has been evident for a while, Korean film-makers such as Han Jae-rim can give tired and familiar genres a new lease of life by creating original storylines and colourful characters, as well as offering clever editing and glossy visuals. The King is thrilling cinema, and Han Jae-Rim proves his skill with this extraordinary and engrossing saga.

Movie Reviews

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★

Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp.

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Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman

Released: 12th October 2018 (UK)

Bad Times at the El Royale has seemingly fallen foul of the particularly hectic October release schedule in the U.K. As Venom and A Star is Born dominate the box-office and with the London Film Festival in full swing, El Royale has not received the recognition it deserves.

Boasting an impressive cast, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers whose stories intertwine at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. As each person’s agenda for being at the El Royale is revealed, tensions inevitably rises and the characters collide.

From the get-go, El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp. Director Drew Goddard, no stranger to managing madness following his debut A Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an immersive, intricately linked murder-mystery that feels like a grindhouse version of Cluedo. The violence is garish but necessary, the dialogue is short and snappy and the characters are most importantly, interesting. The hardest part of any film with so many moving parts, is making the audience actually bond with those involved. Goddard, who also wrote the screenplay, has nailed this – giving enough back-story for each, whilst holding enough back to keep us learning more.

Between Jeff Bridge’s bad-ass priest, Dakota Johnson’s kill-happy hippy and Chris Hemsworth’s dancing cult-leader, the wider cast have somehow managed to create a credible on-screen dynamic, despite the stark character contrasts. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful singer Darlene is the obvious standout and her interactions with Bridge’s Father Flynn provide some of the most film’s most satisfying scenes. Lewis Pullman’s unassuming concierge Miles is another strong performance deserving of a mention.

The film swaggers along accompanied by its killer soundtrack, which plays a crucial part in the films tonal change from chapter to chapter. It’s dark and violent, yet at times it’s engaging and even emotional. The sharp edits that mash-up the timeline don’t over-complicate the plot, but accentuate the frenzied feeling that Goddard is creating as we head towards the plot’s crescendo.

As expected there are some areas where a film with so much going on inevitably suffers. Jon Hamm’s Seymour is arguably the biggest victim of this, with his character perhaps not utilised as much as it could have been. The film also feels a little too fleshed out in parts, lingering on some of the less necessary aspects and leaving one or two plotlines unexplored as a result.

Bad Times at the El Royale really does feel like a Tarantino movie and that’s no mean feat, Goddard has taken his own style and applied tried and tested techniques to create a compelling, genuinely exciting movie and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

 

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Arctic ★★★★

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Released: 5 December 2018

Directed by: Joe Penna

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir

Reviewed by: Lauren Tina Brady

An expanse of white as far as the eye can see, gently sloping mountains in the horizon, a polar bear pads silently across the snow, pausing briefly to gaze back at the watching man across the valley.

At first Arctic reads as a classic survival narrative; the basic man vs. nature conundrum. I’d recently seen The Mountain Between Us, which draws some very obvious similarities; plane crash, hostile snowy environment, a great expanse needing to be crossed for a chance of survival. However, unlike relying on the pairing of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba for context,  Arctic’s dialogue is bare. This is largely due to the fact that there is only the protagonist for the first third of the film, played by Mads Mikkelsen.

At first it appears to lull you into that false sense of security of knowing exactly how this works out; he sticks to a routine of catching fish, laying out black rocks spelling ‘help’ against the snow and signalling for nearby aircraft. However, crucially, we don’t know who he is. He speaks very little, in both Danish and English. He offers no information to help us piece together a backstory and remains an enigma throughout, which feels fresh. The character becomes more than a person; he becomes the flicker of hope for survival, the spectrum of emotions that occur in the darkest of hours.

There is plenty of drama to keep us on the edge of our seats; he has a chance of escape quite early on – a small helicopter has spotted him and attempts to make it’s way towards him in strong winds leading to a crash. There are two people on board; one is killed with the other, a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), who survives but is badly hurt and must be cared for. Suddenly the odds of both surviving are halved; the danger is intensified.

Here is a tale of endurance over survival. This is where Mikkelsen excels; he digs deep to portray every possible emotion through a gruelling and ice-cold journey. He is silent but his face says everything. I laughed in delight, I wept quietly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.

It’s a feat for Joe Penna, directing his feature film debut. See it for Mikkelsen, stay for the sensitive direction and the stunning cinematography.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Museum ★★★★

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Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfredo Castro

Released: London Film Festival 2018

It’s Christmas Day, 1985. College dropouts Juan Nunez and Benjamin Wilson are ready to pull off an audacious heist that will have authorities searching for professional art thieves for years. Based on a true story, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film sees the duo attempt to steal 140 priceless artefacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Museum explores the mindsets of two would be criminals with nothing to lose.

The tale is narrated by Wilson, played with subtle compassion by Leonardo Ortizgris. Wilson’s role is much like Nick’s in The Great Gatsby, an opinionated and somewhat loyally biased eye through which Juan is diluted. Played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Juan is the film’s focus, a Mexican Cool Hand Luke drifting through his young adulthood. In the hands of another actor, Juan may have come off as entitled, lazy even, but Bernal’s performance layers the character with sympathetic naivety and relatable desire. A perennially youthful, multifaceted actor, Bernal paints buckets of emotion into every micro-expression.

The crime takes place after Christmas dinner, a lively family affair that sees Juan alienated and berated. At first, the silence is reminiscent of the hanging scene from Mission: Impossible; the tension equally palpable. But soon the action changes, pared back to a static style similar to the panels of a comic book. It is a technique repeated throughout the film, the continuity broken up into freeze frames that are not quite motionless, still alive with a touch of movement. Reducing these scenes to a childlike fantasy, Ruizpalacios succeeds in creating the ultimate sense of idyllic, youthful adventure.

Something often ignored in heist films is the aftermath, when the thieves must deal with the fallout of their decisions. Museum’s second act focuses on this aspect, allowing the introduction of an English art dealer, played by the superb Simon Russell Beale. Uncertainty builds from the start of their meeting, as the camera endlessly pans until Juan’s misguided perceptions come crashing down around him. In a script littered with intelligence and comedy, it is a pleasant surprise to see the characters’ raw emotion become the focal point.

Ruizpalacios seems content to pose questions that hang wispily in the air, unanswered: questions of cultural ownership, of morality and greed. He is more interested in the character study at the heart of this story, of a man who commits a crime out of boredom, a sense of nihilism or a desire for adventure, or perhaps a little of all three. It is a fresh idea in a crowded genre, making for a film that is impressive but never quite brilliant, a wonderful adventure that doesn’t aim to blow minds. But does that matter? As Juan says and Wilson relays: “Why let the truth ruin a good story?”, a sentiment Ruizpalacios takes quite literally. Luckily for him, Museum is without a doubt a good story.

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