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Doomsday Book (2012)

by Craig Thomas

Director Kim Ji-woon has established himself as something of a genre-hopper, so it is always interesting to see what he comes up with next. From black comedy (The Quiet Family), to horror (A Tale of Two Sisters), to gangsters (A Bittersweet Life), to Korea-based westerns (The Good, The Bad and The Weird), to serial killers (I Saw The Devil), he has tried his hand at all of them and succeeded masterfully. His ability to blend action, comedy and horrendous violence has of course, made him an attractive proposition to Hollywood and 2013 will see the release of his first English-speaking film, The Last Stand. This will see him tackle a story about an aging sheriff, starring none other than the former governor of California (still can’t get over that) Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In some ways, Doomsday Book can be seen as taking care of some unfinished business before leaving town. A bit of research shows that this is in fact not a new film at all and indeed dates back to 2006. It is made up of three short films, each of which was originally intended to be directed by a different director, but funding fell through after the first two segments were filmed and the project was shelved. In 2010 production resumed and a third segment was filmed to complete the piece. The first segment is directed by Yim Pil-sing, whilst the second is by Kim Ji-woon and the final piece is a collaboration between the two of them. So whilst is it is somewhat unfair to focus the introduction on Kim, he is by far the more successful director and (to me at least) this is an introduction to Yim. And boy, this is one hell of an introduction.

The three segments are linked by the common theme of the self-destruction of humanity through technological innovation. We get the sense that neither director is particularly enamored with modernity nor with the general direction of society, though it does not come across as preaching due to the plentiful helpings of comedy, satire and absurdity through which the stories are told.

The first segment, entitled Brave New World, is a love story set in the middle of a zombie apocalypse which spreads through the food chain and causes society to break down. It looks very good and there are some similarity in terms of camerawork and presentation of scenes that remind me of David Fincher’s turn-of-the-millennium work. It mixes the gruesomeness and the humour well and it is blackly comic. I can say with confidence that it is certainly the best zombie horror/comedy crossover I’ve seen since Shaun of the Dead (apologies to the makers of Cockneys Vs Zombies, but it’s true). From this, I can say with certainty that I will be looking at more of his work in the not-too-distant-future.

Another point of note is that this contains a cameo from Bong Joon-ho, who is one of South Korea’s most successful directors (probably best known for directing The Host, of which there was talk of an English-language remake).

The second segment, Heavenly Creature, changes the mood completely. Kim tells the story of a robot in a Buddhist temple which attains enlightenment and therefore whose very existence brings all sorts of existential uncertainties.

From this point Kim takes the opportunity to ponder some of the greatest questions about life and spirituality, about the effect of technology on human existence and the place of humanity in the world. As would be expected, it’s a far more meditative piece, though it certainly doesn’t skimp on the humour. Once again, it looks beautiful.

As does the third segment, Happy Birthday. This takes the crisis of humanity away from the spiritual and back to the materialistic as a meteor heads for earth and people try to prepare for the end of the world. This is certainly the most absurd, or at least the most symbolic, of the three. Again, it is high on laughs and the satire of the media and of TV Shopping networks is very entertaining.

This trilogy is very reminiscent of the excellent UK TV series, Black Mirror, which presents a series of not-too-distant-future scenarios where technology has had serious adverse effects on human life. It is unrelentingly bleak and brilliant and if you liked this movie, then you should certainly watch it.

These are three excellent pieces and they hang together well as a movie, but as with all such projects I find it difficult to relax and watch as I’m constantly aware that it is going to reset quite quickly. Still, this is an excellent piece of work and though it is very ambitious, it does succeed. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Grade: A

Doomsday Book is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

by Craig Thomas

Chan-wook Park is one of South Korea’s most prominent directors and one of the best working directors in the world today. Among his most vocal supporters is Quentin Tarantino, who pushed to award Oldboy the 2006 Palme d’Or (it instead went to Michael Moore for Fahrenheit 9/11, one would assume for political, rather than cinematic reasons). Whilst it would be easy to tag him as part of the “Extreme Asia” movement of extremely violent films, this would detract from his ability as a filmmaker. Yes, his films are often hard-hitting and violent, but they are also fantastic, beautifully shot and directed.

I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK is somewhat of a departure for Park, being a romantic comedy, though the theme of revenge runs throughout the film (in some ways making in the unofficial fourth part of his excellent “revenge trilogy” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) and there are one or two scenes not for the squeamish. Set in a mental institution, it tells the tale of Cha Young-goon, (played by Su-jeong Lim) a new patient who thinks she is a machine rather than a human being. Inside, she meets a host of quirky patients with problems of their own.

This is not a social-realist film dealing with mental illness. It is a highly stylized, colourful work that often makes being insane look quite fun. What it is, is a film about denial. Struggling to overcome the loss of her grandmother, she denies she is a human being. Cha Young-goon’s mother denies both her mother and daughter have serious mental health issues, the former who is left until her problems become too great to ignore whilst the latter is told to hide her problems, until they manifest in what is mistakenly thought to be a suicide attempt.

Like Park’s previous work, it is also about the futile, destructive nature of revenge. She spends the film plotting with all manner of electronic devices (wall lights, vending machines, etc) in order to kill the “men in white” who took away her beloved, insane grandmother, whilst licking batteries to charge enough power (because cyborgs don’t eat) to kill them all.

Like all of his films, it is visually stunning. Every shot, without exception, is beautiful and credit must be given to the long-time collaborator, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. This is one of the greatest strengths of Park’s films. They are clean and precise, without ever being sterile or bland and can make even the most brutal and disturbing scenes of violence (of which in the film, there is only one) beautiful, yet hard-hitting.

Some might be concerned that the comedy would not survive the subtitles, but they needn’t be. The script is laugh-out-loud funny and there are also a lot of visual gags and despite the somewhat unusual setting there are also tender and heart-warming moments throughout with the blossoming romance between her and the “soul-stealing” Park Il-sun (played by Rain) offering a somewhat optimistic tone about the redemptive nature of love.

That said, it is not perfect and the one scene of violence does seem to jar somewhat with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, it is a rewarding watch and an interesting take on an often (rightly) derided genre. It’s also a great way to experience the beauty of a Park film if you are not fond of extreme violence.

Grade: B+

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is available on Blu-ray and DVD.