• Gongjo / Confidential Assignment (2017)

    Confidential Assignment is a very entertaining humorous action- thriller from South Korea. The story itself isn't very original if you are familiar with classics such as Shiri but the movie's execution is really gripping from start to finish. The actors do a convincing job, the action sequences are explosive and professional and the story has a tense and vivid pace with a few welcome amusing breaks. The camera work is precise instead of shaky and a special mention goes out to the vivid soundtrack that suits the movie perfectly.

    The story revolves around a North Korean investigator who gets betrayed by a colleague who steals expensive printing presses, kills the investigator's wife and escapes to South Korea. The two countries set up a special meeting and the North Korean investigator has three days to arrest his enemy and retrieve the printing presses. Obviously, the skilled investigator isn't allowed to do this investigation on his own in a foreign country. Since nobody is eager to take on this dangerous job, a colleague convinces an officer who has recently been suspended from office to team up with the North Korean. The two investigators couldn't be more different. The North Korean is quiet, professional and cold while his South Korean colleague is loud, clumsy and sociable. In the beginning, the two investigators aren't getting along at all and hide important information from each other. As the situation gets more and more dangerous and the three-day collaboration is about to come to an end, they must trust each other in order arrest a ruthless criminal who is ready to harm both countries.

    The movie finds the right balance between brutal action sequences, tense investigative parts and a few doses of situation comedy. This film might be too intense for younger audiences but older teenagers and adults might appreciate this vivid genre mixture. If compared to similar Asian movies, the humorous parts aren't silly slapstick comedy but rather quirky situation comedy. If compared to similar movies, the action sequences aren't always overtly exaggerated but quite brutal, fast and technical. The suspenseful elements are much more expanded than in similar movies and there are a few quite sinister sequences. This pitiless approach makes the serious moments much more gripping and the smoother parts much more relieving. Confidential Assignment employs each genre element very efficiently.

    While the story isn't surprising and this kind of movie isn't anything innovating, Confidential Assignment is a fast-paced roller coaster ride that is on the same level as Lethal Weapon and other movies of this kind. If this movie were released in North American cinemas, it would be one of this year's blockbuster as it was the case in South Korea where the movie broke several records and received numerous well-deserved awards.

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  • Sabaibaru famirî / The Survival Family (2017)

    The Survival Family is a very intelligent movie that mixes dramatic and humorous elements in a balanced way. The film tells the story of a slightly estranged family consisting of a busy father, a lonely wife, an overtly sensitive daughter and an isolated son who has a crush on a popular girl at school. The first half hour of the movie shows us the everyday life routines of the four characters before a worldwide blackout drastically changes their lives. In the beginning, they believe that the power cut will be fixed within a few days but due to mysterious circumstances, this won't be the case. The four characters have to change their routines as their schools and workplaces get shut down. They ultimately decide to travel south in hope to find a place that isn't affected by the blackout and to join other members of their family who are living by the coast.

    There are several elements that make this movie one of the very best of the year. First of all, the initial idea of the movie is inspiring and mysterious. The audience will constantly ask itself what it would do if it were in a similar situation. The film also remains unpredictable until the very end which adds some tension to the potpourri of dramatic and humorous elements.

    Secondly, the acting of the four main characters is excellent and each character has its very own flaws and strengths. You will see each character change due to the unusual circumstances and you will witness an estranged family get closer to face challenges of all kinds. The movie gets a profoundly philosophical touch and discusses the values of family, nature, resilience, wealth and life in general in an inspiring way. You will end up rooting for the survival of each member of this refreshingly normal family.

    Thirdly, the family meets numerous interesting characters on its journey through Japan. The most interesting characters are the ecological cyclists and the tough pig farmer. These encounters introduce the audience to diversified characters with very different philosophies which leads to some situation comedy.

    A fourth strong point was the movie's final third that accelerated the pace and adds a lot of action and tension. The family has to deal with challenging, heart-breaking and miraculous incidents that will change the lives of everyone involved.

    A fifth and last strong point was the movie's conclusion. I felt it ended in a profound way that does the rest of the movie justice instead of trying to conclude with a misplaced bang or twist.

    If the scenario of a world without technology intrigues you as much as it does me, you have to give The Survival Family a chance. This movie is a very interesting alternative to the usual type of survival movies involving brutality, conspiracy and the supernatural. Despite its unusual settings, the film remains as human and realistic as it gets and despite having a message, the film doesn't try to preach anything. Fans of intelligent dramas might have found their highlight of the year already with this movie.

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  • Deoking / The King (2017)

    The King is a movie about the rise and fall of a young prosecutor who gets involved in organized crime and politics. The film is a mixture of a drama and a crime flick but it also includes a healthy dose of social criticism that shows us a corrupt country. The movie reminds me of similar South Korean movies such as Nameless Gangster and New World. The film also recalls elements of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street in its better moments.

    One of the movie's strengths is that its story is closely connected to historic events in South Korea. This makes the story more authentic. Another strong point is the acting. Jo In-sung portrays the main character perfectly and convinces as an ambitious young man from a poor village with a solid moral compass who slowly gets corrupted by older colleagues but realizes that power and wealth don't necessarily make him happy.

    On the negative side, the movie is at least half an hour too long with a total running time above two hours. Especially the middle section lacks fresh ideas and includes too much repetition that harms the movie's flow. A more concise movie would have been even more efficient.

    If you are interested in recent and contemporary South Korean history and society or if you like dramatic crime movies, you should give The King a chance. This film might have its flaws but it's overall enjoyable and clearly above average. It also includes a few truly memorable scenes such as the heavy opening car crash, the protagonist's first nasty party, the protagonist's tense split with his wife and the weird interview with the ambitious journalist at his seaside mansion.

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  • Garyeojin Shigan / Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (2016)

    Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a South Korean fantasy drama that convinces with an intriguing story mixing fantasy and reality with great acting performances despite a few minor lengths in the middle section. The film has a lot of depth as it deals with the topics of friendship, life and trust in a gripping way. The two main characters are authentic, dynamic and sympathetic and most viewers will care about their fates until the very end. The camera work is accurate and slow, the light techniques add a lot of atmosphere, the Locations are mysterious and original, the soundtrack underlines the movie's atmospheric parts and even the special effects are gorgeous yet down-to-earth which is a perfect mixture most Asian fantasy movies fail to achieve.

    The story revolves around the friendship of two young outsiders that most viewers might identify with because they are both profound, sympathetic and resilient. Su-rin is a teenage girl whose divorced mother died and who has moved to an island with her stepfather. She doesn't really get a long with her busy stepfather, fails to make new friends and is often seen as weird because of her interest in the occult. She's a creative, emotional and smart Girl who even develops a secret sign language. Sung-min is a joyful, optimistic and quirky orphan boy who has a crush on the mysterious girl that is so different from all the others. He works very hard to get closer to her and gradually develops an intense friendship and even romantic relationship to the older Girl despite his friends' negative comments. One day, the young couple and two teenage friends discover a mysterious cave in a forest where they find a shining egg in a hidden lake. When Su-rin returns to the cave to look for a lost hairpin, the three boys break the mysterious egg and provoke a supernatural event that will have immediate, short-term and long-term consequences for everyone involved as well as for their families and the island's small community. Telling you anything more would take away from the creative plot.

    While the event that kicks the story off is a supernatural one, the rest of the story is particularly realistic and has a strong emotional, philosophical and psychological touch. Heart-breaking moments and thoughtful passages meet brief moments of hope and joy. The story remains interesting until the end that some might see as a happy and others as a sad ending which makes it even more interesting depending on your point of view.

    Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a particularly great movie for intellectual teenagers because of the two brilliant main characters but anyone who likes profound dramas or thoughtful fantasy movies should give this clever film a fair chance. Once again, South Korean cinema has managed to create a profound teenage movie that easily beats Hollywood's current wave of teenage movies around the Hunger Games or Insurgent franchises.

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  • San shao ye de jian / Sword Master (2016)

    Sword Master is a typical example for the new wave of wu xia cinema. The costumes are colourful, the landscapes are breathtaking and the fight sequences are quite spectacular on the positive side. On the negative side, the special effects are exaggerated and overused, the story is developed in a confusing way with numerous flashbacks to hide the fact that the scenario is rather ordinary and the movie doesn't have the magic pioneer vibe of the original version called Death Duel in particular and the first wave of wu xia movies in general.

    There are three elements that make Sword Master stand out and put it on a slightly above average level if compared to other contemporary wu xia flicks. The first twenty minutes of the movie are quite entertaining and feature interesting character developments, ferocious fights and stunning settings. The movie then quickly becomes exchangeable, predictable and shallow but its first impression is very positive. As a second element, the acting performances are rather positive even though they aren't outstanding or even moving. The different characters are credible and the actors and actresses rarely overact. Aside of one silly character who only has a minor role, the movie also avoids adding silly slapstick elements that wouldn't fit in. Finally, the movie has a great soundtrack that unites traditional folk instruments, classical music and a few modern sounds in a highly diversified and always appropriate way. The soundtrack manages to add more emotions to the different key scenes of this film.

    Fans of traditional Chinese action cinema will surely be entertained by this movie even though it can't compete with the best genre flicks of the seventies and eighties. Those who aren't familiar with the wu xia genre should not start with this film though and discover the original films first. I was entertained very well and would watch this movie again in a few years.

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