• Hae-jeok: Ba-da-ro gan san-jeok / The Pirates (2014)

    "The Pirates" is an entertaining and epic South Korean comedy-action film in the key of "Cutthroat Island" and "Pirates of the Caribbean". It tells the fictional tale of several groups looking for the precious and significant Ming Emperor's Seal of State which was swallowed by a giant whale. A group of mountain bandits led by a former soldier and rebel, a righteous group of pirates led by the smart woman Yeo-wol and an evil group of pirates that teams up with a pitiless army clash on their quest for fame, redemption and wealth.

    Even though the story is rather predictable, the acting performances are spectacular enough to get the viewers emotionally involved. Especially Son Ye-jin convinces as tough female pirate with a strong moral compass. The various settings from spectacular fight scenes in a military camp over vivid chase sequences in a coastal village to spectacular naval battles make this movie a gripping roller-coaster ride. The colourful costumes only add to this and bring the fourteenth century to life in a mostly genuine way. The special effects are slightly exaggerated but nevertheless well-executed and the deep-sea sequences involving whales are beautiful and ethereal. This potpourri of stunning elements makes this film one of the best pirate movies in a very long time without reinventing the genre but rather focusing on its strengths in form of spectacular settings, breathtaking effects and solid acting performances.

    Genre fans should ignore the uninspired sequels of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise that are childish and hollow slapstick spectacles. "The Pirates" is a creative, diversified and energizing film that offers something for every taste including spectacular fight scenes, dramatic and emotional passages, romantic relationships, some sinister suspense and a balanced dose of humoristic elements. Get your rum ready, get together with some of your friends and enjoy this stylish blockbuster with a smile upon your face.

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  • Ah-ga-ssi / The Handmaiden (2016)

    ''The Handmaiden'' is a mesmerizing period drama that convinces with a twisted story, gloomy settings, an atmospheric score, precise cinematography, profound characters and incredible acting performances. It consists of three parts, the first two leading to clever twists and the last one to a satisfactory conclusion that leaves no questions unanswered if you watch carefully. The story is set in Japanese-occupied Korea and tells the story of a thief's daughter who is collaborating with a clever crook in order to steal the inheritance of a rich Japanese lady living in seclusion with her perverted uncle. Telling you anything more would take away from the movie's brilliant storytelling.

    The movie has a slow pace but develops a melancholic atmosphere right from the start with the very first scene until the final freeze frame. Despite a few necessary repetitions in the story due to a few shifts in perspective, the movie passed surprisingly quickly despite a running time of nearly two and a half hours.

    The story is clever and emotional with its twists and turns. Some twists are hard to predict while others are easier to figure out and others again aren't directly revealed throughout the movie but they are all told carefully, elegantly and profoundly. This movie doesn't only stimulate your genitals and your heart but also your brain.

    The film should only be watched by mature adults since it includes a lot of eroticism. The movie carefully contrasts cold sexual abuse and passionate romance in a balanced way. This isn't only done by performing credible sexual intercourse in front of the camera. This is also told through facial expressions, quotes from erotic novels and appropriate settings. While more conservative minds could be shocked, one should note that every single scene adds to the clever story and the depth of the characters. This movie doesn't include any sexual innuendo and no pornographic movie could even slightly achieve what this movie does. This is truly a lesson in eroticism performed by highly skilled actors and actresses and this combination makes this movie stand out.

    In the end, the combination of intense emotions, profound eroticism and an intelligent story in a movie involving outstanding actors and actresses and directed by one of the world's best directors makes this one of the very best period dramas ever made in the history of cinema. Not only genre fans will adore this movie but any adult with a genuine interest in cinema should watch this contemporary masterpiece.

    Final rating: 10/10

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  • Busanhaeng / Train to Busan (2016)

    There have been numerous stereotypical, repetitive and gruesome zombie movies since the beginning of the millennium and now South Korea has officially jumped on the bandwagon... and revolutionized the entire genre with the very best movie of its kind.

    "Train to Busan" convinces on every single level. The settings are diversified and very well chosen and the gripping atmosphere is pushed forward by the idea of a few random passengers being caught on a train with a horde of zombies. The cinematography is perfectly balanced between intense close-ups and larger angles. There are almost no shaky camera passages as opposed to the disappointing contemporary Hollywood standard. The story finds the right path between brutal intensity and great acting skills. The film is never slowing down and highly intriguing from the very first until the very last scene.

    What really makes this zombie movie stand out even compared to the better genre flicks is the depth and diversity of the intriguing characters that are perfectly portrayed by skilled actresses and actors. We get to meet a busy and divorced hedge fund manager and his estranged daughter who is desperately trying to get his attention. We follow the actions of a tough, honest and brave working-class man and his more serious pregnant wife. We are introduced to two old sisters with an intense connection who are inseparable. We meet a naive cheerleader and the baseball player she has a crush on and witness how they mature and become adults within just a few hours. The movie also has a strong antagonist in form of a pitiless chief executive officer who will do anything to survive. I have rarely watched a movie with so many addicting, authentic and profound characters. A special shout- out goes to child actress Kim Su-an who is more convincing in her role in this single film than many ambitious adult actresses in Hollywood in their entire careers.

    One has to be aware of the fact that this isn't a Hollywood movie. This movie doesn't try to be politically correct by adding a character of each possible visible minority in the world to the cast but we get a refreshingly realistic portrait of South Korean citizens fighting for survival instead. The film doesn't have a deeper philosophical meaning or tries to explain the zombie outbreak in melancholic images and words because this movie simply focuses on the dangerous situation where the characters don't have any time to over-analyze the situation. The sympathetic heroes of the story won't necessarily survive at the end of the movie and the last half hour includes several shocking and heartbreaking moments that will get you emotionally involved without being pathetic.

    In the end, there isn't anything negative to say about this movie that mixes horror, drama and action elements to what might be the best zombie movie of all times. If you haven't watched this movie, you have missed out on one of the greatest movies of the past few years. Along with the stunning South Korean horror film "The Wailing", the epic "Train to Busan'' is the best film of the year 2016.

    Final rating: 10/10

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  • Shin Gojira (2016)

    ''Shin Gojira'' marks a triumphant comeback for the most famous monster in the history of cinema. This Toho reboot is the first movie in the Japanese franchise since ''Godzilla: Final Wars'' twelve years earlier. Just like the American reboot which was simply entitled ''Godzilla'', the new Japanese film also manages to fit the legendary monster in a contemporary setting. While the American movie focused on the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe in the key of Fukushima, the Japanese film imagines what would happen if Godzilla attacked Japan today. ''Shin Godzilla'' is a mixture of science-fiction action entertainment and political drama study.

    That's why most parts of the movie can be seen as surprisingly realistic. The film follows Japan's Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary and how he and his fellow politicians deal with the unexpected attack of a resilient monstrosity. Heated discussions about the origins of the monster, an appropriate way to deal with media and public and the question whether to accept to attack the monster with a nuclear bomb or to speculate on a risky alternative strategy are the main topics in this film. Despite a big cast, some actresses and actors manage to stand out and carry this movie. Hasegawa Hiroki convinces as brave, diplomatic and smart lead actor. Ishihara Satomi has an interesting role as Special Envoy for the President of the United States and portrays an ambitious, extroverted and glamorous young woman who adds some spice to a cast that mostly centers around more conservative male characters. The roles of two different prime ministers are portrayed interestingly as well. The first one seems shocked by the events but determined to control and defeat Godzilla. The second one feels disenchanted and powerless and since his leadership is lacking, a team of young politicians and scientists try everything they can to find a strategy to defeat what seems to be an unbeatable monster.

    The movie convinces with this more contemporary, mature and realistic touch showing us the social, scientific and political impacts of Godzilla's unexpected arrival. On the other side, the monster itself is also quite intriguing because it's constantly mutating and changing its appearance and capacities. This makes Godzilla unpredictable and scarier than ever before. Godzilla is far away from being a pitiable or even sympathetic protagonist but a brutal and pitiless antagonist. The monster is taller and stronger than ever, its eyes look evil and its large mouth with its sharp teeth looks like an entrance into hell. The special effects in the movie are efficient and never look too unrealistic which adds a lot to the depressing atmosphere and dramatic vibe of the movie leading to a spectacular showdown. These great executions make the viewers forget that the outcome of the story is actually quite predictable right from the start and that the plot is a little bit too pathetic and patriotic at times.

    One point people might argue about is that Godzilla doesn't have as much screening time as in many movies from the past. It's not as blatant as in the last American movie where Godzilla would only appear in the second half of the film but it's true that slightly below two thirds of the movie focus indeed on the political drama study while slightly above one third offers science-fiction action entertainment. On the other side, this was already the case in the very first Godzilla movie which is without a doubt the best in franchise history and what worked well back then also works out in the present. The action sequences might be shorter but have a powerful effect while the characters and the story have enough depth to carry the film and make the viewers care about it. One should also note that this is the first Japanese Godzilla movie since the first one that only features Godzilla and no other monsters.

    In the end, ''Shin Godzilla'' isn't an excellent but still a very good Japanese comeback of the world's greatest monster in the history of cinema. I would put this movie in the bottom of my top ten list of the greatest Godzilla movies which is a quite good result considering I'm a fan since my early childhood and that there are thirty-two Godzilla movies so far. Those who are looking for a more realistic, mature and contemporary interpretation of the famous franchise will like this movie and hope for a potential sequel in the near future.

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  • The Age of Shadows (2016)

    "The Age of Shadows" is a historically inspired dramatic action-thriller about a group of Korean resistance fighters who are opposing the peninsula's Japanese occupation. Directed and written by creative mastermind Kim Jee-won and starring South Korean top actors like Lee Byung-hun, this epic film became South Korea's official submission for the "Best Foreign Language Film" category of the 89th Academy Awards in 2017. While the premises seemed to be very positive, I was slightly disappointed by the movie.

    First of all, a much better movie with a very similar story line called "Assassination" was released only one year earlier and it beats this flick in terms of acting, pace, settings and story. It's quite difficult to identify with the main character in "The Age of Shadow" who constantly changes sides and doesn't seem to know what he believes in. Instead of portraying a man torn between two choices, the movie focuses on a rather antipathic and egoistic character who is thinking about his own advantage at all times. Even an outstanding actor like Song Kang-ho can't make this dull main character any more exciting.

    "The Age of Shadow" starts with an explosive opening scene only to lead towards a lengthy introduction with endless dialogues and numerous characters. It takes close to one hour before the pace quickens up again. The first half of the movie is definitely too long and often lost my interest.

    While the settings of the movie are very realistic and bring to life a genuine depiction of the Korean peninsula in the forties, the costumes and locations aren't as detailed and memorable as in many other South Korean high-quality productions.

    The story remains somewhat shallow in my opinion. It's obvious that the members of the resistance are trying to attack the Japanese occupants but the film never really explains what they are organizing precisely. It's quite unsatisfying to realize that the resistance's charismatic leader is taking many risks by trusting a highly unreliable main character and personally organizing an attack against the enemy that is never ever specified. The ending also leaves many questions open and feels unfinished to me.

    Despite these flaws, the movie also has many strong points. The side characters are portrayed excellently and add some depth to the movie. Especially the clever villain portrayed by Um Tae-goo is very creepy. The movie also convinces in its more intense passages. The opening scene is both dynamic and memorable. The climax on the train is very tense and will get you on the edge of your seat. The last thirty minutes of the film have a welcome dramatic and emotional touch. The settings are authentic and especially the scenes on the train, in different torture chambers and in the prison are beautifully crafted and provide a gripping and sinister atmosphere. While the story is maybe the movie's biggest flaw, it still requests some thinking from the audience and includes a few minor twists in the second half of the film that save this movie for me.

    Maybe my rating would be slightly more generous if the excellent "Assassination" hadn't been released a year earlier. That film's excellent execution from any point of view makes "The Age of Shadows" look quite predictable, redundant and even unnecessary. Faithful fans of contemporary South Korean cinema should still watch both movies but I would only recommend "Assassination" to occasional international audiences. "The Age of Shadows" really pales in comparison to Choi Dong-hoon's "Assassination". On a closing note, South Korea should have chosen the outstanding horror film "The Wailing" as official submission for the "Best Foreign Language Film" category of the 89th Academy Awards in 2017.

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