4/12/04:

Today I had rather a short day of movie watching--I saw only two films. I had scheduled three, but decided against seeing one of them. Both films that I saw today were South Korean--there seem to be a lot of them in the festival this year (Memories of Murder and Double Agent are two more, and that's just of the films I've seen so far). It's exciting to think we might be in the middle of a country's "new wave" of film. Sure, Double Agent wasn't a masterpiece, but Memories of Murder was amazing, and I had high hopes for The Legend of the Evil Lake. So I took a brisk walk down from work to the Prince Music Theater and settled in to check it out.



Films I saw today: The Legend of the Evil Lake and Acacia

The Legend of the Evil Lake

Just as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is set in the mythical past of China, The Legend of the Evil Lake (directed by Kwang-hoon Lee) is set in the mythical past of Korea--a time when a powerful queen ruled; a warrior hero protected the land from rebels; sinister counselors plotted betrayal; and an evil spirit threatened to destroy it all with black magics. As the movie opens, we're even further back in time, in the year 52 BC, before the nation was formed, when warring tribes fought to dominate over the land. The Shilla tribe wins the day, conquering the Moon Tribe by stopping a magic ritual and imprisoning the evil spirit of the tribe's leader--Auta--in a lake. The spirit is held there by a magic sword which has been driven into the ground by Shilla's leader.

Now we jump ahead hundreds of years to 928 AD, and once again Shilla is fighting for control over the land--this time against rebel armies. Their greatest warrior and general, and our main character, is Biharang. His queen, Chinsong, loves him, and he is loyal to her, but his heart belongs to the peasant girl Jaunbie. (In a flashback, we learn that the two met when she saved him from a poisonous snake bite--just as the lovers met in The Manchurian Candidate.) Jaunbie's father was affiliated with rebel forces, so the queen and her counselors have many reasons to disapprove of Biharang's love for her. It's not very surprising, then, when men come to kill her. In her attempts to fend them off, she runs to the lake, still filled with Auta's evil spirit, and, unknowing, pulls out the magic blade that keeps him imprisoned. He instantly possesses her and begins to take his revenge on Shilla, lashing out against its representatives with incredible magical powers--she flies, uses telekinesis to behead Auta's enemies, and even takes on the shape of Biharang to deceive the queen. Biharang will not accept that Jaunbie cannot be saved, and protects her, even to the point of fighting against his own men. His fellow soldier and friend, Talwi, wants to remain loyal to him, but is torn. Will he betray his General? Is the love between Jaunbie and Biharang strong enough to drive out Auta's evil spirit and stop him from completing the ritual that he started so many hundreds of years ago?

Well, that's the question, isn't it? The Legend of the Evil Lake is a fantastic, exciting, moving, genre-crossing film in the tradition of Hong Kong favorites like The Bride with White Hair. It's a fighting movie, a period piece, a drama, a tragedy, a romance, a horror film, a fantasy film, and a science fiction film all rolled into one. It's full of dazzling special effects and cool action. The ending is even powerful and emotional. I could compare it to a particular episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but that would give away what happens. So let's just say I was impressed.

The film does have a few faults, though. One problem, which is really epidemic of many foreign films, especially, it seems, those from Asia, are the poorly translated English subtitles. The grammar is really bad and, at least during the opening credits, the text isn't even displayed on the screen in a way that makes sense. I kept confusing titles that were introducing characters, or crediting actors, with titles that were translating dialogue. It was difficult to tell what was going on for a while.

Another slight disappointment for me was the fighting. There isn't a lot of it, and it isn't that great. The scenes involving magic spells and telekinesis are fantastic, but the sword fighting and hand fighting is lacking a bit in flare and excitement. Also, the story and characters aren't terribly original. Evil magical spirits and corrupt, traitorous generals versus a hero and his gentle lover; a jealous queen spurned by the one she loves. We've heard it before. Also, Jaunbie's character is an instance of a very familiar type--the beautiful, fragile woman who is a victim of horrible danger. And Biharang is the typical manly hero who must step up to the challenge and protect her. Luckily, enough else is generally going on in the movie to distract us from the familiarity of these characters. And, really, I'm a bit uncertain as to whether this lack of originality is even that much of a problem in a film of this type. The archetypal nature of the characters and story may help to lend a sense of the epic and the mythic to the film.

A larger and more distinct problem with the film is, again, one I've seen before in plenty of films. Like many horror/sci fi films and TV shows before it, The Legend of the Evil Lake doesn't clearly define the rules of its own universe. It seems to make up things as it goes along to move the plot forward. Jaunbie can't be saved, but then maybe she can using these magical symbols and this spell, but then the spell is ruined, but then maybe we can save her with this magic sword, but then the sword loses its magic for some reason, but then the magic comes back somehow. It doesn't really make a lot of sense, and a lot of it seems to happen according to the whims of the screenwriters.

But even so, the conclusion of The Legend of the Evil Lake arrives with the emotional force, and the sense of doom and inevitability, that comes with real tragedy. And before that ending comes, the movie wows us with incredible special effects and imaginative, magical action. It's definitely worth a viewing.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Intermission

Pleased with my movie-going experience, I decided to head home for a leisurely dinner. I had originally planned to see S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine at 7:30 today, but almost as soon as I put it on my list, I started thinking about skipping it. It's a documentary about the massacres and prison camps in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the description claimed that it included interviews with prisoners and prison guards, and even reunited the two groups and filmed the result. It sounded a bit too intense for me, especially in my current state of mind (that being, a bit worn out and ragged). I figured, I'm seeing a lot of movies, and it's okay if I miss one. I could use the extra time, anyway. So I skipped it. That's another advantage of getting the all-access badge--you don't have to feel guilty about not seeing a movie that you planned on seeing. You didn't buy a ticket; you're not locked into anything. You can decide to see or not see a movie on the spur of the moment. It's a wonderful sense of freedom. Of course, if I'd bought the badge and then decided not to go to any movies, that would have been a waste of money. But I'm seeing far more than I have to to make the badge worth the money, so one or two here or there won't hurt anything.

Funnily enough, when I got to The Bridge, I discovered that the woman sitting next to me had been at the screening of S21 that I'd planned to attend, and, she told me, I was actually sitting in the same chair that another woman had fallen asleep in during the screening! The movie was not nearly as intense as I'd feared it would be, apparently. Ah, well. Anyway, the woman and I, as well as some other people sitting nearby, had a nice chat about various films in the festival this year and last year. Then it was time for the movie.

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Acacia

There seem to be a lot of horror films coming out of Asia now. It looks like a phenomenon we've seen in Hollywood far too many times--one filmmaker comes out with a successful, ground-breaking or imaginative film in a particular genre, or about a particular subject, and suddenly ten other filmmakers put out their own crummy, copycat films. In this case, I'm thinking films like The Ring (1998--I'm referring to the original version, not the American remake; another copycat...) and Uzumaki (2000) were at the head of the wave, and pale, cheap imitations like The Eye (2002) are following afterwards in the wake. Acacia (directed by Ki-Hyung Park) falls somewhere in between The Ring and The Eye in terms of quality. It is a frightening film, and for the first half I was very impressed by it. But by the end I was worn out and disappointed, and I wanted to go home. The film tries a little too hard to get to us, makes its points a little too forcefully, and goes on a little too long. It's just overdone.

Acacia begins by introducing us to a young couple living with the husband's father. They want a child, but are unable to conceive, so they decide to adopt. The wife, Mi-sook, takes to a somber, quiet boy named Jin-sung who paints beautiful but rather disturbing pictures. He seems like exactly the right boy to her--"It's like he was waiting for me," she says. She and husband Do-il decide take him home, and the grandfather, who is an artist, tries to bond with him. But Jin-sung is a strange little boy. He becomes fascinated by the acacia tree in the backyard. It's sick and possibly dying, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, Jin-sung is obsessed with it. He begins to associate it with his recently dead mother.

When Mi-sook discovers she's become pregnant after all, Jin-sung becomes even more aloof. Mi-sook's mother doesn't make things better by disparaging the adopted child and praising the natural one. "Maybe it's wrong to have one not of your own blood," one of the family members says, and this feeling begins to fill the house. When the new baby is born, Jin-sung tries to hurt it, and even begins attacking the other members of his adopted family in subtle ways. The acacia tree blooms, and some terrible force seems to bloom with it. The small family spirals into violence, self-destruction and insanity as the tree grows and blossoms. Then Jin-sung disappears, and the terrible secret that surrounds his disappearance may break the family apart for good.

It's an intense story, full of emotion and constant tension. In fact, it's so full of tension and emotion that it drained and tired me past endurance. The movie begins with a careful kind of pacing that really impressed me, and it hits hard with some real scares, and keeps you off-balance with a general feeling of unease. But it keeps revving the tension up and up, forcing the emotional level into stratospheres of melodramatic hysteria and violence. And it even starts to go for the cheap scares. In many cases it makes you jump merely by cranking the sound up and pounding at your eardrums with loud noises. The music is also a bit overdone--like a lot of other things in the film. Rather than be content with one instance of a thing, it keeps repeating that thing over and over. The first creepy, unsettling nightmare is effective, but then there's another and another. We get the point that the kid is not right pretty early on, and that his presence is unraveling things. But the movie keeps making that point clearer and clearer, until it's so clear, we wonder why the family hasn't sent him away long ago.

One thing that works well in the film is the titular tree. It becomes a living, threatening presence--another character, almost--growing as the family decays and collapses. It's sensed even when not seen, lurking just outside the windows of the house, pulsing and breathing with hideous life. So our director, Ki-Hyung Park, certainly does have the ability to create an atmosphere, and a feeling. He does work some good scares out of an audience. But he takes things to such extremes that it's almost ridiculous. This family is so very messed up, this child is so very strange and creepy, this tree has so many wild and crazy ways of killing people. And must there be so many twists in the last half of the film? Ki-Hyung Park waits even until the end credits are rolling to reveal the final surprise. It's like he wants to out-do all the twist endings of all the other countless contemporary horror thrillers that have come before. But his succession of revelations, all of which are in the vein of The Sixth Sense's final revelation (a past event which changes our understanding of what we've seen before), doesn't succeed in being nearly as clever or interesting as that film's surprise--the grandaddy of all horror thriller surprises.

And I want to also mention a little pet peeve of mine here, having (once again--see my previous review) to do with subtitles. This film, like many another foreign film before it, does not have any subtitles for its opening credits sequence. I'll admit, I probably wouldn't have recognized the names of the filmmakers if I'd seen them. But maybe I would have if I'd seen them in other credit sequences before. And whether I know them or not, they deserve to be credited for their work in a way that an audience can understand. They have the right to be known, and we have the right to know them.

In the case of Acacia, I would want to blame those people in the credits, rather than applaud them. Admittedly, the film does some things well--perhaps I'm faulting it for doing things too well. It is scary and disturbing, and if I got a chance to see another film by Ki-Hyung Park, I might take that chance. But Acacia just goes on and on, it's characters become more and more violent and inhuman, and eventually it ends up going overboard.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Epilogue

After Acacia, it was time for another late night cab ride home from The Bridge. This is going to be a regular occurrence for me during the festival, and it's going to get pretty expensive. But I'm pretty sure the El doesn't run that late, and even if it does, I'm not sure I'd want to be on it at that time. So it's either a cab, or walk the 30 or so blocks home.

Anyway, the cab got me home, and then it was straight to bed.

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Jim Genzano





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