Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saki (J-Drama 2013)

This one was painful folks. Saki (サキ) is ridiculous on many levels and that's coming from a fan of the lead actress. I'd like to blame it on the fact that I'm just not the target demographic, but...

On the surface, Saki (Yukie Nakama), is a quiet, beautiful, successful nurse working in the children's ward of a major Tokyo hospital. However, when she's not showing that side of herself, she's living a much darker lifestyle filled with lies and manipulation. Hayato Nitta (Shohei Miura), is working for a local magazine and is approached by Saki who claims she is his older sister. Apparently they were separated years ago when they were just babies and he just happens to have been looking for his older sister. What a coincidence! Hayato is initially shocked and hesitant to embrace Saki and bring her into his life, but eventually, the two of them start getting close and he begins to feel as if he's truly gotten his sister back. Through their relationship, Saki  has a lot of questions for Hayato and she also seems to want a lot of details about specific individuals. Through a series of coincidences, or maybe not, Saki runs into certain men that she ends up seducing. They run the gamut from high-profile lawyer (Masato Hagiwara), to the chairman (Masanobu Takashima), of the hospital she works at! After the initial seduction, her not-so-sweet side comes out as she begins to prey on their weaknesses and manipulates them to the point where they feel like killing themselves. That's a powerful woman. However, why is she seeking out these specific men and wanting them dead? What exactly is their connection? As the proceedings unfold, Hayato grows more suspicious of his sister and you can only wonder if he'll have the nerve to eventually confront her. And if so, will Saki let him simply walk away?

There is drama and then there is DRAMA. Saki is over-the-top in so many ways, that at times it's a bit laughable. Don't get me wrong, Yukie Nakama is, in my opinion, one of the best actresses in Japan and her performance here is solid. Everyone else in the drama really does take a backseat to her ability as an actress. She's also the main reason I watched this series. It's just that the world her character lives in is so odd and far-fetched that you really have to suspend disbelief to find any enjoyment here. In regards to the other actors and actresses here, there really are no other stand-outs. Just a supporting cast serving their purpose. The musical cues, however seemingly insignificant, aggravated me, as did the song choices. My problem with them is that they didn't fit the mood of the show. Staying with the aggravation train, there are these moments throughout when Saki has finished mind-warping one of her victims that she celebrates by cooking herself a very expensive meal. I found it quite strange, but thought, "hey, that's just her thing", but frankly it annoyed me having to watch her eat, with close-ups of her mouth as she chewed. It felt excessive. I know, a small gripe, but a gripe nonetheless. The plot itself, the biggest thing a show has going for it, is Saki's biggest problem though. Once you, dear viewer, discover why Saki is hunting these men down, you'll either laugh out loud or shout an expletive at the screen. I opted for the latter and no, that isn't a good thing. It was just silly and to be honest, a huge let down when it all came to an end. When you painfully trudge through 10 episodes, you're expecting at least a semi-decent pay-off come episode 11. Sigh.

I can't find much good to say about Saki, aside from Yukie Nakama's performance, but even that isn't enough to warrant a recommendation. If I can make the analogy of a star baseball player being on a terrible team. His team loses all the time, yet he always performs well. You get the point, it's simply not enough. Some material is simply too flat for a star to elevate. (Lee)

Grade: D-

                                               (No clip, but here's a video for the theme song)

Phantom (K-Drama 2012)

What we have here is the closest thing to a really good Korean drama that I've personally seen. Phantom (유령), is a suspense-thriller that does a lot of things right, but of course, it also does a handful of things wrong. What were you expecting? Perfection?

The Seoul cyber-investigation team is on the hunt for a mysterious hacker that goes by the handle of Hades (Daniel Choi). Leading the team is Woo-hyun (So Ji-sub), and he's an emotionless, stone-faced figure who loves what he does and does it well. Hades seems to be one-step ahead of Woo-hyun and his team and when popular actress Shin Hyo-jung (Esom), turns up dead, the stakes certainly seem to be raised. What appears to be a suicide that no one could have imagined, ends up being much more complex as the team discover her laptop was hacked by Hades. Woo-hyun and Detective Yoo Gang-mi (Lee Yeon-hee), are sure there is more to her death then meets the eye. Also on the case is Detective Kwon Hyuk-joo (Kwak Do-won), a larger-than-life type who gets what he wants by intimidation. Woo-hyun eventually catches up to Hades after some slick surveillance and when he finally meets Hades face to face, he's shocked to discover the person in front of him is someone from his past. Hades explains to Woo-hyun that, of course, not everything is as it appears to be and that he isn't responsible for Shin Hyo-jung's death. Due to their history, Woo-hyun is inclined to give Hades the benefit of the doubt and in turn imparts some shocking truths about himself. Naturally, after he confesses his sins to Hades, an accident occurs, taking Woo-hyun's life and leaving Hades severely burned beyond recognition. Hades, filling in Gang-mi to the words Woo-hyun left him with, asks for her help in having doctor's surgically rebuild him with Woo-hyun's appearance so that he can go undercover. Whoa...let that sink in. Someone is responsible for Shin Hyo-jung's and Woo-hyun's death and to top things off, there are some shady cats working within the cyber-investigation team. All for what though? When the mysterious Jo Hyun-min (Uhm Ki-joon), finally shows his face, you just know this guy is up to no good, but who is the real villain here?

Phantom is a real whodunnit in every sense of the word. It's just one of those series that has you pointing the finger at pretty much anyone that pops up on screen. Aside from having a plot device straight out of 1997, (Face/Off), there is enough here to keep things fresh. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep you interested in the proceedings, although there is a sub-plot involving a girl's school and Yoo Gang-mi starting around episode 7 that is so terribly out of place, it's baffling. It breaks up the flow of everything you saw in the first 6 episodes, has nothing to do with the overall story and just spoils what could have been a great series. Watching So Ji-sub is like watching a statue come to life. The man is expressionless throughout, yet somehow it feels appropriate for his character. Daniel Choi is definitely the more lively of the dynamic duo, but he doesn't have as much screen time after the face switch. I have to point out Lee Yeon-hee and her abysmal acting ability. It's beyond clear that she was cast in this role because they needed a pretty face, otherwise we'd be left with a total sausage fest. Jokes aside, her delivery is flat to the point where you feel like you're watching some amateur auditions. She really stinks up every scene she's in. Couple that with her schoolgirl sub-plot and you'll feel that even the writers struggled to think of how to use her. Okay, now that we've sunk a bit, Kwak Do-won is there to bring us right back up. His performance is what you're looking for in a great character. He's incredibly charismatic and lights up the screen whenever he pops up. A true scene-stealer. Sure, he's a bit over-the-top at times, but you still love to watch him act and that's what counts. Uhm Ki-joon's performance is another stand-out. This guy just oozes sleaze and you really just want to punch him in the face every time you see him. Don't get me wrong, with the type of character he's playing, that's a good thing. It's a strong performance. There's a whole host of supporting actors in Phantom, from the cyber-investgation team (with only Kwon Hae-hyo being of note), to the spunky little reporter friend of Hades/Park Gi-young, Choi Seung-yeon (Song Ha-yoon), who manages to avoid being completely annoying...but only just.

Phantom gets things right by have mostly capable actors in a story that at times is overly-complicated but still intriguing. Also, they don't force a love story in where it's clearly not needed. Just because you have a male and female lead doesn't mean they have to be a couple. So kudos to those responsible for not following that tired cliche. Those interested in watching something a little different in the stale, all-too-similar K-drama landscape should give this one a shot. (Lee)


Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Better Tomorrow (Korea 2010)

A remake of the 1986 Hong Kong film of the same name, A Better Tomorrow (무적자), is probably better off viewed as a it's own movie. After all, if you were to compare the two, you'd be sorely disappointed.

Set in the southern, port city of Busan, South Korea, Kim-hyuk (Joo Jin-mo), is a fairly high-ranking gangster, up to gangster shenanigans. His right-hand-man is Young-choon (Song Seung-heon), and these two, together, get the job done.While Kim-hyuk is climbing up the corporate ladder, so to speak, he's haunted by the memory of his younger brother Kim-chul (Kim Kang-woo), who he left behind (along with their mother), in North Korea. Kim-chul is still very much alive and well, and has been apprehended by the authorities. When Kim-hyuk gets wind of this, he is naturally overcome with emotion and wants nothing more than to make things right with his younger brother. This, as you can imagine, isn't so simple as Kim-chul, understandably, harbors a lot of resentment towards his older brother for leaving him and his mother behind. Kim-hyuk still has a job to do however, so he tells Young-choon that he'll be heading to Thailand with new gang recruit, Jung Tae-min (Jo Han-sun), in order to complete a deal that has been in the works. When the boys arrive in Thailand and get to the meeting point, things immediately don't feel right. Needless to say, things don't go as plan, a shoot-out occurs and ultimately, Kim-hyuk is left alone and thrown in prison for three years by the Thai police. During this period of time, Young-choon, refusing to look weak to others in their "business", seeks revenge on Kim-hyuk's behalf. He walks away from the experience, but just barely. Kim Chul, meanwhile, has enlisted in the police academy, with his motivation being that the killer of his mother was never found. Time keeps passing, Kim-hyuk continues to write his younger brother letters, and little bro continues to rip them up and toss them in the trash. Young-choon, having been out of the game for a minute, has been reduced to a cripple doing measly little jobs just to make a quick buck. To make matters worse, an unexpected individual with ties to these gentlemen and their past, has come to power and boy does he abuse the hell out of it! When Kim-hyuk finally gets out of prison, he returns to Korea under the promise that he'll lead an honest life. This turns into a case of easier-said-then-done once the aforementioned past acquaintance decides to ruin the brothers' lives. Kim-hyuk and Young-choon aren't the type to just lie down and take it, so they go after him with full force and together with a reluctant Kim-chul, the ports of Busan turn into a war-zone.

File this one under, yet-another-remake-that-didn't-need-to-happen. However, since it did happen, I'll talk about it as objectively as possible. The acting in A Better Tomorrow is fairly solid, especially from Joo Jin-mo, as Kim-hyuk. This dude delivers in a mostly convincing way and you do start to feel that he's emotionally tortured, being pulled between his present and past, the life he should lead and the life he's led, and so on. Part of me thought, "oh, this is going to be a hardcore action movie!", and it wasn't. Granted, the climax is pretty balls-to-the-wall action, but more an hour and thirty minutes, you're stuck with some pretty dry melodrama. I suppose there's too much focus on the pained Kim-hyuk trying to make things right with his younger brother. Kim-chul has been dealt a poor hand, but he comes across as a real whiner that at first you're sympathetic to, but that sympathy quickly turns into annoyance. Song Seong-hoon as Yoong-choon is an awesome character that you feel is just incredibly underused until the end. He has one great moment to shine when he seeks revenge for Kim-hyuk, but I suppose the filmmakers wanted to use him sparingly, which is a shame. Talking about the small amount of action that does take place,'s over-the-top, especially at the end. Nothing wrong with that really, but these dudes are shooing grenades and machine-guns on the docks and there's not one cop around for like 20 minutes. Suspend disbelief just have to. The ending is different from the original Hong Kong film (which I promised I wouldn't talk about), but somehow you still see it coming from a mile away regardless.

After reading all of that you're probably thinking I came away from A Better Tomorrow mostly underwhelmed. Fair assessment smart guy (or gal)! A bunch of GQ Korean dudes posturing with weapons and over-the-top emotional scenes does not a good movie make. Chow Yun-fat reportedly said the same thing. (Lee)

Grade: D+