Review: ‘Ransomed’ (2023), starring Ha Jung-woo and Ju Ji-hoon

August 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ha Jung-woo and Ju Ji-hoon in “Ransomed” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Ransomed” (2023)

Directed by Kim Seong-hun

Korean and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1986 and 1987, in Lebanon, South Korea, and Switzerland, the action film “Ransomed” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A South Korean diplomat, who is assigned to duties in the Middle East, goes to Lebanon to rescue a kidnapped colleague, and the diplomat teams up with a rebellious taxi driver, who’s a South Korean living in Lebanon, as they make an unlikely duo for the rescue mission.

Culture Audience: “Ransomed” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching thrilling action films that use the tried-and-true storyline of a seemingly mismatched duo learning to work together for a common goal.

Ha Jung-woo in “Ransomed” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Ransomed” uses a familiar formula of a bickering duo forced to work together in stressful situations. However, this suspenseful political thriller transcends its clichés by having great action sequences and believable performances from the principal cast. “Ransomed” is set in the 1980s, and it’s filmed as a throwback homage to 1980s live-action films, by having action sequences done by real people, not generated by excessive computer imagery.

Directed by Kim Seong-hun, “Ransomed” takes place briefly in 1986 and mostly in 1987. An opening statement shown on screen says that the story is “based on true events,” but many parts are fiction. The “true events” part of the story is about the real-life 1986 kidnapping of Do Chae-sung, who was a second secretary of the Korean embassy and was abducted in Beirut, Lebanon. Kim Jung-Yeon and Yeo Jung-mi wrote the gripping screenplay for “Ransomed.”

The beginning of ransom takes place in Beirut, where thousands of people are dying in Christian/Muslim conflicts. Amid this turmoil, a South Korean diplomat named Oh Jae-seok (played by Kim Jong-soo), a married father who has been assigned to work in Lebanon, is kidnapped by gunpoint by a group of Lebanese terrorists. He’s thrown into the trunk of a beat-up Mercedes and goes missing for a year. During that time, many people assume that Jae-seok is dead.

Meanwhile, in 1987, at the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of Jae-seok’s colleagues has grown frustrated in the job. Lee Min-jun (played by Ha Jung-woo), a Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs director in his 40s, and has just been passed over for a promotion to be assigned to the South Korean embassy in London. The job instead went to a younger man, who is praised during a meeting as being an “heir apparent,” which implies that he got the job because of nepotism. Min-jun wanted to transfer to London instead of the war-torn Middle East, where Min-jun has been assigned to be diplomat.

Min-jun complains to his boss about someone with less experience getting the job opportunity that Min-jun wanted. Min-jun’s boss responds by saying that the other man got the job because he’s was a political science major at the University of Seoul. Min-jun mutters that he’s tired of these University of Seoul grads taking the jobs of more qualified people. Min-jun is so bitter about not getting the promotion, when he’s alone in the office, he sprays pesticide on a bouquet of congratulator flowers that his office rival has on this desk.

Min-Jun will soon have bigger things to deal with than jealousy over a younger colleague. It isn’t long before Min-jun gets a strange phone call at work. The person on the other end of the line is not speaking. Instead, whoever is calling Min-jun is tapping out a special code that only people who work for the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs are supposed to know. The coded message says that the person calling is identifying himself the long-lost Jae-Seok.

Min-jun faces skepticism from many people about this phone call. To get to the bottom of the mystery, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs consults Richard Carter (played by Burn Gorman), a British expert on the Middle East and a private political investigator for hire. Richard is up for the challenge of finding Jae-seok, but only if Richard is paid well for this job.

As a compromise, Min-jun says that Richard will only get paid if he shows “proof of life” for Jae-seok. It takes a little while, but that proof finally comes from a photo taken of Jae-seok holding up a recent newspaper with the date of the newspaper clearly shown. Keep in mind, this is in 1987, when Photoshop and other image-altering computer technology did not exist.

Richard tells the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Jae-seok’s kidnappers are terrorists who want a fortune in cash, as ransom money to release Jae-seok. The terrorists insist that the money has to be paid by the South Korean government. Min-jun goes to Switzerland to enlist the help of a wealthy man named Hay Shaito (played by Marcin Dorociński) on arranging where the ransom drop-off

It doesn’t take long for Min-jun to go to Lebanon, where he encounters several obstacles during his time there. While in Lebanon, Min-jun soon meets a taxi driver named Kim Pan-su (played by Ju Ji-hoon), who is originally from South Korea. Pan-su is a Vietnam War veteran, who later admits he “went mad” after his time in this war. Pan-su is married to a Lebanese woman named Layla (played by Nisrine Adam), who is a stereotypical “worried wife at home” in this male-dominated action film.

Someone else who gets involved in this kidnapping rescue is a Lebanese intermediary named Karim (played by Fehd Benchemsi), who helps Min-jun convert the ransom money into Lebanese cash. Karim, who is accustomed to dealing with terrorists, also gives Min-jun advice on how to deal with these terrorist kidnappers and how to plan to bring Jae-seok safely back to South Korea.

Min-jun needs Pan-su to be his translator and to teach Min-jun how to adjust to being in Lebanon as someone who is originally from South Korea. To further entice Pan-su into helping, Min-jun tells Pan-su that Min-jun can arrange for Pan-su and his wife to get a U.S. visa.

These two unlikely partners have opposite personalities, Min-jun is very orderly and “by the book.” Pan-su is a freewheeling loose cannon. Min-jun doesn’t know if he can fully trust Pan-su. A series of events force them to work together to keep each other alive.

“Ransomed” has some aspects of the story that seem far-fetched by actually makes some sense, under the circumstances. Min-jun is essentially the only Korean Foreign Ministry of Affairs official who’s going to be the one dropping off the money. Why doesn’t Min-Jun have more backup from his colleagues?

It’s explained in the movie that the terrorists have spies who are checking to see if Min-jun is planning an ambush with his colleagues or law enforcement. Typically, in a kidnapping ransom dropoff, the kidnappers only want to see one person dropping off the money. An exception is made for Min-jin, who relays a message to the terrorists through Karim, that Min-jin needs Pan-su to be with him as a translator.

As is expected in this type of action flick, there are car chases and shootouts. However, these scenes are better-than-average because of the skillful cinematography and the way these scenes are filmed to put viewers right into the action. Hardly any of it looks fake, although there are a few moments that look somewhat far-fetched in a “dangling from a building” scene.

Aside from the action scenes, the believable chemistry (sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile) between Min-jin and Pan-su will be what viewers will remember the most about “Ransome.” The argumentative conversations between Min-jin and Pan-sue are often intentionally comedic. The performances of Ha and Ju are completely entertaining to watch.

The last half-hour of “Ransomed” takes a turn into something more meaningful than just a “heroes versus villains” story. “Ransomed” also gives a realistic look at how the trauma of captivity can really damage someone and what human compassion looks like in the midst of death and destruction. “Ransomed” won’t be considered a classic action movie, but this adrenaline-packed movie gets the job done well in all the right places.

Well Go USA released “Ransomed” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023. The movie was released in South Korea on August 2, 2023.

Review: ‘The Childe,’ starring Kim Seon-ho, Kang Tae-ju, Kim Kang-woo and Go Ara

July 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kang Tae-ju (facing camera) and Kim Seon-ho in “The Childe” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“The Childe”

Directed by Park Hoon-jung

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Philippines and South Korea, the action film “The Childe” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 24-year-old underground fighter in the Philippines travels to South Korea to get money from his estranged father to help pay for the medical bills of the fighter’s ailing mother, but the fighter gets more than he bargained for when he finds out that people are trying to kill him.

Culture Audience: “The Childe” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching neo-noir action films.

Kim Kang-woo (center) in “The Childe” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“The Childe” is an intriguing action film with plot twists that will keep viewers riveted. The principal cast members give solid performances. There are also frank depictions of the prejudices experienced by half-Korean, half-Filipino people in South Korea. These bi-ethnic people are called Kopinos, which is sometimes used as a derogatory term, depending who’s saying it and the context.

Written and directed by Park Hoon-jung, “The Childe” is an often-violent story about greed, ambition, and family relationships. The movie’s protagonist is 24-year-old Marco Han (played by Kang Tae-ju), who lives in the Philippines and makes illegal money as an underground boxer. Marco is desperate for cash because he’s the only one who can pay the medical bills of his ailing mother (played by Caroline Magbojos), who raised Marco as a single parent. Her medical situation is urgent because she needs a life-changing operation.

Marco’s biological father, who was never in Marco’s life, is a wealthy South Korean businessman who has some medical issues of his own. Because of heart problems, he is comatose and currently on a ventilator in a hospital in South Korea. Marco’s father has not kept in touch with Marco’s mother. It’s mentioned that Marco’s father kept his distance because he was ashamed of having an illegitimate child who’s half-Filipino.

Marco’s father, who is currently a widower, has two other children, who were both raised in this wealthy family: Adult son Director Han (played by Kang-woo Kim), who is in his 40s, is the heir apparent to the family fortune, which includes the Hokyung Foundation. His sister Han Ga-young (played by Jeong Ra-el) is in her late teens. Director Han knows about Marco. In a scene where Director Han is talking to their comatose father in the hospital, Director Han calls Marco a “mutt” because of Marco’s half-Filipino/half-South Korean heritage.

Back in the Philippines, Marco is enticed by a shady criminal to rob a warehouse. When Marco arrives at the warehouse, he finds out too late that it’s all a setup for an ambush. He’s physically attacked by about 10 thugs and runs away into a street, where he is almost hit by a car driven by a mysterious woman who’s about the same age as Marco. Viewers later find out that her name is Yoon-ju (played by Go Ara), who knows more than she initially tells Marco.

When Yoon-ju and Marco first meet, she’s very apologetic for almost hitting him with her car. When she sees his injuries, she insists on taking him to a hospital. The thugs that were chasing Marco back off and leave when they see that Marco is being helped by a potential witness. Yoon-ju makes the mistake of asking Marco if he’s a Kopino. It’s a question that offends Marco, and Yoon-ju makes an apology for it.

After Marco leaves the hospital, another mysterious stranger comes into his life. He’s only identiified in the movie as Nobleman (played by Kim Seon-ho), and he is a frequently smirking assassin. Nobleman tells Marco that he was sent by Marco’s father to bring Marco to South Korea. At first Marco is suspicious, because he’s been estranged from his father for Marco’s entire life, so Marco wonders why he is being summoned by his father at this point in time. But then, Marco decides he can use this visit to South Korea to ask his father for money to pay for the operation that Marco’s mother needs.

The next thing that Marco knows, he’s being whisked on a private plane to South Korea. But what about those thugs that attacked him? Why did that happen? Marco soon finds out that he’s also under attack in Korea. There are several scenes in the movie where he is chased by men who obviously want to kill him. It should come as no surprise who’s behind these attacks, but the motivation for these attempted murders is meant to be a surprise, which is revealed in the last third of the movie.

Nobleman and Marco develop an unusual like/dislike rapport, where the lines are blurred on whose side Nobleman is really on. The offbeat and sometimes sarcastic banter that Nobleman and Marco have with each other is the darkly comedic part of the movie. Kim and Kang have great performance chemistry with each other. Between the action scenes, Marco is trying to find out exactly who Nobleman is, just like how viewers might be wondering the same thing.

A few of the action sequences are unrealistic in how certain people should end up with broken or fractured bones but don’t. However, the stunts mostly look believable and don’t over-rely on visual effects. The mystery behind Marco’s invitation to South Korea eventually reveals a truth that is not as obvious as it first appears to be. “The Childe” isn’t a perfect action movie, but it offers enough thrills and suspense to satisfy any fan of the genre.

Well Go USA released “The Childe” in select U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2023. The movie was released in South Korea on June 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Past Lives’ (2023), starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro

June 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” (Photo by Jon Pack/A24)

“Past Lives” (2023)

Directed by Celine Song

Some language in Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1990 to 2014, in Seoul, New York City, and briefly in Toronto, the dramatic film “Past Lives” (partially inspired by a true story) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Twenty-four years after moving from South Korea to North America in her childhood, a 36-year-old married woman reconnects with a single man of the same age who could have been her adolescent sweetheart if she hadn’t moved away from South Korea. 

Culture Audience: “Past Lives” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about missed connections, immigration, and contemplating “what if” scenarios, when it comes to love, friendship and romance.

Greta Lee, John Magaro and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Past Lives” beautifully tells a mature and realistic story about love, friendship and heartbreak for two people whose lives have gone in different directions, but they find a way to reconnect. It’s a relationship drama that’s an instant classic. If you’re looking for a movie with a formulaic ending, then look elsewhere. “Past Lives” authentically conveys the unsettling effects of when people begin to wonder if the lives that they have are the lives that they really want, and if past decisions they made were the right decisions.

Written and directed by Celine Song, “Past Lives” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is a movie that is inspired by events that happened in Song’s own life. The movie isn’t autobiographical, but it explores many of the same feelings that came about when Song (who is originally from South Korea and married to an American man) was visited by man who was her childhood sweetheart in their native South Korea. Song is a New York City-based playwright whose feature-film debut is “Past Lives,” which opens with a scene that’s based on one of Song’s real-life experiences.

As she explains in the “Past Lives” production notes, she, her husband and her close childhood friend went to a restaurant/bar together during this visit. “I was sitting there between these two men who I know love me in different ways, in two different languages and two different cultures. And I’m the only reason why these two men are even talking to each other. There’s something almost sci-fi about it. You feel like somebody who can transcend culture and time and space and language.”

The opening scene of “Past Lives” does something clever in introducing this potentially uneasy love triangle: In 2014, two men and a woman are sitting side-by-side at a counter in a New York City bar, with the woman the middle. This trio is being observed by a man and a woman nearby (who are never seen on screen), who have a conversation trying to guess how these three people know each other. “Past Lives” (which takes place from 1990 to 2014) circles back to this bar scene later in the movie to show what led to this pivotal conversation between the trio.

After this opening scene, “Past Lives” flashes back to 1990 in Seoul, South Korea, where 12-year-old Moon Na Young, also known as Nora (played by Moon Seung-ah), and is hanging out with her best friend, Jung Hae Sung (played by Leem Seung-min), who’s about the same age as Nora. Hae Sung is a basketball enthusiast, who gently teases Nora because she’s crying over the fact that Hae Sung got first place in a contest that they entered. Hae Sung asks Nora why she’s angry over not getting first place. “I’m always second-place to you, and I never cry,” he says.

Viewers will soon see that Nora is the more talkative and ambitious of this duo of friends. She’s excels in academics and wants to be a writer when she grows up. At this point in Hae Sung’s childhood, he is less certain of what he wants to do with his life. He is well-mannered and throughtful, which are personality traits that carries throughout his life. He’s also not as quick as Nora to reveal his feelings.

In another scene, Hae Sung’s mother (played by Min Young Ahn) tells Nora’s mother (played by Ji Hye Yoon), who both don’t have names in the movie, that Na Young/Nora and Hae Sung look cute together. Hae Sung’s mother implies that these two kids will probably get married to each other when they’re adults. Hae Sung seems to also think that this will be the natural progression of his relationship with Nora.

However, the lives of Nora and Hae Sung will soon go in very different directions. Hae Sung is shocked to find out one day that the Moon family is moving to Canada to try something new in their lives. It’s a relocation that was decided by both parents, although Nora’s father (played by Wong Young Choi), who works in film production, seems to be more of the driving force in this decision. Nora’s father is the one who decided what the English-language first names would be for Na Young and her younger sister Si Young (played by Yeon Woo Seo), who is quieter and more passive than Na Young/Nora. Nora wanted to be renamed Michelle.

Before moving away, Nora tells her classmates that her family is moving to Canada because “Koreans don’t get the Nobel Prize for literature,” which is another way of saying that Nora believes that she has to become part of Western culture to achieve what she wants in life. Viewers can infer that these beliefs were instilled in her by her parents. It also explains why Nora doesn’t go back to visit South Korea after she has moved away.

The first third of the movie ends with a poignant goodbye between Nora and Hae Sung outside on a street near her home, and then the Moon family is shown arriving at Toronto International Airport. The farewell between adolescent Nora and Hae Sung becomes a defining life moment that gets compared to something that happens later in the movie. Nora and Hae Sung don’t fully understand at the time how momentous this goodbye will be in their lives.

The middle section and last-third section of the “Past Lives” shows the adulthood of Nora (played by Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo), who are leading two very different lives. The second-third of the movie begins in 2002, when 24-year-old Nora is a university grad student in New York City. Hae Sung is enlisted in the South Korean military, which is required for South Korean men in his age group. Hae Sung eventually becomes an engineering student.

Nora finds out that Hae Sung has been trying to contact her, by leaving a message on the Facebook page of her father’s production company. Nora is slightly amused and very intrigued, so she decides to reach out to Hae Sung through social media. They reconnect with Skype conversations that are flirtatious with underlying potential for romance. In her 20s, Nora is proud to tell Hae Sung that she’s no longer the “crybaby” that he knew her to be when they were kids.

There’s an unspoken “push and pull” going on in these conversations. Nora and Hae Sung both know that if they start a romance with each other, the issue will inevitably come up about who is going to move to another country to be with that person. It’s an issue that’s the main wedge in preventing this relationship from blossoming.

Nora, who is fluent in Korean and English, is very happy and settled in New York City. Hae Sung, whose English is limited, sees himself as always living in South Korea. Nora tries to motivate Hae Sung to visit her in New York City, but he asks her a question that has a ripple effect on their relationship thereafter: “Why would I want to go to New York?” Observant viewers will notice that Nora doesn’t offer to visit Hae Sung in South Korea.

The last third of the movie takes place 12 years later, in 2014. Nora is still in New York City and now happily married to an American book author named Arthur Zaturansky (played by John Magaro), who is an easygoing and loving husband. However, Nora’s world gets rocked when she hears from Hae Sung after not being in contact with him for many years. Hae Sung, a never-married bachelor, is coming to New York City to visit for a week. And he wants to see Nora. It will be the first time Nora and Hae Sung will see each other in person (not over a computer or phone screen) since they said goodbye to each other as 12-year-old in South Korea.

None of this is spoiler information, because “Past Lives” (which is told in mostly in chronological order) is being marketed around the last third of the film. The movie has occasional flashbacks showing Nora and Hae Sung in their childhoods. The chronological narrative of the movie helps better explain how the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung changed over the years.

Nora’s anticipation for Hae Sung’s visit doesn’t go unnoticed by Arthur, who is trying to be open-minded and not jealous. Arthur knows that Nora and Hae Sung were close friends in a relationship that didn’t blossom into a romantic dating relationship. However, even though Nora doesn’t say it out loud, it’s very obvious that Nora wonders if Hae Sung is her true love/soul mate, the “one who got away.”

What Nora does say out loud to Arthur is this defensive response when Arthur wonders if Nora is still attracted to Hae Sung: “I don’t think it’s an attraction. I think I just missed him a lot. I miss Seoul.”

It’s not that Nora doesn’t love Arthur. It’s just that Nora knows her emotional connection with Hae Sung goes much deeper that what she has with Arthur. Hae Sung is a reminder of Nora’s past, but he’s also an example of a future she could have had but chose not to have. After Hae Sung arrives in New York City, the time that Nora and Hae Sung spend reconnecting are mostly on platonic dates to various places in New York City. During a few of the conversations in these get-togethers, Hae Sung brings up the concept of past lives determining future lives.

“Past Lives” shows how two people who could be passionate soul mates might not be compatible when it comes to marriage and life goals. Unless someone wants a long-distance or unconventional marriage, part of the commitment of marriage is spending time living together. Curiosity is a huge reason for Nora’s willingness to meet up with Hae Sung. What does he really want from her? And has he changed his mind about living in the United States?

These questions linger during the most memorable conversations in “Past Lives,” until Nora gets some definitive answers. But the emotional heart of the story has to do with the unanswered “what if” questions that Nora and Hae Sung have about their lives. Lee and Yoo are stellar in their performances as Nora and Hae Sung. These two co-stars skillfully depict showing the restraint of two characters who don’t want cross boundaries into inappropriateness but have the openness of two formerly close friends who are eager to reconnect.

As for that bar conversation featured in the movie’s opening scene, it realistically shows how Arthur feels like a “third wheel” when he’s around Nora and Hae Sung, who frequently speak to each other in Korean. Arthur knows a little bit of Korean, but he’s not fluent in the language. Magaro is quite good in a role that is meant to be a supporting role, but it never looks diminished or undervalued. Feeling like the “odd man out” is as awkward for Arthur as it is intentionally uncomfortable for viewers to watch.

Unlike other movies that would turn this love triangle into heavy melodrama or unrealistic comedy, “Past Lives” is about how people who are emotionally mature adults can navigate this tricky situation. A sign of great acting is when viewers can sense what the characters are thinking but are not saying out loud. The biggest truths of “Past Lives” are in those unspoken moments, with a lot of these truths showing themselves in the movie’s very last and unforgettable scene.

A24 will release “Past Lives” in select U.S. cinemas on June 2, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on June 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Hunt’ (2022), starring Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung

March 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung in “Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Hunt” (2022)

Directed by Lee Jung-jae

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in South Korea (and briefly in Washington, D.C., Japan, and Thailand), in 1983, the action film “Hunt” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) work together and clash with each other in their efforts to find a mole who has been leaking valuable information. 

Culture Audience: “Hunt” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and complex spy movies.

Lee Jung-jae in “Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

“Hunt” sometimes gets too convoluted for its own good, but it offers a mostly engaging mystery for viewers who have the attention span and interest to follow this twist-filled spy thriller that’s set in the 1980s. The movie has commendable acting and enough tension-filled action to keep viewers interested in what’s going to happen next. However, this movie is not going to have much appeal to viewers who want a more straightforward narrative in a spy movie.

Directed by Lee Jung-jae (who co-wrote the “Hunt” screenplay with Jo Seung-hee), “Hunt” has the tried-and-true spy movie plot of a rivalry between colleagues fueling much of the tensions and suspicions in the story. The movie takes place mostly in South Korea, in 1983, the same year that there was an assassination attempt South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in real life. North Koreans airplane pilots were also defecting to other countries in record numbers in the 1980s. These historical facts are used in the context of “Hunt,” which is Lee’s feature-film debut as a director and writer. “Hunt” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

In “Hunt,” Lee portrays Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho, who often clashes with KCIA Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (played by Jung Woo-sung), because each man thinks he is better than the other. Pyonh-ho has been with the KCIA for 13 years. Jung-do is a former military officer who is newer to the KCIA.

The movie’s opening scene takes place in Washington, D.C., where Pyong-ho and Jung-do have been assigned to the protection team for the South Korean president, who is visiting amid a storm of controversy. During the South Korean president’s arrival at a government event, there are local Korean American protestors outside the building who are angry over the how the return of military rule of the South Korean government.

Although the name of the South Korean president is not in the movie, this part of the movie’s plot is a reference to the real-life Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, when numerous people were killed over protesting military rule of South Korea. President-elect Chun Doo-hwan was largely blamed for this massacre. In the movie, some of the protesters have sign that call the South Korean president a “murderer.”

The head of the CIA’s East Asia unit, whose name is Director Gee (played by Paul Battle), has relayed information that there’s an assassination plot against the South Korean president that is expected to happen at this event. Pyong-ho is ordered to have his team on high alert. And sure enough, the assassination attempt happens, but Pyong-ho is able to thwart it by taking it upon himself to shoot and kill the assassin. Instead of praising Pyong-ho as a hero, Pyong-ho’s boss Director Kang (played Song Young-chang) scolds Pyong-ho for killing the suspect instead of wounding the suspect and taking the suspect into custody.

The investigation into this assassination attempt reveals that an unidentified mole with the code name Donglim is in the KCIA. It leads to Pyong-ho’s team and Jung-do’s team investigating each other. Early on, a economics professor named Shin Ki-Cheol, who was part of the delgation in Washington, is considered to be part of the assassination conspiracy. But is this professor really involved or just a scapegoat?

The people on Pyong-ho’s team include Bang Joo-kyung (played by Jeon Hye-jin) and Agent Yang (played by Jung Man-sik). Jung-do’s team includes Jang Cheol-seong (played by Heo Sung-tae). In between all this espionage intrigue, Pyong-ho has been tasked with protecting a slightly rebellious college student named Jo Yoo-jeong (played by Go Youn-jung), who unfortunately is a character that looks like a token female in this movie where the cast members with significant speaking roles are almost all men.

Under the direction of Lee, “Hunt” does a pretty good job of increasing the suspense, but at the expense of causing more confusion in the plot. The stakes get higher for the characters when Pyong-ho’s team and Jung-do’s team are each convinced that the mole is on the other team. Both teams also want to impress the newly appointed KCIA Director Ahn (played by Kim Jong-soo), who is an ex-military officer. Double-cross plots are uncovered. And the race to find out the identity of Donglim leads to uncovering more assassination plots that take some of the characters to Japan and Thailand.

Lee, who is best known as a star of the Netflix series “Squid Game,” performs admirably in the role of Pyong-ho, always leaving audiences guessing until a certain point in the movie how much Pyong-ho really knows about the Donglim the mole. Woo-sung does very well in his scenes when his Jung-do character has conflicts with Pyong-ho. Will these fierce rivals ever trust each other? And who is Donglim? The movie answers these questions in some ways that are less predictable than others. The last 20 minutes of “Hunt” are an adrenaline-packed knockout that achieves the intentions of “Hunt” to not have a typical ending for a spy movie.

Magnet Releasing released “Hunt” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 2, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on August 10, 2022.

Review: ‘Project Wolf Hunting,’ starring Seo In-guk, Jang Dong-yoon, Sung Dong-il, Park Ho-san, Jung So-min, Ko Chang-seok and Jang Yong-nam

February 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Seo In-guk, Ko Chang-seok, Lee Sung-wook, Jang Dong-yoon and Park Ho-san in “Project Wolf Hunting” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Project Wolf Hunting”

Directed by Kim Hong-seon

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly on a ship going from the Philippines to South Korea, the sci-fi/horror/action film “Project Wolf Hunting” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: South Korean criminals, who are being transported by ship from the Philippines to South Korea, take violent control of the ship, and they find out that they have been captured for reasons other than to face criminal charges. 

Culture Audience: “Project Wolf Hunting” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in suspenseful horror movies and have a high tolerance for watching scenes of bloody violence.

Jang Young-nam and Jung So-min in “Project Wolf Hunting” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Project Wolf Hunting” revels in a lot of gore, but this sci-fi horror movie also has a solid story that’s packed with thrilling action. Plot twists and memorable characters make “Project Wolf Hunting” better than the average bloody horror flick. The movie starts off looking like it will be one type of story, but then it turns into something else that is far more intriguing. “Project Hunting” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Written and directed by Kim Hong-seon, “Project Wolf Hunting” doesn’t waste time before the mayhem starts in the first 15 minutes of its 123-minute total running time. The movie begins by showing several South Korean criminals being escorted by law enforcement officers onto a ship going from the Philippines to South Korea. All of the criminals were arrested and convicted in the Philippines for their crimes, but the convicts are being deported to South Korea to serve out the rest of their prison sentences. At least, that’s what they’ve been told.

A cunning, handsome and ruthless prisoner named Park Jong-doo (played by Seo In-guk) has no intentions of going quietly on this trip. He is a leader who has concocted a plan with some of the other prisoners to take over the ship, in order to escape. The other prisoners who are part of the scheme include Lee Do-il (played by Jang Dong-yoon), a baby-faced killer who is famous; Lee Seok-woo (played by Park Ho-san), who is; and Choi Myeong-ju (played by Jang Young-nam), one of the few women on the ship. Myeong-ju has a secret connection with someone else on the ship, and this secret is eventually revealed.

Before the hostage crisis on the ship happens, several of the police officers are seen gathered in the ship’s kitchen. They express frustration and disdain that the prisoners are getting special treatment by the South Korean government. One of the cops complains, “The perps are getting better food than us.”

Elsewhere on the ship, a severely burned man, who is lying down on a gurney and breathing through a ventilator, is in a secret room that looks like a scientific lab. He has maggots coming out of his mouth. This mystery person is then given an injection. It won’t be the last time that viewers will see this charred-looking and infected person.

The criminals’ hostage plan is set into motion when a guy dressed in a mechanic’s uniform secretly takes a wrench and tampers with a safety bolt on this ship, causing a mechanical malfunction. The ship’s crew is distracted by trying to fix this problem (just as the criminals had planned), when Jong-doo and the rest of his cronies attack the crew and police officers, take weapons, and commit a brutal slaughter. How vicious is Jong-doo? He bites off an ear off of a man, chews up the ear, and then spits it out.

One of the ship’s crew members whose life is spared is Go Kun-bae (played by Ko Chang-seok), because the criminals need a few of the crew members who know the ship’s mechanics, in case anything goes wrong with the ship. Meanwhile, the ship has mysteriously gone off the radar of the South Korean government. A few other characters in the movie have pivotal roles, including a corrupt government official named Chief Pyo (played by Choi Gwi-hwa) with the code name Alpha; the ship’s captain Oh Dae-woong (played by Sung Dong-il); and a young police officer named Lee Da-yeon (played by Jung So-min), one of the other few women in this movie.

“Project Wolf Hunting” has some predictable moments, but there are some plot developments that steer clear of the usual stereotypes. It’s already shown in the movie’s trailers that what’s happening on this ship is somehow related to Japan’s 1910 to 1945 occupation of South Korea. The movie also reveals in the first 15 minutes that the massacre isn’t the only sinister thing happening on this ship.

“Project Wolf Hunting” is certainly not going to win any prestigious awards. And some of the violence is very excessive. However, Seo’s performance as the evil gang leader Jong-doo is riveting but might be too disturbing for some viewers. What makes “Project Wolf Hunting” a twist-filled story is that Jong-doo might or might not be the movie’s biggest villain. And who ends up in the final showdown cannot be easily predicted in the movie’s first 15 minutes.

“Project Wolf Hunting” has well-paced action, competent acting and some social commentary about how governments can treat prisoners and other people whom society has deemed “undesirable.” It’s not a groundbreaking film, but the plot surprises are indications that the filmmakers made an effort not to stick to the usual formulas found in similar sci-fi horror movies. Viewers who think they’ll want to watch all of “Project Wolf Hunting” just have to prepared to see many gruesome depictions of humanity at its worst.

Well Go USA released “Project Wolf Hunting” in select U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on September 21, 2022. “Project Wolf Hunting” was released on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 14, 2023.

Review: ‘The Point Men’ (2023), starring Hwang Jung-min, Hyun Bin and Kang Ki-young

February 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kang Ki-young, Hyun Bin and Hwang Jung-min in “The Point Men” (Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures)

“The Point Men” (2023)

Directed by Yim Soon-rye

Korean, Dari and Pashto with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2006, in Afghanistan and in South Korea, the action film “The Point Men” (inspired by true events) features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with a few white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A diplomat, a National Intelligence Service agent and a coordinator/interpreter from South Korea have conflicts and challenges in trying to rescue 23 South Korean missionaries who are being held hostage in Afghanistan. 

Culture Audience: “The Point Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in an action-movie version of a hostage crisis.

Hwang Jung-min, Kang Ki-young and Hyun Bin in “The Point Men” (Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures)

As an action film inspired by true events, “The Point Men” can be flawed and often formulaic. However, the movie is appealing for the three charismatic central performances of the negotiators who sometimes clash with each other during a hostage crisis. In addition, “The Point Men” (which also has the title “Bargaining”) offers a web of intrigue, as betrayals and questionable identities have an impact on this rescue mission.

Directed by Yim Soon-rye and written by Ahn Yeong-su, “The Point Men” is inspired by the real-life 2007 crisis of 23 Christian missionaries from South Korea being held hostage by Taliban kidnappers in Afghanistan. “The Point Men” changes the year of this kidnapping from 2007 to 2006, with the movie taking place from September to December 2006. Some of the action sequences are very over-the-top and obviously did not happen in real life, but “The Point Men” is not intended to be completely factual in telling this story.

“The Point Men” begins in a remote area of Afghanistan, on September 19, 2006: the day of the kidnapping. (The movie was actually filmed in Jordan.) The 23 Christian missionaries from South Korea are on a bus that is hijacked by armed Taliban terrorists, who force everyone off of the bus and then plant an explosive in the bus to completely destroy it. The unnamed Taliban leader (played by Fahim Fazli) who masterminded this kidnapping is both ruthless and fickle.

At first, the kidnappers say that they will let the 23 hostages go if 23 Taliban inmates are released from Afghanistan prisons. However, the terms of the deal and the deadlines to meet the kidnappers’ demands keep changing. At one point, the kidnappers demand a small fortune in ransom money. The Afghanistan government refuses to release any Taliban prisoners, much to the frustration of the South Korean government.

The South Korean government has sent several officials to Afghanistan to negotiate for the release of the hostages. The diplomat who has been appointed the chief negotiator is Jung Jae-ho (played by Hwang Jung-min), who thinks of himself as someone who has a strong morality and effective negotiating skills. Jae-ho is unfamiliar with a lot of Afghan customs, so he is ordered to get help from National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent named Park Dae-sik (played by Hyun Bin), who has been embedded in Afghanistan for a number of years. Dae-sik works with a coordinator/interpreter named Qasim, also known as Lee Bong-han (played by Kang Ki-young), who can speak Korean and the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto.

Dae-sik is first seen getting out of jail in Afghanistan, after serving a sentence of about three or four months for counterfeiting. It’s the first sign that Dae-sik is a roguish agent who might not hesitate to break rules to get what he wants. By contrast, Jae-ho is very “by the book,” and doesn’t want to violate any laws in this negotiation process. Dae-sik tends to be impulsive and would rather take part in a combat rescue mission to get the hostages free, while Jae-ho is very methodical and thinks that non-violent negotiations are the best way to free the hostages.

It’s a formula that’s been used in countless action movies that pair up protagonists of opposite personalities who have to find a way to work together despite their differences. The older person in this partnership is usually the more cautious one, while the younger person is more of a risk-taker. If a third person is along for the ride, that person usually has the role of the goofy sidekick. And that’s exactly what Qasim/Lee Bong-han is, since he provides most of the movie’s comic relief.

“The Point Men” has a very good balance of showing the type of discussions that take place in government offices during a hostage crisis and the physical work that takes place outside of government office buildings during these types of missions. Jae-ho is often frustrated by Afghanistan’s unnamed minister of foreign affairs (played by Iyad Hajjaj), because this Afghan government official doesn’t seem very willing to help the South Koreans. Meanwhile, Dae-sik and Qasim spend a lot of time meeting with members of the Taliban in various locations, in attempts to get information helpful to their mission.

It doesn’t take long before the tension-filled action starts. Jae-ho and some other South Korean officials get stuck in traffic on their way to an important meeting in the Afghan capital city of Kabul. They try to bypass the long line of vehicles by dangerously going into a lane for traffic going in the opposite direction. But that doesn’t work either, since they encounter another roadblock. Just as they are about to get out and walk, a suicide bomber gets out of a car and detonates the area, injuring several people, including Jae-ho.

This harrowing incident is a reminder to Jae-ho that his life could be a stake in addition to the hostages’ lives. Two of his colleagues who are with him on this mission are Vice Minister Kim (played by Jung Jae-sung) and Secretary Cha (played by Jeon Sung-woo), Meanwhile, a mysterious Afghan British businessman named Abdullah (played by Brian Larkin) offers to help because he says that he has been successful with previous hostage negotiations. Dae-sik thinks that Abdullah could be an important ally, while Jae-ho is very skeptical.

“The Point Men” goes along at a fairly energetic pace, although some parts of the movie’s plot has people getting out of difficult situations a lot easier than they would in real life. The dynamics between Jae-ho, Dae-sik, Qasim/Lee Bong-han are among the highlights of the movie, since Hwan, Hyun and Kang embody these roles in ways that are always watchable. The movie shows the expected bickering as well as the evolving respect that develops between these three rescuers.

“The Point Men” falters in how little screen time is given to showing the hostages. A few hostages are mentioned by name and by occupation. And there are scenes of the hostages huddling in fear in their place of captivity. But the hostages are essentially background characters. The movie’s ending is a little too contrived, but there’s enough in “The Point Men” to hold the interest of anyone looking for a high-octane “heroes versus villains” story that takes place during the war in Afghanistan.

815 Pictures released “The Point Men” in select U.S. cinemas on January 27, 2023. The movie was released in South Korea on January 18, 2023.

Review: ‘Broker’ (2022), starring Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Doona Bae, Lee Ji-eun and Lee Joo-young

December 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lee Ji-eun, Gang Dong-won, Song Kang-ho and Park Ji-yong in “Broker” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Broker” (2022)

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Korea, the dramatic film “Broker” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Two working-class men, who are in the business of brokering illegal adoptions, go on a tension-filled journey with a young mother who wants decide which family will buy and raise her baby. 

Culture Audience: “Broker” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Song Kang-ho, filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, and movies people who form an unlikely family bond.

Doona Bae and Lee Joo-young in “Broker” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Suspenseful, amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking, “Broker” tells a memorable story about three people who find more than they bargained for when they attempt to sell a baby. The baby’s sassy mother insists on being able to choose who will get the child. “Broker” does not condone selling of children. Instead, it takes an unflinching look at the emotional toll of illegal adoptions.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Broker” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the Ecumenical Jury Award and the Best Actor Award (for Song Kang-ho). “Broker” also made the rounds at other major film festivals in 2022, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival. It’s a movie that doesn’t preach or offer easy answers but presents a fascinating portrait of what desperate human beings will do.

Hirokazu’s 2018 film “Shoplifters” won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize—the Palme d’Or—in 2018, and received an Oscar nomination for the category that was then known as Best Foreign Language Film. “Broker” might get some comparisons to “Shoplifters,” because both movies have themes about outlaws who form a family-like bond. However, “Broker” moves at a much quicker pace and has much more satirical and occasionally comedically absurd moments than “Shoplifters.”

“Broker” (which takes place in South Korea) takes viewers on an unusual journey that finds strangers’ lives intertwined with each other in unexpected ways. Ha Sang-hyeon (played by Song) is a mild-mannered owner of a small business that does laundry by hand. His ultra-confident friend Kim Dong-soo (played by Gang Dong-won) works part-time at a church that operates a small orphanage that has about 20 of various ages at any given time. Sang-hyeon is in his 50s, while Dong-soo is about 10 years younger. They are not biologically related to each other but have a relationship that’s a lot like what an older brother and a younger brother would have.

Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are also bonded by a big secret: They sometimes sell babies who’ve been abandoned at the church. Sang-hyeon is usually the one who does the actual abductions, while Dong-soo helps by deleting the church’s surveillance videos that would show the babies being left at the church and Sang-hyeon doing the kidnapping. Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo believe that what they’re doing isn’t so bad because they are placing the babies in homes where the children are wanted. Most of their clients are married couples who are having infertility problems.

The opening scene of “Broker” shows a baby boy being left at the church by the baby’s single mother. The church has a 24-hour “drop box” where babies can be left, with no questions asked. As the mother leaves, she is being observed by two female undercover police officers are doing a stakeout in their car. These two cops are investigating suspicions that babies abandoned at this church are being sold on the black market.

The police officers on this stakeout are Soo-jin (played by Bae Doona, also known as Doona Bae) and her younger cop partner Detective Lee (played by Lee Joo-young), who often defers to the more-experienced Soo-jin. It’s shown from the opening scene that Soo-jin is much more judgmental than Detective Lee about women who abandoned their children. Soo-jin says when she watches the young mother leave her baby at the church: “If you have a baby, you shouldn’t abandon it.”

The mother who left behind her baby boy at the church has left a note with the child. The note says, “Woo-sung, I’m sorry. I’ll come back for you.” Sang-hyeon comments to Dong-soo that it’s highly unlikely that the mother will come back for the baby, so Sang-hyeon tells Dong-soo to delete the surveillance video that the baby was left at the church. Sang-hyeon then takes the baby to his home.

Sang-hyeon’s assumption that the mother wouldn’t come back ends up being a very wrong assumption. The mother, who’s in her 20s, is named Moon So-young (played by Lee Ji-eun), and she returns to the church to get her baby Woo-sung (played by Park Ji-yong). So-young is concerned and then outraged to find out that the child isn’t there. She won’t leave until Woo-sung is brought back to the church.

Dong-soo tells her, “Even if we find the baby, there’s no proof that you’re the mother.” Sang-hyeon says to her, “Think of us as cupids who will embrace your precious child. We promise to find the best parents to raise Woo-Sung.” So-young replies, “Benevolence, my ass. You’re just brokers.”

So-young has not only figured out that Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo illegally sell babies, she wants in on the deal to broker the adoption of her baby. So-young has one condition though: She wants to be the one to approve who will get the baby and the sale price. So-young knows that boys are more valued in this patriarchal culture than girls, so she believes she should get a higher price for her baby son, compared to if she had a baby daughter.

And so begins a sometimes messy and tension-filled journey, as So-young insists on accompanying Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo when they travel to different cities in South Korea to meet with potential adoptive parents for Woo-Sung. (A great deal of the movie takes place in Busan.) Through a series of circumstances, an 8-year-old boy named Hae-jin (played by Im Seung-soo), from the church orphanage, gets mixed up in these hijinks. Hae-jin has grown emotionally attached to Sang-hyeon and wants to tag along on these road trips.

Meanwhile, some people are hot on the trail of this motley crew of baby brokers. The two undercover cops, who have identified Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo as the chief suspects and want to catch them in the act of selling a baby, in order to arrest Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo. Meanwhile, Dong-soo is a gambling addict who is heavily in debt to a gangster named Shin Tae-ho (played by Ryu Kyung-Soo), who goes with some of his thugs to track down Dong-soo.

A few things about “Broker” require a suspension of disbelief. It’s mentioned more than once in the film that law enforcement believes that Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are part of a major crime ring that sells babies. If that’s the case, then it doesn’t make sense that there only two cops doing the surveillance. The movie has some intentionally comical moments where Soo-jin and Detective Lee bungle the investigation or just have very bad luck.

Despite a few plot holes, one of the best things about “Broker” is the development of the characters. So-young isn’t as cold and calculating as she first appears to be. Over time, her apparent greed in wanting to sell Woo-Sung to the highest bidder is revealed to be something more than just being money-hungry. And where is Woo-Sung’s father? That question is answered in the movie.

“Broker” shows the highs and lows of this group of outlaws and two children who end up becoming a makeshift family. The movie has the expected scenes of people bickering, but “Broker” also organically shows how even with the arguments, these seemingly mismatched cronies learn to trust each other. There are some adrenaline-packed action scenes, but some of the movie’s best moments happen during revealing conversations when these characters find out more about each other, including emotional vulnerabilities and some dark secrets.

All of the cast members handle their roles very well, but Song (as Sang-hyeon) and Lee Ji-eun (as So-young) are the ones who have the most believable characters and give the best performances in the film. “Broker” offers different perspectives of why people want to buy and sell babies. The movie also gives realistic depictions of the consequences of making these decisions. “Broker” lets views make up their own minds on how to feel about it all. Even though parts of the film are predictable, there’s at least one plot twist that many viewers won’t expect, making “Broker” better than the average movie about illegal adoptions.

Neon released “Broker” in New York City on December 26, 2022, and in Los Angeles on December 28, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 6, 2023. The movie was released in South Korea on June 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Decibel’ (2022), starring Kim Rae-won, Lee Jong-suk, Jung Sang-hoon, Park Byung-eun and Cha Eun-woo

December 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kim Rae-won in “Decibel” (Photo courtesy of Shaw Entertainment Group)

“Decibel” (2022)

Directed by Hwang In-ho

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Korea, the action film “Decibel” features an all-South Korean cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former lieutenant commander of the Korean Navy is targeted by a terrorist bomber who has planted several bombs in public places, and the bombs will detonate if the decibel reaches a certain level in each place.

Culture Audience: “Decibel” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-paced action flicks that occasonally get far-fetched but will keep viewers in suspense.

Lee Jong-suk in “Decibel” (Photo courtesy of Shaw Entertainment Group)

If you want to watch a movie about a race against time before several bombs go off, then “Decibel” is fairly good choice. It has some predictable moments, but the thrilling action and solid acting performances bring this suspenseful ‘hunt for a terrorist bomber’ movie into an above-average level. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking in the story though. The movie has a few plot twists that aren’t as surprising as intended.

Directed by Hwang In-ho (who co-wrote the “Decibel” screenplay with Lee Jin-hoon), “Decibel” sticks to a familiar formula that similar movies have already followed. An unhinged terrorist is setting off bombs and is threatening to kill more people by bombing. Someone with a background in law enforcement or the military emerges as the leader who is most likely to find the culprit. And before the end of the movie, there are many chase scenes and physical fights.

In “Decibel,” the bomber has used the tactic of planting his bombs in public areas and making his bombs get triggered if the decibel in the area reaches a certain level. The bomber has decided to target Kang Do-young (played by Kim Rae-won), a former lieutenant commander of the Korean Navy. Do-young, a respected and retired military official, has been hailed as a hero who was credited with saving 22 of the 44 men who died on a sinking submarine ship named Roks Halla that was under command.

The official cause of the ship sinking was that it was a rare accident. There are flashbacks throughout the movie that show what happened on the ship, which was trapped underwater for several days. One of the Korean Navy officers who was part of the Roks Halla crew was Jeon Tae-ryong (played by Cha Eun-woo), a submarine sound detection officer whose skills were crucial in determining the activities and sound levels outside the sunken submarine.

And when Do-young starts getting calls from an anonymous bomber who dares Do-young to find the bombs before they explode, it’s pretty obvious that Do-young is being targeted for a reason. What the bomber looks like is revealed in the trailer for “Decibel” and early on in the movie, but it’s not revealed until near the end of the film what his motives are. It’s later revealed that is name is Jung Tae-sung (played by Lee Jong-suk), who remains anonymous to Do-young and law-enforcement officials up until a certain point in the movie.

Tae-sung communicates mainly through phone calls that he places to Do-young. Tae-sung knows a lot about Do-young and the Korean Navy to make it obvious that Tae-sung has some connection to the Korean Navy. This terrorist bomber is cold and calculating. However, the movie makes it too obvious why Tae-sung chose Do-young to get these phone calls about the bombs.

Tae-sung has placed bombs in places such as a public aquarium, a stadium during a soccer match, a public swimming pool and a playground. Tae-sung calls Do-young to taunt him and give him somewhat of a head start to see if So-young will be successful in getting the place evacuated and finding the bomb on time before it detonates. In one of the movie’s gripping sequences, Tae-sung tells Do-young that he has to choose between going to the public swimming pool or the playground to find the planted bomb, because Tae-sung has decided that both bombs could go off at the same time.

Do-young isn’t on the hunt alone for this terrorist bomber. Cha Young-han (played by Park Byung-eun) is the agent in charge of the Defense Security Support Command. Viewers of “Decibel” will see a lot of scenes with Young-han running around in business suits with other suit-wearing agents, as he barks orders and gets frustrated that Do-young has taken it upon himself to be the hero of this mission. Young-han is a bomb expert, but Do-young is not, as Young-han likes to remind Do-young.

Do-young also gets an unlikely sidekick during this frantic search for the bombs and the bomber. A journalist named Oh Dae-oh (played by Jung Sang-hoon) has decided to tag along with Do-young because Dae-oh wants an exclusive, eyewitness story about the hunt for this bomber. Do-young thinks Dae-oh is an annoying distraction and tries to get this persistent journalist to leave. But Dae-oh refuses to leave, which results in multiple scenes of (action movie cliché alert) the untrained person who is along for the ride with the hero and gets frightened and agitated the most because this newbie is not prepared to fight the villains.

“Decibel” also has another cliché subplot that involves who gets kidnapped and taken hostage. Do-young’s wife is Jang Yoo-jung (played by Lee Sang-hee), who happens to be an explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) sergeant for the Korean Navy. Yoo-jang and Do-young have a daughter named Seol-Young, who is about 9 or 10 years old. You can easily guess that Do-young’s family members will become targets of the bomber too.

Dae-oh’s wife (played by Kim Seul-ki, also known as Kim Seul-gi) is a police officer, who doesn’t believe that Dae-oh is on this dangerous mission, until she and her colleagues find out in a way that is of great embarrassment to her. The relationship between Dae-oh and his wife is the source of the movie’s comic relief. Dae-oh feels somewhat emasculated because he’s married to a police officer, so he feels he has to do something brave to prove his masculinity. These two spouses often bicker but they also love each other, which is why their arguments aren’t meant to be taken that seriously in the movie.

All of the cast members plays their roles in ways that make “Decibel” more interesting than a typical action flick. The obvious standouts are Kim and Lee as the “hero” and the “villain,” who are caught in a furious competition to outwit each other, with one character wanting to save lives, and the other character wanting to destroy lives. Kim is very skilled at conveying the intense pressure that Do-young feels in this life-or-death mission, while Lee has a flair for portraying a criminal who is so obsessed with his intentions, he no longer values human life. Jung is also quite good in his “Decibel” role where he has to balance drama and comedy as a journalist who gets more than he expected in pursuing an exclusive news story.

The high-octane action sequences of “Decibel” bring a lot of sizzle to this movie that has a very simple concept. The concept is wrapped in layers that unfold mainly in the flashbacks that reveal more clues about the terrorist’s motives. Although the answer to this mystery isn’t original or exceptionally clever, “Decibel” still brings some emotional gravitas to a story that could have easily been a hollow action movie if the filmmakers and cast members had mishandled everything.

Shaw Entertainment Group released “Decibel” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on November 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Alienoid,’ starring Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Woo-bin, Kim Tae-ri, So Ji-sub, YuYum Jung-ah, Jo Woo-jin, Kim Eui-sung and Lee Hanee

November 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kim Woo-bin in “Alienoid” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)


Directed by Choi Dong-hoon

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1380s, 1390s, the 2010s and the 2020s, the South Korean sci-fi action film “Alienoid” features an all-Asian cast of characters portraying humans, aliens, supernatural beings, robots and mutants.

Culture Clash: A robot and a supernatural creature travel through time to manage and guard Alien prisoners trapped in human bodies, when they encounter a teenage girl who gets involved in the possession of the Crystal Knife that is the source of the prisoner guards’ superpowers.

Culture Audience: “Alienoid” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in watching ambitiously told science-fiction movies that require an active imagination to process everything that happens in the story.

Kim Tae-ri in “Alienoid” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Alienoid” can be a little too convoluted with plot developments that are jumbled into different timelines. However, this sci-fi adventure has plenty of orginal storytelling and interesting characters to keep viewers intrigued. People who don’t have the patience to sift through all the layers in the story might be turned off by this movie. That’s why “Alienoid” is best appreciated if watched without any distractions.

Written and directed by Choi Dong-hoon, “Alienoid” is about the ongoing conflicts in a universe where Alien prisoners are kept in human bodies, without the humans knowing about it. Certain beings who are the guards of the prisoners are tasked with ensuring that the prisoners don’t escape from these bodies. The movie compares these escapes to a “jailbreak.” The prisoners trapped in the bodies are supposed to die when the humans die.

Alien prisoners have varying powers. Therefore, some Alien prisoners are more successful than others in escaping. However, on Earth, the Aliens only have about five minutes to live outside of a human body because of the Earth’s atmosphere, which is why some Aliens try to escape to other planets in the short time that they have to live outside of a host human body on Earth. When an Alien escapes from a host human body, that human can die as a result, if the Alien chooses to kill the human.

“Alienoid” has a large ensemble cast that might make the movie look overstuffed with characters. However, viewers should know in advance that the movie’s multi-layered storyline is essentially rooted in these four characters:

  • Guard (played by Kim Woo-bin) is a supernatural being who can transform into looking human and has been tasked to manage and guard Alien prisoners and place them in human hosts. Guard gets his powers from a special weapon called the Crystal Knife.
  • Thunder (voiced by Kim Dae-myung) is a robot that is Guard’s work partner/sidekick that can shapeshift into things (such as transportation vehicles and ships), as well as transform into looking human. Thunder also gets his powers from the Crystal Knife.
  • Lee Ahn (played by Kim Tae-ri) is a mysterious woman who can shoot thunder and plays a key role in the possession of the Crystal Knife.
  • Mureuk (played by Ryu Jun-yeol) is a Taoist swordsman who calls himself Marvelous Mureuk is sometimes physically awkward and emotionally insecure.

The movie goes back and forth between the 1380s, the 1390s, the 2010s and the 2020s. “Alienoid” begins in 1380, when an Alien prisoner has escaped from the body of a woman named Hong Eon-nyeon (played by Jeon Yeo-been), so Guard and Thunder have arrived to try to capture this escaped prisoner. Eon-nyeon knows she’s going to die, so she begs Thunder to take care of her baby daughter, whose name is Yian.

Guard and Thunder bring the baby to the future, in the year 2012. Guard, who is the one who’s more likely to be in human form, raises Yian as her single father. He does not tell her the truth about who he is until Yian (played by Choi Yu-ri) is 10 years old, in 2022. Yian was already suspicious that her father was a robot, because she was telling people that her father is a robot who experimented on her brain. Guard also mysteriously disappears every night at 9 p.m.

It should come as no surprise that the Crystal Knife ends up getting lost, and there’s a battle of good versus evil to get possession of the Crystal Knife. Along the way, many more characters get involved. Some are more eccentric than others. These characters include:

  • Moon Do-seok (played by So Ji-sub) is a detective who is being pursued by Aliens.
  • Heug-seol, (played by Yum Jung-ah), also known as Madam Black, is a sorcerer from Samgaksan.
  • Cheong-woon (played by Jo Woo-jin), also known as Mr. Blue, is a sorcerer from Samgaksan
  • Dog Turd (played by Kim Ki-cheon) is an enemy of Mureuk.
  • Hyun-gam (played by Yoo Jae-myung), also known as Master Hyun, is a Yellow Mountain resident who bought the Crystal Knife.

The hyperactive tone of “Alienoid” just might be too dizzying for some viewers. The action scenes in “Alienoid” are thrilling but can lose their thrill if viewers are confused by what’s going on in the story. All of the cast members are perfectly adequate in their acting skills, but no one is going to win any major awards for “Alienoid.”

“Alienoid” has touches of occasional comedy that work well, since the movie doesn’t take itself entirely too seriously. The visual effects, production design and costume design are among the best assets of “Alienoid,” which leaves a strong visual impression, even when things movie gets a little too cluttered with its time-jumping antics. Some of the twists in the story are very easy to predict, but the biggest surprise is left for the end of the movie. Ultimately, “Alienoid” is a movie made for sci-fi enthusiasts, and it dares viewers to keep up with its high-speed array of ideas.

Well Go USA released “Alienoid” in select U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022. The movie will be released on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on December 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Remember’ (2022), starring Lee Sung-min and Nam Joo-hyuk

November 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lee Sung-min and Nam Joo-hyuk in “Remember” (Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures)

“Remember” (2022)

Directed by Lee Il-hyung

Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Korea, the action film “Remember” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An 80-year-old man with a brain tumor and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease acts out a murderous revenge plan that he wants to complete before he dies. 

Culture Audience: “Remember” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching suspense thrillers about vendettas.

Lee Sung-min in “Remember” (Photo courtesy of 815 Pictures)

Some aspects of the action flick “Remember” are entirely predictable, but it’s still a suspenseful thrill ride with better-than-average acting. This story about revenge and terminal illness brings some freshness to its familiar ideas. “Remember” also has some commentary about the fallouts of colonialism and war, and how those repercussions can pass on through generations.

Written and directed by Lee Il-hyung, “Remember” (which takes place in an unnamed city in South Korea) is told from the perspective of 80-year-old Han Pil-Joo (played by Lee Sung-min), nicknamed Freddie, who at first seems to be a mild-mannered, friendly senior citizen. He works as a server at a T.G.I.F. restaurant. During the Christmas holiday season, he dresses up as Santa Claus and entertains the customers.

Pil-joo’s closest friend at his job is a cook in his 20s named In-gyu (played by Nam Joo-hyuk), who sees Pil-joo as a grandfather figure. In-gyu, a bachelor who lives alone, looks up to Pil-joo and sees Pil-joo as someone whom he can turn to for advice. During the course of the story, Pil-joo and In-gyu get caught up in a dangerous and deadly conspiracy where their trust in each other is tested.

Pil-joo has some big secrets that are eventually revealed in different parts of the story. As already shown in the movie’s trailer, one of his secrets is that he’s dying of a terminal illness: He has a brain tumor and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The other secret (also revealed in the “Remember” trailer) is that he has a plan to murder several people, one by one, as part of a revenge plan.

Pil-joo begins his revenge plan after his wife dies in a hospital from an unnamed illness. He has a secret collection of newspaper clippings and other information related to this revenge plan. Pil-joo is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but his vendetta has to do with Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 and 1945.

Why is Pil-Joo out for revenge? During Japan’s takeover of Korea, his family suffered devastating consequences. His father (a farmer in Yangju) was framed for a crime, arrested, tortured, and died while in custody. Pil-joo’s mother had a mental breakdown and was put in a psychiatric facility, where she died. Pil-joo’s brother was deceived by a friend and sentenced to a labor camp, where he died while working in a mine. Pil-joo’s sister was forced to be a sex slave for Japanese soldiers, and she eventually committed suicide.

Before he carries out his planned executions, Pil-joo films himself making a video stating that he has a brain tumor and Alzheimer’s disease. He also makes a statement explaining that the people he will murder are the people responsible for destroying his family. All of the people he wants to murder are elderly men who were directly involved in betraying or causing the downfall of Pil-joo’s now-deceased parents and siblings.

Because of his declining health, Pil-joo enlists an unsuspecting accomplice to these murders: his restaurant co-worker In-gyu. Pil-joo tells In-gyu that he will pay In-gyu to drive Pil-joo to certain locations, because Pil-joo says that he let his own driver’s license expire. Pil-joo also says that he has a “bucket list” of people he wants to visit before he dies.

The car they use isn’t exactly an anonymous-looking vehicle: It’s a red Porsche. It’s a somewhat ridiculous part of the movie that Pil-joo wants his getaway car to be something that’s easily identifiable. However, the movie gives somewhat of a plausible explanation.

When In-gyu asks how Pil-joo was able to afford a Porsche, Pil-joo says that the Porsche is actually an unregistered vehicle that can’t be traced back to him. In-gyu doesn’t ask why the vehicle is unregistered. In-gyu is just happy to be able to drive a Porsche.

The trailer for “Remember” already shows that Pil-joo carries out some of the killings, and In-gyu discovers the real reason why Pil-joo hired him to be Pil-joo’s driver. By the time that In-gyu finds out that he’s been an accomplice to murder, he’s in too deep. The police announce to the media that they have a blurry surveillance camera video and an eyewitness sighting of a young man at one of the murder scenes, so In-gyu becomes paranoid about being blamed for the murder because he fits the description.

In-gyu begs Pil-joo to turn himself in to the police, but Pil-joo refuses to do that until he kills everyone on his hit list. He assures In-gyu that when he turns himself in for the murders, he will do everything possible to not let In-gyu be blamed for the crimes. Pil-joo promises that he will tell the authorities that In-gyu was forced to help Pil-joo commit these murders. In-gyu has a big secret of his own that Pil-joo gets involved with and makes both In-gyu and Pil-joo a possible target to be killed.

Hot on the trail of solving these murders is a police detective named Kang Young-sik (played by Jung Man-sik), who is a smart and formidable opponent to Pil-joo. A retired and respected military veteran named Kim Chi-duk (played by Park Geun-hyung) is the biggest target on Pil-joo’s hit list. Pil-joo wants to save that murder for last.

What “Remember” lacks in originality it makes up for with a lot of tension-filled action and believable performances from the principal cast members. The movie puts forth questions about how sympathetic Pil-joo should really be, just because he’s elderly and dying. Lee’s portrayal of Pil-joo adeptly occupies that gray area of being neither a complete hero nor a complete villain.

Nam also gives a convincing performance as In-gyu, who becomes confused and terrified for most of the movie, but who is often Pil-joo’s only moral compass. “Remember” is not just a mindless film that shows people getting murdered. The movie also offers thoughtful messages about the emotional cost of holding grudges and how people who act out deadly revenge plans are usually hurting themselves too.

815 Pictures released “Remember” in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on October 26, 2022.

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