The heist movie had its latest American peak in the early 2000s, and I can’t say I miss it during its valleys. Even a filmmaker as creative as Steven Soderbergh has trouble pulling them off (as it were): the less said about the garish, fetishistic Ocean’s series the better, and even the critically appreciated Out of Sight, which I watched recently with friends, ultimately succumbs to its genre’s standard syndrome. Heist movies are so plot heavy that they almost always devolve, half two two-thirds of the way through, into a laborious grind through the implications of the domino lines meticulously set up before.
Dong-hun Choi’s The Big Swindle — previously known by a superior title, The Reconstruction of the Crime — is a Korean heist movie. Unlike Je-gyu Kang’s Shiri, which exists only to demonstrate that Korea can make a Bruce Willis movie too, this film is more than a proof of concept. But only just: you’ve still got the frayed-edged gang of posturing thugs, summoned by a middle-aged leader of pure sangfroid, assembled to pull One Last Big Score. Naturally, just as an honest person can’t trust a miscreant, a pack of miscreants can’t trust each other, so the planned big swindle devolves into a farrago of internecine mini-swindles.
What makes this worthwhile are the surprisingly interesting cinematic techniques used to unite — almost concealed between — the car chases and preparation montages. The one I’ll remember best, and probably rip off, is the way Choi jumps chronologically back and forth by cutting between two shots at different times, and sometimes in different places, of the exact same composition. You’ll probably just have to watch to understand what I mean.
When I learned that Jin-ho Hur (also romanized as “Jin-ho Heo”) is known as “Korea’s Ozu”, I was all, sign me up. Any heir to Ozu Yasujirō’s cinematic legacy is a friend of mine, especially if they’re from a country that produces most of today’s innovative movies. I’m watching all these Korean films on DVDs officially disseminated by the Korean Film Council, and I’ve noticed that their box copy can be disarmingly honest and self-deprecating: Hur’s One Fine Spring Day, it says, “is a gorgeous and yet somewhat abstract sort of a film, that will bore some viewers and captivate others.” Maybe so, but wow, I’d never expect to read that on the inner cover.
Maybe it’s sacrilege to type this, but the movie actually improves upon Ozu in certain ways. For all his strengths, I don’t think Ozu cared about sound. I mean, he made sure you could hear Setsuko Hara and Chishu Ryu speak clearly over beds of innocuous string music and such, but his work doesn’t really treat sound as an art form. One Fine Spring Day does, both in its production and in its content. It’s about a young sound engineer who falls in and then out of love with an equally young radio producer who hires him to make field recordings for her show, and it seems to pay as much attention to sound as its protagonist. (Are Korea’s radio shows really this much more interesting than the States’? One of the girl’s programs, Nature and People, showcases field recordings illustrating the relationship between same. The other’s purpose is less clear, though it involves conversation with music critics. Also, beware: music critics will steal your ladies.)
Hur also injects the Ozu form with a certain dose of Korean melodrama, without which I imagine no Korean movie can succeed at home. This would normally be a strike against, since the sharp, subtle reserve of Ozu’s films is one of their qualities I enjoy most. Yet Hur is part of a generation of Korean filmmakers that has taken the maudlin weepiness inherited from their forebears and turned it to better, tempered, more aestheticized ends. A third difference from Ozu is the substitution of Korean humor for Japanese humor, which are distinct but equally goofy sensibilities. Drunk and ready to plead with his distant girlfriend, the sound recordist falls to his knees, asks “Do you want to see something funny?”, then performs some sort of Three Stooges Move where he repeatedly slaps his own face and comes up looking kind a sort of chipmunk. For some reason, I laughed.
Movies about disadvantaged kids who nevertheless scrappily save the day are already pretty thick on the ground in the U.S., but Kyu-tae Park’s Bunt is sufficiently different from those that I wasn’t too irked by it. The most obvious distinction is that its promotional details make it very, very clear that little Dong-gu, its protagonist, has an IQ of 60. Precisely. He can’t do anything but go to school and pour water for his classmates, but man, is he happy doing it. He made me realize that my own childhood dislike of school must have stemmed entirely from the fact that teachers expected things from me. Had they expected nothing, like they do of Dong-gu, I’d probably have smilingly sprinted all the way there every morning too.
Dong-gu’s dad is a real Job: runs a none-too-successful fried chicken restaurant, gets freeloaded off of by his drunken buddy, wife apparently died on him, landlord’s selling his home/workplace of 20 years, has a son with an IQ of 60. One of the most striking things that distinguishes Bunt from an American family-movie equivalent is that, at his most desperate point, the guy actually tries to commit suicide by inducing cancer — taking up smoking, deliberately burning his food — for the insurance payout. (The problems with this scheme suggest that the tree isn’t all that far from the apple.) If you’re trying to commit insurance fraud by, I guess that’s the one method they’d never suspect.
Oh, and Dong-gu escapes expulsion by joining the baseball team first as a waterboy, then as a player. The only way he can make contact with the ball is to bunt it, which his class partner, whose weak heard also makes him a social outcast, laboriously teaches him. There is a lot of slow motion in the parts where he scores the deciding point in the climactic baseball game. Like, a real lot.