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Fantastic Fest 2011: “The Yellow Sea,” reviewed

Fantastic Fest 2011: “The Yellow Sea,” reviewed (photo)

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Korean director Na Hong-jin‘s “The Yellow Sea,” his follow-up to his blockbuster debut “The Chaser,” starts as a spartan character study then sprawls into a massive crime conspiracy. By the end, things get a little too densely plotted; everyone I spoke with at Fantastic Fest was still trying to sort through the exact details of who did what to whom and why hours after the screening. Not surprisingly, I liked the first part of “The Yellow Sea” a lot more than the second part, though both halves have their moments.

Na wrings an enormous amount of drama out of an insanely simple premise. A cab driver named Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is deep in debt, and the men he owes are getting antsy. They gave him 60,000 yuan for his wife’s visa so she could move to Korea from their pitiful home on the Chinese border, but it’s been months since she’s called or written. With nowhere else to turn, Gu-nam accepts a proposition from a mobster named Myung-ga (Kim Yun-seok) who promises to settle Gu-nam’s debt if he sneaks into Korea and murders someone for him. He has ten days to complete the hit and, perhaps, find his missing wife.

These opening scenes are spare and quiet, rich with detail and unspoken tension. The sequence that follows Gu-nam as he sneaks into Korea aboard a series of ships could be from a documentary on human trafficking. The detailed work continues once Gu-nam arrives in Seoul and starts shadowing his target; meticulously learning his routines and determining the best time and method to kill his prey. His actions are small but the stakes are huge. To paraphrase Willy Wonka, the suspense is terrible and you’re just hoping it lasts.

The fateful moment arrives earlier and with a lot more complications than anticipated. The assassination doesn’t go wrong, but it doesn’t exactly go right either, and that puts Gu-nam in the sights of a lot of different groups: the cops who want to solve a murder, his victim’s underworld associates who want revenge for their friend’s death, and Myung-ga’s own gang who get drawn into an international mob war with a Korean kingpin.

When Gu-nam starts running for his life like a wild animal, the film grows equally frenzied. Bye bye quiet precision, hello orgy of violence. Bye bye carefully observed minimalist drama, hello knife fights, hatchet fights, crazy foot chases, knife fights, crazier car chases, and knife fights. Did I mention this movie has knife fights? Because it does. Apparently, no one in the Korean underworld can find a gun, but they’re all big fans of the Ginsu knife. Now I finally understand why it was important that that thing could cut through a shoe.

From there, the film become an extravagantly bloody mess in the style of other over-the-top Korean revenge thrillers like “I Saw the Devil.” “The Yellow Sea,” it must be said, does have a certain joie de vivre all its own. At one point, two characters are chasing one another on a boat. One leaps overboard to escape, and the other dutifully follows; the chase continues in the water below. A swimming chase! That’s a new one for me.

The frenzy is fine, but a little bit more clarity, at least narratively speaking, would have been nice. The film seems to provide an unambiguous answer to the core mystery that drives its second half, then immediately reverses itself with a couple epilogue scenes that confuse the issue. Of course I would never spoil anything here, but after you see the movie, leave me some feedback below and answer me these questions: just who was that banker? And why did he do what he did? And how was that woman connected to him?

Nobody here at the festival was quite sure. One wise colleague I spoke to who hadn’t seen the movie suggested that the perplexing finale could have been disorienting by design. And it’s definitely true that Na modulates his direction to match his protagonist’s mental state. When the crap hits the fan for Gu-nam he doesn’t know how or why either. On the other hand, characters in these final scenes exchange knowing glances that imply they understand who they are and what they’ve done, even if we do not. That’s the problem. The audience shares Gu-nam’s confusion, but not his final fleeting moments of comprehension.

“The Yellow Sea” has a TBD release date from Fox International Pictures. If you see it at Fantastic Fest, we want to know what you think. Leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.