Sunday, July 15, 2012

Movie review: 연가시 (Yeongasi)

I saw this movie at 11 am yesterday and since I didn't buy the tickets myself, I was surprised afterwards to learn that CGV offers no discounts for watching a movie at 11 am on a Saturday. The movie has an interesting premise though it explores it in some of the strangest ways conceivable, sort of like 28 Days Later meets Erin Brokovich meets Moby Dick, but the whole thing is made interesting because, I think, disaster movies suit Korean cinema quite well.

 In other disaster movies where there is a lethal virus, such as 28 Days Later or Contagion, large, chaotic crowds and draconian government measures are shocking but seem far from the realm of possibilities. In Korea, where large, chaotic crowds are a daily norm as the result of Korea being a tiny, crowded country and draconian government measures are also a daily norm, this aspect of a disaster movie is more believable.

The movie begins with dead, horrifyingly dehydrated bodies appearing in streams and rivers across the country. Gradually, though only about 40 minutes into a 2-hour movie, it is worked out that the deaths are the result of an infection by a massive waterborne worm(?) that dehydrates its victims and causes them to seek out water as a place where the worm can lay its eggs. Most victims die as a result of drowning, though others are found dead surrounded by yellow vomit, dead from causes I didn't quite understand.

Eventually, it's concluded that anybody who has been to the sea, a water park or any other body of water has been exposed to the virus, leading to all bodies of water being declared out of limits. This, along with the quarantine of victims that follows, is less inconceivable in Korea than elsewhere, considering that it is a small country with a strong federal government that can pretty much do whatever it wants. Scenes of chaotic crowds at hospitals, train stations or other public places are also not far-fetched, not because Koreans are necessarily more selfish in case of a disaster, but because this is already the case thanks to its three-day national holidays, mass public gatherings and its protests. The latter two certain go hand-in-hand sometimes, as was the case in 2008.

At any rate, the movie has a very novel idea, to me at least, and I thought another thing it did well was the melodrama. Just about every Korean movie you see will have long, cathartic scenes consisting of nothing but wailing and weeping. This is often as inexplicable as our preoccupation with the hero getting the girl, but here it's not too bad given that when someone you know and love dies suddenly and inexplicably, you probably will cry. Contrast that with the way parents of deceased children are interviewed on Law and Order SVU: they are composed, barely weeping, and so detached that it sounds like they're reading the phone book back to you.

Sadly, aside from these two and maybe a couple of other interesting ideas or high points, the rest of the movie is as cliche and as cheesy as any disaster movie you've ever seen, complete with over-the-top scenes of tragedy and heart-warming inspiration that you will cringe, roll your eyes and laugh at the absurdity of it all. There's the heartless corporation that can allow competitors to make generic copies of the antidote but can't, the courageous whistleblower who doesn't give a damn about the rules, the politician who says "I don't care whether it's legal or not, I care about saving lives" and maybe the cheesiest scene I've ever seen in a movie over the last 20 years, the main character driving a truck through the steel gates of the corporation's headquarters after protesters clear a path for him like the Red Sea parting for Moses.

I would see Yeongasi for nothing but the interesting ideas it has, though they might seem less interesting if you have more than a vague familiarity with Korean cinema, as is the case for me. It's certainly better than the average movie you see in theatres. Even if you don't speak much or any Korean, you'll find much of the movie easy enough to follow, though some of the plot twists and details near the end will be harder to follow. It might be better to be insulated from some of the film's duller moments and saccharine remarks, I suppose, though you'd wind up with an over-inflated sense of its worth similar to myself.

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