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By Joe Bendel. Like any good socialist system, power in the DPRK is transferred along hereditary lines. Kim Jong-un has just succeeded his father Kim Jong-il. However, a power struggle for day-to-day control over the country’s lucrative arms dealings, their only source of hard currency, will engulf at least four intelligence agencies in Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Berlin File, which opens this Friday in New York.

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Officially, Pyo Jong-seong is a national hero of the People’s Republic. He is so good at his covert duties, he remains a “ghost” to western intelligence databases. Assigned to close an arms sale to an Islamist terrorist group brokered by the Russians, Pyo is quite put out when the Mossad crashes the party. Jung Jin-soo is also rather out of sorts, as well. The South Korean operative was hoping to bust the Northern Koreans, but the third party intervention blew his operation. One of the few remaining Cold Warriors in an office full of appeasers, Jung’s position becomes rather precarious politically. Of course, Pyo is in a tighter spot.

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Technically, Pyo is above reproach, but his wife Ryun Jung-hee is not. As he learns from the Ambassador, Ryun has fallen under suspicion in Pyongyang. Dong Myung-soo, a well-connected special agent, has been dispatched to investigate her as the Israelis’ presumed informant. Pyo has some rather difficult history with Dong, so he cannot expect any favors from the Communist operative. Meanwhile, the South Korean Jung is out to get Pyo to avenge his comrades. A pariah in his own agency, Jung only trusts the council of his CIA contact, Marty, perhaps the film’s only genuinely likable character.

A pleasant surprise from Ryoo and the Korean film industry, Berlin File is one of the best espionage films since Tinker Tailor, in which the true villains are North Koreans and Islamic terrorists. America does not factor greatly in the story, aside from the sympathetic figure of Marty. While the South Korean intelligence service does not cover itself in glory, all their dubious actions are done with the intent of making nice with the North. In short, writer-director Ryoo basically nails the geo-political realities. He can also stage a wicked fight scene. Just watching Pyo’s concluding throw-down will make your back wail in pain.

There are indeed some impressive action sequences, but Ryoo is even more effective tapping into bone-deep themes of betrayal and loyalty. He really puts Pyo and Ryun through the wringer and doesn’t do Jung any favors either. As a result, Berlin should be tragic enough to be a monster hit in Korea and sophisticated enough to appeal to American fans of international intrigue.

Ha Jung-woo (who blew the doors off dark thrillers like Nameless Gangster, The Chaser, and Yellow Sea) is all kinds of bad as Pyo, convincingly portraying his conflicted loyalties and mounting disillusionment. Although international superstar Gianna Jun is almost entirely de-glamorized as Ryun, she is still quite a presence, surprisingly affecting in several key scenes. Berlin also boasts a great supporting ensemble, particularly including Lee Kyoung-young, who plays the Ambassador with a moral ambiguity that really keeps viewers off-balance, and John Keogh, appealingly cynical as the friendly neighborhood CIA agent (benefiting from the generous helpings of English dialogue, nicely punched-up by American screenwriter Ted Geoghegan).

Shot almost entirely on location in Berlin and Riga, Berlin File captures the chilly, paranoid vibe of old school Cold War thrillers. Ryoo manages to add the amped-up mayhem of his Korean action pictures (like Troublemaker, for instance), while maintaining the best of both worlds. Highly recommended for fans of action, espionage, and Ms. Jun, The Berlin File opens this Friday (2/15) in New York at the AMC Empire.

LFM GRADE: A

Posted on February 11th, 2013 at 3:22pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Yasujiro Ozu had a deft touch when it came to directing children. It would therefore make perfect sense that the auteur’s work has deep resonance for Iranian filmmakers. Yet, it was the Japanese master’s so-called “pillow shots,” brief but peaceful still life transition images, that inspired Abbas Kiarostami’s tribute Five Dedicated to Ozu, which screens as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s latest retrospective, A Close-Up of Abba Kiarostami.

Also known as Five Long Takes Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu (or simply Five), Kiarostami’s homage deliberately eschews narrative and characterization in favor of pure composition. Having premiered as a museum installation, it is best considered as part of that experimental genre. Nonetheless, for admirers of Kiarostami and his protégé Jafar Panahi, it carries additional significance as the film the former shot while they were co-writing Panahi’s politically charged Crimson Gold.

Those five long takes show the Caspian Sea, almost entirely from a fixed vantage point. In the first scene, we watch the tide drag a piece of driftwood back and forth, for a lulling effect. The following boardwalk scene also features repetitive motion as indistinct pedestrians walk through the camera’s field of vision. However, viewers might wonder at various times if perhaps Panahi has just made his reported cameo. While one would think there is nothing conceivably objectionable in Five, the many uncovered female heads in this scene would most likely be problematic in Kiarostami’s native Iran. Of course, the pace and meditative vibe of Five provides plenty of time for the audience to wonder about such matters.

Considering the third take features dogs—unclean animals according to the ruling mullahs—Five probably has two strikes going against it. Presenting the frolicking canines as tiny figures on the horizon, it might be Kiarostami’s most interestingly framed shot, closely resembling an ECM album cover.

For kids who love ducks, Five might just be worth having for the fourth take of duckies waddling across the beach. Without question they are the most entertaining part of the film. For the concluding fifth take, it is frogs that are heard but not seen, as the moon rises and glimmers over the dark sea.

When most Ozu fans watch Five, their thoughts will probably wander to what those great films really mean to them. As pleasant as they might be, his work is not beloved for the pillow shots Kiarostami has so greatly expanded here. It is the exquisite dignity of Chishu Ryu’s many father figures, Keiko Kishi’s endearing sexuality in Early Spring, and most of all the legendary work of Setsuko Hara. To see her in the “Noriko” films is to fall head-over-heels madly in love with her. It is precisely that humanity that is missing from Five.

Regardless, Kiarostami most likely accomplishes what he set out to do with Five, so here it is. At least it presents an opportunity for viewers to reflect on their respect and affection for the films of Ozu and Panahi, which is something. Recommended primarily for patrons of the non-narrative avant-garde, Five Dedicated to Ozu screens this Thursday (2/14) at the Walter Reade Theater, as does his recent masterwork, the highly recommended Certified Copy starring the incomparable Juliette Binoche, as part of the Close-Up on Abbas Kiarostami career retrospective.

LFM GRADE: C

Posted on February 11th, 2013 at 3:19pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Yuppies don’t get it. Old homes have character. That is because there are spirits intimately connected to each domicile. Much to her surprise, one formerly affluent young woman starts to see the endangered spirits of her run-down new neighborhood in Ban Joo-young’s animated feature The House (trailer here), which screens this Tuesday as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s regular free movie night in New York.

After her hedge-fund was wiped out, Ga-young is forced to move into a school friend’s studio apartment and accept work as a tutor. Not naturally inclined towards graciousness, she is a bit of a pill to live with. Indeed, she is exactly the sort of shallow materialist who could stand to learn a lesson from supernatural beings. An inadvertent encounter with an enchanted cat’s collar will do just that. Suddenly, she can see the Shmoo-like spirits living amongst the studio units of her dilapidated building.

All is not well with the spirits. One of their brethren is profoundly ailing, showing all signs he will soon share the fate of the recently deceased human occupant of his unit. However, the dubious urban renewal project slated for the neighborhood poses an existential threat to all the spirits. Making promises they do not understand, the spirits enlist Ga-young’s help petitioning the earth elemental now residing in that pesky stray for help. Unfortunately, like most felines, the cat is not helpful by nature.

To judge from The House and the previous KCS animated selection, Padak, Korean animation seems to be on a collective mission to prepare children for all of life’s subsequent disappointments. Both films end on rather heavy notes, even for unrepentant American capitalists. Still, House also warns children to be skeptical of politicians and their promises, which is always a worthy lesson.

From "The House."

Somewhat resembling her character in real life, actress and voice-over artist Kim Kkobbi nicely expresses Ga-young’s wide range of emotions and awakening conscience. Ban’s figures are not extraordinarily expressive, but House’s mixed-medium backdrops are often quite striking. While not especially original looking, the spirits are nonthreatening and likably doughy.

For adults, House has a flashback sequence that is unexpectedly moving. Although there is absolutely no objectionable material, for kids raised on Pixar and Disney it might be a real downer, so parents should use their discretion. Easily recommended for animation fans, especially given the price of tickets—free, that is—The House screens this Tuesday (2/12) in New York at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.

LFM GRADE: B-

Posted on February 11th, 2013 at 3:18pm.

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