Thursday, 6 January 2011

Ten Things About The Last Godfather: An Expat in Korea's Movie Review

So, after ripping director Shim Hyung-rae's last major feature-film, D-Wars, or Dragon Wars, on my blog, and taking another shot this week, it's fair to give him a shot at redemption.

Disclosure: I didn't pay for these tickets: I got them through Cynthia, the head don of She's awesome. She has a small face.

Now, Shim Hyung-rae cut his teeth in the comedy genre, which might partly explain why D-Wars was so bad. Maybe. Then again, if D-wars becomes a cult classic - a Plan 9 from Outer Space with high production values, maybe it deserves it, in the "so bad it's good" way. never been a fan of that myself.  Wait  minute... I like zombie movies.  Sure I am! - but usually not with comedies.

So Mr. Shim has made "The Last Godfather" - a gangster flick about Harvey Keitel doing an impression of Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone trying to hand his mob family over to a fat, Korean version of Lloyd Christmas.

(image source)

The character is named Yonggu, who was a popular comical character on Korean television back when people my age were kids.  That, of course, will be lost on non-Korean audiences -- think of him as Korea's Mr. Bean.  Broad, physical comedy, kind of dumb - the premise of this movie, to Koreans, would be about like a movie called "Mr. Bean Joins the Mafia" to Brits (but in a language other than English, because The Last Godfather isn't in the native language of most of Yonggu's fans).

Here's Yonggu in a TV commercial, from back when he was popular in Korea, I guess.

I watched Dragon Wars, and as I said, it kinda sucked.  Frankly, it was a great method of expectation management: my expectations were about as low as they are when I head into a Nicolas Cage movie I've heard nothing about (funny video about that).

Rather than give you a full-on 4000 word prose-down, as I am wont to do, here are ten things about Shim Hyung-rae's The Last Godfather.  Spoilers ahead.

1. It's not a movie for people like me  I wasn't the movie's main audience.  If you're a fan of Gangster movies by way of Goodfellas, The Godfather, and Donnie Brasco, don't see this movie.  If you're a fan of screwball comedies, and like stuff like stinky feet jokes, some bits about baseball bats, and people doing funny walks; if you believe bird noises is a perfectly good sound effect for demonstrating just how hard somebody got hit on the head, you might like this movie. More on the movie's audience later.

2. It's not two hours of kimcheerleading  To the movie's, and Mr. Shim's credit, this movie didn't come across at all as another attempt to win the world over to Korean culture.  It wasn't draped in a Korean flag the way Dragon Wars was, Arirang didn't play at the end, nor did a paragraph about how great Mr. Shim is (as did at the end of D-wars, in Korea) and that's good: the naked ambition of D-Wars, given how bad as it was, raised it from simply a poor movie to a vainglorious farce.  Yeah, the Wonder Girls appear in one scene of this film, but the whole movie doesn't come across as a miscalculated attempt to win the world (and especially america) over to Korean culture.  They weren't sneaking Janggu's into scenes for the sake of promoting "Brand Korea:" Mr. Shim is just trying to make a movie; not to promote Korea to us under the guise of presenting us with a movie.

3. Good thing it isn't, because that would reflect poorly on Korea It's a good thing this movie wasn't another attempt to introduce Korea and Korean culture to the world, because the only Korean character in the movie was a buffoon of the highest order, and if he were presented as a representative of the culture, it would have been extremely insulting and trivializing to Korea; it would also have shattered the suspension of disbelief required to believe a guy could grow to the age of "Yonggu" and still be so dumb and unreflective.  It's good the movie didn't go there.

4. There're a lot of cliches, stereotypes and silliness to wade through The best way to enjoy this movie is by doing these two things:  1. count the cliches - particularly those common to gangster movies (fugeddaboutit; people carrying baguettes in paper grocery bags; tommy guns; pinstripe suits and wide-brimmed hats; very fat people with Italian accents; New York Italian stereotypes).  and slapstick comedy tropes  (things falling on people's heads, farts, round cartoon bombs with sparking fuses, people who get blown up appearing in the next scene with their clothes and faces blackened, but no injuries to their bodies, fat people using belly bumps during fights).  2.  Imagine it's animated by Warner Brothers (the people who did Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner, Daffy Duck et. al.) - the way the action is done and the gags are delivered is more reminiscent of these cartoons, or the old silent films, than the kind of comedy you see in movies today.  Or imagine it in black and white: during one of the closing scenes, Mr. Shim is seen wearing short pants and oversized shoes, carrying suitcases in a side-to-side walk that's reminiscent of the little tramp.  Taken as an homage to the little tramp and his kind, the movie makes a little more sense.

5. Spot the Expat Easter Eggs There are a few easter eggs (maybe not intentionally put in, but there nonetheless) that expats living in Korea would appreciate: 1. there's a ddongchim, which anyone who's taught kids in Korea (or reads my blog) will recognize. 2. The Wonder Girls show up, performing in a building that, from the outside, seems like it generally stages more, um, adult shows.  3. There's a cute segment that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who's had a conversation with one of their Kimcheerleading friends about how Koreans invented everything before anybody else (for examples of this phenomenon: sarcastic; in earnest, and another) -- "Yonggu" (Shim Hyung-rae's character) accidentally invents the beehive hairstyle, the miniskirt, and the Big Mac in a single afternoon.  Maybe he's Forrest Gump rather than Lloyd Christmas.  [Update: I forgot one: I smiled during the dinner scene, and thought of Mr. Pizza's mayonnaise, honey-mustard, sweet-potato, shrimp tempura and ketchup pizzas, when Yonggu ruined his pizza slice with about a pint of ketchup, to the disgust of the Italians at the table.]

6. This is a children's movie.  The take on gangsters is mostly innocent (when a bomb goes off, we see the characters standing next to it, in the next scene, with soot on their faces and their suits torn.  Nobody dies, except a few faceless wide-brim-hatted mobsters in shootouts, who might have just lost their balance and taken headers off fire-escapes, and in moments where a real gangster would probably end somebody, these gangsters flee the scene.  The type of comedy, the type of story, the way the characters are presented, show that this is a children's movie.  If it's marketed as anything else, it's not aware of what it is, and if it's pretending to be a comedy for adults, or a straight-up gangster movie, it's insulting its audience.

7. It's a kid's movie, but... But for a children's movie, there are some reasons I wouldn't want to bring my kid to it, or put it on the children's shelf at the rental store, beside Cars and Monsters Inc..  1. waaaay too much gunplay.  If the movie were about ten minutes shorter, and those ten minutes they took out were all the parts referring to deadly violence, death, assassination, and one patch with a joke about simulated sex that fits better in a movie like American Pie than this movie, as well as the climactic gunfight, it would be a much better fit for the audience that will enjoy it.  2. The jokes and storytelling are for kids, but the gangster talk would lead to my kids asking me some uncomfortable questions. I DON'T want to bring my kids to see a movie where a character tells the hero to whack someone... several people, and several times, or where I have to explain what extortion is, after my kids ask "Why were the people giving him money when he went to their store?"  If they'd made it two shades lighter again, than it already was, it would have been a fantastic kids' film, instead of a children's movie with a caveat.

And that's to say nothing of the moral confusion of yonggu's intentions during the movie: he wants to make his father proud, by becoming a coldhearted mobster.  He tries to impress his father by shaking down local shopkeepers, and by climbing a fire escape with a rifle to assassinate a rival mobster.  Throwing my kids into a world of such ambiguity is not my idea of a fun family afternoon.

8. Jay, from Jay and Silent Bob, (yep: this guy) plays one of the bad guys.  The fat mobster looks like a cartoon character... in fact, he reminds me of Big Boy (from Big Boy Burgers)

 and below, John Pinette (the actor) for your comparison (image source).

9. Harvey Keitel :(... dear Harvey... you are, far and away, the most watchable actor involved in this project.  But why are you involved in this project?  Why not any old extra from Sopranos who needs work?  Are you trying to get on this kind of list (seriously)?  Why not someone who's already kind of a self-parody, and a comedian anyway, like Danny Devito or somebody, anybody, that won't make me think "what a waste of talent"

I want to see you kick ass, Mr. Keitel.  I want to see Harvey Keitel the Wolf (see below).  I don't want to see you lying on your back and kicking your feet when you think your half-wit son, whom you've never met until two weeks ago, but have decided to make new don of your mafia family, is dead.  I really don't.

That's right.  Lying on his back.

Mr. Keitel, give me this:

Not this.

10. Shim Hyung-rae gets the girl? Really I suppose it's director's prerogative to do this, if he's starring in his own movie, but Shim Hyung-rae has reached an age where he should no longer be casting himself in roles where he gets the girl.  Much like Woody Allen in the 1990s, it strains credibility to think that the movie's token hottie would be hankering for some simpleton ajosshi.  Maybe he didn't trust any other actor to deliver the jokes he'd imagined, and yeah, he IS Yonggu, but still...

Anyway, the movie is what it is: not really a movie for my demographic, but a reasonably entertaining film for someone with kids about between age five and ten.  Unfortunately, the gangster content and gunplay makes it less family-friendly, but that's the only audience I think this movie will really resonate with.  The jokes are mostly a throwback to the silent era of slapstick, which is generally delivered well, and occasionally made me guffaw, but some of which I saw coming from a mile away.  Somebody go see it and count for me how many times somebody walks into a tree or a light pole.

It ends up neither here nor there... it's miles better than D-wars on almost every level, and it's been clipped of the kind of ego-tripping and flag-waving that made D-wars so ripe for ridicule; on the other hand, most of my readers probably won't jump out of their chairs to go see it, and it shoots itself in the foot (see what I did there?) as a kids' film.  As for Korean filmmakers bringing Korean film to the world?  Well, Shim Hyung-rae made an OK kids' film, but he shouldn't be the one carrying the flag of Korean cinema to the world. Let's see Park Chan-wook take a movie - the kind of movie David Fincher or Cronenberg, or Darren Aronofsky would make, and hit it out of the park with Hollywood backing.  Or Bong Joon-ho.  You know.  Somebody who deserves to be the poster-boy/girl.

I'm happy to hear, in the comments to my last post about Shim Hyung-rae, that other, (sorry to say, but...) more talented Korean directors (Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and Kim Ji-woon were mentioned by commenters) are getting opportunities to helm western-made films now, too; I hope they deliver something really interesting to movie screens in the US, and I hope that they give American audiences a better inkling of just how excellent, varied, and original (a word that never crossed my mind during this film) Korean cinema really can be.


Schplook said...

I agree with you on most points. It's not a terrible movie if you watch it the same way (with the same expectations) as an old-timey slap-stick flick. Don't expect good acting, story, or sophisticated comedy.

The one area where I tend to disagree with your review is about the suitability of this film for children. With the exception of the sexual aspect, that is. Personally, I don't have much of a problem with the gunplay. And I don't believe movies for children all have to have a morally flawless hero... especially in comedies.

However, I'm not sure what age group this movie is appropriate for. I think you're right that at least about five, maybe even higher, but I would say pre-teens up to 12 years old may still enjoy it. So, that's a pretty limited range.

A final question: what do you consider to be appropriate viewing for children? And what do you think is inappropriate? I would be interested to get your thoughts on this, and the reasons behind them.

Roboseyo said...

I don't think that children have to be completely protected from questionable characters doing questionable actions... but the fact that the bad stuff people did in this movie basically had no consequences, or even GOOD consequences (when Yonggu goes out to shakedown local business owners for their mafia dues, the accidentally invents the miniskirt and the beehive and the bigmac in the proccess).

This movie does the same thing that many gangster movies do: it focuses on the relationships of the leading families, without looking a little further down the food chain, at the lives destroyed by the drugs, prostitution, crime, and violence that feeds them; in a movie for adults, where that's understood, I'm OK. If the gangsters in this movie were basically just people driving cool cars and wearing black suits and talking tough, or if the crimes they did were simple enough to be understood by a six-year-old (stealing things, rather than extortion, which is hard to understand), it would fit the simplicity of the rest of the world of the movie. The fact that Yonggu has to become a ruthless gangster to please his father, when other than that, his father is portrayed as a kind of dumb, but mostly good guy, confuses the morality of the movie. He shows a GUN to KIDS and takes their money! If it was clear that the father WAS a criminal, if he showed remorse, or SOME kind of consequence for his crimes, or if the film somehow showed that his mob activity really was awful, I'd have been more OK with it. As it was, running a mob family may as well have been taking over the family deli, and making it seem like being a gangster is just another family business... not quite OK with my kids getting that message, or at least, I'd have to think about it.

Whether gunplay disqualifies a movie as family fare also totally depends, in my opinion, on the parents, and the age and personality of the kids; regardless, the mere presence of gunplay in the movie, as a parent, would mean I'd want to watch it before taking my kids to see it, rather than just going without hesitation. I'd want to know what I was heading into, and whether I needed to prepare my kids for it.

I think what I'm getting at here, is that this movie didn't demonstrate that moral choices have moral consequences, and it would make me nervous as a parent, to expose my kids to gangster themes in a world where they were devoid of some kind of moral consequences.

I guess.

Garrett said...

Hey there, gonna be back in K-world for a month in, uh.. 19 hours. We should hang out or something if yer in my necka the woods or vice-versa.

Chris said...

I saw this last night, and I enjoyed it. But, I went into the theater expecting to see a Korean Red Skelton - I was not disappointed. But then again, I enjoyed Red Skelton's comedy, and many people don't. Must be a generational or nostalgia thing (I remember watching the Red Skelton Show with my Grandmother when I was about 6 years old). Then again, it might just be about slapstick - you either love or hate it! Three Stooges anyone?

This movie won't win any Academy Awards, and who knows if it will even be a financial success. But it was entertaining to me, and after all, isn't that what movies are about?

-Chris "The Stumbler"

jjj_alltheway said...

I think you really try hard to show how/why you like S. Korea but you should've spent more time on your review/critique. Even though the director wasn't mentioned at the end of the movie, he was in it was he not?
Chris.."financial success" if I'm not mistaken Koreans loved D-War (or at least they told me they did to save face if not for any other reason) so you can be sure they will love this and make it a success no matter what -- in the name of Korea fighting, dynamic, or whatever.
If it's really a good movie then ought not some level of consistency be present? Korea needs to decide how to promote thy movies, either this or that way. If this movie reaches across the waters(I doubt it will) then maybe "Taste Korea" or whatever should've been within it somewhere.

However, if it's really good the audience would be able to figure that out, it's the other stuff they wouldn't get that is the problem -- yes, expats living in Korea might get it(be able to tolerate it for the sake of their S. Korean GF/wife) but I'm afraid hardly anybody else would.

Roboseyo said...

JJJ: Most of the Koreans I've talked to about D-wars, other than in the first week of its release, have avoided the topic, or tried to change the subject, in the same way other embarrassing secrets get avoided -- asking the lady beside me in line to buy US beef what she did during the spring of 2008, or asking people what that street of buildings with pink lights was, that I happened across one day in Chongnyangni.

I think I was pretty clear in my review that the movie was silly, full of cliches, and maybe suitable for kids, but that's about it.

As for what you say about "harmony of promotion" I'm not sure what you mean by that, but I'd be interested to hear you expand. One of the good things (or at least, one of the things that made this movie less painful instead of more painful) is that they DIDN'T drop tons of Korean Wave references and attempts to promote hallyu, hanshik, hangul, or any of that other stuff -- attaching Korean culture on the whole to a character as infantile as Yonggu would have been counterproductive.

The movie doesn't seem to play as another phase of the Korean Wave Ten Year Plan (2010-2030), and that's good. Maybe it was just a movie: "Let The Right One In" didn't include Swedish cultural references, in order to promote swedish culture; they just told a story. Why would a movie from a country that wasn't USA need to do so?

While "Let the right one in" was a far superior film, I think cramming nationalist jingoism into a movie would have suited this film just as badly, and would have led to a much harsher review from me.

In that vein, I'll be outraged if the Hollywood/international film projects that Park Chan-wook and Bong Jun-ho and other great Korean directors are involved with, include clumsy, heavy-handed K-pop, Hallyu, Hanshik references, in order to try and make those movies platforms to promote Korean tourism.