Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: SECTOR 7 (2011)

As someone on Facebook said: "I can't believe I'm getting nostalgic for the '90s".

I don't know about you, but a whole mess of movie nerds - I mean scholars, that's it scholars, in the late '90s discovered that the little country of South Korea could make some great genre movies.

Mostly known for Ki-duk Kim's silly (but fun) ecologically-aware kaiju epic YONGARY (1967), South Korea overcame that stigma in 1999 with an anti-terrorist action-thriller SHIRI. SHIRI sported slick visuals, a fast pace and universally appealing themes: secret agents, high-tech terrorists, star-crossed lovers and shit blowin' up. Arguably this was the first Korean blockbuster. So blown away by this $5-8.5 million film that it kicked the crap out of the box office record held by the bloated $200 million TITANIC (1997) which had dominated the box offices throughout Asia. TITANIC had held the record at 4.3 million tickets sold (remember South Korea has a population of 46 million in 1999, as opposed to the US which had a population of 275 million), which was smashed by SHIRI with 6.5 million tickets sold, which means three out of four people in the country bought a ticket to the film. Hollywood execs would murder their favorite coke dealer for those kind of numbers.

In addition to SHIRI (which is a Korean freshwater fish, but in Japanese means "ass"), 1999 saw the release of TELL ME SOMETHING, an extremely dark and bloody homage to Italian giallo films of the '70s and '80s that even got coverage in Fangoria magazine - two years later. These two films sparked a new wave of South Korean filmmaking that continues to this day. Well, sort of. Unfortunately, like all successful cinema, the creative and intelligent side of this new wave only lasted a few years before corporate mentality took over. Suddenly a big business, by 2004 the scripts had become tedious, homogenized rehashes of stale Hollywood cliches. You still have the occasional break-out pop culture hit, such as THE HOST (2006), but they are hip with the kids, not because they are really all that good, but just because the kids don't know much about movies made before the new millennium. Yes, I'm being an elitist. I'm fine with that.

Fast forward to 2011 and South Korea decides it is time to jump on the deep sea bandwagon and in 3D no less! Little did I suspect that their concept wasn't the only thing that was tragically dated.

Opening with a prologue set in 1985 (presumably to try to fool the audience into thinking that they are predating Hollywood's brief deep water fetish), a Korean oil platform off of Jeju Island (South of Korea and West of Japan) sends a diver down to the ocean floor to see why their drill is stuck. Once down there the floor cracks and little glowing fish swim out followed by a roar and we fade to black. Things can only go up from here. I say, "go up from here". ...because he is on the ocean floor. Oh never mind.

Picking up 16 years later, the ill-fated diver's daughter, Cha (Ha Ji-won, best known for romantic comedies) nicknamed "Hard Ass", is now a roughneck on the very same rig. In addition to being improbably hot, she also is better at the job than the rest of the crew, who are all men of course. Apparently she's been calling the shots on where to drill and they still haven't tapped the motherload. Of course this being an Asian film, they are a team and will overcome all obstacles to reach their goals. Unlike Westerners, who would just sit around drinking coffee and bitching about their bonus situation.

In no time at all, the little glowing fishies start showing up, but only in time for the operation to be shut down by the nameless powers that be. Of course the team's hard work and determination are validated when Cha's uncle Lee (Ahn Sung-ki), a high-ranking muckymuck (we are never told what his rank or position is) flies in and because of their plucky spirit, allows them to keep drilling... Presumably for an interesting script. Says Cha while gazing into the sea, "the ocean is beautiful because it holds oil." Jeezus, it's like she running in the Alaska primary.

Pretty soon they discover that the pretty fishies actually put a hell of a welt on you if they sting - this is played for comic relief as the idiot who is short of a village tries to hit on one of the female scientists with a swollen face and all the subtlety of Jerry Lewis on bath salts.

All the archetypes are represented here. We have the captain (Jeong-hak Park) who gets no respect because he is a bit of an insecure prick who just graduated from the "captain's academy" - presumably an institute of navel contemplation. Hell, this schmuck doesn't even have a scar to show off while they drink beer around one of those cute little Asian barbecues. While everyone shows off their scars the captain earns their trust by telling his crew that he doesn't have any because scars are an indication of carelessness. Even Kim Jong Un couldn't force people to like this guy. Not even with Dennis Rodman.

In addition to the anime drama characters, we also have a pop-rock music montage where Cha and her would be suitor Kim (Oh Ji-ho) are racing motorcycles around the rig. Yes, motorcycles. On an oil rig. And you thought flamethrowers in a sub-oceanic mining shack were implausible (though we find out they do actually have these on the oil rig also. I repeat: Flamethrower. Oil rig.). We know these two are destined to be together because both have the ability to keep themselves clean, their skin soft and have immaculately coiffed hair. Even when it is messy, it's stylishly messy. Come to think of it, the rule of the rig seems to be that one must have perfect hair, unless one is wearing a wig that appears to be ripped off from a dollar store in East Oakland.

What died on this man's head?

Wait, I hear you say, isn't there supposed to be a monster in this? Keep your banpal on chingu! First things first. We need to have the female scientist plummet to her death, only to have Mr. Swollen-Mouth accused of killing her because there is a glob of goo on her neck that the MD on board announces as semen! Whaaaaa? Who wrote this? As we find out later (not really a spoiler at all because you already know there is a monster involved at some point) that it not in fact semen, but some other substance that is never explained and no, she wasn't killed by the monster. Whaaaaa? Oh, and we need a cheap scare to keep the audience awake, so when Cha opens a random cupboard in the med lab, a black rat leaps out at her (oddly, not at the camera, being 3D and all). How that rat got on the rig, much less in the cupboard is never explained either, but it sounds like the basis for a Disney animated hit if I've ever saw one. I'm thinking RATATOUILLE II: OILS WELL THAT ENDS WELL.

Finally the LAWNMOWER MAN-era CG monster shows up out of nowhere and chases the crew around some hallways, frequently roaring CG spittle into the camera and pausing in its pursuit long enough for characters to have frivolous conversations discussing their next move, the monster, how scared they are, and possibly hair-styling tips.  At one point the monster whips Cha's uncle around a room with its prehensile tongue. While being flailed around like a ragdoll, uncle manages to look over to the shelves and pick out a bottle of acid and wind up a pitch throwing it directly in the monster's mushy mug. This is probably one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in a film. Ever. I'd recommend avoiding this movie like a Detroit prostitute with the bubonic plague, but if you really do want to watch this movie spoiler-free, skip the next two paragraphs.

In addition to being the lamest blobtacular monster since your mom tried to make "savory" jell-o molds back in the '70s, the idea is that it (I shit you not) bleeds oil for blood and was created by Cha's uncle back in the day by using the little glowing fishies as a genetic base. Why? Well that's easy, though they don't really spell it out, he decided, fuck all that hydrogen/electric power crap, some big, dangerous mutant creature would make a great alternative fuel source that would never run out! The trick is, we are told, that their blood will burn for three days. In spite of this, our troupe sets the monster on fire, and it only burns for several seconds. Oh well, back to the drawing board! Well, as soon as the monster stops killing peeps anyway. Unfortunately it will never stop, ever, until they are dead. Yep, this sucker has more lives than the freakin Terminator as I actually lost count of how many times the monster is "killed" and then suddenly returns to terrorize the crew all over again. Things get so absurd in the final act that if I had taken a shot for every time the monster appears to be dead, yet roars back to life, I'd be loaded like a frat boy on game day.

The absurdity reaches a crescendo when Cha is able to save Kim from plummeting into the jaws of the monster in the nick of time by tying a rope on to a magically appearing motorcycle (yes, you knew they would figure in at the end) in less time than it takes to fall off a log. As if that wasn't ridiculous enough, Cha proceeds to lead the CG monster on a CG motorcycle chase through the CG rig. This is actually worse than it probably sounds, and it sounds pretty bad.

As much as I am really very forgiving of this DIE HARD-logic type of scenario where you simply change the setting to create a totally original film ("it's a monster on a ship", "it's a monster in a research facility", "it's a monster on a plane"), this is probably the most lazy, careless and embarrassingly halfassed excuse I've seen for a monster movie since the last time I watched an Asylum flick. Shot in 3D, but making little use of the format, the script by writer-director Kim Ji-hun is a tired retread that throws a few ideas on the table and promptly forgets to follow through with them, instead allowing the bulk of the movie to be the cast yelling hysterically and screaming each other's names. Ironically Ji-hun's next film was titled THE TOWER (2012) and was about a luxury high-rise that caught on fire... hmmmm, why does that sound familiar?

Could they not afford a men's room?
While Cha is set up as this beautiful, empowered icon of female masculinity, when it really comes down to it, the screenwriter simply has her neatly stereotyped in an archaic female role of staying virtuous by refusing to even kiss the rig's local pretty boy and doing little more than reacting to situations by screaming names in horror. After about the fifth time you hear someone screaming "Doonggssoooooooooo!" you'll be begging for the film to end. The only other thing she does, aside from telling the guys exactly where they can stick pretty much everything and playing impossible-to-get, is getting teary-eyed over her father who she never really knew and has been dead for sixteen years! Pretty much a metaphor for my feelings about South Korean films. Except after all this time, I'm pretty much over it.

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