BIFF 2020: Oct. 26

Good Person (Korean Academy of Film Arts)

Debut features, especially by university trained directors, are a crap shoot, since they often replicate graduation projects. That isn’t usually the case, however, in South Korea, where film students with real ambition and talent are put through the ringer, and that tends to describe a large number of them, so I try to take in as many Korean debuts as I can at BIFF, time willing. Good Person, a World Premiere mystery by Jung Wook, born in 1987, was produced by the Korean Academy of Film Arts, which automatically recommends it as a fine-tuned commercial offering by an excellent student, and it delivered, even though I watched it in the morning with a lot of interruptions.

The interruptions, in fact, were often welcome since at times I found the movie almost too painful to watch. Popular actor Kim Tae-hun plays Choi Kyung-seok, who teaches at an all-male high school. Tae-hun obviously thinks of himself as a good person, a conscientious teacher who seems to be respected by his charges, though sometimes grudgingly so. When a student’s wallet is stolen, he gives the culprit a chance to turn himself in without being exposed as such to the other students, but, of course, no one steps forward, and when one student quietly indicates it may have been the class’s black sheep, Se-ik, Tae-hun gives the sullen suspect, who denies the theft, the benefit of the doubt, but not before lecturing him in such a patronizing way as to let himself off the hook should things go south, which they do in very short order.

The script is almost granular in its attention to plot detail and credible motivations, though the accumulation of left turns may leave your head spinning. Tae-hun’s virtue signaling, as it turns out, is mostly compensation for a failed marriage and a drinking problem that he believes he’s overcome. But as one bad decision leads to another, the personality pluses turn into minuses, guaranteeing that Tae-hun’s spiral to the bottom is fast and relentless. Though not particularly original, Good Person is technically and narratively irreproachable, with a theme that resonates through its supreme downer tone. And like a lot of South Korean debuts that are this accomplished, it will leave you either cold (because it is cold) or desiring of a long shower. It may sound like a cliche to predict that Jung has a bright future, but, yeah, I can’t wait to see what he does next. 


High school is also the setting for the Philippine movie Cleaners, which takes a conventional film genre, the gross-out school comedy, and jigs it up visually and aurally. Divided into six sections, each of which addresses a cliche of Catholic high school life, the film is almost painfully amateurish, but director Glenn Barit processes it all through a stop-motion filter and then adds hand-painted day-glo colors to the black-and-white cells (or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to look like; it’s probably all done digitally), giving the whole production a surreal cast. And while the situations are trite enough—loser courting pregnant popular girl, a bunch of skater-emo kids entering a dance contest and turning it on its head, the rich boy upending his privilege—Barit adds some fairly shocking scatology and self-mutilation just for fun. Though it’s easy to laugh at the corners cut and the rawness of the acting, there’s emotional grit mixed in with the sentimentality that’s leavened by Barit’s clever and catchy indie music score. Humor-wise, it’s not my cup of tea, but it did give me a pretty good idea what it might have been like growing up in a middle class suburb in the Philippines in 2007. 

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