The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Old habits die hard and it wasn’t too long after our first outing that we got the itchy feet to go out again! The only Korean film playing that we hadn’t seen was a spy thriller (which turned out to have a hilarious Trump stand-in), so I was a little dubious about centering the day around that; Korean thrillers are often good but the more political or historical they get, the harder time we have following them. However, I watched a trailer for another film playing, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, and damned if it didn’t win me over. It’s a werewolf movie written, directed and starring Jim Cummings (best known as the writer, director and star of The Wolf of Snow Hollow), though with an emphasis on the characters involved. Not in a Jarmuschian way, but more like: Hey, these are real people, with real struggles. And a werewolf.

Damn lawyers.

The Late Robert Forster syaing “I won’t ask you to pray with me…’cause of the damn lawyers” was part of what won me over.

Cummings plays Deputy John Marshall, who views himself as the only sensible guy in the Snow Hollow police department—which, in retrospect, seems a bit oversized—and certainly a great many of his colleagues are goofballs, or minimally less than professional. But John is a wreck: A recovering alcoholic who is also a basket-case over the deteriorating condition of his father the Sheriff, fiercely caustic to his ex-wife, neglectful of his daughter, and with a temper that made us all suspect at some point that he may have been the actual werewolf. He fires people with aplomb. And while he may not go off on wild goose chases, neither does he seem particularly good at his job.

The trouble begins when walking-bro-cliche PJ (Jimmy Tatro, “American Vandal”) brings his beauty-queen girlfriend (Rachel Jane Day) to a cabin in Snow Hollow where she suffers a brutal death and the removal of her lady parts by…something. Is it a man? Is it an animal? I’m not going to tell you because that would spoil it and it’s worth seeing unspoiled.

A brisk eighty minutes and suffers none of the usual werewolf movie malaise. The editing is great, if a little tricky. The editing emphasizes the after-effects of the murders, as John sits in funerals or suffers the indignities of catcalls and abuse. It’s the sort of thing you might find jarring but we got used to it quickly, and it shifts the film more toward what it wants to be, which is a drama with horror overtones. Some unexplained aspects of the story lead me to believe that the editing was perhaps too severe in places.

It just doesn't gaf.

This frame has almost a were-badger look. And if you think wereWOLVES are bad, you ain’t never seen a wereHONEYBADGER.

Of course, when I see a movie about a place that has snow, I want to see lots of beautiful vistas. As a desert dweller, beautiful snowy landscapes are basically a plus one rating, and D of P Natalie Kingston delivers in spades. I can’t imagine the budget on this film was very high—but the editing and filming (and lighting, come to think of it) make it look and feel like a “real” movie, and one that could stand alongside of much, much more expensive films.

But if the technical craftsmanship was great, it is matched by the acting. I’ll talk last about Cummings, and first about the ophidian Riki Lindhome—best known to us as “Garfunkel” from “Garfunkel and Oates” and as the way I taught The Flower what “ophidian” means. Riki plays Julia, John’s partner and is the backbone of the movie. She’s the most professional, and also walking that thin line between trying to keep John from crashing and wrecking his life and keeping him from doing real harm. This is not easy, and like most of the movie’s characters, she’s given some depth and works well with it. The late Robert Forster plays John’s dad, and if he ever turned in a bad performance in his 50 years, this wasn’t it. (In classic character actor style, he has yet another movie coming out this year.)

The smaller roles (Chloe East as the saucy, sassy daughter, the aforementioned Jimmy Tatro, assorted deputies and townsfolk) all have a vitality we’ve come to associate with Asian films. It’s like the actors and the writer (Cummings, as mentioned) took the “no small role” seriously, and everyone plays their role like they’re going to go on after the scene with their own stories and narratives. It raises the film above the usual “this person is an exposition/plot delivery vehicle” fare.

Or someONE.

You got something on your shoe there, buddy.

Which brings us to Mr. Cummings himself. In the low-budget world, you get guys who make vanity projects which cast themselves as the (typically action) heroes—Red Letter Media’s “Best of the Worst” has covered a few amazing examples—and there are certain markers of these kinds of projects: A low charisma middle-aged dude, a genuinely hot chick who has to get naked with him at some point, a black tank top showing off a modest musculature. But when actors make movies, what you tend to get is a lot of acting. And Cummings’ cop-on-the-edge (which I believe was also his character in his previous, even-lower-budget film Thunder Road) goes from snarky, to ragey, to nervous-breakdown-grief-y, and even has something like a moment of peace.

This is where The Boy and The Flower split, and a quick glance at the now seldom visited “Rotten Tomatoes” reveals an 88/76 split, critic over audience. They both liked it. But at the end, where we get some character resolution with our troubled sheriff, The Flower would’ve preferred more explication of the Mystery of the Werewolf. She didn’t really care about the sheriff, and it’s undoubtedly the case that he’s a complete asshole from the beginning of the movie to the last few minutes. (She suspects there’s another edit of the film she’d prefer.) Meanwhile, The Boy found that focus refreshing.

I see both their points. As a character study, this movie is quite good. As a mystery, it’s far too thinly fleshed out, so that the reveal is less effective than it could be. And as a metaphor, with the sheriff’s raging id represented by a werewolf—well, it mostly just toys with that idea. We all liked it, though, and that’s saying a lot.

He seems lovely.

Good job, Jim. Next time maybe stretch your wings a little and play a decent human being.

Steel Rain 2: Summit

This movie was an unexpected delight. I’m always a little leery of making a long trip for a Korean spy thrillers because the political stuff can be quite hard to follow. But it usually pays off pretty well, as we saw with The Spy Gone North—a movie The Flower still talks about and thinks should be remade for American audiences. (Yes, so that someone has to sneak into Canada.) But this was a political thriller like Air Force One is a political thriller: A goofy action film with a very broad “message” (Korea = Good, Everyone Else = Varying Degrees of Less Good). And it features a tremendous performance by Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart, Saw V) which was really the highlight of the film for us.

It's great.

(From L to R): South Korean President, North Korean Chairman, Rogue North Korean and TRUMP!

The premise is that Japan and the U.S. are doing military movies in the nearby, oft-contested waters between Japan and Korea, which is provocative to China, and which South Korea doesn’t usually get involved with. But the U.S. is coercing South Korea to join in this time, and it’s all at the behest of the devious Japanese (OBVIOUSLY) who are planning to set up North Korea to start a war with China that will require the U.S. to be on their side. The provocations was  to be North Korea launching a nuclear missile at South Korea, I believe.

I had a hard time buying it. Actually, the kids and I were giggling through this whole thing, the political caricatures were so broad, and I was frankly a little bored of the whole South Korean shtick where they’re the mature adults in the room trying to negotiate peace with the childish North Koreans and Americans.

Regardless, the monkey in the wrench is that during peace treaty talks between South Korea, North Korea and America, the three leaders are kidnapped by the rogue North Korean group planning the nuclear strike. They’re taken as hostages aboard the submarine the Japanese want to launch the missile against the Koreans. Well, these North Koreans are bastards but they’re not rat bastards, and they’re going to launch a missile all right—but they’re going to strike Japan. They’re not rat bastards, but they’re also not very bright because striking Japan would necessitate a US counter-strike on North Korea and/or China.

Go figger.

Kristen Dalton plays the VP. I couldn’t quite figure out, politically, what the movie was trying to say with her. She seems like an opportunistic neocon on the one hand but she jumps at the chance to rescue Smoot.

In the midst of this supreme silliness we have the silliest thing of all: Angus Macfadyen as the United States President Smoot. I assume this is a reference to Reed Smoot (of the Smoot-Hawley Act) and not, say, the scientist/”Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”-winner George Smoot, or Oliver Smoot of the “smoot” unit of measurement, but I could be wrong. Either way, it’s just a dead on Trump parody.

President Smoot is belligerent, childish, narcissistic, cowardly, gluttonous and greedy. He’s rude to the (very svelte!) Chairman of North Korea (a Kim Jong Un stand-in) and talks so fast his translators can’t keep up with him. And he’s also clearly a metaphor for America. He’s aware of the plot, though not of the double-cross, but the moment of finding out is what turns the tide on this portrayal. Held captive by the rogue submarine captain and injected with a truth serum, he yells something to the effect of:

“Your weak communist drugs are no match for my American blood!”

So they hit him with another dose. And we get, eventually, an acknowledgment of the fact that while “South Korea wasn’t a signatory to the cease fire”, it wouldn’t even exist without America. And when the North Koreans say they’ve captured Smoot as insurance against the US destroying them, he laughs and says (again, paraphrased):

“Do you know how many people want me dead? The Republicans would look the other way. The Democrats would probably throw a party. The neocons are convinced we’re going to war with China anyway. I’m the only person standing between your country an annihilation.”


'cause they're raping everybody everywhere.

The UN is here! Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!

And when things start going down, and the two little Korean dudes are trying to block the door, Smoot picks up a desk that is bolted down, rips it out of the floor and barricades the door, securing the room.

Go figure. It’s like the opening where the Japanese villain behind the plotting tells the story of how evil America cut off Japan’s oil supplies forcing it to go to war in self-defense, ending when those awful bullies bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I get the Korean bias—but I’m pretty sure that’s how WWII is frequently portrayed in Japan. The Koreans don’t like America, but they do at least acknowledge our historical usefulness.

Anyway, Smoot gets to abscond with Slim Jong Un, leaving the South Korean President to figure out how to save the world, and this works pretty well, though honestly as soon as Macfadyen is off-screen, the movie gets a lot less fun and interesting. Anyway, it presented a really clear and interesting ranking of the human species:

  1. South Koreans
  2. North Koreans
  3. Rogue North Koreans Willing To Launch Nuclear Missiles Without Provocation
  4. Chinese
  5. Americans
  6. [infinity]
  7. Japanese

I’m ticked by the fact that they apparently rank Chinese over Americans, but everybody’s kissing China’s ass these days, which will work out fine right until it doesn’t.

It’s complete nonsense, but it’s kind of fun, and everybody is redeemable as long as they’re not Japanese. If you’re not overly sensitive about it—and we weren’t, we were howling—it’s actually a fun time.

Smoot is a baws.

There’s a great shot of Smoot piling his place with hamburgers and donuts but I couldn’t find it, so enjoy the three leaders plotting their escape from the sub.

Okay Madam

In Our Oriental Heritage, volume one of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization—the greatest set of books nobody ever reads—Durant points out that the ancient Egyptians actually had art that evolved beyond what we know as the stereotypical Egyptian style. At point they had developed shading and perspective and more 3D looks, but those were all squashed by the priest class, which was in control of all art. As a result, Egyptian art didn’t change for centuries. Everything had to be vetted by the high priests whose primary interest is preserving their power, and this how art—and ultimately civilization—dies.

I think of this when I listen to Diversity & Comic’s yaboi Zach talk about the problem with Social Justice Warrior (SJW) comic books (most of the mainstream these days). The main problem is: they’re boring. If there’s a blond white guy, you know he’s a villain (if not the villain). If there’s a black woman, she’s a lesbian with the side of her head shaved, and probably fat. And black people are soulful saints, because you can’t show any member of a “marginalized” group having character flaws. Disney SJWed up the Mulan movie to make Mulan a superhero, which completely destroys the actual heroic aspects of the story: Overcoming her innate physical weakness (at great personal risk) to save her country and her father. She couldn’t train, obviously, because she-don’t-need-no-man is part of our High Priests’ Moral Code.

I mean, you can't see the Samsung logo so...

The Koreans use a wardrobe-based system to identify characters: Here, the leather coat and lack of a Samsung phone indicates “villain”.

This leads tangentially to the second movie in our “Almost Free!” double-feature: the delightful action comedy, Okay Madam, which works so well because it surprises on so many levels. A boisterous lower-middle class couple wins a Free Trip to Hawaii, which they’re not going to take until their daughter throws a tantrum. Now, this could be awful. And I’ve seen some Chinese movies where it was, actually, because the husband and wife are grating and you wanna kick the kid, but somehow in these opening sequences, you end up really liking our poor little family. The wife tells her husband not to bother entering contests, for example, because he used up all his luck—meeting her. And he doesn’t disagree.

There’s an inherent lack of meanness in their antics, which makes you not regret sitting down with them for 100 minutes. Meanwhile, a group of terrorists is plotting to hijack the plane, because a long lost asset has surfaced and will be on the plane with our unlucky travelers, as well as a host of different characters.

On the plane we meet: the tough-as-nails stewardess who’s sunshine to the passengers and a drill sergeant to her crew; the goofy steward who always wanted to be a spy and imagines hearing conspiracies; the woman who would literally rather die in business class than go back to economy; the pregnant daughter-in-law who can’t stand her, but who is being shuttled to Hawaii so she can birth an American child (our birthright citizenship laws are nuts, aren’t they?); the elderly grandfather who wants to talk your ear off; the movie star traveling incognito; the teenagers who are all fans of hers; the guy with the fear of flying. And so on.

Wafer thin!

The difference between “living the dream” and “being trapped in a nightmare” can be wafer thin.

Then there are the terrorists who are searching for the agent who defected and hasn’t been seen in a decade. There’s also an agent of South Korea on the plane who’s supposed to stop the terrorists.  (At some point, you almost think, well, hell, everyone’s an agent for some side or another.) We don’t know who any of the good guys are at first. And while there are some bad-asses among the terrorists, there’s the one guy who got the call late and doesn’t speak Chinese (which they’ve all agreed to speak exclusively during the mission) and who keeps blowing their cover.

You know how this stuff is supposed to play out, and yet so much of it doesn’t. Because while the characters can be played for jokes at times, they also all get their moment. They’re allowed to be something other than the butt of jokes. (The sole exception is a Korean congressman who’s constantly asking if people Know Who He Is. He’s a jackass the whole time. I’m okay with that.) Even the terrorists have a motivation that we can actually get behind: The agent they’re trying to get is the key to stopping a nuclear war. And there are numerous twists on that front as well.

But wait, there’s more!

There is a female super-agent and she has to fight seven (or eight…or nine…as one of the gags goes) men. And while she can fight and the action scenes are quite good, sometimes the men will literally just pick her up and slam her down, and she doesn’t recover from that easily. In other words, the ability to fight never obviates the massive discrepancy in weight and strength of men versus women.

So there.

Who is the mysterious passenger? (Well, it’s Sun-Bin Lee from Rampant, but that clarifies nothing!)

I’m eliding a lot because the little twists and turns are what make the film so much fun and I was constantly struck how such a light bit of fluff is literally impossible in America. The plane would have to be apportioned by ethnicity (only one ethnicity in Korea), and each ethnicity would’ve been constrained by the allowable permitted by the SJW moral code. My advice for people wanting to see fun movies these days is learn to read subtitles.

One thing I spotted: The housewife in the movie is supposed to be about 40 (her age is point of some comedy). But I knew both that she was older and also she was hotter than they were making her out to be because they wanted her to be a little frumpy. They put her in baggy clothes and gave her the Korean version of a Karen haircut:

Awful, awful picture.

OK, Karen.

But in her day-to-day life, she’s actually fifty and looks like this (from a Korean tabloid):

Deals with the devil...let's not rule them out.

Like a Korean Elizabeth Hurley or something.

There’s a Korean in-joke here, since the actress (Uhm Jung-hwa) is sort of a cross between Mariah Carey and Sharon Stone, having a very successful music career on the one hand, and starring in romcoms, erotic thrillers and action flix on the other. Her ability to make the naggy, parsimonious housewife thing appealing—treading that fine line between caring and domineering—is a big part of the reason this movie works.

Train To Busan presents Peninsula

Ending the longest movie drought in 30 years, The Boy and I trucked out to Orange County, where cinemas are kinda sorta open to see a Korean double-feature of Peninsula and Okay Madam.

The Koreans seem to have come to the zombie party late, relative to the western world, with Rampant (2018) and the smash hit Train to Busan (2016) which provided Ma Deong-sook the breakout role that would ultimately land him a part in the Marvel’s upcoming movie The Eternals. (Prediction: Movie will be awful and unsuccessful. He’ll be great but not in it much.) The influences of the Korean zombie movies are pretty clearly the 28 Days Later “Rage virus” style (pioneered by Return of the Living Dead) and not your mopey George Romero zombies, though as in all post-Romero zombie movies, the real monster is always Man.

Nah, these are the good guys.

Pictured: The Real Monsters

Peninsula is a sequel to Train, though merely taking place in the same universe four years later with no overlap in characters, hence the Train to Busan Presents title. It’s really just another movie in the same universe. At the same time, I felt there was a connection, as the movie kept presenting flashbacks and it took place in an army base that was originally set up for rescue but which has gone feral. (The final scene of Train has the survivors finding an army base—but since they were headed to Busan and Peninsula centers around Inchon on the other side of the country, it seems unlikely to be the same base.)

The hook here is a bunch of people have escaped Korea and are living in Hong Kong, where they’re being treated quite badly by the Chinese, who suspect them of carrying the disease and also of being Korean. This part of the movie is in badly pronounced English which is kind of cool because you’re thinking “I can understand Korean!” but, no, English is the, em, lingua franca between Asians, it seems.

Anyway, our refugees are offered a chance by some very dodgy individuals: Go back to the peninsula (Korea) and retrieve a truck containing 20 million dollars (in Ben Franklins, no less) and split it with these dodgy guys. Then you can live a life of luxury and not care that everyone in Hong Kong hates you. It’s too much for our rag-tag team to turn down, though the most reluctant of the group is, naturally, the most capable and heroic. He goes out of an obligation to help one of the others, whose wife and children he had to sacrifice in order to save everyone else.


I got a real “Escape from New York” vibe from this scene. Also, there’s a creature that reminds me of “In The Mouth of Madness”.

The trick is this: The zombies are basically blind at night. So if you move fast and quiet you can get around okay. And in the least surprising development, things don’t go as planned. Turns out the rogue army base likes to go around and light up the areas around any “wild dogs” scavenging. Those that aren’t killed are rounded up for games of “Plants vs. Zombies” where they play the role of the plants. There are also some “wild dogs” who have survived the past four years outsmarting the increasingly insane army guys—this is what happens when you have a draft, if you ask me—and the movie becomes a chase centered around the $20M and how to use it to get off the peninsula.

It’s basically 28 Months Later with elements of Road Warrior and Escape from New York, and that was okay with us. I felt some of the dramatic parts were strung out too long, and some other action-movie-shorthand-tropes were a little too short hand: For example, one of the major characters is a “wild dog” who escaped from the army base when it started going nuts and who lives with her two young daughters. The older of the two is probably twelve and expert driver. (It was unclear to me how she would ever gain expertise in that context, but whatever.) At one point, the mother knows the hero is going to strike the army base to rescue his former companion. I couldn’t figure out why she would know that. I couldn’t figure out why she would wait. Later, I couldn’t figure out why she would risk her life to save him. (The only thing I could figure is that she thought he might be useful getting her girls out, but I’m doing a lot of heavy lifting at the point.)

The acting is good and the set design is good. It’s more convincing when it’s humans in an (obviously CGI) backdrop, and less so when there’s any car chase (which is all clearly CGI). Critics are “meh” about this one but audiences like it okay (it made $4M opening day at the box office in Korea, which is apparently a record), and we’d put ourselves in the latter camp. It’s frothy fun with characters to love and hate, and it’s not boring. Written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, who wrote and directed both Train to Busan and the animated prequel that led to it. (The hero, Dong-Won Gong, was in 1987: When The Day Comes but that was one of those movies where I was just struggling to figure out what was going on, so I didn’t recognize him here.)

Worth a watch. And our first post-pandemic movie!

It wasn't that bad. Lockdown has its uses.

Staring down The 5 freeway to get to the O.C.