Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (2015) Korean Movie Review
Directed by and starring Ha Jung-Woo! Ha Ji-Won as supporting character.
Korean cinema has been on a streak of giving movies bad movie names. In the case of this movie, Heo Sam-Gwan is okay as it is just the name of the title character in the vein of “Forrest Gump” (1994). The problem is with the official English title “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant.” It is like naming “Forrest Gump” (1994), the “Chronicle of a professional runner.” Both could be said to be descriptive of their movies but are also misleading as they seem not to understand the nuances associated with English word selection.
The title character, Heo Sam-Gwan, is not a Blood Merchant. It would be like calling Vince Vaughn’s character from “Delivery Man” (2013) a sperm merchant. Oh! You may not have heard about “Delivery Man” (2013). It is a story about Vince Vaughn being a guy who has dozens of kids from selling his sperm to a sperm bank when he was young. Would you call “Delivery Man” (2013) the “Tale of sperm merchant”?
Before getting to the plot of “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015), I’ll have to explain the whole “blood selling” thing. The movie is set in the early 60s to late 60s Korea, which is the post-Korean war era when reconstruction was heating up, but everyone was still inferior. It was not uncommon for millions of people to go without eating for days before the spring harvest. So, selling blood at blood banks was an easy way of getting a lot of cash at once. Remember, the Vietnam war thing was heating up around this period, and Korea was exporting lots of blood.
Because of this, there were Koreans who sold more blood than was allowed by law and the Hippocratic Oath. This is shown in snippets thought out the movie in a similar vein of how gambling is portrayed in movies. It is self-destructive. In any case, the “blood selling” thing is more of a plot device in the movie that only comes into play in the movie in the first act and in the third act. However, blood in terms of familial bonds and paternity is central to the movie more than selling blood is.
So, let’s get to the plot of “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015).
Setting the whole “blood selling” thing aside, “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is basically a story about a father and young son relationship and how “Paternity” affects this familial bond. Well, it tries to tell this story however it veers off into the realm of this social fantasy Koreans have about the parents who sacrifice for their children to the degree of self-immolation. And thus, the child should reciprocate with similar unnerving dedicating and love.
More about this later.
You have title character, Heo Sam-Gwan, who is basically this local poor blue-collar guy living in a small regional town. Since he is young and without a gal yet, he muscles in on an already existing relationship between the most beautiful girl in town and a rich local dandy.
The most beautiful girl in town is not also well off!
Think Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). The most beautiful girl in town played by Ha Ji-Won is Belle but without the book learning and self-determination. The rich local dandy is essentially Gaston but without the machismo and hate. So, just basically what we would think of being a gay fab in pop culture. The title character, Heo Sam-Gwan is more actually like Vince Vaughn when he is indifferent about his job mixed with “Droopy the dog” from the old Warner Brother cartoons.
The first act has Heo Sam-Gwan deciding to get married and snatching someone else’s girl. The blood selling thing is just to get a war chest to basically bribe her father to dissolve the existing engagement and make her marry him. Then they start a family in the town they lived in for their entire lives.
So, Heo Sam-Gwan is sorting of s jerk but the movie lets that go since the other guy was a dandy in the first place.
The second act followers the flow of events involving their first among three sons and Heo Sam-Gwan when blood comes into play in their lives once more. Darn 1960s modern technology.
Skylark and cuckoo bird live in the same neighbourhood….
What do you think would have happened?
The third act….? Let’s talk about it later.
Whimsy Period Charm!
Before talking about the negatives which this movie has lots of, why not go over the positives? “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is not a movie with really much plot and even less well-developed characters. Rather, it is about this fable-like whimsical small town set in this era that did not really exist in the manner displayed in the movie. It is also about the quirky “Characters”, who populate that town, and their interactions. Think of a Wes Anderson movie such as The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
While the movie is set sometime in the 60s, it is not the 60s of historical reality. Rather it is collections all the random images Koreans nostalgically think of when vaguely imagining about this time period cumulated in one place. While you know that this world does not seem like reality, you cannot help but go with it because of the overwhelming charm to the world. This is the strongest selling point of “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015). It is not the plot and not the title character but the world created by the movie.
It is interesting to see all the era familiar canned goods just packed into this movie.
So, it is the Wes Anderson approach to world creation. This also goes for the characters who are almost all quirky characters that could not exist in this small place with this density and not have the world implode into the black hole. In addition, there are no plot reasons for quirkiness. It is quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness.
The movie actually has “Yoon Eun-Hye”, the starlet of many Korean dramas, wear a “fat-suit” and basically play “Melissa McCarthy”, the fattest and ugliest hag in the town, for no plot-related reason. You could cut this out and the movie would not change at all. The only reason for doing this is to go double on the quirkiness.
Oh, and they actually have Yoon Eun-Hye’s character fall into an old fashion outhouse because she was fat and the floor collapsed… well off-screen. This is a Wes Anderson – like a movie and not an actual Melissa McCarthy movie after all.
A consequence of this is that none of the characters in this movie is well-developed three-dimensional characters with a backstory and motivation. They are quirky because the world demands they be quirky. And most of the audience will be able to accept this setup in as with aWes Anderson movie.
The second best thing about “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is the score. This is a movie that feels like a silent movie sometimes because the score is constantly blazing unrelentingly to articulate the motions of the scenes in place of sound effects. In other words, it is like a pre-80s movie score before sound design overtook the scores in terms of movie music. The composer did his job well and the score is rather exceptional although somewhat familiar if you have seen movies made prior to the 80s.
In terms of the tone of the score, it has actually a lot of swing jazz feeling songs and other energetic tunes played by what seems like at least half an orchestra. This is rather an interesting choice as you would not particularly think of those types of music to express the 60s of Korea. However, this also helps with Wes Anderson – like world-building.
The score itself made me think of the music choices Woody Allen would have made in his early movies set in New York circa late 70s. And, at this point, let’s segway into the issues with the movie.
I do not want to see Vince Vaughn in a Wes Anderson movie!
The score is not the only thing that makes me think of Woody Allen in “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015). The title character, Heo Sam-Gwan has a more Woody Allen like feeling to him rather than feeling like a Wes Anderson character even though he is a rather simple blue-collar character. Woody Allen’s characters seem to be the whiter collar.
Heo Sam-Gwan is one of those characters who are self-sabotaging and it is those elements that cause him the most problems. In “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015), essentially most of the problems he experiences it the result of his actions. There is no antagonist in this movie. Rather, Heo Sam-Gwan is both the story’s pro- and antagonist. And he and the script are not self-reflective enough to acknowledge this fact.
While you could do something with this character, the problem with this is that this is rather in stark contrast with the other characters that populate the world in the movie. The quirky caricatures of Wes Anderson cannot really handle this “Drama”. So, the actor Ha Jung-Woo actually plays it straight resulting in the fact that our title character, Heo Sam-Gwan, is the least interesting character in a movie filled with caricatures yes but at least interesting quirky caricatures. Being portrayed straight but still having the depth of a caricature just makes the character dull.
I have not actually seen Ha Jung-Woo, the lead actor here, starring movie since he seemed to have become big during the last 5 years or so when I was not watching many Korean movies. However, from this movie, I would not be interested to watch any of his movies as his performance here is just boring. It is not terrible or anything but just boring. Once again he is just an indifferent Vince Vaughn in this movie which is not the Vince Vaughn you want to see for 2 hours.
Separate from the character, Ha Jung-Woo has another thing in common with Woody Allen in“Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015). Ha, Jung-Woo is acting as the lead and directing “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) at the same time that Woody Allen was famous for doing the same. And I think this was a serious problem with the production. The whole directing and starring arrangement tends to come out the best when the director/star has a specific acting character pinned down to the finer gains of the character. Without that, it is easy for acting to get sidetracked by the directing. Heo Sam-Gwan, the character, is a good example case for this.
The second act… and going for the “Drama”!
As stated before, the atmosphere of the world of “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is the strongest element of the movie. However, the movie doesn’t particularly know what to do with it as the story it is trying to tell is not totally well integrated with the whimsy and quirk of the world.
The result is that, when the so-called “Drama “gets into full gear midway through the second act, most of the whimsy and quirk are no longer really in the forefront and we are just left with Heo Sam-Gwan, our dull protagonist.
This is not totally an accurate statement. We are left with Heo Sam-Gwan and his so-called “firstborn” son. Through most of the latter half of the second act, it is these two characters’ show. But not in the way you would think. With Heo Sam-Gwan being the source of all his own problems, he essentially becomes the antagonist of the story while the firstborn son becomes the protagonist.
You may think this would be an improvement since I’ve just complained about Heo Sam-Gwan as a dull character. However, the son is as dull as the father and he is played by a 12ish kid actor. For a kid actor, the young actor in this role is not bad. However, he is not memorable also. I literally could not remember his face leaving the movie. And the kid also plays it Kid “DRAMA” straight. Thus, you are just switching one dull adult character for a dull kid character.
This second act is when the social fantasy Koreans have about the parenthood comes into play. The kid has unrequited love towards a character who does not warrant it, his father. This all leads up to eventual reciprocal self-sacrifice on the part of the parent. However, this is only for the father since mothers just naturally do it without that reciprocal relationship..? The actual message of the movie is rather cluttered.
Getting back on track, the second act seriously lags and brings the movie to a halt. At this point, you do not want someone to just die so you can escape from this movie yet. However, that will come later in the third act.
A lot of the promotion for this movie was put on Ha Ji-Won. However, in the actual movie, her character is a supporting character at best. “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is a story about a father and son directed by the actor playing the father! So, as you would expect, there is not much place for the mother other than being the mother.
Ha Ji-Won as an actress is fine for what she is given in the movie. She is not a great actress however her comedic skill is better than her dramatic ones. Thus, she actually fits in well with the Wes Anderson like the backdrop of the movie.
Love Forecast (2015), which opened on the same day as this movie and stars her former costar of “The King 2 Hearts” (2012), is her female star’s, Moon Chae-Won, movie. However, “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) does not do the same for her.
As the review is going long let’s go into the final stretch.
I want Lost’s ending!
With the rather dragging second act ended, you go into the third act. “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) can be said to be a 3 act movie but with 2 endings shoved into the 3rd act. As a result, it could even be called a 4 act movie in away. Not a good setup for myself who already is ready to leave.
The first ending which I’ll 3rd act part 1 is actually the organic ending to the story that the movie has been telling to that point. It was a story tolled in a rather small manner using just the small space of the town and the quirky characters living there. The 3rd act part 1 ends the plotline in the same manner. The movie could have ended there and the movie would have been better than what is becoming. It would just have been an interesting experiment from a director on his second film that did not fully work.
The second ending of the 3rd act that I will call 3rd act part 2 is a total Hail Mary pass that goes totally sideways and off the field. It bursts out of the setting the movie had for most of the movie and shifts back to the Heo Sam-Gwan focus narrative but on a plot separate from the rest of the movie. It feels like a sequel in a lot of ways.
The previous plot had ended but we still have to fill in time?
The 3rd act part 2 ranks up the melodrama by a factor of 11. The positive side of this is that Ha Jung-Woo is doing his best melodramatic face which is less boring than the rest of what he did in the movie. The huge downside is that the movie becomes hugely overdramatic to the degree it actually becomes grotesque with Heo Sam-Gwan goes down the path of self-immolation. This is combined with a rather blatant “Universal medical care” addenda of the present that has no place in the movie. And this addenda is where the grotesque comes into play.
Considering that this 3rd act part 2 goes for more than 20 minutes in a 2 hour-ish movie, I just wished that the whole family would just die so I could leave. What made this experience worse is that all of the actions of Heo Sam-Gwan in the 3rd act part have no impact on the outcome of this plot what so ever. He could have just slept through the last 25 minutes of the movie and nothing would have changed!
There are a few interesting things about the ending of the movie. First, it could have totally gone right after 3rd act part 1 and fit perfectly. Second, it could be set in heaven as everyone is dead because Heo Sam-Gwan was such a dumbass. He is really a dumb ass. There is a point in the 3rd act part 2 where you could think that after that point everything was a dying man’s delusions. If so, the movie would have been an improvement. However, the movie is not that subtle enough to make that an option in the 3rd act part 2. Rather, it is in just my head and wishes.
I want a Lost like ending to this movie!
“Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is the director/ actor’s attempt to be Woody Allen and Wes Anderson at the same time. As a so-so actor turned director on his second film in which the first was weirder than a good comedy, this was too ambitious for the director, Ha Jung-Woo. He is only imitating the work of either master.
The best thing about the movie is its whimsy world and quirky characters populating it. You can just feel the period charm wood out the screen. The score is also pretty good too. However, in terms of the actual story, the movie does not know how to handle it and the acting of director/ actors is not great which is odd for a director/ actor piece.
Overall, it was not a great movie-going experience in the end although I enjoyed the first act of the movie a lot. I may go watch a Ha Jung-Woo directed movie again but have no interested in his acting work. “Chronicle of a Blood Merchant” (2015) is an interesting experiment that blew up in my face! I mean MY face. I give it a score of C-.
It seems like Love Forecast (2015) is the winner of this week for me!
Score: C- or 3.75/10