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    Scene from Spider Forest. in New York Korean Film Festival
    Scene from "Spider Forest."

    The Korean pine-insula

    A suspense movie about bad things that live in the forest is joined by a couple of unexpected comedies as highlights of the New York Korean Film Festival.


    They say comedy gets lost in translation, which explains why it's much easier to bring a cop drama or a haunted house story over from — oh, let's say, picking a country at random, Korea. And yet somehow, the comedies are the best stuff at this year's New York Korean Film Festival (Sept. 2-11 at the Lighthouse Theater and BAM).


    Related links: Official site
    Lighthouse Theater 111 East 59th St. (212) 821-9200 BAM Cinematek 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn (718) 636-4100

    The unlikeliest concept on the program is "The President's Barber," a movie about a guy who becomes just what the title says — the president's barber. It's also the most strangely satisfying movie on the list. An eccentric sense of humor lightens up what is otherwise a rather serious historical commentary about national politics as witnessed from behind the president's scalp.

    The other notable comedy in the festival is "Mapado," a much less weighty and more screwball affair. Two tough guys are bounced by circumstances out to a remote island where they expect to push around the local rubes and get what they came for — until they find themselves outmatched by a gaggle of plucky widows. There's a lot of slapstick and silliness — I thought of Laurel and Hardy more than once — and it's ultimately a good, fun romp.

    Scene from The President's Barber. in New York Korean Film Festival  
    Scene from "The President's Barber."
    My favorite among the serious films is "Spider Forest." A TV producer from Seoul seems to have been followed by misfortune at every turn in his life, so when a bizarre tip sends him to a particularly spooky forest, we can tell something bad looms ahead. In fact, we know so — because the story starts with a horror scene in a lonely cabin that a couple has been using as a trysting place, then backtracks and retells the story several times over, adding details as it goes. As with so many supernatural stories, logic is not the number-one reason to stick with this tangled web, but the dark beauty of the scenery is well matched by the film's palpable air of mystery.

    A number of other films on the docket are fair summer entertainment, though not necessarily superior to a decent Hollywood formula picture.

    "The Scarlet Letter" is not the Hawthorne classic — it's a bloody modern thriller about sex, violence and treachery. A cop — who himself has been cheating on his pregnant wife — finds himself mired in the case of a murdered husband. The dead man's delicate wife might be implicated in his violent slaying, or it could be a mysterious paramour. Who could know? Maybe or maybe not detective Ki-hoon (Suk-kyu Han of "Shiri" and "Double Agent"), who has his own worries. The movie's characters and plot aren't 100 percent convincing, but it does include some highly disturbing scenes of suspense and agony. Call it 50 percent of a fine movie.

      Scene from Mr. Gam's Victory. in New York Korean Film Festival
      Scene from "Mr. Gam's Victory."
    "Another Public Enemy" is a sequel to a successful 2002 cop movie, not terribly engrossing in itself although it's accrued buzz on the Internet because of a number of oddities — the use of multiple directors and the jumbling of actors, characters and jobs from the first "Public Enemy" to the second. Lead actor Sol Kyung-gu (of the outstanding "Peppermint Candy" and the disturbing "Oasis") is a mopheaded, droopy-eyed presence as an alleged prosecutor on the trail of mob corruption. The movie did well in its home country, but a lot of things just don't feel right.

    "Mr. Gam's Victory" is a nice little true-life story about how an underdog factory worker struggles to earn a roster spot on a pro team in the early years of Korean baseball. At first overlooked as he rides the end of the bench, he finally gets a chance to start a game, with all the drama that brings. Will he pull it out in the bottom of the ninth with the potential winning run on base? Dozens of baseball films have covered these bases before, and this one is neither more original nor more dramatic than its predecessors. But just like the game of baseball itself, which has been played the same way for a century but still stirs excitement every time the players take the field, this movie is a fairly pleasing recapitulation of all the baseball stories that came before.

    SEPTEMBER 7, 2005

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