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Monthly Archives: March 2012

The second feature of Na Hong-jin after “The Chaser” is again a very physical experience. Ku-Nam, the hero of the film, lives in one of the more decrepit  corners of the world, the Yanbian prefecture encircled by North-Korea, China and Russia. A place that breeds crime, and desperate inhabitants willing to take any chance to get away, or at least make some money to improve the misery of living in this parallel universe.

This setting is actually what I found most interesting: it moves the film away from the glitzy Seoul background of “The Chaser”, it creates an interesting mix of languages, characters, their own respective reservations or mutual hatred and micro-racism. There are major players governing the movements of goods and people in this world, ruling it almost like the Duke of New York did in his parallel world of yonder.

And these characters are all very much alive. This was what struck me: the slick Korean gangster is as much an elaborated character of the script as the human trafficker sporting his run-down fur coat and a rusty axe. Caught between those is Ku-Nam, who needs to execute a simple task to free himself from the cruel grip of Myung-Ga, realises rather late that other interests are at play, and starts a very long run from the (not very talented and surprisingly little armed) police forces and the (more talented and more armed) underworld men.

My only critique on this film is the initial scene where Ku-Nam needs to flee his supposed crime scene, and literally runs from hundreds of police men in dozens of cars who just seem unable to bring him down. This scene could have been fun, but is mostly played as a money-burning car-crashing set piece with an straight face. As I find nothing as mundane and boring as car chases and police cars merrily crashing into each other, that took me out of the plot a bit. But I was rewarded with a strange passage where he escapes in a mixture of First Blood and Atanarjuat, again with very physical efforts to cross distances, with pain and effort, until he finally is able to set up his counter strike.

During this last act, Myung-Ga, the crook who set him off on his mission originally, almost takes over the movie, played by Kim Yun-Seok with tongue-in-cheek and unflinching, uncompromising violence – while always seeming kind of a nice guy. And yes, at some point, there is somebody standing in a room, drenched in blood, dripping, sharp weapon in hand (well, mutton leg bone, originally…). It IS a Korean thriller, after all!

And we have learned from a sample of 2 by director Na Hong-Jin: he is not a proponent of, say, traditional happy endings…

The most fascinating thing about “A Separation” is not that it is a very good film (it is), but that it has become such a success in the international markets. I believe that every year you have literally dozens of films made in professional and profound film businesses of all parts of the world that are of similar quality, gripping stories professionally processed into credible script and put to the screen by competent staff. Occasionally one gets picked out and highlighted, and for me that is usually inspiration to spend the next days and weeks looking for more … not more Iranian movies necessary (even though there seems to be a lot great stuff, I hear), but more international cinema. Full stop. Not even arthouse or independent – most non-US productions have a budget that qualifies them as low or no budget anyway, if that should count as a quality argument (matter of fact, I believe there are many terrible low budget movies, if only for the fact that there are so many people making low budget movies). No, entertainment, drama, death, love, comedy… whatever it is, international films deserve so much more attention, and A Separation is to be thanked for reminding me of this.

As a story, it  does not even have much going for itself: a straightforward drama set in the a culture that initially we may find hard to comprehend, but the individual characters’ ability or inability to do what they think is right is explained, or rather conveyed, masterly to the audience (which may mean that the film has been written with a specific focus on international audiences – I am sure Iranians would need half the hints and explanations): Husband and wife separate, the daughter suffers and tries to steer against, a sick father needs to be taken care of, help from outside is sought. Something happens. Who is responsible? This is no divorce drama, if you can put any label on it then it is a courtroom drama about guilt, and one of the most admirable characters is the judge who sits like a rock in the center of a storm of emotions and … say … expressive characters and tries to hold the world together. You can learn a lot about family life, the role of women, the judicial system, the schooling … you end up understanding so many things about a country you thought you knew nothing about – and just because a filmmaker told a story. That’s why more international movies should be watched!

I now understand which last cliché was missing in “House of the Devil”: the secret in the basement! “The Innkeepers” is by no means a great film, but watch it back to back with that atrocity that was “Don’t be afraid of the dark” and see the difference. In both case, somebody decides to find out “what’s in the basement”, in both cases you think “that is usually not a very good idea, especially on your own”, and in the case of “… dark” you decide after a minute that you actually don’t even care. In “The Innkeepers” by what I from now on will refer to as The Master of Recycled Horror Modules Ti West, you are more invested. I won’t say that I did, but would I have spoken to the screen, I would have shouted something like “damn fool, don’t go there, you know what will happen, you have seen the same movies I have seen, don’t you know that it is EVIL???!!” or something along these lines. And this despite the clunky plot points leading person A to location B and down to C, just to make sure at some point somebody can be inconveniently isolated again. And Kelly McGillis swinging the pendulum is funny…  In contrast to the previous two Ti West films I have just seen, by the way, and in defense of “The Innkeepers” (as if it would need any – every genre fan must love it, as despite its flaws it is better by leagues than 90 per cent of the annual releases) I have to mention the two actors inhabiting the film’s center and the Inn’s reception desk. A geek and a sweetie, both not the regular schlock fodder by any means, and even though the guy has an interest in paranormal phenomena and all the gear to measure them, most of the time that is not an issue at all. Just two kids hanging out while happening to watch over a hotel and having a couple of beers. Until things go wrong, of course, as they must in Mr West’s movies.

“it’s only four hours and all I have to do is watch tv and then it’s over” and “but I need the money” are not good sentences for a pretty female movie character to speak that intends to see the credits roll at the end. In particular so when the film is by horror-thriller weird person-of-the decade Ti West. Aren’t these the sentences most clearly indicative some something being seriously, I mean, SERIOUSLY wrong in a movie called “The House of the Devil”? Ah, why does she not listen to her friend Megan and take the “baby” sitting job despite her employer being beyond weird…? Now … the number of clichés processed in this movie in not always terribly creative fashion is legion. The phone call to an anonymous public phone. The house in the middle of nowhere. The baby sitting where there ain’t no baby. The woman upstairs. The sounds from the attic. The girl dancing around the house with headphones so she cannot hear what’s going on. The old man with the cane… no, really, like Trigger Man before, this is not original. What makes it great is Ti West’s willingness to treat it as if it was. He is not shy, he pulls all the stops and invents a ghost in the attic meets Rosemary’s Baby horror flick and he does not seem to give a damn about the fact that there are already hundreds of films trying to do the same. I think Ti West is a proud person… maybe even arrogant, and he throws this arrogance into the film to create his own version of horror movie history – the rough cut… I have the same conclusion as for Trigger Man: this film should be too full of clichés to be entertaining, but strangely enough, it is… and creepy!

Triggered (haha) by the release of “The Innkeepers” and the frequent mention of director Ti West as a somewhat hopeful figure on the horizon of horror and terror (cinematically speaking), I was doing some homework: Trigger Man is a tale of thee dudes going out for a weekend in the woods, six-pack and hunting rifles included. You do expect something to go wrong in that setting, and believe me, it does. What’s interesting is how long it takes the trip to go pear-shaped. Because that setting is such a red flag, and because one trip member is floating on a cushion of creepiness and instability from the outset, there is immediate tension once our band of three reaches their destination, and then… nothing happens for very long time. This part is maybe what I appreciated most about “Trigger Man”, the courage to not follow genre conventions right away, but to let it play out, to torture the audience that is expecting torture, but differently. I have no idea who Ti West is, but he sure has seen his share of genre movies and knows when to stay with a convention and when to break it. When he decides the waiting needs to be over, things happen with a bang, a bang lacking melodrama or arabesques. This is raw, depicted with almost verité-fervour, reminding in style of no-frills assaults as Carpenter’s Precinct 13 or Night of the Living Dead (have those two ever been named in one sentence? Now they have!). In this kind of movie, the camera is often shaky, you sometimes suffer the same disorientation as the characters on screen, there is plenty of heavy breathing and mindless running. Then you hide, and wait. This is what “Trigger Man” is: all these well-seasoned elements brought together, shaken and out comes not an original masterpiece, but a genre product that is somehow refreshingly old-fashioned. And has some bangs in it. And several trigger men.

Art Attack: Jia Zhangke Treats You to Art Movies, Plus More Art, Books and Music | the Beijinger Blog | 2 Kolegas | Mar 16, 2012 |

The hero of this film has one of the most graceful professions I have ever witnessed: he prepares the bodies of the deceased for encoffining – is that a word? He washes the bodies of the dead, applies make up and cotton tabs, lipstick and rouge, shaves the men’s faces  – everything to make the bodies look graceful and alive while the families mourn and bid their farewells. This profession requires grace and skill, following a carefully planned choreography that allows you to change dead persons, already in rigor mortis, into their final garment. This happens all over the world, of course – but here we are in Japan, and it seems that part of the local ritual is that all these preparations are not hidden away in the back room of the funeral home, but in full sight of the family at the home of the deceased, as part of the farewell ritual. This requires guts, I kept wondering how many professions there are where so much pressure is on the performer, where the audience is in such a fragile state of mind, where the subtle atmosphere can so easily be shattered by applying the wrong shade of red or by exposing a tiny speck of skin, or by cutting the cheeks with the razor blade and causing the dead skin to fall off. This is seriously frightening, and the film shows both the profound level of appreciation main character Daigo receives for his art (“she has never been that beautiful”), indifference and slight annoyance at a necessary part of the ceremony performed by some outcast (“you don’t want to spend your whole life preparing bodies like that guy does!”) and hysteric rage (“it’s all wrong, all wrong, she does not look like that!”). Daigo discovers his fascination for this late in life, after half a career as professional musician, but when he stumbles across the job to help out the old master, he realizes very soon that this is something he can put his heart into. He knows his choice will not be appreciated, but still he is stunned when learning that his wife is actually so ashamed by what he does that she threatens to leave him.

The film is far from perfect: Why there is such an irrational and aggressive resistance of his family and environment against his job is hard to comprehend (maybe easier if you are more familiar with the culture). There is a wild combination of themes that not always fit together. While in its strongest moments the film frequently returns to the funeral rituals, it also addresses musical passion and father-son issues. Adding the cello as a theme to provide for suitably sad background music is a bit of a blunt sleigh of hands, and there is a strange and ill-conceived kitsch intermission music video montage that took me out of the film quite a bit. The lost and found father theme does not make any sense during the film, but it is always clear that it will play a role at some point, and it does.

“Okuribito”, which won the Oscar for best foreign language film, is still a great movie, as it manages to tell a story about death and mourning in a light-hearted, often funny and – to use that term a final time – very graceful way.

What a pile of rubbish – embarrassing monsters that would have been funny in “Cat’s Eye”, but the film makers lack any sense of that kind of humour. Not a single surprise through the whole film (except the odd “oh no, they can’t be serious… is it really THAT bad???”), unimpressive acting, … hmpf, completely forgettable.

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