Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Centurion (Neil Marshall)

The Lone Centurion--I know, wrong historical drama, but much more entertaining

Sword and slaughter

A world power marches into the mountainous territory of a half-civilized people and quickly finds itself immersed in a quagmire of fierce fighting, guerrilla tactics, terror attacks (at one point a convoy is stopped, and flaming roadside devices are deployed).

The world power is not the United States but the Rome Empire; the territory is not Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan but Scotland. It is the time of Hadrian, and he is struggling to deal with the threat of the Picts, Celtish warriors who paint their faces a bright blue and who like to wield the throwing axe--an impressive weapon that can severe a limb or split open a skull, or with an additional swing fling itself as far as twenty feet to bury its bladed head in someone's chest.

Unorthodox tactics to the Roman legionnaire, whose preferred weapon was the short sword (perfect for quick, precise work, not so suited to berserker fighting). There are ample examples of both styles of combat in Neil Marshall's Centurion, his historical action thriller just released last month on DVD, and it would be wonderful to report that he makes full use of the contrast, but no--there are some intricately choreographed fight sequences, rendered halfway (but only halfway) intelligible by the somewhat frenetic editing (Marshall is no Paul Greengrass, thankfully, but neither is he a Philip Noyce, alas).

The film is basically a long chase--a group of decimated Romans tries to rejoin the rest of the Roman army while a band of bloodthirsty Picts hunt them down. Too often the hunted back themselves into absurd situations (they adopt the strategy of not taking the obvious Southward route, only to find that the Picts are perfectly capable of tracking them down anyway; when trapped they resort to the Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid style of last-minute escape: leaping off a high cliff into a roaring river (doesn't it ever occur to anyone that the water might be shallow?)). There's some inconsistency too: the Picts hunt hard and fast, and sometimes they feel as if they're supernaturally prescient in tracking down their Roman prey, sometimes they seem to slack off and disappear for long periods of time (it depends, you feel, on the needs of the script or the whim of the director, when it shouldn't--you should be too busy worrying about their chances for survival).

The finale is satisfyingly intricate--an abandoned Roman fort acts as setting for three different duels, happening at two different levels. The whole is too dependent, however, on precise editing to keep the fight sequences distinct and comprehensible (Marshall doesn't deliver, alas). Not bad, but not quite first class, either.

The movie does dwell on more realpolitik than is usual for action movies. The survivors are led by a centurion named Dias (Michael Fassbender) and he's not your usual gung-ho, do-or-die military officer--though he does decide to run for miles and miles and risk the lives of four or five surviving soldiers to save a Roman general. Dias has his thoughtful side, as when he says "It's easy to turn to the gods for salvation...but it's soldiers who do the fighting, and soldiers who do the dying, and the gods never get their feet wet." He confronts Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a mighty Pictish warrior-woman who wields a spear that might have come out of Liu Chia-liang's Legendary Weapons of China--Etain is a fearsome opponent and a relentless, bloodthirsty killer, but she has reasons: her family was massacred when she was a child and she herself raped, her tongue cut out to ensure her silence.

The good guys have their doubts, the bad guys their motivation; the grounds for opposition shift ever so slightly this way and that. When Dias meets Arianne (Imogen Poot, a much more gorgeous-looking actress than the name might suggest)--exile, healer, reputed sorceress--he finds plenty of reason to at least settle down, if not change allegiance; when he finally accomplishes his mission--when he in effect reaches safe haven--his very presence as survivor of a Pictish massacre is a potential embarrassment to the Roman military. Marshall does a swell job of muddying up simplistic action-movie waters (he did an equally fine job of injecting feminist subtext into his underseen horror thriller The Descent), it's a pity he didn't do more with this, substantiate the characters rather than the choreography, concentrate on the machinations rather than the manslaughter (you saw this unexploited potential in The Descent as well).

The movie is on the verge of being so good it's painful to see how close it managed to get before missing the mark altogether; you want to handcuff Marshall down in front of a desktop and threaten to withhold the key till he comes up with a really good, really thought-through script--concept pushed as far as it can go--this time around. One waits, with some interest, for his next work. 

First published in Businessworld, 12.09.10 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Black Swan, The Fighter, The Tourist, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Natalie Portman, basically trying to do to herself what Aronofsky was doing with this movie

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Michael Apted's adaptation of the latest Narnia movies has plenty the matter with it, of course, and it all starts from how the whole series was conceived and designed--a bit of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (the sweeping, digitally constructed  battle sequences, the rousing martial music, the odd sea serpent or dragon), a bit of Harry Potter (the magic flashes out from hands and objects like so many digitally added laser beams). Whoever the production designer and special effects supervisor were--either Apted signed on without insisting on approving the design or effects beforehand or he's never been one to obsess over a film's overall look or this may not have been a personally significant project for him--they prioritized boxoffice appeal over putting out a distinct product. Ironically, boxoffice receipts in America look to suffer--the first weekend is weak, and only gotten weaker--though the picture is doing better in markets outside the United States (I'm generalizing here, but the picture seems to do better in countries that accept or practice strong Christian tradition).

But that's the boxoffice; how's the film itself? Despite the weaknesses (the effects, the design, the timid air of being a feeble Lord of the Rings knockoff), I do like the film. It may not be a true Narnian film, but it's Narnian enough that you get some of the flavors of C.S. Lewis' classic. 

And Lewis' fantasy series is a classic, I say. Lewis may not be the flavor of the moment the way Tolkien is, and I know the strong Christian subtext puts many readers off, but I prefer his books over Tolkien's for a number of reasons: 

1) He's well-versed in science fiction (he knows enough, say, of Olaf Stapledon to be able to criticize him), and he uses a few of the genre's concepts (the idea, for example, of relative time (Narnia's time flows faster than our world's), of doors that open to other dimensions (see The Magician's Nephew, and The Last Battle), and of Very Large Objects, complete environments within complete environments (some suggestion of this, plus sophisticated examples of dimension-twisting in The Last Battle)). 

2) He ranges freely over his world, from its very beginning (The Magician's Nephew) to its furthermost reaches (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) to its subterranean habitats (The Silver Chair) to its final destiny (The Last Battle) the way Tolkien never does with his Middle Earth (there is The Silmarrillion--but how many outside of Tolkien completists read that dull tome?). 

3) He is not above adding the inventively imagined creature or situation, or even resorting to the occasionally surreal. Lewis' Narnia has its share of elves, dwarves and dragons, but--a faun with an umbrella, walking past a lamppost in the middle of a woods? A race of invisible creatures (who look even stranger when made visible?)? A sea of lilies, beyond which stands a permanently roaring wave of water marking  the end of the world--which happens to be flat? 

Tolkien has mastered the galumphing blood-and-thunder, sword-and-sorcery style of storytelling, but after reading the whole series through more than once, I've finally found the Ring books endlessly tiresome, endlessly conventional...whereas, I suspect, we've barely scratched the surface of Lewis' Narnia.


Lewis' series is more than just adventure and magic and Christian symbolism, though. At the end of the day it's really all about the Pevensies and their longing for Narnia and Aslan--arguably the greatest imaginary playmate ever created. About Prince Caspian (now king) who has grown older, sadder, hopefully wiser since taking charge of Narnia; about the splendid Ripicheep, possibly the most gallant and great-hearted mouse in all of creation (and I include that insufferably wholesome rat what rules an allegedly magic kingdom down in Florida); and about Eustace Scrubb, an odious little boy who, thanks to the influence of Narnia, becomes considerably less odious.

Apted, who in films like The Coal Miner's Daughter and even Gorillas in the Mist has proven to be skillful (to say the list) in depicting onscreen relationships, does a fine job here; his Ripicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg) is small only in stature while his Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter, brilliant) is hilariously self-involved; they meet onscreen like flame and gunpowder, and you enjoy the resulting sparks. The ending, where the Dawn Treader reaches the End of the World and lives are irrevocably changed, is a fine mix of muted tragedy and bittersweet triumph, a fitting capstone to this latest (and, judging from the money that isn't coming in, possibly last) installment. 

The Tourist

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's latest is another one I feel I've got to speak up for, which is a bit of a surprise--I'd seen von Donnersmarck's far better received The Lives of Others and wasn't all that impressed; thought the protagonist in that picture made a few dumb moves, though the film as a whole captures the era's feeling of exhausted despair. 

Critics have called The Tourist "slow" and "muddled," the two leads "lacking chemistry." What I found was an old-fashioned caper film, elegantly paced, with stunts that look realistic enough to be actually dangerous (the rooftop sequence reminds me of Roman Polanski, a master at depicting hazardous heights, though von Donnersmarck makes an honorable enough attempt) and a cleverly structured plot--refreshing change from all the hysterical, frenetically paced thrillers released recently, all noise and heavy artillery and very little style. 

I find that the two stars are totally at ease with each other, are not afraid to play their parts--Johnny Depp here is not Johnny Depp the international star, but a nebbish on the run (he's always been fond of losing himself in his roles). Jolie plays Jolie; that's what the script calls for, that's what she plays. 

The movie is not North by Northwest (to which it owes a huge debt); but then, few movies are.

Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is, to put it mildly, a hoot and a half. A rising young ballerina feels insecure about her role as lead dancer in a prestigious ballet company's production of Swan Lake (she herself had inherited the position from the company's former lead dancer, who has since gone nuts). Throw in a Mephistophelean ballet director (Victor Cassell), a Stage Mother From Hell (Barbara Hershey), a duplicitous slut of a dance colleague (Mila Kunis), and you realize--with the camp rising in your gorge--that what you're watching is a demented showbiz melodrama on speed: Showgirls in tutu.

But no, Aronofsky isn't satisfied with this. He has to throw in actualized psychodrama--bones cracking, skin transforming, feathers sprouting in the oddest places. Admirers call it a confluence of David Cronenberg with Michael Powell and Brian De Plama; I say Aronofsky is trying to ape the named filmmakers, only he doesn't have Cronenberg's seductive pacing, or Powell's unassuming craftsmanship, or De Palma's comic sense of cruelty.

Winona Ryder goes all Sissy Spacek on us while Natalie Portman looks desperately thin; about a quarter of the movie is Aronofsky zooming into gigantic closeups of Portman's pinched face, revealing half a pound of makeup on her wasted cheeks. Vincent Cassell spends his screen time pounding Mila Kunis, kneading Portman's steamed pork buns, or walking away with the picture tucked firmly in his pocket.

Scariest moment is Barbara Hershey as the Stage Mother from Hell, clipping Portman's fingernails almost to the bone (Hell Hath No Fury like a pissed-off mother wielding a pair of nail scissors). Only time I cringed.

The Fighter

Word is that Aronofsky was supposed to do The Fighter; thank heavens it was given to David Russell instead. Where Aronofsky is all over the place with his Monster Goose psychodrama, Russell tells his story simply, quietly, with as much honesty as he can (he does more with plain sunlight than Aronofsky does with spotlights, shadows, and splashy CGI effects). Bale is fantastic as Dicky, Whalberg quietly effective as Mickey, and Melissa Leo amazing as their hard driving mother (like Hershey she's a Stage Mother From Hell too, only you spend as much time feeling for her as you do laughing at her). 

The performances are all terrific, but it's Russell who does the star turn. His editing rhythms are eccentric, restless; he likes to show, say, a man getting out of a car, then either cutting out a shot of the man crossing the street, or cutting out a shot of the man knocking and entering, or cutting out the shot of the man getting out of the car--depends on how he feels at the moment, and how he wants you to feel. Unlike Aronofsky--who is all huge closeups revealing the human visage as a cratered, mountain-ringed horror--Russell likes to shoot at medium to long shot, basically keeping the drama at arm's length, keeping you conscious and alert of the material at hand.

Only with the fight sequences does he close in, but here he deploys the video cameras used in so many HBO boxing matches, deploys the actual music you would hear from such matches (not for him the Bill Conti symphonic uplift used like a ten-ton truck in the Rocky movies). There's a cheesiness to the music, and the film in general, but it's a self-conscious cheesiness, wielded with a knowing wink.

Like Aronofsky's picture, this is a hoary old storyline, a combination of Former Fighter Finds Redemption and Two Brothers with Differing Destinies; unlike Aronofsky, this is done with an acute, intelligent eye, and great sensitivity. One of the best of the year.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, Bernard Tavernier, 1981)

Philippe Noiret and Isabelle Huppert in Coup de torchon

Deus Irae

I liked Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me, but didn't feel entirely satisfied with it--was even less satisfied because I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. I thought it had something, despite the critical acid bath it suffered, and thought it at least in one aspect improved on the original, in the casting of baby-faced Jessica Alba as a prostitute with a taste for sadomasochism. That said, it seemed to me that Winterbottom's deadly earnest tribute to Thompson missed the taint if not the tenor of the original.

Took my re-viewing of Bernard Tavernier's Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, 1981) to clarify matters. Tavernier struggled with trying to adapt Thompson into French--he wondered how to transplant the racism against blacks, wondered how to capture the wide-open spaces of Texas, and so on. He hit upon the idea of relocating the action to the sandy plains of French West Africa (now Senegal), where, as Michael Dare in his Criterion article points out, African slaves were first shipped out for the New World. 


Saturday, December 04, 2010

What if Robert Towne had written "The Empire Strikes Back?"


Skywalker crawls away from Vader who follows, looming over his prone form. "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."

"He told me enough!" Luke yelled. "He told me you killed him!"

"No. I am your father."

Skywalker without thinking about it whips his lightsabre handle across Vader's mask. CLANG!

In a shaky voice: "I am your brother."

CLANG!  

"Your father."

CLANG!

"Your brother."

CLANG!

"Your father, your brother..."

CLANG!

"Your father and your brother!"

Luke's arm freezes. Vader with faceplate dented looks at him, trembling. "Your sister Leia and I...understand? Or is it too tough for you?" 


With apologies to Mr. Towne.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Cinemanila 2010



Movie, movie

From December 1 to 5 at Robinsons Movieworld, Robinsons Galeria in Quezon City it's the 12th Cinemanila International Film Festival--still, for my money, the best and most varied offering of World and Philippine cinema available locally.

So what to watch? Everything. But if you have limited time and budget, I have more specific recommendations:

December 3 (Friday):

Cinema B, 8 pm: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010). The first ever video game movie I've ever liked (actually, a manga-style graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley) samples from all kinds of bright-colored, bright-sounding games, committing to no single title (and managing to be all the better for it). Perhaps key to its success is the premise, a teenage variation of one of the funnier gags in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, where the geeky hero discovers that his lady love has more than one skeleton in her closet (seven, in fact; "Seven Evil Exes," as she calls them), and that geeky hero must vanquish each and every one before he wins her.

Throw in Edgar Wright's inventive sense of visual humor (when Scott urinates in the men's room a "pee bar" empties above him) and pacing and use of cheesy digital effects and the result is like a souffle--it'll deflate once you leave the theater, but while you're enjoying it it's an inimitable experience.

December 4 (Saturday)

In Cinema A at 10 pm: Thirst (Park Chan Wook, 2009). Forget Twilight and even Tomas Alfredson's otherwise excellent Let the Right One In feels thin and timid in comparison. The bad boy of Korean cinema takes a stab--hell, tears a few hunks of steak--off the necrotic carcass of onscreen vampirism. He basically junks most of the paraphernalia (no garlic, no crosses, no changing of form or inviting people in or any of that silliness) and has his Catholic priest hero (Song Kang-ho) infected through an experimental vaccine. The priest sucks and is miserable about it--bad enough, until he meets a beautiful woman (Kim Ok-vin) trapped in an unhappy marriage whereupon the whole thing transforms into The Postman Always Rings Twice with fangs.

Song's fatalism contrasts vividly with Kim's feral will to live, and the results are hilarious, creepy, erotic, and bloody beyond belief even for a bloodsucker flick, thanks to Park. It's also surprisingly poignant, taking on as its subtext the unhappiness of two people trapped in a troubled relationship. If you like vampires, if you like gore, if you like horror, if you like comic horror, if you like stormy love affairs that leave both lovers either unhappy or dead or worse and if you like all this stirred into a delirious mixture (Park has rarely showed much restraint when it comes to sex and violence and judging from the evidence on hand he's not about to start any time soon) delivered hot and steaming in a tall glass, this one's for you.

December 5 (Sunday)

In Cinema B at twelve noon: Bontoc Eulogy (1995) is Marlon Fuentes' haunting mock documentary about Markod, one of the thousand plus Igorots carted off to the St. Louis World's Fair to be exhibited as fascinating 'primitives'--live exhibits for naïve Midwesterners to point and gawk at, marveling at the assumed superiority of American civilization over theirs.

Fuentes uses archival images and film footage to tell Markod's story, the wrenching changes he had to undergo to adapt to the weather and culture. He digs deeper, his narrator (who remains nameless) ruminating over his own fate as an immigrant, a fellow savage traveling from tropical rainforest to temperate grasslands, from Third World poverty to First World decadence with barely a moment's pause to adjust. Fuentes in effect tells three stories at once: Markod's leaving his pregnant wife; the narrator, leaving his native soil; and Fuentes himself, leaving home and family never (reportedly) to return. He captures them at a pivotal moment, when they are in the process of assimilation, of dissolution, of fading into the ever-rising hum of America's multicultural society, a kind of simultaneous death, fusion and transcendence that carries its own sense of tragedy, loneliness, and loss. A great film, undeservedly neglected--it would make a fascinating companion piece to Floy Quintos' play St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos (now a musical, with music by Antonio Africa). Where Quintos tells the story of Bulan, a Bontoc prince reduced to being lonely and poor as high tragedy, Fuentes turns the story into an intimate portrait, makes it part of his own story (or his own part of the larger story). 

At 8:45: Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (2009) is a crash course in prison life who are the gangs, which one to join, what is of value and available for buying, selling, smuggling in and out of the prison walls. Audiard and his writers (Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit) take a page from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather--Michael Corleone's transformation from fresh-faced college graduate to stone-cold gang lord--and transposes it here, with fresh-faced Malik coming under the wing, protection and eventually tutelage of gang leader Cesar. What breathes unruly life into the film are the bits and pieces you haven't quite seen before, not even in Coppola's epic (which in my opinion is overfamiliar, perhaps even overrated)--the hostile faces--Arab, Corsican--staring at each other from across the courtyard; the DVD players and radios delivered by cart to one's cell; the everyday delivery of fresh baguettes, as if hot bread were a right every bit as guaranteed as your weekly phone call.

If Malik is the central consciousness in the film, Malik's knotty interaction with Cesar is the film's central relationship. Certainly there's a father-son affection there, as Cesar lets his mask of brutality slip to reveal a lonely, insecure old man (mind you, this doesn't dilute Cesar's more monstrous qualities, merely makes him grotesquely fascinating). Malik seems to count on Cesar's patronage, but when Cesar at one terrifying point turns on him, pressing a spoon into his eye, the affection seems to shatter. That said, one is never surprised that Malik for all his softness grows into his criminal shoes: the boy is a physical and intellectual sponge, starved for knowledge (in school he learns reading, writing, basic Economics, Arabic; he learns--this on the fly--the problems of negotiating with people, dealing with disparate, distrustful groups) and activity. He catches some unbelievable breaks--ever so often he manages to turn a swift ambush into a golden opportunity to network or make connections--but not once does he doubt his good fortune, or question the general velocity of his life; with the swiftness of the very young (and utterly ruthless) he makes his bloody progress up the pyramid. Also showing on December 6 (Monday) at Cinema B, 9:15 pm.

And then--as it turns out--on December 6 (Monday) Cinemanila is extended! At Cinema A twelve noon is Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (2006), a lovely slice-of-life melodrama, where the three interweaving stories of three daughters is captured in bits and pieces over seven summers in the daughters' lives. Of the daughters it's Cherry Pie Picache's story that leaves the strongest impression--Cherry Pie, a character actor of considerable skill who has played supporting roles in films often unworthy of her talent, shines as the quietly suffering tomboy, unwanted and largely ignored by the family patriarch. Mendoza's handheld camera, much in the fashion of the Dardennes brothers and cinema verite, gives the stories a distinct caught-in-the-moment feel.

At 4:15, Yang Ik-Joon's Breathless (2010) at times induces that eponymous state, especially when debt collector Sang Hoon (the director doing triple duty by writing the script and playing lead actor) goes into action. I don't know what Yang is like in person but onscreen he's a singular presence, small eyes taking a steady bead on you (a moving target), jaw settling into a particularly grim line, hands working themselves into fists, prior to letting them fly. He talks insolently, contemptuously, his language a string of firecracker profanity; he collects debts by beating the money (and will to resist) out of his clients. He's dedicated enough (or unstable enough) to work overtime, pummeling his next-door neighbor or even a passerby gratis, without even expecting a fee.

This portrait of a near-sociopath bully would be compelling on its own but Yang goes a step further by introducing Yeon-hue (Kotbi-kim), a teen-aged schoolgirl who, as it turns out, is his match in foul language and possibly his superior in perverse fearlessness (he has his fists to back him up; she has nothing but sheer attitude). She defies him, wins his respect, and later his trust; the film plays out like
Beauty and the Beast with the lovers suffering a severe case of potty-mouth; the effect is startling and unsettlingly funny at the same time. 
 
At 9:30 Bong Joon-ho's Mother (2009) is terrific fare, possibly his best work. Where his The Host worked in stops and starts, careened all over the place in terms of emotional tone and genre, in Mother Bong seems completely in control. Hard to see the comedy here, but it is dark comedy, nevertheless--Bong pokes not-too-gentle fun at the stereotype of the smothering Korean matriarch as he spins out for us the tale of one mother's love for her mentally challenged child, the determination and ferocity involved when said child is accused of the murder of a young woman.

On December 7 (Tuesday) at Cinema A is a twelve noon showing of Jeffery Jeturian's Pila Balde (1999) a multi-character, multi-storyline film of modest virtues and modest pleasures, possessed of keen intelligence and a recognizable soul.

So--what are you waiting for? Go forth, and see much more.

First published in Businessworld 12.3.10

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cinemanila 2010 (Dec. 1 to 5, at Robinsons Movieworld)



Schedule is as follows:

DECEMBER 1 - Wednesday

Cinema A (35mm) Jury & Press Screenings
12:00  Fourth Portrait | Chung Mong-Hong (Taiwan, 2009)
  *Available to Gold Pass holders only
2:05 And Peace On Earth | Matteo Botrugno & Daniele Coluccini (Italy, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public 
3:55 Sketches of Kaitan City | Kazuyoshi Kumakiri 
(Japan, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
6:45 Thirst | Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2009)
9:15 Camellia | Joon-Hwan Jang, Wisit Sasanatieng & Isao Yukisada (South Korea / Thailand / Japan, 2010)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm) Jury & Press Screenings
12:00  Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria | Remton Siega Zuasola (Philippines, 2010)
Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
2:00 Passerby # 3 | Shin Su-won (South Korea, 2009)
3:45 Au Revoir, Taipei | Arvin Chen (USA / Taiwan, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
5:30 Breathless | Yang Ik-Joon (South Korea, 2009)
8:00 Reign of Assasins | Chao-bin Su, John Woo (China, 2010)

CINEMA 1 Opening Film
8:00 Pinoy Sunday | Wi Ding Ho  (Taiwan / Philippines, 2010)

DECEMBER 2 - Thursday

Cinema A (35mm)
12:00  Camellia | Joon-Hwan Jang, Wisit Sasanatieng &  Isao Yukisada (South Korea / Thailand / Japan, 2010)
2:00 Mother | Bong Joon-ho (South Korea, 2009)
4:30 The Sandwich Man | Hou Hsiao Hsien, Wan Jen &  Zhuang Xiang Zeng (Taiwan, 1983) 
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
6:30 Pinoy Sunday | Wi Ding Ho  (Taiwan / 
Philippines, 2010) (Intro, Q&A w/ director)
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
8:30 Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong  (South Korea, 2007)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Pila Balde | Jeffrey Jeturian (Philippines, 1999)
1:55 Ang Ninanais | John Torres (Philippines, 2010)
4:15 Halaw | Sheron Dayoc (Philippines, 2010) 
6:00 Ang Panagtagbo sa Akong mga Apohan | Malaya Camporedondo (Philippines, 2010) + Eskrimadors |  Kerwin Go (Philippines, 2010)
8:15 Chassis | Adolf Alix Jr. (Philippines, 2010) (Intro Q&A)
10:00  And Peace On Earth | Matteo Botrugno & Daniele Coluccini (Italy, 2010)

ALLIANCE FRANCAISE DE MANILLE Side Screening
7:00 Philippine Premiere: Return to Manila: Filipino Cinema | Hubert Niogret (France / Philippines, 2010) 
AFM Screening room, co-hosted by Alliance Francaise

DECEMBER 3 - Friday

Cinema A (35mm)
12:00 Sunday Morning in Victoria Park | Lola Amaria (Indonesia, 2010) 
2:00 Taipei Exchanges | Hsiao Ya-chuan (Taiwan, 2010) 
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
3:45 Au Revoir, Taipei | Arvin Chen (USA / Taiwan, 2010)
5:20 Sketches of Kaitan City | Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Japan, 2010) 
8:15  The Housemaid | Im Sang-soo (South Korea, 2010) (Intro and Q&A with director)
10:30 Eastern Plays | Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria / Sweden, 2009) (89 mins)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Diujung Jalan (The Road)  | Tony Trimarsanto (Indonesia, 2010)
1:30 Dekasegi  (The Migrants) | Rey Ventura (Director present) + Sunday School  | Joanna V. Arong (Philippines / China / Zambia, 2010)  (Director present)
4:00 Balangay | Sherad Anthony Sanchez and Robin Färdig (Philippines/Sweden, 2010) (Intro and Q&A)
6:00 ‘Di Natatapos Ang Gabi (The Night Infinite)  | Ato Bautista (Philippines, 2010) (Intro and Q&A)
8:00 Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World | Edgar Wright (USA / UK/ Canada, 2010) 
10:10 Primary! | Ivan Noel (Spain, 2010)

DECEMBER 4 - Saturday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Floating Lives | Nguyen Panh Quang Binh  (Vietnam, 2010)
2:10 The Piano in a Factory | Zhang Meng, Jae-young Kwak (China, 2010) 
4:35 The Door | Anno Saul (Germany, 2010)
6:00 The Housemaid | Im Sang-soo (South Korea, 2010)
8:05 Juliets | Yu-Hsun Chen, Hou Ji-Ran & Ko-shang Shen  (Taiwan, 2010) *Available to Gold Pass holders only
10:05  Thirst | Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2009) 

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
11:30  Seminar: 3D Animation, featuring team behind RPG Metanoia | Luis Suarez (Philippines, 2010)
2:00 HIV (Si Heidi, Si Ivy at Si V) | Neal “Buboy” Tan (Philippines, 2010) (Q&A, Intro)
4:00 Kano | Monster Jimenez (Philippines / USA, 2010) 
6:05 Young Cinema Night: Shorts in Competition
7:30 The People I’ve Slept With | Quentin Lee (USA, 2009)
9:15 Animal Town | Kyu-hwan Jeon (South Korea / USA, 2009)

CINEMANILA SINE BARANGAY PRESENTS 
BARANGAY MOGWAI
7:00 Young Cinema Night: Shorts in Exhibitition
Cinemanila Awarding Ceremony

DECEMBER 5 - Sunday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Beyond the Circle | Golam Rabbany Biplob (Bangladesh, 2009)
1:45 Red Eagle | Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand, 2010) (Lead actor, Ananda Everingham, present for intro and Q&A)
4:15 The Cove | Louie Psihoyos (USA, 2009) 
6:15 Floating Lives | Nguyen Panh Quang Binh (Vietnam, 2010) 
8:30 Eastern Plays | Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria / Sweden, 2009)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Bontoc Eulogy | Marlon Fuentes  (USA / Philippines, 1995) + Fall of the I-Hotel | Curtis Choy (USA, 1983)
2:15 Inhalation | Edmund Yeo (Malaysia, 2010) (director present) (17 mins) + The Tiger Factory |  Woo Ming Jin (Japan / Malaysia, 2010) (producer present, intro and Q&A)
4:30 Happyland | Jim Libiran (Philippines, 2010) World Premiere
7:00 Machete Maidens Unleashed | Mark Hartley (Australia, 2010)
8:45 A Prophet | Jacques Audiard (France / Italy, 2009) 

Cinema 1:  Closing Film 
8:00 Amigo | John Sayles (USA, 2010) 

CINEMANILA EXTENSION

DECEMBER 6 - Monday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Kaleldo | Brillante Mendoza (Philippines, 2006)
1:45 Red Eagle | Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand, 2010) 
4:15 Breathless | Yang Ik-Joon (South Korea, 2010)
7:00 Reign of Assasins | Chao-bin Su, John Woo (China, 2010)
9:30 Mother | Bong Joon-ho (South Korea, 2009)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Layang Bilanggo | Michael Dagnalan  (Philippines, 2010)
2:00 Limbunan | Teng Mangansakan (Philippines, 2010) 
4:00 Please Don’t Disturb | Moshen Abdolvahab  (Iran, 2010)
5:40 Memories of A Burning Tree | Sherman Ong  (Tanzania / Netherlands / Singapore / Malaysia, 2010)
7:20 Thorn in the Heart | Michel Gondry (France, 2009)
9:15 A Prophet | Jacques Audiard (France / Italy, 2009) 

DECEMBER 7 - Tuesday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Pila Balde | Jeffrey Jeturian (Philippines, 1999)
1:50 Riding The Stallion of The Dream | Girish Kasaravali (India, 2010)
3:50 Machete Maidens Unleashed | Mark Hartley (Australia, 2010)
5:30 The Cove | Louie Psihoyos (USA, 2009) 
7:25 The Piano in a Factory | Zhang Meng, Jae-young Kwak (China, 2010) (124 mins)
9:10 Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong (South Korea, 2007)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Red Dragonflies | Liao Jiekai (Singapore, 2010)
2:00 Father is a Dog | Lee Sang Woo (South Korea, 2010)
4:00 Year Without A Summer | Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia, 2010)
5:45 Kano | Monster Jimenez (Philippines / USA, 2010) 
7:30 Directors in Focus: 10 Years of Ishmael Bernal (Cinemanila Awardees for Most Outstanding Young  Filipino Filmmaker) (200 mins)

DECEMBER 1 - 4

UP FILM CENTER - Diliman, QC
5:00  Mondomanila | Khavn dela Cruz (Philippines, 2010)
7:00  Mondomanila | Khavn dela Cruz (Philippines, 2010)

DECEMBER 8

Surprise Screening

WATCH OUT FOR SCREENING SCHEDULE OF (TBA)

Brod | Ray Gibraltar (Philippines, 2010)
Endo | Jade Castro (Philippines, 2007) Critics’ Picks (Phil Dy)
Wanted: Border | Ray Gibraltar (Philippines, 2009) Critics’ Picks (Oggs Cruz)
Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato | Mes de Guzman  (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Rolando Tolentino)
Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria | Remton Siega Zuasola (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Richard Bolisay)
Sheika | Arnel Mardoquio (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Nonoy Lauzon)

Note:  Schedule subject to change without prior notice. Customs, censors,  clearance delays or other unforseen circumstances may affect the screening times.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (David Yates); Unstoppable (Tony Scott); Fair Game (Doug Liman); Giallo (Dario Argento)

Ralph Fiennes, nostrils flaring as he plays He Who Shall Not Be Sniffed At

Deadly boring

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the seventh Potter movie I've seen, and the sixth I've pretty much had to tolerate, checking my watch and trying to guess when this endless marathon of a movie would end.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)


Happy together

Adam Elliot's Mary and Max (2009) is, along with Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's Secret of Kells (same year) arguably the best English-language animated feature I've seen in years--in several years. And yes, I've seen that latest Pixar movie, the third one about the talking toys.

A huge part of the film's appeal is that it's so relentlessly retro. The film is stop-motion animation and unlike other animators who resort to CGI to render their effects, Elliot sticks to stop-motion all the way--flames leap and dance by crinkling red cellophane; a rainstorm pours down by agitating fishing wire; a toilet flushes by photographing KY Jelly spiraling down its drain. Cityscapes are not 3-D digital constructs; they are elaborate models, extending from one side of the screen to another. Every object has been especially built, down to the fully functional Underwood typewriter that took nine weeks to design and build (A typewriter! Remember those fossilized creatures?). Sensibilities are remarkably retro too--the two (Mary from Melbourne and Max from New York) live at a time before email was even possible, and correspond through the traditional written letter; they wait for days (at one point, even months) for the other's reply, creating a suspense we don't really experience anymore, not in this age of chat forums and instant messaging and Twitter. Plus, there is this idea--old-fashioned, possibly dangerous, entirely unwholesome and definitely inappropriate for children (thank goodness): that watching animation can be an adult activity, focusing on adult manners, even when children are involved in the story.

Maybe the film's most remarkable quality is this: though Elliot is Australian, grew up in Australia, and remains based there, it's the New York sequences that are the most vividly realized. Elliot cuts to a long shot of the city and you want to drink in all the densely textured skyscrapers, especially the Chrysler building with its outstretched eagle heads (every time the film cuts to New York I keep looking for those marvelous eagle heads). Everything, every detail seems of the city, and not just of the city, of a specific period in the city's life, from the cat with the missing eye to the air-conditioner that falls out of its moorings to the half-blind neighbor with the gigantic spectacles, to all the prepackaged versions of traditional kosher food (I couldn't find the exact labels, but I could find similar examples in the frozen section of my local supermarket).

And Max--you could imagine Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud creating him (as a matter of fact he's based on someone Elliot corresponded with for twenty years). As voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he's a remarkably truthful character, as accurate a portrait of Asperger's Syndrome as you can find on the big screen, down to the anal-retentive obsessiveness with details and the little booklet of facial expressions (to help Max identify what emotion a specific facial expression is supposed to express). More, he's unrepentantly true to himself--when at one point he has a stroke of good fortune and finally has the means to fulfill all of his and Mary's fantasies, he doesn't follow the feel-good formula and give us what we expect of him--he just goes along his stubborn path, in his ingrown, introverted way.

And it isn't as if Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child, Toni Collette as an adult) were your run-of-the-mill protagonist--she's cute at first, but somewhere along the line she betrays the onset of a burgeoning sexuality, to which Max reacts by having an anxiety attack (he stands in a corner stool and sways back and forth, his pants cords swinging like a light bulb on a wire). Mary has needs, and they're messy needs, more than Max can handle; to Mary's credit, when it's Max turn to make demands Mary performs the needed sacrifice, no matter what the cost, and in this film when something costs the price is more than just an arm or a leg--it's deep depression, possible alcoholism, even the destruction of a marriage.

Isn't exactly your average Pixar movie, or Pixar's idea of a poignant movie. The first ten minutes of, say, Up (2009) is oft cited when listing the multi-billion-dollar-grossing studio's achievements, but that is a saccharine attempt at poignancy, one that pulls back the moment the viewers feel the slightest twinge of pain. Elliot does not pull back, not in the bite of his sarcasm, not in the emotional force of his images. He follows each character to their respective bittersweet fates with an unrelenting focus that can be exhausting, if it wasn't so mordantly funny--fact of the matter is, there's something autistic about his unflinching manner of storytelling (a reviewer called the film "heartwarming," which in my book would be accurate only if you think of a piece of cardiac muscle being grilled over coals). If I find this film more visually distinctive, more texturally fascinating (every object handcrafted, visibly shaped by human fingers), more laugh-out-loud funny, more emotionally complex, more--and this above all else--honest than anything Pixar has ever done, I beg your pardon; that's how I feel about the matter. Highly, highly recommended. 

first published in Businessworld 11.25.10


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright 2010)



Game on


Not a big fan of video games. The last game I took even halfway seriously was Missile Command, back in the '80s--there was something somehow addictive about the imperative to keep all those relentlessly approaching nuclear missiles from wiping out everything you know and love, something somehow traumatic about the big flashing "THE END" that eventually signaled you had failed. That, plus the cool trackball spinning in one hand, sending the crosshairs skittering across the screen--what's not to like?


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

(Lina Leandersson as Eli--accept no substitutes)

Does not suck

Matt Reeves' Let Me In (2010), his remake of Tomas Alfredson's remarkable Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008) doesn't push its gore effects in your face; keeps most of the digital effects in the realm of the plausible (or at least halfway acceptable); finds a voice distinct from the original while still being recognizably from that original--not necessarily a good thing, but at least intentions are honorable. In other words, director Reeves (for whom this was a sophomore effort, after the fairly interesting monster-mockumentary (monstermentary?) movie Cloverfield (2008)) is obviously not out to cash in on a much-admired cult hit--he felt he had something to bring to the party, so he did it.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Little Norse Prince (Isao Takahata, 1968)

(In memory of the late Isao Takahata 1935 - 2018) 

Not a Pixar pic

Isao Takahata's very first animated feature Taiyou no ouji Horusu no daibouken (Little Norse Prince, 1968) is I would say a masterpiece--a real achievement, considering that Toei had intended to do yet another of its quickie kiddie features, and interfered with production almost continuously (the script was reportedly based on an Ainu legend, which Toei insisted should be transposed to Norway to exploit the popularity of European mythology (confusing, especially if you happen to be Danish)). The studio was unhappy with the finished product, refused to provide the money to finish animating two major action sequences (you see them here in a series of stills), cut out half an hour from the running time, ran the resulting mess in commercial theaters for only ten days before pulling it out, despite glowing reviews from critics. Needless to say, Takahata was demoted, and never allowed to direct another picture in Toei again.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Girl who Played with Fire (Daniel Alfredson, 2009)



Golden girl

Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy--three novels, featuring the memorable leather-clad, bike-riding, computer-hacking Lisbeth Salander--are a worldwide phenomenon, having sold forty million copies to date; the film adaptation of the first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, was made for a mere thirteen million dollars, and has to date earned over a hundred million worldwide (the sequel was made for four million, and grossed sixty-five million worldwide).

One can see the appeal. Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is the angry young punk who uses her brains and on occasion her taser (she also swings a mean golf club and ax when necessary) on the various Swedish authority figures that have abused her in the past; magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is her front man (he does the interviews and makes the phone calls) and Boy Friday, and at least in Dragon Tattoo is the functioning Dude in Distress depending on Lisbeth to swoop in at the last minute and save the day.

I like a lot of it; I like it that Larsson is an outspoken feminist, having had a personal traumatic experience in his youth (at fourteen he'd been witnessed to a gang rape he failed to stop, of a girl named Lisbeth), and in his heroine he's created a kind of avenging angle complete with nose ring, laptop, and in one fist a few hundred thousand volts of crackling electric arc. Niels Arden Oplev, who previously directed dramas, seems mostly interested in serving the emotional intensity of the material; he tells the story mainly through the coolly intellectual Blomkvist's eyes, and for the picture's tone takes his cue from the journalist's professionally objective manner (Blomkvist doesn't even seem all that upset when he's jailed for three months--from his expression you would have thought he had won a Mediterranean cruise vacation). All the better then, when that gaze falls on Lisbeth, as lithe and vivid and oversized a presence as the dragon tattooed to her back. Rapace is not conventionally pretty, but she has an intense reptilian look (glare is more like it) that seems to challenge anyone and everyone it meets; more, as she plays Lisbeth (and as Oplev directs her) she has a physical quickwittedness that makes one sit up in one's theater seat. "This girl will go places," you think as you feel your eyebrows climb up your forehead, "if she lives long enough."

She could be better served by the narrative. My biggest problem with Dragon Tattoo is the brokeback structure, with perhaps the most momentous sequence in the picture coming too early: Lisbeth has acquired a new probationary guardian named Bjurman (Paul Andersson), who turns out to be a sadist with designs on the wary Lisbeth. Their scenes together--Bjurman with Lisbeth and Lisbeth's vigorous reply--are clearly the film's centerpiece, and possibly the reason why many of the people agreed to do this project. I say: well and good, and hooray for the strong and unglamorous depiction of sexual assault, but in storytelling terms it pulls the reader's attention away from the thrust of the main narrative when a minor character is this despicable. When Lisbeth and Blomkvist finally face the real bad guy (an ex-Nazi, as it turns out, with a longstanding career in sexual sadism), you feel that the picture has already fired most of its dramatic ammo; this confrontation can only come across as something of an anticlimax.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, this time directed by Daniel Alfredson (he was second unit director for Dragon Tattoo, though he had also directed a few features previously), corrects this by coming up with a singular villain, one more worthy of Lisbeth. The mysterious Zala--a former GRU operative who fled to Sweden from Russia after killing a man--has engineered the death of two reporters investigating sex trafficking in the country, the project being spearheaded by Blomkvist's Millennium Magazine (and which Lisbeth, watching quietly from her all-seeing laptop, secretly approves of and supports). Right from the start Blomkvist and Lisbeth are collaborating (if only indirectly, through the internet); right from the start the pair are faced with an opponent that isn't confined to a soundproofed basement, waiting for them to root him out, but an active intelligence with a network of information and resources. Acting as Zala's manservant and foot soldier is a giant named Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz) who has boxer's training, blonde hair, and a touch of congenital analgesia (he's basically impervious to pain). To complicate matters for Lisbeth, included among the corpses is the body of her old friend Bjurman, her lawyer and probationary guardian; she has just become suspect number one in his murder.

Alfredson isn't necessarily a superior filmmaker compared to Oplev. The action sequences aren't particularly memorable (neither are Oplev's, actually) but they do avoid the cliché of handheld shaky-cams and chop-suey editing; especially good is one fight sequence, where the giant squares off with a championship boxer named Paolo (Paolo Roberto). Alfredson gives us a good sense of their differing fighting styles, how the giant is slower yet still dangerous, and how the boxer is faster, more skilled, yet hugely outmatched.

If Larsson meant to condemn man's cruelty to women, I'd say he does a better if less visceral job in Played with Fire--Zala is a far more formidable foe, and when confronted with Lisbeth their undisguised contempt for each other is just about peerless. If we're talking of institutional authorities, of abusive patriarchs, of men who symbolize ruthless power and unflinching abuse of women--a former Nazi and serial killer (as was found in Dragon Tattoo) may seem ugly and grotesque, but he's basically an isolated case, with few widespread consequences. A professional still involved and functioning and in some ways actually serving society--now that's a whole other proposition. The symbolic baggage sitting on Zala's head has a heft and weight not dissimilar to that of a figure in Greek Tragedy. He is an archetype looming over our heroine, watching her every move with baleful malevolence.

First published in Businessworld, 11.4.10

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)


Connect the dots

David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) is based on a clever script by Aaron Sorkin which is based, in turn, on what is said to be a factually unreliable book by Ben Mezrich (The Accidental Billionaires) which is based (loosely or accurately, depending on who you talk to) on the life of the world's youngest billionaire, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Arang (Ahn Sang-hoon); The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun)



Korean horror

Seeing some of these recent Korean horror films, one can come to an unpleasant conclusion: the long shadow of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) reaches across countries even into Korea, and haunts us even unto today, some twelve years later, like an unending videotape curse. Nakata himself has struggled to distinguish himself and does so most successfully when he takes a tangential tack: either by creating a clever variation (Dark Water, 2002, which took the water motif to an urban-apartment extreme--you'll never look at tap water the same way again--and was piercingly poignant to boot), or by doing an effective sequel-remake (The Ring Two, 2005--where Nakata took state-of-the-art digital effects and a somewhat logical, somewhat linearly-told script, and showed us what a real filmmaker could do) .

Other than that it's been long-haired ghosts dripping their black, wet locks on us all the time, and perhaps the only way to keep us interested, or at least awake and watching, is to point out where the pictures aspire to do more. Ahn Sang-hoon's Arang (2006) promises to deliver on the overfamiliar, with a plot turning on a ratty-haired ghost of a girl (don't they have conditioner in the afterlife?) who has been raped by three, maybe four men (the number becomes important at one point). Think Ringu meets The Bride Wore Black, only with supernatural payback, that ubiquitous long black hair, and some startlingly bloodshot eyes (don't they have Eye-Mo in the afterlife?).

What makes the picture somewhat if not completely different is the bit from The Silence of the Lambs thrown in. Detective So-yung (Song Yoon-ah) becomes obsessed with solving this string of murders, and it turns out she herself is carrying a bit of psychic baggage, having more than the usual reason to identify with the grudging spirit. The picture's best scenes involve the detective and her partner Hyun ki (Lee Dong-wook), formerly from Forensics, debating on the subject of corpses, poisons, and the ability of various chemicals to induce heart attacks. So-yung is herself engaging; being a victim of assault herself, she's driven by more than just professional pride in seeing justice done.

The picture's distinguished by all the opportunities missed. I'd like to have seen more of this conflict between the cop's personal psyche and her ethics--what does it feel like, trying to save a bunch of rapists when you have more in common with the psycho-killer victim? Was So-yung abusing her police powers when she kept an eye out for any and all male suspects who fitted the description of her assailant? And I'd love to have seen more of a discussion on the peculiar properties of salt--the way it draws moisture out of a body; the way it kills bacteria, lay waste to a landscape, rendering it utterly incapable of growing even a blade of grass--the ultimate antiseptic.

Kim Yong-gyun's The Red Shoes (2006) for at least the first half looks poised to successfully break away from the Ringu pack. It has a superbly creepy opening--a subway station, with a young girl tentatively approaching a pair of shoes (actually they're pink, and if what I've read is right the original title calls them pink, but who cares, really?). The poor girl asks herself: who left them? Why leave them? Can she just take them?

Yong-gyun possess real visual flair, one distinct enough to deftly sidestep all the J-horror cliches. He knows when to use silence, and when to cut away to a long shot, revealing wide open spaces that mange somehow to increase one's sense of vulnerability--make one feel like a bug on glass, being closely (if quietly) observed. More, the film's shaping up to become a terrific psychological thriller--is the mother Sun-jae (Kim Hye-su) really being cursed by a pair of pink shoes, or is she and her eight-year-old daughter suffering the effects of a traumatic divorce? All the horrific images that follow--the cracking apartment ceiling, the sudden appearances (and disappearances), the blood gushing out from between the legs--could all be ascribed to maternal anxieties about a daughter's budding sexuality, and to a possible mother-daughter rivalry. It's all very unsettling, not just because it seems freshly wrought and inventive, but also because it seems so startlingly familiar; anyone who has gone through marital troubles and moved out of the house--temporarily or permanently, it doesn't really matter--know what she and her child are going through.

All the more frustrating, then, when the plot tries to heap one surprise twist too many. The movie begins to unravel, and like roaches laying siege to a crumbling home the cliches start scampering through the cracks--pale girls with long black hair, hallways with sputtering fluorescent bulbs, the by-now tiresome shadowy figure standing in a dark corner (Kurosawa Kiyoshi took this same creature and in Pulse (2001) turned it into an image of vague existential dread--you knew the figure was frightening, but you couldn't quite say why). Yong-gyun keeps pushing, pushing, pushing; for moments at a time you think he's about to pull a de Palma and somehow land on his feet, and in fact there are images here that are uniquely disturbing (Sun-jae at times looking as frightening as the wraiths pursuing her; the ballet re-telling of the Red Shoes legend and its at times scary intensity; the way Sun-jae keeps running and running and running, and ends up on the very subway station that opens the picture). It's enough to make one conscious of a new kind of suspense happening in these recent films--the suspense of a filmmaker of promise walking the tightrope between confusing novelty and overfamiliarity, and doing his best to keep his balance. Does Yong-gyun make it, or doesn't he? One waits, with bated breath, to find out.

First published on Businessworld 10.28.10