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

Babies (Thomas Balmes)

Little rascals

Thomas Balmes' Babies (2010) is charming entertainment, of that there's no doubt. Four charismatic little tykes, from their birth to their first year of existence howl and crawl and pee their way through a large and often bewildering world, and you follow them with little introduction or explanation, other than titles at film's start that give us their names (Ponijao, who lives in Opuwo, Namibia; Bayar, who lives in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Mari, who lives in Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie, who lives in San Francisco, the United States). There's an admirable simplicity to the concept, a purity that you can't at one level help but admire: no commentary, no politics, no social observation, just babies, trying to live one day at a time.

The film begins with stark differences: Ponijao's mother rubs a red powder she ground herself on her belly, and that's pretty much all she does by way of preparation; Bayar's mother takes their child home for the first time, and she has to struggle to sling her leg across her husband's bike; Mari and Hattie, on the other hand, enjoy the last word in modern medical technology when being delivered, and you can't help but feel that if a fly dared to show its bacteria-infested face in their presence some laser defense protocol would fry it to cinders.

Each family pays a price for their choice of lifestyle (though you wonder if Bayar and Ponijao and their parents had much choice about their lifestyles). Bayar and Ponijao were born and live under the most primitive conditions (Bayar less so--you see a satellite dish standing beside Bayar's family yurt), and are entirely comfortable with sharing living space with roosters and goats and cows; Hattie and Mari do meet (and mash, and maul) the occasional cat, but brought near larger animals--a gorilla, say, or a tiger in a zoo--they scream their heads off. Possibly they're bored, or for some reason uncomfortable, but I'm guessing the presence of huge creatures you've never seen before glaring at you as if you were their next meal probably didn't help their dispositions. Likewise, you can shudder with dismay at the level of hygiene practiced--Ponijao, having no diaper, simply squirts fecal matter on her mother's knee who, just as nonchalantly, scrapes it off with a corn cob. But Ponijao also gets to sit in a river stream and dip her face in its water; she gets to kiss a dog full in the mouth, lolling tongue and all. I don't know if it's me or a bias in Balmes' choices in assembling his footage, but on the whole Ponijao seems to be enjoying the lion's share of fun and adventure. Bayar isn't close behind--he gets to step on a goat's face, and when a herd of cows approaches, has a moment of panic where he can't decide if he wants to stay atop the tub he's sitting on, climb down and crawl away, or teeter precariously in between (no that doesn't sound like fun, but it's definitely not boring).

One can imagine all the parents watching this on DVD and exclaiming "Yuck!" or "Watch out!" Part of the appeal of the film is in observing these youths learn how to handle their environments as best they can, however they can (it helps to remember that exposure to bacteria and dirt and grime are part of growing up, and that a too-sanitary environment leaves a child relatively helpless and unprepared). Again it might be me, or the filmmaker's bias, but Ponijao comes out all right--she's had a rough-and-tumble physical education, and her sense of balance (as you see towards the end) develops just fine, perhaps even sooner than the others. Bayar--don't cry for him; he's gotten a roll of toilet paper and is having a ball with it, all over the yurt's floor. I think it's telling that the film's funniest moment is at the expense of Mari--she tries to fit a pole in the hole of a toy and when this doesn't work, throws a fit worthy of James Cameron ("I want my quarter of a billion dollars and I want it NOW! NOW! NOW!"). Balmes has his biases, and while I'm sympathetic (what's wrong with scraping off crap with a corncob?), it does throw the nobility of his enterprise into questionable light.

The best one can say of the film is that it looks gorgeous: the differing tints and hues and most of all texture of baby skin--their smoothness, moistness, oiliness, the rolls of fat, the dewy fur--are vividly captured. Of the locations, the most memorable has to be Mongolia--seeing Bayar stand against that magnificent brilliant blue sky, that's a moment worth taking with you out the theater. The worst one can say of the picture is that it has a certain callowness, a playing for laughs, a safeness and benignity that frankly, undermines its verite ambitions. Why go through all this effort to film four babies from four corners of the Earth when the only message you come away with is "babies are happy, babies have fun, babies round the world are basically one?" There's nothing here that we don't already know, though there is much that is fresh to the eye and ear; the premise and execution could have been so much better, perhaps even great (include the parents' point of view, perhaps?), that you feel as frustrated as Mari, trying to jam her poor plastic pole into that poor plastic disc.

First published in Businessworld, 10.21.10

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2009)

I say 'whip it!'--Jessica Alba in The Killer Inside Me

Bad to the bone

Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me (2010) is a mess. It largely misses the import of noir writer Jim Thompson's gleefully evil 1952 novel the same time it visualizes the book's most violent setpieces with unflinching courage. It's strong in many ways, yet seems completely clueless about the inimitable Thompson flavor--the sulfurous taint you taste with every helping of his bleakly funny fiction.

It's a perilous task, adapting Thompson; he seems so deceptively easy, so surprisingly difficult to bring to the big screen (Sam Fuller once said of Thompson's 1959 The Getaway that the book could serve as the movie's own shooting script--it's full of intricate plot, memorable dialogue, and little fat). But Burt Kennedy's 1976 version of The Killer Inside Me turned out to be a mostly toothless affair (despite featuring Stacy Keach as a massive Lou Ford), and Sam Peckinpah--"Bloody Sam" he's sometimes called, whose balletic slow-motion despair might have beautifully realized Thompson's terminal nihilism--ended his 1972 The Getaway at the point when it should have gotten really interesting. Critic and poet Geoffrey O'Brien called Thompson a "Dimestore Dostoevsky" and while Thompson's writing doesn't have the magnitude and complexity of Dostoevsky's moral vision, he does seem to share Dostoevsky's uncanny understanding of abnormal and criminal minds.

Stephen Frears did a good job adapting The Grifters (1990) from Thompson's 1963 novel--the whirling, fast-talking world of malignant gamblers, crooked businessmen, and money-grubbing con artists served as a seductive, glittering facade against which moved a figure of pure evil. Bernard Tavernier managed an even more difficult feat, transposing Thompson's 1964 work Pop. 1280 from a racist town in what is possibly Texas to the equally racist French West Africa (where the first slaves were shipped to the Americas) in Coup de Torchon (Blow to the head, 1981), and shooting what is said to be Thompson's darkest novel in the relentless African sunshine. Tavernier captures much of the dark humor, throwing in a few jokes of his own--the film's opening states that it was adapted from Pop. 1280; the end credits say it's from Pop. 1275, and it takes us a few moments to remember five whites died during the course of the picture.

The Killer Inside Me is not quite on the level of Pop. 1280, but builds up considerable irony on its own--the narrator Lou Ford, the town's deputy sheriff, presents himself as an affable bumpkin; the book's essential action strips away that facade to reveal an opportunistic schemer not above committing murder to exact revenge or protect himself, then peels away that layer to reveal a psychopath, pure and simple. Winterbottom sets himself a difficult task, attempting to replicate this action mostly without the use of Thompson's first-person voiceover; besides a few lines of narration taken from the book, Affleck's Ford keeps his thoughts to himself.

The task proves too difficult; without that constant voiceover we feel little empathy for the character, fail to follow close his descent down Thompson's noir hell. Possibly Robert Bresson, a master of the voiced narrative, could have done something about evoking the vast distance between what Ford says and what he does (or what he eventually says in an attempt to explain what he does)--Bresson's 1959 Pickpocket (basically Crime and Punishment set in the streets of Paris) could be seen as spiritually connected to Thompson's book, the eponymous criminal a distant cousin of Lou Ford. Winterbottom is no slouch at adaptation, but where I think he's brilliant at bringing a writer like Thomas Hardy to vivid cinematic life (as witness his 1996 and 2000 adaptations of Jude the Obscure" and The Mayor of Casterbridge), Thompson seems to keep a step or two ahead of him, playing existential games in a way Winterbottom can't quite understand, much less capture on film.

That said, the film isn't a total botch--in many cruder ways, it's a powerful experience. Casey Affleck's Lou Ford is a hoarse-voiced softshoe seducer whose tired-looking eyes bring to mind someone who just woke up and hasn't caught up with what's really going on--perfect guise for a killer. When he goes into action, the disconnect between his tired eyes and his efficient, economical moves helps evoke some of the disconnect Thompson was striving for in his novel.

Where I think Winterbottom really comes into his own is in the casting and directing of Jessica Alba as Joyce Lakeland: Thompson pictured a hardened pro, Winterbottom casts a waiflike angel with a stripper's bod (her sex scenes with Affleck have real sexual heat to them, and Affleck bends and clutches and mauls her body in ways that seem both playful and painful). Winterbottom exploits Alba's eagerness to please her director and win critical respect the way Lou exploits Joyce's eagerness to please him, and the parallels are doubly unsettling. When Lou pulls back and delivers a blow to Joyce's face, her response of hurt bewilderment is every bit as horrific as the beating that follows--it's like looking at a bright child prodigy, model student and teacher's pet who doesn't understand why she's being punished. She waits patiently, uselessly for an explanation that will never come. 

Alba's Joyce helps put some kind of alternate complexion to Thompson's nihilism, bring it closer to what Dostoevsky had in mind. It wasn't just human depravity that was the Russian novelist's unique province; he insisted on writing about human grace and redemption, on the light as well as the shadow, arguing that in many ways one cannot exist without the other. Winterbottom seems to want to suggest that kind of dichotomy, risking huge plot imponderables along the way. A brave attempt--not quite successful, but worth seeing, even acknowledging as such.

First published in Businessworld, 10.07.10

Monday, October 11, 2010

Z-Man on Senses of Cinema!

My more or less comprehensive article on Rico Ilarde (I hadn't been able to catch Villa Estrella (2009) at the time of this writing, unfortunately) is on Senses of Cinema:

Z Man, or: how do you solve a problem like Rico Ilarde (A horror filmmaker? An indie artist? Pinoy?)?


Rico Ilarde is that strange, strange creature, the filmmaker that flits in and out of both independent and mainstream studio system with apparent ease. He is not your classic idea of the “indie” or “art-house” filmmakerwhen critics or journalists write about him, he’s usually characterized as a “horror / fantasy” director, with elements borrowed from the martial arts / action genre.
He has worked as an independent filmmaker in one sensehe has directed at least three features (his first, and his two latest) without the resources of a mainstream Filipino film studio behind him. One is tempted to ask, is Ilarde a true Filipino independent filmmakermeaning, I suppose, do his films embody the spirit of Filipino independent filmmaking? Are his films Filipino in the first place? Art, perhaps? What is an independent film, a Filipino film, an art film, and how do we distinguish from the various categories involved?


Sunday, October 10, 2010


NPR's audience picks 100 top 'thriller killers'  
Some thoughts (partly revised, with second to the last paragraph newly added, at 10.10.10, at 11 pm):

That number one choice, it's not bad. Thomas Harris writes well enough, knows his crime and law enforcement, even knows his weapons--guns, knives, killing techniques, so on. Have a problem with his writing such a monstrous hit that the 'genius serial killer' has become a tired, creaking-old cliche; have an even bigger problem with the subsequent books that turn his genius killer into tragic hero (it's not that Hannibal Lecter's appetites are so abnormal, Harris seems to say, but that we are so narrow-minded). 

To his credit, Jonathan Demme's movie adaptation added two elements that I think improve on the original: a grounded portrait of middle-class America (the landscape across which the killer operates, middle America being a Demme specialty), and a realization of Harris' thriller setpieces so cleanly staged that it pretty much renders the original novel redundant (I'm not even going to try touch on the charges of homophobia leveled at the picture--that's a whole other can of worms).

I wouldn't call it great; lacks heft and substance, I think. But can a thriller be great? By definition a thriller should cause one to turn the pages quickly; can it acquire enough mass (thematic, social, political) to be substantial as well? Some tangential questions: can a thriller book provide more or better thrills than, say, a film? Perhaps offer something a film might not be able to offer, and hence be unadaptable?

Survival of the Dead (George Romero, 2009)

Family feud

For decades George Romero's Dead films have been cracked funhouse mirrors held up to present to us our ever-changing visage. Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced us to Romero's zombies, and his basic apocalyptic scenario: a group of survivors trapped in a farmhouse whose relations with each other--as fellow humans, as family members, as men and women--warp under the pressure of relentless siege. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was the same scenario set in a shopping mall, a deadpan (literally and figuratively) satire on consumer culture where the zombies mimicked our urge to aimlessly wander the mall floors.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Antichrist (2009) Lars von Trier

She shred, he bled

LARS VON TRIER strikes again! As a response to a bout of depression and reportedly two months’ stay in a mental hospital, he comes up with this, basically a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a menacingly huge forest, a little hut, and a lot of home improvement tools just waiting to be misused.

The couple had just lost their son Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrom -- in an attempt I suppose of some kind of self-erasure the two main characters have no names while the boy, who appears for all of five minutes, is granted an actual moniker), who fell from an apartment window while the two were having sex in the bedroom (consider the primal scene: the boy looking at his parents coupling -- only the child seems unaffected, while the ultimate impact falls upon the couple, not the youth).

The tragedy hits her particularly hard -- she collapses at the burial, and suffers a breakdown soon after. He, being a therapist, thinks she’s being over-medicated and that he can help her better with exposure therapy (simply put, presenting her with a series of steps or challenges that help her confront her fear and break patterns of escape). He takes her to Eden, an isolated cottage in the middle of the Pacific Northwest (actually the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany) where the year before she had written a thesis on gynocide.

And so it goes. Actually, the plot barely registers -- after the fateful decision to take over her therapy himself (a decision so full of confidence bordering on arrogance you’re sure von Trier won’t let it go unpunished), the two embark on an escalating series of confrontations that make little psychological sense and even less narrative (Why does she go completely over the edge? Why take it out on him? And why, if later developments and a brief flashback are to be believed, take it out on the child, a male child?). More than any act of violence in the picture the lack of logic is infuriating, if you wish to take the whole seriously, if you insist on logic -- best just let the red herring go, sit back, relax, enjoy the ride.

It’s quite a ride, too. Once you’ve given up on the requirement that von Trier make sense (he's stopped doing so at least as far back as Breaking the Waves [1996] -- where von Trier was in such a hurry to make his heroine suffer he short-circuits the storytelling process) there’s little to get in the way of experiencing the audiovisual feast he lays on you. Oh, I admit at times some of his artistic decisions still get to me (Why, if you’re dealing with musical fantasies in Dancer in the Dark [2000], should the dance numbers be so wretchedly choreographed and shot? And why if you’ve spent the money and effort to build an elaborate theatrical set in Dogville [2003], should the shots be chopped up, destroying all that carefully built space?), but here von Trier seems to be working almost unconsciously, just taking a script and putting anything and everything he can think of in it (reportedly he did this picture to prove to himself he can still make films), and the results seem -- this time, anyway -- to justify the methods. The majestic German forests have a real Brothers Grimm presence; you can believe that at any moment you will come across a gingerbread house standing in a clearing, a witch at the door, or a little hut with a wolf dressed in grandmother’s clothes, lying in bed waiting for you.

The picture doesn’t have a wolf; what it does have is a fox chewing on its own innards and declaring "Chaos reigns!" (reportedly audiences laughed at this moment, but I loved the talking lion in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ). The whole takes on the feel and texture of a fairy-tale nightmare, richly visualized and captured on hard drive by British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he did von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay [2005], then slummed a bit helping Danny Boyle tart up his Slumdog Millionaire). When she finally flips out and assaults him, all sense flies out the window and it’s a matter of who does what to whom first, harder. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing -- frankly, the tragedy setup felt overdone (shooting the prologue with its sex and death presented in glamorous, langorous black and white and slow motion didn’t help), and I wanted the picture to go straight to the gore. Was rooting for her, too -- she was more inventive, more vicious in her tactics.

Arguably the one element I don’t approve of is the ending (please skip this paragraph if you plan to watch the film). When he stands up and righteous resolve fills his eyes, it’s as if the Wrath of God had risen to smite fallen Eve even if she clearly doesn’t deserve it (she’s been doing an excellent job of keeping a step ahead of him). It’s as if von Trier had had enough and decided to make him win by fiat -- the best argument yet that von Trier deserves the charge of misogyny (he could at least have given her a fighting chance).

Is it a great film? Come on -- Wes Craven does this sort of thing with a hopped-up charge that’s pure exploitation, burning away any trace of pretentiousness; David Cronenberg does this with the deliberate, clinical eye of a veteran pornographer (he realizes our feelings about women’s genitals in meat form, helping give his films a solid, sculptural feel). Of the art filmmakers Takashi Miike does this with wit and speed -- no silly slow motion necessary (haven’t even started on Italian giallo, or early George Romero, or Herschell Gordon Lewis to name a few). People who feel this is the most shocking and disturbing movie they have ever seen need to watch more movies -- it’s pretty good, but not exactly hardcore.

First published on Businessworld, 9.23.10