Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads): phenomenon of shrunken heads hides a history of cultural exploitation and degradation

Peter Crystal, “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 6: Shrunken Heads)” (2017)

Shrunken human heads are the kind of macabre curio objects, beloved of museums and oddball collectors, sure to arouse curiosity and revulsion alike – but the history of how shrunken human heads came to the attention of 19th-century European explorers in South American and sparked a collection mania among museums, private organisations and individual collectors throughout the world masks a sordid history of Western capitalist exploitation and undermining of a culture and its worldview. The episode begins innocently if breathlessly with a supposedly impartial team of anthropologists, archaeologists and historians using the latest methods including DNA analysis to examine and discover the origins of various shrunken heads found in museum collections in places as far apart as Philadelphia and Warsaw – and what they discover leads narrator Mark Bazeley and his audience into a shocking underworld of bodysnatching, cold-blooded murder, fakery and near-genocide.

To its credit, the episode spends time explaining the role of shrunken heads in the worldview of the Shuar people in Ecuador: the Shuar decapitate their enemies in warfare and shrink their heads so that the spirits within are trapped and cannot wreak revenge on the Shuar for killing them. (To be on the safe side, the head’s eyes, nostrils and mouth are sewn shut.) Over time, the spirit’s power is used by the Shuar people for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Once Europeans contacted the Shuar and began demanding – and paying for – shrunken heads to furnish their museums, the Shuar were drawn into economic and trading networks in which an aspect of their culture became commodified, and the Western demand for shrunken heads led the Shuar down a dangerous path in which they became increasingly violent and any traditions and customs that they had which had preached peace were forgotten. In time, the Shuar were not only killing their warrior enemies for the head-hunting trade, they were killing their own – men, women, even children – and raiding graves for heads. Over time, the Shuar’s own culture and traditions became degraded and the people acquired an unjustified reputation as being bloodthirsty and violent.

At the same time, the episode does titillate Western curiosity by devoting considerable time to an anthropologist’s attempt in recreating the process by which heads were shrunk by the Shuar with a pig’s head. The fellow then tries through digital means to reverse the shrinking process and to reveal what the face of a man whose head was shrunk might have looked like in real life.

The novelty of seeing shrunken heads wears off very quickly and the really fascinating aspect of this phenomenon is how a cultural tradition originally aiming to mitigate violence and restore peace came to be corrupted through Western contact and co-opted into providing a commodity in capitalist society, in the process being stripped of its benevolent intentions and turning into a sick, twisted and degraded parody spreading fear and violence. Viewers will be heartened to discover that head-hunting was made illegal in Ecuador in the 1960s but only after Christian missionaries contacted the Shuar and persuaded them to give up this violence. It seems a shame that the Shuar could only give up head-hunting by being herded into accepting a foreign religion rather than be allowed to turn back to their traditions to find a remedy to end the violence and instability created by head-hunting. We learn nothing about how the Shuar have since tried to rebuild their culture and communities, and regain the peace and stability they once had.

If there is something valuable to take away from this story about shrunken heads, then the narrative of how the Shuar nearly killed themselves off but instead recovered to reclaim their society and reputation and by doing so saved themselves and survived should have been at least as important as the phenomenon of the shrunken heads themselves.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: an experimental film let down by its narrow focus, story-line and characterisation

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In itself, this silent film is remarkable for its lead actor Maria Falconetti’s acting from the neck up, portraying the anguish and suffering of the famous French heroine after she was captured by Burgundian forces who delivered her to the English for imprisonment and torture. Based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the film covers the period from her incarceration to her death by burning at the stake. French clergymen loyal to the English cause try to force her to sign a confession admitting to being under Satanic influence and when that attempt fails, resort to blackmail and deception to compel her to sign. Threatened with burning, Joan allows a priest to guide her hand in signing the confession but later recants when given a life sentence. Having failed to break her resistance and spirit, the churchmen put Joan to death, and her public execution rouses the townsfolk into revolt against the religious and military authorities.

The film is noteworthy for its insistence on the use of facial close-ups of the lead character to convey her devotion to her king, her country and God, and to emphasise her spiritual purity and strength. Joan’s persecutors are filmed under harsh light that emphasises their craggy features (or soft facial padding as the case may be) and suggests that they are spiritually impoverished or corrupt. The clergy’s obsession with Joan wearing men’s clothes and the way in which they use the ritual of holy communion to trick Joan into signing the confession show the men are more interested in following empty forms of outward piety than pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately the film gives very little background (apart from title cards) to Joan’s imprisonment and says very little about the visions that inspired a simple peasant girl, unable to read and write, to take up arms and lead armies into battle against the English. Viewers can easily get the wrong idea about Joan’s character from watching Falconetti’s performance – there is little in her portrayal that suggests a forthright and determined character. Falconetti’s Joan makes an impression as a highly religious woman whose outward simplicity hides a fairly cunning mind. Occasionally she is given over to brief ecstatic episodes that might suggest she is hallucinating.

The film is not long but its narrow focus and minimal style can make it seem unbearably long for some viewers. Perhaps it might have worked better if several of the churchmen had been more devious and pretended to Joan that they desired to help her escape punishment – on conditions that they will make known at much, much later times. The film could have been as much an inquisition of Joan inside and outside of court, and emphasised a narrative of prison and trial as tests of Joan’s character and intelligence, as it is a portrayal of the “justice” meted out to her. We would see the qualities that made Joan an outstanding leader and a non-conformist whose very existence threatens the power hierarchy and values exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church. As an experimental film of a sort, it works well but the experimentation butts heads with a narrowly defined story-line and a heroine who turns out to be more conventional in character and portrayal than expected.

US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm: a sketchy report on the insidious effects of US military activity on a South Korean village and farming region

Yoichi Shimatsu, “US Missile Base Upsets the Morning Calm (Lens.tv Report: THAAD Deployment in South Korea)” (2017)

Structured as a news report rather than as a documentary, this item by investigative reporter (and former Japan Times Weekly editor) Yoichi Shimatsu focuses on the effects of an American missile base deploying the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile defence system on an agricultural region centred around the village of Seongju in southeast South Korea. According to THAAD’s Wikipedia entry, the system is “designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach”. One presumes THAAD has been deployed in South Korea to protect that country from inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from North Korea.

Shimatsu and his cameraman travel to Seongju where he meets protesters who tell him they have been protesting against the missile base since July 2016 when it was established. A local person called Kang (who turns out to be a Buddhist monk) takes Shimatsu’s crew to Bodhidharma mountain, named after the founder of Zen Buddhism, where they survey the missile base and take photographs. Shimatsu identifies a Patriot launch vehicle, part of the Patriot system which targets low-flying intermediate-range missiles that the THAAD system does not target. To Shimatsu, the deployment of the Patriot system at the Seongju missile base suggests that the US intends to use the base as part of an offensive attack against North Korea, and possibly China and Russia, and is not intended solely to defend South Korea against North Korean nuclear attack.

Shimatsu and Kang also discuss the strong electricity vibrations being generated in the missile base for the radar unit there and the effect of these vibrations through the mountains on the growth and development of the area’s fruits, vegetables and flowers. Shimatsu later interviews a young university student who tells him that flowers have stopped growing and that produce has dwindled since the missile base was established.

Not much background context is provided in this 12-minute video and viewers need to do their own research on why and how Seongju came to host the missile base – the luxury golf resort at the missile base was the conduit by which the US military obtained access to the real estate at Bodhidharma Mountain and converted it into a military site – under the auspices of former South Korean President Park Geunhye, daughter of the notorious dictator president Park Chunghee (1961 – 1979) who was impeached in early 2017 for corruption linked to her aide Choi Soonsil. There is scanty explanation on how the strong electricity and electromagnetic vibrations from the missile base could be affecting vegetation and people’s health, and if the video had been a bit longer and its budget bigger, an animation or diagram explaining the possible origin of the vibrations and how they are linked to the activities at the base could have been useful.

The most useful aspect of the report is as a wake-up call to communities around the world contemplating hosting military bases for the US, and the consequences these may have for the communities, their economies and their natural environments.

Mad Dog Morgan: an enjoyable if rambling film protesting against colonialism and its values

Philippe Mora, “Mad Dog Morgan” (1976)

Based on the life of an actual bushranger who plagued Victoria and New South Wales during the second half of the 19th century, this film turns out to be less a straight-out Aussie-style Western and more an impassioned protest against the colonialist settler society, its values, institutions and structures that oppressed ordinary people, created divisions that kept people apart and unable to revolt against its evils, and devastated virgin lands (and their human inhabitants) wherever it was spread. The character called Daniel Morgan aka Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper) represents one individual’s protest against British colonialism for the suffering and degradation it causes him. Initially Dan Morgan is an eager and naif Irish migrant out to try his luck in the Victoria goldfields in the 1850s – but his luck quickly runs out as he witnesses a racist attack on a Chinese-run opium den by police authorities and himself ends up in jail for six years for stealing. Prison conditions and inmates brutalise him and by the time he is released, he’s already gone a bit loco. Not long after, he goes on the run, aided and abetted by faithful Aboriginal companion Billy (David Gulpilil) and the two become infamous in two colonies for preying on wealthy landowners. Superintendent Cobham (Frank Thring) vows to bring Morgan and Billy to justice – but his brand of justice is gradually revealed to be disturbingly sadistic. For his part, Morgan’s obsession with avenging himself on those people who sent him to jail in the first place threatens to bring the crazed bushranger and his companion down as well.

The plot rambles on somewhat and the film’s climax – which actually comes after Morgan is so far subdued as to be in an incommunicado state – turns out to be worryingly anti-climactic though it is in keeping with Cobham’s cold-blooded and perverse nature and the evil that surrounds him. The message behind the film – that there’s a reason behind Mad Dog Morgan’s madness and that the authorities who pursue him are far more corrupt and mad than he could ever be (though in real life Morgan was not so heroic) – might be a bit too simplistic: Cobham and a few others like him may embody the evil that wants to cut down Morgan, Billy and all that they represent (freedom, living in harmony with nature) but to be sure, when these villains have done their time in their jobs, there will be more to take up where they leave off and the colonialist project that will despoil Australia’s landscapes and resources, and ruin the lives of Aboriginal peoples and destroy their cultures, will continue in its implacable machine-like way. What saves the film is Hopper’s bravura acting as the titular character – though it did spook some of his co-stars at the time – and the rest of the cast rise to the occasion as well to flesh out a sketchy and unfocused story-line. Few actors can be more malevolent than Thring (though he might have been hamming his role up a bit), Jack Thompson is as florid in his minor detective role as his complexion and Gulpilil is his usual fluid and stoic self: a perfect counterpoint to Hopper’s eccentric nature.

Special mention should be made of the cinematography which embraces beautiful shots of wild Australian natural scenery and the music soundtrack which features Irish-influenced Australian folk and booming Aboriginal didgeridoo music. Together with the acting, these more than compensate for the disjointed plot and the cheap production values. Despite the brutal violence and the perverted social Darwinism that informs Cobham’s thinking and behaviour towards Morgan, the film is actually very enjoyable and one finds oneself rooting for Hopper’s Morgan, even though his demise is a foregone conclusion and the actual bushranger on whom the character is based was a far more brutal and amoral figure.

The Congress: good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology undone by a confused narrative

Ari Folman, “The Congress” (2013)

Partly based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel “The Futurological Congress”, in which the central character suffers from both delusional and actual mental states, Ari Folman’s film is split between live action and animated action reflecting its heroine’s existence in both the real world and the virtual world and her own mental state, wavering between delusion and reality. Robin Wright (played by the real Robin Wright) is an actor notorious for her fickleness and unreliability that have cost her many lucrative film roles, to the chagrin of her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), and which have reduced her to living in a caravan with her children Sarah and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the latter suffering from Usher’s syndrome which is slowly destroying his sight and hearing. Try as she and Dr Barker (Paul Giamatti) might, the boy’s condition is irreversible and her circumstances force her to agree to a humiliating proposal by Miramount film studio representative Jeff Green (Danny Huston) to sell the film rights to her digital image and emotions in return for a huge sum of money, on the condition that she never act again. Considerable wrangling between Robin on the one hand and Al and Green on the other takes up about a third of the film and this section is filmed in live action, culminating in the scene where Robin is being digitally screened and Al subtly manipulates her into displaying her emotions by professing his apparent (if actually harsh and castigating) affection for her and revealing to her her fears.

Having sold her image and emotions to Miramount – the studio uses these to create a science fiction character “Rebel Robot Robin”, starring in a franchise of SF films, against the original Robin’s wishes – Robin spends the next 20 years caring for her ailing son and devoting her life to good works. She then travels to Abrahama City to renew her contract  and to speak at Miramount’s “Futurological Congress”. At this point the film turns into an animation with all the crude riot of colour and Hollywood 1930s animation style it can muster. Robin learns that Miramount has developed technology enabling anyone to turn him/herself into a digital likeness of her (Robin) and while she agrees to allow this in her new contract, at the Congress itself, she denounces this technology that commodifies individual identity. At this point, rebels opposed to the technology invade the Congress and Robin only narrowly escapes with the help of animator Dylan (Jon Hamm) who has always loved her digital image.

From here on, the animated Robin has several adventures in both the real world and the digital world (plus another digital world which could be a representation of a state beyond death – she does appear to die in one scene) in which among other things the real world is revealed as a post-apocalyptic dystopian ruin in which real human beings stumble around as though zombies, living in poverty and delusion, while a small elite (including Dr Barker) lives in airships floating above them. At this point, Robin determines to find her son Aaron but this means having to leave Dylan, with whom she has fallen in love, permanently.

The film pores over themes such as the loss, manipulation and crass commodification of individual identity; the domination of the cult of celebrity in Western societies; the use of drugs to escape reality and enter an artificial world where identities can be changed as casually as clothes; and various freedoms: freedom of choice, freedom to be and freedom to choose one’s path in life. One notes the irony in which Robin’s freedoms are constrained by her past actions, the unfortunate circumstances and Al’s manipulative chatter that force her to agree to sell her name and image and to pour out her emotions to Hollywood for peanuts, yet future others are free to buy her digital avatars and become them, if only temporarily and at a price. Hollywood is satirised as a greedy corporate machine. In later scenes, the film makes some subtle criticisms about how a techno-fetishistic society cannibalises past pop culture figures to prop up a shallow belief system, in which to possess the appearance of something is considered as authentic as being, and how this supposed culture substitutes for an actual impoverished culture in which a small elite exists in comfort and prosperity at the expense of a permanently deluded and severely enervated majority.

While Wright, Giamatti, Huston and Keitel are all very good actors, their talents are very much squandered in this film which -ironically enough – spends more time wallowing and losing its way through the crude animation sequences and not enough on the live action scenes where it seems the real horse-trading of one’s identity and authenticity is taking place. Ultimately one comes away from this film feeling that over two hours’ worth of viewing have been wasted on very muddled work. Good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology are undone by a confused narrative that probably should have ended or taken a very different direction – and one not necessarily animated – after Robin’s scanning. How ironic that with its themes this film should have foundered on its dependence on a live action / animation split.

Oh Boy: a young man without purpose and focus comes to accept responsibility and care for the world

Jan Ole Gerster, “Oh Boy” (2012)

Debut film for German director Jan Ole Gerster, “Oh Boy” is a tragicomedy detailing 24 hours in the life of a young man, Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), who lives without purpose and seems cut off from others in a gritty and bustling Berlin of the early 21st century. As soon as Niko wakes up one day, nearly anything and everything that can go wrong does. His girlfriend walks out on him, his psychologist won’t give him back his driver’s licence after his drink driving incident, his dad cuts off his monthly allowance after discovering Niko dropped out of law school two years ago, he gets busted for not having a valid train ticket by two inspectors … and he just can’t get a decent cup of regular coffee anywhere in a city supposedly famous for coffee and cakes.

As the hapless Niko, Schilling puts in a remarkable performance in portraying a young man out of sorts with the world and himself. Nearly everyone he meets resembles him in some way, above all in their inability to come to terms with reality and accept responsibility for their actions and those actions’ consequences, and for the welfare of others. Niko blunders from one scenario to another where an actor’s obsession with perfection is a cover for his fear of embarrassing himself in parts for films and plays, where a young woman’s struggle with a past childhood of obesity also involves her own personal confrontation with low self-esteem and need for love and acceptance, and where a married couple live at opposite ends of a building (top and basement) because they cannot communicate with each other. Niko’s encounter with a drunken aged gentleman who rants about the events of Kristallnacht back in 1938 finally galvanises the young man into taking appropriate action to try to save the elderly man’s life later on … with mixed results ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Berlin is a significant character with shots of the city punctuating the plot at various critical points along the way and acting as links between scenes, leading into a new plot development. An intimately moody, jazzy soundtrack helps reinforce key elements in the film, whether these are to emphasise the city’s dark, alienating nature or Niko’s alienation in the world around him. The film’s black-and’white look renders people’s facial features fairly sharply and the cinematograhy, often employing a wide panoramic approach, showcases Berlin in all its confusing, often contradictory and chaotic glory with incredible precision.

Through characters like Niko, the hapless actor Matze and the young woman Julika who still thinks herself fat in spite of her svelte figure, “Oh Boy” makes the point that Germany as a whole still hasn’t completely accepted its responsibility for its Nazi past and the sufferings that Germans inflicted on others throughout Europe. Beneath the bohemian pretensions, the fascination with experimental and avant-garde art forms, the hippie lifestyles and the punk haircuts, society is still as class-ridden and obsessed with material greed and self-interest as ever. Niko learns the hard way that if he wants connection with others, that if he doesn’t want to be lonely and alienated, he must offer connection first. Only then, the next day, Niko might be able to have that cup of coffee he spent the last 24 hours crawling for.

The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

The Mummy (directed by Alex Kurtzman): action thriller / horror film with no horror, few thrills and silly action

Alex Kurtzman, “The Mummy” (2017)

Somewhere in this hokey action blockbuster film is a story about flawed humans acting for purely selfish reasons and the consequences that result from the idiot decisions they make: destruction, loss of human life and ultimately the loss of their own immortal souls. The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, not that you’d notice very much because the material is so paper-thin as to be transparent. Whatever character development exists is very superficial because the characters are secondary to the digital special effects, the action and violence, and the need to pack in as much of those as possible so viewers don’t notice the film’s other flaws. Tom Cruise is very miscast as adventurer Nick Morton – he’s meant to be a dodgy thieving treasure hunter of dubious morality but ends up being another variation of action hero with a heart of gold – and his character generates no chemistry with archaeologist side-kick Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). Really the only decent acting performances are those of Russell Crowe as the dualistic Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde head of mystery organisation Prodigium and of Sofia Boutella as the eponymous monster.

Five thousand years ago, evil scheming Ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet, miffed at being displaced as heir to her father’s throne after a half-brother is born, summons the help of Egyptian death god Set and with his special knife slaughters Dad, Step-Mum and Baby Brother. Her crime is so heinous and her union with Set so blasphemous that the high priests banish her to an underground prison deep down in … Mesopotamia of all places. (Could they not have buried her beneath the Valley of the Kings in the Sahara?) Centuries later, the special knife with the glowing red gemstone falls into the hands of Christian Crusaders who take it back to England where the gemstone is buried with one Crusader and the knife hidden in a statue in a cathedral. More centuries pass, the US invades Iraq and treasure hunters like Nick Morton and pal Vail (Jake Johnson) flood into the country seeking archaeological artefacts to sell on the black market. Under fire from terrorists, Morton calls for help, the US air force responds with a bomb drop and uncovers the tomb of Ahmanet. At the same time, the Crusader’s tomb with the red gemstone is uncovered under London during excavations for a new underground train tunnel.

“Coincidence” builds on “coincidence” and Morton discovers, with the help of Halsey and Henry Jekyll, that he is possessed by Ahmanet who seeks him so they may enter into union and through that Ahmanet can sacrifice Morton to Set and give Set a human form. Evil would then be incarnate upon Earth and the future of humanity and life itself would be in danger. From here on in, the plot focuses on Morton’s attempts to escape the influence of Ahmanet and at the same time save Halsey from the mummy’s clutches and save himself from Jekyll and Prodigium’s plans for his dissection. Ahmanet herself seeks out the knife of Set by manipulating Morton and various English folks whom she turns into zombies.

For a supposed horror film, the first in a “Dark Universe” series of films by Universal Studios resurrecting famous monsters of Hollywood legend, “The Mummy” has very little horror, and for an action thriller, “The Mummy” is as thrilling as paint drying on walls. There’s not much fun to be had, even in scenes sending up Tom Cruise’s past films in which he escapes car crashes and explosions with naught but a scratch on his handsome visage or in scenes featuring Vail as Morton’s comic foil. One doesn’t hold too much hope for what’s next in the Dark Universe.

Masquerade: a historical drama inspired by a bizarre episode in a Korean king’s reign becomes an inquiry into good government and social class

Choo Chang-min “Gwanghae: Wang-i Doen NamjaMasquerade” (2012)

Korean actor Lee Byung-hun may be better known for his gunslinger roles in flicks like “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” and the not-so magnificent 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” but he may have reached his career peak in playing two roles in Choo Chang-min’s historical drama epic “Masquerade”. Inspired by an episode in the reign of early 17th-century King Gwanghae, during which in the year 1616 a 15-day period was deliberately not recorded in the archives of the king’s Joseon Dynasty, the film proposes that during this fortnight King Gwanghae went into hiding after being drugged by his palace enemies and allowed an imposter to take his place while he recovered his health.

The action starts very quickly: temperamental tyrant Gwanghae (Lee) orders his defence secretary Heo Gyun (Ryu Seung-ryong) to find him a double to stand in for him in case he, the king, is ever poisoned or drugged in an assassination plot. Heo just as speedily finds an acrobat and jester, Ha-seon (Lee again), who of course resembles the king and who has been satirising him in bawdy live performances in Seoul’s red light districts. Ha-seon gets a quick crash course in imitating Gwanghae’s voice and style of kingship, which is just as well since the king is indeed poisoned and he lapses into a coma. Loyal courtiers quickly cart the monarch away to a secret rural location while Heo and the loyal Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) try to hammer their lowly protege into presentable kingly material sufficient to fool queen consort (Han Hyo-joo), personal bodyguard Captain Do (Kim In-kwon) and the various assorted politicians and courtiers, few of whom can be trusted and nearly of whom would throw a knife into Gwanghae’s back if they could.

After about half an hour of Ha-seon adjusting to his new role, he discovers that Gwanghae has been running something less than an upright administration that holds the welfare and needs of its Korean subjects utmost in mind and he sets about carrying out land and taxation reforms that Heo already had drafted but which Gwanghae had been stalling on. This of course upsets Gwanghae’s courtly enemies even further and they start their own investigations into the king’s recent sudden changes in conduct and behaviour. The queen, the concubines and the women of the court and kitchen are equally perturbed by the king’s sudden studiousness and interest in State matters and avoidance of the harem, and his new-found compassion and care for the kitchen servants, in particular the teenage Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) whose family fell on hard times, selling her and her mother into bondage; Sa-wol ends up working for the palace but does not know where her mother has gone.

Choo’s direction emphasises technical and historical accuracy and detail, and the result is a lavish recreation of both the intrigues and the commonplace affairs that occupied King Gwanghae’s reign and made it so eventful if rather short (the fellow lasted 15 years before being deposed and forced into exile). As contemporary Korean audiences may not be very familiar with this period of their history, the action follows a fairly strict chronological order and the style of direction is straightforward. This allows several themes to come into play: that high birth doesn’t determine one’s place in history whereas conduct and behaviour do; that rulers, even kings, are ultimately servants of the people and must govern fairly and compassionately on their behalf; and there is the danger of identity slippage as at times Ha-seon seems to be dangerously close to regarding himself as the real king. The result is that as Gwanghae’s enemies gradually discover the deceit played on them by the king himself and begin to encroach on and threaten Ha-seon’s life, Ha-seon’s real enemy may be the king himself as he regains his health and prepares to take charge again.

Lee’s bravura acting, from grim tyrant to a lowly bawdy comic who rises to his sudden and unexpected destiny and finds in himself talents and abilities he never thought he had, holds the film together and the supporting cast is no less outstanding. Through Ha-seon, the royal court rediscovers what true kingship is. The plot includes and unites elements of comedy, drama, action and tragedy in a seamless manner. The pace is fairly brisk but I never felt it was hurried and it leaves plenty of room for Ha-seon and Heo to deal with courtly machinations against them and the day-to-day business of governing. The film unites the grand and the epic with the humble and the lowly, and this unity is what gives “Masquerade” its depth and range. In its own way, “Masquerade” interrogates the role of social class in Korean society and finds it wanting.

Neruda: an exploration of how stories are created and shaped by those who exercise political power

Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” (2016)

Very loosely based on an episode in Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda’s life, when he and his wife Delia were forced to go on the run from police authorities on account of their Chilean Communist Party membership and leftist sympathies, “Neruda” explores the grey boundaries between realism and fiction, and within that zone becomes one man’s quest to find purpose and meaning in his life, in the process becoming a real human and not just a one-dimensional cog in an authoritarian machine society. The film folds in elements of noir, thriller, comedy, tragedy and Borges-style magic realism as the cat-and-mouse chase becomes a duel between what is real and what is unreal, what is imagined and what is outside imagination.

At the film’s opening, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a Senator,  having denounced Chilean President Gabriel González Videla for his brutal anti-Communist attacks against ordinary people over the past couple of years since his election in 1946. (Incidentally Videla was elected President by the Chilean parliament, not in a general election.) Neruda is threatened with arrest and is forced to go into hiding, and then to find refuge in different parts of the country as the police pursue him. Prominent in the pursuit is Chief Inspector of the Investigations Police of Chile Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dour figure as blank as blank can be, who has never known his father and therefore is cut off from his origins and history.

Peluchonneau serves as narrator of the film as well as antagonist – or is it protagonist? – and through him, and his determination to be the lead character in this particular story, battling Neruda to be the hero figuratively as well as arresting him and achieving “heroism” (from his point of view) in the more mundane sense, the film explores how history – and Latin American history in particular – is made and shaped by those who have political power and therefore the power to direct the path of a nation’s historical narrative. At one point in the film, when Peluchonneau catches up with Delia, she suggests to him that he is a figment in Neruda’s imagination; Peluchonneau resists Delia’s suggestion and from this point on, his pursuit of Neruda becomes an absolute obsession to the point where the poet is forced to flee over the Andes mountains and the police inspector himself makes one mistake after another in pursuing the poet across snowy country.

While the film provides a good introduction into the poetry of Neruda and how it galvanised Chileans across different layers of society into supporting Neruda and the values he stood for, Larraín does not shrink from portraying the poet with all his contradictions and the ambivalent relationships he often had with his wife and close supporters. Chilean society in the 1940s is shown to quite good effect, as much as can be done in a film under 2 hours in length: the historical details look fairly accurate, and the rural landscapes and natural countryside of Chile, from the fjords to the high country of Araucanian pines, are stunningly filmed. As Neruda flees farther away from Santiago, Peluchonneau’s authority – and by implication, government control – weakens and becomes laughably incompetent.

The acting is not bad but it’s not great either. Bernal does a good job portraying Peluchonneau as a cypher but cannot flesh out the character with the result that Peluchonneau always seems less than human even when his quest and sacrifice endow him with the purpose and humanity he has always sought. The best acting actually comes from two minor characters: the drag queen who tells Peluchonneau of his brief connection to Neruda that the inspector will never experience, and the waitress who challenges Neruda on his political beliefs and whether she will ever be his political and economic equal once Chile is rid of tyranny and dictatorship.

As long as viewers realise that “Neruda” is intended as a fantastic retelling of what might have been in a period of Neruda’s life, the film is an entertaining light thriller; but beyond light entertainment, it can do no more.