Easy Rider: film holds a mirror to mainstream US society in 1969 – and beyond

Stripped of the hype that has grown around it over the years, “Easy Rider” is a well-made if loose low-budget flick about two drug dealers Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively) who, having come into a big sum of money from supplying smuggled cocaine to a man (Phil Spector) in a Rolls Royce, decide to ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans on their chopper bikes to see Mardi Gras, and then on to Florida where they plan to retire and live off the proceeds of the drug sale. Although the movie draws inspiration from the hippie counter-culture of the period and features a music soundtrack of songs from various American pop and rock acts of the time, in a way it’s not really so much an investigation into the alternative culture as it is into mainstream American culture at the time seen through the mirror of the hippie culture, and what it reveals about mainstream culture, or mainstream culture in the US Deep South, is not a pretty sight at all.

Their money stuffed into the petrol tank of Wyatt’s chopper, the two ride through spectacular desert scenery in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, meeting various folks along the way and encountering all manner of reactions to their appearance and apparently free life-style: a hospitable rancher whose down-to-earth way of life is admired by Wyatt; a hitch-hiker who directs the travellers to take him to his commune that practises free love and tries to eke a living by growing crops in the harsh desert conditions; various small-town folks in Louisiana who deeply disapprove of the strangers in their midst and want to run them out of town; a drunken lawyer, George Hansen (Jack Nicholson), who frees the bikers from jail; two prostitutes called Mary and Karen (Toni Basil and Karen Black respectively); and two trigger-happy hillbillies. The narrative is tightly bound: the hitch-hiker gives Wyatt and Billy some LSD which they later share with Mary and Karen, and all of them experiencing a bad hallucination; the hippies and Hansen embody aspects of an alternative way of living and thinking to what most Americans in the late 1960’s believed was “normal” or conventional; and the hippies’ precarious life-style and Hansen’s violent beating and murder presage an ugly end for the bikers themselves.

For me the surprise is that Wyatt and Billy are much less “rebellious” than everybody has believed them to be: Wyatt appears to yearn for a simple, less materialist and more spiritual life and has more confidence in the hippies’ ability to survive in the desert than his more worldly companion; and Billy is really a conventional guy at heart who lives for the moment and connects being rich with living it up and having lots of girls fawning over him for his wealth. The guys are “rebellious” only in the sense that they take the values of freedom and individuality that American culture supposedly prizes at face value and practise them in real life. Perhaps the really rebellious character is Hansen, the spoilt geek son of a big-fish rich lawyer in their small-pond part of Louisiana, who expresses his desire for a more equal and socialistic society when, drawing on a marijuana reefer, he waxes very lyrically about a UFO Billy saw some time ago and says it is part of a fleet of UFOs operated by aliens whose technology and culture are far more advanced and humane than those of humans. Nicholson plays Hansen in a deliberately over-the-top zonked-out performance that endears him to viewers and makes his opinions less extreme than they would be had they come from a more conventional and restrained character; it also makes his death more horrific and affecting, as he is the one character in the movie who genuinely believes in democracy and equality for everyone regardless of their skin colour or early background, and practises what he preaches (he works for the American Civil Liberties Union).

The style of film-making is unusual for a Hollywood movie of its time: there’s not much dialogue in early scenes and the camera often rests its gaze on objects or passes over scenes at unusual angles without anyone saying anything in the background; and in one scene when the bikers visit the hippie commune, the camera pans right around the circle of hippies to capture the feeling of a community. The part where the bikers and the prostitutes experience the bad effects of an LSD trip is a highly experimental sequence of quick camera shots and editing, juxtaposing religious pictures and symbols and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with scenes of the foursome stumbling about in a cemetery, Karen stuck howling in a narrow passage between walls and Mary stripping for Wyatt. The camera sometimes spins about as if in a panic and sunlight appears to stream down so much it hurts the eyes.

If the film makes a comment on the hippie counter-culture, it is that taking drugs isn’t necessarily a release from dreary, everyday life and can have frightening psychological effects on people, and that idealism has to be tempered with realism. The hippies encountered don’t seem all that happy with their lot, the men listlessly scattering seed over barren ground, and the women labouring in the kitchen and caring for the children; they may have longer hair and more colourful clothes than regular folks did in their time but their sexual politics are just as conservative, unequal and taken for granted. The overall opinion of “Easy Rider” to aspects of the counter-culture is quite conservative and not necessarily the correct one: when Hansen initially hesitates to take the reefer and suggests it might lead him to “harder stuff”, the bikers’ reaction is silence, as if confirming that point of view. The idea that using marijuana serves as a gateway to using other more dangerous drugs is a highly controversial one with a history of medical research that produces contradictory results, depending on how the study or experiment is designed. It may well be that in many countries the illegal status of marijuana itself makes it a gateway drug if it is supplied by the same people who supply harder drugs.

The meaning of freedom is explored in the film somewhat: Billy seeks materialistic freedom, Wyatt is after a more abstract and spiritual freedom and Hansen wishes for the freedom of a fuller, richer life experience that he so far hasn’t had. One irony of “Easy Rider” is that neither Billy, Wyatt nor Hansen finds the freedom he yearns for, or in the case of Wyatt and Hansen, they experience the downside of the freedom they seek, Hansen in particular paying the price for breaking out of his conventional Southern upbringing by being beaten up by small-minded and prejudiced Southern white men. The second irony is that the freedom the bikers enjoy in the film was always going to be short-lived – it would only last as long as their last penny. Even as “rebels”, Wyatt and Billy are still dependent on the capitalist economy to support them and so in that sense they are not really free.

The surprising thing is that the film isn’t more dated than it is, especially in its themes and ideas. Part of the reason is that in the last 30 years, US society has gone back on much of the social progress it made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hansen’s remark about the place of freedom in US society – that it’s fine for people to talk about freedom and about being free, but living it is what frightens people (and by implication the authorities) – finds its uncomfortable echo in the US government’s increasingly neo-fascist treatment of its citizens in so many areas of life, society and culture as the country continues to bog down in wars in western Asia with no clear exit strategy in sight.

Memories of Murder: masterpiece film about rival detectives in a corrupt society

Bong Joonho, “Memories of Murder” (2003)

A sober film based on actual events about a group of detectives in rural South Korea investigating a series of grisly rape-murders in the late 1980’s, “Memories of Murder” was the second movie directed by Bong Joonho and is ample evidence of his talent. The plot is very tight and well-paced and the film moves (if perhaps a little slowly and less noisily for fans of American TV crime thrillers) confidently to a stunning conclusion which confirms the viewer’s suspicions that arise about the characters and the crime investigation during the course of the movie, and what the suspicions imply about the nature of South Korean society during the period in question. Along the way the viewer gets the sense of an inevitable culture change from an authoritarian culture based on coercion and unquestioning respect for authority and hierarchy to a culture based on reason, the questioning of authority and tradition, and the use of abstract principles as a basis for behaviour and action, skilfully embedded in the familiar crime-show device of pairing two detectives from different backgrounds and with varying temperaments – the “mismatched buddies” – as the country-bumpkin police are joined by a city-slicker investigator from Seoul who brings more up-to-date skills and knowledge on how to pursue the investigation.

Early on we realise that detective Park (Song Kangho) and his colleagues aren’t up to the job of finding the serial rapist/killer when, in investigating the first murder, they accidentally destroy much of the crime scene evidence. Park makes a list of likely suspects and quickly zooms in on the local teenage village idiot Kwangho (Park Noshik) who he and his sidekick Cho (Kim Raeha) bring in for questioning and torture to get a false confession. Detective Suh (Kim Sangkyung) arrives from Seoul to assist the investigation and quickly determines that Kwangho is innocent and sets him free. Though Suh and Park are supposed to work together, mutual suspicion of their methods and approach prevent them from doing so, at least until Suh’s predictions that the killer will strike again and again come true. The detectives chase a number of leads, miss important evidence due to their brawling, arrest another innocent man and then, more by good luck and accident, discover the man (Park Haeil) who may actually be the killer. Autopsy evidence also comes the investigators’ way but they must send the semen samples and the new suspect’s DNA to the US as the appropriate skills and technology are lacking in South Korea.

Park and his country colleagues distinguish themselves early on as inept, lazy, stupid and brutal police overwhelmed by crimes the like of which they have never experienced and which all their knowledge and skill are inadequate to deal with. The viewer soon realises these men have been made the way they are by their society. In the 1980’s South Korea was a highly authoritarian society with a military government; there was little accountability and transparency in government activities affecting the people, and secrecy, corruption, incompetence and an expedient “whatever it takes” attitude to getting things done, leading to bullying, bribery, blackmail and violence, would have been rampant. Institutions responsible for law and order would have been infected by such a culture and the film demonstrates in its later half the public’s resentment of the police for their incompetence and brutality, particularly in scenes in which a drunken Cho causes a ruckus in a local restaurant and the diners leap onto him, causing him to have an injury that results in tetanus and leads to his lower leg being amputated.

Interestingly as the investigation drags on with little to show for progress and the murders continue relentlessly (curiously the public shows few signs of panic and concern but maybe that’s because the killings are being covered up deliberately), Park adopts some comical and pathetic methods of gathering evidence, including consulting a shaman who advises leaving a sheet of mud at the scene of the most recent crime (the mud supposedly forms an image of the killer’s face). At the same time, Suh, frustrated with the people and the organisational culture he has to work with, and the lack of help from outside, resorts to more violent methods of getting results. Viewers can see quickly how good police officers, eager and idealistic at first, become disheartened and disillusioned and end up being absorbed into the culture of violence and intimidation within the police force when the central bureaucracy, interested in looking good rather than being good, is unwilling to supply adequate back-up, resources, education and training to officers in the field. (And the serial killer often cunningly commits his crimes during siren calls when everyone, including the police, must stay indoors.) Eventually Park and Suh do co-operate together after previous temper flare-ups and fights in the office but it’s a case of “too little, too late” and Park eventually realises that even with modern and traditional methods of fighting crime, he and Suh are too far in over their heads with the resources and back-up they have, and that Suh is being corrupted by the stress of the difficult investigation and the failure of the authorities to support them.

As I’ve come to expect of him, Song is an excellent actor here as Park, in turns belligerent, comic, violent and, later in the film, capable of some insight into his behaviour and the situation he is thrust into. He sees that his use-by date has come and gone and it’s time for him to get out of detective work and start afresh. The question is whether Suh can realise the same thing as well and get out before he is too brutalised by police work and ends up another violent cypher in the system. All other actors around Song rise to the challenge of bringing a difficult and thought-provoking real-life CSI story to life and all do a great job. There are moments of humour and comedy as well as sheer horror and tension in the film and these demand versatile actors to carry them off successfully; with Song at the helm, film directors have much of their work done already, as he has a substantial track record of playing multi-faceted characters who can be comic and serious at the same time and it’s no big surprise that directors like Jong and Park Chanwook have frequently called on Song to play the lead in several films and that audiences outside South Korea readily recognise him as his home audiences do.

Visually the film is a treat to watch with beautiful and often moody background scenery of golden fields, lush green grass and dark, wet forests at night, depending on the plot’s requirements, to portray the countryside of South Korea as it might have appeared in the 1980’s. Attention to historical detail in background scenes and the technology used in the 1980’s, the detectives often relying on mini-cassette recorders to record interviews, looks impeccable. The film is almost entirely in flashback and all flashback scenes are in mostly dull shades of earth-based colours: brown, yellow, green and blue with the odd splash of red that calls attention to the serial killer’s quirks.

I’d say if you’ve never seen movies about crime scene investigations and you want to see at least one, try “Memories of Murder” first. It is a historic drama set in a particular period of South Korea’s history when the country was about to undergo a great political transformation from military rule to genuine democracy so there’ll be much that audiences outside that country won’t understand. It would be worthwhile for people to learn some recent Korean history to understand why and how South Korea had a military government in those days and how reviled it was in spite of past achievements in transforming the country from war-torn poverty to an industrial nation. As a film about detectives investigating a series of hideous crimes that they are woefully under-equipped for and which takes a heavy toll on them, it’s mesmerising viewing. One of the four most popular movies for cinema-goers in South Korea in 2003, the film is currently being remade in southern India in the Tamil language with a 2011 release date.

The actual series of crimes on which “Memories of Murder” is based remains unsolved and there were calls within the South Korean government in 2006 to have the statute of limitations extended to enable police to find the murderer.

One Missed Call (dir. Takashi Miike): over-the-top approach smothers observations about families and chaos in the world

Takashi Miike, “One Missed Call” (2004)

Coming from Takashi Miike (of “Ichi the Killer” fame), this contemporary update on the Japanese psychological horror ghost story in which a group of university student friends is terrorised by death notices from the future on their cellphones and one by one succumbs, in usually gruesome and violent fashion, in accordance with the time and date of the original message, is as loopy, graphic, comic and bizarre as expected with a message about the potential for abuse, manipulation and violence in family relationships, particularly in parents and children’s expectations of loyalty and support from each other. There may be no issue or subject Miike hasn’t met from which he can’t extricate the maximum amount of shock, revulsion or nervous laughter from his audiences. Certainly there is a lot of violence and some ketchup is spilt, but apart from a few scenes the gory stuff has been toned right down and as much violence happens off-screen as on. “One Missed Call” also lingers quite close to the territory of cheese in its pace and the way scenes may be drawn out as though to bait and exhaust audiences’ capacity to experience and absorb the characters’ fear and terror, especially in the movie’s last 40 minutes from the time one character enters an abandoned hospital.

Yumi (Ko Shibasaki) is the film’s focus of a small, close-knit bunch of pals at uni who start getting messages on their cellphones that come from a specific time and date in the future and in which their own voices make a short statement, scream and quickly fall silent. Perturbing also is that the messages are originating from their own cellphone numbers! Come the time and date of the strange message in the student’s real life and the person dies violently, usually by decapitation, while making the same statement and scream; at the the same time his or her cellphone rings its number to convey the victim’s last moments, and shortly after death, a red lolly pops out of the victim’s mouth. After losing two friends in this way and finding others have died in like manner, Yumi contacts the police who at first are unsympathetic towards her story but at least pass her onto detective Yamashita (Shinichi Tsutsumi) whose sister, a nurse working with child abuse victims, was the first to die from the cellphone curse. Together Yumi and Yamashita try (and fail) to prevent a third friend, Natsumi, falling victim to the death phone curse on a live TV broadcast: this moment must be Miike’s over-the-top comment on how the media exploits, sensationalises and ultimately trivialises ordinary people’s suffering. The two gradually connect the deaths of the friends and others to a case of a mother, Marie Mizunuma, suspected of having abused her two young daughters, of whom one, Mimiko, died of an asthmatic attack and the other, Nanako, is mute and now under the care of social workers.

Unexpected and surprising twists a-plenty appear in the two allies’ race to save Yumi herself from death by dialling after she also receives a death notice. Miike sure loves to pile on surprise after surprise and subvert viewers’ expectations and guesses as to the identity of the vengeful ghost that enjoys playing with other people’s lives. In an already fairly tight though sometimes drawn-out screenplay, he delights in giving two climaxes to the film as though to beat audiences clean out of their minds and patience, and whacks in an original and demented conclusion in which time is forced to travel backwards to give us the “right” conclusion as to what happens to Yumi and Yamashita, rather than the “wrong” conclusion. Miike clearly isn’t a believer in the quantum theory idea of parallel universes in which an incident in one universe can give birth to at least two and usually more than two universes, of which in one universe Yumi survives the death curse, in another universe doesn’t survive the death curse, and in another universe appearing to survive the death curse – among others. The conclusion is set up in such a way that any, maybe even both or all, of these scenarios applies to Yumi!

Technically Miike is a very accomplished film-maker with excellent control of the script, no matter how loopy it gets, and using background settings, sequencing with jumpy cuts and sometimes deliberately jerky filming to create and sustain an atmosphere of unease rising to fear, terror and sheer fright. His use of sound, colour and lighting in the hospital corridor scenes where Yumi is menaced by the ghost and constant reminders of human mortality in jars of preserved bodies being placed before her is effective in generating increasing tension. Miike sure doesn’t mess much with introductions: he gets right into the thick of things by despatching two of Yumi’s friends in the film’s first 30 minutes before settling down into more extended scenes as Yumi and Yamashita conduct their investigation. He demands a great deal from his main actor Ko Shibasaki who, though deteriorating into a screaming damsel in distress in the second half of the film, works those facial muscles and vocal flaps well, sinking right into the character for most of the film and changing dramatically in the film’s denouement to something sinister and quiet. As for the other actors, Tsutsumi at least plays his detective character as directed, not giving it anything that would really set it apart from other movie detectives, and minor characters register as one-dimensional stereotypes in a plot-drive movie packed with over-the-top melodrama.

Though the lead character is a female who initiates the investigation into the cause of the death notices, Miike’s idea of what females should and shouldn’t do is limited and conservative for a director who supposedly has a prolific body of often imaginative work in nearly all major film genres with a reputation for subverting genre conventions: “good” girls here are passive and loyal to their families even when parents do bad things to them or death threatens; and “bad” girls are active, behaving wildly and impulsively like the forces of nature, and they can only be controlled, kept at bay or placated with sacrifices, their motives or reason for behaving as they do beyond human understanding and reasoning. Male characters don’t get off lightly either: either they’re not interested and end up being puzzled victims, or they try to deal with the problem using known solutions without knowing what they’re up against. Only Tsutsumi attempts to try to understand the nature of what he’s dealing. The police force is relegated to mopping up after messes made. The vision expressed here is nihilistic and despairing – chaos is ever present and ready to wreak havoc, and the structures we humans put up to make sense of the world, including the technology we rely on so heavily and which we fetishise, can be infiltrated by chaos and turned against us. The use of psychiatry with reference to Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy (MSP) – a psychiatric disorder in which parents deliberately sicken or injure their children to get attention from medical professionals – is a superficial addition to the plot used to confound audience expectations about the ghost’s identity. Science, religion and rationalism turn out to be useless weapons against chaos.

The film looks like a typical ghost-horror screamathon but there are some deep observations beneath the frenzy and pile-up of twists and surprises about the nature of the world , the loss of connections and alienation, and of dysfunctional families that most people will miss completely. That’s a pity in a way, as this film might have been stronger if those observations weren’t so deeply buried beneath the excess. It’s possible that Miike is parodying and questioning the horror film genre by exaggerating its conventions and taking them to their utmost extreme but that might not always be the best road to take if you want to send up something that you love and want to have fun with. Miike certainly has a lot of fun with “One Missed Call” and some of it is very funny – I found the scene where Yumi hugs a decaying body and the surprised look on the ghoul’s face one of the more hilarious moments – but I suspect I’m one of just a very few people who can see the fun and the serious stuff through the body count.

Mary and Max: claymation film labouring under plot aimed at both adults and children but failing both

Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” (2008)

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Source: www.artabase.net

This is a poignant film about how friendships can be made between social misfits and how they thrive and survive under the most trying and difficult of circumstances. The use of claymation, in both black-and-white and sepia, allows Elliot to tackle issues of mental illness, loneliness and being an outsider through the 20-year penpal relationship of the titular characters, Mary Daisy Dinkle and Max Jerry Horowitz, in a way that treats such problems and their consequences with some distance and respect while not over-dramatising them to the extent that they become trivialised. The warmth that develops through the friendship and the humour, much of which is obsessed with and uses poo as plot devices, act as an antidote to what could have been a very depressive and dark film.

The friendship begins in a non-descript suburb in Melbourne, Australia, when 8 year old Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore), lonely and neglected by both her parents and the kids at school, and having been told by a relative that babies in Australia are born from the bottoms of glasses of beer, wants to know how babies in America are made. She contrives to snatch part of a page from the New York City telephone directory at the local Australia Post office when her sozzled mother Vera, caught shoplifting stationery, quickly whisks her out and away from the enraged postmaster. Amazing that Mary could find the New York City phone directory in a small Australia Post office outlet in Melbourne in 1976; maybe there was a small colony of Manhattanites settled near that outlet at the time. Choosing a name and its corresponding address at random, Mary writes and posts a letter to Horowitz (voice: Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely Jewish-American man incapacitated by numerous past traumas and his inability to relate to others. Discovering a shared love of chocolates and outsider status, over time the two readily bond and offer support – Max advises Mary on how to deal with bullies at school – though each letter from Mary brings negatives as well as joys for Max as he is forced to relive past childhood terrors and memories of failed jobs while reading each new missive; one letter puts him into such distress that he ends up in hospital for 8 months. During this early part of the film, while Mary is an innocent child, the narrative is at its most charming and amusing, and the sentiment and whimsy are not too apparent.

As Mary grows up and, buoyed by Max’s support and advice, becomes a confident woman (now voiced by Toni Collette), the source of Max’s problems is revealed – he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism – and the film becomes sombre as the main characters start to move further apart and the narrative wades into the dark territory of depression and suicide. Minor characters die in ways that angle for cheap laughs – Vera, drinking herself into a haze after her husband’s death, mistakes embalming fluid for liquor – and the plot twist that comes when Max angrily rejects Mary for researching and publishing a book on Asperger’s syndrome for her postgraduate degree, using him as a research subject, whacks issues of depression, rejection and near-suicide onto viewers so quickly compared to the gentle pace of the film’s early half that everything seems very forced as though we have to be taught a hard lesson on life’s sorrows. The film’s flaws become more irritating – Barry Humphries as a didactic narrator using a mock-storybook style is especially annoying and drags the action down – and the sentimentality, especially when Mary becomes pregnant and has her baby, becomes cloying.

The animation is not bad with little evidence of CGI effects (it looks crude but the raw quality accentuates the film’s quirky charm) and this leads me to think that if Elliot had handed over the script-writing and the basic story-line to someone else and had concentrated on the technical aspects of the movie, it would have been so much more improved with a bulked-up and tighter plot that would dispense with the narration and which would be less repetitive in its later half. There would be a greater variety of jokes and other forms of humour to counteract the gloom, with not so much reliance on toilet jokes, and also to emphasise and contrast with Elliot’s message of how life can be cruel and you just have to deal with the cruelty with all its pointless randomness. Claymation films such as this are demanding in terms of the time and labour taken to get each little character right and each scene story-boarded and set up correctly so it’s worthwhile for animators to delegate the job of writing good scripts and screenplays that they can work with to capable writers to justify the expense and effort involved.

As it is, “Mary and Max” is an oddball film with appealing characters who are not lacking in warmth, gentleness and humour but who are forced to labour under a plot that can’t decide perhaps whether to pitch at families with preteen and teenage children as its target audience or to adults prepared to watch claymation films on their own merits – so it targets both groups. A big mistake: trying to be all things to all people is sure to result in something that fails to please everyone.

Catfish: a film with a surprising and humbling twist

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, “Catfish” (2010)

Call it a fake documentary, call it a feature film and call it exploitative but this film about a friendship that begins on Facebook, is augmented by Google, Google Earth, Youtube, satnav and cellphones, and ends up in a real place that not even the film-makers anticipated, emotionally as well as physically, is an intriguing investigation into the nature of authenticity, much of which it is thrown back into the film-makers’ faces and those of their audiences. The film divides into two rough halves: in the first half, it focusses on Nev Schulman, a photographer based in New York City who specialises in photographing professional dancers, who is contacted by a young girl called Abby requesting his permission to use one of his photos as a basis for a painting. When Abby posts the result to Nev, Nev is taken aback by the quality of the child’s work and a friendship conducted mostly through Facebook develops from there. As Nev is introduced to and friended by members of Abby’s family, in particular her half-sister Megan Faccio, his brother Ariel and friend Henry sense the Facebook friendships have a story to tell and begin to obsessively document Nev’s relationships with Abby’s family on film. Along the way though, something about the songs Megan posts to Nev via mpegs smells fishy and the trio quickly discovers she is posting other people’s songs as her own. Their senses alerted, the guys begin to discover other things about Abby, her mum Angela Wesselman and Megan that don’t make sense, and the men decide to visit the family.

The film’s second half is located mostly in Ishpeming (Michigan) where Abby and her family live and here Nev, Ariel and Henry discover the truth about Abby, Angela and their relatives, most of all Megan. At this point, the film leaves the realm of genre film – up to now, the film has gleefully included references to horror and suspense, including a drive from Chicago all the way to Michigan in the wee hours of the night to visit an abandoned farm-house, perhaps to provide a frisson to what the film-makers anticipated would be the climax of the film (maybe they’ll find illegal cocaine shipments? discover body parts left behind by a serial killer? stumble onto a secret alien-human DNA fusion experiment jointly funded by the Pentagon and the CIA?), as well as romantic comedy of the “You’ve Got Mail” sort. “Catfish” delves into deeper territory about identity and its fluidity, and how social networking technology gives people from different walks of life the opportunity to create and present fantasies about themselves and their lives as a way of coping with everyday reality. It transpires that (spoiler alert) everything attributed to Abby and Megan in the first half of the film is part of a fantasy life spun by Angela as her way of reconciling her need for a family life and security with the sacrifice of her dream to be a dancer and painter.

Although Nev and his pals find out fairly easily that Abby and Megan aren’t all they were cooked up to be, the fact remains, which Nev admits, that for several months he didn’t bother investigating their bona fides simply because it hadn’t occurred to him to do so, even though astute viewers of “Catfish” would have smelled something pretty strange when Angela starts posting pictures of some of her own paintings along with Abby’s pictures early on in the film. Even after the guys realise that Abby’s family may be lying to Nev, they don’t think about taking anything further until Henry suggests they actually go visit the family. At this point, the film changes dramatically: the film-makers’ obsession with Facebook and other social networking technologies fades and viewers are taken into more emotional and humbling if voyeuristic territory. This says a lot about the problems of social networking: in many aspects, particularly in the world of emotions and psychology, the technology can never really substitute for real life, no matter how real Facebook and other online friendships may seem to people and no matter how closer people, geographically separated, become. At the same time, such dangers are advantageous as Angela discovers for herself: she uses the technology to get a foot-hold in a larger network represented by people like Nev Schulman but, being shy and perhaps afraid that she’s not as “sophisticated” as the folks in New York, she weaves a fantasy life to hook Schulman into supporting her artistic efforts. In this way, she controls the process by which she moves into a milieu and network that she has always yearned to enter on her own terms and at her own pace. The irony is, Angela is perhaps more sophisticated in her use of Facebook and other Internet-based interactive networks to get what she needs and the end credits suggest she manages to achieve at least some if not all her dreams.

Yes, you don’t know if your “friends” are one-to-one cyber-equivalents of real-life people (as opposed to paedophiles impersonating children or men impersonating women) or if 10, 100 or even 1,000 of these friends might be avatars of one person. If social networks and virtual reality websites pose a danger, “Catfish” suggests that the danger is people being too ready to believe that those they meet online are who they claim to be when everybody “knows” that the Internet offers people limitless opportunities to reinvent themselves. For all their hipness and familiarity with modern technology (and we certainly see the Schulmans and Henry messing with their laptops, cellphones and filming equipment a lot), these guys fall victim all too readily to their own emotions and fears. At film’s end, Nev is looking shell-shocked from what he has discovered about Angela and maybe about himself and his own naivety; it’s too easy though to say he should have invested less emotion and feeling into his Facebook romance with Megan. As individuals and as a society, we depend so much on technology to fulfill our immediate physical needs that we have come to see it as solving all our social, political and economic problems and it’s now an extension of our psychological being. As “Catfish” gives viewers no information about Nev’s history of romance prior to meeting Megan on Facebook, we have no way of knowing if Nev has experienced many ups and downs in his love life and if he should just widen his real-life social network, meet more actual girls and get some advice on how to recognise if someone is genuinely interested in him or leading him on. At least he conducts himself with grace and never accuses Angela directly when he confronts her with her lies, so he’s not completely at sea socially.

It would have been more ethical if Nev had simply called Angela’s bluff on Facebook and not gone to see her at home. Again, this points up a limitation about social networking and other interactive technologies such as email and even the old-fashioned facsimile machine: that when you have to confront people about their lies or other “bad” behaviour, it’s better to do it face-to-face than impersonally, even by phone. Also if Nev had told Angela over the phone that he knew she was lying and left the matter at that, she might never have had the breakthrough she yearned for and Nev and the others might not have learned something about themselves and the limitations of social networking. No-one would have been changed by his/her experiences and Angela would probably go hunting through Facebook again to latch onto another hipster photographer who thinks he’s more worldly-wise than he actually is. Who’s to say if the unethical route is not the correct route to follow in situations such as these?

There are several issues raised in “Catfish” which the film, due to its limited scope and resources, isn’t able to deal with in much depth at all. One issue is how do people like Angela reconcile conflicting personal desires and ambitions, and the needs of others dependent on them, in striving for personal fulfilment. The issue affects men and women alike but possibly it’s more pressing for women who desire also to be mothers but find mothering brings with it demands on their time and energy. Related to this is the problem of Angela’s social and economic milieu: her home town of Ishpeming perhaps couldn’t be more removed culturally and financially from that of Nev, Ariel and Henry, and Angela may have perceived the difference as a considerable barrier to gaining a foot-hold in the art world. Ishpeming is an economically depressed town: when Nev and his pals arrive there, they see the main streets are deserted and the large building in the centre of town which supposedly is an art gallery is actually vacant and has been so for four years. If there is any State or Federal government assistance to Ishpeming and to individual families like Angela’s family which includes twin adult step-sons with mental disabilities, the film-makers make no mention of it.

The question of the film’s genre as documentary or not raises the issue of authenticity, not just with the film itself but also its makers and the people who appear in “Catfish”. The events look real enough but the film-makers have imposed a particular linear narrative on them that shapes them and influences viewers to see them in a certain way. Don’t rule out the possibility that the events have been edited to conform to this narrative. The narrative gives the events a coherence that viewers can understand. Elements of romantic comedy, horror and suspense thriller have been worked deliberately into the film to tease the audience and hold their attention for what is basically a fairly trite subject: the development and evolution of a relationship through the medium of technology. Ariel Schulman and Joost’s motives for making the film change as they follow Nev’s romance with Megan and this change makes their motives seem even more suspect. At one point in the film, Nev complains about being bullied and manipulated into continuing with the filming even when he wants out so there is a related issue of how authentic the film can be when people are being bullied and events are being shaped to meet a vague agenda. Interestingly, Angela herself manipulates the film-makers and continues to lie even as they force her into admitting her past fibs about Megan. The fact that this manipulation is a two-way street in the second half of “Catfish”, with the sense that the film-makers are losing some control over the “story” as a result, makes this part of the film very interesting. As this manipulation is going on, viewers will find themselves complicit as passive voyeurs; we may not like what Nev, Ariel and Henry are doing to Angela but all the same, we want to know why Angela seems such a compulsive liar that she carries on even after the trio expose her lies and discover she’s deceived her husband too.

The film is likeable and Angela’s “dilemma” can be very moving. Nev is an appealing guy and the approach the film-makers adopted of confronting Angela with her lies in a gentle way that saved face and didn’t embarrass everyone should be lauded. Viewers will likely feel sorry for Angela’s husband who incidentally gives the film its title and perhaps is the most genuine person here. (We don’t learn much about his background and what he does outside the home, not even if he works two or three low-paying jobs, which seems likely in a depressed place like Ishpeming.) Authenticity, encountered through “Catfish”, is a huge multi-faceted monster indeed.

Dororo: a fun escapist samurai-fusion film let down by cheap effects

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

Based on the original manga by Astroboy creator, Osamu Tezuka, “Dororo” is a fun and entertaining escapist fantasy adventure about two wanderers, Hyakkimaru and Dororo, in a post-apocalyptic Japan. Curiously this Japan resembles pre-Tokugawa Japan in its culture and politics: the country has been split up and is ruled by warring clans each eager to wipe out the others and reunite the land by force and tyranny. Leader of one such clan, Daigo Kagemitsu (Kichi Nakai), is so keen to be the first Great Unifier since Ieyasu Tokugawa that he readily enters into a Faustian pact with a group of demons at a temple: the evil ones demand the body of his first-born son as payment. When the child is born, the demons seize and dismember him, leaving behind bare scraps of flesh held together by the baby’s spirit. Daigo Kagemitsu forces his wife to abandon the child and she does so tearfully, sending him off in a basket to drift down a fast-flowing river.

The baby is found by a sorcerer who painstakingly sets about reconstructing the tiny body using the remains of children killed in past wars together with various prostheses that include swords hidden in the boy’s new arms. Scenes of the reconstruction look amusingly (and intentionally) like their equivalents in old Frankenstein movies: the sorcerer distils the life essence of the dead children amid a collection of boiling potions in glass containers all joined together with transparent tubes and he uses magic that resembles electricity to animate the body parts. The boy, wrapped in bandages, floats in a soup of life-sustaining liquid. The process has to take a long time as the boy needs bigger parts and prostheses as he grows up. The sorcerer takes time to educate the boy as well. On reaching the age of 20, the boy (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is as ready as can be to take on the demons which is just as well as the sorcerer conveniently gives up the ghost and commands Hyakkimaru to destroy his life-work so that it should not fall into the wrong hands for evil purposes. Hyakkimaru burns the sorcerer’s house and life-work and begins his odyssey around Japan in search of the 48 demons who took his original body parts.

He acquires a side-kick, Dororo (Ko Shibasaki), who, on seeing him despatch a spider-demon in short and spectacular FX-enhanced order at a tavern, becomes curious about him and learns of his history from the time the sorcerer found him from a mysterious lute-player (Katsuo Nakamura) who happens to be the sorcerer’s friend. Dororo is a teenage thief, orphaned at an early age and commanded by her mother to suppress her gender identity by impersonating a boy; the girl desires revenge upon the Kagemitsus for destroying her family and community. Together Hyakkimaru and Dororo – incidentally, they acquire their names as nicknames, their real names being unknown – cross the length and breadth of a scenic and beautiful wild countryside (the movie having been filmed in New Zealand), killing the various demons who were part of the group that negotiated with Daigo Kagemitsu, in order to recover Hyakkimaru’s physical inheritance piece by piece … until they come to the lands of the Kagemitsus where Daigo Kagemitsu’s son and heir Tahomaru hears of Hyakkimaru’s arrival and seeks him out, inviting him to come and meet his parents …

The screenplay is better plotted than I expected: Hyakkimaru and Dororo could have spent the entire film chasing and killing rubber monsters and CGI ghouls with Dororo falling in love with Hyakkimaru along the way and Hyakkimaru unable to reciprocate until he has regained all his body parts. The showdown with Daigo Kagemitsu could have been shelved for a sequel but “Dororo” chooses to meet this head-on with a revelation that the demons handed Daigo Kagemitsu a dud deal, taking the first-born son’s physical being and going to town on that with some el-cheapo cheesy Godzilla cast-off costumes and computer effects that are irregular in quality, but most of all failing to deliver all of their client’s enemies to him in good time.  Yet Daigo K never appears to want his child back or at least take the contract to the relevant Department of Fair Trade. The movie can appear rather uneven: in its early scenes and the later scenes where Hyakkimaru confronts his father, the movie adopts a serious and drawn-out (maybe too drawn-out for fans of action) tone, and in other scenes where the two young ‘uns confront and kill demons, it’s quite flippant and the demons are more cartoonish than terrifying, but the screenplay holds up in spite of the changes in approach. I guess the emphasis is that the business of killing demons is secondary to Hyakkimaru discovering his true heritage and what it means to be human, and on how Dororo copes with finding out that the man she is following is the son of her family’s killers and whether her thirst for revenge is fulfilled.

Shibasaki and Tsumabuki do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters: Shibasaki’s Dororo comes across as a stock jester or clown character in the vein of similar characters in other Japanese samurai movies though the acting involved is substantial and Shibasaki does a convincing job throwing jokes, tantrums and tomboy bluster; while Tsumabuki’s Hyakkimaru has an uphill battle demonstrating an increasing capacity for feeling, empathy and humour when he has to acquire humanity bit by tiny bit. After all, by the time he’s resolved his issues with Dad, he’s only halfway to full humanity with 24 more jigsaw puzzle pieces to collect. No wonder then that he appears robotic throughout the film and only seems to become a bit human at the end. There are hints in “Dororo” that acquiring humanity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that becoming human means becoming vulnerable to wounding, both physical, mental and emotional; it would have been good if Shiota had played up that angle more so that the whole business of tracking down the demons and killing them, one by one, just to get your body parts back, one by one, becomes more complicated on an existential level. Particularly also if you decide to bring some futuristic neo-Buddhist beliefs about the relationships between material desires and the nature of suffering into the picture: the more human you become, the more subject to desires you also become, and the more likely you will sin and cause other people to suffer.

Combining manga and various movie references, sci-fi, fantasy, martial arts, Japanese folk mythology and some old-fashioned story-telling with flashback sequences and a bit of philosophising about family members sticking together, “Dororo” juggles its influences and the genre-mixing fairly well to deliver a fun light-hearted ride at least. The major complaints I have are that the special effects and the CGI work aren’t of consistent quality and often look cheap, especially when the rest of the film looks good and sometimes even majestic, and the various demons Hyakkimaru meets tend to be animal and plant spirits rather than real demons straight out of people’s worst nightmares: we have the spider-demon, the tree-demon, the lizard-demon, the moth-demon, the fox-demons … all not terribly original and restricted in their roles as particular animals and plants. Sure, some can morph into humans but they don’t morph into anything else to make life more fun for themselves and extra difficult for everyone else. The futuristic world created for Hyakkimaru and Dororo should look more of a pastiche of different cultures, past and present, within and outside Japan, than it does. Armchair experts in mediaeval Japanese culture and history would recognise a great deal borrowed from Japan’s Sengoku warlord period (about 1450 – 1600) which preceded the Tokugawa shogunate; the film looks like one of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai pictures remade on a budget. The one part of the film that’s truly cosmopolitan and outstanding is the music soundtrack which features considerable bluesy-sounding flamenco-style guitar music.

If a sequel to “Dororo” gets off the ground, I’d expect a bit more character development and maybe some delayed teenage angst on Hyakkimaru’s part as he acquires more human feelings and emotions, and maybe questions whether it’s really worth his while getting all his body parts back. Reading some of the comments on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) though, I found one which stated an sequel is not likely as the estate of Osamu Tezuka does not like the film and has refused permission for sequels. I have never seen the manga but apparently the film makes drastic changes to the original manga story – to take two examples, the manga Dororo is a young preteen boy, and the tone of the manga itself is more serious than that of the film – and possibly it is changes such as these that the estate objects to. For the time being anyway, manga fans and the general public alike can enjoy the film as a post-modern samurai-fusion flick and if some people are inspired to read the original manga, that will be a bonus.

Noi the Albino: film about a teenager needing a purpose and anchor in life … like a proper film

Dagur Kari, “Noi the Albino” (2003)

This is a curious film where  little happens and then all of a sudden, something happens and bang … THE END. “Noi the Albino” is a study of teenage frustration and isolation: main character Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a 17 year old youth who lives in a tiny village at the foot of a snow-covered cliff overlooking a bay in a remote part of Iceland. Born into a poor family that’s always been down on its luck – he lives with his grandmother Lina (Anna Fridriksdottir) and his taxi-driver father Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) who drifts in and out of his son’s life – Noi has the misfortune to be highly intelligent and non-conformist in a place that’s too small or narrow-minded to make use of his abilities and quirks. His folks can’t provide him with the financial and moral support he needs to advance farther in life so, unmotivated and lacking in direction and guidance, he wags school frequently – frequently enough to end up getting expelled – and spends his time hanging out at a local bookshop, drinking ginger beer at the local petrol station cafe, wandering around the bay shooting at icicles on the hill or frittering time away in his secret room in the cellar under Lina’s house.

A couple of things happen that brighten Noi’s life: the bookshop owner’s daughter Iris (Elin Hansdottir) comes into town to work at the cafe and Lina gives Noi a View-Master gadget which has images of scenes from tropical countries. Iris’s father Oskar (Hjalti Rognvaldsson) warns Noi to stay away from Iris but Noi seeks her out when he can and they end up falling in love. When he’s not with Iris, Noi spends his spare time looking at photographs of the beach and the American man in Aztec regalia on his View-Master, among other photos. On one occasion Noi and Iris break into the local natural museum and hide in a storage place; they see a map of the world and Noi discovers Iceland’s true significance – or rather, insignificance – to the rest of the planet. Iris encourages him to press a button, which he does so, and the Hawaiian islands light up on the map. This sets Noi off, dreaming about leaving his home village with Iris and heading off for sunnier, tropical climes, and trying to achieve that dream, however clumsy and stupid his methods are.

In the meantime, Lina and Kiddi try to find work for Noi – Kiddi gets him a grave-digging job at the local cemetery and Lina consults Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson), a mechanic and fortune-teller, to tell Noi’s fortune. Noi visits Gylfi who foretells death which Noi finds nonsensical. A series of other incidents follow in which Noi gets in trouble with the police and has to be bailed out by his dad. Retreating into his underground cellar room, Noi discovers his room is shaking, dirt comes pouring out of the ceiling and all the lights go out …

With no plot to speak of, “Noi the Albino” is an impressionistic view of how one teenager, an outsider in his village by an unlucky combination of personality quirks, looks (he has alopecia so he looks like an alien) and family circumstances, tries to cope with the isolation and boredom of his monotonous life with the limited resources he has. There are other local kids like Dabbi about but they are too different from him or their parents don’t want them hanging out with him. The movie gives no indication of the period it’s set in but the lack of computers in the school (the principal has no PC on his desk in one scene) or in the bank (there’s no ATM on the outside) suggest the 1970’s or 1980’s and in those days, without the Internet and the information sources and social networks it offers, loners like Noi really were loners, adrift through no fault of their own in a world cut off from everywhere else and where everyone knows you and has certain (non)expectations of you. As Noi, Lemarquis does well in portraying a youngster brought up to be stoic and unemotional yet troubled and at sea morally, needing help but refusing it when offered by people he happens to dislike. He’s clearly the type who’ll work for something that’s worth achieving but won’t do so just for the sake of being a hard worker and being disciplined: in his own way he diligently pursues Iris though whether he ends up loving her for herself or because he sees her as a life-line is another thing. Some of his problems with others arise because he figures out how to work smarter or takes the initiative to do something creative and different that would actually benefit everyone but upsets more conventional types. To take an example, the maths teacher at school complains about Noi’s use of a cassette-recorder to record his lessons in his absence, even though the arrangement would benefit him as well as Noi as he wouldn’t have to put up with Noi’s insolent behaviour. Noi is the kind of personality difficult to like on a purely social level but spend enough time with him as Iris does and you may find he’s not really a bad guy, he just needs a purpose and anchor in life, a bit more humility and something or someone to show him the way or throw him the opportunity.

The world Noi lives in is portrayed beautifully in a matter-of-fact way: repeated shots of the village, hugging the shoreline of the bay beneath a huge and brooding hill with an almost sheer cliff-face, suggests the awesome and unpredictable power of nature which drastically turns Noi’s life upside-down and fulfills Gylfi’s alarming prediction. The event might appear to some viewers as a theatrical deus ex machina device to get the film really going and finished with a climax that would justify everything that’s gone before but it didn’t seem that way to me, perhaps because I’ve heard a fair amount of Scandinavian and other northern European popular and alternative music and read about their creators, seen a few movies from that part of the world, and read a bit about its history and culture, to know that Icelanders have a perverse sense of humour which they probably developed to cope with their harsh and unpredictable environment, isolation and poverty over the centuries, and they would find an avalanche slamming into Noi’s small world and giving him what he needs blackly ironic. There’s a hint that Noi himself precipitates the event in a small way when he shoots down icicles hanging off the cliff earlier in the film so the climax isn’t entirely an after-thought. Nature affects Noi in other ways too, particularly in his dreary job as grave-digger where he must brave cold winds and dig in unforgiving permafrost. The conclusion which brings the beach photo in the View-Master to life is enigmatic, suggesting on one level that Noi finally loses contact with the real world and drifts off permanently into a fantasy world, and on another level, confirming to him that his life purpose is to escape Iceland and hinting at the possibility of a sequel in which Noi finally makes his way to Hawaii.

The film won’t suit all tastes and in spite of Lemarquis’s acting and the cinematography I did find the film uninteresting overall and it runs out of puff quickly. Elin Hansdottir as Iris is blank and it’s difficult to see what Noi might see in her, which suggests his contact with women has been very limited or maybe he does see her as his life-line out of Iceland. The relationship which should have been the film’s spine barely gets off the ground. Grandmother Lina and dad Kiddi provide humorous moments (Kiddi smashing a piano with an axe is the most exciting thing to see in the whole film, and the sausage-making scene where Lina and Kiddi are accidentally splashed with sheep’s blood is the second most exciting thing) as do some minor characters such as the French teacher who demonstrates how to make mayonnaise in class and ends up with a ruined result. Lacking a plot and with a support cast of mostly sketchy characters existing for Noi to bounce off, the film has an uphill struggle appealing to viewers emotionally. I’m not against films with no obvious narrative or plot, some of my favourite films have no plot; it’s just that a film must have something else strong to compensate for the lack. Perhaps the film could have been condensed into something much shorter, say, around 80 minutes with a cryptic message at the end along the lines of “To be continued … maybe …”, that might encourage viewers to see “Noi the Albino” as a prequel to a main event that would justify its existence and Noi’s. Yes I think Noi’s life purpose includes a proper film vehicle to make use of his talents and quirkiness.

13 Beloved: clever comedy horror movie with surprisingly deep ideas

Chukiat Sakveerakul, “13 Beloved” aka “13: Game of Death” (2006)

Your name is Phuchit and you labour rather unenthusiastically as a sales rep in a company that sells musical instruments. You’re far behind in your rent payments, your car’s just been repossessed, your girlfriend left you because you can’t afford to keep supporting her singing and modelling, your family keeps leaning on you for money and the boss fires you for not increasing your monthly sales … Out of the blue, a mysterious person calls you on your cellphone promising you bucket-loads of money if you’ll play a harmless game … so you do that and the money gets wired into your account straight away … but then there’s the opportunity to win even more moolah if you play another game … and so on …

The mystery lottery that ensnares Bangkok corporate wage slave Phuchit (Krassida Sukosol Clapp) into a virtual reality online game in which he must participate in 13 levels that become increasingly dangerous, degrading and illegal, challenge his sense of right and wrong, and dredge up unpleasant childhood memories of schoolyard bullying and a violent father, to clear his debts and obligations, is the basis for a combined suspense thriller and comedy horror film that sneaks in pot-shots at the materialistic, competitive and corrupt society modern Thailand has become. Director Sakveerakul does an excellent job in the film’s first half-hour establishing Phuchit as an everyday man, likeable and obliging, with the same money problems as the rest of us in a world where money not only talks, it demands we give up our freedoms and humanity. Thus Phuchit is already vulnerable and primed for the seductions of the mysterious game whose instructions are communicated to him by unidentified callers on his cellphone (and later someone else’s cellphone), which include the rule that he’ll forfeit all his winnings if he decides to quit at any stage during the game or someone discovers him playing it.

As he ploughs through the tasks, the film milks each stunt for its full comic potential. Much of the comedy makes a point about something being rotten in the state of Thailand, or indeed Denmark or any other developed country, be it superficiality, the value of a shiny appearance over a corrupt reality, social alienation of minority groups such as elderly people and the mentally ill, the break-up of human relationships. In one memorable stunt, Phuchit visits a classy, expensive Chinese restaurant and gets a huge table all to himself, only to be served faeces on a plate topped with a silver cover! In another hilarious scene, Phuchit must drag out the corpse of an old man stuck in a putrid well in what seems to be a rundown shack and then dial the man’s family for help in the space of 10 minutes; the family, sitting in their clean, well-appointed house, bicker over answering the phone and finally do so, only to dismiss Phuchit’s plea as a crank call. Suddenly the family members realise they do indeed have an elderly father to care for … and they quickly run out of their lavish lounge-room into the shack to rescue Phuchit and the corpse in the space of a minute!

A couple of stunts give Phuchit an opportunity to unleash some of his frustrations and unhappiness about his life and childhood – beating up teenage bullies, punching his ex-girlfriend’s new amour (who may be abusing her, as Phuchit’s father did to his mother) – and I’m a bit sorry that other stunts don’t give Phuchit an opportunity to hit his co-worker Prem who stole his client and indirectly caused his sacking. There is also the ingenious stunt in which Phuchit’s willingness to help a grandmother fix her clothesline and hang up her washing results in a number of teenage motorcyclists being decapitated, demonstrating that even being a Good Samaritan can have unintended dire if blackly hilarious results.

Sukosol Clapp gives a memorable performance as the meek and mild Phuchit who, through his tasks, becomes more hardened and dehumanised to the point where he is prepared to kill animals and rip them apart just to see the bank put even more money into his account. In his final task, Phuchit meets his father, also lured into the game, and what they are required to do to each other becomes a test of how corrupted and enslaved by the game Phuchit has become. Admittedly the scene is very drawn-out compared to the fast pace of previous tasks, as Phuchit is assailed by conflicting memories of his father as violent but loving and caring, and initially I had the impression that all these memories were tacked on as an after-thought to drag out the suspense. The scene’s resolution does confirm Phuchit’s humanity but it did throw an unpleasant cast over the rest of the film: it made the whole plot vicious in a way Sakveerakul probably hadn’t intended. You realise that Phuchit simply exchanges one form of slavery for one which takes advantage of his fragile financial situation and exploits that and his desire to be free, simply to please the unseen thousands of online viewers. The one thing I think that could have strengthened Clapp’s performance is a suggestion that in some of the tasks, he actually begins to enjoy what he’s doing and revels in a new-found strength and ability to stand up to his tormentors and pursuers; this would have made his character development much more complex and the will-he?/won’t-he? suspense of the final task would be so much more tense and nerve-wracking.

The rest of the cast put in efficient if not great performances, notably Achita Sikamana who plays Tong, Phuchit’s co-worker who cares about his well-being and who discovers the nature of the game that has trapped him; she is more or less his conscience and would-be saviour, and the focus of one of Phuchit’s tasks. Hers is not a great turn where acting is concerned but she does enough to be credible as Phuchit’s support. Some viewers may be surprised at the revelation of the game’s mastermind as a young boy but by the late stage of the movie, we’ve seen enough incredible situations turned on their head that such a scenario causes little shock – and the boy does say that he is one of many, possibly thousands, caught up in the game’s machinations. The intimation is that the game itself now controls people, both viewers and that army of people who maintain the game in some way: creating new scenarios, enforcing its rules, contacting new players, policing the game’s boundaries and sustaining it in other ways. I don’t think it’s implausible that a boy could be mastermind of the game: the casting may be symbolic, saying something about people who work in IT who may lack maturity and insight to understand the effect their games and other inventions may have on the people who use and play them.

Initially the premise of “13 Beloved” is about what people will do for money and freedom in a society that prizes materialism, wealth and competition above other values. Sakveerakul manages to work into a tight and well-structured screenplay some snide attacks at how easily Thai society can be corrupted (the game’s organisers pay off the police to lay off pursuing Phuchit for his various crimes) and how people can be persuaded to exchange one form of oppression for another through their weaknesses. There is a suggestion of an unseen Big Brother, operating through kitsch (at one point in the film, a toy on an office cupboard spies on Tong researching the game on her work PC) and other methods, to draw in people like Phuchit and his father, and exploit their fraught relationship for purely banal reasons of giving superficial voyeuristic pleasure to people who might also be under BB’s thumb. There are other issues worth pursuing: for one thing, the issue of me and other movie-going audiences as voyeurs participating in the game,  rooting for Phuchit to win and what that might say about our humanity and desensitisation to the scenarios Phuchit is thrown into. There’s the question of free will: Phuchit can leave the game at any time though the penalty for doing so gets more severe and exposes Phuchit to police arrest and a long prison term. Given these penalties and that the game is customised to hone in on his softest and most vulnerable psychological weaknesses, is Phuchit ever in a position really to exercise free will and walk away?

This is a much cleverer movie than I thought it would be and one I recommend people to see, though they need strong stomachs for the many scenes of brutal violence and blood-letting. Hollywood has bought the rights to this film for a remake and I fear the many subtleties that appear in “13 Beloved” will be completely lost from the English-language version.

Pusher: highly recommended viewing about small-time heroin dealer

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Pusher” (1996)

Just managed to catch this film last night after seeing a video copy for loan in a video rent shop earlier in the day. This is a gritty and very distressing snapshot of a week in the life of a small-time middle-man heroin dealer, Frank (Kim Bodnia), in an unnamed inner-city district in Copenhagen, in Denmark. Early in the film, Frank meets Swedish ex-con Hasse to set up a large drug deal. Frank goes to see his boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) to get the heroin; he already owes Milo about 50,000 kroner but Milo lets him take the heroin provided that he return immediately with the money plus what he owes. As luck would have it, as Frank goes with Hasse to conduct the exchange, they cross paths with the police, forcing Frank to flee and jump into a lake where he dumps the heroin. He ends up spending the next 24 hours in the slammer during which time he is told his friend and usual partner-in-crime Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) set him up. On leaving jail, Frank seeks out Tonny in a pub and vents his rage on him severely with a baseball bat. (Why are baseball bats always the first choice of weapon to beat up people?) Leaving Tonny unconscious and bleeding, Frank visits Milo who refuses to believe his story about his 24-hour absence and increases the amount Frank owes him – 170,000 kroner to 230,000 kroner including the past 50,000 kroner – which must be paid by the end of the week. From this point on, Frank calls on all his clients to demand money, becoming more and more frustrated and violent when they can’t pay up, and at the same time trying to placate his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) and working out ways he can trick or evade Milo and his right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic).

Milo does relent somewhat and tells Frank he will accept a token payment and forget all the other debts to end their quarrel. You’d think at this point Frank should be glad and be able to relax and think more clearly but then he tells Vic he won’t be going to Spain as they had planned so she steals all the money he had collected from some bodybuilders in a gym and flees. The last we see of Frank, he is waiting for Milo’s men and the bodybuilders to pounce on him all at once.

Shot entirely on a hand-held video-recorder, the film has a strong documentary or news article feel which gives it an air of “authenticity”. Much of the action and dialogue may well have been improvised though of course the scenes of violence and drug-taking will have been staged. Funnily, night-time and interior scenes during night seem a lot more real and hard-edged, probably because in the outdoor day-time scenes there is that soft natural light often seen in Scandinavian films, unaffected by air pollution and enhanced by open spaces and the distinctive clean lines of Scandinavian architecture and design, which endows people and objects with a purity and innocence they don’t need. At the time “Pusher” was being made, people were getting excited about the Dogme 95 manifesto that a few Danish directors including Lars von Trier had written up and signed to, and which was invigorating film-making in Denmark by laying down particular rules and restrictions that actually opened new ways of seeing and thinking about film scripting and direction. The film does look a little like a Dogme 95 film but the manifesto’s rules prohibited the use of weapons and did not allow murder to occur in any of the films made under its directions; some of the music used in the film also breaks the manifesto rule about not using music unless it happens to be part of the background scenery anyway.

The drug-dealer life-style portrayed here is unglamorous and degrading: the never-ending search for money to pay off outstanding debts and the stress, frustration, anger and violence that accompany it, along with the wreckage of friendships betrayed and love abused, strip people like Frank of their humanity as much as a job in a sweatshop factory in India, in a Chinese coal-mine or in other places recycling and chopping up discarded laptops, breathing in poisonous fumes, would do. There is a curious code of conduct that Frank and the other dealers follow, one based on people’s desire, however superficial or self-serving, to meet outstanding debt and other obligations, which helps to generate much of the tension, aggression and violence seen. A poignant and hilarious moment comes when Radovan admits to Frank that he’d like to get out of the junk-dealing business and open a restaurant as he loves to cook, and that Milo loves making cakes and dreams of owning a bakery. One lesson here is that any young person with ideas of making it big and acquiring easy riches and girlfriends in the world of drug-trafficking, or dealing in heroin anyway, ought to see this film to be disabused of such notions.

As Frank, Bodnia puts up a first-rate performance as a grubby criminal: you can’t help but sympathise with him and even root for him a bit in spite of often impulsive and self-defeating actions as he spirals lower and lower in a trap partly of his own making, a trap that squeezes him more and more to the point where he is totally stranded with no options or life-lines, and time is fast running out on him. The actors playing Milo and Radovan are notable as well, injecting some humanity, played for laughs, into their characters but Bodnia outshines the whole cast by far.

The plot may not be original and the treatment of the drug dealers as ordinary human beings with aspirations like the rest of us – why, even drug pushers might want to be on MasterChef programs! – may have been done over and over in past films. As an unflinching study of a character caught in an extreme situation by his own actions and those of others, and behaving in ways that drag him lower and lower and sap his strength, “Pusher” is hard to beat. There is no examination of Frank’s motives or why he chose to go into the business in the first place but that might have stalled the action of what basically is a brief view of how small-time dealers go about their work. While the film’s budget does not allow Refn to examine the wider Danish society and its attitude to drugs – after all, making drugs illegal drives them underground, encouraging the kind of criminal activity seen in “Pusher” – we do get something of the overall social indifference to people like Frank and Vic in the scene where Frank is being interviewed by the police: one officer insultingly tosses lollies at Frank while he is sitting mum and refusing to answer questions from the other officer.

I definitely recommend this film as a psychological character study of how an individual might react when caught in an increasingly difficult situation with no hope of escape. It’s like watching a fly zoom accidentally into a spider’s web and struggle for all it’s worth while the spider homes in on its vibrations for the kill; a certain voyeuristic thrill to see whether the victim can escape its fate in spite of the very heavy odds stacked against it comes out of that and so it is also with “Pusher”. Can Frank succeed against all the odds or will he crack up at the last minute?

Ye Yan aka Legend of the Black Scorpion aka The Banquet: Chinese adaptation of “Hamlet” is Much Ado About Nothing

Feng Xiaogang, “Ye Yan” aka “Legend of the Black Scorpion” aka “The Banquet” (2006)

Source: www.chinese-embassy.org.uk

An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s famous revenge play “Hamlet”, this lavish Chinese swords-n-somersaultery production is more aptly if cruelly summarised with the title of another of the Bard’s plays: Much Ado About Nothing. Artier-than-thou cinematography, hammy slo-mo marital arts aerobatics and clever computer animation that can make a cast of hundreds and thousands out of a few actors and flicks ketchup blood into graceful arcs of abstract-art paint bulk up a soap opera plot that becomes yet another chapter in ancient Imperial China’s history of political intrigue, skulduggery and assassinations. The pity of Chinese history operas like this one is that they tend to reinforce a view of Chinese politics through the ages as very personal and dynastic, revolving always around clashes of personalities, ongoing vendettas and disputes, and don’t admit any possibility for political change brought about by social, cultural or technological changes within Chinese society or outside, bar the odd barbarian invasion from north of the Great Wall. In this respect, the films have a very limited and quite conservative viewpoint.

Beneath the layers of fairy floss, the plot hews closely to the original play: the Old Emperor is deposed and murdered by his brother (Ge You) who then claims the throne as Emperor Li and takes the Old Emperor’s widow, Empress Wan (Zhang Ziyi), as his wife. Originally Empress Wan was the Old Emperor’s foster daughter whom his son, Prince Wu Luan (Daniel Wu), was secretly in love with but when she grew up, the old guy made her his wife which led to the Prince fleeing the palace to reside in southern China, studying music and dance. On hearing of his father’s death, cad though he was, the Prince returns at once to the Imperial Palace, thwarting an assassination attempt launched by Emperor Li on the way. Once back at home, Wu Luan rekindles his dormant romance with Empress Wan and becomes emotionally tangled with a lady-in-waiting Qing Nu (Zhou Xun) who is engaged to marry him. The Prince also sets about investigating his father’s death and discovers the horrific way in which he died and who killed him. Staging a play at Empress Wu’s second coronation as empress proper, Wu Luan exposes Emperor Li’s role in the murder, and for that he is banished under heavy guard, among whom the Emperor has planted assassins, to the northern lands of the Khitan people. Wu Luan evades death and exile thanks to Qing Nu’s brother who had previously been sent to a distant province as governor. In the meantime, Empress Wu plots with Qing Nu’s father, the grand marshall, and her brother to bump off Emperor Li.

Feeling secure in his position, Emperor Li holds a banquet at which Qing Nu and a troupe of masked dancers (with Wu Luan hidden among them) perform a sad love song. Just before performing the song, the Emperor offers a goblet of wine to Qing Nu which she accepts – and which neither of them knows has had a secret ingredient added by the Empress herself, who looks on in horror as Qing Nu gulps down the lot …

The utter wipe-out which follows in which only the grand marshall survives is at least true to the play though Empress Wu proves to be more Goneril than Gertrude overall. For those who don’t know, Goneril is the oldest daughter of King Lear in the Shakespearean play of the same name who kills her younger sister Regan with poison and helps to cause the downfall of her entire family. At the end of the film, we don’t know who’s in charge of the empire and must assume that warlords are going to fight over who’s going to be the next lucky Emperor to preside over a new lot of squabbling and scheming relatives. Like any other self-respecting soap opera, the script introduces new twists and turns up to the end but says nothing original or new about the nature of revenge or how it can backfire on those who take it up. Those wanting to understand more about “Hamlet” because they’ve got to write essays on the play for final school exams won’t find any new interpretations of its politics.

The action actually bogs right down during the drawn-out fight scenes so the film flows less well than it should. The artistic presentation is more a cumbersome burden than an asset for the skeletal plot which goes into detailed overdrive only during the last 30 minutes. With the exception of lead actor Zhang, the actors have little to work with on their characters and their efforts are uneven: Ge is convincing enough as the suave, conniving Emperor Li and Zhou is touching as the innocent Qing Nu but Daniel Wu as the Prince seems a bit one-dimensional compared to Ge and Zhang. Zhang as Empress Wu is miscast: she looks too young and bland, and her voice is too youthful and sweet, for her to be convincing as a duplicitous Empress. I really think the role should have gone to an actor of the calibre and experience of Gong Li, Maggie Cheung or Michelle Yeoh; it’s a bit creepy as well to have the Empress Wu married to the Old Emperor, in love with his son and then married off and also warming to the Old Emperor’s brother!

Lovely to look at but all those special effects and the colour can’t cover over a skimpy story that adds nothing new to the audience’s understanding of revenge and how it undoes everyone caught up in it, and which manages to turn the politics of “Hamlet” into a soap opera about dysfunctional families.