Mother (by Bong Joon-ho): force of nature that can’t be pigeon-holed

Bong Joon-ho, “Mother” (2008)

There aren’t many good movies these days where the central character is a middle-aged woman. Of course she’s a mother – most women her age are mothers after all – but never was there a mother like the unnamed Mother (played by Kim Hye-ja) whose protective instincts for her son Do-joon (Won Bin) and sense of justice combine to make her an unstoppable force of nature, resulting in her finding out things she really doesn’t want or need to know, getting into dangerous situations and behaving in ways she’ll later regret. Right from the start, you know Mother is no ordinary woman: the film’s opening scenes set her standing or walking alone in a vast sea of wild greenery, looking as if she’s communing with the spirits of the trees, the earth and the sky; later we see her in her herbal shop, cutting up some strange dried roots and an inspector comes by to chide her for practising acupuncture without a licence. The suggestion that Mother is a throwback to Korea’s shamanic tradition, usually passed down from mother to daughter, is strong. We see Mother going about her business and learn that she has an adult son who might be mentally retarded and is easily led astray by his friend Jin-tae (Jin Gu). An early scene hints that Mother and Do-joon may have an incestuous relationship though perhaps the simplest explanation is that Mother has always had Do-joon in her bed since the day he was born.

Do-joon is accused of beating a teenage schoolgirl to death and is forced to sign a confession by the police. Mother simply cannot believe her son is capable of murder so she enlists the help of police and a lawyer to help clear his name, only to be frustrated at their apathy or incompetence so she resorts to playing detective herself. This investigation leads her into a near-confrontation with gang violence and some seedy information about the teenage victim among other things.

One thing about this movie is that it never settles into one thing or one stereotype about people. Is the film a crime film, a social commentary or a character study thriller? It’s a bit of everything: “Mother” sweeps from one genre to another as Mother impulsively dives into one perilous situation and then another, oblivious to her own safety until actually threatened, at which point she may scuttle somewhere, hide or just lash out instinctively without thought for the consequences. You kind of sense that director Bong himself lost control of the plot at times and allowed his star Kim to drag him and the film crew into wild rural locations which, though beautiful on the screen, were also uncomfortable: in later scenes, Mother treks through mud and marsh just to reach a lone eccentric in his shack and the film crew has to follow. Kim Hye-ja gives everything she has to her role as Mother and holds the whole film together despite her unassuming manner.

In the end (OK, spoiler alert here), the police find the culprit but in a way that suggests that, nasty enough fellow though he is, he has also been tortured into making a confession. By this time, Mother herself has become a changed woman. Her investigations have come to naught but has she learnt something about herself and the people around her? Will Mother be more conforming, more considerate of others, more thoughtful about her actions and their impact on others? Will she be a less attractive character as a result?

As for the other characters, Won as Do-joon gives a good impression as the son who can be amazingly lucid at times yet is clearly immature and needs the kind of guidance that Mother and Jin-tae aren’t able to give. Something about him hints that he may indeed be capable of murder. In short, like Mother he just can’t be pinned down to a good-guy or bad-guy stereotype. Everyone else serves as a means of highlighting the system that victimises Mother and Do-joon as outsiders and leads Mother to commit desperate acts; so folks may appear to be one thing in one situation and then something else again in another. Generally what we see here through “Mother” is Bong’s exploration of a society that is rigid, self-controlled and self-censoring, treating people as things to push around when it wants and demanding much out of them. To survive in such a society, people end up being two-faced: the lawyer is initially officious and demands a hefty fee, then becomes a drunken womaniser; the police are lazy yet quick to punish; teenagers may be good kids at school and at home and still get involved in trading sexual favours.

No wonder that Mother is only really at peace when she is in contact with Nature which becomes an essential character in the movie: there are many scenes with rural or semi-rural backgrounds, all lovingly filmed in a lingering way, so beautiful and so appealing to the eye. If movies could be travelogues for countries, then “Mother” could be one for provincial South Korea, just for the countryside and the picturesque houses alone; as for the people who populate the place, I’m not so sure … Even so, Nature is a pretty hard partner to manage and Mother’s own nature, operating on emotion and intuition, leads her into situations and actions that can be horrific.

There are some really very powerful issues within this movie about the nature of Korean society and the oppression that people like Mother and Do-joon suffer under it, and how it affects the way they think and act and must cope with the consequences of their behaviour.

The Housemaid (dir. Im Sang-soo) delivers high-gloss soap opera entertainment

Im Sang-soo “The Housemaid” (2010)

How do you remake an old film regarded as a classic and made by a director who’s not only influenced you but also most of your fellow directors? That must surely have been the question hanging over Im Sang-soo when he took on Kim Ki-young’s 1960 film “The Housemaid”. I’ve never seen the original movie but from what I’ve been able to read about it, it must have been pretty mind-blowing at the time. A woman employed by a family rising on the social mobility escalator has an affair with her employer but is forced to abort her baby so she swears vengeance on the family and the resulting murder-suicide is not a pretty sight to behold. Doesn’t sound like much but the real attraction of the film was in its melodramatic and expressionistic direction, the way in which characters’ demented actions reflected something of their dire circumstances and the crazy society they lived in. I guess the answer to the question is to turn the original film’s premise on its head while otherwise being faithful to the plot and some of its themes, superficially at least: whereas in the original, the maid tormented the family, in the remake it’s now the family’s turn to torment the maid and in that, reflect something of the circumstances and the current crazy society in which the protagonist and antagonists live.

Im ends up delivering a glossy film that probably has little of the thrill of the original movie. A young woman Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn) is employed as housemaid and nanny by a wealthy couple in their palatial mansion. From the outset, the odds are stacked against the housemaid: the housekeeper Mrs Cho (Yoon Yeo-jeong) blows hot and cold in her loyalty to the family, let alone in her attitude towards the maid; the lady of the house Hae-ra (Seo Woo) is a heavily pregnant self-centred spoilt trophy wife; and her husband Hoon (Lee Jung-jae) is a self-assured princeling of an unnamed powerful business dynasty who’s used to taking what he wants. Only little daughter Nami (Ahn Seo-hyun) shows Eun-yi any affection and sympathy for the work she does. Even the house itself is a formidable character: much of it is huge empty space and its surfaces are polished marble, reflecting the emptiness of the family’s emotional life together and the gloss they wear figuratively as well as literally in their clothes and accessories. The family follows a hyper-Western lifestyle, collecting abstract art, playing and listening to classical music, employing personal trainers and requiring their domestic staff to wear starched Western uniforms and prepare Western meals of the nouvelle cuisine kind.

Perhaps Hoon watches a lot of sexy Western arthouse movies too for he quickly warms to Eun-yi and before you know it, they’re bonking away like rabbits, Eun-yi blissfully happy at the attention Hoon pays to her (and probably blissfully unaware that he might have done the same thing to the last housemaid). The inevitable happens and Mrs Cho passes the news to Hae-ra’s mother Mi-hee (Park Ji-young) who goes straight into bitch-mother mode, causing Eun-yi to have an accident that lands her in hospital where the staff confirm the pregnancy. When Hae-ra is convinced of her husband’s infidelity, she and Mi-hee plot to force Eun-yi into having a miscarriage and then an abortion – the film suggests both – and Eun-yi, learning from Mrs Cho what the two women have done, plans her revenge.

The movie moves just too fast for the seduction scene and Eun-yi’s apparent joy at being seduced to be credible; it’s as if Im assumes everyone watching the film already knows the original movie so he’ll just cut straight to the chase and show how bitchy rich women can be when a poor woman threatens to usurp their position by getting pregnant to the master. Nearly everyone in the film lapses into a character stereotype: Eun-yi as poor, put-upon housemaid who’s a bit thick in the head; Hoon as the smarmy rich chauvinist ruling the roost; Hae-ra as the high-maintenance wife and Mi-hee as Supreme Bitch Queen. The only really interesting character is housekeeper Mrs Cho, taken for granted by the family: starting off as a bitter slave, jealous and contemptuous enough of Eun-yi that she tittle-tattles on her to Mi-hee, setting off the tragic train of events, Mrs Cho becomes Eun-yi’s potential saviour, offering the younger woman freedom at various points in the movie and summoning the bravery to quit her job and walk out. In-between the more momentous parts, Mrs Cho provides light comic relief by parodying her employers’ actions when no-one’s looking: scoffing meal leftovers, getting tipsy from the hooch and lounging on the furniture.

On the whole the movie’s too busy speeding towards the showdown between Eun-yi and the family to pay attention to character development. If Im intended this movie as an allegory on the nature of class relationships in modern South Korean society, he’s done a good job here: poor people can protest as much as they want at the injustices pissed on them by the rich but their actions end up backfiring on themselves. The rich may be shocked and apologetic but this state is temporary. The nature of Eun-yi’s revenge and the coda that follows suggest as much: Eun-yi creates havoc which makes for incredible melodrama but it ends up consuming her. One has no real sense of the depth of her suffering and the revenge comes across as selfish and futile, not as a cry for justice. The family continues on without Eun-yi and Mrs Cho. Apart from the social-political message, the film isn’t more than a tarted-up soap opera with stock characters and a grotesque conclusion.

Let’s be fair to Im though: how many other directors in South Korea and elsewhere, given the opportunity to remake Kim Ki-young’s movie, could have done it justice? There is a reason he and the original “The Housemaid” are so famous: Kim must have been one of a kind, willing to investigate conditions in Korean society in 1960 at the time, how they affected people and women in particular, and interpret them in a way that resonated with the public and captured its imagination.

Rosemary’s Baby: does it reflect women’s oppression by modern life?

Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

Who doesn’t envy young couples these days who dream of having a nice 3-bedroom house or apartment in the city close to work, shops and various cultural attractions, and of being able to rely on one or two incomes with steady and reliable weekly pay-packets that can cope with paying off a mortgage on low interest rates over 25 years and accommodate a major holiday every year and unforeseen expenses? Unfortunately too many such couples are being squeezed by some combination of miserly employers, governments hacking into health, education and social services to pay for expensive overseas wars, and greedy unforgiving banks wanting to maintain their profits in a depressed economy, among other things. Understandable then that some people might be willing to sell their souls or their first-born kids to the Devil or, in the case of this movie, hire out the missus as surrogate mum to the Anti-Christ if they thought such sacrifices were necessary to achieve their goals and dreams. Put yourselves in the shoes of Guy Woodhouse (played by John Cassavetes), husband of Rosemary (Mia Farrow), and ask yourselves: if I’d been a struggling actor for several years and now my one big chance of getting a career break and going to Hollywood depends on one actor, to whom I’m understudy, not being able to perform his role in a play, and that chance will never come again, wouldn’t I want to sell my wife to Satan if he agreed to toss that chance to me?

Over forty years ago when the movie was first released, the premise of a woman impregnated with the seed of Satan was so scary to many people that they spoke of the movie in hushed tones. Since then, the “horror”, which was probably talked up and exaggerated by the media at the time, has dissipated and what we have is a clever movie that starts out as a soap opera and turns into psychological thriller in which naivety, gender politics and isolation combine with fear of the unknown as a young woman experiences a major life transition (becoming pregnant, being a first-time mother) into paranoia and potential mental breakdown, and this is where much of the film’s “horror” actually derives. The fact that Rosemary’s fears and beliefs about her baby’s conception and identity come true is really neither here nor there; the baby, once born, is not so horrible after Rosemary has seen him and her memory of her difficult and painful pregnancy and the frustrations that came with it fades away.

Employing actors with proven track records on stage and screen in carefully selected or recreated urban settings and following the original novel closely result in a polished and carefully crafted film for the horror genre in which cheap sets, inexperienced starlets, hackneyed and melodramatic plots and sometimes slapdash direction used to be the norm in those days. In common with many of Polanski’s movies, a strange sense of humour is always present and this movie could be viewed as a black comedy. That perhaps is an injustice to Rosemary who is a naive though intelligent young woman whose fault is to have been born and brought up in a world where a married woman’s place is in the home tending to her babies and trusting in her husband, doctor and neighbours to look out for her safety. As Rosemary fears, these are the very people who give her up to Satan and endanger her health and life. (Interesting therefore, that the movie is based on the novel of the same name written by the same fellow, Ira Levin, who wrote “The Stepford Wives” which itself has been made into two movies. Levin obviously hit onto something about women’s oppression by modern life that university academics took up later.)

As investigations into being an outsider, paranoia, isolation and mental breakdown go, “Rosemary’s Baby” is not nearly as good or intense as some other movies Polanski made in the 1960’s and 1970’s – “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” spring to mind – but this is still a good movie about how even the most mundane and ordinary aspects of life that people take for granted can harbour evil. In a time when marriage and community still counted for something and kids were free to ride their bikes on the streets from sunrise to sundown and only show up for dinner and bed-time, the notion that your spouse and neighbours, and even the building you live in, could be part of an evil conspiracy must have been breathtaking. Unless you happen to be US-Japanese artist Yoko Ono whose husband John Lennon was shot dead in 1980 in front of the building, the Dakota Hotel, that appears in the opening and closing shots of “Rosemary’s Baby” and which viewers may assume is the building where the Woodhouses own their apartment. The apartment itself though consists of recreated sets as filming has never been allowed inside the hotel.

It’s perhaps also significant that at the time “Rosemary’s Baby” was first released, the civil rights movement in the US was on the rise and receiving much media publicity. The Black Panthers movement was also in the spotlight. The more governments granted equal rights to racial and other minorities, the more emboldened people became to raise issues of past discrimination and correcting history about how people had been treated in the past. With equal rights and the breakdown of racial barriers come racial inter-mixing and the possibility of white women having children with … non-white men? EEEEE-AAAAHHH-OOOHHH!!! … racial miscegenation, maybe that’s the real horror  “Rosemary’s Baby” hints at!

Let the Right One In: first, the Swedish version is allowed in

Tomas Alfredsson, “Let the Right One In” (2008)

Often when a novel is translated to the screen, the result is a superficial imitation of the printed word: the novel has an extra aspect or sub-plot that can’t be translated successfully to screen. In the case of the vampire novel “Let the Right One In”, about 30% of the book didn’t make it to film and I’m happy that it didn’t because most of what John Ajvide Lindquist left out – he wrote the screenplay based on his novel – is a trashy, gory sub-plot in which a minor character becomes a rampaging zombie. Stripped of this sub-plot and with another sub-plot considerably trimmed down, the movie becomes a concentrated and subtle investigation of pre-adolescent angst and alienation within the vampire horror sub-genre.

The plot revolves around a young boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), bullied at school by his class-mates and unwilling to fight back yet seething with inner rage at his tormenters: in the evenings when he’s home from school, he reads up on serial killers and broods over his knife collection. He and his mother live in a dreary set of flats in a generic suburb of Stockholm. One night, two new people move in next door to their unit. These mysterious new neighbours keep to themselves: they don’t even change the window blinds every morning and every evening, let alone meet and greet the other tenants.

Until one evening when Oskar is loitering in the playground: one of the two new people, Eli (Linda Leandersson), a girl about his age, joins him on the playground equipment. Strangely, though snow is all around them and the temperature must be below zero Centigrade, Eli is very lightly dressed. Although she advises Oskar that they can’t be friends, over several similar evening meetings they bond and form a friendship of sorts. In the meantime, Eli’s companion Hakan (Per Ragnar) tries to obtain blood for Eli -yep, she’s a bloodsucker – he manages to kill someone but is interrupted while trying to milk the corpse for blood and he is forced to flee. Eli later has to kill a man Jocke (Mikael Rohm) for blood and this sets up a sub-plot about Jocke’s friends who meet regularly at a pub.

As the movie progresses, Oskar and Eli become closer and eventually Eli starts offering advice to Oskar on how to deal with the bullies. Oskar starts working out at the local sports centre and takes up swimming lessons, eventually becoming confident enough to fight back when the bullies start abusing him again. He also discovers Eli’s true nature in scenes that can be very shocking, one of which provides the title to both the movie and the novel. The bullies aren’t happy with Oskar sticking up for himself so they lift their taunting to a more dangerous level by recruiting an older boy and plotting to lure Oskar into a trap at the swimming centre where he trains.

Meanwhile the pathetically tragicomic Hakan continues searching for more victims but ends up having to mutilate himself to avoid identification; he ends up in hospital where Eli later finds him and he ends up falling to his death. At this point the movie and the novel diverge with the novel diving into the zombie sub-plot and criss-crossing from that to Oskar and Eli’s relationship and the other sub-plot about Jocke’s friends.

Filmed mostly in a town in northern Sweden, the movie features beautiful and sometimes bright snowy landscapes which contrast sharply with the bleak lives of many characters in the movie: the minimal furnishings and buildings beloved of Ikea brochures and magazine articles on Scandinavian design and architecture look dull and banal in many scenes, and Jocke’s friends are revealed as struggling working-class people who’ve had more than their fair share of setbacks, desperation, hard times and plain bad luck. The acting comes over as minimal or matter-of-fact so that when gory or shocking events occur, they seem so much more extreme, particularly in the climactic swimming-pool scene which for many viewers will sum up everything about the movie’s style: at once sparing and restrained on the surface yet on further reflection, layered with meaning and open to many interpretations. The scene itself is set up to look beautiful, even poetic, so the sudden violence that enters is a real eye-opening shock. The camera then pans around the swimming pool in silence to reveal a boy sobbing quietly among various dismembered and bloodied remains. The equally dialogue-free denouement which follows – Oskar is travelling alone on a country train with no attendants – looks like a fantasy scene and I can well agree with one interpretation of this scene that Oskar may have actually died and is on his way to Heaven with Eli being his one faithful link back on Earth.

I can’t find much to fault about the film: the main criticism I have is that the sub-plot revolving around Jocke’s friends treats them as diversions from the main plot and could have made more of the anguish one friend feels when she discovers she has become a vampire and must decide whether to live or die. Otherwise there’s much to commend this film to the general audience and film students alike. The camerawork, using a track-mounted dolly and a fixed camera with no reliance on handheld cameras, is steady and calm and enables the use of wide tracking shots that reinforce a particular mood or emphasise an important moment or event in the plot. Such shots add to the mystery and apparent complexity of the film’s plot and themes. Hedebrant and Leanderssen work well together as Oskar and Eli and are convincing in the way they gradually build up their friendship and look out for each other despite the danger Eli must pose to Oskar. The use of voice-over and special effects for Eli’s character to demonstrate that the character is otherworldly is very subtle and believable in a world that’s otherwise bleak and mundane.

Above all, the use of the vampire horror movie sub-genre to explore subject matter that otherwise might not attract audience attention – bullying, family breakdown, pedophilia, surviving in a world that grinds you down and where your choice of friends might literally be a matter of life or death – is an original idea that has potential to reinvigorate the sub-genre itself with new life. Oskar, if he is in Heaven, would be pretty happy at that news.

Eyes Wide Shut: style wins over substance

Stanley Kubrick, “Eyes Wide Shut”, (1999)

I saw this movie ten years ago as there’d been a lot of hype about it featuring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman who were the Brangelina hit couple in the late 1990’s. From what I can remember, there’d been numerous hitches and delays in filming and post-production and then Kubrick died suddenly so it became his swansong in a small legacy of 13 films, each very different from the others and many of them quite significant at the time of their original release to the extent that people still remember them, though the ideas and themes expressed may no longer be relevant in popular culture at large. Myself, I’ve only seen “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr Strangelove: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” and in their own way they can be disturbing as well as entertaining, mixing comedy and serious issues together.

Compared to these films at least, not to mention other Kubrick efforts I’ve heard about but have never seen, “Eyes Wide Shut” seems an insubstantial effort. Kubrick may have been aiming for something akin to the films that the Spanish director Luis Bunuel made in the 1950’s and 1960’s about the foibles and hypocrisies of upper middle class people who have more money than they know what to do with: films like “The Exterminating Angel” in which a group of dinner guests find they are unable to go home and have to stay at their host’s place in conditions that become ever more filthy; and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, a series of dream sketches about seven people who try to organise a dinner occasion several times but always fail. There are scenes in “Eyes …” that are very surreal and dream-like with often very lurid shades of red, and the line between reality and fantasy, comedy and drama is deliberately blurred. Into many of these scenes blunders main character Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) who as the movie progresses takes on the air of a stunned tourist in a Locus Solus amusement park. There may be no complicated machines creating mosaic artworks with coloured teeth or dioramas of animated corpses performing the same actions over and over but many of the sexual activities Bill observes have a similar mechanical or ritualistic aspect and turn out as either comical or asexual. Bunuel himself might have approved of “Eyes Wide Shut” as a worthy movie project but not necessarily of the way Kubrick has done it.

Initially we meet Bill Harford and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) as a middle class couple, married for some years now and living in a plush apartment in a wealthy neighbourhood with a young daughter on whom they perhaps lavish piano and horse-riding lessons, and a private school education. Bill is a medical practitioner with a wealthy clientele while Alice is a stay-at-home mum, though she used to have a busy and creative job, and maybe there are times when she feels being a wife and mother just isn’t enough fulfilment. In other words, they’re comfortable, too comfortable, and their marriage has got a bit stodgy. Bill and Alice go to a party hosted by a businessman, Ziegler (Sidney Pollack), where Bill drifts off with a couple of female guests and Alice starts guzzling champagne. During the party, Bill is called to attend to a female guest who has overdosed on cocaine and passed out; an elderly stranger finds Alice, alone and drunk, and chats her up. Next evening when Bill and Alice are both at home, they quarrel over their flirtations at the party and Alice boasts about making eyes at a sailor she saw a year or so ago. At that moment Bill is called out to another medical emergency; while he tends to the sick man, the man’s daughter blurts out her love for him. King-hit by his wife’s apparent willingness to be unfaithful to him and the woman’s confessions, Bill leaves for home but is side-tracked by a prostitute and this encounter is the start of his bizarre adventures in a sexual underworld where everything and everyone he thinks he knows and understands is turned on its head. The apparent climax occurs when Bill gatecrashes a bizarre Hellfire Club sex party at a mansion with hints of conspiracy and danger: he is exposed as an intruder and is about to be punished but a masked woman he has met earlier offers to sacrifice herself instead. Next day when Bill is back home safely, he discovers this particular woman – the guest he treated at Ziegler’s party – has died.

The whole movie plays out like a comedy of manners: the sex party and the supposed conspiratorial elements circling it turn out to be unconnected to the woman’s banal death, and Alice’s confessions of sexual infidelity turn out to be fantasies on her part. Bill gives little indication that he learns anything much about himself, his sexual needs or those of his wife during his journey, and though he and Alice reconcile, I have the feeling that they’ll be going through their sexual jealousy routine again and again throughout their marriage. If Bill has learnt anything at all from his odyssey, it’s likely to be the lesson that no matter how hard he works, how much money he makes or how good his reputation is, he and Alice will never be accepted as equals by the wealthy people who come to them for medical advice and help: Ziegler makes that quite clear to Bill while explaining the events of the sex party and warns him not to investigate it further. Now that’s a worthwhile lesson both Bill and Alice could take to heart: they will always only be seen as providing support to the elite society they aspire to be part of and nothing more.

I remember “Eyes …” being rather insular and sterile with unattractive, selfish and hollow characters. Kidman does rather better acting work than Cruise but one has to remember they’re playing recognisable stock characters: the husband absorbed in his work, not given to thinking or reflecting on other matters, and assuming all the world is in order; the wife with all she wants and desires yet lacking excitement and an outlet for her energy. Both have lived sheltered lives and so far have seen no reason to break out and live otherwise. If Cruise seems unable to muster anything more than a shell-shocked reaction to the things happening around him, to me that’s being in character for Bill. Having seen other films by Kubrick, I don’t think he was a great director of actors, he was more concerned about the technical aspects of the film – lighting, sets, production – and though “Eyes …” looks good, it turns out in its own way to privilege style over substance.

If there’s irony at all, it is that while Alice fantasises about having a sexual adventure, the real sexual adventures Bill encounters are as bland and stodgy as what Alice might imagine their life currently is. A bigger irony is the couple is in a rut because they aspired to have the kind of ultimately self-absorbed and morally empty lifestyle personified by Ziegler and in a way, already achieved it.

Miss Mend, Part One: silent film is a real blast from the Soviet past

Boris Barnet and Fyodor Otsep, “Miss Mend, Part One”, (1926)
 
I saw this film together with “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival recently. I couldn’t have come across two films more unalike at a film festival: “The Cabinet …” drew on developments in the German artistic and cultural scene whereas “Miss Mend, Part One” is a Soviet film that self-consciously draws on American films popular with Soviet audiences in the mid-1920’s. The movie is the first of three roughly 90-minute films centred around a feisty young woman called Vivian Mend (Natalya Glan) and three newspaper reporters, one of whom is played by Boris Barnet who also co-wrote the script and co-directed the movie. The reporters discover a conspiracy surrounding the death of a prominent businessman Gordon Stern and spend much of their time trying to uncover the details and join them together. Vivian Mend becomes romantically linked to Stern’s son Arthur who conceals his identity from her as she’s also very much involved in defending the workers at his father’s cork factory where she works as a secretary; in her spare time, she cares for a young nephew whose paternity is unknown.
 
It’s all go-go-go action from the outset with lots of twists in the plot, various chase scenes, poor old Stern senior being revived twice and put back to sleep, and at least two major fight scenes taking place on factory premises and in a pub. In one breath-taking scene a car is deliberately driven onto and stopped on train tracks and the train slams right into it. The good guys and the bad guys, led by the sinister agent Chiche (Sergei Komarov), are clearly delineated early on as stock characters with the villains oozing devilry from every pore and the reporters (who actually take up more screen time than Vivian) generally good-hearted and fun guys to be around though they’re not always very cluey and one of them is a stock klutz character, always getting into hilarious scrapes where the opportunity presents itself. Vivian is portrayed as a strong go-getter survivor, looking out for her cheeky nephew and willing to challenge her old boss’s will (which has been secretly changed by the villains), which action sets her up for Part One’s cliff-hanger end. Interesting that Glan appears in all her scenes looking completely natural with little or no make-up and not looking at all glammed up as might be expected in a movie imitating American-style movie-making.
 
At the time I saw this movie, the second and third parts of the trilogy had not yet been fully restored so it’s gonna be a lo-o-ong time before I discover how brave Vivian gets out of her cliff-hanger mess and if she gets justice for herself, her nephew and the sacked factory workers. From what I’ve been able to find out, Vivian’s nephew turns out to be Arthur’s little half-brother and the villains kidnap the little guy so Vivian and the reporters have their work cut out to rescue the boy and stop Chiche and the secret organisation he works for from using the Stern fortune to unleash a deadly bacteriological weapon on Russia to wipe out the population and destroy Communism. (A DVD of the full trilogy which lasts nearly four hours is available from Flicker Alley and can be bought online.)
 
Comedy, drama and serious political commentary are mixed in equal amounts and the movie makes some brief pointed comments about the treatment of minorities like blacks and Asians in early 20th century US society. I had expected to see considerable anti-capitalist propaganda in the movie but it’s much more subtle than I thought it would be and Arthur Stern seems a good-hearted guy, at least in the first part of the trilogy. The scenes in the movie are almost completely urban or semi-urban with cars a-plenty buzzing around in the streets and even in the countryside, and the film looks as if it could have been made in any country that had a film industry in the 1920s. The film concentrates on the supposed underbelly of US capitalism at the time and the villains and the wealthy people they represent are portrayed in a way that seems quaint, naive and very stereotyped to us.
 
Athleticism takes priority over acting skill as the actors spend a lot of time racing from one place to another, climbing fences and walls, and battling it out where necessary in tightly choreographed fight and chase scenes. I’m sure a lot of people think of old silent films as having quite simple story-lines and employing unsophisticated filming and acting techniques and methods but scenes like one where the train rams into the car would have called for careful planning and synchronisation of the action, not to mention a lot of editing (and maybe a number of spare junked cars!) and a team of medics and insurance people on the site to make sure no-one got hurt.
 
The whole movie’s fun to watch though I find myself rooting more for the reporters than for Vivian. In this part at least, Vivian doesn’t come over as anyone remarkable – all the characters tend to be one-dimensional but they are stock figures anyway – but maybe in subsequent parts where her nephew is kidnapped, we may get to see what she’s really made of.

Splice: spliced-together movie unravelling at the joins

Vincenzo Natali, “Splice”, Dark Castle Entertainment (2010)
 
Fans of former Oscar Best Actor winner Adrien Brody must be wondering how their man came to be slumming it in this Canadian sci-fi horror flick about a Generation Y scientist couple Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast (Brody and Sarah Polley) who work for a genetics corporation splicing DNA from various animals to create chimeras whose hormones and other products can be manufactured and patented by their employer by day; and at night work on their own experiment splicing animal and human DNA to create a Frankenstein who among other things will substitute for their inability – or rather, Elsa’s unwillingness – to have their own child. (And the corporation, feeling the cruel pinch of the Global Financial Crisis, will no longer countenance its star employees using company resources and equipment for pursuing personal projects.) At first the hybrid, named Dren, is very cute: she’s a mixture of human, bird, a bit of rodent here and a scorpion there, but she’s a fast grower as well as a fast learner and eventually the couple have to move her out of the company basement and storage areas and into a country farmhouse where Elsa spent her childhood. There Dren grows into a weirdly beautiful adult (Delphine Chaneac) in double-quick time and suffers the problems of adolescence in double-quick intensity: she’s not only intelligent and perceptive, she’s rebellious and wants freedom to move and explore, find her own identity and niche in life perhaps. Her complicated genetic inheritance kicks in, presenting all manner of weird and wacky parenting problems and Oedipal complexes for Clive and Elsa to cope with. The results are devastating if perhaps predictable – previous company-approved experiments with two slug chimaeras whimsically named Fred and Ginger prime the audience for what’s to come – with the tantalising possibility of a Z-grade sequel in the manner of the Species films where each succeeding chapter gets progressively sillier with a new batch of actors being punished by the mutating monster for sacrificing their artistic integrity for a few hundred extra measly bucks
 
In a way this isn’t a sci-fi film as the technology to splice DNA from different animal and plant species to create new kinds of genetic beings has existed for many years and corporations like Monsanto are already making billions out of this activity. The general idea though – know-it-all specialists wanting more secret knowledge in their specialty, conducting risky experiments to get that knowledge, reaping the early rewards but also suffering from the inevitable fall-out – qualifies “Splice” as a member of the Frankenstein category of science fiction / horror. “Splice” is also “splice” in the way it tosses in elements of romantic comedy – a scene where Clive and Elsa argue and the two stomp back and forth between a car and the barn illustrates this nicely – and of psychological thriller horror once the action moves into the farmhouse where Elsa grew up and was abused by her mother. A sly dig at companies that initially profess horror at unorthodox staff projects and punish the employees severely yet eagerly scramble for the money-stream such projects promise easily slots into the plot.
 
This is very much a character-driven film as the two scientists start out masters of their particular universe but end up being driven by it as one bad decision leads to another and the mess just gets bigger and bigger. Ethical issues about personal, parental and corporate responsibility are brought up without being hammered over and the lead actors do an excellent job portraying arrogant, fallible human beings whose weaknesses are exposed as they grapple with the consequences of their decisions and actions. It becomes obvious that Dren, for all her intelligence and perception, is an innocent victim of her particular cosmopolitan genetic make-up as it expresses itself and viewers will pity her pain, confusion and inevitable demise, and feel disgust and contempt for her fat-headed creators and their sponsors at the same time.
 
Unfortunately as the movie progresses, it starts to feel shaky as the action flips from glossy cutting-edge sci-fi to rustic isolationist farmhouse horror and the stitching of various genre elements becomes less than seamless. The action descends into a predictable rut as Fred and Ginger’s doom starts playing itself again, big-time this time with Dren, Elsa, Clive, his brother and their immediate work supervisor unwillingly drawn into its consequences. Maybe a little too much genre-splicing has gone on here and the movie threatens to turn into a monster itself. The original plot sketch must have fizzled out and the director, actors and film crew had to improvise the rest of the story as best they could, tie up all necessary loose ends and salvage a total schemozzle by tacking on what looks like a twist ending. Though the director probably had this ending in mind originally; the problem is how to get there. At once funny and disturbing, the conclusion recalls mediaeval horror stories about demons visiting male humans in their sleep, making a few quick adjustments and then visiting female humans in their sleep … I shan’t elaborate further but this was how the Anti-Christ was supposed to come about.
 
Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether “Splice” might become a cult film: the underlying theme and the issues it raises scream cult-film potential and ongoing cultural relevance, and there is an edgy unpredictability early on that piques the interest. Some extra thought to fleshing out the plot-line more and some back-story to Elsa, her uneasy relationship with her mother and how that impinges on her actions toward Dren might have strengthened the whole movie.

Inside the Cabinet of famous German Expressionist film

Robert Wiene, “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” (1920)
 
Seeing this German Expressionist silent film classic at the Australia’s Silent Film Festival showing in Sydney recently was an opportunity too good to pass up. I did expect that this film would be an “arty” film in the sense of having stylised acting by actors in distinctive make-up that emphasises their roles and moods and the general tenor of the movie’s theme, whatever that would be. I already knew the movie was famous for its sets and use of lighting which were unusual for its time. What I wasn’t prepared for was the clever plot which addresses mental illness and explores fear and horror through hallucinations, and how the technical aspects of the movie were not just ends in themselves as they sometimes can be in self-consciously experimental art films but were an integral part of the movie’s subject and intended to communicate something to the audience about the nature of the plot as it unfolded.
 
Two men – one of them a young man called Francis – are sitting in a garden: Francis begins to tell his story of the horrific murder of his friend Alan and of the attempted kidnapping of his fiancee Jane. Francis traces the murder and the foiled kidnap to a sinister elderly man, Dr Caligari, who has come into town to exhibit his remarkable psychic somnambulist called Cesare at the town fair. Francis does some further investigating and discovers that Dr Caligari poses as director of a mental hospital with a research sideline on how to mentally control sleepwalkers like Cesare and force them to commit abhorrent acts. Dr Caligari finds his cover blown so he attempts to escape justice … We later return to the garden scene where the action carries on from there into the twist ending which throws all the foregoing action into a completely different light.
 
The sets, props and backgrounds with their sharp angles, geometric and irregular shapes, and a bold painting style that might bring to mind Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and “The Vampire” paintings, effectively externalise the fears, emotions and pain of a mentally ill person who has completely retreated from the real world for reasons unknown. The main actors, in particular Werner Krauss who plays Dr Caligari, wear make-up that emphasise their natures (well-meaning and earnest for Francis, pure-hearted and innocent for Jane, evil for Dr Caligari) and they act in a style that might be described as exaggerated pantomime to convey thoughts, feelings and intentions. I had never thought that silent films could be demanding to watch: the action is constant and the pace brisk, and the whole time my gaze must flit from the actors’ faces to their movements, to the backdrop and props, and back again. Minor actors usually move in a natural style and the contrast between the way they move and the main actors’ movements must be a deliberate ploy emphasising the whole suffocating world in which Francis, Jane and the villains move. There is such a lot of visual activity and richness going on all at once!
 
I can’t help but think that once films acquired sound, the world of cinema lost a lot of its early creativity and the opportunities for actors to showcase their dramatic skill and range of expression shrank very … well, dramatically. On occasions though, we still have movies being made where the action is demonstrated completely by action complemented by atmosphere, appropriate visual backgrounds and sets, and perhaps music, and dialogue is completely absent or at an absolute minimum, and such moments may be the most remarkable part of the film.
 
“The Cabinet …” is early proof that a genre film can be both commercial entertainment and experimental high art. I understand it is considered an important film in the development of German Expressionist films in the 1920s and it has had some influence on film noir and horror. Operas and radio plays based on the movie have been performed. The film has also been an influence on Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” on which Martin Scorsese’s 2009 film of the same name is based. In particular the characters of Dr Caligari and Cesare respectively establish the stock figures of the mad scientist villain intent on controlling human nature and the dehumanised “robot” who must obey the master’s commands and carry out the most vile acts, in a context that provided (in 1920) a psychological buffer between the movie’s implications and its original audiences. It’s not a little ironic therefore that 20 years after the movie’s release, people in Germany found themselves in a similar somnambulist role to their government; and of the actors involved in the movie, Krauss supported Adolf Hitler’s government and was made an Actor of the State by Joseph Goebbels while Conrad Veidt who played the somnambulist left Germany in 1933 in protest at the Nazi government and went to live in the UK and later the US, in which countries he re-established his acting career.

The Hunger: glossy and glamorous but in need of a remake anyway

Tony Scott, “The Hunger” (1983)

One of a number of 1980s-made movies in the remake production line, this glossy flick was Tony Scott’s directorial debut about a love triangle of two vampires searching for immortality and a mortal human who originally was part of the search. Miriam and John (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) are two lovers who have been together for a couple of centuries now, subsisting on human blood and presumably moving long distances from time to time to avoid suspicion and detection, ending up in New York City in the late twentieth century; but John finds old age rapidly encroaching on him and they both hear of medical specialist Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who has done research with monkeys on sleep disorders and ageing, so they seek her advice and help. Unfortunately the doctor fails to respond at first and is too late to prevent John’s rapid deterioration – an early scene in the consultation room perhaps should be required viewing for those doctors and other professionals who keep clients waiting – and she ends up falling under Miriam’s seductive spell and being primed to replace John as lover. John himself ends up trapped in a coffin shoved into an attic room along with the coffins of Miriam’s previous lovers, all of them victims of her lie that she can give them eternal life.

When first released, the movie garnered negative reviews and it’s easy to see why: the very sketchy plot moves very glacially for most of the film’s running time and only towards the end does the pace pick up and the tone changes from subdued to melodramatic. Much of the movie is dominated by long camera shots dwelling on background details, ostensibly for the sake of mood and atmosphere and to establish Miriam and John as refined sophisticates who inherit and pass on the best of European high culture to the people they live among in New York City. Before he became a film director, Scott’s background was in advertising – he ran an agency together with older brother Ridley who also became a film director, only more famous – and the influence certainly shows in the glamorous, glossy style of the movie which these days looks rather twee and not a little ridiculous. I would rather have seen a movie that spent less time lovingly dwelling on transparent white curtains swaying near windows and more on the history of Miriam and John, and how it is that while Miriam can remain youthful and vital indefinitely, her lovers decline after two centuries and end up trapped in shrivelled bodies in coffins, hidden out of sight. More time should have been spent on some character development, just enough to make Miriam’s seduction of Sarah credible and for the audience to feel some sympathy for the three main characters, however repellent their behaviour. The actors have little to do and I have the sneaking suspicion that Deneuve and Bowie were hired more for their ethereal beauty than for any acting ability. Bowie especially just walks on and off but his problem may be due to the way the original eponymous novel by Whitley Strieber, who incidentally wrote the screenplay for the remake commissioned by Warner Bros, ended up translated to the screen; I understand much of it fell by the wayside and the bits that did involved John’s character seeking vengeance on Miriam. The film compensates for the loss by tacking on a very flimsy and undeveloped sub-plot about a police search for a missing teenage girl but this has the nature of being an afterthought and just doesn’t tie into the main plot or provide any tension or direction to the movie at all.

The best part of the film is in its opening scenes where Miriam and John prey for victims in a Goth-themed nightclub to the tune of 1980s UK band Bauhaus’s song “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”: a hard edge to the movie is established with sharp lighting and the actors in shiny black leather and dark glasses glide through the crowds, pick their victims and take them home for dinner. It’s all action with just two or three words spoken and just a few quick but effective camera shots are needed for the audience to see how the vampires dispatch their victims. In a movie where the “v” word is never mentioned, Miriam and John enjoy no physical advantages over ordinary mortals: they need knives to kill, they must dispose of the bodies themselves, they have to hide evidence that points to them as killers. If the whole movie had been more like its opening scenes, which alone made the movie a cult must-see among young people, in style and pace, it would have been a great movie as it’s not without its assets: yes, it’s very beautiful to watch, very melancholy (too much so, perhaps) and richly layered with details redolent of culture and past times that only immortal creatures can appreciate. Miriam and Sarah’s love-making scene is erotic in a tasteful way and the violence can be quick and shocking, almost demonic.

The appealing aspect of “The Hunger”, which Scott could have made more of, is the notion of two individuals pursuing indefinite life who have only each other and who by their nature must stay their distance from human society yet are compelled to interact with it and negotiate and test its changing boundaries and extremes through time. They acquire art and culture and learn to act as refined sophisticates and social leaders according to the host society’s conventions; they may become world-weary and sad at the passage of time (and the growing coarseness of society around them) but their essential nature remains savage and ravenous, and they will always be dangerous wherever they are.

Blowup: blown up out of proportion to actual charms

Michelangelo Antonioni, “Blowup”, Metro Goldwyn Mayer (1966)

I’d been warned by a friend that this movie was over-rated, and possibly “Blowup” is famous among a lot of people for the wrong reasons, but after seeing it for free at an art gallery, I find this is a clever murder-thriller with a dark message about Western society and its fetishisation of objects, technology, spectacle and popular fads. The movie is based on a short story by Argentine writer Julio Cortazar (1914 – 1984), one of my favourite writers who has a brief cameo in the movie as a homeless man in a photo; the story revolves around an amateur photographer who takes pictures of a woman and a teenage boy, and discovers the boy is being set up for something sinister. The man intervenes and rescues the boy but later when he develops the photos and relives the actions he took to save the boy, he ends up paying a huge price for committing himself … The story itself is narrated by the photographer himself or his camera, and perhaps both at once so it’s very hard to tell what actually happens to the photographer but the reader gets a sense of the photographer identifying so closely with his camera that human and object become as one.

In the movie itself, the now professional photographer (David Hemmings) takes photos of a woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and her much older lover in a park; as in the short story, Redgrave’s character demands the photographer hand over the film but he refuses. She then follows him to his studio but he tricks her into taking away a different can of film. He becomes curious and obsessively develops the pictures of the woman and her lover over and over, and discovers in the process an image of a murderer. In later developments of the photos, he also finds a dead body. By the time the photographer has done all this, the movie has already made clear he is an arrogant, self-absorbed and misogynist prick lacking in feeling for his fellow humans and bored with his current career, wanting to strike out in a more “serious” artistic direction, so it’s no surprise that he seeks to exploit the apparent murder to advance his reputation instead of calling the police. His self-seeking actions are thwarted though: his studio is raided and the prints stolen while he returns to the park to view the dead but curiously bloodless body of the woman’s lover. The photographer appeals to his publishing agent to come see the body but gets nowhere. The photographer visits the park a third time to discover that the body has gone.

In nearly every scene of “Blowup”, something is always lacking: nearly everyone we see in the movie, including the rock band (the Yardbirds) in the last half hour of the movie, is not named; the antiques shop lacks a cash register even though the female manager yaps about money and little else; the photographer buys a propeller but once he gets it home, he can’t do anything with it and can’t imagine what he can do with it; he straddles a writhing model while photographing her, ogles Redgrave’s character when she bares her breasts and romps around with two starry-eyed teenage girls but the scenes end up strangely asexual. Anything that hints at exchange, some kind of transaction that could lead to an ongoing relationship that involves emotion and feeling, is missing from these encounters.

One realises that the wider society really does share the photographer’s inner hollowness and quest for meaning as illustrated by the Yardbirds scene, where the young audience is drained of enthusiasm and life, at least until one of the guitarists (Jeff Beck) gets fed up with his non-performing instrument so he bashes and breaks it and throws the pieces at the audience who, vulture-like, swoop in to fight over the fragmented object. The photographer nicks the fretboard and the stock but once he races back out into the street, the items lose their symbolism for him and he tosses them onto the pavement. This particular scene itself has become an object of desire in media like YouTube.com due to the presence of four individuals in the scene (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Michael Palin and Janet Street-Porter) who found fame and fortune years after the movie’s release; the significance of the scene itself, with Beck’s rage at his silent guitar and the audience mirroring perhaps the photographer’s frustration with his life, is lost with its removal from the movie’s context. Antonioni and Cortazar no doubt would be very amused.

The movie is deliberately unsettling and provocative in the way it contrasts the emptiness of materialism with the world of the intangible, the hidden symbolism, the context and inter-relatedness of things: so-called Swinging London of the late 1960’s is revealed as shallow, aimless, dreary, sometimes oppressive and dependent on contrasting itself with a traditional England (but not necessarily a nicer, kinder one); the main character tries hard but is simply unfit to investigate the murder of the woman’s lover, if indeed the fellow was killed, and what the woman’s role may be; and the plot that is the movie’s raison d’etre remains vague, open to interpretation and unresolved. There are many passages in the film where there is no dialogue or very minimal dialogue and the characters tend to talk at or over each other. Background scenery that includes long camera shots of greenery and historic English villages, city scenes of brutal modernist buildings and modish interiors anchor the movie in a definite historical period but because I was so absorbed in the photographer’s actions and the movie’s plot and themes, the movie didn’t seem very dated to me.

It may be that a murder has never occurred at all and the photographer comforts himself with this possibility. Or he comes to a realisation that there’s much more going in life than what he sees physically. David Hemmings puts in a credible performance as a character who may or may not have been changed by the events of a 24-hour period; appearing in nearly all scenes, he is the one constant who must hold the entire film together and to his credit, he keeps the viewer’s attention riveted to his unpleasant anti-hero’s character and actions.

Judging from my friend’s reaction and the comments left on YouTube.com about the Yardbirds scene, I see that not everyone who has seen the movie agrees with Antonioni’s aims or interprets them in the same way. The film’s plot can be so vague that you can read almost anything you want into it. Notions such as object worship, the search for hidden meaning, the contrast between modern materialism and older, supposedly more meaningful ways of being and living have been done to death and probably in more depth in literature and film, and Antonioni’s take on these subjects in “Blowup” could be construed as narrow and reactionary. It’s easy to come away with the impression that Antonioni disapproved of or didn’t understand 1960s youth culture and trends. I like the film but I think perhaps it’s not one of Antonioni’s better efforts.