Ran: stock characters make this film merely good, not truly great

Akira Kurosawa, “Ran” (1985)

“Ran” (“Chaos” or “Revolt”) was Kurosawa’s last attempt at creating and filming an epic historical drama set in Japan’s Kamakura period when feudal warlords ruled the country. At the time he made it, it was Japan’s most expensive film ever at a budget of US$12 million, financed mainly by French producer Serge Silberman. The film’s initial inspiration was stories about a 16th century daimyo (warlord), Mori Motonari, but the screenplay was also influenced by the famous play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

The film revolves around aged daimyo Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the consequences of the decision he makes in dividing his lands and the responsibilities that attend them, among his three sons prosaically named Taro, Jiro and Saburo (“one”, “two” and “three”, played by Akira Terao, Jinpachi Neru and Daisuke Ryn respectively), while retaining his titles, the symbols and privileges of his position. Taro and Jiro happily agree to the arrangement but Saburo, foreseeing trouble as Hidetora had not exactly been a model dad or a just ruler, objects. For his disobedience, Hidetora angrily banishes Saburo who is then forced to take refuge with Fukimaki, one of two rival warlords – the other named Ayabe – wishing to marry their daughters to him. Saburo allows one of his retainers, Tango (Masayuki Yui), to continue serving Hidetora in disguise.
 
Hidetora plans to spend his twilight years boarding at Taro and Jiro’s castles in turn. It’s not long before Taro, egged on by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada),whose family was murdered by Hidetora, finds a way to boot out Dad and his retinue so the aged man seeks Jiro’s help. Jiro, forewarned by Taro, also finds an excuse to refuse hospitality so Hidetora finds refuge in Saburo’s recently abandoned castle and lands. Alas, even this isn’t to the older sons’ liking as they join forces to storm the castle, killing nearly all of Hidetora’s followers and forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While exulting in the destruction, Taro is killed by Jiro who had been plotting all along with his generals to usurp Big Brother.

Hidetora’s fool (Peter) and Tango locate the old man and help him find refuge with a hermit who turns out to be Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), young brother of Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Years ago, Hidetora had killed the young siblings’ parents and blinded the son. Confronted by the evidence of his evil deed, Hidetora begins to lose his sanity and leaves the shelter. Meanwhile back at the Jiro ranch, Jiro is approached, seduced and manipulated in turns by his brother’s widow, Lady Kaede, who has shrewdly guessed his ambitions and persuades him to repudiate and kill Sue and marry her instead. Sue is forced to flee for her life so she finds Tsurumaru and they go to their parents’ abandoned castle ruins. Hidetora and his two followers have also arrived there and on seeing the young people, Hidetora descends further into madness and runs onto the plains of Azusa.

Tango returns to Saburo who then prepares his army and returns to the family territories to find Hidetora. Jiro, forewarned by messengers (dontcha just love the Pony Express that operates around here? where can we get fast express delivery like that?), leads his army to meet his brother’s. In the battle, Saburo’s disciplined forces rout Jiro’s with gunfire; in the meantime, Saburo receives news of Hidetora’s whereabouts so he personally goes off to retrieve him. Jiro guesses at what he’s doing so he dispatches assassins to follow after. He then receives news that Ayabe’s army is advancing on his castle so his army hurries back with Saburo’s forces on his tail. Jiro and his generals manage to get back to defend his stronghold. One general, Kurogane, who had earlier defied Lady Kaede, confronts her and finds out she has intended all along to destroy Hidetora and his two sons, so he kills her. Anchorless, Jiro and his generals find themselves and their exhausted, depleted army facing the full onslaught of Ayabe’s fresh forces.

Saburo finds Hidetora and they joyfully reconcile but Saburo is cut down by one of Jiro’s unseen assassins. Overcome by the disaster that has resulted from his rash decision, Hidetora collapses and dies. By this time, Sue and her maid have also been killed to fulfill Lady Kaede’s wish. This leaves Tsurumaru stranded at the family castle ruins, clinging to a painting of Amida Buddha that Sue had given him – which he accidentally loses down a cliff-like wall.

It’s a splendidly shot film with great visual beauty and dynamics: Kurosawa often uses landscapes to enhance a sense of extreme isolation, as in the scenes where Hidetora and his fool hide out in the ruined castle, or to suggest chaos falling in on Hidetora when he is first cast out into the wilderness. Even the weather and the time of day are important: the film opens during a bright part of the day with thunderclouds gathering overhead and ends during sunset with a blood-red sun. In the film’s opening scene, Hidetora and his sons, mounted on horses, are standing at right angles from one other looking for something and this scene portends the division, conflict and chaos to follow. There is close attention to technical detail, at least in battle scenes and those scenes that take place in castles, some of which were built for the film, though it’s possible Kurosawa took some liberties with actual historical details for the purpose of the film. The use of guns suggests the film’s events occur during the late 1500’s / early 1600’s which coincide with Shakespeare’s life-span and it’s likely the battle between Jiro and Saburo’s forces is partly based on the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, which Kurosawa dramatised in “Kagemusha” (1980), in which the use of guns overcame cavalry.
 
Nakadai as Hidetora is credible in the way he deteriorates mentally and physically; his make-up, based on Noh play conventions, reflects his gradual downfall. At the same time he becomes less of a stock character and more of a human being with feelings and weaknesses. The problem I have with Hidetora is that, unlike Lear in the Shakespearean play, Kurosawa passes up an opportunity to have him become a more caring and compassionate person towards his fool and others. Perhaps Hidetora is restricted by his social role not to care for others lower on the social scale and indeed most characters in the movie are one-dimensional stereotypes restricted by their social niches. This is true particularly of Lady Kaede whose make-up, stylised movements and monochromatic clothing render her a highly artificial and refined alien creature nursing a demonic hatred for Hidetora’s family; she’s the least human of the whole cast. Did her upbringing as well as Hidetora’s treatment of her and her family turn her into a devil? Hidetora’s fool on the other hand, moves naturally and expresses the full range of human emotions including courage and grief, and is clearly the one sane person in a highly dysfunctional world. Harada and Peter’s performances as these two characters are by far the most memorable in the film, not least because these characters behave outside the accepted gender norms for their society and class.

My impression of “Ran” is of a world of people trained and restricted by their roles in life to act as unthinking ants for the amusement of indifferent gods, an ontological view expressed by a minor character in the film. The collapse of this society is total with the unnecessary death of Sue, so devoted to Amida Buddha and forgiving of Hidetora, and Tsurumaru’s total abandonment when he loses the painting. The conclusion  is melodramatic, perhaps overdone – even Shakespeare didn’t obliterate all his main characters in “King Lear” – but it certainly illustrates an extremely pessimistic, nihilist view of the universe. Even in this world though, I still think there’s room for character development for Hidetora and maybe his sons, and this would have made “Ran” a classic film rather than merely a very good one: the tragedies that befall them would have been so much greater and more painful, and the universe become more harsh and uncaring, if the men had come to regret their actions and tried to make amends to others, only to be smacked down for their efforts by capricious gods.

Nazi Literature in the Americas: Bolano novel could have been shorter and better

Robert Bolano, “Nazi Literature in the Americas” (translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews), Picador, ISBN 978-0-330-51388-3 (2010)

You might have feared that an alarmingly titled work such as this would run to a 20-volume encyclopedia set but in English translation it’s of modest dimentsions at 259 pages. All the biographies of the writers mentioned within are entirely fictional though I’m sure many details and the general thrust, for want of a better term, of most accounts here are based on fact. After the shock of the book’s title fades, you realise it’s meant to be a playful and sly joke that relies on you knowing something of the tragic history of much of the 20th century, not just in Germany and Austria but also in parts of North and South America where many Nazi war criminals and their followers and sympathisers fled and managed to keep their heads low, though not so low that while they escaped the intense scrutiny of Israel’s Mossad they couldn’t offer advice to various politicians, military folk, captains of industry, crime organisations, police and academia among others.

Naturally, knowing that the book’s title is a joke, you expect writer Bolano to work it for all it’s worth or as far as taste permits (and then some). Visions come to mind of a bored clerk sitting low in the public bureaucracy, by day stamping forms that will send innocent university students, tutors and lecturers to a makeshift torture chamber in a soccer stadium in an Argentine city, and by night writing his first novel of a boy suffering from spurned puppy love, loneliness and bullying at school, discovering his true origins as an alien baby sent from the far reaches of the galaxy and crash-landing on a farm in remote Patagonia, realising his true super-powers will come to him when puberty hits … or imagine a rancher, descended from no-nonsense Scottish-Irish immigrants, on his remote farm in Idaho nursing his collection of assault rifles and shot-guns and printing his utopian manifesto of a nation returned to God, old-time religion, the right to bear arms and African-Americans returned to Africa with US$2 billion to set up shopping malls so they can feel right at home … think of a witty and suave academic in a prestigious North American university surveying various psychology studies to write a tome on why non-white people may be clever at copying technology but will never innovate on their own … or a retired Chilean politician writing his memoirs of flying fighter jets in the air force, “reluctantly” participating in the 1973 putsch, disposing of the country’s enemies and helping Pinochet to ensure law and order. By way of postscript, bookshops and libraries in Santiago and elsewhere consign all copies of the memoirs to the fantasy part of the fiction section. My favourite vision is of a cocaine lord in his remote Amazon jungle realm, fancying himself a successor to UK authors Enid Blyton and Ian Fleming, and so penning a series of children’s action thriller pot-boilers and foisting them on his agent and publisher. The two worthies, noting the stories’ numerous outrages against spelling, grammar and plot structure, and mindful of their client’s fearsome reputation, advise him to keep on writing while using the manuscripts as props for staff PC screens. One employee, idly flicking through a manuscript while waiting for his computer to reboot, falls off his chair laughing at one plot highlight in which a lone girl, mumbling with her teeth still in braces, shoots 20 corrupt police officers clean through the head with one round of bullets from her Kalashnikov, though all the men are head-and-shoulders taller than she is and all are standing in a narrow street alley where everyone travels in single file.

Alas my imagination ran more rampant here than did Bolano’s. The book’s attraction dulls quickly after the first several biographical entries and most of these emphasise biographical trivia, the subjects’ personal peccadilloes, a rundown of the subjects’ usually mediocre works and maybe an appraisal of some or most of what they wrote. Bolano’s style of writing ranges from factual and neutral to subjective (even slightly mocking) and descriptive; and then, in the entry on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman near the end, to personal with Bolano writing in first-person narrative as himself. Nothing about any really significant people, events or other influences in the subjects’ lives that set them on the straight and narrow right-hand (wing?) path appears in any of the entries apart from one where a woman is held as a baby by Adolf Hitler. Many entries don’t strike me as particularly National Socialist: the entries on the Schiaffino brother poets reveal them as little more than thuggish populists and ultra-nationalists. In a parallel universe somewhere, someone has written a book called “Stalinist Literature of the Americas” and the Schiaffino brother poets have entries here that, mutatis mutandis, are the same. Given what’s in the public domain about right-wing forces and institutions in the Western Hemisphere, it strikes me that none of the fictional subjects ever belonged to or formed militias, a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations or similar organisation, secret ultra-conservative Roman Catholic or other sinister religious cults, or had contacts with the Nueva Germania colony set up in Paraguay by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the sister of the famous philosopher) and her husband in the late 19th century. One point the book makes is that the kinds of people who would write extreme fascist literary works often have a sinister relation to power or to extremist groups that readily use violence or unethical means to seize power and impose ideologies and structures that benefit such organisations and their followers, create hardship and misery for others, and destroy those who oppose them or offer alternatives: these groups often have myriad origins, some often setting out with humanitarian, even socialistic ideals, in diverse settings and I wonder that Bolano didn’t try to explore how certain organisations (fictitious, of course) could have evolved from humble and harmless settings into ferocious beasts in some of his fictional biographies.

As I figured, the book is also an opportunity for Bolano to satirise the literary scene in Chile and other countries where many writers depend on government grants to survive yet are convinced of their worth and importance to society at large without having to prove their value. In certain periods, such writers also willingly swallowed whatever personal integrity they possessed and collaborated with the regime to produce literary propaganda that glorified it or its achievements. Speaking of satire, one of the fictional biographies could have been something of a mise-en-abyme, a satire within a satire, in which a so-called fascist turns out to be anything and everything but fascist. Now that would have been really satirical!

In short, I had expected more and better from Bolano in fewer and more varied literary biographies with detail that justifies them as Nazi as opposed to specifically fascist. I suppose though “Extreme Fascist Literature in the Americas” doesn’t have the same thrill and creepiness factor as “Nazi Literature …” in a world reliant on hair-raising headlines. As is, the book is best taken in small doses: the long entries on Carlos Ramirez Hoffman and Argentino Schiaffino and some of the short entries on speculative and science fiction writers are recommended to get an idea of how nutty and eccentric the book can be.

La Fille du Rer: film of connections that doesn’t quite connect

Andre Techine, “La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train)”, Strand Releasing (2009)

Not a bad drama but I couldn’t quite see the point of making a film based on a real-life incident in 2004 in which a young woman falsely claimed to have been attacked by a group of Muslim youths who’d mistaken her for a Jew, without exploring the incident and some of its aspects in some detail. You’d expect the director and scriptwriter to look at the woman’s motives and psychological background, see if there’s anything unusual or “out of the ordinary” like a history of mental illness or childhood sexual abuse that would indicate a need for attention, a cry for help, an attempt to connect with others. Instead Techine delivers a combination of a soap opera and a coming-of-age story about two families who have a past secret connection. The theme underlying the plot is connection: how people make their way in life through connecting to others through love, travel, media and even incidents that throw particular people together. The acting ranges from competent to good but some fine actors have little more than walk-on parts that don’t require their particular presence or talents.

The movie divides roughly in two parts. In the first part, Jeanne Fabre (Emilie Dequenne) lives a carefree life at home with mum Louise (Catherine Deneuve), rollerblading along the streets and trying to apply for secretarial jobs: one such job is at the law firm of Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a former friend of Louise’s husband and possibly her secret lover. Jeanne flubs her interview and application for that job so she goes home; on her way back, she meets a young man, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who gets her email address. Over time a relationship develops between them and she eventually moves in with him into an apartment over a shop he looks after. One day an incident at the shop lands Franck in hospital and Jeanne in trouble with the police who tell her that the shop was a front for a drug-running operation. Jeanne is cleared of wrong-doing but when she sees Franck in hospital, he tells her he knew she lied to him about having a job when she didn’t and rejects her. Dejected and upset, Jeanne goes home, mutilates herself and then goes out into the night.

The second part of the movie focusses more on Samuel Bleistein’s quarrelling son (Mathieu Demy) and daughter-in-law (Ronit Elkabetz) as they prepare for their son Nathan’s upcoming bar mitzvah. In the meantime, Jeanne reports her faked anti-Jewish attack to the police and the supposed incident makes news headlines. Louise hears of the attack on the news and confronts her daughter who reacts with apathy. Louise contacts Samuel for advice and he invites her and Jeanne to stay with his family at their weekend home. Here Jeanne meets Nathan who convinces her to tell the truth while both are sheltering in a little shack during a night-time storm. Jeanne owns up to Bleistein who directs her to write an apology. When Jeanne and Louise return home, Jeanne turns herself in to police and spends 48 hours in a jail cell. Later she is required to attend psychiatric therapy and when we last see her, she is rollerblading in the countryside and thinking about a recent letter from Nathan, who has just celebrated his bar mitzvah with both his parents, grandfather Bleistein and relatives and friends. In the letter, Nathan professes a growing affection for Jeanne and wishes to see her again when they are older.

Fair enough, the “actual” faked attack is a very minor part of the movie so there’s no need to actually see Jeanne report it to police – it’s explained in voice-over. The film doesn’t go into much detail on the consequences of the faked attack and the effect it has on Louise and Samuel Bleistein and whether they will see each other again after the events covered in the movie are over. We learn nothing of what Nathan’s parents think of Jeanne and how their opinion affects Nathan’s burgeoning feelings for Jeanne. Why he feels the way he does towards her is rather strange: he sees through her lies so he seems a good judge of character for one so young, yet he’s falling in love with her? The film’s treatment of Jews’ place in French society and the tensions between and among different groups within a multicultural, multireligious society still governed by traditional French social and political hierarchical structures (and what these say about broader social connections), is superficial to the point of non-existent. I start to wonder what the film is really trying to say.

The acting is fine: Dequenne has a difficult role to play, a shallow immature young woman who has little appreciation of the impact her lies have on people and who probably learns nothing from the experience, but she’s credible in the part and that’s all that can be expected; and Blanc and Deneuve are good in their supporting roles. Deneuve’s acting can be subtle, particularly in a scene where she nervously waits for Blanc’s character and then decides not to meet him directly, and it seems a shame Techine doesn’t focus more on their characters’ secret history and relationship and where that might go. But this isn’t their movie after all. Demy and Elkabetz’s characters provide some light relief as an estranged warring couple who reconcile, temporarily anyway, for their son’s sake but I feel that any particular set of actors whether good or bad could have played their roles. My impression of Elkabetz from seeing her in the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is that she is a very good lead actress and could have played a bigger part here other than just being a mother, wife and law firm employee.

For those viewers wondering if there’ll be a sequel where Louise and Samuel Bleistein meet again and decide to make their relationship less secret or more permanent, real life has provided a postscript to prod Techine if he runs out of ideas for films: in Marseilles in April 2007, nearly three years after the hoax incident that inspired the movie, a young woman really was set upon by two men of Middle Eastern appearance who noticed her Jewish chai necklace and cut her hair, slashed her T-shirt and drew swastikas on her bare chest, in a way similar to the hoax incident. Life keeps on imitating art deliberately, it seems.

Playtime: Tati celebrates human values but needed machine values to make it

 
Jacques Tati, “Playtime”, Madman Cinema / The AV Channel, DVD  (1967)
 
 
Said to have been the most expensive movie made in France at the time of its release involving the construction of an elaborate set over nine years that included an airport terminal, city streets with a multi-lane traffic roundabout, various office and other high-rise buildings, and the film itself taking three years to make in grand 70mm format, “Playtime” really is one of a kind, never to be replicated, at least not in these economically strait-jacketed times. Only Hollywood these days might have the money to finance a remake should a suitably fruitcake obsessive director be up to the job – hmm, why do I think of James Cameron as the man to do it? – but with MGM Studios facing bankruptcy at this time of writing, even a pale replica now appears impossible. All the more reason to treasure “Playtime” in spite of its near unwatchableness for most people.
 
“Playtime” plays like a satirical comedy and superficially in parts it resembles old silent film comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Visual gags abound and it’s necessary to view the film at least twice to catch most of them. The opening scenes in the movie look as if they’re occurring in a hospital but the building turns out to be an airport terminal. Main character Monsieur Hulot (director Tati himself), if we can call him that – he features in less than half the film – gets caught up in various slapstick situations, many of them featuring no dialogue or dialogue-as-background. Viewing the movie twice myself though, I sense a fairly serious and sometimes dark message about the place of humans and humanity in a world ruled by rationality and cold intellect as evidenced in the architecture, layouts and technology of 1960s Paris. At first we see people dwarfed and directed by their surroundings – they move in straight lines, they get tricked by walls or doors of near-invisible glass, they mistake a lampshade holder for a bus pole – but as “Playtime” progresses, the failings of an environment governed strictly by efficiency and rationality become obvious, and when technology fails as it does in the restaurant scenes, people react with spontaneity, warmth and reaching out to others.
 
No plot exists as such: the film is a snapshot of 1960s Paris over a 24-hour period, parts of which are experienced by Monsieur Hulot and a group of female American tourists of whom one young woman, Barbara, is always lagging behind the others for one reason or another (one of several ongoing jokes in the film). The film easily divides into seven segments, depending on where the camera is focussed: first up is the airline terminal segment where the tourist group first arrives. Much action takes place in longshot, forcing viewers to look everywhere over the screen to catch all the activity. The second segment takes place in an office building: Hulot has a meeting with an official and spends most of his time either ill at ease with the office chairs, trying to find the official or getting lost in the building. We get a good view of the impersonal style of the office building: people work in office cubicles that all look the same and are laid out in ways that resemble a geometrical maze; meetings take place in glass-walled areas that supposedly preserve privacy inside and out; and Hulot and the official alike are baffled by the building’s spacious dimensions and geometry as they continually miss each other.
 
Hulot stumbles from the second segment into the third which takes place in another look-alike office building that is holding a trade exhibition. Barbara’s tourist group visits this exhibition as well after Barbara is nearly left behind while trying to photograph a flower-seller. Hulot himself is mistaken for a thief who pilfers one exhibition’s publicity material for a silent-closing door but is quickly exonerated. In the meantime a lady in front of another exhibition demonstrates a household waste-bin cunningly disguised as an Ancient Greek relic; that might say something about Tati’s opinion of the modern world’s respect for history.
 
Hulot eventually leaves the building and catches a bus during evening peak hour. Commuters appear as comic conformist clones: they line up close together like segments of a centipede to catch a bus and hang onto a lampshade post instead of the bus railing. In one scene, four men dressed exactly alike enter four identical cars parked close together at much the same time and drive off, one after the other, in a perfectly timed sequence. When Hulot leaves the bus, he meets an old friend who drags him into his apartment and the apartment block where the friend resides is the focus of the film’s fourth segment. We see four families in the apartment block watching TV through their ceiling-to-floor windows and it’s obvious they’re all watching the same TV show. Because the TV sets are stuck into common walls, the families on the ground floor appear to be watching and reacting to each other: in a role reversal scene, a man strips his shirt off and the woman next door peers closely at her TV set at the same time as though seeing a peepshow. It’s a wonderful visual joke, plausible and implausible at the same time.
 
Most of the second half of the film is taken up with opening night of the newly refurbished Royal Gardens restaurant and there are numerous gags here. Several waiters prepare and season a dish repeatedly for a couple, only for that dish to be taken away to another table. One waiter forced to retire outside the restaurant after tearing his trousers on a chair finds himself lending out his jacket, tie and shoe to other waiters with similar accidents throughout the evening. A pillar placed in a high-traffic foyer proves a constant nuisance for waiters and customers alike. Part of the ceiling collapses, a glass door shatters, there are air-conditioning problems and the electricity supply goes erratic. Waiters aren’t always attentive and customers at the bar keep falling off their stools. As the night progresses and more disasters occur, everyone relaxes and starts making their own fun, dancing and singing along. Barbara appears at the piano, playing a tune (yes, the tourist group came to dinner) and meets Hulot who offers to buy her a gift.
 
The sixth and seventh segments take place during the bleary-eyed hours of the early morning when the restaurant closes and customers go home. In the drugstore segment, a couple of workers manage to siphon some free wine into their pipes (the plumbing sort of pipes, not the smoking sort) while the sales attendants are elsewhere. Hulot finds a gift and passes it onto Barbara, already late boarding her tourist bus, via an impromptu messenger. In the seventh segment, the focus is on morning peak hour traffic circulating around a multi-lane roundabout in slow, mechanical clockwork fashion.
 
Tati’s message about humanity and modernity appears optimistic – a machine-like society is apt to break down and humans released from such a society will re-discover warmth, creativity, spontaneity and connection – but offers nothing about how to change such a society permanently to something less grim. “Playtime” has a circular quality – it begins and ends with camera shots of blue sky with clouds – which suggests that the machine society and natural human warmth and spontaneity will always be at loggerheads. Why should that be?
 
Perhaps Tati himself wasn’t the appropriate person to offer a more human-based alternative: to make such a hugely expensive and elaborate film like “Playtime” with its huge and detailed sets and carefully choreographed action must surely demand a personality bordering on manic and obsessive if not tyrannical. Tati fans already know the film didn’t recoup its massive production costs and Tati was forced to declare bankruptcy and to sell his home. He must have had something of a love-hate affair with the modernist ideal to have made a series of films revolving around Hulot that focus on the French obsession with brutalist modern architecture that is often impractical and overscaled and on emulating American consumerism and pressure-cooker lifestyles. Technology wasn’t necessarily an issue: in a later film, “Trafic”, Hulot appears as an inventor driving his self-made car full of gadgets to an exhibition. Speaking of impractical and overscaled, “Playtime” is not exactly amenable to viewer comfort: filmed in epic 70mm with no close-ups or over-the-shoulder action, it is a BIG picture which dwarfs its human characters in scale and action, and with so much going on all at once, the film must be seen at least a few times in its full format to be fully understood and appreciated.
 
Yes that’s the paradox about “Playtime”: for a film that celebrates the playful human values of yesteryear, it had to embrace the values of machine-like precision, rationality and obsession with growth and massive scale that it gently derides just to get made.

Belle de Jour: Bunuel turns a trashy soap opera plot into rich satire

Luis Buñuel, “Belle de Jour” (1967)

It’s got a trashy premise – a rich doctor’s wife “plays” at being a prostitute for a few hours each day – but Buñuel turns the soap opera plot into a blackly humorous and tragic satire about the upper classes and their uneasy relationship with sex, power and control. Lead actor Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, recently married to Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) who works as a hospital specialist and who often brings much of his paperwork home, a situation that suits his young wife as she is sexually frigid with a secret history of childhood sexual abuse. We see her early on in the film with little to do at home (a maid does the housework) so she goes shopping a lot, walking around her neighbourhood a lot and having frequent migraines so she goes to bed early a lot. When asleep Severine has strange dreams about being sexually humiliated and beaten by her husband and various working-class ruffians.

Pierre and Severine have a mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is attracted to Severine and who one day mentions to her the address of a discreet high-class brothel where a middle-class housewife Severine knows as a casual acquaintance happens to work. Initially Severine is repelled by the idea but, curious as to whether working as a prostitute might remedy her sexual frigidity and perhaps make her a “normal” sexually functioning woman, she approaches the brothel madame, Anais (Genevieve Page), who agrees to take her on as a part-time prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour.

After a couple of hesitant starts, Severine starts to enjoy her work and quickly becomes a favourite with Madame Anais and the various wealthy clients who exhibit all kinds of sexual fetishes, including whipping, incest and necrophilia. Severine’s weird sexual dreams gradually cease and she starts to become more loving and intimate with her workaholic husband who soon becomes the one looking for excuses for avoiding sex. However one day two gangsters turn up at Madame Anais’s brothel and the younger of the two, Marcel (Pierre Clementi), quickly becomes obsessed with Severine. Severine herself is attracted to Marcel as he fulfills her fantasies of being abused by disreputable or lower-class men but is forced to leave the brothel when Husson turns up and sees her there. Nevertheless Marcel uncovers her identity and where she lives and Severine is unable to prevent and avoid the clash of her separate identities and existences as Belle de Jour and Severine Serizy and their devastating consequences.

For a movie with a threadbare and unrealistic soap opera plot, “Belle de Jour” can be moving due to its rich detail and the various issues and themes that lurk in the background. Identity and control are major themes: Severine already is adept at hiding her sexual fears and fantasy life from hubby Pierre who thinks she is just shy and child-like and treats her accordingly, so it’s not hard for her to hide her other identity as Belle de Jour from him. However she has no control over Husson and Marcel who uncover her double life. Severine’s reaction to control and being controlled is complicated: the movie hints at a past history of sexual violence; she allows her husband to treat her like a pet; she is submissive to Marcel’s sexual violence; and her sexual fantasies, initially at least, suggest guilt feelings about being rebellious or being of a privileged background. At the same time she controls Pierre and Marcel’s access to her body by playing victim and while Pierre is happy to go along with this, Marcel refuses to play along and his refusal leads to tragedy.

Severine’s clients also have issues dealing with identity and control: there is the respected gynaecologist, used to commanding respect, who gets exasperated at Severine’s inability to spank him and walk all over him (literally); there is the businessman who imagines himself a ladies’ man but is actually crude and there’s a hint that he rapes Severine as he can’t have her any other way. On a bigger scale, Bunuel plays with audience expectations of how a movie narrative should proceed: there are flashbacks here and there to Severine’s childhood; her daydreams and fantasies intrude into the film without warning (save for cats’ meows and tinkling bells near the end) and exit just as abruptly; and Bunuel and Deneuve herself, who in the 1960’s had a reputation as an blonde ice-queen siren, revel in turning that reputation inside-out. Even the entire film itself is a dreamworld where Bunuel takes pot-shots at religion and class differences, and inverts social and gender control mechanisms. The prostitutes control men’s access to their bodies and the men are controlled by their lusts and desires. Marriage as an institution locks two people who can’t communicate with each other or relate as equals into an endless barren prison.

The details of the film are so layered that each repeated viewing reveals something new. The focus on Severine’s legs and shoes at times not only suggests a fetishistic obsession on Bunuel’s part but reveals Severine’s psychological state and her social status. Her dreams are full of masochistic religious symbols and imagery: in one dream, dragged from a horse-drawn landau that’s just gone through a long tree-lined grove (hint, hint), Severine is then stripped, tied to a tree and lashed; in another, after a herd of bulls with names like Remorse and Expiation charges through a field, Severine is shown tied to a post in a crucifixion pose and pelted with mud and ordure. The apartment where the Serizys live is luxuriously furnished and Severine nearly always looks the stereotypical high-maintenance trophy wife with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain looks. Deneuve’s flat minimal acting and blank expressions actually reveal more of Severine’s state of mind and moods than a more emotional style would; her interaction with Madame Anais in particular, discreet though it is, suggests a mutual lesbian attraction

I suppose one day I’ll watch this film yet again and find it outdated, twee and quaint but that day seems a long way off.

Let Me In: Reeves “lets the right one in” to smother his version’s potential

Matt Reeves, “Let Me In”, Hammer Films / Overture Films (2010)

Once upon a time about 25 years ago in a small town somewhere in Reagan-era America, there was a lonely 12 year old boy called Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) living in an apartment block with his mom. Mom had just broken up with Owen’s Dad and was trying to cope with the trials of being a single parent in that particular historical period by imbibing equal and large amounts of alcohol and religion. Owen had problems too: his parents were too wrapped up in their issues and inability to cope, shouting at each other over the phone; everyone else in the block kept to themselves; and at school, there were these teenage bullies, Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his friends, all older than Owen, who bothered the other kids some but reserved their bile for Owen, on one occasion nearly raping him, and most of the time mocking him about being a little girl.

Little girl? One night Owen sees new neighbours – a girl his age and her Dad – moving into the apartment next door to his. Over the next several days – or nights, rather – Owen gets acquainted with this girl, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), and though at first they don’t want to be friends – Abby actually warns him off, and he thinks she smells bad – they each discover they have lots in common: they’re lonely outsiders and they need an ally to cope with modern life. So Owen helps Abby adjust to her new life in town and Abby advises owen on how to deal with Kenny and his pals.

Meanwhile the town – Los Alamos, by the way – is hit by a series of gruesome murders in which victims get strung up on trees and poles and drained of their blood by a serial killer so the local police detective (Elias Koteas) investigates and links the murders to Abby’s “Dad” (Richard Jenkins) who winds up in hospital with injuries sustained in a car crash and his face disfigured by acid. The police officer tries to interview the patient but gets called away to the phone by the ward sister; while the fellow’s gone, Abby visits “Dad” through the window, he offers his neck as apology for his recent failures, she drinks his blood and he falls to his death ten storeys down.

Yes, by now you’ve guessed: “Let Me In” is the American version of the Swedish movie “Let the Right One In” and in parts is a remake of the latter movie. Not surprising really, seeing that it’s based on both the novel and the Swedish screenplay, both written by John Ajvide Lindquist. You’d think the US movie would benefit from the best of both worlds, the direct and the indirect approaches, along with some original American touches and details. The result though is a movie that is both weaker and more powerful than its Swedish predecessor: the weakest parts are where it copies the Swedish movie scene for scene, shot for shot, or waters it or the novel down; the strongest parts are the original ideas that are absent from the Swedish film and novel.

There are two themes present that could have lifted “Let Me In” to greatness beyond the Swedish film: to take the first, the relationship between Owen and Abby is more heartfelt and emotional than what Oskar and Eli had; and Abby, at once more girly and more obviously feral than Eli, appears a more complex character than Eli which adds poignancy to Owen’s dilemma when he realises too late that she’s a vampire. Early scenes between Abby and her “Dad” suggest she’s a bully too and a photograph of them that Owen sees suggests she’s been using her “Dad” since he was a young boy. Unfortunately Reeves doesn’t pursue the suggestion of Abby as both sweetheart and cruel mistress hard to the very end so the film’s coda, which could have been the film’s real climax, powerful and ambiguous yet “true” to the novel and the film – Owen only needs to fish out that photo of Abby and “Dad” after tapping out Morse code on the box where Abby’s hiding and start crying – remains an enervated imitation of the Swedish film’s feel-good fairy-tale ending.

The second theme not present in “Let the Right One In” (novel and film) is the notion of escape: Los Alamos seems an uninteresting, generic American small-town where locals apparently care little about its history as a centre of nuclear energy and weapons research and development, and Owen tells Abby that he plans on leaving the place forever one day. If Reeves only realised what a goldmine this is, he would have made Abby the one chance Owen has of escaping to a richer, more fulfilling world, and so Owen’s dilemma of whether to stay with a dangerous friend or not becomes more multi-layered. We would also have seen the attraction Abby held for her “Dad”, holding out a similar promise of freedom. The train trip Owen and Abby take at the film’s end would become a flight to freedom. The escape theme is a distinctively American culture motif and it is hard to understand why Reeves doesn’t make anything much out of it.

Child actors Smit-McPhee and Moretz are excellent in their roles – Smit-McPhee in particular reveals considerable emotional depth in what must be his first lead role. Moretz balances the light and dark aspects of her role well but rather than just being resigned to a monotonous salty liquid diet, she could have been directed to feel conflicted about what she has to do to stay alive, maybe even dislike the taste of blood. The adult characters are under-developed but three should have stood out, even as one-dimensional stock figures: Koteas’s prying police officer should have been a framing device for the whole film right to the very end – the novel itself has such a character – and perhaps he would have provided an objective viewpoint on everything that happens and some comment on the nature of US small-town society and how it deals with violence, crime and social problems. The other two potential stand-out characters are Owen’s apartment block neighbours Virginia and Larry: a couple of early unspoken scenes with them, perhaps detailing their fighting and making up while Owen spies on them with his telescope, could have established them as a counterpoint to Owen’s battling parents. Larry could have provided fodder for Abby as his Swedish twin Lacke did for Eli, freeing the police officer (spoiler alert) to investigate the strange incidents at the swimming pool centre and deal with a missing child report, as in the novel.

Ah yeah, the climactic swimming pool showdown: Reeves relies heavily on the Swedish film for inspiration, using Owen’s viewpoint underwater, and this is a big mistake. For thugs such as Kenny and Co, the way that Reeves deals with them is unsatisfactory, given that this is a Hammer film where subtlety is a foreign concept and we’ve already seen Abby get stuck into several previous victims. I’m of the view that the audience should see Abby rip into the boys with suitable amounts of relish, gore and violence without Reeves’s jumpy cuts and quick edits: this would have been a cathartic moment, good for the audience if too good for the bullies themselves.

Ultimately in trying to make a film that meets the cool Europeam sensibility of “Let the Right One In” and at the same time fulfil commercial expectations and values, Reeves loses the chance to make a great film with a distinctive style, informed by layers of myths and history of midwestern Americana, and melding horror and violence with loss of childhood innocence and the minutiae of everyday life. In its own way “Let Me In” could have been a comment on American social conditions of the 1980’s, some of which still exist today.

Buried: film just manages to avoid burying itself with gimmicks and diversions

Rodrigo Cortes, “Buried” (2010)

For a one-trick pony in which the trick is one man stuck in a wooden box buried 2 metres underground, this is quite suspenseful and entertaining. I only wonder for how long the novelty of a plot of one-man / one-set lasting 95 minutes will outlast the movie itself long after it has left the cinemas. At least Ryan Reynolds, playing the burial victim, does a good job of being nearly constantly in motion – even if at times that motion consists of perspiring heavily, gulping for air and trying to calm himself down so as not to waste his oxygen – throughout the film. Hardly much scenery to chew up, that’s true, but to keep the audience’s attention riveted on himself and not over-act or under-act must have been a hard job for Reynolds.

Fortunately modern technology in the form of a mobile phone – ah, now this film would never have been possible without mobile phone and GPS technology to make it all credible! – provides our protagonist with the opportunity to chat to various unseen actors locally and across the globe so we learn how and why he ended up literally boxed in. He’s Paul Conroy, an American truck driver working for a large company CRT that has sent him to Iraq to drive supplies from one town to another. One day his convoy is ambushed by local people, he gets clobbered and passes out while the other drivers in the convoy are killed. When he comes to, he finds himself in the coffin with nothing to keep him company save the mobile phone and a cigarette lighter. Frantically he dials everyone he knows – his family, the US State Department, an emergency operator in Ohio, his employer who puts him in contact with a hostage rescue unit in Baghdad – to get help before he suffocates from lack of oxygen. The conversations he has range from heart-breaking to cruel and callous and say a great deal about how people, in particular government and corporate bureaucrats, treat unseen others deemed significant or insignificant cyphers according to their usefulness in achieving certain political and economic goals and results.

We never see any of the people Conroy speaks to and this deliberate ploy to keep the action concentrated on Conroy in the coffin heightens the alienation and isolation he feels, particularly after his employer fires him so as to disown all responsibility for his fate and to his family, as well as the tension. From time to time Conroy’s kidnappers, represented by a lone accented voice, contact him to demand he film a video of himself and transmit it to Youtube or to cut off his finger on a second video. This provides for one of a number of moments of black humour, in which Conroy is told by his would-be rescuers that his first video received 47,000 hits on Youtube which have no effect on the urgency of the rescue effort; other moments include his conversation with a woman who may be an ex-girlfriend. One conversation he has which may strike audiences as cruel, blackly funny or pathetic is with his mother who has dementia.

The limitations of this one-man / one-set movie quickly become obvious: Conroy, representing an average Joe in a political context he barely understands, can only be obsessed with rescue and the people he converses with quickly exhaust the scriptwriter’s options of reactions from non-responsive and helpless to tragically incompetent and ruthlessly uncaring. The kidnappers themselves are knowledgeable about Iraq’s recent politics and history but it’d be stretching credibility and audience attention levels for them and Conroy to start arguing politics. I guess too when a person is stuck in a coffin for two hours with a mobile phone and limited oxygen, the last thing s/he’d be thinking of is philosophical questions about life, death, the universe and “Why did the kidnappers kill the other truck drivers but bury ME alive instead?”

The temptation for the scriptwriter to throw in sub-plot diversions like visiting creepy-crawlies and a sand leak into the box becomes strong and so Conroy must contend with a snake and a nearby bomb explosion that causes the sand leak; certainly these increase the suspense but the introduction of the snake and the way it’s done (sneaking into Conroy’s trousers while he dozes off) have the feel of a cheap gimmick.

At least director Cortes has the good sense to cut the film at 95 minutes, giving a result that is lean and fairly credible. Even at this length, the concept is stretching thin and the director and scriptwriter have thrown every idea they can into it: Conroy gets filmed from nearly every angle possible, he has one hallucinatory episode of being rescued, he contemplates suicide, the camera does numerous close-ups and pans away at least twice to give the impression of Conroy in a tube-like box (increasing his sense and the audience’s sense of total isolation), and there is a “so close yet so far away” moment in the film. This is the kind of film you watch at least once, to see how a particular concept should be treated in a commercial film context and how directors and scriptwriters can milk the concept for all it’s worth. Beyond that, we’re probably getting into the realm of Samuel Beckett who in his play “Happy Days” did so much more with the idea of one-person-buried-alive but we’re not talking commercial films any more.

The Life of Oharu: unsentimental historical drama of one woman’s downfall

Kenzo Mizoguchi, “The Life of Oharu”, Shintoho (1952)

This is an excellent film about a depressing subject: I only wish colour film had been available to director Kenzo Mizoguchi when he made this film so that he could have used it as an element in portraying the downfall of main character Oharu. The story could have been any other fictional historical sappy soap opera about a woman who through a series of incidents and plain bad luck is condemned to a life of ruin. Mizoguchi instead gracefully invests the film with pointed social commentary about the way women, even women of nobility, were treated in mediaeval Japan, drawing attention in particular to their lack of autonomy over their lives and their bodies.

It starts with Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as a teenage daughter of a family on the brink of entering into the nobility, doing whatever young women of her class were supposed to do to make themselves attractive potential brides to the feudal lords; a page (Toshiro Mifune in an early role) of a lower social class is attracted to her and sneaks into her quarters but their affair is discovered by officials. The page is executed and Oharu and her family are banished into exile. Depressed, Oharu attempts suicide but, perhaps ironically given that she lives in a society that condoned self-murder in certain circumstances, this option is taken away from her. Instead she’s packed off as concubine to Lord Matsudaira to bear him and his infertile wife a son. Oharu does so but Lady Matsudaira, jealous of the lord’s attention to the young mother, dumps her back on her father with small compensation. In the meantime, Dad has racked up a sizeable debt in anticipation of great favours from the Matsudairas and Oharu is forced to work as a courtesan at a high-class brothel.

An incident in which a client is exposed as a fraud leads to her being thrown out and Oharu then goes to work for a couple. A series of incidents that revolve around the wife’s baldness and Oharu’s past leads to Oharu being dismissed from service. Then for once, Fate smiles on Oharu in the form of a fan-maker who agrees to marry her. Unfortunately Oharu’s husband is murdered by robbers while on a business trip. Needless to say, Oharu’s not entitled to any of the fan-maker’s estate so she attempts to join a nunnery. While training as a novice, Oharu’s past catches up with her again, resulting in her expulsion from the temple. All known options now exhausted, Oharu becomes a prostitute but not a successful one at that, descending lower and lower on the social scale of prostitutes as she ages and her beauty fades.

Next thing you know, salvation from a life of hardship and humiliation beckons but at a price: Lord Matsudaira has died and the new lord – Oharu’s son – offers sanctuary and an old age spent in comfort if she will agree to live under his restrictive conditions. Oharu is taken to his residence under heavy guard but, keen to see him, manages to evade all the soldiers and gets lost. As a result, sanctuary is withdrawn and Oharu becomes an itinerant beggar.

Mizoguchi presents Oharu’s life in a way that forces the audience to decide how much of Oharu’s ill luck is due to her fault or the fault of others who through foolishness, jealousy, lack of empathy or contempt close off her options and leave her with nowhere to go but down. There are occasions when Oharu is able to hit back hard at her oppressors, often to humorous effect, but while revenge can be sweet, her actions backfire on her and result in yet more degradation. Sometimes she’s very wilful and proud, and other times she is passive, too passive: the suggestion is that she defends herself when she shouldn’t and gives in when she should be assertive. You want to take her by the shoulders and shake her for some of the things she does and the scrapes she gets into: wouldn’t it be better, after all she has suffered, to take up her son’s offer, resign herself to his scolding and live in comfortable exile? Yet somehow I feel that by becoming a beggar, Oharu at last achieves something she never would have had if she had accepted the new lord’s sanctuary, remained a Buddhist nun or replaced Lady Matsudaira: the freedom to move around the country, to experience the changing face of nature, and to be her own person.

The elegant and understated way in which the film is made, with the use of long tracking shots that frame the individual at a distance from the camera, imbues it with a sense of the individual’s helplessness vis-a-vis an oppressive and unforgiving society that judges and punishes people harshly for even minor social blunders. Tanaka as Oharu moves gracefully as though in a Noh play, emphasising the character’s ability to cope with her misfortune and put up with the money-grubbing, status-obsessed people around her. We see the honest, natural beauty of her soul which contrasts strongly with the corrupted and rigid patriarchal society in which she has to live and suffer. It’s all the more gut-wrenching then to see how people, men and women alike, and secular and religious as well, use their social status, even when it is declining, to heap opprobrium and indignity on this woman. At the same time, one can’t help but think that her soul becomes more refined and unearthly the more the dirt is dished out on her; in her very early scenes with the page, Oharu treats him with disdain due to his lower social position so it’s obvious if her life had turned out differently, she would have been a coarser person.

It could have been a much better film with the use of colour but Mizoguchi was working on a small budget at the time he made the movie. I can imagine Mizoguchi using different shades of various colours to emphasise Oharu’s downfall so bright clean colours might have been used early on and paler or dirtier colours used later in the film. The settings and backgrounds could then have become more important as indicators of mood or to indicate a critical moment in the film. As the film’s pace is steady and unhurried throughout, some viewers are likely to find it slow and a bit boring, and the use of colour would have allowed those viewers to take in more of film’s backgrounds and take less notice of the pacing.

Anyone who thinks that life in Japan was better than it is now for most people should be directed to see this film – in its unassuming way, “The Life of Oharu” effectively demonstrates how very brutal and inhuman society was to women and other vulnerable people who through no fault of their own found themselves destitute and at the mercy of others.

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.