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

Akihiko Shiota, “Dororo” (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dagur Kari, “Noi the Albino” (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Beloved: clever comedy horror movie with surprisingly deep ideas

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

 
Source: www.flash-bang-movie-reviews.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pusher: highly recommended viewing about small-time heroin dealer

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Pusher” (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: www.chinese-embassy.org.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Other Crimes: romantic comedy deals with love and change in a society caught between Communism and corporatism

Stefan Arsenijevic, “Love and other Crimes” (2008)

 Source:www.kinokultura.com

For a romantic comedy, this film sure looks bleak with a bleary run-down urban setting of endless grey residential towers in a large city and a cast that includes a suicidal teenager, her dad facing a terminal illness and a couple who’ve known each other for over 10 years yet acknowledge their love very briefly before immediately leaving each other forever. Where in the world would such a film get made? Perhaps it would be made only in Serbia which, in spite of ditching President Milosevic and handing him over to the International Court of Crimes and trying to round up other designated war criminals, still finds itself shunned by other Western and European nations. The large city is New Belgrade, part of Serbia’s capital Belgrade, though it may be hard to believe from seeing the film: the place as pictured has the air of a town fast depopulating, its better days behind it, and all you see are generic concrete tower blocks filled with tiny apartments where people down on their luck or dissatisfied with their lives and not knowing why or how they got that way spend their days staring blankly at TV soap operas, at themselves in the mirror or at the dismal weather through the windows.

Structurally the film reflects a society adrift: it flits from one character to another at first but over the course of a day from sunrise to midnight, the film connects all its characters into a network surrounding Anica (Anica Dobra) and Stanislav (Vuk Kostic). Anica makes a living tutoring in Russian and Stanislav is an enforcer for a protection racket headed by Milutin (Fedya Stojanovic) who uses a solarium as a front to collect money from small shop-owners. Anica is fed up with her life as tutor and Milutin’s mistress, and is preparing to leave Belgrade and Serbia. Milutin has just received bad news from his doctor that he hasn’t long to live; his solarium business has no customers; and his racket will be wiped out when a new shopping mall opens in the city close by. Already the kiosks and other businesses Stanislav and his fellow mobsters prey on have closed up. In the meantime, Milutin’s daughter Ivana (Hanna Schwamborn) goes up to the top of the apartment bloc each day to contemplate taking her last step off the edge. Stanislav, living with his dotty mum (Milena Dravic) who performs the same tired singing routine in a restaurant frequented by equally tired middle-aged customers each evening, has been invited by a friend to work as a magician in Switzerland but isn’t sure he wants to go.

The sense that life is passing by the city and its residents whose knowledge, talents and experience might not be valuable in a new cut-throat capitalist world thrust upon Serbia, is strong. The old world that’s gone had its faults: rival gangs led by Milutin and Radovan (Josef Tatic) bicker over which parts of the city they control, leading to arson and murder; there’s little communication between parents and children which perhaps explains why Ivana feels suicidal and relations between Stanislav and his mother seem strained; and technology, though usually human-scaled, is unreliable or defiant – the sunbeds in Milutin’s solarium work intermittently, someone’s TV is always malfunctioning or has fuzzy pictures, and the airport metal scanner gets stuck after Anica passes through it. Few people are unhappy that the old world of Communist economic mismanagement, buck-passing, under-the-table transactions and political corruption is fading away. But no-one’s looking forward to the new world with its new impersonal and coldly efficient machines and values based on the profit motive and consumerism controlled by corporations.

In such a bleak world, caught in a shadow zone between Communism and corporatism, it’s no wonder that the actors spend most of their time walking around or doing very minimal activity, with only Dobra’s face doing much acting at all, mostly in the gloomy zone of facial expressions. Only false values survive in such a place and love, based on honesty and true sharing of feelings and emotions, is unable to exist here in spite of scenes of slapstick humour and some hilarious dialogue that soften the overall gloom. The film instead offers a merry-go-round of affairs that involve Anica, Milutin and at least one other woman whom Milutin is unable to face so Stanislav must act as a go-between; needless to say, Ivana’s long-deceased mother was not one of the women Milutin “loved”.

The cinematography compensates for the glum looks, blank faces and constant walking around with almost lyrical background shots of the grey buildings, the grey staircases and streets, and the pale pastel colours of the sky and grass. Some scenes are very artfully set up, such as a long take in which Dobra and Kostic takes turns stopping and then passing each other along a street with the camera panning from right to left, to illustrate the hesitant nature of their close friendship.

No easy solutions are offered in the film: Anica leaves Serbia for a new and uncertain life abroad while the other characters, unable or unwilling to make drastic changes or adjust to change around them, must suffer major consequences for not acting. Themes of love and the difficulty of change in a poor city whose inhabitants are unwilling or frightened of change, combined with inter-linked stories spiked with humour and warmth in a tight screenplay, and urban images that can be very poetic and lovely, make “Love and Other Crimes” a worthwhile film to watch.

Metropolis (directed by Fritz Lang): trite plot and mawkish ending let down an impressive and stylish film

Fritz Lang, “Metropolis” (1927)

Picture source: www.tobatheinfilmicwaters.com

The version of “Metropolis” I saw recently is the restored and digitally remastered one done under the supervision of the Murnau Foundation in Germany with the addition of the original orchestral soundtrack composed by Gottfried Huppertz in 1927. This version was released on DVD in 2003 and is quite a long film at nearly 2 hours. Even then, there are still scenes missing from the restoration, scenes that were thought to be lost forever until a copy of the movie with nearly all the lost scenes turned up in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2008 and in turn was complemented by uncensored scenes found on a copy of the movie in the National Film Archive of New Zealand by an Australian researcher in 2005.

The plot may be a familiar one for those raised on H G Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell’s science fiction novels by high school teachers: Metropolis is a mighty futuristic city designed and built by the scientist-ruler Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and its population is divided into an idle rich who enjoy the city’s bounty, and a majority oppressed poor who work at the machines that power the city and supply its wealth in shifts around the clock. The rich and the poor are kept strictly segregated, at least until Joh Fredersen’s son Freder (Gustav Frohlich) sees a beautiful young woman Maria (Brigitte Helm) barging into a pleasure garden with a bunch of dirty workers’ children. She and the littlies are hustled out by security guards but Freder is smitten and tries to follow her; he ends up stumbling into one of the colossal machine caverns and witnesses an accident that kills several people. Distressed, Freder reports the accident to his father and is horrified at Fredersen’s dismissal of a bureaucrat, Josaphat (Theodor Loos), for the accident. From this moment on, Freder determines to find Maria, help Josaphat get his job back and understand the work that the poor do and the conditions they work under, in order to relieve the workers’ oppression and poverty.

Fredersen sniffs something afoot with his son so he orders his spy, known as the Thin Man, to trail him and Josaphat. He also consults another scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) who has been working on a pet vanity project, the Machine Man, based on Fredersen’s dead wife Hel whom Rotwang also loved. Fredersen and Rotwang visit the catacombs beneath Metropolis and discover Maria addressing a mass rally of workers about a mediator who will come and reconcile the workers and their rulers. Fredersen fears a workers revolt so he instructs Rotwang to use the Machine Man to disrupt Maria’s rallies. Rotwang agrees to do so: he kidnaps Maria and uses his technology to give Maria’s likeness to the robot, then sends the robot into the streets to create havoc in Metropolis while holding Maria hostage. It soon turns out Rotwang has hated Fredersen for a long time and wants to destroy him and his life’s work: Metropolis.

From now on, the film drops into an action thriller in which Freder performs amazing non-stop feats of athleticism: helping Maria, freed by Fredersen, to rescue the workers’ children from floods that engulf the city as a result of the workers’ sabotage of the machines; fighting off the workers who want to lynch Maria when they discover they have been tricked by the robot lookalike into destroying the machines; and rescuing Maria from a crazed Rotwang who kidnaps her again. The plot turns and twists a lot and goes into some by-ways which, though interesting in themselves, add little to the story and drag out Freder’s quest.

The sets created for the movie are austerely beautiful, streamlined and impressive with a style influenced by the Art Deco and Modernist architectural styles popular at the time. The cityscape backgrounds with buildings that look like cousins of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York City all bunched together and streams of cars and trains encased in tubes zooming from one structure to the next are still referred to by current science fiction movies like Alex Proyas’s 1998 film “Dark City” for influence. The design of the Machine Man does not look too dated – well,  a few bolts taken off here and there and the robot would be pretty up-to-date – and when the thing moves, it still sends chills up and down the spine.

Some sequences are worth mentioning: Freder’s “Moloch!” impression of the machine in meltdown, swallowing up workers, and the machine itself transforming into a demonic devourer of human sacrifices; Rotwang’s complicated transformation of the Machine Man into the false Maria with circular rays moving up and down its body while lightning flows between it and the real Maria, bolted down in a giant test-tube contraption; the tale of Babel as interpreted by Maria with shots, looking towards the style of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda documentaries for Nazi Germany, of the Babel tower and the hundreds of slaves required to build it; the robot Maria in the Yoshiwara entertainment district, dancing frenziedly and seductively before the slavering, lustful male elite who are shown as all eyes; and a frightening dream sequence in “Intermezzo” in which statues of the Grim Reaper and skeletons swathed in toga-like garments come alive and play instruments. In these scenes, the special effects can be something to behold and the montage of images leave a very strong impression of suffering and oppression in the Babel tower scenes, and of the sensual banality of the lives of the rich elite in the false Maria’s dancing scenes.

For all the film’s stylistic achievements, the plot itself is treated superficially with a trite conclusion: the workers’ conditions are so harsh and their revolt is so intense and Fredersen himself is so steeled against the workers’ interests that when he and the workers’ leader Grot (Heinrich George) meet as equals, the resolution of their meeting is a mawkish cop-out. You know any reconciliation between the rich and the poor, even though engineered by Maria and Freder, is likely to be short-lived and once Metropolis is up and running again, the old problems of rich-versus-poor will be too great for Freder, Josaphat and Maria to mitigate and resolve. For one thing, the poor are depicted in the movie as ignorant, easily led by populist leaders, propaganda and religious mumbo-jumbo, and prone to violence; and the rich are equally dumb and obsessed only with immediate sensual gratification. How two social classes concerned only with immediate security and unfamiliar with political, social and economic co-operation can be persuaded to give up some or most of their own interests in order to live and work peacefully together in a new social and economic system where all are equals is a project requiring much education, negotiation, compromise and in particular open democracy, a condition no-one seems to know about in Metropolis.

Incidentally “Metropolis” script-writer Thea von Harbou, married to Lang at the time, mustn’t have known or understood much about democracy herself – to be fair, few people in Germany in the 1920’s did, seeing the Weimar Republic and democracy as something imposed by foreign enemies after the country’s defeat in the Great War of 1914-1918 – as years later, divorced from Lang, she wrote the script for the movie “Der Herrscher” (1937) which advocates absolute and unquestioning submission to the Nazi German state and to the Fuhrer in particular.

The musical soundtrack also lets the film down: one surely would have thought that a futuristic film would require a futuristic-sounding music score using the latest advances in music technology and composition at the time. The theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument, had been invented in the Soviet Union in 1920 and had been toured throughout Europe for several years already so it’s a puzzle as to why Lang elected to go with a conventional orchestral music soundtrack using traditional forms of composition.

The acting can be very over-the-top – witness Maria recoiling from and trying to escape Rotwang in the catacombs, she appears to be having one spasm after another – but acting histrionics are pretty much par for the course in silent films: how else can actors get across extreme emotion if audiences can’t hear them scream or sob?

There is a running motif of religion in “Metropolis”: Maria is a forerunner of Metropolis’s supposed saviour; and she and the robot doppelganger might be seen as a Christ / Anti-Christ pair as well as the traditional Madonna / whore couple beloved of traditional forms of Christianity. Monks and images of death appear in Freder’s dream in the “Intermezzo” sequence. Apparently Lang wanted to include even more religious imagery and allusions to religion in “Metropolis” but von Harbou balked at including any more religion in the film. I’d have to agree as the film at 120 minutes is already very long and has more than its fair share of cultural references and plot sidelines.

Still with a number of powerful sequences such as those mentioned earlier, the incredible images of the city and the Machine Man, and the theme of how different social classes and their interests and concerns might be reconciled, the film deserves its iconic status as trend-setter for future science fiction dystopian visions to follow: one such film incidentally is a remake to be produced by German producer Thomas Schuehly.

Citizen Kane: interesting film but it privileges style over substance

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Notwithstanding its tag as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film – usually bestowed by American film critics, of course! – “Citizen Kane” is actually an interesting film that challenges its audiences to think about how one man may easily become corrupted into arrogance, greed and self-importance to the extent that he makes errors of judgement and crashes into humiliation and ruin spectacularly. I daresay that while the film is about just one individual, its tale of the American Dream of rising from obscurity with perhaps an innocent or idealistic goal to success, fame and influence, only to fall into ignominy and oblivion with a loss of the original ideal or ideals, could apply to organisations and even entire countries as it does to people generally. However as a study of a man’s life and character, while it does a great job demonstrating the anti-hero’s faults and errors, “Citizen Kane” actually has little to say about how the man came to be so cynical about and nasty towards his fellow human beings.

The film’s narrative structure is very unusual for a Hollywood product of its time. It begins with a series of ghostly Gothic images appropriate to a horror movie – a bit of black humour on director Welles’s part perhaps – featuring a huge building and its surrounds, with the camera focussing closer and closer with each succeeding shot on a light behind a window. The window eventually takes up most of the screen, there’s a black-out, suggestive of a terrible event within, the light comes back on and suddenly the camera thrusts the viewer behind the window, inside the room. A close-up shot of a man’s lips whispering “Rosebud” appears, then the camera zips to a hand releasing a snow globe that shatters on the floor and there’s a mirror image of a nurse coming into the man’s room; the nurse moves to lay a sheet over the dead man. This artfully sequenced series of montages alerts us that the story to come will be in flashbacks or reminiscences and may not be conventionally laid out. Sure enough an obituary of media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is presented by a news service “News on the March”, detailing Kane’s achievements and failures in full in a style typical of filmed news articles of the time (early 20th century) and even going so far as to feature blurry film footage of Kane in his wheelchair dotage. After the obituary ends, a group of journalists discusses Kane’s late word “Rosebud” and one reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) determines to locate and interview significant people in Kane’s life including Kane’s second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and best friend cum Kane’s conscience Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) about their opinions of and experiences with Kane and what they think “Rosebud” means.

Through the interviewees’ recollections and Thompson’s research at the private library of Kane’s guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), we learn that Kane came into a considerable inheritance when very young. At the age of 25, he enters the newspaper business by buying The New York Inquirer, hires the best reporters he can find and uses the paper to create and spread sensationalist news, and mould public opinion. The paper also criticises political and economic elites and their exploitation of the public with sharp business practices. A first marriage links him to influential people in politics and Kane prepares for a political career by campaigning for State governor. Both his campaign and marriage derail when his opponent discovers and publicises a secret love affair with singer Susan Alexander. Kane marries the singer after a quick divorce but from this moment on, he makes one blunder after another: he attempts to mould Susan into an opera singer but bad reviews and her suicide attempt kill off that ambition; he builds his extravagant home Xanadu complete with private zoo but fortunately for good taste the Great Depression hits the United States in 1929 and ruins Kane’s media empire utterly. Trustees take over what’s left of his fortune. Susan leaves him and Kane withdraws completely into seclusion.

The film’s not too clear on how and at what moment Kane becomes so consumed with his own success, power and influence that they sap any idealism he might have had and lead to gross errors of judgement. It’s plain though that Kane’s moral compass from young adulthood on is quite shaky and he eagerly exploits the yearnings of ordinary people to give them what he thinks they want – populist crusading on their behalf, based on a set of socialistic principles which Kane later repudiates – and to grow rich from fulfilling what other newspapers consider tacky and base desires. How Kane managed to avoid a solid grounding in ethics at home, school and college is not explained in the film and this might be considered its major failing. Although Kane’s character is based partly on the character and personality of William Randolph Hearst, the major US media magnate of Welles’s day, it’s not difficult for us seventy years later to imagine parallels between Kane and the current global media magnate Rupert Murdoch and many of his media industry peers around the world. However as the film relies on unreliable and often biased points of view, the picture of Kane that emerges is vague and fragmented and viewers may be forgiven for thinking, well how did such a man get to be so rich, so famous and so powerful if he made so many mistakes and did such stupid things? Thompson’s choice of interviewees itself is strange: second wife, a former best friend, a loyal business manager, a butler – these are people a trashy sensationalist biography might rely on. What about Kane’s business and political rivals and allies, why aren’t they interviewed? Is it because they might not offer juicy titbits worthy of celebrity gossip magazines? Hmm, that in itself isn’t a good reflection on Welles’s opinion of what movie-goers want to see!

Technically the film is excellent with every shot and series of shots set up, framed and presented carefully for maximum impact and to influence viewers’ impressions of Kane and the monster he became. A series of montages of Kane and his first wife sitting at breakfast demonstrates perfectly how their marriage deteriorates over the years: at the beginning of the montage, the two are sitting close together; each succeeding shot shows them ageing and talking at each other rather than to each other; eventually one shot shows them reading rival newspapers; and the end shot shows them at opposite ends of a long table. The placement of certain background props creates optical illusions – in some scenes, characters walk towards the background and end up being dwarfed by the backdrops (often paintings rather than actual built backgrounds) which may show how much their reputations have diminished – or establishes a mood or characters’ relationships to one another – when Susan walks out on Kane, she does so through a series of doors which shows beyond doubt that their marriage is finished and done with. Physical settings and clever framing of the actors and the action – in many shots, three actors are placed in such a way that their heads form points of a triangle and the lighting in the scene will focus on one actor and make that person the centre of attention – often indicate more than action and dialogue alone and together can do what is happening in the plot, how the actors’ characters relate to one another and even give a hint of what is to happen next.

The sequencing of the shots that move the plot back and forth in time can be very smooth and clever: in the segment of the film in which Jedediah Leland is being interviewed, the change in time is signalled by the background changing behind Leland while he is speaking and then Leland himself gradually darkens and disappears into the scene being remembered; when the film comes back to Leland in the present day, the foreground of a previous scene in which Kane is typing Leland’s last review becomes the background to Leland and the interviewer. The background darkens and Leland’s nurses later emerge from it.

The final shots of the film are amazing to behold, showing off the hundreds of art objects, furniture pieces, office equipment, toys and other bric-a-brac Kane accumulated in his life. These inanimate items perhaps reveal more about Kane and his desire to control and possess everything, everyone and every situation around him than all the interviewees have been able to say. We finally learn that the one thing Kane could not control was that moment in his childhood when his destiny changed – when he learned of his inheritance while he was mucking about on his sled – and his carefree and happy days were over: this is the apparently profound yet also very ordinary and hardly earth-shattering(?) secret behind “Rosebud”. The very last shot of the film of Xanadu behind the gate with its “No Trespassing” sign, the mansion’s chimney smoking furiously, the fires within its furnace erasing all memory of Kane, is more sinister than sad; Welles couldn’t have known while making the movie that Nazi Germany was about to move Jews, Roma and other groups of people to concentration and death camp complexes hidden deep in remote country areas in Poland.

Welles introduced a number of technical innovations in “Citizen Kane” including the use of unusual camera angles, strong contrasts of light and shadow, and deep focus shots (in which backgrounds are contrasted with foregrounds) and on these innovations the film’s reputation as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film lies. Much credit must go to the cinematographer Gregg Toland as to Welles himself. The acting varies from efficient to hammy and some individual performances (Cotten as Leland, Everett Sloane as the business manager) are better than others. The film’s narrative conceals or misses more than it shows and makes demands on the audience to fill in the missing gaps. We end up knowing that Kane most definitely is an arsehole but how he came to be such a miserable bastard and how the “Rosebud” sled ties into such a development, the film never comes close to even hinting at. Hate to say it but even with Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”, style wins over substance. Kane himself might well be smiling (and Leland grimacing) at the irony.

Still there’s a valuable lesson in “Citizen Kane” in that it demonstrates how early success can be the ruin of people if they’re not sufficiently grounded in a moral code and are easily swayed by flattery and immediate though short-term fame and fortune about how important and influential they are.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: disturbing film about vengeance and how it distorts humanity in a warped society

Park Chanwook, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005)

“… Lady Vengeance” is the third of South Korean director Park Chanwook’s revenge-themed movie trilogy that began with “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and continued with “Oldboy”. Both the second and third films in the trilogy are in line for remakes by Hollywood (because as we all know, American and Australian audiences hate reading sub-titles and don’t understand movies where everyone looks foreign), demonstrating that across the world, revenge is a popular theme for drama. As you’d expect, “… Lady Vengeance” or just “Lady Vengeance” as it’s sometimes called follows the standard revenge-story format: the protagonist has been wronged in the past, spends some time in a state of suffering and on release from that suffering plots and carries out the revenge against the villain. Usually for some reason the law is of no help to the protagonist so s/he must operate semi-legally or illegally and consequently exerts considerate effort to achieve the goal. Once the revenge is complete, the drama ends but often at this point the real curve-ball is thrown at the audience: does the hero get any real satisfaction out of carrying out the revenge?

Consider the case of Lee Geumja (Lee Yeongae) who has spent the past 13 years in jail for the kidnap and murder of a small child called Wonmo.. Flashbacks in “Lady Vengeance” show Lee was blackmailed by the real murderer Mr Baek (Choi Minsik, who played the avenger in “Oldboy”) who threatened to kill her baby daughter if she didn’t admit guilt. Lee is arrested, charged and given a long sentence in a women’s jail. During the 13 years, Lee becomes a kind-hearted ministering angel to her fellow prisoners, performing many good deeds which include killing the prison bully with poison. After her release, Lee plans and carries out her revenge against Baek by calling in all the favours she’s done for various ex-convicts. She also tracks down and is reunited with her daughter who has been adopted and named Jenny by an Australian couple in the meantime.

Once she’s found Baek and taken him to an abandoned rural school-house, Lee discovers she hasn’t the heart to kill him outright. On discovering his mobile phone is festooned with various small trinkets, she realises he’s a serial child murderer who has lured children to him using their toys. With help from Baek’s estranged wife, she sets about tracking down the identities of the dead children, locates their relatives and brings them to the school where she informs them of Baek’s crimes and lets them decide what justice Baek deserves. They decide as a collective what to do and carry out the gory deed. With Baek out of the way, Lee and the relatives take a group photograph that implicates all of them in their crime and they all swear not to report one another to the authorities. They go to the cake-shop where Lee has been working since leaving prison and hold a birthday celebration ritual that allows them all to remember and let go of the deceased children and move on (?) with their lives.

Sorry I had to tell the story but the point of “Lady Vengeance” isn’t whether Lee succeeds or not in her vengeance – the film’s English title implies she does succeed – but in whether the relentless planning and pursuit of Baek makes Lee a better or worse person than he is and forces the audience to decide if she deserves compassion and sympathy for what she does. The film makes plain that Baek is a menace to society but the fact that he’s been able to commit heinous crimes around the country without arousing suspicion suggests that the law, and society in some way, lacks power or the ethics to deal with his kind of criminal. Perhaps Geumja is indeed justified in resorting to extreme measures to stop and punish him. At the same time the emotional and physical toll of her revenge is just as extreme; after Baek is gone, Geumja seems to become a mere shell, perhaps no longer able to relate to her daughter (who eventually returns to Australia with her adoptive parents), and this psychological emptiness is the true horror of what Baek has done to the woman.

The film is presented in a visually gorgeous and artistic way that creates a clinical distance between the characters and the audience. Nearly every scene is a tableau where action and dialogue happen to be staged. Scenes are filmed at unusual or awkward angles so as to become abstract: stairways appear as geometrical formations, a bathroom becomes an architectural fantasy and snow country is a backdrop for a painting of dog-paw patterns or curves created by sleds. The whole film has an unreal, staged quality where beauty exists everywhere, masking or denying life with all its horrors and untidiness, and even street scenes look artfully designed. The apartment Lee lives in, decorated in lurid black-and-red tiger-stripe wallpaper, seems devoid of passion even when passion occurs within its walls. You’re looking at a society of fragmented art-gallery scene puzzles whose citizens have to find the joins to make sense of the world they live in and of themselves as permanent residents.

Geumja herself, from the time she leaves prison to just after the cake-shop celebration ritual, wears highly stylised, minimal war-paint that masks and maybe eventually denies an inner emotional repression or turmoil; on taking the make-up off, she becomes drained of all colour and is as bland as the tofu cake, representing goodness and purity, that she ends up bashing her face in and trying to suck up, to ingest the goodness that perhaps she realises she lacks. One assumes that when Jenny returns to Australia, Geumja will find a new place and wardrobe that will be as washed-out as the tofu cake. There could be hope in that cake; possibly Geumja is ready to be truly good as opposed to pretending to be good and doing good while in the slammer.  There may be redemption or there may be a bland, slightly saccharine-sweet tofu-cake sort of life, empty of true passion and feeling, in a society that abandoned her and those lost children in the first place. A scene in the bathroom near the end, in which Geumja has a vision of a grown-up Wonmo (Yu Jitae who appeared in “Oldboy”) stuffing a cork into her mouth, suggests there is no redemption, at least not of the inner psychological sort, and her future life will be emotionally sterile.

Lee Yeongae’s acting as Geumja is very controlled and restrained right up to the last few scenes where her beautiful luminous face breaks into something that’s half-sorrow and half-happiness – it’s hard to tell and the ambiguity is deliberate – and it’s only really in the last scene with the tofu cake that Lee really lets rip with emotion for what she has lost and what perhaps lies ahead. Choi Minsik offers excellent support as the boorish, animalistic Baek who reveals little emotion and remorse right up to his last moments of torture and suffering and eventual death.

There is a feminist aspect to “Lady Vengeance”: most female characters in the film are clearly on Geumja’s side and offer help and advice on how to go about capturing Baek. The male characters who support her are passive and follow her instructions: for example, the police detective who arrested her over a decade ago is reduced to a tea-lady role at the school where Lee informs the relatives of the dead children of what happened to them. Of the characters who support Baek, all of them are male, among them the Christian who tries to persuade Geumja not to give up the good-girl attitudes and behaviours she acquired during imprisonment. This implies that institutions in Korean society that are supposed to be morally and spiritually uplifting and protective of vulnerable people are in fact supporting corruption and evil.

This can be a disturbing film that calls into question the nature of vengeance and what it can do to people who have no choice but to carry it out under conditions that drain and distort their normal human development and relations with others in a warped society that denies its most vulnerable members (like young children and naive women) proper justice.

Citizen Dog: comedy with one-dimensional heroes and disappointing plot

Wisit Sasanatieng, “Citizen Dog” (2004)

File:Citizendoghouse.jpg Source: Wikipedia, www.en.wikipedia.org

Living in Australia with its huge Hollywood fixation, even though Hollywood’s output of films has declined a lot since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, means we don’t get to see very many movies from countries in other parts of the world. That’s a pity as some places like Thailand now have a significant movie industry and are exporting some very well-made films with excellent technical production standards. This particular movie with the eccentric name “Citizen Dog” is a quirky fantasy romantic comedy that combines two characters’ quests – one for love, one for meaning to life – with a message that searching for something may not get you anywhere or yield the result you need but if you wait, what you want will come to you eventually. In other words, trust in life and it will give you what you desire. I suppose this is what some people call a Buddhist approach to life, though my impression of Buddhism is that it calls on people not to have a materialistic attitude to life or be attached to “things” (which may include desires), but there’s something about the film’s message that makes me uncomfortable: it just seems so conservative and limiting and turns its hero into a passive being. The film seems unsatisfactory; it’s likeable and has some very amusing characters and situations that make for a very surreal world but the whole edifice, carefully constructed, depends largely on a barebones and disappointing romance plot and the main characters of Pod (Mahasmut Bunyaruk) and Jin (Saengthong Gate-uthong) remain distant, one-dimensional and unremarkable.

Pod is a typical young man who leaves his family’s rice farm to seek work in the huge Bangkok metropolis. He gets a job in a sardine-canning factory where as a result of losing and then regaining his finger, he meets a similar young migrant fellow Yod (Sawatong Palakawong na Autthaya) . Together they leave the factory to find other work and Pod finds himself in a security guard’s uniform escorting people up and down in elevators in a city building. He meets and falls in love with Jin, a company cleaner who is obsessed with reading a book that has fallen out of the sky and which she believes holds the key to success and a meaningful life. From then on, Pod alternately pursues Jin or waits for her to come to him while Jin herself tirelessly – and not too intelligently – chases after a messiah figure or a cause connected directly or indirectly to the book that she believes will lead her to something better in life.

The film is a light-hearted and entertaining cartoon-like comedy with some interesting by-ways and eccentric characters who include a spoilt rich kid (Pattareeya Sanittwate) of indeterminate age with a talking teddy-bear, a salesman with a compulsion to lick everything in sight and a grandmother whose soul is continuously recycled through some very unusual life-forms. The eccentricity can get a bit twee and artificial, even for a fantasy like “Citizen Dog”. Jin’s obsession leads to her taking up protesting against pollution as a cause and this has very comic results: the interiors of her house become a jungle in contrast to its prim-and-proper picket-fenced exterior and the Bangkok city skyline ends up dominated by a huge white mountain of plastic bottles she collects. It’s on this mountain, reaching as high as the moon in the sky, that Jin eventually discovers her life’s mission.

To me, “Citizen Dog” makes fun out of the aspirations of ordinary working-class people, toiling as taxi-drivers, cleaners and factory workers, for a better, more meaningful life that makes them feel special and unique. Admittedly this meaningful life may be no more than being richer or more famous than others, and at first this seems to be what Jin desires but as her desire transmutes into something else and she ends up blundering into doing things that can be monstrous as well as comic, I sense a cruelty to the otherwise gentle comedy. Are we laughing with Jin or at Jin? Ultimately the meaning of life and Jin’s true mission coalesce into helping Granny reincarnate for the umpteenth time and running a plastics factory into the ground.

The structuring of the film into chapters and the use of an unseen narrator (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) aims for a sweetness reminiscent of some French art-house films and creates a distinctive world at once familiar yet unfamiliar but I found this style of narrative quite alienating and fussy after a while. It does though keep the film moving at a good pace and helps pack in a sub-plot and various minor characters to flesh out the universe within the film. I guess one use too, of such chapters to introduce various minor characters who are incidental to the plot is to demonstrate how searching and running after love can end up a pathetic quest, especially in the case of Yod who yearns after a self-obsessed Chinese restaurant worker. The main characters don’t have enough substance to them to carry the entire film; the actors playing them are good-looking and play their parts well enough so that their quirks, though maddening and overdone, do have the feel of plausibility in the mad world they inhabit.

The urban Bangkok environment plays a major role in the film and I would have liked to see Sasanatieng give it even more prominence as a major “character”: the city itself is a place where anything and everything can happen but it tends to be something of a backdrop rather than a semi-active player itself. Indeed, I feel Bangkok as presented here is a generic big city that could be found anywhere in an economically wealthy and dynamic Asian country. The music soundtrack does have some highlights – a bit of Thai-language hiphop here, some laid-back middle-of-the-road rock or country music there (yes, I believe Thailand does boast its own country rock music scene, it’s called luk thung)- but it’s not very distinctive and doesn’t reflect on some aspect of the plot or the characters’ development (not that there is any; the plot requires Pod to be a passive character and so he remains the same wide-eyed thunderstruck innocent throughout the film) as it probably should.

The film might have worked better if Pod had been the obsessive-compulsive cleaner with the neatness streak and love of causes striving for Jin’s attention and Jin a corporate lawyer at the firm that employs Pod. The plot would then have allowed Pod to undergo all the ups and downs of unrequited love and to create the mountain of plastic bottles only to discover that Jin is weary of being a corporate slave and that she longs for a simpler life and loves Pod for all his bungles and blunders. Or at least something that enables Pod to grow and mature in a way that still maintains his essential goodness and naive outlook on life. Jin can still be a bit nutsoid and pursue her book obsession. At the same time the urban Bangkok environment with its particular sights and sounds can be both a positive and a negative influence on Pod’s development.

“Citizen Dog” happens to be Sasanatieng’s second film as a director so perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on him. He has created a visually gorgeous film which in its own way lambasts the corporate world and I hope in future films he can build up a distinctive Planet Bangkok reality where magic realism is more realistic than reality itself.