Persepolis: coming-of-age film could be more honest about life under police state regime

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” (2007)

Adapted from the graphic novel, originally published in two volumes, of the same name, this is a coming-of-age fictional autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, done in mostly black-and-white animation that mimicks the style of the novel. Satrapi, known in the film as simply Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), grows up during a momentous period in Iran’s recent history which encompasses the last days and the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah, the brief democracy that followed under Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and the first 12 years of Islamic theocratic rule during which time the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is Supreme Leader (1980 – 1989) and Iraq under President Saddam Hussein invades Iran and the two countries are bogged down in a war that lasts 8 years. Although “Persepolis” primarily surveys Marjane’s early life and how she came to be the person she is, currently living in self-exile in France where she works as a graphic designer, the film also conveys something of how individuals manage to live and cope, though not very well, under the chronic stress of ongoing war and a highly repressive and brutal police state where grassroots political activity is outlawed.

The animation aims to humanise Iranians for a Western audience and show how easily we all can fall under repressive political rule; it also moves the narrative swiftly and efficiently, diving into little pieces of early 20th century Iranian history to make a particular point about how Western powers meddled in Iranian politics or how various members of Marjane’s family got into trouble with the authorities before moving back to Marjane’s life. This establishes the family and social background that made Marjane’s upbringing distinctive and perhaps unusual for a girl of her social class in Iran. Early on, the animation has a light-hearted comic-strip quality and the scenes are bright and happy: Marjane’s parents, called Ebi and Maman (voiced by Simon Akbarian and Catherine Deneuve) rejoice at the hated Shah’s removal which means that Uncle Anoosh is released from jail after a long period. Little Marjane quickly becomes close to Uncle Anoosh who tells her stories of his early life as a Communist supporter and his self-exile in the Soviet Union to evade the Shah’s agents. Unfortunately the brief democracy is hijacked by Khomeini in a March 1979 referendum when voters are given the choice between the monarchy continuing and an Islamic government (no other alternatives being considered) and 99% of the people opt for an Islamic government. Khomeini and his followers impose a narrow and literal interpretation of an ideal Islamic society on Iran. Soon Uncle Anoosh is arrested again and later executed. Not long after, President Hussein of Iraq sees an opportunity to steal the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and invades the country, beginning the long protracted war that resulted in nearly a million Iranian casualties. The animation follows the events in mood, becoming darker with entire scenes filling up with black as images of death appear and the film assumes a strong, depressive expressionist flavour.

Marjane’s relations with Ebi and Maman are clear-cut: Ebi is supportive and easy-going while Maman is the strict disciplinarian feminist who tries to raise Marjane to be an independent-minded girl. As war drags on and a bomb lands in their neighbourhood, killing a Jewish family Marjane knows, Ebi and Maman, fearing for the girl’s safety, send her to a French school in Vienna in Austria. Marjane’s time in Vienna is eventful: she goes from one boarding-house to another, falls in with a group of punks at school and has crushes on two boys who fail or betray her in some way. Her last months in Vienna are spent as a homeless vagrant after she angrily leaves a boarding-house and she ends up in hospital. This gives her an opportunity to escape Austria and return to Iran in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, the rest of the film details how Marjane tries to cope with everyday life in Iran and the pettiness of the morality police which force her into an early and failed marriage. Eventually, Marjane and her family conclude that she can no longer stay in the country and Marjane leaves Iran for good.

Persepolis” is not too bad as a stand-alone work though there are major flaws: there are details in the movie that seem irrelevant to the coming-of-age story and the movie’s pace can be so rapid that its treatment of what must have been significant episodes in Marjane’s life comes across as superficial and sketchy. The movie works best as a companion piece or introduction to the graphic novel, of which about 70% is present in the film. What the film does best is create a particular mood or atmosphere that can resonate powerfully with the audience; the scenes of war, death and of Marjane’s abject homelessness in the later months of her stay in Vienna are illustrated with large blocs of black that encroach on individual figures that might be illuminated with small spots of light. Fantasy scenes, history and dreams scenes come to the fore in ways they can’t in the graphic novel: characters fly in skies that look three-dimensional among fixed glowing stars; and Uncle Anoosh, as a youth, climbs through mountainous country in scenes that deliberately look like two-dimensional stand-up cut-outs, giving the impression of some kind of puppet show where the puppets have a life of their own.

Many details eliminated from the film are ones that might upset the general public: the film doesn’t mention among other things that while at school in Vienna, Marjane becomes a small-time drug dealer and then works as a waitress in a cafe where she is subjected to sexual harassment. There are other aspects in the film that need an explanation beyond what both the film and the novel can provide: why the Iranian government promotes a cult of martyrdom and sends teenage boys to “clear” minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and why the regime continues as a police state long after the war has ended and Khomeini has died. Later scenes of “Persepolis” in which Marjane sinks into a rut of constant partying, fighting with her husband Reza (whom she married young, to escape the morality police’s attention) and generally living a life lacking in direction, all of which collide in a tragic death of a party-goer after a party gets sprung by the police, and force Marjane to sever her ties with Iran and go into self-exile, seem rushed because certain details have been edited out and thus lack focus. Some voice-over narration by Marjane could have explained to Western audiences why young Iranians at the time engaged in an apparently mindless and potentially destructive hedonistic life-style (because of the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, possibly tortured, by the morality police) as a form of political protest. The episode in which Marjane becomes badly depressed, attempts suicide and recovers from her illness by becoming a gym instructor is treated in a patchy way and her fine arts education also gets rough treatment. The result is a film that becomes blander and less interesting in its second half and falls into stereotypical chick-lit territory in which one generation of women, represented by Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), dispenses banal wisdom about being true to yourself and about marriage and divorce being part of normal life to the next generation.

“Persepolis” could have been a more forceful film; the animation lends itself readily to tackling topics like war, the waste of young lives, suicide and living in a police state in a no-nonsense way through one person’s point of view that a live-action film might not be able to do. The simple cartoon style enables the events portrayed to be scaled to both the personal level and a more political global level; the animation format has a flexibility that the live-action format lacks. Satrapi might not have been politically active or aware in her young adult days but could have tackled this aspect of her life with honesty; audiences would surely understand if the reason was that she found everyday life too stressful and intolerable due to the conditions created by the Islamic Republican regime.  This could have been the film’s most powerful message: while repressive governments may damage people physically through torture or exile, their worst effects are psychological through depression and mental illness, and social because they deform and corrupt important social and cultural institutions as evidenced in Marjane and Reza’s hasty short-lived marriage.

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

Shinobi – Heart under Blade: film could have been cut above other live-action films based on manga / anime

Ten Shimoyama, “Shinobi – Heart under Blade” (2005)

Based on a novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” written by Futaro Yamada in the late 1950’s, this movie will appeal mainly to fans of the manga and anime, both called “Basilisk”, that are also based on the novel. Watch the movie closely though and you’ll find themes that will set you thinking: the age-old opposition between free will and predestination; the determinism that states that what you are and what you do are the products of your background and social history and you can never break away or overcome your past; the question of how people bred, born and trained for war can cope with peace; what is the point of war anyway; and how misfits and outsiders can be accepted in normal society.

The film is set in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that brought 260 years of peace to Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa (Kazuo Kitamura) is wary of any threats to the country’s recent unification after 150 years of warfare (a period mined by Akira Kurosawa for insipiration for his films) and in particular is concerned about two clans, the Iga and Koga clans, based in two hidden mountain villages that have waged a vendetta against each other for centuries and are currently co-existing under an enforced 400-year peace. Tokugawa’s advisor cunningly sees a way of obliterating these two clans and wiping out any potential resistance to his master and suggests the clans demonstrate their prowess and powers at a ceremony by sending one representative warrior each. After this demonstration, Tokugawa announces that the enforced peace between the two clans is to be lifted and invites the clans to choose their five best ninja warriors to fight to the death. The one warrior to survive this all-in cat-fight will determine which of Tokugawa’s sons will succeed him as Shogun.

Unbeknownst to all, including their own people, it happens that Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kogas and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Igas fell in love some time ago and married secretly. As a result of Tokugawa’s invitation, both Gennosuke and Oboro find themselves nominated as members of their respective clans’ lists of the five best warriors and moreover, after the aged heads of the two clans foolishly whack each other into oblivion – illustrating that even in those days, when you were supposed to respect aged people for their wisdom, the reality was that being older didn’t necessarily mean being wiser – must lead their teams in this battle to end all battles. Gennosuke determines to find out from a senior noble Hattori Honzo (Yutaka Matsushige) what actual purpose this fight might serve as he suspects there is a hidden motive and he takes his warriors on a long trek on foot to Sumpu to meet this guy. He invites Oboro and her warriors to follow him and his team.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the Koga and Iga warriors taking one another out in ingenious and gruesome ways, their skills and superhuman powers on display though a number of characters don’t live long enough for the audience to fully appreciate the fighters’ abilities, until only Gennosuke and Oboro are left standing. In the meantime, the Shogun sends his armies to destroy the Koga and Iga villages. Realising their families and homes are doomed, Gennosuke and Oboro face a hard decision: one of them must sacrifice himself/herself and “lose” the battle of the clans.

The cinematography is gorgeous, emphasising nature and landscapes and in particular the passing of seasons, and this is the major highlight of the film, more so than the CGI-enhanced fighting scenes, some of which look surprisingly cheap. The overall idea with the emphasis on nature and its cycle is that all characters in this film are locked into an inescapable cosmic game which must be played out to its bitter end; the ninja warrior followers certainly feel this way and are either resigned to their fate or can’t see that they can be more than what they were bred, born and brought up to be.  They believe that without war, without a leader they can serve, their unique skills and abilities are as nothing and will wither and be forgotten. Only Gennosuke sees that there may be a place for the Igas and Kogas in a new world of peace; he questions the idea of being born for war and of wasting lives in violence, particularly in a scene where he defends himself from a horde of black-clad ninjas and slays them all, only to cry out in frustration at a situation where he is forced to kill for no good reason.

The colours of the film are worth mentioning: blue looks bluer, red looks redder and so on with all other colours, giving an intense look that is slightly unreal, even a bit cartoony, and demonstrating that, yes, we are in a world where real-life people like Ieyasu Tokugawa co-existed with people who are both human in their thoughts, feelings and shortcomings, and beyond human in their skills and abilities.

With the film’s emphasis on plot and pleasing the target audience (“Basilisk” manga / anime fans), acting and character development aren’t a great priority which is a pity; the characters of Oboro and Gennosuke at least could be more developed than they are so those viewers who don’t know the manga and anime film could sympathise with the lovers and feel their pain. The romance develops too quickly and next thing you know they’re married in a very brief ceremony (the groom hands his mother’s keepsake to the bride) and that’s it. From then on the action switches to the clans’ feud and how it will play out. The couple’s cardboard cut-out ninja companions are a mix of people who could be remote kin to the superheroes and supervillains of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes: Nenki Iga (Shun Ito) might be cousin to Wolverine of the X-Men team with his retractable iron claws and Kagero Koga (Tomoko Kurotani), the woman with poison for blood, has her analogy in Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy. Pity then that Nenki only has a couple of minutes to showcase his wares before Kagero finishes him off! The only ninja companions who get much to do and say are Koshirou (Mitsuki Koga) and Tenzen (Kippei Shiina): Tenzen especially voices his opinion that they, Kogas and Igas all, exist for war and have no place in a world of peace; significantly he chooses to die by kissing Kagero on the lips rather than rely on his symbiotic relationship with his pet internal tapeworm tenants which oblige him by cleaning and healing his wounds and injuries in super-quick time.

The plot is easy to follow and well-paced, progressing steadily to the surprise climax where the Shogun tells Oboro that her people and the Kogas are not normal people and can never be fully accepted into normal society because of their talents, and Oboro reacts by disabling herself of her unique power. This could be interpreted in different ways, not all of them happy: one interpretation could be that only by suppressing your uniqueness can you be accepted by others; another is that Oboro realises that to end their vendetta, the Igas and Kogas must join the rest of humanity and give up their warring ways by compromising their culture and talents. It’s a sad moment in a sense then when Oboro renounces her old life to spare her clan and Gennosuke’s clan from annihilation. The villagers may be saved and may be allowed to rejoin normal society and be able to resolve their differences with outside help and not have to resort to violence – but at what cost to their unique ways of life, their crafts and their arts?

The Romeo-and-Juliet plot may have been done to death many times already and there’s probably not much here that’s original and fresh but the film is a visually gorgeous and colourful feast for the eyes with lush forests and landscapes (a couple of waterfall scenes do look suspiciously unnatural, as though superimposed on a blank background behind a couple of actors) and the fight scenes and CGI effects are sometimes interesting if not always convincing. If the film had put more emphasis on developing interesting characters and elaborating on its themes, it could have been a cut above other live-action Japanese sword fantasy films based on manga and anime – ah, we’ll never know what could be.

No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.

Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas): thought-provoking ideas and issues trapped in a prison

Alex Proyas, “Dark City” (1998)

An attractive film that combines elements of film noir, mystery, science fiction and (regrettably) action thriller, “Dark City” is a quest into the role that memories play in shaping people’s identities and individualities with a darker message about how a person’s memories – and his or her identity as a result – can be changed and moulded by others pursuing a secret agenda. This sinister message can apply to whole communities and societies as well with the result that even a country might exist only on the basis of lies and myths concocted by an elite group and believed by the country’s entire population.

The film is upfront about the nature of its nameless Dark City in the opening voice-over narrative supplied by an important character, Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland): a group of aliens known as the Strangers, whose original world and civilisation are destroyed, and who themselves are on the verge of dying out, nab a whole bunch of people from Earth – how many isn’t said – and pop them into a floating prison space-ship reconstructed in the style of American cities as they might have appeared in mystery or crime thriller movies of the 1940’s. The purpose is to study the humans in order to find out what makes them “individual” and to use that knowledge to save the Strangers from extinction. Quite how the Strangers found out about human civilisation and how they conducted their research – they must have plundered film libraries throughout the world for information on how to build cities – isn’t explained but they end up producing a claustrophobic and grim brutalist metropolis with some Art Deco and German Expressionist flourishes that is a homage to Fritz Lang’s famous dystopian flick “Metropolis”. Into this world is “born” a man (Rufus Sewell) in a bath-tub full of water: he wakes up and realises he has no name, not many childhood memories and certainly no idea as to why the woman in the room outside the bathroom should be a bloodied mess with knife wounds all over and weird spirals painted in red on her naked body. He stumbles into some clothes, out of the hotel and into the streets, working out that he’s called John Murdoch and that he spent some time in an idyllic seaside place called Shell Beach. While he’s busy reconstructing who and what he’s supposed to be, others are hunting for him: the police, led by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), believe him to be the woman’s murderer; and the Strangers together with Dr Schreber want him so they can fix up their botched experiment in creating a serial killer.

Since the Strangers abhor sunlight and moisture, they keep their prison city in perpetual night and allow no rivers or other bodies of water near it. At “midnight” every day, they put all the human inhabitants to sleep and modify the city’s environment and the people in a process called “tuning”: new buildings sprout from the ground like vegies on Viagra and Schreber, allowed to stay awake, goes around injecting individual folks (using alarming-looking heavy-duty syringes) with new identities and memories that he’s cooked up in his laboratory deep underground where the Strangers live. For some lucky humans, upward social mobility is achieved in the space of 15 minutes or roughly the time it takes for a table to morph three times its length. Murdoch discovers that he too can stay awake during the tuning periods and moreover can tune buildings by mind power; he uses this ability to evade the police and the Strangers on several occasions while trying to make his way to Shell Beach. He discovers though that while people “know” the place, they can’t give him the directions. He locates a relative, Uncle Karl (John Bluthal) who happily tells him about his childhood but Murdoch discerns glaring holes in the reminiscences and exposes the stories and the uncle himself as deliberate artificial constructs.

Later surrendering himself to the police, Murdoch meets Bumstead who himself has been troubled about what’s happening in the city and he convinces the detective that there’s something not right about the place. They both track down Schreber and force him to take them to the farthest outskirts of the city in the direction of Shell Beach. The threesome come up against a brick wall (literally) and what they find behind the illusion of Shell Beach confirms Murdoch’s suspicions about the artificial world they live in …

The speedy and straightforward nature of the plot and the ease with which Murdoch deconstructs the nature of everything around him give the film and its concerns an air of superficiality which is unfortunate. Needed are a few lingering bird’s-eye point-of-view shots of the city sprinkled throughout the film to emphasise its alien atmosphere and artificiality and to let people savour its idiosyncratic appearance while thinking about the events they’ve just seen; such moments can also serve to heighten or reduce tension, depending on what point in the plot they appear. Though early shots of the cityscape look moody and glamorous enough, later the city starts to look generic and more prison-like and becomes less of a character than it should be as the film slips into action-thriller mode. The result is that the movie ends up looking like a budget version of “Metropolis” and there’s very little sense of the city as a multi-layered Gothic creature harbouring secrets and conspiracies in its alley-ways, tunnels, labyrinths and stairwells. If a film is going to use CGI processes to create a city, it should go the whole hog and beyond to create something that looks as if it took decades, even centuries, to develop and mature. Seems it’s not only the Strangers who need to learn that surface style is no substitute for substance.

Acting excellence and character development aren’t very important in a film like “Dark City” where everyone bar Schreber is supposed to be one-dimensional and if people show any signs of personality, the Strangers will subject them to a cerebral clean-out. Sewell and Hurt play their parts straight and acquit themselves well though Proyas could have included more close-ups of Sewell’s face; this actor has wide soulful eyes with a clear colour that could reflect the progress his character makes in reconstructing his identity. Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife Emma has little to do and her part could have been dispensed with entirely. Sutherland plays Schreber as a campy mad scientist: his role as collaborator who switches sides is admittedly a difficult one and perhaps his obsequious little creep is the only way to play a duplicitous character bouncing off Sewell’s straight-man role.

Where the film really slumps is in its last fifteen minutes where Murdoch faces off against the Strangers’ leader (Ian Richardson), again literally, and rocks and bodies get thrown around in a boring pyrotechnics display. A film with some aspirations to being cerebral and concerned with investigating artificiality-versus-reality could do much better and more, and include a scenario where the Strangers and humans agree that truth ultimately trumps lies and they should live together as equals: the strangers would then discover that it’s only by allowing humans the freedom to construct their own identities over time that individuality is achieved. In this way the Strangers discover the remedy to their past mistakes and save themselves from extinction. Instead we end up with a scenario where the dark city could end up living another lie, only this time a lie created by a human with the potential to rule as tyrant. Individuality and memory would be used to prop up the new lie and enforce a new kind of conformity.

It’s a real pity when a movie with its heart in the right place and an ingenious concept investigating memory, identity and the nature and role of artifice gets stuck at a level simply to please what commercial interests perceive to be the lowest common denominator in movie-going audiences and a potentially good, thought-provoking story ends up marooned within.

Or (My Treasure): film treads gingerly around prostitution issue

Keren Yedaya, “Or (My Treasure)” (2004)
 Source: www.allmovie.com
Debut feature from director Keren Yedaya, this Israeli film is a study of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship dominated by the mother’s career “choice”: street prostitution. For lack of a better word, I chose “choice” and put it in inverted commas as the movie is unclear as to whether the mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) made the choice to be a hooker or just drifted, or was forced, into prostitution under circumstances she had no control over. The film takes the point of view of Or (Dana Ivgy), Ruthie’s teenage daughter, and can be seen as a coming-of-age film of a despairing kind. We follow Or as she goes through her daily routine in her working-class neighbourhood, trying to juggle schoolwork with working at a restaurant at nights, collecting bottles for recycling and keeping her mother out of trouble. Mum has just left hospital and already Or has lined up a cleaning job to keep the woman occupied and bring in some money to pay the rent which is already in arrears. Over the course of the movie though, it’s apparent Ruthie has little appetite for cleaning work, however easy it looks, and soon drifts back into prostitution out of habit. This drives Or to desperation as the bills mount up and she breaks up with her boyfriend Ido and joins an escort agency.
The effects of prostitution on Ruthie and Or are devastating and dehumanising: Ruthie must have worked the streets for so long that she is incapable of interacting with men in ways that don’t involve trading sexual favours for something needed, like repairs to the apartment where she and Or live or getting more time from the landlord to pay the rent. She seems desensitised by both her work and its brutal and dangerous consequences: in one scene, she comes home from a tryst with blood streaming down her legs yet seems not to care enough to see a doctor. In a mental fug during her waking hours, Ruthie is a child who must be told what to do and Or is the mother who keeps dragging her back from the front door to stop her from walking the streets in her skimpy outfits that scream “hooker”. When Ruthie is at home, she either sleeps or watches TV listlessly and whines to her daughter when she is there. Or in her interactions with Ido (Meshar Cohen) and other boys is falling into the same trap as Ruthie did: she sleeps with Ido, causing friction between Ido’s mother and Ruthie, in order to be close to him and can’t say no to an old boyfriend on leave from the Israeli Army when he demands a kiss and a blow-job. As Ruthie continues her downward slide back into prostitution, she becomes increasingly robotic and casually brushes off Or’s pleas not to return to her old ways. Or herself shows signs of emotional withdrawal and desensitisation when she pushes Ido away, seduces the landlord and, after joining the escort agency, services an elderly client who demands anal sex of her.
I’ve seen Elkabetz in “The Band’s Visit” and “La Fille du RER”, and it’s hard to believe that the child-like zombie padding around the apartment in underwear or dressed pathetically in boob-tube and hot pants with gaudy make-up painted all over her face wandering the city streets at night is the same actor who plays the elegant lawyer (“La Fille …”) or the helpful shop-owner who aids the stranded Egyptian musicians (“The Band’s Visit”): proof if any is needed that Elkabetz is a versatile character actor whose own personality quirks, if she has any, disappear completely in the character she plays. Ivgy who appears in nearly every scene holds up her side of acting very well, particularly near the end where she is fighting to hold back tears as she watches her mother paint her face. Together these two actors anchor the entire film, no small challenge even for someone as experienced as Elkabetz, and so it’s all the more amazing for me to discover that this is Ivgy’s first film where she plays a main character forced into a harrowing situation.
There are three significant moments in the film where Or laughs, and laughs abundantly: when she is with Ruthie at home watching TV, enjoying each other’s company and free of all cares; when she is with Ido in his room before she gives herself to him freely; and when she describes to the girls at school her sexual encounter with the ageing landlord. These moments can be interpreted as transition points in Or’s transformation from innocent, sensitive girl to world-weary, cynical adult; in the first moment, the laughter is genuine and spontaneous, in the second moment a little less so, and in the third moment, the laughter seems forced and a bit cynical.
The people around Or seem sympathetic to her problems but no-one suggests she contact a social welfare officer or an Israeli government or private equivalent to seek help for herself and Ruthie. Ido’s mother, confronting Ruthie and Or in their home, doesn’t suggest Or and Ido should seek sex education counselling; she simply wants them apart. Perhaps the people in Or’s neighbourhood distrust the government for some reason or are unaware of what’s available to help people in need. Perhaps the Israeli government has cut back on funding social services in neighbourhoods such as where Ruthie and Or live. The hospital where Ruthie is simply dumps her outside its doors and offers no further support. Whatever the reason, Or is on her own struggling to save her mother from herself and the girl is neglecting her own needs and education. (Though it could be said that Or is her own worst enemy in a way as she rejects Ido’s offer of help and refuses to see the school careers advisor.) Society as portrayed in the film seems self-absorbed and atomistic: the opening scene in the film shows pedestrians and commuters going about their business in a busy city street, all of them appearing oblivious to one another’s existence or condition and absorbed in their own mental worlds. Apart from Ido who genuinely cares about Or’s well-being, the men in the film are either predatory, taking advantage of Ruthie or Or in some way, or just plain ineffective.
Certainly the film is critical of the effects of prostitution on prostitutes themselves and their families – Or and Ruthie are not condemned for their actions and Ruthie appears driven by forces and urges she can’t understand and control – but its teenage-based scope and minimal fly-on-the-wall fixed-frame exposition of the problem of women’s sexual exploitation in Israel and what that might suggest about the position of women generally in that country limit its effectiveness as a plea for social and political change and reform. The issue is too personalised and the focus is very much on whether Or can wrench herself away from Ruthie and get out of the prostitution rut before it consumes her spirit and youth as it did her mother’s. The ambiguous ending suggests she might still have a chance while she’s young but the choice that faces Or is too cruel: dump her mother and save herself, risking censure and self-guilt along the way for abandoning Ruthie, or sink into her mother’s abyss. The solution for Or has to be a win-win situation for herself and for Ruthie but the events of the film are set up in a way that prevents such an outcome.
It’s hard not to escape the feeling that as social criticism, “Or (My Treasure)” treads very gingerly around prostitution and how it traps women and girls. The film risks being seen as having a conservative and narrow agenda about what can be done (it’s up to the individual to save herself, society has no responsibility to help people like Ruthie and Or break their particular vicious cycle) or exploiting the issue for titillation purposes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bong Joonho, “Memories of Murder” (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takashi Miike, “One Missed Call” (2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” (2008)

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Source: www.artabase.net

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

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

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

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

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