M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

Vampyr: vampire horror film explores issues of human existence

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Vampyr” (1932)

Made originally as a silent movie with a voice and musical soundtrack added later, this film boasts very creative if contrary ideas and perceptions about film-making as an art-form in its own right as opposed to telling moving stories, and about the story-telling process itself. Loosely based on a collection of short stories by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, “Vampyr” follows a young man David Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg under the alias of Julian West, who helped finance the film) who does research on Satanism and folk superstitions. His research takes him to a French town called Courtempierre where, while staying at an inn, he is visited by an elderly stranger (Maurice Schutz) who appeals for help and leaves a book package for him. Gray follows the stranger to a mansion where the old man is the owner and father of two sisters living there. The man dies from gunshot wounds just as Gray arrives. He is introduced to the two young sisters, of whom one is bedridden with a wasting disease. Viewers quickly see that the girl, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), has suffered bites to the neck and Gray and a servant (Albert Bras) learn from the father’s book brought by Gray that she may be the vicitm of a vampire.

The film looks badly made with flickering backgrounds but the washed-out effect is deliberate; Dreyer had been seeking a particular “look” to the film and discovered it by accident when a can of film was exposed. The bleached appearance makes interiors of rooms come “alive”, vibrating with a sinister, hidden force and outdoor scenes look unnaturally bright and animated. Even grass and leaves on tree branches swaying with the breeze look fearsomely alive as though inhabited by demon spirits. Lighting contrasts appear stronger than they should be and areas that are lit up burn with intensity. This creates an atmosphere where emotions override reason and intellect, and either lethargy or irrationality governs people’s actions. In those parts of the film where a storm occurs, windows and glass panes in doors light up and pulse with bright ferocity as though just behind them Hell has just erupted with volcanic ire.

The narrative doesn’t flow the way viewers might expect: the film often presents montages of “still life” shots or moving dioramas of shadow play. Most scenes have a very static quality even when actual actors are moving or the camera is panning around or back-tracking. A few figures are introduced quite early in the film whom audiences assume will play significant roles but these characters are never seen again. In one memorable shot, a soldier is sits on a bench quietly while his shadow comes by and sits on the bench’s shadow; later when the soldier gets up and walks off, the shadow walks away in the opposite direction. Are the person and the shadow important to the movie? As it turns out, no. There is also a sequence of dancing shadows on a wall which the camera follows while dance music is interspersed with the main musical soundtrack: a very unusual and quite creepy piece of filming which heightens the sense of dread and enclosed paranoia. The “show, don’t tell” approach to advance the plot is abandoned: various titled card insertions, meant as pages in the book the servant reads, not only give information on how to destroy vampires but, in the absence of dialogue, alerts the audience to what Gray or the servant will do.

Gray himself isn’t an active character: throughout the film he seems aimless and reacts to people and events around him in an almost robotic way. He allows a doctor (Jan Hieronimko) to siphon blood from him, not realising the doctor is an ally of the vampire who has bitten Leone. Though viewers assume Gray to be the film’s hero in a conventional sense, and the film initially points that way with the old man handing him the package, he ends up superfluous to the “plot” and merely assists the servant “hero”. The servant later appears a “villain” in the way he cruelly despatches the doctor in a flour mill.

There are passages in the film which may or may not be diversions from the main plot: most notably, in the second half of “Vampyr”, Gray has an out-of-body dream experience while at a cemetery, follows the doctor and sees his body in a coffin; the point of view switches to the body itself, as though Gray’s soul has re-entered the body there and then, and the coffin is then taken away for burial with the camera pointing up at the blank sky and town buildings passing on either side of the screen. At the moment the coffin arrives at the burial plot, Gray wakes up on his cemetery seat and sees the servant opening the coffin. This is perhaps the most memorable and terrifying part of the film which might not necessarily have anything to do with the plot but seems to be a meditation on death and what happens to the soul after death. Seen from a psychological viewpoint, Gray’s astral trip may serve as a metaphor for mental fragmentation and the dissolving of identity, exemplified by his soul following the doctor, and the entire film itself has the look of a terrifying dream. Other “irrelevant” parts include Gray meeting the doctor before he arrives at the mansion and a part near the end where Gray and Leone’s sister Gisele (Rena Mandel) row a boat on a lake.

In all of this, the vampire itself never appears: a corpse said to be the vampire is impaled with an iron stake and Leone seems to recover but this could be a suggestion implanted in viewers’ minds by the pages of the book the servant has read. The vampire seems an elemental force that is nowhere and yet everywhere in the film, hidden in natural phenomena, in the lurid interiors of the mansion, the shadows that appear, even in the medium of the film itself as demonstrated by its bleached look. Perhaps in that aforementioned dream experience that Gray has, the blank sky that his dead face was gazing at was or held the vampire being?

“Vampyr” certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a wide audience: all elements integral to a story on film are turned on their head in some way. Acting as such is natural, most of the actors being amateurs whom Dreyer knew personally. Schmitz (the only trained actor) as Leone gives quite a performance with her face going from pained and agonised to smirking malevolence as she appears to transform into a vampire herself. Events appear disconnected from one another, there’s no sense of cause and effect or any similar sequencing, and viewers must assume everything they see is either important or irrelevant. Even the plot itself barely holds the film together and is merely a medium for themes Dreyer may have wanted to explore: what it must mean to die and to be dead, the vampire as metaphor for disease and sexuality, and blood as metaphor for the life-force which sustains identity and wholeness.

For those who are open to watching visual media in ways beyond a strict story-telling or linear narrative structure, this film is highly recommended as a lesson in how the vampire horror genre can be used to explore issues of human existence in an original and experimental way.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Nang Nak: ghost horror story of a love that transcends death and passage of time

Nonzee Nimibutr, “Nang Nak” (1999)

This Thai ghost horror story about a love that transcends death is very moving and tragic. The messages the film conveys about the fragility and impermanence of life, the Buddhist concept of the sin of attachment and refusal to accept change and flux, and the importance of community and the individual’s obligations to conform to its requirements, make “Nang Nak” complex and thoughtful. Set in rural Thailand in the late 1800’s, it follows the fortunes of a young married couple, Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and Nak (Intira Jaroenpura): Mak is required to fight for King and country and leaves his pregnant wife to work the rice farm on her own. He loses his friends in heavy fighting, suffers serious wounding himself and recuperates for a long time under the care of doctors and monks. After he recovers, the monks suggest to him that he should be ordained but Mak is anxious to go home and see his wife is all right. He travels back to the farm and sees Nak with their baby, both happy and healthy. Little does he knows what’s happened to Nak while he’s been away. Their village certainly knows; some of the villagers had to bury Nak and the newborn child some months ago …

Many viewers will come away with the impression of “Nang Nak” as a visually beautiful film with many shots of lush rainforest, grass and farming landscapes filmed under varied weather conditions at different times of the year. The emphasis on nature throughout the film serves many purposes: it shows how close humans and nature are; it demonstrates that the border between life and death, between the material and spiritual worlds, is more porous than we realise; it shows the passage of time and the changes it brings; and it is a distancing device separating Mak from the rest of the community, enabling Nak to deceive Mak, and also preventing viewers from identifying too closely with Mak and Nak’s dilemma. We know Mak has to learn the truth eventually and that Nak must go to the spirit world where she belongs. The village, led by its local monks, reclaim Mak and a senior abbot, Somtej Toh, advises Nak’s ghost to acknowledge her death and to stop terrorising and killing villagers who try to disabuse Mak of his delusions. Mak and Nak eventually realise they must separate and they promise each other that when the time comes for them to be reborn, they will be reborn in the same time period and become husband and wife again.

The film’s pace is leisurely and tension develops slowly but steadily. It picks up speed during the scene when some headstrong young men try to burn down Mak’s house and a storm generated by Nak’s ghost leads Mak away towards safety. The film’s pace bogs down during the ritual at Nak’s grave in which Somtej Toh soundlessly chants to Nak and for Western audiences, the emotionally intense farewell between Mak and Nak can come close to mawkishness. Why the chanting is soundless may be a puzzle to some: it may be that the intended audience (Thai people who know the legend) know the words anyway and they need not be repeated, or that Nimibutr might not have wanted to offend religious sensitivities by making them audible, especially as only part of the ritual might be used.

In spite of the simple and straightforward plot, practically given away by an unseen narrator at the beginning, the themes that flesh it out sit very lightly in the film. Kraibutr and Jaroenpura play their parts quite minimally, their actions and speech doing most of the emotional expression though Nak is very clingy and weepy where Western audiences might be concerned. The minimal acting fits in with the tenor of the film which treats its subject at a distance with the use of voice-over narration at the beginning and the end of the film, which clearly states that the story is a popular legend in Thailand.

Brief scenes in the film can be very graphic and violent – a scene in which Mak discovers a woman’s corpse being eaten by monitor lizards is especially horrific – but “Nang Nak” is well worth watching. Audiences interested in seeing how ordinary people in Thailand used to view life and how their lives were regulated by austere Theravada Buddhism and folk superstition together should see this film. It’s interesting to see how fear of the spirit world can be used by religious and communal authorities to pull people into line and at the same time preserve a person’s psychological health and well-being; a scene in the movie where some monks visit Mak at home clearly shows Mak to be suffering from psychological denial. The ritual at Nak’s grave can be interpreted as guiding Mak through a process of grieving and letting go, and enabling him to move to a new stage of life. While we may like to see Mak and Nak reunited, the passage of time and change itself dictate that this reunification is unhealthy for both of them.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): good psych horror thriller about predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women

Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960)

This movie is a good psychological horror thriller with excellent performances from its two leads Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Leigh dominates much of the film’s first half. Crane is a disaffected secretary who nicks $40,000 in cash from her real estate employer on the pretence of banking it and going home early because of a headache; she instead makes off for an out-of-town weekend rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam (John Galvin). Along the way she hurriedly changes cars at a used-car dealership and arrives at a hotel operated by lone owner-manager Bates. They have supper and a brief chat together, after which Crane suddenly decides she’ll leave in the morning, return to town and hand back the money. Her plans are thwarted when an intruder stabs her to death while she is having a shower. Some time after the killer has left, Bates comes and looks into the bathroom, is shocked at what he sees and cleans up the blood and other mess. He disposes of Crane’s body, her effects and her car in a nearby swamp.

The rest of the film introduces Vera Miles as Crane’s sister Lila, a respectable single woman in contrast to the more impulsive Marion, who engages a private detective (Matt Balsam) to inquire into Marion’s disappearance. After the detective himself disappears – he joins Crane down in the swamp – Lila and Sam decide to investigate Marion’s whereabouts and, following the detective’s last piece of information, arrive at the Bates Hotel to do their own snooping …

What makes “Psycho” more than just a psych horror / slasher film – and this is often true of many of Hitchcock’s films – is its theme that informs the characters’ motivations and personalities: in “Psycho”, it’s the choices that people must make between conforming to social expectations, duties and obligations and determining their own destiny: what Marion and Norman refer to as “the private trap”. The two sisters Lila and Marion are mirror opposites: Lila chose to conform before the film’s events and stays single; Marion chooses a de facto relationship and makes other decisions on the hop. Both women are subjected separately to knife attacks: the conformist sister survives, the nonconformist one doesn’t. Bates is both a conformist and nonconformist but in an unusual way: he’s a victim of his upbringing and fate which took away his father and made his mother turn to the son for emotional comfort; the son becomes trapped in his relationship with his mother. He chooses to preserve it even if it means killing his mother and her later lover; overcome with guilt, he resurrects the mother in his mind which “she” comes to dominate as prudish and repressive.

Romance is dealt with in prescribed ways approved by society and these ways usually privilege men’s needs and preferences over those of women. This puts Marion in an unenviable state: she’s in a relationship with a divorced man she wants to marry but who can’t afford to marry her. When a lecherous tycoon propositions her and throws the $40,000 down on the table for a property sale, it’s understandable that she would take it: she and Sam need the money, the tycoon treats it as small change. This becomes obvious after her death: her boss notifies Lila of her disappearance and the missing cash rather than go to the police, indicating that he and the tycoon are willing to forgive Marion for the theft.

Marion’s shower death scene cuts the film in two very different halves and the way it is done deserves mention: for modern audiences, it’s not gory and only once is the knife seen to pierce, or at least touch, flesh. Blood flows in the water and down the drain but is not seen much. Marion’s screams, the dull knife thuds (the film crew repeatedly stabbed a watermelon for the sound effects), the very quick camera cuts and the repeating shrill, hysterical violin music by Bernard Hermann provide the horror. The camera continually cuts between Marion’s point of view and the killer’s, and this helps to transfer the focus of the plot from Marion to Bates. A kind of sexual intercourse has occurred in the death scene. While the shower scene is structurally pivotal to the movie, the scene itself is the culmination of the chat Marion and Bates have about being free to live one’s own life versus obligations to family and how individuals become trapped in a particular groove as a result of personal history and family background. It’s during this chat that Marion decides to return to town to deal with her particular “private trap” and Bates determines that she should stay at the hotel. Viewers who watch and listen to this chat closely will link the bathroom intruder with Bates himself.

The weakest part of “Psycho” is the denouement in which a psychiatrist explains Bates’s behaviour and family history, followed by Bates sitting alone in a jail cell facing the camera. Although these scenes provide closure for those viewers unfamiliar with Freudian psychology, they cut off the possibility of multiple interpretations of Bates’s behaviour and place ultimate blame for his psychosis on his domineering mother. One could suggest that the psychiatrist imposes his own interpretation of Bates’s behaviour, based on interviews with him, and isn’t necessarily to be believed; Bates may be using his mother as a scapegoat for his crimes – a classic example of projecting blame. According to Bates, his mother disapproves of sexual desire yet earlier when Lila snuck into the woman’s bedroom, she saw small monuments to romantic and sexual love. Bates and another character in the film also acknowledge that Mrs Bates had a lover. Who is the real Mrs Bates then?

The low budget for “Psycho” at the time of filming meant it was shot in black-and-white which hinders aspects of the plot’s development and elaboration: the landscape in which the events take place looks generic and never becomes part of the movie. Colour film would have given sharpness to the film’s look and a colourful desert background would have heightened the isolation of the Bates family property and its lone inhabitant from the rest of the world. The Bates family mansion would look more dilapidated and distinctive as a character in its own right instead of merely resembling a haunted-house stereotype. The use of colour inside the mansion could have emphasised its three floors’ resemblance to the Freudian concept of the human mind: ground floor / ego, upper floor / superego, basement level / id. There is an emphasis on contrasts of light and dark within “Psycho” which colour film and a clear filter might have made more of.

The film makes several assertions about the nature of Bates’s psychosis and his relationship with his mother, all of them quite contradictory and undercutting each other, and challenges audiences on the good girl / bad girl polarity represented by Lila and Marion. Lila is the good girl but the film seems more sympathetic towards Marion, at least until she decides to turn back to town and return the money. Marion comes across as an attractive, likeable character with faults and her sister as proper, more mature perhaps, but maybe less deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The private detective is diligent in his work but ends up dead; the local police sheriff seems lackadaisical in investigating Marion and the detective’s whereabouts but survives. These positions the film revels in, many of them related to the central themes of the polarity of predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women and their sexuality, make “Psycho” an ambiguous and complex film.

The Host (dir. Bong Joonho): political and social commentary combine with strong characters in monster flick

Bong Joonho, “The Host” (2006)

Often billed as a horror film, “The Host” actually has as much comedy, drama and suspense thriller as it has horror. The emphasis is on one family’s efforts against great obstacles, more human than non-human, to rescue its child from a mutant monster. Hero of the movie, Gangdu, played by Song Kangho, one of South Korea’s top actors, is a most unconventional one: the black sheep of his family, not too bright and dozing off a lot, he seems a pathetic outsider in a society that values worldly achievement and success over human values. When his teenage daughter Hyunseo (Ko Asung) is captured by the scaled-up fish freak, Gangdu becomes single-mindedly determined to save her and rallies his father and two siblings against formidable odds. The family is arrested and imprisoned by government authorities; when they break out, they are declared dangerous and have a huge price on their heads. Together and separately, Gangdu and his siblings undergo trials that often end in failure in their attempts to get Hyungseo back home.

Bong’s direction creates a very moving story about the heroism of individuals, singly and together, in striving to achieve something despite overwhelming social and political resistance against them and repeated failures. Gangdu and his family often act before they think and their planning is more impulsive than considered; a lot of time and effort gets wasted and someone dies before they think of linking Hyunseo’s desperate cellphone calls to her location. There’s a subtext too that criticises South Korea’s subservient relationship to the United States: the monster itself is a creation of an unintended science experiment when a science lab worker is ordered by his American supervisor to pour a mix of chemicals down a sink in violation of lab procedures. The chemicals go untreated into the Han river which flows through Seoul. Years later when the monster starts its rampage through parts of the city, the US military tells the government to detain everyone who’s had contact with the monster under the guise of preventing a virus outbreak. Society is forced into lockdown and people’s rights and freedoms are suppressed. This forces Gangdu and his siblings to become fugitive outsiders in order to rescue Hyunseo. Western audiences at least get the message about how even the mere threat of “terrorism”, biological or other, can serve as an opportunity for governments to clamp down on democracy and what should be the rule of law.

As Gangdu, Song virtually carries the film on his shoulders and gives his comic, clownish character great emotional depth and inner strength that make his feats credible. Dim-witted and lazy he may be but Gangdu often exhibits animal cunning in evading or tricking the authorities. Park Hae-il gives excellent support as Gangdu’s unemployed uni graduate brother who initially looks down on Gangdu but becomes a minor hero in risking his freedom to locate Hyunseo through her cellphone calls and in trying to kill the monster. These characters help to keep the film going during its last hour when the plot sags with Gangdu’s recapture by the authorities and his sister (Bae Duna) knocked cold by the monster.

As in many of Bong’s films, the cinematography is often brilliant with incredible shots of the river and the huge concrete bridge where the monster hides among the pylons. The creature’s habitat becomes an important part of the film’s winding plot which begins and ends near the bridge and makes frequent visits there.

It seems that whenever Bong turns his attention to a particular movie genre, be it horror, murder mystery or whatever, the result always enriches and transcends the genre in some way. The film ends up a subtle critique of South Korean society, its history and its obsession with a certain set of rules and values that don’t make allowances for underdogs or nonconformists. While Bong clearly sympathises with people like Gangdu who operate more on instinct and intuition than on intelligence and who are often at odds with society, his view of society isn’t idealistic and there is irony in the way the monster is finally vanquished: a dangerous chemical Agent Yellow supplied by the US army is needed to weaken it before it can be killed.

Alien (dir. Ridley Scott): unique sci-fi/horror film with much to say about human society

Ridley Scott, “Alien” (1979)

In the wake of news that Ridley Scott has started work on “Prometheus”, the movie prologue to “Alien”, it’s timely to revisit the movie that started the whole series and made Sigourney Weaver a star. The idea of mixing science fiction with horror was not new in 1979 when the film was released and some of the ideas in “Alien” can be traced to various sources including a story in the British TV science fiction show Doctor Who “The Ark in Space”, broadcast a few years before “Alien”, in which an alien lays larvae in human hosts asleep in capsules in a space ship. What Scott brought to “Alien” that makes it stand out from its influences and from other science fiction / horror films before and after is its use of atmosphere, backgrounds, characters and plot to create a fusion of haunted-house horror, slasher flick and a survival film. The alien’s life-cycle becomes a central part of the film’s horror and this together with the alien (played by Bolaji Bodejo) itself have come to embody human fears and misunderstandings about sexuality, pregnancy and birth.

In the distant future a company cargo space transporter, the Nostromo, is bringing a refinery and various minerals back to Earth when it intercepts an apparent SOS from a spaceship on a distant alien planet. The crew of seven is awakened from deep sleep and on discovering the signal, land on the planet to investigate its source and provide assistance. The signal is traced to a crashed alien ship and the crew, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), sends out a rescue team. One of the team, Kane (John Hurt) is injured during the search, and is brought back to the Nostromo. Too late his crew-mates discover he has been infected by an alien parasite which has deposited a larva in him; the larva emerges in spectacularly erect fashion in the communal dining-room – it always has to be a dining-room for the yuck factor – and zooms off to hide in the Nostromo’s various labyrinthine networks, holding bays and other nooks and crannies. From then on, the movie is a mixture of hide-and-seek / cat-and-mouse game as prey becomes hunter and the hunters become prey, and along the way audiences learn more about the true nature of the SOS signal and how the crew’s employer exploited them and put their lives in danger by not advising them of the true nature of the rescue mission.

The seven actors who make up the crew had considerable experience in theatre, film, television and other forms of drama when they were cast, and their performances as ordinary technical service personnel with all their concerns about pay, work conditions and treatment by their employer are good if perhaps not exceptional. Weaver as Ellen Ripley the unimaginative stickler for rules and regulations and Ian Holm as the Nostromo’s overly detached science officer Ash who harbours a secret deliver the stand-out performances with Yaphet Kotto as the would-be hero mechanic and Harry Dean Stanton as his laconic partner not far behind. Perhaps the best scene with respect to acting is Weaver’s scene where she confronts the alien directly and fights to control her emotions as she draws the creature towards her so as to position it for blasting into space via decompression: it’s equal parts cool-headed heroism, an unyielding will to survive and the fear and horror of violent death all feeding off one another.

The Nostromo should receive an acting credit as well: its labyrinth-like interiors in which the alien hides provide major opportunities for the simple plot to advance and the alien to bump off individual crew members. The colours of the Nostromo’s interiors are dark and shadowy which give the film’s early scenes a moody, suspenseful, almost film-noir atmosphere. Flashing lights, bursts of smoke and siren sounds in its narrow corridors in the film’s later scenes build up tension towards the climax in which Weaver’s character Ripley will meet the alien. Probably the only criticism to be made about the sets is that the ones that feature computer technology were becoming dated even at the time of the film’s initial release. Film crews, even ones with great imaginations, can only look so far into the future and guess at what technologies might be popular.

Where “Alien” really excels is in its careful detailing of the alien planet’s landscapes, the crashed ship’s strange, organic shapes and interiors, and the alien’s sexually suggestive appearance based on artwork by Swiss artist H R Giger who had a cult reputation in the 1970s. The very alien-ness of the film’s early scenes, in which the rescue team investigate the crashed ship, helps to set the mood of dread and mystery for the action to come. Once the alien is out and about and has got rid of a few victims, the tension starts to ratchet up steadily and the noir-like mood gradually disappears to be replaced by a new atmosphere of competitive, urgent struggle as Ripley decides to blow up the Nostromo and sets its self-destruct mechanisms in place.

The film makes insinuations about the future society that provides the context for the nightmarish scenario the crew find themselves in: for a company to be able to send large cargo ships into the far reaches of space to ferry ores, it must be extremely rich and must hold considerable political as well as economic power. The company also has a large human workforce, so large that a few missing, even killed deliberately, barely make a dint on the company’s occupational safety records. It prefers to keep valuable knowledge and secrets in a robot that lacks an inbuilt system or database of ethics, forces humans to follow company orders and spies on them as well. One would think a company that rich and powerful should be able to build cargo ships that are entirely self-operating and need no humans, not even in emergency situations where lateral thinking is required. Perhaps this company operates on thin profit margins that don’t allow it to continuously update its operations but manages with a mixture of old and new technologies. In such ships, humans are needed in much the same way as pilots are needed on airbuses and jumbo jets, mainly to land such vehicles and set them up for take-off, and to perform other jobs as the company requires. The fact that Ripley and the other crew members address company headquarters staff collectively as “Mother” suggests the company plays a nanny-state role in its employees’ lives – among other things, it might provide housing for them and their families, schools and teachers to educate their children, and doctors and nurses to monitor their health and determine their fitness for company employment – in a way viewers would find highly intrusive and hard to understand. The company literally has the power of life and death over its workers.

Science in such a society becomes nothing more than a weapon or a mechanism which the company uses to enrich itself and its owners, and to expand its power. No wonder that the company sees value in obtaining the monster – thus its directive to Ash to preserve the monster’s life at any cost – to the extent that it would sacrifice the Nostromo’s crew. Ash admires the monster for its “purity”, meaning its lack of self-awareness that would require possessing some sort of moral code, a sense of right and wrong. The monster exists to survive and replicate itself in aggressive ways and the company wants to know what motivates this kind of behaviour in the monster. Anyone familiar with the way movie science fiction works can easily figure out what this might lead to: insane fascistic fantasies about creating hierarchies of human-alien hybrid soldiers and worker drones to colonise the universe. The mysteries of human sexuality and reproduction become an elaborate if mechanised form of mass factory production of the kind Aldous Huxley wrote about in “Brave New World” in which human embryos were customised by chemical and/or cellular manipulation to fit into particular pre-determined social and economic niches in the novel’s hierarchical society.

At least Ripley and the others discover who the real monster in the scenario is – and it ain’t the one hiding in the air shafts hunting them down. The film is not very subtle about that fact – indeed much of it plays out like a B-grade horror film – but in its set-up and characterisation that provide the basis for the plot, it makes assumptions about the future evolution of human society and its relationship to science and technology that would have most of us hanging our heads in despair.

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.

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.