Oldboy: arthouse film trappings cannot disguise a flimsy plot, flat characters and an empty message

Chanwook Park, “Oldboy” (2003)

When I saw this film the first time over a decade ago, I was impressed with its style and colour and the way it was filmed but now that I’ve become familiar with Chanwook Park’s little bag of tracks, on second viewing  I can see all the surrealism and the artfulness can’t quite disguise the lame Swiss-cheese plot. Adapted from a Japanese manga, “Oldboy” follows the sufferings of one Daesu Oh (Minsik Choi) who one evening has one drink too many and ends up in police custody. He is freed only to be kidnapped by unseen assailants and he ends up imprisoned in a hotel apartment for 15 years. During this lengthy time, he learns from watching TV that his wife has been murdered, their daughter taken into foster care and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s killing. He passes the time learning to shadow box and writes copiously, plotting revenge on his kidnappers.

He is released unexpectedly and spends the rest of the film trying to pinpoint the place where he was imprisoned and who might have jailed him. He meets a young girl Mido (Hyejung Kang) who tries to help him with his investigations. Eventually a wealthy man Woojin Li (Jitae Yu) meets him and admits that he was the kidnapper; he then gives Daesu five days to find out why he, Daesu, was abducted and held for so long against his will. If Daesu succeeds within the 5-day period, Woojin will commit suicide, if not, Mido will be killed.

The second of Chanwook Park’s revenge trilogy – “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” being the other films – “Oldboy” is a sly examination of revenge and how it can consume people so much so that after they’ve achieved their vengeance and forced others to suffer the pain they suffered, they discover there’s not only no purpose left for them in life but vengeance itself doesn’t bring the satisfaction and closure they thought it would provide. This is a theme of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” as well.  Whereas the initial reason for the main character in that film to seek revenge was a school-teacher’s abuse and killing of children in his care, here in “Oldboy” the rationale that sets off the chain of actions seems trivial, at least to Western audiences.  You punish a man for fifteen years because he spied on you and your sister up to no good and he tells the entire class at school about you both, and your sister flings herself off the top of a bridge and drowns? You might at least be a little thankful you weren’t reported to the Department of Community Services. The film seems to say that some family secrets should be kept secret – one might raise an eyebrow at the ethics of covering up certain forbidden or illegal acts.

The climax and the denouement come as a surprise: on learning of his role in the sister’s suicide, Daesu becomes completely craven and suppliant towards Woojin; Woojin for his part finds Daesu’s self-abasement hilarious (as no doubt some viewers will) but the other man’s reaction does not satisfy Woojin’s desire for vengeance on the man who as a teenager did something childish and thoughtless. Woojin then has to cope with the consequences of pursuing an unsatisfying vengeance that still eats at him.

Surveillance is a theme threaded right through the film and its destructive effects on both the spied and their watchers are noted, usually very brutally. Daesu stops at nothing to get the information he needs that will lead him to Woojin while Woojin plays puppet-master and stays one step ahead of Daesu most of the time.

While the film is well-acted and Choi and Yu acquit themselves admirably in quite arduous and intense roles, their characters essentially remain flat, undeveloped and quite bestial in morality. There is something odd about Woojin and how his cosseted life-style seems to have made him asexual. His penthouse is absolutely spotless, antiseptic and sterile, hinting at the emotionless robot beneath the youthful leering face. Choi’s Daesu is a desperate man on the edge: he appears to repent of his earlier indulgent and hot-tempered ways during his incarceration but once free, he goes all-out to punish to the extreme the people he finds who contributed to his torment over the years. No mercy is shown to anyone or his (rarely her) teeth. The fact that very little character development takes place or supposedly takes place off-screen throws the weight of plausibility entirely on the insubstantial and hokey plot.

While Park undoubtedly has great technical ability and attracts good actors and crew to create a stunningly beautiful and artful movie, he is unable to overcome a brutal plot in which cartoonish characters basically compete to see who is the more lacking in insight, grace, understanding of the human condition and maturity. The film ultimately seems to say that humans are bad and brutal through and through, and no redemption or escape is possible. Daesu is forced to live with his punishment and self-abasement for the rest of his life: a chilling and despairing conclusion that reeks not a little of the too-clever manipulation, not on Woojin’s part, done to reach that finale.

 

 

The Cars that Ate Paris: oddball comedy horror satire on society and technological fetishism

Peter Weir, “The Cars that Ate Paris” (1974)

Acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir’s directorial full-length debut is an oddball comedy horror flick that riffs on a number of themes including isolation, the uncertainty of one’s identity, social conformity, small-town provincialism and struggling to survive in a foreign and hostile land: themes that have informed European settlement of Australia since 1788. Social criticism is a muted, matter-of-fact presentation of ideas and issues that viewers have to judge and decide for themselves. The film was made on a low budget with a small cast in Sofala, a rural town in New South Wales, which supplied the film’s extras.

The plot initially seems straightforward and minimal. Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George are travelling into a country town, grandly named Paris, when they have a serious car accident. Arthur later wakes up in the town’s hospital, shaken and nursing a new phobia of driving cars. The mayor of Paris (John Meillon) befriends Arthur and takes him into his home. Recuperating from his injuries and the shock from both the accident and from learning that George died in the accident, Arthur acquaints himself with the town-folk and gradually discovers Paris’s secret: the town survives on creating horrific road accidents with death traps set up on the roads, salvaging spare parts from damaged cars and the possessions of victims; the victims themselves are brought to the town hospital to be used as guinea pigs for bizarre medical experiments. The mayor puts Arthur to work in the hospital and then as parking-ticket inspector, the latter in which capacity the young outsider inadvertently causes a major stoush between the mayor and the town-folk on one hand and the local hoons who spend their days driving old car wrecks through the town. The quarrel between Paris and its gangs of car-cruising youth escalates into a major riot that threatens to rip the town apart.

The version of the film I saw has been cleaned up a great deal and it is much brighter and more attractive than the original version in which the lighting was very poor. The rural setting is very picturesque and the town used for the film looks idyllic and peaceful with a distinctive 19th-century pioneering look. The film’s entire style is low-key and unassuming in keeping with the character of Arthur who spends most of his time acting like a frightened little mouse, passive, hesitant and allowing himself to be used and manipulated by the genial mayor. Through Arthur’s passivity, viewers see the full horror of Paris, populated entirely by psychopaths beneath veneers of upright God-fearing and church-going conservative Anglican country-folk. The scheme of killing people by staging traffic accidents and robbing them of their cars and possessions to provide work for the locals and to keep Paris going is revealed to be the work of the mayor and the hospital doctor (Kevin Miles).

Acting is very minimal and the dialogue, especially John Meillon’s lines, drives the film’s plot. Meillon is the most outstanding actor in the movie, by turns kindly and sympathetic, tyrannical, sinister and ultimately crazed. His gradual control of the vulnerable Arthur is hilarious yet creepy to watch though ironically through his manipulation of the young man is to be found the cure for Arthur’s phobia which allows the outsider to escape. Second most outstanding actor or actors I should say are the eponymous cars that take over Paris after one of their number is set alight in an earlier scene; in particular, the hedgehog Volkswagen that (spoiler alert) impales one of the perpetrators in the town’s evil scheme is a visual stunner.

In spite of its apparently threadbare style, the film’s plot is quite complicated if not complete: the sub-plots of the teenagers in revolt against their elders and the medical experimentation upon the hospital invalids are not very well developed. The light-hearted mood of the film belies the darkness that exists in the town in which car worship is taken to its most extreme development.

The town of Paris can be seen as a metaphor for Western society generally, in which the fetishising of technology has led to people losing their moral compass, politicians assume power through collusion and flourish by turning their people into a war machine yet spurning those (the car hoons) who do the actual work of killing. This observation of a world in miniature, in which people and society become ever more deranged with more killing and who ultimately destroy themselves, is what gives this quirky little film continued cult status.

 

The Manchurian Candidate: a layered and intense film on the abuse of power

John Frankenheimer, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

At some point during the Korean War in 1952, a platoon of American soldiers is betrayed by their Korean interpreter who delivers them to their Communist enemy. The enemy sends the soldiers to Manchuria where the Yanks are subjected to various mind control experiments and treatments by unknown scientists. After several months, they are exhibited before an audience of sceptical Soviet and Chinese bureaucrats. One man, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is shown off by his doctor (Khigh Dhiegh) who demonstrates his victim’s absolute submission by forcing him to kill two of his comrades. The other men in the unit which includes one Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) are all heavily drugged and can only stare at Shaw as he calmly executes their companions.

This is the horrifying introduction – told in a series of fragmented flashbacks – to the plot of “The Manchurian Candidate”, a gripping and intelligent thriller exploring psychological and political manipulation, the misuse of power and the repression of individuals within institutions of society. Superficially an anti-Communist film, “The Manchurian Candidate” probes and questions the nature of loyalty and patriotism and of political power itself.

Some years after their training, Shaw returns to the US to a hero’s welcome and is delivered back to his mother Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) and his step-father (James Gregory), an ambitious Presidential candidate. The other men in the platoon also return safely but two of them, Marco included, suffer recurring nightmares in which a garden party attended by elderly women is mixed in with that chilling demonstration. Marco overcomes the effects of his manipulation with the help of his commanding officer and a military psychologist and, through a series of peculiar incidents involving himself and Shaw, begins to suspect that Shaw is still under mind control and has been tasked with carrying out an important political assassination.

The intense and highly absorbing plot moves surely but not too quickly and depends heavily on the cast to carry off the story which at the time of the film’s release must have seemed fantastic to its audiences. Happily the cast rises to the occasion: Angela Lansbury is formidable as the bullying, stridently anti-Communist Eleanor who dominates both her son and her husband; Frank Sinatra performs capably as a nervy Marco, hesitant at times but determined to confront his fears and nightmares; and Laurence Harvey as Shaw cuts a complex and piteous figure at the mercy of competing forces in his mother and his controllers. Some complex relationships are revealed in the portrayals of Shaw and Eleanor and their interactions: incest is hinted at, Eleanor may be a frustrated puppet-master of sorts and her motivations in planning a false flag event (the assassination of a US Presidential candidate) so that her ineffectual husband may assume power and create a dictatorship in the US to fight the Soviets are deep and, while initially contradictory, actually make some sense of a crazed sort. The minor characters perform their roles capably though a sub-plot involving Marco and a new girlfriend Rosie (Janet Leigh) dissipates quickly and Leigh’s talent goes begging. The sub-plot hinted that Rosie may also be Marco’s controller and might have a connection with the young woman Shaw marries and his father-in-law, a Senator who opposes Iselin and who is a deeply ethical and principled man. A parallel between Marco and Shaw in their relationships with women is hinted at but is not developed.

Cinematography is excellent with some unusual points of view used in a few scenes. The film’s major highlights are the scenes of the demonstration in which Shaw kills two of his men as dreamt by Marco and another man in the platoon who happens to be black: in Marco’s dream, the women attending the hydrangea party are all white and in his companion’s dream, the women are all black – this surely demonstrates how their controllers cleverly drew upon the men’s past memories of garden parties and moulded them to fit their plans!

Skilfully written so as to push both action and character development constantly, the script manages to layer its story with enough contemporary political and social issues of its time and Freudian psychology to boot that even over fifty years after its making, the film still appears fresh and relevant to modern audiences. Eleanor’s character may strike a chord with women who are still frustrated with the slow advance of women’s rights to the level where a woman may run for the highest political position in the land on her own merit alone. Political science students will marvel at how prescient the film is in suggesting that future presidential and vice-presidential candidates may become the puppets of unseen power-brokers and even foreign intelligence agencies. There is a suggestion in the film that Shaw’s controllers may be using Communist governments to advance their own interests and agendas in accumulating power for themselves. Philosophers and psychologists may see in Shaw a symbol of the individual’s never-ending struggle in achieving free will and becoming his/her own person, gaining insight into his/her mind and mental processes, and breaking free from the social conditioning that would otherwise keep him/her an automaton. There is also an insinuation that with Shaw’s killing of his wife and father-in-law, both of whom represent innocence and integrity respectively, the US is losing its own political innocence and soundness.

The film’s rather wobbly and watery conclusion contains some rich irony in that by taking charge of his destiny, Shaw becomes a hero and a real human.

 

 

Memoria: a tight closed narrative loop with no chance of forgiveness or redemption

Elísabet Ýr Atladóttir, “Memoria” (2013)

A creepy psychological character study, “Memoria” is very depressing to watch. The single protagonist, Vincent, is a young alcoholic and drug addict who is tormented by inner demons. He stumbles into an abandoned house and is quickly overwhelmed by a mysterious and invisible entity that forces him to revisit aspects of his past as he winds his way through the house’s labyrinthine corridors and secret rooms. He remembers his parents’ troubled marriage and the effects it has had on him. He remembers the rage he felt when his younger brother teased him and the punishment he brought down on the boy. Remorse washes over him and he reaches out for something that will end all his torment …

The 3D animation is well done though fairly conventional in its look and backgrounds. The abandoned house is no different from other haunted domiciles in its long dark and spooky passages, the cracks in the walls and the sense of dread present throughout. As you might expect in haunted-house scenarios, the weather outside is dark and stormy. The story is tight and insular with a limited number of characters and ends in a definite closed loop, thus cutting off the possibility of cosmic forgiveness and redemption. It seems no lesson has been learned and if the characters happen to reincarnate together, they’ll repeat their actions that lead to violence, mean-spiritedness and suicide. And so the cosmic vicious circle continues.

Ultimately the way in which the story is resolved, with no suggestion of hope or a chance to make amends, is something of a let-down for this short.

The Backwater Gospel: a darkly grim Gothic satire on religious fanaticism, mob rule and the fear of death

Bo Mathorne, “The Backwater Gospel” (2011)

In a total running time of just over nine minutes, this raw and stark animation is a superb comment on the combined power of religious fanaticism, mob rule and scapegoating. In a tiny backwater town somewhere in 19th-century Gothic Americana, the Grim Reaper in the form of an undertaker with blazing lights for eyes arrives to the consternation of a fire ‘n’ brimstone preacher (voiced by Lucien Dodge), the local community leader. Death’s arrival brings fear to the desperate townsfolk, already crazed from poverty, hardship and a never-ending drought. The fiery reverend turns his maddened flock against the local tramp (Zebulon Whatley) for poking fun at the church sermons and the people stone and bludgeon the outsider dead. Still, grinning Death does not depart and his continued presence inflames the people even more. His cup soon runneth over with blood and when the rain stops, the sun shines once more and a rainbow forms in the distant horizon, Death pretty much finds his work all cut out in cleaning up Main Street.

The art-work is stunning in its contrasts of blinding light and sinister dark shadow and the tormented comic-book figures, gaunt and angular of body and twisted in face, express broken spirit, passivity and sudden anger and savagery from deep repressed wells of emotion and torment in turns very well. The gradual escalation of tension and hysteria is controlled and the eruption of fury is handled effectively in scenes of violence and horror. The denouement is shattering. The plot is very creepy and there is much grim black humour.

The laid-back guitar music suits the animation, its narrative and theme although I can’t help but think that Nick Cave would have given the short an even better musical soundtrack had he been asked to do one.

This is definitely not something for young children to watch due to the high violence and gore quotient. I found this very enjoyable indeed.

Kwaidan: a lesson in four parts about having contact with the spirit world

Masaki Kobayashi, “Kwaidan” (1964)

Often billed as a horror film, “Kwaidan” is in fact a quartet of fantasy stories of which three were based on traditional Japanese folk tales. The narratives are fairly straightforward and may teach moral lessons or lessons about having contact with spirits, even if indirectly through the medium of literature or … film.

In the first story, “The Black Hair”, a poor samurai divorces his faithful wife to marry the daughter of a wealthy lord so that he may gain a position in the feudal administration. Too late he discovers his new wife is a spoilt and empty-headed spendthrift. He resolves to put away the new missus and return to his old life but work duties impel him to stay put. When he has served his time and relieved of his duties, he returns to his old home and first wife but not everything has remained as he thinks it has.

In the second story, “The Woman of the Snow”, two woodcutters Mosaku and Minokichi take refuge in an abandoned shack during a severe snowstorm. There, they encounter a snow-woman demon who drains the life out of Mosaku, who is elderly and on his last legs anyway, but spares the life of Minokichi after extracting a promise from him never to tell anyone of what he has seen. Years later, Minokichi marries a beautiful young woman and they raise a family together. One night, Minokichi sees a light shine on his wife and the shadows it creates across her face remind him of that fateful night when Mosaku died and the husband starts to blab …

In “Hoichi, the Earless”,  young blind servant Hoichi is persuaded by the ghosts of a deceased samurai clan to perform before them songs and poetry of a great sea battle the clan fought and lost against a rival group 700 years previously. The nightly performances take their toll on Hoichi and the priests of the temple where he works discover what he’s been up to. Concerned for his safety and soul, the holy men cover Hoichi’s body with Buddhist sutras to render him invisible but there are a couple of body parts they forget …

The final film “In a Cup of Tea”, the only one of the four stories not based on a folk tale, is a ghost story set within another ghost story: a writer has mysteriously disappeared while scribbling a story about a samurai who sees a reflection while drinking a cup of tea – except that the reflection isn’t his but that of another man. This other fellow visits the samurai to reproach him for swallowing his soul, then his retainers visit the samurai for daring to strike his master … at which point the story ends without resolution … likewise the whereabouts of the author himself remain unknown …

The stories are not horror in the conventional Hollywood sense of the term but rely on a slow pace, an emotional intensity that escalates throughout, visual theatricality, very stark minimalist music and quiet suspense born in part from audience anticipation at what will happen. One can predict how a couple of the stories might end: the faithless samurai in the first story will be punished for his cruelty towards his first wife and Minokichi has to pay a price for breaking his promise. Hoichi is a helpless pawn in a life-and-death struggle and although (spoiler alert) he survives to see another day, the ghosts exact their pound of flesh from him. The lessons to be learned from these tales are universal and one such lesson common to the films is that you don’t mess around with spirits of the dead even if you were minding your own business originally and the spirits came after you. Apart from this banal message and the presence of ghosts, the films don’t have very much in common. They are artfully arranged though so that the simpler, more straightforward morality tales come first and second; then come the more complex pieces with their ambiguous messages about how the innocent and upright can be menaced and threatened by ghosts through no fault of their own and that even when innocence has suffered enough, there will never be respite from the ghosts. The ambiguous conclusion to the fourth film suggests that just as the samurai and the writer have imbibed of the spirit world and therefore are condemned to be haunted by ghosts forever, so too the audience, having drunk more than their fill of these stories, are also to be plagued forever more by the spirits.

Kobayashi opted for a maximalist, expressionist style of filming and went to great lengths to have backgrounds specially prepared for mostly indoor filming. The action in all the stories seem to take place on a stage, particularly the second story in which a large baleful eye occupies the sky in the background and spies on the little bipedal ants scurrying about. The sets are often stunning to look at and become a major character in the stories; “Hoichi …” in this respect features some of the most austerely beautiful sets and highly illustrative paintings, made by Kobayashi himself. Colour is used to good effect in these films to indicate paranoia or the change from reality to the spirit world. The cinematography is precise and the movie’s style of near-kabuki theatre not only presents traditional Japanese culture in a beautifully stark and quite minimal way but helps to generate tension and suspense.

The music by Toru Takemitsu is significant to the narrative and generates a mood of longing and sadness, especially in “Hoichi …” where some of the most interesting sounds occur outside Hoichi’s biwa playing.

There isn’t much that can be called horror; the movie depends far more on slow build-up and keeping its audience guessing as to how the plots will end. Probably the scariest story in the conventional Western sense of the term is “Black Hair” as this is a forerunner of those Japanese films that feature an awkward girl wandering about with black hair covering her red eyes and generally striking fear into people’s hearts. The film seems to suggest that the source of true horror lies in people’s natures and also that being in the wrong spot at the wrong time can expose one to spiritual and psychological danger. In the case of the eponymous Hoichi, his downfall was his naivety and blindness; in the case of the writer perhaps, his downfall may have been curiosity or intellectual arrogance.

The film is beautiful to watch and very serene and graceful in its movements. The grace belies the turmoil and tension within character’s minds. Although the film won’t find a broad Western audience, it is worth watching for its visual style and the way in which the action takes place as if on a stage for a kabuki performance.

Suicide Club: gory horror flick intended as interrogation of the state of modern Japanese society

Sion Sono, “Suicide Club / Jisatsu Sakuru” (2002)

Famous for its controversial premise, full-on gory presentation and an arresting opening sequence of 54 school-girls jumping off a city train platform into the path of an oncoming train, “Suicide Club” is a meditation on the nature of modern Japanese society and its increasing dependence on technology as the connection among different generations of people that replaces all other social connections such as family and community. A wave of mass suicide hysteria hits Japan, baffling a group of detectives in Tokyo who try to piece together various incidents in which young high school students throw themselves off train platforms and the tops of buildings en masse. The detectives have little to go on apart from strange white bags, in all of which are found rolls of human skin sewn together. Some of the skin patches feature a butterfly tattoo. The detectives try to track down people with these patches and one of these persons is a young teenage girl Mitsuko, whom we first meet wallking home when all of a sudden her boyfriend Masa flies from the sky and crashes into her, clipping her ear before hitting the ground.

The detectives receive phone calls from mysterious people including a hacker called The Bat and an anonymous boy who warns one detective, Kuroda, of an upcoming suicide event. The police misinterpret the warning and stake out a train station in vain. Kuroda then goes home and discovers his entire family has committed suicide.

The Bat is captured by a group of glam rocker musicians led by guitarist Genesis who warbles a song while stomping on sacks of squirming puppies and mewling kittens. While Genesis and his friends perform, The Bat emails the police and informs them of her whereabouts. The detectives promptly arrest Genesis and the band, assuming they are the people inciting kids around Tokyo to dock themselves.

All while this is happening, a girl group called Dessert perform songs, video clips of which are spliced into the film at various points in ways that connect to the film’s events and insinuate that the singers are essential to the film’s narrative. Thus when Mitsuko goes into her dead boyfriend’s bedroom, she sees a poster of Dessert and figures out from the way the girls are holding up their hands and fingers a conspiracy of sorts. She investigates the conspiracy and finds herself being interrogated by a group of children in a bizarre sequence of surreal visuals and inventive film-camera panning. Mitsuko affirms her will to life in spite of the dreadful events occurring around her and the children order her butterfly tattoo to be removed.

The film seems critical of various aspects of Japanese society including conformity, the obsession with pop culture and youth fads, people’s lack of authenticity and the pervasive alienation within society. The police are shown as rather incompetent and pathetic in their pursuit of individuals they believe are encouraging the young people to kill themselves. Suicide as a cultural phenomenon in Japan is investigated on a superficial level: teenagers seem to treat it as a game. Death and its cavalier treatment by the Japanese are ever present in one form or another. Ultimately the film appears to suggest that the phenomenon of suicide points to a pervasive malaise afflicting modern Japan and that there can be no one cause people can point to: so many factors can drive people to take their own lives. The film offers no easy answers and characters must deal with the possibility of death and come to terms with life and living in individual ways.

Plot-holes abound: the film never makes clear who tattoos the butterfly tattoos on Mitsuko and others and why the tattooist should be doing so; and the sub-plot of The Bat and Genesis remains undeveloped and unrelated to the detectives’ work and Mitsuko’s own journey of self-discovery. The narrative is fragmented and the film lacks “proper” closure; within the film’s theme of alienation and disconnection, I suppose that the desultory nature of the action and its lack of resolution are appropriate. Characters remain undeveloped and one-dimensional, and the acting is competent, but again such a development has its logic within the film’s theme. Perhaps to survive in a society that emphasises conformity, hierarchy and ceaseless hard work for vague and contradictory ideals, people must divorce themselves from their true feelings and soul and behave like automata.

There are several sequences within the film that lack dialogue and “Suicide Club” features some very effective and quite noirish scenes, mixing them with handheld camera work that look very much like newsreels.

As might be expected, the film finds a lot of black humour in suicide, especially in one scene where a group of high school students on top of a building are discussing the incident of the 54 school-girls and laughing at their suicide. Before you know it, a bunch of boys comes along and makes suicide jokes and in no time at all the kids are lined up on the edge of the roof ready for the Great Leap Forward. Probably one of the funniest parts comes right at the end when Dessert sing their closing number urging people to connect with others more fully (and at the same time make money for their record label that exploits people’s alienation and desire to reach out and feel a part of society for profit).

In all, the film functions at a superficial level as a critique of Japanese society and an inquiry into what it means to be alive and to be fully human. It does become confusing and eccentric as it progresses and loose ends aren’t tied very well. I get the feeling that by the end of the film, director Sion Sono was no more enlightened about the phenomenon of suicide and the role/s it plays in Japanese culture than viewers are, though he did later make another film intended as a prequel to “Suicide Club” and wrote a novel that expounds more on the themes of “Suicide Club” and his intentions with that film.

 

 

Blancanieves: silent Gothic melodrama of a brief summer of shining innocence before a long winter of fascism

Pablo Berger, “Blancanieves” (2012)

In the style of old 1920s expressionist silent films, Berger’s “Blancanieves” is a witty, layered and lavish Gothic retelling of the fairy-tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Set in southern Spain in the 1920s, the innocent beauty becomes Carmencita, the daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his beautiful flamenco-dancing wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta). The child’s birth is attended by tragedy: Villalta becomes a quadriplegic after a goring by a bull (because he was forced to look away by a thoughtless news reporter flashing his camera) and Carmen dies during childbirth. Enter the gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) who marries Villalta and banishes Carmencita (Sofia Oria), who is brought up by her aunt (Angela Molina). Unfortunately Aunty dies while the child is still young so she is sent to the Villalta household where Encarna promptly banishes her to the servants’ quarters. Carmencita manages to find her father in his room and learns basic bull-fighting techniques from him. After his death, she (Macarena Garcia) is banished from her rightful inheritance and is nearly killed by Encarna’s chauffeur lover; traumatised, she suffers from amnesia when found by a troupe of bull-fighting dwarves(!) who welcome her into their nomadic way of life and christen her Blancanieves. Freudian psychology and nature-over-nurture racially based inheritance will out: Blancanieves finds her calling as Spain’s first female toreador, culminating in acclaim and recognition as Villalta’s heir in the prestigious Seville corrida. However, the wicked Encarna has found out about Blancanieves from a fashion magazine and plots the girl’s demise.

The film uses a maximalist expressionist style to tell its nuanced story: the excellent and camera-friendly Verdu camps up her role as the evil stepmother and several wonderful scenes in the film highlight Encarna’s depraved nature and fashion sense. The only thing lacking is evil cackling, as this is a silent movie. Berger employs several experimental filming techniques typical of a number of arthouse films from the early 20th century: Dziga Vertov (“Man with a Movie Camera”), Jean Vigo and Luis Bunuel are obvious inspirations. Alfred Hitchcock is also an influence in many scenes of voyeurism and the Villalta mansion, complete with Hitchcockian staircase which also becomes a murder weapon, might be a nightmare labyrinth from one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories.

Scenes are shot from different angles and the corrida becomes a microcosm of gladiatorial battles between life and death, youth and old age, and innocence and the kind of sophistication that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, embodied by both Encarna and the bull-fighting agent who cunningly takes advantage of Blancanieves’s naivety by tricking her into signing a contract that allows him to exploit her bull-fighting talents and eventually everything else she has. Berger brings a self-reflexive dimension to the reworked fairy-tale: the news media and the cult of celebrity are always present in some way, whether through the reporter’s gaffe that sets the train of tragedy, the fashion magazine as the substitute for the mirror on the wall or the freak-show exploitation of Blancanieves as she lies comatose in her glass coffin while the ghoulish queues of Prince Charming hopefuls line up to pay for the privilege of kissing her; and there are motifs of the eye-as-camera and voyeurism. The dwarves know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and with Blancanieves bill themselves as such: the fact that they’re missing a seventh dwarf bothers only one of their number but no-one else, least of all the public.

At times, the film trembles under the weight of the plot and the multi-layered symbolism and the narrative denouement does not hold up too well under the high tragedy of Blancanieves’s downfall and the creepy freak-show fade-out.

The film’s highlight is its rousing and passionate music soundtrack which includes heavy yet glorious doses of flamenco and militaristic music appropriate to a bull-fighting ritual. Something of the pagan nature of bull-fighting and its probable origins as a fertility rite and test of masculinity makes an appearance.

The subtext is perhaps obvious and banal: the character of Blancanieves represents a life-giving force that is continually thwarted by forces of evil in capitalism: the cult of celebrity, materialism and selfishness, exploitation and competition expressed through various support characters. It seems appropriate that Blancanieves should fall victim to Encarna’s wiles just before the Spanish Civil War breaks out; one presumes that she will have to sleep through General Franco’s rule to 1975 at the very least before she will finally find her Prince Charming.

The Case of the Bloody Iris: trashy serial killer entertainment set in a changing Italy during the early 1970s

Giuliano Carnimeo, “The Case of the Bloody Iris” (1971)

Known also as “What are those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?”, this flick is representative of a unique Italian film genre known as giallo. Giallo films are noted mainly for their combination of psychological thriller and horror, and for featuring much violence and gore, beautiful camera work, a theatrical and often operatic style, and sometimes distinctive and highly expressive musical soundtracks; there will be liberal amounts of female nudity and undercurrents of sexual perversion. The standard plot revolves around a serial killer who preys on beautiful women and butchers them in horrible ways while the victims are in highly vulnerable or compromising situations, and the story will often have a twist ending in which the sociopath killer’s identity is revealed. Themes of isolation, alienation and derangement run through the films.

The plot of “The Case of the Bloody Iris” is as flaky as can be and the film depends on its cast of sometimes bizarre characters, colourful settings, cinematography and various embellishments that actually don’t add anything of value to impress viewers. Two young women are found murdered in a block of apartments. Not long after the second woman is found dead, her apartment is sold to a third young woman, Jennifer (Edwige Fenech), who is escaping her domineering ex-husband. Former hubby runs a strange sex cult that emphasises group sex and he wants her back; Jennifer resists him and he threatens violence. In the meantime, she and bubbly blonde (and equally bubbly-brained) flatmate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) are being stalked by the serial killer. The police do what they can to track the killer. While the killer remains at large, Jennifer becomes acquainted with her apartment neighbours who include a woman living with her estranged father and an elderly widow with a disfigured son. Jennifer also meets the building’s architect Andrea (George Hilton) who is averse to the sight of blood. Any one of these people could be the killer – and the killer has designs on Jennifer and Marilyn!

There is plenty of suspense in this hokey thriller, aided and abetted by stunning cinematography with the camera often at weird angles and plenty of voyeuristic shots. The jazz-influenced music is distinctive with harpsichord riffs looping over and over. The film’s characters come straight out of soap opera territory with their stereotyped behaviour. Red herrings abound as do gratuitous nudity and a sub-plot revolving around the two investigating police officers and their banter over how well one of them works and the other guy’s stamp collection.

For all the gore and sex that I’d been warned about, there’s not that much violence and when violence does occur, there is considerable and graphic blood-letting done in stylish manner; likewise there are bare breasts but full frontal nudity is non-existent. For a B-grade thriller, the movie is well-made with a good pace and a deft touch in its narrative structure and inclusion of humour to leaven the suspense though the climax is not at all credible and feels derivative and tacked-on.

Hitchcockian influences include bird’s-eye views of spiral staircases, one of which is needed for the climax; a widow and her strange son; and incompetent and possibly corrupt police. General themes of big city alienation and isolation, corruption in society and the notion of women as the source of temptation leading to sin loom large. These may have been underlying concerns in Italian society while the country was undergoing major social, political and economic changes during the second half of the 20th century.

The film turns out to be good-looking and stylish trash entertainment with its lead actress Fenech an incredibly stunning lovely lady with long black hair and flawless features. After forty years, “… Bloody Iris” does not look at all outdated though the misogyny and homophobia that  appear may rankle with audiences. For anyone who has never seen a giallo film before, “… Bloody Iris” is heartily recommended as an introduction to the genre.

Shadow of a Doubt: innocence, a happy family and insular small town America menaced by an outside force

Alfred Hitchcock, “Shadow of a Doubt” (1942)

A dark film that explores the potential for violence beneath the patina of an apparently happy family, “Shadow of a Doubt” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favourites. While the film is not distinctly Hitchcockian in most of its set pieces, it does feature strong characterisation and builds tension steadily but surely to its unexpected and shocking climax. The film’s cast may not be hugely famous but main actors Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright give strong performances as Uncle Charlie and his niece Charlie respectively.

Uncle Charlie suddenly appears in the small community of Santa Rosa, surprising his sister and her husband’s family who are wealthy and prominent folks. He quickly charms everyone in the family and the wider community with his good looks and worldly manners. He inveigles his way into his eldest niece Charlie’s affections: the girl herself has just left high school and is biding her time waiting for a suitor to woo and marry her. At the same time, two detectives posing as local news reporters looking to do a story on her family show up and Uncle Charlie, on seeing them, behaves rudely and abruptly towards them. The detectives spot this odd behaviour and warn the girl Charlie. Gradually the girl realises that Uncle Charlie may be a serial killer wanted by police across America for having married and then murdered various rich widows. At the same time, Uncle Charlie suspects that his niece knows who he is and he decides to get rid of her once and for all before she can warn her family.

It’s not often that two characters develop and mature into rich and realistic characters and Cotten and Wright seize the opportunity to fill their parts convincingly. Cotten plays the part of the suave and charming but sinister outsider who has the potential to split a whole family apart; Wright plays the innocent and sheltered young woman who must discover her inner courage and who learns something of the ways of the outside world with natural style and warmth. The other cast members basically fit around the two actors but special mention must go to actors Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn who play young Charlie’s father and his neighbour who keep up a running patter of jokes about killing each other as a humorous and tension-easing counterpoint to the main plot narrative.

Parts of the narrative may strain credibility but there is real tension that is sustained throughout and the film moves smartly and confidently to the inevitable (though rather unbelievable) showdown between Uncle Charlie and young Charlie. Unusually for films of its time, “Shadow …” features a climax in which the heroine is forced to fend for herself; the expected knight in shining armour cannot help her in her hour of need.

Hitchcock manages to insert many of his beloved themes into “Shadow of a Doubt”: the notion of an innocent world, represented by Santa Rosa, invaded by dark forces from outside; the contrast between appearances and the underlying dark reality; the social restrictions on young women like young Charlie, at the start of the film yearning for a more interesting life, who as a result are made vulnerable to predatory men in their quest for love and marriage; and familiar things and concepts turning out to be sources of menace and life-threatening danger. There might also be a sly dig at the American worship of family as an institution where one feels safe and secure, everyone gets along well and there are no closeted skeletons that rattle at inopportune times.

Refreshingly for a tense psychological thriller about a serial murderer, there’s no violence until the very end and even there Hitchcock deals with that brief scene of violence efficiently with quick edits. The climax is hokey and looks cut-and-paste clunky after everything that has built up towards it. Shame.

The use of camera is very deft in suggesting that the family home has hidden secrets and dangers. Long-range shots and voyeuristic scenes seen through windows or from the top of a staircase feature throughout the film. The use of light and shadows as contrasts to illustrate the action and heighten the conflicts boiling through the film is excellent.

Other directors like David Lynch would follow in Hitchcock’s foot-steps in portraying happy families and small town communities that turn out to be dysfunctional in some way; Hitchcock made sure to set the bench high for them to jump with this film.