The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: a parable on the decline and fall of neoliberal British society and culture

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” (1989)

Straight away viewers can tell there’s much more simmering away in this story about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. This is no simple tale of a love triangle, with all its messy and emotional complications and unfortunate consequences, that forms over food and its consumption – especially when Peter Greenaway is the one shaping the narrative and the film’s visual appearance which draws heavily on Renaissance and Baroque art in a very formal and artificial way. This is a film of rage at the decline and fall of Western civilisation and British civilisation in particular, through an allegory that tells of the greed of an elite that ravages society and culture to feed its own spiritual and moral emptiness, that destroys life and imposes its rule on vulnerable people, and which can only end up destroying itself through its own gluttony.

Through means fair and foul (but mostly foul, I suspect), the mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) claims ownership of Le Hollandais, a high-class restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and crudely demonstrates who’s boss by holding court at the main table every night with his retinue of thugs, gorging on food and fighting with customers who dare to criticise the food and with kitchen and waiting staff alike. Forced to accompany Spica is his timid wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who quickly catches the attention of bookish regular customer Michael (Alan Howard) with whom she begins a secretive affair aided and abetted by Boarst. Spica learns of the affair from the girlfriend of one of his myrmidons and Georgina and Michael are forced to hide at his book depository. Spica eventually tracks down the lovers through young kitchen-hand Pup (who is also tortured) and he and his men suffocate and kill Michael while Georgina is away visiting Pup in hospital. Georgina and Boarst plot to avenge Michael’s death in a way that unravels like a 17th-century Jacobean revenge tragedy parable that traps Spica in his own greed, gluttony and violence.

The formal artificiality of the film and its self-referential nature help to smooth over much of its intense brutality and the high emotion and drama. The colours of the film – which also pervade Georgina’s quaint Victorian-styled bondage costumes, changing their hue as she passes from one part of the restaurant to another – reference the close relationships linking life, food, sex, death and rebirth. It is with the death of Michael that Georgina finally discovers her true nature and is reborn – though that new nature itself is not pure. It is with the death of the restaurant that Boarst is able to assist Georgina in paying back Spica for all the abuse and violence he has meted out to her. It is only with the death of Spica that everyone he has belittled can finally heal and become normal human beings entitled to freedom, love and a culture that prizes learning, contemplation and a love of the written word.

While the film is horrific in its extreme and gross violence and the filth and corruption that surrounds the restaurant and follow Spica and his band of murderous men, what saves it is the complexity of the characters: Spica genuinely desires to be and to have what Georgina has (refinement), even if he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it except by bullying his minions, and he weeps for what he and Georgina will never have together (children, a stable family life). Georgina changes drastically from timid put-upon abused wife to secretive and vivacious lover, to cold-blooded and vengeful bitch. Exactly what Michael offers Georgina is not too clear – it’s certainly not freedom as she keeps returning to Spica every evening – and his character more or less remains bland while he is alive (though perhaps to a woman whose husband’s behaviour goes from one violent extreme to another, the lover’s very blandness must be his most attractive quality).

The film is too long with an overly loud and shrieky musical soundtrack to be one of Greenaway’s better films. The end when it comes is abrupt compared to the rest of the movie and one isn’t too sure that Georgina, Richard and all the others wronged by Spica are justified in what they have done to him; but then, that’s the lesson of life: greed and violence corrupt people, culture and society wherever they go.

 

Festen: a rich film skewering Danish society and social hypocrisy, and delivering redemption

Thomas Vinterberg, “Festen” (1998)

“Festen” remains the best-known and most mainstream of the various films made under Dogme 95 movement rules. Even if audiences no longer remember what the goals and restrictions of Dogme 95 are, “Festen” still remains a powerful indictment of late 20th-century Danish society with its obsessions with social conventions and rituals, which serve to suppress and deny uncomfortable truths and secrets that have the power to destroy or at least derail people’s lives and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. The wealthy Klingenfeldt family is celebrating grand patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday at his country estate, and his surviving adult children Michael, Christian and Helene dutifully turn up despite Michael not having an official invitation after the last birthday celebration during which he drunkenly misbehaved himself. Now I say “surviving adult children” because the immediately Klingenfeldt family members soon start talking about their absent sister Linda who is revealed through dialogue and a clever device (in which Christian’s secret love Pia takes a bath) that she drowned herself in a bathtub full of water.

After the entire extended family arrives, everyone is called to dinner and speeches are made during which Christian (Ullrich Thomsen) reveals a shocking family secret involving himself, Linda and their father Helge (Henning Moritzen) and from that moment the film takes ever darker turns, reflected in the steady progress of the day from morning to afternoon to night, in which the family and guests reveal ever more hypocritical and crass sides of their characters and the equally pharisaical nature of Danish society generally in which social conventions, rituals and traditions mask coldness and cruelty, distance between parents and children, and put down children and stunt their growth and development. All of the Klingenfeldt children have somehow failed to meet their father Helge’s expectations of them, and all of them are stumbling through their lives trying to find meaning and purpose. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) has to learn discipline and control if his marriage is to survive and his children are to have a stable home environment. Helene (Paprika Steen) needs to stop waltzing from one foreign man to another and overcome her depression and pill-popping. Christian however cannot find meaning and purpose until he is able to confront his father with his crimes and his mother with her failure to protect him and Linda when they were chldren, and the film becomes as much about the way in which he grows and matures, overcoming one humiliation after another, and finally learns to take charge of his life and find love and purpose.

The adherence to Dogme 95 rules such as the use of hand-held cameras, grainy film of a particular size and various other restrictions gives “Festen” a raw immediacy that confronts audiences with the powerful emotions and the sheer enormity of Helge’s crimes and abuses against his children. The rules also throw the burden of carrying the film and its themes squarely onto the dialogue, the characters and the actors’ ability to carry everything off. The entire cast rises to the challenge and without exception performs magnificently. Thomsen is outstanding as the troubled son battling depression and other personal demons in order to stand up for Linda and himself, and to be able to go forward in life.

Minor characters in the film add to its depth and richness: the dotty elder relatives are sinister in their own ways and one feels for Helene’s African-American boyfriend who is the one sane and sensitive person in the entire birthday party debacle and who one senses will be thrown over like so many previous boyfriends. The servants are rich characters in themselves and push Christian in his endeavour to force his family to confront the truth about his father. Cleverly the film allows Helge’s wife (and the mother of Christian and his siblings) Elsie to condemn herself as an accessory to Helge’s past sins and she becomes a lonely and isolated figure scorned by family and guests alike.

While the film could have been made without Dogme 95 rules, and one does not need to know the rules to watch and appreciate the film’s power, “Festen” could have been a much lesser work without the rules. This film can be a terrifying experience with its depictions of violence, instability, depression and emotional pain, yet it unexpectedly also delivers forgiveness and redemption in amongst social criticism and black comedy. In years to come, this will be considered one of Denmark’s great films and a great film in the tradition of the comedy of manners, following films like Louis Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”.

Dead Sushi: wacky comedy horror film takes pot-shots at corporate culture and greed, and food obsessions

Noboru Iguchi, “Dead Sushi” (2012)

In the tradition of wacky Japanese comedy horror flicks comes this little number that takes a bizarre concept (bloodthirsty monster sushi) and milks it for all it’s worth (and then some) while managing to sneak in a coming-of-age / road movie theme in which discovering your true self and talents is the goal. Teenager Keiko (Rina Takeda) is trained by her sushi chef father to be both a sushi chef herself and a martial arts practitioner. The exacting standards her father imposes on her – plus his disdain for the fact that she was born a girl, not a boy – lead Keiko to run away from home and take up a job as a waitress at a rural hot springs resort. The other waitresses bully her and the resort owners kick her around roughly and warn her to maintain the place’s high (chortle) standards. Only the gardener Mr Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) treats her kindly. A group of corporate employees from a pharmaceutical firm arrives at the resort and the guests start throwing their weight about as well. Unbeknownst to all, a former employee has followed his erstwhile work colleagues to the resort, planning to avenge his sacking on his former bosses by injecting a liquid into sushi that turns the tasty morsels into fanged ravenous critters with the power of flight!

The computer-generated gore flies freely and bloodily and the fight sequences are perhaps a little too sharp and smooth in their choreography. Most characters are as one-dimensional and stereotyped as can be – even Keiko isn’t completely plausible as the shy, put-upon doormat who becomes an unexpected heroine – and director Iguchi has to continually pile on one send-up or cliche on top of another to keep the film going. The victims of the mutant sushi turn into rice-spewing zombies, the angry researcher transforms into a giant tuna monster, two pieces of sushi propagate an army of killer baby sushi balls (which later make for a beautiful spectacle of whizzing colour as they attack a human victim) and a giant salmon roe sushi battleship flies after Keiko flinging chains and blasting fire at her!

What helps to keep the movie going, aside from the pace and the ratcheting up of more jaw-dropping silliness, is a sub-plot involving the resort owners and the sushi chef they employ, along with themes of corporate corruption and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Underdogs, be they human or sushi, perform heroic deeds and sacrifice themselves if necessary to thwart evil. No-one associated with the film, least of all the cast and the director, takes it all that seriously and the general tone is light-hearted. The film ends on a happy note with both the corporate baddies and the monster sushi brought to heel and Keiko finally discovering her life’s purpose. For all the silly fun and jaw-dropping freakishness, the film cleverly skewers plenty of cultural stereotypes in modern Japanese society: the obsession with perfection in food preparation that amounts to gastro-pornography, the control that corporations have over their employees, and men’s sexist treatment of women, among others. Like Iguchi’s other gonzo freak-fest “RoboGeisha” which I reviewed not so long ago, “Dead Sushi” in its own way critiques contemporary Japanese society and values by throwing its obsessions at it and exploiting them to the hilt.

The American Friend: an investigation into the nature of individual and collective identity

Wim Wenders, “Der Amerikanische Freund / The American Friend” (1977)

Based on the novel “Ripley’s Game” by Patricia Highsmith, “The American Friend” is at once a psychological thriller imbued with European art-house sensibilities, a character study of two men in a strange and uneasy friendship and a homage to American film noir. Art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is introduced to con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction; Jonathan already knows of Ripley’s reputation as a dealer in forged art and snubs him by refusing to shake his hand. Miffed at such treatment, Ripley avenges himself by using news about Jonathan’s incurable blood disease to draw the unsuspecting victim into a scheme concocted together with French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) in which Jonathan has to kill another gangster for money. Jonathan is repelled by the idea but he needs the money to pass on to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and their two sons in the event of his death. He is persuaded by Ripley and Minot to visit a medical specialist in Paris for a second opinion and the results (intercepted and falsified by Ripley) convince Jonathan that he really is dying and must ensure his family is financially secure. In this way Jonathan falls deeper under Ripley’s control and the two men form a close if bizarre friendship.

Meanwhile Marianne is suspicious about Jonathan’s absences and believes he is in over his head in a dangerous project with Ripley. She discovers through her own investigations that the Paris medical test results have been faked. Will she be able though to reach her husband in time to persuade him not to go any further in a life of crime and to get him out of Ripley’s clutches for his sake and that of their family?

As character studies go, the film does a good job following a man whose life spins out of control and whose decisions and actions endanger him and his family, all as a result of not shaking someone’s hand. Duped into thinking his disease is killing him, desperate to provide well for his family, Jonathan ends up spiralling into committing one crime after another. His new life brings its own strains: his physical health starts to suffer under a guilty conscience and he becomes estranged from his wife due to all the lies he tells her. Ripley is not treated simply as a catalyst for Jonathan’s downfall; as Jonathan goes farther on his road to hell, he and Ripley become close friends and collaborators. Through Jonathan, Ripley gains entry into German society that he would never have been able to achieve on his own. However the film’s events end up thwarting Ripley’s further penetration into polite pan-European circles and the American is left stranded and alone once more.

Both Ganz as the rather pathetic Jonathan, driven to distraction between competing needs, and Hopper in his particular lanky cowboy Yankee way play their characters well; Hopper’s laidback and easy-going style belies a ruthless and thuggish aspect in Ripley’s personality. The support cast more or less play stereotypes of their roles – Kreuzer is effective as a German hausfrau but goes no further to stamping her own individuality on her role.

The film features some beautiful cinematography in keeping with its art-house aesthetics but at the same time follows the demands of psychological thriller quite faithfully, if with unexpected results. It can be slow for a thriller and most of the action is bunched up in the film’s second half. The music is an important actor in the film in setting a mood and priming it audiences to anticipate an unexpected and violent move on Jonathan’s part. Just what is it really in Jonathan’s nature that drives him to distrust his family doctor, reject his wife and follow a man who initially struck him as insincere and possibly dangerous? Being terminally ill and needing better life insurance cannot wholly explain Jonathan’s motivations. Could Jonathan have secretly envied Ripley’s apparent freedom in defining himself and being his own man? Through Jonathan, viewers are challenged as to the nature of one’s identity, how a person’s public identity can be at variance with his or her real character and desires, and how one’s circumstances and history can conspire to throw him/her into a trajectory that changes the public identity but might fulfill secret desires. Jonathan’s ultimate fate though should give us pause as to how far we might be able to go in breaking out of our public personas and achieving an illusory freedom. Ripley himself appears to escape the consequences of what he has done to the Zimmermanns and to others, but he cannot escape his own internal prison.

Aside from its existential questioning, the film could also be read as an inquiry into the nature of how Germany is becoming more Americanised and the intent behind American makeover of German society, thinking and behaviour. Is there an agenda behind the gradual change in German culture towards thinking and acting like Americans? Will the outcome benefit Germans or, as the film suggests, will it result in suffering and death for those seduced by American culture?

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Hollywood Goth drama undone by misanthropy and poor source material

Tim Burton, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

US film director Tim Burton has long been fascinated with non-conformists and outsiders, especially those outsiders who become so because they live in oppressive environments, and he has also been keen on revealing the darker aspects of human nature and society. He has obviously experienced being marginalised himself and past film work of his argues strongly on behalf of those persecuted by mainstream society because of their differences and their struggles with having to conform to unrealistic standards. The Victorian melodrama of London barber Sweeney Todd who is unjustly banished by a corrupt judge to Australia for a crime not of his own doing and who later returns seeking bloody vengeance against the judge who destroyed his family and the society that condemned him was bound to appeal to Burton.

His adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical of the tale though seems ill-advised for someone who cares about the plight of oppressed individuals; even with all the changes Burton had to make to the musical to bring the tale to the screen, the plot turns out to be superficial and focuses on spectacle, shock and sensationalist violence, and the music and lyrics are very boring and repetitive. The original melodrama itself and the musical material are mostly to blame – there really is not much substantial for Burton to work with – but the director himself does not bring much new to the film. Even the cast he assembles for the film depends heavily on two actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who have worked with the director on several other films (and HBC was Burton’s de facto wife at the time as well) and who both knew what was expected of them for this movie.

Benjamin Barker (Depp) returns to Victorian London by ship accompanied by sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), having previously been imprisoned and sent away for 15 years on trumped-up charges imposed by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) because Turpin had lusted after Barker’s wife. With Barker gone, Turpin and his valet Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) lure Barker’s wife and daughter into their clutches; Turpin rapes Mrs Barker who then tries to kill herself and later goes mad. She is cast out into the streets and Turpin then brings up the daughter Johanna as his ward, planning later on to marry her. When Barker returns to London, he contacts his old landlady Mrs Lovett (HBC) who helps him re-establish his barbershop.

After despatching rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) who tried to blackmail Barker, and missing a chance to kill Turpin, Barker and Lovett hit upon a scheme that benefits them both: Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, starts killing a considerable proportion of his clients and sends their bodies down a ramp to Lovett in her dungeon where she processes the corpses through a mincing machine into meat for her pie-shop business. The couple do a roaring trade, the authorities initially suspect nothing, and Barker/Todd and Lovett start planning a future away from London with Lovett’s assistant Toby (Ed Sanders), inherited from Pirelli, in tow.

In the meantime, Hope meets Johanna (Jane Wisener) and falls in love with her; the young couple try to elope but Turpin intervenes and sends the defiant Johanna to a madhouse for women. This subplot is thinly developed, with Hope rescuing Johanna without too much trouble from a supposed prison and bringing her to Todd’s barbershop as refuge. By the time he does so, Todd and Lovett have become deranged serial murderers in their quest and Johanna is in as much mortal danger from Todd as she ever was from Judge Turpin.

The thinness of the plot and the lacklustre music, not helped much by the actors’ thin voices (but at least they try valiantly and Depp is not too bad as a singer), have to be padded out by Burton’s familiar Hollywood Gothic visual style of painting his lead actors’ faces to look haunted and ghost-like, and the depiction of London as faux-Dickensian. The violence and bloodletting are dealt with in forced comic Monty-Python style and the only real moment of horror which Burton actually does very effectively comes at the end when Toby, suspecting that Todd isn’t all that he seems to be, is led into the dungeon by Lovett who traps him there to face the full horror of what she and Todd have been up to.

The film veers between Burton’s sympathy for underdogs and the misanthropy of the lyrics, as his characters try to lift themselves out of poverty into Victorian middle-class comfort by preying on rich and poor alike. Eventually Todd’s desire for revenge and Lovett’s love for Todd and her attempts to create a family with him and Toby become their undoing. Burton obviously has fun picking up themes of longing for security and connection, desire for retribution against individual and social injustice, and the need for individuals to find a place in society that helps them fulfill other needs, throwing them all together and seeing what comes out. How the conflict that arises from the intersection of these individual needs results in tragedy. At the end of the film, the survivors of the carnage are no better off than its victims. Todd and Lovett end up being cannibalised by their own desires and scheming. What happens to Hope, Johanna and Toby remains unknown.

If there’s a message to be taken away, it seems to be that human nature is nasty and unredeemable, and even those individuals and layers of society badly treated by others are as bad and corrupt as those who mistreat them. Nothing in the movie – and I suspect in Burton’s source material, to judge from the lyrics – attempts to investigate the nature of a society that allows the rich and powerful like Judge Turpin and their hangers-on like Bamford to prey on the poor and to escape proper social justice while the poor tear themselves apart with personal hatreds and desires, as Todd and Lovett end up doing.

The bleakness of the film’s narrative, the underlying misanthropy and the sensational violence have to be covered up with a cartoonish presentation and an approach that goes for cheap laughs. None of the characters is very convincing and only the beggar woman persecuted by Lovett, along with Johanna, Toby and Hope elicit any audience sympathy.

Pieta (dir. Kim Kiduk): a cruel and absurd grotesquery mocking the poor and the marginalised

Kim Kiduk, “Pieta” (2012)

This tale of dark revenge centres around a class of people at the bottom-feeding end of the capitalist social hierarchy pyramid, those people fated to work at essential jobs paying little money, in dangerous life-threatening conditions and little hope of advancement. You know who these folk and what these jobs are: these people are subcontractors who work on projects given them by large industrial firms, or who recycle machines and other objects discarded by companies and consumers. These workers earn very little and borrow heavily simply to sustain themselves and their families but then are often unable to pay their crippling debts.

Enter Kangdo (Lee Jeongjin), a brutal enforcer working for a loan shark moneylender, going about threatening these people with severe injuries if they don’t pay back their debts. When they plead for more time, he breaks their fingers or throws them off ledges onto hard ground where their legs are broken. The money they receive from government agencies to pay their medical costs is instead claimed by Kangdo. Kangdo operates in the concrete underbelly of Seoul, in a labyrinthine maze of dreary garages, machine shops and junkyards. His personal life is as depressing and cold as his working life: Kangdo lives alone in a filthy flat in what appears to be a derelict apartment building, he has no close relationships and his diet consists of meat from animals that he kills himself, and whose innards grace his bathroom floor. A house-proud tenant he certainly ain’t.

Unexpectedly one day he meets a strange middle-aged woman (Cho Minsoo) who pursues him, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a tiny baby. Kangdo rejects the woman and warns her to stay away from him but she continues to pester him. He then puts her through some hair-raising tests including an incest rape which she passes with flying colours (of mostly blood-red hue). Over time, Kangdo and the woman accept each other, they start behaving as son and mother, and Kangdo starts to regain some of the humanity that he has always kept deeply buried in order to survive on the streets and to cope with being a brutal and loathsome thug. He starts to feel shame and guilt about the things he has done and he resolves to give up his brutal occupation and to start anew.

Alas, when he starts to open up and rediscover his connection to others that he had to suppress in order to survive on the streets, the woman herself discovers the full extent of his misdeeds as a moneylender’s enforcer and she determines to teach her son a lesson about accepting the consequences of his crimes and understanding how much his victims have suffered …

From then on, the plot becomes shaky and melodramatic as each of Kangdo’s past victims (or the ones we have seen anyway) return to haunt and taunt him in some way. As a result of being reunited with his mother, Kangdo returns to a child-like state and is unable to defend himself. One implausible incident leads to another even wackier one and while the plot descends into farce, earlier themes about how impoverished and marginalised people are bullied and exploited, and how capitalist society creates changes that crush, corrupt and sweep away people, and damages relationships and communities, are swept aside. Minor characters are treated as both pathetic victims, often for comic effect, or as brutal and corrupt themselves: either way, the film hardly shows much compassion and understanding for them in their debased states as they try to survive in the best way they can.

While the cinematography (filming was done with a hand-held camera) is beautifully if minimally done with well-placed shots, and the plot runs on very spare if sometimes brutal dialogue with long stretches of silent film that takes in the griminess of the life led by the urban poor in a derelict neighbourhood of tiny machine shops and scattered junk, “Pieta” frequently has an air of self-satisfaction and parody. As a Korean film, it appears to send up other well-known art-house Korean films on vengeance, redemption and dysfunctional mother-son relationships characterised by smother love, debasement and mutual psychological and physical violence. After the halfway point of the film, when Kangdo finally accepts his mother, the plot goes downhill with Kangdo progressively becoming more infantile in pleading for his mother’s life (while unaware that his mother, driven by her own demons, is playing a cruel trick on him) with unseen kidnappers. When the worst happens, Kangdo is left adrift and helpless, unable to survive on his own. The paradox is that when he was brutal, Kangdo did well enough on his own, but once he comes to know love and human connection, he reverts to the state of an infant and when the connection is broken, the only thing left for him is death. The social circumstances that led his mother to abandon him as a baby continues as heartlessly as it did before. If this paradox is supposed to be a blackly humorous comment on the human condition, I’d hate to know what a deadly serious comment would be.

The cosmic-joke nature of the film, its self-conscious cleverness and the way fate smacks Kangdo about, while leaving out any criticism of the industrial society that brutalises people and makes possible violence, corruption and degradation of individuals and society alike, leaves “Pieta” with a bad smell. Revenge may be pitiless, redemption may come with a heavy price and that price may be death, yes, but the way in which Kangdo is manipulated into debasing himself in a completely abject way is unconvincing. For all the fine acting and an undeveloped sub-plot about the purpose of existence and ordering your life away from the pursuit of material wealth, the film turns out to be an absurd and cruel grotesquery.

The Virgin Spring: a profound and moving work on vengeance, justice and the remoteness of religion

Ingmar Bergman, “The Virgin Spring / Jungfrukällan” (1960)

Perhaps not so celebrated as “The Seventh Seal”, this morality tale on the nature of humanity, the remoteness of religion and the anguish of human existence is nevertheless powerful in its apparent simplicity. In 14th-century rural Sweden, a wealthy landowner Töre (Max von Sydow) and his wife Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), both devout Christians, farewell their daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson) on her long trip to deliver candles to a local church. With her is her pregnant foster sister Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), treated by their mother as a servant as punishment for having a child out of wedlock. Karin and Ingeri’s trip is long and takes them through remote country, and it’s not long before the two young women are separated and Karin meets a dreadful fate at the hands of two impoverished goat-herders attracted to her innocence, generosity and, above all, her rich clothes. Later the goat-herders, together with their mute young brother, seek shelter at Töre and Märeta’s farm where they try to sell the clothes they have taken off Karin. The parents recognise the clothes as Karin’s, and what follows next, as the parents are torn between their Christian faith, with its admonition to forgive sin and to have mercy, and their desire for vengeance against those who have harmed their only child, can only be described as appalling.

Threaded throughout the film is a constant war between Christianity and paganism: early on, Ingeri invokes the god Odin to harm Karin, the favoured and spoilt child, and pops a toad into Karin’s lunch before it is packed into the saddle-bags for the journey. The religious overtones throughout the film are strong to the extent that the whole work groans with the burden. It’s not hard to see that the various characters represent the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: Karin is guilty of sloth, her mother of pride, Ingeri of envy, Töre of anger and the goat-herders of lust, gluttony and greed. Another sin that might be added here is excess: Töre’s rage is so overwhelming that he ends up killing a child who is guilty only by association with the goat-herders. The pagan aspects of the film and their association with life and death are portrayed in the use of fire, earth and water throughout: fire gives life and warmth but can also kill; trees grow from the earth but earth can also smother; and water as used in the film symbolises new life but can also be used in rituals that prepare one for murder. During the girls’ trip, Ingeri meets a sinister old gentleman who might be Odin made manifest: he is one-eyed, he has a pet raven and he lives in a strange wooden house (representing Yggdrasil, where Odin hanged himself?) where water (Odin’s blood?) is continuously pouring through the walls and flooding the floors. The Christian aspect is also strong: Karin’s role as sacrificial lamb is obvious and even the goats that gambol about have symbolic value (as bearers of sin).

Ambiguity is also a constant through the film and none of the characters comes off as admirable in any way. Perhaps the most outstanding character is that of Märeta: initially steadfast in her Christian faith to the extent of burning stigmata into her wrists, the woman lavishes love on Karin, yet when her faith is tested, she becomes a calculating bitch – the scene in which she accepts the clothes from the goat-herders, recognises the clothes and tells the men she’ll find out what her husband is prepared to pay is cold and chilling, and what follows after when she collapses on the door-step and hugs the torn rags is equally heart-wrenching – and all but urges her husband to avenge Karin’s rape and death. This is a splendid piece of acting, notable for its emotional restraint. Von Sydow’s Töre is no less riveting for his near-manic desire for vengeance, his terrible violence and his anguish when, as a result of what he has done, he finds no relief in murder and vengeance, begs God for forgiveness and tries to bargain with God by promising that he will build a church on the site of Karin’s death. His Christian faith, shaky to begin with, cannot help him; his wife’s faith, also severely tested, cannot help either. The couple find themselves in a dreadful existential dilemma in which vengeance has proved to be a hollow comfort. Karin may be spoilt but her innocence, bordering on gullibility and sheer idiocy, is touching and her rape and death are unbearable to watch for their overwhelming pathos. The goat-herders may be repellent but viewers may feel some pity for their poverty, circumstances and unthinking stupidity which have driven them to greed, rape and murder.

The tone of the film is bleak and viewers are left in no doubt about the hardships that people in mediaeval rural Sweden had to suffer in making a living. The film’s coda looks tacked on as an afterthought and its meaning is unclear: does the spring that bubbles up under Karin represent the triumph of paganism over Christianity, or is it a sign of forgiveness or otherwise from God in answer to Töre’s outburst? The spring can symbolise the rebirth and renewal of life and hope. The film’s cinematography is beautiful and simple yet powerful, with a strong focus on close-ups of actors’ faces and the expressions on them, and it is no surprise to learn that the cinematographer for this film, Sven Nykvist, became director Bergman’s go-to camera man for all of his later films.

The film’s plot might stretch plausibility but overall this is a profound and highly emotional work.

Mixing samurai sword action, gore and political commentary on “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance”

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance / Shurayukihime: Urami Renga” (1974)

At the end of the first eponymous film, main character Yuki (Meiko Kaji) was dying in the snow but here she has recovered enough to become a fugitive on the run from the Meiji government for having killed the people who murdered her family. A bounty has been placed on her head and Yuki has to travel constantly and furtively to escape oppressive justice. A government agent, Kikui (Shin Kishida), grants her a reprieve from imprisonment, torture and death by giving her a mission: to assassinate activist and trouble-maker Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami) who holds a document whose false flag secrets could incriminate Kikui and a prominent politician, and lead to nation-wide unrest and rioting. Naturally Kikui and his politician friend want the document destroyed. As Yuki tracks down Ransui Tokunaga and becomes involved in his family affairs which include a rivalry with his impoverished doctor brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada) over Shusuke’s estranged wife, the swords-woman finds herself embroiled in conflicting political and personal rivalries in a context of a more militaristic and oppressive society using supposedly progessive social and economic reforms to enforce authoritarian laws and stultifying conformity on the population at large.

As sequels go, this is not a bad one and while very plot-heavy at the expense of character development, the film is engrossing in its own way due to the historical background with the ideas that Meiji-era Japan has eagerly embraced. The Meiji government has imposed a corrupt and violent police force on the people, and guns prove more useful and deadly than martial arts, but the ordinary people have also come to embrace radical politics and its promise of equality, freedom for all and democratic rule. As a result the government resorts to even more violence and torture, and employs underhanded and shocking methods including biological warfare tools – one character is injected with bubonic plague and thrown into a Tokyo slum – to get what it wants and this theme of increasing militarisation and oppression through a selective Westernisation / modernisation program of early 20th-century Japan informs the entire film. While the driving motivation of revenge no longer exists, the convoluted plot produces enough skulduggery, betrayal and corruption on the part of Kikui, his politician friend and government institutions to imbue Yuki with a new life’s mission: to gain justice for and defend the weak, the poor and the vulnerable.

As Yuki, Kaji displays just enough emotion to make her steely character plausible as the avenging angel turned crusader for the poor. She has very little to say and all feeling and character are expressed through her eyes and facial expression – Kaji proves quite adept at saying much in her body language if not in her dialogue. All other characters in the film are treated as disposable and so are very one-dimensional. The love triangle sub-plot is sketchily developed but we learn enough about it in characters’ dialogue that it is plausible. The lack of characterisation proves to be a major flaw as Yuki appears not to care that much for social justice compared to her own desire to evade the law and an argument may be mounted that she only acts the way she does mainly to avenge the torture and death of someone she holds dear and at the same time set even the score with the police. We end up caring much more for the people of the Tokyo slums who lose their homes to arson instigated by Kikui and his hench-men.

The cinematography is very good with much emphasis on beautiful outdoor scenes and unusual angles of filming. There is not quite as much visual experimentation with the movie driven by the complicated plot and its unexpected twists. Fight scenes are occasional and their portrayal is more competent and efficient than elaborate and balletic. Indeed, Yuki does well over most of her killing in the opening credits.

Lovers of samurai sword action and a large body count may be disappointed that there is less choppy-chop though what there is can be very gruesome with one character getting his eyes put out on separate occasions. The political angle may be confusing and the twists in the plot tend to drag out the action and can be exasperating to viewers not familiar with the history of Meiji-era Japan. But for those who know that history and the struggle of the Japanese in general against the hierarchical and totalitarian tendencies of their society and culture, this sequel to “Lady Snowblood” can be quite an absorbing experience.

Lady Snowblood: questioning the pursuit of vengeance in a society undergoing rapid social and economic change

Toshiya Fujita, “Lady Snowblood / Shurayukihime” (1973)

Based on a manga and the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” homage to old 1970s Asian martial arts flicks, “Lady Snowblood” turns out much better than I thought it would. As a film of vengeance, “Lady Snowblood” actually questions the justification for and pursuit of vengeance in a world of tumultuous social, economic and technological change. Old traditions, values and customs come in for questioning as to whether they can still have any relevance to a new generation in a new world. The film also draws power from its inversion of the traditional role of women in Japanese society: the dominant female characters are strong and unyielding while the male characters are either weak or subservient in some way.

A Westernised family travelling in the country is accosted by a village gang who, suspecting the husband to be spying for the Meiji government, kill him and his son and imprison the wife who is raped and tortured by several gang members. The wife kills one of her tormentors and is thrown into a jail for her pains. In time, she gives birth to a daughter and lives long enough to declare that the child should be brought up to avenge the deaths of her family. Taken in by a kindly woman and a stern Buddhist priest, the child Yuki is trained in martial arts and endurance, all her energies channelled by the priest into transforming her into a professional assassin. Once of age, Yuki (Meiko Kaji) seeks out her family’s assassins and dispatches them one by one. She not only leaves behind a trail of blood, corpses and dismembered limbs but also a young girl brimming herself with hatred and desire for vengeance, sensational news reports, a police force hot on her trail and a terrorised populace.

The film is beautifully shot, often from unusual and artistic angles, and carries a certain if perhaps remote elegance. Parts of the story are told in flashback and some original methods of portraying past history, including the use of old sepia-toned photographic stills and comics panels, are used. There is always the feeling of the impermanence of life and the constancy of change, and the hint that, regardless of whether she succeeds or not, Yuki’s life is lost to an existential paradox: if she succeeds in carrying out her mother’s wishes, her life itself will be over and there is nothing left; if she does not succeed, her life will never be hers to live as a free agent. A hint that pursuing vengeance is ultimately an empty quest, one that can only end badly for Yuki, is ever present. Divided into chapters, each focussed solely on an act of killing, the plot is very threadbare and loose ends are never fully explained but the entire film has a very grim and gritty determination that reflects the heroine’s own iron resolve. The acting is adequate for the job and Kaji’s face manages to be at once stony and expressive whenever the camera wants a close-up of it at critical moments in the film when something unexpected happens that robs Yuki of any satisfaction in carrying out her life work, which is more often than you’d expect in this film. Kaji’s minimal acting manages to turn Yuki into a more subtle and less one-dimensional character than Yuki perhaps deserves to be; there is the suggestion beneath her tough exterior and in some brief scenes, that perhaps Yuki doubts the wisdom of her life’s assignment and might wish that she could have been more like ordinary women. That may be an ironic point, given that most ordinary Japanese women of the time were expected to marry and raise children, and not question social expectations of them to be obedient and subservient to their fathers, husbands and sons.

As the action takes place over a period of 20+ years, the film revels in showing how people change over time and whether or not they regret past actions or realise that vows taken 20 years ago may have no force or relevance to the present day. The thugs who destroyed Yuki’s family have all met with varied fortunes: one has become a destitute drunk, trying to forget the crimes he committed in the past; another has (ironically) become a government agent and middle-man in the trading of weapons between Japan and the West. The action takes place in a world of political corruption where the rich and powerful exploit the poor and the little people are reduced to petty in-fighting and acts of betrayal and vengeance. If only they knew how the elites were screwing them in those days, then they would combine their energies and resources to fight the real enemy! But alas and alack, despite the best efforts of a crusading journalist writing up the deeds of Yuki in his newspaper, the poor are kept divided by ignorance, manipulation and oppression, and (spoiler alert) Yuki the white angel of death is herself felled by a woman much like herself in seeking family vengeance.

There’s a great deal of blood-letting and the sprays of bright-red liquid are obviously exaggerated for effect. The killing isn’t exactly graceful and the fight choreography is more efficient than balletic and stylised. After all is said and done, the film manages to be most things for most people: an enjoyable splatter samurai revenge flick, an attempt at character study and examination of the futility of revenge, and a portrayal of a society in transformation and how individuals cope with immense social and economic change.

 

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.