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.

 

 

Dogville: failing to understand complexities and contradictions of American people, culture and history

Lars von Trier, “Dogville” (2003)

First in a series of films on American culture from Lars von Trier’s own rather idiosyncratic viewpoint, “Dogville” is a minimalist parable on how good people quickly turn nasty and commit acts of evil. Dogville is a tiny hamlet located in rural Colorado; the setting is some time during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A young woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is on the run from gangsters and comes to Dogville. The young town philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany) persuades the sceptical townsfolk to accept Grace as a refugee in a social experiment he is conducting on the town’s ability to be open and accepting of others. The Dogville denizens initially put Grace to a test lasting two weeks during which she assists with the town’s work. After that test, Grace is accepted by the town. In the months that follow, law enforcement officers arrive on two occasions to inform the Dogville residents that Grace is a fugitive who may be connected to crime. The townsfolk’s attitudes toward Grace change and they begin to abuse and exploit her in the most sordid and disgusting ways. She is chained up and forced to wear a heavy collar around her neck, the men use her as a prostitute, the women accuse her of sluttish behaviour and even the children of the town treat her like dirt. Finally Tom, who is supposedly in love with Grace, pulls out a business card given him by the gangsters earlier in the film to call them to come and take Grace away.

Unfortunately when the gangsters do come for Grace, the film’s punchline is revealed: rather than Tom using Grace as a tool in his social experiment, Grace was using Dogville as a laboratory and pawn in her own ongoing bizarre intellectual debate with her Mafia dad (James Caan) on the nature of evil in humans and the role that forgiveness – for Grace has been forgiving towards the townspeople in spite of their abusive and degrading behaviour – should play in how she deals with them. Daddy accuses Grace of being arrogant for constantly overlooking the townspeople’s motivations and reasons for abusing Grace and excusing their behaviour due to the peculiar circumstances in which she has come to the town; she is an outsider with an understandably shady past, police officers have warned the people about her and the town has been isolated for so long that hospitality towards outsiders does not come natually to them.

The film alludes to von Trier’s earlier film trilogy (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) of the golden-hearted girl who gives of herself unceasingly and without question until she has nothing left to give and even then is willing to sacrifice her life to keep on giving; but mostly it’s an exposition of a pessimistic view of humanity and its potential for redemption. (Perhaps von Trier himself got fed up with his golden-hearted heroines’ unceasing passivity and goodness and decided it was time Grace took collective revenge on their behalf as well as her own.) The townsfolk come to dislike Grace because she is a mirror of what is lacking in their lives or what they try to suppress in their natures in order to live from day to day. Von Trier seems to suggest that ultimately humans do not deserve to survive because when they meet something good that does not come with strings, they ultimately trash it. Morality or what passes for morality and ethics in Dogville is shown to be very fragile, especially when the realisation dawns on Tom and the townsfolk that Grace has very few choices and the safest choice for her is to stay in Dogville forever. Thus the people turn her into a slave.

I admit I am uneasy about this film: by reducing the world to a small town and filming the story on a stage with props, von Trier ends up over-simplifying the view that people are basically quite shitty in their natures and will resort to abusive behaviour given the right circumstances. An inkling that all’s not quite right with the town comes early in the film in Tom’s own behaviour as a self-styled thinker and town philosopher who lives off his father’s fortune and the way in which he decides to use Grace in his experiment to expose the flaws in the town’s communal mentality. Of course, Tom himself is undone by his experiment: he is just as mean-spirited as the townsfolk and in fact is even more so as he betrays Grace to the gangsters seeking her. There is nothing in the film about the role that other institutions and historical factors , such as the former institution of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans by whites in Colorado and the exigencies of the Great Depression might possibly have on the townspeople, to say nothing of the effects of social and cultural isolation from other communities on the people. There also isn’t anything about the town’s economy mentioned and how it might contribute to the people’s treatment of Grace: it seems significant to me that during her stay in Dogville, Grace has to work for wages to pay for board and her acquisition of a set of figurines and that the work she does, as well as her status in town, influences what she is paid. As her social status decreases, her work becomes more onerous and dangerous, and her pay drops.

Ultimately the film’s message seems to be that no matter how much grace is bestowed upon humans, human nature is so dark it cannot really be redeemed and in such a situation humanity is better off destroyed so that the world can be cleansed and be born anew. This is a despairing conclusion and one that belittles the acting performance given by Kidman as Grace. Kidman displays understated elegance in playing a Christ-like character who suffers endlessly and who represents a New Testament view of God as loving and forgiving. Bettany is quite good as the would-be disciple and Caan plays a judgemental mafia version of God who challenges Grace’s continued desire to forgive by suggesting that this desire arises from her own arrogance. (Say that again?) Other fine actors like Lauren Bacall and Patricia Clarkson play fairly minor roles that could have been performed by others far less talented.

There is an underlying theme of the abuse of power by both the townsfolk and also by Grace and her godfather dad through the social and religious institutions these people have grown up with. Von Trier does not make much out of how individuals use religion, culture and social mores to gain and misuse power, nor how such institutions are moulded or lend themselves to people in ways that make the acquisition and abuse of power easy or difficult. The character of Tom is significant in this respect: he may have his real-life parallel in those sections of academia, science, industry, culture, religion, media and other intelligentsia who happily co-operate with their masters in government in oppressing the ordinary people but who just might find themselves thrown under a bus should the powers that be wish to dispense with their services.

I have the impression that von Trier in his own way was trying to grapple with the contradictions and paradoxes of an America that posits itself as a land of freedom, equality and democracy with the country where slavery lasted so long and racial prejudice has poisoned and corrupted many of its institutions, where money talks louder and more powerfully than abstract ideals and corrupts American people and their social, religious, political and economic institutions; and what he came up with is a comment on American society as he sees it from his narrow point of view without really exploring and understanding it much. It’s easy to sheet the blame home on a biologically deterministic view of human nature. As a result, despite the efforts of Kidman and company in giving life to the characters of “Dogville”, the film comes across as overly earnest, a bit shallow and very confused.

 

 

A Tattooed Life: underrated yakuza character study expressing anti-nationalist nihilism

Seijun Suzuki, “A Tattooed Life / Irezumi Ichidai” (1965)

A surprisingly touching and quite emotional drama, told in a traditional way, this is an underrated yakuza film from Seijun Suzuki in which he explores honour and loyalty between two brothers. Hit man Tetsu and his much younger art-student brother Kenji are forced to go on the run when they are suddenly ambushed by rival killers and Kenji, trying to defend his big brother, kills an important yakuza. The two men try to catch a ship to Manchuria but a sleazy hustler fleeces them of their money and they go to work instead for a man, Yamashita, in charge of a construction company trying to build a tunnel. The brothers are accepted by the work crew but it’s not long until Kenji falls in love with Yamashita’s wife Masayo and Masayo’s teenaged kid sister Midori falls for Tetsu. At the same time, one of Yamashita’s employees, a not-very-nice piece of work, has the hots for Midori so there are a couple of very complicated love triangles here. Add to those linked romances the police and the yakuza linked to the man murdered by Kenji hot on the brothers’ trail and you’ve got one slowly yet steadily simmering revenge drama that erupts into a brief but highly intense bout of violence.

The bulk of the film is basically a character-driven straight narrative that establishes the context for the violence for which Suzuki pulls out all the stops for the precious four minutes that underline his reputation for stylish direction: the traditional Japanese house structure provides an unforgettable setting for the interplay of shadow and light, what is seen versus what remains hidden behind paper screens, the use of colour as a dramatic device in its own right, and even the unusual angles at which the camera is held to emphasise the visceral nature of the sword and gun fights. As the fight proceeds, the camera pans along to the left, zooms in on a character running away from the camera lens through a series of rooms, then shifts position to film from above and abruptly jumps to film characters from below! The actual fighting is unforgettable to watch as men slash at one another with swords; it looks precise and graceful thanks to the lighting Suzuki used and the minimal backgrounds in which one colour predominates among the shadows.

Apart from the film’s set piece, the rest of the narrative is not bad to watch: the brothers improbably build up a rapport with Yamashita’s work crew which includes plenty of oddball characters who, even after they learn of Tetsu’s yakuza background and of Kenji’s crush on Masayo, rally behind them both. The brothers have a close relationship which is often strained by Kenji’s impulsive actions and his deeply felt loss of their mother which translates into a desire for Masayo. Kenji’s thoughtlessness leads to tragedy and Tetsu’s reaction is one of the most moving I have ever seen a male actor perform. The brothers provide a strong counterpoint to each other in characterisation. The two sisters are also contrasted in character: Masayo accepts that her marriage is a loveless one and is resigned to living within the strictures of convention while the young Midori ardently declares her love for Tetsu, yakuza or no yakuza, and tries to run away with him in defiance of social convention.

The natural landscape settings are often beautiful and scenes of rolling beach waves appear to suggest something of the impermanence of life and love. There is a nihilism present in the film: Tetsu does what he does for his younger brother’s sake only for the younger, naive man to throw everything away; at the end of the film (spoiler alert), Tetsu leaves Midori for a bleak future and the young woman is inconsolable. What happens to the Yamashita couple is uncertain.

Suzuki expresses a distaste for authority figures and Japanese corporate values throughout the film – the police are no better than the yakuza, the yakuza spread their corruption into legitimate business and corporate loyalty is called into question when it’s directed towards unworthy individuals and causes – and its historical setting in the 1920s hints at Suzuki’s own cynicism about the Japanese government and its conduct in the decades leading up to Japan’s invasion of China and southeast Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The common people are hearty, honest, jovial and down-to-earth while their “betters” are suspicious and untrustworthy characters. The sleazy hustler, always wearing a white three-piece suit, turns out to be an ultra-nationalistic thug.

Perhaps “A Tattooed Life” is not quite as flamboyant or wacky as Suzuki’s later films but its plot is more highly developed and plausible than some of Suzuki’s later, better known works and deserves wider attention.

 

The 47 Ronin (dir. Hiroshi Inagaki): a drawn-out epic about maintaining abstract ideals in a changing society

Hiroshi Inagaki, “The 47 Ronin / Chushingura: Hana no Maki, Yuki no Maki” (1962)

The tale of the 47 masterless samurai who avenged their lord’s forced seppuku death in defiance of the Tokugawa shogunate’s orders is one that’s been celebrated in cinema several times and this version is a lavish epic lasting well over 3 hours. It boasts an impressive cast including Toshiro Mifune and is impressively staged: most scenes are breathtaking for the sheer beauty of the backgrounds and various props with their attention to historical detail. The plot itself can be very drawn out and slow but director Inagaki extracts and deftly escalates the tension and suspense towards the inevitable showdown climax. Themes of samurai honour and loyalty, and retribution for wrongful death and atonement run throughout the film, as might be expected; there is also a commentary on the political corruption of the shogunate that provides the social context in which the tragic events play out. The film challenges viewers on whether personal integrity and idealism are preferable over self-interest and street cunning, and on whether the code of bushido, admirable in many respects, might ask too much of people in surrendering their lives and relationships to abstract ideals. Within the film also, there is a sense that time is passing and the world of the Tokugawas is becoming irrelevant to the needs of people, high-born and lowly alike, and that as a result the old ways and ideals are succumbing to materialism and the pursuit of pleasure, and true and worthy values no longer hold attraction for people.

For Western audiences, the classic tale is basically as follows: at the turn of the 18th century, Lord Asano is obliged to receive envoys from the Shogun and offer his home and castle to his retainers. To this end, Lord Kira is sent to teach Lord Asano the finer points of the appropriate ceremonies to be conducted. Lord Kira demands that Lord Asano offer him gifts and bribes as befit his position when the younger man arrives at the Shogun’s residence but Lord Asano refuses to engage in such corrupt practices. Lord Kira angrily insults Lord Asano to the extent that the young daimyo loses his temper and draws his sword against the instructor. Lord Kira suffers a slight wound but Lord Asano is punished for having drawn his sword in the Shogun’s residence and is obliged to commit seppuku. In addition, his properties and wealth are to be surrendered to the Shogun and his entire family is ruined.

Lord Asano’s retainers, led by Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio, become ronin (samurai without master), surrender their lord’s castle without a fight. Oishi and 46 other retainers swear to restore Lord Asano’s family. After an early attempt to gain permission to restore the Asano family fails, Oishi then gives up and resignedly leads a life of dissolution while the other men disperse. People wonder if he’s lost his marbles and jeer and make fun of him. The reality though is that Oishi is secretly plotting with his men to bring ruin to Lord Kira at a time when Lord Kira has let down his guard in the belief that Lord Asano’s men are not seeking revenge.

The film’s fastidious attention to historical details is prominent but this is not at the expense of the plot or the acting. Characterisation can be patchy: Oishi’s character and a few minor characters are fleshed out very well and viewers can see their inner struggles as they strive in their own ways to remain faithful to the memory of Lord Asano yet pretend otherwise in order to throw off Lord Kira’s spies. On the other hand, Lord Kira is portrayed as a pathetic clown who loves pleasure and clings to life in a way that invites contempt. (There may be a good reason for portraying Lord Kira in such an unbecoming way: the film suggests that Oishi and the other retainers are wasting two years of their time plotting revenge on such a pitiful wretch and they would have been better off fighting the Shogun’s army and dying for their lord’s castle in the first place before deciding to surrender it without a fight.) The actor Toshiro Mifune has a minor role as a masterless ronin that simply repeats past roles he played in various Akira Kurosawa historical drama flicks.

The plot flows easily from main story to various sub-plots and weaves all the parallel strands into one mega-work that gives the impression of encompassing all levels of society in early 18th century Tokugawa Japan. The viewer gains a little insight into social and political changes then sweeping the country: society from the Shogunate down is becoming corrupted by self-interest, the pursuit of sensuous pleasures and greed, and those who uphold the old ideals of loyalty, honour and self-sacrifice increasingly find themselves shut out of a society interested in material wealth, status and flattering and bribing others to get ahead.

Perhaps the film could have been edited here and there – the pace does bog down to very glacial levels – and critical moments in the film such as Lord Asano’s seppuku ritual tend to be cut off abruptly. The actual tale of the 47 ronin is quite thin and padded out with fight scenes, staged scenery, several sub-plots and moments of earthy humour. What motives Inagaki may have had in making the film – his version came out a few years after another movie version which itself followed hard on the trail of yet another – I have no idea: he may have been trying to revive people’s interest in their traditional culture, emphasising aspects he believed worth preserving and passing onto younger generations, in the context of a period in which Japanese society was exposed to heavy doses of American culture after Japan’s defeat in World War II.  There is some emphasis on the masterless ronin disobeying the Shogun in plotting to kill Lord Kira and that could be taken as a warning to Japanese audiences that loyalty to samurai ideals should not be subordinated to unthinking obedience to government. On the whole, “The 47 Ronin” is a highly involving film, quite typical of action films of its time, which has aged well and whose themes might still resound with audiences in Japan and beyond today.

 

 

The Forgiveness of Blood: psychological drama of two teenagers caught between rapid modernisation and age-old traditions

Joshua Marston, “The Forgiveness of Blood / Falja e Gjakut” (2010)

Hard to believe that even in Europe there are societies where the very new and modern can co-exist with traditions and customs that have lasted for hundreds of years, and individuals, even communities, end up getting the short straws of both. In an Albania long since supposedly liberated from the rule of Communism, teenager Nik (Tristan Halilaj) lives in a small village where he dreams of running his own Internet café and has his eye on a girl, Klodi, at his local high school. His sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej), planning one day to attend university, helps her father on his bread delivery run. To make more money, dad Mark (Refet Abazi) takes short-cuts across his neighbour Sokol’s land. The neighbour fences off the land to prevent such short-cuts and a feud develops between the two men that results in Sokol’s death. Mark goes into hiding and his brother is arrested. Sokol’s family invokes the Kanun (a centuries-old code of local law and tradition) and Nik and Rudina are most affected by the restrictions involved: Nik must remain inside the family home to avoid being killed and Rudina must give up her dream of further study and take over Dad’s bread delivery business.

The film, which has a documentary feel in its slow naturalistic approach, close-ups, long shots of scenic country-side and relative paucity of soundtrack music, explores the effect of the Kanun on two young teenagers’ lives and its unexpected usurpation of traditional gender roles by which a teenage girl ends up becoming the family bread-winner while her brother becomes a prisoner in the family home. The film also contrasts the young people’s attempts to find ways of mediation with Sokol’s family that don’t involve too much financial expense and time wastage with their elders’ view that the requirements of Kanun cannot be watered down for the benefit of youth. At the same time, while Nik and Rudina’s family try to bargain for besa (a time period granted by the victim’s family to the killer’s family during which Nik would be free to go outside the house), some members of Sokol’s family harass Nik’s family by shooting at their house or burning down their shed.

The film’s style is quiet and slow and naturalistic in its treatment of the plot and the actors’ actions. Halilej and Lacej give excellent performances as the young stoic teenagers forced to grow up very quickly as a result of their father’s headstrong actions. As the film progresses, Nik and Rudina demonstrate resourcefulness in making the most of their extreme predicament but the long house arrest with no end in sight takes its toll on the two youngsters and the rest of their family. Tension accumulates slowly and casually until it comes to an intense confrontation between Nik and Sokol’s family and Nik is subjected to conditions that force him to make a hard decision about his life that will also affect Rudina and their mother and younger siblings.

Marston’s intelligent and sensitive depiction of a rural Albania under the burden of rapid modernisation and stubbornly maintained tradition, that can never be subjected to change as long as elderly men uphold it to the detriment of the young and of women, is sympathetic to its subject without supporting or condemning age-old values and customs. Rudina enjoys an unexpected freedom running her father’s delivery business and talking to strange men much older than herself. Nik finds a new hobby building a makeshift gym and exercise apparata. One unintended effect of the imposition of Kanun on two rival families is that children seem to act more like adults than the adults themselves do. Nik and Rudina’s older male relatives are unable to countenance any possibility of change and flexibility and the children’s mother disappears for long stretches of film while Nik tries to comfort his younger siblings and send them to school, and Rudina negotiates with shopkeepers to buy cartons of cigarettes at discounted prices so she can make more money on top of what she earns for delivering bread (by horse and cart, mind).

Although the actors portray stoic and resigned characters who get what they can out of a difficult and stressful situation, the film derives its strength from the psychological drama and tension generated by the plot. The naturalistic style helps to focus viewer attention on the characters. While slow and driven by dialogue and plot, the film does feature long shots without dialogue in which Nik and Rudina feel the strain of the conditions imposed on them in accordance with Kanun.

For its subject matter, the film appears calm and subdued. Yet there is tension between families and within families, and violence can be unexpected and sudden. One doesn’t expect that there’ll be an easy answer or a happy resolution that satisfies everyone. The message though is very despairing: the only way out for Nik is to escape literally but this leaves Rudina with a very uncertain future. What we have seen of Rudina in the film though is supposed to leave us in no doubt that she’ll find a way to survive and thrive, and this is the hope viewers are expected to carry at film’s end.