August 18, 2009


To continue the Park Chan-wook theme here: a review of his latest (and in my humble opinion, best) film. Ever since Oldboy, the Korean auteur’s films have been cause for excitement and rabid anticipation amongst us film nerds with strong stomachs. This was—and is—the case with Thirst as well, heightened by the fact that the world is currently undergoing a resurge of the vampire craze in a big way. I’m happy to report that, if absolutely nothing else, this is indeed a damn awesome vampire movie.

That in itself is the best thing about Thirst. For all its tangents and Catholic-guilt overtones (our leading man is a priest-turned-creature of the night played by Song Kang-ho), the movie is dripping with thrills, sex, and humour. I would go so far as to say it’s more comedy than drama, in fact, which is something the trailers and synopsis’ give no indication of. Considering Park’s last full-length, I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Okay was too light and the Sympathy films that flanked Oldboy were bogged down by their over-ambitiousness, Thirst’s perfect balance feels all the more remarkable. At two and a half hours, it’s not exactly a tight little package, but it uses the time perfectly and never once loses its way.

The aforementioned priest, Sang-hyeon, contracts vamp blood when trying to do some good by volunteering for a medical experiment to cure the EV virus, which manifests in skin boils and vomiting of blood, and eventually death. He’s the only one to survive the experiment because of the circumstances, which makes him a mythic, local hero that the townsfolk worship. Unfortunately, it seems the only way to keep the EV virus (and accompanying skin boils) at bay is to continue to drink human blood and avoid the sun. Loathe to kill anyone—that’s right, he’s one of those tortured vampires ala Angel, or Edward Cullen—Sang-hyeon feeds his “disease” in various amusing ways, including from the IV of a coma patient (his defence of this is that the man “loved to help the hungry!”). The movie gets a lot of mileage out of gags like this, or ones involving the superhuman strength inherited by vampires. You’d be surprised how many times a person carrying/throwing an obscenely heavy object, or snapping a broken bone back into place nonchalantly, can continue to be hilarious.

Soon enough, Sang-hyeon meets up with a buffoonish childhood friend and finds himself lusting after his wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin). This is when things really kick off, and their relationship has to be one of the most delightful to watch in the genre, thanks in no small part to Kim. Her Tae-ju is so joyously evil, unapologetic and cunning, I could have continued to watch her wreak havoc for another couple of hours and not complained. Thirst is mostly just episodes of the pair gallivanting, Sang-hyeon trying to keep his Frankenstein in check, and Tae-ju always threatening to go just a little bit more off the rails than she already is. Buckets of blood later, is an absolutely stellar ending that’s funny, sad, and sweet all at once.

If you’re expecting a quiet meditation on the repressive nature of the Catholic religion, look elsewhere. By the same token, it’s not a scary movie either. The villains are our heroes, and we’re encouraged to laugh and clap along, gleefully—not be terrified by them. Bottom line, if you get a kick out of this sort of thing, you’ll have a rough time finding a movie that does it as pitch-perfectly as this one. See it on the big screen, if you can.

August 13, 2009

Simpan ("Judgement")

After seeing Park Chan-wook’s third film Simpan, I asked myself “What am I to take from this?” I didn’t have an answer that satisfied me. Or more to the point: one that satisfied what I had just seen. So what can I point to or parse that will do the explaining for me? Well, the film is as dynamic a film as I’ve ever seen; what does a family do in the face of being let down by a communal promise, and to what lengths would or should they go to find security? What would one’s responsibility and/or duty be when confronted with an opportunity for security? When does one stand up regardless of consequence? Chan-wook asks all these questions and more during his 26-minute human drama in which a family is summoned to a morgue under the most horrible of circumstances. A couple is called upon to view and identify someone who has been determined to be a long since runaway child killed during a general state of societal unrest. As it happens, there isn’t foul play involved as far as one can tell, yet a media representative and his cameraman, who are presumably documenting the unrest, join the aforementioned couple and the mortician (played by veteran actor and R-Point player Gi Ju-bong) for the determination.

The general unrest outside the confines of the morgue soon finds its way inside as the nameless mortician becomes distressed that the dead woman may in fact be his own missing daughter; an official soon arrives to our new world in an attempt to clear the matter up, but sides are taken and tempers flare. I’ll refrain from detailing the remainder of the story, but suffice it to say, Chan-wook resolves the issue in stunning fashion; with a bizarre blow then a profound portrait of humanism.

In the end, Simpan (loosely, “Judgement” – quite possibly closer to “arbiter”) impressed upon me that this may have been born as a Chan-wook original play, made for stage, then adapted (obviously) because the movements are so precise, economy of motion so observed that most of the dialogue dissipated afterward. I recall thinking the same thing after seeing Park Chan-wook’s Three…Extremes segment “Cut”. An unusual thing to say, I know, then again I was one of the few who actually liked Cut.

Watch Simpan here.

August 10, 2009

The Maid

As a horror movie, The Maid is above-average--beautifully shot and crisply edited, but only scary per se in isolated moments, more makes-you-jump than gets-under-your-skin. Some of the film's creepier scenes turn out to be dreams, too, an overused trick that stifles momentum and adds less "psychological depth" than the filmmaker presumably intends. The acting is efficient yet pretty much uniformly one-note, and the film's depiction (and the twisty narrative's use) of a mentally challenged man nervously straddles the lines of good taste.

As a purposefully moody look at the pleasures and difficulties of adjusting to life in a foreign nation, this 2005 effort by Kelvin Tong (coincidentally, the auteur responsible for the last film I opined on here at Gold Lion) has plenty of interesting ideas. Centering on Rosa, a young Filipino woman who moves to Singapore to work as a maid for the Teo family, Tong's film understands the numerous hurdles in the way of assimilation in a way few contemporary films have evidenced. As Rosa slaves away under the strict, watchful eye of Mrs. Teo, she learns via letter that her younger brother has grown very ill. When the Teo's not only advance Rosa a month's salary to send back home but (with a major condition I won't reveal here) offer to help bring her brother to Singapore and pay for superior medical care, the pressure of the situation is subsequently intensified (call it the horror of being painfully, unenviably stuck).

Meanwhile, it's the Chinese seventh lunar month, or "hungry ghost month"--a superstition that Rosa doesn't initially understand but, of course, comes to understand. This premise only goes so far scare-wise and the territory Tong treads with it isn't necessarily new, but it does tie in effectively with his theme of alienation in a strange land. And when the trap-door drops out and The Maid checks the box for requisite late twists, it thankfully doesn't get overly convoluted or far-fetched with its "gotcha"'s. Sure, it could've wrapped up quite nicely as a fine, atmospheric social drama/ghost story without employing any third-act surprises--a statement that applies to so many products of this genre, Asian or otherwise--but, unlike a lot of horror flicks, Tong's doesn't unravel so much that it starts to reverse any goodwill it's earned. If that sounds like faint praise, you probably haven't watched enough horror movies over the past ten years.

June 30, 2009

Noriko's Dinner Table

It may seem like Sion Sono’s quiet, meditative family drama Noriko’s Dinner Table is restrained; compared to Suicide Club’s flashy, messy, head-on approach in particular. But Noriko’s, billed as the “prequel” to Club, is actually utterly self-indulgent. Take a look at the 159-minute runtime, for instance, or the way in which Sono completely basks in his own pet concept—the suicide club website and cult—like a grad student writing his thesis on it. It seems he, probably due at least in part to the success of Club, had full creative reign with no one forcing him to cut or reshuffle anything. Naturally, this is both good and bad.

The only thing linking this film to its notorious J-horror predecessor is the mythos of the “club” itself—so let’s get it out of the way right now. The website (red dots for female suicide victims, white for males) and the schoolgirl train-splatter incident are both further explored, but none of the previous characters return (that I can recall, but it has been awhile since I saw Club). Luckily, that includes the deranged glam-rock dude from the bowling alley, who is nowhere to be seen.

Instead our protagonists are the titular Noriko, a withdrawn and repressed high school student who longs to attend college in Tokyo, and her father, mother, and sister Yuka. They lead a seemingly peaceful, carefree existence in a small seaside village that most of us would envy. However, her father’s disapproval of her big-city plans soon leads Noriko to seek refuge online—you can guess which website—with other girls her age. Before long, she packs up and runs away, planning to stay with the leader of the bunch, known by the online handle “Ueno Station 54” (played by the awfully charismatic Tsugumi).

From here, the narrative jumps between Noriko’s perspective, her sister Yuka’s, and then her father’s. Noriko and her sister become actors for a hire-a-family business (like prostitutes without the sex, lonely clients hire them to act out vital roles missing from their lives), and their father tries to track them down and prove he’s capable of understanding them—an ever-elusive goal for the parents of teenage daughters, I’m sure.

More often than not, the film hits all the right marks tonally. The inner monologues of the characters are pretentious at times, but usually touching and poignant. The mise-en-scene is fantastic, with each of the three perspectives strewn together seamlessly. This allows their stories to make up a fluid whole, instead of a fractured puzzle. It only loses steam a bit during the final act, which is the only portion of the film that could have benefitted from some tighter editing. There’s a lot of crying, confessions, and confrontation—yet the emotional payoff seems to be lacking. Still, it’s completely fitting that—like the baffling behaviour of some of its protagonists—Noriko’s Dinner Table offers no easy solutions.

June 22, 2009

The Sky Crawlers (スカイ・クロラ, 2008)

The particulars are these: It's based on the five-book Japanese novel series by Hiroshi Morii, the prolific science mystery author of several similarly described series'. This appears to be the singular work to appear on film. As far as Sky Crawlers goes, it turned out to be quite an accomplishment coaxing a single film from the immense and complex literary work, much the same way Yasutaka Tsutsui's Paprika novel put Satoshi Kon & Co. to the test, requiring a leap of faith on the author's part and even more of an effort to bring to fruition the most difficult source material's spirit.

One only must be as familiar with director Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence to get a general sense of the grinding intellectual prowess he brings to Sky Crawler, although, thankfully, he is a far lighter and more playful here. Where he would relentlessly pound metaphysical principles and analysis at auds in GitS2, he has become mindful that confounding and intricate ideas really can be gotten if a bit of breathing room is given. And the film is more rewarding for that. Oshii's most recognisable hallmark is also front and center in Sky Crawlers; the pet basset hound. If there is anything that will signal this is a Mamoru Oshii creation, it's that.

The gist of things are that an isolated air-base is home to a handful of so-called Kildren, children who fly reconnoissance missions and sometimes engage to protect a very specific portion of territory for an unnamed Alliance. Did I mention they don't age? They fly until they die. And if they encounter an axis pilot dubbed "The Teacher" they most certainly will. The story begins, and exists, primarily around a boy who arrives at the base with an unnatural interest in his own lost memories. Soon the history of his superior officer, a girl no older than himself, weighs on him. She knows more that she lets on and by her demeanor he begins to discover a past between them that shouldn't exist. In fact, even his fellow pilots, all three of them, are nonchalant about their boss, as well as the reasons they fly in the first place. But this is what they do and it's alright with them. Not to mention the group of adults that service their planes but maintain a removed attitude toward the Kildren.

It's really a slow-burner of a film and very confined in its scope, while at the same time offering commentary on issues from the futility of war itself to the virtue of participation and the metaphorical and actual killing of innocence, all without, as I mentioned, lecturing or flooding us with so much dialogue and theory that you want to dunk your head into a tub of ice water. But it is rewarding enough. And a visual treat to boot.

May 26, 2009

Detective Story (Tantei monogatari)

Takashi Miike, or Miike Takashi if you prefer, has always been upfront concerning Japanese filmmakers' need to produce multiple films per year to get by on filmmaking alone (he makes extensive comments on his Black Society Trilogy DVDs, among others) - often courting several production companies for a single film, employing no-name actors and actresses, wearing many hats, shooting sans permits, and last but certainly not least, making the most of the skimpiest of budgets; Miike's Detective Story fits into most of those categories. On one hand, Detective Story reflects the fact that a vast majority of Miike's 2006/07 was monopolised by "Sukiyaki Western Django", but on the other hand, it's certainly evidence that Miike hasn't abandoned his guerilla filmmaking ways because of a few highly bankrolled studio projects. A guy's gotta eat in the interim.

Scattered with enough harsh edits and dubious framings to make a high school a/v student blush, Detective Story is principally a horror-mystery initially concerning a woman who believes she is being stalked, then goes missing only to be found horribly mutilated. But the movie starts off, strangely enough, with some unbelievable comedic strikes by way of main character Raita Kazama, a super-relaxed detective with a penchant for western vintage clothing and heavy drinking. Before things get a-rolling mystery-wise, Raita is awoken one midday by a man moving into the vacant apartment next door. Coincidentally, the new tenant is the proud owner of essentially the exact same name as our detective. Well not entirely exact, they have different surnames but with similar kanji, a fact our detective is quick to discover - the same kanji yet alternate pronunciations. (My own kanji dictionary was inconclusive). Raita, the former, is disproportionately amused by the happening - Raita the latter, on the other hand, is not quite as amused by this. That being the case, the computer programmer/anal retentive pushover is nonetheless reluctantly swayed to the position, which opens the door for detective Raita to announce a celebration of their neighbor-ship with a more than awkward night of drinking.

The mystery portion of the film begins in earnest when the first victim appears at Raita's door (with the benefit of already knowing her fate, of course) that same night-cum-morning. She inquires about his professional services but is turned away on equal parts of he being in no shape to meet with her, and she 'having the nerve to come to his home' and not his office. Jump again to her being found by police, sans her liver, and in short order Raita is on the police's short list of suspects. The discovery of a second body, sans kidneys, leads police to believe they have a burgeon mass murderer on their hands which puts Raita, and his agency, and by association Raita Takashima, squarely between the murders, the police, and a reclusive occult painter. That's right, a reclusive occult painter. Then again we also see this nugget at the film's opening.

There's much about Detective Story that works very well; the touches of Miike absurdity with strong fits of humor, the aforementioned Raita Kazama character is the anchor of the film; Harumi Inoue (from Miike's Graveyard of Honor and modeling fame) is witty and sexy in spades; a character-driven affair, no doubt, as there isn't any real set pieces to grip or revelations to be had. Miike leans heavily on tomfoolery and skullduggery to propel an otherwise flimsy, often erratic Tsutomu Shirado screenplay.

There's not much more to say unless it's to dive deeper into the plot itself, yet doing so wouldn't really do so much harm as to play the spoiler; the film is as straightforward, even bland, as mystery-thrillers come. Let alone Miike-helmed thrillers. The reasons, as I said, aren't strictly intriguing ones. The fact that this direct to video release has finally made it to R1 shores is enough reason for me.

April 22, 2009

Exte (Ekusute, Hair Extensions)

Sion Sono--as with counterpart Takashi Miike--has a wonderful knack for making satirical, ridiculous horror that remains oddly frightening and tense, amidst the jokes and parodies. Despite Exte's premise (hair extensions, deadly ones,) it has more in common with Higuchinsky's surreal, silly opus Uzumaki than it does your standard cursed-object-of-the-moment scare fare. If you've started to roll your eyes at the immeasurable amount of scenes featuring long, black hair in a sinister manner, this movie is for you. Sion Sono seems to think the device has gotten out of hand, too, and this is his antidote: give them so much hair, and nothing but hair, that they'll realize how stupid it is!

But to make sure it's not an obvious criticism of flimsy horror, he also includes some stuff that could be considered pretty straight-faced; there's a subplot/backstory involving organ harvesting and human trafficking, as well as a squirm-inducing child abuse tangent. But I don't think it would be spoiling it to say that the baddies get what they deserve, in hilarious and satisfyingly outrageous ways.

It also doesn't hurt that the cast is extremely likable. Our heroine--who is, of course, a hair stylist--is played by the recognizable face of Chiaki Kuriyama. The ladies playing her perky roommate, evil half-sister, and adorable niece are also stellar. However, the show belongs to the great Ren Osugi (Nightmare Detective, Loft, and hundreds of other appearances) who holds nothing back and will most certainly make you bust a gut laughing...if you like this sort of thing, that is. His strange get-up of American flag-adorned clothing and white, Mickey Mouse style gloves alone is worth seeking this movie out. Thankfully, the rest of it holds up just as well.