Tuesday, June 25, 2013

High Melodrama

Secret Sunshine (2007) - Lee
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Secret Sunshine tells a story of tragedy prone Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon). After her husband's death, She and her young son move to a small southern town called Milyang (meaning secret sunshine), the birth place of her deceased husband, to start anew. As soon as she somewhat acclimates herself to the country living, another tragedy strikes. And when she is most vulnerable, she finds Jesus. Does everything really happen for a reason? Is everywhere the same? Is there a meaning in that sunshine?

At times, the film is as corny as it sounds. It is definitely not as good as Lee Chang Dong's other films (Peppermint Candy, Poetry). Sunshine does avoid many of the pitfalls of stereotypes associated with Korean melodramas but not nearly enough. Though it is saved by Jeon Do-yeon's performance. You just want to protect her at all cost. And that's what happens to a local businessman Jongchan (Song Gangho). Known for his comic performances, Song's everyman hopelessly in love with someone who is clearly above his class is just as well drawn as that of Jeon's protagonist. Watch it for the performances.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Deathwish on Wheels

Crash (1997) - Cronenberg
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After seeing it at its release in 1997, where I witnessed many walkouts (including some of my friends), I got to see this in theater again today. However controversial it was back then, the graphic sex scenes aren't as shocking, repetitive nor boring as I perceived the first time. Autoeroticar in this is pretty darn hot actually. And I find the movie still brilliant. Based on J.G. Ballard's book of the same name, Cronenberg, no stranger to the human body/technology relationship, confidently tackles our post-war era fascination with cars. These shiny metal objects not only signify wealth and power but our hidden desire for destruction and death. Along this perverted ride are James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette, bravely charting the dark underbelly of the human progress built on destruction and shame. Crash seems immune to aging compared to other tech-oriented Cronenberg movies.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Break Up


La Séparation (1994) - VincentImage
A nicely nuanced, well acted film about the disintegration of a relationship. Told in Pierre (Daniel Auteuil)'s point of view, La Separation starts out when Pierre and Anne (Isabelle Huppert)'s relationship has already lost its passion (at least for Anne). They have a 15 month old boy together. But for Anne, love isn't there anymore, as she puts their relationship in one sentence that she read in a bathroom stall: in a marriage hell, there is one who suffers and one who is bored. She declares matter of factly that she fell in love with someone else. They are cordial for a while, going to the parties together and seeing their friends, but it's gnawing on Pierre. It slowly becomes unbearable living together with the knowledge. The emotional explosions are short and small. Lawyers get involved, visitation rights are mentioned. But the film is not about the divorce procedural (I learn that the couple is not even married later on), but observations in human interactions and musings on how we fall in love in the first place. Both Auteuil and Huppert are top of their forms in this.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Passing Times

L'heure d'été/Summer Hours (2008) - Assayas
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Light touches, a lot of room for actors but mostly Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours is about feelings, nostalgia without sentimentality. Three grown up siblings, an economics prof. Frederick (Charles Bering) the eldest, NY based designer Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jeremie (Jérémie Renner), a Puma factory manager in China, gather with their children and spouses for their mom Helen (Edith Scob)'s birthday at an idyllic summer house filled with precious art and furniture. It is their childhood home with many personal memories and secrets. Helen, at 75, knows that her days are numbered, so she starts arranging things and pesters her children about divvy-ing up the the house and assets. They wouldn't hear any of it. But after Helen dies, with financial instability, they decide to sell the house and have all the art liquidated- many of them being donated to Musée d'Orsay for tax purposes. The grown ups don't have much attachment to the house anymore and too busy with their own lives.

In a typical Assayas fashion, the director orchestrates the star studded cast with balance and care. The result is a warm, mature, harmonious film that reflects human experience.  But heart of the film belongs to Edith Scob's presence and grace in the first 30 minutes. Loved Binoché's bitchy, unsentimental Adrienne. Also loved two contemplative moments: one with Helen sitting alone in the dark and one with Frederick alone in the shadows. And what a finale: Alice de Lencquesaing from Father of my children, now a slightly mischievous teen, provides the well deserved, poignant, fitting ending sequence to the film.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Paradise Lost, Again

Summer with Monika (1953) - Bergman Image
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Monika (Harriet Andersson) and Harry (Lars Ekborg), young lowly stock room employees fall in love. Summer's near and after harassment at work and getting fired for being late, they run away to a remote island on Harry's dad's motor boat. For a while it's a paradise. They are in love and nothing really matters. No need to think about the future. Monika get's pregnant, supplies run out and soon they resort to stealing food from neighboring villages. In the end, they have to come back to Stockholm. Harry needs to get a job to provide and Monika's not satisfied with their less than glamorous life.

Andersson's youthful energy and insatiability for life is infectious and that's why that Monika staring into camera scene near the end is so chilling. She was slightly manipulative as any young pretty girls are, but there is something more pernicious in her eyes now. Her innocence and youthfulness is gone. Harry, now a regular boob, with the baby girl in his hand, pines for that glorious summer days. Bergman paints realistic picture of a Summer fling and its aftermath. It's not like in Hollywood movies that Monika likes. Summer with Monika plays out like an Italian neo-realist movie but has a more of a sinister edge to it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Korean Film Archive on Youtube

Look at all these cool posters!!
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I'm sure you noticed as of late, I've been in a Korean movie watching kick! Growing up in Korea, I've never really watched Korean films. Even after Korean film renaissance began around mid 90s, I was very slow to catch up with the rapid ascension of the Korean cinema and the country's reputation as one of the leading film producing countries in the world. I've seen my share of it now, joining many K-cinephiles, enjoying steady diet of current crop of Korean actioners/thrillers/policiers, etc. But I've neglected the classic Korean films of the yesteryears and been curious about them ever since I watched Madam Freedom (1956) a couple years back. Then I recently stumbled on to this: Korean Film Archive. It boasts 71 Korean classics (mainly from the 60s through early 90s), decent qualities with a decent subtitle options (CC button). Most of them not available anywhere neither on disc format nor streaming. I've watched Black Republic the other day and will check out many more in the days to come. Granted many of them are 80s skinflicks (Military dictatorship haydays under Pres. Chun Doo-hwan who promoted 3Ss- Sex, Screen, Sports to keep the citizens occupied) with amusing titles like The Ball Shot by a Midget, Parrot Cried with Its Body and Does Cuckoo Cry at Night?

But if you are like me, curious about Korean films prior to mid-90s, please visit the site and check them out yourselves.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Life is Beautiful


Peppermint Candy (1999) - Lee
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The film chronicles key events in the life of Kim Young-ho (Sol Kyung-gu). It opens with Kim stumbling into his school reunion outing near an idyllic creek under the railroad tracks. After making a scene, he throws himself in front of an oncoming train. Tracing backward into 20 years, it shows the dehumanizing effect that the violence has on a person. With a crooked smile and bad temper, Kim is not a nice guy. But he wasn't always like that. It's hard to believe that he was once a young man who liked looking at wild flowers and wanted to be a photographer.

The Gwangju Masssacre in 1980 in which thousands of pro-democracy students lost their lives by the military force, deeply scarred a generation of Korean people. Peppermint Candy deals with that incident in a personal storytelling that is amazingly effective. Kim's sneering detachment, unhappiness and violent nature of his later years is explained slowly through traveling back in time in an absorbing, revealing way. Its accumulative power in making us sympathize with this deeply detestable person is undeniable. Lee Chang-dong is a gifted writer/filmmaker whose use of 'time traveling' device here is much more elegant and resonant here than the likes of Memento and Irreversible. His attention to detail and use of different cinematic devices (music, phrases and especially peppermint candy) for connecting different times are not showy but beautifully done, almost reminding me of Kieslowski films- again, much more resonant given the historical/personal context. I can't say anything more than that it's an amazingly beautiful, touching film.

Miner's Woe

Black Republic (1990) - Park
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Kim (Hong Sang-soo regular Mun Seong-gun)arrives in a small, dying mining town in the midst of nationwide labor protests. He is an educated labor organizer from Seoul, wanted by the police for his activities, trying to lay low. The mining companies are shuttering its doors due to strikes and low employment and Kim can't get a job without proper identification. He finally gets hired by a small coal Briquette manufacturing company. It's a dirty, back breaking work. The company owner's spoiled, loan sharking son (Park Joong-hoon) somehow takes a liking to Kim (possibly because they are around the same age, and Kim looks like a learned man unlike dirty faced country hicks around him?). Song (homey Shim Hye-jin), one of his girls at the cafe (mostly pay-dates,just above being downright prostitutes), takes a shine on Kim. She wants to escape the small town and be free.

Park Kwang-su's social realist melodrama has well drawn characters and brings out sympathy for down and out 'ordinary people'. The Korean title roughly translates to 'They are Like Us'. By that, what Park means to say is that these small town people are like us- they go through life's hardships, fall in love, rage against injustice, get jealous, etc. I liked it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Buddha in All of Us

Mandala (1981) - ImImage
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Stilted dialog, grainy, scratched print, out of sync sound didn't really dampen my viewing of Im Kwon-taek's masterpiece Mandala, which tackles the concept of Buddhism with no subtleties. It seems unlike other religions, the faith in Buddhism is soley relied upon its practitioner, with no help from Buddha himself nor within group dynamics. Im zeros in on the human struggle to find meaning of life in two characters: Ji-san, a heavy drinking, meat eating, womanizing monk whose singular philosophy is 'don't run from life's obstacles but confront them' and that intrigues Bub-un, a young, serious monk wrestling with his own personal demons. The unlikely pair decides to travel together.

For Ji-san, it was a night with a runaway girl that was the cause of his fall from grace and expulsion from the order and for Bub-un, it was dissatisfaction of college life not providing the answers to life that drove him to the monastic life. As Ji-san takes Bub-un to Seoul, to make him confront the desire of flesh, we are presented with an incredibly moving yet sad scene- the cross cut of Bub-un's secret carnal misdeeds and him getting a blowjob from a prostitute in his sleep in a dingy motel room.

After they go their separate ways, Bub-un learns that finding oneself doesn't necessarily mean reciting sutras and meditation alone but also looking into others, as he hears Ji-san's selfless act in taking care of an entire village which was reeling in some terrible disease. They meet up again and set up a small temple of their own on the top of a snowy mountain. Both Jisan's drinking, devil may care attitude and Bub-un's education continue...

Mandala is a quiet, deeply philosophical yet completely unpretentious film. The power and beauty comes from its somber mood and simple, straightforward storytelling. I just wish there was a better print of this beautiful film.

*I mistook this film for another one of Im's movies on Buddhism called Upward, Upward, Come Upwards with Kang Soo-yeon. I might have to check that one out too.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Life Chaotic

Elle Veut le Chaos (2008) - Côté
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Enigmatic in its beautiful black and white images, Denis Côté's Elle Veut le Chaos/All That She Wants tells a slight story of Coralie (Eve Duranceau), who ekes out a living in nowhereland next to a highway near Montreal. Côté seems to have a knack for lightly sketching out these sort of small time outsiders while keeping their mysterious origins intact. Coralie lives with Jacob, an older man/father figure. Their lives seem forever indentured to the violent gang, headed by Alain, next door. Their relationships are never clearly defined. As the film plays out, one can guess that they (including Coralie's crazy mother who runs away in the beginning of the film) all belonged to the gang at some point. And they are all somewhat related to Alain.

Pierrot (Laurent Lucas), just came out of jail, comes back and tells Coralie that he wants to take her away to his home in France. But that's not what she wants. Jacob wants to kill Spazz, the most violent of the gang, and get away. Coralie doesn't want that either. Meanwhile, the gang brings in two young Russian girls whores who can't speak French, for their entertainment.

Cause and effect don't really apply to Côté's films. Violence happens abruptly, motivations hidden and unclear and things turn out unexpectedly. The mood he creates is absorbing and has a somewhat otherworldly quality to it. Oh, and fireworks look beautiful in black and white.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rock'n'Roll Mom

Mama (2013) - Muschietti
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Surprisingly decent horror movie despite its title. Jessica Chastain finally plays someone other than a Mid-Western housewife (haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty). She is Annabelle, a dark haired, tattooed bassist for a rock band (styled after Chrissy Hines I'm sure), far from mother material who's thrown into one when her artist boyfriend Luke's long lost nieces were discovered in a secluded cabin in the woods, living wild-child style. After a child psychiatrist helps them win the custody, under the condition that he will be observing the kids as a case study, Annabelle moves into a clinic owned manor house with the newfangled family. It's totally not her thing, but she can't abandon Luke now. It turns out kids were raised by some unknown woman they call Mama with the diet consists of cherries, rats and raccoons for 5 years. They think it's the kids' imagination gone wild, some kind of mental illness, split personality disorder maybe. Then strange things start happening in the house...

Did I say Chastain is great in this? She is. Her character's nicely drawn: her interactions with kids awkward and awesome. Did I say she has giant octopus tentacles tattooed on her shoulder? Pretty hot. Mama has that dark signature Guillermo Del Toro children's movie written all over- tragic ghost story with a not so evil, just creepy antagonist. Has some real scares. It's the best J-horror a Hollywood production can muster.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Showboating

Bronson (2008) - RefnImage
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Perhaps I enjoyed this way too much than I should've, but I can't deny the fact that I was dazzled by it. Refn is no fluke. His unabashed operatic, Kubrick-esque stylings and Tom Hardy's showboating, over-the-top performance are totally magnetic. I loved all the unmotivated angles and dolly shots. A great soundtrack too: it has the best use of a Pet Shop Boys song ever. A blast!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Evolutionary Biology

Mon Oncle d'Amerique (1980) - Resnais Image
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Built around physician/philosopher Henri Laborit's ideas on evolutionary biology, the film follows three subjects from childhood - Jean (Roger Pierre) a writer from a privileged background, Jannine (Nicole Garcia), an actress from a proletariat household and René (Gerard Depardieu), a famer's son/struggling everyman. Using lab rats as an example, Laborit lays out how people avoid painful situations by moving, and if there is no escape, psychosomatic symptoms develop. And in defensive action, people turn violent against each other. But the film is much more than that. Resnais slightly interweaves these 3 lives without turning them into lab rats. Their melodramatic stories are rendered sympathetically and their problems relatable. The film is not cynical in any way, except for the notion of that mythic 'American uncle' who'd solve all our problems but never actually shows up.

Resnais counters Laborit's deterministic view with poignant montage sequences, constant cutting back to childhood memories and old movie clips featuring the heroes of our protagonists. The beauty of Mon Oncle d'Amerique is that it leaves me with more questions than answers. Are we all prisoners of our biological origins, that if one brick from our building blocks is removed, we are bound to crumble? Can our good memories trump our childhood traumas? Are we capable of leaping over our biological makeup of self preservation and think of the others? Beautifully constructed, playful and thoroughly thought provoking, Mon Oncle d'Amerique is one of my new favorites.