Joshua Oppenheimer and company, in their chilling, deeply disturbing, and formally audacious portrait of Anwar Congo and his comrades, who perpetrated the 1965-1966 genocide in Indonesia that murdered over a million people, find a truly subversive way to speak truth to power. These men have never been called to account for their crimes, and instead proudly brag about them and glorify themselves in front of a cowed populace. The filmmakers invited them to indulge their movie-mad fantasies and reenact their crimes in the style of their favorite film genres: gangster movies, horror, historical epics, psychedelically-colored musicals. What they believe will be further self-aggrandizement is instead a vessel for being confronted with the horrors of what they have done to others, as well as what they have done to themselves. Oppenheimer and his collaborators (and this includes the murderers) explode the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, making use of the elaborate fantasies of its subjects to uncover the dark truths underneath, and to begin the healing of a national trauma.
With 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northrup’s narrative of his harrowing journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom again, Steve McQueen has created his finest achievement to date. With the significant aid of John Ridley’s eloquent script, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s vivid, indelible camerawork, and towering performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, McQueen successfully marries a coolly analytical, carefully composed style with an emotionally wrenching narrative.
Idris Elba and Naomie Harris are fine as Nelson and Winnie Mandela in Justin Chadwick’s biopic, based on Mandela’s autobiography of the same name. It’s too bad that such good performances are employed in the service of a film so utterly bereft of novelty or freshness, and with so little desire to present anything other than a ploddingly reverential portrait of its subject.
This is the way Adele (Kate Winslet) and Frank (Josh Brolin) meet in Jason Reitman’s latest film Labor Day, based on Joyce Maynard’s novel. Adele’s a single mom dealing with abandonment issues after her husband (Clark Gregg) leaves her to raise her son Henry by herself. (Henry narrates this story, set in 1987). Frank’s just escaped from prison and has just about every police officer in the area on his tail. He convinces her to let him stay at their place, just long enough so that he can find an opportunity to hitch a train ride and get the hell out of Dodge. Frank’s never overtly violent, but he seems capable of violence if you push him too far. So Adele brings him to the house. And Frank tells them he has to tie them up, not because he wants to, but just for appearance’s sake, just in case someone happens to drop by unexpectedly. But he doesn’t leave the next day; he stays, for the entire titular holiday weekend. And oddly, Adele and Henry are just fine with this. Frank fixes stuff around the house, cooks, cleans and bakes a mean peach pie. And soon enough Frank and Adele are sharing a bed, and Frank is teaching Henry the finer points of pitching and batting a baseball, and basically being more of a father to the boy than his real father (who has since remarried, and whom Henry still visits on occasion).
So what’s happening here? Have Adele and Frank really fallen in love, and has Frank truly become a surrogate father to Henry? Or is this all an extreme case of Stockholm syndrome? Or is it all of the above? That this question is never really resolved is one of the great things about Labor Day, a function of its richly layered scenario and characterizations. And these qualities are graced by stellar performances by Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, who flawlessly navigate the ambiguities and revelations that come to us via flashbacks interspersed throughout. All of this helps to overcome the massive suspension of disbelief required to buy the idea of this love affair occurring so quickly, over the course of a mere five days.
Jason Reitman is definitely improving with each film he makes; Thank You for Smoking was OK, while I mostly have no use for Juno (although this is more the fault of Diablo Cody’s reactionary screenplay and insufferable dialog than Reitman’s). But Up in the Air was excellent, and Labor Day is even better. So far, Reitman seems to have the potential for a long, and great, career.
Spike Lee’s riff on Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film is, as many others have noted, not signed by the director with his usual signature of “A Spike Lee Joint,” but instead the much more mundane “A Spike Lee Film,” apparently a first for him. The rote impersonality of this credit is, unfortunately, mostly indicative of the movie that follows. I have to say at the outset that I was more than willing to give Lee the benefit of the doubt on this; unlike many, I was not instantly against the idea of remaking Oldboy. I don’t consider that film, or any other film for that matter, as sacred texts that should never be messed with. Remaking a film is fundamentally not much different than a musician doing a cover tune. If one has a distinctive take on the original, and can bring something interesting to the table, such an endeavor is certainly artistically defensible.
The problem with Oldboy, however, is that, oddly enough, both the film’s creators and their detractors are in perfect agreement with respect to their reverence for Park Chan-wook’s original filmic text. This new version is so utterly shackled to the original that it is barely able to breathe or have a life of its own. Familiarity with Park’s Oldboy makes Lee’s Oldboy a very Brechtian experience; instead of being fully involved in the story or its characters, one dwells on both what Lee borrows from Park and the minor variations he and screenwriter Mark Protosevich have come up with to distinguish their version. A mental checklist gets ticked off as you watch: there’s the dumplings; here he is coming out of a suitcase; there he is fighting a bunch of dudes with a hammer. Then there’s the slight differences, the wink-and-a-nod homages: Samuel L. Jackson, sporting a blond mohawk, as one of the jailers, whose foul-mouthed shtick gets more tired with each film; Josh Brolin stares down an octopus in an aquarium; Brolin’s hammer fight ups the ante with even more elaborate choreography and multiple levels. But it all treats Park’s version as sacrosanct, going beyond homage and into slavish deference, so much so that discussing this film can’t help but devolve into a rather tedious exercise of comparison and contrast.
It’s a shame, really, that so much time and talent has gone into a work that is never much more than a pale shadow of its original source. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who also shot all of Steve McQueen’s features) comes up with some very arresting compositions, and Josh Brolin delivers an intense, fiercely committed performance, though he lacks the volcanic ferocity of Choi Min-sik in the original. Spike Lee has said in interviews that Park Chan-wook’s message to the filmmakers was, “Don’t do my film. Make your own.” Too bad that Spike’s Oldboy ultimately fails to follow through on that sound advice.
It is important to note, however, that for most of Oldboy’s viewers, none of this will be an issue. As much as it may hurt our collective pride to admit it, the fact is that those of us who watch, think about, and write about international films and filmmakers are a fairly marginal lot. The vast majority of people who will go to theaters this weekend to see Oldboy will have never heard of either Park Chan-wook or his version of this material. So maybe this will work better for them. As for those of us who have seen Park’s Oldboy: in that film, there is a woman who can hypnotize people into forgetting things; perhaps her services would be required to erase memories of Park’s work, allowing us to actually enjoy Lee’s take.
Han Jae-rim, though he has only made three features so far, is now one of my favorite Korean filmmakers, who has mastered the art of taking familiar film genres and turning them on their heads. Rules of Dating (2005), underneath its romantic-comedy veneer, was a caustic take on the war between the sexes, while The Show Must Go On (2007) combined violent gangster-film tropes with domestic comedy to create a volatile, off-kilter mixture. Now Han returns from a six-year absence in a huge way with The Face Reader, a massive-box office hit that transforms its familiar Joseon dynasty-era costume drama trappings into an existential inquiry into the nature of destiny and character. There is none of the fusty, mannered atmosphere that often afflicts period pieces; The Face Reader always feels fresh and contemporary.
The story here deals with the ancient art of physiognomy, or “face reading,” which as practiced in the film, seems like a cross between fortunetelling and CSI-type sleuthing. Nae-kyung (Song Kang-ho), a master of this art, lives in countryside seclusion with his teenage son Jin-hyeong (Lee Jong-suk) and brother-in-law Paeng-heon (Cho Jung-seok). Nae-kyung has had to lay low in disgrace after the branding of his father as a traitor. But word still spreads of his face-reading abilities, and this brings giseang house madam Yeon-hong (Kim Hye-soo, disappointingly underused) to visit him. Very impressed by his abilities, she hires him to provide face-reading services for her clients. This has Nae-kyung and Paeng-heon moving to the capital Hanyang, while Jin-hyeong pursues a civil service career against his father’s wishes.
Notwithstanding Yeon-hong’s tricking Nae-kyung into drunkenly signing an onerous contract, the news of Nae-kyung’s great abilities reaches the royal court, where the ailing King Moonjong (Kim Tae-woo) enlists Nae-kyung to use his face-reading skills to determine who is plotting against him. After the King dies, Nae-kyung becomes embroiled in the power struggle between vice-premier Kim Jong-seo (Baek Yoon-sik) and the King’s brother, Grand Prince Suyang (Lee Jeong-jae), who schemes to usurp the throne from the deceased King’s very young successor. The side of the battle Nae-kyung chooses to support will prove to have significant and irreversible consequences for him personally.
At 139 minutes, The Face Reader is somewhat overlong, and could have greatly benefited from a much tighter narrative construction. Also, having to juggle its many characters proves to be detrimental to its pacing, especially in its later scenes. Still, this remains a superior period yarn, handsomely mounted and terrifically acted. Song Kang-ho gives a typically moving and committed performance, while Lee Jeong-jae impresses as a ruthlessly lupine villain.
The Face Reader recently screened as part of the bi-weekly “Korean Movie Night,” organized by Korean Cultural Service New York. The films are grouped together in themed series; the latest series, which The Face Reader kicked off, is called “Journey to the Wild Side: Epic Korean Cinema!” The next screening, on November 26, is Kim Joo-ho’s 2012 film The Grand Heist. All films screen at Tribeca Cinemas at 54 Varick St., and begin at 7pm. Screenings are free with admission on a first come, first served basis. For more information on this and future screenings, visit Korean Cultural Service’s website.
Yes, do believe the hype on this one. A moving, spectacularly conceived and directed space opera. The 3D imagery is gorgeous and often breathtaking. The scene in which Sandra Bullock dodges deadly space debris had me flinching and ducking, just like the folks back in the day who tried to get out of the way of a speeding onscreen train in the early days of cinema. But probably the film’s greatest special effect is of the old-fashioned human kind, courtesy of Sandra Bullock’s mesmerizing, tour-de-force performance. George Clooney’s good too, but it’s the sort of wry, rakishly charming turn that he can practically do in his sleep at this point. But Sandra Bullock knocks it way out of the park here, her character fully earning our sympathy and her performance never feeling less than intensely realistic. Considering that she’s acting alone for most of the film surrounded by CGI effects, this is a remarkable achievement.
I have some slight quibbles with Gravity, however; there are a couple of clichéd narrative contrivances that make this film merely an A instead of an A+, or maybe even an A-. Bullock’s character is defined by a key tragedy in her life that comes across as too pat and convenient, more a screenwriter’s conceit rather than a fully conceived backstory. Also, (mild spoiler) Bullock gets major assistance in finding a solution to her life- threatening situation through some sort of dream vision or hallucination. Again, this has the feel of a contrived deus ex machina.
But those story problems aside, Gravity is a magnificent piece of work, fully supplying the magic and wonder that reminds us why we go to the movies in the first place.
One last note: I wonder if there’s some kind of geopolitical subtext to all this. Destruction happens because of the Russians, while salvation comes courtesy of the Chinese. While the filmmakers would probably deny that there’s any real significance there, I find it a bit difficult to believe that these particular representations of very specific countries came about entirely at random.
As a definite non-fan of anime, outside of great directors such as Miyazaki, Satoshi Kon, and a few others, I settled in for The Mystical Laws with more than a little trepidation. Alas, I must report that trepidation was justified: The Mystical Laws, despite the crackpot religious message shoved down the viewer’s throats relentlessly, is an unholy mess, a combo of flat and unimaginative animation, conspiracy-minded sci-fi, loopy spectacle, and regurgitated Christ/Buddha origin myths. The story concerns a future world (in the year 202X, whatever the hell that is) that is now dominated by the Godom Empire, a dictatorial, Nazi-like entity ruled by the emperor Tathagata Killer, that has everyone, including neutered superpower the United States and an ineffectual United Nations under its bootheel. Enter Sho Shishimaru, a member of the “international secret society” Hermes Wings, a sort of Doctors Without Borders-type group designed to counteract the Godom Empire. Sho has the ability to see the future, and gets wind of Godom’s plan to occupy Japan. Sho must save Japan and the rest of the world, and in the process, becomes a reincarnated Buddha, and fulfills his destiny to be the world’s savior.
The Mystical Laws turns out to be basically a recruiting tool for Happy Science, a Scientology-like religious organization founded by Ryuho Okawa, the originator of this project and who claims to be the second coming of Buddha, just like the protagonist of this film. At the screening I attended, producer Koji Matsumoto revealed another agenda of this film: he directly compared the Chinese government to the Nazis, citing, among other things, their treatment of Tibet. This makes clear that the Godom Empire of the film is pretty much a representation of China. He also expounded more on the religious messages of the film, a cobbling together of different mystical traditions into … well, I’m not sure what exactly, but he seemed passionate enough about it.
The Mystical Laws has been submitted for consideration for Best Animated Feature for next year’s Oscars, but Disney and Dreamworks have little to fear. This crude bit of evangelical propaganda has little chance of making much of an impact on this race, or for that matter film history in general.
Yonghi Yang’s affecting personal documentary Dear Pyongyang screens at Asia Society on March 11 at 3pm as part of their film series “Extreme Private Ethos: Japanese Documentaries.” This series, screening through March 31, features revealing and intimate documentaries that expose many private details of the filmmaker’s lives, and are all very memorable (and often unsettling) experiences.
Below is what I wrote on Dear Pyongyang when it screened at Japan Society in 2007 as part of its first Japan Cuts festival.
Dear Pyongyang is a revealing and affecting portrait of Yang’s father, a lifelong staunch pro-North Korean. Yang’s film illuminates the experiences of the zainichi, ethnic Koreans living and born in Japan. One of the largest zainichi communities exists in Yang’s hometown of Tsuruhashi, Ikuno-ku, Osaka, where a quarter of the population are Koreans. Besides facing discrimination from the larger Japanese society, they were divided amongst themselves, between supporters of North Korea and South Korea. Yang’s father was a founding member of the Chongryun organization, an activist group who fought for zainichi civil rights and who were fierce supporters of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. To this end, he participated in the “Great Return” program, a repatriation movement that started in the 1950’s to “return” Koreans in Japan to North Korea, which at that time had a robust economy, supported by the Soviet Union. Ironically, many of these “returnees” were going to North Korea for the first time, including Yang’s three brothers, who left when she was six years old, and who she was only able to see on very brief visits to Pyongyang. Dear Pyongyang, with great affection and humor, as well as considerable poignancy, documents Yang’s efforts to understand her father’s reasons for separating his family because of his unyielding political convictions. Yang builds up many telling details of her family life: the growing care packages her mother sends to her sons’ families in Pyongyang, as their lives become ever harsher over the years; her father’s reluctance to talk about himself; her parents’ refusal to ever speak ill of the “Great Leader”; Yang’s own video footage of her visits to Pyongyang. “Unveiled reality is painful,” Yang remarks upon a shot of a massive abandoned construction project looming just behind Kim Il-sung’s statue. The courageous mission of Yang’s film is to do just that: reveal the truths that are painful to face, both familial and political.
With all due respect to The Artist (which I quite liked), this was the real silent film masterwork of 2011. Frammartino’s wonderfully profound, absorbing and immersive second feature, set in the mountainous region of Calabria on the southernmost tip of Italy, unfolds in four interconnected sections (the “four times” of the title) without relying on conventional narrative or dialog. Even though the film is based on a succession of beautifully composed images with a strong sense of spatial relationships (befitting Frammartino’s architectural training), and not on human speech (which we only hear in snatches here and there, all untranslated), Le Quattro Volte is in fact full of sound: the bleats of goats, the yapping of a dog, the sound of wind and blowing leaves. The ancient philosopher Pythagoras hailed from Calabria (as does the director’s family), and his theories are loosely illustrated here: the film’s four sections represent the transmigration of a single soul through four forms of matter — human (an old shepherd), animal (a stray kid goat), vegetable (a fir tree central to a spring festival), and mineral (the fir tree is converted to charcoal). Frammartino blends fiction and documentary to represent the cycle of nature’s existence, and how all forms of life are interconnected and self-renewing, in this remote village, which in the film’s rendering (despite a few modern conveniences) seems to still live by the ways of ancient tradition. Elegantly composed long takes and plan sequences are brilliantly used to convey this meditative, philosophical way of viewing the world, in which the human being is not privileged as the center of the universe. This results in memorable and gently humorous scenes in which animals take center stage, for example when the shepherd’s flock of goats take over his house after he dies, and the justly celebrated bravura single take in which a mischievous dog upsets a procession of costumed actors on their way to a passion play, causing an accident and freeing goats from their pen. Le Quattro Volte's serene contemplation of life, rather than being inertly pretentious, instead teems with earthy energy, generous wit and sensitivity; it is a singularly rewarding cinema experience.
Here is the widely praised scene in which one little dog creates a huge amount of havoc: