Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tribeca Film Festival Round-up

Black Sheep (Jonathan King): Sure, there's a faint semblance of social commentary in this lurid tale of genetic engineering gone awry. Both rapacious capitalists and clueless animal-rights activists come in for equal helpings of scorn. But that's not why this film is a hilarious delight. It's all about the blood and guts, and this one delivers plenty. Peter Jackson's W.E.T.A. special effects house supplied them, and this film recalls the broad anarchic splendor of Jackson's own early films. This is the sort of film the term "midnight movie" was made for. Make sure to see it with as large and raucous a crowd as possible. The final sight gag is priceless, and you'll never look at a moving herd of sheep in quite the same way again. A cautionary tale, to be sure, this film illustrates the pitfalls of loving your farm animals a little too much.

Two in One (Kira Muratova): The Ukrainian auteur returns to the binary structure of her earlier film The Aesthenic Syndrome with two connected stories by separate screenwriters: the first concerns an actor's suicide during rehearsals for a play, and the second is the play that the actors perform. Muratova's stylistic hallmarks are in full force: the maddening repetition of dialogue and other elements, most notably the dead actor's ringing cell phone; the circus-like atmosphere of the actors' bizarre behaviors. Muratova is an acquired cinematic taste, to be sure, and her films often seem designed to test the viewer's patience. And judging from the walkouts at this morning's press screening, many will fail miserably. I was often mesmerized, although the first hour is admittedly sometimes a struggle to get through.

Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke): Jia once again proves himself to be one of the half-dozen best filmmakers on the planet. Against the backdrop of the Three Gorges Dam project, which has displaced many people, and stands as a potent metaphor for the massive steamroller of China's inexorable economic progress (if you want to call it that), two people separately search for their long-estranged spouses. Loss permeates this intensely sad and beautiful film. The first searcher goes back to his hometown and his guide points to a thin island on the water, telling him that's what's left of the street where he grew up. All the characters experience firsthand the impermanence of their existence, and many await the inevitable spray-painted sign on their home: "OK For Demolition." Jia's regular actress Zhao Tao delivers an expertly delicate and moving performance, as she looks for her husband. The film, however, is not without humor or a sense of hope. A Chow Yun-fat imitator and a young boy smoking cigarettes and singing loud, plaintive love songs add levity. Jia also adds some nice fantasy touches as well. A must see, and more than worth your $18 ticket.

2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy): This would-be romantic comedy came off as even more insufferable than it would have if I hadn't seen it after Jia's masterful film. This film is the polar opposite, with a strained and often quite nasty sense of humor. Outside of a few chuckles from Delpy's costar Adam Goldberg (who apparently improvised much of his dialogue), this is an ineptly made and quite unattractive film that panders way too often to a film festival crowd that likes to consider itself sophisticated and superior. A scene with a bunch of Americans wearing Bush-Cheney T-shirts is a typical example of Delpy's propensity for cheap targets and easy laughs. Delpy only succeeds here in inviting unfavorable comparisons with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. With films such as Jia's and others in the festival which grapple with, literally, life and death issues, the spectacle of privileged white people whining about their incredibly trivial problems seems almost obscene.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tribeca Film Festival!

A quick note to say that I will be at the Tribeca Film Festival, and plan to do brief daily postings of the films and other events I will be attending. Some of the films will get longer reviews as time permits. There are too many films to list here, so I'll just refer you to the site.

I'm up bright and early for the first screening. Till tomorrow.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Review: Andrea Arnold's "Red Road"

Red Road. 2006. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, based on characters created by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. Produced by Carrie Comerford. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Edited by Nicolas Chauderge. Production design by Helen Scott. Costume design by Helen Scott. Sound design by Nicolas Becker. Released by Tartan Films.

Cast: Kate Dickie (Jackie), Tony Curran (Clyde), Martin Compston (Stevie), Nathalie Press (April), Andrew Armour (Alfred), John Comerford (Man With Dog), Paul Higgins (Avery).

Andrea Arnold’s debut film Red Road is a fascinating cinematic mélange: equal parts Rear Window and Blow-Up, updated with evocations of post-9/11 surveillance and filmed using the techniques of Dogma-style direct cinema. Red Road is the first film of the “Advance Party Concept,” conceived by Lars von Trier’s Dogma cohorts Lone Sherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, which consists of three films by three different directors set in Scotland using the same set of characters. Red Road, which won the Grand Prix du Jury (third place) Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, is a moody and often disturbing film that gets this endeavor off to a very strong start.

Jackie (Kate Dickie) is a uniformed operator at a closed-circuit surveillance firm hired to watch the Red Road housing projects, a litter-strewn and graffiti-covered residence which gives the film its name. She spends her workday seated in front of a bank of monitors, watching the citizens’ daily lives. This is the ultimate reality television, her professional voyeurism highlighting the drabness of her own life. She lives alone in a small, cheerless apartment. Her face is drawn and hardened, and she seems to experience little joy. She carries on a desultory affair with a married coworker, their sexual contact relegated to quickies inside the company van. We are given little backstory to her character, which has the effect of drawing us in. One day Jackie watches a man and a woman have sex on her cameras. Zooming in on the action, she treats this occurrence as a private porno movie, unzipping her pants. She is stopped short when she recognizes the man on the monitor.

The man is Clyde (Tony Curran), an ex-con who has a connection to Jackie’s past. The film gains its intensity from its teasing misdirection about the nature of this connection. Jackie frantically calls her lawyer, and finds out Clyde has been released early from prison for good behavior. The immediate conclusion one draws is that Clyde has raped her, and at first all indications seem to point to this explanation. However, we are forced to question this, and the film takes many twists and turns as we understand that all is not what it seems.

Jackie begins shadowing this mysterious (to us) person, watching his every move on the monitors and leaving work to follow him on the street. Her obsession grows to such an extent that she neglects her work, the most disturbing instance concerning a young girl stabbed without her noticing because she is so distracted by watching Clyde. Jackie insinuates herself into Clyde’s existence, slipping into his apartment building and crashing a party he is throwing for his friends. Clyde is immediately attracted to Jackie and begins slow dancing with her, until she breaks away from him and runs out of the apartment. Clyde suspects that he may have known her before, but can’t recall where. Jackie also gets close to Clyde’s roommates Stevie (Martin Compton) and April (Natalie Press). The relationship between these two adds another intriguing layer to the proceedings.

Arnold’s film is an intense modern revenge tragedy that, while somewhat overpraised, nevertheless is a very strong work that explores issues of modern-day surveillance and the complex interplay of rage and desire. The film features impressive camerawork from cinematographer Robbie Ryan which effectively conveys the paranoia and melancholy of the piece. Kate Dickie is especially fine in her first film role, beautifully registering the mysteries and transformations of her character. Although the Advance Party Concept, much like the Dogma 95 mini-movement which spawned it, has more than a whiff of gimmickry about it, if this first installment is any indication, we are in for two very good films to follow.

Red Road opens in New York on April 13 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
Red Road trailer:

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Korea's Most Wanted

Voice of a Murderer (Geu nom moksori). 2007. Written and directed by Park Jin-pyo. Produced by Lee Eugene. Cinematography by Kim Woo-hyung. Edited by Kim Mi-joo. Music by Lee Byung-woo. Production design by Lee In-ok. Lighting by Goh Nak-sun. Released by CJ Entertainment.

Cast: Sol Kyung-gu (Han Kyung-bae), Kim Nam-joo (Oh Ji-sun), Kang Dong-won (The Voice).

The chilling docudrama Voice of a Murderer is the latest from Park Jin-pyo, one of Korea’s most interesting directors. His previous features Too Young to Die and You Are My Sunshine, as well as his short “Tongue Tie,” tackled provocative social subjects: the sexual life of the elderly in Too Young, HIV/AIDS in Sunshine, and oral surgery to improve English pronunciation in “Tongue Tie.” Park’s gravitation toward these subjects is a natural outgrowth of his previous experience directing television documentaries. One of these forms the basis of Voice of a Murderer, a fictionalized chronicle of the 1991 real-life kidnapping of nine-year old Lee Hyung-ho that to this day remains unsolved. It is quite a pessimistic film, since it exposes in devastating fashion the utter failure of such social systems as the police, media and religion to protect its citizens.

Han Kyung-bae (Sol Kyung-gu, one of his best performances) is a popular TV news anchor who specializes in investigative reporting. He is a self-styled man of the people doggedly exposing government corruption, his nightly commentaries decrying the inability or unwillingness of the government and law authorities to truly serve the citizenry. Kyung-bae’s media pulpit is so influential that he is contemplating a run for political office. His wife, Oh Ji-sun (Kim Nam-joo), is devoted to two things: her religious life serving as the deacon of her local church, and her quest to slim down her overweight son, Sang-woo.

As passionate as Kyung-bae’s concern is over the growing crime rate, his personal connection to this issue remains in the abstract, until one night Sang-woo is abducted at the local playground. At this point the film shifts to an intriguing hybrid of docudrama and tense thriller. This film is reminiscent of two other recent Korean films: Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. Like Park’s film, Voice posits the crime of kidnapping as a weapon against the privileged, and like Bong’s film, it uses a true-life unsolved murder to illuminate the massive failures of law enforcement. However, in contrast to Park's relentless genre mechanics and Bong's slapstick humor, Voice leaves the viewer with as palpable a feeling of dread and helplessness as that felt by the parents in the film. The kidnapper is always completely in control, and enjoys playing cat-and-mouse with both the aggrieved parents and the police. Known in the film as only “The Voice,” the kidnapper (Kang Dong-won) is eerily omnipresent, joking, threatening, and cajoling, reveling in his invincibility. (The film’s Korean title translates as “That Guy’s Voice.”) We are denied an omniscient view of the action; we are afforded only frustratingly brief glimpses of a figure with his back to us, face obscured by a baseball cap. We know no more than the family and police knows, as Sang-woo’s parents can do nothing but wait for the kidnapper’s calls and do his bidding.

Park’s film is a devastating portrayal of incompetence, bad judgment, and simple rotten luck on the part of the police. All efforts to trace the call and identify the kidnapper’s voice come to naught. At one point, the kidnapper even gets the best of an undercover detective hidden in the trunk of Kyung-bae’s car, beating him and stripping him naked. The police spend as almost as much time fighting amongst themselves and with the parents as trying to catch the kidnapper.

Religion also fails to save them. At his lowest hour, Kyung-bae rips a crucifix off the wall, smashing it to pieces, and kicks members of his wife’s church out of his house. “As of today, we have no God,” he says to them.

In the film’s final scenes, we are left with the tragic image of two people who have been stripped of all hope and faith. Ji-sun beats her chest, leaving deep bruises, and Kyung-bae makes a desperate attempt to have another child to replace their lost son. Kyung-bae returns to his anchor chair in a heartbreaking scene, reporting on his own story. “I always thought such things only happened to other people,” he says, choking back tears. Kyung-bae wears his favorite tie, emblazoned with Superman’s symbol, a brutally ironic detail which only serves to highlight his own failure to save the day. The camera continues to roll, as the media machine still demands to be fed. Kyung-bae plays a tape recording, imploring the public to help him catch the kidnapper. The tape we hear, in a disturbing bit of documentary, is the actual voice of Lee Hyung-mo and his abductor.

Voice of a Murderer is a riveting and ultimately despairing film of institutional failure. The one glimmer of hope the film holds out (and Park’s motivation in making the film) is the slim chance that bringing this case back to light will expose the killer, who continues to escape detection and judgment.

Voice of a Murderer opens in New York on April 13 at the ImaginAsian Theater. For more information on the film and to purchase tickets, visit the ImaginAsian's website.

Here is the film's trailer:

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Review: Shohei Imamura's "Nishi Ginza Station"

Nishi Ginza Station (Nishi Ginza Eki-mae). 1958. Written and directed by Shohei Imamura. Cinematography by Hisanobu Fujioka. Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi. Released by Nikkatsu Corporation.

Cast: Frank Nagai, Shinichi Yanagisawa, Ko Nishimura, Masahiko Shimazu, Hisano Yamaoka, Shoichi Ozawa, Kyoko Hori.

Nishi Ginza Station (1958) was Imamura's second film, a studio assignment made as a vehicle for popular singer Frank Nagai. Imamura was able to use this as a vehicle for himself as well, indulging in a playful formalism that breaks the narrative in a number of ways. Nagai appears right at the beginning, addressing the camera. “What an interesting place!” he says of the train station where much of the film takes place. He will tell us “a good story” about the married couple we will follow for the rest of the film. “But first,” Nagai says, “Let’s listen to my song … Hey! Music!” He pops up throughout the film to comment on the action, a device that amusingly anticipates Jonathan Richman’s musical interludes in the Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary, among other films. After the credits sequence, which appears in neon lights, various people in the station break out into song, prompted by Nagai’s jazzy start.

We are then introduced to a woman complaining about the inaccurate station clock. Her kids knock over the ladder of the man working on it, and trailing after is her meek, henpecked husband. These two form the central couple of the film. Jutaro is a Walter Mitty-esque character who daydreams about romancing a native woman on a deserted island. This foreshadows Imamura's later portraits of primitive societies such as Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) and The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Jutaro works in his wife Rinko’s pharmacy, and his life is regulated down to the minute. He has to take regular doses of a “body energizer,” and he is monitored on this by his wife’s employees. When his wife and kids go away on a two-day trip, Jutaro takes this opportunity (egged on by his veterinarian friend) to taste a bit of freedom. They go to bars and get drunk, and Jutaro finds the courage to attempt an extramarital affair with Yuriko, who works in the pen shop across from the pharmacy.

The film alternates between Jutaro's fantasies and his real life, with Nagai as a commentator or a silent observer (or in a couple of cases as the man in the moon, and a cave wall carving). Compared to the films he would make later, Nishi Ginza Station is a minor work. However, many of the elements that would come to the fore later, such as his bawdy humor and his experiments with form, can be seen here in embryo.