Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New Directors/New Films 2008 Review Round-up #2

Epitaph (Jung Bum-sik and Jung Sik)

The Jung Brothers (as the sibling co-directors prefer to bill themselves) use the crowded genre of Korean horror to deliver a visually elegant and beautifully crafted ghost story, evoking ghosts both historical and literal. The framing device and the film narrative proper are set in two distinct historical periods in Korean history. In October 1979, the month of the assassination of dictatorial president Park Chung-hee, an aging doctor, Park Jung-Nam (Jeon Mu-song), is prompted by a photo album to reminisce on his experiences in Anseng Hospital, which is about to be torn down. The bulk of the story takes place three decades earlier, over the course of four days in 1942, at the height of imperial Japan’s stranglehold of colonized Korea. Although this hospital, with its spookily dark interiors and hushed, funereal corridors, was “as quiet as the eye of a storm” during this turbulent period, the historical circumstances of the imperial Japanese government, which sought to suppress all traces of Korean culture, are felt throughout the film, most notably in the hospital architecture, which is a mix of Western and Japanese elements. A major plot device of the film concerns the murders of Japanese soldiers. The Jung Brothers, in their debut feature, display an impressively prodigious command of all elements of their film craft, especially in the art direction, color schemes, and cinematography. Besides the requisite shocks and scares, which are in this context genuinely frightening in some scenes, there are some passages of stunning visual beauty, one example being the scene utilizing Japanese-style sliding doors to depict the marriage of Jung-Nam to a Japanese bride. The conventions of K-horror are successfully transcended, not only because of the film’s visual strategies, but by provocatively paralleling the fictional horror story that unfolds with the all too real horrors experienced by the Korean people in the late stages of World War II. (April 5 and 6)

La Zona (Rodrigo Plá)

The haves and the have-nots are at war in Plá’s dystopian tale, the titular community a walled-in, gated suburbia protected with armed guards and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. When a wild storm breaches the defenses of this wall, allowing a few of the unwashed masses to break in, and for one of them to murder one of the privileged citizens, the rest rally to keep the authorities out of it, and deal with the situation themselves, vigilante style. The film ticks off familiar points dealing with encroaching surveillance, police corruption, and the overwhelming amount of state apparatus necessary to preserve the lopsided balance of rich and poor. However, despite the high-tech veneer, no points are made here that George Orwell hadn’t already addressed six decades ago. (April 4 and 6)

Falling From Earth (Chadi Zeneddine)

An experimental fantasia evoking life during and after the Lebanese civil war and spanning across four decades, Zeneddine’s film contains many arresting and intriguing images. In 2008, an old man (Rafik Ali Ahmad) lives in a bombed out building, collecting photos of various people. Stories of three of them unfold in the course of the film. In 1990, a man deals with the aftermath of his wife’s suicide and his own history of abuse toward his family. In 1975, a security guard begins a bathroom stall correspondence with a mysterious person. In 1982, a woman (Carmen Lebbos) pines for her missing lover. Although the parts don’t quite cohere into a fully satisfying whole, and the ending uses a disappointingly clichéd image, Zeneddine’s impressively fluid images successfully transcend the film’s faults. (April 1 and 2)

A Lost Man (Danielle Arbid)

Despite the singular noun in the film’s title, two men are at the center of the story: Fouad Saleh (Alexander Sidding), a Lebanese man shattered by his experience in the civil war and suffering from memory loss; and Thomas Koré (Melvil Poupaud), a French photographer who prowls the streets at night, drinking in bars and picking up women, using everyone around him as fodder for his photography, practicing a disturbing sort of artistic vampirism. Both men become symbiotically intertwined in Arbid’s erotically charged scenario, as Thomas haunts the night districts of Jordan, incessantly snapping photos during his sexual assignations, pulling Fouad into his world, greedily uncovering the troubled man’s secrets. Inspired by the work of French photographer Antoine d’Agata and American novelist William T. Vollmann, A Lost Man effectively evokes the atmosphere of night life in the border towns Arbid depicts, and while it flirts with orientalist fetishizing of its Arabic characters, especially the women (surprising for a female filmmaker born in Lebanon), the film remains a fascinating and unsettling exploration of the dangers of taboo-breaking in Muslim societies. (April 5 and 6)

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