Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Claire Denis, "35 Shots of Rum" (2008)

35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums). 2008. Directed by Claire Denis. Written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau. Produced by Bruno Pesery. Cinematography by Agnes Godard. Edited by Guy Lecorne. Music by Tindersticks. Production design by Arnaud de Moleron. Costume design by Judy Shrewsbury. Sound by Martin Boissau, Christophe Winding, and Dominique Hennequin.

Cast: Alex Descas (Lionel), Mati Diop (Josephine), Gregoire Colin (Noe), Nicole Dogue (Gabrielle), Julieth Mars Toussaint (Rene).

One of the very best films you will see this year is Claire Denis' exquisitely rendered 35 Shots of Rum, now playing at Film Forum through September 29. Denis' latest film White Material, which returns her to the African setting of her debut Chocolat, will make its latest stop at this year's New York Film Festival, after its appearances in Venice and Toronto. So New Yorkers will have the opportunity this fall to be blessed with two new films by one of cinema's greatest living artists. Below is my review of 35 Shots of Rum, written when it screened at last year's Pusan International Film Festival.

Claire Denis’ gorgeous new film, 35 Shots of Rum, is as essentially plot-less as her previous feature, the globe-trotting philosophical treatise L’Intrus (The Intruder), but it is less experimental and more grounded in character and emotion. However, it is hardly less of a revelatory experience. The central relationship depicted in this film is that of Lionel (Alex Descas), a train operator living with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), in a working-class suburb of Paris. 35 Shots of Rum’s affinities with the works of Ozu, especially Late Spring, have been much remarked on by other commentators: the many shots and scenes that revolve around trains; the brief establishing shots between scenes analogous to Ozu’s “pillow shot” inserts; the delicacy with which unspoken aspects of intimate relationships are handled. The film’s central situation also recalls Ozu. Lionel, a taciturn widower, lives a quiet life with his daughter, and their deep love for one another is expressed through such gestures as one early scene in which Lionel buys a rice cooker for Josephine, who expresses great delight. The film is so patient about revealing the connections between its characters that it takes a bit of time before we realize that they are in fact father and daughter.

Two other characters also figure here: their neighbor Noe (Gregoire Colin), a rather eccentric young man who is attracted to Josephine, and Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), Lionel’s ex-girlfriend who remains close to Lionel and Josephine, and seems to wish to rekindle her romance with Lionel, who in turn keeps her at arm’s length. Everything else in the film flows from this initial situation. But rather than imposing a dramatic plot, although almost any other filmmaker would have turned these potential conflicts into melodrama, Denis allows these characters to interact and lets their actions evolve organically. This is not to say that nothing happens in the film; actually, there is a definite progression that occurs, and it leads to a great deal of emotion. This occurs most significantly with what happens to Lionel’s colleague Rene (Julieth Mars Toussaint), who after being compelled to retire, finds himself adrift and unable to replace the order and sense of purpose that his job provided him.

The way in which Denis depicts the milieu of her film is quite extraordinary. The popular notion of the Parisian suburbs, many of which are inhabited by those of African and Arabic descent, is that of poor and angry people who every now and then erupt into riots against police and other authorities. The depiction of these neighborhoods in French films often plays upon these problems and concentrates on their conflicts with the larger French society. Denis, however, takes quite a different tack, concentrating much more on her characters as individuals rather than representatives of their race. These are ordinary working-class people who experience the normal joys and pains of anyone else, although presented here in an aesthetically beautiful way. Denis, to be sure, does not ignore a global perspective: she includes a key scene in which Josephine participates in a classroom debate about how African nations are adversely impacted by having to repay massive debts to Western nations. However, we are mostly immersed in the lives of the central characters, and it is always a pleasure to be in their company.

The loose structure of 35 Shots of Rum allows for some exquisitely lovely moments, most notably a key scene of the film in which Lionel, Josephine, Noe and Gabrielle all retreat into a bar during a rainstorm after their car breaks down on their way to a concert. Although the bar is already closed, the owner generously allows them shelter. A nearly wordless scene ensues, during which much occurs: Noe and Josephine’s relationship becomes subtly much more than a casual friendship; Lionel sees this happen, and tacitly accepts this despite his slight unease, while Lionel in turn acts upon his attraction to the statuesquely beautiful bar hostess, eventually spending the night with her. The four central characters dance to the tune of the Commodores’ song “Nightshift,” which is quite appropriate to the elegiac tone of much of this film. This is a beautifully choreographed and constructed scene, conveying everything through glances and gestures, and it is a great testament to Claire Denis’ prodigious artistry.

However, Denis is by no means a solo act. She has surrounded herself over the years with an ace group of collaborators who are essential partners in creating one of the great bodies of work in cinema. One of the most important members of her crew is Agnes Godard, one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, who seems incapable of composing a bad shot. She imbues all of the film’s environments with a textured, tactile quality that illuminates everything it touches. Denis’ regular screenwriting partner Jean-Pol Fargeau contributes greatly to a scenario that feels loosely improvisational yet exactingly precise at the same time. And of course, as always with Denis, much credit is due to the excellent cast she has assembled, which includes two Denis regulars: Alex Descas, a ruggedly handsome man who imparts tremendous gravity and great emotion to his role; and Gregoire Colin, who goes far beyond the quirks of his character to deliver a very poignant performance. Newcomer Mati Diop also impresses as the daughter who is protective of her father almost to his detriment (much like the typical Ozu heroine usually played by Setsuko Hara). Nicole Dogue skillfully expresses her character’s sense of regret over her life decisions, and her wish to have to same closeness with Lionel that his daughter enjoys. In every gesture and action Denis’ ensemble cast radiates a deep beauty that makes watching them a joyful experience.

35 Shots of Rum, along with Beau Travail and L’Intrus, is one of Denis’ greatest works, conveying the ebbs and flows of life with uncommon sensitivity. And by the time Lionel partakes of the titular drinks, an act that signifies his philosophy of life, one begins to wish one could spend many more hours in the endlessly fascinating world of this film.

35 Shots of Rum is at Film Forum through September 29. Click here to purchase tickets.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: Yoon Je-kyun's "Haeundae"

Haeundae. 2009. Produced, written and directed by Yoon Je-kyun. Cinematography by Kim Yeong-ho. Edited by Shin Min-gyeong. Music by Lee Byeong-woo. Production design by Hwang In-jun. Costume design by Kim Jong-weon. Sound by Eun Heui-su and Andy Wiskes. Visual effects supervision by Jang Seong-ho and Hans Uhlig. Visual effects by Polygon Entertainment. Special effects by Hong Jang-pyo.

Cast: Sol Kyung-gu (Choi Man-sik), Ha Ji-won (Kang Yeon-hee), Park Joong-hoon (Kim Hwi), Uhm Jung-hwa (Lee Yoo-jin), Lee Min-ki (Choi Hyeong-sik), Kang Ye-won (Kim Hee-mi), Kim In-kwon (Oh Dong-choon), Song Jae-ho (Eok-jo), Kim Ji-yeong (Geum-ryeon), Seong Byeong-sook (Dong-choon's mother), Kim Yoo-jeong (Ji-min).

The disaster movie is a tried-and-true mode of popular cinema, the apotheosis being such 70’s films as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, as well as the all-time box-office king, Titanic. The formula is simplicity itself: take a diverse assortment of characters (preferably cast with as many big stars as possible), spend some time introducing them and examining their conflicts, add a man-made or natural disaster that upends everything with state-of-the-art special effects, stir very thoroughly with some tragedy, pathos, triumph, bravery, and sacrifice, and voila, you’ve got your movie. The next step, hopefully, is watching the tons of cash roll in. Now Korea has one such movie to call its very own: Haeundae, set in and named after the famous beach in the southeastern port city of Busan, a very popular tourist attraction, not only for Koreans but for visitors from Asia and the rest of the world. It is currently a massive blockbuster hit, and is now the fourth highest-grossing film in Korean history, after The Host, The King and the Clown and Taegukgi. The film itself is a crude, clumsily written and edited, yet brutally effective piece of big-budget spectacle, which follows the disaster-movie formula to the letter. It takes its sweet time following its large cast of characters, crisscrossing their stories and connections until the disaster hits, which in this film is very skillfully staged. The filmmaking, which up until that point is rather standard and unimaginative, rises along with the massive tsunami to be thrilling and genuinely emotional. The best aspect of the film is the actors, especially the wonderful Ha Ji-won and the equally excellent Sol Kyung-gu, who do a great job selling this material, even when it is beneath their talents, which is quite often.

The premise of Haeundae is that a massive tsunami, on the order of the one that hit Southeast Asia in 2004 (referenced repeatedly in this film, and which was Busan native Yoon’s initial inspiration), is on track to directly hit Haeundae Beach and the rest of Busan. This tsunami is diligently tracked by seismologist Kim Hwi (Park Joong-hoon), who advocates for a tsunami warning system of their own, and not depending on the one in Japan, a project not without nationalist overtones – “We can’t let the Japs beat us!” one of Kim’s colleagues exclaims at one point. Kim is divorced, and has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife Yu-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa), who refuses to tell their daughter (presumably born after their marriage ended) that he is her father, out of lingering anger over his neglect of their family in favor of his work.

While the scientist nervously tracks the waters, in scenes accompanied by ominous shots of threatening undersea earthquakes, the film turns its attention to several characters by the seaside. Yeon-hee (Ha Ji-won) runs a small raw-fish stand, and is in love with Man-sik (Sol Kyung-gu), who has been akin to an older brother since their childhood; she was taken in by Man-sik’s family after her father’s death. Man-sik is fairly thick-headed, and fails to notice Yeon-hee’s feelings for him. He has a penchant for getting drunk, and this aspect of his character mostly played for laughs, most notably in a scene in which he gets arrested for drunkenly harassing a baseball player at a game.

There is also a colorful assortment of other characters, such as a group of vacationing girls from Seoul, including Hee-mi (Kang Ye-won), a haughty girl rescued by coast guard Hyeong-sik (Lee Min-ki) after she falls off a yacht, which begins a slapstick romance between the two. The town’s vendor association is up in arms over a proposed shopping mall that will drive them off the beach. Much low comedy is supplied by ne’er-do-well slacker Dong-choon (Kim In-kwon), who at one point poses as a blind man to make money.

The film benefits greatly from its vivid portrayal of Busan, a place very distinct in character from Seoul. And just as the broad comedy and corny whimsicality starts to become a bit too much to bear, the big wave hits. And it’s an impressive one, and the lengthy setting up of characters and incident in the first half of the film begins to reap dividends, making the emotional aspects of the story moving, if not any less obvious or heavy handed. Haeundae is an entertaining enough night out at the movies, its crude and clunky scenario elevated by spirited performances by its cast, and expertly staged special effects (supervised by CG whiz Hans Uhlig, who worked on two of this film’s Hollywood natural disaster forebears, The Perfect Storm and The Day After Tomorrow), which in the end make this material more potent than it really has any right to be. And there are a few inspired sequences, most notably a Buster Keaton-type bit where Dong-choon deftly dodges a series of falling freight cars displaced by the wave, and another scene in which he causes an inferno with a faulty cigarette lighter. Just don’t expect great art in the bargain.

For a film that successfully marries its behemoth budget with a smart, politically acute, and genuinely heartfelt story, look no further than the current all-time Korean box-office champ, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. Bong’s film proved conclusively that one need not pander to the lowest common denominators of both Korean and Hollywood filmmaking to be both an artistic and popular success. One wishes for the sake of art that Yoon had heeded this lesson. Unfortunately, the massive box office receipts of Haeundae will no doubt convince him that bigger, broader, and cruder is better.

Haeundae is currently playing at the AMC Loews Bay Terrace 6 in Bayside, Queens and AMC Loews Ridgefield Park 12 in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. It opens this Friday in Manhattan at the AMC Loews Village 7.

Haeundae trailer:

Two segments from Arirang TV about the film:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review: Leslie Cockburn's "American Casino"

American Casino. 2009. Directed by Leslie Cockburn. Written and produced by Leslie Cockburn and Andrew Cockburn. Cinematography by Phil Geyelin, Gregory Andracke, Bill Cassara, Bob Goldsborough, and Sam Painter. Edited by Peter Eliscu. Music supervised by Susan Jacobs. Sound by Daniel Brooks, Tom Craca, Michael Karas, Erik Knox, Charlie Macarone, Lupe Mejia, David Mitlyng, Mark Wilson, and Everett Wong.

Just in time for the one year anniversary of the global economic collapse comes Leslie Cockburn's powerful and timely documentary American Casino, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum for a two-week run. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

The title of Leslie Cockburn’s nothing-if-not-timely documentary American Casino says it all, an apt description of the world created by the reckless Wall Street financiers who have brought the U.S. economy (as well as the rest of the world’s) to its present sorry state. Much like Charles Ferguson’s Iraq War documentary No End in Sight, Cockburn employs a straightforward, just-the-facts approach to her devastating play-by-play indictment of the barely legal shenanigans that led to our current mess. From the initial stock market free-fall and the attendant billions in government bailouts to Jon Stewart’s recent mano a mano with Jim Cramer, none of this is new information for anyone who has at least been semi-sentient for the past year or so. But what makes Cockburn’s film an especially valuable addition to the burgeoning collection of economic crisis postmortems is that she goes beyond the facts and figures to show us the human faces behind the numbers. Cockburn offers specific, poignant examples of people who existed as simply a line on a brokerage firm’s computer screen, reminding us that these were not simply irresponsible and naïve would-be homeowners, but people with lives of value that are real, and in some cases, tragic. Cockburn also details the aftereffects of the spreading cancer of mass foreclosures and how they led to depressed neighborhood property values, crime, and disease. Class and race were very much a part of the picture also, as Cockburn persuasively demonstrates: the deregulated toxic sub-prime loans that were, and remain, a major part of this crisis were deliberately targeted towards minorities and low-income homeowners, many of whom actually qualified for prime loans. These were the chips that were the currency of the “American Casino,” since through derivatives, credit-default swaps, and other such unregulated financial products, bets would essentially be made on which consumers would default on loans made to them, and billions were made on both sides of the equation. Cockburn’s briskly paced yet sobering documentary makes its case powerfully, and is a humanist work in the best sense, always keeping the individual victims of Wall Street’s games as its central focus.

American Casino is scheduled to run at Film Forum from Sept. 2 through Sept. 15. Click here to purchase tickets.