Sunday, August 07, 2005

Three Months In The Life Of A Cinephile

It’s been absolutely ages since I’ve written anything about cinema – but don’t think that’s because I’ve stopped attending films. So far in 2005, there have been some impressive movies but few, if any, stand out classics.

That situation may now finally have changed with Kim Ki-Duk’s imaginative, evocative and distinctive 3-Iron. I would recommend that any tedious golden ageist still insisting that world cinema is in terminal decline should run rather than walk to see this fine film. It is deeply mysterious, opaque and occasionally confounding, but its languid pace and meticulous control of tone and atmosphere mark it out as a notable and original cinematic achievement.

Kim has been labelled the ‘bad guy’ of New Korean Cinema, largely because of uncomfortably brutal films such as ‘The Isle’. Critics began to hail a change of style with his serene and ponderous take on monastic Buddhism in ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring’ (remarkable chiefly because of its extraordinary location and staging). That film still contained brief moments of unhinged violence, and the glacial pace of 3-Iron is similarly punctuated with moments of savagery, some systematic acts of vengeance, others seemingly more random and unpredictable. All are rendered compelling and grimly amusing by the novel use of the sport of golf – hence the film’s title.

The film tells the story of Tae-Suk, a young deliverer of fliers for a Pizza takeaway business who breaks into unoccupied houses while the owners are away. Somewhat unconventionally, he doesn’t steal anything. Instead, he merely house-sits, dutifully hand-washing the laundry and even repairing faulty electrical appliances.

During one of his spontaneous invasions, he is shocked to find the house occupied, as he meets the mysterious, long suffering Sun-hwa, victim of a cruelly loveless marriage to an insensitive, controlling and violent husband. In languorous, entirely wordless scenes, they gradually fall in love. After the husband is casually dispatched with some carefully aimed golf drives, the two head off together in search of more houses to occupy.

Kim evokes the love between Tae-Suk and Sun-Hwa with considerably skill and control. 3-Iron assumes a somewhat elegiac quality during its middle section, and the use of some spectacularly cheesy recurrent pop music creates a surprisingly convincing sense of intimacy and discovery. The film seems to exist entirely within its own moral universe – some actions seem to occur with no recrimination whatsoever, whilst others are swiftly punished.

Some critics have criticised the more otherworldly and fantastic elements of the film’s final third. After breaking into a house and finding its occupant dead, Tae-Suk and Sun-Hwa perform a ritual burial which lands Tae-Suk in jail. In some brilliantly staged and highly comic scenes, Tae-Suk trains himself to disappear in jail, eventually mastering even his own shadow. The film’s conclusion allows Sun-Hwa to continue the illusion of her marriage, whilst Tae-Suk returns to be a constant presence in an extraordinary ménage-a-trois, always unseen and unnoticed.

It’s a brilliant conceit, but one that perhaps doesn’t make much sense when approached from a purely realist perspective. However, 3-Iron is decidedly not a realist film. It is primarily a ghost story, whereby Sun-Hwa is initially rescued from her life as a living ghost in a cruel marriage to embark on different haunts elsewhere. Tae-Suk’s self-disciplining enables him to become a ghost – the presence that is always there, but only visible to Sun-Hwa. The result is a curious and occasionally unsettling film, but also a film of considerable beauty and boldness.

Prior to 3-Iron, the only other really outstanding film of 2005 so far has been Ousmane Sembene’s Moolade. Sembene is often cited as the father of African cinema and his latest film has won plaudits across the world. A film about the unpleasant problem of ritual female genital mutilation in Africa might not exactly be considered a ‘date movie’, but rest assured that Sembene has crafted as entertaining a film as could possibly be made about such an uncompromising and provocative subject. Sembene’s film is critical of the barbaric tradition, but without being judgemental or unsubtle. It is an even-handed treatment, careful to recognise the considerable hold of tradition over African village society. It is this emphasis that clears this remarkable film of any charges of didacticism. Indeed, the film’s resisting protagonist, Colle, characterised with powerful sympathy by Sembene, herself resorts to another form of tradition, the protection or moolade that provides the film with its title.

Sembene realises that omnipotent dichotomy between tradition and impending modernity with elegance and understatement. All the women of the village are empowered by their transistor radios, which bring them news of the wider world. Particularly relevant is the fact that even their own government has condemned the practice of excision, yet the all-male village council, insists on its continuation, as no man will accept an uncut woman for a bride. When the village council burns these radios in an attempt to force the rebellious women into submission Elsewhere, there are intriguing characters, including the wonderful Mercenaire, who brings goods back to the village from his travels, and succeeds in profiting from them considerably. His scenes are mostly characterised by light humour, although he eventually becomes a key player in the village dispute, meeting an unpleasant end in the process.

The dispute begins when Colle, who has already refused to have her own daughter cut, provides a place of protection and refuge for four young girls who have run away from an excision ceremony. Interestingly, the confrontation appears to take place entirely between women – the mothers of the daughters who want their children returned and to complete the ceremony (along with the terrifyingly witch-like exciseurs themselves) and Colle and her family. It is only later that men become involved, not least when the dispute reaches the level of the village council. Colle’s husband is shocked by her actions, but only forced to intervene when he is convinced that her intransigence has publicly humiliated him. Despite a barrage of physical abuse, Colle stands firm, and the intercutting of her violent and public punishment with It is at this point that the film broadens its scope – the women are no longer simply protesting about the brutality and danger of excision but are rebelling against the Patriarchal structures of their society and the right for control over their own bodies.

The film is brilliantly executed and staged with precise economy. The location is limited purely to the small village, but its layout is convincingly engineered with real attention to detail. There is a palpable sense of community here, built on self-reliance and subsistence, but with a brace of unresolved tensions. Unlike 3-Iron, Moolade is determinedly realistic, but without the relentless dourness of British equivalents such as Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Despite the grimness of its subject matter, Moolade manages to sustain an upbeat, frequently comic tone right up to its avowedly uplifting conclusion.

This might be considered a step too far with the wishful thinking of the film’s conclusion. Yet, how could it have ended with anything other than victory for the women? It might provide a note of feel good sentiment that might be somewhat divorced from reality, but the alternative is simply far too grim. It ought also to be noted that the victory does not come without a tinge of sadness, although to reveal any more detail here would be to greatly diminish the harrowing impact of one of the film’s key later scenes. In addition to this, Sembene’s assertion that tradition can be remoulded for positive, progressive action renders the other side of the debate redundant. It becomes a matter of independence against slavery. The victory of the former leaves a lingering impression of dignity and triumph, long after the credits have rolled. Brilliant.

I am still unconvinced by the new hero of American independent cinema David Gordon Green, whose unmistakeable debt to Terrence Malick takes on a new twist with Undertow, to which Malick lends his name (and presumably also his wallet – he’ll need some return on his investment as he is not to be rushed on making movies of his own) as Executive Producer. Green’s acclaimed debut George Washington was massively overpraised, simplistic and slightly dull as it was. Its follow-up, All The Real Girls, in spite of its hideously awful title, was by contrast underrated. Here Green and cinematographer Tim Orr combined their evocative sense for environment and natural beauty with a convincing depiction of a complex emotional relationship. The film captured the relationship’s intimacy, claustrophobia and subsequent confusion powerfully, without resorting to conventional narrative or finding reductive explanations for the actions of its protagonists.

Undertow is a much more conventional film, dependent on a somewhat contrived plot arc and clearly indebted to Night Of The Hunter, Charles Laughton’s sole film as director. Britain’s Jamie Bell, still most famous for stepping into a pair of ballet shoes as Billy Elliot, does a noble job in gritty southern mode as the young lead – it’s a real shame that he wasn’t given more ambitious material to work with.

To its credit, Undertow starts promisingly, with Bell’s Chris chased from his girlfriend’s house by her father who, suspecting him as a tearaway and troublemaker, fires shots at him. Chris impales his foot on a rusty nail in a wooden board, and the audience has to laugh and wince simultaneously as he continues to run with the board attached to his foot. It’s a bravura opening sequence, and one that at least hints that Green and Orr can do kinetic thrills as well as understated moods.

There is then a lengthy period of scene-setting, in which we become familiar with the family’s isolated farm home, whereby the days consist of hard physical work and little social engagement. Chris has a sickly younger brother Tim, played with charm by Devon Allan, who induces unpleasant bouts of vomiting through eating mud, paint and all manner of other inedible substances. Their father favours the younger child, preferring a ‘tough love’ approach with Chris. This isolated, rather backwards atmosphere is established carefully by Green, although it is never clear exactly when this film is set. Is this meant to be modern America? If so, I was constantly reminded of the key line of Warren Zevon’s song ‘Play It All Night Long’ - ‘There ain’t much to country living- sweat, piss, jizz and blood!’

The atmosphere is pierced brutally by the arrival of Deel, the boys’ Uncle, freshly released from prison and harbouring some lingering grudges. Rather predictably, he is a spurned lover, having staked his claim to their mother first, before their father fell in love with her too. Haven’t we seen this kind of slow building confrontation before? When the inevitable violence ensues, it is appropriately savage, but the descent of the rest of the film into mundance chase movie seems thoroughly disappointing and uninspired.

Deel wants the set of valuable coins the boys and their father have stored, and which Chris hurriedly retrieves as he escapes the scene. In between chase sequences, there are moments of breezy charm and insight – such as the black couple who allow the two boys to work, stay for food and earn some money (a neat reversal of the usual southern black/white relationship which is handled sensitively). Yet, every time Green and Orr allow their talent for developing dreamy moods to predominate, Deel turns up again and off they run through the woods.

Had Undertow simply been about Chris and Tim’s escape from a restrictive lifestyle and quick assumption of independence, it might well have been convincing and compelling. The relationship between the two brothers, with Chris emerging as guardian and protector, is touching and believable. The erosion of Chris’ trust in humanity, combined with his natural tendency towards forgiveness, also makes for the construction of some intriguing scenes later in the film. Sadly, the imposition of a rather unimaginative and derivative storyline proves frustrating, and the film feels like an unsuccessful conflation of two separate identities. For an evocative and distinctive mood piece, you’d be better off with Gus Van Sant’s remarkable Elephant. For a simple, plot-driven film, then there are many more substantial options than this.

These might well include Carlos Sorin’s charming Bombon El Perro, a straightforward and endearing film that it is very difficult to dislike. Set amidst the dusty flat landscape of Patagonia (its long, straight roads are marvellously captured here), this tells the story of how one man’s life is suddenly transformed after he is given a giant dog, a prime example of a rare breed.

After losing his job at a gas filling station, mechanic Juan Villegas (played by a non-professional also called Juan Villegas) is reduced to travelling the isolated, thinly populated area and trying to sell hand-crafted knives. He attempts to retain a cheerful, positive demeanour in the face of adversity, as he struggles (at a relatively advanced age) to find gainful employment. Villegas has an extraordinary face – and whilst he only really delivers one expression during the entire picture, that expression can be deadpan, good natured, confused and nonplussed all at the same time.

The acquisition of Bombon (frequently called Lechien during the film – simply The Dog) delivers some overnight results. Juan can now get work in the field of security (although not even the dog can stop him from being something of a generous pushover) and can jump the queue at the bank because the manager is friends with a dog trainer and is immediately taken with this particular specimen.

The scenes in which Bombon rides across the plains in the front seat of Juan’s car are exceedingly funny, both man and dog sharing the same steadfast facial expression. If there’s an In League With Paton award for performance of the year – it might have to go to this dog! The dog show scenes also have a sweetly humourous feel – it’s easy to feel bemused at how seriously the owners take these competitions. Even more inspired is Bombon’s utter failure as a stud for hire – he seems completely uninterested in providing these kind of services, much to his trainer’s frustration.

The film is light, breezy and sedate – but it may just be deceptively simple. It does not gloss over the social and economic problems of the new Argentina, particularly in its early scenes, and the key theme appears to be the newfound status granted to Juan by his new companion. It quietly reveals some significant truths about how we treat each other in the world of ‘human resources’ and whilst it’s by no means as serious (or as overwhelmingly sad), it reminded me a little of Laurent Cantet’s masterpiece L’emploi du Temps.

The more I ruminate on Paulo Sorrentino’s The Consequences Of Love, the closer I get to the conclusion that it is really quite a remarkable film. I imagine it’s a film that will benefit greatly from repeated viewings as its droll humour, underlying sadness and incredibly slow pace have to be yielded to in order to appreciate the full impact.

It is a stylish and mysterious film about an enigmatic and opaque character, the chain-smoking ‘business consultant’ Titta di Girolamo (played with deadpan irony and seemingly emotionless sophistication by the wonderful Toni Servillo). It is emphatically not, as many have bafflingly suggested, a thriller. Perhaps these critics have been blinded by what transpires to be a mafia theme (this would be a considerable plot spoiler were it not already given away in virtually every review the film has received). Girolamo has spent the last eight years living in an anonymous hotel room, entirely isolated and foregoing all social interaction (even with the hotel staff). The glacial pacing of the film reflects the extraordinary regularity and monotony of his routine. Each Wednesday morning he injects himself with heroin, an action he performs to emphasise the enforced routine of his existence, without ever becoming physically dependant on the drug. Once a week, he is given a suitcase of cash to deliver to a possibly criminal bank account.

Sorrentino’s film is one of the most technically masterful films of recent years, with memorably accomplished camera work, and a disorientating synaesthesia of hallucinatory auditory and visual effects, achieved through rigorous and intelligent editing. The sound is particularly impressive, strongly reminiscent of the amplified ambient effects used to considerable effect in Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’. If this display of virtuosic technique might risk emphasising style over substance, it’s worth noting how these effects serve to emphasise the gradual unravelling of Girolamo’s carefully constructed exterior. We observe how his defences are gradually undermined by his burgeoning feelings for the beautiful, flirtatious hotel barmaid, and the film ends with a series of devastating revelations.

The lingering sense at the end of this film is one of profound sadness – of a life controlled and ultimately wasted, of a life denied real friendship or love. Estranged from his family and basically held captive, Girolomo is a genuinely tragic figure. The film’s conclusion is both shocking and devastating. It raises complicated moral questions and more than rewards the necessary patience that the rest of the film demands.

If only to avoid being branded a high-minded film snob (come off it, Ghostbusters is still one of my top five favourite films!), I occasionally give in to the temptation to watch a high grossing blockbuster. I’ve thankfully avoided the third (please let it be the last) film in the bloated Star Wars prequel trilogy, so it may as well be yet another film in the never-ending Batman franchise, with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins taking us right back to the origins of the story. Nolan is a director of considerable talent (‘Following’ and ‘Memento’ are two of the most impressive and structurally audacious films of recent times) and given that superhero movies are one of my guilty pleasures, I anticipated this film with considerable relish, even if I might ponder whether it is really what Nolan wants to do, or simply where the hard cash is.

After the lightweight and insubstantial diversions of the Joel Schumacher films, Nolan’s film promises a return to the dark, serious vision of the Tim Burton era Batman. On this count, it certainly delivers, providing a backstory for the character which reveals his motivations for selecting the Bat character (Bruce Wayne is confronting his fears) and his research into the nature of evil following the cruel slaying of both his parents. All of this was hinted at in the earlier films, but Nolan has made it the centrepiece of his version of events.

I’m surprised that more critics haven’t picked up on the numerous post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ references that pepper the film. Rescued from torture in prison by Liam Neeson’s League Of Shadows, a group with motivations and methods seemingly very similar to those of Al Qa’eda, Bruce Wayne ends up at an isolated mountain training camp where he learns swordfighting and close combat skills. When challenged to kill another man in cold blood, he cannot do it, thus revealing the crucial difference between the crime fighting vigilante and his terrorising enemies – he (Batman) has respect for human lives. The final confrontation is also brought into sharper relief in light of the recent London bombings as it essentially involves a terrorist act involving chemical weapons that threatens the very infrastructure of Gotham City.

I’ve always admired Batman most among the superheroes because he appears to be a superhero without any specific superpowers. Instead, he has to rely on science, technology, determination and sheer practical ingenuity. Nolan’s film demonstrates these elements of the Batman character with vivid detail, as we see the preparation of the costume and the development of secret weapons through the assistance of Morgan Freeman’s scientist, rebelling against the nakedly corporate mindset that dominates the once philanthropic Wayne Corp, controlled as it now is by a callous megalomaniac played with righteous glee by Rutger Hauer (might there also be deliberate parallels between the charitable gestures of Bruce Wayne and those of Bill Gates? Both the fictional character and the real entrepreneur show a similar mix of ruthlessness and generosity).

The success of Batman Begins lies in its absorption of many of the elements of fear and trembling that dominate the current international climate, and the extension of them into the realms of fantasy and the absurd. A superhero film hardly needs to be constrained by the concerns of plausibility after all – and Batman Begins, whilst serious in its devotion to superhero fandom, doesn’t forget to provide some thrills along the way.

Central to this is the inspired casting of Cillian Murphy as The Scarecrow. With his extraordinary features, he is enticingly handsome, but also very sinister looking. He represents the seductive face of evil, and he relishes the potential for revelling in over-acting. He makes the entire film his stage. Christian Bale does a creditable job as Batman/Bruce Wayne but doesn’t really bring any new elements to the table, despite being gifted with Nolan’s elaborate backstory. Katie Holmes is simply too good to be true as the liberal lawyer potential love interest.

Batman Begins has all the elements of a great blockbusting superhero movie – the evocation of Gotham City is particularly spectacular, as well it should be as much of the film was apparently shot on location in Chicago rather than bound to a studio set. Nolan demonstrates his talent for capturing harsh futuristic landscapes as well as his knack for developing a range of ideas. The question now is where he goes next. Has he gone too far down the road to Hollywood blockbusterdom to produce anything as original and distinctive as ‘Memento’ again?

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