Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Cast: Yun Jung-hee, Lee David, Kim Hira
Director: Lee Chang-dong
Runtime: 140 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: A case for kitsch. And you don’t get many of those.
Genre: Drama

        Here is a typical reaction to Poetry, a typical misty-eyed reaction drenched in kitsch, and it is ironic that it comes from Ms. Dargis who happens to be a great admirer of Milan Kundera. It is for these very reactions that one could so easily single out Mr. Chang-dong’s film for one of those routine dressing-downs somber movies so easily invite, but then it is just as easy to completely miss the underlying cynicism he brings in this film. It is astounding the significance Mr. Chang-dong’s film acquires by the mere existence of Mr. Bong Joon-Ho’s Madeo, a seemingly liberal response to a conservative stance. But skim the surface, and ask the ending moment to shine some light on the entire picture, and there is discovered a film not critical but distrustful and yet understanding of the selfish pleasures of an outright self-righteousness of the liberal act. A film that first juxtaposes the beauty of a sacrificial exercise, as against the supreme selfishness (the mother in Madeo dealing with the old man) that in many ways is an allusion to the more firebrand/revolutionary versions of patriotism we’ve read and learnt about. It is a mother’s love for her child, as it is a man’s love for what belongs to him. If one would want to draw historic parallels, Poetry is a Gandhian (not Gandhi’s) response to Madeo’s Guevara. As I always say, what Oscar Wilde once said of patriotism holds truer for self-righteousness.
        It is interesting to note the Wikipedia entry on the film, and the inception of this idea. Read it here, and note how the shots of peaceful nature cause him to remember a brutal real-world incident. Reader, I italicize the text because, for some reason, the “beauty of nature” is an otherworldly component far, far removed from the reality of our existence. Much like Uncle Boonmee’s village, and much like the entirety of cinema, nature is a fantasy, a drug, or an acupuncture needle to lose ourselves in and forget the harsh grim realities. This emotional state of losing one’s self is of course not far from the arrested development alluded to here, and to go to a medium with the intent of losing the self, otherwise called escapism, is something that is inherently trivializing and disrespectful of that medium. Be it movies, or be it nature.
        And neither is that state far from the primitivism we usually attach with bourgeoisie values. Yang Mija (Ms. Jung-hee) is a lonely 66-year old grandmother, her primary mode of income being the government welfare and a paralyzed old man in need of services. Her grandson Wook (Mr. David) lives with her, and is more useless than Sarah Goldfarb’s son, a seemingly impenetrable stone. We learn, quite early, that old Mija has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and that is a plot condition that brings as much to the table as it takes away. Despite her financial condition, and we see a lot of the disparity when she’s in the company of some wealthy folks, Mija dresses pretty, and often even acts pretty. She is another of those Sarah Goldfarbs you see, someone who might have been the talk of the boys groups in her school and her locality, someone who does find herself a bit different than the next woman, and someone a bit more of a romantic than that next woman. I don’t find that wrong, although movies traditionally favor such folks, or probably every other body when scratched by a film feels more special and romantically inclined than the next, and Mija desires to find that beauty and romance in poetry. That grandson is her reason to get up in the morning. That desire is her reason to still feel alive and be hopeful.
        In a telling sequence of the ironical predicament of the newly romantic, a teacher inspires his students to look closer at an apple, observe its beauty, for looking and seeing and watching and observing shall wake the dormant poet inside. As we learn in the end, it is only Mija who takes her teacher’s advice most seriously, watching and observing and taking notes most diligently – of trees, of flowers, of peaches. She most desperately intends to churn out poetry, often pays a visit to poetry get-togethers, and yet there’s around her a most devastating crime. Her son has been among a bunch of boys repeatedly molesting one of the girls in the school, who happens to be from one of those economically backward regions, and who happens to commit suicide on account of that.
        She is invited by the fathers of the other boys, to sit around the table Godfather-style and discuss how to go about squashing the matter. Mija is lost. It is a great sequence contrasting the emotional competence and pragmatism of the fathers, and the arrested development of Mija, who’s shocked, and who would much rather be lost in finding beauty in the roses and peaches and meadows and river than dealing with the “immorality” of this grown-up world. The fathers are neither doe-eyed idealists nor moustache-swiveling unscrupulous organisms, but merely pragmatists, as is the single mother of the deceased girl who happens to work alone in the fields. There’s another great scene where Mija meets the mother, and inspite of both sharing a similar financial condition, the contrast drawn between the romantic and the pragmatic is so sharp it cuts through the kitschy façade of the film.
        But then, who’s really being immoral here? And what is the façade? And what’s so kitschy about it? I had quite an involving exchange with my man Srikanth here, in response to his piece on Dhobi Ghat, and I find some support to my stance from Mr. Chang-dong. Here is Mija, an elderly woman, a mother to a mother, and yet in the film’s twist at the end (yes, Poetry is a thriller under the disguise of a drama) we discover her true emotional allegiance and the person she identifies with. I’m all for idealists, but then the idealism that results from not having understood enough is a cause of concern. Of course, Mija is not an idealist in any sense of the word, but merely a romantic, and it is quite funny the way she avoids this event in her life only for life to thrust it back on her face. She merely wants to be happy, lost in her newly acquired world of poetry and beauty, and not go and meet the mother of the deceased, or summon the courage to call the police. All she desires is the mess to sort it out for itself, and it is quite obvious that such a person would do the morally right act not out of principles but to stay away from any punches to the conscience. She visits the little girl’s mass and steals her framed picture, and that is enough said.
        And nor does the table-seating, to which this old woman is a reluctant participant, represent an oppressive morally-ambivalent society. It rather represents an understanding Darwinian world, where the tough survive, and has nothing to do with class hierarchy. Case in point, the paralyzed old man and his pleading boner, and the way it is dealt with. Mr. Chang-dong observes all of this, not with those kitschy eyes Ms. Dargis attributes to him, but with the sympathetic distrust exhibited by Mr. David Edelstein here. He doesn’t condescend on kitsch either, and instead seeks to discover the escapist value of it, and the self-satisfaction to be earned through it, and the life escaped through it. No way could it have been aesthetically different from the way it is. And when a film’s moral center is a cop who makes dirty jokes and is not so serious and uptight about his honesty, I think I’ve every reason to cherish.

Note: This review has also been posted at New Korean Cinema, here.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Cast: Won Bin, Sae-ron Kim, Thanayong Wongtrakul, Kim Tae-hoon
Director: Lee Jeong-beom
Runtime: 119 min.
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Verdict: The action movie of the year. If given a choice, Quentin Tarantino would probably wish his Kill Bill movies were this good.
Genre: Action, Thriller

        Putting the cinematic history of The Man, a.k.a The Man who has nothing personal to do with the film’s events (Chris Sabian in The Negotiator), a.k.a The Man who walks into an ongoing bar-fight to pursue his own selfish ends beats them both and wins it for the morally right (not the Right) the oppressed and the weak (the ronin in Yojimbo, Joe in A Fistful of Dollars), a.k.a The Man who has been hired (financially and later emotionally) to protect and save (The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Sholay, the John Creasys in the two Man on Fire-s), into perspective it is most interesting to note the way the filmmakers choose to open their narrative. The options being – (a) choose the man (b) choose the world and its events. One would remember, in the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood westerns, or Django, or the Clint Eastwood-only westerns (High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven, Pale Rider) how the films open to this man, and how that affects the overall political arc of the world inside – a world not needing a help but a savior.
        Does opening to the images of this Man alone signify this hopeless situation? Not really, but often, it seems, a filmmaker opens to the images of a man when his belief is that of a hopeless establishment. Another case in point: Die Hard, where the cops (establishment) are bumbling fools. Now, Die Hard is a seminal action film. But then, parts of its greatness comes at the expense of the toothless nature of the establishment, which seems to be so stupid it cannot find, to quote Navjot Sidhu, their own bums. That reflects in a whole lot of Hollywood action films. Personally, I don’t approve of that. He might not have always loved them but Jean-Pierre Melville always had respect for the abilities of his establishment.
        So yes, using that as a frame of reference The Man from Nowhere opens to an image and an action set-piece that suggests not merely what I approve of but also a most interesting narrative choice. I’m not so sure modern Hollywood outside the cheerfully quirky feel the need to venture into designing a set-piece and characters that exist outside the boundaries of the basic story. But then, what’s supposed to be "the basic story"? For filmmakers like Tarantino (Jackie Brown exception), or Ritchie, these characters become a quirk, a sort of wit and so tend to exist outside this basic story, their actions amounting to an external needle pricking the balloon. All that these needles boast of is traits (or dimensions) attributed to them. For Ritchie, practically everybody is a needle. For a filmmaker like Melville, these characters were a part of the story, so much so that sometimes they are the story (Un Flic). I think it has something to do with honor. And here in Korea, where a lot of these genre filmmakers win a lot of points from me, I’m sure it is out of respect for the establishment.
        The frame is pitch dark. A cigarette is lit. A mobile opens, and we see a face in that little blue light. He talks. Cut. He switches on the light inside the van, and we find a whole bunch of cops sleeping. We understand it is late night. Everyone’s yawning. He tells them its time. They are in for a bust. These are men at work. And it is time. You should see how they unleash themselves. A drug deal is being made. A fat bastard is involved. Stuff happens. Stuff that is the reason for the movie’s plot, something about which I shall try and tell you nothing. You should see the formal skill here. A cab door happens, and the background score is nothing but the beep (similar to the opening in Collateral), and when the door shuts, a dancer springs onto the frame. You can feel the sort of fun these filmmakers were having in the editing room.
        And then, there’s a little messy action, where the cops jump upon the fat bastard like leopards would over an elephant, and find themselves hurled into glass or on the unfavorable end of an uprooted plant. Lot of mess that. Suddenly a shot of a bottle snatched out of a table. The head cop walks, into the mess, yells, and when the fat bastard looks the bottle is hurled onto his head. Mess stops. Silence. The cop remarks something with a smile. The fat bastard runs at him like a crazy bull. The cop grabs him and slams him down on the table. Done, and dusted. In movies, it is rare to have your film open to a cool action scene involving a guy who isn’t even the hero. Imagine the commissioner or the rest of the cops in Face/Off being really smart guys, rather than obligatory people waiting to die.
        The hero, of course, is Mr. Won Bin, and when we first lay our eyes on him hiding behind a whole lot of hair, and a little like John Abraham’s default stance, we remember the diminutive figure from Bong’s Joon-Ho’s Mother. With his lean almost slender figure, and without any kung fu chops, he feels hardly anything like an action figure, and yet he is the titular man from nowhere, and the film once again establishes the smartness with which some of these Koreans establish their titles. I wouldn’t know the literal translation to Ajeossi, but then the English title is just about perfect.
        And yet, or still, he is an action figure unlike any I’ve ever seen. He is no Bruce Lee, or Jason Statham, nor is he Jason Bourne or Chow Yun Fat, and yet he feels the most logical for a man to take on a dozen henchmen. He is probably the only action figure (and yes, this film firmly establishes him as an Action star) you might ever see who fights while he’s crouched on his knees. I tell you, the fight sequences here are one of rare poetry, and yet they are visceral in their punch. An emotionally devastated Mr. Won is surrounded by the bad guy’s men, and he has a voice of deep baritone that rumbles a dialog of great vengeance. And as he wades through the hordes (in hindsight one might say here that Mr. Zack Snyder’s 300 would have learnt much from action sequences here, as would the hollow styling of Kill Bill), and as he bends and punches and swivels and slashes wrists, and as one honorable bad guy with a gun merely stares at the efficiency, economy and lyrical grace with astonishment and admiration, and as the background music soars into a sonata, it brought tears in my eyes. Rarely does a movie or a scene find the soul of art in its action set-piece. Yet, it doesn’t reduce itself to the overt feminism of a John Woo action-piece, which almost feels like a song and dance number. I think a part of it has to do with the modern action framing and cutting techniques, which if not comprehensibility at least render a kind of bluntness to the action sequences.
        Ah yes, there’s in this film arguably the best knife fight ever put on screen. And a tracking shot of great wonder, of Mr. Won running and jumping of the first floor. It is obviously CGI, and yet its beauty lies in the manner in which it reflects the whole aesthetic of The Man from Nowhere, a film whose one probable reason for existence is its almost devotional desire to portray a man in action to be just as beautiful as the otherwise standard images of meadows and mountains and children hopping through parks and birds chirping and the flowers blossoming and the river flowing. Were it left to this film, Microsoft might have provided for a screensaver of Mr. Won in action. With its blockbuster run at the Korean box office, I say it is half-way there. For me, at least.

Note: This review has also been posted at the excellent New Korean Cinema, here.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Cast: Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Anna Kalaitzidou
Director: Giorgos Lanthimos
Runtime: 94 min.
Language: Greek
Country: Greece
Verdict: The best and probably the most libertarian political allegory to come out in a while.
Genre: Comedy, Drama

        Dogtooth could be best described as Ms. Arundhati Roy’s view of our country’s establishment. It could also be described, as I would chose to, as to how impossible such an establishment would be. I mean, you can only choose between having a sinister and brilliant corporal state that is making devious plans in the night while we sleep blissfully or watch movies, or a set of folks not that bothered or motivated, or a set of folks trying real hard. Not all. I mean, even folks who wrote the Bible had God create an acre of paradise, and even he couldn’t stop knowledge from slithering in. So if Ms. Roy’s views are true, then the nation is heading for a collapse in the not too distant future. Egyptians, here we come.
        Okay, enough of those shenanigans. But Dogtooth could be used as an argument for criticisms against post-wikileaks democracies, and how a democratic government is a contradiction by itself for every democracy is merely a masked authoritarian. I mean, I personally don’t mind all that much, and probably in fact support it. We all need a class monitor to discipline us from time to time. And yet, Dogtooth tells a lot about the inherent contradiction between the obvious effectiveness of Pavlovian techniques and the nigh impossibility of maintaining the inertness of Aristotle’s cave (important read as always: Michael Sicinski’s review). Someday somebody will find his way into that cave, just as people found their way onto the American shore, just as those women found out their way into those neo-zombies in The Descent, and just as the world found out about Korean cinema and Kim Ki-Young’s Hanyo and probably addressed the tone of the remake. And although the complete truth might not always reveal itself, it probably has a way of making its presence felt.
        But then conditioning is one of the great facts of our existence. Dogtooth is probably an experiment, and the name of Michael Haneke will crop up as a usual suspect, especially after The White Ribbon. But then, Haneke is sure as hell about his theory, and Dogtooth is about its own complete failure as a theory. The one true precedent to be found, is Manoj Night Shyamalan’s The Village, which is an even more perverse film than this one here, and one that discovered through its Aronofsky-style metaphor of a blind girl that pure vacuum is impossible to create and impossible to maintain. A man and his utterly submissive wife in what is a completely patriarchal establishment home-school a family of three kids, one son and two daughters, in the hope not to have them fly out of the nest one day and make their own world but consider these walls a planet unto itself. The kids have never been outside, think a zombie is a yellow flower and consider Frank Sinatra’s voice as their grandfather’s. The are exactly the cavemen in Aristotle’s experiment, except that Mr. Lanthimos understands that there is no better cave than the house, and the first establishment we face is the parents. The son’s sexual needs are catered by a woman (an employee from the father’s factory), while curiously the sisters are left licking away their needs. It’s a strange world we live in.
        But strange how, and strange why? There’ve been plenty of reactions that have sneered at Dogtooth’s extremities, and perversities, yet few seem to have understood the questions the film poses. The Village made us into one of those who were inside the cave, only to come up with some seventh grade essay on the corruption of society and what not as a license to unleash a completely authoritarian government of its own, which was much like those machines in The Matrix. In many ways, The Village is a film that is about classic conservatism which positions (panders) itself expecting a libertarian response from us, which frankly is the problem with, if not every, most of the establishments within the world – be it governments, people, cultures, film industries, or as in this case, a patriarch.
        My good friend Gaurang has recently moved to the United States, and he recounts one latest incident. While he was buying his furniture the shop owner, an American, expressed his astonishment at our arranged marriages where we marry someone we have barely met (often seen), and still indulge in sex the wedding night with that near stranger. For an American it is an incomprehensible cultural extreme. For us, it is a part of our culture. A culture, a government and parenting, as Sicinski so brilliantly puts in his review, always follows an internal logic, a logic that in all probability will be scoffed from the outside.
        Dogtooth, thus, places us on the outside, thus asking us not to be Aristotle’s cavemen, but spectators. You know, those very spectators who two months ago had absolutely no idea if Hosni Mubarak was the President of Egypt or Algeria, or if he was the Prime Minister, or what he stood for, and are now indulging in all the armchair celebration at the military taking over the Egyptian establishment, or those very spectators who so self-righteously claimed that the CPC is a sort of tyrannical regime. Mr. Lanthimos comprises his film mostly of quite rigid framing, where despite the action, the camera and the focus remain at the same point throughout the length of the scene, and there is no shot-reverse shot routine. And yet, at a select few moments, moments where the humanity is trying to seep in, he uses the more emotional aesthetics – of a handheld camera, of pans – aesthetics that betray that inherent human being, both behind the establishment (patriarch) and the experiment (Mr. Lanthimos himself). Yes, Dogtooth is a giant experiment, an amusing experiment, where the rats are not the characters but us, the spectators. It is our reactions that lend meaning to the film, and the nature of those reactions to the mock conservatism on display betrays our inherent conservative. The amusing part is because of us, the same sneer/astonishment/condescension I mention above.
        Let me, dear reader, pull another little question for you. Remember your reaction to the ending frame of Inception, and your wish for that top to fall. You never were satisfied with his satisfaction of his reality, you wanted your judgment of reality to be shared by him. One might feel like bringing Orwell’s 1984 (and other such works) into perspective, and how we take pride in the knowledge we have and expect everyone to have that knowledge. Information is probably everything. In the final shot, which is just about as brilliant as the moment in Inception, and which raises the similar questions, Mr. Lanthimos arrests us in our reaction. Do we understand the girl’s plight? Do we understand that her reality is probably different from us? Who says our reality is right, and even if it is, are we even concerned the emotional and cultural shock the girl would receive. Do we expect her to accept our reality? Do we expect conservative, orthodox cultures to accept our urban ways? When we were once discussing the freedom to wear what we feel like, my wife (who does wear skirts and shorts) once observed a fantastic little thing about the more orthodox kind, who would wear, say, only a burkha, or wear only traditional Indian outfits (whatever that means). She said, that if one of them were given the freedom to wear anything, they wouldn’t prefer it and instead would indulge in condescension of those who do, just as she (my wife) would when she sees a woman smoking. Mr. Lanthimos’ film sort of exposes the hell out of us. We all judge, and we’re all judged. I sure as hell am wrong in some way here, because I seem to be ignoring the privilege of information we wish everyone should share, a topic and a discussion starter I guess. So I wonder if a man as pure and compassionate as Spider Baby’s Bruno can ever exist.