Daily Film Thoughts: The New Year

On the docket: Sang-soo Hong’s HaHaHa, Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay, James Gunn’s Super, Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas & Semih Kaplanoglu’s Honey.

Sang-soo Hong’s latest is a story wherein two friends, Munkyung (Kim Sangkyung) and Jungshik (Yu Junsang) who have spent some time in Tongyeong (a small city nearby Seoul) meet up just prior to the former’s departure for Canada. They hadn’t met during their few weeks together and now are sharing stories about their peculiar time in the small town. It gets extremely ironic — re: the title, HaHaHa — and their stories intertwine in way a Woody Allen feature might. While Sang-soo has been invariably compared to Michelangelo Antonioni in their cinematic sensibility, I’ve always felt that Sang-soo’s content is more comparable to Woody Allen’s if Mr. Allen had grown up in the far East. Anyway, the stories the two share ignorantly weave into each other and never fully collide sustaining the gentle rhythm that Sang-soo Hong first established with his debut feature, The Power of Kangwon Province. In viewing this you will not encounter cacophony or any permissible plot twists that would invigorate an obvious thinker; just an ironic breeziness with an funereal quality and plenty of irony. Like each of Sang-soo’s features before this, this is for the occasionally self-reproaching solipsist.

It would be difficult to summarize the film given the abundance of serendipitous plot points without spoiling the film, so I’ll stick to the philosophical rudiment of the feature. First, the film is about these two men and their two objects of affection. While visiting some of the historical landmarks of the city Munkyung stumbles upon an history instructor/guide Seong-ok (Moon Sori) and his first impression is an unintelligent “she has nice legs – her face is average, but her body is great”. He’s unfamiliar with the city, sees her as desirable amidst the otherwise unimpressive sexual offerings of the town and thus becomes enamored with her. On the other hand, Jungshik is already settled in a relationship with the dowdy and emotionally restless Yeon-ju (Ye Jiwon). He is, in turns, sincerely in love with the woman and resentful of her. While she affords him the emotional and intellectual reassurance of which his home life had neglected him as a child, subsequently she is also suffocating and objectively not worth much – she isn’t much sexually appealing, nor does she offer intellectual engagement. As the film explains with a delicate touch: man is bad.

In discussing each character’s psychological makeup, Sang-soo discusses a myriad of philosophies, but focuses most on Socrates’ “theory of forms” philosophy wherein the philosopher details that, for example, what we perceive as an apple is a material thing and not of the real world, whereas if we bite the “apple” and experience it for ourselves then and only then we may realize it as of the real world. In short, the philosophy encourages amnesia so that we may experience things as opposed to have a preconceived notion of them by how we’re brought up. This idea courses through the two leads and the one other male, the poet Jeong-ho (Kim Kangwoo) who associates with each in extremely different ways. In fact this philosophy is most vocalized by the poet when he has lunch with Jungshik and randomly pontificates “if you take the clothes away from a beggar is he no longer a beggar?” And it’s an interesting idea – one I find to be very true – that we assign judgment to things based off of our preconceptions and really shouldn’t do that. Of course the virtue in the statement is nullified — and subsequently the humor implied — by what Jeong-ho represents: the archetype in adolescent angst.

The story gets trickier when Jeong-ho is the boyfriend of Seong-ok and also the close friend of Jungshik. One may find an incongruity in the fact that neither of the men discussing their stories are able to put 1 and 1 together, but at the same time perhaps they did and are enjoying the irony for themselves; if not, they’re being nondescript and it’s still understandable. A lot of humor derives from the Jeong-ho character who sifts through different ideologies and philosophies hoping to find one that will stick with him, yet purports each to be a true facet of his character. In turn, the pragmatic Jungshik calls him out on it and damn if that isn’t one of the funniest scenes of the year.

A major problem people have with Sang-soo Hong is his lack of sympathy towards his characters. In fact, he’s rather self-flagellating in the way Lars von Trier is in the way that they both base their protagonists off themselves and flagrantly ridicule and demean them while also leaving the door just open enough for similar or sensitive souls to understand their dilemma, respect it, and empathize regardless of how putrid they may appear. Personally, I found both main characters to be endearing and sincerely cared for what happened to them. Sure, they’re flawed and perhaps purposefully obstinate, but these are the struggles of the mildly privileged baby boomers coming into adulthood. They may be insolent, mistreat others and have hidden agendas, but beneath it all these are absolutely fragile people. As per usual, the indelible work of Sang-soo’s cast is essential to the humanity of his feature, and here, the director has been blessed with his best band of performers yet. Each of the six who makeup the primary cast (the sixth being Mun-kyung’s mother Jeong-hwa – played by Kim Gyuri) are fantastic. Even with three top shelf performances (the two main leads and Moon Sori) it’s difficult to find a favorite. Do you prefer the hilarity that is seeing a grown, petulant man hysterically cry or do you prefer the self-assigned sadness of a man who has diagnosed himself with chronic depression or do you prefer the buoyant woman who is, as Clementine once said, a girl looking for her own piece of mind? You cannot go wrong here.

In floating ideas like the false pride, false wisdom and false love of man, it’s evident why this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It might play too sardonically or tiptoe too fancifully around the big picture with little plot redirections so that the story may continue in its entertainingly ironic fashion, but for some (like myself) this is a brilliant film and the definition of what cinema is best for: stimulating the mind. It’s hilarious, touching, repulsive, disheartening and fantastic. And while the ending might offer the greatest irony of all — a man shaking his own preconceptions to ultimately secure love — the film will not close on a big laugh, but rather a piquant and wholly satisfying note which is made all the more so by a rare implementation of music on Sang-soo’s part: the refined version of Jungshik’s improvisational piano piece. Perfection through and through.

I figure this review will be rather concise because although the film runs at two hours, Brilliante Mendoza’s Kinatay has very little say.

Although fans of arthouse may be quick to dismiss those who consider Mendoza’s latest feature formulaic, this feature certainly is of a Hollywood minded construct. From the opening act which parallels The Deer Hunter wherein we learn about the protagonist through simple and innocent gestures — his love for his family, his thoughtful looks for a man threatening to jump from a billboard to his death, his getting married — so that we may be persuaded to care for Peping (Coco Martin) in the most simple and facile of way. Give him the dilemma of having no money and the ambition of wanting to be part of the police force and you’ve got the most good guy; the most generic setup for bad things to happen and the easiest kind of person with which to project moral contemplation.

Also known as The Execution of P. to American audiences, Kinatay actually translates simply to the word “Butchered” which is a far more fitting title as it tells the audience what the films focal point is in the utmost blunt way. I won’t reveal the pungent set piece for those who’ve yet to see the film, but as a friend of mine discerned, “it feels out of place”. You see, the film strives to make adamant points about societal pressures and uses this grizzly scene to slam home the thought that circumstances such as poverty make monsters, and on the most basic of levels, sure, the film succeeds. We see Peping’s transition and contemplation — the entire feature rests on his gaze, fortunately unlike most other gritty thrillers the atmosphere works conjointly with its lead actor’s countenance as opposed to against — but a lot of the feature is expressed through pontification. For example, the villain Vic (Julio Diaz) is given no characterization: he is the generic bad guy. First time we see him he shoves a stripper’s face and states “I don’t fuck niggers”. He’s given the iconic low angle shot to further perpetuate his fierceness and if this is a film that wants to convey the change from point A (Peping’s innocence) to point B (Vic’s inhumanity) then the film fails on multiple levels because we’re given contrasts rather than juxtapositions. For example, Peping is an officer in training while Vic is the captain of the police force. If you take away the cuteness of this irony what meaning does it really have?

While the plot is stingy on the side of originality, Kinatay does work simply for the atmosphere created. Mendoza is nothing if not a lucid visualist and with a film such as this the atmosphere is the key. There is no gritty handicam photography, but rather refined pans, absorbing tracking shots, and a good variation of angles utilized primarily to further express its protagonist’s trepidation. This, however, is stilted for a few moments when the director consciously cuts away from his protagonist to show what’s happening in the basement with the kidnapped woman. These are the only scenes where Peping is not within the vicinity of the action, let alone the focus of the shot. In more ways than one the basement scenes are, for lack of a better word, contrived. And while these scenes imbue the film with a horror-esque mood, it is of the New French Extremity variety and certainly nothing of which to be proud when you’ve acutely labored over a better and more honest aura.

In the end, Peping is a new man and the centerpiece a symbolism for the character’s deconstruction, but what does the film say? Peping’s baby cries and that’s the final shot. Is to be young nothing but to yet experience the sadness of the world? Does Mendoza’s artistry consist of anything more than a dyspeptic panache? Perhaps to some, but to this viewer the film is all style with a little grace; the kind of movie that will play better in retrospection than it will in real time.

Since Batman’s revival in 2005 with Begins the non-superhero subgenre has emerged. The problem with this genre is that its target audience is such a specific pocket of society: those who love silly vigilantism. I say silly because the protagonists in each of these films are mostly pedomorphic men or boys firmly situated in their adolescence and the films themselves are written and directed by like minded types, so the general output has been, well, what you’d surmise from what I just wrote. It started with uber-indie Special which got the most obscure release of these films and starred Michael Rapaport. On one hand that was an interesting examination of a man’s struggle to find an identity in the world even at its slowest pace. He lost himself and suddenly becomes this heroic vigilante — or does he? The film worked because it played the story down to such an extreme that it’d be impossible to criticize the feature for being too “out there” with its ideas. It isn’t a grand feature or even all too ponderous, but it’s certainly solid. As of now the “solid” Special has been the best entry into this soon-to-die subgenre, Super included.

James Gunn (Super’s writer/director) begins his feature with an alright use of narration, if only because it impassively informs us about how vanilla Frank’s life has been up to that point. It’s a quick summary, but what we take from it is that he’s lived a very self-suppressive existence and has taken nothing from his experience on Earth. He believes in God and when he takes those first steps en route to becoming a handy superhero, he allows God to guide him. Unfortunately James Gunn presents this in the form of a question – “is God guiding him or is he insane?” – and for me, the person who sees the serendipity to be too convenient, too frequent, and too instrumental in encouraging Frank to become The Crimson Bolt, it’s obvious God played a hand in this. So it isn’t like the wrongfully slated The Book Of Eli where the writers commit to making their protagonist virtuously indelible, but rather a whole questioning of a character’s mental facilities so that it may hold some psychological gravity. Well it doesn’t and is offensively constructed, too.

Then you’ve got his partner-in-crime Libby (Ellen Page) who at one point rapes Frank in the dumbest manifestation of a teenage boy’s wet dream come true. Ellen Page is a fine, if droll actress and here, well, she’s required to sport a manic laugh which is one of the film’s few high points when used properly and one of the most sick-making when overdone. It’s usually overdone.

So yeah, the plot is about Frank trying to rescue his wife from drug pushers. Later it’s revealed they’re also rapists, child molesters, murderers and thieves. Later one of Jacques’ (the main baddy played by Kevin Bacon) henchmen asks a fellow henchman if he’d rather have sex with his grandmother or a corpse. Guess who you’re supposed to care for.

Overall this is just a terrible film made not the worst thing ever by a few genuinely funny moments (cracking skulls with wrenches is fun) and less irritating by running for a mere 90 minutes. It’s an order of stupid fun with extra stupid and hold most of the fun. So it’s like a hot dog with a lot of ketchup, but instead of a wiener there’s a half-cocktail weenie. I’m hungry.

So if you want to see a film where the vigilant mind is examined, well there’s Taxi Driver, but if you want to see it done in this subgenre even Defendor does that better (though I’d hardly recommend that); if you want to see cool action and watch one guy crumble an entire criminal organization with his hands and whatever items he may stumble upon, Mirageman is the way to go; and if you just want to see a better version of this film, watch Special.

If you know me you know I love, love, love Romanian New Wave. From Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough, to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, to Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue I feel that this last decade goes to Romania. Even the non-New Wave films like The Rest Is Silence are of excellent quality no matter the way you slice it. Yeah, Romania has been tops.

As I thought about what didn’t work with this film while working my way up to review it, I’ve realized that Romanian New Wave — with its static shots, non-soundtrack, and decrepit backdrops — has only worked perfectly when the script possessed and required in its direction ominousness. Its present in my three favorite New Wave films and while I didn’t love The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu it’d be fourth on my docket. To me, this appears to be the New Wave’s glaring hole – that the stories, while generally well-plotted and well-acted, lack atmosphere. They’re homespun and honest, but there needs to be more for a film to be great. This film about adultery is exactly what I’ve described.

In today’s society, men with vast amounts of money are often revealed to be in or have had copious infidelities – almost as if each million landed the fella an affair. In Tuesday, After Christmas, the protagonist handles a lot of money, and while he isn’t wealthy himself, the millions of Lei that have passed through his fingers seems to have given him the same lust as those celebrities we hear about weekly. As a recent episode of South Park alluded to (along with many, many, many texts that are undoubtedly more profound) men with money are men with power and men with power take what they desire. Unlike the actions of a John Edwards, the protagonist’s problems feel more palpable than that of a tabloid and they’re often uncomfortable.

The film opens on the middle-aged and typically built Paul (Mimi Branescu) in bed with the cute young Raluca (Maria Popistasu) being sexually playful. This scene plays out for about ten minutes and with each passing minute the feeling of pure affection and warmth is made all the more genuine. And we’re sucked, or at least I was, into this pure, unaffected togetherness. It’s inconsequential, sure, but it’s pleasant.

The next scene Paul’s with his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) at a mall shopping for their daughter’s Christmas present and he is bored out of his mind. Immediately we can understand why Paul would much rather be around Raluca. Where Adriana is very much in reality and crunching numbers and bringing about stresses, Raluca is self-sufficient, adorable and inclined to the cosmos. This isn’t to suggest that Paul is right, that we should feel sorry for him, but the differences are explained enough from the get-go so that we can at least identify Paul’s feelings.

Surprisingly, characterization is a problem with this film; we get impressions of people and their authentic emotions, but no psychological underpinning. While I don’t subscribe to this thought, I believe that a problem a lot of people will have with this feature is that it appears misogynistic. To be frank, Paul has no personality to call his own. He is what he is surrounded by; rearranging his personality given the physics around him.So why do women love him? Does Raluca have an oedipus complex? Is she trying to subvert her mother’s desires simply because she views life as delible if not lived as an iconoclast? Does she find him warm, loving or anything marginally worth spending time worth for moral and emotional gain? If so, why? These questions aren’t answered, but rather left open for interpretation when they should be straightforward so as to not confuse viewers trying to ascertain a position on the morality of the text.

However, a point of great intrigue with this film is how it has decided to, not only not reproach the Ceausescu regime and communism, but support its foundational ideas. While there is little to be seen as anti-communism – as if Muntean has given up beating that dead horse – there is plenty that can be read into as pro-communism in one of the more shocking, if perhaps unintentional pieces of subtext made in the past decade. Especially in concerns to the unknowingly, but somewhat bratish and definitely spoiled daughter of Paul and Adriana. A person who draws similarities to the annoying children in the Western world; a personality trait that would not exist with communism in the picture. The same applies to Paul’s object of affection, Raluca who is 26 and therefore only lived six years of her life under a dictatorship. Although she isn’t spoiled she is certainly more wayward than Adriana. Perhaps this is more of a criticism against the wreckless way capitalistic ideals can be wielded, but in that sense it is still a support of communism. In addition, and I know I’m saturating here, Paul bails on dinner with his wife and goes to McDonalds instead so that he need not be around her for nourishment of any kind. McDonalds first established a restaurant in Romania in 1995, five years after the Romanian Revolution. Although it isn’t an explicit scene or one marked in anyway like the director wanted to convey this thought, it’s true that with fast food restaurants and that missing element of togetherness at the end of a day with one’s family has taken its toll on the Western-minded household. Here, when the marriage falls apart it can be attributed to a number of reasons and one is that Paul was never invested in his homelife and that may be because he was never at home – required or not. I’m not suggesting he should writhe in a situation where he is unhappy or that being forced to be faithful is a good thing, but I do feel that the more options a person has the more divided they become and with this marriage, like so many others, the more options that are available — an easy affair here, an easy way to be alone there — the less likely things will succeed. I myself feel this marriage would’ve been perfectly functional if the film set thirty years prior, the family tightly bounded by love and absolutely unpretentious, but of course you may not and thus find what I’m saying faux-intellectual babble.

Like all Romanian features (that awful Outbound excluded) Tuesday, After Christmas can be recommended for its solid representation of simple ideas and minimalistic performances, but unlike the best it simply lacks fervor and can be considered omissible for that and that alone. It’s more commonplace than contemplative, but I do mildly recommend this for the performances of the two women and that perfect final sequence. Muntean’s done better — Boogie examines the male mind in a similar way and reaches great success because the protagonist is a more interesting and approachable character — but far more have done worse.

In the scene above, you feel the hardness of the man on the left and the fragility of the boy on the right; in the scene above, you see that the father and son are divided by rope, by the lengths of their lives and you will surmise how a soft child like this can grow up to be a rugged outdoors man like that; in the scene above, you completely understand why the child, the film’s protagonist, has a stutter and feels utterly insignificant and empty inside despite probably not what insignificant even means.

I saw this film over six months ago and it has stuck with me like none other since. There isn’t much to discuss when it comes to Bal because its the kind of film which only works if you feel what the director feels; its about connection, not intellectualism. There are a lot of scenes founded on nothing but expressions and the sounds of the outdoors and to summarize the plot would to write a single sentence: A seven-year old boy struggles with life. To put it simply – it’s heartbreaking in theme, yet beautiful in scope. Although concluded by an ending that’s more of a taper off than anything else — which left a pungent taste in my mouth after one hundred minutes of serenity, but I’ve come to accept it as representative of the journey of youth — this is a wonderfully handled elegiacal tale which has been done before, but not as deftly and certainly with more maudlin. This is essentially a masterpiece and one of the few films which asks you turn your brain off, but doesn’t follow that request up with explosions or half-naked women. It’s a mood piece and it captures the melancholy of childhood perfectly. Comparable to a film like Where The Wild Things Are but incomparable in quality, I urge everyone who has been a kid to see this film because chances are it will resonate with most.

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One thought on “Daily Film Thoughts: The New Year

  1. Zeyneb says:

    Thanks for your positive review of BAL. For the record may I know your name, so that I can quote the article correctly.

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