Tag Archives: subtitled

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is a 2003 film by recent Oscar darling Bong Joon Ho. A remastered version is coming out this month, a perfect excuse to revisit this remarkable classic.

In 1986, Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) are two humble detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in their small South Korean province, already an unusual occurrence. But when the murderer strikes several more times with the same pattern, the inexperienced detectives realize that they are chasing the country’s first documented serial killer. Their skills and gear are rudimentary, so it’s good old fashioned detecting for these two, piecing together the clues in an attempt to solve this important case.

Bong Joon Ho has a unique and inimitable cinematic voice. The film starts out almost bumbling, with a tendency toward slapstick. His signature satire is ever-present, nuanced and cleverly hidden in plain sight underneath broad comedy. Genres blend and tone veers wildly from the expected course, but neither undermines what is ultimately a serious theme. Bong Joon Ho is slowly building to some very real thrills not to mention one hell of a climax.

The detectives’ increasing desperation is well played by a talented cast, including BJH’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang Ho, reflecting tragedy, futility, and humanity. It’s a complex and gripping story about the people tortured by a case well after the victims’ suffering has ended, with consequences that leak beyond professional borders.

Bong Joon Ho takes the time to find beauty, even amid such a brutal emotional and political landscape. The way he juxtaposes images can be as startling as it is brilliant, the effect culminating in a truly unusual film that transcends genre and communicates a fragile and subtle sympathy.

Memories of Murder is a modern masterpiece; look for the remastered release in select theatres beginning this weekend.

Smog Town

If you think your job sucks, trying being an environmental protection official in China.

In some industrial centres, the smog is so thick you practically need a knife to cut through it. A spork at least. Serious harm is being done to the environment, not to mention to people’s health, but that’s not the main concern of an environmental protection officer. I mean, I’m sure that’s in the official job description, but unofficially, though very seriously, the officer’s job is to make sure their region’s numbers are not among the worst in the country. Beijing keeps a very careful watch on each city’s pollution levels, pitting each regional environmental protection office against the others, and the price of failure is shame. Which, in China at least, is a pretty steep price.

Director Meng Han hangs out with us in Langfang, one of China’s most polluted cities. The officials are fighting an uphill battle, an upmountain battle really, with both hands tied behind their backs, and no shoes, and walking pneumonia. Because the environmental protection office must somehow reduce their numbers significantly without being allowed to touch any of the biggest polluters. Instead, the officials play cat and mouse with small time operations run out of people’s driveways and carports. Their emissions are negligible compared to large industries pumping out noxious fumes and degrading the land and sulllying the water, but this is the only kind of change the regional offices are actually allowed to pursue.

Meng Han’s documentary is really a Trojan horse; on the outside it looks like it’s about environmental protection, but once you crack its shell, you’ll find it’s really a commentary on the futility of the job, the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, and the sham lip service our governments pay to our faces about concern for the environment while always valuing profit and efficiency over everything else.

Given these restrictions, these laughable micro targets, our fight against climate change is destined to be a losing one.

This and other titles are screening as part of the Planet In Focus Film Festival – check out their lineup and buy your tickets (and watch at home!) here.

Apples (Mila)

Any director lucky enough or prescient enough to be working on a movie about global pandemics just as one spread in the real world is probably going to have an automatic in this year, as we are greedy to see our own lives reflected in film, for both the drama and fear instilled by a rapidly spreading virus, and the stillness and isolation as the world shut down in response. These are strange times.

But not all pandemics are created equal. The one writer- (along with Stavros Raptis) director Christos Nikou imagines causes sudden amnesia. After a blinding pain in the head, the victim finds him- or herself void of memory. When Aris, a middle-aged man, wakes to the bus driver shaking him, his wallet is as empty as his head. Transported to hospital by ambulance, he can’t answer any questions, and after a few days on the ward, he is still unclaimed by friend or family. He’s not the only one. In response, a rehab program attempts to fill the void, a recovery method designed to help unclaimed patients build new identities and lives. Living in a sparse apartment and armed with a polaroid camera, he is given daily tasks on a cassette, meant to be performed and captured on film. It’s a strange life, and a lonely one, until he meets a woman on the same path (Sofia Georgovasili).

The treatment is unexpected, jarring, and increasingly bizarre. Just like Nikou’s film. As a feature film debut, it’s bold, and immediately establishes itself as a smoldering new entry among the Greek New Wave of weird cinema. And isn’t it glorious.

More than just memory, Apples is a meditation on nostalgia, reality, grief, and existential reminiscence. But between Nikou and the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital, what Apples really touches deep within its worldwide audience is our collective identity crisis. Sure it’s surreal and inevitably absurdist, but through its analog attempt at rediscovering personality, it’s a subtle condemnation of the hollowness and inauthenticity of the digital age, and it gives us all the space and permission to grieve.

TIFF20: 76 Days

An unidentified and unidentifiable young man is crying, begging to see his father one last time. The mourner is indistinguishable from his comforters as they all wear the same fully encapsulated protective garments. His father is already being wheeled toward a temporary morgue, his corpse zipped up in a special HAZMAT body bag, his remains a possibly infectious hazard that will be cremated unceremoniously in the nearest facility. There will be no last embrace.

We are in a hospital in Wuhan, China, the capital of Hubei Province and home to 11 million people. This is where COVID-19, first known simply as the coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was first identified as a cluster of viral pneumonia in late December 2019. Wuhan entered lockdown on January 23 2020, with WHO declaring it a public health emergency of international concern a week later, and a pandemic by March. Wuhan’s lockdown was an unprecedented bit of grace that would allow the rest of the world to prepare; it would be followed by lockdowns in many other countries the world over.

Wuhan stayed in lockdown for 76 days, and many hospitals, including this one, were simply overwhelmed by 50 000 cases of a disease they didn’t yet know how to treat. The need quickly outstrips the capacity. Doctors and nurses in thrown-together, inadequate PPE are shouting at panicked crowds of sick people, trying to get them to come in only a few at a time, hardly equipped to handle both the people and their ailments. A special ward for COVID patients was quickly separated from the rest, where fear bubbled, and impatience, loneliness, sorrow – not just the patients, but the doctors and nurses who are also locked down, isolated from their families, risking their lives to treat an unknown, highly infectious disease with a higher than average rate of death.

Directors Weixi Chen and Hao Wu try their best to tease out a few narratives from the chaos, but the film is actually at its best when the scenes are random, the pace urgent, its subjects on edge. Loud speakers throughout the city announce lockdown rules to empty streets; “Don’t create or spread rumours,” they say, with no one there to hear them. A bin full of cell phones belonging to the dead sits on a nurse’s desk, some of them still ringing.

It’s incredible that the film makers were able to piece something together so quickly, something that may one day serve as a primary document of this historical event, and even though we are still very much fighting this war and don’t yet know how or if it will end, I was on the edge of my seat watching it unfold at ground zero, where it all began. It is raw, emotional, desperate. It is a human and humane portrait of these troubling times.

TIFF20: New Order (Nuevo orden)

Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is resplendent in a crimson suit, about to marry her sweetheart at a swanky, high-society affair at her parents’ home, if only the judge would hurry up and get there. At the gate, an old family employee is begging for money. The timing is bad, but his wife will die without surgery, and he needs cash now. Marianne’s parents have offered some but he needs more and need makes him persistent. Marianne takes pity, and since the judge isn’t there yet anyway, she has another employee, Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), drive her to the sick woman so she can get her to a hospital.

Outside the gates of her lavish family home, there is unrest. Wedding guests and their cars have been showing up bearing traces of green paint – the protester’s signature colour. The rumble of rebellion grows louder, the streets chaotic. Back home, the estate walls have been breached, the wedding overwhelmed with “uninvited guests.”* Guests are stripped of their valuables, the house is trashed, the safe cracked. The Have Nots have risen up against the Haves, forcing guests to wire vast sums of money, shooting the ones who won’t. Wealth is being redistributed. For Marianne, things are even worse. The army has “intervened,” meaning they’ve identified high-resource targets like her and including her to be held captive with dozens, hundreds, thousands more who are tortured and held for ransom, all while blaming it on the protesters.

Unapologetically and brutally violent, not to mention unrelentingly bleak, Michel Franco explores what it means when the bottom 99% decide they’ve had enough. It’s a very literal interpretation of class warfare. There are no heroes here, just multiple levels of corruption.

Franco’s film is tough to watch. It starts out boisterous. demanding, pulsating with life and its many needs. His civil uprising is sudden, visceral, vicious. But with little context and no attachment to its characters, the second half loses its way amid the chaos. Franco is more focused on making shocking statements than stories, but even the ability to shock is blunted when it’s overused.

This is the kind of movie that you hope is dystopian rather than prophetic. Although, with the kind of 2020 we’ve been having, this is not a possibility we can afford to rule out entirely. New Order has a heightened capacity to disturb because it feels possible. By keeping the details vague, you could almost imagine any industrialized nation in its place; Franco is issuing a warning for anyone brave enough to see it through. It’s Parasite meets The Purge, weighted a little more toward horror than satire, where the civil war doesn’t so much bring new order as no order, and everyone is vulnerable.

The film, which took home the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize from the Venice Film Festival, is more about awe than answers. Like an electrified cattle prod to the privates, it won’t be for everyone, but at the very least, it should serve as a wake-up call.

*Recently nominated for euphemism of the year.

Cuties (Mignonnes)

Amy is an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant living in a Parisian apartment with a conservative mother, a strict auntie, and several siblings who await their father’s return with a second wife in tow. Her life is so different compared to the other girls at school, so seemingly easy with their bodies, dancing freely, hardly a care in the world. In Amy’s home, money is scarce, modesty is valued, and things are complicated.

Like pretty much every kid ever, Amy just wants to fit in. “The cuties” are a dance troupe at school that she’d very much like to belong to. They’re the cool kids of course, with maybe just a smidge of mean girls. They’re irresistible. Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is so desperate to belong she does whatever it takes: her baby brother’s tshirt is a crop top on her. A stolen cell phone becomes her portal to a world of gyrating, scantily clad girls, simulating sex and calling it dancing. She learns from them, in secret. And when the cuties have a sudden opening, she’s more than ready to step in.

You may have heard that Netflix has caught some major heat over this film, mostly from people who hadn’t seen it. They’ve called for Netflix to remove the title from its streaming platform, and threatened mass unsubscribing if they don’t. Their complaint: the movie hyper-sexualizes young girls. Is it valid?

Sure it is. But this is exactly the point film maker Maïmouna Doucouré is trying to make. Her film is a social commentary about the pressure young girls face not just from social media, but absolutely from social media, which they are exposed to from very young ages. And we are all in some way contributing to a culture that only finds value in females that can be sexualized, treating all others as if they’re invisible. If a girl wants to be seen, and has access to a tablet or a smartphone or peers, she won’t have failed to notice what her (lack of) options are.

Is it fair or necessary to sexualize these young actresses in order to prove a point? To be honest, I sort of hate putting kids in show business altogether. No matter how carefully a director isolates mature themes from the children on set, kids are notorious sponges and almost always absorb more than we think. Child actor turned director Sarah Polley was in the news this week reflecting on having to kiss a man twice her age on the set of a TV show when she was 13. A show Canada prided itself on for its wholesome family viewing. It’s a valid concern, even if it doesn’t have an easy answer.

If her film has inspired conversation, then Maïmouna Doucouré has done her job. You can’t move the needle if you don’t ask the hard questions. So I don’t think that muzzling Netflix or forcing censorship on an emerging female director flexing her voice for the first time is the answer. I know that Doucouré hasn’t included these scenes to entertain us; they are there to provoke discomfort. So let that be the starting point for the discussion that needs to be had. Let’s talk about why this makes us uncomfortable, and what we can do so this isn’t Amy’s story anymore. So the next time someone writes a movie about a girl like Amy, it won’t be about how the only currency she has is her body.

TIFF20: Get The Hell Out

Technically, this film does have a premise and a plot. I mean, it totally and legitimately does. But as a Taiwanese comedy-horror that mixes zombies, martial arts, and politics, it probably didn’t have to go to the trouble. As part of TIFF’s legendary Midnight Madness program, it’s not just a case of fitting in, but establishing a new bar for the kind of oddities the best of genre cinema can offer.

Hsiung Ying-ying (Megan Lai) is so mad the government wants to tear down her father’s house to build a new chemical plant, she gets herself elected to parliament to actually do something about it. But opponent MP Li Kuo-chung (Chung-wang Wang) is a veteran politician and isn’t about to just back down and let her have it. In fact, he instigates a brawl that riles Ying-ying into busting out some badass kung-fu moves, including her signature huracanrana, and then calls for her resignation, having successfully baited her. Bumbling security guard Wang You-wei (Bruce Hung) is the one who broke up the fight, and his corresponding rise in popularity has both camps thinking they can use his seat for their own purposes. But You-wei only has eyes for Ying-ying, so on the appointed day and time of the power plant vote, he shows up to Taiwan’s parliamentary chambers ready for a fight, but not the kind that actually goes down.

Turns out, the Prime Minister himself has contracted a virus and the minute he starts rabidly biting into people’s flesh, hell breaks loose and the building goes on lockdown. A measure normally used to protect the Prime Minister from outside threats, this time it’s trapped his colleagues in chambers with him, and he’s turning fellow politicians into crazed zombies faster than Donald Trump can spout lies to the press. In fact, he’s going through victims quicker than if he was a wood chipper, while his bored security detail looks on, seemingly unperturbed – they’re there to protect him, not protect others from him. Don’t question it, it’s the kind of magical “logic” politicians rely on every day.

As Ying-ying watches from the safety of the press pit, her rival, her protege/love interest, and her father (Tsung-Hua To) all fight for their lives. The blood spatter is voluminous, exuberant. Luckily Taiwanese politicians are exceptionally well-dressed, battle lines drawn vividly between fuchsia and tangerine. Director I.-Fan Wang’s larger than life, cartoonish violence reminds me a little of Edgar Wright circa Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It’s a monstrous spectacle, but you can’t deny its vigor. I dare you to pass up the opportunity to see someone wield the person they’re giving the Heimlich to as a weapon. Where else on earth are you going to see that?

The comedy is broad, the violence gleeful and gruesome, and the satire unsubtle. Even as they wield axes and nail clippers, anything that might help them get the hell out, they continue to wheel and deal, consummate politicians, the vote never quite forgotten. If their political criticism is to be believed, cowriters Wang and Wan-Ju Yang don’t have a lot of respect for Taiwan’s actual legislative fights. They do, however have a lot of fun lampooning them. It may not be pretty, but Get The Hell Out is loud and exhilarating, and in a guilty pleasure kind of way, it’s actually pretty fun.

Jumbo

I’ve been trying all day to figure out how to break this to you, and I’m no further ahead now that I was this morning, and you’ll see from the time stamp that it very very late in the evening now. Assuming I get something put on the page and hit publish tonight, which is assuming a lot since I still have bupkis. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Not the bupkis, the bupkis is spot-on. It’s just that by “all day” what I really mean is “intermittently, for the past 13 hours, for a total of probably not more than 90 minutes.” Which is still quite a lot as I can usually bang these out with great efficacy.

But this is what you get when you attend the Fantasia Film Festival, a festival dedicated to the weirdest and most wonderful corners of the wide world of cinema. It’s not for blockbusters, and not generally for Oscar bait, although it has hosted its share of contenders, including South Korea’s A Taxi Driver, Japan’s The Great Passage, and our own Tom of Finland. It’s been visited by the finest film nerds, including Ben & Josh Safdie, Guillermo del Toro, Mark Hamill, John Carptenter, James Gunn, Nicolas Winding Refn, Eli Roth, Takashi Miike, Ben Wheatley, and me. It’s funny because it’s true.

I have seen lots of strange stuff at this festival: people pooping out their living, breathing, emotional baggage; humanoid cockroaches; sex cam horror; an impregnated bathtub; a frog-man serial killer; a hunt for bigfoot; cannibal grandparents… and I could go on but won’t, for both our sakes.

But Jumbo…is in a category all its own. It’s about a woman, Jeanne, bit of a weird duck that one. Still lives with her mother. Kind of a loner. Works at an amusement park. Falls in love with a carnival ride. Typical French woman, eh?

So yeah. She calls him Jumbo because his real name (slave name?) is vulgar (and let’s face it, it’s more of a descriptor than a name). It’s one of those tilty-whirly rides that make kids squeal and/or turn green. And it’s dead sexy. Well to Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) he is. He’s very attractive, smart, funny…well, okay, it’s hard to see what exactly she sees in him, other than he’s just about the only one who hasn’t called her a weirdo. At least not to her face. And he does seem responsive: he flashes his lights, he takes her for a spin, he blows smoke and leaks oil…oil that is sometimes good and sometimes bad. It’s a bodily fluid I suppose, which at times makes Jeanne orgasmic and elsewise makes her anxious.

You know who else is anxious? Everyone who knows about Jeanne’s little crush. Suddenly being “a little odd” is seeming a bit more pathological. Her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) is not exactly lucky in love herself, yet she still feels empowered to criticize Jeanne’s choice of beau. And the human male coworker (Bastien Bouillon) who up until quite recently had a crush on our Jeanne feels a little stupid for coming in second to a garish attraction that plays 80s songs while stirring up puke.

Writer-director Zoé Wittock deserves an award for the pure audacity to take such a story to the screen, to present it to an audience and say “Yes, I made this. On purpose.” But we can’t help who we love. Unless it’s an inanimate object, in which case we should really, really try. I can’t help but admire a movie that subverts even the modern romance, I can’t help but love Jeanne for her genuineness, her sincerity, but I can’t quite get on board with Jumbo. It’s an experiment, a bold one, yet still reminds me of things I’ve seen before (Under The Skin!). Jumbo and I are not a perfect match, which is find and dandy with us both – after all, Jumbo’s already got a girl, and despite what I felt was a marked lack of chemistry, they seem to be quite serious about each other. Quite.

Freaks: You’re One of Us

Wendy (Cornelia Gröschel) is a wife and a mother and a waitress at a German pork chop fast food joint (!?!?). She goes to weekly therapy sessions and wishes she could be more assertive at work. Money is tight and she could use a raise. She is a good mother and generally content in life. One evening, while running some trash out to the dumpster behind her work, she comes across a vagrant man, digging around for scraps of food. She’s decent to him, but it’s he who has a message for her: “you’re one of us,” he tells her. “Follow the mermaid.” It’s exactly the right kind of mysterious and intriguing that she can’t help exploring at her earlier convenience. But what she finds is totally unexpected: not only does she have dormant super powers, the pills she’s been prescribed her entire adult life are what’s keeping these powers sedated, unbeknownst to her. Wendy’s beginning to unravel a vast conspiracy that’s been keeping her and others like her in the dark. But why?

This is a dark, live action version of The Incredibles where the government has medically suppressed super powers as much as possible, and driven outliers underground. Usually such a movie would tend to be sympathetic toward those denied their true potential but this one makes a pretty strong case for government interference, which is interesting, especially because the film itself tiptoes awkwardly around the “Hitler” thing. But even the mostly well-intentioned Avengers leave behind some pretty serious collateral damage.

The first half of the movie, the secret uncovered and the powers tested, is the much better half. The second half falters a bit without a strong stance or identity, and is too often tempted into outright cheesiness. Which is too bad, because I liked how grounded in reality we were, how Wendy seemed poised to embody the meek inheriting the earth. But it seems that neither director Felix Binder nor screenwriter Mark O. Seng is willing to commit to super powers being a net gain or a net loss, a feature or a bug. Are they something to be feared? Controlled? Exterminated? Should the government be legislating ANYONE’s body? Is it okay to ask some people to change who they are for the greater good? And what exactly is the greatest good, how is it measured, and who does the measuring? My mind takes off racing in a thousand directions and unfortunately the movie just stalls out. Missed opportunity.

The Prey

A prison yard fight is instigated, as a group of wealthy men look on. As the prisoners exchange blows, the men watching from above nod at some, shake their heads at others. The men they’ve chosen are hooded and driven out to a field. When the hoods come off, a lineup of shabby prisoners stand before a trio of men, each laden with weapons. It looks and feels like they’re standing before a firing squad, with one important difference: these wealthy men will allow the prisoners to make a break for it. How kind of them! The prisoners will scatter, each trying to reach the relative safety of the woods beyond the field. Very few will survive, but those who do survive only to become the prey.

These rich men have not paid the sadistic prison warden (Vithaya Pansringarm) to play at execution. They have paid to hunt – to hunt the most dangerous prey. The fact that the prisoners are running only makes the game more exciting to those with guns. The chase is on, and prisoners make the perfect prey – no one will miss them, no one will even notice they’re gone. Except: except that right now, 2 police officers have just stepped into the warden’s office. They are looking for their man Xin (Gu Shangwei). Xin is no average prisoner. He’s actually an undercover cop…who is now running for his life in a very one-sided fight that wasn’t part of the job description and sure as heck isn’t reflected in the pay.

Filmed in the jungle of Cambodia, you get a real sense of danger not just from the hunters but from the environment itself. Director Jimmy Henderson is only the most recent in a long and proud history of remaking The Most Dangerous Game but his film certainly has a local flavour that makes it worth seeing – especially if you love martial arts. Fight choreography blends kung-fu with bokator, Cambodia’s own close quarters martial art, to deliver satisfying bone-crunching action. The Prey may not be making any unique contributions to the genre, but it’s a solid effort nonetheless. Under Pol Pot’s regime, Cambodia’s culture was nearly wiped out completely, so it’s nice to see them rebounding, and it’s extra nice that for once the blood is being spilled only on screen.

The Prey is screening in virtual theatres in major cities including Los Angeles and New York, and is now available via VOD on platforms including  iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, and Vudu.