Sunday, December 21, 2014

Linda, Linda, Linda

Linda, Linda, Linda starts with a scene that's intended to encapsulate the movie by way of three filmmakers who ineptly stumble their way towards "making an impact" as they shoot a piece about their school's festival. However it also serves to call attention to the process of film-making by laying bare their decision making process as they decide that a cut to a close-up will give their documentary more of a jolt than simply using one shot. From then on viewers can be expected to pay a little more attention to the film's visual grammar than they might have otherwise done.

Such simple but effective technique persists throughout the film. For example the next scene recalls the opening of Irma Verp or Serenity as the camera tracks to follow a single character in very long takes and in doing so introduces both the setting and most of the major characters in a concise, elegant manner. The film's narrative however is less tidy. Certain conflicts remain somewhat unresolved, back-story is hinted at but limited, "important" scenes are elided and the bass player suffers the indignity of bass players everywhere as she's mostly relegated to the background.

The result is something of a strange film. It's sweet and touching but subtly so - in stark contrast to contemporary Western teen films. Its tone can be summed up by its conclusion; it ends on a oddly melancholy note. Rather than finishing on the girls' triumphant performance of the title song it concludes on a montage of packed away festival equipment in the rain.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Hard Day

I once read someone opining that the worst thing that can happen to a national cinema is for it to become a genre. I don't think there's any real danger of that happening to South Korean film (there are too many idiosyncratic voices working in the industry) but it's fair to say that even a filmgoer with only a passing knowledge of the nation's films could construct a bingo card for the typical commercial movie. A Hard Day would probably allow you to fill out that bingo card in under 30 minutes. All the boxes are covered: Wild tonal shifts, brutal violence and a soup├žon of social commentary crop up relatively early.

Fortunately A Hard Day is a fairly accomplished version of Commercial South Korean Movie. It's stylishly, albeit somewhat anonymously, directed in a way that only occasionally starts to grate (check those dutch angles!) and is blessedly free of the super fast continuity editing that plagues the films of Na Hong-jin. It also does an excellent job of placing its protagonist, sympathetic dirty cop Go Geon-soo, in memorably tense and funny predicaments. It never really tops an early set piece involving a child's toy, a dead body, balloons and a shoe lace but that's to be expected.

A Hard Day does occasionally drift into excess. The score can best a described as overbearing and the climax is overextended (check your bingo card),  but for the most part it zips along and it will provide an excellent exemplar of what Korean film in the 00s was like.

Friday, December 12, 2014

We Are the Night

This is mostly just a bog standard "vampirism as unbridled hedonism" movie. It's marginally interesting in that it links social class with the ability and desire to be a pleasure seeking junkie but it never really explores that idea, or any idea, productively because it's too busy laying track for its bog standard "corrupted innocence" plot line.

It's never subtle either. When Lena (Karoline Herfurth, Passionand Errors of the Human Body) undergoes her transformation it physically strips away her class indicators (haircut and tattoos) and when she first tastes blood she orgasms. There's a marginally more clever scene in which the vampires' voracious capitalism is offhandedly underlined by a game in which the person who buys the least must pay for everyone else but mostly it's just very obvious in a rather dumb - if fitfully amusing - way.*

The shallow way it treats its supposed themes occasionally pushes it past simply being dumb and into potentially offensive territory. During Lena's initiation Louise explains that vampires are an all female society as all male vampires were killed off in order to preserve female autonomy. This idea is never directly explored and as a result it simply becomes another aspect of their hedonistic behaviour. Sure, the film seems to imply, it might be nice for women to be free and not dependant on men but it's really an unsustainable excess just like all the rest.

I'm not sure that the film's writers or director intended this interpretation (although the way in which the women's ultimately unfulfilling interactions are positioned against Lena's embryonic heterosexual romance suggests they might've) because despite its overwhelming bluntness it can be somewhat muddleheaded. Purportedly three endings were shot: one in which Lena decides to watch her crush die rather than turn him, one in which she turns him and the actual, trendily ambiguous ending. The choice of the third ending suggests that the director has no strong feelings about what his movie is about which is amusing given how on the nose so much of it is.

*Someone is killed by a page from For Whom the Bell Tolls. The audience knows which book it is because there's a quick close up of the book title right before it happens.


A Festival By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

I've made it to Brisbane in time to catch the tail end of its new festival, the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF). The BAPFF is replacing the more compressed (in terms of time frame) and more sprawling (in terms of films' origins and the number of films programmed) Brisbane International Film Festival. As usual I'm writing up some of the films and as usual I make no promises as regards the quality of the writing or its regularity.

Salt of the Earth: Let's get the obvious out of the way: Sebastiao Salgado's photographs are so astonishing it's hard to describe them without one's prose descending into a mess of superlatives and cliches. Somehow he manages to capture people instead of bodies using just... see what I mean? In any case with that dealt with the question becomes whether The Salt of the Earth's presentation of Salgado's work does it justice. Initially the answer seems to be yes. The film opens with an evocative description of the photographer's art and the subsequent use of Salgado's narration and sound effects to contextualise his work is effective, if hardly revelatory. Eventually though, the film founders. The constant narration laid over the images rarely leaves room to simply contemplate the images and Salgado's baffling incomprehension in the face of Europeans with high standards of living committing unimaginable war crimes "...at the end of the twentieth century..." (!) serves only to diminish the man and his work. Similarly the biographical segments are patchy at best, tend to gloss over strife and culminate in a rather on the nose final set of title cards. (I suppose that's the risk of having a family member as one of the work's primary authors.)

Lake August: My enthusiasm for this film (bolstered by the appreciation of several smart film people) was initially deflated by its style. The festival approved formulae of static, or near static, master shots combined with long, unbroken takes is rapidly becoming less of a signifier for artistic seriousness and more of an indication of laziness. However several elements of the film combined to jolt me out of my apathy. The first of these was the way in which the style complements the film's content. What better way to convey the ennui of young adults cast adrift then long stultifying takes and airless conversations in which every question or statement is followed by a long pause? To be fair though this hardly sets the film aside from its festival brethren. What really drew me in was the indications that the director was really thinking about his shots and edits. A long shot of the protagonist dazing in a boat is broken by a sudden edit to a new and disorienting camera angle combined with the loud intrusion of a passing train on the soundtrack. I was jolted into life in much the same way as the protagonist.

Also notable is the way in which sly humour or commentary is regularly present as details at the edges of frames. The restaurant/hotel in which most of the film takes place is festooned with signs forbidding spitting and a mundane scene of the protagonist washing himself on a roof slowly morphs into something much stranger and pointed by way of a wayward political banner (indeed political posturing is ever present in this film but never remarked upon or even really noticed by the characters). Sly humour is not always simply a detail in this film: there's extended drunken "dance" scene that gets across a sense of anomie without requiring the viewer to stare directly into the void.

The danger of a film about anomie is that the main character - here a disaffected young man who speaks and acts with a near total lack of affect in the wake of personal tragedy - will quickly lose the audience's interest. Wisely Lake August contrasts him with Ah Fang, a more vivid character who is constantly investing more in her relationships than she can ever hope to get out of them. While at times faintly ridiculous (she is forever wearing absurdly chunky platform shoes) the defeats she suffers are heartbreaking - if only because she's one of the few characters in the film who is palpably invested in their own life.

If anything the complete product seems very reminiscent of the films of Jia Zhangke in both its depiction of people left adrift in modern China and in the ways in which the realist atmosphere is punctured by oddities (for example the, um, rather mobile architecture of Still Life). However Yang Heng is clearly doing much more than blindly copying as evidenced by the way he makes slow pans right into a recurring, yet never mechanical, motif.

***

For reading through all that nonsense I once again present you with Glen's Super Awesome Double Bills: For complete disaffection I recommend pairing Lake August with Wasted Youth. Actually no, don't do that unless you want to feel really lousy.