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Movie Marathons: Korean Revenge Trilogy

South Korean director (and writer – he’s credited as a screenwriter on all three of these films) Chan-wook Park’s trilogy of revenge movies packs a punch, especially if you watch them all in a row. Things get intense when you mainline these in one sitting, so consider spreading them out over three evenings. Or three weeks.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) – In a way, this one hit me the hardest. It’s the least stylized, and its greater degree of realism makes the gut punch of the story even more effective because you can follow everyone’s intentions into the abyss. Events unfold in unrelenting order, step by terrible step, inevitable and unstoppable, like sand in an hour glass. You understand why each of the two main protagonists is doing what they do, and you sympathize and recoil at the same time. Psychologically, you’re twisting in the wind here. Plus, some pretty horrendous deaths are served up, in a terrible, low-key manner. Of the three, this one is the bleakest one, without any nod at redemption.

Oldboy (2003) – Probably the best known of the three outside of Korea, and with reason (that hammer, for one). Sadly, I had to see this dubbed, and the English voices distracted me since they didn’t seem to fit with the actors. On the other hand, maybe this gave me some needed distance to what was happening. The mystery of the imprisonment keeps you interested, and the horror is slow in mounting, so that you’re only realizing your throat is tight when things really escalate to that final leap into pure psychological horror. This one has some real over-the-top gory scenes, of which the one at the sushi place with the live octopus is only the beginning. This one is a real mindf–k.

Lady Vengeance (2005) –  The final installment is the most stylish, starting with the beautiful credit sequence. And also back to subtitles, to my relief, even if it made things a bit confusing at times. It also seems slower to build, and less hardcore – if you don’t think about it – until a fantastical sequence towards the end, where suddenly the absurd and the horror hit you smack in the face thanks to the cinematography and the loving attention to detail. Clear plastic raincoats, oh my. Very beautiful shots, masterfully composed. And a story that’s just as twisted as the other two. Also, a stunning Yeong-ae Lee (both in her appearance and performance) as the lady bent on revenge.

Two Foreign Movies – Gritty Love Story Department

Rust & Bone (De rouille et d’os) (2012) – This French-Belgian film has been described as a gritty love story, which seems about right. Perhaps a bit predictable at times, it is a beautiful film with very honest acting, delving into the ugliness and brutality as well as the beauty and tenderness humans can share with each other. Overall, it feels hopeful, and I liked it a lot. Considering the material, it could have been overplayed into melodrama and mawkishness and terrible sentiment, and it avoids that. It is, for the most part, brutal and honest and bare where other stories might be overfull. Unless you have a deep fear of whales, or really hate subtitles, the remarkable aftermath is worth getting past the terrible accident for.

Addendum: As I was reminded by NPR’s Linda Holmes, Rust & Bone is also a movie that focuses on the physical, and especially on human bodies, and how we use them and live in them. Plus, the treatment of sex is wonderfully matter-of-fact.

Head On (Gegen die Wand) (2004) – Love stories do not come any grittier than Fatih Akin’s tale of a young Turkish woman and an older Turkish man living in Germany (in Hamburg), who meet in a mental institution where they are both under observation for attempting suicide. See Roger Ebert’s review for the details, but along with a very fast marriage proposal, you get blood, sex, drugs, and drinking, and two lives careening wildly together and apart. As a side note, it is refreshing to have sex be shown as just another thing humans do together, something that can be meaningful but can also be just a way to pass time together. As far as romances go, this one does away with the romantic part quite quickly, and takes a turn down darker roads. So, if you like your romance predictable, sentimental, and tied in a neat little bow at the end, find some other movie to watch. This one is for those who like to be kept off-balance, fascinated, and at least a little bit disturbed. The two leads especially make this one worth watching.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) – If you’re looking for a holiday of a different kind, try this Finnish Christmas tale of the original Santa Claus. He’s not as kindly and jolly as the later stories claim, and you should really watch out for his elves. A December archaeological dig in the outer regions of Finland, on the Russian border, unearths something that should have best stayed hidden, and it’s up to one studious and determined little boy and his father (a butcher) to ensure that their tiny community doesn’t lose all its children by Christmas morning. Don’t swear, don’t drink, and wash behind your ears, or else, watch out! An instant holiday classic that I’m putting on my Christmas list.

Black Water

Black Water (2007) –  This Australian movie, in the vein of The Reef and similar based-on-true-events predator movies like Open Water, should have had all the ingredients to grab hold of me and nail me to my seat. We have the small group of people, stranded in  a hostile environment devoid of other humans, with limited resources, and stalked by an extremely dangerous natural predator that calls up one of our deepest fears from the primal well (great white sharks, giant crocodiles, etc.) – in this respect, Black Water follows all the usual creature feature tropes of recent vogue.

And yet, I didn’t spend nearly as much time peeking cautiously at my TV from between my fingers and cowering in my chair as I did while watching The Reef.  Maybe because I find the open ocean more terrifying than watching people trapped in a tree in the mangrove swamps. Still, the movie delivers its share of tense moments, and the giant saltwater crocodile is quite menacing, in part because you don’t get to see very much of it. This is a recommended watch if you like realistic creature features. Although it could have been improved with the addition of a flame thrower, perhaps.

B Movie Triple Shot

The Bay (2012) – I was surprised to learn this one was directed by Barry Levinson of Rain Man, Bugsy, Sleepers, etc. A bit of a departure for him. Quite disturbing, with moments that made me jump. Great use of “found” footage, with a skillful building of tension. Be lured by the extremely effective trailer, stay for the knowledge that this started as a documentary. 40% of the Chesapeake Bay is a dead zone!

Attack the Block (2011) – A great B movie. Tight story, an unusual setting for an alien invasion story (South London council housing block), good acting. Very entertaining, although the special effect aliens might not work for everyone. Still, a satisfying watch, and it’s only 88 minutes of your time. Well worth it. Note: You might want to have the subtitles on if you have problems catching British working class accents and idioms.

Horror House on Highway 5 (1985) – If you can gets this on DVD, it’s the perfect Bad Movie night feature. Watch this with a group of witty friends and make your own Mystery Science Theater 3000 experience. Amateur acting, no plot to speak of, terrible dialog, plus vague demonic Germanic rituals and a tenuous connection to Nazi stuff. Features predictable deaths (watch out for that rake!) and barely-defined characters like The Pothead, The Tough Guy, The Housewife, and Dr. Mabuse. If you retain any sense of humor and the absurd, you really can’t go wrong with this one.

The Reef

Unlike the ScyFy creature feature shark movies with effects so bad that they completely fail to scare you, The Reef, (Australia, 2010) brings the tension. Or maybe you don’t fear the wide open empty waters. The waters that are just murky enough to hide the very big, very effective predator. Great white shark, anyone? Care to share the water? Ideally while looking a bit like a seal, and definitely without weapons. In fact, in this scenario, you are like the seal except with less underwater vision, not nearly the speed, and massively  reduced agility. The Reef is based on a true story, a fact that did not help me get to sleep after watching it. Pro tip: do not watch this right before planning on going to sleep, because you won’t. Sleep, that is. Continue reading

The Beautiful Transience of Synecdoche, New York

[I wrote this right after seeing the movie for the first time. In August. But then I let this draft sit, maybe thinking I’d come back and edit and refine. Re-reading it now, I think it doesn’t need refinement because it is a true first and immediate reaction. Just posted with delay. So it goes.]

I was reluctant to see this. I resisted this movie. The previews made it seem, well, they focused on the toilets, the shit-stirring (literally), the shlubby guy who keeps getting hot women to want him and love him; it seemed to be all about the shlub, the guy, and it seemed dark, cynical, depressing. Not something I wanted to deal with at the time. It looked darker than what I thought I could handle then. The laugh’s on me now because my actual life got much much darker than I thought I could handle. Perhaps I should have watched the movie sooner. The person who saw the movie and told me about it tried to get me to watch it but also did not succeed in making it sound appealing. He failed to mention the German dialog parts. Failed to mention the absolute beauty in this story. I think maybe he tried to tell me but I couldn’t hear. Or he couldn’t find the right words for me. Which is funny, because he writes too, he knows about choosing words. Continue reading