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March 30, 2011

The Sandpiper

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Vincente Minnelli - 1965
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Back in the early to mid Sixties, in the age before the internet or television shows devoted to show business news, the newspapers seemed to always have articles about Elizabeth Taylor. To some extent, Taylor was the Kim Kardashian of that time, and even though she had established herself as a Hollywood star, it seemed to me that making movies was almost incidental to a life of emergency hospital visits, or simply showing up at a nightclub with Richard Burton. I had a sense of familiarity with Elizabeth Taylor without actually seeing any of her movies. The first one I did see, in a theater, was Taming of the Shrew which I justified by the fact of it being a filmed Shakespeare play. It was also while I was in high school that I caught Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. But for someone in the mid to late Sixties, who made a point of seeing every James Bond movie, and discovering the Italian movies by Fellini and Antonioni that he had only read about previously, Elizabeth Taylor was not considered very hip.

I had seen The Sandpiper once on a late night television broadcast, edited and in black and white. I wondered how the film would look, now that I was older, more familiar with the talent in front of a behind the camera, in a semblance of how the film was intended, in wide screen and color. I'm not sure what was intended, but nothing quite comes together here. The one part of the film that did work was when young Morgan Mason (son of James), as Taylor's son, points out Mom to his equally young friend. The tow headed kid's eyes bulge out, as if to say, "Wow! That pretty lady with the stupendous knockers is your mom?".

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There are problems with The Sandpiper. Elizabeth Taylor's breasts are not among them. From what I have read, producer Martin Ransohoff, credited for the story, felt this movie had to be made, even when everyone else on his creative team had questions. The screenplay, by the former blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, and reworked by Michael Wilson, creates a dialectic between conformists and non-comformists as well as believers and athiests, with free spirited artists on one side, and the church, state and corporations on the other side. There is also time for some proto-feminist discussion as well. Could the film have been more convincing with Kim Novak as the star? Possibly. The public personas of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton make the story of an a single mother and artist in love with a theologian whose act of adultery causes his own personal and professional crisis unconvincing. I couldn't forget that I was watching Dick and Liz, two of the biggest movie stars of their time.

William Wyler wisely chose not to make this film. I suspect that Vincente Minnelli got the job in part because of his work in guiding Taylor into adult film roles with Father of the Bride, and as a way of finishing up his contract with MGM. The story, at least that part of the artist rebelling against authority figures and conformity, would seem right for Minnelli. Whatever magic could be found in Some Came Running, Lust for Life or Two Weeks in Another Town isn't here. The effect is as if Minnelli gave up any attempts at being a stylist, resigning himself to simply work as a director for hire.

Where there is the Minnelli hand is in the beach house where Taylor lives, supposedly right by the beach in Big Sur, California. Described as a shack, the design must have been tossed out by Frank Lloyd Wright. The overly cluttered interiors resemble Pottery Barn showrooms. I think the only movie where more black eyeliner was used was in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Actually, that is one of the other things that Taylor did so well is to wear an overabundance of eye makeup that actually was part of what made her attractive. And for an artist who hasn't sold any paintings, Taylor dresses quite well, with more purple designer duds than Prince.

More convincing are James Edwards and Charles Bronson as two artist friends of Taylor's, and Robert Webber as Taylor's sleazy former patron. The frequently pilloried Bosley Crowther's was spot on in his assessment of The Sandpiper back in 1965 when he described it as "romantic twaddle". Unlike some people, I have no affection for the Oscar winning song, "The Shadow of Your Smile", wishing that the Academy had shown some love for at least one of the Lennon/McCartney songs for Help. As for Elizabeth Taylor, I'm lukewarm about her body of work, generally preferring the films she appeared in prior to, and including, Cleopatra. But philosophizing about life and art aside, what The Sandpiper is really about is an acknowledgment that Elizabeth Taylor had an awesome body.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:45 AM | Comments (2)

March 28, 2011

No One Knows the Persian Cats

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Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh
Bahman Ghobadi - 2009
IFC Films Region 1 DVD

I had briefly read about this film when it played festival circuit a couple of years ago. What I hadn't expected was a hybrid, part documentary, part mockumentary and part long form music video. I'm also surprised that Bahman Ghobadi is still allowed to make films considering how critical he is of like of Tehran, and his depiction of how people get around the various rules imposed on cultural life. Not only is underground life in Tehran depicted, but it is truly underground in some cases.

Negar, a young singer and songwriter, persuades Ashkan to work with her in reforming a band for a performance in London. In addition to recruiting new musicians, the bigger hurdles include getting black market passports and visas. As Negar is a female, there is also the question regarding the possible need to get one or more additional female singers in order to comply with rules regarding women traveling with a group of men. Their conduit for the illegal paperwork as well as other possible musicians is Nader, a dealer of bootleg DVDs.

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Negar and Ashkan, sometimes with, and sometimes without Nader, go on an odyssey of hidden recording studios, private concerts, and makeshift rehearsal spaces. One band rehearses in a cow shed. Another band practices in a small room on top on an apartment, subject to neighbors who call the police. Getting arrested for attending parties is common among the young people here. The songs serve as commentary, sometimes more directly than other times, about daily life as perceived by these artists.

The music ranges from what appears to be more traditional folk to heavy metal. In one bleakly comic scene, Negar performs a composition in progress, inspired by her own time in prison, using several key words that evoke as sense of sadness and isolation, yet astonished when Ashkan describes the song as dark. There's also a rap song, as well as an exuberant performance that appears Sufi inspired.

Iranian Kurd filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi has made a point of going resolutely on his own path. Ghobadi's first, and probably best known, feature, A Time for Drunken Horses depicts tribal Kurds, speaking their own language, living, as they've done for centuries, in the mountain region border between Iran and Iraq. As in his first film, Ghobadi focuses on children in the harrowing Turtles Can Fly, a depiction of George W. Bush's war on Iraq from the point of view of those too young to understand why they are victimized by all sides. No One Knows the Persian Cats has some shocks of its own, but also depicts several different kinds of musicians who remain committed to pursuing the muse, even at the cost of their personal freedom.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 09:10 AM

March 27, 2011

Coffee Break

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Michelle Williams in Synedoche, New York (Charles Kaufman - 2008)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 05:45 AM

March 24, 2011

I Saw the Devil

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Akmareul boatda
Kim Jee-woon - 2010
Magnet Releasing 35mm Film

It took me a while to realize that what I was looking at was a rear view mirror, the kind that drivers use to see what's behind them. This mirror had some kind of side lamps. During the day these lamps look like angel wings. The first shot in I Saw the Devil is looking past the female driver through the windshield at night. The lights on the rear view mirror look like eyes, and the visible wiper blade looks like some kind of mouth. It looked like some kind of evil face to me, in a kind of abstract way. Then again, in I Saw the Devil, the question is who exactly is the devil, and who's doing the looking?

A serial killer's victim is the fiancee of a secret service agent. The woman is the daughter of a police chief. Kim Soo-heon finds out from the police chief the identity of four main suspects. After easily tracking down, and injuring the first two suspects, Soo-heon finds that the person he wants is Jang Kyung-Chul. Kim has made a promise that Jang is to suffer to the same degree as his fiancee. What Kim learns is that no matter how far he goes, it's never far enough. In one scene, Kim appears to be looking at himself in a car mirror, a suggestion that the devil he sees is himself.

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Some of the previous writing on this film has emphasized the horror aspects. And yes, the scenes of brutality are vicious, intentionally so. To some extent, I Saw the Devil is a thriller in the vein of Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, mostly smart and serious. Even before he does anything, there is a sense of dread and revulsion seeing Jang on the job as a bus driving for some high school girls home.

But beyond those particular chills, there is the thrill of the pursuit. Kim Jee-woon is filming his English language debut film now, an action film, and I Saw the Devil may indicate what we're in for. Part of the excitement is watching cars in hot pursuit, with one scene with Soo-heon deliberately opening and knocking off the passenger side door while driving at hight speed, so he can grab Jang from the street. In the filming of sheer, adrenaline rush inducing action, a favorable comparison can be made with past filmmakers like William Friedkin and Peter Yates.

And again, for the more contemplative viewer, it is this visceral excitement that raises more questions. Soo-heon acts in ways that make him little different from Jang, and yet one can be so caught up watching the putative good guy taking down the acknowledged bad guy. Several characters ask Soo-heon to stop his cat and mouse games with Jang, even declaring both men to be monsters. There is some casting shorthand at work here with the star of Oldboy, Choi Min-sik, as Jang, and Lee Byung-hun, known most recently as "The Bad" of Kim's The Good, the Bad and the Weird, as Soo-heon. It is intense and not a little violent, and save for some extreme moments, the kind of film Hollywood use to make so well when they were making movies for adults.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:06 AM

March 22, 2011

13 Assassins


Jusan-nin no shikaku
Takashi Miike - 2010
Magnet Releasing 35mm Film

The first day of spring, when thoughts turn to chanbara. Maybe not. But for myself, it was the opportunity to see Takashi Miike's newest film a couple months before its stateside theatrical release, and contribute money to Global Giving on behalf the relief efforts for Japan.

13 Assassins is more autumnal, about the waning days of the samurai era, with a decidedly older group of swordsmen. Stately is not a word one might typically use to describe a Miike film, but one could almost say that the film plays like a melding of Yoji Yamada in the first two thirds followed by an extended battle scene that resembles something done by a hyperkinetic Akira Kurosawa. Titles explain that the film takes place in 1844, just twenty-four years before the Meiji Era, when Japan began modernization. The quietness of much of the first scenes made me think of Yamada's recent series of films about the end of the samurai era. Comparisons to Kurosaws's Seven Samurai are not inappropriate as Miike could be said to capture some of Kurosawa's style with the traveling shots of the band drenched in rain, mud splattered, or lost within a mountain forest. Almost is the operative word here as there are elements informing us of the arrogance and evil of the villain, Lord Naritsugu, that will remind veteran Miike watchers of Audition and Ichi the Killer.

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I don't think it's giving too much away to say that the film is about twelve samurai, plus a rescued hunter who joins out of curiosity, who plot to kill a decadent lord. In this case, it's not just a ranking member of the Shogunate, but the Shogun's brother. Naritsugu rapes, amputates and murders people for sport and because he believes his position obligates himself to treat others with impunity, no matter how extreme his actions. The plot against Naritsugu is not only to stop is actions, but also to prevent his further rise in the ranks of government, potentially undoing a reign of peace within Japan.

Several of the usual Miike collaborators are here, star Koji Yakusho as Shinzae, the group leader, screenwriter Daisuke Tengan, and composer Koji Endo. Maybe if I pulled out a bunch of my CDs, I could identify the musical influences on Endo's score, but the shorthand description might be to say that it sounds like something by a contemporary classical composer, maybe something associated with the Kronos Quartet, elegiac, moody and dissonant. The colors in the film are muted and dark, save for the white kimono worn by Naritsugu, and the red splashes of blood.

Given the opportunity, I would love to see the original 1963 version directed by Eiichi Kudo. Not only is their the obvious interest in comparing films, but also to see two of my favorite actors, Junko Fuji and Tetsuro Tanba. Coincidentally, several of Tanba's last roles were in films by Miike. Even without seeing the earlier film, this version of 13 Assassins can be thought of as a personal film, perhaps more than some of Miike's other work. Miike has always chronicled extreme behavior, both benign and brutal. There is the sense, at least for me, that as he gets older, Miike is reexamining himself, or at least some of his work, which arguably used shock for its own sake. While there is much violence, much more of it is suggested than might be expected.

The final battle is thrilling, with arrows, swords, a town turned into a maze of traps and dead ends, and flaming boars running through the streets. In keeping with classic period samurai films, the odds are ten to one, with a final duel to the death, down to the last man hobbling. I would hope that in its eventual DVD release, Magnet will see fit to release the complete version as seen in Japan. There are fifteen minutes cut for the "international version" that will be seen stateside, mostly described as a scene taking place in a bordello. Not that it is obvious that there is anything missing, and the film works well as it stands, but still there is the desire to see the film in its most complete version.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:14 AM

March 20, 2011

Coffee Break

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Franchot Tone and Loretta Young in Midnight Mary (William Wellman - 1933)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:41 AM | Comments (1)

March 17, 2011

The Kremlin Letter

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John Huston - 1970
Twilight Time Region 1 DVD

Even though I considered myself a dedicated cinephile, my following of John Huston's career while he was still alive was inconsistent. I missed The MacKintosh Man, and couldn't rouse myself to see Phobia. My impulse following the trailer for The Kremlin Letter was of dismissing any film that had George Sanders in drag. Even my occasional movie going buddy from N.Y.U., Michael Sragow, someone who had held Huston in higher esteem, didn't seem to be in any great hurry to see this film. According to the notes that accompany this DVD, no less than Jean-Pierre Melville described The Kremlin Letter as "magisterial". For myself, I think my initial instincts proved correct.

In a review for Rolling Stone, Sragow wrote about Huston's Victory, the film about World War II prisoners of war in a soccer match against the Germans, as taking place in an alternate universe. I felt the same way watching The Kremlin Letter. While the Cold War plot of spy versus spy is certain to feel a bit creaky after forty years, what really makes the film seem like an outdated relic is its presentation of homosexuality. The men are lacquered, mincing fairies, while the women are predatory vampires. Added to this is the billing of Vonetta McGee in the end credits as "The Negress". Maybe some of the attitudes might have been excusable with John Huston being an expatriate for about a decade, but it seems like no one bothered to bring him up to speed with the social changes happening in the U.S.

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The group of mostly second tier stars are involved in a plot revolving around the retrieval of a letter that would essential have the United States join Russia in declaring war against China. Patrick O'Neal, taking the role James Coburn turned down, plays a Naval officer turned secret agent, taken under the wing of the overly avuncular Richard Boone. Boone is particularly distracting to watch with his hair dyed platinum blonde. Joining the team of spies are George Sanders, Nigel Greeen and Barbara Parkins. One of the few high points of the film is watching a leotard clad Parkins open up a safe with the touch of her toes.

John Huston gives himself a brief role near the beginning, and his old pal, Orson Welles gets to show off his Russian accent. Most of the real acting is done by Ingmar Bergman troupers Bibi Andersson and Max Von Sydow, as a married couple, he a top Russian espionage agent, and she as his unhappy, hashish smoking wife. I've not read the novel which provided the basis for the film, but the delivery of the sex and violence is tepid. Especially after Reflection in a Golden Eye, one would assume Huston would be eager to take advantage of the new production code with the same kind of elan as peers like George Cukor and Billy Wilder.

There's one scene involving Mexican whores in a group catfight. Huston probably shot it as an excuse to get women flashing their panties on film. It's the kind of scene that Andrew Sarris complained about in discussing Huston in The American Cinema, pointing to Sam Jaffe viewing the jitterbugging kids in The Asphalt Jungle and Ava Gardner's two dancing boys in Night of the Iguana. It's the kind of scene that shows Huston giving in to his worst impulses as a filmmaker, as if he wanted to prove to everyone that Sarris was indeed right about claiming that Huston was doing nothing more than coasting on his reputation. And I will appreciate it if someone could clue me in on what Jean-Pierre Melville saw that I've missed in this "red" Letter.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 02:21 PM | Comments (2)

March 15, 2011

Dark Stars Rising

Shade Rupe

Shade Rupe - 2011

Even before her recent death, I would have said that the centerpiece of Shade Rupe's collection of interviews was the one with Tura Satana. There was so much I didn't know about her life, such as part of her childhood spent in Manzanar, one of the "relocation camps" when unfounded fears forced the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Tura Satana was in many ways both like and unlike the character she played in her most famous screen appearance, in Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. In the end, I was struck by her generosity and tenacity, in spite of the events that would have defeated many people.

The interviews here are with artists who in one degree or another might be described as transgressive. In terms of how they express themselves, there are writers, filmmakers, performance artists, and musicians. Some are better known to mainstream audiences, while some might be considered known to a smaller audience. Even if one wasn't interested in every artist, or read every interview, there is still enough to glean here, something for almost everyone.


Another favorite interview for me was with Teller, the silent half of the performance team with the loquacious Penn Jillette. Teller talks, and talks, and talks, and it turns out to be quite an involving chat about his move from Latin teacher to magician's foil. A good part of the interview is devoted to how Arthur Penn became the director of Penn and Teller Get Killed, and possibly the most convincing argument for going out of the way to see the film that was dumped by the same company that continues to make money with Bonnie and Clyde.

Other interviews of more interest to me were with Gaspar Noe talking about his early years as a filmmaker, and Alejandro Jodorowsky providing the context I wish I had when I stepped into the 5th Avenue Theater, in New York City, way back in 1970 to see something called Fando y Lis. On the other hand, when The Runaways climbs its way up my Netflix queue, I will have a better idea about director Floria Sigismondi.

Could Arnold Drake be the father of what is called the graphic novel? Could be. I like his film, The Flesh Eaters, but reading about the making of the film is even better. Also besting what he's put on the screen are Richard Stanley's adventures in shooting movies in remote parts of South Africa, stories so hair-raising that he makes John Huston's legendary visit to Africa look like the visit of a pampered tourist.

Dark Stars Rising is abundantly illustrated, mostly with black and white photos, and with some color photos in the front and back. There's no such thing as a bad or uninteresting photo of Tura Satana, which is enough reason for me to keep this book.


Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:17 AM

March 13, 2011

Coffee Break

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Ruth Chatterton in Midnight Mary (William Wellman - 1932)

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:39 AM

March 12, 2011

Give Now


Give Now

For those whose love of Japan and Japanese movies goes beyond the eternal beauty of Junko Fuji, or the presence of tall, brooding Takeshi Kaneshiro, I offer this easy link to help provide earthquake and tsunami relief.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:05 AM

March 10, 2011

The Korean Film Blogathon: Crush and Blush

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Misseu Hongdangmoo
Lee Kyoung-mi - 2008
Premiere Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Crush and Blush defies description, hewing neither to conventional formulas regarding story or characters. The relationships between the main characters are so messy, so interconnected, that a soap opera writer coming up with the story might blush almost as brightly as this film's anti-heroine. Lee Kyoung-ki seems interested mostly in the way women, especially those who don't seem to fit it the crowd, navigate their way through life.

Mi-sook is a middle school teacher, demoted from teaching Russian, a language no longer in demand, to English, a language she barely can speak. She is also at the same school and Seo, her teacher from ten years previously and someone she's had a long time crush on. Mi-sook, the least popular student of her class, and now the least liked teacher at her school, is roommates with Yoo-ri, the most beloved of teachers. Yoo-ri may also be having an affair with Seo. Mi-sook enlists the help of Jong-hee, Seo's daughter, the most ostracized girl in her class, to plot against Yoo-ri by pretending to be Seo in a series of online conversations.

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Mi-sook also has a condition that causes her constantly reddish face to turn an even deeper shade, especially in anger. Attempts to address this condition fail. Mi-sook essentially turns her dermatologist into an unwilling psychiatrist, who in turn, is so fed up with his patient that he makes a point of not informing her when his office is relocating.

Even without the complications of pursuing a man with no interest in her, Mi-sook's like is full of contradictions. Rebelling against being a person no one notices, she gets attention for the wrong reasons. There is also the viewpoint that being "Number One" in anything is greedy, even though her goal is to have Seo choose her over his wife and Yoo-ri.

And yet, what Kong Hyo-jin is able to do is create an onscreen persona that by conventional standards is less than attractive, and still capable of dominating the screen and even eliciting empathy, even when whatever she's doing defies common sense. One of the subplots is about Mi-sook and Jong-hee performing Waiting for Godot for school, perhaps as a commentary on the pairs shared outsider status within the school, as well being a story about two people waiting for some sense of outside affirmation that never comes.

One of the benefits of this particular DVD edition of Crush and Blush, is that it comes with Ms. Lee's two previous short films. The second of the two, Feel Good Story, also has English subtitles. There is the suggestion of thematic continuity with Lee's first feature, with the story of two young women, office workers, who are rivals working on the same project, and friends due to unexpected circumstances. No word as yet on Ms. Lee's next film, but she has certainly gotten the attention of two of the more prominent Korean filmmakers around - Park Chan-wook produced this film and had a hand in the screenplay, and with Bong Joon-ho, makes a cameo appearance in the cast.

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To see other entries, this blogathon is hosted by New Korean Cinema and CineAWESOME!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:02 AM

March 08, 2011

The Korean Film Blogathon: The Housemaid

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Kim Ki-young - 1960

Im Sang-soo - 2010
IFC Films 35mm Film

Two weeks in a row and two new Korean movies playing theatrically in Denver. There must be a law somewhere that says that only one Lee Chang-dong film can play in town, as Secret Sunshine left, and Poetry is now making its theatrical run. I had originally planned to see the new version of The Housemaid a few days ago but felt a bit under the weather. That turned out to work in my favor as the film moved from the smallish screen of the Landmark's Chez Artiste to the bigger and better screen at the Denver Film Society's Denver Film Center.

Now that I've seen Im's version of The Housemaid, I'm left wondering if I would have liked it better had I not seen the original version? I think what caught me by surprise is that this is not a remake in the expected sense but a complete reworking of Kim Ki-young's film, with only a few recognizable elements visible. I've only seen two previous films by Im Sang-soo, A Good Lawyer's Wife and The President's Last Bang. Im is interested in the dynamics of sex and power, individually and intertwined, but I'm not certain what he's trying to say here.

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Lee Eun-Shim in Kim Ki-Young's 1960 The Housemaid

I don't know if Kim Ki-young read Robin Maugham's novel, but it's worth pointing out that for some of the similarities, his version of The Housemaid came out three years before Joseph Losey's film, and makes the scheming Dirk Bogarde seem like a polite interloper. In Kim's film, a music teacher who leads an after work choral group at a factory apparently staffed by women, hires one of the factory's lesser employees to help around the house. The wife is not the healthiest woman, the the kids consist of one bratty young boy, and a crippled girl. The new maid endears herself by killing the rat that's been running loose in the house. Even before taking her position in the household, we know this young woman is bad because she's been secretly smoking. If Roger Corman had been looking for a Korean teenage bad girl, if would have been actress Lee Eun-shim. The housemaid eventually has the family working for her in a film that not only anticipates The Servent, but also Fatal Attraction. One of the several scenes of suspense is lifted from Hitchcock's Suspicion with a glass of water instead of a glass of milk.

What was also astounding for me was the compactness of the cinematography. Kim makes great use of single shots with the camera showing people separated by doors and windows. The effect is such to keep all the characters within the house spatially united even when they are acting against each other.

Im's film essentially recasts the title character as a victim. She is first seen working as a cook at a restaurant, sharing a tiny apartment with another woman. It is later revealed that she has had some college education, although there is nothing to explain why is working in poorly paid service industries. Unlike Kim's housemaid, Im's is older, no younger than her late 20s. The household is now that of a wealthy man whose job is never specified. The wife is pampered, and the two just have one daughter. The mother is expecting twins. There is another maid in the house, a much older woman who years ago served as the wife's nurse maid. Im's film is more about the hierarchies of power within the household as expressed by the husband, his wife, her mother, and the older maid.

The husband soon has sex with the new maid, partially due to his wife's pregnancy, but more owing to his sense of prerogative as the master of the house. As would be expected after fifty years, Im's film is more graphic in depicting sex, and Jeon Do-yeon goes where most Hollywood actresses are too timid to tread. An eye popping difference between the two films is that Im's film takes place in a mansion so large, that the two story house from Kim's film could be parked in the entry room with plenty of space to spare. In previous interviews, Im has stated that he wanted his version of The Housemaid to point to the increasing disparity between the rich and poor in Korea.

What Kim is able to do is to deftly, and succinctly, give the viewer enough information on each of the main and secondary characters that makes the film involving from beginning to end. Im seems more interested in conveying certain generalities but his characters are barely two dimensional. It's not that Im's film is bad or badly made, as much as it lacks both the visceral impact or critique of Korean society that marks Kim's original film. Ultimately, whatever Im was hoping to say with his version of The Housemaid seems no more effective than his character's recipe for revenge.

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Jeon Do-yeon in Im Sang-soo's 2010 The Housemaid

For more on Korean films, this blogathon is hosted by New Korean Cinema and CineAWESOME!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:22 AM | Comments (1)

March 06, 2011

Coffee Break

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Frank Lovejoy and Lloyd Bridges in The Sound of Fury (Cy Endfield - 1950)

And if you haven't read the news, a total of $5667 was raised for preservation of this film. To the best of my knowledge, no crimes were committed in this collective effort.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:57 AM

March 03, 2011

The Man from Nowhere

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Lee Jeong-beom - 2010
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

The Man from Nowhere certainly fits the description of neo-noir without question. This is one relentlessly grim movie, and I mean that as a compliment, a journey into the darkest black and blue night with just a glimpse of sunlight at the end. There is one scene that recalls Travis Bickle's prepping himself before the climatic scene in Taxi Driver. As Cha Tae-Sik, Won Bin's forward propulsion, stopped neither by cops or gangsters, knives or bullets, might remind some of Lee Marvin as Walker in Point Blank. I doubt the comparisons with other films were unintended.

The film starts of with a drug bust gone bad, with a nightclub dancer snatching a cache of heroin from the would-be target of a drug bust. The dancer has a young daughter who gets into trouble, mostly shoplifting from a candy store. The girl, So-mi tries to ingratiate herself with Cha, a recluse who runs a small pawn shop in the rundown apartment building where they live. The gang seeking the drugs kidnap the dancer and So-mi, involving Cha in the presumption that he knows where the drugs are hidden. The film escalates with Cha caught between the police, and rival Korean and Chinese gangsters, and a plot involving drug smuggling and black market organ transplants.

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Within the darkness is the story of Cha's loss, and eventual recovery, of his humanity. It's this particular aspect of the story that helps explain why The Man from Nowhere was Korea's biggest hit last year. For those who only know Won Bin from Bong Joon-ho's Mother, the performance might come as a surprise, an almost opposite turn from the role in his most widely seen film. Unlike the young man in Mother who was emotionally and socially stunted, Cha is more than mentally and physically capable of dealing with everyone he encounters. Right before the final showdown, one of the gang members points out that they are dealing with only one man, but part of the fun, if I can use the word in this context, is watching this one man take on about a dozen guys with guns, knives and some hand to hand combat.

Complimenting the emotional darkness is the use of unlit or barely lit spaces. In one shot, Cha is barely visible, illuminated only by the light of a cell phone. So-mi is first seen emerging from a darkened corner or lower staircase. In one of the gun battles, Cha is unseen in a dark hallway, with the flash of his pistol providing the only light. Most of the film takes place at night, often in streets and alleys, or in interior settings that could use another light bulb or two.

This is Lee Jeong-beom's second film. Hopefully critical and commercial success will bring about a chance to see Lee's debut film Cruel Winter Blues from 2006. An Interview makes it clear that Lee is planning to stick to action films for now. Lee's take on the genre is grittier than most, so without being overly graphic, there is a sense of the wounds created by bullets and blades. The Man from Nowhere also evokes some of the spirit of classic film noir, corroded over the years, where the cops are incompetent and the criminals are remorselessly vile. Part of the action takes place in Seoul's own Chinatown, and from the cursing of one of the policemen sent there, you might think it not too different from Roman Polanski's Chinatown. It is also worth mentioning that The Man from Nowhere was the most heavily awarded film in Korea's equivalent to the Oscars with the prize going to Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron, the young girl who plays So-mi, as well winning for cinematagraphy, editing and special effects among the seven prizes in all. Even if the film isn't everyone bowl of kimchee, Lee Jeon-beom is one filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:04 AM

March 01, 2011

Secret Sunshine


Lee Chang-dong - 2007
Sundance Selects 35mm Film

My first time in a theater this year was Lee Chang-dong's film, getting a theatrical release three years after making the rounds of the festival circuit. To some extent I am not surprised that distributors might not have been chomping at the bit for Secret Sunshine. It's not that it's a bad film, but that unlike Lee's other films that I've seen, the sense of catharsis is, if not absent, at least more muted. Still, like Lee's other films, it is worth seeing.

The film is about a young widow, Shin-ae, who moves to the town of Milyang, outside of Busan, with her young son. This is where her husband was from and a place he expressed nostalgia for. That apparently there are no family members or friends of her late husband doesn't seem to matter. Instead, it is the idea of starting a new life away from Seoul. What happens to Shin-ae is additional tragedy in a town where she alternates between feeling out of place, and acting in ways that force her emotional distance with others.

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There is a scene in which Shin-ae's elementary school age son is snoring while pretending to be asleep, according to Shin-ae, as a way of imitating his father. In a later scene, Shin-ae is seen snoring - is it also because she misses her husband, or because she misses her son? The town of Milyang, from the Chinese words meaning "secret sunshine" is a place where Shin-ae wants to call home, only to find that family dynamics around her are in a state of flux. The upstanding teacher with a delinquent daughter also turns out to be the worse kind of criminal. The pharmacist, whose wife is ready to share the Gospel with all who will listen, is easily led down the path of temptation. The most stable character is an overly friendly auto mechanic who doggedly pursues Shin-ae no matter how frequently she turns him down.

Some of the other reviews I've read emphasize Shin-ae's religious conversion, her joining an evangelical group of Christians. What Lee seems to be more interested in, within the context of the entire film, is exploring how people choose to fill absences, real or perceived, in their lives. In this regard, there is no interest in Christianity as a theological concept, but rather as a means used for people to give themselves a sense of community as well as an external means of providing a sense of meaning out the otherwise random events of life. Shin-ae comes to town to act as a piano teacher. In a performance in her living room, Shin-ae is shown to stumble at the keyboard, having lost most of own piano playing skills. Without her musicianship, Shin-ae had her husband and son. Without either her husband or son, Shin-ae essentially is left grasping at straws, with little reason to continue with her own life.

As Shin-ae, Jeon Do-yeon plays a woman who constantly displays her emotions, yet what the actress does not do is overplay those emotions. A lesser actress would transform the expressions of rage and anger into something more melodramatic. As the would be suitor, Song Kang-ho is like the buoy that essentially stays in place whether Shin-ae's oceans of feelings are placid or tidal waves. In some fluke of coincidence, I might be able to Jeon twice this week in Denver as the new version of The Housemaid has also opened. Song starred in The Good, the Bad and the Weird and Thirst. Jeon and Song have played characters who might might be more rightly described as extraordinary, and have individually starred in several of the most high profile Korean movies of recent years. Secret Sunshine is not as easy a film to embrace as Oasis or Poetry, but it offers quiet rewards in this story of a woman coming to terms with a life that offers no easy resolutions.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 08:45 AM