2010s, Action-Adventure, Korean cinema, Scifi

Snowpiercer (2013)

Director/Co-screenwriter: Joon-ho Bong

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By Roderick Heath

South Korean director Joon-ho Bong captured the attention of many international filmgoers in 2006 with his home-grown monster movie The Host. He rode the crest of a wave of interest in popular Korean cinema with its potent and often outlandish preoccupations, and reservoir of directorial talent and also including Chan-Wook Park and Kim Jee-woon. Many movie fans found that The Host offered the texture and quality of a bygone variety of genre entertainment, plied with energy and love for the nuts-and-bolts craft of a good creature feature Hollywood hasn’t offered since around the time of Arachnophobia and Tremors (both 1990). An enjoyable film, it was nonetheless rather overrated: I found Bong’s filmmaking, in spite of (and because of) his sustained steadicam shots, often clumsy or arrhythmic, the script far too busy and over-long, and the attempts to incorporate political and social commentary obvious, even tacky, without ever being incisive or as curtly dovetailed as in the best examples of the genre. Still, the film surely earned Bong a cult following abroad, whilst his follow-up, Mother (2011), seemed a complete about-face in subject matter, but still earned critical plaudits for the director’s eccentric artistry. Snowpiercer is a work of greatly increased ambition, an adaptation of a French graphic novel series with The Host’s co-stars Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko rubbing shoulders with an international cast in a film that aims for the broadest possible audience, delivering thrills and spill tethered to an allegorical purpose that’s barely disguised.

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A post-apocalyptic take on Spartacus (1960) mixed with a little A Night to Remember (1958) and The Cassandra Crossing (1977), Snowpiercer is built around one central, dominating concept: the entire film takes place on a super-fast bullet train speeding around the world. The world itself has been frozen into a giant block of ice by a misguided attempt to deal with global warming by inculcating the atmosphere with a dense artificial gas, and only the train’s constant motion keeps it from finishing up as a metal popsicle. Captain America himself, Chris Evans, plays Curtis, an intelligent and conscientious member of the train’s lower class, consisting of passengers who were allowed on board in the pure desperation and chaos of civilisation’s last days, and have been forced to subsist ever since in the rear carriages. The train is the brainchild of genius inventor and industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), who never leaves the very front carriage, tending his engine, which yields a miraculous, perpetual-motion energy supply. The train still travels the world-looping track he built nominally for international travel, but actually because he anticipated just such a fate.

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Curtis has become something a virtual older brother, even a father figure, for young Edgar (Jamie Bell). The two have begun conspiring on ways to overthrow the armed guards who keep them cordoned off from the other classes on the train, and stage a takeover. The filthy and dispirited passengers of the rear carriages are fed on green, jelly-like blocks of protein. Curtis is haunted by evil events that occurred on the train in the early days and is discomforted by Edgar’s hero worship. Curtis feels second-rate compared to other passengers, like the wizened old Gilliam (John Hurt), who are missing multiple limbs for reasons that are eventually explained. Gilliam seems to have an intimate understanding of the train’s remote lord, who is regarded as an almost god-like benefactor by the better-off on the train, and he advises Curtis as their plans begin to take shape. Another, more mysterious helper has been smuggling messages of advice to Curtis in his evening protein blocks.

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The third-class passengers are infuriated when Wilford’s emissary and concubine Claude (Emma Levie) comes on one of her occasional missions to extract small children for an unknown purpose. She claims Tim (Marcanthonee Jon Reis), son of Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and in the distraught melee that results, one passenger, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) tosses a shoe at Claude’s head. Andrew is grotesquely punished by having his arm forced out through a portal to be frozen stiff in the high mountain cold, and then shattered with a hammer, whilst Mason (Tilda Swinton), a gummy, gawky, patronising Minister in the train’s government, lectures the third class in the necessity of their happy obeisance to the settled order. Mason accidentally gives away a crucial piece of information which Curtis correctly interprets: the guards’ guns have run out of bullets in putting down earlier revolts. Now, if they can strike hard and fast enough, the third class might stand a chance. Curtis chafes against the efforts of Edgar, Tanya, and others to make him their appointed leader, but it soon becomes clear that any revolt is going to need a guiding mind with a clear and relentless idea of what to do each at each challenge, with the reflexes to match. Gross manifestations of repression and inequality are of course soon gleefully repaid as Curtis launches his revolt, using salvaged barrels to jam doors open and swoop upon the guards. As the rebels gain access to the next few cars, they discover the sickening truth about their food source, as insects and waste scraps are mashed into their protein blocks.

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Snowpiercer has many conceptual similarities to works and writers from great days in the science-fiction genre, particularly J.G. Ballard’s grimy satires and Philip K. Dick’s dystopian fantasias. Cinematically, Bong signals his influences and reference points early on: some have compared him to Steven Spielberg, and whilst that was evident in The Host with its narrative focus on a fractious, venturesome family unit, here the guiding influence seems rather to be ‘80s and ‘90s Euro Cyberpunk, like the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, and Terry Gilliam, who’s given an explicit name-check in Hurt’s character. Which could be cool, but frankly I found much of Snowpiercer felt old-hat, particularly in channelling Gilliam’s least likeable trait, of pushing his performers towards becoming leering grotesques, particularly evident in Bremner’s performance and, more appreciably, Swinton’s amusing if unsubtle Mason, who becomes the main foil and victim of the rebellion. Although pushed a few rungs down the social bracket so she speaks with a broad midlands accent and has a rather awful dental plate, Mason’s a quite obvious burlesque on Margaret Thatcher, abusing her charges, whom she calls “freeloaders,” for their lack of gratitude, and going through a show-and-tell play with a shoe placed on Andrew’s head: “Be a shoe,” she advises the passengers, because they’re not hats. In case it’s not obvious enough already, Snowpiercer is supposed to be a parable about have and have-nots, casting the rear carriage passengers as third world and underclass losers held down by the man, man.

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Curtis seeks out Namgoong Minsoo (Song), the train’s former electrical and security wizard, who seems to have degenerated into a hopeless frazzled drug addict. The drug of choice on the train is Kronol, a by-product of the train’s toxic waste and a highly flammable substance. Minsoo, once he’s awakened out of his dissociate daze after being plucked from a penal cell like a morgue locker, makes a deal with Curtis to get his daughter Yona (Ko) out of another locker, and for them both to receive for blocks of Kronol in exchange for getting the rebels through each barrier ahead of them on the train. Yona, a “train baby”, seems to have a preternatural awareness, bordering on precognition, and is able to warn the advancing force about dangers hidden on the far side of the closed doors. The rebels face their greatest challenge in a carriage where they find Mason and a death squad armed with battle-axes waiting for them, timing a blackout with the train’s movement into a long, dark tunnel, so that the attackers, who have night vision goggles, can freely slaughter them. But, in perhaps the film’s funniest moment, one of the tiny number of matches Minsoo had saved is used to light a torch, and this is rushed from the rear of the train to the battleground by successive runners including Andrew in an ecstatic parody of an Olympic torch relay.

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Fire allows the battle to proceed fairly and the rebels vanquish their foes, but Curtis is forced to make a call between saving Edgar, who is defeated and used as a human shield by one of the guards, and catching Mason before she can scurry off. Curtis makes the choice of a leader and goes after Mason: Edgar’s throat is cut but Curtis captures the Minister and uses her to force the guards to stop fighting. I like Evans as an actor: he was the star of one of my favourite recent genre films, Push (2009), which was one of those rare films that started off cleverly and kept up the flow of invention until the very end. And he’s quite competent here as a hero whose only exceptional characteristics are his intelligence and his desperation for moral regeneration, which drives him to break boundaries others accept. To his credit, Bong gives the film time to breathe with contemplative time-outs between scuffles, and paying attention to Curtis’ interactions with his fellow, culminating in a lengthy explanation to Minsoo about the early days on the train, when he was a teenage punk who had succumbed to murderous cannibalism, before the protein feed regime was instituted and the passengers were starving.

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Curtis was brought to his senses when Gilliam and other older passengers began donating their limbs as food to keep the marauders like Curtis from snatching babies for the pot: Edgar’s life was saved directly by this intervention. Curtis thus faces that regulation trope (or cliché) of many recent Japanese and Korean dark thriller and horror films, the sense of guilt or transgression that can only be expiated by sacrificing a limb (see also the works of Chan-Wook Park, who produced this, and Takashi Miike). Such a revelation invests Curtis with a memorable pathos and darkness, and yet it doesn’t sit very well with the pretty clean-cut guy we’ve been introduced to. I couldn’t help but wonder if it would have been more convincing, and indeed genuinely affecting, with an older, more world-weary and weathered actor in the part, somebody who at least looked like he had the memory of a savage self in him.

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At some point in this film’s development, Bong seems to have decided he was faced with a clear choice with this material, to either try to make it convincing or to play up its symbolic value. He chose the latter, but immediately revealed his lack of understanding of science-fiction, which can revolve around parable but must also exemplify a logical take on its chosen fantastical realm. The film follows a very basic guiding logic that makes sense, the literally linear movement from front to back of the train, which has a suspiciously video-game conceit to it, whilst also evoking the powerful influence of producer Park in the resemblance of fight scenes to the tight-packed, squared-off fight scenes that rather resemble the famous corridor battle in Oldboy (2006). But beyond this, Snowpiercer’s set-up, both technical and social, makes painfully little sense, never working at all to explain certain basic questions. Key to the film’s plot is the supposed balance of life within the train, a concept that has important ramifications in a climactic reveal. As the rebels advance through the conveyance, they pass through carriages dedicated to the propagation of animal and plant-life.

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If the Snowpiercer had been deliberately designed as a mammoth Noah’s Ark-like device to save a small section of humanity I might have bought this, but the circumstances of the machine’s construction, when revealed, present the film as a private industrial Spruce Goose repurposed into it present use. The train, when glimpsed from the outside, doesn’t seem all that much bigger than the average Amtrak cross-country express, and couldn’t possibly support enough infrastructure to make the life on the train we see possible, not even to produce the insects ground up for the protein meal. The film is full of unexplained logic jumps as weapons come out of nowhere and characters who shouldn’t know one end of a gun from another suddenly having a working knowledge of automatic weapons. A gunfight is precipitated in the midst of a carriage full of the last kids on earth. Obviously someone doesn’t think children are our future.

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The perspective the audience is forced to follow makes the early stages a striking experience in the sense of isolation and imposed abused, envisioning life in the third-class carriages as a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express turned into way of life, mixed with a favela. The conceit of the film can be excused as merely a transposed vision of slum dwellers invading the better parts of town wrapped in a polite sleeve of genre fiction, but nakedness of political metaphor doesn’t make for brilliance. As the film unfolds the coherency of the metaphor becomes increasingly silly and self-serving, as it offers no chance for perspective from the other classes on the train, just a broad caricature of privilege and indoctrination. Far from being a wake-up call about the dangers of global warming, the film could be seen as marking a different inference, a metaphor for the way third world countries are denied the pleasures and benefits of industrialisation by the environmental concerns of rich westerners. As the rebels penetrate the “first world” part of the train, the vignettes they see there look like the interior of a luxury liner where prim personages sit, and then the interior of a rave club, filled with louche young things reclining in decadent postures. Yes, that’s the limit of Bong’s insight into modernity’s diseases: stoned young party people and Victorian upper-crust caricatures. It’s so puerile it makes the French Revolution invocations of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) seem profound.

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Where all the warriors came from, and indeed where they go to after initial skirmishes, and the train’s entire apparent infrastructure of government and representation, is skipped over. Good points might have been made about the whipped-up bloodlust and fear of the other passengers when faced with the insurrection as a simile for political manipulation, but the only “people” on the train are the rebels, and even they’re pretty one-dimensional. The film’s best scene isn’t much more sophisticated but is staged with such an intimate gusto I didn’t mind, as the rebels bust into a schoolroom carriage. There the primly raised little snots of the train’s upper class are inculcated with cultish love of Wilford through absurd songs and catechisms like “The engine is eternal! The engine is forever!” and “We would all freeze and die!” Mason delights in hearing the songs: “I love that one – such a tonic!” she reports with splendidly needy over-enthusiasm. Canadian actress Allison Pill has a deliriously inspired cameo here as the kids’ wackadoodle teacher, eyes aglow and eyelids aflutter with feverish excitement in teaching the gospel of Wilford like a Moonie zealot, whilst the overtones of this sequence take on several targets at once, from religion in general to the specifically cultish fanaticism attached to supposed benefactors, and even perhaps a tilt north of the 38th parallel.

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The scene sharpens to a point as the heavily pregnant teacher draws an automatic weapon on Curtis and the other rebels: she gets a knife in the throat, and Curtis coolly executes the increasingly pathetic Mason in retaliation. Most of the issues I had with the film on an intellectual level with the film might have been rendered moot if I’d found it more satisfying on the level of meat-and-potatoes action, but Snowpiercer is rather ordinary in that regard, and certainly inferior to, say, Pierre Morel’s work on Banlieu 13 (2004), a film which had much the same structure and subtext but not half the pretension. One major problem with the film’s development is that apart from Mason none of the antagonists are at all well-defined enough to dislike. We have bad guys whom scrutiny of the credits tell me are called Franco (Vlad Ivanov, the sleazy abortionist of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, 2007) and Egg-Head (Tómas Lemarquis) but who come out of nowhere and are standard action movie villains. Curtis and Franco end up having a gunfight between carriages as the train goes around a long curve, an idea that makes interesting use of the specifics of the situation but as it plays out here is numbingly stupid.

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Franco lumbers along emotionlessly killing Curtis’ followers, including Tanya, and proves rather hard to dispatch, like the Terminator in business casual. The film’s action set-piece is the tunnel fight, which is passably well-staged but more interested in pretty effects like art-directed blood spurting on the windows than in believably depicting a fight in such close-packed quarters: interestingly, neither side seems to have thought much about how such battles are likely to proceed. Bong does pull off one terrific little moment of action staging, with Curtis locked in mortal combat with a goon, another goon looms over his shoulder ready to strike, only for Edgar to launch himself into the frame and crash into the goon’s belly. This moment not only requires carefully framing on Bong’s part but also nicely shows off Bell’s physical grace as an actor, which no-one seems interested in exploiting otherwise. I’m not sure what both sides stopping their fight momentarily to celebrate the anniversary of getting on the train is supposed to signify except unfunny satirical intent.

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It could also be argued that the film’s weakness as a mixture of realistic and metaphorical storytelling are justified by a certain pseudo-surrealist tone, and there is a little of this, as when the rebels suddenly burst into carriages that are gardens and aquariums. Not nearly enough to justify the film’s conceits, however. Where the finale might have justifiably moved into a zone of splintering realities, like the last episode of The Prisoner (TV, 1967-8), Bong and screenwriter Kelly Masterson (who penned Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007) stick close to diagrams of clunky blockbuster exposition. Curtis and Minsoo make it to the engine of the train, but find their way barred by a seemingly impassable hatch. Minsoo has a secret intention to use the Kronole he’s amassed to blow open the train’s only exterior hatch, because he’s noticed that the ice outside has retreated and escape from the train is now possible. Rather than do this immediately however, he and Curtis sit around for a half-hour talking whilst their enemies have time to mass. Claude unexpectedly emerges from the engine with a gun to usher Curtis in to see Wilford. Now, unlike Curtis who’s supposed to be smart, the audience will have guessed about five minutes in that Wilford was the one sending the helpful messages to Curtis, with only the motivation hazy. This is revealed to be, in a shameless rip-off of the climactic revelations of The Matrix Reloaded (2003), because Wilford likes to carefully provoke and repress rebellions to justify culling back the train’s population for the sake of sustainability.

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Now, why a technocrat like Wilford who has essentially reduced the world to his own immediate ego-verse where he might easily control every element of life would rely on such clumsy and self-destructive tactics to maintain balance on his train is a question for smarter folks than I. So too is why the train’s society is set up like it is. Mason’s use of the word “freeloader” made me wonder if perhaps the schism was set up around those who, as in Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), had paid to get on the ark and those who had been taken on as an act of charity or had forced their way on. But this is never actually brought up, and really it’s just a conservative code word trucked in for broad satirical effect, and besides, after eighteen years nobody’s questioning such delineations? The dark sacrificial antitheses of the surface paradises portrayed in the likes of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Logan’s Run (1976), stories based around similar ideas, aren’t necessarily more probable but they make a hell of a lot more sense in terms of the schematic societies they present us with.

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Another ready reference point here is that immovable icon of cinema sci-fi, Metropolis (1926), which has an infamously vague political meaning, but at least boiled itself down to a likeable homily. I’m not sure what homily I could boil Snowpiercer down to, not even “Fight the Man”, as the film’s somewhat self-defeating climax derails (literally) the point it seems to have been making. The film does finally achieve a minatory power in the rush of events and visuals building to that climax – the sight of young Tim imprisoned amongst the gears and wheels of the engine has a Dickensian, symbolic impact, and Curtis and Minsoo rushing to embrace Yong and Tim to protect them from an explosion’s billowing flames offers a fitting condensation of the film’s theme of fatherly care, and a spark of real emotion at last in a film that otherwise lacks it. The last images evoke the end of THX-1138 (1971), although not as vividly iconic, in the simultaneous evocation of freedom and exposure, even as once again Snowpiercer begs a lot more questions than it really answers. Is it better than a Michael Bay movie? Yes. But not that much better.

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2010s, Comedy, Drama, Korean cinema

The Day He Arrives (2011)

Book chon bang hyang

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Director: Sang-soo Hong

By Roderick Heath

Korean filmmaker Sang-soo Hong has been quietly creating a name for himself for the past two decades amongst a fairly rarefied film audience, with his meticulously made, small-scale studies in contemporary cinema that are as much about their own creative vicissitudes as they are about their nominal stories and subjects. Hong’s Cannes competitor from last year (this year, it’s Another Country) and one of this year’s best-reviewed releases, The Day He Arrives is a beguiling entry in a style that is relatively easy to describe in terms of likenesses, for it has the conversational immediacy of Eric Rohmer, Louis Malle, or Jim Jarmusch at their most relaxed. But it is less easy to describe when considering the way Hong leans less on overtones of the literary actor’s exercises such etudes of chat often possess, instead creating subtle, adventurous works of filmic legerdemain. Hong’s formal structures and deceptively rigorous technique motivate an apparently idle, offhand mise-en-scène, and the results stand out with individual vibrancy. Hong made The Day He Arrives with a miniscule crew working in digital black and white, evoking the old shooting methods of the early French New Wave whilst also suggesting the heights to which intelligent filmmakers with good actors and basic tools at their disposal can aspire.

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Many of Hong’s films feature an artist-protagonist beset by the absurdities and petty distractions of everyday life that seem, all too often, to accumulate into the very texture of that life. Such an approach and subject matter risk descent into solipsistic autobiography, and yet Hong’s material has a fundamental and instinctual sense of experience and perspective, with hints of self-analysis that do not spurn universal applications. Hong’s work also reflects an implicit irony similar to some far more showy variations on similar ideas, like Fellini’s (1963) or Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) (Hong’s film could aptly be called “One Week In Another Town”) in that it takes as its theme the loss of artistic passion and inspiration, whilst revealing how fluidic and confident his artistry is in rejecting familiar motives and objects in creative endeavour. The Day He Arrives is not so much told as accumulated like pebbles washed up by the tide, portraying the most seemingly simple and undramatic of circumstances and subjecting them to a limpid, yet ever so slightly disorienting methodology. It’s also a classical “winter’s tale” in folk-poetic and Shakespearean parlance, a comedy of manners set in a frigid season, with characters who are feeling the pinch more deeply than they once did, where a jollity found in contemplating human foibles is tempered by the uncovering of emotions that are gently melancholic, in harmony with the bleakness of chilly days, withered trees, and aching souls.

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Sungjoon Yoo (Jun-Sang Yu) is a former film director who has given up his trade and moved to the sticks, where he teaches at a regional university. He returns to Seoul for a few days on a kind of holiday and tries to think up ways to fill the sojourn. Sungjoon’s ambling air of disquiet become increasingly fraught, as his wanderings see him move only in circles as his gossamer tale unspools with a perverse symmetry. Indeed, tale is the wrong word, as nothing really happens to Sungjoon: he moves without travelling, and exists without experiencing. What does occur seems to be only variations or echoes of past events, inferior retreads, and Sungjoon seems to reject or feel impotent to act on the chances for new beginnings that come in the fragmentary whirl of events and people his odyssey present to him.

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He sets out to catch up with his best friend Youngho (Sang Jung Kim), but when Youngho isn’t available, Sungjoon strolls around the city’s inner suburban tracts. In the first motif of the film’s thematic pattern, Sungjoon repeatedly encounters a gauchely eager young actress and teacher, who is increasingly less gauche with each new meeting. Then, Sungjoon enters a small, seamy tavern to smoke and write, where he’s invited to join a trio of young men for lunch. These lads prove to be film students, and one of them has seen the director’s four films, which, Sungjoon jests, makes him one of a select few. The mentor and the neophytes get drunk together and head out on the town, with Sungjoon promising to take them to an interesting place. But when he sees the trio unconsciously fall under the spell of the successful artist’s cult of personality by imitating his mannerisms, Sungjoon loses his temper and bawls them out before running off. He finds his way to the apartment of a former girlfriend, Kyungjin (Bo-kyung Kim), whom he hasn’t seen in two years. She greets him with apt frostiness and then eruptive pathos, but Sungjoon folds up in a bawling mess, begging her forgiveness, and finally climbing into bed with her.

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Sungjoon’s displays of inchoate, reactive feeling and desperate need in these scenes signal what lies under his awkwardly smiling, nervous humour. Hong’s conceit is to offer the scene with Kyungjin early in the film as the start of a pattern, rather than a more traditional fashion towards the end, as a climactic explanation for his haunted air, as with a film like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). The next morning, Sungjoon takes his leave of Kyungjin, where he encourages her to forget him. She agrees it’s best, and asks for his phone number, only so that she can text him on certain occasions; she will break this promise constantly, her messages stabbing out of the void at random junctures, like the needling presence of some spirit of forlorn feeling.

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Kyungjin’s apartment is a seamy, barely furnished hovel with a metal door, and she seems to have become, whatever the roots of their relationship and his affair with her, one of those people who exist like barnacles affixed to the great ship of a city, clinging on without actual purpose. Sungjoon seems to bear the hidden mark of some real damage: it’s suggested that he’s recovered from a bad illness, as he mentions his loss of strength and earlier health worries, and Kyungin seems to have also had such problems. But Sungjoon’s ailments, if they really are ailments, seem more mental, perhaps even environmental, as he expresses his dislike for the city Seoul has become.

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On the second day, Sungjoon reencounters the actress before meeting up at last with Youngho. His former colleague is a good-natured, but more tentative, guarded, and shy man. Youngho invites Sungjoon to stay with him, and later the pair go to drink at a hole-in-the-wall bar called the “Novel” run by Yejeon (Kim again), who’s oddly absent when they first arrive. The two men get their own drinks and settle down to wait for Yejeon to come. Later, their duo is expanded by Youngho’s fellow teacher and secret crush, Boram (Seon-mi Song), who becomes rather taken with Sungjoon, whose display of a modestly charming intelligence in his better moments is unwittingly seductive. Like many directors before him who engaged in a touch of self-analysis, Hong portrays the status of the film director as pseudo-artist with a wry frustration, noting that sometimes solitude and silence are a prerogative that any other art form can allow the artist, but one the film director can only obtain with major, perhaps career-killing, concessions: cinema is also always a business, with many pretenders waiting to step in. Sungjoon becomes suggestively more awkward and threadbare in his responses to situations as, in the film’s course, he’s recognised less easily or enthusiastically, or by people he doesn’t recognise himself.

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But Hong’s focus is not on the vicissitudes of his profession, but on his avatar-hero as a case study in modern life lived in a state of flux—emotionally, intellectually, creatively, and sexually. The long passages of uncertainty and noncommittal and vague distraction that are fundamental in life—usually the first things cut from any dramatic work—are here the whole show. Key to the film’s oddball progression is the hint that, rather than seeing directly sequential days in the life of Yoo Sungjoon, we are seeing days from repeating versions of the same experience: Sungjoon arriving for a few days’ visit in Seoul, meeting up with the same people, going to places and meeting people who are hazy in his recollections, doing the things he did before, and obeying the same impulses he surrendered to before—or is it just because they keep getting so pie-eyed that Sungjoon is always unsure about what happened and where previously? Thus, with each visit to Yejeon’s bar, gestures and actions repeat. Sungjoon mentions in voiceover the name of the bar as if discovering it for the first time. The group of friends, varying in numbers from two to four, perform the same ritual of getting their own drinks when they find Yejeon hasn’t come back from one of her mysterious absences. A shot of Yejeon walking back to the bar along the narrow alley outside, like some obscure figure of fateful import, is interpolated. Sungjoon rises in most sequences to tinkle away at the bar’s piano at one point. He ducks out the back of the bar to smoke a cigarette, where he converses with either Boram or Yejeon, and receives a melancholy text message from Kyungjin.

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Hong’s conceptions reflect wry truths: when faced with the cornucopia of cities, we zero in on the familiar. In looking for new mates post break-up, many fall for facsimiles of their previous loves, the new version encapsulating all that was superficially attractive about the last lover but free of the specific history, and the alarming similarity of Yejeon and Kyungjin is rooted in this jokey truism. At the same time, a systematic exploration of doubling, repetition, reexperiencing, is in play here. The lapping, self-replicating episodes at the Novel could well be odes to their own nature as exercises in semi-improvisatory acting and directing, taking the same basic form and yet revising, adding, or detracting elements, to map how differently they play out. Hong elucidates his ideas on literal and figurative levels, and Sungjoon keeps stepping into situations where there is a charge of ill-remembered meaning, an uncertain solicitude offered for vaguely familiar faces, gestures, and places. The frustrations and comforts of familiarity are depicted with exacting accuracy.

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Throughout most of the film, the charge of uncertainty is kept deliberately vague, even negligible, but it becomes more explicable as Sungjoon’s attraction to Yejeon gives way to passion with the pair snogging furiously in a back alley one night when he accompanies her on one of her expeditions to get food for the guests. This same act repeats the next day/subsequent occasion, and a blend of politeness and self-defensive denial almost conspires to erase an important moment for the couple. When Sungjoon tries to apologise, Yejeon denies anything occurred. Hong twists this scene into a comedic pay-off, for Sungjoon promptly embraces her again, and the event that never happened takes up where it left off.

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The idea that an innate tendency for pattern recognition drives human cognisance of the world, even in the midst of a seeming multitude of choices and alternatives, is what we tend to ascribe as fate or luck, and perhaps this becomes as much of a cage as a tool. This underlying idea is introduced in a diegetic way, when Sungjoon states this theory in contemplating the nature of the recurring encounters that have defined his sojourn in the city and Boram’s account of a similar series of encounters of people involved in the Seoul film scene. Hong is indeed pursuing just this line of reasoning, but he’s also fascinated by the limitations of that recognition and our grasp on such patterns in that cornucopia: the fallibility of the human mind, the ambiguity of memory, the uncertainty over whether things have really happened before, if certain faces really have been seen before, or if they’re simply mental onomatopoeia. Of course, The Day He Arrives is essentially a character-driven, conversational comedy, if tinged with headiness and discontent, and the theoretical element is kept mostly to a low hum of amusing irony. But the abstract and the incidental constantly dovetail. In different scenes, Han and Sungjoon explain their theory of the perfect chat-up line for women, which is to describe their exterior selves and then suggest their internal lives are opposite. That line, in Hong’s drollest comic touch, works on both Boram and Yejeon, even though they’ve both been alerted to the game in play, as it seems to capture instantly their fastidious maintenance of externalities, armour plate against the chill of romantic failure and abuse, and workaday dissociation, whilst their interior lives long for more.

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When the drunken Sungjoon gets mad at the young film students, who, in a moment redolent of silent film comedy, fall into line behind him, lighting cigarettes and mimicking his pose, without any deliberate intent, it’s a beautifully funny encapsulation of a peculiar terror of imitation and artistic personality, the sense of one’s innermost thoughts, creations, and ideas being public property. This theme is conflated with a certain wry satire on the Korean intelligentsia (but it could also be that of almost any modern nation): these filmmakers and teachers sure suck down a lot of booze in cliques as a panacea against their general frustrations and fatigue for a petty world. There’s also a more specific reflection on a traditionally Asian variety of hierarchical respect: Sungjoon is constantly referred to by others as “Director Yoo,” as one might say “Doctor” or “Professor” as titles of repute, as if director is now his fundamental identity, one that he can never truly leave behind, even if he wants to. Sungjoon seems to be running from this external identification for much of the film, as if it terrorises him. Later, Sungjoon runs into the actress again, and he advises her to marvel in the chains of chance that keep bringing them together, only to then turn and hurry off as fast as he can when he realises that the students she’s shepherding around are the trio he harangued.

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He contends with an actor friend, Han Jungwon, who grills him first about his habit of only calling him by his first name, and then about how much money he earns as a regional film teacher (not much), and it finally emerges that Han nurses a grudge against him for not casting him in his second movie after promising another role, an act that smacks of some long-ago concession to commercialism or star-fucking that’s now so hazy in Sungjoon’s mind he can barely remember it. Han nonetheless provides a fourth member for the drinking party at the Novel that evolves into a lengthy, boozy good time. This party concludes in the film’s most striking scene, a long, unblinking shot of the four guests and Yejeon standing on the side of the road, waving down taxis in the snow that is gathering slushy at their feet, their collective good cheer dissipating in the illness of drunkenness, tiredness, and the cold, each member heading off to their separate solitudes.

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As we learn, Sungjoon essentially goes through similar rituals with every woman he meets and sleeps with. Not that he’s an incorrigible rake; rather, Hong seems to suggest, this is the texture of modern life and modern erotic existence for many people: attraction, flirtation, coitus, and then a fumbling indecision when the postscript seems insufficient, a fearfulness before intense feelings that dictates constant tactical withdrawal.

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Sungjoon’s retreat from the hurly-burly of his former urban, creative life is a retreat from all but the most fleeting of serious human contact. His flirtation with Yejeon finally resolves in a beguilingly sexy bedroom scene where the couple seem to loll together in bliss, but even there they’re engaged in constructing other people out of the person they’re with (“You’re a real man,” Yejeon coos. “No I’m not,” Sungjoon laughs.), according to a need that disperses by morning. Character observation is, in spite of the trickier, headier elements, the essence and pleasure of The Day He Arrives, as the people are fiendishly well-described types. Song’s Boram is a particular stand-out, a brilliantly described and articulated type who can be found in many a modern culture, with her hunger for connection and romance that’s subtly frantic in clasping at straws for a fate that doesn’t involve hunkering down with a vintage film and her dog—and even that’s gone missing, since it escaped when she was walking it. Youngho is besotted with her, and yet won’t make his feelings apparent for fear of losing a grip on his friendship with her, a reticence that involves watching her flurry in moments of boozy angst and flirt shamelessly with the unresponsive Sungjoon.

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Hong’s work here evidently fits into a definite strand of interest with other modern, serious-minded Asian filmmakers, including Wong Kar-Wai, who’s been making films in a similar key of forlorn romanticism coupled with overt probing of the nature of narrative for years now, if essayed in a very different cinematic spirit. Hong’s coolly evoked urban landscapes and motifs of alienated communication through technological mediums has a certain likeness to Jia Zhangke. Yet Hong’s style is definitely singular, keen to the rhythms of intimacy and isolation but in a fashion that never feels arch, but is rather crisp and purposeful even when seemingly most casual. Kim’s photography helps Hong sustain an effervescent mixture of artless naturalism and subtle, painterly zest, so often framing two or three conversers in a shot and making a quick zoom in like parentheses closing in on a stray sentence fragment, and lending abstract beauty and piquancy to seamy and bland corners of Seoul. His camera work offers stray moments of poetic fancy, from the numinous light glowing within the plastic roofing of a roadside fruit stall to the graffiti-riddled walls of the seamy bar Sungjoon encounters the students in, and the noirish shadows and snow around Sungjoon and whichever woman he’s talking to on the back steps of the Novel. The nights are places of inky depths, prettily illumined faces, ranks of glistening black empty beer bottles and polished glasses, and fairytale snowflakes, whilst the days are flatly lit, baldly unflattering traps.

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In the final phase of Sungjoon’s odyssey, he takes his leave of Yejeon, another of his edgy, friendly yet uncertain farewells, where he makes Yejeon take three pledges, including to keep a diary as a way of organising time and her internal self, an organising principle Sungjoon seems to have lost himself, and again asks her to forget him: she agrees, saying, “At least this way I’ll have a happy memory,” which is both a pretty idea and yet one that the film has made seem like the most uncertain idea in the world. Sungjoon’s subsequent wanderings confirm his increasing irrelevance to the filmmaking world, as he encounters other, patronising filmmakers and a former glad-handing producer, a space cadet student he doesn’t remember, and finally, another woman who resembles Yejeon and Kyungjin, who carries a camera she sports to make a visual diary with (is she another former lover, or perhaps Yejeon, or Kyungjin, later down the line?) and convinces Sungjoon to let her shoot him. The former director tries to smile with increasing agitation that his world has finally been turned inside out, as he becomes the photographed subject rather than the image-maker, pinioned like a butterfly in the midst of ghostly doppelgangers, abandoned labours, and faded dreams.

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2000s, Drama, Korean cinema

Oldboy (2003)

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Director: Park Chan-wook

By Roderick Heath

Revenge is an ugly thing, and the violence used to accomplish it grotesque and self-consuming. Such is the truism nearly as old in literature as literature itself. Sophocles and Euripides evoked the theme. Shakespeare and the Jacobeans interrogated it in depth. Park Chan-wook stomps it into the ground.

Many critics, discussing films like this, pass that notion around as if it’s something original and newly crucial. Of course, questions of revenge and films about it gained a curious urgency after 9/11 and the general atmosphere of the War on Terror. Suddenly, men and women were mercilessly ripping their way through hordes of bad guys, looking en route into their own hearts of darkness in films as diverse and tonally incompatible as Kill Bill, Man on Fire, The Punisher, Spider-Man and on and on, and schoolmarmish worry faces were made by critics and filmmakers like the excruciatingly boring Michael Haneke, pointing out that our love of onscreen violence is feeding into our general bloodlust and making us tools of political violence.

The ethical problem that ought to be examined, and yet often remains unexamined is what is the difference between justice and revenge? If justice is not forthcoming, is revenge permissible? Do they not share the same philosophical roots in social theory? Is not the idea that what goes around comes around central to all notions of communal existence? What are our moral concerns anyway? What do we wish to defend? Do we wish to defend anything? Without gods to command us, how and why do we maintain standards of human decency? With gods to command us, how do we balance our duty to moral prescription with a merely human desire for evening the score and protecting the security of our lives? None of these questions will be answered by watching a Chan-wook Park film.

Chan-wook is a fashionable figure, and Oldboy is currently sitting at #118 on the IMDb’s Top 250 list. His Vengeance trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)—are something like Stations of the Cross for their maker, a devout Catholic. But his films must not in any way, shape, or form be mistaken for ethical or theological investigations: they are sadomasochistic engines of masturbation for violence freaks pretending to be moral fables, each of them acts of unadorned savagery served out by ludicrous characters in ludicrous situations. Normally, I’d let that stand. To engage and work through our darker notions is one of the primal attractions of the cinema—and art in general. Art has no imperative to be moral or even fair. It’s all about context and balance. Of the Vengeance trilogy, the most bearable is Lady Vengeance, chiefly because the central character is the best-conceived avatar of Chan-wook’s concerns, a woman who balances saintliness and devilishness in equal proportions, lets each fight within her, and channels a century’s worth of onscreen feminine martyrs into her image in the process.

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Oldboy, at the other extreme, is one of the worst, most repugnant, pointless, and wrongheaded films I’ve ever sat through. Two hours of imprisonment, teeth-pulling, bone cracking, hammer beatings, stick lashings, incestuous couplings, tongue-slicing, and altogether merciless assault on all human nature could be withstood and even admired if any of it made a lick of sense. But the film’s Jacobean excesses are merely that—excesses. There’s no sense of rhythm or steady ground where the yardsticks needed to care can be planted. What any of this means in terms of society and the individual, which even in a play as bad as Titus Andronicus is still the vital question, is never suggested. Oldboy exists in a vacuum of cause and effect, meaning and imperative.

Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a tipsy, talkative businessman who, after being briefly picked up by the cops with his friend No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), makes a phone call home to his daughter and then vanishes. He’s been spirited inside a strange prison cell that has been decorated like a normal apartment, where he spends the next 15 years being subjected to occasional gassings and hypnotism. With a television as his only friend, he learns a lot from it, endlessly imitating the fights he watches on it and becoming an adept martial artist. Right at the point when he manages to carve a hole in the wall, he’s released, awakening on a rooftop inside a suitcase. Stumbling through the world, he enters a sushi restaurant and encounters a pretty young chef, Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), and faints after consuming a live octopus and receiving an enigmatic phone call from his antagonist.

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Mido inexplicably takes this middle-aged weirdo in and aids him as he contacts Joo-hwan and sets about tracking down his enemy. He locates the imprison-your-enemy business run by Park Cheol-woong (Dal-su Oh), whose teeth he rips out to extract information about who had him locked up there before battling his way out through a horde of Park’s thugs. Dae-su never suspects that his quarry is a step ahead of him all the time, set on leading him and Mido into the most grotesque of traps. Dae-Su’s persecutor proves to be someone who went to the same school, Evergreen (their alumni homepage is called “Evergreen Old Boys”). He is one Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-tae), a tycoon who has sought to destroy Dae-Su’s life because Dae-Su had, in a youthful moment he had forgotten, spied Lee and his sister Lee Soo-ah (Yun Jin-seo) engaged in an incestuous relationship. He had told Joo-hwan, and rumours spread that resulted in Soo-ah’s suicide. In addition to the past 15 years of intolerable punishment, Lee has contrived an extra penitence in a twist I saw coming from, oh, about 40 minutes earlier: he had used hypnotism to make Dae-Su and Mido to fall in love because, yes, Mido is Dae-Su’s daughter. And so, rather than ripping out Lee’s windpipe, as would be permissible, Dae-Su is reduced to begging him not to reveal the truth to Mido, and he cuts out his own tongue as a totem of his apology for destroying Lee and his sister’s lives. Lee commits suicide, and Dae-Sun undergoes hypnotherapy to forget the truth, allowing him and Mido to walk off into the sunset.

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I doubt the Oldboy cult is really about much more than the visceral thrill of teenagers (of all ages) the world over cooing at the consumption of squirming tentacles and hammer-claw dentistry. Oldboy is undoubtedly strong filmmaking, in a kind of tricky, live-action cartoon fashion, down to the already famous and influential corridor fight, staged in a single shot that must have tested the mettle of its actors to the limits. But it lacks that cool, Kurosawa-influenced realism that made Mr. Vengeance drag me along to an equally nihilistic end, nor the fairly well-judged stylisation of Lady Vengeance, which helped me swallow a rather over-large horse pill of a conceit. Nor is the filmmaking actually radical enough in style and concept to assault the audience’s perceptions of the politics of power, gender, and society, as in, for instance, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967). Links that might have been fashioned between Lee’s position as a corporate captain and Dae-su’s status as a self-deluding victim of a TV-fed consumer culture just aren’t there. It’s possible that in Korean society, where many citizens have been kidnapped and held for decades across the border, this is a more vivid anxiety than anywhere else. But there’s no political context: this is pure rat-in-a-maze taunting. Lee’s a gothic supervillain with incest on his mind, hiding in his penthouse, just like Mason Verger, the alternate villain of Hannibal (2001). Rather than build up to anything chilling, or cathartic, or even trashily entertaining, it’s all an adolescent monument to asking what more the audience is willing to put up with. It contains dark humour, and yet totally lacks the playfulness and meta-narrative irony that made the often equally dark Kill Bill bearable, nor does it have Tarantino’s sense of characterisation.

That it doesn’t know when to quit is the real problem, pushing to an unbearable finale in which Dae-su grovels, sings his old school song, and generally tries everything up to and including taking the scissors to his tongue to elicit an iota of relenting from the truly monstrous Lee Woo-jin, a sequence that completely used up any sympathy I had for Park’s films. It’s supposed to be crucial that Dae-su is willing to do anything to prevent his daughter know she’s in love with her father. But the cumulative effect is so viciously, unremittingly hateful that it directs my hate neatly at the people responsible for the movie. “A grain of sand or a stone, they both sink in a river” goes the maxim that Lee quotes to Dae-Su. “Don’t diddle your sister in a schoolroom and expect to get away with it forever,” is the apt response, but no one gets around to that. In fact, there’s very little sophistication to the narrative at all. The characters are flat and absurd, their emotions inflated and yet unconvincing; the visual storytelling is sometimes opaque, but only in an irritating way; the hero’s decisions and actions are often startlingly senseless; and, even for a film that knows it’s absurd, the plot is incredibly opportunistic.

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Park’s moral propositions are consistently, offensively stupid, from letting a bunch of hysterical parents cut bits off a paedophile murderer in Lady Vengeance to this nonsensical cavalcade of disproportion. Whatever commentary is supposed to be garnered is nullified by the total tone-deafness of nuance and scale. Much like the childish reductions of Old Testament brimstone and audience-taunting anti-climaxes in films like Se7en (1995), the endless Saw series, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), where justice is cheated either through its insufficient or misdirected application, Park’s philosophical level never rises above the schoolyard, bullying his viewers into bending in reaction to his provocations and dulling their brains into stupefied nonresponse.

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