Poetry

Original title Shi, written and directed by Chang-dong Lee, released 2010.


In brief: In making this film, director Chang-dong Lee wrote not only the part of a lifetime for previously-retired actress Jeong-hie Yun, but also wrote a great deal of poetry that the film’s characters recite. The script alone is a literary achievement.

The horrific crime that drives the story has already been committed as the film opens: the gang rape at school of a teenage girl, who has now drowned herself. With some filmmakers we might have been forced to sit through harrowing bits of those events, but the focus of this film is on what happens after, not before, and so we’re mercifully spared all of that.

This film is also about language. Housekeeper and grandmother Mija is struggling to learn the language of poetry in an adult poetry-writing class, while beginning to lose everyday language due to Alzheimer’s. She’s the only character connected to the crime who’s trying to understand what happened, in the process becoming an amateur investigator of what led to the crime, which involved her own grandson. (The male relatives of the other rapists see the crime primarily as a monetary liability and even the mother of the victim does not appear to be particularly outraged by what happened to her daughter.)

Mija is also the only person in the poetry class who succeeds at breaking through into the world of poetry, finally producing a poem that essentially summarizes what she has discovered, but from the point of view of the dead girl. Mija fails to show up for the final class, so the teacher recites her poem for the other would-be poets. During the recitation the camera floats through the city, ending up at the river bridge where the girl killed herself. The teacher’s voice is replaced by that of the dead girl, and we see a young woman who might be the victim standing on the bridge with her back to us. The feelings engendered by this final scene are almost overwhelming, both heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time.

I know nothing of Korean poetic tradition, but most cultures produce poetry, which is metrical language that operates simultaneously on the outer ear and the inner eye. When reading the subtitles for the recited poems, don’t forget to listen to the other part, the sound of the poem’s language (even when you can’t understand that language).


© 10 Franks 2015

Gravity

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón, released 2013.


Handed a familiar woman-in-jeopardy role, Sandra Bullock does what she can with it. There’s no slasher or serial killer at her back, just the icy vacuum of space and a bad case of nerves, and at times we find ourselves wishing there was something chasing her. As it is, the camera has almost nothing to cut to except the sumptuous Earth itself, hanging there gorgeous and seductive like a giant blue Rorschach blot. Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone has no one to talk to most of the time except herself and Bullock can’t quite pull off the one-woman show.

George Clooney only sticks around for a little while as Stone’s mission partner, veteran space dude Matt Kowalski, mercifully floating away before his voice can drive us crazy. He pops up again later during Stone’s low-oxygen hallucination, as though to remind us how good we’ve had it without him.

Gravity has a well-trod linearity to it, but there are some visual delights in this movie. One of them, of Stone tugging open an airlock and nearly getting blown out into space, is so good it’s repeated later and the fright it engenders is no less for the repetition. And if you’ve ever wondered what an astronaut wears under her spacesuit, well now you know: sleeveless undershirt and spandex skivvies. Watching Bullock strip is fun — perhaps not quite as much fun as Jane Fonda in Barbarella but probably as unintentionally good as a serious movie can get.

Gravity is not a bad movie, but it doesn’t succeed at solving the problems it creates for itself. The marooned-in-space astronaut, half crazy and lonely as Robinson Crusoe, is an ancient trope well-explored in sci-fi movies, from big budget (2001: A Space Odyssey) to shoestring (Love) to everything in between (Silent Running). Does Gravity break new ground here, bring any new insights to bear? Well, a female protagonist is a nice touch, if only to drive home how awful this movie would have been with, say, Clooney’s Kowalski as the surviving crew member (morphing into a slightly different sub-genre: space horror). And Bullock is probably not a bad choice, either, although this kind of movie has no place for her comedic talents.

I have no knowledge of (and little interest in) the genesis of Gravity‘s story, but at times it felt as though the screenwriters started with what was probably a solid (although not original) concept: solitary survivor of space mishap forced to conquer both her own fears and some recalcitrant equipment to survive. Given this concept they then worked back from there, creating their own story debris as they went along:

  • Why is she there? Dunno; space experiments are pre-packaged, much-tested modules, never accompanied by the teams that created them.
  • Why did the Russian satellite explode? Explanation is unconvincing.
  • What’s “pulling” Kowalski that makes him decide to unclip and sacrifice himself so that Stone might have a chance to survive? The whole scene is dumb and we’ve seen it a thousand times in war movies.

For whatever reason, space movies seem to be natural places for examining mankind’s “relationship” with technology in a way that films about Formula 1 racing or aircraft carriers are not. But Gravity doesn’t have much to say here really. The space gear is clean and white and groovy looking, but it serves a purpose similar to architecture in a haunted-house movie: great if it’s distinctive, even better if memorable, but let’s get inside and find those ghosts!

The title also invites speculation, given that it names something decidedly missing in space. At best it feels vaguely metaphorical; at worst it’s misleading, like calling a film Respiration instead of Breathless.

The ending reinforces one’s suspicion of metaphor, but metaphor for what? Stone crash lands in a lagoon, floats on her back to shore, then struggles to her feet on zero-g-weakened (though smooth and shapely) legs, staggering away on the beach. The end. Does “gravity” stand for “home,” like in some family-in-crisis movie? The elements are present (mom: Stone, dad: Kowalski, child: Stone’s deceased daughter), but my mind refuses to go there.

Or is “gravity” meant to suggest that Stone finally accepts her daughter’s death (which, oddly unremarked upon, was also the result of an accident)? This seems credible, but the movie handles everything related to the daughter so clumsily. In a novel, a long interior monologue might suffice here to tie everything down, but the movie provides no cinematic equivalent. Thankfully we’re given no flashbacks, but the generic details we are given sound like Stone is making it all up. It’s enough to make you cry out for renegade robots and little green men.


© 10 Franks 2015

Hannah Arendt

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta, written by Pam Katz and Margarethe von Trotta, released 2012.


What a challenge this movie must have been to make for German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. Start with the subject: a writer, an intellectual, a bonafide egghead with an accent to boot. A writer is not necessarily the kiss of death for a movie if sufficiently eccentric or self-dramatizing (think Truman Capote), but in Hannah Arendt we have a chain-smoking, hardworking, no-nonsense, middle-aged German scholar with books like The Origins of Modern Totalitarianism and The Human Condition under her belt. If that isn’t enough to scare off even the most earnest filmmaker, I don’t know what is.

Other things that this movie has going against it include:

  • Lots of German dialog, requiring English subtitles, although this is nicely balanced by the authentic German accents of the various characters’ English, something we don’t hear very often in English-language movies.
  • The problem that isn’t a problem in a novel or written biography: namely, that much of the magic takes place out of sight in the writer’s mind.
  • And finally, the cultural and historical events that swirl around the characters, all those things that are so unfamiliar to many of us. Quick: what happened between JFK’s election and assassination? (Blank, Bay of Pigs, blank, Cuban missile crisis, blank.)

Fortunately we have Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt at the center of the movie, rarely off-screen, always wondrous to gaze at, her cigarette addiction both a little frightening and comical at the same time, an inspiring and charismatic teacher, it would seem, if the scenes with her students are any guide.

Happily, von Trotta largely confines the film to the early 60s. Unhappily, she attempts to summon bits of Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, her mentor and lover in the late 20s and early 30s. This is done as awkward flashbacks that feel artless and stagey compared to the naturalistic scenes of the main narrative in 60s New York.

Other scenes are also a little clumsy. The reactions of critics and fellow faculty members to Arendt’s writings are vital to our understanding of Arendt’s stubborn, determined nature, but these men are mostly presented as a kind of bitchy chorus — whether this is due to poor casting or uncertain direction, I can’t tell.

More agreeable are the scenes with Arendt’s good friend, American novelist Mary McCarthy. These are mostly delicious and play better to von Trotta’s natural strengths as a director. Her early films often portrayed sisters and here we have odd-couple gal pals Arendt and McCarthy playing sisterly roles and it works wonderfully. A scene of them shooting pool in a nightclub feels almost anachronistic, yet it’s anchored in the past by the haze of cigarette smoke, the bottles of booze, the men in suits in the bar behind them: period filmmaking at its best.

The opening scene of the 1960 nighttime abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina by Israeli agents has a dreamlike quality, as though sneaked in from a thriller. Beautifully lit and shot, we later discover a useful purpose of this scene: as a contrast to the actual black-and-white footage of Eichmann’s 1961 trial which von Trotta skillfully integrates into her movie (a smart decision to do this rather than trying to reenact it). Most of us have seen bits of Eichmann’s trial before, for example in episode 10 of the Inside the Nazi Hunters TV series, but here at last we have a satisfactory context for this footage: Arendt’s dawning realization during the trial (she covered it for The New Yorker) that there’s something else going on here that seemingly everyone has missed, that evil on an unimaginable scale can occur even under a mediocrity like Eichmann, who squints and grimaces and blows his nose as though he doesn’t even know he’s on trial for his life.

The English titles of two of von Trotta’s early films are The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) and The Second Awakening of Christa Klages (1978), movies with memorable titles even if the films themselves are largely forgotten. In the spirit of these works one can almost be forgiven for thinking of this movie as The Important Discovery of Hannah Arendt. Biopic, historical drama, period piece, the movie also serves as an antidote to much of what we see on screen that passes for the world of the 60s. If Mad Men shows how the era’s images were created, Hannah Arendt shows how its words were made.


© 10 Franks 2015

Avalon

Directed by Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito, released in 2001.


In brief: Virtual reality sci-fi film by Japanese anime director Mamoru Oshii, filmed in Poland with Polish actors, featuring a dramatic musical score that rivals that of, say, The Last of the Mohicans.

“I am cold Ash. I’ve been playing Avalon for a long time. I know this game as well as anyone, but I couldn’t tell you how or when it got started, or who controls it, or how it’s supposed to end […]  But there is a goal: to go beyond the game – to something more.”

So goes some of the first dialog, spoken in voice over as we watch Ash in battle, her long dark cloak swirling behind her. These lines also serve to sum up what you’re about to see in case you’re unfamiliar with the basic virtual reality storyline. And this does not occur until the 6:00 mark, which should give you an idea of the film’s pace.

Some sci-fi buffs might consider this film slow, boring and pretentious, but for the rest of us this “exercise” is fascinating. I call it an exercise because at times it hardly seems like a film, or rather there doesn’t seem to be enough here for a complete film.

But has the everyday ever been transformed into the otherworldly so easily? In this case, by filming everything with a sepia tint, ordinary modern-day Poland becomes a dreamscape.

Avalon is an illegal virtual-reality game, a product of technology and programming, but one can’t overlook the film’s many references to insanity: from the asylum-like cells where players strap themselves in, to the soup kitchen full of lost souls, to the clinic where “Unreturned” players are institutionalized, their minds lost somewhere in the game. The shot of the catatonic patients lined up in wheelchairs on a balcony, perhaps taking the sun but oblivious to everything, is particularly striking, like a TB sanatorium for the mad.

If you want to rewatch the musically dramatic scenes in this film, skip forward to the 8:00 or 1:28:00 mark and enjoy.

A note on the dialog: The Netflix streaming version of this film is dubbed into English, rather than the original Polish with English subtitles. And the English doesn’t quite match quotes from the subtitled version that I’ve read elsewhere, indicating a different translation was used. Sometimes dubbing and translation can wreck a film, but in this case the uncredited actors doing the dubbing are perfect: their lightly accented English lends itself to the otherworldly feel of the entire production.

And why not dubbed? In Oshii’s Assault Girls (2009), a kind of sequel to Avalon, the players begin speaking in Japanese and the Game Master quickly admonishes them: “Local languages are not permitted in the game” — at which point they switch back to their very odd-sounding undubbed English.

Best line ever: “Real life – is that what this is? I suppose there must have been a time when this seemed more real to me than the game.”

What makes this film a gem: Małgorzata Foremniak’s performance as the world-weary Ash. And of course Kenji Kawai’s music, recorded by the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir.


© 10 Franks 2015

The Returned

Original title Les revenants, directed by Fabrice Gobert and Frédéric Mermoud, written by Fabrice Gobert, Emmanuel Carrère, Fabien Adda and Nicolas Peufaillit, released in 2012.


As with the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, we struggle to understand the nature of the characters who re-enter the world of the living in The Returned. Have they come back to right a wrong (the mostly mute boy Victor), to make amends (musician Simon), to finish something that death interrupted (teenaged Camille), or just to resume what got them killed in the first place (serial slasher Serge)?

And are these characters to be believed when they say they have no clue about where they’ve been or why they’re back? Will they prove ultimately to be “good” ghosts, who will help their loved ones or perhaps learn some lesson themselves, or are they the spawn of hell, who will wreak havoc on the living?

The evidence is mixed. In the first episode we see Mr. Costas, an old man, set fire to his apartment in an attempt to destroy his newly returned, still young wife, then kill himself by jumping from the top of the local dam. Others are less freaked out. The reunion of Camille with her mother Claire is heart-rending. And Adèle accepts her late fiancee, Simon, first as a ghost, then as something of a miracle, the father her daughter never knew.

The case of the boy Victor is of particular interest. He shows up at the door of Julie, Mr. Costas’s nurse. We learn that Adèle had previously lived where Julie lives now. Is Victor related in some way to Adèle? Apparently not; it seems Victor was murdered some years earlier along with his parents and brother, presumably by burglars — he has no kin to haunt. So he picks poor Julie, already haunted by her near-death at the hands of Serge several years before (she carries the physical scars as a constant reminder).

Alone among the returned, it’s clear that Victor knows something, appears to have a mission. He confronts Jérôme, an earnest social worker (often a suspicious type) and we learn that Jérôme was an accomplice to the man who killed Victor and his family. This is one place where a character veers close to a trope from melodrama: a bad person who tries to atone by taking a new identity and doing good, only to have his past revealed before meeting a ghastly end. The confrontation is almost a setup to a revenge scene, except Victor doesn’t harm Jérôme, just scares him half to death. It’s as though Hamlet squares off with Claudius in private with knowledge that only Claudius could possess, then sails away to England without raising his hand — our expectations nicely dashed.

There are a number of notable things to look for and ponder in this masterful series: the beauty of the French alps that surround the town where the characters live; the almost sterile modern look to the town, obviously a prosperous place, but a slightly eerie one too, with police surveillance cameras mounted everywhere; the way the returnees are always hungry, as though making up for lost time and calories; the way suicide or near-suicide looms over so many of the characters.

If there’s an emotional center to the series, it’s Claire. Mother of Camille, who died in a mountain bus crash, Claire is separated from her husband, Pierre, and living with Camille’s surviving twin, Lena, who escaped Camille’s fate because she played hooky from that school outing to fool around with Frédéric, a boy also liked by Camille. Claire is also involved in some way with Jérôme. Claire is the “normal” character, reacting the way we might imagine ourselves reacting — shock, yes, at Camille’s return, but also joy — how could any parent not rejoice at a child’s return from the grave, no matter the circumstances?

There’s quite a bit of play around the twinness of Camille and Lena. Ordinarily this might be seen as kind of a gimmick, but it works here. Lena is now several years older than Camille, so they are no longer really identical. This allows the casting of two actresses, which helps emphasize how different they are now. Where Camille is focused and creepy, Lena is angry and guilt-ridden. That fateful day has separated them forever. There’s a couple of great shots of Camille entering the family home and passing a tall mirror mounted next to the front door. For a moment we see two Camilles, or perhaps a glimpse of the sisters as they once were.


© 10 Franks 2015