Monthly Archives: April 2011

Korean Cinema #9: Memories of Murder

By Nathanael Griffis

Back in 2007 I was starting to build my appreciation of foreign films, and then I was shown Joon-ho Bong’s film The Host,  and I was blown away. Here was a film that balanced humor, horror, melodrama, sci-fi, and politics, with flawed, complex characters as are rarely seen in cinema. Since then, though, I haven’t seen anything else by Joon-ho Bong, but always wanted to. So I’ve literally been prancing around my apartment like a little school girl giddy with excitement. Thankfully, I was not disappointed, and I’m beginning to suspect the Joon-ho Bong may be one the great filmmakers of our day.

Kang-ho Song as Det. Park. (He's the man in front dragging the other man.)

Memories of Murder is based on a string of unsolved serial murders and rapes that took place in 1986 in a rural province of Korea. The detectives assigned to solve the murder were inept, to say the least. The police force was really not capable of solving a crime of this complexity with the technology at hand. Ultimately, it’s a frustrating moment in Korean history because it was never solved, nothing was accomplished and the countryside was left scarred. It’s a frustrating film, because we see characters go from inept and abusive, to sympathetic and inspired, but still they fail.

This is where Joon-ho Bong is a master. He takes a story that is filled with mean, ugly characters in a disturbed world and doesn’t sugar coat their flaws. His characters, even the abusive cops (for whom he never apologizes), are so viscerally real that while you may not relate to their inhuman, callused stupidity, you recognize it as a glimpse of humanity. The two main rural detectives don’t gather evidence; they torture their suspects into confessing–nothing much beyond punching and kicking, mind you, but inexcusible behavior nonetheless. As a viewer, at first you don’t fully question their motives, but as you see them fail you start to understand the frustration of the country people. The detectives themselves become hardened and depressed as the truth becomes lost amidst their confusion and failure, but it’s their humanizing realization of their faults and acceptance of them that draws you in. It’s challenging to watch as you begin to empathize with the very people who have allowed the a serial killer to escape.

Some shots are just awesome.

As much as the credit for presenting a complex story goes to Joon-ho Bong, the same credit is due to the acting of Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, and Roe-ha Kim. Kang-ho Song especially stands out as Detective Park, a self absorbed detective who is not adept enough to catch the killer. It’s haunting to watch him balance comedy and drama, which is something he did in The Host as well. I’ll never forget the scene in The Host where the family grieves for their missing girl as they writhe across the floor in front of her wreathed portrait–I didn’t know whether to cry and laugh, so I ended up doing both. Kang-ho Song started off his acting career as a stage comic, and he’s translated those skills in improv into a unique acting style. In an interview he explained that he’ll improvise most scenes he’s given, as long as the director agrees, because real emotion, whether comedically or dramatically presented, is dynamic and not static. It reminded me of Robert Altman, and the more I think about it the more of Altman I see in Joon-ho Bong. He encourages his actors to improvise within the boundaries of the script. It’s a collaborative style that lends a raw, human feel to the acting and filmmaking. They even improvised several of the fight scenes in this film, to lend a quality of realness to them, so that when a person cringes, they’re truly in pain.

Memories of Murder is a complex and agitating film. It shook me to think that police could mess up so much. A treatise against corrupt law enforcement is common enough, but the film evolves into something. Slowly we see an examination of human nature, an attempt to explain the darkest sides of beings and how we cope with them. There is no tidy ending. The audience has to struggle with the reality of what occurred as much as the characters do. It was not what I was expecting, but that was the director’s intention. We are given a picture of rural Korea so honest, bold, and respectful that you sit up and take notice. Joon-ho Bong knows that character is what is compelling in film. He writes and directs with such honest appreciation for the human condition that I’m drawn in and stunned. This is a film that deserves several viewings and needs to be studied. I don’t just recommend this film–I demand that you watch it.

Next I’ll finish up my Korean film expedition with more Joon-ho Bong and Mother.

Better Remembered: Canadian Bacon

By Steven Moore

Okay, so Canadian Bacon isn’t exactly a classic film that’s been overrated. However, it does represent a kind of film that this “Better Remembered” series is really targeting. It was one of the first films I saw that critically (or so I thought) examined American politics and culture. I remember watching Canadian Bacon  with a group of friends, laughing at its irreverence, quoting it as we played basketball. The more we remembered it, the better it became. Then I watched it again, recently.

Canadian Bacon is the kind of film that is held up almost purely by nostalgia rather than actual merit. It was just in the right place at the right time for me, and re-watching it revealed its many flaws. As Michael Moore’s only non-documentary feature film, Canadian Bacon involves everything you would expect from a Michael Moore film: anti-American sentiments, elitist satire, and unrepentant corporation-bashing. The late John Candy plays sheriff Bud Boomer, a well-meaning but over-zealous American that decides to lead the charge into a fabricated war with Canada. When his close friend, played by the terrifying Rhea Perlman, is captured and treated to the horrors of socialized medicine, Bud launches a rescue mission to save her. The group of friends travel through a surprising number of cameos by Canadian actors and actresses, while Alan Alda, playing the President, tries to both build and contain a fake war to bump up his ratings at the polls.

John Candy is doing the best he can with what he is given, but the script is pretty weak. Everything is driving forward impatiently trying to get to the jokes. Moore is obviously concerned more with his message than his plot and characters, which isn’t wholly unexpected. Even so, many of the jokes fall flat, such as the President’s small talk with foreign leaders he is trying to engage in war, or are just too mean-spirited to enjoy. When we first see Sheriff Boomer and his deputy, they are encouraging people to jump off of Niagara Falls because they get paid extra to fish the bodies out of the water.

Rhea Perlman’s character, Honey, is mean to everyone around her, even those that are being nice to her. She seems like a psychotic sadist who for some reason we are supposed to empathize with. Americans are portrayed as the stupidest bunch of ignoramuses to ever walk the earth, spitting in the face of everyone around them just because they don’t know any better. I love a good satire, especially when it points out serious social and political problems (a la The Daily Show), but there comes a point when you are just being a misanthrope. Much of the humor here crosses the line from satire to misanthropy.

Of course, there are scenes and jokes that still make me laugh. When Sherriff Boomer and his crew are stopped inside Canda and forced to write “Canada Sucks” in both English and French, or when they first enter Canada and are treated to the hospitality of the wonderful Steven Wright. Unfortunately, these few moments are only puncuations in an otherwise overly cynical look at American politics and society. In the end, this is Michael Moore at his worst, criticizing without analyzing. This goes in the pile with Fahrenheit 9/11, far from Bowling for Columbine.

Usually I try to point out the good in the film that I am revisiting, to find that nugget of good or beauty I was first attracted to. Unfortunately, I’ve grown up and realized that just making fun of people and pointing out how much everything sucks isn’t funny. It’s just a lazy way of trying to feel superior to everyone. Its unfortunate that this is John Candy’s last completed film. He deserved better.

Better Remembered: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

By Steven Moore

We revere certain films that were important to us as children. Many of the films that we grew up with, watched over and over again, and think fondly of during our mid-life crisis years, are not just bad but downright awful. These films are better remembered than watched. This series of articles aims to destroy your childhood memories, taking away the nostalgia that warms you whenever you think of a terrible movie like Critters, or even classics like Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, I also want to try to rediscover what it was about these movies that made me personally love them. I hope to come out the other side with a new, more honest appreciation of those films that helped form my cinematic maturity.

Beauty and the Beast is often cited as one of the better films of the Disney Renaissance decade beginning with The Little Mermaid. Some even consider it to be the greatest Disney film ever made, putting it over Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and even The Lion King as the pinnacle of Disney’s animated achievements. While Beauty and the Beast is a special film in the Disney canon, its true achievements are often sidestepped for a more nostalgic appreciation. While Beauty and the Beast is a special film, its numerous flaws prevent it from the #1 spot where some people, *cough*Alban*cough*, place it.

There’s no question that the animation of Beauty and the Beast was incredible for its time. The Beast seems to move like a real animal, head low and sweeping. The characters’ body language is expressive and emotive. When Belle realizes what she has given up to rescue her father, Maurice, her body shrinks and slumps in a way that few real actors can pull off. Beauty and the Beast was also one of the first Disney films to make extensive use of computer animation. I remember seeing the ballroom dancing scene and thinking that nothing would ever compare to it. However, the animation, when viewed against the eye-popping animation happening today, has aged poorly. You can argue that this is not a fault of the original film, but I would not say the same about Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Despite the innovations in animation, the animation style of Beauty and the Beast has a less timeless feel to it than a film like Sleeping Beauty.

The plot of Beauty and the Beast is rife with holes and inconsistencies. While animated films historically tend to have lower standards for plot cohesion than other films, Pixar has elevated those standards. We expect more from our animated features these days, and that can’t be undone by simply saying it was made before the Pixar revolution. Small things like Belle’s magic book that keeps changing color or Gaston’s disappearing chair are easily overlooked. Seasons changing in the blink of an eye, or Gaston being able to find Beast’s castle, even though he had never been there before, cannot. There’s also the problem with time for anyone who knows how to add. The Beast would have to have been cursed at age 11 for not inviting a stranger into his home, which seems pretty cruel on the part of the witch, but okay, she was a mean witch. But he still ages, as do all the servants that were transformed, except for Chip, who can’t be more than six or seven. So he must have been born a teacup. And the father is… I don’t even want to know how that happened. The music, although wonderful, is pretty clearly a rehash of the music from The Little Mermaid. Go ahead, listen to “Be Our Guest” and “Les Poissons” together and tell me they are not almost identical. Alan Menken wrote the music for both, so it’s understandable, but it detracts from the classic status of “Be Our Guest.” The rest of the music in the film is a little lackluster when compared to the music from The Little Mermaid or Aladdin.

So why do people revere this film so much? Why do they put it above towering achievements like Pinocchio? Because of the characters. When you get past the plot holes, the slightly dated animation, and the sometimes uninspired music, the characters are unlike any others in the Disney canon. Let’s be honest: Belle is probably the hottest of all the Disney princesses, in part because she wants nothing to do with being a princess. She isn’t chasing Prince Charming because “one day her prince will come.” She is perfectly happy on her own, reading and dreaming of adventure. She’s bookish and simple, but also strong and intelligent. No other Disney princess has that. She’s the kind of woman that you would want to marry the moment you met her. In addition to Belle, the Beast is a deeply flawed prince, monstrous at first, and violent. His rage and self-loathing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a children’s film, and his redemption is earned through a personal awakening, not by destroying some outside force. All of the “good” characters in the film are distinctly human in their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The love story between Belle and the Beast rivals any romantic storyline. It is something that grows slowly on both sides, rather than something instant (Snow White) or one-sided (The Little Mermaid). It seems more pure and true, and perhaps made all the more beautiful because neither wanted it, but they couldn’t help falling in love. They were made for each other, and each sacrifices everything for the other.

Beauty and the Beast is imperfect, and perhaps doesn’t deserve the status it currently has over its peers. But now that I’ve pointed out its problems, it’s hard to look down on a movie for its flaws when the primary theme is looking past the flaws to find the good. Now I just feel bad.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #7: Pretty much anything that lives on Tatooine

By Tom Kapr

This month I’m looking at the best and worst that alien sci-fi cinema has to offer, beginning with my countdown of ten great scary movie aliens.

#7. Luke Skywalker: “I was born here, y’know.” Han Solo: “You’re gonna die here, y’know. Convenient.”

Yes, chances are, wander too far on the Skywalkers’ home desert-planet of Tatooine, and something will either try to kill you or, at the very least, capture you and sell you into slavery–to somebody that will likely end up trying to kill you.

Yes, that is an arm hanging out of the rancor's mouth.

Many of the horrible nasties to be found on Tatooine make appearances in the rousing opening scenes of Return of the Jedi, when Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Lando Calrissian make their multi-phased attempt to rescue a carbonite-frozen Han Solo from the clutches of the evil gang-lord Jabba the Hutt. Jabba dumps Luke into the den of the rancor, a huge mass of claws and teeth that we’ve already seen munch on two unfortunate alien folks. (The rancor surely was nightmare fuel for many a young Star Wars fan–I know it wasn’t just me. Right?)

Not long after Luke kills the rancor (in an oddly sympathetic death scene complete with a dog-like whimper), Jabba attempts to throw him and his friends to the sarlacc, in whose belly they shall, as C-3PO translates from Jabba, “find a new definition of pain and suffering as [they] are slowly digested over a thousand years.” One would assume it would take a far shorter time than a thousand years for that digestion to actually kill you, but the idea alone was enough to scare… um, many a young Star Wars fan. Then to actually see some of the bad guys falling into the sarlacc’s gullet during our heroes’ glorious escape scene is enough to solidify that horror.

Jabba the Hutt. (Possible meth addict.)

We can go back to the first Star Wars film as well, when Luke, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the droids had to contend with not only the profiteering Jawas and a cantina full of hard cases that would shoot you as soon as look at you, but also the terrifying Tusken Raiders–who are not an overly aggressive football team, as their name might suggest, but a race of savage “sand people” who look like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. They are a warlike race who are known to raid farms and settlements.

(As if that were not enough, Darth Vader’s stormtroopers are on the prowl searching for the two droids, and resort to burning the Skywalker home while Luke is off contending with the sand people, reducing his unfortunate aunt and uncle to charred skeletons–another image for children to dwell on while lying awake at night.)

There are other vile creatures that live on Tatooine that are never seen in the films, like krayt dragons and womp rats, but let us not forget the horrors of Jabba himself. During the time period of the original trilogy, Jabba is the head of the Hutt gangster clan that rules Tatooine through violence, intimidation, and shady dealings with the Empire. He looks like a putrid slug, he sounds like a demon, and he uses that long disgusting tongue on Leia. Ick.

No wonder Luke was in such a hurry to join the rebellion.

Next on the countdown: “She says the jungle… it came alive and took him.”