Friday, 25 November 2016

Living is Easy with Eyes Closed (2013)

No more Korean movies for the time being; today a relatively obscure -- but quite remarkable -- Spanish film from writer-director David Trueba. I am not familiar with any of his earlier work but should note that he is the younger brother of Fernando Trueba who has directed a number of notable films going back to the Oscar winner "Belle Epoque" (1992). Mind you little brother David did very well with the above film at the 28th Goya Awards, winning six gongs including best picture and best director.

Inspired by actual events in 1966, veteran actor Javier Camara (a familiar face from Almodovar's "I'm so Excited") plays Antonio, a Beatles-obsessed English teacher, who uses their lyrics to inspire his teenaged students. When he learns that John Lennon is filming "How I Won the War" in Almeira, he sets off on a road trip to meet his hero. Driving a rattletrap old banger, he picks up two teenaged hitchers: Belen, a feisty three-month pregnant young lady who has absconded from a home for unwed mothers, and 16-year old Juanjo, who has run away from home and the dictatorial Dad who wants to cut his shaggy mop. Antonio may be a shy and somewhat repressed bachelor, but the one thing he understands is how to relate to youngsters. He is far more comfortable advising them than he is in interacting with adults.

Eventually they reach a local hostelry where Antonio books two rooms for himself and Belen and finds a temporary job for Juanjo at the nearby bar run by the kind Ramon, who lives with his disabled son Bruno. After several unsuccessful attempts to 'crash' the film-set and the house where John is staying, Antonio manages to arrange to meet the 'shy' Lennon to discuss the many topics that he has re-and re-rehearsed; he manages to convince the Beatle to subsequently include the lyrics to all the songs on future albums, so that they can be used as a teaching aid.

Meanwhile some rednecks at the bar have taken it upon themselves to chop off Juanjo's unruly hairdo, totally devastating the lad. Antonio seeks out the ringleader of the bullies and gets soundly slapped for his trouble. Parenthetically I have never seen a movie where so many of the characters get slapped for one reason or another. However the bully finally gets his comeuppance when Antonio ploughs his car through the baddie's tomato fields on the way out of town.

Antonio does offer to marry Belen, an offer which is never accepted nor refused, but she does provide Juanjo with some gentle sexual favours before his father arrives to cart him back to Madrid, allowing her to travel with them as well. I've barely touched on the many themes in this bittersweet film, but kindness, friendship, loyalty, and trust all figure brightly. The title of the film comes from a line in "Strawberry Fields" which Lennon actually wrote while working in Almeira.

During their journey Antonio invites his new teenaged pals to guess the nickname his students have given him. They guess 'baldy' or 'fatty' or 'four-eyes' all of which he accepts with good humour. But these are all wrong; in the end we discover that his pupils have dubbed him 'the fifth Beatle'! He is the kind of inspiring teacher we all wish we could have had. 

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Just a footnote to say that I have finally viewed "Still Alice" (2014) for which Julianne Moore won her long overdue Academy Award; it is indeed a bravura performance in a totally depressing movie. I would far rather she'd been rewarded for her barn-storming role in "Map to the Stars", released the same year.

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Fish (2011) is Alone (2015)

Today will be the last of Korean film reviews for the time being, unless something remarkable comes my way over the next months. I wish I could say that our festival attendance ended on a high note, but unfortunately the reverse is true -- two nearly incomprehensible movies.

I was intrigued by the description of "A Fish" in the festival programme: 'Superbly shot in home-made 3-D, delivering more frissons-per-minute than most Hollywood thrillers'. Well this turned out to be brochure hyperbole. In his indie debut the director created his own version of 3-D lensing, at times effective and at other times headache-inducing, and I understand that most of the film's screenings have been the 2-D version. It starts with the hand of an unseen body knocking on a car window to question the driver and continues in much the same vein with, for example, the back of our protagonist in the foreground listening in to the telephone conversation of another character. Even when a whole landscape is shot in clear prospective, this expertise only makes the story being told even more obscure.

Our 'hero', a university lecturer, has hired a seedy detective to trace his runaway wife who has apparently become a shaman on Jindo Island -- and they journey there to drag her home. Meanwhile we have two anonymous fisherman on a platform in a foggy river wondering whether fish can dream, catching a talking fish which they proceed to cut up for sashimi, and subsequently forgetting each other's identity. Characters disappear at random and there is an over-reliance of mystifying mirror shots. I have not the foggiest idea what the film was meant to convey; perhaps we are all something of a hunter suddenly morphing into the hunted. Don't ask me to explain this any further.

I didn't twig when booking that "Alone" was the sophomore feature of the same writer-director Park Hong-Min (and of course I'd not yet viewed the elusive "Fish"), but had I known, I might have saved myself another interminable and largely unintelligible movie. This one started OK as a photographer witnesses a murder (maybe) from his rooftop, and is then chased by thugs who corner him in his studio. The next thing we know is that he is wandering totally naked and nearly amnesiac through the labyrinthine alleyways built on hillsides in the old districts of Seoul, apparently due for demolition and redevelopment. He winds his way back to his workshop where he finds a headless corpse and is next seen still wandering, but now clothed, through the same twisty streets. Here he encounters a sobbing young boy (who may or may not be him as a child) dragged off by his abusive father. He also sees his now dead mother and his on-off girlfriend (who probably isn't the same actress as his ma, but might well be) and these characters keep re-appearing and disappearing as he struggles along, up and down.

The movie is reasonably well-shot in the night-time byways of the city, and the lead, a stage actor Lee Juwon, won the award for best new actor at last year's Busan International Film Festival, but the film remains a puzzle. I guess one could hypothesize that the nightmare alleyways represent the nightmare confusion in the character's mind, a maze from which he is unable to escape. However I am only second-guessing what Park may or may not have been attempting to convey. Not an uninteresting scenario, but a far from comprehensible one. Maybe I should have been guided by the two films' IMDb ratings, 4.9 and 5.7 respectively which I would normally interpret as 'proceed with caution'.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Last Princess (2016)

More Korean cinema today and almost certainly next week as well, as the London Korean Film Festival gets under way. To be quite honest I wasn't particularly looking forward to the above historical movie, since I was expecting some sort of beautiful but quaint costume drama of ancient times. Instead this true story begins in 1925 and is therefore a 'modern' telling of the fate of the last princess of the Joseon Dynasty, Yi Deok-hye, a now largely forgotten historical figure.

Beginning when she was a youngster in her father's court, she witnesses his death by poisoning by pro-Japanese agents working for Korea's annexation by Japan (a historical fact). At the age of thirteen she is reluctantly forced to go to Japan to 'study' like her elder brother, the heir to the throne, who has never returned. In Japan she is treated with some respect but used as a political pawn to further the enslavement of her countrymen. She yearns to go home, especially when she learns that her beloved mother is ill, but promise after promise is broken, her loyal servant is dragged away, and she is told that she will never again set foot in Korea. Her childhood friend Kim Jang-han to whom she was meant to be betrothed, but now an officer in the Japanese army, hatches a plan to help her and her brother escape. However his careful planning and their fraught flight ends in tragedy and her recapture.

Forced into a loveless marriage, she again attempts to return to her country when Korea regains its independence after World War II, but is crushed to learn that her name is on a forbidden list, the new government fearing that the Dynasty might be re-established through popular support. Years pass, but Jang-han has never given up the hope of finding her again and eventually traces her to a mental asylum where she has been imprisoned, gradually losing her beauty and her wits. He eventually manages to shame the political leaders in Korea to permit the return of this broken woman.

The outlines of the plot are delineated above but these bare bones don't begin to suggest how the film plays out like a gripping thriller. We want to root for the feisty princess and we feel let down each time she is thwarted; we sense her heartbreak. When she eventually is allowed to return, we wonder whether she is 'all there' but are moved to tears (or at least choked up) when she visits the former Imperial Palace, now a museum, and has a vision of past times featuring her beaming father and mother and herself as the young, mischievous, and innocent child she once was. I didn't recognise radiant lead actress Son Ye-jin from previous movies, but she gives a restrained yet moving performance as she ages, forcing us to remember this now forgotten Princess.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Karaoke Crazies (2016)

For a festival called the 'London East Asia Film Festival' it is a little ironic that we ended up choosing only Korean movies, especially since the Korean Film Festival (for which we also have tickets) starts this week. However there is a very good reason for our choosing the above title, since it is one of the movies that we could have viewed (but didn't) at this year's FrightFest -- and their blurb certainly sounded appealing as did the LEAFF's own. Unfortunately both were very misleading and the movie was a disappointment.

In fact I am beginning to think that the FrightFest organisers probably did not pre-view the movie at all and merely chose it on the basis of its hype; they describe it in their brochure as a "madcap brilliant ride that deftly mixes humour, horror, and more". It is nothing of the sort and is completely out of place in a fantasy/horror festival -- no imagination, no gore, no suspense -- in fact very little of anything. The LEAFF brochure is even more effusive...

This is not to say that the film had no redeeming qualities -- it's just not a horror movie. We are introduced us to Sung-wook, the proprietor of a run-down karaoke joint (just a couple of private rooms) in a small town. He can barely meet expenses, is haunted by past tragedies, and spends his days watching porn and contemplating suicide. He posts a hand-written notice for a 'singing helper' in exchange for room and board and takes on an asocial, tracksuit-wearing, and tone-deaf loner, who spends her hours gaming on her computer. She does however manage to satisfy some of the paying customers by offering a particular sexual act. Is it strange that her Korean name is Ha-Suck?

This mismatched pair are joined by the dishy Na-ju who has her own reasons for working at such a dead-beat venue and tries to satisfy the punters in more traditional ways. The fourth member of the household is the fat and deaf 'Big Mole' who is found squatting in the basement and who has also suffered family bereavements; he washes the floors and joins in Sung-wook's porny pastimes. A rather comic cop appears periodically to advise that a serial killer has been targeting women working in the entertainment industry, but we are not shown any of this fiend's kills. Eventually he does appear at our featured karaoke, where his motives become clear, ending in an off-screen (and therefore bloodless) murder. The denouement is that this killing turns things around for the three remaining misfits and they find a new lease of life running a 'family' karaoke.

The movie is the sophomore feature and his first in nine years for director Kim Sang-chan. Since his previous film "Highway Star" (2007), which I've not seen, is about a would-be rocker who is taken on as a reluctant 'country' singer (that's Korean country songs!), I seriously doubt that we have lost out on a potentially-wasted great directing talent in the intervening nine years. Or perhaps I'm being a little unfair.