At the start of 2013, as a sort of new year’s resolution, I told myself I was going to write more about the films I watch. Every week, I’m going to attempt to provide some thoughts on my first-time viewings. I don’t intend these to be long, analytical documents, but rather just quick summaries on my general impressions. So let’s begin with the first week of January:
The Good, The Bad, The Weird
My first first-time viewing of 2013 was this Korean adventure film from 2008. As indicated by the title, it’s a loose remake of The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, only with a tone that veers closer to Indiana Jones than classic spaghetti westerns. Despite being slightly overlong at 130 minutes, in general it’s quite a bit of fun, and at times legitimately exciting. A big part of the reason for this is Kang-Ho Song, who plays the “Weird” character here and who has quickly become one of my favorite working actors. He’s terrific, as is the rest of the cast. At the time of its release in 2008, the film was apparently the most expensive Korean film ever made, at around $10,000,000. Compared to modern Hollywood blockbusters, that figure is almost laughable, and yet the film ends up looking substantially more impressive than many of today’s American high-budget releases. The production design is wonderful, but what really makes it work is its almost complete lack of CGI. In an age where modern blockbusters overload the screen with digital imagery, it’s a pleasure to see a film that features real action with real stunt work and an actual sense of spectacle. It’s another winner from Ji-woon Kim, who also made A Tale Of Two Sisters and I Saw The Devil, and who is shortly going to make his English-language debut with The Last Stand. Regardless of how his latest is received, he’s a filmmaker that deserves attention. 8/10.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Here’s something you don’t see every day, an experimental Japanese film that runs just over an hour and features a man gradually fusing with various metal components, including at one point a giant drill in…..well, you can fill in the blank for yourself. It owes a visual debt to David Lynch’s Eraserhead, with its stark black-and-white imagery and industrial soundscape. Those who have seen Darren Aronofsky’s Pi also would have a good idea of what to expect here, both visually and tonally. Still, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is kind of in a class by itself. There’s not much of a narrative here, and to be honest the way everything unfolds it ends up making very little sense. I realized very quickly that the best way to approach it would be similar to the way I approach David Lynch films, as a series of surreal images that abandons traditional narrative structure in favor of creating a nightmarish atmosphere. Taken from this perspective, the film is quite an achievement. Probably not something I’m going to be in the mood for again anytime soon, but it sure left a strong impression. 8/10.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s dramatization of the true story of one family’s struggle to survive after finding themselves in the middle of the devastating tsunami of late 2004. Well, mostly true, apart from the changing of the family’s nationality from Spanish to British, which led to a slight false note struck at the very end of the film, when a picture of the real-life family is shown. This isn’t a knock on the central performances of Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and newcomer Tom Holland, all of whom are excellent and believable in their roles, but why the change of nationality? Were Gael Garcia Bernal and Penelope Cruz unavailable? I won’t spend any more time complaining, because other than that weird production decision, the film is an undeniably effective and powerful piece of work. The scenes where the tsunami hits are incredibly harrowing, and may represent the most effective use of visual effects in a 2012 film. The content of the rest of the film doesn’t slouch either, as the family members search for each other among the devastation, and the ending manages to find that tricky balance of being uplifting while at the same time acknowledging just how tragic the entire situation was. I will admit to shedding a couple tears at the appropriate moments, a sign that the film had succeeded at what it set out to accomplish. It’s not a film that I’ll actively seek out again in the future, but it definitely deserves to be seen once, preferably in a theater environment. 7/10.
This is the kind of film that, almost immediately after it started, I wanted it to end. I probably should have just given up early, but I stuck with it because, due to its anthology nature, I figured there might be some worthwhile material hidden somewhere in the 2-hour running length. Wrong decision. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore, unlike so many modern horror films. There’s also quite a bit of sex and nudity, but it’s presented in a way that feels very uncomfortable and a little too leery for its own good, even by horror film standards. You feel unclean watching it, especially in the early going when the main characters are mostly misogynist college frat boys. Anyway, each segment is helmed by a different filmmaker. The only name I recognized from the list was Ti West, who continues to do that thing he does where it’s basically an interminable amount of buildup and no payoff. There are a couple individual ideas that are interesting, particularly one segment that is presented entirely through a webcam chat and another where the killer manifests itself through the video static. But it’s never at any point scary, which is the biggest cardinal sin a supposed horror film can make. I’m sure this has something to do with the film’s low-budget video aesthetic, which immediately removes the potential for any kind of artistry. It could also do with the formula for most of the segments, which typically involve idiot teenagers stumbling into deadly situations, running around for a little bit, shouting “DUUUUDE, WHAT THE FUCK??!! OHHHHHH FUCK!!” several times, and then meeting quick and anticlimactic deaths, usually in a finale of undecipherable camera movements. I guess it doesn’t really matter too much why the film doesn’t work. Just take my word for it and avoid it. 2/10.
Let The Bullets Fly
This is a Chinese action-comedy from 2010, directed by Jiang Wen and starring Wen and Chow Yun-fat. Wen plays an outlaw who pretends to be a newly-arriving governor to a town essentially living in fear under the watch of Yun-fat’s local mobster. The mobster wants to make sure that the outlaw/governor doesn’t interfere with his control over the town, while the outlaw/governor is interested in sparking the flames of revolution within the townspeople to overthrow the mobster. The rest of the film is all about the mind games that these two men play with each other. What I liked about the film best was its slyly anarchic spirit. Despite their being some moments of fairly gruesome and shocking violence, it comes close at times to being a pure comedy, and a successful comedy at that. This comedy sits at the heart of a story that is very pro-revolution and anti-government, and it wouldn’t be hard to draw political parallels between the events in the film and the current political situations in mainland China. It’s somewhat surprising then that the film has been allowed to become the highest grossing Chinese film ever, especially in a country that has been in the past unforgiving towards films that are openly critical of government policies. I’m glad it’s been such a huge success, because not only is it a terrific piece of entertainment, it has a sharp underlining edge of political commentary, making it one of the more well-rounded film experiences I’ve seen in quite some time. 8/10.