Wednesday, July 26, 2023

To You, From Me (Jang Sun-woo, 1994)


Jang Sun-woo’s seldom-seen To Me, From You gleefully assails just about every aspect of contemporary South Korea, finding almost no marker of propriety or achievement that can be taken at face value, no sexual coming together that isn’t toxic, transactional or otherwise doomed. A writer under a cloud for allegedly plagiarizing his prize-winning novel is visited by a younger woman who says she knows he’s innocent, because his narrative corresponded to a dream she had; they rapidly have sex, and then she moves in, seeming intent on boosting his flagging career (reduced to various corporate ghost jobs and other menial assignments) while also doing it with other men for a variety of strategic or intuitive reasons. The third main character is the writer’s drinking buddy, a bank clerk left impotent by his life’s one big love affair, and with little forward momentum of any other kind (none of the three characters are named, seemingly a mark less of symbolic universality than of their ultimate insignificance and malleability). The film is stylistically and narratively restless, allowing the viewer little chance of guessing at any point what’s coming next; it frequently cites writers and theorists (John Berger, Theodor Adorno…) and spends a surprising amount of time on analyzing and channeling Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (seemingly the bank clerk’s favourite film, in part at least for the impotence angle); toward the end, it transitions for a while into animation, in a passage startling for its savage sexuality. The final (live-action) stretch has the trajectories of all three characters unexpectedly shifting, while offering little sense of permanence; two of them achieve celebrity with little effort, the other settles into subservience and seems all the happier for it, for now. So there’s some sort of message there about applied self-knowledge and integrity. Sort of…

Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Troubles We've Seen (Marcel Ophuls, 1994)


Marcel Ophuls’ tragically underseen The Troubles We’ve Seen is a marvelously provocative work, knowingly untidy and digressive and sometimes downright eccentric, but all the more stimulating and debate-sparking for that. The film is subtitled “A History of Journalism in Wartime,” but it's far less linear and comprehensive than this might suggest: the overwhelming focus is on the then-current war in Serbia, and on Sarajevo in particular, with other conflicts mentioned in more fragmented form along the way. Ophuls structures the first part primarily around his own trip to Sarajevo and his observations and interactions there; the second spends more time on various ethical and practical issues, such as whether warzone journalists should travel in armoured vehicles for their protection, or whether that would primarily serve to distance them from realities and to over-align them with the military. In often jarring ways, Ophuls contrasts the stark (although, as is acknowledged, not entirely fun-starved) realities of the war-reporting game with the comforts of life in Vienna and Venice (a short distance and a whole world away from Sarajevo), and the imagery of war with various snippets of classic Hollywood, from Hawks to Holiday Inn. The film’s opening point (made eloquently by Philippe Noiret of all people) draws a comparison between Bosnia and WW2, and the degree to which moral and strategic failure can be attributed to lack of information; watched in 2023, comparable, desperately acute parallels between what’s shown and debated and the current situation in Ukraine arise at every turn. Which is to say that however dated the film may seem in some of its particulars (and, to some, further distanced by the relative focus on French TV personalities), it speaks no less strongly to the eternal issue of how to engage (that is, as something other than mere compliant, capitalism-friendly consumer) with media assertions on what we need and deserve to know.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Her Brother (Kon Ichikawa, 1960)


It’s oddly appropriate that the title of Kon Ichikawa’s film Brother has alternatively been rendered in English as both Her Brother and Younger Brother, summing up the film’s elegantly evasive nature, the difficulty of establishing the intended perspective on what’s shown. The opening stretch suggests no such difficulty: Gen and her younger brother Hekiro in their different ways struggle to cope with the stepmother, a pious Christian who endlessly cites her medical ailments to justify doing almost nothing around the house; their father, a subdued writer, is silent for so far into the film that one starts to assume he’ll never speak at all. An early, chilling scene has Gen wrongly accused of shoplifting, shoved around and even threatened with a whip by the store manager before being released with the thinnest of apologies; it’s Hekiro though who actually steals, for which he’s expelled from the Christian school (a mere prank, he says, to which the adults overreacted). From there the film evolves into something more wayward and unpredictable, with strange characters and potential subplots (particularly involving men with an eye on Gen) popping up and then exiting the narrative; Hekiko’s behaviour becomes even more wild and impulsive (and the film’s depiction of these actions correspondingly fragmented), often with financial consequences for the family, all of which comes to a sudden fault when a persistent cough turns out to be tuberculosis. All of this often carries the sense of a darkly velvety mystery which can’t quite be solved, a sense which carries right to the final shot, when the family dynamics appear to have shifted once more, in a way beyond our capacity to analyze. Overall, the film may not showcase Ichikawa’s restless experimental streak as consistently and strikingly as, say, An Actor’s Revenge (or, less happily, the insipid and barely watchable Being Two Isn’t Easy), but it lingers in one’s mind almost as effectively.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

The Whistle Blower (Simon Langton, 1986)


Simon Langton’s The Whistle Blower plays rather flatly for a film that involves several state-orchestrated murders and cites pending apocalypse as a key part of its motivation, but still provides adequate diversion and stimulation overall. Michael Caine plays Frank, father of Bob (Nigel Havers), a Russian expert toiling away for British intelligence, toying with quitting but then finding something that renews his interest, that is before he’s found dead in what may or may not be a suicide. The film is a periodically interesting time capsule, bookended by a London Remembrance Day ceremony providing glimpses of Margaret Thatcher and other dignitaries; there are several references to hard economic times, with Frank counseling his son on the folly of quitting a steady job, and to Britain’s utter dependence on the United States, given that (as one high ranking functionary puts it) a nuclear war with Russia is assessed to be a pending near-certainty. There’s not much razzle-dazzle to how things unwind though: Frank gets the name of one key contact through the mildest outburst of aggression, then in turn extracts the necessary information from that contact simply by filling him up with booze, and reaches his ultimate object (John Gielgud) by turning up on the doorstep and being welcomed in. Caine gives one of those performances where you’re not sure how hard he cares or is trying (I mean that as a compliment); the rest of the cast mostly only briefly registers, although Barry Foster gives the drunk scene his all. But for a film in which a journalist and other innocent individuals are cold-bloodedly eliminated for the sake of political calculation (and the perpetrators calmly express their willingness to throw in a young woman and her child, if that's what it takes for Frank to yield), while guilty but well-connected men are shielded from consequences, the narrative and moral sophistication fall short of what should have been required.