Films I loved in June 2016

30 June 2016
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Güneş Şensoy as Lale in Mustang

I’d been looking forward to seeing Mustang for almost a year now after consistently hearing great things about it. It’s the feature film debut by Turkish/French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, about five sisters living with their uncle and grandmother in a secluded and very conservative Turkish village. Inspired by real stories including some of the filmmaker’s own experiences, Mustang is about the removal of freedoms from the sisters after they are accused of behaving indecently with male classmates. While the threat to the girls’ welfare looms large during the majority of the film, their defiance and energy is exhilarating, particularly during a sequence involving a football game that evokes Jafar Panahi’s glorious 2006 film Offside. The tension that builds during the film’s finale is close to unbearable, but Ergüven delivers a payoff that is satisfying and feels true to the spirit of what has come before. Needless to say, the expectations that I brought to this film were met and I’m happy to join the ranks of people who speak about Mustang glowingly.

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Vincent Lindon as Thierry Taugourdeau in The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man is only the second film I’ve seen by French filmmaker Stéphane Brizé after Mademoiselle Chambon, which I also liked. Both films star prolific French actor Vincent Lindon who has a wonderful ability to simultaneously portray strength and resilience along with vulnerability and melancholy. This is vital to what makes The Measure of a Man work as well as it does where Lindon plays Thierry, an unemployed middle-aged man trying maintain his dignity while going through the very undignified process of looking for work and making ends meet in the meantime. Brizé’s naturalistic style conveys Thierry frustrations, boredom, worry and most importantly the way he’s constantly on display to be judged and condescended to. The Measure of a Man painfully captures not just the stress of unemployment, but also the subtle ways in which people out of work are made to feel shamed and stupid. The second half of the film goes one step further when Thierry is then placed in a position to watch and judge others,  demonstrating how just the act of watching somebody and expecting the worst from them makes them appear at fault.

The Wailing

Jo Han-chul as a detective and Kwak Do-won as Jong-Goo in The Wailing

After being so astonished by South Korean filmmaker Na Hong-jin’s previous film The Yellow Sea I required little persuasion to see his new horror/thriller film The Wailing. Set in a Korean village where a number of strange murders have started occurring, the film follows the increasingly desperate investigations of local policeman Jong-Goo. Drawing upon South Korean Sharman traditions and haunted by the county’s violent past of internal conflict and colonisation by Japan – as well as borrowing liberally from Japanese and American genre cinema – The Wailing delivers a mix of exorcisms, possessions, zombies, body horror, children being creepy, paranoia and even several unexpected comedic moments. The scares are generated by slow builds, unpredictability and filming key scenes in medium shots so it’s not always clear what we are looking at. The film has an intense kinetic energy and often feels like it is in free fall with its tonal shifts and plot twists – but that’s all very much part of the fun.

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Blake Jenner as Jake and Austin Amelio as Nesbit in Everybody Wants Some!!

Richard  Linklater has described his 1980-set college film Everybody Wants Some!! as a spiritual sequel to his 1973-set high school film Dazed and Confused, and also as a sequel of sorts to his last film Boyhood since that film ended with the protagonist going to college, and this film is about the first few days of a young man at college before classes and responsibility begins. Everybody Wants Some!! is mostly a bunch of scenes of the young men on a college baseball team hanging out, drinking, competing, partying, talking about girls and attempting – and often succeeding – in having sex. The film is at its best when it allows us to observe the way the characters, who were all stars at high school, are now compelled to continually compete against each other, and how the characters readjust their identities when encountering various subcultures. It’s at its weakest when the characters have similar observations about what they are doing, and then over explain the themes of the film through dialogue. However, I can put this quibble aside since ultimately this is a really fun and sincere hang-out film.

THE BFG

Ruby Barnhill as Sophie and Mark Rylance as the BFG in The BFG

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel The BFG is a little too long and needlessly padded, and sometimes suffers from cartoonish CGI (although perhaps that’s done deliberately to minimise the scariness of some scenes for younger viewers). But I’ve included it as one of my favourite films of the month because the aspects I did like, I really liked. Firstly, the performances throughout the film by Mark Rylance as the motion-captured Big Friendly Giant and new comer Ruby Barnhill as the orphan Sophie, are gorgeous and successfully convey the very sweet relationship created by Dahl in his novel. I also loved the Dream Country scene, which delivers all Spielberg’s classic tricks of the trade where light, music, whimsy and the wonder on the faces of the characters generate a glorious sequence of feel-good cinematic indulgence. And finally, the fart humour of the novel – especially during the scene involving the Queen of England – is taken to extremities that left me wanting to give the film a standing ovation. There is also some great stuff about standing up for yourself, the power of friendship and not judging people who aren’t fortunate enough to have had the education that allows them to communicate as well as others. But it’s the farting that ultimately won me over.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016
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Film review – The Yellow Sea (2010)

8 December 2011

NOTE: This is a review of the 140-minute International Cut (aka Director’s Cut) version of the film.

The Yellow Sea: Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo)

Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo)

Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is resilient. He may be hopelessly in debt, has been left by his wife, can’t take care of his daughter and has problems with gambling and controlling his temper, but he still persists. Fuelled by the mix of love and loathing that comes with sexual jealousy and a muted sense of regret and sadness over having to allow his mother to raise his daughter, Gu-nam needs a way out of his predicament. He therefore doesn’t need too much convincing when crime boss Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim) offers him a large sum of money in return for killing a man. The mission involves getting smuggled out of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in China to South Korea, which also happens to be where Gu-nam’s wife has gone.

The Yellow Sea is divided into four parts with each part given a title that reflects how Gu-nam is perceived by himself and the other characters. The first segment is simply ‘Taxi Driver’, named after Gu-nam’s job in Yanji City in Yanbian. He is so overwhelmingly in debt that his monotonous and subservient job is all that he is. This first segment has something of a social-realist feel. While the film maintains a gritty aesthetic, filmed with handheld camera and shot in the bleakest parts of the various Chinese and Korean cities and towns where the action takes place, the emphasis at the start of the film is the hopelessness of Gu-nam’s situation.

The Yellow Sea: Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim)

Myung-Ga (Yun-Seok Kim)

Gu-nam has similarities to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Not only do they both share a profession, but they are both loners in a hostile environment who become increasingly violent. There is a brief shot in The Yellow Sea where Gu-nam is walking down a small street, looking pensive with his hands thrust into his army jacket, which bears a remarkable visual similarity to the shot of Robert De Niro as Bickle used on many of the Taxi Driver promotional posters. While Bickle’s act of murder is the climax of Taxi Driver, Gu-nam’s act occurs at the climax of the The Yellow Sea’s second chapter, titled ‘Killer’. This whole chapter functions as a tense thriller with Gu-nam attempting to find his wife while planning the assassination he has been sent to perform. He really is God’s lonely man in this section; a man whose future has become defined by how successfully he performs his hit.

The third chapter is a combination of action, fugitive and gangster film, titled ‘Joseonjok’, one of the names used to describe people like Gu-nam who are Chinese of Korean descent. While the urgent and bleak style of the film becomes increasingly used to facilitate extraordinarily choreographed action set pieces, the film also makes an interesting commentary on Joseonjok identity. On the run from both Chinese and Korean gangs, The Yellow Sea writer/director Na Hong-jin seems to be using Gu-nam’s story to suggest that Joseonjok people are outsiders who aren’t fully embraced by either culture.

The Yellow SeaThe final chapter expands the scope beyond Gu-nam’s story to focus on the rival Chinese and Korean gangs. This section is appropriately titled ‘The Yellow Sea’ after the large body of water between mainland China and the west coast of Korea. It is also the sea that Gu-nam is initially taken across, by smugglers who have little regard for the lives of their Joseonjok passengers. The action reaches a fever pitch in this final chapter as the Koreans and Chinese butcher each other. Na Hong-jin alternates between scenes shot in open spaces where adversities come from all sides making escape look impossible, and tightly filmed sequences in confined spaces that are rapidly edited to convey disorientation and panic.

While it does provide a commentary on the geopolitical relations between China and Korea, the shift away from Gu-nam during the final sections does lose some of the film’s intense focus. In particular, there is one too many scenes of Myung-Ga being indestructible and unstoppable as if he is some kind of Terminator. Nevertheless, The Yellow Sea is still an exhilarating film with action that is breathtakingly kinetic and visceral. The traumas inflicted on the human body by knives, axes and even a large bone (there are very few guns in the film) leave visible and pronounced marks that don’t heal between shots. For a film this slickly structured and ultimately over-the-top, it maintains a grim realism.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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