October 19th, 2006


South Korea Towers Over My City Like A Filmic Colossus

If this were a rap video instead of an LJ post, it would begin with me pouring out a 40 for his_regard, who normally has my back during the Chicago International Film Festival. Whether it's a touching drama of childhood and loss, a languid mood piece that says more about Azerbaijan than we dare to say about ourselves, or a stinging indictment of the oppressive, warmongering logo-phallo-globo-fisco-patriarchy, he's always there with a gimlet eye and a wry Ken Nordine impression. This year, he was in Pittsburgh on business.

So gnosticpi and kaynorr stepped into the breach, and performed admirably. This year, although the festival was kind of weak, either their beginner's luck or my tricksome cine-askari instincts got us to some top quality cinematic billabongs. And this year, South Korea kicked three kinds of kimchee. With that, capsule reviews for all, in the patented robin_d_laws format.

The Best

Time [South Korea, Kim Ki-duk] As we were leaving this movie, I heard people behind me say this wasn't up to Kim's previous work. If so, they must have to give out defibrillators at his other movies -- this perfectly crafted de(con)structive spiral of jealousy, identity, and obsessive love ratchets the tension -- comic, narrative and emotional -- with similarly obsessive craftsmanship. The Jungian dark shadow of the romantic comedy -- not since Troilus and Cressida has "boy meets girl" been taken apart so surgically. A triumph for Robin's Recommendations.

A Dirty Carnival [South Korea, Yoo Ha] We're still debating whether this gangster film is "essential" or merely "nigh-perfect." This story of a Korean made man's meteoric rise and fall borrows heavily from both Scarface and Goodfellas, but it's very much its own movie. And all with a controlled, explosive joy in pure violence that de Palma never mastered and that Scorsese approaches once every decade. You'll never heft an aluminum baseball bat, or finger a sashimi knife, in the same way again.

The Host [South Korea, Joon-ho Bong] Not quite a daikaiju, the titular monster is only about the size of an allosaur. The family drama is deft without being cynical, and the monster fighting is both real and mythic at the same time. To top it off, this is the boldest, sharpest update of the monster movie genre since ... well, since Alien, and without any of Ridley's arsenal of SF and ghost-story tricks. Never has the uselessness of the forces of order seemed so brutal and so cruel.


Street Thief [Chicago, Malik Bader] This verite look at a Chicago professional burglar was entered in the 'documentary' category, but it's more like a Tarantino version of Blair Burglar Project. Only, you know, not in fucking love with itself. All this, plus Chicago, Chicago, Chicago, in all its seedy glory.

Triad Election [Hong Kong, Johnny To] I'm very proud of the phrase "gangster Brumaire," so I'm going to use it again. A great political story about the suffocation of Hong Kong, and one hell of a good gangster flick. Nice doggie!

Renaissance [France/UK/Luxembourg, Christian Volckman] The noir plot is kind of goofy, but the set design is absolutely gorgeous. This is the kind of thing that could reconcile a person to postmodernism. Jonathan Pryce is the standout voice talent, and the gunfights are mighty, mighty kewl.

Severance [UK, Christopher Smith] This gets the genre bump over The Aura, although it's more of an amiable slacker horror-comedy than any kind of triumphant piece of film-making art. Which is all good, because where else can you see the classic "rake bit" updated for the modern bear-trap era? All that plus naked breasts, gratuitous comical drug use, and a deliberately macedoined "secret origin" for the horror. But someone loved this material, and if you love horror, so will you.

The Aura [Argentina, Fabian Bielinsky] Bielinsky's Nine Queens is a better, faster, more accomplished grifter film, but this dreamy -- occasionally dissociated -- caper film is a worthy sophomore effort. Tragically, it's Bielinsky's last, as he died of a heart attack in June. He had a lot of really good movies left.


Paprika [Japan, Satoshi Kon] Anime craziness about a machine that can read people's dreams, and put you in them, and apparently bring them out to attack Tokyo or something. The titular Paprika is the dream-avatar of the psychologist who pioneered the dream machine, and as one might expect from anime, things go goofily (and cutely) apocalypse-shaped. The opening credit sequence/chase, however, sets a standard for ingenuity that the rest of the film doesn't live up to.

Starter For Ten [UK/US, Tom Vaughan] Although I very much enjoy a movie where the College Bowl (er, "University Challenge") geek wins the heart of the hot leftist chick -- it's true to life, after all -- what most got me thinking during this sweet romantic comedy was the almost completely unconscious manifestations of class in it. No doubt to British eyes it's no more jarring than the guns in a Western are to me, but it added a nice frisson of alienation to go along with the "Never Mind The Mainstream" 1980s soundtrack.


12:08 East of Bucharest [Romania, Corneliu Porumboiu] A nice, knotty little parable of history and memory that spends a bit too much time showing us the lives of the participants in a crummy local affairs broadcast. The crumminess is to the point, the wasted time isn't.

Tsiou [Greece, Makis Papadimitratos] A pretty fun ring-around-the-rosey drug movie about trying to score heroin in the deadly depths of an Athenian summer holiday. For a first feature, not at all bad, but the digital stock was ugly, the sound muddy, and the story not quite as tight as it thought it was.

Almost Good

La Terra [Italy, Sergio Rubini] Contrariwise to the Romanian film, this film kind of stops being really interesting once we stop seeing just how screwed up the four brothers (one of whom escaped the misery of small-town South Italy for Milan) are. There's a land deal, and arguments, and maybe some love triangles, and a greasy loan shark who everybody hates and fears, and drinking, and a really nice killing during an Easter procession. And then we all scream and hug and punch each other and sob and drive fast and wrap things up in not quite the lamest and most obvious way possible, but close. But it's deep, deep Italian, and feels real despite (because of?) the arm-waving theatrics.