Posts Tagged ‘Cannes’

Film: “A Hard Day”

July 21, 2015
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Lee Sun-Kyun as Det. Ko Gun-su in “A Hard Day”

Several interesting new films had local openings recently. I chose this South Korean thriller and had a good time. Directed and co-written (with Lee Hae-jun) by Kim Seong-hun, it was a Directors’ Fortnight selection at Cannes 2014. Like many Southeast Asian crime films, the heroes can be cops or crooks, almost interchangeably. This one gives a new slant: the hero is a crooked cop.

I should adjust that; only mildly crooked. Divorced and raising a young daughter, Homicide Det. Ko Gun-su “indulges”, like others in his squad, with occasional payoffs and padded perks, but stays true to catching the bad guys. But, from the film’s cynical perspective, that’s not enough to protect him. The film’s clever setup has him running over a man while driving from his mother’s funeral to the burial. Rather implausibly, he stuffs the dead “victim” in the trunk and gets to the parlor late, with apologies. In this first section of the film, about forty minutes long, maximum suspense is achieved when he conceives of a novel way to dispose of the body before the funeral parlor closes, although his shame at the disrespect to his deceased mother is most painful for him. This section also has the most wit and ingenuity, especially in the way he uses his daughter’s toys in his plan.

The rest of the film concerns the unexpected consequences of the car accident. It seems that the dead man lying in the road had actually been shot beforehand, and was a top criminal that Gun-su’s squad was investigating. Gun-su is blackmailed by a witness to the accident, whose identity is revealed slowly. There are plenty of twists along the way to a violent conclusion, and Seong-hun keeps the action hot and fast. Still, except for one jump-out-of your-seat shock, there are no real surprises.

One thing I always find interesting about the crime films from Southeast Asia is the use of close-ups. They rely much more on close-ups of the actors’ faces in the action sequences, while American films pull back to showcase all the movement within the frame. The latter certainly costs more. So why do it? Possibly because audiences for American films expect more, and more expensive, destruction of property to go along with the body count. Maybe, more buck for the bang?

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Film: “Mommy”

February 3, 2015
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left to right: Ann Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clement

This French language Canadian film, the fifth feature from wunderkind Xavier Dolan, now 26, is both an emotionally affecting experience and an ordeal. For over two and a quarter hours you’re pulled into the lives of three tortured individuals, but the beauty almost makes it worth the pain. It begins with Diane, nicknamed Die (Ann Dorval), a 40-something widow, picking up her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a youth facility. He is being kicked out because he set fire to the place, injuring another boy. Blond, with a misleadingly angelic face, Steve is at war with society in general, but really with anything he imagines will distract Die, or “Mommy”, from total devotion to his needs. What mother and son have in common is disdain for the rules of society, the foulest language you can imagine and a penetrating intelligence which they both use, in their own way, to manipulate others. But Die is at least able to focus on basic needs, finding work as a translator and maintaining a home for Steve and herself. Steve has no such inclination. He will ride his skateboard, play loud music and shoplift when the mood strikes him. After Die tries to set him straight, he blows up and nearly strangles her.

So far, it’s the setup for a familiar dramatic conflict, but with exceptional acting. What drives the rest of the film, however, is quite original. Living next door is a married couple and young daughter. The wife, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), is about Die’s age and looks very much like her. But she is demure and withdrawn, in total contrast to Die’s brazen, lower class demeanor. She says she is a teacher “on sabbatical”, but this is never explained. Yet, after a painful and sometimes violent transition period, the three of them bond into a kind of makeshift family unit, with Kyla home-tutoring Steve while Die gets jobs for expenses. This section is the heart of the film, and it works because Dolan gets performances of such fragile intimacy from his actors that you actually believe in their relationship. A crucial scene is of the three of them dancing while preparing a meal in the kitchen; you sense that beneath the joyful abandon is an awareness that their only chance of survival is a total support for each other. Yet we continue to watch with dread, knowing that Steve’s unyielding demand for Die’s love will destroy their hopes.

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Our expectations are fulfilled, and then some. The climax shows Die and Kyla picking up Steve from the hospital after a self-destructive act. Die says she has to pee, but she pulls into a parking lot near a fortress-like building, which is strange. Steve, still dazed from medication, fails to see what’s coming. The next scene, brilliantly edited, whips the camera back and forth to each of them, at distant locations in the parking lot. Both women have breakdowns while Steve struggles with the attendants, who need to use a taser to immobilize him.

Rarely will you see actors pushed to such emotional extremes and yet, not once, do you sense an “actorish” moment. But it only succeeds because the depth of their relationship is the story; we know how much it pains Die and Kyle to do what they did, but we also accept that they had no choice.

As with some other quality films I’ve seen recently, the screenplay is overstuffed and unresolved. A fantasy of Steve having a normal life – including marriage and a child – is unnecessary, and a scene in a karaoke bar is poorly done. The circumstances of Kyla’s depression are never explained, but Clement’s subtly shaded performance overcomes this lapse.

A final word: There’s been criticism of Dolan’s use of a 1:1 ratio screen size as a distracting affectation. I think it intensifies the action, lending power to the more emotional scenes. But whatever you think of it, it’s odd that one of the most honored films of the year, Birdman, gets only praise for a different gimmick: following the film’s action with only two actual cuts for its entire two-hour running time. The camera swoops around talented actors playing clichéd characters in dozens of New York locations for no purpose whatsoever. And Inarritu gets the Golden Globe screenplay award! Go figure.


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