My second week at the 2006 New York Film Festival included several international films. Unlike the British and American selections, which steered towards art house dramas, the program’s global films covered monster movies, action, gangster, melodrama, and surreal comedies. The freshest of the bunch, The Host and Pan’s Labyrinth (reviewed last week), are reminiscent of the early Hollywood blockbusters of Steven Spielberg in their special effects, reinventions of genre, and broad appeals. Aided by an underdog’s creative enthusiasm, cheaper technology, and visual effects houses like Peter Jackson’s WETA, these films may pose a threat to Hollywood.
If The Host (Gwoemul) isn’t quite this cinema’s Jaws, it’s mighty close. Clever and extremely fun, director Bong Joon-ho’s film seeds an anti-U.S. imperialism creed into a comedic monster movie. It was released in South Korea this past July and quickly became the nation’s highest grossing film of all time. The premise is based on a scandal from 2000, when a U.S. military worker in Seoul was ordered to pour large amounts of formaldehyde down a sink drain. Six movie years later, the toxic waste has created a large mudskipper-like creature in the Han River that moves like an acrobatic T-Rex.
The monster is revealed in a stupendous sequence, which introduces the Park family, who run a snack shop by the Han, proceeds with the creature running amok along the river, and climaxes with its abduction of the youngest Park, Hyun-seo (Go Ah-Sung). For the remainder of the film, the Parks overcome their weaknesses (drunkenness, failing in clutch situations, general laziness) to rescue the girl. The extreme situations, coupled with the reverent but humorous skewering of genre conventions, are reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead. Unfortunately, The Host isn’t as tight a film, with flat dialogue and glaring plot holes. Whether or not you are irritated or amused that the American-style blockbuster is now being subverted, with America as the cartoonish uber-villain, The Host feels like a harbinger of the near future in global entertainment.
The title of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Volver, is Spanish for “to return,” and it revisits a number of old haunts: the filmmaker’s childhood home of La Mancha, comedy that recalls Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura. In a post-screening press conference, Almodóvar said he was trying to “discover” what was good about Spain, the result being beautiful, funny, tough, fashionable women. La Mancha is portrayed as a mystical world where widows scrub their husband’s gravestones “like a second home.” The story is about a dead mother (Maura) who returns as a ghost to reach resolution with her disoriented daughters Raimunda (Cruz) and Sole (Lola Dueñas). Volver features a mastery of color, a moving score by Alberto Iglesias, solid writing, and a top-notch cast. Still, it left me a little disappointed, never quite coalescing. Lost amid the humor and the color, the characters’ psychological troubles make their reconciliation hard to appreciate.
Director Johnnie To engineers his own return, to the gangster drama of last year’s Election, with its sequel Triad Election (Hak se wui yi wo wai kwai). When introducing the film, he said, “It’s about Hong Kong since the handover in 1997. It’s about what it has become.” That may sound like a lament, but the movie is a fictional account of how the Chinese mainland has influenced the former colony’ gang leaders, tracking the violent fallout of the election of a new Triad chairman. Most of the action centers on Jimmy (Louis Koo), a handsome prospect with a Michael Corleone-like crisis, as he contemplates the moral compromises he’ll have to make as a crime boss. Controlled by the Chinese authorities, the gangsters descend into increasingly gruesome behavior, culminating in a scene at a dog kennel I’d rather not describe. The characters are increasingly scared and desperate, as their priorities shift from group solidarity to individual survival. The Chinese call gangsters “those who live in the dark,” and cinematographer Siu-keung Cheng shoots them in shadows as much as possible. The film bleeds all color from Hong Kong’s mythological underworld, now lost to itself and the currents of history.
Triad Election‘s comparisons of humans to animals is disparaging. In Gardens of Autumn (Jardins en automne, it’s absurd. Ostriches and elephants litter the background of director Otar Iosseliani’s analysis of old age and politics in a newly “globalized” France. Removed from office by a popular coup, Minister Vincent (Séverin Blanchet) wanders around Paris tracking down former lovers and drinking with old chums. African immigrants have invaded his childhood home and his mother is played by a man in drag (Michel Piccoli). Iosseliani’s style borrows from Bunuel to a fault, and the film’s smug humor chafes (the portrayal of government as a revolving door of buffoons isn’t particularly original). Though Vincent represents a dying patriarchal generation, I wasn’t certain whether or not Iosseliani supports his hero, particularly regarding Vincent’s xenophobia and stereotypically French male chauvinism. However, Gardens of Autumn‘s strongest images show retired power brokers wandering through an increasingly unrecognizable menagerie that they once ruled.
Emmanuel Bourdieu’s Poison Friends (Les Amitiés maléfiques) is a remarkable, if unevenly rendered, allegory for the education of young intellectuals. After arriving at the Sorbonne, Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger), Eloi (Malik Zidi), and Eduoard (Thomas Blanchard) come under the sway of charismatic older student André (Thibault Vinçon). He preaches a rigid philosophy based on a line from writer Karl Kraus: “Why do some people write? Because they’re too weak not to write.” To André, anyone who dares pick up a pen is beneath contempt. While assisting the three friends in their academic pursuits, he also bullies and humiliates them, molding disciples who can’t surpass his achievements.
It’s not exactly comprehensible why the friends put up with André for so long. While Vinçon’s performance conveys an attractive self-importance, his dialogue is not clever enough to make his Machiavellian manipulations entirely convincing. It seems that, as André‘s machinations become more sinister, the story might develop into a murder mystery along the lines of The Secret History. But after he leaves the school, the drama blossoms into an analysis of impressionable academics’ attractions to simplistic, untenable ideological creeds. This developmental stage, the film submits, can be a foundation for more mature intellectuals, and can also lead to angry rejection of long-held ideals and admired teachers.