Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

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I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do not truly register in … Continue reading →

Review Of Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Like Father, Like Son”

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Having now watched most of Hirokazu Koreeda’s feature films, it seems fair to divide his work into two categories: that of timeless observations on relationships (Still Walking, Nobody Knows), penetrating, and all-relevant, and his far more numerous, yet minor tales that flesh out those greater films’ peripheries (I Wish, Air Doll, Maborosi). The first, while absolutely awash in contemporary Japanese life, transcend such limits by adapting characters to situations that can appear anywhere, while the latter are observations of a far smaller nature, even if quite uniform, and well done. 2013’s Like Father, Like Son is, no doubt, one of these small works, but while its faults might keep it out of better company, they are, ironically, the very elements that keep the film afloat, and even help build up to a few excellent scenes when they are most needed.

The narrative follows a young, seemingly happy couple that, soon after the film’s open, are informed their six year-old child, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), is not theirs, having been switched with that of another married couple in a hospital mix-up. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), Keita’s life-long dad — as opposed to biological father — is the prototypically wealthy but overworked Japanese, demanding but absent from his son’s life, while Keita’s mother, Midori (Machiko Ono), is the dutiful but neglected spouse. The three interact quite well, it seems, but after a while, their jabs are only too visible, even as no one else seems to notice. Meanwhile, the couple’s ‘real’ son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), is being taken care of by Yukari (Yoko Maki) and Yudai (Riri Furanki), a lower-class couple who, by contrast, seem to hate and nag each other to no end. After much internal conflict, they all finally agree to exchange kids, cut off contact, and hope for the best. The original bonds are just too strong, however, and the families drift back to one another, even as it’s revealed that Yudai — crude, lazy, and overly concerned with the hospital’s reimbursement — is the far better father, and Ryota, seeing his own deficiencies in Yudai’s goodness, decides to ‘do better’, and be the sort of father he’s never had.

If the film sounds predictable, that’s because it is, not only in its narrative arcs, but also in that each and every character is a stereotype — or rather, that they seem to be. Nor does it help that the hospital reveals its mistake at the ten minute mark of this two hour film, thus ensuring certain conflicts must play out, if not the film’s various resolutions, in a back-and-forth manner expected of such a difficult situation. For all that, however, the film is saved by how these arcs dip and go, and not merely where they lead the viewer, because while so many scenes are barefaced cliches, as far as the content goes, they are still uniquely presented, and with enough detail and good acting to make them specific to the characters, within. … Continue reading →

Review Of Terrence Malick’s “To The Wonder”

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After watching To The Wonder, I must come to the melancholy view that — with nearly four decades of film-making behind him — this is Terrence Malick’s first film without some argument for greatness. Yes, Badlands was not especially deep, and Tree Of Life had a number of abysmal and overwrought moments, but these films were wonderfully constructed, even if the latter could have used some pruning. That said, To The Wonder is not the near-masterpiece Roger Ebert thought it was, nor is it the “meandering,” “incomprehensible” mess others claim. In fact, it’s a good film with a handful of great moments and a lucid narrative, bogged down by some large problems that keep it out of better company.

Before I show what those problems are, however, I’d like to get the primary misconception out of the way. Yes, the film has narrative, even if it’s not rich on plot, for the two are not the same thing. Plot refers to what happens, on the superficial level, as far as simple action is concerned. Narrative integrates action, character, emotion, musings, symbols, sound, image, and pretty much anything else conceivable in film, into a coherent whole. Does the film have this? Well, let’s see. It opens with Marina (Olga Kurylenko) describing love as being newly born and opening one’s eyes. The camera looks blurry and overwhelmed, evoking this very thing. As the voice-over continues, you get Neil (Ben Affleck) in different love scenes with Marina, including a few magnificent shots of the two on a beach, where the water and the sand seem to unify in both color and behavior, furthering the narrative with symbol. Neil is good to Marina’s daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), even as he declines to marry Marina, and is aloof in general. This disconnect becomes especially obvious when the family moves from Paris to Oklahoma, and Tatiana — in another wonderful scene — asks Neil to marry her mother, relating, with typical childishness, what this might look like, as he looks on with shock and discomfort, emotions that are lucidly communicated by mere facial expression and body language. Going further, we see the family playing with each other, which is both well-crafted and realistic, as Marina confesses her own loneliness to a neighbor, while barely even speaking, and ostensibly about her own daughter, at that. Yet the viewer knows she is talking (or rather, emoting) about herself, for it’s visible on her face and her expressions, even as it tries to be “about” something else entirely.

So far, the narrative (and its techniques) is clear, but is complicated by the appearance of Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who plays the cliched role of the self-torn priest, yet does it well in a handful of interesting scenes that, unfortunately, have little to add to the rest of the film, including a brief attempt to “catch” the warmth of the light against a stained-glass window. In his own voice-overs, he asks to see and feel Good … Continue reading →

Review Of “Scenes From A Marriage,” via The New York Theatre Workshop

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Yesterday afternoon, I was at the New York Theatre Workshop’s performance of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage (trans. Emily Mann), which boasts a run-time similar to the original film’s. This makes sense, as Scenes is a film that naturally lends itself to theater: it mostly takes place in simple interiors, focuses on long, involved scenes — often involving just 2 characters — and draws much of its power from the gestures, expressions, body language, and intonations that, alongside the great writing, really drives the narrative forward. No, it is not superficially dependent upon its visuals (like many purportedly ‘visual’ films are), but there was as much in Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s expressiveness as in, say, an Antonioni landscape, that gave Scenes From A Marriage a depth that lesser actors would have merely occluded.

Ivo van Hove‘s play, however, is not the film, and judging the play for what it’s NOT would be a critical faux pas from which there is simply no return. So, what is it, exactly, and what is its relationship with Bergman? Well, it takes many of the film’s key scenes — the discovery of Johan’s infidelity, the dinner with Peter and Katarina, Marianne’s pregnancy, and a few others — and splits them out of order, into an arbitrary sequence played by a revolving door of actors. For the first 2 hours, these scenes play out simultaneously to smaller groups, which are separated by a couple of thin walls through which the music, shouting, and action of earlier/later scenes is still audible. The viewers witness whichever scene they happened to have sat down to, and move every 30-40 minutes to a new scene while the others re-play for new audience members. This goes on until the intermission, after which all the lead actors come together, as 3 Johan/Marianne duos, to act out the next part simultaneously, first taking turns with lines before climaxing into a rumble (as per the film’s divorce scene) that has everyone merely shouting at one another in an odd, anomic scene that left at least a few audience members frustrated and aghast.

Some of this works because, instead of merely aping Bergman, it clarifies, in its own way, a central posit of the original film: that Johan and Marianne are not merely a unique couple going through unique problems, but despite being very real and ‘particular,’ themselves, are representative of many similar relationships, which thrive and die according to the same patterns — details be damned! The play does this by using different actors and actresses for each scene, making the viewer viscerally feel that these are ALL different couples, with the verbiage and action coming from next door almost like similar fights that might be going on elsewhere, and perpetually. The scenes, too, are split in a way that — despite the re-use of the leads’ fictive names — there is little real continuity from one scene to the next, as the play takes the film title quite … Continue reading →

Review: Charles Feldman’s “Casino Royale” (1967), via BlogCritics.

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The 1967 James Bond spoof, Casino Royale, has been on my mind ever since a discussion with Dan Schneider a few weeks ago, wherein he pointed out some of the film’s positives. I wouldn’t exactly call it a good film, for a number of reasons. Suffice to say that, for a comedy, it’s often short on jokes, and (even when they do appear) they are marred by poor timing, or convoluted scenes that can absolutely KILL comedic writing far quicker than they might action, as James Bond films are.

Yet despite these issues, it does many things that the Bond films would have never been able to imagine in the 1960s, given how limited they were by their own genre and reflexivity. I mean, what did they REALLY have to point to — more action, and the same old tropes, within? By contrast, Casino Royale tried more, even if, overall, it was successful at less. For instance, the film frequently uses anti-symbols instead of symbols, there are visual sequences — such as with Evelyn’s hallucinations, Evelyn’s first time in Vesper Lynd’s apartment, the odd yet really effective opening with the singing children — that point to deeper aims, as well as filmic techniques (especially its meta-fiction) that add layers to the work. No, it doesn’t mean that the film sums up to anything great, but at the very least, it is ambitious, and a good prototype for the sort of postmodern styles in film that came in vogue in the 1990s.

Too often, Casino Royale has merely been condemned, but while I partly agree with these judgments, it’s almost become a cliche to call it “messy” and “convoluted,” for it’s so obviously those things. So, I’ve decided to focus on things beyond evaluation because it’s not only interesting culturally, but presages — for good or ill! — the sort of high-budget, small-payoff, multi-actor films that would eventually become so popular.

It is also one of Woody’s first ‘major’ acting gigs — despite the fact that he appears for a few minutes, tops, and given his own much more disciplined work ethic, absolutely hated the time spent on it, and has not, to my knowledge, ever seen it.

You can find my in-depth review here, via Blogcritics.… Continue reading →