To say detective Ko Gun-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) is having a hard day is putting it mildly. In the opening movements of this jet black comedy of errors we witness him driving back from his mother’s funeral, run over and kill a pedestrian, attempt to conceal the body, get pulled over for drunk driving, and discover his unit is under investigation by internal affairs. This captivating structure of jumping from frying pans into fires sustains Kim Seong-hung’s A Hard Day for the majority of its running time, before giving way to complete and utter bloody madness in the final act.
In the standout scene, Kim Seong-hung is able to strike the perfect balance of humour and tension as, with the aid of some balloons and a toy soldier, Ko attempts to hurriedly dispose of the corpse by placing it inside the same casket as his recently deceased mother. It’s an absolutely faultless composition full of sweaty nerves and inappropriate laughs, immaculately punch-lined with a ringing phone from inside the coffin. Unfortunately, not everything works as well as this, occasionally wandering too deeply into run-of-the-mill police procedural territory as it struggles to maintain the cracking pace and overlapping nightmares of the set-up.
As one problem is solved another materialises. The pedestrian turns out to be a key figure in an ongoing investigation, and Ko receives a call from a witness to his accident who begins a process of blackmail and intimidation. There is a gleeful perverted delight in every new twist and turn that befalls the homicide detective. Haunted by the buzzing of ‘Unknown Caller’ on his phone, Lee Sun-kyun has the kind of face you expect to do an exasperated Oliver Hardy turn to the camera.
A conflict in tone exists throughout: the considered cinematography looks the part of other great Korean noirs, and the film revels in all the tensions and mysteries of a fraught whodunnit; simultaneously it strives to be let off the chain and run wild as a black comedy. The generic elements at play are the least interesting, so although the tautly paced thriller racks the nerves and the intermittent violence ferociously breaks bones, Kim Seong-hung is never fully committed to the intricately devised narrative. Secondary characters are sketched in when required, and nonsensical contrivances abound in the rangy climax. To all intents and purposes this is two films pursuing each other along Korean highways and back alleys. I was rooting for the one with a sense of humour.
[ 2014 — Dir: Seong-hoon Kim — 111 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
A Hard Day screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.
Within Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children – an ensemble exploration of relationships and communication in a society distorted by technology – there are poignantly observed moments and smart ideas, but these are frequently lost in the overcomplicated babble of too many characters and superficial subplots. Bafflingly, and redundantly, framed with mentions of astronomer Carl Sagan’s well-known speech on the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ – a NASA photograph of Earth set against the vastness of space – over-narrated by Emma Thompson, the bodies, emojis and dramatics pile up as lives become intertwined. But the characters and their various relationships are never given the space to develop into anything more than the roughest outline sketch.
Set in small town, high school football-crazy Texas, a handful of teenagers and their parents are seen coping with the most normal of problems and fears, but through the warped lens of social media and the internet. The mother taking ‘modelling’ shots for her daughter’s website, the father losing a son to an MMORPG, the girl only able to express herself as an alter ego on Tumblr – and swathes of other loosely connected micro-stories.
Riffing on body image, sexual desire, isolation, fame, adultery, suicide, friendship, love and anything else that flickers past the screen, from the outset it’s clear Reitman is overreaching. To draw a reference from the film’s subjects, it plays as if navigating through a mutual friend's Facebook feed. Occasionally, interest is piqued by something of relatable worth, but it’s predominantly idle chatter, with everything condensed to its most reductive form.
Which is a shame, as there are several promising components that hint at the potential of the set up. Incorporation of browser graphics and text bubbles with visual effects is seamlessly deployed throughout – effortlessly working the digital exchanges into the narrative. With characters more frequently expressing themselves honestly through their phones this is a key part of the film that works faultlessly. The fact nothing said is deeply profound or moving can be levelled at the screenplay. Facile dialogue and absent characterisation aside, all of the numerous cast members (including Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Kaitlyn Dever and Ansel Elgort) are clearly giving it their best naturalistic stuff, and are intermittently able to get things working, most notably with Tim and Brandy, who share a sweet rebellious relationship under the nose of her mother’s overbearing, NSA level surveillance.
A cool melancholy detachment runs over every scene – presumably highlighting the aforementioned digital isolation – but resultantly making it a very hard film to like. Lacking the poignancy or bite of Reitman’s most successful downer comedies Young Adult (2011) and Up in the Air (2009), the laughs are fleeting and, most disappointingly, the social commentary has none of the articulacy or depth it requires. To set itself beside a grand speech detailing the whole of human existence, the ensuing film must then go on to have something of comparable grandeur to express……. not just a passably entertaining collage of zeitgeist melodramatic vignettes.
[ 2014 — Dir: Jason Reitman — 119 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
Men, Women & Children screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.
Hampered by the usual burdens of adolescence, teenager Leonardo is constricted by an overprotective mother, can’t get a date, and is frequently bullied at school – with only dreams of his first kiss, or escaping on a foreign exchange programme easing his pain. Feats that seem all the more unattainable, as Leonardo is blind. Brazilian director Daniel Ribeiro draws out a conventional coming-of-age story that is lifted by this quirk into something altogether more tender.
Leonardo (Ghilherme Lobo) and his best friend Giovana (Tess Amorim) while away the days at her pool, ranking their laziness out of 10 and avoiding talk of ‘the future’ at all costs. An inseparable pair, their friendship is rocked by the appearance of a new handsome classmate Gabriel (Fabio Audi), whose curly hair and winning smile immediately win Gio over. But as the trio become closer, it’s Leonardo who must attempt to deal with emergent feelings for Gabriel, as without the aid of sight he must begin to naively unravel his own sexuality.
It is the remarkably unselfconscious performance of Ghilherme Lobo that is able to elevate this fairly routine tale of first love and high school stereotypes – the slut, the bully, the drunk – to a film of honest emotion and tumultuous, fragile desire. A scene where Leonardo breathes deep into a hoodie Gabriel has left in his room, wearing it over his naked skin, is an incredibly powerful moment that is as close as he’ll ever get to seeing a photograph of the one he loves, possessing his scent with a ravenous infatuation and attempting to decipher these new feelings through sightless sense only.
Aided by unfussy direction from Ribeiro and a cool colour palette of muted blues, The Way He Looks retains a reserved ambiance that preserves the illusion of Leonardo’s blindness. Moments are captured in touch and movement – or with the indie pop soundtrack. His eyes may be gazing unseeing into the middle distance, but we’re under no illusion where his passion resides. Blindness and homosexuality are key themes here, but Ribeiro has shunned the idea of creating an issue-centric film, instead telling a universal story of the confusions and difficulties of teenage years.
Some of the broader strokes of the film fall on the side of clunky – the three friends’ relationship compared to a lunar eclipse, the caricatured school bullies – but when the focus grips onto Leonardo it beats on a tenderly sweet human level. Orthodox in structure and tone, The Way He Looks doesn’t challenge in its technicality, but Ribeiro and his impressive trio of young actors deserve recognition for the bravery and ambition of depicting adolescence in a fresh, delicate manner.
[ 2014 — Dir: Daniel Ribeiro — 95 mins — 12A cert — IMDb ]
The Way He Looks screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.
Cronenberg’s third feature, 1975’s science fiction horror Shivers, has been restored for Blu-ray and it is a distinctly creepy film. Using an anarchic structure it only hints at the trademark body-horror of later films like Scanners and Videodrome; nonetheless Shivers is an unsettling and atypical slice of ‘70s horror.
Set in an apartment block for the future (which, of course, looks deliciously ancient in 2014) the opening shots are the marketing film for this high-rise paradise. Almost immediately, a man murders a young girl then commits suicide whilst downstairs the building’s doctor treats some of them for lumps in his stomach. It’s quickly clear something is attacking the residents of the building, turning them into the ‘sex-crazed fiends’ touted in the blurb.
For today’s viewers there are few shocks to be had here, especially considering in the same year Dario Argento made Deep Red. The back story of a medical researcher driven to a, frankly rather bizarre, act of bio-terrorism smacks of the need to think of something worse that dominated horror then. Except, hints that a monster might rear his head are never followed through with. We don’t see the psycho knifing the masses. Whilst the re-visioning of zombie film mythos is novel the scares and gore here lack the visceral imagination that dominates Cronenberg’s work in the 80s.
Shivers works to keep you disorientated. No one plotline dominates the film so that everything unfurls from the opening shots. More tenants are introduced, help is called in from outside and victims get infected. You quickly piece everything together but for the characters there’s no insight, very little hope of victory. One particularly sinister scene shows the angry and adulterous Nicholas talking sweet nothings to his parasite. You keep waiting for a hero to grab control of it, but instead you’re just left with a dwindling set of survivors.
The reason Shivers is so unsettling is just because it doesn’t play up to genre expectations. Nasty things happen for sure, people force all sorts of depravities on each-other, but the film denies you the relief of a gory climax. These sex-crazed fiends spend more time sexually assaulting people than gratuitously getting their kit off. So few people actually die. The thing is, these absences give you nowhere to hide. Instead of giggling at the boobs and splatter you shift in your seat as another person is violently overcome. Argento may have mastered suspense, but Cronenberg nailed unpleasant (not literally…).
This lack of structure will be the film’s undoing for a lot of people though. Sure, the structure reflects the form, but it also makes it harder work for the viewer. Unless you appreciate the satire and psychoanalysis at work it probably comes across as a wonky body horror that never pays out.
In terms of restoration it’s also not the greatest work I’ve seen. The video quality is ok but the audio leaves a lot to be desired. No doubt this was down to a lack of expensive equipment when it was filmed, but it still means you’re either permanently tweaking the volume, or straining to hear certain scenes. A directorial note for the concierge – speak up!
Seeing it in 2014, Shivers feels like a mission statement from Cronenberg. It’s all classic horror stuff, just turned slightly off-centre. The breakdown of order in this ivory tower, the acting out of a catalogue of sexual depravities and the chaotic narrative trawl through all ages and inclinations, scream of life plan to explore the dark sides of the human psyche. He’s unashamedly probing our animal brains. Romero used zombies to ask questions of society but Cronenberg’s infected have no questions, just deep subconscious desires. It’s a dark ending as well, a literal baptism as rationality is overcome by sexuality.
For once, the strapline used for the ‘75 release was on the money. Shivers is ‘Terror beyond the power of priest or science to exorcise.’ There’s no exorcism to be had here; oh no, nothing as easy as that.
[ 1975 — Dir: David Cronenberg — 87 mins — 18 cert — IMDb ]
Guest Post from George Sandison.