Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Chan-wook Park
viewed: 02/24/06

Since watching Chan-wook Park’s 2003 film, Oldboy, the film has lingered in my mind and has struck me as one of the more interesting movies that I had seen in a long time. So, it didn’t take me long to get to seeing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first of his “Revenge” trilogy.

Straight off, Mr. Vengeance isn’t quite as interesting as Oldboy, but it is definitely an absorbing thriller with many similar themes and ideas. As in the other, this film centers on a significant brother/sister relationship, in this case between a deaf-mute brother and his sister who is desperately in need of a kidney transplant. In Oldboy, the initial action (the kidnap) creates a mystery to what is happening, resulting in two characters seeking vengeance on one another. In this film, revenge is sought for a myriad of reasons and it’s actions trigger further tragedies and further revenge. Cycles of violence and the morally bereft results of revenge give the films a pessimistic tone and being.

Park often shoots the film through the point of view of Ryu, the deaf-mute brother, using black intertitles to represent the translations of his “signed” communication. There are also many moments of muted and otherwise non-dialogue environmental sound that focus highly on the visual “look”, the sense of drawing information from what is visually “in front of you”. This usage evokes mood considerably as well.

Ryu’s girlfriend is a Communist political protester. Not knowing enough about the culture of South Korea, I find it a little hard to speculate exactly on what she represents in the film in this regard. It’s a strange element that I cannot decipher.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is certainly interesting. I have already gotten a couple more of Chan-wook Park’s films in my queue. He is quickly ascending my list of directors of whom I am particularly interested. I don’t know yet if that is the same a “favorites”, but despite the short-hand sense that that communicates, I think it’s a sort of lame thing to say in general.

Cats & Dogs

Cats & Dogs (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Lawrence Guterman
viewed: 02/18/06

Believe it or not, though I did rent this for my son to watch, I chose this film and had harbored a vague desire to see this since it was initially released. I, of course, didn’t rent this one for myself, wholly for myself, but in the end, I ended up laughing at it a lot more than my son did.

That’s not to say it was good. It’s in this weird category, for me, of these digitally “animated talking-animal/baby” films that are so bizarre in concept that they could almost be listed under surrealism. Certainly a naif Surrealism, but still, it’s pretty bizarre stuff. In this case, cats and dogs are mortal enemies and have secret spy organizations battling it out over the eons. Cats are the bad guys and dogs are man’s best-friends, in more ways than traditionally held.

My son is still young, 4 1/2 at this point, and still gets a bit lost in convoluted narratives. Things that may not seem so convoluted by an older person might really not be comprehensible by him. I spend a lot of time explaining things like “Why are the mice all going out into the town covered with green foam?” Well, the answer is that “The cats have sprayed a potion on them that will make all humans allergic to all dogs and that the mice are in collusion with the cats.” See, it’s not so easy, is it? But I thought it was particularly funny that the cats were going to give Australia to the mice as a reward for their efforts once the cats had taken control of the world.

It’s just bizarre and oddly funny. This is one of those bad movies that is kind of fun. It’s not funny because it’s so bad, it’s just funny. Again, I don’t feel like there are too many people out there who will read this and hazard a chance to ever see this movie, so I am not warning people off or recommending it overly. It’s low brow. I liked it…to an extent.

The Corporation

The Corporation (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Jennifer Abbott, Mark Achbar
viewed: 02/20/06

This film is pretty disturbing. Disturbing and enlightening.

I definitely found the description of the rise of the corporation as an entity in America to be fascinating, how it evolved, in a sense, through loopholes and far outside of its initial intent. And though, in a way, I suppose, I knew that corporations are treated judicially as “a person”, I guess I didn’t know that explicitly. And it is interesting the way that the film makes a psychoanalytical analysis of “the corporation” as if it was a person and how it would essentially be seen as pathological.

The pervasiveness of the institution in contemporary society, the power handed over to organizations whose blind ambition is profits over humanity, and the archness of this situation in which we now sit is downright frightening. Living in a very politically “left” part of the world, one almost becomes a bit numbed by some of the rhetoric that is posed at the mainstream culture and politics of the US. I mean, I think that George W. Bush fronts the most horrific government that has possibly ever led this country, on so many fronts, but I do have a tendency to overlook the enormity of what all that represents. How far reaching this marriage of business and state has gone and the ramifications of the greed.

Living in the United States, at a middle class level, the opiates of society are the ease and comforts of the society. How sickeningly true it is to hear how this country’s largest moneymaking corporations exploit the world’s poor. How horrific the soullessness and callousness of the attitude of staking out the entire world, from every inch of the planet to its skies, down to the DNA of every living creature on the Earth.

The film is highly enlightening, though frightening. And while the film attempts to put a positive spin on the end, to show the ways that successes have been made at chipping away at this monstrous world of business, it is striking and depressing.

The whole point of a film like this, while trying to, no doubt, be as objective as it can, is essentially agit-prop. The film even ends with a few interviewees focusing on how ultimately, the actions must be that of the viewers. And it leaves me wondering how and what I might do in response. Does it mean that the film worked?

The New World

The New World (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Terrence Malick
viewed: 02/14/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said, daddy oh don’t you dare
“He gives me fever
“With his kisses
“Fever when he holds me tight
“Fever, I’m his missus
“So, daddy, won’t you treat him right”

Terrence Malick is rightfully considered an important director, despite the fact that he only has now four feature films to his thirty-plus years of industry experience. Badlands (1973) is an amazing film. Days of Heaven (1978) is quite stunning even though it features a fairly questionable cast. The Thin Red Line (1998), which I saw on its initial release, I found pretty stunning, as well.

Malick’s new film, The New World bears a lot of his stylistic and narrative character, which is unlike anyone else working in the relative mainstream of American film-making. Malick often shoots entirely in natural light and has an amazing eye for the natural landscapes, both flora and fauna. In thinking back about The Thin Red Line, often my head is primarily filled with the images of the north Australian jungle. And here again, the Virginia river land that the native people inhabit is amazingly photographed and bears so heavily on the subject matter. This tough, beautiful “new world” is seen through many sets of eyes, the natives, the English settlers, Malick’s, and the audience, both as the past and the present.

It strikes me what a significant story this is to tell, the initial meetings with a civilization that will be eventually decimated. The landing of an ignorant, though not intentionally evil, civilization. The story for the modern audience is one loaded with foreknowledge (assuming that one’s understanding of history is at least basic.) And it’s not surprising that the narrative of Captain Smith and Pocahontas (though she is never referred to by that name until the credits roll) is a striking human story that resonates throughout our changing perspectives on the history.

I am guessing, though I do not know, that this story is trying to adhere to the better knowledge that is currently available on the subject. From Pocahontas’ perspective, which this film might well have at its core, the move from the natural forest and encampments to the rough-hewn buildings and forts of the newcomers, she moves ultimately to England and the vast evolution of architecture and the management of nature. In the English gardens, the trees are all cut and lined in uniform rows and the hedges are shaped. The landscape is tamed. The churches huge and ornate. Pocahontas moves from very sexy little outfits of animal hides to the corseted heaviness of the period’s European couture.

Q’Orianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, is stunning. Malick and his camera adore her. She represents the beauty and humanity of the native culture, and perhaps more deeply than that the conflict between her culture and that of the European settlers as she is excommunicated from her father’s tribe and is assimilated by the English.

There is a lot here, so much so, that I am not really getting my head around it. I think that the film addresses a lot and that this is a monumental subject. The film has a somewhat stream-of-consciousness about it, with voice-overs from each of the main characters, internalizing moments, experiences, views. The narrative is ultimately fairly straightforward but is delivered in a loose-knit way that feels that it is not attempting at being definitive, but perhaps more personal and open.

It’s an honest endeavor, and there are admirable and beautiful things about it, but I think that the film is a bit of a mixed bag ultimately. I think in many ways it’s an ambitious subject, approached on a more human level, somewhat visceral, though I am not sure that it’s 100% successful. I don’t know what to fault for it, since I think much of it was quite strong. I don’t know. Maybe time will tell.

Corpse Bride

Corpse Bride (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
viewed: 02/10/06

I’ve been a fan of Tim Burton’s design style since I first became aware of him from his 1988 film Beetle Juice. I recall seeing some of his design illustrations for that film in a magazine and really liking his whole aesthetic. When The Nightmare Before Christmas came out in 1993, featuring his first foray into feature animation, I was surprised that he didn’t get involved in directing the film. But here, in Corpse Bride he returns, in part I suppose, directorially behind an animated film.

Burton’s visual aesthetic has always been his strongest point. As well, I think that his sense of humor has kept him largely enjoyable through his likable but flawed filmography.

But here, this film feels, to me, like all aesthetic and the rest of it is really almost a paint-by-numbers effort. The film’s greatest charm arises when the scenery moves to the land of the dead. It’s not an incredible step away from Halloweentown from Nightmare, really. And as much verve as composer Danny Elfman can bring can hardly mask how undistinguished his scores and songs are from one another. There is a veneer of design and visual pleasure here, but that doesn’t sustain itself for long.

Ultimately, this is a highly mediocre work, which is a shame, because it looks neat.

Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Stephen Chow
viewed: 02/04/06

A few friends had oft commented on how funny Stephen Chow is to me, but as familiar as I have/had been with Hong Kong films, I had never seen any of his stuff. So, when Kung Fu Hustle was getting all the buzz for being good and funny, I finally managed to get around to seeing it.

I don’t know how exemplary of his stuff it is. It’s pretty funny. It has some classically funny types of moments in the film like when Chow is calling out the villagers for a fight and the short guy turns out to be 7 feet tall and the guy with glasses comes out as utterly buff. The visual humor is straight out of the silent cinema in a way, but still effective when done right. Chow clearly has a knack for it. It’s a clear satire/homage to the kung fu genre, with its action sequences even directed by Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung. I guess this is what I considered its downside, that in some ways — and maybe this is my ignorance of the genre — that it was more homage than comedy at times.

I actually thought that it was pretty fun and I would be inclined to watch one of his more well-known films. But after asking some friends at work, I didn’t have any recommendations. Anyone?

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Werner Herzog
viewed: 01/30/06

This is a flawed but amazing documentary about self-proclaimed “Eco-Warrior” and “protector” of Grizzly bears, Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent 13 summers in Katmai National Park, Alaska, living among the bears, much more closely and dangerously than any sane person would. He spent his winters teaching children about Grizzlies and trying to drum up support for his efforts. Ultimately, Treadwell and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by a bear while staying in the “Grizzly Maze”, a densely forested and heavily roamed area of the park.

Treadwell meant well, very very much so, but his actions were criticized by naturalists and scientists even some of the native Alaskans because he crossed numerous boundaries with the animals. Director Werner Herzog notes frequently how Treadwell wanted to be a bear and how he lacked identification with humanity. Treadwell loves the bears deeply and psychotically, even going up and revelling in the warmth of the scat that one of his favorite female bears had just passed, noting that it “had just been inside her” and “was a part of her”. It’s not hard to guess that Treadwell’s death, winding up literally inside one of the bears, probably had some cosmic satisfaction in a sense, tragic as it was.

Herzog sees a lot in Treadwell’s life. An outsider, lost in the world to drugs and alcohol before discovering the Alaskan wilderness, Treadwell finds a spiritual sustenance in the world of the bears. Herzog also sees Treadwell as a filmmaker, and most of the footage of the film is actually that which Treadwell himself shot, some of which is quite stunning, particularly the brawl between two males over a female.

Herzog has amazing material to work with, great footage, a truly fascinating subject, a tragic human story, the beauty of the animals and the Alaskan country. Treadwell is clearly a subject that Herzog identifies with on some deep metaphysical level, and the big problem of the film is that Herzog tells us, quite literally tells us what he thinks. He notes how the chaos of the ice and snow on the other side of the mountains to him is a metaphor for Timothy Treadwell’s chaotic soul. He tells us what he thinks of humanity, how it differs from Treadwell. And the worst part is when he puts himself in the film, listening (inaudibly to the audience) to the audio tape of Treadwell and his girlfriend being killed, and then telling Treadwell’s friend that she should destroy the tape. Herzog’s strong German accent narrates the film and I think that some of the personal qualities that come through have meaningful reverberations. But there are numerous times that it’s just invasive and awkward.

He gets some really strange interviews with people, too. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy tells the details of the attack in an utterly bizarre fashion, so mannered and quirky, like something right out of David Lynch. Actually, almost all of the interviews that Herzog films are weird in this way to an extent.

This film, however, is stunning. Treadwell’s story is sad and amazing. He found his personal redemption in communing with the bears and the foxes. His overall lack of understanding of environmental issues around his beloved grizzlies is a great irony. Treadwell was off-center but passionate and gentle, telling the bears “I love you” in his high-pitched voice like one would with a pet cat. There are aspects of egomania in his self-promotion and lifestyle, too.

The bears themselves are amazing, too. There are two grizzlies at the San Francisco Zoo that were rescued from being euthanized because they were making trouble in their home in Yellowstone. They are my favorite animals at the zoo. Though the bears are sort of the co-stars of this film, their beauty and power are explicitly displayed.

A really great film.