Category Archives: Foreign

The Swindlers (2017, Jang Chang-won)

The Swindlers is all about being all about the con movie. No one in the film is meant to be trusted, though some of the characters are more sympathetic than others. The film is full of twists—the titular Swindlers aren’t a well-functioning unit, but a collection of blackmailed con artists and their corrupt district attorney boss—so someone is always either about to screw over someone else or has just gotten screwed over. How much screwing over everyone can take… well, the characters are meant to end up on a collision course. The sandbox they’re in is so small it’s inevitable, though sometimes for unrevealed reasons.

Those reveals aren’t exactly surprising, because the film invites an examination of its subterfuge; without the fun of unravelling the cons, The Swindlers wouldn’t work. More than not working, it wouldn’t exist. Writer and director Jang is very directly out to entertain, ditto his cast.

The film opens in flashback. South Koreans have just fallen victim, en masse, to a Ponzi scheme. The perpetrator escapes, with millions. Jang moves between various victims (and various kinds of victims) before settling on ostensible lead Bin Hyun. Bin’s a small-time crook, son to a world-class forger; turns out dad (Jung Jin-young) is also involved with the Ponzi guy. Bin gets a little bit of character development, mostly reactionary, then the movie jumps ahead to the present. And Bin disappears.

Instead, the film follows con artists Im Jin-ah, Ahn Se-ha, and Bae Seong-woo. Im is the gorgeous con woman who apparently likes jewelry (none of the three get any actual character details after their first two scenes). Ahn is the computer guy. Bae is the straight man. Yu Ji-tae is their boss, a corrupt district attorney who’s on a mission to shutdown the Ponzi schemer’s collaborators. Sometimes he uses his team of con artists, sometimes he uses the cops and his staff, sometimes he uses a street gang he’s also blackmailing. The film never really pauses to dwell on Yu’s villainy. But it’s considerable, especially as the film progresses, as he adds greed to his list of sins. Once hundreds of millions of won are in play, Yu becomes even less trustworthy.

Of course, the alternative is to trust Bin, who eventually aligns himself with Yu and team to take out the Ponzi schemer, who’s too smart to come back to Korea so instead he sends straight-edge stooge Park Sung-woong. Im ends up with the job of gaining Park’s trust, leading to some rather amusing sequences. Park and Im work well off each other; no one else in the film really has the opportunity to work up any rapport. So it’s nice they’re so good together.

Though it’s never clear how Ahn and Im, in particular, operate in such a dangerous world. Bae’s a brute and Bin and Yu are dueling masterminds, but Ahn and Im are kind of just nice people. Sure, they’re con artists, but they lack the temperament for all the potentially perilous situations they’re in.

Again, Jung doesn’t really care. He just wants Swindlers to amuse and he succeeds. Ahn and Im are both perfectly good. Bae’s good. Bin’s really likable. Choi Duk-moon’s hilarious as one of the marks. Yu’s not likable, but he’s a pleasant bad guy to follow around. He’s always got to be on guard with his team, which somehow gets him some sympathy. For as long as the movie needs it before things get more intense, once the money score aspect of it gets introduced. Because everyone’s got a different agenda they’re trying to achieve.

Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be Swindlers.

The film’s technically solid. Jang’s not a great director by any measure, but he’s competent at directing the actors through the various plot twists. Their general likability makes it work. Nice editing. The music is a little much but composer Bang Jun-seok seems to understand the film needs help and goes all out to provide it. If Jang were a better director, the music would be way too much. But its enthusiasm is good, given the circumstances.

The Swindlers is slight. It’s also consistently amusing and has a great pace. It’s cute. Not in a pejorative sense at all, but like many of its cast members (Bin, Im, Ahn, Park), it’s just cute.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jang Chang-won; director of photography, Lee Tae-yun; music by Bang Jun-seok; produced by Sung Chang-Yeon; released by Showbox.

Starring Bin Hyun (Hwang Ji-sung), Yu Ji-tae (Park Hui-su), Im Jin-ah (Choon-ja), Bae Seong-woo (Ko Seok-dong), Ahn Se-ha (Kim), Park Sung-woong (Kwak Seung-geon), Choi Duk-moon (Lee Kang-suk), and Jung Jin-young (Hwang Yoo-suk).


Advertisements

2046 (2004, Wong Kar-Wai)

2046 is a very strange sequel. Because it’s most definitely a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung and Lam Siu Ping are playing the same characters, a few years after that film. But the way writer and director Wong deals with the previous film and its events… he intentionally… well, I’m not sure if distorts is the right word, because it works out perfectly, but he delays it. 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it’s also a sequel to itself. The film starts in the mid-1960s with Leung moving home to Hong Kong from Singapore. Well, actually, wait. It starts in 2046, a CGI megalopolis with a train and some narration about riding the train and trying to leave 2046. Like it’s a place.

2046 also has Hong Kong significance—when the British “gave” Hong Kong back to China in 1996, the Chinese said Hong Kong would stay the same way for fifty years. So 2046. Of course, it’s also got a significance to In the Mood for Love. But back to the future for a moment. There’s some love sick guy on the train. He wants to leave 2046. His narration also refers to Love, even though nothing else does.

So all the coincidences collide for Leung—mid-sixties Hong Kong had some significant unrest and Leung spends his time sitting it out, dreaming of the future and writing a serial called… 2046 in a hotel room 2047, which he took because 2046 wasn’t ready yet. Leung brings a litany of nightclub friends with benefits affairs home while musing on the goings on around him at the hotel. Faye Wong is the owner’s older daughter, in love with Japanese guy Kimura Takuya. Her dad (Sum Wang) doesn’t approve. Leung distantly watches the heart attack and incorporates it into his stories, which is good since Kimura plays the story’s protagonist in the future stuff. Leung’s also got to fend off Sum’s younger daughter, Dong Jie, who’s too young.

Because even though Leung is supposed to be a casual sex addict, charming the ladies by night, moping about his previous heartache through his writing, there’s got to be a line. And Wong, director, tests it from time to time. It’s a good narrative hook and only there because we still need to like Leung for later, because later is going to get worse before it gets better. Leung narrates the film–eventually even the future stuff–and it’s a very controlled narration. Wong, writer and director, doesn’t want to show too much. Like Wong, actress, appearing for an almost cameo before disappearing, just like when the film opens on Leung and mystery woman Gong Li to set up the Hong Kong homecoming. Wong, writer, is delaying certain things but for very good reasons, which aren’t clear until the end of the second act.

Because it’s not just Leung’s story; there’s also a second story-in-the-story, which Leung writes for writing partner and lovesick buddy Faye Wong for a while in the middle. It’s got a full narrative arc for future guy Kimura and even future Faye Wong. And that narrative arc is later going to matter for Leung and the film. It’s an exceptionally complicated narrative structure. Wong, writer, fractures the narrative in a lot of major ways, sometimes technically surprising ones (but the surprise isn’t the right reaction because they’re inevitable). But he lays out this always forward layer too. For the viewer, who is watching the events of Leung’s life—with tangents—but seeing Leung’s reaction to those events. Macro-reactions, not micro. So very deliberate plotting.

2046 has more than its share of “why is Wong doing this” head-scratchers, but they’re always the exact right move. Because while Wong, director, is keeping with Leung in the present, experiencing new events, Wong, just writer, needs to move the plot in peculiar directions. The film’s got these multiple, dense narrative tense layers and Wong, writer, needs to move between them sometimes rapidly, sometimes not. Wong, director—and with great editing from William Chang and music from Umebayashi Shigeru—has to figure out a way to trigger these movements stylistically. It’s gorgeously done.

The most drastic of the three big narrative shifts is someone I can’t believe I got 700 words into a post about 2046 and haven’t yet—Zhang Ziyi. She’s Leung’s first significant love interest. Meaning she falls in love with him and he treats her like shit.

Remember when I said it was important to like Leung? It’s when he breaks Zhang’s heart, which isn’t really a spoiler because it’s almost still first act stuff. If you took out the future stuff, it’d be first act stuff. 2046—a sequel—is initially just about Leung’s really sexy love affair with his neighbor, Zhang. During that time period, Zhang gets a lot more to do than Leung. It’s not exactly from her perspective, but Wong, director, makes sure it’s real close.

So, in the second act, 2046 becomes a sequel to 2046’s first act, which was a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Only as things go on, it turns out 2046’s first act is a sequel to the end of the second act flashback, which is a sequel to In the Mood for Love. The more Wong, writer, reveals about Leung, either through the present action, flashback, or the future story stuff… the more the narrative distance changes. Narrative distance in this case also taking into account narrative sympathies; assumed intentions as far as Leung goes. 2046 isn’t a mystery, but Wong does almost structure it as one. Really, I guess, the more appropriate phrase would be a secret. 2046 is a secret and Wong is very careful about how he wants to tell it.

Of the three female leads, the best performance is Zhang. Faye Wong is really, really, really close but Zhang wins out. Then Gong. Gong it’s the role. She doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of time as the other two. Gong’s really is the extended cameo it seemed like Wong was getting. Only Gong’s cameo seemed like a really short one when it opened the movie. Because Wong, writer and director, is so forcefully deliberate.

So good.

Leung’s really good. He’s not as good as Zhang, Wong, or Gong. In a way, it’s not his place in the story. Where he’s protagonist. And everything revolves around him. He shouldn’t be overshadowing in that narrative, at least not the way Wong wants to tell it. It’s a very delicate, precise performance. Lots of nuance. It’s outstanding.

It’s just not as good as any of the lead actresses.

Carina Lau has a nice cameo, Wang has some good moments, Ping is hilarious. Not comic relief hilarious, just momentarily hilarious hilarious.

High nineties majority of the film is inside. Restaurants, the hotel rooms, occasionally cars. Quiet moments between characters either on their own or in crowds. There’s one standout party scene, which opens things up for a while, but the scene’s still focused on Leung. Again, the film is exceptionally precise.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung. Great production design from editor Chang. Great everything.

2046 movie probably even works better if you haven’t seen In the Mood for Love, which is a singular description—and, in this case, compliment—for a sequel.

But it’s still a very direct, very intentional sequel.

It’s magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung; edited by William Chang; music by Umebayashi Shigeru; production designer, Chang; released by Block 2 Pictures.

Starring Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Chow Mo-wan), Gong Li (Su Li-zhen), Wong Faye (Wang Jing-wen), Kimura Takuya (Wang Jing-wen’s Boyfriend), Zhang Ziyi (Bai Ling), Carina Lau (Lulu), Dong Jie (Wang Jie-wen), Sum Wang (Mr. Wang), and Lam Siu Ping (Ah Ping).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ULTIMATE 2000S BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DREW OF DREW'S MOVIE REVIEWS AND KIM OF TRANQUIL DREAMS.


RELATED

Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


RELATED

Icarus XB 1 (1963, Jindrich Polák)

It’s very difficult, even when an effects shot fails, to not be impressed with director Polák’s practical ambitions with Icarus XB 1. The film needs effects shot-it’s about a starship on twenty-eight month voyage from Earth to Alpha Centauri. The first starship to take that trip. So there’s general establishing shot stuff in space but there’s also an exploratory thing going on. Both for the audience and the characters. There’s an enthusiasm in the effects and sets, which the film chucks in the clunky third act when Icarus stops being a rumination on the human condition in starship and instead becomes a thriller.

The film opens with Otto Lackovic starring into the camera and talking about how Earth is dead. Future movie, last survivor, Earth is dead, got it. Then it turns out he’s looking into a security camera and people are watching him and so not last survivor. Then there are the awesome opening titles, which come up during a tour of the ship. Polák shoots Panavision and he composes well for that wide frame but it does mean sometimes it’s more obvious than not the effects aren’t great. Set design effects. And Jan Kalis’s photography is intentionally unforgiving. It’s like Icarus has amazing production design-from Karel Lukas and Jan Zázvorka-but not ability to fully implement it.

But then instead of being about Lackovic, the film is about the ship’s crew in general. First manned mission to Alpha Centuari, sometime in 2300s. Earth has become a lot more peaceful we’ll learn as the crew talks to one another about it. And besides a birthday party with dancing and some of the romance between Ruzena Urbanova and Jozef Adamovic, everything dramatic in Icarus is muted. Marcela Martínková is going to have the first space baby-which husband Jaroslav Mares doesn’t know about and then just turns into him occasionally checking on her. It’s not like they had anything big to do before that subplot. Guys flirt with Irena Kacírková for a while, until the party scene. Not really a subplot. But it does establish Kacírková for later scenes, which is nice, since the film-despite having almost an equal split between men and women-is all about the men. It gets around the men doing things instead of the women by the future just being so chill everyone gets along.

There’s the occasional scene with captain Zdenek Stepánek (who’s fine but narratively immaterial), quirky old guy scientist Frantisek Smolík, alpha male Radovan Lukavský, and crew sociologist and single woman in a leadership role Dana Medrická. Medrická gets the last word on everything, but only because everyone’s always in agreement. It’s kind of sneaky, especially when you notice how Kacírková’s character development stops in the script but Kacírková keeps going with it.

On the trip, there’s some external drama-they discover an alien spacecraft-then get into this trouble with a “Dark Star.” Its radiation is causing chronic fatigue. The film employs an iffy, eratic narration device (presumably Stepánek) and so it’s clear the danger isn’t total. Plus we still haven’t caught up with the first scene, which-it becomes clear pretty quick-is a framing device.

A pointless one too. Effective in the moment, but once the film’s in thriller gear for the last act… kind of a weird diversion. Icarus spends its first hour (running eighty-some minutes) sticking with the cast no matter what. Polák adjusting the narrative distance to do the thriller stuff crowds the cast out of the picture, even when one of the cast actually gets to play lead for a while, in a film otherwise without one.

The acting’s solid. Polák has good impulses and instincts; he definitely facilitates his cast and they’re able to get the future people on a starship but still relatable thing down. Smolík is never as cute as he’s supposed to be. He drags his old robot on the starship with them-even though modern robots are much better and never seen-and the robot is this big clunky thing with a fish bowl head (with electronics in it) and very little personality.

The joke seems to be about the lack of personality but it’s not like Smolík-despite exposition to the contrary-sells an affection for the robot. Similarly the avoidance of the Martínková and Mares pregnancy subplot, particularly of Martínková, who doesn’t even get to have her own scenes, she’s support in Mares’s. Again, the weird presence and avoidance of the women.

Lukavský’s good. Medrická’s good. Kacírková’s good. The interchangeable male bridge crew members are all fine.

Technically, besides the film looking a little dodgy (budgetarily speaking), Icarus is more than solid. Kalis’s photography, Josef Dobrichovský’s editing. Polák’s just a tad impatient of a director. Again, budget thing.

The script-from Polák and Pavel Juráček-is more literate than thorough, more precise than thoughtful. Icarus’s got a good idea, with some strong technical aspects and performances, but the overall execution is just too shaky.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jindrich Polák; screenplay by Polák and Pavel Jurácek; director of photography, Jan Kalis; edited by Josef Dobrichovský; music by Zdenek Liska; produced by Rudolf Wolf for Filmové studio Barrandov.

Starring Zdenek Stepánek (Captain Vladimir Abajev), Frantisek Smolík (Anthony Hopkins), Dana Medrická (Nina Kirova), Radovan Lukavský (Commander MacDonald), Irena Kacírková (Brigitta), Otto Lackovic (Michal), Jozef Adamovic (Zdenek Lorenc), Ruzena Urbanova (Eva), Jaroslav Mares (Milek Wertbowsky), Marcela Martínková (Steffa Wertbowsky), Miroslav Machácek (Marcel Bernard), Jirí Vrstála (Erik Svenson), Rudolf Deyl (Ervin Herold), Martin Tapák (Petr Kubes), and Svatava Hubenáková (MacDonald’s wife).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ROBOTS IN FILM BLOGATHON HOSTED BY QUIGGY OF THE MIDNITE DRIVE-IN AND HAMLETTE OF HAMLETTE'S SOLILOQUY.


RELATED