Sorum (2001, Yun Jong-chan)

Sorum’s approach makes the film singular. While the DVD cover certainly suggests a ghost story, the first half of the film does not. Instead, it’s a film about urban apathy, just one with an uncanny style. Director Yun really does know how to make a film–one scene in the film had me ready to proclaim it the greatest journal of self-destruction since Leaving Las Vegas (but then the film changed again, so I didn’t get to make the claim). Yun sprinkles Sorum with breather moments–romantic scenes, still highly intense, but at the opposite of the feelings he infused into the majority–and the film’s more an example of his ability than anything else. Sorum is not a good film. While Yun’s writing, on the scene level, appears to be excellent (I’m going off subtitles, so who knows?), and he never really sells the film out, never really exploits it, it just doesn’t turn out to be meaningful. There are spikes of content, but it’s about the confirmation of the supernatural in the end.

The ghost stories maneuver these confirmations, keeping them either full in the viewer’s mind or full out–though I can’t think of a ghost story where there isn’t really a ghost in the end, just because of the audience’s expectations–and Sorum’s maneuvering is fine. But the maneuvering inherently sells out the work of the actors and the work of the good writing. It’s cryogenics. It can go tabula rosa. It has to take no responsibility for itself. Sorum manages to delay this cop-out–even the expectation of a cop-out, because the first hour is such a weird film, I thought it was possible–until the last fifteen or twenty minutes. Then it goes. It has a beautiful few scenes of people in terrible situations, just awful situations, then it cops out. Ghost stories have no responsibility. People stories have tons. Responsibility is rarely what an audience wants to address.

The acting in Sorum is good, though the male lead, Kim Myeong-min, can’t hold on to the character throughout. The female lead, Jang Jin-Young, does such excellent work, the cop-out does her the most disrespect. I know when Kubrick made The Shining, he didn’t tell the little kid it was a horror movie and shot it so he’d never know… I never got the feeling from Jang she was just starring in a genre picture (similar, for example, to Toni Collette in The Sixth Sense), while it was obvious Kim knew what was going on.

I tend not to see American horror movies because of who’s directing and writing them–and the exploitative sense the genre has come to embrace–but, again, Korea knows how to make fluff better than Americans. Horror films are just as much fluff as romantic comedies and I suppose if Sorum’s possible quality was so apparent throughout, I wouldn’t be so upset. Maybe I’m not upset. What’s a good synonym for dejected? After watching Sorum, I am dispirited. Not incredibly dispirited (it’s not like Vanilla Sky or something), but dispirited nonetheless.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Yun Jong-chan; director of photography, Hwang Seo-shik; edited by Kyeong Min-ho; music by Park Jung-ho and Yun Mi-na; produced by Baek Jong-hak; released by DreamMax Films.

Starring Kim Myeong-min (Yong-hyun), Jang Jin-yeong (Sun-yeong), Gi Ju-bong, Ahn Jo and Ki-hyeon Kim.


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Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969, Burt Kennedy)

From the first scene of Support Your Local Sheriff!, I thought of one thing: Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks lifted the tone of the frontier townspeople scenes, just giving them ribald dialogue. In Sheriff, the humor poked at the Western stereotypes is smarter and funnier. The characters themselves are–in character–aware of the absurdities of the genre (without having to drive off set). It’s surprising, as Sheriff is on DVD, no one else has ever made this observation about the two films….

Sheriff sets itself firmly in a traditional Western context with its cast. In addition to having Walter Brennan in it, it has Harry Morgan and Jack Elam. Seeing Brennan do comedy is a wonderful sight. James Garner is great in the lead and he just walks through the film. It keeps him busy and keeps him funny and Sheriff reminded me there once was a Western comedy genre. The Western used to be such an American film staple, it had room for its own subcategories. The Western–with a reusable set–used to be enough. Get some actors, a script, and you could turn out a good (but not great) film. Kevin Costner basically followed that principle when he made Open Range, only applied his more developed reasoning of the genre to the principle–and he made a great film there.

Maybe no one ever recognized Sheriff because it’s a comedy, not a spoof. You’re laughing at the characters and situations or along with the characters, not along with the actors and there’s a substantial difference. Since it is a comedy, Sheriff has a number of nice character relationships going. Actually, all of the character relationships Garner is involved in (with his boss Morgan, his sidekick Elam, nemesis Brennan) are great. More, there’s the romance with Joan Hackett, who’s hilarious as Morgan’s clumsy daughter. Her scenes with Garner have this playful dialogue where each statement goes through an examination by the other character then a reexamination by the original speaker. It’s hard to explain, but it’s quite funny. Also funny is Bruce Dern as Brennan’s dimwitted son who sets off the film’s series of events. I never knew Dern could be so funny. He should have gotten an Oscar for it.

Support Your Local Sheriff! operates on a level anyone with a reasonable knowledge of Westerns can understand (you need to know Walter Brennan and recognize Jack Elam). Or maybe not. My fiancée doesn’t know Walter Brennan’s Western films (I don’t think), but she did recognize Jack Elam, and she was laughing throughout….

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Burt Kennedy; produced and written by William Bowers; director of photography, Harry Stradling Jr.; edited by George W. Brooks; music by Jeff Alexander; released by United Artists.

Starring James Garner (Jason McCullough), Joan Hackett (Prudy Perkins), Walter Brennan (Pa Danby), Harry Morgan (Olly Perkins), Jack Elam (Jake), Henry Jones (Henry Jackson), Bruce Dern (Joe Danby), Willis Bouchey (Thomas Devery), Gene Evans (Tom Danby), Walter Burke (Fred Johnson), Dick Peabody (Luke Danby) and Chubby Johnson (Brad).


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Shenandoah (1965, Andrew V. McLaglen)

In addition to being the first film of Andrew V. McLaglen’s I’ve seen (which is quite an achievement, considering how much he directed), Shenendoah is the first film I’ve seen where James Stewart plays the patriarch. Unless Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation counts and I don’t think it does, not like Shenendoah. The film sets Stewart as the father of seven sons and one daughter, Virginian farmers sitting out the Civil War. In its approach, initially anyway, the film owes a lot to Friendly Persuasion. There’s a calm friendliness to the family and the first forty minutes is spent listening to Stewart’s fatherly monologues (half of them are excellent, half are mediocre; the one he gives future son-in-law Doug McClure is wonderful). The film establishes its primary characters in these forty minutes–besides Stewart, the youngest son and the married son (played by Patrick Wayne, who’s great) get the spotlight, as does the courting McClure and the daughter–but there’s little distinguishing about the five other sons. They have names, except only one of them even approaches being recognizable, and their purpose in the film is to support.

At the forty-minute mark, or around it, the film changes gears and becomes the most startling anti-war film I’ve seen about the Civil War. Unfortunately, the film’s politics are incredibly safe–these Virginians don’t own slaves because they don’t think its right not to do your own work (my frequent observation about people with lawn crews who have such pride in the foliage they picked from a catalog) and they wouldn’t help a friend fight for his slaves, which doesn’t really matter since the family seems not to have any friends–but there’s never any comment about slavery being wrong. Shenendoah is a Western and Western filmmakers knew their audiences. There’s a little bit of the friendship between the youngest son and a same-aged slave to distinguish it, but it’s hard to believe Stewart’s frequent monologues would never broach the subject. As an anti-war film, though effective, it’s as unbiased as Gone With the Wind. Shenendoah shows the South and the Confederate soldiers as passives, only being acted upon by the aggressive and, at times, evil North. George Kennedy–youngish–shows up for a minute as a kind-hearted Northern officer, but he’s the single humane portrayal of the North in the whole film.

Even more complicated is the film’s morality. Tragedy strikes Stewart’s family in some awful (and unexpected) ways. It’s a bit of a rough film–even though the score maintains the playfulness of the first forty minutes–and those minutes were spent making the audience care for the characters. Even if their names aren’t clear. It’s an intentional move, so the question arises whether the tragedy is Stewart’s just reward for sitting out the Civil War, for abandoning his duty to Virginia. As complicated as those questions could be, Shenendoah doesn’t invite much analysis. It’s entertains and makes the viewer care about what’s going on. The rest isn’t particularly important (its greatest crime is giving Wayne the small part).

As for director McLaglen… if I didn’t know his name from so many other Westerns, I’d never bother to look it up or to have noticed it. He’s fine but wholly unimpressive except for the battle scenes, which are some of the finest I can recall.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen; written by James Lee Barrett; director of photography, William H. Clothier; edited by Otho Lovering; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Robert Arthur; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (Charlie Anderson), Doug McClure (Lt. Sam), Glenn Corbett (Jacob Anderson), Patrick Wayne (James Anderson), Rosemary Forsyth (Jennie Anderson), Phillip Alford (Boy Anderson), Katharine Ross (Mrs. Ann Anderson), Charles Robinson (Nathan Anderson), Jim McMullan (John Anderson), Tim McIntire (Henry Anderson), Gene Jackson (Gabriel), Paul Fix (Dr. Tom Witherspoon), Denver Pyle (Pastor Bjoerling) and George Kennedy (Col. Fairchild).


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The Face of Another (1966, Teshigahara Hiroshi)

Novelists make interesting screenwriters (though maybe not as much any more). When they adapt their own work, however, it might not be the best idea. The adaptation allows them to package their interpretation of themselves, as opposed to actually adapting a work from one medium to the next. The Face of Another, adapted by Abe Kôbô from his own novel, is a good example of how not to adapt a novel into a film. Besides including some decidedly bad visuals–not everything can be visualized for film and work in the context of a film, after all–he also made some really bad pacing decisions. The first hour of the film, about a man whose face is horribly scarred in an accident, drags along. It opens well with a scene between the man and his wife and the marriage scenes do play well in the film and should have been it’s secondary focus. However, most of the first hour is spent with the man (who is in bandages for that first hour, until he gets a life-like mask in the second) and his psychiatrist. The psychiatrist somehow becomes the film’s focus, which doesn’t fit….

What does fit the film is the rather novelistic juxtaposition between the man and a pretty young girl with a radiation burn (from Nagasaki) on her face. She appears in the second half and the film switches focus a few times. While he’s desperately trying to fix his psychical appearance amid people who really don’t care (except his wife), she’s kind and good and trying to help people even though child point and scream. In her scenes, there’s a real sense of the post-war condition. His scenes aren’t just missing that setting, they’re missing any subtext. The psychiatrist’s mad dreams of lost identity are a poor substitute for anything going on with the man below the surface. Even the relationship with the wife, which disappears for a good forty minutes only to come back with some promise, fizzles in the end. The end really fizzles as the film gets visually theatrical and Abe keeps novelistic elements film is incapable of presenting.

The acting is excellent, which makes the film’s faults all the more glaring. If this cast couldn’t iron them out, they must be bad. The scarred girl, Irie Miki, never appeared in any other films. The lead, Nakadai Tatsuya, has an impressive emotional range given the first the bandages, then the mask, which stays static, and the character is too shallow. As the film’s configured, the suffering wife (Kyō Machiko) should have been the protagonist, but obviously she isn’t. Only the psychiatrist, Hira Mikijiro, gives a less than stellar performance in one of the main roles, but since his character changes so much from scene to scene, it’s not really his fault.

When I started Face of Another, I was expecting something great, but as it drug on and on–and particularly when it failed to stay on the good course it found in the second hour–I really wondered whether or not a novelist should be adapting his own work. Especially Abe (though I’ve only read one of his novels), who seems to have a good setup then a poor resolution.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Teshigahara Hiroshi; written by Abe Kôbô, based on his novel; director of photography, Segewa Hiroshi; edited by Shuzui Fusako; music by Takemitsu Toru; production designer, Awazu Kiyoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Okuyama), Hira Mikijiro (Doctor), Kishida Kyoko (Nurse), Kyo Machiko (Mrs. Okuyama), Okada Eiji (Director) and Irie Miki (Girl).


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