Asako in Ruby Shoes (2000, Lee Je-yong)

I’m a fan of Korean films. My introduction to the industry and my love for it is well documented here at The Stop Button, or at least it will be as soon as I get the archives up and going (next month, hopefully). And I’ve seen some great Korean films. I’ve seen some good ones too, but I have seen a couple great ones. But they were great comedies. These films manage to combine romantic comedy with the human heart in conflict with itself better than any American film has done since… well, I can’t even think of one off the top of my head, but I’ll bet it was in black and white. In other words, as of yesterday, I had never seen a great Korean romantic drama. The ones I had seen, some were good, some were just all right (I’ve yet to turn off a Korean film)….

I made a note to myself at the beginning of Asako in Ruby Shoes: “Films that start with the musical score over the production company logos… it’s a bold move.” Such a movie either signals something awful–bold because it’s obnoxious–or something else. If it weren’t for Asako, I wouldn’t have an example of something else. It means you’re establishing the film with its music before it begins… you’re not giving the viewer a moment outside the context of your film. Its literary equivalent is telling some of your story in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data information.

There were moments–about an hour in–when I thought Asako was going to fail. Well, not fail, but slope down and level off at two and a half or three. The film had just moved back to one story-line from another and the intensity lessened. Except–I realized at the end of Asako–Lee knows what he’s doing. I found I was waiting for the end, for example, to see how good he was going to do, not hoping for it not to fail too much. That sensation is exciting, since I don’t have it very often. Maybe with Bringing Out the Dead, since I’d forgotten its ending, I got excited. It doesn’t happen often enough.

It’s hard to describe the film though and it’s a shitty one to write-up in a lot of ways, because there’s no easy way for one to see it. Actually, I suppose you could join Nicheflix or buy it for eight bucks off eBay. There’s a transfer issue with the DVDs though, so you can’t deinterlace it, which is a pain when you’re watching it on a computer, which wants to deinterlace. (Deinterlacing, generally speaking, is a good idea). So I had to go through a whole process to watch this film–and I was only fifteen minutes in when I discovered how to correct the problem–but those first fifteen minutes were amazing. There’s some other film that kept having these wonderful false endings, where each time you expected it and were happy with it, then they kept getting better and better. I can’t remember what it was or when I saw it.

I’m already at the longest post of the year to date and I haven’t said much about the acting. Both the leads are great. Lee Jung-Jae is famous and I’ve seen a bunch of his stuff (though none of it hinted that he could be as good as he is in Asako). Tachibana Misato is apparently not famous and has two films available through Netflix–both are action movies starring Americans who couldn’t get work here anymore–which is too bad, because her performance is probably the better of the two. And he’s real good. They must be good, I hardly ever mention actors who don’t have some marquee value.

If I didn’t have to get up in four or five hours, I’d watch Asako again. It’s that good. (It’s so good I just used ‘that’ in a lousy way, all for emphasis).

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by Lee Je-yong; director of photography, Hong Gyeong-pyo; music by Cho Sung-woo; produced by Koo Boo-han; released by Cinema Service.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (U-In), Tachibana Misato (Aya), Awata Urara (Rie) and Kim Min-hie (Mia).


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Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan)

What a sprawling and ambitious film… oh, wait, it’s actually neither. Syriana has a bunch of good performances (Matt Damon being the stand-out lead and Amanda Peet or Alexander Siddig being the supporting, with William Hurt turning in a really nice extended cameo), but with the exception of the Muslim suicide bomber, it’s emotionally empty… soulless. I did have one problem with the suicide bomber–he strikes at target whose destruction would immediately improve the world. That’s not how suicide bombers actually act (the world situation would be a lot different if they did).

Describing the three main, failed plotlines–man has to come to terms with his son’s death, man has to come to terms with his career ending, man has to come to terms with racism–makes Syriana sound rather promising. But Gaghan displays even more disinterest in the human condition than his script for Traffic did. He’s not writing about people brought together by coincidence or passion, these people are all brought together by the situation. Syriana is dramatic fiction. Trying to present it as a multiple camera, pseudo-documentary does disservice to all the good work the actors put in to the film.

The politics Syriana discusses are probably not common knowledge, but a common American isn’t well-informed (or interested). There’s nothing in this film that has been documented, nothing that five minutes of a Noam Chomsky interview wouldn’t elucidate further. It’s political science for people who watch “Friends.” I really didn’t expect much more from the film (or Gaghan), so I’m not disappointed. Seeing the good acting (though Jeffrey Wright was so passive he disappeared and it’s the first bad Christopher Plummer performance I’ve ever seen), particularly Hurt and Peet, was a treat and the film’s only a couple hours long. I just wish I hadn’t had to pee for the second hour.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Gaghan; screenplay by Gaghan, suggested by a book by Robert Baer; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Dan Weil; produced by Jennifer Fox, Michael Nozik and Georgia Kacandes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), William C. Mitchell (Bennett Holiday Sr.), Shahid Ahmed (Saleem Ahmed Khan) and Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai).


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Kagemusha (1980, Kurosawa Akira)

When I was a kid, I was always curious about Kagemusha because of the VHS box art. It was a silhouette of the battle armor, giving it a real eerie feel about it. Like it was a sequel or remake of Night of the Demon. Later, I learned it was not a supernatural samurai movie. I started getting into Kurosawa about the same time I discovered aspect ratios and laserdiscs and I never got around to seeing much… Most Kurosawa discs were Criterion and expensive or Fox and expensive. I actually just came across my laserdisc copy of Kagemusha, still in shrink-wrap, which I got on remainder.

It’s an incredibly impersonal film. IMDb confirmed it’s based on historical events, which explains why much of it feels like a history lesson. It’s a long two hours and forty minutes too, but I don’t think anything could actually go. Actually, I think the film would probably benefit from more. There are a handful of human relationships that work in the film–most of them since there are so few–and there are a lot of moments that work. But these moments often interrupt expository scenes and lecture moments.

Kagemusha is still a good film, it’s just not very deep. It was apparent, an hour in, the film could only end one way (and it did). But this realization made the next hour and a half a little labored… Just because we know it can only end one way doesn’t mean the film should treat us like we know it. There’s also an attempt at commentary on warfare that pops up in the third act and, while it could start a different film, it certainly doesn’t rightly end this one. But, it’s still good… it’s just not exciting (it’s no Night of the Demon, for instance).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa and Ide Masato; directors of photography, Saitô Takao and Ueda Masaharu; music by Ikebe Shinichirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Nakadai Tatsuya (Takeda Shingen / Kagemusha), Yamazaki Tsutomu (Takeda Nobukado), Hagiwara Kenichi (Takeda Katsuyori), Nezu Jinpachi (Tsuchiya Sohachiro), Otaki Hideji (Yamagata Masakage), Ryu Daisuke (Oda Nobunaga), Yui Masayuki (Tokugawa Ieyasu) and Momoi Kaori (Otsuyanokata).


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La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz)

Someone told me to see La Haine about six years ago. I don’t know why I never got around to it then. Later, in college, I saw some of Kassovitz’s Café au Lait and I remember having some major problems with it. La Haine doesn’t have any major problems, maybe just a significant, minor one, having to do with predictability.

La Haine kept reminding me of Scorsese, but not a film he’d ever made. There’s a Taxi Driver reference that put me in that frame of mind, but the one night pacing of the film reminded me of After Hours. Both films do it well, but have nothing else in common. The acting might be the strongest part of La Haine. I finally understand some of Vincent Cassel’s appeal (he’s really good in this film and I imagine the problem with him in anything else I’ve seen him in is the English). Still, he’s nowhere near as good as Hubert Koundé, who reminds of Sidney Poiter the way Mark Ruffalo reminds of Marlon Brando. The third lead, Saïd Taghmaoui is fine, but he’s the closest thing the film’s got to comic relief (though I kept wondering what I’d seen him in–The Good Thief).

For the majority of the film, Kassovitz doesn’t preach. He has a birds-eye shot moving through the projects that isn’t preachy, he has these lovely unresolved tensions between the three characters–he has a guy seeing a cow–and never gets preachy about it. I don’t even know if the predictability is meant to be preachy, but when you open with a voice over anecdote from one of the characters, there are limits to how much it can matter, how often you can refer to it. The experience of watching the film cannot be summarized into this anecdote… and Kassovitz tries to fit it in and it fails. He went from being gentle to clanking garbage can lids together.

Regardless, it’s an excellent film and it actually has me queuing Café au Lait, which I never thought I’d do….

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz; director of photography, Pierre Aïm; edited by Kassovitz and Scott Stevenson; music by Assassin; production designer, Giuseppe Ponturo; produced by Christophe Rossignon; released by MKL Distribution.

Starring Vincent Cassel (Vinz), Hubert Koundé (Hubert), Saïd Taghmaoui (Sayid), Karim Belkhadra (Samir) and Edouard Montoute (Darty).


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