Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Chaser

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This film is so Korean. The way it is shot and the way the story is told doesn't conform to the way many Americans think genre clues should be presented and adhered to. At it's heart, The Chaser is a crime drama about a serial killer and the guy who's chasing him, but it evolves from many different angles. It's a comedy of errors in the way the police and politicians are portrayed; a melodrama with its inclusion of the precocious little girl who belongs to the woman serving as the film's primary "chase" and investigative point; a psychological thriller in the way the serial killer messes with the minds of the police; a mildly gory film in the way the bad guy uses a hammer and chisel; a bit of a tragedy in the way it ends. The only thing missing from this film is romance. Thank god they didn't make one of the missing girls a love interest of the pimp—he's only after the money they owe him. That's where the brilliance of the chase begins.

There's a fight scene early on where our protagonist, an ex-detective gone bad turned pimp, is beating the crap out of some guy he thinks has kidnapped and sold some of his girls. A long uphill foot chase precedes the brawl so both combatants are extremely winded when the fighting begins—punches don't land and there's a girly incompetence to the whole thing, which is to say, it's realistic. After finally landing a few punches that subdue his opponent momentarily, the pimp gets up and starts kicking him in disgust. He's very angry, still a bit winded and out of control. One of his kicks only grazes its target causing him to lose his balance and fall on his butt, and because of momentum he begins to roll and his feet fly up in the air. It seems funny, but it's not. You have to sneak in your chuckle as he gets up and continues kicking the guy. When he's finally pummeled his adversary into unconsciousness, he uses his foot to roll him onto his side so he can get to the wallet in his back pocket and ID him. He attempts to sit on him, not to keep him down, but because he's bone tired from all the fighting. He doesn't land squarely and ends up rolling on his butt again. It seems funny but it's not.

After the fight scene both men are brought to the police station for questioning. Because the pimp is an ex-detective with a reputation, the cops initially sympathize with the other guy, thinking the pimp over-reacted—not to mention the causal fender-bender that brought the two men together in the first place. The pimp doesn't know that the other guy just took a hammer and chisel to the head of the girl he is trying to get back, he thinks she's just freshly been sold, making his sense of urgency misplaced, where it remains throughout most of the film. It's kind of awkward for the police to find much urgency in one pimp accusing another of stealing one of his girls. The bad guy insists he didn't sell the girl and then mumbles under his breathe "I killed her", and confesses in great detail how he killed her and several other girls. The pimp screams at the cops, "Can't you see he's just pretending to be crazy now?"

And so it goes. We know there's been killing going on and we know who's been doing it from very early on in the film but it manages to remain suspenseful throughout. The Chaser is a gripping thriller from the beginning until a few minutes from the end. The two main characters are portrayed with impeccable nuance. It's Yun-seok Kim's performance as the bewildered pimp that takes this film to great heights. There are so many things that don't go the way he wants them to, like people hanging up on him when he's talking to them on the phone, a little girl who startles him and asks too many smart questions, the cops can't do anything right; and every time, his subdued response of confused disbelief made me laugh. He brings a Kang-ho Song-ish melancholy humor to the film, (I can't think of an American actor to compare him to), while Jung-woo Ha as the impotent serial killer is so normal and unmoved it's creepy.

There are a handful of groan out loud plot moves in The Chaser, but so what. There are also more than a handful of plot moves this film doesn't do, moves that most people will be guessing it will do, that it more than makes up for it. This is a film I know I'll watch again just for the performance of it. The plot won't matter. It's that good.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Tôkyô Sonata

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Parting the veil on a Japanese household teetering on the verge of collapse, "Tokyo Sonata" may be director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's most conventional work-if conventional is the right word for a film that explores the contemporary family dynamic with such brooding fortitude. The renowned Japanese horror filmmaker has created a startlingly candid portrait of domestic life in "Tokyo Sonata," a film that, by evoking the waking nightmares of repressed souls, brims with a terror of its own accord.
Businessman Ryuhei Sasaki, victimized by economic downsizing after his company terminates his job, chooses to hide his predicament from his family by roaming the streets of Tokyo during daytime. His wife Megumi juggles housewife duties and a tenuous relationship with her oldest son Takashi, whose desire to break away from tradition echoes the detachment of Japanese youth in a society wreathed in materialism. The youngest member of the family, Kenji, rebels against authority yet displays sensitivity beyond his age when he discovers an innate passion for piano.
Juxtaposing tight interior shots of living rooms with panoramic compositions of urban sprawl, Kurosawa imbues the film with something of an otherworldly presence-a haunting, dreamlike aura that pervades "Tokyo Sonata" as its dysfunctional family continues to crumble inwardly. Conversations dissipate; lies build on previous lies; a mother's love is torn between duty and empathy. Humiliated by his jobless situation yet determined to maintain his patriarchal status, Ryuhei physically abuses Kenji for secretly taking piano lessons after browbeating Megumi for allowing Takashi to join the military. Recession-plagued Tokyo, already a landscape of existential lament, gradually takes a backseat to familial destruction.
The film's blend of domestic drama and social commentary is both poignant and timely. Office workers like Ryuhei and his colleagues are portrayed as ironic victims of the Japanese male dynamic, driven by their obligations to home and work yet completely unwilling to compromise after hitting rock bottom. In displaying the failure of authority in a culture that revolves around it, Kurosawa draws poignant contrasts. "We're like a slowly sinking ship," grieves an unemployed friend of Ryuhei. "The lifeboats are gone, the water's up to our mouths." Like a vessel slowly sliding into oblivion, ideals built around workplaces and households slowly disintegrate, replaced by coldness and bitter angst.
Tellingly, "Tokyo Sonata" eventually mirrors these systematic collapses by venturing into surreal territory. In one of the film's most affecting sequences, an afternoon nap turns into a chilling seance when Takashi returns home from the war, saying to his mother, "I killed so many people." Megumi's troubled psyche finally begins to eat away at her maternal strength. When a wayward burglar abducts her, and Ryuhei and Kenji encounter catastrophic situations, the film's quiet buildup escalates into irreversible mayhem.
When does it end, and where does it begin? The mother's catharsis, manifested in a sequence of lasting power, injects rays of hope into an otherwise miserable flurry of dead ends. The final movement of "Tokyo Sonata," uneven as it is compared to its predecessors, completes the cycle of fall and salvation with admirable finality. Powerfully acted and impeccably orchestrated, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" is a masterful exercise in paradoxes: at one and the same time comical and melancholy, despairing and exultant, nihilistic and regenerative.