underrated movies from the 21st century

Something to watch in 2021 while you wait for the lockdown to end. One a year:

2000: Ginger Snaps
2001: Time Out
2002: Real Women Have Curves
2003: The Dreamers
2004: Baadasssss!
2005: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2006: The Host
2007: Chop Shop
2008: The Beaches of Agnès
2009: Vengeance
2010: Mysteries of Lisbon
2011: A Separation
2012: Stories We Tell
2013: Exhibition
2014: The Raid 2
2015: The Lure
2016: Midnight Special
2017: Detroit
2018: Blindspotting
2019: Furie
2020: The Vast of Night

3-iron (kim ki-duk, 2004)

This is the tenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 10 is called Korean Cinema Homework Week:

Following Parasite's incredible hot streak and the pleasant surprise of it winning Best Picture at the Oscar's, a lot of people were curious as to where start when looking into more South Korean cinema. Thankfully, Katie Rife, senior writer at The A.V. Club, offered up some recommendations for those looking for some guidance. Take a look!

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Katie Rife's Korean Cinema Homework list.

I had seen about half of the movies on the list, and was happy to check out 3-Iron from Kim Ki-duk, who directed Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, which I watched a few months ago. I said of that movie, "Nothing is 'real' at all on some level, but it doesn't play as fantasy", and that holds to some extent for 3-Iron. 3-Iron seems more 'real' at first, but as the movie goes on, it feels more fantastic. The plot, as established at the beginning, has young Tae-suk (Jae Hee) as someone who breaks into people's houses when they aren't at home, settling in, fixing things, doing laundry, eating, then leaving before they return. It seems rather ingenious, and when he is caught by Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), an abused wife, she comes with him and joins on his sprees. This is clever, and if a bit like a tall tale, Kim presents it in a relatively realistic way. But Sun-hwa's husband wants revenge, the police are corrupt, and gradually Tae-suk demonstrates skills that are at least a little magical. None of this is hard to follow, but the magic sneaks up on you, and to be honest, by the end of the film, I wasn't quite sure if I'd actually seen any fantasy at all.

The two main characters never talk, leaving the actors to work via facial expressions ... it's fine, especially since the two are gorgeous to look at. Kim has little interest in the mainstream, and from what I've seen, the mainstream probably has little interest in his work. But at least based on the two films I've seen, he mostly avoids the abstract, even as he walks a line between real and fantasy. #573 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. Among the movies chosen to meet this challenge were Oldboy, Memories of Murder, Mother, The Host, The Handmaiden, Snowpiercer, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Burning.

spring, summer, fall, winter ... and spring (ki-duk kim, 2003)

I'm not a Buddhist, but I think I'm safe in saying this is a Buddhist film. There are few characters, but a couple of the main ones are monks or monks in training. But it's not the narrative that is Buddhist, as much as it is the setting, the pace, the spiritual nature of the film. Most of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring takes place in a monastery that sits in the middle of a lake. It is never explained how the floating monastery got there, or even how it floats. On the other side of the lake are large doors through which the camera, and at times the characters, move. But the doors don't serve a concrete purpose ... anyone could just walk around them. In a similar fashion, while the monastery only has one room, there is a door that people go through, even though they, too, could walk around them. There is something respectful about how these doors are treated. It is also part of the overall reality of the movie ... nothing is "real" at all on some level, but it doesn't play as fantasy. It's just a visualization of the spiritual. #938 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (#173 on the 21st-century list).

At the beginning, we meet a monk and his young apprentice. With the passage of each season into another, time moves forward and the apprentice ages, from teenager to adult to middle age. Finally, he takes on his own apprentice. Kim manages to create a calm film, thanks to the pacing, the beauty of the imagery, and the musical score. It's not that "nothing happens", or even that only "nice" things happen. A broad spectrum of human behavior is seen in the film. The calmness comes from the acceptance that everything is one. Or not ... like I say, I'm not a Buddhist.

revisiting train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Nothing was going right. I tried to order dinner for delivery and kept failing. We decided to watch a movie, picked Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the Blu-ray didn't work. I threw up my hands and watched Train to Busan again.

I wrote about it three years ago, and I'll cut-and-paste some here:

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre.

The only thing I'd add is that it fit right in with our times. The zombie breakout is like a virus, and the government pretends everything is OK. It's not. I really like this movie, and enjoyed a second visit.

by request: burning (chang-dong lee, 2018)

This is a tough one. I've seen one other film from Chang-dong Lee, Secret Sunshine, which I liked quite a bit. The Metacritic score for Burning was 90/100 ("Universal acclaim"). It's # 116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. And it came up recently in a comment from a friend I respect who called it "my favorite film last year -- and one of my favorite films of the 2000s" (hence, "by request", although he didn't specifically make a request).

But Burning mostly left me scratching my head.

It falls into a few categories I've invented over the years. There's the "It wasn't made for me" category, usually combined with "Director achieved their aims", resulting in a movie I don't much like but that I nonetheless respect. (The patron saint of these categories is Terrence Malick.) Perhaps a bigger reason I was left unsatisfied is less because of a category and more because of a taste preference (although I guess that falls under "not for me"). I don't often like ambiguity in a movie, especially when I think it is purposeful. I used to complain about this, but over time I've realized it's more about me than about the filmmaker. I never understand the byzantine plots of international spy thrillers, and am always asking my wife, "what just happened?" (She has her own version of this ... if a movie mostly ignores narrative thrust, she is likely to ask, "is this about anything?" But she never loses her place in a spy thriller.) With movies like that, I'm left to appreciate the action, or the acting, or anything that doesn't remind me I have no idea what is going on.

Chang-dong Lee is intent on ambiguity in Burning. In one interview, Lee used the words "ambiguity" or "ambiguous" 11 times. It comes as no surprise, then, that his film is filled with ambiguity. I love movies that are non-judgmental towards their very human characters (Sid and Nancy), and that's a form of ambiguity. But Lee's ambiguities are larger than simple characters ... in the interview, he says "I wanted ... to discuss the ambiguities of the world we live in and how there seems to be no answer to the questions that we have today". Lee is up to something, to be sure, which is why I'd categorize it as "Director achieved their aims" ... he wanted to discuss ambiguity in the world, and he did so by making an ambiguous film. But, as I said before, my brain doesn't work right for this kind of purposeful ambiguity. More often that not, I'm wondering, "what is this about" or "what is happening" or "is this entire movie made up in the head of the main character"? And that gets in the way of my appreciation for the film.

As I was watching, I was thinking about a favorite movie of mine, L'Avventura. In that movie, a group of upper-class people are on a yachting cruise when one seemingly key character disappears. Her friends try to find her, but they soon lose interest. Only two of them stick with the search, but ultimately they are hardly better than the others, eventually beginning an affair. One of Antonioni's points is that these people are so self-absorbed that the loss of their friend means little or nothing to them. The audience may wonder whatever happened to the missing woman, but like the characters, we push that question to the back burner ... it's not what makes the movie interesting.

A woman disappears in Burning, too. But here, one character really cares about her fate. In fact, he obsesses about it, and that obsession is crucial to the film. We never find out what happened to her, or even if she existed ... ambiguity. But Lee makes us care about what happens to her. When Antonioni decides not to explain his disappearing woman, he is commenting on the way the people in the film have forgotten her. But Lee, in focusing on the man's obsession, invites us to understand what has happened, and when he purposely skips that information in order to maintain his ambiguity, well, he achieved his aim of discussing the ambiguities of the world, by making an ambiguous picture ... and that's going to end up in my "not for me" category.

Despite everything I've said, there is plenty to like about Burning. The actors portraying the three main characters (Ah-in Yoo, Jong-seo Jun, and Yeun Sang-yeop) are wonderful. This was Jun's first movie, and it doesn't show ... she effectively shows us the complicated nature of her character. Yoo is masterful in showing the way his obsession gradually grows. Most notably, at least for American viewers, is Yuen as the most mysterious character of them all ... notable because we know him as Steven Yuen from The Walking Dead, mysterious because we learn so little about him, and Yuen's facial expressions suggest a self-satisfied knowledge, as if we don't know, but he knows everyone else.

I am going on and on about a movie that will appeal to many ... all those critical raves, not to mention that of my friend, are evidence of that. Even as I complain, I find myself wanting to watch it again, see if it makes more sense. So if, for instance, you are intrigued by a movie where a greenhouse may not be just a greenhouse but a metaphor for something else, where your interpretation of the meaning of those greenhouses is a key to the story and your reaction to it, and where that meaning will inevitable be ambiguous ... then you should check out Burning.

director bong

Selected passages from posts about the six films I have seen directed by Bong Joon-ho:

Memories of Murder (2003): "I’ve liked every one of Bong’s movies that I have seen, and each of them have refused to be held down to clear genre expectations.... Bong is capable of anything.... Bong is reliably consistent, even though there is no telling what he’ll come up with next."

The Host (2006): "The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster. Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie."

Mother (2009): "To some extent, it doesn’t matter that Bong moves from genre to genre, since he likes to turn them on their heads, anyway. But they always work. Watching Mother this time, I felt a connection to some of Hitchcock’s sicker movies."

Snowpiercer (2013): "The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class."

Okja (2017): "An anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun). It's a bit like a live-action Miyazaki movie, except with cussing and some brutal slaughterhouse scenes.... Bong is one the best living directors, and he's only 47. To quote myself, he's got time, and he has yet to make a stinker."

Parasite (2019): "I'm not sure I can even reduce Parasite to a specific genre, which may be a sign that I liked it even more than the others.... Parasite starts off as one kind of movie, almost a comedy, gradually and almost unnoticed takes a turn into another kind of movie, reflects on the notion of parasites, and somehow at the end you realize it was never just one kind of movie, but always all kinds of movies. It is constantly surprising."

death bell (hong-seung yoon, 2008)

This is the latest film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":

Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.

Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.

geezer cinema: parasite (bong joon ho, 2019)

It was my turn to pick a movie for Geezer Cinema, and it wasn't hard to choose ... I've been looking forward to Parasite for a long time. This is because I've become interested in recent Korean films, and Director Bong is probably my favorite, having seen five of his movies prior to Parasite and liking them all: Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, Snowpiercer, and Okja. Parasite isn't like the others, but that itself is a bit of a Bong tradition, as is my response. When I look back at earlier reviews, I see I repeat myself time and again. As I wrote about Okja,

Even as his films test different genres, there is a consistency to the quality of his work.... If there's a problem with this consistency, it's that I am running out of things to say. But I was also prescient ... there is no telling what he'll do next ... Snowpiercer was a futuristic sci-fi dystopia; The Host was a monster movie; Memories was a procedural. And now Okja, an anti-corporation tale where the title character is a genetically-modified "super pig" and the main human character is a young Korean girl (played by Ahn Seo-hyun).

I'm not sure I can even reduce Parasite to a specific genre, which may be a sign that I liked it even more than the others. I'll avoid a spoiler here, but I'll nonetheless note that the film's title describes the movie, if you account for the twists that take Parasite into areas you didn't expect. It is a study in class, which is a common theme in Bong's films, perhaps most clearly in Snowpiercer. It features Song Kang-Ho, who has been in four of the Bong films I've seen. Parasite starts off as one kind of movie, almost a comedy, gradually and almost unnoticed takes a turn into another kind of movie, reflects on the notion of parasites, and somehow at the end you realize it was never just one kind of movie, but always all kinds of movies. It is constantly surprising, and Bong pulls off an interesting trick: you realize something is about to happen just before it happens, but not long before ... you don't think that birthday cake is going to be important until the moment when it becomes important.

And I haven't mentioned the house that is the center of much of the action. Here is an article (with spoilers) examining the work of Bong and production designer Lee Ha Jun creating "the year's best set".

top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018

what i watched

Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). When I first saw this in 2015, I was still at the beginning of my fascination with recent Korean film. I've often wanted to share those films with my wife, but at least when we are at home, we're limited by subtitles (she doesn't object to subtitles, but she is usually knitting as we watch, so being able to understand dialogue without looking at the screen matters). Snowpiercer is said to be 80% English (who did the accounting on this factoid?), and beyond that, it's the kind of movie I think my wife would like: futuristic sci-fi action with a recognizable cast led by Chris "Captain America" Evans. As I noted at the time, you wouldn't go to Snowpiercer for an introduction to modern Korean cinema ... it’s more American than Korean. But that makes it a good introduction for someone who is knitting. (She has also seen Boon's Okja, and liked it.) #476 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. For some reason, I buried some of my best thinking about Snowpiercer in a tagged-on paragraph the first time I wrote about it, so I'll cut-and-paste a bit of that here, changing my original focus:

The construction of Snowpiercer is ingenious ... it’s also perfect for a good six-page essay in an honors class for college undergraduates. The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class. That’s why it would make a good topic for an undergraduate essay: there is something to talk about, but it isn’t hard to find. It would also make a good topic for an extended essay that closely broke down the presentation of class, critically analyzing what Bong has done. But I’m not going to write either of these on this blog, not a six-page essay, not a chapter for a book. I’m going to write a paragraph, or two or three. And in the case of Snowpiercer, once I’ve mentioned the basics, I don’t see the point in adding a paragraph to state the obvious: that the cars on the train represent various social classes, that even if the nominal hero manages to take the train away from the nominal villain, nothing concerning classes will have been truly answered, that the two young people who escape the train are the future because they don’t conquer the train, they escape it. I could say all that, but if you watch the movie, you’ll figure it out for yourself. And unless I’m prepared to write 2500 words on the subject, I’m better off just sticking to a paragraph.

The Nerdwriter offers an interesting (spoiler-filled) take on the movie:

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974). Fear Eats the Soul continues my very gradual introduction to the work of Fassbinder. (I watched my first, The Marriage of Maria Braun, in 2009, and my second, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, in 2015.) Still to come is Berlin Alexanderplatz, the 14-part, 15 1/2-hour long TV series which I have had on my By Request list for a very long time ... it has been hard to find, but now it's on the Criterion Channel so I don't have any excuses. I feel like I'm still searching for the common thread in what Fassbinder I've seen. Not that it doesn't exist, but watching three films over the course of ten years is not conducive to the discovering of commonality. I've liked them all. The story of a May-December romance (better described as June-November, I think), Fear Eats the Soul doesn't limit the examination of difference to the ages of the two romantic leads. Brigitte Mira, who plays Emmi, a woman in her 60s, had already had a long career in show business, but it was Ali that made her something of a household name in Germany. (She went on to become a Fassbinder regular and lived another 30 years.) Emmi is a realist who is surprised to find herself in love with Ali, a couple of decades younger than her. Ali is also surprised, but their affection seems genuine. Ali is played by El Hedi ben Salem, who like his character is a Moroccan living in Germany (in real life, Salem had moved to Germany to be in a relationship with Fassbinder). The film takes place a few months after the massacre at the Munich Olympics, and Arabs are the victims of prejudice in part because of that event. Thus, the struggles of the couple are not limited to their age difference. Emmi's family and workmates all disapprove of her marrying an Arab, and as problems arise in the relationship, the reasons are less because they are different ages and more because they come from different cultures. Salem's acting is amateurish, which works well here, emphasizing the awkward state of living outside your culture. And mention should be made of Barbara Valentin, "the German Jayne Mansfield", who underplays her oozing sexuality and serves as a visual and emotional contrast to Emmi. This movie is said to be based on Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, but I think the connection is more that Fassbinder was influenced by Sirk than that the specific movies are tied together (although they do have similar basic plots). #135 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.