revisiting the 9s/geezer cinema: oldboy (park chan-wook, 2003)

[This is the seventeenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10.]

In 2009, I wrote about Oldboy:

The violence, implied and actual, remains excruciating... it’s not cool at all … I’d call it gruesome and funny, which I understand is an odd combination. Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience.

I agree with the above. A second viewing made me feel like it was funnier than I remembered, and the gruesome scenes, while outrageous, do take place mostly just off the screen. The plot unfolds in a gradual fashion, with the key revelations being spaced apart just the right amount. Oldboy remains my favorite Park movie, but I still think it falls just short of classic status.

geezer cinema/film fatales #172: past lives (celine song, 2023)

Past Lives is a debut feature from Celine Song that belies its newcomer status. Song is a playwright, and Past Lives unfurls in a carefully constructed manner that always feels real. There are no missteps in the film.

Song worked closely with her primary actors to get believable performances from them. Greta Lee (Russian Doll) is the Song stand-in as a playwright, Nora, who was born in Korea, Teo Yoo is the Korean man, Hae Sung, who was her childhood friend, and John Magaro is her husband, Arthur. Song and the actors do great things with their use of language. Nora is bilingual, and her Korean reflects the fact that she spoke it until she was 12 but has become rusty over the years. Teo Yeo speaks fluent English in real life, but here, he struggles to get even brief amenities across, while Arthur knows about as much Korean as the Hae Sung knows English. When the three of them are together, the woman is the translator/conduit for the communication.

Past Lives has three sections, one from the Korean childhood, one twelve years later (when Lee takes over the role of Nora), and a third twelve years after that, when the three meet in New York City. The film (and its title) grows out of the Korean concept of In-Yun, that assumes if you meet someone, you have also met in past lives. In fact, when Hae Sung comes to New York, he is a part of Nora's past ... he knows things about her that Arthur will never know. Again, Song is very careful ... nothing about the relationships of the three people is completely predictable, but the ending feels like it had been obvious all along.

Comparisons have been made to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, where seven years passes between each film in the series. Song fits all 24 years into one film, but the seemingly-casual presentation is reminiscent of Linklater. The films are more different than similar, though, because the main characters in the works are unique.

Past Lives is a good movie that improves once you think back on it.


geezer cinema: the villainess (jung byung-gil, 2017)

One of those cases where it pays to read the IMDB Parents Guide in advance:


Violence & Gore: Severe

There are several fight scenes throughout the movie. We see bullet wounds, stabbing etc and blood gushing continuously.
Copious amounts of blood sprays from wounds during seamless and prolonged scenes of combat. Impalement is common along with creative ways to strangle, smash, hack and bleed people from innumerable angles.
A Man lies in a pool of blood and smiles at his daughter before being hit with a sledgehammer in the side of his head. Blood sprays on the girl's face.
A man's hand is severed with a hatchet, spraying blood around the inside of a bus while screaming in pain.

Which I suppose is another way of reminding us that this is a Korean movie. There are plenty of good things about The Villainess. Director Jung Byung-gil has a real flair for action, and he used new, tiny cameras to achieve some mind-bending cinematography (Park Jung-hun is the cinematographer). Kim Ok-vin (Thirst), who I think plays the title character (the plot is, shall we say, confusing), is terrific in the action scenes (she is a legit martial artist as well as an actor).

But outside of the action set pieces, The Villainess drags. The basic plot is simple enough ... think the various permutations of Nikita ... but the explanation(s) for the behavior of The Villainess are so messy, the movie ends up relying too much on flashbacks that are supposed to clarify things. It's a two-hour movie that could be even better at an hour-and-a-half.

Still, it's hard to argue with those action scenes ... well, they are so indiscriminately brutal you either get desensitized or you quit watching (if you started in the first place). Your mileage may vary, is what I'm trying to say.

the simpsons movie (david silverman, 2007)

This is the eleventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 11 is called "TV Adaptations Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen theatrically released film adapted from a television series. Here's a good list.

I wish there was more to say about this movie. Its built-in audience should be happy, and newcomers to The Simpsons will likely tolerate it. As Glenn Kenny wrote, "If this is in fact merely a longer Simpsons episode, it's a damn good Simpsons episode." There are the endless pop-culture references (many of which refer back to The Simpsons TV show), the characters we know and love, and, perhaps, a bit more moralizing than I, at least, was used to. The plot is good enough to get us through 87 minutes, Tom Hanks and Green Day make celebrity cameos, and Marge says "goddamn".

thirst (park chan-wook, 2009)

This is the fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 5 is called "K-Horror Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the K-Horror film.

Thirst comes with a solid pedigree. Director Park Chan-wook is a master of Korean horror (his Oldboy is as good as it gets). The male lead, Song Kang-ho, is recognizable to many viewers here in the U.S. for his roles in films like Parasite, Snowpiercer, and The Host. And the female lead, Kim Ok-bin, a young actress near the beginning of her career, gives and award-winning performance that matches Song, scene for scene.

If we are to believe Park, the plot was influenced by Émile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, and it makes sense. Except Zola wasn't writing about vampires. Song plays a devout Catholic priest who takes part in an experiment to try and find a vaccine for a deadly virus. The experiment fails, but the priest gets a blood transfusion that leads him to sinful thoughts, including but not limited to drinking blood. He has lustful feelings for the wife (Kim) of his childhood friend, she shares those feelings, and then ... well, I've already told too much of the plot. Part of the fun of Thirst is seeing just how far and off-the-wall Park will go. Suffice to say that once Kim starts having feelings, she nearly steals the movie.

I won't lie ... the plot gets loony at times. You could make an argument that Thirst is style over substance, although the priest's religious conflicts are taken seriously in what is nonetheless often pretty funny. It's not quite as good as my favorite vampire movie, Near Dark, but it's the equal of a much different vampire film, Let the Right One In.

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.