July 01, 2015

For the Emperor

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Hwangjereul Wihayeo
Park Sang-jun - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A small army of hooded thugs gather in the corridor of a building. The lights are off. The only illumination is from flashlights going in multiple directions. There's a gang war with men knifing each other. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on, but the flashing lights give the scene a kinetic quality. Sometimes the pleasure of genre films is just doing enough to make it stand out from other films.

While not specifically recalling other films, there is even a moment when the mob connected attorney declares that he needs some popcorn in anticipation of another plot twist coming up.

The original Korean title, according to Wikipedia, refers to the name of the loan company that the characters work for, Emperor Capital. Behind the fancy office building, and gentlemen wearing coats and ties, is a loan shark operation, one that will see you beaten and blood if debts are not paid in a timely manner.

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Hwan, a formerly promising young baseball player, is having a terrible season. Making matters worse, he's busted in a gambling raid and has additionally been revealed to have been involved in fixing games. His own indebtedness is causes him to be attacked by a gang who collects money. Hwan ability to take on the gang brings him to the attention of Emperor Capital's CEO. Hwan works his way up the ladder of the organization, also gaining the attention of a glamorous prostitute known as Madame Cha, and the real head of Emperor Capital, an older gangster who works behind the scenes. The basis for the film is a comic book by Kim Seong-Dong. It is also the second film directed by Park Sang-jun. And in some ways the story follows a familiar pattern of the rise of a young gangster, and the power struggles that take place within organized crime.

The lights of Busan are seen from a distance, and appear glittery and golden. The film could be said to be about Hwan seduced by what he sees - money, power, respect, sex. It may be too obvious to have Madame Cha working out of a bar called Temptation. Park Sang-jun is also less than subtle with several shots angled in a way to help emphasize the breasts of actress Lee Tae-im. Hwan and Madame Cha get together, but it is later that one has to ask who seduced whom? Lee Min-ki as Hwan and Lee Tae-im are in the kind of scene that Hollywood might have made forty years ago - hot, nude, with bodies tangled. Not exactly "Last Tango in Busan", but viewers on this side of the globe might forget this is, for South Korean audiences, a mainstream movie.

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June 29, 2015

Hard to be a God

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Trudno byt' bogom
Aleksei German - 2013
Kino Lorber BD Region A

Throughout Hard to be a God, I felt like I was caught in the midst of a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder. The density of people and details sometimes was overwhelming. Yes, the era depicted in German's film is a few centuries earlier that the scenes in Breugel's work, but there is, for me, an undeniable similarity with the cramming of people and animals within a limited space. The faces, especially, are remarkably like those found in Breugel's paintings.

Only rarely do you come across a face that might be remotely photogenic. There's snot and grime on most of those faces. Some of the teeth, if someone has close to a full set, look like the sharp set from the mouth of an animal. The film takes place on a planet that is similar to our own, but the civilization, such as it is, resembles that of a small European village in the Middle Ages. With almost constant rain, the streets are essentially muddy trails. It's impossible to not be streaked with mud and shit. Dirt and disease seem to be everywhere.

A group of scientists visit the planet primarily to observe life, but end up being involved in the political conflicts that prevent the possibility of a "renaissance". The science fiction aspects are set aside quickly, so that what is seen is a story of intrigue captured by a periodically acknowledged omniscient camera. The camera follows the action, sometimes seeming to be lost in crowd, sometimes having the field of vision partially obscured by some bit of bric-a-brac, hanging nearby. The only indication that one of the men is from a more contemporary time is when he plays a jazzy tune on a clarinet type instrument. And the basic premise goes against the more familiar stories of scientists, or the humble "Connecticut Yankee" sharing their magic with those relying on more primitive technology.

Aleksei German spent about six years simply in the filming. And there are far more details than can be absorbed in a single viewing. Another five years was spent on the editing, which was completed under the supervision of German's son and wife, screenplay collaborator Svetlana Karmalita. Some of the delays were due to German's own ill health. The legendary fastidiousness of German makes Stanley Kubrick look slap-dash in comparison.

There is an accompanying documentary, partially about the making of Hard to be a God, but also a look back at German's career. The glimpses of his previous work makes me hope that German's previous five films become more readily available. A booklet that includes a statement by German, and essays by his son, Aleksei German, Jr. and Aliza Ma, of the Museum of the Moving Image, help provide greater context for both the film and the filmmaking.

June 28, 2015

Coffee Break

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Rock Hudson in The Spiral Road (Robert Mulligan - 1962)

June 25, 2015

Der TodesKing

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Jörg Buttgereit - 1990
Cult Epics BD Region A

There's a scene in Der TodesKing where a young woman is reading aloud from a book, more or less, to a little girl sitting next to her. I wish I knew the source of the passage read because it seems even more appropriate, and timely, at this moment. I'm roughly paraphrasing here but the essence is that there are people who, considering their lives meaningless, hope to give their lives meaning by suicide, or suicidal acts that will bring some attention, and therefore meaning, to their lives. The title translates as "The Death King", an entity that makes people want to kill themselves. The film is composed of seven vignettes, one for each day of the week, bridged by footage of a decomposing body.

There is a history of artists who have depicted death. And as exploitive as Der TodesKing may seem in writing about certain scenes, there is a serious intent behind some of the moments that are clearly designed to be shocking. These moments may briefly bring to mind Takashi Miike and John Waters, but Buttgereit, more than any filmmaker I can think of, appears to be obsessed with death of the unnatural kind, whether by choice or circumstance.

There is one scene that manages to be both appalling and hilarious at the same time, where you might find yourself laughing while covering, even partially, your eyes. A young goes to a video store, one that has a big poster for Nekromantik. We are able to scan some of the titles available, including Citizen Kane, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Ms. 45. The young man takes home a film similar to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., about a female Nazi officer named Vera. In the film-within-the film, Vera supervises the, um, shall we say, extreme circumcision using a hedge clipper. We see the surgery in close-up, in its sepia glory. The young man watching the movie is interrupted by his girl friend, home with groceries. He shoots her in the head. Punching out the photo of the girl's mother, he takes the frame and places it over the part of the wall splattered with blood and bits of brain. It's gross and funny, and seems to encapsulate whatever Buttgereit might want to say about art and violence.

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Buttgereit also has his restrained side, as in a scene composed of shots taken on a bridge known for the high number of people who have leapt to their death. The names of several people, their ages and occupations, are superimposed a montage, a study of of the bridge from its highest points. There is also one visually dazzling moment that should be credited to producer-cinematographer Manfred Jelinski, with the camera making a series of 360 degree pans around the apartment of Hermann Kopp, with Kopp in various stages of preparation for his suicide, and in a different part of the small studio each time the camera catches him. Also, Buttgereit replies to Jean-Luc Godard's famous adage by presenting a girl and a gun, actually two guns, and a camera harnessed to her, allowing her to shoot bullets and film simultaneously.

Also included here is a commentary track by Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkichen, a documentary on the making of Der TodesKing which shows how the disintegrating corpse was created, a documentary, Corpse Fucking Art - about the Nekromantik films. Additionally, the superb soundtrack, not unlike the music played by the Kronos Quartet at their peak, is an extra bonus.

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June 23, 2015

Cross

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Dai6 Leok6 Gaai3
Daniel Chan, Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping and Hui Shu Nin - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

If there was a film that really needed a "Making of" supplement, this could well be an extreme example. Begun in 2010 by writer-director Daniel Chan, the film was completed the following year by Steve Woo, Lau Kin Ping and Hui Shu Nin. I have not found any information as to what happened during the production. As Chan is still alive and has completed three films since that time, I might guess that there was a possible difference of opinion with the producer of Cross, that has both shortened the running time with a significant amount of footage being replayed as part of of several flashbacks, and has provided the story with a resolution that leaves a few plot holes.

The basic premise may be troubling for some. Simon Yam is a devout Catholic, whose wife commits suicide rather than endure the pain of dying from leukemia. At the wife's funeral, the priest presiding over the burial unsubtly reminds Yam that suicide is considered a sin, and it's up to the discretion of God as to whether the wife will be allowed into heaven. Racked with guilt about how the wife died, Yam finds a website, an online forum of people contemplating suicide. Some of these people seem to be in hopeless situations. Rather than letting these people sin against the church as his wife did, Yam turns into a serial killer, murdering these people to keep them from killing themselves. It seems like an extreme case of euthanasia, rationalized by Yam. Due to one of the killings being a bit messy, Yam turns himself in to the police.

Where the narrative gets even messier than the murders is when there is the suggestion that Yam was manipulated in killing his victims. There is one plot line that is left dangling. The other plot line that appears to provide an explanation still has lapses in logic. It's as if the producer decided to cut his losses by presenting something that almost runs the length of a feature, what with the re-used scenes and about five minutes of closing credits, and hoped that no one noticed that none of the filmmakers who followed Chan were really paying attention to what had transpired in the first forty-five minutes.

Chan's screenplay was a prize winner at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in 2010, so I have to wonder what was originally intended here. The only interview excerpt I could find from Chan has him discussing his love for Hong Kong gangster films. Whether intended or not, there is some connection here to that very Catholic filmmaker, Alfred Hitchock, though not with his priest in peril, I Confess, but with Stage Fright, and its reminder to the audience to not not believe what they see.

June 21, 2015

Coffee Break

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Gregory Peck in The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan - 1968)

June 18, 2015

Sugar Hill

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Paul Maslansky - 1974
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Should I feel guilty about enjoying Sugar Hill? Maybe. It seems like no one involved could remember that the title is a play on the Harlem neighborhood of the same name. I did enjoy seeing several "blaxploitation" movies back when they were new. The one development that did bother me was that as Hollywood realized that there was a niche audience hungry to see black faces on the big screen, that same audience didn't seem to pay attention to what was going on behind the camera. Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, the filmmakers who more or less invented the genre, were replaced by aging white directors like Gordon Douglas and Henry Hathaway, or relatively new film school grads like Jonathan Kaplan. Paul Maslansky had been around for about a decade, making a name for himself as a producer, when he made his first and only effort as a director.

We have Diana "Sugar" Hill, the girlfriend of a guy who runs Club Haiti, where white people come to watch a mock voodoo show. A gangster wants to buy out Club Haiti, but it's not for sale. The boyfriend gets killed by some mobsters who get their duds from "Pimps 'r' Us. Sugar wants revenge and seeks out an old voodoo priestess who brings out a legendary voodoo priest, Samedi, from the ether. Samedi wakes up a small gang of dead slaves, zombies, who do most of the dirty work on behalf of Sugar Hill. The bad guys end up killed each in a unique way, one as the meal for some very hungry pigs. Sugar gets her revenge. Samedi goes back to the ether, with the chief gangster's very white and very racist girl friend carried away in his arms.

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This is a very PG rated horror movie. The violence usually involves a few trickles of blood. The sex consists of some shots revealing Marki Bey's cleavage. What would probably shock anyone not familiar with the blaxploitation genre is some of the racially charged language. It's no accident that as the head bad guy, Robert Quarry speaks with a Southern accent. Sugar calls her first victim "Whitey" and "Honky". There is the one black bad guy with the pimpadelic wardrobe, and name to match - Fabulous. What is curious is that when she's relaxing, or working as a fashion photographer, Sugar's hair is straight. While directing her "zombie hit men", Sugar has a big afro.

In his commentary track, Paul Maslansky never explains why he only directed one film. He gives credit for some of the look of the film to cinematographer Richard Jessup. Visually, the film was done economically, partially for budgetary reasons, but much of the action is filmed using lateral tracking shots and traveling shots, with little need for cross-cutting. The horror movie vibe is provided with the use of a fog machine and lots of spider webs.

Marki Bey, perhaps best known for a supporting turn in Hal Ashby's The Landlord plays the title role. Don Pedro Colley owns this film as the voodoo priest, Samedi, with his booming voice and hearty laugh. In top hat, and black jacket and pants, he's also the best dressed character here. It's no stretch to believe that this guy maintains a harem in the afterlife.

In his commentary, Maslansky provides a few moments to his first credited film as producer, Castle of the Living Dead, as well as his most prestigious film, The Russia House. And say what you will about the Police Academy series, Maslansky produced the first films directed by Walter Hill and Michael Reeves. Maslansky also has an one camera interview as do actors Richard Lawson, Don Pedro Colley and Charles Robinson, recalling what it was like when blaxploitation was often the only professional opportunity for black actors.