Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lady Vengeance

I am a fan of Korean Director Chan-wook Park. His cinematic style appeals to me. The comic book flavor of his films adds an interesting visual dimension to unique scripts. The third of his Vengeance trilogy is Sympathy For Lady Vengeance. I previously reviewed Oldboy which was an exceptional film and the second in the trilogy. Although taken out of order, the films are projects that stand on their own merit. Sympathy For Lady Vengeance appealed to me on many levels, but not quite as much as Oldboy.

Sympathy For Lady Vengeance begins with Geum-ja Lee (Yeong-ae Lee) being released from prison after serving a thirteen and a half year sentence for suffocating a five-year-old boy that she had kidnapped. As the film moves forward from this point, Lee interacts with several different people that she met while she was incarcerated. As we are introduced to each new character on the forward journey, we are whisked back in time to learn the back story of each character (complete with criminal charges and dates of incarceration). It seems that all may not be as it seems, and Lee appears to be out for revenge. Lee appears to have carefully orchestrated everything, even during her time in prison. As her plan comes together it is becomes clear what her plans are. And those plans are not for the faint of heart.

Chan-wook Park collaborated on Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi, in Korean) with writer Seo-Gyeong Jeong (who also co-wrote Thirst which I recently reviewed). The story bounces back and forth with the quick comic book like vignettes of new characters as the story develops. With the sub-titles, the pace got dizzying at times. The quick flashbacks keep the pace moving quickly (good) which, with the sub-titles, can be hard to keep up with (bad). I enjoyed the way Park and Jeong constructed the characters and moved the plot along, even with the quick pace. The main character was well developed with semi-flat characters around her…which was another comic book correlation. In totality, the writing was fresh and interesting.

Lee had a difficult job to sell her role as a heartless killer with a good heart. Does she have a heart or not? In fact, that leads to other questions that this script made me ask. Is vengeance redemptive? In Christianity, the two concepts would seem to be at odds. Yet these two concepts seem to find themselves together in this film. Maybe the redemption is a product of the catharsis found in the vengeance. Whatever the case, this film caused me to think, which set it apart. Part of selling that aspect of the film came from a spotless performance from Lee. She was able to embody a multi-layered character with opposing forces at war within her, and bring those forces together seamlessly. Lee was phenomenal. The rest of the cast had limited exposure, but provided a strong foundation for Lee to do her thing.

Read More About Lady Vengeance

A Secret

When we first meet Francois (as a seven year old...Valentin Vigourt) he accompanies his mother to the beach from a seemingly comfortable Paris existence. His ideal world has glossed over the fragments of his memories from the anti-semitism of the German occupation, tethering together pieces of reality to his imagination. He has a pretend brother who possesses the athleticism that he lacks, his parents are the epitome of fitness and perfection. The young Francois has no idea that his fantasy world is rooted in a forgotten reality.

We next meet Francois as an adult (Mathieu Almaric). His childhood was detailed in full color. In adulthood, the film is done in black and white. I guess the concept allows for transition back and forth between the time periods without explanation or confusion. Francois has been summoned by his mother, Tania (Cecile de France) because his father Maxime (Patrick Bruel) has wandered off after the family dog is hit by a car. As Francois returns to find his father, he recounts his story.

Most of the story unfolds as Francois turns fifteen (Quentin Dubois). Francois' neighbor is a long-time family friend, Louise (Julie Depardieu). She has treated Francois with Vitamin D shots since he was little. As Francois begins remembering events, Louise assists him on his journey of self-discovery. During this revelation, Francois learns that many of the bits and pieces of his fantasy world are shards of whispers and memories that have a foundation in events that occurred during the war. Events that cast a pall on his Utopian view of his family. It allows Francois to draw contrasts and come to grips with his own life and to find closure for himself and others close to him.

Without spoiling any plot concepts, A Secret examines the balancing act between what a family will do to survive against compromising their beliefs. It is an interesting examination of family dynamics, perceived balance and reality. In the end, maybe there never really is any balance...only acceptance of what is. Or maybe there is only survival. A Secret challenges viewers with an imperfect set of circumstances and an ending that doesn't not tie everything together neatly, leaving the sense that there are not always happy endings.

Read More About A Secret

Children of Heaven

Children of Heaven (Bacheha-Ye aseman) was released in 1997. The Iranian film received critical acclaim, getting an Oscar nomination as well as winning several lesser known awards. The 89 minute film was released in the United States in 1999. So, it has only taken me ten years to get around to this one. In cases like this, it is truly better late than never.

Children of Heaven is a tender down-on-your-luck story written and directed by Majid Majidi. Ali (Mir Farrokh Hashemian) is a saucer-eyed nine-year-old that shoulders far more responsibility than a boy his age should have to carry. His father (Amir Naji) struggles to provide for the family. They are behind on their rent and have run up a tab at the local grocer that has reached a breaking point. Ali’s mother (Fereshte Sarabandi) has recently given birth and has some lingering health issues. Ali also has a younger sister, Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi).

Ali is tasked with picking up bread, potatoes and a pair of Zahra’s shoes that are being repaired at the cobbler. When Ali realizes that Zahra’s shoes are missing, he panics. Ali is afraid to tell his father because he thinks he will be beaten (although his father is a fundamentally good man). Zahra is upset and needs shoes to wear to school. Because they attend school at different times of day, they agree to share Ali’s shoes. This arrangement leads to several close encounters and subsequent problems for both children. When Ali sees the chance to win a pair of shoes in a contest, he manages to get himself entered in an effort to replace his sister’s shoes.

Children of Heaven touches audiences on many levels. The examination of poverty measured against the strong morality provides interesting depth to the characters and subject matter. Although impoverished, Ali’s father will not take anything that does not belong to him, not even a cube of sugar. The family even reaches out to their neighbors, bringing them stew when they are barely getting by themselves. The work ethics and sense of individual responsibility, even that responsibility assumed by a child that does not belong to him (or her), struck a chord with me. Yet there did not seem to be a strand of Karma running through this film, which I thought there might be. It seemed, instead, that the plot centered on familial relationships and personal bonds. The plot was interesting, but does not go the direction one might think it is heading…yet still leads to the same place. It was a fun, somewhat short film that I easily connected with.

Read More About Children of Heaven

No Man's Land

My interest in No Man's Land stemmed largely from the fact that I recently visited Bosnia only to return home intrigued by the dynamics of the recent conflict there. I worked with Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks while I was visiting...and still felt undercurrents of resentment. I heard numerous first-hand accounts regarding the war as well as opinions regarding the United Nations. The opinions were as diverse as the people. I found Bosnia to be a friendly welcoming country, but the scars of war are still visible. This film explored some of those issues from an interesting context.

During the conflict, the Serbs held the high ground. They shelled Sarajevo from the hilltops while snipers had denizens of that city running for cover. Yet the Serbs met resistance at the very "gates" of the city that was unexpected. No Man's Land takes place in the hills, where the Serbs and Bosniaks are squared off against each other across a pastoral landscape. A disused booby-trapped trench lies between the two front-lines. Replacement troops from the city head out to relieve the troops already positioned on the lines. They move under the cover of darkness to avoid detection from the Serbian lines.

As the morning sun sheds light across the hillside, the replacement troops wake up to realize they are past the line of demarcation in the middle of the DMZ. As they realize their mistake, the Serbs detect their movement and open fire. One survivor (Ciki, played by Branko Djuric) finds his way to cover in the abandoned trench. Following the firefight, a rookie bookish Serbian soldier (Nino, played by Rene Bitorajac) is escorted into the DMZ to booby trap the bodies. In the process, Nino and Ciki become engaged in a standoff inside the trench. As both sides realize that they have a fighter stuck in the DMZ, the United Nations is called in to mediate. The media catches wind of the incident and further complicates the situation. The situation leads to a comedy of errors and tragic decisions that might be more accurate than anyone would want to admit.

No Man's Land creates an interesting standoff that allows an opportunity to explore the individual perspectives on the war, the broader issues underlying the war and the politically paralyzed response of the United Nations. The concept was brilliant in the ability to bring together two opposing soldiers in a very intimate setting to gain individual perspective. The film does not make judgments in this arena. However, the writing is less kind to the United Nations leadership which is exposed as bureaucratic and impersonal. The failures of the UN exacerbate the problem which adds some drama to the plot. The concept is well written with excellent dialogue.

Read More About No Man's Land

The International

Imagine that an international banking institution (not unlike the International Monetary Fund) that lends money to nations, conceives of an idea that would allow them to control conflicts in developing countries. A bank so sinister that they select the would-be winners before the conflict is even started, in hopes of finding friends in the new government as well as dictating world conflicts and manage debts. After all, when the loser owes you money, how are you going to collect?

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) works in Lyon, France at InterPol's Headquarters. His job is to coordinate international police intelligence. Nothing more, nothing less. This much I can appreciate. However, Salinger was with a Police Agency prior to his re-assignment to InterPol. From the sound of things, this was a place that Salinger was tucked away to keep him from causing trouble. Yet is seems that this new assignment has put Salinger dead on the trail of an international conspiracy with the IBBC (an international bank) squarely in the middle. Salinger has no authority to conduct investigations, yet he finds himself violating international treaties and protocol's to carry out his personal agenda against the bank. The process takes viewers inside the illegal investigation complete with chase scenes and incredible shoot-outs.

The concept at work in The International is beyond improbable. The idea is simply impossible. The idea of international intrigue with the banking system at the core of political assassinations and insurgencies is certainly a dramatic and intriguing idea. In fact, I would not entirely discount the ability of a major international bank to attempt to affect government policies. Hiring assassins? Probably not. Picking sides in a conflict? Not a good idea...playing the middle would seem more profitable. An InterPol agent engaging in illegal investigations and involved in shooting incidents in foreign countries? He would be recalled immediately (if not prosecuted in the host country...depending on his Diplomatic status). The script in The International contains some great twists, but requires a healthy "willful suspension of disbelief."

Although writer Eric Singer stretched the boundaries of believability with his script, but it was not all bad. The concept itself was excellent. I'm not buying the InterPol angle, but I liked the way the pieces of the investigation were put together. Although simplistic, it was interesting to see the elements of the investigation come together and move more quickly than one might think. As the layers are peeled back, the direction still remains a bit veiled, leaving the ending to unravel in the final ten minutes of the film. The characters were also decent, although more shallow than I prefer. The dialogue was rich. It appeared to me that the dialogue avoided excessive police language that gets overused in television and film, concentrating instead on the subject matter at hand. In other words, the dialogue didn't try too hard to seem legit.

Read More About The International

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is like many documentaries. Ben Stein acts as the host, taking viewers along on interviews. The interviews center around the discussion of Intelligent Design, with viewpoints explored from both sides of the argument. Stein exposes the complete intolerance in science for any point of view that challenges or threatens the Theory of Evolution. Because this film is a documentary, I will examine the content more closely than the style.

One of the points that Stein brings to light is that advocates of Intelligent Design are not Creationists. I did not know that. The media connects the two so firmly at the hip, that independent thought on the subject is never pursued. Not until I heard it directly from the strongest supporters of the ID theory did I realize that there is a disconnect between what is reported in the media and what Intelligent Design actually believes.

Ben Stein squares off with establishment science, highlighting several cases were scientists have been censured, denied tenure or simply asked to resign over the mere discussion of Intelligent Design as a theory that should be explored. A news reporter was also relieved for her examination of the subject. It seems that those in the field of science who are staunch Darwinists see Intelligent Design as an attempt to get God and Creationism into the classroom. For that reason, no discussion is allowed. Any proponent of Intelligent Design becomes anathema to the scientific field. It is equivalent to scientific excommunication.

After presenting the opposing arguments regarding Intelligent Design, Stein explores the role of Darwinism in Hitler's Final Solution. It is a big step to take, but certainly highlights the danger in espousing a viewpoint without considering the consequences or alternatives. Also in line with Darwin's theory, the United States involuntarily sterilized 50,000 human beings in a social experiment called Eugenics. Stein points out the flaws in Darwinism, yet cannot seem to move the ball forward against establishment science, who cling to their beliefs with religious fervor.

Yes, I referred to the scientific fervor over Darwinism as Religious. The "theory" does, after all, require faith. Isn't that the cornerstone of religion. I heard several top scientists try to explain the origins of life...the lofty claim that Darwin tried to make. So how did (at the very least) 250 chemical compounds arrange themselves in exactly the correct sequence to become life? To make me believe that this was an accident is impossible. That would be like saying you dumped 250 car parts into a tank and shook it up...causing all the parts to line up and make a car. It just does not make sense. DO these top scientists explain it?

Read More About Expelled

For anyone interested in learning more about Intelligent Design and the Theory of Evolution from the other perspective, resources are available through a PBS Special at:

A website in opposition to this film has been set up at for additional information regarding this film, ID and TOE.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance was the first in the Vengeance trilogy from Korean Director Chan-wook Park. I saw this film last, which would make it a prequel of sorts. However, each film stands on its own merit with its own set of characters. The Korean name for this film is Boksuneun naui geot.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance tells the story of Ryu (Ha-Kyun Shin) a "deaf and dumb" factory worker. Ryu is very close with his sister (Ji-eun Lim) who is in dire need of a kidney transplant. Ryu wants to donate one of his kidneys to his sister but has the wrong blood type. In the process of trying to find a kidney for his sister, Ryu manages to lose one of his kidneys and his life savings. When an opportunity arises for the transplant, Ryu becomes desperate for money and develops a scheme with his girlfriend Cha-yeong Mi (Du-na Bae) to kidnap a little girl in order to use the ransom money for the transplant.

Things go horribly wrong for Ryu, who seems to be a good-hearted person at his core. He has lost his job, a kidney and his severance pay. His sister is dying and in need of a kidney, which is available for the right price. His kidnapping attempt fails miserably. While Ryu seeks his revenge, the little girls father, Park-dong Jin (Kang-ho Song...who was exceptional in the recent Thirst release from Chan-wook Park) has his own agenda for revenge. In the end, it seems that the main course is violence and everyone at the table gets a healthy serving (with a dose of cold noodles to wash it down).

The plot is intricate and well designed, which is what has attracted me to Chan-wook Park's work. Park was assisted in writing this film by Jae-sun Lee, Jong-yong Lee and Mu-yeong Lee. Park likes to introduce plenty of characters that are atypical. His characters are often disturbed in some way, which adds interest. Sometimes these characters take bit parts but assist in tying together loose ends. In this case, the main character conducts a kidnapping, but manages to win the audience over with his general likability. The converging plot lines and quick sequencing can be confusing at times, especially with the translation (which misses some of the written queues) can be difficult to follow at times. The film finds creative ways to kill people, completing the task contextually, brutally and with a high degree of originality.

Read More About Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance