The Chaser

My knowledge of South Korean films is limited to two directors: Bong Joon-Ho (director of an uneven yet unique monster film, The Host) and Park Chan-Wook (director of the magnificent Vengeance Trilogy). Both of these directors of a specific aesthetic that seems to be unique to South Korea more than to each director’s creative choices. For example neither of these famous directors shies away from using intense violence as part of the action. But they do not make it flashy like an American movie would. It is just a fact of life that people die in very brutal ways sometimes. As I venture outside of these two most famous exports of the South Korean film industry, I find this fact permenating almost every film I see. This intrigues me. I wonder why South Korean films can be so overt with their violence without glamorizing it and making it look “cool”? Maybe I can answer that question with tonight’s review: The Chaser.

The Chaser is about a pimp who is upset because some of his whores disappeared after he gave them large sums of money. This pimp decides to use his background as a police detective to find out what happened to these girls so he can get his money back or at least his investments. As he goes through the file, a phone number keeps popping up. This phone number of a john happens to be the last recorded for these whores before they went missing. He takes one of his remaining whores as bait and tracks this man that he suspects is selling his whores for his own profit. This turns out not to be the case. He is actually killing girls and burying them somewhere close to where he lives. (This is not a spoiler as you find out that he is a killer within the first half hour) The rest of the plot is full of twist and turns that I probably should not give away here.

The graphic scenes in this film are treated with such artistic delicacy that I want to say they are some of the best horror scenes I have ever seen. They treat their victim with the respect that is not awarded them within the plot structure. In one scene where one of the prostitutes is getting her head bashed in with a hammer and a stake, you see the man deliver the hit and you see the woman take it but you don’t see the actual bashing of the head in at all. When the pimp/detective and the murderer go head to head in several scenes, the action seems to be exactly what a man in those two very different situations would do. The action does not look faked at all and the blood spurts are subtle. This may not mean a lot to you, but it matters to me. I have never been the hugest fan of thriller/horror films. Although I recognize several films as being great in these genres, most of them are mediocre to the point of boredom. I think this is because most films subscribe to the Bond/Saw theory: the more explosions or blood there is, the better it is. The Chaser and several other films from South Korea that are categorized as thrillers or horror films are a breath of fresh air because they stray from this concept. They stray from it in such a beautiful way.

I am not quite sure after watching the Chaser and reflecting on other South Korean films, why overt violence is so accepted in their culture that they don’t have to glamorize it. Maybe it is because of their long and complicated history with their Northern counterparts. Or maybe it is because of their strong roots in Buddhism. What ever it is I appreciate it and can’t wait to see more great films emerge from this country.

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Shadow of the Vampire

 

F.W. Murnau created a masterpiece when he finished Nosferatu. A stylish silent horror film (one of the first of its kind ever.), the film has influenced thousands and thousands of directors, actors, cinematographers, set designers and screenwriters ever since. However just because it is now considered a masterpiece does not mean that it was easy getting it made. There were problems with investors, Murnau’s insistence that they only film at night and on remote locations, temperamental actresses that demanded everything, people falling sick suddenly and having to leave the picture and oh yeah Max Schreck may or may not have been a vampire.

 

Mr. Schreck’s strange and otherworldly performance as Nosferatu has elicited several rumors about his real life. Although he had played parts in other silents, and was supposedly a part of a theatre acting group, most people still insist that he was actually a vampire in real life. In The Shadow of the Vampire, the director and screenwriter explore the possibility of this being a true statement.

 

Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck with a chameleon like performance. It took me awhile to know who it was underneath that pile of make up and those weird mannerisms. He creeped me out the moment he appeared next to John Malkovich as F.W. Murnau. In contrast it seems like instead of being F.W. Murnau, John Malkovich is a version of F.W. Murnau as seen through his twisted eyes. He has the mannerisms of a John Malkovich character, just set in the turn of the last century. That can be frustrating sometimes, especially alongside William Dafoe’s performance.

The nature of filmmaking is explored quite expertly during the first half of the film. The role of a director for a film is a difficult position to have. You have to charm and yet demand everything that is needed in order to get things accomplished. You have to be ruthless, selfish and dedicated. Although Murnau slips a couple of times in the film, the film illustrates this tenacity quite nicely. Other little touches like exploring the camera the film is being burnt onto, seeing the rough footage in black and white, and seeing the actors go in and out of character at a moment’s notice are great.

 

 

 

However as the vampire plot continues to thicken, the fact that they are making a film seems to be beside the point. I wish they could have been able to keep the vampire aspect as more of a secret than it turns out to be. A is he or is he not plot would have been way more interesting than a no he definitely is plot. As it is now, I want to say it is no better than any other conventional vampire film (except Twilight). It had lots of potential to be something great and squandered it on the lackluster second half. What a shame.

The Big Heat

Violence is an action that is not foreign to the film noir. Car crashes, gun wounds and explosions dominate this genre. However in order to play by Hays Code rules and studio restrictions, most of the violence is tame by today’s standards. That statement is mostly true about this film, except for one thing: the violence against women. Each woman who is on the screen for more than a minute is mutilated in some way. Either by cigarette burn, bomb explosion, scalding hot coffee being thrown on their faces or just a gun shot wound, no woman comes out of this picture unharmed. By having this be the standard throughout his whole film, Fritz Lang is commenting on our degradation of women in general. After a while, the violence that is inflicted by a man in power becomes mind numbing. You get kind of used to it. Like you get used to it in everyday life. But should you really be is what I think Lang is asking by the film’s end.

After a detective kills himself, his widow takes the confessional note and decides to blackmail the mob boss into more money. This sets a series of events that involve a do-good cop, Det. Bannion, into bringing down the whole mob circle that rules the town he loves. His moral crusade becomes darker after his ideal home life is interrupted by tragic events. He gangs up with a society girl, who becomes the symbol of the mutilation theme, and they stop at nothing to bring every bad person down around them. They don’t even stop at death.

 

Gloria Grahame plays the society girl, and her performance is what made this film great. Do not be turned off by her questionable accent (I guess it is supposed to be New Jersey but man it was weird), her presence in this film is magnificent. She saunters around each room with the confidence of a woman born to take advantage of the riches around her. Not even mutilation can take away from her sultry aura. Each man uses her to their advantage, but she can take it. She is strong enough. She takes her fate in her own hands and realizes the only way to take down the mob is to do the one thing that Det. Bannion cannot: Kill. No matter what happens , she is doomed. She might as well go out with a bang. (hah. literally.) Ms. Grahame plays her character with such a ease it is hard to not like her. She might very well become one of my favorite actresses.

Mr. Fritz Lang is most well-known for his early work, but do not discount his later more commercial (if you would call this commercial) work. He takes his avant-garde approach to lighting, structure, and dialogue and applies in such a marvelous way, that I wanted to watch the film again right after it was over. That is a rare attribute for a film. But after all it is a film noir. You know how much I like those…

 

Halloween Hangover: The Gore Gore Girls and The Wizard of Gore

So I am about to put my foot in my mouth… Are you prepared? Yes I hated the Hostel because it was all pointless torture. But I have to admit I liked The Gore Gore Girls and The Wizard of Gore for the exact reasons that I hated Hostel… Geese my foot is huge.

Before I try to justify my affection for one set of films and disdain for another, let me summarize what to expect with these two gems from the early seventies. The Wizard of Gore is about a mysterious magician who hypnotizes and tortures young women in front of a passive audience. Despite these graphic tortures, the women walk away unharmed only to die later, usually in a public place outside of the theater. In The Gore Gore Girls, a serial killer is terrorizing go-go dancers at a particular club. Each dancer is tortured in the most gruesome way possible. A snarky and sexist Sherlock wannabe is put on the case after a beautiful reporter bribes him to do it. He solves the mystery eventually but not until we see several women die in spectacular ways.

These two films are nothing more than a collection of gory deaths strung along in a very cheesy plot line full of horrible lines and fake emotions. And yet I enjoyed a woman getting the press of death or an anonymous serial killer playing around in someone’s dismembered head more than I enjoyed some guy dressed up in a butcher’s suit dig out eyeballs. I’m not quite sure as to why I preferred one over the other, but I think it might be despite the horrific deaths in the Gore Gore Girls and the Wizard of Gore, they were pretty hilarious. Someone gets their butt tenderized to death by a meat tenderizer. That is just the start. While there are some unintentional laughs (mostly from the horrible dialogue delivery) in Hostel, everything is taken ultra seriously to the film’s detriment. I much prefer a slasher flick that does not take itself seriously. I don’t take myself seriously. I hope Eli Roth does not take himself seriously. Somehow I doubt that…

Halloween Hangover: Hostel

Because I have watched several films in the past couple of weeks and have been too lazy, too busy, or too blocked to write-up reviews for them, I have decided to put a bunch up today in order to get them out of my system and prepare for regularly scheduled reviews. Never commit yourself to posting every day. It never works out.

I never have had a desire to watch any of the Hostel or Saw films. What I heard about them was quite enough for me to avoid them. But sometimes you just have to watch something in order to not be called pretentious for the millionth time. I took the bullet, you guys. Man was it hard to swallow.

 

This film speaks volumes in its mediocre voice. The scares are nothing more than gross out mutilations, the plot is as thin as a piece of paper and the performances are horrendous. There is nothing to recommend this film unless you are into torture porn. I never really knew to the extent that torture porn could take place until I watched this film. How is this enjoyable to people? Why do they submit their precious and sensitive eyes to these images? I think gross mutilation can be useful in order to add impact to a plot (Park Chan-Wook uses mutilation to almost genius levels in his Vengeance trilogy) but to have it as a driving force behind your whole film is ludicrous. At a certain point if you are shown image after image of unimaginable blood and guts, you become desensitized to it and it no longer has the impact you were wanting for your film. If your film has no impact on a film goer, then the film is unsuccessful. So how did this film succeed in becoming monotonous with its torture scenes and yet make millions of dollars and spawn sequels? That is a question that I have trouble answering without reverting to rhetoric about the dumb majority. I hate making over arching generalizations about a significant part of the population (years of gender and race studies along with long and arduous fights with my boyfriend over me generalizing his actions have all ingrained me with a morbid fear of generalization). So Instead I want to know why something like this has such a big impact on society and caught on like wild-fire.

My roommate’s answer is simple: He has never seen anything so gross yet so inventive. One of his favorite scenes involves a man getting his Achilles tendons cut when he tries to escape. He gets excited when the scene is getting close and although he has seen the film many times before, he still can’t get over how much that would hurt. Critics take this simple answer and flesh it out with comments on the themes of xenophobia and masculinity. Flavorwire even went as far as to put this film on their top 50 most essential horror films. Other films on that list include iconic films like Dracula, well made slow-moving films like The Shining and gritty seventies classics like the Exorcist. Their justification of the film mainly relies on the hidden complexity behind such a simple story. What is not surprising is that Flavorwire is not the only one to put it on a list of great horror films.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe my roommates are right. Maybe all you need in order to have a great film is unique kills. The story, the characters and the acting does not matter, just as long as the killings are scary. Don’t worry. I will not be watching any Saw films in the near future.