Film reviews

Spare to middling
The Child (L’enfant), dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne.

The Dardenne brothers (Luc Dardenne is the producer and writer) have earned quite a name for themselves making super ‘spare’ cinema. They strip their stories back to the barest tick and throw any notion of swelling emotion to the wind. Their films (Rosetta, The Son) rely on no fancy footwork, just plain people in bad places. While I admire the sentiment, I have trouble with the result.

Bruno and Sonia are a couple in love. Or at least in one another’s company. When Sonia comes home from hospital with their newborn child she finds that Bruno (in search of a quick buck) has sublet her apartment to complete strangers and that she has to hitch a ride into town, on the back of a motorbike (baby in arms), to introduce Bruno to their son. He doesn’t show much interest, but Sonia doesn’t seem to care.

Living in a bleak industrial town somewhere in Belgium, the couple live moment to moment. Bruno is a Fagin sans charisma, using children to steal and peddle stolen goods. Sonia doesn’t judge him; she just trips along behind, sleeping in hostels and queuing for government titbits.

Bruno teeters on the moral edge in everything he does. Emotionally and socially disconnected, he acts on reflex to survive, until a profoundly reckless act forces him to take stock.

The Child was this year’s winner of the highly coveted Palme d’Or Prize at Cannes (as was Rosetta in 1999). While clearly the Dardenne brothers are a jury favourite, I’m left wondering. There is so little meat on the bones of these films that it is virtually impossible to engage with the characters on screen. A cool observational distance is one thing, but the Dardenne brothers take it to a whole new level.

While the emotional and visual gluttony of much cinema can be manipulative and shallow in the extreme, the pointed lack of it can be as manipulative in the reverse. No matter how much you take away (music, constructed sets, model beauty, artificial lighting, melodrama and everything else besides), what is on the screen is still a construction, an artificial manipulation. And in the case of The Child, the stripped aesthetic (in both story and picture) became more important than the drama unfolding. Ironically, the art of ‘nothing’ became a distraction rather than a clearer road to the truth.

Siobhan Jackson

A scream short of shocking
Wolf Creek, dir. Greg MacLean.

Horror film, slasher movie, serial-killer flick—which is your favourite? If the question throws you into option paralysis, go and see Wolf Creek, because writer/director Greg MacLean couldn’t decide either.
The strength of Wolf Creek lies in its set-up. Two British backpackers are ‘doing’ Australia. Young and beautiful, these two girls are giddy with carefree possibilities. Having hooked up with a quintessentially good Aussie bloke, they buy a cheap car and head across the Nullarbor in search of the Wolf Creek meteor site. The car trip is full of laughter and smoking and sleeping and singing and all the other variations of young holidaymaking fun—they tell scary stories around campfires and flirt and drink like only middle-class kids behaving badly can. All is good—too good!

Things start to sour when the threesome stops at a remote watering hole for petrol. An unpleasant run-in with a sexually aggressive bunch of drunken yobbos marks the start of horror-film unease. Watches stop working, cars give trouble, rain starts falling, romance blossoms—all bad signs for a happy ending.

Shot on video, with a lively moving camera, Wolf Creek has an infectious physical energy about it. And the very immediacy of the video works to move the story along. Confident performances and some clever scripting give it a class that sets it apart from your regular shlock horror. Not to mention that it’s unexpectedly funny for its genre. But when all’s said and done, it failed to deliver on fear and fright. I was ready to jump and twist in my seat but found myself only squirming.
The story became too episodic, and when characters were out of sight they were out of mind, which did nothing to maintain the tension a horror audience craves. It wasn’t scary enough for horror, bloody enough for slasher or tense enough for serial-killer. I was ready to care but the pay-off never came.
Wolf Creek will do well at the box office and I’m glad. The film came close enough to suggest that MacLean’s next effort will be something to look forward to.

Siobhan Jackson

Kung fu fun
Kung Fu Hustle, dir. Stephen Chow.

Stephen Chow is one of Asia’s biggest comedy stars, with roles in more than 50 films to his name, six of them as writer/director as well as lead actor, but it wasn’t until 2001’s breakthrough hit, Shaolin Soccer, that he really came to prominence in the West. His 1990 outing, All for the Winner—a spoof on the films of Chow Yun Fat (the lead in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)—is credited with establishing the popularity in Asia of the Mo Lei Tau, or ‘nonsense’ comedy genre, and Kung Fu Hustle is most definitely in this absurdist tradition, in the best possible (non)sense. It’s also a pretty decent martial arts extravaganza. (Yuen Wo Ping, the fight director for the film, also directed fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix films, and both Kill Bill 1 & 2 in recent times.)

Chow plays Sing, a slightly pathetic small-time crook desperate to get into the infamous Axe gang, a group of dangerous mobsters who run the city and own its police. Posing as a member of the gang, he tries to blackmail one of the residents of poverty-stricken Pig Sty Alley, and inadvertently brings them into conflict with the real Axe gang. But even the residents don’t realise that Pig Sty Alley turns out to be home to not one but five ageing kung fu masters.

Weirdly enough, this bit is actually based on Chow’s childhood; he grew up in a poverty-stricken apartment block much like Pig Sty Alley, complete with its own resident anonymous elderly kung fu master. The film’s Tex Avery-style chase scene, the mystical musical assassins, the gangland dance number (complete with axes and top hats), and the ‘toad-style’ kung fu of the world’s number one killer (who’s supposedly gone insane from too much kung fu), and Sing’s sudden transformation into martial art’s ‘chosen one’ (a sly dig at Keanu Reeves in The Matrix) are in no sense based on anyone’s actual childhood (or at least I hope so).

The combination of sly digs at other films, bizarre scenarios and genre-jumping, mixed with over-the-top sentimentality, sudden violence, spectacular (and comic) fight scenes, produces some deliciously absurd slapstick comedy as well as genuine action thrills. Given that the West’s taste for martial arts action seems to be getting stronger every year, it’s hard to imagine that Kung Fu Hustle will be anything but a hit. And it is a lot of fun, in a Mo Lei Tau kind of way.

Allan James Thomas



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