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A world of brutal grace
Oldboy, dir. Chan-wook Park.

Drunk in a police waiting room, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) sings, falls over, is handcuffed to a bench, ties his shirt tails like a girlie pop star and slurs his way through a variety of drunken wisdoms. Pathetic and hilarious. When finally a friend picks him up, he stumbles out into the rain, and disappears into a sea of umbrellas—for 15 years.

Park opens Oldboy beautifully, introducing his characters in pieces—snatches of flashbacks and flashforwards, drunkenness disguising reality and violence blurring niceties. Park drops you, with a brutal grace, into a world that is part adult fairy tale, part children’s nightmare.

Dae-su Oh wakes in a small room. There is a TV, a bed, a picture of a window and a locked door, under which food is pushed. The TV is his only company, his window on the world. It tells him who’s tops in the celebrity-TV-chef world, what pop songs are riding the charts and that he’s murdered his wife—all with high-key, popular TV enthusiasm, working as both comforter and torturer.

For every year he is held captive he tattoos the back of his hand with a line. A mark of remembrance. A map of vengeance. Until finally on the eve of the 15th stroke he finds himself in a suit on a roof with a mobile phone and a heart as black as anything Edgar Allan Poe could have imagined.

Despite the bleak premise of Park’s second film in his vengeance trilogy (the first being Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) it is wonderfully funny and has a twisted sense of play. Park moves deftly from gut-wrenching, physical confrontation to playful love-making in a single intake of breath. As often as not you’ll find yourself laughing in the midst of the most visceral nastiness. And it works.

Reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano in his 1997 masterpiece, Hana-Bi, Park has the same finesse when it comes to combining art and violence. Not to mention that they share a laconic pacing that messes perfectly with the audience’s expectations—casually tossing you little crumbs of information, and then, bang, into the jaws of the lion.

Oldboy plays nimbly with time—moving through great swathes of it with unexpected edits and a wily structure. The cinematography (Jeong-hun Jeong) reflects perfectly the film’s surreal, noirish edge, mixing extremes of contrast with an almost comic-book palette. Oldboy doesn’t baulk at the strange and unnerving. It has huge ants sitting cross-legged in train carriages, ungainly teeth extraction and foodstuffs so lively as to be stomach-turning.

Why imprison a person for 15 years without explanation? Well, Park gives you explanations aplenty. Greek tragedy? Loads of it, with just the right smattering of farce.

Siobhan Jackson

Truth universally acknowledged
Bride and Prejudice, dir. Gurinder Chadha.

Dearest sister,

It is a Truth universally acknowledged among film-makers that my novels must be in want of a script-treatment. Accordingly there has been a large number of kinematic renditions of my Plots, ranging from the commendable to the execrable. These extremes are rare, and the greater part of the efforts have tended towards worthiness without brilliance. Some had the unfortunate quality of inspiring mirth without any intention of so doing: I must confess that the spectacle presented by Miss Paltrow as Emma (ever my Fav’rite heroine) caused me to laugh unkindly. Driving Hatless in the sunlight, in a Yellow Dress whose décolleté would excite comment at an evening dinner party, she was as unlike my white-clad, elegant Emma as it was possible to imagine. Others have been worse: they have attempted to add elements to my plots that would never have found their way into my imagination, let alone a work to which I would put my name. The Dreadful Mansfield Park adaptation that so vilely slandered Sir Thomas as a slaver who behav’d immorally with the wretched prisoners is a Slur that a Lady possess’d of any elegance of mind could Never forgive.

Bearing all this in mind I feel that the recent attempts of Miss Chadha to render my novel intelligible to the denizens of the Vast Subcontinent are quite commendable. The costumes and music are colourful and amusing. The actress selected to play Elizabeth (Aishwarya Rai) is a lively Young Person of considerable looks and accomplishments; I understand she has won prizes for her beauty.
Yrs, etc.

Beloved Jane,

Little did we expect that your delightful histoires would reach a world so much wider than our select family circle, providing gainful occupation for so many! Am I betraying a selfish partiality for the Dear Original, in detecting a thinness, a sense of quoting the quote, in Bride and Prejudice? For besides abundant entertainment, is there not also a depth of philosophy in your wonderful words that build a little world of such crystalline clarity in the mind of the reader? Yet one might try, but try in vain, to induce a member of the Stronger Sex under thirty to read them. I have even heard a Young Freind describe yr books as ‘chunky chicklit’! Jane, reflect on the compliment to your oeuvre, that it may outlive literacy.

One has to admit that transporting the Bennets to India as the Bakshis was prettily apropos. The Bakshi sisters, it would seem, have lives quite similar to our own; living at home until marriage, subject to their parents, maintaining their ... accomplishments. But I will endeavour to banish every painful thought, and think only of Bright Raiment, endless Musical Interludes and Choc-Tops.
Yr affectionate sister,

Lucille Hughes and Juliette Hughes

A bleak prognosis
The Illustrated Family Doctor, dir. Kriv Stenders.

There is a tendency among Australian critics to pull their punches when they discuss Australian films. With the industry in tatters and little hope on the horizon, our practitioners need encouragement, not tough love.
What is too often omitted from the equation is the Australian audience—how are we to feel when The Illustrated Family Doctor is, for all its excruciating dullness, actually above average for any film made locally?

Young Gary Kelp (Samuel Johnson) works for a small publishing firm where he’s developing a new medical reference book—The Illustrated Family Doctor. Following the death of his father, Gary develops an array of physical symptoms, much like those he’s researching for his book, and watches dispassionately as his relationship with virtually everyone breaks down. Why do they break down? We’re not sure. Why doesn’t he go to see his GP? There is no reason. The film mistakes symbolism for character motivation; Gary’s physical symptoms represent his psychological problems; that’s why he can’t go to the doctor. Never mind how frustrating it is to watch the suffering of a man who won’t help himself.

Gary is a passive character and passive characters make for tedious films. The great outsiders of Robert Bresson or Hal Hartley are only passive on the surface—underneath a purpose burns. But we sense no such purpose in Gary. There is little suspense generated as to whether Gary will finish his book, or recover from the death of his father. In fact, his father’s death is all but forgotten after the first ten minutes.
The actors carry the film with at least their integrity intact. Samuel Johnson’s punch-drunk charm engages us despite the best efforts of the script. Colin Friels does fine as Ray, Gary’s colleague and substitute father, but you can almost hear him crying out for a decent role to prove his worth to a new generation of filmgoers. The stand-out performance goes to Paul Sonkkila, as a character loosely based on Chopper Read, if only because he gets the role with the two funny lines.

Visually, director Kriv Stenders attempts to relive the glory of Sweetie—Jane Campion’s first feature, also a black comedy—minus the budget and imagination. Like Campion, Stenders has produced some of Australia’s best short films, and The Illustrated Family Doctor does demonstrate his abilities; the compositions are intelligent, the editing patient, but these elements hardly conspire to shock the audience out of its indifference. A flat, barren aesthetic is a worthy goal only if it complements the action, rather than rendering dull events even more dull.

Australian audiences have every right to boycott a film that doesn’t work. Like so many before it, The Illustrated Family Doctor will drift into obscurity, and no amount of AFI awards will alter its fate. Australia has the ambition and the diligence; what’s missing is the writing. I beg the funding bodies to take some advice from this enthusiastic filmgoer: if you’re bored when you read the script, we will be bored when we watch the movie.

Zane Lovitt

Ambushed by the absurd
House of Flying Daggers, dir. Zhang Yimou.

There are plenty of contemporary Western films and filmmakers influenced by Asian action cinema, and it’s not uncommon for films like The Matrix to bring in a specialist martial arts choreographer like Yuen Wo-Ping to direct the fight scenes. What’s interesting about Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is that it’s succeeding in the mass Western market using a specifically Asian popular genre—the wuxia, or ‘chivalrous martial arts’ film. There’s long been a cult appreciation of wuxia and of Hong Kong action cinema in some parts of the West, but with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Yimou’s previous film, Hero, this interest seems to be moving beyond the cult and into something like the Western mainstream. Or, more accurately perhaps, into a truly global marketplace.

Oddly enough, although I thoroughly enjoyed both Crouching Tiger and Hero, House of Flying Daggers left me cold. It is no less sumptuous and the actors no less beautiful or virtuosic in their flying and leaping and spearing and stabbing. And the absurdity of the plot twists really shouldn’t be an issue in a film where daggers seem to be able to fly around corners.

But the storyline is a little convoluted. Local officials/police are trying to infiltrate the rebels, the rebels are infiltrating the police, a love triangle inspires everyone to pretend to be someone they’re not (sometimes several people they’re not), and all this to the beat of seduction, betrayal and revenge. The plot switchbacks seem so abrupt and arbitrary that it’s hard not to laugh. Apparently the literal English translation of the title is something like ‘Ambush from Ten Directions’—which is not a bad description of what it felt the film was doing to the audience.

The final, climactic fight scene is a case in point. It begins as a love scene, in a glorious autumn afternoon, and as it turns into a murder and revenge scene the skies cloud over and the fight takes place in a full-blown blizzard. This could work as a potent metaphor for the hardening of hearts that takes place across the arc of the scene, but it doesn’t. It just plays like it sounds, arbitrary and operatically absurd. (Speaking of opera, Kathleen Battle sings the theme song over the closing titles, which seems a sign of how self-consciously global this film is trying to be.)

Allan James Thomas



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