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Sunday, 23 October 2016

Age of Shadows - Kim Jee-woon's dazzling thriller should be seen twice

Age of Shadows, a new South Korean film by Kim Jeewoon, has already racked up a fortune at its local box-office. Why would it not. It has Warner Bros to do the heavy distribution lifting and a plot that pushes a lot of buttons for the everyday Korean punter who might appreciate its historical nostalgia, anti -Japanese message, star cast and the massively skilful storytelling skills of its director.  Whether it can make the leap into acceptance by mainstream audiences abroad will be interesting to test. 

A couple of months ago, a Korean-connected distributor brought out another big hit Korean movie, Train to Busan  and watched it take over a million bucks at the box office notwithstanding that it didn’t get a review in any of the local mainstream media,  though readers of that left wing rag and Trump hater The New York Times would have noted a very supportive reportAge of Shadows has been acquired by local art house specialist Madman which has at least gone to the trouble of putting on a couple of media previews. The Sydney screening was held on a Friday, a day  which I suspect is difficult to get the interest of the mainstream. Hence a handful of unrecognisables and moi were in attendance. It’s a hard slog out there even selling hit Kim Jeewoon movies.

Not that Kim should be entirely unknown. His digression to the US saw him wrangling Arnold Schwarzenneger back in 2013 when he made The Last Stand. I noted this back then as part of the aging stars phenomena in a post on an earlier iteration of Film Alert which you can find if you click here.   So, way back then my thoughts were very positive about Kim’s skills:

You get the impression that Arnold might think he still has more of this in him. If he does he would be well-advised to stick with the director of The Last Stand, the Korean action man par excellence Kim Jee-woon. It’s Kim who deserves the attention and probably most of the credit for making The Last Stand as good as it is. Or maybe good is too good a word. Effective may be better.

I assume that Kim got the gig because of his film The Good, the Bad, the Weird which I saw in Vancouver in 2008. It was already a huge success in South Korea and it filled up the biggest Granville cinema on three occasions. Its combination of Leone plot, the exotic locale of Manchuria in the 30s, the glee with which the action is choreographed, the twists and turns presented and Kim’s generally extravagant violent spectacle had everybody roaring and happy.

He was a good choice for The Last Stand, a movie which filters itself through Kim’s own penchants for action, the same Leone riffs and many bits and pieces from the classics, most notably Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (the scene in the police lockup where the sheriff assembles his modest gang including the local drunk/boyfriend of the sheriff’s female deputy) and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the scene in the middle of town where the gang forms a line for its first assault on the sheriff). The character of Dinkum, the gun supplier and wearer of exotic head covering is straight out of Kim’s own movie!

Since then Kim had a career stutter with a vile film called I Saw the Devil. His fans have waited patiently for something to follow up the mega hit The Good, The Bad and the Weird from back in 2008. And here it is.

Set in the late 1920s, the first act establishes the persona and place in the scheme of things of policeman Lee (Song Kang ho, perhaps the leading man of the current cinema and the go to fetish actor for Korea’s leading action film directors). He’s been ordered to clean up the local resistance and the opening sequence has him trapping its leader in a movie studio  backblock and, accompanied by perhaps a couple of hundred armed men, attempting to capture the fugitive alive. The chase is a thriller, effortlessly pitting the blurry fleeing figure against Lee and his men who come from all directions including, hair-raising leaps and landings, across the rooftops of the studio village.

The fugitive escapes and the plot is set up whereby Lee’s failure is used to increase the pressure on him. Interestingly, the dialogue is in both Japanese and Korean whenever necessary to show the divide. The plot then moves on to a conspiracy involving a resistance visit to Shanghai to acquire explosives. Then the hope is there will be a return to Seoul and a big explosion. But before all that, Kim puts almost all of his characters together on a train to Shanghai and lets the action, and the double, triple and quadruple crosses mount. The action is electric and as each new plot twist involving all the old reliables like recognising bad or good guys, passport control, hiding on board, mounts so does the tension.

Act three is the return, the melancholy ending that actually smacks of the kind of atmosphere that Alan Furst writes about in his spy novels set in Europe in the thirties and forties. Elegant, understated.

Song Kang ho (middle) in Age of Shadows
As for the star Song, what can you say. The face, not a handsome one by my judgement, has all the gravitas needed to play a character riven by conflicting loyalties. Its yet another remarkable impersonation by an actor who reeks of technical skill. A close-up of his face is enough to tell you about a character who spends the entire movie overwhelmed by guilt , his swirling emotions being suppressed as nationalist instincts fight with the duty he’s accepted in joining the enemy.

Age of Shadows may not be the easiest film to follow. Its full of snaky plot twists, betrayals signified only by a close-up, returns to zero. It’s also full of anti-Japanese sentiment hidden behind the history. See it twice to clear up any confusion and to better enjoy all that skill on display from a director who seems to do it better than Hollywood and with far less reliance on special effects. 

If there is a successor to Howard Hawks under consideration Kim would be the current nominee.

Opens November 3. For a peek at the very good trailer click here 

Digitisations and Restorations (11) - The Film Foundation, Freaks...

Associate Editor (Restorations and Revivals) Simon Taaffe has come across the following screenings and other information. Click on the links for times etc where indicated.

Martin Scorsese, Chairman of the Film Foundation
Time to draw attention to the work of The Film Foundation an organization whose work is without peer in the world of film retrieval. Here’s what’s on its webpage about its Mission Statement The Film Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1990 dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history. By working in partnership with archives and studios, the foundation has helped to restore over 700 films, which are made accessible to the public through programming at festivals, museums, and educational institutions around the world. The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project has restored 28 films from 20 different countries representing the rich diversity of world cinema. The foundation's free educational curriculum, The Story of Movies, teaches young people - over 10 million to date - about film language and history.

But if you would like to spend a little time contemplating the results of over two decades’ work then just click here and scroll down.

How do we get to see them? Well that’s a little more difficult. While major events like Cannes Classics and Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato no doubt get special screening privileges, common or garden second and third tier festivals and cinematheques have to pay a fee. These fees are not token and a festival has to give serious thought as to how many tickets and how much revenue are going to be generated. But the movies are there and growing in number year by year.

……..the latest restoration by Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato laboratory is Tod Browning's Freaks. Click on the link for a minute long trailer…. Screenings at the Cineteca di Bologna were on this weekend.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

On Edmond T Greville and other curiosities of 30s European Production - Barrie Pattison corrects the record

Edmond T Greville
The multitude of readers who read this post from Barrie Pattison about Bertrand Tavernier's doco on the history of French film should have got to an editor's note about a curiosity in the career of Edmond T Greville, a minor master who plied his trade with great skill from the thirties to the late fifties in both France and England. Greville's reputation is still slowly building and one day when the Sydney Cinematheque opens we can look forward to a near to complete retrospective. In the meantime....

To assist readers this was the Editor's note I provided.Wikipedia advises further on the matter of the Pabst/Greville film Mademoiselle Docteur which acquired the English title Street of Shadows. "Street of Shadows is a 1937 French spy film directed by G. W. Pabst. An English-language version with exactly the same plot was filmed at the same time under the direction of Edmond T. GrĂ©ville, but with some changes in the cast." Now you know.

To which Sydney's supercinephile has responded.

You can imagine how much I hate to contradict Wikipedia  but the Greville

Mademoiselle Docteur/Under Secret Orders (the last sixteen millimeter print Kodak put into distribution in Australia) is not a simultaneous version of the Pabst film but a later re-working of the same subject shot in England.  

This was a quite common practice - using the same star and idea, knocking off the wide shots and inserting British performers into a later production presumably aimed at the American market, which all of them seem to have failed to conquer. 

Think Jan Kiapura in Gallone’s 1935 My Heart Is Calling from his 1934 Mon coeur t'appelle or Harry Baur in Asquith’s Moscow Nights/I Stand Condemned  from Alex Granowsky’s Nuits Muscovites from the year before and Granowsky’s 1938 Rebel Son from his 1936 Taras Boulbe.

Now you know more...

Thursday, 20 October 2016

AFTRS Update (6) - The mysteries of legal action

TThe final question asked of AFTRS by Senator Catryna Bilyk (ALP, Tasmania) in the February 2016 Senate Estimates hearing, related to legal action taken against the institution by former staff. This was no doubt prompted by this report  in Inside Film.

In brief the story says A former AFTRS executive is suing the school and head Sandra Levy for more than $1 million over claims that she bullied and micromanaged staff. Professor Katherine Blashki has launched legal action over claims she was forced to work outside normal operating hours at the Australian Film, TV and Radio School when she was initially told her hours could be flexible because of her intellectually disabled daughter.
So the Question was put in the following terms:
In the years from 2008 to 2015 how many former staff have taken legal action or lodged claims for compensation against AFTRS following their departure from the institution?
Was ‘unfair dismissal’ the common legal term associated with each of such claims?
How many cases were settled privately?
How many cases were the subject of court proceedings?
In how many cases was a settlement made which involved a payment by AFTRS to the individuals involved?
List all such payouts individually, and what was the total sum of any such payouts? What legal fees were incurred in relation to each case?
How much money was spent on recruiting replacements for people who left AFTRS in such circumstances?
And the answers: Well nothing to see here according to the info provided to the Senate. In brief, which was the form that AFTRS reverted to on this occasion, the answers are as follows and  presumably the case referred to in Inside Film all those years ago went nowhere…… Nothing to see here.
One. No. One. Nil. Nil. Not applicable. $6389.