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Monday, 22 January 2018

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison urges that cinephiles speed towards 1987: WHEN THE DAY COMES (Joon-hwan Jang, South Korea, 2017) and MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Japan, 2017)

Most of my life I’ve been faced with entertainment in which the forces for good in our society - law enforcement, medical science, the free press, religion, dissidents - combine against the oppressive (anti-communist) authorities who wish to destroy democratic government. It’s a comforting fiction and when it’s delivered in a film like Constantine Costa Gavras’ Z, it can be immensely compelling.

Well, Joon-hwan Jang’s 1987: When the Day Comes (no one seems to have the original language title) is a better iteration of this idea and it comes, surprise, from South Korea where a cycle of these is proving a major element of their film production, last year’s Taeksi Woonjunsa/A Taxi Driver directed by Hun Jang, Ji-hun Kim’s 2007 Hwaryeohan hyuga/May 18 and even Deok Noh’s 2015 Teukjong: Ryangchensalingi/The Journalist.

In 1987: When the Day Comes there is unrest in President Chun Doo-hwan’s South Korea. Starting as they intend to go, the film shows us the police rushing a doctor to drive a needle into a young man’s heart in close up in an attempt to revive him after, as it turns out, drowning him in a toilet during interrogation. The police have the practiced manoeuvre of raising their riot shields to prevent any outside crowd view of people coming or going.

1987: When the Day Comes
Imposing Yun-seok Kim’s special anti-communist force goes into damage control but is thwarted at every turn. The doctor won’t sign a heart attack death certificate for a healthy twenty-two-year-old and lets slip that he had to dry the patient. Hip flask carrying prosecutor Jung-woo Ha (much better part than as the guide in Yong-hwa Kim’s Singwa hamgge/Along with the Gods:The Two Worlds also currently running) refuses to let them proceed without an autopsy, knowing he’ll get fired. “I am a stray dog without a master.”  Abusive journalist Hee-jun Lee, who accuses him of not doing his job, discovers that Ha has deliberately driven off leaving him the incriminating files on the kerb.

After the autopsy, the body is hurriedly cremated without his mother seeing it and the boy's father is left to scatter the ashes in the frozen river where they refuse to sink.

The matter is drawing attention at the Blue House Presidential Palace and the newspaper editor, growing more and more indignant, wipes the instruction not to run any stories on the incident off the chalk board. A raid with tear gas through the window will follow their refusal to stay quiet.

1987: When the Day Comes
Meanwhile prison guard Hae-jin Yoo,  who was suspended for his union activities, is smuggling messages out of the jail for his agitator inmate, and gets his freshman niece Tae-ri Kim (from the new version of The Housemaid), to deliver them to the joint Catholic-Buddhist group hiding a wanted agitator. She’s not interested, but the gift of the Walkman she wears running the errand sweetens the deal. Considerable suspense from taking information carefully restored from prison records through the police lines in a girlie magazine where the cops want to look at the pictures

When the girl sees a demo her reaction is that student leader Dong-won Gang is cute but she gets caught up in the action, fleeing charging police. She goes to his campus cartoon club and is shocked by the Gwanju Incident footage that was actually shot by the German photographer (played by Thomas Kretschman in A Taxi Driver).

Things are not going well for the Special Forces lot. The jail captain is outraged when they rough up one of his prisoners. The goon retrieved from police rough treatment objects to the notion that he should take one for the team. “I have five mouths to feed” Yun-seok Kim re-assures him that his family will be taken care of  and tells him about his own experience of Communists killing his family while he watched from hiding and shows a photo of the heavy's own family with the threat of what could happen to them. It's a strength of the film that these contemptible characters achieve a measure of sympathy, with the imposing Yun-seok Kim, facing his smirking opponents, a tragic fall.

There is vivid material of unrest in the streets with scenes of troops facing off the  demonstrators with tear gas. The shot of masked troops lowering their rifles to fire CS grenades directly into the crowd are as disturbing as the similar footage in A Taxi Driver.

The finale is irresistible where the streets fill (plausibly) with a million people singing the Korean anthem and the potential dictatorship crumbles.

Craft aspects are excellent and the cast is made up of Korean name players often doing bits. This lot can even get away with conflating the leftist fugitive with a stained glass Christ.

You couldn’t get a film more different than the new Japanese toon Mary and the Witch's Flower from Hiromasa Yonebayashi whose long association with Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli shows. We get riding the broom like Kiki’s Delivery Service, the wizard class of hooded white face students looking like the spook in Spirited Away, distant Endor College resembling Howl’s Moving Castle, a red-headed girl lead like Arriety and another menacing old lady. The familiarity in some ways adds to the appeal. Yonebayashi has absorbed the master’s style even if he can’t handle all the refinements - the Miyazaki skies are absent and the movement free pauses disturb but second hand Miyazaki is still a treat.

Plot kicks off with the flying girl stealing from the burning castle pursued by the airborne sharks. Comes the present and Mary the red headed pre-teener has been parked at Redmanor farm with her isolated Great-aunt who doesn’t offer video games. Best she can do is an old tube TV which never gets fired up.

"...glowing blue Fly by Night flowers..." Mary and the Witches Flower
However, when helping the gardener doesn’t work out, our junior heroine follows Peter the young cycle delivery boy’s cat into the woods to the glowing blue Fly by Night flowers.

Of course she finds herself flying with the cat (first great set piece) only to be chastised by the talking Rat in Robin Hood suit about loving her broom. Undeterred by the sign that warns that impostors will be transformed she enters the
College Garden with its extraordinary wackamole plants (another standout) to be welcomed as an apprentice witch. They meet master scientist magician Dr. Dee in his walking wheelchair and get the tour. ”Electricity is a type of magic.”

Turns out there is a lock up area with all the failed efforts at transformation - a red eyed koala and a galloping sheep among them. (“Even in the dark, my ears are filled with screams”) and the forces of good prevail. Great moment of the rescue, when all is lost, by the liberated animals, a further set piece.

This one can go toe to toe with the excellence of In My Corner of the World. We may have lost the musicals and westerns which used to make regular film going a treat - La La Land and Hateful Eight aside. However the flow of great animated films which come from Japan, Pixar and the rest is a great compensation. Add Coco to that succession.

My advice is to pounce on 1987 and Mary and the Witch’s Flower in a hurry. They look like not making it to Thursday. Both are exceptional. Is anyone pondering why a disproportionate quantity of the best film we are being offered is sub-titled, Asian and drawing minimal round eye attention?

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Current Cinema - Peter Hourigan takes up the cudgels over Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR (UK, 2017)

Max Berghouse added some complimentary comments to the generally ecstatic lauds that seem to be greeting Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.  He did have some qualifications, though, and that’s where I’d like to pick up.  I can’t say I had a very satisfactory time with the film. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

Joe Wright (r)
Wright has certainly made a number of films that have been very favourably received ‘in the right circles, the respectable circles.’  Perhaps the rot, however, set in with the reception of Atonement (2007).  Here, he had a wonderful novel as source material. And with Ian McEwan (the novel’s original author) and Christopher Hampton as screenwriters, he was pretty much safe. 

James McAvoy, Atonement
But Wright had to prove he was a film director. So he came up with a virtuoso ten-minute long tracking shot along the stranded troops at Dunkirk.  In the middle of the film, the sequence screamed out, “Look at me. Aren’t I fucking brilliant!”  And because the shot was so obviously virtuosic most of the critics said, “Yes, you’re fucking brilliant.” Despite the fact that this completely disrupted the film’s rhythm and didn’t serve any other dramatic purpose in the film.

Anna Karenina
Of course, these kinds of shots and devices can work – and I think they do, brilliantly, in his 2012 film of Anna Karenina.  Here, he had the controlling concept of his screenwriter, Tom Stoppard, another formidable English writer, who came up with a wonderfully theatrical framework for adapting such a complex piece of literature.  Wright had lots of reasons to be ‘show-off’ in coming up with theatrical devices, and they’re consistent throughout the film. I think it’s one of the most creative examples of how a difficult literary work can be adapted to cinema.  Thanks, I’m sure to Stoppard.

Anthony McCarten
Then up comes Darkest Hour.  Script – Anthony McCarten.  Main claim to fame so far, the bio-pic of Stephen Hawking.  Perfectly acceptable, but no great insights or depths to the story.  You don’t have to when you have a life like that.

And McCarten doesn’t really do much with Churchill either.  But you don’t need to when you can get an actor to go for an easy impersonation rather than a performance. And Oldman gives a very effective impersonation, within the bounds of the script.

Darkest Hour
Meanwhile, Wright continues looking for moments to show he is directing.  And it was these moments that kept popping up and distracting me throughout the film. Westminster is busy, even in the lobby – how do we show this? Choreograph two extras (MPs or similar) to walk as a pair across the back of the set, left to right. When they reach the end of the screen, start off the next pair of extras to walk from the top of the frame to the bottom, where another two are waiting to now cross from right to left. Where (surprise!) another two are waiting for their cue to complete the square by moving from the bottom of the screen to the top.

Or Churchill in a dark moment, retreats to a small room (can’t remember now if it’s a pantry, or what) that has a door with a small glass window on it. So when Oldman is on his mark inside the room, the door can shut. The lighting outside the room is pitch dark, so when the door shuts, there’s only this small rectangle in the middle of the otherwise black frame, and in it is Oldman’s head, despondent.  Get the symbolism?

Kristin Scott Thomas, Clementine Churchill
I’m really not someone who notices women’s hairstyles in a film.  But I couldn’t avoid Kristen Scott Thomas’s monster as Clementine Churchill. Now, look at any images of Clementine and she did wear a somewhat extravagant hairstyle. But it also looked liveable.  Not here. Or perhaps by this stage, I was so either so aware that dramatically the film was rather thin, or I’d become so distracted by all of Joe Wright’s ‘touches of directorial flair’ that I was missing the drama.

Sorry, everyone. I think this will clean up at the Oscars – and they deserve it.