2018년 6월 11일 월요일

SORCERER's Existentialist Spell- Interview with Professor Steve Choe, Associate Professor of Critical Studies, San Francisco State University

A very special guest who can help us understand Sorcerer is Professor Steve Choe, Associate Professor of Critical Studies in the School of Cinema, San Francisco State University. Professor Choe has authored two academic books, one on German cinema, entitled Afterlives: Allegories of Film and Mortality in Early Weimar Germany (Bloomsbury, 2014), and the other that looks at the relationship between violence and ethics in New Korean Cinema, Sovereign Violence: Ethics and South Korean Cinema in the New Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 2016).  His newest project is on the cinematic oeuvre of William Friedkin, for which he had conducted extensive interviews with the director. 

 Courtsey of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The following discussion with Professor Choe took place on June 5, 2018, at Berkeley, after the screening of the 40th Anniversary Special Edition Blu Ray (UK eOne edition) of Sorcerer reviewed in the previous blog entry. It has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity. The discussion content is copyrighted to Professor Steve Choe and may not be reproduced without his express permission.

Abbreviation: Q indicates Kyu Hyun Kim, S indicates Professor Choe.

Q: OK, we have just watched Sorcerer, which I have not seen since the VHS days. Not surprisingly, it was an amazing experience. We are extremely fortunate to have Professor Steve Choe with us here.  This is the third time you have seen this film.  Anything new that jumped out to you this time around?

S: I saw it for the first time without any particular investment, and then for the second when I had started the project on William Friedkin, for which I decided to watch all of this films chronologically. Oh, I did show it to my class last Fall, so this is actually the fourth time.

Q: Wow!  Can you tell me a little about the student response?

S: In the context of a class devoted to Friedkin, the student responded more enthusiastically to Sorcerer than to his other films.

Q: That's a surprise. Other films including The Exorcist?

S: Yes, including The Exorcist. The students had built-in expectations about that film and many of them found it not quite what they had in mind. Sorcerer and Cruising, though, definitely had a surge of interest in recent years, in places such as UK and Europe. [UC Berkeley's] Pacific Film Archive had shown both films with Friedkin in attendance about four years ago, for instance.

Q: Can you tell me more about the student response to Sorcerer?

S: They were quick to point out how the last part of the movie turned "weird" for them. As is the case with The French Connection, the protagonists experience the falling away of their original objectives and satisfying their obsessions, just getting the job done, becomes their single-minded goal. The desaturation of color, the close-up on Roy Scheider's face superimposed on the bizarre, alien-looking landscape through reflections on the windshield of the truck, confusing soundtracks in which you hear a plainly dead character laughing, and so on: all this recalls for the viewers earlier moments from the film and almost summarizes the film itself, and its theme of male obsession.

The extreme extent to which Scheider's character would go to get the job done, certainly resonated with the students. The concluding scene of the sequence, in which Scheider is carrying the box of unstable dynamite, wobbling like a zombie, entirely lit by the blazing petrol fire: my students found the scene powerful.

Q: I suppose one could provide a more conventionally "academic" interpretation of the sequence as a metaphor for madness of American capitalism and so on. Certainly, Wages of Fear seems to encourage that sort of approach. Can we tell a bit about the differences between Wages of Fear and Sorcerer?

S: In Wages of Fear we have an absurdist ending. Friedkin did not care for that ending and had no desire to replicate it. Wages of Fear is just as gripping as the Friedkin film, in my view, but in the latter, we have an ending that connects with The French Connection, with Charlie Parker music in the background, a kind of film noir ambience, and then these two gangsters from New York, figures from the Scheider character's past, appearing at the end, that emphasizes uncertainty or the continued flow of the narrative, rather than providing a resolution of any kind.  I feel this is a very '70s variation on the classic mode of filmmaking, but with an element of failure incorporated into it. It is different from the classic noir tropes.

Q: Like a Raymond Chandler ending, we know the system is corrupt, the police is corrupt, the big money is corrupt, but the individual hero, Philip Marlowe, retains his integrity-- he floats above all this morass and will survive to face another day. That's not what happens here.

S: Exactly. Friedkin shows a point of view perhaps more accurately put as agnostic than nihilistic. There is no suggestion of the faith that the human spirit will in the end conquer the adversity.  So this renders his characters, even his chosen heroes, rather unsympathetic.

Q: You don't think that is a problem.

S: No. I think this is a very valid artistic point, an observation about the humanity, more precisely the nature of humanity. In that sense, I believe Sorcerer is a strongly humanistic film. It might not make you feel elated and satisfied at the end, but then, neither does human life at all times.

Q: Could we talk about a point that we discussed earlier [during the screening, and incorporated into the Blu Ray review], that in this film Nature seems pretty determined to kill the characters.

S: Yes, Nature is hostile, but also machines, most importantly trucks, seem to be alive and monstrous as well. The hierarchy of humans controlling nature and machines is subverted, unlike in the Clouzot film.  There is Otherness to the nature, an impenetrable quality. You mentioned the scene in which the tree branches appear seemingly out of nowhere to "attack" the truck drivers.  Tangerine Dream's ambient score also adds to this scene, highlighting terror and mystery.

The first thirty to forty minutes of the film seemingly sets up generic information and character buildup that appear to lead to a conventional storytelling style, but then again, once the location moves to this fictional Latin American country, these elements are pretty much discarded.  The only thing remaining as a meaningful character trait is that they have survival skills-- and are good with machines. They are truly reduced to basic essence of humanity, as human animals with certain skill sets that may or may not be useful for survival.

Q: They are all stripped of social positions and relations, political ideologies and so on.

S: Yes, in a way Friedkin is still continuing with documentary approach. He is still "capturing reality," taking conventionally conceived characters and filming them as if the world is just unfolding around them for the very first time. 

Q: The director as God is absent.

S: He sets the table up, but refuses to guide the characters.

Q: How about comparisons with Werner Herzog?

S: The hostility of Nature is certainly a similar feature of Herzog's Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.  They are similar in that both refuse to give much credence to the idea of human "specialness." There are clear limitations on what human beings can know and do. It is quite interesting, as Friedkin is not indifferent to the question of faith… he just approaches faith from a deeply agnostic point of view. 

In that sense, I note a similarity with Park Chan-wook's works, although their cultural backgrounds are quite dissimilar (I am not talking about their ethnic differences). I think Park is intensely interested in the irreconcilable contradictions in the human being that nonetheless are "real," and Friedkin is, too.

Q: How would you characterize Friedkin's relationship with New American Cinema?

S: There was the Vietnam War, Nixon was impeached in 1974, and the New American Cinema reflected that mood. Friedkin was iconoclastic even then, but he debuted as the Production Code died out in '60s and was also influenced by theater, the idea of theater as the heterotopic space, wherein the world outside could be mirrored but in a different way. A sizable number of his movies are intensely theatrical, and even the opened-up films often feature sequences that are essentially set in one room as a self-contained world: Regan's bedroom in The Exorcist, for instance, the hotel room in The Bug, or the apartment in The Boys in the Band.  It also functions as an allegorical representation of the movie theater itself. 

Let me ask you a question.

Q: Oh, OK. (Laughter) 

S: What did you think of Sorcerer as a remake?

Q: Well, when I first saw Sorcerer I have not seen Wages of Fear, despite the latter's venerable classic status.  When I caught up with the latter, I really loved it, but again, as we talked about, I felt that "nihilistic" ending felt almost tacked-on, or even made more sense as the protagonist's dream.  Now I look back on these two films, they are very different from one another… in many ways Sorcerer is the more stereotypically "European" film than Wages of Fear (Laughter). Now that I have seen it again with you, I can see the connection with The Exorcist much more clearly, as [as I mention in the review] it strikes me as a horror film without the supernatural evil. The world, or that particular country, or that particular jungle, including the river and the oil well, is a malevolent presence, the source of horror.  

S: Interesting! When I asked Friedkin, he disavowed that this is a remake, and strongly asserted that it was just another adaptation of the original source novel.  I feel that this notion that Sorcerer is a remake of the Clouzot film has hindered proper appreciation of the former, because there is a built-in prejudice that the remake must be inferior to the original.

The movie's title-- very briefly shown on one of the trucks-- comes from a Miles Davis album. I think Friedkin sees filmmaking like playing jazz music: the conventions are there, maybe rhythmic patterns or harmonies are shared, but you can write a different piece of music on the same source. His films are improvisational in that sense, I believe.

Q: Can you tell me about editing of the movie?

S: The bridge sequence, for instance, is done in a strikingly distinct way from a conventional Hollywood film. Cuts are very quick. Friedkin certainly did learn much from Hitchcock. The narrative content is fairly simple, but there are rapid shifts of close-ups from faces to ropes to the windshield of the truck, sometimes from subtly different angles.

Q: So the editing replicates our perception of an in-the-moment experience.

S: Yes, it gives one just enough time to have an impression of what is going on, but he cuts away from what you have earlier called "proper resolution" of a particular scene. The end of the bridge sequence almost looks like as if some frames are missing: you just barely get to see the truck moving to the safety and the scene jumps to another scene in a totally different environment, without any indication of how much time has passed.

Q: But it is radically different from you know… just confusing editing, like in a Michael Bay film. (Laughter)

S: Right. But cutting too quickly sometimes makes it difficult for the viewers to fully grasp the scene, or whatever meaning it carries. They might feel alienated as a result.

Q: I can totally see that. Maybe it also comes from agnosticism, because he does not want to play God to the viewers, tell them something he really doesn't know.

S: Perhaps. He told me an interesting story about visiting Europe and seeing the Shroud of Turin with his wife. And he says the experience moved him and his wife to tears, even though they remain agnostic Jews.

Q: Wow. He wants to believe then? To have faith?

S: I think he is aware that he has no access point to the kind of faith like, for instance, New York Catholics have. 

Q: It is remarkable that even after the commercial failure of Sorcerer and Cruising, Friedkin went ahead and still made a diverse and substantial array of films.

S: Yes, he reinvented himself as an independent filmmaker after 1990. I agree that many other filmmakers would have quit after what he had to go through in late '70s and '80s. We must not discount just what an astronomical hit The Exorcist was, and how shocking and innovative The French Connection was, in early '70s. In my view, Friedkin is a true American auteur, who works within the system but retains a strong personal vision, closer to Terence Malik, perhaps, and in my view more "independent" than Spielberg or even Scorsese.

For me, one of the reasons that The Exorcist still remains a great horror film, despite my student's professed disappointment in its efficacy as a scare-fest, is that Friedkin meticulously depicts all scientific methods to determine what is going on with Regan.  All scientific diagnoses fail in the end, however. The brutal reality of possession is the only "explanation" that remains at the end.  I see this as an exercise of deep critical thinking on the filmmaker's part, rather than what a conventional horror film does, that is, to begin with the a priori premise that there is God and there is Devil and going from there.     

Q: Would you say the age of filmmakers like William Friedkin is gone and will not come back again?

S: Certainly not in the form construed today as big-budget commercial filmmaking. That will be very difficult, if not entirely impossible, in the American film industry today. You know, as you have pointed out, perhaps New Korean Cinema of the early '00s has in fact been continuing the paths blazed by Friedlkin and American filmmakers of his generation. We shall see if the global impact of New Korean Cinema could generate some interesting cross-generational references and ultimately new types of filmmaking that engages with the concerns of the New American (and Korean) Cinema from new angles and perspectives.

Q: Dang, time passes so quickly!  I have one final question. Any American film that you have seen recently that reminded you of Sorcerer or a Friedkin film?

S: You know what, Friedkin recommended The Killing of the Sacred Deer to me. He saw it and was impressed by it. And I agree, it does resonate with his films.

Q: Thank you so much for the great discussion!  We should do this again, with a different movie sometime soon.

S: Yes, it was really wonderful to talk about Sorcerer and William Friedkin in such a friendly setting.

Wages of Survival-- SORCERER (1977) Blu Ray Review

SORCERER. A Film Properties International/Universal Pictures/Paramount Pictures Co-Production. U.S., 1977. 2 hour 1 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1, Technicolor, 35mm. Director: William Friedkin. Screenplay: Walon Green, based on the novel Le salarie de la peur by Georges Arnaud. Music: Tangerine Dream. Cinematography: Dick Bush, John M. Stephens. Production Design: John Box. Editing: Robert K. Lambert, Bud S. Smith. Costume Design: Anthony Powell.  

CAST: Roy Scheider (Jackie Scanlon/Juan Dominguez), Bruno Cremer (Victor Manzon/Serrano), Francisco Rabal (Nilo), Amidou (Kassem/Martinez), Ramon Bieri (Corlette), Karl John (Marquez), Friedrich Ledebur (Carlos), Joe Spinell, Rosario Almontes.

Sorcerer, William Friedkin's follow-up film to The Exorcist, had the misfortune of opening in the year in which Star Wars had essentially re-written the rules of the US movie industry. Costing the upwards of twelve million dollars to make, it was a commercial failure. However, now that the American, nay, global motion picture industry has been thoroughly colonized by big-studio tent-pole special effects extravaganzas, well beyond the rather innocuous charm of the original Star Wars trilogy and teeming with literally dozens of comic book superheroes with their own patches of territory in the franchise gang war, it has come under a welcome wave of reassessment. It is certainly not an easy film to warm up to, with largely unsympathetic main characters, and arguably even more cynical or nihilistic than the notorious "existentialist" thriller, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, with its much talked-about "downbeat" ending, of which this is ostensibly a remake. Yet, watching it again in a superior Blu Ray presentation by the UK label eOne, it is difficult to deny the hypnotic power the film weaves around the viewer: it is one of those films that can leave some viewers hating its guts, but nonetheless have them completely captivated and riveted to the screen.   

I surmise that one of the reasons those who had seen the film during its initial release felt cheated was the abrupt way it "betrays" their expectations after the first reel. The way the main characters are introduced make us anticipate a tightly constructed thriller in the mode of, say, John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday (1977), which shares this film's semi-documentarian, in-there-with-the-actors approach, but today seems rather retrograde (and not just in terms of its Middle Eastern politics). Friedkin's mises-en-scenes are superbly economical and naturalistic, but work well within the established genre conventions.

Francisco Rabal (a Spanish star and a longtime collaborator of Luis Bunuel, having appeared, among other films, in Nazarin [1959] and Belle de Jour [1967]) is an aging, arrogant South American hitman. Amidou (a veteran Moroccan actor then specializing in Arab/North African roles for the Francophone films) plays a member of a terrorist cell responsible for detonating a bomb in Jerusalem, and barely surviving the pursuit by the Israeli police. Bruno Cremer (who had a solid presence in the French commercial cinema throughout '60s and '70s, mostly cast as villains) is a banker whose corrupt financial dealings backfire, ending in his partner's suicide and his escape from a Parisian High Society life, abandoning his book-editor wife. Finally, Roy Scheider is a two-bit gangster who pulls a daring robbery on a mob booking office operating in the basement of a Brooklyn Catholic church, only to have the heist turn sour. The mob bosses have put a price on his head. All these men converge as the last resort of escape to a decrepit village in a (fictional) South American nation, where the only connections to the outside world are bottles of Coca Cola, a juke box in a saloon that plays old dance tunes, and the American oil drilling site supervised by Corlette (Ramon Bieri, one of those familiar faces from TV and old movies you cannot quite put a name to). 

Of course, as in The Wages of Fear, a spectacular explosion in the oil well makes it necessary for the company to hire a group of desperados-- excellent drivers with steely nerves and good instincts for survival-- in need of a big wad of pesos to transfer four boxes of dynamite, so soaked with moisture that they have virtually become sticks of raw nitroglycerin, with two beaten-up trucks over the mountain passages hardly fit for a bicycle trek.

Once we accept that we will never have real identification figures among the four leads, all of whom are morally flawed, to say the least (a vicious hitman, a white-collar criminal exploiting his family prestige to escape the law, a terrorist responsible for deaths of innocent citizens, and a petty gangster involved in a shooting of a priest), and that Friedkin is resolutely uninterested in editorializing about their moral or political stances, Sorcerer does entice us to join their perilous journey through its sheer filmmaking brilliance. 

The technical accomplishments, including Friedkin's direction of the actors, are difficult to be faulted. The miasma of the consistently wet and muddy jungle is rendered with an almost physical force. The make-up, costume and production design all look totally lived-in. Despite the jaw-dropping, insane complexity of the stunts and set pieces-- especially the justifiably famous sequence of two trucks crossing the river over an ancient wooden-plank bridge--, the action is always legible and clearly presented. Neither does Friedkin waste any time in conveying the essential plot information. The scene in which Ramon Bieri's Corlette and his assistant investigate the sodden boxes of dynamite is a case in point: mostly using only visual language, Friedkin drives into the brains of the viewers just how unstable and dangerous these explosives are. These sequences are classical in conception, but the urgency and tension they embody is very '70s, something that New American Cinema came up with by incorporating editing and photographic techniques from the European cinema into their own immediate, aggressive filmmaking styles.

Again, the actors fully rise to the occasion, despite what must have been culturally disparate acting styles. Scheider never projects a Hollywood leading man-aura but his presence firmly anchors the film, allowing other actors to shine in their moments. It is interesting Cremer's Victor is the only one given a borderline sentimental opportunity to reminisce about the personal life he had left behind: his Parisian identity seems to have something to do with it. You certainly don't see that kind of softness associated with "French culture" in the equally ruthless but very different The Day of the Jackal (1973).

The best way to appreciate Sorcerer, at least for me, is to approach it as a horror film, an inverse of The Exorcist, in that, instead of a demonic presence invading a Washington D. C. home, the four protagonists are pitted against Nature-- or, more precisely, the jungle-- as a malevolent presence, maybe not quite "evil" but certainly hostile to the humanity. The startling manner in which tree branches, drifting through the river rapids, suddenly appear from the outside of the frame to "attack" Victor and Kassem on the bridge, for one, might as well be a deliberate, sentient act of aggression. Elsewhere, the awesome column of orange flame from the burning oil well is intercut with the montage of the men preparing their vehicles-- the trucks themselves look like huge totemic masks of some prehistoric beasts-- suggesting that the latter are observed by an unfriendly being.

Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant) once talked about one of the running themes in South American films including La muralla verde (1969) as well as the non-local films made in location there, such as Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), that shows "civilized" (white) men attempting to conquer or tame Nature and essentially being consumed or annihilated by it in return. I feel that Sorcerer also partakes of this theme, all the while refusing to comment on the evils of American capitalism or follies of the Western civilization pretending to have successfully conquered Nature. Overall, Sorcerer is not interested in dealing with the neo-colonial relationship between denizens of el norte and the native population, not even as much as Clouzot chose to explore in The Wages of Fear. The film does include a powerful scene in which the bodies of the local workers killed by the explosion-- a few of them burnt beyond recognition-- are shipped to the village and almost causes a riot among the population. As it stands, however, it is a rather isolated, curious moment in the film otherwise rigorously apolitical. 

Sorcerer may not be a film that can be loved by everyone (William Friedkin seems to be one obviously talented '70s American auteur who is still capable of deeply dividing opinions of the scholars, critics and film historians, even more so than Brian De Palma) but I think its power is undeniable. In some ways, this difficult motion picture is more authentically "existentialist" than Clouzot's film-- which I still prefer, despite my aversion to its ending (apparently shared by Friedkin), which I have always found like a dream episode for the protagonist left over at the end by a mistake. It is stripped of the kind of intellectualism that inevitably leads to celebration of the "heroic" stance of the film's existentialist (always male and European, of course) protagonist. Here, the four guys are just trying to survive, and Friedkin suggests that we are no different from them, facing the indifferent or hostile God/Nature.  

Blu Ray Presentation:

Entertainment One UK. Region B. Video: Widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, Stereo 2.0. Subtitles: English SDH. Supplements: Insert note by William Friedkin, a Conversation with William Friedkin and Nicolas Wending Refn. Release date: November 6, 2017. Amazon.co.uk price: £8.99

Sorcerer has been a difficult title to locate on home video until recently. I remember seeing it on a VHS, but having the film actually financed by two major studios seems to have done its distribution history no favors. It should be noted that Friedkin himself thanks Jeff Baker and Tom Lucas of Warner Home Video for practically resurrecting the film. The full background of this restoration process and the subsequent reevaluation of the motion picture would make an interesting piece of film history.  

Entertainment One's transfer seems to be a carry-over from Warner Brothers Blu Ray, released in 2014. The colors are vibrant but suitably naturalistic, with stable grain structures and fine details. They are also warmer than the usual tone of the contemporary American films, which I surmise is as it should be: only tropical greeneries in certain scenes aggressively "pop." The Blu Ray does make it possible for the viewers to discern the subtle but effective "dirt" makeup on the actors and other details previously missed. 

Even more impressive is the DTS 5.1 soundscape, which allows one to notice the different recording strategies employed in Paris- and New York-set sequences. Yet, I must say I remain frustrated that Tangerine Dream's evocative score was not more extensively used. Friedkin has a very unusual ear for music among American filmmakers-- his use of rock bands-artists like Wang Chung and Mike Oldfield is quite unique and effective--, but like so many of them, seems not to trust it completely. David Cronenberg and Stephen Spielberg share a surprisingly common trait in that they totally trust their composers to add extra layers to their films, rather than seeing scores as a "sonic element" to be cut and pasted as the director pleases, but they are hardly the norm.

The Warner Blu Ray was essentially bare bones, but eOne UK managed to include a substantial talking-heads docu filmed in 2015 (shot in black and white, with color inserts of relevant photo data), "Sorcerers: A Conversation between William Friedkin and Nicolas Winding Refn," which extensively covers production history of Sorcerer and clocks at 1 hour 12 minutes. It is mostly Friedkin talking, and Refn does an adequate job of prompting information and insights out of the older filmmaker, although his repetitive refrain that "I am the younger version of you"-- although the Dutch filmmaker might have been entirely honest about this self-assessment-- becomes tiresome. We find out that Friedkin still (at least in 2015) considers Sorcerer his best film, advancing the notion that he had intended it as a commentary on the troubled international conflicts of mid-'70s (not too convincing, I am afraid). But he is refreshingly candid about the disappointment from bad reviews and box office failures (Refn annoyingly attempts to paint the whole filmmaking process and its aftermath as some kind of a heroic artist's odyssey for Friedkin: thankfully the latter resists such intellectualization, while clearly pleased by the former's adulation).

The best part of the interview include Friedkin's recounting of casting choices (how Steve McQueen loved Walon Green's screenplay but had to drop out, due to his demand that Ali McGraw be included in the production in some capacity, and so on), of location shooting in the Domincan Republic, and of working with Tangerine Dream, whom he had already in mind as his composers as early as 1974. Many of the stories and interpretations Friedkin tell are informative and add to the appreciation of the film, even though for some of them I would have loved to hear Roy Scheider's version, too.  

2018년 5월 19일 토요일

Go ahead, draw. It's My Hand-Sharpened 2B or Your Pentel Sharp 0.5mm. BAD GENIUS (2017) Blu Ray Review

Bad Genius ฉลาดเกมส์โกง (Thailand, 2017).  A Jor Kwang Films Production, distributed by Gross Domestic Happiness 559, Limited. 2 hour 10 minutes.  Aspect ratio, 2:35:1. Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya. Screenplay: Nattawut Poonpiriya, Tanida Hantaweewatana, Vasudhorn Piyaromna.  Cinematography: Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun . Editor: Chonlasit Upanigkit.  Music: Hualampong Riddim.

CAST: Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying (Rinrada/Lynn), Chanon Santiatornkul (Thanaphon/Banks), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Steve Pat), Eisaya Hosuwan (Grace), Thaneth Warakulnokroh (Lynn's Father).

This Thai film has snuck into iTunes and other stateside streaming services without fanfare, but is not receiving the word-of-mouth support it deserves.  No North American or European DVD/Blu Ray seems to be available currently (not even in Germany!) as of today [May 18, 2018], and as far as I know no US or European label has picked it up for the optic media disc market. Which is too bad, as Bad Genius is one of the most ingeniously entertaining Thai films that I have seen in some time.  Uncle Bunmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives this ain't, but neither is it another long-haired-ghost horror opus, nor another muay-thai-fueled martial arts actioner.

The film's poster makes one think that it is a lightweight teen comedy, which might be partly responsible for its under-the-radar status stateside.  True, Bad Genius does exude a degree of sub-MTV, high-school hi-jinks vibe to it, especially in the first half, but you must believe me when I tell you that it subtly morphs right in front of your eyes into a thrilling nail-biter and a caper film, and eventually, I kid you not, a kind of junior film noir (one is reminded of Rian Johnson's Brick, although these movies could not be more different in tone from one another).  No one fires a gun, nor even puff a cigarette (ubiquitous in Korean movies set in high schools!), but the protagonists Lynn and Banks might as well be noir characters stuck in teenager's bodies, half-willingly sucked into the whirlpools of increasingly high-stakes criminal schemes, all the while having to negotiate relationships with their so-called friends/clientele, authority figures (including one's family members) and, in the end, each other, none of whom they can entirely trust.   

This situation would not appear far-fetched in the least, in fact would be instantly recognizable to most Asian viewers, not just the Thai local audience (it was the biggest domestic hit film of 2017, grossing more than $42 million in its initial theatrical run), because they all share the culture of extreme competition for excellence in school grades as well as unrelenting pressure exerted on the children to get into "high-ranking" colleges and universities.  In East and Southeast Asian nations, the academic competition in secondary schools is often so stiff that it has created gargantuan "tutoring" industries that are ironically threatening to dwarf the "normal" educational institutions in the size of money they command (The total expense gobbled up by these "private education" services in South Korea, in 2016 alone, was vertigo-inducing 18 trillion won).  

Lynn is a math genius, an apple in the eye of her former schoolteacher single father. She is transferred to a more prestigious private high school, but extracts full scholarship from the principal by driving a hard bargain. Brilliant, but angry at the economic disparity that puts a select group of students at disadvantage almost at the point of birth, Lynn is befriended by the rich ne'er-do-well Pat and the cute but immature Grace.  When Lynn helps Grace score in a math exam by passing the correct answers written on a pencil eraser, she becomes the go-to person for what appears to be half of the school, who shower her with baht bills so that they could improve their grades.  Pretending to give her clientele piano lessons, Lynn develops musical-note-based codes to relay the answers to the multiple-choice questions to them, resulting in some amusing but unexpectedly suspenseful sequences of a bunch of students trying to decipher her deft finger movements on the school desk, while watched over by ever-suspicious proctors. 

At one point, Lynn is almost busted by her only competitor to the Singaporean international scholarship, "Banks" (I assume this is an English nickname, meant to mock the way Thanaphon, his real name, is tight with money).  She is drawn to his ethical principles as well as his suppressed rage, having grown up in an even less privileged environment than hers, a seedy laundromat managed by his single mother. Unfortunately, like a drug dealer or an assassin in a noir film, Lynn deceives herself that she could retire after one final "big score," with the loot (or, to be precise, money pot) reaching several million baht, many times the annual salary of any respectable middle-class job she could expect to land after graduating with all As. It involves cheating at the STIC (standardized tests for international colleges: sounds like a fictional version of SAT or ACT, in other words, a qualification exam for entering US colleges), making use out of the time lag between one test site (in this case, Sydney, Australia) and another (in Bangkok). And she needs a partner in crime: no one other than Banks could do the job. Will he agree to do it?

The screenplay by director Poonpiriya and two other partners is actually quite clever and impressively character-oriented.  Lynn and Banks are nerdy high school students, but they also behave like special agents in Mission: Impossible movies, carefully practicing their routines to fool the surveying eyes of the adults and coming up with desperate, on-the-spot solutions to sudden, unanticipated obstacles.  Poonpiriya's direction is trendy (overusing slow motion in an ironic mode, for instance) but also very good, staging emotional confrontations and suspense sequences in school corridors and bathrooms with considerable skills.

The best thing about his direction is that he refuses to play dumb kids for laughs, or frame rich friends of Lynn as crass villains (although Pat comes close to being one). As Poonpiriya sees it, these rich kids are just as much victims of their craven parents, as a hilarious but cringe-inducing scene, in which Grace is "bought" by Pat's parents to tag along with him to Boston University, shows.  Moral culpability is extended to all parties, including the Thai school system, the US colleges and testing agencies, even Lynn's father, who grovels at demeaning remarks of the high school principal, in order to put her through the admission.  He initially does not see that such behavior in the name of helping her diminishes himself in her eyes, stoking her resentment about the unfair social system and her desire to cheat it. 

Chuengcharoensukying (known as "Aokbab" in Thailand: I suppose it is not just we non-Thais who flop onto the floor trying to properly remember and pronounce the names of the actors) as Lynn is a real find, a lanky, severe-looking young actress who projects both keen intelligence and the yearning to find an internal moral compass that could guide her actions.  Supporting actors are not quite as powerful, but Aokbab has no trouble carrying the whole picture on her shoulders.  Her best scenes are with Warakulnokroh (apparently a very famous rock singer-DJ-music producer in Thailand whose career goes back to early '80s), as the latter's beguiling if uncomprehending expressions of love and concern gradually melt her icy defenses: it is also to the credit of Poonpiriya that Lynn's father never becomes a preachy moral center of the film (perhaps except at the very end, which feels just a tad tacked-on to get approval from the mainstream viewers).

Bad Genius does not quite work all the time, although its running time does not feel long even at two hours and ten minutes.  At times its slick editing, exaggerated close-ups of the pencil tips and answer sheets and other cool mises-en-scenes threaten to come off as superficial.  There are also a few bizarre touches, such as the ridiculously exaggerated threat embodied by a Sydney STIC exam site's proctor, who looks and growls like Tall Man from Phantasm movies: you expect him at any minute to point to Lynn, squint hard and bellow "Girrrrl!!"  

All in all, nonetheless, Bad Genius is a pleasant surprise, a caper film-slash-film noir that uses its cutthroat school environment to provide plenty of real suspense as well as some powerful character-oriented drama. It handily beats the majority of Asian crime thrillers with pointless (misogynistic) violence and same-'ol macho nihilism masquerading as left-wing critique. Besides, a movie that mercilessly exposes the complete, absurd failure of a Scantron-style multiple choice examination system to evaluate a student's academic (we are not even talking about other more difficult-to-measure qualities such as critical thinking and leadership) abilities can count on my total support anytime.

Blu Ray Presentation:

INFO (South Korea). NTSC, Region Free. Video: Widescreen 2.35:1. Audio: Thai DTS-HD MA 5.1. Subtitles: Korean, English & Chinese. Supplements: Making-of documentary, Theatrical Trailer. YesAsia retail price: $41.99. Street date: April 4, 2018.

Bad Genius is presented in a sparkling HD transfer by the South Korean label INFO, in what I am guessing is based on the HD master supplied by GDH 559.  I have not had a chance to check Taiwan and Hong Kong editions, except that the latter more aggressively markets it as a teen comedy (with the Chinese title "Get-A Special Forces," which, technically speaking, accurately describes the movie…). The South Korean version at least gets the "nail-biting suspense" part right (one of the blurbs on the Blu Ray case, in fact, specifically refers to the Variety review to emphasize that characterization).  

The contrast level is excellent, neither artifacts nor DNR issues declare themselves.  The visual palette is surprisingly gritty and realistic, not as colorful or glamorous as one might expect from other recent Thai films. The DTS-HD sound is suitably energetic.

The South Korean special edition includes a stack of mini-posters and character cards with the young stars posing with hand-signs pointing to numbers from one to four. Unfortunately, the making-of documentary is a standard Sinophone EPK fluff. It at least comes with English subtitles.  The Sydney location gets a lot of coverage, but little background information is given on the real-life high-tech exam-cheating scandals (such as this) that had no doubt inspired the movie, something that a future North American and/or European Blu Ray release should consider including as a supplement.  

2018년 5월 3일 목요일

Hell in the Pacific- Tsukamoto Shin'ya's FIRES ON THE PLAIN (2014) Blu Ray Review

FIRES ON THE PLAIN 野火 (Japan, 2014). A Kaiju Theater Production. 1 hour 27 minutes, Aspect Ratio 1.85:1. Director/Screenplay/Producer/Editor/Cinematography: Tsukamoto Shin'ya 塚本晋也. Costume Design: Okabe Hitomi 岡部仁美. Production Design: MASAKO. Music: Ishikawa Chū 石川忠. Special Effects Makeup: Rikuta Chiharu 陸田千春.   

CAST: Tsukamoto Shin'ya (Tamura), Mori Yūsaku 森優作 (Nagamatsu), Lily Franky ("Old Man" Yasuda), Nakamura Tatsuya 中村達也 (Corporal), Yamamoto Hiroshi 山本浩司(Squad Leader), Yamachi Mamoru 山内まも留(Medical Officer), Nakamura Yūko 中村優子(Tamura's wife). 

Tsukamoto Shin'ya has carved out a significant position as, along with Kitano "Beat" Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Miike Takashi and Sono Sion, one of the post-'80s Japanese genre auteurs. These days, he is equally well known for his acting, most recently delivering excellent performances in Martin Scorses's Silence (2016) and Shin Godzilla (2016).  Widely regarded as one of the masters of cyberpunk cinema, Tsukamoto has rigorously pursued the path of a maverick filmmaker, putting together independent projects through his company Kaiju Theater. 

You can be rest assured that a Tsukamoto Shin'ya film will never feature a lame pop tune in lieu of a proper end title music, imposed by a TV company or some such financial powers-that-be, unless it is directly relevant to the film (as was the case with the director's previous film Kotoko [2011], starring Okinawan folk star Cocco).  Nor will it feature some pretty faces from TV or "idol" singer circuit, or include "cute" situations copied from the pages of a "light novel."  However, just because he is making a film close to his heart-- adapting the novel by Ōoka Shōhei while remaining faithful to its devastating depiction of violence, misery and insanity-- and on a subject little to do with his usual SF-fantasy-thriller interests-- the descent into a living hell by the Japanese soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944)-- Tsukamoto has no plans to go "soft" or "easy" on the viewers not familiar with his aggressive-- some might call assaultive-- style of filmmaking.  In other words, Fires on the Plain (previously adapted by the ultra-versatile Ichikawa Kon into an almost equally devastating but much more lyrical and elegiac cinematic version in 1959) is still every inch a Tsukamoto film. Those whose typical idea of a Japanese film is Tampopo or a Studio Ghibli animation feature need to come prepared.  Even those who are used to "cartoonish" violence of a Beat Takeshi-directed Zatoichi (with spurts of CGI-drawn blood) or a Kitamura Ryuhei film might not be ready for the sheer emotional and graphic intensity and unflinching gore to which they will be subject.

As the movie opens to Ishikawa Chū's dissonant musique concrete score, the Japanese soldiers, including the "intellectual" protagonist Tamura (a moving performance by Tsukamoto), have already fallen to the depth of wretchedness. They are caked in inveterate filth, their teeth are falling out and gums are spontaneously bleeding, and they are subsisting on shriveled sticks of yam no bigger than a man's raised index finger.  No one talks about the glory of the Empire or winning the war against the dastardly Anglo-American forces. Everyone seemingly knows that the war is lost, and they reminisce about hometown and their family members in feeble voices, as if they are discussing long forgotten dreams the contents of which need to be painstakingly reconstructed. 

Tamura, afflicted with tuberculosis, is sent back and forth between his squad and the makeshift hospital, which looks more like a slaughterhouse, but his dilemma is rendered moot when the American Air Force blows up the head of the medical officer like a watermelon and razes the hospital with a bomb.  Presently, he is joined by a group of soldiers retreating on foot to Palompon from the Leyte Gulf, and later by the two survivors of the hospital massacre, a wily middle-aged soldier Yasuda (Lily Franky, a.k.a. Nakagawa Masaya, better known as an illustrator-musician) and a young rookie, Nagamatsu, who is an emotional wreck and tethered to Yasuda in a very unhealthy way (Mori Yūsaku).

Compared to Ichikawa's widescreen film that punctuated the abject misery suffered by the soldiers with beauty and grandiosity of the South Pacific landscape, Tsukamoto deliberately heightens the intensity of color and contrast, as if to suggest that in the eyes of the Japanese soldiers these beautiful sights of paradise have turned poisonous and glaring.  The vegetation is too blatantly green: the red and scarlet flowers blooming all over the jungle look positively alien, seemingly beckoning the gazers with a secret, hostile intent: a sun-baked rock immediately boils drops of red blood into raspberry-colored dry stains.  Tamura has only a few moments of respite in the anonymously dark night, when a couple of blue-fluorescent fireflies land in his palm.  Rejected by the natural environment itself as alien invaders, the Japanese soldiers are reduced to the state of the living dead: one lying on the wet ground in a fetal position has fat maggots crawling in and out of his ear, but he jolts Tamura (and the viewers) by verbally responding to the latter's muttered statement, "That is how I will end up eventually."     

Given his propensity as well as his desire to be faithful to the source, it is really not surprising that Tsukamoto films Fires on the Plain as an extreme horror show rather than a war film.   Indeed, some might chafe at the ultra-gory sequence in which the surviving Japanese are gunned down by Americans.  Faces and limbs are torn apart: one booted foot wetly steps on a grey and pink mound of brain matter just ejected from a man's skull, whose lips are still moving as if to protest: and so on. Tsukamoto lingers on the carnage a bit too much, as if to impress on the younger viewer's mind the notion that this is what a soldiering in an exotic foreign country really amounts to. These scenes are so extreme that they become rather theatrical, the cinematic equivalent of a Grand Guignol experience.  We could certainly debate if this type of excessive presentation is the most effective way to convey an anti-war message, although we would be hard pressed not to recognize the aesthetic consistency in Tsukamoto's portrayals of the extremes of human experience, whether a man turning into a metallic cyborg or one being shot to death by machine gun sprays.

Moreover, Tsukamoto refuses to "humanize" his characters by either celebrating heroism of soldiers as Spielberg did in Saving Private Ryan or allowing them to choose death over degeneration into cannibalism or worse, as in the Ichikawa version. Tamura, the observer-protagonist, is certainly not excused of his culpability, and his reaction to a fellow soldier who tries to surrender to the Allied Forces being summarily killed by a Filipino guerrilla clearly shows that his subjective POV is shaped by the moral weight of a terrible murder of a Filipino native he earlier committed.  

Unlike Ichikawa version's elegiac and mournful tone, Tsukamoto's version retains a harsher perspective that never forgets the moral status of the Japanese army as invaders and despoilers of the natural order.  And perhaps this is, after all things are considered, the more "humanistic" version, as Tsukamoto clearly addresses, in his powerful coda, the imprinting of this hell-like war experience on a man's psyche and body: this is not something that an empire can "purge" by re-telling the story of its invasion as soldiers as victims.  In the Ichikawa version the "fire on the plain"-- actually smoke signals by the Filipino civilians or guerrilla fighters-- symbolizes the Heimat, a zone of imaginary peace for Tamura.  Here, it begins as such too, but by the end of the film, the fire ends up illuminating his tormented face from outside his home, blazing as "living memory," that refuses to die out, even today, in 2010s.

Blu Ray Presentation:  1) Third Window Films. Region Free. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. English subtitles. Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Making -of-documentary, "Fires on the Plain: 20 Years in the Making," audio commentary by Tom Mes. Street date: September 11, 2017. Amazon.uk price: £17.99.   2) Shochiku.  Region A. Video: widescreen 1.85:1, 1080p. Audio: Japanese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. No subtitles.  Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Making-of-documentary, visual map of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf.  Street date: May 12, 2016. List price: ¥5,076.

In 2016, Shochiku has embarked on a plan to release on Blu Ray better-known films from the Tsukamoto canon, newly remastered in HD, and started off with the newest of the batch, Fires on the Plain. Their transfer is, not surprisingly, state-of-the-art, capturing the high-contrast, aggressively hued look of the digital-lensed motion picture well. The darkness is impressively inky black, and some of the natural landscapes, filmed in Mindanao, Philippines, as well as Hawaii and Okinawa, are preternaturally gorgeous yet strange and foreboding, never picture postcard-pretty. DTS-HD Master Audio also comes across very well, although given the film's low budget, Fires on the Plain is not exactly a demo film for showcasing a three-dimensional ambient soundscape.

I was initially wary of the Third Window Films release not measuring up to the stellar quality of the more expensive Japanese disc (without English subtitles, alas), but thankfully the UK version's transfer (the outer package says it is coded for Region B, but it plays in American machines without any problem) seems to be identical to the Shochiku one.  If anything, the gamma level seems to have been toned down just a miniscule level, so that the UK version in fact is a trifle easier on the eyes.  The colors and lightings of the film in the Japanese version at times appear unnaturally harsh.  I remember the times when Japanese DVDs tended to sport a rather low-contrast, bleary countenance that sometimes rendered dark scenes into a sort of nondescript grey.  But the reverse seems to be the case here.  Third Window's English subtitles are most welcome and appear to be of good quality.

The Third Window edition also carries over roughly one-hour documentary "Fires on the Plain: Twenty Years in Making" from the Japanese edition, which is far superior to the usual EPK stuff.  Tsukamoto, relaxed-looking in a wool cap and sporting salt-and-pepper beards, walks the viewers through the history of the project, from long gestation periods, multiple attempts at initiating the project only to abandon it, mostly due to lack of finance, and the grueling but rewarding production and distribution process.  Speaking in a friendly, soft voice that sounds a bit like a schoolteacher, Tsukamoto nonetheless exudes enormous passion and commitment as he discusses the original novel's life-long impact on his political and artistic views, the lump-in-the-throat moment in which Ōoka's surviving wife finally gave him permission for adaptation over a phone message, the footage of octa- and septuagenarian ex-Imperial Army soldiers regaling him with anecdotes about their wartime experiences, some of which are just as horrible as or even worse than those depicted in the film, and the guerrilla filmmaking necessitated due to the low production cost (at one point, Tsukamoto's crew-- who included many volunteers as well as professionals-- managed to build a life-sized mock-up of an American army truck from repainted cardboard boxes).  It is striking that, even given Tsukamoto's international fame, it was so difficult to raise money for this modestly budgeted project. It is even more amazing-- and moving-- to witness the director's absolute refusal to compromise his film by inserting commercial elements, or hitching a ride on the big theater distribution bandwagon (instead, Tsukamoto personally toured dozens of independent theaters throughout Japan, with the film's release print in tow).   

The UK disc also includes Tom Mes's audio commentary. He propounds on, among other topics, the key differences between the Ichikawa and Tsukamoto versions, a sense of political urgency on Tsukamoto's part that contributed to the latter's determination to make the movie in time for the seventy-year anniversary of Japan's Pacific War defeat, thematic and aesthetic connections between his cyberpunk-inflected genre works and this ostensible World War II film, his approaches to female characters, rundown on the actors who play supporting characters and his musical collaborator Ishikawa Chū (who sadly passed away in 2018, a big personal loss for Tsukamoto), and the downside of his fiercely independent filmmaking style that results in a high turnover rate of his staff (aside from his core collaborators).   

One thing that I found perhaps a bit churlish was Mes's criticism of the reviewers who call Fires on the Plain a "splatter" film or otherwise classify it as horror.  I can see his point, but was it really necessary for him to diss those who write for "trade papers?"  I also beg to differ with his opinion that anyone who tries to make something like the Ichikawa Kon version today would be instantly pegged as a hypocrite: in my view the Ichikawa version is perhaps just as horrific, conceptually at least, as the Tsukamoto version regarding the dehumanizing conditions of a total war.  As a whole, though, this is a very informative and thought-provoking commentary.