Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Kids are All Right (shame about the rest)

There's so much to like about Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian family drama, The Kids are All Right: the nuanced performances and unpredictable characterisations, the sight of Mark Ruffalo guiltily eying up Julianne Moore’s green thong, the happily matter-of-fact treatment of non-linear sexuality; and equally  so much to irritate in Mike Leigh’s Another Year: the characters who never seem to stop moving their faces, the stage school monologues, the ploddingly predictable story arc. But in one very important area Leigh seems to get things emphatically right, whilst Cholodenko’s gets it ...well, if not wrong, then certainly muddled.

Whilst both films begin from a very similar starting point, focusing on contented, quote-unquote ordinary families, the various struggles of marriage and parenthood, and the humorous encroachment of middle-class alcoholism (although the sheer quantities of wine consumed in the two films surely says something about what constitutes problem drinking on each side of the pond); both films eventually revolve around a foreign element, Ruffalo’s sperm doning Paul in The Kids are All Right, and Mary, the lonely, but mostly chipper friend of NHS councillor Gerri in Another Year.  And it is in the treatment of this third-party that the two films diverge.

Interestingly, both are also outsiders academically, with Annette Benning’s Nic mocking Paul (the college drop-out) for his anti-intellectual comments, and Mary’s much evident shame at only graduating from a secretarial college. Both, more importantly, bring with them an unwanted element of sexuality. Paul’s requited desire for Moore’s Jules, and Mary’s confused yearning for her friend’s 30 year old son, Joe, threaten to unbalance, or even destroy, the tightly guarded family unit. Both Paul and Mary are ostracised, either through a mixture of humiliation and pity, shut out entirely from their adopted families. The difference being that Leigh clearly implores his audience to empathise with the rejected Mary, whereas Cholodenko chooses instead to celebrate an image of the family reunited.

Whilst in The Kids are All Right, Paul gets to act on his deviant wish (seducing, with little effort, the married lesbian Jules), Mary’s desires remains thoroughly conceptual, even unspoken; a fact that makes her punishment all the more unpalatable and strange. In Another Year, the extra-familial outsider is seen as very much the victim, whereas Paul’s untroubled and mostly unthinking move onto Nic’s territory allows us to forgive the family for cutting him out. As a result we find ourselves being asked to side with the oppressors rather than the oppressed.

 Maybe we could choose to view Cholodenko’s apparent conservatism as knowing provocation - placing the comfortably off, charming, white heterosexual in the role of ‘other’, but there is something pretty galling about the treatment of Paul, a character who does little wrong apart from act on his desires (his treatment of his casual lover/fuck buddy is questionable perhaps, but not objectively bad).

Mary is similarly cast-out in Another Year, when her hostility to the Joe’s new girlfriend unwittingly reveals her desperate longing for the younger man (who hardly did much to temper her advances in the first place). Suddenly the caring couple, Tom and Gerri, are shown in a different light: smug and two-faced, humouring their friend to her face, then mocking her behind her back. At the end of the film Mary is back in the family home, but Leigh isolates her in the frame, muted and shorn of all her earlier ‘bubbly’ characteristics; subjugated and neutered by the forces of middle-class family living (she doesn’t even understand the intricacies of carbon emissions and recycling for godssake!)

Whilst the ending is pure Fassbinder, Leigh has devoted plenty of the previous two hours to gently, and not so gently, mocking this pathetic being (the audience I saw the film with were mostly of the Tom and Gerri-style allotment owning classes, gleefully laughing at Mary’s every faux pas) not something Rainer would ever have allowed. (To be fair to Cholodenko, Paul is never to be pitied or mocked, or at least not any more than any other character). Although it’s hard to see what we should feel for Mary apart from pity (outrage  never really comes into it), at least Leigh makes clear where his sympathies lie. In both films the family unit is finally seen as exclusive, cruel and unforgiving of even the slightest transgression. But in Cholodenko’s vision this is, well...alright.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

London Korean Film Festival 2010: The Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil

Now in its fifth year, the London Korean Film Festival got underway last weekend in ambitious fashion; presenting two sold out Galas of prime-cuts from the country's pulp mainstream.  The Man From Nowhere and I Saw the Devil may not have broken new ground in terms of theme (a Korean movie about revenge, you say? How novel) but both provided ample gut tossing entertainment for those who like their vengeance served sizzling (bordering on overcooked).

On opening night we were offered Lee Jeong-beom’s second directorial outing, The Man From Nowhere. A slightly creepy set-up featuring the young daughter of a drug addled single mum and her secretive next door neighbour, gives rise to an increasingly barmy narrative involving organ harvesting and the Chinese mafia. Said mysterious man (a floppy haired Won Bin) searches for his cute protégé after she is taken by a criminal gang with designs on her corneas.

What was most fascinating about the experience was the much audible response of the young (and not so young) Korean women in the audience at the sight of Won Bin’s well-worked torso. As Nowhere is, by all reports, the highest grossing film in Korea so far this year, it would seem that they had little difficulty in appealing to a pan-gendered audience in a way that few blood-soaked actioners manage in the West.

I Saw the Devil was certainly the more philosophically rigorous of the two, with director Kim Ji Woon happily citing Nietzsche in his post screening Q and A. And whilst both films bore the mark of Park Chan Wook’s Vengeance trilogy, it was Devil that most satisfyingly continued Park’s questioning approach to life in a moral vacuum. The film plays out like a two hour plus live action episode of Tom and Jerry, imagined by Gaspar Noe. Rookie cop (Lee Byung-Hun) tracks down the maniacal sex killer (Mr Old Boy himself, Choi Min Sik) that did for his fiancée. But instead of polishing him off in one go, our hero chooses to maim and tag his cruel victim, before tracking him cross-country and taking the life out of him one chunk at a time. That plenty of innocent bystanders get sexually assaulted and/or brutally murdered in the interim is neither here nor there to our perversely absorbed protagonist.

Seen back-to-back, I Saw the Devil appears to be some sort of corrective to The Man From Nowhere’s wilful moral relativism. Not that Kim’s film doesn’t happily tap into the same dark recesses of our collective unconscious; and neither does it take its audience to task (Haneke style) for craving ever increasing depravity. Although semi-detached from its twin anti-heroes, the film offers enough extreme pleasures to satisfy the most sinew-greedy genre perverts the world over (and it takes one to know one). I Saw the Devil is beyond good and evil. But it is good.


As an addendum to previous posts, and to counter any notion that Korean cinema is exclusively obsessed with bloody revenge, I would like to mention Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry; a personal highlight from last month’s LFF (I saw his previous film, Secret Sunshine at the Korean festival a few years ago). Lee’s film rejects the pleasures of vengeance ingrained in the films above, and instead offers a low key, nuanced and infinitely subtle examination of a Grandmother’s acceptance of moral responsibility for her offspring’s hideous crime (just as hideous as those in Nowhere and Devil), as well as her own gradual mental decline (and nobody gets their eye gouged out). Conceptually daring and brilliantly realised, the film tackles complex philosophical themes in an honest and straight-forward manner that never once comes close to pretention.  Poetry is moving in a way that few films ever are.