REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, JULY 2011
All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
I review these films by Pereda in some detail (along with his older films, and the recent Summer of Goliath and All Things Now Were Overtaken By Silence) in my essay on Pereda for Moving Image Source. As I think I make clear in the piece, Juntos and Perpetuum Mobile are by far his best works to date, and the two of them are really a matched set. Both feature the same performers as the same characters, and certain situations from the two films repeat, under different circumstances. Not to get too structuralist about it, but the best way I can describe the relationship would be to say that Juntos and Perpetuum are perpendicular to one another. The fact that, diegetically speaking, one character describes Film A as a dream in Film B is, to all intents and purposes, incidental.
This is a film that is distinguished by how absolutely undistinguished it is. It's a specimen of a particular type of European art film that demonstrates, with very little insight but a great deal of ugliness. It shows just how cheap life has become in the former Soviet bloc, and how, in the final analysis, the particular brand of thuggery that dominates this corner of the world degrades the exploiter just as much as the exploited. But on a much more fundamental level, Loverboy is a grim, plodding character study about Luca (George Pistereanu), a middleman in a human traffic ring who becomes suddenly besotted with a particular piece of merchandise. This would be country girl Veli (Ada Condeescu), who thinks of Luca as a boyfriend from whom she's being kept apart by medding forces, including Luca's own "he's just not that into you" resistance. What's up here? Luca's not just a middleman; specifically he's a "loverboy," whose role is to convince the gullible young women in question that he's their crazy new fling, so they follow him into the situation wherein they may be isolated and inducted into forced prostitution. What goes wrong? Luca rapes Veli one night and, upon discovering she's a virgin, decides rather implausibly that he really, really is just that into her, and is willing to stand up to his bosses (if by "stand up," we mean avoid) in order to try for a normal life with Veli.
Mitulescu begins Loverboy with a long shot of Pistereanu on his motorcycle, a standard issue arthouse emblem of "freedom." This is immediately ironized, since we see that Luca is indeed in hock to those above him, saddled with an elderly, infirm father (Ion Besoiu), and has essentially landed his ass in a proverbial crack once he attempts to assert his own will. Veli, meanwhile, is an interesting character whom Mitulescu has no real clue how to flesh out, apart from hemming her in according to the contours of an unthinkingly sexist society. (She struggles to escape her patriarch dad, and Luca's a decent enough option.) By the end, Loverboy's wallowing in yet more cheap irony, since Luca's attempt to get out of the business has come at the price of sharing Veli with local bar patrons as a girl for hire. She knows there's no ticket out of servitude when you live and die in shithole Romania. Haven't we all learned quite a lot? Much like last year's shoulder-shrugging If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (which also co-starred Pistereanu and Condeescu), Loverboy operates within overly familiar terrain, in terms of narrative organization, visual style, and general miserablist bent. Romanian film isn't "finished" -- I hate those kinds of delarations, as they reek of faddishness -- but we're certainly seeing hints of a decadent phase. Final thought: Mitulescu's use of lighting, framing, and even pacing sometimes seems strictly designed to best highlight the sculptural curvature of Condeescu's naked breasts. It's like he built the whole film formally around them. And I see his point -- they are the sturdiest thing anywhere in sight.
Some films -- I'm not sure how to express this, without it coming across like a dereliction of critical duty -- represent such a combination of formal mediocrity and sexual "ick factor" that there's really little point in hanging with them, except to test one's mettle against the skeeve. I'm sure that like every Lifetime Original Movie ever excreted, Don't Be Afraid has highly noble intentions. What's more, Armendaríz is a Spanish director of not-inconsiderable reputation, albeit one built upon an apparently comfortable middlebrow classicism (Secrets of the Heart, Broken Silence, The Flower That Drank the Moon, and Obaba, part of TIFF '05's Masters selection, hence my curiosity regarding Montxo's latest). Don't Be Afraid even has a wee bit of star power in the form of Lluís Homar, probably best known for his role as Harry Caine in Almodóvar's Broken Embraces. Here, he plays the father of main character Silvia. The fact that he is molesting his daughter is signaled pretty early, by the fact that he is far too involved in Silvia's life -- picking her up from school, telling her bedtime stories, and just wanting to spend time with her. (Whether you're a dad in upper-class Pamplona, or the suburban U.S., you're expected to resent the time your kids take away from work and golf, unless you're some kind of weirdo, Get it?) As far as whether the film pulls any punches, um, be afraid. Be very afraid. After Daddy quite jovially makes Silvia have after-hours anal sex with him on the living room couch, she starts having night terrors, bedwetting, panic attacks. When Mom catches her acting out the "lollypop game" with her dolls ("Suck it! Be a good girl and suck it!") and chastises her for telling the lie that "Daddy taught me this game," I checked out. Documentary inserts with an incest survivors' support group, while clearly an honorable formal touch, are just overkill. This isn't a film. It's a pamphlet. In Spanish.
I know, I know . . . Sono's defining masterwork is Love Exposure, and so I can't in good conscience write the guy off until I see that one and then make my judgment. But in my own defense, the time spent in Sono's company this far does not exactly make me eager to set aside four premium hours, just in case the roumors are true and he's made one film that isn't totally characterized by a crass, juvenile view of the heterosexual act, a jones for female degradation, an undergraduate-level tendency to "philosophize" that same male-conceived female masochism, and an over-inflated sense of that half-baked ideation, the plotting and attitudinal equivalent of a filmmaker leaving a Bataille book conspicuously on a coffee table in a drug deal scene. I will concede that nothing in Guilty of Romance approaches the thorough hatefulness of Cold Fish, which doubled down on its misogyny by posing as swaggering comedy. But, by the same token, Guilty is unbearable in a different way, since its stifling self-importance, combined with its utterly empty-headed red-light ribaldry, strike me as a kind of combination of second-rate Zalman King (or third-rate Jean-Claude Brisseau) with an ugly blood-spatter CBS procedural. (Apparently the female detective was going to have her own kinky plotline after the point at which I bailed.) After discovering a maggot-infested femal corpse more mutilated than the Black Dahlia, with a cryptic wall message about "the castle," we flash back to the life of obedient Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), meek wife of a famed erotica author (Kanji Tsuda). He leaves her alone in the mansion each day to make sure everything's spotless. As long as his slippers are in the right position upon returning home, he doesn't care what she does. (Oppression!) Soon [SPOILER], she's naively whisked off into a world of porn. Because, it seems, under her traditional kimono she's been hiding some major D-cups. Wha-KOW! She learns about herself through random sex, and then meets Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a streetwalker-slash-English professor who, thanks to Sono's pseudo ramblings, takes basic ideas from French feminism (hints of Irigaray and Wittig) and makes them sound idiotic. And why not? Within the framework of Guilty of Romance, they're being mobilized as an excuse for self-abasement as some sort of existential path to knowledge. In other words, a classic male sadists' view of why the female masochist should submit, without any real concern for her psychology. This, my friends, is bullshit.
I guess maybe there is "too avant-garde" for me after all, or at least too devoid of a thread to hold onto when the formal chops get slack and the moment-to-moment pleasures become hard to come by. Based on both the scattered bit of reading I'd been able to do on this, and some highly encouraging (if cryptic) word of mouth, I was quite excited about giving Sun's piece a try. The introductory sitcom prologue, with its discussion of President Lee Myung-bak's expenditures on a bridge boodboggle as being related to his superstition and astrological reading ("fire fall, water rise"), was extremely well executed. The young daughter producing a pre-printed report at the dinner table, to the chagrin of her conformist father, managed to parody sitcom convention (kids are always smarter) while pointing out the fundamental truth of South Korean democracy since the dictatorship. (Plus, the low production values made "South Korean TV" look suspiciously Northern.) From this angle, it looked like Sun was making something like a Jim Finn film, but, you know, actually Korean. Where S-RT:ZaE lost me was in its seemingly endless second movement, where a blow-up doll in the form of the goofy, toylike mascot of the South Korean police toddles destructively around a house blowing things up, while rats gnaw through paper-mache objects. There was some nice painting on the celluloid. But it only added to the dull slapstick, actually. It just seemed confused and one-note, as though I could appreciate the anarchic spirit behind Sun's project but I could also move on and be none the worse for it.