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HIFF 2010 – Part 1/2

October 2, 2010

The annual Helsinki International Film Festival (aka Love & Anarchy) was held in late September. With 125 movies shown in 400 screenings, 133 of them sold out, the festival keeps rising in popularity. The film selection contained movies from all around world, including a handful of advance screenings and more than 100 films that would not make it to theatrical distribution in Finland. Since I can see my introductions here sucks (just read it again. Wait, don’t) I’ll save your time and go straight to movie reviews. 16 movies only since I only had a chance to drop by for four days.

Saturday

The Housemaid (South-Korea, 2010), a remake of the famous 1960 shocker of the same name, had the honor to kick off my festival. While the original classic focused on the battle between South-Korea’s poor and the new born middle class, the remake attempts to update the story to modern day South-Korea. The plot is as follows: a young poor woman hired as maid for rich family discovers the ruthlessness of the elite world as she becomes the secret lover of the family head, and ultimately tries to play the game at their rules.

While occasionally haunting in its emotional coldness, much of the film’s intended “scandal value” comes off a bit short: dirty talk and sex scenes that aren’t ultimately all that graphic. The characters, an older maid (Youn Yuh-jung) aside, have very little depth. Lead actress Jeon Do-yeon, who took home the best actress award at Cannes a few years ago (Secret Sunshine, 2007) is a talented actress and certainly easy on the eye, but her characters is walking very familiar paths. Director Im Sang-soon’s social critisism may be accurate but hardly original. The film’s mansion setting is mainly kept alive by excellent cinematography that is the best thing about the film. The ending, while slightly comical and difficult to take all that seriously, does load some punch and bring the film to a nice conclusion.

Kitano is back! After the creative destruction of his cinema career, the iron faced comedian and media personality returns to the genre western audience best know him for: yakuza film. Outrage (Japan, 2010) is a straight forwards crime film in the vein of Violent Cop (1989) or Brother (2000). Gone is the arthouse imagery and humanism of Kitano’s mid-90’s masterpieces, making way for a more simple cinematic expression. Outrage is the core of yakuza film: violence and men in black suits in a superbly stylish package.

The endless brutality is guaranteed to exhaust less experienced viewers but it also works for the benefit of the film in form of dark humor – to the extent of bringing Outrage to the verge of genre satire. Kitano’s more obvious comical touches are firmly included as well. The actual storyline is minimal – crime bosses and their subordinates wasting each other off left and right – and the film admittedly runs 20 minutes too long for its content. Kitano’s ice cold directing and terrific cast featuring actors such as Kippei Shiina, Renji Ishibashi, Jun Kunimura, and Kitano himself, nevertheless keep the film captivating till the end. Outrage also deserves a special award: the most atmospheric use of black cars in the history of yakuza cinema.

“Weird is the new normal”. Upon receiving award for his previous film Mysterious Skin, director Gregg Araki was told by trash king John Waters that Mysterious Skin is great and all, but what he really would like to see is another old school Araki film. That is Kaboom (USA, 2010): drugs, college sex, and mysterious men in animal suits. That’s for beginners, before it really starts getting weird.

The increasingly trippy film ultimately escapes genre classification and wraps up with a big question: what the hell was this all about. It’s the latter that is Kaboom’s potential problem. While realism isn’t what you’d ask for from a Araki film, any movie nevertheless needs some rules and a logic, fantasy it may be, that is at least remotely understandable. Otherwise there’s no reward and the puzzle couldn’t possibly be solved by the viewer. Araki is balancing on a thin fence here, not quite falling but spending some time hanging with one hand. The director’s sunshine-approach towards the subject saves a lot, though – Kaboom is eye candy with terrific soundtrack. Call it the bright side of Donnie Darko if you will.

Sunday

Good idea can take you far – around 30 minutes in case of Sound of Noise (Sweden, 2010). This Swedish crowd pleaser is pure ingeniousness in the beginning. 6 musical terrorists attack a city and turn any objects they can find into musical instruments. It’s the Jackie Chan art of action applied to making music. Unfortunately after the classic hospital attack the film turn for repetition gear for the following 80 minutes. While relatively entertaining, and cinema novices will no doubt find it mind blowingly original, those more familiar with the inventive cinema of Takashi Miike and the likes would expect bets to be raised throughout the film. The ending aims at epic but comes out soft and corny. A catchier remake or shameless rip off would be more than welcome to give the concept the execution it deserves.

Mexican Bonnie and Clyde for teenagers, perhaps with a drop of Natural Born Killers without killing. I’m Gonna Explode (Mexico, 2008) follows two 15 year olds who run from home with guns and big talks. The parents are left home wondering what went wrong and who is to blame.

The strengths and weaknesses of I’m Gonna Explode are as described before. It’s a slightly pretentious film with something to say and plenty of artistic shots – God help the viewer with all the sudden cuts to blue sky at a dramatic moment. Romance, sex, and cry for freedom – what else would be on a 15 year olds mind – also make it bit strange experience considering its protagonists’ young age. Nevertheless, the film is at its best when it lets go and sings for freedom. Immoral and dangerous it may be, but better cinema. These bits are, however, are ultimately in a minority in an otherwise preachy movie. Even then, it does manage to be decently captivating, partly thanks to the cinematography. The grainy film stock used supports the teen angst dream flawlessly.

Mamoro Hosoda’s unbearable anime Summer Wars (Japan, 2009) hit mixes countryside landscapes to IT-commentary – of course not managing the latter without brain-dead, mecha-style action mayhem in computer drawn virtual world. The storyline follows a shy school boy following a girl to countryside to meet her family – an appalling inbred commune where family decides for the lives of its members. Not entirely rare even in today’s Japan, it’s sad having to witness Hododa’s noncritical and narrow minded philosophies on cinema screen. The film’s “go abroad, become devil” side message would be ignorable and meaningless in any other context, here one can only wonder if it was intentional after all.

Family politics aside Summer Wars still has its healthy load of universally embarrassing bits and pieces from heroic grandmother to teary scenes of the daughter overcoming herself. The potentially accurate social commentary – a virtual community taking over people’s lives – drowns itself in noisy action sequences that do not even allow the viewer to fall asleep. The few humoristic and romantic bits between the main characters are the film’s only redeeming qualities.

Dog Bite Dog director Soi Cheang’s much praised Accident (Hong Kong, 2009) is a Hong Kong flavored combination of Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola. Louis Koo leads a team of assassins who disguise their kills as innocent looking accidents. Each hit takes enormous planning – and luck. The latter is the film’s obvious flaw. While the kills are superbly stylish and exciting, they do lack all credibility. Even with perfectly planned set up too much is left on assumption that the target plays his role and outsiders will not interfere, which almost never works in real life.

In fact, the film improves notably once it gets over the killings and moves on to paranoia phase – the part that plays out like a loving homage to The Conversation (1972). The ending doesn’t quite hit the target – once again playing with coincidences, and later even taking an easy moral route out, but if you can ignore the flaws Accident is indeed one of the better Hong Kong thrillers of the recent years.

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