Sunday, May 9, 2010

Around the World in 48 Hours, Part 1

Populist in the best sense of the word, Lee Yoon-ki's My Dear Enemy (2008) is a beguiling South Korean comedy about people sticking together when times are tough. One of the movie's strengths is how quickly it gets the plot moving: In the opening sequence, Hee-su (Jeon Do-yeon, from Milyang [2007]) confronts her ex-boyfriend, Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo), demanding that he repay her the 3.5 million won (or three thousand five hundred dollars) he borrowed from her a year ago, just prior to their breakup. Byeong-woon, who isn't the most reliable fellow, doesn't have the cash, and the film follows them over the course of a single day as Byeong-woon visits several other women he's acquainted with in order to the borrow money to repay Hee-su.

Although this is essentially a light comedy, and the lilting, jazzy score--which recalls the music in Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon oncle (1958)--indicates that we're not supposed to take its story too seriously, the movie nevertheless gets into some tricky territory involving money and ethics. At first, Hee-su appears to be unambiguously in the right, demanding repayment from Byeong-woon on an overdue loan, but as the day goes on, she feels less and less comfortable taking money from him. The first person they visit is a successful businesswoman, who readily hands over a cheque for a million won. But afterwards, Byeong-woon explains that the collateral for the loan is his having to do whatever the businesswoman wants, which may or may not involve sleeping with her. And by accepting her money, Hee-su is complicit in Byeong-woon's compromising behavior.

The film only gradually reveals information about the two leads. In an early scene, they stop to get a snack at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and when Hee-su refuses to share her food (which is common in Korea), Byeong-woon remarks, "Still don't like sharing food?" In other words, Hee-su has always been a self-reliant person, and the film (which is Korean to the core) argues that it's better to be generous. The last person they visit is a single mother, and when Hee-su (who doesn't need the money) tries to refuse, the woman insists that Hee-su take it, as she made a promise to help Byeong-woon. (Keeping promises in order to save face is a big deal in Korea.)

Though the film lacks the dramatic shifts in tone we've come to expect from Korean movies and TV shows, such as Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy (1999) and Boys Before Flowers (2009), it does have a varied style. The film opens in a parking lot with a man and a woman (who are never seen again) talking about a friend of theirs who made some money in real estate. (This not only introduces the theme of the movie, but anticipates a story involving a man, a woman, and a car.) As they walk away from their car, the camera continues following them in an unbroken steadicam shot. When the couple passes a group of men, the camera begins following them, and then Hee-su as she enters a horse racing track. This lengthy tracking shot is immediately followed by a rapidly edited sequence showing Hee-su frantically searching the track with a jump cut every few seconds. The rest of the movie is somewhere between these two extremes, and what Lee appears to be doing here is preparing the viewer for the film's elastic rhythm. Written, photographed, and edited with impeccable precision, this is popular filmmaking at its near-finest.

Sebastián Silva's discreetly charming Chilean black comedy The Maid (2009) is similarly quick about setting up its premise. The film opens with the title character, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), eating alone in the kitchen, while the family she works for has dinner together in the next room. Afterward, while washing the dishes, Raquel takes a pill for her chronic headache (our first indication that she's unwell), and the family's mother, Pilar (Claudia Celadón), suggests hiring some extra help to lighten Raquel's workload--an idea Raquel fiercely opposes. In the course of the film, the family tries out three different maids, and each time, Raquel tries to scare them off.

In the same scene in which Pilar suggests hiring a second maid, the family's teenage daughter, Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), goes into the kitchen to get a snack, and Raquel chases her away, introducing a subplot involving Raquel's irrational hatred of Camila. (We've already had an indication earlier in the film that Raquel's affection for the children isn't equal. When the family wants her to come into the dining room, they have to send the eldest son, Lucas (Agustín Silva), who's her favorite, to fetch her.) Why does Raquel hate Camila? We learn that she started working for the family a year before Camila was born, and considers herself a member of the family. And like the new maids she tries to chase away, Raquel sees Camila as a rival for the parents' affection. (Raquel's real family lives in the north of the country, and her only contact with them are infrequent phone calls from her mother on Raquel's birthday and at Christmas.) In so many words, the movie is about how the bourgeois nuclear family is making the working-class heroine sick, both physically and mentally. However, its class politics are less clear-cut than in My Dear Enemy, as the family is portrayed rather affectionately, while Raquel is kind of a weirdo. (In this regard, the film calls to mind Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie [1995].)

The narrative is structured around various rhymes and repetitions. In the opening sequence, the family calls Raquel into the dining room, and she pretends not to hear them--something she'll do several times throughout the movie. Raquel locks each new maid out of the house in turn, and twice turns on the vacuum cleaner to make it seem like she can't hear them calling her. Earlier in the film, she uses the vacuum cleaner no less maliciously to annoy Camila while she's trying to sleep. And when each new maid takes a shower, Raquel goes in afterward and disinfects the tub with bleach, not because she's afraid of germs but to make the new maid feel unwelcome. (The film is almost an encyclopedia of different ways to express hostility through cleaning.) There are two birthday parties, and twice in the film Raquel gets a phone call from her mother which takes her away from a different surrogate family.

At first glance, the film might look like a work of low-key observational realism (something apparently confirmed by the handheld docudrama style), but it gets steadily weirder as it goes on, and I didn't know how the story was going to end. My initial guess was that either Isabelle Huppert was going to show up and kill everyone, or that Terrence Stamp would show up and have sex with everyone. Needless to say, I was way off, and the movie has an ending that's not only unexpected, but absolutely right. The Maid is a wonderfully peculiar, playful, and surprising film.

In contrast with My Dear Enemy and The Maid, Jacques Audiard's epic French prison saga Un prophète (2009) is more stately and novelistic. Spanning six years, the story--which is broken down into chapters by fades to black--begins with a French-Arabic teenager, Malick El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) arriving at prison after being convicted of hitting a cop. There, the guards throw out his old sneakers and give him a new pair, which are promptly stolen by two other inmates. Sneakers are a recurring motif throughout the film, and in the final episode, in which El Djebena is released from prison, as he walks through the doors, the camera pans down to his feet.

Sandwiched between his arrival and his release, there are four major episodes. The first begins with a snitch, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), arriving at the prison. The Corsican gang wants him dead, but they only have fourteen days to do it before Reyeb gets transferred to another prison. One day in the shower, Reyeb makes an offer to El Djebena to give him hash in exchange for oral sex. The latter initially refuses Reyeb's offer until he's approached by a middle-aged Corsican mobster, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), with an offer of his own: Kill Reyeb or be killed by César. The film then flashes forward a year. Before he dies, Reyeb advises El Djebena to learn how to read, and in class he meets Ryad (Abdel Bencherif), who's about to be released due to ill health. In the next segment, El Djebena goes into business for himself, dealing hash with another inmate, Jordi the Gypsy (Reda Kateb). With his sentence half over, El Djebena becomes eligible for day release, and César has him do various jobs on the outside. But when César discovers that he's dealing hash, which could cost El Djebena his day release if he's caught, César attacks him with a spoon. In the last long episode, César sends El Djebena to Marseilles to meet Lattrace (Slimane Dazi), who tells El Djebena that one of the Corsicans is a rat. And when César uncovers his identity, he asks El Djebena to kill some one for the second time. I've had to leave a lot out of this summary, and despite Audiard's patience in unfolding the complicated story, I couldn't always follow the plot in all of its particulars, even on second viewing.

At the level of local texture, Audiard's patience as a storyteller and his attention to detail are evident in the build-up to Reyeb's murder. After César makes his offer in the yard, El Djebena walks away mumbling to himself that he can't kill some one, setting up the next six scenes in which we see his reluctance to go through with it. El Djebena makes two attempts to get out of it, first by trying to speak to the prison warden. Immediately, two Corsicans barge into his cell and put a plastic bag over his head to show that they mean business. Later, when a fight breaks out in the prison sweatshop where El Djebena works, he walks over and starts kicking one of the prisoners involved in the fight. Viewers like me, who aren't too swift about these things, might wonder why he did that until the next scene, in which César asks him if he wasn't trying to get thrown in the hole. Meanwhile, in three separate scenes, we see El Djebena preparing for the murder. In the first, a Corsican explains the plan to him (he's to use a razor hidden in his mouth), and later we see him practicing alone in his cell. Finally, we see El Djebena rehearsing with the same Corsican who explained the plan to him. Of course, when the time comes, it doesn't go smoothly as planned, except for the fact that El Djebena manages not to step in any of the blood. (This movie's all about the sneakers.) Conversely, when César sends El Djebena to kill another snitch later in the film, he pulls it off like he's Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003-04).

Throughout the movie, Audiard employs the silent movie technique of masking the edges of the frame. He first does this in the opening sequence to create a sense of disorientation, and it appears again whenever the camera assumes El Djebena's point of view, as when he takes a reading test and in two dream sequences. After César attacks him with a spoon, El Djebena has a dream that the former is yelling at him, and the fourth long episode begins with a multiple exposure dream sequence in which the camera moves out of the prison and down a country road with galloping deer, which turns out to be prophetic. (After his death, Reyeb appears to El Djebena in visions like a guardian angel and makes predictions about the future. Lattrace is about to uncover the fact that El Djebena's the one who killed Reyeb when the car they're driving in slams into a deer, saving his life. Afterward, Lattrace asks him, "Are you some kind of prophet?") Another silent movie technique is the use of onscreen text, which Audiard employs to introduce several supporting players--Reyeb, Ryad, Jordi the Gypsy, Latif the Egyptian (Mamadou Minte)--in conjunction with either slow motion or freeze frames, as well as two montage sequences ("Eyes and Ears") and to establish time ("One Year Later," "Christmas"). Like the Truffaut of Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), Audiard is broadening his stylistic options by reaching back into a silent movie syntax.

Though not quite a masterpiece in my books, Un prophète is a hugely ambitious work with a narrative density and formal sophistication that puts it in the same league as Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Now let's just hope that Audiard doesn't freeze up completely like Coppola and Scorsese.

Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani's Ajami (2009) is another novelistic crime story with a prophetic character, although it's less accomplished stylistically and its use of onscreen text is more predictable ("First Chapter," "Second Chapter," etcetera). Set primarily in an Arab-Israeli neighborhood in the city of Jaffa, the film is even quicker than My Dear Enemy in getting its plot moving: The film opens with a pre-credit sequence in which a young boy is fixing his car on the street when some gangsters pull up on a motorcycle and shoot him. We subsequently learn through flashbacks and narration that the intended target was the boy's neighbor, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), who had recently sold his car to the dead boy. The motive for the killing was revenge, as Omar's uncle shot a gang member who came into the restaurant where the uncle was working and started shooting. Even though the gangsters had already burned down the restaurant and shot the uncle in retaliation, they still wanted to kill Omar. Omar's parents decide to send his younger brother, Nasri (Fouad Habash), who narrates the story, to live in another city, but Omar chooses to stay behind. We only get our first glimpse of Omar at the end of the first sequence, as the car with Nasri pulls away from their house, in anticipation of the first chapter in which Omar is the focus. Additionally, the flashbacks in the pre-credit sequence prepare us for the film's non-linear structure, in which we see the same botched drug deal from three different points of view.

Not including the pre-credit sequence, the story is divided into six chapters, each one following a different character with a different problem. In the first chapter, Omar goes to the head of a rival gang, Abu-Lias (Youssef Sahwani), for help, and learns that he can buy a ceasefire for a price. And to raise the money, he turns to dealing drugs. The next chapter follows Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian who works illegally in Israel at Abu-Lias' restaurant. He too needs money, as his mother has leukemia and requires an operation, and decides to sell drugs with Omar. In chapter three, a friend of theirs, Benj (Copti), comes into possession of a large quantity of crystal meth. The fourth chapter follows a Jewish cop, Dando (Eran Naim), whose son went missing during his military training. In the fifth chapter, Abu-Lias discovers that his daughter, Hadir (Ranim Karim), is in love with Omar, which is forbidden because she's Christian and he's Muslim. And the last chapter returns to Nasri, who insists on coming along with Omar to the drug deal, because he senses (correctly) that something bad will happen. Because of this layering of perspectives, each time we see the botched drug deal (at the end of chapters two, four, and six), we see more of what happened, so that by the end, we know more than any of the characters do individually.

Network narratives have gotten a bad rap lately, thanks to the likes of Crash (2005) and Babel (2006). And for the record, I sort of liked both of those films (although given how overrated they were, the backlash against them is understandable), not to mention superior examples of the genre, such as Atom Egoyan's Ararat (2002), Alain Resnais' Coeurs (2006), Matteo Garrone's Gomorra (2008), Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret's Jellyfish (2007), Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), and John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus (2006). Ajami probably won't appease the folks who thought that Crash was "contrived," as the screenplay relies on old devices like coincidence, mistaken identity, and a token which reveals a killer's identity at the most dramatically opportune moment possible--which is actually one of the things I like about it. With its intimations of predestination, the story is clearly meant as a contemporary Greek tragedy, and as such, it's pretty darn good.

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