Friday, September 21, 2007

The Road to Guantanamo

Let me confess I saw this movie purely for the reason it won the Berlin Silver Bear and also because of the theme it addresses at the hour of urgency, when humans as we are need to question our integrity and value as portrayed so explicitly by this film. I never knew that this was a Michael Winterbottom product. If I had, I probably would never have seen this one, as my previous Winterbottom experience, 9 Songs was to say the least.. flesh, sex and oh yeah a relationship too...

Now, I must admit this man is one hell of a maverick when it comes to making film. It was a nice jolt to my senses when I saw his name credited as Director at the end of this intense, modern horror docudrama!

Many reviewers have criticized this film for being one sided and told from the perspective of the Tipton Three, but as we are not allowed to see what goes on inside Guantanamo, and the inmates are not charged with any crime or allowed contact with their families or legal counsel (they don't need it as they have not been charged with a crime), we have to go on what accounts have filtered through.

A country which asserts itself as the moral compass of the world, and which is based on freedom, liberty and justice for all, has to be held to a higher standard of accountability. Justice for all mean ALL, not those whom we pick and choose. The very fact that detainees are held outside the US without trial, and in conditions which we have seen in pictures of Abu Ghraib indicates that they are not playing by their own rules. Many US ideals have been jettisoned in the name of patriotism, and "If you're not with us, you're with the enemy!" rhetoric.

Four young chavs nurtured in the safety and comfort of Britain's welfare state, with its free health care, education and social security for those who don't find work, go off to Pakistan for a wedding, and suffer a little culture shock, not to mention the intestinal distress caused by the food and water in foreign parts. Having been accustomed to cheese stuffed pizza, burgers, supermarkets and shopping malls, they are somewhat shocked to find meat sold in the open with clouds of flies everywhere, and according to one, the food smells like sh*t with spices.

While in Pakistan, they decide to check out next door Afghanistan just prior to the US bombing. While this may have been from a sense of youthful adventure, their actions don't bear close scrutiny, whether from naive stupidity or idealism or ulterior motives. They may have been no different from young idealists who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, young Canadians and Americans who enlisted in the British Forces in WWII, mercenaries anywhere, or naive adventurers caught trying to smuggle drugs through the far east, but once in Afghanistan they quickly find that war is not an adventurous lark after all. They are rounded up by the Northern Alliance after a brutal bombing raid leaves many dead or horribly wounded, and after barely surviving a month in captivity, they are handed over to the US special forces.

As this is a British film, the US are depicted as loudmouthed, bullying thugs, without too much brain matter - when one detainee is asked where he comes from and replies Titpon, the interrogator snaps "Wheresat"; regardless, they ship the young men off to Guantanamo Bay prison camp where they brutalize them physically and mentally for two years to try to force the young men to confess what they want them to say - that they are card carrying members of Al Qaeda on first name terms with Osama bin Laden. Considering the mind set of a military which charged the Muslim prison chaplain at Guantanamo with treason for ministering to his flock, I rather suspect that the depiction of the interrogators is not far from the truth. Why the facts of the men's story could not be verified for more than two years is a good question. They were being accused of belonging to Al Qaeda and hobnobbing with Osama Bin Laden in 2000, when they were actually engaging in petty crime in Britain and having to report to the police on a regular basis. In the politically motivated American idea of justice, if you confess to a crime, whether or not you are guilty, you will get off lightly. If you refuse to confess, because you are not guilty perhaps, it will go much harder for you (just watch Court TV) because you have wasted their time?

The facts are that a number of detainees being held without trial or any access to legal counsel have committed suicide. We have seen the way prisoners were treated at Abu Ghraib, and newsreel footage of people condemning those who blew the whistle. We have also seen the July 11, 2005 bombings in Britain carried out by young men very similar to the Titpton Three. All the bombers were described as decent young men and boys-next-door types. One of them was even an elementary schoolteacher! I personally feel that the Tipton Three were up to no good and quite possibly were trying to join the fighting in some way or another, but they were not aware of what they were getting into until it was too late to turn back. I kept remembering a comment made to me when Iraq was invaded: If they did not hate us before, they are sure going to hate us now.

The location shooting, combined with actual newsreel footage give this film a superb look which make it a great viewing experience, regardless of whether you feel that it is one-sided or unpatriotic. I hope that the film is shown on US TV on a widely seen channel, rather than an obscure channel which only preaches to the converted.

Seom (The Isle)

Another movie that has attained a little notoriety from the number of walk-outs at festival screenings, and even a couple of audience members passing out. Why not? Its Kim-Ki-Duk - A mind that can tear the borders of creativity!

Whilst it is not hard to see why, it is a shame that is what the film is known for, as there is much more to it than *those* scenes. A mute girl makes a living running a kind of retreat, where men can rent a floating cabin on a lake in the mountains and spend their days fishing, and their nights sleeping with prostitutes. The mute girl makes ends meet by taking on this role as well. A young man arrives and rents a cabin, clearly not their for the fish. We see that he is tortured and suicidal - you wouldn't guess why from the 5 second flashback that is meant to explain it, but the 'filmography' section of the DVD explains it in more detail. The mute girl is drawn to the man's desperation, perhaps feeling sympathy/protectiveness, or perhaps simply relating to another deeply unhappy soul.

The relationship between these two characters, and several other characters that come to the lake for one reason or another, is the main focus of the film. The difficulty some people have with relationships is the topic being studied, particularly when they are not happy in their relationship with themselves. The inner feelings of the characters receive expression in scenes whose 'shock factor' has drawn inevitable comparisons with Takashi Miike, especially AUDITION. Director Kim Ki Duk doesn't seem to mind these comparisons:

"KK: I saw Audition at Toronto and that movie made me realize that there is someone else out there like me. We are two of a kind"

If you couldn't sit through the last half hour of AUDITION, you'll probably want to give THE ISLE a miss too. It's also definitely not a film for animal lovers... there is absolutely zero chance of the film being released intact in the UK or the US, as the treatment of the animals in the film (mainly fish) is far outside what is permissible in either country's regulations.

But there is much more to THE ISLE than the scenes that make keeping your eyes on screen a challenge. In between, the film is absolutely ravishing, and will keep your eyes glued there. The setting of the lake, mostly bathed in deep fog, and the fantastic wordless performance from actress Jung Suh (and the rest of the cast) are beautiful and powerful. The loneliness and sadness of the characters is reflected brilliantly in the total isolation of the floating cabins. There is a deep message in the film, and it is presented to us beautifully.

Like Miike, Kim Ki-Duk makes us work for our reward when we watch THE ISLE... if you want to take away the beauty of his film, you have to be willing to pay the price of the horror, especially the scenes where fish-hooks are "inserted" well.... erm, lets say in the "wrong places".. Thoroughly recommended!

This film also features a great deal of scenes involving cruelty to animals. Unfortunately this element, although thematically effective, will render this movie unwatchable in the eyes of many viewers. With these scenes, Ki-Duk makes a statement about survival and suffering. This is made evident when a shallow, careless, rich couple catches a fish, immediately carves a fillet out of its side, and eats it, only to then release it back into the water where it swims away as if nothing has happened. In one of the movie's most important scenes, this same fish is caught again when Hyun-Shik is fishing and chopping up all that he catches in a fit of rage. When he sees the horribly injured fish, he throws it back in a gesture of pity and disgust. Also the animal cruelty is used to show that the film's central characters are incapable of expressing their emotions in a rational manner. This is realized in a scene where a remorseful Hee-Jin tries to reinvigorate a dying fish out of water by electrocuting it with jumper cables. There is also a scene where a frustrated Hee-Jin throws Hyun-Shik's still-caged pet bird into the lake as the camera pans down to watch the bird drown.

One note: the film is another one of those great films that just doesn't know how to end itself. Actually, we get the perfect ending... a nice long shot and a fade to white and it should have been over, but apparently Kim Ki Duk wasn't quite satisfied to leave it at that and tacks on two extra scenes, about a minute of footage, that are simply inexplicable and serve only to confuse and spoil the mood. My recommendation... when it fades to white, simply stop the DVD

Shi Gan (Time)

Kim-Ki-Duk, that master who made 3-Iron... and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ....and Spring.... It's weird how he manages to put truckloads of emotion and meaning into such simplicity, with such a result that would leave hollywood directors undoubtedly baffled. I'm currently on a large-scale hunt to obtain every piece of celluloid that's passed through him. This movie called "Shi gan" a.k.a. Time turned up first. And very unsurprisingly, he's done it again!

Korea is perhaps famously known for its number of female population going under the knife to look good. I've been to a number of Korean cities, and yes, they are gorgeous. But there's always that skeptical doubt hanging over their heads, whether they had undergone plastic surgery to enhance their various assets. That, is the subject of which Time touches upon.

Seh Hee (Park Ji-Yeon) and Ji Woo (Ha Jung-Woo) are a couple, and coupledom is always disastrous when one party is paranoid with suspicion over the other being unfaithful. A longer than usual glance at another pretty face, or a kind gesture to help a gorgeous person, will bring on alarm bells, violent exchange of words, and an inexplicable bad attitude and demeanour towards others. That's how Seh Hee behaves, and I suppose those who suffer from low self-esteem and confidence, would probably exhibit one or many of the traits put forth.

And it is indeed these triats that will put any relationship under strain, with unreasonableness being the number one reaction felt by the other party. Unconfident about her looks, Suh Hee goes under the plastic surgeon's knife and in certain aspects, starts to tease her ex boyfriend Ji Woo, whom she left abruptly 6 months back in a huff and without explanation, with her new physical self (in the form of Sung Hyun-Ah).While Ji Woo is being confronted with the shock of being left all alone, and his inability to forget Seh Hee, what do you expect from a man who loves someone so deeply, yet she suddenly disappears from your life with nary a word? And how will you react when faced with the "truth"?

Perhaps the message in the movie is about the importance of looks, or the perceived emphasis placed on physical attractiveness. It isn't enough to just look good (when different), and the psychological change, that you now have the opportunity to be someone different, is just as, if not more important and this aspect of well being has to be looked after as well. Watching this movie brings about some comparison of storylines and the differing techniques used to carve out a new life, with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In Eternal, one becomes somebody new by undergoing a science fictional transformation with the wiping of memories from the mind. It's psychological, and the technology not here yet. With Time, it involves the transformation of the physical, with technology already ready and very sophisticated in
technique. And that's what makes it quite scary, barring the gory introductory scene.

I could literaly transform my face into something else, and thereafter, with the severing of current ties with friends and family, lead a completely different life. The objective of Seh Hee in the movie, can indeed drive someone nuts, and even drive yourself nuts as you discover you're living a lie, and you can do nothing about it to reverse the process. But if your life is in a rut, would you be tempted to do it? For the reasons of Suh Hee, of being someone else to test the fidelity of your other half, is just plain crazy and you'll easily come to see why it's a lose-lose situation from the start - he loves you now, so that says a lot about his affection for you in the past; He doesn't love the present you as he still can't forget and is still holding onto hopes of seeking the old you out, which will leave the current you miserable because you've already physically transformed. Ooh, it's one heck of a mind exercise.

I would deem this movie very accessible, paced very well, and has enough moments to keep you riveted and guessing the outcome at each step of the way. But it's not plain sailing and he does keep you guessing time and again, deliberately leaving some questions unanswered, providing you with plenty of room for discussion. For those who liked to be teased and dislike being spoonfed with the movie's narrative.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

It happens to both the best and worst of us at some time in our lives. Love . If you haven't experienced this yet just wait, you will. It is inevitable that at some time in our journey through life that we will come across someone that fascinates us so profoundly that we feel as though we could spend the rest of our lives with this magnetic individual. There is no exact science to the concept of love. Many believe that the idea of love goes beyond the reasonable or the logical to a more diverse level of the illogical, irrational, and the unreasonable. Why is it that we find ourselves attracted to people that, on the surface, seem as though they would never be compatible with our own lifestyle? Why is it that when we do fall in love with a certain individual and think at first that this is a perfect match, we find over time that less tolerable marks are more frequent on the surface? And why is it that we overlook some individuals that, although at first there is no real `love connection' per say, we seem to have a somewhat pure liking for someone and that it takes us longer then it should to see that person for who they really are to us? Love is a complicated subject that can't be taught, it can only be experienced for what it is . utterly confusing and yet at the same time completely fulfilling.

The story is a twisted and complicated tale from the same man who brought movie-going audiences such award-savvy features as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Joel Barish seems like the average, normal guy who stays pretty isolated from communicating his true feelings to others and yet reveals spectacular insight only to the confines of his journal. He doesn't like going on impulses and gut feelings but rather relies more on common sense and the logical sense of self-direction. That is until he meets Clementine. They flirt with each other and eventually find themselves falling in love with one another . That is until one day Joel finds out that Clementine has undergone a radical procedure to have him erased from her memory because she was unhappy. So, in an act of self-gratification, Joel decides to undergo the procedure himself, erasing every argument, every embarrassment, every thought he has had involving Clementine. But as the procedure goes on, Joel begins to realize that beyond the quarrels and the less flattering incidents there were beautiful memories that he never wants to forget. So he does the unthinkable . Joel attempts to outrun the erasers through a dizzying chase through his mind. The story for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is hauntingly brilliant and, in some cases, personally gratifying. The concepts and the feelings expressed behind the script of this film hit so hard to home that it feels as though we our seeing our own love lives played out on screen. Granted Sunshine does tend to veer off into the ridiculously absurd but when evaluating what one takes away from this film, it is pure genius.

Quite amazingly this low budgeted independent feature showcases a surprising amount of A-list talent but manages to have those performers express well beyond their famous names. Jim Carrey, who has unsuccessfully attempted to make a mark in drama with lead performances in Man on the Moon and The Majestic, gives a thoroughly convincing and commanding performance in the role of Joel Barish. And Carrey's performance is only complimented by his interaction with Kate Winslet, who acts opposite of him as Clementine. Though the two give dramatically different personas to their characters and look as if they would never be quite compatible with each other based on surface actions, which is the idea the filmmakers are trying to express. It's not what is right in front of us that should define a relationship; it is the memories themselves and the experiences of the two individuals. Elijah Wood, in his first role outside the Lord of the Rings franchise which recently wrapped up in December, gives an effective performance as a man one can't help but despise for his methods of obtaining someone's affection but at the same time feel pity for his plight, which is that he feels love eludes him. And Kirsten Dunst performs well within the film despite her appearance that protrudes a sense of innocence that feels off-base or awkward that distracts from the actions of her character. Not to say that she doesn't perform well or that the character is a pointless one, not in the least, but perhaps it is the fact that her innocence, based on her name and the characters she has played, carries a stigma with her role.

Overall, Sunshine, as awkward and thoroughly confusing at it may seem and is, manages to express, in the most informal of ways, the feelings and thoughts we should all have when examining a relationship, in that it is not the superficial features but the underlining memories that make it all worth while. When a relationship hits that unfortunate moment where it all seems to be breaking down, we, as human beings, seem to instantly draw ourselves to the negative aspects of that person, as Joel did early in the procedure, in an attempt of sorts to make everything right within our mind. What Eternal Sunshine successfully expresses is that when breaking down the relationship moment by moment, more often then not the happier events outweigh the bad and that should be our determining factor to keep the relationship going. Too many moments are wasted on gut-instincts and logic, when it comes to love one must live every moment for what it is because we only have one shot in this world and we might as well make it worthwhile. What happens if that relationship doesn't work? You pick yourself up, let the relationship go, and, in time, move on. If you try your best and nothing seems to work in that relationship then perhaps it will never work and you shouldn't play out a fantasy that you know will never be. We have all experienced moments where we feel as though there is opportunity to ask someone out or express how one feels for a certain individual but have chickened out due to nerves, `gut-instincts', or views of superficial matters. Eternal Sunshine promotes the ideology of living within the present and letting the course of the matter play out as it may. If we all relied on nerves and logic, would anyone really fall in love?