My 30 Favorite South Korean Movies

"Memories of Murder"

                                               South Korean movies, from the late 1990’s was rejuvenated by group of ambitious young film-makers , whose creative style and transcendence of the genre structure provided immense delight for cinephiles all over the world. Uncompromising and critically acclaimed auteurs like Kim Ki-duk, Lee Chang-dong, Han Sang-soo, etc made landmark art-house features, taking us through beautiful and ugliest corners of the human mind and society. Masterful visual stylists Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-hoo, Kim Jee-won, Na Hong-jin used genre as the basis to engage broad audiences, only to later deviate from that path to realize their own great artistic visions. As Mr. Bong Joon-hoo says “Genre is, simply, one of the codes for attracting audience. It is not satisfying to ride in the bus running strictly on a designated route. Instead, deviating from the path often gives new spectacles and surprising moments of pleasure”.

                                               Celebrated Korean films like “Memories of Murder” or “Oldboy” starts off within the premises of two often repeated and famous Hollywood sub-genres: serial killer thriller and revenge thriller respectively. But, neither Bong Joon-hoo nor Park Chan-wook were interested in recreating the genre conventions set forth by American film-makers. They infused the unbridled energy and tension that pertains to their own cultural landscape. The young Korean film-makers not only deconstructed genre structure by incorporating darker shades of grey to their protagonists, they also gradually reconstructed the whole structure with a naturalism to profoundly explore the humans’ basic, primordial instincts: violence, love and sex.  

                                                Film scholar Mr. M.K. Raghavendra in his book “Director’s Cut” says that "The characteristics of the best South Korean cinema is a certain kind of visceral naturalism along with a more widely spread attitude best describable as casually brutal”. This casual brutality plays a vital role in the Korean director’s portrayal of hard-hitting violence. Unlike, the great Hollywood genre films, the South Korean movies don’t camouflage the brutality of a violent burst. A vicious gunfight and a murder in a Hollywood films could generate indifference or even fun in the minds of viewer. That was not the way in New Wave South Korean movies (although i got to admit that the casually brutal violence in itself has lately become a cliche). Korean films doesn’t treat the violent tactics of an antagonist in a different perspective than that of the protagonist.  The villains and the perceived heroes are more or less react in a brutal manner when encompassed by the basic, destructive human instinct. Police brutality and a corrupted justice system are most often scanned thoroughly by Korean film-makers. 

"My Sassy Girl"

                                                South Korean cinema is also widely known for its unique treatment of romance genre. Although I find the majority of these romantic ventures overly sentimental, the eccentricity and positively infectious energy in movies like “My Sassy Girl” and the elegant, genuinely tear-jerking depiction of love in “Christmas in August” made me a fan of their romance films too. From Kim Ki-duk’s “Crocodile” (1996) to the recent Korean box-office sensation “The Wailing” (2016), Korean films continue to offer a resplendent movie experience. It’s been a decade, since I got introduced to South Korean cinema. And, after recently watching one of the most profound horror/thriller “The Wailing”, I got the urge to list out my favorite films that hailed from the small, southern part of Korean peninsula.  Actually the fitting title for this post would be ‘Favorite South Korean from late 1990’s to now’. I am not aware of the Korean films before 1995 (except for the famous 1960 film “Hanyo” aka ‘The Housemaid’). 

 "Christmas in August" (1998) | Director: Hur Jin-ho
"Peppermint Candy" (1999)  | dir: Lee Chang-dong
"JSA Joint Security Area" (2000) | dir: Park Chan-wook
"Failan" (2001)  | dir: Song hae-sung
 "My Sassy Girl" (2001)  | dir: Kim Ho-sik
"Oasis" (2002)  |  dir: Lee Chang-dong

"The Way Home" (2002)  | dir: Lee Jeong-hyang

"On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate" (2002)  | dir: Hong Sang-soo

"Sympathy for Lady Vengeance" (2002)  |  dir: Park Chan-wook

"Painted Fire" (2002) |  dir: Im Kwon-taek
"Memories of Murder" (2003)  | dir: Bong Joon-ho
  "Oldboy" (2003)  | dir: Park Chan-wook

"A Tale of Two Sisters" (2003)  | dir: Kim Jee-woon

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter......and Spring" (2003)  | dir: Kim Ki-duk

"Tae Guk Gi: Brotherhood of War" (2004)  | dir: Kang Je-gyu

"3-Iron" (2004)  |  dir: Kim Ki-duk

"A Bittersweet Life" (2005)  | dir: Kim Jee-woon

"The President's Last Bang" (2005)  | dir: Im Sang-soo

"The Bow" (2005)  | dir: Kim Ki-duk

"The Host" (2006)  | dir: Bong Joon-ho
"Secret Sunshine" (2007)  | dir : Lee Chang-dong

"Chaser" (2008)  |  dir: Na Hong-jin
"Breathless" (2008) | dir: Yang Ik-joon
"Mother" (2009)  | dir: Bong Joon-ho
"Castaway on the Moon" (2009)  | dir: Lee Hae-jun
 "Poetry" (2010)  | dir: Lee Chang-dong

"I Saw the Devil" (2010)  |  dir: Kim Jee-woon

"Silenced aka The Crucible" (2011)  | dir: Hwang Dong-hyuk

"Right Now, Wrong Then" (2015)   | dir: Hong Sang-soo

"The Wailing" (2016)   | dir: Na Hong-jin

My top three South Korean films:
  • "Memories of Murder"
  • "Poetry"
  • "Painted Fire"

Bedevilled [2010] – Strikes a Vicious Punch at Human Apathy

                                            Irish political thinker Edmund Burke said the famous words “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. Korean film-maker Jang Cheol-soo’s hard-hitting drama “Bedevilled” (2010) enacts the hellish reality of those words, showing us the two polar opposite societies, where passivity runs amok. The film particularly touches upon women’s passivity when confronted with ruthless male dominance. Two of the oldest, engaging themes -- betrayal and revenge – form the core, driving element of the narrative, while it also intricately approaches the gender politics. The unbridled abuse and sporadic scenes of bloodbath in “Bedevilled” is definitely not for the faint of heart. Writer Kwang-young Choi and director Jang Cheol-soo’s non-glamorizing, gritty portrayal of the abuse endured by the characters would provoke a stronger response from the viewers. The film in its second-half transforms into a horror movie, jettisoning small traces of melodrama to embrace rage. Rather than make an intellectual critique about the cultural perceptions on gender inequality, “Bedevilled” becomes totally subversive. It is a transition which many may dislike. However, this explosive brutality made sense (to me) or seems like a fitting reaction to the bottled-up passivity of the society.

                                         “Bedevilled” shouldn’t be mistaken as a slasher horror, set in an exotic place. The vengeful attitude and the subsequent bloodshed never give you the much-needed emotional catharsis. It keeps us confused on whether we should root for the central character’s monstrous turn. Unlike the Hollywood movies, it doesn’t camouflage the savagery experienced by the victimized and victimizer. The movie opens with passive people, witnessing a crime near the traffic signal. A gang of tough young men are about to beat-up a girl. The shot is cut to 30 year old Hae-won (Seong-won Ji), a bank employee in Seoul. The pleadings of a poor, old woman at the bank over a loan issue push her to the edge to react angrily. Then with the same abrasive manner, Hae-won drives to police precinct to identify the youths who brutally attacked the girl, previous night. Thinking of staying away from trouble, she doesn’t identity the perpetrators and flees from the station. Back at work, the inherent guilt plus witnessing the beating, makes Hae-won to create another altercation.

                                          The boss forces Hae-won to take a brief vacation. She returns home. Her neighbor gives the bundle of letters, which she dumps into the bin after just looking at the address. She knows where the letter is from, but doesn’t reply or read it to break the enforced chains of passivity. Nevertheless, Hae-won decides to take up a vacation to her native Moo-doo island. She is returning after 15 years to meet the letter writer Kim Bok-nam (Yeong-hie Seo), a childhood friend of Hae-won. Upon arriving at the island, she discovers that Kim has been suffering horrific abuses in the hands of her husband, brother-in law and their ruthless aunt (at one point , the aunt reminds Kim that ‘a woman is happiest when she has her husband's dick in her mouth’). The rest of the tiny island’s population consists of a bozo-chewing old man and old farming woman. Kim’s finds solace only in caring for her little daughter. She begs Hae-won to at least take her daughter, away from all the island’s monstrosities. Alas, Hae-won is a selfish woman, who thinks that the old grandfather house, Exotic Island and Kim’s devotion (or worshiping) would purge her defective emotions. When she comes across the endless cycle of abuse, Hae-won simply embraces the same passivity and harshness, she demonstrated in Seoul. Gradually, Kim Bok-nam reaches to a breaking point after experiencing a great loss and betrayal.

                                          The build-up of atmosphere and mood is almost flawless from director Jang. He unfurls majority of appalling events, set in the island, in broad day light. In that brightness, the ferocious male dominance seems more intense. “Bedevilled” is definitely not subtle. It manipulates our emotions to constantly boil over with rage (of course for the same reason many may turn off the film with disinterest).  The sense of total defeat exhibited by Kim Bok-nam makes us hope for reversal of situations. The brutality stacks up higher in the narrative that islanders seem crazier than merely dysfunctional. The frames also keeps on lingering on the abuses that we are pushed to the same emotionally numb state of Kim. At times, the proceedings are unnecessarily brutal. The mere disclosure of the family head’s incestuous behavior sends shocking waves within us, but the camera lingers over as the father’s hand rests on the little girl’s pelvis to keep on jabbing at the dreadful feeling. Apart from those visual overloads, director Jang effectively brings out the multi-layered, complex nature of Kim’s plight.

                                            Writer Kwang-young Choi clearly places the blame on islanders. But the ingenuity lies in the way he has created Hae-won against whom we channel all our anger. We find ourselves easily rooting for Kim’s survival or aggression, but at the end we are also able to identify ourselves in Hae-won. Her yearning to break away from the apathy and acceptance of cruelty makes us wonder how different would we have reacted in such a situation. It is such layers that transcend it from being a typical revenge/slasher flick. The inevitable outburst of Kim and the transition to horror territory is effectively made. The transformation scene was staged brilliantly. Kim stands still in the field gazing at the bright sun, after working herself to the point of exhaustion. The luminous shot ironically points at the turn towards darkness and the change is confirmed when she announces that the sun spoke to her. The mad aggression in the end remains more than a mere payoff sequences. The throat-slitting homicidal rampage is showcased with an omnipresent brutality and so not played for kicks as in typical slasher flicks. There’s a clear symbolism in the manner Kim uses sickle and all the tools of servitude to fulfill her vengeance. Director Jang riddles the narrative with such overt symbolism, but the most gorgeous one is the final ‘dissolve’: sad Hae-won lies down on the apartment floor and it slowly transitions to an island, in the shape of woman, lying down. Hae-won’s final gesture may be considered as shot at redemption and hope. But, the very last ‘dissolve’ how the ‘island’ will always be a part of her (I also feel that death would be a very easy way out for Hae-won’s sins). Or may be on a grander scale, that particular shot is a metaphor for our isolated society; selfish and indifferent forever. To say that, Yeong-hie Seo gives a hard-hitting performance would be an understatement. First of all, she is immensely brave to play such an emotionally draining character (the script didn’t get made because many Korean actresses rejected the role of Kim). Her smiling demeanor, in the face of unspeakable abuses and bizarre attempts to shut out the horrific realities around her was gut-wrenching to watch.


                                                 “Bedevilled” (115 minutes) is one of the most unnerving and emotionally distressing Korean feature-film. It finely juxtaposes the polarizing elements: layered profundity and brutal slashing; strikingly beautiful scenery and darkest crevices of the society. 

Red Rock West [1993] – A Riveting, Playful Thriller

                                        John Dahl’s “Red Rock West” (1993) is the kind of film that would put the movie buffs of old noir movies in a joyous mood. It has thrilling developments, delicious twists and bears solid comparisons to the passionate works of Coen Brothers and David Lynch. Critic Roger Ebert had declared ‘Red Rock West’ as ‘the kind of movie made by people who love movies, have had some good times at them, and want to celebrate the very texture of old genres like the western and the film noir’. I can’t say better than that. Watching it 23 years after its initial release, I must say that some of its twists and loops are predictable (since many similar neo-noir has lessened the plot’s intricacies). The film is neither a classic of neo-noir sub-genre nor it masterfully transcends the Western and Noir genre. It just tightly hangs in there between genres, infusing a good deal of dark humor and keeps us entertained from the first to last frames.

                                      The pleasure of watching “Red Rock West” lies in watching it without reading any plot details (including this one). It is only when you are kept in the dark or unsure about what’s going to happen next you can enjoy this film to the fullest. Another pleasure the narrative bestows us is the way the characters are laced with a fine dose of ambiguity. We might be sure that we have figured out who is who or what, but then there are always little surprises in the character decisions. Apart from the shrewd plot developments, the ingenuity lies in the handling of inherent implausibility. Everything in the narrative has some unbelievable coincidence. However, this improbable nature works in favor, tuning up the intensity and making the situations more labyrinthine. “Red Rock West” opens on the road, cutting through the middle of Western desert. Inside a car, on the side of road, sits our honest and vulnerable drifter protagonist Michael (Nicholas Cage). He’s been recently discharged from the ‘Marines’ and has driven 1,200 miles, taking on a friend’s word to do oil rig job, near Wyoming.

                                         Michael doesn’t get the oil rig job because he honestly tells the employer about his bad knee. He just has $5 to fill the almost empty fuel tank and the man at gas station points him to nearby ‘Red Rock West’ to try for hard labor. Considering the permanent leg injury and unsure economic as well as emotional position, Michael drives to the little town’s bar. To his surprise, he is warmly welcomed by the bar owner Wayne (J.T. Walsh). Michael doesn’t know Wayne has welcomed him after seeing the Texas plates in his car. But, when Wayne mentions about a job and calls Michael as ‘Lyle from Dallas’, Michael withholds no dilemma about impersonating a person to take the job. Alas, as it turns out that the job involves murder and the reward is $5,000. Wayne orders the false Lyle to kill his wife. Michael takes the money, goes on to spy Wayne’s beautiful, young wife Suzanne (Lara Flynn Boyle), who is having a secret rendezvous with a rugged, ranch hand in a trailer.

                                          Michael explains to Suzanne about her husband’s plan. The enraged woman doubles the offer to kill Wayne. He takes her money too and before leaving the town, Michael does the right thing: writes a letter to local sheriff about the wealthy couples’ mutual murder plans. That’s not the only right thing, Michael does. While driving out of town, he hits a man wandering in the middle of road and immediately takes him back to the town’s hospital. Men from the sheriff department arrive to the hospital and later come the sheriff himself. From then on, things get a shade darker for Michael. Let’s also not forget the crazy quotient: the real Texan hit-man Lyle (Dennis Hopper). A lot of trust issues arise and characters react to that in different ways.

                                            Like a perfect film noir hero, Nicholas Cage’s Michael always remains (except at the end) one step behind the situation (just like the viewers). He could be accused of naivety for getting caught under femme fatale web. But, then the traumatized emotional state of Michael is evoked to insist upon his confusion over receiving unexpected affection from a beautiful woman. Despite a bad knee, Michael stands straight and fights for his survival. Nevertheless, from an emotional perspective he always falls into things. A vital element for noir hero is his simple conscience. A conscience, which bends few rules, hatches simple solution for complex problems.  It all makes our noir hero a lot unsure about things than at the beginning. Finally, when every pieces of the puzzle fits in, the hero wakes up from uncertainty to wrestle with evil. The physical and mental disability of Michael also reminisces us of the Hitchockian protagonists (for eg, “Rear Window”, “North by Northwest”, etc). The aforementioned narrative trajectory is strictly followed in “Red Rock West”, but its vital strength is the skilfully developed suspense and atmosphere of doubt. The worldview of the other characters in the film is very basic: like staying ahead of others. Within that basic character nature, John Dahl (and his brother/co-writer Rick Dahl) diffuses some good secrets. Wayne and Lyle are more complex than their staple unnerving, ruthless natures. From one sequence to next, they react in multitude of ways.  

                                            John Dahl marvelously moves it like a comedy of errors. The script boasts many tongue-in cheek dialogue deliveries The color schemes, the recurring shots of ‘Welcome’ and ‘You are leaving’ town signs, sharp editing, gorgeous scenery of the west, and a good soundtrack reminds us of the era’s David Lynch movies. Oliver Stone’s 1997 film “U Turn” (with Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Jennifer Lopez) had a very similar plot and also flew under the radar like Dahl’s. I felt “U-Turn” was visually over-loaded and offered a less engaging experience than the adept directorial method of Dahl. After “Red Rock West”, director Dahl made one good movie “The Last Seduction”, and then moved on to direct acclaimed TV series episodes (from “Breaking Bad” to “Hannibal”). The performances are solid throughout. It is good to see a subdued Cage and a smiling Hopper as killer with one or two screw loose.


                                             “Red Rock West” (98 minutes) is one of the underrated neo-noir/thriller that pays fine tribute to hard-boiled thrillers of 1940’s to the gritty works of Lynch and Coen brothers. It’s progressively complex character motivations never wanes our sense of electrifying fun. 

The Wailing [2016] – A Spellbinding Descent into Disorder

                                           I like the way how South Korean movies mix together genres to showcase the overthrowing of a fragile order by the nightmarish chaos. My most favorite thriller of the Korean New Wave is Bong Joon-Ho’s “Memories of Murder”, where in its initial scene you see the footprints of an impending chaotic disorder (badly mutilated corpse hidden inside a small irrigation tunnel, next to an agricultural field). Gradually this initial disorder expands in the landscape as well as in the characters’ mindscape to restore an ultimate emptiness. In “Memories of Murder” we often see visuals where the central characters are pinned against the canvas of disarrayed surroundings (for example, think of that scene when the lead detective looks for a vital piece of paper standing above mounds of garbage, or the great final tunnel scene). Chaos not only upends an order to test the protagonist’s courage; chaos actually tastes a victory in such layered South Korean feature films. Director Na Hong-jin, like his counterparts Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook, is intrigued in designing the petrified, perplexing journey of a central character in a perturbed world. While his previous two acclaimed noirish thrillers “The Chaser” (2008) and “The Yellow Sea” (2010) dealt with a chaotic situation, instilled by apprehensible human blunders, the new sensational horror “The Wailing” (aka ‘Goksung’, 2016) terrifies us by an ambiguous, supernatural chaos.

                                          The intense, multiple-genre cook-up in “The Wailing” created a sensation in this year’s Cannes Film Festival and lead the film to become a big box-office hit in its country. There’s the trademark Korean dark humor, unexpected gore, profound contemplation on the nature of fear and sin, references to folklore, eastern philosophy, and bible. In “The Wailing”, Na Hong-jin walks through the elements and themes with an elegance of a tightrope walker that we are not only thoroughly entertained within the 156 minute running time, but also its reach extends beyond the running time to make us ruminate upon human behavior, in the face of all-consuming threats. The film would definitely diffuses a feeling of having watched an incoherent narrative. The uncertainty in the tremendously tense final act of the film leads to painful questions and forces us to fish through our cognitive abilities. Yes it is one of the rare supernatural horror/thriller, in which you can’t afford to turn off your mind to feel the dread; in fact the more you contemplate about the unexplained horror in “The Wailing”, the more terrifying your movie experience will be.  Of course, those who see that perfectly calibrated uncertainty as stupid or maddening would end up having a frustrating experience. Even if an open-minded viewer couldn’t grasp everything happening in the film, he/she could solely appreciate it for the crazy, visceral thrill ride.

                                            Unlike the great American supernatural thrillers, “The Wailing” doesn’t consist of a single tone to cue in the viewers to react in predefined ways. Like the unpredictable chaos that descends upon protagonist, we are left uncertain on how we should react or take in the visual compositions. Therein I felt that the metamorphosis of this invigorating genre-blender commences. The movie opens with a shot of a strange, old man hooking up fish bait. Since the stranger is a Japanese man, the question among the suspecting small-town Korean villagers is whether he is only baiting for fish or human souls. The Korean title ‘Goksung’ is the name of village, where a disturbing crime has been done. Two people are stabbed to death in a brutal manner as the perpetrator (fellow family member), sits outside the house in a trance, his body entirely covered with boils. The protagonist is a police sergeant named Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won). He lives with his wife, mother-in law and an impertinent 10 year old daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee). Jong-goo, on the insistence of his family members, slowly takes his breakfast before heading to the brutal crime scene, made more chaotic by the heavy rainfall and muddy landscape. The inept, idiocy of the protagonist brings to mind the futile investigation methods of Song Kang-ho’s Detective Park in “Memories of Murder”. The out-of-shape Jong-goo is not good at securing the crime scene, let alone investigating about it (he constantly uses family as an excuse for turning up late at work). Although he seems to be in the periphery of investigation, the gruesome murders set off his nightmares. Few days later, another family is murdered and the killer acts as if possessed by a demon.   

                                           A fellow cop talks to Jong-goo about the rumor circulating in the village about a mysterious Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura), who has taken a cabin deep in the woods. The old Japanese guy is suspected of a being either a serial killer or a demon. Jong-goo only grunts at this idea (or rumor) and berates upon the fellow cop. A string of nightmares and bizarre real-life experience slowly pushes Jong-goo to investigate upon the strange foreign guy. By this time, his smart preteen daughter Hyo-jin starts acting in a weird manner (the weirdness which afflicted other murdered/murdering villagers). The mother-in law fears that it might be a demonic possession and that they need to contact a famous shaman (Hwang Jung-min). The time for shedding the goofy, every-man antics arrive for Jong-goo and since his familial harmony is threatened he desperately turns to be a reluctant hero. Before agreeing to shaman’s idea to perform a death hex on the foreign demon, Jong-goo boldly goes to investigate the Japanese man’s cabin (taking alongside his cop friend and a young translator). Terrifying developments continue to happen and the basic fear, desperation to fend off the evil actually leads to incertitude and total chaos. Director/writer Na Hong-jin cranks up the sense of dread and tension in the final act to unbearable levels. Up to that point, “The Wailing” was eerie and thrilling, but towards that riveting final act, it becomes bone-chilling scary.

                                            Korean film-makers are adept in constructing the uneventful, banal life events of the characters. We could something concrete or common in the way Jong-goo reacts to horror or tragedy. He doesn’t act in a manner to extract single emotion; he’s awkward like us that we both laugh at him as well as feel for him. Jong-goo doesn’t act as the cinematic guy whom we hope to see. He is just full of unpredictable emotions like all of us. There’s no one way to react to fear or tragedy. Sometimes we may remain insensitive, yet in other times we might be fully engulfed by panic. The callous attitude of the protagonist doesn’t vanish in the initial series of murders, since the gruesome crimes don’t threaten his quotidian life. The agony and dread sets off a bizarre chain of emotions only after Jong-goo discovers how he could be just another pawn in the deadly game played by supernatural force. The transformation from casualness to fury and poignant plaintiveness is not only relatable, but also works in favor of the movie’s general unanticipated volatile nature. Director/writer Na Hong-jin deliberately paints the characters with an innocent and monstrous side that we aren’t able to figure out who is who. For example, Kunimura’s stranger character lacks fixed expressions that he could pass off as savior as well as the devil. The same goes for shaman and the white-clad village spirit. In one stand-off sequence, Jong-goo confronts a scary dog and kills it brutally. The ferociousness, sorrow and dark humor flows through that small sequence, making us wonder about his character nature.

                                              Majority of the terrifying set-pieces are cloaked in ambiguity. We don’t know when reality ends up and when nightmare starts off in one early scene. In the elaborate ritual performance of the shaman, we aren’t sure who is performing a death hex on whom. Eventually, in the thunderous final sequence, we are kept in the dark about who is telling the truth. Even when the truth comes to light, we are left with unanswered, nightmarish questions. There are some brilliant references to bible (as the opening bible verse state about the doubts Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection), eastern occult practices and other western religious symbolism. These elements are mixed together and co-exist to interpret upon the meandering madness, although we never latch onto a precise answer.  The narrative sort of becomes a chicken-egg scenario. Is the old guy responsible for this malevolent, hidden fear? Or is it the fear that strengthens the malice of the old guy? What is the right decision which might have changed Jong-goo’s and his family’s fate? Did Jong-goo any choice at all to make the right decision? Of course, Na Hong-jin’s narrative doesn’t help us find a path through the cluttered ambiguity; he simply wants us direct our thoughts to the movie’s painful central themes of invisible fear and human perception. We gaze at different, inexplicable situations of madness in the climax (the cross-cutting of conversations incites a spine-tingling effect) that we really don’t know what is the absolute truth (you see, it’s all in the perception). Is Xenophobia a vital theme? Is it about people letting the fear of ‘others’ ('foreign devils') getting better of them? I can’t say for sure. For the most part, the director is interested in the spiritual spaces that we don’t know whether he is inclined to make a sociopolitical statement.

                                                   As I mentioned before, the tonal changes are flawlessly handled. The thriller and supernatural elements mutually elevates the narrative’s general descent into desolation. The ongoing devastation in the village (both economic and spiritual) is referred through richly detailed imagery (cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo). The unkempt local stores, dried-up herbs, long shot of a woman hanging up in a tree, etc keeps on suggesting of the impending invasion of bleakness. The writing loops and thematic weight doesn’t drag down the visual thrill in feeling the whirlwind of nightmares. Do Wan Kwak as Jong-goo gradually draws us to feel his desperation. While the initial mixture of pathos and humor allows the viewer to relate with Jong-goo, the later dark touche to his character stays true to the story’s controlled mad leaps. The presence of Kunimura Jun and Chun Woo-hee (was wonderful in “Han Gong-Ju") as the two polarizing supernatural figures leaves a deep impression on us. 


                                            “The Wailing” aka “Goksung” (156 minutes) is a provocative, hypnotic and path-breaking horror thriller which goes for a pervading atmosphere of chaos than conjuring up cheap scares. Rarely, I have come across a genre cinema that deals with the elemental sort of doubt and fear in such an intricate manner. 

Rams [2015] – A Poignant Tragicomedy

                                          What would my mind conjure up if someone uttered the word ‘Iceland’? Breathtaking, awe-inspiring as well as intimidating landscapes, lack of communication, loneliness, and repressed emotions. Of course, I have derived these images & the attached feelings from their movies. So, half-hostile and half-inspiring landscapes plus the alienated human beings is what makes up as the ingredients for Icelandic cinema. Director Grimur Hakanorson’s “Rams” (‘Hrutar’, 2015) opens with the blend of these magical ingredients: a calm, beautiful valley (north of Iceland), neatly aligned buildings, serene lambs feeding on the pasture, and a fence dividing the land. The crucial human elements are the two old brothers – Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson -- played the central role in Runar Runarsson's "Volcano") – whom haven’t exchanged any words for the past 40 years. Hakanorson injects a matter-of-fact objectivity and dry comedy into the simpler story of two brothers that “Rams” becomes a strangely beautiful fable and ultimately a profound movie experience. Eventually, “Rams” would be remembered as one of those movies deeply rooted in its distinct environment and culture, which at the same time goes on to generate a wider, universal appeal.

                                          The brother’s farms are situated in a desolate patch of land, known as ‘Bardardalur Valley’. Initially, we see these bearded, taciturn men butting heads in the ‘Best Rams’ contest. Gummi’s ‘Garpur’ loses to Kidd’s ‘Sproti’ by 0.5 differences in points. Gummi storms outside to desperately take a look at the Kiddi’s winning ram. He is shocked to find the symptoms of the most dreaded disease in the valley, known as ‘scrapie’. The disease is highly contagious, deadly and if its presence is confirmed, the whole flock of sheep in the valley will be slaughtered. If it leads to a slaughter, the farmer would have to disinfect their farms and wait for at least two years to re-stock it with new cattles. Gummi and his elder brother Kiddi never married and tend to prefer the companionship of the prized rams than fellow humans. So, the loss would be naturally devastating. Gummi confesses his fear to a sheep-farming friend, which brings the community’s veterinary inspectors to Kiddi’s farm. They take away Kidd’s prized Ram and in turn Kiddi takes a potshot at Gummi’s window with a shotgun.

                                               Without much fuss, director Hakornarson depicts hardscrabble realities of a life that’s rapidly vanishing. Kiddi angrily remarks how the land’s native Ram stocks (Bolstadur stock) will be totally destroyed by the slaughter and subsequently replaced by hormone-injected sheep, imported from Western Fjords. However, Kiddi and Gummu aren’t going to join forces to fight against visible enemies of establishment. Theirs isn’t also the simpler ancient vs modern tradition conflict. They just want to preserve the only love in their life. Look at these men’s emotions, while touching at the rams’ horns or when huddling them. Where would lonely Kiddi and Gummi find such unquestioning givers and receivers of love? Apart from loss of love, the sheep’s inevitable fate would also be a loss of identity.  The anticipated melting of brothers’ enmity happens at one point, but those images exude with an astonishing humanity and profundity.

                                               Through simple actions, the director/writer is able to differentiate between Gummi and Kiddi. Kiddi is a hard drinker who rages over everything, while Gummi is a pacifist guy. Gummi’s actions infuse light comedic touch to the narrative. The way he barks to call Kiddi’s dog Somi or the manner he sends an invoice for broken windows, which Kiddi splintered by a gunshot serves as striking staging. In one humorous as well as tender scene, Gummi uses a bulldozer to lift drunken, passed out Kiddi and carries him to a hospital. The way each frames are designed in this scene has an exceptional, arresting quality. Another biggest strength of “Rams” is director Hakonarson’s ability to flawlessly shift the tones. The initial tender, quirky relationship between the brothers and their rams are undercut by an irredeemable tragedy. Then, this tragedy is organically sprinkled with light-hearted touches, and towards the end, the mood swings to top, reaching a touching emotional peak. It might all look perfectly easy, but the balance between the delicacy of human emotions and brutality of nature & fate is attained without a single flaw. I think was a well accomplished storytelling method without ever getting caught into the tedious routine.
                                                 If we look closely Hakonarson and his cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen never repeats a shot twice. Even in the simple conversation scene happening inside restaurant or Gummi’s house, different angles are employed. Despite the narrative’s slower pace, this helps to not everything monotonous. Whenever Gummi is plagued by paranoia (that the authorities will take away his sheep), we could see the shots becoming tighter. Since Hakanorson is documentary film-maker, he easily diffuses the sense of realism from the very first frame. The slow gait of Gummi and the calm rural atmosphere in the first scene gives us a feeling of watching the real sheep farmer.  And, the actors Sigujonsson and Juliusson (both comes from the theater background) have put in great effort to transform themselves into sheep farmers. In an interview director Hakonarson gave to the site ‘The Moveable Fest’ explains how he gave the actors the script a year before the shooting started and how he prepared them to play the central roles: “Two weeks before shooting, we had a rehearsal period and I divided it into two parts. There was one week of rehearsing the actual scenes with dialogue, and one week spent on location, where I took them to the valley and they stayed with the sheep, learning how to talk to them and touch their muscles, to drive a tractor, and also just to inhale the rural atmosphere.”  Such a detailed preparation is what makes every sequence quietly powerful. The musical score by Atli Orvarsson adds more poignancy to the proceedings.


                                                  “Rams” aka “Hrutar” (90 minutes) reverberates profound, complex emotions within a simpler narrative framework. Its genuine showcase of humanity and the raw performances even towers over the sublime shots of Icelandic landscapes. 

Demolition [2015] – A Fine Dramedy about Unrelieved Gloom

                                            Coping with the loss of loved one after a traumatic accident is one of the overused concepts in cinema. But, Hollywood always prefers these sorts of stories. A wealthy American -- representative of the 1 percent of the nation’s population -- confronts a loss that halts the wheels of his frenzied, materialistic life. He/she would then encounter the emptiness in their life; go on a journey; do some emotionally uplifting thing; and finally the central character would give us a hopeful message. On the outset, Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Demolition” (2015) seems to tick some of these boxes, but at the same time it gives some space for viewers to emotionally invest themselves in this offbeat tale of demolishing widower. Director Vallee and writer Bryan Sipe biggest challenge is to explore the effects of grief in a man, who isn’t able to express it. While there are cliched resolutions and directorial hiccups, the man who totally carries the film till the end is versatile performer Jake Gyllenhaal. Unlike most of the accident dramas “Demolition” has a likeable but a bizarre, barely reformable protagonist. Jake’s character does some of the weird, stupid things, although it is hard not to be appeased by his charisma. His stiff sense of apathy and the eventual melting of it makes “Demolition” a worthy movie experience.

                                            When we first see stock broker Davis Mitchell (Jake Gyllenhaal) he is looking at dark clouds gathering over distant, high-rise buildings. At some later point, Davis looks at the natural devastation of his surroundings and muses “everything has become a metaphor”. But at this opening scene, Davis doesn’t pay much attention to anything else and he is totally not in the mindset to relate the raging clouds to that of a crisis waiting to take apart his life. He is talking on the phone, while his beautiful wife Julia (Heather Lind) who also turns out be his boss’ daughter, drives the car. Julia makes a little conversation about the leaking refrigerator when the accident happens. You get to watch impact shot from inside the vehicle along with Julia’s smiling face and you know that an accident is inevitable. You could also predict that the final smiling face of Julia would be juxtaposed in some of movie’s later emotional moments. As I said, “Demolition” doesn’t circumvent these little dramatic cliches, but what’s interesting to see is the central conflict of Davis after his wife’s death: he just can’t show sadness or any other emotions.

                                             While Davis’ father-in law and boss Phil (Chris Cooper) looks devastated at the loss, Davis is fixated upon the vending machine in the hospital’s intensive care unit. The faulty vending machine has failed to give him the bag of peanuts. Davis takes a picture of the vending machine Company’s name. He goes to his stylistic cube of a house, eats alone, and the next day he goes to office. At his wife’s wake, Davis couldn’t even keep a sad face. He goes to the restroom and tries to enact a crying face in front of the mirror. Later, he just settles down to write a complain letter to the vending machine company, but it becomes a confessional letter, where Davis recounts, analyzes all of his life details. Davis writes about his legacy obsessed, money-man father-in law and how he met & married Julia. Davis also wonders when he stopped loving Julia. This thought process leads to a vital question: did he ever have any feelings for Julia? Davis desperately tries to piece together and make sense of his past life, which he didn’t pay any attention. He wants to take apart everything in his life to the point of demolition and examine them.

                                                   Apart from writing series of letters to the customer service rep, Davis finds satisfaction in literally demolishing dismantling objects around him. He starts with faulty refrigerator, cappuccino machine, and then takes apart a squeaky bathroom door in the office. Soon, all the parts of office computer are dismantled and neatly arranged in the floor. Phil, who just wants his son-in law to mourn in the usual manner couldn’t fathom Davis going bonkers. Eventually the narrative moves on to Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts), the customer service rep, who is so moved by Davis’ letter that she begins stalking him. Karen is an emotionally fragile woman with a troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). Davis and Karen mesh to form a friendship and later Davis becomes a messed-up father figure to messed-up teenager Chris. Davis introduces Chris to his newfound hobby of demolition, while Chris offers back excessively exuberant rock music.  There are some unpredictable and tender sequences derived from the rapport formed by these three individuals. At some point in the third act, I felt the story beats didn’t keep up its initial promises and that it sliding down to an emotionally manipulative denouement. Nevertheless, I was taken in by the charmingly goofy, nihilist, virtuoso performance of Jake Gyllenhaal.

                                                     Director Vallee is at his imaginative best when depicting Davis’ mental images of his past life. Vallee is aware of clunky metaphors and cliched tragedy in this kind of narrative to poke fun at them. He impeccably maintains the bitter whimsical tone in the first half. But, somewhere down the line, both Valle and write Sipe settles down to take a familiar, slightly sappy path. There’s a chance encounter between Davis and Karen’s drug dealer, an old man who laments about the antique, non-operative merry-go-round. We could adjudicate that this merry-go-round would play out as an element of Davis’ redemption (and we are not wrong about it). Even though this scene was forced into the narrative in an inorganic manner, it doesn’t affect the movie’s emotional core, whereas the dramatic events at the end to instill the much-needed emotional catharsis felt artificial. The hollow, superficial gesture of giving away scholarships in the name of Julia (the student’s conversation with Karen reveals the emptiness of offering scholarships) versus Davis’ moving gesture to remember her through the soulful carousel ride was very well done. Although we never know if Julia genuinely loved Davis, through this subtle ending, we see that Davis had somehow made peace with his past. Nevertheless, what I felt as the problem with “Demolition” and other wanna-be inspirational American movies is that they start at some intriguing, relatably weird point and gradually shifts to the normal, dramatic narrative arc. If the movie somehow worked me, it’s because I could connect with Davis’ destructive urge or his decision to take apart everything. And, I always like Gyllenhaal’s trips into the darker side.



                                                    “Demolition” (100 minutes) may not have perfectly balanced its hero’s sledgehammer-weaving destructive attitude and his heart-tugging emotional transformation, but it still provides an engaging, darkly comic movie experience. Thanks to a great cast, the narrative miscalculations doesn’t entirely derail the movie.