The Witch: Part I. The Subversion [2018] – Formulaic Yet Gripping Action/Fantasy

Park Hoon-jung’s first installment of a proposed action/thriller trilogy, The Witch: Part I, The Subversion (‘Manyeo’, 2018) opens on the aftermath of a bloody massacre, inside a supposedly top-secret government building. An eight-year old kid’s escape scheme is hinted to have left the trail of mangled bodies. However, the facility’s matriarch Dr. Baek (Jo Min-soo) navigates the blood-splattered stone corridors with the enthusiasm and zeal of a mad scientist. To her security chief’s (Park Hee-soon) dismay, Dr. Baek feels she has been proven right about the girl’s supreme powers. At the same time, the mad doctor assures the little girl can’t survive on her own. A boy who also has escaped amidst the chaos is recaptured and since the opening credits display some images from real-life experiments on children, we can easily understand the purpose of the facility and nature of the ‘children/monsters’.

Thwarting Dr. Baek’s expectations, the gravely injured 8-year old girl Ja-yoon is found by a bereaved middle-aged couple (Choi Jeong-woo and Oh Mi-hee) in their farm. Ja-yoon grows up as an innocent, farm girl and maintains that she has no knowledge of her previous life. Ten years later, the high-schooler Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) is seen helping her father with his financial setbacks and takes care of the frail ma, who is facing early onset of Alzheimers. Ja-yoon is smart and shy, and spends most of her time with her chatty and greagrious friend, Do Myung-hee (Go Min-si), the local sheriff’s daughter. In order to tackle the family’s financial conflicts and to acquire money for ma’s treatment, Ja-yoon tries her chances at a televised singing contest. Apart from presenting her winsome voice, Ja-yoon makes the audiences go wow by doing some ‘magic tricks’.

Ja-yoon’s TV appearance naturally triggers a reaction from Dr. Baek. She sends her own posse of young, hyper-stylish, and super-evil masterminds, spearheaded by the same boy (Choi Woo-shik) who gets recaptured in the opening scene. While Ja-yoon accompanied by Myung-hee takes a train trip to Seoul in order to attend the contest’s next round, the boy quietly threatens the girl and even calls her a ‘witch’ (and when enraged he makes it rhyme with ‘bitch’). After winning the quarter-finals, Ja-yoon almost gets kidnapped by guys wearing black-suits. Two factions seem to be after Ja-yoon: one is group of supernatually gifted youngsters; the other is lead by scarred security chief who just wants to kill the escaped monster. When the situation escalates to a point that puts Ja-yoon’s family and friend in harm’s way, she reacts in the only way she is trained to; within a matter of seconds men sporting guns lie under pool of their own blood. Subsequently, Ja-yoon reluctantly agrees to meet her maker and sort things out.

There’s nothing truly surprising or original about ‘The Witch’. Twists, emotional highs, and bursts of explosive action are all packaged in a way that could be easily predicted by seasoned movie buffs. Transhumanism, telekinesis, psychic power have been turned into pop-corn entertainment many decades before, the fight for mutant rights in Marvel’s (1960s) X-Men comic series served as a parallel to the American civil-right struggles of the 1960s. From Stephen King novels, manga series, X-Men movies to TV projects like Legion, The Gifted, Stranger Things, the genetically-modified superhuman ferocity was unleashed for our entertainment in many different ways. The Witch is pretty much an origin story that’s derived from all these sources and many more. At times, the movie gives off a vibe of watching the pilot episode of a multi-season TV series; the characters are cool enough to hold our attention but their actions don’t make any sense. Yet for all its familarities and flaws, The Witch works to an extent because of Park Hoon-jung’s well-paced direction and Kim Da-mi’s mercurial, star-making central performance.

Writer/director Hoon-jung commenced his movie career by writing the screenplay for Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010). Among his four directorial efforts before The Witch, New World (2013) and The Tiger (2015) were decent entertainers, comprising of superb ensemble cast. Hoon-jung’s strength lays in concocting melodrama of the darkest variety which he does pretty well in the first-half. The slow dramatic build-up pays off wonderfully with the whirlwind of literally wall-breaking action in the second-half, set mostly inside a claustrophobic underground bunker. And the final revelation has all the perfect makings of sequel bait. The very Korean on-screen idiosyncrasies (casually brutal bad guys, bigmouthed sidekick, etc; and let’s not forget ‘boiled eggs with 7-Up’) add up to the narrative’s charm. Kim Da-mi is good throughout different display of moods. She is especially fun to watch when she dispenses minions, high-level thugs and bosses with unmatchable suave. Overall, The Witch: Part I, The Subversion (125 minutes) is derivative yet delightfully crazy.  


Diane [2019] – An Achingly Melancholic Character Study

Film programmer, critic, and documentarian Kent Jones’ feature-film debut, Diane (2019) tells the story of an old, selfless woman relentlessly looking after all the damaged and diseased people in her life. In fact, there’s not much of a story here, but a deeply textured observation of the elderly woman; her Sisyphean angst and regrets haunting the autumnal phase of her life. This is expressed intriguingly in the film’s very first scene, which opens at a hospital’s terminal patients’ ward, the sound of vital-signs monitor beeping in the background. We see a woman dying of cervical cancer. But this isn’t Diane. She is Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), Diane’s cousin. The titular character (Mary Kay Place) is sitting opposite Donna, asleep in a chair. Donna casts a worried look at Diane and asks, “Are you okay, honey? You look all tuckered out.” It’s a very simple yet a graceful way of setting up the central character.

Diane lives alone in Massachusetts who often visits her dying cousin and her drug-addicted son, Brian (Jake Lacy).  She works at a soup kitchen showering empathy on the dispossessed people and treats them with dignity. Diane shares her pain with her long-time friend, Bobbie (Andrea Martin). She also frequently visits her aunts and uncles (played by gifted veteran actors including Estelle Parsons and Phyllis Somerville), who laughs and reminisce about the old days despite their weak physical condition. Diane doesn’t do anything for herself. Her maternal instincts keeps taking her back to Brian, who begs his mother to leave him alone and provide the chance to cure the addiction in his own way. Many characters in the narrative also insist the same. Surprisingly, Brian does find a way and heals himself. But circumstances change, as it always does in ordinary life, that at a later point, the mother asks the son to leave her alone.

Regret and shame it seems keeps pushing Diane into an abyss. It looks like she hasn’t yet forgiven herself for the past transgressions (she still keeps it to herself the pain and guilt caused by her deeds). Although we only get to know about the grey chapters of her past only later in the narrative, Mary Kay Place deeply carries a look that conveys Diane’s tenacity for seeking atonement. Diane’s misery is only heightened by the deaths of her loved ones, which takes away her only ‘pleasure’ of being a caregiver for others. It may sound like a bleak domestic drama on death, aging, and life’s monotony. But the film finds enough warmth and humor within the damages and fatigue of quotidian life. The subtly staged communal gathering of Diane’s family is such a treat to watch. The miseries that have shaped the lives of these resilient old people are conveyed with a resounding impact.  In one of the film’s most heartwarming scene, we see Diane, drunk on margaritas, standing alone outside a bar in a wintry night. Just as she starts wailing, her aunts appear out of nowhere, offering comfort rather than questioning her. 

Kent Jones who had collaborated on documentaries with Martin Scorsese (My Voyage to Italy and Letter to Elia), has made his first feature-film, evincing the delicate directorial touches of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Robert Bresson. Unlike the pillow shots of Ozu, Jones keeps showing variations of a car traveling down the road. It is shot from the point of view of the driver which apart from conveying the passage of time contemplates how we are mostly ‘passengers’ and not ‘drivers’ in this life. It does feel at times that Jones have packed a lot and keeps rushing to various narrative events that only serves the purpose to pose the greater spiritual, existential questions. Yet the strongly grounded characterization of Diane and the precisely textured melancholic tone engulfed my attention in the narrative.

We are very much alone in this life. Hence, it’s important to escape from the emotional prisons we confine ourselves to and to be able to live comfortably with ourselves. It’s what this humble character study tells to the Diane within us.  


Drifting Clouds [1996] – Battling the Pangs of Unemployment with Deadpan Wit

Drifiting Clouds (Kauas plivet karkaavat, 1996) is the first installment in Finnish master of melancholy Aki Kaurismaki’s so-called ‘Finland Trilogy’. It was supposed to be a direct sequel to Kaurismaki’s first internationally acclaimed feature, Shadows in Paradise (1986). But after lead actor Matti Pellonpaa’s death – who collaborated with Aki Kaurismaki in nine films – the script was extensively re-written. It saw Mr. Kaurismaki once again employing his minimalist aesthetics to deeply ponder the miseries of working class while offering some uplifting fictionality. Drifting Clouds was made at a time when Finland’s economy underwent deep depression, a result of bad luck and bad policies. The ordinary working-class couples at the centre of the movie are also plagued by bad luck and victimized by bad policies.

Karuismaki regular Kati Outinen plays Ilona (the same name given to female lead in ‘Shadows in Paradise’), a straight-laced head-waiter at the Dubrovnik; a once fashionable resturant that’s now only frequented by elderly people. Other Kaurismaki regulars, Sakari Kuosmanen and Markku Peltola plays the doorman and a alcoholic cook respectively, whereas veteran Finnish actress, Elina Salo plays the melancholic boss of Dubrovnik, Mrs. Sjoholm. Ilona’s husband , Lauri (Kari Vaananen) is a tram driver. Every night after work, Ilona waits for his tram to pick her up. He finishes the route, and they drive to their modest apartment together. A adorable terrier is the third member of this family.

Although Kaurismaki’s stone-faced actors deliberately shies away from expressing emotions, he allows simple minimalist gestures to deeply broadcast the nature of their relationships. Like the French master of cinema Robert Bresson, Kaurismaki’s spare mise en scene, places his characters in situations and sublimely aestheticized spaces, and allows the viewers to bring his/her emotions into the scene. The rich static frames of Ilona & Lauri’s domestic space bursts with life and texture which reminds us of the works of Kaurismaki’s spiritual predecessor, Yasujiro Ozu. Later, the characters’ moribund miserabilism are excruciatingly conveyed through various shades of blue.

Lauri gets infected with bad luck. He picks up the lowest card when his boss announces personnel cutbacks through lottery. Lauri doesn’t reveal the bad news of pink slip to his wife until after his last day at job. He grumpily exits from a theatre before the movie is finished with Ilona trailing behind him. In the theatre lobby, we could see posters of Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), and Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991) [Mr. Jarmusch paid tribute to Kaurismaki by setting one of the vignettes in ‘Night on Earth’ in Finland and he recruited Matti Pellonpaa to play a role]. Looking at Lauri’s reaction it might definitely be some Hollywood movie (and Ilona suggests the film is good). Then Lauri walks to the cashier and angrily demands for his money to the girl behind the counter. Outside the theatre Ilona and Lauri engage in deadpan conversation which pretty much defines Kaurismaki-esque sense of humor: 

Lauri: It was nonsense. A comedy? Didn’t laugh once.
Ilona: It’s still not the cashier’s fault.
Lauri: At least I took out my bitterness
Ilona: She is your sister though
Lauri: All the worse for her.

Kaurismaki allots more time to showcase Dubrovnik’s disintegration and the melancholy that follows due to collapse of working-unit. As usual, the film-maker uses a brilliant elegiac song to echo the feelings of the characters (“…our faded dreams brings tear in my eyes…”). The unemployed Lauri is consumed by depression and alcoholism, especially when he fails a medical test that totally robs the prospect of working as a driver. Ilona buries her pride and is prepared to take any job in restaurant kitchen. It leads to another darkly humorous, shot-reverse-shot conversation between Ilona and a world-weary restaurant manager (Esko Nikkari).

Ilona: I started as dishwasher, then kitchen maid, then waiter until I got to be a head waiter. I could still be a waiter, anything.
Resturant Manager: to be honest, you're too old for a waiter.
Ilona: I'm thirty-eight.
 Manager: That's it. You can drop dead anytime.

The scene may also hint the way Kaurismaki is processing his friend and collaborator Matti Pellonpaa’s death (due to heart attack in July 1995). In another scene, we see Ilona sadly gazing at a photo frame of a child. Its’ a very simple shot (conveying the information about the child they have recently lost), yet one which adds extra-layer of melancholy to the couples’ suffering to eke out a dignified existence.  Kaurismaki also uses this shot to pay homage to Pellonpaa – the child in the photo. Ilona chooses to not delve into the depths of despair (unlike Lauri) even though she faces more cruelty under the hands of a crooked diner owner (who absconds tax payments). Comically hostile bank manager thwart her aspirations to start  a restaurant (with her former colleagues). Eventually, Ilona runs into her former boss, Mrs. Sjoholm who agrees to provide the fund. The narrative ends with Kaurismaki granting a degree of autonomy to the couple, and a austere yet beautiful shot which defines the movie’s title in a fascinating manner.

The story-lines of Aki Kaurismaki’s cinema may sound melodramatic, but through perfect fusion of austere formalism and emotional resonance (coated with deadpan humor) the melodrama is effectively drained, leaving a restrained vision of human suffering. That’s obvious in the manner Kaurismaki stages his characters’ reaction to the quotidian traumas. Through a certain acting style and cinematography, Kaurismaki zeroes-in on wounded psyche without turning them into a object of pity. By de-emphasizing the depiction of emotions, he foregrounds the characters’ unspoken trauma. The shot showing the photo of Ilona-Lauri’s deceased child is a perfect example of this method.

Kaurismaki has also got an eye for absurdist humor that naturally emnates from our inability to deal with trauma. However, his minimalist techniques immerses us so much into the working-class characters’ emotional spectrum (we project our own emotions into him/her) that the few laughs (directed at them) doesn’t rob them of their dignity. Moreover, since Kaurismaki maintains such a low-key tone and repeatedly puts these stern-faced  people through the wringer, the upbeat, fairy-tale-esque story turns offers great delight. He may make films about alienated, distressed individuals, but they are strangely comforting and incredibly uplifting. 

Ariel [1988] – A Distinctively Bittersweet Drama from the Minimalist Master

Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki’s tightly controlled cinema mostly surveys the bleakness in human existence of proletarian or downtrodden variety; not that his bleak vision of Helsinki city is drenched in miserabilism. Mr. Kaurismaki instead uses black, deadpan humor and a sense of unreality to tackle the grimness of the social situation. It is this exacting focus on darkly funny absurdities that plagues his chain-smoking dispossessed people endlessly appeals to me. The proletariat trilogy - loose triad of movies concentrating on the down-on-luck working-class protagonists - made Kaurismaki popular among the cinephiles and film-makers around the world (American indie film-maker Jim Jarmusch has repeatedly championed his films). Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990) are all minimalist tragicomedies, whose heroes are garbage-picker, miner, and assembly-line worker respectively. Ariel is the most sweet-natured, hopeful tale among the three, while my favorite is Match Factory Girl, a savage comedy that’s often compared to the top-notch works of Robert Bresson.

The funny quotient of Kaurismaki’s dramas lies in the deadpan dialogue delivery. All his actors carry a stony face and the emotions of love, sadness, anger, and desire never bursts through this hard surface. But Kaurismaki never reduces them to a parody or makes fun of them. On the contrary, their silent determination beneath the tight-jawed expression makes them lovable. Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajalo) in Ariel is one such adorable straight-faced guy. The rural coal mine where he works is closed and before long his miner father commits suicide. Taisto withdraws all his life’s savings from the bank, and takes for the city in a white Cadillac controvertible whose top won’t close. 

Shortly after reaching the city, he is hit over the head with a bottle by couple of hooligans and the guy’s entire savings robbed. This is just one in the string of misfortunes that await Taisto. But he also finds love with Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), a single mother working multiple jobs. They meet in a typical Kaurismaki-ian fashion: Irmeli works as meter maid and serves Taisto a parking ticket. Then they have dinner. He drops him at her apartment, waiting for her to ask him to spend the night. She says I’m divorced and have a little son, to which Taisto replies that he wouldn’t mind a ready-made family than making a family of his own. Since it has already become dark, Irmeli invites him. They go to bed and later Taisto smokes before sleeping.

These exchanges that utterly lack a touch of emotion or irony, however, aren’t similar to the emotional detachment found in the film-makers of Greek New Wave, particularly Yorgos Lanthimos. The dead-end existences lead by Kaurismaki’s characters doesn’t provide due emotional outlets to express their inner spirit. Nevertheless, these people’s warmth and humanity are subtly suggested in their little actions which dispense cruelty and listlessness of the hermetically-sealed dour surroundings. Very soon, Taisto, Irmeli and her boy Riku become a family unit, but Taisto’s luck doesn’t hold out for long. He ends up in jail under a false charge. Matti Pellonpaa, Kaurismaki’s regular actor, plays Mikkonen who shares the jail cell with Taisto. Interestingly, not much difference is seen in the dispassion found outside and inside the prison. Subsequently, the pair plots to get out of jail, get entangled in a bad deal with seedy men, rob a bank, and eventually decide to flee the unremittingly bleak situation for a distant, alleged paradise.

Plot wise, a lot happens in Ariel (from whirlwind romance to prison-break and violent confrontation), although as usual Kaurismaki’s minimalistic, subversively funny tone pares-down the grand dramatic upheavals. Kaurismaki often mixes gritty realism with his own wish-fulfillment fantasies. This oxymoronic approach is best found earlier while perceiving Taisto as an unemployed victim of oppressive socioeconomic system and later when Taisto becomes a film-noir hero (a reference to Humphrey Bogart starrer ‘High Sierra’ is made earlier) who dreams of escaping to a faraway dreamland. The perfect inclusion of soundtracks once again plays a pivotal role in the narrative.

 The songs & music offer emotions where it is drained of any color (the Finnish rendition of Wizard of Oz’s ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ is played towards the end when the fugitive and family looks at the cruise ship, giving us the taste of their yearning and optimism). Remarkably shot by Kaursimaki’s regular DP Timo Salmonen, the distant, stationary camera placements never tries to glamorize the poor proletarians. Unlike Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach, Aki Kaurismaki doesn’t try to acutely highlight the resilience and miseries of proletarian population. He simply wants us to feel the absurdity of such a drab existence, a life without hope made possible by dispassionate bureaucracy. Once the director conveys this aspect, he seeks for a kind of liberation for his characters that’s unfettered by reality. The liberation could be sweet as in Ariel or savage as in Match Factory Girl.

Overall, Ariel (72 minutes) represents one among the many triumphs of Aki Kaurismaki’s minimalist film-making methods. The director’s captivating cinematic economy must be championed in this era of sensory and visual over-load. 

Shadows in Paradise [1986] – A Wryly Humorous Tale of Human Connection and Social Alienation

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki basically tells the same stories again and again. And similar to the works of the masterful Japanese film-maker, the repetition and familiarity in Kaurismaki’s works bestows more pleasure than boredom. Of course, many might be left puzzled by the style and sensibility with which the film-maker stages his stony-faced tragicomedies. Yet the profound stillness I observe in his scenes-- including the still human body-- says something interesting about the implacable void surrounding the lives of modern human beings, and goes on to challenge the ideological and economic mores of the ‘globalized’ society.

The list of distinct aesthetic choices, motifs, and character sketches prevalent in Aki Kaurismaki’s features came to sharp focus starting from his third feature film, Shadows in Paradise ('Varjoja paratiisissa', 1986) – the first part in his unofficial ‘Proletariat Trilogy’. Kaurismaki’s protagonists are often ordinary working-class outcasts of Helsinki. Though Kaurismaki emphasizes on humanism and strives to find glimmer of hope, some can find his worldview to be decidedly acerbic as social injustice and existential frustration persistently consumes his quirky, reclusive blue-collar characters. Shadows in Paradise, however, flit between a tone of droll comedy and poignancy. You could even say that reclusiveness, reticence, and depression were never treated with such an undercurrent of humor (without overtly making fun of the misfit characters).

Shadows in Paradise, similar to the director’s recent works (Le Havre, The Other Side of Hope), take fanciful turns and possesses a fairy-tale like quality, unlike his grimly funny The Match Factory Girl (1990) - clearly his best work, in terms of both style and theme. And Kaurismaki often attempts to show what the severities in a sterile work environment can do to a soul. But the writer/director uses blunt, wry humor to distill some of the bleakness prevailing in this type of human existence. The humor employed occasionally laughs at the characters’ efforts to dispel the gloominess in their life (leading to them seeking life companions). But despite an allegedly caricatured or stereotypical portrayal of Finnish solitary soul, Kaurismaki gradually and movingly zeroes-in on his character’s yearning for real human connection.

Shadows in Paradise revolve around garbage man, Nikander (Matti Pellonpaa). His elderly compadre at work invite Nikander to join at the new garbage company he’s about to open. In one of their cheerless exchanges, the older man says, “I’m not going to die behind a wheel”. “Then where?”, asks Nikander, to which the other curtly replies, “behind a desk.” Nevertheless, on a work day the older man keels over and dies due to heart attack. Naturally, Nikander consciously wakes up to the fact of his ridiculous existence. Out of desperation, he makes advances on the sad-eyed, washed-out blonde, Ilona (Kati Outinen), who works as the check-out assistant at the local supermarket. Nikander, however, only messes up his first-date with Ilona as he takes her to a scruffy place to play bingo. Probably not as bad as Travis Bickle’s choice of place for first-date, but still Ilona bursts out of the place. But when Ilona finds herself in trouble at work, she turns to Nikander, who takes her out to dinner.

Before long, Ilona moves in with him. Since she has nowhere else to go (having lost the job), it seems like a relationship of convenience than one born out of tenderness and love. Much of the bittersweet quality in the narrative comes from Nikander and Ilona’s inability to communicate with each other; to burst the bubble of their solitude. The drab, working-class environments of Helsinki comes off as a significant character, keeping the lonely souls confined within the environment; the couples’ attempt to enter into to the posh-restaurant for a date doesn’t happen (in another scene a hotelier working at a decent hotel lists room prices to homeless Ilona, only to eventually say that they are out of rooms). The alienation and loneliness, however, keeps bringing them both together, if not to seek romance at least to discern the contentment in human connection. Kaurismaki also gifts these battered souls a happy ending; his own way of scoffing at the goddamn reality.

Aki Kaurismaki perfectly pruned-narrative might strictly revolve around the proletarians, but the deadpan irony and the absurdist streak encountered in his oeuvre is pretty similar to the cinema of Jim Jarmusch (in fact, Mr. Jarmusch has cited Kaurismaki as an influence). The two independent film-makers weave their own brand of visual poems on social alienation, the narrative unfolding amidst worn-out industrial settings (seedy apartments, dirty bars, etc.) Both Jarmusch and Kaurismaki’s characters frequently self-reflects on the ‘grass is greener’ perspective. For example, in Jarmusch’s 1984 film, Stranger than Paradise, a character quips: “You know, it's funny... you come to someplace new an'... and everything looks just the same.” In Shadows in Paradise, Ilona speaks of her aunt in America who has seen only other Finns and Donald Ducks (moreover, Ilona doesn’t feel great when she gets into that posh restaurant with another man). Such stale, misaligned conventions of utopian paradise aren’t for these no-nonsense people.

Aki Kaurismaki, unlike his kindred spirit Jim Jarmusch or the film-makers whom he revere -Ozu & Bresson - enhances his work by persistently tackling serious sociopolitical themes. He opens Shadows in Paradise by showcasing the dynamic action of two garbage men throughout the day, which he later contrasts with the stasis in their normal life outside the work place; a sequence which he later perfected in the stylistically superior opening scene of The Match Factory Girl. It also adds to the deeper sense of irony that these working-class people find meaning in labor, whereas the life outside disorients them as the etiquette to survive modern life keeps baffling them. What’s intriguing is the overbearing banality Kaurismaki displays both inside and outside the work space. Dance halls multiply anxieties and humiliation, while materialistic consumption only deepens the emptiness.

 The ‘shadow’ in the title might refer to the oppressive social stratification in capitalist societies ruining the eccentric individuals’ idea of paradise. Or maybe Kaurismaki, as usual, ironically observes how his protagonists are perceived as the ‘shadows’ haunting the fairy-tale version of the capitalist paradise.