Favorite Movie #79: The Man from Nowhere (2010)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

The Man from Nowhere (2010), dir. Lee Jeong-bom, starring Won Bin, Kim Sae-ron, Kim Hee-won, Kim Sung-oh

To Yoora and Young, who introduced me to Korean pop culture.

My first foray into Korean culture started with my two high school best friends, Yoora and Young, who were both Korean-American. I remember one time in my junior year in high school, I had to stay home the whole week after suffering an allergic reaction from eating crabs. The reaction was so bad, I was covered in hives for several days. While I stayed home to recuperate, I finally decided to take on one of the Korean dramas that my friends had been obsessing over a few months earlier: Boys Before Flowers. The show was an over-plotted hot mess with terrible haircuts, incredibly annoying but catchy music (ALMOSTTT PARADISEEEEE), and suffers from intense whiplash storytelling between the enraging Geum Jan Di (probably the one K-drama character who I absolutely loved to hate, so much so that her name is forever synonymous with terrible) and Gu Jun Pyo (the miraculous star-making performance by Lee Min Ho somehow redeemed this asshole). That last part–the whiplash plotting–is something that I have grown accustomed to and actually expect when I watch Korean TV shows or film. Going as far back as films from the 1960s or 70s, I can count on some batshit plotting in any of the Korean films I’ve watched. And since watching that seminal K-drama, I buried myself into other K-dramas (my forever favorite: My Name is Kim Sam Soon) that ultimately extended to Korean cinema, in line with my growing interest in films. Soon, I was watching films by directors like Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon Ho, Park Chan Wook, and other internationally renowned superstar directors, before I dug deeper.

The Man from Nowhere represents two things for me: one, while it may not be the most sophisticated Korean film on this list, it was my gateway to Korean mainstream film and deepened my admiration for Asian pop culture. For my money, it’s the single coolest film I’ve seen from the last decade, and one of the bloodiest, most heart-racing thrills in a genre that has an endless supply. The plot gets grimier and more convoluted as it goes, in keeping with the whiplash plotting of the industry. It also helps that the film is a bit melancholy–which is something of a running theme in East Asian films at the time–which perfectly fit my mood back then. And two, the film hit me at the peak of my angsty senior year in high school, when I was just starting to form my own identity. The film starred Won Bin, a major superstar who has not made a movie since this one came out in 2010, and in a genre that the Korean film industry loved: moody gangster action flicks. In the film, he sported emo hair that covered half his face, only to give himself a fabulous haircut later in the film (I mean if the military thing didn’t work, I argue he should have just been a hair stylist!). He was iconic to me–the epitome of coolness that I lacked, and in some ways I wanted to emulate. I suspect that this film wouldn’t have been in either of Young or Yoora’s wheelhouse, but it certainly struck a nerve with me.

The movie is a deep genre exercise and considering that it was a big hit in Korea in 2010, I still find it surprising how gruesome the film actually is. There’s violence that you see in American cinema, which sometimes feels overblown and emphasizes explosion and gun shots, and then there’s the violence you see in Korean cinema, which can be laceratingly uncomfortable. The uproar that Joker received late last year seems like a joke in comparison to the brazen coldness of The Man from Nowhere. Granted, Joker felt angrier and designed to provoke, whereas I think The Man from Nowhere was operating from a chilly, nihilistic point of view. Our main man, Cha Tae Sik is deeply scarred (physically and mentally) and the film doesn’t waste time establishing that. His one friend is a neighbor’s daughter So-mi (Kim Sae-ron), who hangs out with him against her druggie mom’s wishes, at his pawnshop. When So-mi’s mom steals a huge bag of drugs and the gangsters come to collect from her violently, Tae-sik gets caught in the crossfires. Here, the film begins exhibiting its cruel tendencies—we see So-mi’s mom get tortured with a hair curler in front of her daughter. But we also see it start to demonstrate its cool slickness—Tae-sik is a quiet man, and he takes on the lackies with such silent efficiency. There’s no bravado, there’s just practicality. As the film progresses, we see Tae-sik battle with multiple opponents, dispensing them with such speed and precision, getting injured along the way. I love that our hero isn’t infallible, although he somehow has superhero healing abilities: a weirdly graphic break from beating up gangsters, the scene where Tae-sik had a bullet pullet out of him like Sandra Bullock attempting a tracheotomy in The Heat elicited the one eye-roll from me throughout the movie. Yet the contrast between this slick mastery to the bombast of hypermasculinity that similar genre exercises on American films was a big eye-opener for me. Here, our hero is a slender figure, he’s not a beefy Batman, but his combat moves are far more impressive for their balletic grace and the film captures it with such attention to the exchange of blows, it briefly conjured Bresson doing genre. I loved watching Tae-sik take on these villains, using whatever weapon at his disposal.

As the film digs deeper into the sordid underground business of its villains, it doesn’t absolve Tae-sik as a complete angel or hero. I found his revenge on the younger of the villain brothers so thoroughly merciless it reminded me of anime films that justified such calculated violence with “the end justifies the means.” When Tae-sik is led to believe that So-mi may have been killed, he goes berserk, unleashing his final justice on this glorious A Space Odyssey-like set against his own set of Crazy 88s. Here, the film’s choreography of camera, lighting, and stunt work coalesce to give us a stunning chaotic scene that rivals Tarantino’s own vision: each attack leading to another, so neatly edited, and perfectly in sync with this score that signals a man who has hit the rock-bottom of his internal anguish. In simpler words: it was beautiful.

The Man from Nowhere gets goopy at times, as it touches on Tae-sik’s backstory, but even then, the film finds a way to be unforgiving to its hero. Yet this backstory underpins the melancholy that runs through the movie. And the movie is so rancid, so caught up in its frightening vision of Korea, that I can’t imagine a movie like this be a huge hit in America. Even films like Atomic Blonde or John Wick or Red Sparrow bear similarities to this flick, but they’re uneven. Atomic Blonde is hella cool though and I adore Charlize Theron as a badass. But Atomic Blonde kinda evaporates after the first watch. John Wick is super cool and stylish, but I don’t think it reaches the heights of The Man from Nowhere, and Red Sparrow is just depressingly dull. While I don’t know if another movie can rival The Man from Nowhere in terms of its cool detach, I can take comfort in knowing that this movie exists, and that I can watch its badassery again and again.

Favorite Movie #80: Gosford Park (2001)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Gosford Park

Gosford Park (2001), dir. Robert Altman, starring Eileen Atkins, Bob Balaban, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emily Watson

The first time I watched Gosford Park, I didn’t quite get it. The movie has so many characters, so many different interconnected storylines, and so many scene stealers to keep track of, it was hard to catch everything at first sight. Of course that didn’t deter me from loving it. If anything, it made my love for the movie even deeper. It’s the kind of movie that improves upon rewatch, mostly because you never get bored watching a film with so many full etched characters, who do interesting things even on the sidelines. Try watching the film multiple times, and train your eye on one or two characters (one upstairs, one downstairs) each time. You’ll be amazed at how much these actors do with such little screentime. But focusing on only one character at a time makes you miss the big picture–and when taken as a whole, Gosford Park is an impressively sustained whodunnit mystery, one made more absorbing by the interplay of class dynamics, family drama, and good old fashioned romance served with a side of witty comedy of manners. Agatha Christie would kill to have written such a perfect story. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes will go on to write Downton Abbey, another upstairs/downstairs drama that hues closely to the template he develops here. And as charming, and as funny, and as complex as the script’s structure is, I suspect the movie owes a lot of its success to director Robert Altman’s impeccable direction.

Robert Altman was a genius who made movies with intricate sound mixes that included overlapping conversations and incisive camera work that captured a community and its environment. Gosford Park is a stellar exemplar of Altman’s style. The movie’s script is so juicy with witty dialogue and rich detail about each individual’s past. Characters drop pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in conversation, without signaling any importance to their words. Yet somehow, their words, how they say it, and who they say it to imparts a lot of history and meaning to relationships in the film. This is most clear with Helen Mirren’s Mrs. Wilson, the “perfect servant,” whose subtle reactions to Clive Owen’s Parks and Eileen Atkins’ Mrs. Croft, while seemingly minor, lead to shocking revelations below. Meanwhile, Countess of Trentham’s relationship with her lady’s maid is a gift to viewers. The chemistry and repartee between Maggie Smith’s snooty yet cheap grand dame and Kelly Macdonald’s smart Mary is an absolute joy to watch as is her sisterly bond with Emily Watson’s head maid, Elsie. Meanwhile, Ryan Philippe’s obviously fake accent is brilliantly utilized to inject some comedy and sex appeal to the story, while there’s plenty of flinty women dealing with problematic husbands upstairs, and male servants hiding deeply held secrets of their own downstairs. In short, Altman’s craft feels so heavily invested in every character, giving each actor space to fill in the blanks for their characters, even when the script doesn’t privilege their stories. 

The characters themselves are so richly entertaining and detailed that it’s hard to focus on the story, although I appreciate that plot details and contextual detail get dropped without pomp. Rather, each detail is organically woven in. The story is framed around five meals: two dinners, two breakfasts, and one lunch outside. Here, they have However, when the A-plot around William does begin to turn, it does so in a surprisingly quiet way. The centerpiece of the film is the grand dinner after the shooting. This is when a few plot items coalesce: Elsie inadvertently reveals her affair with Bill (in the simplest way possible: calling William “Bill”–loved that!) and that Bill is revealed to be a war profiteer. Once the upstairs crowd go into the drawing room, and Ivor Novello starts to play “The Land of Make Believe,” we’re lulled into a false sense of security and the most beautiful thing happened: the servants, all hiding behind doors or around corridors, listen in to Novello’s piano-playing, getting lost in dancing or their merriment. I loved watching Maggie Smith’s Countess of Trentham just turn her nose up at Ivor or Mabel Nesbitt with some well-targeted barbs. Watching the general loveliness of these scenes make me feel very mellow and I admit to smiling incessantly the whole way through until the critical moment when the movie turns into an Agatha Christie film that it promised to be. From there, the film reveals more truths that it had been building towards over the course of the film. 

Gosford Park is a grand time at the movies–a loving tribute to character-based storytelling that focuses more on having good characters than engineering a complex plot. Watching movie stars as big as Smith, Mirren, or Philippe disappear into a cast to the point of near-anonymity (though of course not since they are very magnetic), is not only impressive from a filmmaking standpoint, but is also quietly beautiful showcase for talents who we may not necessarily recognize in our movies.

Favorite Movie #81: Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal (2006), dir. Richard Eyre, starring Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson

Here, we finally get a movie that I think is pretty trashy but it’s dressed up as prestige cinema on the strength of its fantastic lead actress, its Philip Glass score, and a juicy screenplay. Notes on a Scandal, as conceptualized by its makers, is movie where a bitter old lesbian preys and ultimately destroys a woman and her family. Yes, Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) slept with her student, but in this movie, it functions as the B plot to Dench’s Barbara Covett and her burgeoning relationship with Sheba. In fact, what makes the movie so engrossing is how well it portrays the depths of Barbara’s loneliness and desires as a contrast to Sheba’s own destructive behavior. Glass’s score, meanwhile, plays like a horror symphony, starting with those opening low notes, setting up an insidious tone that matches Dench’s phenomenal voice-over. For me, one of my most favorite things about the movies is watching evidently very talented actresses chew scenery. Here, Dench gives one of my most favorite movie performances ever, devouring whole scenes altogether.

Notes on a Scandal is an adaption of a novel that takes its cue from the Mary Kay LeTorneau story involving LeTorneau carrying an affair with her 12-year old student, eventually getting pregnant before spending some time in prison. Dench plays Barbara Covett, a no-nonsense history teacher nearing retirement in a public school in London. She isn’t well-liked by the staff or the students, but she is highly authoritative. Barbara takes interest in new Art teacher Sheba Hart, played by Blanchett, who she befriends after helping her resolve a fight between two students. One night, Barbara catches Sheba having a sexual affair with one of her students Steven Connolly (Andrew Simpson), and agrees to protect her secret on the promise that she ends the affair. Things escalate as Sheba continues the affair and this goes public, resulting in Sheba’s eventual imprisonment and Barbara’s early retirement.

The movie never has a dull moment, mostly because one way or another, whether the script, the music, or the actors keep the scenes at a heightened pitch as if they’re all scared that a moment of peace will disengage audiences. As Sheba, Blanchett is particularly at a loss playing a character whose motives or desires are unclear. Blanchett doesn’t really try to examine or explain why Sheba does the things she does–she’s like a tic machine, permanently agitated or uncomfortable with the environment, as if she had a chip on her shoulder, and as if she’s playing into how Barbara sees her. I don’t even believe the marriage she has with Bill Nighy, or that she raised those two kids. It all feels superficial, like she’s playing character notes. Yet as much as a black hole as she is in this movie, Judi Dench has always been the chief selling point. And boy, is she just spectacular.

The framing device of the movie is built around Barbara’s meticulous journals, which serve as the material for the voice-over. These voice-overs are incredibly catty, vicious, sometimes insidious, and sometimes lonely and depressed. They also make excellent use of Dench’s magnificently authoritative oratory, honed for the theater, but not losing one ounce of its strength in film. Dench’s line reading are immaculate: “People have always entrusted me with their secrets, but who do I entrust with mine? You, only you.” opens the movie’s chilly first passages. “They flock to her, even limp, little Brian had a go. Oh the horror” just oozes with contempt and disgust and combined with Dench’s judgmental face, makes for a killer line. “I’ve always known we would be friends,” sounds like Barbara deluding herself (this after initially judging Sheba to be simple, naive, or trying too hard to play cool). “One makes an effort when one receives an invitation,” shows Barbara’s blissful reaction to being invited to lunch at Sheba’s home. All of these lines are just narration, but they already feel like a full-blown performance worthy of awards.

But really what makes Dench’s performance so incredible is that she taps into this woman’s bitter loneliness with such precision. She’s isolated, permanently gloomy, and emanates a rigid force field that keeps colleagues away. She’s as contemptuous of the students as she is of the school administrators and faculty members that she deal with everyday. All of these feel like defense mechanisms, as if to hide her bitter status as an aging lesbian. Many movies have made a trope of the old lesbian, obsessive and possessive, who destroys the heroes in a film (think Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca). Here, Dench plays a bit into that stereotype, but grounds it in extreme loneliness. I adored watching Barbara be so glee-ridden at the thought of receiving an invite from Sheba to dine at her house, going so far as to get her hair done and buy new clothes. I also enjoy seeing Barbara scowl as a colleague tries to steal Sheba’s attention with her pregnancy news. Dench is fantastic at hinting at a past relationship that went sour, playing enough notes that the audience knows she’s omitting facts in both voice-over and in her life. That key scene with her sister, reveals her desire for companionship, and it’s subtly heartbreaking to see this old lady talk about how much she wants to be in love and be loved until the end. Dench is also magnificent at portraying grief. Nothing was as heartbreaking as watching Barbara be consumed by her all-encompassing grief as she buried her dear cat, or the incredible betrayal she feels when Sheba refuses to accompany her in her grief, especially in lieu of Sheba’s family. But I also loved watching Barbara manipulate, as she does in a pivotal scene where she details Sheba’s affair to a male colleague.

Then, we get to the climactic showdown between Sheba and Barbara. Every great gorgon movies have one of these. After being kicked out of her home, Sheba stays at Barbara’s house where she finds evidence from Barbara’s journal that reveal Barbara’s complicity in putting Sheba behind bars. It’s weird to me that Sheba thinks she has a leg to stand on, uttering the ridiculous accusation: “You put me in jail, I could get two years!” But even here, Barbara lays the law down: “Take some responsibility! I gave you EXACTLY what you wanted” (probably my favorite line reading in this entire movie!). I think she gets at what makes Barbara tic so magnificently, even as it disappears right in front of her. This culminates in the clean-up scene, where some clarifications from Sheba eroded what their one-sided relationship has meant. Barbara, again, finds herself cleaning up the mess and starting over. This carries on to the ending, a scene straight out of All About Eve where a new girl enters the picture.

I don’t think we’ll get to see Dench have a movie role this juicy once again. But for what it’s worth, Dench practically immortalizes herself, at least to this cinema fan, with this movie. Notes on a Scandal is trashy, but it knows that. It plays into its old bitter lesbian tropes and thankfully, Dench redeems the character and movie by playing into Barbara’s desperate loneliness.

Favorite Movie #82: Sister Act (1992)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Sister Act

Sister Act (1992), dir. Emile Ardolino, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Harvey Keitel

Ever watched the famous prison cell video in Cebu, where the prisoners danced to “I Will Follow Him” in one of the earliest viral moments of the YouTube age? There is something so beautifully perfect about it because of all the ironic things about the video: in very Catholic Philippines, a large throng of prisoners perform this pop song about an obsessive girl absolutely devoted to the man in her life-turned semi-hymnal ode to God, made famous by the Sister Act movie — wherein Whoopi Goldberg impersonates a nun as part of the Witness Protection Program. The movie was a huge hit in the Philippines, of course, its gospel and soul-inflected take on hymns a vital source of its enduring popularity in the country. To me, the movie is great big fun and a lovely showcase for the delightful Whoopi Goldberg–a once in a generation movie star.

If you take a tiny slice of the time between 1990 and 1994, Whoopi Goldberg was one of the biggest movie stars. She started out as a stand-up comic, who then translated her onstage hilarity for an Oscar-nominated performance in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s seminal The Color Purple. The movie made a star out of Goldberg, who gave a titanic performance as Celie. After that year, Goldberg starred in several movies that really didn’t make a huge dent on the box office. It wasn’t until 1990, when she starred in Ghost as Oda Mae Brown and subsequently won an Oscar for it, did she became a major star. Her line reading “Molly, you in danger girl” still ranks among my favorite line readings ever. Yet, when she starred in Sister Act, she became an icon. Hosting the Oscars since then and starring in The View made her a constant star, one that’s firmly in the Hollywood firmament and the public conscience. But for me, Sister Act was the best thing Goldberg ever made and one of my most favorite comfort movies.

Sister Act stars Whoopi as Deloris, a lounge singer at a Reno casino of her mobster boyfriend Vince (Harvey Keitel). When she walks in on a murder perpetuated by Vince and his hooligans, Deloris flees for her life to the police who places her in the care of a convent under the supervision of strict Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith, perfectly playing variations of toughness). There she takes the name of Sister Mary Clarence, and adjusts slowly to the convent life, striking up a friendship with several of the nuns, and is given the opportunity to lead the choir. Her tutelage of the choir nuns garnered enough popularity among the local community that people start returning to church. Meanwhile, Vince’s hooligans find Deloris and returns her to Reno, while the rest of the nuns try to rescue her. The film ends in a rousing rendition of “I Will Follow Him” to a large audience, including the Pope.

When I lived in the Philippines, I went to a Catholic school called the Mother Divine Providence School, run by the Angelican Sisters of St. Paul. Some of my teachers were nuns, some of whom have been the kindest, most generous human beings I’ve known. Of course, not all nuns were the same. We had strict nuns like Sr. Flor, who served as principal; we had Sr. Ruby, a lovely, gentle lady, who served as Director with characteristic maternal warmth. We had my Music Teacher and also my Math Teacher, Sr. Guada, a tall nun who reminds me of Bea Arthur, if she were a nun–she was tart, sarcastic, and her temper sometimes short, but hilarious. I always viewed the nuns with loving, albeit remote respect. The convent knew about my mother working in the US, and had been generous to my siblings and I, by excusing us in the middle of class to take a long-distance phone call from our mother. They always just watched out for us in ways that I don’t even really understand. Still, despite their warmth and generosity, I’ve never really seen them beyond people who pray and teach. I wasn’t very privy to their thoughts or feelings back then. Sister Act reminds me of those nuns and how the live.

The movie is absolutely delightful from start to finish. For starters, the movie looks great: there’s a lot of good-looking shots in the film, far more than what you would think in a movie like this. Then the film mines o much humor from watching people treat nuns so deferentially. Several key scenes always highlight the innate religiosity of people for humorous purposes. Whoopi in a habit escapes to a biker bar across the street from the convent for instance where she takes advantage of her holy costume to get a seat at the bar. In another scene, the nuns led by Reverend Mother follows a helicopter pilot who’s charging them a lot of money (as he should) to fly them to Reno. To get him to agree, the nuns pray ridiculous things like “hope he doesn’t lose his hair,” etc. to score a ride. Then of course there are the scenes at the casino, where the hooligans won’t shoot at Mary Clarence because her outfit makes her look like a nun, and the two Italian mobsters are finally too Catholic to hurt her. The tension from watching people treat nuns differently is hilarious. It’s also funny to see nuns be portrayed like regular folks, with the same desires, like sneaking in ice cream as a treat or playing an old favorite on the jukebox. I also appreciate how the film portrays the bond between the nuns and the innate kindness that they have shown towards Sr. Mary Clarence, who come across as bratty. Even the Mother Reverend doesn’t feel one-dimensional. Smith plays her tough concern as a mix of genuine concern and insecurity about her outmoded style or beliefs. It’s a quietly perfect performance, that resonates quite nicely toward the end.

Besides the comedy, I absolutely adore the music of this film. My favorite moments are always the scenes related to the music–the first choir practice Sr. Mary Clarence attends for instance, is a tribute to what great ensemble comedies can look and sound like when everyone is in sync. Whoopi Goldberg is brilliant in these moments–warm and patient, and believable as an instructor. I love seeing her overexcitedly conduct the choir for “Hail Holy Queen” with her butt in the air as she gets into the groove. I love the showmanship she displays when she joins the choir in singing, playing up Deloris’s desire for celebrity, even if it’s in a habit. That song is actually so good that it attracts the attention of kids from the rough neighborhood (which is hilarious in its own way, but I’ll allow that wish fulfillment!). Whoopi is also just so darn charismatic, a true magnetic force onscreen. She even somehow makes the choir version of “My Man” (the weirdest song in the movie) a fun, yet still credibly gospel, variation of the one she sings at the beginning of the film. The peak of course is “I Will Follow Him”, which is rousing and beautifully arranged, that it’s understandably popular. Combined with the swooping camera and the elegant way it moves before the climax of the song hits, it all sound and look simultaneously fun and worshipful! 

 

Favorite Movie #83: Chungking Express (1994)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

chungking

Chungking Express (1994), dir. Wong Kar-wai, starring Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung, Faye Wong.

First of all: that opening scene. When I first saw it, I was disoriented by the splash of color and the speed at which our character is moving through the neon colors of the city lights. Accompanied by Michael Gallasso’s eerie and mysterious “Baroque, it really made you sit at attention. Secondly, Takeshi Kaneshiro is a very handsome man–impossibly perfect, actually. His boyish charm is on full display, going through various stages of boredom, heartbreak, and the act of being smitten. Lastly, the mysterious woman in a blond wig, trench coat, and sunglasses. I’ve never seen someone so effortlessly cool before – a Godard character in an Asian film. All of this within the first 5 minutes of this incredibly beautiful film.

Chungking Express was not my first foray into Wong’s filmography, but it certainly crystallized everything I adored about Wong. His cinema is kinetic and full of life–colors that tell a story or evokes a mood; his camera always moving and restless, as if caught up in the visual splendor of the images it’s capturing; and editing so quick and sharp, like an action flick without the action. Wong also has a splendid ear for music, arranging some of the best film soundtracks in the last thirty years. . Of course, not all Wong films resemble each other, but they do have the common knack for treating characters like objects or symbols. Chungking Express stays true to this idea–Characters feel more like objects to admire, film tropes come to life in order to serve an auteur style or to make a statement, than actual thinking, feeling humans. A student of the French new wave, Wong’s films felt so refreshingly alive but self-consciously made. While I never felt attached to the films of the French New Wave, Wong’s films spoke to me in a way that never felt true about his French filmmaking heroes. Because for all its outright posturing and heavily stylized look and characters, Chungking is endlessly charming and has the warmth and joy that I felt was missing from the earlier films.

The movie actually tells two stories, connected by their location around a night market restaurant. The first focuses on a police cop played by Kaneshiro, who heartbroken by his break up with his girlfriend, tries to hold on to her by buying a can of pineapples with an expiration date of May 1, his deadline before he decides to let go. On May 1, he goes out and meets Brigitte Lin’s mystery girl at a bar, where they spark a conversation. Lin’s mystery girl is a drug pusher trying to survive a few close calls with death after being double-crossed. The plot never really clears this up, and so we kinda follow these two characters as they ponder what’s happening in their lives in voice-over.  But I don’t think Wong was really interested in storytelling here, but rather in evoking a mood.

The first section of the film feels romantic even if the romance between the two never really goes anywhere beyond a simmer. Our cop and the mystery woman has a lovely conversation with ample cute references to pineapples, before they move to a hotel. The funny thing is that Lin’s mystery girl is too exhausted that she just passes out, while our cop just watches movies and eat chef salads (and a burger!). Then, morning arrives and our cop friend leaves, but not before taking off her shoes and cleaning them with his necktie.  The connection these two characters had, however brief, felt like a jolt of electricity. I think the tension comes from watching the Mystery Girl basically run for her life, fighting off gangsters, throughout the whole movie, only to find herself slumping on our cop friend’s shoulder at a bar at night, while Dennis Brown’s “Things in Life” play in the background.  I just adore the playfulness of this film, shifting from the rush and thrill of the Mystery Girl to the melancholy of the cop friend. It maintains an unusually lovely tone, made even lovelier by the fleeting nature that the first film’s ending imparts: the next day, the mystery girl leaves a “Happy Birthday” note to our cop friend, who in voice-over, says he’ll remember her forever. That’s as true for him as it is for me. In one line, I understood what made the whole first section special, one perfect shot, the perfect song that encapsulates this moment, and two people just finding comfort in one another after a long exhausting day.

Meanwhile, the second film feels like a glorious romance, aided by two key songs: “California Dreamin” by the Mamas and the Papas and “Dreams” by the Cranberries/Faye Wong. Both songs when mixed with Wong’s woozy images and collage-like editing, makes for a dreamy film. Both songs also handily tells the story of our girl, Faye (Faye Wong). Faye ranks among my favorite characters on film ever: cheery, quirky, but with a sense of her own desires and dreams (let’s not mistake her for a manic pixie dream girl–this is more her story than his). She falls in love with Cop 663 (Tony Leung), who had just recently been dumped by his flight attendant girl friend. To cheer him up, Faye secretly cleans and redecorates his house while jamming to the Cranberries’ song. When Cop 663 catches her one day (with a goldfish bowl–in a cute scene), he gets the nerve to ask her out to a date, only to find that Faye left for California, leaving a bar napkin with a scrawl of a boarding pass. Faye returns one year later as a flight attendant to find Cop 663 now owning the snack bar integral to both stories, and find the spark still there. I absolutely love seeing Tony Leung fall in love and be smitten with Faye. Meanwhile, watching Faye jam to music while cleaning is me on a Sunday afternoon. But I think there’s something incredibly moving about listening to Tony Leung’s voiceover, talking about his ex-girlfriend, or running into her at the convenience store, or playing around with a toy airplane in his underwear on the bed. These moments of melancholy, and Leung’s face is so magnificently expressive even when doing very little, lend such gravity to that ending, when Faye asks where he would want to go, and he says “Wherever you will take me.”

With Chungking Express, Wong has fashioned so many indelible scenes that linger in your memory. It helps that his movies are incredibly sensory–there’s attention to the music, as evidenced by the perfectly selected songs that not only evoke atmosphere but also neatly tells the stories Wong is depicting. His shots are so beautiful because they emphasize the dreaminess of the stories he’s telling. I can’t forget Takeshi Kaneshiro eating a pineapple so sadly, just as much as I can’t forget Faye Wong hiding from the window of Cop 663’s house so he won’t see her. Yes, the stories to me feel rather thin, but the genius lies in how Wong can make such small moments feel so memorable and romantic that they etch themselves in my mind forever. 

Favorite Movie #84: The Ring (2002)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

The Ring

The Ring (2002), dir. Gore Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, Brian Cox

Every person in the world probably has one horror movie that is viscerally implanted in their mind, and that has affected them in such a profoundly unsettling way that the thought of watching it again conjures all the feelings and emotions they felt when they first saw it. Through all the horror films I’ve seen, none are scarier to me than the American version of The Ring. As I noted on the my write-up for Audition, J-horror films became a mini-phenomenon during the early aughts, and The Ring was the most successful of them. Compared with the Japanese version, Verbinski’s remake is far less ghoulish and horrifying, but at the same time, it retains the original’s atmospheric terror. It helps that Verbinksi’s color scheme–a cold, placid perma-gray version of the Northwest, gives the film its nightmarish appeal. It also helps that the film, unlike the original, grounds its terrors in human psychology. But the movie feels personal to me–a terrifying reminder about the period in my life before I moved to the US.

The first time I saw the film was sometime in late 2002 or early 2003 with what I assume is a bootleg copy of the film with my siblings. I would go on to see the movie again later in March 2003. On both occasions, I was absolutely terrified. The first time I saw the film, I didn’t think about what it was I was watching, so I wasn’t prepared for the terror that it inflicted upon me. There was just something spectacularly terrifying about two simple household objects coming to life: one, the telephone ringing, which announces the person’s imminent death in 7 days; and two, the television sparking to life with feedback until you see a vision of the well and a girl coming out of it and of the screen. While I understood most of the plot of the film, I don’t think I picked up all of the nuances of the film until I was older (Anna’s depression; Noah’s relationship with Rachel; Samara’s background as an adopted child). But the film’s effect on me was immediate: I was so paranoid about Samara coming for me that I refused to go near a television screen for months (my dad was probably happy that I didn’t waste my time on TV) while the sound of ringing phones made my heart jump. But those two things were minor compared to the day-to-day fear that enveloped me. I remember for two months, I was in a state of malaise–everything around me felt incredibly sad or worrisome. I have a memory of going to a weekend Math school at DEECO and finding myself unsettled, like I had something in the pit of my stomach that made my body feel sluggish or my heart just race for no reason at all. It was like that all the time, that even the most basic activities made me fret with anxiety. For example, listening to music made me nervous. I didn’t know why at the time, but I developed anxiety listening to two songs that I now associate with that period of my life: Lose Yourself by Eminem and Dilemma by Nelly and Kelly Rowland. Both songs were big hits in the Philippines, and my fear of touching the television screen or radio kept me from changing the channels. Since those songs received constant airplay, my body would instinctively become numb whenever the melodies would kick in (today, they’re actually two of my favorite songs ever). It was the oddest moment of my life–I was just nervous about everything. I didn’t probably connect the dots yet, but considering that my life was about to change then–my family was scheduled to leave for the US in April 2003–the malaise I felt was probably my internal reaction to the terror of making such a permanent leave.

The second time I saw the film was memorable for how bizarre the viewing experience was. It was very late on a weekend, all my siblings and my dad were piled together in the living room with mattresses on the ground watching the movie. I remember feeling uncertain and unexcited about watching it a second time, but as the youngest kid, I didn’t have much of a say. As the film approached its climax, where Rachel (Naomi Watts) arrived at the cabin where the well was located, a sudden knock on our front door freaked all of us out of the moment, like a real-life jump scare. The knock and the dog barking were well-timed with the movie’s rhythm–a real life interruption, akin to a ringing telephone, and felt straight out of a horror film playbook. My dad’s secretary was at the door and she called my Dad for an emergency–apparently one of my dad’s trucks fell sideways on the uphill towards our house. It was the most bizarre moment in my memory–how on earth does a truck tip over sideways? As a kid (and even now, as an adult) I don’t quite understand how that was physically possible.  But at the time, my mind went straight to thinking that the movie was haunted. Here we are watching this movie that talks about a haunted videotape and we see a real-life bizarre incident take place just as we were watching the movie. Since then, my mind grew wearier of the film and paranoid that somehow I would get struck down.

It wasn’t until I saw Scary Movie 3 sometime later in 2003, already settling into life in the US, where The Ring played a prominent part of the parody, did I start to feel better about the film. Watching the sheer ridiculousness of the strange kid who draws endless circles, or Cindy answering the phone and trying to negotiate a longer term for her death (laughing about the MLK holiday joke), or a girl with all her straight black hair covering her face, coming out of a television only to be punched by Brenda, it made the film less human, and something like a huge stupid joke. Scary Movie 3 also made the 8 Mile movie a comedy that made me less fearful of Lose Yourself. The film also coincided with my growing appreciation of life in the US, which made me feel better about life in general. Scary Movie 3 helped quite a bit in making me feel comfortable with approaching the movie.

Looking back on the film and that specific time of my life, The Ring summed up the dread I felt and uncertainty about the future of my life–the first time I ever felt fearful of the day-to-day; the terror of everyday living. I felt unnerved by the movie just as I was unnerved by suddenly packing up and leaving the only home I’ve known for a new country. I felt fearful of this gloomy America that the film portrayed just as I felt unsure about this new country I’m moving to. And the anxiety that the movie induced through its disquieting spaces (Rachel’s house, Noah’s house, the cabin, the barn) made me uncomfortable in my own space and in every space I entered. For two months in my life, I felt the terror of leaving the country and uprooting myself, but without really thinking out loud that fear or even really understanding why I was unfathomably sad or nervous. The Ring therefore represented the end of an era for me, and literalized the unbearable sadness and discomfort I felt about immigrating. It was the last movie that became embedded in my brain before I left the country and became the relic of that moment when I first thought my life was over.

Favorite Movies #85 Inside Job (2010) & The Queen of Versailles (2012)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Inside Job (2010), dir. Charles Ferguson, documentary on the 2008 financial crisis.

inside-job

The Queen of Versailles (2012), dir. Lauren Greenfield, documentary on Jacqueline and David Siegel and the effect of the 2008 financial crisis on Westgate Resorts

queen of versailles

I still remember the very moment on September 15, 2008 when I heard the news report of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy. My Global History Teacher, Mr. Thomas, was buzzed about it, taking a momentary interlude from his lecture to discuss the magnitude and scale of the moment. For weeks before that morning, it didn’t quite sink in to me what was about to happen, mostly because I was isolated from it all. My sophomore year in high school, I was living practically alone in my apartment, except for two housemates who were acquaintances of my mom that left before 7 am and came home after 9 pm. My sister had moved in with her boyfriend in Brooklyn, and my mother worked in Maryland as a teacher. It was an odd living arrangement but we made the best of it. The economy was also riding high at that point, and my mom benefited from it. My mom had taught in Bronx and Harlem schools for the past 10 years at the time, before she got a well-paying teaching job in Maryland, where her employer paid for her to go graduate school, all expenses included, at Johns Hopkins University. Part of what led my mom to Maryland was because Prince George County was hiring a lot of foreign teachers, many from the Philippines, sponsored their visas, and paid them good salaries to teach in the U.S. I opted not to move down with her to Maryland, thinking what a terrible idea it would have been to be anywhere but New York City. So I stayed. Although I was often alone at home, it felt alright, as if there was nothing to worry about.

But when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the subsequent financial crisis broke out, I was acutely aware of how big of a deal that event was. The 2008 U.S. financial crisis became the first big historical moment in my life that struck a chord with me. A lot of people lost their jobs, lost their homes, and had their whole lives effectively destroyed, because a few people thought they ought to be richer than the rest. My uncle in California almost lost his home to foreclosure, had my dying grandmother not save his house by taking an early withdrawal from her insurance policy. Meanwhile, my mom’s many Filipino friends, some who were brought over from the Philippines, found themselves jobless and therefore without any visas. In just two years, their world crashed from the highs of teaching in public schools to trying to find a gig as a tutor or a nursery aid. They went from being within reach of the American dream to becoming undocumented immigrants. My mom was spared by the great fortune of having a green card already, but many of her friends ended up returning to the Philippines. But it was the first time, I felt the value of a green card and the sad, desperate attempts that people make in order to acquire one. This financial crisis also felt like the first time I became heavily invested in the news and I followed it religiously. It also led me to pursue my undergraduate degree in Economics. Judging by what’s happening now, it’s not unreasonable to think that the world is facing something similar again.

The very first film that I watched about the 2008 financial crisis was Inside Job. At the time, I was a senior in High School learning about the crisis in my Economics class. The movie is a perfect essay on the whats and hows of the 2008 crisis–the real who’s who of the finance world were part of the talking heads that detailed the emergence of the crisis and the analysis of what led us there. There were also a few surprise guests from the Bush administration, the Columbia University dean, and others who were flustered by the tough questions the interviewer asked. Seeing Frederic Mishkin, who wrote the Economics textbook I had in college, get visibly upset by the interrogation was a brilliant scene that shows the fallibility of economists.  Those were the best moments of the film because they fed into the righteous anger of the film directed at everyone from the government, to the Wall Street bankers, to the university professors who educate the new grifters on Wall Street. In between the excessive flourishes of the soundtrack, the bitter score,  and the clever editing, there’s a real palpable fury and lament to the way we encounter facts and details. Inside Job focuses its gaze on Wall Street people, insisting on looking at it from a top-level perspective rather than the millions of people who suffered from it. But it’s clear-eyed view of capitalism as a vulture is incredibly entertaining: political fury as adrenaline rush.

Whereas Inside Job looked at the crisis from the top down, The Queen of Versailles looks at the financial crisis from somewhere in the middle. The movie title refers to Jacqueline Siegel, a former beauty pageant queen who married David Siegel, a billionaire who owns the Westgate Resorts, the largest timeshare company. The film revolves around the couple as they build the largest house in America that’s worth somewhere north of $50 million. The movie catches them right as the crisis unfolded. As a documentary, Versailles is fortunate to have a character as memorable as Jacqueline–her humble beginnings, her folksy sorta white-trash qualities (her love of McDonalds is something else), and the funny and somewhat tragic interactions she have with her husband and their numerous offsprings make her a fascinating subject for a documentary and a perfect reality TV star. People always say that the super-rich have terrible taste, and Jackie and David certainly have bad taste, whether in outfits, pets, or just habits. Both Jackie and David are the perfect people to explore the effects of the financial crisis. The movie brilliantly captures the real-life erosion of a couple’s marriage, as David drowns in work to figure out a way out of the mess. Meanwhile, his wife is struggling to keep the same level of comfort in her house, but the signs of the effect are there: her kids are now going to public school, they have fewer servants at parties, and a housekeeper has to remind her constantly of her budget. It’s riveting to see and a little sad actually to watch their life kinda fall apart. You can imagine then how much worse it is for people who don’t have the luxury or wealth that these people had. I think my favorite character outside of Jackie is her niece, who Jackie rescued from homelessness and poverty. The film portrays her as just as spoiled and rotten as her other cousins but when edited together with her saying things like “I don’t want to lose my old self,” it’s rather comical.

Both of these movies are my favorite about the 2008 recession and my two favorite documentaries to re-watch. One doesn’t really think that documentaries are re-watchable or that they are entertaining, but these films are both pure joys. Inside Job is a clear-eyed documentary on the events that brought the financial world tumbling down while The Queen of Versailles is a movie on the effects of the recession. Both films capture the vanity and vulture-like qualities of capitalism. Both are entertaining narratives, one is a snappy, clever angry film, the other a reality TV docudrama with plenty of comedy.

 

Favorite Movie #86: A Letter to Three Wives (1949)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

A letter to 3 wives

A Letter to Three Wives (1949), dir. Joseph Mankiewicz, starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, Thelma Ritter

When people think of movies from the 1940s or 1950s, they probably think about a handful of movie genres like film noir, dark and stylish films where men brood and women connive;  musicals, colorful escapism filled with tuneful songs and athletic choreography; or westerns, movies with brooding men chasing away the Native Americans out of the West. For me though, when I think about that film era, I think the most about the so-called “women’s pictures.” These movies portray the complex domestic lives of women, full of frank discussions about their shifting roles and expectation within the family and within society. Sometimes these movies are dismissively referred as melodrama, probably because they often feature soaring symphonies tied to huge displays of emotional outbursts. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to them: I’m a big sucker for films with deep reserve of feeling, featuring people who process complex emotions that many people can relate to. It’s also unfair to think of women’s films as just dramatic vehicles. There are plenty of funny movies that belong in this genre. One such movie is this favorite classic of mine.

A Letter To Three Wives is a three-part movie that tells the story of three friends who receive a letter from an unseen Addie Ross, who has just informed them that she had left town with one of their husbands. Throughout the day, the three wives wonder whether it’s their husband who leaves with Addie, reflecting on a moment in their own marriages that may explain why their husbands may leave. For Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain), she thinks about meeting her husband Brad’s (Jeffrey Lynn) friends for the first time after returning from their time in the Navy during the War. Deborah grew up in a farm and is insecure about being too rustic and unappealingly tacky to Brad’s friends. Second wife Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern) is a radio show writer, who earns more money than her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a university teacher. Rita reminisces about a dinner she threw with her boss and her husband that goes awry, leading to an argument with her husband. Last wife Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) remembers her dates with husband Porter (Paul Douglas), who she worked for at one of his department stores. Lora Mae comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”, literally living next to the railway, as she tried to “play” Porter into marrying her. In each of these three mini-films, Addie Ross factors heavily without making a single appearance.

Joseph Mankiewicz’s script is a perfect distillation of American society in the post-war era. It richly examine the changing roles of women, especially with respect to dynamics with men as well as how classism shades daily life. The film is also startlingly honest when depicting middle class marriage, painting a complete picture of the insecurities, jealousy, and the discontent that comes with it. Although it may sound like a very heavy movie, the most astonishing thing about A Letter to Three Wives is that it’s very light on its feet. The movie has enough jokes and witticisms to qualify as a comedy and the film successfully slips through tones easily. A Letter to Three Wives is a nearly perfect film, but if I were to dispense one criticism, it’s that Jeanne Crain isn’t very good in her role as one of the titular wives. She’s often overacting or as if she’s rehearsing her lines. She nearly deflates the whole first third of the film, saved by the brilliant script and her better colleagues. Besides that one negative thing, everything else in the movie is fantastic, starting with that funny opening line: “To begin with, all the incidents and characters in this story might be fictitious and any resemblance to you or me might be purely coincidental.” The narrator is Addie Ross, voiced by the wonderfully tart and catty Celeste Holm, and utters this odd statement with bemusement, as if trying to relate to an unknown audience. Addie infiltrates every story–the object of the men’s affections and the women’s envy. Her role is more complicated than just a supposed homewrecker–she stands in as the archetype of the ideal woman for each man: for Brad, she’s the childhood sweetheart who draws everyone with her effortless magnetism; for George, she’s the thoughtful, intelligent friend who remembers his birthday; and for Porter, she epitomizes class and the one that got away. On the other hand, each woman compares themselves to Addie, and finds themselves wanting: Deborah is ill-fitting and too self-conscious; Rita thinks her husband doesn’t find her commercial writing for radio intellectual; and Lora Mae thinks her husband just wants her for her looks and youth.

Of the three couple, my favorite is George and Rita, mostly because their marriage feels the most lived-in and the most stable. Their scenes are also the funniest, wittiest, and most thought-provoking of the three. Rita is definitely the breadwinner of the household, a fact that admittedly hurts George’s pride. After all, we’ve seen elsewhere in the movie what people in this town think as uttered by Porter: men are strong, women are weak, and men should be providing for women. Even among men, that seemed catty for Porter, knowing too well George and Rita’s situation. Nevertheless, George is satisfied with their life: George gets to keep doing the kind of work he loves (and listening to him talk about how he loves teaching is gushworthy! Kirk Douglas has never charmed me as much as he does here), and Rita gets to work and engage in something she likes while providing enough money to live a comfortable suburban life. It’s also very clear that George values authenticity and being true to himself over everything else. However, despite their evident affection for each other, George and Rita still stumble over the subject, which comes out in the worst ways over dinner with Rita’s boss–this daffy walking commercial and her husband. Prior to their guests’ arrival, George returns with alcohol but foregoes purchasing a Scotch, arguing that it’s too extravagant, and Rita lands a low blow, saying it’s not like he was paying with his money. It definitely sours George enough to call Rita out on her pretentious dinner to impress her boss, buying a new uniform for their maid Sadie (the perfect Thelma Ritter), restocking alcohol and soaps, and keeping their kids up in their room. A brief moment calms the two down, before a package from Addie Ross arrives with a record of classic music, that George instantly lights up to–it was his birthday that day, and Rita forgot. In the cutest possible way, George forgives her, saying she was so busy with the preparations. The actual dinner is so painful to watch, mostly because their guests are absolutely the worst–foregoing dinner to listen to a radio broadcast instead for three hours. One quip though always gets me cracking: The radio boss says “Sadie may not realize it but whether or not she thinks she’s listening, she’s being penetrated,” to which George retorts “Good thing she didn’t hear you say that” with a sly smile. When George loses his temper over the boss’s fawning over the radio script, calling it good writing, the aftermath unleashes the inner insecurities of the couple: You can feel the earth around them rattle as George talks about how much it hurts him to see his wife suddenly lose her independence for money. Rita then throws it to Addie Ross, unveiling her envy for George’s affection for Addie. Still, despite the fight they just had, I couldn’t think that their marriage was on the rocks–there’s an undeniable love and affection between them, that I just knew they’ll make it through.

A Letter to Three Wives‘s structure is fairly simple but I admire it immensely for how well it tells the story of the American housewife in the post-war era with admirable potency. I love how it presents these three moments in these couples’ marriages so casually and relaxed, as if we’re listening to a friend tell these stories to us. But the ease of storytelling really does belie the complexity of the narrative. I mean for God’s sake, how often do you expect films from 1949 address the working woman and how this shifting role affects men’s ego? Even more to the point, George and Rita’s marriage exemplifies a true give-and-take and lays bare the compromises that partners make to have a successful marriage: George’s acceptance of Rita’s ambition and her burgeoning career is a lovely surprise. The film also tells a great love story, between Lora Mae and Porter, even if the couple comes across as abrasive. I love watching this mouthy couple just slowly realize that they love each other not because one is a shiny, young toy, and the other a rich bachelor, but because of genuine affection for who they are as people. Lora Mae and Porter are two sides of the same coin–externally projecting tough attitudes, but just dying for the other to confess their mushy insides. In many ways, this dynamic reminds of great Korean TV dramas where the OTP always love-hate each other, that turns into love-love by the end. And what a great note to end on–A Letter to Three Wives is a brilliant movie that takes you through the highs and lows of real marriages and real love without cynicism, but just hard-earned realism. It’s a miraculously perfect film, and a hell of an entertaining one.

 

 

 

Favorite Movie #87: Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

RNWT

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015), dir. Hong Sang-soo, starring Jung Jae-young and Kim Minhee

Have you ever been in a scenario, romantic or otherwise, where it was going well and then suddenly it turned sour? Then afterwards, you imagine how the same scenario would have played out if you just did something differently? It is absolutely my greatest vice to play what-ifs: to think about things that happened in the past, reconfigure the events, and perhaps change a few missteps, perceived or otherwise, until the right outcome happens. It’s a useless fantasy to dwell on the past for temporary comfort, and to think of what I could have done differently to make scenes right. Movies are often fantastic places to escape your troubles and project them onscreen. After all, movies can be described as an art of editing: cutting scenes, moving them around and rearranging them, and putting them together to make a scene work. Like a movie then, I have memories that I replay over and over, ever slightly tweaking them or rearranging them to get an outcome I desire. It’s a fleeting feeling, but nonetheless a comfort. Many of the movies on this list are my form of escapes and are often attached to a special memory, whether good or painful. This movie is the only one that dwells on the idea of what-ifs fully and the bittersweet melancholy that comes with playing that game.

Right Now, Wrong Then is Hong Sang-soo’s 17th film, his eighth of the decade. Hong is a prolific director who makes the same type of film that revolves around chance encounters between strangers, old friends, or old lovers. Oftentimes, his movies play the same scene again and again, while making slight adjustments that reverberate in other characters’ behaviors and actions. I think I’ve seen 11 of his 26 feature films and although most of them are similar, only a few of them resonate with me. Of all his films, this is his absolute loveliest. The movie is split in two, the first part is subtitled “Right Then, Wrong Now.” The film focuses on a movie director, Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-young, standing in for Hong), who arrives a day early in Suwon for a screening and Q&A for his movie. At a beautiful shrine, he encounters Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), an aspiring artist and sparks a conversation with her. They then go get coffee, continuing their friendly conversation before Hee-jung takes Chun-su to her studio. There, Chun-su watches her paint and offers some very flowery comments about her paintings. Hee-jung is visibly elated. After complimenting her paintings, the duo then gets sushi and soju, getting shitfaced (a staple of Hong films) while flirting with each other, before they head out to a birthday party for Hee-jung’s friend. That’s where shit hits the fan as Hee-jung’s friends openly call out Chun-su for his womanizing ways, his marriage and kids, and even the compliments that Chun-su paid Hee-jung on her paintings, which he has said in interviews before. This immediately deflates Hee-jung, who excuses herself to rest her head in a separate room. Chun-su tries to approach her, but she only rebuffs him and asks him to leave.

The first hour is an absolute delight. Hong is an incredible writer of conversations, capturing the awkwardness, the banality, and then the magical spark that lights up a budding relationship. During their first encounter at the temple, Hee-jung is so meek and shy, trying to avoid going beyond the polite chitchat with the stranger and sucking on her banana milk. Chun-su, on the other hand, is a little pushy, and since he’s narrating, we know he’s been spying on her earlier. It comes across as a little needy, but once he says his name, Hee-jung recognizes it and this thaws the ice between them a bit. From there, Chun-su asks her on a coffee break. This coffee date feels super natural: there’s an inherent tension between the two of them and Hong captures this brilliantly by panning from one person to the other during the conversation. We don’t really see how one is reacting to the other during the discussion until the camera moves onto them. Thus, it injects a little mystery in the scene: what are these two thinking? How are they calculating what to say and when to say it? It also is fundamentally different from the scene earlier where we see both characters split apart by the expanse of the shot, and yet we can see how their bodies and their faces react simultaneously to what the other character is saying. When we hit the art gallery, we focus on the director observing Hee-jung and offering some platitudes that can come across as empty-headed compliments were they targeted towards a more confident artist. But for Hee-jung, they come across as boost of confidence coming from a renowned artist, even though they’re talking about different mediums. Me being a pessimist listens to Chun-su’s comments and immediately thinks that he’s bullshitting. But because Hee-jung enjoys them so much, and Kim Min-hee radiates such warmth, it’s hard to remain a negative Nancy in the face of such grace.

Then the film cuts to the loveliest drunken date scene ever committed to film. Two things: a) I love watching people eat food in movies and I love sushi so watching people chow down on this is amazing! b) I’ve definitely been in drinking situations like this but I can only hope to look as blissed out as these two are when I’m shitfaced (knowing my history, probably can rule that out). Chun-su and Hee-jung flirting uninterruptedly (by either an edit or otherwise) is an absolute delight because you can practically smell the alcohol in the air and feel the warmth of these people’s faces, yet the chemistry between them seem so genuine and affectionate. These two trade lovely anecdotes and even get personal. The honesty pouring out of them is so intoxicating.

That’s why it’s absolutely earth-shattering to hear how phony Chun-su is from Hee-jung’s friends in the next scene. Being a famous director certainly got Hee-jung’s attention, but his fame also means his personal business is out there, including the fact that he’s married, a renowned womanizer, and has used the same compliments that he showered Hee-jung earlier to other people before. Watching Kim Min-hee’s face fall apart quietly is a thing of beauty. You can see her slump a little, the joy of the day fading away quickly. Again, who cannot relate to a scene like that? It’s like a page out of my sad diary.

This hour alone would have made for an excellent short-ish film, and one that feels complete. Yet Hong’s movies are never that simple. The next hour, subtitled “Wrong Then, Right Now” re-imagines the whole day like some sort of wish fulfillment. Whose wish, we don’t know (I want to think its hers, given how less naive she comes across here). Whereas the first hour had a splendid beginning, and a sucky ending, as the subtitle implies, this second hour has a rough beginning, and a surprisingly great ending. The movie starts again from the temple, although now it’s a different angle. Hee-jung is less open to conversation than earlier and Chun-su definitely comes across even pushier (verging on creepy, I think) by trying to spark a conversation with her. As he introduces himself as the film director, she lets her guard down a little although she’s even more cautious about getting coffee with him, going as far as to question him peeking into her plastic bags (that bit was funny). The coffee/tea date goes well, and in this version the camera has kept its distance the whole time, capturing simultaneous reactions and energies that were previously hidden. When they head to the studio, we now focus more on Hee-jung painting, watching her calibrate and think through what she’s going to do next to the image. Here, Chun-su offers a more nuanced take on her painting–passing judgment on her work and implying a lot more about her personal life than he should have any right to when you’re meeting someone for the first time. Hee-jung is noticeably upset, going as far as to scream at him for his infelicity. The tension in this scene is palpable–a bracing break from what we had expected. A smoke break clears the air a bit and the next thing you know they’re getting sushi and soju.

Like the first version, this drunken scene is spectacular in a different way. Whereas the first version feels more like a real first date, where people put up walls and don’t reveal personal details, especially unsavory ones, this second version seems like the kind of date everyone would want: all cards on the table, show your true selves. Here, Chun-su gets honest about being married, and having kids, and acknowledges his history of womanizing. Even the earlier argument over her painting leads to a sweet and honest discussion about Hee-jung’s lack of friends and the sadness that seem to emanate from her. It’s a more tender scene than the first version, and surprisingly funny as Chun-su tries to take a ring out to give Hee-jung. The night then shifts to Hee-jung’s friends’ party where Chun-su is met with kinder thoughts by her friends, even in comparison to his reputation. While Hee-jung goes to rest her head, Chun-su, who has now become drunk, starts stripping to the horror of Hee-jung’s friends. Hee-jung and Chun-su then leave together, with Chun-su walking Hee-jung home sweetly, and Hee-jung finding out about Chun-su stripdown utterly hilarious. The night ends super well, with Hee-jung kissing Chun-su on the cheek.

What I absolutely love about this movie, beyond the richness of its dialogue and the loveliest drinking scenes in history, is that underneath its diptych structure is a real engagement with honesty and how and when we learn information makes a difference in our reaction. In both versions, Hee-jung finds out that Chun-su is a womanizer, who is married with kids. Yet Hee-jung is more receptive about it in the second one than the first. Crucially, in the first version, she happens upon the truth from her friends, while the second comes straight from Chun-su. It doesn’t necessarily make what Chun-su is doing now better, but it certainly feels less painful to hear the truth from the source rather than second-hand, making Hee-jung less of a fool, especially since the confession came to her in private conversation than in a more public forum. The movie also engages with the notion of genuineness, about sharing how we truly feel rather than avoiding the mess of a possible confrontation. Chun-su’s empty compliments in the first version may have won Hee-jung over then, but it also led to Hee-jung’s feelings of betrayal at the end, whereas in the second version, Chun-su’s more nuanced critique led to a bruising confrontation which later facilitated a more open dialogue between the two. When the movie finished, however, I can’t help but to feel a tinge of sadness, knowing that the second version that we end on is a dream–the what-if scenario, instead of the actual reality for this two. It still ends with both of them going their separate ways, but it feels a tad melancholy in relation to the first one. After all, in both versions, they don’t go on to form a new relationship, but this one had a feeling of potential. Even the snow falling on the ground makes it all very wistful–like a distant cold memory.

Favorite Movies #88: Bridesmaids (2011) and The Heat (2013)

Part of My Favorite Things: 100+ of my Favorite Movies Ever

Bridesmaids (2011), dir. Paul Feig, starring Kirsten Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Melissa McCarthy, and Chris O’Dowd

bridesmaids

The Heat (2013), dir. Paul Feig, starring Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, and Michael Rappaport

The Heat

In an episode of 30 Rock, one of the most amazing comedy shows of the last 20 years, Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) tries to prove to Tracy and others at TGS that women can be funny by reprising her two-women Piven-nominated (ha!) stage show Maroney and Lemon, where she and Jenna play a doctor and a little girl to the delight of the audience, including Tracy. At the end of their skit, Tracy applauds Liz, praising the idea of Liz playing a “lady doctor” as very funny indeed, adding that if a guy played that role, the audience would take his advice seriously. Liz is taken aback of course, since that was entirely not the point of the sketch. Even Jenna admits she only did this sketch to appear old in order to win an endorsement gig for a geriatric assistance chair. The sketch is hilarious but also a biting jab at Hollywood which can feel so against the idea of women-led comedies at the box office. It was a clever sketch, and 30 Rock over the course of seven years, have mined this accepted fact about the treatment of women in Hollywood for funny jokes. In the last decade, there’s certainly more consciousness about giving more women a chance to lead comedies. This decade produced two of my favorites, care of director Paul Feig.

When the trailer for Bridesmaids dropped before the summer of 2011, I remembered a lot of people dismissing it as a blatant rip-off of the similarly themed The Hungover. That movie reveled in gross-out bro-ish humor based on funny scenarios while foregoing any sense of story. It’s a very funny movie, but unfortunately it all evaporates after the credits roll in. On the other hand, Bridesmaids is fundamentally a character-based film that lavishes attention to its characters’ backstories. Annie, a former cakeshop owner, is living through a rut, working at a jewelry store, rooming with some ghastly people (an early film role for Rebel Wilson), and hooking up with a handsome jerk (Jon Hamm, fulfilling his comic destiny). Her best friend, Lilian (Maya Rudolph), gets engaged and suddenly she’s thrust into the role of Maid of Honor, alongside other bridesmaids, the rich and fabulous Helen (Rose Byrne, immaculate), Megan (Melissa McCarthy, in an Oscar-nominated star-is-born performance), over-it housewife Rita (Wendi McLendon Covey), and earnest naive newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper). Each character is funny in their own right, and the movie invests time in each character to build them up and add comic detail to explain their behavior. Of this loaded cast, the clear standout for me is Kirsten Wiig. Wiig is a comedic delight–she can articulate with just her face the various stages of rock bottom, romantically, financially, and socially. Her facial expressions as she faces off against Helen, trying to one-up her in front of Lilian are expert comic stuff. But even more than the facial expressions, Wiig anchors her jokes with deep feeling, filling in the in-between moments with despondency or insecurity. Her spectacular meltdown at Lillian’s bridal shower was equally funny and sad as Wiig’s Annie sees her lifelong friendship slipping away.

This climactic moment encapsulates what I love about Bridesmaids. Bridesmaids is genuinely fun for me because these characters are all relatable. Now in my late twenties, the characters’ challenges hit even harder, when you watch friends all go on with their lives, making moves like getting married, forming families, or leading successful lives. Sometimes, I can’t help but look at my own life and feel insecure about getting left behind. The movie portrays this personal crisis so well. I think the trailer sold it as a “girls can be just as bawdy as guys” movie, as if it has something to prove. And sure, this movie definitely dips into that potty humor (literally), which as crass as it is–is hilarious. But the film also upends expectations that it will just be a rip-off earlier films like The Hangover. Instead, it comes closer to something like Knocked Up or The 40 Year Old Virgin where humor organically springs from the drama of day-to-day life. Who can’t relate to Annie’s palpable fear that she is losing Lilian’s friendship, the one stable thing in her life? Who doesn’t wish that they were more like Megan, whose self confidence is inspiring, as is her love of pets–all because she was bullied in high school? Who can’t help feeling bad for Helen, who despite being wealthy and slim, is hiding her insecurities under the perfect image. How often do we see female friendships and relationships get portrayed onscreen that goes beyond the superficial? On top of all of this, the movie pairs Annie with a regular guy (Chris O’Dowd) who is charming and wholesome without being unattainable. That grocery store meeting and the car radar scene? What a joy to watch! I’m a big sucker for scenes like that where character quirks take over scenes that are seemingly minor that sneaks up on you and ultimately end up being deeply moving. Bridesmaids excels at those scenes: whether it’s Helen’s step-children brushing Helen off or Megan biting Annie’s ass, they tell us so much about our characters’ inner lives while still being hilarious.

Two years after Bridesmaids, Paul Feig makes another funny hit movie starring two women, this time with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, while broadening the buddy cop genre beyond its traditional male actors. Both actresses were at the peak of their careers in 2013: McCarthy, who was hilarious and Oscar-nominated in Bridesmaids, became an unexpected box office draw earlier in the year with Identity Theft. Bullock, meanwhile, won an Oscar for 2009’s The Blind Side, has just returned to the screen to her comic roots. Later in the same year, she’d star in an even bigger smash movie, Gravity, for which she would again be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. Both actresses are genuinely funny and The Heat plays to their strengths that we’ve seen before. Bullock is FBI Agent Ashburn, a type-A,  super competent agent who frustrates her colleagues with her cocky attitude; and McCarthy is Det. Mullins is a brash member of the Boston PD who intimidates her colleagues with her…well, scary persona. Crucial to both Ashburn and Mullins is their competency at their jobs and this freaks out every man in the room with them. Underneath each character though is a softer side that would be hackneyed in lesser hands. Ashburn is an orphan and her intense careerist has basically left her isolated. Meanwhile, Mullins put one of her brothers away in jail, thereby estranging her from her family.

The Heat is pretty special to me because it’s one of the movies I reviewed for my college paper. I absolutely loved sitting in those press chairs, with my name on the paper–I felt special. It also helps that the movie is uproariously fun and hilarious. There’s a lot of scenes that I still cackle thinking about: Mullins chasing an erstwhile drug pusher and throwing a watermelon at him, earning an accusation of being racist; the scene at the bar where Ashburn awkwardly seduces their target, and Mullins just manhandling girls away like she was throwing rags; the hilarious off-color (ha!) remarks about a blowhard  albino DEA agent; And Ashburn sticking a knife in her knee to keep a ruse going. It’s a hilarious movie that oftentimes rely on character-based humor. For instance, I loved watching Sandra Bullock strut into the Boston PD so confidently, only she doesn’t know where to go. Also loved seeing McCarthy turn down a suitor. She’s also so vulgar, but she delivers her lines with such joy and precision and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

The more I think about the movie, the more I see it as a neat allegory about Hollywood’s treatment of women. Both Ashburn and Mullins are extremely competent and yet people around them treat them with disdain or fear, by script design. Both Ashburn and Mullins satirically embody the stereotypes that Hollywood executives (or really business folks) dictate about women: Ashburn is so hypercompetent that she emasculates men and therefore must be single and a catlady; Mullins is a large disheveled woman, that she must be lacking in sexuality. Ashburn and Mullins also clash with each other until they grow to actually like each other. Yet again and again, the script expands on each character’s supposed flaws and turns them on their head: Ashburn is hypercompetent but she’s also clumsy and socially awkward; Mullins may be aggressive but she also has a huge sexual energy. I also love the bond they develop over the course of the movie–a very sweet relationship that ends the movie on a perfect comic note.

Both Bridesmaids and The Heat are proof that women are hilarious and can be bawdy like the men that has dominated the genre. I absolutely adore the cast of these movies and I can’t imagine living without thinking about Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy getting drunk together; Kirsten Wiig’s panic attack on a plane or her attack on a cookie. Both movies are hilarious and endlessly rewatchable.