The conversation with my wife began inauspiciously. I suggested we go see a Thai film. She was immediately up in arms. “I don’t like horror films,” was the first of several minutes of complaint, switching from horror to the Muay Thai films with Ong-Bak beating everyone up in his search for a white elephant. I did my best to remind her of The Iron Ladies or Satree lek and its sequel but, for a while, everything hung in the balance. “A comedy? A coming-of-age film? Out of Thailand?” Incredulity was temporarily her middle name. Eventually, curiosity got the better of her and I duly handed over money. We huddled in the back row, trying to blend in while surrounded by a crowd of youngsters. Fortunately, none of them were interested in adolescent canoodling and, as the lights went down with modesty preserved on all sides, we were into SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (the three Thai words translate as “Brilliantly Bad”).
I vividly remember the first two singles released by the Sex Pistols. “Anarchy in the UK” was raw energy. Their version of “God Save the Queen” was hilariously irreverent. Within weeks of their arrival, they had outraged everyone that should have been outraged and amused the rest of us. Naming a band SuckSeed should give you a clue about what this trio of young Thais is all about. Their first single as an entry into a competition for bands is appropriately anthemic. It runs along the lines, “We suck. We’re complete failures. We’re all going down in flames, but we’re going to do it together. Yes, we all suck together. . .” and so on. So what you have to imagine is three youngsters who cannot play properly, thrashing away on guitar, bass and drums while the “singer” shouts himself hoarse. For the live performance in competition, they even arrange for a young boy to run on stage to be sick while a fat boy does potentially obscene things just out of camera shot. By Thai standards, it’s all a bit radical, but it beautifully captures what the film is all about.
Here we have two boys. Ped (Jirayu La-ongmanee) is terminally shy, while his best friend Koong (Pachara Chirathivat) has an older and very talented brother. Consequently, Koong never tries seriously to do anything, having already decided he cannot compete with his brother. Nevertheless, in his relationship with Ped, he finds some degree of liberation and is dominant, always organising Ped into yet another activity. In junior school, they are in the same class as Ern (Nattasha Nauljam). Inevitably, Ped loves her from the start but is incapable of doing anything about it. When he discovers she is moving to Bankok, he does his best by recording an attempted song to declare his love but, when he telephones to arrange delivery of the tape, he’s so intimidated by Ern’s father, he claims to be Koong and then puts down the phone. This leads to the predictable confusion at school when the gossip links Ern and Koong.
We now leap forward to secondary school. Ern has returned and, from Koong’s point of view, there’s the worst possible development. His brother has proved himself a wonderful rock musician and is fronting a band called Arena. So great is his charisma, he can pull any girl in the school. This finally provokes Koong into direct competition. When he discovers Ern is also a great guitarist, he decides to form a band. Ped is deputed to hold the bass and a boy, enigmatically named Ex (Thawat Pornrattanaprasert) whose flair at basketball is demonstrated when he falls and breaks his arm, is roped in as the drummer. Needless to say, he’s not a great success with one stick lodged in the plaster cast on his arm. But for a moment, with Ern playing lead, they have purpose and don’t sound too awful. Unfortunately, Koong tries to form a relationship with Ern and drives her away — inevitably, she joins Arena — and Ex has the same unhappy experience with his hoped-for girlfriend. Hence, all three boys are total failures when it comes to girls and reflect this in their song which, not surprisingly, propels them into the final of the competition.
So, first of all, the good things. Without exception, the acting is naturalistic and affecting. All four leads come out of this well. Although it’s a long time ago, I can remember what it was like as a teen trying to summon up the courage to talk with girls. This script focuses on the inevitable conflict as our two heroes fall for the same girl with first-time director, Chayanop Boonprakob using the music well to capture their moods. The convention of having the lead singers from the original recordings turn up on screen to sing to the cast just about avoids overstaying its welcome. One more time and it would have become annoying albeit one or two sequences are actually amusing. Which brings us to the second good thing. Thai humour is laugh-out-loud when it’s allowed to surface. There were times when the cinema erupted — always a good sign. But this hides a problem. There’s great energy in the direction with there even being some quite witty animation to capture one moment. But the whole is too long by about twenty minutes. It actually lasts 136 minutes with the director showing his inexperience by allowing some of the scenes to overrun. It gives the whole a slightly laboured feel. Yes, the jokes and the central triangular relationship between Jirayu La-ongmanee, Pachara Chirathivat and Nattasha Nauljam keep up the interest, but the slow pacing prevents the film from being a complete “success”.
SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep is fun as a coming-of-age film set to a mixture of punk and contemporary Thai rock music. When they set out to try playing and singing, the boys are gloriously bad and celebrate that fact. Even though shy, they make a sustained attempt to break through their inhibitions. Arena, by contrast, are very professional. On a personal note, I was always slightly more quiet which means I’m probably the wrong generation to judge this. It’s a universal truth that, by our own high standards, we all suck as human beings when we’re young. Perhaps I should just go with the flow of the the young audience around me who found it immensely enjoyable. Continuing the positive side, my wife is now recommending it to her friends as the best Thai horror film of all times.
Well, Brilliant Legacy or Shining Inheritance or Chanranhan Yusan does seem to be improving slightly, but it’s still bedevilled by coincidences so I propose to lose some of the reverence in this spoiler-heavy review.
Let’s start with the more interesting stuff. Granny Jang Suk-Ja (Ban Hyo-Jeong) falls and is injured. The stress of dealing with the Brat, Seon Woo-Hwan (Lee Seung-Ki) has proved too much for her and, for a day or so, she loses her memory. Our Cinderella, Ko Eun-seong (Han Hyo-Joo) doesn’t hesitate and takes the poor old thing in. The first day, they run the stall together but, when talking about the money, Granny remembers. She calls home to reassure the butler she’s alright (in other series, the old retainers are always in love with their master/mistress — I’ll await developments on this front even though their ages look wrong). Thereafter, she’s playing the fox, deliberately provoking our good-hearted girl. There’s an impish look in her eye as she demolishes the landlady’s garden and sabotages the girl’s plan to go for a job interview. When it all blows up, Cinders says she regrets having met the old lady. But then thinks better of it and says Granny can stay as long as she wants. The girl knows what it’s like to be homeless and abandoned. She could never do that to Granny. In many fairy stories, we find Grannies who are reported as having big eyes and big teeth. At times, this old lady is tough, manipulative and not very nice to know. In other stories, we have a single act of kindness rewarded with riches. In this case, she puts the girl through the wringer to find out what she’s made of. This is a calculated and sustained test lasting a week. Her intentions may be good, but I can’t say I like Granny’s methods.
Meanwhile, Evil Stepmother Paek Seong-hee (Kim Mi-Suk), is applying to Granny’s company as a franchisee and has her eye on Director Park Tae Soo (Choi Jung Woo) as a prospective mate. Independently, Ugly Sister, Yu Seung-Mi (Moon Chae-Won) applies for a job in management at Granny’s company — what with her being an MBA student and ambitious to marry the Brat.
Meanwhile, on the streets, Dead Dad, Ko Pyeong-Joong (Jeon In-Taek) continues to live in a vacuum. In some shots, there are posters reporting his son, Ko Eun-Woo (Yeon Jun-Seok) missing plastered on every on every lamppost and bus shelter for miles around the Seoul centre. His fake death has obviously affected his eyesight. To keep the contrivance going, he’s shown at the soup kitchen run by Buttons, Park Jun-Se (Bae Soo-Bin) and, but for the careful placement of empty eating vessels, he would have seen the posters waiting to be put up.
So now Granny disappears from Cinders’ lowly pad and our heroine reports her missing at the local police station. Then the butler turns up and takes her to the family home. Wow! Is this a bombshell for everyone! Granny offer Cinders a home and promises to look for the missing brother. Mother and daughter are shocked. When the Brat finds out, he’s outraged and throws her out. Such is the path of true love in Korean drama. To everyone in the family, money is all that matters. All Granny need do is give the girl some cash to thank her for the good deed. Granny looks beyond the money and sees the girl did her good deed without any hope or expectation of reward. That makes her “special”. From the office, Granny has her staff call up Cinders and invite her in for an interview. What a surprise when she realises Granny is the owner of the business. Worse, Granny makes it a condition the girl moves back into the house before she will employ a team of investigators to look for her brother. She’s a real bully albeit with a heart of gold, I suppose. Another way of looking at all this is that Granny is using the girl as a lever to teach her lazy, thoughtless family a better attitude about life.
Evil Stepmother is visiting the company to drop of her application for a franchise when she sees Granny and Cinders. She hides and then gets the inside dope from Director Park. Meanwhile, Ugly Sister finally sees a poster announcing the loss of her stepbrother. Her conscience is troubled. Now we come to the reunion. It’s the death anniversary, so Stepmother heads for the cemetery with her daughter in tow hoping to meet our girl. What a surprise! Stepmother is full of honied words explaining everything away and asking solicitously about her stepdaughter’s health. Ugly Sister is more sullen, demanding to know what’s happened to her stepbrother.
There’s a nice moment in Granny’s house where our girl demands to know whether the Brat was swopped at birth. How can such a nice Granny have a worthless creature like you? Later, after a second exchange, she prevails upon the sullen one to return her bag. I like the casual way Cinders punches the Brat. It shows an appropriate lack of respect, knowing he’s too much of a gentleman to strike back. Now she has to recover his bag from the Ugly Sister who’s strangely reluctant to give our girl the new address.
Evil Stepmother swings into action. She bins the franchise application and corners our girl for a tête-à-tête. She explains the boy the Ugly Sister has been mooning about for years is the Brat (incredible this bit of information has been kept a secret for so long). Sooner or later, a marriage is expected, but it will never take place if our girl reveals that her father died a bankrupt. The family would not be of the right status to marry into the beef soup empire. So our girl agrees to keep it quiet for the sake of her stepsister. Sucker!
So everything is looking great for Stepmother until Dead Dad materialises in the car park after her beauty treatment. Now that’s a shocker but, maintaining her calm, she’s fast with the lie that his two kids have left for the US with their share of the insurance money. See what I mean about those invisible posters. This is just carrying plot contrivance too far. If Stepmother had anything about her, she would give Dead Dad a poisoned apple and send him to sleep for a hundred years (or until a frog kissed him).
After a rousing induction into the company, our girl is sent out as a trainee to the same restaurant where the Brat made such a strong impression. And she’s determined to become financially independent, delivering milk before setting off for work at the restaurant. And refusing pocket money from Granny. Except, lazy mother gives her the task of returning a mobile. Little does she know. . . Fortunately, Ugly Sister is as quick with the lies as her mother. Now it’s all down to Stepmother to pay Dead Dad to go away. He’s stunned she could be so heartless and refuses the money. The lies are flowing thick and fast now. Can it really be so easy to manipulate people?
Events accelerate. Granny has another indication her health is failing, gets further evidence of the Brat’s thoughtless behaviour, and sees the waste of all the clothes bought by her own daughter and granddaughter. Now’s the time to shake things up. Granny issues instructions to the wastrels they must either work in the company or be cut off without a penny. More importantly, she tells them (but not Cinders herself) that the girl is to inherit the company. Director Park is consulted and advises the family should cooperate for now and get back into Granny’s good books. Needless to say the Brat is distinctly unhappy and deeply suspicious of the girl, believing she must be conning Granny.
Meanwhile Buttons is taking Dead Dad in hand — he’s definitely looking peaky and in need of help. He also buys our girl a bike and seems ready to tell her he’s rich. They arrange to meet on Sunday. When she arrives “home”, the Brat is leaving, having refused the instruction to return to the restaurant where he behaved so badly. His mother and sister have decided to cooperate, but are outraged when Granny takes their credit cards and gives them a small amount in hand against their wages. It turns out the daughter cannot cut radishes to make kimchi and the granddaughter is useless at waiting on tables. This leaves the Brat wasting his cash on a karaoke session with useless hangers-on and then staying in a hotel. Ugly Sister offers him her credit card. Stepmother reckons this is the Ugly Sister’s chance to get the Brat dependent on her and so marry her.
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The Heirloom or Zhai bian has one simple but elegant idea I can’t off-hand remember encountering before in a supernatural horror film. Allowing for my advancing years, this makes the film slightly more interesting. The rest of the film is relatively prosaic and, at times, a little obscure but, on balance, just about worth watching if you’ve got nothing better to do.
Let’s start with a little background about Taiwanese superstitions. Over the generations, a family may make agreements with ghosts (or spirits of ancestors, if you prefer). This particular version is called hsiao guei. In return for a sacrifice of some kind, the supernatural force delivers wealth, status and everything else an upwardly mobile family could desire including losses by those opposing the family. These faustian arrangements tend to work well for many years but, if anything should go wrong, the consequences can be terrible. Welcome to the world of the haunted house with fringe benefits.
A part of the problem for films of this type is the need to provide a house that looks inherently threatening — for those directors who want to cheat, you can play against expectations and have a modern, well-decorated home. In this case, we have a house of size, apparently built during the Japanese occupation and now showing its age with peeling paint. Good to see the electricity still working. Anyway, with little or no reconstruction work, our happy couple move some furniture in and then all we have are a repeated set of camera angles of long, wide corridors upstairs and quite homey spaces downstairs. It just looks a little rundown and tired. It says a great deal about Taiwanese culture that such a large building can stand unoccupied for twenty years and not have any broken windows or squatters (other than the supernatural type, of course).
So James (Jason Chang) gets news while in England that he has inherited the family home. This apparently comes as a surprise. He claims not to have realised there was a family home to inherit. So, when he returns to Taiwan, he’s playing the innocent and, after some discussion, he invites a girl, Yo (Terri Kwan) whom he has been distantly courting for some time, to move into this house. This is all really weird (in the non-threatening sense of the word). She’s famous in modern dance and already has a ticket to fly off the island, but unexpectedly turns up at the house with her luggage and announces she doesn’t need a lift to the airport (big hint there). I hope she got a full refund on the ticket.
They have two friends, Ah-Tseng (Tender Huang) and Yi-Chen (Yu-chen Chang) who encourage the relationship, but have reservations about the house. As a journalist, Yi-Chen is interested in an upstairs room that the family apparently used for praying to their ancestors. She takes photographs and researches the history of the house. Curiously, she then finds herself waking up inside the house. It doesn’t seem to matter where she is when she falls asleep. It’s a “beam-me-up, Scotty” moment of relocation. Ah-Tseng sets the theme of hanging signalled in the film’s poster. While visiting another city, he’s having a bath in his hotel room when he finds himself suddenly elevated into the air without any apparent support. This is baffling to the police who cannot find a rope nor explain how he could have hung himself. An inspector therefore comes to discuss the death with James and Yo, suggesting a full-scale murder investigation is in progress.
At this point, the relocation mechanisms becomes more clear. It seems that at midnight, the house can reach out to others who are connected to it or family members. These people can go to sleep and then wake inside the house. When this physically moves the police inspector, the next night he tries an experiment and handcuffs himself to his bed. Unfortunately, the force with which he’s transported rips off his hands and he bleeds to death on the ground floor of the house. After that, everyone accepts weird shit is going on but, despite the police surveillance equipment misbehaving every time James walks past, no-one takes serious action. Just imagine the likely reaction from the police in the West. One of their finest leaves hands and cuffs in his bedroom at home, and turns up dead in what everyone says is a haunted house miles away. Health and safety people from the government would close the house, CSI would be on the job, the couple would be arrested and thrown in jail, and the news media would park television cameras all round to catch the return of the couple from prison cells the next time the clocks strike midnight. I’m entertained by this idea and wish the script by Dorian Li, had explored it more effectively. As it is, we simply see the phenomenon several times and then the director, Leste Chen, moves on as, first Yi-Chen excavates old newspaper articles out of the archives, and then an unsuspected aunt of James is discovered in a mental institution. This old biddy is remarkably lucid and fills in the gaps in the ponderous backstory. Now we’re into the final reel which I understand, but think is a little weak. In any event, for it to work, there should be a formal marriage between James and Yo. Otherwise, without a will, Yo presumably could not inherit the house.
This all means The Heirloom or Zhai bian starts quite well but then runs out of steam as the script refuses to develop with any shred of credibility. This is a tragic failure. There was a wonderful story waiting to be told as the police and modern science grapple with an ancient superstition about bottled foetuses. With the couple just being left to fend for themselves, the director is allowing the idea of the house to exclude the real world’s natural reaction and producing an obviously silly ending as the indifferent police have no interest in probing who might be responsible the final deaths.
It’s curious how, when you grow old, you lose that questing spirit of youth. I used to range far and wide in search of new and interesting writing talent. Now I have to wait for someone to hit me over the head and tell me to try an author. In this case, no-one seems sure who it is — apparently it’s a kind of Alice Sheldon situation with an author jealously guarding anonymity. Anyway, no matter who this is, he or she writes beautifully. I’ve just charged through Blue and Gold (Subterranean Press, 2010) by K J Parker. It’s a delight. I’m increasingly impressed by the Subterranean series of novellas and, to improve my mood, it turned out there were two more short stories by said Parker on Subterranean’s site. So I got three for the price of one — great value!
This is an unreliable narrator story which, if done well, is among the most interesting to read. By their nature, a puzzle is presented for the reader to solve. Why is it this particular character has a need to lie or feels the need to conceal his or her essential nature. This ignores the less interesting variations where the character is plainly less than sane. It’s bad enough trying to make sense of my own tendencies to irrationality as my body weakens and mind degrades through age. Being invited to look inside the mind of a fictional character with a similarly weak grasp on reality is not attractive as a mirror to my own problems.
So, from the first page, we have this first-person narrator, one Salonius, assert with pleasing honesty that, in the morning, he cracked the age-old problem of how to turn base metal into gold and, in the afternoon, murdered his wife. Obviously, for some, this is the ideal way of celebrating the sudden acquisition of unlimited wealth. Who wants to share all this gold with anyone who would only waste it on herself? Except, as the book progresses, we discover this was no ordinary death. Nothing so crude as an attack with a blunt instrument, you understand. And not a death motivated by gold, of course. Everyone knows it’s impossible to change base metals into gold. So here we are with the undoubted fact of a death and no clear understanding of how and why it should have occurred. What makes this even more surprising is the reaction of her brother, one Phocas who, courtesy of an outbreak of a virulent disease, skipped over the normal rules of succession as relatives closer to the local throne fell by the wayside. Why should the local ruler. . . Well, there do seem to be local political difficulties but, for now, he’s more or less in charge. So why should a loving brother be prepared to forgive our narrator for the death of his sister. Ah, yes, I did forget to mention that Salonius was married to the ruler’s sister. Sorry about that. I’m an unreliable narrator as reviewer, you see.
One thing rapidly becomes clear as you read this delightful little book. Salonius is a bright and intelligent person. In fact, he’s probably too bright for his own good, what with this demand for alchemists who can rustle up useful stuff like gold. In career terms, this is somewhat confusing because he never intended to become an alchemist. Like spending some time as a thief, it was a profession he drifted into as the need arose. He probably should have become one of these ivory tower professors who spend their years musing over problems with no obvious solution, writing impenetrable monographs no-one would ever read. But his life was never destined to be quiet. He was always going to make a name for himself, one way or another.
The story is a particularly pleasing slow reveal of the broader circumstances leading to the death of his wife. I was entranced by the author’s sly humour. Not in the sense of jokes, you understand. No, nothing so crude as jokes. The humour arises from the cut-throat nature of the society being described. If an intelligent man is not only to survive but make money, he needs to develop problem-solving skills. Solonius demonstrates a mastery of the obvious trick.
Some years ago, I had the good fortune to know a professional sleight-of-hand magician. He could make a variety of small objects appear and disappear in the most surprising ways. Having seen one or two of the manipulations in slow motion, I can attest to the fact he had great skill. But even seeing a trick deconstructed, I still have no clear idea how he did it. The level of physical dexterity was beyond belief. As a dispassionate observer, you know it’s not magic. After all, like alchemy, you know there’s no such thing as magic. But there are times when you encounter skill levels so high, you would like to believe magic is real. So Salonius makes people around him want to believe. Even when he tells them the truth — that it’s impossible to turn base metal into gold — they still gather round to see the trick one more time.
I cannot recommend Blue and Gold too highly. When I have a little more time, I’m going to read it again, just to remind myself how the trick is done.
The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 shows Hong Kong at its best and worst. It’s directed and jointly written by Dante Lam, the other scriptwriting credit going to Ng Wai Ling. At its heart, there’s a simple story of a serious criminal who orders the kidnap of the prosecuting lawyer’s daughter and instructs her to destroy the DNA evidence that would lead to his conviction. Needless to say, this whole plot depends on the lawyer not disclosing the kidnap and being willing to go to jail for obstructing justice — a fate that would separate her from her daughter in any event.
Well, always start with a bang, so they say, and this film is no exception. There’s a police raid planned by Sergeant Tong Fei (Nicholas Tse) to arrest Cheung, a major criminal wanted for a number of crimes including robbery and murder. The team divides into three and each group is supposed to co-ordinate their entry into the premises to capture the target. Unfortunately Michael (Derek Kwok Jing-Hung), leading one of the teams is late in breaking through a door and there’s a shooting with Sun (Liu Kai-Chi) narrowly escaping serious injury. Nevertheless, they capture Cheung who’s almost immediately rescued from police custody. Tong and Sun take off in pursuit. There’s a bad crash at a traffic junction, disabling all three vehicles involved. The criminals see another vehicle parked by the kerb. It belongs to a prosecuting lawyer, Ann / Gao Min (Zhang Jingchu) who’s standing beside it arguing with her estranged husband on her mobile phone. With Ann knocked to the ground, her car is driven away. Tong emerges from the wreckage of his vehicle and starts shooting. The fusillade of shots brings this second getaway car crashing to a halt. When the boot is opened, Tong discovers he has accidentally shot a little girl. The criminals found her on the back seat when they took the car and stuffed her inside the boot as they drove away. Cheung is in a coma. He’s rearrested but, after three months, he’s fit to be tried.
We now enter the parallel dimension of coincidence. The prosecuting lawyer was the one standing by the kerb as Cheung took her car. The decision of the Hong Kong prosecuting authorities to allow her to continue in the case is therefore bizzare. Prosecutors must be seen to be dispassionate, yet she has every reason to manufacture evidence to ensure the conviction of the man indirectly responsible for the death of her daughter. At one level this is a wholly unnecessary complication. A plot to kidnap the child of a prosecutor would stand just as well with someone unconnected with the case. Ah, but the scriptwriters have a darker game to play. Our hero, Sergeant Tong, never formally returned to work, spending the three months trying to come to terms with his guilt. One of the ways in which he has passed the time is in befriending the dead girl’s sister, Ling (Wong Suet-yin). Indeed, Tong is at the school watching over her (he’s not the titular beast stalker, you understand) when the kidnap occurs. He’s knocked unconscious and the kidnapper, Hung Jing (Nick Cheung Ka-Fai) escapes. Now Tong has the emotional burden of having killed one daughter and failed to protect the other.
Although he has not been the best of squad leaders, Tong has retained the loyalty of those in the team. Even Michael (his cousin) who messed up, forgives him and they all agree to help him find the girl without formally alerting the police about the kidnapping. We therefore have the mother who’s pressured to taint the DNA evidence that will convict the villain. Then there’s the kidnapper. He’s losing his sight and trying to look after his wife Li (Miao Pu) who’s been injured. She’s incapable of speech, bedridden, and wholly dependent on Hung Jing to care for her. Tong and Sun, his main man who was injured in the original chase and now carrying a permanent leg injury, are now on the job. With Michael’s help to tap Ann’s mobile phone, they identify the city block where the girl is probably hidden. It’s now reached an interesting point.
This is a story about guilt and how you deal with it. Here’s a mother who would never have lost her first daughter if she had not stopped the car to argue with her husband on the phone. Although the policeman “innocently” pulled the trigger, she’s the “but for” cause of her daughter’s death. She cannot sleep at nights, blaming herself. Here’s a cop who feels so guilty at the mess he presided over, it’s as much as he can do to stop himself from committing suicide. Amazingly, there’s no internal investigation into this catastrophic sequence of events. No-one seems to want to consider whether Tong should be tried for manslaughter or suffer any kind of penalty. He’s just left on his own for three months.
As to the kidnapper, Hung Jing, he’s also carrying a burden of guilt. In another completely unnecessary backstory, the scriptwriters decided that, if the other main characters are feeling guilty, Hung Jing should not be excused. I find this deeply annoying. In my own culture, this is everegging the pudding. It’s adding a contrivance in the form of a coincidence. Simply having him as a professional killer dragooned into a kidnapping would have been sufficient. Weighting him down with all this backstory is trying too hard to improve on an interconnected plot that’s already overly complex.
As to the ending, the chase and fight goes on too long and, although the existing relationship between the policeman and the kidnapped girl does add a element, enabling him to encourage her and get results, it all drags with an overflow of self-pity from the two adult men involved. In the worst sense, it’s all terribly melodramatic and hammy.
So The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 is good in part and, if you are inclined to take a benign view of an average Hong Kong thriller, it’s a not unenjoyable way of passing almost two hours.
For the record, Nick Cheung won the Best Actor in the Golden Horse Awards 2009 and the 15th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards and the 28th Hong King Film Awards. Liu Kai-Chi won the Best Supporting Actor in the 28th Hong King Film Awards.
Pure mathematics is, by its nature, the academic pursuit of the unthinkable. Mathematicians live in a rarified atmosphere where mere arithmetic long ago faded into the distance behind them. Now they think about problems where we mere mortals would not even understand the questions. So whereas it would never occur to us to doubt that two + two = four, a pure mathematician might be forced to the conclusion that there are circumstances in which the numbers might not add up to the expected total. The answer all depends on the variables you have available to include in the calculation and how precisely you can define them.
In a war, for example, you might have winners and losers, killers and their victims, and so on. In one sense, this is defining a complex situation through simple pairs in binary opposition. Yet one might equally say that everyone in a war is a victim. Take a child, train him or her to become a soldier, and see how many he or she kills. You could say this child is a victim of the war just as much as anyone he or she wounds or kills. It all comes down to the initial definition of victim.
Incendies (2010) is a film written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on a play written by Wajdi Mouawad. It was nominated in the category of Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in the 83rd Academy Awards, but failed to win. To come to any film knowing it has been rated so highly makes it difficult not to prejudice the quality. I admit to entering the cinema wondering why it had been nominated and looking for reasons why it failed to win. This latter is, of course, problematic because I’ve not seen the film that actually won. But then life is never as straightforward as you would like.
So, without spoilers, what’s this film about? It could not be easier to describe. A mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) struggles in a new country, Canada, to earn a living and support her twins. Although an arab speaker by birth, she has learned French and so does well as a lawyer’s secretary in Quebec. Indeed, the lawyer, Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard) treats her like family, caring what happens to the children as they grow up. The daughter, Jeanne Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) is a pure mathematician of great potential. The son, Simon Marwan (Maxim Gaudette) is temperamental and underachieving. One day, at a swimming pool, the mother falls into a semi-comatose state. Although she can whisper to people in hospital, this is the endgame and she dies soon afterwards. The lawyer calls the twins for a reading of the will and gives them news they find shocking — that their father is still alive and they have a brother they knew nothing about.
You can live with someone all your life and not know him or her. How or why should a mother have concealed the existence of another son? What circumstances led to the estrangement from the father of her children? This turns the film into a quest for all that was unsuspected. The daughter takes leave of absence from her university and travels to a generic Arab country where there has been sectarian violence between the Moslem and minority Christian communities. The first two-thirds of the film are therefore told as a dual narrative. We see the daughter retracing her mother’s life, with extensive flashbacks showing what actually happened to her mother. The final third shows the lawyer bringing the son from Quebec. The lawyer has a contact in this Arab country who is able to arrange for the son to meet the people who can put the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle. In a patriarchal society, only the men can talk about some aspects of their culture and society.
Structurally, this makes the film interesting in its own right with sequences being labelled like the chapters in a book. It allows us the chance to begin peeling back the layers of the onion to see what’s underneath. Yet, as with all clichés, this requires some explanation. Let’s say you peel back one layer of an onion, and then another. You never get any closer to an answer because, even when there are no more layers left to peel, all you are left with is onion. Perhaps this explains the tears. Almost everyone who has ever cut into an onion knows it’s hard to peel it without shedding tears. We all know tragedy is an inevitable byproduct of sectarian violence. It begins with simple tit-for-tat reprisals and builds into a war of revenge. What could and should have been resolved through talking becomes insoluble until those fighting tire of killing each other. It is ever so when neighbour fights neighbour, because they forget friendship, and invent reasons to hate based on religion, politics or any other perceived differences. Worse, there’s never any redemptive quality implicit in the ending of conflict. Forgiveness does not come easily to the survivors. Hatred may persist for generations.
From this you will understand this is not an easy film to watch. There’s much cruelty and mindless killing implied and shown. In a way, some of the tension is defused because we know the mother survived and was able to start a new life in Canada. That does not mean she escaped the horror of what she had to live through. Such scars never heal. The best anyone can hope for is an accommodation with trauma that allows the chance to sleep without nightmares. Perhaps this mother was able to draw comfort from the twins and the lives they were able to fashion for themselves in peaceful Quebec. Or perhaps she was ambivalent about the twins. Who can say why the son seems to have had a difficult relationship with his mother.
I suppose you say a film is powerful when it moves your emotions. By that standard, this film is an extraordinary success. It reminds us of the cruelty one group of people may cause others in the name of religion. It gives us a practical insight into the consequences visited on individuals caught up in the larger struggle. In such situations, everyone is a victim in every sense of the word. The children of today go on a journey and, when they have reached the end, they have answers. Whether the answers make them better people or happier, who can say. Life itself is a journey and it does not end until death. These children still have a way to go before they die. That this film gives us such a perspective on life is a tribute to the initial play and script by Wajdi Mouawad and the skill of Denis Villeneuve as the director.
The way Incendies fits together when you look back and see a complete picture is intellectually pleasing. Everything is there from the first frames for those who have eyes to see. I must say a few words about the cast who, without exception, appear completely natural on screen. There’s no affectation or obvious acting. They inhabit their roles. Particular mention must be made of the two female leads. Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin are outstanding. Lubna Azabal, in particular, seems to hold the screen. Whether in action or the few moments of stillness, she dominates those around her by the certainty of her inner convictions. It’s a memorable performance.
I’m glad to have experienced Incendies and, while it may not be in everyone’s comfort zone, I recommend it to all those who want to share in a family’s experiences of war. It’s harrowing at times, but there’s real inspiration in the indomitable courage of the mother who, even when there seems no hope, manages to sing a song of defiance.
When you’re watching the development of actors, it’s always better to watch their performances in order. But, as those of you who read these reviews will know, I’m driven by opportunity not logic. In this instance, my local terrestrial station decided to show Dong Yi and followed it with Brilliant Legacy or Shining Inheritance or Chanranhan Yusan. That’s why I got to see Han Hyo-joo in Iljimae and then Dong Yi. Similarly, I’m travelling back in time with Bae Soo-Bin. Ah well, such are the joys of scheduling in terrestrial broadcasting.
So, here we are with another romantically inclined Korean drama. This time all the pre-match marketing draws a comparison with Cinderella. So let’s see how the claim stacks up. At the age of 11, Ko Eun-seong (Han Hyo-Joo) and her younger autistic brother, Ko Eun-Woo (Yeon Jun-Seok), lose their mother. Following the plot, her rich father Ko Pyeong-Joong (Jeon In-Taek) then marries widow, Paek Seong-hee (Kim Mi-Suk). Unfortunately, she’s only interested in his money which she spends liberally to maintain her image as the most important person on the local social scene. To complete her conquest, she plans to marry her own daughter, Yu Seung-Mi (Moon Chae-Won) to Seon Woo-Hwan (Lee Seung-Ki). He’s the spoiled brat of an equally rich, but higher status, family which depends for its fortune on a food manufacturing business and traditional beef soup restaurant chain owned by Grandmother Jang Suk-Ja (Ban Hyo-Jeong). This boy is something of an enigma, protecting Seung-Mi from school bullies, confessing an affinity with her because they have both lost their fathers. With all that clear in our minds, Eun-seong’s father dutifully “dies” — he’s bankrupt which is deeply embarrassing to his wife and so, when the opportunity presents itself, he’s able to pretend death, ironically, on the day the angry creditors come to grab the furniture as security for the debts.
Wait a minute! Only pretend death? And then the evil stepmother throws Cinderella (and the young brother) out of the house. She does what? No working as a slave to earn the nickname Cinders by clearing out the ashes from the fires? Ah well, so long as this is a story where our heroine with a character embodying absolute goodness (but a quite violent temper) is the victim of unjust treatment at the hands of her evil stepmother and stepsister(s), and then rises to marry a Prince (and thereby get revenge on her stepmother), this will have to do.
I almost forgot. In the British pantomime version of Cinderella, there’s a character called Buttons. He’s really nice, loyal and supportive. Whenever Cinders is down, he does his best to cheer her up but, of course, he’s doomed never to get the girl. She’s destined for the Prince. This is Park Jun-Se (Bae Soo-Bin) who’s obviously being set up as the other side of the triangle with Seon Woo-Hwan. As punishment for falling in love with our heroine, I suppose he’ll end up with the ugly sister. That said, in Dong Yi, Bae Soo-Bin managed to remain unattached. He seems forever doomed not to persuade Han Hyo-joo to love him, except as a brother. He really should talk firmly with his agent and resolve this problem. Anyway, in this role he’s also goody goody, helping out at Grandma’s soup kitchen for the down-and-out. Not surprisingly, his father, Park Tae Soo (Choi Jung Woo) is a senior manager at Grandma Suk-Ja’s company.
Now Dead Dad has finished putting his new wardrobe together from collection bins, he’s realised the family has gone AWOL. So this comes full circle in the cycle of coincidences necessary to get the plot underway. Coincidences? you ask. Well, given that Woo-Hwan and Seung-Mi have been “friends” since childhood, you would expect that he had met Eun-seong. Well, you’d be wrong. They sit next to each other on the plane back from America, he gets off the plane with her bag, and when they emerge into the arrivals hall, Seung-Mi hides. Fortunately, Eun-seong is being met by her online stalker — a young man whose only interest is to marry her for her money. He has borrowed his “senior’s” car to drive the three of them back into town. Needless to say, his senior is Park Jun-se. We now have a silly car chase and failed attempts for our two young things to swop their bags back. Interestingly, Eun-seong proves she has a right hook to match the roundhouse kick delivered by Geum Jan Di to level Goo Joon Pyo in Boys Over Flowers. It seems all spoilt boys deserve a clip round the ear in Korean drama — as his Grandma Suk-Ja later demonstrates.
We now get the evil stepmother act in its full glory. When her husband is declared dead by the authorities, who is she to point out the error. There’s an insurance policy to collect that will set her and her daughter back on the road to social glory. I confess myself completely baffled as to how no-one of importance knows of her husband’s “death”. There’s a funeral and then she’s back round to see Woo-Hwan’s mother to push for an early marriage and ask whether she might become a franchisee in the beef soup chain. Relevant news seems not to have reached anyone in her circle and she’s able to “send her husband abroad on business” as a cover story no-one challenges. Not even the failure of the family business seems to have surfaced. It’s distinctly weird. Putting that to one side, she throws stepdaughter and son out on the streets. Then, when the autistic son gets into trouble and he volunteers her cellphone number, we have her dumping the poor boy in the night-time street of a distant suburb. That just seems gratuitously cruel except, I suppose, she wants to avoid the two annoying stepchildren coming back and broadcasting the embarrassing news of her “missing” husband’s bankruptcy and death. Needless to say, she changes her cellphone number.
Eun-seong is devastated by the disappearance of her brother. Fortunately, the ever reliable Park Jun-se is there to help her search and set up in a new place to live. As to the spoilt brat, he’s sent to work in one of the restaurants and manages to alienate everyone. Grandma Suk-Ja is so disappointed when she hears her grandson proclaim he will sell the business the moment he inherits, she takes off into the suburbs to relive her youth when she sold rice cakes on the streets. By yet another coincidence, she sets up her pitch next to Eun-seong who’s selling dumplings to make ends meet. Such is life in Korean drama.
Well, we have all the usual elements in play and, allowing for the inevitably contrived start, the cast seems to be delivering credible performances. Kim Mi-Suk is nicely calculating as the stepmother obsessed with money and status (in that order). Her daughter played by Moon Chae-Won is weak-willed, obviously wanting to do the right things but dominated by her mother. The men have not had to do anything special yet, Lee Seung-Ki playing the moody brat and Bae Soo-Bin being, well, passively nice. As we might expect, Han Hyo-joo is out in front showing off an impressive range of happiness, frustrated anger, despair and resolution to pull through (in that order). Brilliant Legacy or Shining Inheritance or Chanranhan Yusan is all set up well. Let’s hope the scriptwriters give up on the coincidences and get on with a straightline narrative from now on.
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