Posts Tagged ‘drama’

The Call (2013)

The Call

Emergency call centres perform a valuable public service. When there’s a problem, this is the interface between police, fire, ambulance, animal control or whatever other service is relevant to deal with the crisis. Manning the telephones of this LAPD 9-1-1 operation centre is a dedicated crew of individuals. They call it the Hive and these busy-bees must be able to deal with a whole range of different callers. Some will be calm, others in the full flow of panic. Some will be homicidal, others suicidal. So significant verbal skills are required to elicit relevant information and get the right response to the site of the call in the optimum time. I’m not sure to what extent the call centre room as shown in this film is realistic. It’s all very high tech with everyone supported by an active IT system. Because we’re to be reassured and entertained, the staff must be shown as caring and highly competent. It would not be good for public morale if this vital interface was shown as staffed by people who couldn’t give a shit what happened to the callers or those who are the subject of the call. The fact that, after a few hours of listening to hysterical people, any sane person would suffer burnout and just wish it would all go away is neither here nor there. No matter where these people are in the shift, they must be shown as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, naturally following on from one call to the next with the same sunny smile and burning desire to help.

Halle Berry taking the call

Halle Berry taking the call


In the midst of all this extravagant altruism and caring shown in The Call (2013) sits Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) who gets to take a break when her boyfriend Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut) drops in — such are the perks when you’re the superstar. Then Lea Templeton (Evie Thompson) calls. A man is breaking into her house. This should be fairly routine. The girl should hide until the police can arrive. But Jordan Turner makes a mistake. When the girl disconnects, Jordan calls back and the sound of the call brings the man directly to his target. A few hours later, the girl is found dead. As is required in all films of this type, this mistake blights her perky attitude. She feels she cannot continue to field calls. What if she makes another mistake?


Six months later, she’s working as a trainer. This relieves her of the stress of answering live calls. In a mall, the second kidnap victim, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), is taken from a carpark. This recreates the basic situation with Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) the man who finds things not quite going his way and struggles to get things back on his track. So now we’re into a chase sequence as our heroine tries to keep the girl in one piece emotionally while eliciting enough information from the girl to track the car. Naturally the girl only has a disposable cellphone and the GPS can’t instantly give a location. This section of the film is actually quite interesting. Jordan has the difficult task of dealing with the hysterical girl and holding herself together. It’s her first time back behind the telephone after the disaster.

Abigail Breslan being overwhelmed by events

Abigail Breslan being overwhelmed by events


Now I’m not going to say flat-out that this is a really bad plot idea. Yes it’s a hoary cliché to have the protagonist suffer a traumatic incident and then have to get back on to the bicycle again. But there have been some pleasingly dramatic films where the result has been a tense and exciting battle for control of self in difficult circumstances that replicate the original tragedy. It’s a chance for redemption. Here we have a gap of six months with no calls and then she just happens to be standing next to an inexperienced operator when the call comes in. That’s not unreasonable. She’s a trainer and regularly gives her trainees a tour through the centre. That would have been enough if the rest of the film had been made with any intelligence. The difficulty is the essentially static nature of the set-up. The emotionally taut Jordan is talking on the phone, the whimpering, submissive kidnappee is in the trunk of the car, the panic-stricken kidnapper is driving around, and the police are in their cars and helicopters but do not touch base with the kidnapper. Something could have been made of this, I suppose. But the scriptwriter then gilds the lilly. He asks the question: what are the odds it’s the same guy from the first kidnapping. Life’s really strange how it works out.

Michael Eklund driving around

Michael Eklund driving around


Then, of course, Jordan realises it’s the same man!


I’m sure in the real world, dedicated people who work in these central facilities must occasionally draw the short straw twice. Statistics work out that way over thousands of calls. But this is one humungous coincidence and wrecks what might otherwise have been a good film if it had had a good script and a director prepared to be creative. Unfortunately, the script devolves into a blatantly silly sequence of events as our heroine decides to take action personally. On the off chance you go to see this film, I won’t spoil the ending for you. All I will say is that, to me, it’s embarrassingly long-drawn out and bad. In part, it seems to be pandering to an audience that’s presumed to want to watch the torture of a partially undressed young girl by a serial killer whack job. A lot of the ending also seems to have been filmed in darkness with tense music designed to make us think it’s exciting. In fact they couldn’t think of a way to make the action look realistic so kept the lights off. And finally we have the last two minutes of the ending which, not to put too fine a point on it, are hardly the most moral we’ve seen in the last few years. We’ve come a long way since the Hays Code but this just seems to be back to scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel.


So, in the stakes for identifying the worst films of 2013, this leaps into the lead. Having started with a reasonable premise, The Call ends up really bad.


Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 (2007)

February 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Le grand chef

Every time we read or watch something, there’s an inevitable filtering process involved as we decide whether this material is interesting enough to continue reading or watching. In part, this judgement is a reflection of the extent to which the content matches our own prejudices and expectations. We’re more likely to be interested and so continue to consume the material if the content seems credible to us, i.e. reflects how we believe the world works. Indeed, the more familiar the content, the less likely we are consciously to notice the way in which it’s presented. But when we look at content sourced from outside our culture, a slightly different process takes place. In this case, we have a Korean film and we’re playing a kind of comparative game, inferring their beliefs and cultural shibboleths. We do this by noting all the ways in which the people behave differently to our expectations and then guessing why that might happen.


At a superficial level Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 (2007) is a film about a cooking competition. Naturally our good-looking hero, Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) with natural flair is destined to win. Bong-Joo (Lim Won-Hee), the dark, surly one who cheats, will lose. More importantly, the hero has sex appeal and so will likely end up in a relationship with Jin-Soo (Lee Ha-Na) — she’s the equally good-looking and, by Korean standards, the feisty young journalist covering the competition. Except, unless I’m completely misjudging the plot, the film is really an intensely nationalistic paen about what it means to be Korean and how that fits into a modern world in which Japan is to be considered an ally, if not a friendly state.


To understand this, we need to go back in time. Japan declared Korea a protectorate in 1905 and formally annexed it in 1910, displacing Emperor Gojong and appointing a Japanese Governor General. This film acknowledges many Koreans were deeply resentful and refused all co-operation with the Japanese. This included the Royal Chef who refused to cook for the Japanese. At this time, he had two apprentices, one of whom became a collaborator, routinely cooking for the Governor General. The Royal Chef only cooked once more. He made some soup for the deposed Emperor. When the Emperor drank it, he cried. When the Governor General heard of this, he asked for the same soup. Rather than make it, the Royal Chef cut off his hand. Later, with the help of his loyal apprentice, the Royal Chef committed suicide. This left the collaborator apprentice as the top chef in the palace, now serving the Japanese. As a mark of respect, the Governor General took the knife the Royal Chef had used and preserved it. We now move into modern times.

Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) and Bong Joo (Lim Won-Hee) square off

Sung-Chan (Kim Kang-Woo) and Bong Joo (Lim Won-Hee) square off


The grandson of the Governor General comes to Korea with the knife and proposes a national competition to find the chef best representing the traditions of the Royal Kitchens in a modern Korea. The knife shall be the prize. Sung-Chan is the grandson of the apprentice loyal to the Royal Chef and Bong-Joo is the grandson of the collaborator. Both are highly talented but Sung-Chan is better. The detail of the competition is irrelevant as are the emotionally quite powerful subplots involving the charcoal and the fate of the two bulls. The point of the film is not the cooking, although that’s reasonably interesting to watch, it’s the how and the why our hero wins despite the flagrant cheating and attempted bribery of the judges. As an aside, Bong-Joo’s treatment of his bull also weighs against him.


This is the most ironic Korean film I’ve seen. It alleges that, for all Korea was abused during the occupation, it adopted Japanese/Korean fusion cooking as the height of chic. Bong-Joo carries on the traditions established by his grandfather and has superstar status in “high-end” restaurant circles. When he puts dishes together for judging, he’s actually pandering to the taste buds of the Korean expert judges and the Japanese visitor. He expects to win because he believes contemporary Korean food culture is partly Japanese. Of course, the competition boils down to a head-to-head and then to a single dish. The Japanese visitor asks for a bowl of soup, thereby replicating history. Bong-Joo uses the secret recipe his grandfather handed down. Sung-Chan produces something simple, something the peasants might have eaten in 1910. The Korean experts refuse to even taste Sung-Chan’s down-market fare, believing this to be an insult to their sensibilities as the guardians of what it means to be Korean. It takes the outsider to tell the truth.


He dismisses the soup made by Bong-Joo as being what his mother used to make at home. He did not come to Korea in search of Japanese food. For him, the natural ingredients selected by Sung-Chan directly capture the taste and spirit of Korea. If a country is to be true to itself, it must go back to its roots and find cultural sustenance in its history and traditions. At a grass-root level of popular taste, ordinary people know what they like and vote with their feet. The pretentiousness in more elitist surroundings is actually dangerous because it creates an us and them. We’re better than them because of what we like to eat. That may be acceptable when the food is inherently Korean at all levels. But it’s nationally divisive if the elite choose to differentiate themselves by preferring to be Japanese in their tastes.


I found Le Grand Chef or Sikgaek or 식객 a fascinating film, offering a less common insight into core Korean values and how this influences nationalism as applied to Japan. There are interesting subplots and some gentle humour as well. It’s worth tracking down as a thoughtful contribution to the debate about what it means to be Korean. Screenwriter and director Jeon Yun-Su is to be congratulated.


Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000)

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

424px-JSA Joint Security Area

Based on the novel DMZ by Park Sang-Yeon, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA (2000) takes us into a rather strange version of contemporary reality in which the mutual antagonism between North and South Korea mutually reinforces group standards of behaviour. The norm is a set of rules for engagement in Panmunjom. The armed forces of the two sides may literally face each other across a line drawn on the ground at the Joint Security Area, but may never interact directly. That’s left to senior officers and government officials, often working through the agency of the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC). At the so-called Bridge of No Return, the Military Demarcation Line has a blockhouse on each side where two members of the North and South Korean forces stand guard twenty-four hours a day. At other points along the border, troops patrol but are not allowed contact. In bad weather and through lack of care, some patrols do accidentally cross over. From North to South is not a problem. The North has mined parts of the border and this can lead to fatal consequences. In such a hothouse, national values are taken for granted and the status of a continuing war is drilled into the troops who practice shooting at each other so that, should there be a real emergency, hostilities can resume without delay. However, the greater the rigidity in any social system, the more individuals may chafe at the lack of any opportunity for self-expression or the exercise of discretion. If the wrong person is in the wrong place, this can lead to what the sociologists call anomie: a kind of mismatch between the prevailing social norms and the behaviour of one or more people. In extreme cases, the widening gulf between the prevailing systems and the individual can lead to suicide.

Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho facing off

Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho facing off


As a contrast, it’s interesting to note the behaviour of some of the troops along the Western Front during World War I on Christmas Day 1914. Unofficially, the troops fraternised, giving each other presents, singing carols and playing football matches. Sadly this moment of peace was quickly snuffed out by the officers and war resumed almost immediately with later attempts at truces largely unsuccessful. The book and this film detail the slow building of friendship first between three and then of the four soldiers guarding the Bridge of No Return. When the two South Koreans are caught drinking with their opposite numbers in the north blockhouse by a North Korean officer, the outcome is rather unfortunate. However, both sides are quickly to impose their interpretation on what happened. According to the South, a commando attack from the North abducted one of their soldiers and, only by great heroism did he manage to shoot himself free and return wounded to the South. According to the North, a rogue South Korean soldier crossed into the North, assassinated two soldiers and wounded a third. The NNSC is tasked with establishing the truth and the investigation is handed over to Maj. Sophie E. Jean (Lee Yeong-Ae) a Swiss national whose parents left the North in 1953.

Lee Yeong-Ae with the magic bullet

Lee Yeong-Ae with the magic bullet


The two soldiers from the South are Sgt. Lee Soo-Hyuk (Lee Byung-Hun) and Nam Sung-Shik (Kim Tae-Woo); from the North we have Sgt. Oh Kyeong-Pil (Song Kang-Ho) and Jung Woo-Jin (Shin Ha-Kyun). Suffice it to say, none of the survivors have any interest in telling the truth. If disclosed, their fraternisation would be so profoundly shocking, life imprisonment or simple execution would follow. Unfortunately, our intrepid investigator notices a discrepancy in the physical evidence. It seems one more bullet was fired than has been accounted for. This would suggest the “official” statements given by the survivors are untrue. We then have a careful retelling of what actually happened and watch the political and practical outcomes.


In every way, Joint Security Area or Gongdonggyeongbiguyeok JSA or 공동경비구역 JSA is a tragedy in the sense the characters suffer losses and some die. But instead of dealing with the larger picture of the state of war between North and South, we have it scaled down to the relationship between the four men who metaphorically and literally cross the line, and pay the price for being discovered. The two sergeants, Lee Byung-Hun and Song Kang-Ho, are outstanding while Lee Yeong-Ae is somewhat underused. Director Park Chan-Wook is to be congratulated on constructing so elegant a film for exploring how the anomie first established itself and then grew. That the two countries nominally remain at war and continue to reinforce the hostility is one of the sadder scenarios currently playing out on the world stage. This is a thoughtful contribution to the wider debate wondering just how long the war would continue if it could be left to the people to decide. It’s well worth watching.


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