Thursday 19 December 2013

Films of the Year 2013

This is a final version. I've changed it after catching up with lots of films over the New Year and remembering some of the films I'd seen early in the year. Notable films I still haven’t seen are The Selfish Giant, Before Midnight, Gloria and Short term 12.
I’ve watched (or re-watched) well over 200 films this year, including around 80 Hindi films. As far as new discoveries are concerned I’d urge everyone to watch Wenders’ Pina, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, Satyajit Ray’s Goddess and The Big City, Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Watching Elem Klimov's Come and See for the first time was revelatory and probably my cinematic moment of the year.  I continue to catch up on classics included in Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film and have Simon to thank for Samurai Rebellion and Harakiri.

If you wanted to get into Bollywood (and Indian parallel cinema) I’d go for Kahaani, Mirch Masala, Mandi and Debaang – that would give any cinephile a real insight into the range of pleasures to be found.

It has been another good year. My Top 5 in a Sight and Sound stylee would be:

[Remembering A: It’s always hard to choose, mainly because I only get to see most of the films once and B: I should never judge a film on one viewing – I’m far too easily seduced!]

·         Beyond the Hills

·         The Act of Killing

·         Stories We Tell

·         Upstream Colour

·         Neighbouring Sounds

Five great films in any year and by any standard.

Naffest?  I don’t go and see everything anymore but The World’s End was diabolical. LOL. I think I saw all the blockbusters and will be happy enough if I never have to watch any of them again though seeing Pacific Rim with Andy was quite fun.

Some of you might think that is all too boring (shame on you), so….
A Top Twelve (ten was too hard)
  1. The Act of Killing
  2. Beyond the Hills
  3. Upstream Colour
  4. Neighbouring Sounds
  5. Stories We Tell
  6. The Great Beauty
  7. In the Fog
  8. Nebraska
  9. Lore
  10. Blue is the Warmest Colour
  11. Wadjda
  12. Blue Jasmine

I still need to watch A Field in England and Computer Chess again - weird in the best possible, mind-bending, thought-provoking way. Less weird but certainly beautiful, mysterious and elusive is Pat Collins's Silence.  Any of these could easily nudge into that top twelve. 

It was a REALLY good year for women and women’s roles. Sakia Rosendahl was sensational in Cate Shortland’s Lore as were Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills and Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour. I loved Blue Jasmine AND Frances Ha – Cate Blanchett and Greta Gerwig were just amazing. Everyone should watch Wadjda and Philomena too. Admittedly I don’t see much TV these days – only box sets – but Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake was weird, exciting, dark and very cinematic – I LOVED it – even better than The Bridge!

Other films in or around that top twelve would be I Wish, Gravity, Django Unchained and For Ellen. American Hustle slid into 2014.

Good documentaries included Mea Maxima Culpa, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and Diaz – Don’t Clean Up this Mess though nothing could match The Act of Killing or Stories We Tell. University Rev socs and film societies should be joining forces to show all of these in the new year. There are lots more to catch up on, on DVD.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa made me laugh more than anything else by a long way. Sorry, but it did!

Really good Hollywood efforts: The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud, The Great Gatsby, Captain Philips, Prisoners, Much Ado About Nothing, Arbitrage and Stoker. I’ll include The Way, Way Back even though it was marred by some moments of dumb, gratuitous sexism – HUGE pity, but even so I could watch Sam Rockwell FOR EVER. And, I'll whisper this, as exploitative as it is, Spring Breakers is actually a lot more interesting than I could have imagined.
Really good World Cinema efforts include Pablo Larrain's No, Ozon's In the House, Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, I'm So Excited and Something in the Air

Obvious one I’ve missed out: Only God Forgives. I’ve already written about it on this blog. Everyone should watch it but I need to see it again.

Popcorn pleasures: Trance, Wolverine, Warm Bodies and Catching Fire. Maybe even The Hobbit 2!

Would a Bollywood movie feature in a Top 10? Difficult question as there are lots of 2013 movies I haven’t seen, but I really enjoyed the verve (and madness) of Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola and the quiet beauty of Lootera. I’ll be able to judge better next year when my brain has processed all the new knowledge a little more.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Parvarish, Bollwood and Desire: a beginning.

1977 was an unremarkable year for film. Admittedly it was the year of Star Wars and Close Encounters when Hollywood was beginning to cotton on to the power of the Blockbuster but otherwise there is little to get excited about. The era of the great American political movies was drawing to an end though auteurs like Scorsese (New York, New York), Lynch (Eraserhead) and Scott (The Duelists) were emerging.

Some great enduring films were still made: Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire; Ray’s The Chess Players, Allen’s Annie Hall and Herzog’s Stroszek are all classics but this was clearly a year of transformation and change.

But has that got anything to do with Parvarish, one of the great Amitabh Bachchan masalas?

Nothing whatsoever!

Indeed if I had to compare it with anything else made in 1977 it would have to be with The Spy Who Loved me, an absurd Bond by any standards; but even that would be doing Parvarish a huge disservice. If I’ve learned anything these past months it’s that you just can’t judge Bollywood films by Hollywood (or European) standards.

Made in the same few years as Zanjeer (1973), Sholay and Deewar (1975), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Don (1978) and Naseeb (1981), Parvarish is, like all of those great films, an entertainment first and foremost.

Inspector Shamsher Singh (Shammi Kapoor) has encircled the bandit Mangal Singh (Amjad Khan) at his home just as his wife gives birth to a son, Amit. Some of the gang, included his brother, escape but Singh is captured. The dying wife gives up their son to the care of the inspector who takes him home to be cared for along with his own son Kishan.

Eight years pass and we learn that Kishan is becoming the naughty one whilst Amit is well behaved. Mangal Singh is released from jail and comes to reclaim his son. The Inspector refuses but Kishan accidentally comes to believe that he is the son of the bandit.

Jump ahead again and Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) is a police inspector himself whilst Kishan (Vinod Khanna), seemingly a teacher in a school for the blind, is actually central to Mangal Singh’s criminal gang. Now the film really begins.

Actually this is all familiar stuff – children separated from parents; mistaken identity; one brother a cop and the other a criminal - national duty v familial duty; nature v nurture; criminality and corruption as the reason for society’s inequities (though the police come out remarkably well in this one). So what makes it better than many other films of its type and era?

Bachchan and Khanna are at the top of their game as great action heroes but are funny and charismatic too, and the action (apart from the hilarious submarines) is, for a 70s masala, fairly slick; as is the editing. What elevates the film (into Seeta aur Geeta territory) is Neetu Singh and Shabana Azmi as sisters Neeto and Shabbo. They are skilled thieves and pick pockets, who become mixed up in the lives of Amit and Kishan. Ostensibly the ‘love interest’ they get the best lines, the best songs and easily steal the show. Indeed, the film loses some of its allure in the second half when they get less screen time and thus less of their exuberant charm and personality.

Here lies one of the most interesting issues in Bollywood film. We know that the male stars drive the industry and get paid far more than the female stars (5 to 10 times more usually) and that they are lionised in Indian society. We also know that, just like any other popular romantic cinema throughout its history, Hindi movies rest, rely and thrive on the magnetism and sex appeal of their female stars as well as that insubstantial mysterious quality, desire.  Yet reading reviews, gossip columns and blogs it’s almost as though this obvious reality is hidden or blurred - that Indian society (?) can’t admit to the centrality of women and that the best films undoubtedly have the more interesting female characters.

Of course sensuality and eroticism are as central to cinema as light and shade. Even when the camera hasn’t objectified and gazed longingly at the female form (and the male form), desire lurks everywhere in the history of film. Desire, conceptually insubstantial as it is, IS different from objectification of women in films and from the sexism prevalent throughout the film industry. Texts are both about desire AND generate desire in the viewer, and though this can arguably said of all texts – literature (Deleuze and Guattari’s famously called literary texts “machines of desire”), art, music, theatre – cinematic texts are especially complicated in this regard. Lacan’s identification of the “ ’paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, even scandalous character’ of desire” gives one a sense of that complexity.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to separate out desire from sexual objectification – not at all - so to begin with I’ll concentrate on the more tangible aspects of sexism and objectification. Recent studies show the remarkable inequality in Hollywood films. Exact facts and figures are harder to find for Bollywood but all the evidence points to even worse statistics. Women have fewer roles, less screen time; they are more likely represent sexist stereotypes and so on. The movie business echoes and perpetuates the structural sexism throughout Western society. This is unequivocally the same in Bollywood. Objectification and the male gaze is a different aspect of this sexism and you only have to watch a couple of recent item numbers to realise that sexual objectification of women is a key part of contemporary Hindi films. Studies based on qualitative content analysis back up that impression.

   A few critics have raised a different question. Does Indian cinema require a more flexible, nuanced critical framework from the seminal work done in feminist film criticism by Laura Mulvey and her successors? They did after all base their work on Hollywood films. In Hollywood the male gaze and the objectified representation of women can be astoundingly obvious and gratuitous (Transformers) or slightly less so (Leaving Las Vegas) but often we are so inured to it that it is only those more obvious ones we pick out for criticism. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t still much more prevalent than cinephiles would perhaps like to admit. Common sense (and my impression after watching 70 Bollywood films) would suggest Bollywood is no different – and probably worse. Nonetheless those dissenting critics ask if there is perhaps a different ‘Indian culture of looking’ that is not, still, mainly concerned with objectifying women.  It’s a more reasonable and interesting question than one might imagine. Western cinema, has throughout its history, been based on realism and thus there is a voyeuristic element to watching other people’s ‘real’ lives play out. Indian cinema is melodramatic in form and thus far more concerned with performance. The ludicrous fight sequences, the breaks in continuity and the song and dance numbers make it clear that the movie you are watching is not realistic in the same way The Godfather is. Could this really make a difference to the dynamics of gaze and the interpretation of images?

Anyway, going back to Parvarish for a minute, it’s completely unsurprising that virtually all Hindi films, unlike Hollywood movies, rely on their (young) female stars. Indian audiences expect a bit of everything in their films–there has to be elements of romance or family drama even in an action film just as there has to be music. Whereas there are MANY great popular Western films that hardly feature women at all – The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape, The Seven Samurai, The Wild Bunch. So many indeed that we have to complain about a lack of interesting female roles again and again.  

This makes life very interesting for any analysis of women’s role in Indian films. You might imagine a fairly simple dichotomy between films that offer up sexist stereotypes or glamorised pin-ups and those that offer more interesting female characters – or at least a clearly delineated spectrum. Another theory might suggest that all women’s roles are corrupted by the oppressive sexual politics and chauvinistic attitudes prevalent throughout Indian society.
Neither alternative seems correct however. I wonder instead if there’s something unique to the masala mix that changes the equation in a more fundamental way. This isn’t to suggest that most Hindi films don’t incorporate various varieties of sexism and crude stereotype, or that they don’t objectify women - they do. This is tricky territory as I don’t want to fall in to any form of Orientalism. Nonetheless It’s one thing to embrace the differences between Bollywood and Hollywood and the differences in audience expectation and quite another to feel like I’m excusing sexism in Hindi films in any way. Thus my feeling is that Hindi films don’t require a more sophisticated critical framework for analysing the male gaze – but I’m going to do some more reading and get back to you. Rather I wonder if Hindi films do something unique with sensuality and with desire - though I’m perfectly willing to accept, for now anyway, that has more to do with my new found fascination for Bollywood.

Friday 15 November 2013

Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani

   With over 60 Hindi films under my belt, I’ve decided I can let some of my thoughts out. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, released in May 2013, has been a huge financial success in India and around the world. Running time is 159 minutes and within that are 9 songs lasting nearly 39 minutes. That’s 120 minutes of dialogue – comparable to most modern Hollywood films. The plot, for what it’s worth, is very simple: boy goes on holiday – boy leaves home for college abroad - boy sees the world - boy comes home and finds love. College friends, Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor), Avi (Aditya Roy Kapur) and Aditi (Kalki Koechlin), take a trip to the Himalayas with a nerdy (but beautiful) newcomer Naina (Deepika Padukone). The young men are confident flirts and flirt with a succession of beautiful young women. Even so, it’s clear that Aditi is secretly in love with Avi and, as the holiday continues Naina is falling for Bunny.

   Kapoor, is not the most handsome leading man of his generation (see Shahid Kappor and Ranveer Singh), but as Bunny he is charismatic, confident and self-assured playing the young man determined to seek out adventure and see the world.  You can see why he’s becoming such a big star. Padukone is charismatic AND drop-dead gorgeous; you easily believe the convention of the shy girl starting to trust herself and becoming increasingly confident. The characters are quickly established, the dialogue is slick and smart; the production values high.

   The first half comes to an end with the revelation that Bunny is moving to the States to study journalism. The second half begins with an extended musical montage of Bunny’s adventures across the world. He is clearly enjoying himself and living his dream. The short section ends with Bunny receiving the news that Aditi is getting married and wants Bunny to come home for her wedding. The slightly longer second half, filled with great songs, focuses on events around the wedding.

   The film is conservative in myriad ways. All its characters are solidly middle class or petite bourgeois – no call centre workers or waitresses here nor any glimpse of poverty, hardship or oppressive traditions. If the importance of family is forgotten in the first half then the film reasserts its importance and centrality slowly throughout the second half. These modern films have increasingly rich production values and are often a little more 'Hollywood' than similar films from twenty (or even ten) years ago - no dream sequences, no loss of continuity and a lot less cheese. The song and dance numbers, however DO serve to move the plot forward, DO come at moments of emotional tension OR are fitted in on the dance floor.

   Moreover, Kapoor is the star and you’re never in doubt about the foregrounding and primacy of male desire. As with many a Bollywood hero, he starts off with more confidence than Gene Kelly and Errol Flynn put together and never loses that astonishing inner belief. Yes he changes his avowed path at the end of the film but his learning curve is hardly revelatory. Padukone gets plenty of screen time in the first half even if much of it concerns the camera staring at her heavenly face sporting increasingly confident smiles. When Bunny leaves, Naina stays at home. When Bunny comes back she represents the beauty, calm, wisdom and stability of family and of modern India.

   Film fans, I DO worry about myself enjoying such reactionary films – OK that’s a bit strong, films that promote and naturalise ideas and ideologies that deserve critique, but then I think of that golden age of Hollywood during the 30s and 40s. Astaire and Rogers films were hardly a beacon of socialist progressiveness but that doesn’t stop me loving them. Charm and beauty added to singing AND dancing goes a long way in my book, especially in a world where Hollywood, by and large, has lost the skill of combining romance and comedy. I loved Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. I probably shouldn’t have but I did. What’s more it’s a very different (and superior) experience to the previous generation of conservative films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. The blokes’ clothes are SO much better.

Thursday 3 October 2013

Rust and Bone (2012)

    Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone is a melodrama. It’s themes, metaphors and symbols aren’t subtle – Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) performs with Orca whales in Antibes and has to have a below knee amputation after an accident. She scarcely knew who she was before the accident but despairs for herself after it. Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) has just arrived in the city with his five year old son to stay with his sister. Alain is a survivor - an insensitive bruiser who used to box, and, as the film progresses, becomes involved in bare knuckle fighting. The film is about how these two characters find themselves, self-respect, love, and a measure of peace. It’s also the first great film of the recession. Audiard sets his film in the workplaces and the small living spaces of the poor working class of southern France. Everyone is trying to make ends meet; criminality or destitution lie just beyond the next bad decision.

   Ali and Stéphanie meet briefly at the start of the film when, as throughout, he treats her with a mixture of kindness, (insensitive) honesty and straightforwardness – though don’t underestimate how unlikable he is for much of the film. After the accident, Stéphanie is lost, but manages to reach out for help by to turning to Ali. What evolves, somehow, is friendship and passion. So, why, and how, is it so good?

   Audiard’s vision and technique should not be underestimated. Much of the film breathes a kind of expressionism. Key scenes are infused with perfect measures of sunlight or shade to give depth and emotional resonance to scenes and images. He mixes this with a healthy dose of naturalism, using a hand held camera to get us inside the small living spaces and follow the characters around the urban environments. Like most of the great directors, he knows how and when to use close ups and long takes (lingering on faces and images longer than any you would find in much mainstream genre cinema) to infuse the narrative with humanity and significance. Also, watch the “Making of” documentary to see how Audiard’s flair and vision is completely bound up with his collaborative way of making films. His team of people tackling difficult technical problems and aesthetic nuances are remarkable.

  Audiard is one of the greats of modern European film-making along with Michael Haneke and Claire Denis (and yes possibly, probably, Ken Loach too). Of all of them Audiard is the populist and the one with greatest range – just look at those films: the quiet comedy of A Self-Made Hero (1996), the romance of Read My Lips (2001), the forlorn, angry The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005), A Prophet (2009) and then Rust and Bone (2012). Whilst full of praise, (legendary) film critic David Thompson wonders if Audiard tries to be a little too entertaining  and too often suffers from a mild case of sentimentality especially when trying to tie up endings. He’s probably right, but for most of their running time the films bruise you with their hard, uncomfortable truths, indelicate passion and lost souls. What’s more he elicits stunning, often extraordinary performances from his actors every time; or is it perhaps that, like Woody Allen, he has the uncanny knack of choosing his actors perfectly.

   I almost think that Rust and Bone shouldn’t work and I know that for some, the last ten minutes will cast a sentimental shadow over what has gone before. BUT, Cotillard and Schoenaerts are brilliant and the film makes me want to believe in their characters and fills me with a kind of longing; that people learn from each other; that redemption is possible no matter how dully we inhabit our lives from time to time; that it’s possible to find a balance in the world so that straightforwardness wins out; that our drives toward superciliousness and being judgemental fade away, and that emotional honesty, between adults, can be refreshingly simple.

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Only God Forgives

   Most of the characters in Drive were psychopaths; some people want to believe that Driver (Gosling) starts off a reasonably nice guy and descends into a violent hell as events conspire against him. Director Nicholas Winding Refn plays a clever game however; in the first section he gives us the likeable, charismatic superstar Gosling and shows us him falling, with his childlike grin (watch those smiles again though and see if you detect how disturbing they are – isn’t there is something cocky and smug about him?) for a normal likeable young woman and her son. The scene in the diner dispels the illusion however. Driver, confronted by a past client threatens to smash his teeth down his throat. He is already used to violence and is ready to use it; and use it he does.

   More than anything Drive is a critique of and rumination on noir – not just the Hollywood noirs of the 40s but the violent existential crime thrillers of the 60s and 70s like Point Blanc, The Getaway and Le Samourai. In most of those films it was usually possible to retain some kind of sympathy for their protagonists, not least because the best of them starred some of the greatest screen presences ever – Mitchum, MacMurray, Marvin, McQueen, Delon and De Niro. It was much easier to believe in the fatalistic romance of noir because lots of the violence was hidden and the pathologies of the protagonists were obscured or softened. In Drive Winding Refn doesn’t really allow us a way out. Gosling plays Driver less as a man and more as a hollowed out child and, Winding Refn seems to be saying, if you don’t acknowledge the emptiness, brutality and desperation of this world, you’re lying to yourself; or reading my film the wrong way.

   Except, however bleak, the film does gives us consolations – the beautiful score (almost perfect I’d say); phenomenal, charismatic performances by Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston; exciting direction and editing that invokes Mann, Hill and Peckinpah.

    Now imagine a film with many of the same preoccupations but stripped of any consolation (well, perhaps that’s overstating it: Kristin Scott Thomas is ‘stand up and watch me’ astonishing and Winding Refn’s direction takes us to the far reaches of the avant-garde film spectrum). Imagine a film where ALL the characters ARE psychopaths without any fear of confusion. Gosling was laconic and reticent in Drive; now he’s virtually mute. His character’s horizons don’t reach far beyond sex and violence as the dream sequences make clear. As a man he is a spent force; damaged beyond repair by brutality and madness. Gone too is any sense of excitement – this is a slow film with all audience expectations deliberately denied. The fights are seen in middle distance using a fixed camera so that you are forced to watch with detachment. Humour is absent (except for the scene where the policeman Chang tortures a bad guy and I’m not sure it’s meant to be funny!) and there is no one to root for – Chang is the vile Old Testament God and Mai is barely a character at all.

   Or were you secretly rooting for Gosling’s Julian?

   Maybe you can. One of the most important differences between the two films is that Julian has a past (we know nothing about Driver’s past remember) – and what a brutal fucked up past it’s been as his mum Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) makes clear in every scene. This is part of Winding Refn’s challenge to us – especially the liberals and socialists in the audience. Aren’t we supposed to understand, forgive, reintegrate, someone like Julian? It wasn’t his fault after all that he’s been brought up in a family of mobsters and psychologically (and, the film hints, sexually) abused for most of his life. And it IS Ryan Gosling don’t you know and bless him, he’s not prepared to see children murdered. And yes that could be remorse we can see at the end of the film? But is this shell of a human being worthy of redemption? Could he ever find purpose in life?

   I doubt it. The most he would manage would be some kind of medieval, religious, self flagellation; forever damned.

   The trouble with Only God Forgives is not that it isn’t interesting – it is. I might go as far as to say it’s fascinating. I’ll watch it again. The trouble is that watching it felt like an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The obvious contrast is with David Lynch. Lynch is also a stylist who wants us to look into the nasty, hidden parts of society that we try to ignore, but his films grab you, draw you into the darkness and drill down into your subconscious. Winding Refn’s work just doesn’t have anything like the metaphorical richness of Lynch’s films.

   Drive and Only God Forgives instead need to be compared alongside the great crime and gangster films: films that that compare and contrast the psychoses of criminals and cops; films that examine and deconstruct the romance our society holds for such people; films that comment on their canonical forbears. As such they are well worth your time. However my instinct is that there is an emptiness at the heart of both films that won’t stand the test of time.

   And yet, even though it rarely happens,  I might just be wrong.

Tuesday 6 August 2013


Sympathy for Mr Vengeance - Oldboy - Lady Vengeance

   Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance trilogy is famous for its violence and for moments where it seems to deliberately set out to shock - as when Oh Dae-su eats a live Octopus in Oldboy. Fair enough, for some it’s just too much; for others the violence is without purpose or too bound up with a celebration of machismo; for others there is a strain of unacceptable nihilism that runs throughout the trilogy. Lots of the criticism aimed at Oldboy, especially in the US, made reference to its postmodern superficiality and it is perhaps unsurprising that Tarantino was the President of the Jury when Oldboy won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

   Still, watching them again, a number of points stand out: first they differ markedly (and remarkably) in tone – Sympathy is stark, spare, ominous; full of dread and anxiety. Oldboy makes you feel uncomfortable in different ways especially in relation to its sexual politics. More than the others it relies on plot surprises to ask the audience to re-evaluate and reassess. Lady Vengeance, with its Baroque sensibility, is almost optimistic in comparison, whilst its multiple characters, slightly confusing flashback structure and its scheming heroine ask you to make comparisons with Elizabethan revenge plays. Second, they’re incredibly serious investigations into what it means to choose violence and revenge and don’t baulk at exploring all the moral and psychological consequences of those choices. Third, though the plots concentrate on individuals, the films are aware of (Korean) society, class, inequality and injustice – not always profoundly aware, admittedly – but enough to give you a sense that you aren’t being asked to consider violence and vengeance as free floating concepts. Fourth, and maybe this is too obvious, they aren’t optimistic films. Chan-Wook wants us to have a good look at the way ‘ordinary’ people descend into brutality and barbarity – as they do (let’s be honest), on a regular basis. Finally, though a few moments of the violence ARE thrilling, most of it is just shocking: instead, the cinematic pleasure of the films come from their formal coherence, their stylistic and aesthetic invention, their weighty performances and their discursive nature. Otherwise there are no easy pats on the back – Chan-Wook wants you to be uncomfortable, ask uncomfortable questions and stumble for satisfactory answers.

   All three films make you question repeatedly who, if anyone, you have sympathy for and whether you should be feeling that sympathy.  And they make you feel that these are important questions.  That’s relatively rare in modern cinema.

   In Chan-Wook’s hands, revenge is also a tool to probe questions around individualism; revenge is defined by self-absorption and narcissism after all. The dilemmas of the various protagonists may have societal roots and triggers but their responses are defined by desperation, loyalty, romantic (and familial) love, instinct and learned behaviour.  In Sympathy there is something almost fatalistic about the characters’ actions whereas the latter two films allow the characters a little more space for reflection and choice. Oh Dae-su and Lee Keum-ja learn (or are pushed into confronting) what their actions might mean: “When my vengeance is over, can I return to the old Dae-su?” asks Oh Dae-su with what will turn out to be the most extraordinary dramatic irony.

   Watching the films again has only made me fall for them more than ever, especially Oldboy, but it’s still Lady Vengeance that I find the most extraordinary. Yet, it gets mixed responses with critics unhappy with the editing and the complexity of the structure, and with the way the film seems split, tonally, into two distinct halves – the first somewhat jokey and cold; the second much more serious and involving (see esp Clarke in Sight and Sound Feb 2006). Elsewhere Philip French, in The Observer, sums it up thus: “While not an especially edifying experience, it's one of the most exciting pictures of recent months”. I don’t think he means exciting like the Bourne films are exciting or at least I hope not. It is exciting in terms of its verve, imagination and seriousness. And he’s wrong too – it’s full of intellectual and moral purpose. It asks questions of me I’d rather not think about and elicits sympathies I don’t particularly want to acknowledge. Indeed the film risks allying itself with right wing ideologues in trying to pose the questions so sharply.

It’s also incredibly moving.

A final word on Oldboy’s sexual politics, as I’m sure some viewers will find it too problematic. It’s hard to discuss without giving spoilers but it is fair to say that the denouement, with all its revelations, allows you to reappraise some of your earlier, uncomfortable impressions. But is that enough? I doubt it.

Obviously, if you haven’t seen the three films, I’d recommend them wholeheartedly and I'd recommend you try and watch them in fairly quick succession so you can compare and contrast. I’ll get on to some of the other great Korean films of the Noughties another time.