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.