Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Samaritan Girl (2004)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.*** 

Now this one seemed like a straightforward evening watch, even for a Kim Ki-Duk film. But trust the guy to completely overthrow your expectations and take you on a journey you may never have experienced before. "Samaritan Girl" (2004) is yet another exotic dish from the Kim Ki-Duk kitchen, made from a recipe that is entirely his own. You just need to have the palate for it, and you will find yourself wholly appreciating what the South Korean auteur dishes out.

"Samaritan Girl" tells an unusual tale of sin and redemption that is both disturbing and sensitive at the same time. Two teenaged girls, resort to prostitution in order to raise money for a trip to Europe! Of course, they are very young and far too naive to realize the gravity or the consequences of their deeds. In a sordid arrangement, one of the girls, Jae-yeong (Yeo-reum Han) actually engages in the act, while her best friend Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) does the job of setting her up with clients and acting as a lookout in order to warn about possible police raids. An incident with one of the clients, however, proves to be a watershed event that would change their lives forever.

For a plot premise that may seem like it would tread familiar grounds, "Samaritan Girl" changes its course significantly, at least twice, thereby totally subverting viewer expectations. It unfolds in an episodic fashion, over three parts with title cards: "Vasumitra", "Samaria" and "Sonata". The symbolic connection of these titles to what transpires in each episode serves as a means to comprehend the central thematic content of the film. 

On a broad level, "Samaritan Girl" is all about carrying the burden of another; of paying for the sins of others. It is a direct biblical reference to Jesus Christ bearing the cross, also depicted literally in how in one scene, Yeo-jin carries an injured Jae-young on her back. It is no coincidence that Yeo-jin's father (Eol Lee), the cop mentions the story of a rotting crucifix which bears a bud almost miraculously.

The first episode talks about Vasumitra. In an old Indian legend, Vasumitra was a prostitute, whose clients all became Buddhists after sleeping with her. A carnal act, considered sinful, had somehow brought about a spiritual awakening in them. Jae-yeong, fascinated by this legend is practically obsessed with Vasumitra, and aspires to be like her. Sure enough, she manages to make an emotional connect with each client, ever smiling after each job and doing much more than just sex by engaging in some actual heart to heart talk!

Jae-young feels practically no remorse and in fact enjoys what she is doing, more so because of the connections she makes with her johns. Yeo-jin, however, reels under the guilt of being party to her friend's exploitation, and is the only one to feel the moral weight. Yeo-jin's jealousy is palpable as well, but Kim Ki-Duk keeps it deliberately ambiguous as to what kind of jealousy it is. While Yeo-jin obviously yearns for sex, she is perhaps morally bound, at least at that point of time. But her open admittance to Jae-yeong that she can't stand to see any guy touch "something this beautiful", and their naked baths together, hint at a definite homo-erotic attraction and a sense of possessiveness on Yeo-jin's part.

So where does Vasumitra fit in? Only after the baton is passed on to Yeo-jin in a dramatic turn of events, when she embarks on her path of supposed redemption. One of the outcomes of her actions is a visible change in the clients, as they either feel shame or regret their actions, experiencing a moral awakening and rekindling bonds with their daughters or loved ones! From filthy beasts to humans experiencing a kind of spiritual awakening; the Vasumitra legend mirrored! In a way, now Yeo-jin plays dual roles, of Vasumitra and of a Samaritan (Samaria), in her act of repentance.

The decision to sleep with each of Jae-young's client's is somewhat of an arbitrary move, that initially seems to be a product of a lack of maturity at a vulnerable age like that. Her twisted ideology is questionable, but perhaps this is her way of indirectly experiencing physical pleasure with Jae-young; a vicarious means of seeking sexual gratification from her best friend; that she desired but could never bring herself to seek out.

This inability to confront or speak out one's feelings is a trait that would continue further with Yeo-jin's father, a cop who inadvertently discovers that his daughter is out prostituting herself. The tough detective, himself investigating the killings of teens in shady motels, is now reduced to a broken, helpless father. A shattered man, he ultimately turns into a sort of watch dog, following his daughter's clients, and intimidating or shaming them. The incapacity to break the ice with his daughter on the matter, turns into a violent rage that the clients have to bear rather than the daughter, who is in fact the one inviting them on her own free will. Subsequently, these men find themselves at the receiving end for the sins of Yeo-jin!

The first few frames show a computer chat session, where it all starts and the girls fix meetings with their clients. Kim Ki-Duk perhaps aims at showing the ill effects of advanced technology and how they have created distances between human beings. It is alarming how the girls don't even know who's on the other end and yet agree to give themselves to them. The comfort of being bold from behind a screen has perhaps caused this inability to connect on a direct, personal level, directly reflected in Yeo-jin's dad's reluctance to confront her. It all stems from the advent of technology and the way it is gradually establishing its roots in our environment. The scene in which he puts headphones around here ears to wake her (and also in a surreal sequence later) seemed a little off-kilter initially but finds a significant overlap from this angle.

And therefore, what better place to connect, than the countryside, at one with nature and away from industrialization and technology? Maybe this is why, in the final chapter "Sonata", when Yeo-jin's father decides to take her on a trip to the country to her mother's grave, they are finally able to actually connect with their spiritual selves and to each other on an emotional level, without even bringing up anything that happened prior to the trip. The outing turns out to be a turning point in the lives of these two tormented souls; a moment of moral awakening, a means of catharsis and the ultimate gateway to salvation. Tears of regret are shed, sins are washed off, and there are realizations that enable both of them to attain their peace, in a culmination that is heartbreaking.

That final frame is bound to leave an indelible mark in your memory much like the rest of this haunting story. It's amazing how much meaning is conveyed merely through symbols, gestures and body language of these characters that you can't help but empathize with.

This is gold standard Kim Ki-Duk with his signature storytelling style with somber music, great images and a strong communication of his usually rich themes in his unique visual language.

Score: 9/10

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Garde à Vue (1981)

"Those walls would not be sufficient to carve out the names of the murderers who supposedly 'discovered' their victims' bodies."

A pure formality turns into an ugly and gruelling interrogation session in French filmmaker Claude Miller's surprisingly overlooked adaptation of John Wainwright's novel, "Brainwash". It is a wonder how a film that boasts of taut writing, crackling dialog, class-A acting performances, combined with even some star power, got relegated to obscurity.

"Garde à Vue" (1981), aka "The Grilling", aka "The Inquisitor" takes place on one stormy New Year's eve. Two little girls have been raped and murdered over a period of a few days. A rich lawyer, Martinaud (Michel Serault) all decked up, presumably for a New Year's bash is called in by police detective Gallien (Lino Ventura) to go over his statement regarding his discovery of one of the bodies. The first person to have seen the body, Martinaud quickly finds himself turning into a suspect as Gallien begins to find inconsistencies and holes in his statement. Guilty or not? Detective Gallien attempts to find out; either by getting a confession or an alibi, neither of which comes his way in a convincing manner, and yet, circumstantial evidence seems to hint at Martinaud's involvement.

Miller sets the stage for a tense, moody police procedural with the minimalism of but three primary players, a closed room claustrophobic setting, and an intriguing premise that immediately locks us in. With superb, calculated camerawork full of extreme closeups and timely zoom-ins, Miller invites the audiences to read his characters' faces and demands their participation in forming their own verdict. Not only is the film an exciting mystery to behold, it is a mighty fine character study as well.

Martinaud is the aptly smug rich guy with, with an air of superiority that he displays in his often belittling ways. He wants all the rigmarole to be over with and openly expresses his disappointments about the workings of the law enforcers, hinting at harassment being a given when it comes to meeting with a policeman. He goes so far as to quote someone about why any civilian is averse to getting involved with the police and criticizes their mechanics in which finding a culprit and getting a confession takes priority over getting to the bottom of the truth when it comes to pressure from the higher ups. Through Martinaud's accusations, Miller effectively examines the apprehensions of the common man regarding the law subsequently creating a wall between a civilian and a civil servant.

On the flipside, it is interesting how his vulnerable side threatens to crush his pride when he feels cornered following some personal questions about his marriage, and owing to the gaps in his statement. There is an inkling of a sense of shame when it comes to admitting certain things, hinted at by an obviously fluctuating degree of eye contact.

Gallien is a man who believes in facts and evidence, and yet somewhere deep within he believes that Martinaud is guilty. Although he can't put his finger on it, he exhibits in bits his resentment towards Martinaud, perhaps a product of his condescending attitude, stemming from his high class social background. Or perhaps it is Martinaud's body language that doesn't seem to go well with the seriousness of the crime in question. The exchange between these two men is a highlight of the film. An exciting verbal cat and mouse game ensues, comprising of the wittiest of exchanges, especially when an alert Gallien catches Martinaud's slightest goof and when Martinaud mocks the police and their ways and even catches tiny problems in Gallien's arguments, thereby turning the tables.

Belmont (Guy Marchand), the subordinate cop is primarily there merely to assist Gallien and type out to the interrogation proceedings. While being an upright cop, he can't wait to see Gallien nail Martinaud, more so because of the latter's superiority complex. A class conflict unwittingly rears its head with the ghastliness of the crime fueling the animosity, and it doesn't take too long for Belmont to get personal about the whole thing, resulting in a violent, explosive display of his feelings. It doesn't help matters that Martinaud had already accused Gallien of trying to gain mileage from a possible scandal that may result from getting a man of his social stature to confess.

Miller's film brings to mind Sidney Lumet's 1957 masterpiece "12 Angry Men" in many ways. The extreme weather outdoors is juxtaposed against extreme emotional outbursts indoors. The setting is a small police station interrogation room. A heinous crime is being discussed, and there is at least one person griping about how he is trapped inside when he should actually be outside welcoming the new year.

Individual backgrounds, personal perceptions and beliefs begin to overshadow the need to give weight to the facts, especially when Martinaud's beautiful wife Chantal (Romy Schneider) pays a surprise visit to the station with some vital information about her husband. Chantal is an enigmatic personality on her own, the sad-eyed lonely wife of the business class, who appears to have locked away years of dark secrets and continued to live in an unhappy marriage.

Ultimately, although the entire drama ends on a note that is not a very satisfying one, "Garde à Vue" (1981) is a considerably solid piece of cinema that despite its minimalist exterior, packs in some rich themes that are certain to make the viewers question their own perceptions about the world they live in.

Score: 8/10

Monday, June 15, 2015

El Cuerpo (The Body) (2012)

You have to hand it to these Spaniards! Rarely does a Spanish thriller disappoint in delivering what is expected of it, and Oriol Paulo's "El Cuerpo" (aka "The Body") (2012) is no exception. This is the kind of film that does justice to the oft-used term, Hitchcockian.

The dead body of a very rich and powerful woman, Mayka Villavarde (Belén Rueda) mysteriously disappears from the morgue. The police officials and morgue personnel are all equally flummoxed by the bizarre happening, especially after learning that the woman apparently died of a heart attack and her body was awaiting autopsy. In fact, the incident comes to light, after the night security guard gets run over by a speeding vehicle when he runs for his life, apparently upon witnessing something frightful in the morgue that night. Did someone steal the body? Who would have anything to gain from doing something like that? Or could the dead woman have walked, scaring the living daylights out of the guard? Police captain Jaime Peña (José Coronado) attempts to solve the mystery.

Oriol Paulo plays it like a pro and structures his screenplay in a clever non-linear fashion just as any intelligent mystery film of the sort. Peeling off layers gradually, revealing in bits, he works like a magician, springing a surprise on his unsuspecting audiences periodically, and ensuring that they are locked in, in awe at his sleight of hand. Consequently, the central characters of this deadly puzzle are introduced to the viewers in a calculated manner, clearly gauging or predicting the kind of reactions they are supposed to elicit.

In a series of well-timed flashbacks that would remind the viewer of the recent David Fincher thriller "Gone Girl" (2014), Paulo throws some good light on the nature of his characters, especially on the kind of relationship shared by Mayka and her much younger husband Alex (Hugo Silva) who now becomes a prime suspect. Although, it is revealed early on that Alex is involved in the death of Mayka, it is also made clear that he is clueless about the disappearance of her corpse. It appears that Mayka has Alex under her thumb, and he is tired of her dominating ways. An affair with a younger girl is also brought to the surface in the beginning, so we are well aware of Alex's character.

While this early revelation could be deemed as a writing flaw, it is in fact, a wise decision on Paulo's part, because it does away with that one predictable angle associated with a murder plot such as this. By making us aware, Paulo compels us to lay it to rest that this is a mystery of Mayka's murder. It isn't! It is in fact, the mystery of her post-death disappearance! Or is it?

Clues begin to pop up out of nowhere, mysterious notes and messages reminding Alex of some secret conversations with Mayka begin to find their way to him (also similar to the "Gone Girl" treasure hunt, especially in the way these clues, almost always shift the narrative to a flashback). He figures that someone who's well aware of what transpired between him and Mayka could be doing this. But somewhere at the back of his mind that shred of doubt prevails; could she still be alive? Just when Alex thought he had erased everything to do with her, it threatens to come back, and as luck would have it, his attempts to flush out any last bit of evidence implicating him refuses to ..well, get flushed, literally!

While the audience is made aware of Alex's connection to his wife's apparent death, the police captain Jaime already has all his attention focused on Alex, owing to his body language and communication that's all wrong for a man whose wife died just a few hours ago. Paralleling Jaime's intimidating behaviour towards Alex, Paulo also makes us privy to the fact, that Jaime, isn't the invincible hero, or an epitome of perfection himself. He is a fragile, troubled man, battling with loneliness and a volatile temper, that presumably once, caused his suspension.

It is essential for any thriller to make sure that the tension in the narrative remains intact and never lets up. In this department, Paulo aces it almost effortlessly and dares you to even bat an eyelid! While the devious plot machinations keep you on the edge, Paulo throws in a bonus with some absorbing drama centered around the face-off of Alex and Jaime.

Thanks to the solid performances by the two actors, their confrontations and battle of words/wits are a treat to watch. The events take place over a few hours in the night, almost entirely in and around the morgue, with the setting shifting elsewhere only in flashbacks, rendering an aptly claustrophobic atmosphere. When the action rests easy in a few places (only tiny bits), Paulo allows you to soak in the seductive atmosphere of the stormy night with its moody lighting and brooding characters contemplating away while blowing smoke in the rain.

"El Cuerpo" is a classy noir thriller that creates intrigue by striking a neat balance between a riveting plot and fascinating characters. With its baffling twists, some genuinely chilling sequences and necessary red herrings, it boasts of nerve-shredding suspense right until the very end in a hair-raising climax, with a conclusion that may raise a few eyebrows of amazement, shock or even disapproval. Sure, when one thinks back and analyzes, not everything will end up tied in a neat little logical box. There are implausibilities, but they certainly aren't impossibilities. It is the craft that triumphs here and more than makes up for the plot deficiencies.

Queue this one up in your watchlist. Best watched on a cold, rainy night!

Score: 8/10