Elle (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A twisted mid-life crisis thriller from Verhoeven and Huppert

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The opening scene of Paul Verhoeven’s new film “Elle” is so striking and disturbing that you cannot help but admire how firmly and effortlessly he and his lead performer Isabelle Huppert establish the overall tone of their movie without any fatal blink. They are willing to shock and disturb us right from the very first shot, and we can clearly discern that they are fully prepared for going all the way for more challenging things to unnerve and fascinate us.

Now some of you are probably hesitating to watch “Elle”, but I must tell you that this twisted mid-life crisis thriller is too good to miss for many reasons. While unusually restrained compared to Verhoeven’s previous sensational thriller films like “The 4th Man” (1983) or “Basic Instinct” (1992), the movie is thoroughly provocative and compelling for its unforgettable mix of disturbing psychological morbidity and naughty black humor, and Verhoeven and Huppert are utterly fearless with their tricky story materials.

Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, a single middle-aged woman running a video game company. During that opening scene unfolded at her house located in an urban neighborhood of Paris, she is brutally raped by an unknown male invader wearing a ski mask, but, to our bafflement, she does not report this terrible incident to the police after the man is gone. After pulling herself together for a while, she cleans the mess, and then she takes a bath before her loser son comes to her house. When her son notices a bruise on her face, she lies that she had a bicycle accident.

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As we are baffled more by this strange behavioral response of Michèle, Huppert, a master of elusive human compulsions, keeps her appearance tight and straight while her character goes on with her daily life. She is assertive and demanding as usual to her technical employees during their meeting on a new video game still stuck in its development stage, and she curiously looks unperturbed by its blatantly violent contents. When she has a dinner with her ex-husband, her co-worker/best friend, and her current sex partner who is incidentally her co-worker’s husband, she frankly tells them about her rape, and her revelation surely makes their dinner quite awkward although she remains distant to her incident as if it were a minor incident to be soon forgotten.

However, it looks like the incident will not simply go away from her. Like any rape victims, she feels anger and regret as recollecting what happened on that terrible day, and then she finds herself stalked by someone who is apparently the one who attacked and raped her. At first, it is just a simple texting message, but then this hideous man in question seems to be somewhere around her, so she becomes more suspicious about several men around her than before. Besides her ex-husband and her current sex partner, there are other potential suspects, and one of them particularly looks fishy for good reasons – or is he just your average red herring?

Now this sounds like a typical revenge thriller movie plot, but Daivd Birke’s adapted screenplay, which is based on “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, takes a far more interesting route as focusing more on what is gradually revealed from its complex heroine. As her life and personality are examined and reflected via several important supporting characters in the story, it is implied that Michèle has already had survivor’s instincts behind her frigid façade for a long time, and we are not surprised to learn later about a certain fact in her past. In the ironic contrast to her misanthropic attitude, she adores her black cat, and her capability of compassion is evident during a brief scene involved with one unfortunate little bird, which is one of rare gentle moments in the film.

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Magnificently embodying the edgy, stark, and resilient humanity of her character, Huppert gives another superlative performance to remember along with her recent lead performance in “Things to Come” (2016), which is also about a female mid-life crisis accompanied with one cute black cat. Watching these two quite different but equally excellent performances together, you will behold the wide, impressive acting range of an exceptional performer who can naturally convey to us so many things via her detached but expressive face. While never seeming to try hard, she can be very funny or touching as shown in “Things to Come”, but then she also can be supremely creepy or disturbing as shown in “Elle”.

With Huppert’s performance functioning as the strong dark heart of the movie, Verhoeven dexterously plays with our expectation. While there is the constant amount of subtle tension around the screen, he does not hesitate to throw a few effective shocks to jolt us, and he also tickles us with several naughty moments of acerbic black humor. While I chuckled at a couple of sly visual cues shown during the scene where the neurotic girlfriend of Michèle’s son gives a birth to her child, the most viciously humorous moment in the movie comes from Michèle’s Christmas party, which suddenly ends with an unexpected happening which surprises everyone including Michèle.

Around that point, Verhoeven and Huppert keep going further with no compromise at all. I don’t dare to reveal anything about the second half of the movie, except that 1) it defies our expectation again when the identify of her rapist is fully exposed in front of Michèle and us and 2) that fascinating ambiguity of Huppert’s performance keeps us guessing about her character’s motives and intentions even during the finale.

After his critical/commercial success of “Blackbook” (2006), Verhoeven has been rather silent during last 10 years except making a short film “Tricked” (2012). While he is no longer that bloody naughty boy who made “Robocop” (1987) and “Total Recall” (1987), “Elle” shows us that he is still a master filmmaker who can play the audiences like a piano, and he and Huppert did a terrifically provocative job to stupefy and excite us all here.

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Little Men (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As their little life becomes more complicated

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Intimate and sensitive in its low-key approach, “Little Men” quietly shines with small precious moments to be appreciated for the keen depiction of the emotional undercurrents flowing around and between its two young heroes. The movie maintains its gentle, thoughtful attitude even when their relationship is inexorably affected by the conflict between their parents, and we come to emphasize with not only them but also their parents, while fully understanding their respective positions in a difficult situation with no easy solution.

The movie begins with an unexpected change coming into the daily life of Jake (Theo Taplitz), a 13-year-old kid living with his parents in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City. His grandfather suddenly died, and Jake’s family soon moves from their Manhattan apartment to a two-story building in the Brooklyn neighborhood which was owned by his grandfather but now is passed down to Jake’s actor father Brian (Greg Kinnear).

As the family settles in their new home on the second floor which was formerly the residence of Jake’s grandfather, Brian and his psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle) come to see that there is a financial matter which should be handled as soon as possible. There is a woman’s clothing shop on the first floor which is run by a middle-aged woman named Leonor (Paulina García), and we hear from Leonor that she was like a close family member to Brian’s father. In fact, Brian’s father kindly allowed her to pay him an exceptionally low rent for years, and she expects the same kindness from her new neighbor/landlord.

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Unfortunately, Brian cannot afford that at present even if he wants. Maybe he can ignore the fact that the average rent around the neighbourhood has been raised pretty high thanks to its ongoing gentrification during recent years, but he cannot possibly overlook the current financial status of his family. His acting career has seemed to be going nowhere for several years without making much money, and his family has mostly depended on Kathy’s income. He cannot simply drop a significant financial opportunity for his family just because of following what his father might have wished, and both Kathy and his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) agree to that.

As Brian and Leonor try to deal with this problem nicely as good neighbors, Jake begins to hang around with Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri), who quickly becomes his close friend via their common interest in art. While Jake wants to be a painter, Tony aspires for acting career, and they even consider going together to Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performance Arts someday.

The more they spend time with each other, the more we notice how different they are. While Jake is a sensitive kid who usually looks shy and reserved compared to his friend, Tony is more outgoing and confident with his talkative attitude, and their different personalities are evident particularly during the Sunday night party scene filled with various kids around their age. While Jake just stays at the fringe, Tony actively approaches to a girl he is interested in, and what happens between him and that girl leads to a wordless but profound moment feeling as loud as its exuberant surrounding.

Meanwhile, their parents continue to be embroiled in their business conflict. Brian tries to be reasonable with Leonor, but there is the limit on how much he can step back for her, and the same thing can be said about Leonor, who simply cannot afford to pay the rent as much as Brian requests. After being more aware of their parents’ conflict, Jake and Tony respond to this situation through their defiant silence toward their parents, but their action only reminds their parents more of how frustrating the situation is.

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The director Ira Sachs, who wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Mauricio Zacharias, keeps everything calm and gentle even around that point, but the emotional intensity of his characters’ conflict is more palpable than before. During one of their conversation scenes, Leonor reveals something personal about Brian’s father after being more frustrated with Brian, and we can see how much that hurts him even though he merely gives a flat response to her. In the end, there comes the inevitable moment of hard decision, and we can sense the pain and guilt from the characters in that crucial moment as the performers stay true to their characters without any misstep.

While Greg Kinnear, Paulina García, Jennifer Ehle, Talia Balsam, and Alfred Molina (He plays an old friend of Leonor, by the way) are dependable in their respective roles, the movie ultimately belongs to young performers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, and they are fabulous in their unadorned natural acting which fits well with the realistic atmosphere of the movie. I also admire how deftly Sachs handles other young performers in the movie as interesting human details to observe, and this is exemplified well especially during one brief passing shot which possibly suggests Jake’s awakening sexuality.

Like Sachs’ previous films “Keep the Lights On” (2012) and “Love Is Strange” (2014), “Little Men” so effortlessly unfolds its understated drama that, to be frank with you, I struggled to some degrees for describing how it did its job well enough to touch me a lot. You may not be convinced enough to watch it yet, but I assure you again that you will be surprised by its rich human experience generated from modest but undeniably powerful moments. In short, this is one of the small gems of this year you cannot miss.

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Tale of Tales (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Three bizarre fairy tales

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“Tale of Tales” is one of the most visually impressive films I have ever watched during this year. Based on three stories from the 17th century fairy tale collection by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, the movie wields plenty of memorable scenes of beauty or grotesque on the screen, and I could not help but marvel at each of them during my viewing. Unfortunately, these wonderful moments do not generate enough power together to engage me as being hampered by scattershot storytelling and languid narrative pace, and this is really a shame especially considering the painstaking efforts shown from them.

In the beginning of the first tale, we are introduced to the King and Queen of Longtrellis, played by Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly. While they are very unhappy due to her continuing infertility, the queen happens to encounter a sinister necromancer, and he offers her an odd solution to her unhappiness. There is some big sea monster at the bottom of the sea, and its heart will help her get pregnant.

As a man who loves and cares about his queen, the king instantly goes to the bottom of the sea while wearing a diving suit, and, after one of a few suspenseful moments in the movie, he eventually succeeds in having her get what she wants. As the necromancer instructed in advance, the heart of the sea monster is promptly cooked by a virgin woman alone and then served to the queen, who soon becomes quite happy to see what she has wished for so long.

However, she later comes to realize that her happiness comes with more price than she expected. Her dear son, whose appearance is as pale as that sea monster, grows up to be a young man on the verge of adulthood, and he is virtually inseparable from someone who happened to be linked with him at the time of their birth. The more the queen tries to separate them from each other, the more they tightly stick together.

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In the meantime, the movie also unfolds two other fairy tales in parallel, which are slightly connected with the first one via its one early scene. In case of the second tale, we meet the King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) and then are later introduced to two other main characters Dora (Hayley Carmichael) and Imma (Shirley Henderson). In case of the third tale, we meet the King of Highhills (Toby Jones) and his little daughter Violet, who later grows up to become a fair young lady played by Bebe Cave.

The second tale starts with the King of Strongcliff waking up early in the morning after his another lustful night of debaucheries. As he looks upon the city from his place, he happens to hear a lovely singing voice coming from some alley, and he soon spots the very woman who enchants his heart from the distance, but it is soon revealed to us that this woman, named Dora, is not as beautiful as he believes. She is actually an old dyer lady living and working with her sister Imma, and she is at a loss as the king persists in his blind courtship.

At that point, Imma comes to have an idea which may benefit herself as well as her sister. As presenting herself to the king instead of Dora, she exposes only one finger to him, but then the King understandably wants more, so Imma must do something to hide the truth from him. As she tries to make her look, uh, more presentable to the king, we get an amusingly grotesque moment to watch, and then there comes a sudden plot turn leading to a far more disturbing one which will certainly make you cringe for good reasons.

The third tale also turns out to be equally dark and brutal after its own bizarre setup process. While his daughter performs a song for him, the King of Highhills happens to be distracted by a flea which somehow keeps evading getting squashed by him, and this very tiny insect eventually becomes an object of his obsession after he decides to keep it under his care. Constantly getting fed by him, the flea keeps growing more and more to his delight, and we cannot help but be amused by how bigger it becomes everytime we see it.

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Meanwhile, the princess is left overlooked and neglected while her father is occupied with his private pet, and then she finds herself in a difficult circumstance when her father decides to hold an absurd contest for her future groom. Although the contest is started like a practical joke for the king’s own amusement, it becomes quite less funny when somebody comes in and then gives the right answer for his question, and this cruel reversal is followed by scary moments as barbaric and ruthless as you can expect from fairy tales.

“Tale of Tales” is directed by Matteo Garrone, who previously impressed me with his gritty crime drama “Gomorrah” (2008). While the movie deliberately emphasizes the unrealistic aspects of its stories, its special effects and make-ups feel quite realistic on the screen along with several real locations used for the production, and the overall result is weird and vivid as filled with various visual goodies to enjoy. Its production design and costumes are pleasures to behold in their details, and the cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and the composer Alexandre Desplat also make considerable contributions to the overall atmosphere of the film.

Despite all these enjoyable things, I only observed the movie from the distance while not caring much about its stories and characters. Juggling its three stories together instead of handling them one by one, the movie keeps losing its focus as dragging its multiple plotlines, and we only come to be more aware of how thin each story inherently is.

“Tale of Tales” is rather dissatisfying on the whole, but I will probably remember some of its memorable elements for a while. I enjoyed the scene unfolded inside a maze reminiscent of “The Shining” (1980), I was horrified by how one character mindlessly pushes herself to the bloody extreme just because of one casual remark, and I was amused to some degrees as watching how everything comes together as expected during the final scene. I just wish these things and many other things in the movie would add up to more than the sum of them.

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Captain Fantastic (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An atypical family’s wacky journey

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I remain unsure and baffled about how “Captain Fantastic” is about, even though I was well aware of what it is about. I guess it is supposed to be a whimsical comedy drama about a quirky alternative family lifestyle, but I often found its occasional shifts in tone and mood too distracting and disorienting to engage me. At first, it looks like a comic cross between “The Mosquito Coast” (1986) and Wes Anderson movies, and then it becomes your average family road movie, and then it tries to be as serious as “Running on Empty” (1988), and then it even comes to be reminiscent of Japanese film “Departures” (2008) around the finale. In other words, this is something I come across from time to time: a typically oddball Sundance film which is merely whimsical for the sake of whimsy.

The first 30 minutes of the movie, which will surely determine your inclination for it, is alternatively amusing and uncomfortable as introducing us to the unorthodox family lifestyle of Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) and his children. Not long after their first child Bodevan (George MacKay) was born, Ben and his wife Leslie (Trin Miller) moved to a remote mountainous forest area in the Pacific Northwest region, and they were happy together with their seven children for several years until Leslie had to leave their place due to her worsening mental illness.

While they have not had any formal school education, the children have learned not only survival skills but also many other various things under their unusual but smart parents’ guidance. The opening sequence shows Bodevan doing a ritual forest hunt for his approaching manhood, and then we see them going through their daily physical training routines under Ben’s strict but caring supervision. At one point, they climb up along a stiff rocky cliff together, and you may cringe when one of them happens to face a perilous situation and then has to take care of it for himself just because his father says so.

During evening, they read books or play music, and they are quite knowledgeable as expected. Due to their extensive knowledge on emergency medical treatments, all of them often speak like walking human anatomy textbooks, so we have a line like “If you hit the rocks below you, you’ll die from blunt force trauma. Or internal bleeding from massive bone fracturing. Or splenic flexure of the large intestine.” They also can speak several different foreign languages including French, German, and Esperanto, and, not so surprisingly, they all are heavily influenced by their parent’s radical liberal philosophy (“Power to the people!” – “Stick it to the man!”).

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Despite his wife’s absence, life seems to continue as usual for Ben and his children. He is pretty frank to his children about their mother’s bipolar disorder problem (“Mom does not have enough of the neurotransmitter serotonin to conduct electrical signals in her brain.”), and the children mostly keep their spirit high as occupying themselves with tasks given to them respectively. In case of Zaja (Shree Crooks), she reads her book while wearing a gas mask for no apparent reason, and that is one of many eccentric touches tacked onto the film just for our amusement.

And then their little cozy world is shaken by a sudden sad news. Ben hears from his sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) that Leslie killed herself at a hospital where she was admitted, and he is also notified that her funeral is going to be held in her hometown in New Mexico as wanted by her parents. While devastated by this news as much as his children, Ben is reluctant to go there because he knows well that he will not be welcomed by her father Jack (Frank Langella), but he eventually decides to attend the funeral along with his children.

As Ben and his children are going to New Mexico by their shabby school bus, the movie generates another series of small quirky scenes from the awkward interactions between the family and the world outside. When he comes across a pretty girl around his age, Bodevan is naturally attracted to that girl like any teenager boy would, but then he only comes to make himself look silly and strained in front of her while trying to articulate his feelings toward her. When the family drop by Harper’s house, the contrast between them and Harper’s average middle-class family is quite clear from the start, and this accordingly leads to a few funny moments to watch.

I was indeed amused at times during this part, but I must also admit that I also felt some reservation on Ben and his children’s lifestyle, which often induced an urge to call Child Protection Services during my viewing. While it goes without saying that his children have been taught quite well in many aspects, it can also be said that whatever potential they have is blocked by their nearly isolated daily life, and that is exemplified well by Bodevan’s aspiration for higher learning. He wants to study at an Ivy League college, but that means he has to leave his family, so he naturally becomes conflicted when he gets quite a good chance for that. It is disappointing that this personal conflict of his is eventually resolved in a way too trite and convenient, and the same thing can be said about a trouble involved with Bodevan’s younger brother Rellian (Nicholas Hamilton), who has more difficulty in dealing with grief and anger than his siblings.

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When it later shifts itself to a more serious mode as Ben and his children finally arrive in New Mexico and attend Leslie’s funeral, the movie often stumbles despite its good intentions. What is supposed to be a scathing comment on the hypocrisy of funeral attendees feels more like a rude exercise in self-righteousness, and this jarring impression is further emphasized as Viggo Mortensen’s whimsical performance is rubbed against the no-nonsense acting of Frank Langella, who is actually welcoming as the voice of common sense in the movie. Although Jack dislikes his son-in-law a lot for good reasons, he and his wife Abigail (Ann Dowd) clearly care about their grandchildren, and it is not so difficult to understand their concern and practical view even though they supposedly stand for everything Ben and his wife despised. Now I remember the closing sentence of my late critic friend Roger Ebert’s two-star review on “I Am Sam” (2001): “You can’t have heroes and villains when the wrong side is making the best sense.”

Under the director/writer Matt Ross’ competent direction, Mortensen shows us an unexpected comic side, and he and his young co-performers carry the film well via their natural chemistry clearly shown on the screen, but their admirable acting is unfortunately hampered by weak characterization. Sure, I remember how Ben’s children respectively look like to some degrees, but their personalities are so thin that it was sometime difficult for me to tell who is who despite their deliberately odd names (Can somebody please tell me which one is Kielyr or Vespyr?).

Considering heaps of positive responses it has received since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year (it also received the Directing Prize at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in this year, by the way), you may regard “Captain Fantastic” more favorably than me. The movie somehow failed to hold my interest, but it tries to bounce along with its quirky characters at least, and I did have some odd fun with that even though I did not connect well with its story and characters. I do not think the movie is that fantastic as others think, but I sort of understand its appeals anyway.

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Missing Woman (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her babysitter is missing…

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South Korean film “Missing Woman” begins as a seemingly conventional mystery thriller and then reveals darker elements which later turn the story into a sort of social horror tale which is often frighteningly realistic to me and other South Korean audiences. At first, we fear for what can possibly happen to one of two main characters in the movie, and then we are also horrified and saddened to learn about the other character’s madness which is as stark as “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (1992).

For Ji-seon (Eom Ji-won), Han-mae (Kong Hyo-jin) has been like a gift from heaven. Due to her demanding work schedule, Ji-seon is usually too busy to spend time with her baby daughter even after she returns to her apartment, and this certainly does not make her look that good in her ongoing custody battle with her ex-husband at the court.

Han-mae looks like a perfect babysitter any mother would hire without hesitation. When she was introduced to Ji-seon via the recommendation from some other babysitter working in the same apartment building, Ji-seon did not have much confidence on a Chinese woman who barely speaks Korean, but Han-mae quickly impressed Ji-seon with her effortless way of calming Ji-seon’s daughter, and Han-mae soon becomes indispensable to Ji-seon in many aspects.

When Ji-seon goes to work during one morning, everything looks fine and busy for her as usual except her daughter seems to have a cold, but then a strange thing happens. When Ji-seon comes back to her apartment during late evening, she is baffled to find that her daughter and Han-mae are not there. Mainly because she is too exhausted after another busy day, Ji-seon just assumes that they went to the hospital, but she does not hear anything from Han-mae even during the next day.

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As Ji-seon gradually comes to realize that her daughter has been kidnapped, her situation only gets worse hour by hour. Everything she knows about Han-mae turns out to be false, and it is also revealed later that Han-mae is associated with some seedy people in the Chinatown area, who are not so willing to tell everything to Ji-seon for good reasons.

The first half of the movie steadily keeps its tension level high as pushing Ji-seon into her nightmarish circumstance, and Eom Ji-won, who previously appeared as one of the crucial supporting characters in “The Silenced” (2015), is believable in her increasingly neurotic performance. Although Ji-seon makes several unwise choices along the plot, Eom’s forthright acting lets us understand Ji-seon’s frantic state of mind at least, and we come to emphasize with Ji-seon’s terrible plight as watching her desperate search for any possible clue which may lead her to Han-mae and her daughter.

And we also come to reflect on how much Ji-seon has been pressured as a single working mother. She simply wants to go on her way independently for herself as well as her daughter, but the kidnapping incident painfully reminds her of how vulnerable and disadvantaged her social position is. While I am glad to see that more and more people in South Korea recognize women’s rights in these days, misogyny remains a serious problem in the South Korea society, and the movie has a number of cringe-inducing moments as observing how Ji-seon is unfairly treated by other characters. Due to her belated report to the police, the detectives in charge of the case are rather suspicious about Ji-seon, and so are Ji-seon’s ex-husband and his mother, who understandably suspect that Ji-seon conspired with her babysitter for not losing her custody. In case of Ji-seon’s direct boss, he is very inconsiderate in front of her, and his brief callous comment is probably not so different from what many working mothers in South Korea often hear at their workplace.

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As Ji-seon manages to gather some clues during the second half, we get to know more about Han-mae along with Ji-seon, and that is where the movie enters another dark territory to chill the audiences. I am not going to tell you anything for avoiding spoilers, but I can tell you that Ji-seon finds herself getting to know and understand Han-mae more than expected – and that there are a few harrowing moments to strike you for their utter despair and desperation.

While I must point out that casting a South Korean actress as a Chinese character looks inherently problematic from the beginning, Kong Hyo-jin, who was unforgettable as the hilariously deranged heroine of “Crush and Blush” (2008), gives an effective performance which is somehow both chilling and poignant. What Han-mae committed is inexcusable to say the least, but we cannot help but feel sorry for her as her past is revealed bit by bit. There have been many poor foreign women coming to South Korea for better future during recent years, and Han-mae’s unjust ordeal reminds me of those horrific news reports on how some of them only found themselves exploited and mistreated in the end with no future for them at all.

It is pretty easy to guess what is really going on even before its half point, but “Missing Woman” has enough emotional ground to hold our attention, and that is why its unabashedly melodramatic climax works although we already know its inevitable destination. The director Lee Eon-hee, who also adapted the screen story by Hong Eue-mee, handles well the dark, uncomfortable aspects of the story, and her two talented performers ably carry the movie on their opposite positions.

2016 has been a wonderful year for South Korean movie audiences because there have been many distinctive female dramas and comedies such as “The Handmaiden” (2016) and “Queen of Walking” (2016). “Missing Woman” surely deserves to be mentioned along with these films, and I really hope its success will contribute to this welcoming change as well.

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Love & Friendship (2016) ☆☆☆ (3/4): Stillman & Austen

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“Love & Friendship” is as witty and delightful as we can expect from the combination between Jane Austen and Whit Stillman, who fit well with each other as much as Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers in “No Country for Old Men” (2007). Like Austen, Stillman is an astute, intelligent storyteller who is good at handling smart, haughty characters, and his new movie has a small naughty fun with its heroine who is a lot different from the more good-hearted and well-mannered heroines of Austen’s novels

Based on Austen’s short novel “Lady Susan”, which was written before her six novels but was published more than 50 years after her death, the movie mainly revolves around the schemes of Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). As a sassy woman who is still young and beautiful despite being recently widowed, Lady Susan has no qualms about using her wit and beauty to charm guys around her, and we hear later that she has had a certain reputation around London since her husband’s early death.

While she needs to marry again for her economic stability, her priority at present is marrying off her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to a wealthy suitor, but, as shown from the opening sequence of the movie, things did not go well for her recently. While she tried to get Frederica engaged with Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett) during her stay at the Manwaring estate, Lady Susan happened to get herself involved with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) instead, so now she has to leave the estate as his wife is quite upset about her husband’s infidelity.

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After consoled a bit by her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), Lady Susan comes down to Churchill, where the estate belonging to her brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) is located. Although his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) does not like Lady Susan for good reasons, Charles cordially welcomes his sister-in-law into his house anyway, and Lady Susan soon sees another opportunity from Catherine’s brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel). While he is apparently around Frederica’s age, he also looks like someone who can marry Lady Susan, and she is certainly motivated by the fact that he is the sole heir of his family estate.

Even though he is well aware of her reputation, Reginald finds himself quickly charmed by Lady Susan as spending more time with her, and this certainly alarms not only Catherine and but also his parents. While Reginald emphasizes that he and Lady Susan are just friends, but what is happening between them is pretty clear to Catherine while Charles remains oblivious to how selfish and opportunistic his sister-in-law actually is.

Of course, the situation becomes more complicated than expected for Lady Susan, and Stillman’s adapted screenplay gives us several funny moments as she and other characters maintain their civilized attitude as usual. While trying to get Reginald closer to her, Lady Susan faces another difficulty when her daughter turns out to be reluctant about marrying Sir James, and then there also comes another private matter she has to deal with.

Deliciously wily and devious in her edgy comic performance, Kate Beckinsale reminds us again that she is too talented to be remembered only for “Underworld” (2002) and its following sequels. As a matter of fact, she was wonderfully haughty and snobbish in Stillman’s previous work “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), and “Friends & Friendship” gives her another fun role to play with gusto. Lady Susan is not exactly a likable character, but she is witty and charming enough to watch at least thanks to Beckinsale, and we come to enjoy how she attempts to manipulate everyone around her including her own daughter.

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The supporting performers surrounding Beckinsale are effective in their broad archetype roles. Chloë Sevigny, who previously co-starred along with Beckinsale in “The Last Days of Disco”, complements Beckinsale well during their scenes, and Stephen Fry is unflappable as Alicia’s businessman husband, who does not approve of his wife’s relationship with her close friend at all for an understandable personal reason. While Morfydd Clark and Xavier Samuel are sympathetic as the least jaded characters in the movie, Tom Bennett is simply hilarious as an ebullient but incorrigibly dim-witted guy who has no idea on how silly and embarrassing he is in front of others. One of his best moments comes from when Sir James tries to impress Frederica and others in the drawing room, and I and other audiences could not help but chuckle as watching the other characters flabbergasted by Sir James’ cheerful ignorance on a certain piece of biblical knowledge.

After making his first three films “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994), and “The Last Days of Disco”, Stillman had remained silent for more than 10 years, and then he came back with “Damsels in Distress” (2011). After watching “Damsels in Distress”, I belatedly watched “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco”, and I admired their witty, intelligent comedy although I was not that wholly enthusiastic about them as a foreign audience not so familiar with their cultural backgrounds.

Maybe because of my familiarity with Austen’s novels (I read all of them except “Northanger Abbey”), I found that “Love & Friendship” is a little more enjoyable than Stillman’s other works. Austen’s characters are always fun to watch whenever they say one thing while not saying another thing, and Stillman, Beckinsale, and the other cast members did a nice job of conveying that sense of fun to us.

Sidenote: The title of the movie is changed to “Lady Susan” here in South Korea.

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13th (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): From Slavery to Mass Incarceration

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At the beginning, Netflix documentary film “13th” presents an alarming piece of statistical data. While the population of US is merely 5% of the entire human population in the world, 20% of the prisoners in the world are incarcerated in American prisons. Any sensible American citizen can see that this is a terribly absurd fact considering that their nation has often been regarded as the land of freedom.

Mainly through various interviewees ranging from Angel Davis to Newt Gingrich, the director/co-writer Ava DuVernay, who previously directed “Selma” (2014), gives us a clear, persuasive argument on this serious social problem, which is in fact much more complex and stubborn than you might think. Although it was merely a small overlooked glitch in the US constitution at first, this seemingly inconsequential but fundamental fault has been exploited through a vicious systemic cycle of racism and incarceration, and it is really chilling and daunting to see that this may be continued as usual without any legal measures to stop it.

Everything was originated from one particular clause in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which surely outlaws slavery as President Abraham Lincoln intended in 1865 but unfortunately contains one serious loophole in that clause. While the amendment makes it clear that slavery is banned in US or any place subject to its jurisdiction, it does not ban involuntary servitude as “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

This loophole was quickly exploited not long after the end of the Civil War, when the infrastructure of the former Confederate States of America was completely collapsed while the free labor force via slavery was not available any more. Although thousands of emancipated slaves in the South were technically free as protected by the 13th Amendment, they were still penniless and helpless at the bottom of their society, so they became easy targets for arrest and incarceration. Once they were arrested just for minor misdemeanors like loitering or vagrancy, they were sent to prisons where they could be used as cheap labor force. Of course, this alternative form of slavery was perfectly legal according to that problematic clause in the 13th Amendment.

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The documentary gives us a pointed explanation on how this social injustice caused more racism – and how these two factors further solidified the lower social status of black people via their toxic positive feedback. The more black people were labelled as criminals, the more they were disregarded and despised as second-rated citizens. This virulent trend kept being continued in the American society even while it entered the 20th century, and that was the main reason why D.W. Griffith’s controversial cinematic milestone “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) could get away with its blatant racist messages while praised by many white people including President Woodrow Wilson, who even reportedly said that the movie was “like writing history with lightning”. As a matter of fact, the enormous popularity of this very inconvenient masterpiece eventually led to the second rise of Ku Klux Klan, a horrible example of life imitating art.

Around the late 20th century, the situation finally started to look better for black people and other minority people in the American society. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other civil rights activists won their long, difficult battle against racism as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in the US congress during the 1960s, and it looked like the American society seemed to be ready for a new beginning while leaving behind the era of Jim Crow laws.

However, the system struck back harder as politicians boasted their law and order policies for their political gains. President Richard Nixon successfully used that tactic for being elected twice, and so did President Ronald Reagan. As they declared the war on crime and drug in public, many poor black people were arrested and sent to prison just because of drug possession, while white people were usually punished lightly in contrast. As a result, the criminal prejudice on black people was kept being amplified by the media and the government, and that was exemplified well by the maddening case of the Central Park Five, one of the most shameful historical cases of racism and prejudice.

While the Republican gets a fair share of blames through Nixon and Reagan, the documentary is not kind to the Democratic either. President Bill Clinton made sure that he looked tough on crime and drug as much as his predecessors, and that was how that infamous three-strikes law and the Federal Crime Bill in 1994 came into the picture. Clinton recently admitted that his policies on crime were a mistake, but it was already too late considering what his administration inadvertently accelerated. While the number of US prisoners was only 357,292 in 1970, it was increased to around 1 million in 1990, and then it was further increased to around 2 million in 2000.

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As the increasing number of prisoners became a huge problem for the US federal government, American corporations saw golden opportunities from that, and the documentary gives us several infuriating cases of how they profited from their prison business as forming a massive industry complex feeding on mass incarceration. For instance, the privatization of prisons by incarceration firms led to the serious decline in the quality of prison environment in many aspects as they heartlessly pursued profit, and this disturbing tendency extended even to immigrant facilities as shown in the documentary.

Again, prisoners became suitably cheap labor force, and the movie shows us how they were exploited by prominent American corporations including Walmart –and how that was possible thanks to an organization called American Legislature Exchange Council (ALEC), which helped building laws to enrich its associated corporations as a legitimate but shady connection between corporations and lawmakers. Many of these corporations eventually distanced themselves away from using prisoners, but some of them still stick to their usual business mode as pointed out in the documentary, and you will be probably surprised to know who they are.

As it reaches to its devastating conclusion, all of the interviewees in “13th” agree that the system must be fixed as soon as possible, but the prospect does not look that good at this point. While the number of prisoners has been decreased during the Obama Presidency, the American society has kept being shaken by the sad, tragic cases of many young black people shot by the police or guys who supposedly followed that ‘stand your ground’ law, and now racism rises again on full throttle mode with the vile ascension of Donald Trump and his deplorable far-right cronies.

Although things will not probably be changed much for next several years as many of the interviewees in the documentary worry, there is still some hope as shown from the Black Lives Matter movement or the recent nationwide demonstrations protesting against Trump and what he despicably represents. Let’s hope that, after fully recognizing their worsening problem and its undeniable racist origin, the American society and its people shall overcome in the end.

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