Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 07/30/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksPIETÁ (dir. Kim Ki-duk, 2012)

If ever there were a person trapped in a Buddhist-hell of continuous earthly suffering it is Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), the central character of PIETÁ. As the hired muscle for a seedy loan shark he patrols the grimy, downtrodden machine shops of Seoul, tracking down those who have reneged on their debts and collecting his own twisted form of compensation, crippling his victims so that his boss can collect the insurance money stemming from their “accidents.” What’s worse, Kang-do almost seems to enjoy what he does and as, the film progresses, the urban landscape around him becomes as cluttered with his hobbling victims as the space around Jacob Marley is by ghosts. Day-in, day-out, Kang-do shambles through this chilling vacuum-of-an-existence, seemingly knowing no other way to live.

Into this void one day is injected an older woman named Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), who mysteriously follows Kang-do around on his daily routines before approaching him and telling him that she is the mother who had abandoned him years before. Kang-do scoffs at this and proceeds to subject her to every manner of humiliation possible, trying to get her out of his way, until finally convincing himself that she must, after all, be his mother. Kang-do begins to soften and change but, unfortunately, karma is closing in on him fast and a startling revelation about Mi-sun’s character will ultimately seal his fate.

The unrelentingly stark atmosphere of Pietà is daunting and bleak, with Kang-do resembling what might have been the result if one of the abandoned children-from-hell of either Luis Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS or Hector Babenco’s PIXOTE had been allowed to reach full maturity in an ancient Greek tragedy. Indeed, Kim strips bare and refuses to sentimentalize the machinations of capitalism, showing how the wealthy prey upon the lowest classes, portraying a world where every human body has a price, no matter how cheap. The first half of the film, with the naked light of Kim’s camera firmly fixed on the scorched-earth of Lee’s empty existence, can be extremely hard to watch at times. But—having said that—the film pays handsome dividends to those adventurous enough to see it through to its end. The conclusion is particularly rich, with both main characters – karmic-ally speaking, left with no place to go – moving inexorably toward painful redemption, at last allowing some light to filter into this purgatory.

Special mention should made of the performances by the two leads: Jo Min-su is heartbreaking in an incredibly difficult role while Lee Jung-jin—his face a mask of pain and suffering early on—manages to bring life even to this monstrous character.

Critic André Bazin once famously summarized the filmmaking philosophy of Erich von Stroheim thus: “Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.”  Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà proves that such a withering stare will ultimately reveal beauty, as well.

Though Pietà was winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film festival (surprisingly, the first Korean film to do so) Kim Ki-duk has long been established as one of the poets laureate of the new Korean cinema, his films with their stark and erotic imagery, sparse dialogue and quiet, hermetically-sealed environments, and focus on allegorical situations and Buddhist transformation making him a fixture on the stage of world cinema.  Many of his uniquely searing, uncompromising parables, from THE ISLE (2000) and SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER… AND SPRING (2003) to 3-IRON (2004) and THE BOW (2005), are available in our Korean section.

Interestingly, two other films made by prominent Korean directors in recent years have similarly dealt with the theme of motherhood (or grandmother-hood, as it happens) in an unflinching and thought-provoking way: Bong Joon-ho’s aptly titled MOTHER (2009) and Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY (2010).

New Releases 07/23/13

Top Hits
Trance (drama/thriller, James McAvoy. Rotten Tomatoes: 68%. Metacritic: 61. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Trance, Danny Boyle’s speed-freaky neo-noir, begins in a London auction house, one of those muted, imperial shrines where old masters are bought with nearly imperceptible nods. Starting this way is pretty much akin to a bull locking itself in a china shop. The director of head-rushing entertainments like 28 Days Later and 127 Hours, Mr. Boyle is a flamboyant visual stylist with a punk rocker’s delight in anarchic jolts. His is a cinema of attraction and repulsion. One minute he’s seducing you with bold color and whooshing cameras, the next he’s like a kid with a Taser, zapping you with grotesque images like a macheted head topped off as cleanly as a coconut.” Read more…)

Bullet to the Head (action, Sylvester Stallone. Rotten Tomatoes: 47%. Metacritic: 48. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The multiple bullets that pierce multiple brains in Bullet to the Head — boring holes into people as disposable as paper gun targets — suggest that the title refers to an ideal rather than being merely descriptive. It implies, in other words, an appreciation and awareness of the principles of contemporary action cinema, and perhaps even a sense of play in respect to the genre. And while the veteran action director Walter Hill hasn’t done much to enliven this dull, unmemorable material, with its mechanically moving parts and popping gunfire, its dull-red splatter and spray, he has brought a spark of wit to the proceedings, starting with the figure of Sylvester Stallone.” Read more…)

Ginger & Rosa (drama, Elle Fanning. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 69. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Ginger and Rosa are best friends. Vanguard baby boomers born in adjacent London hospital beds in 1945, they are teenagers in 1962, when most of Sally Potter’s ardent and intelligent film about the girls takes place. The air around them is charged with anxiety — about the threat of nuclear war, mostly — intellectual restlessness and sexual curiosity. Perhaps it always is that way for 17-year-olds, but every generation acts out its own particular pageant of rage, revolt and disillusionment.” Read more…)

Steel Magnolias (drama, TV remake with African-American cast, Queen Latifah. Metacritic: 75. From Mike Hale’s New York Times television review: “When that thick slice of Southern ham called Steel Magnolias was released in 1989, not much was said about the fact that in a nearly two-hour film, set in a Louisiana town, only two black actors got to speak. Both played nurses, and between them they had about four lines. There were other black faces on screen — maids, banquet servers, token wedding guests — but they just smiled and kept their mouths shut. It’s satisfying, then, to see how the new race-reversed Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias on Sunday night turns the tables. White actors hover in the background, and few of them speak: a nurse, a couple of doctors and an ex-boyfriend. It’s hard to see why the doctors needed to be white, but let’s not quibble.” Read more…)

Twixt (horror/thriller, Val Kilmer. Rotten Tomatoes: 38%. Metacritic: 38.)

New Blu-Ray
Bullet to the Head

New Foreign
Graceland (Phillipines, thriller, Arnold Reyes. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%. Metacritic: 75. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “The sins of the fathers are visited upon their daughters in Graceland, a tense and tough-minded family drama in which young girls are as likely to be victimized by plenty as by poverty. Set in the teeming streets and dank alleys of Metro Manila, as the capital region is known, this bleak sophomore feature from the young writer and director Ron Morales centers on Marlon [a riveting Arnold Reyes], the loyal driver — and part-time procurer — for a corrupt Filipino politician named Chango [Menggie Cobarrubias]. Though disgusted by his enabling of Chango’s taste for underage company, Marlon has few options; with a wife in the hospital and a daughter beginning to crave the electronic toys of her wealthier classmates, he can ill afford unemployment.” Read more…)

Pieta (Republic of Korea, drama, Min-soo Jo. Rotten Tomatoes: 81%. Metacritic: 72. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “Morally cunning and with a tone as black as pitch, Pieta, the 18th film from the South Korean director Kim Ki-duk, is a deeply unnerving revenge movie in which redemption is dangled like a cat toy before a cougar. The beast in question is Kang-do [Lee Jung-jin], a merciless bag man for a powerful moneylender who cripples slum-dwelling debtors to collect on their insurance claims. As cold to himself as to his clients, he lives in a comfortless flat where the entrails from the previous night’s chicken dinner still decorate the bathroom floor. So when a strange woman [Cho Min-soo] begins to stalk him, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him long ago, Kang-do barely hesitates: he rapes her.” Read more…)

New British
Ginger & Rosa (drama, Elle Fanning, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 80%. Metacritic: 69. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Ginger and Rosa are best friends. Vanguard baby boomers born in adjacent London hospital beds in 1945, they are teenagers in 1962, when most of Sally Potter’s ardent and intelligent film about the girls takes place. The air around them is charged with anxiety — about the threat of nuclear war, mostly — intellectual restlessness and sexual curiosity. Perhaps it always is that way for 17-year-olds, but every generation acts out its own particular pageant of rage, revolt and disillusionment.” Read more…)

New TV
Hell on Wheels: Seasons 1 & 2

New Documentaries
Favela Rising (Brazilian society, poverty, music, activism. Rotten Tomatoes: 60%. Metacritic: 65.)
Hecho en Mexico (Mexican music, culture)

New Music DVDs
Hecho en Mexico (Mexican music, culture, in Hot Docs)

New Children’s DVDs
Super Friends! A Dangerous Fate