Monday, April 26, 2021


Let’s consider the title Memories of Murder for a second. Though there is a coda set in 2003 that shows one of the detectives from the main story thinking about the nine unsolved homicides nearly two decades later, writer/director Bong Joon Ho does not frame his serial killer story as a reminiscence. So why call it that? It could just be the fact that Memories of Murder is a film based on true events, and the victims should not be forgotten. It could also be self-reflexive: if this movie is effective, it will have left an impression on an audience that may have otherwise never heard of these killings, and thus they are made to remember the tragedy. 

Not that Memories of Murder is a straight docudrama. Its closest analogue might be David Fincher’s Zodiac in how it transforms history into living cinema. The central case of the drama involves a series of murders in a rural South Korean town, a place that is ill-prepared for the level of violence and sadism they are to be subjected to. Over a short amount of time, multiple women are found dead, having been bound and assaulted. There are few suspects in the area, and they are drilled hard by Inspector Park (Song Kang Ho, Parasite) and Inspector Jo (Kim Roe Ha, Barking Dogs Never Bite). They are quick to judgment and once they have made up their minds about who, they’ll beat them into a confession. 

When their cruelty is exposed, a more experienced detective, Inspector Seo (Kim Sang Kyung) is sent in from Seoul to assist. He quickly takes point, preferring methods to madness. Yet, as the case drags on, it only presents more dead ends even as patterns of behavior emerge, and Seo gets more frustrated and more emotionally involved. Soon, the dynamic begins to shift. He becomes more reckless and violent while Park becomes more considered. The common goal remains, but how they pursue the mission diverges. 

It’s a pretty crafty move on Bong’s part. Genre convention is that these men will find some middle ground in pursuit of their quarry, but to so thoroughly upend their motivations adds a tantalizing element to Memories of Murder, particularly since both Song and Kim are such gifted actors, we can believe both halves of their personality as being equally viable. No man is one thing in Memories of Murder. Not even the killer. He may be unique in his predilections but in everything else, we are led to believe, he is simply ordinary. 

Thus, Bong shows us the effects of violence in the long-term. It can be sobering and life-altering, or it can be destructive, removing one’s sense of purpose as it dismantles one’s faith in the social contract. Just who could be capable of such horrific killings? Unlike your more common serial killer movie, Memories of Murder never really attempts to answer that question. There is a brief reference to the FBI having profilers who work out such details—and the FBI is ultimately turned to for DNA assistance—but there is also an intriguing line drawn between the two countries. America is so big, it needs a whole organization to keep track of all the bad being done; in South Korea, there is a sense that everyone knows everyone else. To accept a rationale for committing serial murder is to accept that maybe you don’t know your neighbor as well as you think you do. 

It’s a lot to think about, and yet Memories of Murder never feels as heavy as its subject. This is down to the characters. In particular, the two local cops are such quirky individuals, they transcend type. Inspector Park, for instance, is a blowhard who claims he can tell a crook just by locking eyes with him. This is, of course, ludicrous, and he never actually proves it, but it also speaks to a certain self-belief, a bravado that allows him to do his job even when duty weighs heavy. Perhaps it’s this that allows Park to let go while Seo digs in harder. 

There’s a humanity to them both, and to their plight, that allows the lack of resolution to be satisfying. Like the officers, we form our own opinions—this has to be the guy!—and wrestle with the contradictions. Instead of understanding the killer, we understand his pursuers. Theirs is the behavior Bong is slyly profiling, letting us into their way of thinking. 

Of course, famously, the real killer continued to elude police and was only discovered in 2019 due to new DNA breakthroughs. I say famously because this happened at the height of a newfound fame for Bong Joon Ho. The arrest corresponded with the international explosion that was Parasite. Suddenly, a movie many of us loved for sixteen years, but one that most of our friends had never heard of much less seen, was now a central focus. And joy, the Criterion Collection was going to release it in the U.S.! It’s a really keen edition, too, with a detailed film transfer that maintains the muted greens and heavy grays of the original presentation. 

And included on the extensive bonus disc to Memories of Murder is a short program where the director discusses the implications of the arrest on how the movie is viewed now, as well as expressing his own conclusions from during filming. Interesting to note that despite what I said above, he very much wanted to profile and understand the killer in order to understand his story. 

Also featured on disc two is Bong Joon Ho’s 1994 student film Incoherence. This is very much a formative effort, presenting three comic vignettes about middle-aged men of a certain repute behaving in prurient behavior. The middle bit is the only one that is genuinely funny, though I am both amazed that small cartons of milk were being delivered to people’s doorsteps and that anyone would choose that for refreshment whilst jogging. The punchline here is easy to predict: these men are all hypocrites who hide behind an intellectual form of morality, but even at its 30-minute running time, everything in Incoherence is too long—especially when it finally delivers on its point in the epilogue.

Note: This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

IRMA VEP - #1074


Irma Vep is very much a movie of its moment. Released in 1996, Olivier Assayas’ freeform metafictional experiment captures the intersection of independent film, the old guard that inspired it, and the very hip Hong Kong cinema that was just finding its way into the international mainstream.

The story centers around a past-sell-by-date French film director (played by New Wave-legend Jean-Pierre Léaud), who has been tasked with remaking the silent film Les vampires, an epic-length crime serial that, lest you get it twisted, did not feature actual bloodsucking monsters. Rather, the Vampires of the title are an organization wreaking havoc upon Paris circa 1915. The face of this criminal revolution is a femme fatale named Irma Vep. I can likely do no better at describing her as I did in my 2012 write-up of Louis Feuillade’s original:

“Of all the varied elements of Les vampires, the facet that has found a permanent place in pop culture is Irma Vep. The name is an anagram for ‘vampire,’ and she is both a cabaret performer and the top lady crook in the Vampires organization. Played by one-named actress Musidora, Irma Vep came to embody the image of the vamp, a particular kind of femme fatale--though vamping also means to play up certain seductive traits, to exaggerate one's own sense of desirability, much as Musidora does in the film. Her black body suit…would inspire many larger-than-life ladies that followed, fictional and otherwise, and the character would be paid homage in other movies, on album covers, and, of course, comic books.”




Léaud sees no purchase in casting a French woman in the Irma Vep role, as it would be impossible to replace Musidora, so he looks outward and finds Maggie Cheung, who at that point had starred in a couple of Wong Kar-Wai movies, but was also known for parts in action flicks and superpowered genre pieces like The Heroic Trio, a scene of which is featured here. Cheung is playing herself amongst a fictional film crew, a stranger in a strange land, a Hong Kong native who speaks no French, and one of the only people of color on the set.

What Assayas unravels here is a narrative of the difficulties of making a movie, and the pull between art and commerce. Staff complains because Léaud’s character is a tyrant that doesn’t have it anymore, yet they treat their own positions very much like a job. They decry American movies like Batman Returns while doing a remake of what is very much a superhero/villain ancestor, fiddling over the details of their particular fiefdom. All the while not really noticing their lead actress or engaging with her. In the opening scenes, she is very much an object to be talked around, the language barrier used to emphasize she is a necessary nuisance, as if she is somehow to blame for their woes because her role in a prior film production went overtime and caused delays. You almost hope that 90 minutes later she’ll reveal she spoke French all along. 

Assayas gets to have his cake and eat it too with Irma Vep, paying homage to past masters while dissecting and satirizing them, using their innovations to see if he can make something new while also shielding himself with nostalgia. Modern viewers have the added layer of knowing that he would marry Cheung two years later and so Irma Vep celebrating her beauty and abilities is almost like an elaborate love letter*. For her part, we see Cheung in a way we don’t get to that often: completely free to be natural, playing herself with little guard or obvious technique. 

The real breakthrough for the character of Maggie is when she puts on her vinyl costume and runs around as Irma, engaging in free expression. It allows her to find the soul in what her director sees as soulless, to find herself within the symbol of Irma Vep. (And soundtracked by Sonic Youth, no less.) This is what all the artists seek, what Assayas sought, what the French New Wave pursued, what the indie scene of the times was after: space to just be. Irma Vep is at its best when it eschews convention and structure and simply is. The lack of freedom in the fictional project crushes the onscreen director; whereas the unmooring in Irma Vep liberates the real-world auteur. 

There is an inherent irony to there being so much drama on-set while making a film that everyone says is bereft of the same. Assayas is having a grand old time satirizing the self-involved French film scene and the ability of its participants to puff it up and deflate it all in the same breath. One of the more pointed scenes takes aim at the critics and journalists obsessed with intellectualizing the “poetry” of John Woo while complaining filmmakers like Léaud have ruined cinema precisely because they intellectualize everything. All the while, he’s another that ignores Maggie and what she has to say, she’s merely there to reflect his own ideas. 

Which makes it fitting that Maggie Cheung has the ultimate revenge, appearing by herself in the closing, fully in character, the belief that she has something more and better to go to after this. Of all the cast and crew, she’s the one who had a real experience and thus can climb out of the mess they’ve made.

Irma Vep has aged better than I expected. I didn’t rate it much back in the day, it seemed slight. I guess years of seeing creative endeavors get sloppy myself has increased my ability to access what Olivier Assayas has put together. Now I find Irma Vep hilarious and sad and exciting. Like Maggie Cheung, the viewer can stand apart from it all and just let it happen, and thrill at the prospect of rising above.


* Similarly, check the second disc of the Criterion edition of Irma Vep for the short Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung that Olivier Assayas put together a year later. It’s a collage tribute to his love, with the fact that it’s completely silent indicating that Assayas maybe was closer to his made-up filmmaker in Irma Vep than was immediately apparent.

Note: This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, April 23, 2021


This review originally written for in 2010.

The miserly owner of a small-town noodle shop is stuck in a bad marriage, and though he believes his wife is out to drive him crazy, he doesn't realize she's having an affair with one of his employees. He finds out that information the same day he finds out she bought a gun. The gun part is told to him by one of his other employees, and the cheating is revealed by a stalwart police officer who isn't afraid of sharing information for a few coins. The restaurateur offers the cop a huge bounty to kill both the woman and her lover and make them disappear, but the cop double-crosses the noodle man. He kills him instead and tries to frame the wife and steal the husband's money--only the safe is locked and dead people don't always stay dead.

If the plot of A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop sounds familiar, it's not just because it has many archetypical noir tropes, it's because famed Chinese director Zhang Yimou has done a full-on remake of the classic Coen Bros.' potboiler Blood Simple. The 1985 debut from the Coens was a black comedy and a modern western as much as it was a crime story, and Yimou tries to retain all of these things as he transplants the lurid tale to a remote desert outpost in 18th-century China. The story is basically the same, with a few tweaks and added elements (a secondary character is trying to rob the boss at the same time as the cop), but not all of it lines up.

The fun of Blood Simple is watching the mistakes and the bodies pile up. None of these folks are criminal masterminds, they are far closer to bumbling idiots. In Yimou's version, the noodle shop owner Wang (Ni Dahong) is fed-up with ten years of a childless marriage, and his frustrations emerge as twisted role playing and perverted abuses. His scheming wife (Yan Ni) understandably wants out, and when a band of Persian traveling salesmen come by with weapons, she buys a pistol. The gossip quickly reaches Wang, and it's all downhill from there. The narrative has a lot of twists and turns, and if you aren't familiar with the original movie, you probably won't see most of the curves coming. Even if you do know Blood Simple, Yimou still effectively establishes tension in A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. Most of the nasty stuff happens over the course of a night, and so there is a lot of silent skulking around and plenty of near misses. There is also some good slapstick and a few moments of violence that are sure to get the blood rushing. Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, who also collaborated on Curse of the Golden Flower [review] and House of Flying Daggers, even try to copy some of Barry Sonnenfeld's trademark mobile tracking shots.

The problem is, it's never quite enough. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop has some of the humor, some of the violence, some of the visual virtuosity, but Yimou never goes as far as he could with it. The movie looks fantastic, but it's too reserved in everything else. Yan Ni turns in a great performance as the conflicted and bruised femme semi-fatale--she flips between weak and strong, confident and bumbling, seductive and shrill, without ever losing her mark--but the other characters are too broadly drawn and thus underdeveloped. Wang never seems all that hateful or menacing, the cop (Sun Honglei) is too much of a cypher, and loverboy Ling (Xiao Shen-Yang) is a total wuss. In the end, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is a curious approximation of Blood Simple, but it never becomes its own thing. Maybe it plays differently for those who don't know the source, but it doesn't strike me as a film that would stand very strong on its own.

I don't hold it against Zhang Yimou that he tried to tackle material that many might consider sacred. Given how regularly Hollywood raids the international coffers to remake stuff that was perfectly fine on the first go, it's about time the tables were turned. I'm just sorry to see one of my favorite filmmakers do so little with what is there. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is an expertly made, elegantly crafted comedy thriller, but it's frustratingly bloodless. There's no sex, only mild violence, and none of the wickedness. I enjoyed it enough, but a meeting of such talented cinematic minds should have yielded a much more excited reaction. A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop could have been a bold reimagining or even a playful homage to Blood Simple, instead it's like being stuck at a lame party and listening to someone try to describe the movie from memory. It just needs someone to shrug at the end and say, "Dude, I guess you had to be there...."

Sunday, April 4, 2021


This review was originally written for in 2010.

Roland Joffé's 1986 drama The Mission is a lush, if maybe slightly undercooked, historical epic about faith, exploitation, and redemption. It stars Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel, a Jesuit monk who has traveled to the jungles of South America to build a church in a remote outpost. His assignment is up in the hills, above a massive waterfall that the previous missionary was dumped over. He was murdered and set adrift, lashed to a rudimentary cross, a sign of how much the Guarani tribe that lives there initially wanted to be converted to Christianity.

The Mission is set in 1750, at a time when foreign interest in this part of the world varied. In opposition to Father Gabriel's more humanitarian goals is Rodrigo Mendoza, played with a subdued fire by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is a slave trader, and it seems the only one bold enough to go that deep into the rainforest to kidnap the Guarani. After Mendoza kills his own brother (Aidan Quinn) in a dispute over a woman, the mercenary seeks his penance in Gabriel's monastic order, giving himself to God and helping to build the mission where the locals will worship.

Unfortunately, just because Mendoza has stopped rounding up the natives doesn't mean that the threat is gone. Both Spain and Portugal have interest in the slave trade and the natural resources found in this land, and they don't appreciate the missions creating productive farming communities that compete with their bottom line. The Papacy, hoping to secure the Catholic Church's position in the region while also maintaining power back home, sends a Cardinal (Ray McAnally) to sort the situation out. Though he presents himself as having an open mind and is even moved by the conversions he sees, he ultimately gives the land to Portugal and orders the various missionary outposts to shut down. The Guarani don't want to leave, and despite the threat of excommunication, the monks decide to stand their ground, as well. Only, the two men split once again. Gabriel will put his trust in his faith and stage a peaceful protest; Mendoza will pick up the arms he previously renounced and fight. Who will be more effective?

The Mission is a gorgeous movie. It was shot on location throughout South America, with actual indigenous people performing as the movie's extras. Joffé and cinematographer Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work, embrace the majesty of the rainforest and the mighty Paraná River. Their awe of the wild landscape is infectious, and the widescreen photography looks phenomenal in high definition. Watch it on a big TV, and you will feel as if you have taken an expedition to the Amazon. It's an immersive experience, particularly with the way Ennio Morricone's vibrant orchestration further envelopes you. This is a movie that dazzles the senses.

I didn't feel quite the same way about the characters, however. The script is by Robert Bolt, who wrote most of David Lean's more famous historical epics, and though The Mission matches those in scope and ambition, it lacks the soul of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia. I mean that in multiple ways, too. Not only did I not feel like I got to know the characters very well or understand exactly what made them tick, but I didn't feel Joffé was able to communicate the spirituality that was essentially the main motivator for everyone. In that kind of environment, and with cold-hearted capitalists serving as enemies to the pure intentioned, it should have been easy. Yet, while the villains are broadly drawn, the heroes seem like mere sketches.

The actors are not at fault for this. The two leads, in particular, inhabit their roles with convincing purpose. Jeremy Irons is soft-spoken and warm, and his expressive eyes carry many scenes, particularly as his communication with the Guarani is either silent or in the untranslated native language. The script fails Father Gabriel in the final portion of the movie, not giving enough attention to his crisis of faith, instead throwing the narrative support behind Mendoza. This rough beast represents the real arc of the movie, going from a calculating egotist to penitent and then somewhere more in the middle, when he must stand up and act with purpose. De Niro is fantastic, squashing most of the easily imitated mannerisms that he is known for, and delivering a cerebral performance. Mendoza is meditative--a thinker--and when you watch De Niro, you can see the wheels turning in his head. It may also be that I identify with his character more than I do Gabriel, who arguably shies away from his personal responsibility in the destruction of a people. Even if one accepts that he had good intentions, his presence in the jungle is as violent an invasion as the Portuguese marauders.

Which I suppose is where the real thematic resonance of The Mission lies: the rich political subtext. By being offered these two men as our identifying figures, Joffé and Bolt ask us to wrestle with our own conscience. Which would we be? The idealist who embraces nonviolent protest, or the one who acts when circumstances demand a response? It could be that neither option is ideal. The only thing that is sure is neither worked for those caught in the middle.