Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
Note: four new films open this week, though none are in English or screen in Prague with English subtitles. Opening are: the Czech comedy Taková normální rodinka (showtimes | IMDb), from director Patrik Hartl and starring Eva Holubová, Jaromír Dulava, Jiří Mádl, Ivana Chýlková, and Marián Labuda; the Genghis Khan war drama Mongol (showtimes | IMDb), from Kazakhstan and director Sergei Bodrov; and the two films reviewed below, Kim Ki-Duk´s Breath and Xavier Gens´ survival horror Frontiere(s).
Also: catch European films (most with English subtitles) at the 15th annual Days of European Film Festival at cinemas Aero & Světozor from April 17th to the 29th. More info HERE.
Prolific South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk has enjoyed a certain renaissance in the Czech Republic; his movies are yearly staples at the Karlovy Vary Film Fest, and each seems to get a fairly wide theatrical release in the country (a country where – for example -an award-winning, Brad Pitt-starring modern classic The Assassination of Jesse James goes straight to DVD). Breath doesn´t reach the highs of some of the director´s previous films (my favorites: 3-Iron and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring) but Ki-Duk´s trademark assured, delicate direction, complimented by a number of quirks and in-jokes, plays right into the hands of his fanbase.
Actress Park Ji-a (here billed as ‘Zia´) stars as unsatisfied housewife Yeon, who – in no short order – discovers her husband is cheating on her, takes a cab to a prison one night, waits outside till dawn, and then asks to see death row inmate Jang Jin, who she knows from recent news reports. Jang Jin is played by Taiwanese actor Chang Chen (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2046 fame); the actor doesn´t speak Korean, but his character attempts suicide in a striking pre-title sequence, severs his voice chords, and remains silent for the rest of the film (of course, Ki-Duk is no stranger to silent protagonists). While Yeon and Jang Jin strike up an increasingly intimate relationship (under the eye of an omnipresent security officer who watches the two on CCTV monitors and is only seen in reflection – played, yes, by Ki-Duk), her husband becomes infuriated. As usual, the director´s subtlety is a strength here, spelling out nothing and letting us draw our own conclusions; the most awkward of situations are played out with deadpan amusement. Breath is certainly a lighter piece of work, and the kind of art-house film full of laundry-chore metaphors, but fans of the director should be pleased.
Coming on the heels of the Hostel and Saw movies (and a wave of similar French films like Haute Tension, Them, and Inside), Xavier Gens´ Frontier(s) is one of the better examples of a disreputable genre. From nuclear-age monster movies to Reagan-era slasher flicks, horror films have been invoking topical politics to prey on mass fears and concerns for years; this survival horror (or ‘torture porn´) sub-genre is no different, following Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib scandals. Ninety minutes of torture, however, makes for rather questionable entertainment.
Frontier(s), upon first glance, seems different: we start off with street riots and a gang of (mostly unlikable) Parisian criminals using them as cover for a robbery. Politics become murky when they run into the usual Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like clan on their way out of the country, here headed by a German patriarch. Countless buckets of blood later, I stopped looking for messages; a number of intense sequences and revenge-movie standards, however, held my interest along the way as Yas (Karina Testa) fights back against her captors. As these movies go, the revenge-fueled climax is pretty satisfactory, complete with axe, table saw, and shotgun violence. But Gens doesn´t know when to quit, and wraps things up with a laughable all-female shootout straight from a 90´s action flick. And right when I was about to praise actress Testa just for making it through this thing, she spends the final 10 minutes of the movie going through bizarre, unconvincing convulsions in-between offing the baddies. While the director knows how to pull off a lot of this stuff – including an illogical but effectively claustrophobic tunnel sequence – the film ultimately fails due to his inconsistency, which also produces one of the worst car chases I´ve ever seen. Outisde of these transgressions, the film works fine for what it is – which general audiences should avoid anyway.
Graphic violence pervades the film; though rated NC-17 in the US, it´s nothing we haven´t seen before, and a lot less sadistic than many of the similar Hollywood-financed films in the genre.