Cinema Psycho

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Archive for October, 2005


Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 28, 2005

Directed by Fruit Chan, Park Chan-Wook, Takashi Miike/Lions Gate – Fortissimo Films

It’s understandable that the recent explosion of Asian horror cinema might be daunting to American newcomers, especially at the video store. Suddenly there are tons of these films out there (so many that even I haven’t seen them all), and for those who haven’t paid much attention to the current boom, it might be intimidating to know where to start.

Three…Extremes is an anthology film that, while being a fascinating and disturbing piece of work in its own right, also serves as a kind of sampler platter for three of the best Asian directors working today. For the price of one ticket, you can check out three very different short films from three different countries. Whether you’re a raving lunatic for Asian cinema or a complete neophyte, this has to be the best bargain in theaters right now.

The first segment, “Dumplings”, is easily the most disturbing of the three, and probably should’ve been saved for last. A brutally visceral sucker punch to the gut, this compact little shocker concerns a rich woman who attempts to stay young by consulting a chef (Bai Ling) who puts a very special ingredient in her dumplings. To reveal any more than that would be a crime, but I will say that the audience I saw the film with was quite audible in its collective disapproval. Which only proves how effective the piece is at being utterly horrifying and borderline distasteful. It’s pretty rare these days that a horror film is able to cross taboo lines that haven’t already been stepped over hundreds of times, but “Dumplings” manages to pull that off. I wasn’t familiar with Chinese director Chan before this, but his work is now a must-see in my book. “Dumplings” caused such a sensation that Chan turned it into a feature film, which apparently will be included on the upcoming Extremes DVD. But the concept works perfectly well as a short film, and is definitely worth seeing in its own right – provided that you have a strong stomach and aren’t easily offended.

“Cut”, the second short, is by Korean sensation Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) and it serves more as an exercise in self-reflexive cinema than as a genuinely unsettling portrayal. It’s about a famous horror director who builds a set for his latest film that resembles his own house, only to find that a psychotic extra has imprisoned him and his wife in it. It’s a potentially solid idea, but unfortunately it’s not as strongly written as it could have been, featuring a villain with only vague motivations and an unclear plan that seems to change on a whim, which undercuts the suspense somewhat. Not to mention a twist ending that comes out of nowhere and makes everything that preceded it pointless. Still, “Cut” is worth a look in spite of its structural flaws, due mainly to Chan-Wook’s flamboyant visual style and the outrageousness of its premise.

The biggest surprise of the trio is “Box”, in which Japanese cult auteur Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, Gozu) tries his hand at the most shocking move of his career: subtlety. You almost wouldn’t know this was a Miike film; his usual preoccupations with bodily functions, graphic violence and general chaos are completely missing here, replaced by an unexpected artful stylishness worthy of the likes of David Lynch, Fellini or even (dare I say it?) Ingmar Bergman. The short concerns a young woman suffering from disturbing dreams related to her childhood as a circus performer. While not exactly representative of Miike’s films as a whole (one might wonder if he and Chan-Wook hadn’t traded scripts before shooting), it’s fascinating to see that he’s capable of such a serious-minded and downright classy piece of work.

Taken as a whole, Three…Extremes can best be seen as an inviting cross-section of the current Asian horror scene, with something for diehards and newcomers alike. Whatever your particular taste in bizarre cinema may be, there’s something here worth exploring. And even though many fans may have already picked it up on an import DVD, this is still the one horror show in theaters this Halloween where you really can’t go wrong. If there are more entries in this series to come (as has been rumored), let’s look forward to seeing them. At a time when lame theatrics like those in the godawful Fog remake are considered passably scary, this is the real stuff.

***1/2 10/28/05

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A History of Violence

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 27, 2005

Directed by David Cronenberg/screenplay by Josh Olson, based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke/starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Ashton Holmes/New Line Cinema

An Iowa diner owner is mistaken for a dead gangster after defending himself from killers.

David Cronenberg is just not a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. People either really, really love his movies or really, really hate them. Right now on the IMDb, there are “reviews” of his latest film that say things like, “far and away, the worst movie of all time”. All time??? Seriously, even I haven’t seen every movie made in the last century, and I really doubt that person has either. Besides, Dirty Love is easily the worst movie of all time, if you’re prone to exaggeration.

Anyway, Cronenberg never seems to get the respect he deserves, outside of a small fanbase of cult fanatics. Even when the critics like his films, they say it in a backhanded way, like “it’s good…if you like Cronenberg”. Which, to me, is like looking at an incredibly beautiful girl and then saying, “she’s OK, for a redhead”. You just want to scream at those people, “dude, you’d be lucky to have that and you know it.”

Which is my way of saying that, whether the material he works with fits your own personal tastes or not, you have to acknowledge that Cronenberg is a great filmmaker. You just can’t deny the combination of talent and ambition that the man possesses; and even though I haven’t loved every single film he’s made, it’s difficult to find a more fascinating filmography from any director in cinema history. From his early, low-budget cult horror films (They Came From Within aka Shivers, Rabid, The Brood) to his middle period of mainstream genre-film acceptance (Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly) to his later “serious works” in which the critical establishment finally caught up with him (Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, Spider), few filmmakers have evolved with more of an unerring, single-minded sensibility. With rare exception (the little-seen racing movie Fast Company), you know a Cronenberg movie when you see one. And more often than not, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

What’s interesting about A History of Violence is how un-Cronenberg the movie feels – at first. The life of small-town diner owner Tom Stall (Mortensen) couldn’t be more Norman Rockwell idyllic. The man’s practically a poster child for good old-fashioned American family values. But when a couple of murderous lowlifes wander into town and attempt to hold up the diner while terrorizing the customers, Tom acts instinctively and takes them out. His act of heroism makes the national news, and soon a couple of mobsters roll in, claiming that Tom is Philadelphia gangster “Joey Cusack”, who was supposed to have died two decades ago.

This is as much as the trailers reveal, and even that’s a little too much information. But there’s much more to the story than that, and it’s well worth finding out for yourself what the deal is. It’s not so much that the story itself is so original – it’s the way Cronenberg tells it, and the subtext within that makes Violence a must-see.

Cronenberg has always been interested in the human condition – what makes us the way we are? What causes us to behave the way we do? Is it animal instinct, our own individual psyches, or the standards and mores of society? Could it be a combination of all of those elements? And what happens to us when our inhibitions start to break down? Where many of his films deal with sexual repression in psychological terms, Violence naturally explores the nature of violence in the context of what could, on the surface, be seen as a standard exploitation-movie plotline. Countless Westerns and action movies have used the typical “quiet man pushed to the limit” story to justify revenge-thriller catharsis. Cronenberg’s world, like the real one, is much more complicated.

Even though Tom’s actions in the diner are celebrated as self-defense (and probably rightfully so), a good man standing up against evil, he crosses a line that brings him a world of trouble. Once he goes there, he can’t return to the person he thought he was. It affects his family, the way people see him, the way he sees himself. As hard as he tries to get back to “normal”, nothing will ever be the same. Whether or not he really is Joey Cusack (which I won’t reveal here), Tom has seen the Joey Cusack within himself, and he might as well be that person.

Once introduced, violence permeates every part of Tom’s life, including the town and the people he loves. It especially affects his son Jack (Holmes, an unknown giving an outstanding performance), a victim of high-school bullies who suddenly sees violence as the answer to his problems. The sad part is, he’s not completely wrong. As much as people tell kids to “ignore” bullying or “laugh it off”, the truth is that they’re expected to fight back or they’re ostracized. Not doing so can damage your self-esteem, in some cases permanently. This whole sequence isn’t in there randomly; Cronenberg is showing us the violence in the “normal” world, in everyday life, and it’s not so different from the brutal mayhem of the gangsters. It all comes from the same place – society itself. It’s all around us, whether you choose it or not.

Sometimes I think that violence isn’t just a physical act; it’s the damage that people do to each other on a regular basis. It’s the pain that the world inflicts on all of us, the slow deterioration that comes from an existence surrounded by anger, rejection and hate. Cronenberg shows us true horror here, the horror that comes not from an evil outside force but the sickness within all of us. It’s brutal and it’s deeply sad, and maybe some people just can’t handle it. But we live in a world where we claim to be civilized and reasonable, then we drop bombs on people we don’t like. I imagine that some people will watch this film and say, “so he killed off a few scumbags, what’s the big deal? They deserved it!” The problem is the toll that it takes on us, the knowledge that we can never escape what we are. There’s no glory in it, it’s just sad and extremely fucked up. That’s what makes A History of Violence a brilliant film with a message we all need to think about, maybe now more than ever. And that’s why Cronenberg is one of the greats.

**** 10/7/05

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The Horror, the Horror; or, I Said “Horror”, Not “Whore”

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 19, 2005

It’s that time of year again. What is it about October that makes it such a perfect time to watch horror movies? I know everyone says it’s Halloween and the various festivities surrounding it, but I have to wonder. Despite its pagan origins, Halloween has essentially become a children’s holiday, an excuse for the little ones to dress up and take candy from strangers. What does any of that have to do with our movie-watching habits?

I don’t know, but I do know that every October a semi-young film geek’s thoughts instantly turn to the scary stuff. Not that I don’t watch horror films during the rest of the year, of course. But around this time I generally don’t feel like watching much else, even movies that I’d normally be dying to see at any other time of year. Is it an annual tradition that accompanies the fall season slowly turning to winter? Or is it simple laziness on my part – “aw fuck it, it’s October, let’s watch another horror movie!” It’s not like any other genre has a particular month, like action films or documentaries or 4-hour Iranian yak-herder movies. Maybe every month should have a designated film genre, like March could be science fiction, August could go to samurai films, December could be Mexican masked wrestler movie month. What could be more appropriate for Christmas?

Seriously though, something just feels right about October and horror films, and I don’t think it has that much to do with trick-or-treating. It’s a good time to take leave of one’s normal standards and watch total crap. You can treat yourself guilt-free to such marginal entertainments as Monster Man and The Hazing (as I’ve done recently) without having to justify your tastes. It’s October, man! Serious films about the human condition can wait until next month! Why watch something critically acclaimed and life-affirming when Witchcraft 9 is on Cinemax at 3:40 a.m.?

The odd thing is, I wasn’t a lifelong horror fan. As a kid, I wasn’t really allowed to watch them (or you could say I was “strongly discouraged” from doing so) and in all honesty, I didn’t have much interest in seeing most of them. I grew up during the slasher era, in which virtually every horror film made was 84 minutes of a masked maniac running around slaughtering teenagers with farm equipment. Who wants to see that? Well, it turns out most teenagers do. But I didn’t. Yet at the same time, I could treat myself to the varied works of Charles Bronson, Sho Kosugi and Michael Dudikoff without reprisal – my parents had no problem with violence so long as it was “justified”. After all, they were “good guys” killing “bad guys”, so that’s OK, right? Right?

It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered the pleasures of horror movies, and I gobbled them up like a starving monk at a Vegas buffet table. Whether it was the classic Universal monster movies, Hammer vampire flicks, Italian giallos or low-budget zombie movies, I suddenly loved it all. I even grew an appreciation for a good slasher flick (or even a bad one, which is more likely). But only when I finally came upon the early works of David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and one Mr. George A. Romero did I finally see the light. Dawn of the Dead was the real breakthrough (and I mean the original, heathens) – that was when I realized that horror could actually be more than just “killer/monster/psycho runs around and murders people”. Both a frightening vision of apocalypse and a brilliant social satire, Dawn was the movie that converted me once and for all. It took a long time to get there, but once you’ve seen Dawn of the Dead, you just can’t go back. It’s like hearing the Beatles for the first time – if you’re not a fan for the rest of your life after that, you’re just seriously misguided and need to be sent away for the good of humanity.

Yet at the same time, I’ve often felt like a lot of the diehard horror fans kind of miss the point at times. I cringe a little bit when I hear these people talk about “sweet kills” and “high body counts” and discuss excitedly how Jason, Freddy and/or Michael Myers are their “heroes”. Isn’t horror supposed to be, you know, horrifying? Isn’t the whole point that we’re supposed to be at least mildly disturbed by what we’re watching?

It’s a funny thing, but even though I consider myself a horror fan, I don’t take any particular pleasure in watching people get decapitated, dismembered or disemboweled. It doesn’t offend me, but it doesn’t get me off either. I accept it as part of the story – it comes with the territory. But that’s not what I watch these movies for. Nor am I particularly a gorehound either – I don’t mind it when it’s well done, but I don’t really need to see it either. I appreciate it more when it’s done sparingly, and for a reason, than when it’s just gratuitous. But then I also like movies like Dead Alive and Re-Animator, which are chock-full of gore. But that’s not the only thing going on in those movies either.

So why do I love horror movies so much? I think a large part of it is the atmosphere, the sense of dread and foreboding that the best ones are so great at. Not only are horror films free to be dark and twisted, they’re expected to be dark and twisted. What other genre can get away with that? I remember the stink people raised when 28 Days Later actually had the nerve to finish with – of all things – a happy ending! The fans were so disappointed that the filmmakers tacked on an alternate ending that was more suitably depressing! Is there a part of us that maybe wants to see things end in disaster and chaos? And if so, what does that say about us?

To me, horror films have always been about the inevitability of death. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, death is always in our future – and it could come at any time. It could be 40 or 50 years from now, or it could be right around the corner. Horror films tap into not only our fear of death but also our subconscious awareness of it, and help us deal with it in a safe and unthreatening way.

Whether its antagonist is a psycho killer, vampire, werewolf or zombie, these “boogeymen” figures are personifications of Death itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the slasher film, in which the villains often don’t even have human qualities or personalities – they’re faceless automatons whose only purpose is to kill, over and over again. The recent films that tap into this most subversively are the Final Destination movies, in which the killer is literally Death itself, who doesn’t even bother to take human form. It just kills the people who are supposed to die, because that’s what Death is supposed to do. I don’t think Jason or Michael Myers are that much different – they’re just manifestations of the same concept. Their victims die not because of some grand design or master plan, but because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was their turn. That’s kind of fucked up, but isn’t death the most fucked up thing?

I know a lot of people think of Halloween as an “anti-sex” movie, but I think the truth is a little more complex than that. The more I watch it, the more I see it as a rite of passage film. Michael of course represents Death, but he also represents the insanity of adolescence. Some people survive it and some don’t. Laurie gets through not because she’s a virgin, but because she’s self-possessed enough to fight back and survive. Of course she’s freaked out (who wouldn’t be?), but she can handle it enough to get it together, whereas the others simply can’t. Laurie makes it to adulthood because she’s the strongest of them all, whether she knew it herself or not. She survives because she’s a survivor. (Of course killing her off later in Halloween: Resurrection kinda betrays that notion, but then again I prefer to forget that movie even exists.) This is generally true of all of the “Final Girls” in the various slasher movies – they live not because they happen to be virgins, but because they’re the one person there who can kick the killer’s ass. And even Death can’t stand in their way.

That’s what these movies are for the audience as well – they’re rites of passage for all of us, in a way. They allow us to face Death and survive, to spit in the face of the boogeyman. Through horror films, we can laugh at the death we all know is coming to each of us eventually, and enjoy seeing it vanquished, at least temporarily. That’s why those who cheer for the psychos are wrongheaded – no one in their right mind would root for Death. Just as in real life, we should mourn those who die young, and root for those who fight like hell to stay alive. Face the abyss, but step back from it as well. Don’t jump in. That’s what it’s really all about. That’s how you survive.

All right, let’s briefly cover the movies I’ve seen recently but haven’t had time to write full reviews for:

The Exorcism of Emily Rose – I was pretty amazed that the Sunday afternoon showing I went to was 99% teenagers. Screen Gems apparently did a hell of a job selling them on a slow-moving courtroom drama starring Laura Linney, Campbell Scott and Tom Wilkinson! How did that happen? Anyway, I thought the movie was OK but not much more than that. Despite the filmmakers’ attempts to take the subject matter seriously, it still comes off as pretty hokey stuff. Let’s face it, there will never be an exorcism movie as good as Friedkin’s, and maybe they should just stop trying. I would’ve liked to see a movie about the real case, which was based on a girl in Germany in the 1940’s – the need to Americanize and modernize it just made it seem generic. It’s decently acted and competently made, but it’s just hard to take this stuff seriously in this day and age. I believe Bill Maher said it best – “evil today isn’t Salem’s Lot, it’s Trent Lott.” Nice try though. **1/2

Lord of War – surprisingly good film, extremely underrated. Nicolas Cage hasn’t been this good in years. It’s actually a film about war that can be supported by both sides of the political aisle (unless you’re one of those people who thinks that selling illegal arms to violent dictators is a good thing). Strong film, well worth catching up with. ***1/2

Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride – slight but fun little animated movie. Amazing how Burton can take such normally disturbing things and make them not just palatable but cute. It’s not often you see the subject of necrophilia tackled by family films! ***

Serenity – I enjoyed the TV show, but I wouldn’t call myself a “Browncoat” or anything (we need a name like that for Veronica Mars fans). Still, I thought the movie turned out pretty well, even if I wouldn’t call it “the greatest sci-fi adventure since the original Star Wars”. Too bad nobody besides the fan base turned out for it, but I think these actors do have big-screen potential (particularly Kaylee – she’s so cute, especially when she’s horny). At least the fans got one last adventure, and an entertaining one at that. ***

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit – just sheer absolute fun. I love the fact that it looks like a cartoon, not some slick, overproduced CGI piece of crap that’s meant to look like reality. Cartoons aren’t supposed to look like reality! Really clever and very, very funny at times, never obnoxious or overbearing for a second. My nephew knew nothing of Wallace & Gromit going in, and he loved it too. Take your kids, take your friends, take your kids’ friends, take your friends’ kids. This is how you do an animated film! (I never saw Madagascar, so I was a little puzzled by the penguin short; since when do old Jewish ladies celebrate Christmas?) ***1/2

That’s it for now. I’ll be back soon with my review of The Fog remake (in one word: ugh) as well as many more reviews to come. Talk to you soon!

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Face (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 14, 2005

Directed by Yoo Sang-Gon/screenplay by Park Chul-Hee/starring Shin Hyun-Jun, Song Yoon-Ah/Tartan Asia Extreme

A forensic sculptor is enlisted to reconstruct the faces of the victims of a serial killer who burns their bodies in a vat of acid.

It seems that there are basically two recurring themes in Asian horror right now – the prototypical “girl ghost stories” that have become so popular with American audiences, and the “serial killer who taunts his investigator” plots that seem to be influenced by Hollywood hits like Silence of the Lambs and Seven.

The Korean thriller Face manages to be novel not by striking out in new directions, but by combining the two well-worn subgenres. This could have been an exercise in simple gimmickry, like “it’s Alien meets Die Hard”, but this seemingly generic flick turns out to be a decent little genre movie, with a twist that might give M. Night Shyamalan a run for his money.

Hyun-min (Hyun-Jun) is a guy with problems. On the one hand, a serial killer is on the loose, burning his victims in an acid vat so their identities can’t be discovered. It’s his job to reconstruct their faces, using their skulls as a template to find out what they looked like with flesh attached. On the other hand, his young daughter is dying of a congenital heart disease, and he’s forced to take a leave of absence to be at her side while she waits for a new heart to be delivered. Given that he’s the only guy capable of doing his particular job, leaving it at this time is rather painful but unavoidable under the circumstances.

Even when Hyun-min is visited by your typical girl ghost, who he surmises may have been a victim of the aforementioned serial killer, he’s not convinced to go back to work. But when badgered by plucky, young and gorgeous aspiring facial reconstructor Seon-young (Yoon-Ah), he finally gives in and agrees to work on the project at home, with Seon-young assisting of course. As they get closer to finding the identity of the latest victim, they uncover a conspiracy and realize that the killer’s motivations may be more closely linked to them than they could have predicted.

That’s pretty much all I can tell you about the plot, because to give any more away would spoil the fun. I will say that I had one major logic problem with the twist (I’ll just say it involves an object, and leave it at that), but it didn’t ruin the movie for me.

Under the direction of first-time feature helmer Sang-Gon, whose background is in short films, Face is appropriately dark and atmospheric, with a genuine sense of oppressive dread throughout. Its twist is a good one, logical reservations aside; it seems obvious afterwards, but I was genuinely surprised by it. Some viewers may take issue with the film’s use of certain flashback scenes as a “cheat”, but I found it clever enough, and gave it a sense of revelation in that we haven’t seen exactly what we thought we saw.

That said, those looking for something “deep” in their Asian fright fare might want to search elsewhere, because there’s nothing particularly meaningful or insightful here; it’s a smart, stylishly shot little shocker, but that’s about all it is. And there’s nothing particularly “extreme” about its handling of the subject matter – there’s a bit of gore here and there, but nothing that would really offend delicate sensibilities. It’s the Asian equivalent of an average Hollywood major-studio serial-killer flick. There’s very little new or groundbreaking here, and if you’re OK with that going in, you won’t be disappointed. Not every Asian film can be a mind-blowing classic, after all, just as every American film isn’t meant to win Oscars. This is a decent little genre film that proves to be more entertaining than expected, and sometimes that’s enough.

*** 10/14/05

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The Coast Guard

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 14, 2005

Directed and written by Kim Ki-Duk/starring Jang Kun-Dong, Park Ji-a/Tartan Video

A young Korean soldier becomes unraveled after killing an innocent civilian.

The Coast Guard is one of those movies that will seriously polarize people, for reasons that may have nothing to do with the film itself. It is, after all, a staunchly anti-military film in an era that finds Americans extremely divided on such issues. Never mind that the country of origin is South Korea, and their problems have nothing to do with ours. I can just picture some politically obtuse viewers dismissing this as “liberal propaganda”, and they might not be entirely wrong. But that would be a shame, because they’ll be missing out on an effective, emotionally wrenching drama about a tragic situation in a specific place and time.

Iconoclastic filmmaker Ki-Duk has crafted yet another piece on the nature of obsession, this time centering on one Private Kang (Kun-Dong), a Korean Army soldier at a remote outpost surrounded by water on three sides. Apparently in Korea, all young males are required to serve two years in the military, and they seem to do so willingly and without hesitation. The soldiers are taught to defend their base against North Korean “spies” at all cost, despite the fact that none have showed up there in decades (and there’s no indication that their outpost contains anything the opposition would be interested in), and that killing a spy is an action worthy of the highest honor. To that end, their policy is to shoot anyone who wanders into their military zone after 7 pm, and unfortunately the base is next to a small rural town where young people occasionally get drunk and foolishly defy the large posted warning signs.

So there’s a potential disaster waiting to happen, and sure enough a young couple under the heavy influence of alcohol decide to use the base’s beach to fornicate. Kang happens to be on guard duty at the time, and unable to see clearly through his night-vision goggles, mistakes the male for a possible spy storming the beach. Kang does what he’s been trained to do, ripping bullets through the poor bastard and only sparing the female because she’s positioned in such a way that he can’t see her.

When the dust settles, the truth of the situation is revealed and the shit hits the proverbial fan. While Kang’s military cohorts praise him for doing his duty, the townspeople go apeshit (understandably) and the surviving female, Mi-yeong (Ji-a) suffers from shock initially, then slowly becomes lost in a childlike fog of obsession and insanity. For his part, Kang becomes overcome with guilt and also gradually loses his mind, eventually forcing his superiors to discharge him. But Kang and Mi-yeong both keep returning to the base, as if in a deranged search for some part of themselves they’d lost there. The other soldiers are confounded by this phenomenon, and their lack of sensitivity and understanding eventually sets the pair on the road to tragedy.

As the director himself states in his introduction to the film, Ki-Duk obviously intended The Coast Guard to be a protest of his native country’s mandatory military service. While there’s plenty of inherent criticism in the film’s portrayal of its soldiers as brainwashed automatons and their leaders as clueless morons only concerned with their own advancement in the ranks (when one soldier is killed, their commander responds by barking at his subordinate, “are you trying to ruin my career?”) I think there’s plenty of blame to go around. The townspeople seem well aware of the base’s “shoot first and ask questions later” policy, so defying that under any circumstances seems unnecessarily stupid. Even though Kang assumes all of the guilt for what he’s done, it’s hard to really blame him for simply doing what he’s supposed to do, or for being there in the first place, since he had no choice in the matter.

So it’s one of those situations where the system itself has to be at fault, and perhaps could use a serious overhaul. You don’t have to understand much about South Korean politics to see that Ki-Duk convincingly makes his case for that. Yet its characters also seem to possess a disturbing lack of understanding of the psychological effects and consequences of violence itself (when it’s clear that Kang has gone over the edge, I kept wondering, “why don’t they get him some counseling already?”). There doesn’t appear to be any thought given to such matters, even by the soldiers themselves, who seem to spend most of their time playing soccer and discussing how awesome it would be to kill a spy. Not only are they prepared for violence, they’re eagerly anticipating it – the problem is, they have no idea how to handle it once it’s happened.

One could argue that this is the case with many soldiers, no matter where they’re from or who they’re fighting for. This is where the movie hits a universal truth that transcends its country’s particular politics. Yet The Coast Guard can also be seen as a distant spiritual cousin to A History of Violence. Once violence enters these characters’ lives, justified or not, nothing is ever the same. The perpetrator and its surviving victim are both changed irrevocably, and perhaps permanently damaged. Kang simply cannot escape the enormity of what he’s done; his tragic duty becomes his defining moment, and he finds it impossible to live sanely with the consequences.

That’s ultimately why The Coast Guard possesses such unshakable power; it moves beyond the politics and concerns of the moment to demonstrate an undeniable truth. While some may find it languorous and a bit random in its storytelling methods, Ki-Duk’s particular skill lies in stripping away extraneous nonsense to get right to the emotional heart of his characters, letting their painful struggles lead the story where they will. While I generally can’t recommend his films highly enough (especially the daring and bizarre, but strangely moving Bad Guy), The Coast Guard is one that’s particularly worth seeking out, whatever your feelings on its subject may be.

***1/2 10/14/05

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