Parasite (Gisaengchung, South Korea, 2019)

Happy families

While I’m delighted Bong Yong Ho’s film has won a handful of Oscars I can’t claim, with the exception of Memories of Murder, that I ‘get’ his films. Snowpiercer (South Korea-Czech Republic, 2003), for example, shared a ‘battle through a train’ narrative with Train to Busan, but was nowhere near as good. To be fair Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein may have ruined Bong’s film, though I read somewhere that a TV spin-off is going to emphasise the class warfare more; maybe this is what the ogre cut out. Similarly, Okja (South Korea-US, 2013), on Netflix, left me cold.

Class warfare, however, is at the heart of Parasite which I thoroughly enjoyed. The brilliant Song Kang-ho plays the dad of a down and out family living in a half-basement apartment and eking out a living where they can, such as folding pizza boxes as pictured above. Although very different in tone, this set up is similar to Kore-eda Hirokazu’s brilliant Shoplifters (which, like Parasite, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). The family manage to inveigle themselves as servants to an extremely wealthy family and then… Bong asked for no spoilers so I won’t. It’s enough to say the film is brilliantly conceived, executed with superb performances.

At the lunchtime screening I attended at a multiplex there was a decent audience, no doubt some were motivated by the Oscar win announced the day before. Two people left about 30 minutes before the end and probably felt they’d been misled; Oscar winners are often middle-brow bland affairs. The last time a foreign language films crossed over into the mainstream in the UK (and Parasite reportedly took £1m in its first two days before the Oscar wins) was early in the century with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long, Taiwan-Hong Kong-US-China, 2000) Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, France-Germany, 2001) and Hero (Ying xiong, China-Hong Kong, 2002). Apparently, for one of these films at least, ushers were ensuring people knew that the films were subtitled before they entered the screening such is the antipathy some people have for reading. It’s great that non English-language films get celebrated and the fact that this is the first time one has one Best Picture shows how ridiculous the Oscars are; as if only Americans (and occasionally British) make great movies! I doubt that it will lead to renaissance in film culture in the UK and America; Parasite will simply be a ‘must-see’ for the bourgeoisie. The fact that multiplexes are running the film also means independent cinemas (my local doesn’t get it for a couple of weeks) are missing out; I will go and see it again. On a more optimistic note, Scott Roxborough reckons that people are ready for subtitles now because of Netflix.

Back to the film: there are some stunning ‘set pieces’ and it is very funny in places. I was bowled over by the journey home the family make during a rain storm. Bong films their descent (literally) from the luxury home to their hovel. The humour is often throwaway: the poor mum (Lee Jeong-eun) is an ex-hammer thrower and in one scene, in the garden of the rich, she flings one into the distance; far on the right of the soundscape we can just hear a tinkle of glass and an alarm.

No doubt Bong will be able to finance his next film with relatively little difficulty. And maybe one or two of the audience who enjoy Parasite will be motivated to look at more South Korean cinema and go beyond Hollywood’s hegemony. I’ll need to return to Bong’s early works because now I might ‘get’ them. If you’re interested the Korean Film Council have planted a ton of classic films here.

Get Cracking (UK, 1943)

The cool of uncool

George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.

Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.

Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:

“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”

Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.

No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.

Stan & Ollie (UK-Canada-US, 2018)

Steve & John

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are extraordinary as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the greatest comedy duo in cinema history. The 23 people that make up the makeup department also need to take a bow because great as Steve and John are, the preternatural likeness of their appearance is as crucial to the film’s success. Jon S. Baird’s direction and Jeff (Philomena) Pope’s script are also important ingredients in portraying the twilight years of the duo on tour in the UK.

I’m not a fan of biopics as they often cram key moments into a narrative making the film seem one set piece after another. So despite Marion Cotillard’s stunning performance as Edith Piaf, I was desperate for her to die so La Vie en Rose (France-UK-Czech Republic, 2007) would end. Through focusing on a few weeks, with a preface set 16 years earlier for context, Stan & Ollie successfully conveys the duo’s brilliance and their friendship. The film is encased in a deep melancholy about fading footlights and fading life; Ollie, in particular, is ill and Stan’s wife, in an effort to protect him, constantly downs his drinks: “It’s funny, the more I drink, the drunker my wife gets,” he says. Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson also excel as the duo’s duelling wives.

The preface, in 1937, is set during the filming of the classic Way Out West (1937) and explains how producer Hal Roach’s contract ensured they weren’t as well paid as, for example, Charlie Chaplin. Pope’s script, however, makes it clear that numerous divorces and gambling was also a reason they were on their uppers, touring smaller theatres and desperately trying to get a new film off the ground in 1953.

Their performances on the tour featured sketches from their films, such as the ‘hard boiled eggs and nuts’ from County Hospital (1932). Steve and John’s mimicry is such that during them, and I’ve seen Laurel and Hardy’s films countless times, it seems that Stan and Ollie have been transformed into high definition colour. It takes conscious thought to recalibrate and think ‘Coogan and Reilly’ to allow the actors’ appearance and voices’ timbre to filter through.

Matthew Sweet’s article in Sight & Sound (Jan-Feb) makes it clear that the rapturous reception the duo receive in Ireland, toward the end of the film, didn’t happen but we can forgive Pope for fantasising how they should have ended their career. There are clearly plenty of fans still around (the shorts are shown on Talking Pictures in the UK) as it’s already taken £6m after two weekends in Britain and was apparently budgeted at a mere $10m. In my youth Laurel & Hardy shorts were dotted about BBC1’s schedules but the younger generation (if my twentysomething nephew is an accurate indicator) have never heard of them. It is their loss but I wonder to what extent you have to know Laurel and Hardy to enjoy Coogan and Reilly and the film.

Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, Iceland-Germany-Norway, 2013)

You couldn’t make it up

One of the attractions of watching films from around the world is to learn about different cultures. Of Horses and Men collects vignettes of ‘soap opera’ life in rural Iceland: a close-knit community’s going-ons with a focus on sexual jealousy. This community is built around horses and climaxes with a community round up of the beasts which, a character states, has been going on for a thousand years. An ancient culture then and I wondered a little about my reaction, whilst watching this film, because much of what we see is farcical. However, as the superb soundtrack by Davíð Þór Jónsson makes clear with its jaunty accompaniment, writer and first time director Benedikt Erlingsson is poking affectionate fun.

The fun, however, is often dark and surreal; in one episode a character’s desperation for alcohol leads him to get a horse to swim to a passing freighter to buy Russian ‘vodka’ (it’s not clear what he actually consumes). The scene is extraordinary. The horses themselves, as the title suggests, are central characters and they are exceptionally beautifully shot by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.

Roy suggests that the translation of the title misses out ‘women’ and they certainly come off better than many of the men who are often driven by stupid impulses. In one scene an older guy keeps suggesting that he take over from capturing horses from a young woman and what follows is a marvellously triumphant moment.

At the film’s end we are assured that no horses were injured during the filming and all the actors love the creatures. Their skill with the animals is obvious as is their affection for the beasts. Of Horses and Men is a superb glimpse into another world.

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, Argentina-Spain, 2014)

Expectedly unexpected

Expectedly unexpected

Wild Tales has one of those rare beasts: a good trailer. Although I enjoyed watching the film it hardly lived up to the rave reviews it’s received in some quarters or its excellent publicity. Possibly the problem is its short story nature, the film consists of six unrelated tales, as I’m not fond of the form. I find it dissatisfying that a story comes to an end just as I’m getting into it. This dissatisfaction can be overcome if the stories are thematically linked, such as in Dead Of Night (UK, 1945), however the only common factor in these tales is the fact they are ‘wild’.

I don’t mean to sound overly-negative, most of the tales have a logic where the protagonist is pushed beyond the boundaries of ‘decent’ behaviour. Particularly good is Ricardo Darín (also seen in The White Elephant) as the explosive expert who cracks when his car is towed away despite being legally parked; apparently this is common in Buenos Aires. The bride who discovers her husband’s infidelity during the wedding party also has a narrative that satisfyingly spirals out of control.

However the lack of a strong thread between the segments was disappointing. If they had all, for example, attacked bourgeois mores (which a few do) then it would have been more successful. It reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, adapted for British television in the 1970s; Wild Tales may have been better as a series of six programmes.

PS After writing the above it was pointed out to me, by someone who’d only seen the trailer(!), that revenge links the stories. Now you might ask how I missed that… I’m wondering too.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

An accidental hero

An accidental hero

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

The Trip to Italy (UK, 2014)

Perfect doubt act

Perfect doubt act

This sequel to The Trip (UK. 2010) is the same as before as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon riff against one another as, usually, friendly, comedian rivals. The improvisation is stunningly high in quality and often difficult to keep up with as the depth of reference, both cultural and to the ennui of middle age, is delivered with such rapidity that laughter has to be stifled or the next hilarious observation might be missed.

Despite the humour, the series is melancholy in nature as one of the themes is male middle age angst, emphasised in the regular use of the autumnal music of Mahler, I Am Lost to the World, and Strauss, At Twilght. At one point Coogan muses that he is now invisible to young woman that surround them on a restaurant balcony. To solve the problem, he suggests that he and Brydon look the other way.