After being startled by Lynne Ramsey’s Morvern Callar, I went back and watched Ratcatcher, her debut feature-length movie that is one of the very few first movies by any director to earn a Criterion Collection release. There are a few times when I have debated the wisdom of some of Criterion’s curations — why Maitresse, for instance? — but this wasn’t one of them. Ratcatcher is wholly deserving of the attention, especially since it probably wouldn’t have seen release here on video otherwise.
Ratcatcher is set in the council flats (read: slums) of 1973 Glasgow, where bags of garbage pile up in courtyards and on corners no thanks to a citywide trash-hauler’s strike. Rats and lice are rampant, and the unhealthy conditions of the neighborhood are made all the worse by a stagnant canal that runs right past the houses. In the first few minutes of the film, James (William Eadie), one of the neighborhood boys, tussles with his friend Ryan (Thomas McTaggart) in the muddy water — then looks on in horror as Ryan goes under and drowns. James flees and runs back to his house just as several neighbors discover the body, and when his mother sees him she embraces him and whispers: “I thought it was you.” She saw the corpse from their apartment window. James is not a cruel person but he is an emotionally crippled one, and the experience will only make him all the more damaged and withdrawn.Read more
Tenjho Tenge seems to have been produced in some kind of anime clean room, where all traces of real-world consequences and common sense were scrupulously excluded from the final product. In plain English: this is one of the most blissfully stupid shows you’ll ever see. No law of human behavior, logic, consequence or physics is respected for more than a few seconds at a time. When it is, it doesn’t really matter much, since the real reason for the show’s existence is to give us splendidly-endowed women and hunky-looking men whaling the tar out of each other over and over again.
Sure, people will say, but is there anything wrong with that? No, probably not, and I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t enjoy watching Tenjho Tenge and its copious chests. That said, I’m trying to approach these things like a critic and not only a fan, and I have a hard time saying yes to this when I’ve also been stumping for Kaze no Yojimbo and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (now in a second season that’s as good as the first) and Paranoia Agent and Berserk and Kino’s Journey — in short, other shows that in my mind are far more worth the effort to track down and watch, and often don’t get the audience they deserve. Read more
Like many Korean films, The Coast Guard deals with a country divided against itself, and how the ones who are caught in that division suffer the most. In this film, it’s a young man who is part of South Korea’s coastal border patrol. Much of the shoreline in South Korea is shrouded in barbed wire and security fences, and anyone who strays into those zones after sundown is target practice. South Korea clams that no North Korean spy has been able to come ashore in almost six years thanks to these measures, but the film is about the human cost of such work and not a gung-ho war movie.
I doubt I could have expected a gung-ho war movie from Ki-duk Kim, one of Korea’s best and most provocative directors. He is more interested in tormented individuals than geopolitics, and his movies reflect that: The Isle, 3-Iron, Samaria, Real Fiction, Bad Guy, Address Unknown, all of which are about (at least in some degree) people trapped in their own private hells. Address Unknown was the last time he explicitly tied their sufferings to some specific social condition — in that case, it was the chaos of post-war Korea — and here it’s the demands of the border patrol and the effects its work has on the people touched by it. The problem is that it goes curiously astray and gets lost in its own conceits. Read more
Bookstore shelves across the country are experiencing a boom in translated Korean comics, or manhwa, just as they’ve been enjoying a similar influx from their Japanese cousins for a long time now. And like Japanese manga, Korean manhwa has both a popular mainstream incarnation and a more adult variety. Buja’s Diary is unquestionably in the second category. It has the same restless, uneasy spirit that Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man did: this is about life in a raw, troubling and unvarnished vein. Unlike Push Man, though, Diary is more protestant and angry than grim and matter-of-fact. Even when the storytelling or results aren’t as consistent it’s still absorbing, and the title story is worth the price of the whole book.
Diary is broken into thirteen unrelated short pieces, all set in troubled post-WWII South Korea and depicting in different measures the difficulties of living well, or even sometimes living at all. The art is strongly reminiscent of Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, not in the sense of its details of the environment but how the look on a face is precisely observed and recorded — and in stories that are as much about inner lives as outer ones, that’s crucial. Read more
Is there anything left for him? That is the question Umberto D. poses about its main character, a pensioner eking out a hand-to-mouth existence in post-WWII Italy. He has no family, no close friends, no support structure — nothing except his dingy apartment, the clothes on his back, and his dog Flike. His pension is pathetic, and is eaten whole by his rent. His landlady rents out his room to adulterers when he’s not there, and is preparing to throw him out whether or not he can pay his arrears. The only friend he has is the household maid, a girl who’s just discovered she’s pregnant and isn’t even sure which of the two soldiers she was dating is the father. She, too, will most likely be pitched out into the street.
Umberto worked for the state for thirty years — like the old man in Kurosawa’s Ikiru — but he is not only now discovering he is an irrelevancy. It has been creeping up on him for some time, and there has not been anything he could do about it anyway. He has several strategies for caring for both himself and Flike: when he goes to a local soup kitchen, he uses some sleight-of-hand to finagle extra food for the dog. He tries to hock his watch — possibly his thirty-year commemorative gift? — and sells what books he has. Even when he comes up with two-thirds of his back rent and promises the rest when his pension comes in, his landlady is still determined to get rid of him. She has pretensions about being a society woman, and grotty old-age pensioners renting rooms in her house have no place in such a vision. Read more
"Language is a virus from outer space,” William Burroughs was noted for having said, and The Ticket That Exploded is like a book from outer space — or maybe, what someone would write if infected by a virus from outer space. Naked Lunch had been written while Burroughs was in the fever grip of heroin addiction for years on end, and Ticket is even more maddening and abstruse. When I came across a copy in my hometown’s used bookstore, I had only just finished with Lunch and was in fact surprised to find that Burroughs had written a good many other books that were even further out on a limb. Where else was there to go? But he had somehow gone further — not always successfully, certainly not always coherently, but he stuck his neck out and made it his own turf.
Of the books that followed Lunch more or less immediately, Ticket is the one I find myself coming back to most but more for reasons of nostalgia and taste than anything else. In each of Lunch’s successors Burroughs explored many of the implications set up in that first book: the arbitrariness of language, the power of systems of control, the way texts and images work on the mind. Ticket is like one of those records where you have one CD that’s the songs and another CD that’s the remixes or the “in dub” versions — except that the song will sometimes switch to and back from the remix in mid-measure. The sheer variety of material in it is what draws me in, even if the methodology is middlebrow and the politics laughable.Read more
Some have described Kaze no Yojimbo as a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo when in fact it’s something far better: a new version of the same source material. The original inspiration for Yojimbo was Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, a hybrid of noir and Western pulp conventions that has spawned endless copies since. Kurosawa’s movie is just one of the many forms it’s assumed, and this anime, a 26-episode production for TV, is certainly one of the better ones. I watched it and admired it entirely for what it was, not what it tried vainly to remind me of (as was the case with the lamentable Samurai 7, another recent anime remake of a Kurosawa property that merely added length and nothing else).
“Harvest” was a simple enough story: a drifter comes into a town wracked by violence and plays both sides against each other to come out on top. In Yojimbo, the drifter was Toshiro Mifune’s sword-for-hire character, himself echoed and recycled into countless other movies — Clint Eastwood’s seminal Man with No Name, for instance, or Bruce Willis’s dour-faced gunman of Last Man Standing. The latter, incidentally, was a most direct remake of Yojimbo — Kurosawa himself got screenwriter’s credit — but the results were so lean and uninteresting, even hardcore fans of the original were turned off.Read more
When I was ten years old, I didn’t want to grow up to be an astronaut or a rock star; I wanted to grow up to be Daniel M. Pinkwater. I can’t think of any other writer I read during that time of my life who not only influenced me profoundly but gave me something to shoot for. I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to write things that had the same crazy magic to them. On Amazon's product page for the book there is a list of "statistically improbable phrases": omega waves, blue garlic, gong crashing, perfect spiritual master, avocado pie, performing chicken, biology notebook, chili parlor, existential plane, lunch court, magic gem, fifty monks, space pirates, greatest detective, giant television screens, raisin toast. Try and make all of that stuff fit in any five books, let alone any one.
The most startling thing about Pinkwater’s novels — especially Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars — is how they are not “kid’s books” but were written to be read by anyone, really — not just preteens stuck in urban or suburban wastelands with no real connections to anything. That was who he was ostensibly writing for, though — kids like me who were growing up in a pre-Internet, pre-Nintendo, pre-cellphone world, but who were still smart and yearning to do something big with our lives. Pinkwater’s books were all about that kind of yearning, and they spoke directly to me and my friends in a kind of magical surrealism that has not only aged well but become timeless.Read more
What little we are seeing now of Korean cinema in the West is probably only a tiny fraction of what truly exists and is worth seeing, so having a movie like Aimless Bullet cross my path is a revelation. Here is probably the only Korean film I've seen so far, aside from Why has Bodhidharma Left for the East?, that was made before the big filmmaking boom that gave us Shiri and Oldboy and all the other blockbusters even non-fans are familiar with now. Aimless Bullet was made in 1960 and seems now only to exist in a battered, barely-watchable print, but is rightly regarded as one of South Korea's masterpieces. It brings to mind a movie I just watched, Umberto D., and all of the other neorealist cinema (both in Europe and Asia) that followed in its wake.
Aimless Bullet (also translated, probably more correctly, as Stray Bullet) is set in the post-Korean War shambles of Seoul, which the film makes no attempt to gloss over or disguise. There are as many wrecked buildings as there are construction sites, and the poorest live cheek-by-jowl in huddled two-families-to-a-room shantytowns. One such family consists of two adult brothers — Chul-ho, a dutiful accountant with a son and a daughter (and another child on the way), and Yong-ho, an ex-soldier, wounded in combat and out of work following his discharge. We're not even formally introduced to them at first — we sort of blunder into them in the nighttime while Yong-ho is out getting drunk with soldiering buddies and Chul-ho is heading home, wondering where his sister is. The only other consistent figure in the household is their mother, long since senile, who thrashes around in her bed and moans, "Let's get away from here!" — a cry that echoes the sentiments of everyone around her.Read more