With Prisoners


Dinner is served.

(2016) True Crime Drama (Times Production Ltd) Neo Yau Hiewk-sau, Kelvin Kwan, Edward Chui, Kimi Chiu, Lee Kwok Lun, Raymond Chiu, Kwok Yik Sum, Amy Tam, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, Han Wan, DreGar, Luk Yuen Yee, Mak Yee Ma, Sham Ka Ki. Directed by Kwok Kuen Wong

Dostoevsky once wrote that you can tell how civilized a society is by how it treats its prisoners. Who am I to disagree with so distinguished an author? In fact, I completely agree; most societies seem to be all about punishment ahead of rehabilitation. It doesn’t seem to be much of a concern that convicts be given the tools to go straight and lead a law-abiding life; the general consensus is that if they come back we’ve always got a cell and if we run short we can always build more. As for brutality, those who are in jail are there because they’re guilty of something and thus they deserve whatever they get.

Fan (Hiewk-sau) is a thug and proud of it. He lives with his Nana (Yee) who disapproves of his lifestyle, but he’s young, arrogant and has a quick temper. He has ambitions of becoming a big crime boss, but after getting into a brawl with a drunk police officer in a bar he ends up convicted of assaulting a police officer and is shuttled to prison in Hong Kong’s “Short Sharp Shock” program, an accelerated boot camp-like environment designed to provide self-discipline for young men who sorely need it.

Immediately he discovers that while there is brutal discipline, it is enforced by cruel and sadistic punishments – at one point Fan is forced to clean the toilet with his fingers and then brush his teeth with those same fingers without a chance to wash them first. And yes, that’s as disgusting as it sounds. He is beaten by the guards, particularly the sadistic Gwai (Lun) who seems to take great pleasure in torturing the prisoners mentally as well as physically.

Things are so bad that he attempts to hang himself on only the third day but is saved by the quick-thinking guard Ho (Kwan) who alone among the guards seems to have any sort of humanity in him. He is the opposite of Gwai – he wants to see the kids rehabilitated and to make productive lives for themselves. He is deeply disturbed by the attitudes and behaviors of the other guards but the Warden (Singh) turns a blind eye so long as nothing negative reflects on him.

Fan eventually makes friends in prison, including the friendly Sing (Ki) and Sharpie (Ma) who has an agenda of his own. When word reaches Fan that his Nana is sick, he strives to become a model prisoner and get released early but will it come in time for him to see his Nana one last time? And once he is free, will he sink back into his old ways?

Based on actual events, the movie never really establishes a “this is the way it happened” feel to it. There are a lot of prison movie clichés that crop up – all that is missing is a prison riot climax – and some of the film actually feels more melodramatic than authentic.

That said, there is also a Scared Straight vibe as well. If you’re going to do the crime, you are likely to do the time and here, ladies and gentleman, is what that time looks like. There is very much a boot camp look to prison in Hong Kong with military-like marching, prisoners shouting “Good morning, sir!” at the top of their lungs every morning during role call and entire companies of prisoners forced to do push-ups and laps for the transgressions of a single guy. While there are beatings administered and sadistic punishments inflicted, there isn’t a ton of blood and the violence is pretty tame by American prison movie standards.

The two leads, Kwan and Hiewk-sau are both strong in their performances. Hiewk-sau goes from a smiling, snarling thug to a disciplined prisoner determined to get out early and see his nana and the transformation is both believable and compelling. Kwan’s character is more of a generic nice prison guard but there is a sub-plot involving his recovering addict wife that gives him more depth.

Hong Kong doesn’t produce a lot of prison movies but when it does they tend to be worth watching and this one is no exception. I would have liked something a little less slick and a little more gritty but I think that the difference in tastes between East and West might have something to do with that. In any case, there is ample reason to check this out should it appear in a festival near you or on your favorite specialty streaming channel.

REASONS TO GO: Hiewk-sau and Kwan give memorable performances. The movie can serve as a warning to those contemplating doing the crime as to what doing the time looks like.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is overly melodramatic in places. The film may be a bit tame for American tastes for this kind of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Although the movie is fairly mild by prison movie standards, it does contain a brief scene of drug use, some mild profanity, sensuality, brief male rear nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mak Yee Ma, who plays the returning prisoner Sharpie, is the former convict whose story the movie is based upon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Violent Prosecutor
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Vampire Cleanup Department

Pieta


Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

Oedipus has nothing on Kang-do.

(2012) Drama (Drafthouse) Min-soo Jo, Jeong-jin Lee, Ki-Hong Woo, Eunjin Kang, Jae-ryong Cho, Myeong-ja Lee, Jun-seok Heo, Se-in Kwon, Mun-su Song, Beon-jun Kim, Jong-hak Son, Jin Yong-Ok, Jae-Rok Kim, Won-jang Lee. Directed by Ki-duk Kim

 Florida Film Festival 2013

The relationship between a mother and son is a crucial one. Without it (or with a toxic one) young men can feel lost, unloved, alone in the world. The psychological damage of a bad or non-existent relationship with a mother can be devastating.

That’s the situation that Kang-do (Jeong-jin Lee) has grown up with and grown up he has. He is a collector for loan sharks who have a particularly brutal policy; those who borrow must sign insurance policies that reimburse them in case of mutilation or crippling. If they fail to pay, Kang-do shows up and cripples them. The insurance money goes to his bosses.

Kang-do is a fella who takes pleasure in his work. When the wife of one of the men who he is collecting from offers sex in exchange for giving them an additional week to come up with the money, Kang-do allows her to strip then beats her with her own brassiere and cripples her husband anyway. Kang-do also does a good deal of masturbating and likes to smear animal entrails on the floor of his shower.

Then one day a mysterious woman shows up at his door. Her name is Mi-son (Min-soo Jo) and she claims to be the mother who abandoned him when he was a baby. At first, Kang-do disbelieves. She has paperwork but it really means nothing. So he asks her to prove it – by cutting off his big toe and having her eat it. Then he rapes her. Did I mention that this fellow is rather sick and twisted?

Slowly however her perseverance begins to overcome his reluctance and suspicion and a relationship is formed. He begins to realize that this is a relationship he has missed and now craves. His outlook begins to change. He is no longer able to do his job as effectively. He has grown a heart. But even as he accepts her, the audience remains suspicious. There is a freezer in an industrial space that she seems unusually attached to. What’s in that freezer – and what does she want of Kang-do?

The first half of this movie is non-stop violence and gore. It is – and let me be perfectly clear here – very disturbing, even for those who are used to disturbing Asian cinema. I’ve heard this film compared to No Country for Old Men and I’ll admit that there are some similar elements here – both films have a bleak undertone. However this film makes the American film look like a Disney film in tone by comparison.

The two leads have an insane kind of chemistry, the kind of warped relationship that is a car wreck you can’t look away from. Even though she knows what her son does for a living, she seems to accept it and even assists him in small ways on occasion. There are times you wonder if she is not more sociopathic than he is and he is about as amoral as they come.

One of the best things about the movie is the performance of the leads. Both Min-soo and Jeong-jin are completely believable and that’s necessary to make their twisted relationship come to life. Otherwise it’s more or less depravity on a stick – and we’ve seen plenty of those sorts of movies that confuse shock value for genuine emotion.

Director Ki-duk Kim grew up in the Cheonggyecheon area where this was filmed. It is a heavily industrialized zone where most of the residents are extremely impoverished. The landscapes are bleak and filled with trash and debris; it looks like a place where the people who live there have given up hope for anything better completely and have simply just adjusted to living in squalor and filth. The environment is very much a character in this film and despite the conditions you get the sense that Kim retains a great deal of affection for the place. The South Korean government, incidentally, have announced plans to completely redevelop the area so these images may well be the last the world sees of it as it is now.

The movie’s last half is much milder than the first in many ways, but there is a shocker at the film’s end as everything is tied together in a way that will simply take your breath away. I’ll just say that the denouement comes as inevitable but still you are unprepared for it.

The movie has had success on the film festival circuit and was South Korea’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards although it didn’t make the final list. I’m not surprised – the first half of the movie may simply be too disturbing for Academy voters and I know a lot of  you will probably feel the same if you do take the chance to see it. I’ll tell you what a film buff friend of mine who saw it at the Florida Film Festival before I did told me – hang in there. It’s rough going in the first half but the second half is so worth it. I agree – and unless you are extremely sensitive to violence and sexuality, it is worth the rough stuff in the end.

REASONS TO GO: Riveting psychological study. Min-soo Jo and Jeong-jin Lee deliver riveting performances. The payoff is extraordinary.

REASONS TO STAY: Getting to the climax requires one to sit through scenes of brutality and cruelty that may be too much for some..

FAMILY VALUES:  Occasionally graphic violence, a good deal of sexuality, some very disturbing scenes, incest and bad language throughout the film.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Korean film to win the coveted Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; fairly decent reviews but some critics just can’t get past some of the more disturbing elements of the film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Rundown

Devil


Devil

Joe Cobden admires the CGI buildings he can't see.

(Universal) Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Matt Craven, Jacob Vargas, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Cobden, Zoie Palmer, Vincent Laresca.  Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There are those that believe human beings are not basically evil; our evil comes from the choices we make. If that is the case, then the devil resides in our decisions.

It seems like an ordinary day, as five people board an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise; Sarah (Novakovic), an attractive young woman; Ben (Woodbine), a new temp working as a security guard on just his second day on the job; Vince (Arend), a slimy mattress salesman; Mrs. Tonjanovich (O’Hara), a matronly elderly woman and Tony (Marshall-Green), a former Marine just back from Afghanistan.

They’re on the express elevator but partway up the elevator comes to a bumpy and startling halt. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but what is strange about it is that every circuit appears to point to the elevator being perfectly fine. It should be traveling up and down the shaft instead of being stuck there, halfway between here and there. Two security guards, Lustig (Craven) and Ramirez (Vargas) are monitoring the situation via closed circuit cameras, but another strange thing – the audio is only working one way. The trapped people in the elevator can hear the security guards just fine, but the guards cannot hear them.

At first it seems just a minor inconvenience, but a time drags on and the building engineer (Cobden) can’t get the elevator to budge with no explanation as to why the elevator is stuck in the first place, the lights flicker out. When they come back on, Sarah is bleeding from a fairly impressive wound in the middle of her back that look uncomfortably like something bit her. Realizing that the wound was no accident, the guards call the police.

Conveniently enough, the police are already there; Detective Bowden (Messina) and his partner Detective Markowitz (Peace) were there investigating a suicide from the very same building. They try to reassure the increasingly panicked passengers (what doesn’t help matters is that Ben is claustrophobic, and Vince is something of an asshole), but the lights flicker out once again. When they come back on, one of the passengers is dead. It becomes apparent to everyone that something sinister is going on and as the body count piles up both inside the elevator and out, Ramirez realizes that one of the passengers is not who they seem to be and that what was happening in the elevator may be far worse than anyone realizes.

Director Dowdle (and his brother Drew, who co-produces his film) is an up and coming star in the horror genre, with Quarantine and the criminally under-appreciated The Poughkeepsie Tapes to his credit. This one is the most high-profile release yet, and he shows some real talent.

Most of the murders take place in complete darkness, allowing the imaginations of the audience to work for them. Dowdle relies on mood and tension to create the horror; while the supernatural element is certainly in the forefront, there aren’t as many special effects needed and in fact, there are really very few shots that make use of special effects (in something of an irony, there are more SFX shots establishing the cityscape than there are of the horrific).

Messina makes for a decent enough hero, a tormented man who is grieving an intolerable loss and whose back story is woven inexlorably into the fabric of the film. The cast is largely unknown and solid in their roles, with an occasional lapse into overacting from time to time.

Part of the film’s problem is the over-reliance on the voice-over narration to advance the plot. Ramirez, the film’s narrator, bases the events on a story his grandmother told him. As the movie progresses, the narration tends to mostly emphasize how each event being seen onscreen relates to a specific element to the story Ramirez’ grandmother told him. After awhile, it seems a lazy way to tell the story; in fact, the Ramirez character mostly exists to narrate and occasionally react with superstitious fear. For my two cents worth, I think the movie would have worked better without it.

That said, I must applaud Dowdle’s use of sound and darkness to deliver the scares. It’s very effective, especially in a large theater with a grand sound system that surrounds the viewer. I jumped several times during the movie and Da Queen, who is not fond of horror films, not only had a death grip on my hand during much of the movie but about pulled my arm out of the socket putting it between her and the screen, as if something were going to leap out and she would be protected by whatever it was devouring my arm first.

This is a solid horror movie with some pretty slick scares. I suspect that the connection with M. Night Shyamalan might hurt the movie, which is a crying shame. While I agree that Shyamalan of late has delivered some fairly mediocre films, there has been a backlash against him amongst internet fanboys who find it fashionable to flame the Pennsylvania-based director unmercifully. Unfortunately, very few of those who dictate opinion on the net actually take the time to base their opinions on the actual movie; it’s far more important for them to appear hip and funny.

That’s the crap part of net film review; the tendency for critics to go for the one-line zinger over genuine examination of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. This is far from being a classic of the horror genre, but it isn’t a complete waste of time either. Those who like a good scare flick will be well-served to check this out.

REASONS TO GO: The movie makes great use of darkness and sound to play head games with the audience. Some genuinely powerful scares and a nifty concept make this worth your while.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie relies far too much on voice-over narration to tell you what’s going on and the Ramirez character seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images, as well as some frightening images and sounds. Keep the kids at home for this one although the movie is suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a projected series of films that director M. Night Shyamalan will produce and conceptualize, but not direct. During the opening credit, the Night Chronicles logo morphs into the number one.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly, the movie needs the big sound system to make some of the scares work properly, even though the movie is mostly set in an elevator.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist