DVD Review: Moebius

Starring: Cho Jae-hyun, Lee Eun-woo, Seo young-ju
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Rating: 8/10

Moebius is probably one of the most batshit crazy films ever to come out of… well, anywhere, let alone the brain of a respected director like Kim Kid-uk. It contains not one word of dialogue, and that alone would make it stand out as something of an oddity. But you quickly realize that what the characters say or don’t say is the least of it – it’s what they do that will have your gag reflex working overtime.

moebius 3The story revolves around what has to be the hands down winner of the title of Korean cinema’s most dysfunctional family. Crazed by his affair with a girl who works in a convenience store, a wine-guzzling housewife (Lee Eun-woo) attempts to do a Billy Bobbitt on her husband (Cho Jae-hyun), fails, and then, as a kind of consolation prize, cuts off the penis of her shy and inoffensive son (Seo young-ju). She then walks out, leaving him with all sorts of humiliating problems, ranging from bullying at school to a non-starter of a sex-life. Understandably thrown off kilter, he becomes an unwilling participant in an attempted rape, has a spell in jail, and then takes up with the convenience store girl, who has in the meantime been jilted by the boy’s guilt-ridden father. Adversity seems to bring father and son together, but not exactly in a healthy way – getting it from all sides, with even his own son beating him up, the father begins to show marked masochistic tendencies.

The film is full of behaviour that falls under the don’t-try-this-at-home category, from moebius 2grating the skin off your feet to achieve orgasm, to allowing your partner to stab you in the shoulder during sex as an aphrodisiac, to running around with a severed penis in your hands (the boy’s willy isn’t the only one to get snipped off during the course of events). And yet, although the three main characters do terrible things, they’re not terrible people, brutish and insensitive – in fact, quite the reverse. So when, for instance, the mother gives the son a handjob, yes, on one level it’s filthy incest, but (for reasons we won’t go into here, but which have an insane logic to them) she’s actually displaying an odd kind of fidelity to the boy’s father,

moebius 1This is film that goes absolutely out of its way to be shocking and disgusting, but people will probably find it blackly funny, thanks to the quality of the performances, which leaven the sickness with humanity and a kind of affectionate understanding. Lee Eun-woo has the most eye-grabbing role as the mother, writhing around on the floor showing her underpants, her face covered in blood and snot, but it’s Cho Jae-hyun’s father who sneakily wins your sympathies with his bumblingly twisted acts of paternal love. As for the complete eschewing of dialogue, only occasionally does the device feel forced; most of the time the gloomy silence that prevails seems just right, the soundtrack to many a broken home.

Although it’s easy to get lost in the welter of erotomania, the film has a quirky message moebius 4that comes through loud and clear – that penises are more trouble than they’re worth and they can get in the way of happiness (after all, it was the father’s inability to keep it in his pants which kicked off all the trouble in the first place). Mad but memorable, Moebius is powerful enough to make you wonder whether more directors should follow Kim Ki-duk’s example and go a little crazy sometimes.

The disc comes with a 7-minute interview with Seo Young-ju, and a further 26-minute Q&A with the same actor on stage at the Terracotta Festival – he’s not the most outward-going character, but he has a go, talking about his initial worries and how reassuringly pleasant and cheerful the director was.

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Blu-ray Review: Lesson of Evil

Starring: Hideaki Ito, Fumi Nikaido
Director: Takashi Miike
Rating: 7/10

lesson-of-evil 5There’s a school of thought that says you have to be bonkers to become a teacher, but hopefully not as bonkers as Hasumi (Hideaki Ito), the twisted protagonist of Lesson of Evil. At work, he’s smooth and popular, but he lives in a semi-derelict house where, instead of getting on with his marking and a bit of lesson preparation, he wiles away the hours electrocuting crows. You sense that it’s only a matter of time before he extends his murderous urges to his pupils.

The first half of the film plays like one of Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptations. lesson-of-evil 2You get the same wet, brownish palette, the same overcast skies, the same stately pace and leisurely introduction to a mildly dysfunctional community – in this case Hasumi’s high school, a place which seems proper enough outwardly but is actually a nest of intrigue. Taking its time, the camera casts its eye over a large cast of characters, all with something going on, and we get glimpses into the strange lives of the pupils and the even stranger lives of the teachers.

lesson-of-evil 4The common thread running through these scenes is the eeriness (when you stop to think about of it) of institutions where people rub along together while really knowing very much about each other… and that means most institutions. Darabontish or not, it’s all very well handled by the prolific and versatile Takashi Miike (Crows Zero), and it shows how effective he can be when he eschews his usual showy tricks for a more slow-burning technique. But the film will undoubtedly be most talked about for its controversial second half, which is an extended gorefest as Hasumi finally flips on the eve of a school festival and chases the kids with a shotgun through tissue paper grottoes, shooting them like fish in a barrel, ribbons, balloons and coloured lights mocking the slaughter.

These two halves – the Frank Darabont-ish and the 13 Assassins-ish – aren’t easy to lesson-of-evil 1reconcile until you realize that Lesson of Evil isn’t actually a thriller at all but a disaster movie: Hasumi is like a typhoon that hits the school, and the children are helpless before it, as Miike tirelessly demonstrates by showing pupil after pupil blown backwards off their feet in a spurt of grue. Yet as in a disaster movie, there’s a touch of hokum to even the grisliest of proceedings, softening the impact of all that graphic violence. Having a teacher as the killer makes a symbolic point about the extent to which we take the educational profession’s goodwill for granted, but it’s less scarily real than if it were another kid doing it. You therefore watch the mayhem without any real emotional wrench, not unless you’re absolutely determined to get worked up over the film daring to take a school massacre as its theme. Which will be fine for those viewers who want to enjoy a bit of expertly choreographed carnage without having their deeper feelings unduly troubled. Lesson of Evil is a strange beast in many ways, as schizoid as its villain, but both halves show Miike at somewhere near his best.

The Blu-ray comes with a two hour long “making of” that is an absolute treasure trove lesson-of-evil 3for Miike enthusiasts. An intensive behind the scenes record of the 47-day shoot, it’s the next best thing to actually being on set with him. We get to see the director trying to get a decent performance out of some crows with the aid of a cawing bird wrangler, and shooting a murder on a real train packed with Miike product placements. An interesting sequence of his crew dollying the camera across a classroom on tracks and silently moving the furniture out of the way – or trying to – goes to show how much effort went into even the simplest of the film’s set-ups. Throw in cast interviews on location, and it’s a great insight into the Miike group at work.

Movie Review: Pluto

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Starring: Kim Khobbi, Lee Da-wit, Sung Joon
Director: Shin Su-won
Rating: 6/10

Following on from the brutal animated feature The King of Pigs, here we have yet more evidence that when it comes to hellish high schools, Korea has the rest of the world beat. Pluto concerns June, a boy from a poor background who transfers to a highly competitive school where the top ten pupils receive special privileges. Keen to break into their magic circle, he quickly discovers that the odds are stacked in favour of rich kids with parents who pay for extra tuition and know how to grease the right palms. However, the “special class” indicate that they will welcome him into the fold if he will agree to carry out a series of macabre tasks for them..

Director Shin Su-won (herself a teacher for ten years) presents the story in disorientating non-chronological order, starting with a murder and then, via flashbacks and a revenge-themed framing device, taking in a suicide, several bloody beatings and an IED threat before it’s done. It’s a suitably alienating introduction to an alienated bunch of teens who don’t even have western-style wisecracks and pop culture to ease their angst (the hot topic of convo among the kids is astronomy). Brewing up an impressive atmosphere of bottled-up tension, the film paints a convincing picture of classroom snarkiness and backbiting, with occasional glances beyond the school walls to society at large – a society where people leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting ahead (in one aside, we learn that a character has had surgery on their tongue to improve their spoken English – apparently it’s a thing in Korea).

It’s a shame that the denouement isn’t handled in a slightly ballsier, more visceral way – as it is it feels a touch loose and ragged, and not quite up to the task of channelling pent-up audience tension. Otherwise, it’s all very compelling, if exceedingly glum. Animal lovers, be warned, a bunny gets the chop, and a flog has its inner ear punctured.

Blu-ray Review: Like Father, Like Son

like father like son

Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Rating: 8/10

In this modern take on the age-old theme of nature versus nurture, yuppie couple Ryota and Midori get the shock of their lives when they discover that their son, six-year-old Keita, whom they’ve been painstakingly grooming to be a high-achiever like his dad, isn’t actually their son after all, thanks a mix-up at the hospital where he was born. As baby-switches go, it might not be quite as bad as the one in The Omen, but the consequences are still pretty devastating.

It’s a dilemma which, in less subtle hands, would make for meaty melodrama and tearful histrionics. Like Father, Like Son, by contrast, unfolds through gentle character studies and dry comedy of manners, but it exerts no less of a powerful hold for that.

The potential corrosiveness of the revelation on their privileged little family unit is immediately apparent. For driven, workaholic Ryota, the vague dissatisfaction he has had with his son all these years suddenly makes sense, while Midori is appalled at her own lack of insight as a mother – how could she not tell that the child was not her own?

And then there’s the awkward meeting with the other victims of the mix-up, a scruffy, cash-strapped small town husband and wife who have been unwittingly raising Ryota and Midori’s son in the back of a seedy hardware shop. Complications ensue as they attempt to work out how best to handle the situation. Should they swap back? What’s more important – blood, or the connection they’ve developed with Keita? Or maybe, Ryota wonders, he and Midori should raise both boys? Yudai, the other dad, is eagerly anticipating a big payout in damages from the hospital, and Ryota looks down his nose at him, certain he’s the better role model. But as the two families start seeing more of each other, Ryota is disconcerted to find everyone getting on well with Yudai, who may not have made much of his life but certainly has a magic touch with kids.

Hirokazu Kore-eda teases out these various wrinkles with sensitivity and warmth, and – no Kramer Vs Kramer moments here  – with a complete absence of sentimentality or mawkishness. There are beautifully natural performances all round, even from the (extremely cute and unannoying) littluns, and Machito Ono exudes understated pathos as the quiet, timid wife who realizes, perhaps too late, that she feels a profound kinship with this little boy who has come by mistake into her life.

If you wanted to pick holes, you could argue that the movie relies upon a consoling and untrue stereotype – namely, that the rich lead boring, anal-repressive lives and the poor might have holes in their shoes but they know how to have fun. But aside from this sneaky balancing of the scales, Like Father, Like Son is an impressively thoughtful, even-handed and well-crafted piece of cinema and one well worth making a permanent home for on your Blu-ray shelf.

DVD Review: The Story of Yonosuke

Starring: Kengo Kora, Yuriko Yoshitaka
Director: Shuichi Okita
Rating: 7/10

“Whatever happened to whatsisname?” It a question you find yourself repeatedly asking as you grow older, and it’s also the theme of this gentle, bitter-sweet comedy from the director of The Woodsman and the Rain. Here, the whatsisname is one Yokomichi Yonosuke (the name is apparently giggle-worthily comedic in Japanese, presumably akin to being called Richard Head or Ben Dover), a slow-witted but jolly country bumpkin who comes to Tokyo to be a student in the late ’80s.

In a series of mildly absurd misadventures, he joins a samba club, acts as an unwitting matchmaker to a pair of his fellow students, develops a hopeless crush on a vampish older woman who rinses wealthy businessmen at the hotel where he is a bellhop, and begins a tentative relationship with a flaky rich girl whose nerves have been shattered by her domineering father. At the same time, flash-forwards to these same characters sixteen years later pose the question – where is Yonosuke now?

It’s this bifocal effect that imposes a sense of purpose on what might otherwise seem like an almost random collection of episodes, and that brings Yonosuke’s story into melancholy perspective. Played by Kengo Kora with mugging mannerisms and a collapsing thatch of curly hair, Yonosuke has more than a whiff of other classic movie misfits such as Forrest Gump, Jean Renoir’s Boudu and Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. Touching the lives of others in unexpectedly profound ways, he remains a bit of a riddle himself, an amiable loner.

But the melancholy is no more than a counterpoint to the general mood, which is full of the joys of spring, the pleasures of friendship and the exciting bustle of student days. This is a charming, easygoing movie, and even at an overlong two hours and forty minutes, it slips along very nicely from one affectionately mocking vignette to the next. It’s perhaps not as memorable as The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, with which it shares certain ingredients, but it’s a thoroughly pleasant exercise in ’80s nostalgia, Japanese-style.