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.

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DVD Review: Behind the Camera

Starring: Yun Yeo-jeong, Kim Ok-vin
Director: EJ Yong
Rating: 6/10

behind-the-camera 1In Seoul, EJ Yong, a director known for his fondness for innovation, is asked by an electronics company to make a short promo celebrating the power of mobile technology. He agrees, and then he has another idea – why not go one step further and direct the movie via Skype rather than in person? What better celebration of mobile technology could there be than that? So the actors, shivering in a bitter Korean winter, are assembled for an intensive two-day shoot, only to be presented with the director’s face on a TV screen and to learn that he’s miles away, in sunny Los Angeles. The movie we see is a documentary about what happens next.

Or is it? Whether E (as he’s known to his friends) is actually in Hollywood, as he claims, and not hidden away in an office somewhere nearby is a matter of fierce debate among the cast and crew, and the audience is likely to have a nagging question of their own – namely, how much of this is a genuine documentary and how much of it is a scripted (or perhaps semi-improvised) drama in disguise?

In a way it doesn’t matter. Whatever the truth, most people will simply take Behind the Camera as a clever new entry in the trusty old genre of films about the making of a film. Rather like Truffaut’s contribution to that genre, Day for Night, it’s so in love with the romance of filmmaking it doesn’t question whether what it is doing is worthwhile. Nor, probably, will members of the audience who share E’s enthusiasm, even if the scenes of actors, crew and rival directors amiably gossiping backstage are presumably much more fun and pointed for Korean filmgoers who know who these people are.

Then again, you don’t have to be an expert in Korean cinema to warm to a character like Yun Yeo-jeong, the veteran actress who dominates every scene she’s in with her pithy putdowns, her revealing anecdotes and her innate sense of timing. Queen bee on and off set, she inspires a reverence that E can only aspire to. Not that the other performers aren’t very engaging and nice to be around as well (they politely call the director “sir”, something that probably hasn’t happened in Hollywood since the days of Cecil B. DeMille).

Is it something of an ego trip for E, placing himself at the centre of his own film? behind-the-cameraPerhaps. Yet Behind the Camera occasionally feels like a dig at the auteurist theory, in that it raises the question of whether a film really needs a director at all, apart from to occasionally sooth an actor’s nerves. As the sceptical crew get on with the thankless task of attempting to get the film (which, frankly, is no masterpiece) shot in time, E becomes a rather sad figure trapped on a screen in a corner of the soundstage, increasingly ignored. But it’s hard to draw any definite conclusions because, apart from when another director tries to take over, there’s very little drama. The high energy, the confusion, the sense of being behind the scenes are all exhilarating. But a bit like actually being on a film set, you become exhausted from waiting around for something to happen.

As a technical exercise, Behind the Camera is seamless in that it’s impossible to tell where fact ends and fiction begins, but it also feels sealed inside its own bubble of in-jokes and teasing coyness. (Although there’s one clear inconsistency, surely. If Behind the Camera really is a proper “making of” documentary, then it must have had a separate director, but that credit goes to E himself.) The extras, although interesting, aren’t much help in getting to the bottom of the riddle. There’s an 11-minute interview with E, which is a bit painful because it’s done through a translator, so by the time the answer comes you’ve forgotten what the question was. You also get a 27-minute Film Festival Q&A. Here the moderator does his best to pin down the facts, and E insists, not entirely convincingly, that the whole thing is true and shows people just being themselves.

Movie Review: Pluto

pluto-1

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.