Summer 2010 was a good season for cinema; the superb trifecta of Inception, Toy Story 3, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has left us all agreeably satiated. But this begs the question: what are we to watch as dark, dank winter steadily approaches? The likelihood is, you have been missing out on the periphery of cinematic domain, otherwise known as everyplace else in the world that is not Hollywood.
World Cinema films have often been seen as a compromise between watching television and reading a book; only suitable for those with proper prescription eyewear, and promising to induce headaches in the unprepared mind. You expect to be assaulted with reams of figurative meaning, and as such, the films go overlooked as sources of everyday entertainment. But there are some absolutely fantastic films out there, which are as easy and engaging to watch as any Hollywood moneymaker – and more often than not, Hollywood and World Cinema have more in common than you might think.
The Serious One
After watching Waltz with Bashir, an animated Israeli documentary from filmmaker Ari Folman, the subsequent five minutes of conversation consisted purely of “whoa”, as we took in the sheer weight of the film. Folman’s interviews with friends from his past go into gritty detail about the Israel Defense Force during the 1982 Lebanon War, as Folman himself attempts to regain his memories of the night of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. A 19-year-old infantry soldier in the IDF at the time, he experienced such trauma from his role in the event that it is decades later before he even realises there is a hole in his memory. The combination of extreme realism interspersed with scenes of psychedelic surrealism, as well as the climactic switch to news archive footage of the aftermath to the massacre, creates a poignant and compelling work – a masterpiece.
Waltz with Bashir is a modern-day Apocalypse Now; Martin Sheen’s journey through Cambodia to dispose of an insane US colonel in Coppola’s Vietnam War epic is a descent into madness. The surf-crazy Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) rains fiery death down on an enemy village for their beach, and the AWOL Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has converted soldiers and locals alike to fight his own unsanctioned war. Both films serve to demonstrate the ignominy of war, but at the same time, neither attempts to shift the blame.
These two enormously important films have both, rightly so, won a plethora of awards, and the events and imagery are so universal that they continue to resonate across the world. Despite being banned in most Arab countries, a movement in Lebanon saw to Waltz with Bashir being privately screened in front of 90 people in Beirut. Folman was immensely proud of this defiance to the Lebanese government’s ban: “I was overwhelmed and excited. I wish I could have been there. I wish one day I’ll be able to present the film myself in Beirut. For me, it will be the happiest day of my life.”
The Revenge Movie
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy sees movie’s protagonist Oh Dae-sue (Choi Min-sik) mysteriously imprisoned in a room for 15 years until he is just as mysteriously let free. The ensuing quest to find out why he was held captive is filled with as much badassery and plot twists as you could want. In the course of the story, Oh Dae-sue attacks hordes of guards with nothing but a claw-hammer, eats a live octopus (committed, considering Choi’s Buddhism), and is entirely relentless in the pursuit of his demented captor, Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae). The film – second in Park’s Vengeance Trilogy – won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and has long been elevated to cult status. Potential viewers beware: there is more than enough gore and unpleasant material to make your brain turn foetal and quietly sob, “why oh why oh why”. Successful emotional manipulation is always the sign of a great film.
‘Revenge’ and ‘Hollywood’ puts me in mind of Luc Besson’s first-rate story of an ageing mob hitman in New York, Léon, although describing it as a Hollywood movie may be a bit strong (probably why I like it so much). The titular character, played by Jean Reno, is a reclusive, illiterate, but highly skilled ‘cleaner’ working for a mafioso named Tony (Danny Aiello), who rescues the young Mathilda (Natalie Portman) from a bloody demise. The prematurely world-weary Mathilda cannot let go of the murder of her little brother, and decides to learn cleaning from her rescuer. Again, we have our divinely psychotic opponent, in the form of corrupt DEA Agent Stansfield (Gary Oldman) – a role I undoubtedly consider to be his best to date.
Léon is an appropriate Hollywood counterpart to Oldboy, with large helpings of vengeance, butt-kicking and some gripping action scenes. But they are by no means the same movie; where Léon is an insight into the character and relationships of a professional killer, Oldboy is a convoluted and disturbing mystery. But they are both in the same vein, and compliment each other well as interesting tales of one person’s fight against seemingly overwhelming power. Add Kill Bill to the mix, and you have yourselves quite the revenge marathon.
The Insane One
Kontroll, directed by Nimród Antal, follows a group of Budapest Metro ticket checkers, with the story focusing on Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a man who eats, sleeps and works underground, never seeing the light of day. There is a shadowy killer on the loose, making it look as if passengers are leaping in front of trains. Bulcsú must confront this demon of a man – but it is never even made clear if our hero and the killer are different people. In the course of all the action, Bulcsú falls for a strange woman named Sofie (Eszter Balla), clad in a bear costume, and their fumbling romance runs in parallel to the surrounding morbid events. It is a charcoal-black comedy, as bears are funny, and has achieved a huge cult following since it was released in 2003. It was the first Hungarian film to reach Cannes in 20 years, and if I had more thumbs, I would put up more than the meagre two I have for this spectacular piece of cinema.
David Fincher’s Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, is my choice as Hollywood’s equivalent to Kontroll. I am going to assume you have seen Fight Club—if you haven’t, I both pity you and implore you to go watch it. Ed Norton and Brad Pitt are marvellous in their portrayal of two disillusioned, anarchistic members of modern commercialised America in this masculine masochistic fantasy. Palahniuk, being something of a cage-rattler himself, saw the movie as an improvement of his novel, not surprising considering Fincher was hired due to his great enthusiasm for the project. The two films are dissimilar in terms of plot, but underlying themes of detachment and discord with the status quo ring true in both. The troubled protagonist manifesting his psychological problems in real life; the departure, however brief, from an explicit identity; it is always interesting to see a character who is as mentally disturbed as can be, and yet inherently likeable. Watch Kontroll, then watch Fight Club, and for good measure watch Kontroll again, because chances are you missed most of the jokes the first time around.