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Reviews for December 30th, 2009

The Chaser

Directed by Na Hong-jin.

In Korean with subtitles. Based on a true story. Jung-ho (Kim Yoon-suk), a former police officer, works as a pimp on the streets of Seoul. He finds it suspicious that some of his working girls have been mysteriously disappearing without returning with their clients’ money. One night, he sends one of his call girls, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), a single mother, to the home of a regular client, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), and when he suspects that something may be wrong when she doesn’t return on time and tried to call his cell phone, perhaps in an emergency. He now has a hunch that Young-min harmed her and might be the one responsible for the disappearance of his other call girls. Young-min confesses to the crime early on, but there’s still not enough evidence to connect him to the murders yet. Where can Jung-ho find Mi-jin given that he doesn’t know the exact address of Young-min’s home? Is she still alive? What should he tell her young daughter, Eun-ji, and will he be able to protect her safety? Those are the basic questions that director/co-writer Na Hong-jin has in mind and, for the first hour, they create some tension and suspense. However, the suspense eventually wanes because he chooses to provide the audience with more information than Jung-ho has, such as actually when Young-min brutalizes Mi-jin and, later, when she somehow emerges alive and conscious after being hit repeated in the head. A twist in the second half of the film seems rather preposterous and contrived while the cat-and-mouse chase between Jung-ho and Young-min drags on and on as Jung-ho desperately find Mi-jin’s whereabouts. On a positive notice, Hong-jin does include stylish cinematography and occasionally gory sequences that enhance the gritty, dark atmosphere throughout. There’s also some very brief comic relief and interesting exchanges between Young-min and the policemen. At an excessive running time of 2 hours and 5 minutes, The Chaser manages to be a gritty, stylish crime thriller that’s initially suspenseful and compelling, but eventually becomes pedestrian, unsurprising, preposterous and even somewhat tedious.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at the IFC Center.

Old Partner

Directed by Lee Chung-Ryoul.

In Korean with subtitles. This poignant documentary follows an elderly peasant couple, Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, as they struggle to make a living on their farm in rural South Korea. Choi spends more time with his 40-year-old ox, a.k.a. his “old partner,” each day than he does with his wife. The ox looks tired, depressed, overworked and near death, yet Choi continues to use him to till the fields rather than using a machine which would be a more convenient and efficient process. When he tries to sell the ox at the market, no one wants to buy it for his asking price and they even claim that the ox wouldn’t be worth as meat. He goes the doctor who tells him, not surprisingly, that the more he continues to work, the great are his chances of having heart attack and perhaps even going blind. His wife complains that he should simply stop wasting his time with the ox and that they both could probably make more money from selling vegetables from their garden if they focused on that instead. However, as his wife readily admits with sadness, Choi has known next to nothing about gardening ever since he started working on a farm in his days of youth. She regrets that she married him back then, yet she’s still by his side to this very day. Director Lee Hung-Ryoul wisely shows the sad state of the peasant couple’s situations without narration. The terrific cinematography captures the haunting images of the ox moving slowly and looking so bare-boned. One particular interesting shot is from the point of view of the ox as if the viewer were in his place. Those images speak louder than words—in fact, not too many words are spoken throughout the film. You could actually sense of what the ox his feeling throughout that often moving footage. You may even stop to consider the suffering and torment that carriage horses go through each day in New York City as well. (Please click here to read a review of Blinders, a documentary which covers that particular issue). Back to Old Partner, Lee includes too much footage of the wife nagging about the same thing over and over, which feels repetitive and could have been edited down a bit. Choi tends to repeat himself as well when he talks and doesn’t say much that’s particularly revealing about his past; perhaps he’s too tired to express himself articulately through words and isn’t accustomed to opening up emotionally. At a running time of 1 hour and 18 minutes, Old Partner manages to be poignant, well-shot and haunting, albeit somewhat repetitive at times.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Shcalo Media Group.
Opens at the Film Forum.

The White Ribbon

Directed by Michael Haneke.

In German with subtitles. In 1913, a year before World War I commences, a series of mysterious, tragic events plague Eichwald, a small, rural village in Germany. The village doctor (Rainer Bock) became seriously injured after falling down from his horse as it crossed a path that had a wire that caused it to trip. Who placed the wire there? What might be their motivation(s)? Adding to the mystery, no one can find the wire that supposedly was there. While the doctor recuperates in another village, Mrs. Wagner (Susanne Lothar), the midwife and mother of Karli (Eddy Grahl), takes care of his children, Anna (Roxane Duran) and younger brother, Rudolph (Miljan Chatelain). Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), the children of the village’s Protestant pastor (Burghart Klaussner), offer to keep Anna and Rudolph company. A farmer’s wife dies after falls through the rotten floorboards of a sawmill belonging to the farmer’s boss, the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), and, soon enough, the blame is placed on the Baron for the “accident”. Someone beats up Baron’s son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), in retaliation for that event. In another subplot, the new local schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) courts Eva (Leonie Benesch), the 17-year-old nanny at the Baron’s estate. Writer/director Michael Haneke has woven a very intricate and elliptical mystery drama that, at times, feels psychologically horrifying because you never really know what kind of tragic event will occur next or who/whom should take the blame for that matter. He builds the tension very gradually and wisely doesn’t spoon-feed revealing information about the mystery to the audience. The tragic events themselves aren’t displayed onscreen, so there’s always more questions than answer. In turn, you’ll be questioning the true motive(s) of each character, even the seemingly innocent ones. Should you trust the narrator (voice of Ernst Jacobi), the older version of schoolteacher speaking to the audience from years later? Attentive audience members should pay close attention to the pastor’s dialogue, especially when he talks to his children about the loss of innocence and purity, enhancing the meaning of the film’s allegoric title. Each of the child actors gives a compelling performance which will make you forget that this actually marks their feature film debut. Haneke also leaves out a musical score and includes a lush, hauntingly beautiful black-and-white cinematography with so much visual richness that every scene could easily be paused, admired and studied as if it were a painting. At a running time of 2 hours and 24 minutes, The White Ribbon manages to be engrossing, suspenseful and quietly haunting with exquisite cinematography and meticulous attention to detail.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens at the Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

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