Parky At the Pictures (18/9/2020)
(Reviews of The Lady in the Portrait; The Eight Hundred; Barking Dogs Never Bite; Memories of Murder; and Max Richter's Sleep)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
THE LADY IN THE PORTRAIT.
Born in Istanbul, but now operating out of Paris and Bangkok, Charles de Meaux established his Asian credentials by co-producing several films for Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, including Blissfully Yours (2002), Tropical Malady (2004), Syndromes and a Century (2006), Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Cemetery of Splendour (2015). His sensibilities are fully in evidence in The Lady in the Portrait, his third feature as a director after Shimkent Hôtel (2003) and Stretch (2011). But, for all its delicacy and detail, this 2017 study of clashing cultures struggles to find the best way to tell its compelling story.
In the mid-18th century, Jesuit Jean Denis Attiret (Melvil Poupaud) is an artist at the court of the Manchurian emperor, Qianlong (Huang Jue). Mentored by the Italian Giuseppe Castiglione (Thibault de Montalembert), he struggles with his Mandarin pronunciation and is regarded with suspicion by the Chinese artists who paint in a very different style to the Frenchman. Keen to learn, however, he incorporates a lily into a butterfly design for one of the concubines and his handiwork catches the eye of the Empress Ulanara (Fan Bingbing).
She is unhappy because Qianlong is neglecting her and is desperate to win back his favour and save face at court. Noticing the store he sets by a portrait of his late wife, Xiaoxian, Ulanara hits upon a plan. On the advice of General Chen (King Shih-Chieh), she takes a chance by beating her husband at chess and he rewards her by granting her wish to have her portrait painted by Attiret.
He is surprised to receive the commission and comes to Ulanara's quarters to discuss the painting, which he estimates will take about a week to complete. When Ulanara's maid, Yi (Wu Yue), suggests an auspicious starting date, Attiret declares that he has to devote Sundays to God. Intrigued by his devotion to an invisible deity, the empress agrees to start posing the following morning.
The session doesn't quite go as artist or sitter had expected, however, as Ulanara is taken aback by Attiret's audacity in posing her, while he is unhappy with having his preliminary sketches commented upon by members of the empress's retinue. Seeking to compose herself, she wanders in the picturesque palace gardens and communes with a spectral vision (also Fan Bingbing), who warns her that melancholy awaits in her future.
For the moment, though, Ulanara is prepared to enjoy the moment and drops in on the next sitting after sending a stand-in to take her place because she finds standing still a chore. Attiret is struck by how different she looks without her formal make-up, but he is distracted by a debate about how Jesuits can be brothers when they are not related and how his God can be considered superior to the emperor, who is the son of the Sky.
In seeking to impress the onlookers, Chen gently ribs Attiret and his beliefs. But Ulanara is intrigued by his sketches and opines that she has gained such an insight into how he regards her that she almost feels as though she is looking at herself through his eyes. He suggests that the Western style of painting is more intimate than the Chinese and there is an awkward moment when their faces come close together when they each bend to pick up something she has knocked off his table. Chen notices the look they exchange, but says nothing because he knows the Jesuit has taken a vow of celibacy.
Indeed, when one of the male courtiers laughs during the next sitting because he doesn't understand Attiret's methods, Chen reprimands them. But he is acutely aware of the rapport that is developing between the empress and the artist, after he smiles at her when he realises that she has noticed him watching her adjusting her clothing. Sitting by the goldfish pool, Ulanara admits to her ethereal confidante that she feels alive around Attiret and enjoys the fact that he treats her like an intelligent person. But Chen is concerned by the burgeoning bond and asks the Frenchman if Western men find Chinese women beautiful. He is only partially reassured, however, when the Jesuit insists that he primarily takes pleasure in beauty because it reflects God's glory.
At their next meeting, Attiret starts to apply paint to his sketch and Ulanara gives him the faintest of smiles as she returns his gaze. She notes that he spends so much time looking at her, yet she knows nothing about him. When she asks about his faith, he avers that he can have no complaints if he discovers that there is no God, as he will have basked in the love that comes from hoping there is. He reveals that he has a son in his home town of Dole and the fact that he has loved a woman seems to touch the empress, whose face softens and the glimpse of her true self causes Attiret to start. Flustered, he rushes round from his table and adjusts Ulanara's tunic and fur cap and he is only reminded that he is not supposed to touch the emperor's wife by the anxious Yi.
In the garden, Chen explains to Ulanara that Jesuits are not to be trusted, as they seek to convert everyone to their religion. She confides that she enjoys their discussions, but assures the adviser that her sole loyalty is to the throne. Nevertheless, she comes to their next session with pupils painted on her eyelids and Attiret is so flummoxed that he doesn't know how to respond. Yi brings water so her mistress can wash the make-up off, but Ulanara feels embarrassed and she cries in her room, as the rain lashes the courtyard.
Chen interrupts Mass that night to urge Attiret to finish the portrait as quickly as possible, as tongues are starting to wag and he doesn't want either of them to get into any trouble. As he puts the finishing touches to the picture, Attiret is troubled by swirling apparitions and damages his hand in his anguish. When he next sees the empress, Chen has arranged for numerous courtiers to be in attendance and, nettled by the implications of this scrutiny, Ulanara asks the painter to finish the work in his studio. She asks Chen to hand over a gift she has selected before leaving in silence because she can't say what she feels in front of so many witnesses.
Still feeling tormented, Attiret confesses to Brother Paul (Féodor Atkine), who suggests that his sensitivity to beauty is a gift from God, as is his ability to capture it. But Qinglong is offended by the portrait, as he realises the emotion that has gone into its creation and the mutuality that this involves. Consequently, while he admires the way in which the Jesuit has combined facets of Western and Oriental technique, he rewards him by sending him to record the activities of his fighting forces and he clearly hopes that he never returns. He also isolates Ulanara, who tells Yi that she feels like a solitary bird who has been caged for merely being herself.
Two years pass and the war-traumatised Attiret returns to court to find that Ulanara has given birth to a son. However, Yongqi has no time for his mother, while the presence of a new favourite causes her great distress. Having been humiliated by Qinglong's pleasure at the inclusion of a character resembling his mistress in an operatic performance, Ulanara loses her mind and takes a razor to her long hair, which leads to her ostracisation, as this highly symbolic act is only permitted following the emperor's demise. As waving ferns are superimposed over her features, Attiret divulges in voiceover that he has been scarred by what he has witnessed at the front and he longs for his `comedy' to end, as he no longer believes that he is in the presence of the glory of God.
Opening with a rough-hewn animated sequence depicting the troop movements Attiret recorded on what the emperor had hoped would be a one-way mission, this is a film that takes its stylistic cues from the tension between the traditions in which the Jesuit strives to work. The detached formality of Chinese art is reflected in Ulanara's porcelain passivity, while the freer strokes of the European approach are represented by Attiret's unabashed watchfulness and instinctive gestures. But, while De Meaux (who acts as his own cinematographer) captures the pair's physical interactions, he is less successful in conveying their psychological response to emotions they both recognise are as dangerous as they are intrusive.
Fan Bingbing and Melvil Poupaud do what they can with slightly underdeveloped roles, although they are rarely given an opportunity to interact directly, as De Meaux and Catherine Libert's editing do as much as court etiquette to keep them out of the same frame. Indeed, Fan spends more time alongside her shimmering alter ego (or is it the spirit of her predecessor?) than she does with Poupaud, who finds it as difficult as Andrew Garfield had done in Martin Scorsese's Edo-era drama, Silence (2016), to convince us that he has the appropriate Jesuitical zeal.
The support playing is solid, with Taiwanese stalwart King Shih-Chieh being both vigilant and impish as the chief eunuch. But the majority of the minor characters are there to reinforce the spectacle created by François-Renaud Labarthe meticulously recreated palace sets and Sandra Berrebi's exquisite costumes. Both are lit to evocative perfection by De Meaux, although he rather blots his copybook with the clumsy splodges of colour he employs to suggest Attiret's long night of the soul. Yet, for all the care taken over the visuals, the low-key languor and affected symbolism means this remains something to be looked at and admired rather than be embraced and engaged with.
THE EIGHT HUNDRED.
Even before its release, Guan Hu's The Eight Hundred had made screen history by becoming the first Asian film to be photographed exclusively with IMAX cameras. However, this $80 million account of a celebrated rearguard during the Sino-Japanese War has also become the highest grossing picture of the Covid period, as it has amassed upwards of $390 million. Given the unfamiliarity of the storyline, it's unlikely to unseat Christopher Nolan's Tenet as the UK's post-lockdown juggernaut. But it's interesting to note that many Chinese critics compared Guan's eighth feature to Nolan's Dunkirk (2017) in their largely admiring reviews.
A newsreel clip explains how Japan declared war on China on 7 July 1937 and quickly closed in on Shanghai because of the weakness of the National Revolutionary Army under General Chiang Kai-shek. The invaders were hampered, however, by the reluctance to attack the area around the International Settlement, in case it sparked a diplomatic incident. In a bid to protect the Si-Hang Warehouse, which was co-owned by the city's four main banks, the 542th Regiment of the elite 88th Division was sent to dig in along with soldiers from Hubei, Hunan and Zhejiang. However, this 411-strong force found itself up against the might of the Japanese Third Division, which was the cream of the Imperial Army.
As the troops get their bearings inside the six-storey building, Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan (Du Chun) and Machine Gun Company commander Lei Xiong (Zhang Cheng) make it clear that they won't stand insubordination, even though they are fighting a lost cause. Having become detached from their unit, Duan Wu (Oho Ou) and his 13 year-old brother, Xiao Hubei (Zhang Junyi), are scared they will be mistaken for deserters and are relieved when they are accepted as part of the force and listen to a woman singing angelically from her balcony, as they view the Heaven of the neon-lit concession zone and the Hell of the burning suburbs.
An elderly farmer in uniform tries to blend in with the refugees streaming across the New Lese Bridge to the International Settlement, but he is stopped at the gate and warned that his presence compromises the protected status of the autonomous zone. Meanwhile, the soldiers at the warehouse find a white horse in the basement and hope that the thickness of the bank and mint walls will afford them some extra protection.
On Day One of the siege, the rain steeples down and Professor Zhang (Hou Yong) surveys the scene with a telescope from his balcony, while his wife (Liang Jing) and her friends play mahjong and place their trust in the Japanese honouring the sanctity of the French and British concessions. However, after the first Japanese troops to attack the warehouse are lured into a trap and shot en masse, they retaliate with mustard gas, which causes panic when it wafts across the Suzhou Creek into the International Settlement.
Spy Fang Xingwen (Xin Baiqing) reports to the Japanese commander that the so-called Hateful Zhubei Division is holding the warehouse. However, a number of non-uniformed personnel are also within the confines and, as the white horse makes a bolt for freedom, some of them are coerced at gunpoint into executing the surviving Japanese prisoners. One refuses and is frog-marched up to a defenceless adversary and has his finger squeezed on the trigger to fire the rifle. Meanwhile, Duan Wu spots his uncle tied to a pole outside the Zone as a warning to those trying to talk their way into its sanctuary. He urges him to take care of Hubei, but they have become separated.
Fortunately, the boy has found a protector in Xiao Qiyue (Zhang Youhao), who had calmed the rampaging horse. Meanwhile, Duan and the long-haired Lao Suanpan (Zhang Yi ) have tried to wade through the sewers to swim across the Suzhou Creek. However, they run into a Japanese unit and have to hide underwater until they pass. They shout across to the Zone to warn the warehouse of the attack and they are hailed as heroes by the Chinese on the quay. But the British soldiers on guard refuse to let them in and they are reprimanded by Lei Xiong and Lao Hulu (Huang Zhizhong) after a bloody skirmish to repel the invaders.
As Day Two dawns, Fang Xingwen informs the Western press pack that the Japanese are loathe to bombard the warehouse because it is too close to a large gas tank that could cause a massive explosion and cut off power. He conveys the message also being shouted to the Chinese troops that they will be treated with dignity if they surrender. A rumour starts that the enemy has vowed to take Si-Hang in three hours and this spreads panic in the Zone, where casino owner Sister Rong (Liu Xiaoqing) and film star Miss Lu (Huang Miyi) are caught up in the furore.
A Good Year airship monitors the Japanese advance from the north in a bid to breach the west wall of the warehouse. Duan Wu and the cowardly Lao Tie (Jiang Wu) are sent to provide reinforcements. They use gas canisters to hinder the bulldozers crunching the walls and deputy squadron leader Chen Shusheng (Zheng Kai) turns himself into a human bomb to slow them down. In the midst of the carnage, Hubei hears the horse whinnying on the other bank, but Xiao Qiyue (a farmboy who misses his flock) is killed by a sniper when he pokes his head up to check the animal is okay.
Lao Tie is injured and Lao Suanpan (aka Old Abacus) pulls him to safety, as dozens more strap grenades to themselves and jump from a hole in the wall to stymie the Japanese. They shout their names as they fall and Chinese onlookers from the Zone finally realise that this isn't happening in another world and is something that affects them. In her white fur coat, He Xiangning (Yao Chen) declares that the foe wouldn't stand a chance if everyone was as courageous as these selfless heroes.
No longer feeling he can organise opera tableaux at the casino, Dao Zi (Li Jiuxiao) volunteers to cross the bridge and deliver a cable that allows the commanders to re-establish telephone contact with their superiors. A newsreel crew led by Eva (Augusta Xu-Holland) reaches the warehouse and films a kitten being fed a tasty titbit. When she asks how many people are mounting the defence, she is told 800, even though many of the original 420 have already perished. Not everyone is happy to be filmed, however, with Yang Guai (Wang Qiangyuan) taking exception to Fang snapping pictures to amuse the privileged parasites watching from the Zone and doing nothing to help their compatriots.
In fact, patriotic women are collecting supplies for the brave boys and using homemade slingshots to fire bundles across Suzhou River. Professor Zhang throws his wife's jewellery off their balcony to do his bit and Hubei not only tucks into some cheese, but he also takes a slug of hooch. Yang Guai chats to Lao Tie, who is surprised to discover that he is a virgin and offers to tell him what sex feels like in return for some cigarettes. They watch as girl scout Yang Huimin (Tang Yixin) swims across with the Nationalist flag under her clothes and Duan Wu is scarred across the neck by a sniper trying to pick her off.
It's now Day Three and Colonel Xie receives news that the Brussels Peace Conference is in session and reminds the survivors that it will strengthen the negotiating position if they are still holding out. He orders everyone into uniform to attend the raising of the Kuomintang flag on the Si-Hang roof and there is cheering from the Zone, as Xie salutes from the parapet and his soldiers chant in defiance. The watching journalists fear the flag may be a red rag to the Japanese, however, and planes swoop in to launch an aerial assault. Several soldiers are mown down by the strafing, while the wooden frame holding the pole is damaged. But each casualty is replaced by a comrade and the Japanese plane is reduced to firing at civilians in the Zone because they are cheering on the stalwarts.
Urged on by company commander Shangguan Zhibiao (Yu Haoming), Yang Guai and Duan Wu haul the pole upright after a group huddled beneath it is slaughtered from above. Fang feels a pang of remorse at his treachery, as he records the dogged pride in the flag and even Lao Tie feels moved to grab a gun and shoot at the plane, as it is recalled to base after protests from the British at the violation of neutral territory. Hubei rushes to congratulate his brother, but realises he has been fatally wounded and he buries his face in Lao Tie's shoulder, as Fang films Duan Wu's last moments so he can fulfil a promise made to his mother to get his picture taken in Shanghai.
That night, Hubei watches the opera and imagines his sibling as a warrior on horseback preparing to face an army single-handedly in a mistily sunlit valley. As he daydreams, someone puts on a shadow puppet show using a map traced from the globe in the office to show how the Chinese flag will one day fly atop Mount Fuji. A civilian finds a letter written by one of the fallen to his wife and he urges her to ensure their children join the army to avenge him. The sentiments touch the men, aware that this could well be their last night, as they know a fresh attack will be inevitable.
Day Four is 30 October and news comes that the Belgian prime minister has resigned following a corruption scandal, necessitating a postponement of the peace talks. Riding the white horse, Colonel Xie rides on to the bridge to meet his mounted Japanese counterpart, Konoe Isao (Hideo Nakaizumi), who commends him on fighting so bravely. But he continues that his reputation is on the line and that he refuses to be stripped of his command for failing to vanquish him. Consequently, Xie has the option of surrendering or being overwhelmed. He returns to the warehouse and orders everyone to take a bath, as tradition dictates that bodies shall be clean when they return to the ancestors.
A plan to surrender the warehouse to the British is mooted, as the local commisioner Zhang Boting (Song Yang) is resigned to Shanghai falling because the Westerners will always put their own interests first. He appals Xie by revealing that Generalissimo Chiang feels the defence has served its purpose and doesn't want it spinning out like a bad melodrama. Consequently, he has ordered the detachment to surrender and accept sanctuary in the British concession. In breaking the news to his men, Xie reminds them that they need to survive to tell the tale of their heroism and he asks for volunteers to stay and provide covering fire, in case it's needed.
Snow starts to fall with the darkness and, while Lao Tie tells Yang Guai what it feels like to fondle a woman's breast, Xie informs Hubei that the 400 have a duty to wake the 400 million so that China can one day fulfil its destiny. A Red Cross flag is draped on the bridge and as a symbol of safe passage. But the Japanese begin shooting as soon as they set foot on the tarmac and slow-motion shows the men being stopped in their tracks under floodlights, as snipers pick them off. Hands reach through the fence on the Zone side and one fist is brandished against the night sky, as the picture ends.
Closing captions stress the contribution of the Communist Party to the eventual victory. But, overall, Guan Hu and co-scenarist Ge Rui offer a balanced perspective that even affords the Nationalist flag (which now belongs to Taiwan) its moment in the spotlight in the most poignant scene of the entire film. That said, the snippets of monochrome newsreel showing the flag as Na Ying and Andrea Bocelli duet on `Danny Boy' over the crawl also makes an impact. As, strangely, does the cornily emotive shot of the white horse emerging from the shell of the replica warehouse, as the image merges with a shot of the building being dwarfed by the skyscrapers of modern Shanghai.
Anyone familiar with Lu Chuan's magnificent City of Life and Death (2009) will know something of the story of the International Settlement and its role in the Sino-Japanese conflict and it's apt that Cao Yu should have been recruited to do justice to Lin Mu's exceptional production design. The costumes and the special effects supervised by Tim Crosbie and Jason Troughton are also first rate, as is the editing of Tu Yiran and Yongyi He, who convey the frenetic chaos of the combat sequences with the quiet contemplation of the periods of agonising uncertainty. Abetted by Rupert Gregson-Williams and Andrew Kawczynski's score, the comparisons between `Heaven' and `Hell' are also strikingly achieved, with the shot panning slowly from the beguiling neon of the Zone to the smouldering embers of the decimated city beyond the warehouse leaving the audience in no doubt as to the incident's geography and mythology.
It takes a while for the numerous principals to establish themselves, with the sketchiness of the characterisation making it difficult to identify with what are essentially Bressonian ciphers. But, despite the odd expedient dollop of political heavy handedness, the skilled playing allows the heroes to emerge by the time of the flag sequence and its aftermath, which respectively borrow tropes and timbres from Clint Eastwood's 2006 duo, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.
By all accounts, Guan spent 14 months refining the action after it was pulled from its premiere at the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival (possibly because it showed too much reverence for Nationalist Revolutionary Army around the time of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China) and the current version is 13 minutes shorter. Perhaps the excised footage will turn up among the DVD extras, as it would be fascinating to discover what was deemed extraneous. It would also be instructive to compare this telling with Taiwanese director Ting Shan-hsi's The 800 Heroes (1976), which was itself a variation on Ying Yunwe's 53-minute 1938 silent of the same name.
BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE.
Since winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, South Korea's Bong Joon-ho has rather become the auteur du jour. Lockdown has already seen the release of the monochrome version of Parasite and Artificial Eye has now dusted down a couple of early offerings, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and Memories of Murder (2003), to stream on Curzon Home and screen outdoors during a special event at Camden Market in London that will run to the end of September and also include François Ozon's Summer of 85, Sébastien Lifshitz's Little Girl and Fred Scott's Being a Human Person, a documentary profile of Swedish maverick Roy Andersson, whose final feature, About Endlessness, is due for release sometime in the near future.
Coming three years after Bong had first emerged with his screenplay for Park Ki-yong's Motel Cactus (1997), Barking Dogs Never Bite is a curate's egg of a directorial debut that strains to be both sardonic and sweet in adapting Ouida's 1872 novel, The Dog of Flanders, to Seoul at the turn of the millennium.
Desperate to launch his career as an academic and struggling with the realisation that pregnant wife Eun-sil (Kim Ho-jung) is not his soulmate, Ko Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) has enough to contend with without the incessant yapping of a dog in his large apartment block. After a short recce, he finds an unattended Shih Tzu and takes it to the roof with the intention of pushing it off. But he is thwarted by an old lady (Kim Jin-goo) drying radishes and has to be content with locking the creature in a cupboard in the basement.
The little girl who owns the Shih Tzu asks building supervisor Park Hyun-nam (Bae Doo-na) to put up some flyers asking for information about her missing pet. Park longs to become famous after she and toyshop-owning friend Yoon Jang-mi (Go Soo-hee) saw a TV report about a bank clerk who thwarted a robbery. However, she also has a lazy streak, which means she tends to cut corners and leave things undone. She does put up the posters, however, and Yun-ju discovers that the Shih Tzu couldn't be the source of his torment, as it had lost its bark following an operation. When he goes to let the pooch out of the cupboard, however, he is waylaid by the janitor (Byun Hee-bong), who pulls the dead dog out of its hiding place and proceeds to take it home to cook and eat.
Having realised that the radish woman's chihuahua is behind the barking, Yun-ju dognaps it and hurls it off the building roof. However, Hyun-nam witnesses the crime and gives chase, only to be knocked unconscious by an opening door. When the old lady arrives in her CCTV-filled office with her own set of handbills, Hyun-nam shows her the carcass and the woman has to be hospitalised after collapsing in shock. The supervisor orders the janitor to bury the animal, but he quickly exhumes it for the pot. When he leaves the stew unattended, however, it is stolen by a homeless man (Kim Roi-ha).
Relieved that the barking has stopped, Yun-ju begins obsessing about the fact that he can't buy himself a good job at the university. His mood is not improved by Eun-sil coming home with a toy poodle named Baby, on whom she lavishes the affection he craves. When he loses the dog in the park, Eun-sil berates him and reveals that she had bought the pet with some of her severance money. She was going to give her idealistic husband the rest to bribe the college dean in order to secure his dream job, but she is too cross with him. Realising he needs to find Baby to keep Eun-sil sweet, Yun-ju produces his own flyer and asks Hyun-nam to keep an eye out for the poodle.
On being informed that the old woman has died, Hyun-nam receives a letter bequeathing her the radishes on the roof. When she goes to pick them, she finds the homeless man hiding out with Baby and realises that this is her moment to get her name in the papers. She grabs the dog and makes a break down the stairs. The vagabond chases her, only to be beaned by Jang-mi, who is happy to come to her friend's aid. Having turned the dog-eater over to the police, Hyun-nam returns Baby to Eun-sil.
Some time later, Hyun-nam is upset at being omitted from a TV documentary on dog thefts. She goes for a walk to clear her head and runs into Yun-ju, who is drunk in the gutter. He admits to being wracked with guilt and confesses to the canine killings. But Hyun-nam keeps his secret and goes for a ramble in the woods with Jang-mi, while Yun-ju becomes a father and a professor with a clear(ish) conscience.
While it was given an honourable mention in dispatches on its initial release, few identified this dog-eat-dog romp as the work of a future critical darling. Hang Lee's production design and Cho Yong-kyou's camerawork contribute towards the distinctive visuals, Bong never seems in control of the tonal shifts, with the result that the moments of bleak satire and sadistic cruelty sit awkwardly alongside the sentiment, whimsy and suspense. Notwithstanding the clumsy passages of expository dialogue, comparisons have rightly been made with Roman Polanski's The Tenant (1976), but this could also be seen as a downbeat millennial riposte to the Popular Front optimism of Jean Renoir's The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), which was also centred around a tenement with a communal courtyard. With its excess of throwaway sight gags and overall eagerness to make an cineastic impression, however, this often feels more like a long-delayed love letter to the nouvelle vague.
MEMORIES OF MURDER.
The leap in quality between Barking Dogs Never Bite and Memories of Murder is readily evident when the pictures are viewed back to back. Focusing loosely on South Korea's first serial killing case, Bong Joon-ho artfully shifts attention away from the actual crimes and on to the dead-ends and blunders involved in their detection, while also exposing the sensationalist approach adopted by the media in its coverage. Dipping between docu-realism and stylised character analysis, Bong tweaks generic convention with a knowing confidence that is reflected in the performances of the quartet playing the chalk-and-cheese cops leading the inquiry and their principal suspects.
When two women are found raped and murdered in a ditch in October 1986, inexperienced provincial cop Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) is placed in charge of the investigation. His team's methods leave a lot to be desired and the forensic examination of the carelessly collected evidence is botched. Park is unconcerned, however, as he trusts his ability to assess a suspect's guilt by looking them squarely in the eye. His method proves highly fallible when he questions the intellectually challenged Baek Kwang-ho (Park No-shik), however, and he only succeeds in getting a confession out of his after he has been beaten up by Park's thuggish partner, Cho Yong-koo (Kim Roi-ha).
Unhappy with the way the case is being conducted, Detective Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) arrives from Seoul to offer his services. Park takes an instant dislike to him and his big city methods and is furious when Seo establishes that Baek's hands are too damaged to have exerted the force required to kill the women.
Following more murders, Seo and Park deduce that the killer prefers to operate in the rain and always selects victims wearing red. Female officer Kwon Kwi-ok (Go Seo-hee) also discovers that a local radio station always receives a request for an obscure song entitled `Sad Letter' on the nights of the crimes. Rather than collaborating, however, they adopt their own approaches and Seo is unimpressed when Park and Cho pulp a man they find masturbating into some red lingerie near the scene. Seo and Kwon employ more measured methods and uncover a woman who had managed to escape from the killer. She reports that he had soft hands and, therefore, the man apprehended in the woods has to be released.
In bickering about who is to blame for botching the inquiry, the rivals fail to hear `Sad Letter' on the radio. Consequently, they are unable to prevent a further slaying and Park and Seo agree to pool their resources in order nail the perpetrator. Despite a couple of clues linking to a local school, the autopsy discovery of peach pieces in the victim's body prompts Park and Seo to follow the paper trail relating to the radio requests and they arrest Park Hyeon-gyu (Park Hae-il), a factory worker who had moved to the area shortly before the murders started. As he has smooth hands and seems agitated when reference is made to the peaches, they think they've got their man. But Cho loses control and sets about Hyeon-gyu, causing superior Shin Dong-chul (Song Jae-ho) to have him barred from the interrogation room.
Having listened to a tape of Baek's confession, Seo and Park realise that he must have witnessed the crime, as he knows too many details that have not been released to the press. When they go to the restaurant owned by Baek's father, they find Cho getting stick from the patrons because of the way he is being depicted on the television news. Already drunk, Cho loses his rag and, when a fight breaks out, the returning Baek spikes him in the leg with a rusty nail. He flees on spotting Park, who gives chase with Seo, only to see their terrified suspect rush in front of an oncoming train.
Park feels guilty because Cho loses a leg through tetanus and also curses the fact that the local laboratory isn't equipped to analyse a trace of semen found on one of the bodies. While they await a verdict from the United States, the killer strikes again, He initially stalks Park's girlfriend, Kwok Seol-yung (Jeon Mi-seon), but she is overtaken on a woodland path by schoolgirl Kim So-hyeon (Woo Go-na), who had earlier assisted in the inquiry. Seo recognises her and is furious with himself for allowing such an innocent to perish. He attacks Hyeon-gyu and is in the process of pulping him when Park arrives with the test results that exonerate him. Convinced there's been a mistake, Seo goes to shoot Hyeon-gyu, but Park stops him. As he tells Hyeon-gyu he is free to go, he looks him in the eye, but his trusted method is no longer foolproof.
Years pass and the case remains open. Now a businessman, Park returns to the scene of the first crime and hears that a small girl had spoken to a man lingering by the ditch. He had told her that he was thinking about something he had done there a long time ago. But, while he has his suspicions, Park can prove nothing and the film ends with him fixing the camera's gaze, as though giving his second sight one last try on those watching him.
Adapted by Bong and Shim Sung-bo from a 1996 stage play by Kim Kwang-rim, this is one of the finest police procedurals made in recent times. Eschewing macho confrontations, Bong uses macabre humour to contrast the folly of Song Kang-ho's swaggering dolt and Kim Sang-gyeong's scruffily methodical city slicker. He doesn't blame Seo and Park for failing to get their man, however, as he highlights the shortcomings of the evidence gathering and analysis, as well as the sensationalist tactics of the press, which make it harder for the police to operate.
As a shrewd judge writing for Empire back in 2003 also noted, Bong `makes equally atmospheric use of the sombre landscape with its diverse ditches, alleys and tunnels and the pouring rain that accompanies the crimes, as well as the outbursts of intimidatory violence designed to scare suspects Park Noh-shik and Park Hae-il into confessing - which makes the ambiguous ending all the more courageous and curiously satisfying.' In this regard, he is superbly abetted by Kim Hyung-koo's deep-focus photography, production designer Ryu Syeong-hie's lived-in interiors and editor Kim Sun-min's measure pacing, while Tawo Iwashiro's score is also insidiously effective.
The performance are excellent down the line, even though Bong largely sticks to the rules of generic characterisation, as he slyly shifts the `good cop/bad cop' emphasis to show Seo and Park coming to the conclusion that they have been outfoxed by a monster. Bong's use of broad physical comedy shows the kind of chutzpah he displayed in Parasite. But he gave notice that he had the potential to be something special with the chillingly simple shot of house lights switching off across the backdrop to another brutal killing, as though no one cared that a life was also being extinguished.
MAX RICHTER'S SLEEP.
Even in the world of avant-garde art, it seems there's nothing new. In 1963, Andy Warhol filmed lover John Giorno for the 321-minute monochrome silent, Sleep. Forty-one years later, Sam Taylor-Wood turned her digital video camera on a slumbering footballer for her National Portrait Gallery piece, David Beckham (`David'). Now, documentarist Natalie Johns brings us Max Richter's Sleep, which examines how the German-born composer came to produce a 2015 opus designed to be played over eight hours to a dozing audience.
As the audience gathers in Grand Park in Los Angeles for an all-night performance of the 204-movement lullaby, `Sleep', Max Richter explains that he composed the piece to reconnect humanity with its origins, in an effort for everyone to start again. Having introduced the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and soprano Grace Davidson, he invites those occupying the cots spread out around a semi-enclosed space to drift in and out of consciousness as they listen, as the music was composed with such drowsiness in mind.
Back in their North Oxfordshire home, Hungarian wife Yulia Mahr reveals that when Richter was performing on the other side of the world, she tried to listen to his concerts after putting their three children to bed. However, she kept falling asleep and raised the prospect of producing a piece to occupy the liminal space between sleeping and waking and he showed her sketches for a work he had been working on since the mid-1990s. As cameras capture the landscape around the park and pick out recumbent, sitting and standing figures taking in the opening phase, Richter opines in voiceover that his epic is a quiet protest at the speeding up of life, which may suit corporations more than it does individuals.
This eight-hour pause for reflection also connects to the migrant crisis, as Mahr was keen to explore her own family's refugee status. This fed into the choice of some of the performance venues, with Antwerp Cathedral being eager to participate because it was home to Koen Theys's sculpture of 12 bronze mattresses commenting on the same issue. Richter also engaged with such unusual settings, as his aim is to reach as many people as possible rather than play to the classical music gallery and he is applauded in this aim by film-maker friend Patricia Rozema.
He's not the first to attempt pieces on such as scale, as there have been overnight ragas and all-night happenings in the 1960s. But he has tapped into their invitation to experience the music rather than listen to it. He also incorporated sleep science and collaborated with neuroscientist David Eagleman so that the work was correlated to the brain's sleep patterns. Hence the world premiere at the Wellcome Foundation in London, which was broadcast live by Radio Three in a record-breaking transmission. Moreover, he harked back to the structures of Renaissance music and added the Fibonacci numbers favoured by such composers as Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók and explained by Oxford mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy to build the piece and allow those waking at any point to get their bearings.
As a devotee of electronic music, Richter was eager to use synthesizers to replicate the cadences of the sleeping mind. But we take a diversion away from `Sleep' at this juncture, to learn about how Richter and Mahr met and bonded through shared experiences of troubled childhoods. Over scenes of them strolling arm in arm through the Oxfordshire countryside at twilight, we also hear how they sometimes struggled to raise a family of three girls, as Richter's early studio albums - Memoryhouse (2002), The Blue Notebooks (2004), Songs From Before (2006), 24 Postcards in Full Colour (2008) and Infra (2010) - didn't always find their audience and he started composing film scores to pay the bills. Choices and sacrifices had to be made, with Mahr revealing that she made herself ill in getting by. But Richter's steady ascent made it possible to dedicate more time to the `Sleep' project and he feels it apt that he could feel the piece start dreaming, as he had become accustomed to composing at night after his daughters had gone to bed.
Richter jokes that he had kidded himself that performances would be fine, but he admits to spending all but half an hour on stage takes its toll. He also empathises with the string players, who may have breaks, but they also have to put their fingers through several hours of exertion. When he's not on stage, he enjoys wandering between the cots to see how people are interacting with the music. Mahr is impressed by his stamina, both during the concerts and during the two years it took to refine the work, as every note was thought through. In return, Richter is grateful for her faith and input, as this meant that he could `bet the farm' on the project. As they speak, we see home movies of their family life, which reminds us that, when they're off duty, artists are also ordinary folks like the rest of us.
For much of the piece, Richter restricted himself to the sonic spectrum experienced by a child in the womb. After seven hours, as dawn begins to break, however, he introduces notes of higher frequencies to approximate a sonic sunrise. This is greeted with much stirring and stretching among the onlookers, who are all awake in time to applaud the final notes and the departing musicians. Some opinions are proffered in insets during the credit crawl, with all admitting to have been profoundly moved by the experience, even though, in all probability, they may have slept through lengthy passages of it.
It would be difficult for a documentary on this topic to be dull, as Max Richter is a fascinating character and his collaboration with Yulia Mahr is worthy of closer study outside its impact on `Sleep'. Nathalie Johns ably captures the sense of occasion at Grand Park and exhibits admirable discretion in filming the audience without interfering with their immersion in the experience. She and editor Dom Whitworth also make effective use of Mahr's Super 8 home movies to place Richter's artistic achievement in a familial context. Most importantly, she also leaves plenty of space for the music to occupy and the passages in which Elisha Christian's camera roves around the performance area (and beyond) are the highlights of the film.
This is largely because Richter's music is exquisite and the concepts and strategies underpinning it have acquired added significance as a result of the coronavirus crisis, which has forced people across the globe to `step off the wheel and take stock' at a moment of unprecedented vulnerability. He is also an eloquent speaker and the clarity of his thought process makes his and Mahr's creative and romantic journey all the more compelling. But they should never have agreed to the twee scenes of them clad in matching black and chat-walking in the woods and fields near their home, as the footage prompts unsustainable comparisons with John Lennon and Yoko Ono strolling around the grounds of Tittenhurst Park in their fabled documentary, Imagine (1972).
Johns also makes the mistake of placing too much emphasis on the impressions of a eager beavers who answered her pre-event e-mail seeking volunteers to appear on camera. While their sincerity cannot be questioned, the fact that lesbian couple Terri and Alice Lin-White, author Carlos Allende, visual artist Elizabeth Withstandley and music teacher Bernard Ede go unidentified on screen, viewers are given no incentive to heed to them. Indeed, their voices block out the music, when it would have been much more useful to hear from ACME members Ben Russell, Andrew Toll, Emily Brausa, Isabel Hagen and Clarice Jensen on the stresses and strains of performing a piece that makes so many physical and technical demands.
Unfortunately, Johns compounds the problem by illustrating the vox pops with self-consciously posed and occasionally pretentious visuals that often resemble animated Athena posters. Fortunately, these are the only soporific moments in a warm-hearted study that otherwise leaves a comforting impression that should persuade some to seek out the nine-disc Sleep album or the single From Sleep highlights selection.