(Reviews of Beasts Clawing At Straws; Moonbound; and El Father Plays Himself)
Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.
Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS.
Having spent a decade at CJ Entertainment developing such projects as Ryoo Seung-wan's The Berlin File (2013), Hwang Dong-hyuk's Miss Granny (2014) and Kim Hyun-seok's C'est Si Bon (2015), Kim Yong-hoon decided to try his hand at directing with the short, Do You Wish to Delete? (2015). Over the next five years, he struggled to find investment for his feature ideas. But he finally struck gold with an adaptation of Japanese author Keisuke Sone's bestseller, Beasts Clawing At Straws, which Kim has reworked in a South Korean setting.
As we follow a brown Louis Vuitton holdall full of cash into the bathhouse locker room of a bland hotel in the Northwestern port of Pyeongtaek. Chapter One: The Debt opens with desk clerk Joong-man (Bae Sung-woo) discovering the bag's contents and cycling home furiously after stashing his find in the lost property store. Since going bankrupt, Joong-man and wife Young-sun (Kyung Jin) have been taking menial jobs and caring for his ageing mother, Soon-ja (Yun Yuh-jung), who is exhibiting the early symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Customs official Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is also having a rough time, as girlfriend Yeon-hee disappeared shortly after he had secured a loan on her behalf with shark Park Doo-man (Jeong Man-sik). He threatens to let sidekick Catfish (Bae Jin-woong) chop off a hand and feed on his intestines unless he repays the debt within the next seven days.
Across town, Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-been) works in a seedy hostess bar run by madam Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon). She has recently been scammed and husband Jae-hun (Kim Jun-han) is so furious with having to work extra shifts to repay what she owes that he frequently beats her. However, she makes a deep impression on Chinese client Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), who calls her for a private date.
As Chapter Two: Sucker gets under way, Tae-young calls his old school friend, Dong-pal to make arrangements for a rendezvous at the docks. He wants to leave the country and Tae-young intends stealing the cash he aims to smuggle abroad with him. But Tae-young needs the help of his reluctant cousin, Carp (Park Ji-hwan), who also needs some quick cash to pay off a gambling debt.
While they make plans, Joong-man gets a warning from his boss about his time-keeping and the amount of soda he drinks on duty. Nearby, Mi-ran keeps
her tryst with Jin-tae and he reveals during pillow talk that he has no time for wife-beaters because his father was violent towards his mother on a daily basis. He would, therefore, be more than happy to bump off her husband for a cut of the insurance money.
Angry with Soon-ja for pushing his wife downstairs at the start of Chapter Three: Food Chain, Yoong-man wonders how he is ever going to retake control of his life. Tae-young feels much the same way, as not only does Dong-pal fail to turn up, but he also falls under the watchful gaze of a cop, Myung-gu (Yun Je-mun), who is trying to track Dong-pal down.
When Yoong-man is fired by his manager (Heo Dong-won), he despairs of ever being able to get back inside the storage room and reclaim his ill-gotten gains. Mi-ran also wonders how she is going to survive the five years she will have to wait for an unconfirmed death after Jin-tae calls to say that he has had to bury the body in the mountains after his hit-and-run plan went awry. No sooner has he hung up, however, than Jae-hun wanders in from the rain and asks his wife if she has seen a ghost.
The downpour also descends upon Tae-young, as Carp has blabbed about defrauding Dong-pal to Park and he wants a share of the loot or he will chop off their hands. Convinced that Myung-gu knows his old friend's whereabouts, Tae-young orders Carp to tail him. Meanwhile, Mi-ran breaks the bad news to Jin-tae and suggests that he heads back to China and that she will follow him when she has found a way to make some money for them to live on.
While she figures out what to do, Yoong-man summons the courage to return to the hotel. A newcomer is working the desk and readily gives him the key to the store. As he is leaving, however, Yoong-man is stopped by cops to ask if he recognises a face in a photograph and has to bawl out his boss when he challenges him over the contents of the Louis Vuitton bag. Cycling home, he hides cash in a draw containing his late father's picture.
At the start of Chapter Four: Shark, Mi-ran gets beaten up by a client who also slaps Yeon-hee. She takes pity on the hostess because her unlamented spouse had beaten her and she gives Mi-ran some money to recuperate in hospital. Jin-tae calls because he is being troubled by the voice of the man he killed and Mi-ran suggests holding a memorial service over his shallow grave in the forest. When this fails to work and Jin-tae threatens to turn himself in, Mi-ran runs him over and calls Yeon-hee after burying the corpse.
She reassures Mi-ran that no one will come looking for an illegal alien and helps her get rid of the car at a recycling yard. While relaxing in a spa, Yeon-hee also tells Mi-ran about the sand tiger shark and duplicates her leg tattoo while giving her instructions how to stage her husband's suicide and use Korea's low autopsy rate to get him cremated and claimed on before anyone can double check.
Having had a complete makeover, Mi-ran prepares to leave for China. Yeon-hee wants none of the insurance money and shows her a missing person poster that reveals the man Jin-tae killed was a fugitive rapist. She urges Mi-ran to enjoy her new life and have no regrets. However, Yeon-hee has drugged the champagne and Mi-ran wakes to find herself bound and gagged and about to have her leg cut off by a circular saw.
Earlier in the piece, Tae-young had told Carp that he smoked a particular brand of cigarette because he had gone into a shop to buy a packet when his car was rammed by a runaway truck. The name resurfaces in Chapter Five: Lucky Strike, which comes with a pair of surprises. Firstly, Carp tells Tae-young that he had followed Myung-gu and saw him strike Yeon-hee. But the bigger twist is that she turns out to be Tae-Young's missing girlfriend, who shows up at his apartment to cook supper as though nothing untoward has happened.
Yeon-hee shows Tae-young her new passport in Mi-ran's name and asks for his help in getting her through customs so she can stay with an aunt in Japan. He is exasperated with her for landing him in so much trouble. But his immediate concern lies in getting rid of Myung-gu, who has shown up on his doorstep. However, he barges into the apartment and joshes Tae-young for keeping shtum about his girlfriend.
Beaming benignly, Yeon-hee plays the perfect hostess and doesn't register a flicker when Myung-gu reveals that female body parts have been fished out of the lake bearing a telltale shark tattoo. Tae-young is less composed, however, when he learns that Dong-pal has been captured as a stowaway and he makes excuses to go on a beer run so that he can call Carp about the trouble they're now in with Park.
Tae-young has a plan, however, because he knows that Yeon-hee would never dream of fleeing Korea unless she had a stash stowed away. He orders Carp to help him deal with her. But their conversation has been overheard by Catfish. Moreover, Yeon-hee has been busy in Tae-young's absence and she snaps at him to help dispose of Myung-gu.
Instead, Tae-young beans her with a frying pan and finds the Vuitton bag in the boot of her car. As he scurries off cackling, Yeon-hee comes round to find Park kneeling over her. He doesn't believe she has cash, but she readily sells out Tae-young, who is looking for a passage overseas. Needing to lay low, he places the bag in a locker at a waterfront hotel and goes to buy a packet of Lucky Strikes. Unfortunately, Catfish is waiting for him and, in his panic to get away, he runs into an oncoming bin lorry.
As we enter Chapter Six: Money Bag, Joong-man suggests to Young-sun that they open a little shop and she sneers when he claims he might have access to some money. He gets a call from the hotel manager about back pay and finds himself confronted with Park posing as a detective and Yeon-hee, who is looking for her lost luggage. The manager can hardly contain his glee at landing Joong-man in trouble, but he swears his wife gave him a Vuitton bag for his birthday and he storms out having accused erstwhile workmate Yoon-ho (Kwon Hyuk-Bum) of setting him up to cover his own pilfering.
He is followed home, however, and Park knocks Joong-man and Soon-ja out with an iron after they rumble the fact he's not a cop. He turns to see Yeon-hee clutching Joong-man's father's fish knives and she torches the place before making her escape past Catfish, who is mistreating a cat on the beach in front of the old sushi shop. As Joong-man sobs, his mother consoles him that things were a lot worse during the Korean War and that anyone with two arms and legs can make a fresh start.
Yeon-hee is hoping to do just that, as she checks the bag into a locker at Pyeongtaek harbour. However, Catfish has followed her and he stabs her to death in a washroom cubicle while another passenger yatters on her phone. Hissing a last insult about her assailant's ugliness, Yeon-hee drops her key behind the toilet, where it is found by Young-sun, as news headlines about the various slayings we have witnessed echo around via the town's media outlets. Unzipping the bag, she contains her shock and calmly walks away, oblivious to anything that has been going on around her.
In promoting his film, Kim Yong-hoon has acknowledged the debt he owes to such pictures as Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo (1996) and No Country For Old Men (2007) and Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997). However, it's apparent from the way in which he blends dark deeds and bleak humour in such indelible moments as Catfish's washroom contretemps with Yeon-hee that Kim has also been profoundly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and Bong Joon-ho.
The intricacy of this shaggy dog story benefits enormously from Kim's flagrant disregard for accepted notions of plausibility, as he whisks his hapless characters between increasingly contrived scenarios. Yet the cliché-strewn action would be nowhere near as compelling without these audacious subversions of genre convention, which are made all the more amusing by the way in which victim and villain alike ride them with a world weary shrug at the capricious nature of life.
The ensemble playing is of the highest calibre, although established stars Jung Woo-sung and Jeon Do-yeon respectively revel in the amateurish antics of Tae-young and the amoral femme fatality of Yeon-hee. Interestingly, each character has a linked colour scheme, with Yeon-hee's white and Mi-ran's orange contrasting with Jin-tae's purple and Tae-young's blue. But production designer Han A-reum, costumier Cho Hee-ran and cinematographer Kim Tae-sung avoid straining for effect, with the result that the naturalism and stylisation clash and complement each other in creating what might be called the twisting picture's neon noir chic.
It's always intriguing to see how a story evolves over the generations. First written for the Leipzig stage in 1912, Little Peter's Journey to the Moon was published in book form two years later, with illustrations by Hans Baluschek. By all accounts, the story of siblings on a lunar adventure had been inspired by the two children German actor and playwright Gerdt von Bassewitz had encountered while staying at the sanatorium run by their father, Oskar Kohnstamm.
According to one Internet synopsis, this seemingly beloved tome contains a bustling fairytale filled with exotic celestial characters and a sense of wonderment at the scale of the universe and reverence for its tiniest creatures. A little more online searching throws up Wolfgang Urchs's 1990 animated interpretation, Peter in Magicland (1990), which was produced in the traditional pre-pixel manner and has a certain fidelity and charm.
However, director Ali Samadi Ahadi dispenses with any such niceties in presenting his rip-roaring CGI variation on Von Bassewitz's saga. Entitled Moonbound, this follows so many recent animations in supposing that millennial children prefer brash, breakneck video game-inspired thrill rides to well-told tales that remain true to the content and spirit of the source material.
Still mourning the astronaut father who was killed in space, Peter (Aleks Le) resents the fact that his mother (Elisabeth Kanettis) has moved to such a smaller house that he has to share a room with his incessantly chatty younger sister, Anne (Lilian Gartner). On his first morning at a new school, she gets him into a fight with a bully (Jim Libby). But the encounter convinces an old beetle named Mr Zoomzeman (Howard Nightingall) that he has found the animal-loving children to right a wrong that happened many years before (which is shown in a strikingly abrasive comic-book interlude).
Riding on a bulldozer, a grasping property developer had sought to destroy an idyllic insect habitat in order to build houses. Mr Zoomzeman had summoned the Night Fairy (Cindy Robinson) to help his fellow creatures, only for Mrs Zoomzeman (Barbara Spitz) to be cast on to the Moon, along with the beech tree that had been their home and the villain and his doltish sidekicks. Moreover, Mr Zoomzeman had lost one of his feelers. But he is confident that Peter and Anne will have the courage and ingenuity to save the day.
Woken in the night, Anne is ready for the challenge. But Peter is tired of his sister's silly stories and tries to ignore her. However, his mother had told him to keep an eye on Anne and, consequently, he follows her out of the bedroom window in his pyjamas. Having watched Anne and Mr Zoomzeman shoot into the night sky after gazing at the Moon and their reflections in the river, Peter reluctantly follows suit. Unfortunately, however, they don't land in the same place.
Having flown past orbiting satellites, Peter lands on a cloud where the Sandman (Raphael van Bargen) is taking a reading with a telescope he doesn't understand as well as his adolescent visitor. Meanwhile, Anne and Mr Zoomzeman have fetched up on Starry Meadow, where they meet the female students of the Shooting Star School (who always talk in unison). The Sandman is their teacher, but he's not around to defend them when they are abducted by the Moon Man (Drew Sarich), who sets them to work sorting space debris for the metals he needs to complete the cannon he hopes will enable him to defeat the Night Fairy and control the galaxy.
Arriving on the Starry Meadows, Peter joins forces with Mr Zoomzeman and they ride on the Sandman's sleigh to participate in the Milky Way race between the Spirits of Nature. Emcee'd by the Milky Way Man (Drew Sarich), this segment is loud, noisy and utterly devoid of excitement or visual invention. But it serves to add to the story five key characters: the Storm Giant (Michael Smulik), Rainy Robin (Howard Nightingall), the Lightning Witch (Mellisa Mabei), Henry Hail (Dennis Kozeluh) and Mother Frost (Margarethe Tiesl).
If this garish sequence feels like something copied from a video game, the way in which Peter, the Sandman and Mr Zoomzeman seek to gain access to the Night Fairy's palace by hopping between springy flower pads feels even more shamelessly derivative. In fact, they fall through a skylight and land in the soup tureen, as the Night Fairy is about to host the victors' ball. She is touched by Peter's concern for his sister. But the Lightning Witch flounces out after being denied permission to zap the intruders with her bow and arrow.
She turns out to be in cahoots with the Moon Man, who has tossed Anne into a dungeon for trying to sabotage work on the conveyor belt. While he plots with the Lightning Witch, Peter explains what has been happening to the Night Fairy (who is presented as a blonde ditz) and she summons Ursa Major (who turns out to be a giant polar bear) to carry the travellers to the Moon.
While they are in transit, Anne escapes and bumps into Mrs Zoomzeman (Barbara Spitz), who fills her in about the Moon Man's nefarious plan. He spots Ursa Major dropping off his passengers (to whom he wittily refers as `the good, the bug and the ugly') and sends his gormless henchmen to eradicate them with his vicious Moon Poodles. The friends hide in a discarded landing module and use a lunar rover to drive to the Moon Man's bastion.
As Mr Zoomzeman has found an old violin, he starts to play and his wife answers the melody with her harmonica. This clues the rescuers to their whereabouts and they break them out of the cell. But they are chased by the Moon Poodles and Peter uses the device given to him by the Spirits of Nature to call for help. The Storm Giant is cross because he's out bowling, but he joins the others in rallying to the cause. However, the Moon Man is bent on mayhem and it's only when he catches Peter trying to disarm the cannon and boasts that he has been stringing the Lightning Witch along that he falls flat.
The spurned spirit traps him in a current cage and he is banished to Mars by the Night Fairy for firing missiles at her home. She restores Mr Zoomzeman's lost limb and sends the sacred beech back to Earth. But Peter and Anna are sent home more perfunctorily by a puff of the Sandman's magic dust and they wake in their beds with the curious sensation that they have awoken from anything but a normal night's sleep.
Happy ever after begins with Peter calling on the Lightning Witch to fire a couple of high-voltage arrows at the bully and a quick wave to the Zoomzemans in their tree before walking to school hand in hand with his sister. It's a suitably modern ending and will mean more to today's audiences than the gingerbread gift from Santa Claus that provided a toothsome conclusion to Von Bassewitz's text. But `it had all been a dream (or had it?)' feels a bit of a chizz in this day and age and it's a shame that Ali Samadi Ahadi and his team couldn't have come up with something more inventive (although, to their credit, they did ditch the original's references to cannibalism).
On the visual side, the film looks as good as a modestly budgeted computer generation is going to do. The lunar backgrounds are atmospheric, as are the interiors of the Moon Fairy's castle and the Moon Man's lair. But the characterisation relies on resistible stereotypes that are reinforced by a couple of voiceovers that make Apu from The Simpsons sound like a sensitive tribute to subcontinental culture. Howard Nightingall's Sikh Rainy Robin is an insulting caricature that's every bit as offensive as Michael Smulik's grotesque parody of the African accent used for Storm Giant.
A couple of reviews have rightly accused the film of borrowing ideas from superior sources. But, in the case of the giant polar bear, Von Bassewitz pipped Philip Pullman by almost a century. He also came up with several other spirits, although things might have got a bit crowded if room had been found for the Thunder Man, the Wind Bride, the Cloud Woman, Ice Max, Vodyanoy the Water Spirit, Morning Glow, After Glow, the Morning Star, the Evening Star and the Queen of the Day. Perhaps they could come in useful if Ahadi decides to make a sequel to follow up his Pettersson und Findus trilogy (2014-18).
EL FATHER PLAYS HIMSELF.
Even the slickest meta cinema comes with an unspoken reminder for viewers to be ready to suspend their disbelief. Judging by the title of Mo Scarpelli's documentary, El Father Plays Himself, everything should be reasonably straightforward. After all Scarpelli has turned her vérité camera on image makers in action before, as she followed four Afghan photojournalists in Frame By Frame (2015). However, chronicling Venezuelan director Jorge Thielen Armand's efforts to star his father in a film based on his own life proves to be an equally tricky assignment, both on the ground and in the editing suite.
At the age of 15, Jorge Thielen Armand left Venezuela with his mother. While abroad, he kept in touch with his father, Jorge `Roque' Thielen Hedderich, and has now returned home to make La Fortaleza, a film inspired by Roque's highly eventful life. Although he appeared in his son's first feature, La Soledad (2016), Roque has never taken a leading role and he throws a tantrum while they are still doing camera tests before heading off for the Venezuelan Amazon. The producer isn't sure they can put up with such antics, but Thielen is reassured by a phone call to his mother, who says that Roque will always flare up when he drinks, but usually calms down when he's away from malign urban influences.
We see home movie footage of Roque as a younger man and his adventurous spirit leaps through the frame. But he's more morose, as father and son ride a cable car over the jungle canopy and settle into their digs ahead of the shoot. Moreover, he takes some waking on the first day. But he sits patiently while blood make-up is applied to his face and he does a good job of a scene in which he clambers out of an overturned car in the wilderness and vents his fury, as he climbs on to the upended chassis.
Everyone is pleased with the day's work and Roque lets his hair down back at the hotel. He dances and bellows, but doesn't seem to be drinking heavily. But Thielen watches over him nervously and is a bit embarrassed in front of the rest of the crew when his father is still is hip-swaying good humour the next morning. However, he's much more subdued, as he waits for the flight to the jungle interior, where Roque was engaged in illegal gold mining in the 1990s.
During downtime, Roque helps the props man make nuggets of gold and he tells the make-up woman about the time he took his six year-old son into the jungle and he insisted on bringing his cat, Yokosuna, in his haversack. However, Thielen needs him to be tipsy for a drunk scene and debates with his assistants how they can water down his favourite Herencia rum to make him convincing on camera, but keep him from getting out of control.
Roque spots that the bottle has been tampered with, but chugs away at it and delivers a devastating performance, as he curses a cohort for not phoning him. Thielen is delighted with the scene, but the combination of hooch and adrenaline causes Roque to fly off the handle for a second and he has to be led away before he does anything that someone might regret. Indeed, they whisk him off to do two more scenes and Roque is entirely in the moment. Moreover, he's excited by the work he's doing and hugs his son because he is so impressed by the way the film is turning out.
That night, Roque sits quietly petting the Golden Labrador on the set and seems content with his contribution. As they watch the rushes the next morning, Thielen and one of his colleagues discuss how they would react if Roque decided that the film showed him in a negative light and withdrew his support for the project. For the moment, however, they are pleased with the way things are going and hope that Roque is carried along on their positivity.
The documentary crew linger as Thielen films mining scenes in the interior and magic hour shots at dusk. Roque is in team player mode and a brief cutaway to him playing in a swimming pool with his toddler son reminds him and the audience that it was this locale that forced the family apart. However, when Thielen talks him through a couple of scenes while he is lying in a hammock, Roque loses his temper and claims all the pfaffing with lights to set up shots drains his energy and he loses the vibe of the scene. He taunts Thielen by suggesting that Scarpelli has the shots he wants because she knows what she's doing. When Thielen apologises for failing to spot that Roque was in character, he calms down and looks sheepish that he had made such a fuss.
Eager to work, they shoot a scene in which the miner is digging for a hidden bottle. As has become their custom, Roque is shown the scene in isolation on the morning of the take. This allows him to improvise by drawing on his memories and his own sense of showmanship. However, he dislocates his little finger and tries to replace it without waiting for the set doctor. He completes the take with a macho shrug, but Thielen and writer-cum-cinematographer Rodrigo Michelangeli realise that they will need to shoot around the injury, as they still have to do scenes from earlier in the story in which Roque's hands will be seen.
One of Roque's co-stars takes him to one side to remind him of the effort everyone is putting into the project. However, he explodes on being told to behave himself and Thielen is powerless to stop him as Roque raves about the folly of putting a woman producer in charge of a manly adventure. He also complains that he is being underpaid for holding the picture together and threatens to cause a scandal in the press unless he's given what he's worth.
The mood is still tense the next morning, with Thielen ticking Roque off for losing his composure. After a day of cooling down, they shoot a night-time fight scene and it goes so well that father and son wind up beaming at each other, without quite forgiving the other for the things that had been said a few hours earlier. Thielen asks Roque if he's excited about the movie because he's done a fine job and the older man bats away the compliment with gruff modesty.
Following a hovering aerial shot picking out two small figures atop the spectacular summit of a rugged outcrop that has been seen throughout the film, we get a final glimpse of father and son in a boxy home movie clip. They are swaying on a hammock, with Yokosuna and the boy clearly dotes on his dad. What we have just witnessed suggests he still does and one can only hope that the shoot has built a few bridges.
However, one is left with the nagging suspicion that the distributors have missed a trick in now cutting a deal to show their documentary alongside La Fortaleza, as this would do much to shore up the disconnect between the `making of' and profile elements of Mo Scarpelli's study of a relationship in rehab.
At no point do we get a definitive insight into the content of Thielen, Jr''s film or, therefore, Thielen, Sr.'s life after his family abandoned him for Canada. Nor do we get much idea of how estranged they had become and how (and why) Thielen decided to base a scenario on his absent parent's exploits and how (the admittedly narcissistic and exhibitionist) Roque came to be persuaded to allow his misadventures and shortcomings to form the basis of a screenplay that he would enact, even though he had little prior acting experience and represented an evident risk to the entire enterprise.
Furthermore, as Scarpelli keeps the focus so firmly on the Thielens, she neglects to introduce the other personnel on the shoot, such as the members of the inner crew circle and the other actors. As Scarpelli is Thielen's off-screen partner, her fascination with his struggle to make his movie and bond with his father is understandable. But there is plenty going on in the wings and it might have been useful to see some of it up close.
Several reviewers have compared this to Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (1982), which charted the ructions between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski during the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982). But it simply isn't in the same class, although, to be fair, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991) is the only comparable picture that is.
In its way, Scarpelli's record is another home movie, albeit on a grander scale than the footage taken (one presumes) by her partner's mother. This isn't a detrimental comparison, as Scarpelli (who wields her own camera) achieves an intimacy that is reinforced by Roberta Ainstein's enveloping sound design. Yet, it's only after reading interviews like the one in Filmmaker Magazine that her evolving aims for the project become apparent, as she came to realise that `there is no film safe from some version of exploitation'.