Cannes Film Festival: The Weekend Roundup (May 16-17)
From 87-year-old Alain Resnais, still at it almost half a century after Last Year at Marienbad, to bad boy emeritus Pedro Almodovar, this year’s Cannes roster has its fair share—and then some, say the grumblers—of tried-and-true European big names. But as has generally been the case in recent years, the new releases from Asia’s young and old masters are where to look for that 21st-century buzz.
Director Chan-Wook Park
Among the South Koreans, my fave Chan-Wook Park has both the biggest rep and the best shot at provoking critical arguments. Three days after the Thirst screened, Park’s gory, comic, ultimately moving mashup of The Diary of a Country Priest and a sexier Dracula was still the movie my colleagues were having the best time bickering about. So even though group interviews aren’t my idea of a chance to probe, I naturally hied myself down the Croisette—Cannes-ese for what Americans would call “the Boardwalk”—on Sunday afternoon to Park’s press roundtable at the Mammon-love-it (God doesn’t) Hotel Martinez.
The problem with these things isn’t only that time is limited but you’re at the mercy of the stupidest questioner present. In this case, that turned out to be the Brit bonehead next to me who wanted to know all about Thirst’s fake blood: “The actors said it tasted like grape juice, but they couldn’t tell me what was in it. Was it different from the blood you’ve used in your other movies?”
Well, yeah, most likely—since in his other movies, the actors didn’t have to drink the stuff by the gallon. But whether or not his translator managed to improve the question on its way into Korean, Park’s answer was splendid. “The hero is a Catholic priest who drinks the blood of Christ every day while serving Mass,” he reminded us. “Then, against his wishes, he becomes a vampire, and learns he needs human blood to survive. Of course this blood had to feel different from the blood in my other movies.”
Which didn’t stop Bonehead from going in for a second try. “But was there grape juice in it? I want a recipe.” Not that anybody else’s questions were such pearls, my own included: I asked him about all the deliberately incongruous slapstick in his work, eliciting the interesting but doubtless not wholly novel response that comedy had been his most important early influence. But in a gentlemanly way, Park gave better than he got, whether the subject was his M.O.—“I carefully calculate everything, so if it has an adverse effect at the end of the day, I don’t have the excuse of saying it was an accident”—or the inevitable violence issue: “It’s my choice to go with extremes and provocation. Just because it’s a controversy, I’m not going to start making movies about pretty clouds moving in the sky.”
The translator was pretty good on his own, too. “You know, even if it’s something he’s been asked 100 times before, he tries to come up with something fresh,” he told a couple of us 101’ers after Park left. Then came a grin: “And if he can’t, then I do.” Which was probably a joke he’s made before, but he and his employer are a good match.
Director Sang-Soo Hung
As for Park’s gentler compatriot, Truffaut wannabe Sang-Soo Hong, I admit I didn’t feel wracked with guilt about skipping his new one, Like You Know It All. And that title may unintentionally say something about why, since I’ve already seen two (or was it three? I honestly can’t remember) of Hong’s gracefully made but cloying movies about filmmakers not unlike himself coping with one or another private crisis. Sue me for suspecting I was unlikely to exit sockless after sitting through yet another.
By contrast, anything new from 39-year-old Joon-Ho Bong, who’s everybody’s current favorite not least because he straddles the difference between the garish best of Park and the calmer best of Hong, is cinema manna I wouldn’t dream of passing up. Mother, which screened here Saturday, is Bong’s first feature since The Host, a phenomenally smart and zingy monster-movie riff on family ties and Korea’s half century of hosting (cough) the U.S. as its benevolent occupiers. After becoming the 2006 festival’s sleeper hit when it played here in the Directors’ Fortnight program, it went on to be the biggest box-office success in South Korean history, making cine-heads slaver to see what he’d come up with next.
His contribution to the anthology film Tokyo wasn’t much more than a placeholder, but Bong doesn’t seem to be the type to rattle easily. Instead of trying to top The Host’s pop flash, he’s returned to the deceptively unshowy, wonderfully engrossing style of his earlier, equally first-rate Memories of Murder—the unacknowledged but obvious template, incidentally, for David Fincher’s Zodiac, if you’ve ever wondered how come the best ideas in Zodiac seemed so un-Fincher-like.
Played by Hye-Ja Kim, the title character is a devoted, long-suffering, ostensibly saintly single parent who goes feral when her dim bulb of a good-for-nothing son is arrested for killing a schoolgirl. (Though Kim is unknown to me, she’s a huge TV star in her home country, celebrated above all for a long-running sitcom in which she was the loving mother of everyone’s dreams—making this the equivalent of watching Happy Days’ Marion Ross or The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson go to the dark side.) Bong starts out playing by the rules of a whodunit, but then bends them when the solution of the mystery comes earlier than we expect, setting up Mom’s solution to the solution. As it becomes steadily clearer that she’ll stop at nothing to save her pride and joy, Mother evolves into a deadpan variant on Psycho in which Mrs. Bates is not only alive and well but poor Norman might as well be a stuffed bird. The movie’s wit is terrifically dry, and I could swear there isn’t one misjudged shot or trite performance in it.
Ultra-prolific Hong Kong veteran Johnnie To, on the other hand, keeps making variants on the same shoot-‘em-up, but he’s so expert at finding jaw-dropping new ways to deliver the goods that I could happily watch one or even two a year until Hong Kong freezes over. Less idiosyncratic than 2007’s Mad Detective, his new one, Vengeance, is an especially close cousin to 2006’s terrific Exiled, with the same hardy character actors—led by the indispensable Anthony Wong—once again playing hit men doomed by their own code of chivalry. This time around, they’re hired by Johnny Hallyday to avenge the massacre of his daughter’s family, making for complications when the murders turn out to have been ordered by the same crime boss they usually work for.
Since honor gives them no choice but to live up to their contract even after a revelation that makes it clear Hallyday in no position to compel them to, our heroes march forth to quixotic glory. Their showdown with the boss’s dozens of other goons is one more of the virtuoso set-pieces To can apparently concoct and shoot before Martin Scorsese—here to host a screening of Powell and Pressburger’s classic The Red Shoes, incidentally,and looking more like a Muppet than ever as he got the ululation treatment from celeb-starved Cannes photogs—has so much as finished his first cup of coffee for the day.
A very different sort of crime film had kicked off our weekend. Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is a ferociously well-managed saga of a young Muslim (Tahar Rahim) who’s sent to jail and goes to work for the wily Corsican mobster who secretly runs the joint. Starting out as a gofer, he eventually accumulates enough guile and resources to challenge his boss for mastery of the prison, with metaphorical implications that may well hit a nerve for France’s Islamic and non-immigrant populations alike. The first hour or so, especially, is absolutely crackerjack—the most riveting and detailed depiction of prison sociology I’ve ever seen—but things don’t really let up much afterward.
Sunday night brought us Lars von Trier’s much-buzzed Antichrist, which I think I’ll postpone until my next post. Let me leave you with the all too appropriate image of a very determined Russian-or-was-she-Italian journalist insistently grinding her right boob into my armpit—presumably on the assumption I’d be polite enough to step aside and let her worm past me, which I wasn’t—as we all started to panic about whether or not we’d get in.