Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Notebook (A Nagy Füzet)

THE NOTEBOOK (A Nagy Füzet)                 B-                   
aka:  Le Grand Cahier
Hungary  Austria  France  Germany  (110 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  János Szász

János Szász studied drama and stage direction at the Academy of Theater and Film Arts, and spent four years at the National Theater of Budapest before embarking on a career as a film director, where his second film WOYZECK (1994), which won five major awards at the Hungarian Film Week in Budapest, was the first to be released internationally.  Followed by THE WITMAN BOYS (1997), Szász developed a reputation for brilliant cinematography and music, excellent acting, and ultra-bleak subject matter, often set within a historical context.  While this film took the top prize at the Karlovy Vary film festival, an atmospheric World War II thriller about two twin boys sent to the Hungarian countryside to wait out the war under the supposed safety of their cruel and embittered grandmother, it never rises to the level of his earlier works.  The film is based on the debut novel, Le Grand Cahier, (1986), the first book of a “trilogy of twins” from Hungarian émigré author Agota Kristóf, who left Hungary at the age of 21 and settled in Switzerland where she began writing in French.  Translated into 30 different languages, the book caused something of a literary scandal in France, known as the Abbeville case, where a complaint was made by parents against a high school teacher in 2000 for recommending insensitive and “pornographic” literature to his students, where the Minister of Education intervened with a letter of support, as the book was taught in many schools and is considered a classic of contemporary literature.

The 13-year old twins offer a unique vantage point of the war, as families are often divided and shattered by war and death, but these two remain inseparable, speaking with one voice, becoming an almost mythical force of unity and brotherly love.  Set in a farmhouse near an unnamed border village, the Nazi’s already occupy the surrounding region, where the military commandant (Ulrich Thomsen) takes a surprising interest in the twins, almost like a fetish, where they become his favorite pets.  Known only as one and the other, András and László Gyémánt, their grandmother (Piroska Molnár), who the townspeople call “The Witch,” has her own pet name for them, calling them “little bastards” throughout the entire film, often thinking they are up to no good, city kids that know nothing about hard work.  Initially they sit and watch her perform all the chores herself, a large and obese woman, never offering to help, so she doesn’t feed them at night, claiming you have to earn your keep around a farm.  Soon she has them doing nearly all the chores while she sits in a rocking chair and smokes, taking evening sips from a bottle of local brew, where she caresses her hidden jewelry while continually cursing the loathsome memory of her dead husband, wishing he had never been born. 

Reading entries made into their diary, exactly as they were instructed to do by their father in the opening scenes, everything in it is objective and scientifically precise, showing no feelings whatsoever, where the extensive use of voiceovers comment upon the many graphic horrors that take place offscreen, occasionally resorting to animated imagery, but the narration is always told in a cold and dispassionate manner, which has a way of distancing everything the viewer sees onscreen.  While this effect is intentional, avoiding any hint of emotional attachment or sentimentality, it also alienates the audience, preventing any personal identification with any of the characters, and most especially the twins themselves.  But they go on studying, where the only book they possess is The Bible, often reading from it at night.  Driven by the open hostility of the grandmother, a raging inferno of bitterness and hate, she inflicts every kind of punishment on the twins, insults, beatings, hunger, and cold, but they learn to stand up to her by refusing to cry and withstanding any pain, by asking she beat them some more, as they pride themselves on enduring every inflicted misery.  In doing so, they become hardened and embittered creatures themselves, busily preparing themselves for a Darwinian survival, much like the wandering kids in Osterman’s Wolfschildren (Wolfskinder) (2013).  While there are only a few other villagers of note, including a kindly Jewish cobbler (János Derzsi) murdered before being sent off to the death camps, a tomboyish thief known as harelip (Orsolya Tóth), also a corrupt church Deacon (Péter Andorai) and his sex-starved maid (Diána Kiss), nearly all are dead by the end of the film.  Directed with a grim precision, evoking a bleakness within that matches the utter devastation surrounding them, what’s peculiarly interesting is the degree of defiance displayed by the twins, eliminating weakness from their vocabulary even as they are being brutalized, becoming a chilling portrait of two creepy and fascinating souls warped by a crushing onslaught of inconceivable trauma.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


BORGMAN                B-               
Netherlands  (113 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Alex van Warmerdam            Website

They descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks.       —opening inner title sequence

Van Warmerdam continues his obsession with surreal black comedies that border on the absurd, where this one assumes near comic book proportions as it is essentially a politely told extra-terrestrial earth invasion movie, told with a deadpan humor and a playful spirit that borders on the ridiculous, where one wonders how this was chosen among the elite films to premiere in competition at Cannes, the first Dutch film in 38 years to do so. Playing out more like a bedtime story for adults, though it has a captivating, near hypnotic effect on children, the story concerns oddball characters that we might find in a Kaurismäki movie, including the director himself who plays one of the intrusive “visitors.”  Earth is apparently under siege by strange and eccentric characters that we initially see sleeping underground, but at present there are only a handful of them, and only a few know about them, as they’re able to move undetected among earth’s population by disguising themselves as ordinary humans, often dressed in snappy suits.  Much like Yorgos Lanthimos’s acclaimed DOGTOOTH (2009), this film has a vernacular and story logic all its own, but many will be hard pressed to make anything out if it.  A cult film even upon its release, it likely falls into the acquired taste category, as its zany horror antics grow tiresome and nonsensical after awhile.  While it may be some sort of commentary on the evils of the bourgeois upper class society, who have all presumably lost their souls, this film suggests there are many laying in wait to inhabit the emptiness left behind.  “There’s something surrounding us. It slips inside now and then,” a worried wife tells her husband, as if the forces of evil are already upon them, but only unleashed a bit at a time so as not to arouse suspicion.            

The opening has an almost medieval feel to it, as we see a man swallowing whole a jar of pickled fish before heading off into battle, led by a determinedly solemn, axe-wielding priest, as they storm through the forests giving chase to spirits or demons or subterranean creatures that communicate by cell phones.  Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), a beady-eyed wretch of a monster with straggly hair and a sunken face that makes it look like he could be hundreds of years old, is the leader who has to warn all the others who apparently have their phones on sleep mode, unearthing their underground lairs with his own axe while leading them to safety, where they all escape.  Still encrusted with dirt, he finds himself in the affluence of suburbia ringing doorbells asking if he can take a bath, where the overall impression he makes is not very inviting, getting kicked senseless by one offended resident, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who apparently speaks for the entire community.  However later that evening when Richard is away, the apologetic wife Marina (Hadewych Minis), apparently shamed by her husband’s behavior, invites him in and offers him food and shelter, so long as he keeps out of sight of her husband, where her sheer goodness opens the door for eventual calamity.  The family also consists of three television engrossed children and a lethargic Danish nanny that already appears hypnotized.  While the story concerns the strange and hypnotic powers of the otherworld, Marina’s constant state of flux, secret attraction to Borgman, and overall instability carry the emotional weight of the film, where we often wonder if she’s one of them, as she’s continually making things easier for them.  Quickly ridding the family of their gardener, Borgman gets a hair trim and a shave and quickly takes his place, bringing in a few accomplices that live in a utility shed in the back.  In no time, they’ve converted this architecturally impressive suburban home to their home base of operations, often assuming the shape of hounds, while hypnotizing women and children.

The director himself plays one of Borgman’s many helpers (Ludwig), all of whom look like members of the Leningrad Cowboys, who happen to be a satiric invention of Aki Kaurismäki, eventually becoming an internationally acclaimed Finnish rock band that continues even today to tour the world.  If only they were that much fun, as whatever enjoyment the viewers might initially have with this madcap group of eccentrics quickly wears thin when we discover they’re little more than a group of professional assassins, an intergalactic mafia, where we see a collection of bodies accumulating at the bottom of the lake, faces head down in a pile of cement, feet dangling upwards, swaying with the current.  So whatever silly antics we thought we were enjoying is actually a sadistic group of supernatural killers without a hint of remorse or human empathy.  Once this becomes inherently clear, all the silliness stops being amusing, yet the absurd tone continues throughout till the end.  In effect, this turns out to be an extended version of a highly artificialized, yet thoroughly malicious Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, a continuation on earlier themes that began with van Warmerdam’s particularly gruesome earlier film GRIMM (2003).  But like that film, this one is also erratic, never really establishing a serious overall theme, as sinister clues are everywhere, while certain developed storylines go nowhere, and the subject never really connects or comes alive with the audience.  When Marina proclaims “We are the fortunate, and the fortunate must be punished,” it’s like the rallying cry opening the apocalyptic gates for ultimate destruction.  With Richard adding his own voice, registering that disaffected lack of concern that we find detestable about the One Percent, “We’re from the West, it’s affluent.  That’s not our fault,” it feels overly simplistic and all too easy.  This is a film for people with marginal attention spans, which may be a reflection on our modern culture, as afterwards it’s all nearly forgotten anyway except for the prevailing atmosphere of weirdness.  The descent from dark comedy to depraved horror is a nasty twist designed for provocative effect, but feels surprisingly empty.     

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac)

STRANGER BY THE LAKE (L'inconnu du lac)      B+       
France  (97 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Alain Guiraudie        Website            Trailer

A sexually explicit film that might qualify as porn noir, where if there is an insatiable public appetite for watching gay sex onscreen, this is the film of choice, as the salacious titillation is just the preliminary course, so to speak, only part of what evolves into a modernist existential thriller, one that evokes a darkening mood of murder and enveloping danger.  What’s immediately apparent is the meticulous precision of the film, which gives pause for reflection, as it does exhibit a rare intelligence, but the overly detached, deeply repressive territory may be too subtle for most viewers, as this minimalist, near Bressonian exercise offers few clues as an intricately probing psychological thriller.  What it does do is perfectly capture an enclosed space, a restricted territory, a perfectly secluded summer lake that becomes a haven for gay men to lie around naked on the beach, occasionally swimming, before pairing off in the nearby woods for actual unsimulated sex, where the director confines his camera to the same few locations, never once leaving the beach surroundings, becoming stiflingly claustrophobic, and eventually suffocating.  The film’s structure is built upon a carefully designed monotony of surface detail, where the rhythm is established through a series of repetitive routines, where the audience gets lulled to sleep by the familiarity, as each new day begins with the exact same camera shot of an approaching car searching for a spot to park in the small lot, then there’s a short walk through the woods to the beach where unadorned figures are seen sporadically lying about sun-bathing nude, as friends politely acknowledge one another with kisses to the cheek as they arrive.  While there’s an interesting geometry to the way bodies remain at a careful distance from one another, perhaps more intriguing is the realization that this view of the beach can’t be shot from anywhere except the middle of the lake, which becomes a disturbing point of view as the film unravels.  The characteristic long shots and extended takes from cinematographer Claire Mathon are reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s CACHÉ (2005), which invite the viewer to focus their attention on anything out of place and on carefully placed details.

The film is seen through the eyes of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), a twentysomething who is a regular at the beach, where we follow his vantage point even as he is swimming in the water, where his surveillance of the shoreline reveals a man sitting off to the side away from the others, Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a somewhat chubby but congenial outsider who remains clothed and never goes into the water, striking up an easygoing friendship, chatting each day until someone more desirous arrives.  Henri is a recent widower, a reported bisexual who remains a picture of loneliness and solitude, never venturing to the cruising section of the beach, never talking to anyone except Franck, but often comments on gay behavior.  Since there are so few doors into this enclosed culture, his insights are particularly welcome, even when offered so casually, as they offer a window into this tightly constricted universe.  Franck’s sexual interest perks up with the arrival of Michel (Christophe Paou), sort of a cross between Mark Spitz and Harry Reems, a muscular swimmer with a perfect physique, where everything about him is desirable, except he has a needy partner, with whom he disappears after a brief exchange.  Later that evening, however, when Franck is alone in the woods overlooking the tranquil lake, he watches Michel drown his partner before swimming ashore.  Despite the continuing presence of the murdered man’s car in the lot and his beach towel and clothes on the beach, Franck remains silent about what he saw while entering into a furiously passionate, sexual affair with the killer, as if the murder was an aphrodisiac to his senses.  As the relationship deepens, Franck attempts to expand it beyond the confines of the beach, but Michel continually rejects the notion, insisting his private life remain private.  When the body washes ashore and the police begin asking questions, Franck is surprised when Michel shows no discomfort whatsoever over the loss of his partner.

Much like Henri, the Police Inspector (Jérôme Chappatte) offers curious insight into this secretive community, becoming a commentary on sad and empty lives that mechanically have sexual experiences with no lasting value, often without sharing names, as almost immediately, they’re in need of sexual replenishment, routinely changing partners.  The film bears an uncanny resemblance to Éric Rohmer’s A SUMMER’S TALE (Conte d'été) 1996, especially the idyllic seaside location searching for love, becoming a summertime flirtation without the sexual explicitness, but featuring characters who are unable to make commitments and are constantly avoiding emotional connections.  In this secluded spot on a picturesque lake, there is no real love or commitment, but an anonymous game of musical chairs, where man is often seen as a hunter surviving on animal instincts, searching out sexual conquests or liaisons, yet remaining imprisoned by the existential nature of remaining isolated and alone.  Aware of the potential danger, or more likely excited by it, Franck ignores the advice of his friend Henri and indulges his passion, where an alarm bell goes off when Michel invites him into the water to go swimming, which all of a sudden exudes a sense of overwhelming danger.  In the water, Michel is the alpha male, where all others must submit to his dominating physical prowess, becoming an object of obsession in Franck’s eyes, who still remains hopelessly drawn to him.  It’s impossible to understand what possible self-justifying logic Franck uses where he’s willing to risk death for a love he barely understands and instead feels controlled by, veering into the psychological void of amorality, questioning the limits of illicit sexual desire and the eroticism inherent in dangerous situations.  The film appears heavily influenced by French writer/philosopher George Bataille, author of Christophe Honoré’s MA MÈRE (2004), a transgressive work that equates base sexuality with the divine, where transcendence is achieved only through indulgence.  Elaborating on a Sartrian No Exit theme, Guiraudie may be drawing upon a gay preoccupation with self loathing, failing to live up to “straight” society’s conception of beauty and sex, and in pursuit of an ever elusive perfect erotic desire, may equate sexuality with a drive towards death (including anal sex without condoms), where in perhaps the scene of the film, Franck joins Michel *in* the lake at the scene of the crime, at the exact same evening hour when no one else is around.  What happens afterwards only punctuates the intrusive presence of blackness that has pervaded Franck’s desirous soul, like an otherworldly presence, forced to live in the self-imposed blindness of a murky void, where the director offers no comfort that there is any way out.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru)

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru)                    B+                  
Japan  (120 mi)  2013  d:  Hirokazu Kore-eda               Official site [Japan]  Trailer

This is a film that reaches across international barriers, becoming as much a brilliant family drama in the understated style of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, yet may also be seen reflected in the gentle lyricism of an early Spielberg movie, an American director that headed the Cannes Jury that awarded this film a Jury Prize as the 3rd best film in competition.  Like Ozu, Kore-eda returns again and again to examine the minutia of Japanese family life, focusing on issues of abandonment and separation, along with themes of divorce and death that are prevalent in many of his films.  This film also examines issues of class, morality, and the clash between capitalism and traditional values, where one questions the increasingly competitive nature of entrance standards for quality primary schools.  Early in this film we see a family and their child interviewed for one of the more elite schools, where we quickly learn the child was prepped for the occasion, and even fictionalized some of his answers to create a better impression.  Nonetheless, this gives us a window of insight into this family, when a successful Tokyo architect Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama, also a singer/songwriter) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) are asked which parent their 6-year old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) actually favors, with Ryota suggesting he has the kind and gentle disposition of his mother.  Following the family at home in their modern but sterile apartment, without anything out of place, we see the aggressive determination Ryota displays at work, always staying late and working on weekends, meticulously planning his family’s activities, including rigid demands for Keita to help prepare him for a highly successful future.  Ryota expresses traditional Japanese ideals, which include hard work, discipline, and fierce competitiveness, where he’s somewhat perplexed and disappointed that his son lacks the aggressive drive he hoped for, where instead he’s shy, introverted, and compassionate, lacking the cutthroat instincts of his father who is overworked and mostly absent from home, maintaining an emotional distance to his son.  

Kore-eda originally intended to become a novelist, which may explain why his films have such an unusual depth and curiously explorative quality about them, where in many ways the completely unsentimentalized style feels like documentary exposé’s, especially NOBODY KNOWS (2004), a story of parental abandonment based on a real life incident, the Sugamo child abandonment case, when a mother irresponsibly deserted her four children who were smuggled into a Tokyo apartment and then left alone for nine months to survive on their own.  The searing humanity on display results from such tragic, near inexplicable misfortune.  Similarly, Ryota’s plans are shattered by a single phone call from a hospital reporting there was a mix-up at the hospital when Keita was born, that another family is raising their biological son who was accidentally switched at birth, detected by a standard blood test needed for primary school.  The hospital brings the two families together, where Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari (Yōko Maki), who run a small appliance shop in a rundown working class neighborhood, living in the cramped quarters above the shop, have been raising their biological son Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), and have actually had two more children since then.  While the hospital lawyers suggest the parents usually switch back to their biological parents in almost all instances, they initially recommend visits, followed by sleepovers, weekends, and then longer visits, all in an attempt to make the adjustment as painless and as natural as possible.  Meanwhile, Ryota enlists the aid of a fellow classmate who is a high priced lawyer, and the two families sue the hospital, while Yudai amusingly splurges on food every chance he gets during the meetings, sending the hospital the bill.  But Ryota has other intentions as well, believing Ryusei’s poor standard of living is so compromised that both children would be better served living in their wealth and extravagance.  Certainly initially, Yudai doesn’t represent the traditional standard for success, as he tends to be lazy and easily distracted, always preferring to put things off for another day, where he doesn’t exhibit even a hint of the dedication and discipline shown by Ryota.  But he spends all his available time playing with the kids, where his family doesn’t have all the rules for children to follow, where they’re not overly obedient or overworked from all the pressures their parents put them under, as instead they freely run around and actually enjoy childhood.   

The real key here is Ryota’s arrogance, as he looks down on everyone who doesn’t have his economic advantages, including his own family, where making sacrifices means working harder and longer hours, which in his view is taking care of his family.  Of course it leaves Midori as the sole nurturer and provider for Keita, and she’s perfectly comfortable if he’s a quiet and sensitive child without an ambitious streak.  He’s an adorable child, and as is the case in most Kore-eda films with children, they are notorious scene stealers just by acting naturally.  While the film tends to focus on the two fathers, both openly suspicious of one another, whose manner couldn’t be more opposite, the two mothers actually get along and share helpful information about their kids, as they still feel attached to the kids they’ve raised since birth, and are concerned about this huge undertaking they’re going through.  Both families are hugely supportive of the new arrivals, and it feels only a matter of time before an exchange is made.  Midori, on the other hand, is fiercely against the idea, as Keita is her son, where there is nothing remotely as close as a mother’s bond with her child, especially one she feels takes after her, and she’s afraid of losing him.  Ryota on the other hand is going by the book, doing what is expected, providing leadership for this new adjustment, addressing the situation much as he would a work project.  In one of the more extraordinary moments, Midori is on the train with Keita, where she’s so fed up with her husband’s stubborn resistance that she actually considers running away with him, returning back home with her family where they could stay together.  But Keita is not the kind of kid that rocks the boat, and he quickly realizes that running away is not what all these new family visits are all about.  Instead he’s developing an appreciation for just being a kid, where now he doesn’t have to pick up after himself every second of the day, as he’s allowed to make a mess, or play with other kids and just have fun.  In traditional Japanese style, Yudai has communal baths with his children, who also sleep communally, and he has unique repair skills to fix broken down toys, where he gets them up and working again, like valued members of the family, while Ryota would simply buy another one. 

Typical of Kore-eda, the film is an accumulation of small moments, divided into chapters by seasons, covering a full year, beautifully captured by Mikaya Takimoto’s artful camerawork and the use of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Bach - Goldberg Variations: Aria (Glenn Gould) - YouTube (2:54), evoking a range of moods from profoundly contemplative to frenetically energetic.  The children prove to be an interesting study in contrasts, where Ryusei is a bundle of energy and cheerful enthusiasm, almost always smiling, where he’s not at all used to being quiet or following rules, and refuses to call his new parents mom and dad, while the overly shy Keita slowly blends into the hustle and bustle of a larger family unit, where Yukari is the driving force out of necessity, as otherwise nothing would ever get done.  Midori, on the other hand, assumes the traditional submissive posture in a patriarchal society, where in a rare visit to his father and stepmother, we learn Ryota’s father also maintained an emotional distance while assuming the role of a domineering authority figure, literally continuing a cycle of parental abuse through neglect.  Kore-eda is an exceedingly patient filmmaker that takes his time showing how different people construct their own lives, where he’s extremely patient with children and has developed especially subtle observational skills, where the audience becomes extremely familiar with each of the characters, their unique habits, and the changing perspectives they must adapt to.  Kore-eda creates such richly compelling scenes, where the film’s complexity is largely due to the depth of character that he explores.  The emotional rigidity of Ryota is slowly exposed, where the orderly discipline he imposes on his family is a self-constructed veneer protecting his own underlying vulnerability.  Yudai, for instance, spends more time with Keita in just a few months than Ryota will all year, suggesting fatherhood, from a child’s view, is all about spending time together.  This certainly raises questions about the professional elite who work hard in their profession to reach the top, where it’s always a balancing act finding family time.  The final scenes together of Ryota and Keita are truly moving, and really not like anything else in modern cinema due to this uniquely gifted director’s ability to gain such rare insight into a child’s character. 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Soul (Shi-hun)

SOUL (Shi-hun)                       B          
Taiwan  (112 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Chung Mong-Hong           Trailer

I saw this body was empty so I moved in.      —A-Chuan (Joseph Chang)

A moody and atmospheric thriller that is beautifully photographed in saturated colors by the director himself, a film built on an editing scheme with fades to black, where the sheer look on ‘Scope far outshines most any other film seen this year.  The film has a supernatural element that remains ambiguous throughout, where story and intent are submerged beneath the veneer of the film’s beauty, where something sinister is taking place, almost like a haunting.  The story concerns A-Chuan (Joseph Chang), a sushi chef in a small Japanese restaurant, who collapses while slicing up a fish that is still flopping around, even after a large portion has been carved out.  What is taking place is a mysterious transformation, as A-Chuan is not himself afterwards, but diagnosed with depression, as he’s entirely subdued, as if on anti-depressants, while more likely his body has been inhabited by another wandering spirit.  Part of the film’s complexity are the many layers of existence built into our human comprehension, where this may also be an artfully brilliant exposé on schizophrenia, where the director intermixes layers of spiritual, supernatural, and clinical, molding a most unusual story that has a painterly beauty while exploring alternate interior realms.  Even more impressive, the story shifts at some point and becomes a supernatural karma thriller, where A-Chuan’s father, Old Wang (Jimmy Wong, martial arts veteran from the infamous Shaw Brothers Hong Kong studios) is curiously haunted by his actions in the past when he went unpunished for the killing of his wife, traumatically witnessed by his son, where now a day of atonement arrives in the form of a demonic possession that has maliciously taken control of his son.  It’s quite clever how the storyline shifts from the audience’s interest in what’s happened to the son, and suddenly a larger and more compelling universe engulfs this one, where the father’s unraveling secrets literally consume the audience’s attention. 

A-Chuan’s sister Yun (Chen Hsiang-chi) drives her brother to their rural, mountainous home near Taichung, central Taiwan, where they grew up, where he is placed in the care of their father who grows orchids in the mists of an isolated mountain.  Yun grows wary of her brother’s condition, as he doesn’t speak or eat or respond to the world around him, where after bashing his head against the wall, it soon emerges that he’s been possessed by the soul of a psychopath, as Wang returns home one day only to find his daughter lying in a pool of blood, with his son hovering over her indicating he is not A-Chuan, “He left.  I took his body.  A-Chuan will be gone for a long time,” claiming he passed A-Chuan on his way into the body, suggesting he would be back “one day.”  Wang tries to hide the body just as a police officer friend turns up at the door, eventually burying her, while drugging this aberration version of his son, locking him up as a prisoner in a storage shed in back of the house, waiting for his real son’s spirit to return, where a lone window connects him to the outside world.  Strange visions, however, start to haunt A-Chuan, providing a backstory for his family’s disturbing past, where curiously this dreamlike window to the past through flashbacks is more revealing than the shed window in the present, as it was in this building that A-Chuan witnessed his father kill his mother.  One of the more enticing scenes is a mystical character known only as The Messenger (Chin Shih-chieh), an old man with a bamboo basket that discovers a mountainous trail leading to a hidden well, somehow convincing A-Chuan to jump into a seemingly bottomless pit, which might explain his disappearance. 

A kind of tug of war persists between the inhabited son and the overly suspicious father, who must figure out how to contend with this afflicted spirit while keeping the body alive for his son’s eventual return.  The first killing, however, sets into motion a series of violent acts, where Wang, seemingly impassive to the tragedy, goes to great extremes to cover them up, each more violent than the next, becoming obsessed with protecting his son at all costs, crossing all moral boundaries, turning into an overly stylish blood splatter film.  While the film is not without humor, especially in the folksy character of local cop Little Wu (Vincent Liang), who has a history with Old Wang and respects the ways of the mountain, who seems preoccupied or easily distracted, but his perseverance throughout even after sustaining a hideous injury is impressive.  When his superior arrives, Yang (Tuo Tsung-hua), he’s more of a no nonsense character who gets right to the heart of the matter, questioning Wang about the strange disappearance of several missing people. Things soon veer out of control, as this is a film about instability, not balance, where things are not as they seem, exploring cruelty and pain in an extremely detached manner, while also examining a rather twisted father and son relationship.  Wang must cover up his son’s crimes while attempting to fathom whether his son has lost his mind or has been taken possession by a demonic spirit.  Yet the overriding constant is the lush beauty of the Alishan forest, resembling a mountainous rain forest where dew is everpresent, as is a surrounding mist, where Wang’s character is completely in tune with the rugged, unyielding nature of the mountain.  The sequence out of the mountains on a tiny rail car is nothing less than exquisite.  Not sure why so many Asian films insist upon blood-letting scenes which may taint the film’s poetic allure, but the mix of ghostlike inhabitation and murder mystery remains fascinating throughout, as it’s a beautifully directed film, meditative and disquieting, with a chilling and fascinating world of violence that at least according to Ho Yi from The Tapei Times (Movie review: Soul - Taipei Times) “are among the most gruesome and exquisite that Taiwanese cinema has seen in decades.”