Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Girl Missing (Yokogao)

Piet Mondrian’s Dying Sunflower III (1908)

A GIRL MISSING (Yokogao)                     C-       
Japan  France  (111 mi)  2019  d:  Kôji Fukada                  Official site [Japan]

Following up on the fractured identity territory of Harmonium (Fuchi ni tatsu) (2016), creating another world where reality and horror intersect, evolving into yet another revenge saga, this film is similarly told in two parts, but both are presented simultaneously, jumping backwards and forwards in time, veering into a melodramatic hysteria that defies belief, with the lead protagonist going bonkers right before our eyes, defying expectations, becoming something else altogether.  Mariko Tsutsui returns in a dual role, transformed from a highly compassionate individual to a vengeful soul, where she’s introduced as Risa Uchida, a morose recluse that identifies with the death and decay of Piet Mondrian’s “Dying Sunflower III (1908),” Rabih Alameddine on Twitter: "Piet Mondrian - Dying Sunflower I ... (click on third photo), finding herself gazing at a rotting flower while visiting an art museum, in stark contrast to the abundance of bright color found in Van Gogh, though perfectly reflective of her current mindset, having turned bitter and revengeful.  She also appears as Ichiko Shirakawa, a kind and genuinely concerned caregiver, seen as a nurse for the elderly and terminally ill, caring for Tôko Oishi (Ookata Hisako), an elderly artist, becoming a role model and integral part of her wealthy family, remaining close with her granddaughters, the older, more serious Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ogawa), a high school student, tutoring Motoko for the nursing exam while helping Saki with her math homework.  The jumps back and forth are jarring and confusing, offering the impression of a personality disorder, yet the telling of the story is also exaggerated and extreme, wildly over the edge, like a cheap exploitative drama.  The violent mood swings are a bit over the top, like Risa getting down on all fours and barking like a dog, where some may be laughing hysterically while others might cringe at what they see, as it’s almost a parody of the restrained and orderly depiction of a stable Japanese society.  The extent to which it accentuates a modern malaise, particularly the hyper-intrusive media and the way they infiltrate and disrupt otherwise normal lives, planting themselves on people’s doorsteps, constantly screaming out intensely personal questions that no one in their right mind would answer, literally destroying any traces left of normalcy, suggests an epic tragedy, like the opening of a Pandora’s Box where we can’t return the harm done back into the bottle.

Fukada has a habit of crafting layered stories about flawed individuals where seemingly small mistakes blow up in their face with dire consequences that are totally out of proportion to the initial error in judgment.  With a script that appears weak, one of the problems of the film is how unengaged people are, where everyone feels emotionally disaffected, with no one seeming to enjoy themselves, as instead it’s a portrayal of empty lives filled with endless drudgery.  Ichiko’s life seems content, engaged to a wealthy and successful physician, Dr. Totsuka (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), though he seems more of a father figure than a fiancé, yet she carefully balances her work with the existing relationship, maintaining the respect of her coworkers, yet she doesn’t seem to realize the extent of the affection Motoko has for her, bordering on the sexual, often inadvertently hurting her feelings.  This doesn’t seem to matter that much until an incident changes everything, as Saki is kidnapped for a week by a man she never sees, returned unharmed and apparently unfazed, but Ichiko is shocked to see news footage revealing the abductor was none other than her nephew Tatsuo (Sudo Ren).  Recalling in horror that she was the one that introduced Tatsuo to Sako, and was with him in the moments just before Saki vanished. Ichiko is consumed by guilt, even though she had nothing to do with the crime, and is ready to speak to the police until Motoko talks her out of it, not wanting her to be connected to the scandal, as it could come at a cost, like her job, and Motoko doesn’t want to lose her from the family inner circle.  However, once the media gets hold of the details it becomes a tabloid sensation, publishing explosive headlines, “TERROR NURSE: Did She Plan the Kidnapping?”  It soon turns into a media circus as frenzied reporters surround Ichiko wherever she goes, literally hounding her day and night, no longer feeling safe in her own home.  From there things go downhill, as she’s immediately fired from her job, yet Dr. Totsuka initially thinks the intended marriage can endure a public scandal.  But when Motoko talks to the press, revealing a private story told to her by Ichiko about her nephew, of course taken out of context, turning her into a sex pervert, all bets are off, as nothing can withstand that kind of avalanche of public scorn and repudiation, with news reports plastered round the clock all over the airwaves, becoming the most despised woman in the country. 

The director shows little interest in the actual crime, delving instead into the horrific consequences, becoming a manic roller-coaster ride of losing one’s grip with reality.  Changing her name and her persona, even dying her hair color green, the aftermath of the scandal leaves a bitter taste in Risa’s mouth, particularly when she was rejected by a victim support organization, as she was not the target of a crime.  Her life divided by whether it happened before or after the traumatic incident, the kind and generous qualities of Ichiko have dramatically disappeared, still fuming about what happened, with surrealistic revenge fantasies occurring in her head, shifting the audience’s perception of reality, which has nearly disappeared altogether, instead consumed with malicious intentions.  Early on we see her make an appointment with a handsome young hairdresser, Kazumichi (Ikematsu Sosuke), displaying a surprising level of intimacy that positively shocks the young man.  Not only do they have repeated sexual liaisons afterwards, but Risa curiously rents an apartment overlooking his, spying on him obsessively and monitoring his every move.  Only after a period of time do we realize he is Motoko’s boyfriend, showing a much more intense passion for Ichiko than he ever receives.  Nonetheless Risa stalks this man with a deviously understated rage, turning into a hilarious moment when her vindictive plot backfires, emailing graphic sexual evidence of their affair to Motoko, but this barely concerns Kazumichi, who’s not upset in the least, having broken up with her ages ago.  This only begins to explain how irrationally off-kilter this film gets, often making little sense, losing all contact with reality, feeling more than a little disoriented and disconnected, with Risa continually plunging into a netherworld consumed by a mad hatred, falling deeper into a labyrinthian trap of darkness that swallows her whole, losing control of her own fate.  Unable to stop this obsessional drive, Risa is destroyed by a crime she never committed, yet she’s driven to feel the brunt of the blame, perhaps having something to do with how women are perceived in Japanese society, largely subservient to their own circumstances, never in control of their own fate, viewed as significantly less than who they are.  So even if she’s driven to sort out the chaos of her past, she’ll be blamed anyway. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Let There Be Light (Nech je Svetlo)

Director Marko Škop

LET THERE BE LIGHT (Nech je Svetlo)        B+              
Slovakia  Czech Republic  (93 mi)  2019  d:  Marko Škop

A hidden treasure among the film festival circuit, this slowly developing drama about the evils that lurk within a tiny mountainous community in Slovakia reveals the price paid for complacency, recalling Michael Haneke’s epic prequel to WWI in Germany, The White Ribbon (Das Weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte) (2009), where hollow truths and unchecked atrocities lead to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  Similarly, this director also examines symptoms of communal guilt, denial, and random acts of violence, all leading to a societal breakdown, with a sense of dread pervading the overall stillness, where the authoritative structures (Church and State) throughout the region have conspired to corrupt the young through a far-right youth paramilitary organization known as The Guard (modeled after a real organization called Slovak Recruits, originated by covert Russian agents recruiting on Facebook, Pro-Russian paramilitary groups in Central Europe ...), supposedly acting “to protect their family and homeland,” yet the unchecked underlying message sent feels more like a nationalist hate campaign directed against outsiders, particularly Muslims and gays, targeting the meek and timid in a xenophobic and homophobic cleansing of their own community.  A joint Czech and Slovak production, the topic it deals with has huge implications in current political developments across Eastern Europe, revealing how sons perpetuate their fathers’ mistakes, copying their flaws with their own children, where a hateful element in society develops from bigoted and prejudiced views that soon creep into the lives of virtually everyone.  At the center of the story is Milan Deniš (Milan Ondrík), winner of the Best Actor award at the Karlova Vary Film Festival, a proud family man working construction as a guest-worker in Germany, where the wintry landscapes in the snow are unforgettable, returning home to his family just before Christmas.  What he discovers is a house filled with tension, as his wife Zuzka (Zuzana Konečná) is utterly exhausted from worry about their introverted oldest son Adam (František Beleš) who keeps to himself, speaking to no one, yet continually leaves the home unannounced at all hours, making it difficult for her to keep track of him.  Both Adam and his younger brother Igor regularly attend The Guard training sessions, viewed by the parents as little more than scout camp, but in addition to militia exercises, their minds are fed regurgitated hate propaganda that sticks with them, unquestioned, preaching uniformity in the ranks.  But the entire village is shocked at the suicide of one of the boy recruits, Peter, a friend of Adam’s who was alleged to be gay, as if that’s what drove him to it. 

Milan and his family are devoutly religious, regularly attending Sunday Mass, where nearly two-thirds of the country is Catholic, even more in the small towns, with communion provided by a young priest (Daniel Fischer), who remarks upon the suicide (driving the family out of the church), claiming it is contrary to both love of God and love of self, and that it goes against everything the church stands for, instructing parishioners to pray the family at this difficult time, yet also reminding the congregation of the paramount need to protect “us.”  Afterwards they visit Milan’s father (Lubomír Paulovic), a crusty old man who has not mellowed with age, waxing nostalgic about the Slovakian collaborationist state with Nazi rule in WWII as the only time the country had it good, “where there was order,” chastising his son openly in front of his family for being too soft, abruptly making a quick exit, remembering how this man all but ruined his own childhood, continually pushing him to be a tougher version of himself, growing up feeling inadequate, that he was never good enough.  After the humiliation in church, Milan pays a visit to Peter’s family, still in shock over what happened, revealing that Peter informed them he was bullied and raped on the day he committed suicide.  Local authorities visit the family, in particular Adam, asking about that allegation, but he denies any knowledge.  Home life, though, grows more confrontational, as Milan gets curious and asks questions about this group his son belongs to, tagging along for some group activities, which includes performing civic duty shoveling snow for the snowbound, but also witnessing how tough they ride these kids, where a militaristic drill instructor works them to near exhaustion during calisthenics.  While Adam is uncomfortable with his father’s prodding, often growing irritable and testy, his wife’s nerves are on edge as well, as Adam is sending bad signals to his younger brother with some of his outbursts, claiming a need to be vigilant protecting rural villages from the dire threat of Islamic extremists.  Meanwhile, Milan has a vast collection of rifles, handguns, and automatic weapons that he keeps in a locked case in the bedroom and enjoys cleaning them regularly, which upsets his wife even more, especially since their sex life has been inadequate since his return, where the whole question of masculinity comes into question in this film, particularly in male-dominated societies with a dominant history of patriarchal rule. 

Without using a musical score, the film relies upon a well-executed storyline and an unflinching realism to hold the viewer’s attention, far more complex under the surface where underlying details slowly accrue, creating a more expansive view of the town.  Peter’s parents visit to question Adam about what happened, but the only thing he reveals for certain is that Peter was not a homosexual. Shortly afterwards, Adam runs away, taking one of his father’s guns with him, as Milan’s inflamed anger reaches epic proportions, discovering his son is hiding with the local priest, who offers a stern lecture prohibiting any harm done in the House of God, first of all returning the gun, then allowing him to speak with his son once his anger subsides.  As it turns out, the group is singling him out as Peter’s friend, making similar accusations, alleging he is weak, where they’re starting to pick on him, claiming he needed the gun to defend himself.  Shortly afterwards a rock is thrown through their window, while members of The Guard appear to be spying on them and following them wherever they go, resembling a terror campaign, as an underlying fear follows them wherever they go.  So Milan takes matters into his own hands, confronting one of the leaders of The Guard, pulling his own gun on him, threatening to use it if anything happens to his son, probably not a wise move, as this only paints a target on his back for the future.  Even at church, fellow members shun them, refusing to shake hands as is customary in their church services.  Little by little Adam is more forthcoming, revealing how the group turned on Peter, violating him sexually, revealing the graphic details to his father, feeling guilty over what happened.  At Adam’s urging, they speak with the priest, believing he has good intentions, only to discover that “protecting the homeland” has reached into the church orthodoxy, that the actions of The Guard are actually guided and supported by the church, giving them a public platform in the sermons, giving rise to the term clerofascism, following in the footsteps of Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest during the war who agreed to Jewish deportations to Auschwitz, executed for treason and other war crimes after the war, but still a hero to the far-right, playing into the rural conservatism of the region.  When it finally reaches a breaking point, with all other avenues exhausted, it’s Adam that chooses to reveal what he knows to the police, with his father’s support, both seen waiting together before offering testimony.  But first, as if to send their own message, they reveal the exact penalties for perjury, subject to fines and lengthy terms of imprisonment.  But the real kicker, one of the police officers comes in just to say hello, who happens to be the primary leader of The Guard, which says it all.  There is no separation of Church and State in Eastern Europe, as in this case they are one and the same, both adhering to the same principles.  What’s particularly chilling about this film is just how understated it all is, where there’s no overreach, with occasional doses of humor, beautifully establishing the intricasies of a family dynamic, revealing just how isolated and shunned individuals and their families can be, cleverly directing the poisonous rhetoric to unsuspecting children, casting a dark cloud over the community, leaving a sense of hopelessness, where citizens have little recourse.