Saturday 5 November 2022

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

Park Chan-wook's brutal Oldboy turns 20 next year, and for this special anniversary the film will be re-released in cinemas.  Nearly two decades ago, the Raindance Film Festival hosted the film's UK premiere and now, as then, the festival proves to be ahead of the curve by showing the film on the big screen just before its wider release rolls around.  A superb 4K restoration of Oldboy has been available on home video for some time but, given the film's legion of fans, this is unlikely to impact on the ability of a theatrical re-release to do decent business.  The Mavericks strand at this year's Raindance sees Park's film screen alongside three other titles from the nineties and noughties that received their UK premieres at the festival: Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick's The Blair Witch Project, and Christopher Nolan's Memento.  Of this trio, it is Memento that has the strongest thematic connection to Oldboy; both of these revenge films feature a desperate protagonist who's largely in the dark as to the origin of his great misfortune.  

While Nolan's jaw-dropping film may be the better of the two, Oldboy is still a terrific ride, and one that is most definitely not for the squeamish.  Its outing at this year's Raindance coincides with the general release of Park's new film Decision to Leave, a typically immaculate yet strangely unsatisfying work that wowed the festival circuit, with Park scooping the Best Director Award at the most recent edition of Cannes.  Oldboy is the middle instalment in Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, which began with 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and concluded with 2005's Lady Vengeance.  While all three films received great acclaim, Oldboy remains the highest-profile entry in this gruelling triptych and, a decade on from its initial release, the film's considerable success led to a poorly received English-language remake directed by Spike Lee. 

It is quite difficult to say much about Oldboy's story without venturing into spoiler territory, but the action centres on Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a father, husband and businessman who is suddenly abducted while drunk; Dae-su is then taken to a private prison where he is held without explanation for 15 years.  During his incarceration, Dae-su learns that his wife has been killed and that he is being framed for her murder.  Upon his sudden, mysterious release from the facility, he attempts to find his daughter, but learns that she has been adopted by a family in Sweden; Dae-su then switches his attention to tracking down those responsible for his imprisonment.  While stopping off at a sushi bar to consume a live octopus, Dae-su meets young chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), and the two form a close bond.  Dae-su's dogged enquiries eventually lead him to powerful businessman Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), who may know a thing or two about the terrible fate that has befallen our protagonist.

Oldboy's brilliance is partly due to the way in which it puts both its central character and the viewer in the same position, à la Memento, with the audience and Dae-su in sync with each other as the grim revelations start to pile up.  Dae-su's quest for vengeance is a particularly horrifying one, and thankfully Park scatters a few crumbs of absurd humour to ensure that viewers make it through what is a very intense experience, the pinnacle of which takes the form of a late face-off between Dae-su and his nemesis Woo-jin; it's a bravura moment, and one of the finest sequences in Park Chan-wook's filmography.  While much has rightly been made of Choi's incredible performance in Oldboy, Yoo is equally superb in the less showy role of Woo-jin, and it's a pity that his excellent contribution here is often overlooked, with discussions on the film frequently revolving around any combination of Choi, Park and the very unfortunate octopus.  Over the past 20 years, Park Chan-wook has made some fine films—2013's Stoker is particularly impressive—but he has never bettered the black-hearted, mesmerising Oldboy.

Darren Arnold

Thursday 3 November 2022

Falcon Lake (Charlotte Le Bon, 2022)

For the past decade, we've been used to seeing Charlotte Le Bon's fine performances in the likes of The Walk and Iris, but with Falcon Lake the Québécoise steps behind the camera for her first feature as director.  Falcon Lake, which is set and filmed in Le Bon's native province, is perhaps the finest directorial debut in recent memory, and it's a highly assured piece of filmmaking that both stands as one of 2022's cinematic highlights and heralds the arrival of an exciting new voice in cinema; if there's a better film among the contemporary titles on offer at this year's Raindance Film Festival, I'd love to know about it.  Falcon Lake plays at the festival tomorrow (when it is showing at the Genesis cinema), with the screening followed by a Q&A session with Le Bon; the film will also be available online from November 5 to November 12 as one of more than a dozen Raindance selections hosted by digital platform Bohemia Euphoria.    

As with Julianna Notten's Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls—another Canadian film from this year's Raindance—Falcon Lake is a coming-of-age story in which one of its protagonists romantically pursues another.  The superficial similarities are striking, but scratch the surface of Le Bon's film and you'll see just how radically different it is from the breezy, cheerful Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls.  Which is not to say that Falcon Lake is without humour—keep in mind it is a film centring on teens, who almost always come bundled with a fair dose of maladroitness—but it is above all else a haunting, melancholic work, one that wrings every drop of atmosphere from its stunning Laurentian locations.  Charlotte Le Bon's decision to shoot on film proves to be something of a masterstroke, with the 16mm stock adding a tactile quality to the many beautifully composed shots of the lake of the title, the shores of which are where 13-year-old Bastien (Joseph Engel) and 16-year-old Chloé (Sara Montpetit) spend the summer with their respective families. 

It isn't long before the somewhat reticent Bastien develops an attraction towards the older girl, with whom he has to share a room in the lakeside cabin inhabited by both families.  For the many adults who may not consider the teens' age gap to be considerable—especially when factoring in Bastien's insistence that he's nearly 14—it may be worth trying to recall the huge difference just a year can make when you're attempting to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.  Unsurprisingly, it is the confident Chloé who controls the narrative of the relationship, although she voices concerns that she'll never find her place in the world; that said, she seems quite content to diverge from her peers in her firm belief that Falcon Lake is haunted by the ghost of a drowned child.  Chloé holds a distinct advantage over Bastien—and another potential suitor she encounters—in that she is bilingual; Chloé's linguistic edge is deftly illustrated in a scene in which she is briefly absent, and the two boys vying for her affections are left to a very awkward exchange in which neither can understand much of the other's language.    

In an impressive sleight of hand from Le Bon, it is this seemingly inconsequential moment that leads to a serious rift between Chloé and Bastien as their holiday nears its end.  What follows is both unexpected and quite moving, with Le Bon making some brave choices as her film plays out to its sombre conclusion.  Perhaps surprisingly, Le Bon herself doesn't make an appearance in Falcon Lake—instead opting to concentrate on her directorial duties—but she coaxes tremendous performances from her young leads, especially Montpetit, who drew much praise for her turn as the title character in last year's adaptation of Louis Hémon's Maria Chapdelaine.  It is easy to picture Le Bon in the part of Bastien's mother, a role played by the always-watchable Monia Chokri, who herself moved into directing features with 2019's A Brother's Love.  While Chokri's movie was a promising first film with a few rough edges, Falcon Lake is very much the finished article, its brilliance belying Charlotte Le Bon's directorial inexperience.

Darren Arnold

Images: Tandem Films

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls (Julianna Notten, 2022)

The 30th Raindance Film Festival is currently underway in London, and there's a terrific programme in place for this milestone edition.  Festival strands include Debut, Homegrown, Screamdance, An Immigrant's Tale and Sonica, plus there are special screenings of a quartet of modern classics—Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Christopher Nolan's Memento, and Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick's The Blair Witch Project—each of which received its UK premiere at Raindance.  In addition to the many in-person Raindance screenings taking place across four London venues (the Genesis, Rio, Curzon Soho and Garden cinemas), there's a very decent online festival selection hosted by streaming service Bohemia Euphoria, who are offering both rentals of individual titles and a great-value festival pass (which includes every Raindance title on the platform).  

One of the titles included in the online bundle is Julianna Notten's thoroughly engaging feature debut Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls, which is based on Notten's 2018 short of the same name.  A coming-of-age tale revolving around three girls who are nearing the end of middle school, Notten's film boasts both fine production values and a trio of winning performances from its young leads.  What's especially refreshing about Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls is that at no point does its title character struggle with their sexuality; the confident Erin, played by newcomer Elliot Stocking, is clearly very comfortable with herself as she makes her way through the not-always-pleasant experience that is school.  While Erin faces several challenges over the course of the film, none of them involve her sexual identity.  Erin spends a lot of time with her best friend Liz (Jesyca Gu), a budding track star who has secured a place at an elite school specialising in athletics, and the pair while away their days discussing comic books and sniping about their classmates. 

Erin and Liz's situation, like much of Notten's film, feels cosy and familiar, but things start to change when new student Sydni (Rosali Annikie) joins their class.  The effortlessly cool and somewhat inscrutable Sydni, who generates much interest around the school on the basis that she was once a child star, soon catches the eye of Erin, who devises a plan to win the heart of the new girl—hence the film's title.  Whether her strategy is successful is another question entirely, as Erin's guide is one that has been fashioned primarily for its creator's own use, and she appears to have no prior experience of implementing the various steps involved.  As you might expect, Erin's romantic efforts leave less time in her life for Liz, and a schism appears between the two—although it should be pointed out that the cracks in the friendship were beginning to show as early as the moment when it was established that the girls would be attending different high schools (Erin has no interest in, nor any chance of, gaining entry to the private school for which Liz is headed).  

Yet despite the increasing tension between Liz and Erin, the latter remains dogged in her pursuit of Sydni, who appears ambivalent regarding the lavish attention she's receiving from her new admirer; that said, she does agree to accompany Erin to the upcoming school dance.  The story from this point on is fairly predictable, but that doesn't detract from what is a warm, humorous and charming slice of entertainment.  Of the three main actors, it is Gu who delivers the best performance as Liz, the loyal friend prone to moments of introspection that belie her wittily sarcastic demeanour.  But both Stocking and Annikie are very good, too, with their appealing performances a good fit for the overall sensibility of Notten's fine movie.  Whether Erin's Guide to Kissing Girls enjoys much play beyond the festival circuit is something that remains to be seen, but this good-natured and highly watchable film is certainly a very welcome addition to the coming-of-age canon.

Darren Arnold

Images: FilmFreeway