Home Cinema

by Leonard G. Heldreth

The films this month come from three different countries and illustrate dramatically how world cinema differs from that of the English-speaking world.

Under the Shadow

Iranian director Babak Anvari sets his debut film, Under the Shadow, in Tehran, the city in which he was born. The time is 1988, the final year of the war between Iran and Iraq, and bombs and missiles are falling on the city. In the opening scene Shideh (Narges Rashidi) meets with a university official about resuming her studies to be a doctor. She was expelled several years before because of leftist political activity, spent time raising her daughter while her husband got his medical education, and now wants to finish her degree. The official, sucking on some candy and glancing casually out the window to where a bomb explodes on the horizon, tells her emphatically no, and warns her to give up trying and leave his office. Upset but not surprised, she goes home.

Shideh lives in a comfortable but sparse apartment with her husband Iraj (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). A modern woman full of anger over the way she has been treated by the university and determined to maintain her independence, she sometimes overreacts. When her husband receives his yearly conscription and is ordered to the war front to treat wounded soldiers, she refuses to leave the city with Dorsa or to stay with Iraj’s parents in the country away from the bombs. Assuring him that his parents really don’t want her there and that she will be fine in the city, she sends him off to the war. To work off her anger and frustration, she brings out her VCR and Jane Fonda workout tapes (both illegal in Iran) and exercises until she feels better. The audience now knows one of the shadows referred to in the title: the social and psychological pressures that independent women feel under the strictures of Sharia law.

This factor is emphasized in the film when one night she runs out of the apartment carrying her daughter to escape an intruder; she is stopped by the religious police who, instead of helping her, lecture her on being outside without wearing a head covering, take her into custody, and warn her she could be whipped.

The war, of course, is another shadow which the family has been living under for eight years. Sirens blare, and the family runs to a make-shift bomb shelter in the basement, sometimes several times a day. An unexploded rocket pierces the roof of the apartment building and has to be gingerly removed by a crane, but the ceiling of Shideh’s apartment now has cracks that seem to flex and become larger. To minimize the damage to the ceiling, she tapes over the cracks with the same sealing tape she uses to put huge X’s on the windows to minimize flying glass if they shatter.

After the missile literally and figuratively opens the apartment to the chaos of the outside world, a third shadow now appears and dominates the film: a djinn, a demon from Islamic mythology that travels the winds in times of chaos. Dorsa, the daughter, finds out about these demons from Mehdi, a mute boy from the country who lost both parents to a bomb and now lives with relatives in the apartment building. Dorsa claims to see them, but Shideh, with her scientific training, ridicules the creatures, even though Dorsa’s doll, Kimia, is missing and a book given to Shideh by her mother disappears also.

Following the missile incident, everyone in the apartment house leaves for the country, but Dorsa refuses to leave until the doll is found, and Shideh gives in. Then she begins to see creatures in the mirror and is attacked by something that seems to be a huge billowing head scarf (an image that nicely ties the political and supernatural threats together). When Shideh and Dorsa find the doll and flee in Shideh’s car, the only question is whether they have escaped the djinn, for two objects at the end of the film convey a distinct ambiguity.

Under the Shadow was clearly influenced by the films of Polanski (Anvari acknowledged as much) and has themes of mother-daughter interaction similar to the recent Australian horror film, The Babadook. The unexploded missile also brings to mind the unexploded bomb in the orphanage courtyard of Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish civil war ghost film, The Devil’s Backbone. Anvari is of the “less-is-better” school of horror, and the manifestations of the djinn are always just glimpsed or, in its major appearance, wrapped in cloth. The soundtrack mixes the sounds of the war with the noises in the apartment house to convey a creeping crescendo of danger. The acting is excellent throughout, and the photography captures the claustrophobia of the apartment and Shideh’s political confinement. The result is a genuinely frightening film whose political overtones are clearly spelled out but never overwhelm the growing sense of supernatural fear. In Farsi with English subtitles.

In Order of Disappearance

Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland has fashioned a crime and revenge drama with black comedy in the whitest of settings, the snowy far north of Norway. Snowplow operator Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgard), who is Swedish, has just won the “Citizen of the Year” award from the small community that he serves (the Norwegian title is “The Prize Idiot”). Driving his enormous yellow plow that throws great plumes of snow, he steadily and methodically keeps the community of Tyos and the nearby international airport open to the outside world.

Unfortunately, the outside world intrudes in the form of drug runners who use the airport as a drop off point. Dickman’s son Ingvar (Aron Eskeland), who handles baggage at the airport, is accidentally involved in a gangland skirmish and is injected with drugs to make it appear that he died of an overdose. Nils knows his son didn’t use drugs but can’t convince the police to investigate, so he becomes a one-man attack force to find his son’s killers. Unlike the protagonists of many such films, he has no special training or skills except his relentless desire to work his way up the drug hierarchy to find the local boss who killed his son. And he does.

Applying brute force and cunning, he systematically takes out the local drug dealers, wrapping the dead bodies in chicken wire and dropping them over a waterfall where they will stay submerged until  the fish have eliminated the bodies. The local drug kingpin, known as the Count (Pål Sverre Hagen), is a handsome but childish psychopath, who inherited the drug trade, and the pastry business that serves as a front for it, from his father. A ponytail-wearing militant vegan who argues with his wife over whether their son should be allowed to eat Froot Loops, the Count brings a Coen Brothers dark humor to the film and maybe a touch of Tarantino and Fargo. As Nils removes one drug mobster after another, a little tombstone pops up on the screen for a moment with the victim’s name and life dates on it, adding a macabre touch to the body count. During the final shootout, the tombstones can hardly keep up!

The Count thinks that a rival gang of Serbians (he calls them Albanians), with whom he has split the drug territory, are killing his men and trying to take over, so he sends them a message in the form of the dead body of the rival leader’s son. This Serbian drug lord, played by the great German actor Bruno Ganz, who is known only as Papa, responds by setting out to kill the Count’s young son, figuring an eye for an eye is the only way to even the score. (The father-son relationship plays out in several variations in the film.)  In the meantime, as the mobs fight each other, Nils continues his attacks, seemingly impervious to any suspicion because everyone knows that the citizen of the year, the old snowplow driver, could never be a murderer. Even Nils’ brother, an ex-hitman, asks him, “When did you become Dirty Harry?”

Despite the slaughter and the climbing body count, the film keeps throwing in offbeat humor. One of the mobsters takes up skiing with a glider, two of the mobsters are gay lovers, and there’s always the question of when the director will let that big yellow plow do some damage—wait until the very end for a final dark joke. The dialogue, even in subtitles, is funny.

The Serbian mobsters have decided that, if they do get caught, being in a Norwegian prison would be like a vacation; a kidnapped boy asks his captor about Stockholm syndrome; and the confused Count tells his wife, in one of their many arguments, “You think you know me! But you don’t fool me, with your f–ing hipster mittens!”  Some of the mobsters have movie-connected names such as Wingman (Top Gun) and Bullitt, and the entire film has Liam Neeson echoes of Taken. In Order of Disappearance is a very dark comedy about revenge, and anyone who enjoys the Coen brothers, Tarantino, or Fargo will appreciate it. In Norwegian, Danish, Serbian and English with English subtitles.

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook, the director of The Handmaiden, is Korea’s most famous director. His “vengeance” trilogy–Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance (all reviewed in these pages)–have won multiple prizes, and his vampire film, Thirst, is highly regarded, as is his only film in English, Stoker, although it has little to do with the author of Dracula. His current film, The Handmaiden or Agassi (young lady), which is generally considered to be his best, earned him his third Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival. Curiously, the English title refers to one of the two major women in the film, while the French title, Mademoiselle refers to the other, and each viewer will have to decide which title gives the more accurate picture of the film’s emphasis.

The film is based on Welsh author Sarah Waters’ bestseller, Fingersmith, a Victorian story which was short-listed for England’s Orange and Man Booker prizes. The title refers to a professional pickpocket, which one of the women has trained to be, and Dickens’ novels, especially Oliver Twist, clearly influenced both Waters and Park. Like the novel, the movie has three parts, and each part, with its twists and turns, forces the reader or viewer to re-evaluate what has gone before. Other than moving the action to Korea, Park apparently follows the novel fairly closely until part three, although it’s difficult to tell how much he veers away there, because the version released in the United States is 20 minutes shorter than the director’s version, and part three seems to be where the cuts were made.

The film is visually outstanding with sumptuous photography, sets and costumes (long a trademark of Park’s films). It was not submitted for a rating (possibly because it would have received an X), and has nude lesbian sex scenes as well as a scene of graphic violence near the end (again, a Park trademark, although it occurs less in this film than in the vengeance trilogy).

Set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the film opens in a den of thieves where a major criminal known as the Count is recruiting a woman to serve as a handmaiden to a wealthy Korean heiress. The Count, of course is a fake; he claims to be Japanese although he was raised by a Korean fisherman. He needs help to seduce his prey away from her uncle and steal her money; he offers his helper a share of the wealth.

The woman he chooses is named  Sookee or Tamako (Kim Tae-ri), and after a tearful departure from her friends, she travels to a mansion owned by the book-collector uncle (Lee Yong-nyeo) of the woman she is to serve. The mansion has two parts–one patterned after the decorative luxury of Victorian England and one after the elegant symmetry of Imperial Japan. Sookee is given a small closet room near the bedroom of her mistress, the Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), so that she can be available whenever the lady cries out in her sleep, which she does the first night.

Sookee is quite taken with her beautiful mistress, and although she works at helping the Count advance his case, she is clearly becoming infatuated, and her emotions are returned. One quite erotic but chaste scene involves Sookee using a thimble to reach inside Hideko’s mouth and file down the sharp edge of a tooth. Other scenes are not quite so chaste. Nonetheless, the Count persuades Hideko and Sookee to leave with him while the uncle is away buying books. The plan the Count shares with Sookee is for him to marry Hideko, take her money, and then have her committed to a lunatic asylum. All does not work out as planned. But that’s not quite true; whether it works or not depends upon which plan is being followed, and to catch up on all the plans, it’s necessary to go to Part Two, where the same events, even the sex scenes, are offered from a different perspective with different implications. As one of the characters observes, “Even listening to the same story, people imagine different things.”

Part Three picks up the story with the uncle’s return and follows the main characters as they try to escape—the Count to get away with the money and the women to escape with enough collateral to sustain their planned life together. Hideko is now masquerading as a man, and the scene in which she removes her mustache and male clothing is a metaphor for the slow removal of all the layers of deceit explored in the earlier parts of the film.

Certain scenes stand out. Hideko’s aunt hung herself from a flowering tree in the garden, and the niece sometimes thinks she sees her aunt still hanging there. This vision anticipates a later scene in which Hideko almost hangs herself from the same tree. One of the more perverse scenes occurs when the uncle, drumming up business for his rare erotic book trade, invites a number of men in formal clothing to listen to Hideko read aloud, dressed in full geisha regalia and makeup. She reads explicit erotica, pausing occasionally to dab daintily at the sweat on her face, while the rapt men sit transfixed, perspiring, their legs tightly together.

The reading concludes with Hideko’s interaction with a mannequin. It’s hard to determine whether Park is merely being prurient, whether he is showing how Hideko’s uncle degraded her (did her aunt commit suicide because she couldn’t continue to do this?), or whether he’s laughing at the men completely caught up in their erotic fantasies. As with most scenes in this film, more than one interpretation is likely.

Little has been said about the outstanding acting or about the beauty of the setting and costumes; nothing has been said about the uncle’s revenge (this is a director whose most famous films deal with revenge),  or about the giant thing in the mansion’s basement.

Anyone who wants to know more will have to watch this strange, beautiful, constantly surprising film from one of the world’s great directors. Hitchcock would have admired this film. In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles.

Editor’s note: All films reviewed are available as DVDs from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can often be found at marquettemonthly.org.

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