Just catching up on quick reviews of movies watched for my resolution to watch 50 movies from 50 different countries (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post.) At this point, I’m at 19 movies, but I’ve only posted about the first five, so I’m still catching up.
Japan – High and Low – One of Akira Kurosawa’s best films, this is an early police procedural that might as well be the textbook for more modern examples (even if a surprising number of these imitations screw up the details). It’s almost like three movies in one. First, there’s a tale of corporate intrigue, with a rich businessman seeking to take over a shoe company from greedy cheapskates that want to run it into the ground. Second, there’s a kidnapping that’s intended to target the businessman’s son, but mistakenly nabs the man’s driver’s son (the two children were out playing, and the kidnappers got confused). And third, the police procedural as the inspectors assigned to the case attempt to hunt down the perpetrators.
Toshiro Mifune plays the businessman, and he’s obviously the big name in the cast (and a famous collaborator with Kurosawa), but the film really belongs to the police officers, especially Tatsuya Nakadai and Kenjiro Ishiyama. All put in great performances, and the script does an excellent job laying out the stakes, interweaving the various elements, and dropping twists and turns in for flavor. The kidnapping plot is simple but cleverly conceived, and the kidnappers are able to keep the ball rolling even when it’s revealed that they have the wrong kid. The subsequent investigation is also the sort of thing we’ve seen many times before, but that’s to be expected for an early example of the genre; it’s methodical and detailed and everyone involved displays admirable competence, such that it’s never boring, even if you might have some inkling as to where it’s headed. The ultimate motivation does perhaps leave a bit to be desired, but it also fits well with the overall themes of the film.
Kurosawa fully commands the screen with visuals that echo the story. For instance, the businessman lives in a large home at the top of a hill, as if he thinks he’s better than the rabble below him, and the story leverages that fact in several ways. It’s top notch stuff and highly recommended. Watched on HBO Max (but there’s a handsome Criterion disc out there that I may need to invest in during the next sale). ****
South Korea – Decision to Leave – I watched this very early on this year because I was trying to catch up on 2022 releases. This movie wound up making my honorable mentions for the year, and on another day, could very well have made the top 10. As such, I’ve already written a short blurb about this one:
Park Chan Wook takes bits and pieces from Basic Instinct and Vertigo, tosses them in a blender with Korean culture, and you wind up with this pulpy detective story featuring some bittersweet romance and a confounding ending that will leave you reeling. A bit too long with a flashback structure that doesn’t always work (though it’s in line with his previous work), this nonetheless manages to keep things intriguing enough throughout the runtime and it’s visually impressive as well.
I don’t have much to add, except to say that the film has aged well in my head, though I’d probably still rank it on the bottom half of the top 10 or as an honorable mention. Watched on Mubi (though it looks like it’s now available to rent elsewhere) ***
Taiwan – Incantation – Found Footage flick about a mother trying to protect her child from a curse of some kind. Pretty standard and only modestly successful attempts to address the “Why are they still filming?” issue endemic to found footage movies, but it’s at least not super-shaky. The narrative does include lengthy flashback sequences that provide depth to the current day story, but the “rules” of the curse are left annoyingly vague. That said, they do manage to craft several spooky setpieces, a few solid scares, and even work a little body horror into the mix. Clocking in at 111 minutes, it’s a little too long for the story it’s trying to tell, which tends to remind you of lots of other movies. It’s not especially original, but it is well crafted and spooky enough if you’re in the mood for some found footage. Watched on Netflix. **1/2
Vietnam – Furies – Veronica Ngo is a Vietnamese actress who made a name for herself in various action flicks and started to dip her toes into the Hollywood waters with bit parts in The Last Jedi, Da 5 Bloods, and The Old Guard. I have to wonder if the pandemic put the brakes on that progression, but I think there’s a chance she could breakout at some point.
Here, she stars and also directs a pretty standard girl-power actioner about a young woman taken in by a group of misfits training to take on the local sex trafficking gang. Said gang is brutal, so you’re immediately onboard with the vengeance being dealt out here (and devastated when the inevitable tragedy strikes our heroines), and there are several sturdy action sequences sprinkled throughout the film.
However, the relationship between the girls is a little forced and cringe at times, and there is one action sequence that is laughably bad. Look, I get that this is a low budget flick and vehicle stunts are expensive, but that motorcycle chase is just awful. I guess there’s something to be said for trying to find a creative low-fi solution to the issue, but it didn’t really play out well. Ultimately, this is a decent action programmer that doesn’t really stand out from the pack, except perhaps for the female-led cast. I’m still looking forward to see Veronica Ngo’s career progress though, and I hope she gets bigger budgets to work with in the future too. Watched on Netflix. **1/2
I’ll leave it there for now. I’m still 10 movies behind, but we’ll be able to catch up soon enough…