Roaring Currents (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : He still has 12 ships for his last stand…

myeongnyang03 “It may be proper to compare me with Nelson, but not with Korea’s Yi Sun-sin, for he has no equal.”

- Tōgō Heihachirō(1848-1943), Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy

One particular behavior of mine during the screening of South Korean film “Roaring Currents” can tell you a lot about my ambivalent reaction toward this movie. Around 40 minutes after it started, I checked the time because I felt bored by its many problems. Around the time when its second act began, I checked the time again to see that there was still an hour to pass. When its climax was almost over, I checked the time for the third time, and I was rather surprised to see that the time went faster than expected during this part.

As a period drama film about one of the most remarkable naval battles during the Japanese Invasion of Korea, a.k.a the Imjin War(1592-1598), the movie did not particularly enlighten me much on that famous battle about which I heard many times during my history classes, but it delivers its climax as promised, serving us with a long but spectacular naval battle sequence worthy of ticket price. This sequence is well-made indeed and the cast and filmmakers behind the movie deserve praises for their efforts, but I also noticed its deficiency in storytelling and characterization, and I could not help but think that it could have prepared itself better before delivering its rousing climax.

It is 1597, and the second invasion of the Japanese Army begins with the devastating news for the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. Like it was at the beginning of the first invasion in 1592, the country faces another serious threat as the Japanese forces are ready to occupy most of the country again, and the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Chilchonryang, in which the whole Korean naval fleet was nearly destroyed as a consequence, makes the situation all the more hopeless. It seems that there is almost no chance to stop the Japanese navy, and that means Japan can have a far more chance to win the war than ever.

myeongnyang06 When Yi Sun-sin(Choi Min-sik), a legendary Korean admiral who made a dramatic turning point for his country through his four campaigns in 1592 but was unfairly mistreated by his king and others despite the long, uninterrupted line of victories he achieved during this war, is back in his commander position, he clearly sees an undeniable disadvantage in the grave situation of him and his men. With a little time available to him, he has tried hard to assemble his army and ships for the upcoming battle with the Japanese navy, but all he can get are a small band of army and the 12 warships which survived from the Battle of Chilchonryang, and there is even not much support from his king, who orders to him to retreat and then join the ground forces instead.

But Admiral Yi is determined to stop the Japanese forces by any means necessary(he responded to King Seonjo in his famous letter: “I still have twelve warships under my command and I am still alive.”), and the first half of the movie focuses on how he and others under his command prepare for the battle to come. He gets his warships repaired while sending out a scout for reconnaissance mission. He applies strict martial rules for tightening his generals and soldiers and reminding them that they have no choice but to fight along with him(His motto: “Those willing to die will live, and those willing to live will die.”). Above all, he spots an ideal location for the battle; Myeongnyang Strait is a rough, precarious strait with wild tides and whirlpools, but this place can be a huge advantage for his small naval army – if his highly risky strategy works.

Meanwhile, we also see what is going on the other side. Although they are alarmed to learn that their arch-nemesis is now back in action, most of the Japanese admirals are confident that they will finally defeat Admiral Yi in this time, and Kurushima Michifusa(Ryoo Seung-ryong) is particularly eager for that due to his personal matter with Admiral Yi. Right from his first pompously sullen appearance, the movie pulls out all the stops to show this aggressive general as a formidable badass dude, and some of Japanese generals are understandably not that pleased to be with him, like some of Korean generals are not so happy with Admiral Yi.

myeongnyang02 I and most of other Korean audiences knew well the outcome of the Battle of Myeongnyang because it has been told and depicted many times through books, documentaries, and TV dramas for years, but the movie skillfully handles its long battle sequence from the beginning to the end without becoming dragged and tedious, and some of its high points are good enough to grip the audiences’ attention. While I must point out that there several fictional elements here and there for generating more tension and excitement, its big overall picture of the overwhelming circumstance Admiral Yi had to face is not changed much. At one certain point, only one warship is available to him, and he and his ship advance alone to the approaching Japanese fleet of more than 100 ships(believe or not, that really happened according to the history records).

But the movie does not impress me enough in case of story and characters. Choi Min-sik seems to be limited by his character’s larger-than-life image, and his performance mainly consists of looking serious or concerned or commanding on the screen. This is not a bad performance because that is exactly required to him, but, as a seasoned moviegoer, I have seen many, many military leader characters packed with loyalty, dignity, and authorities in other movies before, and Choi looks rather less distinctive compared to his other memorable performances.

On the opposite, Ryoo Seung-ryong, who incidentally played a steely Chinese general in the director/writer Kim Han-min’s another period drama action movie “War of the Arrows”(2011), is more wasted while just looking grim and brooding during most of his scenes, and many of the other actors in the movie are stuck in the flat, rudimentary supporting roles. Some of the key supporting characters are introduced with subtitles to show their names and positions, but I must confess that I did not distinguish one from another well, so it is confusing to watch at times as the movie shuffles between several groups in the battle during its climax sequence. I have no idea on how a dramatic last-minute rescue job during that sequence can be possible, and I think the last scene in the movie is an unnecessary footnote which only exists for finishing the movie with a bang before the end credits.

myeongnyang04 The best performance in the movie is probably from Myeongnyang strait. Though it is apparently depicted with CGI like many warships in the movie, the shots of its wild tides and the ominous roaring sound generated from them certainly make a big impression before and during the battle, and there is a creepy scene in which Admiral Yi is disturbed by its roaring sounds during his sleep and then dreams of the mournful ghosts of his men who died in the Battle of Chilchonryang.

I have a little too much reservation for recommending this film to you, but, in spite of the problems including its unfocused narrative and clumsy handling of numerous characters during its first half, it did its jobs as a war movie, and you may get some basic knowledge about its historical hero if you are not very familiar with a man who did so much even while cornered by his own country as well his enemy. In his book “The Influence of the Sea on The Political History of Japan” Historian George Alexander Ballard(1862-1948), an admiral of the British Royal Navy, wrote, “It is always difficult for Englishmen to admit that [Horatio] Nelson ever had an equal in his profession, but if any man is entitled to be so regarded, it should be this great naval commander of Asiatic race who never knew defeat and died in the presence of the enemy.” Not many admirals can receive such a high praise like that, you know.



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Geese, Cats, and Kittens (2014/07/28)

We have new kittens in the campus…
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How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Here comes more dragons

howtotrainyourdragon01“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a sequel with more story, more characters, and more dragons which will certainly satisfy its young target audiences. Although its exhilarating charm is occasionally weighted down by the more serious aspect of its standard plot while the story subsequently feels dragged sometimes, this animation feature film has enough visual goodies to entertain our eyes, and it also pulls out genuine moments of emotions from its main characters.

Four years have passed since the first big adventure of a young Viking named Hiccup(voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon friend Toothless, a.k.a. Night Fury, in the previous film, and Berk, Hiccup’s island hometown decorated with crags, has been changed quite a lot thanks to the co-existence of Vikings and dragons. Dragons, who were once Vikings’ enemies to kill, are now happily living with Vikings, and the opening scene shows an exciting match in which young Vikings are riding dragons boldly across the sky while tossing or snatching those poor sheep for making a score(Don’t worry, folks. No sheep is harmed in this scene).

Because Hiccup is no longer that nerdy boy he once was, his father Stoick(voiced by Gerard Butler), who has been Berk’s mighty and respected chief for years, decides that it is the time for Hiccup to prepare himself for succeeding him as the next leader, but our reluctant young hero is more interested in exploring the world beyond Berk with Toothless. Like the previous film, “How to Train Your Dragon” soars with awe and excitement when it is on flying mode, and we get a fun, thrilling sequence when Hiccup tries his own flying for a while using his new device.

And then he happens to come upon a surprise discovery which becomes a serious matter for not only him but also others in Berk. Through a bunch of trappers led by Eret(voiced by Kit Harrington), Hiccup learns about Drago(voiced by Djimon Hounsou), a fearsome villain who has assembled captured dragons as his army. Stoick, who once met this dangerous guy a long time ago under a very unpleasant situation, immediately prepares for battle, but Hiccup has a different thought about resolving this situation, so he goes out to search for Drago in spite of his father’s order.

howtotrainyourdragon03 But he comes across another surprise instead. He meets a mysterious figure who has been protecting dragons from Drago and his men, and this human protector turns out to be none other than Hiccup’s mother Valka(voiced by Cate Blanchett), who was thought to be lost when Hiccup was very young. Just like her son, she also recognized that dragons were not merely savage beasts, and, after many years of her life with dragons a la Jane Goodall, she is willing to show her son many unknown things about dragons, including a wondrous dragon shelter hidden inside a giant icy sculpture whose outer appearance somehow reminded me of the Fortress of Solitude in “Superman”(1978).

The middle act of the story feels meandering as it goes back and forth between its two main storylines, but it instead provides enough time and space for the most touching part in the film. When Stoick finds that his wife is alive well, it leads to a slow but warm interaction between them, and they eventually confirm to each other that their mutual feeling has remained same as before even after long years of their separation.

Of course, its third act arrives with big battle scenes as demanded when Drago is about to attack the dragon shelter as well as Berk, and this is a less interesting part compared to others. Its flying action scenes are as well-done as required with a style reminiscent of classic dogfights, but it is no more than a bigger version of what we saw from the previous film, and I duly report to you that there is not just one big dragon but two humongous dragons who have two big horns on their jaw along with many spikes on their body.

howtotrainyourdragon04 None the less, the movie still works well thanks to its good animation, its overall spirited mood, and its endearing characters. Toothless, who sometimes looks like cat or dog in its amusing behaviors, is a lovable animation creature, and the movie stays true to the enduring relationship between Hiccup and Toothless even at its weakest point. The returning supporting characters also bring considerable humor and energy to the film; Astrid(voiced by America Ferrara), Hiccup’s plucky girlfriend, is feisty as usual while actively functioning as a substantial part of the story, and I found myself amused again by Gobber(voiced by Craig Ferguson), Stoick’s good-natured sidekick who is like a jolly uncle to Hiccup. The score by John Powell, who was Oscar-nominated for his superlative work in the previous film, is effective along with the flying sequences and other action scenes in the film; I wonder again why it utilizes Celtic music style for an animation movie about Vikings, but I guess that comes with the territory when all those beefy, hairy Vikings speak English with thick Scottish accent(are they living in the North Sea area, I wonder?).

When I watched “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010, it was a pleasant experience to freshen me up although my mind stuck with 3-star rating. Though my initial opinion is not changed a lot, that animation film is a solid animation film with lots of energy and heart, and its sequel is equally enjoyable for its engaging mix of old and new elements in spite of its, uh, hiccups. It may be a little too heavy for young audiences in some parts, but it also goes a little deeper than expected on the emotional level as convincingly presenting the eventual growth inside its two main characters, and that certainly makes us expect another adventure of Hiccup and Toothless to come.

 Sidenote: I watched it in 2D yesterday, and I did not sense anything lacking in my viewing experience, but, considering that this is an animation film packed with fabulous flying scenes, the extra charge for 3D IMAX is probably not a bad idea.



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Calvary (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : He’s going to be killed because he is a good priest

Priest (Brendan Gleeson) in Calvary He is a good man with faith and compassion, but now he is going to be killed just because of that. “Cavalry”, a somber drama with a little touch of absurd comedy, slowly moves to its inevitable point like a funeral march as its gentle, thoughtful hero goes through what may be the last week of his life. While littered with the little moments of black humor generated from the undeniable absurdity in his unfortunate plight, the movie also has several quiet but powerful moments to reflect on later, and we come to more realize how sad and absurd his situation is as that fateful day is approaching to him.

The movie begins with Father James Lavelle(Brendan Gleeson) being notified that he will be killed exactly a week later. We see him in the confession room of his church, and an unidentified man behind the wooden wall between them begins his ‘confession’ with a shocking secret in his past. When he was 7 years old, he was raped by a priest in his neighbourhood, and that heinous act of sexual abuse continued for 5 years as leaving a deep wound inside him. That horrible priest in question died, so this unidentified guy, still full of his unresolved anger and torment, decides to kill Father Lavelle instead, for killing a good priest will draw far more attention from others. His logic is surely twisted to say the least, but, after all, aren’t we usually more alarmed and shocked to hear the news about good people being killed?

Father Lavelle seems to have a pretty good idea about the identity of the man who promises to kill him on next Sunday, but he is in a tricky theological situation which is similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess”(1953). The guy talks about his murder plan during his confession, so Father Lavelle cannot possibly reveal anything exchanged between them to others. He discusses his problem with his superior at one point, but the bishop does not help him much; while not being willing to take any responsibility for whatever will happen, he only suggests to Father Lavelle indirectly that he can bend the rule in this situation.

calvary05 With fear and concern growing inside him day by day, Father Lavelle goes through the remaining days while interacting with the people of his rural Irish town. We meet an easygoing local butcher who is having a problem with his promiscuous wife, who is currently in the relationship with a mechanic from the Ivory Coast. We meet a rich banker who seems to be going through his own personal crisis while behaving like an arrogant, self-pitying jerk. We see Father Lavelle having a personal conversation with a socially awkward young man, who considers joining the army just for getting out of the town. There are also a bitter pub owner who is not so cordial to Father Lavelle; a gruff local cop who does not try to hide his sexuality from Father Lavelle; a cocky male prostitute who does not give a damn about his future; an aging American writer who is finishing his novel at his solitary residence; a sarcastic hospital doctor who never misses any chance to wield his cynical atheistic view in front of Father Lavelle, and a freckled altar boy who sometimes draws his painting on the nearby beach. As observing all these colorful characters in the town who can possibly be more than what they seem to be, I could not help but think of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, though the Gaelic background of the film reminds me more of “The Quiet Man”(1952) and “Ryan’s Daughter”(1970).

But, as I said above, the movie is more of a character study than a mystery thriller, and the mystery inside its story is simply a MacGuffin to lead us to more about Father Lavelle. He is a decent, open-minded man ready to provide solace and guidance for helping the people in his parish, but he does not have much success or satisfaction as the spiritual leader of his town. His fellow priest is ineffectual and spineless while his superior is venal and obsolete, and most of the people in the town do not feel much need to be saved or advised, and he is constantly reminded of the tarnished public image of the Catholic Church. During one small scene, he comes across a young girl on the road and walks with her for a while, but then the girl’s father appears and stares at Father Lavelle with suspicion as taking away his daughter. This may look odd to some of you at first, but you have probably heard about those awful cases of sexual abuses on minors by Catholic priests and how their crimes were covered up by the Church, and you can see how those despicable deeds make sincere priests like Lavelle more frustrated.

calvary03 It is implied that Father Lavelle had a fair share of life experience before entering priesthood, and we come to learn a few things about his former life mainly through his estranged daughter who visits him. While he found solace and peace in the religion when his wife died, his eventual decision to become a priest hurt his daughter when she also needed help as much as he did. Fiona(Kelly Reilly) is not in a very good condition as reflected by the bandages on her wrists, but she and her father slowly become open to each other, and Gleeson and Reilly have a poignant scene as Father Lavelle and Fiona have a more honest talk as a father and a daughter.

The movie is the second work from the director/writer John Michael McDonagh, who previously wrote and directed “The Guard”(2011). That movie was a hilarious comedy about a quirky Irish cop who may be smarter than he looks despite all those incorrigible behaviors of his, and McDonagh showed through his debut work that he is a gifted writer/director like his brother Martin McDonagh, who wrote and directed two fabulous dark comedies “In Bruges”(2008) and “Seven Psychopaths”(2012).

Although it takes a far more serious direction here in contrast to “The Guard”, the movie is not without humor. The dialogues in McDonagh’s screenplay are sharp and precise, and they sometimes make small self-conscious winks while rarely stepping out of the overall low-key tone of the film(My favorite line: “How is it that for a third-act revelation?”). The characters revolving around Father Lavelle bring each own flavor to the story, and the vivid sense of locations is established well on the screen thanks to the cinematography by Larry Smith, who wonderfully captures the moody atmosphere surrounding green fields and wind waves.

calvary-2014-007-aidan-gillen As the center of the movie, Brendan Gleeson gives a terrific performance which is quite different from his no-hold-barred comic performance in “The Guard”(2011). He looks mostly restrained throughout the film, but he subtly modulates his performance in each scene as Father Lavelle listening and responding to different characters in his phlegmatic attitude. He is caring and concerned as gently but firmly pointing out what may be a real trouble inside that awkward young guy who wants a counsel from him. He suffers no fool, and he cuts directly through the self-absorbed bullsh*t from the rich banker who is probably one of the financial guys responsible for the recent economic disaster in Ireland. When he reaches his breaking point, we are not surprised about his outburst because we know well what has been frustrating him from the beginning. We cannot help but agree to what one character says to him at one point: “You’re a little too sharp for this parish.”

McDonagh also draws good performances from the rest of the cast, which consists of notable actors like Chirs O’Dowd, Kelly Rielly, Aidan Gillen, Isaach De Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Marie-Josée Croze, and Domhnall Gleeson. Marie-Josée Croze has a brief but memorable scene as a French woman who has a quiet talk with Father Lavelle at the hospital chapel after losing her husband due to a sudden car accident, and Aidan Gillen has his own moment as his doctor character tells about quite a terrible incident he witnessed in the past, which is probably the origin of his cynical worldview. While Chris O’Dowd dials down his comic persona, M. Emmet Walsh provides a welcoming comic relief as an ailing writer waiting for death instead of Godot, and Domhnall Glesson, who is Gleeson’s son, appears as a young imprisoned serial killer who was once Father Lavelle’s pupil. During their private conversation in the prison, this young man reasons that God will forgive him as he feels really sorry about the atrocities he committed, and Father Lavelle can’t disagree with him. If God does exist, can’t God understand and forgive him as an entity who made him?

The title of the movie refers to the place where Jesus was crucified, and you may see an allegorical parallel between that biblical story and Father Lavelle’s difficult circumstance. When the movie finally arrives at the expected confrontation scene on the beach, it is proceeded with the inexorable inevitability which has been carefully built along the plot, and its final scene is emotionally resonating regardless of how it can be interpreted. The world may be just a godless random mess which does not care much about good and evil, but the movie somehow reminds us that we should not throw away our capability of compassion and understanding. It may turn out to be futile in the end as some cynics think, but we need it more to keep moving on in our life anyway.


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Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A merry band of Korean thieves

Kundo03 South Korean film “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” is a funny mix of period drama, action comedy, and Spaghetti western. Although it is frequently incoherent and feels dragged especially around its last chapter, there are many fun moments of humor and excitement, and it is supported well by a number of colorful and spirited performances which always bring the sense of fun to the screen.

Its main characters, who are a bunch of thieves residing in Jiri Mountain, are loosely inspired by a group of real-life thieves who were active during the late period of Joseon dynasty. It is 1859, and common people around the country have been suffering through several years of natural disasters followed by bad harvest, and the rich and powerful do not hesitate to exploit and plunder common people. In this desperate period, a group of outlaws form an organization called “Kundo”, and they become sort of Robin Hood figures to many people as robbing sacks of rice and other valuable assets from those greedy 1% guys and then spreading them around 99% people in hunger and poverty.

After showing their latest success in a surprise attack on a corrupt official’s party packed with other noblemen, the movie quickly moves its focus to Dolmoochi(Ha Jeong-woo), a young lowly butcher who has been leading a humble life with his mother and sister outside the city but unfortunately gets involved with Jo Yoon(Kang Dong-won), a fierce and ruthless son of some powerful nobleman. Because of his status as an illegitimate son, Jo Yoon has been pushed aside since his father finally got a legitimate son not long after he adopted Jo Yoon, but now he comes upon a very good chance to get what he wants, and he is determined to do anything for that.

Kundo02 With a considerable amount of money as the reward, Jo Yoon instructs Dolmoochi to kill someone standing on his way to the sole heirship, but Dolmoochi, who is not very bright but does not feel right about killing from the beginning, botches the job, and he gets a severe punishment as a consequence. He loses his dear family, and then he is going to be executed promptly thanks to the backroom dealing between Jo Yoon and a law official who gladly accepts a boxful of bribery promised to him.

Fortunately, Dolmoochi is saved by the members of Kundo at the last minute, and he soon joins this clan as “Dochi”. While Dochi transforms himself into one of its notorious members who is well-known for not only his skill with knives but also his hilarious way of humiliating his targets, Jo Yoon stops at nothing for getting more land, more money, and more power as the de facto head of his house, and he becomes an infamous figure to many poor people who suddenly lose their land and then become his slave or tenant for life. Dochi and other members of Kundo decide they should do something about this infuriating injustice, and the clash between them and Jo Yoon becomes inevitable when they plan to invade into Jo Yoon’s manor.

While not overlooking lots of pain and torment caused by Jo Yoon and other corrupt officials, the movie does not lose its sense of humor at all, and one of the funniest things in the movie is its deadpan narration by Jeong Yoo-mi. She describes and explains many things in the movie while sounding as calm and plain as your average TV history documentary narrator, but her narration is done with a tongue-in-cheek modern viewpoint which certainly tickled me and other audiences around me(“So, at the age of 11, he comes to experience the bitterness of life.”). The movie does not care much about realism as brandishing its wild style, so its climax sequence comes with a certain weapon which looks pretty anachronistic considering the 19th century Korean background, and its score does not hide the influence from Spaghetti western movies as an electric guitar is gleefully played along with the characters riding on a dry, wide plain. As far as I know, there is not such a wide plain like that in Korea although we do have some plains among mountains, but I guess I should not complain about that because the movie does not attempt to be realistic from the start.

Kundo01 The actors assembled for the movie go along with its cheerful attitude while having a fun with their roles as much as they can. Ha Jeong-woo, who collaborated with the director/writer Yoon Jong-bin in Yoon’s previous three films, is dependable as the lead actor, and he is surrounded by various delightful supporting performances to be enjoyed. Lee Seong-min is the leader of Kundo, Lee Kyeong-yeong is a rogue Buddhist monk who may remind you of Friar Turk, and Ma Dong-seok and Jo Jin-woong are two very different Kundo members competing with each other for winning the affection from Ma-hyang(Yoon Ji-hye), a female member who can take care of herself well among the guys around her.

As the villain of the movie, Kang Dong-won does not stumble even when his character happens to look quite silly during one fight scene, but he seems to have the least fun in the movie compared to the other actors in the film. As showing him as a formidable but pitiful monster who was shaped by his cruel, unhappy childhood years, the movie eventually makes him into a brooding villain who may be far more suitable for a different kind of film, and the screenplay is also rather murky about Jo Yoon’s conflicted feelings toward to a little minor character who should be killed for his final goal. The movie also has many notable South Korean actors including Jeong Man-sik, Kim Seong-gyoon, Song Yeong-chang, Kim Hae-sook, Joo Jin-mo, Lee Da-wit, and Kim Kkobbi, and they function well as the small parts of the ensemble at the fringe of the story.

Although it does not fully develop the potentials inside its story and characters, “Kundo: Age of the Rampant” is enjoyable when it bounces with its sly humor and the jolly energy generated from its saucy performances during its first half, and that impression is not wholly ruined by its less interesting second half which is a little too long. I still think it could be better if its interesting mix of genres were more focused and balanced, but I had a fair amount of entertainment with this uneven but enjoyable movie, and I was amused by its whimsies. Not many South Korean period movies ride into the sunset on the horizon, you know.


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Under the Skin (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Fascinating ambiguity under its SF skin

Undertheskin01 “Under the Skin” will baffle you and frustrate you with its cold, abstract style, but it is also a weirdly fascinating experience you cannot easily forget. The movie only gives us a few bits of vague information on what is going on and below its surface, and there are still many things left unexplained even after its final minute, but its glacial ambiguity has a way of drawing our attention to how it is about even when we are not so sure about what exactly it is all about.

During its opening sequence which is alternatively mysterious and ominous, we see lights and circles in the dark background as a voice of woman is heard on the soundtrack. Uttering the series of syllables during this uncanny moment, her voice sounds like an artificial machine practicing its communication skill before its full operation, and then we arrive at the shot showing a pupil, which seems to signify nothing but indirectly recalls our memories with “Vertigo”(1958) and “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968).

And then we meet an anonymous motorcyclist(Jeremy McWilliams), who seems to be doing a covert mission in Scotland. After stopping at one spot on the road, he walks down from the road to somewhere, and then he comes back with a female body. He puts the body into a van, and then we see the body laid in a white blank space. Another woman, played by Scarlett Johansson with dark wig, comes into the scene, and, after a little moment of curious inspection, she takes clothes and other things from the body with no hesitation.

Driving the van around streets, the woman picks up guys whenever they look suitable for her hidden purpose. She approaches to them mainly through innocuous questions about direction, and then, after offering them a ride, she lures them to her house. As watching these guys entering that suspicious place with no question, I was reminded of those old folk stories about unlucky guys enticed into deadly trap by an attractive girl who is not what she seems to be on the surface. I thought they were pretty dumb, but it is not easy for guys to say no to a sexy, beautiful woman, right?

Undertheskin05 Of course, they never get out of the house after their entrance. They do not seem to have any slightest piece of doubt even when they go into a very, very dark space in the house, and then something quite bad happens to them when they go after her for sex. The movie is based on Michel Faber’s novel with the same name, and I heard that Faber’s novel describes a lot about this sinister process and many other things, but you do not need to read the novel to see that 1) the woman and the motorcyclist are aliens from the outer space and 2) their secret mission is not so pleasant to our species regardless of whatever their actual purpose really is.

This is an unconventional SF film which is mainly driven by atmosphere rather than plot, and the director/co-screenplay writer Jonathan Glazer, who debuted with “Sexy Beast”(2000) and then made “Birth”(2004) before this film, gives us a curious mix of surreal ambience and realistic touches. As shown in the movie, Johansson drove the van around Glasgow while hiding her identity and her ‘mission’, and that makes an amusing parallel between the movie and the filmmaking process behind it. The men approached by Johansson in the movie are mostly non-actors who did not know that they were being filmed by the hidden cameras installed in the van; they were notified about that later, and some of them got more time to act with Johansson if they were willing to participate more in the production.

With the creepy ambient score by Mica Levi and the chilly cinematography by Daniel Landin, the movie sticks to its ambiguous tone from the start and never steps back from it while maintaining its enigmatic attitude. Although a little amount of tension is added during its second half, that does not affect its slow, contemplative pace much, and the desolate wintry landscapes of the Scottish Highlands add another layer of cold, distant beauty to the film.

Undertheskin04 This can be a very frustrating experience to some of you, but the movie is not devoid of interest, and, if you are ready to go along with its pace and mood, it constantly engages your curiosity through its odd moments. There is a chilling scene in which an innocent baby is helplessly left alone on a remote beach while a terrible thing is happening nearby, and then we get a moment of small ironic poignancy during the chance encounter between the alien heroine and a man with disfigured face(he is played by a real guy suffering from neurofibromatosis type I, by the way).

Effectively dialing down her star presence, Scarlett Johansson gives a beguiling low-key performance which subtly suggests what is behind her character’s appearance through facial expressions and body languages. We sometimes sense what is probably happening to this nameless alien as observing her behaviors being gradually affected by her human disguise, but then we are also reminded of an undeniable fact that she is an outsider we may never understand well, as reflected by one brief scene featuring a piece of chocolate cake.

While reminiscent of several SF films such as “Lifeforce”(1985) and “Species”(1995) because of its fatal alien seductress, “Under the Skin” reminds me a lot of Nicholas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth”(1976), an equally strange SF film about an alien who comes down to the Earth with a far less sinister purpose. Even though I frequently felt lost and confused during my viewing, I admired the offbeat spirit of that flawed but interesting cult film, and “Under the Skin” impressed me in similar ways through its pure abstract beauty open to any possible interpretation of its components. It surely requires a certain amount of patience, but you may find it absorbing if you are looking for something different.


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Cats during summer days (2014/07/07)

It is hot, but it is still cool in shades…
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