Failan (2001) • South Korea

Time to drop some tough love on a film that many consider one of the pinnacles of contemporary (Korean) cinema (melodramatique). It's a weeper all right, but it comes from sympathy not empathy. It's mean and manipulative. The misguided love for this film is understandable because the performances of the two lead actors are amazing, utterly fantastic. You could pull any number of scenes completely out of context from this film and just look at them and they might make you cry, but the characters they portray as a whole are not worth an investment in tears.

The story in a nutshell is this: Failan is Chinese. Her parents die and she travels to Korea to seek out her last remaining relative, an aunt, who unfortunately left Korea years ago for Canada. (I guess Failan's parents weren't very close to their siblings.) There must be a subtext for why Failan decides to stay in Korea because saying "there's nothing to go back to" hardly justifies accepting a paper marriage to stay in the country taking a job as a launderer to make money to pay off the mob who underwrites the marriage—after failing an audition to be a prostitute by coughing up blood at the interview. Kang-jae is the bottom-feeder gangster wannabe slob who marries her for a paycheck without wanting to see her or know anything about her. Time passes and gangster stuff happens. Kang-jae is about to take a ten-year jail time fall for his boss who promises to buy him a boat when he gets out but Failan dies all by her lonesome in some far off village and Kang-jae must detour his life in order to make funeral arrangements for the wife he forgot he had. This is where things get wonky.

Failan writes a couple "love" letters to Kang-jae thanking him for being kind enough to marry her and presumes that he is therefore a swell guy worthy of her love and devotion, but he doesn't get them until she's dead. Why would she write love letters to this guy she doesn't know? A guy who marries foreign girls for a fee? She must have some idea of what that kind of arrangement is all about. It has nothing to do with her. At the very least she should be grateful Kang-jae leaves her alone and doesn't expect sexual favors in return for his kindness. She tries to see him once at the video store where he works but the meeting is interrupted by the police hauling him away (for selling porn to a minor). It's not even close to an endearing moment. The film maker paints a portrait of this young woman as pure virginal innocence and devotion, which appeals as some male ideal, but nothing more. There is no reason to like this girl for who she is or what she does. We can only admire her, as men, for what she represents. And Cecilia Cheung, as Failan, does some powerful representing. She is angelic.

Min-sik Choi, most famous—to western audiences, at least—for his performance in Oldboy, plays Kang-jae. He is a superb actor with an incredibly impressive and expressive physical presence. He wears loose fitting pants. He's a man's man, confidence personified. But he's a teddy bear too, albeit one who's a very loose cannon perennially toying with the end of his fuse. He's got baby fat everywhere and wild baby hair. His face is a work of art, chiseled and scarred with been-there done-that experience, handsome in a Hell's Angels kind of way. He is an enigma who plays the paradox perfectly. He's able to make us believe he has entered some life altering introspective awareness stage upon reading Failan's letters to him when all he's really experiencing is massive regret for not gettin some the whole time. He doesn't even see a picture of her until she's, and I quote, a "dead bitch" lying on a table. And then he reads the faux flattering poems of loneliness from this Virgin Mary. I'd cry too if I were him. He blew it. He's an unlovable and unlikeable dunce not an everyman who deserves a better lot in life and tragically missed it.

This film is a crock of crud, highly recommended for the performances. It's not a tragic love story, it's a fetish. Keep in mind the first half of the film is sloppy gangster comedy developing the character of Kang-jae. Failan doesn't show up until the second half, and she's already dead. Her story leading up to her death is told in parallel with Kang-jae's awakening sadness (or sad awakening), dealing with her death. It's very effective until the unnecessary, testosterone injected finish.


Quid Pro Quo (2008) • USA

This is an uncomfortably good film but wraps up a little too nicely in conclusion. All the gutsiness of the first two acts get cashed in at the end. Vera Farmiga is fantastic as the enigmatic Fiona, a woman who longs confinement to a wheelchair. It's hard to tell what she might do from one moment to the next because she's so edgy weird, and her performance plays well inside the film's cinematically untapped world of paraplegic wannabes. For the Cronenberg's Crash-challenged.


Rainbow Eyes (Ga-myeon) (2007) • South Korea

Artificially tense and hip cop and killer thriller that threatens to go over the top throughout but gets stuck motorcycling around the rim of its contrived story, complete with coincidental fireworks over a broken bridge in the film's climactic conclusion. Min-Sun Kim is fun as the film's girl good guy cop, albeit paint-by-number.


The Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta) (2006) • Italy • Giuseppe Tornatore

A little hard to follow and a little hard to swallow, this film by the director of Nuovo Cinema Paradiso is gritty and loose. A dark controlled chaos in skilled hands, it feels like an army of films rushing at you all at once. It's a bit overwhelming until the grabs you, sucks you in and won't let you go performance of Xenia Rappoport kicks in. She's a magnet in the middle of a mysterious mayhem. It's too bad that the style and substance of the film will prevent it from ever becoming popular because her portrayal of suffering and sheer determination is one for the history books. The woman's got chops. She moves like an insect through the undergrowth of her seedy milieu with an androgynous, unkempt beauty that's both tempting and invisible. She's able to shift her portrayal from one emotion to another, and then another, without moving a muscle in her face—a skill few actors possess. It's her story and we follow her through it not knowing exactly what she's after or what she will do with it when she seems to have it in her grasp. That's the unknown part and Rappoport plays the mystery for all it's worth. She works the complex narrative inside her head and lets the revelations drip out slowly, uncontrollably.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore says this film is about a woman reclaiming her power as a woman (there's a great big serving of motherhood with that) after it has been stripped from her from every angle imaginable. Rappoport's character is the victim of a human slave trade that uses immigrant Eastern European women to make babies for the upper-class. She's gotten out of it, but with a lot of baggage. Some of it is misplaced and some of it is hurled at us in short, chaotic flashbacks in the beginning of the film (that's the hard to follow part), slowly unfolding to more understandable scenes as they catch up with her present life at the end of the film—a nice structural technique by the director.

Roger Ebert wrote a review of this movie which essentially lists the aspects of it he thinks he understands and the aspects he thinks he doesn't. He scores a little above average, I think, which is about as good as anyone is probably going to do. There's a noir-ish component (not a stylistic one) to the film where major events and character traits are unleashed which are way beyond the reality of any mere mortal's life. There are also plenty of cause-for-pause moments when you will consider if the means justify the end. That's the hard to swallow part but I'm not complaining. It is a movie after all, and if you've read many of my reviews you know that I take all comers when it comes to plot gymnastics as long as they don't infringe upon the integrity of my players, as long as they don't cause incredulity to appear on the faces of the actors because they don't believe the script. Giuseppe Tornatore is lucky, or smart, to have enlisted an actress with the strength of Xenia Rappoport. ET coulda popped in here and I don't think she would have missed a beat.

Speaking of beats, Ennio Morricone scored this film with its groove in his back pocket. pwnage.