Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Elite Squad

Tropa de Elite, English title: The Elite Squad. Literally: Elite Troop) is a Brazilian film released on October 5, 2007. The movie is a semi-fictional account of the BOPE (Portuguese: Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais), the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police. It is the second feature film and first fiction film of director José Padilha, who had previously directed the acclaimed documentary Bus 174. The script was written by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani, based on the book Elite da Tropa by sociologist Luiz Eduardo Soares and two former BOPE captains, André Batista and Rodrigo Pimentel.

The movie, set in 1997, depicts the story of Captain Nascimento, a BOPE captain, who with the imminent birth of his first child, is determined to leave the battalion and find a safer position for the sake of his family, but first he must find a suitable replacement for himself. At the same time, the movie focuses on two childhood friends, Matias and Neto, who become cadets in the military police, but become dismayed at the corruption surrounding them. Eventually, both Nascimento and the cadets' paths intersect, when the captain hopes that one of the two may become the substitute he is eager to find, as both decide to join the BOPE.

Comparisons between Tropa de Elite, from director Jose Padilha, and Fernando Meirelles' 2000 film City of God are inevitable. The films are similar in look, style, feel, location, and even a similar voice-over is employed. But rather feeling like a rip-off, Tropa de Elite feels more like an homage or a continuation. This will undoubtedly be one of the better films of 2008 by year’s end.

Before a visit by the Pope, a special elite squad is sent into the slums to clean them up and eliminate the risk of violence and drugs before he gets there. Meanwhile the team captain Nascimento is trying to find a suitable man to replace him after he quits to look after his wife and soon-to-be-born son.

Despite a frantic nature in several scenes, the film feels very in control. You can just tell that the director knew exactly what he was doing as far as handling the scenes goes, especially the action-oriented ones. We jump right into the action with a “funk party” (as the movie describes it) and a shoot-out between the drug dealers and the cops. It makes no bones about what it’s going to be like for the rest of the runtime; it lays its cards plainly on the table for you to see, and for that I applaud it. It doesn’t try to mask itself as something it’s not but rather reveals its true colours from the get-go and doesn’t disappoint on the grade-A level it promises.

Comparisons to City of God, which I think is one of the greatest films of all time, are inevitable, the first of which is in terms of its style. The same frantic, quick edits are employed here although not quite to the same extent. It’s done in such a way that it quickly cuts to various things seemingly all at once, but it doesn’t keep the viewer from becoming engrossed nor does it prevent one from being able to tell what’s going on. It’s in the action scenes that these editing techniques are employed and it's part of the reason they are so engrossing and exciting.

Although frantic and with quick-cut edits it feels very stately, unlike City of God. Instead of constantly being in the style of that film where it’s pretty much always flashy and frantic, Tropa de Elite has moments where the camera is quite still and there are intriguing and interesting conversations going which seem to be accentuated a lot more in this film.

Where the two films differ the most is in their main storylines. City of God was in depth with the actual drug dealers and dealing and how the people in the slums have to live whereas this deals with the law enforcement side of things and tackles the problem from the police perspective. The two films act as two sides of the same coin, complementing and contrasting with one another.

Wagner Moura, the actor who plays the main character of the elite squad team leader, has a great presence about him. He’s physically believable as the leader of this extremely tough and strong task force and equally believable in the scenes at home with his wife. It’s quite rare to find a film which has lots of elements working simultaneously being pulled off even remotely well.

Not only is this is a fun film to watch, down to its action/shoot-out sequences in particular, there’s also a lot more to it, such as strong messages about abuse of power and being honest, and just all around excellent technical filmmaking in almost all areas.

Tropa de Elite just goes to prove how raw, visceral, and real a non-documentary film can be. The action/shoot-out sequences are immensely engrossing and exciting, with you almost feeling every bullet and every body slamming to the floor. And the whole thing feels like it’s in the hands of someone who actually knows what they’re doing. This is this year’s City of God, and to even mention another film in the same sentence as that is a massive compliment on its own.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has long been known as a city precariously balanced on the edge of chaos. A city of vibrant culture and life, it is also one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The majority of its population lives in one of 70 slums, known as favelas, which are ruled by violent drug gangs. These heavily armed gangs routinely engage in pitched gun battles with the police, with the city’s residents often caught in the crossfire.

With the police force under funded, under equipped and rife with corruption, the drug gangs pretty much have their way within the confines of the favelas and frequently outgun the police when fighting spills over into the city proper. The situation is bad enough that the government created a special paramilitary force known as BOPE (Battalion for Special Police Operations) charged with dealing with the drug gangs. With their symbol being a skull flanked by crossed swords and a pistol, it’s no secret what these guys are about. The new film “Tropa de Elite” (”Elite Squad”) spotlights BOPE in a way the Brazilian government would probably rather it didn’t.

Written by Rodrigo Pimentel, a 12 year veteran of BOPE himself, “Tropa de Elite” is a grim, frequently shocking, but ultimately evenhanded critique of the cycle of violence that engulfs Rio. The film focuses on Captain Nascimento (Wagner Moura, “Carandiru”), a hard-nosed squad commander in BOPE. With the birth of his first child only weeks away, Nascimento is struggling to find the reasons to keep putting his life on the line every day at work. He finally hatches a plan to find a replacement for his position so that he can quit the force.

This brings us to a parallel plot thread concerning two young police cadets - Neto, a gung-ho trigger happy thug and Matias, a fevela resident who attends law school on the side - whom Nacimento marks as his potential replacements. The problem is that he sees the qualities he wants in each man, but not enough of them in either one. However, several incursions into the favelas to clean them out ahead of a visit by the Pope shape the men in unexpected and tragic ways.

Filmed in a hand-held Cinéma-vérité style, “Tropa de Elite” is a fast paced and engaging film. It can almost be called a kind of the anti-”City of God,” following the police rather than the criminals. It employs a similar episodic narrative structure (complete with chapter breaks) and deadpan narration that keeps the energy high and the story moving forward. And like “City of God,” it doesn’t shy away from showing the grim realities of the conflict between the police and drug gangs. It offers a scathing portrayal of the corruption that is engrained in The System which prevents the wheels of justice from turning.

Each division commander has his own scam going, be it collecting protection money from the local strip clubs or selling confiscated guns back to the drug gangs. There’s even a hilarious sequence where each division keeps moving the dead bodies from a gang shoot-out to another division’s jurisdiction so their field reports look better. However, despite BOPE claiming to only want uncorrupted officers amongst its ranks, the film shows them routinely engaging in tactics ranging from torture to out and out murder. But the film does not demonize BOPE for its heavy-handed tactics. Rather, it calls attention to the impossible situation Brazilian society has painted itself into. The streets are controlled by the drug gangs through violence of such a level that the only conceivable way to combat it is through greater violence. Unfortunately, this leaves the average citizen to deal with the consequences.

“Tropa de Elite” was a sensation in Brazil before it was even released in theaters thanks to it ironically falling victim to the rampant crime it criticizes. A rough cut of the film was stolen from the editing studio and bootleg DVDs flooded the usual channels. The film has touched a nerve among Brazilians. With the country still struggling to come to terms with its past and recent history of paramilitary death squads, it has garnered praise and criticism in equal measure from all parts of society. The government, naturally, has condemned the film’s position that BOPE operates outside the law, with the government condoning torture and murder as routine investigative practices (after all, ‘torture’ is no worse than Fraternity hazing, right?). However, the citizenry, particularly the residents of the favelas, have praised the film as painfully truthful. Reality is probably somewhere in between, but with the film’s script writer being a former member of BOPE, I’m inclined to think it’s pretty ugly.

“Tropa de Elite” is a harsh and frequently painful film to watch, but its unflinching portrayal of Rio’s struggles is fascinating. While its style is perhaps too slavishly reliant on Tarantino-esque structuring, it’s not as convoluted as other films of this type, such as the works of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The pseudo-documentary style camera work does get a bit hyperactive at times, but thankfully doesn’t make viewing the film a vertiginous experience. Overall, this is a thoughtful, insightful and frequently darkly funny film, but the impact of its social commentary is very real.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I Served The King Of England

The early 1960s. Jan Díte is released from a Czech communist correctional facility after nearly 15 years in captivity. Flashbacks showing his earlier life are interspersed with scenes of him post-captivity - he has a dead-end job laying gravel on the roads.

As a young man, Díte makes money by selling sausages to travellers at the railway station, and through observing the people around him comes to believe that avarice is common to all classes. He becomes a waiter, discovers the joys of sex at a local brothel, and plots his climb to the top. His career takes him to a series of ever more prestigious hotel restaurants. His life is transformed in the Nazi era: after meeting Líza, a beautiful German teacher of physical education, he throws in his lot with the Nazis. After the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, his stock rises. He is allowed to marry Líza. She uses her contacts to get him a job at one of his old hotels, now a centre for breeding pure Germans. His job is to get young Aryan women ready for intercourse. When he fails to impregnate Líza, she enlists to go to the Front.

As the Germans begin to retreat, Líza returns from the Front, bringing a hoard of stamps stolen from deported Jews. Líza is killed when the hotel burns down at the end of the war. Díte sells the stamps and becomes a millionaire. When the communists come to power in Czechoslovakia, he is arrested and imprisoned. By the time he is released, he is a wiser

I Served the King of England marks the return of director Jirí Menzel, master filmmaker of the Czech New Wave. The story, told in flashbacks, concerns the rise and fall of an amorous and opportunistic apprentice waiter. Jan Díte is a little man with a big appetite for discreet sexual encounters and worldly success. His coming of age at various grand hotels exposes him to the lifestyles of the upper crust, the crème de la crème of 1930s Czech society, and a taste of their self-indulgent and carefree extravagance fuels his ambition. Soon he lands a job at a prestigious luxury hotel, where a chance encounter with a Sudeten German activist leads to a newly varnished Aryan identity. As the hotel changes hands from private ownership to the grip of the German SS, he finds himself in one of the Lebensborn breeding resorts designed to spawn the Aryan master race. It appears he finally has it made, but with the Germans occupying Czechoslovakia he is unfortunately on the wrong side of history. Luscious to look at, this finely crafted film is based on the picaresque novel of Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997), a frequent Menzel collaborator who inspired a generation with his lyrical yet unsentimental view of 20th century life.

A funnier and darker view of serious political events is to be found in I Served the King of England adapted from a Bohumil Hrabal novel by Jirí Menzel, the Czech director still best known for his version of Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains. Its naive antihero is a hotel worker reviewing his life: prospering under prewar capitalism, surviving during the Nazi occupation, being sent to jail by the postwar communist regime and finding an odd happiness in provincial exile following his release. Bureaucracy, snobbery, avarice and self-seeking flourish in each era. There are nods towards Kafka and The Good Soldier Svejk and a good deal of gross Central European humour.

I Served the King of England is the latest of several Jirí Menzel films adapted from the novels of his close friend Bohumil Hrabal, who died in 1997. (Menzel's adaptation of Closely Observed Trains won an Oscar and was one of the key films in the emergence of the Czech New Wave; his 1969 feature Larks on a String, which he co-wrote with Hrabal, was banned by the communist authorities.) Now 70, Menzel has had an uneven directorial career since the heady days of the 1960s. Unlike his contemporaries Ivan Passer and Milos Forman, he didn't move to the US following the Soviet invasion of 1968, and publicly dissociated himself from his pre-invasion films, including Closely Observed Trains.

His own background must have given him a special affinity with Díte, the diminutive hotel-waiter anti-hero of I Served the King…, who is also obliged to perform a few ideological somersaults. As depicted by Menzel, Díte has more than a hint of Charlie Chaplin or the Good Soldier Svejk about him; he is a hapless everyman being carried along on the tide of history. His goal is simply to be accepted, and he will go to extreme lengths to give pleasure, whether to his customers, his sexual partners or - most disastrously - to the Nazis who've occupied his homeland.

The young Díte, played in very appealing fashion by Bulgarian actor Ivan Barnev, is generally far too interested in money and status to notice what's going on around him. Nothing seems to disturb him - not the rage of the train passenger he's just swindled or the sight of war-wounded amputees - though when confronted by money or women, his excitement is overwhelming. He is both cunning and absolutely naive.

The film has a zest that belies the director's age. There is no sense here of a distinguished director striking a ponderous and introspective note at the twilight of his career. Visually, I Served the King… is lithe and imaginative. It uses music, montage and silent-movie conventions with wit and energy. The downside to Menzel's approach is that he - like his central character - risks sidestepping or trivialising serious issues. The Nazis here have a strong hint of Mel Brooks about them (witness the scenes of masturbating Aryans trying to provide seed for the master race, or the bathing blondes who look as if they're on leave from a 1970s British comedy sketch show). Occasionally, Menzel reminds us that the Nazis aren't just eccentric naturists: there is a gruesome shot of a hotel guest who blows out his brains as the Germans march in; and when Díte's wife Líza (played with dry humour by Julia Jentsch) comes back from the Front with a hoard of stamps she's stolen from deported Jews, even Díte raises his eyebrows.

What the film lacks is the edge it would surely have had if it had been made in an earlier era. Closely Observed Trains and Larks on a String, shot either side of the Prague Spring, had an urgency that reflected the times. Today, Menzel is a senior figure in the Czech film industry and there's no one left to complain about the political subtext in his movie, or to try to censor the sex scenes. No one will doubt the skill and exuberance with which he continues to bring Hrabal's work to the screen. What he arguably now lacks is any real sense of subversiveness.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Caos Calmo

A widower spends his mourning days on a bench in front of his daughter’s primary school in Antonello Grimaldi’s Berlinale Competition title Chaos calmo (Quiet Chaos). With Nanni Moretti as the widower and co-screenwriter, the film will of course recall Moretti’s own Palme d’Or winner La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room), but Grimaldi’s adaptation of the bestselling Sandro Veronesi novel is different enough to stand on its own. Already a hit in Italy, where it was released on February 8 and currently stands at €4.5 million in box-office receipts, the combination of Moretti’s presence combined with the star power of Valeria Golino and Isabella Ferrari, a serious topic and a generous helping of gentle humour could make the film a minor arthouse hit on the continent.

In a somewhat awkwardly filmed opening sequence in which the technical shortcomings seem to reflect the contrived a-life-for-a-life metaphor, Pietro Paladini (Moretti) and his younger brother Carlo (Alessandro Gassman, Hamam / Steam) rescue two women who are about to drown at the seaside while at Pietro’s summer home his dedicated wife (Ester Cavallari) drops dead in the garden surrounded by slices of watermelon (there is a strange echo of the Godfather’s death amidst his tomatoes).

Pietro is a successful TV executive whose company is working out an important merger deal when his wife’s death leaves him to care alone for their 10-year-old daughter Claudia (Blu Yoshimi). On his daughter’s first school day after the funeral, Pietro promises to wait for her at the gate until school is out, something that might have been decided on a whim on that first day but quickly turns into a habit, much to the astonishment of his family and colleagues who nevertheless respect the right of father and daughter to deal with their grief in their own way.

Ivano Fossati -- Lamore Trasparente

Grimaldi, Moretti and co-screenwriters Laura Paolucci (L’orizzonte degli eventi) and Francesco Piccolo (Moretti’s Il caimano / The Caiman) have cunningly opened up the narrative cinematically, as in the novel Pietro remains stuck in his car but in the film the TV executive has a nice tree-lined Roman square at his disposal. As time passes, Pietro gets to know all the regular passers-by and they get to know him. Even his colleagues now come to his designated park bench to have meetings with him, with the impending merger revealing some corporate backstabbing from several French co-workers (Hippolyte Girardot, Denis Podalydès, Charles Berling and Roman Polanski in a cameo) in a subplot that is played just right except for an unnecessary Venice-set flashback.

The most-discussed scene in the Italian media in what is otherwise a totally accessible film for all ages is a steamy sex scene between Moretti and Isabella Ferrari, which is remarkable seen that the two actors together are almost a century old. It is clearly meant as a spontaneous moment of release for Pietro, who might finally have crossed the threshold from simple grief to acceptance and the realisation that life goes on. Thankfully Grimaldi does not linger too much on the fact that Ferrari’s character is the same woman that Pietro rescued in the film’s opening sequence, thus largely avoiding a transfer of affection-gimmick that would have been more at home on Italian television (incidentally also the place where Grimaldi has been employed for the last ten years after several features made for the cinema in the early 1990s).

Throughout Caos calmo Moretti is effectively low-key and he avoids bringing back memories of La stanza del figlio, while Yoshimi as his daughter Claudia is cute without bringing much else to the table. Valeria Golino (Respiro) puts in an appearance as Pietro’s twitchy sister-in-law but it is Alessandro Gassman as Pietro’s younger brother Carlo who steals the show. One of the film’s best scenes has Pietro visit Carlo at night to pick up Claudia after a day spent with her cool uncle (he designs jeans), when Pietro finds his younger sibling smoking opium. Without once going into stoner comedy territory, Grimaldi creates a scene of gentle comedy that fits right in with the film’s subdued yet not unhumorous tone.

Modern music is emphatically present on the soundtrack though not to the extent of an Ozpetek film; Grimaldi knows where to place his Rufus Wainwright and Radiohead (the latter also played an important role in the original novel). The film’s closing scenes set in the snow resolve everything nicely with a quietly earned respect for the characters.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Silvia Munt puede estar satisfecha de su nuevo trabajo detrás de las cámaras, “Pretextos”, que se estrena en toda España este viernes, día 13. Esta mañana ha presentado la película ante la prensa en Madrid, acompañada de buena parte de su reparto (Ramón Madaula, Francesc Garrido, Álvaro Cervantes, Mercè Llorens y Laia Marull) y del productor Quique Camín, que se ha mostrado «muy satisfecho de esta cuarta colaboración con ella. Es nuestra primera película de ficción juntos, y nos hemos sentido muy a gusto». Tras esta introducción a la charla, la realizadora ha tomado la palabra para referirse a lo que sentía en ese instante: «las presentaciones siempre son un momento agónico, pero al tiempo esperado. Al ser mi primer trabajo de ficción he querido meterme las manos dentro de las tripas y sacar fuera cosas que llevo dentro, y mostrar la insatisfacción de esa burguesía acomodada que somos en muchos casos; he intentado retratar la relación entre hombre y mujer, y mostrar cómo es posible que haya gente que no quiere seguir luchando y tirar para adelante. Y siempre con sinceridad, lo que es cuestión compleja. Se ha escrito que este proyecto es para mujeres, y no es así, es para todos. Pero es cierto que cada personaje tiene algo de mí».

La trama se presenta uniendo teatro dentro del cine, ficción dentro de la realidad, mundos unidos y distantes que generan un esquema estructural muy complejo. Munt se ha referido a ello comentando que «el teatro, para mí, explica lo que no entiendes de la vida. Creo que lo que mejor resume toda la película es la famosa expresión “dime que me quieres, aunque sea mentira”. La representación teatral nos expone mejor de qué trata esta obra». Así pues, ante tal sinceridad por parte de la cineasta no se puede evitar pensar que este trabajo cumple para ella, en cierto modo, una función de catarsis en la que se ha sumergido a fondo, ya que también firma el guión junto con Eva Baeza. «Escribir y dirigir no me daba miedo, ya lo había hecho antes. Pero el reparto no lo tenía tan claro, Viena ─el personaje central, al que también presta sus rasgos─ está muy dentro de mí. Lo que he hecho ha sido rodearme de amigos». Desde luego, es indudable que estamos ante un proyecto muy íntimo, pero no sólo para ella: Ramón Madaula, su pareja en la ficción, lo es también en la vida real. «Bueno, es un tema que sopesamos mucho ─ha confesado─. Es indudable que al preparar el libreto partes de algo personal, pero luego los roles se disparan, te metes en tu rol y no hay más problema. Tenemos algún punto de similitud, claro, pero muchos otros no».

Laia Marull interpreta a Eva, un papel que vive inmerso dentro de la propia Silvia Munt. Pero la actriz ha asegurado que «ha sido fácil, porque ella me transmitió toda su fuerza. Y en cuanto leí el guión, me enamoré de Eva. Me encanta cómo han preparado el texto, cómo la respetan, sin juzgarla». Por su parte, Álvaro Cervantes se mete en la piel de Lucas, quien ha de grabar la obra de teatro, convirtiéndose en una especie de juez de los acontecimientos; en realidad, según ha dicho, esto «me ha servido enormemente como experiencia, ya que cuando rodamos tenía 16 años, así que he aprendido con todo lo que he visto y he tratado de absorber toda la potencia del personaje». Mientras hablaba, Munt le miraba con aire maternal, y no ha podido evitar un tierno comentario: «este chico me ha robado el corazón, de verdad. Creo que voy a adoptarlo». Vista la intensidad de la propuesta, podría dar la impresión de que se trata de una película triste, aunque la realizadora ha querido desmarcarse de esa idea, alegando que «es mi visión de la vida. Todos tenemos algún anciano en nuestra vida, y a chavales jóvenes, y todos tenemos relaciones que avanzan a trancas y barrancas… Es así. A mí lo que me parece triste es el típico chico-conoce-chica/chico-besa-chica/felices-para-siempre; creo que lo bonito es conectar con los demás, tirar del carro todos juntos de la mejor manera posible. Ahora bien, esta es mi idea, lo que quiero es que cada espectador saque sus propias conclusiones. Pero no he querido ahondar en la tragedia».

Volviendo a los actores, dan vida a profesionales del teatro, pero dentro de una película de ficción. Las opiniones sobre la dificultad de aunar ambas formas de trabajar han sido distintas; por un lado, Francesc Garrido se ha mostrado «encantado, ha sido un sueño. Lo mejor de ambos mundos, máxime con una directora de actores como Silvia. Ha sido sencillo, también porque siempre confías en que la cámara haga su trabajo, y recoja cada punto y cada pauta concreta». Por su parte, Mercè Llorens ha declarado haberse «concentrado muchísimo en la actriz de teatro, me olvidé un poco de dónde estaba la cámara, hasta el punto de que cuando vi el resultado final descubrí otra película. Me resultó complicado, no saber dónde está la mesura; algo que agradecí mucho fue poder ensayar, no siempre tienes la oportunidad y ayuda mucho». En el lado opuesto, Ramón Madaula, cuyo Daniel es un médico de geriátrico enfrentado a su pareja por el hecho de que considera que los artistas no aportan nada a la sociedad, todo lo contrario que él: «sabe que es la mujer de su vida, pero considera que su profesión es superflua. Esto es cierto un tanto en nuestro mundo, en el que lo artistas copan las portadas de las revistas mientras que médicos y tantos otros, gente útil que hace que todo funcione realmente, son anónimos». La propia Munt ha rematado el comentario: «también buscamos expresar las complejidades de la vida en pareja, cómo la fuerza de la costumbre puede acabar con todo, pero por otra parte puede impulsarte a seguir sin realmente quieres a la otra persona. Creo que es así, y creo en la vida».


Kim Ki-Duk goes for something a little less extreme with Breath, a spare and potentially less disturbing film than one might expect from the well-known auteur, whose predilection with cruelty and violence have made him a notorious arthouse figure. The film stars Taiwanese actor Chang Chen as Jang Jin, a death row inmate who attempts to hasten his upcoming demise by stabbing himself in the throat with a sharpened toothbrush. The attempt is unsuccessful, only raising the concern of his cellmates, one of whom who carries an unspoken homoerotic crush on the doomed Jang. The suicide attempt also makes the news, reaching the attention of disaffected housewife Yeon (Zia), who passes her days sculpting, doing laundry, and generally looking like she's going to step off her balcony one day.

Yeon has a daughter and a husband (Ha Jung-Woo), but the latter has strayed. Impelled by her anger or perhaps merely her daily monotony, Yeon visits the prison, and asks to see Jang Jin, saying that she's his ex-girlfriend. She's rejected, but is let in soon afterwards by the prison's apparent in-charge, a faceless, nameless individual running the prison's security cameras. This person seems to have an odd and perverse interest in seeing Yeon interact with Jang Jin, first separated by a window, and then within the confines of a visiting room during her later visits. At the first visit, she tells Jang about her own near-death experience, when she held her breath for five minutes underwater as a child. After telling Jang Jin not to hurt himself again, she leaves, returning to her cold, evidently unfulfilling life.

But she returns again and again, bringing a new season each time. During each visit, she wallpapers the visiting room to resemble a season, dresses in the appropriate clothing, and even sings a song, while Jang Jin looks on quietly. He's mute because he stabbed himself in the throat - which helps out the Korean-impaired Chang Chen - and he watches her curiously, intently, and ultimately affectionately. Chang turns in a fine performance, considering that he can only communicate through minute actions and facial expressions, creating a character that's interesting and even sympathetic, though the enormity of his death-row crime seems a little jarring once its revealed. There seems to be a connection between his crime and Yeon's life, as the cold reality of modern life is portrayed as a silent, oppressive weight, suffocating individuals until they can only react, either by forming a bizarre connection with a death row prisoner or, in the case of Jang Jing, something far, far worse.

Kim Ki-Duk is not explicit about the film's message, but the themes are obvious. His settings are cold and unwelcoming, with only Yeon's wallpapered visiting room and colorful outfits and performances providing any spark or life. It seems that the characters in Breath must step outside the norm to find life, and create it for themselves if it's not there. Otherwise, life is a drag, with people seemingly uncommunicative and unsympathetic towards one another. And yet Kim does allow the film its uplifting emotions, bringing unspoken understanding between characters and the promise of accord that seems to indicate better times even outside the visiting room's walls. Meanwhile, other characters take an almost perverse interest in Yeon's activities. The security monitor and even Yeon's husband seem to be okay with watching, almost like they see the benefit and even approve of her extreme playacting. Again, it seems like Kim is sending us a positive message. Maybe what he's saying is we all need a vacation, even if it's to a visiting room filled with colorful wallpaper announcing the arrival of fall. That, and people should let their loved ones have vacations.

Or maybe it's not all rosy, because Kim still has a chance to bring Breath some cynicism. There's complexity and a darkly humorous sensibility in how Kim arranges the film, creating characters that are perverse and unlikable, and yet engaging and sympathetic. Breath involves lots of repetition; each visit from Yeon brings a new season, plus new despair to Jang, and the pattern repeats up until the unexpected, quiet end. When it's all over, it's curious if the film really does make its aims clear, but there's emotional substance in the moments and in the wounded performance from Zia, who adds layers that the sparsely worded script doesn't communicate. Ultimately Breath manages to affect without really doing very much, using its quirky black humor and glimmers of small hope to speak volumes that may not really be there. For audiences - and even for the film's characters - the experience may be more about what is individually taken, rather than what is explicitly given. (Kozo 2007)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sostiene Pereira