- Observations on film art - http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog -

How to make a good genre movie, and/or do something different

David from Vancouver:

Why doesn’t Hollywood just outsource its genres to Asia? Keep making The Da Vinci Code and Capote, the presold blockbusters and the prestige indies, but leave the rest to people who know what they’re doing. Give the urban action movie to Johnnie To, Kitano Takeshi, and others who haven’t forgotten the furious intensity of White Heat or the ominous solemnity of The Godfather. Let the Koreans and the Japanese take over romantic comedy and the weepies. And as for horror–well, Hollywood’s remake machine acknowledges that more or less everybody does horror better than America.

Maybe people are finally getting it. The most celebrated director in the US has to get his career back on track with The Departed, the first Hollywood remake of a Hong Kong film (Infernal Affairs). Although Scorsese evidently claims he never saw the original (must be the only film he hasn’t seen), the point is clear. With the exception of smarty-pants B films (Torque, Running Scared, Crank), which are all good dirty fun, Hollywood genres have been severely blandified. Asian filmmakers, from India to Malaysia, have understood our genres better than we have, and they have given them a new visceral force and emotional edge.

Two cases in point from yesterday’s Vancouver Film Festival. Nishikawa Miwa’s Sway centers on two brothers, both involved in a mysterious death in a picturesque gorge. But how did it happen, and what effect will it have on the men? The film moves suspensefully from investigation to confession to trial and punishment, but at every step each character’s motives are questioned. Superbly plotted, Sway creates an unforgettable character in the apparently cheerful gas-station attendant Minoru, a man who harbors unexpected depths of anger and self-abasement. No American movie would have dared to give him such a rich array of contradictory traits, and right up to the last shot we are left to question what he did, and what he will do next. Classic Hollywood directors understood that genres could be tools for probing personality (Ford in My Darling Clementine, Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings, Hitchcock in practically anything). Nishikawa’s thriller is on that path as well.

Or take Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, the monster movie that has jammed eager audiences into three screenings in Vancouver. It is, as Tony Rayns mentioned in his introduction to yesterday’s matinee, one of the most popular movies in the world right now. It achieves its strength from its sheer mastery of genre storytelling. Dysfunctional family–> monster attacks–> family fights back: No surprise at this level of plotting, but Bong displays his sure knowledge of classical construction throughout. We get a trim four-part structure, and everything that will pay off at the climax is carefully planted in the opening scenes. Pointed criticism of American indifference to people overseas and sly pokes at Korean bureacracy are smoothly integrated into the action.

Bong makes clever use of props as motifs (watch out for those beer cans), and characters are at once funny and sympathetic. The alternation of humor, even gross bits, and shock is finely timed. On top of all these pleasures we get a remarkable monster, endowed with an athletic grace and fluency far from the lumbering Godzilla. Most important, Bong dares to make us grieve. Without giving too much away: contrast his film’s climax with the end of Spielberg’s (admittedly, pretty good) War of the Worlds, in which even those whining children are allowed to survive. The Host deserves all the praise it’s earned, and it marks another landmark in Korean cinema.

It’s an odd experience to watch Sway and The Host with hundreds of people sitting in breathless attention–no cellphone buzzes, no chatter, just the power of compelling storytelling. Just as spellbinding, though in a different register, was Ho Yuhang’s Rain Dogs. A coming-of-age story about a young man’s difficult relations with his family in rural Malaysia, it was exquisitely filmed, in a sort of Bresson-meets-Hou style. Lyrical landscapes and details of village life are punctuated by bursts of violence, and Ho’s elliptical approach to storytelling (delaying information about what is actually going on in people’s minds) is no less engrossing than genre work. We get a psychology-based uncertainty akin to that in Sway, but without the mystery plot to pull us through.

Rain Dogs joins an international tradition, that of Satayajit Ray and the Neorealists and “art cinema” more generally, but it’s been rethought in very local terms. In all, it’s another, equally valid, approach to storytelling. Interestingly, Ho (admirer of The Asphalt Jungle, Jim Thompson, and Robert Aldrich) says that his next project will be a crime movie. Maybe Scorsese will remake it.