Critic After Dark Noel Vera takes in another double bill, which are polar opposites - Walter Hill’s Bullet To The Head (the director’s return to violent form) and Lee Chang Dong’s Secret Sunshine (a relentless deliberation on suffering, anger and loss).
Walter Hill’s Bullet To The Head (2012) is easily the best recent American action flick around, and Hill can teach both Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan a thing or two about action filmmaking.
You heard me.
“But what about the script, a standard-issue buddy pic filled with standard-issue dialogue? What about Stallone, who hasn’t given a good performance in years?” Actually the script is 1) a decent workhorse plot with a handful of fairly clever twists, the dialogue a touch more amusing than it has any right to be (”Bang. Down. Owned.” “You had me at ‘fuck you!’”) because Stallone and co-star Sung Kang have good chemistry; and 2) if you want good dialogue and acting, go watch a stage play; the real reason to watch this is to welcome the return to the big screen of one Walter Hill, filmmaker - last reported retired, apparently not quite.
Hill speaks today’s action filmmaking language - handheld footage, ADHD editing - with admirable fluency (he was after all doing hardcore action back when some of these directors were still in grade school). He knows how to shake ‘em and cut ‘em, only unlike some of the relatively younger turks (I’m looking at you, Nolan) he only flirts with incoherence, mixing up the footage with more stable shots that anchor the action to their confined urban spaces.
And it isn’t as if he were repeating himself; the Hill that did The Long Riders or Southern Comfort or The Warriors used slow motion; Bullet does not, as if Hill were saying “That’s for kids; real men do it in real time.” There’s a showdown involving fireaxes that I thought was within shouting distance of Toshiro Mifune’s spear duel in The Hidden Fortress - high praise, I know, but I think the choreography, camerawork and editing deserves it.
A New Orleans critic called the showdown “a choppy series of frustratingly quick cuts that end up turning the whole sequence into a generic blur of clanks and blood spatters.” I say the man needs to see more Bob Fosse; Hill has the confidence to zoom in close, shake things up a bit, even accelerate the cutting rate to the point of confusion and just at the right moment pull back and allow the whole thing to come together inside your head.
And Hill unlike some filmmakers (I’m looking at you, Tarantino) knows how to evoke setting; knows how to evoke atmosphere; knows that the throwaway shots that fill the dead space between action setpieces are what help distinguish a coked-up hack from a real filmmaker.
New Orleans here may be an urban fantasy every bit as unreal as New York City in The Warriors, but it’s a memorably stylized fantasy - Stallone drives past an abandoned factory and it sits in the bright Louisiana sunshine like a disintegrating Czarist palace; old industrial spaces gleam with rust and dripping water, as if dipped in oil; Bobo’s shack squats over the gleaming bayou like an oversized poison toad.
When a car explodes and flips (we’re told that Stallone’s character was trained in demolitions, helping explain - barely - all the gratuitous detonations) the flame and smoke rise pyramidlike from one corner of the screen, and your spine can’t help but tingle at this bit of gorgeously served mis-en-scene.
Are the boys back in town? Not really - the film has earned the smallest amount of boxoffice of any in Stallone’s career, and barely registered in the local multiplexes before being pulled out, presumably due to poor ticket sales. But from the evidence onscreen Hill is back, and he’s back with a vengeance.
Lee Chang Dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007) is easily the most harrowing film of recent years; with its deceptively bright and artless cinematography (by Cho Yong-kyou, who also did Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie and Barking Dogs Never Bite) it conceals the machinations of a vast uncaring world ready to pull the unsuspecting in, chew them up in horrific ways, spit ‘em out like gristle.
Like Ozu or Naruse it seems Lee is able to sketch with elegant strokes the complicated life of a young woman named Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon in a tremendous performance) who has already suffered a tragedy; with son in tow she wants to replant roots in her dead husband’s hometown of Milyang, which in Chinese apparently translates to ‘Secret Sunshine.’ Lee is a modern master at the art of understatement, unreeling with relentless deliberation a story of suffering, anger and loss - leavened with not a bit of satire and observational, sometimes perverse, humor.
It’s perhaps useless to compare Lee to a seasoned sadist like Lars Von Trier; personally I find the contrast instructive: Lee’s heroines are generally less passive, more likely to possess a sense of wit or imagination (I just have to think of Emily Watson’s Bess or Bjork’s Selma and shudder at the sheer sense of victimization involved). Von Trier has often said he suffered from depression; watching his films I often feel he wants to share his depression with us, bringing along all the advantages of personal involvement (strong motivation, extensive experience) as well as disadvantages (a lack of perspective).
Lee from the evidence of his films doesn’t seem as emotionally entangled, bringing to the table his advantages: the patience to refrain from pushing till the victim (sorry, viewer) is numbed past the point of belief, or further suffering (at a certain point you stop weeping and start giggling); the judgment necessary to inflict only as much pain as necessary to prove the film’s thesis - not as much pain as will satisfy the filmmaker’s bloodlust.
Arguably the single most painful moment in the film (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) is the conclusion: as Shin-ae grasps desperately at one thing or another (church, sex, suicide) to steady herself, she finally and unexpectedly finds peace… and hence the cruelty.
Some kind of resolution, even one involving death, even one involving her death, could have provided closure; instead she’s granted breathing space, a moment of grace that enables her to move on, accept whatever else life has in store for her. She’s ready for more punishment in short, and you feel that Lee has a varied and limitless inventory set aside waiting for her - that’s the frame of mind you’re put in, after watching this film.
Note: You can also email Noel Vera at email@example.com.
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