Diary of the 14th Annual Philadelphia Film Festival

4/18/05:



Films I saw today: Arahan, Cutie Honey, Kontroll



Arahan

Arahan is one of those uniquely Asian films (in this case, Korean) that is so silly and goofy that it's in danger of being childish, and yet at the same time so intense and serious that it's in danger of being melodramatic. Luckily, the film weathers both dangers well, and ends up being just a purely exciting and fun cinematic experience.

The story is relatively simple and familiar: a young street cop named Sang-hwan stumbles upon a secret world of magic and quickly finds himself entangled in it. There are good guys, who run a martial arts academy and all have astounding, super-human powers; amongst them is a beautiful young woman whom our cop hero instantly falls for. Sang-hwan discovers he also has strong "chi" within him which simply hasn't been awakened yet, but with the help of the girl and her masters, he might become a powerful force in his own right.

Unfortunately, and inevitably, there's also a bad guy (although he would argue that he's not bad, he's just "come to a different conclusion about what's best for the world"). He used to be with the martial arts masters at the academy, but he split from them and was imprisoned. Now he's back and threatening to kill them all in his attempts to find the key to a secret power that could give him the ability to rule the world. Ultimately, of course, it falls to Sang-hwan to save the day.

The film is loaded with crazy slow-motion action and goofy slapstick comedy, and also includes some serious hard-core melodrama. I love the action, and although I'm usually not a fan of melodrama or this particular brand of comedy, I think Arahan handles both relatively well. I still find it odd and disorienting to have these three disparate genres jammed together in one film, and with so little transition between each, but that may be a personal or cultural issue. The point is, Arahan is a fun movie, and I enjoyed it.

My Poll Rating: Excellent (although on further consideration, I'd probably downgrade this to Very Good)

Intermission

After Arahan, I had a short trip between screenings, literally and thematically - I was staying in the same theater, and heading into another Asian film which promised a similar heady mix of goofiness, melodrama, and action...

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Cutie Honey

The easiest way to describe the manic/goofy/cute action fest that is Cutie Honey is to call it a live-action anime (unsurprisingly, it was adapted from an anime and manga - or comic book, for the uninitiated). If you're not familiar with Japanese animation...well, it's also kind of like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Does that help? If not, watching the film will probably still be an entertaining experience, but it may also be a bit confusing and dizzying. If you know and like anime, however, Cutie Honey will definitely not disappoint.

Our titular character (and I use the word "titular" very purposefully), known to most as Honey Kisaragi, is the cutest, nicest, and most innocent young woman you could ever hope to meet. She is also, at the same time, incredibly sexualized and often just barely not nude (especially throughout the manga/anime title sequence). That's what we call "fan service," and there's plenty in the movie. She works (not for peanuts, but for rice balls) at an office where she prepares tea for everyone and ends up staying late doing other people's work for them because she can't say no. She doesn't really fit in very well in the strict, buttoned-down, hierarchical business world; she's always forgetting to serve the tea in the correct order so that the most important people get it first. She's also late all the time because she's busy with her other job: fighting hideous monsters and criminals as the super hero Cutie Honey.

Cutie Honey's powers come from an amazing technology called the i-System, which was developed by Honey's close friend and mentor, Dr. Uzuki. As the film opens, Uzuki has just been kidnapped by the evil Panther Claw, who's really just one of the incredibly odd and creepy lackeys working for the powerful and evil entity known as Sister Jill. Sister Jill wants the i-System so she can stay beautiful and young forever. Obviously, Honey must save the doctor and defeat Sister Jill. But meanwhile the suspicious, straight-laced, and incredibly hot female police chief Aki Natsuko is trying to track down Cutie Honey (whom she considers to be a dangerous vigilante) and discover her true identity. And what's the story with Hayami Seiji, the male reporter who keeps showing up claiming to be Honey's friend? Can he be trusted? Who is he, really? And, for that matter, who is Cutie Honey?

Cutie Honey is loaded with fast-paced action and comedy hijinks (a particular highlight is when Hayami, Aki, and Honey all get wasted and sing karaoke together). It is supremely silly and incredibly fun. It slows down, gets a bit serious, and dips into melodrama at the climax, but it comes out grinning at the end, and so will you.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

I felt a little ashamed at how much I enjoyed Cutie Honey. Luckily, a dash across town to the Bridge theater was to take me to my final film, a movie quite serious, artsy, and metaphorical enough to keep me from being ashamed at finding it absolutely fantastic.

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Kontroll

Who would have thought that an incredibly atmospheric, exquisitely filmed, beautifully acted, complex, moving, and darkly comic drama could be made entirely within the Budapest subway system? And yet here it is, easily one of the best films I saw at the festival this year, and possibly the best: Kontroll. That it is a directorial debut (by Nimrod Antal, who also co-wrote the screenplay) makes it only that much more impressive as a cinematic achievement.

The movie opens with an amusing disclaimer from an employee at the Budapest subway, and then plunges us into another world. I didn't know a lot about Kontroll coming into it, so I was perfectly ready to believe that the film was set in some science-fictiony, post-apocalyptic future where people all lived in a huge underground city. It wasn't until about fifteen minutes or so into the movie that I was finally convinced that it was actually set in the real world, in the real Budapest subway. This is how surreal and other-worldly, how complete and encapsulated unto itself, the universe of Kontroll is.

Of course, later in the film, we discover that parts of this world, at least, may not even be as real as they appear, and that some of the things we've seen (if not all) may have been merely dream, hallucination, or metaphor. The film retains this disorienting sense of dualism (trialism?) and surreality to the very last frame, and never resolves itself into just one story, instead accepting and embracing its multiple levels as all equally real and important. I found this gave the film a tinge of the fantastic, but also a complexity and weight that it would not otherwise have had if it had admitted at the end that, oh, that was just a dream, or this person was just crazy.

On one of its levels, Kontroll is a rather simple story about a gang of ticket-inspectors in the Budapest underground. Their job is to patrol the train cars and harass people to show their tickets so they can be validated, and if they don't have a ticket, to buy one and pay a fine. But in fact, the ticket officers are the ones who are harassed, constantly and mercilessly, by the passengers. They are always being ignored, cursed at, belittled, degraded, and even attacked. When one of them says, later in the film, "Everyone hates us," you believe him.

Even though this is handled mostly in a very amusing way, like a comedy of errors, there are still some very tragic and dramatic consequences to the strange, battered lives of the ticket-inspectors. If they weren't broken misfits when they got this job, the job has made them that way. (Although, to be fair, every type of person in the underground - officers, passengers, and engineers - has its share of strange characters and weird personalities.) When, after a terrible incident on the tracks, all the inspectors must go in for psycho-analysis, the psychiatrist is overwhelmed. "They're all crazy!" he mutters at last.

Some of them, of course, are crazier than others. One who may be much crazier than he at first appears is our main character, Bulcsu. Bulcsu, we learn eventually, ended up here after leaving his life in the world above behind. He had been very skilled at something (what, exactly, we never learn) but began to lose confidence in himself - to be afraid he wasn't the best - and eventually he retreated underground to escape the pressure. Now he's been fully absorbed into the strange little culture of the ticket-inspectors, which has its own jargon, cliques, customs, and dangers. Bulcsu's group of officers has a little rivalry with another group, which eventually culminates in Bulcsu going "railing" with the leader of the other group. I'm trying to avoid ruining any of the surprises here, so I won't go into great detail about railing, but I will say that it involves running and trains. I think you can imagine the rest.

As if this underground life weren't dark and dangerous enough, the film opens by introducing us to a newer and even more terrifying peril that has begun stalking the tracks - a hooded man who's been pushing random passengers in front of trains. Bulcsu soon finds himself on the trail of this murderer, and eventually in direct conflict with him, but the criminal becomes no less mysterious or terrifying. Meanwhile, Bulcsu is also chasing love in the form of a beautiful girl who rides the trains in a big pink bear suit.

Kontroll is many stories, but it is above all the story of a man, splintered and beaten, who slowly finds a way to put himself back together and climb back out again into light and life. It is beautiful, hilarious, sad, exciting, frightening, and triumphant. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Epilogue

As I suggested above, many of the central questions of Kontroll remain unresolved at the end. Whereas I found this to be deeply satisfying, my friend David, whom I saw the movie with, found it to be deeply unsatisfying. We both agreed that the first half of the movie was excellent, but the open-ended conclusion really annoyed him. We argued about the movie for some time, debating our different interpretations, but ultimately we had to agree to disagree and go our separate ways.

And so this was the end of my film festival adventure this year. It felt a little less like an ending than it has felt in years past because I still wasn't sure as I was leaving Kontroll whether it was definitely my last film or not; I was considering going to one or two of the Festival Favorites the next day. But ultimately I decided that none of the Favorites looked interesting enough for me to drag myself out to the movies for another night.

Anyway, I saw at least six truly great films this year, and plenty more that really entertained me. There were, as usual, a few stinkers in the bunch, but that's impossible to avoid. All-in-all, it was another great year, and I look forward to the next one!

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Jim Genzano





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