The President's Last Bang (South Korea, 2005) * * *
D: Im Sang-Soo
The 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival began at 7pm on the last Thursday of March. We were in a very not-sold-out showing of The President's Last Bang, at the University Theater, a beer-and-cheese-curds dive on campus that will be closing sometime in the next couple of months. It might be because of, as the woman behind me put it, "That smell of beef." Im Sang-Soo's film is a fictionalized retelling of the assassination of South Korean president General Park Chung-hee in 1979. The entire film takes place in one day, as the president's handlers, security team, and various officials prepare for a night that promises to be something of an orgy, as two beautiful women--a college student and a TV personality--are brought to a secluded home to have dinner with the womanizing president and his closest advisors. Instead, in one of the many satirical moments, the men merely swoon drunkenly while one girl plays guitar and sings love songs while the hours pass. Meanwhile, Kim, chief of the secret service, gets absorbed into an assassination plot hatched on the fly by the head of the KCIA (and who, through the course of the film, begins to lose his mind in a manner reminiscent of the "precious bodily fluids" scenes in Dr. Strangelove). It's not a comedy, but a black satire--not as broad as Kubrick's film but sprinkled with lots of wit. It's also very violent. In the film's strongest scene, the camera moves from room to room in the house after the slaughter, taking a God's-eye view of body after body sitting in pools of blood, while Kim stalks the halls, somewhat stunned at the evening's work. Anne thought the film was too comic to the point of silliness; I strongly disagree: there's an overwhelmng aura of sadness in this film, which has a valid concern about the fragility of a government in which its chief officers will follow any order. The film has flaws: there's virtually no plot structure, and no one to truly care about (not even Kim, who is distinctly unlikable), but the film is sharp: in one scene, an official has to quickly page through the country's constitution to determine who's presently in charge.
Isolation (U.K., 2005) * *
D: Billy O'Brien
Our last film of the festival's first day was a midnight movie at the grand ole Orpheum Theatre. Part of the supposed rennaissance in horror films from the U.K., it's got a great premise and a terribly cliched execution. On a remote Irish farm, a rancher, a vet, a scientist, and a young couple on the run face off against killer cow fetuses with teeth! Actually, the premise is promising: to increase production, the livestock are injected with an experimental drug. Instead, the cows give birth to calves that quickly give birth to more calves. And they're nasty things--one bites the vet while it's still in the womb (I don't want to get into the details of how). What could have been a great parody of mad cow anxieties--and that's absolutely what this is intended to be--instead becomes a largely humorless, completely unsurprising walk through all the old "The Thing" and "Alien" tropes that you can see on every Sci-Fi Channel movie of the week. Although the film is good to look at, and the cast is above average (including the beautiful Ruth Negga from Breakfast on Pluto), the script could have used more satirical punch and less mundane genre-plotting. What a waste. At any rate, the audience had a good time, though they were more frequently laughing at the film than with it.
Laura (U.S., 1944) * * * *
D: Otto Preminger
This is the fourth time I've seen Laura, but we went because Roger Ebert was there to present it, along with Madison film professor and author David Bordwell. The reason the screening was held in the smallest theater in Madison (the UW Cinematheque) is that it was an original print from 20th Century Fox, and thus needed to use the two-projector system for switching between reels (almost all theaters now use a single projector for reel changing). What's there to say? It's one of the greatest Hollywood mysteries ever made. Gene Tierney is the title character, killed by a shotgun blast to the face(!), Dana Andrews is the detective who infuriates the witnesses by distractedly playing with a ball-and-socket toy while interrogating them, Vincent Price is the romantic womanizer (he hadn't been typecast yet as a villain), and Clifton Webb is the effete gossip columnist who turns Laura into a powerful socialite before losing her to more manly men. With one of the best twists in any mystery film, ever.
In the post-screening discussion much was made of whether or not Laura is truly film noir (it's borderline, at best). But I think film noir isn't just style and lighting, but a pessimistic content. This is a very pessimistic film. The killer can only possess Laura through death, and detective Andrews find himself falling in love with the image and relics of a woman who is dead. In true film noir, true resolution can only come in failure or death--see the terrific ending of Kiss of Death, which I recently watched for the first time.
I only had about five seconds to say something to Roger Ebert, so I recommended he use Michael Haneke's thriller Cache for his annual shot-by-shot film analysis class. It's a film that really needs that kind of dissection.