Tuesday, September 27, 2011

TIFF - Final 3 Movies

For our final three movies of this year's TIFF, we picked what we thought were action thrillers from three different countries - Korea, USA and Hong Kong - this would go with the Norwegian movie "Headhunters" that we saw earlier.

The Korean movie "Countdown" deals with a ruthless, emotionless collections agent Tae Gun-Ho, who is extremely effective at his job and not shy about using violence to get his point across.  When he finds out that he has terminal liver cancer unless he can find a donor for a transplant, he goes on a personal collection mission to track down recipients of organs previously donated by his dead son.  He focuses on a female con artist named Cha Ha-Yeon, who is about to be released from jail, who received his son's heart.

Ha-Yeon agrees to be the donor on the condition that Gun-Ho finds the crime boss who set her up to take the fall for their last con.  What follows is a cat and mouse game between two, as Ha-Yeon tries to elude him to follow her own agenda, while Gun-Ho struggles to protect his liver donor from all the people trying to kill her including her old partner and all the other gangsters that she has conned.

While the movie is following this main plotline, it is fast paced, humourous and exciting, with car chases and fight sequences living up to the standards of the best action thrillers. Through it all, Gun-Ho is the cool, detached man of mystery with a squint that Clint Eastwood would be proud of.

Towards the end when two rival gangs converge looking for Ha-Yeon and the money with which she absconded, the scene was very reminiscent of Gangs of New York.

It seems to be typical of Korean movies (based on the three we've seen so far) to include a maudlin, overly sentimental storyline tacked on to any film genre, be it a comedy or an action movie like this one.  In the case of Countdown, the subplot dealt with how Gun-Ho's Downs Syndrome son died. It was as if we had moved onto a different movie without noticing. 

The Question and Answer session was interesting since the two main stars are apparently huge with the Korean crowd who squealed loudly and mobbed them as they took the stage.  One amusing tidbit arose when the director was asked why all the mobsters fought each other without the use of guns.  Apparently Korean gangsters don't carry guns since its "against the law".   This seemed so ironic when talking about gangsters!

Other culturally specific details in the movie involved a collection agent on his knees with his hands in the air to show shame for his bad collection results, and a huge gangster kowtowing to his boss when being being berated for not finding Ha-Yeon.  You don't find such details in Western films.

In our next film, Violet and Daisy are teenaged assassins for hire.  They are played respectively by former Gilmore Girl Alexis Bledel, and Saoirse Ronan who starred in the movies Atonement and Hanna.

The first scene parallels Pulp Fiction with Violet and Daisy carry on mundane, girlish chatter before jumping into killer mode to execute their latest hit.  The juxtaposition of the innocent, fresh-faced youths dressed up as nuns no less, firing automatic weapons with professional skill and detachment to massacre a gang of thugs twice their sizes, makes for a jarring yet hilarious scene.

But just as you settle in for what you think will be a Tarantino-like movie, this one makes an about face when Violet and Daisy take on a job to kill a man who has stolen from their boss.  When they fall asleep waiting for him to come home, they wake up to find he has tenderly covered them with a blanket and has baked cookies for them. James Gandofini plays the gentle, down-on-his-luck victim who wants to die and encourages the girls to finish him off, making it all the more difficult for them to do so.

At this point, the movie becomes more like a dialogue-driven stage play with the 3 main characters holding lengthy conversations that delve into each others psyches and motivations.  In between are various scenes of violence, such as when other gang members also show up to dispatch the man, leading to a gun battle with Violet and Daisy that results in the squeamishly funny "internal bleeding dance".

The entire movie has a surreal, fable-like aura.  Taken at face value it is very entertaining but you get the feeling that the director is trying to convey so much more, if you could only figure out what!

Which made it all the more frustrating during the "Q&A" that turned out to be all Q and not much A.  The audience obviously wanted the director's insight to figure out what he was going for and the significance or symbolism of various scenes and images.  He stubbornly refused to answer and gave the trite response that "it was better if the audience came to their own conclusions .. it's better not to ask questions".  This led to moderator Cameron Bailey saying in frustration, "that doesn't make for much of a question and answer session".

Our final film was "Living Without Principles" by Hong Kong director Johnny To, and starring Ritchie Ren.   We had seen these two before in previous TIFF movies like Accident and Fire of Conscience and based on those movies, we were looking forward to an action packed shoot 'em up, blow 'em up type of film.

What we got instead was a drama about the recent stock market crashes and how it affected the people of Hong Kong, as represented by a cop (Ritchie Ren) and his wife trying to buy a home outside of their price range, a mutual fund saleswoman (Denise Ho) desperate to make her quota and a mobster's lackey (Lau Ching-wan) trying to raise money to bail his gangster cohort out of jail.  Their stories converge when a loan shark is killed and robbed of a large sum of money that he had just withdrawn from the bank.

Some of the most interesting scenes involved the saleswoman fleecing a little old lady into investing her retirement savings in high risk emerging market BRIC funds and then going through the motions of "warning" her of the risks.  We wondered if the director was trying to draw parallels between the ethics of the banking industry and the gangsters. 

When it was all over, not a single gun was fired or bomb exploded.  Even the scene where the loan shark was killed was more a comedy of errors resulting in his death.  The only other violent scene was tinged with humour as a small time gangster gets his comeuppance when he tries to hack into his boss' computer systems to recover from a huge stock market loss.  In retribution, the boss stabs him with a fencing foil with a diamond encrusted flower shaped hilt.  The gangster trying to drive himself to the hospital with a flowered spike sticking out of his chest induced laughter from the crowd.

Richie Ren's policeman role and storyline was quite superfluous and did nothing to advance the plot.  It was like the role was tacked on so that the big named star could be attached to the movie.  Since we watched the last showing of this movie, the director had already returned to Hong Kong so there was no Q&A after the showing.

So of the four action movies that we watched, only Headhunters was a traditional thriller from start to finish.  The others all deviated from the genre's formula, to varying degrees of success.

All in all, it was a good TIFF for us this year with no really bad picks.  Looking forward to next year when we can do it again.

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