South Korean film-maker Lee Chang-dong would have been drummed out of a Hollywood mogul’s office in the first minute of pitching the plot for Poetry. “It’s about this 66-year-old grandmother afflicted with Alzheimer’s who lives with a slow-witted teenage grandson suspected of having participated in the gang-rape of a girl who later commits suicide … ”
“Okay, Mr Dong, we run an entertainment business here.”
“And she goes to adult poetry classes to make sense of her life which includes a randy elderly care-work client who … ”
“Okay, Mr Dong. That’s it. We don’t do rape, suicide or oversexed senior citizens here. This is Sunshine Pictures. Try HBO; they like that sort of thing.”
What sane person, though, couldn’t like this pellucid, extraordinary film (a hit last year at Cannes) – at least by the time it has taken 140 minutes to wreathe its dramatis personae into a living, breathing, complex bouquet of human life? The characters are all important, all richly realised. Not just grandma (played by veteran actress Yoon Jeong-hee): a floridly dressed old dear with bead-bright eyes, a bustling fretfulness and an ability to brave life’s more grotesque battles. As well as her grandson’s misadventures, these include a wealthy stroke victim she part-time-nurses, who misbehaves (or tries to) at bath time, and the colluding parents of the gang-rape boys, who try to buy the silence of the dead girl’s parents. By a defiant self-will of mind and spirit, which includes poetry classes, the heroine tries to transcend the insufferable and to find a way – redemptive if, ultimately, startling – to mend it.
But it isn’t just grandma who compels. The shifty, shiftless grandson, the old man throwing the last die of his sexual desire, even the preposterous poetry teacher have their inner lives and outer vividness. The “poetry” in the movie is, of course, the transforming power of art, including cinema. Says the teacher: “How many times have you seen an apple? You’ve never seen one.” How many times have we seen the components of this plot? The crimes of the young; the trials of the old; the lone individual fighting for truth and decency. But they were never mixed like this before. Never given such an unlikely, varicoloured bloom of hope, humanity, mordant scepticism and wry grace.
Japanese animation is the most sinisterly beautiful film form in the world. What gives heft and magic to Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and other classics is that they are a little frightening with their lyricism. Worlds can come apart. Paradise holds the germ of destruction. Horror may visit in the blink of an eye. When were you last scared by a Disney film?
Maybe it is the Hiroshima heritage. Even Arrietty, “scripted and planned” by Hayao Miyazaki, the master himself, for director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, brings a sense of cataclysm to an innocent-seeming story. The source is Mary Norton’s novel The Borrowers (already filmed pedestrianly by Hollywood). To “borrow” life’s basics, from sugar to thread to pins, the tiny folk living under the floors raid the rooms of the spacious country cottage. It sits in the Japanese dream of an Anglo-western garden: a luxuriant jungle of grass and wild flowers, pearled with raindrops, honeydewed with taste and fragrance. Poppies riot; grasshoppers scamper; ivy climbs the house like Tarzan vines.
Sumptuously dense of colour, the background images set off the lithe 2D quirkiness of the characters: the Tinkerbell-tiny girl who conquers fear to befriend the hundred-times-taller boy upstairs, the “borrower” parents (bossy-yet-panicky mum, stoically resolute dad), the boy’s nanny whose greedy nose for trouble leads her to the tiny people’s hideout. An early raiding sequence, through mouse holes and mains sockets to the gargantuan kitchen, is thrilling. So, to those who love Japanese animation’s visual shorthand, are the movie’s smaller moments. A wobbling key-light in a girl or boy’s eye: that’s all you need to suggest the brimming of tears. A grey-and-white seeming cloud formation armed with menacing teeth: that’s the face in close-up of an angry cat. This is sorcery for film-goers. (Forget Harry Potter). This is screen enchantment.
There are few more toxic words in film criticism than “honourable”. A Better Life, directed (improbably) by Chris Weitz of American Pie and New Moon, is a tale of Latino lives caught in fate’s crosshairs. It is, yes, honourable. But let’s administer the antidote words: it’s also fresh, human, insightful, moving. The Mexican immigrant father (Demián Bichir, Che’s Fidel Castro) slaves as a gardener’s assistant in the smoggy infinities of Los Angeles, saving enough, he hopes, to save from drugs and gangs his sullen, hotheaded teenage son (José Julián).
Suddenly the tale is sliced across by a De Sica moment. Pickup-Truck Thieves! A life support item is stolen. Rage and despair replace hard-revving decency. The new story fissures immigrant LA like a faultline, opening up glimpses of other lives chasm’d by tragedy. You could dismiss this skilfully crafted movie (story by Roger Simon, script by Eric Eason) as mere worthy-cause TV drama. Grievances of the week are aired; hope triumphs after a fashion. But the ending has a germ of seditious ambiguity, and what goes before has a hard-worked, often harrowing humanity.
Captain America! He swoops across the world trying to save it from 3D. He flies from theatre to theatre swiping the specs from stereoscopy-fatigued audiences. He throws them into a burning crater near the earth’s centre. He rounds up the fat tycoons trying to make a killing from an exhausted gimmick. He ties the tycoons in a bundle and fires them into outer space.
If only. Do we really need 3D vision for yet another nostalgic romp about a folk-hero from America’s comic book past? Barely any leap-into-your-lap moments enliven the tale of a shield-bearing freedom fighter (Chris Evans) part-moulded by the mid-20th-century media – that might have been interesting – who fights the raving minions – that never could have been – of the manic Nazi (Hugo Matrix Weaving) with the silly accent and crimson physiognomy,
Here’s another thing about 3D. Every time I removed my specs for a retinal breather, the screen brightened. It brightened. Why are we putting up with this? Why are we consenting – never mind paying more – to watch images actually made dimmer by 3D lenses: lenses which in some movies barely provide a multidimensional experience anyway? This craze, or its latest revival, has become the Emperor’s New Hand-Me-Downs. Lots of panoply and puffery, flattering a process that is becoming as bare as a birthday suit.
From Kyrgyzstan comes The Light Thief, a zigzaggy charmer laying out crafted inconsequence like a crazy-paved garden. Comedy? Drama? Genre-picture of provincial life? All three, really. Actor-film-maker Aktan Arym Kubat directs himself as the wide-eyed slyboots of the title, an electrician arrested for fixing meters, then freed to fight a land baron and bring wind power to his village. Towards the end the plot wanders like a blindfolded camel, which comes close to a literal description of a late uproarious scene: an adult party game that you definitely, definitely shouldn’t try at home.