This was quite a weekend for film if you were in New York, what with Cristi Puiu‘s critically adored "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" at the Film Forum (our New York Film Festival review is here) along with "Army of Shadows," and of course, you could pick your version of cinematic Asian femininity: demure Korean revenge-obsessive, languid Taiwanese pseudo-Bardot, or waifish Cantonese recovering addict (all of these films being strategically released together and during the first weekend of the Tribeca Film Festival to insure minimal attendance: "Lazarescu" apparently pulled in a fat opening weekend haul of…$5880).
We’ve seen "Lady Vengeance" twice since the New York Film Festival (review here), not because we like it so much (though we do like it) as much as that we’re still trying to sort out what we think of Park Chan-wook. Two years after "Oldboy" picked up the Grand Jury prize at Cannes, Tartan Films seems content to aim "Lady Vengeance" at the fanboy crowd, smacking a Harry Knowles quote there at the top of the poster. Have we already wiped our hands of Park as a quality director? That seems to be the point of Nathan Lee‘s review in the New York Times, which is so devoted to bashing Park that it scarcely has space to actually tackle the film at hand.
We’re of the opinion that "Oldboy" is studded with scenes that are undeniably virtuoso, but is also based on what turns out to be such a ludicrous plotline that we feel like smacking upside the forehead anyone who tries to argue that the film manages any kind of grand statement about revenge. "Lady Vengeance" is better than "Oldboy" â€” it’s less silly, more pointed, and yes, we can buy that it has something to say about the foolishness of convincing oneself that revenge is for anything other than personal satisfaction. But…what of it? We still love the gleaming pop quality of the first 45 minutes, but once Park settles in for the grim, messagey slog of the rest of the film we could care less. It’s the end that really sticks in our mind; done with all his gothic revenge sequences, Park indulges in a moment of weary, well, sympathy for his heroine that’s worth more than a dozen bloody pairs of scissors lodging between someone’s vertebrae.
And "Three Times" (review here) is simply as lush a slice of pure cinema as you can imagine. Which is probably why people have walked out of or fallen asleep at it at both of the screenings we’ve attended. We can understand â€” Hou Hsiao Hsien‘s film are far from audience-friendly in their pacing. But for fuck’s sake, suck it up â€” some of those scenes are what movies were invented for.
We’re in the minority in loving Olivier Assayas‘ frustrating, fascinating last film, "Demonlover," which "Clean" is pretty much nothing like. Briskly straightforward, "Clean" is the story of a former rock star girlfriend/hanger-on Emily Wang, whose drifting life of bouncing from low-rent gig to cheap hotel room to next heroin fix with her once-famous boyfriend is interrupted when he dies of an overdose and she’s jailed for possession. Out after six months, she weans herself off the drugs and tries to get her life back in order enough to be allowed to see her son, who lives with his grandparents in Vancouver.
Assayas wrote the part of Emily with his ex-wife Maggie Cheung in mind, and it’s a bit of a loaded gift. Emily is a role any actress would kill for: She swans around in fabulous rocker-chick outfits, she has occasional breakdowns, fiends for pills, is alternately selfish and snobbish and vulnerable, and hell, even gets to sing. But she’s also past her prime, and the film’s most cutting moments have nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with the humiliation of being too old for the role in life you’ve set aside for yourself.
Cheung is very good, but if the film was written to both dirty her up and bring her down to earth, it fails. Cheung, who seems to have become more beautiful and more remote as she’s rounded 40, may have been the subject of one of the most memorable aestheticizations of a female ever committed to celluloid in "In the Mood for Love." But even stripped of makeup and working tables at a Chinese restaurant in Paris, she never seems less coolly iconic, her striking, luminous looks never believably slipping by unnoticed in the background. It’s by no means a terribly quality for a star to have, but, in the context of this, Assayas’ attempt to offer Cheung up to the world as a Serious Actress, it’s almost a detriment â€” her Emily may be a drug-addled wreck who’s lost anything, but it’s hard to truly believe that oceans wouldn’t still part for her if she asked.
Open in limited release.
+ Clean (IMDb)