Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Skateboard Immorality, Face to Face With the Devil and Black Cat

I saw a trio of films in March that didn't quite live up to expectations.

Machotaildrop; (2009) - Official Website
I Saw the Devil starring Byung-hun Lee & Min-sik Choi; directed by Jee-woon Kim; Korean with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Kuroneko; directed by Kaneto Shindô; Japanese with subitles; (1968)


Machotaildrop was billed by the Roxie as the "surprise hit of Indiefest." I recalled that Jason Wiener thought highly of it. When it played for a week after Indiefest closed, I decided to catch it.

The plot dealt with a skateboarder who signs a contract with a skateboard manufacturing company. They make him a star through videos and other products lines. However, he has to move to their compound which is on a island. He begins to notice weird things such as the gnomish elderly people who construct the products or the post-apocalyptic gang (they look like rejects from The Warriors) of punks who maraud the island. It turns out that his contract requires him to be slave labor after he gets too old or injured to skate the halfpipe. I'm surprised they didn't turn the old into soylent green.

Anyway, I found the film more derivative than homage to say Willy Wonka. I dozed off for part of it so I can't say with certainty that it was wholly unenjoyable. When I was conscious, I found the film less than enjoyable. The gang leader seemed to be doing a Bobcat Goldwaithe impersonation which quickly grew tiresome. The main evildoer was the Baron whose facial hair and vocal patterns proved tiresome as well. Enough said about Machotaildrop; if you enjoyed it, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.


I Saw the Devil was yet another of these ultra-violent revenge films from Korea. From their cinema, you would think vigilantism against serial killers, rapists and child molesters is commonplace in South Korea. I don't really finds these films enjoyable. The violence doesn't bother me but after a few of these films, the storylines begin to blur together. The only one of these I recall enjoying was The Chaser (2008) which I saw at the 2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. That one was a little different because the protagonist was a pimp who was avenging his whore's murder.

I Saw the Devil focuses on a serial murderer/rapist (whose known associates includes a cannibal!) picks the wrong woman to murder. He has unwittingly killed the fiancée of a secret service agent and the daughter of a police chief. Rather than solving the crime or even avenging the murder, the secret service agent decides to ratchet things up. He repeatedly catches, beats and releases the serial killer. He is able to do this because upon their first encounter, he shoves a capsulized GPS tracker down the killer throat.

Eventually, the killer discovers how he is being tracked. After taking some laxatives (nice scene where he scoops out the capsule from his fresh pile of soft fecal matter), the killer turns the table on his stalker and takes the fight to his inlaws.

Maybe some people enjoy this but it seemed terribly contrived to me. To make matters worse, the performances were oddly flat. Byung-hun Lee as the Secret Service agent goes about his role in such a stolid manner that he turns a thinly developed character into a bore. The character does turn into something worse than the killer he is tormenting but that descent was largely lost in Lee's performance. Min-sik Choi has the meatier role as the killer and has some fun with the role but he played the killer without a trace of humanity; more like a cartoon. Giving the killer a little bit more angst and regret would have made the film infinitely more enjoyable.

Byung-hun Lee and director Jee-woon Kim most recently collaborated on The Good, the Bad and the Weird which was also disappointing albeit lighter fare.


Finally, there was the cult classic Kuroneko which was re-released last year by Janus Films and played at the Castro. Director Kaneto Shindô made Onibaba (1964) which I saw at the PFA tribute retrospective for Kashiko Kawakita. The soundtrack was similar which I liked. The plot was also similar which I thought compared unfavorably to Onibaba.

In both films, a woman and her daughter-in-law are left to fend for themselves when the man of the house goes off to war. In Onibaba (which mean old devil woman or devil hag), the two women lure samurai to their deaths until the commence to fight between themselves. In Kuroneko (which means black cat in Japanse), the two women are gangraped and murdered by bandits (or perhaps desperate samurai) but come back as black cats. The younger woman changes into human form to lure samurai to their death. The man of the house returns triumphantly from war. He is given a title and the assignment of banishing the ghosts who have been killing samurai for the past year. When he confronts the ghosts, he sees a resemblance between them and his mother and wife. The sets up the final confrontation which I won't give away because its one of the better parts of the film.

Director Kaneto Shindô wife, Nobuko Otowa plays the mother-in-law in both films. I thought she was more effective as the earthy and petty woman in Onibaba. Kiwako Taichi plays the daughter in Kuroneko which is the bigger role.

The film was not so much a horror film. It was re-release by Janus Films because it is an arthouse film. It evokes a certain mood. I found the repetition of luring samurai to their death to be tedious even though it was done in a montage sequence. When the son finally confronts the two ghosts, it takes awhile for the action to commence. There was a lot of inner conflict and psychological posturing which seemed out of place. The level of introspection seemed out of place by J-horror standards. As I watched the Kuroneko, I couldn't help but think how much more I enjoyed Onibaba.

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