Monday, 2 May 2011

Cinema 16: #1. Wasp (Andrea Arnold, 2003) / Judgment (Park Chan-wook, 1999)

In this new series for E-Film blog I'll be reviewing, in pairs, the films on the Cinema 16: World Short Films DVD, hoping to highlight work that often goes unseen or underrated. First up is Andrea Arnold's Wasp (2003) and Park Chan-wook's Judgement (1999)...

Wasp (Andrea Arnold, 2003)
Wasp, the Oscar-winning short which announced Andrea Arnold as an heir to the social realist throne of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, is an unflinching portrait of miserablism-in-extremis, set in the industrial town of Dartford. Zoë (Natalie Press) is a 23 year-old single mum, lower class and with four kids. She's broke and frustrated with life, so is overjoyed when an old friend named Dave (Danny Dyer) swings by and asks her out. She pretends the four kids in tow don't belong to her and accepts, leaving them outside the pub with two packets of crisps and a glass of coke.

With her feature films Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) Arnold proved that she could find astonishing beauty in even the bleakest of scenarios. Despite the grimy locations, handheld camerawork and depressing content Wasp is no exception, unfolding like a visual poem and displaying the same haunted ethereality of the aforementioned features (all shot by Robbie Ryan). Zoë is likely a victim of circumstance and bad judgement, which are not crimes, but she's a terrible mother and a character I struggle to have any sympathy with. Having said that I recognize that her life is a saddening reality for many young women in this country today, and I see in her the reflection of people I once went to school with, no more than five years ago. The ending pretends optimism by playing the forgotten radio hit 'Hey Baby!' over the image of Dave's car speeding away, but we know all too well that this happiness can't last. It's just not the British way...

Judgement (Park Chan-wook, 1999)
This brilliantly bizarre disaster-cum-domestic drama is the only short by South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, and remains his one true masterpiece (yes, I have seen Oldboy, 2003). It's a decidedly odd film, telling the tale of two families who claim the body of a young girl killed during an earthquake. A reporter and government bureaucrat are also on the scene to help prevent the misallocation of compensation. For the first 24 minutes the film, shot by DoP Pak Hyun-chul, is in black and white, but abruptly shifts to colour for a (literally) shocking semi-religious ending - as dazzlingly ambiguous and thought-provoking as cinema can get.

Chan-wook talks about the film as a social commentary, representing a "collective mood of fear", and the central plot is intercut with real news footage of the earthquake which hit the Sampoong Department Store in 1995. But what's really fascinating and compelling about the film is the way in which Chan-wook melds genres, comfortably sitting this footage against chillingly black comedy, such as the scene where a freezer is revealed to be holding beer cans as well as a decapitated corpse (you have to make good use of storage space these days). The camera gently glides through the room, taking in both its emptiness and detail (the crucifix on the wall is important) and we never sit at ease with the characters, none of whom can be trusted. At heart the film is a mystery, but the familial drama has a political backbone, laughs play alongside grisly horror and the ending (an aftershock which chooses its victims) hints toward a master filmmaker who I don't think has quite lived up to his promise yet. It may take a while to come around to, but Judgement is actually a breathtakingly accomplished work of art... seek it out.

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