Blind (dir. Ahn Sang-hoon, 2011, S.Korea)
Fantastic Fest, but with that in mind I can plainly say Ahn Sang-hoo's Blind is one of my all-time favorites at the fest, and a far stronger opening than anything from last year (mind you, I wasn't in town for Let Me In). Even after seeing loads other films — 17 at the time of this posting — Blind continues to resonate as a complex, chilling, thoroughly Korean thriller.
It begins with two camera treatments, actions shots of a b-boy contest in some dingy club vs. a first-person point of view of somebody rushing to break the show up. That gaze belongs to Min Soo-ah (a wonderful Kim Ha-neul), a tough and headstrong cop, who busts in there and nabs the dancer Dong-hyun, her younger bro, practically mid-windmill. She's ragging on him, he's whining and struggling to get back in the club, so Min pulls rank and handcuffs Dong-hyun inside her squad car, pealing out onto the rain-soaked night streets. BAM - horrific collision on an overpass, sending a bloodied Min sprawling in the roadway, the camera returning to first-person to show her gradually blurring vision, her brother pleading for her as the police car teeters dangerously over the side. Min crawls towards it, passes out, the car slides off the ledge onto the freeway below. BAM.
Cut to three years later. Min's fired from the police force — not because she's blind, they claim, but because she abused her power (like handcuffing her little brother inside a car, way to play the blame game). She's perfectly mobile around home and Seoul with her trusted seeing-eye dog Wisey, a beautiful golden labrador and totally another three-dimensional character in Ahn's film. But immediately we see her struggles: drivers honk at her and call her a retard if she hesitates in crossing an intersection; she tries cooking for herself and cuts and scalds her hands. Min leaves Wisey at home one day and, taking her walking stick, visits the sanctuary-like orphanage House of Hope, where she and her bro spent their formative years. Ahn selectively amplifies sounds here, as Min recalls the house's layout, from the staircase to grandfather's clock to portable heater. She de-telescopes her walking stick whilst waiting at a taxi stand for a ride back to town (another night of dousing downpour) and, in frustration of waiting seemingly hours for a cab (everyone around her, ignorant of the fact she can't see, nabs each incoming taxi), sticks out her arm and successfully lands a ride. Only… is it a taxicab? A second branch of this story, delivered by Ahn in taunting, measured bites, is that young women from Min's neighborhood have been disappearing, drugged and kidnapped by a predator handy with sedatives and brutality. And he, Myeong-jin (Yang Yeong-jo, devolving from a suave, venomous cobra to a berzerking Jason/Michael Myers hybrid) just happened to be driving the very much NOT cab-like Peugeot that picked her up. In a turn of twisted events, Min manages to escape him (or rather, is thrown from his car), but when she returns to the police station to report the previous night's shadiness, she sets off a whole explosive domino effect of pulse-quickening cat and mouse.
One of the awesomest, nerve-wracking examples occurs in the subway, with Min and Wisey dashing through corridor after spotless corridor, aided by the video-mode feature on her iPhone (and guided, via audio jack, by nervy teen Gi-sub (Yoo Seung-ho, just sulky enough) — once an opportunistic jerk trying to cash in on Min's first encounter w/ the killer, now a target himself), with Myeong-jin in hot pursuit. Like: they're full-out running here, a blind woman with a seeing-eye dog and a perfectly healthy sadist with a penchant for scalpels. It also concludes w/ one of the film's most intense scenes, as Wisey courageously saves Min, growling and struggling with Myeong-jin, pulling him from a lift so Min can escape, never letting go even as he wildly stabs at her hide. It's incredibly intense, particularly if you're an animal lover, which is why I caution it. Yet, it's so well played: Wisey's dedication to her owner and Min's redoubled resolve to face the murder and take him down.
And Min's really the only one to do it. Despite the entire police force out looking for the guy (and Detective Ho, peppering his frantic comedy w/ set phrases like "this is bonkers!", at her side), it's Min utilizing her keen senses (the smell of lighter fluid, the sound of footsteps and raindrops) and her police-trained ass-kicking ability that puts her firmly on par w/ the killer.
Haunters (dir. Kim Min-suk, 2010)
It bears mentioning that Kyu-nam's buddies Bubba and Al provide tech-savvy and comic relief that might go sorta unnoticed until you realize Bubba's from Ghana and Al from Turkey, yet these two dudes are basically fluent in Korean. But you'll probably notice that straight off (other characters continually bring the subject up, anyway). So mystery man's rub is sneaking into pawn shops, hypnotizing the staff to hand over all the money — done under stealth so the CCTVs don't pick up anything weird. And while Kyu-nam's out literally saving everyone, he has a run-in w/ mystery man that spirals into an all-out, nigh-apocalyptic showdown. Literally Kyu-nam vs. the world, or every resident of Seoul that comes in contact w/ mystery man. Director Kim doesn't give too much away, like origin stories for our main protagonist and antagonist, and that's a good thing. Better to dive straight into the action, knowing "this guy is good" and "this guy is bad, and he's gotta be stopped or else".
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) (dir. Tom Six, 2011, Netherlands)
Guess what? He absolutely extremely did. And if you found part one too shocking or too graphic and offensive for your tastes, well this one is like a billion times more brutal. Like Six explained at the Q&A of HCII's world premiere, part one was psychological: setting the tone, calling it "medically accurate", putting the notion and effect in our heads. Part two, therefore, is the physical, the big reveal, all the gory details.
It's as grimy and damp as the first film was clinical and pristine, set mostly in an underground car-park in London (where new antagonist Martin works) and a mildew-struck empty warehouse (where Martin acts out his fantasies), shot (almost) entirely in b&w. Because this squat, sweaty asthmatic is majorly obsessed with The Human Centipede, keeping a detailed scrapbook of Dr. Heiter's surgical procedures and general fanboy memorabilia. HCII even begins with the end of part one, literally, screening on Martin's laptop in his tiny office at the car-park. His modus operandi on tracking down prey is antipodean to Heiter's: Martin prefers a crowbar, sucking down hits of Ventolin in between smackdowns. He uses duct tape to seal wounds, a staple-gun over stitches, a hammer to knock out teeth. And lemme say something here: the teeth extraction scenes are severe, but for me the most acutely harsh instance of teeth extraction on film is Andrey Iskanov's unflinching Philosophy of a Knife — and further indication that a film need not be in color to be absolutely gruesome. Oh that (almost) entirely b&w quip from earlier? If you'd heard the buzz about HCII being shot in b&w w/ like "select brown highlights", one guess where those come in, after Martin's roughly assembled his very own human centipede! Thing is: Six takes it there, layering violent scene upon violent scene until it's a blur of brutality and bodily fluids w/ practically no room to take a breath. Then it's over, and I'll not give away the ending, but should you decide to see this film (coming to NYC and over a dozen other U.S. cities OCT 7 and nationwide On Demand OCT 12) and last 'til the very end, you just may be surprised at how it all turns out.
(The Human Centipede 2 image caption credit: copyright 2011 Six Entertainment)
Penumbra (dirs. Adrián & Ramiro Garcia Bogliano, 2011)
The ABCs of Death, deliver a sensorially jarring thriller set in ramshackle Buenos Aires. A purposefully cacophonous soundtrack, wild camerawork and lots and lots of numbing, cantankerous dialogue — mostly delivered by stuck-up lawyer Marga (Spanish actress Cristina Bondo) either on one of her many cell phone conversations or to anyone else onscreen who makes the grievous error of listening to her — equals one discomfiting view. This is compounded by the impending solar eclipse outside and the many Argentinian locals questioning Marga's wellbeing — "are you feeling OK?" — as she sets up a meet-and-greet with a supposed realtor in a vacant apartment flat whilst talking smack about how dirty Buenos Aires is and how she cannot wait to return to Barcelona. More and more visitors apparently involved with the flat's lease arrive, talking amongst themselves in encoded bursts as they seem to be plotting something sinister against Marga, something that somehow relates to the solar eclipse. Penumbra is not an easy watch, and if you're not a fan of lots of rapid-fire dialogue, the cast will probably annoy the hell out of you. But the gradual crescendo to whatever's gonna go down in the final act, as Marga's sanity starts fracturing under the unknown intentions of these many strange visitors, locked my interest, and the payoff is intense and darkly satisfying. Also! IFC Midnight just acquired all rights to Penumbra, which hopefully means you lucky people will get to see it properly, in a dark theatre.