English Title: The Chaser
Hangul Title: 추격자
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Hong Won-Chan, Lee Shinho, Na Hong-Jin
Producer: Choi Moon-Su, Jeong Seung-Ku
Cinematographer: Lee Seong-Je
Stars:  Kim Yun-SeokHa Jung-WooSeo Young-Hee

Release Date: February 14, 2008
Runtime : 123 min.
Distributor: Showbox

Director Na Hong-Jin’s complex film The Wailing (see review here) was not only one of 2016’s best horror films, but also — in this reviewer’s opinion — a masterpiece of modern suspense, defining just how good and intricate horror can be when done well.  Having been entranced by that film, I set my sights on viewing Na’s entire oeuvre.

First on the list was 2008’s The Chaser, Na’s debut feature film based on South Korea’s infamous serial killer, Yoo Young-cheol. In less than a one-year period, Yoo murdered and 21 people, mutilating and – in some cases – cannibalizing his victims. Yoo was convicted in 2005 of 20 murders (one case being thrown out on a technicality) and received the death penalty, a sentence which has not, as of yet, been carried out.

Now don’t get me wrong, The Chaser is not some dry bio-pic but rather an intense, Hitchockian thriller that maintains a remarkable level of suspense throughout and rivals The Silence of the Lambs as one of the best serial killer movies ever made.  Imagine if you will, the level of suspense from the last 30 minutes of Silence sustained over a 2-hour movie and you would have The Chaser.

Like in The Wailing, director Na gives us an unlikely hero as the centerpiece of our story. Jung-ho (Kim Yun-Seok of The Priests and Na’s The Yellow Sea), a middle-aged former detective turned pimp, finds himself in serious trouble (financially and otherwise) as two of his girls have gone missing while on professional calls. Jung-ho alternately believes that the girls are simply making off with his money or that someone is stealing and re-selling the young women. One night he sends Mi-jin, one of remaining girls and – unbeknownst to Jung-ho – a single mother of a 7-year-old daughter – out on a call.  Though clearly ill with the flu, Mi-Jin (Seo Young-Hee of Circle of Crime and The Accidental Detective) reluctantly takes the call and meets Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo of 2016’s Tunnel and The Handmaiden), a young man living in a disused, gated house in Seoul. Suspicious of Ji from the get-go, Mi-Jin still follows through, following him into a yard overgrown with weeds and into the house. Once inside, Mi-Jin knows she is in trouble (though she is not sure yet the exact nature of the danger) and excuses herself to the restroom where she finds a piece of skull with long black hair attached in the bottom of a dingy shower.  With no escape possible from the bathroom possible, Mi-Jin returns to the livingroom and finds Ji still seated where he was before.  But when she attempts to leave, she finds the front door padlocked shut.  In no time, a terrified Mi-Jin finds herself hog-tied in the restroom as Ji places a spike against the back of her neck and attempts to hammer it into her skull.

Meanwhile Jung-ho has realized that the number that Ji called from is the same number of the customer from the missing two girls.  Now convinced that Ji is stealing and re-selling the girls, Jung-ho goes to look for Mi-jin and calls on his buddies still on the police force to help. But when his buddies can’t assist because of a political mess with which they are involved, Jung-ho finds he is all on his own.  Will he find Mi-Jin before it is too late and, in the process uncover a serial killer, or will Ji go on killing and claim more victims?  The Chase is on.

From the earliest moments of The Chaser, director Na sets a level of suspense that he remarkably maintains and builds upon throughout the film’s two hour run time.  Dark and gritty (thanks to Lee Seong-Je’s subtle cinematography and locations ranging from the affluent to the red-light), the film expertly avoids genre-film clichés and makes unexpected and expert moves to keep the tension mounting throughout.

First and foremost, our anti-hero Jung-ho in not some trite movie creation.  He’s not a great guy…not some noble soul out to save the world from evil.  He isn’t motivated by anything but money and not losing his livelihood. And his livelihood are there women he exploits. This isn’t some crusade to save a young girl he cares about. She is commerce and throughout most of the film, Jung-ho doesn’t even realize the danger Mi-Jin is in. Does he soften during the film?  Is there a character arc?  Well, yes, to a degree, but Na is smart enough as a director to make sure it isn’t some grand reversal.  Jung-ho’s evolution is minor, perhaps even glacial. Any humanizing of Jung-ho occurs subtly and quietly when he discovers Mi-Jin’s young daughter (the impressively mature Kim Yoo-Jung, already a season professional at age 7). There is a nice moment when he seems to realize Mi-Jin was a real human being, but it is so underplayed that we, as an audience, never feel the director is trying to manipulate humanity into a rather despicable lead character.  But it is through Jung-Ho’s discovery of Ki-Jin’s daughter, that director Na wisely allows us to project something more noble onto Jung-Ho’s character without ever having the character’s main monetary motivation diminished.  In short, Jung-ho is a pimp and Na never explicitly tries to redeem him as a character.

Another way Na flaunts movie clichés is that he allows Jung-ho and killer Ji to meet very, very early on in the film and the resulting chase scene between the two is remarkably simple and realistic.  There are no great car chases; no fancy editing gimmicks.  These are two real men – one older and slightly over weight  and one younger — running through the streets.  They are frantic and winded and tired and Na shows it all.  It is a chase scene which rivals the best automotive chase scenes in Hollywood films.

What Na also does by having the two meet so early is ratchet up the suspense.  Jung-ho is so very, very close to discovering Mi-Jin that it is almost painful for the viewer.  One wants to shout at John-ho… “she’s right nearby!  Why can’t you see what we already know!”

Na also, smartly, does not delve into the psychology of his killer Ji.  We don’t get any scenes where you try to understand why he does what he does.  There no attempt at explanation.  And one must credit actor Ha Jung-Wo with a nicely understated performance.  While Ha is not one of my favorite Korean actors, he delivers nicely.  He’s good looking, but you never get a sense he is trying to go against his looks and create menace as so many pretty-boy Hollywood actors might.  He is an average Joe played very simply which makes his character all the more menacing without Ha having to chew up scenery.

Not enough credit for the success of this film has gone to actress Seo Young-He who plays Mi-Jin who, with very little screen time, manages to give us a character we as an audience deeply care about.  Seo spends most of the film screaming and frightened, but she is the soul of the film.  We never fear from Jung-ho’s safety.  We as an audience are focused solely on Mi-Jin and the reversals that keep her from being found.  While Na and his screenwriters deserve some credit for this – in two small scenes crafting a character we care about – it is Seo’s depth of performance which seals the deal.  There is real jeopardy here.  Yes, giving the “victim” a young child is a quick easy way to engender sympathy for a minor character, but without Seo’s utterly believable performance we as an audience would see the manipulation and the film would not be nearly as impressive.  And, surprisingly – or perhaps because of  — Seo’s performance, the role never once feels exploitative.

Now, Na is an expert at audience manipulation, by all means.  But it the subtle manner in which he does it that lets us buy it.  And that applies to all the twists and turns the movie takes.  Na makes expert moves and allows us as viewers to be close enough to the victim to know what Jung-ho does not.  In this way, Na maintains an achingly painful suspense.  We know Jung-ho is standing right outside the gate of the house that Mi-Jin is held captive in.  But Jung-ho does not.  We know – when Ji is arrested and confesses to his crimes – what the police don’t…we know where the evidence they lack lies.  And when they let Ji go, we are devastated.

Na plays with the audience and that allows him – in a debut directorial effort, no less – to deliver a pulse-pounding film.  We as viewers are almost another character in the film and Na is obviously aware of that and uses it – and us – to his advantage.

There is gore and blood but far less, I think, than other reviewers have noted.  Most of the violence and gore is implied rather than shown; I think the fact that so many reviews paint it as far more graphic than it actually is is a testament to Na and the imagination he has managed to evoke is his viewers.

In the end, The Chaser is not only a knock-out for a first time director, it is one of the best thrillers of probably the last two decades.  Relentless and unforgiving, The Chaser is what Hitchcock’s Frenzy should have been but would never have been allowed to be.

 

English Title:  Deranged
Hangul Title:  연가시)
Director:  Park Jung-Woo,
Writers:  Park Jung-WooKim Kyoung-HoonJo Dong-In
Cinematographer: Ki Se-Hoon
Release Date: July 5, 2012
Runtime: 109 min
Stars:  Kim Myung-MinMoon Jeong-HeeKim Dong-WanLee Honey

In South Korea there’s an epidemic underway. Out of nowhere, hundreds of people are throwing themselves into rivers, streams and lakes and drowning themselves. What is even more stranger is that one day all the victims seem fine (other than increased hunger and thirst), but when their bodies are pulled from the water they are desiccated, as if they had suffered from malnutrition for weeks prior to their death.

The government and top scientists are stumped as to what the cause is, but one thing is clear…the epidemic is spreading…rapidly.

Once the cause and a cure are discovered, the race is on to produce enough cure to treat the populace. But other forces stand in the way.

Deranged starts off very strongly, a creepy little film with generally strong performances. Though his character is extremely unlikable at first, Kim Myung-Min proves ever reliable and creates a generally sympathetic character. Kim Dong-Wan as his black-sheep brother (also a police officer) gives a good performance despite very little in the script to help him along. Former Miss South Korea, Lee Honey, again proves she has serious acting chops, excelling in a fairly thankless role.

While the film starts off strong, it becomes rather bloated and repetitive, lessening the effect of the film and the messages it wants to convey. Time and again, scenes are repeated over and over (especially with respect too Kim Myung-Min’s quarantined family) without adding anything to the narrative and serving only to drag out the pace and run time.

The screenplay wanders aimlessly at times and could have used some judicious editing. Kim Myung-Min’s transformation from unlikable to hero is forced and lightning fast.  Kim Dong-Wan’s brother character could have been interesting but the director and writers never quite seem to know what to do with him and there is a period of about 20 minutes (possibly more) where he just vanishes.  Lee Honey certainly delivers as best she can, but the screenwriters never really know what to do with her or her scientist character.

Because of the repetitive nature of the film, director Park has a difficult time maintaining any suspense or horror.  Technical elements such as cinematography and sound design are all competent but not groundbreaking or particularly inventive.  They serve the film but never serve to necessarily enhance the drama.

There is a lot of social commentary here: ineptness of government, greed of corporations, man’s inhumanity to man, one’s inability to appreciate family until it is threatened. But the commentary is delivered with a sledge-hammer rather than a soft touch.

South Korea has produced some amazing horror films in the past (and present), especially in the “infection” sub-genre; sadly Deranged suffers far too much from its ails to really rise above at the moniker of standard fare. It’s a fine enough diversion, but you are likely to find yourself more often than not wondering just when the hell it will end.

“Train to Busan” – Movie Review

South Korea's impressive zombie flick

Title: Train To Busan Hangul Title: 부산행 Literal Translation: For Busan Run Time: 118 minutes Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment (USA) / Next Entertainment World (International) Director: Yeon Sang-Ho Writer: Park Joo-Suk, Yeon Sang-Ho Cinematographer: Lee Hyung-Duk Producers: Lee Dong-Ha, Kim Yeon-Ha Starring: Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-An, Ma Dong-Seok, Jung Yu-Mi, Kim Eui-Sung, Choi Woo-Sik,… Continue reading “Train to Busan” – Movie Review

South Korea's "The Wailing"
South Korea’s “The Wailing”

Title:  The Wailing

Hangul Title:  곡성

Literal Translation:  Gokseong

Run Time:  156 minutes

Distributor:  Well Go USA Entertainment (USA); 20th Century Fox (South Korea)

Director / Writer:  Na Hong-Jin

Cinematographer:  Hong Kyung-Pyo

Producers:  Lim Min-Sub, Seo Dong-Hyun, Kim Ho-Sung

Stars:  Kwak Do-Wan, Hwang Jung-Min, Jun Kunimura, Chun Woo-Hee, Kim Hwan-Hee


For anyone familiar with South Korean film and television, it is not an understatement to say that the industry centered in Seoul tends to be far more inventive than the American industry, the latter stuck in an endless cycle of rehashed ideas and average execution.  America beats a genre to death, preferring to regurgitate over and over that which has found even a modicum of success (see just about any found-footage film produced since the abysmal “The Blair Witch Project” or any James Wan film).  South Korea is certainly not free from guilt in that department Their rom-com series and movies can be just as formulaic as the American counterparts and much of what comes out of the country is mired in youth culture, just like in America.   But what sets the Korean industry apart from the American is their willingness to take huge risks on both the large and small screens on a fairly regular basis and thereby breathe new life into various genres far more regularly.

Hollywood, it seems, has taken notice.  20th Century Fox has made a sizable investment in Korean cinema of late, co-producing over a dozen films in exchange for certain distribution rights and, presumably, American remake rights.  And Fox has its hands in one of South Korea’s biggest theatrical hits, writer/director Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing, an atmospheric, tense and immensely suspenseful horror film which takes just about every trope of the horror genre, throws them in a blender and in the process reinvigorates a genre that desperately needs shaking up.

Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (in itself a testament to Fox’ faith in the film), The Wailing is set in the peaceful, rural village of Gokseong (the literal translation of the Hangul title 곡성), a town where everyone knows everyone and nothing untoward ever seems to happen.  Policeman Jong-Goo (the always reliable Kwak Do-Wan) is awakened one rainy morning to help investigate a brutal murder of a family…a murder, it seems,was perpetrated by the father of the family.  From the moment we meet Jong-Goo we expect him to be the head of the police, someone who will emerge as the hero and save his village from whatever we’re about to witness.  Instead, Na and Kwak give us a somewhat bumbling subordinate, a sergeant who is often late to work and seemingly disinterested in the dull routine in a town where nothing ever happens. The fact that he fucks around on his wife and isn’t even smart enough to hide the fact from his young daughter Hyo-Jin (the impressive Kim Hwan-Hee) is testament to the fact that this is a man utterly bored with his life.

Arriving at the crime scene, Jong-Goo is struck by the man in and handcuffs sitting on the porch. Covered in festering boils and with eyes glazed over, he seems a broken man, zombie-like.  The horror that awaits him in the main room of the house is beyond unbelievable, almost ritualistic:  an entire family slaughtered, blood covered walls, belongings strew about in heaps.  It clearly shakes Jong-Goo to his core…perhaps being the first time he has even seen any real crime although his career and he are both clearly in their middle age.  A co-worker tells Jong-Goo that the neighbors seemed to think the man had eaten poisoned mushrooms as his behavior had been strange for days.  A reason Jong-Goo is all too happy to accept.

Back at the station on night-shift, Jong-Goo and his partner are discussing the case.  Jong-Goo believes the poisoned mushroom story.  His partner, however, has heard other rumors spreading throughout the village…that strange things had never happened here until an older Japanese man (Japan’s ever impressive Jun Kunimura in an alternately sympathetic and frightening performance) moved into a remote house in the forest.  In fact, he says, one village saw the old man — wearing nothing but a fundoshi – in the forest tearing apart an animal with his bare teeth, devouring it. It’s a true ghost story moment in the police station as the storm rages outside.  Jong-Goo chides his partner for believing such nonsense, hinting at the underlying bigotry of it.  When the electricity suddenly goes out, the two cops are frightened out of their wits at the sight of a naked woman standing right outside the door; yet, when they go out to investigate, the entire neighborhood is dark and the woman has vanished.

The next night, Jong-Goo is late again responding to the scene of a house fire.  When he arrives, officers are trying to restrain what seems to be a distraught woman survivor flailing around like a madwoman, growling and grunting, biting officers to get loose.  Jong-Goo attempts to help restrain her but she breaks free and as one of the bodies the officers are clearing from the house seems to come back to life, both the woman and the victim attack Jong-Goo, shaking him to his core.  Especially so since the wild woman was the woman he had seen the night before, naked in the rain outside the station.  When he notices the Japanese man at the scene calmly watching the events, the rumors take hold in Jong-Goo’s psyche.

As deaths continue to mount, more and more outlandish rumors spread about the Japanese man, his possible involvement with the murderers.  Still, Jong-Goo looks for a more believable scenario.  As he guards the fire scene, Jong-Goo ruminates to his partner about the possible cause.  As they talk, a young woman in white who they have never seen, sits on her haunches just outside the scene and literally throws stones at the two cops.  As the woman is clearly crazy, they try to ignore her.  All the killers had festering boils, Jong-Goo surmises, so it must be some kind of infection; he instructs his partner to check with the local clinics as to any possible outbreaks.

Alone at the scene, Jong-Goo still tries to ignore the woman in white as stones gather at his feet.  Finally, the woman comes nearer, explaining that she witnessed the crime, saw the woman murder her family.  She states that the rumor is that the Japanese man is a ghost who sucks your blood and steals your soul.  And if one has seen him, one must beware…the ghost is stalking you.  Still mentally fighting against unfounded rumors, Jong-Goo seems to gloss over her warnings about the Japanese man; rather he excitedly calls his partner, stating that he has found an eyewitness. Problem is, when he turns to speak with her again, she has vanished.

Besieged by vivid nightmares of the Japanese man’s purported animalistic nature, Jong-Goo is starting to feel the toll the case is taking on him.  And when his daughter suddenly takes ill, displaying symptoms eerily similar to those of others who have gone on to become killers, he enlists his partner and a local villager –who claims to have witnessed the animal side of the man — to pay the Japanese man a visit.  On their way through the forest, the three stumble upon carcasses of dead animals.  “I told you,” the villager screams.  Then as if the spirits are conspiring to keep them from the house, the heavens open up and the three must rush back to the village due to a strange accident that falls upon the villager.

At the hospital, Jong-Goo witnesses the violent death of yet another man covered in boils. That night, he witnesses his daughter undergoing a similar fit during the throes of her illness and when his daughter’s behavior becomes more bizarre, Jong-Goo’s mother-in-law wants to call in a mudang, a shaman, to find out what is wrong with the girl.

With growing dread for his daughter, Jong-Goo decides that he and his partner will try again to visit the old Japanese man.  This time they enlist the help of a young Deacon from the local Catholic church (a nod to “The Exorcist”), ostensibly as a translator.  Finding the old man’s home vacant and knowing full well that they are breaking the law, the trio enter and is shocked at what they find in a hidden room: a makeshift altar, photographs of the victims taken both before and after their deaths, and, in the center of the room, a mound personal items belonging to the victims…and future victims. Amongst the belongings is the shoe of Jong-Goo’s daughter, Hyo-Jin.

Knowing full well that his daughter’s life is in peril, Jong-Goo finds himself spiraling further and further into the realm of uncertainty and panic.  Is the Japanese Man evil incarnate as others so strongly believe?  Is the mudang his family has called in legitimate?  Who is the mysterious woman in white?  Ultimately he’ll find himself torn by this trinity of bizarre outsiders and not only is the survival of the village at stake…but his own family’s fate hinges upon him discovering the true source of evil that has come to visit Gokseong.

If there sounds like there is a lot going on in The Wailing, you’re right…there is.  And in the hands of most directors, this would probably end up a god-awful mess.  But writer/director Na handles it all with the skill of a virtuoso conductor.  Na clearly knows all the tropes of horror films exceptionally well and is willing to misdirect you down the paths most often taken only to pull the rug out from under it all at a moment’s notice.  He expertly keeps the viewer off-balance and, therefore, on the edge of their seat.

In the beginning, one is certain one is going to get a zombie movie.  Clearly more influenced by the recent “infected” trend than Romero’s classic zombies, Na sets it up perfectly…the wild eyes, the biting which one is certain will spread the infection throughout the village, the boils and clouded eyes.  But even this, Na tempers, eschewing smash cuts and deafening sound effects standing in for true scares in favor of a tension and suspense that is truly unnerving.

That tension and suspense is incredibly reminiscent of Hitchcock and rarely in horror films do we see it utilized let alone done well…the last truly great example I can recall is Ridley Scott’s original Alien.  Na isn’t afraid to take his time with the set up; he knows he needs to slowly build that dread, that tension to keep the audience where he wants them, as unbalance as Jong-Goo. Now, Na could not have done this alone and credit must go to both Kwak, as Jong-Goo, and cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po (Snowpiercer).

In the case of the former, Kwak is a journeyman actor know for playing characters who are often conniving businessmen or overzealous military men as he does in the excellent “The Attorney,” (2013), where he brutally pursues the prosecution of student activists, bringing them up on trumped-up charges as the then-repressive South Korean government expects him to.  The Wailing is, for Kwak, is a bit of a departure.  Jong-Goo is not particularly smart or devoted to doing what is right.  He is just your average Joe – a bit inept and bumbling — trying to make sense of what is insensible.  He is not a hero, but an everyman.  With his doughy face and middle age paunch, he isn’t so different from you or me, and Kwak nails it as to how each of us would probably react in similar bizarre circumstances (as opposed to how we imagine ourselves reacting).  He brings levity to the piece as well and in the end…he just doesn’t know what the fuck to do…but he is going to try and do what he can as best he can despite being scared out of his mind.

If the case of the latter, cinematographer Hong Kyung-Po frames the film exceptionally well, adding much to the creepy atmosphere.  Hong knows that the scenery of South Jeolla and Gokseong County do much of his work for him. The remoteness, the seeming tranquility of lush green mountains, becomes a character in and of itself.  Hong doesn’t waste his time on fancy Hollywood lighting set-ups; he eschews that, opting instead for natural lighting for the vast majority of the picture.  This not only serves the locale well, but also the actors who are shot very naturally, supporting the everyman aspect of the characters.  Add in a lot (and I mean a lot) of rain, and the mood of the film naturally becomes creepy.  Hong also understands the benefits of long shots and stationary cameras.  He knows that what you can barely see is many times far more frightening that what runs up into your face.

So, just as we are settling into what we are fairly certain is going to be a zombie film, Na turns that on its head and begins to lead us down the path of prejudice.  This is going to be a story about unfounded fear of outsiders, about exacting vengeance on someone who has done nothing except be different.  This man has done nothing to warrant the suspicion around him except be Japanese.  Now, don’t get me wrong…Na does not beat us over the head with this.  It is done very subtly, aided in part by Jong-Goo’s desire not to jump to conclusions based on innuendo.  Anti-Japanese sentiment due to Japanese Colonial rule over South Korea lingers in the air in this film, but it is never once directly stated.  It is implied.  And what makes this all the more interesting and powerful is that nearly all of the characters in this film are middle-aged or younger…all of them far to young to have lived through Japanese rule.  The prejudice, therefore, is inherited, handed down from prior generations.  Again, none of this is blatant and it can go by almost completely unnoticed especially if one doesn’t know the historical background of the country.

Kunimura, as the Japanese Man, plays his role beautifully well with this respect.  He gives an understated performance that lends him an unrelentingly creepy air when needed and a brutal ferocity when it is called upon.  The problem with the latter for us the viewing audience is we’re never quite sure whether these animalistic adventures are real or if they are simply part of Jong-Goo’s nightmares, a symptom of his succumbing to an underlying prejudice exacerbated by fear and rumor.  Later in the film, Kunimura turns in a heartbreaking performance when we the audience are led to believe he is an innocent bystander of all of this.  Even this fear of the outsider direction Na takes us in, he also manages to turn on its head.

And just when we’re all getting comfortable with that, Na pulls the rug out from us again, referencing both “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” in short order.   As Jong-Goo and his partner set off for the second time to visit the Japanese man, they enlist the help of a young Deacon (Kim Do-Yun, a relative newcomer to Korean cinema) from the local Christian church to serve as their translator.  For those familiar with classic horror films, this gives us a bit of a chuckle.  Clearly, though Na has fashioned his victims to be somewhat zombie-like in a piece of misdirection, their convulsive behavior when close to death was clearly meant to evoke Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”  So when the Deacon shows up, we know where Na is headed.

When Jong-Goo, his partner and the Deacon arrive at the house in the woods (another nod to bygone horror), the Japanese man is not present, but the house is guarded by a chained, black Rottweiler (hello “The Omen”). Na builds the tension is this scene expertly with minimal camera movements and edits. There isn’t any overbearing, ominous music to help build the suspense either. We know the Japanese man could return at any second. The constant barking of the dog as he tries to break free and the utterly realistic performances of the actors gets us there, taking us almost to the breaking point.  And when the dog breaks free to attack (evoking yet another horror classic) and the Japanese man returns, we are unsettled by the utter quiet and simplicity of the ending of the scene.

The nod to “The Exorcist” transforms into much more than an homage when Jong-Goo’s daughter starts displaying animalistic behavior, convulsions and foul language.  We’re settled in for an exorcism movie.  But even here Na plays with us.  Is it really demonic possession or simply an illness?  Huge kudos must go to young actress Kim Hwan-Hee as Hyo-Jin, Jong-Goo’s daughter.  In a performance that rivals (and perhaps even surpasses) Linda Blair’s Oscar-nominated performance, Kim – without the aid of make-up or special effects – gives us an “illness” that is utterly believable no matter how you look at it…demonic possession or simple epilepsy. You buy either explanation…a tack that, again, helps the viewer empathize with the confusion coursing through Jong-Goo.  He desperately wants to cure her…but from what? A natural illness or an unnatural one?  And here is the tipping point for Jong-goo, that moment when he crosses from wanting to find the right answer to needing to find the quick answer.  And the quick answer is that the Japanese man is evil incarnate.

This transformation of both Hyo-Jin and Jong-Goo works because director Na has spent the time in his film to firmly establish their relationship.  Unlike American horror films which give us a whole 5 minutes of “family time” at the beginning and expect us to be emotionally invested in characters, Na carefully crafts the relationship between father and daughter, giving us meaningful scenes throughout a large chunk of the film.  Even after the murders start happening, we get to see real moments between parent and child (and, one wonders at times which is which) that are not throw aways.

When the family calls in the mudang Il Gwang (one of South Korea’s most popular actors, Hwang Jung-Min), yet another outsider enters the fray and we feel we are firmly ensconced in an exorcism film.  Hwang’s shaman is not at all what we expect.  He’s motivated by money, drives a very nice car, sports turtlenecks and a pretentious little ponytail.  In short, he comes off more like a discount Steve Jobs that a heralded shaman.  Yet, he comes with a sterling reputation.  We’re immediately off-put.  Is this guy a quack or the real deal?  Do we trust him or do we not?  After an all-too-brief exam of the girl and the environs, Il Gwang explains that Hyo-Jin is possessed by a powerful ghost that must be driven out else the whole village will perish…and then the ghost will move on to the next village.

Not sure what or who to believe, Jong-Goo reluctantly agrees…and he agrees not interrupt the proceedings or the consequences will be dire.  And in a stunningly orchestrated climax to the film (at just over the half way mark), Na gives us a cacophonous, riotous “exorcism” steeped in mysticism (nod to “The Serpent and the Rainbow”?) that is almost unbearable in its unrelenting tension.  Hwang as the mudang, Kim as daughter Hyo-Jin and Kunimura as the Japanese man give stunning performances enhanced by Na’s judicious editing and Hong’s gorgeous cinematography.  It’s beautiful and brutal and almost too painful to watch.  We know utterly how Jong-Goo feels when he stops it all.

After that, our final reference to “The Exorcist” occurs when Jong-Goo and the Deacon seek out the guidance of the church Pastor.  The Pastor explains he has heard many things about the Japanese man…that he is a university professor, a monk…many different things, and yet Jong-Goo chooses to believe the worst. With unrecognized irony, the Pastor asks, “This ghost?  Have you seen it?  How can you believe in it if you have not seen it?”  Ultimately he tells him that the Church can not offer any assistance.

After that, the film moves confidently toward its conclusion, losing none of the suspense or horror along the way despite still having nearly half of its running time to go.  Na expertly shifts the focus amongst all the different elements.  What is evil?  Who is evil?  Who do I trust?  Who do I believe?  Is evil merely a matter of perspective?  How do you recognize evil and if you can’t how do you fight it? Jong-Goo in paralyzed…by fear…by doubt…by the need to be rational…by his emotion…by who or what to believe in.  And we viewers share the depth of his despair.

In the end, Na delivers a stunning film full of depth and unbelievable amounts of suspense and tension.  He never once lets up, managing to create a film which is both an homage to some of the best horror films ever made and a steely deconstruction of them.  He takes the mythology of horror and reweaves it into a new pattern. He never resorts to gimmicks to illicit scares.  He doesn’t spoon feed his audience (that having been said, there is one moment where make-up effects are used in what seems to this reviewer as a minor attempt to satisfy western audiences).  The ending is purposefully ambiguous (a fact which seems to have caused some consternation to some western reviewers).  Na presents a lot of questions, but offers no easy answers…because ultimately, like in real life, there aren’t any.

If you like your horror films complex and nuanced, I urge you to seek out this movie when it arrives digitally or on disc (the film is available now on EST and Transactional video on demand, with disc distribution in early October).  There is a lot to see in The Wailing and you may walk away with more questions than answers, but it will stay in your mind long after the end titles have faded to black.  Rarely is cinematic horror this good.

A World Out of Darkness

Title: Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World
Director: Belinda Sallin
Year Released: 2015
Country: Switzerland
Run time: 95 minutes
Rating: NR

 

Poster for DARK STAR: H. R. GIGER'S WORLD

 

When one conjures to mind the greatest artists of the 20th (and now the 21st) century, a few names bubble into our collective consciousness as being true geniuses, irrespective of their medium, nationality, or personality. Nearly to a person, these individuals have achieved such fame and renown that they are universally referenced by a single name: Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Dalí. I would add to this list the late master H. R. Giger, known throughout the world simply as “Giger” (pronounced  [/ˈɡiːɡər/ ghee-gur]). To be completely truthful, I would now estimate that Giger is possibly more famous than several of these creators are, and his work is, in many ways, more instantly recognizable (and imitated) by a broader swath of people than likely any artist now living, a trend that began in his lifetime.

In the past, visual artists were reliant on patrons to create. This system later evolved away from just the wealthiest in society commissioning a portrait in the pre-photography world, or relenting to the demands of the Catholic Church, and toward the modern conception of artistic patronage by way of corporations. Especially after the Second World War, this would come to include the employment of well-known and readily identifiable artists for promotion and cinema, the latter destined to become the dominant mode of artistic expression in the world (later displaced by television in modern Western culture). As has been the case with several of his contemporaries—Roger Dean, Robert Venosa, Ernst Fuchs, Robert Williams—Giger started his career with a profound interest in design and architecture, and was deeply influenced by the emergent popular cultural movements after WWII ended (especially the Sexual Revolution and the rise of Feminism, new musical expressions, and the revolt against authoritarian governance). Travel was an important (and easier to realize) part of this new aesthetic, which served to enrich an artist’s view of the world and their place in it. Additionally, as most of this new breed of visual explorers did, Giger dabbled in personal musical expression (playing instruments and working with obscure and prominent acts alike). It is, therefore, not surprising that his muse (and immense talent) would at some point lead to Hollywood, and his interest in film (which he had nurtured even as a young man) would springboard his greatest commercial success (screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s creation of Alien [1979], and Giger’s Academy Award-winning creature designs), as well as bring him incredible recognition and acclaim worldwide for his visceral, singular vision.

Necronom IV, Giger's surrealist painting that ...
Necronom IV, Giger’s surrealist painting that formed the basis for the Alien’s design (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the documentary Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World (the title of which also serves as an effective homage to Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter’s film of the same name), filmmaker Belinda Sallin brings much of these insights to bear with respect to the brilliant artist’s output. Completed just before Giger’s untimely death due to injuries suffered in a fall at his home in 2014, the film is a thoughtful rumination on the day-to-day existence of this most existential and influential of all modern artists. Sallin presents Giger in a sympathetic and approachable light—surrounding him with friends, family, pets—and does a nice job of contrasting his apparent tranquility with the darkness of his output creatively, especially his earliest conceptions.

At times, the movie seems a bit slow, and the narrative too subtle, but this is a minor quibble: The subject more than makes up for any deficiencies in this aspect. The most fascinating parts of the film, aside from hearing Giger discuss his philosophies and his imagery itself—the beautiful grotesqueries of his biomechanoid, psychosexual nightmares—are the sections detailing his childhood and the relationships with his parents, especially his mother. Women always played a prominent role in his life, and seeing him with his mother—as well as the complex interactions with his former lovers and wives—was extremely informative and compelling, even wistful. These moments serve to humanize a man that many have deified—which is understandable in one sense, but unfair in so many others. Giger was not, after all, monolithic and easy to grasp; he was introspective, sensitive, and deserved to be understood and appreciated as an individual with dreams, hopes, and insecurities just like anyone else. The interviews with his widow Carmen Scheifele-Giger, and his longtime companions and friends such as Tom Gabriel Fischer (of Celtic Frost and Triptykon fame), Leslie Barany, and others, are also enjoyable and revealing. They each, in differing ways, provide deeper understanding of a virtuoso creator, one who has come not only to represent and encapsulate much of the post-modern angst and ethos of our troubled times, but who also captured a sublime wonder and magnificence in the decay of humanity. It is a tragedy that he was taken away so early, but a joy he lived at all.

Highly recommended.

 

(Dark Star: H. R. Giger’s World is in limited theatrical release beginning in May of 2015, and is available on DVD.)

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**UPDATE: 5/19/2015**

 

A major cinematic event is happening at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD): The Unseen Cinema of HR Giger, a film festival in three parts on FRIDAY, MAY 22nd and SATURDAY, MAY 23rd, 2015. This is a ticketed event open to the public. Dark Star: The World of H. R. Giger will not be shown at the festival, as this is a series curated by friends, collaborators, and family of Giger. The entire program can be viewed on THIS NAMELESS DIGEST POST.

**From the MAD page about the series**

“Few artists have made a larger impact on the fantastical visions of cinema as the Swiss surrealist HR Giger. Most famous for his Oscar-winning design of the titular monster and scenery of the Alien film series, HR Giger’s vast output included paintings, prints, and sculpture, as well as industrial and interior design. Over a forty-five year career, Giger collaborated with an array of directors and artists to produce a body of work that continues to influence generations.

Marking the one-year anniversary of his passing, the Museum of Arts and Design in NEW YORK CITY presents The Unseen Cinema of HR Giger. Partnering with the HR Giger Museum and the HR Giger Documentary Film Festival, this weekend-long event presents rare and never before seen films made by and about HR Giger.

Opening up Giger’s personal archive for the first time, these films reveal the behind-the-scenes practice of this singular artist. The Unseen Cinema of HR Giger gives a rare glimpse into the personality, process, and vision of his indelible impact.”

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**More information about the series and the event, including the venue and tickets**

The first evening of screenings will be introduced by Blondie’s DEBBIE HARRY and CHRIS STEIN.

Facebook EVENTS PAGE
https://www.facebook.com/events/1573207859610076/

TRAILER about the film festival
https://vimeo.com/124737581

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PROGRAM OVERVIEW
http://madmuseum.org/series/unseen-cinema-h-r-giger

FIRST PROGRAM & TICKETS
http://madmuseum.org/events/collaborations-h-r-giger

SECOND PROGRAM & TICKETS
http://madmuseum.org/events/inside-hr-giger’s-sanctuaries

THIRD PROGRAM & TICKETS
http://madmuseum.org/events/behind-scenes-hr-giger’s-studio

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**Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) address**

2 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019
info@madmuseum.org
212-299-7777
http://madmuseum.org/

The Unseen Cinema of HR Giger is an event curated by Leslie Barany & Zev Deans

Special Thanks to Jake Yuzna at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) and Carmen Giger, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Jacqueline Castel and Madeline Quinn

Which is better…the book or the movie?

It’s a question almost as old as “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” The former query, however, is one with an almost universal answer.

Of course…it’s the book.

Well, if you ask readers, that is. Ask people who don’t read voraciously (or even regularly), and you might get a very different answer.

Ask someone who loves the MGM film adaptation of William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run to read the classic novel, and they might be utterly disappointed. While the MGM movie is incredibly fun and a very good movie — despite certain aspects not aging well — it bears little resemblance to the book, which is far more epic in scale. The result is that the movie retains a few names and the core concept on the novel, but little else. Those who fell in love with the movie might be a little taken aback by the novel, wondering where the Domed City went or what happened to Carousel, renewal…and what about Old Man and his cats?! None of the foregoing, of course, exist in the novel. But lovers of the film won’t necessarily know that and might find the original novel disappointing because of it.

I myself love both the movie version and the original novel despite them being very, very different beasts. Seldom, however, do motion pictures live up to their source material, let alone surpass or even stand on their own. This can be due to a number of factors, most usually the time constraint of motion pictures themselves. While an author has unlimited number of pages to delve deeply into plot and character, motion pictures must accomplish the same thing in roughly a two-hour time span (well, three and a half in today’s atmosphere of needlessly bloated films). And so changes have to be made if a book is to make it to the motion picture screen.

Film is also a visual medium. Pages of prose aren’t needed to create a mood. The cinematographer can paint that in a second with interesting angles and expert lighting. Dialog so indispensible to the development of plot or character can be expertly accomplished at the hands of a topnotch screenwriter, actor or director. And, frankly, let’s face it. The movie screen has long ago surpassed the utilization of personal imagination. It is far easier to sit in a movie theatre and be entertained or moved rather than spend weeks reading a book and having to use — shudder, shudder — your imagination.

While it is rare for me to find film adaptations that I feel exceed their books, I do find it to occasionally be true. The skill of the adapter, the director and the actors and the choices each of them make can occasionally bring new dimensions and result in something that exceeds — or at the very least equals — the literary work.

So what makes for a good adaptation? There are a hundred possible answers, but for me, the most important thing is that the filmmakers remain faithful to the spirit of the book. It goes without saying that a director can’t include every single scene, piece of dialog or plot point. If one attempted to do that, the movie would be a James Cameron film and trust me…no one wants that. So, it all starts, really, where all films start…with the screenwriter.

Adapting a novel is a unique skill that takes a very observant eye. A good screenwriter will look at each chapter of a novel and analyze it. What is the goal of each chapter? Does it propel the plot? If so, how? Is it there to establish character? If so, what is the core aspect of character and how does the author accomplish it? Is there one aspect of that character building that stands out as the most important? Is it simply a charm chapter, meaning one simply to charm the reader? How is the author charming the reader? If the screenwriter has done their homework and learned the structure and intent, they should be in a good place to decide what is important to keep and what the actors or cinematographer can accomplish just as well, but quicker. If you don’t have a skilled adapter onboard, you’re pretty much sunk before you even begin.

Then it is up to the director. Once she and the screenwriter have captured the essence, theme and structure of the novel, it is her job to fill in the missing pieces by choosing the correct actors, cinematographer, and sound editor. Any one of these vital players not being top-notch can doom a good adaptation to failure.

With that in mind, I thought I would opine on one novel and how it was transformed into a feature film. While I usually read the literary version before seeing the movie, I did it the other way round this time, discovering a novel simply because I had seen the film version (which, honestly, is a very good thing about films…they can lead to increased readership of the original work).

One evening, I stumbled on to the feature film Yonguija X (Suspect X but also called The Perfect Number on some platforms) while browsing through the South Korean offerings on DramaFever, an internet streaming VOD service. It had a number of actors my boyfriend and I liked and from the description it seemed dark and brooding, a nice departure from the usual historical dramas, romantic comedies and melodramas we usually catch on the service.

We were blown away by the movie. The very next day I bought a digital version of the novel upon which it was based and devoured it. In the end, both were excellent, but in this case there were places where the movie far exceeded the book. Conversely, there were times when the book outshone its celluloid counterpart.

WARNING WILL ROBINSON

While I will try not to give away all the secrets of the novel or the movie, the following contains significant spoilers as it is impossible to compare the two without going into significant detail. Read ahead at your own risk.

FROM THE BOOK

Devotion of Suspect X cover
Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X (容疑者Xの献身) was originally published in Japan in 2005 as the third in a line of novels known as the “Detective Galileo mysteries,” a very popular series in Japan. It went on to win a number of prestigious literary awards and was adapted into a 2008 Japanese feature film, the same year a television series based on the Detective Galileo character began airing on the Fuji Television Network.

In 2011, the novel was translated into English by Kevin O. Sullivan and published by Minotaur Books. The translation was nominated for Edgar and Barry awards and landed on the American Library Association’s 2012 reading list as Best Mystery Novel of the year.

THE SUMMARY: In the novel, we are introduced to Tetsuya Ishigami, a balding, paunchy man who may be plain and unassuming, but who is, in fact, a true mathematic genius…an aging prodigy. By day, he is stuck teaching rudimentary mathematics at a local university (perhaps more akin to an American community college), a job he clearly loathes because of the students’ indifference to the subject matter and the political necessity of dumbing down his tests so that, as the university chairman dictates, the students can pass. His heart is in solving the great “unsolvable” mathematics problems, something he does fastidiously in his off hours.

Ishigami is clearly down and out. He lives in a two room flat in a disused, low-rent apartment building and leads a routine and stagnant existence. Every day, he walks to work through the local homeless encampment, stops at the same lunch shop to pick up the same box lunch, and attempts to teach the same apathetic and arrogant youth. And then walks home again.

In creating Ishigami, author Higashino expertly presents a man whose greatest gift has no real outlet; a man who finds life’s necessities tedious and tiring; a man who would — if he could — stay locked in a room all day doing nothing but working on his equations. But the author doesn’t just paint him as a stereotype…some Japanese Norman Bates. Ishigami, in almost a contradiction, is also the leader of a Dojo and so must have some passion for the martial arts, though that, too, seems to have been leeched away.

His next-door neighbor is a rather ordinary woman named Yasuko Hanaoka; she and her teenage daughter Misato are relatively new to the building. It just so happens, however, that Yasuko works at the Benten-tei, the box lunch place Ishigami goes out of his way visit every day. Though the two seldom exchange more the five words at each encounter, Ishigami has clearly developed a crush on Yasuko, though she herself seems not to be aware of it.

One evening, Yasuko’s ex-husband Togashi arrives at her apartment door and connives his way in. We learn that their marriage has been over for five years and that Yasuko has quit jobs and moved numerous times to keep her ex from finding her. The Great Recession and his own less than honorable business methods have reduced the once highly successful businessman to a leech and a troublemaker. He attempts to extort money from Yasuko and when she again attempts to break all ties, he becomes threatening toward Misato, his stepdaughter. Things quickly escalate and Yasuko and Misato end up killing Togashi by strangling him with the poser cord from their kotatsu, a table space heater.

Even though the murder is clearly self-defense, Yasuko and Misato are terrified they will go to jail and be separated. Yasuko decides she will turn herself in; that Misato was not involved. It is very important that Misato remember that she was not home when Togashi visited. Yasuko is resolved. But then there is a knock at the door.

It is Ishigami wondering if everything is all right…if he might be of some kind of assistance. Yasuko tries to brush him off, insisting that they had simply chasing a cockroach.

Did you kill it?

What?

 The cockroach. Did you kill it?

With more apologies proffered, Ishigami returns to his own apartment while Yasuko and her daughter argue over the plan for Yasuko to turn herself in. Suddenly, the phone rings…it is Ishigami once again.

Ms. Hanaoka…It’s very difficult to dispose of a body…A woman can’t do it by herself.

When Yasuko realizes Ishigami has heard everything through the flimsy walls, she has no choice but to trust the teacher. Ishigami points out how the story that Misato was not involved would quickly fall apart upon viewing of the crime scene by even the most inept detective. And Ishigami offers the unheard of. He offers to help her cover up the crime and dispose of the body…but Yasuko must follow Ishigami’s instructions to the letter.

A few days later, an unidentified body is discovered on the banks of Tokyo’s Edogawa River. Its face has been smashed in and fingerprints have been burned away. Enter Shunpei Kusanagi, a veteran detective, and his partner and junior, Kishitani. Due to the damage to the body, Kusanagi knows they have a long slog ahead of them. But soon enough, clues emerge — partially burned clothes, a bicycle with a flat tire, a report of a stolen bicycle — and the identity of the body is discovered: a man named Togashi who just so happens to have an ex-wife name Yasuko who does not live terribly far away.

Kusanagi and his partner pay a visit to Yasuko who seems genuinely surprised that her ex-husband — whom she assures the detective she hasn’t seen for years — is dead. The duo question her, but it turns out she has an alibi, one that checks out very nearly airtight. Still, going on nothing but gut instinct, Kusanagi is certain that Yasuko, her daughter or both were involved in the murder. His partner, Kishitani, ruled by evidence and the woman’s alibi, seems equally convinced of her innocence.

Kusanagi pays a visit to her neighbor, a Mr. Ishigami, a nebbish man who seems to know little of the woman despite living next to her. He discovers, however, that he and Ishigami attended the same university, though they had not known one another. A curious development, one Ishigami quietly notes.

As the police investigate, Ishigami keeps close tabs on the detectives and even closer tabs on Yasuko and her daughter. Each night, he travels to a pay phone and calls them with detailed instructions as to what they are to say, what they are to do. Ishigami expertly leads the police to believe exactly what the wants them to believe. He draws them toward Yasuko and for a moment we doubt that his intention is to protect her. Then, just as quickly, he misdirects them away.

It is a clever and suspenseful cat and mouse game between a brilliant man and a seasoned detective. But why, we as readers wonder, did Ishigami make the body so easily identifiable? Why did the police come straight to the one woman Ishigami didn’t want to be suspected? What exactly is Ishigami doing? And how, exactly, did he get that body to the bank of the river with no apparent means to do so?

As the clues mount and Ishigami-directed red herrings are explored and discounted, Detective Kusanagi becomes frustrated and almost blindingly obsessed with discovering how Yasuko was involved in her husband’s death. He decides — as he has when other cases drove him to distraction — to consult with his friend, Dr. Manabu Yukawa, nicknamed Detective Galileo.

A physicist, Dr. Yukawa is almost the antithesis of Ishigami. True, they are both brilliant in their fields, but whereas Ishigami lacks any substantive social skills, Yukawa in a bon vivant who revels in his interactions with people from all walks. He especially enjoys his interactions with Detective Kusanagi, an old college friend, who is definitely not his intellectual equal but who does offer him puzzles of a different nature from time to time.

The relationship between Yukawa and his detective friend is an interesting one. In the hands of a lesser author, Yukawa could have easily been reduced to an expository character, one who does nothing but feed answers to the Detective. But, Higashino turns the relationship into another cat-and-mouse game, Yukawa seeing things Kusanagi does not and goading him to look deeper, to find the answers himself. Yukawa has an oddly dispassionate interest in the case…that is until he learns that the main suspect’s neighbor is Ishigami, a brilliant man with whom he’d gone to school.

On learning his old colleague is tangentially related to the case, Yukawa pays Ishigami a visit. Though he tries not to show it, he is shocked at how far such a brilliant mind has fallen. After spending some time with Ishigami, Yukawa develops a gut feeling that his old friend is somehow involved in the crime. But much like Detective Kusanagi, he has nothing more than that…a gut instinct…that and the knowledge of Ishigami’s brilliant mind. He is certain that Ishigami is crafting everything in the most logical, most mathematical way possible.

Yukawa’s appearance on the scene introduces an “unexpected variable” into Ishigami’s expertly crafted plan. He assures Yasuko that this, too, is something he can and will deal with. But then the story takes another twist when Kuniaki Kudo, an old suitor of Yasuko’s, arrives on the scene, and Ishigami not only has to deal with a second unexpected variable, but also his growing jealousy as they seem to spend more and more time together. His plans seem to take a more sinister turn and soon Yasuko start to feel as if she has traded a life in prison for a life under the increasingly rigid control of Ishigami.

When “Detective Galileo” purposefully tags along with Ishigami to Benten-tei one morning and sees the mathematician’s reaction to Yasuko, it is only then that he begins to fathom the extent, brilliance and danger of Ishigami’s plans. He doesn’t know all the pieces, but he know he must convince Ishigami or Yasuko to abandon a tact that can only lead to the destruction of a brilliant mind. Meanwhile, Detective Kusanagi has another suspect on his mind…Ishigami himself who, he has discovered, suspiciously took the day of the murder and the next day off work…after seldom missing a day in his entire tenure.

In a shocking turn, Ishigami turns himself in for the crime, confessing his love for Yasuko, expressing how she “talks to him through the walls,” how he knew he needed to kill to dangerous ex-husband, Togashi. Clearly, Ishigami is playing crazy but we as readers realize that this was his plan all along: He would take the fall for the crime. It was he who killed Yasuko’s ex-husband…and every piece of evidence can only lead to that conclusion. Sure enough, Detective Kusanagi searches Ishigami’s apartment and finds the murder weapon and other evidence that clearly points to the mathematician.

But the story hardly ends there…Will Yukawa discover all the pieces of a seemingly unsolvable puzzle? Will Detective Kusanagi jail the correct person? Will Ishigami keep his promise to always protect Yasuko or will his jealousy lead to another victim in suitor Kudo? They are all questions that the author juggles brilliantly, building massive suspense until the very end.

THE REVIEW (contains spoilers as well): Now, when reviewing a novel translated from a foreign language it is important to take into consideration the translation and its effect on the overall story. And although I do not speak Japanese I immediately had problems with the translation, which I found to be stilted, jerky and lacking any beauty or emotional depth. Scouring the web for other takes on this, I discovered that many others had the same problem, including some speakers of Japanese who had read the novel in its original language. While the translation may not prove to be the culprit in some of the problems I had with the novel, it is, perhaps, the biggest problem for an otherwise brilliant novel. Still, there are other problems that one cannot chalk up to a fallow translation.

It is interesting that the author chose the word “Devotion” for the title as The Devotion of Suspect X seems, on the surface, to be a novel more about obsession than devotion. Ishigami is obsessed with his work and Yasuko. Yasuko, on the other hand, is obsessed with protecting her daughter. Detective Kusanagi is obsessed with proving the guilt of Yasuko, though all evidence exonerates her, and Yukawa is obsessed with solving the unsolvable problem Ishigami has crafted.

But at its heart, the novel is really about devotion, namely Ishigami’s devotion. But it is not only his devotion to Yasuko, but to mathematics that drives him. And it is possibly here that the translation does its greatest disservice to the original novel. For a story so filled with heightened emotions, the English translation is remarkably dispassionate, almost sterile. Now, this could be an element of the original Japanese novel. After all, the story is about a highly analytical man. Perhaps author Higashino meant for that lack of emotional resonance to be reflective of that. However, when one looks at the various elements of the novel — the emotional states of the characters, their highly detailed stories that lead them to this place, the time the author invests in the backstories and relationships — it’s hard to believe the author wasn’t aiming to create an emotional reaction in the reader. All the pieces are there and yet the novel carries little emotional impact. While I can’t be sure, I personally chalk this up to the translation which bothered me consistently throughout.

What Higashino manages to accomplish despite an arguably inferior translation, however, it what is so remarkable about this novel. From the beginning, we know who the murderer is. Even Detective Kusanagi knows who the murderer is, though he cannot say why. In that sense, this novel is not a murder mystery. The mystery is in how Ishigami has crafted the cover-up. What exactly did he do? We doubt him at first when the police are so easily led to Yasuko, but we know that his brilliance cannot make it that simple. We, the readers have all the clues right before us…it is up to us to put them all together. That is the mystery in this murder mystery. And that is the brilliance of the novel. Just as Ishigami plays cat-and-mouse with Kusanagi and later Yukawa, the author plays the same game with the reader. Are we smart enough to solve what other brilliant minds cannot?

The background that Higashino gives us for each of the characters helps build the motivations for how they behave in the story. We learn why Ishigami ended up teaching in a high-school rather than working, as Yukawa does, in the learned halls of research and higher academia, and the character is made all the richer for it. We also learn why Ishigami — who has hardly spoken more than a dozen words to her before the murder — is so devoted to Yasuko and her daughter. The emotional depth this gives the character, though, is somewhat sabotaged by the flaccid translation.

We are given incredible insight to Yasuko and her past tribulations with her ex-husband. We are also given a glimpse into what her life could have been — and might again be — had she ended up with suitor Kudo. Kudo, likewise, is given amazing depth of character as we learn why he and Yasuko had never become a couple. Largely, however, the Kudo character almost seems like padding in the novel, his sole purpose to give more emotional resonance to Yasuko’s story arc.

It is perhaps in the Kudo character that the novel misses a unique opportunity. His presence elicits a jealousy in Ishigami that never fully plays out in the novel. That jealousy and the possible repercussions of it should have given a very dangerous air to Ishigami, turning him from a character we sympathize with into someone we fear. We should have believed that in his jealousy, Ishigami could have killed Kudo to keep Yasuko to himself or, worse still, turned the tables so that Kudo is framed with the murder for which Yasuko is the prime suspect. It is hinted at in the novel, but we never quite believe that is where Ishigami will go with it. But we should believe it. A fault of the translation? Possibly. The sterility of the translation certainly could have undercut Ishigami’s emotional reaction to Kudo. But I fear this might be a fault, rather, with the original novel.

Another aspect of the novel that just doesn’t quite seem to gel is Ishigami’s manipulation of Yasuko. Certainly the author keeps Yasuko from knowing all of Ishigami’s machinations and to a certain degree Ishigami purposefully needs to keep Yasuko in the dark for her own good. But, just before confessing to the crime, Ishigami leaves specific instructions for her as to how to behave, what to say, and the like. This especially comes into play with the reasoning behind Ishigami calling her only from a pay phone, which comes off rather banal and uninspired in the novel.

Another problem with the novel is the character of Dr. Yukawa, Detective Galileo. His character is almost a third wheel in this novel and never becomes, for this reader, a particularly interesting character. In fact, of all the main characters, he is the least interesting and seems to serve very little purpose dramatically or structurally. Now, perhaps this is because I have not read the other novels in the Detective Galileo series. Or perhaps it is the author attempting to insert an established and popular character into a work where he doesn’t really belong. His presence also serves to undermine the Detective Kusanagi character who never even comes close to solving the crime. He is a character robbed of his moment in the novel, largely due to the presence of Yukawa.

And this leads, perhaps, to the biggest problem I had with the novel…the fact that Ishigami simply turns himself in. Ostensibly, this is because of the pressure that Yukawa places on him, but it felt terribly contrived and out of place and anti-climactic. And what follows — in particular, the final resolution — serves to cheat Ishigami of all the hard work he has undertaken and, honestly, had this reader feeling a bit cheated as well.

And there are other problems with the novel although, collectively, they don’t rise to the occasion of ruining it. The lack of technology in Detective Kusanagi’ investigation of Yasuko’s alibi feels anachronistic, as if it belonged in a 1970s novel rather than modern times. The reasoning for Ishigami being part of a Dojo is also not fully explored or exploited. I assume it is referenced to lend believability to the fact that Ishigami, despite all appearances, was strong enough to commit the crime.

Like all mystery novels, there is a long expository section explaining what happened and why it happened and who did what to whom and in which order. But most mystery novels suffer from the same ailment. In the end, long before it is revealed, we as readers have already figured out that Ishigami had always planned to take the fall for the murder, though we may not have known all the mechanics of it all. So a large portion of that expository chapter could have been greatly reduced.

There is an unexpected twist that the author puts into the novel which I did not see coming. While it could have been foreshadowed a bit more in the novel, the believability and shock of it is a masterstroke by the author. What that twist also does is drive home that Ishigami’s devotion to Yasuko isn’t the only reason he is willing to go to jail. He’s also devoted to something else…mathematics.

All in all, the Devotion of Suspect X turns out to be an engaging, oft times brilliant mystery despite its flaws and a less than stellar translation. It is a wonderful introduction to an author of whom I was not aware. But now that I am aware, I will be investigating Higashino’s other works.

TO THE MOVIE

Perfect Number Poster Use
Yonguija X (용의자X, literal translation, Suspect X, also released under the English-language title Perfect Number) is a 2012 adaptation of Higashino’s novel. It stars actors Ryoo Seung-Bum as Suk-Go (the Ishigami character), Lee Yo-Wan as Hwa-Sun (the Yasuko character) Cho Jin-Woong as Detective Jo (the Detective Kusanagi character). Ably at the helm is actress-turned-director Bang Eun-Jin directing from a screenplay adapted by Kim Tae-Yoo, Lee Kong-Joo and Lee Jung-Hwa.

As far as plot, Suspect X remains remarkably faithful to the original novel; so another lengthy summary isn’t really needed here. As with any motion picture adaptation, however, there are quite a few modifications, most of them minor, but one tantamount to an amputation. It is an adaptation that is clearly respectful of the source material, but also one unafraid to branch out on its own when it is absolutely needed. And in most cases, the changes serve the film exceedingly well and, honestly, fulfill some of the expectations not quite met in the novel.

One of the biggest (but by no means the biggest) changes can be found in the casting of actors Ryoo and Lee in the Ishigami and Yasuko roles. 34 and 35 respectively, Ryoo and Lee are junior to their literary characters by at least a decade. For those unfamiliar with South Korean dramas and, to a lesser extent, feature films, it is not unusual to see major scientists and industry leaders cast at the age of 25 or 26. So, while motion pictures tend to be a more youth-centric medium, director Bang should be credited for not reducing the age further, which would have strained all credibility.

The casting of Ryoo, in particular, is a masterstroke. One of South Korea’s must versatile and impressive actors, Ryoo is known most widely for his eccentric and manic portrayals that always manage to be charming rather than annoying and deeply rich rather than stereotype. It short, his comedic turns have always been sewn together with humanity and realism despite their wackiness, and his performance here as the Ishigami character is heartbreakingly introverted and, when needed, endlessly creepy. Though the comparison isn’t quite rights, one can’t help but think of the career versatility of the late Robin Williams, who could also go from outrageously comedic to complex, nuanced and quiet performances like those he delivered in Dead Poets Society or Insomnia.

Lee, a popular and talented actress, was also a good choice for the Yasuko character. She brings a lovely warmth to the character, a believable sense of fear of her ex-husband and of the Ishigami character when it takes a darker turn. It is a performance grounded in reality and quiet nuance.

Of course, the lower age of the characters requires a few minor changes. A Yasuko character at 35 clearly could not have a teenage daughter; instead she has a teenage niece (ably played by Kim Bo-Ra), the fate of her parents largely unexplained. This change also allows for a new threat from the ex who, when he shows up at the house demanding money, makes sexual threats toward the niece. While not necessarily needed, this threat does provide even more motivation for the Yasuko character to kill her ex-husband and reinforces the lengths she will go to protect her niece…even if that means going to jail. Likewise, the Ishigami character no longer teaches at a community college, but rather is stuck in a high school setting, providing an even more dramatic fall from greatness for the Ishigami character.

The commanding Cho Jin-Woong steps into the shoes of the Detective Kusanagi character, bringing a world-weary, world-wise believability to the character despite the lower age (Cho is also 35). His urgency and passion are exactly what the Kusanagi character needs and his tenacity is admirable.

But what became of the brilliant physicist Yukawa, friend of Detective Kusanagi, you ask? In the biggest change the movie could have made, our Detective Galileo is excised entirely, his plot mechanics seamlessly blended into the Kusanagi character.

While readers of the original novel might call “foul,” from a production standpoint this makes perfect sense. Director Bang is unfettered by the need to include Yukawa because Bang’s film is not one of a series. She is not making the Detective Galileo film series, but rather a stand-alone film. So from a pure storytelling perspective, the character is not needed.

What is needed, however, is the observational skills that Yukawa possesses and which the literary Kusanagi character did not. So Bang and her screenwriters wisely melded the two characters together. The fact that Kusanagi and Ishigami went to school together is played up considerably more than in the novel, with Kusanagi having been somewhat of a bully to the young Ishigami character. This bully-bullied dynamic also serves to heighten the tension between the two, giving even more depth to an already complex relationship.

The effect of combining the two characters also solves a fairly large problem I had with the original novel: the fact that Yukawa seemed like a needlessly inserted character, a third-wheel, and Kusanagi felt little more than bluster and stumbling. In Bang’s take, the Kusanagi character is far more intelligent and well rounded. His story arc also becomes far more satisfying because even though for the majority of the novel and film we are rooting against his character, we still need to have some satisfying culmination of all his hard work as he serves as the reader’s stand-in. So, in the end, the Kusanagi character puts all the puzzle pieces together which, even if a detective is the anti-hero, is what we really want detectives to do in a good mystery.

There are other changes, both large and small. The murder weapon is transformed into an older iron rather than a kotatsu (far less common in South Korea) and the clues as to the identity of the murder victim are laid out more quickly and plainly, though we’re never quite sure how they fit together. Also, instead of being part of a dojo, the Korean Ishigami is a scuba diver. This latter change is integral as scuba can be a solitary sport, further illustrating Ishigami’s self-imposed isolation, while maintaining the fact that Ishigami (no longer a paunchy, middle-aged man, but rather a far-from-handsome loner) has the strength to have committed the murder. It also rather brilliantly answers one of the great, unexplained mysteries of the novel.

A major change from the novel is the significant reduction of “screen time” for the suitor Kudo. His expansive backstory (as well as the relationship backstory) is significantly reduced verging on totally eliminated. While this does render suitor Kudo as a less dynamic character, from a production standpoint none of this is needed and would have served only to slow down the story. Thanks to the performance by Lee, we don’t need the exposition the novel requires in order to garner sympathy for her. Lee accomplishes it all with a look, a sigh.

Suitor Kudo, however, is still utterly important. In an aspect of the movie that far outshines the novel’s handling of it, Kudo’s arrival on the scene generates a palpable fear of Ishigami in both the viewer and the Yasuko character. While the novel does approach this, the movie (aided remarkably by Ryoo’s performance) goes full throttle into it. We utterly believe in the ferocity of Ishigami’s jealousy. We can sense his ultimate control of the Yasuko character and the danger he could place suitor Kudo in. We are certain Ishigami is going to frame suitor Kudo. After all, he wants Yasuko to himself.

This aspect also leads to a scene in the movie that isn’t present in the novel, at least not in the same form. Frustrated and feeling trapped, the Yasuko character visits Ishigami. Realizing she is to be held emotionally captive by this man for the rest of her life, she offers herself sexually to Ishigami. It is a heartbreaking scene, especially the last moment of it.

Suitor Kudo also solves another one of the bigger problems I had with the novel: Ishigami simply turning himself in. Instead, the Korean Ishigami attempts to kill suitor Kudo, leading to his arrest. We believe this moment utterly, Ishigami’s jealousy clearly having taken control of him. It is a far more satisfying plot move than Ishigami’s literal surrender.

Once Ishigami has been arrested, all that he has done becomes clearer. The police search his apartment and find indisputable evidence that Ishigami not only killed Yasuko’s ex, but also that he was fatally obsessed with her. The threatening demeanor Ishigami had toward her makes complete sense now in retrospect…the always calling her from a pay phone (clarified in the movie) fits perfectly into Ishigami’s plan. This all largely follows how it was handled in the novel but has more of an emotional impact because of the one key differences between film and literary works. Those pages of exposition where everything is explained can actually be shown in the tried and true staple…a flashback. Now, while flashbacks have largely become a crutch for lazy filmmakers, when it comes to mysteries, if done well, it is indispensible, eliminating that whole “I know you all wonder why I’ve called you here today” aspect of literary mysteries. And here it is done exceptionally well.

There are other minor changes in the film, some handled better than the book and some not. The lack of technology used by the detectives is addressed and the foreshadowing of one aspect of the mystery (which I have tried hard not to reveal here) is handled significantly better in the film. But in the film we do lose an aspect of Ishigami from the books that really is vital.

Yes, it is his devotion to the Yasuko character that drives him. But in the novel, it is also his devotion to mathematics. In the novel, what Ishigami does is not an entirely selfless act. It isn’t all about Yasuko and the movie sadly misses that.

The final resolution in the movie is also far more satisfying than the book, the book tending to undo some of Ishigami’s good deed. But in this respect, both share the same overwhelming realization that no matter what happens, Ishigami and Yasuko’s futures are immutable and, in some respects, doomed.

So, which is better? The movie or the book?

In this case, for this reviewer, while the novel is clearly brilliant, the movie was a far more emotionally satisfying work. This is in part due to smart changes director Bang and her screenwriters made in service to the story, but one cannot dismiss that the emotional impact of the novel may have largely been impacted by a less than stellar translation.

In the end, director Bang Eun-Jin has made a movie that was not only incredibly respectful of the source material, but augmented it through smart and clean choices. If only all filmmakers did the same thing more often we’d be far more satisfied with the celluloid cousins of our favorite literary works.

boom_escape_from_new_york_001_a                    boom_escape_from_new_york_C_c

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK #1  (Boom! Studios, December 2014)  Writer: Christopher Sebela.  Artist: Diego Barreto.  Colorist: Marissa Louise.  Letterer: Ed Dukeshire.  22 page story.  $3.99  ISBN #4424 00398 8 01011.

Reading Boom!’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK brought back fond B-movie memories and made me want to watch John Carpenter’s classic film one more time.  Alas,  my only copy was a VHS tape that I sold many years ago!

What made Carpenter’s film so memorable was iconic character Snake Plissken, so aptly portrayed by actor Kurt Russell.  That signature eye patch, swagger, and take-no-shit attitude made a real impression, just like a writhing snake tattoo might.  The film had style in capital letters.

boom_escape_from_new_york d_d

          ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK the comic has that same style stamped all over it.  Writer Christopher Sebela seems to have studied the film very closely.  You will believe this is Snake Plissken. He talks and acts exactly the same.  Fans of the classic film will love this book.  Those who have heard of the legend of Snake Plissken, but perhaps are too young to have experienced it,  can read this book and find out what all the fuss is about.

           The setting is near-future America, with the island of Manhattan fenced off and turned into a prison colony.  The film ended with Snake being pardoned by the President of the United States and then playing an embarrassing prank on the chief executive.  Issue #1 opens up with this same cassette-tape scenario.  However, in this version the action has real consequences.  It’s spoiled any chance of the U.S.A. brokering a peace and may lead to World War III.  The President immediately revokes the pardon, and brands Plissken a traitor.

          True to the title, Plissken escapes and joins up with a band of rebels on their way to the separatist state of Florida, where people must enter and survive the Crucible to become a member. The story ends on a cliff-hanger.

boom efny01_coverb         Snake wise-cracks, talks back, and fights his way through the issue in his trademark style. Artist Barreto is not going to supplant any upper-tier stylists as your new favorite artist, but he is to comics art what B-movies are to entertainment. Very functional. He moves the action along and gets his moments to show what he’s capable of. The more you study the art the more satisfying it becomes.  One of my favorite panels occurs early in the story when Snake takes over a seat  formerly occupied by  a helicopter pilot.  Turn the page to find out what happens to the pilot.  There’s a lot of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK in that panel.  There’s a lot of Snake Plissken’s imprint on that panel.  That panel has swagger.

           This is a fun book.  So, have some fun.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Twentieth Century Fox

http://www.dawnofapes.com/

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes July 11 2014 poster

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the highly anticipated sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). I saw the movie before reading Todd McCarthy’s review in The Hollywood Reporter, where he sums it up with: “Dawn is to Rise of the Planet of the Apes what Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars.” In fact, I was thinking this the whole time I was watching the movie (when I wasn’t so engrossed in the story and the action that I forgot that I was supposed to be thinking about a review).

So what makes this such a damn good movie? Characterization. And story. Since this is part of a prequel series to the original Planet of the Apes (1968), it is intriguing to see how the apes start to organize, form a civilization, and speak. The first encounter between apes and humans is jaw-dropping. The plot is pretty straightforward and a bit contrived in places – is this particular dam really the only way to restore electricity to San Francisco? Sociologically, it seems plausible:  a series of unfortunate misunderstandings and a bit of deceitful mayhem by an angry few blow up into a major feud with no forgiveness possible.

Overall the special effects and action scenes are excellent and the 3D animation is subtle but effective. You feel the intensity and the pain and anguish of the characters, something that many latter day movies lack in the overly CGI world.

 Andy Serkis as Ceasar is incredibly convincing. He’s not playing a human in an electronic apesuit – he’s playing an ape that is becoming more and more aware of what it means to be an ape. The result is by turns wonderful and chilling. The entire cast deserves credit for bringing the full range of primate emotions to life with nothing spared.

There is a lot to ingest in the subtext and in the nods to previous films and great works of science fiction. Every scene has at least a hint at some sociopolitical commentary — whether about guns, racism, animal welfare, religion, or the atrocities of war — and many embedded references to past masters to keep geeks happy. Even the music invokes parallels by incorporating themes from the original Jerry Goldsmith score and elements from classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (who could forget those choruses when the apes encounter the monolith… and Strauss swelling during the hog kill scene?)

The movie succeeds in pulling heartstrings. You want to love the apes, but you feel for the humans, and in the end, we realize that we are all the same, but it is no a happy realization. Like the first Star Wars trilogy, this is setting things up for an epic showdown. Let’s just hope the third installment doesn’t have any ape-woks.

Malice - Alice on Toadstool

I have one word for you…webseries.  OK, don’t groan; hear me out.

Yes, I know that the rapid advancement in Internet streaming technologies and the advent of home video editing suites have created a perfect storm of sorts.  On one hand, just about everyone and their mothers have become  auteurs overnight, latter day Francis Ford Coppolas who just know how brilliant their work is; how people will understand their “vision” if they could only see the work.  Of course, most of these folks should have remained interested amateurs, content to consume rather than produce, as most of the product ends up being shit.  On the other hand, these technological advancements have been a boon to those who have practiced and honed their craft for decades, those with the ability and skill to craft television series, albeit television series in handy little seven to ten minute chunks.

Almost overnight, venues like Hulu, Vudu, Koldcast and Blip TV became ravenous for content.  At first, venues of this type were obsessed with massive amounts of content and, needless to say, the result was mixed.  Quality filmmakers suddenly had a viable distribution venue with massive potential, but so did the auteurs, and the Hunger Games of content, content, content won out—at first, anyway. The marketplace became flooded with unbelievable amounts of drek, and the quality content was quickly drowned in the shifting seas.  But almost as quickly, these venues started to realize that quality did matter and the ratio of crap to quality is shifting rapidly.  No longer does one have to kiss a hundred frogs to find a prince.  Maybe just 25, these days.  But that’s the beauty of bite-sized television.  You can usually tell in the first minute whether you gotten something good or something dreadful.  You can move on quickly or immerse yourself in the work of some truly talented writers, producer and directors.

Case in point:  Malice: The Webseries, a creepy and impressive series created, written, produced and edited by Philip J. Cook, a filmmaker based in the Washington D.C. area.  No neophyte, Cook has a long history in the entertainment industry.  In the 80s—when micro-budget filmmakers could still produce and get theatrical distribution—Cook was producing ambitious sci-fi films. When the 90s rolled around and cable became de rigueur, Cook bypassed theatrical distribution and went straight to the cable networks.  But then Hollywood swooped in, monopolizing the cable market; so in the aughts, Cook set his sites of the massive number of brick-and-mortar video stores, selling his films directly to that market. Hollywood, again, finally caught on and shortly thereafter saw the potential Cook and others like him had already recognized. Soon, studios were flooding video stores with direct-to-video productions, again squeezing out the independents.

In short, Cook has been on the leading edge of micro-budget filmmakers for decades. So, when Internet killed the Video Store, Cook set his sites on the emerging media of streaming distribution and created Malice, which has racked up an impressive number of good reviews, and rightly so.

Take one creepy house, two rebellious teenage girls, a possibly unstable ex-Navy Seal father and a recovering alcoholic mother and mix them together with ghosts and zombies and monsters and you have a highly entertaining series that has been called Juno meets The Shining.  And it’s a label that is particularly apt.

In a twisted play on Alice in Wonderland, Malice focuses on Alice (Brittany Martz), a disaffected–almost jaded–youth who isn’t exactly thrilled when her mother, Jesse (Leanna Chamish), inherits her childhood home. But Alice doesn’t have much say in the matter and, in the opening episode, Jesse, Alice, her sister Abbey (Rebekkah Johnson) and father Nate (Mark Hyde), find themselves facing a seriously creepy old house in rural Virginia.  Almost immediately upon arriving, strange things are afoot and it might just have something to do with the massive graveyard in the back yard.

Jesse chucks her one-year sobriety out the window almost immediately. Nate, who had recently finished his stint in Afghanistan, seems a little more lost, a bit more off-balance and, although never particularly close, Alice and Abbey begin fighting even more regularly than usual.  There are also strange happenings in the house as well.  Alice constantly feels as if she is being watched. Mysterious figures pass by the rooms.  Someone watches from the heating grates.

When one night, Jesse wanders off into the woods in only a nightie and Nate starts receiving bloody messages on the walls, Alice and Abbey slowly watch their family disintegrate and are thrust into a bizarre wonderland.  Does Alice simply have an overactive imagination?  Or are there secrets about her family she’s never even known?

Malice Cave

From the very first moment of the premiere episode, you know you’re in for something different with Malice.  Martz, as Alice, sits atop her family’s new home, a bunny hat on her head, an AK-47 in her hands.  “Being a teenager sucks.  There’s a shocking revelation, huh? But right now, that’s the least of my problems.” She ruminates on how it all came to this, how her not-so normal family seemed so normal in hindsight, what her life has become.  It’s a great hook, because for the entire first season, we’re working our way back to that moment, wondering what the hell led her to that rooftop. And it’s a ride worth taking.

Cook keeps the storytelling concise, an absolute necessity when dealing with webseries episodes, and wrought with tension, each episode ending with a truly compelling cliffhanger. The mood he sets is genuinely creepy, alternately dark and extremely stark, and the dynamic between cast members is highly affective.  In short, he set the tone expertly but gives us realistic and interesting character dynamics.  In fact, one of the most chilling moments early in the season is when the until-then sober Jesse brings in dinner the first night they are in the house and she has a glass of wine with her.  When she sets the glass on the table, that one moment resounds link a gunshot.

Now, don’t get me wrong…this isn’t some dreary family melodrama.  Script and character are, indeed, everything, but there are other big bonuses as well. Malice boasts some incredibly ambitious—and highly effective—special effects.  With a budget that couldn’t have been more than one day’s worth of craft services on a Hollywood series, Cook pulls off some spectacular moments that add to the creepiness.  I first watched Malice on my little laptop and was impressed with the SFX.  When I discovered I could transfer to my 50 inch TV, I re-watched them and they are just as impressive—if not more so—at HD size.  Cook is wise, however.  Never does he allow the effects to overtake the story.  They are there to serve it and they serve it well.

As with any regional production, there are some hits and misses with the actors, some being far more accomplished than others, but luckily, Cook has cast his series leads extremely well.  Martz is greatly appealing as Alice as is Johnson who grows into her role as the series continues.  Los Angeles-based actor Mark Hyde as Nate, the patriarch, brings a wonderful sense of stability while, at the same time, being just off-kilter enough to make us wonder what he is capable of.  And Chamish, as Jesse, has some wonderfully chilling moments.

The first season of Malice has 6 episodes, varying in length from 3-10 minutes and ends with an appropriately creepy cliffhanger.  Season two (also 6 episodes) starts off with a massive bang — an impressive episode that rivals many Hollywood mainstream series — and ends with what was thought to be the series finale, again huge in scope and execution.  In between the two seasons, Cook and company produced a special episode as an homage to the cult-classic series Space: 1999 which is worth a look if, for nothing more, the genuinely stunning special effects.

Last year, Cook mapped out a new season for Malice, entitled Malice: Metamorphosis, and then turned to crowd funding to see if he could make it a reality.  It’s clear that the entire Malice series has been a labor of love (Cook, his family and friends all kick in to make the series effective) and that is even more evident in his crowd funding effort:  he was looking to raise a meager $13,000, with most of that budget going to food for the cast and crew, set materials, prop materials and the like.  How refreshing to see a realistic (and humble) crowd funding appeal. Luckily, the effort was successful.*

Webseries have very much been the first frontier with respect to short-run series, offering an unprecedented opportunity for micro-budget independent production companies like Cook’s Eagle Films.  But that is quickly changing and, as the mainstream takes notice, the market is shifting again. Already, South Korean film and television studios have started producing webseries such as the popular Infinite Power, and Hollywood is surely not going to be far behind.  Jump in now and discover the amazing creativity out there before it gets diluted with the same-old, same-old.

If you looking for a creepy, disturbing series with some serious ambition and highly professional storytelling, I highly recommend Malice: The Webseries.  All of Season 1 & 2 are available on various content services and Malice: Metamorphosis will premiere on Blip TV on February 19, 2014.  It is highly worth your time.

Malice Metamorphosis

* Though I seldom participate in crowd funding efforts, in the interest of full disclosure, I must state that I did contribute to the funding of Malice: Metamorphosis because I strongly believe in the quality of what Cook has produced.  I am not, however, in any way involved in the series and have no financial or creative interest in the series.

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