Cold Fish (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Mitsuko (Hikari Kajiwara) was caught shoplifting by a store manager, he called her father, Syamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and stepmother, Taeko (Megumi Kagurazaka), before calling the police. But when Murata (Denden), the store manager’s friend who happened to be on the same tropical fish business as Syamoto, came barging in the office to brag about his gigantic rare fish, he persuaded that the police needn’t be involved. Syamoto and his family were very grateful, but Murata wasn’t as generous a man he seemed. Behind his fish business, he and his wife, Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa), murdered people for money. Written by Shion Sono and Yoshiki Takahashi, “Tsumetai nettaigyo,” also known as “Cold Fish,” was an exercise on how a family, through a paternal figure, needed to be shaken up by horrific events in hopes of breaking out of their rut. Mitsuko was a wild teen who didn’t have an ounce of respect for her parents. She beat her stepmother without remorse and considered her father as a joke. Hoping that she’d change for the better, it was no wonder her guardians agreed for Mitsuko, equipped with free room and board, to work for Murata. The father was partly to blame. He was too lenient. If I was a teenager and got caught stealing from a store, my parents would throw a fit. When Murata allowed Mitsuko off the hook, there was not one scene where the father attempted to discuss with his daughter why what she did was unacceptable. We should be disturbed by that lack of proper parenting. The filmmakers made sure that the family drama was deeply rooted in reality before diving into the excess of gore, perversity, and dark comedy. The murders and step-by-step ways to make a person “invisible” didn’t leave much for the imagination. Once the victim had been poisoned, he was taken to a remote location, a shack next to a church, to be chopped into manageable pieces. Red liquid flooded the bathroom floor like sickness, organs were everywhere, and body parts that were still whole glistened in morbidity. However, it was mostly done in a comedic way. For instance, a silly, playful music would play in the background as someone desperately gasped for air. Close-up of the Aiko devoid of reaction, almost somnolent, because she’d seen a man struggle for his life more than she could count. As Syamoto was forced to dispose human meat in the size of chicken nuggets by the river, Murata would enthusiastically say things like, “You’re doing a good job!” and “The fish will be happy!” Shion Sono, the director, paired violence with sex. The physical act meant differently for each character. For instance, Taeko considered it a way to escape her miserable marriage while Aiko held it a symbol for being wanted. I admired “Cold Fish” most because I felt like it wasn’t restrained by anything. It was able to make a statement, with clarity, about how we live and the powerful elements that influence, consciously or otherwise, our decisions. It was a lesson in responsibility.
I Am Guilty (2005)
★ / ★★★★
Armin (Constantin von Jascheroff) had recently graduated from the university. With a competitive job market and his lack of enthusiasm during his interviews, he couldn’t seem to snag a job. His parents’ (Manfred Zapatka, Victoria Trauttmansdorff) insistence that he put in more effort to everything he did didn’t quite sit well with him. As a response, he sent a false confession about a crime he didn’t commit. It seemed as though getting away with it was his biggest accomplishment. Written and directed by Christoph Hochhäusler, I knew the message that the film wanted to relay to its audiences. That is, young adults’ minds are irrational, volatile, and curious. However, it lacked important transitions between scenes. Too often were we left with Armin in his room as he stared at his computer, procrastinating instead of working on job applications. Then it would jump to scenes when he would search for Katja (Nora von Waldstätten), a girl who he considered to be his girlfriend but she thought otherwise. When he did find her, he was at a loss for words. What was the relationship between the two scenes? The formula became almost unbearable to sit through. Since the scenes lacked transition, the rising action felt disconnected and the film lacked tension. The movie was at its most interesting when Armin was being interviewed for a job. His voice sounded apathetic and his body language lacked energy but his responses were unpredictable. There were times when I was impressed that he could think on his feet and sometimes flat-out lie about his experiences. But there were instances when I felt like he was drowning in questions, that his mind needed more time to process the situation and come up with a reasonable response. When Armin was most vulnerable, the picture seemed to wake up from its deep slumber. The parenting was another critical strand in the plot. It was obvious that the fathered preferred Armin’s older brother (Florian Panzner): He played sports, sociable, had a career, and about to start a family. Our protagonist didn’t like to show it but he was sensitive to his father’s expectations. What son isn’t? On the other hand, the mother was lenient. She thought that if Armin tried harder, he would have no problem getting a job. She was in denial. I got the impression that it never occurred to her that her son was simply not ready to have a career that he would have, or was expected to have, for the rest of his life right after graduation. Some people just need a bit more time to figure out who they are and what they want to do. There’s nothing wrong it. “Falscher Bekenner” had some decent ideas about society’s expectations of its young minds that happened to be a little lost. However, it desperately needed to snap out of its insularity and not be ashamed to allow us to feel for its main character’s struggles.
★ / ★★★★
A wealthy family was in the process of moving into their new home. As the movers scrambled to empty the trucks, Marta (Ana Wagener), the matriarch, stressed about having all the members of the family to have dinner together and celebrate. Isa (Manuela Vellés), the spoiled, whiny, and inconsiderate daughter, would rather go out with her boyfriend (Xoel Yáñez) than to grant her mother’s simple wish. The patriarch, Jaime (Fernando Cayo), couldn’t care less. One could argue that the events in “Secuestrados,” written by Miguel Ángel Vivas and Javier García, were repercussions of bad parenting. In its first few minutes, instead allowing us to relate to the family, it wasn’t difficult not to dislike them because they passively and unnecessarily allowed small annoyances to turn into big problems. When three masked thieves (Guillermo Barrientos, Dritan Biba, Martijn Kuiper) broke into the family’s new house on the same night as the move-in, there was a cold disconnect between the audiences and the horrific events that were unfolding. For example, when forced to show their credit cards and write down their pin numbers on a piece of paper, the camera was at least fifteen feet from where the family trembled in their seats. There were yelling, screaming, and protesting but the distance represented a lack of sympathy. I argue that if the filmmakers’ intention was for us to care about Jaime, Marta and Isa, to root for them to be able to extricate themselves from their plight, the camera would have been as close as possible to that couch because mostly everybody can relate to suffering. The picture eventually started to feel gimmicky. Since there wasn’t enough cash in the house, one of the robbers, unmasked, took the father for a drive so that they could look for various ATMs and withdraw money. In order to simultaneously keep track of what was happening in the house, the screen was divided into two. Split-screens can be effective if used wisely and sparingly. The problem was, splitting the screen didn’t feel necessary. While we had a chance to observe two events at the same time, only either the left or the right was interesting. Both was never involving at the same time so that we would feel compelled to move our eyes in either direction. Furthermore, I found that in order for one side to capture my attention, someone would have to raise his voice or scream bloody murder. Lastly, I wanted to focus on the psychology of Isa. She was probably one of the most despicable daughters (or persons in general) I’ve seen on screen for quite some time. When she and her mother had a chance to escape by locking themselves in a bathroom with a window big enough so that a person could fit one at a time, Marta actually had to beg Isa to climb out and find help. Isa didn’t want to do it because the masked men had her boyfriend in the other room and threatened to kill him. I watched in astonishment. After several attempts to carry her daughter out of the window (and Isa selfishly wouldn’t budge), I actually wanted Isa to break her neck if she happened to make it outside. She was idiotic and useless. Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas, “Secuestrados,” also known as “Kidnapped,” was bleak and uncompromising. I would have admired its audacity if the characters were fighters instead of punching bags and if it had been more sensible of its craft.
★★ / ★★★★
“Les égarés” was set in World War II as Germans began to occupy France in 1940. Odile (Emmanuelle Béart) and her children (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Clémence Meyer) were caravanning across the provinces when they were targeted by German planes. Pressing forward would most likely lead to death so, along with a seventeen-year-old Yvan (Gaspard Ulliel), the four darted into the forest and found refuge in an abandoned home. “Strayed” was a simple film driven by questions. Should we trust Yvan despite the fact that he was a compulsive liar? Since he was so good at lying, how much did he really care about the family of three? Was it possible that Odile suspected that there was something not quite right about him to the point where she found the need to grab the first opportunity to hide the stranger’s gun and grenades? Was she scared of him losing control more than the Germans finding them? There were a plethora of questions and most of them were answered by the end. But the main problem with the film was if the viewers failed to look beyond the obvious and ask questions, they would feel as though the movie was pointless. The majority of the running time followed the characters catching animals for food, having lunch or dinner, discussing what they should do the next day, and reflecting about the lives they left behind. There was sexual friction between Odile and Yvan. The latter wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. After all why would he when he was a teenager filled with raging hormones? There was no doubt that Odile, highly attractive for her age, was interested in Yvan but she felt like being with him was wrong because he was essentially still a child. Even Yvan admitted that he was more about taking action than taking the time to think things through. His transitory age was a template for his childish and child-like tendencies to collide, reflective of the Freudian id–“If it feels good, do it.” Another interesting part was Odile’s children. There was a strange scene when Cathy, still around seven or eight years old, decided to climb onto Yvan’s bed, who was naked under the covers, and claimed that she wanted to get pregnant. How did she know of such a concept? Less obvious implications consisted of Philippe constantly wanting to gain Yvan’s acceptance. Did Philippe see him as a brother, a father, or something else? Perhaps Odile’s overprotective parenting was successful at keeping the children alive, but the more important question was will they be able to function after the war was over? Again, it was up to us to ask the questions and, in some ways, answer them as well. Based on a novel by Gilles Perrault and directed by André Téchiné, “Les égarés” had a rather simple premise but it was challenging in the most unexpected ways. That challenge could appeal to some while others could be repelled.
Naked Childhood (1968)
★★★★ / ★★★★
François (Michel Terrazon) was a ten-year-old boy whose foster family did not want him anymore. The mother (Linda Gutemberg) was concerned about François always getting into fights, having trouble in school, stealing, and not responding to any sort of discipline she and her husband (Raoul Billerey) had attempted. François also hurt and killed animals yet it seemed like he did not feel bad about his actions. The Social Services had to intervene and placed the child with a kind elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) and with another foster child (Henri Puff) now in his teens. Directed by Maurice Pialat, “L’enfance nue” was an unflinching look at a troubled childhood and the system designed to handle children that were abandoned in the streets or given up for adoption. What I loved about the film most was it never offered easy answers. It was easy to judge our protagonist’s first foster family because we didn’t have a chance to observe their parenting skills for an extended amount of time. We were given information about the way they reacted to the child’s behavior, but we all know–or should know–there’s always a difference between secondhand description and firsthand observation. When the mother described their parenting to the director of Social Services, I was bothered by the fact that not once did she cite one instance where she could have done something differently with François. It wasn’t obvious but it sounded like François was a canister of blame. It gave me the impression that they didn’t want the child because it wasn’t the kind of child they dreamed of. Furthermore, it was obvious that the parents weren’t always on the same page. The father had a soft spot toward François when the mother performed a spice of tough love. The turning point was when François was transferred to his second foster family. We observed his different temperaments, wild tantrums, and the way he seemed to relish watching the people who loved him turn red with fury. With Pialat’s sensitive and astute direction, he showed us that François wasn’t an evil child. He was desperate for attention and his cruel actions were his cry for help. His new family was actually perfect for him because they seemed to have endless amount of patience. During François’ calm moments, he was able to make real connection with them. He enjoyed listening to his grandmother’s story about her huge family, the grandfather’s magical ability to fix just about anything in the house, his foster brother’s collection of weapons, and especially the great grandmother (Marie Marc) who read the morning paper with him. When he regressed to his unkind behavior, like a real family, they welcomed him back. I was moved with their ability to forgive and it made me wish that all families were like them. Written by Arlette Langmann and Maurice Pialat, “Naked Childhood” was a difficult look at the reality of abandoned children. It’s a must-see for those who, including myself, plan to adopt and raise their child as if they were our own flesh and blood. We should love them unconditionally and we just hope that they feel the same way toward us.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson) was expelled from school because of the brutal violence he inflicted upon some of his classmates. School officials didn’t know that Erik was physically abused by his step-father (Johan Rabaeus) at home and Erik’s actions were classic signs of transference. Erik’s mother (Marie Richardson), fully aware of the abuse, decided to send her son to a prestigious boarding school to get her child away from her husband and so that her son could have a chance of a promising future. Unbeknownst to her, she sent Erik to another version of hell where the older students, led by Otto Silverheim (Gustaf Skarsgård), bullied the younger ones for the sake of senseless tradition. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jan Guillou and directed by Mikael Håfström, what I loved about the film was it offered a rich insight about the criteria of evil and that, most of the time, it was hard to discern an evil action from an evil person. Evil actions were all around. Aside from Erik’s physically and emotionally abusive home, there was bullying outside of the classrooms, fellow classmates instigated unnecessary fights for the sake of vapid entertainment, the school officials actively neglected the seniors’ cruel pranks, even the kitchen staff decided to turn a blind eye to the flinch-inducing violence because they were afraid to lose their jobs. Sometimes allowing bad things happen could be considered evil, too. There was no doubt, at least in my mind, that it was the adults’ responsibility, whether an adult was a revered headmaster or a lowly cook, to take immediate action when students were being harmed. In a myriad ways, the violence in the school could be considered as a hyperbole. Nevertheless, it is all the more relevant today. With all the senseless bullying in schools all over the country (and I’m sure in other parts of the world as well) and the bullied committing suicide because they thought their lives weren’t going to get better or that no one was willing to listen and take an active role against their plight, it’s sad, even maddening. Håfström’s film was successful because it had a defined central theme and equally engaging and challenging characters. The picture was designed to make us angry, to question our own inaction when we see injustice around us, and to convince us that we have the power to make changes if we choose to. It wasn’t just about the violence. It was also about the friendship that grew between Erik and his intellectual roommate (Henrik Lundström). Through their interactions did we really get to learn who they were, what they wanted to be, and what they meant to each other. Their interactions were surprisingly moving and served as a great contrast against the darkness happening within the school and the individuals who controlled the system. “Ondskan” contained wonderful performances. Wilson had to carry much of the film and he found a balance between being ruthlessly tough and struggling to do the right thing. At the end of the day, he’s the kind of guy I would want by my side.
We Are What We Are (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When the family patriarch (Humberto Yáñez) passed away while admiring mannequins, the matriarch (Carmen Beato) and her three children (Miriam Balderas, Francisco Barreiro, Adrián Aguirre) were left to fend for themselves. Behind closed doors, as part of some tradition, they kidnapped vulnerable people in the streets, like homeless children and prostitutes, and ate them. “We Are What We Are,” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, was an interesting hybrid of chamber drama and horror. The first half focused on the volatile relationship between the two brothers. Alfredo and Adriana wanted to prove that they were man enough to lead the family. The eldest, Alfredo, had the most complexity. It seemed as though he was almost pressured into eating people but couldn’t set himself free because he felt responsible. Alfredo was torn between expectations at home and the experimentation required to find his sexual identity. Since he couldn’t come up with a way to deal with the two spheres, he felt a lot of self-loathing. There was an intense scene in which he decided to follow a gay man around his age. I was engaged because it was difficult to discern whether the hunt was for business or pleasure. I enjoyed the film’s tone exactly because it lacked gloss. Grau made his project’s lack of big budget work for itself. For instance, when one of the victims escaped the house, there was no booming music to suggest that the victim was being followed. In fact, the sound was muffled. Since there was barely any sound to guide my expectations, I turned my attention to the images and the shadows that surrounded the escapee. I was that much more aware and transfixed on the screen. Unfortunately, the script introduced characters that took away focus from the topic of cannibalism. There was a detective (Jorge Zárate) whose sole motivation in capturing the cannibals was to earn the so-called respect of his colleagues. We saw him look disgruntled and angry, but we never really learned what made him special enough to break the case. He wasn’t especially creative, patient, nor brave. He just seemed like another cop who tried to find an easy solution to a complicated question. He lacked depth so I found it difficult to take him seriously. During a key confrontation, I found it strange that I actually rooted for the family to get away with what they did. If the writer-director had focused more on the details of the strange tradition and less on the detective, though above average in parts, “Somos lo sue hay” would have been a more a visceral experience. It left my stomach grumbling for more.