Outrage (2010, Takeshi Kitano). According to the motivated yakuza collective in Takeshi Kitano’s deliriously violent Outrage, brutal murder and elaborate manipulation fall under the same unflinching umbrella of “formality.” Contrast this deceptive wordplay with the hilariously ironic title, and you’ve got one volatile and unsettling revenge play. In fact, throughout the intricate pattern of assassinations, broken promises, and double crosses, not one of Kitano’s nicely dressed gangsters really gets too angry, even when they realize life is about to come to an abrupt end. Their diabolical nature lies under the surface, erupting like a volcano in the film’s many shocking moments of violence. Otomo (Kitano) represents the most extreme and polarizing member of the yakuza, barely saying a word until he drills out your teeth in a dentist’s chair or massacres an entire steam bath full of upper-crust gangsters. Otomo’s motivations, like those of every other killer in Outrage, stem from an almost organic devotion to historical patterns, paying tribute to a long history of tragic flaws that reside in a gangster’s DNA. The need for power and control supersedes all other things, including money, women, and even respect, and it seems these killers are acting entirely on instinct in order to preserve the status quo of mayhem. After nearly two hours of violent debauchery, Outrage starts to numb your frontal lobes, but Kitano’s pristine direction and smooth camera movement always juxtapose the unsettling action with a beautifully crisp formalism that makes the film increasingly disturbing. By the end, it’s not hard to fathom an afterlife where these thugs will continue sucker-punching each other for the rest of eternity, a sort of hypnotic hell where there’s no control or hierarchy, just relentless explosions of formality for all to share.
The Housemaid (2010, Im Sang-soo). Im Sang-soo’s slick modernization of The Housemaid reveals the intricate, venomous deeds of a wealthy viper’s nest nibbling the life out of a lower-class innocent, a young servant named Eun-yi (Jeon Do-youn). After arriving at the posh home of a rich businessman and his pregnant wife to help raise their children, Eun-yi quickly becomes the object of her male employer’s affection. Their affair sets in quickly and begins to breach the safe conformist walls so brilliantly constructed by the devilish women of the house. Awash in extreme angles, moving dolly shots, and moody lighting, this stylized examination of class systems and social codes couldn’t be more different than Kim Ki-young’s frenzied and psychotic 1960s black-and-white original. The middle-class milieu of Kim’s wacked-out morality play has morphed into an upper-class hunting ground of artifice that slowly strangles the life out of anyone with a soul. Sexual desire and imagery, once an off-screen reference point in the original, becomes a literal weapon for Im’s seductive, streaky narrative. Flesh, sweat, and contorted expressions define the characters just as much as their words, and narrative perspective has all but shifted toward humanizing the titular character instead of the family. While Kim’s original suffers from a mortal repetitive streak in terms of action, sometimes descending into familiar madness just for the hell of it, Im’s reboot spreads itself too thin with cliché, wasting its brilliantly evocative mise-en-scène on silly theatrics and familiar cries for revenge. When a character late in the 2010 version tells Eun-yi to “cut the bullshit and go!,” it’s hard for the viewer not to agree. That the girl decides to stay and fight this three-headed snake makes the futile Lynchian ending all the more baffling, a completely mystifying deconstruction of what it means to serve in this modern age. Apparently, the only way out is figurative self-immolation or moral compromise. You pick.
Littlerock (2010, Mike Ott). Independent films with ambition are few and far between these days, so in that sense Mike Ott’s problematic Littlerock is a must see despite its many flaws. The film opens in the middle of the California desert where Japanese siblings Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamato) and Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) are stranded in the town of Littlerock while their rental car undergoes repairs. The two tourists meet a group of rowdy local American kids, the most memorable an aspiring actor named Cory (Cory Zacharia), and these encounters end up sending their entire trip into a cultural and emotional tailspin. Each scene bristles with an edgy humanism, as if the blocking and performances might derail at any moment. Thankfully, Ott never descends into genre territory, instead painting these characters as incomplete entities trying to transcend their surroundings through mutual understanding. Language barriers often make this connection impossible, but the small scenes between Atsuko and Cory show that verbal communication isn’t always needed to create lasting drama. But Ott’s obvious audaciousness toward thematic alienation, modern Americana, and traumatic past histories never convincingly materializes in the characters on screen, and ultimately Littlerock fails to illicit the type of poignant reflections its characters so desperately need. For a film indebted to the importance of familial dynamics, Littlerock never fully explores any one grouping, languishing in an atmosphere of unfulfilled questions about devotion and heritage until both Japanese and American experiences seem to be cut from the same worn out cloth.
AFI Fest 2010 ran from November 4 – 11. For more information, click here.