Watched This Month: December 2016

Hello, hello. Welcome to Watched This Month. Finally on time again! It’s December, so that means this monthly post has now been going for an entire year, with me having written about almost one hundred different movies along the way. Hooray! Thank you to all those who have stopped by. I have no plans to end Watched This Month, so do please continue to visit. As the year is coming to a close, following this post will be my second ever Watched This Year, which compiles every film I managed to watch in 2016 into one convenient list. Gotta love a good rundown. Anyway, down to business…

Previous: October – November

Film Rating
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is bewitching, beautifully subtle three-hour drama and slight companion piece to All About Lily Chou-Chou, exploring disconnect in an ever-connected world. Unassertive lead Nanami – played by Haru Kuroki – finds her supposed beau online, but never truly connects with him. After marriage, she seems destined for a quiet life of discontent, shackled by societal traditions and forced into the role of housewife. She lacks the gumption to break her dreary routine, but after some meddling by an enigmatic online acquaintance, Nanami finds herself on a path of uncertainty, in which she may just find fulfillment.

It’s a wholly mesmerizing picture, with a lengthy runtime that seems to go by in an instant. Iwai’s visuals are dreamy and evocative, with his handheld camera work creating a sense of intimacy and delicate observation. Somehow, he hits the emotional beats almost infallibly, with actress Haru Kuroki communicating soft, unspoken emotions with absolute precision. Throughout, the two build a quiet sense of melancholy, slowly but assuredly dissolving viewers into Nanami’s world.

Though the story is often sorrowful and even tragic, it’s never ostentatious or even straightforwardly distressing. Iwai’s ethereal imagery and exquisite characterisation tug away at the heartstrings in the most unobtrusive and delicate of manners.

The character of Nanami is attentively written, with Haru Kuroki giving a beautifully understated performance. Right from the get-go, she’s a terrific representation of the younger generation, whose voices are aflutter online, all too often contradicted by their passive realities.

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle has a quietly pensive and very distinct quality, with the director imbuing typically sombre scenes with tinges of warmth and reassurance; molding forlorn into fascinating. It’s a gorgeously bittersweet and entirely spellbinding experience, with an usually alluring sense of abjection. Certainly, one of Iwai’s best.

★★★★★
A Hard Day (Dir. Kim Seong-hoon)

By masterfully combining typical – but well refined – thriller elements with touches of black comedy, director Kim Seong-hoon has created an action movie with a lot of personality.

A Hard Day follows detective Ko Gun-su, who finds his day goes from bad to worse after hitting and killing a passerby in his car on the way to his mothers funeral. Rather than own up to manslaughter, Ko concocts a plan to dispose of the body inside his mothers casket, but as soon as he believes he’s in the clear, he receives an anonymous call from a man who claims to have witnessed the ordeal.

It’s a solid action-thriller, with an engaging lead and a polished, well-paced plot that is not only gratifying in its tension and excitement, but also very effective in its humour and absurdity.

★★★★☆
Christmas in August (Dir. Hur Jin-Ho)

Despite the title, Christmas in August isn’t a terribly suitable seasonal film. It’s the tale of a portrait photographer who strives to live a peaceful and pleasant existence despite a terminal illness. He owns and operates a studio by himself and lives out his days with barely an utterance of dismay, but when a young parking officer enters his life, he’s faced with a romance that may be all too bittersweet.

It sounds very melodramatic, but in actuality Christmas in August is so incredibly subtle and understated. It tackles profound emotion and devastation with exquisite delicacy and finesse, deftly avoiding any heavy-handedness and instead taking a more poignant and passive look at mortality and the tender, fleeting moments of our lives.

It’s one of the most touching films I have ever seen and is at the same time, both terrifically evocative and yet remarkably tranquil. Han Suk-kyu and Shim Eun-ha are absolutely masterful in their roles, with director Hur Jin-ho so graceful and gentle in his approach; never spoon-feeding the viewer and exquisitely weaving symbolism and meaning into the films wonderful imagery.

I watched this on Christmas Eve, not knowing what I was really in for, but I feel it will remain very vivid and important to me — tugging at my tender emotions for years to come. This is one of those special films that will stay with me.

★★★★★
Confession of Murder (Dir. Jeong Byeong-Gil)

Tonally, Confession of Murder was a little unbalanced. The first sequence sets it up a vicious thriller, but the dark tone is then quickly subsided by the subsequent action scenes, which are very overblown and almost comical. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

The story follows detective Choi, who has been haunted by a long unsolved serial murder case with which he was deeply involved. Years go by and the culprit is never found; that is until the statue of limitations expire and a man claiming responsibility publishes a book detailing his crimes, which becomes an overnight sensation.

I thought the pace was a little too fast at times, but the story was very engaging from start to finish and had a number of extremely well-executed twists. The opening chase displayed some interesting camerawork, which was sadly abandoned as the film progressed, but the further action scenes were well directed and – though rather farcical – enormously entertaining.

★★★☆☆
Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)

A fantastical stop-motion fable set in ancient Japan, in which a young boy named Kubo – who can manipulate origami with a magical shamisen – must track down a suit of armor in order to defeat the vengeful Moon King. The plot has its conveniences and some of the exposition came across a little stilted, but the film is nonetheless an astounding achievement.

The animation and attention to detail is exquisite; the film is full with gorgeously visualised action and many remarkable set pieces. Furthermore, the characters – while rather conventional – manage to be memorable and enjoyable iterations, humanly developed and brought to life with some engaging voice work.

★★★★☆
Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Another gem from Bong Joon-ho, about a mother who takes it upon herself to prove her son’s innocence after he’s arrested for murder. It’s an exquisitely woven mystery, utilising the directors trademark blend of heavy drama and dark comedy, with undercurrents of tragedy.

It’s beautifully shot and the script is so tightly-knit; each scene adds another layer of intrigue and astonishment; everything piling up to a terrifically executed twist. It’s altogether immersive and entirely unpredictable, with a superbly convincing and absolutely heartbreaking performance from Kim Hye-ja.

★★★★☆
Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford)

Nocturnal Animals follows a disillusioned art gallery owner named Susan, whose life has become rather joyless and undesirable. Her second marriage didn’t unfold as she envisioned, with her husband distant and frequently absent. One morning she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, whom she hasn’t seen in nineteen years. During their marriage, Edward aspired to be a novelist, but Susan never placed much faith in him. As she begins to read the manuscript, she becomes entranced with the fictional life of Tony, a family man whose vacation develops into a tragic tale of revenge.

I went into Nocturnal Animals barely knowing a detail and came away awed. It’s superbly presented, with the non-linear narrative expertly employed. The plot unravels with staggering finesse and great suspense; its steady divulgence of details meticulously constructing an exceptional tale of revenge and redemption. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a mesmerising performance and I was also deeply engrossed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I have often found rather lackluster until now. Nocturnal Animals is – without a doubt – one of the most tense and tremendously captivating movies I have seen this year.

★★★★☆
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Gareth Edwards)

For the most part, Rogue One was pleasing – with an incredible final act – but it lacked the heart and soul of the more popular Star Wars movies, with the characters letting it down immeasurably. The performances were good, but none of the cast left much of an impression. The character arcs were either so rudimentary or missing altogether — Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang just seemed to tag along for the ride, with Riz Ahmed very one-note and pretty much a mere plot device. I wish more time was spent giving the characters a genuine voice and better framework.

However, the film succeeds tremendously in its more visual aspects. The action was compelling and the special effects were largely convincing, though I did find Tarkin somewhat jarring (Leia less so due to the amount of screen time). The culmination is where the film shines, with the final battle on Scarif possessing a wonderful sense of scale. It’s just a shame the characters didn’t have more emotional weight, which would have made the ending all the more bittersweet.

★★★☆☆
Sully (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

A biographical picture from Clint Eastwood that recounts the Miracle on the Hudson and the following investigation. Tom Hanks is very captivating and the film itself is incredibly compassionate and fluently paced, paving the way for a concise and honorable tribute to those present on US Airways Flight 1549, along with the service men and women who came to their aid.

However, I felt some members of the National Transport Safety Board were slightly vilified – though I guess a story of heroism does need some antagonism, particularly in cinema – and that, though the structure was very interesting and rather unconventional, some of the dialogue was fairly routine.

★★★☆☆
Symbol (Dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto)

A man awakens to find himself sealed inside an empty, all-white room and is promptly greeted by an array of animated Cupid sculptures. The sculptures meld into the walls, leaving behind their protruding members, which – if pressed – shoot out random objects from inside the walls. Meanwhile – in a concurrent narrative in Mexico – a wrestler prepares for an important bout.

Symbol is an utterly bizarre film, but very creative and original. It’s mostly a comedy, with a lot of physical humour – akin to something like Mr. Bean – but the final act introduces some contemplative aspects. Despite its short runtime, some scenes were a little stretched and became slightly aggravating, but it’s a tremendously imaginative and surreal movie. The two narratives also connect in one of the strangest and most unexpected ways imaginable.

★★★☆☆
The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

Another first-class feature from Park Chan-wook. Set in 1930s Korea, The Handmaiden tells of a plot to defraud a mysterious heiress by a conman who hires a thief to act as her maid, but complications abound when the two women begin to fall for one another.

It’s an entirely hypnotising feature. Beautiful, provocative, slinky and seductive — a feast for the senses and a whirlwind of emotions. The set design is gorgeous and the cinematography masterful; the camera lingers and maneuvers with extreme finesse. Apparently Chung Chung-hoon can do no wrong.

The plot develops, twists and turns with great unpredictability and intrigue, with some of the dialogue remarkably vivid and many scenes so transfixing — I found myself continually impressed with the films stunning proficiency. It has a mesmeric quality and everything just seems so attentively crafted and layered. It comes together successfully on so many levels.

★★★★☆
The Host (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

An unconventional monster movie in which moments of terror are mixed with political satire and dark comedy. The Host has some genuinely tragic and rousing scenes, but the central family is portrayed almost as if part of a sitcom. Tonally, it was completely unexpected, but absolutely refreshing and terrifically enjoyable.

It’s becoming quickly apparent to me that Bong Joon-ho is a master of subverting expectations and weaving dashes of humour into typically sombre scenarios. Some may find it a bit too offbeat or absurd, but it’s never predictable, with the comedy very organic and the family drama compelling in its eccentricity and intriguing dynamic.

★★★★☆
The Man from Nowhere (Dir. Lee Jeong-Beom)

A gritty action thriller in which conflict and emotion are in excellent melody. It succeeds where A Bittersweet Life faltered, by building an authentic emotional resonance before laying on the intensity and anguish. The action – particularly during the climax – is raw and unfiltered, performed with great vehemence and brilliant choreography, and while the plot does suffer from some tropes, its emotional backbone and memorable characters ensure it stays enthralling.

Bin Won plays a tender, melancholic soul with a challenging past, with Sae-ron Kim’s endearing but neglected young character helping him to love again. There’s also a fascinating villain in the form of Taiwanese actor Thanayong Wongtrakul, whose climatic confrontation with the protagonist is incredible and particularly indelible.

★★★★☆
Your Name (Dir. Makoto Shinkai)

An utmost emotive and visually arresting animated film from Japan, that follows two unrelated high-school students – a boy and a girl – who begin to randomly swap bodies with one another. As they grow accustomed to sharing lives, they get to know each other by leaving notes, slowly growing closer despite never having actually met.

Shinkai treads familiar ground, employing his wonderful knack for imbuing typically ordinary settings with a delicate touch of fantasy and science fiction, but manages to avoid much of the tedious melodrama and overt melancholy that I felt impeded some of his other work. The director maintains a fine balance, creating an often funny and very memorable human drama, that is nonetheless achingly beautiful and absolutely heartrending.

★★★★☆

That’s it for December. I’m still traversing a lot of missed South Korean cinema, but I want to catch up on some Japanese gems soon, too. Please stick around for Watched This Year: 2016 — coming up shortly! Adios for now.

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