The films of Olivier Assayas take on a range of subjects that explore the seamier reaches of the global economy: corporate espionage, drug smuggling, the porn industry, and torture websites. Demonlover is noteworthy for tracing the descent of its protagonist from the corporate stratosphere – the film opens in the first class section of a flight from East Asia to Paris, where passengers rise up from the beds to an opulent breakfast – to the grim inferno of a secluded compound in what looks like the Mexican desert, where, clad in black leather, she is tied to bed, waiting to be tortured on the orders of a nerdy high school student in a US suburb. Boarding Gate (2007) similarly unfolds in the nether regions of global capitalism where the illicit and the official economies intersect, once it gets going, that is. Unfortunately, Boarding Gate is a film that too often talks when it needs action, and shows action when it needs dialogue. The final effect is a curious misfire. At the end of the film, when the protagonist, played by Asia Argento, receives a new identity on distant continent, my only thought was, this would be the beginning of a very fascinating story.
Unlike Demonlover, which draws the viewer in even though its protagonist in the initial scenes cold-bloodedly arranges the kidnapping of a colleague and then moves on to negotiate a deal with a porn company, the entire first half of Boarding Gate comes across largely as exposition. The scenes, in which Sandra (Asia Argento) confronts her ex-lover, a businessman (Michael Madsen) involved in unsavory ventures, and goes over the sleazy things he paid her to do hold the viewer at a distance. One particularly traumatic episode revolves around a drugged drink and Polaroids. But we are held at a distance from these reminiscences – the fact that the characters talk at length about their previous experiences drains them of their provocative content, while the viewer remains unsure about what the significance of their relationship might be in the present. I don’t think that these scenes can be defended along Brechtian lines of alienating the viewer by holding the action at a critical remove – they are rather too functional in light of how abruptly their relationship gets resolved. Nor does their communication convey a powerful undercurrent of erotic desire in the manner of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, when the character played by Bibi Andersson recounts a sexual encounter on a beach.
Both Argento and Madsen are nevertheless quite good in these scenes. Argento shifts deftly between rage, sympathy, and longing, and makes a strong impact in spite of the relative weakness of the material. On the other hand, Madsen’s talent for appearing befuddled and threatening at the same is, alas, wasted. The second half of the film is when the border-crossing begins in earnest, as Sandra travels from London to Madrid and then to Hong Kong. She narrowly, or not so narrowly, avoids getting killed by intermediaries who are entangled with her lover in mysterious ways. A blonde woman in the clothing business shows up, ostensibly to save her. The scenes in Hong Kong are frenetic and fast-paced in contrast to the languor of the earlier scenes in London. Pursued by two assassins, Sandra opens a door with her gun raised and finds herself in the middle of a vast, crowded restaurant.
This discrepancy in the pacing made me consider that Boarding Gate would have been more effective were it set entirely in China, and if the scenes in London were shown as flashbacks. A film that is so focused on the crossing of borders, not only national and economic ones but also moral and psychic barriers, calls out for a non-linear, non-chronological form. Indeed, the greatest flaw of Boarding Gate, in my opinion, is that it unfolds in a linear fashion. I think it would be far more effective as a fragmented film, jumping between moments in time and location, or even as a film which explicitly sets out to answer the question, what in the world are you doing here?, in which case, it would begin with Sandra in China, and then proceed to unravel that mystery. The promise, and the conceptual weakness of the film, is that its truncated ending turns China into a sort of gigantic, highly populated Alaska, a land on the frontier of legality and consciousness, when in fact it is much more than a projection of Western capital and Western restlessness. How one might begin anew in a country with an ancient civilization and an ultramodern revolution or two is the real fish that calls out for frying.
For an insightful and divergent perspective on the film, one with more detailed analysis and a different appraisal of its ideological undercurrents, see Steven Shaviro’s blog.
Before his film The Host smashed box office records in Korea, Bong Joon-Ho made this witty and quirky gem, which is set in an apartment complex in Seoul. The protagonist is a lecturer living on a meager income while the permanent position he prizes goes to a colleague who bribes the Dean. His frustrations are intensified by the constant barking of a neighbor’s dog, and the plot unfolds when he decides to take out his bitterness at the injustices of his life against the small pet.
The film is set in a Korea that is sorting itself out from the Asian financial crisis. The rapidity of the country’s modernization is conveyed by a wry, slightly menacing custodian, who relates a most unusual ghost story about a selfless boiler repairman. His culinary preferences drive home the class divide, as middle class people give their pets food that is of higher quality than what many working people can enjoy. Consumer desire clashes with the rule of law, as the apartment dwellers violate the rules of the complex to keep dogs in the first place.
Bae Doo-na, who played the archer in The Host, is marvelous as an earnest book-keeper who yearns for a life more significant and dramatic than the one she has. The sequence in which she rescues a poodle is handled with warm humor and real fear at the same time.
Although Bong’s later films are more virtuosic in formal terms, as well as thematically more substantial, nevertheless I find that Dog of Flanders (the title in Korean) leaves a stronger impression, in large part because Bong is so adept, even in this early work, at handling a variety of emotional registers at the same time. He works through understatement in which the emotions and moods of one character are displaced onto another, but reality remains as plausible as it should be. Sometimes a little girl in a yellow raincoat is just a little girl in a yellow raincoat.
Babel would be a much better film if it did not have any familiar faces in the cast. The strongest performances are from Rinko Kikuchi as the deaf-mute Japanese girl Chieko and Adriana Barraza as the Mexican nanny Amelia. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and even Koji Yakusho seem out of place, their performances coming across as perfunctory and labored. Even the two child actors playing the children of the American couple convey a desperation and intensity, as well as a sense of wonder and joy, missing in the two major stars. As for the device of linking up three distant parts of the globe through a single act of firing a rifle, I think that González Iñárritu succeeds in pulling it off. The film’s greatest strength lies in the fluidity with which it moves from scenes of brutality and agony, such as when the Berber hunter is interrogated and beaten by the Moroccan police, to those of meditative sorrow, when the detective Mamiya nurses a drink after reading the note Chieko has passed to him. Babel evokes both sympathy and frustration, and hope and dread, in the viewer, often at the same time. It is easy to get annoyed with the recklessness of the Moroccan boy Yussef, but it is very his preciosity and talent as a marksman that makes one’s heart sink. Likewise, one wishes the lonely and morose Chieko, who has recently lost her mother, happiness and fulfillment, while squirming with uneasiness when she finally hits it off with a group of boys, who also happen to give her whisky and pills. The scene in which the distraught Amelia is apprehended by a US border patrolman is one that sears the memory. The fear and anguish she exhibits in trying with all her might to convince an officer focused on protocol that her charges are waiting in the desert are overpowering. The film is a far cry from the structurally similar Magnolia, where the dominant emotions are self-pity and self-indulgence. Although the form can lend itself to cliché, the nuances in González Iñárritu’s work make Babel a work that will endure.