As we’ve been shut out of the theater since King Kong, and as the strategy seems to be to lock everything up tight until it’s completely destroyed, I’ve been taking to showing the family some of the movies I have seen (sometimes but not always with The Boy)—almost as sanity checks. Were these the good, sometimes great, films that I thought they were, or was my enjoyment unreasonably enhanced by being allowed to go outside? I mean, we saw Reptilicus live with a bunch of other MST3K fans (and the cast!), I came away with the impression it was one of the best episodes of any season of MST3K. I still think it’s strong, but I’m not sure about “best ever”. And of course SFX are better in theater, there are fewer distractions—the popcorn’s better at home, but I don’t think that impacts the viewing experience that much.
Too, these films are becoming increasingly more available to streaming services, filling some of the gap the shuttered “Drama Fever” streaming service once occupied, so it’s not such a big deal to find most of them these days, with some exceptions. This adventure actually started with Little Forest, because I had found it on YouTube. I don’t recommend watching it on YouTube (and it’s now on Amazon Prime), however, because it’s very low-res, probably to thwart the copyright gods, and it’s definitely meant to be beautiful to watch (beyond just starring Tae-Ri Kim, that is). One of the things we like to do around Casa ‘Gique is watch movies about food or featuring food prominently—while eating said food. (See also Deli Man and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.)
Little Forest is about a young woman, post-college, coming home from the city because it’s unfulfilling (lacking nourishment) and coming to grips with the mother that abandoned her immediately upon her graduation from high school. As she recalls the dishes her mother made, she comes to know her better through the lens of an adult, rather than a child. Just describing it, I feel like this should be a boring movie or one that’s potentially ponderous or melodramatic or overwrought. But it’s actually very charming and sweet and it went over well.
I followed up with Along With Gods (both The Two Worlds and The Last 49 Days), which I’ve seen 2 and three times respectively. This one I was concerned about because it’s special effects heavy. But I have maintained for quite some time, SFX are better when they’re done for aesthetic reasons, rather than trying for “realism” or to “fool the eye”—especially over time, because the eye learns and fast. The thing about these two movies is that they have a strong emotional content, and a strong ethical component. The characters take huge risks and stand up to a bureaucratic afterlife (get it wrong and go to hell!) all to do the right thing by their families. The “sequel” (which was filmed at the same time and is really just part of one sprawling story) may actually be better than the original, which relies just a bit too much on action. (We’re supposed to get #3 and #4 in the series next year.)
Next I went with Be With You (Prime). This one is about a man with a debilitating health problem and his son, whose wife has died and who comes back a year later for the rainy season—except that she doesn’t remember either of them. This movie is one that you get to what seems like the end and think, “Well, that’s solid. Good, not great.” And then there’s a 20 minute “stinger” that forces you to re-evaluate the whole thing. It has probably the strongest “pro-life” message I’ve seen in a movie, without ever going near the topic of abortion at all.
Up till now, I’d been showing things that were pretty easy to get, but the best new comedy I’d seen in years was Detective Chinatown 2, and I was curious as to how it would hold up on a second view. But here’s the rub: This is not a movie you can stream. Or buy for that matter—at least not from American sources. The comedy is ridiculously broad with “racist” and “homophobic” stereotypes—part of why I loved it—and I’m pretty comfortable thinking that this is why you can’t see it here easily. But I ordered a copy—from Malaysia! which is how I get around modern censorship—and it went over huge. Not only did I like it on a second view, everyone did, to the point where they wanted to re-watch it (because besides being goofy fast-talking fun, it has a fairly hardcore mystery plot about a serial killer). Detective Chinatown 3 has been was supposed to come out last February but some plague turned the world population into vampires and only I remain.
Shadow (Netflix) was an easy choice. It’s so amazingly beautiful, it doesn’t need much else. But there’s a good, strong plot that feels operatic or Shakespearean (King Lear, not Midsummer Night’s Dream). By far the most confusing part of this tale of courtly intrigue and martial arts are the great performances by Chao Deng, who plays two characters who are supposed to look alike, and it can drive you nuts because both are played by Deng but they look and act nothing alike. Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) has a real knack for turning martial arts soap opera into high art.
Then I took another gamble: Fengshui (Prime), which is another courtly drama taking place at the end of Joeseon era, which means they’re all wearing the same clothes and have the same facial hair. It’s like trying to figure out L.A. Confidential, or any random ’50s movie where everyone’s got the suit and the slicked-back hair. It’s also about geomancy and the integrity of a lone geomancer standing against a crooked court (naturally) but we still had the same reaction to it, which was, “You really feel like you’ve watched a movie.”
None of these movies have high IMDB ratings. They’re all 6s and low 7s at best. And yet, you really feel like you’ve watched a movie when you’ve watched these. That you’ve seen characters who have interests and struggles, that their actions have made sense—if not in terms of reaching their goals, then in terms of the traits that interfere with getting there. That the filmmakers don’t actively hate you, and everything you hold dear.
You know, all that corny biz about people helping each other, and girls wanting to get married and have families, and that having value apart from any career they might have, and standing up against “the experts”, and loving your country? All that stuff we’re only capable of doing ironically in this country? It’s absolutely sincere in these films. I called this “The New Clsasics” tongue-in-cheek, but if I understand what persists in art—what makes it classic—I may not be far off.
Check ’em out.