Boris Johnson

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

CŌ HAÛ GAÍ  (THE HOUSEMAID)

VIETNAM, 2016

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Some clarification is required. This Vietnam movie is neither the South Korean 1960 masterpiece that shares the same English translation nor the 2010 remake of that film.  Cō Haû Gaí  appeared in 2016.  There may be much in it that is cheese and nonsense but the film is significant.  Cō Haû Gaí achieved commercial success beyond the average Vietnamese film.  The presence of Vietnamese-American director Derek Nguyen may have secured financial heft.  So far Cō Haû Gaí has been seen in 18 countries.   At a film festival in Los Angeles, Nhung Kate received a best actress award for her performance as Linh the housemaid.   Like all the other actors in the film, she has a persona that suits her role. Most of the time the actors convince but the acting is variable and when really tested it is lacking. For me the selection of Nhung Kate for an award is baffling. But good luck to the woman, and to be fair she is not always helped by the dialogue in Cō Haû Gaí.  Compromised performances and uneven dialogue can often be redeemed in a foreign movie by the distraction of the English subtitles. Written on a screen and a step removed from the performance because of the language the clinkers are not so obvious. This does not happen in Cō Haû Gaí .

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But in an odd way the woodenness of the two lovers helps. Linh and Captain Sebastian Laurent think they are in love but their very different lives and histories prevent any real bonding or kinship. Neither lover convinces the other or us about their emotional dependency. The eroticism in Cō Haû Gaí is restrained and avoids the excess that marred the overpraised The Handmaiden but the sex between the Captain and the peasant girl from a village is important to what happens in the film. The only intimacy between these two people is physical. Their energetic lovemaking, which is seen briefly, provides relief for the couple rather than affection.  It is no coincidence that the intimacy is established by accident and begins with the human body.  After Sebastian is wounded by revolutionaries he has to be treated and bathed by Linh.  These initial scenes that hint at a never to be understood sexual fate make sense and promise something more serious than what follows.

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The horror scenes in Cō Haû Gaí are imaginative but not a success. One moment, though, should make most people jump.   Of all the not so horrific moments it is the simplest that succeeds.  It occurs when the mayhem is subdued.  Too many of the horror scenes are infected with the thrill of the fairground ride. The car driven by an unseen ghost will make some people think of Herbie in The Love Bug.  Thankfully the final appearance of the ghost is a calm coda and nothing more than smoke in a bedroom. It is seen from a distance and at the end of the long drive to the haunted mansion. The shot adds lyricism and suggests human impotence.  Such poetry is far removed from the sudden cuts to blood being splashed on walls.   There is no need to witness actual decapitation, the actors have some rights, but it is about time that this visual cliché is dumped. The frequent, extravagant and carefully planted horror scenes may mitigate any suspense but they do have a virtue.   Unlike in many ghost stories we have a sense of how the supernatural is a permanent drain on the surrounding humans.

Not everything that happens within the film is a success but the denouement in Cō Haû Gaí is memorable. It combines rational explanation with ambiguous mystery about not just what has happened but the character of Linh.  The previous events as they are described in the denouement are not feasible but the tale is brought together in a logical way. The final scene between the two domestic servants is as chilling as any of the previous horror or madness. Not only does it confirm our suspicions about supernatural intervention it reveals how an ordinary and not awful human being can through economic and imperial exploitation acquire the indifference of the psychopathic.

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Cō Haû Gaí may be a shameless celebration of 19th Century gothic horror but there is, apart from the knowing references to famous Victorian tales, a political message that will be registered by everyone except the insensitive and the bigoted.  Political polemic does not dominate the film.  Most people will remember the visual images and the fairground horror.  The initial tracking shot begins at a beautiful lake, proceeds through splendid and fertile countryside and finishes inside a bedroom. It belongs with the best although nothing is the equal of the famous arrival at the football match in El Secreto De Sus Ojos. Like Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Linh likes to carry a candle around the dark corridors of the haunted mansion.   And just in case we dismiss the candle as a coincidence the harrowing ghost is dressed in black and has a tendency to emerge from the middle of a lake.  There are other familiar and enjoyable moments.  The white dress that is given to Linh does not relate to the Wilkie Collins tale but its presence is a tribute. During their lovemaking Linh bites the lip of Sebastian and they exchange a drop of blood. For a brief instant the passion of the couple flirts with vampirism.  This is acceptable homage but having ghosts that resemble zombies is not.

The political message, though, is important and the main reason why Cō Haû Gaí benefits from being indulged.  The military colleagues of Sebastian are an unpleasant bunch of men that have an exaggerated sense of entitlement.   They have contempt for the natives and their grievances. The attempted rape of Linh by the officer bully is both believable and disturbing. Madeleine, the upper class fiancée of Sebastian, accuses Linh of being a whore.  A snatch of dialogue between the two women makes clear who is the real whore. Linh hopes for happiness with Sebastian.  Madeleine desires an affluent way of life.

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In Cō Haû Gaí there are the victimisers and the victimised but there is no simple distinction between heroes and villains. The victimised also include the cruel.  Linh is a strong and determined woman and has just cause for her resentments but she is more than feminist polemic. Her plans require the help of a man. Both are equal and need the other. The same even-handedness is applied to the considerable villainy.  The two genders have their sadistic examples.  Cō Haû Gaí is an attempt to make an old-fashioned horror movie and recreate gothic thrills. If silliness is not that easy to avoid, it does not mean that the serious element can be ignored. It is not difficult to imagine a Vietnamese audience having fun in the cinema, yelling at the jump scares but later thinking about their history and the imperial interference and exploitation that caused  damage and suffering.

Cō Haû Gaí is way behind The Innocents in terms of quality but it is not alone in that. It also has something that the British masterpiece lacks.  Nhung Kate looks young enough to be a teenager.  In The Innocents, Deborah Kerr is at least mature and she is a governess who has management responsibilities.  The youth of Linh helps us understand the paradox at the heart of Cō Haû Gaí and the original tale by Henry James.  Both films are about a woman who has to complete a rite of passage. The irony is that this rite of passage will condemn both women to permanent adolescence.  This is not the only price of servitude but it exists and it affects more of us than we like to admit.

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Of course, some manage to avoid servitude and yet remain in adolescence. In Britain as elsewhere there are such characters.  The tragedy is that many of them design the servitude for others.  It has something to do with expensive elitist schools subsidised by taxpayers.  Boris Johnson is a leading example.  Throughout his political career this gentleman has sneered at those he regards as his inferiors. There was no involvement of the UK Government in the invasion of Vietnam by the United States Military or so we are told.  Our own memories of imperialism are different from those of the Vietnamese.  For many Britons the various imperial adventures inspire shame rather than indignation. Characters like Boris Johnson are different. They thump their chests, ignore the slaughter and relish what they regard as triumphant conquest. This should explain why Johnson thought he could compare the Irish border to Borough boundaries in London and avoid dwelling on a tragic history inflicted by the ancestors of his schoolmates.  Some people are without shame, which is just as well, because by the time he and they are finished with Brexit there will be much for which they should be ashamed.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

LOS PARECIDOS (THE SIMILARS)

MEXICO, 2015

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Even before it was butchered by an inept English translation the title was terrible. Los Mismos would have been a better effort at a handle but something must happen to Castilian Spanish in South America. Los Parecidos was described as a distressingly familiar film by one critic. Homage is important to both the style and plot, but there cannot be many films as nutty as Los Parecidos. Although packed with references to horror movies and The Twilight Zone there is something singular about this Mexican movie.  The famous Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn said that a film should begin with an earthquake and build to a climax. Los Parecidos begins with a thunderstorm and the arrival of two hysterical passengers in an almost empty bus station. The arrow aimed at the climax, though, misses the target. Sam Goldwyn would not have approved. It is clear that director Isaac Ezban intends Los Parecidos to amuse and scare. Not everyone will think he succeeds. For those who relish modest gore and knowing silliness the playful absurdity of Los Parecidos will have appeal. Some of the ideas deserve applause. The scenes are played straight but fast and with comic timing.  Horror fans can have an odd sense of comedy, which is why Los Parecidos has collected devotees. Comedy is at its best exploiting desperation and not the desolation that exists in this Mexican bus station, and that is a weakness in the film, but the insistent silliness of Los Parecidos cannot be begrudged.

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The waiting passengers endure terror for two reasons.   The bus will not turn up because of the torrential downpour outside the bus station, and everyone including the women will grow a beard and look the same. The person everyone looks like is Ulises played by actor Gustavo Sánchez Parra.   Ulises is anxious about his wife who is in hospital and giving birth.  Irene is pregnant and needs to get to a hospital.  Gertrudis already has a son.  These three people are particularly distraught. The rest are just moody, strange and cantankerous.  The beard of Ulises makes him, and everyone else of course, look like Sam Phillips the record producer in Memphis that helped Elvis Presley create rockabilly.  This may be more than a coincidence because Los Parecidos exists as a reminder of how Mexico and the USA share iconography.  The remote setting in the film looks like somewhere from rural Texas.  Los Parecidos has an odd rock and roll edge.

The neat trick in the film is that the terror that haunts the people in the bus station is not that terrifying. Rain downpours stop at some point, and beards can be shaved.  All the people need to do is settle down, have some patience and apply a little thought. The thinking and conversation that occur do not help. Instead, violence becomes epidemic. In Los Parecidos sympathy and support for the plight of others rarely last more than an instant, and paranoia and resentment affect everyone. For the viewer it means having to observe relentless and often mindless hysteria. Bewildered by the hair that has grown on her face the bathroom attendant attacks her beard with a knife until her face is ripped to shreds, the bathroom is covered in blood and her body has had enough.   The reaction is extreme but it is a very thick beard. Outside the bathroom the waiting passengers search for a plausible suspect that carries the beard-inducing virus.   Irene tries more than the others to be reasonable but no one emerges with credit.  The accusations come thick and fast.

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Anyone with any sense will assume that Los Parecidos has a political sub-text. The sacrifice of individuality and the aggression that we witness are a consequence of an authoritarian capitalist society.   Raise the stakes in a competitive society to ensure that survival is always at stake and winners will gorge on greed and the losers will scramble for scraps. Unaware that their lives are blighted by distorted rewards everyone will feel threatened by the others and feel compelled to attack rivals.  Inevitable envy is resented by those envied.

Throughout the film the news on the radio in the bus station mentions the Tlateloco massacre. This occurred in 1968.  Ten days before the Mexico Olympics began students in Mexico City staged a protest against the Government. The students felt that the money spent on the Olympics was extravagant and the oppression of farmers and labour unions excessive. Between 300 and 400 students were killed during the protest, and nearly 1500 were arrested. In a sane world the 1968 Mexican Olympics would have been cancelled. There was some indignation but most of it was restricted to the three African-American athletes who put single fists in the air.  Fans of athletics soon forgot the 300 dead students. All of this should confirm that Los Parecidos is a political film.

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Director Isaac Ezban, though, is adamant. According to him he included the Tlateloco massacre reference to acknowledge Mexican movies of the sixties and the political context of those films. That loop in thinking is typical of what occurs in the film. What he said about the political context may be true or not but whatever he really thinks Ezban is determined to have fun, and some of it will be at our expense.   The joke, though, may be on him. The film he has produced may be a lot less flippant than he is. In his defence Ezban might argue that there is a lot more silliness than politics in Los Parecidos.

The music on the soundtrack is orchestral and relentless. It is at best a decent imitation of the music by Bernard Hermann, it does quote the Psycho soundtrack, or at worst an echo of the production line scores that accompanied B horror movies in the sixties. If it has an effect, it is to remind us of how persistent melodramatic musical exaggeration can soon be ignored by a viewer. Throughout the film the pitch does not vary. There is no shading between individual scenes. Like the rest of the film, this may be a sly and affectionate tribute to bad taste and thwarted imagination.

Rather than film Los Parecidos in widescreen black and white Isaac Ezban decided to desaturate colour film. It looks like black and white but it is not as sharp.   The claim is that it creates a dreamlike atmosphere. These days the demand for black and white film is minimal, and that makes it expensive. Desaturated colour film helps to keep costs under control. In certain scenes there are odd items that appear in pale colour, blue seats and the yellow raincoat of the child.  It is an effect and different but how it helps either the comedy or the tension is unclear. Black and white film facilitates both crisp images and exaggerated shadow and light. Desaturated colour film like the music in Los Parecidos offers little variation. It also undermines the tribute that is being paid to the past.

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Fans of The Twilight Zone, though will not be disappointed. The idea behind the plot, the actual threat to the waiting passengers, is taken from a highly rated episode of The Twilight Zone called It’s A Good Life. The episode was aired in 1961. In that episode the consequences of the threat are more serious and terrifying but the action is gentler. It takes place in the social stability of suburban America and before a Mexican Government waged its ‘Ugly War’ and slaughtered 300 students. Back then we had an alternative view of both the past and the present, our fears about the future and our sense of humour were different. As used to happen in every Twilight Zone episode, there is a spoken introduction and summary to Los Parecidos. The narration at the beginning of the film is more successful than what occurs at the end.  The final narration is fanciful and the whimsy, in view of what happened in 1968 to 300 students, is odd.

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Much of what happens in Los Parecidos consists of human beings trying to not only apportion but deflect blame. Each person at some point in the movie asserts that one of the others does not belong to the group. These assertions are not consistent, and the accusers are willing to accuse more than one person and for different reasons. In national politics such behaviour is often accompanied by the waving of a flag. Since Brexit there has been much flag waving in the UK and much pointing of fingers. Newspapers create scurrilous headlines about politicians not just having unacceptable opinions but about them meeting someone who possesses what are regarded as dangerous thoughts. Boris Johnson lectures the British people with a speech that says he can unite everyone providing we all agree with him.  The British economy flounders but those who like to quote depressing statistics are shouted down with lies. So far there has been mutual hatred and contempt but limited violence.  Unwelcome beards are under control but an outbreak of the ‘flu has made the NHS vulnerable. In Los Parecidos no one is able to help the others.  This, of course, has been the tragedy of much of the politics of South America.  Watch Los Parecidos and it is tempting to think Britain might share a similar tragedy.  We could become the Mexico of Europe, a bewildered and impoverished cousin that will eventually recognise with envy the more stable mainland  across the Channel.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.