Semi-Happy Halloween

It would simplify matters if the treatment were as distasteful as the subject matter.

Can I see Saw II if I didn't see Saw to the end? Or is it more to the point to ask why would I want to? Whenever I am deciding I have had enough of a movie, I am looking only as far ahead as The End. (Egad, another hour of this... another forty-five minutes... another thirty.... ) I am never looking as far ahead as a possible sequel. In today's market, this is clearly shortsighted of me. And yet, calculation of the odds on a sequel, like calculation of box-office prospects, seems outside critical jurisdiction. At least it seems outside mine. When, as a case in point, I took myself to the remake of The Fog (unscreened for the press) in the afternoon on opening day, there were maybe a half-dozen customers in attendance, and I could feel safe in sneaking out early on little cat feet, wondering only about (1) why anyone had troubled to make the movie in the first place and (2) why I had troubled to go to it, while wondering nothing at all about What Happens Next. Then Monday morning rolled around, and -- lo and behold -- The Fog emerged as America's Number One Movie, and the odds on a sequel must have dropped to even money. (I did not make the same mistake with the new Number One Movie, Doom. I made the other mistake: seeing it through.) But that patch of fog -- a future sequel -- is a concern for another day. The concern this day is Saw II, and if someone will be so kind as to tell me how the first one turned out, I might consider the second. Depending.

In the meantime, my cinematic celebration of Halloween will be limited to the anthology film at the Ken for the week, Three Extremes, three tales of the macabre, extreme indeed, from three different Asian directors, Hong Kong's Fruit Chan, Korea's Chan-wook Park, and Japan's Takashi Miike, in that order, roughly forty minutes apiece. Hardly the lineup of Eros earlier in the year, with Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Antonioni -- partly, but not solely, because the first name rings no bell with me at all. Surely I would remember if I'd ever seen a film by a Fruit Chan.

As in Eros, though, the first man up sets the bar far too high for his successors, even if not remotely as high as Wong set it. Chan's offering, titled "Dumplings," is apparently a condensation of a feature-length film of the same name, an extremely twisted twist on the fountain-of-youth theme. The fountain in this instance would be the pricey homemade dumplings of the tenement-dwelling Bai Ling, whose flawless face and hinted-at advanced age are their best advertisement: "My dumplings are worth it. You get what you pay for." An over-the-hill TV actress, Miriam Yeung, with a wandering husband to reel in, is willing to pay the price, even when the secret ingredient is revealed to be aborted human fetuses, chopped up very fine. I am not giving away much there. This is nowhere near the story's punchline, although the witnessed abortion achieves an early and unchallenged pinnacle in gore. Because this revelation isn't the punchline, the viewer is obliged to sit for a while with the idea of self-indulgence, the idea of narcissism, at its most -- shall we say again? -- extreme. Shall we even say its logical extreme? The actual punchline, after what has preceded it, feels like the merest tap.

It would no doubt simplify matters if the treatment here were as distasteful as the subject matter. As distasteful, for example, as the original Saw. But in fact Chan's touch is very controlled and assured -- extremely so -- and his eye is that of an artist. Had the color been mixed in oils on a palette, I would know to say that it has a lot of white in it. I do not have the technical know-how to guess what was done by Chan and/or his cameraman -- Wong Kar-wai's man, Christopher Doyle -- but the results are a milky atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Carl Dreyer's Vampyr and an overall tasteful muting of the otherwise gaudy hues on display. Wong himself could little improve on the appreciation of fabric and pattern and décor and such. The viewing experience, torn as it is between the savory and the unsavory, may be a bit uncomfortable, but it is a long way from torture. And if it does not awaken in me a hunger to see the longer version of the film, it does awaken a hunger for more Fruit.

I knew better what to expect from the director of Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Chan-wook Park, and frankly I expected better. I was not wrong to expect an element of revenge: the ostensible retaliation of an envy-eaten Have-Not against a Have, a faceless film extra against a fat-cat filmmaker who has employed the extra in all five of his films yet never really noticed him. But the situation, not to flatter it by calling it a plot, is both overcontrived and overextended. The filmmaker-within-the-film, "the John Waters of Korea," is tied to a red tether of some length; his pianist wife, gagged, is held in place at the keyboard inside a spider's web of wires; and an unknown child sits on the couch, also bound and gagged. The tether is just long enough to reach the child but not the wife; and the avenger, given to fits of unfunny clowning, as if auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino film, tries to coerce the filmmaker to strangle the child through the persuasive method of chopping off the wife's fingers one by one. It goes on and on, and fingers come off and off. (The title, "Cut," is in the vicinity of a pun.) A horrible bore, a boring horror, it put me more than a little in mind of Saw, and had it likewise gone on to feature-length, I'd have likewise left early. (The Eros comparison continues to hold: the middle part, the Soderbergh, was the low point there as well.) And in strongest contrast to Chan's opening segment, the image is dark, inky, heavy, and the camerawork gimmicky, splashy, sloppy.

Takashi Miike's contribution, "Box," is a return, at least partway, to control and assurance, in alternating tones of cool blue and toasty yellow, yet it is not a return from boredom. The ghostly apparitions early on (a Japanese specialty) are spookily well done, but the abstractness of the dream narrative -- a working-out of sisterly rivalry and fatherly favoritism, not without some grisliness, some claustrophobia combined with combustion -- is uninvolving at best and soporific at worst. The relative tameness, the relative discreetness, in comparison to Miike's Gozu and Audition, to say nothing of Park's "Cut," ought not to be something to bemoan, however.

Over a year ago, right around fourteen months ago, I vowed in print never to purchase another copy of the more and more unreadable and unusable TV Guide. I am happy to report I have stayed clean ever since. Now the magazine, rather than simply admit defeat, has come out in a larger, redesigned format that moves even farther away from its former area of monopoly -- the stuff I craved as a weekly habit -- and more toward the crowded field of People, Us, and the like. Who needs it? Even without the admission, this is a clear defeat. And another end of an era.

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