The Mole Song: Final
The Mole Song: Final is the third and, well, final part of Takashi Miike’s Mole Song series about an undercover cop infiltrating the yakuza. It started with 2013’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji, in which an incompetent cop named Reiji Kikukawa is kicked off the force and enrolled as a mole within the Sukiya-kai crime family. There, he befriends a supercool higher-up nicknamed The Crazy Papillon (he’s got a thing for butterflies; animal avatars abound in this yakuza world — cats, leopards, lions, flying squirrels, etc.) who believes that the only yakuza who deserve to survive are the ones who are either funny or cool, which might as well be Takashi Miike’s philosophy of cinema. Reiji works to catch the boss in a drug ring (Papillon hates drugs and anyone who sells them, but his boss is doing it behind his back), but he slips away. In the second film, 2016’s The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, Reiji has to rescue the boss’s daughter from a Chinese gang that has infiltrated the yakuza and is engaging in human trafficking, selling off beautiful women at auction to the richest men in the world. This third offering finds him again on the trail of drug dealers, now led by the boss’s son, who, with the help of the Italian mafia, has found a way to turn speed into pasta and distribute it around the world.
The Mole Song films are zany farces, with an unhinged lead performance by Toma Ikuta as Reiji. He’s not a good cop, or a good yakuza. One person describes him by saying “He’s horny and looks like a fool, but you can count on him,” and the films mostly revolve around his physical abasement: getting beaten up or humiliated sexually (there are a lot of dick jokes), to which he responds with ever greater levels of determination. For all his idiocy (and he is an idiot, to be sure), he has a stubborn sense of justice that gets him through all the insane situations he finds himself in. But it’s Papillon who steals every film. Shinichi Tsutsumi plays him with a joyous grin but otherwise straight-faced abandon. Whether he’s beating people up, with or without the use of his bionic legs (he lost the real ones saving Reiji in the first film), espousing the iron rules of yakuza ideology, or summoning his pal, the “Butterfly of the Sea” (no spoilers), it’s his charm and energy that carries the series through even the most tiresome gang movie tropes or slapstick clichés.
It’s that kind of élan that Miike does better than anyone in movies today. Anything is possible in a Takashi Miike movie, as long as it’s funny or cool. Stop-motion paper cut-out fantasy sequences? Sure. Drug-smuggling terriers dog-paddling through a busy port? Adorable. A giant tiger falling from a building, jaws clamped around our hero’s head? Love it. These films, Final as much as the previous two, aren’t so much parodies or, god forbid, subversions of the gangster genre as much as they claim familiar structures and characters as an excuse to create things no sane filmmaker has ever thought of putting on screen. The endless slapstick and cornball humor can grow tiresome, as can Ikuta’s mugging, especially at the 130-minute running time each entry in the series has. And sure, Miike has made better movies over this past decade, and he’s made movies that are more consistently fun, and he’s made movies that are much weirder. But the point is, nobody makes movies like Takashi Miike.
Writer: Sean Gilman
As he did in The Swordsman, Jang Hyuk plays a violent, stoic killer in Choi Jae-hoon’s new film, The Killer, and the similarities don’t end there. Where Choi’s previous film found a semi-retired swordsman forced out of retirement after his daughter’s kidnapping, The Killer’s killer is called back to the field when the 17-year-old-girl he’s babysitting is taken. And what follows is, like in The Swordsman, a series of violent encounters in which Jang Hyuk dispatches a bunch of dudes with relative ease and no remorse. Generously, Choi’s retreading of familiar ground with Jang in tow could be made out to be an auteurist obsession, the beginning of a career that could return to these same themes with the same star over and over in slight variations. But The Killer, like its predecessor, doesn’t warrant generosity. It’s a shallow retread of already shallow ground, a contemporary setting update to a historical version of the same bad movie.
Even calling Jang’s Bang Ui-Gang stoic is overselling his character. He is a blank slate without personality and with only the most meager, sentimental backstory to provide motivation. He exists purely as a means to an end of slick, effortless gun fights that traffic in a bland coolness. None of his adversaries or his few allies have much going for them either, providing Ui-Gang with either bodies to be destroyed or tools to aid him in doing so. In this regard, and a few others, The Killer is a step down from The Swordsman. Jang Hyuk’s protagonist in that film was equally devoid, but the historical setting and political trappings of its narrative gave it more intrigue to hold onto than the unexceptional devious plots uncovered in The Killer. Besides, even if the other characters in that previous film were underwritten, it at least found a great villain in Joe Taslim’s performance. The Killer has no such luck, populated as it is with cardboard cutout villains.
The Killer’s action, however, is an improvement for Choi, at least in some places. Many of the fight scenes are still overedited and confusing, and the ostentatious long takes still have the quality of a video game cutscene. But occasionally the edit calms down and a duel — usually the one-on-one fights are the good ones — has some room to breathe. Those few exciting battles are also the ones that seem hard on the film’s hero. Too often Bang’s assault on hallways full of bad guys is portrayed as effortless, like our ostensible hero is bored to be easily mowing down waves of enemies. It’s a shame that his boredom proves infectious, as the psychotic “coolness” of these scenes consistently proves dull and never becomes compelling. And that is The Killer’s problem in miniature. With little interest in interrogating its hero’s morality, the film makes Bang an unambiguous rooting interest for the audience, but with so little to his character outside of the violence, anyone trying to engage with the movie will have little to actually root for beyond obviously predetermined ends.
Writer: Chris Mello
A dark night of the soul that gradually metastasizes into a howl of impotent anger at life itself, Mitchell Stafiej’s The Diabetic follows 30-something Alek (James Watts) as he flees his apartment in the city and returns to his parents’ suburban home in an attempt to relive his adolescence. A millennial version of a midlife crisis, Alek can’t seem to figure out what he wants, his own anxieties and ambivalences playing out via an abstracted wasteland of post-industrial detritus and generic suburban sprawl. Upon his arrival, Alek has a quiet dinner with his parents while texting old buddies, eventually sneaking out after his parents fall asleep to hit up some bars with the old crew. He’s shocked when no one shows up except Matt (Travis Cannon), and as the two catch up over beers and shots, Matt explains that no one else is there because they’ve all moved away. Alek is disappointed; it quickly becomes clear that Alek doesn’t particularly like Matt, and that the two weren’t actually good pals back in the day, but Alek is desperate for a drinking partner. The night escalates from there, as Alek pressures Matt into increasingly absurd situations — the duo harass a convenience store clerk to sell them beer after hours, break into a stranger’s backyard to swim in a pool, and eventually run afoul of a group of young girls who pull a gun on them. Throughout the evening Alek has to frequently check his blood sugar levels due to the obscene amounts of booze he’s consuming while Matt tries to reign in Alek’s more extreme impulses. But it’s a losing battle, and Alek’s condition eventually catches up with him.
Alek isn’t wrong in his critique of banal suburban living, not exactly, but his above-it-all ire comes across like sour grapes. He wants to pretend like he’s better than all this, but he’s the one who has come crawling back. Matt eventually calls him out and says that his complaining sounds a lot like jealousy. Indeed, Alek is an asshole. He needles and pressures people for no apparent reason, pushing them away even as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s in need of companionship. It would all be unpalatable if Alek wasn’t at least a little relatable, a difficult needle to thread that Watts pulls off with aplomb (truly, it’s one of the best performances of the year, a masterclass in nervous agitation and ingratiating neediness). For all of the film’s non-stop chatter, Stafiej leaves key points to inference — there’s only a passing mention that Alek is an unsuccessful filmmaker, and the audience is left to discern on its own the state of Alek’s relationship with his parents and his significant other (who we glimpse only once, ignoring Alek as he leaves and tries to say goodbye).
While this sort of talky, state-of-the-generation narrative has plenty of antecedents — Mike Leigh’s Naked, Linklater, and early Alex Ross Perry all come to mind — Stafiej’s unique formal approach elevates The Diabetic from well-acted indie to something altogether more unique: according to the director, the movie was shot on Hi-8 and then transferred to 16mm film, with certain sequences also then transferred from 16mm to VHS and dubbed over and over again, giving everything a fuzzy, hazy look. The footage becomes a relic from a long-ago childhood, like old camcorder footage that’s become distorted through age (someone in their early to mid-30s would likely be the last of their generation to conceivably grow up with VCRs and old CRT TVs in lieu of flatscreens, DVDs, and streaming). Much of the film is composed of extremely tight closeups, zeroing in on faces and eyes while eschewing virtually any kind of contextualizing information. Viewers never get a sense of any of the actual spaces these characters are inhabiting — bars, apartments, stores, and houses are defined only by blurry, peripheral glances. Interspersed throughout are abstracted interludes that look like fields of overlapping colors floating in undefined spaces, more Brakhage than anything else. The occasional views of the landscape become pools of light, buildings and streetlights reduced to opaque color fields that meld into one another. And there’s a fascinating tension between the grainy, small gauge film and digital artifacts, all liminal spaces that ooze together.
Working with cinematographers Ariane Falardeau St-Amour & Beatrice Scharf-Pierzchala, Stafiej has found a keen visual metaphor for Alek’s mental state, literally unmoored and adrift in this unstable world. One wishes that the film didn’t eventually feint toward potential violence, which feels more like the filmmaker trying to goose the audience than a natural endpoint for this (loose) story, but the film’s final shot is so beautifully evocative that one can forgive this minor misstep. Ultimately, The Diabetic becomes a deeply moving reminder that you can’t go home again, even if there’s no other place for you in the world. This feels like a defining text for people of a certain age, the analog companion to Jane Shoenbrun’s digital We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. And like that one, this too is a remarkable film.
Idolatry has remained a staple of cinematic horror past and present, and Nico van den Brink’s directorial debut has duly reflected both its strengths and limitations. Moloch, set in the remote Dutch countryside, delves ambitiously into a curious retooling of mythology and personal history that, on the whole, generates an atmosphere of eerie, enticing suspense. With many folkloric pastiches of late disintegrating into subpar parody or, worse, tiresome cliché, van den Brink’s film — in contrast — offers a staid exercise in genre filmmaking despite several patchy movements. A bog, a dig, and an implied curse form the shaky ground on which young widow Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) and her family find themselves; thirty years before the present day, Betriek’s grandmother was brutally murdered in the very same house they now occupy, and the traumatic memory of that night has, over the years, unconsciously riddled her with anxious insecurity. With an aging, ailing mother and an estranged, alcoholic father in tow, alongside her young daughter, Betriek’s past comes under renewed light when a group of archaeologists set up camp nearby and proceed to excavate the body of an ancient woman from the bog.
The dense fog surrounding Betriek’s hamlet parallels Moloch’s obscurantist visions, and while its denouement leans toward a rather conclusive interpretation of occult lore, the film does not necessarily suffer from its otherwise oblique twists and turns. In fact, the titular icon (a goat-headed figure of Judeo-Christian origin) serves the curious function of floating signifier by virtue of being relegated to a secondary position in the film’s narrativization of local pagan legend. As Betriek crosses paths with Jonas (Alexandre Willaume), one of the archaeologists, his quiet haughtiness both seduces and spurs her into action, launching her into an investigation of the mysterious deaths and disturbances afflicting the long-troubled region. Throughout Moloch, unnerving instantiations of the paranormal surface, each unraveling in unexpected directions: first, another local is found in the bog, paralyzed to death after vaguely sighting a goat-headed figure; then, those in the vicinity appear to succumb to some sort of possessive trance; Betriek herself begins to experience visions upon contact with one of them.
Naturally, a sizeable number of these references retain their ambiguity due in part to a cultural specificity that may elude the non-Dutch viewer; though lost in translation, few detract from van den Brink’s tantalizing evocation of primal fear, crystalized best in the gothic back-profile image of Betriek’s house facing the expanse — an image of palpable agoraphobia. The legend of Feike, a likely pseudo-myth of revenge and destiny, is accorded significant detail, and its real-life consequences are, in one key sequence, skillfully paralleled with a stage play Betriek’s daughter performs at school. As the characters approach their inevitable confrontations with the elusive lord of child sacrifice, however, Moloch’s stylistic threads begin to unspool at their thematic ends, lacking the corresponding conviction in articulating ideas about intergenerational trauma and legacy violence foreshadowed from the get-go. At its best, the film makes few pretenses about its place in the wider canon, refusing the self-aware smugness many genre directors feel compelled to adopt. Though a notch below, say, Ari Aster’s Hereditary in terms of the weirdly grotesque, van den Brink compensates through an earnest if sometimes vague exploration of the allure behind myth and symbol, something which can’t quite be said about the former.
Writer: Morris Yang
In 2017, Ma Dong-seok, fresh off his breakout role in the international hit zombie flick Train to Busan, starred in The Outlaws, a based-on-a-true-story action film about an operation by the Seoul police against Chinese-Korean gangs in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Ma played Detective Ma Seok-do, the badass cop in charge of the operation, initiated when a new trio of gangsters from China shows up in town and starts taking over territory, leaving a trail of mangled bodies in their wake. With a string of profanities and exasperated asides delivered with an expressionless deadpan, Ma made for a new kind of action hero, or at least a return to an older kind, one exuding the working class credibility of ‘80s slob-cop protagonists, while also being the smartest, most capable guy in any room he’d find himself in. Also, he is huge. Not the steroidal, pumped-up bodybuilder type that has dominated American action films for the last 40 years, but a fire hydrant of a man exuding real-world strength. He’s just a big old barrel of beef brawling his way through bevies of bad guys with blithe abandon, and it made him one of the biggest stars in Korea and even earned him a role in an MCU movie (where he was the best part, by far).
Now, Ma has reunited with the director (Kang Yoon-sung) and cast of The Outlaws for a follow-up, The Roundup, which has been the biggest hit at the Korean box office so far this year. Picking up with the team four years later (the first film was set in 2004), Detective Ma and his Captain head to Vietnam to collect a fugitive who has turned himself in. It seems the reason he has is that he’s trying to get away from a much more terrifying bad guy, a Korean who preys on Korean tourists throughout Southeast Asia: kidnapping them, collecting a ransom, and then murdering them. Ma resolves to track the villain down, despite the fact that they have no jurisdiction in a foreign country. While The Outlaws exuded an anti-Chinese xenophobia, with all the criminals being immigrants of some kind invading Korea, The Roundup fares slightly better, in that the bad guys are all Koreans terrorizing other Koreans. Though the Vietnamese cops aren’t shown in anything like a flattering light, their incompetence and unwillingness to help (or seek Ma’s help) in the case is a major drag on the first half of the film.
But eventually both cops and crooks get back to Korea, where there’s an extensive chase sequence leading to a show-stopping final fight between Ma and the villain, played with dead-eyed resolve by Son Seok-koo, who played the exact opposite type in Jeong Ga-young’s rom-com Nothing Serious, also playing this year at the NYAFF. That final fight shows off Ma at his best. He’s huge, of course, but unlike say, the similarly shaped Sammo Hung, he’s not an acrobat and his fights are not gymnastic. Director Lee Sang-yong films them, and the stunt team choreographs them, to show off one thing and one thing only: Ma Dong-seok’s strength. Fighters fly around him, jabbing with knives or swinging machetes (guns are rare and useless in this Korea), but he subdues them again and again with athletic wrestling holds (Ma worked for a time in the US — under his Americanized name “Don Lee” — as an MMA personal trainer), before ultimately putting the bad guy to a sudden and final halt with an incredibly powerful punch to the head. It’s simple, direct, and satisfying in a way few more elaborate fight scenes have been in recent years. The Roundup, like The Outlaws, is a pretty basic cop movie: criminals bad, cops good, even if the cops have to engage in some light torture now and then. But Ma Dong-seok makes them irresistible.