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last update 2.Jun.07
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The City of Violence   3/5
city of violence Stylish and witty, with a terrific Kill Bill-style finale, this Korean thriller is entertaining but not very engaging, as the thugs-vs-thugs story doesn't really give us anyone to root for.

After working as a detective in Seoul for 10 years, Tae-soo (Jung) returns home for the funeral of an old friend (An) who was killed in a fight with street-thieves. It's been a decade since the teen gang has been together, so Tae-soo has little left in common with his pals: tough guy Suk-hwan (Ryoo), schoolteacher Dong-hwan (Jeong) and local gangster Pil-ho (Lee). But as he and Suk-hwan team up to find out how their friend really died, they stumble into a violent conspiracy.

Despite loads of apparent complications in the story, the plot is perfectly straightforward, leading directly to the massive final fight sequence, which is almost like martial arts porn in its satisfying mayhem, cheeky details and outrageous four-against-two choreography. Director-star Ryoo keeps things moving briskly from the beginning, with in-your-face camera work and frequent flashbacks to the boys' high school experiences, giving us pieces of the mystery puzzle, even though we don't really care.

The cast is energetic and visceral, diving into the characters' physicality and actually generating a bit of pathos here and there, especially as each guy struggles with addictions to drugs, violence and/or girls. But we're not really interested in any of this, since we just want to see them defend themselves against the evil that's attacking them, possibly from within their group.

And it's a surprisingly bleak picture of a society in the grip of relentless brutality, as the characters all seem ruthlessly in pursuit of something, whether good or bad. There's no one here we care about; we know that people who choose this kind of life rarely live to a ripe old age (will anyone survive to drink the snake wine they buried with plans to dig it up 20 years later?). But when the climactic sequence kicks off, we forget all about things like plot and characterisation, and just sit back and enjoy the show. And it's a belter.

dir Ryoo Seung-hwan
scr Kim Jeong-min, Lee Won-jae, Ryoo Seung-hwan
with Jung Doo-hong, Ryoo Seung-hwan, Lee Beom-soo, Jeong Seok-yong, An Kil-kang, Kim Seo-hyung, Cho Duck-hyun, On Ju-wan, Jung Woo, Kim Si-hu, Kim Dong-young, Park Young-seo
jung and ryoo release Kor 25.May.06,
UK 8.Jun.07
06/Korea 1h33
18 themes, violence, language
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Exiled   4/5
Exiled An intriguing setting and several witty, inventive directorial touches raise this above the average Hong Kong gangster thriller. Sure, it's essentially the same story about men with guns, but it's especially stylish and thoroughly involving.

After renouncing his life of crime, Wo (Nick Cheung) settles in Macau with his wife (Ho) and baby. But the villainous Boss Fay (Yam) isn't letting him off so easily, and sends two thugs (Wong and Suet) to kill him. But two other thugs (Ng and Roy Cheung) arrive on the scene to protect Wo and his family. All five men know each other well--they grew up together--so alliances are complicated and, through a series of face-offs and shoot-outs, they all must decide where their real loyalties lie.

Director To (Election) films this like a spaghetti Western, with atmospheric wide-screen camera work and operatic music that builds up the tension and continually blurs the lines between the good, the bad and the ugly. The Macau setting is used brilliantly, making the most of the island's Portuguese history and Latin architecture. This doesn't feel like China at all; indeed, the story is set in 1998, before the island reverted to Chinese rule.

Meanwhile, the cast members approach their characters with confidence. Each person bristles with personality, mixing ruthless brutality with an intriguing inner compassion. Scenes are full of witty running gags, eye-popping stunts and shocking, sudden twists that keep us thoroughly entertained. And the complexity of this gang of old pals is absolutely gripping--divided right down the middle and forced to face off against each other when they'd really rather catch up over a beer.

Some of the action sequences are a little over-complicated, since there are so many people shooting at the same time. And the continual stream of standoffs is a little exhausting. But To cleverly subverts expectations, constantly indulging in extremely clever Wild West imagery while making us actually care about the characters. He also makes an astute comment about the fading influence of gangs (and possibly gangster movies) in a changing China. See it now, before the inevitable Hollywood remake.

dir Johnny To
scr Szeto Kam-Yuen, Yip Tin-Shing
with Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Nick Cheung, Josie Ho, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Richie Jen, Simon Yam, Lam Ka-Tung, Cheung Siu-Fai, Tam Ping-Man, Hui Shiu-Hung
another showdown release HK 19.Oct.06,
UK 15.Jun.07,
US 31.Aug.07
06/China 1h39
15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
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Not Here to Be Loved   3.5/5   Je Ne Suis Pas là Pour Être Aimé
Not Here to Be Loved This low-key French drama has enough wit and charm to get under our skin as it follows two people trying desperately to make something positive out of their lives.

Jean-Claude (Chesnais) is a 50 year old with the delightful job of informing people that the bank is about to seize their belongings and evict them from their homes. It's the family business, which he inherited from his grumpy father (Wilson). When his doctor tells him to get some exercise, he remembers the tango studio across the road. And once there, he meets Françoise (Consigny), who it turns out he knew as a child. Her life is strained as well, as her fiance (Abelanski) has become a lazy couch potato.

Beyond their dreary lives, these two have little in common, but the film delicately traces their friendship as people who feel they don't deserve love. As they find a spark in each other, they develop tiny flickers of confidence to face the issues around them. It's an intriguing plot for a film, similar in many ways to Masayuki Suo's wonderful Shall We Dance? And whether or not they fall in love is irrelevant, really.

Director-cowriter Brizé shoots it like a gentle 1960s melodrama brushed with a witty 21st-century postmodernism. The comedy is restrained and natural, but infuses every scene. Brizé and his actors cleverly establish Jean-Claude and Françoise in such a way that we immediately like both of them, rooting for them to find someone who doesn't drive them nuts. They experience guilt and embarrassment, say all the wrong things and discover harsh truths, but we still hope they won't return to their previous misery.

Clearly, stories about people waking up from their sleepy lives hit a nerve, and these scruffy characters provide far more interest than beautiful Hollywood actors would. The film's quiet tone might put off some viewers, but the tango scenes bring with them a strikingly colourful rhythm, putting into physicality the unspoken longings and the communication barriers, as well as the slowly dawning passion and confidence. In the end, it might feel a little simplistic, but it's also a breath of fresh air.

dir Stéphane Brizé
scr Stéphane Brizé, Juliette Sales
with Patrick Chesnais, Anne Consigny, Georges Wilson, Lionel Abelanski, Cyril Couton, Hélène Alexandridis, Geneviève Mnich, Pedro Lombardi, Anne Benoît, Marie-Sohna Conde, Stefan Wojtowicz, Isabelle Brochard
chesnais and consigny release Fr 12.Oct.05,
UK 8.Jun.07
05/France Canal+ 1h34
15 themes, language
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Transylvania   4/5
Transylvania Gatlif makes such vibrant, bristling movies that you feel like you live right alongside his characters (see also Gadjo Dilo, Vengo and Exiles). Even by his standards, this is a remarkably gutsy odyssey.

Zingarina (Argento) is so heartbroken when her Romanian boyfriend (Castoldi) is sent home from Paris, that she grabs a couple of friends (Casar and Beaujard) and heads off to Transylvania to find him. But the trip doesn't go as planned. She ends up on her own, pregnant and mistaken as a gypsy woman. But she's rescued by Tchangalo (Unel), a salesman who lives on the road and hates being indoors. As winter sets in, these two travellers must figure out a way to make the foreboding snowy countryside a home.

With an almost overwhelming sense of music and imagery, this gorgeously shot film is an experience of its own--never mind the astonishing adventure unfolding on screen. Gatlif taps into deep human emotions as these colourful people cycle around each other, hoping against hope that things will work out for them. Some of their expectations are played out for us, revealing the characters' optimism, fears and doubts before rewinding to show us the raw, true experiences.

The cast is superb. Argento fearlessly embodies the feisty Zingarina as an earthy woman who's a bundle of unpredictably exploding emotions. Her collisions with Unel are electric in every conceivable way, right up to the surprising final scene. Unel (Head On) is a terrific shaggy dog presence throughout the film, and almost frighteningly believable as a man who hasn't washed for two weeks.

Blending ethnicities, languages and nationalities, Gatlif makes it impossible to pigeonhole anyone in this film. The urban and rural residents of Translvania speak a jumble of Romanian, Hungarian and Russian, while we also hear plenty of English, French, Italian and German. People are constantly swapping clothing, adding ironic twists to the characters (including a superb sight gag with a Mercedes full of vigilante cowboys).

And through it all, there's a marvellous sense of music and dance (and plate-smashing!) about these people. Perhaps it's their common language, as the musicians are often on screen, propelling the story. It's all rather bewildering and chaotic. But it's simply wonderful to travel to see the world through Gatlif's inimitable eyes.

dir-scr Tony Gatlif
with Asia Argento, Birol Ünel, Amira Casar, Alexandra Beaujard, Marco Castoldi, Beata Palya, Rares Budelaina, Gabor
unel and argento release UK 10.Aug.07
06/Romania 1h43

15 themes, language, sexuality
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© 2007 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall