Tag Archives: 2004

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THEY CAME BACK [LES REVENANTS] (2004)

AKA The Returned

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DIRECTED BY: Robin Campillo

FEATURING: Géraldine Pailhas, Jonathan Zaccaï, Frédéric Pierrot, Victor Garrivier

PLOT: A small French town struggles to cope with the sudden appearance of thousands of people who have mysteriously returned after having died years ago; initial bureaucratic problems give way to uncertainty about the motives of the newly resurrected.

Still from They Came Back (2004)

COMMENTS: In a film with arresting imagery, there may be no scene more powerful than that which opens They Came Back: the once dead slowly making their way into town, clean and outwardly healthy and dressed in light pastels and creepy as all get out. It is a high concept made manifest: all those we have lost over the past decade, back in the world as if they’d never been gone. It’s a powerful notion, given strength through the haunting visuals, and it’s something the film will struggle to get back to for the length of its running time.

In contrast to the visceral scares of the many risen-dead flicks that have graced screens in recent decades, They Came Back is more interested in a looming atmosphere of dread. By all appearances, the dead look and behave normally, but everyone begins to notice that they are somehow… off. Indeed, the medical community issues repeated warnings that the resurrected are not quite right (and develop a drug to render them unconscious), and one doctor in particular takes an interest in strange late-night meetings the undead are holding. From the get-go, we’re distinctly aware that there is an unseen threat that no one can understand. But that mystery is only about half the tale.

Writer-director Campillo is equally concerned with how individuals cope with this unprecedented situation. There’s the town’s mayor, who can barely stand to look at his wife when she first beckons to him. Or a couple who have very different reactions to the reappearance of their 6-year-old son. Most prominent is Rachel, a bureaucrat who avoids her lost love Mathieu until he follows her home one day like a beloved puppy. All show a determination to pick up where they left off, but each seems filled with deep and rueful reservations.

This is where the movie’s struggle to balance an examination of people pushed to their limits with a straight-out horror film becomes most acute. There’s still juice in the sight of humans moving resolutely in sync, and in particular, a scene where the mayor is confronted by a group of returnees comes as close as any moment in the film to outright shock, and even then it is far more horrifying to contemplate its ideas than to look upon anything on the screen. The movie knows it has to build to something big, that it needs to throw in something momentous to justify the journey. But it’s just not that kind of movie.

And ultimately, that dictates the finale; it just sort of ends. The dead are gone again, and the living are left to reckon with the impact of what they’ve experienced. It’s nice that the film doesn’t feel pressured to manufacture something big, but it also feels like a cheat. If you’re going to offer a “what if” premise, you probably need to offer some suggestion as to what the “if” would be. As it stands, we have a mix of character study and sci-fi mystery that doesn’t ever fully invest in either.

Like many ideas that are promising but not fully explored, the notion behind They Came Back is solid enough to have returned from the dead itself. There seems to be agreement that a single film doesn’t have the space to explore the conflict and the characters with sufficient weight, and that TV might be a more effective platform. An attempt in 2007 to adapt the material to television in the US didn’t make it past its pilot, but a French series in 2012 was a substantial hit, and eventually the concept finally went stateside with a different Americanized version. Our fascination with the frustrating permanence of death is animating a lot of popular entertainment, so we surely can expect more takes on the idea to return at any time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an eerily elegant ghost story, all the more surreal for the realist mode of its telling… Campillo’s astonishing debut is as unnervingly oneiric as it is oddly moving.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (originally published in Film4)

(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “creepy in an unusual way.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DUMPLINGS (2004)

餃子]/Jiao Zi

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DIRECTED BY: Fruit Chan

FEATURING: Miriam Yeung, Bai Ling, Tony Ka-Fai Leung, Meme

PLOT: An aging woman, eager to recapture her lost youth and the attentions of her wayward husband, patronizes a local maker of dumplings whose creations reverse the ravages of time; however, what she learns about how the dumplings are made force her to confront her own desires and tolerances.

Still from Dumplings (2004)

COMMENTS: The big twist is fully revealed exactly halfway through Dumplings, but in truth, we’ve known what was going on all along. Aunt Mei makes dumplings that restore youth thanks to a special ingredient. Mei’s current client, the former TV actress Mrs. Li, is eager for a therapy that will bring about the return of her youthful beauty quickly, to which Mei replies that the best ingredients are hard to come by. We learn that Aunt Mei used to be a doctor, and on her occasional visits to a local hospital to get illicit supplies, she discusses the ramifications of China’s one-child policy and the procedure some have used to bypass it. Meanwhile, a neighbor has brought her pregnant daughter to Aunt Mei for “help.” You’re with me here, right? There’s not really any mystery about what’s in the dumplings, is there?

Director Fruit Chan is a great deal more artful than that, of course. The camera lavishly chronicles the cooking process with loving attention, in the manner of Babette’s Feast or Big Night, so that you might be lulled into thinking you were watching Hong Kong’s answer to Chocolat. All the while, he is careful to avoid featuring anything too gory until the key moment, even if there are suggestions of something untoward throughout. (A special shout-out is owed to sound designer Kinson Tsang, who helps bring the horror by delivering the alluring, disgusting power of every slurp, chop, and bloody plop.) But there’s no getting past the litany of taboos that Dumplings confronts. Pretty it up all you like, but eventually, you’re going to have to face the facts about what’s in your food.

The film is an expansion of Chan’s segment from the horror anthology Three… Extremes, but at 90 minutes it remains taut and effective. The film is buoyed by the pair of stellar performances at its core. Bai Ling cavorts around her kitchen like a mischievous wood nymph, singing and spinning around confidently like a water strider; an Act 3 monologue extolling the virtues of anthropophagy frames her actions as virtually righteous. Meanwhile, Miriam Yeung is the very model of prim propriety pushed to its limits. No Death Becomes Her transformations here; you never once believe she is old or has lost any of her beauty (Yeung is stunning throughout), but you can be certain of her own perception of her failings, and they underline her commitment to the course of action that leads to her ultimate fate.

Dumplings is weird by virtue of its off-limits subject matter, but curiously not weird thanks to its earnest and forthright exploration of said material. A couple key subplots, such as the fate of Mei’s unlucky neighbor or a confrontation between the chef and Mrs. Li’s philandering husband, hint at a greater reckoning that never really arrives. Instead, Dumplings is a sober meditation on what we’re willing to do to get what we think is justly owed to us. No fortune cookie here, but instead this admonition: It’s not what we eat but what we choose to eat that makes us who we are.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Jiao Zi is a never ending cycle of absurdity leading to comedy leading to absurd reactions leading to more horror… the surreal way in which the horror and comedy of Jiao Zi was implemented ending up being too alluring for me to ignore.” – Bill Thompson, Bill’s Movie Emporium

(This movie was nominated for review by Ed. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CITIZEN DOG (2004)

Mah Nakorn

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Wisit Sasanatieng

FEATURING: Mahasamut Boonyaruk, Saengthong Gate-Uthong

PLOT: Pod moves to Bangkok, despite his grandmother’s warning he will grow a tail if he does so, and falls in love with Jin, a woman of serial obsessions—none of which involve Pod.

Still from Citizen Dog (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: It begins with Pod losing his finger at his sardine-canning job (he gets it back later). It ends on a mountain of plastic bottles that dominates the Bangkok skyline. In between, it indulges in a subplot about an affair between a girl who’s either 8 or 22 years old and her talking teddy bear. Oh, and it’s also intermittently a musical. Citizen Dog takes a lot of lunatic swings, and still manages to remain a crowd-pleasing romance.

COMMENTS: Pod and Jin are each, in their own way, searching for a dream, while not realizing that they are living in one. Jin dreams of one day reading the book that fell out of the sky and landed on her deck, written in a language unknown to her; later, she is able to put that dream to one side to pursue an obsession with saving the planet via recycling. Pod, meanwhile, is introduced to us as “a man without a dream”—at least, until he encounters Jin and quickly falls in love. Jin drifts from dream to dream, risking devastation when her plans don’t turn out as she expects, while Pod drifts from job to job, too scared to commit to anything and declare his feelings. Meanwhile, both of them miss the magic of the world around them.

The viewer doesn’t make that mistake, however. Wisit Sasanatieng drenches his movie in some of the boldest color schemes ever ladled on the big screen. Pod leaves a country home where swaths of golden grass grow from russet dirt, waving against a painted backdrop sky with an eternally glowing sun, and lands in a busy Bangkok where he gets a job at a ruby and emerald colored sardine-processing factory where even the fish have pink eyes. The people who populate the city are even stranger than their visual environments: a zombie taxi driver, killed during one of the city’s periodic rains of helmets; an amnesiac obsessed with licking; a talking teddy bear, who’s also a chain smoker who falls on hard times and turns homeless. Don’t worry, there are plenty more crazy characters where those came from, along with breaks for musical numbers, sequences that are sped-up or which play out in lethargic slow motion, and a gecko sex scene. Citizen Dog never runs out of ideas to throw at the viewer; but for Pod and Jin, it’s all just part of everyday life in the big city.

In conventional terms, Citizen Dog fails as a romantic comedy, because it never convincingly shows how Pod wins Jin’s heart. Dreamy Jin is completely blind to Pod’s devotion up into the final scene, when she suddenly succumbs to a short sappy speech and a kiss. But who cares? In unconventional terms, the movie succeeds brilliantly; each part of the series of almost-unconnected vignettes is a miniature joke brilliant enough to keep you eagerly awaiting the next one, so that you don’t really notice (or care much) about Jin’s lack of romantic development.

Citizen Dog‘s blend of old-fashioned romance and digitally-enhanced surrealism often draws comparisons to Amelie (2001). Tonally, however, it more resembles ‘s Mood Indigo (2013), in that it creates a whimsically unreal but fully lived-in universe where absolutely anything can happen. The difference is that Citizen Dog remains lighthearted to the end, never succumbing to the darkness that envelops the moody Indigo.

The genesis of Citizen Dog is as odd as its story line. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Koynuch. But, in a twist, Koynuch’s novel was itself an adaptation of Sasanatieng’s original unpublished screenplay! Once Koynuch gave Sasanatieng’s collection of vignettes without a story a unifying theme of dreams, the director felt he could come back to the script he’d abandoned and turn it into a feature film.

Sasanatieng’s first movie, Tears of the Black Tiger, was a Spaghetti Western parody with vividly artificial visuals similar to Citizen Dog. Both movies were minor hits with film-festival followers, although Dog is the more accessible of the two. But none of Sasanatieng’s subsequent movies have made much headway in the West, although he is still active. Unfortunately, Citizen Dog is not currently available on home video or (although you might be able to find a used all-region DVD on Ebay or other sources—be cure to confirm English subtitles are included). Tears of the Black Tiger, on the other hand, is still easy to acquire.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“People are able to swap fingers, they can grow tails, teddy bears are able to talk and sometimes it rains helmets. And that’s just a small selection of the weirdness this films throws at you. None of these things are ever properly explained, they’re just a part of the surreal world the characters inhabit and have to deal with on a daily basis.”–Niels Matthijs, Screen Anarchy

(This movie was nominated for review by Welrax. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

There’s something inherently weird about hotels. After all, they are a temporary domicile, a place you call home for a limited time, and you share the experience with dozens of other people you will never know. (I’ve stayed on more than one occasion at a chain dubbing itself “Home 2,” like it’s the sequel to the much-loved original.) It might explain why we see so many films about them on this site, from hotels that house transient mental patients to hotels stored in the private parts of ancient vampires to hotels where couples meet again and again to decrepit hotels to hotels on the edge of the apocalypse and beyond. So maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising to find two different films in our suggestion box that are content to leave the title at Hotel. Arguably, that alone should tell you it’s about to get strange up in here.

Notably, this pair of films offers us differing points of view: one largely concerning the guests, the other centered on a member of the staff.

HOTEL (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis

FEATURING: Saffron Burrows, , , , , , Burt Reynolds, , David Schwimmer, Mark Strong

Still from Hotel (2001)

PLOT: A film company attempts to shoot a guerilla-style version of “The Duchess of Malfi” while based in a hotel that practices cannibalistic vampirism.

COMMENTS: This hotel variant is a directorial showcase. Figgis indulges all the techniques at his disposal: handheld cameras shooting hyper-saturated video, improvised dialogue, and the same quad-split screen storytelling that he indulged in Timecode. Some have suggested (and a line of dialogue insinuates) that he’s actually playing with Dogme 95 techniques, although his production violates most of Dogme’s rules. What he really seems to be doing is utilizing the same let’s-film-and-see-what-happens philosophy that he’s depicting. So it’s improvised. Real. Which is potentially interesting, especially when his actors are up to the challenge. But it can be equally deadening if they’re not. Sometimes there’s a payoff, like Burt Reynolds’ inexplicable turn as the director of a flamenco troupe, yes-anding his way through a scenario that would not seem to call for him at all. But you’re as likely to get a scene like Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu screaming at each other. Is that really the most interesting thing they could think of to do? It’s weak improv, which makes it weak cinema.

The all-star cast is a huge part of the appeal. It ends up playing like one of those live theatrical experiences where you get a different experience based upon which actors you choose to follow. The real-world examples of this can result in something classy or trashy, and much the same is true here. Consider Rhys Ifans’ gleefully confident turn as a power-mad director, a performance which borders on parody but is the liveliest thing in the film, until he is curiously sidelined before the halfway mark. His counterpoint is David Schwimmer’s Continue reading CAPSULE DOUBLE FEATURE: HOTEL (2001) & HOTEL (2004)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IN SEARCH OF THE TITANIC (2004)

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Tentacolino

DIRECTED BY: Kim Jun-Ok

FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Jane Alexander (not that one), Anna Mazzotti, Francis Pardeilham, Gregory Snegoff

PLOT: Attacked while on an undersea exploration to find the wreckage of the Titanic (which evidently suffered no casualties following its run-in with an iceberg thanks to the intervention of an enormous doe-eyed squid), survivors Elizabeth and Don Juan, talking dog Smile and incorrigible talking rats Ronnie and Top Connors are rescued by the denizens of Atlantis, who ally with them in a battle against an army of rebellious rats, a group of shark inmates, and the evil human Lord Vandertilt, who wants the valuable shipwreck all to himself.

Still from In Search of the Titanic (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: What ought to be a simple quick-buck exploitation to lure in dumb kids and their undiscerning parents by ripping off such entertainments as The Little Mermaid, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and ’s Titanic swims proudly into its own realm of insanity. Impossible to dismiss as merely incompetent, the unfolding story contains enough deliberate intentions to force its consideration as art. The choices are almost painfully strange, forcing you to question the very fabric of reality. It’s like if a Penrose triangle were a movie.

COMMENTS: If you decided to turn off In Search of the Titanic after two minutes (a reasonable desire)—having only watched the opening credits consisting of scene snips from this film’s predecessor in which a man dances with a dog, an enormous octopus forces the two broken halves of the Titanic back together, and a blue whale catches a couple after they have fallen from the mighty ship’s deck—you could still make a solid case for it as one of the weirdest movies ever made. Having taken this hiatus from the film, you might then take a moment to dig into the history of its animation studio, which is based in North Korea and which has handled outsourced work for The Simpsons Movie and Avatar: The Last Airbender, at which point you might feel as though you were losing your grip and start doing that thing where you try to read a book because supposedly you can’t read in your dreams. But at this critical juncture, let me encourage you to head back to the film. Stick around. Ride this out. Watch the whole movie. Because believe me, your descent into madness is just getting started. Go with it. Let the insanity rain down upon you like mighty waters.

Because even after you meet the talking dog and the sharks who work on an underwater chain gang and the CGI that came from a 1990s DVD menu, it still hasn’t gotten amazing yet. You see, you haven’t met the leader of the sharks. You haven’t seen him wearing the dress-whites of the Titanic’s captain. You definitely haven’t heard him start to rap. And you certainly haven’t heard his backup chorus of clams who also double as a telegraph machine. Only when you’ve gotten this far can you even begin to imagine the scale of the Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: IN SEARCH OF THE TITANIC (2004)