It's what Tran Anh Hung made next after his Vietnam trilogy. I seem to remember reading somewhere that he wasn't happy with it, which I agree with because it's a mess that doesn't work.
It's his only English-language film to date. The Scent of Green Papaya
and The Vertical Ray of the Sun
were in Vietnamese, while Norwegian Wood
is in Japanese. However it's clearly continuing his journey through the Far East, because it's mostly set in Hong Kong and the Philippines (Mindanao). There's some flashback material in Los Angeles and an American lead actor, Josh Hartnett, though.
The story is half-digested porridge, but I'll give what pointers I can. Hartnett gets hired to look for a billionaire's son (Takuya Kimura), but his secret technique when all else fails is to try to put himself in the other guy's head and have flashbacks to an old serial killer case that drove him crazy. Lee Byung-Hun is in the film and does stuff. Tran Nu Yen-Khe (Anh Hung's wife) appears again and has a confusing role that may or may not involve Stockholm Syndrome.
I think that's about it.
Now in fairness, we always knew that Tran Anh Hung wasn't a narrative-driven filmmaker. Even when he'd made a violent movie about gangsters, forced prostitution and street killings, he did it in a dreamlike way that's more like an impressionistic memory of a story than an actual narrative. That's Cyclo
. However until now, I'd never felt at sea in his movies. They have a simplicity. Even if everyone's being distant and enigmatic, there's something refreshing and beautiful about the experience of spending time with them, so eventually you feel as if you've got to know them anyway.
This however is just throwing stuff in the approximate direction of the audience, not caring whether it hits or misses. Look at Lee Byung-Hun's introduction, for instance. He's the best of the movie's principal actors and he's playing a violent gangster who's liable to kill you on no provocation. However despite this, I was struggling to tell which one in the movie was him and after his introductory scene, I couldn't have picked him out of a police line-up. We can see that he's a cock and we already don't like him, but we'd have had to pause the disc to see enough of his face to remember. Hey, isn't that... no, he's gone already.
Similarly our introduction to Kimura is via a photo that makes him look like a girl, followed some time later by a glimpse of him in a police station. If you managed to connect those two images, this probably wasn't your first Takuya Kimura movie.
So we've got a movie that wants us to think all Asian people look the same, because it's not introducing any of them properly in the first place and so we don't know who's who. Then on top of that we have a narrative that's happy to jump from the present day to the past without warning. The first half-hour contains a nice, clear storyline with Hartnett going about his detective job, alternating with violent, disturbing set-pieces that have no apparent connection to anything and have basically been pulled from the movie's arse. Halfway through, my notes said that the film didn't work and was hard work to follow, but that I hadn't given up on it. Twenty minutes later, even that had become too generous. It's impressionistic storytelling, in which the audience just lets the images wash over them and accepts that we're not really meant to be making connections.
In fairness, you can see that there's something intriguing underneath. Tran Anh Hung creates an atmospheric world, populated by a fascinating cast. He also has plenty of violent, scary or gross stuff to entertain the neanderthals in the audience. The serial killer (Elias Koteas) is disturbing, while the Dead Sack Man is one of the more horrible things I've seen in some time. It's not actually violent. You don't see the blows. Instead it's just the anticipation and the characters, with a man and his plastic bag.
That's how he's credited, by the way: The Dead Sack Man. This is the kind of movie where you feel as if you're only glimpsing the things that are important and so you expect everyone to be called The Monk Artist, The Erotic Dancer, The Male Nurse and so on.
However in fairness, I liked the theme Tran Anh Hung came up with in the last twenty minutes. He's doing Christianity, but in an unusually direct, unsentimental and violent way. It's also surprisingly literal. That really does seem to be Him. This was cool and well thought-through, even down to details like the father. It's got theme and counter-theme, with a kind of Antichrist in the Koteas character, while furthermore I'm intrigued by the scene that makes me wonder if Anh Hung was referencing zombie flicks. Thematically, that would sort of work. All this saved the movie for me and made me glad I'd slogged my way through the middle hour, but then again I come from a historically Christian culture. My wife wouldn't have got any of those references and wouldn't have cared about them even if she had.
The cast is the most international I've ever seen. It's American (Josh Hartnett), Canadian (Elias Koteas), Korean (Lee Byung-Hun), Japanese (Takuya Kimura), Hong Kong (Shawn Yue and others), Spanish (Eusebio Poncela) and probably more. The elderly bastards are obviously all great (Koteas, Poncela), but of the handsome young things, the one I'm most excited about is Lee Byung-Hun. For a start, most of the others are also pop stars. In fairness Kimura has been acting since 1988 and he's got a highly successful entertainment career, but he's also a member of the idol group SMAP and most of his acting isn't just for TV, but for Japanese TV. What movies has he done? Hmmm, 2046
. I can see the similarity, but based on this he didn't deserve it. He was also in Space Battleship Yamato
. Lee Byung-Hun on the other hand is an impressive, hard-working actor who was in Joint Security Area
, The Good The Bad The Weird
and I Saw the Devil, to name but three.
Tran Nu Yen-Khe does okay, by the way. As always she's mostly a visual and physical presence and doesn't get much dialogue, but what she does get she handles well enough. Her enigmatic, slightly eerie beauty works very well in her husband's films and I have no problem with him continually casting her. From other actors though, the odd line is so clumsily delivered as to make you wonder about the English level of the actors and director.
Would I recommend this film? Hell, no. It grabs your attention with scenes and images designed to provoke a reaction, e.g. a maggot on an eye, or a decapitated naked woman with big boobs. The gangster stuff is vivid and Koteas's scenes will stay with you. However having grabbed your attention, it then wants you to maintain a serene detachment as the non-narrative becomes a muddle of whatever scenes and images Anh Hung thinks thematically appropriate. I'm afraid I found it dull. I didn't know what was happening and I didn't care. The protagonist became irrelevant and the plot got away from me. I couldn't even get close to the characters, which hadn't been this much of a problem in Anh Hung's Vietnam films, so I was struggling to find a reason to keep watching until the religious theme popped up at the end. That last bit I liked, though.
"I'm not afraid of you. You don't know what I've done."