Is there anything in life more enigmatic than the haphazard paths that lead us into the another’ arms? Makoto Shinkai’s anime Your Name. (Kimi no na wa) explores these paths by way of a fantastical body-swap comedy. But, there is a genuine seriousness at the heart of the film that coalesces romance, connectivity, memory, and identity into a cohesive story about time, space, and the hidden strings that surround us all. Your Name. sports a lavish animation style, energetic soundtrack, and intelligent use of imagery and metaphor, all of which contribute to an absolutely breathtaking experience. Shinkai’s film amazes constantly, and is right at home alongside other pinnacles of this oft-celebrated style.
You’d generally forgive a zombie movie for being shallow and uninventive, as long as the story generates the proper tone and mood. Writer-director Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan deserves commendation for not only nailing the bleakness of and terror of a zombie apocalypse, but for infusing such a story with genuine heart, emotion, and intriguing subtext. It is rare that a zombie flick can elicit tears as readily as screams, but Train to Busan is the rare example of the complete package.
Weird, exciting, and vibrant, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an erotic tour through a world of subjugation, trickery, and betrayal framed by a bizarre love triangle. The story was inspired by the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters, with Park and his co-writer Chung Seo-kyung adjusting the setting from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s. The structure of the film is cyclical, re-telling the story three times from different viewpoints and revealing new truths with each telling. There’s an unreliability to the narrative, as truth and facade alternate with each new perspective. But ultimately, The Handmaiden has an fervent romanticism about it, as the heart of the story is about love, sexual exploration, and self-discovery – all with a tinge of deviancy.
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle opens with a blank screen and the sickening sounds of sexual assault. The first image of the film is of a cat, casually witnessing the rape. Only after this introduction does Verhoeven confront the audience with the actual struggle: a man clad in dark clothing and a ski mask, dominating an older woman and having his way with her. Once he is gone, we’re introduced to Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) wordlessly; she picks herself up, straightens her clothing, cleans up some broken glass, and then takes a bath. The blood floats up from between her legs to color the bubbles with a crimson wisp.
Quietly and without fanfare, Polish writer/director Wladyslaw Pasikowski has crafted an historical spy film for the ages. Jack Strong rivals the very best spy films of the decade – from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Skyfall. The film dramatizes the life and actions of one of the most high-impact spies during the Cold War, the polish colonel Ryszard Kuklinski, who over the course of a decade provided over 35,000 pages of sensitive Soviet information to the Americans. Impressively, Jack Strong isn’t simply a circuitous celebration of tradecraft and cloak-and-dagger, either. It delves further into the emotional and personal costs of the spy life than almost any spy film I have ever seen, detailing the damage that Kuklinski’s actions have on his family, friends, and colleagues. The end product is a three-dimensional spy film that doesn’t resort to action set pieces or large explosions to capture the attention of the audience. Thus, despite being relatively unknown, Jack Strong is an unequivocal example of the perfect Cold War spy film.
Denis Villeneuve Week continues here on Plot and Theme with Incendies, the final foreign language film from the director, and his only film to receive an Oscar nod (Best Foreign Language film in 2010). The film tells the story of twins who receive a cryptic message in their mother’s will: their father and brother are still alive, and the twins must seek them out and deliver letters to them. A circuitous journey through an unnamed Middle Eastern country commences, and as the twins untangle myth from fact amid civil and religious war, the truth of their mother’s life is beyond their wildest dreams – and nightmares.