Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reel Asian 2013: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the Reel Asian International Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Confession of Murder (Dir: Jeong Byeong-gil, 119 mins., South Korea, 2012)

Fifteen years after a string of murders, a photogenic serial killer publishes a book confessing his crimes. The detective who had just missed out on catching him during his spree is incensed, but there's nothing he can do as the statute of limitations has expired. The killer is free to become a media darling.

I found the first act of Jeong Byeong-gil's Confession of Murder hard to get into, because that premise seemed like the ludicrous contrivance of a scriptwriter's pen. In fact, it turns out that until less than a decade ago, the statute of limitations on murder was indeed fifteen years in South Korea. I think knowing this going in would help with the "buy in" to this action thriller.

After an opening sequence that shows that missed apprehension, we flash forward to find that mean-tempered, foul-mouthed detective Choi Hyung-gu (Jeong Jae-yeong) is still carrying a lot of baggage from the case. The confessional book by Lee Du-seok (Park Si-hoo) is just salt in the wound, especially when he starts making public displays of contrition that play as much like PR ploys as acts of genuine regret. Things get even more complicated when family members of his victims band together to hatch a plan to kidnap him and exact their revenge, turning Detective Choi into a reluctant rescuer. A ratings-hungry TV producer puts them face-to-face on a live news show, when Choi threatens Lee's fame with an unexpected taunt: what if he's not the real killer? The emergence of the secretive J., who knows some unpublished details about the killer's final victim only muddies the water further.

Although the set-up left me dubious, soon enough I was being pulled along with it. The some-scars-never-heal symbolism might be heavy-handed, but the contrivances ultimately aren't any worse than in your typical Hollywood thriller and most of the plot holes are resolved with a consistent inner logic. (One key relationship that is withheld until a flashback about three-quarters through feels like a bit too much of a manipulation, though.)

Oh, there's also some pretty good action sequences here, with not one but two show-stopping car chases. Plus, by the end the film builds up some rather frenzied momentum that leaves little time for doubts. Once you can get over the hump and buy into the premise, this is a satisfying action flick. Clearly director Jeong, in his first narrative feature, has made big strides since the lacklustre doc Action Boys.

Bonus! Director Jeong Byeong-gil will be in attendance at the festival screening.

Screens: Saturday, November 9th, 9:45 p.m. @ The Royal

American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (Dir: Grace Lee, 82 mins., USA, 2013)

When I wrote up a preview of all the docs that I wanted to see at the festival, I managed to skip right over this one, which is a bit of an orphan at the end of the schedule, playing off in a venue on the other side of town from most of the other screenings. But this may very well be the best thing I'll see at the festival.

Grace Lee's well-constructed doc is both a documentary of its subject as well as a deeper meditation that will resonate with anyone with strong political convictions: What does it mean to be an activist for the very long haul? What is the source of the revolutionary urge, and, ultimately, what is revolution supposed to do?

We explore all of this in the life of Grace Lee Boggs, who we meet at ninety-five years of age, pushing along in her walker through the ruins of Detroit (a sure sign that some big changes need to be made, she says with a slight smile). A Chinese-American woman born in 1915, college educated before being radicalized by the Great Depression, she's lived through the wars and cold wars, through McCarthyism and through the turbulence of the '60's. A Marxist theoretician turned Black Power activist with a thick FBI dossier to her name, Boggs has spent decades pondering the details of revolution and evolution. She's crossed paths with luminaries along the way: her early work was alongside C.L.R. James before moving to then-bustling Detroit to be where the workers were. After marrying James Boggs she moved into the orbit of the nascent Black Power movement, organizing marches for Martin Luther King and conferences for Malcolm X. (He delivered his famous Message to the Grass Roots at one of those.)

A devoted dialectician, Boggs has constantly tested and modified her own theories throughout her life, stressing that ideas become dead when they become fixed. The riots of '67 (or "the rebellion", as she'd label it) gave her much cause for reflection upon her younger ideas of direct action and the use of violence. Concluding that the anger released in that cataclysm didn't push forward the revolutionary cause, she's moved increasingly towards celebrating non-violence (and learning to appreciate MLK in a way she could not during her lifetime).

As her consciousness developed to consider her own role as a woman, as a Chinese American, and as older person, some of the most resonant ideas of her later years arise from her belief in the radical possibilities of conversation (the dialectic in action!) as she comments, "the radical movement has overemphasized the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection."

As all of this recapping might indicate, I was utterly swept up in this film's story, amazed by Boggs' resilience and highly impressed by the film that Lee has fashioned here. Encountering her on an earlier project where she was looking for other women who shared her name, Grace Lee struck up a friendship with Boggs and has returned to visit her regularly ever since. That (plus a wealth of archive material) gives us a decades-long glimpse at her ideas and her character. In her later years, Boggs has gravitas and is firmly rooted in the strength of her ideas, but never comes across as someone who thinks she has all the answers. At ninety-five, her revolution includes gardens and conversations and a strong conviction that the leadership we need to transform the world is already there inside of us.

This is a powerful portrait and gets a highest recommendation.

Bonus! Not only will director Grace Lee will be in attendance at the festival screening, but it's also free to attend, with tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Screens: Tuesday, November 12th, 7:00 p.m. @ Ryerson University, School of Image Arts (122 Bond St.)

No comments:

Post a Comment