Thursday, October 27, 2011
Samaritan Girl (2004) A Film by Kim Ki-Duk
Historically, Samaritanism is defined not by the geographical association with Samaria but by the Hebrew term Shamerim, which means "Keepers of the Law," and refers to the conservation of traditional practices. There's a great deal of law-keeping going on in Kim Ki-Duk's Samaritan Girl: policemen encroach on instances of prostitution, a father distributes humiliation and pain to a variety of sexual offenders, an innocent passerby frantically calls 911 when he sees a bloodied and mangled man lying on the floor of a bathroom. The most unsettling implication of the film's alleged Samaritanism, though, is the idea that the director is the ultimate "keeper of the law," and that the "law" is of his own devising. We rarely think of cinema as a pedantic tool of justice, but Kim has singlehandedly with Samaritan Girl attempted to make a case for the director as policeman. But how do we trust a law-enforcer who's Buddhist one minute (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring), nihilistic the next, and all of a sudden Samaritan, not to mention one who erratically shifts his values in the middle of a day's work?
Samaritan Girl is a whopper of an odd and discomfiting film, confusing justice with oppression, progress with backwards conservatism, control with love, and vengeance with enlightenment. It's divided into three sections: Vasumitra, detailing a naive young prostitute named Jae-yeong's (Yeo-reum Han) attempt to emulate her idol, the ancient, titular prostitute who supposedly made all her clients lead Buddhist lives; Samaria, which watches as Jae-yeong's best friend Yeo-jin (Ji-min Kwak) commemorates Jae-yeong's early death by sleeping with all her old clients and returning their money, all while Yeo-Jin's father Yeong-ki (Eol Lee) angrily pursues his daughter's victims; and Sonata, wherein Yeong-ki brings his daughter to the countryside with ambiguous intentions. Each part is brimming with its own ideological contradictions and contrivances. For instance, what is Yeo-jin's tribute of following in her friend's footsteps if not a reinforcement of the same troubled aversions to connection and meaning that she despised in her friend? Why does Yeong-ki act so proactively on his daughter's behalf but display no tangible affection for her as a daughter? The final third of the film desires to say something about the reemergence of the family unit, but don't Yeong-ki's illusions of pastoral simplicity expose his similarly puerile attitudes towards family and love?
There are answers to these questions - indeed pretty obvious ones - but Kim is unaware of them, and equally unaware of the deeply chauvinistic patina of his work. Yeong-ki avenges his daughter's exploitation not because he genuinely seeks to align social equality but because he fears her sudden agency and wants to reaffirm his position as a stern, autocratic father. Instead of disavowing an awful imbalance in social mores, he simply realigns them to fit his equally nonsensical vision of patriarchal dominance. Kim's emphasis is not on the justice over depravity but rather on the brute masculine force of vengeance, revealing that his true concern is not egalitarianism but the idealization of the male. Fittingly, Kim litters the film - really, plenty of his films - with blunt phallic imagery. It's usually a popsicle or a corndog or some such food on a stick (and the perpetual sucking is just one example of erotic fantasy), but these more blatant surrogates spread the thought of sexuality to any other image remotely indicating a narrow cylinder. Most bombastically, during Yeong-ki and Yeo-Jin's day trip to the countryside, the sensual consumption of hot sweet potatoes leads right to an overhead shot of the two sitting on a canoe, their bodies facing ahead along with the forward-thrusting shape of the male.
Kim's women are endlessly stubborn and resigned, and they tend to stay that way throughout his narratives. His men are always looking for ways to "purify" them, to return them to a state of total submission. Note Yeong-ki's murder and subsequent burial of his daughter by a lake; it is there, in the tranquility of nature (itself a stand-in for regressive purity), that he can finally cease to worry about her threatening his control. Granted, the scene is "only a dream", but it seems a dream that Kim is waiting for to bleed into reality. In fact, the whole film is a dream, a dream of how Kim wants his society to be, with teenage girls always naked and homoerotic in their private time, men always searching for a quick way to assert their power, and families always disillusioned and criminalized without the grip of a father. Sure, he may disapprove of prostitution, but he is fond of a quieter, more invisible form of masculine domination. The simplest offense of all - and the area where Kim has been able to trick the international art cinema crowd - is that he's a clumsy, pedestrian filmmaker, cutting when he doesn't need to cut, punctuating when he doesn't need to punctuate, and aiming for emotions that miss the mark. If the audience is supposed to feel empathy when Yeong-ki's stuffs his face with sushi and subsequently throws it up to the tune of a sappy piano melody, something is severely off-kilter.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
The Mill and the Cross (2011) A Film by Lech Majewski
It has become an increasingly rare occasion to be able to use the word "original" or "unique" with utter sincerity when dealing with a work of art these days, a trend attributable more to the generally clever recycling of forms and narratives as well as the oversaturated proliferation of media than it is to any (nonexistent) widespread dearth of inspiration or imagination. Lech Majewski's latest film, The Mill and the Cross, however, proves the exception to that rule. It's the kind of mysterious creation that fully, coherently, and convincingly erects its own hermetic and uncanny world that exists only for the duration of the film proper and subsequently enlarges in memory. It belongs to a special league of films that include Werckmeister Harmonies, Eraserhead, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. This kind of spellbinding world-building does not always lead inexorably to a great film, but it nonetheless represents an exalted category of filmmaking: the ability to conjure a world that seems, at least superficially, to operate according to the laws of our own yet simultaneously feels alien and fantastical. And Majewski's film is so mystifying because it manages to take something so earthbound - Peter Bruegel's famous painting "The Way to Calvary" and the historical events surrounding it - and succeed in infusing it with an overpowering sense of the surreal.
Majewski, who has dealt with famous paintings and painters in his work before (The Garden of Earthly Delights most notably), canned the project's original conception as a traditional art history documentary to instead dive into the world in which Bruegel lived. The result is a loose, free-form exploration of the Flemish milieu and the people who inhabited it, all placed inside the context of Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) conceiving, planning, and painting his epic panorama, "The Way to Calvary." In charting the mundane labor of various townspeople - the miller perched high atop a forbidding rock formation, Bruegel's wife and children, the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling), and various peasants and Shakespearean simpletons - as well as the devastating turmoil caused by the Spanish rejection of the Protestant Reformation, Majewski employs a languid, observational style, his unpredictable structure mirroring the slow roving of the eye across any number of Bruegel's famously packed compositions, overflowing as they were with unrelated mini-stories. Despite the sheer scope of the narrative collage, however, The Mill and the Cross maintains a light, ethereal quality even in the midst of watching red-coated conquistadors brutally torture and hang those who actively opposed Spanish rule, Jesus among them. This is a deeply spiritual work, borne from the self-imposed calm of the artist quietly observing and reflecting his surroundings.
I would probably break my back trying to describe the myriad ways in which Majewski delicately conjures the religious and political upheavals of the time and makes a case for their profound influence on Bruegel's work, but that's probably best left to a historian. I was struck most by Majewski's typically jaw-dropping approach to the material. His body of work continues to be marked by drastic technological and artistic innovations, including the 33-short-films-within-a-film approach of Blood of a Poet and the hand-held digital of The Garden of Earthly Delights. But here, Majewski takes his biggest leap yet into the domain of digital layering and CGI while keeping the painterly, tableau-like blocking of much of his work intact. The landscapes in The Mill and the Cross are composites of pieces of Bruegel's original painting and various nature footage captured on a Red One (clouds, trees, rocky mountains), creating a startling hybrid of real and unreal planes that recalls Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (one recurring image of the God-like miller peering down upon passersby is instantly reminiscent of that film's celebrated money-shot) but goes even further in the pursuit of three-dimensionality, thinking of a backdrop not just as one homogeneous surface but rather as a compilation of many different visual elements. It makes The Mill and the Cross infinitely pleasurable to gaze at, as well as - with the exception of one digital "camera movement" during the film's impressive 4 1/2-minute choreographed shot of the collective procession towards the Crucifixion - gloriously free of the ugliness that plagues so much contemporary post-production gimmickry.
Majewski acted as co-cinematographer on the film along with Adam Sikora, and the two of them showcase an innate grasp on the quality of light in Renaissance artwork. A single source of hazy outdoor light creeps through windows to flood dusty, wooden interiors, while bare bodies tend to be encased within a soft, amorphous glow, as if brighter paint were bleeding into the dark tones of the background. This light achieves a mystical, fable-like aura, culminating in Majewski's irreverent rejection of established codes of lighting continuity by occasionally using two sources of light in one shot: that of the sun and that of the holy spirit. The film also has a special feel for composition; among plenty of iconic images captured in The Mill and the Cross, Majewski and Sikora watch two peasants climbing up a steep precipice before a majestic landscape, a mill-worker ascending his cavernous dwelling towards the light of day, two imposing gears churning like molasses in the darkness, and a group of toddlers roughhousing in their claustrophobic domestic environment, one of them cementing the timelessness and rootlessness of the armpit fart. One of Majewski's key compositional motifs is the vertical angle, underpinning the constant presence of divine observation.
In a film so heavily reliant upon the visual, peripheral aspects (narrative, sound design, acting) take a backseat in terms of emphasis, but Majewski's equally careful in dealing with each. The film's minimalist, but nonetheless multi-layered narrative, actually comes to a harmonious crescendo towards the end of the film, with each of the individual characters appearing in the massive gathering that inspired Bruegel's painting. Majewski makes no attempt to round out the stories or to bring them some sense of closure, instead preferring to subsume them into the whole and imply a cyclical movement of individual and environment. In fact, in some ways The Mill and the Cross is reminiscent of Tarkovsky's epic on painter Andrei Rublev, in that it divvies its attention up to fragments in the lives of the people surrounding the artist in question in an attempt to reflect the social inspiration that guided their work. The film's soundscape is similarly democratic, and incorporates the same principles of sampling inherent in the visual design. Combining both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds atop snatches of whispered voice-over by Rampling and periodic inserts of Józef Skrzek and Majewski's pensive, operatic score, the film pares down its aural world into something of sparse, creeping dread, occupying yet again an unsettling middle ground between the real and the unreal. This tension between a faithful representation of Bruegel's universe and something more detached is perhaps the ideal way for Majewski to impose his own singular vision onto a piece of art that is itself so exalted, influential, and majestic.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Gatekeepers: Tarantino v. Besson?
A concept such as a “Gatekeeper Auteur,” as outlined by Leon Hunt in his book East Asian Cinema: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, is less a useful critical term than a vague and pedantic categorization. Hunt uses the term to refer to Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson, two Western director/producers – one American, the other French - who are “attuned to cults surrounding Hong Kong, Japanese, and South Korean cinema” and end up “displaying their connoisseurship of Asian cinema” in their films. Tarantino is the more flagrant and unapologetic of the two, as well as the figure that is seemingly less at fault, while Besson reveals his fanboy status through allegedly invisible appropriations. For instance, the agile street fighting and urban parkour of Besson’s Banlieue 13 shares a kinship to Chinese martial arts, while Tarantino’s much-lauded Kill Bill series has an aesthetic field day with the Shaw Brothers, Yakuza films, Seijun Suzuki, Bruce Lee, and Takashi Miike, among countless others.
The more one digs into the surfaces of Kill Bill and Banlieue 13, however, the less they really seem to represent any sort of binary representation of Asian cinema influence. To what extent are Tarantino and Pierre Morel (Besson’s hired director) really operating on different ethical planes? How is Morel’s borrowing of a twice-recycled tagline recipe (“No Wires, No Special Effects, No Limits”) not a blatant admission of homage in the way of Tarantino? How is it fair for Tarantino to overflow his film with snatches of canonical influences whose specificities are likely to fly over the head of the majority of the target demographic and unfair for Morel/Besson to take the lesson of no more than one Asian reference point (the Kung-Fu street fighting of Ong-Bak) and let it billow to the surface only sporadically throughout the course of an entire film? (That David Belle’s pectorals remain elegantly exposed for much of the running time isn’t enough to concede Bruce Lee theft). Both directors seem to take sly advantage of their viewers - merely a fraction of which probably have any clue what’s being plundered – to present images and forms that fly as “homage” to one crowd and as “originality” to another.
Either way, there’s a long lineage of artistic borrowing that the directors are continuing here, a trait that hearkens way back to the earliest practitioners of motion pictures and even beyond the cinematic medium itself. Hunt problematically seems to draw the line of acceptability at this notion itself rather than at the particular modes of borrowing the filmmakers indulge in, as if to suggest that most American narrative cinema since the 1930’s is somehow “Russianized” because of its indebtedness to Eisenstinian montage, or that Godard is a phony because of his regurgitation, and simultaneous commentary on, a hodgepodge of global cinemas. Artistic recycling may be erroneous in the case of Morel/Besson and Tarantino, but it is so for different reasons, none of which include the mere fact that they are resorting to Eastern media consumption as influence.
It is a crucial distinction here that Tarantino is unabashedly honest and borderline arrogant in his film-literacy while Morel/Besson are more populist and unassuming in their ambitions. Nearly every shot and every sequence in Kill Bill is spiritually tethered to a similar moment in a marginalized (by Western standards) Asian Kung-Fu film, yet Tarantino’s ultimate resignation to “Orientalist tropes of impenetrable psyches and exotic otherness” betrays his appreciation. This is one area where Hunt nails it, discussing how Tarantino can only "have Asian" and not "be Asian." Morel and Besson feel no inclination to loudly proclaim their idolatry, instead disguising their influences in the comparatively unique French habit of parkour, which is questionable in an altogether different way. They, on the other hand, "have Asian" without seeming to desire to "be Asian", preferring to morph to their own context. The “right” thing to do here – that is, the approach that yields the greatest degree of respect and admiration and the lowest levels of hasty exploitation – is perhaps somewhere in the middle.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Happy Together (1997) A Film by Wong Kar-Wai
Although Happy Together is only one of two of Wong Kar-Wai’s films to be set almost exclusively in the Western Hemisphere, it perhaps more pointedly concerns the Hong Kong Condition than any of his Hong Kong-set films. The year of its release is of fundamental significance; 1997 was the year that Hong Kong would forgo its position under the colonial rule of Britain and return its sovereignty to mainland China. Curiously enough, as a colony of Britain since it was ceded in 1841, Hong Kong is a space associated more with Britain than with China, and it possesses a destabilized historical and political identity that could only be further confused by its belated assimilation into Chinese culture. As such, issues of identity and stability abound in Wong’s film, and its plot of two young gay lovers relocating for a vacation in Argentina right in the midst of this national event is a fittingly exaggerated concession of spatial displacement. Buenos Aires, conveniently, is a port city much like Hong Kong, a place of heedless immigration and expatriate activity - indeed, the mirror image of Hong Kong as implied by Wong's upside-down shot of the city late in the film. From this contextual foundation, Wong builds a film about the search for connection and meaning in an environment that seems incapable of offering such rewards with people who seem blind to them.
Happy Together’s abstracted representation of Argentina - all time lapse, claustrophobic interiors, and heightened colors - becomes a surrogate for 1997 Hong Kong, where transients have been assigned a newfound sense of identification, just as Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) assert themselves into the Argentinean milieu that is simultaneously strangely familiar and foreign. The lovers go to the city in the first place to visit the Iguazu Falls, a vast waterfall canyon that comes to represent an unattainable oasis as their relationship gets increasingly unstable, breaking out in fits of rage and jealousy that keep them confined to a tiny, dilapidated apartment room within the city. Wong bookends the film with a magnificent aerial shot of Iguazu, its dark mist billowing from the gulf in between. It's very likely the same image used twice, but it nonetheless transforms from something that is sublime and seductive to something forbidding and impersonal, a powerful indication of how turbulent Ho Po-wing and Lai Yiu-fai's journey is and how much intimacy Wong is able to capture in the process. Like their own native city, the location has become warped and unreal, no longer possessing its initial magic and seemingly inhospitable to life.
The lovers' relationship is plagued from the beginning of the film by bitterness and jealousy, and only fleetingly interrupted by rare moments of compassion and physical contact. Wong’s extratextual context suggests that the trauma of the lovers is due largely to a missing basis of stability. Both men’s families are out of the picture, underlining Hong Kong’s larger issue of social division and individualization, and one gets the sense that Ho Po-wing and Lai Yui-fai would completely disappear were it not for their frail connection to each other. They're both true wanderers, lonely souls without a clear idea of what they are searching for or what they want out of each other. While Lai Yui-fai internalizes his disappointments, Ho Po-wing returns almost nightly bragging about his sexual encounters and ordering treatment for his cuts, bruises, and broken bones, symptoms of a dangerous and unfaithful lifestyle. In many of the film's finest scenes, Leung and Cheung deftly convey the schizophrenic tendencies of a relationship without defined boundaries, swapping mid conversation to become the powerful or the powerless. Wong's sympathy generally leans towards Lai Yui-fai, the more sensitive of the two, but he invests compassionately in the rebellious, traitorous Ho Po-wing too, who finds himself alone in their Argentinean apartment without Lai Yui-fai late in the film, one of the many instances in Wong's filmography of characters connecting through absence. So often it is distance - not proximity - that denotes intimacy.
This sentiment is stretched to a subplot involving Lai Yui-fai's co-worker at a tourist-friendly Chinese restaurant in Buenos Aires named Chang (Chen Chang), a character who is only introduced late in the film at a time when Ho Po-wing is at his most emotionally distant. Lai Yui-fai, despite his intentions of indifference and overwhelming feelings of heartbreak, relays an instant, if hesitant, connection to Chang. Their time together is limited to the fast-paced kitchen environment where they work and where Chang regularly stays overtime to survive financially, but when Lai Yui-fai cooks him dumplings one night it immediately recalls his similar nurturing of Ho Po-wing in his time of injury. It's a relationship that never moves beyond the platonic (there are the minor details, too, that prove Chang is straight), yet there is an undeniable charge in their shared moments, especially considering Chang is hyper-sensitive to Lai Yui-fai's emotional state given his unusual condition of heightened hearing and defective sight. As is so typical of Wong's films however, potential connections are swiftly extinguished as people are separated geographically, succumbing to the flow of the impersonal globalized environment. Still, in a poetic epilogue intercut with Ho Po-wing's embrace of a Iguazu-themed lamp that sits in the lovers' apartment throughout the film, feelings of attachment are memorialized across spaces, as Chang listens to a tearful voice recording of Lai Yui-fai in a remote region in the south of Argentina and Lai Yui-fai visits Chang's family business at his home in Taipei. Material evidence of connection trumps connection itself.
These memorials also point to a potent longing for a paradise, for something beyond the ordinary (family, new locations, love), which can be linked to Hong Kong prior to British colonization. Such a backwards-looking perspective necessarily shrouds the future in uncertainty, leading to Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yui-fai’s failure to commit. It’s as if in setting his film in a foreign land, Wong is suggesting that 1997 marks the complete and utter disappearance of Hong Kong as an independent culture and the reinvention of the city as something alien even to longtime inhabitants. The lovers feel a desire to leave because they feel the growing disconnect from permanence and tradition. Not only is Hong Kong displacing itself from the country that afforded it the luxuries of capitalism for over a century, it is also attaching itself to a country that is now comparatively less developed in the avenues of technology and economy. Therefore, a radical illusion of a temporal shift occurs: the future, represented by Hong Kong’s vast technological gridlock, is returning to the authority of a politically distinct and technologically slower China, emblematic of the past. All of this leads to a heightened fracturing of time, which has forever been Wong’s visual forte. Happy Together, despite adhering to a linear narrative approach, utilizes an editing system that implies a disruption of chronological time, jumping occasionally from the urban squalor of Argentina to the waterfall at Iguazu, or taking jarring stylistic leaps such as from black-and-white to color, or from film noir to romance. The outside world is reduced to a blur, whipping by these characters in their walled-off torments, either right-side-up or upside-down.
Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yui-fai’s romance becomes an allegory for the turbulence of this uniquely global city, comprising as it does an initial level of comfort, then a prolonged era of confusion and frustration, and finally a complete extinguishing of affect, a disappearance of the entity. But Wong does not view this new phase with total cynicism; rather, his perspective is surprisingly light and forward-thinking, shedding the melancholy weight of the narrative proper at the end to muse on the possibility of new connections. (The inevitable subject of the film’s title perhaps has more to do with Lai Yui-fai and Chang’s tenuous relationship than with the unstable romance at the center of the plot.) While Hong Kong threatens to reduce the characters to ghosts without identities wandering in a limbo state between constancy and progress, they have continued to deal with these conditions by leaving, splitting apart, regrouping, and starting anew; always restless, Wong's lonely figures are at the very least striving for something meaningful.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Contagion (2011) A Film by Steven Soderbergh
While critics and viewers continue to single out Cliff Martinez for his lush but silly musical efforts on Drive, I'd like to turn the attention towards his work for Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, a score as organically suited to the material as that of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for last year's The Social Network. The music, taut and propulsive and dark and nail-biting, is the aural equivalent of the phantom virus that defines the film's plot. Its skittery electronic beats sound like the distorted, panicked workings of the internal body, its rapid pace echoes the unrelenting speed of global information-transfer, and its continued use of delay, with indistinguishable techno textures bouncing around the speakers until they slowly disappear in the back of the mix, resembles the cascading effect of the epidemic. The music is weaved in and out of Contagion for a large majority of its 106 minute running time, never directing the audience's feelings but reinforcing and heightening the sense of do-or-die suspense.
I begin with Martinez's score because it's one hell of a useful entrance into understanding the effect of Soderbergh's film, seeing as it crystallizes so precisely the ideas that the director and cinematographer is working with here. On the surface, the film fits cozily into the disaster movie genre, reflecting the global meltdown of people in the face of an entirely uncaring and irreversible force, and Soderbergh seems both embracing of that populist mode as well as defiantly committed to straddling genres, confronting heady themes, and - as is typical of late-period, digitized Soderbergh - at least partially ignoring Hollywood codes of characterization, audience reinforcement, and stylistic norms. This is a film made on an international scale with a plethora of A-listers that boasts a premise tailor-made for cheap gimmickry and gratuitous production expenses, but Soderbergh keeps the whole thing so intimate and focused that it can mostly be reduced to a crisply edited succession of interior dialogue scenes. Not only that, but its horrors are decidedly mundane: the touch of a hand, a doorknob, a piece of food, a previously germ-infected room, all of which lead perilously to rapid physical decline. The first twenty minutes of the film are masterful in their economic precision, paying vivid attention to the invisible enemy and creating anxiety out of absence and abstraction, such as in the image of a door slowly swinging back on its hinge long after a person has passed through, temporarily disrupting the breakneck pace of the montage.
Like his 2000 film Traffic, Soderbergh is using the template of the geographical network narrative to dramatically connect people and spaces. But Contagion is less about drawing gimmicky, deterministic ties between different individual narratives (the Inarritu mold) than it is about charting how the modern world manages to erupt very similar types of paranoia across the globe in response to a quickly spreading threat. Few contemporary filmmakers, other than, say, David Fincher, are as attuned to and fascinated by the ways in which information is spread rapidly around vastly separated territories (phone calls, news broadcasts, internet blogging abound), and how that information becomes a kind of currency. The tension between what characters know for sure and what they perceive to be true is a guiding dramatic force in the film, eliciting the many phone calls that instantly disseminate data or otherwise withhold it and motivating the ideological conflict between Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and conspiratorial blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) that acts as a collision of the concerns of capitalism, ethics, and science running through the film. Soderbergh doesn't pick a side here (his ambivalence may be a tipping point for some, but I see it as an admirable stance on the notion of such an unexpected tragedy), instead pointing to the complexity of the issue and acknowledging that both schools of thought - Ellis' practical, methodical, and ultimately slow-moving research methodology and Krumwiede's anarchistic support for a homeopathic remedy called Forsythia that he believes to be of immediate assistance - are concerned first and foremost with the containment of the disease and the survival of the greatest possible number of people.
Within this framework where time passes and casualties exponentially rise, Soderbergh cuts between the various characters with increased efficiency and spreads a heightened awareness to issues of sanitation and isolation. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon) and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), the family of the first virus victim Beth Ernhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), hole themselves up in their Minnesota suburb, Dr. Ellis orders head Dr. Sussman (Elliott Gould) to extinguish all samples for fear of their contamination outside the lab, medical researcher Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) gets kidnapped in China and taken to a remote, allegedly safe village to order for the quick relief of the group of survivors, and Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is rendered impotent with the virus during her creation and management of a massive refuge center. Meanwhile, the disease seems to act in utter counterpoint to the vain actions of humans, brutally disregarding and embarrassing their cautionary maneuvers. Of course, its actions have nothing to do with humans, only with nature, but it's tough for the characters not to think there's some supernatural force of evil dictating the vicious path of the contagion. It's this vision of nature as disconnected from morality and only containable through the often unwieldy efforts of science that distinguishes Contagion's blunt, oppressive, and entirely plausible worldview.
In a film where the putrid, lifeless shades of green, brown, and blue expose the clammy textures of hands and faces, it's only natural that criticisms of misanthropy are raised, and that attempts to sketch a complete portrait of humanity fall short. Then again, Contagion is a horror film that's more about process than people, and it becomes more effective the less it characterizes and individualizes. Not only does Soderbergh's overflowing cast undercut the hegemony of the Hollywood star system, it situates people beneath the alien processes of nature. That no character takes center stage here - when Damon begins to, the film lurches awkwardly - is a testament to the collective paranoia at work, the fact that no individual is above the heedless trajectory of the virus. Damon's story of knee-jerk survivalism overwhelming deep feelings of confusion (over his wife's pre-death infidelity) and grief (it was his wife after all, and he loved her) is blandly written and melodramatic despite the actor's skillful work sinking into the restrained emotional world of the character. In fact, nearly all the actors do a terrific job of breathing palpable life into their sometimes thinly written characters: Fishburne with his deep, soothing voice, Cotillard with her expressive physicality, Winslet with her longing eyes and persistence, Law with his no-nonsense sloganeering, and Jennifer Ehle with the delicate care and concern writ across her entire face. In regards to these formidable presences, questions of three-dimensionality and screen time become negligible.
The widespread panic caused by the virus, as well as the alarming stubbornness of the civilians, becomes reminiscent of that which is caused by any modern alert of terror, newsworthy spectacles that ignite increased ventures of national security. Here as well as in the "real world" (though Soderbergh attempts to erase the boundaries on a sociological and political level), corporations are the mouthpieces that define the actions and movements of people. Although Contagion flounders when it moves abroad - falling into the trap of generalizing the Third World as a place of poverty and in need of rescue - the film certainly understands the American power hierarchy and the public reaction to it. In charting some of the human resistance to this top-down process of information-transfer, Soderbergh also finds unsettling instances where compassion falls to the wayside and people rob and kill for their own attempted survival. It is this collapse of human dignity and companionship that ultimately disturbs on the deepest level in Contagion.
In the end, Soderbergh nearly pulls a Spielberg and erases the frightening implications of his film in a flimsy scene of suburban sentimentality featuring a homemade prom for Mitch's daughter and her recently vaccinated boyfriend, but as if to overturn feelings of resolution and tranquility, cuts right to an eerie, stomach-turning epilogue that thoroughly traces the cause of the virus back to poorly prepared meat that Beth ate on her business trip to Hong Kong. The scene might feel tacked-on were it not cut, lensed, and integrated so beautifully, if it didn't adequately literalize Mitch's connective thought process when flipping through the photos on Beth's digital camera (ever since Sex, Lies, and Videotape Soderbergh has been struck by the connection between recorded images and the brain), and if it didn't tie the film's vital cautionary morale back to a tangible source. Soderbergh's stressing the need for resilience to capitalistic forces, which can so easily (especially in a timely industry like the food industry) overlook public interests in the name of financial gain. Not to mention that in the midst of the uproar and chaos captured so precisely by Soderbergh, one might have forgotten that these tragedies have real, physical reasons for being. And one might recall an earlier, rapid insert of meat-chopping at a street vendor, which has now been given retrospective resonance.
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