Exiled (2006, Johnnie To)

Rented this just a couple weeks ago on a night I knew damn well I wouldn’t have time to watch it. It’s just as good a few weeks later.

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During the first half I wasn’t enjoying it so much because I was looking for the wrong things. The characters seemed to have no names or individual traits – just a group of guys who are always in the same scenes together, defined by their commitment to friendship (the backstory consists of one old photo of them together as kids) over loyalty to their mob boss (and therefore their personal safety). I didn’t know the actors (recognized a couple as Chi Wai’s multiple personalities from Mad Detective) and was waiting for the story/character scenes to kick in. But they never do, and now I can appreciate that. The photo is the backstory: these guys are friends… what more do we need for an action flick?

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So without character development, we’re left with dark, shadowy cinematography on awesomely-staged action sequences. The one below is a favorite. The fifth friend, whom the other four were supposed to kill on orders from their boss which led them all to revolt, is wounded and being treated by the gang’s private doctor, when the boss himself, also wounded, shows up. He’s being treated, surrounded by bodyguards, while the friends hide behind curtains and furniture, the lead-up to the shoot-out being deliciously more thrilling than the shoot-out itself.

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The fifth guy dies, and his wife goes on a shooting rampage against our heroes. They fail to kill their boss, who is now hunting them. They’re on the run and it looks like the movie is gonna break out an existential loneliness dialogue when they stumble upon a heist, a truck full of gold being defended by a cigarette-smoking super-soldier. The movie wasn’t what I’d call realistic to this point, but now it flies off the rails, and they join up with this guy to steal the gold. But narratively it’s not gonna work for the four remaining gunmen to live rich in hiding while their former boss stays in power and their dead friend’s wife raises her new baby alone, so they go back for one more suicidal fight, leaving the gold to the wife and the soldier.

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You have to think that guys wearing sunglasses and shooting guns in slow-motion is cool to properly enjoy the movie, and I do, so I loved it by the end. Set in Macau, a former Portuguese colony now in the same political situation as Hong Kong. Nice comic touch: a cop with only a couple days left on the force keeps driving by, getting shot at, and running off unharmed… he lives to see retirement.

Joe vs. the Volcano (1990, John Patrick Shanley)

July is “Movies I Rented & Copied But Never Watched” Month. I figure there are about 75 of those, and tragically only 31 days in the month.

Dan Hedaya + prosthetic arm:
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Rented this for our Florida trip. Made it halfway through with Katy but she didn’t seem interested in the second half. I gotta agree that for a cult comedy it’s awfully slow and talky, and the second half is slower if anything, but I still think it’s great. A crazy movie. There are big, loud, blues-song music-video segments, a slow two-minute pull-away shot of Tom leaving the doctor’s office and petting a dog, a puppet of a hammerhead shark, and Meg Ryan in three roles, two of which are impersonations. I’d at least admire the movie for all that even if I didn’t find it hilarious and wonderful.

In Ossie Davis’s follow-up to Do The Right Thing, the movie that took on Driving Miss Daisy’s view of race in America, he plays chauffeur to a white man.

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Abe Vigoda plays the village leader like the Three Stooges in tribal makeup:

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The great Robert Stack (House of Bamboo, Written on the Wind) is the doctor who gives Tom his fatal “brain cloud” diagnosis:

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The great Lloyd Bridges is the rich man who pulls the strings, including Stack’s:

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Meg Ryan is kinda awful as Hanks’ coworker at the rectal probe and artificial testicles factory with a Little Shop of Horrors New York accent, and worse as Lloyd Bridges’ daughter, doing an over-the-top Katharine Hepburn impression, but she’s kinda good as that girl’s un-accented half-sister who captains the boat to the island.

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Ultraviolet (2006, Kurt Wimmer)

Opens with a long boring backstory evoking global terrorism, virus pandemics, holocaust death camps and vampires. Ugly. This is the second Milla Jovovich movie I’ve seen where the ultimate weapon to save mankind turns out to be a person.

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Skin looks like plastic, or a video game cutscene, for some reason.

Yay, guy from Alien is her weapons supplier. Oh wait, no he’s the guy from Contact. Remember Contact?

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Yeah it’s cool looking, but they allow the comic-book sci-fi aspect to justify the stupidest shit, as if there’s no need to do anything sensible anymore. I’m not saying the Spiderman movies make total sense, but at least there are recognizable character motivations and straightforward plots in those.

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Everything is explained in mumble-jumble terms by the voice of the Spaceballs ship. Tons of ultraviolence but little blood since it’s all PG-13. How come she has better guns than anyone in the entire future – and a flying motorcycle and anti-gravity devices? Did William Fichtner invent those things? All the bad guys have are tons of faceless, undertrained cannon fodder guards lined up in perfect fascist rows.

It’s actually a cool movie whenever there is no plot at all. When the kid is involved (oh btw, there’s a kid) or Dax (bad guy, dude from Con Air) or William are explaining something or we hear backstory or there’s an emotional moment, it’s a big bunch of crap.

Comedy of Innocence (2000, Raoul Ruiz)

Only my second feature by Ruiz, as much as I’m always talking about the guy – and it’s kinda what I’d expected. Good movie with some weird craziness in the plot, but at the same time, it’s a French film, a classy drama about restrained rich people.

Camille’s dad is out of town – his mom (Isabelle Huppert, the year before The Piano Teacher), uncle Serge (Charles Berling of Summer Hours) and maid Helene are taking care of him until one day he announces that his real name is Paul and he wants to go home to his real mom. He guides Huppert to another woman’s apartment – she’s not home but creepy neighbor Edith Scob (also Summer Hours) shows them around.

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When beautiful Jeanne Balibar (the Duchess of Langeais herself) gets home, she tells Huppert about her son Paul who drowned two years ago, but also acts as if Camille is her Paul in the present tense. There’s no sense of paradox or surprise, nothing unusual, just these facts: Paul died and Paul is here. It’s not the kind of thing that could be done in an American movie without some character shrieking “how can that be? how can you say he died if you’re saying he is here in front of you?!” Huppert plays it cool though – invites Balibar to stay at her house so they can figure it out together.

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In the climax, Balibar kidnaps Camille/Paul and takes him to the barge where Paul had drowned. Huppert shows up and Balibar surrenders and apologizes, everything back to normal.

Ruiz uses a Sam Raimi anamorphic-lens-twisting effect:
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Is it pertinent that the maid might be having an affair with the uncle? That Balibar is after the uncle as well? That Huppert’s grandmother died of sorrow because of some incest incident? That Balibar’s neighbor Edith Scob is just as creepy and mysterious as Balibar herself? That a family acquaintance dies in a car crash near the end? That Camille has a businesslike 10-year-old friend who everyone had assumed was imaginary? All combines into an overall sense of mystery about identity, parentage, relationships, and what can be known.

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I thought I’d heard of Denis Podalydès who played Isabelle Huppert’s husband, but it’s actually his brother Bruno I’d heard of.

Unnerving, noticeable music by loyal Chilean Jorge Arriagada and not extremely impressive cinematography by Jacques Bouquin (The Film To Come, Life is a Dream) – he does that thing where the camera is always gliding slowly past the action an awful lot. Overall I dug the movie… looking forward to Ruiz’s other 99 features.

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The Seventh Victim (1943, Mark Robson)

I pick these movies up one at a time on cable and elsewhere so I don’t have access to the Val Lewton box set bonus material which would explain why it’s his name I always hear associated with this and Cat People instead of Robson and Tourneur. This one is more eventful than Cat People, has quite a large cast and a packed, twisty plot for a seventy minute film.

Mary (Kim Hunter of A Matter of Life and Death in her first film role) is told by her school that her sister Jacqueline quit paying her bills six months ago so she’ll have to go home. Mary heads for scary, shadowy Manhattan to locate her sister and gets caught up in all kinds of intrigue. Turns out the sister joined a satanic cult (the most gentle, mild satanic cult I’ve ever seen in a movie) and mentioned it to her psychologist Dr. Judd. Well, the first rule of the satanic cult is you do not talk about the satanic cult, so the members have been hiding her away trying to get her to kill herself. Sorta. She found time to get married (to a dude named Greg Ward) and she continues to see Dr. Judd at least once a week, and she’s spotted around town, so the seclusion thing doesn’t seem to be happening – plus the cult sends a man with a knife after her towards the end, kinda defeating the get-her-to-kill-herself angle.

Mary falls sorta in love with her sister’s husband, and a poet who hangs out at the Italian restaurant under her apartment (called Dante) falls sorta in love with her, and I can’t tell whose side the doctor is on, exactly. A craggy-faced private investigator with no known motive tries to help Mary but gets killed by Jaq by accident. Jaq shows up then disappears then is easily located again. The cult members ask very politely and straightforwardly for her to drink poison, but she just won’t. Finally Dr. Judd and either the husband or the poet (it’s not important) tell off the cult by invoking the lord’s prayer (good luck with that) and Jaq has an intriguing chat with a sick, dying neighbor then goes and hangs herself.

Kim Hunter with private eye Mr. August (Lou Lubin, was a bartender in Scarlet Street)
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(L-R): Jason the poet (Erford Gage of Curse of the Cat People), Dr. Judd (Tom Conway of Cat People, 12 to the Moon, The She Creature, Bride of the Gorilla) and secret husband Greg Ward (Hugh Beaumont of The Human Duplicators and The Mole People, also the Beaver’s dad on TV)
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More weirdness: The woman who bought Jaq’s cosmetics company, Mrs. Reddy, uses a satanic symbol as her brand trademark (not too subtle for a secret society). The society has presumably coerced six others to kill themselves before (hence the title). And they go on about something that sounds like “the pilates movement.”

The Satanic Cult, led by a guy whose name I didn’t catch
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Jacqueline (Jean Brooks of The Leopard Man and some 40′s serials) stares down a glass of poison
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The Wayward Cloud (2005, Tsai Ming-liang)

Okay, I am dumbfounded. Just gonna have to look up what others said about this. There were lavish erotic song-and-dance scenes (remember: this is the director of Goodbye Dragon Inn), watermelons, a country-wide water shortage, a friendship between a quirky girl and a porn actin’ dude, and a crazily offensive ending.

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Apparently it was a giant hit in Taiwan. Not here, I’m guessing. Reading the rave review in Reverse Shot, I’m thinking if this was an American indie movie by a filmmaker with no history, it’d be dismissed as an amusing, well-shot quirkfest-turned-rude. I did kinda enjoy it, but the ending left me with a bad taste in my mouth (HA HA HA). So I disliked both of Tsai’s features I’ve watched, but I’ll inevitably watch more of them, because I am a big sucker.

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M. Koresky:

If the method to all this madness seems a little hard to decipher, then the final 20 minutes are a terrifying crystallization. The mild courting between Lee and Chen finally intersects with the pervasive sexual exploitation going on upstairs. Yet Tsai’s final, truly shocking images are not bolstered by casual moralizing; rather, we realize we’ve been watching the literal deterioration of a civilization. It’s in the face of Chen Shiang-chyi, and her growing moral awareness, that Tsai finds his emotional outlet. In one of the film’s sole moving shots (if not the only one, but only a second viewing can corroborate this), the camera creeps ever closer to her horrified face as she watches a particularly nasty porn scenario being enacted on the other side of a windowed wall. Her witnessing isn’t voyeurism as much as it is coming to terms with social decline (which she had been staving off through out the rest of the film, endlessly re-filling bottled water and hoarding melons). Here there is no way to reclaim what’s been lost; her head becomes nearly literally impaled on a penis. Nearly dystopic in its portrait of decline, The Wayward Cloud shows Tsai giving up a little restraint. It may be slightly out of control, but the mess suits Tsai well.

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A.O. Scott:

Mr. Tsai’s placid camera seems unusually restless; the number of zooms and pans reaches double figures. At least as shocking are the fantastically costumed, sloppily choreographed musical numbers, by far the noisiest and most kinetic moments in his oeuvre. These departures, and the explicit sex, suggest an impulse to break new formal ground, but they are also evidence of imaginative fatigue.

Hsiao-Kang was selling watches on the street in “What Time Is It There?” when he encountered Shiang-chyi (Chen Shiang-chyi). In “The Wayward Cloud,” Shiang-chyi has returned from Paris (or so we must infer) to a drab apartment building in Taipei. She spends her time scavenging for water and inhabiting the wide, static shots that are Mr. Tsai’s most consistent signature. She and Hsiao-Kang cross paths and edge toward a glum, twitchy romance, consummated in a final sequence that has already become something of a conversation piece.

With this scene, Mr. Tsai joins the ranks of filmmakers — not all of them French — who have trampled the boundary that separates simulated on-screen sex from the real thing. (A long close-up erases any ambiguity …) But the display is less shocking for its sexual frankness than for its aesthetic crudity. It feels willed, aggressive and unconvincing — clammy rather than cool — in a way that suggests artistic frustration rather than discovery. The water shortage may be a metaphor for the director’s creative desiccation, which his admirers can only hope is temporary.

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K. Uhlich:

Tsai’s comical sense of alienation, heightened by several ribald musical interludes, makes for uneasy bedfellows with his politically charged and quite baldly apparent thesis: that Taiwan itself is a wayward cloud, trapped between various and sundry pan-Asian interests and influences. If that reads as didactic as it felt to write then we’re one step closer to grasping the film’s highly problematic nature, not that Tsai makes much of an attempt to cloak it. One need only look at the infamous final sex sequence (which, in addition to Lee and Chen, features a comatose Japanese porn star and a Chinese airline stewardess cutout—theoretical signposts both—placed perfectly on opposite sides of a dividing wall) to experience the solidity and conviction of Tsai’s intent.

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N. Lee:

The Wayward Cloud’s sexual explicitness goes hand in hand with a shift from nuanced melancholy and stealth monumentalism toward garish, befuddled negativity. The result feels … ill-suited to Tsai’s delicate sensibility. … Tsai newbies are encouraged to start anywhere but here and work their way though the contemplative angst of Rebels of the Neon Gods, the plaintive geometry of Vive L’Amour, the moist musical apocalypse of The Hole, and the chic sentimentalism of What Time Is It There?, the most overrated of Tsai’s films, yet an essential prelude to the hardcore what-the-fuck (and why-the-fuck, and who-the-fuck) of The Wayward Cloud.

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I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu)

“Will they lead the same sorry lives that we have?”

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The Eclipse box set title is “Three Family Comedies” but I’d forgotten that Ozu even made comedies until the opening titles played over a drawing of a kid holding his crotch. Then my realization “oh, this will be a zany comedy featuring kids doing dirty stuff” turned out to be off base. Sure, kids are the protagonists, and it features some comedy, but it all leads to the quote above (spoken by the kids’ father) which belongs firmly in drama territory.

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Dad’s got a new job so he moves the family close to work. Actually he moves ‘em into the suburb where his boss lives, and it comes out later that dad is kind of a suck-up. The kids are intimidated by a pretty mild gang from their school until they learn to use their wooden shoes as weapons and they dominate the group. It’s kinda like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey but with Japanese schoolchildren instead of apes.

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Most of the movie seems to be this low-key power struggle with the kids which includes searching for sparrow eggs to eat raw (to prove strength) and trying to get an ‘E’ (for ‘excellent’) in calligraphy at school. A scene at the boss’s house is the turning point. Everyone is watching the boss’s home movies in which our kids’ dad is making funny faces and cracking everyone up – everyone but his kids who are ashamed that their father is playing the fool. The older boy (Ryoichi) goes home, calls dad a yellowbelly and trashes the house until he gets spanked. Moods improve later and the movie ends with the kids relatively cheery again and getting along with the boss’s son (who dresses like Oddjob).

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One scene I didn’t get: the bully kids find a valuable coin, pool their money to make change, then hand over the change to a policeman and walk away bummed out. What happened?

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A scene in dad’s office where the camera follows a contagious yawn made me yawn too. Yes, there is camera movement in an Ozu film. Movie is obsessed with trains and streetcars too – there’s one passing behind the action whenever possible.

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Apparently Ozu’s Good Morning nearly thirty years later was a semi-remake.

TCM:

I Was Born, But…, which Ozu developed from his own story, is a social satire of comic delights and melancholy resignation to the innocence lost as the boys face up to the compromises that await them. The film won first prize at the Kinema Jumpo awards – the first of six such prizes he would eventually win – and is regarded as Ozu’s first genuine masterpiece.

Michael Koresky:

“I started to make a film about children and ended up with a film about grown-ups,” said Ozu, speaking to the film’s dark side. Because of this, Shochiku didn’t know what to do with the picture, even delaying its release for two months. This potent mix of comedy and pathos within the domestic space would, of course, continue to dominate Ozu’s oeuvre in the coming decades—and while the age disparity between the generations would grow smaller, the resentment gap would grow even wider.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, Jean Negulesco)

Ringleader Lauren Bacall (pre-Written on the Wind) rents a super-expensive apartment (belonging to a millionaire on the run because of tax troubles, played by David Wayne of Losey’s M remake, but that’s only barely important) along with friend Marilyn Monroe (four months after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and hanger-on Betty Grable (post-The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, in one of her final film roles). They’re all attractive models, so the idea is they’ll start frequenting hangouts of the rich and famous in order to, duh, marry a millionaire. I thought the point of the apartment was men coming over to pick them up for dates will think they’re already wealthy (not gold-diggers) but when it takes longer than expected to get hitched they sell all the furniture to pay their rent, so the place looks kinda desolate.

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I thought the movie would be a musical, especially when it opened with an overture – but Katy thinks that was just to show off the mighty Cinemascope process (D.P. Joseph MacDonald would later shoot ‘scope favorites House of Bamboo and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter), and I thought it might’ve been a prestige thing for extremely oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman (father of Thomas, uncle of Randy). Looks like Katy was right – this was the first Cinemascope movie to be filmed (though somehow it was released second, after The Robe). Anyway, not a musical, just a girl comedy.

Cinemascope!!
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Bacall is being stalked by Cameron Mitchell (Hell and High Water, Ride in the Whirlwind), who she suspects to be a gas pump jockey but is really one of the richest men in the world (she finds out after they’re married… oh, the 50′s).

A lotta Marilyn:
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The movie would’ve been 50% better without Betty Grable, whose every scene is annoying. She goes off to a cabin with a married man then gets all whiny about it then catches the measles then falls for a forest ranger. Her character was the stupid one, a welcome change for Marilyn I’m sure – though M. wasn’t too bright either. Marilyn’s gimmick is she’s blind without her glasses but vainly refuses to wear them. She gets involved with a fake-eyepatch-wearing scam artist while Bacall flirts with an elder William Powell (he’s still got the mustache), who invites them to the party where Betty meets the married guy – I’m way out of order now. Anyway, Bacall almost marries Powell but they call it off with a few minutes to spare because she’s not convinced by her initial millionaire-lust anymore and she’s in love with her gas jockey. Also, Marilyn marries David Wayne at some point.

The girls with their false-alarm boyfriends:
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Cute movie, better than it looked like it’d be, but nothing brilliant. TCM agrees, “entertaining but insubstantial.” Director Negulesco also made the 1950′s Titanic and writer/producer Nunnally Johnson wrote some John Ford films in the 30′s and 40′s.

The girls with their new husbands:
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Time (2006, Kim Ki-duk)

“Sorry for always having the same boring face.”

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Ji-woo is a guy with a bitchy, paranoid girlfriend who thinks he’s lost interest in her so she decides to get massive plastic surgery.

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Months after her sudden disappearance he starts dating this new girl who is actually his old girl Seh-hee with her new face. She doesn’t know how to respond… if you’re super-jealous and your boyfriend is attracted to you in disguise, are you happy or angry?

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It’s not working for them, so he disappears and gets a new face as well.

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He never identifies himself, so she spends a year wondering if everyone she meets is him – finally chases down a guy who she’s sure is her man until he runs into traffic and gets killed.

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She runs back to the plastic surgery place, bumping into herself from earlier in the movie. A weird ending. Seriously good movie though, moving and beautiful. Spiritually more in the vein of his 3-Iron with some of the outrageous craziness of Bad Guy, but none of the mad crappiness of that one.

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M.Z. Seitz:

Mr. Kim flips between soapy melodrama and dry, self-aware comedy. The effect is thrilling and disorienting, like walking on a trampoline. … Time has been described as a comedy about the hollowness of relationships in a global consumerist culture, and it certainly is. The film’s three lead performances, by Mr. Ha as Ji-woo and by Ms. Seong and Ms. Park as the two incarnations of his lover, are fearlessly honest, so attuned to contemporary anxieties about sex, love and social status that the characters’ unhappiness is as squirm-inducing as the movie’s close-ups of sliced flesh. But while the film’s cultural context is of the moment, its depiction of romantic desperation is timeless. Many scenes end on the same uneasy note, a mix of cynical dissatisfaction and desperate, almost childlike neediness.

M. D’Angelo:

That both Seh/See-hee and Ji-woo actually talk—there’s more dialogue here than in all of Kim’s previous films put together—is something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the mute shtick, introduced in The Isle and honed in Bad Guy, 3-iron, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, was getting decidedly stale. On the other hand, ordinary human conversation is clearly not Kim’s forte. Seh-hee’s initial fit of jealousy, in particular, is so cartoonishly strident that it sets entirely the wrong tone, giving the impression of a poor shmuck tormented by a vindictive harpy.

Those aware that cosmetic surgery is endemic in South Korea are liable to jump to the conclusion that Kim intends Time as some sort of clumsy exposé. But he didn’t choose that title lightly. Save for a clinical opening-credits sequence, the film’s incisions are exclusively psychosexual. Duration’s corrosive effect on long-term relationships has rarely been depicted with such bracing candor. Simply put, Time is about the eternal war between infatuation and familiarity, and our irreconcilable need to find both in the same person. In other words, it’s a parable about the root of human unhappiness.