A lot has changed since the beginning of March. The world’s a different place (however temporarily) and streaming services have never had more responsibility. They’re a vital distraction – for MUBI last month, these came in the form of the curated categories “PARK CHAN WOOK: THE VENGEANCE TRILOGY”, “THE CRIMES OF JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE”, and “COCTEAU’S POETS”… and everything from noughties favourites to exclusives fresh from the cinema, from cinephile staples to lesser-known gems.
Read on for some March MUBI highlights…
OLDBOY (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)
Park’s Vengeance Trilogy has been positioned comfortably in the twenty-first century canon for seventeen years. This second instalment, based on Garon Tsuchiya’s comic of the same name, was an instant hit; it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004 and bolstered international appreciation of East Asian cinema. Excepting Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, there was perhaps no other title this responsible for its mainstream globalisation until last year’s Parasite.
Its success can be attributed to its iconography (the premise, Choi Min-Sik’s hairstyle, that single-take corridor scene), but it also holds up for just how reprehensible it is. Oldboy’s not for the fainthearted, but still kicks – equal parts adrenaline rush, well-oiled choreography machine, and twisted morality piece. Give this a visit (or re-) while we all continue to pretend that Spike Lee’s 2013 remake never happened.
SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE (Park Chan-Wook, 2002)
Two years later, Park’s trilogy concluded with the Lee Young-Ae starring Lady Vengeance. It was a fitting conclusion to the thematic continuation, but the film on the other side of Oldboy’s release offers the strongest competition for the series standout. It’s the most empathetic, to boot: Shin Ha-Kyun’s Ryu plays a young, deaf man who turns to kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy executive to pay for his sister’s kidney transplant.
Again, hair is central to the stark visuality of Park’s filmmaking. Ryu’s teal-coloured mop is the constant amongst off-blue waters, factory greys, splashes of blood red. The film’s kineticism is companionable to Park’s later work, while its arthouse sensibility reflects his roots in the aesthetic strand of analytic philosophy. Like the whole trilogy, it was available on MUBI last month and was well worth the time.
BACURAU (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2019)
One of MUBI’s March exclusives, Filho’s third feature was the MUBI GO selection a week before dropping on the streaming service. Its selection coincided with the beginning of social distancing advice here in the UK, so it was the perfect streaming option for those who didn’t manage to catch it prior to cinema closures across the country.
Bacurau captures the election mania and firearm paranoia of Trump’s America but gives Filho’s native Brazil the stage. It’s a truly original work, surprising you at every sharp turn of narrative development. And the destination’s about as good as the journey – avoiding spoilers, this becomes ultraviolent, marrying the western cinematic set-piece with village survivalist tradition. Returning to Battle Royale: imagine an equally extreme conceit transported to the age of drones and Apple AirPods.
HIGH LIFE (Claire Denis, 2018)
Denis’ directorial efforts are well into double figures, and her debut dates as far back as 1988, but it wasn’t until 2018 that she’d release something in the English language. Written with long-time collaborator Jon-Pol Fargeau, this mesmeric sci-fi/horror hybrid focuses on a group of criminals sent on a mission to extract energy from a black hole.
At Denis’ disposal are Robert Pattinson, household French name Juliette Binoche, rising star Mia Goth, and André 3000 (of Outkast fame). The bizarre ensemble is a perfect fit for the screenplay’s strange concoction of violence and progressivism. Bookended by Pattinson’s Monte and his isolated struggle to raise his daughter, High Life is ultimately affecting and hopeful: a surprising trajectory given the barbaric turn of events in Act Two.
EXISTENZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
Another sci-fi entry in last month’s MUBI catalogue was this somewhat underappreciated Cronenberg VR story. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays game designer Allegra Geller, who must play her own virtual reality game while evading assassins seeking the bounty on her head. As ever, Leigh is great, and she’s supported by the likes of Jude Law, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Eccleston.
Steven Spielberg’s recent Ready Player One (an adaptation of Ernest Cline) pursued similar ideas with a bigger budget and more effects, but less success. Existenz hasn’t aged a bit; its tight, streamlined narrative intelligently navigates the subgenre’s dependence on visuals. We return to Cronenberg’s career affinity for body horror, manifesting here in “bio-ports” surgically inserted into player’s spines, as well as the impeccably designed “Gristle Guns.” Coupled with a delightfully twisty ending, these make Cronenberg’s film unmissable.
ARMY OF SHADOWS (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
March’s selection of Melville titles was a treat, and Army of Shadows was the pick of the bunch. Its fingerprints are all over Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, and Scorsese’s The Irishman (to name a few). It’s a masterclass in how to spatialise tone, full of neatly framed offices that restrict characters to a corner, back alleys that lead others into darkness.
The film was met with controversy on release and was not released in the US until 2006. Coming a year after the events of May ‘68, it was perhaps poorly timed; some fifty years later, it’s such a clear masterpiece that we’re lucky it wasn’t lost in history. This story of the French Resistance in 1943 is measured, bleak and difficult. It’s also remarkably humane storytelling, as essential as it is tragic.
In case you missed our February MUBI edition: Mubi: February highlights