What We're Watching

What We’re Watching – February 2023

Stylish, experimental and genre filmmaking take the focus in this month’s What We’re Watching. Here we have a bit of it all – action, comedy, sci-fi, romance. Without further ado:

Punishment Park (1971)

cYvYS1JZdKGWb9p7Vuci2C17zMQPeter Watkins is a pioneer of docudrama, which combines elements of documentaries with narrative films, and Punishment Park is a work that, unfortunately, resonates just as strongly today as it did in the early ‘70s in America, when the antiwar movement and the suppression of civil liberty were major parts of the cultural ethos. Punishment Park is the name of a stretch of barren desert, which serves as an alternate sentence for “criminals.” People sentenced to Punishment Park must try to make it to a destination through miles of searing heat with no food in order to procure their freedom. Law enforcement is later deployed to hunt down the sentenced, who have no weapons to defend themselves with. Scenes of people struggling through Punishment Park are intercut with trials of some people who are offered the choice of traditional sentencing (usually long prison terms) or Punishment Park. We soon find out that most of the people on trial are dissidents who have spoken out against the injustices against civil rights and the Vietnam War. Though there are long stretches of fiery dialogue, Punishment Park plays like an action movie due to its judicious and clever editing. There are also very powerful moments of institutional evil, such as a police officer describing the benefits of a new gun that he got, and a young soldier tearfully trying to justify his killing of one of the convicted as an accident. Much of Punishment Park could have been easily been transplanted to today, but a scene where a Black man is being restrained by law enforcement with a chokehold for a long time should be especially familiar to modern audiences. Before the omnipresence of smart devices and cameras, Peter Watkins knew the power of images and how they can show the inequities of a police state that suppresses free speech, and putting it into a striking, exciting narrative can make them even more effective. – Eugene Kang

After Last Season (2009)

v0lanDXrJ28gAVgxI25zuafRTBpWrongfully inducted into the obnoxious “so-bad-it’s-good” circuit, Mark Region‘s bizarre sci-fi mystery drama After Last Season is both a radical deconstruction of cinematic grammar, and a genuine outsider art masterwork. It’s difficult to discern how much of the film’s weird allure is down to subversive genius or sheer incompetence, but there is an identifiable purpose to the film’s barren world. Garish lighting, half-built sets in echoey warehouses, ridiculous cardboard machinery – all the hallmarks of low-rent schlock à la The Room and Birdemic taken to new, and far more interesting, extremes. Even the charming crypto-auteurism of Neil Breen gets outdone by Region’s singular aesthetic ambitions.

Plot-wise, the director’s second film – the even more mysterious Medium Waves was completed four years earlier – is a convoluted jumble of medical jargon, speculative technology, and supernatural horror, but whatever happens on a strictly narrative level is completely secondary to the wretched vibes it gives off. Hospitals, hallways, and dorm rooms are all rendered as fragments from a half-remembered dream, crookedly emerging from jet-black shadows, and made even more uncanny by the eccentric, trash-littered production design and prosaic dialogue. By the time the film delves into Windows 95-esque digital reverie – a sort of telepathy made possible by cybernetic implants – those not tuned into its wavelength will likely have to abandon ship.

After Last Season stands as one of the most original films of the 21st century, and its refusal to be meaningfully interpreted stands in sharp contrast to contemporary cinema’s aggressive didacticism. What Region has managed to concoct, deliberately or not, is a true cinematic anomaly loaded with anesthetized surrealism and hazy dream logic. Simply said, a fascinating piece of art. – Fred Barrett

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

qF5g11II3MtnyGvkwJRxzvhPQi4While Roland Emmerich‘s 1992 sci-fi actioner Universal Soldier was a rather middling affair, it has provided fruitful ground for director John Hyams‘ later genre experiments. After three sequels, only one of which featured original lead Jean-Claude Van Damme, and some continuity shenanigans, Hyams, son of director Peter Hyams, took over the series which had been hibernating for a decade at that point. 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration acted as a direct sequel to Emmerich’s film, ignoring the two made-for-television sequels released in 1998, as well as the 1999 theatrical sequel. Regeneration flirted with a variety of genre conventions, infusing its sturdy direct-to-video action with glimpses of slasher suspense and a head-scratcher of a plot.

Starring both Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, Day of Reckoning amplifies its predecessor’s adventurous impulses into a twisty, weird, and ultra-violent paranoia tour through War on Terror-era America. Set against a world of gloomy washed-out colors – typical of DTV fare – Hyam’s film also touches on the war-machine anxieties of old via Van Damme’s channeling of Brando‘s Colonel Kurtz. Every frame radiates danger and decay, and the pulpy, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale-esque narrative melds beautifully with the lurid Eurohorror aesthetic of fluorescent lights, seizure-inducing strobes, and assaultive, speaker-destroying bass drones.

John Hyam’s low-budget maximalism is genuinely nightmarish, and his adaptation of video game grammar to the medium of film is perhaps the first (and so far, only) successful attempt at doing so. – Fred Barrett

A Touch of Sin (2013)

7UF4JG6vLm7zEZaca3ylWOTQmNLA disgruntled coal miner, fed up with the corrupt owners of the newly-privatized mine, decides to take matters into his own hands; an alienated loner makes a living by committing armed robberies and murder; a spa receptionist is pushed to her breaking point by an indecisive lover, physical assaults, and sexually aggressive patrons; a young textile factory worker starts a new job as a greeter in a brothel and falls in love with a sex worker until things end in tragedy – 2013’s A Touch of Sin marks a departure for Chinese director Jia Zhangke. Usually a social realist chronicler of life in the post-Maoist People’s Republic, his seventh film finds the usually low-key director flirting with the trappings of genre filmmaking. Telling four, loosely interconnected, stories, A Touch of Sin is punctuated by moments of intense violence as it takes the audience through a variety of locations and milieus. However, Jia links the brutality back to the themes that intrigued him in the first place: inequality, economic hardship, and cultural decline.

The cosmic admixture of disparate lives intersecting in ever-so-subtle ways carries the mark of the familiar in a way that Jia’s work rarely does. But what has broadly devolved into an arena for trifling pseudo-philosophy becomes another formal tool for the auteur’s frank reflection on life in contemporary China. The genre conventions momentarily transform the put-upon protagonists into wuxia heroines and gunslingers – the title’s proximity to both King Hu‘s 1972 classic A Touch of Zen and Orson Welles‘ 1958 noir masterpiece Touch of Evil is likely not a coincidence. But while he eschews the grounded realism of his earlier work, the last chapter, set at the hostess club, does conjure a kind of hyperrealism where the socialist state’s supposed glory days are invoked by dressing the young women in Red Guard uniforms and having them service clients in old-fashioned train cars – the past reduced to bizarre spectacle; yet another commodity for the country’s new wealthy elite to consume. – Fred Barrett

Not Okay (2022)

bHTAaLCXnMTThs57mAbptjmOLX2This is the first film I have seen by the director Quinn Shephard, and I came across it randomly, thus went in without expectations – and I was not disappointed. The story revolves around Danni (Zoey Deutsch), who happens to be in Paris -though not in danger- when a deadly attack occurs, and she decides to pretend to be a survivor of the attack for the sake of attention. As she gets wrapped up in her lie, she slowly starts to realise the notoriety is not entirely a positive thing, all the while she meets real survivors in support groups who have endured genuine hardship.

Even as a comedy film, the plot touches upon some serious topics and makes a good portrayal of traumas regarding issues such as school shootings. Given the runtime of only a hundred minutes, it is actually impressive how much content is packed into the film, as well as the balance between the lighthearted jokes and the serious tone-shifts towards some issues that plagues modern societies. All in all, Not Okay is a really interesting film that is under no circumstances a waste of time; it is neither long nor dragged-out, and has points to make that should be acknowledged by virtually everyone. – Alper Kavak

Love & Leashes (2022)

kbaNuowtkfllRL1IlW1naNSGp6VFor anyone somewhat in the know about Korean culture, whether it is K-pop, dramas, films, etc., the very idea of a movie about BDSM starring Seohyun, a member of one of the most famous K-pop girl groups ever, Girls’ Generation, sounded laughable. Indeed, its male lead is also a former member of a boy band and the whole film has a televisual quality, perfect for Netflix, but doesn’t necessarily scream noteworthy film. But Love & Leashes manages something that American cinema has mostly failed to do – give a thoughtful, non-judgmental consideration of BDSM in an accessible way. When BDSM is mentioned in almost any movie that features it, it’s usually seen as a sign of utmost deviance or as a punchline. When Jung Ji-woo (Seohyun) accidentally discovers that co-worker Jung Ji-hoo (Lee Jun-young) is into BDSM, specifically being a sub, she is intrigued enough that she decides to enter a relationship in which she plays dom to his sub, but with no romantic attachment or sexual interaction involved. As Ji-woo explores this new, alien experience, the film also manages to give a pithy, entertaining overview of the complexities of BDSM, perhaps because the film is based on a webtoon. While Love & Leashes’ subject matter may be unusual, it is still a romantic comedy. Yet even if the tropes of the genre are evident, the subject matter and the script manage to provide clever, fresh takes on such tropes such as when two characters are forced to spend a lot of time together when Ji-woo handcuffs Ji-hoo to herself for a date in public. South Korea is often called out as a socially conservative country, but this film, about a subject matter that even liberal Americans don’t have a good way of talking about, came from that country. – Eugene Kang

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2022)

fBMolTuehlLs8xvFObi4ofN237YDirector and writer Jane Schoenbrun gives us a moody (in atmosphere and emotional tenor) exploration of the online world of creepypasta and viral gaming in their debut feature. Isolated teen Casey (Anna Cobb) decides to take part in the World’s Fair challenge, which promises an immersive horror experience during which the participant will experience a metamorphosis of some sort. Casey’s videos on the challenge soon capture the attention of JLB (Michael J. Rogers) who believes that Casey is in danger and attempts to reach out to her and warn her of her peril. World’s Fair is a relatably claustrophobic experience in which much of the film is filtered through a screen of some sort, usually Casey’s computer screen. Cobb’s extraordinary performance is a paradox of both incredible shyness and a desperate desire to connect and be part of a community. Her story can easily be seen as a common pandemic narrative, but Schoenbrun has also been vocal about how they drew on their own experience of transitioning. The themes of being uncomfortable with one’s body and the conflicted attitude that many of the participants have towards transitioning are evocatively portrayed through snips of social media that Schoenbrun collected from collaborators who are also content creators. The result is a fascinating, melancholy and sometimes funny slice of life that happens to take a dark turn but in unpredictable ways. – Eugene Kang

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