Dispatches from Macao: Four visions of violence

Straight from IFFM in Macao, Rogue Online Editor Philbert Dy reviews four films with extremely diverse depictions of bodily harm

by Philbert Dy
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Miike Takashi, director of The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio

I really can’t say if the festival was intentionally programmed this way, but I’ve seen a lot of violence in the movies I watched in the last couple of days. What’s interesting is that these visions of violence come from different countries, and each film seems to have a different approach to depicting bodily harm.

Miike Takashi’s latest film, The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio had its world premiere in this festival. It’s a sequel to his 2013 film The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji, but that fact hardly matters to the movie. It quickly catches the audience up on the events of the previous film, running through an entire movie’s worth of narrative in just a couple of minutes as the main character (Ikuta Toma) fires off a recap while hanging naked from a steel cage suspended from a helicopter. The film only gets crazier from there, outlining a plot that involves undercover cops, Yakuza traditions, evil Chinese gangsters, human trafficking, and a whole lot more.

In typical Miike fashion, it’s fun and crazy and a little bit too long. Miike’s outré directorial sensibilities have stayed intact, even as his projects have gotten bigger. This is a bright, cartoonish film that often defies good taste on its way to telling its story of weird, complicated justice within the context of the Yakuza. The action varies wildly between fairly grounded Japanese gangster brawling to insane bits of unreality that might involve powerful prosthetic limbs, video game controls, or a CGI tiger. It’s a blast for a good long while, but the film runs out of good will before it ends. This is the case with a lot of Miike films, particularly the projects that don’t feel like they have much personal involvement. The director is just playing around, and as fun as it is, it can wear on one’s patience.

FREE FIRE, Starring Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley and Noah Taylor. Directed by Ben Wheatley, Executive Producer Martin Scorsese

Ben Wheatley doesn’t have any problems sustaining the momentum in his film Free Fire. This film is practically the opposite of The Mole Song in terms of scale, the whole story basically taking place in one location. But it’s just as violent, and like the Japanese film, Free Fire is able to find the weird humor in its characters inflicting harm on others. It just goes about it in a completely different way. The movie is about a member of the NRA (Cillian Murphy) in America to purchase some rifles from a black market dealer (Sharlto Copley). The setting for the deal is an abandoned factory. Things go south, and the factory becomes a battlefield.

What’s immediately startling about Free Fire is the fact almost everybody gets shot in one way or another within the first few minutes of bullets flying. So for the rest of this confrontation, all of the characters are dealing with various injuries. This is a movie about a gunfight, but it resists the temptation to make these characters action-movie cool. They can’t shrug off their injuries, and none of them seem to be very good shots. And in creating these limitations, the film is able to make every bullet count. Every single phase of this confrontation is dripping with tension, as the outcome of every scene is genuinely unpredictable.

This is a terrific film. It’s simple in construction, but awfully sophisticated in every other respect. The film has a pretty large cast of characters to keep track of in what is essentially one big firefight. And with the help of some clear filmmaking and amazing sound design, the film never struggles with the geography of any given scene.

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From India comes Shanker Raman’s Gurgaon, which seems to position itself as a very serious film. It is inspired by true events, following the story of an affluent family that owns a lot of land in a rural area slated for development. Eldest son Nikki (Akshay Oberoi) gets into some trouble with a bookie, and hatches a plan to kidnap his own sister and ransom her to get the money to pay his debts.

The film touches on a lot of things in studying the life of this one family. In flashbacks, we learn that the patriarch of the family did some pretty terrible things back when his land was nothing but a plot of dirt. In present day, there is some talk about the consequences of rapid urban development. And these are all fine in theory, but they play second fiddle to a quasi-gritty plot that only gets ridiculous as it tries to get more serious. The deaths in this film play out like a joke, the scenes interested only in the moment of impact and not the consequences. The storytelling in general is a problem, the movie glossing over several sections of the narrative that could have used some expounding.

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Finally, there is Liu Jie’s Hide and Seek, which is a remake of the 2013 South Korean film of the same name. Wallace Huo plays an affluent businessman who gets news that his estranged older brother has gone missing. He decides to investigate, and this leads him to a run-down apartment complex set to be demolished in a month’s time. And while he’s investigating, he and his family are terrorized by a mysterious figure in black.

The subtext running this film is the idea that we are living in a time where property has become much more valuable than human life. The film just takes that to a horrific, violent extreme, turning that neurosis into what is basically a serial killer story. It’s a solid enough thriller, though the mechanics of it get pretty sloppy near the end. It ends up leaning too much on the craziness of the villain and the incompetence of the police. I’m not entirely sure this is the kind that ought to be competing in a major film festival, but it’s a solid piece of genre entertainment that will likely find audiences all around the world.