Lee Chang-dong’s movie about an elderly woman who takes up poetry lessons just as she begins to lose her memory and her grasp on verbs and nouns. Nobody (least of all herself) understands why she’s taken up the course. She inhabits an unintelligible world, replete with sullen, half-mute teenagers who can barely enunciate a word, let alone sort out their feelings; bodies of girls who wash up ashore for unexplained reasons and an entire system determined to shrug it all off. Mija works as a maid to be able to sustain her grandson and herself. But her professor preaches that there is potential beauty in everything, so Mija starts looking at things—starting with her kitchen’s dirty dishes and an apple—trying to see them for what they really are for the first time. (She ends up just eating the apple.) Whether her search for beauty begins as purely selfish escapism is up to the viewer to decide, and there’s a great comic desperation to her enterprise that is both pitiable and admirable. There is a magnificent scene where the old woman goes to the country to meet the mother of a girl who was raped, and she loses herself in the sensual radiance of the bright summer day. She picks up a fallen peach, sensing its “pain”; she feels it was “yearning” to be eaten. In this scene she is childlike, like a young poet for whom even pain is beautiful. She is so caught up in the purity of the moment that when the memory of the unsavory business that brought her there re-enters her mind, it nearly destroys her: beauty comes crashing down under the weight of reality. No other movie expresses the link between beauty and oblivion with this kind of devastating clarity. And there’s a shift. No longer content with just beauty, she now aims for the truth, too.
Yun Jeong-hie’s performance is a masterpiece of intuitiveness and self-discovery. Hers is the most original movie heroine of the 21st century: a poet in a world that’s done with poetry; a victim of Alzheimer’s who refuses to forget (or to even be a victim); an ignored old woman who finds empathy to be a source of infinite personal pleasure. (She might be to this century what Umberto D. was to the last.) One of the most amazing films to come out from South Korea, it has a love of life that’s almost heroic.
Dir. Lee Chang-dong / 2010 / South Korea
Dir. Martin Scorsese / US / 2016
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:
For about an hour and a half, the film looks like a masterpiece and often feels like a masterpiece. The trailers made it seem like Scorsese was channeling Kurosawa, but the early images of boggy fog-shrouded Japan have a much closer kinship to the greatest Japanese film poet of all, Kenji Mizoguchi, and his masterpiece, Ugetsu. And now Scorserse, driven by a love of the source material and a fascination with the subject, uses Japan to expand his idea of Christianity. The early scenes are Scorsese’s best work in exactly 40 years. They contain at least three great movies at once, none overshadowing the other. There is the spread of Christian piety among the Japanese peasants, which is the closest thing to revolutionary fervor these people have ever known. There is the folly of the Jesuit padres, who denounce the silence of God in a land that knows no real silence of its own; that is in fact bursting with life, with Prieto’s cinematography suggesting a kind of pantheistic elemental force enveloping these strangers. And in the great, furtive sequences in the caves, the villages, and the hideouts Scorsese evokes what primitive Christianity must have looked like in the first two or three centuries after Christ, when it was still a religion of rebellion. The Jesuits understood the original power of pre-Roman Christianity and sought to rekindle it, and Silence recreates this state of ecstatic Christendom, its aura of holiness. (What could be more revolutionary in Hollywood?)
But this great expansive picture becomes stunted in the movie’s second half. The film begins to look inwardly, meaning we get too close a look at Andrew Garfield’s face, his conscience and tortured soul in a string of unimaginative claustrophobic sequences that go on for too long and often feel dead. And so the limitless possibilities of the first half are reduced to theological abstractions (platonic God vs. nature), debates on what does or doesn’t grow in Japan and the Christian take on suffering. The problem isn’t just that what is said isn’t very interesting, but that it robs the film of revelations that should and could have happened organically. The movie becomes so lucid about its ideas that it kills them. There’s little mystery left to the film when it approaches the tortured final sequences with Liam Neeson’s character and God finally decides to speak (He should’ve stayed silent; there’s too much voiceover as it is.) What the movie gains in conceptual clarity, it loses in stature. The Japanese Ugetsu didn’t just expose the link between nature and spirituality: it went further by showing that the world of the senses is haunted. The idea that the Jesuits in Silence find God by denying Him—that is, by renouncing the martyrdom at the core of Christianity—is extraordinarily powerful and suggestive, but it has only a conceptual effect. The revelation is lacking in spirit.
Even with these flaws, Silence is in another league from virtually anything that came out last year, and in a different universe than the La La Lands of this world. It’s masterful in a number of ways. (Adam Driver does fascinating work as one of the Jesuits; Issei Ogata is great once more. And Rodrigo Prieto outdoes himself as a cinematographer.) Its fervor and ambition are exciting and genuine, and these are qualities that have been nearing extinction for a while now. As for Scorsese, this is his most epic work to date. Only Taxi Driver stands taller overall.
LIGHT SPOILERS ahead:
Paul Verhoeven’s disarming comedy of horrors opens with the aftermath of a rape. Isabelle Huppert picks herself up from the mess in the floor as if the attack had been inflicted upon somebody else entirely, her bourgeois nonchalance rising intact. She is dissociated from herself to the point of being her own voyeur, transfixed by the riddle of her “empty stare”. She plays with people for the sheer pleasure of taking in their reactions, to test their limits—to see how emotions affect them. She herself is unaffected. Michèle Leblanc is a woman for whom “reality” bears no discernible meaning: when her comatose mother lies dying in the hospital bed, Michèle asks the nurse if it’s possible she might be faking it. (She then plays dead while having sex with her lover, as way of paying homage). She nurtures violent sexual fantasies that involve her own rapist. As the head of a videogame company, she demands that the rape scenes featured in the games be more “orgasmic”. She is only genuinely caught off guard when her sense of virtual reality is threatened. And yet the brilliance of Huppert’s Michèle is that she is entirely free of malice: this may be one of the most innocently amoral characters in recent memory. She is clueless as to how she “ought” to act and react. She lacks the instincts for such things, so she hovers over everything. But there is no grand scheme, no insidious masterplan driving her. She might even be deemed a victim if she had any understanding of what a victim was. Isabelle Huppert gives possibly the best female performance of the decade: a triumph of subversion. A character like this has no right to appear so alive, but Huppert is brutally funny and sexy in the role, as translucent as she is opaque. She avoids turning her into a post-human alien: her Michèle is very much in a searching state. And Verhoeven touches on everything from the death of God to hyperrealism, at times articulating the psychology of sensations that Cronenberg anticipated in “Videodrome”. In all its comic horror, the movie gives birth to a new kind of female character, someone who’s been through all the roles—mother, daughter, leader, provider, victim, perpetrator—and stays a puzzle to herself.