My poor choice of screenings makes for a whimpering finish to an otherwise fine week of movie gluttony in rainy Shanghai…
>>> LA ÚLTIMA MUERTE (THE LAST DEATH) (Mexico, 2009, 107′) Dir./Scr. David “Lexte” Ruiz – DP. Juan José Saravia – Music. Javier Navarrete – Edit. Jorge Macaya – Prod. Alexis Fridman/Billy Rovzar/Fernando Rovzar [Screening in the Spectrum block]
A suspenseful Mexican sci-fi sounded like an excellent way to begin my final day at the Shanghai International Film Festival but THE LAST DEATH just barely amounts to the sum of its parts. David Ruiz’ first feature is set in a very near future in which smooth touch-screen devices and holographic media are the norm but people still wear thick cardigans and read printed news papers. There is a world population database and controversial recent history surrounding the illegalization of human organ cloning.
Dr. Jaime Aleksander (Álvaro Guerrero) discovers the body of an unidentified amnesiac (played by Mexican heart-throb Kuno Becker), recently escaped from a prison transfer gone-awry, collapsed behind his woodland cabin during a hurricane. Jaime tends to the man’s wounds and begins the process of unmasking who the man is, why he does not show-up on the World Database and why villainous types in all-black ensembles are after him. Also there is the far more intriguing question of how this man can be running around after the lethal injection administered to him in the pre-credits sequence. Parallel to this we are made aware of medical foundation chief and philanthropist, El Jefe (Carlos Brancho). As the plot thickens, Jaime finds himself embroiled in a dangerous game, trying to uncover the conspiracy against his new friend.
Cinematographer Juan José Saravia keeps the screen awash with a perpetual blue tint, that very much reflects the script’s general humorlessness and, combined with Javier Navarette’s hard-working but unoriginal score, over-amps the atmosphere of a suspense thriller that offers little return on emotional investment for its audience.
THE LAST DEATH has a nifty twist, the nature of which is worth discussing, even if the film chooses not to explore or discuss it in any detail whatsoever. Any readers interested enough to have a crack at THE LAST DEATH on the strength of its trailer should stop here: spoilers follow below.
After much scurrying around with S.W.A.T. teams hot on his heels, Jaime eventually parlays his way into a meeting with El Jefe, at which point it is revealed that Christian (the escaped prisoner) murdered El Jefe’s three daughters in a crime of passion and was sentenced to three death sentences. El Jefe takes the sentencing quite literally and with the power and the means to kill and resurrect Christian many times, he tortures the murderer of his children as a human guinea-pig for organ cloning.
Writer/director Ruiz proves himself interested only in the aesthetics of science fiction by refusing to explore any of the questions his premise raises about the nature of revenge, life after death, guilt, grief or even the political and religious debate surrounding cloning. The foundations of science fiction are egregiously ignored in favor of suspense and it is to the detriment of the story and the characters supposedly developing within that story. Science fiction is defined by a willingness to explore new ideas and no amount of slick touch-screen effects and retinal scanners is going to make-up for this film’s lack of philosophical or political endeavor. Ultimately, THE LAST DEATH features nothing to elevate it above mediocrity, despite a premise that could have made for a fine film or, at least, an interesting episode of The X Files.
>>> DESERT (New Zealand, 2010, 88′) Dir./Scr. Stephen Kang – DP. Marc Swadel – Music. Timmy Schumacher/Jae Kim – Edit. Simon Price – Prod. Leanne Saunders/Matt Noonan [Screening in the Spectrum block]
Stephen Kang’s first feature tackles a subject increasingly visible within Asian cinema: the marginalization of single women by asian communities. Centering on Auckland’s Korean community, DESERT follows the abandonnement of Jenny (first-time actor, Jane Kim) by her fiancée, her church and her Korean co-workers after the discovery that she has become pregnant out of wedlock with a Kiwi’s child. Hoping to minimise the damage to her social standing, Jenny hurredly arranges a registry office marriage to her boyfriend, James (Marek Sumich), who disappears on the day of the ceremony. In the process of tracking James, who seems to be guilty of fraud at his old job, Jenny meets Joon (Andrew Han), an aggressive young man working his own cash scam through the Korean Herald newspaper. Joon is Jenny’s one source of help and friendship in a city where she is now every bit the outsider and a romance of sorts seems to develop.
While the subject is one in much need of further discussion in Asian cinema and Asian society at large, Kang’s treatment of his 10 page screenplay is so opaque and impenetrable that DESERT manages to abandon its audience; providing neither an engaging story nor an entertaining film to stimulate debate. With a purely diegetic soundtrack (yet there film has two credited musical composers) and intensely close hand-held shots that comprise almost every image on screen, the film leaves no point of reference for the audience to cling to beyond Jenny herself. The problem with this is Jenny’s defeated, apparently passive reaction to every slight leveled against her and her refusal or inability to react makes for an infuriatingly dull film. While it would be wrong to criticize the veracity of Jane Kim’s performance, it is amazing to think that Kang expects his audience to invest in a character so resigned to her fate and expressionless without offering any intervention or embellishment from behind the camera. The audience is left to explore the inner life of this character entirely through a face that says and does almost nothing for the duration of the film.
DESERT is anti-action; a static film, apparently unconcerned with the whys and wherefores of the events occurring off screen that affect the lives of the characters on screen. For example, the follow-up to the scene in which Jenny finally tracks James to his new home is a conversation-free table scene in which Jenny spikes James’ dinner with mushrooms to enflame his allergy. How serious the allergy is, we’ll never know. The next scene is Jenny back at the video shop, where she works, secretly copying CCTV footage of her boss lunging towards her for a drunken kiss into the shop’s rental tapes. These wrathful, passive-agressive vengeances are as close as we ever get to action from Jenny but they are too little, too late in a film with much to say but no willingness to communicate.
^ Victoria Young previews DESERT for Asia Downunder
^ THE LAST DEATH trailer (Spanish – no subs)