Beauty, Bemusement and Blushes in Subtitled Fare

The State Cinema takes me all around the world. In recent months I visited Spain, Italy and South Korea. One film had me marvelling at the beauty of its small moments, another had me bemused as to why it became its homeland most popular in many a year and the other, decidedly, had me blushing.

Bemusement – Think a cross between Forest Gump and Karl Pilkington and then you have Checco Zalone – evidently a character who has reached a legendary status in Italy akin to a Norman Gunston or a Basil Fawlty. Checco (Luca Medici) is a slacker. He’s employed by the public service which, in his country, means a cruisy existence for life. All that’s expected of Checco is to stamp a few forms, but the job is choc full of generous entitlements such as ample vacations, leave loadings and a comfortable retirement. When the government comes down heavily – by Italian standards – on this cushy existence, Checco finds he’s the only one in his region who doesn’t meet the liberal criteria for staying on. Although he’s not the greatest workaholic going around, he’s no fool and he’s not going to make it easy for the powers to be to make him go. Eventually they decide to send him to the worst postings imaginable to force him to resign, but the man always comes up trumps. That is until he is sent to an Italian research station in the Arctic Circle and he falls in love. Then he gets a taste of the real world – life in no nonsense Norway. This soon sees him scurrying back to his land of sunshine and lassitude. In the end, the constant battle against authority becomes too much and he ends up, where else, but in deepest, darkest Africa about to become a meal for cannibals. As to how this happens? Well, you’ll just have to see this offering.

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As with New Zealand’s ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’, this movie has been an unexpected hit in Oz, particularly in Melbourne with its large population of Italian heritage – but that’s nothing compared with its popularity in its country of origin. ‘Where Am I Going’ (‘Quo Vado’) this year, in terms of attendance, has booted its nearest rival, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ out of the ball park there. As well, ‘Checcomania’ has been a boon for the art houses world wide.

As for me, yes, it was moderately amusing and there were some delightful aspects to its zaniness. I loved the bit where Checco attempts to teach his Nordic partner’s son to play soccer Italian style – that is, to fall to the ground and writhe in agony at the drop of a hat. We all know about that.

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Last November the Italian region of Umbria advertised ninety-six life time positions in its public administration – and received 32000 plus applications. Will Italy overcome the ‘fannullone’ (slacker) issue in its work force? At least ‘Where Am I Going’, by taking the mickey out of it all, seems to have set some wheels in progress. But I think you really need to be Italian to get the full hilarity of this from director Gennaro Nunziante.

Blushes – Oh dearie me. Now I know this movie was R-rated – so be warned. But for most of its length I did actually wonder as to why. In its final stanzas I was left to wonder no more – and how. Its final sex scene was like nothing I’d seen before in a cinema. It was, to my mind, beyond erotic and bordering on pornographic. Or maybe, as I have related in several pieces of late, I am just not as worldly as I imagined. This certainly tested me. I was most uncomfortable watching it – relieved when the two interlocked bodies broke apart and departed the screen. It warrants the rating – and then some.

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‘The Handmaiden’ is a take on Sarah Waters’ ‘The Fingersmith’, bought to the small screen in a mildly juicy bodice-ripper fashion back in 2005 by the BBC. Here it gets the Oriental treatment from Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known in Western cinema for ‘Stoker’. This is, like the original novel, a story told from three perspectives. The first is from the fingersmith (pick-pocket) herself, played by Kim Tae-ri, sent to fleece an heiress of her wealth by her Svengali, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo). The second installment is his take on proceedings, followed by that of the rich kept woman herself (Kim Min-hee). The Count is out to seduce her, dispose of the fingersmith and live richly ever after. As each stage progresses the director ups the erotic wattage until, well, it spills over.

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The movie ducks and dives time-wise so much that, for this watcher, it was difficult to get a handle on – especially as he also had trouble at times differentiating between the two leading actresses, once the story was underway, when they weren’t on screen together. Visually the film is a feast for the senses, gorgeously put together, set at the time when the Japanese controlled the peninsula just before the last great war. It is a thriller of sorts, but for many, as far away from the pace expected of the genre as it is possible to be. And, I repeat, it is very, very sexy.

Beauty in the Small Moments – Two actors, Emma Suárez and Adrianna Ugarte, play the same woman – at different stages of a life. This film displays the great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar at his best, manipulating his story through various time periods. These days this auteur is regarded as one of the world’s most adept with the medium, responsible for such offerings as ‘Volver’, ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’, ‘High Heels’ and ‘The Skin I Live In’ – to cite a few. He adds another with the very fine ‘Julieta’. The central figure, initially a woman of a certain age (Suárez), is preparing to leave Madrid to start a new life with her lover in Portugal. Her plans are dissembled when she bumps into a friend of her long estranged daughter. News of her is so momentous that Julieta immediately cancels her plans. She wants to be in place if said daughter finally decides to make contact. It doesn’t occur, but what we do get is the back story as Ugarte takes over for some of the narrative. Here we are presented with the explanation for the no-speakies.

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This is milder Almodóvar than some of his other productions, though it still abounds in the symbolism of colour and object. An example is the annual birthday cake that Julieta makes for her daughter – and then disposes of when she is again a no show. And there’s a truly beautiful moment when said daughter Antía (another role played by two actresses) dries her young mother’s hair. What emerges from the towel is then the older Julieta. Some critics have expressed a preference for a change to the ending to make it tidier – as per Hollywood mainstream – but I felt it was just fine as is. We suspect it will all be all happy ever afters – and that is enough.

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And for me this Iberian outing was the pick of the bunch. It is a considered, intelligently structured movie with two actresses shining as the same persona, battling with the curve-balls life throws at her, but with the promise of light at the end of the journey. It is also garnished throughout with those delectable moments of beauty making this cinematic experience one to relish.

Trailer for ‘Where Am I Going’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEL03EMIVZk

Trailer for ‘The Handmaiden’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKpZLtt4Ctg

Trailer for ‘Julieta’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoi4dbpqZmg

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