It’s no surprise that Tran Anh Hung receives an artistic advisor credit for The Third Wife. The French-Vietnamese director’s shadow looms long over Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut, the chronicle of a 14-year-old girl married off to a wealthy landowner in 19th century Vietnam. Her approach studiously mirrors the aesthetic Tran pioneered in transnational ‘90s films The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, Vietnam’s first entries onto the stage of world cinema.
Tran’s wife and muse Tran Nu Yen Khe has a prominent role as the first wife, positioned ambiguously between ally and contender in relation to the protagonist. The film is delectably stylish and completely insular, its characters framed by mountains and confined by the corridors of the husband’s homestead. There are no traces of historical context, despite France’s escalating intrusions into Vietnam at the time.
The Third Wife stirred controversy and was banned in Vietnam for unusual sexual frankness involving its young lead. Yet the film is less about explicit sex than delving into the underlying power dynamic of the household, emanating from a mostly unseen yet omnipresent patriarch. In this respect, Mayfair is borrowing freely from Raise the Red Lantern and Zhang Yimou’s other early folk adaptations, particularly their juxtaposition of human (feminine) vulnerability against the austerity and hierarchy of tradition; in The Third Wife, as in Zhang’s work, this is encapsulated in the classical architecture of the mansion, the film’s chief setting and effective prison.
As much as she wears her influences on her sleeve, Mayfair also makes bold choices. Her cutting is unusual, and she is not afraid to let scenes play out wordlessly: the film’s opening passage allows a good ten minutes before the first line of dialogue. This aligns with the film’s theme on the difficultly of a woman finding a voice within the overwhelmingly male-centric environment, a feminist perspective subtly expressed through the craft. Against this backdrop, An Ton That’s eerie score plays a huge role in the creation of mood.
Mayfair, who also wrote the script, is attuned to the languid rhythms of daily life in pre-modern Vietnam; the film has a strong sense of period authenticity, with the exception of a same-sex moment that comes off as weirdly anachronistic. Assisted by Thai-American cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, she balances realism and symbolism: The Third Wife abounds with sensual feminine images – gauze and fabric, flowers, water.
It’s clear that Mayfair views this as a life-and-death struggle for her characters, but there is little sense of build to the film. The final shot is also, a misjudgement. All the same, this is a promising debut: it bubbles and lingers intuitively.
What with Bong Joon-ho’s increasing work rate – this film appears just two years after his last, Okja, his shortest ever gap between features – it can be easy to forget that Parasite is the director’s first film made fully within the Korean system in a decade, since 2009’s Mother.
Both 2013’s Snowpiercer, Bong’s Hollywood debut, and 2017’s Okja, the first major film to launch through Netflix – are very fine films, although among the weaker entries in a formidable body of work, with a thematic reach that sometimes exceeds their grasp.
By contrast, Parasite is the work of a director intoxicatingly in his element. In many ways, this feels like the culmination of inimitably Bongian preoccupations: his obsession with psychologically freighted subterranean spaces, stretching all the way back to his debut, Barking Dogs Never Bite; immaculately executed whiplash moments that snap from comedy to tragedy; and a predilection for the surreal in his setpieces. Bong’s sense of the baroque has sharpened since Okja, and Parasite’s finale, involving a conglomeration of beautiful, wealthy people, gains in horror and poignancy from the luridness of its conception.
Bong is operating here at peak craft: the mise-en-scene is dazzling, evincing his flair for witty ensemble staging, then unleashing overwhelming imagery that heightens character and mood. All of this is aided by superb production design. It is also tightly plotted – a rarity for Bong – with a strong comedy of manners influence, a new direction for the director.
Very much like Snowpiercer, the chasm between rich and poor is the leitmotif of the film; it even follows a similar visual schema, and the ‘parasite’ of the title is left deliberately unclear. But there are also distinctive, piquant Korean flourishes that may, or may not, hold a deeper allegorical meaning: multiple allusions to North Korea, and a surprise reference to the 16th century Japanese invasions of Korea.
The characters are acidic creations, yet the film lacks a traditional protagonist: Parasite is a true ensemble work, with the characters driven by collective concerns. The cast is uniformly excellent, although Song Kang-ho does nothing to diminish his reputation as Korea’s finest character actor with his subtle performance. That the high-wire, precarious confidence act of the film’s tone can be sustained is testament to the total commitment of the actors: one only has to recall something like 2010’s unloved The Housemaid, a glorified Korean melodrama with similar setting and themes, to see how something like this could easily fall apart.
There are minor shortfalls in the storytelling. Bong sets up the arc of child character Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun) but fails to follow through, and a crucial turning point involving a kick (a recurring motif for Bong) is dubious in terms of its physical staging, the only occasion in which the carefully constructed spatial environment of the film is violated. All this can be forgiven, though, when Bong delivers another of his caustic, haunting endings (in retrospect, perhaps the reason why Okja and Snowpiercer seem like lesser works is that their endings fall ever so slightly short). This is Bong’s best film since 2003’s Memories of Murder, and makes a good case for being the first out-and-out classic of Korean cinema since 2016’s The Handmaiden.
The Wandering Chef is the kind of left-field, ethereal pleasure only found at film festivals: a documentary on a chef who roams the country, monk-like in his devotion to the search for rare ingredients. Less an exhibition of culinary pyrotechnics, this is more an expression of food as an experience, rooted in culture and tradition.
The subject, Im Jiho, is also a fascinating and compelling individual. Implicit in his solitary journeys is a rejection of modern society and contentment with loneliness unusual in Korea’s collective culture; yet he is also emotionally vulnerable and generous-hearted. The film transports him from rural Korea to international cooking shows and back again, but you get the sense Im is most in his element engaging in earthy banter with other Koreans – usually elderly – on folk remedies. One of the film’s pleasures is watching him get excited about an obscure wild herb and list its medicinal properties, and the scene in which he debates whether moss can or cannot be eaten is a highlight. Im’s vocation draws him close to forgotten, timeless lifestyles: the weather-beaten haenyeo (female divers) of Jeju, and a grandfather hauling stones on his back to a mountainside home. This is as much an ode to Korea’s wild landscapes, with casually stunning cinematography to match, as it is a cooking documentary.
One would have been perfectly happy for The Wandering Chef to be a visual encyclopedia on Korean cuisine and ingredients. However, first-time director Hye Ryeong Park, who filmed the documentary over the span of several years, chooses to push the material in a more narrative direction. The film gravitates increasingly towards Im’s friendship with an elderly lady and her husband, treating it as a quasi-redemptive arc. This is not necessarily a bad thing: it is deeply touching, and adds depth to Im as a character. It’s just that everything else comes to feel increasingly peripheral, and out of place structurally.
While not quite the out-and-out masterpiece it had the potential to be, The Wandering Chef is still a terrific heart-warmer, captivating in its detail, and a reminder that all the world’s great cuisines are the accumulation of informal knowledge and folk tradition.
This frenzied mish-mash of Bollywood musical, martial arts actioner and comic book origin tale is told with an eye towards western cinematic sensibilities and an affectionate reverence of filmic pop culture.
It follows the travails of Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani, son of Indian screen star Bhagyashree), a young man with a rare disorder that also proves very handy: he has a congenital insensitivity to pain. His ailments also include a requirement for constant hydration, which necessitates wearing a backpack that stores a ready supply of water, though it tends to run dry at inopportune moments, meaning Surya has to come up with creative ways to imbibe H2O.
Throughout his formative years, Surya exists on a diet of Kung Fu and action movies and he teaches himself martial arts moves so that he can dispense vengeance on the gang that robbed his mother when he was a young baby, killing her in the process. Surya is always at the side of his best friend and childhood crush Supri (Radhika Madan), whose father is a violent drunk, forcing Surya to teach him some knuckle-sandwich infused home truths, ultimately putting Supri’s father in the hospital.
As a young man, Surya yearns to meet his idol, a one-legged martial arts guru named Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah), and after meeting him, Surya soon encounters his scenery-chewing evil twin, Jimmy (also played by Gulshan Devaiah). Soon, the adult Surya and Supri must fight the fight of their lives, defending themselves against henchman and street scum alike as Surya struggles to realise his childhood dream of being an unstoppable, karate-chopping, leg-sweeping, force for justice on the streets of Mumbai.
At times it’s so tight you’d think Edgar Wright was sneaking into the edit room, at other times the sequences are languid and baggy. That said, the overwhelming sense of joy and fun that Vasan Bala is having here – name-checking his Hollywood influences and designing inventive and crazy fight sequences – is contagious (though the amount of scenes depicting children being beaten is positively Dickensian). Street locations are brightly decorated and colourfully lensed and the soundtrack is tacky and sweet, making this slice of Bollywood geekdom a ton of fun. The running time, as you would expect, is over two hours but the reward is in the journey and there’s lots of fun to be had in this alternately goofy, melodramatic and surreal chop-sock-rom-com.