Brad Pitt and his zany assassins in Bullet Train have dethroned Thor from a fifth week atop the Australian box office, but apart from that the order is pretty much the same as last week. Worth noting is the disappointing opening for Kiwi film Juniper, which opened pretty wide, for better or worse.
South Korean cinematic master Park Chan-wook returns to the big screen for the first time since his sumptuous The Handmaiden (2016), an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ The Fingersmith – and akin to The Handmaiden and Stoker (2013), Park delves into the waters of obsession and forbidden love. Essentially a neo-noir with nods to Hitchcock, Decision to Leave is more than the sum of its influences. It is no mere pastiche or even homage – it is a gripping crime thriller that although at times is overly complex with its plotting, delivers one of the most tragic romances to grace the silver screen in a genre film.
Respected detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, Memories of a Murderer) is an insomniac who specialises in stakeouts because he can’t sleep. He lives in Busan, although he has a wife (Lee Jung-hyun) in the coastal town of Ipo, who he tries to be satisfied with, but something is missing in their relationship. Hae-joon is a meticulous man who comes to life when given challenging cases, as his wife notes, he’s only really happy when he’s investigating a murder.
When a middle-aged immigration official winds up dead at the bottom of a mountain, Hae-joon and his partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) begin an intense investigation that starts with Hae-joon insisting that they climb the mountain to gather evidence. Soo-wan is quite literally carried on Hae-joon’s back, which leads to some pithy comedy. What Hae-joon finds on top of the mountain is evidence of a man who inscribes his initials on everything he owns. This habit extends to his widow, the beguiling Chinese immigrant Seo-rae (Tang Wei, Lust Caution) who has suffered violent abuse at the hands of her husband.
The victim’s death could be accidental or a murder but Seo-rae’s lack of emotion over her husband’s demise, as well as a motive as an abuse victim, marks her out as a potential murderer. Seo-rae introduces herself as Chinese and remarks that her Korean is “insufficient.” During interrogation scenes with Hae-joon, a restrained but palpable connection forms between the two.
Hae-joon takes to staking out Seo-rae’s apartment. Like Scotty in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the more that he watches his target, the deeper he falls into her web. Seo-rae is not a traditional femme fatale – yes, she is beautiful and inscrutable, and she carries the weight of a terrible past, but she is hoping to be seen by the detective following her; in fact she is hoping to be seen in general. When Hae-joon asks why she would marry an older man who is morally reprehensible she answers, “He saw me.”
Park Chan-wook plays with the conventions of seeing. While Hae-joon is staking out Seo-rae, she is in turn following him. Soon the two become intimate (but not sexually) and their appearances in each other’s spaces become almost dream like. Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong lenses the encounters in an uncomfortably psychologically close manner. At one moment Hae-joon is in his car with his binoculars, at the other the camera inserts him into Seo-rae’s apartment. Not only does Park and Seo-kyeong Jeong’s script tell us that the detective has become too close to his target, the photography and editing reiterate Hae-joon’s compulsive drive.
Decision to Leave isn’t a whodunnit – Park gets that out of the way fairly quickly. The murder case that brought Seo-rae and Hae-joon together is eventually ruled a suicide. Hae-joon makes the decision to leave Busan after the case which has broken him professionally and personally and returns to his wife in Ipo.
When thirteen months later he encounters a newly married Seo-rae in Ipo, the chances of her appearance in the misty seaside town being coincidence are almost zero. Once again Seo-rae’s husband dies, this time in what is undeniably a murder, and once again Hae-joon is drawn into her world, but this time he decides he must not spare or sympathise with Seo-rae despite his longing for her never abating.
Decision to Leave is populated with the twists that a neo-noir should deliver although often their revelation is oddly timed. Park delivers on the front of a satisfying thriller but what makes the film tick is the romance at its centre. Park Hae-il and Tang Wei have an extraordinary chemistry. Both of the characters are sad and unfulfilled and their dangerous love for each other takes them to extremes. Tang Wei is mesmeric as Seo-rae, she’s reserved and indecipherable but when she allows herself to be a woman in love with a man she is filled with playful joy. Park Hae-il demonstrates a brokenness under his professionalism that goes so far that at one nail-biting moment the audience absolutely believes that he is ready to die for his obsession.
Decision to Leave is a morally complex film and an immersive dive into the psyches of its protagonists. Love does not conquer all in the film; either Seo-rae or Hae-joon will be forced to doom one another as they exist on opposing sides of the law. Which of them will make the decision to leave is a question that the film answers definitively in its beautifully rendered finale. Park Chan-wook has again taken the crime thriller and imbued it with the vicissitudes of the human heart and the result is captivatingly melancholy in its depiction of two souls who exist to nurture and destroy each other.
The new Australian feature film from Macario de Souza (Bra Boys) is an affecting and entertaining coming of age drama that will resonate with anyone who has ever loved music to their bones. Here's a couple of makings-of - one about the integral use of music in the film and the other about shooting on location at music fests - to whet your appetite.
The vigorous, highly divisive 1980s campaign to stop the damming of The Franklin River in Tasmania by the decidedly environmentally unfriendly Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission remains one of the key moments in this nation’s heated history of environmental activism. The campaign became a flashpoint for right-versus-left, Greenie-versus-industry animosity, and drove news reports for many, many months. It was seen by many as the birthplace of the Green movement in Australia, and the campaign’s importance cannot be overstated.
This poetic, deeply sensitive documentary from Kasimir Burgess (who helmed the very artful The Leunig Fragments and the hypnotic feature Fell) expertly navigates the course of the campaign to save The Franklin River, as well as the prior environmental struggles that led to this explosive confrontation in the pristine Tasmanian wilderness. Through interviews with former Greens leader and environmental figurehead Bob Brown (who really made his name on the Franklin), along with many activists who were there with him on the often hotly contested and dangerous frontlines, a vivid, thrilling and occasionally funny portrait is constructed. It’s wonderfully informative and entertaining.
Franklin, however, is also a deeply personal documentary. The madness and chaos of the Franklin campaign is fascinatingly seen through the quiet, meditative lense of young trans man Oliver Cassidy, who embarks on a contemporary solo rafting trip down the Franklin, following the trail of the original activists, one of whom was his late father. It’s a beautiful tale of a son finding his own way while in the quiet thrall of a great father and admirable man. Showcasing the extraordinary natural beauty of Tasmania through Benjamin Bryan’s painterly cinematography and the languorous, poetic editing of Kasimir Burgess and Johanna Scott, it creates an absorbing framework for this big story.
A beautifully constructed and created mesh of the micro and the macro, the personal and the political, Franklin is an utterly enthralling documentary about one of the most incendiary periods in Australian history.
A dark comedy about suicide is a risky proposition for any filmmaker; the sheer amount of possible tonal whiplash could overwhelm and render the piece unsavoury and in dubious taste. First time director Jerrod Carmichael manages to avoid any such potential pitfalls by creating a piece that is grounded foremost in empathy and selflessness.
The film begins in a jarring manner. Two men stand outside a strip club in the early morning with guns pointed at each other’s heads. These men aren’t enemies, they’re actually best friends who have entered into a suicide pact. The camera cuts away, but the audience hears only one shot. What happened?
Going back to events earlier in the day, we see Kevin (Christopher Abbott) in a psych ward trying to convince a therapist that despite his extremely recent suicide attempt he should be let out. Elsewhere, Val (Jerrod Carmichael) attempts to strangle himself in his work bathroom after being recently promoted but is interrupted by a co-worker coming in loudly singing a cheesy uplifting ditty.
Val decides to break Kevin out of the psych ward and takes him to the place where the film begins. He shows Kevin that he has two guns and admits that the idea of suicide brings him great peace. Val is confident that Kevin will agree to the suicide pact as Kevin has been suicidal for years. The moment comes and the men stand opposite each other professing how important their friendship has been. Just as Val shoots, Kevin knocks the gun off target and suggests that they have just one more day and at the end of it they can do the deed.
A buddy comedy with suicide as the final payoff may not sound enticing, yet Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch’s script manages to make the film a magnificent representation of mental health, life-long friendship, the nature of masculinity, and an exercise in catharsis.
On a cold day in New Jersey, Val and Kevin decide what they will do with their last day above ground. Kevin’s goal is to kill a paediatric psychiatrist who molested him as a boy (played against type by Henry Winkler). Val goes along with Kevin to Dr Brenner’s office but as chance would have it the doctor won’t be in until late in the afternoon. That gives the pair a timetable by which to schedule their day.
Although the trope of a movie traversing only a day isn’t new, what Carmichael does with the idea is sincerely interesting. The audience only has a set amount of time to get to know these characters and understand their decisions before a tragic conclusion. It’s a testament to not only the script but the outstanding talent of Abbott and Carmichael that it is achieved.
Val and Kevin’s depression stems from different causes. Val has suffered violence in the past but is currently brought down by a failed relationship and a job that verges on exploitation. Kevin spent his early life in institutions and the only person he could rely on was Val. Their bond is unbreakable, but they are very different characters. Val is reticent and repressed, Kevin is all emotion all of the time. Kevin has no idea of boundaries whereas Kevin has been living inside them for years. The difference between their personalities makes for some excellent humour but also reinforces how important their bond is.
Val and Kevin’s last day on earth together seems chaotic and random, but in fact is calibrated in the script to give the audience maximum insight into the men. Kevin runs into a callous ex-classmate who violently bullied him but now finds the whole thing hilarious and inconsequential. Val receives life-altering news from his ex-girlfriend Natasha – played by Tiffany Haddish who proves once again after Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter that she’s a fine dramatic actress. Val and Kevin veer from indulging in a final dirt bike ride from a place they used to be employed to robbing a convenience store (well not really), to personal visits to people from their lives. In an especially scene-stealing turn, comedian J.B. Smoove plays Val’s abusive father who Val goes to see not for reconciliation but to collect a financial debt owed to him. The scene is violent and unsettling but proves Kevin’s loyalty to his friend.
Loyalty is fundamental in making On the Count of Three part of a necessary conversation about masculinity and trauma. Kevin and Val not only would put a bullet into each other’s heads, they’d stand in front of one for the other. It makes some of their uneasy but naturalistic banter both comic and heartfelt. Kevin indulges in a lot of white guilt about how society has treated his black best friend, but Val’s eye-rolling response elicits genuine laughs whilst being a pertinent criticism of the “white tears” narrative.
Carmichael’s skill behind the camera is evident from lensing kinetic action to capturing small moments of emotion. Rarely do filmmakers come out of the gate with such a mature eye. Almost every aspect of the film is pitch perfect; from the go for broke performance by Abbott to the ironic use of Papa Roach’s suicide anthem ‘Last Resort.’ On paper, On the Count of Three shouldn’t be as entertaining and moving as it manages to be. It’s admittedly not an inspirational film, how could it be? It doesn’t suggest that deep wounds can be solved even by making the decision to end it all. What it is, however, is a strikingly crafted piece of cinema that confounds expectations and delivers a grace note to two people who have been systematically downtrodden by violence and trauma by instead concentrating on how they have managed to sustain and uplift each other.
Writer/director Riley Stearns, in his relatively short feature film career, has made a trademark out of creating high concept but low budget black comedies that feature a range of outsider characters pitting their wills against oddball antagonists.
In 2014’s Faults a cult deprogrammer and author (Leland Orser) who is on the skids becomes involved in what appears to be the abduction and rescue of a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from a suicide cult. In Stearns’ best film to date, 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense a socially disenfranchised man (Jesse Eisenberg) is severely beaten during a mugging and ends up taking martial arts lessons from a mysterious and nefarious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). In Dual Stearns once again takes a fascinating concept; what if we could clone ourselves so that when we die, our loved ones will not have to feel the loss, upending it into a battle of wills between two women fighting for a mundane existence.
Sarah (Karen Gillan) lives a quiet and quotidian life in an unidentified place in America (filmed in Finland, there are no markers for where the movie is set). Her boyfriend, Peter (New Zealand actor Beulah Koale) is often away due to his job. Her mother (Maija Paunio) is overbearing and judgemental and won’t leave Sarah alone with her constant calls and texts.
One day Sarah begins to vomit massive amounts of blood. A visit to a doctor confirms she has a fatal disease, although one that is unlikely to incapacitate her until close to her death. Sarah’s subdued reaction to the news of her impending death would be surprising in another narrative, but in Dual Sarah’s lack of affect and the impenetrability of her emotions are part of Stearns’ world building.
The film seems to be set in an alternate now, with the only significant difference being that genetic cloning exists.
Sarah decides on the option to have a clone made and with just a swab of DNA a new Sarah emerges. There is only one issue, clone Sarah has blue eyes whereas the original has brown.
The small detail of the clone being imperfect seems to go beyond just eye colour. According to the cloning agency, the clone must live with the original to learn their traits. Almost immediately, Sarah’s clone displays that she’s not particularly interested in learning how to be Sarah but instead is actively competing to be better than Sarah. Clone Sarah is more charming and outgoing than Sarah and soon makes Sarah redundant from her own life by becoming the preferred Sarah to both Peter and Sarah’s mother.
Original Sarah’s problems ironically get worse when she finds out that her mystery disease has gone into permanent remission. She will live, or rather, she might live as the laws surrounding clones means that she will have to fight the other Sarah in a duel to the death as there can be only one. The opening scene of the film demonstrates the duel, wherein two Robert Michaels (played by Theo James) battle it out in an arena using an array of weapons.
Original Sarah is somewhat invigorated by the upcoming duel and takes to training with survivalist Trent (Aaron Paul). Sarah is broke and paying for the upkeep of her clone and training is draining the last of her finances. After a sexual advance as another form of payment for her lessons is upended, the cost ends up being dance lessons. The small moments of absurdity displayed in the scenes between Sarah and Trent are the most comic moments in the film and could have been milked for its comedic potential more.
The main issue with Dual is that although the concept is rich, the execution is lacking. Doppelgängers are a rich subject. From Poe to Dostoyevsky, we’ve been taught that individual identity is crucial and when that is stripped, madness can result. Richard Aoyade’s film The Double (loosely based on Dostoyevsky) managed the theme better and Jesse Eisenberg conveyed how crushing it is to be replaced by a better version of his character with all the attendant complexity required to flesh out the conundrum.
Stearns leaves a lot of complexity off the table. Karen Gillan gives a respectable performance as the two Sarahs but is hamstrung by slight characterisation. Perhaps Stearns intended Sarah to be so ordinary that the notion that any one of us could be replaced and not missed is what he’s exploring. However, as the film comes to a close (with a great final scene) it appears that wasn’t really the intention and instead he’s commenting on the mundanity of life.
Dual had the potential to explore the human condition through a clever concept but eventually lacks any punch. Droll as Stearns is, ideas behind Dual never properly hit the mark. There should be some existential terror attached to the idea that one can be replaced and eliminated by a version of oneself, but Stearns holds off on going that dark. If he’d been willing to fully scrutinise his ideas, Dual could have been a subversive masterpiece about what it is to live; instead, it’s curiously inert and not well enough managed to reach its philosophical potential.