NYAFF 2016: GRACE, ALONE Bring Cruelty, Tricks, Treats

 

NYAFF 2016
The New York Asian Film Festival took place between June and July 9. For more information, click here and next time, don’t settle for just reading about it… live the dream, people!!!

ALONE

The first ten minutes of Alone consist only of two continuous shots. They also deploy the only two tricks in the bag of filmmaker Park Hong-min, and what starts out as a treat ends up overstaying its welcome by at least an hour.

But man alive, those first two shots! The first is a first person view of somebody ineffectually trying to clean a blood spattered apartment with nothing but a broken hand roller. Though the scene overstays its welcome (a harbinger of things to come), there’s something bracing about the way it thrusts you into the story.

The second scene is even better, and in this writer’s humble opinion it is one of the best suspense-based set pieces in the past few years. Su-Min (Lee Ju-won) is standing on a balcony when he spots an assault on a nearby rooftop that immediately escalates into brutal, full-on murder. He takes some pictures, and in the process is spotted by the masked perpetrators. What unfolds next is as good and visceral a dramatization of a certain kind of unfolding nightmare of inevitability as has ever been captured on film.

The third scene starts out almost as good, as a naked man awakens on a side street and slowly makes his way… somewhere or other. It takes a moment to realize that this is the exact same man from the previous scene. Which, given the how said previous scene ended, is… a curious development.

But as the scene drags on, and a dazed Su-min mutters to himself as he descends a seemingly endless number of stairwells, the sinking feeling develops that there’s going to be less happening than meets the eye.

And slooooowly but surely, we realize the general pattern of the film: guy comes to somewhere and walks around for a while; guy encounters someone and has a whiny, circular conversation; something violent happens; rinse and repeat. And each time, we learn a little bit more about the situation of this man, and why this strangeness is happening to him.

Only, it’s fairly obvious what’s happening almost from the start; this is not a surprising narrative by any stretch of the imagination. And so eventually the rot sets in, as we start expecting some kind of deeper twist, some grander design that simply isn’t coming. And we’re stuck with this whiny numb nuts nattering on about headaches and bad dreams as our tour guide (though, in fairness, it’s unclear whether that’s the writing or the performance of Ju-won that’s more to blame here). It’s a classic example of a short film blown up beyond all reason.

Which is a shame, because when it comes to directing, Hong-min certainly has the chops. He shoots the neighborhood that Su-min can’t escape from as an endless maze of alleys and street corners, all of them seemingly disconnected and suspended in space. It’s Hong-min’s craft (with a more than handy assist from director of photography Kim Byeong-Jung) that keeps a movie that’s curiously devoid of incident watchable for its entire brief runtime.

You can’t dismiss Alone entirely: the opening moments are a masterclass in tension based filmmaking, and whatever else its flaws, visually it’s never anything less than superb. But there’s an art to this sort of abstract psychological thriller stuff, and this one falls wide of the mark.

GRACE

Grace is a film that has a low opinion of fandom. Though, to be fair, it’s equally accurate to say that the movie has a low opinion of humanity in general. Which is to say that the level of appreciation one feels for the movie may be proportional to the tolerance a viewer has for horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people.

Your mileage may vary. Obviously.

The story is fairly simple, and distinctly Asian: a cosplay enthusiast named Grace has a deadly obsession with the popular social media star Care. This leads to kidnapping, torture, and… well, that’s pretty much it. This is intermingled with flashbacks that explain Grace’s troubled history and the string of traumatic events that led to her current all-consuming fury.

Whatever else its flaws, the movie commands a certain amount of respect for plunging us ignorant viewers into a bizarre alternate reality that’s… also kind of our reality. To be sure, we in America have our own social media icons, your YouTube stars and what-have-you. There’s an entire world out there that we grownups know next to nothing about, but is everything to the nation’s youth.
And Grace is the work of someone who clearly finds that to be a very bad thing.

At its worst, Grace comes on like a Lifetime Movie made by Your Deeply Concerned Parents, High On Premium Grade Bath Salts (it was actually made by Ornusa Donsawai and Pun Homchuen, but it’s possible that’s a rough translation…). The filmmakers seem to take the position that investing in these artificial images and these false realities is an inherently unhealthy, empty practice (perhaps unsurprisingly, fan fiction looms large in the stories machinations). And in some ways, that’s a difficult point to argue. But it also seems to argue that the inevitable end result of all this online living is a contagious form of sociopathy and bloodlust. Even stranger, it partly seems to frame Grace’s story as if it’s the origin of a super hero… a super hero that brings justice to the world by killing internet idols.

But that’s all high handed talk for what’s essentially a gussied up piece of torture porn. Past whatever satirical/cultural commentary the film is trying to make (or thinks it’s making), the main thing on its mind seems to be putting Care and her friends through as many forms of pain and suffering as her and her nerdy, sexually obsessed friend Jack (Nuttasit Kotumanuswanich, having mastered of the art of constantly smiling like an idiot) can conceive. And if that’s what you’re looking for, you will certainly receive that. But ultimately, despite a damned intense and committed performance by Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, it’s very difficult to bring yourself to care.

It’s a cliche to complain about a movie lacking characters to “root for,” or that there are no likable characters. Horror films as a genre tend to get hit hard with this complaint, as things have shifted from having the audience identify with the potential victims to having them identify with the monsters doing the victimizing. For whatever reason, when this happens, the creators try to balance the scales by having the everyone be so terrible that the audience actively roots for their grisly demise.

To its credit, Grace doesn’t quite make this mistake. On the other hand, what it does do is create a victim of absolutely no character whatsoever. Care, who by all rights should be our de facto heroine (or, at the very least, a vile caricature deserving of some kind of comeuppance), is utterly vacuous and empty, nothing more than a scream doll to be poked with sharp sticks for an hour or so. By the time she gets her one piece of character development, towards the end of the film, it doesn’t do anything but confirm that she’s just as shitty as everyone around her.

One suspects this is all part of the ultimate point, but… come on, who gives a shit? Either you’re preaching to the choir or you’re shouting at the heathens. Either way, you’re probably wasting your breath.

Grace is a ceaselessly cruel movie that only has bile to offer. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on how much you think the bile is what makes it worth while.

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"V.N. Pryor is the patron saint of the impossible. You could drop the guy off at the Arctic Circle wearing a pair of bikini underwear without his toothbrush and tomorrow afternoon he's gonna show up at your poolside with a million dollar smile and a fistful of pesos..."