September 18, 2006

Cornell Cinema

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Watch these two films back-to-back, and you will know the range of human imagination. Revenge flick Lady Vengeance will be showing Sept. 21-24. Lockdown, USA, a documentary about the effects of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, will only be showing Sept. 20th.

Lady Vengeance (2005)
Roger Ebert’s movie-critiquing maxim goes something along the lines of: It doesn’t matter what a movie’s about, but rather how it’s about what it’s about. Perhaps, then, he would have loved Lady Vengeance — a movie that is only about the how, leaving worth, decency, and purpose to bleed at the feet of this super-stylistic, hollow schlock fest.

The film’s South Korean director, Chan-Wook Park, who also directed the widely-praised, but equally shallow revenge flick Oldboy, delights in concocting twisted, sadistic scenarios. In this film, 32-year-old femme fatale Geum-ya was blackmailed by a former associate, Mr. Baek, to take the blame for his kidnapping and strangling of a 5-year-old boy. Baek — an English teacher at a private South Korean school — holds her daughter captive until she agrees to take the blame, and she spends the next 13 and a half years in prison. When she gets out, she wants not only revenge, but “redemption” for the sins she committed while in prison and for the guilt she feels at leaving her daughter, who ends up in the care of a pair of Australian wankers.

In the film’s disturbing and insulting climax, Geum-ya holds Baek captive, as the parents of all the children he had kidnapped and murdered watch the tapes of their children crying and screaming and dying — and then they wait in line to torture the man who did this.

Reading some of Park’s comments on his films on, I am not surprised by the standard rejection-of-violence-through-violence, this-film-is-about-redemption verbal legerdemain. No, there is a certain joy on the filmmaker’s part to these disgusting scenes and scenarios. It is twisted for perversion’s sake, shallow and masturbatory, and above all else, a meritless exercise in style. Park hides behind a curtain of Philosophy with a knife in his hand and the viewer on a table, and the finished product is all pain, no purpose, and a whole lot of hokum.

Lockdown, USA (2006)
Lockdown, USA, a standard documentary that was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, attempts to tackle one of the United States’ biggest and, frankly, most embarrassing problems — the excessive prison population. It wraps its arms around the issue, but never really manages to make the kind of display necessary to bring it down. Still, it has to be commended for trying, and, on the whole, it is an engaging, thought-provoking demonstration of the Power of the People that should be seen by as many of those People as possible.

The film interlaces two main “story”lines revolving around the attempt to achieve justice from an, as we are so often told, unjust order. One current of the film documents the struggles of the so-called Godfather-of-Rap-turned-political-activist Russell Simmons, as he engages in a political arm wrestle with the New York State Senate, Assembly and Governor’s Office. Russell invokes the power of the hip-hop community, manifested in a demonstration organized at City Hall in NYC, where the likes of Jay-Z, 50 Cent and P. Diddy opine on the injustice of the drug laws. (Or rather, are crash-coursed on the laws and then spin one-liners, and, more importantly, draw crowds.)

The human touch of the documentary involves the plight of the Best family, whose father was, purportedly, framed for cocaine possession and sent to jail for a minimum of 15 years. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, an archaic, ham-fisted and futile attempt to win the “war on drugs,” dates from 1973 and mandates a minimum sentence to first-time offenders possessing illegal drugs of 15-25 years to life in prison.

The documentary’s techniques are sometimes dubious, and the speech of Simmons and Co. is often raw and hyperbolic. Still, the film shines in showing the tenacity and humanity of Simmons and the Best family and in stripping Politics down to its naked, slippery self.