Interview about Serbian horror films

 Below you can find the interview I gave to Donato Totaro while I attended Montreal's FANTASIA 2010. The occasion was the program called SUBVERSIVE SERBIA during which I presented a selection of new and old Serbian fantasy and horror films. 
It is a lengthy interview, and it includes talk about general tendencies and close reading of certain aspects of specific films + some talk about Serbia's unfortunate recent history... There are also Donato's sharp insights into some of the films, so it's all pretty worthwhile, if you care to learn more about the cultural background that brought A SERBIAN FILM, among other films – but also to find out about other, not as publicized titles.
You can read it all in the latest issue of the excellent net-magazine OFFSCREEN if you clik the link in the title below:
            Talking about FANTASIA, I also recommend you take a look at the new issue of their magazine, Spectacular optical ! Plenty of great stuff, especially if you're into cult, genre, horror, weird, avant-garde, bizarre, crazy, esoteric filmmaking!

            And, finally FANTASIA has announced some of its highlights for this year's fest, and it promises to be one of the strongest ever! I envy all those who'll be able to go there. It's just the best film festival anywhere... You lucky North American bastards!


MIRRORS (2008)

Alexandre Aja
Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart, Jason Flemyng

**(*) 3-

Story: A burnt-out ex-cop turned night guard (Kiefer Sutherland) works in a burnt-out shopping centre with strangely preserved mirrors. There is something in them – some force which turns the reflections against their originals. If you’re killed in the mirror, the wounds appear on your own flesh and you die. Ghosts from the past need to be appeased, and Jack Bauer must find the truth about a certain girl before it’s too late for his family...

Review: Alexandre Aja burst onto the horror scene with his furiously ingenious apotheosis of slasher, HIGH TENSION (Haute Tension, 2003). His gloriously gory and gloomily romantic horror debut made him look like a messiah of this genre. Two remakes later, this role becomes highly questionable.

His re-imagining of Craven’s classic THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), made in 2006, upped the brutality and stylization, but dulled the satiric and intellectual edge of the potent story, in his version reduced to a mere Grand Guignol. In his third horror outing, Aja wrestles with the South Korean spook fest INTO THE MIRROR (Geoul Sokeuro, 2003) directed by Sung-ho Kim. In this case there’s no aura of a classic to be afraid of, but the expectations of horror fans are understandably high. Alas, his MIRRORS have more than a few cracks.

INTO THE MIRROR is your average Korean horror flick: a good concept that’s, eventually, half-baked; a memorable opening scene that is never to be matched by anything later in the film; and a strong social criticism added so that the dull thrills and non-horrific scary scenes at least have SOME kind of ’weight’. There’s too much meandering between the solid opening and a fine closing scene, too many missed opportunities and a completely unnecessary subplot which ultimately reduces the scare factor to zero once you realize the whole thing is a revenge-from-beyond-the-grave aimed at very specific bad guys.

In his version, Aja wisely keeps only the start and finish, together with the essential premise, but changes all the rest, mostly for the better. From the very beginning of the USA version it’s obvious that this won’t be a carbon copy of the Korean: an elegant cut on the neck in the original produced a gentle trickle on a woman’s skin; in the remake, a gush on a man’s neck spouts gushes of blood all over the place. The opening credits are also borrowed from Korea, but made more dynamic and show-offy, and accompanied by the bombastic, impressive score by Javier Navarrete (TESIS, DEVIL’S BACKBONE, PAN’S LABYRINTH...). So much about subtlety.

Essentially, MIRRORS follows the trend of Americanizing the Asian horror films: Eastern subtlety, slow rhythm and suggestiveness are replaced by the faster, more aggressive and spectacular effects – but, at least in this case, such an approach improves the original. It is a more visceral, but also scarier film with a clever use of the elaborate set of the burnt-out department store, shadows, sounds, music and visual effects.

However, the problems begin and end with the lazily written screenplay, with clichés that are neither overcome nor masked well enough: a tortured, pill-popping ex-cop with a trauma and guilty consciousness, his annoyingly mistrustful ex-wife (who still loves him!) and their sugar-sweet kiddies (ugh!) are too stale to swallow, additionally so due to Aja’s still imperfect English which reduces the dialogues to the cut & paste phrases from deja vu films. It doesn’t help that Kiefer Sutherland’s one-note acting is too reminiscent of his 24 role: too often he looks and sounds exactly like Jack Bauer, which makes the would-be scary scenes more laughable. It is more entertaining and eye-pleasing to replace the brightly-lit and dull-white setting of the freshly-reopened department from the Korean version with the blackened ruin in the American version, but even this triumph of set design, with its half-melted mannequins, becomes boring once you see that the characters roaming the film are not much livelier than the said mannequins.

The uninspired script abandons the satire and social criticism of the original, but can’t think of anything better to replace them with than yet another RING-circle: the hero must investigate the past of a certain female ghost; he goes to the rural backwoods to find her family (why are they always in the rural regions?); he discovers the history of abuse against her (mad scientist included!) and must literally wrestle with her embodied spirit in the store’s basement in the end. This whole thing is well directed: Aja knows how to stage an inventive gore set-piece, he’s good with suspense too, but the one-dimensional and unoriginal script prevents him from making a truly scary film. What we’re left with are two memorable scenes (the opening one, and the one with the jaw, seen in the trailers) an improved ending scene, excellent score, camera and effects and... that’s all folks! 

As a remake of an Asian horror MIRRORS stands pretty well above most of the other attempts, and –even without comparisons with the original- it is a perfectly watchable horror flick. The trouble is that it doesn’t bother to extract more visual and connotative potentials from the potent archetypal motifs of mirrors and doppelgangers than it has to. The final score is in accordance with the lowered ambitions. Crack!


KOMA (2004)

Country: China
Genre: Thriller / Horror
Running Time: 85'

Chi-Leung Law

Karena Lam, Angelica Lee, Andy Hui


Story: An annoyingly noisy, drunk girl leaves a wedding party only to stumble upon a 'steal the kidney and run' victim. Instead of being cut up for her obnoxious ways, this broad becomes the lead character (her name is Ching). When sober, she's equally irritating, what with her pathetic whining about her illness (kidney failure) and uncontrollable bursts of anger. Then she's stalked by Ling (notice the rhyme there?), the main suspect in the kidney-case, who just happens to be her doctor-boyfriend's one night stand.  But, is Ching stalked by Ling? Perhaps Ling means well? Oh, the suspense! Who will survive and how many kidneys will be left of them?

Review: The publicity for KOMA is based on the fame of its two female 'stars' whose faces are blown over posters and DVD covers as the film's chief draw. Both of them became famous for seeing ghosts: Angelica saw them after THE EYE operation, while Karena was helped (or cursed) by her INNER SENSES. Both of these films were ludicrously overrated: if you believed the hype that surrounded them, you'd bee fooled to expect at least something above average. While decently directed (at least as far as slick visuals pass for good filmmaking these days), they both suffer from unbearably shallow drama, uninvolving characters and infantile, unimaginative 'scares'. In short, they are both dull attempts of Hong Kong and Thailand cinema to jump the bandwagon of Japan's and Korea's serious horror, leaving the obligatory Chinese comic reliefs and action scenes behind them, and embracing 'drama'. Nice ambition – slightly undermined by the lack of any purpose more serious than a pure economic one. The end results are mere aping of the approach mastered by the modern Japanese and Korean horror, but – they were both immensely crowd-pleasing, and therefore commercial.

And now they are joined by KOMA, a new flick by Lawrence Cheng, the perpetrator of INNER NONSENSE. The supernatural paraphernalia is left behind, but what his screenwriter, Susan Chen, has come up with is an even more unimaginative affair. Basically, what you get is a silly and utterly contrived soap opera 'enriched' by even sillier exploitation of the trite urban legend (a laced drink from a stranger in a bar, after which you wake in a tub filled with ice: the opposite wall offers a friendly advice to 'Call the police if you want to live!', the mirror reveals a nasty cut on your side, and you realize you're one kidney short). The above-described situation is responsible for KOMA's single exceptional scene, and you get it in the very first 10 minutes. After that, you're left with characters you'd rather see as victims in some elaborate slasher horror than as people you're supposed to care about and fear for. What's worse, there's not even a decent villain to root for!
Let me spoil the movie for you – if a turd can spoiled, that is. In a surprising twist at the end, it is discovered that the villain is – Ling, who's been the main suspect all along. She was also the ONLY suspect! Susan Chen's amateurish script did not even bother to provide a red herring or two so as to create a half-decent whodunit. No, ladies and gentlemen: what you see in the very beginning is what you get in the end (unless you fall asleep by then). Let me tell you how amateurish the script is. In case you don't get the nuanced relationships between these people, you're helped by the dialogues along the lines of (and I quote here): 'I hate you.' 'Why?' 'I'm jealous!' For the more profound psychology, Ching & Ling (who, unconvincingly, become friends for a while) at one instance go to some pseudo-self-help-rebirthing-whatnot group, where they sit on the floor and follow the advice to 'look deep into each other's subconscious'. After approximately 6 seconds of meditation, they manage to see their innermost secrets, and spell them out to the inattentive viewer: Ching is insecure because of her illness, while Ling is lonely because her mommy is in a coma. Somewhere in the background of it all is Ching's boyfriend, a zero character who's barely more than a plot device to have Ching & Ling meet and interrelate. This questionable type oscillates between faithfully protecting his sick girlfriend Ching and violently banging Ling (who's unable to pay her mom's hospital bills but the kind doc is willing to oblige); at least we're treated to his nice demise (involving an unexpected scalpel in the eye), which is more than could be said for the hateful leading ladies.

KOMA's inconsistencies, contrivances, strains of logic, suspensions of disbelief, psycho-babble and plot holes would require an essay to enumerate and analyze – but they're not worth the trouble. The despise it has for its audience's intelligence is most obvious in the following exchange. Ching: 'Did the woman have one kidney removed, or two?' The police inspector: 'One. Is there any difference?' Ching: 'With one left she won't die.' The police inspector has a look saying: 'Now is that so? Damn, every day on this job a man learns something new!' And this from an 'inspector' working on the kidney-case for 5 months now! Yes, dear viewer: this is the kind of film that treats you to the most basic Psychology 101, Medicine 101, etc. without having covered its bases in Screenwriting 101. Direction, on the other hand, gives its best to elevate this mess. The pace is OK, excellent cinematography makes the most of the good production values, and there are a couple of decent gore sequences. Nothing innovative, mind you: it's strictly 'been there, done that (much better), got a T-shirt' material. The stalk'n'scare scenes are created through the usual 'subjective camera' moves, and the action is overscored by the over-melodramatic music. Any self-respecting horror fan may expect only the mildest kicks out of this (say, on a dull wet afternoon), but otherwise – stay clean off KOMA. This is soap-horror directed towards the lowest common denominator.