Windstruck

17 May 2010 Comments off

I can’t be objective about this film. My heart’s on my sleeve here more than I prefer, but it’s the only way to explain my reaction.

To discuss why the film is so effective, I spoil a great deal of the film’s story (but hardly all of it). If you’d prefer to go into the film completely unaware — and I actually recommend this — then simply know that while it is flawed, it is very, very good.

One last thing: if you have lost your soulmate, the person you loved most in the world, held that person in your arms as she died — or if something even worse than that happened… then you either need to stay completely the hell away from this movie, or to see it right the hell now. (Only you can tell whether you need distance or catharsis, I can’t help you there.) If something like that is the case, read not another word of this review, just do what your conscience dictates.


Windstruck opens with a series of helicopter shots of a cityscape at night, while a Korean woman sings “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” in accented English. The emotional tone in her voice is authentic, and it’s a respectable cover of the song. Things focus in on one skyscraper rooftop, where a beautiful girl (Ji-hyun Jun, aka Gianna Jun) stands at the edge, looking down. She edges forward, then tilts off, falling gracefully past the windows of the building, wind whipping her hair, her eyes closed, her expression one of relief, acceptance, and hope.

Yes, hope.

As she falls, a male voiceover begins. “Her name is Kyungjin. Kyungjin Yeo. She has something no one else can touch.” He starts to explain why she’s committing suicide, but then decides that, first, you have to know how he and she met.

And here’s the first jarring tonal shift in the movie, the sort for which Korean films are currently known. The opening sequence of elegiac beauty and release cuts to a cartoonish romantic comedy meet-cute.

A man runs down the street of a shopping district, pursued by another man, whom we’ll come to know as Myungwoo, and a middle aged woman rather behind them crying out for someone to stop the thief. Kyungjin walks out of a store, takes in the situation, and begins running after the man she sees. Which happens to be Myungwoo, and not the thief. She tackles him, rubs shampoo in his eyes to incapacitate him, cuffs him very creatively with some fabric and a hairbrush, and brutally drags him into the police station, where the desk sergeant tells her it’s her day off. She doesn’t let up on the interrogation until it’s all too clear that another guy did it. (And long after everyone else in the station, including the victim, has decided that Myungwoo could not possibly be the culprit.)

The next day (seemingly), Myungwoo shows up to the same police station because, as a high school teacher, he has volunteered for a program in which officers and civilians team up to keep students clear of the red light district.

He is partnered, naturally enough, with Kyungjin.

And she, given her go-getter attitude, quickly gets the two of them involved in something a very great deal more dangerous than keeping kids away from vice. Before the sequence is over (it’s layered and rather complicated), they’re both caught in the middle of a John Woo-style shootout between two drug-dealing gangs — Kyungjin handcuffed herself to Myungwoo to keep him from abandoning their “mission”. The sequence, as with most of the police-related scenes throughout the film, does not shirk on violence, even while playing aspects of it for laughs.

This is important. While the movie takes place in a romantic comedy milieu (at first), violence is real and has consequences in the world of the film; not only in the pivotal moment of the story, but throughout.

At the end of the night, it turns out that Kyungjin has misplaced her handcuff keys, and nobody at the station has any spares — the two have to spend the night sleeping, handcuffed, together.

Then comes my favorite scene. Myungwoo is giving a physics lecture to his class of teenaged girls (it’s an all-girl school). As he speaks, we see Kyungjin walk up the hall toward the classroom door, dressed smartly in her formal police uniform. She walks into the class, and Kyungjin drops the book he was reading from, the look on his face showing him trying to figure out what this demon has in store for him now. Kyungjin apologizes for interrupting the class, and asks if any of the students has forgotten her lunch that day. The girls go quiet, unsure quite what is happening. She smiles mischieviously at them and declares that, since nobody has forgotten her lunch, the one she is carrying must belong to the teacher. At which point the girls all go “Ooooooh!” and pounding their desks in approval. She hands him his lunch, lectures the girls for a moment “as a police officer”, and then declares that their teacher is a nice man, so they better not make trouble for him. Then she informs them (and him) that he is her boyfriend, so none of the girls had better make eyes at him. The girls voice giggling approval, as only teenaged girls can. As Myungwoo all but pushes her out of the classroom, Kyungjin says “We even slept together!”, and the students go nuts, standing, cheering, and pounding their desks more. Kyungjin ejected, Myungwoo walks back to his desk, his manner expressing pride and embarrassment and barely-contained joy simultaneously. It’s a lovely scene, played perfectly by the actors, and feels real, not like an obligatory movie scene.

As their relationship progresses, many romantic comedy clichés are mocked even as they are used to further the relationship. The clearest example is a montage of them dancing in the rain, in which the camera shows the audience very clearly that the rain is artificial, and the dancing and getting soaked are overwrought, turned up way past eleven. It manages both to mock such montages and to show the joy that Kyungjin and Myungwoo take in each other. Also, there’s a brief tag showing the real-world consequence of the Hollywood conceit.


Ji-hyun Jun is not only one of the most beautiful women in the world, I would argue that she is one of the best actresses as well, and the second half of the movie belongs to her. She has the ability to reduce grown men to tears — if you don’t believe me, watch My Sassy Girl with a grown man, and during the scene on the hilltop where she apologizes, watch your man, not the movie. He will lose it, or come very, very close. (If he doesn’t: robot.)

The same goes for this movie, although it is less subtle and more overtly manipulative. However, the manipulations work, and are true to the situation.

The biggest spoiler, as if you had not already figured it out, is that Myungwoo dies halfway through the story. (I won’t spoil how. But I will say that it makes rewatching some of the earlier scenes very, very difficult, because it was deftly foreshadowed with brutal irony.) And I needed to spoil that in order to tell you why this film is so goddamned effective, at least on me. The story works best when you don’t know what’s coming, but to explain why the story works, I have to go into how it is structured.

This movie is about survivor guilt (as are most of my favorite movies, and most of the scripts I write). In order to present that feeling effectively, it first gives you the relationship that one of the characters survives, spending half the movie making you love the couple as much as they loved one another. You must feel that love to feel the loss and desolation that follow. The second half of the movie is Kyungjin’s grieving process (and the beginnings of her recovery), which also needs a significant amount of screentime, both to present it believably, and to allow the audience to go through the emotional roller coaster.

I don’t think I’ve seen another movie handle survivor guilt in quite this way. Most others either put the loss at the very beginning of the story (often prior to it), or as the climax of the story, with a denouement that sketches the consequences.

The violent tonal shifts are also vital to Windstruck‘s story. It needs to be a romantic comedy to get you to fall in love with the couple, and to set you up to feel the loss that fuels the (melo)drama of the second half. The process of grief is complex and sometimes feels completely irrational, in which you can be belly-laughing one minute, and sobbing the next, and the story’s structure here reflects that and tries to carry the viewer through similar jarring shifts. Admittedly, it can get a bit ham-handed. But then, life is not always subtle either.

The part of this movie that will give Objectivists the most trouble is that it seems to get mystical in the second half. It is, in fact, open to interpretation, outside of one incredible coincidence tied to the opening scene. This aspect of the film is vital as well to the story it is telling.

Because Myungwoo comes back, or so it seems. (The fact that he is telling the story from beyond the grave argues that the mysticism is genuine, but it’s also an old filmic device.)

In an earlier scene, he declares that if he ever dies, he wants to return as the wind, and that he will always be with Kyungjin, all she has to do is feel the wind with her, and that will be him. It is a set-up which allows the second half of the film to fully explore Kyungjin’s grief and inability to let go of the love of her life.

Because the wind is with her, as well as a few other symbolic representations of her loss. It seems to guide her at times (and saves her life after she has jumped off the skyscraper, in a way I won’t go into — it is the one incident that cannot be explained away as her seeing what she wants to see, since it clearly happens for real).

You can take this mysticism as real within the story, or you can choose to see it as a function of Kyungjin’s grief. Either way, it belongs here for some very good reasons. First, as stated above, it helps to bring out the inner drama that Kyungjin is going through. Second, it is a dramatic way of showing the feeling of grief — after a loss like that, for a very long time afterward, the other person is still there with you, in your thoughts. You forget that they are gone, wish that they were there, think of things you want to say to them or share with them.

Which leads into the third reason the mysticism needs to be here: because, as the survivor, you desperately want it to be this way, no matter how much you know it can’t be. You want to feel the presence of the one you lost, in moments big and small. You want to be able to think that you will see them again — and soon, if you’re reckless enough. You want to feel that they are watching over you, and that they forgive you for surviving. You would give anything at all to have any of this be true.

If Windstruck left out the mystical aspects of the story, it would be dishonest about the emotions it is dealing with.


I said that the film was flawed and, by most standards, it is. There are entire story threads that either lead nowhere, or exist for a single purpose.

There is an undercover cop who has little to do with the story except that he knows the truth about an important scene, and it preys on his mind. At one point late in the movie, he seems about to tell Kyungjin what he knows, but then he never does. It’s rather pointless.

Then there is the single-purpose thread of Kyungjin’s dead twin sister. We and Myungwoo learn that she had one, that they often took each other’s place for fun, and that the sister died in Kyungjin’s place. One detail from this story sets up one of the most affecting and romantic and heartbreaking moments in the film, but outside of that, it has little effect on the story. It’s just there. (One could argue that it has some effect on Kyungjin in how she reacts to certain situations, but in my judgement she would have reacted much the same without the dead sister thread in the story. Except, of course, for the actual payoff which, admittedly, is a brilliant piece of writing.)


Windstruck isn’t as good a movie as My Sassy Girl (the director and star’s previous collaboration), but it is moving and powerful, at least to someone like me. Difficult as it is to watch, it is worth watching. More than once.

Praise and Burial for Russell T. Davies

28 December 2009 3 comments

The Tenth Doctor is not long for this universe, and the man who got Doctor Who back on the air is taking off with him.

Russell T. Davies is considered a top British TV writer (which is a position of considerably more respect than in the US industry) for reasons that largely elude me. He has a few strengths, but many, many weaknesses.

So, as Davies sets off on new adventures in BBC-land, here are a few things in my mind, what he did right, and what he didn’t.

Praise:

  • He got Doctor Who back on the air. The show was (unofficially) cancelled way back in 1989 (rather gypping Sylvester McCoy, in my opinion), and when the BBC gave Davies carte blanche to do anything he wanted, he brought back the Doctor. For this, anybody with an ounce of geek in his soul ought to thank Davies.
  • He brought on Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. Not only did Davies give the Ninth Doctor a hefty set of baggage and backstory (with bonus survivor guilt!), he got a damn talented actor to do it, ensuring that we’d all love the Ninth Doctor and understand that while he was calling us “stupid apes”, it wasn’t us he was angry at.
  • Davies made the Companions actual characters, and their stories were important. This could have gone wrong in so, so, so many ways. And yet Rose Tyler, Dr. Martha Jones, Captain Jack Harkness, and Donna Noble are all characters that hold their own next to the Doctor’s antics, and we actually give a damn about each of them. (Though, admittedly, less of Rose’s mother and Martha’s family would not have been a bad thing.) Hell, just the fact that he made Donna Noble into a sympathetic character is an enormous accomplishment. But really, all of them matter, to the Doctor as much as to us, which makes his going it alone carry real weight with the audience. I don’t think Doctor Who had ever done this before.
  • The Tenth Doctor, and David Tennant. Really, is there anything more that needs to be said? Tennant is the best, or at least most entertaining, Doctor ever. I’m still sorry there wasn’t a “Two Doctors” special with Tennant and McCoy meeting up. Would have been most amusing.
  • Davies is clearly a Doctor Who fanboy. He cares about the show, the mythology, the characters. It’s not just another job to him, it’s a passion.

All of this is good, and Davies ought to be praised for it in full.

However, I’m afraid that, once you give him all of that, there’s an awful lot of bad that goes with.

Burial:

  • Going back to the same wells, over and over and over and over and over again. This is the dark side of Davies’s fanboy attitude. Was there a single season in which the Daleks did not appear? The first time was fine, it paid off the Time War backstory very nicely. But then they came back, then they came back again, then they came back in Depression-era New York and made a Human Dalek. And they came back yet again. And…. that’s just the Daleks. The Cybermen came back. Rose was sealed off in a parallel universe never to return, but returned. And so on. Then there’s the return going on now, which I will not spoil. As I said on Twitter, if you’re going to pull that rabbit out of the hat, best to have Timothy Dalton do it. Makes it go down ever so smoothly.
  • Politics. Russell T. Davies is a thoughtless leftist, and doesn’t mind calling anyone who disagrees with him stupid. He also clearly has no concept of how economics works. Most of the time, this is restrained just enough that the portion of the audience that disagrees with him can ignore it. Other times, he puts in smarmy attacks on Bush that make no sense in the context of the story (one of the stupid Slitheen stories). Most recently, he confessed abject ignorance in “The End of Time Part 1″ by positing that Barack Obama (mentioned by name several times) can save the entire world economy with a single speech. This thread ventured into comedy when every single character who mentioned it evinced not the slightest doubt that such a thing could happen. Sure.
  • Sex. Doctor Who is a kids’ show. Look, I love sex as much as anybody (possibly more than most), and I’m not a prude who thinks kids should be kept ignorant of it. That said, innuendo and childish allusions to sex kept creeping into the show at times inappropriate to the story. When Jack Harkness involved, okay, fine, that goes with his character. But most of the rest of the time, really, give it a rest. I’m not watching the adventures of a Time Lord to snicker over jejune sexual references. Honest, I’m not.
  • Sophomoric humor. I’m sorry, but Russell T. Davies invented the Slitheen for one purpose, and one purpose only — to bring the fart joke into the Doctor Who universe. Because, you know, that’s just what Doctor Who needed was fart jokes. Made by Bush-quoting aliens. Who are all smug and fat. Probably because they talk like Bush, right? Oh, and they fart a lot. Because that’s funny. Or something.

Those are all more or less off the top of my head.

So, while I am thankful to Davies for bringing back the good Doctor, I am most excited that Steven Moffat, author of the very best episodes of the new series, will now be running the show. Things should get very, very interesting.

False Memory by Dean Koontz, 1999

False Memory by Dean Koontz, 1999

I’ve read a dozen or so of Koontz’s books, spread across his career from the 1980s to just a few years ago. When he tells a tale well, he can be damned entertaining.

When he doesn’t, he makes the reader contemplate actions his villains would find pleasing.

But it was in reading this book that something clicked for me, and I realized why I find Koontz so aggravating a writer, even in the books that I enjoy.

I had noticed long ago that Koontz thinks he is much wittier and funnier than he is in fact. His sense of comedy is scattershot. If he confines it to his characters dealing with things in their own characteristic ways, then it is as effective as his characters are well-drawn. However, when he’s showing off, he gets an idea, comes up with every variation on it possible, and then dumps them all in the reader’s lap at once, one after the other, with the seeming expectation that each variation will enhance the funniness of the ones that came before.

Mr. Koontz, clearly, has never performed comedy before.

But in reading this book, I realize that he doesn’t just do that with comedy. He does it with everything. He thinks piling on detail after detail after detail after detail is good writing.

Before getting to that, the story.

And before the story, a little test. Here’s a slate of main (and some secondary) characters from the book. Dustin “Dusty” Rhodes. Martine “Martie” Rhodes. Susan Jaggers. Mark Ahriman. Holden “Skeet” Caulfield. “Fig” Newton.

Now, just on the names, tell me who’s the bad guy. If you guessed “the guy who is named after a mythological entity of destruction”, congratulations, you get a no-prize.

It’s actually one of Koontz’s more subtle touches, though, since he does not in fact stop the narrative to have one (or more) of the characters ponder and pontificate on the name, the mythological Ahriman, the history of Zoroastrianism, or anything else related to it. He actually lets the reference, blunt and obvious thought it is, go as a simple, unexplained reference. For small miracles, give praise.

But the story, we must encapsulate the story.

Martie Rhodes has been, for over a year, helping her friend Susan Jaggers, get to a twice-a-week appointment with her psychiatrist to treat acute agoraphobia. This particular day, however, she herself has been feeling… odd. Walking her dog before taking off for the appointment, she saw her shadow on the sidewalk and felt afraid, for no reason she could fathom.

Then she has trouble facing her reflection in the mirror.

By the end of the day, after she has gotten Susan safely back home, Martie is in full-blown autophobia — the fear of herself. She cannot stop imagining all the horrible, gruesome things she could to to other people, and she is terrified at the very possibility that she might commit such acts, acts she never before would have even contemplated.

Meanwhile, Martie’s husband Dusty is dealing with a situation. He runs his own housepainting company, through which he employs Skeet, a lovable screwup who has been through drug rehab more than once. And today, Skeet, who had been clean for months, is up on the third-story roof of the current house to be painted, and plans to jump. Because the angel of death showed him the other side, and it looked wonderful.

Dusty climbs up to the roof, and must figure out a way to get both Skeet and himself down without injury (or worse).

These things (and others) are connected, but the reader does not even begin to be shown how they are connected until over 200 pages into the story.

To discuss the story any further, or its flaws, would be to venture into spoiler territory and, although the book is ten years old, I’m not going to do that.

I will say this, though. The first time the name “Ben Marco” was used, I thought “Okay, that’s a little bluntly obvious, but if he let’s it go with that, it’ll count as two subtle-ish references in one book, which would be new.” That theory went down. In flames. Left a debris trail about eleven miles long. No black box was found.

So, back to the style of the novel, in terms of selection of detail, or lack thereof.

Before I start ragging on him, let me make clear: Koontz is one of the wealthiest novelists in the world for a reason, and that reason is that he knows, better than almost anybody else, how to construct and draw out suspense. He sets up a situation such that you must find out the causes of it, and then spends much of the book not telling you, but dancing around it, feeding out hints, consequences, red herrings, and suchlike, and doing it very, very well. His quirks, predilections, and fetishes as a writer are easily overlooked in his better books, especially if you do not gorge on large quantities of his work in a short period of time. (Even in his lesser books, there is much to be learned from watching him deploy his standard tools and figuring out why they don’t work for that particular story.)

Now, that caveat dealt with, let the ragging begin.

Koontz loves detail. Not just the well-observed, vital, crucial-to-the-theme detail. No. Any detail. All detail. He did his research, and he’s going to show it off dammit, no matter how much it drags down the narrative. In his better books, he gets away with it mostly because the reader is dying to get to the explanation, and will put up with a lot of gunk to get there, especially if he believes that something hidden in that gunk may become crucial later on.

Martie’s autophobia, for example. It’s an intriguing condition, yes. What would it be like to be afraid of yourself? How would it work and what would the effects be? Well, you find out. At length. Gratuitous length.

There is a sequence, intercut with other events, where Martie is home alone, in her kitchen, and makes a heroic attempt to protect the world, and particularly her husband, from herself. She goes through the kitchen and removes anything that might be used to deadly or damaging effect. And that’s a lot of things — the only exceptions, really, are rubber spatulas and a whisk.

So, okay, fine. Show her imagining one or two items and how they might be used, in detail, and disposing of them. Then, on each return, pare down the details to the essentials. Item, a use or two, back to the other scene. Back to Martie, dropping something else in the trash bin, leave the implied danger to the reader. And so on.

Right?

Wrong.

No, we get an extended exegesis on every damn item, at length and in detail, on every return to her part of the narrative.

It goes on and on and on and on and on, and the only reason you keep reading (or skimming) is to see what happens next. Not next as in “what new implement will she find a lethal purpose for, and dispose of?”. Next as in “okay, she’s going nuts, how will her husband react? And then what, after that?

Koontz has always had this weakness — maybe you could call it “cataloging” — but since he became editor-proof in the 1980s, it’s gotten much, much worse. If he wants something in the book, it goes in, narrative efficiency and integrity be damned.

(Less than a decade before this book, Koontz wrote another, Dark Rivers of the Heart, that would be at the very top of his list of works, except for this sort of thing. There is a car chase sequence in the desert that turns into a few other things and, while certainly gripping and exciting, it takes 50 pages [or more] to accomplish its narrative purpose, which could have been accomplished in five pages or less. At the end of that sequence, nothing is really different at all except that the hero is in a precarious position and has been delayed. The whole thing could have been cut and left to implication, by showing where the hero ended up. But it wasn’t, because Koontz wanted it in.)

This doesn’t just hold for detail that’s actually important to the plot, either. Koontz goes all out on architectural details, never leaving anything to implication or imagination. Some level of description of setting is needed, of course. And a bit more than usual is called for here, as Dusty is a housepainter, and apt to notice such details. And villainous Dr. Ahriman has contrasting views of beauty and design. Plus, the description of Ahriman’s office, in particular, sets a certain mood, and that mood contrasts quite a lot with the characters’ reactions to the space. This contrast signals something important to the story.

But it isn’t just the office that gets extended description. It is, seemingly, every setting, ediface, and structure. And few get brief, suggestive descriptions. Nope, all get details piled on top of details piled on top of details, and then the reader is told how to interpret these details, more often than not.

It would be very interesting to see what would happen if one of Koontz’s manuscripts were edited, without mercy, by James Ellroy, who found his distinctive style by slashing out every third word in one of his manuscripts, and at least two out of every three adjectives and adverbs. Without going through False Memory line by line, I would guess that such an editing job would reduce its 750 pages to 300 or less. And it would be a whipcrack of a read.

As it stands, however, it’s not a bad book (though it gets a bit ridiculous in how many things are secretly connected), but it bears liberal skimming, if not outright skipping.

Lopsided Story Structure

7 June 2009 Comments off

Yesterday I re-watched an old favorite, the 1950s low-budget science fiction cheese fest Killers From Space.

It’s a groovy flick if you watch it in the right frame of mind, but watching it critically is enlightening as well. The story has two enormous problems that, had anyone bothered to work on them, would have improved the story greatly.

The first, and the one that needed to be solved at the script stage, is the enigmatic position of the main character. Peter Graves stumbles into the plot about ten minutes in (another issue I’ll deal with in the next point), and from that point until near the end of the movie, it is completely unclear what his goals are. He is by turns the conflicted protagonist and the dastardly villain, and there is no coherence to his motivations until very late in the narrative. The audience has no handle on who or what he is, what he wants, or what the stakes in the story are.

This lack of focus in the protagonist seems to be a result of a poor decision in the writing. The screenwriter clearly wanted to construct a mystery that would draw the audience through the story. Unfortunately, he ends up confusing the audience and giving us an act and a half where we really have no reason to care what happens, because we don’t know what the stakes are.

This could have easily been resolved at the script stage by restructuring how and when information was fed to the audience. Instead of keeping us at arms’ length from the protagonist, the story could have given us more of a clue as to what was driving him, and earlier, feeding out his motivations and the stakes being fought for in pieces that end up fitting together at the end, instead of just giving it all to us in one big gob prior to the climax.

This all ties into the second problem, which could possibly have been solved in the editing room — although it would have shortened the film’s already scant running time.

The first half (or more) of the film gives you no indication of what the story is. You get a long, plodding, padded “mysterious” section that, at most, should have been a ten minute setup. Instead, it goes on for half an hour or more, up to the point where Peter Graves is given truth serum and narrates the real story, a flashback explaining what happened to him and why he’s been acting so mysteriously.

The meat of the story is the flashback, explaining where Graves had been, why he was doing what he was doing, and setting up the climax. Everything that came before was wasting time or, if you want to be polite, “mood-setting”. It could have been dramatic if the audience knew what a terrible position Graves was in, but they didn’t. It could have been tense if they knew the conflict between what he had to do and what was right, but they didn’t. Not until the flashback is complete does all become clear, and by that time (I’m guessing), most folk were in their backseats conceiving the next generation.

So cutting most of the first thirty minutes would speed things up tremendously (but make the film too short). What about restructuring the story?

If you have the narrative follow Graves from beginning to end, the story would become much more dramatic, but things would still be unbalanced. From the point where his plane crashes, you would then be front-loading all the (reasonably cool, if cheap) alien stuff, and all the shenanigans on the Air Force Base would seem, perhaps, less exotic and interesting. But it would be more interesting than it was before, because you would know why Graves was behaving so oddly, what his conflict was, and the choices he was faced with.

It was never going to be a perfect movie, but it could have been better.

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