Updated: Dec 15, 2022
K – Killers on Parade (1961)
Starting off Part 3 is a movie that I am shocked does not have more of a cult following. Japanese director Masahiro Shinoda is best known for historical dramas and crime thrillers like Pale Flower (1964) and Double Suicide (1969). His 1961 foray into comedy was remarkable and unfortunately brief. The colors, the intrigue, the bite – it all speaks of a movie far ahead of its time, and it’s easily one of the best that I’ve watched for this challenge so far.
Killers on Parade is a crime satire (and partial musical) about a band of fashionably dressed assassins who vie for the position of administering a hit on a young journalist by order of a major head of industry. Unfortunately, the gunman who wins the spot (via horse derby shooting competition) is both an amateur and an outsider, so the other experienced assassins try to take him out.
There are a lot of characters in this film, so I’d be remiss to try and track all of them. The most important is that of Haruhiko, the amateur killer, who ends up falling for the woman he is supposed to take out. Aside from that romantic throughline, the movie is a bit nihilistic. The killers have one or two principal traits and motivations (one of them is simply named “Football”) and the corporate hacks are gross, slimy guys. The most interesting (and the only female) killer Nagisa, expresses her regret about having left her family behind to pursue her murderous career. However, her principle arc ends up being that she also falls in love with Haruhiko, which will tell you a thing or two about the film’s portrayal of gender dynamics. But beyond its somewhat antiquated use of female characters, the comedy is really quite fresh.
I’m always interested to see how international satires make light of their historical tragedies, and Killers on Parade has no shortage of sharp references. In one scene, an assassin laments about amateur killers taking up their business – amateurs like A-Bomb disease, whose side effects, he whines, have caused yet another death in Hiroshima that he could’ve claimed for himself. In another, one character drinking hard liquor at a party complains that he hates western drinks, to which another responds, “Well, we gotta modernize. Drink up.”
If you have a hard time getting into slow-moving Japanese films from the same decade, I must recommend giving this one a shot. The camera work and visual storytelling are very singular, particularly in the motif-foreshadowing design of the film’s opening credits. It’s peppy, it’s animated, and of course, drenched in irony. The central conflict may be a little trite, but the film's ever-changing alliances make for maximum entertainment. Why not give some love to a movie with an assassin whose dismal track record is explained as being because he loves jazz too much?
L – The Lure (2015)
Picture this: mermaids. Singing a little song. Doing a little dance. Fighting the urge to eat men. The Lure, by the premise alone, is a pretty easy sell. I have actually attempted to watch it before, but its Criterion edition content loading screen spooked me, so I turned it off and watched some lighter fare. Now, with second wind a few years down the road, I can properly vouch for its glorious camp.
The Lure follows two young mermaids, Golden and Silver, who arrive on a beach in Poland. They are recruited by a rock band that turns the duo into their own burlesque nightclub act. Silver, the more innocent one, falls in love with the band’s bassist, while Golden fights the desire to quench her semi-cannibalistic impulses.
The film is filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature-length debut. A horror-folklore-musical is a bold blend of genres for one’s first jump into the landscape, but she pulls it off with relative ease. By aligning the mystical mythological elements with the gritty nightscape of urban Warsaw, Smoczsynska communicates a unique angst. The feminist analysis of this movie would yield many layers by how it considers female objectification and anatomical anxiety. I’ll admit that this movie inspired a profound melancholy within me, even with its many musical moments and horror-ific dynamics. At its core, it’s a movie about two sort-of-fish sort-of-women being put on a pedestal by characters who wish to exploit them.
The style has touches of Karyn Kusama and Guillermo del Toro, the latter not just because of the fish-human love story it details, but because of its somber fairytale elements and bittersweet ending. Sometimes it is difficult to see where the story is going; outside of its two protagonists, the supporting players are mostly hollow caricatures that would not be out of place in a goth disco music video. But that’s mostly how the movie plays – a series of visually interesting music video vignettes. The spooky lighting and haunting tunes provoke most of the emotion, offering a wavelength to meditate upon rather than a narrative to follow attentively.
All that said, the ending is quite emotional. The procative allegory of Golden and Silvers’ misuse carries much of the thematic weight. Fair warning: the two women spend most of the film nude, which might rub some people the wrong way, but I believe it's justified by the film's narrative and Silver's journey to become more human.
Does Smoczsynska’s name look familiar to you? You can see her English-language debut, The Silent Twins, on VOD.
M – Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Maria Full of Grace is the only film on the list that feels a little bit cheating – it was directed by an American filmmaker, Joshua Marston, and distributed by American companies. But it is entirely in Spanish, features Colombian actors, and refuses to adhere to stereotypes regarding its often sensationalized subject.
The 2004 film offers a look at a young Colombian woman, Maria, who decides to become a drug mule. Unlike many other films dealing with the drug trade, Maria Full of Grace is rather intimate and lowkey. It highlights motivation and the complex emotions one might experience when serving as an illicit human cargo holder. Catalina Sandino Moreno’s performance as Maria earned her an Academy award nomination back in the day, and for no small reason. Despite the many extenuating circumstances which might reduce her to the damsel in distress conventions (small-town origins, pregnancy, etc.), the film restructures those difficulties into a hopeful determination, a kind of instinctual superpower that helps her to avoid greater peril.
As with such a dangerous business, some characters are brutalized, but it’s unbelievably refreshing to have the protagonist not bear the brunt of the agony just because she agreed to play the risky game. It provides a sprinkle of lighter moments, such as Maria hearing her baby’s heartbeat for the first time. It’s the kind of resilience that the title indicates.
There are some outdated elements – 2004 was certainly not the peak of film stylistically – that may distract the viewer, but for the most part, Marston puts the performances first, which keeps the story grounded. There might be some conflicting views on America being depicted as a safe haven for immigrants with acknowledgment of the film’s distribution, but I think it would be wrong to infer that the movie is representative of all experiences. The drama that occurs leading up to Maria’s final decision is the pipeline that inspires her newfound confidence in starting fresh, not a falsely advertised promise of utopia.
Maria Full of Grace is a really excellent, albeit straightforward drama that rightfully earns its place as one of the more nuanced stories about the human component of drug smuggling. Marston hasn’t done too many heavy hitters since, but even if he was a one-hit wonder, this movie is a pretty strong movie to call one’s peak.
N – Neptune Frost (2022)
Oh boy. The third musical in this batch alone. I swear it wasn’t intentional– some movies just have cool posters, and some of those movies happen to have original music.
Neptune Frost is another example of Afro-futurism (last discussed in Fradique’s Air Conditioner) set in a coltan mining village in Burundi. American artist Saul Williams and Rwandan actress Anisia Uzeyman co-direct the story about protagonist Neptune, who struggles with their sense of place and identity. So they flee, ending up in love and at the forefront of a hacker collective.
Frankly, as we saw with Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, I don’t have the best disposition to be engaging with surrealist science fiction films. For many, however, audiovisual therapy alone is enough. There are more than enough stellar compositions, scenic and musical, in this movie to satiate aspiring artists’ desire for spiritual neon epiphanies and the whole-hearted shunning of any and all capitalistic conventions. The film rejects gender binaries, a corrupt labor system and submission to imperial orders.
In my opinion, any attention that can be brought to African coltan mining is an extremely positive thing. The connection between Global South citizens and Global North technology cannot be understated; every benefit imperial powers reap from having smartphones and laptops comes straight from treacherous working conditions in relatively poorer nations. Not to preach to the choir on this topic, but seeing that matter directly addressed and a fictional collective formed to combat it, I believe, has the capacity for real-world implications. The film’s recognition of civil conflicts as being manipulated by wealthy powers to keep minorities at war with one another may sound like a leftist conspiracy, but it’s a damning and too-close-to-home concept for a modern sci-fi movie.
My favorite aspect of the film was the costuming and makeup led by Cedric Mizero. The use of tech-inspired armor in the hacker coalition (one individual wears chainmail comprised of keyboard buttons) is a really unique way of integrating the final products of that labor into the rural landscapes of their base. Likewise, the jewel tones of much of the makeup and accessories speak for themselves.
Even if the film’s dependence on symbolic performance art and vague subversive lyrics lost me from time to time, it's cool that it exists at all (it was funded via Kickstarter). A punk message about reclaiming resources with vibrant imagery to boot – a pretty cool movie to breach theaters.
O – Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
Last but not least for this segment is Turkish creeper Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, renowned filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 Cannes Grand Prix co-winner (alongside the Dardennes’ The Kid with the Bike).
Ceylan’s fairytale-reminiscent title is a red herring – rather, it is categorized as a crime drama. It follows a doctor, a prosecutor, and a team of police who are trying to locate a man’s body in the steppes. The individual’s killers are brought along, handcuffed, in order to identify where they buried it, although they struggle to remember where exactly they left it. So the mundanity of the search gives way to intimate conversations between the men, pondering life, death and everything in between.
I would go so far as to say that that crime genre classification is also a red herring because the details of the crime serve more as background noise to the dynamics of the characters investigating it. It is based on a true story – that of the doctor, who serves as the film’s protagonist. Regardless, there is a fascinating rhythm to the conversations. The no man’s land territory being explored adds great texture to the film’s small-town gossip dynamics.
Some people might be alienated by the supposed lack of a climax – I am not spoiling much when I say they find the body, and the ensuing autopsy is what ties the film together. But I believe the film’s caution with sensationalizing its crime is smartly done. The movie frequently juxtaposes the scientific, analytical perspective of the doctor with the somewhat alarmist, superstitious notions of the police team. The initial lack of commotion infiltrates your bloodstream as you prepare for what horrors might arrive, and then everything settles as you reconcile the true meaning of the previously trivial small talk. It’s Kiarostami with an extra dose of brooding, an exercise in restraint that stretches from the performances to the on-location production.
Ceylan went on to win the main Cannes prize, the Palme d’Or, in 2014 for Winter Sleep, which obviously strikes my curiosity to watch even with its 196-minute runtime. He is a filmmaker who clearly knows how to use time to add meaning, and I have no doubt that Anatolia will enchant the select audience who can patient its slow burn.
Killers on Parade, The Lure, and Neptune Frost are streaming on The Criterion Channel. Maria Full of Grace is available on HBO Max, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is available via Mubi.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of the A-Z series featuring films from Brazil, Malaysia and more.