swiri (1999, Columbia TriStar), dir. Je-gyu Kang w/ Suk-kyu Han, Min-sik Choi. Rating: Nnnn
The centrepiece of this Korean action picture is a monumental running gun battle that spills out of a shopping mall into the streets of Seoul and resembles what Michael Mann might have done with the bank heist in Heat if he'd had just a little more ammunition.
Swiri won all the Korean film awards in 1999, which is rather startling given that our perception of Korean cinema is all those small, deadly-serious dramas that bicycle around the festival circuit. It's as if a John Woo movie had beaten out Shakespeare In Love for best picture at the Oscars.
Swiri has an insanely complicated story, involving renegade North Korean assassins, a plot to start a war for reunification, a brand new super-secret explosive and a couple of South Korean government agents who have to track down the explosive, foil the plot and, if they have time, dust the assassins. Anyone who likes big Asian action movies in the "shoot first, ask questions later" Hong Kong mode will certainly enjoy this one.
EXTRAS: Making-of featurette, music video, Korean, English and French versions, English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Big-screen rating: N/A
the girl in sneakers (1999, Mongrel), dir. Rasul Sadrameli w/ Pegah Ahangarani, Majid Hajizadeh. Rating: NNN
The Girl In Sneakers is about a character who spends a lot of time walking. After the purity police catch Tadai (Ahangarani) walking in the park with a boy (the whore!), her parents decide to do some major grounding, so she runs away from home and spends 18 hours on the streets of Teheran. If Makhmalbaf had directed Sixteen Candles, it might have turned out something like this. Tadai encounters various people and tries to phone her boyfriend. It's not exactly fast-paced, but it's worth seeing for the last half-hour or so, when the heroine discovers a layer of Teheran society for which her middle-class upbringing has not prepared her.
The Girl In Sneakers plays a political double game. If you're a Westerner or non-fundamentalist Muslim, it looks like a critique of the treatment and status of women in Iran. The heroine has no freedom, and this is a bad thing. If you look at it from the perspective of a Muslim fundamentalist, it's a movie that tells us there's no place like home and that the system is good because it protects innocent girls from predators in the big bad world. Neat trick.
A VHS-only release.
Big-screen rating: Awkward, wooden dialogue that masks the heroine's charm so her journey feels forced. NN (IR)
no man's land (2001, MGM/UA), dir. Danis Tanovic w/ Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac. Rating: NN
No Man's Land won this year's Academy Award for best foreign film.
Soldiers from opposing sides find themselves trapped together between the lines during the mess in Yugoslavia.
People negotiate their fate while the UN peacekeeping forces twiddle their thumbs. Everybody at Cannes loved this Bosnian black comedy about the civil war. Ooooh, it's great, ooh, it's brilliant. But as NOW correspondent Joumane Chahine noted at the film's final Cannes screening, "It's the first pacifist film from Bosnia -- how good does it have to be?" Not very.
After two viewings, it still loses me when a soldier in one of the trenches is reading the paper and says, "Rwanda, what a mess!" First-time director Danis Tanovic plainly shops for irony at K-Mart.
EXTRAS: English subtitles.
Big-screen rating: A Balkan Catch-22, but it's more elegant and more affecting. NNNN (CB)
Also this week
Bull Durham: Special Edition New commentary track by Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins
Manufacturing Consent The classic Canadian documentary on Noam Chomsky
Drunken Master Early Jackie Chan classic directed by Yuen Woo-Ping (Iron Monkey)
= Critics' Pick nnnnn = excellent, maintains big screen impact nnnn = very good nnn = worth a peek nn = Mediocre n = Bomb No rating indicates no screening copy