Probably like many of you, I’ve watched a lot of films. Thousands, probably. I honestly couldn’t venture a guess. I only know that I’ve filled my leisure hours with just about anything that looked like it would be modestly entertaining. Sometimes, I found a real winner – Casablanca, The Matrix, To Kill A Mockingbird, Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, etc. – but, most of the times, I was entertained about as much as expected.
Still, there have been a few gems of a different sort in there – ones that worked their way into my head, soaked in, and even percolated for a time – and it’s those flicks I wanted to write about today.
While there’s no way for me to know for certain, these films were probably never intended to be anything exceptional by their creators. Rather, they were meant to thrill or chill or spill as much as the next … but something in them – for whatever reason – struck a chord deep inside me. I, as a viewer, emerged forever changed as a result of having seen them.
• Tell Me Something (Koo & Cee Film & Kookmin Venture Capital produced) was one of the first flicks to ride the popularity of the late 1990’s “Korean Wave” of films to flood the international marketplace. Suk-kyu Han plays Cho, a detective on the trail of a serial killer who specializes in not only dismembering bodies but also mixing up the parts of multiple victims. When it appears Cho has traced all of the dead to a single woman – an enigmatic and beautiful young woman named Chae Su-Yeon (played by Eun-ha Shim) – he believes he’s cornered the culprit. However, as he plumbs deeper into her background, he comes to understand that some secrets are perhaps best left undisturbed.
• In The Ninth Configuration (1980), the U.S. Army has refitted an old castle to serve as an insane asylum for some of their worst ‘retired’ maniacs. These are crazies who couldn’t make it in traditional medical settings, and a man with special skills is required to command the post. Colonel Kane (played by Stacy Keach) is assigned to take over the patient treatment program, but what he finds waiting for him is an entire roster of lunatics playing fast and loose with their own sanity. One of the inmates, Billy Cutshaw (played by The Walking Dead’s Scott Wilson), escapes, and Kane goes into town to retrieve him. What unfolds thereafter is the stuff of one man’s nightmares.
• Audition is a 1999 Japanese psychological thriller. The story deals with a widowed filmmaker Shigeharu Aoyama (played by Ryo Ishibashi) who – with a friend – concocts a clever idea to find a new bride: he’ll put together a process of auditions for a non-existent film, and he’ll select a winner from the lovely actresses to become his next wife. His luck prevails, and he becomes immediately drawn to the lovely Asami Yamazaki (played by Eihi Shiina). However, as he goes through the steps of getting to know his future partner, he comes to the slow realization that nothing about her is quite what it seems.
At first blush, these three films share little in common. Sure, two of them are foreign releases, but only The Ninth Configuration is an American-produced release. One is a police procedural, the other explores madness and the military, and the last explores themes of love, isolation, and separation. Their various storylines do intersect somewhat, exploring some of the deeper, darker fears of the main players and the worlds they inhabit.
To me what these films most share is the fact that, after seeing them, I came away a different viewer.
Tell Me Something showed me just how universal fears are from culture to culture. We’ve all had dreams or fleeting fears of being captured and killed, and the film is draped in layers of atmosphere that truly haunt these characters, much in the same way whatever scares us ratchets up our own adrenaline. It was the first film I’d seen produced outside the comfortable shores of America that explored premeditated murder in much the same way so many American pictures had done before. Tonally, it’s very similar to David Fincher’s Se7en but without Brad Pitt’s preening good looks.
The Ninth Configuration, on the other hand, deals almost entirely with the cerebral. The scares – and, to be frank, there aren’t that many – all revolve around the loss of sanity and what it pushes one to do, how to cope, how to survive. Written and directed by William Peter Blatty, the mind responsible for writing The Exorcist, Configuration was the first film I saw that truly explored the psychology of the mind. It has an immensely quotable script, but it goes places quickly and efficiently all in the process of dismantling logic so that what these characters are left with is all primal in the end.
Audition? Plenty has been written about Audition, so much so that I’d be hard-pressed to say anything uniquely original about it. Ninety percent of it is an entirely conventional mystery wrapped up in a soft-love story – guy meets girl, guy gets girl, guy finds out (or does he) who girl really is, and BAM! It’s that remaining ten percent. Oh, the places Audition went! It’s scary. It’s gross. It’s stomach-turning. Audition bares the single honor of being the only film I can’t bring myself to watch again. Ever. Those final few images were so disturbing that I can’t ever imagine spinning the disc again.
At the heart, isn’t that what truly great films do? Don’t they find their way into our hearts, our souls, our minds, and make us into something different? Something other than who we were before we saw them and experienced their stories? Certainly, these are three that did that for me, and I’d strongly encourage you to check them out only if they sound like they are up your alley. They’re all good, and while they deal with some gruesome subject matter at times, they definitely fit that bill of being more than just a memorable picture.
Now, what I’d like to know from you is … what films have done that for you?